Joking aside: ‘The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy

This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize four years ago, but I decided to read it because I had enjoyed an earlier book the author had composed. The theme of ‘The Long Song’ is slavery in Jamaica, and I had not read a historical novel for some time so I thought I would take the plunge. Slavery is obviously a really grim subject, and I was prepared for a harrowing reading experience.

Initially, the narrative confounded my expectations in an uncomfortable way. The story was full of humour, and the style was somewhat reminiscent of some of the work of William Makepeace Thackeray. However, I did think that Thackeray had a flair which made the comparison somewhat flattering to the very industrious Andrea Levy.   

As the book moved on, the novel gradually obtained a greater level of seriousness  and I began to have fewer reservations about it. Slavery can be approached from a diversity of perspectives and the author was original enough to be brave. ‘The Long Song’ has not altered my views about the shocking evils of slavery significantly, but it has reminded me not to rush to judge a book. ‘The Long Song’ has been based on copious research, but I have been persuaded that it is an imaginative text.

 

And they drank Prosecco…a brief review of ‘NW’ by Zadie Smith.

“When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?”

John Ball.

 

The novel had a famous quote at the start and this one whetted the appetite of the reader. Egalitarian philosophy seemed to be on the cards. And it was hard not to let the reputation of the author of ‘White Teeth’ and ‘On Beauty’ heighten the anticipation further. Having read these interesting and vibrant novels, the reviewer was in a positive mood at the outset of the reading experience.

‘NW’ read beautifully. It featured a vast array of literary devices. Sometimes they almost distracted from the development of the characters and the illuminating portrayal of London life. However, they generally worked effectively and they demonstrated that the writer has made substantial progress from some of her earlier works. 

The novel used detail efficiently to convey atmosphere; Smith clearly did her research well. And the details also captured the way diverse people have been responding to the pressures of contemporary urban existence. ‘NW’ left the reader unsure whether the human condition is a comedy or a tragedy. However, the tendency of the characters to consume Prosecco underlined the absurdity of everything. This reviewer will be really pleased to read another novel by this skilled artist, and is fairly confident that one day she will produce a masterpiece.   

‘The Heart of the Matter’ by Graham Greene. A novel about happiness or conflict?

‘The Heart of the Matter’ is typical Graham Greene. It is quite heavy on plot, contains a lot of action, and depends on a remarkable location for some of the atmosphere. However, like several of his other compelling novels, it raises fundamental questions about the human condition in an accessible style.

Set in the Second World War in a colonial context, death is much discussed. People perish in a variety of ways as the European conflict rages on. But it seems to me that the real interest of the novel is in the attitudes of the main character. He is devoted to trying to make people happy. This goal makes nobody happy, least of all himself. While the Catholic religion is an important element in his unfortunate fate, one can see that it is his remarkable determination to make others happy which leads to a diversity of negative consequences.

The book is a bit dated in places, but the text does keep the reader interested. Some of the minor characters are a little stereotypical also. However, Greene had a way of keeping the reader on their toes. One way in which he did this was to refer to other literature at appropriate places. Poetry, Virginia Woolf, and W. Somerset Maugham are conspicuous presences in the drama. The book might not make the reader happy, but it will certainly make many readers question what is to be done about happiness in a complex world.   

 

‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves: a matter of class?

This was quite an odd memoir. Robert Graves was a poet, and his narrative was influenced by that. He met a great many poets, including Swinburne, Hardy, Masefield, Pound, and Sassoon. However, while Graves had some interesting things to say about poets and poetry, his account of the war and its aftermath was unbalanced. The prose never captured the trauma of conflict properly because Graves seems to have been damaged by his experiences as a child. The book is not equivalent to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, which although a novel, really conveys the horrors of war.

 

There was a distance between Graves and the suffering of others. For example, he was anxious about the impact on income tax that the war might have when most people would have been concerned with survival. Moreover, he was always thinking of himself as an officer as if that made him radically different from ordinary soldiers. In addition, he was obsessed with regimental issues. He also demonstrated a casual racism towards French people. He was of partly German origin and this meant that he had little antipathy to his adversaries in battle. But he did not question the causes of the war in a systematic fashion, even after he became disillusioned with it.

 

The reasons behind the slight lack of feeling in Graves as the war took its toll on people are various and vague. His family was large. They were accustomed to having servants. The young Graves had many unpleasant experiences in different schools. They were not schools which ordinary people attended. Graves also had feelings for a younger boy at school which were not acted on but which were quite serious. Without being a psychologist, one could say that Graves lacked a warm family or a sensible education. Hence his emotional life was odd. Perhaps the class from which he originated had removed itself from reality.

 

After the war, Graves became a socialist in a subdued way. However, his heart was not really in it. He experienced a little genteel poverty on account of having several children and a modest income. He then went to Egypt to work at a university. This post was a lucrative one. His anti-French prejudice resurfaced again. His first marriage ended in divorce, but he gave marriage another chance. Graves was a brave soldier, a skilled writer, and a fairly honest person, but his apparent lack of empathy makes the book a frustrating document.

The urban spectacle and conflict

Liverpool is going to host another spectacle involving giant puppets in the summer. This odd event is intended to relate to the First World War. It follows on from an occasion where the same company used puppets to tell a narrative about the Titanic. We have been repeatedly assured that these bizarre events make commercial sense. Certainly, large crowds of people gather at them. It is worth noting that this happens after massive advertising on diverse media. 

The city is suffering from an acute financial squeeze at present. Whether it should be spending large sums of money on a spectacle of this type is open to question. However, modern city authorities often engage in this type of behaviour. The geographer David Harvey has documented how local government has moved from providing welfare to delivering entrepreneurial strategies.

 

Reading ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, one wonders what ‘war poets’ like Siegfried Sassoon would have made of the Liverpool event. Graves himself did not even enjoy the Armistice celebrations. Will the sight of giant puppets blundering about the city make people less disposed to conflict? It is a hard question for a provider of cheap copy to answer…

(My book review is still being reflected on.) 

Content production for the sake of content?

Producing content on a regular basis is an interesting problem to have. It is not always easy to get from the blank page to the finished article. That is why having a blog helps. It allows the copywriter to exercise their writing muscles. This means that they are warmed up and ready to go when necessary. It is a great opportunity to check that basic accuracy is being achieved.

However, a blog should not be a simple succession of words. It would be too dull for any reader to follow if the words did not go anywhere. Hence this blog will mention thoughts about what I have been reading. I have started ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves. It is of some interest, and I will review it in due course.

Reviewing books is not at all easy, because everybody reads in their own way. It is also the case that good books are full of detail. Any review is highly selective. There is also the issue of ideology. It is not possible to be neutral or objective about a book. Similar problems affect introductions. In short, it is best not to have excessive expectations with regard to reviews. It is the books themselves which really matter. However, if a review inspires one reader to give a decent book a chance then it has not been in vain. Even if it fails to do this, it may still be thought-provoking. Hence reviews do have their uses. 

Rough notes on a peasant poet

Reading a selection of John Clare’s poetry, made by a poet from Liverpool called Paul Farley (published by Faber and Faber in 2007), I was struck by the fact that Clare has sometimes been described as a peasant poet. While the poetry of Clare often focuses on the natural world, I was initially unsure whether or not the label ‘peasant’ was a helpful one. There is a sophistication and a beauty about the poetry which does not fit well with common conceptions of the word peasant.

However, perhaps it is modern interpretations of the word ‘peasant’ which are at fault. Agricultural labour is really important. The word ‘peasant’ should be thought of positively. The hard work on the land is necessary. Furthermore, it should not be seen as lacking in skill. Most jobs have skills; it is just that society values some skills more than others.

As for Clare, his life was tough and he experienced great unhappiness. But his poetry has survived long after his death in 1864. While the Romantic poets had praised larks and nightingales, Farley has indicated that Clare also paid significant attention to blackcaps, corncrakes, wrens, owls, and wrynecks. Perhaps this acknowledgement of the diversity of birds illustrates that Clare had a more intimate relationship with nature than the more celebrated Romantic poets enjoyed. Clare wrote about what he knew, and like many ‘peasants’, he knew a lot.