Dan Sandman

42: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 14/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-pilgrims-progress-by-john-bunyanIn the seventeenth century, John Bunyan was imprisoned twice for zealously pushing his extreme religious beliefs onto the English people and therefore inciting rebellion. But it seems that his time in jail was well spent, as it was behind bars that he would compose one of the most influential texts in all of world literature The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since it was first controversially released into the world, Bunyan’s seminal allegory has been translated into many languages including Russian and Arabic. It is seen by some literary critics as a grand récit (narrative with grand ideological implications), and by others as the central precursor to the modern novel. It is no doubt a proven classic which has been garnering new readers across the world for century after century.

Taking the form of a vivid dream had by the narrator, Bunyan’s fantastical story follows the many adventures of his generically named hero Christian — character naming is very important because it also describes character traits (e.g. Talkative). On his numerous adventures, Christian comes face to face with many good, bad and indifferent characters and must decide which is the correct spiritual path for him to follow. He must also face the Slough of Despond and navigate his way through Vanity Fair — places invented by Bunyan and still referred to in our times. The whole narrative is accompanied by marginal notes, which more often than not refer to particular passages in the bible.

I sat down with this book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. Although Bunyan’s bible reading is extremely preachy in its over-evangelical tone, it is nonetheless refreshing to read something which so obviously aims to change the way in which we view our own journeys through life. Bunyan totally tares up the rule book and does things in a novel (literally new) way, setting a high standard which has rarely been equaled or surpassed.

A deserved classic.

41: The War Poems by Wilfred Owen

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 07/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

war-poems-by-wilfred-owenIn late December 1912, following his matriculation, Wilfred Owen was offered a post as lay assistant to a clergyman, which he turned down. Owen had decided to move away from his evangelical roots, swapping his religious studies for deep readings of Keats manuscripts at the British Museum. Drawing on his knowledge of the biblical and classical genres, he begun to compose poetry with a heavy Keats influence; travelling to France where he held a position at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux. On the year of his twenty-first birthday, war was declared and Owen carried on teaching privately for a while. On November the 15th 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and became a British Army officer.

The story of what happened to Owen during the war has been made familiar by Pat Barker’s excellent novel Regeneration, which deals with the conversations Owen had with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Both poets were treated for shell shock — having faced the dirt, stink and horror of the trenches — and soon became friends through their shared love of poetry. Sassoon was already a well connected writer, and introduced Owen to Robert Graves, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. With his friend’s help and encouragement, Owen received critical acclaim as a Georgian war poet. On June the 4th 1918, he was graded fit for general service. He was killed early in the morning on November the 4th. The armistice was signed on the 11th.

This book is the best way to enjoy and study the poetry of Wilfred Owen that I have come across. Jon Stallworthy has done a consummate job, selecting the very best of the poet’s work and providing an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by scholarly notes for budding and experienced essayists alike; and Owen’s famous preface — ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’ (pp.98) — is included as a coda.

Highly recommended.

40: The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

In Books, Fiction on 30/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-belly-of-paris-by-emile-zolaFlorent has come out of imprisonment to live with his brother Quenu and his sister-in-law Lisa, who run a family butcher shop in the busy Paris market area. The butcher’s is full of talkative locals, playful children and lashings of pork based produce for sale. Everywhere, against a meaty backdrop, ordinary people talk about the price of fish and go about their daily business. Being a bit of an outsider, with a world view formed by his reading of books, Florent takes a while to settle into life with his less educated relatives. Eventually, Lisa encourages him to take up a job as some sort of inspector on the fish market, replacing a character who has been taken ill by the deadly consumption (which we now call tuberculosis and can easily cure with antibiotics).

In the languorous style of which Zola is famed, the story unfolds at an extremely leisurely pace. Readers are not really encouraged to follow the plot for enjoyment, but rather asked to appreciate the deeply descriptive language — which can regurgitate like a sickly rich chocolate cake. Every nook and cranny of the market, each naturally drawn character, is written with absolute definitive clarity and control of language, placing the reader under a magical spell with the sheer power and magnificent of the writer’s ambition. This is exactly the sort of sprawling improvisation of which creative writing courses discourage their students from aspiring to. It works because it is done with great intellectual and moral force.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to a vegetarian. The whole tale is full to the brim with epic descriptions of dripping meat and stinking fish. Barely can a page be turned without the whiff of a mackerel wafting up one’s nose; or the steam of a boiling pot evaporating across one’s eyes. Pick up the book at almost any point, and you will find nineteenth century post-revolutionary Paris as defined by the food of the marketplace. According to Zola, the history of the French people is the history of food — it’s production, movements and the internal politics of fish prices. He seems on a mission to celebrate the beauty of routine daily living; a world away from the arguments that buzz around the rooms of the cafes and bars of this microcosm of society. Being a good sort of person, Flourent finds contentment by mucking in with his family and becoming part of this close-knit community of gossipers and oddballs.

I look forward to seeing what happens later.