Tag Archives: modern

England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.

 

With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.

 

I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt – initial thoughts

I’m reading The Children’s Book right now. It’s long and thick and dense and I’m loving it so far. One of my friends who read it said that Byatt tries to do too much in it, and I can kind of see that – flipping to the last few pages, it ends just after WW1, which is indeed a dense topic that can be difficult to get right. I’m enjoying it so far, though, for the most part.

One slight problem I have is that I want to sink into it, to lose myself in it, but I keep getting distracted by things. Some of these things are external, like the adorable dogs walking by when I was reading in the park. Some of them are internal.

Byatt is the type of writer, I think, who does a lot of research on her books – this one uses fairy tales and late Victorian/Edwardian life. She also likes to display the results of her research. This has led, for me so far, to very beautifully written passages about imagination or mythology or the setting, but also 82 pages before the children’s books enter the novel, and no sense of the story yet.

It’s very atmospheric. It’s very beautifully written. It’s one of the few books where I’ve actually made notes (there are a few words that I don’t instantly know, and a few passages I’ve underlined). I’m just ready to get past the staging and to the story. I’m having problems keeping the characters separate – they’re just images right now, not individuals – and am really wondering where things are going to end up.

Two minor issues: 1. Is it mandatory for a “literary” novel to include a masturbation scene (graphic or not)? It’s a trend I don’t quite see the necessity for. 2. Can someone please explain this sentence to me without commas?

Humphry graduated in 1877, two years after the Christian Arnold Toynbee, whose devotion to the needy, and early death, were commemorated by Canon Barnett’s founding of Toynbee Hall, designed as a community of graduates, who would, themselves, live and teach amongst the poor.

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One Day, by David Nicholls

This is a book that was on my TBR list (which I will update very soon). I had read a review of it – I can’t remember now if I read the review on amazon or in a newspaper, probably an online paper – and it intrigued me.

It lived up to the description in the review. I read it in about four, maybe five hours over Christmas.

Let’s see if I can explain the basic concept: Dexter and Emma get to know each other the day of their graduation from university. The book touches in on their lives every July 15 (the day/morning after) for almost twenty years. I’ve put the book away so I can’t double-check exactly how many years it is – I think it’s about twenty years total. Sometimes they see each other or interact on these days, sometimes they don’t – but July 15 is the only day of each year when the reader sees them.

It works so, so well. By only dipping in to their lives once a year, we don’t get bogged down into the significant trivia of their lives. I understand that that seems like an oxymoron, but the book is about their relationship over the years, not about the moments that are significant to their lives in other ways. If the book were about one of them as a character, then it could be more focused on those events – their other relationships, their other life choices. But it’s not: it’s about their relationship. Events that are important to their individual lives – lovers, jobs, moves – are mentioned and explained on each day, like catching up with a friend that you only see once a year. Even more than that, their own view of their relationship is described through these reminiscences. As Emma is waiting to meet Dexter, for instance, she thinks about how she sees him and how she thinks he sees her (and she’s quite accurate – she knows him well at this point).

It also highlighted for me – and reassured me – how completely things can change in a year or two. They both sort of fall into careers. They work at them, of course, but something in one year will happen that would have been completely inconceivable the previous year. As someone who has no idea what lies ahead in her life, that is incredibly reassuring. I know they’re fictional characters, but there’s an element of “It could happen that way for me, too” (and one that’s much more realistic than my typical “if only” books, romance novels). There is a bit of “When Harry Met Sally” in it, too – their friendship for many of the years transcends other relationships that they are in.

I haven’t heard much about this book since I read that first review, months and months ago. I really enjoyed this book, though, and think that it should be much better known than it seems to be right now.

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Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

This is one of my all-time favourite plays to read. I ran across a copy at my grandparents’ house when I was a teenager and devoured it. I don’t know whether it was the Derbyshire connection or the math or the Byron (even though I hate Byron) or just the sheer genius that is Tom Stoppard, but I adored it from the minute I read it.

And I got to see it, this weekend, in London, in a production that has gotten nothing but good reviews. It deserves every one of them. The play is, of course, amazing, and the cast was incredible. There were quite a few people who are not huge stars or big names, but more “Oh, yeah, the guy from the thing!” type actors. Which is good because then you can focus on the show itself and not necessarily on being starstruck at seeing Matt Damon or Brendan Fraser or Alan Rickman or Charlton Heston or whoever you’re seeing. The only ‘weak’ point in the cast was the girl who played Thomasina [Jessie Cave, who was in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince] and it’s hard to tell whether it was her or the character that bothered me. She wasn’t as natural as the other actors, but then her character is 13 for most of the play so she may not have needed to be. Other people-I-recognized in the cast included Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marian in the recent Robin Hood series), Hugh Mitchell (Colin Creevey in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and Neil Pearson (Richard Finch in the Bridget Jones movies). Ed Stoppard, who played Valentine, I’d heard of (since he’s Tom Stoppard’s son, he’s gotten a bit of press for this play) but hadn’t seen in anything. He was fantastic – I understood Valentine as a character much more because of his performance.

It’s hard to explain what a Stoppard play is about. The people sitting next to me asked for a plot synopsis, and I told them that it was almost impossible to synopsize a Stoppard play, especially one that jumps time the way that Arcadia does. (Here is Wikipedia’s summary, though, if you’re interested.) It’s about math and science, literature, and sex. It’s about chaos theory, and how historically-based literary criticism is ultimately wrong. It is a working definition of dramatic irony, and – especially in a performance like this one – proof that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to literature. This is a play where the heat just keeps building and building, and it never comes anywhere near room temperature. It’s the type of play that makes higher-level math understandable, at least to me. It’s the type of play that makes me wish I’d studied it (math) more. It’s the type of play that proves how a good writer can be educational and interdisciplinary without being pedantic.

It is a play that combines ideas and characters. Valentine wouldn’t be as interesting if he weren’t passionate about math as he is, and if he weren’t so conflicted about the impossibility of Thomasina’s work. Bernard wouldn’t be interesting at all if he weren’t so passionate about Byron and his ‘discovery’. And Septimus….I was in love with Septimus after reading the play, but even more so now that I’ve seen him brought to life [especially by Dan Stevens, who is now on my ‘Watch him in anything he does’ list]. He’s especially good in the last scene, with Thomasina: he knows that it’s wrong, he knows he shouldn’t give in, and yet he can’t stop himself. It’s heartbreaking, and you could see the struggle, and the inevitability, in his performance.

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