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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News #1: My Debut Novel is Now Available!

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My debut novel, ‘A Reverie of Brothers’, is now available on the Kindle for digital download*. I started writing this 90,000 word novel at the age of sixteen, after reading Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Novels for the first time and falling in love with the dreamlike setting of the castle. After six years of redrafting and experimenting, I am thrilled to finally present the finished product. Please help an independent self-published author (I don’t have the money to fund an expensive marketing campaign) by sharing the link and leaving a review. Thank you very much for your support, book lovers! 🙂

*The paperback version is now available!

Amazon US: A Reverie of Brothers

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reverie-Brothers-R-D-Shanks-ebook/dp/B00QP4PLW2/

The Song of Achilles

I really wish I’d stumbled across Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles before I enrolled in my Classical Literature course last year. We read both Homeric epics, as well as The Aeneid, the plays of Aristophanes, and Apuleis; the intense reading list made for an excruciating semester and while I felt I’d earned my stripes as an English student by reading the classics, I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the texts. They all seemed to depict a world completely alien to mine, with its foreign code of honour and hospitality and its petulant gods. The Iliad was by far the most enjoyable of the texts. The principal heroes, Hector and Achilles, are simultaneously both demi-gods and beasts on the battlefield, and the epic’s depiction of war more generally is far from glorious. If I’d read The Song of Achilles before taking the class, I think I’d have enjoyed The Iliad even more. Miller interjects a much-needed sense of humanity into the myth without straying too far from the source material.

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The Greek gods are probably the most problematic aspects of the Homeric epics (and of most classical literature, which follows in the Homeric tradition). The gods can be understood as natural forces; for example, Poseidon could be seen to personify the will of the sea. Or the gods could be seen as late additions to the original historical events, added in to present the outcome of the Trojan War as divinely ordained. If, however, it’s always the gods who inspire their favoured mortals with heroic qualities or lift them out of an arrow’s path, then to what extent are the heroes truly heroic at all? The exact nature of the gods is never clarified and presents a significant stumbling block to modern readers. Miller offers a unique solution to this problem: in her retelling of The Iliad, Thetis exists in the flesh and can walk among the living if she chooses. Patroclus, the narrator, carelessly lists the many heroes who are the offspring or grandsons of gods. While the gods are immortal and elevated above mortals, they are still subject to Fate; even Thetis cannot change her son’s destiny.

By smoothing over the difficulties presented by the interfering Homeric gods, Miller can give greater focus to her true concern: the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Their story is a moving one, a truly timeless exploration of how powerless we all are in the pitiless face of Fate.

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.

All Quiet on the Western Front

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

All Quiet on the Western Front presents an engaging account of life under seige in trenches. Next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, and All Quiet‘s exploration of the dehumanising impact of war remains powerfully pertinent and affecting. What’s particularly striking is the youth of the soldiers. Paul Baumer and his classmates are all only 19 or 20 when they enter the battlefield for the first time. They represent the sacrifice made by a generation of young men and the devastation this sacrifice entailed; even those who survived the struggle would not leave the trenches unscarred. Erich Maria Remarque’s portrayal voices a growing distrust for the older generation, Paul’s teachers and leaders, who have encouraged and effectively condemned the young to fight and die in their steed. This critique can be extended to all politicians: those who make a country’s decisions are not typically made to directly face the consequences of those decisions. Young, fit men were sent to their deaths in their millions in order to defend an order imposed on them from above. The war casts a long shadow over the lives of its survivors: reclaiming normality after witnessing the horrors of war seems an impossibility.

allquietWar is also depicted as having a corrosive effect on those very things which make us human. The soldiers’ experience of life has been narrowed to base bodily functions and the persistent fear of death. They bear witness to the frequent destruction and disintegration of the human body; the elevated, spiritual aspects of man are rendered obsolete by this new, purely physical understanding of humanity. No human sympathy is afforded to enemy soldiers or prisoners, because such human feeling would render warfare impossible. Ultimately, All Quiet presents a meditation on the loss of humanity incurred through war, and a pertinent warning about the futility of such conflict.

The Wild

A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness – a laughter that was as mirthless as the smile of a Sphinx.  It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted North-land Wild.

White Fang, Jack London

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress explores the power of books to transform the lives of their readers. In 1970s China, two young men are sent to the countryside for re-education and stumble across a suitcase of forbidden novels. The youths are deemed ‘intellectuals’ by the Cultural Revolution simply because they both graduated high school; this title is particularly barbed for the boys, since by the time they were able to attend school both maths and science had been wiped from the curriculum, so they were denied the chance to even aspire to become an intellectual. No books (except those either authored or favoured by Mao) are permitted, a ban which applies to Chinese classics and Western literature alike. As a result, other civilisations and China’s own rich past are shrouded in mystery.

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Discovering the suitcase of forbidden Western novels (Flaubert, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas) has a profound impact on the lives of the boys:

Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.

They share the stories with a young girl in the next village, who is so entranced by Balzac’s story-telling that she listens literally open-mouthed. The books they uncover allow not only an insight into the lives of other people, but also allow the boys to understand their own world with greater clarity. They are able to fully appreciate what it means to live in a totalitarian society, where they are forbidden to enjoy the experiences detailed in the novels. In oppressive societies the transformative power of books is perceived as a dangerous force: it opens up the minds of its inhabitants to possibilities and opportunities they would never have considered before. Dai Sijie presents a celebration of the power of books: through reading, we can change the way we see the world.