Dan Sandman

Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

13: Antigone by Sophocles

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 27/03/2015 at 12:00 pm

Antigone by SophoclesThe background to this tragedy involves the previous king of Thebes Oedipus, who had four children – Eteocles, Polynices, Ismene and Antigone. The two brothers have recently both been killed in a fight on opposite sides; Eteocles on the side of Thebes and Polynices on the side of Argos. Since Oedipus and both his sons are dead, Creon (brother of Oedipus / uncle to the four children) is now king of Thebes. The first thing that Creon does is to give Eteocles full burial rites and to leave Polynices unburied. Creon threatens all with death who dare touch the exposed corpse, but the fearless Antigone will not bow down to her uncle.

Sophocles wrote this play around 441 BC, and it would have been performed in an amphitheatre to a circling seated crowd (early stages were constructed with surrounding hills). It is possible to imagine the gasps and cries from the stands, as the drama unfolded before these ancient theatre-goers. As far we know, these early performances are the blue-print for all that follows – the European renaissance, the romantic era and the Broadway musical. And because these classical stories focus on family feuds and political intrigue, they continue to be reinterpreted and watched by new audiences.

Unsurprisingly, when the play was staged in Nazi Germany, the Nazi interpretation was to side with Creon the dictator, who spends much of his time stomping around and stamping out his authority (Hitler mustache prop ready on standby). In more recent times, feminists have sided with Antigone for her brave fight against a male dominated society. Yet, however the play has been interpreted, it continues to create an emotional reaction whenever and wherever it is performed well. I think this might have something to do with the poetry and the drama – two things that we need as human beings.

The poetry and the drama.


12: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

In Books, Fiction on 20/03/2015 at 12:00 pm

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo IshiguroKazuo Ishiguro (1954 – ) was born in Nagasaki and came to England in 1960. His first three books form a loose trilogy themed around trauma caused by World War Two. The first book A Pale View of Hills (1982) is narrated by Etsuko, a widow who has moved from Nagasaki to England. As her second daughter Niki stays to visit, Etsuko is reminded of a friendship she formed whilst pregnant with her first daughter Keiko in Japan. As the reader is calmly informed from the outset, Keiko committed suicide by hanging herself.

As Etsuko attempts to deal with such morbid topics as suicide and the dropping of nuclear bombs, her narrative is patchy and full of doubt. Left out are the precise details of what happened to Keiko, why it happened and how it might be connected with Etsuko’s memories. It is as though Etsuko is too traumatized to confront the past directly, instead choosing to tell her story with a passive sort of sadness. Because Etsuko leaves so much unsaid, it is up to the reader to fill in the gaps, to almost take on the role of psychologist and analyse the text for what truly lies beneath its surface.

I like Ishiguro, and having read more about him, appreciate his clever way of telling a story using memory. There is something uncomfortable about not being given the complete story, but I am assured that this is a highly advanced narrative technique (not just lazy writing) and must be given due praise. In fact, nothing could feel more heavily worked and reworked than this story, as if the whole creative process was about distilling the tale into essential its elements, leaving me to figure out the rest. Potentially, this makes it a good book for a reading group because it is open to interpretation.

Recommended reading.

11: Fire Down Below by William Golding

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 13/03/2015 at 12:00 pm

Fire Down Below by William GoldingIt is 1813, a ship is on its way from England to the antipodes. Onboard is Edmund Talbot, a young aristocrat set to receive a government position. As the vessel battles storms and icebergs, Edmund finds friendship and conflict with both crew and passengers. The ensuing tale is one of adventure, danger and romance; a most worhty end to this Nobel Prize winning story.

In many ways, the sea trilogy is a coming age series of novels; the journey of a young man whose charcater eventually turns against intellectual and emotional snobbery. And, as he travels, he is tutored by the people he meets and gets to know. There is Charles Summers, the seaman who helps Edmund to understand and respect the language and techniques of sailing; Mr. Prettimen, the philosopher who teaches him a new way of thinking about politics; and most imporatntly, Miss Chumley, who teaches him how to love a woman. All of these encounters, intensified by the lack of physical space and the need to maintain disipline, bring out the best in Edmund Talbot.

I read somewhere that before William Golding (1911 – 1993) wrote novels, he worked as a school teacher and a Royal Navy rocket ship commnader during World War Two. So I think it makes sense that his novels are often Bildungsroman (works of education) and usually involve some sort of seafaering element. Golding places characters in difficult circumstances–such as this year-long voyage, or being stuck on an island (Lord of the Flies), or building a faulty church (The Spire)–and is profoundly interest in human interaction. He was a wise man with much to say about the world and the meaning of our fragile lives.

Golding was knighted by the the Queen in 1988.

10: Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Romance on 06/03/2015 at 12:00 pm

Almayer's Folly by Joseph ConradJoseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) (1857 – 1924) lived a somewhat displaced life, and often created characters who have traveled far away from their homeland. Writing towards the end of the British Empire, his best-known work has been criticised for its outdated portrayal of ‘the other’. But despite over a hundred years of literary criticism, his writing continues to grip new readers because it is written with great narrative verve. For when the reader opens a Conrad novel, it is the narrative – as opposed to the story – that centres itself. In other words, the way that he tells the story is more important than the plot.

And this remarkable first novel (published in 1895), in only twelve chapters, inhabits place and character in a way that is vivid and lucid and almost transcendental. The exotic setting (the Malay archipelago), is beautifully brought to life, written with that Conrad-esque clarity of vision, equally at ease when pinpointing a character trait as it is when directing the dramatic action. Further more, these emotions, these actions, smoothly pull and shift alongside changes in the weather, the Malay people and the sea.

One character that stands out for me is Nina, the young girl who falls in love with the forbidden Dian. Her father Almayer is a white European, a failed merchant who loves Nina deeply. He is in conflict with his wife Mrs. Almayer, a Malay woman rumored to be a witch. At the start of the book, Nina is sent to a convent by her father, who wishes her to adopt Christian values. However, as Almayer foolishly builds an unfinished house nicknamed ‘Almayer’s Folly’, his business begins to fail and his daughter returns home. Later Nina falls in love with the fugitive Dian (wanted by the white authorities), and is asked to choose between her European father and her Malay lover.

A melancholic and stirring romance.