British Literature

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

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Space Opera at Its Best

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

It’s no secret that we at Classically Educated really, really like the work of Alastair Reynolds.  I firmly believe that he is the best writer currently working in the SF field by several lengths.  I know his case is helped by the fact that science fiction is currently not going through a golden age–quite the contrary, in fact–but Reynolds is a man who would have been heralded as a great in any era.

His stories take place in the deep future and, though they extrapolate from the present, they don’t pretend that the things that society is deeply concerned about today will matter in a thousand years–or even a hundred.  Thus freed from the fetters of writing boring politically-concerned drivel, Reynolds sets out to explore the galaxy.

And man, does he ever explore.  No distance is too far, and no element of particle physics too obscure for his pen.  His work is made even more interesting by the fact that, with his background as a scientist, he doesn’t take shortcuts: the science in a Reynolds book is limited by what we believe to be the true state of the universe.  No faster-than-light shortcuts to make the plot easier to weave together.  No quantum teleportation on a macroscopic scale.

Pushing Ice is vintage Reynolds.  Humanity is just beginning to push hard into space, with a foothold on the inner planets and profit-driven operations working further out to harvest water ice.  When a moon of Saturn begins to act extremely strangely, the nearest mining ship is sent out to investigate.

The people on board the ship are caught up in events and technology on a galactic scale that they can’t even begin to understand, but must somehow face up to if they want to survive.

As always, Reynolds is unflinching: he gives us a book where believable things happen to the characters, and miracles simply don’t exist which, strangely, ends up making this one an uplifting work.

It’s definitely a solid effort, hard to put down and well paced.  The one thing I didn’t like is that the two main characters often act like spoiled children, and the dynamic between them felt a little forced.

But that’s of little importance when you consider how well this particular drama plays out against the biggest canvas possible.  Another Reynolds winner.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own sweeping space opera is entitled Siege. You can have a look at it here.

The Great American SpecFic Novel

A few years ago, another writer compared me to Neil Gaiman.

That is the kind of thing that makes writers nervous.  Gaiman, of course, is almost universally revered as one of the masters of the craft.  One might not like his stories per se, but no one doubts his ability or his magnificent talent.  So comparisons with Gaiman tend to take the following form: “Unlike Neil Gaiman’s wonderful work, this writer’s tale…”

Fortunately, this particular writer only commented about the similarity of my hair in a photograph to the good Mr. Gaiman’s.  Even so, it was assumed that I was following in his footsteps…  If I recall correctly, the exact phrase was “did you steal Neil Gaiman’s hair?”  That is the power of Gaiman.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve reviewed Gaiman’s work here before, but, as I mentioned then, still had to sink my teeth into his meatier offerings.  The Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods is about as meaty as they come.

So, does the man live up to the hype?  In a word, yes.

The talent is there.  The craft is there.  The concept of down-at-the-heels gods isn’t particularly new, of course (if you’ve read Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, you’ll know exactly what I mean… and if you haven’t, do so immediately) but Gaiman creates a novel of ideas out of this particular well-plowed field.

It’s a big book in more than just heft.  The title of this post is not whimsical.  If we ever do get the Great American Novel, it will likely be structured in a similar way to this one.  It’s a road movie of a book, a sprawling exploration of what America means.  If it’s seen through the eyes of a foreigner, then all the better.  Lolita didn’t suffer for that, and American Gods doesn’t, either.

It’s a book that’s hard to put down, with a compelling plot driving it relentlessly forward, but that’s not what makes it great.  The greatness is in the little things, wonderfully turned phrases and scenes that, though slightly off from reality, are perfectly realized.  Some of those scenes promise to stick in the memory for a long, long time.

In conclusion?  You may or may not like this book, but you will agree with Gaiman apologists that the man deserves the accolades.  The craft and the talent herein are impeccable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose gods also sometimes walk the earth, particularly in his novel of ancient Greece, The Malakiad.  You can check it out here.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

Debuting The Culture

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

I’ve been (sorta) binge-reading the first books in a number of far future, deep-space series.  We’ve already discussed The Expanse and Pandora’s Star, so of the three initial books in this particular project, only Consider Phlebas remains to be discussed.  For those of you unaware, this is the first book in the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

This book is a little strange.  Though I certainly enjoyed the whole more than I did Peter F. Hamilton’s long buildup, of the three modern Space Operas, it was the one I found least memorable… and I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s certainly a high-stakes, well-paced and well-written novel, with a sympathetic cast.  Perfectly acceptable in other words, and the Culture itself is often hailed as a mature galactic civilization.  At least one writer I respect a lot has told me that he adores these books.

So, yes, I enjoyed it, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind.  Without being exactly certain as to why, I’ll take a guess: I think it’s because the Culture itself doesn’t appeal to me as a galactic society.

Yes, I get it.  Within a certain number of years, any society in the galaxy is going to lose its frontier vibe and establish social patterns that, if you ignore the scale, can be very similar to what happens on earth.  Hence, a paternalistic socialism based on the logic of computer overseers is not farfetched.  I can also see certain people–perhaps farmer mind types–being attracted to this.

I found it unattractive.  I like my deep space SF to be wild and wooly, and my societies to be very much a grab bag of opportunists, depots and empire builders.  If one of the belligerents is a more expansive version of Scandinavia, it might turn off the centers of my mind that are interested by things.

Maybe if they’d been painted as the bad guys, I might have taken more notice.  A computer-controlled society of extreme conformists, mindlessly colonizing everything with their bland goodness (which reminds me of the San Angelinos in Demolition Man) would be a terrifying enemy.

But they aren’t, they’re painted as the choice of logic.

I’m willing to give this series a further chance on the sheer strength of the writing and the fact that the buildup was much less annoying than Hamilton’s.  Keep an eye on this space for further installments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s space opera, Siege, has untidy, ragged good guys and a whole bunch of really bad entities as enemies.  He promises that you won’t find it bland, and you can check it out here.

The Big One

First Edition of the King James Bible

There are some books that all aspiring writers MUST read, no excuses accepted.

In English, I can think of two obligatory tomes.  The first, and one which we’ve discussed here before, are the complete works of William Shakespeare (yes, even Cymbeline).  I’ve never really found anyone who argues this point… I’ve found a lot of would-be writers who haven’t read this, but all of them think they should have.  After all, much, if not all of what came afterwards was built upon the structures created by old Bill.  It’s so deeply ingrained into the literary language that we take it for granted, and when, as the BBC has recently begun to do, his influence is made explicit, we shake our heads in wonder.

The other book seems to be more divisive, but is a book that is even more influential.  It is, of course, the King James Version of The Bible.

A lot of writers, mainly for political reasons, absolutely refuse to read this one.  Some will be angry that I’m mentioning it here.  As an atheist myself, I can tell them that they’re not very smart; reading the KJV has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with understanding the roots from which the tree of English-language literature, including the most radicalized leftwing tracts of today, grows.

But its influence doesn’t end with the dozens of sayings and cultural and moral baselines that it has injected into society.  It is also a book that took the best of the oral traditions and, over the years, honed them until each became the most convincing version it could be.

Of course, the bible does mix it up a bit.  On one hand, you have compelling narrative spots (the extremes, Genesis and Revelations come to mind), but it also has mind-numbingly boring spots (Leviticus, I’m looking your way).  In fact, I’d say that about half of the text itself has little to no impact on the public consciousness today, especially when it comes to the Old Testament (although I’d love to know just how strictly modern Judaism keeps to some of the tenets – if anyone knows, would love to hear from you in comments).

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

So reading it is a slog of rules and names and measurements of temples in arcane units at times (broken up by the narrative bits, which are quite good).  This isn’t Dan Brown.  You won’t find it un-put-downable.  But the time invested is worth the effort (my own payoff came when, during a game of trivial pursuit, someone asked me how many psalms were in the Book of Psalms… A question I would never have been able to answer before reading all 150 of them – hopefully, your payoff will be deeper than this).

The upside is that you’ll get to read firsthand stuff you hear or read about every day.  From Samson to Adam and Eve, from Jonah (man was he minor) to Jesus, it will be an important element in your cultural toolbox.

So I read the whole thing.  It took a while, but it was definitely worth it.  I wouldn’t, probably, do it again, but I would definitely recommend a cover-to-cover reading of the KJV as one of those bucket-list experiences that a writer needs to have under his belt.  It will make you a better author.

And yes, you’re allowed to take my name in vain as you struggle through Leviticus.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s novel Incursion is supposed to be even better than his popular book Siege.  You can check it our here.

Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).