Sunday, February 25, 2007

Until March 5th...

I won't be posting again until around March 5th. I haven't had time to devote to blogging or reading recently, and it is driving me mad. So, I'm taking a break from blogging to take care of some other things and hopefully I'll come back refreshed and renewed and better than before!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Captivity of the body, freedom of the mind

As I mentioned in my last post, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is one of my favourite poems. I first encountered it via Nelson Mandela; when he was in prison, he recalled some of the lines of the poem and how his situation had given them new meaning. Primo Levi, in his memoirs of Auschwitz called upon his love of poetry to sustain him, using Dante' s Divine Comedy to teach other prisoners Italian, but more significantly, to retain his humanity and soul. The freedom of the mind when the body is imprisoned interests me, and it says a lot about poetry that people seldom seem to recall passages of prose or scenes from a book to identify with their personal situations. A search on the internet turned up this project of teaching poetry to prisoners, some of whom had never read or written poetry before. Some of the poems they have produced are surprisingly evocative. My own favourite is this one:

Over two years ago
I knew nothing of
Of how it allows a
huge part of me to
be free.

How the truth in
it makes people feel

how it allows me
to feel love and sorrow
like a great earthquake
starting from
so deep

Monday, February 19, 2007

If This Is A Man

In a bid to recover some lost time on my classics reading challenge and retain some chance of completing three more books over the next ten days (as if), I rescued Primo Levi's two memoirs of his time in Auschwitz from my shelves and devoured both 'If This Is A Man' and 'The Truce' over the weekend. It's been a while since I read these two, and although some things had stayed with me since my initial reading of his works - a general impression of extreme work, no food, sore feet and appalling living conditions - those things were overshadowed by the new impressions my latest reading has left me with. There's nothing to say about German concentration camps and the persecution of Jews; all that is left is for each individual to discover that appalling chapter of history for themselves and take from it what they will. I personally found Levi's lack of resentment and anger the most astonishing facet of his writing, although whether he was too numbed and drained by everything that had happened to him to want to cover it again through writing or whether he was simply past resentment because there was no comprehending the behaviour of the Germans is impossible to say.

Since this was only the second classic I've managed to complete to date I have some way to go. The Obscene Bird of Night is still on my nightstand and I'm still less than halfway through it - it requires concentration to read it, because the prose is semi stream of consciousness and semi...something else, and it is hard to know who is actually speaking, whether they are really speaking or just thinking, whether the action is in the present or in a memory or even whether anything real is happening at all. When I manage to set some time aside for it, I do enjoy reading it and marvelling at how verbose the narrator is while at the same time conveying seemingly minimal information.

I also caved today while in Borders and bought the collected poems of Oscar Wilde. I haven't read much of Wilde's poetry, but The Ballad of Reading Gaol is one of my favourite works and I can recite vast tracts of it from memory. I'll never forget the unfortunate student on University Challenge who called it The Ballad of Reading Goal in response to one of Paxman's questions, to be met with a stare of disbelief as Paxman corrected his pronounciation and told him 'I bet the title makes more sense now, doesn't it?'

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Endings

I stole the inspiration for this post from this article here, all about the author's favourite happy endings. As so often happens, I started contemplating my own favourite happy endings in literature, thinking I'd lazily compile a list and post it. I rapidly discovered however, that most of the books on my shelves (and those that I've read recently) don't end happily. The only two titles I could come up with were The Time Traveller's Wife (which, although it makes me cry every time I read it, has a sweetener at the end) and Reunion by Fred Uhlman (a book about terrible things but with the most effective ending I've come across - not conventionally 'happy' per se, but changes the entire book).

I haven't read most of the books included in the aforementioned article, so I can't really say whether it is the case that I don't tend to read books with happy endings, or that my definition of a happy ending does not include an author promenading some hitherto unfortunate character's future possibilities for a happy life in a vaguely hopeful way at the end of a novel, or simply that the conventional happy endings - true love, another chance at life, freedom - now belong primarily to the domain of films rather than books. Take Trainspotting, for example. That novel is, without doubt, the single most sordidly depressing book I have ever come across, yet when it was made into a film the characters morphed into funny, likeable mischief makers and the film as a whole was extraordinarily optimistic and forgiving.

Realistically, I suspect that a happy ending is harder to pull off than a slightly grittier, imperfect ending. Nobody really believes in Prince Charming anymore; he's a cliche, as are the rest of the traditional happy endings with which everybody is acquainted. Authors face the problem of making a story credible and consistent while avoiding the deathly pitfalls of being steroeptypical and trite, and the easiest way to do that is to condemn characters to an unavoidable reality rather than allow them the golden dream. That's not to say that contemporary fiction is generally pessimistic, quite the opposite. And even if a story does end badly or pessimistically, the conclusion can still be striking. It's more that the art of ending a novel powerfully and effectively seems to be disappearing from modern literature.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Literature in Schools

Roy Hattersley's article today in the Guardian on teaching literature in schools was interesting, if vague. He rightly points out that "the way in which [books] are used in schools can make or break our enthusiasm for them in the years which follow". I remember detesting poetry with a passion when I was at school, thinking it was boring and pointless and a waste of time; likewise with Shakespeare. Away from the heavy analytical atmosphere of English Literature classes (what does this word mean? how does the author use irony to undermine his narrator? what is the poet *really* saying here?), I discovered an equally strong passion for poetry as I had experienced in the classroom, only now I love poetry. Not all of it, granted, but I couldn't live without Neruda, Yeats, Edna St Vincent Millay, Auden, Frost, Byron on my shelves. I know some of you feel the same and still have a deep aversion to reading poetry, probably because it recalls the feelings we experienced in the classroom years ago - always analysing, always feeling we were missing something, afraid we didn't 'get' poetry. I never 'got' Shakespeare at school - I remember sitting in class one day reading The Merchant of Venice, and not understanding any of the speeches and soliliquys and feeling decidedly stupid for it. Now I realise it was the way I was taught Shakespeare - I make a point of visiting the Globe theatre in London every year to see at least one performance (and am certain that visits to the Globe would do all young students of Shakespeare an immeasurable service). I can't blame it all on the teaching however; some of the poetry chosen is still the sort of thing I wouldn't choose to read, having had time to develop my own taste, but perhaps I wasn't ready for some of the material selected for us as students of 15 or 16 to read?

What, then, should students be reading? What would instill in them the joy of reading and a love of books? It is all very well to state that "the school syllabus must meet the needs of more than the academic minority", but what does that really mean? Should Shakespeare have been excluded from GCSE curriculums? Will poetry be next, because pupils are not deemed 'academic' enough to cope with it? Hattersley states (and I couldn't agree more) that "everyone should also read books and poems with which he or she can directly identify", and that we shouldn't be afraid to allow "new classics" to enter the syllabus. Both good points in theory, but combining 'modern classics' which allow students to 'identify directly' yet learn about literature as an art form (which, let's face it, is part of the point of teaching literature in schools - otherwise we'd just be teaching reading) will be difficult. Can it be done within the confines of English literature? Or should we look to international literature for inspiration? After all, what do inner city kids who lead deprived underprivileged lives have in common with a novel written by a reasonably well off, middle class Oxbridge graduate about something that doesn't directly relate to their lives? I didn't relate to or enjoy either Great Expectations or The Remains of the Day, both of which I did at A Level - but I did read a lot of Jane Austen and I especially remember how much I loved Wuthering Heights, neither of which were on my syllabus. I don't even see why English literature is confined to English Literature (if you see what I mean) - why can't international literature be read? It is impossible to gain an understanding of the English literary canon and Tennyson's or Forster's places in it in two hours a week, so why continue the pretence that A Level English Literature can achieve that?

The question of what students should be given to read in schools is knotty, and won't be easy to solve. One thing is certain; the poeple who best know what 15 and 16 year olds would most like to read and enjoy won't be consulted. Why aren't the students ever consulted?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Classics Challenge: One Down!

Some books tell inexpressiby beautiful stories; some tell common stories but with such finesse and expression that they become remarkable. Chéri is one of the latter. There is nothing extraordinary about a broken heart, after all.

Colette, the author of Chéri, is notorious in France both for her outrageous lifestyle and views, and her works of fiction. My personal feeling is that Chéri is one of the best classics I've read. The emotional punch the ending packs is phenomenal, not because it is good writing (which it is) but rather because Colette draws her characters so skilfully. Without being too explicit in detailing thoughts, emotions or personal habits, she creates characters so real that the reader is left wanting to know how it ends for them - I'm still absolutely reeling from the punch Colette delivered at the end of Chéri. I hadn't realised quite how immersed in the story I'd been, or how much I liked Léa, the female lead.

If you haven't read Chéri but are planning to, stop reading now because I'm going to reveal some of the plot and characters and I don't want to prejudice your own reading.

Chéri is a typical spoiled angel incarnate; utterly beautiful and desirable, but turns out to be (as Bridget Jones might put it) a bit of a fuckwit. He embarks on a six year love affair with Léa, a contemporary of his mother's and several years his senior. Although both refuse to admit it, when the time comes for Chéri to marry and they are ripped apart, both realise how much they love each other and spend a torturous six months wondering how the other's life is progressing. Léa suffers especially; a beauty as a young woman, at fifty she has become old and lost her looks and with them any chance for real love. To disguise her longing for Chéri, she creates a fictitious lover with the (possibly unrealised) intention of making Chéri jealous. Finally, Chéri gives in to his desire for Léa and storms into her apartment at midnight to declare his love for her and the two are reunited. Léa's relief is as evident as her love for him, and for a few hours perfect happiness is hers. Upon waking up in the morning, as Chéri watches Léa in unfavourable daylight, he notes her wrinkles and changing figure and realises that he does not want Léa. Chéri probably doesn't possess the self awareness to understand himself, but his change of heart is a combination of many factors, not least finding out that what he thought all along he couldn't have never did belong to another. There follows a fight between the two, and this is how it all ends. Colette is inexpressibly cruel.

She closed the door behind him, and silence put an end to her vain and desperate words. She heard Chéri stumble on the staircase and she ran to the window. He was going down the steps, and then he stopped in the middle of the courtyard.

"He's coming back! He's coming back!" she cried, raising her arms.

An old woman, out of breath, repeated her movements in the long pier-glass, and Léa wondered what she could have in common with that crazy creature.

Chéri continued on his way toward the street. On the pavement he buttoned up his overcoat to hide his crumpled shirt. Léa let the curtain fall back into place; but already she had seen Chéri throw back his head, look up at the spring sky and chestnut trees in flower, and fill his lungs with the fresh air, like a man escaping from prison.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Deliciously Decadent

Book two of the Classics challenge started! (Book one still pending.) Due to the fact that The Obscene Bird of Night is not very portable - read: it has a flimsy cover and I don't want to bend it - I've begun reading Cheri by Colette and am enjoying it immensely. It couldn't be a greater contrast with Donoso's prose; Donoso is verbose and employs stream of consciousness across great chunks of text, where Colette is more concise and builds her characters through observations about them as much as revealing their feelings and thoughts directly. Cheri is full of light and people hedonistically pursuing the finer things in life; in Donoso's novel, the characters rattle around empty, dark and dusty halls and make semi-new garments from the unravelled wool of old clothes. Their pleasures are twisted to fit into their warped world and they have no hopes of hedonism whatsoever.

While I'm enjoying both novels, I have to confess that reading about the lives of the rich and idle always fascinates me. Let me put a proviso on that: reading about the lives of the rich and idle from past times fascinates me; otherwise it all gets a bit political. It feels somehow extremely indulgent to be reading about people dressed up in pearls, lounging about in sunny gardens and sipping brandy from 'petal-thin glasses' when I'm shivering in Caffe Nero, wrapped in a ratty old cardigan and slurping hot chocolate from a generic coffee house mug. I suppose it is really escapism - unless one of the characters is completely unbearable, but Colette tempers things with humour and doesn't take her own characters seriously at all. Decadence is just so...decadent. Who wouldn't want to be completely self-indulgent once in a while?

What makes decadence so attractive is the perceived glamour of it - decadence has connotations of wealth, beauty, fine food/jewellery/fashion, the whole charmed life. Moral decay is irrelevant because who needs morals when you have as much money to do as you please? I do sometimes wonder at the recent proliferation of books such as A Girl's Guide To Glamour or The Goddess Guide - books claiming to contain the secret to imparting glamour into one's life, usually by putting an orchid in the bathroom or buying extraordinarily expensive new shoes and keeping them in plastic boxes with a polaroid on the front. It is all about indulgence and image, two things modern women are informed they should aspire to. At times (when I'm shivering in a coffee house and wrapped in a ratty cardi) I can see the attractiveness of the lazy, glamourous life and the point of a not-so-ratty cardi. But really, who has time to put one's shoes into see-through boxes and colour code one's wardrobe? And why is an orchid in the bathroom necessary to feel glamourous? You still wouldn't have time to lounge around drinking brandy and looking stunning, and after buying everything in those books, you definitely wouldn't have the money to support yourself in pursuing such activities! In my opinion, all you really need is a stash of books like Cheri to immerse yourself in all the glamour and all the decadence you could wish for (and much cheaper than those heels).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

From Chile with love

I've finally started on my selections for the Winter Classics Reading Challenge. Considering I'm supposed to read five by the end of Febuary and I'm only 80 pages into The Obscene Bird of Night which is well over 400 pages, I'll be delighted if I manage to complete three! I'm finding the lack of time I seem to have free to devote to reading a real problem; I have so many commitments that take up hours each week that I might otherwise spend reading but I must also conclude that the material I've been reading recently isn't the type of literature that lends itself to being read quickly. With Donoso so far, I'm lost in the labyrinths of language and stream of consciousness just as the characters I've met get lost in the dusty passageways and courts of the casa they inhabit, and just as I think some sense is beginning to shine through the surreal surroundings something else is revealed which throws everything into question. Donoso really is an exceptionally effective writer.

Continuing the Chilean theme, here is my most beloved poem from Pablo Neruda, who Márquez referred to as "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language". I discovered Neruda by accident one morning. I pulled out a volume of his poems from the shelf in the book shop, and settled down to have a look through. Ella Fitzgerald was playing, I had the book shop to myself and there was the most wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. I've been in love with Neruda ever since (and am resolved to marry anyone who can write me poetry like his!). Read it slowly and feel what the poet feels.

Tonight I Can Write

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.