Dan Sandman

Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

48: Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 28/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

Rasselas by Samuel JohnsonSamuel Johnson (1709 – 84) was the son of a bookseller, an unsuccessful teacher, and worked on his dictionary for nine years. Allegedly, he wrote Rasselas (1756) in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral. It is a thought-provoking book, and makes some good universal points, despite its moralizing tone.

There are four central characters in the tale: Prince Rasselas, Princess Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosopher Imlac. Although he lives in the Utopian happy valley, the prince of Abissinia is unhappy. In search of happiness, he takes his friends travelling to learn about world. On their journey, they meet many interesting people – philosophers, scientists, hermits, and the wealthy – but do not reach any conclusions when they return home. Instead, their experiences open up philosophical discussions on a broad range of moral topics, such as art and marriage.

I was recently in The British Museum (founded in 1753), which is only a bus journey away from my house. Ever since my father and mother first took me to the museum as a boy, I have been fascinated by the Enlightenment Gallery, with its many objects of wonder; including books, plants, fossils, shells, astrolabes and maps. The eighteenth century, which Samuel Johnson lived through, was a very exciting exciting time to be a writer. Natural philosophers were busy collecting and categorizing the natural world, whilst antiquarians were digging up mysterious artifacts from far away lands. Eventually, these early adventures into the objects of the past world led to what we now call science and archaeology. In a very clear way, Johnson was part of ‘The Age of Curiosity’, spending an immense amount of time collecting and categorizing the English language to form his dictionary. Although Rasselas appears to be written for the honest purpose of making money (to paraphrase Johnson), and can be judged a less serious work than the dictionary, its focus on moral questions is very much of its age. I will finish with this quote, written down during my in depth walk around the gallery.

“During the Enlightenment, many people believed that lack of social and moral progress stemmed from ignorance about the world, its natural phenomenon and its human history.” (Case 12 – The Revolution in Science)


47: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

In Books, Fiction on 21/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

Orlando by Virginia WoolfOne thing that can be overlooked is just how funny Orlando (1927) is. Literary critics have tended to focus Here on its feminism, there on its treatment of historical fiction, then on Woolf’s relationship with her lover Vita Sackville-West. But Orlando is at heart a comedy – of the laugh out loud whilst reading variety – that plays with reader expectations. It’s a little bit like Twelfth Night (1602) by William Shakespeare – or any of Shakespeare’s comedies – where boys play woman dressed up as boys, and characters wax lyrical about the meaning of love.

The basic plot is completely implausible, and perhaps Woolf really is mocking the (mostly male) historical fiction and biography writers of the past, with their scholarly search for ‘truth’. Yet at the same time, there is obviously a respect for history – its figures, its architecture, its Queens – and a desire to explore history by adventuring into new imaginative language. Indeed, as the impossible story flows, and Orlando turns from being a he to being a she, moving from Tudor times to the ‘present moment’ (at time of publishing), it is the lushly embellished language that takes center stage, with Shakespearean beauty.

In the spirit of, what critics would call Modernism (with a capital M), Orlando is a forthright attempt to break up received ideas surrounding novel writers, the English language, established gender roles, historical writing created by men, autobiographical writing (especially that which claims ‘truth’), and just about anything that Victorian Literature does well.

And yes, it succeeds triumphantly in doing so.

46: The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

In Books, Fiction on 14/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Red Pony by John SteinbeckThe Red Pony (1937) contains four short stories, and is set on a farm in California. The stories are autobiographically inspired, and were written whilst John Steinbeck was relying on his parents to support him and his wife. It is possible to imagine Steinbeck reflecting on his own childhood, as he tells the story of ten year-old boy Jody. It is a childhood full with the promise of new things and adventures, but also one where violence and disappointment are present. Steinbeck uses his analytic eye to examine the contradictions which most children face.

Like many boys his age, somewhat disturbingly, Jody enjoys killing helpless creatures, and is interested in displaying dominance over in the natural world. Yet at the same time, because he is a farm boy, he has learnt to love and respect horses, eagerly learning about them from farmhand Billy Buck. So when his father says he can have a red pony, Jody is eager to inform his school friends, who are impressed by the news. But, as Jody has to learn throughout these stories, nothing is given without conditions, and sometimes sickness or old age take their toll on life.

This is a short book, at just under one hundred pages, and I read each story on various London buses and tube trains, as well as at my favourite spot in Morrison’s supermarket cafe. As always, Steinbeck has a wonderful eye for detail and realism, painting memorable scenes and drawing characters who speak the way people really speak. Like life, these stories have no definitive structure to them, feeling as though they have suddenly sprung up from the ground, where they will soon recede. And there is something earthly about these stories; the beautiful place, somewhere near the Gabilan Mountains; the tough people who farm the land; and the animals who work and graze above the soil.

Takes me away from myself.

45: The Spire by William Golding

In Books, Fiction on 07/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Spire by William GoldingSet in the middle ages, The Spire (1964) is about the building of Salisbury Cathedral spire, which was most likely severely damaged shortly after its completion. The story follows the obsessions of Dean Jocelin, head of the cathedral, who believes that God wants him to complete the spire, and that the almighty has sent an angel to guide him. Jocelin will not listen to reason, ignoring the advice of his colleagues, despite the fact that he can hear the pillars sing ‘as if the strain had become intolerable’ (pg.124). It is a foreboding tragedy, full of impending doom and moral anxiety.

Literary critics have often commented on William Golding’s symbolism, whereby the writer uses symbols to represent ideas or qualities. For example, the collapsing spire could represent common fears surrounding social and political change. In an age where religious leaders were at the center of society and politics, Jocelin uses his religious power to build something that he hopes will enhance the presence of almighty God over the people of Salisbury. Yet symbolically, when Jocelin joyfully climbs the spire and looks down upon the city (chapter 5), he understands ‘how the tower was laying a hand on the whole landscape, altering it, dominating it, enforcing a pattern that reached wherever the tower could be seen (pg.107-108)’. And so, the joy that Jocelin feels by looking down upon Salisbury is somewhat symbolically ominous because of the spire’s enforcing dominance.

I think this is a difficult book to read because it is written in a stream of consciousness style, where the reader follows the actions and thoughts of Dean Jocelin. However, this emphasis on style gives the work a beautifully poetic quality, enhancing the plot. In my experience, books which focus on language’s subtle qualities require more concentration, which can result in a more spiritual reading experience. I am always impressed by the way in which a William Golding novel can hold my attention and get me thinking about the world we live in.

One of our finest writers.