Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

#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.

#22 Fire Down Below

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 26/05/2017 at 12:00 pm

#22 Fire Down BelowIn the third part of Golding’s sea trilogy, Edmund Talbot writes in the past tense about the concluding leg of his year-long journey to Australia. Still drawing on his observations of the characters aboard the unnamed ship, but becoming less arrogant and pompous, Talbot begins to mature: both as a writer and as a person. The novel, the last completed book before Golding’s death, also presents a fantastic opportunity for Golding (through Talbot) to wrap up the sea voyage “to the ends of the earth”, attempting to tie up any loose ends along the way. Furthermore, in its way, this brilliant swansong (if we fail to include Golding’s incomplete The Double Tongue) is an optimistic farewell to Sir William’s remarkable life as a writer of the highest calibre.

I actively encourage anyone reading this tiny blog–a small drop in the vast ocean of noughts and ones we call the inetrnet–to go out and get your hands of any kind edition you can find of Golding’s sea trilogy (it comes as three separate books or as a compilation book). They are brilliant (quite literally, they light up the imagination) and perfect (I cannot find fault int them) examples of what great literature does to the recesses of our human flesh and spirit. I could wax lyrical about them all day, perhaps even compose poems for each of their characters; but mostly I shall just repeat “go out and get your hands” on one of these books an give it go.

And so, dearest reader, I am about to go on a voyage of my own to another world. It is one vaguely like Primrose Hill in London, but with more sunshine, friendship and archaeological sites than my life currently contains. Will this be my chance to keep a journal? Have Faber & Faber asked me to compose one for my millions of fans? Are there going to be a series of fascinating events to inspire my worldwide success of a first novel?

Maybe or maybe not.

Still, without a guitar and with an unfinished notepad. I venture on because I must be a writer. I must be a writer. I must.

#21 Candide

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 19/05/2017 at 12:00 pm

#21 CandideCandide begins his journey in a German castle, closeted off from reality by his optimistic philosophy tutor Dr. Pangloss. One day, he innocently kisses the beautiful Cunégonde’s hand, strays his own hands into other areas, and is kicked up the backside by Baron Thunder-ten-tronchk. So then, as so many stories do, the trouble all begins with two young people falling in love…

First published in 1759, Candide sold twice more than Gulliver’s Travels within the first month. Like Swift, Voltaire sends his hero on an unlikely adventure with many twists and turns. Like Cervantes, he has a trusty servant accompany his hero along the way. On this hilarious journey of incredible misfortune, Candide is flogged, taken in by the Spanish inquisition and has the riches of Elderado fleeced from him aboard a merchant ship. And yet, despite the sheer scale of catastrophe that befalls young Candide, he continues to draw hope that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

The question is, will he remain optimistic until the end of the tale? The answer is no. And so, what we have is a universal message about faith versus reason; optimism versus cynicism; youth versus experience; and romantic love versus companionship. Candide is foolish to trust everyone he meets along the way, believing them to be trustworthy, without making any reasonable judgement about their character beforehand. As he is scarred by his foolishness, he begins to develop into a more reasonable person, behaving in a way which is less trusting of other people.

Written during the Enlightenment, otherwise known as age of reason, Candide is both a moral and philosophical tale about the power of substance over superstition. At a time of great scientific discovery, a period that is often seen as a turning point from religious thinking to scientific thinking, this deceptively simple tale can be enjoyed on several levels. On the surface, it is a wonderfully funny boy’s adventure about a young man going off on an unlikely journey. Nothing is taken seriously, deaths occur in a sentence, and the children’s-story-like prose doesn’t appear to struggle with the depths of the human psyche. However, like all the greatest fictions, when its depths are delved into, Candide becomes a wonderfully informed discussion opener for any number of essential topics: war, love, death (to name a few). Give this classic to a ten year old boy or an elderly woman and they’ll each have something to say about it.

It was banned though, probably because of its flippant treatment of such delicate matters as murder, rape and slavery. I would argue that making fun of serious matters is a good way to challenge any preconceptions or prejudices we may have about them; other disagree. Without a liberal attitude, growing from the age of reason, there could be no stand-up comedy, no rock n’ roll and no critique of religious matters. Such a world would be full of solemn prayer, pious attitudes towards sex and (to be flippant myself) absolutely no fun whatsoever. It would also be a world where public shaming or public executions occur whenever an artist challenges the status quo. When censorship goes too far, suddenly, jazz music, Jewish poetry and black comedy are being stamped upon by the jackboots of fascists, as they burn the works of Voltaire outside the gates of the Reichstag. By the butt of a gun, in a world without liberal humanism, violent troops of young fools fight for some tyrant’s idea of a religious ideal: unthinking and under orders. With great wit and wisdom, Voltaire reveals the sheer absurdity of such human history and teaches us to see such serious matters in the true light of day. And most importantly, with a good sense of humour and a decent dose of irony.

#20 The Island of Doctor Moreau

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 12/05/2017 at 12:00 pm

#20 The Island of Doctor MoreauH.G. Wells second novel is about a vivisectionist whose name gives the book its title. On an island exactly resembling Nobel’s Isle, the obsessive Dr. Moreau (with the help of his alcoholic assistant Montgomery) is guilty of performing cruel experiments on living animals. As part of an autobiographical shipwreck narrative (think Vitctorian Robinson Crusoe), the stranded Pendrick delves into the island’s dark secrets, revealing the terrifying truth: Moreau has made himself Prospero to a host of Calibans.

In similarity to Wells’ other early novels, the grandfather of science fiction combines the tools of the scientific theorist with the tools of The Novelist [caps. to donate stress]. As part of an unsigned contract, the novelist is allowed to lie to his or her readers: making up a story which is a complete work of the human imagination. However, for this contract to work, the novelist must strive to convince the reader that the world imagined (envisioned firstly by the writer and secondly by the reader), is as real as the world perceived by the senses: touch, smell, sight and sound, etc. To achieve a convincing but also a beautiful reality, The Great Novelist [caps. again]–and H. G. Wells is one of the greatest to have put pen to paper–will evoke these senses using the incredible power of language. The great novelist will also employ tools found in other forms of prose; such as autobiography, history and scientific writing to convince the reader of their ability to tell a good lie.

However, unlike the autobiographer, the historian and the scientist, the novelist admits that every part of his or her work is imagined and therefore a complete and utter hoax. In this way, the novelist has much is common with the magician (whose work is to pull a rabbit out of a hat as if by magic). Like a wise person who goes to a magic show, it is the literary critic’s job to make sure that every party that signs the contract is in full and total knowledge that the fiction is a complete and utter falsehood. Whether one is reading H. G. Wells, Daniel Defoe or William Shakespeare; fiction is a work of the human imagination; using magic tricks to entertain our bodies, educate our minds and refresh our souls.

Other forms of writing, including religious and scientific texts, run contrary to this contract and encourage us to believe that they hold the truth within their pages: that Jesus really did walk on water or that time really is relative to space and velocity. For the wise literary critic, the absolute and undivided belief in religion or the power of physics to describe reality is as questionable as the methods employed by Dr. Moreau to convince his Beast People to follow him. Of course, all worthy religious and scientific thinkers would agree with this point to an extent (as would the majority of conscientious historians): at one extreme of the spectrum, our most questionable religious or scientific leaders are Prosperos (i.e. obsessed with a mission–or a commission–to guide the world’s Calibans to religious or scientific enlightenment, using just their powers of persuasion and their knowledge of magic); at the other end of the spectrum, other questionable thinkers, not just in science and religion but in all areas of thought and action (including politics and including business), are constantly questioning and debating what they do. But great artists, some of which write novels, are continually striving to make new works of art as part of a conversation both with themselves and with other artists. This is done by finding the correct balance between certainty and uncertainty; between the assertion of the self (touch, thought, beauty) and the self’s doubts concerning the real world (vivisection, shipwrecks, isolation).

In my personal view, poetry often comes closest to offering us a view of the truth; as do Prospero’s (Shakespeare’s) immortal words of farewell to the island (stage) upon which he walked and loved.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

#19 Moonfleet

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 05/05/2017 at 12:00 pm

19-moonfleet.jpgIn a smuggling town on the Dorset coast, a young man of fifteen embarks on an unforgettable adventure. With fast-paced narrative skills, each chapter deals with a particular event surrounding the characters in a town called Moonfleet. In one chapter, a diamond is hidden in the black beard of a dead sea captain; in another chapter, our hero is witness to a bitter set of rival bids for the right to own a pub. In the best possible way, like a precursor to the Tintin books or the Indiana Jones films, this exciting story grips young readers at every turn of the page.

An excellent yarn and a fantastic tale to read allowed to children.

#18 Flaubert’s Parrot

In Books, Fiction on 28/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#18 Flaubert's Parrot.JPGI found three Julian Barnes first editions at the Keats Community Library Book Sale last Saturday and couldn’t resist the temptation to restock the bookshelf. Barnes’ novels are full of interesting facts, clever words and clever sentences. His art is a cleverly constructed representation of the way a certain type of person–a person not a little unlike Barnes himself–thinks and feels about other people. For this type of artist, the obsessive type of writer or musician or academic, the world is seen in terms of a battle between art and reality. Before you switch off, please allow me to explain.

This type of artist, including what some snobbishly call the Hampstead Brigade or such, is an odd type of being. They seem to worry about what other people will think of them within their own circle, whilst more or less ignoring what the general populace thinks of their art. Just as in Henry James, in Barnes, working class people are not characters with deep emotions. Barnes knows his audience are well read, middle class and probably privately educated. His novels are targeted at people who probably go to The National at regular intervals, probably look down on your average television viewer and probably get their Danish nanny to buy artisan bread on a Thursday afternoon. I’m not saying this a bad thing, it’s just my impression of the man.

But besides my personal snobbery against Julian Barnes, these novels are beautiful works of art and the result of years spent not having to mingle with the course language of the uneducated masses. Perfect in their construction and enigmatic nuances, they work well as fodder for readers of the Times Literary Supplement to mull over. The subject matter is usually some important figure, Flaubert being quite typical, and everything is very clever indeed. You are left with a great sense of awe, as you learn more and more about how clever novels can be. Then you put the book down and want to watch a Bruce Willis film until two in the morning because what you really want to see is a camera-shot of John McClane flying through a glass window, after hanging from a massive security van being suspended from a helicopter that is about to explode.

Both have about as much to do with reality.

#17 Pages from a Scullion’s Diary

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 21/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#17 Pages from a Scullion's Diary.JPGThis great little book, taken from the more expansive Down and Out in London and Paris, sees George Orwell in autobiographical mode. As his journalism and essays prove, Orwell likes to seek out stories; rather than wait for stories to come to him. The experiences he writes about here are presented in clear and concise English. In many ways, Orwell is the antidote to those lacking clarity and to those lacking meaning in their writing. Although Orwell is more famous for his dystopian fiction, his factual writing sets the bar for anyone interested in non-fiction and travel writing with a political edge.

#16 The Last Summer

In Books, Fiction, Poetry on 14/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#16 The Last SummerThis short Russian novel is Boris Pasternak’s only complete work of fiction other than Dr Zhivago. Largely autobiographical, it is set during the winter of 1916 and offers poetic reflection on the First World War. Private tutor Serezha is an intensely romantic character; creatively inspired by two different woman. The Last Summer is a remarkable book that delves into the heart of an artist. It has no plot as such, instead opting for a perfectly pitched naturalistic style: a musical intensity which transmogrifies the sounds of words into brilliant prose.