Dan Sandman

Archive for November, 2015|Monthly archive page

48: Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Romance on 27/11/2015 at 12:00 pm

Rob Roy by Sir Walter ScottBy 1817, an unprecedented number of books by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) were being sold.  Not only was Scott the first best seller in the English language, but he has since been credited for his invention of the historical novel. When placed within the context of the history of the book, Scott’s significance as a canonical writer of worldwide influence becomes most clear. But how should we approach Scott’s writing today? Can it still be taught to school children in the age of the internet.

The first thing that will strike a modern reader is the two hundred year old English being used by the narrator Mr. Francis Osbaldistone. Although his first person narrative is written in a sprightly style, which energetically jumps off the page, it could easily be judged as overcomplicated by today’s concise standard. When the lush narration is then combined with characters’ frequent use of the Scottish dialect circa early eighteenth century, our need yo translate becomes more paramount.

That being said, despite the difficulty that this reader had with the English and Scots, I very much enjoyed reading this two century aged text. All the components of great traditional storytelling are present within the work: a plot that encompasses a particular moment in history; a vivid series of different characters who live within this historical moment; and a confident control of the chosen language. These three things – plot, characters, style – remain the key skills to master before producing a best selling historical novel. The rest is hard graft and extensive research into your chosen period.

I wonder if there is a novel about the life of Sir Walter Scott out there?


47: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 20/11/2015 at 12:00 pm

Fiesta by Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) created confident and unsentimental works of fiction, drawing on his autobiographical experiences. In particular, he had a talent for naturalistic dialogue and an observant eye for detail. To his credit, his work has a fierce authenticity to it, combining travel writing with non plot driven storytelling. Against these great literary achievements, lie the macho characters, who frequently use racial slurs and behave in an anti-Semitic manner. On top of this, they often view woman with a problematic lack of understanding and suffer from seriously debilitating drink problems.

Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1927) begins in the bars of bohemian Paris and ends up at a Spanish fiesta, via a Spanish fishing adventure. It is a drinking novel, where men who have fought in the war are constantly ‘getting tight’ and fighting. Hemingway was a bull fighting aficionado, a word which derives from the Spanish word for passion. This becomes very clear when we come across detailed analysis of the violent sport, for example in chapter 18. Hemingway was also an expert on drunken behaviour, having probably been what we might refer to as an alcoholic. At the age of sixty one, he blew his head off with a shotgun.

Of course, biographical knowledge is an important tool we can use to understand a writer’s artistic output, especially when so much of it is based on the artist’s life. Yet to focus on Hemingway’s life story too much would be to serve him an injustice. What separates Hemingway from the drunks that he writes about is his mastery of the English language, in particular his ear for the way real people talk. Many writers are able to bring to life vivid foreign landscapes, but to accurately mimic the speech patterns we use is something else completely. Reading this début novel is like actually being alive during the 1920s.


46: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

In Books, Fiction on 13/11/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Gap of Time by Jeanette WintersonThe Hogarth Press are publishing a series of Shakespeare rewrites ‘by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.’ The list of eight writers is: Margaret Atwood, Tracy Chevalier, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson, Jo Nesbo, Edmund St Aubyn, Anne Tyler, and Jeanette Winterson. Personally, I am looking forward to reading Howard Jacobson doing The Merchant of Venice and Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation of Othello. To start with though, I thought this version of A Winter’s Tale would do nicely.

Now, it pretty much does what you expect it to do, and it’s done very well. Leo is a member of the ‘one percent’ of wealthy people who arguably own the world, which used to be owned by kings with names Leonates. He thinks his pop star wife is having an affair with his game designer best mate (who he had a gay relationship with back at school). This all ends first in tears and then in forgiveness, when the younger members of the cast return from afar to fix the past / bridge the gap of time. Meanwhile, one of Shakespeare’s best characters Autolycus (original name) has humourously been turned into a fast car salesman (they didn’t have automobiles in Shakespeare’s day).

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Jeanette Winterson has always employed four letter words and sexually explicit antics in her books. The swearwords and language of a sexual nature are intelligently placed: sometimes adding humour to the text; at other times creating layers of emotion underpinning the action. As anyone who has been forced to read Romeo and Juliet at school will have learnt, or anyone has booked a ticket at The Globe theatre will have heard, inventive insults and complicated relationships are abound in Shakespeare. However, for plausible reasons, as far as we know, no overt phallus based behaviour is embedded in the stage directions of the first folio of The Winter’s Tale.

Just a man being killed by a bear.

45: The Inheritors by William Golding

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 06/11/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Inheritors by William GoldingIn The Outline of History (1919), H.G. Wells gave numerous reasons why Neanderthal man ‘may be the germ of the ogre in folk-lore’. The grandfather of science fiction makes a convincing argument for why this may be the case, but by doing so somewhat distances Neanderthals from their homo-sapient conquerors. Perhaps with a view to addressing this dehumanization, the literary genius Sir William Golding directed his masterful control of the English language upon our prehistoric forefathers. The result is a poetically fierce book, that places you directly alongside our  evolutionary cousins. By the novel’s ending, you will begin to imagine our origins in a completely new way.

This is a novel about seeing. Its central character Lok sees into ‘the others’ world (the others being the homo-sapiens). Lok peers at them from behind bushes, observing their behaviour and studying their relationships with themselves and their environment. Meanwhile, the poetry of the forest plays out all around him: the glint of the moonlight; the ripples of the water. Like some sort of prehistoric Ted Hughes poem, the forest is alive with the hunt. But unlike the poet Hughes, the mercurial novelist Golding is able to maintain a clarity of vision for 233 pages of perfectly constructed prose.

The reasons for my admiration towards Golding are many, yet I believe the key to his genius was his ability to vary his style according to his subject material. Unlike most run-of the-mill writers of prose fiction, who repeat a nearly identical writing style from book to book, Golding adapted his style and language in order to make better stories. He makes you feel like you are inside the minds of his characters, or viewing the real actions of a long extinct species of people, by putting his own imagination completely at the mercy of the story. Such courageous artistry sometimes results in you being confused by what’s going on, but because it’s all done so brilliantly you’ll want to pick up and read again.

I am almost made speechless by how good this book is.