Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

I read non fiction so rarely, apart from work related reading, that whenever I find myself reading something for interest and enjoyment that is not fiction I have to wonder if I am feeling unwell.  And as for philosophy,  I know many of the names of the biggies from bits of sound bites gleaned here and there, but that is about all.

Enter Alain de Botton, I am sure the man could make a phone directory seem fascinating.  His style is so witty and light, yet completely relevant, that I found myself unable to put this book down.  The lives and wisdom of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and poor old Nietzsche are used by de Botton to offer explanation and consolation of the modern ailments of unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties (difficulties of course being about Nietzsche, he had a great many).

De Botton's own philosophical understanding must be epic, because he manages to distill the teachings of each of these five down to forty or so pages, complete with little pictures and hilarious modern day applications of their teachings.  It is quite brilliant.  And best of all for me, I would feel perfectly comfortable after reading this book to pick up some of the original work (translated of course) that Consolations draws on.  De Botton includes a comprehensive notes section in the back that could direct anyone to do this.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for some years.  I suspect, recently reading Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, might have had something to do with me venturing to pick it up.  Jude's thwarted love of learning really moved me.  See, who said a novel can't change your life?  De Botton has apparently written a book on the very subject regarding Proust.  That one may have to wait, I have his, The Art of Travel waiting to be read next.  If you are interested in Alain de Botton's work, he has a very user friendly website.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

When I finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, one of my first thoughts was that this novel must be approaching the high end of what can be achieved by the art form. This is the second novel I have read by Hardy, the first being Tess of the d'Urbervilles which I read as a teenager, and remember being very moved by the plight of Tess. 

It is of course quite difficult to review these esteemed classics as I am sure there are numerous literary scholars who can, and have, done a better job at dissecting all of the authors intentions and contexts etc.  So I will limit this review to a very sketchy description of the plot and my general impressions, and of course what I liked about it.

Jude the Obscure is Hardy's last novel and was  published in 1896.  My understanding is that there was quite a furore after the publication, because of Hardy's frank treatment of issues around sex, marriage and religious themes in the novel.  The novel also slams the exclusivity of the higher learning institutions of England at the time.

The story begins with Jude as a young boy who is reluctantly taken in by his great aunt, who is a baker in a small town in west England, after both his parents die from illness.  Jude works hard, and becomes a stone mason, but his real passion is for classic learning and he teaches himself as much as he can get his hands on, forever hoping that if he just saves enough money, he will be able to attend one of the illustrious universities of a nearby town.  Jude marries early in the novel to the sensual and pragmatic Arabella, but quickly comes to regret this decision after falling in love with his cousin Susanna, who is quite the opposite to Arabella, being ethereal and intellectual.  Jude and Susanna's disastrous efforts to be together drive the rest of the narrative.

There are numerous themes and layers to the novel.  A few immediately jump out and the other really juicy ones, crept up on me, and aren't fully realised until the final conclusion.  From the outset it is very clear that Hardy is making a statement about the barriers to a man of humble means bettering himself with a higher education, if that is his passion.  One of the moments of most poignancy for me in the novel was a scene towards the end, when the reader learns that throughout his whole blighted life, Jude has carried around with him, his much loved texts, even after his dream of being admitted to university has long faded. 

Then there are the unusually frank themes of marriage and sex, both inside and outside of marriage.  Hardy goes where I am sure no one had gone before in laying bare what marriage meant for the various characters, including from the religious and sexual perspective.  All very extraordinary I am sure for a novel of that era.

And then, there are of course the characters themselves, and the amazingly self-destructive nature of Jude and Susanna's relationship.  I do wonder if other readers of this novel grew to be genuinely irritated by Sue (the ethereal, and intellectual one)?  My take on her is that she is self absorbed to the point of narcissism and that the strongest point in the whole novel is really Jude's unwillingness to tear himself from her, even when the scales are removed from his eyes and he acknowledges to himself, that she is awful and his pursuit of her has caused him nothing but frustration and loneliness.

Arabella, Jude's early wife on the other hand, was a far more likable character, even though Hardy goes to great lengths to paint her as a wanton woman of very dubious morals.  Unlike Jude and his cousin Sue, Arabella demonstrates far more common sense, and even wisdom, when it comes to matters of human relations, than Jude and Sue combined.

The novel is a sweeping and gorgeously realised portrait of a man who is indeed thwarted by the social conventions and limitations of the time, but ultimately, it is his own inner conflicts and self delusion that undoes him.  All of the characters in the novel represent something about him, it is very clever.

Hardy is an expert in exploring the inner workings of his characters, much more so than his use of spoken dialogue.  About half way through the novel I noticed that the characters, especially Jude, were forever walking around, and between, the villages and towns where the story takes place, in every sort of weather.  The walking not only allows for the characters to reflect on what is happening, but of itself, creates this amazing sense of restlessness: the pacing and exertion and not being able to settle and relax.  Jane Austen and her genteel parlours, this is not.

I guess what I am saying is that I became involved with the characters, especially Jude, more than I expected, to the extent that in the last couple of days, when life kept me from finishing the final chapters, I found myself thinking of the novel often and wanted to sneak away to find out what happened.  I don't know about you but, but nineteenth century literature normally does not grip me like that.  So of course, I would recommend this to all; it is one of those books that feels like a priviledge to read, and I also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Well this book sure is something.  I think I admire parts of it, but I mostly didn't enjoy it.  To be honest I don't think I was supposed to.  It reads like a rant; a satirical, anti western culture rant.  It took me most of the book to even begin to understand why it might have won the the 2003 Booker prize, not to mention a whole swathe of other awards.

As a complete aside, this is the third book I have read in the last month or so, that is at least partly set in Texas, how strange.

Vernon is a 15-year-old who witnesses a shooting massacre at his Texan high school.  Events quickly conspire to implicate Vernon in the shooting.  The premise of the novel, I think, is that society is so awful (especially the media and other aspects of corporate and individual self interest) that a teenager such as Vernon, battling with his grief and trauma from the shooting, not to mention his own "coming of age" issues could be pushed into a position that has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with satisfying the needs of others.

Not surprisingly I think, the novel reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye, and to be honest that novel is not one of my favourites either.  I didn't fully engage with Holden and I certainly didn't warm to Vernon.   Again, I probably wasn't meant to. 

So I don't get bogged down I think from here I am going to keep it simple and say what I felt were the strengths of the novel and what didn't work for me.

The strengths:  The narrative arc of the book is brilliant, all the little bits fit together at the end, and the pace and tension is well maintained.  The humour is dark to the point of excoriation.  Pierre, well and truly makes his point, all is not right with western culture, especially when it comes to our media appetites.  The small town and its characters are also very well drawn, painfully so.  The insecurities and petty back biting feels very real.  I guess most importantly, the writing itself is good, the man can write; great use of dialogue, both internal and spoken.

Where the novel didn't work for me:  I don't think I like satire in my fiction, maybe it is as simple as that.  I want to be moved or entertained by a novel, not yelled at or completely grossed out.  This is an angry and often ridiculing voice, I was put off by it.  I guess my revulsion could be a testament to Pierre's brilliant characterisation because this journey with Vernon feels like going on high speed ride with a foul mouthed, cynical yet vulnerable teenager.  I was glad when it was over.

In short, I will be heading back to the Victorian classics, science fiction and historical fiction. If however, The Catcher in the Rye is one of your all time favourite novels, or you like your contemporary fiction with a darkly comic edge, you might really enjoy this book.  I would love to hear if others have read this, and what they think.