Sunday, 30 August 2009

62 - 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' by Yoko Ogawa

Apologies to the numerous participants in the 'Japanese Literature Challenge' who have already reviewed Ms. Ogawa's book for not reading your comments yet; I wanted to come to this book with a clear mind, and I promise that I'll read all the other reviews once this has been posted. Well, fairly soon afterwards anyway (family duties permitting, I'm a very busy person, you know).

Anyway, my second book in recent weeks with a housekeeper at the centre of the tale was slightly less murderous than the first, but just as well constructed. Ogawa's short novel tells the tale of a housekeeper employed to clean up for a mathematics professor who lost his long-term memory after a car crash. The housekeeper's son, whom the Professor nicknames 'Root' as his head is flat like the square root sign (and with whom I share a birthday!), strikes up an unlikely friendship with the old man, and in the course of the 11 chapters, spread over 180 pages, the three of them form a strange kind of family unit.
One of the things which bind Root and the Professor together is baseball, a sport which is especially fond of numbers and statistics. With his memory stuck firmly in 1975, the Professor frequently asks about his favourite player, Enatsu (a legendary pitcher who wore the perfect number 28 on his back). Through white lies and evasive tactics, Root and his mother share their hobby with the professor without alerting him to the fact that the times he remembers have long passed.

In this rather sparse work, Ogawa looks at the theme of family, in particular what makes a family. Root's eager adoption of the Professor as a friend can be traced back to the absence of a father figure in his life, and the Housekeeper may also be looking for someone to fill this role. In the film version, there is apparently a stronger sense of attachment to the Professor shown by the Housekeeper, but in the novel this is more implicit than described.

The role of mathematics is also important in this book as it serves as a metaphor for the situations the characters find themselves in. The Professor tells the Housekeeper that numbers underpin and support the real world; however, knowing this does not help you to understand that world. The Housekeeper realises the truth of this when going about her daily chores; knowing that the serial number of a fridge is a prime number will not stop the ice-cream inside from melting... In another example, the Professor explains how important triangles are to the complex formulae of further mathematics - a further parallel to the triangle of characters at the forefront of this story.

Parallels with Murakami are unavoidable; anonymous characters, chance meetings which change lives... The brevity of this novel reminded me somewhat of 'After Dark. However, I don't feel that the author quite succeeded with what she set out to achieve. The maths parts were very interesting (and, as someone who used to love pure maths at school, I relished the challenge of the Professor's simple puzzles!), but they became more of a gimmick as the book progressed. I also thought that too much was left unsaid. Much more needed to be made of the Housekeeper, by far the least developed of the three characters, and while I understand that the style was meant to leave many things unspoken, just because things are unspoken, doesn't mean they are actually there...

Despite these shortcomings, Ogawa's novel is well worth a read, and I would like to flick through her collection of novellas, 'The Diving Pool', when I get the chance. I think that knowing more about Ogawa's world will help me appreciate more what she is trying to say in her work, just as having read the weightier Murakami novels helps you to appreciate his shorter pieces. Before I go though, I just thought I'd make one last comment on the mathematics side of the story. As Root and the Housekeeper learn from the Professor, numbers are beautiful, and finding patterns in those numbers is even better. When browsing through some of the numbers from my review, I noticed the following: if you take my (and Root's) birthday (11th of September, or 119) minus the number of chapters (11) multiplied by Root's age (10), subtract my age on my upcoming birthday (35), add the Number of pages (180) divided by the number of major characters (3), and add Enatsu's perfect shirt number (28)...

119 - (11 x 10) - 35 + (180/3) + 28 = 62

But what' so special about 62 you may ask?

Look at the heading for this post...

Aren't numbers wonderful ;)

Friday, 28 August 2009

61 - 'Scenes of Clerical Life' by George Eliot

Wherever you look on the Blogosphere, there are challenges galore for the poor reader who has difficulty deciding what to read next. Me, I'm not really into this side of reading, with the honourable exception of 'The Japanese Literature Challenge' (and my own moral code, outlined in an earlier post!); if I was though, I think I'd invent my own challenge - 'The Fifty-Mile Challenge'.

Before you run off to fetch a psychiatrist ("Tony's really gone bananas this time!"), let me explain. My theoretical 'Fifty-Mile Challenge' would involve reading works by writers who were born within a fifty-mile radius of your home town. This would obviously be much easier for bloggers in Dublin than in Detroit, London than Loughborough, Weimar than Wollongong... However, it would be especially easy for me as, in addition to flicking through the works of some playwright from just up the road (wrote something about kings, mad people and lovers - 'Hambeth and Juliet'?), I would be able to sit back and enjoy the works of George Eliot.

'Scenes of Clerical Life' was Eliot's first work of fiction, but it was not her first novel as it consisted of three 'short' stories totalling about 320 pages. As is evident from the title, the lives of the clergy are prominent features of these tales, and the theme of religion is one that Eliot pursued in later novels, although these stories focus on the human more than the church side of their lives. Just like her contemporary, Anthony Trollope, she draws out the lives of churchmen in a time where the vicar was a centre of society in country towns and played a much greater role in the community than is the case in many countries today.

Back in 18th/19th century England, the church was not only a place for people with a calling to gravitate to, but also a common employer for the younger sons of rich families where the eldest son inherited the money and estate. Consequently, many clerics were well educated (at Cambridge or Oxford), fairly well off and desirous of the good things in life, and this made things difficult for the poorer members of the clergy, as they were expected to fulfil the same role in society as these younger sons of the landed gentry with virtually no money. The hero of the first tale ('The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton') faces precisely this problem, one which was not uncommon for poor curates (often substitutes for a vicar who owned the 'living' of several parishes and 'sub-let' all but one of them for a fraction of the stipend he received for them). Amos falls into financial troubles because of the need to keep up appearances, despite receiving a wage no better than most workers. When a flighty Countess decides to move in with him and his family, this causes further dents in the budget and leads to problems which are totally unforeseen...

In the third scene, 'Janet's Repentance', the religious view turns to the conflict between traditional Protestant doctrine and the evangelical wing of the Church of England. A new curate, Edgar Tryan, appears in Milby (Eliot's home town of Nuneaton, just down the road from my home town of Coventry - the model for Middlemarch!) and shocks many of the townspeople with his approach to religion, drawing protests and scorn from some of the most powerful people in the town. Events in this scene (and, to some extent, in her first novel, 'Adam Bede') reflect the conflict in Eliot's own life as she began to doubt her faith in Christianity. Through Tryan's role in the saving of Janet Dempster, the title character of this tale, Eliot espouses her support for people who do good deeds and have faith in their fellow mortals over the allegedly moral but actually selfish traditional churchgoers. Eliot also shows the way in which the ordinary people follow their religion without really understanding much about it, enjoying it as a tradition rather than as anything more complicated than blind faith (an idea which Thomas Hardy also touched upon in 'Under the Greenwood Tree').

However, important as the religious side is, the clergy are not always the central characters of these stories. In Amos Barton's tale, the tragic fate of his wife, Milly, and the way in which Amos only comes to realise his good fortune too late, are more important than the tale of the curate himself, and in the second scene, 'Mr. Gilfil's Love Story', the parson of the title is secondary to the true heroine, Caterina. This young woman, brought to England by an aristocratic couple after being orphaned at a young age has her affections trifled with by a young nobleman (very similar to the situation of Hetty Sorrel and Arthur Donnithorne in 'Adam Bede'). The poor Caterina, living as she does in late eighteenth century England is triply disadvantaged: she is foreign (you can't trust Italians...), she is of low birth, and is consequently not adopted, but brought up as a dependant, and she is also, the most unfortunate situation of all, a woman. By virtue of these social failings, she is treated badly by the vain young Captain Wybrow, and the events caused by this mis-matched passion lead to a tragic ending for all concerned.

I could go on all night about the interesting themes and concepts in this book, but I won't, mainly to spare you all my meandering explanations (and also because red wine and literary exposition just do not mix). However, there is one further idea which Eliot pushed in this work, and that is her preference for the plain, the old, the ordinary good people over the showy and well-off. Just as Edgar Tryan is eventually accepted by the folk of Milby, despite his dissenting views, and the crabby old Mr. Gilfil is shown to have a passionate and unfortunate past, people are shown to be inherently interesting in themselves, no matter what their religion or social standing. This collection was written in the mid-nineteenth century and was partly constructed to show readers that life was just the same, and people were just as interesting, passionate and good in the time of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Eliot enables the innate goodness of her characters to shine through in her scenes, connecting the old-fashioned times of the the stories to the 'modern' age of the readers. In this way, her readers were urged to learn lessons from the past and not make the same mistakes. Today, in a time where conflict, both within and between religions, is as violent as ever, this is a lesson which we could do with learning.

Monday, 24 August 2009

60 - 'Hear the Wind Sing' by Haruki Murakami

We all have to start somewhere. Einstein messed around with bunsen burners at school like the rest of us, and there was a time when Andrew Flintoff was shorter than the cricket bat he was holding (sorry, just had to get a cricket reference in today!). For Haruki Murakami, author of such complex tomes as 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' and 'Kafka on the Shore', 'Hear the Wind Sing' was the moment when he became a writer. There's a big difference between this tiny work (125 pages of a book the size of a postcard!) and his later efforts, but the seeds of his later ideas are already present in this coming-of-age story.

Murakami starts and ends the book with information from the life and works of a (fictional) American writer called Derek Heartfield, a novelist who writes stories based mainly in outer space (Kurt Vonnegut?), and this 'interesting' bookend surrounds a description of a few months in the life of a nameless university student who has come back to his sleepy hometown for the university summer holidays. Our protagonist spends his time lazing the days away, hanging around J.'s bar talking to his friend, Rat, and getting to know a girl he helped home after a drunken night out.

As alluded above, in this short but sweet tale, the elements which make up the themes of Murakami's later, more substantial works are already evident. University life (or the break therefrom), a symbol of rebellion and confusion which pops up in 'Norwegian Wood', serves as a metaphor for a period of life where you're not quite sure where you're going. Like Toru Watanabe, the central character seems stuck in a moment (and, as Bono so helpfully points out, he can't get out of it). As easy as it is to look back at such a period through nostalgia-tinted glasses as a golden era, at the time it can seem as if your life is never going to start; of course, with the manic, stressful life of the Japanese salaryman looming in the future, there is also the thought that you may not want it to...

When you mix his sense of dislocation to a growing feeling of the temporary nature of human relationships, it is no wonder that the slightly depressing, almost fatalistic nature of Murakami's world is also present in this book. Our hero has a few sad stories in his past, and the main female character is also far from happy with her lot. Despite this, they are able to continue with their daily lives and seek enjoyment from little things: good food, music, books; the things all of us use to help us through the day. However, when the student looks back at the end of the book, by now slightly distanced from the events of that summer, his connection to that time has become a lot weaker. All that remains is a Beach Boys album and a lot of memories...

The discerning reader (and my readers are nothing if not discerning) will have noticed that I haven't mentioned many names so far in my review, and this is because there are very few names actually used in the novel, something which makes describing it a tad tricky at times. This is deliberate and has the effect of reinforcing the temporary nature of the events; there is no need to use, or remember, the names as they are ultimately bound to be forgotten. This trend continues in Murakami's later works where many characters have names written in the 'katakana' syllabary used for foreign loanwords, rather than the 'kanji' (Chinese characters) or 'hiragana' which Japanese names are usually written in, instantly making the name stand out and appear slightly unusual (perhaps outside the usual society in a culture where conformity is prized).

This book is, of course, just as much about Murakami himself as it is about the story. The sections concerning the entirely invented Mr. Heartfield allow Murakami to play with his ideas about writing and to use an alter-ego to explain his first attempts at literature. The importance of writing about what is not known rather than what is known, as Heartfield tells a critic, could easily be (and, I suppose, is!) Murakami's own remark, and for anyone who has ever wasted countless hours wondering what on earth Toru Okada was actually doing down that well, a short perusal of Heartfield's short story collection 'The Wells of Mars' may bring enlightenment. Well, if not enlightenment, a little encouragement at least.

So there you have it; the start of a magnificent career, and, strangely enough, a start that old Haruki seems somewhat ashamed of. The edition I have is a translation by Alfred Birnbaum created purely for students of English as a Foreign Language (with several interesting translations in the glossary at the back!) which is not available outside Japan. It's easy to get your hands on it through Amazon or e-bay ('Pinball, 1973', the follow-up to this book, is another story entirely...), but Murakami refuses to allow the translations of his first two books to be published outside Japan. That's a shame, and I, for one, would be at the shops tomorrow if his first two mini-books were released together (in the beautiful British-style edition, of course). This may only have been his first effort, but this fascinating insight into the origins of a master novellist's career shows that even the best of us have to start somewhere.

Even Andrew Flintoff.

[Apologies to all of you who don't understand cricket for the references to Mr. Flintoff in this review; I'm sure all the English readers know what I mean. So will all the Australians but in a different way entirely...]

Friday, 21 August 2009

59 - 'Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum' by Heinrich Böll

A question, dear reader: what do you think it would take for you to blow someone away?

Now that I've got your attention... 

Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) is a short work (the author himself calls it a "pamphlet") by the Nobel-Prize-winning German author Heinrich Böll, which relates an incredible few days in the life of a young German woman, the Katharina Blum of the title, in which she meets and sleeps with a criminal before helping him to escape from her apartment despite the vigilance of the police surveillance surrounding it. What follows this out-of character sexual liaison (and the crime that arises from it) is written down faithfully in the form of a report, taking information from the police transcripts of interviews and from conversations with the people involved in the events of those hectic few days.

Right from the start of the book, we know (or, at least, we think we know) was has happened; on the third page, we are told how Katharina rings at a policeman's door to confess to having shot and killed a journalist. While the description on the cover, and the initial events of the book, lead us to believe that there is some sort of conspiracy, the truth is that the book has very little to do with Katharina's private life and a lot more to do with the lengths to which people will go to uncover it.

You see, the main idea of this work concerns newspapers, particularly of the tabloid variety, and the sacrifices that a civilised society makes in order to preserve the freedom of the press which is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Poor Katharina is mercilessly tortured by the ZEITUNG (a barely-disguised nod towards Germany's major tabloid newspaper, 'Die BILD Zeitung'), and so-called reporters roam the land, interviewing (and then manipulating the words of) anyone they can find who has ever had any connection to Fräulein Blum.

Katharina's supporters and friends are, in turn, subject to accusations about their private lives, whereas a high-profile figure who had become involved in the case due to his (unsuccessful) overtures towards our heroine, somehow, probably through his connections, comes off as a victim of Katharina's wiles. When a reporter goes so far as to publish a (probably fictitious) interview with poor Katharina's mother, who dies soon after, in which it is strongly hinted that the blame for the death lies squarely at Katharina's feet... well, going back to our question, what more would you need to push you over the edge?

This book only goes for around 130 pages, yet the author is able, in such a short space of time, to outline a web of connections and misunderstandings surrounding what is effectively an open-and-shut case. Katharina is revealed as incredibly hard-working, overly shy and prudish, unwilling to open herself up, extremely sensitive and, at times, pedantic; however, Die ZEITUNG manages to twist the facts to fit the circumstances which they believe best suit their readers opinions, making the poor woman out to be a sex-crazed terrorist helping enemies of the state to escape justice. The style of writing Böll chose for this work lends itself to making the reader understand the frustration Katharina (and her friends) feels as the report style gives a certain detachment which allows us to view events more objectively than if they had been seen through the eyes of one of the main characters.

The setting is also vital for understanding the atmosphere of tension and the ferocity of the press at the time. The action takes place over the week of Karneval, which, in the Rheinland, is celebrated just as wildly as Mardi-Gras is enjoyed in Rio. For those who have never lived in Germany, this may be a little difficult to reconcile with the stereotypical image of Germans as practical and sensible, but during Karneval, anything goes. There is a strong feeling of freedom from everyday constraints, and the chance of sexual encounters, like Katharina's uncharacteristic liaison, is greatly increased. In fact, I've even heard opinions saying that infidelities during Karneval don't count as no-one is in their right mind...

Even more important is the fact that the action is set in 1974, in the middle of the Cold War and the era of terrorist attacks by the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Baader-Meinhof group. In a time of great uncertainty (as seen, unfortunately, throughout the world over the past ten years), we are always ready to jump at ghosts and pounce on the smallest sign of (imagined) betrayal. When even Katharina's friends are being excoriated in the media for their imagined communist past, it is no wonder that the papers, and the reading public, are so keen to believe her a foreign spy, or, at the very least, a fifth columnist.

So, I ask you once again: if a newspaper reporter accused you of treason, hounded your mother to death and blamed you for it, dug up dirt on all your friends, rang you up and harassed you sexually; in short, did everything possible to deprive you of the one thing you held dear in life, your honour, before turning up to an interview and suggesting that you might as well screw him... would you, if in possession of a gun, be able to resist the temptation of shooting him down?

Well, would you?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

58 - 'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens

Let's get it out in the open: I was not hugely impressed with this book. Before all you Dickensians flee for the exit, screaming in anguish, please let me explain my reasons; just like Fagin and the gang, I deserve a fair trial...

First things first. 'Oliver Twist' is, as most people in the western world are well aware, the tale of a boy who survives hardship in the form of life in the workhouse, a rough apprenticeship and a spell in a gang of thieves (none of whom, at any point, comes even close to bursting into song). Oliver Twist, the character, however, is a weak, uninteresting boy who actually takes up a lot less of the novel than you would expect from his prominent billing. He is more an excuse for Dickens to rant and rave, in pantomime fashion, about the iniquities of the laws governing the treatment of the Victorian poor than an actual, fully-rounded person.

Oliver is also (and this really annoys me) goodness incarnate. How else could you explain the fact that a young boy who has been abused his whole life and brought (dragged) up grudgingly by the authorities is able to resist the temptation of crime and the degrading behaviour of everyone he meets? If you or I (heaven forbid) had been subject to the same kind of woeful upbringing that Oliver undergoes, I guarantee that we would have been out on the streets of London snatching wallets and handkerchieves to our hearts' content - or, at least until we got caught. However, Oliver, sickly, saccharine-sweet Oliver, is so horrifed by the sight of such felonious behaviour that he quivers at the knees. Rubbish.

Many of the other characters in the book are also relatively boring. The whole array of personages from the right side of town, undoubtedly mirror images of the people actually reading the book in its original serialisation, are fairly sketchily drawn and are hard to remember on completion of the book; in fact, I'm hard pressed to recall many of their names, and I only finished it this morning...

However, perhaps the main reason I have for not really liking this book is not so much what it is as what it's not. It's not Dostoyevsky; it's not 'The Brothers Karamazov'. Having just finished the afore-mentioned Russian classic, anything was bound to suffer a little in comparison, but 'Oliver Twist', with its tweeness, and beautifully sanitised view of suffering, comes off especially badly against the stark, bare and bloody representation of life in Dostoyevsky's work. Who could care about Oliver after reading the fate of Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha? How could such anodyne lovers as Harry and Rose(?) compare to Dmitri and Grushenka?

Of course, the book does have one redeeming feature, and that is the depiction of the darker side of the story. Bill Sikes, as nasty a piece of work as you're likely to find in literature, curses and threatens his way through the novel until his murderous betrayal and subsequent flight and descent into the darkest bowels of London. His persona looms so large that, by the bitter end, even his companion thieves are terrified by him and turn away from his gaze. The critics who accused Dickens of glamourising crime (and who would have been very smug if they had lived to see the stage version with the Artful Dodger singing and prancing around) were certainly off-target regarding Mr. Sikes.

And then there was Fagin. Not requiring more than one name to dominate the book, the 'dirty old Jew' is the personification of evil, the devil incarnate, spinning a web of sin and attracting young innocents like flies in order to corrupt and feast upon their souls. The longer the story goes on, the more we are drawn into his world, and the more complex the webs of intrigue surrounding him become. All is brought to a climax by his trial, surrounded by a packed house of baying spectators, vultures thirsting for the old criminal's blood...

...wish he'd got off.

In the introduction to my edition, the editor remarked that 'Oliver Twist' is notable for being an early, flawed work of a great writer, which is as close to saying that it's not that good as a paid review is going to get. I'm afraid that's not good enough for me; when the end of the reading year (same as the normal one) comes around, there's a good chance that this book will feature in my 'Hall of Shame', not what I would have expected from a work by the great Victorian novellist. Consider yourself... well and truly underwhelmed.

Monday, 17 August 2009

By the way...

The nature of the book blogging scene (from what I've seen) is very circuitous and overlapping, so it'll come as little surprise that I've popped up on another blog espousing my opinions on life, literature and spoon feeding. Click on the link to go to the interview at Colleen's wonderful Bookphilia blog and find out what they are!

In other news, I've just finished my review on Dostoyevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov', the third in a series of rather unconventional reviews I've done (the others being Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway' and Franz Kafka's 'The Trial'). I'm not sure how useful this kind of post is to people who haven't read the book in question: yay or nay? If you have a spare moment, let me know!

Finally, I'm still waiting for more wonderful Japanese books to reach me from the (so far) fabulous Book Depository, so it may be a couple of weeks before my next entry for the Japanese Literature Challenge. Having said that though, I have been meaning to look at Murakami's first two novellas, 'Hear the Wind Sing' and 'Pinball, 1973', again, so you never know...

Next review in a couple of days (with added gruel!)

P.S. Remember my review earlier this year of the unpublished novel 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall'? Well, thanks to the miracles of the modern world, Dan Holloway (while still waiting for Harper Collins to get its act together) has managed to self publish his novel - in both paper and bargain e-book forms. Read my review, then buy the book (or the other way round; I'm not fussy!). I promise I am not getting a cut of the profits....

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

57 - 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Tony made his way briskly along the muddy street, huddled inside his borrowed greatcoat, avoiding the great puddles of slush as best he could (which wasn't that well as there seemed to be more slush and snow than road). Finally, thankfully, he made out, through the newly started shower of snow, a collection of wooden structures indicating the start of the town. He hurried towards the nearest, a large, crude hut, and hammered at the door, breathing deeply and regretting it each time the frosty air penetrated to his lungs. A voice bellowed from within, "Come in if you're coming, damn you!"; Tony opened the door and stepped inside without needing further prompting than this rather unlikely invitation to enter.

Inside, behind a large table bearing a samovar, mugs and plates laden with bread, cheese and various meats, sat a thin, gaunt man, obviously in the middle of his meal and displeased with the interuption to his repast. "Who are you? Why do you disturb me?", he barked out. Tony took a deep breath and stepped forward. "My apologies for the delay", he said measuredly, "I had trouble making my way here on such short notice. Let me introduce myself, I-". The other interrupted him, waving his arm in the air as if to physically beat Tony's words to the ground. "I know who you are, the Englishman, the one who wants to talk about my book. Yes, my book!". He started to laugh, pointing playfully to the bench on the other side of the table. "Sit, Anton Antonovich, yes, I have been expecting you. Take off the coat, come now, we're warm inside, warm enough for an Englishman even!". Tony hesitated, then took off his greatcoat, laid it across one end of the bench and sat down opposite the great writer.

"Fyodor Mikhaylovich," he began, "I wanted to discuss your latest novel as, I must confess, it seemed, at times, somewhat confusing, rather circuitous. I know that there is a lot about Russia, about the Russian people, but I wanted -".

"Of course, it's about the Russian people!", the writer cried out, leaning back in astonishment, losing, for a moment, his balance and then righting himself and leaning forward onto the table. "I'm Russian, I write about Russia, I am Russia! Or rather...", he continued, a wry grin appearing on his face, "Russia is a part of me. We Russians are different to others; to you prancing womanly Englishmen, to those logical, loveless Germans, to those elegant, but lifeless Frenchmen. We live! We strive for love, we reach for the stars!". He leaned back again and shrugged his shoulders. "And should we miss, should we fall short, well, at least we have tried."

Tony nodded. "Like Dmitri Karamazov, Mitya. A typical Russian". The writer smiled. "Exactly! A true man, a Russian, a man with an impeccable soul at bottom, but a man who is unable, unwilling even, to adapt to his situations. A man unwilling to steal, to break his own somewhat twisted moral code. A man able to waste thousands of roubles, to drink, to dance, to forget the future, to exclude all thoughts not of the present time. A man of great sensuality and vigour, ha ha! Not one of your foppish Darcys or Rochesters, more than a match for your Heathcliffs even! A man, a Russian man, nothing gentle about him, but still a man!". Dostoyevsky laughed wildly, freely, until stopped by a great bout of coughing, his gaunt frame shaking behind the table. He recovered, breathing deeply. "A Russian. What else should he be?".

Tony went to speak again but waited as the writer reached over to the samovar and poured himself, and his guest, some tea, steam wafting away from the table, up towards the ceiling.

"Let us move on," he said, collecting his thoughts as Dostoyevsky sipped his tea, wincing at the heat of the scalding liquid on his pinched lips, "for I wanted to talk a little about the language used in your novel, the way that the characters use words without really revealing what they want to say, the way language is used to take up space rather than to make things clear. What I am trying to say -".

"- is exactly what you are saying! A perfect example of your point, young man, nothing better!", the writer laughed. "Do people really speak so clearly? Are intentions always there, on the surface, ready for anyone to touch at a moment's notice? Come now, young Anton Antonovitch, are your beliefs so easily found? As all people talk without saying, making noise for the sake of amusing the idiots around them, so too do my characters. They exist in their social context and their words are created by these surroundings, they speak to please those with whom they are speaking. Are people really concerned with other people's ideas? Do people really have a strong understanding of their own ideas, strong enough to be able to explain them, in detail, from one moment to the next, to the first person who enquires about them? People talk, dear Anton, but what they say...

"But not Alyosha. He knows, he understands, he cuts through the idiocy of idle pratter, he genuinely seeks communication, not diversion, and communicates in return." Dostoyevsky fell silent, perhaps thinking (as Tony supposed) about his own Alyosha, the departed soul of his poor child. A long silence settled across the room, like a blanket of snow slowly, but inexorably, settling and covering a churchyard. Neither man spoke.

Finally, the writer looked up, puzzled initially by the sight of the other, but then, as recognition dawned in his eyes, he stood up and shouted, "But wait! It grows ever later, and we have not discussed (we have not touched upon!) the central theme, the one true core of the novel! We have not discussed God!". The old man stood behind the table, shaking with, what Tony could only presume was excitement, evidently waiting for his visitor to speak, to ask a question. Tony, however, stayed silent, slightly embarrassed, unwilling to make the first move in such a delicate area. Slowly, the writer's face calmed itself, the features rearranging themselves into their usual, almost angry state, and he sat back down, silently, defiantly, on his bench. Again, silence.

This was the part Tony had feared, and part of him wished to avoid it and move on. But, with such a book, such an idea... He took a deep breath and plunged in. "Fyodor Mikhailovich," he began, "I must confess that, on this point, my ideas are not exactly clear." He paused, and, as he had expected (indeed wished), the writer eagerly took up the thread of the conversation.

"Not clear? What is there to be confused about? My views are crystal clear, a call to arms, a warning for my great country to acknowledge the true path before it is too late. You see, my young English friend, we have strayed from the right path, we have been blinded, blinded I tell you, by the progress of logic and science and philosophy, and what does it all mean? There is no God, they say, there is only here and now! And this, this should set us free, make us happy! But no. This idea is ridiculous, lacking in all credibility, this way lies madness, for if there is no God, no guidance from above, no rapture to look forward to, where will we find our guidance? What will prevent us from living like dogs, worse than dogs even?". Dostoyevsky paused for breath, panting, his eyes shining from the conviction of his words. His gaze never deviated from that of his visitor, who looked back, unable to break away from the writer's terrible grip.

"You saw what happened to Ivan, poor Ivan, when he gave up the idea of God. He was unwilling to believe because of what he saw as the inconsistencies: the suffering of children, the only innocents and still subject to death and torture; the necessity of believing in the end of days without the hope of actually being there to witness it himself. He believed he could dismiss God, dismiss his teachings and found a new life on science, on logic, but", he continued, his voice dropping so much that Tony was compelled to lean forward, so as not to miss the writer's words, "he was wrong. Without God to order his life, he lost direction, as would we all. If you dismiss God, you dismiss society, you reject laws, you decide to take the role of God into your own hands." A pause. "Ivan stepped back from the abyss, but the other, the other... he walked into it, and he took his brother with him...".

He stopped. Tony was getting up, taking his greatcoat from where it lay on the bench, as if ready to leave. Dostoevsky also rose and sighed. "I see you are unconvinced. Still, my story is not finished, Mitya's tale will continue. I'm sure that you will start to see the truth after the next book...". He stopped speaking. A strange expression had appeared on Tony's face, a mixture between pity and regret, an incomprehensible look of sadness. The two men stood there for a moment, and then, with a bow, the Englishman took his leave and vanished into the snowy night. The writer sat down again and wondered.

[This text was recently discovered in the attic of a small wooden house in a village a few hundred miles outside Moscow. There seems to be no trace of the writer. Dostoyevsky never wrote the sequel to 'The Brothers Karamazov' mentioned in the text.]

Stream of Semi-Conciousness

737 down, only about 140 pages to go. In the words of Rolf Harris, do you know what it is yet?!

Anyway, frivolity aside, I thought I'd just write a mini-post on some of the changes you may have noticed here at Malone Towers (aka 'My Blog'). I've started making use of some of the features that the lovely people at Google have provided for me to make my little blog look pretty. I've messed around with colours, increased the font size, added labels for authors (in addition to countries) and put in a neat little search engine gadget which allows you to search the blog for mentions of the word 'banana' (go on, you know you want to).

I'm also toying with the idea of more little interim posts; of course, that's only possible when I'm in the middle of a monster like my present book. When I go back to normal (!) books, I'll probably have problems keeping up with the review posts, let alone writing extra posts to spread my pearls of wisdom across the breadth of the interweb thingy.

One final point: in browsing the many trillions of book blogs out there in cyberspace, I could hardly miss the fact that there seem to be a million and one different challenges going on. Hmm. While challenges are all well and good, I don't want to be penned in too much by what other people want, or expect, me to read. Therefore, I have developed my own monthly challenge to keep me on the straight and narrow (and so that I can say I'm doing a challenge. Even though I'm really not).

Tony's challenge is that each month I will read:

1) At least one Japanese novel.
2) At least one novel in a foreign language (i.e. French or German - Japanese would be pushing it unless you count the picture version of 'The Ugly Duckling' which I have hanging around somewhere in the house).
3) At least one big book - for the purposes of this challenge, that means 500+ pages.
4) No rubbish books.

The gauntlet has been thrown down (which was very silly as I'm only going to have to bend down and pick it up again): let the challenge begin!

Tomorrow; I'm very sleepy now.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Reading, Reading, Reading

Big books are wonderful, but they have the disadvantage of taking a long time to finish, leaving my loyal blog readers starved of my attention for too long (no, even I don't believe that really). I'm currently about 300 pages into my latest choice; which would be good going were it not for the fact that I've still got about twice that to get through. August is going to be a lean month on the books read front...

Anyway, while I'm plodding along with my book, I thought I'd post a short ramble about reading and, especially, reading and the internet. You see, most people would assume that the evil computer, like its horrible cousin the television, has a negative impact on your reading (and if I were fifteen years old and blasting mutant armies to death eighteen hours a day, that might well be true); however, I've found that the internet has actually encouraged me to read more, provided me with more information on books and authors and helped me to be able to locate (and afford!) more books than previously.

After joining Facebook (my second favourite waste of time), I quickly got into various reading groups, and, after filtering for Twilight addicts and strange people offering various sexual services, I found a community of normal people who actually really liked reading - and did it a lot. Over the past couple of years, although I had been reading, I think that my reading time had gradually been eroded because of my studies (Master of TESOL by distance), my work (ESL Teacher, then co-ordinator and now Learning Adviser) and my young daughter (Emily). Connecting with fellow readers encouraged me to look at how I was spending my time and to think of how I could fit my reading into my schedule.

These groups have also helped me to broaden my literary horizons and to branch out into areas I was previously unaware of, or not interested in. From discussions, I was able to judge what kind of novels people were interested in and trust the recommendations of those whose interests coincided with mine. Authors whom I have discovered in this way include Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Jack Kerouac, writers whose works I may never have glanced at were it not for the trust developed in the people who recommended them.

Of course, it's not all about connecting with other people. Another way in which the internet has been useful is in providing me with information about authors, novels and criticism. Wikipedia has become a good friend, allowing me to check on authors and find out what they wrote, and when, and helping me to find interesting information on the background and content of novels. Whether wanting a quick overview of the Indian partition while reading 'Midnight's Children' or discovering that the author of 'The Classical World' was a Hollywood extra, I have been able to get access to facts which have enhanced my reading experience.

For that experience, of course, I still need the books, and while I have not yet succumbed to the e-book craze (and until they invent something which actually looks exactly like a book, and smells like one too, I probably won't), once again, the internet has made this a lot easier. Books in Australia are expensive, and there are no really cheap internet book providers - Amazon charges the earth for deliveries - , so I was very happy to hear about a site called 'The Book Depository', which delivers books, with a particular focus on hard-to-find works, worldwide for free. Brilliant! Yes, I know I should be supporting my local bookshop etc. etc., but the reality is that if Angus & Robertson only stocks vampire novels and expects me to pay $27.00 for the very few decent titles they have in stock, it's no surprise if I instead decide to take my pick from the best of world literature for a fraction of the cost and the comfort and convenience of home delivery. Even if it costs me my soul :)

So there you have it. The internet is good for readers (and I haven't even mentioned blogging!). Have fun with your computers, and don't forget to join some literary chat groups. The only thing to avoid is spending so much time discussing books with your newfound virtual friends that you forget to actually read any...

Monday, 3 August 2009

Japanese Literature Challenge

While you are waiting for me to plough through my latest literary delight, I thought I'd advertise a little challenge I'm taking part in. In the words of Dolcezza (the challenger):

"This year, all you have to do is read one work of Japanese origin. It can be literature of course, but don’t feel confined to that. You may choose to read poetry, biographies, short stories or even manga. If you are willing to read one such piece, you’ve met the challenge. If you read more, all the better. I have set the time frame between July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010."

Now, how easy is that?
Anyone wishing to join in can sign up at:
I shall, of course, be continuing with Yukio Mishima's 'The Sea of Fertility' quadrilogy after the first part was so good (and more, I'm sure, besides).

Sunday, 2 August 2009

56 - 'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy

'Under the Greenwood Tree', one of Hardy's earliest (and shortest) novels, takes place against the usual backdrop of the imaginary county of Wessex early in the nineteenth century and is structured around two main plot strands: Dick Dewy's pursuit of the beautiful new schoolteacher, Fancy Day, and the last days of Mellstock's traditional church choir, replaced by the new trend of organ music. Both stories help the writer to discuss what was to become one of his central themes, namely the rapid disappearance of country life and traditions in the face of progress exported from the big cities to the English countryside, an alteration that Hardy believed was not always for the best.

One of the reasons for the change in lifestyle was the arrival of newcomers in what had been relatively stable communities. Fancy, flighty by name and nature, comes to Mellstock to work as a schoolteacher, and immediately causes several hearts to flutter. As well as the good-hearted tranter's son, Dick Dewy (what do you think I am Wikipedia? Look it up yourself...), both Farmer Shiner and Reverend Maybold, the newly arrived vicar of Mellstock, fall under Fancy's spell. Over the course of a year (the book's four main sections are named after the seasons), we see the progress of Dick's pursuit of the beautiful outsider, which is eventually crowned with success - but not without a few hurdles on the way, at least one of which comes as a bit of a bombshell...

As interesting and well written as the lovers' tale is though, Hardy himself was more interested in the accompanying story regarding the choir (or quire!). The story begins on Christmas Eve as the choir prepares to make its traditional rounds of the outlying houses, men carrying string instruments and their own voices, highly critical of the trend toward organ music replacing the traditional church choirs. Little do they know that there is soon to be an end to their right to play the hymns in church as two of the contestants for Fancy's hand in marriage discover her ability to play the church organ and decide to use this skill in Sunday services (ironically, the third suitor, Dick, is part of the choir...). While disappointed, the choir take the decision on the chin and, rather than causing trouble, agree a timetable for change with the vicar, allowing the proud old men an opportunity to retire on a high.

Hardy actually wanted to call this book 'The Mellstock Quire' (and chose the actual title on his publisher's advice as books with titles from songs sold better - plus ca change...), and the story of the choir has its roots in actual events from the author's life. While the introduction of organ music was seen by some as an imrovement to church services, Hardy argued that the downgrading of the role of the parishioners in the service had the effect of distancing them from the church. Whereas before a group of local men, young and old, were motivated to appear each Sunday and use their leisure time to practice together, the new regime had the result of creating an 'us and them' mentality which loosened the bond the villagers had with their religion,a bond which had just as much to do with community as communion.

In this book, despite the problems noted above, things turn out for the best. The novel ends with the expected wedding festivities under the Greenwood tree, and the villagers dance and feast as they have done for generations. However, by the time of the publication of this book, the customs described were, for the most part, long gone, leaving a bitter-sweet taste of nostalgia on the lips of the original audience (let alone on those of the 21st-century reader!). This book, short and sweet as it is, does end happily, but Hardy was to develop these ideas in his later works; as anyone who has read 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' or 'Jude the Obscure' knows, his later novels were a little more scathing in their criticism of modern life.