Monthly Archives: May 2011

Book 2: Enduring Love, Ian McEwan

‘We were running towards a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes’

My challenge continues with another race of a read, this time from Ian McEwan, one of my favourite living authors. This is my sixth McEwan novel, following Atonement, Amsterdam, The Innocent, On Chesil Beach and The Cement Garden, and sits somewhere between the horror-tinged narratives of The Innocent and the deeply disturbing The Cement Garden and the probing psychological depth of Atonement. In a tale that tackles love, obsession and trauma, McEwan brings his brilliant character insight hand in hand with a compelling plot that remains taut as a bow string with tension.

The novel opens with a tragic hot air balloon accident, an incident that is striking in its uncommonness; this is no ordinary, everyday catastrophe, and the singularity of the event, painted in long and vivid strokes by McEwan, makes it a fitting set-piece to serve as a springboard for the rest of the novel. There is from the beginning a tangible sense of the unsettling, prompted by the intrusion of this bizarre disaster into an idyllic countryside picnic. It is rendered all the more arresting by McEwan’s lingering description of events and the abrupt changes of pace; as McEwan writes, ‘the best description of a reality does not need to mimic its velocity’.

Among those tangled up in this accident are narrator Joe, his partner Clarissa and lonely young man Jed Parry. What begins as tragedy soon deepens into something more sinister as the collision of the couple with Parry has consequences that none of them would have anticipated. Parry rapidly develops a stifling obsession with Joe, lingering outside his home, writing him endless love letters and causing a destructive rift between him and Clarissa. While the deluded love Parry professes seems needy rather than violent, there hangs over the narrative the constant threat that his unstable character could suddenly become dangerous.

The ‘enduring love’ of the title has a myriad of meanings: the strong and lasting love between Joe and Clarissa that is gradually eroded by the outside pressure of Parry; the unrelenting passion Parry feels for Joe; the obsessive affection that Joe must endure from his stalker. Obsession likewise goes more than one way, as Joe soon becomes as wrapped up in his stalker as Parry is in him. Through McEwan’s nuanced and perceptive portrayal of his narrator, readers are left with a psychological portrait of a strained man still suffering from the impact of trauma, planting a grain of doubt in his ardent fears that he is being stalked. Joe is just unreliable enough as a narrator to prevent this from being a clear-cut case of pursuer and prey throughout.

Despite the page-turning intensity and tense plotting of this novel, Enduring Love is much more than a thriller. As well as the hovering presence of threat and the psychological question posing, there is at the centre of McEwan’s book an intriguing tension between science and religion, logic and emotion. Joe is a science journalist who regrets his abandonment of research, with this regret fuelling a scientific dissection of every aspect of his life, applying a rigorous logic to his situation with Parry that soon tips over into the hysterical and paranoid, ironically going against his desire for cool examination.

Clarissa, meanwhile, is a Keats scholar enveloped in a love of words and the Romantic philosophy, casting a critical eye over Joe’s dogged rationality. Completing this trio of oppositely tugging viewpoints is Parry, a Christian who believes that it is his mission to bring Joe to God. These central characters provide three vital pivots for the discussion that runs as a constant undercurrent to the action, adding a further dimension that gives the novel dual layers of enjoyment. Parry’s religion, however, is treated with a distinct note of disdain that precludes the pursuit of further interesting reflection; while Parry’s perception of Christianity is clearly skewed by his own delicate mental state, there is the danger of associating religion more widely with characters such as Parry and undermining belief through Joe’s dismissal of faith that is, one feels, a slightly unnecessary reflection of McEwan’s own views.

Alongside such discussion, McEwan keeps readers’ jangling nerves on edge through a retrospectively imposed tension on the part of narrator Joe, lending even the most innocuous of scenes an ominous aura by the repeatedly imparted knowledge that some unspecified horror is about to occur. The beauty of McEwan’s writing is that he can unfold a short incident in painstakingly minute detail over the space of chapter and still hook readers on every single word. His disasters are exquisite in their compelling detail.

With his stunning first chapter, however, McEwan sets up an opening that he cannot match with his conclusion. There is a hint of the anti-climax about the way in which McEwan ties up his various threads, with the knots being a little too neat for my liking. McEwan, who usually eschews cathartic narrative resolutions, writes in one of his final chapters that ‘the narrative compression of storytelling, especially in movies, beguiles us with happy endings into forgetting that sustained stress is corrosive of feeling’, yet goes on to give readers an uncharacteristically resolved conclusion. Perhaps he simply began with an intensity that could not quite be sustained.

Yet despite such criticisms, Enduring Love remains a beautiful and engrossing read that confirms once again in my mind – if I needed any further confirmation –  McEwan’s status as one of the great writers of his generation.

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Book 1: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

‘what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ Mark 8:36

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to his only novel, written in response to the scandalised and scathing reception Dorian Gray received from the press, issues the reader with a warning. Wilde states that ‘those who read the symbol do so at their peril’ and that the role of the critic is to ‘translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’. I am unsure if I can answer Wilde’s demand of the critic and therefore proceed, somewhat cautiously, at my peril.

The premise of Wilde’s dazzling novel is that a beautiful young man, the eponymous subject of the picture, rashly exclaims that he would give up his soul to remain young forever and have his portrait age instead. His desire is inexplicably granted, leaving Wilde to examine the consequences in a book that is as much a meditation on art and life as it is the story of one man’s terrible choice. A vindication of the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ if ever there was one.

Though a relatively slim volume and one that I managed to race through within a day, The Picture of Dorian Gray is more challenging than its number of pages might suggest and remains a bit of a puzzle. While the plot in itself is straightforward enough – though the central metamorphosis affecting the portrait remains a mystery – it is Wilde’s probing of ideas, by turns playful and philosophical, that throws up innumerable questions. Can or should art contain anything of its creator? What relation does art bear to life? How far is it possible to influence another human being? I could go on and on.

One of the most fascinating of the concepts thrown about in the novel is that of art. The Preface advocates ‘art for art’s sake’, boldly stating that ‘no artist desires to prove anything’ and provocatively declaring that ‘all art is quite useless’. Of course its lack of a practical use is one of the beauties of art; it needs no use but to be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed. Wilde also writes in the Preface that there is ‘no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’, suggesting that, contrary to the opinions of the age, art cannot corrupt. This may well be a defence against the accusations made towards his controversial book, but it sets up the rest of the novel in an intriguing manner. Art, Wilde argues, does not exert moral influence, yet it is the exquisite beauty of his portrait that prompts the wish that will determine the rest of Dorian Gray’s life, while he claims that he has been ‘poisoned’ by the book that his friend Lord Henry Wotton lends him.

Here there may possibly be detected a note of cynicism. While Dorian blames the influence of both art and his persuasive friend for his descent into sin, it is perhaps more likely that this is a facet of his nature that has been present all along. He embraces a selfish life devoted to pleasure with little hesitance and although he describes the painting as his ‘conscience’, he seems unswayed by it in his actions despite his disgust for it. When the portrait eventually reveals Dorian as a hypocrite, it is easy to conclude that this is what he has been throughout, placing blame at art’s door when it is he who is truly at fault – a damning rebuke to readers who saw immorality in Wilde’s work. After all, the art that Dorian experiences later in life during his dedication to pleasure holds only temporary sway over him, failing to truly move or influence him.

Almost more fascinating than the central character is his friend and mentor Lord Henry Wotton, surely one of the most quotable characters in English literature. Spouting wonderfully preposterous phrases such as ‘I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible’ and ‘the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it’, his speeches should be savoured. It is not surprising that his witticisms found him connected with Wilde himself; in one of his letters, the author wrote that ‘Lord Henry [is] what the world thinks me’. Many of the scenes seem set up merely to prompt philosophical discussion led by Henry, leading to dialogue that, unsurprisingly for Wilde, fizzes and sparkles. Henry is indeed all talk and whenever we see him he is connected with conversation rather than action, living vicariously through Dorian, over whom he attempts to exert his influence.

Speaking of influence, Wilde’s own literary influences are quite evident throughout the novel. The central idea of a character surrendering his soul in exchange for some kind of earthly gratification immediately recalls the Faust legend, widely disseminated through Marlowe and Goethe’s literary incarnations, although Dorian Gray wishes for eternal youth rather than unlimited knowledge. There are also hints of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, written by Wilde’s contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson not long prior to Dorian Gray, continuing the nineteenth century literary fascination with doubling and doppelgangers that can arguably seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Victor Frankenstein and the Creature) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Jane and Bertha).

Furthermore, there is a hint of the Gothic as Dorian’s dread intensifies, with the portrait almost taking on the qualities of a supernatural demon or monster. As surely as the Creature is destined to be Victor Frankenstein’s end, Dorian’s life is irrevocably tied to the monstrous picture that his wish has created. Visible also are strands of psychology, a study that is referred to frequently throughout the novel. Yet Wilde takes all these influences and inspirations and moulds them, to take the words of the Preface, into ‘new material’. Filled with dazzling conversation and beautifully crafted prose, Dorian Gray is, like its protagonist, perfectly formed.

As has probably been made evident, I could write on and on about this book. A quick and thrilling read, it unites a gripping central plot with thought-provoking questions, leaving me to continue mulling over the many philosophical points raised. My initial thoughts only begin to touch on the many themes of this novel, so please expand on my musings by adding your own comments and letting me know what you thought about the book.

One book down, only 99 to go!

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Ready, Set … Go!

This evening I begin my ambitious quest to read 100 great books in 100 weeks. This makes Friday 19 April 2013 the deadline by which I need to turn my final page.

Read through the full list of 100 books here and keep checking back to follow my progress and read as I blog about each book. I will be starting with The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Wish me luck!

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A New Challenge

As I prepare to emerge from three years at university with – barring catastrophe – my English degree clutched proudly in hand, there is a slight sinking feeling. Despite studying a wide range of literature, from Homer to Pinter, it seems that this was not quite enough to sate my love of books.

So on the eve of graduation I feel the need to set myself a new challenge and to continue the love affair with literature that started from the moment I read my first picture book. Before I even have time to turn the final page of Chaucer, I have set myself the slightly crazy task of reading another 100 books, mainly made up of all the texts I have been meaning to read over the last three years.

The full list is my tweaked version of the several different ‘top reads’ lists that have cropped up over the last few years, cutting out those that I have already read and adding in books that have been gathering dust on my shelves begging to be opened. I will be working my way page by page through this eclectic collection of literature, blogging about each book as I go and occasionally using this blog for any other bookish ramblings that I feel the urge to share.

For now, as I get reading, I have assembled a few past features of mine on the wonderful subject of literature. Only one thing remains to be said …

Challenge accepted!

*UPDATE*

I have now set myself a timescale for this challenge: I will be attempting to read all 100 books within 100 weeks. Keep reading to follow my progress.

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Is The Book an Endangered Species?

Originally written for Wessex Scene.

Before the launch of the iPad, Apple boss Steve Jobs predicted a gloomy outlook for the future of literature, claiming that ‘people don’t read any more’.  After thousands of years of great writing and an increasingly literate global population, is this the generation where reading dies?

As the popularity of the iPad and the sale of millions of e-books have testified, Steve Jobs was mistaken in his assumption.  Writers, readers and publishers everywhere may heave a sigh of relief, because we may be on the brink of the biggest publishing development since the invention of the printing press.

This summer Amazon announced that sales of e-books were outstripping those of hardbacks, with the website selling 143 e-books for every 100 hardbacks.

Although paperback sales are still greater than those of e-books, these could be the first signs of a shift in our reading habits.

Anyone can see why taking a lightweight, portable e-reader or tablet computer on holiday is easier than lugging around a suitcase full of books, making e-books a welcome alternative to paperbacks. They are not, however, a replacement.  Having a digital library of titles can never match the aesthetic pleasure of looking at a bookcase lined with a rainbow of colourful spines; scrolling down text on a screen is not the same as flicking through the well-worn pages of a favourite book.

For me and for many other avid readers, owning a book is almost as important as reading it.  Particularly if, as a cash-strapped student, you trawl round the charity shops and second-hand bookstores to find cheap bargains; a book has a whole history that an electronic file cannot rival.

Admittedly, e-books offer levels of interactivity that will appeal to our YouTube generation of technology-savvy consumers who are looking for everything faster, bigger and easier.  Reading will now be packaged as a multimedia experience – how long will it be before we have trailers for the next bestseller?

I am all for progress, but I do not think that newer is necessarily better and I will always be a subscriber to the old-school style of reading, no matter how unfashionable.  Readers do not need a range of interactive features, a good book should be an enveloping, absorbing experience in itself with no need for enhancement.  After all, the imagination surpasses anything that can be created on the screen of a computer or iPad.

Nevertheless, there is one notable benefit to these new publishing developments: they are enticing more  and more people into reading.  With any luck those who are lured in by the flashy reading experience offered by the iPad will later discover the joy of owning a book and will carry the pleasure of reading into future generations.

I can’t help but whole-heartedly disagree with the idea that the paperback is dying as e-books take their place. All I can say is, instant coffee didn’t get rid of ground coffee, and the same goes for this debate. Mr. Jobs, Iam afraid you are very wrong; people are certainly still reading, and long may it continue.

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