Dan Sandman

Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

35: Antigone by Sophocles

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 28/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Antigone by SophoclesThis Cambridge edition of Sophocles’ play is easy to follow. The new translation is in clear English and sticks to the original plot. Next to the text itself, on adjacent pages, are notes to help engage readers with the play. These notes fulfill several functions, providing explanation and analysis, as well as stimulating thought and discussion.

For the laymen, such notes are an excellent idea. Two and a half thousand years is an extremely long time, and the book’s detailed commentary is designed to help close the cultural time gap. Instead of having to look up Bacchus in a classics dictionary, his story is summarized on the opposite page (lines 1075-1114). Time and time again, I found myself enjoying these notes, which have obviously been written directly with students in mind.

As I prepare for postgraduate study, I am looking forward to studying this timeless Greek drama. From my initial research, I am beginning to understand more about classical literature. This understanding has helped me to appreciate my favourite English poets and dramatists in a more informed way. Just as Shakespeare frequently referenced Greek gods and characters within in his plays, the Romantics also looked back to this ‘golden age’ for inspiration. In particular, Sophocles is credited by Aristotle for inventing the ‘tragic hero’ form. This device, whereby a character such as Antigone or Creon is doomed by a ‘tragic flaw’, has been used by playwrights ever since.

Arguably.

34: The Handbook to Literary Research by Delia da Sousa and W.R. Owens

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 21/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Handbook to Literary Research by Delia da Sousa and W.R. OwensLiterary research will be an important part of my MA in English at the Open University. This prescribed book will work as a helpful companion to my studies. Written by teachers for students, it is organized into a series of helpful and informative chapters. Each chapter includes citations and internet links to encourage further study.

It is the kind of reference book that can be dipped into whenever a question arises. The opening chapter ‘Tools of the Trade’ will be particularly useful to those considering post-graduate or PhD level literary research. There are also useful chapters on the relatively new discipline of book history, the institutionalization of literary theory, and several more relevant subjects, which would be of interest to any twenty-first century literature student. All sections are presented in manner which is both comprehensive and academically secure.

But this text book is also very easy to follow and edited in an equally accessible way. Although there are a number of different writing styles included in the text, each writer has made sure that the writing is set to teach. And so, the book is not overly academic and teaches the basics first. An accomplished companion for anyone interested in conducting literary research.

Recommended.

33: Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction, History, Non-Fiction on 14/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Duskland by J. M. CoetzeeThis chilling debut novel contains two first person accounts: firstly, the disturbing thoughts of an American propagandist during the Vietnam War; and secondly, the brutal narrative of a frontiersman and elephant hunter. The first account is by all appearances a work of fiction, whilst the second account is framed by the translator as an historical document (pg. 85). By melding supposed fiction with supposed history, Coetzee asks the reader to question the validity of historical truth. When we consider this in the light of J.M Coetzee’s autobiographical work Boyhood (1997), we can begin to understand the difficult relationship that Coetzee has with historical truth.

As America was suffering huge defeats in Vietnam, across the world steps were being taken by colonialist nations to decolonize. A quick Wikipedia search will show that forty two African nations were granted independence between 1955 and 1975 (the twenty year period in which the ‘American War’ was thought). By the time Dusklands was published in 1974, Portugal’s African empire had collapsed. African politics scholar Jonathan Farley sees this as a turning point, leading to independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994 (see Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley). This is the historical context within which Coetzee was finishing his novel, a creative process which involved literary research at The British Museum.

It is fascinating to think of Coetzee living in London, before the two Booker Awards and the Nobel Prize for Literature, sifting through the archives of my local museum. In fact, it is inspiring to know that his scholarly novels can still be published and appreciated by a wide audience. The more I learn about fiction and history, the more I realize how important novels are to me. The novel form can work independently from the dates, figures and ideologies purveyed by historians and journalists. Humanistic storytelling can help the reader to feel empathy towards other cultures, and to question the received wisdom of politically motivated ‘non-fiction’. Dusklands has been criticized for not being harsh enough on the frankly genocidal eighteenth century explorers portrayed in the second half of the novel. Instead of being condemned by Dr. S.J Coetzee (the novelist’s father) in his 1951 edition (pg.85), they are celebrated in the afterword as ‘honorable’ (pg.166). However, if this slim novel fails to fully address the warped education system of apartheid era South Africa, this overhanging issue is explored more fully in the autobiographical work Boyhood.

Today he would probably be keeping a blog for that sort of thing.

32:Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

In Books, Fiction on 07/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Under the Volcano by Malcolm LowryUnfortunately for fans of literary fiction, Malcolm Lowry completed a mere two novels in his lifetime, preceding his premature death at the age of forty seven. According to the coroner’s verdict, Lowry died of ‘death by misadventure’, largely due to excessive alcohol consumption. His most influential work Under the Volcano (1947) is set in Mexico, where four central characters can be observed plummeting down towards tragedy. Written by an alcoholic about an alcoholic, it is noteworthy for its descriptions of mescalin and tequila binges, which complement Lowry’s heavily ornamented and referential prose style.

But beyond the reckless boozing, this unique novel depicts the volcanic Mexican landscape with great clarity. Indeed, the evocative way in which Lowry sets the scene is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad at the peak of his powers. From the perspective of the characters inside this tragic story, Mexico forms a suitably miserable backdrop. At one point, a dying man is left to bleed at the side of the road whilst someone snatches his purse (pg. 250). The general feeling of apathy expressed by the Mexican public towards this incident is typical of how Lowry chooses to portray his ‘Quauhnahuc’ as a symbolic hell. In its gloomy way, the overall tone is very disparaging towards Mexicans and, more’s to the point, humanity in general. This ugly element of the narrative is enhanced when the guitar player Hugh expresses his questionable feelings regarding antisemitism (chapter VI). Hugh’s disgusting attitudes are particular troubling when we consider that the novel is set just before World War Two.

Perhaps it the over consumption of alcohol which has led to the ugliness and cynicism present in this text. The four characters – Geoffrey (the Consul), M. Laruelle, Hugh and Yvonne – are privileged, highly educated and well traveled members of civilized society. And yet, made worse by their reliance on booze to drown their sorrows, they are unable to face the universal pressures of human existence. Their lives therefore swing from intense loneliness to extreme beauty; from powerful resentment to absolute love. Like the volcano that towers above them, these fragile human beings teeter always on the edge of eruption.

Brimful with poetry.