Saturday, 8 April 2017

Book Report, Part 1: Five novels down, twenty to go...but I've already climbed Everest

A few weeks ago I wrote about a plan to work my way through a list of 25 novels between now and 28th February, 2018. You can find the list (and my reasons for embarking on this self-devised reading programme) here. I thought I'd just pop down a few impressions of the five books I've read so far. The first was David Copperfield. I chose it because it was Charles Dickens's favourite amongst his own works, and because I was tired of experiencing a tremor of guilt every time someone referred to an incident or character from it. Besides, it's seems ridiculous not to have read the book which gave us such archetypal figures as Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.  In the unlikely event that you haven't read it, I can report..

...that it is extraordinarily enjoyable - and very, very funny, and not just in that exuberant, jolly, shouty way one rather expects from Dickens: the humour is often sly and satirical and extremely deftly handled. When it comes to literature which has made me laugh out loud repeatedly, this ranks with Decline and Fall and A Confederacy of Dunces.

Uriah Heep
Having rather feared that Mr. Micawber might prove tedious after a while, he in fact never palled, but instead grew funnier with each appearance  - the lengthy scene in which he denounces Uriah Heep ("Heep!") is an absolute delight. And, yes, Heep! is the most splendidly detestable, flesh-crawlingly disgusting creep I've encountered in a work of fiction. A scene which was both surprising and very funny was the one in which Copperfield - now a successful novelist - discovers that the two "model" prisoners whose rehabilitation has convinced a committee of deluded Victorian do-gooders of the effectiveness of some goofy programme to reform criminals turn out to be none other than Uriah Heap and the sinister manservant/henchman of David's erstwhile friend, the vile love-rat, Steerforth. The inventiveness and exuberance dials on Dickens's imagination and writing skills are set to "11" throughout - and  the only real longueurs in what is a pretty hefty book occur when he spends an unconscionable time needlessly underlining the fact that Daniel Peggotty and his nearest and dearest are the simplest, sweetest, purest, sincerest, most honest, most Godly and most loving folk on the face of the earth, bar none, and no mistake. Still, that's a quibble. What a marvellous book!

Okay, I'd better speed up or we'll be here all night.

Joseph Conrad's Nostromo was next up. Having rather swum upstream through the first hundred pages or so (after which I felt I knew roughly ten times more about the fictional South American republic of Costaguana than was either strictly necessary or desirable) the novel started flowing, and it was an easy swim after that. The famous scene in which the "incorruptible" Nostromo - under orders - spirits away silver from the San Tomé mine by boat to prevent it falling into the hands of the revolutionary army more than justifies its lofty reputation. Just as Conrad "wrote the book" on terrorists in The Secret Agent, here he offers a brilliant and convincing analysis of why so much of South America seems perpetually trapped in a cycle of revolution in the name of the people followed by brutal and corrupt dictatorship.

Next was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which - rather than the earlier The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - seems to be widely regarded as Mark Twain's masterpiece. I couldn't bear Tom Sawyer - but I thoroughly enjoyed this account of backwoods boy Huck Finn simultaneously escaping from the Scylla of life with his abusive, feckless, alcoholic moron of a father, and the Charybdis of a decent, middle-class, shoe-wearing, school and church-attending existence with the kindly Widow Douglas by faking his own death and floating off down the Mississippi on a makeshift raft. He is unexpectedly joined by his friend, Jim, a slave who has run away because his owner has announced that she's selling him. The tale is narrated by young Huck in dialect - a device which normally makes this reader's heart sink, but which here works perfectly.

The treatment of slavery (the book was written long after slavery had been abolished, but is set in the antebellum South) is absolutely fascinating, specially Huck's moral conundrum over whether to help his chum "Nigger" Jim evade capture, thereby turning himself  - in the eyes of the good folk of St. Petersburg, Missouri - into a criminal and a traitor to his own kind. Some of the descriptions of the Mississippi are breathtakingly transportive, the various characters they meet along the way - the decent ones, as well as the scoundrels - are vividly drawn, and it all moves along at a hell of a lick. The only time the narrative sags, oddly, is when Tom Sawyer turns up near the end. This may not be a widely-held opinion, but while Huckleberry Finn is a well-rounded, likeable and utterly convincing character - a real boy - I find Tom Sawyer an unconvincing, irritating pain in the backside: his creator is evidently enamoured of the lad, but I'm not. That aside, I loved the book (and I now understand why a friend of mine reads it once a year).

This is getting too long. I'll take a break here and continue on to Mt. Everest in another post...

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