Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

4 September 2013

It’s been far, far too long since I posted a book review to this blog. To encourage myself to get back in the spirit of things, I’m planning to tackle a series of reviews about Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (which I have just finished) and his Palliser novels (which I am still working my way through). Ideally, I suppose I should start the reviews with the first of the Barsetshire novels, since they technically come before the Palliser novels in chronological order, but apparently I have strong enough feelings on the first Palliser novel to want to make a start with it here.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The general plot of Can You Forgive Her? revolves around the love and matrimonial choices made by three women: Alice Vavasor, her aunt Arabella Greenow (née Vavasor), and her cousin Lady Glencora Palliser (née M’Cluskie). Alice is engaged to the quiet, kind, and dependable John Grey — whose name almost summarises his general character — but she is faltering at the thought of subsuming her personality and interests to her husband’s opinion of what a good wife should be. Lady Glencora, a young heiress who at her extended family’s insistence was all but shoved into marriage with the colourless Plantagenet Palliser, still finds herself in love with her former beau, the handsome but dangerously spendthrift Burgo Fitzgerald. Only Arabella Greenow seems to find some enjoyment in her life — as a rich widow just on the point of middle age, she keeps up an almost theatrical level of mourning for her late husband even as she stakes her claim to the affections of two rival suitors. As all three women teeter on the edge of making and un-making up their minds about their relationships, and risk placing themselves in the hands of men who might not be best suited to their temperaments or positions in life, Trollope shows the financial and political effects of their choices and their struggles to make the best of their varied (but not entirely dissimilar) situations.

This book, the first in the Palliser series of novels, sets up the personal and political milieu that will span the full six-volume series. As a reworking of Trollope’s unsuccessful play The Noble Jilt, Can You Forgive Her? is comparatively light on politics, at least when it comes to the substance of parliamentary debates and Cabinet-level wheeling and dealing, though it does touch on the difficulty of securing a Commons seat without ready money to spend on courting the voters. All the same, the Houses of Parliament overshadow many of the characters’ actions and decisions, particularly when Plantagenet Palliser must make a bold decision to save his marriage at the (possible) cost of his rising political career. (Of course, since this is only the first book in the series, the modern reader will know that the decision is not quite so life-or-death as it seems to the characters.) And it touches on a theme that will recur, with variations, in later novels: the role that women have in political life, and the spheres in which they can attempt exercise their power to help or hinder the men in their lives.

Though it’s plain that Trollope doesn’t think well of his three heroines’ attempts to stake some claim to personal independence and self-determination, it’s worth noting that the meaning of the book’s title can be read two ways. On the most obvious level, “Can you forgive her?” may be asking the reader to pardon his heroines’ faults, to forgive their trespasses because of their weak, womanly natures. But on a more subtle level, “Can you forgive her?” asks the question “Can you blame these women for wanting to find their own happiness, for seeking out more than the restricted domestic life that awaits them, and for rebelling at being subject to the whims of their bullying or neglectful families?” Can we forgive Arabella Greenow for stringing her suitors along for as long as it takes to judge their characters, taking refuge in the respectability of wealthy widowhood to avoid ending up in another marriage to an uncaring, domineering man? Can we forgive Lady Glencora, under severe domestic pressure to produce an heir, for wanting to run away and give her husband an excuse to divorce her so that he might find a woman who can give him a son? And can we forgive Alice Vavasor, a victim of wanting more control over her own life than a woman of her time and social position might expect to have, for accepting her eventual husband’s proposal almost out of exhaustion with her increasingly unwelcome options? The modern reader may be more likely to ask and respond to the second question, for all that it overlaps the first. And even for a book where Trollope-the-Author voices his objections to his own heroines’ actions, Trollope-the-Writer has created a far more sympathetic portrayal of them than he might have understood.

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The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

2 February 2010

I have had this book for quite some time now — a lucky find in a library book sale — but I freely admit that the title was intimidating enough to keep me from really attempting to read it until a few months ago. I still need to get my hands on a copy of First Circle at some point.

The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Shortly before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward was banned from publication in 1966, Solzhenitsyn attempted to respond to criticisms that he had written the novel as a deliberate attack on the Soviet regime. ‘There are too many medical details for it to be a symbol,‘ he said, adding that the manuscript was ‘about cancer…not as it is written about in literature devised to entertain people, but as it is experienced every day by the sick.’ Although One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s novella about the Soviet labour camps, and the short stories ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’ and ‘Matryona’s House’ had been approved for publication during the political thaw that followed the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn’s latest work pushed the boundaries of appropriate literature in a post-Khrushchev USSR. And in spite of Solzhenitsyn’s protests that the intent of The Cancer Ward was to show a more realistic depiction of the physical and psychological sufferings of cancer patients, he made little attempt to disguise the fact that the pain he was writing about went beyond that of tumours and treatments: the cancer, in fiction and in real life, was the Soviet system itself.

The Cancer Ward is set in the men’s cancer treatment ward of a provincial hospital in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, present-day Uzbekistan, a few years after the death of Stalin. The patients on the ward are a mixed lot, young and old, Russians and non-Russians, and range from a former political prisoner in permanent exile to an officious ‘personnel director’ who actively resents being treated in such a shabby hospital with the poor and the indigent. The doctors, nurses, and technicians who staff the hospital do the best that they can in spite of their own set of problems — oppressive bureaucracy and politically motivated meddling, incompetent colleagues who cannot be removed or demoted, and the constant grind of working too many hours with too many responsibilities — that hamper their professional abilities. But as the treatments progress and the patients improve or worsen, bits of strange news begin to filter in from outside the hospital. Why are so many of the old guard Party members, the stalwarts of Stalin’s day, resigning their posts or being replaced in their positions? What is this rumour that thousands of prisoners — people who surely must have done something wrong, since they confessed to all manner of crimes against the State — are to be released and rehabilitated, even allowed to return to their old homes? Something seems to be eating away at the old order bit by bit, and even those who have no love for the Party are forced to wonder whether, in this instance, the cure might be worse than the disease.

The extended allegory of Stalinism-as-cancer makes it very easy to read The Cancer Ward as an anti-Soviet polemic from start to finish. However, Solzhenitsyn himself was a cancer survivor whose illness went untreated until it was almost too late, and his writing brings out the dread, isolation, and uncertainty experienced by cancer patients, who can never be certain whether their discharge from the cancer ward means complete recovery or imminent death. For those who have experienced cancer firsthand, whether their own or that of a loved one, The Cancer Ward will be a painful book to read at times. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s story is not merely a roman à clef or political protest — it celebrates the determination of the human spirit, the desire to live and love and hope and enjoy life in any way possible, whether in the shadow of cancer or in the shadow of the gulag. And even though The Cancer Ward is less well known than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the breath-taking Gulag Archipelago, it deserves to be more widely read.

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Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

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Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

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The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

21 April 2009

I feel as if my recent book review posts have been tilting more towards fiction than non-fiction, which is well enough for posting but does not accurately represent the current state of my book review backlog. I’ll have more than a few non-fiction works coming up soon, to balance things out a little more.

The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

It began as a fairly routine sort of day for our hero, an unnamed young man working for British military intelligence. An important scientist, codenamed ‘Raven’, had left his house that morning and had not arrived at his workplace, and evidence seemed to suggest that Raven was the latest in a series of what appeared to be either kidnappings or defections. The mission was straightforward: take a certain plane to Lebanon, rendezvous with certain people who have certain weapons, and use the appropriate means to prevent Raven from being transported over the border into Syria in the dead of night. And the mission is successful, in the sense that Raven is brought back alive and in one piece. But why did the senior officer involved in the Lebanon raid apologise to Raven before bringing him back to London? And why are the Americans suddenly very interested in the case, and in our hero’s part in Raven’s rescue? The capture and return of Raven, it seems, are only a small part of a much larger conspiracy that our hero must unravel before he becomes the next person to leave his house in the morning and never return — and as he tells it, this conspiracy is the story behind the IPCRESS file.

The IPCRESS File was Len Deighton’s breakthrough thriller novel, published in 1962, and when compared to other espionage novels of the time it bridges the literary and stylistic gap between the Ian Fleming and John le Carré approaches to espionage fiction. The unnamed protagonist lives in a small flat in an unfashionable area of south London — where it takes 40 minutes to get a taxi, because the drivers don’t like going south of the Thames — and he takes a grim sort of pride in the fact that by education and temperament he is quite unlike the smooth-talking public-school chaps he frequently meets in his line of work. However, he has an appreciation for good food and drink, especially expensive coffees, and more than once his internal monologue despairs over the poor quality of the coffee served in his office and compares it with the kind he drinks at home. The flashy settings and sinister international plots that thrilled readers of the James Bond stories are replaced with the dimly lit Whitehall corridors and squabbles over unpaid travel vouchers more familiar to fans of George Smiley, but Deighton provides more than a few frantic chases, sinister tortures, and clever escapes from danger to keep the plot rumbling along. On the subject of the plot itself, Deighton’s writing style is Dickensian at times, particularly in the sense that he seems to takes the most pleasure in crafting interesting character types or evocative turns of phrase (such as a woman whose hairstyle has been ‘intimidated’ into place) at the expense of the greater plot. The final chapter is a massive and rather clunky information dump that even a slapdash mystery novelist might find overwhelming — the true meaning of ‘IPCRESS’, for instance, does not appear until about 20 pages before the end. The plot is there, but somehow it becomes almost secondary to the action and the lovingly descriptive passages, which may disappoint some readers who are used to more tightly crafted espionage writing. Nonetheless, Deighton’s work was one of the early examples of a plot centred on the battle between the spy-as-action-hero and the spy-as-bureaucrat, which makes it worth examining as a piece at the forefront of this particular trope.

Fans of the spy thriller genre may be more familiar with The IPCRESS File through the 1965 film of the same name, which stars Michael Caine as ‘Harry Palmer’, the name chosen for Deighton’s nameless man of action. The film provides a bit more backstory for Caine’s Harry Palmer, but it was Caine’s brisk performance in the film that truly made the role his own and provided him with his first starring role. Those who have seen the film but have never read the book might be interested to see the source material (and judge it on its own merits), while those who have never seen the book or the film will find The IPCRESS File a tortuous but quick read, as well as a classic text of mid-Cold War espionage fiction.

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Required Writing and Further Requirements by Philip Larkin

24 February 2009

Now that I’ve managed to get my hands on the first of these two connected books of pieces by British poet Philip Larkin, I can finally combine these two short reviews into a single post.

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin begins Required Writing by freely admitting that ‘I rarely accepted a literary asssignment without a sinking of the heart, nor finished it without an inordinate sense of relief’. It may seem an odd opening to this collection of various pieces written over nearly three decades as a poet, author, and jazz aficionado, but it illustrates the sort of disarming (or deliberately blunt, depending on how you regard it) honesty that forms a common, consistent theme across this selection of his works.

Larkin was exempt from service in World War II because of his poor eyesight, so he was able to finish his degree at Oxford University at a time when many of his contemporaries were on active military service or working in war industries or the Civil Service. He all but stumbled into his first library job as the ‘single-handed and untrained’ librarian-caretaker at a small public library in Shropshire, and then moved on to become an assistant librarian at University College, Leicester. Required Writing opens with several autobiographical pieces in which Larkin ruminates on his experiences in these first library positions, along with short introductions to his novel Jill and his poetry collection The North Ship, which reflect on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of these early works. But Required Writing mostly consists of review pieces of specific books or jazz records, along with several general pieces written for occasions such as the announcement of the 1977 Booker Prize. One or two of his general pieces have particular relevance many years later, such as an opening lecture which criticises the British literary establishment’s seeming lack of interest in preserving the manuscripts or collected papers of its greatest living authors and writers. Yet the book is best read as its title suggests: these pieces were requested or required of their author at one point or another, and Larkin brought them together in a single volume in the hope that doing so would make it less likely that his words would be quoted out of context in the future.

On the whole, Larkin makes no secret of his particular tastes as a reviewer. In Required Writing, he often refers to the unholy trinity of ‘Parker, Pound, and Picasso’ as examples of what he most dislikes about ‘modern’ art, literature, and music — ‘it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure’. He rails against what he regards as the narrow-minded, snobbish idea that one cannot properly understand what is good or beautiful or skilfully done about modern music or modern art unless one is a ‘musician’ or an ‘artist’. Small wonder, then, that on several occasions he expresses his fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman precisely because Betjeman is ‘a poet for whom the modern poetic revolution simply has not taken place’. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Larkin’s preferences or prejudices is of little importance, on the whole — Required Writing simply presents his opinions as one reviewer amongst many, with his biases generally unconcealed, and leaves it open to the reader to decide how to regard them.

Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952–1985 by Philip Larkin (edited by Anthony Thwaite)

Further Requirements is the second collection of Larkin’s prose writings, a posthumous compilation put together by Larkin editor and biography Anthony Thwaite from Larkin left death. As Larkin himself wrote, ‘The journalism of a major writer can be revealing. It shows his talent encountering the world outside his own imagination; we learn what he is prepared to write about, and what other people hope he will write about.’ Appropriately, much of the material in Further Requirements is drawn from Larkin’s written and broadcast journalism, beginning with a collection of transcripts from Larkin’s interviews and broadcasts, mostly from the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3) or from Radio 4. Featured broadcasts include Larkin’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1976, a response to a birthday tribute in which he chooses ‘The Explosion’ as a personal favourite among the poems he wrote, and more short pieces about his love of jazz music.

The rest of the compilation, about 60 percent all told, consists of reviews that Larkin wrote for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and other literary periodicals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the reviews are of books of poetry, many of which were written by poets who have since faded into semi-obscurity. More than one review again shows Larkin’s fondness for Betjeman’s poetry and its general rejection of the modernist style of arts and literature that Larkin particularly disliked. The general impression one gets from the selections included in Further Requirements is that of Larkin’s sheer determination to write about ordinary things and ordinary people — and there are times when this sentiment becomes a little repetitive to read about, if only because the book brings together in one closely-packed volume a number of pieces that were otherwise spread out over many years. All the same, Further Requirements is a fine counterpoint to Larkin’s own selection of poetry and prose writings. (Readers who are interested in more Larkin-alia would do well to look for the edited collection of his letters, also compiled by Anthony Thwaite.)

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A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.