Archive for August, 2013

Three steps to heaven

1. Take a holiday in the Lake District in northern England. Even at the height of summer, one can find solitary places where you can take in some of the most spirit-stirring of landscapes. Take in as much of this as you can, while trying to remember various bits and pieces of Wordsworth.

I don’t really know this region too well, but it’s like a bit of the Scottish Highlands – which I know a bit better – transplanted across the border. 

2. Come home, settle into your armchair, and reacquaint yourself with those half-remembered lines from Wordsworth. Experience again that sense of the eternal suffusing the real.

That last line should be by Wordsworth, but it isn’t. It comes from a limerick that rather neatly summarises Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”:

In childhood ’tis easy to feel
Th’eternal suffusing the real,
    But as the beholder
    Grows steadily older
It doesn’t seem such a big deal.

3. To maintain this elevated frame of mind, listen to a good recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Pour yourself a good glass of whisky while you’re at it.

The music of Beethoven, born coincidentally in the same year as Wordsworth, often makes me feel the same way that Wordsworth’s poetry does. I prefer not to go further down this route, as I have not the first idea how to describe these feelings.

The Pastoral Symphony does seem to me particularly Wordsworthian in feel. There are many fine recordings of it. For the record, I listened to the recording featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. 

And the whisky I poured myself was a rather fine bottling of Bruichladdich.

And there you have it: three steps to heaven.

Well, it worked for me.

I won’t bore you with all my holiday snaps, but here are a few of Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. the bearded chap you see in one of them is me.

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I’ll be back to my more usual posts once I’ve got back out of the holiday frame of mind.

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Novels from films?

We are all accustomed to works in one medium adapted to another. Novels are often dramatised as plays, as, increasingly nowadays, are films. Films themselves are frequently adapted from novels and plays. Operas plunder from wherever they can. None of this raises eyebrows. We sometimes want the adaptation to be as faithful as possible to their sources (e.g. the various BBC adaptations of classic 19th century novels) – to such an extent indeed that if adaptations diverge even slightly from the material on which they are based, aficionados of the originals can become quite irate; and at other times, we can accept that the original material was but the starting point for the creation of something new (Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran, etc.) But one thing we never see is the adaptation of a film into a novel. I wonder why that is.

hammerbookIt wasn’t, admittedly, always like this. In the days before DVD Blu-Rays – in the days even before VHS video recorders – “novelisations” of films, usually cult films, were quite popular, as that was the nearest fans could come to owning the film. Most of the writing was hack work, and, although I may be very wrong here, I doubt there was much in any of them of any great literary interest. But if it is possible to create significant works of art in one medium based on works in another (the examples I gave earlier – Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran – can be cited again in this context), there should really be no reason why we should not have novels of high literary quality based on films. Unless, of course, we think of cinema as an art so inferior that it does not have the potential to engender works of artistic merit in other forms.

So can it be possible? Could a talented novelist write novels of significant artistic merit based on, say, La Règle du Jeu, or Citizen Kane, or  Sullivan’s Travels, or Persona? If so, why don’t they already do this? And if not, why not?

I think the answer comes down to a residual snobbery in these matters. We may pay lip service to cinema as an art form, but while we think it perfectly acceptable for films to be based on novels, we feel the novel to be so much more elevated a form of art than mere film that we cannot imagine it the other way round.

I’d like to see it tried, at least. Indeed, if I had any talent as a novelist I’d have a go myself!

An appeal on behalf of Book Snobs

Spare a thought for us poor Book Snobs. No-one likes us.

Go to any part of the web where books are discussed, or talked about, or even just mentioned in passing, and you’ll find broadsides against Book Snobs. I won’t bother supplying links: just do a search on “book” and “snob” – or, for a little variety, “literary” and “snobbery” – and you’ll find there’s no shortage of hits. Everyone is agreed: Book Snobs are terrible people! No-one, but no-one, has a single good word to say for us Book Snobs.

Perhaps I should stop being a Book Snob. I’m not quite sure how I became one in the first place. It’s something you get to be without even realising it. For instance, I look through some book that is very popular, think it shoddily written, and am foolish enough to say openly what I think; and even such folly marks me out as a Book Snob. Do I not realise that millions upon millions of people enjoy The Da Vinci Code, or 50 Shade of Grey, or whatever? Who am I to look down on other people, and on their pleasures? I know, I know … I am thoroughly ashamed of myself, but there seems little I can do about this. And the next time I find myself browsing through a popular book that strikes me as badly written, there I go again, saying what I think. Shocking, absolutely shocking.

And then I go around saying how much I enjoy books that only Book Snobs ever read. If I read Ulysses, say, or The Brothers Karamazov, or the odes of Keats – yes, I know, that last one isn’t even proper prose! – and, what’s more, if I say I enjoy it, then, obviously, I am lying. It’s only because I’m a Book Snob that I can’t admit I’d rather be reading The Da Vinci Code instead.

So why don’t I read bestsellers? Why is my reading almost entirely devoted to classics, or books that are highly regarded by literary types – i.e. rated only by other Book Snobs? I offer the excuse – a weak one, I know – that I am actually quite a slow reader, and, not having the time or the energy to read everything that is out there, I am forced to be selective. And so, I focus on works that are well-regarded: while that doesn’t ensure that what I read will necessarily be of a high quality, it does improve the odds somewhat.

And what’s more, most books on the bestseller lists that I browse in the bookshops seem to me shoddily written.

Damn! – there I go again!

Then, I don’t take everyone’s opinion equally seriously. This is very damning. For, as we all know, in our democratic age, all opinions carry equal weight – especially when it comes to books: we are all entitled to our opinions, and anyone who says otherwise is a Snob. Sadly, I am snobbish enough to look for evidence of understanding, of insight; I look for lucidly stated argument; and I take more seriously the opinions of those who can provide such things: for when they do provide such things, what they have to say becomes more than an opinion – it becomes a critical judgement. And thinking in this manner makes me, I fear, an unredeemable Book Snob.

Or take these e-readers. I actually do have an iPad, which can act as an e-reader. And the first thing I did on getting the iPad was to download what for me are the three most indispensable books in the English language – the King James Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Complete Sherlock Holmes stories. This is handy when I’m away from home: it saves me lugging large volumes around. But I am of a generation that is too used to paper books, and, for that reason, I do find reading from a tablet a less rewarding experience than reading print on paper. Sometimes, in making this point, I get a bit carried away and overstate it somewhat: “E-reading isn’t real reading!” I say, reflecting merely my own experience: for it doesn’t seem like real reading to me! But as soon as I say something so heinous, I am instantly a Book Snob, a person fit only to be shunned. Once again, I acknowledge my guilt, but what can I do? I weep about it on long, winter nights.

And I am, I admit, very attached to my paper books. I love handling them. I love the smell of them. Silly, I know, but there you are. Some people love their shoes, some their jewellery, some their cars, and some even their snooker cues: I love books. I wish I could help it, but I can’t. I get upset when I drop something on the page and stain it; or when a paperback spine becomes badly creased, and pages start to fall out. How very Book Snobbish of me!

I also buy books from independent booksellers, as buying heavily discounted books from chains and from internet outlets seems to me to be bad for the book industry. And since I love books, and would like the publishing industry to thrive; and since, further, I am fortunate enough not to be on the breadline; I like to support independent outlets as best I can, even though it costs me a bit more.

Oh dear! – there really is no help for me, is there?

Well, what cannot be helped must be accepted: I am a Book Snob, and there isn’t anything I can do about it. But please don’t look down on us: looking down on people is, after all, our job!

So here’s my suggestion: all of you out there who aren’t Book Snobs, why don’t you make friends with one? Let’s have an International Adopt a Book Snob Week. And you may well find, I think, that we Book Snobs are, underneath it all, actually quite cute and cuddly people.

Even though we think 50 Shades of Grey is a steaming pile of crap!

“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

We seem to have a habit of cutting our major writers down to our own size. And then, we criticise them for being small. Austen, we are told, wrote romantic novels – chick-lit in pretty frocks; Dickens was a writer of soaps, and he larded them extravagantly with plenty of melodrama and sentimentality to appeal to Victorian readers, who, poor dears, didn’t enjoy the benefit of sophisticated modern tastes; George Eliot was worthy but dull, and Hardy a miserable old doom’n’gloom merchant; and so on.

Meanwhile, the Brontës – all three sisters rolled into a single convenient entity – were, apparently, purveyors of feverish and immature schoolgirl fantasies. I don’t buy this any more than I buy the rest. I have much admired Jane Eyre, and even more so, I think, Wuthering Heights, which strikes me as an astounding feat of the imagination, and executed with a bold panache. I was less impressed with Villette, I must admit: it was an interesting experiment to tell a story from the perspective of a person so introverted as to be virtually autistic, but I am not too sure that the experiment was entirely successful. After all, if the narrator can’t take an interest in the people around her, then why should the reader? Villette did put me off the Brontës for a while: it does, I know, have its admirers, but it’s not for me. However, after a long spell away from the sisters, I figured it was time to head off to Haworth Moor again, and this time have a go with Anne Brontë, who may safely, I think, be described as the least regarded of the three.

Perhaps it is understandable that she is overshadowed by her two sisters: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are hard acts to match, after all, and it is difficult not to carry into her work some preconceptions concerning Gothic romance, untamed and tempestuous passions, and the like. Even the title promises as much: you won’t, after all, find Austen, even in her Northangersque mode of pastiche, naming a place “Wildfell Hall”. How can a novel with “Wildfell Hall” in the title not deal with untamed and tempestuous passions?

In the event, it turned out a quite different novel. The opening section – some quarter or so of the whole in length – presents us with no great Sturm und Drang: rather, we are given a picture of a rural community that seems to me to foreshadow George Eliot, or even Thomas Hardy in his less doom-laden moods. But, unlike George Eliot in Adam Bede, say, Anne Brontë is intent on moving the plot forward. Readers unused to the slower pace of the Victorian novel often complain of slowness – even in cases where the novel is essentially plot-led – but even they will find little to complain of here, I think. The single lady, presumed a widow, who comes into the rural community with her infant child; the narrator’s infatuation with her; the malicious gossip that spreads through the village; the narrator’s initial refusal to believe it and his despair when the evidence becomes too strong – these are all presented with a fine forward momentum, and with considerable narrative skill. And, apart from the mystery surrounding the beautiful tenant of Wildfell Hall, there is no hint of the Gothic at all.

The main part of the novel is taken up by the narration of the tenant herself, Helen Graham (as she calls herself), and here we have a quite devastating critique of marriage on unequal terms. For Helen’s marriage, from which she is now running away, was a disaster from the beginning.

Like all marriages in that society, it is on an unequal footing: it is the husband who enjoys all the legal rights and social privileges. Nineteenth century European literature is full of disastrous marriages – Madame Bovary, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, Effi Briest etc. And it seems to me that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if not, perhaps, on quite the same exalted literary level as some of these others, can certainly claim to be among the first of these.

If there is one thing we may be certain of amidst all the vagaries of human behaviour, it is that where any person has power over another, that power is used. Like Dorothea Brooke after her – or Gwendolen Harleth, or Isabel Archer – Helen walks into her marriage willingly. Indeed, she walks into it enthusiastically, and against the advice of her affectionate aunt and guardian. This is not because she is foolish, but, understandably given the sheltered upbringing of all women of her class and of her times, she is inexperienced. But once she is in, she is trapped. She is a pious, high-minded idealist, and her husband a selfish and dissipated boor: he tires of her quickly, neglects her, spends his time boozing and whoring, has affairs, and finally, in what turns out to be the final straw, installs his mistress as governess to their boy. There were a few times when it seemed to me that the narrative would turn towards actual physical violence, but Anne Brontë stops short of that: she probably thought she had shocked her readership enough.

The other marriages we see towards the edges of the canvas are equally dispiriting. Here, for instance, is a letter Helen receives from her friend, apprising her of her engagement:

‘I hardly know what to say about it,’ she writes, ‘or what to think.  To tell you the truth, Helen, I don’t like the thoughts of it at all.  If I am to be Mr. Hattersley’s wife, I must try to love him; and I do try with all my might; but I have made very little progress yet; and the worst symptom of the case is, that the further he is from me the better I like him: he frightens me with his abrupt manners and strange hectoring ways, and I dread the thoughts of marrying him.  “Then why have you accepted him?” you will ask; and I didn’t know I had accepted him; but mamma tells me I have, and he seems to think so too.  I certainly didn’t mean to do so; but I did not like to give him a flat refusal, for fear mamma should be grieved and angry (for I knew she wished me to marry him), and I wanted to talk to her first about it: so I gave him what I thought was an evasive, half negative answer; but she says it was as good as an acceptance, and he would think me very capricious if I were to attempt to draw back—and indeed I was so confused and frightened at the moment, I can hardly tell what I said.  And next time I saw him, he accosted me in all confidence as his affianced bride, and immediately began to settle matters with mamma.  I had not courage to contradict them then, and how can I do it now?  …  Do you think it nonsense, Helen?  I should not care if I could see any prospect of being able to love and admire him, but I can’t.  There is nothing about him to hang one’s esteem and affection upon; he is so diametrically opposite to what I imagined my husband should be.  Do write to me, and say all you can to encourage me.”

It’s hard to imagine a more depressing picture of marriage than this.

The modern reader is, I imagine, likely to be somewhat less outraged than the Victorian reader by a wife walking out on her husband, and is likely to be shocked not by the author’s obvious approval of this act, but by the wife’s utter helplessness and vulnerability: she has, by this act, put herself in the wrong, in the eyes both of the law and of society. The modern reader may be shocked further by Helen’s decision to return to her husband when he is ill: as far as she is concerned, this is no more than her Christian duty, but, possibly, her husband, unintelligent though he is on other matters, is closer to the truth when he accuses her of returning merely to gain her revenge: now, for the first time, it is he who is helpless, and she who has power over him. And, as ever, where power exists between humans, it is used. Reading between Helen’s lines, it is she who kills him with her sense of duty, and with her Christian piety. The psychology at this point is subtle, and Anne Brontë allows us, I think, to see more than Helen does.

In the final section, the narrative is taken up again by the first narrator, Gilbert Markham. The crisis over, this is now all plot, and is, perhaps, the least interesting part of the novel. It all ends rather predictably with a happy marriage. I don’t normally object to such endings – far from it – but it did seem a curious way to end a novel that paints as unremittingly bleak a picture as I have come across of the noble and sacred institution of marriage.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has neither the archetypal resonance of Jane Eyre, nor the feverish intensity of Wuthering Heights; but, though Anne’s voice is quieter than those of her sisters, it is an impressive voice, and the story it tells of an unhappy marriage on an unequal footing set the pattern for much that was to follow. It remains still an impressive achievement.

We don’t need no educashun

There’s nothing so stupid that you won’t find some professor, somewhere, saying it.

My attention has been drawn to this article in which Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle, claims that here is no need in our modern world for children to learn spelling and grammar.

“Firstly,” he says, “my phone corrects my spelling so I don’t really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way.”

He seems to speak “in a cryptic way” also: anyone have any idea what the bleeding hell he means by “skipping grammar”?

He seems to think that SMS texting language can replace the more traditional forms of written communication, and that this texting language can be used to “write good sentences” and to “convey emotion”. Perhaps. But lack of familiarity with more traditional forms of writing, and ignorance even of the basics of grammar, would mean disaster, one would have thought, in all those very important areas of life where precision of written communication is vital: are we to expect legal documents, say, or medical reports, to be written in textspeak?

And as for our literary heritage, it would become quite incomprehensible. Which, perhaps, wouldn’t cause the good professor to lose much sleep, but would, nonetheless, be quite upsetting for a few old farts like myself, who rather like literature, and feel that our literary heritage ought to be passed on to future generations. But then again, as Prof Mitra says, it would be “a mistake to resist technological change”.

I think Prof Mitra goes a bit wrong, though, in imagining that abbreviating words, doing away with punctuation, and ignoring the rules of syntax in order to communicate in the fewest possible characters, are all new phenomena. For well over a century, and until quite recently, people have been doing just that when sending telegrams. But back then, we didn’t have learned professors telling us that this made unnecessary the learning of spelling or of grammar. Now, that is new.