Saturday, 24 September 2016

Post 42: The History Room and A Clockwork Orange

"Balance the bits about reading with bits about your life."  This was the wisdom of child one as I embarked on my blogging adventure.  This is all well and good in essence, but sometimes, my life is a tad dull!  Since my last post, I have returned to work after the summer break, seen child one off to her third year at Uni, had three fillings (ouch!) and had an Ofsted inspection. Enough said.

In the next blog, I am hoping to wax lyrical about the Henley Literary Festival as I have tickets to five events; but for those who have high hopes of my creative writing, I am sad to report that my entry for the short story competition this year, wasn't even longlisted... If you want to read last year's winning entry, however, click here!

Also coming up on the horizon is the big step of child two going off to Uni, leaving me and Mr M as empty this space!

My reading has been diverse this month. Beginning with one of my stash lovingly bought and brought home from Barter Books in Alnwick, I read The History Room by Eliza Graham.  Its front cover appealed to me: I could imagine sitting on the rocking chair looking out of the leaded windows to the well tended lawns and gardens beyond.  Its tag line, "The past is never past," whilst a little cliched, suggested an interesting story.

But I have to confess to being disappointed.

The plot is potentially rich and complex, but each strand was dealt with perfunctorily and too rapidly resolved.  Meredith,the central character has come to live and work at her father's private school in the aftermath of a rejection from her husband.  Horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Hugh cannot bear to be in her presence and he sends her away. This plot strand is in itself, worthy of detailed observation and retelling, but as with most of the novel, it never does more than skim the surface.  The book seems to acknowledge big human issues, but fails to fully explore any in sufficient depth to gain real reader response.

Meredith's father is a widow, but that doesn't stop his marriage also being central to the plot. Another woman from his past is made evident from the early chapters, and it is clear that one of the students may have a link to his boyhood as a young man in Czechoslavakia.  The history of this country and its invasion by Russians in 1968 is also cursorily dealt with; again, I felt a whole novel could be dedicated to this strand.
Perhaps most bizarre was the plot surrounding the appearance of a dead child in the history room. Quickly recognised as a prank in bad taste, the baby was actually a reborn doll.  I had never heard of these, but a quick search on the internet confirms that they do exist and can be given the features of a real child.  I find this creepy, but it served as a catalyst for the discoveries that are ultimately made about Meredith's father.
Frequent repetition of ideas...the doll, her husband, two characters Emily and Olivia and her father's past made this novel unchallenging.  I felt that I was being told the story rather than shown through the strands. This had potential but ultimately left me with no feelings of empathy for any of the characters. This one will find its back to a charity shop despite its lovely front cover!

My second September read couldn't have been more different, though I am not sure that I liked it any better! This one was read for one of my A Level students who is using A Clockwork Orange as his free choice text in a coursework comparison task. It is a modern classic, and one I feel that I should have read before now, so I welcomed the opportunity to fill a gap in my literary canon.  This book is, if nothing else, odd!  It is broadly speaking, a dystopian novel.  At its heart is an experimental penal reform programme that seeks to cure young criminals of their desire to re-offend.

The lead-up to the prison section is a brutal rendition of frequent drug-taking and subsequent violent binges.  Rapes, beatings and murder are recounted in detail which is sanitised only by the peculiar vocabulary invented by Anthony Burgess for this novel.  If you have never read the novel, here is an extract to show you what I mean: " Billyboy was something that made me want to sick just to viddy his fat grinning litso, and he always had this von of very stale oil." Exactly!  The neologisms are in fact, cleverly invented and it does serve two purposes; firstly it removes the extent of the violence from the sections of the novel where lawlessness is uppermost, but secondly it creates a sociolect for Alex and his young associates.  This sets them apart from the millicents (police) and the other adults they encounter.  I would recommend just reading the book without trying to translate the new words.  After a few chapters it becomes easier to understand through context rather than treating text as a foreign language.

My student wants to explore empathy in the novel.  This is interesting, especially as I have already slated the previous novel for not really enabling any full reader response.  I need to be able to immerse myself in a story to fully enjoy the experience, and I found A Clockwork Orange repellent rather than something I could really relate to.  And this isn't because of its genre.  Margaret Atwood has written many dystopian novels, some with extreme violence and criminality, but there is always a central character who evokes empathy.  Alex,the protagonist in the Burgess novel, failed to move me fully, though I can appreciate that he is, in his own way, a victim of the system.  When he is imprisoned and receiving a treatment that he is too naive to investigate or refuse, then some sympathy is created.  When he is released too, we see him struggle in a way that allows some empathetic response.  Indeed, I found his release the most interesting part of the novel.  Here Alex meets many of his former victims, but each meeting is unplanned and serendipitous.  They are also unlikely and require significant suspension of disbelief.  At this point in the novel, I thought that the purpose might have been to show how we are all trapped to re-live moments in our lives and never be allowed to change or fully move on.  But I don't think this is Burgess's ultimate message.  It seems to be something to do with growing up.  This is a coming of age story, a bildungsroman with violence guaranteed.  And it is this that is so chilling.  Burgess seems to accept that the young will always be reckless, will always be blind and deaf to reason and thus will need to go through rebellion to emerge, fully-formed on the other side. Whilst we can all accept there is some truth to this, I hope and pray that most young people do not feel the need for such bloodlust as is central to Alex's life.

And nobody comes out of the novel well.  The government is corrupt and controlling and those in opposition are equally so. The chaplain is a drunkard and Alex's parents are weak.  His friends are disloyal and compassion comes at a price. I found myself looking about me for some hope in this earthly existence!

I think that although the book was worth adding to my reading list, I won't be revisiting it in a hurry!

Now, the sun is shining and bulbs need planting.  I am going to look up from the depressing depiction of humanity and turn to the glories of nature.  Monty Don has it right when he says gardening is therapy!

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