Dan Sandman

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

05: Four Stories by Alan Bennett

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 30/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

Four Stories by Allen BennettFor the past week or so, my mother and I have been watching an Alan Bennett  DVD box set, and I have been reading this signed book. Mr. Bennett (1934 – ), our neighbourhood dramatist and actor and short story writer, lives only a stone’s-throw away from our house, and is celebrated in my country as a national treasure. He is a well known public figure, with strong connections to the National Theatre, the BBC and the British film industry. To my mother and I, he is a friendly neighbour who says hello, and a local hero who helped save our library.

This edition of Four Stories was published to celebrate Allen Bennett’s eightieth birthday. It puts these four funny and strange short stories into one readable place. The first story is a about a celebrity masseur; the second about a married couple; the third about a school teacher; and the last – the most well known – about a lady who lived in a van. Each story accurately captures everyday speech, and includes a good joke – or a heartbreaking line – on almost every page.

I can remember reading The Lady in the Van (1989) in Rose Bank shopping centre, Johannesburg. The book I had taken with me was Untold Stories (2005) – a large volume containing all sorts. Sat by myself in a foreign cafe, drinking English breakfast tea, I traveled back to Camden Town in my mind. Somehow, the warm Yorkshire accent of Alan Bennett comforted me, and got me thinking about my mother. I felt like an old friend was sitting opposite me at the table, telling me his best anecdote, and the song – called JHB Homesick Blues (2012) – I had just written melted into album track obscurity.

Where the story takes us is where we are.

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04: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

In Books, Fiction, Romance on 23/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

Madame Bovary by Gustave FlaubertAs a major French novelist, Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) has been studied and read for over a century-and-a-half. His first novel Madame Bovary (1857) made Flaubert’s name, and is a scintillating romance about a woman who is bored with provincial life. Married to a sensible doctor, whose medical skills are at best average, Madame (Emma) Bovary begins to foster and maintain adulterous relationships.

Emma’s affairs, although temporary thrilling, fail to satisfy her unsettled soul. Madame Bovary is very keen to spend her husband’s money, and absorb herself in sentimental novels and music, but even these cerebral distractions leave her wanting. As the psychological portrait thickens, revealing Emma as a complex and disturbed character, the inevitable tragedy looms.

I was handed this book by a friend, who had decided to stop reading it halfway through. When I asked my friend for a reason, she said that Madame Bovary is not a likable character. To this point I agree: Emma is deceitful, reckless, vain and self-centered. However, this did not stop me from enjoying her exploits, and the quirky characters who inhabit her little nineteenth century village. I was excited to see how far Emma could push her conscience, and test her lying abilities, before she fell apart completely. And when I allowed Flaubert to weave my imagination, I felt joy and fascination, as though I had traveled by time machine to some happily nostalgic and curious land.

It’s a classic French novel about a tragically bored woman.

03: The Outsider by Albert Camus

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 16/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Outsider by Albert CamusAlbert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French writer and philosopher of the ‘absurd’ nature of the human condition. He is best known for ‘Le Estrange’ (The Outsider), a short novel about a white Algerian who kills an Arab. In a clear style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, Camus carefully builds an argument against corporal punishment, and questions a legal system that can pass judgement based on personal opinion and religious belief. The reader is encouraged to see the killing from the perspective of the killer, and even to question the term ‘criminal’.

The narrator (‘the outsider’ whom the novel is named after) is called Meursault. He is sentenced to execution because he is judged as a bad character. At his mother’s funeral, Meursault does not cry; when he is asked to seek help from God, Meursault refuses to comply because he is an atheist. Before the Arab is killed, Meursault foolishly writes a letter for his friend Raymond that will later be used as evidence in court. As it turns out, Raymond is probably a pimp, and should not have been trusted so openly. And it is Meursault’s openness towards potentially violent characters, and his passive reaction when a volatile or emotional situation arises, that leads him into danger.

But is it wrong that he should be condemned to death because he did not grieve correctly? Because he does not show remorse after he has killed a man? Or turn to God? Camus argued that our lives are absurd, and I think his philosophy is valid. Very quickly, a small incident can escalate, turning normality into comedy or – in the case of ‘the outsider’ – tragedy. Camus placed his protagonist in an intense situation, applied the pressure, and, as a result, philosophical questions were raised.

A memorable and prescient character, whose individualism predicts a shift in twentieth century European culture.

02: Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 09/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregorNeil MacGregor is director of The British Museum and a BBC Radio 4 broadcaster. He writes popular books that inform and entertain in equal measure. The engaging prose, both authoritative and conversational, draws on MacGregor’s personal knowledge and the expertise of his colleagues. This is the work of a well connected and powerful supporter of academia, but it will appeal equally to readers with a non-academic background.

The book is a general overview of Elizabethan and Jacobean society, as seen through the poetic lens of Shakespeare’s plays. In concise chapters, the writing focuses on one topic at a time, highlighting an object taken from a particular museum or place – e.g. Henry V’s funeral arrangements located in Westminster Abbey (chapter six). The object(s) is discussed by MacGregor, alongside spliced interviews from experts, with Shakespeare’s language being referred to throughout. The poetry helps give the history a bit more spark, by framing it within a playful context. Topics include time (silver clock / A Winter’s Tale) and witchcraft (bewitched ship / Macbeth), and in total twenty objects alongside Shakespeare quotes a-plenty. The fact that Shakespeare can be used in such a way, and that people will still flock to buy the book / listened to the radio broadcasts, shows how popular the bard remains.

I think this book provides a fun and informative way of learning about Shakespeare’s time, and I will be recommending it to friends and family. It turns out that London used to have many problems that have long since disappeared. These days we do not have to worry about the black plague, public executions or witch burnings. The world has now been fully mapped and runs like clockwork. Everything in London is still restless, but at least now we have antibiotics and do not burn people based on superstitious beliefs. History teaches us to hold a mirror up to past, learn from what we see, and notice how it has shaped the present moment. When I watch or read a Shakespeare history play, it is clear to me that the bard was examining his own restless world, and commenting upon the ascension crises present in England during his own times. This book places emphasis on this theory by cleverly referencing objects and poetry.

The perfect book to dip into for fifteen minute time slots.

01: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 02/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

Lord Jim by Joseph ConradJoseph  Conrad (1857-1924) started writing novels at about the age of forty. In some ways, up to this crucial moment in the history of English literature, Conrad had been collecting the experience needed to let his imagination run free across space and time. He had worked in the British merchant navy and was a widely traveled man, able to speak several languages. When still a child, Conrad had lost his parents, two Polish nationalists who were punished under Russian occupation. Bearing this biography in mind, it is possible to view Lord Jim (1900) as a book very loosely based on the personal experience of a man with traveler’s constitution.

And this epic adventure is all about an heroic journey across the crumbling British Empire, and a man who is cast aside by  bumbleheads and bureaucrats. Stilted by his shame and pride after an incident involving a sinking steamer (biggish ship), Jim is destined to wander the seas in search of escape and meaning. All this time he is followed by the fair and just Marlow, who kind of takes the young lad on board as a friend and father figure. This same Marlow, the Marlow who narrates Heart of Darkness (1899), is the main narrator and is extremely observant and articulate. He is observant in the sense that he picks up on how people are feeling, and articulate because he can somehow express the emotions of characters who are unable to do so themselves. So in a way Marlow is a bit like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, able to observe and articulate the story, but at the same time slightly at a distance from it. The groundbreaking writing style, and the innovative focus on characters inner poetic sustenance, paved the way for the modernism (early twentieth century literary movement).

So this is where the nineteenth century ends; this, when the British Empire begun to shrivel and fall apart into something terrible closer to home: World War One. And as English literature started to breakup and spawn new ways of telling a story, so it would look back to Conrad, the great master of psychological suspense and the narrative adventures of white men, in a world that now feels alien to us – and perhaps a bit racist and sexist. I can imagine Virginia Woolf or T.S Eliot reading their copies of Lord Jim before whipping out another modernist classic. More likely than not, they would probably reread this sort of thing for inspiration, rather than opting for something by Sir Walter Scott or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I think Mr. J. Conrad deserves a (posthumous) knighthood.