Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Science fiction is often derided, seen as something appropriate to teenage boys. Perhaps the swathes of Star Wars fan-fiction on the sci-fi shelves in bookstores has something to do with that. However good science fiction can explore very complex ideas and themes that literary fiction struggles with. Like any genre it is a matter of knowing which authors to try, and who not to bother with. Ursula K. Le Guin is known to many people as the author of the popular Earthsea series they read as children, but she is also considered to be one of the great science fiction authors. Now that I’ve started reading her other books, I’m inclined to agree. While The Dispossessed is not my favourite amongst her novels, it is a worthwhile and thought provoking read.

The Dispossessed is one of the Hainish cycle: a series of works that take place in the same universe, though not on the same planet. The Left Hand of Darkness, one of her most well known works, is another of this series. The Dispossessed is set on the twin planetary system of Anarres and Urras. It is in many ways a thematic novel, rather than a character study, and explores as major themes anarcho-socialism, authoritarianism, time and metaphysics. The story centres itself around one major character called Shevek, a physicist from Anarres.

Roughly two hundred years before the start of this novel a group of anarchists on Urras, followers of the revolutionary Odo, were offered a permanent settlement on Anarres, which was only used as a mining base, thus removing their influence from Urras, and allowing the Odonians to create their vision of society. Contact between the planets has since been strictly limited. This changes when Shevek, a minor dissident on Anarres, is offered a posting at a university on Urras, where they want him to work on his principle of Simultaneity; a theory other physicists believe will be as important as the theory of relativity. Once on Urras, Shevek discovers he is not as free as he believed he would be. He finds himself a pawn in a political system he does not understand.

The beauty of Le Guin’s set up is she is able to explore two disparate political systems, and critique both. Anarres is run on a Anarcho-socialist basis with no political structures - decisions are made by consensus, by computers, or by temporary administrators; and no possessions - people are provided with what they need, but expected not to be greedy. Work is done for the collective good, and while people specialise, everyone is expected to contribute to jobs such as garbage collection in turn. If society is to function everyone must play their part. Urras has the capitalist society of A-Io, where Shevek lives. A-Io is also a patriarchal society; women do not work and appear to spend all their time looking beautiful for the men. No wonder Odo, a woman, started a revolution! This novel is sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, as neither society is the utopia it could be perceived as. As Le Guin shows through the novel the collective society of Anarres exerts its own pressures, controlling the individual just as effectively as a state. Shevek, fleeing the pressures exerted on him as he parts from mainstream thought, believes he will find freedom and self-determination on Urras. However, everything in a capitalist society has a price.

One of the cleverest things about this book is its structure and how this interplays with Shevek’s theory of simultaneity. In explaining his theory Shevek makes the analogy of reading a book
The book is there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order.
That is to say, time is all there, at once, but we experience it by moving through it, chronologically. This book, though, is not written chronologically. The first and last chapters are set on Urras and Anarres both, with all other chapters alternating between one and the other, telling us both of Shevek’s present on Urras, and his past on Anarres, simultaneously. It is very clever, and I have to admit I missed it (thanks Wikipedia). Some people believe that it may even be unintentional, but Le Guin is clearly a clever and considered writer, surely she thought this through. The theories of physics in this book are integral to the plot. While Le Guin could have entirely fictionalised these, she instead grounds them in ideas that would be familiar to readers. She uses both the theory of relativity and Zeno’s paradox as starting points from which to explore her fictional ideas. I think this must be hard to write - she is after all a novelist, not a physicist - but she does it well. There is also a balance to be struck between exploring these ideas, and avoiding overwhelming the reader with scientific detail; once again I think Le Guin is successful.

While The Dispossessed is mainly a novel of ideas it does have successful characters. Shevek is engaging, both in exploring his new life, and back at home. He is likable, but, like the political ideals in this novel, flawed. The story of he and his partner Takver on Anarres provides a heart to this novel, preventing it from becoming a cold exploration of ideas. Finally, I hate to admit it, what stopped me truly loving this book was the ending, which felt, if not rushed, then perhaps just a little too tidy, preventing it from having the emotional cachet I expected. This is still, though, an excellent book, one that deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens has been a favourite author of mine ever since I first opened Bleak House, over a grey English Christmas holiday. I was thrilled to learn that Claire Tomalin was writing a biography of him, to be released in time to tie in with his 200th birthday celebrations this year. I have read her biography of Jane Austen (another favourite), which I thought was fantastic. Tomalin doesn’t disappoint, using available resources, including a large number of Dickens’s own letters to friends and family, to build a portrait of a complex and compelling man.

Tomalin writes the book chronologically; every chapter is a few years of Dickens’s life. She writes with clarity; letters and other sources are all clearly footnoted giving this already large book a ninety page section of notes at the end. As life is, by its nature, disorganised without neat endings, Tomalin often explicitly informs us that people will reappear in a period of time, which helps as otherwise we could feel as though people had just disappeared abruptly. The book also has plenty of illustrations; Dickens was photographed many times throughout his life, and as the book continues we can watch him age, becoming a grizzled old man although he was only fifty eight when he died. Other photos and portraits show family and friends, helping us to put faces to names.

Dickens was a self made man, and the book clearly shows how driven he was to achieve despite obstacles. His parents were loving, but ineffectual; his spendthrift father and he would have a tumultuous relationship all his life, especially after Dickens made money. Unusually for the time they prioritised his sister’s education over his, paying for Fanny to attend the Royal Academy of Music at vast expense while Dickens had to work to earn his keep. His first job, working in a blacking factory, had an effect on Dickens that rippled through the rest of his life. He was later deeply ashamed of having worked in such a menial job. At the time he was also lonely, separated from his family. He was, though, free to wander the streets of London, getting to know its seamier side, the dirty streets, the prostitutes, and the poor, that would later populate his novels.

As an adult Dickens plunged into everything with an excess of energy. He overcommitted himself in every direction, working not just as a novelist, but reporter, editor, amateur actor and social campaigner. In his personal relationships Dickens was fiercely loyal, and yet those that fell out of favour were treated abominably. He financially supported an astonishingly large number of people: his parents, siblings, their families and mistresses, and the widows and children of friends and acquaintances, yet two of his brothers wore out his patience and died in poverty. He left his wife after twenty years of marriage. A separation was unusual in those times, and it caused a minor scandal. Dickens used his celebrity to publicly denounce his wife. Tomalin’s account of his cruel behaviour towards her is very unflattering. Dickens was, however, a tireless campaigner for the poor and underprivileged. His books drew the attention of the middle and upper classes to those less fortunate in their society. The fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist, and Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, both having a noticeable effect on the public. Dickens was heavily involved in the running of a charitable institution which turned around the lives of prostitutes, educating them and providing them the opportunity to emigrate for a better life. It is hard to reconcile the two sides of the man, but Tomalin makes the case with clarity throughout the book that Dickens’s early struggles gave him a sympathy for those in need, but a total lack of tolerance for those who squandered the opportunities he gave them.

The latter sections of the book are quite moving. By this time Dickens’s health was failing him: he probably had gout, and was possibly an alcoholic. Tomalin tells us of a visit to stay with friends where Dickens is known to have packed a private bottle of punch. Despite this he continued to work at a phenomenal rate. Around this time he wrote some of his finest novels: Bleak House and Great Expectations are two of his latest works. He was at the peak of his celebrity, travelling throughout Britain and America putting on the public readings of his novels he became so well known for. He received rave reviews, but the letters of those who knew him tell a different story: these stage performances often left him shattered - he apparently had to be helped off stage at the end. He complained of sleeplessness, faintness, various pains, and lack of appetite (although his account of what he did eat was a prodigious amount of alcohol including ‘a pint of champagne’ for dinner). Dickens appears now to be an irascible old man, but he was as hardworking as ever, right up until the day he died. It would take a hard hearted reader not to feel the pathos of his final words: on the suggestion he lie down Dickens replied “yes, on the ground” and collapsed. Tomalin has successfully created a three dimensional figure, so that it is easy now to forgive this frail man his faults, and understand the national outpouring of grief that occurred at his sudden death.

This is an excellent biography. My only disappointment was that while I learnt so much about Georgian society reading about Jane Austen in that book, I felt I learnt less about the wider world he inhabited. This is perhaps because the Victorians are more familiar than the Georgians, thanks in part to Dickens bringing his world so vividly to life in his novels. Dickens created a cultural legacy that few can match. In her book Tomalin successfully brings to life the man behind the name.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

Earlier this year a colleague of mine told me about a film she had seen, called Hugo. “It’s about a boy at a train station in Paris, and his fox”. “Oh”, I said rather unenthusiastically. A week later I went and saw the film with a friend, immediately realising my mistake when a clock appeared prominently in the film’s opening sequence. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of anthropomorphic foxes I was imagining, I loved the film and have now read the book that Martin Scorcese’s film was based on: The invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.

For those unfamiliar with either the book or film, Hugo is the orphan child of a clockmaker. He has been living with his uncle at the Gare Montparnasse; his uncle’s job is to make sure the train station’s clocks run accurately, and Hugo becomes his assistant. For the last few months his uncle has been missing, and Hugo has continued with his job, terrified of being found out and sent to an orphanage. In his spare time he works on the automaton his father was fixing when he died. This automaton is a mechanical humanoid, who holds a pen; Hugo becomes convinced if he can make the automaton work, he will receive a message from his father. But to find parts he is reduced to stealing from the toy shop at the station, which brings him to the attention of Georges, who owns the shop, and his adopted daughter Isabelle.

The book is full of black and white drawings, intermixed with prose, with both telling the story. All are printed on black bordered pages; it makes for a beautiful book. Often the pictures are used for scenes with action in them: a walk through Paris at night, Hugo at work with cogs winding, and a memorable chase through the station, showing both the dodging through crowds, and a close up of the fear in Hugo’s eyes. The book however, makes rather lofty claims about this being an ‘entirely new reading experience’. While it combines elements of novel, comic and picture book, I don’t think it is so original to be ‘entirely new’. All of the pictures are full page, and often not that detailed. Unlike reading a comic where you often have to pay attention to small pictures to follow the plot, Hugo can be read quite rapidly. At times it is a bit irritating (namely propping this book up in bed) to have to turn page after page quite so quickly.

The book is split into two parts: the first tells of Hugo and his automaton, and the second of Georges, who is revealed to be the filmmaker Georges Méliès and creator of the automaton. The mystery behind the automaton leads Hugo and Isabelle into the mystery of Georges’s identity and why he has kept it secret. I do wonder how many children reading the book will be able to appreciate the despair of a once great, and famous man, who believes the world has forgotten him. Perhaps it is therefore appropriate that Selznick focuses largely on Hugo, but it is also a shame as I thought the book lacked the emotional punch Méliès’s story could have provided. The story the book tells is actually quite similar to Méliès’s life; he really did spend time working as a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse before his achievements in film were recognised.

This book isn’t nearly as original as its publishers claim it to be; it sticks with all the clichés of children’s literature - orphans, mysterious artefacts, grumpy adults hiding a heart of gold. It lacks the humour that Martin Scorcese wisely introduced into the film by fleshing out minor characters. Nevertheless The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a charming book, one that I’m sure will be enjoyed by children (and adults) for years to come.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

I have never liked Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but seem unable to give up on classic authors because of one book. While this is a much earlier work, and therefore considered less mature, I found Far From The Madding Crowd a more enjoyable read. I think both the excellent title (madding means frenzied) and the main character’s excellent name (Bathsheba) helped, though I doubt Thomas Hardy is an author who will ever inspire passion in me as a reader.

The novel takes place in a village in the fictional county of Wessex, England. Wessex stands in for the counties of south and southwest England, in this case specifically Dorset - Hardy’s home county. Bathsheba is a newcomer to the village, having inherited a farm from her uncle. Against society’s expectations Bathsheba plans to run the farm herself, and fails even to appoint a bailiff to help her out, thus introducing her independent and wilful nature. She becomes romantically entangled to various degrees with three men: Gabriel Oak, a solid, dependable bloke, intelligent but far below her social standing; Farmer Boldwood, much older, but a respectable man; and the dashing young Sergeant Troy. It is clear from the start who the right choice for Bathsheba would be, but this wilful young woman sets about making all the wrong decisions. This eventually leads to the destruction of two men’s lives, and, almost, the ruin of Bathsheba.

The name Bathsheba comes from the biblical character, mother of King Solomon, but more generally known as the ‘seducer’ of King David. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles the sexual purity of the main character is of paramount importance to the novel. And, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, to our modern eyes the punishment inflicted on her for transgressions from the norm are excessive. While I understand that Hardy wants to draw attention to a social problem, it grates, perhaps because Hardy is just a bit heavy handed. Early in the novel, on a thoughtless whim, Bathsheba sends a valentine to Boldwood as a joke. This awakens an obsessive, frankly stalkerish, side in the previously respectable farmer. Throughout the rest of the novel Bathsheba is under pressure to agree to marry him, because she led him on to believe she had feelings for him. Despite repeatedly making it clear to him she does not love him, and that this takes place over years, not weeks or months, Bathsheba is unable to jilt Boldwood. Disturbingly she clearly thinks that it is her fault, and that she in someway owes it to Boldwood to submit to marriage to him. Instead she marries Troy, an unhappy choice for which Bathsheba suffers greatly. Troy is also in love with a poor young maid, whom he has already seduced and jilted, as he cannot marry her for lack of money. Punished for her lustful actions, Bathsheba ends up alone; but don’t worry, there is still the dependable Gabriel Oak lurking around the farm, and the possibility of a somewhat happy ending.

Far From the Madding Crowd is not a miserable novel as some of the above might suggest. The minor characters, especially the labourers, provide plenty of light relief without being patronising portrayals of the poor. The book brings to life this village, and a way of life very different to what we know now. Still, for all the pastoral realism, Hardy’s writing is, for me at least, the epitome of Victorian melodrama. The ending of this novel relies on events that would leave a soap opera writer happy. There is also something about the strictly formalised relations between the sexes at the time that seems to create unhealthy romantic entanglements. One wonders if half the problems in the novel could be solved if Bathsheba and Boldwood went out on a date one evening and were able to discover if they, you know, liked each other. Since this wasn’t the way of the world, Victorian literature seems full of ill-suited marriages. The passions invoked seem disproportionate to true appreciation of the others character. The relationship between Oak and Bathsheba is treated with a sincerity that implies Hardy recognises what a healthy relationship might look like. But the fact that Oak falls so steadfastly in love with a woman he cannot spend any meaningful time with is perhaps a bit pathetic, and a blight on an otherwise, comparatively, well rounded character.

Hardy’s novels may be a bit melodramatic at times for my taste, but he does lack the slightly purple prose that so often puts people off other Victorian writers. His evocation of time and place is strong, and the language of his books reflect this; notes are probably necessary as modern readers are unlikely to understand the rural terminology widely used in this novel. It is an enjoyable book, but at times silly enough that it was hard to really feel engrossed in the story. As for society’s need to punish women for lustful feelings? Thank god for feminism.