Reading the real classics: ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil


I have a confession to make.  Even though I’m happy to talk about my love of ‘classic’ literature, I’ve never actually read ‘Classic’ literature.  That’s not to say that such books haven’t always been on my reading list or that I don’t enjoy films like ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ just that I’ve never quite got round to reading the originals.

Naturally, the reason I’m making this confession online is that it’s no longer true.  I have now read ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil (trans. by David West).   It has been entertaining and engaging but it has also made me question how I approach pre-modern literature.

The real reason I’ve always wanted to read these classic books is that there are few things better than the recognition moment you get when you read the original of an idea or phrase that has been copied a million times.  It happens all the time in Shakespeare; I especially remember first reading Hamlet, suddenly seeing so many well-known phrases in their original context.  A part of the joy of reading these older texts is that so many authors have also read them and then used them in their own works.  I loved reading’Brave New World’ after ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Vanity Fair’ after ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ and, more recently, ‘The Adventures of the Busts of Eva Peron‘ after ‘Don Quixote’.  Given that the vast majority of male authors pretty much until WW1 (if not later) had been educated in the Classics to the exclusion of nearly all other branches of learning, I had very high hopes for lightbulb recognition moments in ‘The Aeneid.’

The book started well, with Aeneas, having survived the sack of Troy, meeting Queen Dido of Carthage.  He is on a mission to settle in Italy, following an ancient prophesy.  The plaything of various goddesses however, his journey is going to take an extremely long time, and be filled with a far above average number of detours, hinderances and curses.  As a modern reader, it’s tempting to pity these surviving veterans of and refugees from the destroyed Troy.  Their families and friend have been brutally killed before their eyes; their entire civilisation is close to being utterly lost.  Sadly, as Classical heroes they appear to lack any subconscious urges or traumas, and there was very little for such a psychological reading to hold on to.   I enjoyed the poetry and drama of the story, but I did feel like I would have to take a less modern approach to the book if I was to get the most out of it.

In fact, the overall impression of my introduction to Classical literature was that it was not what I expected.  The characters were powerful, but psychologically opaque.  The morals and ethics were extremely hard to comprehend, and my attempts at understanding were not at all aided by the interventions of unhelpful immortals.  Lastly, aside from the iconic opening: ‘I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium…’ there didn’t seem to be much in the way of phrases or characters that I recognised from later fiction.  I realise this could be a point about translation or my own reading, but I think it’s more a result of my misunderstanding of traditional English education.  When I really thought about it, I realised that the authors who learned so much Greek and Latin at school were mostly studying grammar.  To expect them to apply this learning to their fiction is probably like expecting them to rely heavily on their maths lessons when writing novels.  I know that some authors have absolutely drawn on Classic stories in their works (take Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’) but these are direct and conscious evocations; they’re not making a statement about the saturation of specific literary works into the modern lexicon or mindset.

Really what I’m saying is that I need to remember books like ‘The Aeneid’ are myths, not novels.  They are great to read and think about, but they do need to be approached on their own terms.  At any rate, that’s my impression after my first real introduction to them.  In the future, I hope to refine my theories through ‘The Iliad’, ‘The Odyssey’ and, of course, anything by Ovid I can get my hands on.

Posted in Reading in translation, Virgil | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Another Mexican classic in the making: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman


2016 seems have turned into my year of Mexican reading.  It had never been a country that loomed large on my literary world-map, but with Juan Pablo Villalobos’s ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ introducing me to Narco-Noir and a lovely magic-realism hit from Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ my gradual discovery of Mexican reading has been a delight.  In fact, it even gave me the confidence to get started on last year’s top new translation: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World.’

From the black and white cover design to the enigmatic title, I’d been finding this novel intimidating since it started dominating bookshelves and reading lists last year.  I must confess, I was equally confused by the first paragraph, in which the main character nearly dies as the earth opens up beneath her: ‘I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.’

It’s only as we read the book that we see quite how emblematic this paragraph is.  Herrera’s short novel has been compared to Dante’s writings and, read in the context of the author who narrated his own voyage through hell, unexplained events like the sinkhole start to fit into a wider narrative structure.  Makina is on a physical journey throughout the novel.  She is looking to cross the boarder into America and she’s absolutely determined that, quest accomplished, ‘she was coming right back.‘  The journey will be a difficult one, because there are lots of powerful forces to placate and lots of tasks to be accomplished.  You feel if anyone can make it though, it’s the smart, fierce and independent Makina.

Herrera’s novel is powerful, evocative, violent and very moving.  Although a specific physical boarder is central to the novel, in Lisa Dillman’s translation ideas about power and transience, about identity and fragility highlight the universal implications of the story.  In fact, there is a very interesting essay by Dillman at the end of my book, in which she explains ‘I tried to create an English that was geographically non-explicit … The novel’s dialogues are often peppered with language – colloquialisms, slang, expression, culturally-embedded references – that could only take place in Mexico (or on the Mexico-USA border) …attempting to find an English dialect that would serve as a linguistic “parallel” is problematic.’  As an English-language reader I almost felt like I was getting the best of both worlds, a fascinating story with a highly significant and resonant setting, but also an allegory that invited reflection on my own culture and experience.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ is every bit as wonderful as everyone was telling me and I keenly await more recommendations of Mexican literature – I realise I’ve only just started to get to know this country’s literature; based on what I’ve read so far, I’m very eager for more!

Posted in Mexican Literature, Reading in translation, Yuri Herrera | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A book list for the start of the university year

This year I have moved away from classroom teaching to a job in a university, so the first part of September has been unusually restful.  I’m aware that the term start for uni students is coming up though so, in honour of this and of my new job, now feels like a good time for a list of my top University-set novels.

imgres.jpgIt was back in 1992 that Donna Tartt wrote her thrilling debut ‘The Secret History.’  The novel begins after terrible crimes have been committed, the opening paragraph setting out the writer’s skill and her narrator’s chillingly measured tone: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.  He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.’  What seems at first like an experiment in plural first person writing soon reveals itself as a masterful exploration of college cliques and aspirations.  The narrator, Richard, is enamoured by the sophisticated charm, class and glamour of a small group within the college.  Questions about who is in and who is out, about how much power dominant personalities can wield and about how far fate can be avoided all make this doorstop of a novel a fast-paced page turner guaranteed to make your own university experiences seem blissfully prosaic.

imgresI mostly revere Larkin for his poetry, but he was also an accomplished novelist and his 1946 book ‘Jill’ was written during his own years as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford.  It’s a short novel, but it still finds space to take its protagonist, John Kemp, to the extremes of social humiliation.  Kemp is a studious young man who is completely out of his depths among the hideous public-school cliques that surround him.  In his introduction to the novel, Larkin references ‘Brideshead Revisited’ (another wonderful university novel), but unlike Waugh, or Donna Tartt, he’s not the kind of writer who will let his protagonist somehow find a place amongst the elite.  If painfully cringe-worthy social scenes are your thing, I really recommend ‘Jill’ for a timeless story of shy adolescence.

imgres.jpgA real English classic of privileged and eccentric university life, this 1911 novel’s full title is ‘Zuleika Dobson or  An Oxford Love Story.’  The all-male world of the university is shocked to its core by the ravishing presence of Zuleika Dobson.  Undergraduate after undergraduate falls for her facile and superficial charms, but it seems the outstandingly attractive Duke of Dorset may be her equal, even if ‘he was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring any one else.’  Beerbohm met Oscar Wilde during his own Oxford student days and while the topics of his satire may seem more dated than those in Wilde’s prose, his studied irreverence remains a joy.  This is hardly a book that recalls the modern university experience, but it is a great period piece and an exotic look at the educational system behind an empire.

EqR.cover.jpgIf the dated charm of ‘Zuleika Dobson’ doesn’t work for you, a more modern look at a woman infiltrating a men-only university is given in Terry Pratchett’s 1987 ‘Equal Rites’ the third novel in the now epic Discworld series.  The first two novels featured the UU (Unseen University), but here it really takes centre stage as the first female wizard attempts to gain access to the magical knowledge therein.  I read this book before going to university myself, so I could only partly appreciate the depiction of characters who ‘savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things’; those who ‘really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.’  I can guarantee that more knowledge only makes reading Pratchett more fun, so I recommend Equal Rites to anyone with a taste for comic fiction – whatever their own experiences of education might be.

imgres.jpg‘Emotionally Weird’ was my favourite Kate Atkinson novel while I was at university.  Published in 2000 it is a laugh-out-loud funny account of student life in a fictional University of Dundee in 1972.  Peopled by an eclectic mixture of stoners, hippies, academics and the odd confused civilian it’s a brilliantly playful take on the detective story, with a lovely gentle satire on modern creative writing thrown in for good measure.  The narrator, Effie, is trying to complete her degree, including a a creative writing assignment ‘another degree paper I was probably going to fail, and to make matters worse my assignment, ‘The Hand of Fate’, was a crime novel, the least reputable genre there was, according to Martha (‘Why? Why? Why?’) and I had to pretend to her that crime writing was a postmodernist kind of thing these days, but I could tell that she wasn’t convinced.  ‘Emotionally Weird’ is a wonderful stand-alone novel from the author who was to write the excellent Jackson Brodie crime series – it’s a coming of age book in so many ways, all framed through a literature student’s experience.


Universities aren’t all about students, of course, and no book list about the academic life could be complete without Kingsley Amis’s 1954 classic, ‘Lucky Jim.’  Jim Dixon is the antithesis of the driven academic.  He’s a highly reluctant lecturer in medieval history at an unnamed and uninspiring university and the book follows his desperate attempts to hold on to his job.  The plot is full of hysterical highlights that I won’t even attempt to sketch out; instead, I’ll just give a taste of one favourite passages.  ‘It wasn’t the double exposure effects of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him … it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written.  It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.  Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.  ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began.  This what neglected topic?  This strangely what topic?  This strangely neglected what?’  ‘Lucky Jim’ has to be one of the most self-disgusted accounts of academia in the English language, and I love it!

imgres.jpgFor another, equally irreverent view of English academia, every book in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy is a delight.  The first is about a cultural exchange whereby Philip Swallow, an unremarkable academic from Rummidge (a fictional Birmingham) is given the opportunity to experience life and work in Euphoric State (a fictional Berkeley).  While he is off, Rummidge is hit with his US replacement, Morris Zapp.  Between getting engulfed in fish-out-of-water comedy moments, the two men start to settle into their new locations, until more than just jobs are swapped (if you see what I mean).  My favourite of the trilogy is ‘Small World’ where Swallow and Zapp are reunited and swept along a seemingly never-ending circuit of international academic conferences.  Read this after ‘Lucky Jim’ if you really want to get the most out of the dramatically unprepared academic lecture scene.  For English students especially, there is much to relish in these two novels, and the concluding ‘Nice Work,’ as academic theories and fashions are pastiched and mocked. The literary games aren’t just about content, the structure of ‘Small World’ consciously echoes Arthurian romance while ‘Nice Work’ is a reworked ‘North and South.’  Good, if not always clean, academic fun!

I realise there are gaps (I haven’t even mentioned Philip Roth’s ‘The Human Stain’ or Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’).  What other top university books would you recommend for readers with a passion for life long learning?

Posted in Book Lists, Donna Tartt, Kate Atkinson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Love and Obsession: Discovering the genius of ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë (1847)


I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer.  I’ve never been a fan of ‘Wuthering Heights.’  I first read it as a teenager, looking for another fiction hero to fall in love with and I was, simply, disgusted.  As far as I could see, Heathcliff was an abusive puppy-murdering sadist.* I was angry at the novel and I was really really angry that it was being sold to young girls as a model for ideal relationships.  I re-read it a bit later, in a slightly more accepting mind frame (this time I knew what to expect) and was willing to concede that it had some powerful gothic scene setting, but I’ve always been highly ambivalent about this most famous Brontë novel.

Before I get attacked for my lack of romance and literary appreciation, I’m going to devote this post to explaining why I have changed my mind.  I still hate Heathcliff, but I’ve just finished an extremely enjoyable re-read during which I fell in love, not only with Hareton (my new literary crush) but also with the novel as a whole, which I can finally appreciate as possibly the best-structured of any Victorian novel I’ve encountered.

Firstly, there’s the timing.  The book takes place over an extremely precise time period, which frames and gives enduring meaning to the story:

Part 1: It’s November and Mr Lockwood, a young man rather in love with the idea of living in splendid moody isolation away from the world goes to visit his new landlord, Heathcliff, at Wuthering Heights.  He meets all the remnants of the Earnshaw/Linton/Heathcliff family (see family tree below) and has an introduction into their frightening past and gloomy present.  The snow is thick on the ground as he leaves Wuthering Heights; it’s the start of a long winter.
Part 2: From November to January, Mr Lockwood is ill from his night at Wuthering Heights.  Nelly Dean tells him the story of the inhabitants, from Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family right up till the current winter.
Part 3: It’s January, the worst of winter is over and Lockwood has recovered.  He goes back to visit Wuthering Heights, partly to explain to Heathcliff that he will be moving to London, probably until his lease is up.
Part 4: It’s late summer (September).  Lockwood revisits the neighbourhood and Nelly Dean brings him up to date with what has happened to the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights.

As you can see, the book has two timelines, one of which follows the natural year, from the chill death of winter through spring and up till a late and abundant harvest.  Simultaneously, we have a story that goes back in time and that always works towards a clear end-point bringing Lockwood and the reader up to date, given they’ve already seen a snapshot of the results of these actions.

The beautiful simplicity of the structure outlined above would be enough for the novel stand out as exceptional, but there’s more.  On re-reading I was finally able to see how every significant relationship in the book is an exploration of love, especially obsessive, romantic love.  Using the family tree, I’m going to be making the case for the novel providing a pretty comprehensive picture of varieties of love and saying how the conclusions are possibly more moral and less tempestuous than you might expect.

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Motherly love: the oldest generations of mothers in the family are pretty insignificant.  Two of the next generations of mothers die in childbirth; the third survives, but she leaves the pages of the story at this point so we never actually see her relationship with her son.  The most maternal figure in the novel is Nelly Dean, and she’s hardly a beacon of maternal affection.  Though she raises and claims to adore Hareton, she later disowns him for his uncouth behaviour after they are separated.  Similarly, she loves young Cathy, but not unconditionally, certainly not uncritically.

Fatherly love: Fathers in this book are either abusive and/or neglectful or are doting and disappointed.  They tend to die at moments that cause maximum trauma to their guilty offspring.

Obsessive love: there’s just so much of it in the novel, I’m going to have to use more subheadings:

Hindley Earnshaw loves Frances with a destructive passion.  No one else thinks much of her and the general consensus appears to be that she isn’t worth it, but we’re told: He had room in his heart only for two idols – his wife and himself: he doted on both, and adored one.‘  Frances’s death leads directly to a gambling and alcohol addition which will destroy Hindley’s life and fortune.  The general moral appears to be that selfish obsessive love is a bad thing and that weak characters especially should really try to avoid it.

Edgar Linton loves Catherine blindly and passionately.  I know that neither Nelly nor Catherine nor Heathcliff really give him much credit for his unrequited passion, but it’s very hard to interpret his actions in any other way.  Certainly he loves her above anything else, including God – his final wish is to be buried next to her, out on the moors, rather than in the consecrated churchyard.

Isabella Linton, poor Isabella Linton loves Heathcliff.  She elopes with him and puts herself completely in his power, all for love.  It gets confusing because of the different voices telling her story, but we do know that her husband takes joy in tormenting her and one time she tells Nelly that she hates him for this treatment his response is truly chilling.  ‘If you are called upon in a court of law, you’ll remember her language, Nelly!  And take a good look at her countenance; she’s near the point which would suit me.  No; you’re not fit to be your own guardian, Isabella, now; and I, being your legal protector must retain you in my custody.’  Think of Bertha Mason in ‘Jane Eyre’ and of Helen Graham in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’  Isabella is tragic, powerless and abused wife; her infatuation has done her only harm.  Sadly, ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a novel has little sympathy for her, it really doesn’t have any time for unrequited love (see Edgar Linton above).

Catherine and Heathcliff – we all know this one.  They love each other, they are each other, they make each other (and everyone around them) desperately unhappy.  I will note however that their love is not only mutually destructive it is also of comparatively short duration.  Going by one time frame of the novel, it’s over within a year and leaves no legacy as Heathcliff has no living child and Catherine’s daughter subverts her mother’s destiny.

And then, my favourite bit.  I have decided on this reading that ‘Wuthering Heights’ is actually a well disguised didactic Victorian novel with a clear moral message – as shown by the fates and characters of the youngest generation.

Linton Heathcliff – Young Cathy’s husband loves only himself and his pitiful, degraded attempts at affection suffer greatly from comparison with the powerful passions that surround him.  He’s a typically degenerate Victorian literary creation in which the worst of inheritance and environment combine in a truly unsympathetic character.  It comes as no surprise to learn that purely selfish love will never survive the tempestuous claustrophobia of Wuthering Heights.  Readers take note, humans need to love each other if they are to avoid Linton’s terrible fate.

Cathy Linton – Young Cathy is not selfish and it seems that the biggest mistake of her life comes from her kind-hearted regard for others rather than herself.  Cathy actually takes a very conventional route for the adventurous yet obedient heroine of any traditional gothic romance.  Unlike them however, she learns from her actions, and develops through her misfortunes.  I must confess I grew to love Cathy on this reading, and I was much assisted in this by paying attention to the timings of the novel (rather than what Nelly says).  Cathy appears to spend very nearly one year in numb grief after her father’s death, and her emergence from mourning is handled beautifully.  One more thing – Cathy is one of the only characters in the book to genuinely go against her own wishes in order to avoid causing pain to a loved one.  Her mother and Heathcliff may boast a lot of passion, but it is young Cathy who really gives us a view of unselfish love in the book.

Hareton – I’ve already confessed to my crush on Hareton, so I may not be completely objective here.  Hareton is my kind of Byronic hero, an uncouth diamond in the rough who is rebellious and proud but also capable of profound loyalty and many hidden kindnesses.  Hareton is a clear parallel to Heathcliff, effectively abandoned by his father and continually put down by all around him.  His role in the book is to show that tempestuous and negative emotions, inherited or encouraged by environment and education, can be conquered.  Also, unlike Mr Lockwood, our want-t0-be romantic narrator, Hareton is interested in inner worth as much as a pretty face.  Hareton is the ultimate bad boy made good and he’s also not a wife abuser.  Readers wanting romance need look no further.

There we are, Wuthering Heights tells a dramatic, action packed story confined by space to the moors and by time to one calendar year.  There is a clear trajectory that takes us from the hell of the first visit to the house to a potential vision of Eden at the end.  Wonderfully, despite all of the famous demonic overtones, I am also now convinced that Emily Brontë was on the side of the angels.  It’s official, I’m a late but very enthusiastic member of the ‘Wuthering Heights’ fan club and I’m so pleased to have finally arrived.

For much more in depth analysis and love of this novel, I recommend

* Heathcliff is not actually a puppy murderer, but he only gets off on a technicality.  One, I misread the book originally, and it is a dog, not a puppy that he hangs.  Two, Nelly finds the dog and saves it.  On the other hand, I’m sure he would have acted exactly the same if Isobella’s favourite dog had been a puppy and he never learns of Nelly’s later actions so I still consider him guilty.

Posted in Emily Brontë, Gothic Literature | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

The Medieval Mindset: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (12th century)


This month marks the end of my thoroughly successful non-fiction reading project.  In December last year, I decided to use the blog as a spur to finally prioritise the non-fiction books (mostly biographies) which have been gathering on my bookshelves.  Last but by no means least was this collection of Abelard and Heloise’s letters; a book I’ve been wanting to get into for years, but which somehow always got replaced on the reading pile at the last minute.

As I learned from my initial research.  Abelard and Heloise had an incredibly eventful romance.  He was the intellectual celebrity hot-shot of the day, she was a virtuous and highly intelligent orphan.  In his initial letter Abelard says it was lust for her that caused him to lodge with Heloise’s uncle, giving him the perfect excuse to give her private lessons.  Their romance was soon an open secret, mostly due to Abelard’s boasting of his conquest.   As more people learned of the scandal, Heloise’s uncle attempted to separate them, but his influence wasn’t enough to prevent the birth of an illegitimate child.  In an attempt to salvage the situation, they eventually got married, though this was kept a close secret in order to avoid harming Abelard’s career as a teacher.  The solution didn’t work; Heloise was extremely opposed to the marriage and her uncle also appeared unconvinced – so much so, he arranged for Abelard to be castrated (see the odd cross-legged pose on the book cover).  It was after this event that Abelard became a monk, and persuaded Heloise to be a nun. It’s a crazy story, and I couldn’t wait to see how the letters gave me a new perspective on it, especially by telling me about the actual feelings of the people affected.

Put briefly, the letters are wonderful.   They were written when the lovers were separated physically and by religious ordinance, Heloise as  a nun and Abelard as a monk, and show two highly intelligent people arguing with each other and each presenting their own version of how their lives have ended up.  Abelard’s letters show a desperate belief in God’s grand plans.  He frames his sufferings as retribution and divinely ordained (according to him the worst of these sufferings was having a book burned as heretical, the emotional and spiritual torment far exceeding any physical punishment in his life).  Heloise is less resigned.  She never claims a vocation as a nun, though she has risen to the position of prioress and seems to be a highly respected religious figure.

This year I’ve blogged about Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘ and Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur‘, but this non-fiction book has really presented me with a new view of the medieval mindset.  Most significantly, I’ve been struck by the respect the letters show for authority.  Fans of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath will know she starts her prologue by boasting that she is knowledgeable through ‘experience though noon auctoritee‘, basically that she can form her own conclusions about the world and human relations because of her own experiences.  This is the antithesis of the view espoused by the highly intellectual Abelard and Heloise.  They were writing centuries earlier and ‘experience’ is not significant in their way of understanding the world.  While emotions and impulses are explored in detail, the couple never look to  modern concepts such as psychology, sociology or biology; their letters are filled with references to biblical and classical sources and these are their frames of reference.  Both lovers may seem rebellious by today’s standards, but they never present themselves as such, explaining their actions, ideas and feeling through reference to acceptable, ancient authorities.

Leading on from this is their theoretical (if not practical) respect for hierarchy.  For Abelard this means he is able to advise a very top-down approach to management in Heloise’s nunnery.  He advises ‘In a discussion on what counsel to take, it shall be open to anyone to offer her opinion, but whatever everyone else thinks, the abbess’s decision must not be swayed, for everything depends on her will, even if (which God forbid) she may be mistaken and decide on a worse course.  For as St Augustine says in his ‘Confessions’, ‘He who disobeys his superiors in anything sins greatly, even if he chooses what is better than what is commanded him.”  I can’t imagine any modern organisation openly advising this course of action, but the need for strong and unquestioned authority is central to both writers’ mindsets.  This is especially noticeable in Heloise’s letters; she does not consider women to be equal to men or herself to be equal to Abelard.  She exults in her subservience and says her main argument agains their marriage had always been that such a connection would demean him.   Hartley was right when he said ‘the past is foreign country’  – they think very differently there!

These letters have been a compelling and thought-provoking view of twelfth century European culture.  They’ve also allowed me to finish my planned non-fiction reading on a real high note.  This won’t be the end of my experiments in reading out of my comfort zone though; given my thoroughly enjoyable experience of life-writings this year so far, and the number of authorities that recommend great non-fiction, I’d be foolish to stop here!

Posted in Abelard and Heloise, Medieval Literature | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Russian Reading Update – You must read this book: ‘Cancer Ward’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1966)

bookshelf_bannerSometimes whole years go by during which I forget how much I love Solzhenitsyn. I know, it seems almost unbelievable.  Because, sadly,  there are only 12 months in the year, he didn’t make it into my 2015 Russian reading project; now it’s time to right the wrong.

One of the astounding things about Solzhenitsyn’s writing is that he’s just so accomplished. When you think about it, setting a novel in a hospital ward is almost too obvious. It’s a perfect, depressing microcosm of society. From secure bureaucrats to ‘exiles in perpetuity,’ from ageing peasants to educated teenagers, the most unlikely people become neighbours and companions.  Each has a unique perspective on Soviet life and ideology, a perspective which may be perceptive and accurate but which certainly won’t help them fight their life-threatening disease.  Everything works on so many levels so the book is an allegory, a warning, but also an enthralling and completely believable work of fiction.


‘Cancer Ward’ is such a rich book, any reading is going to bring up new insights. The last time I read it, I couldn’t get over the patient/doctor relationships Solzhenitsyn explores, specifically the firmly held belief that patients should not know what is wrong with them and should learn nothing about their treatment. Their job is to unquestioningly do what they’re told. This is so opposed to NHS policy that it seemed to move the book from realist novel into Kafkaesque fable. The other really striking section was any moment that featured Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, possibly the most vile character in literature. Pavel is a vicious, cowardly hypocrite who is proud of and validated by his role in ‘personnel’- he’s a Party member and his job is to terrorise workers into appropriate ideology while informing on any who proves suspicious. Utterly repulsive and fully human; he goes a long way to answering questions about why and how Stalin’s reign of terror was so successful.

Reading ‘Cancer Ward’ as a belated addition to my Russian reading project meant that I was especially interested in seeing how it fitted into its rich literary tradition. I have come to the following conclusions:

1. The whole novel can be read as a riff on Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ only here there are so many people living with the prospect of imminent death the individualism of the seminal short story is taken in radical and frightening new directions. Many of the patients follow Ilyich’s mental processes, others come to very different conclusions. Unlike the novella, this isn’t a middle-class philosophical parlour piece. Here a whole community of men are forced to confront their mortality while, through them, the power and limitations of Soviet society are exposed.

2. Following on from the above, this is a novel about death, rather than life; the characters themselves are all obsessed with the future rather than the past. Now this may seem obvious, but as the book progresses it is shown to be a blackly comic reflection on the optimism of Stalin’s vision for Russia, a vision many characters have been brought up to believe as moral truth. The whole country, especially the young, has been taught only to look to the future, the unexpected realisation that this is the mentality of the fatally ill suddenly repositions the mirror the novel holds up to its society. Solzhenitsyn isn’t just writing about an isolated ward in an obscure hospital, but about the whole ‘cancerous’ society in which he lived. It’s powerful stuff.

As the year goes on, I will be reviewing more of Solzhenitsyn’s novels. They’re always books to look forward to, but this time I’m especially excited to see how my reading changes with my increased knowledge of their literary tradition. There is a convention of separating periods of Russian literature into the pre-twentieth century Golden Age, pre-revolution Silver Age and then 20th century (pre and post-Soviet), but this can’t be right. Wherever the best writers are, that’s when you’ll find Solzhenitsyn.


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A Powerful Companion to ‘The Colour Purple’: ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ by Alice Walker (1992)


Alice Walker’s most famous novel is her 1982 classic, ‘The Colour Purple.’  In it, she takes an abused black teenager living in the deep South, and turns her story into a wonderfully life-affirming tale of female solidarity and the possibility for agency and hope against the odds.  ‘The Colour Purple’ is quite unbelievably uplifting considering its setting and subject matter, a fact I desperately tried to keep in mind when starting to read ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy.’  ‘Possessing the Secret’ is the sequel to ‘The Colour Purple’; it’s not about unchallenged domestic abuse though, it’s about Female Genital Mutilation.

While I’d always recommend anyone new to Walker starts with ‘The Colour Purple,’ the two books do not need to be read together or in sequence.  The characters belong in the same worlds, but their stories are so different the books exist in their own spaces.  One reason for this is the redemptive fairy-tale quality to ‘The Colour Purple.’  Although the journey is not smooth, the book has a forward momentum, moving away from suffering towards internal and external peace.  It’s a powerful message, both appealing and unsentimental.  In contrast, ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ fights such linear story telling.  It jumps between different narrators and time periods, echoing the trauma suffered by the protagonist.  Truths are hidden and rarely celebrated, hardly surprising given the pressure within the book to literally cut off emotion, expression and freedom from so many female characters.

The main character in the novel is Testi, a deeply troubled woman who makes a small appearance in ‘The Colour Purple’ as the happy and forthright girl who rejects Western influences when she decides ‘to have the female initiation ceremony … Tashi was happy that the initiation ceremony isn’t done in Europe or America, said Olivia.  That makes it even more valuable to her‘.  ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ follows the devastating consequences of this decision, on Tashi and on those around her.  Poor Tashi is shown to be so wrong, from her rebellious acceptance of her culture’s traditions to her false belief that such customs are absent in the West.  Walker is controlled in her focus though, and Tashi’s story is never allowed to dominate the novel, instead it is used as a case study for a problem that goes far beyond the personal.

As the narrative lurches forwards and backwards in stuttering bursts, the readers find themselves as challenged as Tashi is.  There is a clear binary opposition between the powerful and the powerless, but how this actually fits over racial, geographical, educational and gender divides is often less clear.  For much of the book, it is women, more than men, who are shown to perpetuate the traditional mutilation; the potent women, pitiful men dynamic that gives ‘The Colour Purple’ its empowering and unexpected ending is tragically subverted in this later novel.

Softening the pain of the story is Walker’s beautiful prose.  Soothing and fluid, the writing style turns this into a stridently powerful novel, rather than a depressing yet ‘important’ modern classic.  I realise the book is a hard sell, but I do recommend at least reading the opening story if you ever see it in a shop or library.  The novel begins with a beautiful, haunting allegorical tale; it was enough to remind me that no one educates, alarms and comforts like Alice Walker.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The book is challenging but rewarding, honest but sympathetic to both its characters and its readers.  A modern and sadly all-to-relevant classic for the 21st century.

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