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Monday, 30 August 2021

Afghanistan? Reviews of several books

If you type Afghanistan into the search bar above you will be taken to half a dozen long reviews of serious  books about the War in Afghanistan which were published here in 2012 - 2013 and thus written (both books and reviews) without the benefit of hindsight.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Review: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

 




Reading a novel, you usually assume a stable text. But - consulting the notes to this edition in the course of reading - it became clear that this is not a stable text. For first 1890 magazine publication in the USA, Oscar Wilde submitted a typescript which was then edited in house. Some simple improvements were probably made but, more importantly, passages which were  overtly homoerotic were toned down, made more bland and generic. When Wilde expanded the American text for  1891 British publication as a novel, he also drew back from some of his original commitments as well as adding new themes to make the novel, let’s say, more “balanced”.

So it’s unclear now whether Wilde put his name to what he had really wanted to write and to what extent he was taking pre-emptive action against the cancel culture of his time, a culture which would not only have disallowed an overtly homoerotic story, even one couched as a morality tale as this one is, but would also exclude the author from polite society. And Wilde - married man with two children -  had one very big foot in polite society even if by 1890 (when this work was first published) he had the other foot in London’s  gay demimonde. Despite its enduring fame, the text of Dorian Gray is a compromise formation which could be read as a reflection of Wilde's compromised position.  So I ask, was there a different Dorian Gray that he would really  liked to have written?

The novel is built around an effective Gothic conceit - a portrait of Dorian Gray which spontaneously changes appearance to track the degeneration of its sitter - and it has some characteristic Wildean dialogue which hovers nicely between the frivolous and the profound. It’s a bit uneven and at one point I winced. For the second version, Wilde added a revenge narrative in which the sailor James Vane seeks to avenge his sister Sybil who committed suicide after being cruelly discarded by her Prince Charming, Dorian. By page 198 of chapter XVIII, the reader knows for sure, though without a name being given, that James Vane has been unsuccessful in his attempt. This does not stop Wilde right at the end of the chapter (page 199) labouring the obvious with a flat sentence which reads “The man who had been shot in the thicket was James Vane” which falls, redundant and very flat. 

Wilde could probably have written and published the novel he really wanted to write by a quite simple subterfuge. He could have written in English, employed a translator, and published in French - under his own name or a pseudonym. This thought occurs to me having just read (in the TLS, 13 August 2021) a review of two autobiographical novels, translated into English from the French of Liane de Pougy (1869 - 1950). De Pougy is always called a “courtesan” and, more familiarly, one of les grandes horizontales, both euphemisms for what we would now call a high-end sex worker. Clients on her books included Queen Victoria’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales, later Edward Seventh. Pougy appears to have felt free and been free, to write as she pleased with explicit sexual detail - and get published around the time Wilde was writing.

By the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov did not even have to translate into French to get his Lolita published in Paris. The USA and the UK have always been bastions of  prudery, and still are. As a result, Dorian Gray is a prudish book.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Review: G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

 


To put it briefly, No.

Late in life, G K Chesterton drew attention to the sub-title of this novel, A Nightmare, and it’s true that its phantasmagoria of chases and pursuits which play fast and loose with time and space can best be understood in terms of the kinds of thing which happen in dreams. But that doesn’t solve the problem that the overall effect is that of something whimsical and silly, with some cod symbolism/philosophy/theology thrown in at the end in an attempt to redeem it.

This 1908 book does have one foot in the real world. Like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) - a very good novel - it picks up and makes plot-line use of the fact that contemporary anarchist and other revolutionary groupings across Europe were heavily infiltrated and even controlled by secret policemen, notably by agents of the Tsarist Okhrana created in 1881. Chesterton’s story line amounts to not much more than the successive (and rather laborious) revelation that six out of seven members of an anarchist central committee are all policemen, and very British policemen too.

It’s a short book and I made myself read it all. There are occasional thoughts which resonate, as when Conrad (authorially) writes, “ The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.” - aptly illustrated in our own time by the super-rich who back Mr Trump and Mr Johnson and for whom laws, like taxes, are for the little people.

But, still, No. It wasn’t worth a couple of my evenings.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Review: Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

 




Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) often figures somewhere - though perhaps not very high up - on lists of  One Hundred Best Novels in English, novels which you need to read before you die in order to hold a dinner-table conversation while still alive. In her Introduction to my Penguin Classics edition (1995) Patricia Ingham treats it as a novel of ideas, which no doubt it is.

But that doesn’t make it a good novel. It has serious shortcomings. The original circumstance of periodical publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words no doubt obliged the inscription of excitement into every instalment but when those instalments are stitched together the excitement turns (for this reader) into an unexciting sense of rollercoaster melodrama: Oh no, here we go again …. Though the experience of death formed a major part of everyday Victorian life, Gaskell piles up the bodies to the point at which the last of them (Mr Bell’s) which ought to matter to the reader simply doesn’t; it is so obviously required to bring the plot to an Enter Stage Left, happy coincidence, conclusion. Earlier in the novel, it is only the dying and death of the working class girl Bessy, at the age of nineteen, which really cuts through (for this reader) and that perhaps because with the benefit of hindsight we know that it was the fate of many Victorian teenage girls to die old enough to know that they were being cheated of life and not at all old enough to tolerate the thought. Bessy does enjoy her father's love, but until she attracts Miss Hale's affection and care, Bessy has only the opium of the people to comfort her - and she is indeed fortunate in her knowledge of the Book of Revelations.  

Towards the end, the chapters become thin and miscellaneous; the energy which infuses the earlier chapters is missing. It becomes irritating that through some editorial oversight (perpetuated into this modern edition) it is unclear whether “Cosmo” is the same character as “Sholto” and equally unclear how old this character is - if I was writing an essay on the novel I would try to chart the timeline for Cosmo/Sholto; my guess that it is inconsistent. It is also an irritation that though in this novel London is London and Southampton Southampton, Manchester is Milton-Northern (what? forerunner of Milton Keynes?) which in turn is located in Darkshire which is just toe-curling even by Victorian standards of suggestive names for characters and places. There is also, of course,  the extraordinary Victorian way of evoking characters through their facial features broken down into identikit components and at which Gaskell excels. But I can take only so many dilating pupils, quivering nostrils, and swans-neck, goose-neck (surely some mistake? - Ed.), delicate, alabaster …..throats. For my Gestalt taste, it's all too much like Mr and Ms Potato Head.