Dan Sandman

Archive for April, 2015|Monthly archive page

17: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 24/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Moll Flanders by Daniel DefoeAs the novels of Jane Austen have shown, their was greater inequality between the sexes in the eighteenth century. Laws were put in place to restrict what woman could and couldn’t do, and so it was only possible for a woman to gain social status through marriage to a man. A twenty-first century liberal might see this as sexist, but the view that woman were inferior to men was backed up by church and state. It was men who could become priests or politicians, and it was men who ran the world to their own advantage. It was therefore no wonder that a woman might become an adulteress and a cut-purse, society was designed to stifle female emancipation through more honest means.

So in many ways Moll Flanders (1922) is an eighteenth century feminist novel, about a woman who makes her own way in a chauvinistic world. But Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731) would have seen it as a puritan attack on the sins of man. In fact, Defoe’s religious stance is so pressed forward in the preface, that the novel comes across as unintentionally ironical. But is Defoe really passing judgement on man’s sins, or is he reveling in sin by telling this bawdy and unholy story? Whichever way, contemporary novels are far less judgmental of their characters, just as contemporary society is far less guided by religious morals. These days, novels tend to focus on the inner worlds of characters, with novelists often opting for confessional first-person narratives.

What I find quite refreshing about Moll Flanders, and why I would recommend it to anyone looking to hear a good yarn, is that it is focused almost entirely on what happens next. Although today’s readers might be critical because the book lacks naturalism, Defoe’s insistence on plot makes for a compelling reading experience and a real page-turner. Don’t be put off by the size of the book, this really is an easy to read classic.

Thank you for reading and see you next week.

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16: The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 17/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Rise of the Novel by Ian WattDaniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding contributed significantly to the evolution of novel, the most popular form of prose writing. According to Professor Ian Watt, the rise of the novel is related to many significant social and religious changes that occurred during the eighteenth century; namely, the increase in literacy and the move towards individualism. In this brilliant and convincing book, Professor Watt uses eighteenth century sources, refers to sociological and philosophical thinkers such as Plato and Durkheim, and draws on his extensive knowledge of European literature. The result is an academic and entertaining study, which has engaged readers ever since its publication in 1957.

When Daniel Defoe was writing Robinson Crusoe (1719), the industrial revolution and the protestant work ethic helped to create a more individualist society where a man’s relationships could be seen as a series of financial transactions. As Watt makes very clear, the rise of capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism, is connected to the rise of the novel. In both Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (1722), Defoe focused on the ways in which his characters related to a developing capitalist society. In order to portray the relationship between people and money, Defoe evolved a realistic storytelling form which stressed his characters’ actions within merchant (Robinson Crusoe) and urban (Moll Flanders) environments, a method which immediately struck a chord with an increasingly less courtly readership.

Later in the development of the novel, Samuel Richardson started to explore the inner worlds of his characters, most famously in his seminal work Pamela; or Virtue Renewed (1740). As the subtitle to this love story suggests, Richardson developed the novel form whilst exploring his own puritan religious beliefs; moralizing, to a largely female audience, about the dangers of having sex outside of the marital bed. But what might have begun as a preachy book designed to help woman with their letter writing skills, ended up becoming the first essentially realistic portrayal of a fictionally created world. The epistolary technique (composing a series of letters to tell a story), that Richardson developed alongside his skills as a printer, was expanded upon eight years later, when he published perhaps the longest book in English literature Clarissa (1748).

One million words, of which I will probably never finish.

15: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 10/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William ShakespeareSurprisingly, Shakespeare wrote his first overtly political play Coriolanus towards the end of his career. It is about Caius Marsius, a proud Roman general who dislikes the Roman people and is disdainful towards them. Following a consummate victory against the Volsci armies, Marcius is awarded the title ‘Coriolanus’ after the city Corioles which he helped to conquer. However, because he is a dismal politician, and unable to conceal his hatred towards the public, Caius Marsius Coriolanus is exiled from Rome. Following his banishment, he joins forces with his former enemy and Volsci leader Aufidius to plot revenge.

Marsius is a blunt weapon, a brilliant soldier who turns traitor. Out of all Shakespeare’s tragic figures, he is perhaps the most difficult to sympathize with because he shows barely any redeeming human features. Perhaps all that can be argued in his defence is that he has a terrible mother, and that he is not completely cold to his wife. When we place him alongside the tragic heroes that Shakespeare created just before Coriolanus, this inhuman killing machine comes across somewhat as an oddity. Afterall, the bard had just given birth to the four greatest and most compelling tragic heroes ever to appear in English literature – Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Hamlet.

The critic Frank Kermode argues that Shakespeare may have simply run out of steam towards the end; other critics have argued that Coriolanus may not have been written by Shakespeare at all. I think that this Roman play may have been staged to covertly make some political points about the gap between the rich and the poor at the start of the seventeenth century. There would have been a great deal of insecurity present in Jacobian society at this time, especially since the childless Elizabeth I had just passed on the crown to the Scottish born King James I, therefore ending the Tudor line. As Neil MacGregor points out, Shakespeare’s world was a restless place to live in and could be dangerous. Perhaps theatre goers were looking for something that would excite their fears; something placed within a historical setting yet relevent to their own political concerns.  Indeed, history has seen many proud military-minded men who were unrestful during times of peace; and whether we choose to focus on Coriolanus as a Shakespearian anomaly or translate its politics to a modern-day setting, it remains as strange and powerful today as it ever was.

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

14: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 03/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Lucky Jim by Kingsly AmisJames Dixon works at an unnamed English university in the history department under Professor Welch. When Dixon is invited to an arty weekend at the Welch’s place, a series of comic incidents begin to occur that will mean Dixon must ride his luck – something that ‘Lucky Jim’ is actually quite good at. As Dixon gets tangled up by his own foolish behaviour, the comedy builds up to a crescendo.

Lucky Jim (1954) is a funny and skeptical book that sets Dixon’s questionable actions alongside the ironic tone of the narrator. A perfect example is the way in which a hangover is described at the start of chapter 6, following a night spent getting extremely drunk and setting fire to Mrs. Welch’s bedclothes.

‘He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.’ (pg. 61)

This sentence not only sums up Dixon’s feelings of wickedness as he lays static with a terrible hangover, but it craftily combines a simile (‘like a broken spider-crab’) with a metaphor (‘the tarry shingle of the morning’). It is the humorous combination of the sprawled human body, juxtaposed to imagery taken from the natural world, that turns Dixon’s self-imposed misfortune into comedy. When such literary techniques – which commonly occur in poetry – are expertly used to bring humour and lushness to the prose, the result can be seriously funny and aesthetically pleasing.

I think that Amis was ahead of his time in many ways, and yet part of a funny-novel history reaching back to such eighteenth century delights as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy). My reasoning is that this sort of humour (part naturalistic / part situational) has often been seen in contemporary British and American television series (e.g. The Office / Curb Your Enthusiasm). On the one hand, we are encouraged to empathise with Dixon as he struggles with the pretensions and snobbery of university life; and on the other hand, the narrator turns Dixon into a selfish and dishonest fool. A good way to argue for and against Dixon as a human being would be to look at his relationship with Christine. Although Christine is clearly more suited to Dixon then she is to Bertrand, the way in which Dixon woos Christine involves selfishness and dishonesty. However, Christine doesn’t seem to mind his silly actions and actually finds them quite amusing. And it is only because she sees him for the flawed and pathetic creature he truly is, that Dixon allows himself to fall in love with her.

And love soon turns this comedy into a romance.