When David Foster Wallace hanged himself this September, Dave Eggers’s internet magazine McSweeney’s temporarily dedicated itself to his memory. Writers contributed their thoughts, Zadie Smith saying “he was my favourite. I didn’t feel he had an equal amongst living writers”. Hers was a conspicuous tribute because it was one of very few to come from the UK, where Wallace’s suicide raised only a muted response. The Guardian for instance relegated Wallace to its smallest obit column, and the next day’s The Times failed to publish an obituary at all, although the Guardian Review did make Wallace the subject of its next issue.
Lucky then, that the US’s collective intake of breath at the death of its most brilliant son was loud enough for all of us. Wallace has written journalism, essays, and short stories for most of the U.S.’s major media – glossy, indie, and high-brow – and was just short of being a household name. For his charming and erudite non-fiction he found favour with the casual reader, but the critics and academics loved Wallace too for his frenzied and cerebral fiction. Even before his death he was placed irrefutably with the post-modern greats, completing a constellation of Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth, etc. His novels The Broom of the System (1987) and Infinite Jest (1996) are models of the genre.
The essence of Wallace’s post-modernist method is outlined in his 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, his proto-stance on irony in television and literature. Wallace’s thesis is, put briefly, that televisual culture ironically celebrates its own pointlessness and narcissism, which allows it to anticipate and incorporate the criticism of others. By mocking itself, television flatters the ‘sophisticated’ viewer, invites her to join in the mockery, and nullifies their scorn.
Irony has long been used as a subversive tool by American writers, but Wallace wonders what routes writers have left to take when faced with a pop-culture that is now familiar with irony and the aesthetic of rebellion. He suggests after a lot of hand-wringing that: ‘The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching… who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction.’
This piece of counter-intuition is vital to Wallace’s work. Although he advocates it here, he never really ‘backs away’ from irony and scepticism in his work. Instead he navigates through that labyrinth leaving, like Theseus, a tether tied to the real world outside – to ‘plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions’.
As a result of this, all Wallace’s writing occupies that point of tension between intellectualism and irony on the one hand, and naiveté and sentimentalism on the other. The Broom of the System for instance acts fairly transparently as an exercise in applied Wittgensteinian philosophy, but is traced forever back to the main character’s visceral anxiety at feeling alienated by that philosopher’s world-view. Infinite Jest, at 1,000 pages long and with another 100 pages of footnotes, is so easily disregarded as a metafictional Big American Novel, which it is; but Wallace has said that he wanted it in essence to be “about sadness”. And Consider the Lobster, an essay about a visit to the Maine lobster festival, explores the ethics of ‘boiling alive a sentient creature for our gustatory pleasure’ with a puppyish enthusiasm and humour that veil a rigorous methodological analysis (Wallace is a philosopher by training).
But Wallace’s fastidious concern with what it is like to be human and have feelings in a post-modern world is just on of the themes his work rests on. He was also preoccupied by ideas about self-consciousness, addiction, logic, language, commercialism and marketing, mathematics (A Brief History of Infinity), and tennis (Roger Federer as a Religious Experience or Tennis Player Michael Joyce…).
Personally, I was shaken when I found out that Wallace had killed himself. I had interpreted his work as a convincing argument against depression, inertia and parochialism, so when I found out he had hanged himself I figured he had given in to at least one of these things. I bring this up to illustrate what I think is the essential thing about Wallace: that although he had impeccable intellectual credentials and was seen by critics as the standard-bearer for postmodern American fiction, his writing also had a friendly and personal quality that was almost like being empathised with. If you want to make a start, his most accessible writing is his essays and journalism, collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider The Lobster.
The definition of Catch-22 is simple enough. In a military base on the island of Pianosa, anyone who is crazy and asks to be grounded is clearly feigning madness in order to avoid combat. Thus Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel traps Yossarian, his protagonist, in an inescapable situation, surrounded by legitimate lunatics and questioning his own sanity. An ever increasing list of ridiculous predicaments eventually turns sour, as each blunder builds to the next before all hope collapses like a house of cards. The ineptitude of war is finally revealed in all its disturbing and horrifying truth.
Yet the novel is genuinely funny, as the slapstick actions of the characters and the preposterous nature of each unfolding situation jars with Yossarian’s sense of self preservation. From the off we are presented with confusion. The hunt for Washington Irving, a phantom letter censor we know to be Yossarian, places CID men undercover to catch him even when everyone know who they are. Major Major Major Major is introduced, a man whose unfortunate name prevents him from being either promoted or demoted. Major ––– De Coverly is so feared and respected no-one has asked his first name. Milo Minderbinder is revealed to be not only the company mess officer, but also the leader of a syndicate stretching across the Mediterranean who holds political office in every town and country he trades with. Each revelation at this point is hilarious, as Yossarian’s every attempt at understanding his situation is thwarted by the stream of incompetence.
Yossarian’s fear of death increases as he is made to fly more and more missions, as Colonel Cathcart continually raises the quota to be flown by each airman. Th ings take a darker turn as of each of these early situations sets in motion awful consequences for the myriad characters. Milo uses the planes he has requisitioned in combat actions both for and against the Germans as his prices undercut the military. The end result is that he bombs his own base. Again, ridiculous, but this only strengthens the threat that the previously innocent foolishness is becoming dangerous.
A simple mix-up has devastating consequences for Doc Daneeka, when he is declared dead and his wife is informed. Despite standing before his superiors, alive and well, the fact that his name is on the manifest of a plane shot down in action means his death is incontrovertible fact, and his wife is told to disregard his letters declaring the opposite. She collects his pension and life insurance and moves away, whilst Doc Daneeka is left haggard and ostracized by the other men, a walking corpse. Yet Heller’s humour stops this from becoming too Kafkaesque, as Mrs Daneeka receives one of Colonel Cathcart’s sincere apologies, which are really unbelievably insincere, for her husband’s death.
This is the way that Catch-22 works. Punch lines for jokes come so much later that you had forgotten they were set up. The novel is not chronological either, dealing in flash backs and forwards and repetitions, so the sense of confusion is written into the plot itself. The myriad characters appear at different points, having many relationships with many other characters, until it becomes difficult to say who has done what to whom. Yossarian’s changing state of mind after cradling the dying Snowden is clear from the beginning, but it is not until the graphic description of his death near the end that we look over his previous actions in a new light.
The tone of the end of the novel is grimmest, as other unforeseen events become similarly disturbing. Kid Sampson’s gory death by propeller is one of the darkest moments, but even this pales in comparison to Yossarian’s vision of Rome. The safe haven for the airmen during their rest leave is transformed into a place of darkness and evil. It is as if Yossarian’s increasingly bleak view of the world has appeared in reality one thousand times worse than even he imagined. With the murder of a prostitute by defenestration the truth hits us as hard as she hits the ground.
The ridiculous episodes throughout the novel have been playing not only with humour, but with these character’s fragile emotions. Heller’s Catch-22 is not simply an example of admitting defeat to bureaucracy, it is a system that illustrates the horrific consequences of taking ineptitude lightly, as we have done as we have read. We have been deceived. The farcical nature of war may be amusing, but it is still war. Yossarian’s final plan of escaping to Sweden is Heller’s ridiculous solution to a ridiculous problem: the machinations of war have become so absurdly ingrained that the only way out is to be equally absurd.
On stage in York this Remembrance Weekend, then touring the UK from there, was Mark Payton’s Rupert Brooke. The play follows the soldier-poet through the turn of the century in Britain and into the throes of the First World War. It is a moving and fascinating story which resonates straight through the last century and into our own.
But to what exactly do we owe this resonation? From Brooke’s yearning to be ‘forever England’ to John Freeman’s ‘Happy is England Now’, and from John McCrae’s poppies ‘between the crosses, row on row’ to Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘blood red’ ones, the images from the Great War echo through history like still distant cannon fire. The literature that this war produced remains at the forefront of both our minds and our heritage.
Perhaps it is simply the case that, upon discovering the voices of this war, we too feel as if our feet have ‘come to the end of the world’, as Owen put it. The First World War, with forty million casualties, has entered our psyche as an unrivalled and unjustified massacre; a world-changing and life-destroying scar on the face of our history, made worse only by its conclusion, which led to world war once again in 1939.
Despite the profound effect this literature has had on our modern world, it is certainly the case that our perspective was not necessarily the contemporary one. In 1924, poet and Minister of Information Henry Newbolt wrote: ‘I don’t think these shell-shocked war poems will move our grandchildren greatly – there’s nothing fundamental or final about them’.
Though initially unclear why Newbolt proved to be so wrong, it could actually have a lot to do with the fact that there is ‘nothing fundamental or final about them’. Though some of the imagery is unique to the Great War, much of the sentiment is as relevant today as it ever has been. Love stories, horror stories, the last series of Blackadder – none are so powerful as when they are set against the backdrop of the ‘menacing scarred slopes’ of the Front. After all, as Owen wrote in his preface, ‘the poetry is in the pity’, and there is little more worthy of pity than some of the stories of the Great War.
The effect of the war on the literature of the era – the effect of the literature on the readers’ attitudes to war – is also particularly striking. The fact that the progression of the conflict can be followed through developments in the poetry makes an interesting dichotomy of love and war. With the Battle of the Somme, 1916, arguably the greatest catalyst in changing the course of the poetry, the latter years were certainly a far cry from the days of Brooke’s The Soldier. As life became more bleak, disjointed and bloody, so too did the art inspired by it. Similarly, as feelings both on the Front and at home began to shift dramatically from the blind and furious Nationalism that rang through the air of 1914, this too became more common to the poetry. The war would not be over by Christmas – not in 1914, nor for many years to come – and the poets on the Front were just coming to realise it.
The First World War signifies one of the greatest shared losses of our time, and though it ended ninety years ago, we still carry it with us in our ways of writing as much as that which we write about, in the echoes of war and brotherhood in the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, and in the sound of change falling in collection tins around November time.
It is certainly no paradox that so much of the writing of the Great War was about love. Though love shone ‘tremulous, like a drowning star, under the shadow of the wings of war’ (‘Under the Shadow’ by Edith Nesbit) it didn’t drown – if anything, the horrors of war made it shine all the brighter.
The stories that we are forever drawn to are rarely ones solely about the horrors of war. These are, more often than not, simply contextual, the backdrop to the love we are falling for, time and time again. The striking thing about the literature of the Great War – even that of Hill, Larkin, Vernon Scannell, who were writing years after, with no firsthand experience of their own – is that even what’s invented is to every extent also true. Strange Meeting’s John Hilliard may never have fought on the Front, may never have lost David Barton, nor loved him – but someone did. There is a sense, jagged like a German trench, that these men gave their lives less than a century ago for what Susan Hill in her afterword describes as ‘a war perhaps more futile and meaningless than any other in history’.
Though Owen’s subject was forever ‘the pity of war’, and love and brotherhood only by-products, it is this that we cling to. As Hill wrote, ‘more than anything, it is about human love’.
There are many dreams in this world, yet none seem to be more renowned, or more sought after than the American Dream. Nevertheless, with its many interpretations, and its diversity of results in those which acheive it, I find myself asking; what is the definition of the American Dream? Historian and Writer James Truslow Adams once coined the phrase, in his novel Epic of America in 1931: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Using Arthur Miller’s play Death of A Salesman, I will attempt to deconstruct how this dream, particularly when driven by financial aspirations, can often turn on those who do not and perhaps cannot succeed. Miller’s protagonist, Willy Loman, embodies this failure. He is a salesman, no longer able to earn a living, and receives only a small commission. The only way Willy can live with himself is to create an emotional buffer, a world of illusion, in which his financial security, and position in society are embellished, and made real only by his own fantasy and not concrete reality. Miller’s tragic drama is a probing portrait of the typical American psyche portraying an extreme craving for success and superior status in a world otherwise fruitless.
Willy Loman immerses himself and his family in a false sense of reality. His sons Biff and Happy are in their mid thirties, and have still never really “made it”. Biff works on a ranch as a helper, earning $35 a week, whereas Happy is an assistant, to an assistant buyer in a local department store. Slowly, Miller reveals to his audience the most common misconceptions made about the American Dream. Willy’s interpretation of the American Dream led him to believe that likeability is equal to success. We understand this to be a man on the verge of senility – potentially losing his mind. The following quote is taken from a discussion he has with himself as he becomes more and more engrossed with the reminiscences of Biff’s popularity at school: ‘Remember how they used to follow him around in high school? When he smiled at one of them their faces lit up.’ His sons lack of financial achievement leads his tired mind to conjure a time where he felt his idea of success – popularity – was being achieved.
Miller wanted his play to carry an ominous quality; opening and closing with the word “death”. Within the first act, Linda Loman, Willy’s devoted wife, warns her sons that she found “a rubber hose behind the fuse box and a new nipple by the water heater’s gas pipe.” The allusion to Willy’s suicide becomes an increasing possibility, as the plot unfolds. It becomes more apparent that not only is Willy not making any money, but he also has to borrow a weekly sum of 50 dollars from his next-door neighbour Charlie, just to get by. His lack of any ‘real’ matter to his capital surroundings and the sales business cause him to loose a sense of self: ‘I don’t remember the last 5 minutes. I’m – I can’t seem to keep my mind to it.’ His behaviour signifies a sub-conscious acknowledgement of his failure, and death is the only solution. Willy’s fixation with being remembered and being ‘well-liked’, is shrewdly translated by Miller into a need to leave behind a proof of existence, manifested in Willy’s desire to plant seeds. Before Willy commits suicide he is seen; frantically trying to buy something to plant (‘Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.’). Miller shows the audience, how within a capitalist cog, personal identity can be lost. The seeds symbolize Willy’s failure in other ways as well. The fact that Willy uses gardening as a metaphor for success and failure indicates that he subconsciously acknowledges that his chosen profession is a poor choice, given his natural inclinations. If he will never leave behind a reputation, or money, then there must be some form of life to show that he existed.
Miller charges America with selling a false myth constructed around a capitalist materialism nurtured by the post-war economy, a materialism that obscured the personal truth and moral vision of the original American Dream described by the country’s founders. Its indictment of fundamental American values and the American Dream of material success may seem somewhat tame in today’s age of constant national and individual self-analysis and criticism, but its challenge was quite radical for its time. The intimacy and the realism of this disturbed American home questions whether the American Dream is something we should be striving for?
The British Library has recently released a collection of audio recordings containing illuminating extracts of English literary voices. The Spoken Word: British Writers includes a number of writers in a variety of contexts: there is Aldous Huxley talking about threats to the running of a free society, Arthur Conan Doyle speaking wildly on spiritualism and telepathy and Anthony Burgess condemning England as “the most philistine country”.
The recordings provide a rare and fascinating insight into recent literary history. However, the new light that these recordings casts exposes the speakers in an awkward and altering colour. It provokes the question of the usefulness of such recordings: to what extent should they shape our interpretations of the writer’s work?
The extracts – mainly from pre-recorded radio programmes – expose the complexity and tapestry of the writer’s own character. This can feel surprising, an incongruity akin to bumping into a teacher outside of school for the first time. The closest we have come to these authors is the breath with which they fill the black words on the white page. When reading we wring out each word for all the drops of significance it could possibly contain. Every writer carefully sculpts their words and, as a result, we believe that their effort and attention transfers elements of their character onto the page. Consequently, when we are faced with the crackly and largely unrehearsed recordings, we still expect the character and sculpture of their words to be continued. But at times the magic that previously surrounded them is diluted by the reality of their personality. When we construct these images and interpretations from our reading, is it really important to have the author’s intentions or their everyday prejudices made explicit through hearing them speak? Should Pinter’s vehement refusal of a ‘Pinter play’ as a sub-genre affect the critical and interpretive approach to his work? Can we continue to see a Christian allegory in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings despite his assertion that “I dislike allegory whenever I smell it”? As a result, it produces the question of how much involvement a writer should have in their work after it has been received by the public. A discussion on the piece can make the themes and intentions clear, but it is still accepted that one of the most important aspects of literature is its openness to interpretation.
However, writers’ voices take on a new significance when reading their own work: Sylvi a Plath imbues her poems with a provocative and haunting appeal, as do T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Siegfried Sassoon. The carefully considered words of a poem specifically belong to the poet’s voice and when spoken, they adopt the emotion and intentions from which they were originally born. This, I think, is not just the case with poetry, but is true of all writing: hearing an authorial reading of a text can invigorate it with a life which is unexplored when words are simply flat on the page.
Hearing the sometimes grumbled, but always gently refined, words of the writers enables us to gain a contextual appreciation of their work. Ultimately, a piece of literature is a product of a specific time in history as well as being produced by the various complexities of character in the writers. Handled carefully, a writer’s voice and thoughts undoubtedly benefit our understanding. But just be wary of meeting of your heroes.
Louis de Bernières’ novel Birds Without Wings is somewhat unfairly eclipsed by his earlier bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, written ten years earlier. Both are set in the Mediterranean during the First and Second World Wars respectively; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is renowned for its exploration into the effects of the war upon ordinary people. Arguably, de Bernières continues along these lines of thought in Birds Without Wings. The story revolves as much around the destruction of a community and the horrors of war as it does around the relationship between the doomed Philothei and Ibrahim.
Looking back on a turning point in not only local but world history, the main narrator Iskander recounts the harrowing events that unfolded as nationalism arrived in the small, close-knit community, whose Christian and Muslim inhabitants: ‘were very much mixed up and, apart from the rantings of a few hotheads whose bellies were filled with raki and the Devil, […] lived together in sufficient harmony.’ He is aided by frequent interjections from the other characters ncluding the childish voice of the lovely Philothei, and the now elderly Drosula, her childhood friend who was exiled to Greece with the rest of the Christians.
Intermingled are puzzling narratives that might be third person, yet might still be Iskander, such as those tracing the life of Mustafa Kemal (‘Atatürk’), real-life liberator of the Turks. This varied and whimsical narrative style aids a touching delivery of the former life and peace that is ripped apart by the advent of nationalism and religious division. The humorous tone often provides a remedy that balances the horrors of war and persecution as they are rendered in striking realism.
De Bernières’ choice of retrospective viewpoint adds to the quirky feel created by the narration. In the beginning we know that Philothei is dead, Ibrahim is mad, that the Christians have been exiled and blood shed, just as historically we already know the outcome of the Gallipoli campaign, the First World War and the future role of Mustafa Kemal. Oddly, such knowledge actually acts to compel a reader to continue, tempting them to experience the humour and tragedy of the lives explored.
By divulging such information at the beginning of the tale, de Bernières turns our attention more closely to the human struggles not just derived from war and nationalism but from relationships, religion and love. Most poignant is that of the failing arranged marriage of the kindly Rustem Bey, who yearns for a relationship where love is real rather than from a sense of duty, painfully aware of such a love existing between his new wife and her cousin. Yet, in de Bernières’ world, neither spouse can be considered the villain – he skilfully offers a rounded view of the torment they have experienced and that yet to come – laying the blame, as Rustem does, upon the society in which they exist.
De Bernières’ attempts at objectivity continue throughout the novel, creating characters that are deep and enchanting. When woven into the intoxicating beauty and intensity of his descriptions and language they come to life, making the sadness at what has been lost and the pathos of what is created even more compelling. He offers a telling viewpoint on the dangers of nationalism and religious segregation which are especially resonant for today’s reader.
Behind the flying veils and ominous burquas of Afghanistan lies the unrelenting strength of Khaled Hosseini’s women. These women may appear submissive and insignificant on the surface yet their suffering is both colossal and smouldering. Their inner strength is pervasive, a characteristic of their heritage and ancestry. Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, tells the story of women’s struggle during growing political unrest, culminating in the Taliban occupation which ravaged Afgahistan. He captures female characteristics with both astounding compassion and accuracy.
Hosseini’s narrative perspective oscillates between his two female protagonists: Mariam and Laila. Nevertheless, it is Mariam’s mother, Nana, who launches the main themes in the narrative: sacrifice, isolation, love and death. Mothers are portrayed as the original image of sacrifice and the novel begins with Nana who is depicted as ageing and embittered. Due to the strict religious principles embedded in Islamic tradition, Nana lives in complete isolation from the rest of society as she is the mother of an illegitimate child (a harami) named Mariam: ‘Nana meant, that a harami was an unwanted thing; that she, Mariam…would never have a legitimate claim to the things other people had…such as love family, home, acceptance.’ The visual and aural image Hosseini creates when describing Nana’s ‘limp’, ‘rotten tooth’ and harshly spoken words stirs little empathy within the reader. However, what we fail to initially understand is that Nana’s need for her daughter is absolute. Her decision to give birth to an illegitimate child, knowing what the consequences would be, acts as the ultimate sacrifice. She condemns herself to a life of solitary confinement in the hopes of giving her child a new future, one with the prospect of hope. Hosseini uses sacrifice as a recurring motif, but more significantly as a torch which Afghani women pass from generation to generation.
The patriarchal society of certain Islamic countries promotes such isolation and permits control over women. Once Mariam becomes fifteen, and is required to marry a shoemaker from the distant city of Kabul called Rasheed, Hosseini begins to show an isolated future for Mariam, like that of her mother’s. The first symbolic expression of confinement is the burqua (religious dress which covers a woman’s entire body and face). ‘He fished a sky blue burqua from the bag. The yards of pleated cloth spilled over his knees when he lifted it.’ From a Western perspective, our instinctive reaction may be one of disapproval. We begin to see the callous control of the husband being imposed on his wife. Nonetheless, Hosseini unveils a more positive side to this taboo tradition: ‘It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers.’ The desired anonymity and subsequent feeling of safety it instills in Mariam, at a time of randomly targeted street violence, allows us a more accepting outlook on this controversial religious dress.
Hosseini suggests that love is the uniting force which holds people together. He describes different kinds of love through his other female protagonist, Laila. Hosseini uses her character to explore romantic love, the pure affection of an infant child, and ultimately, a sisterly bond. Born and raised in Kabul, Laila falls in love with her childhood friend Tariq. What begins as an inseparable bond between children inevitably became one of deep intimacy and passion during their adolescence. Hosseini captures the growing sexual tension between them with dramatic sensory language: ‘So she let him kiss her…heart pounding in her throat, her face tingling, a fire burning in the pit of her belly.’ Due to the growing political unrest the two lovers are forced to separate. This leads to a final moment of ultimate sin as they consummate out of wedlock, leaving Laila in emotional agony and with child, a daughter Aziza: ‘She listened to his uneven footsteps, until all was quiet save for the gunfire cracking and her own heart thudding in her belly, her eyes, her bones.’ The pain of Tariq leaving seeps into every inch of her body, plaguing her. Hosseini’s remarkable understanding of the female psyche allows his writing to be both accurate and incredibly poignant, transporting the reader to an emotional place where what he describes becomes real for both the character and reader.
The development of an unlikely bond into an indestructible love, like one between sisters, is also explored by Hosseini. As the Taliban’s hold grips the land, Laila is left alone without her family and Tariq. Recognising her vulnerability, Mariam’s husband Rasheed conceals Tariq’s improbable escape and survival in order to acquire Laila as a second wife who is younger, more beautiful and fertile. Hosseini tragically juxtaposes the image of her once-perfect life, which is shattered by death, destruction, abandonement, with her marriage to this brutal man. Between Mariam and Laila, a complicity begins to form, triggered by baby Aziza’s birth and the infant’s wholehearted embrace of Mariam. Hosseini intimately understands the great love that can bind two friends as sisters, united by their great sorrows and the precious bond with an adored baby.
The ultimate sacrifice is always paid for with one’s life and, inevitably, love and sacrifice are inextricably linked. Hosseini ties the first and last strings of his novel together beautifully. When Rasheed correctly suspects Aziza to be Tariq’s child and not his, he brutally attacks Laila in a fit of fury. In Laila’s defense, Mariam delivers him a fatal blow. This simple murder spares her friend’s life and grants her a future and a chance at happiness. The definitive act of selflessness comes when Mariam voluntarily gives herself up to the Taliban authorities with courage, dignity and serenity. Just like her mother, love leads her to sacrifice. One of the most haunting yet heroic images is that of Miriam walking to her death: ‘Her arms did not flail. She did not have to be dragged…she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back.’ Hosseini’s portrayal of love is so universal that in spite of the cultural boundaries his description is accessible and fills us with sympathy.
Hosseini’s story is one of true struggle and sacrifice. He challenges any previous concept of weak Islamic women with one which is admirable. The endurance of his female characters takes the reader on a deep, emotional journey which is a testament to his ability as a writer. Although he describes a culture and religion which may be entirely foreign to Western readers, his discussion and description of unwavering strength, romantic love and absolute altruism, gives this a story a strong, universal voice that should be listened to.
There has been a suggestion recently that York University Library is not having the monies lavished on it that it deserves. I would modestly propose that we cut off all funding to clubs, JCRs and societies until the library has a British Library style acquisition policy, is open for 8 765.81277 hours a year, and has its own bar (or at least a discreet set of decanters based on an honesty box system.)
Failing that, I would like to see a considerable increase in the buying of new books. As far as new textbooks and academic works goes, I would also like to see a much greater number of books aimed at the recreational reader. This could prove a little more controversial.
To what extent should a university library even stock modern novels? One school of thought holds that books should not be examined academically until their authors are dead, presumably to save deconstructionists the bother of killing them. Some might opine that a university library exists purely as a resource for the members of the various departments and that books should be purchased in response to a specific need (a glance at York University Library’s sparse Geography and Anthropology sections might suggest that such a viewpoint is prevalent).
However, this is clearly not the whole story. Someone saw fit to supply the English Literature section with a large collection of John Cowper Powys – I may be wrong but I doubt that he is a required reading for any university course. There are also hefty collections of David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, Irvine Welsh, Anthony Burgess and others whose work does not seem essential from an academic position. There has presumably been some thought given to supplying the library with fiction for the idle timewaster as well as the hardworking student.
Contemporary literature is a moving target, and the Library can’t always be blamed for odd omission, and the collection isn’t completely contemptible. I was glad to notice recently that David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, beside his Booker Prize short listed Cloud Atlas, and there is also recent fiction by A. L. Kennedy, Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst and others. However, there are some significant holes (although I heartily condone the omission of booker-scrounging ‘Mexican’ D. B. C. Pierre). So why not come with me on a journey away from the library shelves, to take a look at three modern authors whose work has not yet made it to York University?
No discussion of Jim Crace’s work can avoid mentioning his rhythmical, poetic style of writing. Crace’s prose can be infuriatingly distinctive. I don’t think there is a single modern author whose style seems to demand parody so insistently. However, there is real resilience in his written voice. It has allowed him to write characters from Neolithic Britain, Biblical Judea, and places as yet unheard of with confidence and grace. In fact, Jim Crace tends to avoid concrete times and setting altogether and his timeless, formal but intimate style avoids giving us overt clues. The first book I read by Crace was The Devil’s Larder, and it is certainly his strangest, consisting of 64 pieces of fiction (never quite short stories) on the subject of food. I think that these pieces show Crace at his very best – primal, otherworldly, and often rather funny. Crace stands accused of being glossy and insubstantial, and it is certainly true that his slick aphorisms linger in the mind for longer than his strangely motivated and frequently unsympathetic characters, but I think that he is more than that. The novels may sometimes resemble the otherworldly formalism of a Noh Play but the dramas that play out are often political and relevant.
Crace’s latest novel, The Pesthouse, shows us a stark reversal of the American frontier myth, Quarentine humanised and engaged with the story of Christ’s fast and in Continent the conflict of primitive and progressive was enacted in an imagined landscape of forests and mountains. Crace is a limited writer, and is arguably committed to a style that can never hope to rival the flash and punchy razzle-dazzle of the Rushdies and Amises of this world, but his work is always engaging, entertaining, and strangely mesmerising. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with elegance.
Colin Thubron is better known as a travel writer than as a novelist. As a traveller he is adventurous and engaging, eschewing the Bruce Chatwin style of fictionalised navel-gazing and opting instead for a relatively direct description of places and encounters. As a result his novels can be surprising in their dreamy literariness. His first novel, Emperor, is presented as a collection of imaginary documents, while his second, A Cruel Madness, describes the fluctuating sanity of an asylum inmate in unpredictable first person. Thubron’s strong, intelligent prose makes him an impressive storyteller. His most recent work, The Last City, is an impressively epic work of only a couple of hundred pages which confronts the basic emptiness of the traveller, while offering a potential solution.
Like Jim Crace, Colin Thubron sometimes seems to operate in a world outside our own. This can be something of a relief when placed against the crushing ‘relevance’ of so much other writing. Thubron is both elegiac and ephemeral. In some ways you can see how the open eyes and ears of the travel writer equip a novelist to ‘think in another man’s skin’, as Kipling once put it; it is this confidence with character which allows Thubron to deal powerfully with nebulous concepts and lightly sketched settings.
Crace and Thubron are masters of their own styles; Iain Banks is, in fairness, not. His prose lurches erratically from pedestrian to purple. In addition his characters tend to be tiresomely self-righteous and all his dialogue sounds the same. In the literary novels there is a tendency to concentrate on certain themes such as left-wing politics, Scottishness, atheism and whisky. None of these things are contemptible, but sometimes purported exposition just seems like a series of essays narrated by Banks through a mask of thinly drawn characters. This tendency has become stronger of late, with Dead Air and The Steep Approach to Garbadale rendered almost unreadable by uncontroversial Guardianista ranting.
However, one thing makes Iain Banks a very significant novelist and that is his grasp of plot. I can’t think of another living writer who can weave together different narrative voices and temporal strands with such instinctive grace. One of his science fiction novels, The Use of Weapons, pulls off the impressive trick of running one section forward in time, interspersed with another section moving backwards, with both meeting at a central moment at the end of the book, with the entire construct framed by two sections taking place after the rest of the story. Banks says that the work was a rewrite of an earlier book whose plot was hard to follow.
Banks’ work published under the name Iain M. Banks is doubly unpalatable to most reviewers, being not only Science Fiction, but Science fiction of the ‘soft’, space opera variety. It is true that these novels are packed with cod scientific mumbo-jumbo and lurid alien antics, but they are not instantly dismissible. I find these novels, in which a powerful anarchist utopia confronts and engages with cultures that it finds obscene or incomprehensible, have considerably more to say about our international climate than his more consciously political or literary work.
Say the name ‘Sylvia Plath’, and you may well be met with a response such as ‘that crazy woman who stuck her head in the oven?’ or ‘the one who was married to Ted Hughes?’ This is the image we have of Plath. Either she is the woman who attempted suicide as a teen, spent years in therapy and eventually gassed herself to death when her husband left her for another woman, or she is the wife of Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, inferior and subordinate to his genius. These myths, for want of a better word, are deeply ingrained in our concept of Plath.
The former is partly due to her style: she learnt to write under Robert Lowell and alongside Anne Sexton in the genre of ‘confessional poetry’. This genre pours the writer’s experience into the poetry, making a deeply (and sometimes uncomfortably) personal work – and so there is very little left secret about Plath. We know about her first suicide attempt, fictionalised in her only novel The Bell Jar; we know about her feelings towards her late father (in various poems, most notably the aptly named ‘Daddy’, from Ariel); we know about her often destructive relationship with Hughes.
And this is where we come to a problem: on the date of her death, despite separation and apparent plans for divorce, Plath was still the legal wife of Hughes and thus her estate passed into his hands. It was up to him, as executor, to publish the manuscript she had finished a few months before her death. By removing some poems and adding others and by shifting the order and changing the title from Ariel and Other Poems to simply Ariel, Hughes was able to publish his own version of Plath’s vision.
Feminist critics exploded. Who did Hughes think he was, altering Plath’s final work? Why had he removed certain poems? Was he protecting himself in removing the criticism his fuming wife had penned? When the removed poems were printed in Collected Poems, critics noted his change of the first and last words of the collection from ‘love’ and ‘spring’, removing the hopefulness of Plath’s manuscript, and replacing it with an air of morbidity.
Things got worse for Hughes. He sealed two volumes of Plath’s journals for fifty years, burnt one, and claimed another had ‘disappeared’ – the latter two being the ones leading up to her death. He argued with whoever tried to publish criticism on Plath, refusing to allow the printing of her writings and set strict limits on the num ber of lines that could be quoted successively and the amount that could be quoted throughout the whole work.
Then, in 1998, shortly before his death, Hughes unsealed the two journals, and published his final work, Birthday Letters, a collection of poetry which alluded to, responded to, and conversed with Ariel. For the first time, Hughes left behind his poetry of the relationship between man and nature, and wrote of the relationship between him and his wife, often directly responding to poems from Ariel: ‘Black Coat’ responds to ‘Man in Black’, ‘Trophies’ to ‘Pursuit’, ‘Ouija’ to ‘Ouija’, and ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ to Plath’ s poem of the same name. His preceding years of silence over his life with Plath became noble and dignified, no longer callous and uncaring.
Yet, somehow, by responding to Ariel, by writing raw and painful poetry, and by attempting to show the extent of his love for Plath, however the end panned out, Hughes upstaged her again. Ariel, the book which, as she predicted whilst writing it, made Plath’s name, is now forever linked to Birthday Letters. It is near impossible to find criticism on the former that doesn’t examine the links with the latter.
Whether you blame Hughes for Plath’s death or not, there is a good reason Plath enthusiasts scratched ‘Hughes’ off her tombstone, and vilified her widower for destroying parts of her journals and editing Ariel. It was to free her from the constraints that burdened her during her lifetime – a life spent as a poet’s wife, not as a poet in her own right.
After an aeroplane crash, a large group of pre-adolescent English schoolboys are stranded on an island. It appears to be the boys’ utopia: coral reefs, pink rocks and sea birds “like icing…on a pink cake,” dense green forests, a large rock pool, fruits in abundance, all surrounded by azure sea. There are no restraints of time or responsibility, unlike in the land of ‘grown-ups.’ In contrast with their setting, the boys immediately begin to organise a structured society to ensure their survival. And their methods are heavily influenced by the discipline of wartime England and their boarding school experience: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English; and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things.” Initially, the boys react well to the rules, because they can understand the concept of uniformity, and are used to the system of holding meetings and following leaders. The first boy to start planning, to suggest making a list of names and calling a meeting, is Piggy, so nicknamed for his weight. He proposes that a beautiful conch shell should be used to call everyone together, and should give power to the holder to speak. Piggy cannot blow the conch himself because of his asthma, and when the boys gather, Ralph wields the power because he holds the conch. Piggy is ostracised for his working class accent, glasses and asthma, even though his intelligence greatly aids the boys’ survival, and, in the vote for chief, he is not considered. Ralph contests for power with Jack, who has already shown his confidence in leadership and his control over the choir. Though Jack should have been the obvious choice, Ralph wins the vote: “there was his size, and attractive appearance; and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch.” Ralph is elected as chief, although he is unfit for the position, due to the circumstance that he discovered the conch, and Piggy showed him what to do with it. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Ralph takes all his ideas from Piggy and Simon, a perceptive but quiet boy whom the others think is “batty.” Although Ralph’s plans to build shelters and to keep the fire alight as a distress signal are more practical, during the struggle for power, Jack wins most of the boys to his tribe by his promises of hunts. Golding demonstrates that a charismatic and cunning leader, though anarchical, is likely to succeed. The battling leaders on the island cause dystopia, despite their idyllic surrounds. “[Ralph and Jack] looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate. All the warm salt water of the bathing-pool and the shouting and splashing were only just sufficient to bring them together again.” The importance of the individual is a prominent message in Lord of the Flies, as is the more ostensible depiction of a community. The dystopia arising from the collective is a much more disturbing factor. This is the presence of “the beast.” It begins with the “little ’uns” imagining monsters at night time. Jack and his hunters envisage something to be tracked down, outwitted and killed; Piggy, the intellectual, is cynical about the beast; Simon sees it as a collective fear. And these last two are correct: there is no beast, only the dead body of a parachutist drifting across the island. The boys seize on this as something tangible upon which to project their fears. Simon has a very strong sense of the community, yet, like Piggy, is not accepted. When Simon is returning to explain and dispel the myth of the beast, the boys are re-enacting the killing of a pig. He emerges from the forest, and, trance like, is taken for the pig and killed. When Piggy is trying to restore order among the boys, he is knocked by a huge rock that has been pushed by one of Jack’s hunters, and thrown down a cliff. Thus, the community, through fear and mass hysteria, eradicates two boys who could have helped it become more stable. Golding seems to be commenting on the illogical nature of social systems that shun those who could most benefi t society, because of the primeval desire to hunt and to kill. This is particularly important considering that the book is set during World War Two. The destruction of intelligent men would have been happening across the world and even young children on a beautiful island could not escape this mark of human nature. “ … Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”