Dan Sandman

Archive for July, 2015|Monthly archive page

31: The Pyramid by William Golding

In Books, Fiction on 31/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Pyramid by William GoldingWilliam Golding will always be known as the man who wrote Lord of the Flies (1954), but each one of his novels are worth investigating. The Pyramid (1967) is a coming of age novel set in an early twentieth century village, and is narrated in the first person by a man looking back on his childhood and youth. There is no overt plot to the story, with the reader being left to speculate indirectly about what has happened. Instead of telling his story in a plot-driven manner, the narrator chooses to allude to incidents through the unreliable haze of memory, perhaps because the truth can only be guessed at in these illusory terms.

And so, it is what might be called a novel of style; a fictional work where the language used, as opposed to the story tolled, is the most important narrative aspect. Through the way in which the narrator organizes his memories in non-chronological order, the reader is asked to explore memory in a way that more truly represents how people really think and truly feel. Our childhood and youth are not simple children’s stories, with a simple beginning, middle and end; they are complicated puzzles, with fragments of things long lost and buried deep beneath our consciousness. But by engaging in an intelligent way with literature and other art forms – such as music, which is frequently referred to in The Pyramid – we can find meaningful symbols for the existential questions we undoubtedly all ask as human beings turning our way through the book of life, until the final page is closed.

And speaking of books, at the front of my 1969 paperback edition, just after the title page, Golding writes the following dedication: ‘For My Son [and then a gap] DAVID’. Perhaps, by the evidence suggested by this unadorned message, somewhere in this novel, there is a father passing on a message to a son. But whether or not this novel does contain a strong autobiographical element, its narrative style and thematic focus, the non-linear exploration of past memory, in its understated way, reads as though it might have been written by a contemporary British literary novelist – perhaps a Julian Barnes or an Ian McEwan. This must be because William Golding was unquestionably one of the most influential British novelists of the twentieth century. And although this may not be the great writer’s best novel, it is still heads and tails above most of the fiction I am yet to come across.

A pyramid of literary brilliance.

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30: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

In Books on 24/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott CardIn the nineteen eighties, science fiction was an established part of global popular culture. Many great SF films were being produced and enjoyed by millions of fans worldwide; comic book shops had sprung up in our towns and cities; and heavy metal could be heard blasting out in record shops and on live stages. Arguably, all of this had sprung from a Gothic fantasy novel called Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, a book that riffed on enlightenment fears surrounding scientific advancement. Then, in the Victorian era, a British writer called H.G. Wells begun to expand on the ‘scientific romance’ novels made popular by the French writer Jules Verne before him. These books used the latest scientific theories to create exciting stories, and, like their Gothic predecessors, played on human anxieties surrounding technological advances, contact with alien civilizations, and the evolutionary changes that might occur as a result of man’s actions.

Later, in the twentieth century, with America and Russia competing to be the first to venture to the moon, questions surrounding the potential long-term consequences of space travel were raised by the science fiction novel Foundation (1951) by Isaac Asimov. It is within this historical context that Orson Scott Card begun writing Ender’s Game (1985), a novel about a boy who is trained to become a deadly weapon. This now classic story was made into a film in 2013, sparking renewed interest in a series of books known as the Ender saga.

Speaker for the Dead (1986) is volume two of the Ender saga, and occurs three thousand years after the first story. Due to the time-shifting effects of space travel, Ender is still in his thirties and has spent his life travelling from planet to planet. After the scene is set, he travels to a Catholic community, who live inside a fenced zone alongside an alien species called the Piggies. In a similar way to Ender’s Game, this second installment is a moral tale about why alien cultures are misjudged and how alien encounters are mishandled. It is only through Ender’s intuitive use of empathy, diplomacy and honesty, that bridges can be built between different civilizations. Heroically, he is able to understand different viewpoints and question the rule of law when appropriate.

Many present-day diplomats could learn from such a hero.

29: Don Juan by Lord Byron

In Books, Literature, Poetry on 17/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

Don Juan by Lord ByronThe last thing that Lord Byron ever wrote was the number fifteen, signifying that he was about to begin the next stanza of Don Juan. Byron’s epic poem has sixteen cantos, and a total of 1,990 stanzas (yes, I have sat there and added up each canto). Throughout the entire poem, exactly the same poetic form is maintained for every single stanza. This strict consistency of rhyme scheme and metre holds the poem together, whereas the digressive manner in which the narrative shifts its voice and viewpoint pulls it apart. It is this exciting combination, of strong formal construction working in tandem with an unpredictable epic story line, that both illuminates and mocks the poetry and politics of the early nineteenth century.  The clever way in which an astonishing number of variations are formed with confidence, and in what appears to be an almost improvised manner, is still a remarkable achievement almost two hundred years since the poem was first published.

Don Juan was first read in series, with cantos being released from 1819 to 1824, and this might help to explain its enormous length. Byron was very much a precursor for our present day stars of the silver screen, whose private lives fill up row upon row of glossy magazines in today’s newsagents. These were the days when a poet could become a famous celebrity, and Byron had accumulated many fans, ever since he published a previous epic poem called Childe Harold’s Pilgramage between 1812 and 1818. These fans would have been waiting for each canto, anticipating what controversial and amusing things that Byron might come up with next. At the same, the contentious poet’s critics were sat ready to deride each new work, accusing him of heresy against the sacred art of poetry. Indeed, Byron is very aware of what his critics think, and part of the playful art of Don Juan is the way in which he criticizes the critics – as well as nearly every renowned person of the day – within the poem itself.

Don Juan feels like an arrogant, self-obsessed and incredibly clever anti-everything attack on the whole of civilization. It is funny, witty and entertaining, serving up great quantities of quotable lines about almost any subject one can imagine. However, and here’s my main criticism, it is not as beautiful as a sixteen line poem by John Keats. This is because when Byron is at his most Byronic, he begins to look ugly, creating word pools that distort our perception of what so-called Romantic poetry should be. Keats might have written less stanzas than Byron, but he will make you question what it is to be human or alive or something.

Read Keats first, then Byron if you have the time.

28: Antigone by Jean Anouilh

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 10/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

Anitgone by Jean AnouilhDuring the Nazi occupation of France, the playwright Jean Anouilh reworked Antigone by Sophocles, choosing to keep the plot more or less the same. But Anouilh added many elements of his own, and in particular wrote a celebrated exchange between the idealist Antigone and the realist Creon. This heated conflict is about whether Antigone should become a martyr for what she believes in, or whether Creon can convince her to give up her unlawful beliefs for the sake of stability. In the light of the French Nazi conspirators, this raises interesting questions about whether it is right to break the law under certain political conditions.

It is controversial that Creon is portrayed almost in a reasonable way in the Anouilh reworking, whereas in the Sophocles original he is far closer to a typical totalitarian despot. In the Anouilh version, Creon’s arguments for why Antigone should not admit to her crime of burying her brother’s body are entirely convincing, and the way in which he pleads with his niece is appropriate for an uncle. Creon’s problem is that he cannot reconcile the rational responsibilities of being king with the emotions of a family feud, when at a crucial point during the argument he turns Antigone against him by mentioning ‘happiness’ because he wants to offer his advice as a father figure.

Antigone does not want to grow old and be happy, instead she wants to die young and be miserable. This is why she is unable to compromise when a deal is offered, and why the tragedy is so profound in the end. It is so tragic that the idealistic Antigone cannot listen to reason, so sad that the powerful King Creon chooses not to hear the please of the chorus and must destroy his family because of his principles. Although the debate between idealism and realism is relevant to the World War Two period, I believe that the strength of Anouilh’s adaptation lies not in any comment on contemporary politics, but in its ability to represent the complete unraveling of a ruling family.

Sort of like King Lear or The Godfather.

27: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 03/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Good Terrorist by Doris LessingThis is my third review of a Doris Lessing novel, and each book has explored the darker side of the human condition with an unflinching exactness. In her brave and uncompromising style, Lessing is able to get inside the troubled and unstable minds of her characters. Her work – or at least the three novels I have reviewed – asks a difficult question about the world in which we live: why do so many people feel deeply angry towards society, and what might be the human cost of this anger?

In a north London squat, comrade Alice is flat sharing with a disparate bunch of revolutionaries who are set against the ‘fascist’ powers of the capitalist system. The story is tolled in the third person, using flashbacks to explore the protagonist’s past memories. As the narrator follows Alice around, it feels like a camera is filming Alice from above, casting the reader as voyeur to the action and thoughts and dialogue of life inside the commune. But because of the expert way that Lessing masters the narrative, choosing to stay with Alice and focus on her world, the story never looses its coherent form and structure. There is a stream of consciousness approach to the writing, but, in contrast to the more experimental novels of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, Lessing maintains a sense of control, choosing not to veer off into different viewpoints or poetry.

Not many novelists could pull this trick off effectively, for this long (397 pages), and keep the plot going along a smooth trajectory. The masterful way in which the plot drives the story is almost reminiscent of Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, a book that demonstrates the best practice for keeping a first person narrative moving along effectively. The Good Terrorist is a thorough example of how to explore character in relation to action; it is also a complex comment on the political troubles present in Thatcher’s Britain. It was first published thirty years ago in 1985, and has stood the test of time well.

Highly recommended.