Stories Sans Speeches

This week I’ve come across two books that share an unusual link in their use of language and dialogue. The first – and more well-known – is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the story of the Compson family, and the decline of their Southern sensibilities that happens alongside the degradation of the family ‘honour’. The second is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Canterbury Tales-esque (there’s another one for the reading list) story of several travellers meeting at an inn in a forest to tell tales involving tarot cards.

This essay (if you can call it that) will focus on the way these novels tell stories given the absence of proper means to do so. The first sixty-odd pages of The Sound and the Fury are narrated by Benjy Compson, the mentally retarded youngest son of the Compson family. Since Benjy is incapable of differentiating time, the story jumps back and forth in his lifetime without proper signposting for the reader. As such, this is one of the most confusing and strangest passages I’ve ever read in a book, and I found it almost wholly impenetrable without referencing SparkNotes. The reason for this is that the lack of “signposting”, as I’ve referred to it, means that it is impossible for Faulkner to structure the story as to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. We start somewhere in medias res, but we never know quite where. Unlike with the later chapters in the book, there are no breaks that allow us to orient ourselves around points of significance; The Sound and the Fury’s chapter is a near-impenetrable wall of paragraphs. We are, quite literally, walled off from the world as we understand it, trapped in Benjy’s half-comprehensions of the universe.

It is worth noting that Benjy Compson is not an unreliable narrator; indeed, in comparison to his brothers Quentin and Jason, who narrate the later chapters, he is a remarkably straightforward narrator due to his lack of complex emotional entanglement. Where others see symbols and extrapolate meaning from them, Benjy sees things, and is acutely aware of even the slightest difference. At the end of the novel, he becomes distraught when he is driven the wrong way back to the house, breaking his familiar routine. This calls our attention to the contradictory ideas of change and constancy in the novel, and the detrimental effects of both. The Compson family are afraid of change, stuck in an hourglass that keeps on running, yet at the same time they do not react to the fact that their quaint Southern existence is running away because they are too wrapped up in trying to maintain the status quo both within the family and without. Quentin’s suicide is as a result of holding onto pent-up feelings too long; the same can be said for Jason’s anger. Benjy, meanwhile, is unbothered by petty things like themes and ideas and critical analysis. With him, what he sees is what you get, and we don’t get opinions on it. Though his vision may appear convoluted, it often presents startling clarity – and horrifying clarity at that, given that only the absence of a sound mind in the Compson family has allowed for clear thought to prevail. But from that, we can extrapolate something else: coherency of language is not needed to tell a story.

Meanwhile, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino’s narrator and the travellers he meets are struck silent by a magic spell or some such other. Someone produces a deck of tarot cards and the cards are laid out on the table, and the storytellers, each telling a tale in turn, move the cards to produce stories. The narrator manages to discern a meaning from the arrangement of the cards – a Two of Coins might mean wealth, for example, material or otherwise, or payment, or only gain its true meaning in conjunction with another card such as the Ace of Clubs. Calvino’s narrator offers us a possible interpretation, but we as readers are expected to draw our own conclusions; so long as they fit the cards, they are reasonable. Then all the cards are used up, and those around the table begin to move the cards to fit a different order; this raises some interesting ideas of intertextuality, of old elements being recycled to make different stories, of tropes being continually written and subverted. The link to The Sound and the Fury is a little tenuous, but both books use language in ways that we don’t expect, proving that a story without words is possible, if you have a little imagination.

Or something like that. I’m not sure where I was going with this. It sounded much more coherent when I started writing it down. But then again, so does everything.

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To His Coy Mistress: An Analysis

So: I figured I should do something on this topic of metaphysical poetry, to supplement my extra reading ahead of university. It is – to my mild surprise – a very interesting period, because it takes a style that seems inherently classical and uses it to answer much broader questions about life, the Universe and everything. The metaphysical is, weirdly, kind of like Doctor Who, because it can seem an incredibly hackneyed and clichéd genre, basically the epitome of “help me, this poem is old and terrible.” It seems quite basic, in the sense of “this is a boring, old, terrible poem”, but the questions they ask are all weird and newfangled once you get into them.

The imagery is pretty cool, too. Donne’s flea in the eponymous poem is the gold standard, best-known, metaphysical conceit, and they only get weirder.

I think the Doctor Who allegory (above) was a bit nonsensical, and to be honest I only used it because it segues nicely into what I’m going to look at today: Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, of which the famous opening lines, “Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime”, gave us a title for a DW episode this year.

Anyway, moving on:

To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side [5]

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews. [10]

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires and more slow;

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast, [15]

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate. [20]

       But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found; [25]

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust; [30]

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

       Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires [35]

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power. [40]

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun [45]

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

 

Okay, then.

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

So, the narrator opens with a lament, “had we but world enough and time”, immediately imposing a certain negativity on the poem. By instantly putting himself down in this way, he adds another motivation for the nameless woman to cheer him up by offering sex. Not only will it fulfil her (as he goes on to argue), but she’ll be getting rid of this depressive mood that has settled over both of them, so everybody wins. But it’s more important to draw our attention to the “we”, as this is stressed by the tetrameter;  the narrator instantly identifies himself with the object of his affections, and imposes his feelings upon her. If we take a gendered perspective on this, we could argue that Marvell views the role of the woman in the relationship is to be immediately subservient. This isn’t at all odd, but what is kind of strange is the fact that he goes after her heart so hard. But if his ideal woman is bound to follow his feelings, what’s the point? It’s somewhat oxymoronic that he both wants this woman to do exactly as he commands, but at the same time he feels the need to pursue her. So the narrator doesn’t really know what he wants either, despite the fact that he gives the impression of being assured and in command of the situation.

Moving on: after the narrator reproaches the lady’s “coyness”, he continues his lamentation by describing what they would do if they had the time (lines 5-10)

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood:

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

The narrator confirms himself as Marvell with the reference to “the tide / Of Humber”; Marvell was from Hull, by which the river Humber runs. He juxtaposes this by placing his love at the “Indian Ganges”. He also juxtaposes the wealth and prosperity of their lives; while he lives a mundane life in Hull – probably the worst city in England, even during Marvell’s time – she is down by the Ganges, finding “rubies” in the river. A colonic caesura “Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide” reinforces the separation between the two, and splits lines 5-7 into two separate masculine and feminine halves. There’s a disparity between his side, which, again displays mundanity, and hers, which uses a lot more flamboyant allusions and altogether brighter language. This is explicitly suggestive of her beauty, but if we look beyond that, it seems to undercut this illusion: “Indian Ganges” and “rubies”, though lurid, are hardly complex in a linguistic sense; we can say these words very easily. So while the “coy mistress” masquerades herself as some enigmatic figure decked in jewels, she’s really quite a simple animal – like Marvell himself. There’s also an interesting repetition of “should” or variations thereon in lines 6, 9 and 11. We’re reminded that this is all hypothetical, but using “should” rather than “could” is a bit more authoritative – shades of Donne’s “The Flea” come through here – and also creates an argument of fate within the poem.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.

Two hundred to adore each breast:

But thirty thousand to the rest.

This passage (lines 12-15) is interesting for all the subversions the poetic line allows. Marvell opens with “An hundred years should go to praise”, which a godly fellow might agree with, then moves onto the next line with “Thine eyes”, proving that he hasn’t had a religious epiphany, but is, indeed, back to wooing this woman. He then moves on to “Two hundred to adore each breast.” Obviously, with “breast” coming in here, there’s a lot of sexuality coming through, but again, Marvell subverts this: he isn’t filthy minded after all; in fact, he’s devoting “thirty thousand” years to the rest, turning away from the overt place of sexuality. Of course, by taking so long in doing this, he’s imposing his will on the woman again; he can only spend “an age” admiring her if she just stands there naked in front of him and does nothing. So she’s become a static object for his voyeurism, which leads us back to Marvell wanting to impose complete control over his love; notice that she doesn’t seem to have anything of an active role within the poem. What if she wants to spend thirty thousand years admiring him? Well, we can’t have that, because by doing so, she gains a certain lusty quality that he (implicitly) doesn’t really want. This can be compared with Donne’s “The Good Morrow”, as in that poem Donne advocates for a (more or less) equal role for the woman: “let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one,” allowing her to engage in lustful behaviour alongside him.

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust;

This passage (lines 23-30) is interesting for making use of slant rhymes/half-rhymes, on “lie / eternity” and “try / virginity”. This creates an unsettling undertone for a passage which, after all, is all about the loneliness of death. Thus the “coy mistress”, in this part, would be discouraged by the unfamiliar rhythm on hearing Marvell’s description of the grave. Wouldn’t she much rather be somewhere nice, where everything rhymes? And if that’s not enough, there’s some nice invokation of Christian prayer – “dust”, “ashes”. Marvell implies that her virginity would be destroyed by worms – if we take that in a literal sense, that’s a truly horrifying image – so he wouldn’t she much rather have it ‘destroyed’ by him, a man who lusts for her. It’s better for both of them, because in doing so, she’ll also vanquish his lust without the need for worms to destroy that, too.

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

 One of my favourite images from the poem is at the start of the third stanza, on lines 35-36. “Transpir[ation]” is an interesting term to use, as it links to natural imagery, more specifically to Marvell’s mention of “vegetable love” in line 11. In his case, “vegetable love” is a phallic symbol; with her, it’s a little more difficult to decipher, but it could easily relate to a vagina. Transpiration is a natural process in plants, so maybe Marvell is implying that to have sex with him – for her soul to “transpire” – would also be natural, and she wouldn’t be judged for it. At the same time, he could be referring to the menstrual cycle, but on balance this is probably less likely given what he’s trying to stir in her during this poem. Alternatively, we can take things away for a bit, and consider that the invocation of the pastoral is a common metaphysical theme, especially in Marvell’s poetry, where he considers “The Garden” to be his own personal paradise and uses it to explore man’s responsibilities in the natural world. Either way, though, the next line, “instant fires”, seems to immediately destroy that imagery with what seems to be a reference to Hell itself. That seems to reinforce the common suggestion that the “transpiration” is sinful and will condemn them both to hell, which is inconsistent. So how do we look at this? Well, Marvell posits the verb “transpire” as an action of the woman. When she does the transpiring, she’ll be condemning herself to hell for her lust, but… it’s all right if he does the transpiring instead, and pursues his lust for her. All this seems to suggest that Marvell is glad that his mistress is “coy”, because he wouldn’t want to go pursuing someone who has equal lust for him. So throughout this poem, though he’s coaxing her to “seize the day”, he might not actually want her to do that. What he wants her to do is fall for him after his relentless assault, not to simply swoon and collapse into his arms. Arguably this lends some strength to the female character, but at the same time, there’s such egregious misogyny here that the view is difficult to support.

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Marvell goes on with this condemnation with imagery of “birds of prey”, “slow-chapped power” (slow-chapped meaning “slowly devouring”), “devour[ing]” and “tear[ing]” roughly, and imprisonment behind “iron grates”. This very brutal imagery, again, seems to suggest that it is dangerous to let lust consume the woman; he’s turning her away from lust, warning her that it’s some sort of monster that only he, as a man, is capable of defeating. But at the same time, he wants her to try and engage with the lust, at his side, a sort of faithful sidekick following the hero on his quest – in other words, he doesn’t want her to ‘fight’ lust with anyone other than him, and he doesn’t want her to be with anyone other than him when she reveals her full potential of her lust.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

At the end of the poem, Marvell offers another reason for engaging with ‘the beast of lust’. He again returns to his initial invocation that time is short, but offers an alternative solution; instead of trying to outrun it – which is impossible – they should fight it by making it go faster (“mak[ing] him run”). It’s almost a heroic invocation, calling the mistress up to fight alongside him even if their battle is ultimately futile. This can be compared to Donne’s “The Sun Rising”, though with a bit more humility – unlike Donne, Marvell knows that he cannot defeat cosmic powers like “the sun”, but he will put up a good fight against this entity which, as he believed, orchestrated time. In joining him, the coy mistress will help prove his masculinity and heroism, and also enhance her own heroic virtue, though, as he previously reminds her, it is too dangerous for her to take this fight alone.

Though it may constitute a stretch of the language, there is an alternative interpretation of the final line, in which “sun” can be read as “son”. This undermines the idea of the great battle with a quainter outcome. The narrator suggests that, if he and his lover have sex, they cannot prevent the conception of a son. But what they can do is maintain their relationship and raise him together in the spirit of their love: “they can make him run”. Though this isn’t quite as exciting as the other interpretation of the giant Paradise Lost-style battle of the cosmos, it gives a bit of credibility back to the narrator, as it removes the idea that he’s unecessarily concerned with his own vanity and masculinity, and gives him some credibility in wanting a genuine relationship. But you know, that’s a bit boring.

 

 

 

 

Questions of Adaptation, Questions in Adaptation

My first piece of reading for this week was Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, “a contemporary retelling” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I actually picked this one up for Atwood rather than for Shakespeare; given my general unfamiliarity with The Tempest, I was about halfway through before I did my research and actually realised what I was reading.

Felix (“lucky, prosperous — hence, Prospero”) is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg festival who, after being wronged by his contemporaries, ends up in a situation where he ends up preparing for a performance of The Tempest at his local prison – with inmates instead of actors. Thus the dualistic narrative merges the play-within-the-play with the play-within-the-play-within-the-play to offer two different interpretations of The Tempest. The prison production of the play, with performances from such colourfully-monikered characters as 8Handz, WonderBoy and Bent Pencil, seems to favour an interpretation that The Tempest, to some extent, is an exploration of the baser impulses of humanity (blah blah blah) when left in microcosm. As part of their course requirements, Felix asks the prisoners to consider their roles within the play and, more tellingly, what they think will happen to their respective characters once the play has ended. Many of the prisoners envisage bleak fates for the play’s cast, mostly as a result of Caliban’s primeval tendencies and Prospero’s naivety in forgiving Alonso. This favours an interpretation of Caliban as no more than an anagram of “cannibal”, a colonized subject who, in the case, is cannibalizing his newfound society on the boat back to Milan. Another interesting interpretation, though, is the argument that Caliban is the child of Prospero – though the idea is unreasonable in a literal sense, it could be interpreted as a commentary on the way that lawlessness in modern society is a result of society’s own impositions – in the context of the novel, an argument that defunding prison programs serves only to make the prisoners less amenable to rehabilitation.

Elsewhere, Felix’s backstory is very hurriedly sketched out, and the story, on its own, is almost cliché. The characters in the book are, on the face of things, rather one-note and cartoonish. I’m convinced, though, that this is deliberate on Atwood’s part; the tale of Hag-Seed means infinitely more when read in conjunction and in comparison with The Tempest. One of Atwood’s cleverer tricks is the recurrence of Felix’s daughter Miranda, who died when she was three. Though her most obvious resemblance is to the Miranda of the text, Atwood gradually steers the reader towards seeing her as Ariel – her unseen existence is similar to the prisoners’ interpretation of Ariel – and a romance between two new characters who obviously fit the roles of Miranda and Ferdinand confirms this. The final lines of the main text and the epilogue mirror the ending of The Tempest, but in reverse; first Felix reflects that he has been “Set… free” by the performance, and then says thusly to his imagined Miranda: “to the elements / Be free”. Whereas at the end of The Tempest, Prospero finds himself in solitude and requires the audience to set him free, Felix’s isolation is ultimately self-imposed, but could arguably also represent an element of mercy, both for himself and his spirit-like daughter. But at the same time, he does expect Miranda to be watching, promising him the equivalent of “calm seas, auspicious gales / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / [His] royal fleet far off.”

It’s arguably more interesting to look at this interpretation not because of their implications in direct competition with the play, but outside of that. Shakespeare was content to leave the ending of The Tempest quite open-ended. But in Hag-Seed, the way in which Felix’s assignment asks us to go beyond this suggests a modern desire for answers even if it is narratively problematic. And like TV shows that go on too long with seemingly no prospect of ending, Shakespeare’s plays would be considerably weaker if they devolved into speculative fiction.

But Felix’s search for answers, given his deep personal connection with the play, is more of a soul-searching exercise than an actual interest in what happens. When he awards all teams of prisoners full marks for their explorations, we get the sense that he means it with a sort of unexpected sincerity. His desperation to know – to comfort himself – arguably reflects the modern obsession with answers, but the question remains of whether his character is diminished as a literary critic for this. Are we weaker because we, as modern readers, seek comfort in an ending?

Maybe not. Felix, unlike Prospero, is not pandering to an audience at the end. He has moved past that stage, and the world he lives in now is one that is not comfortable, but certain, and in a way, clichéd. He decides that he won’t bother with the Makeshiweg Festival anymore; his interpretation of The Tempest at the prison is the one he wanted to stage all along. It’s the sort of indulgent, hackneyed resolution that we’d come to expect – a basic plot of sorts – but at the same time, we’re glad of it, and arguably richer for it. And at the same time, as Felix realises that the actress Anne-Marie Greenland was his Miranda all along, and Miranda his willing-but-sometimes-not-willing Ariel, we don’t want to know any more.

From The Western Canon to… Um, Fifty Shades of Grey

Three things to note about this essay:

One, I’m not reading it for pleasure, but then, I doubt that many people do, and I don’t think Prof. Bloom would expect anyone to be. I’m sure he can appreciate the pragmatism of my using it as a text to enable me to know what I’m talking about when/if I head to university next year, though, and for the interviews that may come prior to that. So there’s a bit of honesty out of the way.

Two: I haven’t read the book entirely, or anywhere close to it, and I don’t intend to, since I haven’t read all of the authors it mentions anyway. But I’ve read the introduction and his opening “An Elegy for the Canon” – in a seemingly rare burst of humour, Bloom tells us that he’s not writing an elegy for the canon, and then, of course, proceeds to do exactly that with a kind of irritably sarcastic pessimism. I’ve also read most of the chapter on Milton – though I read it much too quickly and can’t remember a word of what he talked about there, so I’ll have to read this.

Three: I am completely out of my depth here; this is the first proper piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read – as a full text, rather than an extract – and whatever I say here will likely be refuted a thousand times within The Western Canon as I go forwards. And three, part two: I’m currently writing this in a coffee-fuelled haze, so there’s not much referencing going on. It’s more a gut reaction than something considered and well-thought-out and even as I write this, I don’t really know where I’m going to end up.

Fourth: a disclaimer of sorts. Prof. Bloom wrote this in 1994. I’m told that it’s a foremost work of literary criticism, but I don’t know how far it reflects his current views given that social and political situations are constantly changing.

So: first of all, we should look at Prof. Bloom’s definition of what the canon actually is. I think his extended metaphor of the canon as some sort of struggle for survival is very appropriate. “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read?” he asks (Bloom, 15). He says “who still desires” and “attempt” with a sort of blunt, disappointed and grandfatherly cynicism, as though he’s disappointed in us for even picking up the book in the first place. He continues this cynical tone as he derides the current state of English literary study, talking about disillusioned readers, old cigar-toting men in their smoky backrooms, who despair in terror since they “cannot be certain that fresh generations [of readers] will prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers” (16). I’m still not entirely sure whether he’s been satirical here; the ensuing paragraphs seem to suggest that this is definitively Bloom’s view, and one that he sympathises with very stronger, but the language is over-indulgent almost the point of parody.

What convinces me that Bloom is ultimately ‘being straight’ with us, though, is his statement that “it was a mistake to believe… literary criticism could become a basis for democratic education” (17). Bloom’s view on how English literature should be taught as a subject are somewhat inflammatory, at the very least; in sharp defiance of government programs introduced across the world throughout the early 21st century that advocate for “no child left behind”. Obviously, Bloom is talking about university study, not about taking Chaucer into a primary school, but nonetheless, I find it interesting to examine the extent of his prgamatism here. His quasi-Machiavellian rhetoric would be amusing if it weren’t so bloody cynical.

This, I think, is the issue I’ve had with Chapter 1 of The Western Canon; it’s a very presumptuous, holier-than-thou critique, and I couldn’t help but wonder Prof. Bloom is playing us all for suckers here. Later in the introduction he talks about Marxist theory, arguing against the notion that literature always has some society- or class-based motivation by stating that Milton would have never have “sacrifice[d]” Paradise Lost even if it meant vanquishing the titanic ideological foe he set out to destroy with his “pugnacious” poem (26). Maybe The Western Canon is just that; criticism written by Prof. Bloom for his own sake. Certainly judging from the introduction, it doesn’t seem particularly welcoming to a wider readership. But again, maybe that’s the point.

While I haven’t really enjoyed the book per se (thus far), I have definitely been intrigued by it. And one thing I can say for reading criticism is that it has convinced me that I made the right choice by choosing to pursue study of English and not History at university.

Anyway, moving on: my own personal thinking skews from discussion of the canon at present into thinking about its future, if there is a future at all. Bloom denies the view that literature will somehow improve society, tearing to shreds that jaded adage that “we study the past to better understand the present”, instead choosing to side with Oscar Wilde’s view that “art is perfectly useless” (16). While I don’t entirely disagree with this (talking in material terms, at least), I think it has its limitations. The canon, for me, is something with sociopolitical relevance at a particular point in time. Just as Milton’s Paradise Lost is a seminal work of 1660s England, there are seminal works of the 2000s and the 2010s. We just don’t know what they are yet.

Or do we? Let me propose something bold: the seminal work of the 2000s is… Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. True, you can’t impose any sort of real literary value on the novel, but maybe that’s because we’re stuck trying to appreciate modern art forms in an archaic way. Maybe the study of English Literature isn’t something with “no future” as Prof. Bloom says, just a little stuck in the past.

Literature has, to some extent, always reflected the society it is written in. And Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is something that reflects our modern society, where fan literature has, despite the best attempts of the grey-smoke men to stop it, has replaced literary fiction in the popular consciousness. And it is deluded to think that tomorrow’s literary scholars are somehow immune to this, that they are higher beings, and they only appreciate high art. They might not be entirely honest, but if you give a questionnaire to 100 students joining a Russell Group university, and ask them, have you read The Divine Comedy? Paradise Lost? Middlemarch? Nineteen Eighty-Four? there will be those of them who say “No,” every time. But Harry Potter? Hell yes. Every one of them will have read it, and if they haven’t, I’ll eat this hat.

Would it be better, then, if we were lectured on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and all our film courses showed was Michael Bay’s Transformers, and the seminal romance novel for university study was that cornerstone of fine literature, EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey? No. Of course it wouldn’t. And if I time-travelled 100 years into the future, I probably wouldn’t expect to see these novels and films being studied (with the possible exception of Harry Potter). But it’s worth considering what their legacy will be.

 

Of Wolves and Lions and Liars: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Unlike a lot of these books that just ‘fall into my lap’, Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies arrived in my arms through explicable circumstances. The Early Tudors was a big part of my AS History course last year, and I thought it would both be beneficial to keep up a sort of acquaintance with the period this year before I take my  A-Level exams. And at the same time, I wanted to look at ways in which English and History were interlinked, as I started reading Wolf Hall at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at university. Now, I am firmly committed to English, but it is interesting to look at this genre of fiction all the same. And I thought, clearly this Mantel lady is quite a good writer, because she’s managed to win the Booker Prize twice in a span of four years (for Wolf Hall in 2009, for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012). And it seems I was right. Alongside All The Light We Cannot See, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are two of my favourite books I’ve read this year.

So that’s my journey to Wolf Hall. But my journey to Wolf Hall, and beyond it, following the king’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was a bit less smooth. I’ve been reading these books since June, so it wasn’t exactly a fast read. That’s not because it’s boring or anything, but because unless one is extremely well-versed in their Tudor history, reading this novel requires a heck of a lot of jumping back and forth to family trees. You could argue that Mantel’s style exarcebates these problems; in a Guardian essay on her writing style from 2010, she informs, “first paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?” And indeed, we get the sense that Mantel has done a lot of editing to this aim. Personally, I like the style, though I think I’d be unable to imitate it myself, having been consumed by the fantasy genre’s addiction to relentless and often self-congratulatory descriptions of food and fires and stuff. At the same time, though, a chapter that opens with “So: Stephen Gardiner” is a bit jarring, especially to the uninitiated reader. In a way, though, I suppose this punchy writing style is the sort of thing that suits Cromwell, who, though a progressive reformist – and therefore, would be opposed to the unnecessarily romantic style that permeates the historical fiction of the past – isn’t a zealot obsessed with minimalism.

Mantel keeps a very close eye on Cromwell; her point-of-view is limited to the point where the pronoun “he”, at almost any point, can be assumed to refer to Cromwell. Again, it can be a little confusing, but when it works, it is very effective, an assurance that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are not simply novels treading the path of a thousand others. The novels are not about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the Dissolution, or even, really, Cromwell’s role in the legislative procedures of the Tudor court, but rather, the man himself: Thomas Cromwell, Cremuel, Tommaso, whatever you want to call him. Testament to this is the fact that, as a reader, I was never actually one-hundred-percent sure exactly what Cromwell does, but he’s always guaranteed to get results, learning all his best lessons from Wolsey’s failures. The contrast of Wolsey’s fall and his protégé’s rise is one of the most effective narrative choices Mantel made in Wolf Hall; it pits the two religious ideologies – progressivism and conservatism more than full-blown Protestantism and Catholicism – against one another, and assesses their respective failures and successes. But something which interested me more than the actual content of the novel is an idea that relates more broadly to historical fiction: the idea of the protagonist, and how their role co-exists alongside historical interpretations.

Obviously, with a novel so intently focused on one character, that vague and dreaded word “bias” is bound to come up. Well, all literature is biased to some extent; you’ll never find a completely impartial narrator. Mantel, at least, is subtle about her bias. She doesn’t promote Cromwell as the best thing since sliced bread; he is still quite an insidious character, and Cromwell, upon seeing the portrait painted of him by Hans Holbein in 1532, he remarks that he looks like “a murderer”. But more than that, Cromwell doesn’t refute this. The years he spent abroad in Italy and France are mentioned through the form of anecdotes, but the tale of ‘how Thomas Cromwell came to be’ is never really considered in depth.

One might argue that Mantel’s bias presents itself less as a sickly-sweet promotion of Cromwell and more as a criticism of Thomas More. Cromwell, then, is to some extent the lesser of two evils, and representative of a progressive form of Protestantism against a form of comfortable luxury propagated by More. It’s important not to forget that Cromwell, though certainly not a champion of the people, is still a man of the people. The differences are especially apparent in a dinner scene at More’s house, where More insists in having conversation in Latin in spite of, and implicitly because, his wife Alice cannot understand the language. Though this might not be so opprobrious in historical context, as Mary Volmer argues in the slugline of her 2016 essay, “historical fiction is never solely about the past”. To the modern reader, this is a striking example of More’s socially regressive behaviour, one which aligns us firmly in the Cromwell camp given the natural modern opposition to rigid gender roles. Of course, Mantel’s audience is not so one-dimensional to believe that an adherence to 1530s gender politics equates directly to modern sexism; we understand that More is ultimately making a stand for conservatively Christian values, which he sees as threatened by Cromwell within England and the likes of Tyndall and Martin Luther without. More’s vision, described in Utopia, is for a separation of the sexes in accordance with their defined roles; in church, “the two sexes are separated, the men go to the right hand, and the women to the left”. A reader might observe that women are sent to the sinistra (sinister) side of life, but that is not entirely relevant here: readers need only understand that More’s views are not exactly revolutionary. But instead of heaping praise on the saint for sticking to his convictions all throughout his time in prison, as previous literary figures have done, Mantel presents More as being so caught up in the idea of his own conscience that he is unable to follow his contemporary Thomas Cromwell in trying to establish a better England. He’s self-flagellatory not solely because he believes in self-flagellation, but because – in a vaguely Trump-esque fashion – he needs to demonstrate that he believes in self-flagellation. She presents him as so caught up in his own pride – and hence, hypocrisy from a Christian perspective – that he lacks entirely in any form of hindsight.

And for the modern reader, More’s prejudices are exacerbated in comparison with the Cromwell household, a place of relative religious and social relaxation, teeming with nephews and cousins and painters and fools. This, ultimately, is what Mantel does so well. She is as aware of her modern readership as she is of 1530s England where the novel is set.  As Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill (which I am currently reading), says in a 2016 Guardian editorial, “narrative requires a harmonious development of mood… [and] a shape that history may not obligingly provide.” So while Mantel sticks to the history we all know, she frames it in such a way as to evoke feelings of sympathy for Cromwell at his wife and daughters’ death, before taking him to an even lower ebb with Wolsey’s long-awaited demise, and then, from that rock-bottom foundation, she urges the reader to watch him rise. And we get behind him, because he manages to convince us that he has our concerns at heart, and because, in a court obsessed with empty, overblown courtesies such as Monseigneur,  there’s a certain honest reality in Cromwell’s snide sense of humour and not-entirely-honest honesty. Mantel doesn’t need to make Cromwell a good person; she just needs to make him the protagonist. Yes, he might still be a shady guy who lurks in alleyways and will happily bribe and murder his way to the top, but he has a heart, or so it seems, and a certain self-awareness of his situation. There’s the sense that any moment now, he might turn to face us á la Francis Underwood: “Oh, don’t deny it,” he’ll say, “you’ve loved every second of this.”

Offred, Productivity Figures In Gilead, and the Misogynistic Dinosaur In The Room: The Handmaid’s Tale

I think, on my first reading of The Handmaid’s Tale, that I suffered from inflated expectations. Not in the sense that I expected it to be better, but I expected it to be more, in some way. The character of Offred – anonymous in her rebellion (at least in the novel), and just one among many – is ultimately powerless. This isn’t something that naturally sits well with us as readers. In the monotony of the modern world, we have a dire need for a protagonist who speaks out for something, who does something. I’m tetchy about coming back to the Katniss allegory, but one of the things that makes the YA genre so popular is that it takes ‘one of us’ and turns them into something so much more. We have an innate need to see our heroes and heroines being just that: heroic.

You could argue that this interpretation is unfounded. The Handmaid’s Tale, plainly, is not written for the same audience as The Hunger Games. It deals with a struggle of free will that goes far beyond the confines of ‘just another dystopian novel’. I found it a refreshing experience, actually, to have a dystopian story that was more about the day-to-day grind of life under an oppressive regime than about the vast political machine itself: the latter often being a vast, impersonal organisation full of proto-Robespierre characters.

Still, Offred’s lack of ‘active heroism’ is a bit unconventional. Indeed, she is, for the most part of the novel, taken along for the ride by the Commander and by Ofglen, whose attempt at grandiose rebellion culminates in her suicide. Ofglen succeeds in a way by taking back her own independence, but this is the bitter sort of victory which Atwood writes about so well. Her particular breed of heroism seems a path to self-destruction.

Conversely, Offred’s acts of small-scale resistance result in an ending that is, at the very least, sort of ambiguous. Personally I – along with most readers, I hope – like to think that Offred did make it to wherever the hell she was going instead of being industrially destroyed in the machine of Gilead, but the fact is that the ambiguity of her ending is one which has the potential to be much better than Ofglen’s, but also potentially much worse. But maybe that’s the point. With active heroics, you know what you’re going to get: victory or defeat. With the breed of Offredism, you’re not quite sure where things are going, and the likelihood is that she, like so many of these twentieth-century small heroes (I saw parallels to Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five, for example) is going to be just swept along by fate.

The interesting thing about Offred is that she tries to delude us otherwise. She’s – at the risk of sounding cliché – a deliciously snide protagonist, and her quiet, simmering rebellion is good to read, but the whole thing does have a slight undercurrent of falsehood. Though she doesn’t try to present her life before Gilead as being some sort of perfect paradise, her general vagueness in… well, pretty much everything, occasionally arouses suspicion. I don’t think Offred was a particularly good person before the war, or even anything close to that. But then again, as Atwood sardonically asks us, who is?

The problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is that all of its characters are massively enigmatic to the point of ceasing to exist, on some personal level. Instead of being people, they are Handmaids, Wives, Marthas, Aunts, Commanders, Angels… and Nick, whose title I forget. Offred manages to convince us that somehow we know everything about her, when the reality is that we know next to nothing. And even when the novel ends, it all feels so hollow and pointless. This is the point of the ambiguous, hugely unsatisfying ending, of course. And though the afterword thingy tells us that the Republic Gilead eventually dissolved, it’s almost certainly not due to the efforts of Offred.

On Gilead: the Commander says something about the Republic having made life better for the majority of people. Since we’re limited to Offred’s point-of-view, we’re never able to verify this, so the prevailing wisdom would be that this is just one of those ‘for the greater good’ speeches, and that Gilead’s leaders are as corrupt as Robert Mugabe. But at the same time, there is an ambiguity that exists, because when you look it on paper, and remove human emotion from the equation completely, Gilead is the perfect solution to cope with this sort of fertility disaster. Yes, the system is completely barren of humanity, but if you assume that everyone performs their tasks exactly as the system intends them to, and does nothing beyond that – not so much as an independent thought – it doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all. Which is to say that the Gilead system is a horrific breach of basic human rights on nearly every level, but it works… doesn’t it? We can all be with God, so long as we’re willing to sell our humanity to the devil… or something like that.

Hmm.

Review: Red Rising (Series), by Pierce Brown

It’s been a while since I last read a YA novel, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) has reminded me exactly what I like and dislike about the genre. Obviously (and at the risk of sounding very pretentious), the trilogy is no great intellectual test, much as it harbours occasional illusions of being such. But in terms of being something that, to use the unfortunate cliché, is “a real page-turner”, you can’t get much better than this. And so, to offer a quick response, Red Rising is something I would read again, but only in the near-impossible event that I had nothing better to read.

The front cover offers up an interesting quotation: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow”, the latter referring to Darrow of Lykos, the protagonist of Brown’s series. Unfortunately, I have to dispute this. Much like the book he’s contained within, Darrow is a lot of fun to read about, but he comes across as weirdly flat. And even then, Ender and Katniss seem like strange company to place him. Loath as I am to say it, Orson Scott Card managed a nigh-impossible feat in Ender Wiggin, creating a strange, oddly punchable not-really-hero in a place where a hero was needed. And Katniss, as generic as she might be on the surface, has a certain tragic brilliance to her character. Darrow, on the other hand, is a “full-blooded American hero” with the occasional twinges of conscience that don’t feel as much a part of his character as they are just things Brown decided he should probably put in to give his series a bit of emotional nuance. Which is odd, considering that his story is one that perfectly suits a battle of tragic moral conscience. Unfortunately, Darrow the Gold is a bit more lively than Darrow the Red, so the latter tends to get drowned out.

Luckily, he’s saved by a life-raft of half a dozen fantastic secondary characters. One of my favourite things about Red Rising, is that though Darrow is central to the action, the Reaper is no Mockingjay. He has something that vaguely resembles Katniss’s press and make-up team, but unlike in The Hunger Games, a lot of the supporting cast stand up by themselves. Brown could have written this story from the viewpoint of Mustang, or Cassius, or even Sevro, and it would have been nearly as interesting – though, of course, Darrow’s Red subplot would be cast aside in favour of other storylines. There’s definitely room for a side novella here and there.

Darrow’s problems as a character are somewhat symptomatic of the novel’s problems as a whole. Brown is, on the whole, quite heavy-handed, both in terms of style and the impact of what he writes. The sentences are sharp and weighty, and this style translates itself well in the action scenes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well in the sequences where he tries to convince himself that Red Rising has a serious intellectual purpose. These sections are few and far between, and sometimes they work, but they’re usually communicated in such a ham-fisted way that they aren’t fit for anything except being plastered on a T-shirt. Or maybe Brown does know this, and he’s mocking us. Roque, the archetypal warrior-poet, speaking entirely in classical allusions, seems to be a caricature of a ‘high society’ stereotype. (Not that this diminishes Roque, though; he’s one of the best characters in the series.) Indeed, Gold as a whole is a strange, hyper-conservative faction which insists on stealing from the ‘glorious past’ – which they themselves destroyed – to build a new Roman Empire in space.

Of the three novels, Red Rising is probably the weakest, largely due to an early-middle section where nothing very much seems to be happening. But at the same time, its first five chapters are very strong. “On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” And I’m sold. Just like that. A side note: this shows how effective Brown’s punchy writing can be. But if you had to read this for a whole novel, you’d get irritated quickly. Bloodydamn quickly. Another weakness in the first novel is the disconnect between the opening, with the Reds, and the latter part with the Golds, but this division remains manageable – though it is a bit more problematic in Morning Star, where Darrow seems to forget his birth family altogether.

Golden Son was a very different experience. My gut reaction is that I enjoyed this one most, probably for the way it brought all our main characters together on one side of the war, expanded on the Golds – who, despite their prejudices, are by far the most complex of the colors – and for the brilliant ending that isn’t at all what you’d expect from YA. However, in retrospect, it’s a bit thin on the ground in terms of having any actual themes. At least it wasn’t Catching Fire, though.

Morning Star is the strongest of the three novels in terms of a character arc for Darrow; I liked how the whole Mustang and Eo situation resolved itself with a decision that had consequences for the entirety of the war, instead of just being a fairly unexciting internal battle. But again, parts of Morning Star showcase the very weakest parts of Brown’s writing. I’m going to have to indulge in a bit of hypocrisy here, because I’ve done this in my own writing, but there’s a particularly irritating stylistic quirk of his where he withholds information from the reader, recurrent from Golden Son, where, during a fight with Cassius au Bellona, Darrow suddenly reveals that he’s been taught in secret by the Society’s very own Mr. Miyagi, and is now an international assassin. Surprise! There are a few other things like this that get on my nerves.

Once again, I think this is a review that sounds far more critical than it actually is. I did enjoy Red Rising, or whatever this series is called, and found it to be something of a comfort read – probably a strange sentiment, considering the amount of blood and murder in this series, but a comfort read doesn’t necessarily need to be all happy-go-lucky, just something that can be read without having your brain ache too much.