Dan Sandman

#26 Boyhood

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 23/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#26 BoyhoodAs its title suggests, Boyhood (1997) is about a South African boy’s childhood and schooldays. Each chapter is an essay on one particular aspect of boyhood: summers spent on his uncle’s farm in the Karroo desert; days spent avoiding the cane in a provincial school in Worcester; intimate moments with his mother in the kitchen. By writing about his younger self, Coetzee offers a critique of his own family and on post-WWII South Africa in general. This is successfully achieved through the use of several artistic tools.

Firstly, there is the choice of the present tense, which focuses attention away from the past and onto the moment of imaginative creativity itself. Secondly, Coetzee refers to himself as he, in the same detached way that he refers to characters in books not about himself. Thirdly, he wastes no time on description and spends much time on action. These three factor, when combined, produce a voice which is imaginative, detached and active. Events flash past at the speed of creation, as fast as pen being put to paper.

My main criticism is that Coetzee uses this voice to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Obviously, every memoir ever written has a problematic relationship to the truth of actual lived experience. As intelligent readers, we are aware that the writer has selected and discarded certain material in order to create an artwork. History does the same; but a history written in the present tense, as if it did not actually happen, would be pretty pointless. On the one hand, this memoir can be read as an arrogant attempt to discredit those critics who cling to historical truth; on the other hand, it can be seen as a triumphant cry to break up the novel form and make it new again. Either way, it can be quite annoying to read a memoir which refuses to include the word I.

#25 Emma

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 16/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#25 EmmaEmma Woodhouse, an heiress of £30,000 and two-and-twenty years old, plays match-maker with her less fortunate and younger friend Harriet Smith. But when her social schemes backfire, she is terribly upset.

As the writer Sebastian Faulks has said, Emma is a snob and her snobbery has emotional consequences, both for herself and for those within her society. Emma’s self-satisfaction, her selfish pretenses and her manipulative social behaivour make her a figure of fun because she takes herself too seriously. To Emma, the false manners and codified language of her class exist for her pleasure and delight. Admittedly, as a young woman living in a man’s world, Emma’s approach to her own courtiers needs to be cautious and considerate; but this does not, should not, excuse her hobby of interfering with the love life of her naive friend Harriet. Faulks is right to argue that Emma is a snob; and I would go further to argue that she is one of the worst snobs seen in English literature: interfering and selfish to extremes.

I have mixed feelings about Jane Austen, whose novels are often imitated but never surpassed. Clearly, Austen is a writer of some genius—she almost single-handedly resurected the sentimental novel from the dustbin of literary history and transformed into the modern romantic comedy. However, Austen often attracts harsh criticism because her novels appear completely detached from history, ignorant of the servant-class and devoid of any serious political intrigue. And much to the dissatisfaction of the male species, Austen portrays men as binary opposites to woman. For Austen, war is a man’s business; marriage: a woman’s affair. In Austen view, the struggles of the lower-orders are ignored in favour of the struggles of chivalric love—-i.e. whether X will marry Y for a good fortune or X will marry Z for love. In Austen’s defense, I might add–at least when it comes to the under representation of ordinary people–minus the occasional gravedigger or porter—Shakespeare has been accused of the exact same narrow-mindedness.

#24 Augustus

In Books, Fiction, History on 09/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#24 Augustus.JPGJohn Williams’ final novel is set in ancient Rome and is built upon a series of fictional letters between historical figures: the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil, the tragic leader Mark Anthony, etc. It also deals with Caesar’s rise to power and his estranged relationship with Julia, his daughter.

Although I know very little about Roman history, if I do not include the BBC television series I Claudius, I am assured that the novel is impeccably researched. Shakespeare fans will recognize the Anthony and Cleopatra story, but will be less familiar with the Octavius and Julia story which threads here into the later half of the novel. And Williams, skillfully using the personal address of the epistolary form, is the ideal guide to light up this dark corner of ancient history.

My one criticism would be that the letters, memoranda and dispatches come from too many sides, making an at times too heady mix of character portrayals. However, apart from the confusion caused by the many viewpoints, I think that Williams last work of fiction shines a bright light onto this fascinating period of ancient history.