Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Conquest by Stewart Binns

Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Author: English
Published: 2000s

Conquest reads like an old Norse epic, told over countless wintry days when the snow and short days kept people indoors—and the Norse were great story tellers.

And not only does the introduction to the story adopt this attack but the characters are also larger than life: Hereward of Bourne is a demonstrably large character not only in size but early on in his fierceness and lack of control, but later his determination to achieve justice for the “little people”, his wife Torfida’s loyalty and purpose fall into this pattern—and so it continues with all the characters.

This wasn’t a character driven story but one focussed on the history and what a history Binns conquered for me: battle: Hastings, the protagonists; William the Bastard and Harold Godwinson, the winner William the Conqueror. How different would the world be if William the Conqueror not won and remained William the Bastard?

What I got from the story was the people (originally Danes, Celts, Saxons etc) melded together into a society with the underpinning principles of freedom and justice, the interest in maintaining the decentralised powers of the smaller Saxon based society over the strongly centralised control exercised by the feudal Norman structure; and how at the end the struggle was about retaining the underpinning freedom and justice of England at that time within the feudal Norman structure. That was a huge undertaking and one that resonated with me.

And I got to learn a little about a character I’d never heard of before—Hereward of Bourne—and the role he played in history. I never realised that the close run between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror was in large part due to the Hereward’s skills (the Normans won by only a few short hours because help did arrive from the north only it was too late to be of any use). I also never understood that the conquering of England wasn’t the end of the resistance as the English continued to overthrow William’s rule—a sort of William Wallace of the English.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Author: English
Published: 1900s

The story starts with the devoted Myrtle following Master Georgie, who discovers his father, dead, in the bed of a blowsy, drunken prostitute. Definitely a beginning to hook you in, and the book meanders through Georgie’s childhood and offers us George, now a surgeon and amateur photographer, as he sets off from his comfortable life as a Victorian gentleman, and heir to a fortune, to offer his services in the Crimea.

George is followed to the Crimea by a caravan of devoted followers. The voices of George himself and others (such as his wife) are quiet as the story is told by only three who offer their perspectives of George: Myrtle and Pompey Jones (two foundlings rescued by Master Georgie) and George’s brother in law Potter, who might be educated but basically he's insensitive and pompous.

But George--as lover, father, surgeon and photographer, human being--is different according to each narrator, and we have to compare and contrast to uncover the “truth” of George.

I don’t know who I believed more: the besotted Myrtle (prepared to be George’s sister in public and the mother of his children to be near him), Pompey Jones (George’s homosexual lover), and Potter (whose insensitivity and intellectual leanings sadly skewed the opinion of the only person who might otherwise be a more disinterested observer than either Myrtle or Pompey).

This book unfolds rather than clings to a plot, and the telling of the tale through the eyes of Myrtle, Pompey and Potter means that everything we see of George is through the filter of these characters. But I didn’t find this detracted from trying to understand who George was.

And who was he: in the end it seems (and probably rightly) that everybody’s perspective is right. Maybe a re-read will help.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

866. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Genre: Satire, parody
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1950

Sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen and left with only 100 pounds a year, and decides her future is to descend upon her relatives, the StarkAdders, at their farm in Howling, Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who hasn’t left her bedroom in 20 years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people, and armed with common sense and a strong will she resolves to take each of the family in hand.

First chapter
I can’t think about the whole first chapter when the first paragraph is so deliciously cheeky. It clearly sets out that this isn’t going to be a ‘run of the mill’ story and tells you pretty well everything you need to know about Flora’s world and something about Flora besides: “The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.” (p1) This sentence was enough to hook me.

From what I could discover from my obligatory research is that Cold Comfort Farm is a satire or parody of the “loam and lovechild” rural novel using a brisk, smart, sensible, modern young woman from London to put everybody on the right path.

A “loam and lovechild” novel? In all my reading (and I like to consider myself well read), I don’t recall hearing of this genre before and I had to investigate … it’s a subset of the pessimistic rural novel genre. A young, usually outcast woman leaves the city to live with relatives in the pastoral countryside. The countryside is seen as rough and wild, the men and women are ruled by their passions (sexual and otherwise), and the melodramatic characters have lives that are more complex and intertwined than Brooke and Ridge in Young and the Restless! (FYI: Brooke has been married to Ridge, his father and his brother more than once so that ought to give you a clue!) Inevitably, the characters confront tragedy and heartbreak, but find solace in traditional values, leading to a spiritual reawakening and, through that, a happy ending. All very uplifting and Victorian!

I guess most of us have read at least one pessimistic rural novel—Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woodlanders, even Lady Chatterley’s Lover—and I can’t say I’ve enjoyed all of them ... Hardy’s not a favourite of mine and nor is Lawrence’s misogynism. I also realised I’ve never read a “loam and lovechild novel”: Mary Webb (the House in Dormer Forest and Precious Bane), Sheila Kaye-Smith (Sussex Gorse) and Mary E Mann. That’s despite owning Mary Webb’s Precious Bane for years, and seeing it in a recentish BBC production.

What I enjoyed most from my research was learning about Stella Gibbons. Apparently, she worked for newspapers before she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, and one of her jobs was to prĂ©cis each chapter of Mary Webb’s “Golden Arrow” for its serialisation. Gibbons didn’t like the book and this hadn’t changed by the 1960s when Gibbons observed in Punch that “The large agonised faces in Mary Webb’s book annoyed me … I did not believe people were any more despairing in Herefordshire [sic] than in Camden Town.” I also read elsewhere that one of Gibbons’ reviews of a “loam and lovechild” novel was so cryptic (about three words in length) and revealing that it was clear she thought the character and novel should never have been written! I wish I remember where I saw the review online as it was the funniest thing I’ve read and I’ve added Stella Gibbons to the ten people I’d invite to a dinner party for the insights and lively conversation she’d bring.

In reading Cold Comfort Farm, two things stand out for me: Stella Gibbons’ obvious literary strengths in being able to deliver such an entertaining and well crafted first novel, but also how she must have felt about “loam and lovechild” novels to write a parody. A parody is a work that mocks, comments on, or trivialises an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. A satire holds up vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon. If Cold Comfort Farm represents my first “loam and lovechild” novel, I’m glad it was a satire or parody, and one of the value and skill of Cold Comfort Farm, because I’m positive it will never be a favourite genre.

It’s clear, despite being in her late 20s when she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, that Stella Gibbons is well read. Apparently, she borrowed characters from various pessimistic and “loam and lovechild” novels to use in her own. Nicola Humble observes the influence of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and referred to elements of Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre: the flighty Elfine who might be thought of as a version of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, the darkly-brooding Seth as a Heathcliff, and their mad mother Judith as a sort of Bertha Mason. In contrast, Faye Hammil refers to the works of Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb as the chief influences: the farm modeled on Dormer House in Webb’s The House in Dormer Forest, Aunt Ada Doom on Mrs Velindre of the same book, the farm-obsessed Reuben on a character in Kaye-Smith’s Sussex Gorse, and the Quivery Brethren on the Colgate Brethren in Kaye-Smith’s Susan Spray. I’m glad somebody else did that work for me, especially the “loam and lovechild” references, as I’m in no particular hurry to read them. What I picked up for myself, being a fan of Jane Austen, is the homage to her through Flora via a reference to Persuasion and a quote from Mansfield Park. Nice to have two favourites linked like that.

The speech of the Sussex characters in the novel parodies rural dialects and the story is sprinkled with local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth's favourite activity, undefined but resulting in the pregnancy of a local maid), sukebind (a weed whose flowering in the spring symbolises the quickening of sexual urges in man and beast; scranletting (ploughing), and clettering (an impractical method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig or clettering stick). It’s reasonable to expect that country characters shouldn’t be mocked as they do tend to be an easy target. But I don’t think this is the novel’s intention, it’s more a device that’s used to set the scene for mocking the means by which their problems are resolved.

In any event, it’s not just rural inhabitants which are parodied as the city dwellers receive the same treatment: Flora’s friend Mrs Smiling, the city sophisticate, amasses a vast collection of brassieres in the hope they, “would be left to the nation,” not to mention she can be steered away from making a fool of herself in conversation by being diverted to talking about brassieres. This is one of the funniest parts of the novel and it goes nowhere … why? And then there’s Mr Mybug, a male acquaintance who visits her in the country and, during shared walks, monotonously points out features of the landscape he declares phallic or suggestive of “large breasts.” I’m glad that goes nowhere!

So how is the novel resolved? Not by confronting tragedy and heartbreak, and finding solace in traditional values which lead to a spiritual reawakening. Instead a modern young woman approaches each person sensibly, takes time to understand them and assists them to reach their potential (while occasionally consulting The Higher Common Sense, a handbook of modern concepts and sound advice if she gets stuck):
• fertile Meriam Beetle is introduced to contraception. Job very easily done (and novel banned in Ireland!).
• handsome and over-sexed Seth Starkadder, with his passion for the movies, is introduced to a producer looking for a new movie star and voila! Job done.
• hellfire preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren (hilarious!) Amos Starkadder is encouraged to buy a Ford van and take to the road to convert sinners, something he’s always wanted to do. Job done.
• Amos’ departure leaves the farm in Reuben’s far more capable hands, something he’s always wanted. Job very well done.
• the intellectual, outdoorsy Elfine Starkadder who is besotted with Richard Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture (pronounced "Howchiker") Hall, the local squire. Elfine is dressed elegantly and persuaded not to quote poetry, and Elfine and Richard’s future happiness is assured. Job beautifully done.

And all of this happens despite the reclusive Aunt Ada Doom who hasn’t left her second story bedroom in 20 years because she saw something nasty in the woodshed, and yet refuses to allow things to change or people to leave. She uses madness as an excuse to control her family and her "fits" intensify if they step out of line. This is threatened when Flora Poste arrives and starts tidying up people's lives. Once Amos leaves the farm, the other family members gain strength and start perceiving Ada as human rather than god-like, until Aunt Ada is won over by Flora who spends 12 hours closeted with her (and must have worn her down although other methods might have been used) and she emerges a different woman with a new interest in life and travel to Paris. Job definitely well done!

I love, love, love this book and Gibbons’ parody works well. I love the crazy characters: 90 year old Adam who cares only for his cows Feckless, Aimless, Graceless and Pointless (whose names surely reflect certain core traits of the humans for whom they provide milk and income) and how does Adam never notice that one of them loses a leg! I love over-sexed Seth who is perpetually undoing shirt buttons and is quite happy to accept Meriam’s advances but who thinks women only want "yer blood and yer breath”. I loved crazy doom and gloom preacher Amos who doesn't plan his sermons but "I allus knows 'twill be summat about burnin'...". And all the other crazies, caught in their own problems and keen to impress "there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort". As if anybody ever suggests otherwise.

And I love Flora, despite her downsides: she refuses to get a job and is content to live off her relatives. She likes to win although she doesn’t like to fight and she’s determine the turn the family around. And the ending where she disappears without saying goodbye is strange … it’s as though she never really connected or existed in Howling. But she’s so calm and sensible and moves so purposefully among the characters of Cold Comfort Farm.

And most of all I love how well Stella Gibbons manages to turn the pessimistic rural and “loam and lovechild” novels on their collective ear, and drags late Victorian sensibility kicking and screaming into the 20th century. And about time too … it was only 1932 when the book was written!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

955. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Genre: Satire
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1950

George Babbitt is a typical middle-class businessman. He’s successful, he has a nice wife, three healthy children, a good job, a nice home in a good neighbourhood, a large circle of friends … but he’ not happy. He doesn’t love his wife, his home life isn’t all he wants, and his job bores him; in short his life is dull and uninteresting with the only spark of comfort and hope lying in his friendship with Paul. Can Babbitt resolve the emptiness of his life or will he be like everybody else, forced to maintain the treadmill while knowing ultimately that it’s pointless?

First chapter
I wasn’t overawed by Chapter 1 but a rereading of it shows there are hints at what’s to come:
• Zenith is materially prosperous and busy
• George Babbitt is a successful middle-aged businessman
• Babbitt lives with a family he dislikes and does a job he detests; he longs to escape, and he takes out his inability to escape on his family.

My first reactions to this novel were boredom and frustration, not only because the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere but because the main character Babbitt is so pompous and banal. This is just a taste of what he’s like: "Being a man given to oratory and high principles, he enjoyed the sound of his own vocabulary and the warmth of his own virtue." (p72) Ugh!

But I persevered and it was worth it until I had to write this review. It can take me anywhere up to a week to think my way through what a novel means to me, and after a few days all I’d got was the town of Zenith (def: highest point, the culmination or peak) as a metaphor for every solid middle class town in middle America, ably summed up in Babbitt as: "Zenith the Zip City—Zeal, Zest and Zowie—1,000,000 in 1935." (p133). The book could easily be retitled Zenith.

But I couldn’t get past Babbitt. He flits between things in search of a cure for the emptiness he feels but he never grows as a person or fills that hole in his life, and by the end of the novel he returns to the life he led at the beginning of the story. So what was the point of the 400 pages of struggle in between? But then it struck me; Babbitt isn’t a character but a metaphor for materially successful middle-class businessmen in middle America, and the novel is a series of vignettes addressing the incompatibility of various values and situations with capitalism. It's nice to have that Eureka moment.

Babbitt as a metaphor for the successful middle-class businessman works well. From the outside he has it all: a successful job in real estate, the respect of his friends and business associates, a faithful supportive wife, three lovely children, and a nice home in a good neighbourhood. But while his life has the outward trappings of conventional success, it hides the sterility and lack of fulfilment of his life: “The Babbitts' house was five years old. It was all as competent and glossy as this bedroom. It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout, electricity took the place of candles and slatternly hearth-fires. Along the bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by little brass doors. In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the living-room plugs for the piano lamp, for the electric fan. The TRIM dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of oysters) had plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric toaster. In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.” (p16)

And it couldn't be a home because the people within it don't connect: Babbitt co-exists with a wife he has never loved and who frustrates and bores him, he doesn’t like his children who view him as the means to obtain possessions and status. Moreover, Babbitt’s friends are uninteresting and dull, his friend’s marriages are either conventional (like his) or angry, and his interactions with them fall within a specific and pointless pattern. Babbitt’s only emotional release is with one close friend, Paul Riesling, and their relationship will come under increasing strain as the book evolves.

All this is at the local level, if you like, and Babbitt works equally well at the larger level (ie. considering capitalism as a system) and Lewis makes a number of important points which apply to the “greed is good” motif of the 1980s, the boom of the 1990s and today. In essence, capitalism exists only to make money, and everything else is irrelevant; the system doesn’t care if its inmates are moral or happy or satisfied as long as they’re making money.

So what elements of capitalism are dissected in Babbitt?

That capitalism requires stability to exist. In essence, the entire story is a race towards this. People must have the right ideas, the right friends and belong to the right clubs. The system needs law and order, and reliable family men focussed on making money. But there's no room for an emotional connection. Babbitt knows he cannot get this from his family, and he tries a number of ways to find it: religion, chasing after women. The only person he a good relationship with is his friend Paul and he supports him no matter what, but I think he also wants more ... a satisfying relationship with a woman. But he finds all women are more or less the same, no matter whether they’re decent or not ... an interesting concept.

But it’s interesting that, despite the need for order and stability, that immorality and unethical behaviour is allowed as long as it’s not obvious. And boy is this explored in Babbitt. He discovers that a grocer is interested in opening a butcher’s shop next to his existing shop. The first thing Babbitt does is to bully a real-estate speculator into buying the $9,000 property for $11,000 and raising the rent on the property, and when the grocer was ready to buy Babbitt arranges for the speculator to gouge the grocery by selling him the property for $21,000! Babbitt as the metaphor for capitalism makes the greatest amount of money possible, and is disappointed only because his work has meant someone else made so much money: “It had been a manly battle, but after it Babbitt drooped. This was the only really amusing contest he had been planning. There was nothing ahead save details of leases, appraisals, mortgages. He muttered, "Makes me sick to think of Lyte carrying off most of the profit when I did all the work, the old skinflint! And--What else have I got to do to-day?” (p49)

That organisations set up to maintain stability can also be used to promote capitalism. These organisations gave people the opportunity to mix and promote their business. Some organisations were exclusive and people who wanted to improve their chances vied to get in because once in your name and business would be primary in the mind of your fellow members: "One of the merits of the Boosters' Club was that only two persons from each department of business were permitted to join, so that you at once encountered the Ideals of other occupations, and realized the metaphysical oneness of all occupations--plumbing and portait-painting, medicine and the manufacture of chewing-gum." (p257). And what I found most interesting of all was the anonymity, and I'm not sure why this is: "As each of the four hundred Boosters entered he took from a wall-board a huge celluloid button announcing his name, his nick name, and his business. There was a fine of ten cents for calling a Fellow Booster by anything but his nickname at a lunch." (p257) And people didn't just join just one club, of course, as joining more than one provided additional opportunities to learn of business opportunities and make contacts: “Of a decent man in Zenith it was required that he should belong to one, preferably two or three, of the innumerous "lodges" and prosperity-boosting lunch-clubs." (p203)

A further insidious organisation Babbitt joins at the end of the book is the newly created Good Citizens’ League: "To the League belonged most of the prosperous citizens of Zenith. They were not all of the kind who called themselves "Regular Guys." Besides these hearty fellows, these salesmen of prosperity, there were the aristocrats, that is, the men who were richer or had been rich for more generations: the presidents of banks and of factories, the land-owners, the corporation lawyers, the fashionable doctors, and the few young-old men who worked not at all but, reluctantly remaining in Zenith, collected luster-ware and first editions as though they were back in Paris. All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary." (p391) Put like this the power of the clubs to maintain stability and ensure business grows is terrifying as its primary aim is to suppress the working classes. Lewis also satirises unions allowing them for bosses (ie. all the clubs they joins) but anarchists and communists (who are really ordinary human beings who want to be crushed by the system) are to be crushed. "A good labour union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labour agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions allowed at all; and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers' association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to." (p39)

I think the support for the system provided by the church is the most "shocking" part of Babbitt as Lewis suggests that not only are the churches run as a business but they are part of the money making elite. Babbitt references the low cost of converting "... over two hundred thousand lost and priceless souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head" (p98) and methods to increase Sunday School participation which consisted of developing a pseudo military organisation that smacked more of recruiting future salesman for the machine than souls for Jesus. (p214) And the antipathy towards the working class, who the church held as a captive audience because if they wanted to get into Heaven they'd be less likely to rebel against what was preached : “He was eloquent, efficient, and versatile. He presided at meetings for the denunciation of unions or the elevation of domestic service, and confided to the audiences that as a poor boy he had carried newspapers. For the Saturday edition of the Evening Advocate he wrote editorials on "The Manly Man's Religion" and "The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity," which were printed in bold type surrounded by a wiggly border. He often said that he was "proud to be known as primarily a business man" and that he certainly was not going to "permit the old Satan to monopolize all the pep and punch." (p204)

But perhaps, except for all that money and power, it isn't that easy to be a boss. Once you arrived at the top you had to work hard to stay there: "... men who had made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year ..." (p155) And while you're working so hard others are trying to take your place. One person trying is Stanley Graff, a salesman for Babbitt. Graff was doing all her could to earn more so he could get married, and later support a wife, and when he asks for an increase in commission, Babbitt wants to keep as much as he can for himself and tells Graff that he's "... against bonuses, as a matter of principle" because it would be unfair giving it to Graff and not to the others (and he couldn't be unfair), and besides there are "a slew of bright youn fellows that would be glad to step in and enjoy your opportunities ..." (p71) But Graff needs the money and he resorts to unethical methods. When Babbitt discovers this he’s outraged (which is a cheek considering Babbitt's methods) but the system demands that its participants appear honest. Graff is fired and he gives Babbitt a decent telling off before he leaves: "Oh, for Pete's sake, don't get virtuous on me! As I gather it, I'm fired. All right. It's a good thing for me. And if I catch you knocking me to any other firm, I'll squeal all I know about you and Henry T. and the dirty little lickspittle deals that you corporals of industry pull off for the bigger and brainier crooks, and you'll get chased out of town. And me--you're right, Babbitt, I've been going crooked, but now I'm going straight, and the first step will be to get a job in some office where the boss doesn't talk about Ideals. Bad luck, old dear, and you can stick your job up the sewer!" (p239) A nice summation.

As if corruption and unethical behaviour aren’t enough, the system isn’t interested in intellectual growth, culture or even beauty, except where it contributes to the making of money. The people making money didn’t need to be intelligent or well read to make money, and to be too intelligent was to set yourself apart. This was clear on the train as Babbitt and Paul made their way to Maine. The fellows were talking shop, rubbish generally, until Paul: “… committed an offense against the holy law of the Clan of Good Fellows. He became highbrow” when he though it was “… lovely the way the light pulls that picturesque yard, all littered with junk, right out of the darkness …" (p143)

But whilst being cultured individually was frowned on it was important that a city be considered cultured in order to compete and Lewis explored this through Zenith's interest in getting an orchestra. People weren’t interested in the orchestra; Chum Frink promoting the orchestra doesn't "... care a rap for all this long-haired music". (p260) The interest is in what the orchestra would do for the town; it would send the right message to others about what sort of town Zenith was and that it was as good as any other town: “Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city to-day as pavements or bank-clearances. It's Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven't yet got the Culture of a New York or Chicago or Boston--or at least we don't get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it.” (p261) The reference to “live bunch of go-getters" is as good as it gets; the go-getters are out getting money and if they can grab culture and get others to visit or move to the town so they can attain more money … then so much the better.

What’s at the core of America isn’t particularly uplifting according to Babbitt. But there’s also a warning in Babbitt that we should all listen to, and it comes when Babbitt tells his son (on the last page) that he should follow his dreams (and he does this after pushing him to go to college, if only for the kudos it bestows): "Well--" Babbitt crossed the floor, slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. "I've always wanted you to have a college degree." He meditatively stamped across the floor again. "But I've never--Now, for heaven's sake, don't repeat this to your mother, or she'd remove what little hair I've got left, but practically, I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! I don't know's I've accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you'll carry things on further. I don't know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!" (p401)

How are you living your life?

Friday, May 6, 2011

94. Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction,
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Canongate 2004

A lone female, Isserley, scouts the Scottish Highlands in search of well-proportioned men, scrawny specimens need not apply. The first thought is she’s looking for sexual adventure, but there’s more and over time it becomes obvious that the more is something bizarre. Exactly what happens will surprise you, and how it affects you will depend on your opinion of the issues raised by the novel.

First chapter:
There was so much in the first chapter that suggested Isserley was picking up men for sex that I just followed that chain of thought:
1. The books opens with the suggestion of looking for men; sexually suggestive. Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her. (p1)
2. Isserly wasn’t interested in women in that way; sexually suggestive: Sometimes ... she would note that the hitcher was a female. Isserley wasn't interested in females, at least not in that way. Let them get picked up by someone else. (p3)
3. She could have some magnificent brute sitting in her car, right next to her, knowing for sure that he was coming home with her ... (p4)
4. ... she was admiring him, following the curves of his brawny shoulders or the swell of his chest under his T-shirt, savouring the thought of how superb he'd be once he was naked ... (p5)
5. "She tried to project herself forward in time, visualizing herself already parked somewhere with a hunky young hitch-hiker sitting next to her; she imagined herself breathing heavily against him as she smoothed his hair and grasped him round the waist to ease him into position." (p7)
6. The car's heating is on full and "Isserley watched him surreptitiously, watched the mechanics of his biceps and triceps, the roll of his shoulders." "The bulge in his jeans was promising, although most of it was probably testicles." (p10)
7. She's almost decided whether she will keep the current hitchhiker but she's worried about whether he’ll be missed (when he disappears?): "She made an effort to forestall the adrenaline as it leaked from her glands, by sending calming messages into herself, swallowing them down. ... She must avoid the humiliation of committing herself, of allowing herself to believe he would be coming with her, and then finding out he had a wife or a girlfriend waiting." (p10)
8. Isserley deliberately displays her impressive chest. (p11)
9. Isserley changes her mind about a hitchhiker she initially consider an attractive proposition: "Was he one of those inadequate lugs whose sexual self-confidence depended on not being reminded of any real females?" (p16)
10. It’s as though she’s coming close to a climax: "Isserley nodded approvingly, trying not to let her feelings show. She was covered in sweat now, cold chills running down her back like electric currents. Her heart hammered so hard her breasts shook; she disciplined herself to take just one deep breath instead of many shallow ones." (p20)

I'm going to mention the book's themes up front because if I don’t it's impossible to review this book without resorting to banalities like wonderfully complex, full of pathos, compelling etc, all of which it is. Here goes: massive SPOILER ALERT; this book is about alienation, loneliness and the morality of battery farming. Please don’t read any further if you don’t want to hear any more.

It’s kind of hard to know how to look at this book. Faber’s dealing with complex themes, and I didn’t find entangling his ideas the easiest thing I’ve ever done. At times I felt as though I’d had an “aha” moment and I could see the action from a particular point of view and then I’d get a little further and find myself torn between metaphors and morality. It’s lucky I like a book that challenges and has something useful to say.

Faber’s depiction of Isserley, the main character is wonderful, and I love his physical description of her. She has "Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows", hands like "chicken feet", and a face that was "small and heart shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel." (p12) And I can’t forget the "Fantastic tits" she uses to lure hitchhikers. (p11)

Why Isserley looks different is easy to understand, and now we stray into the realms of the fantastic; Isserley’s a human being from another planet surgically altered to look like a vodsel (that would be us, the human race). Isserley’s role is to hunt the vodsels, who are battery farmed for our meat. Interestingly, Isserley’s surgery has been to make her look like the vodsel’s view of the perfect woman, and she’s learnt what she knows of our society from television.

What Isserley’s does should make her a deeply unlikeable person, and yet she’s not, if only because anybody who has plastic surgery to fit in and learns about life from the television must be fucked up … and that’s exactly what Isserley is. Even Isserley acknowledges this when she thinks: "... there was no point trying to align yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse." (p146) (And here’s another example of Faber’s exploration of our world through the value of television, and there are various examples of Isserley watching pointless and idiotic bits of programs.)

Isserley is isolated emotionally and physically, trapped between the vodsels she hunts, and the labourers who process the meat. She’s indifferent to her prey, what happens to them, how they feel and their future and this is revealed spectacularly when four vodsels are rounded up after they escape: "It was only when both vodsels were safely in the back of the Land-Rover that Isserley and Esswis looked at each other and laughed. Retrieving these animals was a spectacularly messier business than either of them had imagined." (p103)

If she’s indifferent to the vodsels, Isserley despises the labourers that process the meat: “She'd told them she wanted nothing from them, nothing." (p152) "In fact, she'd spelled it out more crudely still, in case they were too stupid to take the hint: what she needed most was privacy. They were to leave her alone." (p153)

And then there’s Esswis. Esswis and Isserley seem like natural allies because they’re both surgically altered to allow them to interact with the vodsels, but I guess such is the nature of alienation that they find no comfort in their shared experience: "Isserley didn't actually know Esswis very well at all, despite the fact that he was the only person in the world who'd been through what she had been through. In theory, then, they had lots to talk about, but in practice they avoided each other." (p54)

As the story evolves it becomes clearer that Isserley’s not only alienated but angry, and she’s been angry for a long time: “She didn’t have those tantrums anymore, now that her adolescence was behind her. Her anger was well under control nowadays …” (p39) But she’s kidding herself that her anger is under control because: "Lately, she suspected her feelings were getting swallowed up, undigested, inside purely physical symptoms. Her back-ache and eye-strain were sometimes much worse than usual, for no real reason: at these times, there was probably something else troubling her." (p39)

Is it likely that, despite her indifference to the vodsels, that she doesn’t like what she’s doing, that the meat processors remind her of what’s she’s participating in and her loathing for the meat processor is actually loathing for herself? It’s a good argument but I got a little confused because Isserley’s anger pre-dates her vodsel hunting days so it could be argued that her anger has nothing to do with what she’s doing. But while acknowledging this, Isserley’s reluctance to interact on any level with the vodsels after they’re caught is interesting to say the least: “… she had never been there [to the farming pens] and didn’t wish to see it now. It was no place for a claustrophobic.” (p109) “She had, in point of fact, been here just once before, at the very beginning before there were any animals.” (p168) Is the claustrophobia just an excuse given Isserley’s home world involves living underground? (You’ll also have to ignore the inconsistency here between Isserley never visiting the pens where the vodsels were kept, and only visiting the pens once before the plant commenced operation, the only instance I saw in the book.)

It isn’t until Amlis Vess arrives and she falls in love that she faces the immorality of battery farming meat. What I like is how gently Faber treats this issue. Vess, the vegetarian, is no militant, and Faber provides us with a range of anti-meat eating arguments: the first is that releasing caged arguments is essentially uselessness. Vess releases four vodsels and Esswis and Isserley must round them up before they’re seen by the rest of the world. Isserley is angry about the pointlessness of it as all it achieved was the death of four vodsels: Good looking or not, Vess was responsible for a juvenile feat of sabotage which had just put her through hell. (p112)

Vess’ response to Isserley’s anger reflects the subtle, gentle way Faber explores the immorality of killing animals. Faber doesn’t have Vess scream or rant but to outline his beliefs clearly and rationally: "Why did you do it?" she demanded bluntly. I don't believe in killing animals," he replied without raising his voice. "That's all." (p114) A soft voice sounded from the doorway of the kitchen. 'You just don't know what you're doing,' sighed Amlis Vess. (p163). And he continues, making one of the central arguments against eating meat: "That meat you're eating,' he said softly, 'is the body of a creature that lived and breathed just like you and me." (p163)

But Faber doesn’t really need to ram home the arguments about the immorality and brutality of battery farming because, in the words of Vess: “This whole trade is based on terrible cruelty." (p229) And the cruelty of it is made all the more uncomfortable and personal because it’s being done to us, the vodsels, and not pigs or chickens or ducks:
• An acknowledgement of what it would be like if the public could see what was being done: "The thought of a shaved, castrated, fattened, intestinally modified, chemically purified vodsel turning up at a police station or a hospital was a nightmare made flesh." (p97)
• What the vodsels eat is managed so that no harm is done to humans: "Nothing which might cause the slightest harm to human digestion survived in their massive guts, every foreign microbe had been purged and replaced with only the best and most well-trusted bacteria." (p169)
• The vodsels are processed before being penned by having their tongues removed and being gelded: "He was already busy sluicing out the vodsel's mouth with a suction pump by the time the smell of burning flesh had permeated the air." (p213) "As soon as he was satisfied with the state of the animal's mouth, Unser turned his attention to the genitals. Taking up a clean instrument, he sliced open the scrotal sac and, with raid, delicate, almost trembling incisions of his scalpel, removed the testicles." (p214)

One aspect that’s interesting is how the men who process the meat are identified as physically reduced, as though their association with farming degrades them versus the beauty of the vegetarian Vess. One quote from the novel compares the two by considering Vess’ beauty: But it was his face that was most remarkable: "Of the males Isserley worked with, there was not one who didn't have coarse hair, bald patches, discolourations and unsightly scarring on the face." (p111) But while the farm workers might be brutish in appearance they’re also professionals plying a trade, and Faber picks up on their treatment of the vodsels: "Oh yes," Unser assured her, combing his fingers through the vodsel's hair. "The speed minimizes the trauma. After all, we don't want to cause unnecessary suffering, do we? Uhr-rhum." He allowed himself a faint smile of pride. "A butcher has to be a bit of a surgeon, you know." (p215)

Wow, what a book. I’ve barely scratched the surface and there’s still so much more. I’m not a vegetarian but it’s long bothered me how unjustly the animals raised for slaughter are treated and how unsustainable the process is. Being asked to look at what battery farming would be like if it was practised on human beings raises the stakes by a couple of notches and makes me glad I eat free range eggs and meat. But that’s not really enough—it lives in the realms of Vess releasing the four vodsels from captivity; ultimately pointless—and the books encourages us, the human race, to consider what we’re doing and act on it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

721. The Third Man by Graham Greene

Genre: Mystery
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: The Modern Library New York 2002

A recreation of post World War 2 Vienna, occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. Lime is involved in the black market, but Martins believes his childhood friend is innocent and is determined to clear him.

First chapter:
The first chapter is very short (2 pages only) and I fell back on looking for formulaic questions. I think this approach suits this novel given that Greene was writing it as the basis for a film script and he needed the novel to offer sign posts for the movie script:
• Who is Rollo Martins and what should he have told us from the beginning?
• Who is telling the story and why is he important?

I was intrigued with the idea of The Third Man as a parody of post World War 2 Europe through the medium of a Western novel. A far more interesting approach than viewing it only as the plot and characters for the movie of the same name.

What are the broad ideas, messages or morals to be found in westerns?

The western looks at a society that isn't organised around the strict rule of law. Rather, the cowboy hero with an innate code of honour wanders from place to place fighting villains of various kinds; boiled down really as a fight between “good” and “evil”. Frequently, the hero rescues damsels in distress, although the women tend to fall into either the prostitute with the heart of a gold or the love interest (or she could be both). The harshness of the struggle is stressed by the arid, desolate landscape. The setting is often the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, stable and jailhouse. The saloon offers a number of moral dilemmas and often the place for action: music (raucous piano playing or shows), women, gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting.

How are these themes adopted, mocked or challenged in The Third Man?

British writer Rollo Martins (a hack who writes "cheap paper-covered" westerns under the name Buck Dexter) arrives in Vienna, a city destroyed during World War 2. Martins was invited by school friend Harry Lime, "the best friend he ever had" (p14), but he arrives on the day of Lime’s funeral. The man Martins travels back from the funeral with is really a British policeman, Calloway, who tells Martins that Lime "...was about the worse racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city." (p16) And it was pretty bad, selling doctored penicillin responsible for the deaths of children. Martins sets out to investigate Lime’s death with a view to clearing his friend’s name and learns that a neighbour saw the accident that killed Lime and observed three men carrying Lime’s body from the scene. Only two have been identified because the third man has vanished; and the mystery, and the name of the story, is now established.

So far the story has all the hallmarks of a good Western. The once beautiful Vienna is the lawless Wild West. The historic centre of Vienna was administered by the four nations to emerge from the World War II as victors: Russia, France, Great Britain and the United States. But the initial co-operation: "... between the Western Allies and the Russians had practically, though not yet completely, broken down." (p73) Security, rather than the rule of law, is provided on a rotational basis by the four countries, lawlessness can be seen in the flourishing black market which everybody participates in, and by the ease with which the underground sewers are used to make their escape. The story even seems to have a sheriff in the guise of the narrator, British policeman Calloway: Martins tells Calloway: "I have to call them [policemen] sheriffs". (p17)

We accept Martins view of himself and Lime as the heroes.  Martins mentions his book the "Lone Rider of Santa Fe" twice (p22 and p28) and describes the plot of the story as a lone rider whose best friend is shot unlawfully by a sheriff, and who hunts the sheriff down; definitely shades of Calloway claiming Lime was the bad guy with Martins planning to clear his friend's name: he tells Calloway I promise to "... make you look the biggest bloody fool in Vienna." (p18) The token woman, Anna, forms the love interest for the two heroes Martins and Lime. And finally the bad guys, the black marketeers, of whom the worst are the sellers of watered down penicillin.

But the people assigned to each role are not as they seem. Neither Martins or Lime are heroic. Rollo Martins' perception of his friend Harry Lime and himself as heroes parodies the cowboy hero with an innate code of honour fighting villains of various kinds. Harry Lime turns out to be one of the worst of the bad guys, the leader of a penicillin racket that causes the death of innocent adults and children. Further, Martins has no innate code of honour; his view of his friend is blinkered and unrealistic:
• he never saw that he was the mug Lime could use to take the rap over and over again: when Lime and Martins were kids Martins "was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his [Lime's] plans.", and Martins "... was always the one who got caught." (p15), and
• he never considered that Lime might have been guilty or listened to the warning by Lime's friend Kurtz: "Has it occurred to you," Kurts said gently,"that youmight dig up something - well, discreditable to Harry?"(p27)

Martins only comes to understand Lime's true nature at the end, including Lime's intention to cut Martins into the racket: "I've never kept you out of anything, old man, yet." (p85), making Martins part of the “evil” he didn't believe Lime was part of. The extent of Harry's lack of repentance and ruthlessness is revealed in the views he expresses to Lime in the fairground, when he talks about the dispensability of human life: "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving - for ever?" (p 86) But despite his villainy, Lime has devoted and loyal friends.  His Vienna-based friends stage a fake accident to protect him from prosecution and go to great lengths to cover up the truth of his disappearance.   His girlfriend, Anna, despite his own lack of loyalty to her (p86) remains loyal to him even after she is informed of the sordid details of his blackmarketeering: "I told you - a man doesn't alter because you find out more about him. He's still the same man." (p70)

Martins has elements of the heroic, such as his effort to clear his friend but his attempts are dangerous and result in not only the death of Koch, the man who saw the third man, but of Lime himself. The perception of Rollo's heroic fantasies as absurd is reinforced by Lime.  Lime tells Rollo "Don't be so melodramatic." when Rollo asks him whether he's "... ever visited the children's hospital? Have you seen any of your victims? (p86)

The closest Greene comes to the portrayal of a hero is Anna. At first she appears to be the love interest, but she's "not much of an actress at the best of times." (p89) and not a token. Her strength and independence are in evidence several times, as is her commitment to Lime whatever she hears about him: "... we've got to remember him as he was to us. There are always so many things one doens't know about a person, even a person one loves - good things, bad things. We have to leave plenty of room for them." (p69) She also belies Martins’ assumption, and the role of women in a western, that she would turn to him, for support, once her lover was dead: she "... walked away without a word to either of us (Martins or Calloway) down the long avenue of trees ..." (p98)

The most important thing I got from The Third Man is the idea that viewing anything—people, nations, novels—superficially should be avoided. Everything should be questioned, no matter how small or trivial because heroes are not always heroic, the girl is not always empty headed and needing support (she might even be the hero at times), and the bad guy might have qualities deserving loyalty or respect. Good advice I think, and a good way to approach life.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

997. Martin Eden by Jack London

Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: The Modern Library New York 2002

Martin Eden, a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background, struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education. The main force behind his efforts is his love for Ruth Morse, a member of a bourgeois family, and his desire to be worthy of her. But is becoming bourgeois a worthwhile achievement? Is Ruth Morse actually worthy of his love? And is what he’s working for a dream?

First chapter:
What I got was the two sides to Martin Eden. On the one side he’s commonplace—he’s physically awkward and speaks badly—but this contrasts with his thirst for knowledge and beauty. There’s something admirable in him from the beginning and we see this through Ruth's eyes. He wants to improve himself: “I guess the real facts is that I don’t know nothin’ much about such things. It ain’t in my class. But I’m going to make it in my class.” (p12).

I wasn’t sure whether I’d like this book, but for the second time this year I found a book I couldn’t put down, a book I’d reread: it was accessible, it was real and I found myself admiring and connected to Eden’s struggle. What I particularly liked was the surface struggle by Eden to be a successful writer and in turn be worthy of Ruth Morse, highlighting the difference between the uncritical, machinelike nature of how “educated” people think versus the difference between education and ability to critically think and analyse.

Martin wanted to be educated for two reasons: he had an innate yearning for more and plus he wanted to win the girl. Both were important but for different reasons.

From the beginning it was clear Martin was more than a rough, uncouth working class sailor. He had potential despite his lack of understanding of art in thinking art painting was a trick: "He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas." (p5)

We hear of his yearning from him: "Into his eyes leaped a wistfulness and a yearning as promptly as the yearning leaps into the eyes of a starving man at sight of food. An impulsive strike, with one lurch to right and left of the shoulders, brought him to the table, where he began affectionately handling the books. He glanced at the titles and the authors' names, read fragments of text, caressing the volumes with this eyes and hands ..." (p5) And we hear it from Ruth who sees something special in Eden she shares with us: “The ill-fitting clothes, battered hands, and sunburned face remained; but these seemed the prison-bars through which she saw a great soul looking forth, inarticulate and dumb because of those feeble lips that would not give it speech.” (p24)

But even though this spark to learn and grow is within Eden, meeting Ruth gives him a vision of a woman from another world he wants to be worthy of. Love at first sight: “Never had he seen such a woman.” (p7) “He had met the woman at last—the woman that he had thought little about, not being given to thinking about women, but whom he had expected, in a remote way, he would sometime meet.” (p27) “But as the meet and lowly at the penitent form catch splendid glimpses of their future lordly existence, so did he catch similar glimpses of the state he would gain by possessing her. But this possession of her was dim and nebulous and totally different from possession as he had known it. Ambition soared on mad wings, and he saw himself climbing the heights with her, sharing thoughts with her, pleasuring in beautiful and noble things with her.” (p28)

At first Eden sees education as indistinguishable from being middle class. He admires them and thinks that becoming educated will result in him becoming one of them and thus win the girl. But Martin’s ultimate success in becoming a “thinking” man makes him neither working class or bourgeois, and one who no longer wants to live according to their maxims or rules. The primary rule he doesn’t want to live in accordance with is the obsession of paid work that comes from both the working class and the bourgeois; Martin’s sister Gertrude talking about her petty tyrant of a husband Bernard Higginbotham says: “Bernard does like to see a man at honest work.” (p348) Martin’s other sister Marian repeats her husband Hermann von Schmidt’s belief that "I think it would be much better if you got a job," she said firmly, and he saw she was sincere.” (p257)

This frustrates Martin because he sees the soul destroying dullness of it: “Get a job! Go to work! Poor, stupid slaves, he thought, while his sister talked. Small wonder the world belonged to the strong. The slaves were obsessed by their own slavery. A job was to them a golden fetich before which they fell down and worshipped.” (p 333) And it was frustrating because he’d also found his own reality; a reality of ideas and analysis and thought he never imagined existed and which found life in his writing: “And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write - everything - poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth.” (p77)

But this isn’t enough for Ruth because it’s not only the working class who demand he gets a job: Ruth, her brother, her father, her mother demand the same thing: “He had read her all that he wrote - poems, stories, essays - "Wiki-Wiki," "The Shame of the Sun," everything. And she had always and consistently urged him to get a job, to go to work - good God! - as if he hadn't been working, robbing sleep, exhausting life, in order to be worthy of her.” (p371)

The true heights of thought came with Eden’s friendship with Brissenden and his introduction to Kreis, Parry, Stevens, Andy, Harry and others. He only meet Brissenden’s friends once but the meeting was an epiphany for him; their ideas fed him and the nature of their conversation gave him hope that being a thinking person was a worthwhile aim: “The books were alive in these men. They talked with fire and enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulant stirring them as he had seen drink and anger stir other men.” (p308)

And what other place to end than the end of the actual novel; and it’s incredibly sad but still great and so wonderfully written. I’m torn about how I feel about it: I’m unhappy that Eden, as an individualist seeking self-improvement through hard work and education, is unable to cope with the ‘success’ he achieves. But I suppose Eden had nothing to live for, despite his success. Despite the constant attention to education it was love, and the love specifically of Ruth, that drove him: "Friends! Gossip! Newspaper misreports! Surely such things are not stronger than love! I can only believe that you never loved me." (p 336) Once Ruth’s broke off their engagement what he cared for most was removed from him, and all he had left was death.

London’s management of Eden’s death was well written; as a man with Eden’s vitality he should have fought the whole way to the end up and he did, it wasn’t a silly or useless death: “His wilful hands and feet began to beat and churn about, spasmodically and feebly. But he had fooled them and the will to live that made them beat and churn. He was too deep down. They could never bring him to the surface”. (p403) Beautiful.