Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Metamorphosis – a tragicomic masterpiece

SPOILER ALERT

To me, prose fiction is the documentation of fictional events. It is up to the author to find something worth documenting. The two most basic forms of this are ordinary and extraordinary: John Steinbeck chooses to write about a typical experience of a migrant worker in California, whereas the Sherlock Holmes stories document the experience of an extraordinary individual. Often it follows that ordinary stories are tales of failure, exposing the harsh reality of a situation, whereas extraordinary stories are worth telling because they are about the people who are extraordinary enough to win through. What Kafka has done in The Metamorphosis is to cross these two forms. Gregor’s transformation is unexplained: it does not form part of a wider fantasy world, it is a freak event, an extraordinary circumstance. The topic is extraordinary. Nevertheless, Kafka’s narrative is ordinary. It is a tragedy, a failure, and not even a dramatic one, a miserable wasting away. It is so easy to believe that this will be a story about how Gregor and his family deal with his transformation. It is not. It is a story about how they don’t deal with it. Their efforts are short-lived and, as the narrative makes clear, insufficient to ensure his survival. Kafka has given an impression of how this situation would typically pan out, despite the unique nature of the situation itself.

So if the circumstances are unique, but the results unimpressive, what’s the point? There are two. Firstly, it’s a breath of fresh air. There is absolutely nothing wrong or idealistic about documenting only the extraordinary cases with extraordinary results, but the expectation of another of those stories renders Gregor’s eventual passing, while a little surprising, even more flat  and listless. Secondly, Kafka’s story is an exercise in philosophy and ethics. Quite simply it is a fascinating exploration of what a family might do under extreme circumstances. The fact that the circumstances Kafka has chosen are so extreme as to be beyond possibility only gives a new coat of polish to the exercise. Just as arguments and thought experiments are more thought-provoking in fictional form, so the application of fantasy here makes the story still more interesting. Kafka doesn’t need to explain how the metamorphosis occurred: that’s not the point. The point is what the story shows about humanity.

What does it show about humanity? That the family model is not flawless; that dependency on one individual can under the wrong circumstances flip the world on its head; that the strongest love and the strongest hate are sometimes millimetres away from each other, can exist in the mind at the same time in equal measure and validity, can switch in an instant, are inextricably linked under some circumstances, one provoking the other. It is horrifying to think how similar Gregor’s story is to the typical breakup. I knew someone whose husband died of a heart attack, and eventually resolved to try and find someone new. She considered going to a communion of divorced people to do so. A friend of hers advised her against it on the grounds that “Your husband died, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to you. Most people in divorce communions want to kill their exes.” It’s terrible to think how quickly the strongest love can turn to the most violent hate. Herr Samsa’s attacks on his transformed son are all the more grotesque and horrifying for their motivation of love. Something inside him realises who the creature he sees is. He cannot bring himself to kill Gregor, as any other with the courage would if confronted with a six-foot verminous insect. Herr Samsa herds Gregor into his room instead, using a stick and a newspaper, and later throws a bowl of apples at him, one breaking through his back and rotting inside him for the rest of his days. The pain Herr Samsa causes his son is far worse than the death that finally meets him.

Gregor’s obstinately practical day-to-day lines of thinking in The Metamorphosis make it an overtly comical piece of prose, but the true nature of Kafka’s work is incredibly sinister. It is a very powerful and moving story.

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Still She Haunts Me – thoroughly underrated

It’s always an alarm bell to me if I read about a book that sounds interesting, type its name into Amazon for reviews (and number of pages, I confess), and I discover that they don’t stock it. However, I must remind myself that some books are just tragically underrated and misunderstood, and that being stocked by Amazon is not a reliable measure of quality (I am reminded at this point of the fact that Amazon stock Fifty Shades of Grey).

I came across Still She Haunts Me, the story of Lewis Carroll’s suspected paedophilic attraction to Alice Liddell, on whom he based his famous books, while reading about Lewis Carroll, out of interest, and as I was reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at the time, I thought it would make an interesting comparison.

I confess, I actually prefer Still She Haunts Me. It seems odd that I feel I have to defend the less extreme of the two, but then again I cannot deny Nabokov has a way with words that Roiphe doesn’t compete with. Nevertheless, Roiphe’s work resonated far better with me. The character of Lolita feels unrealistic to me, and Humbert would never shut up about how handsome he was. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll’s birth name) on the other hand, is an infinitely tragic character, whose far less extreme, but still morally questionable, behaviour is a relatively small blot on a likable record. In Alice, Dodgson finds a muse, a creative inspiration, one that turns every difficulty he has, his stutter, his communicative trouble, his social problems, into an advantage in his writing. She seems to connect with him such that, from where I’m sitting, everything he does is understandable. Nabokov’s book gives the impression that all paedophiles are predators, who require only the guts to do it once to overcome morality entirely and follow a lifetime of evil, who value looks alone, to the extent of never listening to their victims and forming almost entirely fabricated impressions of their personalities. Meanwhile the victim seems unrealistically hypersexual on her own account, and unaffected by her ordeal. Roiphe manages to capture a far more believable take on events in her narrative.

Heart of Darkness – this will need a second look

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is one of the books I am studying in English this year, so I have looked into it in more detail than I might have done if just reading it recreationally. Nevertheless, I get the impression that it is impossible to fully appreciate this novel through just one reading: it’s only 100 hundred pages, but every word counts. This is an art I admire hugely: good historians have wasted their intelligence in writing by following the principle of “why use one word when you could use fifteen?” I greatly admire any writer, particularly one of fiction, conveying such a wealth of detail in such a short length of text, making every word count. It makes me wonder how much shorter War and Peace might have been had Conrad written it.

Told from the perspective of the raconteur sailor Marlow, Heart of Darkness is the story of a journey up the Congo river, into the depths of the unknown, into the impenetrable wilderness, as Marlow calls it. Along the way, the terrible consequences of the greed of a Belgian ivory corporation are revealed in quietly shocking detail. Marlow cannot find refuge in his surroundings or in his fellow Europeans, such is the strangeness of the former and the despicable nature of the latter, and as he ploughs on he begins to lose his grip on reality; all becomes shady and ghostly.

A horrifying and tragic truth awaits Marlow on the completion of his mission, but the horrors of the story are spread fairly evenly throughout it. It is not excessive, it is tolerable but meaningful; the prose is engaging and understandable, yet with so many layers of depth. Conrad reminds me of Orwell, elegantly soaking an incredible volume of ideas almost invisibly into a small space of prose, without making them unintelligible. The quality of Conrad’s ideas matches Orwell’s, and some are even strikingly similar. Marlow’s view on the extraordinary demonic power of hunger forms an eerie forerunner to Winston Smith’s experience and analysis of pain in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On the surface, and as I can best describe it, this book does not seem like much, but reading it is a perpetually thought-provoking and stimulating experience, and I look forward to revisiting this book in more depth.

The Grapes of Wrath –

The Grapes of Wrath is a well-known modern classic of American literature, an angry portrayal of the sufferings in America during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis. It mingles two kinds of chapters: one kind telling typical stories and describing broad summations of the crisis as a whole from a God-like omniscient viewpoint, in a somewhat Biblical style; the other focussing on one particular family of “Okies”, the Joads, migrants fleeing the crisis in their home-state of Oklahoma for a utopian vision of California, only to find poverty and suffering awaiting them.

I would be the first to say that this book is not all it’s cracked up to be. While it gives an extremely vivid impression of the horrors of the time throughout, thus realising Steinbeck’s purpose in writing it, the misery, dreariness and hopelessness of the time it describes is perfectly mirrored in its writing style: it is completely unreadable. Every page is a chore, every chapter a task, not a stimulating piece of reading. It seems to me that Steinbeck was attempting some stylistic point by this, trying to give the reader a taste of the dull, repetitive misery of the time. Individual sentences contain awkward repetitions of words so crude they give the impression that Steinbeck did not read one sentence over after writing the novel. Long passages of description give monotonous, dull images in unnecessary gruelling detail.

Steinbeck populates his novel with a cast of entirely unlikable characters. The Joad family are a dull, tiresome lot, with the possible exception of Tom, who at least has his head screwed on. But Ma Joad in particular is a thoroughly loathsome entity. She is a hypocritical idealist: she believes absolutely in the traditional, conservative family model, and remains convinced to the end that her American Dream will be realised, despite the evidence all around her to the contrary, yet she bullies her husband in his moments of insecurity until he cannot remain a confident head of the family, and forces her pregnant daughter to do half her work for her. It is hard to hope for the best for such a thoroughly hopeless and despicable family.

If Steinbeck intended to make his readers suffer, a master craftsman was at work. But when I open a book I put the author in a position of trust to intrigue me or at least to shock me. This book was so long that the mild shock that I received at the beginning had grown old long before the end.

It was only the last few chapters of this book that were really worth reading. The final tragedy of the novel is paralysing, the last terrible rush for survival the only truly emotional one for the reader in a long line. The very last image of the novel alone is really sufficient to speak for the entire work, a concise portrayal of utter hopelessness and atrocity that, alone of any moment in the novel, really conveys Steinbeck’s point.

A Song of Ice and Fire – an epic that just keeps getting better

By my reckoning, the most important preoccupation in modern literature is the balance between gritty, hardcore hyper-realism and romanticism. There is a temptation among modern writers and modern producers of plays to lean extremely towards the former. The recent production in London of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, featuring James McAvoy in the eponymous role, was set in a post-apocalyptic modern world full of grime, where men drink copious amounts of alcohol from plastic milk bottles and eat from rusty tin plates. While Macbeth is a gruesome play, with perhaps its key motif being blood, it is still possible to enjoy and appreciate the tragedy without going to these extremes. Roman Polanski’s 1971 film adaptation managed to be both realistic and watchable, without making the viewer want to vomit. At the other end of the scale, it is hard nowadays to get away with idealistic levels of romanticism. All characters must, quite rightly, be flawed. Heroes and heroines cannot get away with being personfications of virtue. I would argue that neither of these extremes should really be acceptable. The fact is that tragedy can be emotional and thought-provoking without being gruesome, and most of us get by in the ebb and flow of life without focussing on the most revolting details, but we are not content with unrealistic characters who perpetually refuse to make mistakes.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a series that comes close to being the perfect balance between these two extremes. While it may be a fantasy series, it is realistic within the context of its own universe. Though supernatural elements crop up time and again, the psychologies, politics and interactions of the characters are as believable as any historical fiction set in the real world. While a couple of the central characters are heavily idealistic, their ideas are repeatedly proved wrong; Martin more or less constantly populates his story with such a vast cast of characters of so many moralities, corruptions and dispositions, so many of them abusing their supposedly honourable titles, even reminding us once or twice that any knight can make another knight, that what might have been a story of chivalry and virtue rivalling the Arthurian legend becomes instead an exploration of humanity as in depth and striking as modern “realistic” fiction.

The books are not devoid of grit and grime. Sex and murder are described in detail and with great frequency. But the focus of the sex is on the physicality, emotions and motivations of the scene and its characters, not on the unpleasant details of bodily fluids, and murders are explored through their psychology and political implications.

George Martin’s ability to write is phenomenal. His narratives are engaging and rarely dull. Description of landscapes does not go on for pages on end, and events are unpredictable. The entire course of the narrative is sometimes literally be altered in the space of one sentence. The third-person Point of View telling of the narrative makes sure the reader can understand why characters make decisions, the reasons for their mistakes. In fact, the exclusion of certain characters’ points of view from the first few books leads the reader to question their original judgements later on, when the characters in question are finally allowed to speak. The downside of this narrative structure is that disliking one of the point of view characters results in anything from boredom to frustration when it is their turn to be the window into Martin’s story.

In general, however, these books are not only expertly balanced between hyper-realism and hyper-romanticism, they are also gripping, unpredictable, believable, and highly emotional. It is my personal experience that, excepting one, each successive book is better than the last. I remember being enormously impressed by A Clash of Kings for breaking the sequels-are-never-as-good rule, only to find that the third instalment, A Storm of Swords, was better still.

Believe what you read on the covers: A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy in a way that Lord of the Rings never was, a staggering story told by a master craftsman.