Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Damp Squid – Jeremy Butterfield

It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should round off the year’s reading with such a fascinating little book (thanks, Heather) on words, grammar, and the history of dictionary making. I am a bit of a word nerd. Their history, various contexts, and their evolution are something I find endlessly intriguing. I am also aware that a formal study of linguistics and grammar are way beyond my capacities. It was a real pleasure, then, to pick up a book like this and understand it all.

Through an explanation of how modern dictionaries are compiled and the definitions of words are checked against everyday use, we are shown how the English language evolved, why the spelling of English words is notoriously quirky, and the ways in which certain words group together.

What I found most interesting is the way in which language evolves. This causes a great deal of anguish to those who believe there is a single correct form of English and that not using this is responsible for all sorts of moral degradation. But dictionaries, like rules of grammar, can only describe how language is used by people; they cannot dictate.

Language is a truly magical invention. I do believe that we should all strive to know it as best we can so that we might all communicate more effectively. That is not going to be done by learning rules, but through expanded means of use. We should all read more and more widely. We should all write more and explore the subtleties of the language. Perhaps, just perhaps, all those words would work a bit of magic and the future would be more peaceful.

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Dain Curse - Dashiell Hammett

This is a curious beast of a book. Written in parts for serialisation, the story is deliberately broken into episodes that avoid the traditional cliff-hanger of run-of-the-mill pulp mysteries. Indeed, it eschews the expected violent climax as well. It is this, in part, which lifts it above other detective thrillers. Hammett was never afraid to tell the story the way he wanted, rather than as convention expected.

Yet for all the move away from convention, Hammett is clearly an expert at those aspects of the story where so many others fail. The opening, though downbeat, is immediately intriguing. Even before we know what is going on, we are hooked. Delivered in a style that seems to be a weary seen-it-all narration, we are nonetheless treated to sharp descriptions, wonderful dialogue, and a spareness that takes us into the heart of the story.

Starting with a diamond robbery, moving on to a cult, with a bit of drug taking and a number of clearly unbalanced characters, Hammett leads us calmly through the maze, pointing out some routes, leaving us to find the others.

This isn’t a whodunit (although there are aspects of a puzzle about the work, and the solution is clear once pointed out) any more than it is a ‘thriller’. This is another case for the Continental Op. Yet at the heart of it, there are real people and whilst the nameless narrator may be hardened and made cynical by the things he has seen, he is a much more complex character. Indeed, we are never quite sure in the end what his feelings are for Gabrielle. It is not a relationship that could ever work, but they do seem to develop a genuine regard for one another as they book progresses.

The intriguing story aside (and Hammett gets better – his next novel is The Maltese Falcon, after all), Hammett can and should be read for the way in which he uses the language. Nothing is wasted, everything pared down to its essential. Yet he still creates rich sceneries and populates them with wonderful characters. Even the minor characters have a vivid reality that more florid writers never attain. And to top it all, he writes excellent stories.

Lyttelton's Britain - Iain Pattinson

For those of you not au fait with the world of BBC’s Radio 4, this derives from the hugely popular comedy quiz series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. This anarchic, funny, and extremely clever show kept me amused for years. By turns surreal and cheeky, it proved week after week that comedy can be subtle, gentle and side-splittingly funny. I have the stitches to prove it.

One of the many highlights was the introduction to each show, which toured the country. Humphrey Lyttleton would say something about the town in which the show was being recorded before introducing the teams. These short introductions played fast and loose with the facts, but they were always witty and often downright rude – in all sorts of ways. I suspect the only reason the show got away with it for so long is that Humphrey Lyttelton delivered these pieces with such charm and with perfect comedy timing.

Some of them have been collected in this small volume. It is not often the written word can make me laugh out loud. This book kept doing it.

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moor & Kevin O'Neill

It is interesting to chart the development of an idea over the three volumes of this work. In the first volume we are presented with an intriguing conceit, namely that there was a group of adventurers recruited by British Intelligence which operated at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Drawn from the ranks of fiction they, of course, inhabit a fictional/alternative world, where the events in the books from which they are drawn actually took place.

Moore develops this idea inventively and makes wonderful use of characters and situations familiar to many, yet superbly melded into a unique vision. And whereas the characters are taken from books that persons of a certain age (ahem) would have read in their childhood, Moore is not afraid to allow these adult characters to have adult lives.

The first volume contains an extended prose piece by Alan Moore, recounting an adventure of Allan Quatermain that prefigures the second volume of adventures. Perhaps lacking the same impact as the first series/volume, the second set of adventures are set directly after the first at the time of the Martian invasion as imagined by H G Wells. The plot is again intriguing (if a little thin) and we learn a great deal more about the League and the fact that it is not the first of its kind. For me, however, it is ‘The New Traveller’s Almanac’ that makes this second volume. It gathers together reports of travels around the world made by various League members. Every fictional realm (ancient and modern) seems to have been drawn into this wonderful piece of work. Many are obscure and it is great fun trying to work out the references without resorting to the computer.

The third volume was compiled as a book (rather than released as a series of comics before being collected). This brings the tale up to date, set as it is in a post-1984 world that has a great deal in common with V For Vendetta. In this, Murray and Quatermain steal a dossier that contains fragmentary evidence of the earlier Leagues. Their adventures are interspersed with ‘reproductions’ of these fragments. Altogether a highly entertaining and worthy final volume to the series, bringing us a character that made me shudder even more than Moreau’s version of Rupert Bear.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Gitanjali - Rabindranath Tagore

Gitanjali is a truly remarkable collection of poems. The title translates (from Bengali) as ‘song offerings’, which gives a clue to their dual nature. For these are love poems which, whilst they are couched in terms of a personal love, speak also of a love of the divine. They are love songs, they are hymns.

Each poem is short but rich in imagery. At first reading these images seem simple, conjuring an ordinary life that has been coloured by love. One can easily imagine them being written and left for the person the poet has fallen in love with. Yet these images unfold, layer after layer, to reveal deeper and deeper meaning. The poems also, as they progress through the sequence, become more openly spiritual. Yet they never lose their power as love poems, for that is what they are. The poet has fallen under the spell of the divine and recognizes it for what it is.

I have read this collection a number of times now and I have always found within it a peace that is not easily found elsewhere. There is much here that resonates with the world and with personal experience. Different parts stand forward depending on the times, but there always seems to be something there within these gentle and simple words.

If you do not know the work of Tagore, I would urge you to seek it out.

Time Bites - Doris Lessing

This collection spans nearly three decades and contains a wide variety of views and reviews. Topics range from Sufism to the destruction of Zimbabwe, from cats to a number of observations on writers past and present. As such it is a much clearer view into the mind of a remarkable writer than one gets from her fiction.

Two things are readily apparent. The first is that Lessing is (and knows she is) human. That is, she has all the warmth, empathy, and conflicts that go with being not just a part of the race but a keen observer of the same. Her passions are clear, his dislikes, equally so. And she is not afraid to speak of either.

The second thing that is clear is that she has a prodigious command of the medium in she works. Lessing is an unfussy stylist. She can say something powerfully and eloquently in a few words and feels no need to embellish that. And once something is said, that too is considered enough. No pretty frame. Just the picture.

There is a third element to Lessing that also becomes clear as you read this collection. A fierce and clear-eyed intelligence. Her knowledge is prodigious, but she is more than knowledgeable. She is also wise. She has learned to ask searching questions, the contemplation of which take us further forward in our understanding of the world. And she asks them in a way that engages us all. This is rare and it is a blessing for which we should all be thankful.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Mr Campion's Falcon - Youngman Carter

Margery Allingham and her husband Philip Youngman Carter would often talk through her books as she was developing them, so he was intimately familiar with the characters, the style, and the underlying ‘feel’ of her work. When she died, he completed her final book and wrote two more; one based on an idea of his wife’s and this.

For all his familiarity with his wife’s work, this is not an attempt to reproduce what she had done. Her voice is there, in the background, along with what they must have shared (such as a sense of humour), but this is distinctly Youngman Carter’s book.

Rather than go for a complex psychological portrait, this is a thriller with a reasonably complex plot, in which Albert Campion is allowed to be his age. The elements of the plot and the characters are fairly typical of this kind of book, but Youngman Carter handles it all with ease.

The writing itself does not push any boundaries as Margery Allingham was wont to do. A steady style and straightforward narrative are used to tell a well-thought out story. This may seem unremarkable, but the simplicity of the entertainment we are offered is a rarity these days and this work (from 1970) is all the more refreshing for it. A worthy successor to Margery Allingham’s Campion books.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Building A Bridge To The 18th Century - Neil Postman

I first read Postman’s work in 1972, just before going to College. It was his book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co written Charles Weingartner). Since then I have read much of his work, which made this book a touch disappointing as it is a re-statement of his position on a number of interrelated issues – although it makes a fitting final book and does explain why he takes the position he does.

In essence, his argument is that we need to step back from the headlong rush into a technology driven future and take control of futures. To do this, we need to look at the eighteenth century and see how Rationalist notions of progress were balanced with Romantic dislike of the tyranny of the machine.

There are wider issues under discussion, but Postman believes we have ditched a balanced approach (and may have done so as a result of the pernicious effects of technological advancements). He doesn’t offer answers to his concerns in the sense of trying to sell a particular vision of the future. What he does, as he has always done, is urge us all to question the world about us and not take it at face value.

Indeed, the most important part of the book (as it was with Teaching as a Subversive Activity) is suggesting ways in which we can ask questions – and pointing out why this is likely to meet with resistance.

For those of you who do not know Postman’s work, I would urge you to seek it out. This book is a good place to start as it gives an overview of his thinking. His was an important voice in educational discussion in the ‘60s and ‘70s and he rightly became an acclaimed cultural critic. His writing style is easy, yet he makes very cogent and often fundamental points about the problems of modern western culture. And once you get a sense of his position from this work, his others are well worth reading, thinking about, and acting upon.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Jealousy - Alain Robbe-Grillet

Renowned for his ‘experimental’ approach to writing, Robbe-Grillet does not experiment with style, but with construction. Jealousy (more correctly Jalousie – as the jalousie windows play an important part in the work) is a series of images, often repeating, but never quite exactly so. Time is fragmented, perspectives altered, and obsessive attention is given to minute detail. As for plot… There is a hint of development, but it is impossible to say whether this is actual or in the eye and imagination of the narrator.

The work revolves around the relationship between A… (a married woman) and her neighbour Franck. The narrator is impersonal, although it can be assumed it is A…’s husband, not least because the work implies three people in the house and the narrator has an intimate knowledge of A…’s movements and actions. The story focuses on a trip that A… and Franck make to a town, making an unscheduled overnight stay when the car they travel in breaks down.

The obsessive replaying of scenes, the minute variations in which the narrator explores the possibilities, the layer upon layer of detail that paints a claustrophobic picture, suits the work well. There is no objective truth and we can never be sure how much the narrator’s obsession and jealousy is distorting the picture.

Although the work is low key, languid (as befits the setting of a banana plantation), there are hints of violence. A brief scene in which A… is described as sprawled on her bed (out of character with her careful, neat style). Further brief descriptions of what may be blood running thickly from the room and onto the veranda. Yet even this may just be a flash of anger on the part of the narrator, a fantasy revenge that never happens.

Robbe-Grillet has succeeded (for me) in producing an intriguing, almost hypnotic piece of writing. It has a cinematic quality, which is hardly surprising, but which is vividly realised. It certainly has every right to be considered an important work of literature. Not only is it an important work in terms of eschewing conventional narrative; it shows that psychological insight can be gained without once discussing or being let into the thoughts of the narrator other than by implication.

This is not a book everyone will enjoy (although I certainly did), but I do think it is a book that anyone serious about literature and about writing should read.