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transient Captain Grimes, for example, is demonstrative of the abject failings of a class system that was considerably outdated even in the 1920s; a self-professed, “public school man”, a fact of which he is ridiculously sanctimonious, his every step in life is dictated purely by his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.
Having reached that stage in one’s life when an encounter with Joyce is all but inevitable, I took the rather more comfortable path of easing myself i...moreHaving reached that stage in one’s life when an encounter with Joyce is all but inevitable, I took the rather more comfortable path of easing myself into his literary canon using one of his earlier works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In light of the horror stories so often propagated by detractors of Ulysses, Portrait is an edifying and entertaining work, though the challenges that spring forth from Joyce’s use of stream-of-consciousness are still prevalent. That having been said, Joyce’s portrayal and development of the manifold themes of the book are masterful, and are bound to leave the reader pondering them long after the final closing of the cover.
The entire novel is, in a nutshell, dedicated to the development of a young man named Stephen Dedalus, primarily focusing on his gradual awakening to the world over the formative years of his life. Dedalus encounters religion, renounces it for sin, stages a reconciliation, and then goes on to further develop himself into a pseudo-philosopher and artist whilst at university – such pretension would indicate that he is a student of literature. That is, essentially, the entire book in a nutshell; but it is presented in such a garrulous and descriptive manner that the process takes a considerable amount of time, mirroring the gradual development of Stephen’s mind and ideas; though the ‘story’ is not told in real time, the fragments that Joyce presents to us are, a technique which serves to raise questions about just how tales should be told: succinctly or in full. Furthermore, Stephen’s stream-of-consciousness narrative challenges us to turn our ‘inner ears’ towards our own minds, encouraging the reader to pick up on and appreciate the delightful minutiae of the thought process. Storyline and style, then, may appear to be rudimentary when setting out on this literary odyssey, but are, in fact, the tools with which we might alter our own perception of the world, primarily through the emphasis on the ever-fluctuating present and our cerebral perception of it.
The novel’s themes are manifold and complex; I shall do my best to list a few interpretations before focusing on my own hypothesis. Possibly the most prevalent and peremptory theme is that pertaining to religion and, indeed, the perils of religious fundamentalism. Stephen is brought up in a very Catholic family, and religion initially seems to stifle him, as he turns to extremes of sin and debauchery. Later, he returns to the fold, and this time becomes the antithesis of his former self, striving to be a perfect human being with all his might. Ultimately, these two extremes prove incredibly damaging to him psychologically, and he finally settles on a middle-of-the-road approach that allows him to embrace life fully. In presenting these extremes, it seems as though Joyce is challenging Ireland’s overtly religious nature, postulating that such obsession is fundamentally detrimental to the country and its inhabitants, an inference which still carries an awful lot of weight today. Stephen’s developing understanding of religion runs parallel to another major theme of the book, which is the development of an individual’s consciousness. As Stephen’s life progresses, we see his ideas and perception of the world evolve; his view on religion is an obvious example of this, but there is also his development in terms of how he views Emma, the girl whom he frequently encounters throughout his formative years; he gradually comes to realise that she is not an ideal person, to be worshipped or despised for her perfection, but is, rather, a normal human being, to be understood and sympathised with. Through this, Joyce advocates a universal understanding of what it is to be human, urging the reader to look past the image and the ideal to the glorious soul beneath.
Having discussed some interpretations of the text, I will now put forth my own thesis, one which, I feel, draws upon numerous themes to contribute to and craft a greater, overarching theme. In short, I believe that Joyce’s work is about a chained and somewhat vacuous society. I derive this view primarily from the treatment of religion in the text, but also as a result of Stephen’s developing consciousness. With religion, Stephen discovers that the overwhelming majority of his fellow characters follow their faith without question; this is true even with those he encounters at the university. The numerous religious speeches that characterise Stephen’s schooldays extend for pages on end, all whilst never giving the reader any phrase or concept that proves significant; this shows that religion in the book is all talk and conjecture, making those who follow so blindly empty by association; they are stuck in a rut that is the result of the feelings of both empowerment and guilt that religion inspires, they stagnate and cannot progress, and their faith does not bring them happiness or release, as evidenced by the apathetic priests encountered throughout the novel. Religion, then, turns believers into automatons, blind to the truth that Stephen, as an artist, is so eager to share with those roundabout him, without that truth they will remain unfulfilled and thus remain vacuous. Stephen himself refers to religion as a net, “flung at [the soul] to hold it back from flight.” However, there are more nets that serve to trap the soul in emptiness and un-fulfilment, and these nets come together to form society as a whole. Stephen’s development, during which he comes to terms with the vacuity propagated by society, highlights religion in particular but also references language, a barrier which prevents the mind from achieving its potential by putting restraints upon it in the form of words; nationality, which restrains the soul by chaining it to a certain clod of earth, forcing it to channel its all into said clod; the mind itself, which projects onto the world its own illusion, preventing man from seeing the wasteland before him – it is only through subjugation of his own mind that Stephen manages to uncover the truth. In his fervour and his irreligion, in his mindfulness and mindlessness, Stephen finds nothing but accepted discontent, wasted potential and, above all, vacuity that stems from un-fulfilment. He concludes that, “we are all animals”; a pertinent reminder of our numerous failings as humans, which Joyce seeks to explore and, through this exploration, understand, in order that such failings might one day be vanquished. This is my interpretation of the novel; it is, as yet, still desirous of further thought and consideration. Consider the current rant a placeholder, to be replaced once my argument has been refined and dressed in fine array.
In conclusion, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a fine novel indeed, full of beautifully descriptive language, thought-provoking themes and enthralling characters. It provides a gradual and fairly gentle introduction to Joyce’s hyperactive mind, a quality that can but be lauded. The style may take a little getting used to, but, as discussed above, once mastered it is a revelation in itself. Some might find the prolonged conversations on aesthetics near the end a tad didactic, and I must confess that I thought them a little unnecessary, but they prove interesting nonetheless, whilst also giving us some insight into the way Joyce’s mind worked. Overall, this is a jolly fine read, one which I would recommend to all those with an interest in religion, society, modernism and the development of the human mind.
Ever since he first burst onto my screen as the inimitable General Melchett, Stephen Fry has been a figure of great fascination to this somewhat impre...moreEver since he first burst onto my screen as the inimitable General Melchett, Stephen Fry has been a figure of great fascination to this somewhat impressionable youngster. Through QI, clips of A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and numerous cameo appearances in various films (His turn as Mycroft in the recent Sherlock Holmes flick was the high point of the production), he has built upon this initial impression until a lavish portrait of a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure has been formed. This is, however, exactly that - a portrait, a mere image devoid of any history or vitality. This autobiography, then, was just the thing that one needed to add those little touches to the painting, insert bones and muscle beneath the entertainingly mysterious skin-picture.
Having opened this book upon a whim, as is often my wont (leading to my reading far too many 'side books' and leaving the more peremptory works to be finished weeks, sometimes even months later), I must confess a shameful lack of familiarity with Fry's written work. Despite this horrific failure on my part, I found that, due in no small part to Fry's entertaining prose style and minor flashbacks, I was able to jump straight into this book, and Mr Fry certainly did not disappoint!
After some preamble, the tale begins with our hilarious hero going up to Cambridge University. Personally, I found this section of the book to be the most entertaining, as it painted a picture of a young man who, having done a stint in prison, was redeemed by a potent combination of learning and acting. On the subject of the former, I found Fry’s exam technique – “All my ducks were in a row when I walked into the examination hall and I had to do no more than point their beaks at the question” - intriguing, and am tempted to test its validity at some point in the future! It is, however, his introduction to the world of acting that is most fascinating, as it of course drives the rest of the book. After a relatively tame first term, in which he is far too shy to get involved with any of the drama societies, the young Stephen, “went to three auditions in the first week [of the second term and] got the parts [he] wanted for all of them.” This leads to scenes familiar to any aficionado of university-level drama: the newly-anointed thespian, “running from rehearsals to auditions to theatres and back to auditions and rehearsals and theatres again.” This sudden active, even passionate engagement with acting is a real joy to behold for any reader familiar with Fry’s work as a luvvie, as it foreshadows a swift build-up in theatrical credits – “I think I was in twelve plays in that eight-week term” – that leads to eventual stardom. Additionally, Fry’s anecdotes concerning student theatre are painted in such vibrant (yet tender) colours that even the most hard-hearted critic would be inclined to crack the occasional smile.
With regards to that descriptive power, it is, in a word, beautiful. Fry, as one might expect, brings his own colourful style to almost every passage in the volume, and this not only fleshes out the stories he relays, but adds significantly to the humour factor as well. Whilst we have, on the one hand, poignant and evocative passages such as, “the beauty of the Backs in late spring and early summer is enough to make the sternest puritan moan and shiver with delight”, we also have strangely laugh-inducing lines as, “the silhouette of King’s College chapel loomed up against the night sky. ‘I’ve got an agent!’ I told it. It was unmoved.” Such power of setting up the scene and clothing the characters, combined with a somewhat surreal yet undeniably endearing humour, results in an engaging and gripping author voice throughout. Added to this, Fry has a tendency to lean towards a relaxed and chatty style, constantly going off on obscure tangents like some familiarly farcical uncle. This heady concoction curls around the reader like smoke from Fry’s pipe, holding them in an uplifting cloud of humour and heartbreak; Fry is not afraid to open up his closet and proudly display the various skeletons, be they addiction to sugar puffs or the occasional emotional breakdown. Overall, wit, warmth, flair and a very human story all combine to make the book vice-like, in that it is utterly engaging; I found myself completely incapable of putting it down unless it was prized from my fingers, devouring every chapter, every passage, every word as though it were a honeyed lotus flower.
Moving on from his days as a student, via tales of his initial association with such luminaries as Emma Thompson and the lovable Hugh Laurie, not to mention those crucial Footlights shows at the Edinburgh Festival (his initial visit to the capital is accompanied by one of the most luscious description of my hometown that I have ever read), we find Fry striking out into the world of the Eighties, in which opportunities seem to be things over which you trip as you stroll the slinger-strewn streets. It is at this point that the show business commissions come flooding in, and we are treated to behind-the-scenes titbits from features such as Alfresco and Saturday Live, not to mention various radio shorts and the ever-popular Blackadder II. Other fascinating forays into the world of performance are little gems to the reader who isn’t necessarily well-versed in the minutiae of Fry’s CV; his re-writing of a show called Me and my Girl is of particular interest, showing, with unabashed frankness, the many stumbling blocks that a musical must overcome before it even reaches the humblest and most dimly-lit of stages. His reflections on fame, or lack of it, are apt, jarring and highly relevant: “I was […] desperate to be famous but very, very ready, if I didn’t make it, to vent my scorn on those who did.” Ultimately, he concludes, we are all like this, though we try our very best to hide it. It is asides such as this that really make this book something worth reading, as the finished product ends up being more than just a few amusing stories, though there are plenty of those. Rather, the work ends up being akin to a frank and candid conversation with a close friend, and the reader is bound to feel drawn to Fry as a result, as he proves himself to be as human as the rest of us.
The world of shadow-fame results in numerous encounters with established celebrities, encounters which seem to have a tendency to annoy a number of Goodreads reviewers. True, some stories, such as Fry’s technology-driven friendship with Douglas Adams, carry more weight than others in terms of driving the narrative, but this multitude of meetings do serve a purpose. Indeed, it is my belief that this frequent discarding of foreign monikers links in with Fry’s philosophy of fame, as most of the more well-known cameos are consigned to momentary walk-ons, showing the fickleness of fame. One may have years, even decades of recognition, but, once the curtain descends for the final time, will one be remembered? This is, I think, what Fry was going for, as it does recall his quoting from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Anyway, that’s just my take on the situation.
As well as these fleeting meetings, Fry has more extended scenes with those celebrities who are closest to him; Laurie and Thomson go without saying, but my particular favourite scene involves his foray into the Carlton Club with Ben Elton. This anecdote wonderfully portrays, perhaps even parodies, the absurdities of the British Establishment, particularly as a fellow visitor to the Carlton, a venerable ‘crusty’, has obvious, “difficulty accepting Ben’s vowel sounds as they ricocheted off the portraits of Wellington and Churchill and into his disbelieving ears.” As with many other tales in this volume, the picture painted is marvellously intricate whilst still being lung-burstingly funny in the telling.
The book ends with a veritable cliff-hanger, as Fry enters a somewhat sinister phase of his life. I, for one, am prepared to wait with bated breath for the next autobiographical tome, especially if it is anything like this marvellous work. Fry’s eloquence, charming style and sheer candidness make The Fry Chronicles an utter joy to read, and will keep you as enthralled as it will entertained; I read until my eyes were red and I was due my bed. This is not just a good read, it’s a bloody brilliant one. (less)
Since reading his rather dreary A Handful of Dust, I've taken an interest in Waugh's works with regards to their reflections on the state of modern (a...moreSince reading his rather dreary A Handful of Dust, I've taken an interest in Waugh's works with regards to their reflections on the state of modern (as it was then) society. This theme, however, was not one that I expected to find within the pages of his celebrated magnus opum, having been told that Brideshead Revisited was a romantic tale, a tale of two homosexual lovers and a poignant lament for the old-fashioned ways that were fast disappearing in the wake of the First World War. Certainly, these are all possible readings of the text, ones which I came across, examined and then placed to one side; for it soon became apparent to me that this novel can be read in the same vein as A Handful of Dust.
My personal view on the various interpretations of this book is that they are possible as a consequence of Waugh's rather marvellous writing style. He litters the text with oblique scenes and metaphors, all of which may be interpreted in different ways. An excellent example of this technique is one of the book's more famous lines:
"I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiousity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city."
A number of reviewers have picked up on this line as an indication of Charles' growing lust for Sebastian, others as his growing platonic love for his friend. Both of these are valid interpretations; homosexuality is evident within the text, with the rather wonderful Anthony Blanche embodying the stereotype of a flamboyant camp gay, even going so far as to take Charles to a sleazy club full of beautiful young men. On the flip side of the coin, it was not uncommon for young men in the early 20th century to forge incredibly strong, intense friendships, particularly if the young men in question were products of the public school system; Robert Graves, in his autobiography, makes mention of the fact that certain senior pupils at Charterhouse were allowed the privilege of walking arm-in-arm with their chums. I myself have a tendency to look on the relationship between the two young men in the light of the latter view. However, there is no concrete way of looking at this, just as there is no concrete way of looking at anything in the book; Waugh deliberately laces the novel with ambiguity, which allows many unique and fascinating interpretations of the text, thus making Brideshead an absolute joy to read for oneself, as one can examine a variety of views whilst still being able to form one's own. As the author himself said, "Give the relevant facts and let your readers make their own judgments." In this book, Waugh clearly practices what he preaches.
Departing from an analysis of Waugh's excellent style, we may now move on to examining his story. During the Second World War, Captain Charles Ryder finds himself billeted in Brideshead Castle, a place carrying many poignant connotations within his weary mind. From here, the story is told in flashback, as Charles recounts his initial encounter with the Marchmain family, the owners of Brideshead, in the form of Sebastian, a fellow undergraduate at Oxford. From here, Charles' life becomes irrevocably entwined with the lives of the Marchmains, who accompany him on his journey towards spiritual redemption and acceptance that sometimes man needs to believe in something greater than himself. This journey is made via the poetic surroundings of Oxford through gorgeous Venice and dark, dank jungle, not to mention London and the austere Brideshead itself. Throughout, a cast of hilarious, tragic and flawed characters appear and re-appear, entertaining and educating the reader. Entertaining in that most of the persons presented to us for examination are, intentionally or otherwise, prone to preposterous gaffs or are inclined to comically miss the point. Sebastian's escapade with the motor car in London is an example of the former, whilst the vast majority of the scenes featuring Charles' father furnish us with examples of the latter.
The novel does, however, have a more serious point to make; primarily, the spiritual and moral changes prevalent within 20th century society. Society in this work is divided into two major groups: the staunchly old-fashioned, archaic yet well-meaning, represented by the Marchmain clan, and the progressively modern, driven and self-interested, represented by Rex and his cronies. The former group is characterised by their dedication to their faith, despite the fact that such faith may bring intense emotional pain; Sebastian turns to drink as a result of the pressures of faith, resulting in the rest of his family becoming increasingly distressed. The latter collection are seen to be tough-talking yet vacant, obsessed with the physical whilst discarding things such as ideology; hence, the line:
"'We'll give Europe a good strong line. Europe is waiting for a speech from Rex.' 'And a speech from me.' And a speech from me. Rally the freedom-loving peoples of the world. Germany will rise; Austria will rise. The Czechs and the Slovaks are bound to rise.' 'To a speech from Rex and a speech from me.'"
Waugh presents us with these two opposing viewpoints and lets us decide which one we would rather rally to; despite the story ending with Charles, who, due to his agnosticism and moral flexibility, is able to shuttle between the two world views, opting to enter into the folds of the traditional society, both sides are depicted as being well-meaning but flawed. The traditional world seeks to preserve old-fashioned values, as well as promoting faith to a cause that brings much-needed hope with it; these values and this dedication to faith, however, are also seen to be damaging when taken too far. Similarly, whilst the modern world may be seen as comprising of strong words as opposed to strong actions, and is more prepared to commit underhand deeds, not to mention the fact that it completely underestimates the power of faith, it is ultimately a world that strives for universal peace and opportunities for each man to further himself to the best of his abilities, as demonstrated by the foreigner Rex, who is not of noble birth and yet manages to make his way into society's upper echelons. Neither side is perfect, yet both mean well; there is no black and white morality here. As in life, the reader is free to choose which world they view as preferable to the other. Waugh gives us two thought-provoking sides of society and allows us to come to our own conclusions; he is pleasingly non-didactic.
In conclusion, Brideshead Revisited is a wonderful book, well-written and wittily put together. It is packed with memorable characters, all of them amusing and tragic in their own particular way. The novel is also very thought-provoking, presenting the reader with many different ways of interpreting the text, be it as a depiction of the changing nature of society or as a reflection on the gradual development of one's understanding of love. This last feature is the book's most endearing, allowing for a group of people to come up with several unique interpretations of the work's primary focus and ultimate objective. That is, ultimately, what makes Brideshead a classic; its weaving storyline and dynamic cast form a handsome exterior, but the bones consist of intricately joined themes and ideas. Together, these ingredients make for an enticing and appetising meal. This is a book that is utterly compelling and un-put-down-able; it will doubtless stay with you for a long time as you turn the whole thing over and over in your head. In short, a thoroughly enjoyable and, quite simply, bloody brilliant read. (less)