Monday, 31 October 2011

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells

After reading about fictional members of the Fabian Society I turned my thoughts to the fiction of a real life member; HG Wells was a radical thinker of his time, a socialist, Fabian, and eugenicist. He wrote many works of fiction and non-fiction, but is now mainly remembered for his science fiction works. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of HG Wells’s most successful novels. It has been adapted many times into film versions with varying success. Like many early works of science fiction, and urban gothic novels such as Frankenstein, the ideas loom larger in public consciousness than the original text.

Shipwrecked on a remote island Edward Prendick finds himself in the company of Dr Moreau and his assistant Montgomery. At first he is happy to be offered their hospitality, but quickly develops a growing sense of unease over the mysterious happenings on the island, and the grotesque native inhabitants. He is provided with a room, which contains a mysterious locked door, from behind which emanates screams that torment Prendick. At first he believes it is a puma he can hear, but when the cries take on a more human aspect Prendick opens the door and discovers the truth: Dr Moreau is a vivisectionist. The island is inhabited by his experiments, animals that have been made into quasi-humans. With all memory of their animal past suppressed but not extinguished, Dr Moreau keeps his experiments in line with the Law, which dictates they cannot eat flesh, lap up water, or walk on all fours. Moreau is a godlike figure to them, who sees and hears all. However his experiments are all failures; in time the beast reasserts itself. Now a rebellious few have rediscovered the taste for meat. Moreau no longer has control over the inhabitants of his island..

The Island of Dr Moreau is narrated in first person by Prendick, in the form of a journal written at some later stage of his life. This was published by his nephew who found the documents after his death. It includes an introduction written by the nephew, informing us that the ship Prendick names was indeed wrecked, and that Prendick was found adrift at sea some eleven months after his disappearance. His initial ravings are dismissed as that of a man driven crazy, and subsequently he keeps quiet; the journal entry is the only explanation of this time Prendick has ventured. The nephew also confirms the existence of an island, later explored as uninhabited but populated by some unusual animals. This narrative style is common in books of the time; Frankenstein is narrated to a stranger who records the tale for his sister, Dracula is written in the form of diary entries and letters. By doing so the author conveys a sense of veracity: I do not make this up, I am merely the vehicle by which this strange and true tale is brought to you. In Doctor Moreau this style has another effect, as we know that Prendick escapes alive. We are never in suspense as to whether his life is seriously in jeopardy, therefore we are free to focus on the events themselves, and the ideas that are contained within them..

Doctor Moreau was published some forty years after The Origin of Species, and a little over twenty years after The Descent of Man. The idea of human evolution was still a recent and controversial idea. Indeed, some people still struggle with the concept. At a time when people still debated if different races were the same species, Wells published a novel exploring the bestial nature of humans. For that is what this book is truly about, not the failure of the animals to become human. Moreau himself is a nightmare, on the surface a civilised, rational, intelligent man, but he inflicts pain and terror on his creations, all in the pursuit of science. He states
‘I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter’.
However it is Moreau, in his contempt for his fellow human beings, who reveals the truth, ‘the mark of the beast’ that lives in all of us beneath the veneer of civilisation..

The novel reaches its climax in fighting between the animals and their creators, but as I have already said, we always know Prendick survives. The high point is the final chapter, where Wells finally explicitly reveals his theme: Prendick’s horror at finding himself in the company of humans again. In a few spine chilling paragraphs Wells deconstructs the societies we have created, asking the reader to question his own humanity, something that resonates now, but must have been truly shocking for its time. Like many of Wells’s books The Island of Doctor of Moreau is short, but the ideas are huge, and the prose clear and evocative. A deserved classic that should be remembered, and not as a silly Val Kilmer film.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt

The Children’s Book starts in what for readers of Possession will be familiar territory: Victorian England, artists and writers, families and love affairs. However it rapidly expands to encompass a large cast of characters and takes place over twenty years, chronicling a period of massive social change in Britain, ending in World War One. It lacks some of the features that made Possession such an enthralling read; where Possession was a focussed, intense novel with a tight narrative, The Children’s Book is sprawling, complicated and unsentimental. While it took me longer to get into the book, this ends up being its strength, as A.S. Byatt successfully brings both the period and the characters to life.

Olive Wellwood is a successful children’s author, born into a mining family she has married well, and lives with her husband Humphrey, sister Violet and her large brood of children at Todefright House in the Kent countryside. They are members of the Fabian society, a socialist movement that was popular amongst many literary figures of the day. They live a somewhat bohemian lifestyle at odds with that of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil and his German wife. At the novel’s start, Olive is visiting her friend, and admirer, Prosper Cain at his workplace The South Kensington Museum, which we now know as The Victoria & Albert. There they stumble upon a teenage Phillip Warren, a runaway from the industrial ceramics industry who nonetheless dreams of making his own pots. They help him to be apprenticed to Benedict Fludd, a ceramicist, with some dark secrets. All these characters attend the Wellwoods’ midsummer party where they are entertained by Anselm Stern, a German puppeteer. Still with me? That is only the adults; as the book continues we focus more on the younger generation. It is complicated but if you can get to grips with all the characters the pay-off is terrific.

Myth and fairytale are important themes running through this novel. As with the poets in Possession we get to read some of Olive’s stories, and many of Stern’s plays are familiar German fairytales. These are not sanitised Disney stories, but dark tales of sad children, sad parents, separation from family, and cruelty. The marionette performance at midsummer is Aschenputtel (Cinderella), wonderfully described by Byatt; we can imagine the performance, both the beauty of it, and the uncanniness, culminating in the rather gruesome image of the sister’s feet being hacked by a cleaver to fit inside the shoe. Byatt knows how to use metaphor well. Amongst the many metaphors running through the novel, the cuckoo is discussed by the Todefright children, leading us to question - who will be the cuckoo in this nest? The answer to this is more complicated than first expected, and will tie together the many characters in some interesting ways.

By having such a large and disparate group of characters Byatt is able to include differing views on many important events and movements of the time. The Boer war, the Fabians, Marxists and Anarchists all feature. Of particular importance is the growing Women’s liberation movement. One Wellwood daughter becomes a suffragette, and the right of women to sexual freedom is a recurring theme that involves many characters with varying consequences. The eldest Wellwood daughter, Dorothy, and her cousin Griselda both choose to educate themselves. Griselda is at Cambridge University, where she can attend classes and sit exams, but never graduate, and must live her life cloistered in college despite reaching adulthood. Dorothy becomes a doctor, even though she will only ever be allowed to work at a women’s hospital with female colleagues and patients. Their struggles with the disapproval from family and society, and the sacrifice of never having their own family or husband is very moving, and a stark reminder of the days when very few women where able to have any life outside the domestic sphere, and even then at great cost to themselves.

The book begins in 1895 and as time passes Byatt often steps aside from the plot to bring us up to date with historical context. These are useful passages, as the events of history filter down to the characters’ lives. However there were moments were she brings in historical figures to the periphery of the book, even quoting letters or poems, such as those of Cambridge contemporaries Virginia Wood and Rupert Brooke. At times I found these jarring. Of course it is realistic that they would meet these people if they were moving in the same spheres. But to an extent it reminded me that everyone else was fictional. I found the use of quotations particularly difficult. While I could accept on all-knowing narrator of fictional lives, giving access to a real person was a step too far for me.

The great strength of this book is the way it gave a real depiction of people’s lives. They are often complicated and messy; people make mistakes, people die, children are born. Byatt is unsentimental towards her characters. This is perhaps most strongly shown in the final act of the book, set during World War One. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say many characters die. Unflinching and thankfully brief, it is one of the most affecting depictions of war I have read. Byatt avoids any mawkish sentiment; war is impersonal and so is her depiction of it. And just as in real life, there is no neat ending here. Many survive World War One, but as we the reader know, looming on the horizon is World War Two. If you like books with neat, happy endings this may not be the one for you. I however found it to be moving without relying on sentiment, a satisfying and compelling read.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck grew up in rural California and spent much of his early life working as a farm labourer. Many of his novels tell stories of the migrant labourers he worked alongside, especially those fleeing the dustbowl states of Oklahoma and Texas. Of Mice and Men is one of these stories.

This novella begins with two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who have travelled and worked together for many years, arriving at a new farm in Salinas, California. George has a dream that they will one day work up enough money to buy a small piece of land and farm for themselves. Lennie is a useful farm worker, due to his size and massive strength, but he is also a simpleton, reliant on George to find him work and keep him out of danger. There is also a small supporting cast of fellow labourers and a sole female character, a labourer's wife who is nameless. All these characters, trapped in tedious poverty, wish they were living the American dream, but there is no real sense of hope for their future. Inevitably Lennie's strength and lack of intelligence leads to trouble, and George must choose between Lennie and his dreams.

This novella is deliberately structured like a play. Steinbeck wrote it so that people could read it like a book, but it could be easily developed into a play by lifting the dialogue. The action takes place in a number of long scenes set in single locations: first a river bank, then the bunk house the labourers share, and so forth. Much of the exposition is done through dialogue; in particular Lennie wants George to tell the story of the plot of land they will farm together over and over again. Characters talk almost across each other, in long pieces of dialogue, as though they are on stage. Each chapter (act?) begins with a description of the setting; these could easily be the directions in italics in a script. Beautiful as the writing is, I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a script. I didn't know until I read the introduction this was deliberate, but it was obvious, and slightly strange to read.

The final set piece is, frankly, a little unbelievable. Throughout the story Steinbeck has emphasised how strong Lennie is, and that he is unable to comprehend how strong he is due to his reduced mental capacity. Lennie has been accidently killing small animals, mainly mice but also a puppy, throughout the novella. When Lennie hurts a human, badly, it is hardly a surprise. Steinbeck is clearly exploring the issue of culpability rather than trying to keep us in suspense. While I can appreciate this, and feel a little for George in his dilemma, it just doesnt work for me. No matter how clearly Steinbeck tries to set up that Lennie is strong and stupid, I just cant quite believe he could be that strong and cause that much damage by accident. The way Steinbeck works so hard to set it up makes me think he always knew it was a hard sell.

Still, it is hard to argue with this book’s successful history. The prose is crisp and vividly conjures up a vision of early twentieth century America. The structure of this ‘playable novel’ has also been a success, with multiple films, Broadway plays, and even an opera. It has also been the subject of controversy, at times banned in various schools and libraries in America and throughout the world for vulgar (or some would say, accurate) dialogue. It is clear that Steinbeck has achieved what he set out to do, bringing the world of the labourers to life. However the novella is so constrained by its structure and themes that while it is a book I’m glad to have read, it ultimately left me a little cold.