Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Impatience with Allegory

While listening to Conrad's 'Typhoon', the other day, I found myself getting quite annoyed by the carefully placed 'subtexts' of the story. I used to view all literature as a puzzle to be solved, and gradually worked up to more and more cryptic puzzles. T.S. Eliot's 'Wasteland' was an early favourite, with all of its hints and references. I should be grateful - it got me into the source material that Eliot drew from. The problem was, I started preferring the source material to the 'more compex' works sitting on their shoulders.
Take Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Forget how these works are dressed up in 'culture': they are great romping tales of adventure, love, war, death, tragedy, comedy, the whole rich tapestry of life. All the author was trying to do was tell a story that entertained his readers (or as was most likely the case, his listeners), even though they knew the plot backwards, having heard it since childhood. The fact that these works are still read and loved 25-odd centuries later suggest that he was on to something.
But, to a modern author, it is not enough to let me find my own meaning in a story: he has made a secret meaning for me to tease out, which, with enough background research, I might just arrive at.
I could forgive this, in fact, I enjoyed it, until I read the poetry of Sappho, a contemporary of Homer's, whose fragments of poetry has retained a power like dynamite, and is as easy to read as it is to understand:

"Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth
is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers,
and others again a fleet of ships,
but for me, it is the one I love most."

The elitists will try to make stories as difficult and forbidding as befits a desire to keep the best for oneself. The greatest authors wrote for everyone (Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Homer etc etc), and took pains that they be understood by their audience. To willfully mislead them seems perverse. And, being a human, I consider myself a 'meaning finding machine' - we even find familiar faces in tortillas - and can be trusted to draw my own meanings from what I read.

Reading Shakespeare

Much harder than I thought. One of the many problems (leaving aside the physical difficulty of making it sound natural) is the temptation to try an cram in too many meanings: the guy was obsessed with puns. When he says 'made' he also, on another level (usually a more rude level) meant 'maid'. 'Sun' means 'sun' and 'son'.
The troublesome bit, when reading this, is that you have to choose one meaning for the poem to make any sense. The temptation is the stress the words with double meanings, sort of 'winking' to the listener, but after a few lines you find you've winked half a dozen times.
The only way to leave the ambiguities to the listener is to read in a completely flat way, which I feel would be a wasted opportunity. But it places a big responsibility on the reader to give Will his free will.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

Get it here
A short novel I will remember for its epic description of a, well, a typhoon, if you must know.
The story is involves a very Conradian situation - a white man showing more concern for his racial 'inferiors' than is considered seemly by his fellow europeans. And he manages to work in lots of Captain-of-ship-is-God type imagery, and meditates on how men without imagination are more reliable in a crisis, but chiefly on how people are cut off from each other, and how we misinterpret people, and basically don't understand each other at all. Which is all very existential and modernist.
But the real triumph of writing is the description of a storm, seen through the effect it has on a man's mind, and the changes in perception it brings about.

Next: Washington Square by Henry James

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Review: Typee by Herman Melville

Get it here.
I was left a little dissatisfied with this book. I think my frustration was founded on one main problem: Is it fact or fiction? A nagging part of me felt that this shouldn't matter, besides, these things are subjective. But the author protests many times that it's all factual. And if the eventual escape of the hero is a report of a true event, then it's quite thrilling, but if it is fiction - then it's quite poorly thought out.
But - first things first. The story is very simple. The narrator, on board a badly run ship, decides to take his chances on a South Sea island. After much crashing through undergrowth, he and his companion stumble across a tribe of indigenous people, who are reputed to be cannibals. Nonetheless, the villagers treat our heroes with great kindness, being so hospitable, in fact, that they can't seem to bear for their guests to leave. Then the narrator's friend disappears unexpectedly, and escape seems to be his only chance of surviving.
Which is all simple enough, but the real interest comes from the contrast between the westerner's lives and that of the islanders. It seems they have very different ideas on morality, propriety and marriage - and guess what? Everyone seems very happy, healthy and has all of life's wants and needs on hand, without effort. Which seems like paradise - but as the narrator finds out, paradise without liberty is meaningless. Which, as a work of fiction, is what I would expect the book to be getting at. Kind of a 'Herman Melville's Utopia', where the place held up as a satirical mirror to our society is imaginary. But the author does not seem to think it is a work of fiction. Perhaps Herman Melville was so far ahead of his time to have deliberately used an 'unreliable narrator', just to tease out the additional meanings this would create. But what sits uncomfortably with this is an obviously heartfelt rant against the behaviour of the missionaries in the region. (Interestingly, Melville clearly felt that it was right to convert the natives; he just didn't like the way they were going about it.) If the book is factual, these passages have an urgent purpose, if not, they are just rhetorical hot air.
The thing that redeems the book again and again for me, is the voice of the author; sarcastic, funny, friendly and wry, he is a companion it would be a pleasure to share any experience with. And, putting my pedantic quibbling to one side, the book is full of interest and incident, and builds the tension up to a fever pitch.

Michael Scherer reads this with all the skill of a professional, which, I believe, is exactly what he is. All the more reason to add this to your 'to read' list. Ignore my reservations about 'truth'; the story of colliding cultures is highly relevant today.

Next: 'Typhoon' by Joseph Conrad. Which shares the first three letters of its title with 'Typee'. Coincidence? Or Typical?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Volunteering again

Close readers of the LibriVox forum will know that I have volunteered to do a solo recording of Shakespeare's Sonnets. I have always loved these poems, and know several of them by heart. This is a cause of great grief to my friends and family, who object to someone rattling off fourteen line stanzas without due cause.
Volunteering for something does focus the mind, however, and I find myself mouthing lines at the strangest times. 'From FAIREST creatures... no ... From fairest CREATURES... no... FROM fairEST creaTURES...' etc etc.
Wish me luck. I have found a cupboard I can sit in, and will no doubt while away many a balmy evening inside it. 'Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?/Sorry - I can't remember what they're like...'

Friday, May 11, 2007

Review: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Get it here
This is a dystopian science-fiction novel. That's something of a genre nowadays, but I get the feeling that this an original. The problem now is that one is constantly reminded of the many followers who borrowed its ideas. Within no time you get the idea - no names, just numbers, horrid ruling class doling out extreme punishment for crimes of individuality, etc etc.
I was reminded of the first half of Jane Eyre, with its shrill, hysterical self pity: our hero is treated very badly for no good reason.
The novel works better in context with its time: it was published in 1938 when powerful contrasting forces seemed to be competing for the future of mankind, and Rand had experienced Stalinism at first hand. By contrast, western capitalism must have seemed heaven sent.
I expected this to be a change from Tolstoy, but was not prepared for this. In 'Master and Man' Tolstoy theorises that human happiness is only possible by losing the self, and giving oneself entirely to others. Ayn Rand seems to think that happiness can only be possible by forgetting others, and concerning oneself only with one's own happiness.
In my very humble opinion, both views are right, wrong, and out of date. It seems that there is no one answer to the problem of human happiness - who said humans had a right to expect to be happy in the first place? And, speaking personally, I am made happy by different things at different times; sometimes by being selfless, sometimes by being selfish, and following either extreme for any length of time is a recipe for unhappiness.
Chapter 11 is the heart of the philosophy of the book - a hymn to the word 'I', and a hate-filled diatribe against the word 'We'. I am sure I would have agreed with every word as a teenager - when being asked to turn the music down seemed like a huge infringement on my human rights. But as a parent, I know that the greatest joy I ever experience is through the joy of my children. So 'We' is greater than 'I'. To 'Me'.

This is read by Chere Theriot, who has a truly lovely reading style, and voice. She would sound charming, and would command attention, if she just talked about the weather. I hope she records some more, and she is to be thanked for recording such an interesting book, which, although I disagreed with it, provoked a good deal of soul searching.

Next: Typee by Herman Melville

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Review: War and Peace Book 1, by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished this about ten minutes ago, so my impressions are rather unformed. I can, however, say this. It is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Really, I hear you cry, so a historic work of world literature is worth reading in your opinion? Stop the press.
I know, I know. Still - I was expecting something much more stodgy. This is Jane Austen for men, with extra testosterone and a full beard. And his characterisations! Every one a masterpiece, even if only a few lines are spoken, they seem to breathe all by themselves. And there are a lot of characters. At first I thought I was going to lose track of all the princesses and countesses, but each one is so finely drawn that they are unmistakable.
Perhaps things change over the course of the succeeding books, but here the main concern is people and their domestic lives, and how Tolstoy lays their inner lives bare - not by telling you what they are thinking - but by directing you to look at their body language and microscopic facial tics.
So: I look forward to part two.

Next: Haven't decided.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I am listening to 'War and Peace' Book 1 at the moment. I was surprised that the book was originally divided into fifteen books. Dig a little deeper, and you will find that it was originally published in four volumes. This got me thinking about how sometimes the ghost of old technology can linger, and sometimes it does not.
Take a computer keyboard: the Qwerty layout was designed to prevent typewriter punches from sticking together, something that troubles few people these days, but the layout has survived. A music album downloaded from iTunes is still limited by the fact that an 'album' (spinning at 33 and a third revolutions) had two sides of about forty-five minutes each. Most typefaces still bear the trace of a monk's quill, matching their variations of thickness of line.
Books sometimes lose useful things over time, however. Dickens published almost all of his works in serial form, over many months. In 'David Copperfield' a character appears early on, who so closely resembled a real person (the author drew from life, it seems) that she sued. The character disappeared, only to pop up again, near the end, with a far more moral and decent outlook on life: Dicken's settled the suit, and her character still had time to be reformed.
What I am getting at is: How much more accessible Dickens would be to most people, if you got a few dozen pages to read at a time, instead of a great square block. And its far less intimidating still, when you see the original editions, complete with gaudy advertising for hair ointment.
So - I would take a deep breath before attempting 'War and Peace', but one fifteenth of it is far easier to contemplate. Something Tolstoy probably knew, but subsequent publishers have forgotten.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Review: From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Get it here.
What an odd book. Science-fiction, in its original, unalloyed form. Today, science-fiction assumes that our heros stride about in an artificially aged space ship, looking anti-heroic. We are not invited to ask: how does the ship travel from star to star? How is it that they are not floating? If travelling faster than light, how do they transmit live video messages to one another? Instead, we are invited to ask: Oooo! Do you think he finds her attractive?
This book, by contrast, is all involved with the nuts and bolts of how to get to the moon, using nineteenth century technology. A whole chapter is devoted to what material the cannon should be made from. Did I mention they wanted to use a cannon? And, initially, they only wanted to fire a shell at the moon, until a Frenchman appears, offering to travel inside the shell.
If you remember carefully, when the Apollo project was announced, they were careful to include 'bring them safely back home' in the work description. Verne is uncluttered with such twentieth century concerns: you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs, after all. I believe there is a sequel, in which collision with the moon is averted, and a safe return occurs - by spashdown.
So - very foresightful. And scientific, apart from one vital thing: no-one experiments. They all seem to follow the example of Aristotle: if you have a great problem to solve, then go and sit in a quiet room and think it through. On no account actually try out your theories in the real world.
It is unimaginable that such a book would be published today. I believe that engineering was seen as a much more glamorous profession in those days. In fact, I remember the heros of several victorian novels would always be about to go off to America to build railroads. We lack the confidence for such enterprises now. Perhaps this is a good thing. I was reminded of this today when I heard of a plan to seed plankton by pouring iron into the sea, thus reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A very nineteenth century idea. My, more modern, mind, immediately started pondering the equal and opposite reaction to this action. A victorian would not. Hills in the way of the railroad? Pass the dynamite.
And where are all these young men now - who read this book, and were inspired by the limitless possibilities of mans promise? The modern day version probably write the code that powers the internet - engineering by other means. But what is the Web 2.0 equivalent of going to the moon? And would we want to read about it?
"But surely, Monsieur, a Google Maps / Amazon mash-up using only a Palm Pilot with root access is impossible!..."