Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Why you should read the world’s longest novel

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)

Mr Norrell … stood on the lawn and stared up at stars he had never seen before. He did not feel as though he were inside a Pillar of Darkness in the middle of Yorkshire; he felt more as if the rest of the world had fallen away and he and Strange were left alone upon a solitary island or promontory. The idea distressed him a great deal less than one might have supposed. He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Simply the… biggest. Cool cover, huh?

Since How to Cure a Bibliomaniac ended I’m not blogging every book I read, but after the sheer length of time I spent reading this I felt it only right that I should receive a medal, I mean give it an entry.

I should probably acknowledge though that it is not quite the world’s longest novel. My now finely honed collection (one set of shelves! Woo! And, er, one crateful standing in front of it) still contains one longer, Isobelle Carmody’s doorstop The Stone Key which lords it over Clarke’s 800-odd page tone with a whopping 1000 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also nearly 800, though a shade shorter than Clarke’s.

I know I’m harping on about how long this is, but frankly, there was a (now) amusing period in which I was convinced that no matter how many 15-minute blocs I dedicated, it grew gleefully a few pages longer each night while I slept and kept me stuck interminably at 200 pages in. I kept dropping it with a thud on my knees and saying tragically to the Ministry of an evening, “THIS BOOK IS SO BLOODY LONG.” Not helpful was the limited time I had to give, maybe 15-30 minutes each night, so it sure did take a while to read.

OK, enough on the form, here is content.

It is 1806. The heyday of English magic is widely regarded as over. Several hundred years has passed since the time England’s magician King and his numerous magician subjects who mingled matter-of-factly with regular folk. The door between Faerie and England once lay wide open and English roads tangled with fairy roads leading to weird and sometimes terrifying places. Now magic has become an area of historical and theoretical study rather than a practical profession and any man who calls himself magician is in fact a theologian.

Imagine the surprise and delight of this theological society and of society at large when they uncover in the Yorkshire countryside one man who is truly a real live magician, with a spectacular library of rare and long-forgotten magical books, who proves his talents in spectacular fashion then travels to London to lay his gifts at the feet of the government and generally be adored. This is Gilbert Norrell and quickly he is famous.

But Norrell is also mean-spirited and possessive. He wants to be the only magician in England and he certainly doesn’t want to share his priceless library. With the help of his servants he tricks and bullies anyone else who might like to give magic a go into giving it up before they have fairly started, outsmarting them into signing contracts saying that they will cease and desist, even convincing the government to outlaw the hocus-pocus-sellers on the street corners and run them out of town. He does all this despite the knowledge none of them pose any sort of real competition.

But the younger, more charming and far more adventurous Jonathan Strange slips through the net and disarms him. Against all odds he becomes Norrell’s pupil. Together they serve the government in matters at home and abroad – Strange travels with the army in the Napoleonic wars for several years, moving the countryside about to confuse the enemy, creating illusions to frighten the other soldiers. They prove themselves indispensable to the government and the people. Norrell even lets Strange read one or two of his books and they get on all right for a while.

But Strange is a strong and opinionated pupil, wanting to throw wide open the doors between the ancient magical world and the modern one and summon all kinds of magic and magical creatures – not just the ones sanctioned by Norrell. Master and pupil, once friends and colleagues, become bitter enemies.

But when Norrell is tempted into an act of magic, an impressive but foolish and ignorant feat in an attempt to stop death snatching away love, he unleashes an evil that will have consequences for him, for Strange – for the whole of England and beyond.

You think I have gone on too long like a modern movie trailer and told you the whole story, so there’s no point shelling out $20 to go to the cinema. But in fact I have just outlined the introductory premise. You’re only a few hundred pages in. Ha! No spoilers here.

This is a thoroughly English book and I mean that in a most complimentary way. It is almost Dickensian, full of detail and a definite comedy of manners. It is, as I have mentioned, also set in the 1800s, featuring cameos from Lord Byron, Napoleon and Wellington, with much chronicling of earlier centuries through extensive footnoting.

Despite knowing it is fiction, my hatred of pre-1900s history discovered in high school and strengthened in university extends into historical fiction. So I find it a hard slog to read what feels like a history, no matter how convincingly and deliberately this format is used, when I have been banking on straight fantasy. I have to force myself to read the footnotes despite an abominable temptation to skip them and in some cases my reading of them is shamefully close to skimming. But I read them all and so should you. You’ll need them.

To be brutally honest, and I concede this could be the hater in me talking, I think this novel need not go quite so far into the Napoleonic wars as involving Jonathan Strange. It feels somewhat like a sidebar, one that just goes for too long. You could probably cut out a good 200 pages and make them a spin-off novel, which makes me sound terribly Grinchy. In fairness, perhaps someone who likes historical fiction and has more than 15 minutes a night up their sleeve will probably lap it up. Perhaps the book is to be applauded for keeping someone like me involved enough to keep going in the first place.

But wait! What light through yonder window breaks? About halfway through, on a rainy weekend day I am able to settle in for a few hours, I begin to appreciate the fullness of the portraits of Norrell and Strange, and the depth of the tale, so tightly packed with asides and footnotes and backgrounders, now slowly unfurling, its darkness gathering.

And it bewitches me. The central trunk supporting its many branches, many leaves, is a story of love and risk, of an otherworldly danger that lies in wait for people to stumble into its trap – and pay the ultimate price. As widely as the net is cast across the real world and the magical one always just beneath, it is this central story, this central danger that finally gives it urgency, a sense of what is at stake.

Quite after I have stopped expecting it, compulsion floods in. At last I feel that glorious feeling, the one I live for, of being glued to a lovely fat novel.

This is a truly outstanding book, the more so because it is Clarke’s first – according to Wikipedia she took 10 years to write it and this surprises me not a whit. It nearly took me 10 to read it. (only kidding, I’ll stop).

Approaching the end I am savouring each page, gleefully anticipating each twist, acknowledging that every little note sounded, every scene drawn has had its place as this violent and utterly fantastic adventure hurtles to its conclusion.

“Closing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell after 800 pages, my only regret was that it wasn’t twice the length,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his review.

A bit masochistic of him, perhaps, but I think we all get the point now. Go read it.

Postscript: oooooh. Have just seen this has been made THIS year into a BBC miniseries with an IMDB rating of 8.4. I knew I was right to read this book 11 years after its publication… 

Blithe Spirit (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, 2015)

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

In Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Ruth and Charles Condomine invite their friends, along with local kook Madame Arcati to an all-in-good-fun seance. But the fun soon fades for the couple when the seance leads to the mistaken calling-forth of the spirit of Charles’ dead first wife, Elvira, much to his and Ruth’s horror.

I have loved this supremely funny farce since first performing monologues from it as a teenager doing Trinity College Speech exams.

Later I saw it in the fabulous movie version starring the indomitable Margaret Rutherford as scatty but enthusiastic medium Madame Arcati, and loved that too, so much so that I made the Ministry watch it a few years ago.

Most recently I saw a stage version Roleystone community theatre performed perhaps just two years ago, to which I dragged the Ministry in an effort to show him both why I like community theatre (not just for the free cream sherry starters) and enjoyed myself immensely.

While I have liked previous contemporary works by Black Swan – last year’s Gasp! for example – I do think the company shines brightest when it goes traditional. So when I heard it was doing my old favourite I knew that, given my recent viewing history of the play it was complete overkill to attend, but nevertheless absolutely necessary.

I got the news on the day of the preview that the actress playing Madame Arcati – not the biggest role of the play but arguably the show-stealer – Roz Hammond, had fallen ill and had had to withdraw from the season, I greeted the news with mingled worry that my guest, The Tutor, who I had been sure would share my enthusiasm for this play, might not see it at its best.

Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler appeared before curtain-up to tell her replacement Alison van Reeken, who had played to acclaim in the recent season of Dinner, had been called upon just that day to play the role and would do so bravely, script in hand, on the strength of a single run-through that morning.

Despite my trepidation I was very much inclined, as I’m sure the rest of the audience was, to show goodwill to anyone with the balls to get up and star in a production at the drop of a hat and joined in the warm applause at her appearance.

Well, by golly. As I told the Ministry that night when I appeared at home deliriously sleepy after staying up two hours past my regular bedtime (I know, it’s pathetic) anyone who thinks acting is a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession should have seen what van Reeken stumped up.

She used the script as she had to, but she did so fluidly and with amazingly little reliance on it. She made it part of her movement (and Madame Arcati is a very physical role, so this was no small achievement.) She used the stage space without a single stumble that I could see, and of course we were all looking for one.

Physically she was about as far as you could get from the Madame Arcati of my imagination, who behaves firmly like a stout middle-aged crazy auntie (we’ve all got one) so it was a shock to the system to see her played by a slender young blonde. But this fine-boned woman had a big stage presence and my suspicions faded quickly.

I was honestly so impressed by van Reeken’s self-possession, professionalism and general aplomb that it was an inspiration to see her in action.

Her performance was all the more impressive in such a dialogue-heavy play. This play has a relatively basic set and as Coward fans will understand, the rapid-fire comedic dialogue is everything. If that fails you got Buckley’s. And it didn’t fail.

With this in mind, credit must also go to the other actors who supported van Reeken so strongly in her every scene, particularly the roguish Charles (Adam Booth) who loves both his wives (but perhaps not quite as devotedly as all that, as he himself confesses) and snappish but pitiable Ruth (Adriane Daff) as well as peevish and excitable Elvira (Jo Morris), who wreaks such merry havoc upon their once-contented marriage.

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth, onstage for virtually the entire 2.5-hour play, never miss a beat despite the phenomenal amount of dialogue they have. The speed and skill and timing of their repartee is flawless. Despite the entire cast looking rather younger than I would generally expect (it is traditionally a middle-aged sort of crowd whereas none of these characters, apart from one, looked much over thirty) they were all so on-beat that I eventually forgot the characters I imagined and started appreciating the ones in front of me.

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

My favourite was probably Ruth, whose keyed-up speeches (screeches?) made me laugh, but simultaneously grimace in solidarity with her. The Tutor loved Charles and a special nod must go the maid Edith (Ella Hetherington), whose exaggerated mincing about the stage had perfect comic timing.

I made particular note of the beautiful use of lighting, which managed to produce the effects of all times of night and day with uncanny authenticity. At one stage I could have sworn I was myself sitting at a sunlit breakfast table on a crisp English morning.

Don’t let the change of cast put you off. If you love a good English comedy of manners then it would be a sin not to take yourself off to this one. Alison van Reeken will probably have learned her lines and written a novel and baked a cake by the time you’ve booked your ticket if what she managed in one day is anything to go by.

But do watch Margaret Rutherford in the movie as well – afterwards, of course.

I got review tickets for this, I should mention, but my appreciation is genuine.

Blithe Spirit runs until August 9.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 13: The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)

Books left: 13. Weeks left: 21 (not ideal)

I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy.

Iris Murdoch - The Sea, the Sea

 

Celebrated theatre director Charles Arrowby abandons his glittering London life and glamorous friends to retire in obscurity in an English country coastal town with the intention to write his memoirs and live a simple life.

But the sudden appearance of an old love – not to mention an increasingly perplexing stream of visitors – threatens the peace he thought he found.

The story begins with happy meandering about his new life, which revolves around swimming, pottering about, observing the local flora and eating.

Many passages are devoted to food (resulting in some of the most amusing culinary quotes I have seen, which though too long for this forum would be spoiled by cutting) and to Charles’ new, spartan surroundings, for instance

… A large remarkably hideous green vase, with a thick neck and a scalloped rim and pink roses blistering its bulging sides.  I have become very attached to this gross object.

Compared to all of this, the story of how and why he came to be in this lonely seaside shack is at first cursory and almost entirely enveloped by his meditations, quite besides the food and the decor, on the sea in all its moods.

It is evening. The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.

Later:

The sea is a choppy dark blue-grey, an aggressive and unpleasant colour. The seagulls are holding a wake. The house feels damp.

But the sea is not as calm and benevolent as it seems, and neither is he. Each have horrors lurking beneath the surface and the turn events quickly take is all the more startling because of the book’s gentle beginning; they plunge suddenly into a madness that have me reading with eyes wide and toes curled, filled with shock over each successive twist.

Charles is revealed as an obsessed anti-hero, and his view of people as possessions becomes more and more sinister with each turn of the page.

The demon of jealousy befouled the past and left my mind no place to rest. Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it discolours the world.

Yet I want for Charles what he does for himself, identifying with him against my will as happens similarly with Nabokov’s nastily compelling predator in Lolita. I am nervous throughout, seeing him hover on the brink of some unnamed disaster. At one point, flabbergasted by what I am now getting into when I thought I had been reading a nice pretty novel about the ocean, I actually shake the book and shout at Charles, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

This rather alarms the Ministry, sitting next to me at the time.

Despite my disgust, I am held in thrall and beside myself with suspense over how it could all possibly end – though it is clear at least that it’s not, at any rate, going to end well.

I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be.

As it turns out the book ends not with a bang but with a whisper, like the sea settling after a storm, and I race through its 25-page denouement with fascination and not a shred of doubt that Murdoch richly deserved the Booker Prize the work won her.

Its magisterial use of language and the awful fatality in its relentless description of a great, impossible love reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; but equally it is its own story, not to be diminished by likening, and I daresay overall a more enjoyable read than the tale of poor doomed Gatsby.

Keep or kill? Look, it’s probably obvious that I’m keeping it, BUT, look at all the M-author sacrifices I’m making instead, in order to appease the vengeful gods! These are good ones, too, and I won’t deny that there’s a little twinge of reluctance. Sometimes I feel a bit like Smaug, sitting on his pile of gold, that he’s not going to use, but doesn’t want anyone else to touch.

Pile of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrew McGahan, Toni Morrison and Andrei Makine.

Check my gumption.

Curious about The Curing of a Bibliomaniac? Click here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 1: The Plague Dogs (Richard Adams, 1977)

 

Intriguing, no?

Intriguing, no?

Books read: 1/26. Weeks remaining: 51 

I originally picked this book up because it was by Richard Adams of Watership Down fame, though I haven’t read Watership Down. I got it out to read now because Adams was on my mind after I’d seen another book of his, Shardik, referenced in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

I’ll save my rant about The Dark Tower for another time.

The Plague Dogs, with its simple blurb, looked intriguing.

Ahhh, you got me, I want to know more.

Ahhh, you got me, I want to know more.

 

 

 

How could you go wrong with a sinister thriller about escaped “plague dogs”? And what are “plague dogs”?

 

 

The novel begins with their break-out. Rowf is terrified of water after numerous experiments involving him being half-drowned in a tank, and Snitter is good-humoured and trusting, but suffers bouts of insanity after being subjected to experimental brain surgery.

As they turn to killing sheep for food, the situation gets out of control: life in the town is turned upside down, the facility they have come from begins to get unwelcome government scrutiny and the newspapers, smelling blood, inevitably get involved.

The world of men, politics and the media is depicted with droll, savagely sarcastic humour (the facility they escape from is acronym-ed ARSE), while the parts describing the dogs’ journey and struggle for survival are rendered in exquisite, lilting prose that frequently veers into actual poetry.

Leaves and branches flying by; helicopter in the sky. Airborne soldiers on the lea; plague dogs riding to the sea. Redwings, fieldfares, cows and sheep; should we cheer, d’you think, or weep? Plague dogs all the way from A.R.S.E., riding down to Ravenglass. What’s that car so black, sedate? That’s the Secretary of State, him as sealed the plague dogs’ fate. Wheel and piston, steam and tank, autumn oak-leaves in the bank, chuff chuff chuff and clank clank clank. 

Snitter’s periodic drops into madness are particularly impressive – weird and clever. I wanted to read all of his dialogue out loud to the Ministry (though restrained myself).

I tired of the descriptive passages, though, in the same way I did when I was a kid and tackling books a little too old for me. This was undeniably good writing, but dated and the language is very old-fashioned and very English, making it a hard slog at times.

I was just starting to feel despair that I would never get through this deceptively slim book (a dense 460+ gossamer-thin pages filled with cramped type) when, entirely unexpectedly it ramped up for a suspenseful, compelling and emotional ending.

Thank goodness for that, too.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone except those of a hardcore literary bent. A page-turner it is not. What I would do, however, is try to get hold of Shardik and Watership Down; I don’t doubt that these are his better known works for a reason.

Verdict: passing it on. To make space for one day owning Shardik and Watership Down one day (can you really ever cure a bibliomaniac…?)

More on my The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here