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Archive for April, 2009

Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836 – 1837)

better known as The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens

Wordsworth Classics, 804pp

Okay, my first admission. This is the first Dickens novel that I have read. As a writer, approaching the age of thirty, this is disgraceful. By now I should have read them all. Dickens is one of those writers with whom I’ve had a bad relationship. As a teenager I started Bleak House and couldn’t get past the first few pages. I started Our Mutual Friend and read barely a chapter. I just didn’t get him. Whatever that meant. I didn’t like this style. I didn’t think he offered anything for me. Reluctantly I began The Pickwick Papers, without telling anyone I was, and suddenly found myself fifty pages in, laughing with it, enjoying it. Did I, after twelve years of trying to read Dickens, finally get what he was all about?

I read something interesting Maugham said about Dickens the other day. He is talking about Matthew Arnold’s insistence that for poetry to be truly excellent it must have a high seriousness, and he goes onto say that: “It is because this high seriousness is lacking in Dickens’s novels that, for all their great merits, they leave us faintly dissatisfied. When we read them now with the great French and Russian novels in mind, and not only theirs, but George Eliot’s, we are taken aback by their naïveté. In comparison with them, Dickens’s are scarcely adult… I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart.” Maugham qualifies this with: “He had a generous heart, but it was an actor’s heart.” That is to say Dickens played to the crowd. This, as I read it, was where my problem with Dickens lay. I enjoy his humour, but his pathos is cold. He is good in scene setting, the theatricals of a novel, but the humanity seems engineered. It is as true in The Pickwick Papers as it is in Bleak House.

Only The Pickwick Papers has further faults. First some history. The Pickwick Papers was the first novel-length commission Dickens’s was given. It was published in 19 issues over 20 months. It had illustrations by Robert Seymour for the first two issues, but Seymour killed himself and was replaced by R.W. Buss for one issue, but the relationship did not work, and Buss was replaced by Hablot Knight Browne, better known as Phiz. Phiz became Dickens’s illustrator for the next 23 years. He chose the name Phiz over Nemo, his original choice, because it sounded better when paired with Boz, Dickens’s original nom de plume. The Pickwick Papers was not an immediate hit. It was only with the introduction of Samuel Weller as Mr Pickwick’s valet in chapter ten that the novel truly took off, and a publishing phenomenon was created, with Sam Weller joke books, theatrical performances and bootleg copies. It is true that the novel does transform with his appearance.

For the first hundred or so pages it is clear Dickens is uncertain where this work is going. It is filled with all sorts of asides, rambling stories, and a generally unfocussed attitude. It is full of jokes, many of which are still funny, and it reads like someone’s long winded tale. The appearance of Sam Weller, and his subsequent popularity, provides Dickens with focus, a narrative drive, but at the expense of Mr Pickwick who seems to become sidelined through the middle part of this novel. The readers wanted Sam Weller, so Dickens’s give them Sam Weller. Perhaps because he, as a character, as been much imitated, I found him less fresh than perhaps initial readers would have done. I admit to preferring the incompetent, but ever-so genial Mr Pickwick and the enthusiasm of his club, which is almost all but forgotten about until a few lines to tidy the novel off at the end. It is interesting to see, though, a character so overwhelm a narrative.

I feel another problem The Pickwick Papers suffers, especially in its middle, is the lack of a villain. Mr Jingle is a wonderful creation whom also becomes sidelined because of Sam Weller’s popularity, and his ending is nowhere near the joy it should be. It seemed to me that Dickens was lining us up for a conflict between these two men, Mr Pickwick and Mr Jingle, which would run through the whole novel, but it does not materialise.

Perhaps The Pickwick Papers failings are because Dickens as a novelist was finding his feet with this work. After some time writing sketches and short stories, a novel of such a length, and The Pickwick Papers is massive, written to such a tight schedule, it is only understandable that some elements would get away from him, but he came back with Oliver Twist, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about that novel. For the first time in my life I’m looking forward to reading a Dickens, so perhaps The Pickwick Papers isn’t all bad (it really isn’t). At times I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; it just needs some heavy editing. It’s also interesting to note that Dickens came back to these characters three years later with Mr Humphrey’s Clock.

For those looking to read this novel I would advise you choose an edition with the illustrations in. Phiz’s work is excellent. The Wordsworth Edition I chose had not included them, and though you can see them if you search around the Internet, it is better to have them in the text.

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Hashiru Koto Ni Tsuite Kataru Toki Ni Boku No Kataru Koto (2008)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami

Vintage, 180pp

Translated by Philip Gabriel

Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists, and one whose novels I have yet to read, though I have After Dark, his 2004 novel in my ‘to-read’ pile. I was in a local bookstore, browsing, looking to buy something but uncertain what, and as I found a novel to read (also in that growing pile), I was offered this essay by Murakami for half-price. I said why not. I had five mile walk home, in glorious sunshine, along a peaceful and empty beach and up the Conwy Estuary homeward. I started to read Murakami’s essay. Half way along my walk I stopped and sat on the breakers, read some more, and started to walk again, still reading, along this coastal path. The odd runner passed me and I stepped aside, feeling their pain because Murakami was talking about the pain of running, but how it was a good pain, a needed pain. I got home later than I normally would have, having read almost the entirely of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read the last chapter at home. I think the rhythm of my walking was the perfect backdrop to reading this work.

I knew nothing of Murakami’s life, or his work, when I started this, and it has proved not only an excellent introduction to the man and his life, but to his fiction. I am sure when I sit down to finally read his fiction I will be more attuned to his rhythms, fascinations and details than I otherwise would have been.

I’m no runner, though I do walk long distances quite frequently, but I found myself captivated by his descriptions of running. It made me consider running myself. That beach walk I was coming home along is a perfect running track. Doing that each day would do me wonders. But I prefer walking, I like taking my time, considering things as I go. Walking allows me to commune with nature, with myself, and with my own fiction. As novelists we have to go with what works.

Some people may wonder where this title has come from: it is an allusion to a collection of works by Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

I don’t have much to say about Murakami’s essay, other than it is excellent, and you don’t have to be interested in running to enjoy it. It is an insight into a man, his fascinations, his life, and speaks a few truths about writing that those interested in the craft will take something from. Most of all though, it has whetted my appetite for his novels.

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51jm1ynrigl_ss500_The Dark Philosophers (1946)

Gwyn Thomas

Library of Wales, 295pp

Foreword by Elaine Morgan

In 2006 the Library of Wales was set up to reprint classics of Anglo-Welsh fiction, which is Welsh fiction written in English. The aim was to bring much neglected Welsh fiction back to the public, and included such authors as Geraint Goodwin, Dorothy Edwards, Ron Berry and Gwyn Thomas. I would summarise the history of English language Welsh fiction, but poet Owen Shears did it so well in The Guardian I will link you directly to his article.

As a writer, and a writer of Anglo-Welsh fiction, I have looked to these novels, and other novels about Wales, as guides, inspirations and mirrors. As a young man I read writers who took directly from those men reprinted by the Library of Wales – Niall Griffiths owes a debt to Ron Berry, for instance – and then for a decade or so I struggle to reconcile my cultural identity with my physical identity and my national identity. I was born in England, I speak English, I have lived in Wales my whole life and write about Wales. But then there is another disparity – many of these Welsh writers write about a different Wales to the one I know. Raymond Williams, in Border Country, wrote about borderland country, much as Bruce Chatwin did in On The Black Hill, there was Dylan Thomas with his valleys and his moonless nights in small towns, but South Walian towns. I am a writer of the North, a different Wales, but still indebted to that image of the South. Gwyn Thomas is of that South too. His trio of short works that constitute The Dark Philosophers show this familiar Wales, the image of Wales known elsewhere, the Wales of coal mines and slate pits and black mountains.

Oscar is the first of the works, and it is a morbidly funny tale of drunkenness, poverty, the valleys and sex. It presents the wit Thomas was known for: “If it was water that Oscar drank, he’d be full of fish.” You can sense the dank, dark mountains leaning over this village, and on which Oscar lives, rich and dominant and hated. One knows this is a tale that can only end badly. The Dark Philosophers, the second tale, seems to be going nowhere. The characters are as rich as anything Thomas produced, and they all meet in an Italian cafe, full of smoke, to discuss finer things, to scheme, and to laugh as friends. Outside it is another dingy valley, with another man on the hill, another man deserving of hate. The final moment twist makes everything deliciously exquisite. The final story is Simeon, a bleak of tale of suggested incest and murder, and though the shortest of the pieces packs the biggest emotional punch.

The reason for Gwyn Thomas’s loss to the modern canon of British fiction – for he is surely as deserving to be there as that other Thomas of Wales – has been attributed to numerous factors: the impossibility of categorising him, the too-broad spectrum of his work (novelist, playwright, non-fiction, and broadcaster), or the length of his career (The Dark Philosophers was 1946 and his last work was forty years later). In his day, though, he was as famous as Dylan and had cult following in America. The Library of Wales’s reissue of this work should have seen his status renewed, for The Dark Philosophers is a masterpiece of British fiction, but outside of Wales I do not think his work has travelled. In his article for The Guardian Owen Shears speaks to the acceptance of knowledge of Irish fiction outside of Ireland, but that Welsh fiction has not been afforded the same attention – whether this is because of the lack of familiarity to non-Welsh readers of Welsh situations, or because, as Shears quoted in his article: “The tragedy of the Welsh”, George Borrows wrote in his 1854 travel book Wild Wales “is that they will never forget they were conquered by the English but the English have already forgotten.” So is the inherent tragedy seen by Welsh readers missed by English ones? And if so, is this inherent tragedy localised just to fiction of a certain era (1940s – 1980s)? Recently there has been a spate of Anglo-Welsh novels (not all by Welsh writers, such as Susan Fletcher with Eve Green) that has explored this diaspora and they have seen commercial and critical success. There are still, though, many more Welsh novels that do not see success outside of Welsh borders, many of them published by the Welsh presses that arose in the 1980s and became confident publishers in the 1990s and 2000s, such as Seren, Gomer, Y Lolfa and Alcemi, and who publish novels with global themes (such as Chris Keil’s Liminal, previously reviewed on these pages) but who are categorised as “Welsh Novels”. Perhaps we would be better served by a refutation of labels, but then where would there be allowance of exploration of national themes?

I will be considering these questions in more thought as I read more of the Library of Wales’s works. In what was supposed to be a review of Gwyn Thomas’s The Dark Philosophers, I have been forced into considering deeper questions of cultural identity and heritage, and of emotional transference and acceptance, and for one novel to have provoked such discussion I think is a testimony to the power of Thomas’s novel. A truly brilliant piece of work, and any writer who calls his work “Chekhov with chips” deserves to be read.

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Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868)

Louisa May Alcott

Penguin Classics, 224pp

Finally I return to the Classics Challenge after a few months reading some modern fiction. After much trouble sourcing much of the full Penguin Classics list I have had to move onto the first one available to me, which was Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic. The first surprise to me was that Little Women is actually two works, published a year apart. This first volume details the childhood of these ‘little women’, and the second volume, Good Wives, detailing their early adulthood. I came to this book knowing quite a lot about it – I once ready a biography of Louisa May Alcott and the book is familiar from cinema, from an episode of the TV comedy show Friends, and numerous other sources that have referenced it. So much so that when Beth falls ill at the end of this volume I was ready for her death only to discover it does not happen until the end of Good Wives, though I haven’t even read that yet. This is the big problem with reading such a novel – it is too familiar and yet isn’t – that I cannot come to it without prejudice, without knowledge. I read it quickly, almost too quickly, and some of it I found very twee, and some of it a little contrived. The main relationship between Meg and Laurie was well drawn and I can see why readers implored Alcott to have them wed in her sequel. I know they do not, and that Beth dies in that follow-on, and that seems all the surprises from that book gone, and this one simply feels like half a work but already overstretched. I wanted to like Alcott, and this book, and she tells her story well, and I can see why it has become this classic, but as a man in his late twenties living in this modern world, Little Women seemed entirely irrelevant. Perhaps you might argue we need such sugary nonsense, but I’m afraid Alcott just isn’t for me. I was going to read Little Men and Jo’s Boys, and possibly The Inheritance, but I think I must move on from her. I am more interested in the woman than her fiction.

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