Friday, 25 May 2012

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne

I bought Tristram Shandy in a fit of zeal a couple of years ago at a charity booksale. Rather appropriately it has taken me a couple of years to get around to reading it. I say appropriately as the book is the ‘autobiography’ of one Tristram Shandy, who is far too distracted in his writing to get around to telling us about his life. Publication of this novel began in 1759; it was published in nine volumes over eight years. Considering it is an early example of the novel it seems extraordinarily postmodern. It’s not a book I would recommend for most people. At times it was a maddening, tiresome read, but it could also be funny, in quite unexpected ways.

The first three volumes nominally tell the story of Tristram’s life from conception until birth. As I have already said Shandy finds himself continually distracted from his own tale, and instead diverts himself to stories regarding other characters, or general philosophical ramblings. The real main characters in this book are Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, and his uncle Toby. While Tristram’s mother is left to labour upstairs for three volumes, Walter and Toby have a varied philosophical discourse downstairs. Tristram also narrates stories about them, including introducing some, such as his Uncle Toby’s courting of the Widow Wadman, which in typical Shandian fashion are not actually told until the final volume.

I found this first section of the book the most interesting, although I also enjoyed the final volume. While the narrative meanders around, there is more of a shape to the story he is telling, as he keeps referring back to the events surrounding his birth. This thread was lacking from the middle sections, where he rambles on about one thing for a while, and then another. I found myself struggling during these chapters, especially the volume which narrates his travels through France. While individual episodes could be amusing, the overall effect was mind numbing. I really did have to force myself to keep reading, occasionally feeling as though I had read through a number of pages without taking anything in.

The humour of this book is much broader than anything you would expect to encounter in a nineteenth century novel. It is striking the difference fifty years makes in what was acceptable. Licentious behaviour is only ever implied, never explicitly described in the Victorian novels, even when it is integral to the plot. A bawdy sense of humour is continually present throughout Tristram Shandy, The book begins with an account of his mother distracting Walter Shandy at a rather delicate moment, leading to Tristram being conceived in a more disordered state than ideal; thus setting the tone for both Tristram’s character, and the novel.

From our modern vantage point it is easy to describe the book as ‘postmodern’. It seems to anticipate what later writers like Virginia Woolf or WG Sebald would do. Famously his book contains a page entirely filled in with black ink, as though to represent the melancholy of the story being told at that point, or the eyes of the dying man as they close for the last time. I think though, considering the long time span in between this work and anything similar, it is perhaps more of an anomaly, rather than the inspiration for a trend. His techniques for chopping and changing the narrative are very clever though, the following being one of my favourite examples
‘Dr Slop drew up his mouth, and was just beginning to return my uncle Toby the compliment of his Whu—u—u—or interjectional whistle—when the door hastily opening in the next chapter but one—put an end to the affair.’

This isn’t a book I would recommend as a good read. I read it myself mainly as a curiosity. My interest in this book was first piqued by a Michael Winterbottom film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I remember really enjoying the film, and being certain I wasn’t getting all the jokes as I hadn’t read the book it is (very loosely) based on. In short the film is great, the book slightly more challenging, although it did amuse me at times.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A couple of months ago I joined an imaginary book club through a friend. I say ‘imaginary’ as we have never met to discuss the book; in fact I’ve not met the other participants - I begin to suspect Marie made them all up. Too late! As, in hope of some literary discussion over tea and biscuits, I have ploughed my way through a hefty tome: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Thackeray was a contemporary of Dickens and, like Dickens, he first made his name as a journalist before becoming a famous novelist. In their own time Thackeray was second only to Dickens in popularity. However he is much less read these days, and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair. The book is undeniably intimidating in size - my copy has just under a thousand pages. In comparison to other similar novels though, I do not think it is too complicated. It helps that it has a smaller cast than many. While it takes place over a period of many years, including the Napoleonic wars, history is only a backdrop, requiring no in depth historical knowledge to make sense of it.

What makes this book so successful is one of its main characters: Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of an artist, determined to claw her way up through English society. The novel has the subtitle ‘A Novel Without A Hero’ as, over the course of the story, every main character is shown to be flawed. At the start of the novel Becky is with her friend Amelia Sedley, another main character. While Becky can be spiteful and artful, her feelings for the naïve Amelia, at least, appear to be somewhat genuine. Becky’s scheming eventually lands her with a husband, a buffoonish soldier with aspirations to wealth. Amelia marries her childhood sweetheart, but soon finds herself widowed, pregnant and impoverished. From here the two women go their separate ways. Amelia becomes ever more insipid, wasting away, caring only for her son and unable to recognise the love offered to her by her late husbands friend, Captain Dobbin. While Dobbin seems an admirable enough character he too becomes a slightly pathetic figure by the end of the novel, as he is unable to get out from under Amelia’s thumb.

In contrast Becky and her husband Rawdon Crawley are enjoying life, living in style in London with no real income. Their portion of the book is where Thackeray’s satire and wit shine. Two particularly witty chapters concerning these two are entitled ’How to Live on Nothing a Year’ and ’The Subject Continued’ in which Thackeray details how by relying on a good family name one can exist entirely off credit. The creditors, for fear that the meagre payments might stop, continue to furnish you with goods, until they themselves are declared bankrupt, while you continue merrily with your lavish, unpaid for lifestyle. It is amusing, but also not entirely inaccurate - young men of the time were continuously in extravagant debt, and the higher your income, well, the more you could borrow. So Rawdon and Becky get by on nothing, presenting whichever face to whoever most suits their purpose. Becky is demure and gracious to Rawdon’s family; meanwhile she is prostituting herself to a rich landowner (not in so many words though, it is after all a Victorian novel). Like any good thing, it’s great while it lasts, but inevitably Becky’s duplicity gets the better of her, and she finds herself in difficulty.

Thackeray’s critique of high society is really quite savage, particularly his treatment of the marriage market. As awful as Becky’s behaviour can be, it all stems from the way society treated women. Not content to be poor, Becky must marry well, as she has no means to make her own money. When that doesn’t quite work out, well, there are other ways. Men too come in for their fair share of Thackeray’s contempt. Money and respectability reign supreme, friends are cast aside when down on their luck, and anything can be ignored as long as it is behind closed doors. Sir Pitt Crawley is a wonderful character: disgusting and miserly to the extreme, he alone refuses to play by society’s rules. His real transgression though is not his behaviour, it is the transparency of it. Ultimately this novel is about the veneer society paints over itself.

Thackeray is a knowing writer; his omniscient narrator directly addresses, and challenges, the reader a number of times.
a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word “breeches” to be pronounced in her chaste hearing. And yet, Madam, both are walking the world before our faces everyday, without much shocking us. If you were to blush every time they went by, what complexions you would have!
Thackeray is merciless in his exposure of society; all within the confines of what could be acceptably published. Perhaps this is part of why the book hasn’t dated badly: what was shocking then, isn’t so shocking now. By not lecturing us on morality Thackeray gives the book a universality and timelessness - although society has changed since this book was published we all know people like Becky Sharp and Captain Dobbin. The characters are vivid and realistic, breathing life into this classic novel.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Early Work of Philip K Dick Volume One: The Variable Man and Other Stories

From one sci-fi great to another, this time it’s Philip K Dick. This collection contains short stories from the first two years of his publishing career, 1952-53. They are not the polished science fiction he is known for, but they certainly touch on some of the themes familiar from his later work. It is an intriguing collection of stories; the quality can be, well, variable, but there are a lot of interesting ideas and some of these stories are very successful.

The collection is nicely published. The book has a good introduction (which does give away the first story, but not any others). It also has story notes at the back, with information about when they were published, and how they fit into his body of work. The stories range in length, beginning at only ten pages, while The Variable Man is almost a novella. I would expect they would be new to most people, except for Adjustment Team, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year.

Some of the concerns of Dick’s later works are already cropping up. Robots feature prominently in many of these stories, as do post-nuclear societies. Some though are much more whimsical, such as Beyond The Door, which is about an overprotective cuckoo clock, of all things. One of the unfortunate things about science fiction is it can date rapidly, and Dick’s obsession with a futuristic Soviet threat is an example of this. Mind you, give the world another twenty years and maybe it won’t seem so!

There are some excellent stories in this collection. While sometimes you can see the twist at the ending coming a mile off, Dick knows how to deliver that twist with such panache it doesn’t matter. Even when a story as a whole doesn’t appeal, a scene or image can contain a spark of brilliance that hints at the mature writer he is becoming. Dick’s vision of a man wandering through an office building turning into dust around him in Adjustment Team is a great, creepy, piece of writing
The man slowly collapsed. He settled into a heap, a loose pile of gray ash. Dust. Particles. The two women dissolved when he touched them. Silently. They made no sound as they broke apart.
A favourite of mine is Beyond Lies the Wub, Dick’s first ever published story. It is very short, but a real gem. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it is available to read online and is well worth the time to read it. There were some that I enjoyed less; Of Withered Apples, about a young woman who becomes infatuated with a dangerous apple tree, was particularly weak.

Last year I read Embassytown by China Mieville, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin one after the other. Both books by great sci-fi authors, one newly published about colonialism and language, the other a classic exploring gender. It wasn’t planned, but they made an intriguing double bill. I feel I may have done Dick a disservice. I read this straight after reading The Dispossessed, also by Le Guin. While it is not about gender, feminism is present in the book. To go from that, to Dick’s (admittedly earlier) works I felt incredibly frustrated at his paper thin female characters. There are very few of them; his futures are all very patriarchal. Without exception, every female in this book is either weak or passive. This is part of what annoyed me so much to start with in Of Withered Apples - the story begins with a young woman requesting permission for a walk from her husband, by promising to be home in time to cook dinner. Urgh. On the other side, it adds to my appreciation of Le Guin’s work. While I think her books are anything but heavy handed, it does bring home the establishment she was reacting against. Dick’s stories are hardly unusual in this matter. It is merely a reflection of the society he was living in, but it still annoys me.

Feminist gripes aside this is a fine collection of stories. I’m no expert on Dick’s writing, but I could see the early traces of ideas explored in his later novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep being a particular example. It is also interesting seeing how his career got started. He was able to support himself publishing these stories in sci-fi magazines. While some literary journals still exist (McSweeney’s springs to mind), it is hard to imagine a writer financially supporting themselves from publishing in these. While many lament how the internet and text messaging are reducing our ability to digest longform writing, I wonder, how is our obsession with the novel hindering the careers of the novelists of tomorrow?