I’m still in a state of ‘quandarification’. (Is there such a word? Well, there is now!) At the start of the year, when the word pandemic was something most of us associated with ancient history, I made a resolution to reduce book acquisition in the noble pursuit of tsundoku reduction.
Anybody afflicted by tsundoku will know that bittersweet feeling of guilt and pleasure with accumulations of unread books, but in a bid to support local business during lockdown I broke my resolve at the end of March.
Now, halfway through this crazy year, I think it may as good an opportunity as any for a quick bookwise review, and to also check on that quandarification.
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)
But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’
Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.
Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.
What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.
Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.
I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.
As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.
Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.
Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.
As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.
We are full of contradictions, are we not? Diligent one moment, listless the next; viewing life with equanimity yesterday, choleric today; thinking seven impossible things before breakfast but still insisting there is only one right way to boil an egg.
I’m a contrary type. To give just one example among many, the one which is the topic for this post: I’m normally a fairly tidy person — everything in its place — meaning I delight in uncluttered rooms, streets free of litter, political positions clearly stated. Dust and debris and detritus offend me; I’m pernickety about recycling in the correct containers; chaotic emotions confuse me.
That’s all well and good … until it comes to books. More specifically the spaces where books accumulate when they’re being used, such as desks and bedside tables. And then the contrariness kicks in, and tidiness goes metaphorically out the window.
Repost, first published 17th December 2015: part of a series of reposts which I may schedule once a month or more
During World War II the British government tried to discourage travel at Christmas time with the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?” But, as popular culture, psychology, history and of course literature all tell us, journeys are as necessary to human beings as love, food and shelter.
Time was that any reality or talent show featuring wannabe celebrities would feature the phrase “I/you/we’ve been on a journey,” implying that the individuals concerned had somehow grown or matured due to the experience regardless whether or not they had actually changed location. The Journey has however always been a metaphor, sometimes characterised as a tripartite image schema: ‘source-path-goal’. Though not all elements need be present whenever the metaphor is employed, the sense of beginning-middle-end is nearly always implicit, with the journey – the ‘path’ – as the central core. In this the metaphor encapsulates the Aristotelian definition of narrative plot as a ‘whole’: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle asserted in Chapter VII of The Poetics, a principle that can be applied not just to tragedy (as Aristotle did) but to most narrative structure.
I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.
But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.
Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.
Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993
This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.
As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.
And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.
“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë
A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.
It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.
Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)
“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4
Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.
It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.
In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.
I’m coming to the end of one reading focus, the Wyrd and Wonder fantasy blogging event (cohosted by Lisa, Imyril and Jorie) and have been pleased with the material I’ve got through. And so the next focus which I fancy subscribing to is Cathy Brown‘s 20 Books of Summer.
Actually, for this event one is free to go with any number of options and so it is that I’ve aimed to be sensible by choosing just ten titles (though, as Cathy says, one can up this number, change titles, or even admit defeat).
L D Lapinski: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020
Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:
Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.
This is thetravel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis many of us have resorted to fiction for consolation, distraction and information.
Myself, I have generally avoided harrowing dystopian tales, inventive novels about conspiracies, and books about personal tragedies — there’s enough of all this in real life which I can access through print, social and broadcast media.
Instead I have gone for more optimistic fiction, whatever ends in what Tolkien dubbed eucatastrophe, the upbeat ending, instead of the catastrophic conclusions where hearts hang heavy and melancholy pertains.
We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.
We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
— Moby-Dick, Chapter 49
When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.
And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.