Evelyn Waugh’s combined oeuvre essentially serves as an all-encompassing opinion piece, picking up on and mercilessly savaging every minute fragment o...moreEvelyn Waugh’s combined oeuvre essentially serves as an all-encompassing opinion piece, picking up on and mercilessly savaging every minute fragment of fetid human frailty in a manner which leaves the reader laughing uproariously and reeling with the sting of self-revelation in equal measure. His Wildean wit is potently combined with a Dickensian concern for a resonant, decisive, conscientious message, resulting in a style that is truly fulfilling in its not inconsiderable capacity for entertainment and edification. It is therefore fascinating to return to the inception of this stratifying structure as enshrined in Decline and Fall, Waugh’s first novel. Here, we find a man as yet unravished by the woes that were to define his later life; a 25 year old who could still deride the absurdities of society with a wry sentimentality, who was wary of denouncing his peers’ vile vacuity for fear of rejection and isolation by those whose status he coveted. Though his usual disdain for society is on display here, it has not yet been tinted (or should that be tainted?) by the bitterness and all-intrusive piousness of his later output, a fact which, I believe, lends the novel a broader appeal and a certain piquancy in its untrammelled perusals.
At this stage, it is conventional for a reviewer to state that ‘the book revolves around so-and-so’; however, Decline and Fall is unusual in the sense that, although it has an ostensible main character in the person of Paul Pennyfeather, it often chooses to divert its focus from its supposed figurehead for protracted periods. Not only does this allow for a comprehensive vista, zooming in on secondary characters before panning out to an all-encompassing view, it also serves as a damning indictment against the social construction of human self-obsession, depicting each character as a pitifully isolated thread in a much vaster tapestry. The absurdly transient Captain Grimes, for example, is demonstrative of the abject failings of a class system that was considerably outdated even in the 1920s; a self-professed, “public school man”, a fact of which he is ridiculously sanctimonious, his every step in life is dictated purely by his association with Harrow. He cheerfully recognises his own failings, making light of his worryingly constant dismissals by referring jocularly to always being, “in the soup”. In short, he is a nugatory character who stands out more for his failings than any successes, and his hyperbolisation conflates him to a caricature of the static, mouldering middle classes.
Waugh’s dissection of the society around him is not confined to a single tier, however; it is comprehensive, all-inclusive in its vituperative disdain. Every echelon of British society is deftly and humourously savaged, from the knuckle-dragging Welsh bandsmen to the vapid and miserly Oxford dons. The conventionally accepted Establishment is not merely undermined, it is disintegrated by the venomous bile of the author’s pen. Though his prose may seem unpolished compared to the effortlessly flowing insights that were to come, Waugh’s unrelenting assault on every aspect of the world around him lends this novel a power that his later work lacks; his youthful unwillingness to shy away from what his conscience told him was as egregious as it was ridiculous makes Decline and Fall a more candid sociological profile. We view a society trapped in a terrifying spiral as progress is slaughtered in its cradle; for example, one woman arrives at the school sports day accompanied by a young black man, purely so that she may flaunt her liberal credentials to her fellow aristocrats. Men and women who have become crumbling institutions, all opulent masonry and puritanically bare interior, strictly inculcate the pupils of Llanabba Castle with their values, perpetuating the cycle of decay. Paul’s is a journey in the physical sense alone. He starts at square one, bumbles along incoherently, then trips down a comfortingly familiar snake back to the beginning. Or is his entire narrative a snake? It seems that, throughout the novel, characters transition but do not transform, caught up in a currentl which they desultorily accept as born of some higher meaning. Prendergast resigns himself to life as a prison chaplain, reasoning that his vocation will best be put to use in a penal environment; the prisoners, of course, remain either steadfastly irreverent or resolutely doolally. In fact, the only individual who displays any signs of transformation is the duplicitous Philbrick, and then only within the confines of his own imagination.
In short, Decline and Fall is a searingly snide evocation of the venality of post-war British society, which pulls no punches in its cynical portrayal. We see the young, frustrated firebrand Waugh castigating and upbraiding every quarter of society. His witty words form a devastating flood that cascades into every nook and cranny of the moribund structure that is the Great British institution, as well as washing over the reader, infusing them with both the knowing warmth that top-notch satire invariably provides, and some manner of revelation into the absurdly static nature of societal forms and norms. (less)
The great, shambling monster that has precipitated into the status of an icon thanks to the power of Hollywood owes its existence to more than just hi...moreThe great, shambling monster that has precipitated into the status of an icon thanks to the power of Hollywood owes its existence to more than just his ostensible creator.Frankenstein has, alongside Stoker’s Dracula, become the mainstay, salient text in the horror genre, resonating throughout our collective psyche and imprinting a considerable mark on universal (no pun intended) popular culture. It is, arguably, a work that carries with it many eternal themes, infinitely relatable even in our increasingly progressive, transgressive society. Friendship, isolation, moral questions of science, matters of theology; these are all dealt with in Shelley’s ambitious, far-ranging novel, provoking every manner of thought in its onslaught of ideas and reflections. Furthermore, Shelley seeks, in some ways, to defy the literary conventions of her time, flaunting Romantic models to shape a timeless work. All of this is impressive when one considers that the first iteration of the book was completed when the author was but nineteen years of age.
The novel makes use of the classic epistolary form to relate its tale, giving the narrative voice shape by pouring it into the mould of Robert Walton, a not-so-ancient mariner. Walton is one of those insufferably effusive characters so beloved by Romantic writers, raging against the constraints that the world has placed upon him whilst seeking to forge an inexorable path into the annals of human history. His intent is to traverse the Northwest Passage, thus affirming a route which, he states, will be of exponential use and assistance to his fellow adventurers.
It is perhaps fitting that the first individual with which we acquaint ourselves is one who displays boundless, almost perilous ambition, as this is to set the tone for the rest of the text. Walton, as we discover from his missives to his sister, has tried his hand at many a craft, and has been thwarted in all of his aspirations; his maritime excursion is doomed to the same fate. Similarly, Frankenstein’s fervent desire to transcend the boundaries of nature leads him to nothing more than a cliff and a premature death; he crafts not only a creature but also the components and tools of his own downfall. Much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, his pride is his undoing; though he recognises that he has manifold opportunities to repent, to turn back towards the coastal road, he refuses to so much as grasp at any of them. He echoes that other tragic scholar, Faustus, in his perversely staunch belief in his own predestined fall, regularly stating that his inaction is due to some higher plan. It is this obtuse refusal to take responsibility for his own actions, to assert himself over his circumstances, that characterises him, as well as aligning him with the archetypal Romantic hero. In this respect, Shelley seems to be undermining the florid, intricate works of her predecessors and contemporaries; though Frankenstein is, nominally, the hero of the book, his presentation makes it abundantly clear that he is oddly unsympathetic. His self-contrived madness is an example of this; rather than take control of himself, he allows himself to sink into a depraved, febrile imagination, amorously clutching his mother’s corpse in one particularly harrowing dream-vision. Furthermore, his selfishness is hinted at on numerous occasions, such as on his wedding night, when he assumes that the creature will come to kill him rather than his bride, which only serves to paint an ever more unseemly, Gray-like painting of the man. His dilatory tendencies and increasingly questionable (some might say execrable) ethics, ideals and perceptions brings his presumed (and presumptuous) humanity into severe question, highlighting the failure of the Romantic Movement, in its obsession over superficial beauty rather than sublime substance, to fully explore the more macabre potential of mankind’s nature and feeding in to a broader critique of society in general.
Society is depicted as self-obsessed and staunchly conservative in this work. As soon as Victor leaves the sanctuary that has afforded him an idyllic, isolated childhood, he is confronted with the surrounding world’s insular disposition. The first outsider, and thus first member of conventional society, he encounters is a brash, sententious university professor, who ridicules him for his unconventional scientific beliefs. Victor’s development into a model student, excelling in the disciplines into which he is funnelled, is indicative of one of society’s two stances on the outsider; he is stripped of his ‘naïve’ thoughts and indoctrinated as his teachers see fit. The alternative sentence passed by the collectives which permeate Shelley’s vast, rugged landscapes is rejection and exile. This attitude is most prominently displayed by the vituperative treatment of the creature, who, despite his initially benign intentions, is cast out and hounded by those more conventionally civilised than him, all of whom experience a violent emotional reaction to his appearance. This neglect and antagonism is crucial to the creature’s degeneration into the ruthless being that commits numerous murders; it seems, therefore, that Shelley is lambasting society’s small-mindedness and isolationistic attitudes. This philosophy, combined with the forceful conformity levied upon Victor, serves to portray 19th century society as an unwholesome tangle of over-Romantic reactionaries and shallow, callous rationalists. This intense ideological conflict shows just how absurdly convoluted and perverse society had become, and the author seems intent on instigating a certain sensibility in her readers; that is to say, a sensibility to the individual rather than deferring to a collective mind-set, as it is the refusal to accept personality over appearance and individual thought over prescribed norms that leads to the principal characters’ decline into tragic wrecks. In challenging the dichotomy present in her contemporaries – that is to say, both Romantic and rationalist ideals propounded by those around her – Shelley seems to be striving for progress and development in a measured manner, lending to the work’s unique status as a blend of various styles that both affirm and transcend the conventions of the time.
Questions of progress and development are further engendered in the novel’s treatment of theology and science. Victor, it seems, is born sinless (by which I mean created by the intrinsically good, as both of his parents are characterised by their outstandingly noble deeds) into a likeness of the Garden of Eden; he lives in an idyll wherein he is allowed and encouraged towards whatsoever art or discipline he might whimsically fixate upon, and finds, “a harmony in that very dissimilitude” between himself and his young cousin, Elizabeth, which in itself seems demonstrative of an almost transcendent existence. Victor is, in a sense, a Christ-like figure to begin with, showing nothing but boundless kindness to those around him and developing an acceptance and tenderness for every activity or thought that he encounters. His companions, Clerval and Elizabeth, develop in a similar manner and disposition. Altogether, it appears that Shelley conceives of theology as something that is initially tangible in one’s life, a prescription of heavenly thoughts and actions that may be found inborn in a human child. This is further reinforced by her treatment of the creature in the period immediately following his creation or pseudo-birth, as the triumph of light over darkness defines his early existence; as it states, “the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes on that with pleasure.” Furthermore, the first emotional impression that prevails upon his intellect is that of delight, resultant from the birdsong that resonates throughout his forest home. Finally, the creature’s innate reaction to the De Lacey family is one of pity and benevolence, as he resolves to assist them in their plight as best he can, displaying in the process a natural progression towards a trait that is otherwise found to be lacking in the novel: simple compassion. Add to this the creature’s distinctly tranquil and garden-like surroundings during the course of his germinal stages and the link between theology and actuality becomes overt.
Frankenstein’s paradise, however, is unsustainable in a progressive, scientific world. Due to its basis and foundation upon the separation of some manner of truth from mere make-believe, science must needs expurgate Victor’s nigh-angelic egalitarianism. This is not in itself a catastrophic occurrence, but it is this reversion to a strictly-compounded mode of knowledge that leads to Victor’s downfall, as it results in his creation of a being by which he, as a consequence of his less tolerant scientific mindset, is repulsed. This disdainful disposition is seen to be of a consensus amongst the majority of characters in the work, problematically leading to the creature’s own fall from his sublime inclinations to a distinctly delineated sense of umbrage and transgression. Indeed, this atavistic and spiritually retrogressive attitude is articulated by the creature himself: “All men hate the wretched”. However, this is not to say that science is altogether without its merits, and equally that the theological and divine are presented in a singularly superlative light. The former is seen to hold immense potential, which could well be directed towards benevolent causes, whilst the latter is depicted as somewhat hypocritical from time-to-time; the religious De Laceys effortlessly and thoughtlessly denounce and expel the supplicant creature. Shelley, again, endorses and denounces both and neither, once more suggesting a desire to go beyond the trappings bestowed upon her by 19th century literary norms.
In conclusion, Frankenstein is a novel which utilises a highly diverse palette, painting such landscapes and characters that, whilst vibrant and momentous, are strikingly familiar in their flaws and foibles. The work evokes an admirable amount of thought and reflection in the reader, and adheres to an excellent model of non-judgemental presentation, encouraging individuality of thought in every manifestation. In this respect, it is perhaps a rare proponent of the highest ideal of art; namely, to provide a means for self-reflection and, through this, self-development. For all its incredible events, this remains an incontestable monolith of literature, and is surely a mandatory read for anyone seeking a comprehensive critique of society that may still be viable today. (less)
One must always approach the genre of biography with the utmost wariness and caution, as it is possibly the most turbulent and variable form of litera...moreOne must always approach the genre of biography with the utmost wariness and caution, as it is possibly the most turbulent and variable form of literature there is. All too often, one finds that the biographer in question is either cronyistic to the point of venerating their subject, or over-interested in very specific areas of the subject’s life, both traits that tend to be detrimental to the work and its quality. Unfortunately, the production of a reasonably insightful and trenchant book necessitates an author who has been acquainted, in some shape or form, with the person to be studied, which tends to result in the aforementioned flaws that so mar their efforts. It is a dedicated professional indeed who eschews the bias concomitant with association in favour of producing an enduring, objective text, in spite of the obvious preferability of the pursuit of such a goal. Fortuitously, Andrew Motion is one such professional.
Approaching this work with only a smattering of poems and mildly malicious hearsay to work from, the mental picture I had painted of Philip Larkin depicted a haggard, bespectacled librarian of a cantankerous disposition. This is, perhaps, a prime example of the perils and pitfalls of extrapolating an un-encountered personality from the concerted scribblings on a page; the process tends to result in the conjuration of a conflated archetype or idol, one which is entirely incompatible with what we might conventionally recognise as human. Motion’s text works wonders towards alleviating and dispelling the typical perception of Larkin, both as a poet and as a man. Drawing on letters, drafts and accounts by contemporaries, Motion has gone to admirable lengths to construct a fair and full record of his subject, with whom he was acquainted for a time. Larkin’s life is closely chronicled from childhood to old age, yet the author remains detached and thoroughly objective throughout, never allowing his own judgements to besmirch the character of his esteemed friend.
That having been said, a number of poems warrant a critical reading from the author’s considered viewpoint, though this, if anything, enhances the work, taking into account the wider contexts which may have shaped the aforesaid verses and supplying the intrepid reader with a reliable, sturdy basis upon which to craft their own criticism. A fine example of this masterful criticism is to be found in connection with the wistful, reminiscent piece entitled ‘Dockery and Son’; Motion elucidates that it was written following a visit to the poet’s old college, and that this excursion helps, “to explain why Larkin describes himself as ‘death-suited’ in the poem, as well as illuminating larger questions of theme and mood.” Over three pages, the author draws examples of the poet’s experiences at the time to give an insightful analysis of the work, all whilst deftly avoiding the ineffable execrations of psychoanalysis. This level-headed and thoughtful method of appraisal is a welcome contribution to the work, as it enables an understanding of Larkin’s creative, poetic life alongside the account of his more temporal existence. These factors meld together to form a true ‘writer’s life’.
In conclusion, this is a very fine book that is accessible, stimulating and compelling. Motion has delicately and expertly collated vast tracts of information into a comprehensive text that provides one with an overview of Larkin as a human being rather than a giant of literature. It is sympathetic without being sycophantic, and displays a stolid boldness in its refusal to expurgate the more damning and questionable episodes pertaining to its subject. All things considered, it is an extremely entertaining and thoroughly good read. (less)
As has been stated previously, I, like many other amenable persons, am curiously endeared by the mewlings and wonderstruck gurglings of the big Frybab...moreAs has been stated previously, I, like many other amenable persons, am curiously endeared by the mewlings and wonderstruck gurglings of the big Frybaby. This would, then, imply that I align myself with those simpering, sycophantic saps who can say nary a slighting word against this most cherished of national treasures; however, I think it best to disassociate myself from this allegiance post-haste. Though the Fry annals may display my eager sprawl prominently, I fear that I must depart from the effusive eulogies of the past and set a course for swarthier shores when it comes to examining his debut novel; for, despite my desperation to find in this book a paradigm of prosaic perfection, I cannot adopt the perennially fallacious stance of this work’s eponymous hero. To be perfectly candid, this is a novel that is – and I’m afraid that there’s simply no other way of putting it – adequate. And sometimes adequacy can be an almost unsavoury thing, smiling politely with the fervour of the local theatre group’s lead actor.
The novel is centred, surprisingly enough, around an inveterate liar named Adrian, a veritable titan of the Oatesian variety, and follows his development as a consummately crafty cretin. We begin with Adrian affecting a flamboyant personality whilst at boarding school, and his mendacity only swells from there. Soon he has been expelled for seditious activities, completed his A-levels at a local college, and advanced to St Matthew’s College, Cambridge. So far, so Fry; having already read his exceptional autobiography, it was almost biliously blatant that the author was writing from youthful experience. However, things progress a little more unevenly from hereon, with Adrian’s considerable ability as a doyen of dishonesty earning him the attention of a Cambridge Spy Ring, of all things.
Whilst the plot may, at first, appear to be a boulder languorously strolling down a bucolic slope, it soon proves more of a balloon; from time-to-time it will drift in the breeze, traversing the slope like an elegantly drunken skier, and when it tumbles over the edge of the cliff it ascends to new heights of sheer bizarreness. A case in point may be found in the beguiling sub-plot concerning Adrian’s efforts to save St Matthew’s English Department from debilitating budget cuts (eerily prescient, what?), which kicks off with his rather charming conceit of conjuring up a fake Dickens story and ‘discovering’ it during a routine perusal of the library. This truth-less tampering resonates throughout the university, resulting in boosts to funding and an eventual student performance of the work, in which Adrian acts alongside his prep school crush (who, incidentally, inspired the pseudo-Dickens following an amorous encounter in a hotel room), and once the show has garnered critical acclaim…well, that’s it. This plot point dissipates as swiftly as Marley’s ghost, warranting little more than a passing mention in a later chapter. Therein lies my main quibble with this particular novel; it has a plethora of palpitatingly pleasing plotlines that are brazenly discarded the moment they have served any sort of oracular purpose. The aforementioned schoolboy crush, who features so heavily in Adrian’s thoughts as he contemplates the effects of his fibs on those around him, disappears abruptly about halfway through the storyline, again being discarded with little fanfare or elucidation. These sudden changes in the narrative have the ramification of enveloping the work in a polychromatic garb that is devilishly disorientating; the tale feels disjointed and heavily contrived, stopping and starting with the intermittency of a Nabokovian automobile, whilst the final quarter of the piece arrives far too swiftly and hurls the book into new nadirs of unbelievable curiousness. Granted, there is some logic in this fracturing, as the potency of lying is portrayed as a disruptive force that can even hold sway over the author’s literary technique; however, it makes for irritatingly distracting reading. Each strand that Fry begins to weave into his tapestry carries so much potential, bearing the peruser along on a veritable tide of soaring locations, compelling characters and snout-snorting witticisms, and it is a damned shame that his spool proves incapable of holding onto it all.
The style of this piece fares a little better than the imaginings that it serves to relate. True, the initial steps taken are a little on the tipsily unbalanced side, given that the first two chapters appropriate the habits and inflections of Wilde and Waugh respectively. That having been said, Fry is swift to strike the salubrious script that bears his hallmarks: intimate, conversational and brimming with one-liners. A fine example lies in one of the espionagic inserts that interject between chapters; “’Oh look, you’re not going to smoke are you?’ Christ! thought the Bennet, Tovey and Steele. Roll on the next Labour government.” With any other writer, this sequence might strike the reader as incongruous or didactic, but with Fry’s avuncular assumption of gentle detachedness it strikes just the right chord to trickle a smile onto the lips. He also uses prolepsis and analepsis to great effect, once again conveying the fragmentary consequences of lying with limpid lucidity. However, one might consider there to be an oversaturation of these latter techniques, and the frequency with which the synecdoche-ridden interruptions occur becomes rather distracting, given its relative irrelevance to the text as a whole until much later on. In light of the extravagantly superfluous plot development to which the fragments relate, perhaps it might have been preferable, in a stylistic sense, to present these two storylines alongside one another rather than intertwine them, as this would have allowed further questions to be raised as to the nature and intent of dishonesty. That having been said, the author’s style remains characteristically entertaining in spite of its occasional lapses into peremptory ostentatiousness, and certainly proves a sturdy pillar to the otherwise lip-tightening plot.
In conclusion, The Liar is an entertaining, if somewhat frustrating novel. Fry treats the topic of disingenuousness with his endearing humour and panache, though his attempts at conveying the desynchronisation that stems from such an activity is infuriatingly distracting, as it desynchronises the reader in the process. However, the book is worth reading on the strength of some of its rib-breakingly farcical set-pieces and wry ripostes. It is, in summation, a perfectly reasonable read.