Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Read Books: Our Mutual Friend

My Dickens read continues with his last completed novel. And my word, what a novel it is. There are many characters all following a variety of intersecting paths. There are drownings and people coming back from drownings; there are murders, attempted murders and people beaten with sticks; there is unrequited love; there is stupid love; there is people getting married without love; there are plots and plans; there are wills and hidden treasure; and there's a twist that is telegraphed from nine country miles off in which one member of a couple is deceived for over a year in order to teach her the kind of lesson that obviously inspired Superman in the 60s[1].

It's difficult to summarise the plot, and parts are melodramatic to the extreme, so I won't. Instead I'll identify the themes. The obvious ones are money and it's effect on people; class or the expectations of society; marriage and love and how money and class effect these; and finally and less interconnected, reinvention of the self and rebirth from the water. The large cast explore these in a variety of ways. The obsession of the upper classes with money is satirised.

Like Oliver Twist this novel is written from a third person omniscient point of view. Also like Twist, it has a Jewish character. However Dickens' feeling about Jews has moved on; in this novel Riah, a moneylender, is forced to assume the character of the merciless usurer by his Christian master, but in private life is generous and kind.

Every character is created with eccentricities which helps to keep them straight even over the course of the long and complicated plot. Many of them remain sketches, but some acquire interesting subtleties. They grow and learn. Some acquire a conscience; others find themselves overwhelmed by greed.

Overall I would call this a flawed masterpiece. It's deeply flawed in the plot which starts with some nonsense about a will and watermen who make their living finding bodies floating on the Thames, is fairly sensible in the middle, then goes full on crazy with it's neatly wrapped up ending.

Read This: For thrills, spills, zany wills, crazy characters and a long hard look at the hypocrisies of class and money
Don't Read This: If coincidences and wacky characters in the slow paced prose of Victorian England make you want to throw the book at the wall.
Also: Another character run over by a steamer on the Thames.
Available Online For Free: Here and elsewhere

[1] I've read the interesting theory that Superman, being so horrendously overpowered, has in fact defeated regular crime in Metropolis by now[2], so between alien attacks, discovery of kryptonite fragments and Lex Luthor's next jailbreak spends his time amusing himself by "teaching" Lois and Jimmy pointless "lessons" in the most convoluted way possible while waiting for mankind to grow up and act maturely dammit.
[2] Batman does the same thing, which is why only the craziest and zaniest villains with ludicrous plans ever get anywhere in Gotham as Batman has stopped all the usual methods of crime.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Walking On The Beaches, Listening To Golden Brown

Pick a childhood memory was the task, write it as a poem and rewrite as prose. Here it is:

As a pantoum

I’m on the beach throwing stones at the sea
Waves crash, wind whistles, and the seagulls scream
The afternoon sun shining just for me
I was there so I know it’s not a dream

Waves crash, wind whistles, and the seagulls scream
The miasmic heat encourages sleep
I was there so I know it’s not a dream
The sea watches, quiet, lazy, deep

The miasmic heat encourages sleep
It seems time and life are a one way door
The sea watches, quiet, lazy, deep
Last summer day of nineteen eighty four

It seems time and life are a one way door
The afternoon sun shining just for me
Last summer day of nineteen eighty four
I’m on the beach throwing stones at the sea

As prose

“Can we go to the beach?”

“We’ll have to walk.”

So we walked, down to the river, across the little bridge. Through the trees, past the fields full of stubble. Across the road, over the golf course, up and down the sand dunes. Each dune was higher than the next, until finally we glimpsed the sea from the top. Then we ran.

I was just above the breaking waves, examining the stones. That one’s too white, that one too small, this one’s a shell. I found some that were right and threw them.

An hour passed. I followed the retreating tide, stepping carefully over the rounded stones. As the sand was revealed it oozed between my toes, and the smells of salt and rotting seaweed kept up with me wherever I went.

We had a picnic lunch. There were sandwiches and radishes and tomatoes and hardboiled eggs. Why don’t I eat hardboiled eggs any more? I remember breaking them against my forehead, unpeeling them, the dry crumbly yoke, and the slippery, subtly metallic white. Is that those particular eggs, or a more generalised memory?

After lunch my brother rounded us up to play French cricket. The ball kept rolling down the shallow slope, ending up floating in the feeble waves. We played for ages and ages, until after half an hour I mutinied and went and read a book.

At the end I threw more stones, trying to skim them. It took longer, having to search for disc shaped ones up on the shingle banks, then trotting down to where the sea had withdrawn to to spin them, flat side down, across the surface of the sea. I was called away. Next week I will go back to school. This is probably the last summer day on the beach; next time will be grey and cloudy and windy. I liked it like that too, but there won’t be another summer like this.

Ninteen Eighty Four was, of course, the name of Orwell's novel, to the extent that, even though this is the actual date (probably) the intertextual reference causes confusion. Of course the rhyming line "It seems time and life are a one way door" is the best one in the poem, so changing it to 1983 or 1985 is not an option (1994 is, but then this is hardly my childhood at all).

Why don't I eat hardboiled eggs any more? Well, in fact I do, but mostly not because you can make an omelette before the water is even boiling.

Like some of the other's pieces these childhood memories are tinged with loss. This, it was suggested, was characteristic of unhappy adults. Thanks for the psychoanalysis. Without necessarily disagreeing, I'll note that we'd moved twice in the last year for the time this was set, so the inevitable emphemerality of the world was on my mind. Both then and now.

Bits, Pieces, And A Smithereen

Putting up some notes from last term. Here was the final five minute task, where we were given... I forget and can't be bothered to find it. A couple of quotes and the back of a book? About wetlands and the past?

Ours was the marsh country. We would haunt the wetlands at low tide, splashing from mound to mound. We told stories of pirates, smugglers and escaped convicts, conveniently forgetting that the river had silted up and the prison hulks scrapped years before we were born.

On days when the sun failed to make an appearance there were shades of grey from horizon to our feet.
It was noted that with my last piece, I was talking about pirates again. "...shades of grey from horizon to our feet" was admired; originally I had "...from horizon to horizon", but that was boring resulting in this happy improvisation.

The Bell poem from my children's piece, rewritten mostly as a sonnet:

Ring this golden bell, or maybe you won’t
My metal heart finds it so hard to care
I will teach you things, or perhaps I won’t
Such unknown mysteries if you’ll just dare

The reason that adults cause confusion
Location of great treasure; when boys lie
Correct usage of the semicolon
The recipe to bake a famous pie

Secrets thought long buried in the graveyard
Things grown ups won't discuss in front of you
Wishes your heart keeps tightly under guard
Facts that are fiction and fiction that's true
All of this, or less, or more
Ring or not. The choice is yours.
The famous pie comes from someone mishearing me saying Famous Five. Semicolons are a continuing point of contention in class. In fact this poem references more things about the class than things in the story it's part of. Self-referentialism - just say no kids!

And my favourite line by another member of the class: "I'll have your teeth for a necklace"

The Bell Tolls, I'm On A Roll

Since the next term of my Creative Writing Class has began, I'll finish putting up stuff from last term. Why has it taken me so long? Well this was the big piece for children, probably the most ambitious writing I did for the class and the part that sucked the hardest. So let's do it.

Ring the Bell, Never Tell

In the trees at the top of the hill I found a bell. It was tiny and golden.

“Look at this Poppy,” I said.

“Where did you get that?”

“I didn’t steal it. I found it. The pirates dropped it.”

Poppy sighed. “They weren’t pirates.”

“They had hats and cutlasses and were carrying a chest. You saw them! One had an eye patch.”

“He did not have an eye patch. And they weren’t cutlasses, they were machetes. They used them to cut this path.”

With the sun shining through the leaves, it would have been difficult to believe we had seen pirates sneaking by yesterday evening if there weren’t hacked off branches all the way from the bay to the hilltop.

“There’s some writing on the bell,” said Poppy. “Read it.”

“I can’t read it. It’s too small. I bet it says something like:

Ring this bell, or maybe don’t
My metal heart finds it hard to care
I will teach you, or I won’t
Many things if you’ll just dare

The reason adults cause confusion
Secret treasure; when boys lie
Correct use of the semicolon
The recipe of a famous pie

All of this, or less, or more
Ring or not. The choice is yours.”

I rang it. It made a tiny tinkley sound. A tall man in a dark suit appeared.

I said “Can you tell us secrets about pirates? Or treasure?”

“Or boys?” said Poppy.

“I’m sorry miss,” said the man in his smooth voice. “I’m just the butler.”

“Then can you get us some spades? And some lemonade. And cake.”

“And hardboiled eggs,” said Poppy.

“Certainly miss.” He vanished from sight.

“Why did you want spades?” asked Poppy.

“Look!” I pointed at the dark patch of disturbed earth at the end of the path. “That’s where they buried the chest!”

After we ate and drank and Poppy had a hardboiled egg we picked up the spades and started to dig. We wondered what we were digging up.

“Treasure,” said Poppy. “Doubloons, pieces of eight, silver dollars. Or maybe pistols and hatchets, ready to attack the town.”

“I reckon it’s a skellington.”

Poppy stopped digging and looked worried. “We should tell someone.”

“No! They get all worried and shouty and everything gets confused.”

“We could tell my brother.”

“You can’t tell boys,” I said. “Remember when we went to the graveyard and the devil chased us up the tree?”

“There’s no such person as the devil.”

“Alright. The time we were chased by a giant black dog with glowing red eyes that breathed fire. The boys ran and screamed and told our parents and we all still have to be back home before it’s dark. That was weeks ago.”

My spade cut through the dirt and clunked against something wooden. Poppy’s eyes widened, as she’d only half believed there was anything there. We dragged the rough wooden box out of the ground.

“We should...” said Poppy.

“I’m opening it,” I said, levering the top off with my spade.

Inside was a single sheet of paper. I peered at it in the fading light. It showed houses, roads and a coastline. It had a compass rose in the top right corner and a big X in the centre.

“We’d better go home,” said Poppy, looking at her watch.

“Tomorrow,” I said. “Tomorrow we’ll find out where this map leads. Find the treasure. Discover the pirate’s secrets and bring them to justice!”

“You’ve got Sunday School tomorrow,” said Poppy.

“Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll follow the map, discover the secrets, and so on,” I said. “Race you to the bottom of the hill!”

So here's the failure. Although it looks like the story answers some of the questions it raises it actually doesn't. The class wanted the poem to actually be on the bell. To know if our narrator makes stuff up, exaggerates or is actually telling the truth about the stories. Whether the butler is magic or just a butler[1]. When it's set. What the narrator's name is.

The reason these questions aren't answered is threefold. Firstly we had a limit of 600 words. Secondly I find questions more interesting than answers. Thirdly, and more importantly, I hadn't decided if this was the start of a longer story or a complete story. If it's the start, then these open questions are fine, although I will have to answer them eventually. But in that case I should open it up, give more and better descriptions and foreshadow some of the answers. If it's the whole piece I should give one big answer at the end to pay for all, give both characters names and nail down when and where we are to make it satisfying.

Also the title was considered too juvenile for the 10-12 year old age range.

I now think skellington was a bit much, but shouty is just right. The class thought Poppy insisting they went home at the end would have been annoying but I'd established her as the sensible one pretty well.

A longer version, which includes the poem as an actual sonnet, is in progress in a stop and start kind of way.

[1] Of course as far as I'm concerned butlers are magic, when they aren't the villain. Or sometimes even when they are the villain.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

I Read Books: Dombey and Son

1. Plot
Mr Dombey is the head of a successful and respected trading house called Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. At the start of the novel he gains a son, but loses his wife, which he seems to consider a fair bargain, unlike his daughter Florence. His son, named Paul like his father, is loved by everybody who meets him. Unfortunately he is not well, and dies while still a child.

Neglecting Florence, Mr Dombey seeks out and finds a new wife. He is impressed by her reserve and haughty, and, as he is very, very rich she agrees to marry him. However she has great affection for Florence, while remaining distant to Mr Dombey. This is unacceptable to Mr Dombey, who, in his pride, will not allow his wife to hold anyone in higher esteem than him. His wife leaves him, along with firms manager James Carker, although she leaves the creepy Carker just as quickly. Carker, being hunted by Dombey is killed by a train. In his rage, Dombey hits Florence who runs away to Captain Cuttle who has mostly been involved in a different subplot. Later the boy she loves who was believed drowned returns and they marry. In the meantime, thanks to Carker's malice, the house of Dombey and son is forced to cease trading.

Sometime later there is a happy ending.

2. Pride
Although we have an actual villain in the shape of Mr Carker, most of the problems are in the novel are caused by Mr Dombey. Dombey is all about pride and being respected. He also believes that his great wealth will allow him to alter people's feelings - he tries to stop the wet nurse for his son having affection for the babe by reminding her of her salary. To no surprise this is the root of all his troubles.

3. Novel
The story is not first rate. Called Dombey and Son we focus on the boy Paul to begin with. When he dies, and Walter Gay vanishes on a sea voyage, the story sort of flails about, trying to become about Florence. The coincidences and intrigues become more unlikely and bizarre and new and less interesting characters turn up. From Dickens middle period, the novel was apparently plotted out in some detail beforehand unlike his early novels. It keeps many of the early strengths - entertaining characters, good set pieces. It also has some of the early weakness in structure and loses momentum halfway through. However Dickens growing psychological awareness makes out central protagonist, Mr Dombey, a victim of his own pride rather than a villain in himself.

Read This: If you're reading and enjoying Dickens.
Don't Read This: If the whole 19th century thing does not float your boat.
In Addition: Previous Dickens on Night of the Hats; Dombey and Son online.