Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

This is the first book I have read for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it several years ago at a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland, and it has been on my TBR shelf ever since.  I think I bought it because it seemed a quintessentially Scottish novel, a good choice to buy while on holiday in Scotland. But in truth I've felt a bit daunted by it, and now I've read it I feel I was right to be daunted.

It is 'A Life in 4 Books', and it begins with Book 3. So right from the start I'm confused. The main character, Lanark, arrives in the city of Unthank by train. He is the only person on the train, and he has no memory of how he got there, or of his life before the train. He is greeted at the station and it appears that there is a process, that everybody arrives at the city as he has done. The city has a post-apocalyptic feel to it;

The city did not seem a thriving place. Groups of adolescents or old men stood in occasional close mouths, but many closes were empty and unlit. The only shops not boarded up were small stores selling newspapers, sweets, cigarettes and contraceptives. After a while we came to a large square with tramcars clanging around it. The street lamps only lit the lowest storeys of the surrounding buildings but these looked very big and ornamental, and people sheltered between pillars on their facades. Some soot black statues were arranged round a central pillar whose top I couldn't see in the black sky. In spite of the wet a man stood on a high part of the pillar's pedestal and spoke to an angry crowd. We passed through the edge of the crowd and I saw the speaker was an anxiously smiling man with a clergyman's collar and bruised brow. His words were drowned by jeering.

Lanark finds a room to rent, and he is given regular money to live on. He meets people at a local cafe but they couldn't really be called friends. The atmosphere is grim and hopeless. People disappear without reason. There is a strange disease, dragonhide, which Lanark contracts. Its symptom is hard, black skin which spreads over the body, leaving the sufferer numb. His landlady, Mrs Fleck, says that the only cure is hard work. Idleness and hopelessness hasten its advance.

Lanark finds his way to the Institute, a hospital where he can be treated. While there he finds out about his life before his arrival in Unthank. This is the realist portion of the book. His name was Duncan Thaw, a working class boy in Glasgow who has a real talent for art. Through a bit of luck and the kindness of others he gets into art school. But Duncan is the kind of person who is never satisfied, and never accepts responsibility for his own actions.

Once out of the Institute and back in Unthank Lanark is much more proactive, he wants to change things and make things better. But somehow he never manages it. His life is always subject to the whims of other people and he is carried this way and that without ever seeming to get a grip on the situation. Just when he thinks he has understood something the whole political landscape changes and he is adrift again. He is always alone and there is no-one he can trust.

I think this book is about a great industrial city losing its industries, life without useful work, being at the mercy of planners and politicians and corporations. The nuclear threat hangs over this book (it was published in 1981), there are poisons in the air and on the land, and always the sense of doom.

Despite the fact that I'm not sure I fully understood this book, I did for the most part enjoy it. The language was easy to understand, where I struggled was with the ideas and I had the feeling that there were references and allusions which went over my head. I would definitely read more by Alasdair Gray. I felt that his book took me to places I wouldn't ordinarily have gone, and let me think about things I wouldn't ordinarily think about.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

I hadn't heard of this novel before I saw it on the shelf at the library just before Christmas. I was about to start reading Great Expectations and thought I would continue the Dickens theme.

The story centres around Dickens unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the search for clues as to how Dickens intended it to end. James Osgood, a partner in the firm that publishes Dickens work in America is particularly anxious to find it. His firm is in a parlous state and the scoop of discovering how Drood ends would secure its future.

He is not the only one searching however, other publishing firms are on the scent and some of them use very underhand methods. It also turns out that the significance of Drood isn't only literary - there are people who want it for their own nefarious reasons.

The action moves between India (where we see criminality associated with the opium trade), America and England in the months immediately following Dickens death. There are also flashbacks to Dickens second American tour. Osgood was one of his entourage and got to know the great man. These sections were my favourite part of the book. It appears that Dickens was treated like a rockstar on this tour;  huge lines of people wanting to buy tickets, touts selling tickets for exorbitant prices, Dickens being mobbed and his coat ending up in rags because fans kept grabbing for it.

I did find the novel a bit convoluted, and I wasn't sure why so much of it was set in India. But I thought the parts about Dickens American tour were wonderful, and gave a real feel and flavour of the time.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

This is one of my favourite novels by Charles Dickens and I never tire of it. It is the story of Pip and how he comes into a fortune from an unknown benefactor. We follow him from his early life under the care of his tyrannical sister and her gentle husband to his life as a moneyed young gentleman in London.

Probably the most famous character in the book is Miss Havisham. Jilted on her wedding day she sits, years later, in the rags of her bridal gown while mice devour her wedding breakfast which still sits upon the table. She is not a comic character like many of Dickens' grotesques, it is difficult to feel sorry for her because she is so imperious and fierce. She's like a spider unknowingly caught in its own web.

My favourite character in Great Expectations is Wemmick, the chief clerk at the firm of solicitors which dispenses Pip's money. Taciturn and professional to a fault when in the office, at home he is a kind and sensible man, and a good friend to Pip. His home in Walworth is one of my favourite homes in literature. It is a tiny cottage which Wemmick shares with his father and it is embellished with all kinds of novelties (such as a moat!) which Wemmick constructs in his spare time. It is a happy, homely place and Pip is made welcome there.

I think that each part of Great Expectations is perfectly weighted. There is just enough comedy, just enough mystery, just enough peril. Another reason I like this book is that it is lacking is simpering women. I love Dickens, but if I could change one thing about his books it would be to get rid of the weak, simpering girls. Miss Havisham might be mad, Estella might be cold as ice, but at least they don't simper. And Biddy seems like a sensible sort of woman.

This is a book I will return to again and again.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

It's more than twenty years since I last read Wuthering Heights and I found on re-reading it that my feelings about it have changed. There will be some spoilers ahead for those who haven't read the book.

My main surprise was that I had completely forgotten how early in the book Cathy dies. The whole of the second half is without her. The story is grimmer than I remembered, unremittingly grim in fact, nothing good ever seems to happen. Also, in my mind Heathcliffe was one of the triumvirate of great romantic heroes, along with Mr Darcy and Rochester. Actually he is a man that any sensible woman would go to great lengths to avoid.

What I had remembered correctly is how powerful Emily Bronte's writing is. In the front of the Penguin Popular Classic edition that I have, there is a 'Biographical Notice' by Charlotte Bronte. In it she describes finding a volume of verse by Emily;

I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music - wild, melancholy, and elevating.

I can't say that I felt particularly elevated after reading Wuthering Heights, but I certainly think that the words 'wild' and 'melancholy' could be applied to it. Charlotte also describes Emily as 'not a person of demonstrative character' and I find it quite moving that this quiet person poured out all this forceful emotion, anger and passion into her poetry and her novel.

There are passages which really pull at the heartstrings. I was particularly affected by the scene in which young Linton is left in the care of his father, Heathcliff. We know that Heathcliff only wants him  to exact revenge, and that the poor child will have a terrible life. Nelly Dean accompanies the frightened little boy to Wuthering Heights:

Having no excuse for lingering longer I slipped out, while Linton was engaged in timidly rebuffing the advances of a friendly sheep-dog. But he was too much on the alert to be cheated: as I closed the door, I heard a cry, and a frantic repetition of the words:
'Don't leave me! I'll not stay here! I'll not stay here!'

I'm not sure that this is a book I'll go back to. Jane Eyre I could read over and over again, but not this one. It's too unrelenting and raw to be a really enjoyable read for me.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

For this mystery we're back at a house we've visited before, Chimneys. Lady Ellen 'Bundle' Brent and
 her father Lord Caterham are no longer living there, they have rented it to the industrialist Sir Oswald Coote. The Cootes are having a house party (one at which the guests seem better known to each other than to the Cootes) and a guest is found dead in his bed.

Bundle Brent returns to the house, she is a friend of all the guests at the house party, and she decides to investigate. There's no Poirot in this one, but there is Superintendent Battle, who Bundle goes to see for information and advice. I like Superintendent Battle;

What I'll do for you, Lady Ellen, is this. I'll just give you one little hint. And I'm doing it because I never have thought much of the motto 'Safety First'. In my opinion all the people who spend their lives avoiding being run over by buses had much better be run over and put safely out of the way. They're no good.

Another person who was at the house party is killed, and Bundle and her friends are getting drawn into a very dark game.

I always enjoy reading an Agatha Christie novel. I missed Poirot slightly in this one, but a good read all the same.