Dan Sandman

Archive for October, 2016|Monthly archive page

44: Ben in the World by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 28/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

ben-and-the-world-by-doris-lessingBen is eighteen, although he looks much older than this. He is different to everyone else. His shoulders are extremely broad and his eyes respond very sensitively to light. The world is unkind to Ben because he has the innocence of a child. Ben is a neanderthal living alone in the world. The human beings in his life exploit him for being different. Those who care for him either abandon or betray him. This is the second part of his sad story: a sequel to The Fifth Child.

In part one of the story, we observed how Ben was treated unkindly by his family and sent to an institution. Part two deals with much the same themes, but now we see how the world treats Ben. His first experience is with an old lady who is kind to him. But when she encourages him to find a job, Ben’s troubles continue. Whilst working on a London building site, he meets a prostitute called Rita and her pimp Johnston. Rita is also kind to Ben but lets him be used as Johnston’s drug smuggler. In France, Ben is spotted by movie director Alex who takes him to Brazil to shoot a film. Eventual Alex abandons the idea to film Ben, leaving him with Teresa who is kind to him. When Teresa allows Ben to be sent to a scientific facility, things take another turn for the worse.

This sad story uses the authorial voice of the past-tense to create irony. It is a plot-driven narrative orchestrated by an authoritative voice. The irony comes from the juxtaposition of this voice alongside the unlikely coincidences. The overall effect on the reader is an uncanny blurring of the real world which Ben must navigate. We know Ben’s world is not real, but we non-the-less suspend our disbelief. This lack of strict realism makes the novel more discursive. The point is to make us think about / discuss Ben in the real / unreal world. How does society treat those who don’t fit in? Why is Ben such a tragic character? Do we feel pity for him or something less easy to define?

Food for thought and discussion.

43: The Paper Men by William Golding

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 21/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-paper-men-by-william-goldingWilfred Barclay is an alcoholic writer whose first novel Coldharbour is famous around the world. Much to his disgust, Barclay is being pursued by a pushy and unpleasant American academic called Rick Tucker. In his desperate attempts to be Wilf’s official biographer — rifling through his bins, stalking him around the world — Rick is a ‘paper man’ without any solid substance to define him outside of the written word. However, the same can be said for Barclay himself, whose manic attempts to write about — and physically avoid — his would-be biographer are equally ludicrous and farcical. For lovers of fiction, the result is a very funny novel from Sir Golding; a writer who is not famed for his comic prose.

Critics have often complemented Golding for his ability to adopt new linguistic techniques in each and every novel he composes, never producing the same book twice. And yet, there are certain themes and motifs that hold the body of his work together in one coherent stream. Later in this book, for example, we see the protagonist go through a spiritual epiphany in the form of a life-changing dream. This kind of symbolic moment, where the absence of an explanation might be filled by an omniscient presence, is seen also in Golding’s other books. It is the kind of moment that is more akin with poetry than prose. This would make sense, as Golding has been quoted — I very much paraphrase — as saying he started out wanting to be a poet.

Seeing as one can only read a book once for the first time, and I am closer now to completing all of Golding’s books, I have treasured this week’s review with great pleasure. It was very refreshing to be taken through a series of comical situations by a writer who is usually rather seriously minded in his work. From all evidence, Golding appears to have been a pleasant and funny man with a teacher’s enthusiasm for learning. I recently read a series of essays edited by John Carey, written a while ago to celebrate the writer’s seventy-fifth birthday. It was a fantastic opportunity to read about the man and his works, especially because Sir Golding liked to keep his private life private, like the fictional Wilfred Barclay in this enjoyably comic novel.

I would like to thank John Keats Community Library for loaning out this lovely first edition.

42: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 14/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-pilgrims-progress-by-john-bunyanIn the seventeenth century, John Bunyan was imprisoned twice for zealously pushing his extreme religious beliefs onto the English people and therefore inciting rebellion. But it seems that his time in jail was well spent, as it was behind bars that he would compose one of the most influential texts in all of world literature The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since it was first controversially released into the world, Bunyan’s seminal allegory has been translated into many languages including Russian and Arabic. It is seen by some literary critics as a grand récit (narrative with grand ideological implications), and by others as the central precursor to the modern novel. It is no doubt a proven classic which has been garnering new readers across the world for century after century.

Taking the form of a vivid dream had by the narrator, Bunyan’s fantastical story follows the many adventures of his generically named hero Christian — character naming is very important because it also describes character traits (e.g. Talkative). On his numerous adventures, Christian comes face to face with many good, bad and indifferent characters and must decide which is the correct spiritual path for him to follow. He must also face the Slough of Despond and navigate his way through Vanity Fair — places invented by Bunyan and still referred to in our times. The whole narrative is accompanied by marginal notes, which more often than not refer to particular passages in the bible.

I sat down with this book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. Although Bunyan’s bible reading is extremely preachy in its over-evangelical tone, it is nonetheless refreshing to read something which so obviously aims to change the way in which we view our own journeys through life. Bunyan totally tares up the rule book and does things in a novel (literally new) way, setting a high standard which has rarely been equaled or surpassed.

A deserved classic.

41: The War Poems by Wilfred Owen

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 07/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

war-poems-by-wilfred-owenIn late December 1912, following his matriculation, Wilfred Owen was offered a post as lay assistant to a clergyman, which he turned down. Owen had decided to move away from his evangelical roots, swapping his religious studies for deep readings of Keats manuscripts at the British Museum. Drawing on his knowledge of the biblical and classical genres, he begun to compose poetry with a heavy Keats influence; travelling to France where he held a position at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux. On the year of his twenty-first birthday, war was declared and Owen carried on teaching privately for a while. On November the 15th 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and became a British Army officer.

The story of what happened to Owen during the war has been made familiar by Pat Barker’s excellent novel Regeneration, which deals with the conversations Owen had with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Both poets were treated for shell shock — having faced the dirt, stink and horror of the trenches — and soon became friends through their shared love of poetry. Sassoon was already a well connected writer, and introduced Owen to Robert Graves, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. With his friend’s help and encouragement, Owen received critical acclaim as a Georgian war poet. On June the 4th 1918, he was graded fit for general service. He was killed early in the morning on November the 4th. The armistice was signed on the 11th.

This book is the best way to enjoy and study the poetry of Wilfred Owen that I have come across. Jon Stallworthy has done a consummate job, selecting the very best of the poet’s work and providing an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by scholarly notes for budding and experienced essayists alike; and Owen’s famous preface — ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’ (pp.98) — is included as a coda.

Highly recommended.