Tag Archives: third-person

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

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Short story: The Lonely Tree


This is just something I rattled out, slightly in the style of Murakami:

This is the story of a boy, who was not yet a man. It’s the story of his first love, his first heartbreak and the tree that fell on him.

It’s the fashion to have summer romances but the boy was allergic to everyone’s favourite season. It made his eyes red and his nose stream.  In fact he had always thought that girls were allergic to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak to them or that they didn’t like him, but that they couldn’t love him. More than anything the boy wanted to know love. One winter, when the air was crisp and the nights chilled, he thought that he did.

He couldn’t believe his luck. A childhood crush, the cleverest catch around and a friend he cared for deeply rolled into one package. Her smile locked his worries away and out of reach for hours. Being with her he felt as if he wasn’t alone for the first time in his life. Hearing from her was, surprisingly, almost as good. Making her happy filled the void of purpose in his life. His existence no longer felt empty. Simply put: she made him happy.

Fate had never looked so kindly upon him before and deep down he knew that her favours would be brief. But while it lasted nothing else mattered. Or rather, everything mattered more. Her dreams enriched and expanded his own, her energy and life gave them colour. He was filled with enthusiasm and a drive he did not know he possessed. He felt like a better person and fully himself for the first time.

Looking back on it he supposed the relationship would seem a short lived folly to onlookers, and this angered him. Nothing had ever meant more. At least to him. The boy had never realised just how important intimacy, close friendship and the joy of caring for someone was to happiness. When it ended, for no reason besides that she didn’t love him after all, things reverted to normal. Only more so.

He wondered if that happiness had been an illusion and whether he had truly known love. He felt catapulted back to square one. He did not know what to think or feel, knowing for certain only that he was empty again. And he was alone. The dreams that had grown to new heights in her company were now mere weeds, smaller than the clumps of green nothingness at the foot of the tree in his garden.

The tree watched as the boy moped and rolled around like a pig in his misery. At first the tree felt sympathetic towards the boy, as no one knew better than him what it was to be alone. Trapped in his hollow shell with no friends to speak of, and no means to speak, the tree longed for contact of some kind. He knew everything the boy was missing and more. And then the tree realised how selfish the boy was. And how much harder it was to be a tree.

As the spring rapidly shifted into summer the boy felt every concrete trace of his love fading away, swamped by the passing of time. With each day he felt more and more like he had no right to feel anything at all. All he had left were the memories and hopes in his head. He missed so much; far too much for words, he told himself.

On a blue morning with a blazing sun and abstract strokes of white overhead, the boy had an epiphany. Well it was that day at least that he admitted to himself a truth that he had felt for a while. He said to himself: “Love is enough for me”. He knew that, for the right person, he would sacrifice all the goals and ambitions he had thought essential to his well being, satisfaction and success. He acknowledged that, during his time with his first true love, he had enjoyed and derived immense contentment from even the harder things. He was glad to be there when she was upset, happy to calm her down, even if he was only a slight comfort. Caring for someone important to him, as important as that, was all he could ever need.

He remembered reading a novel in which the main character believed there were only three chances of finding your soul mate. He pondered whether for him, “soul mate”, meant someone worthy of his absolute care. Plunged back into sadness and despair by the thought of having lost someone he could lose himself in and devote himself to, he ran into the garden, blinded by fierce tears. He crouched down in the dirt, sniffling as the pollen swarmed up his hostile nostrils. He pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He stared at the world around him, confused and crying.

By this point, the tree was seething. The tree didn’t know how he knew all about what the boy was thinking and feeling, but he did know, and it made him angry. The tree did not know he was capable of anger. The tree could not think, had no brain and nothing at all to account for the melancholy consciousness brooding within his gently swaying frame. The wind blew lightly across the garden, flicking the odd leaf and stroking the odd stem. The tree felt a shiver of cold. The tree felt.

The boy was gradually coming out of his panic, descending into a depressed paralysis. The loveliest, brightest petals of the most vibrant flowers looked bleak to him. His mind’s eye conjured a symbolic bonfire of his dreams in the corner of the lawn. If he could be so easily tempted from them, what chance did he have of achieving such grand plans? What did they matter anyway? Forcing his head up from its slouch on his knees, he felt the bark in his hair and decided there was no point to any sensation at all without someone to share it with.

The tree was fuming with anger from its roots to its summit. It could sense the boy’s sadness. His self involved and ungrateful emotion wasn’t just saturating the air around the tree now, but squirming and writhing against its flaky skin. The tree couldn’t stand it. It was determined not to take it anymore. It wouldn’t be buffeted by nature or ignored by men today.

The boy sighed deeply, turning his face into the breeze and relishing its cold wipe. He felt the gusts get stronger and firmer in waves, as if someone were stirring the air with an enormous food blender. Pulse after pulse slapped against him. The sweat under his arms went from hot and sticky to icy and damp. His spine creaked as the tree trunk rocked a little against him. His back stood firm easily like a castle wall against the minute thrusts.

The tree was summoning all of its energy from its very furthest extremities, even the roots beyond the garden wall. The tree was straining every part of its being in pure and untamed rage. The tree was alive and a part of nature but for the first time ever it was wild. It did not have muscles to tense or bones to move but it had life and the tree channelled every last ounce of it into its rage. It didn’t know what it was doing or understand the consequences. All it knew was how wrong the boy was, how angry it made the tree feel. It was trying to teach the boy a lesson, on behalf of trees everywhere.

The boy continued to feel little swellings at his back. Small pressures, surely caused by the wind, made the entire structure of the tree wobble a fraction. Leaves that had been noisily rubbing in the flower beds slowly stopped. The bending blades of grass rested and stood upright. Gradually, the trunk seemed to be moving faster, almost pushing out into the boy, like something was stuck inside. The tree rocked more and more as the breeze died away to an unnoticeable whisper. As the branches began to rattle, the boy noticed properly for the first time the firmer and firmer touch of the trunk. He glanced up towards the sky, through the canopy of crisscrossing browns and greens, only to shrug away again with a sob.

The boy’s indifference only enraged the tree still more. So that, as the swaying grew quicker and quicker, the consciousness that had formed inside the tree disappeared, becoming something else entirely. Now the tree was just movement, just energy, just purpose. All of the life the tree had ever known became focused on the boy and ending his ignorant and cruel soul. The tree had never known what a soul was; would never know. It did not know whether or not the boy had one. It only knew that the boy had to be stopped. He had to be taught that at least he had tasted love, known happiness, shared warmth and feeling. He had to be shown that at least he could dream, chase dreams and possibly live them. There were always those lives that did not live, always those with truly no hope left; always lonely trees.

There was a crack. And the trunk threw its full weight at the boy, who scrambled too late from his pity. Falling branches pulled away the light and the blue from the canvas of the sky, bringing only dark.

Like in films, the boy came to gazing at sheer whiteness. Nothing else. The colour white was the afterlife? Appropriately empty he thought. And then he remembered. The tree.

He had often dreamt about his funeral. A song lyric drifted into his mind – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The dreams in which he was dead were some of the best he’d ever had; terribly self indulgent fictions in which all the figures and characters of his life turned up, gushing praise and regrets. All the girls and friends he’d ever wanted poured their hearts out. He was great after all.

There was no one here he really wanted to see. The strip lights buzzed and whirred, stuffing light down his retinas. The whiteness turned out to be the roof tiles. A steady beep and blip passed the time like a clock ticking. His heart was liable to suddenly conk out. He was hooked up to a monitor like on telly. His parents were here.

They didn’t believe him about the tree. When he was well enough to argue, they argued. They accused him and lectured him. They warned and scorned him. His mother ranted about the hardships of life, bemoaned his ignorance. Even his father shouted. He wasn’t allowed grapes, hadn’t been for years, so someone, probably his mother, had brought biscuits. His father had eaten most of them during the interrogations.

If he’d been able to text, he might’ve texted her, would definitely have texted his best friend. She hadn’t come to see him, even when he’d asked his parents to try to organise it. He was still alone. But something felt different. His skull was cracked, his spine weakened, his legs bruised, his right ankle broken, toes misshapen, right thumb fractured, left hand in plaster, nose crooked, face scratched, knees cut, wrists sprained and buttocks sore. But he felt stronger.

When they took him home he realised what it was. The tree hadn’t been dealt with yet. Its big, bulky carcass, torn in two and smashed in a heap through the fence, reminded him how bad he had felt. It reminded him that he’d realised he just wanted somebody to love. A universal truth, some might say, theme of many a song, but for him it was deeper, all his other wants were trivial and only to love was what he needed and what he craved.

Those trivial dreams might have been exposed as mostly meaningless, but somehow the tree had taught him they were still important. Months in a hospital bed had forced him to write again to pass the time. So that’s what he would do. He would write more and more, hopefully better and better, churning out any old nonsense. He would write to forget, write to remember, write to move on, write to preserve, write from the heart, write from the mind, write in the night, write in the day and write to lose himself. He would write because he could. And to touch, now and again, on truths that made everything worthwhile.  Even the lonely trees.

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 2


Here is the commentary explaining my creative piece in previous post, which was also a required part of the coursework:

Handmaid’s Tale Transformation Commentary

My transformation is based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood creates a dystopian, totalitarian society in the near future born out of religious fundamentalism and fear. The reader is plunged into this world with no background and merely shown the narrative voice of Offred, until historical notes at the end of the novel offer some outside perspectives on events.

A key change I made for my transformation was to take the narrative viewpoint from Offred and view events and themes of the novel from one of the minor character’s perspective. There was plenty of scope to do this as the narrative is completely focused on Offred’s experiences and descriptions and opinions of characters she interacts with are inevitably coloured by her own relationships with them. For example her impression of the Commander is understandably negative and associated with unpleasant duties.

I decided to write a transformation concerning Nick and also made the decision to avoid the first person approach used in the novel. I also sought to avoid a simplistic change of genre to a dramatic monologue which would merely have Nick explain his feelings and attitudes to the regime.

Despite the conscious decision to avoid a first person narrative the significance of Offred’s narrow and occasionally confused storytelling remained central to my thinking. It seemed to me a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred began to doubt her own recollections and felt the need to constantly qualify the facts, such was her isolation and desperation. On several occasions she recounts different versions of events, and in the case of the fate of her fiancé she cannot confirm to the reader which is true, as she simultaneously believes them all. Therefore I aimed to create a transformation that explored the idea of reality but also how one person’s story and their version of reality can be insignificant for others.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its fantastical dream-like narrative and emphasis on nonsense and meaning, enabled me to explore those themes of reality and storytelling. I settled on a reworking of Alice in Wonderland’s opening chapter Down The Rabbit Hole, centred around themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the motivations of Nick’s character.

My transformation begins with Nick descending into boredom in ordinary circumstances, as Alice does but also as Offred often does in the novel. In fact at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale Offred offers us insight into the only world she has with simple description of her plain surroundings, “A chair, a table, a lamp”. Atwood often has Offred minutely describe things and then drop blunt “bombshells” that hint at the scale of the totalitarian oppression around her, as Offred concludes the description began above with “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to”. I tried to mirror this technique early in my piece with the list of ordinary objects, with the exception of a “uniformed chicken”.  Clearly my “bombshell” is more light-hearted than Atwood’s and is more in the spirit of nonsense found in my style model. However it reflects themes of inactivity, detail and true reality raised in the base text.

I tried to create a distinctive idiolect for Nick through my lexical choice despite writing in the third person. I used the technique of free indirect style to convey Nick’s attitudes; “some bimbo would no doubt fetch him.” The word “bimbo” is clearly Nick’s own rather than the narrator’s and reflects views of women looked at in the base text. I continue to echo this theme when Nick “groped around in his mind”. This sordid view of women, and Nick’s cynical attitude towards the complications of life and business, conflicts with the simplistic optimism of the hen, based on inviolable sacred truths. I aimed to reflect the blind simplicity of religious fundamentalism, a constant presence in the base text, with the rhythm of the hen’s speech and her lexis. I have her use simple but grand abstract verbs like “sacred”, “brave”, “freedom” and “wicked”, that for cynical non-believers like Nick are silly or devoid of meaning. For her, like the believers in the base text, nothing is more straightforward than her faith. Her sentences are often just lists of things that to her are simply facts; “That is you and your Commander and your lover”. I also refer to the religious fundamentalism of the novel in other ways, such as the exclamation of “BLASPHEME!” at the end of the transformation and the hen’s belief in “the Book” and preordained events, which comes back to the unifying theme of narrative.

Identity is important in the base text and I try and reflect this in a number of ways. From the start Nick’s waiting leads him to doubt whether his own employment really suits him and then the hen insists on not being mistaken as a chicken, which should also provide humour. I then reflect the importance of possession and identity in the novel as shown through Of-fred and the Commander, with my own Chief Executive in the real world and White Queen and Red Princess Down the Elevator Shaft. Nick is also confused throughout by the hen’s version of his identity, just as Offred doubts what little is left of herself due to other characters’ views of her.

I reflect the dystopian aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale with the debris strewn lobby setting. I also have Nick descend into chaos (as Offred does) via the fall in the elevator shaft; an image that appears in the base text when Offred describes betrayal as “like being in an elevator cut loose at the top”. I suggest that Nick has perhaps been betrayed, with textual references like “She had told him he had a French face”. I show that something has been taken away, as women’s rights were in the novel, with the list of “no guards…” I also reflect the anarchy seen in the novel through the “joyful abandon” of “trash”.

The failure of Reading and Writing Month – An apology and explanation from Mrt’sblog


If anyone at all follows my blog they would’ve noticed the disappointing petering out of Reading and Writing Month. I feel I should explain as briefly as possible why a project I was very excited about and had big plans for did not turn out as I had hoped.

What happened then? I suppose the simple answer is: real life. It’s an excuse all the same I know but when it came down to it I couldn’t motivate myself to either write for my blog all that much or do enough reading because of actual events and “dramas”. I used to make the mistake of using this blog as an emotional outlet for “real life” and I have no intention of ranting again here and spoiling what I’ve worked hard on. But I also once said I would write on this blog should I ever find that elusive state known as happiness. I may as well say now that for most of 2011 so far I have indeed been happy; the happiest I have ever been probably. I am grateful to have felt that even if it was fleeting.

Enough of that though and back to blogging matters. It really is most regrettable that I have a real life at all sometimes. I am frequently full of ideas for writing but most thoughts never become blog pieces or creative works. Often I know that if I try to realise an idea and rush it to some sort of completion, its quality will disappoint. I know that an awful lot of the words I vomit onto these pages are not examples of the best work I can produce. Sometimes it’s just imperative that I produce something or air my views on whatever issue I am passionate about, no matter how inadequately.

For Reading and Writing Month for example I had numerous ideas in the pipeline. I planned to write on literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita, comparing their taboos. I planned to write my own short stories after amateurishly examining a selection of some I had managed to read. I wanted to discuss the future of reading with the coming of Kindles and IPads and audiobooks etc. I intended to explain why I rarely re-read books, and ask why we come back to old favourites when there was so much to discover and consume. Do we all have bibles for certain things, like good writing or storytelling, which we like to re-read to learn again? Like revision almost. Or do we re-read to recapture a feeling? Generally I wanted to have finished reading a lot more books than I did.

More recently in terms of general blog writing I’ve wanted to comment on the Libyan situation and the ethics of a no-fly-zone. Trips to Fulham football club and controversial Champions League games would have once spawned some thoughts. Various television programmes from comedies like 10 O’Clock to dramas like Christopher and His Kind have tempted me to put pen to paper, or finger tips to keyboard more accurately, but I have simply lacked the confidence, the time and the reserves of happiness to begin.

This is incredibly self-indulgent but it does annoy me that a) I don’t write enough and b) I don’t write well enough. Lots of things interest me and I want to write about most of them, but the task often seems insurmountable. The recent impingement of my real life on my blogging has forced me to rethink my writing habits. I shall have to accept that I can’t do it all. Especially if I’m to keep reading. And if I’m to do anything at all with at least a degree of adequacy. So I’m considering drawing up a more regular timetable for posts on particular topics. Film pieces will probably still emerge in a regular messy pattern, but perhaps other things I should simply talk about once a week on a certain day.

It will be sometime most likely before I do anything concrete about this. But it will probably soon have to be done out of necessity and I’m hoping it might help improve both output and quality. If you do drop by now and then I’d love any feedback or suggestions on what readers want and what Mrt’sblog can do better.

In the meantime I am personally trying to convince myself of the positives of Reading and Writing Month, despite its undoubted failure. I read a good mix of short stories and who knows maybe in future I’ll draw on them to write my own. At least for now I have good stories I can return to. I’ve generally rediscovered my taste for reading, not that it ever really went anywhere, even if progress is slow. I’m currently devouring, well gently chewing, Room by Emma Donoghue and soon I’ll start on Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, now a film called The American starring Mr Clooney. After these reads I’ll return to the list from Reading and Writing Month and try to make headway once more.

A heartfelt sorry from Mrt’sblog then, to myself at least if no one else is that bothered. Do follow me on Twitter (@Mrtsblog) and give me that feedback (constructive or completely pointless, all comers welcome)

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.

Booker Shortlist 2010


Room – Emma Donoghue
In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobsen
C – Tom McCarthy
The Long Song – Andrea Levy
Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

Ironically, given all the talk about the omission of quality humorous writing such as Ian McEwan’s Solar when the longlist was announced, the shortlist is now being hailed as the funniest in years. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen is seen as a properly comic tale, whilst the others have their elements according to the judging panel. All the hype around the shortlist is the surprise dropping out of both The Slap, the biggest selling book on the longlist and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. In truth neither of these omissions surprises me. I have read both books and enjoyed both but neither deserved to win. The Slap is an entertaining read that is well written at times but suffers from a number of fatal flaws in characterisation, narrative structure and content that meant it could never be a worthy winner. David Mitchell’s latest work is weaker than all his previous ones and it would therefore had been odd had this one finally got him a win. He struggled with the switch to a third person narrative viewpoint, over indulged when it came to including his historical research in the story and lost some of the originality and flair so synonymous with his earlier novels. My money is on C by Tom McCarthy (despite having read none of the shortlisted titles!) as I am most desperate to get me hands of a copy of this.

I was going to attempt a funny short story to go with this post, but that may have to wait until my moods shift. Stay tuned if interested I suppose.