Category: Books

On a conversation in a pub

“… with Cathy and Heathcliff, you can’t empathise

They’re selfish and nasty, they cheat and they lie.”

“But they love with a passion, you don’t need to approve

Or to like or respect them, but fail to be moved?”

 

“I’m with Claire, I don’t like it at all

The characters are hateful, the story is dull.”

“And what’s with that Nelly, interfering old hag,

A gossip, a stirrer, a nosy old nag.”

 

“Are you crazy, or blind? This is love on grand scale,

Consuming and flaming, not sickly and pale.

How can you not like it? It’s raw and blood red

Besides,” she leaned forward, “Heathcliff’d be great in bed.”

 

“No!” Claire replied. “He’d be violent and mean,”

“That’s as may be, but he’d sure make you scream.”

 

Valerie downed her lager and smiled,

“The prose is laborious, the characters vile.”

 

“But remember Heathcliff, Cathy dead in his hold

His pain and his anguish, relentless and bold

Remember his plea, his piteous howl,

‘How can I live sans my life, live sans my soul?’

You’re right he is vicious, more devil than man,

And she is deceitful, a cowardly sham

And they are abhorrent and twisted and cruel

But they are in love! And this love makes them cruel.”

 

Valerie raised her eyebrows and said,

“I’d just rather read a good book instead.”

 

“Now Jane Eyre,” said Claire, “that one was good.

With characters who love, but behave like they should.

Jane I believe in. Jane I can like.

She is meek but with strength, and she does what is right.”

 

“Now don’t get me wrong here, I love the book too

But does what is right? Are you crazy? A fool?

She says that she loves him, yet she leaves him alone

To suffer his mistake, to pay on his own.

Okay, so she’s selfless, and honest and kind

But these virtues mislead her; her faith makes her blind

So he’s already married, a hurdle for sure

But, truly, he loves her, still she walks out that door.

Though in th’ end he’s redeemed, and happ’ly they live,

For leaving that day, Jane I’d never forgive.”

 

“I didn’t think much of Emma, either,” said Val

“Or that Sense and whatever, also banal.”

“Fuck’s sake, I can’t hear this! Are you crazy, unhinged?”

“Just saying I didn’t like them. Guess they’re just not my thing.”

 

“Please, please tell me that you like P and P.”

“Sorry. Not really. It just wasn’t me.”

Claire laughed and said, “I thought it was cool,

Especially that bit where Darcy dives in the pool!”

A fist hits the table, legs wobble and shake

“Fucking unbelievable, for sacrilege sake.”

 

Rebecca, I loved. No, really. No joke.”

Said Claire as she sipped at her vodka and Coke.

“I feel for the heroine. Her doubts and her fears

I’ve shared now and then, in the passing of years.”

 

“But Mrs de Winter, she’s mousy and dull.

Now Rebecca’s a woman to plague someone’s soul.”

 

Time had been called; the bar had been cleared,

Except for the table where these musings were heard

“And your lovers,” asked Claire, “are they likeable folk?”

“Not nice exactly, but intriguing I hope.

Really and truly, they’re a cowardly pair,

One won’t fight, the other doesn’t fight fair.”

 

“I like it,” said Val, “it’s a credible read.”

Said the barman, “Night ladies. Time to leave.”

Who’s Jane Austen calling a dick?

Portrait of Jane Austen

I always think it’s a bit of a shame that we tend to experience novels, unlike say poetry or films or music, only once. Perhaps it’s because the time invested in getting through a novel is so much greater than other art forms. Perhaps it’s because, lurking in the shadows, is a sense of time running out, so we devote the precious little we have to a search for something new, and shy away from revisiting. I think this is a mistake. A novel, at least any novel worth reading in the first place, in fact offers up something new each time. The reader, as much as the writer, creates the story and the reader is always new – even when she’s the same person, with each re-reading the reader is renewed.

At 14, like her students, I was enchanted by Jean Brodie; later I recognised her as a charismatic but sinister narcissist. At 15 Cathy and Heathcliff seemed full of thwarted but strangely innocent passion; later a thinly veiled mutually obsessive sadism emerged from the book’s dog-eared pages, rendering the likes of EL James, whose work has been flying off the shelves with such abandon in recent times, really very tame by comparison.

I’ve just read a book by John Williams, who I confess to having never heard of a week ago. Stoner, despite its unhelpful title, might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. I wonder whether, at 41, I stumbled  across this novel at just the right age for it to be profoundly moving. I wonder how it will feel forty years down the road, if I make it that far. I wonder if at 20 I would have loved it so much. I’ll never know. I finished it four days ago and it’s taken every ounce of will power I possess not to go right back to the beginning and start again, but I’m determined to give it some time to breathe before I take a second swig.

So instead I’m reading Persuasion. Again. I think it’s been about fifteen years since I last read this particular novel. Recently I’ve been browsing some of Austen’s letters, and I see something of their elegant viciousness here when the narrator tells us that, “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.” A little later we are told that: “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard’, been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

This is perfect, just perfect. No-one wields a knife quite like Austen. With her trademark lack of sentimentality, death is no reason to go easy on a character; not for her the fallacy of dignifying in death those who are despised in life. But what exactly is she saying here? Is Jane Austen, beloved of moralists and middle England, referring to this poor dead character, as unable to defend himself against her verbal assassination as he was to prevent his fictional demise, as a good-for-nothing dick? How wonderful. I don’t remember having noticed this before. And that’s one of the great pleasures of re-reading. And also one of the gifts a reader brings to a story. The truth is, I think that in Regency England the term ‘Dick’ was an insult in as much as it described a sort of unimpressive everyman, a person of no particular note – a Tom, Dick or Harry. I think its metamorphosis into phallically associated term of abuse was yet to be achieved. But what a delight it is to bring this meaning to a contemporary reading of Austen. I have absolutely no doubt that Richard Musgrove was indeed a dick, in all senses of the word, and that had Miss Austen been writing in 2013 she would have taken great satisfaction in describing him as such.

Shivers down your spine

Español: BASA ANTARTICA ARGENTINA SAN MARTIN

Antartica. 14 million square miles of cold. 90% of the world’s ice. Blizzards like nowhere else on earth. Land of magnetic attraction to heroes and fools alike. Land of no return: “I am just going outside and may be sometime.” Antartica has no indigenous population – but it does have scientific bases dotted across its vast land mass, staffed at any one time by between 1000 and 5000 thinly spread workers. And there is no government. There are a few treaties of course, a lot of goodwill, and a fair amount of plain hope that none of the temporary inhabitants will go stir buggin crazy in all the white light. And maybe set out about a cabin fever killing spree. Or that in the vast expanse of nothingness, mysterious activities are not afoot. Waiting to catch you. When you’re all alone.

The perfect backdrop, wouldn’t you say, for a psychological thriller. Or even better, a hammy horror. You wouldn’t be the first to think this, of course. B-movie directors worked this out some time ago and gave us, perhaps most notably, The Thing in 1982. You’ve gotta love a bit of John Carpenter.

 

And then, unfortunately, gave it to us again, in prequel form, in 2011.

Now, it seems some folk with their hands on a movie camera have gone one step further and actually shot a film in Antartica. The first feature set in the great white wilderness to have also been filmed there. The logistics of this would be unthinkable for any ordinary outfit. But this film, South of Sanity, was made entirely by workers on a research base: writer, director, cast and crew alike. Isolated workers on an isolated research base. Playing isolated workers on an isolated research base.

 

Ok, so it might seem a little amateurish, but I’d like to catch a glimpse of this little work of art anyway. If I was holed up on an Antarctic base right now I might be just a little bit creeped out. I might be looking over my shoulder. Watching. Listening. Waiting. For life to imitate art…

Real Vampires Don’t Sparkle… but maybe that’s the point

Ok, I can’t quite believe that I’m going to attempt this. Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer. I love Gothic fiction. I’m a big fan of the horror genre in film. I particularly love vampire flicks, and I like my vampires to have fangs. I’m interested in film. Interesting film. I’m interested in literature. Interesting literature. I consider myself a feminist. I say all this, and I could say so much more, as a kind of begging for forgiveness in advance. Because, what I’m about to do, and I can’t quite believe it myself, is offer a kind of apology for The Twilight Saga. No. More than that, offer a reason for its popularity. And more than that, suggest that, despite its deeply suspect ideology, it’s not so bad really. Bear with me, readers.

I ought to make it clear, I haven’t read a single word of a single one of the Twilight books. I don’t intend to. I probably wouldn’t like them. Which is fine. I’m fairly certain I’m not the target audience anyway. I have, however, over the past couple of weeks, watched all five of the films. I thought it was about time to have a look at just what it is, precisely, that has been preoccupying the kidz over the past few years. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. My initial reaction was one of horror. The wrong kind of horror. I watched the films in the wrong order, starting with Breaking Dawn: part 1, which with its unflinching pro-life subtext (actually not so much of the ‘sub’) left me fearing for the ideological hearts, not to mention the psychological, and indeed physical, well-being of our teenagers. And then there’s the stalking, controlling, coercive boyfriend. And the mind games. And the ‘no sex before marriage’ clause. And the heroine seemingly free from any agency at all. And Wolfy (sorry, Jacob) imprinting on a new born babe – I’ve tried like mad to rationalise this one, but really, whichever way you look at it, it’s just creepy. And. And. And…

And what about adding to the body of Vampire mythology? Harmless ‘vegetarians’? Repeating high school ad infinitum? Driving around in Volvos and Mercedes? Living in (unaccountably affluent) peace in a Scandinavian style lodge? It’s not that this is all a bit off canon, so much as this is all a bit lame. And then there’s the sparkling. Sparkling, I tell you. Vampires don’t sparkle. They chow down on your neck with bloody great fangs. They exist as a metaphor for sex, repression, fear, desire. They offer a safe space for transgression. They explore the other. They explore the id. They DON’T BLOODY WELL SPARKLE.

But then maybe that’s the point. Maybe Edward, in all his toothless, sparkling glory is so non-threatening that the sinister undercurrents of his behaviour are rendered utterly meaningless. Maybe the adolescent and the pre-pubescent fans buy into the unreconstructed gender fantasy because it so clearly is fantasy, and requires so little exertion on their part. Maybe, surrounded as they are by a hyper-sexual, disposable culture, the innate conservatism of The Twilight Saga offers some breathing space. Maybe they just fancy Robert Pattinson. Or Kristen Stewart. Maybe they’re frightened of growing up, and they find something reassuring in Bella and Edward achieving a state of stasis while still teenagers. Or maybe they like waiting ’til the final film for Bella to actually get some muscles – a kind of delayed gratification.

Or maybe I should give up the ghost and direct you to this biting Buffy/Twilight mashup instead…

Thanks for the reminder that Real Slayers Stake Vampires. Especially if they sparkle.

Google ‘real vampires don’t sparkle’ and click on images. Go on, it’s fun.

Many thanks to Shannon for the lightbulb moment. Cheers.

Lock Up Your Daughters… Pulp’s In Town

I think, perhaps, I should stop making insulting comments about facebook in this blog and then linking it to my facebook account in the vain hope of ensnaring a reader or two. It’s not good form.

titlepageWhat is good, though, is that there’s a fabulous new publishing company in town: Pulp! THE CLASSICS. Its genius lies in its reprinting of select, classic bestsellers, all dolled up in pop-culture covers and ironic tag-lines. First up, of course, is Pride and Prejudice. Steamy blacks and reds mixed with pop-art yellows signal smouldering sex with just a hint of irony. I think. The tag-line reads “Lock Up Your Daughters… Darcy’s In Town!” The edition caught my eye in an instant, and I bought two, one for me (what can I say, I’m a fan, a fanatic, whatever…), and one for a pal with an eye for pop and the absurd, but who’s yet to be convinced of the wonderful worth of Miss Austen. I’m hoping to sneak her in through the side door with this version.

Of course, they got the tag-line wrong. If they wanted to go with the locks and daughters theme, it should have read, “Lock Up Your Daughters… Wickham’s In Town!” He is, after all, the one with a penchant for seducing 15 year olds. Where’s the fun in dwelling on technicalities, though? What’s more interesting is the enduring appeal, and the ongoing mythologising, of Darcy in the popular consciousness. On this cover, Darcy is Colin Firth, but Colin Firth as he might be cast as Dracula (Regency outfit aside), all lurking in the shadows and glowering menacingly, fag in mouth. Wait a minute. Fag in mouth? Well ok, so 50s alienated anti-heroes are also evoked – Rebel Without a Cause anybody? Or maybe there’s just a hint of our fave cigarette-smoking bad-boy vampire, Spike, in this little construction.

Anyway, for my money, this is a welcome addition to the publishing high street. Forthcoming editions will include Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby. Keep an eye on those daughters, now.

Am I missing the point of facebook? or Why Lincoln is crap.

Yesterday, after going cold turkey for 37 days (yes, I was counting), I reactivated my facebook account. Who knows what precipitated this move: a fear that a big party’s going on somewhere and I’m not invited? Nosiness? A nagging suspicion that if I’m no longer parading myself on my very own cyber-rag then I’m not really here at all? A messy flat and some reading that needs avoiding? Anyway, whatever the real reason, the one I gave was that I needed to re-emerge to tell the world how truly crap ‘Lincoln’ is.

And truly, it is. I mean Spielberg can put a slick film together, we all know that, and if painting by numbers is your thing, and you like those numbers to add up to a Jack Vettriano, then maybe you’ll go for ‘Lincoln’. I was left cold. And just a little irritated. Of all the complex stories that could have been told about the 16th President of the USA, the workings on Capitol Hill, the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, this film seems to have opted for the most crassly simplistic, one dimensional, hero-worshipping, whitewashing one of all. Really, he should have stuck to sharks and aliens. Oh, and I liked that one about the truck.

Daniel Day-Lewis, all got up in comedy whiskers and a death-like pallor, chanelled his inner Atticus (Henry Fonda did better) while marginal, simple black folk look on in admiration. Or is it adoration? Really, 50 plus years ago when Harper Lee gave us such sorry representations of black characters in ‘Mockingbird’, we winced a bit, but let it pass. The civil rights movement was in its infancy, ‘black power’ hadn’t yet taken centre stage, in its own way the work was revelatory, and, importantly, the whole thing was couched in such sublime prose you’d forgive it almost anything. But you’d think in 2013, what with a black President ‘n’ all, a little human complexity could be given a voice. To be fair on the great SS though, this cartoonish representation isn’t reserved solely for his black characters: no-one really escapes the flattening. I expected Mickey Mouse to pop up with a frying pan at any moment and literally flatten the lot of ’em. At one point, an actual mouse did scuttle across the bottom of the screen, projecting a cheeky black shadow in its wake. Honestly. The Barbican really ought to contact pest control.

Back to the reactivation of my facebook account, though. The first thing I noticed was that my roll-call of friends had decreased in number. I had expected this, but what was marginally interesting is that I have no idea who the hell are no longer my facebook friends. Scroll down and stare as I might at image after image, the absent faces do not present themselves to my mind. Not revelatory, I know, but this does highlight the very particular nature of being a ‘facebook friend’. I took another look at my friends list and at a rough guess, I reckon that fewer than 20% of those on it are actually, in the traditional sense of “I like you, you like me, let’s sit in the pub and have a beer together”, friends. Am I missing the point of facebook?