13 August 2015

Two Dickens Classics

In the 1850s Charles Dickens was at the height of his powers as a novelist, and two of his greatest works from this period have been the highlights of my summer (re)reading. Bleak House (1853) and Little Dorrit (1857) both appeared in monthly instalments, then as single volume publications. The nearest cultural equivalent these days might be a TV series or a soap opera, followed by the release of the same work as a boxed set of DVDs.

Both novels are heavily centred on London, and they explore the worlds of greed and capital accumulation which lay at the heart of the industrial revolution. Dickens was not only a genius at story telling and a master of comedy and pathos - he was also an incisive critic of the establishment institutions that tolerated poverty, neglect, child labour, and moral corruption.

He weighs into the Church, the Courts, and the banking system. Clergymen are exposed as pious frauds, lawyers as pariahs who profit from their clients' misfortunes, and bankers as dubious (and sometimes corrupt) manipulators who make fortunes with other people's money. In fact not much has changed in the intervening century and a half.

There are full tutorials on both novels, featuring plot summaries, lists of principal characters, critical commentaries, study resources, web links, and suggestions for further reading. There are also links to a variety of available editions - in paperback, Kindle eBooks, and free downloadable versions at Project Gutenberg.

26 May 2015

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

No - not Byron, but Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose biography I have just finished. He might have been an important philosopher; he might have invented one of the first jet engines; and he might have come from one of the most illustrious families in Europe - but he lived at the bizarre end of the social spectrum. He was writing all the time, but only published one book in his own lifetime. He drove his colleagues to distraction with non-stop ranting. He physically assaulted his students. Suicide was never far from his mind. He inherited millions but lived like a hermit. He ruined the professional careers of his most promising students. And in the end he repudiated his own work. There is lots more here.

25 February 2015

Alejo Carpentier

The Road to Santiago

I have been reading (and writing on) the work of an amazing but little-known Cuban writer called Alejo Carpentier. He was active in the European modernist and surrealist movements in the 1920s and 1930s, and was appointed Ambassador to France by Fidel Castro in 1967. He coined the term 'magical realism' to describe the mixture of fantasy and realism that characterises much of modern Latin-American literature. To give an example, his short story Journey Back to the Source describes a man's life - but with time going backwards. It begins with his death and the demolition of his house, then ends with his birth. His novella Baroque Concerto is a musical extravaganza that starts in eighteenth century Mexico, where a rich burger travels to Europe. He attends a concert given by Scarlatti, Handel and Vivaldi, and ends up in La Fenice opera house listening to Louis Armstrong. These links take you to tutorials and study guides on his writing.

24 September 2014

Henry James - two difficult novels

On a recent break I decided to set myself the task of reading one of Henry James longest novels - The Tragic Muse - and one of his most obscure - The Sacred Fount. The first I had once read almost fifty years ago whilst on holiday in Ireland, but could remember nothing about it. The second I had been saving for years like some dark-flavoured liqueur reserved for a special occasion. Both proved difficult - but for quite different reasons.

The Tragic Muse is James exploring his love affair with the theatre and what it means to be an artist by profession. Miriam Rooth is an ambitious actress who claws her way to success by hard work and a belief in her own possibilities. She is counterpoised by Nick Dormer, a successful member of Parliament, who gives up his glittering career to become a painter. The problem with the novel is that it's quite long at nearly 200,000 words.

The Sacred Fount is much shorter - but difficult because it's not quite clear what's going on in the story. The narrator is a guest at a Downton Abbey-like country mansion weekend party. He realises that some of his fellow guests are engaged in undercover sexual liaisons, and he sets out to discover who is involved. But he will only use methods of psychological interpretation. The results are equally baffling for him and the reader in this 'detective story without a crime - and without a detective'.

Full tutorial notes and study guides here:

The Tragic Muse

The Sacred Fount

05 July 2014

The Stories of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was a prolific writer of stories - maybe call them tales - but not short stories because hardly any of them are what we would now classify as short. She favoured the extended story, often with multiple characters and issues. She produced over eighty stories - nearly as many as her good friend Henry James who clocked up over a hundred - and they cover an impressive range of topics and themes. Social climbing and snobbery; Anglo-American relations; art and artists; tragedies of everyday life; and even ghost stories, for which she had a great fondness. She also produced these shorter works between an impressive series of full length novels, such as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country.

It has to be said that they vary in quality. Some of the weakest seem to have been written just to fill space in the many literary and upmarket magazines for which she wrote. But her writing style is fluent and elegant no matter what her subject, and the best of her tales are tightly constructed masterpieces of the genre. Xingu is a very amusing and much anthologised satire of a ladies' reading circle; After Holbein is a macabre account of old age and senility (prefiguring Evelyn Waugh); The Pretext is an almost heartbreaking study of a middle-aged woman who has fallen in love with a younger man; and The Touchstone (one of her earliest and longest tales, which qualifies as a novella) might well contain a self-portrait of Wharton herself in the figure of Margaret Aubyn, a novelist whose early love letters to a young man cause him moral problems long after her death.

Tour de France 2014

My goodness! Just checked on the presentation photos for the start of tomorrow's Tour - and Andy Schleck already looks as if he is on another chemical planet.


Team Treck have got big problems I think.

16 February 2014

Edith Wharton tutorials

Edith Wharton was a best-selling novelist, a Pulitzer prizewinner, and a close friend of Henry James. She also wrote a prodigious number of short stories and novellas - and the range of topics she covers is quite amazing. Her tales range from grim naturalistic depictions of lower-class life in New York, as in Bunner Sisters, via social satires such as The Other Two (a woman juggling two ex-husbands) and her best-known work Roman Fever, to ghost stories such as Afterward and The Triumph of Night. Even an early work such as Sanctuary shows amazing control of dramatic effects and her feeling for the shapliness of a form which is half way between a long story and a short novel. Full plot synopses and critical commentaries on all our new tutorials on these works - plus a nice documentary video showing the forty-two room house she designed and furnished herself.

20 December 2013

Woolwich & Panorama

There was what appeared to be a very bad slip-up on the Panorama survey of the Woolwich murder this evening. Reporter Peter Taylor commented that the two defendants, now found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby, would be going to serve "life sentences" starting today - on the day that they have been convicted - but NOT YET SENTENCED. That's jumping the gun somewhat I think, no matter what you might think about the issues of the case.

17 December 2013

Celebrity Comment

There is a class of celebrity commentators who write for newspapers (print and online) who seem to be hired for their ability to get things wrong and thereby generate attention and further comment. I am thinking of people such as Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, and Polly Toynbee. (Yes - I'm aware that Melanie Phillips has recently 'moved on', but she pioneered this phenomenon.) And these people all have one thing in common. They put forward their views on a regularly paid weekly basis - but they never engage in the debate which ensues.

Readers of these newspapers point out the mistakes in their articles, refute their views, and underscore the lack of evidence or logic in their arguments. But they ignore all this feedback and simply write another equally fatuous article the following week, which is just as full of holes, inaccuracies, mistakes, and prejudice as the week before.

There is a growing suspicion that newspapers are deliberately following this policy of promoting half-baked and ill-informed 'journalism' because it generates controversy and thereby brings viewers to these pages. The viewers are what advertisers want to see - and the newspapers are kept alive only by the advertising revenue they generate.

It is worth keeping in mind that all national daily newspapers lose money, and are subsidised either by rich owners (Lord Rothsmere, the Barclay brothers) or off-shore tax status (the Guardian).

Today, Polly Toynbee is defending the indefensible: the right of people to have as many children as they wish, even when they cannot afford to keep them. Responses in Comment is Free demolished her argument within minutes, prompting these two responses:
30 comments in and Polly Toynbee is getting a right thrashing already, I almost feel sorry for you, ... If anything, your argument illustrates completely the disconnect between London chattering classes and the rest of the country. Any chance you'll appear below the line sometime and answer some of the comments against you?
She won t be up and about yet? Polly earns over £100,000 a year for this stuff - no research needed, just politicking at its worst. But it gets loads of comments so keeps the Guardian and its advertisers happy.

This week the Guardian has already published an article by the Slovenian 'philosopher' Slavoj Zizek on the cultural significance of the fake signer-for-the-deaf at Nelson Mandela's funeral celebrations. This was nothing more than a summary of what had appeared in newspapers over the previous few days - the man was a fake and worse, his signing was gibberish - but Zizek's precis was dressed up as if some profound wisdom was on offer.

Today there's a piece of blatant self promotion from someone in Australia who claims to be an 'artist' with lots of viewings on YouTube for her video - which features her performance piece entitled 'Vaginal Knitting'. To quote the appalling Richard Littlejohn (another of this clan) 'You couldn't make it up'.

17 October 2013

Henry James - master of the short story

Henry James is well known as the author of magnificent novels such as The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and The Wings of the Dove. But at the same time as writing over twenty full-length novels he also produced over a hundred short stories. And it has to be said that most of them are not so short - some of them stretching to the form of novellas or even short novels - such as The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers. His collection of the Complete Tales runs to twelve handsome volumes - and if you ever spot volumes nine and ten in the Rupert Hart-Davis hardback edition of 1963 I will pay you good money for them. Coming forwards half a century I've spent much of this year writing tutorials on the lesser-known tales, and can report that there are some undiscovered gems amongst them and hardly a dud in sight. There are still a couple to be finished off, but one hundred and three, with story synopses, study resources, critical commentaries, illustrations, and suggestions for further reading are now available here.

13 October 2013

The Art of the Short Story

I've spent the summer months studying the art of the short story - and used some classic examples to develop tutorials and study guides for students of English Literature. The first group are from the late nineteenth century by Henry James. Then I selected a second group from the turn of the twentieth century by Joseph Conrad (which include some fine examples of the novella). Finally, a selection of experimental short fictions from the height of the modernist period by Virginia Woolf. The latest of these are The New Dress and Moments of Being, and there'll be more to come at Woolf - Stories.