Soul of Gormenghast

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

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Wuthering Heights

‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind…’

I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve been an admirer of the Brontes for years (though I do rate Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more favourably than the more renowned Jane Eyre). Wuthering Heights certainly did not disappoint: Bronte’s coupling of Dickensian lyricism with Gothic intrigue makes for an illuminating read. I think its success lies in its combination of the great Victorian preoccupations with inheritance, marriage and property, and the thoroughly unconventional character of Heathcliff. This brutally passionate and unrepentant man remains shocking to modern sensibilities.

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Heathcliff is a fascinating character, no doubt because it’s difficult to fully appreciate all the multi-faceted angles of his character at once. He exerts such a terrific pull over Catherine that their love is figured as an almost elemental force. But is this great capacity to love enough to redeem Heathcliff in the eyes of the reader? Their passion seems of another world; its unearthliness is never more pronounced than when Heathcliff orders the side of Catherine’s coffin broken open so that when he is laid to rest beside her, their bodies will dissolve together. He also has an endless capacity for cruelty; with his ‘sharp cannibal teeth’, he often seems more devil than man. The resonance of the novel rests on the enigma of Heathcliff’s character; his nature is a mystery it’ll take me another read to fully appreciate.

Some kinds of magic

‘Certainly,’ said Voldemort, and his eyes seemed to burn red. ‘I have experimented; I have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed -‘
‘Of some kinds of magic,’ Dumbledore corrected him quietly. ‘Of some. Of others, you remain…forgive me…woefully ignorant.’
For the first time, Voldemort smiled. It was a taut leer, an evil thing, more threatening than a look of rage.
‘The old argument,’ he said softly. ‘But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.’
‘Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places,’ suggested Dumbledore.

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The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is a socio-political novel in the tradition of Dickens and Thackeray. Rowling’s novel is closer to the great Victorian novelists than the work of contemporary authors, which, while still concerned with social realism, tend to focus more on familial relationships or personal struggles than the pressing social issues of the day. Its social purpose makes The Casual Vacancy appear almost old-fashioned, but this engagement is definitely not to Rowling’s detriment. Having a political conscience is rarely a bad move.

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Rowling’s novel has a narrow focus on the idyllic English town of Pagford, but she casts her net wide in terms of the social issues covered (addiction, class, race and parental abuse are only a handful of the conscientious issues stirred up in Rowling’s story) and draws upon a class of characters as varied as any of Dickens’ major works. Although Rowling herself has stated that the novel seeks to probe our responses to the problem of social deprivation, The Casual Vacancy is not in any sense preachy. In fact, it’s made very clear that it’s a mistake to assume that any of the problems it raises could be easily solved. In addition to Rowling’s adept handling of these social issues, her writing conveys a complex sense of interiority:

Simon had the child’s belief that the rest of the world exists as staging for their personal drama; that destiny hung over him, casting clues and signs in his path, and he could not help feeling that he had been vouchsafed a sign, a celestial wink.

For me, however, there’s a fundamental problem with the kind of realist outlook adopted by Rowling. This worldview creates a false opposition between realism and magic. By magic, I mean a sense of joy or wonder, which is sorely lacking in The Casual Vacancy. The magical realism of Salman Rushdie, for example, is not oxymoronic, because it allows that real life can be magical. It seems more realistic to include this sense of the unexpected in a novel which espouses to evoke real life, rather than to be unremittingly bleak. A comparison with Harry Potter is at times unavoidable: whereas Harry Potter promotes the all-conquering power of love and the sanctity of the family, in Rowling’s first adult novel, the families are fractured, and the marriages loveless and unfaithful. Death, too, is portrayed in starkly different terms in both works: Harry Potter focuses on the spiritual, while The Casual Vacancy is much more materialist, with a heavy focus on gross physicality.

Though certainly not by any means a failure, the lack of positivity in The Casual Vacancy distracts from the gravity of the social issues it discusses. Maybe I’m just idealistic, but for me, real life has its own kind of magic, and this sense of wonder is sadly lacking in Rowling’s novel.

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

This week I’ve been indulging in childhood nostalgia, by re-reading the Harry Potter series. I’ve only reached the second book so far, but I am already falling head over heels in love with the series all over again. I’d always assumed that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the most childish of the series (not that that’s an entirely bad thing: the way the narrator’s understanding advances with Harry’s is admirable), and certain moments, like the scene in which the Dursleys flee to a decrepit shack out at sea, upheld this prejudice. For the most part, though, I was thoroughly and surprisingly impressed by The Philosopher’s Stone.

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J.K. Rowling’s writing is unabashedly sophisticated. The plot is multi-layered, featuring several small but satisfying subplots. Considering the scope of the series as a whole, it’s amazing to appreciate how much is established from the outset; even the smallest, seemingly insignificant details allude to future events in the series. Rowling’s language itself emphasises this sense of intricacy, she inventively crafts terms, such as ‘unDursleyish’, which perfectly matches its meaning. Rowling makes great use of humour, too; several lines in The Philosopher’s Stone made me chuckle out loud. This comedy sets Rowling’s writing apart from other children’s authors:

Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way down to the Great Hall for breakfast without getting lost once.

Rowling’s characterisation is similarly adept. While the Dursleys appear almost irredeemable, they are not mere caricatures. There’s an underlying darkness, for example, to Petunia’s character, who is so intensely jealous of her sister that she attempts to crush the magic out of her son. This sense of depth is characteristic of Rowling’s writing; like George R.R. Martin, no character is entirely good or entirely evil (though I’d argue that Voldemort is a notable exception).

The popularity of the series has endured because of its underlying adult themes. Although the books are humorous and full of light-hearted moments, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not merely the frivolous story of a boy wizard and a school for magical children, but is instead a series which poses deep and probing questions about friendship, love, bravery and death. This is evident even in the first book: Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised is an astoundingly poignant moment in The Philosopher’s Stone. The fact that Harry is an orphan is not simply a convenient plot mechanism, as it allows for an exploration of Harry’s grief for his parents, which develops throughout the series as he comes to appreciate the magnitude of his loss.

When Dumbledore leaves one-year-old Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep, McGonagall ponders the significance of the night’s events: ‘Every child in our world will know his name!’ J.K. Rowling can’t have fathomed, writing those lines, that one day McGonagall’s prophecy would come true. From this fantastic introduction to the series, however, it’s easy to appreciate the reasons behind Rowling’s phenomenal success.