Today is both the first day of a new month and World Book Day (and also a day where I don’t have any mock exams going on) so I figured it would be appropriate to try and get back to this blog, which has been somewhat maligned over the last three months. The long and short of things was that I was oscillating between exhaustion (in December) stress (in January) and apathy (in February), so it was a little difficult finding my way back to the blog. Nonetheless, I have been kept fairly busy.
I think I’ve decided that The Arbitrary Library is now more of a literary review than anything else. I never really envisioned this blog as being a place where I’d discuss personal matters too much, but the original scope was to talk about life, the universe and everything – all done arbitrarily, as the title may suggest.
While the arbitrary, out-of-the-box concepts are becoming less and less frequent, I will say that some things will likely remain arbitrary. Even if my posts start to get more regular, I don’t expect to adopt a concrete schedule – this blog is something that will hopefully fit into my life, but it is not the centre of it.
But enough of this. Without further ado, updates for the last few months.
This was a very exciting month for me, but also an incredibly stressful one, to the extent that, impossible as it may seem, I sort-of forgot that Christmas was a thing. Those of you who read my November posts may have noticed a sort of strained formality in them. The truth was that I was using them as practise essays of a sort, ahead of my Oxford interview. I’ve always found that I communicate a lot more fluently through my writing than when I speak aloud, so I thought that actually writing down my ideas about the things I had read would help me when it came to interview. Plus, I can now confidently walk around telling people with no interest in Paradise Lost that “Milton was of the devil’s party and did not know it.”
Anyway, this apparently, paid off, as I now have a conditional place to study in Oxford in October 2018, at my first-choice college – which will remain mysteriously nameless for now, but I imagine you’ll be hearing about it if things go according to plan.
After interviews, I managed to sort-of sleep my way through to Christmas, and out the other side of New Year. I can’t say I actually did a huge amount of reading that month, but there were two big Netflix events that I revelled in. The first was Season 2 of The Crown. If people ask me about The Crown, I’ll generally say that I’m not massively interested in the story, but I do think it is a masterclass of technical craftsmanship, with some very good writing, directing, and acting, and quite possibly the very best production design in the TV business. It’s wonderfully opulent, and though its stories can be a bit hit-and-miss – I thought “Marionettes”, “Vergangenheit” and “Paterfamilias” were excellent, but found “Matrimonium” massively tedious – there is no denying that it all looks magical on screen.
The second Netflix event was Season 4 of Black Mirror. I thought this offering by Charlie Brooker was somewhat tamer than the first three seasons, but not necessarily weaker. I considered “USS Callister” to be the best episode of the season, with “Hang the DJ” a close second, but neither of them had either the unexpected beauty of “San Junipero” or the escalating horror of “White Christmas”, which still remain my two favourites. I worry that Black Mirror is losing the surprise factor that made it so originally startling, as while “ArkAngel” and “Crocodile” both had novel concepts, their plots fell apart – possibly telling us that we’ve gotten accustomed to what BM has to offer. Is that necessarily a bad thing?
I have defended “Metalhead” against criticism that it might just be the worst thing ever on more than one occasion. I thought it was a brilliant example of what can be done with a back-to-basics mentality, and I’m tempted to say that the Black Mirror-esque concept we’re supposed to consider here is not so much the contents of the episode itself, but the meta of the series. (I might cover this in a future post: if there’s any BM episode that I might make a commentary on, it’s probably this one.)
(And the less said about “Black Museum”, the better.)
Of course, there was a third TV event, served up by the BBC, amid the festive trimmings: Doctor Who, and Peter Capaldi’s departure in “Twice Upon a Time”. I’m still somewhat conflicted over this episode, as while I liked what it stood for, I have to admit that I wanted something a bit more explosive, with a bit more physical power behind it. I think there’s a very valid argument that the beauty of “Twice Upon a Time” is in its understatement, and some of the very best Doctor Who episodes succeed at this (see “Listen”) – but… you know, it just wasn’t for me in this case. That being said, I loved the ending, and am excited to see what Jodie Whittaker brings.
I only read one book between January 1 to January 31. Granted, it was Tolstoy’s War and Peace, so I reckon that can be excused somewhat. Nonethless, reading it hasn’t stood me in good stead for my task of reading 52 books this year.
I’m not sure how suitable War and Peace is for any sort of analysis, because I don’t think I’m capable of the task of reading through it again to get a better idea of what is going on in there. Currently I’m progressing through the BBC series (available on Netflix, at least in the UK), going over everything again, but at the same time, I’m going about this very slowly as I’m not sure I actually want to go through it again, so soon.
I have decided, somewhat boringly, that Pierre is my favourite character in the novel, but considering his character basically undergoes the entire human experience in those 1300 pages, it’s not really that surprising. But at the same time, there are laudable qualities in a lot of War and Peace’s characters. I have a grudging respect for both Prince Andrei and his father, in their steadfast devotion to duty, even if it their implementation of those duties leaves something to be desired. I think Princess Marya is a character deserving of both pity and awe at her absolute obliviousness to her own personal talents. For some reason I intensely disliked Sonya for the first half of the novel – “oh look, Sonya’s getting in the way again” – but then I realised that in the face of her sad, heroic sacrifice, this was completely unreasonable.
War and Peace isn’t actually a hard novel to read, and maybe that’s what makes it so praiseworthy. Whereas you can easily be snarled up in the intricacies of Middlemarch (more on this later), Tolstoy is clear, crisp, and (laugh if you want) concise, in a way. Except when it comes to his theory of history, where I mostly read the SparkNotes.
When I think of War and Peace, the old reviewer’s cliche of “a richly woven tapestry of a novel” comes to mind, but is then subverted. War and Peace is not a richly woven tapestry; it is one of threadbare simplicity, done on a massive scale, which has been torn apart by some calamity, and only barely remains together in fragile equilibrium. I am convinced that if Tolstoy had written more about his theory of history, if he had thrown in a couple more characters, his novel would have fallen to pieces. War and Peace is stretched as far as it can go, and shows the symptoms, feeling a little tired and drawn-out in places. But for the most part, the effect is one which allows you to take a tiny piece of that tapestry, follow its interweaving threads, and clearly see how it forms part of the whole.
I read Crime and Punishment, continuing my impromptu “classic Russian literature” theme. I think Dostoevsky is a better writer than Tolstoy, but a less compelling storyteller. That being said, I am yet to read The Brothers Karamazov, generally considered his best work, so I will reserve my opinion in the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky debate for now. For what its worth, I enjoyed Crime and Punishment considerably, but I think it is a little drab next to War and Peace.
On to the next novel, which I considered to be my second “big event” of the year after War and Peace, and my proper introduction to Victorian lit: George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch.
I loathe this book. Genuinely, passionately loathe it.
The frustrating thing is that I consider Middlemarch to be a very good book, objectively. Even from the opening, I can tell that Eliot is accomplished in the field of social commentary. The prose… is functional, I guess. But it is woefully dry, a great Sahara of a novel. Unlike Jane Austen, Eliot’s voice is only humorous in the same way that academic in-jokes are. Unlike Pride and Prejudice‘s compelling protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke is a complete failure resulting from functionality being elevated miles above personality. The same goes for Celia Brooke, Mr. Casaubon, George Vincy: none of them are relatable in the slightest, and consequently I find it impossible to care one bit about anything that happens to the sorry lot of them. Now, since I have not read the entirety of Middlemarch (though I will probably be forced into it at some point since every university syllabus seems to have it as a required text), I may be ill-positioned to make a commentary on it. But for me, reading this novel was about as exciting as a clinical procedure. The “I love Middlemarch” club, and the numerous #1 positions it wins on lists of great English novels will remain a mystery to me. In the end I gave up and decided to read Pride and Prejudice as a replacement, which is an excellent novel.
On a more positive note, I have made a fair bit of headway on the new book – or, should I say, the old book – because I’ve been writing it on-and-off in some form for at least the last two years. And we finally have a title that is somewhat more than tentative – “The Book of the Drowned”. I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going, though.