Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Odyssey - post X

This epic comes to an end and it has not been the experience I expected at all being much more accessible and enjoyable. You expect this to be a heavy tome that is full of intellectual but irrelevant content but that is far from the reality

Bullet points from chapters twenty two to twenty four

Twenty two
This is a chapter of carnage as one by one the suitors are slaughtered and Odysseus gets his revenge with the text merrily describing the punishment he hands out to the suitors

He then goes further and gets the women, twelve of them, who have betrayed him and gets those maids to take the corpses out and wash down the blood then they are taken and hanged for their disloyalty

Twenty three
There are some scholars, I got his surfing the web, that believe this is where the story should have ended and the next chapter was added later and it makes sense because it is the moment Odysseus and Penelope are reunited

Initially the wife refuses to accept that Odysseus has come back but then he reveals a secret only he would have known and she embraces him and listens as he recounts all that has happened on his travels

Twenty Four
The suitors head into the underworld and recount their tale of woe and blame Penelope for leading them on

Meanwhile Odysseus goes to visit his father and as before pretends at first to be a stranger and back in the town the fathers and friends decide to avenge the suitors deaths and a battle is just on the brink of starting when Athena comes down and orders them to stop and make peace

That’s all so I will post a full review in the next couple of days…

The real reason for the attacks?

An interesting point is made on The Bibliosphere about the legitimacy of the research done by those people who are attacking lit bloggers. The thing about this debate is it is bigger, much bigger than just about lit blogs, but is about the future of the publishing industry. Writing as a print journalist (who writes about computer suppliers) I know that we are coming under pressure to move to the web and the strategy although unclear in the detail seems to be heading in only one direction – the web.

A large number of journalists don’t understand the web, don’t blog or MySpace so have no direct involvement with it but have obviously heard about it and seen the blogs grow in influence and reputation.

What they are really worried about is that the web will not only bring the barriers down and allow someone without their connections and position to write about the same subject publicly but when they finally make the move from paper, to paper and web and then maybe at one point in the future just web, there will be a lot of content already vying for the readers attention.

At that stage it becomes about hits, content and advertising and maybe in these sneering attacks on bloggers there is a growing recognition that there may come a day soon when they have to compete with bloggers more head-on and that is what is really scaring them so they are getting in now to discredit the emerging competition.

The White Guard - post I

The First World War and revolution are such deep wells to draw on to provide inspiration for events and characters that it is almost impossible not to feel the fear of approaching violence from the very first pages of Bulgakov’s book

It is the perfect book to follow Taras Bulba because again the location is the Ukraine and again the backdrop is war.

Bullet points between pages 3 – 50

* You are introduced to Kiev in the last month of 1918 and a family of three – Elena, Alexei and Nikolka – who are burying their mother and are left all alone in their second floor apartment to live and defend for themselves

* The eldest son Alexei is studying to be a doctor, Elena is married to a solider Talberg and Nikolka is 17 and they are surviving the cold winter burning wood on the stove when they hear the distant sound of artillery fire

* The sound is put in context with the city being occupied by the Germans but being attacked by the communists and Elena is worried because her husband Talberg has yet to return home

* The door bell rings but it is an old friend come from the shambles of the front and he scares them with his talk of frostbite, machine gun fire and the chaotic state of headquarters

* Talberg does return but reveals that the Germans are pulling out and he is a marked man and so is going to go with them into hiding and try to link up with General Denikin’s troops in the South and return with that army

* Two more old friends and soldiers arrive and they start discussing the war and show their loyalty to the Tsar, which frightens the neighbour below who has acted as a metaphor for the fear the townsfolk are feeling about the rise of communism

More tomorrow and the final parts of the Odyssey tonight…

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Great Ulysses links

Before I forget and Ulysses dissapears into the distant past these are some really good links that have a combination of serious facts, free copies of the book and an animated version of the story that is worth looking at whether you intend to read Joyce's work or not.

A good start would be the Ulysses site edited by John Barger with links, analysis and timelines for the characters

The Brazen Head is a site with a similar ambition to be the start for all things Joyce and this looks at the author on a much wider basis than just Ulysses

Wikipedia is always worth a check for the essentials and it points to some of the links summarised here

Project Gutenberg of course has the text if you want to try it without having to go out and find a copy of the book as does the One page of Ulysses a day blog

For a great audio guide through the book, with lots of insight into the characters and the locations you cannot beat the RTE Radio 1 Irish radio Reading Ulysses series

For light relief try the Ulysses for Dummies site with its animated version of the epic

Hope they help if you set off to read Ulysses the RTE site really helped me to get to grips with it all and some of the other sites have got me ready for more Joyce

The Odyssey - post IX

This book has been a real surprise because it is nowhere near as dry as expected and has a real rip roaring yarn at its heart full of everything and the way that Homer builds things to the moment when Odysseus reveals himself has been repeated hundreds of times since in literature and in film

Bullet points from chapters nineteen to twenty one

Odysseus talks to Penelope and although she in a dream like state seems to recognise him she still goes to sleep weeping and prays for an end to her misery

Meanwhile Odysseus spends a mainly sleepless night seeing yet more evidence of how little respect there is in the palace for his family or his memory

The pressure starts to build and the weapons are hidden from the suitors but they continue to laugh at Odysseus and his son and criticise the ‘tramp’ for staying around the palace

There are several servants who appear for the special holiday that are keen to express support for Odysseus even if it us unfashionable

Twenty One
Penelope ups the ante and brings out a bow and arrow that belonged to Odysseus and tells the suitors that the one that can fire the arrow accurately at a target will win her hand but they all fail to even pull the bow back

Odysseus asks for a go and despite protests gets the bow and pulls it back and this is the moment that we have all been waiting for when the suitors realise who they are dealing with

“Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.

In the hushed hall it smote the suitors
and all their faces changed.”

The end comes tomorrow…

Taras Bulba - post III

This book has been described by quite a few people, ranging from Dostoyevsky and Hemingway, in glowing terms and it packs quite a punch in its 141 pages leaving you wondering what on earth makes these Cossacks such hard men.

It is my second Winter Reading Challenge title so just three more to squeeze in over the next few weeks.

Bullet points between pages 99 – 141

* Taras souses the troops as they prepare for a battle with the poles and although many Cossacks are killed they are driving them back but then the gates of the town open and cavalry led by his son emerge

* He manages to get his son Andri trapped in the woods and accuses him of betraying his family, faith and people and shoots him and then witnesses his other son Ostap being captured and only just manages to escape with his own life

* He gets back to the Sech and yearns for news of his son and manages to get in disguise to Warsaw and witnesses him being tortured then executed and heads back fired up and before too long 150,000 Cossacks head to fight off the Poles

* Taras splits from the rest and carries on fighting even after a peace treaty is signed which he rightly predicts is just being used by the Poles to buy more time to destroy the Cossacks

* The story ends with Taras having finally been captured and pinned to a tree and burnt alive but proud of his men escaping and of the victories he has won and Poles he has killed – one of the hardest men I have yet come across in literature

Review posted tomorrow…

The Russian angle

If you want to read just one book that sums up the different angle Russians take to telling a story then Taras Bulba is the book to choose. At the moment where a writer from another background might try to resolve the conflict between father and son Gogol has the father shoot him dead, watch his other son get tortured and then happily burn to death himself knowing that the Poles have failed to kill all of his men. I will post details of the final chunk of the book later today to illustrate this point more fully.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Odyssey - post VIII

In between entering this whole debate about literary blogging and criticism it has been a really good day on the reading front and as well as getting stuck into Gogol a few more chapters were chipped away on the Homer front

Bullet points from chapters fifteen through eighteen

Athena goes back to get Odysseus son and in the meantime he hears the life story of the old man looking after the pigs and as a result of the tale the reader understands how loyal swineherd is to Odysseus family

Odysseus finds out that his wife is under siege from, suitors, that is father is not-eating and that the widespread feeling is that he is dead

The son returns and in a private moment Odysseus is revealed to him and they hatch a plan to attack the suitors

Penelope is told that her son has returned and the suitors, who were planning an ambush to kill him, return and regroup

Disguised as a tramp Odysseus comes to the palace and is taunted by the suitors and begs for food and as he does so he gets the chance to discover who is good and bad among the suitors – even though they are all going to be killed

As evening comes in Athena makes Odysseus see more things including the way the women in the palace take for granted Penelope and how the suitors expect an announcement to come soon of who will be chosen as a husband for Odysseus’s widow

Penelope asks to see the tramp but he replies that he will not come until nightfall so the scene is set for a meeting between husband and wife in the next chapter

More thoughts on the criticism debate

The more I think about it the more you have to come to the conclusion that what is motivating these people who attack literary bloggers is fear. The Internet allows you to have a shot at putting yourself in a shop window regardless of where you went to college, who you know or what you know – if you are no good then you will not get the traffic and fail. However if you are a worthwhile voice then what is wrong with providing a platform for you to share your thoughts and views? The only thing that could be wrong is you might actually challenge the cosy world of those that sit by the fireside in the literary club and fear new members joining.

If Web 2.0 can do anything it can level the playing field and those lit hacks holding onto their precious kingdoms need to face up to the changing world where not only will the way people communicate change but the names they search for might very well be different as well.

Who’s making the criticism?

What is so interesting about the row that has started over bloggers and reviews between various members of the literati (including Susan Hill, John Sutherland and Rachel Cooke) isn’t so much the content of the argument – that those reviewing on the web are doing it for free and therefore can be irresponsible and the web might be having a negative impact on criticism – but the fact that this debate is happening in the way it is.

It just proves the power of the web to galvanise provide a platform for debate that can evolve a lot more quickly than the letters page of a national newspaper and can involve more people.

If there is a lesson here it is clearly that no one can have a monopoly on criticism. Sure there are going to be people who abuse the open access the web provides but more voices are better than one. Just because someone on the web might not be a reviewer for the TLS or equivalent doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to share an opinion. What is happening now might be a case of a few people trying, after it’s too late, to pull the ladder up and keep bloggers out of the literary club.

Taras Bulba - post II

You can start to see why this book is rated by some many writers and critics as it has all the right ingredients with battles being a chance to display courage and honour and the love story involving Andri something so powerful it can rip a family apart and divide a community

Bullet points between pages 28 - 98

* The life in the Sech, the Cossack training camp is an eye opener for Ostrap and Andri Taras’s sons, and among the drunkenness and fights there are introductions into the brutal side of Cossack existence – such as burying alive a murderer under the coffin of their victim

* Taras is restless in camp and intrigues against at Ataman to try and get the Cossack leader to declare war on the Turks. His plan succeeds but there are still doubts that they should break their peace pact with the Sultan

* Just as the Cossacks get ready to attack the Turks a messenger from another village arrives and tells then that the Jews and Poles are attacking them and shutting up their churches – news that is greeted with an almost instant pogrom

* The Cossacks head for Poland and Ostrap shows he is a brave leader and fighter and Andri is so brave he dives in where other troops fear to tread so the father is pleased as they halt and lay siege to the Polish town of Dubno

* As they wait for the city to surrender because of starvation Andri is visited by the maid of the Polish noble woman he spotted two years before at the seminary and he travels through a secret passage to be with her and leaves his family and tribe

* Reinforcements come and the Poles bolster their resistance then the Cossacks hear that the Turks have attacked the Sech so the group splits in two leaving Taras in charge of the troops left in Poland – with the father facing his own son in war

The last pages come tomorrow...

Taras Bulba - post I

Bearing in mind as is pointed out in the introduction that the Russian critic Belinsky thought that Tara Bulba was a “splendid epic worthy of Homer” it seems appropriate to read this book after Joyce’s Ulysses while still trying to find time to finish Homer’s Odyssey.

The introduction puts the book about Ukrainian Cossacks into context with them fighting both Poles and Turks for independence from the former and security from the later and explains that they were a people proud of their freedom and customs and very much into the idea of waging war

Bullet points between pages 1 – 27

* The scene is set with Taras Bulba greeting his two sons who are returning from the seminary their education complete but in his enthusiasm to make real men of them their father decides that the very next day they will ride out to the Cossacks military camp

* Despite breaking the heart of the mother the Cossacks head out for the military camp and as they go you get the back story of Taras who is a Cossack that very much believes in living by the sword, the sons one an intellectual and the other a ladies man in the making

* The stage is set for some action as the brothers and father enter the camp, which rings out to the sounds of blacksmiths hammering swords and Cossack dancing

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jackanory returns

As a result of working from home and wandering into the lounge at the right time I managed to see the return of Jackanory, which was a TV show that had a great influence on me when I was a boy starting to discover the joy of reading. Things have changed a lot from the old Bernard Cribbens days and now computer graphics help the story keep going. What is still excellent is that the single narrator does all the voices, gets into the story and adds something that is magical and could not be produced if it wasn’t being read but just told through pictures and graphics. Sadly I will back in the office as the story of Muddle Earth continues on Wednesday but my sons should be watching, which is the main thing.

book of books - Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it and rightfully so because it is difficult, sometimes inaccessible and for its time it would have been shocking as well with its thoughts on sex expressed particularly by Molly Bloom.

Usually you go through a book without resorting to aids or advice but it really cuts down the enjoyment of Ulysses if you try and do it alone and I found some of the sites on the web, particularly the Reading Ulysses series on RTE1 added to the enjoyment of the book.

The other issue with Ulysses is that some people will tell you that before reading it you need to have read other books, particularly Homer’s Odyssey and while that might be true Joyce mixes things up so much that it is not a literal interpretation so while those other texts might be useful it is possible to get a quick summary of the tale of Homer’s Ulysses and understand the references.

Plot summary
The book follows one day and night in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. You start with Stephen a 22-year-old intellectual who teaches but is in debt overshadowed by the death of his mother and his well-known father Simon. Then as the location moves to the newspaper office you pick up the story with Bloom, who sells adverts in the papers. The day starts with a funeral, moves back to the centre of Dublin, has a strange passage in a couple of bars and a brothel, a cabman’s shelter and then Bloom takes Stephen back home and the final chapter is the voice of Molly Bloom who has been repeatedly mentioned in the story but not yet introduced.

Is it well written?
It is written in a number of different styles with it set out like a play in some sections, using no punctuation in others and includes things like music to illustrate points. From a readers perspective it keeps changing and that is what makes it so difficult because it is hard to keep a grip on reality. The references to Dublin are overlaid with Homeric and Shakespearian references that make it very difficult to try and picture sometimes where the characters are. But there are chapters, which are very satisfying – particularly the penultimate one – and you can tell that Joyce is able to produce a work that is telling several different stories and working on various different levels. For that reason it is the sort of book you end up going back to.

Should it be read?
So many people are put off but I am really glad I got through it because not only is there a real sense of achievement but this story remains relevant now. None of the issues – anti Semitism, nationalism, adultery, sex, debt and drunkenness – have gone away and for that reason this connects to a modern readership. At 700 odd pages it is going to be a commitment to read this in terms of time but it is best attempted at one go because otherwise it is not only difficult remembering the story but is too tempting to give up.

Leads to
Because of the microscopic nature of the attention on just two characters and the single day it naturally gets linked in with Proust and Remembrance of Things Past. Also because of the references in the text Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be worth reading before, during or shortly after.

Version read – Penguin modern classic paperback 1972

Tick tock tick tock

As the year starts to draw to a close the struggle is now between the clock and me and the pressure to try and find some time to get aa head in a book is definitely the most important factor in preventing me from reading more. With plenty of second hand charity shops selling books, a library not too far away and books on my shelf it is not a question of access or cost.

The usual perception about reading is that it is an activity done on a beach, in bed or on a train. But finding the time to read is surely the biggest challenge for someone who appreciates literature. One of the problems is not just finding a chunk of time that can be spent reading but also finding somewhere that is quiet enough to make it possible to engage with a story. If I could have anything for Christmas it would be the ability to stop the clocks and squeeze in all the books I haven’t read this year.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Odyssey - post VII

Things have been really busy today with family around so getting in some reading was seen as rude and inappropriate but to keep the Homer simmering I did manage to get a chapter in

Bullet points from chapter fourteen
* Disguised by Athena Odysseus goes and meets a loyal old friend Eumaios who is living with a herd of pigs in self imposed exile from the palace which he tells Odysseus is full of suitors who disrespect the memory of the king

* He shows loyalty to Odysseus even though the disguised stranger suggests he might be dead and shares food and lodging with him

Meanwhile Athena has gone to get Odysseus son to come back and join the fight against the suitors, which will be in the next chapter

bookmark of the week

My parents have just come back from Prague and kindly gave me this bookmark, made from wood as a present. It shows a few Prague type buildings and came just in time to be this week's bookmark of the week

Ulysses - post XI (part two)

Well the end comes and it is a strange feeling because this book has grown on me and I found the last chapter with Bloom and Stephen one of the most pleasant to read and it stirred a real interest in both men and then the voice changes and Molly finishes things off

Bullet points between pages 679 – 704

* There is a suggestion that Molly is becoming slightly jealous of her daughter as she ages and the attention of men, and her lover Blaydon, is focused on Milly rather than herself

* Molly reveals that she knew that Stephen had been in the house and she had watched as Bloom fell over the railings and remembers the other time he came home with a guest, a dog, that also was an unwelcome intrusion into the home

* She reflects on the funeral that started the day and is dismissive of most of the mourners and wonders how Simon, Stephen's father, is getting on now he is a widower and that takes her into thinking about Stephen and the Italian lessons that he is being paid to teach her

* She conjures up lewd thoughts about Stephen and although attracted to an academic type of man has to admit, despite putting the best gloss on it, that she does not have the same level of intelligence around the subjects of literature and poetry

* She muses about her relationships with men and the way women behave generally and then there seems to be an understanding that although she can get round him an does things behind his back Bloom at least won her hand because he treated her in a way no one else had

“ That was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is..."pg703

* The ending is wrapped in memories of the coast of Gibraltar and of her youth beauty and the moment when she accepted the path that took her through the years to 7 Eccles Street

"I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."pg704

I will post a review and share some thoughts on the experience of reading Ulysses in the next couple of days. That’s the first winter reading challenge book done just four more to go…

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Ulysses - post XI (part one)

So we come to the end and the final chapter is dedicated to the voice of Molly Bloom - a character we have heard numerous references to, mainly because of her affair with Blaydon, and it is a strange train of thought we jump on board with her

Bullet points from pages 659 - 679

* The first thing you notice is that there is no punctuation and this is a seamless, endless series of thoughts all running into each other starting with the idea that Bloom is having an affair because he is hiding things from her

* She thinks back to when she first got engaged to Bloom and it seems to be a happy memory although she makes it clear she had other admirers and probably could have done better than Bloom but he seemed to get to her and win her over

* Fashion is obviously important to Molly and she lists the items she has seen other women wearing and items she has her eye on or has recently purchased and boasts about her appearance despite her age

* There are some thoughts about her formative years in Gibraltar and the friendships and things she saw there - fashions and spanish patterns of behaviour

The second half comes after midnight...

'Chewing gum' books

It’s amazing how books can take you into conversations you might never had otherwise have had. On the train to work a man opposite me asked me whether or not Ulysses was as difficult as some people said it was. I told him it was and after chatting about Greene and his love for 100 Years of Solitude he said he was reading a fantasy book about dragons and described it in a way I had never heard before: “It’s light reading, chewing gum really”. I knew what he meant without knowing it and it really stuck in my mind as describing a type of book. Can’t see the bookshops starting a chewing gum category but who knows…?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ulysses - post X

I’m leaving the final chapter as a treat for the weekend and so these bullet points are from the penultimate chapter, which involves just the two men Bloom and Stephen.

Bullet points between pages 600 – 658

* Bloom and Stephen sit in 7 Eccles Street, Blooms house and talk about their pasts and work out they have met each other twice before and had a mutual connection but if you think that they are getting on well it seems shattered by Stephen singing an anti-Semitic song

* Despite that Bloom hopes the young man will stay and be a good influence on his wife, whom he knows is having an affair with Blaydon and there is a slight hint that he might be hoping of a future relationship with his daughter

* But Stephen opts to leave and they go out to the back door and stare at the stars and then Stephen, who has no where to go heads out into the night leaving Bloom to go back inside alone

* Back inside Bloom notices that all of the furniture has been moved around which disconcerts him and he surveys his possessions, does some accounts that indicate he is well off, and then heads to bed

* Upstairs he climbs into bed next to his wife and there is a great description that displays his full understanding about her adultery

What did his limbs, when gradually extended, encounter?
New clean bedlinen, additional odours, the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his, some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed.pg652

* He then decides that of all the options – ranging from assassination of Blaydon to divorce or suing for damages – he will stick with his wife. For those Homer references this seems to be about purging himself of the jealousy of the suitors

One of my favourite passages in this chapter is when Bloom looks back over the day – the contents of the book from his perspective so far – and reminds the reader of all the things that have happened

The preparation of breakfast (burnt offering): intestinal congestion and premeditative defecation (holy of holies): the bath (rite of John): the funeral (rite of Samuel): the advertisement of Alexander Keyes (Urim and Thummim): the unsubstantial lunch (rite of Melchisedek): the visit to museum and national library (holy place): the bookhunt along Bedford row, Merchants' Arch, Wellington Quay (Simchath Torah): the music in the Ormond Hotel (Shira Shirim): the altercation with a truculent troglodyte in Bernard Kiernan's premises (holocaust): a blank period of time including a cardrive, a visit to a house of mourning, a leavetaking (wilderness): the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite of Onan): the prolonged delivery of Mrs Mina Purefoy (heave offering): the visit to the disorderly house of Mrs Bella Cohen, 82 Tyrone street, lower and subsequent brawl and chance medley in Beaver street (Armageddon)- nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman's shelter, Butt Bridge (atonement).pg650

Final chapter tomorrow…

Nightmare at Christmas

It must be a nightmare for publishers trying to predict what will be a bestseller at Christmas. An indication of the strength of field plus the bizarre twists of taste that happen at this time of year are charted in The Times which tips a book about Latin Amo, Amas, Amat and All That as one likely to follow in the footsteps of Lynee Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. May the best book win (unlikely).

The Odyssey - post VI

I have slipped a bit with reading Homer but here are the bullet points from chapter thirteen:

Odysseus finishes his story and is given safe passage as promised back to his homeland but Poseidon is angry that he has managed to get home and Zeus allows him to turn the boat to stone as a warning just as it returns to harbour

Athena comes to Odysseus and warns him that his palace is full of suitors and that he is going to have to kill them and asks him to wait while she goes to fetch his son to join him

More of that tomorrow as well...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ulysses - post IX

The end is in sight and a slightly easier chapter and start of the penultimate one should have made it a good day for reading but things were draining at work so I have struggled and not been able to read any Homer today. Still here is what I did get through in Ulysses

Bullet points between pages 540 - 600

* Bloom and Stephen head for the cabman's shelter where a sailor appears to know Stephen’s father and then shows off some tattoos but when asked by Bloom to recount some stories about his sea faring days the sailor refuses to discuss things

* A woman comes in who Bloom seems to recognise but she is told to go away and Bloom relaxes but then the atmosphere tenses as the sailor and the man running the cab shelter disagree about the role of the Irish in the British navy - whether it is exploitation or not and Bloom starts to get itchy feet

* After leaving Bloom invites Stephen home and on the way back they talk about music, with Stephen praising Shakespearian songs and Bloom revelling in the friendship that you sense he hopes is starting between the men but this doesn't seem to be coming back from Stephen

* As the two head towards Bloom's home they disagree on various topics and when they arrive Bloom has to climb over the railings, he falls but manages to get the door off the latch and get in and open the door to Stephen. The style is questions with answers, another twist of style added after the other experiments earlier in the book

* Bloom offers Stephen the chance to wash but he is not keen on water and turns the chance down and Bloom makes him a cup of cocoa and you discover Bloom is 38 and Stephen is 22

More, hopefully much more tomorrow...

Free your imagination

It’s an interesting play on the idea of making your own t-shirt or painting a design on a mug. Penguin has announced on its blog that it will release six titles that have blank covers for the readers to provide their own image. It is a brave move considering the importance of cover art in influencing a sale and also raises some important questions about art and the power of suggestion.

For instance the reader expects Harry Potter to look exactly like the image on the front because that has been suggested and that happens quite a lot with books based around a strong central character so a blank cover really does hand the imagination back to the reader. It sounds like a really interesting idea and might provide a fair few presents for Christmas.

Reading Ulysses series on RTE - a great find

Searching for stuff about Ulysses I stumbled on a fantastic resource on the Irish broadcaster site RTE, which has a Reading Ulysses series from 2004 still online that is accompanied by photos of Dublin and a great introduction that puts the book, the author into context. I have only listened so far to the introdution and it is well worth listening to because it is discussing the book rather than reading the story and provides great details that really add to the experience of reading Ulysses.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Odyssey - post V

The Odyssey continues to delight with stories that continue to amaze and paint visions of different worlds and Gods.

Bullet points from chapters eleven and twelve

Answering the question about what he did before landing on the island Odysseus continues to recount tales of his voyage including the visit to the land of the dead where he meets old friends and his mother

He sees some of the gruesome sights in the land of the dead with Dante like tortures with a man having his insides picked out by vultures and a man constantly thirsty being surrounded by water which he can never drink

The crew head back and meet Kirke and she warns them that they face the perils of the Sirens and a six headed beat that has twelve legs and will take six men off the boat as they pass the cliffs

Having gone past the worst the crew effectively mutinies and demands that the food for the voyage is shared up and then behind Odysseus’s back they decide to eat the cattle that have been stored on board as a sacrifice to the gods

Zeus sends a thunderbolt to destroy the ship and the crew are killed and Odysseus spends nine nights clinging onto the wreck before arriving at the island where Kalypso lives and the story so far is concluded

Ulysses - post VIII

The two main influences I can detect at least on Ulysses are Hamlet and the Odyssey. Both of those references crop up in the hallucination passages just before the end of part II and part III

One of the giveaways of the Shakespearian references is the moment when the man himself appears but also the appearance of Stephen’s dead mother but this also has Homerian overtones because when Odysseus visits the land of the dead it is his mother he meets there. Plenty to think about and of course there are those who will happily write a thesis on it all but all I really want to do now is finish the book!

Bullet points between pages 500 – 540

* The focus of the madness shifts slightly away from Bloom, although he continues to be involved and focuses on Stephen who meets his dead mother who urges him to stop being an atheist and repent

* Stephen then gets involved with a debate with an English solider as a mirage of King Edward appears and the solider threatens to attack him if he is rude about the King and there is a good insight into the politics with Stephen describing himself as a green rag to a bull

* Things then calm down and it is Stephen who is involved with the police but Bloom comes to the rescue – he must have sobered up – and defends Stephen and tries to bring him round as the chapter ends Bloom also sees an apparition of his dead son Rudy

* Bloom and Stephen walk off together - the first time in the book they have been alone with each other – and Bloom starts to ask questions about his father and indicates that although he has been around when Stephen has been drinking and in the newspaper office he obviously doesn’t know that much about his personal circumstances

More tomorrow…

Cheats guide – use in desperation

This feels a bit like recommending a cheat for a computer game and thereby taking the enjoyment out of it but if you get to around page 500 of Ulysses and you are really struggling with the hallucination sequences then it helps to know that if you are using a book without footnotes then there is a way of quickly getting back in touch with the direction the narrative should be going in.

This comes with a caution - only use if desperate because it can spoil the reading experience – but there is a cheat’s guide to Ulysses on the BBC.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ulysses - post VII

I have to admit that reading this book today has been hard going. It has produced all the things that I feared Joyce might have in store. When I started putting together some bullet points it became clear it is not the easiest thing to do when you don't know what is real or a dream and Joyce seems determined to make life as difficult as possible for the reader and is almost so keen to lose you he will violently shake you off.

Bullet points between pages 420 – 500

* Things start slowly with Bloom appearing to go and visit a brothel where he is known to the madam in charge and is obviously a former visitor but then things take a surreal turn and the text is written like a stage play with italicised descriptions and directions for the cast

* Some police suddenly threatens Bloom with arrest and as he tries to argue his way out of it things start to take a very surreal turn and he is in a courtroom in front of a judge answering all types of charges and changing his character almost with every new accusation

* Throughout the case there are numerous references to numbers with three whores, the eight beatitudes (it should be seven shouldn't it?) and along with that there are moments when your head starts hurting when Bloom appears to change sex and at one point gives birth to seven boys

* The court case still rumbles on and all of the main characters so far seem to make an appearance including the talking corpse of the man they buried that morning and at various moments Stephen plays the piano and makes a few odd comments not always related to the proceedings

I am going to struggle on tomorrow...

Another dose of celeb book bashing

Talking of literacy it is a bit of a bugbear of mine that if you go in hunt for a decent read it is almost impossible at this time of year to get past the mountains of celebrity biographies. Yet as John Crace points out in today’s Guardian publishers know that they are not all selling in large numbers yet continue to commission and publish them. It even gets to into a weird situation where a celebrity cleared of murder, talking about O.J Simpson of course, will go out and write a book about how he would have murdered his wife and her boyfriend if he had wanted to.

What will be interesting is at the end of the Christmas sales period when the figures are in and the cold reality hits some publishers. Already sales figures of some footballing memoirs are down. Some serious thought should be put into the celebrity book process but you can place an easy bet that there are some companies with cheque books open just waiting to get a signature from the winner of the X Factor and I’m Celebrity get Me Out of Here

Somebody must champion literacy

I did this piece for a magazine called Poet's Letter but wanted to share it with you on the blog. Hope it gets you thinking...

Fat kids have had Jamie Oliver and more recently Ian Wright queuing up, with a film crew in tow, to save them from eating themselves to death.

Those children that now eat school dinners that keep them trim and understand the benefits of exercise are no doubt better off but in an age where television and computer games are the main ways to relax just who is going to pick up the cause for literature?

Switch on the television or open a liberal newspaper and there will be some of the literary establishment speaking out in favour of more reading and decrying the current state of affairs.

The problem is that the people who need to hear that message neither watch that sort of television or read those sorts of papers.

Of course there are various incentives running, often through libraries and schools, that are designed to encourage reading but thanks in part to the widely held view that Harry Potter has saved children from turning away from books real problems persist.

Talk of a crisis might seem premature but the facts and figures are stacking up and the problem starts from the very first moment a child enters the classroom and starts to learn how to read.

When Penguin comes out, as it did at the time of its re-launch of its Classic range earlier this summer, and quotes from research that describes the average reader as getting through just one book a year and a heavy reader managing just four then maybe its time to start acknowledging a problem.

Add to a grim picture of someone leafing through pages of a novel at about three a week and last month the owners of the Financial Times, Pearson, came out with research that showed that one in ten parents never read to their children. Dads came out as the worst offenders and on the list of excuses were things like being too tired and prepared to skip pages to get to the end of a book more quickly.

There are some prepared to take a hard line into shaming parents into reading to their children but they are based in the US and the techniques they go in for tend to fail to translate across the Atlantic.

But something, or rather someone, is required to tackle the literacy issue because only a month before the Pearson figures about young school children came out there has already been a set of disappointing Key Stage 3 results in September.

Figures showed that children of 14 were not reading as well as they should be. In response both the Conservatives and Liberals described the results, with a third of children not reading at the required level, as “unacceptable”.

Of course they would say that but this is far from being simply a political issue. In a texting, sound byte culture children probably don’t feel the need to read even a 100 page novel and as a result miss out on classics that fall into that length including John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Hop onto the Internet and tap in reading figures into a search engine and more evidence of a problem will quickly appear.

The National Literary Trust has its own bleak figures, showing that 34 per cent of adults claimed to never read according to figures that are only a couple of years old.

One of the problems is that those who do read are stuck in a cosy world when the calendar is populated by author speaking events and the Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham Book festivals.

Mind you back in the summer when Waterstones asked its annual question of what MPs were taking with them as holiday reading in the summer recess it turned out to be Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which was the same title that came top amongst the politicians the year before. They say a week is a long time in politics but obviously not in the business of turning pages in a novel.

But politicians to one side the problem is that outside of the book lovers circle it takes Richard & Judy to act as a motivating force to get people to buy books along with the power of the major retailers and supermarkets to discount heavily those titles that are expected to shift in the lorry load.

If the reading figures continue to remain poor as both parents and children continue to fail to get to grips with the written word it doesn’t just spell danger for the publishing industry, that might find it harder to find a market for non mainstream titles, but it is not good for the health of the country.

The government has set all sorts of targets for children and adults but this taps into something more serious than just hitting the numbers. Is the nation that produced Shakespeare and Dickens going to be able to find someone of that calibre in the future?

So many homes are book-free with bookshelves being used instead to prop up collections of video games and DVDs leaving a generation without the mental tools needed to read a book.

Someone other than the figures in the current literary establishment needs to come out and put the debate in the public eye. Strong words and a different approach are needed and now is the time to deliver it in a way that children of all ages will be able to understand.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Odyssey - post III

Things start to get interesting as Odysseus tells his story - a sort of Sinbad emporium of giant Cyclops and angry gods

Bullet points from chapters nine and ten

Odysseus starts to tell his story and how the army split after the victory at Troy and he set off and ran into problems with the Cyclops who turned out to be cannibals happy to eat members of his crew for breakfast

After managing to blind then escape from a Cyclops Odysseus taunts it from the sea and the giant prays to his father Poseidon to make sure the crew all dies and Odysseus has a terrible journey home

They start at Aiolia Island and the King helps them but when they reappear he understands that their journey is cursed so asks them to leave and they come across a land where the scouts sent to meet the king come across yet more cannibalism

They flee to a land with a hall in the middle of a glade and the goddess Kirke lives there and enchants the men and turns them into swine but Hermes comes and tells Odysseus how to break her spell but she tells him he cannot go home easily and must first sail to the land of the dead and go through some complex sacrificing rituals to make sure the gods are appeased

This is a great read and the only criticism would be that the adventures are sometimes too short leaving you wanting to know more about the different lands and the creatures/people who live on them

Ulysses - post VI

I have read plenty of other comments on the web by people who have struggled with Ulysses and today I agree with them all it has been very difficult reading. Part of the reason is that you are trying to take in the story and at the same time look for this meanings and symbols and the net result is a headache and a failure on both counts.

Bullet points between pages 370 – 420

* Bloom is sitting and reflecting on the argument in the pub wondering whether or not it was meant to be maliciously anti semitic and wonders if he should have answered back more

* The scene then shifts to Horne’s house where Bloom and Stephen meet but the frustrating things is that because of the style, which is narrative without speech, it is hard to work out whether or not they are talking to each other

* It becomes clear after a while there is an argument over religion going on and Bloom tries to play the role of peace maker and things change tack while they discuss the child murderer in a celebrated case

* There are references to Gods and sailing across the sea but they are all mixed up with Thor being the God, which is mentioned, and then there are other references to Greece and drachmas being lost on the horse race

* There is then a discussion about science, in particular around the question of childbirth with both Stephen and Bloom taking part in the debate

It feels like Joyce is toying with you at this stage mixing things up and then hinting at things without making them obvious to the reader. Still, more tomorrow…

Who rules?

Because of the references to the English parliament and Irish politicians having to go over to ask permission to play ball games in Ulysses it made me check out who was running the country at the time the book was written and it was the British who ruled in Ireland until 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and partition was a result. It’s useful to know what sort of background the book was being written against and it explains the references to Irish nationalist groups some characters make, particularly in the pub.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Odyssey - post II

You have to wait for Odysseus to get off his island to start to get to parts of the story that are echoed in Ulysses

Bullet points from chapters five through to the end of eight

Athena appeals to Zeus to protect Telemakhos from the suirours and Zeus says that Odysseus will have to leave the island alone on a raft for 20 days

Zeus sends Hermes to get the plan rolling and deal with Kalypso who is smitten with Odysseus and not that keen on letting him go but she helps him leave as it is the God's will and he sets off. But the God of hurricanes sees him and blows him about until his boat sinks and he has to swim to shore

He is washed up on the shore of the land run by the Phalakians and he meets the princess and is taken back to the palace to wait to meet the king

He meets Akinoss the King who says that really after helping him he should marry his daughter but if he wants to leave he will provide him with a ship and crew and safe passage home

This is the first part that reminds you of Joyce or visa versa of course as the crew of the ship are listed and all have sea related names a bit like the tree names in the wedding in Ulysses

As the crew prepares to leave Odysseus comes under pressure to tell everyone who he is

More tomorrow and of Ulysses

Elitist moi?

Someone recently accused me of being ‘elitist; by reading books by people like Proust and Joyce. My argument was that it was never intended to come across like that but if push came to shove I tended to opt for classic books that I either felt I should have read and missed out on or from writers that had an established track record and a bit of weight.

But the person who made this comment doesn’t really read at all so in the case, if it’s not a question of intellectual snobbery about authors, but just the act of reading that is elitist then you have to challenge that.

Almost everyone can read, and pick up books for pence in a charity shop or join a library, and unless there are medical reasons why it is not possible then the question that has to be asked in return is why don’t you read? The answer no doubt will be one influenced by many factors ranging from TV dependency, laziness and possibly stupidity. Maybe I am elitist but I’d rather be seen as that than a couch potato trying to convince myself I can learn as much as I could reading by listening to commentary on the goggle box.

bookmark of the week

This is a handmade paper bookmark with a watercolour of somt tress, a hill and the edge of a castle at the top. I bought it a few years ago in Florence, which has a large traditional paper making business and this has been made using traditional techniques of Acquaforte.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Odyssey - post I

Bearing in mind the influences that Homer’s work has on Ulysses it seems like a good idea before I miss all of the connecting points to catch up and read this before I get further into the Joyce next week.

Bullet points from the first four chapters

Odysseus has fought in the wards against Troy but is marooned on an island and lost from his family and people

Athena, daughter of Zeus asks for him to be released and then visits his son Telemakhos to tell him to sail to find news of his father

Suitors surround Penelope the wife of Odysseus but the son tells them to go away and leave his mother alone.

Athena keeps appearing in different guises and gives Telemakhos the courage to tell the suitors to leave, that he is going after his father and will not give up hope for another year

As some in the crowd laugh at his speech Zeus sends eagles that scratch at the faces of those who disbelieve him

Athena organises a ship and crew and they head off in search of news of Odysseus

They meet Nestor the master charioteer and tell him of their quest but all he can tell them is that after the war the leaders argued and some stayed but he fled home and that was the last he saw of Odysseus

He rumbles that Athena is with the ship and tells Telemakhos that a God is favouring him

Next on the list to be visited is Menalous who tells a tale of how after the war he was stuck on an island and had to appease a sea god who told him that he was being punished for not giving praise to Zeus before they set sail for home

He asks after the other leaders and is told that one has been cast a drift and the other was killed by Poseidon after boasting of his power over the sea god

Meanwhile the suitors discover Telemakhos has sailed and plan to set sail intercept his boat and kill him

Penelope finds out and is crestfallen but Athena visits her and calms her

More tomorrow…

Classic choices

Odd bits and pieces in the papers today - including a piece in The Independent about a six year old author and something in The Guardian about the sale of Blackwell Publishing - but what was interesting was the choice of recommended reads in The Time Christmas Books special, which in the classics section listed Plato’s Republic and some collections of historical writing about Britain and its Kings and Queens. I’m a bit surprised that there was not more of a presence of the redesigned Penguin books that made such an impression in the papers back in the summer.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ulysses - post V

After a really good day’s reading the pressures of the week have caught up with me and it has dipped today. I am also recognising that it might be a wise idea to pop to the library tomorrow and get out Homer’s Odyssey because otherwise I miss completely missing the parallel meanings in Ulysses.

Bullet points between pages 316 – 370

* Having seen the men singing, which is obviously connected with the sirens in the Odyssey – although I need to refresh my memory on that one – Bloom then steps into another pub and ends up in a confrontation

* Faced with an atmosphere that is on the knife-edge of insulting Bloom initially it seems for his wife’s adultery and it is hinted that it is with the touring troop owner Blaydon but then it becomes anti-Semitic

* The focus seems to settle on Bloom’s Jewishness and as a result one member of the group works himself up into such a frenzy he grabs a cake tin and hurls it at Bloom as he leaves and heads down the road

* There is then a rather unsavoury passage where you follow two girls, 17 and 22, who are looking after a couple of twins and are being watched by Bloom who chooses the moment just after their departure it seems to me at least as the perfect timing to masturbate

On that savoury note I’ll leave it for today and might well pause while I pick up Homer tomorrow and Sunday

Albertine Gone

I have now finished Albertine Gone by Marcel Proust, which although being much shorter than The Fugitive - the standard version of this volume - it does contain much of the same content. This is the book that resulted from Proust's family finding it among his papers but it was not published until the late 1980s.
The one major difference is that when Marcel is told of Albertine’s death he is also given a location of the horse accident and it is near to where the notorious lesbian Mlle Vinteuil lived so in death her lies are undone. Because of that it might explain why he is tighter with the rest of the copy because he does not need to delve too much into her past to know that she was a liar and kept a life hidden from him.

In all honesty I only picked this up from the library because I felt it might add something to the experience of Remembrance of Things Past but my advice is stick with the standard version because this adds one major detail, which becomes irrelevant anyway as a result of his later investigations which prove beyond doubt that Albertine kept secrets from him.

Couldn't agree more

At the risk of going on again about the large amount of celebrity biographies that are clotting up the bookshelves in bookshops this Christmas there is a great article in The Independent by Boyd Tonkin who moans not just about the “snowdrifts of Christmas drivel” making reference to celebrity dross but also expresses despair about the number of ‘humour’ books that are designed to appeal to people who do not like reading. I was nodding my head while reading and no doubt you will be too.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ulysses - post IV

There is a shift in the style and all of a sudden things start to expand out from the main characters and you sense the story is heading in a direction – not clear where at this stage – and it becomes easier to read

Bullet points between pages 200 - 315

* The hacks continue to debate Shakespeare with Stephen putting forward various theories about the relationship between the bard and his own father – themes that come out in Hamlet – and then talks about Shakespeare’s relationships with his brothers

* All the time Stephen is speaking there are various comings and goings and there are various people asking for back issues of newspapers or trying to get articles into publications including Stephens house mate Mulligan even tries to get in on the act

* As they talk about Shakespeare the text is written as a play for a page and a half – the book is full of these quirky devices and has already included a bar of music on an earlier page

* Things then widen out and you follow the priest who was involved with the funeral, the son of the deceased man and meet Stephen’s sisters and father and get an insight into the extreme poverty they live in

* The story then covers more people across Dublin with Bloom acting as the link as he crosses town and he is there when Stephens father and friends sing and play the piano in the pub and he is there when friends of the man buried in the morning at the funeral find out he is dead

* There are numerous references also being made to blooms wife Molly, some sort of opera singer who depending on the point of view is brilliant/washed up and there are hints, some told almost under blooms nose, that she is unfaithful to him and that is widely known

More tomorrow...

Thoughts on Proust – part two

Following the comments yesterday on story and writing the spotlight falls on characterisation and the subject of time.

It’s important to declare that the main character of Marcel is not the sort of person I would have too much time for and as a result it made reading some of the book a struggle. The things you find yourself disliking about him are his strange approach towards anyone of the female sex, obsess ional tendencies about new places and people and his tendency to wallow in thought rather than take action.

Despite that the positive about Marcel and the rest of the cast of characters is that they do change and so someone you did not particularly warm to, take the duchess de Guermantes for instance you get the chance to know better and someone you like from the first, Robert Saint-Loup for example, you grow to dislike.

Some characters that initially seem important – the mother and particularly his father – turn out not to be and ironically it is the servant Francoise who ends up having the longest relationship with Marcel serving him right through the books after she joins his service after his Aunt dies.

Another thought to share is that despite the move to various locations, even at one point Venice, the same characters populate those areas so you get the chance to follow their stories and development and as a result of their repetitive presence you feel immersed in Marcel’s world.

Finally, you have to note that one of the oddest things about Remembrance of Things Past is that throughout the book those characters that are cast in a negative light or at least suffer the arrows of society are those who are homosexual and Jewish. Marcel is cast as a hot blooded male distraught after he discovers Albertine is a lesbian but of course in real life Proust was homosexual. Knowing that you can’t help wondering what point he is trying to make with his gay characters.

Proust’s work is about time in the clearest sense in terms of memory and breathing life into moments that have gone. But there are other clever uses of time throughout the books.

There are moments when coincidence is too much for some people to be in the same place and so there is a constant feeling that the reader is at the crossroads of various important points in time. People repeatedly turn up in different guises – no more than characters like Odette and Morel – and reinvent themselves having a different impact on the story. There are echoes of people, places and things like music with the passage of the sonata Swann loved cropping up again with Marcel also enjoying it. In terms of an appreciation for places Balbec attracts Marcel, Albertine, Charlus, the Verdurin’s and their clan as well as artists like Elstir.

The other thing is wishing time could be reversed so he not only drags up the past but also regrets the demise of his grandmother and Albertine. With Albertine it is very much a case of regret because he feels partly that the timing of her death is caused by the timing of the rupture between them. He tries to bring back people through focused grief but is unable to do it and has to accept that time will not only heal the pain of losing someone but in the end force you to forget so there is a reverse of the desperation he has in other instances to remember.

Finally, because of the nature of the books, which is a review back over a period where some of his family members die, friends are killed in war and the ageing process impacts everyone, there is a question about the difference between Marcel at the start of the book, where all he worried about was getting a kiss from his mother, and the end when innocence has been completely lost (think of the scene between Charlus and Jupien). So there is another dimension to time being part of growing up and as a loss of innocence.

It might be off at a tangent but Proust must have also realised as he wrote volume after volume that there is also going to be a time commitment from the reader who will have to spend some serious time reading the books.

Downloadable Ulysses

If you fancy reading Ulysses without having to spend some money first to find out if it’s your sort of thing a copy of the text is available on Project Gutenberg and readers in the US can sample it copyright free. It is also available at bibliomania so the choice is yours.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ulysses one page at a time

If you fancy reading a page of Ulysses one at a time and probably spending the next few years doing it then the James Joyce Ulysses one page every day blog is doing just that and the great thing is that the entire book has been posted - taking the blogger on this site a couple of years worth of work from the looks of it. It is a great idea for anyone who wants to dip into the book and get a feel for the challenging style. I recommend page 57 as an example of just what lies in store.

Ulysses - post III

Reading Ulysses is like being given access to someone’s mind and it moves like a butterfly from one thought to the next without reason half the time. This book is more about atmosphere and mood for me at the moment because that’s the most accessible element of the writing

To make life easier for myself and hopefully for others who wrestle with this book I am going to summarise everything that so far has emerged about the two lead characters:

Stephen Dedalus Leopold Bloom
Son of Simon Married to Molly with a daughter
One of 15 siblings Son died from illness
Mother deceased Having an affair
Some sort of teacher Sells adverts in the newspapers
In debt Avoid singing contracts

Those facts might help as we go forward

Bullet points between pages 132 – 200

* After the funeral Bloom and the others are in the newsroom filing copy, chasing ads and putting to bed the issue of numerous newspapers that seem to be located within a stones throw of each other – must be the Dublin equivalent to Fleet Street

* There appears to be a great camaraderie between the writers but Bloom is kept slightly at arms length and he disappears before Stephen comes in and takes up the conversation with the hacks

* They all head off to the pub with Bloom drinking alone brooding on things and then helping a blind man cross the road and on his way is thinking about the letter from his mistress he received that morning

* Stephen and the hacks are left in the pub arguing about Shakespeare with the disagreement being about whether or not the life of Shakespeare needs to be understood if his plays can be enjoyed and he is encouraged to write about his theories about the great bard

More tomorrow…

Thoughts on Proust - part one

Having now finished Remembrance of Things Past and having a couple of days to think about it all I wanted to put together some thoughts about the story, writing, personality of Marcel (the character) and a couple of points on the subject of time.

In this first mini-essay (not really what blogging is meant to be about) I’ll cover off the story and writing.

The story
Unlike most books, which have a tight plot structure, this is about real life and as a result doesn’t follow a pattern but develops organically. That makes it sometimes feel like it is not going anywhere quickly and in others numerous things happen at once without the chance to provide the reader with the usual descriptive analysis that is displayed elsewhere across the volumes.

There are a few themes throughout the books – age and loss of innocence spring to mind - but the most important are around the themes of deception and disappointment. Most people are hiding things ranging from homosexuality to support for Dreyfus. A few figures provide the examples of the first problem most notably M. de Charlus, Albertine and in the end Saint-Loup. In terms of the second people are guilty of switching sides on the Dreyfus case as well as later on showing sympathy for the Germans during the First World War.

Ultimately the story is about a man who has the luxury of wealth so has no need to find a job, who pokes around the edges of his ambition to become a writer before having his moment of realisation. As he grows up, and although the ages are hard to guess at so maybe a rough guide is the period covered is something like 30 years from the age of ten to forty, he falls in love with various women before developing a physical relationship with Albertine, who it transpires is a lesbian, and then leaves him and dies.

Sadly Marcel is ill when the war is taking place so that the story about how the war impacted on society and Paris is told in snippets but not in the sort of depth that he brings to bear at the start of the epic on Combray and Balbec.

The story could have just petered out but you end with this sort of Back to The Future type blinding flash moment when Marcel realises he could set out to produce an opus about time and memory and far from having to struggle with finding the subject matter for a book he has all he needs in his own head.

For me it is those last passages about time and writing that make the book a success because it could have just fizzled out because by volume seven the main characters are either dead: Swann, Saint-Loup, Albertine, M Verdurin and a few of the minor players or so old and changed they are no longer of great interest: Charlus, Mde. De Guermantes, Morel and Bloch.

Finally, the other comment I would make on the story is that trying to describe it is bound to put people off the journey. In pockets there are moments of great humour – based mainly around Charlus – great pain and friendship. It is not quite like holding a mirror up but there are aspects of Marcel’s existence and life that do resonate with your own – the feeling of paranoia and jealousy when you first meet your partner – as well as evidence if it was needed that people from time’s first beginning have lied, kept secrets and hidden their true selves.

The writing
The other feature of Remembrance of Things Past that can provoke today’s generation is the writing style. For those people who love deep detailed description this is a master class in how someone can use the power of the memory to recall events that clearly happened years before they have been written about. Some of the passages are truly beautiful and have rightly become famous. One of my favourites came from Swann’s Way:

“But in summer, when we came back to the house, the sun would not have set; and while we were upstairs paying our visit to aunt Leonie its rays , sinking until they lay along her window-sill, would be caught and held by the large inner curtains and the loops which tied them to the back of the wall, and then, split and ramified and filtered, encrusting with tiny flakes of gold the citronwood of the chest-of-drawers, would illuminate the room with a delicate, slanting, woodland glow.” (pg145)

He manages to get the most out of sounds, smells and locations using his skill to create, like a composer, themes that will echo at different volumes throughout the seven volumes. Things like the bedtime kiss from his mother, which becomes replaced by Albertine, becomes a recurring theme he refers to.

There is also an ability, although sometimes it is cut very close, where he pushes the naval gazing intense analysis of his social world to such an extent the reader could switch off, before changing location and pace. There are moments when deaths, marriages and changes to circumstances are reeled off quickly and others where he can quite happily spend half a book talking about the social circle that gravitates to the Verdurin’s in Balbec during his second summer there.

The other point that is worth mentioning is the way he manages to seamlessly move into a narrative voice that is able to report on for instance the courtship of Swann and Odette, despite the fact Marcel is not involved. That happens again with Charlus and Morel.

Some writers have referred to Remembrance of Things Past as almost a soap opera and that feeling is only the result of Proust’s ability to keep the reader guessing and add extra twists to the story line. For instance you were kept wondering if society would find out about Charlus and his homosexuality; if Saint-Loup and Gilberte really were in love; if Albertine ever really cared for Marcel and so on. It would be almost impossible to get readers to stick with seven large volumes, around 3,000 pages, if they didn’t feel it was going anywhere.

Proust’s achievement is that he manages to pull the story and the focus of the writing back at the end to be centred on Marcel and the whirrings of his brain and that is where crucially the story, writing and narrative point of view come from.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Good Proust links

I am on the brink of putting together my thoughts about Proust and Remembrance of Things Past now I have finished the seven volumes – just want to get Albertine Gone completed – but in the meantime if my posts on the great man and his books have wetted your appetite then here are some great links (in no particular order) to find out more about Proust and his world:

Wikipedia – which has a biography, comments on the books and some further links

The Kolb-Proust archive – an online archive of letters, bibliography and some FAQs on the writer - a site simply dedicated to Remembrance of Things Past with the chance to buy books and CD-ROMs

Involuntary memory -a blog dedicated to reading and commenting on Remembrance of Things Past

Reading Proust – focuses on the new Penguin/Viking editions which has some good links and details of the latest Penguin editions

Other possibilities:

Le temps de proust – this is a blog about reading Proust but it doesn’t seem to have been updated since January but there is some good archive material on there

Ulysses - post II

This book is not getting any easier and some of the stream of consciousness stuff is hard to understand but you have to stick with it because underneath it all the characters and the story are emerging.

Bullet pointes between pages 63 – 131

* Having introduced Stephen Dedalus the focus shifts onto Leopold Bloom who sells adverts and you are introduced to his social circle, which includes Stephen’s father Simon because they all attend a funeral

* There are dream like moments that are interspersed with dialogue so you get surreal moments when Bloom imagines what it would be like if his friends coffin fell off the hearse and opened

* Throughout the service and afterwards Bloom’s thoughts invade the story and it is obvious why some people have linked this as a book that should appeal to those people who liked Proust

* The text then becomes inventive with short parts of the story headlined like a series of newspaper stories as the scene moves from the funeral to the newspaper offices where Bloom and the others are getting the adverts and the copy ready to be printed

Despite the challenge of sticking with it you want to read on because you want to see how these characters develop and if they overlap

Tradtional v electronic

This might be a bit of a blow for the current attempts to push electronic reading aids but according to research pre-school children get a more positive interaction when sharing a reading experience with parents.

A story about the "Electronic books: Boon or Bust for Interactive Reading?" study released by researchers at Temple University's Infant Laboratory and Erikson Institute in Chicago is on Medical News Today.

Bearing in mind how many electronic learning aids will be sold over Christmas the findings that traditional books provide a better reading experience have come out at a very interesting time and for those of us who love books it is a minor cause for celebration.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ulysses - post I

I have read in numerous places that Ulysses is a difficult book and no more difficult than at the start when a reader has to cope with struggling to get to grips with the style James Joyce uses.

This is the first book of the five I have chosen for the Winter Reading Challenge and so the aim is to get through it and still have time for the other four before Christmas.

Bullet points from pages 7 – 62

* The story starts with the focus on a couple of men living in a tower but the focus sharpens more on Stephen Dedalus who is in debt, appears to be struggling to exist as an non-believer in a religious Ireland and spends his time when he gets the chance drinking with his friends

* He is teaching, getting paid for his troubles, and then is a sequence he goes to the beach and this is where it gets difficult because you get a stream of consciousness with words rhyming and appearing to be whizzing around jumping from thought to thought

* Then chapter one ends and a second major character Leopold Bloom is introduced who seems to be in different circumstances from Stephen with more money and he exists in a different world in Dublin with traders and shopkeepers the people he meets rather than fellow free-thinking friends

More tomorrow…

Book of books – Time Regained

The epic Remembrance of Things Past ends with Marcel Proust outlining what he intended to do as a writer and sharing the moment when he has the blinding flash moment that inspires him to start writing the book.

Plot summary
Marcel has suffered bouts of absence because of illness and as a result only coincides with some of the other characters on an occasional basis. This volume takes place against the backdrop of the First World War with different attitudes of characters to the conflict. Bloch and Morel try to run away from the fighting but Saint-Loup dives into it and is killed. Then after another break Marcel visits a party at the Guermantes and realises how old everyone has become, including himself. The crucial thing is that on the way to the party three things happen which evoke memories of his childhood and then he spends time waiting for the music to finish in the library and realises that he can write a book, it is I him, and the challenge is to do it before time runs out.

Is it well written?
It is up to the same standards as all the other volumes with a perceptible increase in the pace because time is running out. Some characters die, wither in war or of illness, and there is a palpable sense that Marcel’s generation are running into the sand and if he is going to do something in the world of literature he has to do it now. Describing the effect that a sound, a smell or a person has to evoke memories of childhood is not an easy thing to do but Proust manages to convey those moments of understanding easily.

Should it be read?
I think what saves it from becoming another navel gazing social scene report is the moment when he realises and comments on the art of writing based on memory. Up until that point the usual themes of vice, deception and disappointment are in evidence with Charlus and Saint-Loup. Near the end of the volume the passages where he writes about writing speak across the decades and are a challenge and a guide for budding authors today.

Version read – Chatto & Windus hardback 1982

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Time Regained - post VI

“How much more worth living did it appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illuminated, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realised within the confines of a book! How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book!”pg 1086

What a journey. Sometimes it has been hard going and there have been moments of laughter, tragedy and pain but the mammoth Remembrance of Things Past comes to an end.

Bullet points between pages 970 – 1107

* Everyone seems to have changed with age with some of the old characters almost unrecognisable including Bloch and Morel and the Guermantes world has changed because the Princess has died and the prince has married Madame de Verdurin

* Some of the old guard are dying out and those who are alive can’t seem to remember what happened in the past so play it safe with some forgetting their exact relationships with Marcel

* He meets Gilberte and they talk about Robert and she asks him why he has come to such a large party and he thinks to himself that in the future he will devote himself to a life of solitude and writing his book

* The fortunes of the actresses Berma and Rachel have been swapped and in the end the great actresses daughter even goes after Rachel and once Berma is told of that social disgrace she slips into her grave

* Marcel concludes that time is what influences the social position with your star rising across a limited generation and depending on your entry into public life it determines who you know and mix with

“…life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, double and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.”pg 1088

* Meeting Gilberte and Saint-Loup’s sixteen year-old daughter has a massive impact on him and makes him think about his own mortality and the challenge he has set himself to write a book – will his health last and will he live long enough to finish it become the obsessions filling his mind as he tries to shut out the voices around him at the Guermantes party

Of course he managed it – sadly he never really lived long enough to enjoy the achievement – and a full review of Time Regained will be posted in the next few days and then I will post thoughts about the whole epic Remembrance of Things Past later in the week.

The Great War - a selection of books

When you think of Remembrance Day you think of The First World War, which defined the horrors of modern warfare, introduced the idea of static trenches with soldiers slugging it out for yards of mud for months. There are more books on the First World War and different aspects of it but here are a selection to consider if you want to read more about the subject.

Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan
A book that makes non bones about its aim to set the record straight. He deals with the idea that there was a lost generation, that the generals were donkeys leading lions and that the battles were a waste of life. He sets out to puncture those myths and is persuasive but it gets dangerous in places because there is almost an assumption that life is expendable. In other parts he argues that just because the French needed the Somme the British were right to do it. Maybe it was Verdun that needed the rethink not the Somme? An aggressive read that proves that history is an evolving debate.

To The Last Man: Spring 1918
by Lyn Macdonald
Like her other books she lets the soldiers do the talking through letters, diaries and interviews. Very well researched but the slight disappointment that hits you around page 280, which is that this book does not cover the war until the end of the conflict but in terms of adding to her other books including They Called It Passchendaele: The Story of the Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in It and The Somme this gives an insight using real voices of what was happening in the year 1918.

The Last Kaiser The Life of Wilhelm II by Giles MacDonogh
Of course one of the other victims was the German leader who took his nation into war. He was an odd man who was seen by his people as powerful but the war came about because of his attempts not to lose power and to be taken more seriously by his cousins who happened to be running Britain and Russia. In the end he lost the power struggle and ended up in exile in Holland. Not badly written but you get weary of claims on the dust jacket that this is something “gripping” when it fails to live up to that adjective.

The Eastern Front 1914-1917
by Norman Stone
There are few books telling the story of what happened with Russia’s involvement with the war before the revolution. This is a classic dose of military history making it difficult to stick with sometimes and you are aware that this was written before the collapse of communism and historians today have access to more archive material. In summary: Austria was weak, Italians were weaker but Russia blew it in terms of strategy and confidence. Germany created myths of easy victories that were hard to replicate, especially on the Western front.

All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
A thought-provoking book that is based on the German side. In the end the main character is also a victim of the futile war but before he succumbs to a bullet you get a good idea of what it must have been like in a trench, in the rear and in a field hospital. Brilliantly written and very powerful is reminds you that it doesn’t matter which side you are on because everyone is a victim of war.
The Great War by Marc Ferro
Because Ferro is French this is better on the French take on the war. It is mainly written as a summary of the war but he does go in depth over quite off things and in other parts skips over them quickly and moves on. There is also too much expectation that the reader will have a basic understanding of the conflict before reading this book.

bookmark of the week

picked this up on a trip many years ago to Prague. My wife is a big fan of Art Nouveau and there is plenty of it in Prague, inlcuding the Mucha museum.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, chocking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Com e gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen

Friday, November 10, 2006

Proust on writing

All through Remembrance of Things Past you are dazzled by passages so rich in memory and you have to marvel at how Proust was able to recall such detail. Budding writers will be wondering just how you go about getting to a stage where you can produce something worthy of Proust.

Proust himself helps provide the answer and there is a moment when after doubting that he can produce any literature worthy of being read that he has a moment when he finally understands that what he needs is not to strive for some sort of difficult subject but draw on his own experiences.

“So that the essential, the only true book, though in an ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘invented’ by a great writer – for it exists already in each one of us – has to be translated by him. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.”

“And surely this was a most tempting prospect, the task of re-creating one’s true life, of rejuvenating one’s impressions.”

Of course the only problem is that you might just run out of time to do all of that…

“But there was a more serious reason for my distress: I had made the discovery of this destructive ambition of Time at the very moment when I had conceived the ambition to make visible, to intellectualise in a work of art, realities that were outside Time.”

If you follow that advice it seems if you want to be the next Proust the sooner you start writing your memories down the better.

Time Regained - post V

At last the moment when the blinkers come off is upon Marcel and you sense a growing confidence that is bound to change him and his relationship with some of the other leading characters

Bullet points between pages 920 – 970

* Marcel is still waiting in the library at the Guermantes house waiting until the music has stopped and he can go in to see the rest of the guests

* He starts to think about the past, time and memory and realises that rather than wait for a story to come to him as a writer he has all the experiences he needs inside himself – there are a couple of key passages about the art of his writing which I will post up in a separate post because they deserve to stand out and not get lost in these bullet points

* After grasping his vocation the train of thought is suddenly interrupted and he meets the other guests and he is aware of them in a different light now that he understands the importance of people to source his written content

* Having earlier had the shock of bumping into a white haired and decrepit M. de Charlus he comes across some other characters that have aged and for the first time the reader is jolted out of considering Marcel to be a man in his twenties or maybe thirties as people talk of his age

More tomorrow and Sunday as I try to wrap this up by the end of the weekend

Just a quick note on Albertine Gone

The book is following the course of the Fugitive and there is not much point posting comment until I get to the point where Albertine’s death is revealed because it is at that stage there is the major departure from the other version of the volume. That book will also be covered over the weekend

All things Proust – Involuntary Memory

Thanks to Brandon at The Bibliosphere who posted me the information about the Involuntary Memory blog, which is a discussion site all about Proust and Remembrance of Things Past. I would recommend this site to anyone who is embarking on reading the seven volumes, I only wish I had only known about it earlier. Still with just a couple of hundred pages left to go on the last book at least I should be able to contribute some relevant comments.

Winter Reading Challenge

I might be a it late with this but there is a Winter Stacks Challenge being promoted by Overdue Books going on at the moment encouraging readers to choose five books from their shelves that they will read over winter. In terms of working out where you go next in terms of book choices it is a great motivator. So these are my choices, some classics in there that I should have read before now:

James Joyce Ulysses
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera
John Steinbeck East of Eden
Mikhail Bulgakov The White Guard
Nikolai Gogol Tara Bulba