Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien

Can anything new be said about Tolkien's one thousand page epic? Not particularly but familiarty should not breed contempt, especially not when this is one of the most popular novels of all time, and especially not when it is always a rewarding and enthralling read.
I was probably sixteen years old when I first read it and can still remember the shock and surprise I felt when it began to dawn on me that this was no lighthearted adventure story in the way its predecessor, 'The Hobbit', had been. The tale of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the ring of power grows ever tense the closer he draws to the fiery mountain into which he must cast the ring. I can almost smell the sulphur on the air, feel the stench of evil grasping me by the throat. And, despite this being probably the tenth time I've read the novel, I still expect it to end disastrously, such is the thrall that the ring appears to hold over all those who come into contact with it.
Tolkien's knowledge of mythology, of religious symbolism, and of folk lore served him well in his construction of an entire world. Middle Earth is so comprehensively imagined that we almost take his attention to detail for granted as we travel his lands. This is the culmination of a life's work (despite living fo for some twenty-odd years after finishing 'The Lord of the Rings' Tolkien never completed another novel and the posthumous publications issued under instruction from his son, Christoper, were, to all intents and purposes, notes and fragments of Middle Earth history.
What strikes me most on reading again is the same sensation that struck me when I first saw Peter Jackson's superb adaptations of the individual books contained within the novel: this is a tale of a lost age. By this I do not mean that Middle Earth was once real - I am a literary critic, not a believer in fairies - but that the values and human sentimentality at the core of the work seem to have been ditched by modern society. it is difficult not to read of the love Samwise Gamgee feels for his master, Frodo, without 21st century cynicism creeping in and wondering whether Tolkien knew how homo-erotic it all sounded.
And yet to allow such postmodern knowingness to override the morality play underlying the tale is to miss the point. Chivalry, valour, honour amongst companions and love for one's fellow man are qualities sorely lacking in today's world. Perhaps they were already gone in Tolkien's time, given that he wrote the bulk of the novel during the Second World War, the bloodiest and most depraved example of inhumanity and hatred the world has ever known. If so then Tolkien himself was crying out for a mislaid sense of honour and for the triumph of good over evil. I would like to believe that such values are attainable in life, not only within the pages of epic novels, but this possibly proves that I too have reached an age when I fear for the future and romanticize the past?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin: David Nobbs

If I were to be stranded in the middle of a (blissfully Ant and Dec free) jungle and allowed only one novel to take to while away the hours until I am eaten by ferocious carnivores, this would be the novel. Not Dickens, not Orwell, not E.M. Forster, but Nobbs. I am fully aware that 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin' is not the greatest novel in the world but it is my all time favourite novel, one I have read and reread since the age of thirteen.
Originally published in 1975 as 'The Death of Reginald Perrin' the novel was picked up by BBC television and subsequent reprints were retitled to fit the name given to the TV series which was so perfectly cast. Earlier this year David Nobbs was involved in an attempt to bring Reggie's tale up to date but for my money it was wasted effort by the BBC. They should simply have shown repeats of the show from the seventies and urged people to read the novel.
When I first read about Reggie's mid-life crisis - which sees him fake suicide, assume various false identities and then realise it has all been a dreadful mistake and that he misses his wife and family - I was a teenager. Yet there was a powerful message for me even at such a tender age: the source of Reggie's malaise is the fact that he has spent his entire life working to promote desserts. All my life I have known the value of 'not giving the best years of my life to puddings' courtesy of David Nobbs.
Reggie's breakdown affords Nobbs an opportunity to take swipes at many of the conformist tendencies of the middle classes, from their mock-tudor housing estates to their habit of standing on the exactly the same spot on the train station every morning. Reggie begins to say and do the things many people wish they could say and do but can never bring themselves to challenge the apparent order of their materially comfortable if spiritually empty existence. Nobbs knows his targets well and yet, despite showing up the monstrosity of certain aspects of society he does not make monsters of his characters. Not even Reggie's boss, the brusque C.J., can be seen as a monster when he is portrayed with so many frailties, just like any of the other characters.
And what a cast of characters they are. From Reggie's long-suffering but far from subservient wife Elizabeth to his stiff-legged, staccato-voiced brother-in-law Jimmy; from pompous son-in-law Tom to mockney, leftie son Mark; and from simpering, yes-man colleague David Harris-Jones to the practially incompetent work's doctor, Doc Morrisey - all are flawed, all are fully rounded despite being sparingly sketched and coming replete with their own catch-phrases. All are gloriously and hilariously human.
On the back of my edition there is a quote from Ronnie Barker, who was initially sounded out as a candidate to play Reggie in the TV series. He says 'I laughed 287 times and cried twice...I still feel I am Reggie Perrin as I walk about, what a beautiful book.' I coudn't have put it better myself, Ronnie.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Native Son: Richard Wright

Published in 1940, two decades before America finally began attempting to dismantle the inherent segregation within the mind's of many of its white citizens, this is a telling tale of a young black man who accidentally murders a wealthy young white woman. Bigger Thomas, twenty year old hoodlum, is offered a job with a rich family who are sympathetic to the problems of black people living in Chicago at that time. Within hours of stepping over their threshold he has faltered into a path that, in restrospect, he comes to feel is the only one his life was likely to have taken anyway. Mary Dalton's death truly is an accident but, knowing he will not be believed because of the colour of his skin, Bigger feeds her body to the furnace in the cellar, gruesomely having to remove her head to fit her in.
In his mind he feels he has murdered countless times: the confusing and heady combination of guilt, hatred and lack of self-esteem that his society has bred in him ensures that his feelings towards the whites he encounters are part rage, part helplessness. As though the act of killing Mary has freed him in some way, allowed him to see himself as a real man, capable of taking action, no matter how wrong the action, Bigger toys with pride in his behaviour until he realises that the law will undoubtedly catch him and sentence him to death. Or, more likely, he will be killed at the hands of a lynch mob whose hate and fear are being cranked up and up by a propagandist press.
Bigger kills again, this time it is his girlfriend who dies because he's afraid she might betray him when he goes on the run. The papers do not appear concerned about the death of a young black woman and simply use the details to portray Bigger as even more of a monster than they've already painted him. Almost at every turn Bigger is faced with anger and prejudice, both of which are fuelled by an underlying fear of a black American population which at that time numbered twelve million.
When he is caught he finds no comfort in the words of his mother who urges him to confess all to God so that they might meet again in the afterlife. He holds out no hope that anyone will understand the emotions coursing through him, many of which he himself has only come to understand because of what he has done. For the first time in his life he sees the extent of segregation and the limited channels of thought and expectation such a system imposes upon the lower caste. The only one who understands this, the only one who seems capable of drawing it out of Bigger in conversation, is the Jewish lawyer who represents him. A Communist sympathiser, Max attempts to negate the death sentence by arguing to the court that, while readily admitting he has murdered, Bigger is a symptom of a skewed and oppressive social network.
Richard Wright's narrative style is abrupt, it is heavily muscled and downright pushy. The novel was dismissed by James Baldwin, another black writer who, like Wright, first came to priminence through the 'Harlem Renaissance' (in the 20s and 30s Jewish publishers began to print books by black writers which other publishing houses had turned down, thus a new generation of writers and poets were able to find a wider audience for their unique perspective on American culture). Baldwin considered 'Native Son' to be a 'protest novel', and it is true to say that there is a powerful odour of propaganda inhabiting the book, much of it arguing for black equality but some of it also shaped and driven by Wright's own sympathies for the Communist cause. And yet Max's impassioned summing-up plea for imprisonment instead of the electric chair for Bigger, for all its Bolshevik rhetoric, is the most compelling part of the novel for it is the sole instance of a character who can see the larger picture when it comes to American society. Max appreciates that every time a black criminal is treated with so much more hostility than a white criminal, every time the press and public hound black people for the misdemenours they themselves might equally be capable of, the social problems which raised a generation of men like Bigger will never improve.
Wright died in 1960 and therefore witnessed only the fledging changes finally ushered in during the sixties when segregation was outlawed. He did not live to see black culture become increasingly intergrated into American society during the seventies and eighties. He did not live to see what might have been considered impossible in the 1940s: a black President. But he knew exactly what the problems were and trealised hat centuries of indoctrination needed overthrowing before such changes could come about. No country is ever perfect, Utopia was not what black people were arguing for in Wright's time. Equal rights to earn a living, to choose their careers, to decide where they wanted to live: those were the freedoms black society were being denied. And Wright tells such an evocative tale of the effects of such restrictions that it becomes patently obvious that habit, not logic or reason, was keeping those restrictions in place. If only white America had known and acted on this fact earlier, novels like this would no longer hold such resonance.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

Is it science fiction? Is it a fairy-tale? A fable? Perhaps it utilises aspects of all three but what Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel actualy is, is a love story. Granted it is a love story the like of which there has not quite been before: Henry suffers from a genetic defect which throws him backwards and forwards in time without control or warning; Clare has loved him since she first met him at the age of six but has to somehow fill her life in the gaps between his appearances.
By the time Clare is twenty years old she has met Henry countless times but then they meet for the first time in 'real time' - Henry is eight years older than her and has yet to experience any of their meetings. The versions of him that visitied her throughout her childhood were older. This young version is a borderline alcoholic, a womaniser and obsessed with his mother's death some twenty years earlier. Any of us might harbour an obsession with a parent we lost as a very small child, but for Henry the memories are worse: he frequently travels back to the car crash which killed his mother, and which would have killed him too if he had not (uncontrollably) time-travelled in that split second.
The title of the novel forefronts Clare because without her Henry would probably never find the relative peace and certain contentment that their love brings him. And it is the overpowering strength of that love, expertly conveyed by Niffenegger, that makes the narrative work. The intimacies, the frustrations, the joys and the occasional misunderstandings between Henry and Clare are the stuff of every relationship and compel the reader to focus on their emotional bond rather than spending the whole time pondering how unlikely this genetic defect of Henry's actually is.
The narrative style ensures the plot rattles along as it remains resolutely in the present tense. Clare and Henry tag-team in describing the events of their lifes and their love, which allows for greater exploration of the different ways in which the two of them struggle to come to terms with their unorthodox relationship (and later marriage). Once they are married Clare wants a baby to make sure she has a part of Henry with her whenever he is lost in time. It seems his genes are the dominant ones as she miscarries on several occasions due to the baby time-traveling in and out of the womb. Eventually they find specialists who take their situation seriously and work out ways of trying to suppress the chrono-dysfunction through use of certain drugs. When a child is finally born Clare is delighted, despite the ultimate irony that Alba herself jumps backwards and forwards in time.
Throughout there lies a slowly tightening sense of impending tragedy, which Niffenegger pins the whole motion of the novel on. When that tragedy finally strikes it is truly heart-rending, even when reading the book for a second time. Rather a lot to live up to and, by all accounts, the follow up - 'Her Fearful Symmetry' - is somewhat disappointing in comparison.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Norwegian Wood: Haruki Murakami

Shorter than some of his novels and bereft of his trademark immersion in supernatural and outwordly events, this is nevertheless a sumptuous and highly satisfying read. The narrator is Toru Watanabe who is remembering the emotional turmoil that was his teenage life some twenty years previously. He thinks of Naoko, his first love who had been the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, until Kizuki killed himself at the age of seventeen. Naoko and Toru are drawn to one another through loss and yet find it almost impossible to express or render tangible their feelings.
The novel conveys such a consistent and overriding sense of loss and longing that it is unsurprising when other characters die. Naoko reveals that her sister commited suicide some years before Kizuki did so. And when Toru meets another girl, Midori, one of the key experiences of his burgeoning relationship with her is when he visits her father in hospital, makes some kind of connection with him only to learn he has died a few days later.
Torn between the unresolved questions of the past as embodied by his love for Naoko and the possibility of reaching into the future by commiting himself to Midori, Toru is wracked with confusion, guilt, and eventually depression when it becomes clear that Naoko's mental health problems are never going to be cured.
For a tale of a young man trying to choose between two lovers the narrative reveals more than most might, dragging us through Toru's promiscuous attempts to feel alive in the arms of random strangers. In lesser hands such details might turn us against the protagonist but Murakami writes with such tenderness, such comprehension of the failures and foibles of youth that there is no loss of sympathy or engagement with Toru. Throughout the narrative there runs an evocative portrayal of the confusions of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. Toru's journey from selfish adolecence to self-aware adulthood is a painful and frequently traumatic one. Aren't they all? Given the choice, would many of us opt to go back and relive their teenage years again? Far better to travel in time through memories; far less disturbing to be able to finally make some sense of the turbulence from the perspective of another two decades experience on the planet.
In the end, some of Toru's choices are made for him by fate and circumstances. That he finally realises that the past will always leave him frozen if he cannot move forward, is admirable but there is a sense that the older version of Toru narrating the story still ponders what might have been now and then. In the end Murakami leads us to the only truly satisfying conclusion available to the plot. There are various other endings he might have written, but none of them would have left quite such an indelible impression on the reader's own emotions.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Inkdeath: Cornelia Funke

You know you love a book when you are in a tearing hurry to find out how it all turns out at the end and yet you never want to have to leave its pages. This final part in the 'Inkheart' trilogy is more enchanting, more exhilerating and more delightfully unpredictable than the previous instalments. Funke seems to enjoy confounding her readers' expectations: just when you think you know how the tale will end, she weaves another, totally unexpected thread into the story and expands the possibilities for narrative development yet further.
Whereas 'Inkheart' was strongly focused on Meggie and 'Inkspell' could be argued to concentrate on Fenollio more than anyone, 'Inkdeath' is Mortimer Fulchart's story. Thrown into the Inkworld in the previous novel by the malicious Orpheous, Mo finds himself increasingly inhabiting the character of the Bluejay, a Robin Hood style hero Fenoglio has been writing songs about to help raise the morale of a people who have been utterly downtrodden and terrorised by the now-immortal Adderhead and his cronies.
Once again we are immersed in a complexity of almost existential questions - What is the world made of if not words? Does each individual write their own life story or are there external influences scripting things for them? Is a life lived in fear of death really life at all? There is a darkness and tension running throughout which rivals Tolkein in its intensity. And the further I became engrossed in the plot, the more I was reminded of the constantly tightening grip of fear that comes when reading 'The Lord of the Rings'. Mo's task is akin to Frodo's too, in that he has to destroy the book he'd originally created in order to assure the Adderhead's immortality. His closest ally turns out to be Dustfinger, brought back from the dead after an attempt at double-dealing by Orpheus fails to kill Mo off.
Giving himself up to save the children of Ombra, Mo is inititally taken prisoner in the dungeons of the castle there. There follow several episodes of apprent escape and recapture in best cliff-hanger tradition. The finale of the novel takes place in the gloomy Castle in the Lake, where the Adderhead appears to have outsmarted Mo's efforts to consign him to death. I won't spoil the ending but suffice to say, it does not disappoint, so skilfully and commitedly does Funke tie up this three-part saga of the Inkworld. She even leaves us with the potential for further Inkworld adventures, quite likely as experienced by some of the younger characters.
'Inkdeath' is one of the most perfect 'children's' novels I have ever read. Indeed I am reluctant to classify it as children's literature, so blackly and philologically does Funke tell her tale at times. But this only proves what all good story-tellers know - literature must acknowledge the realities of life, for good and for bad, in order to leave a lasting impression.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Inkspell: Corneilia Funke

Somehow Cornelia Funke has managed to make 'Inkspell' even more magical than it's predecessor, 'Inkheart'. I love the way she does not shy away from the gritty or embarrassing realities of life, even though she is ostensibly writing for children. Thus the body-count is much higher than in the previous novel, largely courtesy of a war between rival princes in the Inkworld. And she throws a little reader discomfort our way too, with the burgeoning love story between Farid and Meggie who is only just a teenager.
Whereas 'Inkheart' takes place in our own world into which a few characters from Fenoglio, the author's, book have been drawn by the Silvertongue (Meggie's father, Mo), 'Inkspell' sees first Dustfinger return to the pages he has been marooned away from for ten years, and then Meggie and Farid follow him. Before long, Mo and his wife Resa have also been thrown into the Inkworld where they discover that Fenoglio is not exactly living the enchanted existence he'd hoped for when read into the book at the end of 'Inkheart'. Indeed, much of the novel focuses on the ways in which a writer's creation gets away from them once they have completed the actual writing. In the Inkworld this has almost disastrous consequences for several characters and ensures a dramatic and chilling conclusion.
Characters shift and change, developing in unpredictable ways and all the while Funke breathes life into the backdrop of the Inkworld with vivid descriptive passages and compelling dramatic episodes. In short, the novel surpasses the first in the series, something I did not believe was possible when I put down my copy of 'Inkheart'. If the concluding part of the trilogy, 'Inkdeath' is as wonderfully dark and addictive as this I might just have to make it my task to read all of her other novels, to see whether she has always been this good or whether the genius of these books is the culmination of all the craft and learning that has gone before.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Inkheart: Cornelia Funke

Now that 'Inkheart' has been made into a film, the comparisons with the Harry Potter series have become even more frequent. Which is a little unfair to Cornelia Funke as she does not strike me as someone who is trying to emulate J.K. Rowling. She is ploughing her own unique furrow, one which is steeped in the slightly darker, more fantastical, less patronizing traditions of Germanic folk tales. One of the earliest books I can remember reading again and again for myself was my collection of tales by the Brothers Grimm, so 'Inkheart', for me, is both a return to childhood and a rare chance as an adult to experience a children's writer who understands that young readers can take in a lot of descriptive and complex material, if it is well written.
Funke is clearly obsessed with books and, in the central character of Meggie, offers a compelling insight into how the written word can transport and enrich the lives of the young. Yet it is not just the young who are swept up in the almost mystical worlds of narratives old and new - Meggie's father, Mo, can literally make the images walk out of the pages, while her great aunt Elinor surrounds herself with more books than one person could possibly read in a lifetime.
The notion that a magical kind of reader - a Silvertongue - can read characters out of books, is both charming and terrifying for, amidst all the fairies and the tin soldiers, Capricorn, the evil villain of a little known book called (of course) 'Inkheart' suddenly appears in our world and wreaks havoc on the lives of Meggie and her family. As if it were not enough that she and her father become terrorized by Capricorn, it seems that for every character Mo reads out of a book, someone from this world disappears into the pages. On the night that Capricorn first emerged into 21st century Europe, Meggie's mother, Teresa, vanished.
The narrative, then, takes the form of a quest. Can Mo find another copy of the book and somehow read his wife back out of the pages before Capricorn burns every one to ensure that he stays in a world in which he has found much to enjoy? Not quite every copy: Capricorn has held back one issue of the book for himself in order that Silvertongue can read out the most fearsome character of all, The Shadow who is made from the bones and ashes of all of Capricorn's victims, and who will devour and destroy anybody his master wishes removed.
Anthea Bell's translation of 'Inkheart' barely reads like a translation at all, which I can only assume is down to Funke's skill as a story teller as much as it is down to Bell's talents as a translator. The writing is so vivid that it is like a throwback to an era before television and computer screens began to dominate our lives and, to a degree, stifle our imaginations. 'Inkheart' is a testimony to the fact that the most memorable special effects of all are still the ones produced in the mind of the reader when they are blissfully caught up in the pages of a book as deliciously descriptive and visual as this.