Sunday, 4 March 2018

Each Night I Ask The Stars Up Above : The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

At first glance it seems a strange decision for a writer in his mid 50s to decide to write a first person narrative in the voice of a teenager.   Even now in the big publishing business (relatively) of "young adult" fiction it is unusual  for an established writer to give themselves over to such a form. If we leave aside the hilarity of Adrian Mole's Diary the viewpoint of a semi-articulate and not fully grown human is a problem.

It is also a modern conceit of popular social history aided by TV and radio documentaries that the "teenager" is a 20th century phenomenon.  Not until the post war boom of the 50s with full employment and disposable income did the young population manage to establish their own identity - rock and roll,fashion blah blah blah.

Of course the truth is more complex as modern biological and psychological research as illustrated in the recent excellent Infinite Monkey Cage discussion shows that teenagers walk among us but they are not the same as us oldies ! Generational differences which are so central to our post Yes movement, Brexit, Corbyn societal discussions are also hardly new either.

Russian literature of the 19th century Tsarist police state period  had  recognised this prior to this book particularly with Turgnev's Father and Sons from 1862 - seen almost as a document of the growth of nihilistic political theorising amongst the young.

But over a decade later Dostoevesky's decision in 1875 to write this work still seems a strange turn.  As usual he never does things by half measures and he throws himself fully into making the work sound like an adolescent or a "raw youth" as some translations have it.

This creates one of the first problems of the work - teenage years although a necessary part of our lives are incoherent, messy, overblown and contradictory.  That's what happens when your adult brain and personality form.  It even partially explains Morrissey's arrested development in some areas.  In prose form it is difficult to follow though - particularly when the whole fictional world is viewed through this prism.   Add to the mix a fairly convoluted plot about hidden letters, disputed wills  and revealing family secrets and so many characters that a guide/list to them is provided at the start of the book (never a good sign in my view) you can see whilst despite being FD's penultimate 'big' novel it is largely hidden and forgotten.

But there are some pleasures to be had from struggling through the mood swings of a young adult's thoughts. In a sense FD was catching up with a new mood in Tsarist Russia - living there again after a few years in Europe.  Radical politics had shifted a little from the small conspiracist groups he had attempted to lambast in his last major novel Demons to a peasant based movement Narodnism.  This idealised (to an extent) the rural lifestyle and encouraged young radicals to "go back to the country" and live amongst the peasantry. 

This was something which on the face of it FD would have been sympathetic to - it was Russian in origin - did not idealise European political thought (like the anarchism of Bakunin or the economic socialism of Marx) and recognised the central role of the peasantry.  It was also not as explicitly irreligious as the other political trends were.

So to write about young people now would perhaps not necessitate as much polemic as Dostoevsky had engaged with in previous work, including arguably Crime and Punishment.  Indeed the novel's publication was even in the radical journal Notes of the Fatherland (Closed by Tsarist authorities in 1884)  this would have been unthinkable a few years earlier with Demons.  One of the theoretical fathers of Narodnism Mikhailovsky gave his endorsement of the work and its publication even though it contains a critique of a group of radicals albeit in a very slight way which is distant from the rest of the work - unlike the full scale attack of Demons

This illustrates another problem with the work is it feels a little like a sticking together of ideas from previous works - the inward problems of small radical groups although mentioned almost in passing, the nature of suicide, doomed unrequited love, the fixation on roulette gambling  the pure religiosity of the Russian peasant - with little original direction.  The toning down of the political critique also makes the central relationship in the work a bit more oblique. 

Ostensibly similarly to Turgenev this is a paternal conflict - between father and son but Dostoevsky does put a modernist and intelligent twist on it.   For the title character adolescent Arkady is a living victim of the strict hierarchies of Tsarism.  He is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat who seduced the young wife of one of "his" peasants in the pre serf emancipation days of Russia.  In a society where even now your name is determined by your father (the patronymic) this was critical for identity - Arkady literally does not know what his name is.

The central tension of the work - though this is tested by the plot convulsions - is Arkady's obsession/hatred/love for his father the seemingly dissolute Andrei Versilov.  At least that is what is ultimately revealed because the work is  also disjointed.  Sometimes this is an inevitable consequence of the periodical nature of publishing lengthy novels (this one was published in three parts) but I think the bitty nature of the work exacerbates the problem.

It starts in a slightly different vein with Arkady seeking to make his way in the world and make himself independently wealthy.  Or in the vaguely anti-semitic and conspiracy theorist words of the work - make himself a "Rothschild".  For an illegitimate child of a member of the aristocracy whose named father is a peasant this was a pretty radical ambition - despite Versilov paying for his private (unhappy) education. 

This ambition sort of gets lost in the plot which involves Versilov entangling himself and indirectly Arkady with obscure legal battles for contested inheritance.   Their growing relationship really become the central element of the work.  Yet another title of the work is  "The Accidental Family" - arguably the most appropriate. This allows various quasi - parental conversations to occur although the anger that Arkady feels about his second class status does not take long to surface.  In a way this allows FD to personify Versilov as the older "nihilistic" generation - who despite his social status is anti-religious and pro-European enlightenment figure.  Even his relationship with Arkady's peasant mother - who right until the end of the novel he seems to romantically love hints at his challenge to the structural hierarchy.  But for the most part these conversations are fairly obscure and don't really put their cards on the table on what they are really about.  In part this feeds into the problem of having a naive "raw youth" reporting on this discourse - the reader finds it difficult to see behind this.  It is one of the inherent problems (or in other contexts opportunities) of first person narrative.

His father's fractious love life causes the growing relationship between Arkady and Versilov to break down a few times in the work.  At one point both are in love with the same figure - Katerina - who is tied up in a pretty confusing way with the battles over inheritance and that missing letter could (or could not) be vital to her. Arkady's attitude to the female characters - including Katerina, his (also illegitimate sister) Liza verges between tragic and hyperbolic - again pretty much like a teenager in love.  Although there are a few worrying scenes early in the book on how Arkady used to harass women whilst at school with fellow male pupils - showing the misogyny revealed by the #Metoo movement are far from a 21st century phenomenon.

There are potentially interesting narrative forms that FD also uses in the first person teenage form.  In modern cinematic terms he use jump cuts a lot - running ahead of himself  "I need to tell you what happens in a few chapters for this to make sense" and looking backwards.  In the overall confusion of the novel though this merely adds to it and again in the style of the adolescent the "really important" events are actually pretty minor.

There is no real revelation or learning exhibited by the end of the novel which again is in line with adolescence.  The legal disputes (after encountering a clumsy blackmail action) are sort of resolved but they become so difficult to follow the reader finds this difficult to notice. 

You could say this work was a bit of an experiment for Dostoevsky and for a writer nearing the end of his professional (and actual) life this is quite encouraging.  It does mean the work is sprawling and unlike say the Idiot has no arc of resolution within it - the conclusion can only be seen through the eyes of Arkady.  The plot is also an issue - I note the Wikipedia page of the book does not even attempt a synopsis - and that sort of collapses in on itself in the work.   A bumpy journey of a read but a few sights worth remembering along the way.

For me a step towards completing all of FD's novels - only one (major) work to go.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Media in our Mess "Age": The Circle by Dave Eggers

I often wonder when the perils of social media are discussed there is an almost exclusive focus on cyber-bullying and trolling.  Sure, it is horrible behaviour and the facilitation of aggressive, abusive , discriminatory language can never be tolerated.  Ultimately though it is not a new crime - social media had just made being nasty or a bully easier to communicate but it is literally just that a medium for hate speech.  Twitter, Facebook and the rest though are doing something more insidious to our society though.  Arguably these phenomena are what is novel about social media or the Internet 2.0 as I believe it was labelled in another age (or in realtime about 16 years ago).

Dave Eggers' funny, prescient and genuinely scary novel The Circle nails it in a way which I think raises the book from the rest of his catalogue and indeed most modern American fiction of the last 20 years.

The vehicle for this study is Mae.  A young graduate - and like really young - post millennial almost in her mid twenties she nets a job at Internet giant company via her college pal.

The Circle is the name of this cyberworld behemoth and it is really an amalgam of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Wikipedia and so on- all the friendly faces of ruthless capitalism that have emerged in the last decade.  Eggers does manage to transcend any specific parallels though which I think Franzen struggled with when trying to lacerate Assange by proxy with the character of Wolf in his millennial novel Purity .

For the Circle is more than a workplace (in Mae's world contrasting sharply with her job in a utility company) it is a way of life.   It seeks to unify all information available on the Internet into one with the ultimate aim of "Closing the Circle".   Its base is in effect a mini-city with everything from cinemas to intimate gigs with famous singer songwriters to medical care to accommodation available,  Meaning the workforce never has to leave work.  On top of this each employee is expected to spend a large amount of their worktime engaging in Social Media - both personal and professional with their  equivalent of Twitter/Facebook - Zing.

It is here that I think Eggers really identifies the insidious nature of the current Internet.  Not only can all individuals be monitored they willingly spend hours of the day doing so.  Further that form of "interaction" becomes more important than human contact.  There is a sad scene when Mae returns to her parent's house where her ex- boyfriend Mercer where she shuns discussions with them to Zing comments to complete strangers.  It is a portent on the break of communication to come.

Such an observation may be a bit trite indeed go and sit on a bus or train or watch groups of friends at cafes or pubs the level of actual human contact will be minimal even with people that are actually "socialising".  But Eggers exposes how such developments are ideal conditions for big business.  By giving themselves over to the Circle completely there is a compliant workforce more than that they will vigorously defend their employer in the nature of a religious cult because they provide the products and software that sadly define their lives.   You get a sense of this when you walk into an Apple "Store" and many service based industries try to ape this "employee loyalty" from Weatherspoons to Pret  A Manger to Starbucks.

Thus the worker is Un-alienated.  The Circle is the ideal way of studying this as it is sort of creating a mega corporation from scratch.  If capitalism could do this across the board the Circle would be its model and in a sense there is a distant echo of benevolent  19th Century employers who provided villages and shops even medical care for their workers - as long as you remained tied to the factory,  In such a context the Human Resources department takes on a different dimension.  One of the funniest scenes involves Mae's interview after a few weeks in the job with HR which involves almost every aspect of her life.

Mae is fast-tracked through the Circle starting off in Customer Services but she does not wholly commit to the lifestyle and complete absorption which the Circle demands.  She has a number of liasions with a mysterious man she meets in the Circle complex Kalden although he is unidentifiable in this highly monitored world.  Kalden is sceptical, even resistant to the direction in which the Circle is going.

Mae's other interest significantly is kayaking and interacting directly with nature.  The scenes where she is peacefully on water trying to spot seals and fishes contrast sharply with the frenetic pace of the rest of the work,  In fact nature is a continual motif in the book.  It provides the calm in the heart of the storm.

I think Eggers may have been influenced here by the work of Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan (memorably performing a cameo in Annie Hall) wrote in the 1950s(!) about the useless noise our new media age was creating.   In his time he was talking about the growth of TV in particular in America with its emphasis on consumerism. McLuhan died in 1980 but  now in 2017 this noise has exponentially increased as much of the Western world is almost permanently connected - in fact some employers (like the Circle) almost demand you are.  Not only is a lot of this noise pointless it also affects harmfully human development.

As a reaction against this McLuhan converted to High Catholicism and attended Mass every day.  This space for him was time for silence and contemplation against the wider world.  In our more secular age at least in the West the placing of religion in this role would be unrealistic so the wider natural world places this role.

However the Circle even tries to control this aspect of life - in quite a disturbing scene one of the founding fathers of the Circle brings a  shark along with other sea-life into the heart of the Circle.  Although the symbolism is clear and maybe a bit over the top it is a genuinely unsettling moment in the book.

Nature is also partially Mae's downfall and in a sense responsible for her complete immersion in the Circle.  After an incident whilst kayaking she becomes open to being a living experiment for the Circle. This involves part of their new technology the See Change camera which essentially is so compact and disposable it can monitor human beings anywhere and everywhere.   The main evangel for this is Bailey (another founding father and ostensibly the most benevolent a la Steve Jobs) who believes there is no such thing as privacy - that See Change provides the ultimate transparency.   In another very believable part politician after politician signs up to be filmed at all times.  Mae as a result of the hold the Circle has on her succumbs fully to this and opens up her whole life to this,

In the second part of the book Mae is almost completely assimilated she turns on her family and her ex-partner Mercer (who introduced her to kayaking) in another very disturbing scene,  Her human desire to escape the endless chatter and mindless drone of social media interaction is almost completely dissolved.   One of the brilliantly observed parts of this is the passive aggressive way in which people communicate in this format - as McLuhan said the media is the message.

Her rejection of Kalden and embracing of another young man Frances is symbolic of this.  He is very immature and his only sexual activity is almost cyber and very distant. However he is very popular in the Circle - Mae rejects the more physical and real world of Kalden,  The sex scenes are a little less icky  by being written by a 40 something guy than Franzen's equivalents in Purity and are making a clear point.

The book progresses to a fairly bleak conclusion as at one reading we could say our society is as well if we maintain our relationship with our technology.  In contrast with Mae's "ascendancy" her friend who got her the gig Annie has a startling decline - showing the limits of complete openness particularly about the past.  There is also a revelation about identity - which as the novel progresses becomes less shocking.

Eggers could be accused in other works of neglecting character to make allegorical points - his sparse prose style aids that.  For the most part I don't think this is the case indeed it becomes more appropriate as Mae loses her character as the novel progresses and the allegory really overtakes the work.  The tone suits the direction of the work

I am aware of the irony of recommending this book on a blog which I have writtten online and which I am sharing on social media but I am!  An essential read and shows the power of fiction (and quasi-science fiction) to expose reality in a way that non-fiction cannot. There is also a film due out but looking at some of the casting decisions I am not sure that it will work.  So read it - in analogue fashion as an old battered paperback,  I'll share my copy and physically hand it over,..

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Good, the Bad and the pretty Ugly, Demons (A novel in 3 parts) by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

A mountain climbed.  It's not so much the 750 pages (with 35 page appendix) or the dense text but finishing this book really feels like an achievement of that magnitude.  But also like that task you wonder why you did it.

"Because it was there" doesn't seem like a good enough reason.  On the face of it this is not a novel that should attract me - it is in (large) part a polemic of Dostoevsky against "radical" groups - their ideology, membership, leaders and purpose.  Further it essentially is novel of ideas - which  is a big ask over hundreds of pages.  Other writer/philosophers like Sartre and Camus hone their narrative philosophical fiction over much smaller length.  And yes these are problems - I will expand on this later- but I stuck with it.  In a lesser writer's hands this whole project would fall apart.  Ultimately the study of character and quality of prose shine through.  But there are problems and an underlying tone of nastiness that sticks to you as reading.

Russia in the 19th Century was a society of massive contradictions.  A huge land of feudalism amongst the sea of pioneering capitalist states.  Slavery or Serfdom abolished in 1861 (on a par with the American Civil War) - but a massively stratified society meant the vast majority of the populace lived in grinding poverty with no prospect of escape.

However the elite of Russian society had different options.  Most attached themselves to the Tsarist regime and attempted to give it a liberal sheen - fuelled by trips across the European continent.  A small section though were attracted to other European phenomena like revolutions and democratic change.

From this grew a myriad of small groups with "revolutionary" aims.  As they operated in a police state and were (largely) from the upper echelons of society their influences and ideas were all over the place.  Anarchism and individual acts of heroism./terror (based on perspective) were particularly strong in such a context.  Bakunin (born in 1814) and Herzen (born in 1812) were two of the key figures.  Assassinations (successful and attempts) were very common - even the act of creating a work of art or in particular literature could be seen as a revolutionary act against the Russian state,  What is to  be Done was a very successful novel advocating revolutionary change in Russia - Dostoevsky hated it - a few scenes here are spoofs of that work.  Lenin later used the title in partial tribute for one of his key political writings.

The absence of large industry and the nature of agricultural peasant life meant that belief in collective action was more theoretical and not central to change in the way Marxist thought envisaged.  Russian groups existed with that perspective but they were even smaller and more isolated - it took the 20th Century and mass revolutionary action for these to develop.

Dostoevsky obviously knew of this phenomenon  because he was part of it.  As a member of the Petrashevsky Circle he was exiled to a Siberian prison (after facing mock execution)  in 1849.  Demons has often been cited as the work that utterly repudiates this past and partly that is true but there is more to it than that.

An actual topical incident inspired Dostoevsky  the  revolutionay Nechayev a follower of Bakunin murdered an associate in his group  "People's Vengenence"  He fled the country in 1872 but returned and was sentenced to 20 years in jail where he died.   Prior to this he had also gained a large inheritance from Herzen to spread revolutionary ideas and published a short pamphlet "The Catcheism of the Revolutionary".

Dostoevsky saw this incident as an opportunity to dissect and dismantle the entire Russian radical movement and he didn't limit it to the new generation of radicals which Nechayev represented.   Nechayev was actually from a poor ex-serf background - interestingly Dostoevsky choses not to have either of his main protagonists from that stock.   He also wanted to expose the ideas underpinning individual revolutionary action as essentially anti- human.  Nechayev had written in his pamphlet that a revolutionary has no identity or being at all it was consumed by the one purpose - revolution.  Of course these groups were explicitly athiest too - another long-term target of Dost.

So he had his targets - yet one of the problems of reading this work now - is the time it takes to make that clear.  The actual incident of the internecine killing of an ex-revolutionary  (Shatov) now recanting his ideas and the movement occurs well into the 3rd "book" of the novel.  Around this a massive artifice is constructed in the rural anonymous Russian town where the work takes place.

Bravely and in an interesting narrative device for the 19th century time  the first book does not mention or explore the key characters that will emerge later in the work  the charismatic villainous "revolutionaries" - Peter Verkhovensky and Stavrogin.  In fact you would struggle to identify what the novel was about at all and this is over 200 pages long.  This ends fairly abruptly with a confrontation at the end of this part.  

Modern novels or any other form of narrative art would struggle with the absence of the main "protagonists" from the first third.  Although cinema often kills off a main character shockingly early - think Janet Leigh in Psycho - it doesn't often refer to a character off camera for the first third.

So Dost was ahead of his time in this area but it does mean the novel has no hook to click onto and means the first part is the hardest slog of the work.  It asks a lot of the reader to essentially read the length of one book to establish the premise for a much longer work and even then it is hidden given it focuses on the machinations of underground radicals.

I don't think this was purely a narrative  trick for FD though. The focus on the first part of the work is on (confusingly) the father  of Verkhovensky and the mother of Stavrogin.  He (Stepan)was a teacher to Stavrogin and she is a local widowed landowner.  Stepan was/is a contemporary of Dostoevsky himself and held radical ideas then but is appalled by reports of what is now going on.  The mum is a Europhile and devoted to her son.  The two have an unrequited/sad and quite destructive relationship.  It is clear that put bluntly Dostoevesky blames the parents and indirectly the intellectual milieu of the early 19th Century for creating these immoral empty violent revolutionaries.  Stepanlitters his speech with French - to a ludicrous extent by the end.

As the work develops it becomes clear that Stavrogin and Peter V have returned to the town to kill Shatov - the underground printer desperate to recant his previously held views. Or rather Peter V will mobilise the rag-tag secret "group of 5" who live in the town - underground radicals.  This emerges as they both destabilise the town by enthralling and splintering the local elite - particularly around the Russo-German Governor and his wife.

This part is also pretty complex - and you can see why the edition I read had a list of characters with full Russian names to keep track. It also  exposes another problem in the work - the narration.  There is an identified narrator (Stepan's friend) who I think is meant to be some sort of moral observer of events.  However it is unclear to me how he knows everything that was going on - particularly as the work becomes more and more complex and delving into the underground.

Complex as the artifice is the essence of the work I think is the question of what sort of character do you have to be a revolutionary like Nechayev in the real world or Stavrogin and Verkhovensky?  Dostoevesky is pretty clear - you have to be a villainous psychopath incapable or uncaring of feeling - love or otherwise.  In the creation of a bad guy Dostoevsky with his masterful skills of describing the characters of humans has come up with one of the best literary examples I would say with Peter Verkhovensky.  Duplicitous, charming and ruthless - he sees the opportunity of the underground revolutionary movement for him to dominate and control others and create general chaos in broader society.  It is him that organises the killing of Shatov and takes the lead on coordinating the group of 5 and seducing (not literally I don't think) the governor's wife.

Stavrogin is the more charismatic and secretive one but essentially a complete psychopath and narcissist who most of the aristocratic women seem to fall for with more or less tragic consequences.  He is from the aristocracy but marries a disabled poor girl just because he can and then abandons her - in 19th Century feudal Russia essentially destroying her life.  He is emotionless when others express their love for him and are promptly destroyed.  He has open disdain for everyone but they seem to want to be in his company

Dostoevsky even wrote a chapter which has Stavrogin in quite explicit language for the time confessing to a monk of his child abuse of a young girl in Petrograd.  The editors thought this was a step too far and it was removed.  It is contained as an appendix here in this addition  So a psychopath, narcissist, satyr and a peadophile!  Hardly subtle.

Of course modern critics and opponents of what happened in Russia 50 years later with the October Revolution have stated this shows Dostoevsky's foresight - that only dangerous and isolated characters are attracted to revolution and in particular revolutionary organisations.

There  is a point that subterfuge and small groups (not necessarily left wing or even political ones) attract people who have their own issues.  It may allow them to dominate and exploit but the specific characterisation of these two who could be defined as the leadership goes over the top to express this point.

Indeed you could go further and state that the Left in particular have (or perhaps had) an obsession with gaining a charismatic leader who could advance ideas.  You don't have to go very far to see that as I know in Scotland.  Indeed Peter envisages Stravogin for that role (their own relationship is pretty spikey) - linking him to Ivan Tserevich - a significant figure in Russian folk history/mythology.

But Dostoevsky's point is much more than this.  It is essentially that the act of wanting to change a society and having a vision or ideology is in itself worse than any society you would be fighting against.  Modern political philosopher John Gray essentially endorses and underpins this position.

FD's position is made clear not so much by his portrayal of the two protagonists but of the ordinary Russians who make up the radical  group manipulated by Peter V- local functionaries, students, midwifes, teachers.  The contempt for their attempts to alter the way they live drips from the prose - portraying them all (without exception) as witless or arrogant or boring or buffoons.

There is one scene where a group of disgruntled workers from a nearby factory approach the local governor and he sends the army to whip them.  This is exploited by Peter V for his own ends.  However the way it is written sneers at the reporting of a political protest and the overreaction of describing it as brutal.  I think it is clear Dostoevsky believes the act of collective protest against a regime like post-serfdom Tsarist Russia is worse than acceptance of it.

It is in another artistic universe to the prose of FD but I was reminded a little of the lightweight drama concocted by Liverpudlian TV writer Alan Bleasdale in the early 1990s - GBH.  It was in part a political hatchet job on the struggle on Liverpool Council and the Militant in the 80s - however it became more than that.  It was actually an attack on those who would challenge authority - they are as bad as the ruling elite and attract the dislocated and dangerous.  The plot of GBH sort of collapsed in on itself outlining the similarities between the rebels and the ruling class.

The historic role of those who struggled for democratic, feminist and socialist ideals in the Russian police state of the 19th Century is boiled down to a psychological disorder or as an enablers of psycopaths and dictators.  Which probably was Dostoevsky's position.

However it is a scattergun approach which feeds into the sprawling nature of the work.  Noone who has touched radical ideas in any sense is safe.  He mercilessly lampoons his contemporary Ivan Turgenev through the character Karmazinov as a pompous hypocrite feeding into the underground movement but distancing himself from it by planning to live abroad.  He attacks the Germanic Governor and his wife for facilitating Peter V and his more open and acceptably liberal arguments which for FD are only used as a front for the destruction of society by more revolutionary methods.  This is symbolised by a literary gala day and dance which is meant to use liberal art education to help the masses of the town and stop revolutionary ideas spreading organised by the Governor's wife.  Of course this is manipulated by Peter V and becomes a shambles culminating in utter disaster - a well written few chapters.

FD comes close to putting the case through the prose that any form of liberalism in Russia encourages the more dangerous elements that he dissects - hence his savaging of Stepan and Stravogin's mother.  The true radicalism comes from internal individualism - most notably an individual's relationship with God.  There are no real heroes in this book which in and of itself I don't have a problem with in fiction but it does mean you struggle to get a grip of the  moral centre of this work.

The closest apart from the frustrating narrator and the renegade Shatov (who lambasts Stravogin in one chapter over his abandonment of God) is a character called Kirillov.   He like Shatov is distancing himself from the "group" but has internalised it.  He plans to kill himself - allowing a few very Dostoevskian passages on the nature of suicide and its relationship to religion and existence.  Peter V hopes to exploit this and persuade Kirillov to admit to the killing of Shatov in his suicide note - thus saving all the other murderers.

It is quite a violent work which fits in generally with the themes and the murder of Shatov has predictably bloody consequences.  The corpses pile up pretty quickly by the end of the work.

So is it worth it?  Well the characterisation is impressive and although Dostoevsky is polemical his writings on the nature of humans - even when he is attempting to caricature them is impressive.  Some of the quieter scenes for example on the relationship between Stepan and Stravogin's mother are really good.  The prose and  senses of people will stay with you if you can stay the course for the work.  It is long though with many chapters essentially philosophical discourses through the medium of conversations.  Overall though I think the settling of scores and the polemic against radical change overbalances the work as a whole.

You can see why critics of the left or specifically revolutionary change use this work to show the innate danger of such ideas but this work itself is one-sided - quite deliberately so.  Dostoevsky's shift to supporting the status quo in Russia was as much an inspiration for this book as his attempt to expose the anarcho-individualist actions of the Russia Underground and the radical movement.

This book though long, difficult and ultimately flawed will still cause disputes, discussions and fights among those who read it and 150 years on I would say that is some achievement.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Catching the Millennial Bug? Purity by Jonathan Franzen

When my birthday came round I had two matching sized presents (from different generous people) - two big hard gift wrapped blocks.  Both were the new book Purity - the latest from probably my favourite contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen - the gift givers know me well.  The novel had a weighty feel (literally) to it.  Great I thought,  an epic up there with Freedom and Corrections - fiction so strong I speculated that JF may give up on that style and just focus on new journalism (which he also does very well).  

Purity is a disappointing work.  Not terrible nor unreadable but a meandering mass.  The sharpness of tone and language is there in parts as is his understanding of  America's place  in the world yet overall it is blunted.  I think there are several major issues 

The title first of all is not an abstract concept with which to view the body of the work like “Freedom” or in Austen or Dicken’s work “Pride and Prejudice” or “Hard  Times”.  Well it is sort of but not just that as it is also the name of one of the central characters of the piece – a twenty something female college graduate although she is known universally as Pip. This nod to Great Expectations – explained in a pointless interaction in the work and indeed Victorian novels and novelists in general is an apt comparison.  For in many ways it seems that Franzen is trying to create a big old school 19th Century novel.  However unlike his previous large works (which I think could be put into this category) this seems a lot more contrived and inorganic as the themes rather than the structure of the work ape conventional Victorian novelists.

At the core of the book is a search for identity – Pip grew up alone with her mother and wants to know who her father was.     Their existence is a meagre one in almost complete isolation.  There is no mention of her father apart from one story of escaping an abusive partner and having to change her name. Tied to this comes a puzzle of missing legacies and challenging inheritance.   These devices could come straight from Thomas Hardy or George Eliot.  The problem though is that the plot becomes over powering and invades the areas which are Franzen’s considerable strengths : character development and understanding contemporary issues.  In fact at its lowest ebb (which is not maintained throughout) it becomes a little like crime fiction where the plot distracts from any other aspect of the book.  Not a whodunit but a who is Purity’s dad?  When I was most frustrated with the work I had flashbacks to the trashy 80s book Lace with its equally trashy Dynasty/Dallas style mini-series and its tag-line : “Which one of you bastards is my father….”  Not helped by the cover design of the dust sheet which looks like a glossy 80s piece of work.

This problem is exacerbated because it ostensibly is a book of big themes – notably the modern tyranny (an analogy over used and abused throughout) of the internet and social media.  Moreover how this has overflowed into a generational gap – with the coming of age of the so-called millennials who have emerged into the post credit crunch capitalist world to discover everything is broken and it’s their parent’s fault amongst other things.  In fact in a way (and if it worked properly as a novel on these terms) it could provide an explanation for the remarkable Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 (or in a way Corbyn’s landslide Labour leader victory in the summer of 2015) the basis of which has largely been this group.  And STOP PRESS  the massive gulf between the Brexit vote where there was a landslide for remain amongst the younger generation - the plus 50s swung it for Brexit in England  These worthy and important themes are drowned out by plot but this leads to another issue: voice.  

It is always a big gamble when a male novelist adopts a female protagonist and tries to see the events through her eyes.  Although JF does not attempt a first person narrative - big chunks of the work are the perspective of Pip (unsurprising given the title of book) and a sizeable chapter from an older woman journalist Leila.    The work similar to Freedom adopts a number of perspectives throughout  - male and female, older and young. This in itself can be problematic particularly when intimate or sexual feelings are discussed.   Add to this Pip's age - she is the millennial in the work - and her approach to social media.  Potential boyfriends tell her to look at their relationship status,  key points in the work are revealed through short texts, communication through text and online chat is second nature and her identity is determined by her digital profile.  In theory this is an accurate picture of Pip and her generation but at points you can see JF  (a self -confessed opponent of social media) as someone at least 25 years older struggling with the terminology and the use of digital media like a pensioner with the screen of  a smartphone.    Thus an attempt to contrast the younger generation with the older characters (who make up the majority of the work) struggles with the lack of deftness in this area.

The focus on Pip seeking her father has a global dimension.  Although Pip is a debt laden graduate living in the Bay Area at a crappy telesales job (another plight of the millennial) her life in an alternative squat -type community (this part of the work lets JF make some fairly funny and accurate comments on the Occupy Movement of a few years ago)  leads her into an entanglement with a global star of the Internet - Andreas Wolf - a German in his 50s known for leaking international information through his online empire.  It turns out he has another motive for dragging Pip into his circle as becomes obvious as the overbearing plot intervenes.

Wolf  (predator - geddit?) say you mean Assange surely a charismatic man of a certain age with a dodgy past and aspect to his character.  Well no and this leads to another major problem of the work.  Explicitly Wolf is not the Australian embassy dweller as Assange is mentioned as a person in relation to Wolf.  This is poor form as the work carried out by Sunlight Project  is almost explicitly the same as Wikileaks.  Further in the lengthy piece outlining Wolf's back story growing up in East Germany - the son of leading bureaucrats in the Stalinist regime-  where he exhibits a controversial sexual interest in alienated teenagers and the development of an eventual uncontrollable narcissism.  Given these traits even though he is not Antipodean I could not get image of Assange out of my mind wherever Wolf is involved in the work.  Try it!  Franzen obviously has struggled with this in writing this hence the crowbarring in of mentions of Assange.  Apparently Daniel Craig has been pencilled in for this role in a TV adaption (the plot makes this an easier proposition to televise than Franzen's other work) - even he is going to struggle to give Wolf another face than the Australian facing investigation over sexual offences. 

As well as the Assange problem the character of Wolf has other issues.  In writing his background JF goes over the top with a Hamlet analogy.  His mother is a Professor in English Literature and leading party apparatchik as is his father.  However she is promiscuous as witnessed by a young Andreas and there are question marks about his parentage.  He is even visited by the "ghost" of his biological father twice within the works. There is also an Oedipal dimension to his relationship with his mother - a theme explored in many productions of Hamlet.   The Shakespearean quotes and metaphors are completely overdone and don't go anywhere.  They are also incongruous in a literary sense as it seems the work is meant to be like a nineteenth century novel not a Shakesperean tragedy - it just seems tapped in.  It also disappears after this part even though Wolf is involved in much of the rest of the book 

 In Wolf's past something happens (plot device) involving a young woman who is being abused by her stepfather and murder .  Wolf becomes obsessed with Annagret who in turn becomes a key figure in the work and in Pip's life eventually.  This event dominates even in an unspoken way the rest of the novel.  What is done well in this part (along with the description of East Germany which seems accurate and non accusatory) is the growth of narcissism amongst men and those who try to be leaders of anything.  Wolf becomes a dissident in Stasi-East Germany but really as an act of maternal rebellion and becomes a "leader" in 1989 really because he wants to cover up his past and hide his identity - not from any real commitment to anything.  This ego mania is very much Assange and others I could mention and have seen close up.  Franzen is perceptive in his analysis of this and this stands out from many others who buy the whole Assange myth.  But there is the problem - it is viewed again through the Assange prism not from the work as a whole.

This leads into further problems when Assange brings Pip into his world in Bolivia.  JF sets up a sexual tension between the two - which is only partly resolved.  This in itself is tricky for me given the 30 year age gap and Wolf's past.  The scenes are difficult to read in for this reason which I wonder if is deliberate on Franzen's part especially as he explores the nature of abuse with Annagret who is also younger then Wolf but not in the same dimension.  It is also problematic because of Pip's unresolved paternity - given the plot leaps is it not possible that Wolf is her father?  There is a particularly unconvincing part where Wolf admits his love for Pip - incongruous given his narcissism and his eventual end which I will not reveal.

The other major character (along with journalist Leila) is Tom Aberant - an old style investigative journalist and magazine editor who has had an entanglement with Wolf way back in the heady days of 1989.  His job allows for lots of comparison with the new media and the old ways/values of journalists.  Aberant hires Pip who is essentially working undercover for Assange (whoops sorry Wolf) and is still intent on finding her father.  Is it Tom?  Well another "clue" - that blooming plot again - comes from a lengthy journal/essay/unfinished memoir written by Tom which is presented in full.   This part is by far the best written section of the book outlining a difficult and tempestuous relationship between Tom and performance artist/alienated heiress Anabel growing up together from the early 80s on.  This is JF's time obviously and the ease with which he does this contrasts with his struggles over Pip's time and place.  

But even this is a problem as it is a device used almost identically in Freedom where the pivotal points of the relationships between the protagonists are revealed in Patti (the leading female character in Freedom)'s journal which is published in full as the central part of the novel.  It is an effective device but using the same approach in subsequent novels is disappointing for a writer of JF's quality.  

All comes to a head in the concluding characters and fathers are revealed, inheritances are received and Wolf's destiny comes to a predictable conclusion.   It ends with an argument between Pip's parents and her contemplating that "it had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn't sure she would". The essential millennial problem now being played out in full in post-Brexit UK.  This would be also more valid if Pip had not just inherited millions of dollars- but again this is central to plot!

There are good elements to the book - Tom's writing, the dissection of narcissism, the understanding of Occupy.  But other points there is just a hint of Franzen's skill.  When Pip is confronted by Tom about Wolf she breaks down in a very young immature way which contrasts with her general persona - this was very well written but not explored enough.  There are hints of Franzen's love of nature and wildlife but in very small patches unlike his previous work. These give a glimpse of what JF is and potentially what Purity could have been but sadly it is not these things.  A meandering and problematic disappointment and I never thought I would write that about a work of Jonathan Franzen.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

I Know You and You Cannot Sing That's Nothing: The List of the Lost by Morrissey

Oh dear....

The recent death of Bowie illustrated how he in common with many iconic stars on the avant garde side of popular culture make a concious choice on their artistic direction.  Bowie trained as a mime and idolised Warhol but although he dabbled throughout his career with acting with widely variable results music was his thing.  Though his last testament - the film to Lazarus demonstrated his lasting mime performing abilities.  Patti Smith (along with her early life companion Mapplethrope) experimented with almost every form of artistic expression before settling on performance poetry which sort of transmuted into alternative rock star with the energy of New York Punk.

I would put Morrissey in that category,  though he sent slight pamphlets out into the world in the 70s on James Dean and the New York Dolls, he emerged almost from a cocoon in the early 80s aided by Marr with a fully formed and completely thought out pop music model with him at the complete centre.  That was his world and his weapons were his lyrics.  There was no foray into acting (a cameo in Brookside off-shoot doesn't count) and no bloody awful display of paintings (Bowie, Lou Reed and Dylan have all fallen victim to that).  So why a novel?  And why now? Why, why, why?  A question you will ask yourself a lot if you ever immerse yourself in the 118 pages of the List of the Lost.

The spark  I suppose must have been the publication of his autobiography in 2013 (Interestingly something Bowie never did).  A great piece of work all round but of particular weight was the first  two hundred pages or so outlining his youth in the grim decay of 1960s/70s inner Manchester amongst the Irish community.  Powerful - it was almost a stream of consciousness output.  Perhaps this gave Moz the taste for the pen and the printed (rather than sung) word.  Perhaps a hiatus from music - although in 2014 he released an incredibly strong album followed by an almost inevitable struggle with the record company- gave him more time on his hands.  Perhaps he was asked to do it.   Whatever the reason though this is a misstep from Moz.  The novel is not his form and one of the worst things for me as a fan is that Morrissey himself didn't see it.

My own theory is that it is an amalgam of all three reasons and Morrissey dusted off something that had been on his shelf for a while - maybe decades - and reworked elements of it on the basis that no-one was allowed near it and it was published as seen.

The setting of 1970s middle America and the personnel of four body beautiful athletes (two Hispanic) suggest that Moz is attempting to run as far away as he can from what the expectation of broader society would be for his literary outpourings.   No gritty Northern re-work of Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney.  No expose of the 80s music industry.   Although anyone that pays attention to Morrissey's lyrics know he spreads his net widely for subject matter - Mexican Gangs, the Kerouac/Ginsberg entourage, World Politics er Bull fighting.

The foursome are a  Champion relay team in an American Uni with the world at their feet.  Ezra is their leader and in love with Eliza - tenuous aliteration ahoy. They can do what they want without consequence or so they think.   Their encounter an almost feral hobo then and kill him (!) accidentally and all of their lives and ambitions fall apart and end - literally.  So far so sub- sub Dostoevesky but then throw in some zombie like horror scenes - a sub-plot (fairly gratuitous) about child abuse and murder and that is it.

As a sign of how poor this book is that I can summarise it in this way because that is what Moz gets Ezra to do on page 109 - to an incredulous Eliza and helpfully the reader who if they have made it that far will be wondering what the hell just happened.  A summary of the plot by one of the characters is more akin to a bad pot boiler or terrible movie script.  However it shows how tentative Morrissey is with the form of the novel.

That more than anything shocked me about the book was how unsure Morrissey is.  One thing I thought Moz knows is his voice - he has spent his life cultivating and controlling it.  But in his autobiography or in his best songs or even in a curt witty comment thrown away in an interview  he has shown that less is more.   Call it cryptic or enigmatic but Moz seemed to understand the power of suggestion or symbol rather than the sledgehammer.   Not here it doesn't.  In fact at 118 pages I would say this is overwritten and no point is left unmade. Of particular annoyance is his use of compound words to elaborate on pretty obvious ideas "their actual blood-and-guts experience"  "blue-pencilled out of history and her-story" (!) the "mega-gnarly cave dweller" and so on.  No internal edit - this is so frustrating given how well and precisely Moz uses words in other contexts

I wondered if the book was an attempt at one of those well thumbed horror paperbacks that were passed around classrooms 30 or 40 years ago - the Rats by James Herbert, Flowers in the Attic or something by Stephen King.  If it was the question Why ?  would emerge again.

The "voice" of Moz is a problem also in a way that it wasn't in his autobiography.   You could take Becket's point that all fiction is based on the author's reality but Moz's obsessions and valid political points emerge from the mouth of all the characters - in a contradictory and quite confusing way.

Eliza for example as a Young American in post -Watergate America seems to know an inordinate amount of an obscure British politician Margaret Thatcher that has just been elected to the position of leader  of Conservative party!  This however is one of the only references to any form of hinterland from the characters - they are either two (or one ) dimensional or sound like Moz.  

Fictional writers do crowbar their voices and views into their work but this is uncrafted and just reads like a refusal to let the work have its own momentum or direction.  The dialogue runs aground because of this and in some parts is just unreadable : "Your emotional permanence is all that keeps me level"...

There is a fair amount of reference to sex along with the ghosts, zombies and violence which may have been shocking if you can translate the prose at these parts.  For although Moz overwrites everything these parts are pretty impenetrable (pardon the pun).

There is no momentum in this book it shudders to a halt every couple of pages.  I ended up dragging it to the finishing line solely because it was Moz and it (despite itself) had the odd glimpse of wit and righteous anger.   But this is not Morrissey and I hope part of him realises that.  Novels are hard and many people have crashed on the rocks of writing bad ones.I would guarantee that if Moz had submitted this under a pseudonym it would not have passed Go.  At  least Moz has all the other things he has done but not novels, never novels.

No more Morrissey you have so much more to give in other forms.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Reality Bites - The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sprawling nineteenth century novels  it would seem don't really come like this.   Not for the Idiot a 6 part Sunday night drama in the run -up to Christmas nor the scrabbling around of a Hollywood script editor to churn it all down to a two hour screenplay.  Not to say these acts would be impossible - Russian TV attempted the serial thing (although it was 10 parts) and Kurosawa adapted some of the work into a piece of Japanese cinema.  But the difference from say a Dickens and Austen is the sheer amount of intellectul material FD throws at the page.  To continue the cinematic theme one Polish film was made based solely around the last 20 pages of this tome.

However that weight is not always necessarily a good thing nor does it make the Idiot an easy read. As it was written in instalments - common for the time - characters can come and go.  Large polemics can be advanced by characters where it is difficult to identify the context.  Using similar forms writers would rely on plot devices - cliff hangers and so on to give the reader some sort of guide or helping hand through the hundreds of pages.  Plot is not really the thing for FD here (although there is one which is not negligible) rather the force of ideas and strong central characterisation are what pulls you through.

The book begins with a return as a train pulls into St. Petersburg from the outskirts of Western Europe.  For FD this was also a sort of return -  his last novella the Gambler being set solely in the casinos of the West - as he himself gambled his way across the city states of 19th Century Europe. He wrote this work when abroad.  In a sense that dislocation is reflected in the work itself as although set in his regular haunts of St. Petersburg - the urban setting does not have the same central role as in Crime and Punishment or the Double.  In fact more than half the work takes place in a Russian resort town Pavlosk - near the city - fairly anonymous and removing the tensions of the urbanisation of Russia which is a continual theme of Dostoevesky and indeed Russian literature.

The returner is Prince Myshkin - the "Idiot" - who has been released from an asylum in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy (FD's own condition).  Given the nature of the novel it is not really revealing much to say that the narrative arc of the work sees the Prince returning to hospital care.  So in a sense the whole book is coverage of a period of so-called lucidity from Prince Myshkin.   The title is a bit of a deceit but again symbolic of Tsarist Russia as Myshkin has the title but little else in terms of property or money.   What he does have though is purity and child-like innocence as he has developed in a cocoon thousands of miles away from the internecine tensions of St. Petersburg.  He is thrown into the deep end of the messiness and realities of human interaction almost immediately as he meets a character on the train - in some ways his polar opposite - Rogozhin.

Rogozhin is from the merchant class and is cash-rich but a nasty piece of work.  In one scene he literally buys off one of his potential suitors for 100,000 roubles.  This is a not very thinly disguised show of disdain that FD has for the new social forces in Russia.  The Prince gets deeply involved with the subject of Rogozhin's crude financial passion:  Nastasia Fillipovna.  This is because Myshkin tries to get established in St. Petersburg by calling on a distant relation - he subsequently becomes inveigled with her whole family - the Yepanchins whose patriarch is a General.  Nastasia is a beautiful young woman - who by the nineteenth standards of the time - is a fallen woman - kept by an older man and acquaintance of the General.  She is treated like a piece of property (not unusual for a society having only recently ended serfdom) who although with great beauty is seen as damaged goods thus open to being passed around any men.  It is the General's assistant Ganya who seems to have the biggest obsession with her. although he is also hedging his bets with one of the General's three daughters.

Yet it is Ganya that Rogozhin attempts to buy off  in a drawn out scene at Ganya's apartment where the Prince intervenes and offers to marry Nastasia as an alternative to a life with Rogozhin.  This tension between the naive romanticism of Myshkin versus the brutal wealth and violent passion of Rogozhin is a constant throughout the work.    Nastasia herself cannot decide - as her "ruined" past (which is only hinted at) means she could only deserve the nasty side of life in Rogozhin.  This has predictably tragic consequences.   It would be inaccurate to call this a love triangle - Myshkin in particular is pretty ambiguous about his feelings for Nastasia which again has consequences for him.  This unusual relationship may provide one of the frames of the work but it intersects with so many other complicated elements.  One thing that is noticeable is the continual use of ensembles - Rogozhin has a gang (quite humourously drawn),  the Yepanchins and the suitors for each of the daughters, a group of nihilist -light young men  led by Burdovsky pursue Myshkin for some non-existent legacy.  This is pretty difficult to follow particularly when they are all gathered together!

This mighty character list exposes I think the strengths and weaknesses of FD  - he has a real insight into human behaviour and character which the reader can recognise 150 years later but the work is so sprawling there seems to be inconsistencies over which character has which behaviour.  Ganya in ther first book is pretty villainous - this alters in the second book where he comes to Myshkin's aid and then he sort of disappears.  Probably one of the curses of writing such a long piece of work in instalment format.  

To some extent this same problem can be seen in the polemic that comes from the mouths of the characters but essentially they are Dostoevsky's voice or his caricatures of ideological opponents.  Within an hour of his return to Russia the Prince is sharing his experience  of facing death then being reprieved (exactly what happened to Dostoevsky twenty years before - causing his prison exile),  Dostoevsky seems to be making the points fairly randomly as the work does not have the binding coherence of a clear narrative development.  A scene where all characters have to outline the worst thing they have ever done seems more like a philosophy tutorial .  The Prince's mega-rant  near the end of  the book against Catholicism and Athiesm and the Russian character and everything really is an immediate precursor to an epileptic attack - almost like FD was venting and getting everything out of his head.  

This latter speech actually occurs in quite a funny context as Myshkin is now attempting to declare his love for the Yepanchin's youngest daughter Agalaya  - who in a way reciprocates him and definitely shares his naivety - and he makes this speech at a party in their honour hosted in honour of their potential engagement.   He then accidentally breaks an antique Chinese vase something he explicitly declared he would not do.    This relationship is doomed just as inevitably as the smashed antique.

So the work ends with Myshkin's return to hospital, Nastasia's death at the hands of Rogozin and the lack of marriage to Agalaya.  The Idiot's venture into the "real world" seems to have been a disaster but ultimately through his insight and openness many people have been affected by him - as he does inspire loyalty, friendship and in an extremely distorted way  love.    There is a lot more in the work - many other characters who touch the reader with their truth (albeit not always consistently) - the matriarch Lizaveta, Ganya's drunken father, the opportunist hanger on Lebedev.

I don't think anyone has ever quite written a novel like this - it is sprawling, confusing and packed full with contradictory and developed political and personal argument.  Ultimately though like the Prince's brief time  which is documented amongst the maelstrom of humans it is very worthwhile even if he does end up back in hospital.  A book that will stay with me but has taken me a long time to think about - this has taken 6 months to compose.  Worth it though, definitely worth it.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Life: Stoner by John Williams

If it's plot you are after (or just a good time...) you could just read the first page of this remarkable American novel which summarises the whole thing in two paragraphs.  For in these words are the bare bones of the life of William Stoner an English Literature lecturer in a minor University.  The key dates are reflected through the prism of the University as he stayed there for the bulk of his adult life  from his enrolment as a new student in 1910 until his death in 1956.

The rest of the book really unpicks the cursory summary of that first page as over the next 300 it outlines the heartbreaking reality of an ordinary person's life.  It is not often a novel can catch you off guard but this work (advertised as the greatest novel you have never read) certainly did this for me.

Showing the minor tragedies, tensions and battles that an ordinary person has to deal with and how they have the same depth and importance of the highest drama of the Gods or nobles as outlined by the Greeks and Shakespeare was not unique to Williams.  Indeed by 1965 when this book was published Western literature and drama had established the tradition of the ordinary life of being worthy of artistic focus.  The drama of Arthur Miller from the 1940s specifically did this in American theatre.   In literature John Updike's Rabbit saga of a (very) flawed ordinary man began 5 years before.  Even the development of cinema in the States with the work of Chaplin focused on the "little tramp" as the everyman.

But what puts Williams' work apart (and perhaps ironically is the reason it has not had broader recognition or distribution) in my view is both its tone and its setting.  Stoner's birth is in the dying decade of the nineteenth century and he lives well into the post war period of the 1950s.  So most of his life takes place in the most tumultuous period of world history,  Well placed to view two brutal world conflicts and the dynamic growth of the strongest consumerist capitalist economy humanity has ever seen William Stoner seems to live in a still calm world framed from his dirt-poor rural background.  Thus although modernity is all around him that frenzy and struggle seems to be removed.   He does not participate in either War (although loses a son in law in the second conflict) and indeed his refusal to fight in WW1 - in character this is done in an understated quiet way - is quite a defining moment of his life.  This decision is inspired by his academic mentor Arthur Sloane who is a man out of his nineteenth century time but a witness to the destruction that total warfare can rage on civil society.  It can "kills off something in a people that can never be brought back".

Thus the contrast with the cocoon of Stoner's life from the events around him is one of the recurring tensions in the work.  At times this contrast reminded me a little of the distant and somewhat jarring tone that Hemingway adopts in his fiction - which often takes place right in the middle of the maelstrom of warfare.  To document life in the twentieth century with this voice is if not unique very different and gives a special tempo to Williams' novel.  It could be viewed as a little slow which may may give some readers pause but I think that space gives you time to enjoy the prose.

Almost to identify this historical isolation Stoner's own specialism is medieval literature.  His joy at writing - sparked by Sloane's recitation of a Shakesperean sonnet when ostensibly Stoner is there to study agricultural science is in sharp contrast with the rest of his life.  Perhaps the work does not fully explain the captivation which fiction has inspired in him but by engaging in the novel itself and the prose contained within it the reader themselves is  (to some extent) a witness to Stoner's happiness with the creation of written art.

The book is also incredibly precise in his description of human relationships.  Central to Stoner's unhappiness is his relationship with his wife Edith.  The courtship is awkward and distant as both are very shy but it never changes.  As of the times (the 1910s) the marriage almost happens by accident and is compounded by a clumsy and passionless consummation which really defines everything else that follows.  I noted Ian MacEwan's endorsement of the book and thought it must be an influence on similar interactions in On Chesil Beach,  They have a daughter but becomes a pawn between the two of them - a sadness heightened again by Williams prose.  His relationship with his silent and absent farmer parents is resonant as a symbol of the generational shift between centuries in the US - rural to urban.

As a minor academic (well recognised here!) Stoner's love of his subject has to be  tempered with the straitjacket of a university with its tensions of term - time, teaching all levels of student and petty rivalries.  It is a bit surprising given much of this work was set 70-80 years ago how little has altered in the tensions around University.   The disintegration of a friendship with an ambitious and bitter colleague (who ends up as an early form of a University senior manager) Hollis Lomax is brilliantly outlined.  The tensions  between the two are exacerbated by the treatment of a completely incompetent student who Lomax is very sympathetic to, it is hinted at that this is becauese he and the student have disabilities- the nuances of the seminar room and the god awful class room presentation are all here.  Lomax labels William as prejudiced. Stoner gains minor victories but the closing down of his academic love by the bureaucracy of his institution seems a constant struggle.  In contrast his almost life long friend Finch assumes a managerial role in the Uni but maintains his humanity and (crucially) his love of the academic discipline - thus their friendship survives.  Again another familiar figure in Higher Education - although sadly I think the numbers of these are shrinking.

The other "difficulty" I think this novel has which may be an issue for a broader readership is its unrelenting sadness.  The relationship with Edith is bad but it never starts with much promise.  Worse I think is the life of his daughter  Grace whom for periods of her early life he is the main carer for.  His closeness to Grace is ended by Edith and the disintegration and distance this causes is terrible to read.  As is the fast forward story we get of her teenage years, early pregnancy, marriage, escape from the sad home, death of her young and unloved husband in the Pacific and slow descent into alcoholism.  I found the stilted and awkward conversation between Grace and her father difficult to read but brilliant.

In his life (outwith literature and the early years with Grace) William has some stolen happiness with a brief affair with a work colleague  who has attended his class (where the awful student talk took place).  Given his enclosed life it is inevitable this is where Stoner would have any form of initimate relationship.  These stolen moments as lovers throughout the University year are bound to end but it contrasts with almost every over part of Stoner's life.  It is not remembered in the first page summary but it is here that Stoner experiences love that is endlessly outlined in the literature he has intertwined his life  with.  Thus the sadness intervenes in this part of the work as well.

The end when it comes as we know it must is relatively sudden and (inevitably) solitary.  Symbolically he dies amongst his book and one falls from his grip as he leaves the planet.  One man's life gone but his ordinary struggles and sadness have kept the reader rapt.  There is no first person narration here with the problems that brings for the writer but a distant eye of the author throughout.  A great work but dripping with sadness.  One life in a small university in Middle America tells us a lot about what it means to be a human and that is some achievement.