Can’t talk. Too much writing. Was going to say something more, but TOO MUCH WRITING. Once I’m (hopefully) over the finish line I’ll comment on what it’s been like.
Can’t talk. Too much writing. Was going to say something more, but TOO MUCH WRITING. Once I’m (hopefully) over the finish line I’ll comment on what it’s been like.
…and words and words and words. They’ve been taking up every ounce of attention that I’ve had to spare since the start of the month. This is the first I’ve mentioned it since I began, but I’ve been trying to do National Novel Writing Month. The plan: 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out at 1,666 2/3 words a day, and which would leave me with something approximating to a very short novel. I didn’t want to start talking about it until I had the sense that maybe I’d get some way through it, and since today I’m slightly over my target words (just under 17,000 words) it seemed like the right time to comment on it.
Why not keep building on what I’ve got, and focus my resources? Basically because one of the things I’ve found so far is that it seems like writing breeds writing. Not necessarily on any one day for one project; often once I make it past 8-900 the rest is a serious struggle, and I feel like the quality drops off pretty fast. But my hard-and-fast rule of not writing less than 1,000 words on any one day has made it easier, for any particular project (from the most mundane emails, to teaching preparation, to research), to get stuff on the page. I hope I can carry this through to the end of the month and, in a more limited way, beyond, because fluency of writing is a great asset to have. After a long period of obsessively refining my PhD work, it’s almost like I’ve set up defences against letting myself just write. Those defences are coming down, though gradually and with some resistance.
I’m a long way from the home stretch – about a third of the way to the target, and I reckon it’ll be at least another 10,000 words on top of that to wrap up the story properly. But I think I’m getting somewhere, so if I’m dedicated and lucky some people will have the fun job of helping me turn a 50,000 word frenzied mess about sinkholes, rural discontent, and the disjointed way that change comes to the world into something that might actually be readable.
And words and words and words and…
Victory! Two books finished in a short space of time! It’s a hollow victory, though – both were only about 100 pages long. The first I read was Grief is the Thing with Feathers, but I’m going to record my thoughts on that later. First there’s Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which I picked up ready for an interview/Q&A at Birkbeck with the author. If I wait any longer I’ll definitely forget my impressions from that evening, especially since I had to leave early to teach some epistemology.
The Testament of Mary is a slightly oblique re-telling of the death of Jesus, told by his mother Mary some time after the momentous events. Taking advantage of the great fame of this legend, the story is sparse, but aside from the crucifixion some other events that take centre stage are the raising of Lazarus and the water-into-wine miracle. Mary cuts a bitter and tired figure, looked after in her old age by a somewhat vague group of Jesus’ followers (Tóibín said in the interview which apostles he was thinking of, but I’ve forgotten because their names have little significance to me). She is to some extent respected by these people, but she’s also an inconvenience to them – as a mythology starts to be constructed, they want to make a symbolic version of her that is useful, not to have to confront the genuine woman who, on this telling, resents the self-destructive path that her son was encouraged to take by those around him. She describes them as ‘misfits…men who could not look a woman in the eye’, and laments the danger when someone genuinely good (as she takes her son to have been) is adopted by such men.
An interesting aspect of the novella is the perspective on Jesus’ miracles. First everything is described at one remove, so that the transition from uncertain circumstances to hysteria to the certainty of a miracle is brought out. The wine is running low so people are anxious (and drunk), people talk of bringing water, containers turn up, there’s general excitement because this already legendary figure is present, there’s more wine – somehow this crystallises into a tale of a definite miracle. Just as in the case of Mary herself, what actually happens is unimportant because everyone is directed toward a certain goal, a certain grand story. The raising of Lazarus is also interesting – Toibin tries to convey the idea that if people believed that this had happened, it would be immensely destructive of everyone’s worldview. Nothing would be the same again. Through Mary’s eyes there is even something awful about it – as Toibin described it during the interview, this is the only person who has to go through death again, already knowing what it’s like.
I found it strange when Tóibín spoke about the book. He himself was very engaging and quite funny, not taking himself too seriously. The interviewer (Russell Celyn Jones) mentioned a hint of Irishness in the story, quoting a passage where he describes a dampness in Mary’s house. Tóibín’s response was to say “Oh no, they wouldn’t really have damp there would they? If I’d noticed I would’ve taken it out!” But the strange part was the frequent discussion of how daring and radical the novella was. Apparently when it was released there was quite a furore in conversative Christian countries, which surprised me. Nothing seemed particularly mind-boggling in how it was presented, nothing struck me as immediately controversial, but then it occurred to me that the theme would never catch me in the same way as it seems to have done for some others. Religion has never played much of a role in my life, so when I read of Mary telling the people who say her son’s death will save everyone “It isn’t worth it,” I passed over without it making that much of an impression.
I don’t know whether it’s really a weakness in The Testament of Mary that it relies on the weighty imagery of this enduring story for those closer to Christian doctrine – it’s clearly highly emotive for a lot of people. But it did feel as if there was a certain amount of piggybacking on other stories. Of course every story does that to some extent, but I didn’t find enough in what Tóibín brought to this legend to take me from interest to serious engagement. It certainly wasn’t a time-investment I regretted, especially given its length, but it won’t stay with me for too long.
I’m continuing the commitment to trying to be more writerly, figuring that the more I make myself write the easier it’ll be to do the writing I want to do. As part of that, I went along for the first time to the Original Writers’ Group, a (you guessed it) writers’ group that meets in Battersea every fortnight. I’d been meaning to go for ages, but when I first looked them up I was busy at exactly the wrong times. Sadly it looks like that may happen again soon, but at least I made it there once.
For two hours we sat around a table, moving through different members of the 12-ish strong group who read out bits of mostly fiction that they were working on. Not everybody was obliged to read, and I considered just coming along for the ride the first time, but then counselled myself not to be such a wuss. I read a piece of flash fiction, which had the advantage of requiring minimal prep, and the accompanying advantage of leaving me less exposed. I’d never read my fiction out loud before, except a few times to myself for proofreading purposes, and it was seriously nervewracking. Strangely enough, despite having gone over it many times before arriving, something about reading to an audience made me notice new bits I was unhappy with, and I had to fight not to stumble over my words as I made minor edits on the fly. The feedback was very helpful and supportive, and notably there was disagreement in the group about what worked or didn’t work in my work. This was in its own way quite freeing.
I also thoroughly enjoyed listening to and commenting on others’ offerings, which ranged from straight fiction to sci fi to poetry to non-fiction. Much of it was very different from the sort of stuff I would write, making me glad to have changed things up and gotten access to this new set of ideas. The feedback I had for others, most often to do with unnecessary description or lapses in coherence of characters or settings, made me wonder two things: (i) how good am I at noticing these things in my own work? and (ii) is my self-critique dominated by this kind of observation at the expense of other things I could be addressing? I don’t have answers for either, but I’ll be using those thoughts to inform my editing in the near future.
So nothing groundbreaking here, but this was a reminder that the actual outcome of sharing the stuff you’ve worked hard on is worth the terrible, unshakeable expectation that others will stamp all over it.
So I said I was going to write something else, and I did!
The post title refers to a number of things: the (sometime) style of the prose in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the manner in which I read it, my desire to write about it afterward… Let me put it more simply: I bloody loved this novel.
It could have gone so differently. Another winner of the Man Booker prize, which I’ve had mixed opinions on recently (The Sense of an Ending irritated me, and while I enjoyed Disgrace it bothered me sometimes), and a long book, which I find often makes parts feel unnecessary. But I liked what I’d heard initially, so I went ahead. A Brief History is a historical novel of sorts, in that it covers a significant historical event – the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the political struggles in Jamaica that brought it about – but it certainly covers a nebulous portion of history. Only after finishing it did I check out the official history (all I really knew before starting was that Bob Marley had once been shot), which displayed the fictional elements, from invented neighbourhoods in Kingston to the various invented characters, with both departures from history seemingly involving a sort of shaken-up mix between the actual people/places and the ideas they represent. As a result, I had no sense while reading that the fictional jarred with the factual, and I still have no sense of that now.
The story is narrated from a first-person perspective by a huge host of characters. The narrators fall, by and large, into three groups: Jamaicans trying to get away from the messed up state of their country, Jamaicans caught up in the gang scene, and Americans at the periphery. The action spans across fifteen years, with the book’s five parts each covering a significant day. We see bloody warfare in Kingston between two gangs headed by Raymond ‘Papa-Lo’ Clarke and Roland ‘Shotta Sherrif’ Palmer, backed by Jamaica’s two main political parties, the JLP and the PNP, and presided over by shady representatives of Cold War powers and foreign drug cartels. In the midst of all this Bob Marley, fresh from worldwide musical success, plans to hold a peace concert. Someone takes this interference in the ‘politricks’ (not my term – it’s from the narrators) as an affront, and gunmen storm the singer’s house, injuring but not killing him. The rest of the novel follows the implications of this event, tracking the twists and turns in these gang conflicts as they extend overseas with the American cocaine trade. Around the horrific gangster-drama, ordinary people try to survive and escape, a range of mercenary figures try to shape events to fit their agendas, and a lone journalist, Alex Pierce, tries to piece everything together. The running theme throughout, though, is people’s inability to see the whole picture. It’s so frequent that it’s almost like a running joke, those who try to exercise control having their feet swept out from under them and the only ones with some sense of place being those who give up trying to understand and just laugh ironically as catastrophes unfold.
The novel did brilliantly to demonstrate two things at once: the allure of violence and screwed up places, and the absurdity of this allure. There’s a particularly nice bit of meta-commentary where a gangster, being interviewed in prison, says
Brethren, the man [V. S. Naipaul] say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.
It seems like James likes playing with the idea behind this, trying to portray the ugly events that unfold with honesty, while acknowledging that in a way it’s impossible. Done right, the telling of it makes it beautiful, but that’s a reminder that something has been distorted. Still, making it entirely ugly wouldn’t be right because that would be a betrayal of the way we experience such things from a distance.
Another important aspect of James’s writing is what can arise despite, or perhaps because of, a backdrop of injustice and hatred. Bob Marley has a special aura in the eyes of the various characters, partly demonstrated by him always being referred to by the pseudo-honorific ‘the Singer’. There’s a kind of struggle between ugly reality and the hope figures like him can inspire. Something similar happens, though on the flipside, with another central character: Josey Wales. He is a highly intelligent, scheming gangster who we follow through a long criminal career. He’s far from one-dimensional though, his reprehensible actions filtered through a huge amount of justified resentment. When the first-person perspective is his, there are plenty of entertaining exchanges between him and people who think of him as just a murderous thug, a misconception he happily exploits. And furthermore one of the obvious undertones of this, which I’ve unjustly failed to mention so far, is racism. The legacy of slavery and its attendant racism is constantly visible in the novel, inflecting the perspectives and actions of all of the characters. The weight of Jamaica’s history runs through every event, making the Cold War in that country into something very different.
I’m out of space, and I feel like I’ve failed to scratch the surface of this novel. There are too many layers to it, it gives off too strong a sense of there being far more that goes unsaid, to allow a straightforward overview. It’s brilliant, read it.
Wow, I knew that I’d neglected my intentions regarding my reading over the summer (I’ve got lots of good excuses, but blah blah), but I didn’t notice that I’d read something, written about it and then failed to post it properly! I only discovered because I’m really keen to write about what I just finally got through – A Brief History of Seven Killings – and I saw the gap when I opened this up. Bad me.
Another one that I finished ages ago but was too preoccupied to write anything about, Assassin’s Apprentice was one of my light books of choice for the thesis/viva run-in. I was worried about it because I find that fantasy always sits right on the edge of silliness. One duel, or magic lesson, or monster, too far and it becomes laughable. When I enjoy fantasy I can really enjoy it, but I’ve been burned twice in recent years (specifically, by Magician and by The Wheel of Time) so I approached with caution. Ultimately, though, I was fairly happy.
The novel is set primarily in a realm called the Six Duchies, which like so many fantasy settings evokes an idealised medieval England. The main character is called FitzChivalry, and explaining that absurd name goes some way to giving the context of the story. “Fitz-” is used as it apparently was in medieval Europe, as a prefix meaning “son of…” The relevant father, Chivalry, is a prince: one of three brothers in line for the throne of the Six Duchies, whose strange name is thanks to a tradition in the royal family of naming its members for virtues. His brothers are named Verity and Regal, and his father the king is Shrewd. While I liked the idea of the creation of a mythos surrounding the family whereby names determine their bearers’ qualities, I couldn’t actually adjust to the names and found them awkward to read. Fitz is an illegitimate child, brought when young to a military outpost and left in the care of a member of Verity’s household, becoming a stable-boy. After a few turns of events, including him discovering that he has a kind of magical ability called the Wit which lets him bond telepathically with animals, he finds himself in the capital of the Six Duchies and slowly becoming closer to the royal family. However, he never meets his father, who gave up his right to the throne on learning of his illegitimate son’s existence and went into seclusion before dying in suspicious circumstances.
Eventually Fitz finds himself recruited into the king’s service, and somehow ends up apprenticed to the king’s assassin. Most of the novel follows his training and his initiation into the political jockeying going on in the capital. Meanwhile a murky threat surfaces: the Red-Ship Raiders. These people raid towns and villages on the realm’s coasts, and do something mysterious to their prisoners after which they are described as having lost their humanity. Those who have been ‘Forged’ (named after the first town to get this treatment) cease to care at all for others and become duplicitous and violent. Both the raiders and the Forged Ones are a growing source of fear.
Fitz makes friends and enemies as he grows up, most notably Prince Regal, who hates him from the very start because he is a threat to his claim for the throne. He is also hated by Galen, a man who is brought in to teach a group of students another variety of magic called the Skill. This also involves something like telepathy, but it transpires that whereas the Wit is despised, the Skill is respected for its association with the royal family. His teacher’s hatred leads to a struggle that compromises his training and almost leads to his death. However he survives to go on his first assassination mission to the Mountain Kingdom.
This mission is sabotaged from its beginning, and in the climax of the novel Fitz struggles to survive an attempted coup in which he is intended as a pawn sacrifice. This seems to be his coming of age: truly inaugurated now into the political system he occupies, his lucky survival makes him wake up to the realities of this world.
The main draw of the novel is its plot: it’s pretty engaging, and it takes things at a reasonable pace. Rather than going through an implausible ‘rags to riches’ narrative, we see Fitz progress by fits and starts toward his eventual position. There is also a strong sense through most of it that, in the eyes of the world, Fitz is of very little importance. He’s not selected as the protagonist, he becomes the protagonist through chance and through his actions. Given the nature of the novel its main job as far as I’m concerned is to make us invest in Fitz, and it achieves that well. The plot certainly isn’t perfect, though. It didn’t actually read like a novel for me, more as a succession of incidents. It doesn’t feel like the novel is building to a significant outcome, and I found myself confused at several points where something I’d assumed would be an overarching focus came to its conclusion with hundreds of pages left.
I also have concerns about some of the concepts: places like ‘the Mountain Kingdom’ made me worry about a certain amount of laziness in the world. Fantasy has great potential for playing with our assumptions, so things that resemble a generic version of our own world are frustrating. However other aspects, like the Skill and the Wit, and the idea of the Forged Ones, were intriguing. These made me want to continue through the series to see how well they were eventually realised. Ultimately I think that writing my impressions of this novel is premature; it really feels as though Hobb is dedicated to the Farseer trilogy, not to this first part of it. That’s a weakness because I think it’s a sign of a better conception when, as in say The Lord of the Rings, each component feels really important in its own right, but I don’t think it’s a fatal weakness. Of course this also means that I’ll be very disappointed if I make my way through the rest of the trilogy and find that it peters out. We’ll have to see how that goes.
Nothing of note to say except that, viva looming, I’ve somehow scraped together enough time to record my thoughts on Doris Lessing’s The Habit of Loving:
Someone told me a while back that I should definitely read some Doris Lessing, and I eventually got around to doing so via one of my standard methods – waiting until I saw something by the relevant author in a charity shop. Unfortunately it seems that Lessing is not the best author to discover in that way, since her writing has gone through several phases. I still plan to look at her science fiction, and perhaps at her political stuff. I doubt I’ll revisit her more personal work.
The Habit of Loving is a collection of short stories, all in one way or another focussed on relationships. I can’t summarise all of them because it would take too long, it wouldn’t serve any purpose, and anyway there’s been too much of a gap since for me to remember more than a few very clearly. I’ll just comment on a couple before I say something about the collection as a whole.
The short story that gives the collection its name is about the love affairs of an older man. He moves back and forth between a number of companions, each of the relationships he has being in some way wrong. He is in a particular relationship for a fair while and it begins promisingly, but soon sours as it becomes mundane. There is a suggestion that his need to be with someone is in some sense a habit, as if he is addicted to a certain relation between himself and another rather than having any special attitudes to individuals at all. Whether this is an inherent problem, or whether it’s just something that, being unacknowledged, takes him off course, seems to be the question (if there is one) that his story asks us.
The last and longest in the collection is called ‘The Eye of God in Paradise’. This follows the travels of a couple in the wake of the Second World War holidaying in Germany. The interesting topic is the tension felt by Europeans trying to move on from the war as they wondered how much they could let themselves move on. The protagonists, both of whom had lost people thanks to the war, find themselves suspicious of many of the Germans they encounter on their holidays. They see resentment everywhere, and echoes of the war, but they cannot challenge either because they are committed to moving on and are paralysed by the fear that they are imagining things. Even more worrying to them is the continuing wealth of some of those they encounter: while they don’t seem to be inclined toward crude jealousy, there is a lingering dissatisfaction that despite the huge changes the world has gone through, the two of them are still struggling to afford their holiday while their ‘defeated enemies’ relish their luxuries and make the travellers feel ashamed by their own frugality.
That last story was probably the one whose content I gained most from, since it addressed something inherently strange about war in modern times. The ideas of the victor and the defeated look odd now that, at least publicly, war is seen as a regrettable outcome rather than a legitimate political tool. The lingering game-like quality is hard to exorcise, though, and that dominates every encounter. Added to this is the legacy of the staggering evil of the Nazi regime, which the protagonists are struggling to process. The whole story reads like Lessing trying to make sense of the post-Nazi Germany world, and this is augmented with a familiar critique of the British stuffiness that stops these encounters from becoming openly hostile. Everything happens under the surface.
Most of what happens in between, I must confess, I didn’t find memorable. Typically we find pathological ‘traditional’ relationships usually portrayed through the dissatisfied/exploited woman, but I found the portrayals to be surprisingly unsympathetic. Nothing thematic or stylistic mitigated this, there being far more of a suggestion of an unforgiving world that would make no allowances for the unhappiness of its occupants. For instance, one story tells of a new wife seeing a horde of locusts destroying her husband’s farm. She is alarmed and seeks solace from others, while the men are stoical in dealing with it. She is out of place, and her ideals are not tolerated, and there is not much more to find beyond this harsh critique of hope. Perhaps I missed important undertones, but throughout The Habit of Loving that was my impression: beneath the stark surface I expected to find something but I rarely did.
I continue to struggle to write down my thoughts about fiction that I’ve read recently, but I soldier on. In aid of which: my thoughts on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy are below!
My impressions of this landmark piece of SF changed radically as I progressed through the original trilogy, but I think the whole thing warrants consideration as one. I read Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation, stopping short before I got to the further sequels, prequels, etc., which I’ve heard are questionable. I’m somewhat inclined to give them a read, but not just yet.
The central idea of the Foundation series is of a certain kind of projected development of psychology to become a statistical science. In the distant future a galactic empire has developed on a huge scale, and with this a genius called Hari Seldon introduces an innovation to psychology called ‘psychohistory’, where reliable predictions are made about the behaviour of large groups of humans. While individuals’ actions cannot be predicted with any reasonable accuracy, add up enough weight of people and you can guarantee that certain things will happen. The alarming discovery Seldon makes through his methods, though, is that the apparently stable empire is on the verge of a catastrophic collapse. It is too late to prevent this collapse, but Seldon figures out that the length of the ‘dark age’ that will follow the dissolution of the empire can be shortened substantially by certain interventions. The main locus of these interventions is the Foundation, a society with the apparent goal to preserve scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost in the chaos. The Foundation is, in a sense, the protagonist of the whole series, because the length of time covered means that no human character survives all three component books, and indeed many characters have their lives restricted to a single chapter.
I’ll summarise how the plot unfolds only briefly and vaguely, both to minimise spoilers and to avoid getting bogged down. Foundation covers the development and transformations of the Foundation in the aftermath of the collapse of the empire. They try to follow the ‘Seldon Plan’, a predicted trajectory of history which gives them at least a decent chance of surviving and achieving their goals. Crucial to this plan is the lack of knowledge that will affect the actions of those involved, so they know only that there is some way of ensuring their survival without being able to rely directly on the semi-prophetic abilities of psychohistory. They start out poor in resources and military strength, but they manage to survive a number of challenges envisaged by Seldon to become first of all a mercantile society that is too valuable to various fractured groups to be attacked, and then a cult of scientific prowess with the ability to control others with their technological superiority.
In Foundation & Empire, the Seldon plan suddenly becomes defunct. As mentioned earlier Seldon’s science cannot take into account individual variations, but it works on the assumption that the influence of any one person can only ever be minimal. This assumption is defeated by the birth of a character known as The Mule, a mutant who has the ability to control others’ emotional states. He uses this to create utterly loyal servants and embarks on a brutal campaign of conquest, with the Foundation one of his targets. Those who are invested in the survival of the Foundation try to find a way to beat him, and it emerges that Seldon created a ‘failsafe’ society: a second Foundation. The idea of this place was to preserve the psychohistorical knowledge that Seldon had acquired, since preserving it at the original Foundation would have led to its inhabitants gaining foreknowledge that would ruin the unfolding of the plan.
Finally, in Second Foundation, we see the Mule discovering the Second Foundation but being defeated by its inhabitants, who have developed uncanny abilities similar to those the Mule was born with. Following on from that, though, a different side to this situation emerges. Some scientists working for the now-rejuvenated original Foundation start to realise that the Second Foundation has been intervening to shape their history by directly manipulating people, and they resent what they see as sinister interference in their lives. This struggle between the First Foundationers and the Second Foundationers is in a sense the climax of the trilogy.
Now, on the one hand, the idea behind the series makes it enjoyable throughout. Asimov’s vision, while based on an implausible science, is a fascinating study in teasing out the possible consequences of new developments in human knowledge. As mentioned earlier, the time-scale also makes the Foundation itself a character, and probably the most interesting one. On the other hand, though, as the plot unfolds Asimov’s conceits get more clumsy and are more evidently designed just to keep the reader guessing. Second Foundation in particular is littered with chapters ending with the pronouncement “I know where the second Foundation is!” where the reader knows they’re just being strung along every time. There’s definitely a sense of a more extensive version of the worry I had about Ancillary Justice, of an idea that revolves around the wider world and not so much around the development of an engaging plot. Funnily enough, I’ve been told that the character of the Mule, and who he turns out to be, were a big inspiration to George Lucas, and if ever there was a narrative that sacrificed interesting and realistic character/plot for the sake of the overall picture, Star Wars is it.
While the interesting broader idea is spread throughout the whole trilogy, the focus on a civilisation rather than a group of characters is only really kept for Foundation itself. That’s the slightly disappointing thing in the second and third books; we follow a small group of characters on a personal journey as they try to affect the future of the Foundation, rather than seeing them make a contribution and then vanish into history. The possibility that Asimov might have returned to this wider focus in later instalments is what makes me think that perhaps I’ll read on. But even if I don’t, Foundation at least is an excellent book, good enough to carry a couple of somewhat weaker books in its wake.
I told myself I’d start posting again once I submitted, and then I picked up about a thousand more projects. I’ve forced myself to do something here though, just so I feel like I haven’t totally dropped the ball. I’m trying to write up my thoughts on The Habit of Loving (Lessing), the Foundation trilogy (Asimov) and Assassin’s Apprentice (Hobb), but in the meantime I’ve at least managed to solidify some thoughts on Jose Saramago’s The Stone Raft.
It seemed appropriate, given the tube strike yesterday, to record my thoughts on Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The kind of anger expressed by the general public that people should be so audacious as to push for better conditions (or resist the worsening of their conditions, as is more accurate this time) is reminiscent of Tressell’s ‘philanthropists’, who think that they, their friends, and their families ought to continue helping those who do nothing grow their fortunes. (On the subject of the strike itself, I’ve found this piece very relevant.)
I want to note something interesting that happened when I read the book: I initially noted that Tressell’s socialist house-painters are well-spoken, while the rest of them have regional accents and their speech is peppered with mistakes. This annoyed me a little, as I saw no reason to suppose that the socialists should have suddenly changed their way of speaking totally and it made me worry that there was a patronising aspect to the book’s criticism of its ignorant working class characters. This was fuelled when I looked at the front of my copy and saw that it was published in 1955, giving me the impression of an author writing from some personal and intellectual distance (I thoroughly enjoyed it despite this).
That changed when I started wondering about Robert Tressell, and about that publication date which didn’t ring true (yes, I’m sure I should’ve realised before), and looked a little closer. I found out that my copy of the book was just the first edition to contain more or less all of Tressell’s manuscript, and that it was initially published in shorter form in 1914. Furthermore that was three years after Tressell’s death of tuberculosis, a death probably accelerated by his own poverty. It turns out that he was not writing from some distance but was himself a painter and sign-writer by trade: he adopted the pen-name ‘Tressell’ in reference to the trestle table he used in his work. His early life was not especially poor, but he cut links with his family through a desire not to live off income from others’ rent and became progressively worse off as the years went by.
This changed my perspective somewhat, as his anger at the ignorance of workers started to look less like victim-blaming and more like despair at a perceived betrayal. There are a couple of biographies of him I now intend to give a try, as his life is intriguing, including a worrying period in South Africa that looks like it might sit badly with Philanthropists. But also this discovery, and the difference it made to me, has led me to wonder what makes the source important, and how: is it primarily because the novel is a thinly-veiled political polemic that the author’s perspective was important, or would that be true in less political works too?