Dan Sandman

Archive for June, 2017|Monthly archive page

#25 Emma

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 16/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#25 EmmaEmma Woodhouse, an heiress of £30,000 and two-and-twenty years old, plays match-maker with her less fortunate and younger friend Harriet Smith. But when her social schemes backfire, she is terribly upset.

As the writer Sebastian Faulks has said, Emma is a snob and her snobbery has emotional consequences, both for herself and for those within her society. Emma’s self-satisfaction, her selfish pretenses and her manipulative social behaivour make her a figure of fun because she takes herself too seriously. To Emma, the false manners and codified language of her class exist for her pleasure and delight. Admittedly, as a young woman living in a man’s world, Emma’s approach to her own courtiers needs to be cautious and considerate; but this does not, should not, excuse her hobby of interfering with the love life of her naive friend Harriet. Faulks is right to argue that Emma is a snob; and I would go further to argue that she is one of the worst snobs seen in English literature: interfering and selfish to extremes.

I have mixed feelings about Jane Austen, whose novels are often imitated but never surpassed. Clearly, Austen is a writer of some genius—she almost single-handedly resurected the sentimental novel from the dustbin of literary history and transformed into the modern romantic comedy. However, Austen often attracts harsh criticism because her novels appear completely detached from history, ignorant of the servant-class and devoid of any serious political intrigue. And much to the dissatisfaction of the male species, Austen portrays men as binary opposites to woman. For Austen, war is a man’s business; marriage: a woman’s affair. In Austen view, the struggles of the lower-orders are ignored in favour of the struggles of chivalric love—-i.e. whether X will marry Y for a good fortune or X will marry Z for love. In Austen’s defense, I might add–at least when it comes to the under representation of ordinary people–minus the occasional gravedigger or porter—Shakespeare has been accused of the exact same narrow-mindedness.

#24 Augustus

In Books, Fiction, History on 09/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#24 Augustus.JPGJohn Williams’ final novel is set in ancient Rome and is built upon a series of fictional letters between historical figures: the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil, the tragic leader Mark Anthony, etc. It also deals with Caesar’s rise to power and his estranged relationship with Julia, his daughter.

Although I know very little about Roman history, if I do not include the BBC television series I Claudius, I am assured that the novel is impeccably researched. Shakespeare fans will recognize the Anthony and Cleopatra story, but will be less familiar with the Octavius and Julia story which threads here into the later half of the novel. And Williams, skillfully using the personal address of the epistolary form, is the ideal guide to light up this dark corner of ancient history.

My one criticism would be that the letters, memoranda and dispatches come from too many sides, making an at times too heady mix of character portrayals. However, apart from the confusion caused by the many viewpoints, I think that Williams last work of fiction shines a bright light onto this fascinating period of ancient history.

#23 The War of the Worlds

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 02/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#23 The War of the Worlds.jpgObserved by astronomers, in the quiet and peaceful English countryside, a star-like object falls from the sky, blasting open a huge pit in the ground. Later, hostile Martians start to emerge with one mission: to destroy mankind. With only late-Victorian weaponry to fight with (Maxim guns and artillery men), Earth must defend itself against alien invasion. But the Martians have developed a destructive heat-ray and a devastating unit of giant metallic tripod-like machines. The army, and humanity in general, stand no chance against the superior technology of the brutally advanced invaders. There is no negotiation and no prisoners are taken. Civilization is set to be destroyed and our planet is set to be colonized without hope of reprisal. Will we survive the War of the Worlds? The first clue to answering this question is apparent from the novel’s earliest chapters. Clearly, the story is that of a survivor, writing in the first-person.

As Adam Roberts points out in his introduction, at the time of publication, the invasion novel already existed as a popular genre.  But whereas the invasion fiction of the late nineteenth century dwelt on fears surrounding the Germans, the Chinese or whoever, Wells pits his plucky English townspeople against aliens from Mars. This stroke of genius, drawing on Wells’s knowledge of the science and the fears of his day, would go on to both create and define a new branch of popular fiction: science fiction. It is fair to say, from Blade Runner to the X-Men, that this book is the central modern influence on all subsequent science fiction. And to add to its power, it remains a good read and a good page-turner.