I first read Heart of Darkness about twenty years ago. I was getting ready to study History and Victorian Studies at Lampeter University and I went on a spending spree in ‘one of those shops’ in Northwich. By ‘one of those shops’ I mean a ‘stack um hight and sell um cheap’ kind of bookshop that sells issues of long out of copywrite Victorian classics. I bought an entire bookcase of books which I read about ten years later.
Heart of Darkness by Conrad is said to be the first modern novel. By this I think critics mean that it can be read as a Fruedian text to be interpreted as opposed to being taken at face value. Certainly I read it with a sense of being drawn into the hinterland of the company, along the river and through the dense jungle being lulled by the heat, the oppressive heat and the absolute uselessness of European Imperialism. I once had an African friend who said that since the Europeans government in Africa had been a licence to loot. That sentiment certainly comes across in the novel where ivory and percentages are the main thing on the minds of the company agents and the rot and jawing about improvement a mere smoke screen against which the jungle just waits.
The sense of Africa as a mysterious and powerful demigod is powerfully portrayed by the jungle and the heat and the gradual oppressive nature of the journey Marlow takes up the river to Kurts. Its an oppressiveness that breaks people and minds down. Disease and derogation are rampant amongst the agents and the medical doctor at the port assumes that Marlow will go mad.
Conrads genius is the river journey that he starts on the Thames slowly weaving together an idea that once this place, just outside mighty London, had been one of the dark places of the Earth and what was being done in Africa, colonisation and exploitation, had been done in Britain by men just like him. He sketches the career of a Roman officer before starting his yarn which progresses though Africa and is drawn to Kurts which steadily applied pressure and darkness that grows on the mind and imagination. Its only when that pressure and darkness seems to overwhelm the reader that we suddenly are jerked back out of Africa and onto the thames. Ultra realistic storytelling that brings the reader up with a shock.
Nineteen Eighty Four is one of the most influential books I have ever read. I have read it many many times and always see something different.
The power of the book comes from the mind and energy of the author George Orwell and the long fermentation of the ideas in his mind.
I am writing this as I think about an answer I am writing for Quara. A young person wants to know how to write a legendarium like Tokien. I thought that I knew the answer but as I started writing I realised that I did not so I gave up writing to have a little think. I thought about Tolkien, about Star Wars and other authors and now I am considering Orwell.
What I have realised after reading everything I can by Orwell, doing the same with JB Priestly and CS Lewis is that these authors have a huge canon of work but limited ideas. Priestly in particular repeats his themes of time travel, socialism and looking into a comfortable world that he then disrupts.
So my answer to the young man will be quite similar to the advise at Delphi, know yourself, know what you want to say and then say it but not just once. Say it over and over again and build up a huge canon of work knowing what you are wanting to say, saying it and saying it in different places, to different people and in different contexts. CS Lewis further advises that what we say should be true, work out the truth and tell people about it. This is why I think their work has such an enduring appeal, its true. Its not just enduring it is also universal. Both the right wing and the left wing claim Orwell not seeming to notice its not the man they like, I think neither would like the man, but his truth that totalitarianism and poverty is wrong.
I am working on a series entitled “What I will do when the pandemic is over…” For this I am researching Britain using a variety of guide books. I live in Coventry and thought I would just glance at what is said about my city.
I was struck by the expression “ugly Orwellian” which is profoundly inappropriate. By this I assume the author means Like Airstip One from Nineteen Eighty Four. Whilst Coventry can be ugly and certainly has more than its fair share of brutal modernistic buildings I think it’s a misnomer to say that this is Orwellian and certainly is not the description of Airstrip one from the novel.
In the novel Airstrip One is an image of an unreconstructed London with a further forty years of decay. It is an echo of the images that Orwell conjures from his The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin Modern Classics) of the deprivation of the North. Its a vision of decaying 19th century houses, shanty towns and slums. The best vision I could suggest would be the outside scenes in Passport to Pilmico.
Ironically the brutal and ugly buildings were an attempt to build a nice and pleasant environment for the people of Coventry. The concrete canyons replaced slums that were so embarrassingly documented by Nazi spies on the eve of their planned invasion. Indeed the worst slums in Europe were in Britain between the wars. Coventrys slums were being cleared in the 1920s and the blitz finished the process in November 1940. After the war Coventry was reconstructed with a modernist vision of the future, and unfortunately nothing ages faster than a persons vision of the future.
As I am sure you all know England is in Corona lockdown which means I have lots of time to tackle my enormous reading pile. One doesn’t want to boast but it is staggeringly large.
I have recently been drawn back to my Orwell and am haunted by the fact I have just not been writing enough about him or Nineteen Eighty Four. I have it on audiobook and I listened to it again the other night. There is so much in it that I would like to comment on so I think that will be my special mission for the coming twelve weeks.
I am also drawn to my Narnia books particularly The Silver Chair. I do not think that this is the most memorable but I do think it is one of the best. One certainly can not accuse Lewis of having just positive characters in the lead. Eustace and Polly are dreadful to each other and I feel far more realistic than any other Narnian character.
Finally I am toying with another read through of Lord of the Rings. I am involved with the Tolkien reading group in Coventry and we are nearing the end of the last book after three years of effort. It has been useful and certainly opened my eyes to an number of features that I have missed.
So I will leave you now because I am going to go and paint some of my toy soldiers. I have a very successful Instragram that needs some of my material on it to take it to the next level. Stay safe and good fortune.
Short post today because I stayed up far to late last night watching Battlestar Galactica. I want to do a series of posts as I watch through the whole (modern) series. I might do the same with 1980s series if I get time.
I have seen it before but since I was looking after a baby boy I only watched with a small part of my mind. I would take Alex in the morning about five so that my wife could have three hours of uninterrupted sleep. But as I became acquainted with the first few episodes I began to remember the Pegasus.
The Pegasus is another Battlestar that escaped from the Cylons but in contrast to Galactica who are generally ‘good’ the captain of the Pegasus is corrupt. I suddenly reflected of the role of the Mirrorverse in Star Trek. In the Star Trek Mirrorverse the Federation is replaced with an Empire and the characters are in general reversed. We see in both cases what might have been, what could be if the underlying motivations and standards of the characters are inverted.
As I write this I am reminded of the Star Trek Voyager episode Equinox which contrasts the moral Voyager crew with the immoral crew of Captain Ransom. Ransom is appropriately named because he is held hostage by the difficult circumstances on his ship. The two episodes hang on the question ‘if Janeways circumstances had been the same as those of Ransom would she have made the same decision?’ Clearly Janeway is a driven character capable of “actions” but I think that she would shy away from murder, possibly. The closest that Voyager comes to the Mirrorverse in my opinion is the Demon episode but I think that is worth another post.
I think I have become distracted in this post. It is one that I am very interested in and I think dystopia becomes more vivid when placed in such proximity to utopia. Good and bad have meaning where they can be compared and contrasted with each other, as Screwtape wrote to Wormwood.
Yesterday I wrote about VOX. I reviewed it faviourably and fairly arguing that it is well integrated into the dystopian genre. Today I want to briefly talk about three dystopias that have engaged my imagination.
1984 is one of my faviourate books. I would go as far as to say that it is one of the best books written in this genre. As a stand alone novel it is effective but I have found my enjoyment much improved by reading other works by Orwell. Its in The Road to Wigan Pier that we see the prole quarter in 1930s Britain, its in Keep the Apserdisa Flying that we see the Prole reaction to Winston Smith ordering the wrong drinks at a bar and in The Lion and the Unicorn we see the challenge of perverted language.
When I was sixteen my mother banned me from reading Brave New World. The power of this book lies in the reaction against the Utopias of HG Wells. Wells had presented to the public a glittering vision of the future that Huxley demolishes with with biting satire. The plastic nature of the World State is shown up for the soullessness that it is through the eyes of the savage John who fits in nowhere.
My last choice is Clockwork Orange. Now one of my friends is a leading authority on this amazing novel so I don’t want to say too much. However what interests me about this novel is not so much the Alex narrative but rather the state and the society in which Alex lives.
Dystopia an engaging genre that is best when it comments on the ‘real’ world. Utopias and Dystopias age badly when they do not talk to universal issues and these novels are powerful because they speak to issues of totalitarianism, infantalisation and state control and finally to reactions to youth.
I have read VOX for the book club that I attend at The Big Comfy Bookshop in Coventry. What follows is a quick review.
VOX is a dystopian novel where women are given a word limit every day. If they exceed their limit they are suffer an electric shock from a device worn around their wrists. The novel follows the adventures of a brain damage specialist recruited by a Chauvinist, fundamentalist American government to create a cure for the Presidents brother who has suffered an accident rendering him unable to speak.
I read this book in about three hours, the chapters are short and punchy which maintains the energy and drives the story forwards. Interestingly enough the author writes that she wrote the novel in three months. I do not doubt this because there are some problems with the storytelling but clearly the ideas and the themes have been marinating in her mind for some time and this is interesting. Problems for me would include the unnecessary character of Poe and a less well sketched conclusion than the introduction. There is an attack by a monkey which seems very confused but is an effort to ‘shoehorn’ in a reference to a woman life being worth less than the cost of a laboratory animal. Orwell uses the same technique in “Killing and Elephant” to illustrate the brutality of colonial officials. A threatened attack might have been more effective than an actual assault.
In terms of dystopia the works of Orwell, Huxley, Burgess and Attwood are clearly and effectively referenced. The Government that the family live under is clearly totalitarian and is in the process of eroding civil liberties, the process not yet being complete. It feels more like the crack down in Clockwork Orange than the totalitarian control of 1984 which isn’t to say it isn’t effective. Like all dysopia it works hard to hit the balance between possible future and outlandish. By building on liberal anxieties about the Bible Belt, television evangelists, the Trump Presidency and the role of women in society the novel does achieve this balance. Amongst the sheer cleverness is the idea that the Trump wall is not to keep people out but rather to keep people in.
I think to conclude this is not the worst book I have ever read and I think it could be better. Sometimes it can be clumsy, particularly in its virtue signifying, and sometimes the prose could have had a stronger edit but there is a strong vision of right and wrong which is the foundation of a strong dystopian novel. It fits very well indeed into the genre of dystopia a powerful synthesis reworking feminist themes and tropes.
I am sitting in my my chair in my faviourate bookshop drinking Earl Grey tea brewed in a tea pot and served in a mug. All across the world there are many people far less blessed than I am.
I am an Englishman living in a peaceful epoc of English history. We started as a nation of pirates who took advantage of the fall of the Roman Empire to establish ourselves in the country that now bears the name of one of the Germanic tribes who migrated here in the 4th and 5th centuries. What was once precarious is now part of the world and where else would you find the English than in England?
I love England. I drive for most days for about an hour through the country and if I can get away from the motorways and divert myself down the little lanes I will. I love the landscape that bears the scars of the last ice age, the green shadows of the trees and the lazy sun of our temperate climate.
Its these things that draw people in and I think England makes the English and not the English England. I remember a poem by CS Lewis where he writes that he comes across a moss covered meteor that once ranged amongst the stars but England made her own. This is what I think happens to all the migrants to these isles. England herself makes them her own.
England opens herself up to her lovers and in her the pirate mercenaries found a loving misteress, fully capable of lulling them away from their previous identity on the continent. As I drive through Warwickshire and the Midlands I feel her spells and I would not want to be anywhere else than here.
My Grandmother had a print of this on her wall and it has always mean a lot to me. Everything has a beginning and it is often a bit scary. I must admit blogging is a bit scary and starting today daunting.
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