A Classic Class War Novel: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell

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‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was first published in 1914 and is written in the spirit of the age, depicting suffering and injustice and foretelling great conflict in the near future.  Tressell is not interested in the World War he did not live to see however, but in the struggle against an abusive society in which the masses were systematically oppressed by the few.

If that description seems a bit stark and lacking subtlety, it’s because I’m attempting to get into the spirit of the novel, in which all messages are made boldly and with as much satirical detail as possible.  No opportunity to labour the point is missed and, for fans of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, there is a lot of incidental enjoyment from seeing Tressell make use of standard literary tropes to drive home his agenda.  Thus we have Dickensian villains as the owners of the means of production (their names include Grinder, Didlum, Starver, Slumprent and D’Encloseland).  Bravely inhabiting the opposite side of the scales are a handful of socialist workers, whose ability to spout pages and pages of erudite, sophisticated and grammatically perfect English stands in stark contrast to the genuinely believable characters who are harangued by each side in turn.

To my mind, it is these characters who shine through as the heroes of the book.  They certainly provide its title, and we’re told how ‘all through the summer the crowd of ragged-trousered philanthropists continued to toil and sweat at their noble and unselfish task of making money for Mr Rushton.’  The book is set within Mudtown and, with few digressions, takes us through a year of back-breaking work and poverty-stricken unemployment.  If the names of the evil capitalists and the diction of the good socialists seem dated, the realism of the ‘philanthropists’ themselves has endured in an inescapably powerful presentation of endemic social inequality.  While the heroic Owen’s lectures can be hard to wade through, the responses of his audience, the fellow workers who support the status quo while suffering terribly from it, are frighteningly plausible.  We see how those who have most to lose from anti-welfare policies are the most fervent defenders of an unequal society and how temporary labourers at daily risk of unemployment still passionately believe that those without work are lazy and have chosen to scrounge.

‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ is a classic for its presentation of working life in the early years of the twentieth century.  It is admirable for its attempts to fit a socialists political polemic into the bourgeois confines of a traditional novel.  Sadly, it is frighteningly relevant to anyone trying to make sense of inequalities and bigotry that still surround us.  Personally, it made me both value the way society has changed over the last century and fear for what lies ahead; I found it a powerful novel with importance messages about the past, the present and the future.

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Secrets and surprises: ‘The Key’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

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From Adrian Mole to Zamyatin’s ‘We’, from ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ to Bridget Jones, very few things beat a good diary entry novel.  And if a single diary wasn’t powerful enough, the run-away success of Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ shows how much fun it is to explore the potential twists and turns when a second voice is added to the mix.  In Tanizaki’s ‘The Key’ we begin with a middle aged man’s provocative New Year’s entry:

This Year I intend to begin writing freely about a topic which, in the past, I have hesitated even to mention here.  I have always avoided commenting on my sexual relations with Ikuko, for fear that she might surreptitiously read my diary and be offended.  I dare say she knows exactly where to find it.  But I have decided not to worry about that anymore.

The next chapter in the book is dated the fourth of January.  In it, Ikuko records in her own journal how she came across the key to her husband’s diary when cleaning his room.  The discovery is treated with suspicion:

Why should he have dropped the key in a place like that?  Has he changed his mind and decided he wants me to read it?  Perhaps he realises I’d refuse if he asked me to, so he’s telling me: ‘You can read it in private – here’s the key.’  Does that mean he thinks I haven’t found it?  No, isn’t he saying rather: From now on I acknowledge that you’re reading it, but I’ll keep on pretending you’re not?’
Well, never mind.  Whatever he thinks, I shall never read it.

Later on, her own diary will be discovered under similarly ambiguous circumstances.  Anyone who’s read ‘Gone Girl’ recently will be familiar with the thrill of unpicking the same story through the different perceptions of its two protagonists.  In ‘The Key’ however, the suspense created is far more claustrophobic and the power relations considerably more complex.  We know both our narrators are devious and manipulative, sexual and naive.  Their interactions with the other two characters in the tightly woven drama (the daughter and her potential suitor) show them to also be selfish and even cruel.  The ideas of sacrifice and morality are cooly explored, along with more traditional shared-diary themes of voyeurism and truth.

I’m worried about spoilers so I don’t want to say too much about the plot (I found it chilling, unexpected and extremely satisfying).  As for the writing style, my edition was translated by Howard Hibbett, whom I have previously praised for his excellent translation of Tanizaki’s Quicksand.  Given the strict economy of this 160 page novel, the writing has to both subtle and simple for the story and characters to work; I can’t imaging any other translation succeeding quite so well.

‘The Key’ disturbed me and enthralled me.  Just re-reading and typing out the quotations in this post felt like standing on the edge of an abyss, about to fall back into the mess of illusion, understanding, secrecy and exposure that make up the central marriage.  Highly recommended as an introduction to one of the greatest Japanese writers of the last century, or as a reminder of his versatility and talent if you’re already a Tanizaki fan.

Posted in Japanese Literature, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Mourning the end of August: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 2 – summer) by Anthony Powell

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The first volume of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time‘ brought much joy to my spring reading.  I love long books that give the luxury of total immersion in a luxurious setting and the aristocratic, privileged world of Powell’s sophisticated characters fit the bill perfectly.

It’s sad to think that I’m already half way through the sequence.  It’s also quite hard to believe.  Frankly, the characters’ chaotic lives seem, if anything, even less settled than they did hundreds of pages earlier.  Even the most ambitious or determined have not yet reached their goals; Widmerpool is neither Prime Minister nor, completely, a captain of industry while Stringham has not yet succeeded in drinking himself into an early grave.  Leaving aside death and taxes, nearly all characters busy themselves with falling in and out of love and marriage.  The idea of dance is fully brought to life as characters move in and out of relationships in almost choreographed moves.  Even our generally featureless narrator has his role, managing to get and stay married in between witnessing his contemporaries’ fraught romances.

As with the ‘Spring’ novels, each of the summer books comes with a brilliantly evocative title and its own new developments to the characters’ live as they make their way through the early decades of the twentieth century:

Volume 4: ‘At Lady Molly’s’, continues the story exactly where I had hoped.  In it, Widmerpool gets engaged to an eccentric, older and significantly more experienced woman.  The ensuring gut-wrenching embarrassment of the situation should be evident, but the plot twists still manage to surprise.

Volume 5: ‘Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant’ has possibly my favourite title of the whole series.  This is partly for personal reasons (I’m a fan of Casanova’s writings, and at least equally fond of Chinese food) but also for the wider connotations of the name, spelled out in Powell’s inimitable prose:

The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life.  The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night.

The volume has its own ‘blending of East and West’ or at the very least of parochially exotic incongruities.  New characters are introduced, not much happens, and I enjoyed all of it.

Volume 6: ‘The Kindly Ones’.  This title is a euphemism for the Furies and the book leads up to the Second World War.  Indeed, the coming conflict overshadows the whole volume, bringing a sense that summer inescapably bleeds into the death and decay of autumn.

I am looking forward to getting started on the next part of the series, but I am also a little concerned about the bleakness that lies ahead.  The year-long cycle of the sequence suggests that the best is over and that the decline will be slow and painful.  The historical period covered could easily follow this pattern – so I’m afraid I’ll be left with only the comforting constant of Widmerpool’s awfulness and Powell’s subtly satirical prose.  And the fact that volume 10 is entitled ‘Books do furnish a Room’.  I’m looking forward to that one!

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An Italian Classic ‘The Betrothed’ by Alessandro Manzoni

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‘The Betrothed’ starts with a cowardly cleric being threaten with unnamed reprisals if he performs a marriage ceremony for a peasant couple against the wishes of the evil Don Rodrigo.  The fearful priest resolves to obey these commands, cursing his misfortune at being caught between his religious duty (he has already promised to perform the wedding ceremony) and the inescapable power of the bullying baron.

Thus begins a epic story of tyranny and love. The peasant couple are of appropriately heroic stock – poor but honest, she is of surpassing beauty, modesty and virtue.  He is slightly more human, but equally impotent against the vicissitudes of fortune.  And what vicissitudes there are.  Apart from ‘bravos’, essentially gang enforcers roving the countryside unopposed, the book will cover blackmail, abduction, riots, war, famine and plague; it’s a historical novel that depicts the best of seventeenth century chaos through the refined lens of nineteenth century melodrama.

Most enjoyable from my perspective, were the moments when the book was most reminiscent of contemporary Gothic fiction.  ‘The Monk’ by Lewis was published in 1796 and Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ came out a year later.  I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to look for similarities between these enjoyable pieces of Gothic silliness and Manzoni’s Italian classic, first published in 1827.  I certainly got my  beautiful and virtuous heroine, my dastardly aristocratic villains and the decadence and corruption of religious orders (Diderot’s ‘The Nun’ was also published in 1796).  The fact that this book is Italian and so not written with a Protestant or secular world view added a twist to the familiar themes.  While hypocrites are under attack, the Catholic Church remains a force for good in the novel.  Indeed, when a key character makes a sacred oath to forsake marriage and take holy orders, none of my previous reading could prepare me for how the plot would deal with this potentially insurmountable barrier to a final happy ending.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the story and characters in ‘The Betrothed.’  All that prevents me from wholeheartedly recommending it to others is the thorny issue of translation.  I alternated between a heavy paperback edition of the book (trans by Archibald Colquhoun) and a weird Kindle version from project Gutenberg (which claims to be written by a Count O’Mahony).  I can’t imagine either do justice to the Italian original and only hope one of the many wonderful publishers currently specialising in literature in translation will be bringing out a more readable English edition of this classic soon.  If anyone has read a good translation please do let me know, in its absence I’m going to work on remembering the exaggerated events of the novel while trying to forget the distorted sentences of the translations.

Posted in Alessandro Manzoni, Italian Literature | 7 Comments

The Man Booker Prize and Graveyards: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

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Reading ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ really made me wish for a new book list, a specialised list, made up of English language novels premised on Buddhist philosophy.  It’s is going to have to be provided by someone else though.  I’ve never quite managed to finish ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and know so little about Buddhism in general, I couldn’t even understand the title of Saunders’ acclaimed novel.  Fortunately Google let me know what a Bardo is: ‘(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

With this definition, the novel can start to make some sense.  Only, some mind you, when your setting is so vague and liminal, ‘making sense’ is suddenly very low on the agenda.  Instead, the book provides a space for exploring ideas, public and private, around identity, motivation and American history.  It all makes for an unusual, enigmatic and extremely enjoyable read.

My last review was about Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness‘, which I found extremely ambitious, using an unconventional, fractured narrative structure to capture the complexity and recent traumatic history of Indian sub-continent.  ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is equally experimental; told entirely through inner monologues and first person narratives, it reads far more like a radio play than a novel.  Quibbles of form aside though, Saunders weaves a story based on a historical footnote (Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, died in 1862 and Lincoln visited his grave) into a powerful meditation on agency, identity and loss.

The book is divided into sections, bracketed by contemporary, often contradictory accounts of the historical events.  In between these reminders of the real world, the reader, like young Willie, is surrounded by the eccentric spirits who tenaciously stick to their liminal and unnatural ‘state of existence.’  We learn their stories and are given hints as to why they remain thus unnaturally suspended between actual life and true death.  Take one incidental character for example:

Mrs. Ellis was a stately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters.  At times these orbs grew to extreme size, and would bear down upon her, and crush out her blood and other fluids as she wriggled beneath their terrible weight, refusing to cry out, as this would indicate displeasure, and at other times these orbs departed from her and she was greatly tormented, and must rush about trying to find them, and when she did, would weep in relief, at which time they would once again begin bearing down upon her…

Every character in the Bardo has their own story and obsession, and their own place within American history.  This is never more evident than with the Black slave spirit community, barred by convention and racist White inhabitants from residing in the main cemetery.  For a novel entirely told through different voices, the spirit of a beautiful, mute slave girl is a terrifyingly tragic figure.  Beyond the story of personal grief the novel fully engages with the political implications of its title; the one living character to approach the Bardo is Lincoln, the president who was to issue the emancipation proclamation in 1863.

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is poignant and meditative, but also joyfully exuberant.  The imaginative detail is bawdy as well as gruesome and the characters are delightful as they navigate their transitional existence.  Full of surprises and consistently moving, I really hope this will make it onto the Booker shortlist.  And that my next Buddhist novel will be as satisfyingly unexpected and charming.

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Getting started with the 2017 Man Booker Prize: The ironically titled ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

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Having spoken to people about Roy’s new novel, I think I may have been the only reader to have utterly misunderstood the title.  In blissful ignorance I began reading, looking forward to a much needed cheerful novel.  There was nothing I would have welcomed more than a well-written tome on joy, gladness and good-will.  With this in mind, I must confess that the first chapter was a bit disconcerting:

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.

After the enigmatic and mysterious beginning, the story moves back in time to explore the social position and plight of ‘hijra‘, a Hindu word readers are to discover for themselves can mean hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender person.  This fascinating view of an outsider community is then interrupted when the ostensible protagonist gets caught up in a massacre against Hindus, and the subsequent reprisals against Muslims, when on her way to visit a shrine.  Before the reader has time to comprehend the full trauma of the events and their effects on the characters, the plot moves on yet again, into poverty, urbanisation, pollution, political corruption and the conflict in Kashmir.

My advice would be to avoid getting hung on up plot, or on remembering and keeping track of the immense cast of characters.  Not only is the phrase ‘Utmost Happiness’ in the title Orwellian in its ironic implications, the word ‘Ministry’ with its connotations of order and control is equally misleading.  The book is sprawling in the extreme, as new characters, plot-lines and tragedies intrude on each other, running off in all directions and frustrating any desire for coherence or logical progression.

And I suppose that’s the point.  This is a novel about huge regions and massive populations.  Rather than attempt to fit these within a traditional narrative structure, Roy instead invites her readers into the confusion.  Even the writing, including polemics, poetry, lyrical descriptions, mystical fairy-tale elements and a patchwork of documentary-style ‘non-fiction’ is uneven and disorienting.  Personally,  found it an admirable and ambitious, but ultimately overwhelming, reading experience.  It will certainly teach most readers quite a bit about the history, society and politics of the Indian sub-continent, though if you’re after a more straightforward account, I suspect Roy’s non-fiction over the last two decades is a better place to look.  Later on this year, we’ll see if ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ will join ‘The God of Small Things’ on the Man Booker awards list.  For the time being, it remains a challenging, brave and formidable addition to the canon of Great Indian Novels.

I received my copy of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Arundhati Roy, Man Booker Prize 2017 | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Human identity: ‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

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A couple of years ago, I read Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline,’ a book that is so delicately evocative of a fractured self it was almost impossible to review (though I tried, and you can see the result at Shiny New Books).  Here, at Shoshi’s Book Blog, all I could do to give a snapshot of the book was quote from Rilke’s Fourth Duino Elegy:

…It’s as if – in a quick sketch – all the effort
has gone to prepare a background that allows us
to see precisely and yet still we cannot grasp
the real contour of our feelings and we know
only the pressures that shape us from the outside…

 I was thrilled to see a follow up novel in book shops last year.  But then I got anxious.  ‘Outline’ did such a perfect job of presenting a heroine sublimating her own ego and identity.  She is barely a character in her own novel, merely inhabiting the spaces left around the stories others tell her about themselves.  I wasn’t sure if I needed another novel giving more of the same; on the other hand, I couldn’t quite imagine being satisfied with anything less.

‘Transit’, as the name suggests, does indeed move on from ‘Outline.’  Unlike the Athens-set first novel (surrounded by abandoned building projects), the action in ‘Transit’ takes place in London, as our narrator attempts to fix up her new property into something resembling a family home.  It’s a difficult process, grubby and painful, echoing our narrator’s own slow process away from the numb self-effacement of ‘Outline.’

Structurally, the novel is made up of isolated episodes in which Faye meets different people and hears their stories.  In the previous book, such narratives were about the nature of storytelling itself.  With ‘Transit,’ there is a new pervasive theme, from the hairdresser to the neighbours, conversations seem to circle around ideas of childhood and children.  The question of what it means to be grown up echoes the difficulties faced by our narrator as she struggles to rebuild an identity for herself following her divorce and new existence as a single parent.

Like the newly bought flat around which much of its action centres, ‘Transit’ is a novel continually on the brink of collapse.  From the ambition of the structure (in which very little actually happens) and the characterisation (in a novel which actively wrestles with the idea of identity) it is every bit a powerful as ‘Outline.’  There is a third book planned to round off this collection of books and I can’t wait to see how Cusk continues her existential exploration of modern life.  Right now, I’m most excited to see what it will be called, hoping for a hat trick of fantastic titles that encapsulate their stories far better than any written review…

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