What I’ve been reading lately, part 39

Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

I’m making my way once more through all six of Austen’s completed novels, and was interested to see how this one would hold up. Although published posthumously it was actually the first one she completed, and bears many of the marks of juvenila — including a lot of pop-culture references that are now lost on us, and were probably already outdated by the time it was published fourteen years after completion.

At this early stage in her career, Austen felt the need to defend novels as a legitimate art-form: at the time they were seen as rather inferior reading, which is why Mr. Collins, when reading to the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice, reads from Fordyce’s Sermons rather than something with a story. Here is Austen, as intrusive narrator, telling us how her heroine Catherine Morland and her friend Isabella passed a rainy morning:

If a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

What about the actual story? Well, it’s slight. Catherine is a young and innocent girl whose first social interactions are at Bath. There she meets Isabella, who she thinks is a firm friend but really only finds Catherine amusing. Together, they visit Isabella’s home, Northanger Abbey, where Catherine develops an affection for Isabella’s brother Henry, and begins to suspect that their father, General Tilney, murdered his wife some years ago. It turns out that he did not. Henry, intially disgusted by Catherine’s suspicions, forgives her and proposes marriage. Exeunt, pursued by a bear.

It is a pleasant light read, but there is not much here to suggest the genius of Austen’s later and greater works. Definitely not the place to start for someone new to her books.

The Cuckoo’s Calling — Robert Galbraith

I’m re-reading the Strike novels partly as an accompaniment to watching the BBC TV adaptations. I’m struck again in reading this (and, spoiler alert, I will find the same with the later books in the series) by just what a compelling writing Rowling is. Complain all you want about occasionally lumpen prose and a tendency to lean to heavily on character idiosyncrasies, the one thing I find without fail when I pick up any of Rowling’s books is that I want to keep on and on reading till I reach the end. To me, that reflects more than mere craftsmanship — it’s greatness.

When We Were Very Young — A. A. Milne

Andrew Rilstone’s Tangled Up in Pooh left we wanting to re-read Milne’s children’s book and see if, at the age of 52, I could spot whatever it is that they’re doing, and which I missed as a child myself.  As part of the same process, I thought it would be honourable to read the two volumes of poetry for children that Milne also published, and this is the first of them.

It’s actually not bad for what it is. Obviously not really addressed to a 52-year-old man, but I admire the sheer craftsmanship of the poems. They rhyme and they scan and they make sense — and honestly, there are not many poems that you can honestly say all three of those things about.

The Silkworm — Robert Galbraith

See The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Winnie-the-Pooh — A. A. Milne

And so, having pushed through to the end of When We Were Very Young, I came to Winnie-the-Pooh himself. This is the first of two books containing ten short stories each. And there is no denying that they have a unique atmosphere. The illustrations by E. H. Shephard certainly contribute to that, having a sort of Calvin-and-Hobbes quality of implying that Pooh’s reality as a character may or may not be objectively real, or may just be in Christopher Robin’s head.

As for the prose: it does a clever thing, which is to write in an adult’s voice but from a child’s perspective. In the world of Winnie-the-Pooh, events follow on one from another with a certain inexorable quality, but there is little agency. What happens, happens because it’s time for that thing to happen (tea-time, bed-time, what have you) rather than because of choices that the childlike characters make. In fact the one character who does behave rather like an adult is the one actual child, Christopher Robin. All of this gives the stories a strangely passive, dreamlike quality which I imagine would be comfortingly familiar to young children and which appeals to a lot of adults.

But in the end, not enough actually happens to really hold me. I enjoyed all ten of the stories but without wishing that there were more of them, and with no great desire to go straight onto The House at Pooh Corner. The best children’s literature goes to deep places — even some stories written for very young children, like Mary Poppins and Peter Pan. I don’t feel that kind of ambition in Pooh: like the character, the books are content to float aimlessly along on the surface of things. That’s a pleasant way to spend half an hour every now and then, but not how I want to live.

The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year — Sue Townsend

This one was really interesting. I read it because I love Townsend’s series of Adrian Mole books, which start out as a sympathetic but funny portrait of a pretentious teenager and follow him into middle age through a string of dead-end jobs and decaying relationships. This one is about a woman whose husband is emotionally remote and whose twin children have left home for university, and who realises that she has no particular reason to get up the next morning. So she doesn’t; and doesn’t get up the next morning or the next.

I thought this would be a light-hearted piece, and it certainly starts out that way. But Townsend is too clever an author just to glide through on autopilot, and it gradually becomes apparent that the protagonist is transressing conventions not merely because she can, or to see what happens, but because she is suffering from a real and significant mental illness. We also gradually come see that she is, in her own way, just as self-centred and childish as her husband; and that the twins — coded as loveable outsiders — are also arrogant and thoughtless. What starts out whimsical slips effortlessly into something rather more profound and disturbing.

Part of what makes it work is Townsend’s distinctively unemotional style. As with the Adrian Mole books, she confines herself to telling us what happens, efficiently and undemonstratively. The cumulative effect of this approach is powerful: we find that we are feeling for ourselves the things that we are not being told to feel. Good stuff.

Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut

My understanding is that Slaugherhouse-Five is one of those books that pretty much every American high-school kid reads in English Literature class. If so, I am sort of jealous. It’s a properly fascinating book, and I’d have been deeply drawn into it had I read it at age sixteen … although I can’t help thinking it might be largely wasted on that age-group.

For those who, like myself, are not American, I will try (and fail) to summarise. Vonnegut’s novel is a highly fictionalised autobiography of his own experience of WWII, particularly the firebombing of Dresden, told from the first-person perspective of the unhinged and unreliable narrator Billy Pilgrim. Billy has come unstuck in time. He experiences his life out of order, seemingly at random: his wartime experiences, his subsequent career as an optometrist, his marriage to his boss’s daughter, an air crash and his eventual death at the hands of an assassin with a long-held grudge from the War. In among all this we also witness Billy’s experiences in the hands of the Tralfamadorians, an alien race who abduct him to be an exhibit in their zoo, and whose fatalist philosophy might just be what Billy wants to believe as the explanation for this own experiences and his own poor decisions.

Crucially, it’s left open whether we can take these experiences at face value, or whether the Tralfamadorian episodes are psychotic breaks, wish fulfillment, or even just the random flickerings of a dying consciousness. That makes it hard even to classify this book: is it science fiction? It depends on whether Tralfamadore is real.

Vonnegut’s prose is clean and efficient: while it is stylistically very different from Sue Townsend’s, it shares the quality of leaving you to figure out for yourself what you’re going to feel about the events, rather than laying it out for you. It works amazingly well, and even now, several months after reading the book, I’d be hard-pressed to summarise what I think of Billy Pilgrim. Pitiable or contemptible? I couldn’t say. What counts is that this is a book that has stayed with me, I might even say that has haunted me. I will most surely re-read it.

Persuasion — Jane Austen

Continuing my re-reading of Austen’s six canonical novels (in no particular order) I come to the last one she completed, and the one widely considered her most mature work (though it was completed only fourteen years after the rather juvenile Northanger Abbey). It also features the most mature heroine of any Austen novel, Anne Eliot having attained a positively ancient age of 27. (Compare with Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20; and even Elinor, the older of the two Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, is only 19!)

Unfortunately, “mature” here seems to mean “not much fun”; there is little of the spark here found in P&P or S&S, and Anne’s developed, adult character is lamentably passive. The substance of the plot is that, having been persuaded to reject Captain Wentworth at the age of 19, Anne is disturbed when he re-enters the neighbourhood nine years later as the brother of the new tenant of her childhood home. She hopes for a renewal of his interest, and … sort of waits around until it happens. That’s about it.

As always with Austen, the prose is a joy, and there are plenty of enjoyable character portraits and minor incidents along the way. But that’s not really enough to hold me. The bottom line is that there’s not really much about Anne to love, and that leaves me admiring Persuasion more than I enjoy it.

6 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 39

  1. As an American, I can tell you I was not introduced to Vonnegut in school. Instead, I discovered a handful of brittle, yellowing paperbacks (definitely Slaughterhouse-5, Mother Night, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House, perhaps others) in a box of hand-me-down books from my uncle. What a writer. I’m actually rather glad he wasn’t taught in school; it would have taken away from the subversive pleasure of encountering him in the wild.

  2. @nathanparker11: I think that’s true of Austen too. I tend to think that she should be barred from the GCSE curriculum because her canon is too small, and there’s a serious risk that someone forced to read, say, P&P at school wouldn’t touch anything else as a result. Even though she is clearly one of our greatest novelists.
    (Me, I think PG Wodehouse should be on the ‘compulsory’ list for schools. Not only is he endlessly funny, even for schoolkids, but every page reads like a masterclass of English use and abuse. One day, Terry Pratchett should be there too, for much the same reason, although he’s dangerously political.)

  3. Agreed on taking Austen out of the curriculum. I was maybe fourteen when I first encountered Pride and Prejudice and I hated it. Apart from anything, when reading around the class, all the momentum that gives it its lightheartedness is killed stone dead. I had to return to it as though to a blank slate, about a decade later, before I was able to appreciate it.

    But maybe that would be true of whatever kids were forced to study? I don’t think I could bear the idea of Wodehouse being similarly hobbled.

  4. What then, if anything, should be taught in school? It seems any book worth studying is subject to having the life drained from it by the act of studying it.

    Apparently the comic playwright Terence was a great favorite of Roman pedagogues because of his flawless grammar and masterful meter, even though as Caesar opined, he “lacked comic force.” Perhaps we should find similarly lame but meticulous works to subject our pupils to. Of course, then they’d be even more averse to reading than they are now…

  5. What then, if anything, should be taught in school? It seems any book worth studying is subject to having the life drained from it by the act of studying it.

    Yes, it’s a problem. I really don’t know what the answer is.

    Perhaps it comes down to the way literature is taught, or at least how it was taught in 1983 — we can hope things are a bit better now than they were 37 years ago. When I think about English lessons, the main memory I’m left with is the dreaded reading-around-the-class — a way of experiencing literature that is all but guaranteed to suck all the life out of it.

  6. Some of the A.A Milne poems are a bit twee; but some of them have a really clever rhythms and rhymes, considering he’s writing for kids. Reminds me of John Betjemen, in a funny way. “I think that’s him a coming now” / (anxiety bedewed his brow / He’ll bring one present any how…”

    Maybe you have to grow up with Winnie-the-Pooh too love them? You are absolutely right about the lack of agency. They are describing a state, rather than a sequence of events — a never ending summer — a kind of unfallen Paradise which Christopher Robin is going to be cast out from.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.