Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Alright, I give up

I surrender. I can't read. I'm in the middle of a most compelling chapter in a most excellent book called Howl's Moving Castle and my brain has skidded to a halt. It doesn't like words anymore (except for Villa Negativa's recent dream about the Twilight film, which I suggest you all read) and so I've given up fighting for the moment. It's over, but hopefully not for the long term.

In the meantime, I've finally "read" Shaun Tan's incomparable book The Arrival - because it has absolutely no words and an abundance of ridiculously beautiful drawr-ings. My god, I love this book! I'm a bit angry with myself for taking so long (at least a year it's been in my possession) to get to it.

The Arrival is a story of immigrants and the magic (both benevolent and malign) that metaphorically, and sometimes literally, defines the experience of starting over in an alien new place. The pictures in this book made me intensely interested in living inside Shaun Tan's brain for a while; he seems to see the world in a much more beautiful, sometimes painfully beautiful, way than I do. Here's one drawing from the book, apart from its perfectly gorgeous cover:


And here's the link to Tan's web site, ShaunTan.net.

So, yeah. I'm not sure what happens next, or how long this non-reading shit storm will continue. I'll try to get a Curious/Creepy in to distract us all. After that, well, I don't know. Maybe I'll have found the cure by then.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

I couldn't leave right now if I wanted to

And I sort of do really want to, but there's no way out and nowhere to go with my hubby and our 7 fur babies.

Let me explain. The G20 is in Toronto this weekend. My shop and apartment are halfway between the official protest site and the security fence. The weekend's biggest planned protest began about 3.5 hours ago and while it began peacefully, it's since degenerated into violence with looting, rioting, and a lot of destruction. I am less than 0.5 km on every side from the chaos and sitting in the eye of the proverbial storm. My street is quiet but I can hear the screaming, and a lot of sirens. I have friends who live even closer to the chaos, and one who is trying to get home from work now to care for his beasties who must be terrified by the noise that is literally on his doorstep now as militants and riot police clash. And to close the windows, I'm guessing, if tear gas is released. Which it may well be; last I'd heard, the cops had donned their gas masks and etc.

What I find saddest about this shit storm, at this point anyway, is that real issues that need to be addressed and which peaceful protesters were trying to address, will likely be ignored and discredited because some thugs decided to take over.

Oh, and that hospitals are in lock-down.

Live blogs of what's happening:
The Toronto Star
Torontoist

Note how much more optimistic than the Star blogger the Torontoist blogger is. I don't know what to make of that - location?

Oh, and apparently the tear gas has been used now.

The photo above is from The Toronto Star online.

Friday, 25 June 2010

A blip, nothing more

I think treating YA lit as medicine for what ails me has generally been the right choice - The Graveyard Book was really enjoyable and Howl's Moving Castle, my current read, is proving to be as well. My interim choice, however, was a big fat fail.

I read David Almond's Skellig about a year and a half ago and loved it in spite of its obvious attempts at emotional manipulation; I was thus fairly certain that another of Almond's books could be counted among the reliable. Wrong. Wrong. I was willing to forgive the terrible title - Heaven Eyes - and the cringe-worthy cover but I shouldn't have - both reflect the damp and spongy schlock between the covers.

I like the idea of the book - three orphans run away from their orphanage together (well, float away, on a homemade raft. Note to David Almond: if George Eliot can't make that work, no one can) and end up finding an abandoned warehouse with a girl (like them, at some stage in her teens) named Heaven Eyes and Grandpa, her guardian. Grandpa is senile and crazily protective of Heaven Eyes, and Heaven Eyes has webbed feet and hands, is strangely innocent, and perhaps not to be considered among the intellectually gifted. Alright, this doesn't sound like a good idea at all. I take it back; my bad. But like I said, Skellig was really good. You blind-sided me with your shit, Almond! Damn your eyes!

Really, the problem was not the idea of this book but rather the execution. For one thing, in Heaven Eyes, we don't meet characters, we meet clich├ęs. The three main characters - Erin, January, and Mouse - are your basic orphan stock types, alternately angry and just aching to be loved with no nuances in between or beyond. Especially clich├ęd was the orphanage director, who was a broken-hearted (because childless) woman named Maureen who couldn't decide if she wanted to either destroy or save her wards. Yawn.

But Heaven Eyes. Lord, why don't you smite your enemies to good writing? Your ways are mysterious. Heaven Eyes, fish girl, is supposed to be the epitome of sweet innocence; like I said, she also seems to be developmentally challenged. That would all be good and well if Almond had anything, anything, in his rhetorical arsenal to make this clear besides the god-damned verb "to giggle". Heaven Eyes says sweet and innocent things in messed up syntax and diction (which is entirely inexplicable as she was raised by an adult who appears to have had a full working life amongst other normal humans), and she 95% of the time follows them up by giggling. Really, Almond, really? That fatuous, un-mellifluous, over-used word was the only one you could think to (over-)use to make it clear that Heaven Eyes is a bit slow but super, super nice?

I don't think it's unreasonable to demand that professional authors possess and display a hold on the language that is superior to your average grade 11 student's. I don't care what anyone says, but a story isn't - can't - be a really phenomenal story if the writing is either only merely adequate or downright offensive. Luckily, there are people like Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones to save our childers (and myself) from completely drowning in a sea of semi-literate and undeservedly* self-indulgent shit.

*Some authors, I believe, are sufficiently talented to be entirely forgiven for extreme self-indulgence, e.g., Orhan Pamuk.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Not end of days...but perhaps middle-to-late afternoon of days?

The reader's block persists; it's wearing me down in spite of all my efforts to resist. Having successfully gotten through Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, I was surprised and disheartened yesterday to find myself reacting nothing less than allergically to the other YA novels I'd picked up. I will try them again because I'm not ready to cede the win to the reader's block just yet.

Indeed, I brought out a different sort of big gun in this battle between my desires and my recalcitrant brain: I re-read another of my all-time favourite Renaissance plays, Francis Beaumont's (and perhaps, also, John Fletcher's*) The Knight of the Burning Pestle (a total failure on the stage in 1607; first published 1613).

It really doesn't get much funnier than The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Ostensibly a city comedy, the fourth wall is broken by a Citizen and his Wife within the first ten lines, and they proceed to direct the play's action till the end; their primary artistic contribution is ensuring that their grocer's apprentice, Rafe, be given a central role.

Rafe is addicted to romances and quests and his intrusions fit very awkwardly and hilariously with the fairly straightforward Rom-Com being performed by the "real" actors. I recall sitting in my little grad student office at Queen's laughing my head off while re-reading this for my comps; I also recall walking by the little grad students offices of other young Renaissance scholars laughing their heads off as they re-read this play for their comps. It's the most utterly original, charming, and gutsy thing going in early 17th-century drama.

As it's a parody, though, I think you need to read the mainstream stuff first to really appreciate it. Except for the part when Rafe delivers his death speech "with a forked arrow through his head" because the Wife has demanded that he "come out and die"; you'll love that regardless of what you do or do not know about Beaumont's (and possibly Fletcher's) contemporaries.

Now, the problem is this: I love this play. It's perfect and brilliant and if someone put on a production of it in Toronto, I'd probably have to offer to bear their child. But this reader's block is getting so bad that I had trouble getting through even this. I suppose I could just give up, and stop trying to read for awhile...but what would I do? I don't know what to do without books; that's not hyperbole - I don't know what to do when I'm not reading, not for more than an hour or two at a time anyway.

Is it the tension in the air?
I don't know, could be; I always thought of myself as a "read to escape when necessary" sort of person but perhaps that's changed. Or maybe it's just the all around weirdness of everything right now. The ongoing bookshop building drama goes on. The G20 summit is in Toronto this weekend and our shop/apartment is located directly and exactly between the official protest site and the fenced of hyper-security zone; gangs of bike cops are everywhere, looking at everyone suspiciously; the protests have begun early and I heard a fair bit of yelling this afternoon.

Then, of course, there was an earthquake here today; a minor one, but still - W T flying F? This is middle-coast, not west coast. And now there's a possibility of tornadoes?!? Some have already touched down in more rural areas. I'm about as calm as a Mexican jumping bean double espresso sugar cookie, I swear.

So, we're closing the shop for the weekend and battening down the hatches. Hopefully, I'll be able to read to help pass the time...

*It was believed for a long time, and beginning in the 17th century, that The Knight of the Burning Pestle was co-authored; more recent scholarship tends towards attributing sole authorship to Beaumont.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Perhaps this is what summer reading can mean to me even now

Friends, I continue my battle with my own brain and its attempt to disallow me my favourite thing in the world: reading. I've taken some very much appreciated blogular advice and am not even trying to read anything but the lightest of light, fun stuff (which, for me, tends to translate as children's and YA lit).

I've begun with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and it turns out that was a damned fine idea. What a delightful book! A lot of story, some nice pictures to accompany courtesy of Dave McKean, and the crackly, taped-on Broadart covering the book (because it's from the library). All these things together provided me with the superexcellent reading experience I needed.

(Who else associates the sound and feel of a hardcover library book wrapped in plastic with the halcyon days of their childhood summer reading? It just makes me feel so...young...in the best possible way.)

In case you don't know or trust Neil Gaiman sufficiently to just read every damned thing he's written, The Graveyard Book is about a young boy who escapes his intended murder at the hands of a bad and mysterious man named Jack; the rest of the boy's family doesn't escape, unfortunately. The boy (later to become known as Nobody Owens; Bod, for short) toddles off, unaware of the danger he's in, to a nearby cemetery where he's protected by the local inhabitants who most people can't see. He's given Freedom of the Graveyard which means that, besides growing up with a family of ghosts, he possesses some of their powers and freedoms. It's grim, spooky, and fun; Gaiman never lets things get too dark for, I think, he can't forget just how good reading a crackly library book should be.

If this summary which doesn't spoil anything doesn't convince you, the first line should: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." Simple. Perfect.

I have several more hardcover, Broadart-bound, crackly, YA novels from the library to choose from next and they all look so good that I don't know where to begin. In any case, I hope I'll manage to do some of this reading in a park somewhere. A crackly library book in the grass with the sun sneaking its way to me through the branches of the trees above? The circle will be complete.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The state of the book in Toronto, late on a sweaty Saturday night

If someone were to do a fancy pants interview with me about reading and ask me about my favourite unknown book I would, without hesitation, name Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket. Set in post-Apartheid South Africa, The Restless Supermarket tells the story of retired proof-reader Aubrey Tearle witnessing his world (Hillbrow, Johannesburg) changing in the most dramatic of ways.

Aubrey's kind of racist, he's prim and uptight, and he loves proof-reading. He's one of the most interesting characters I've encountered. Of course, he couldn't be all these things simultaneously if it weren't for the fact that Vladislavic is a brilliant writer. It doesn't seem like a promising premise, I know, and yet the character and the place and how they're connected are completely irresistible. Also, the Proof-Reader's Derby, a long text our man creates to test his companions' proof-reading skills, is one of the funniest things I've ever read; never mind that I missed at least 3/4 of the introduced errors.

So, given that I'm teetering on the reader's block abyss, it seemed a perfect time to return to Vladislavic, especially as a friend of mine gifted me a copy of his novel The Exploded View a few months ago. The Exploded View comprises four loosely related stories, all describing middle-aged men in Johannesburg trying to negotiate the alien, complex, and ever-changing city they find themselves in. All are solitary in some essential way and all speak languages (primarily metaphorical) that makes sense to few others. The writing is superb.

But I wasn't blown away by The Exploded View. I suspect this is a case, mostly, of the right book at the wrong time. As you know, I'm having trouble concentrating, but I think I may have found a solution (touch wood) after getting a tip from Biblibio. Today, I stocked up on YA novels and the first, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, is turning out to be real good medicine for me. But concentration isn't entirely to blame for my distressingly lukewarm response to The Exploded View; I just couldn't help comparing it to The Restless Supermarket, and finding it to be somewhat lacking. I wanted more time with any one of the four primary characters to really get into the depths of things...and while I respect Vladislavic's decision to show that isolation may be rather more universal than not in the new South Africa, I didn't find it entirely enjoyable.

That said, if I come across more Vladislavic when I'm in a better head space, I'll jump at the chance to read it.

Book-selling news, or, God dammit!
So, I think I've mentioned that we're having some building problems where our bookshop is housed. The long and short of it is, the back room (which currently holds about 6,000 books) needs to have its floor ripped up so the foundation, which is pretty much gone, can be rebuilt. We have to empty that room entirely, both of books and shelves. Apparently, this will take about a month and we'll have to be closed for significant portions of that month. This will likely happen in the summer, which is our must lucrative time of year. Our lease is up in October. Hubby wants to renew while I'm inclined towards cutting and running. I'm happy to have to tried it out; indeed, giving it a shot was all I'd ever insisted upon, so letting it go wouldn't kill me. That's how I feel today anyway.

But I feel this way (the cutting and running part), at least a little, because Toronto is not kind to its bookstores; all signs point to this being a losing game, culturally speaking. Queen St. West, once a mecca of new and independent shops, is almost empty (of bookshops; it's full of things like The Gap and Lush and Starbucks). Book City on Queen W. closed this month while the iconic and perfect Pages Books & Magazines closed last August because of obscene rent increases (and the space is still empty, damn those greedy landlords in their black, black hearts). And now, the equally iconic This Ain't The Rosedale Library is in a world of trouble, as I just discovered on the interwebs. And sometimes, I think I'll go mad if I hear one more person say that a novel, which I'm selling at half its original cover price, is too expensive. Sigh.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The twitchiness preceding full-on reader's block

So, yeah. I've abandoned The Summer of Genji and feel like a total loser for it, but The Tale of Genji is really not the sort of book I'm up for right now. I suppose most people's lives slow down somewhat in the summer, although mine does just the opposite (gotta love those bookstore tourists), but that's not really why I'm not up for a 1000+ page, 11th-century Japanese court drama. I'm just too tired. Too much is happening that is making close concentration impossible.

Right now, I want and need books with no more than five major characters. I want wide margins and print that isn't very small. A novel that's not too long would also be nice; when experiencing that fatal combination of fatigue, reader's block and blogger's block, the more books that can be sped through the better. I want either irresistible writing (like what I'm reading now - The Exploded View) or a damned fine plot, but preferably both, obviously. If you can recommend books that fit some or all of these parameters and aren't penned by Banana Yoshimoto, I would be grateful.

My first such book of the summer was the eighth Brother Cadfael medieval murder mystery, The Devil's Novice. There are 20+ novels in this series but I'm already beginning to feel nervous about running out; I've never come across a set of books so reliable. Yes, I know that Peters/Pargeter wrote many more books not in this series, but the medievalism forms a great deal of the attraction for me. It's crazy, but even though Cadfael's compatriots are hardly more spiritually transcendent than your average bear, reading these books make the cloistered life seem shockingly appealing to me. It's really quite disturbing, but in a very pleasant and homey way.

But as to The Devil's Novice specifically, this novel tells the story of a young man entered into Cadfael's monastery quite abruptly and under cover of darkness one night by a father who refuses to kiss him when they part. It soon comes out that, not coincidentally at all, another young man (Peter Clemence) taking a message to some northern landlords from a bishop working on restoring peace to the country, has gone missing from the young man and his father's home.

The book focuses on young Meriet Aspey's ill-fated attempts to adapt himself to a cloistered life when he clearly doesn't belong there, and Cadfael and sheriff Hugh Beringar's attempts first to find the emissary and then to discover his murderer once his body has been found. It took me quite awhile to begin to even suspect who the murderer turned out to be, which is good. Much more satisfying, however, was Peters' close pairing of this local murder with the entire country's precarious political situation - the novel is set in 1140, during a bitter battle between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the throne. That's all I'll say, for I wouldn't want to spoil things too much for anyone.

As always, Peters soothed and wooed me with her excellent story-telling; The Devil's Novice really helped stave off an aggressive case of reading block which seemed on the verge of engulfing me. It's not completely at bay yet either. Dramatic language, yes, but reading to me is absolutely crucial to my happiness. I could give up many pleasures, pastimes, and forms of mental engagement but it would be too awful to contemplate not reading. And yet, I am somehow, at least once a year, afflicted with a twitchy and uncomfortable inability to find almost anything I want to read, never mind having the ability to concentrate. Do any of you suffer from reader's block or the threat thereof? If so, how do you overcome it?

And to confirm your sense of me as a drama queen, here's a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Yes, I am comparing books to fickle and coy lovers, damn them.
"They Flee from Me", Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Date night!

Hubby took me on a date tonight which included attending a reading by and a discussion with Irish author Roddy Doyle at a local arts centre. Doyle has a new book out, The Dead Republic, which I did not buy; it's the third book in The Last Roundup trilogy, the first of which (A Star Called Henry) I just laid my hands on (and got your man to sign tonight).

So, a reading and a signing. I'm generally rather hesitant to attend such events for fear of finding out a favourite author is a wanker, or a believer of his or her own hype, or not a good reader, or just not engaging. Without qualification, I'm happy to report that Roddy Doyle is incredibly entertaining. And he swears a lot, which I find extra endearing. His reading was pretty good; in any case, his slight rushing through it-ness in no way made the section he read seem uninteresting. On the contrary, assuming I like A Star Called Henry, I will certainly read the whole trilogy.

Two important things learned at the event: 1) He's begun a new novel which may just see what the Rabbittes from The Barrytown Trilogy are up to these days ("Squeee!", as the kidz say); and 2) He told this great story which he admitted he's probably told everyone in the world already but which I, obviously, hadn't heard before. He was meeting a friend for drinks on a Friday night in Dublin and was early, and so waiting for him outside the Tara St. (Rd.?) station when a frap of teen-aged boys walked by. One came back, and got all up in his face and asked "Are you Roddy Doyle?". He answered in the affirmative, and then the kid yelled "So what!" and walked away laughing, but then gave him the thumbs up just as he was almost out of sight. I think I should try this the next time I see either Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje about town and see how likely it is that they turn it into a story with which to amuse adoring fans. I'd say less than zero.

As for the signing, it was an assembly line and in no way designed to allow for any chatting with Doyle, which I always find kind of disappointing. I saw how many people were in line, I get it; but it's still a bit of a let down. What I thought was funny about it was that someone from the theatre made her way through the line asking us if we wanted him to personalize it with our names, and if so, she'd write our name in block letters on a little post-it note for him and put it on the page we wanted signed. I told her he'd likely know how to spell my name (contender as I am for having the Most Irishest of Uber-Irish names), but she didn't believe me.

Avoidance
I likely would have blogged at some point about seeing Roddy Doyle tonight, but I'm doing so immediately after returning home because I feel a little blog panicky. I'm having a really hard time writing anything about the second volume of Phineas Finn, which I finished last week. I know basically what I want to say about it but I just can't find the mental energy to sit down and go over my admittedly not very accessible notes (because my notes comprise only page numbers references).

I'm actually having a difficult book time generally. I excitedly joined an online summer reading group for the entire, unabridged Tale of Genji (put on by The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly) and I've read the first three chapters. But I'm struggling to focus on it already...so much so, that I might abandon it and flee with my tail between my legs. I've just begun reading Ellis Peters' eighth Brother Cadfael mystery in the hopes that a book with a set of familiar characters will help the cobwebs clear.

Friday, 11 June 2010

In which Bookphilia tries, awkwardly, to discuss a novel without revealing almost anything about it

Apparently, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog has received mixed reviews. As I am entirely stern and unbending in my refusal to read reviews of books I might some day pick up, I know about these mixed reviews only secondhand. I also know, with much greater certainty, that the novel has been a crazy bestseller in France, and that it has also been translated into many other languages.

All that aside, I read this book for two reasons entirely my own: 1) It's French; 2) I like the title. I acknowledge that my second reason is absurd but I'm willing to be convinced for any number of random and foolish reasons to discover a hitherto unknown author of good books.

So, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I can't tell you anything substantial about the plot without revealing too much, so here's the premise: there are two alternating but related narratives, the first belonging to the 54-year old concierge of a very snooty luxury apartment building in Paris (Madame Michel); the second belongs to Paloma, a 12-year old resident of said building. Both are more, much more, intelligent than they would like anyone else to know; in spite of their very different positions and social origins, their reasons aren't entirely dissimilar. Both spend a great deal of time hiding, both literally and figuratively. Enter a new resident, the lovely Mr. Ozu, and everything starts to come together, and expand outwards, in exciting ways.

Except for the shocking and unforeseen conclusion of the novel, this book is really more about the telling than about the happening. Madame Michel and Paloma are brilliant, pretentious, gorgeous, often hilarious, sometimes irritating creations. Whatever you think or feel about them, I think both are unique and fascinating, even if what Barbery is doing with them - showing how one's inner life is both transcendent of its origins as well as stifled by them - is sometimes patently too obvious. The writing is always really good, but I would have liked Barbery to be subtler sometimes.

Subtler isn't all I wanted though. The Elegance of the Hedgehog continually brought to mind Amateur Reader's assertion that all fiction is fantasy. I entirely agree, but when I'm not reading capital-F Fantasy, I want my fiction to be perhaps less obviously fantasy, specifically less fantastical in the Hollywood Rom-Com sort of way. I'm sure the conclusion of the novel - which I will NOT reveal, even though not doing so makes this review less satisfying, likely for you as much as for me - was written as it was in part to explode such Rom-Com threads. I'm just not sure that this was the best way to do it, but I may be biased because I was more than a little irritated at Barbery for making me cry at work yesterday afternoon.

So, I really like this book but I also don't love it. I will perhaps read Barbery's next novel to see if she focuses more on the smart and less on the sentimental - or, horrors, vice versa.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The cherry plum test

Sitting at my desk at work, eating green grapes and sinking, quickly, into the maddeningly pretentious and incredibly delightful novel known in English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog (trans. Alison Anderson), I read the following:
The cherry plum test is extraordinary for its disarming clarity. It derives its power from a universal observation: when man bites into the fruit, at last he understands. What does he understand? Everything. He understands how the human species, given only to survival, slowly matured and arrived one fine day at an intuition of pleasure, the vanity of all the artificial appetites that divert one from one’s initial aspiration toward the virtues of simple and sublime things, the pointlessness of discourse, the slow and terrible degradation of multiple worlds from which no one can escape and, in spite of all that, the wonderful sweetness of the senses when they conspire to teach mankind pleasure and the terrifying beauty of Art.

The cherry plum test is held in my kitchen. I place the fruit and the book on the Formica table, and as I pick up the former to taste it, I also start the latter. If each resists the powerful onslaught of the other, if the cherry plum fails to make me doubt the text and if the text is unable to spoil the fruit, then I know that I am in the presence of a worthwhile and, why not say it, exceptional undertaking, for there are very few works that have not dissolved – proven both ridiculous and complacent – into the extraordinary succulence of the little golden plums. (pp. 54-55)
I cannot claim that the green grapes currently making their way into my belly are as good as these cherry plums (I've never eaten a cherry plum). I can say that in my current Barbery/grape cage match, neither is coming out a clear victor.

In other words, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful

I always think it’s interesting when a novel’s aboutness isn’t entirely, or even primarily, focused on the character for whom it is named. Phineas Finn, the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s 6-part series on the Pallisers, is one such novel. It’s not that Phineas isn’t present, for of course he is; indeed, his experiences and thoughts make up at least half of the contents of the first volume of the novel. But because it is one of the Palliser series, it is also a novel heavily steeped in the political concerns of mid-19th-century England. The “official” topic of this novel is whether or not to extend the vote, but the issue of women’s participation in politics is pushed insistently to the fore, and not only that – it’s linked intimately to women’s particular social position.

Phineas Finn
Phineas Finn is a young, talented Irishmen elected to the British parliament at the tender age of 24. His financial straights, his attempts to make his name by speaking in the House, and his proposal to Lady Laura Standish comprise the bulk of the narrative surrounding him in the first volume. Phineas is talented and exceptional, it seems, but Trollope doesn’t spend a great deal of space directly explicating his personality. He does note rather tersely that Phineas is “a young man not without sense, – not entirely a windbag” (p. 8). Trollope’s wry but gentle criticism of Phineas’s imperfections let us know that while the young MP is not perfect, he is also neither incompetent nor malicious.

He makes errors, but they don’t appear to be major errors for he pays very little by way of consequence for any of them. Yet, Trollope’s skillful juxtaposition of Phineas’s unthinking ease in life with the careful and complicated steps, mental and actual, Lady Laura Standish and Violet Effingham must constantly negotiate clearly highlight that as a young man possessed of a particular level of education, not to mention good looks and charm, he possesses a freedom – both to achieve and to screw up – that is simply not within the purview of a young woman, regardless of how well placed she is socially or how much money she has.

Lady Laura Standish
Lady Laura is without money but of a particular class. She is aware of the advantages of her position, and uses them to her advantage. Her physical presence speaks to both her privileges and her priorities:
She would lean forward when sitting, as a man does, and would use her arms in talking, and would put her hand over her face, and pass her fingers through her hair, –after the fashion of men rather than of women; –and she seemed to despise that soft quiescence of her sex in which are generally found so many charms. (p. 33)
In spite of this apparent dearth of traditional feminine charms, Laura is sufficiently attractive to both Phineas and Mr. Robert Kennedy, another MP, to beg her hand in marriage.

In the meantime, Lady Laura seems to know what she’s about. Although a woman and entitled neither to run for political office nor to vote, she has clear ideas about how she might nonetheless exercise political power:
It was her ambition to be brought as near to political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction. That women should even wish to have votes at parliamentary elections was to her abominable, and the cause of the Rights of Women generally was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping that she too might be useful, –in thinking that she too was perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful[.] (p. 89)
Laura sees this political power as manifesting primarily in her stewardship of her father’s and Phineas’s political careers, and indeed, she is implicated in both their political successes. What I find curious about this passage is Laura’s adherence to more traditional views of women’s social roles even as she imagines extending that role into the masculine realm of government. It’s not initially clear if she’s simply a rather complex representative of her era, or if she doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of herself.

As it turns out, it’s more the latter, although she certainly doesn’t come to any conclusions about wanting the vote for herself or other women of her class. Rather, she realizes that while she may mentor a young man like Phineas and cajole her doting father into political action, she is, without money, limited in what she can do from her privileged position of “feminine inaction.” She, thus, makes the entirely logical choice to marry the rich Robert Kennedy and not the financially challenged Phineas – and in very short order, finds herself deeply dissatisfied:
Those two hours…with her husband in the morning became very wearisome to her. At first she had declared that it would be her greatest ambition to help her husband in his work, and she had read all the letters from the MacNabs and MacFies, asking to be made gaugers and landing-waiters, with an assumed interest. But the work palled upon her very quickly. Her quick intellect discovered soon that there was nothing in it which she really did. It was all form and verbiage, and pretence at business. Her husband went through it all with the utmost patience, reading every word, giving orders as to every detail, and conscientiously doing that which he conceived he had undertaken to do. But Lady Laura wanted to meddle with high politics, to discuss reform bills, to assist in putting up Mr. This and putting down my Lord That. Why should she waste her time in doing that which the lad in the next room, who was called a private secretary, could do as well? (pp. 208-09)
Lady Laura sees too clearly that while “She had married a rich man in order that she might be able to do something in the world…now that she was this rich man's wife…she could do nothing [but] sit at home and look after his welfare” (p. 304).

Violet Effingham
Trollope does not allow us to draw a pat object lesson from Lady Laura’s case, however. Her friend Violet Effingham is a charming young woman who, like Lady Laura, is the subject of a great deal of marital interest. In particular, Lady Laura’s profligate brother, Lord Chiltern, has repeatedly asked Violet to marry him without success; Lady Laura, in her brother’s interest, applies a steady dose of pressure on her friend to accept. Lady Laura and her brother both believe that enough pressure upon the petite and pretty young lady will gain this end, but the fact is, “With all her seeming frolic, Violet Effingham is very wise” (p. 157) – with regards not simply to whom she might marry, but also in considering whether or not to marry at all. Violet isn’t blinded by any grand political notions about what her marriage might do or mean; on the contrary, she clearly sees the differences that gender makes and keeps that practical reality before her at all times. Violet and Laura engage in one of several arguments concerning Lord Chiltern:
"I prefer men who are improper, and all that sort of thing. If I were a man myself I should go in for everything I ought to leave alone. I know I should. But you see, –I'm not a man, and I must take care of myself. The wrong side of a post for a woman is so very much the wrong side. I like a fast man, but I know that I must not dare to marry the sort of man that I like."

…………..

"… I should like to be your sister. I should like well enough to be your father's daughter. I should like well enough to be Chiltern's friend. I am his friend. Nothing that any one has ever said of him has estranged me from him. I have fought for him till I have been black in the face. Yes, I have, –with my aunt. But I am afraid to be his wife. The risk would be so great. Suppose that I did not save him, but that he brought me to shipwreck instead?"

"That could not be!"

"Could it not? I think it might be so very well. When I was a child they used to be always telling me to mind myself. It seems to me that a child and a man need not mind themselves. Let them do what they may, they can be set right again. Let them fall as they will, you can put them on their feet. But a woman has to mind herself; –and very hard work it is when she has a dragon of her own driving her ever the wrong way." (pp. 95-6)
Lord Chiltern would very likely bring Violet to ruin, as Lady Laura should well know as paying off his gargantuan gambling debts is what made it necessary that she marry someone with money in the first place! Violet knows her own mind and the implications of her position in the world and holds herself close, in spite of her friend’s emotional pressure. While I haven’t read the second volume of Phineas Finn yet, and so don’t know how Violet’s story will play out, I would be very surprised if she “ruined” herself with a disastrous marriage to Lord Chiltern or someone like him.

Both she and Lady Laura feel forced to be calculating when considering marriage but Lady Laura’s calculations lack the distinctly practical consideration of what it would mean to live with someone as dry and upright as Robert Kennedy; she is blinded by his political activities and imagines something much more noble for herself than what she gets. Violet imagines – nothing precisely, it seems, except what disasters may ensue with the wrong choice. And yet, when confronted about a possible fancy for Phineas, she is able to identity the more positive counterpoint to the disaster she so constantly and carefully avoids:
"I think you like my friend, Mr. Finn," Lady Laura said to Miss Effingham...

"Yes, I do. I like him decidedly."

"So do I. I should hardly have thought that you would have taken a fancy to him."

"I hardly know what you call taking a fancy," said Violet. "I am not quite sure I like to be told that I have taken a fancy for a young man."

"I mean no offence, my dear."

"Of course you don't. But, to speak truth, I think I have rather taken a fancy to him. There is just enough of him, but not too much. I don't mean materially, –in regard to his inches; but as to his mental belongings. I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine; but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing."

………………

"I suppose you do not mean to fall in love with him?"

"Not that I know of, my dear. But when I do, I'll be sure to give you notice." (pp. 200-01)
Laura is the one lauded for her intelligence, but Violet is the sharper of the two. She possesses clear ideas of what women may realistically do with themselves but also of what she wants; further, her assurance that she’ll give Laura “notice” if she begins to fall for Phineas suggests her awareness that Laura’s views on Phineas are not entirely disinterested, even after she’s married Robert Kennedy. Violet is not blinded by her own ideals; if she possesses an ideal, it is one simply of not being forced into decisions she is neither willing nor ready to make.

Lady Glencora Palliser

Where this issue of women and marriage and politics really coalesces, I believe, is in one short speech made my Lady Glencora Palliser. The Pallisers are notably much less present in this the second Palliser novel than they were in the first, but Lady Glencora has a crucial conversation with the more traditional Mrs. Bonteen at a political event in which Trollope makes clear that the connection between women’s limited freedoms, so aptly described by Violet, are not just inherently political. Rather, without considering gender, any political action that purports to support equality is simply empty rhetoric:
"Making men and women all equal," said Lady Glencora. "That I take to be the gist of our political theory."

"Lady Glencora, I must cry off," said Mr. Monk.

"Yes; –no doubt. If I were in the Cabinet myself I should not admit so much. There are reticences, –of course. And there is an official discretion."

"But you don't mean to say, Lady Glencora, that you would really advocate equality?" said Mrs. Bonteen.

"I do mean to say so, Mrs. Bonteen. And I mean to go further, and to tell you that you are no Liberal at heart unless you do so likewise; unless that is the basis of your political aspirations."

"Pray let me speak for myself, Lady Glencora."

"By no means, –not when you are criticising me and my politics. Do you not wish to make the lower orders comfortable?"

"Certainly," said Mrs. Bonteen.

"And educated, and happy and good?"

"Undoubtedly."

"To make them as comfortable and as good as yourself?"

"Better if possible."

"And I'm sure you wish to make yourself as good and as comfortable as anybody else, –as those above you, if anybody is above you? You will admit that?"

"Yes; –if I understand you."

"Then you have admitted everything, and are an advocate for general equality, –just as Mr. Monk is, and as I am.” (pp. 126-27)
Lady Glencora is a curious character to choose to have speak such words, and yet in the Palliser world, she’s the only one who would and perhaps could. That she nearly left her husband for a former lover in the previous novel shouldn’t discredit what she says here for in Phineas Finn, she doesn’t appear any longer to be bridling against her position as Plantagenet Palliser’s wife; indeed, she seems entirely comfortable in the political circles in which he functions. Further, in the first volume this novel, Lady Glencora is the only Palliser allowed to speak; her husband is fairly frequently present, but Trollope doesn’t give him any dialogue. Lady Glencora is the voice of liberalism here and she is an eloquent and logical one.

So, is this book as certain as Lady Glencora is about equality being a meaningless term unless it applies to both men and women? I don’t think so. Lady Glencora is outspoken about this particular issue in part because she can afford to be – she is incredibly rich, her husband is a universally admired politician, and she’s always remarkably charming. In other words, she has nothing to lose. Further, Trollope further undermines such a proto-feminist interpretation of things near the conclusion of the first volume thus:
It was manifestly a meeting of Liberals, semi-social and semi-political; –so arranged that ladies might feel that some interest in politics was allowed to them, and perhaps some influence also. (p. 355)
This is a rather quietly crushing moment (I feel everything Trollope does is quiet, even crushing; it’s one of the reasons I love him) but I don’t think it negates the observations about the interconnections between the personal (specifically via gender) and the political above. I think, rather, that Trollope is engaging in a close and fearless explication of a political culture in transition, and particular the ways in which the individuals involved both contribute to and stifle (often simultaneously) such transition through their personal values, fears, and inability to comprehend the implications of the history they’re living.

Of course, very few real people are capable of fully comprehending the historical moment in which they live, and I think knowing this is part of what makes Trollope so gentle with his characters. And it’s also part of why I love Trollope. More anon, on Volume 2 of Phineas Finn.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The difference between good men and scoundrels

In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman re-imagines the rise of Christianity as resulting from a series of carefully orchestrated events and consciously rewritten histories; history is re-imagined in the service of the "truth", the "truth" being something that transcends the merely actual:
There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (p. 99)
Who speaks this mush, you ask? It may be an angel or it may simply be a very wily bureaucrat (or they're one and the same); all we know for sure is that it's a mysterious stranger who convinces Christ to record his brother Jesus's words and then make them better, for posterity and to help create a church for the ages. That's right, there are two of them. Mary gives birth to twins, one sickly little crinkle-face she calls Christ and one robust little caterwauler she calls Jesus.

The boys grow up together and Christ is a smart 'un, very good at quoting scripture and saving Jesus's butt, and Jesus is a punk-ass little kid that everyone likes and who does dumb stuff and gets into trouble. It seems like Christ should be the saviour but, in fact, people think he's a little weird and also he has no charisma. Later, Jesus has a spiritual awakening and starts preaching. The thing is, he says and does most of the things Jesus is credited with saying and doing, but he's also kind of a jerk and is mean to his family and is a bit racist. Christ loves his brother but can't get Jesus to listen to his notions about institutionalizing his good ideas and so just follows him around, copying down everything he says, and improving it as per the bureau-angel's instructions.

So, why is Jesus a good man and Christ a scoundrel when Christ is small and fearful and Jesus is big and compelling but still kind of a dick? Well, for one thing, Judas wasn't real; it's Christ who betrays his brother, but in a hapless, dumb-ass sort of way. Also, he's sacrificing Jesus's real words and actions to the needs of a religious monolith in the making; he's amplifying, elevating, adding pretty touches, and generally taking the human out of his brother and making him divine, for as he's told, this is the only way anyone will remember Jesus anyway; the angelcrat says to Christ:
"You told him that peopled needed miracles and signs; you told him of the importance of dramatic events in persuading them to believe. He didn't listen, because he thought that the Kingdom was coming so soon that no persuasion would be necessary."
...............
"But the Kingdom," said Christ, "the Kingdom will come!"
"No," said the angel, "there will be no Kingdom in this world. You were right about that as well."
"I never denied the Kingdom!"
"You did. When you described the church, you spoke as if the Kingdom would not come about without it. And you were right."
"No, no! I said that if God wanted to, he could bring the Kingdom about just by lifting a finger."
"But God does not want to. God wants the church to be an image of the Kingdom. Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection. Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they're not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same." (pp. 170-71)
God and his minions don't think humans are capable of transcending themselves, in other words, and so playing on their weaknesses rather than playing to their strengths is the way to go. It's cynical and cruel and Christ believes in his brother but he is also horribly compelled to do his literary duty as "the word of God." Christ appears to be rather talented in his literary stylings and here we have Christianity going strong 2,000 years later, all because of him...

Jesus, on the other hand, he likes to keep it real. He says what he thinks. If you're talking mush, he'll call you on it. But the fact is, he's not the son of God. God doesn't listen to him, doesn't talk to him and, he finally realizes, doesn't really give a flying f*** about him or anyone else, for as we already know, God just wants his gilt-plated bauble on earth to be established ASAP to keep people quiet. In the meantime, the only person who loves the world as it is is Jesus:
"...you made this world, and it's lovely, every inch of it. When I think of the things I've loved I find myself choking with happiness, or maybe with sorrow, I don't know; and every one of them has been something in this world that you made. If anyone can smell frying fish on an evening by the lake, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day, or see a little animal trying to run around and tumbling over and getting up again, or kiss a pair of soft and willing lips, if anyone can feel those things and still maintain they're nothing but crude imperfect copies of something much better in another world, they are slandering you, Lord..." (p. 193)
I love that Jesus is a bit of a hippy and not at all asexual. But this speech isn't really in keeping with his preaching and being a jerk to his family. It could be that Pullman's just showing how you can be a messed up human and a spiritual giant at the same time, in spite of what those cynical angels say for their cynical Boss. Or, it could be that Pullman didn't write a very good book.

I wanted to like this book; after His Dark Materials, I want to like everything Pullman writes but so far, I've liked much less than I've disliked and I'm afraid that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has made the "dislike" pile that much bigger. I fancy the idea of this book, in part because I'm always in favour of retelling old stories in a new way. And Pullman (or his publisher) really wants you to know that this is a story, for on the back cover of the book it tells us that this is precisely what this is.

Given the hullabaloo Pullman continues to stir up over what he's apparently saying about God in His Dark Materials, it might be fair to remind people that he's not a biblical scholar, but rather a fiction writer. However, having read the book, I find myself wondering if this back cover reminder was needed because it's not a very good story, in Pullman's hands. The writing is literate and grammatical but in no way magical; further, the characters seem entirely flat, and their motives uninteresting. Maybe the worst thing about this book, though, is that it reads to me, overall, like the stunted love child of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and an essay geared towards simultaneously taunting Christians and exonerating Pullman for being unfairly accused of doing so.

There's one passage in particular that gives rise to the latter half of that unflattering simile above. The angelcrat has come to visit Christ later, after he has abandoned his identity and started over somewhere else. Christ complains about the new ritual of the Communion, eating the body and blood of Christ, because it was not something he intended in his writings. The angel blithely tells him it's his own fault for being too subtle, and "People will leap to the most lurid meaning they can find, even if it's one the author never intended" (p. 240). This seems like a rather extreme response to a relatively minor complaint, especially given that the institutionalization of his brother's values is going very smoothly indeed, and precisely because of how Christ inserted all that truth into the history.

What I find fascinating about this statement is that it seems to indicate that the re-writing of history is not the problem at all, but rather readers' inability to process it properly. In which case, the cynical view of the angel was right - things need to be dumbed down for people to get what authors mean. And given that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is pretty much completely lacking in either the wonder (Jesus) or the subtle intelligence (Christ) of Pullman's best work, neither character or point of view is validated - and nothing else is either, because as a story, this book just isn't good. I may never read Pullman again, not because this book is atrocious, because it's nowhere near that - but because it's mediocre, and mediocre is the only word I have to describe everything Pullman's written since The Amber Spyglass. Sigh.