Archive | November, 2016

Van has finished reading… The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford

22 Nov

 

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As famous trials go you might think that this one wouldn’t be so high on the list of interesting ones to report on. Okay, it was ground-breaking and important and we’re all shaped in some small way by its outcome but, interesting?

Well, actually, yes!

Set aside the fact that the defendant is not a person but an object. Set aside the fact that this case was the first to test the newly drawn-up obscenity laws. Set aside even the fact that the Defence drew on any number of eminent persons to form its phalanx of witnesses. All these things are interesting in their own right, but set them aside because at the very heart of this trial reportage – that’s essentially what this book is – is the wondrous theatre of social history. It’s nothing less than the broadening division in the class system that’s on display. Not on trial in the dock – at least not entirely, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all, which is much more about Class than the goings-on in the undergrowth – but on display in the manner of the Prosecution, and the measure of the Defence. There’s a great line early on (yes, it almost feels it could be fiction it’s so telling) where the Prosecution asks, “…Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?” This is 1960. It sets the tone of the Prosecution’s case. In such a pantomime we’d readily boo Mr Griffith-Jones as the villain of the piece but, as in all good literature, at the end of things I felt something akin to sadness and pity for him, having watched him fall so far: screaming obscenities in the courtroom as though that’s what Lawrence’s repetition was all about; inviting – with no small measure of smugness – a Senior Lecturer in English to straighten him out about his misapprehension of the word puritanical, and being summarily straightened out; reverting again and again, and each time seeming more petulant, to the only real line of defence he could muster, that it was all about the sex and nothing else.

Against this, Defence witness after Defence witness offers their understanding of the book, of what it is about and what Lawrence was trying to achieve in the writing of it. Of Lawrence’s place in Literature, of his ability, of Lady Chatterley’s worthiness as literature. Witnesses drawn from universities, schools, publishing houses, even churches, come to state their view, and it’s hard to imagine now how the Prosecution could’ve stood against all this without the certain understanding that they were in the wrong.

 

Through all this Sybille Bedford, who was commissioned to report on the trial, guides us with fairness and clarity. Being an author, we can easily guess which side of the argument she came down on, and Thomas Grant’s introduction to this edition confirms her stance. It is testament to her skill indeed that she remains as impartial as she does in the rendering of the proceedings. What stands out most for me is the apparent warmth with which she greets some of the witnesses, notably the aforementioned Senior Lecturer, a rather feisty Classics Mistress from a Grammar school, and a ‘most smartly dressed’ editor of, no, ‘Not a Ladies’ page. It hasn’t been called that since 1912.’ You can almost feel Sybille Bedford’s relish in Miss Scott-James’s small victories. Though, plus ça change, one might think some 55 years on.

 

It’s a striking thing to be so sure of the fallacy you’re opposing, to be so confident of the outcome that it seems the height of unreasonableness that anyone would even hold such a position. And to us now – certainly to me – it seems obscenity itself that such a prosecution could ever have taken place, but in these uncertain times, these days of political division, it is surely possible to read Sybille Bedford’s account of this famous trial and imagine, before the verdict comes down, what it would’ve been like to sit and wait, not knowing which way the jury would swing.

 

This edition of The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in October 2016 by Daunt Books ISBN:9781907970979

My sincere thanks to Daunt Books (and to Angela Carter) for allowing me to read this book.

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Van has finished reading… Runemarks by Joanne Harris

21 Nov

Okay, so this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Honestly, it’s not. When I first started thinking that I’d like to be a writer I was in junior school. I couldn’t tell you what it was particularly about being a writer that made me think I wanted to be one but I suspect it had a bit to do with my teacher. He was good at everything and good with us kids and he played guitar and he knew how to tell a story. On a school trip, just after lights-out he’d come into the dorm and flick a torch on under his chin – did he have a beard? I think he had a beard – and the atmosphere and the torch and his voice would scare the bejeesus out of me. Not that I’d admit it to my classmates, of course. Anyway, one day in class I’d obviously declared my intention to be a writer so he gave me an exercise book and a pencil and a sharpener and challenged me to do it. So I did. I was so proud of my joined-up handwriting, all slanty on the page, and before long that page became pages. Every now and then I’d stop and shake my hand because it hurt, what with all the writing. And being that age there was a hero, and a woman was trapped somewhere up a mountain, with danger and dragons and… things. I invented some names. And I can distinctly remember the point at which I stopped: my hero was half way up, imprisoned by a cone of fire (I can even remember what I called the cone of fire, and no, I’m not going to tell you). I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to get him out. And I realise now that in stopping here I found my teacher’s one weakness. He liked to see us do well and he liked us to know we were doing well. He gave me gold stars beneath the words ‘half-time report’. The sad thing was that I never finished it because I’d got my reward, my gold stars, and the incentive seemed to fizzle entirely out. It was probably only about a thousand words, looking back, though at the time it felt epic. And I’ll bet my last money it was truly awful. And this is why said at the start of this review that this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Because reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks brought all this back to me.

It did this because it tapped straight into those things that you already know, even in primary school, about fantastical stories. Your hero must be a loner. That said, your hero is going to have to trust someone or something that probably shouldn’t be trusted because your hero cannot do what they must do on their own. Because your hero is about to go on a quest. This quest will be dangerous and probably some people and definitely some animals will die. It will get harder and more dangerous and there will come a time where it simply isn’t feasible it’s all going to work out. But your hero is a hero, so… What it tapped into was the sheer joy of invention, the unadulterated bliss of feeling these people you read about – or as I was then, write about – inhabit a wondrous and untouchable place in your mind’s eye where the rules are different, where the unexpected not only can but will happen, where it’s the law, where power is at your fingertips, where the small are not cowed by the weak, where you, whoever you are, are able to win.

I have to say I loved it. It simply made me smile. It’s somewhat relentless in pace and a tad irreverent in voice, which suits the inhabitants right down to the ground. There’s a delightfully threaded message in there too if you care to ponder the weave a little, but if you don’t, no matter. You’re still going to take a crash-course careen through the nine worlds – or a good part of them anyway. You’re going to boo at the villains when you know they’re villains and you’re going to cheer the heroes in the same way. You’re going to smile when dignity besmirched is stood upon and you’re going to look wryly at the world on these pages and see the ways in which it’s not so different from our own.

You can thank Marvel for two disconcerting things. Firstly, it’s really hard to picture Loki without a certain Hiddlestoneness about the twisted grin, and secondly, the familial relation is a generation shifted in Runemarks. Of course if the source material were set in stone it’d be history rather than legend. And legend has a much more appealing ring to it!

Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to be sniffy about reading. We get bogged down by that word literature and we start saying things like, fantasy, you know, it’s really not my bag. The trouble with that is that we limit ourselves, limit our intake and our experience. And remember too that genres are really only there to sell books. Oh, you like that? Try this. But what’s the harm, once in a while, of picking up something unexpected? Okay, if you pick a book up and you don’t like it, move on. No harm done. Every work of fiction you read is fantasy, after all. None of it’s real except in yours and the author’s imagination. And if you find one you really like, tell your friends. Share it and then you can talk about it with them and relive it. There’s immense power in words if only we allow them in and who knows, that next book, that unexpected read might just have the power to change your life. It happens you know. Books really can do that.

Runemarks was published on the 2nd August 2007 by Doubleday ISBN:9780385611305

 

You can (and should – she says wise things and sometimes tells stories) find Joanne on Twitter @Joannechocolat, or on her website joanne-harris.co.uk

Van has finished reading…We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

14 Nov

Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the writing is exquisite, a tale told with a deserving level of complexity, not just the use of language but the pace of it, the precision of the vocabulary, and perhaps above all the grace notes, those crystal chimes that cast you back to what would’ve appeared earlier as a throwaway line, a funny aside or a strange departure from expectation. Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the story it tells is so vivid, so believable – regardless of the fact you might mutter, ‘unbelievable,’ in that surprised way, so extraordinary that you start to look at what’s around you in a different way. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is that rare conjunction of both these things. What a fantastic book!

Rosemary Cooke, in the short prologue, is looking back, watching her two-year-old self’s garrulousness on a silent cine reel, telling us she used to a talker, telling how those who now her now would be surprised. She offers a hint of fairy tale conjured by what she sees, and the fairy tale flavour endures as she follows her father’s advice – given in those garrulous days when he was trying to stem the flow a little – to begin in the middle. What follows is the unpicking of a strange and broken family, the uncovering of secrets and not a small pinch of sleight-of-hand. Until about page 77. Then, in what is paradoxically the most bizarre admission in the book, everything begins to make sense.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a character off the top of my head who’s quite so clearly a product of their situation as Rosemary. Of course it takes a little time to realise this because that situation is not apparent until post page 77. Look back at the behaviour in the opening chapter post page 77 and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

It’s one of those interesting things with reading, deciding how much you can trust your narrator – of course it’s something of a dilemma when you decide you can’t because to keep reading, to keep enjoying, you have to trust, at least to a certain extent. What’s most pleasing about the construction of Rosemary is not so much the establishment of that level but the reasoning behind it. You get to that moment and it ceases to be a question of trust and becomes something else entirely. Every reaction, every word, every step, every expression makes sense and it can only break your heart to hold that world in your mind’s eye. As the book progresses that understanding deepens and deepens as Karen Joy Fowler unpicks not just Rosemary’s troubled existence but what it really means to be family. It’s only fair to say that there are moments in this book that might just sicken you, and there are many many more that will make your heart ache. I can’t tell you the relief I felt towards the end of the book as I came to realise the many possibilities I came to fear weren’t going to be realised. About three quarters through I came close to a bout of borderline ugly crying while reading on the train, which is never a good look!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is above all things a book about love, and that’s a joyous thing to cling to. It’s about family and what it means to be connected to another being. It’s also about the lengths we’re prepared to go to to understand who we are, and how sometimes that needle doesn’t point in a positive direction. If you haven’t read this book I’d urge you to find. It really is masterful. I only hope that you’ll have the benefit of approaching it without having come across any spoilers.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 19th June 2014 ISBN:9781846689666

You can find Karen on her website karenjoyfowler.com