My last best apocalypse: Earth Abides 
Sunday, April 24, 2011, 08:59 AM
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When I compiled my post-apocalyptic top ten a while back I had not yet read George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). Yet in some ways it’s the best of them all, influencing (or at least anticipating) almost every other title on my list. The protagonist, Isherwood Williams, is a young academic, a geographer who is camping in the wilderness when disaster strikes – a measles-like illness which kills almost the entire human race. We, like Ish, don’t experience the outbreak at first hand. By the time he returns to what used to be civilisation, it’s essentially all over. This is typical of the novel’s general restraint – Earth Abides is an elegiac and rather cerebral novel, at times very painful, but less horrific than many in the genre.

It takes its tone from the main character. Some readers hate Ish – on this site, for example, he is accused by readers of being boring, elitist, imperialist and over-fixated on the importance of books. Despite, or because of, these perceived flaws, he is a very effective witness to apocalypse - a thoughtful and intellectual young man, self-contained and slightly socially awkward, yet also considerate and humane – in a detached sort of way. The novel is interspersed with passages from his own notes, careful observations about the wider effect of the plague. He calmly documents the rise and fall of various non-human species, the changing appearance of the landscape and, eventually, casts an anthropological eye on the progress of ‘The Tribe’, a small group of survivors and their descendants who look up to Ish as their patriarch. The novel is a wonderful meditation on civilisation, humanity and the meaning of life. Both the achievements and shortcomings of mankind are thrown into relief by the very different world which emerges from the ruins, the return to a more primitive way of life, a changing language and a new mythology.

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Amazon Vine: Veronica Roth's 'Divergent' 
Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 07:09 PM
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I was recently invited to join the 'Amazon Vine' programme, which offers readers the chance to review books for free - but does not seek to influence these reviews. Amazon encourages reviewers to publicise reviews on personal blogs - so here's my first Amazon Vine review:

"I’m a great fan of near future dystopias, and thought ‘Divergent’ was an excellent addition to the genre. ‘Dystopian’ may be too strong a word. Although Roth’s first novel is clearly predicated on some future collapse of society, a crisis focused on dwindling resources, this issue isn’t to the forefront in ‘Divergent’. Instead its focus is on the way society in the US (or in Chicago at least) has split into distinction factions or tribes: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Abnegation. This is an original idea I think – many dystopias are predicated on such splits, but normally they are connected to social class, as is the case with Robert Swindells’ ‘Daz 4 Zoe’, for example.

All young people are offered an assessment, informing them whether they should stay with their parents’ faction or move to a different group, which will almost certainly mean a total break with their family. Most, though not all, opt for the faction with which they show most affinity, although it is possible to go against the grain, and make a choice which doesn’t match their aptitude. But the penalties are harsh – anyone who fails their chosen faction’s initiation test must join the ‘factionless’, a marginal group who get by on support from selfless Abnegation.

What’s so interesting about this book is the way in which it makes readers reflect on their own characters, their own strengths and weaknesses. The heroine is confronted with some genuinely tough choices – sometimes there simply is no right answer. The most obvious question posed by Roth’s ‘thought experiment’ is – what faction would I join? I teach literature at a university, so I was surprised to find myself drawn to Candor rather than Erudite – which I hope will encourage potential readers to take my word and give ‘Divergent’ a go. If you enjoy sf or fantasy I don’t think you’ll be disappointed."

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Diana Wynne Jones: 16 August 1934 – 26 March 2011 
Saturday, March 26, 2011, 04:03 PM
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Diana Wynne Jones was a writer of fantasy, mostly aimed at older children. I have vivid memories of my first encounter with her work, back in the 1970s, when The Ogre Downstairs was read on Jackanory. The central idea, a chemistry set with conventional chemicals on top, and a second layer of much stranger substances underneath, is a great vehicle for Wynne Jones’ invention and wit. Another, slightly darker, early favourite was Eight Days of Luke, in which David, an orphan who is bullied and neglected by his unpleasant relatives, finds his life transformed when he somehow stumbles upon a spell which summons the engaging yet elusive Luke to his side. David’s loyalties are torn as he slowly begins to realize exactly who – and what – Luke is.

But my absolute favourite has to be Charmed Life, which I chose to write about over on normblog as part of his ‘writer’s choice’ series. This is the story of another orphan boy, Cat, and his bossy older sister Gwendolen, whose adventures really start when they go to live with an old friend of their father’s, the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. It’s an absolutely delightful book which I reread regularly, and encapsulates that wonderful blend of magic and matter-of-factness which characterises many of my other favourite writers for children – Joan Aiken, Edward Eager and, of course, E. Nesbit.

Although one tends to be most fond of the children’s books one first encountered as a child, I’ve rarely failed to read each new novel as soon as it appeared, and very much enjoyed Enchanted Glass which was published in 2010. Like so many of her books, it builds on a much earlier, well-known story – but I won’t say which one, as the process of finding out is part of the fun.

Diana Wynne Jones received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2007, and will be much missed by her many fans.

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The Limits of Allusion #3 : Great Expectations and Alice and Wonderland 
Saturday, March 12, 2011, 02:23 PM
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And when I die, be sure you let me know
Great Homer died three thousand years ago. (Pope, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot)

It’s not difficult, if you’re determined and the books quite long, to find connections between pretty much any two texts. What’s harder is deciding if they are significant or interesting. When I reread Great Expectations recently, I began to think about Alice. I think it was the bizarre scene in which Pip is forced to wheel Miss Havisham round a room repeatedly, while keeping up a conversation with her irritated relatives, which started me looking for connections, as it reminded me of the Caucus-race, in which all the birds and animals go round and round in circles.

`Slower!' Still, we went at an impatient fitful speed, and as we went, she twitched the hand upon my shoulder, and worked her mouth, and led me to believe that we were going fast because her thoughts went fast. After a while she said, `Call Estella!' so I went out on the landing and roared that name as I had done on the previous occasion. When her light appeared, I returned to Miss Havisham, and we started away again round and round the room. (Chapter 11)

There are other ways in which these two novels, both dealing with imaginative yet also rather literal-minded, small children, caught up in bewildering events they only partly understand, and surrounded by a gallery of grotesques, seem to resemble one another. The way in which Pip describes how a gate, apparently closed on his first visit, is mysteriously open on his second, is also rather Alice-like I think. Of course there is nothing magical about this simple fact, yet there is something slightly fantastical about the way the door ‘appears’, which made me think of Alice’s many attempts to enter the enticing little door which leads to the beautiful garden of flowers.

‘It is not much to the purpose whether a gate in that garden wall which I had scrambled up to peep over on the last occasion was, on that last occasion, open or shut. Enough that I saw no gate then, and that I saw one now. As it stood open, and as I knew that Estella had let the visitors out -- for, she had returned with the keys in her hand -- I strolled into the garden and strolled all over it. It was quite a wilderness, and there were old melon-frames and cucumber-frames in it, which seemed in their decline to have produced a spontaneous growth of weak attempts at pieces of old hats and boots, with now and then a weedy offshoot into the likeness of a battered saucepan.’ (chapter 11)

A cucumber frame features in Alice too, and, more generally, the absurd suggestion that hats and saucepans are growing in the frame is a moment of category confusion worthy of Carroll.

I also thought back to a still earlier moment, when Pip is filled with guilt following his first encounter with the convict, and is startled by an ox who seems to know his innermost secrets:

The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, `Holloa, young thief!' One black ox, with a white cravat on -- who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air -- fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner as I moved round, that I blubbered out to him, `I couldn't help it, sir! It wasn't for myself I took it!' (chapter 3)

No animals in Great Expectations really talk or wear clothes as the White Rabbit does – yet the idea of such an animal is vividly suggested. And in Dickens’ novel, as in Alice, people seem prone to turn into animals, just as animals grow to resemble people:

‘Miss Sarah Pocket, whom I now saw to be a little dry brown corrugated old woman, with a small face that might have been made of walnut shells, and a large mouth like a cat's without the whiskers.’ (chapter 11)

The villainous Orlick’s lodge at Satis House, where he acts as a kind of porter, is described as looking like ‘a cage for a human dormouse: while he, looming dark and heavy in the shadow of a corner by the window, looked like the human dormouse for whom it was fitted up’. (chapter 29) A dormouse features prominently at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice of course.

Food in Alice is unequivocally anthropomorphized in different ways. The oysters are described as though they were human children before they are finally eaten by the walrus and the carpenter, and, more bizarrely, both a leg of mutton and a suet pudding are given (rather assertive) voices too. Nothing quite so strange happens in Great Expectations, but a bottle of wine is described as ‘representing some clerical dignitary of a rubicund and social aspect’ (chapter 38) and Jaggers ‘seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it’ (chapter 20).

I did start to wonder whether I was over-reading when I began to try to find parallels between the description of the Pockets’ chaotic family home – Mrs Pocket seems oblivious to the fact the baby is injuring himself with the nutcrackers – and Alice’s meeting with the Duchess, her violent cook, and pig-like baby, another scene of chaos and injury. But I felt partially vindicated when Mrs Pocket said ‘Besides, the cook has always been a very nice respectful woman, and said in the most natural manner when she came to look after the situation, that she felt I was born to be a Duchess’. (chapter 24)

I have come across no references to possible links between these two novels, but I did track down a reference to an article about Our Mutual Friend and Alice, as well as a suggestion that there were possible allusions to The Cricket on the Hearth in Alice Through the Looking Glass. But to me Great Expectations seems Dickens’ most Carrollian work.

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A Visit to Umeå (and some thoughts on Yeats' 'On Being Asked For A War Poem' 
Tuesday, March 8, 2011, 07:02 AM
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I’ve just come back from a very pleasant visit to Umeå, in the north of Sweden, pursuing research and teaching links with colleagues at the University. I enjoyed leading a seminar on As You Like It (and Lyly’s Gallathea) to a lively group of MA students, and also giving a lecture on English poetry to first year undergraduates.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about when given a brief as accommodating as ‘English Poetry’. But I looked at this book for inspiration, and came across this suggestive statement by Kathleen Jamie:

“A poem is an approach toward a truth. But poems can be funny, witty, quirky and sly. They can be mischievous, tricksterish. Their truths don’t sound like the truths of the court-room or inquest. Does this, then, show us something about the nature of truth? Can we say there are many truths, or rather, many aspects of Truth? That truth itself is a shape-shifter?”

This formed the basis for a discussion of the relationship between poetry and truth in short poems by Herbert, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Yeats.

It was the Yeats which puzzled me most. He was asked to write a poem in response to the first World War by Henry James and came up with this.

On Being Asked For A War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

Although critics often read it ‘straight', for example this one, it seems very ambiguous to me. The ‘He’ of line 4 who has had enough of meddling seems at first to be the statesman, but is eventually revealed to be the poet. Is Yeats dramatizing self-censorship? To me, the poem feels unfinished, almost as though it were the opening of a sonnet (although the rhyme scheme isn’t one often used for sonnets) and might, like so many sonnets, then go on offer a quite different point of view, in opposition to the apparent message of the opening lines. But, as it stands, that different perspective has to be supplied by the reader.

I also very much enjoyed participating in the English Department’s Research Seminar, which focused on the last chapter of my book, a discussion of the familiar compound ghost in ‘Little Gidding’ and its sources and influences, which I had been invited to circulate in advance. The discussion was really challenging and stimulating, and has helped me think of ways of improving the chapter.

So thanks again to everyone in Umeå for their welcome and hospitality!

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