Sunday, 15 January 2017

Post 47: A Good Start...

It all began with Hubby downloading Northanger Abbey onto his Kindle and announcing that "this book takes 3 hours 38 minutes to read."  Is that all?  Then why on earth can't I manage reading a book a week?  Surely everyone wastes at least three hours a week?!  So, not brave enough to up my never-reached target of 40 books in a year to 52, I am making a sterling attempt. It's January 15th and I've finished three books and am into my fourth. A good start at any rate!
One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was given to me by a good friend who knows me well.  The things in life that I need to keep me happy are books and a bottomless supply of tea. I fantasise about being famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs (well doesn't everybody?)  and I have already decided that my luxury would have to be a lifetime supply of teabags. So this mug really hit the spot.  It also got me thinking.  There are 30 classic titles pictured on the mug and I had only read half of them! Shocking, I know. So, as well as a mission to read at least 40 books in 2017, I now have an added ambition, to complete my mug list.  This is not without its perils...one of the books is War and Peace and I'm wondering whether watching the BBC series counts?????And try as I might, I don't think a whale interests me much, so Moby Dick might be a challenge...and Kafka?  Not sure I'm clever enough for him!  But I have made a start and am now up to 16/30. 

My first book of the year was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It's a novella, so a nice short one to choose from the mug list to begin with. I read it, and then read some essays on it to make sure that I had understood it!  It is a quietly compelling book, heavily descriptive and with minimal interaction between characters.  It needs to be read quickly I think, otherwise you could lose the thread or forget the plot lines in the midst of the description.  The premise is the retelling of a tale by a mariner, Marlow, who had sailed up the Congo piloting a steamer. His mission was to bring home a white trader by the name of Kurtz whose behaviour had been worrying the Company.  Kurtz has a reputation that precedes him and everyone Marlow meets has an awed opinion of him. A specific company is never mentioned, but it is clear that white Imperialists are exploiting the area for ivory.  

And that is the basis of the plot.  Marlow recounts his tale in detail, describing what it was like to sail the treacherous river and encounter the native people. He tells of the differences and difficulties in working in such a tribal and hostile environment.  He narrates the story seemingly without judgement; hence I was left wondering whether I had read a subjective account, a piece that condemned Imperialism or condoned it, or, as has been suggested by some recent critics, famously the author Chinua Achebe, a wholly racist depiction of the times.  It is true that it is the voice of the white man that gets heard, but then it is written from the experience of a white man.  It is also true that he draws attention to the native Congolese by their colour and depicts them as something other than human. There is a distinct whiff of arrogant superiority when he writes, "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us, who could tell?" And yet there is a naive honesty in its tone.  He describes"going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the word, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings." And he creates an overwhelming impression of oppressive heat that lay heavy on the soul, "The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.  There was no joy or brilliance in the sunshine." For me,some of that oppression was found to have its source in Kurtz, a man who had enthralled the native population and earned their respect.  How he had done it however, was through cruelty and savagery that certainly Marlow failed to comprehend. Indeed the Heart of Darkness itself is not the river or the people who inhabit its environs, but rather Kurtz himself who Conrad describes as the "ivory face [with] an impenetrable darkness."
The discussions over this classic novella will continue, but I was left with the impression that Conrad felt ashamed by the white man's interference in the Congo, and scarred by his experiences there.

I have gone into more detail than I intended there, so I will be more succinct about the next two texts enjoyed this year so far. Appalled by my distaste for The Nutshell, I wanted to give Ian McEwan another chance!  And, as he has done so many times before, he wrote something that I was captivated by. This one was Amsterdam. One thing I loved  about it was that no action took place in the titular city until the denouement of the novel.  I kept saying to hubby, "Well, I'm this far in and no-one has been to Amsterdam yet!" The significance of the place was subtly foreshadowed, but I missed it. This made the ending more exciting as I hadn't recognised the significance of previous clues. (No spoilers here!) 

The basic plot is that of two lifelong friends, united by experiences shared and a woman that they had both loved at certain times of their lives. Vernon Halliday is the editor of a broadsheet newspaper and Clive Linley is a composer.  Both are more concerned with their own lives than anyone else's, and yet their flaws are those that most people will empathise with at some level.  Both men make moral decisions in this novel that impact their friendship and have consequences for others.

This is a modern novel for a modern age.  It is contemporary and the moral questions raised are current. There is a sense when you complete the novel that you need to examine your own motives for actions, your own responses to events and to other people.  It reminded me that we are a body of people co-existing in the same space.  We have responsibilities that come with that. Community is a much brandished word, and I think, little understood or lived out. The world could be a better place if we considered our morals, our actions and our decisions in a broader light, recognising that for every action there is reaction and consequence.

My final read for this blog entry is another Kazuo Ishiguro.  I confess myself a fan.  I love his gentle
narrative tone. The Remains of the Day has the simplest of formats.  A butler of the old-school, Mr Stevens, is taking a road trip to the West coast to see a former employee of  Darlington Hall, the housekeeper with whom he had shared many years of service.  The book is set in 1956 and Stevens is aware that everything around him is changing.  His employer is now an American who has bought the house from the English nobility who had lived there for many years, the staff is skeletal and the demand for the services of a butler is dwindling to nothing.

In short, this is a novel where Stevens is allowed to reminisce, to define his role as butler and legitimise his working life. His narrative voice is gently defiant as he explains what makes a butler great and what counts as dignified behaviour in service.  There is, as you might expect with Ishiguro, another significant strand to the tale. Stevens' deferment to Lord Darlington in all matters led to a willing blindness to his politics.  Recognising that important statesmen were meeting in the house, Stevens tells the story of utter servitude, staying in post to meet the needs of the party even while his father lay dying upstairs. His loyalty meant that he refused to see his master's involvement in pre-war Germany. Even when others tried to tell him of Lord Darlington's closeness to Hitler's agenda, Stevens deferred to him as the nobler, and therefore wiser man.

This is a nostalgic tale, but it is sad.  Stevens failed to recognise his own opportunity for personal happiness in his desire to serve his Master.  He failed to be at his father's deathbed and he failed to hear the warnings uttered to him by others.  His story is proud as he justifies his work. We see a butler determined to be the best he could be, and we respond to that.  And we empathise with him rather than judge him.  He wrestles with his conscience as he admits to occasions where he pretends that he has never known Lord Darlington.  Through these slips, the wider political background is revealed.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that after his trip, he seeks to return to the same life.  He knows no different and so promises himself that he will be the best he can be in his servitude under his new Master.  New skills may be needed, but he will try his best to attain them.

A gentle story with an unlikely, likeable protagonist.

Thank you for bearing with me through this long post!  If I'm to read this voraciously, I'll need to blog more often...My current read is a longer novel, so I may give you a little bit of breathing space. I am compelled by it so far, so watch this space for a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Thank you for reading.





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