‘Owning’ the Past: Possession (1990), by A. S. Byatt

Possession ByattIf you wish to trace, dear reader,
The history recounted in prose,
By esteemed A. S. Byatt
From the start to the close,
Heed my warnings, which here I give:
Beware of SPOILERS, beware of those
That would seek to ruin a book
To lessen their own woes.

Beware of – currents – swirling swift –
And postmodernist – angst – that creates a rift
Beware of – bees – that sting –
But most of all, beware of bad poetry, of which I write far too much.

Having spent the better half of the last six years in and around universities, I can tell you that they are fascinating, absorbing places, filled with wild ideas and interesting people. But this doesn’t mean that the lives of literary scholars make for a good novel. I’ve spent a great deal of time in literature departments, libraries, and archives, but even I wouldn’t want to read a five-hundred-page novel about them. But then came A. S. Byatt’s Possession, bringing with it a great deal of acclaim and the promise of a really juicy (fake) literary mystery.

Hold on to your hats, people, because somehow the stakes in this novel seem incredibly high, despite the fact that they revolve around the lives of two fake Victorian poets. Continue reading

A Very Short Review of a Very Long Novel: War and Peace (1869), by Leo Tolstoy

War and PeaceThis book is #16 on my Classics Club list.

War and Peace is well-known for being an absolute behemoth of a book. Full of deep characterisation and intricate plotting, it would probably take several reviews to begin to cover all the material in this 1,300-page novel.

So instead of trying to pick apart the immense complexity of this book, I’m going to go in the other direction, and simplify it as much as possible. Because I don’t want to bore you, or end up re-reading the entire book again (seriously, if I have to re-read this thing straight away I will cry). Also there’s a new season of Call the Midwife on at the moment – I mean… I have much work to do for… uni. Yeah. Um. Uni work. That’s right. So in the interests of brevity, I present you with:

Ten Things I Learnt From Reading War and Peace

1. Historians suck. They majorly suck. Why? Because they’re not nearly as clever as Tolstoy, that’s why. So instead they write about ‘destiny’ and ‘great men’ and ‘the will of the people’, and bore readers with extremely long expeditionary essays that seem to – OH WAIT. That’s exactly what Tolstoy does. Only in reverse. Gasp! Continue reading

Why Jane Austen? (2011), by Rachel M. Brownstein

Why Jane AustenThis book is #3 on my Austen in August reading list.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who has frequently found themselves, after revealing their appreciation of Austen’s novels, being asked that impertinent question, the one that drives just about every fan of the famous writer up the wall: ‘Why Jane Austen?’.

It drives us crazy because it is so often difficult to put into words why we read – and love – Austen’s novels. And it’s difficult, too, because the question implies that there is little reason for people in the modern world to be reading two hundred year old ‘love stories’. The question can be delivered in a tone of genuine curiosity or, alternatively, of resounding condemnation (‘Why Jane Austen? Wasn’t she that spinster woman who wrote books about women falling in love because she was trying to fill some sort of void?’ Incidentally, these are the ones I’d dearly love to reply to by returning the favour, and stuffing the particularly gaping void that is their mouth with passing vol-au-vents. But since I don’t want to be thrown out of the first annual meeting for the local Wine and Cheese club for assaulting one of my fellow gastronomes, I desist). Continue reading

Searching for Jane Austen (2004), by Emily Auerbach

searchingforjaneaustenWell, here it is at long last – the final book I read for this year’s Austen in August readathon. Let’s forget for a moment that it’s already December, shall we?

In the first chapter of Searching for Jane Austen, entitled ‘Dear Aunt Jane: Putting Her Down and Touching Her Up’, Emily Auerbach wonders:

Why … do readers of The Ancient Mariner, A Christmas Carol, and Moby-Dick give little thought to the marital status of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, and Herman Melville (or should we call them Samuel, Charles, and Herman)? When we think of Milton’s Paradise Lost, do we wonder about John’s marriages (he had three)? Was there a Mrs Chaucer?
Rudyard Kipling (did he marry? do we care?) felt moved to write a verse tribute in 1926 called not “Austen’s Writing” but “Jane’s Marriage,” beginning with the writer ascending into heaven … Finally “Jane” finds every woman’s true reward: not immortality or pride in her own craft, but Mr. Right.

Continue reading

Jane’s Fame (2009), by Claire Harman

janesfame

This book was on my Austen in August reading list.

Jane’s Fame, despite its deliberately frivolous title, is an interesting book for Austen lovers and haters alike. Claire Harman charts the emergence of the ‘Austen myth’, dealing with the way that she has been co-opted, desired, and possessed by readers and critics alike. Throughout, Harman looks at the way Austen has been marketed, written about, and criticised.

The first chapter of the book deals with the details of Austen’s life; Harman stresses Austen’s dedication to her chosen craft, suggesting that the ‘unproductive Bath years’, where it is commonly assumed that Austen wrote no new material, were in fact devoted to a painstaking and continuous process of editing. It’s a pretty logical assumption to make, because one of the defining characteristics of Austen’s prose, particularly of the first three novels, is how highly ‘polished’ they are; this was clearly the result of several years’ work. Moreover, Harman stresses Austen’s love of reading and her continued engagement with the best writers of the age, male and female: Continue reading