Dan Sandman

Archive for September, 2015|Monthly archive page

39: Finn Family Moomintroll

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 25/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove JanssonMoomintroll lives in Moominhouse with Moominmama and Moominpapa and the Snork Maiden and the Hemulen and Snufkin and (later in the story) Thingamy and Bob. Moominhouse is located in Moomin Valley, which is quite near the Lonely Mountains and the cave, and not too far from Hattifattener’s Island (the Hattifatener’s, it should be mentioned, are cucumber shaped creatures with wavy little hands). On their adventures, Moomintroll and his friends meet lots of quite scary characters, like the Ant-lion (who lives in a hole in the sand) and the Groke (who doesn’t really look dangerous). Quite often, something magical happens to Moomintroll and his friends. Sometimes the Hobgoblin’s hat might turn the river into raspberry juice, or they find the King’s Ruby inside the Groke’s suitcase (if you don’t know what a Groke is, please ask your mother, who is bound to know).

All of these adventures are really very exciting for adult readers, especially because the pictures are so expertly drawn. The late Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001) had a very wonderful imagination. Her Moomin books are the funniest, saddest and most philosophical books in the world. Do not be surprised if you find yourself tearful during chapter 7 (which is very long), or bursting into laughter at one of Jansson’s ironic footnotes (which are scattered at the bottom of various pages – like they are when professors write big books about extremely important stuff).

Moomin Valley is much like lots of places that I’ve been to, but it’s much more fun. Strange happenings seem to occur everyday, characters aren’t afraid to think about life’s serious questions, and everyone is a bit kinder to outsiders (even scary ones) then they tend to be in most places. So that’s why I like to go there, to visit the forests of Finland at bedtime. It makes me see that the world is much nicer than in the newspapers, and helps me to drift into sweeter dreams.

When I switch off the light.

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38: The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays on 18/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Burial at Thebes by Seamus HeaneyThe Burial at Thebes by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) is a translation of the Antigone myth. It was first published in 2004, nine years before Heaney died in Dublin. His skills as a poet were second to none, and I’m so glad that this book exists. It pretty much follows the original play by Sophocles in terms of plot and character. Where it differs from more ‘authentic’ translations (i.e. ones that try to replicate the Greek), is in its particular choice of phrasing. I wouldn’t dare say that it improves upon other scholarly versions, but the English certainly feels more readable than it does in the Cambridge text I recently reviewed. Somehow, Heaney succeeded in almost perfectly balancing plain and poetic English, whilst staying true to the Ancient Greek roots of Sophocles’ Antigone.

At first glance, the text appears to be a mix of blank verse and plain prose. Just like in many Shakespeare plays, characters of different social standing use English in different ways. For example, when Creon makes his opening speech to the Chorus of elders, it is presented in fine poetic verse. The precisely measured way in which he uses ship imagery – ‘Our ship of state’ (pp.9) – and repetition of certain words – ‘city’, ‘good’, ‘fail[s]’ – are typical rhetorical devises used by politicians throughout history. Creon’s commanding use of language is contrasting to the more bawdy language of the Guard – ‘loony’, ‘old dog for the hard road’, ‘over a barrel’ (pp.12). Although the Guard speaks in an engaging way and uses his own earthly imagery, his inability to speak in blank verse and his lexical choices represent a gulf in class. When we notice the juxtaposition between the two approaches to the English language, the result is actually quite comic.

But this play is not a comedy, and Creon is not a character with a good sense of humour. No, the tragedy that befalls the city of Thebes is a lesson set to hold a mirror up to society. As Professor Simon Goldhill of Kings College London points out, the first audiences of the classic Athenian tragedies were partaking in a religious festival called the Great Dionysia. This pompe would have included the sacrifice of bulls; a strange parade, involving bread and fake penises, led by an aristocratic virgin woman; and the performance of tragic plays, such as Antigone, with a moral message. Today, we do not worship pagan gods or slaughter animals on a night out at the theatre. However, human beings continue to live and love and die, and we still struggle to understand what it all means. This is where literature can help us come to terms with our own lives. By updating ancient texts, writers draw upon the wisdom of those who came before.

May we continue to translate this remarkable play.

37: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays, Poetry on 11/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare 2Caius Martius is a soldier and not a politician. He can kill with consummate professionalism, but he cannot speak in a way which pleases the people. In Roman terms, Caius is seen by the plebeians as a proud patrician, looking down upon the people with aristocratic disdain. For a Jacobean audience, such a soldier – raised because of his exploits in battle, unable to function in a peacetime court, and eventually accused of treason – might have reminded playgoers of Sir Walter Ralegh and Robert Devereux. These recent historic echoes, most likely emanating from Shakespeare’s audience, would have been compounded by feelings of uncertainty surrounding the newly appointed King James I. As Neil Macgregor points out, Shakespeare lived in a ‘restless world’ much like our own.

In twenty-first century British politics, it is difficult to think of a Coriolanus figure. Professional soldiers are rarely celebrated in public, and former troops seldom become prominent politicians (the only example I can think of is Paddy Ashdown). Military prowess has become something mostly valued within the soldiering community, and the idea of the ‘warrior politician’ is perhaps suited to more revolutionary times. Therefore, British actor and director Ralph Fiennes’ recent film version was filmed Serbia and not Britain.

I very much admire the Fiennes adaptation. The script gives me less Shakespeare (bard written words) than other interpretations, but the stunts and special effects team have done a fantastic job. However, the version I continually return to on DVD is the 1984 production from the BBC. When I read Aufidius’ lines, it is often Mike Gwilym’s voice that jumps out at me. Gwilym’s muscular performance and overall vocal control is something to be admired. And, just as a particular actor can inspire a different reading of a text, each printed edition of Coriolanus available (Penguin, Arden, Oxford, etc) will engage with the reader in a different way. For example, this NCS (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) edition (see picture) includes a one hundred and one page introduction, full notes underneath the script, and an incredibly detailed textual analysis section. All of this extra information, spawned from four hundred years of interpretation, will not be of interest to most people. However, for scholars such as myself, it will provide sustenance and stimulation.

And a companion for life.

36: The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G Farrell

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 04/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. FarrellIt is 1857 in colonial Hindustan and mutiny is in air. Rather foolishly, a decision has been made to use a meat-based product to oil the guns used by the British controlled Sepoy troops. Being Hindu and therefore vegetarian, the Sepoy interpret the decision as a great mark of ignorance and disrespect. This unforgivable blunder, a thoughtless order, is the final straw to break the camel’s back, leading not only to strike action but to full-scale military rebellion. Meanwhile, the Brits continue to live the life of luxury, chatting about the Great Exhibition at the newly built Crystal Palace and discussing the benefits of living within a ‘superior civilization’.

As the rebels siege the residency gates, the British are caught up in an often humorous and thoroughly enjoyable adventure. Funny characters include the constantly evangelizing padre, who can’t stop preaching about God’s vengeance for the ‘sins’ of man, even in the middle of a terrible and gruesome battle; the rather dippy Fleury, whose appreciation of Keats seems somewhat irrelevant when stood behind a twelve inch cannon; and the pointless Louise, worried about her spots and making cake because she is only a woman. Almost to counter the uncanny Victorian behavior of the above characters, the Collector is on hand with his liberal-minded and rationally humanist outlook. Yet still, even the Collector’s viewpoint is rooted in the ideals and values of assumed superiority present within the British Empire: a perspective which presumes the authority of the Christian church and takes white-male superiority as a granted right.

At this point, it might be interesting to think about how the Victorians presented themselves in literature. After all, this book was published in 1973, at a time when the academic world was busy questioning the arguably racist and sexist undercurrents present within colonial literature. Yes, Rudyard Kipling knew how to tell a great story, but why do his stories not portray strong woman struggling to find their place in the world? And why does Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte include an insane creole woman whose been locked up in an attic by her seemingly rational husband? These are the sorts of things that historical fiction can be rather good at poking fun at, and, in his funny yet serious way, J.G Farrell did a spectacular job with this adventure book, the first part of his Empire Trilogy.

Can’t wait to read the next two books.