tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280On Thursday afternoon I was talking to three recently retired friends each of whom was relishing their new found freedom and specifically how they could now take their own time over what they did and when they did it.  I smiled benignly and decided that I wouldn’t spoil their pleasure by pointing out that seven years into my own retirement I have realised that if you let that mañana feeling go too far you are heading for disaster.   

When I first retired I wrote here regularly and read analytically even when I was also reading for pleasure.  However, over those intervening years I have gradually become what on a kind day I know to be intellectually less rigorous and on a more honest day, downright lazy.  When I look back on what I was capable of I have to say that I don’t like what I have become.

So, in an attempt to pull back some of that lost ground, I am about to start a distance learning course built around the novels of Charles Dickens, a writer who, in all my years studying and teaching literature, I have never had to work on.

Reading the City : The Life and Writing of Charles Dickens is a term long course run by the University of Exeter and during the coming twelve weeks I am going to be looking at my three favourite Dickens’ novels, Bleak House, Little Dorrit,  and  Our Mutual Friend along with the much earlier work, Oliver Twist.  I always think Dickens is at his best when he is writing about London. It is probably why those first three books appeal to me so much.  If ever an author captured the essence of a city as accurately as he did the characters who populate his works it has to be Dickens.  The passage about the London fog near the beginning of Bleak House has to be one of the greatest pieces of prose ever written.

First, however, I have to master what the university calls its ‘learning environment’.  Every HE institution has one and I’m quite used to the concept. The problem is that every one I encounter is different.  So I’ve set aside a couple of hours tomorrow morning – the first day of ‘term’ – to play around and see what I can make of Exeter’s.  If you hear a news item to the effect that the university’s entire computer system has been sabotaged you will know who to hold responsible.

My Name is Shylock

quill_n_paperI’ve just come in from Stratford having been over there this morning for a discussion on whether or not The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both of which are in this season’s RSC repertoire, are anti-semitic plays.  This was the last of three such discussions, each relating to current productions, that we’ve had this summer, the previous two having asked, in the case of the first whether or not the Arts in the UK are pale, stale and male and in the second whether Othello is a racist play.

The panel this morning included Justin Audibert, who directed the current production of The Jew of Malta, Patsy Ferran, who is playing Portia and the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is writing a modern version of Shakespeare’s play as part of a project to reimagine the entire canon as novels for the 2016 celebrations.  Given the outgoing nature of each of those participants it was a lively discussion and a number of ideas were raised that I shall want to consider in greater detail later in the year.  This coming term I am teaching Love’s Labour’s Lost but after Christmas it will be The Merchant of Venice  and then after Easter, Othello.

Today, I just want to think about the panel’s immediate response to the question posed in the title of the session as it applies to Shylock. The unanimous view of the panel was that Shakespeare’s play, at least, is not anti-semitic.  Yes, it presents a man who has some of the attributes that an Elizabethan audience would probably have associated with a member of the Jewish race but Justin Audibert offered what sounds to me like a very good reason for Shakespeare having gone down that route.  The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play, was first produced in 1592 and records tell us that it was a box office bonanza.  He (and I) could just imagine Shakespeare storing that information away and thinking “one day, just you wait, one day….”.  Come 1596, when we think The Merchant was first performed, he knew what his audience would expect and to some extent would have had to give it to them, especially if his company wanted their own financial gold mine.

But, when you look at Shylock and compare him with Barabas there are so many very apparent reasons as to why he might justly feel he was being persecuted that in the first half of the play at least you might well argue that this is Shakespeare’s anti-anti-semitic play.  Patsy Ferran noted that the key concept behind the current production was ‘people behaving badly’ and in the early scenes it definitely isn’t Shylock whose actions should be called into question.  And, we also have to ask whether he ever thought that there was even the remotest possibility that he would call in the bond.  Antonio is expecting thrice the necessary funds in less than two thirds of the time allowed.  No, to call this an anti-semitic play seems to me to take a far too simplistic approach.

However, what I did find myself thinking about was a comment made by Hugh Quarshie during the earlier discussion about Othello.  It was widely reported that Quarshie was reluctant to take on the role of Othello because of the way in which he felt it portrayed men of colour and during the debate he wondered about why so many black actors were eager to play the part.  He compared this to the way in which several great Jewish actors (although he didn’t name any) had turned down the role of Shylock because it was seen as anti-semitic.  Well, he might be right, I’m not in a position to know, and I suppose, these days, it does depend to a large extent on the way in which the director decides s/he wants to shape their production, but I must have seen this play at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a Shylock I haven’t ended up sympathising with.  Portia might speak loftily about the quality of mercy but neither she nor anyone else in that court scene offers Shylock so much as one solitary drop of the stuff and at the moment when he is told that he must forcibly convert to Christianity there is nearly always an audible intake of breath from the audience who recognise the sheer effrontery of such a demand.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this, although I will probably have to shelve it until after Love’s Labour’s Lost,  but I would be really interested to know if any of you have seen The Merchant of Venice produced as an anti-semitic play and if so how successful an approach it was.  One of the strands in my approach to a play is to look at the production history as it relates to the context in which those stagings took place and it would be helpful to collect any examples you might recall.

How To Win At Poohsticks

The-Rules-of-playing-PoohsticksAccording to The Times one of the great conundrums of the civilised world has finally been solved.  Armed with the formula

PP = A x ? x Cd

we can now all go out and scientifically select the ideal twig to ensure we will emerge victorious when indulging in the classic English game of poohsticks.

When Winnie the Pooh dropped that first pine cone over the side of a bridge he set in motion a passion for the pastime that has only increased as the years have gone by.  You don’t have to be a Bear of Very Little Brain to enjoy dropping your twig into a gently flowing stream and then rushing over to the other side of the bridge to see if it will emerge before those of your competitors.  Bears of Great Brain like to play regularly, not to mention those humans who share a home with them.

The formula has been devised by Dr Rhys Morgan of the Royal Academy of Engineering and we can only rejoice that our great minds recognise the national importance of breakthrough research in vital areas such as this.

Dr Morgan has ascertained that the main variables are cross-sectional area, density/buoyancy and drag coefficient.  Thus, the formula for the Perfect Poohstick (PP) states that you need a twig which has a good cross-sectional area, that is, length multiplied by width (A), because the water will have more to push on.  (Much to Pooh’s relief this means that tubby is good.)  It should be of as dense a wood as you can find (?) so that it will sink a bit and not be influenced by the wind.  And, finally, it needs to be rough, because that will create more drag (Cd).  Bark is good as well.

Equipped with this knowledge how is it possible that each and every one of us will not in future emerge triumphant from round after round of our favourite pastime?  Except, of course, as those Bears of Great Brain with whom I share my home point out, by the time I have applied the formula and found the ideal twig they will have finished not only the game but also the picnic that inevitably accompanies it and be ready to pack up and go home.

The Novel Cure Goes International

The postman has just delivered my own copy of Ella Berthould and Susan Elderkin’s book The Novel Cure so at last I can let the library have their volume back.

I’m sure you must all know about this book which came out in 2013 and which consists of a set of reading prescriptions for just about every ailment, physical, spiritual or reading related, that you might think of.  Suffering from a overplus of arrogance?  What else should you read but Pride and Prejudice? Just lost your job?  Try spending an evening or two in the company of Kingsley Amis’ s Lucky Jim.

When The Novel Cure was first published I have to admit that I was sceptical about its benefits and so other than flicking quickly through a copy in the local Waterstones I didn’t pay it very much attention.  However, a couple of months ago The New Yorker published a really interesting article about the pros and cons of the practice of bibliotherapy and it brought the book back to mind.

What attracted my attention most was that The Novel Cure is now being published in eighteen different countries and in each case the contract allows for a local editor and reading expert to adapt and fit up to a quarter of the recommendations to the native readership.  So, the Italian edition, for example, has entires on impotencefear of motorways and (rather worryingly) the desire to embalm.  I would like to ask “embalm what?”, but I’m rather fearful of the answer, although I would love to know what the related recommendations might be!

If you live in India you can get advice on what to read relating to cricket, obsession with.  It says something about the way in which football has taken over as our national game that this entry wasn’t to be found in the UK edition.  It would have been helpful for me if it had been.

Anyway, the upshot was that I decided I should give the book more attention, borrowed the library copy and then realised that I had to have my own.  Even though there are a myriad situations described that don’t match my position, reading the recommendations is great fun and occasionally there is a real find to be had regardless of whether I ‘need’ the book at the moment or not.

The authors offer a personalised service through The School of Life.  It is based in London but you can participate long distance from wherever you might be.  I was wondering if anyone out there had ever tried this or something like it and, if so, what the experience had been like?  I don’t know that I am, as yet, quite such a convert as to spend hard cash on more than the book, but I have to say that I am considering it.

Marmite Books

sks41aSo, the Summer School is now over and this year it threw up some rather unexpected responses.

The book that almost everyone enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I have to say that personally this took me rather by surprise.  I did enjoy it the first time round, but on re-reading I found a much greater depth than I remembered and I was really glad to have had the chance to come back to it.

The book that we had most difficulty with was Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Quite a number of us had read the novel when it first came out and we all found that we remembered it far more kindly than on second acquaintance we felt it merited.  Because I love chamber music more than any other form of the art, I suspect that I had been seduced by the discussion of the various pieces that the Quartet are playing and hadn’t given enough attention to some seriously weak plotting and character development.  It came as a nasty shock.

However, the book that split us completely was Barbara Trapido’s The Travelling Hornplayer.  This was a complete marmite book: we either loved it or hated it.  There were no half measures.  Those, like myself, who really enjoyed it, all felt so strongly that to a reader we have gone back to the earlier books featuring the same characters.  Those who hated every word are unlikely to do the same.

It isn’t often in my experience that a book divides its readership quite so drastically, but perhaps you know otherwise?  Is there a book you’ve come across that has elicited a similar response?  It would be useful to know before I draw up next year’s book lists.  While some difference of opinion makes for lively discussion that level of disagreement can mean that there is no middle ground on which it is possible to meet.

After the Cull

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3Quite some time ago I wrote a post about the need to instigate a book cull.  I was perfectly prepared to live in a house where I could hardly move for piles of books in unexpected places but, when it came to having to up my car insurance because I could no longer get my tiny little Peugeot into a reasonably large garage, I decided that something had to be done.  I asked for help.

Well, many of you responded, most often with suggestions as to where I might take the books that were going to have to go.  Unfortunately, that was really no problem.  I have a plethora of charity shops locally, some of whom are even willing to take the academic books that I no longer need.  No, the real problem was sorting out which books to keep and which to send out into the world seeking new owners.  How do you cut once treasured volumes adrift and tell them to go and find another home?

So, I did what any self-respecting bibliophile would do – I prevaricated.  Have I ever told you that I am a world-class prevaricator?  No?  Well now I have. DSCF0001However, (un)fortunately for me, I live with several very decisive Bears who were simply no longer willing to tolerate the risk of being flattened by a toppling pile of books.  Entreaties were made.  And, when they didn’t work, threats were uttered!

Eventually, I had to give in, and although I think there is still some work to be done in the garage (I am never going to lecture in Children’s Literature again, but I do love reading about it) the house side of things is now a little less hazardous for all concerned.

My first act was to separate everything out into fiction and non-fiction. Surprisingly, the fiction was easier to manage.  To start with, two piles – those that I had read and those that I hadn’t.  The second pile was definitely larger than the first.  Like so many bibliophiles I buy far more books than I can ever hope to read. My doctoral supervisor (a man with even worse hoarding problems than my own) once said to me that the day he came to terms with his own mortality was the day he realised that he had more unread books on his shelves than he could possibly get through in his remaining life time even if he were to never do anything other than read for the rest of his days.

Some of the books in that unread pile were definitely mistakes. I have no idea why I bought them in the first place.  Perhaps I felt that I couldn’t possibly come out of whichever shop I was in without first buying something.  As the daughter of a small shop owner, that is actually quite likely.  They went straight into the charity shop box.  The rest, probably about two hundred (I didn’t dare count) went back on the shelves.

The ones I’d read went into three piles:  those that I couldn’t part with at any price, those that I knew I could live without and around half a dozen about which I couldn’t decide.  At some point I am going to have to read that last group again and pass a final judgement – in or out.

Two shelves for the first group, more boxes for the second and an out of the way corner for the third.

The non-fiction collection, which is as extensive as the fiction, has given me far more problems.  Broadly speaking , it can be divided into four sections: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries,  letters and journals, essays and poetry.   I’m still teaching Shakespeare studies and, as there are around twenty plays I have yet to cover, this collection is only going to go on growing. In fact, it’s been the expansion in this area that has prompted the need to cull in the first place.

The letters and journals and essays are all either literary or theatrical in subject matter and while I have read most of them they are the sort of book that I repeatedly dip into for intellectual and spiritual refreshment.  On very sober reflection I decided that there were in fact three writers who had begun to irritate rather than invigorate.  Fortunately, they were amongst the more prolific and so I was able to consign well over a dozen volumes into the rapidly filling cardboard boxes.

The poetry was another matter.  I know that I don’t read enough poetry but when it came to trying to move any of it on it proved to be completely impossible.  It would have been like trying to excise music from my life.  I am still puzzling over this and meantime the poetry volumes remain firmly on their shelf.

All told, I think I have probably reduced my library by about a third and Shakespeare apart (Love’s Labour’s Lost is just making an appearance in various different editions) I have been reasonably good about what I’ve bought.  Only books that I’ve borrowed from the library and then found that I need to add to those shelves holding books I simply can’t part with have found their way in.  How long this state of affairs will persist is another matter entirely.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ~ Karen Joy Fowler

51xeXD2W63LFor a number of reasons I resisted reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker short listed novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it was first published in 2013.  Like so many book club addicts I’d read and enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club but not enough to send me scurrying off to discover whatever else she had written nor to ensure that any current work would automatically find its way on to my library list.  And, again like many others (all presumably people who hadn’t read the novel) I was surprised when this latest book made the Booker long list and astounded when it reached the short list. She simply hadn’t struck me as the sort of writer that would attract the judges of literary awards.

Well, more fool me!  And more fool anyone else who has been avoiding this novel for whatever reason, because having read it twice in quick succession I think it is a remarkable work and I will certainly be going back to explore Fowler’s previous books as well as adding her to the list of writers whose new releases I automatically read as soon as I possibly can.

So, what is it about this book that makes it stand out as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year?  Well, to begin with, it is incredibly readable.  Even when it is dealing with some intensely difficult subjects the pages seem to turn themselves.  Fowler knows how to tell a story that involves the reader from the start, as well as being able to create characters you care about and empathise with.  However hard it may be to read on in some sections, you simply have to in order to find out what happens to these individuals.  By the time you get to the difficult bits you are too engaged to duck out.

Then there is the humour.  Despite the fact that there is very little in the lives of the people we meet to laugh about, Fowler still keeps us chuckling and, at times, laughing out loud.  Some sections (and I’ll quote one later) are nothing short of joyous.

Finally, and this is where I suspect the Booker nomination came from, there are the subjects that she is addressing.  And from this point on I am going to assume that you have either read the book or know what it is about.  If you don’t, then be aware that there is a reveal around seventy pages in and I am not going to avoid talking about it.  In fact, when I came to read the book for the first time (two of my book groups had chosen it for the same month) I did know that one of the main characters was a chimpanzee.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know which one and consequently tried to read the first chapters thinking it was going to be revealed that it was Rosie.  Let me tell you, that was a problem!  As it happens Rosie, who is in her early twenties when we first meet her, is definitely human but has been brought up until the age of five with Fern, who is a chimpanzee and who lives with the family as if the two girls are sisters. But at the point, after an event that Rosie has wiped from her memory, Fern vanishes and the whole structure of the family crumbles.

Inevitably, much of the book is about the animal rights issues of using primates in experimentation: something that was not uncommon in the latter part of the last century.  I’m not going to explore those here, because I am sure that when the book came out there were blogs and articles aplenty on the topic.  However, there are two other areas that I felt Fowler was addressing that I would like to mention because I think they are important to her but have been rather overlooked in discussion.

Firstly, this is an intensely feminist novel.  It celebrates the sisterhood that is possible among the most profoundly different individuals, while at the same time refusing to shy away from the fact that in many societies (including that of the chimpanzee) even the highest ranked females are seen as being beneath the lowest ranked males.  Keeping those females subdued by sexual means is common.  In one chimpanzee colony, we are told, a female was observed being raped 170 times in a three day period.  However, as Rosie’s university professor remarks

most religions [are] obsessed with policing female sexual behaviour, …for many it [is] their entire raison d’être…  “The only difference ,” he said, “is that no chimp has ever claimed that he was following God’s orders.

At the book’s conclusion it is a sisterhood of Rosie, her mother, Fern and Fern’s daughter, Hazel that somehow manages to re-establish a tentative relationship despite all the damage that has been done to them throughout the years since Fern’s removal from the family.  They don’t succeed in rebuilding the joyous companionship of those early years but for Rosie at least, the memory lingers on.

MEMORY TWO:  one of the graduate students has gotten a free compilation tape from the local radio station and she throws it into the cassette player.  We are dancing together, all the girls – Mom and Grandma Donna, Fern and I, the grad students, Amy, Caroline, and Courtney. We are rocking it old-school to “Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath,” “Palisades Park,” and “Love Potion No. 9”

I didn’t know if it was day or night.  I started kissing everything in sight.

Fern is smacking her feet down, loud as she can, jumping sometimes onto the backs of the chairs and then landing on the floor.  She makes Amy swing her, and laughs the whole time she is in the air.  I am shaking it, popping it, laying it down and working it out.  “Conga line,” Mom calls.  She snakes us through the downstairs, Fern and I dancing, dancing, dancing behind her.

I am so jealous of that memory.  I would have given anything to have been there and have the right to share it.

However, what interested me most was the way in which the book explores the nature of story, the morals it is used to teach, the way in which the author, the narrator and the reader interact with each other and what happens when it is you who are telling your story to yourself through an act of memory.

Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.

The story of Rosie and Fern seems to have had the archetypal beginning.  But, as Rosie realises, when applied to real life, fairy tales run out of road.  It may be all well and good to fantasise about a situation in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, but when the elder sister’s subsequent banishment actually happens there are consequences that cannot be imagined away.  The rest of the family don’t live happily ever after, they live in the knowledge of what they have done.

Or do they?  Because of the way in which she structures the story Fowler is able to play around with the reader’s perceptions.  If you don’t know what is coming then you are likely to interpret what happens to Rosie in the book’s opening chapters very differently from the way you react when you know her past history.  As Rosie remarks, by starting the story in the middle she deprives readers of information that would help them build up a true picture of the situation.  But what becomes apparent is that Rosie is also depriving herself of necessary information because the stories that she tells are almost certainly incomplete.

the happening and the telling are very different things.  This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it.

Rosie has blocked memories of certain incidents because dealing with the implications of what really happened would be too painful.  And, even when she forces herself to bring those memories to the fore she still can never be certain that they are true.

Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten.  The new representation is called a screen memory.  A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.

Perhaps the story that Rosie eventually remembers and tells us is the truth of what happened.  Perhaps it is a screen memory.  Neither she nor we will ever know the truth of the matter.  What we do know are the consequences, consequences that no one, not Rosie, her family or the reader, will never be able to walk away from.  What each one of us has encountered in the course of this story we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.