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Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

Readers' Letters

Or, some of your questions answered

Time to answer some of the questions that have been sent in over the month or so since I revived this site.

Occasional reader Harold from Winchester read yesterday’s post about the Battle of Hastings and wrote:

Didn’t you write about that before?

Well, yes, it turns out that exactly ten years ago today I also wrote a “what might have happened if the outcome of the Battle of Hastings was different” post, including the same story of how the outcome was nearly different, and the side comments on how the battle has always been treated in English historiography. I suppose, if anything, it’s interesting to read the two side by side and see if my opinions have changed much over the past ten years, or if my writing style has evolved in the meantime too. Let me know if you think it’s better or worse than it used to be.

Regular reader Sarah from Ipswich writes:

Can I come with you on one of your trips to Wales?

Frankly, I wish I was going to Wales in the near future. All the nearby bits of Wales are closed to visitors at the moment, though. At some point I need to get myself back up to North-West Wales and visit the trains again, of course. Hopefully that will happen, even if it doesn’t now happen this year. As for the nearer bits of Wales: well, we’ll have to see how things progress I suppose.

And finally, long time reader E Shrdlu of Clacton writes:

Now you’ve brought this website back from the dead, are you still going to keep up the same running jokes and bring back all those series of posts you used to do years and years ago, like reviewing books you hadn’t finished?

Back in the mists of time I did indeed write reviews of books I hadn’t finished reading. I suppose you could call it a deconstruction of sorts, or an exercise in honesty, because they were at least all (I think) books I had tried to read, and failed to finish. Investigating why I failed to finish a particular book is interesting in itself, and admitting I didn’t finish it is more honest than just writing a review and saying “this is a bad book”. Moreover, if you read through those posts, you’ll see there were a broad range of different reasons for not finishing each book. One of them ended up being found by its author, who I had carefully not accused of plagiarism because I knew he was a former top barrister with lots more money than me.

I have to admit, I’m in the middle of drafting the next Books I Haven’t Read article. It’s probably going to be quite a long article, because it’s about quite a long book. I’ve also made sure it’s by a safely-dead author, so I can freely express my opinions about their poor understanding of archaeology or their failed attempt at polyamory. Feel free to guess who, and what, it’s going to be about; it’s a complex book, a complex topic, and it’s probably going to take me a while to finish it.

Books I Haven't Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler./p>

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of my head

Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online and going down a Wikipedia hole, or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes. Only the other week, for example, I was sitting in the city reference library comparing passages in several books of railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway Wagon handbrakes. When I sit down to read a book for pleasure, by contrast, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex, purely because the amount of evidence available on the history of the language becomes much, much more comprehensive, it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works. Like him, I’m exactly the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a misspelled sign at a level crossing. I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking. It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about: for example, when I first opened the book at a random page I saw a photo of the Boston Lodge toll house apparently taken from a passing train.

The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution

One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

Failure and Success

In which we muse what book to abandon reading next

Getting this website going again, and posting things regularly, I was thinking that maybe I should resurrect Books I Haven’t Read, an ongoing series of posts in which I reviewed books that I hadn’t managed to finish reading, and briefly discussed why. This was on the grounds that reviews of bad books are often more interesting than reviews of good books;* many book reviewers probably get away without reading the whole thing; and if I’m going to talk about something, I may as well be honest about whether I’ve read it or not. Hence, Books I Haven’t Read, which annoyed at least one author who discovered it and couldn’t resist responding.**

The problem, though, is that it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fail to finish a book. The only candidate at the moment is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which has to be described as a masterpiece, even though in many ways it is mistaken and wrong-headed.*** It’s also a very hard read, and I’ve got such a small way into such a long book that I feel I can hardly do it justice.

Everything else I’ve started reading, I’ve finished reading. Books that I’ve already told you I haven’t read, I’ve since completed. I’ve even got to the stage where I’m considering going back to some of the books I’ve written about here, getting them out of the library, and finishing them off. Which is a good thing, I suppose; but it leaves me at a loss for things to criticise. Maybe I should try to be a lazier reader.

Things might be solved by a book I came across in the local Oxfam bookshop the other day: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. I’ve always been slightly confused by the history of the Civil War – or the Great Rebellion, or the English Revolution, or the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms – see even the list of names it’s been called are confusing, or whether there’s an “it” to start with. I’ve also never really got on with Marxist historians that well, so I’m thinking that there’s a good chance it’s going to completely baffle me sideways and leave me ranting about Ranters and Levellers.**** Let’s see how far I manage to get.

* For the ultimate good review of a bad book, the exemplar has to be Slacktivist‘s ongoing page-by-page and scene-by-scene reviews of the Left Behind books and movies, which many of you have probably already heard of.

** not to mention, a second response about how I was too pathetic to deserve a response. Hurrah!

*** much like Graves’ Greek Myths, which is somewhere close to being a standard work on the subject – even though much of the author’s commentary on the myths is now extremely outdated, given that it was based on a poor understanding of outdated archaeology and anthropology.

**** Now I have heard of Levellers – but not, I suspect, the ones that were around in the seventeeth century.

Books I Haven’t Read (part eight)

In which we fail to read “House Of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski

Books I Haven’t Read has come round once again. I considered leaving it for a while, after the last Book I Haven’t Read – the Author I Hadn’t Read managed to find it, and left a comment calling me “pathetic”. Ah, well, if you’re going to ego-surf, you have to be prepared for what you might find.

No risk of that happening with this post, though, because there’s already so much on the internet about this installment’s author, he’s unlikely to get around to discovering this place. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is one that I’ve already warned you* would be coming. It’s House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

When I mentioned I’d be writing about House Of Leaves, I invited people who had read it to own up and tell me how they managed it. Nobody did. Whether that means noone has managed it, or, more likely, not very many people read this site, I’m not sure. No responses, though. I’m not the sort of person to get rid of books,** but a few years ago when I was very short of cash I did try taking some down to a local second-hand bookseller to see what I could get. House Of Leaves was turned away, unsellable. I ended up using it as a doorstop.

It has some good ideas in it, but in the end it’s just too hard a read. There are too many things packed in, too many different layers. It has to be unpacked like an onion; like an onion there seems to be nothing solid in the centre, but it has no flavour to make the unpacking worthwhile. Take the endless academic footnotes, for example. Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman famously includes a parody of academic footnotes, long ones, telling a whole story in themselves. It’s done with a light, delicate, comedic touch, though. Danielewski’s parody of academic footnotes, with notes going on for page after page after page, is dull and heavy-handed.***

If you have managed to read House Of Leaves – all of it, without skipping bits – then I’d still like it if you let me know. I’d like to know if it’s worthwhile getting to the bottom of it all, if there is anything lurking to find in the middle. I strongly suspect there isn’t, though. I strongly suspect that was supposed to be the point.

* if you’re a regular reader

** Get rid of books? Heresy!

*** although the list of buildings in footnote 146 – which is spread out over eight complex and densely-typeset pages – does include one building that I used to live next-door to. Mind you, the list is so long, every reader of the book has probably lived within 100 yards of one of the listed buildings at some point.

Miscellany

In which various things happen, and we listen to Thought For The Day

First Christmas present bought already, but I’m still going to have to devote the weekend to running around the county hoping desperately to find something inspirational. I’m not saying what I’ve already bought. It’s for my dad, and I don’t think he reads this place, but you never know.

When I get up in the morning, I have Radio 4 on in the background. I like Radio 4, but I normally try very hard to avoid listening to Thought For The Day, in case of the very real risk that it will make me want to throw the radio through the kitchen window.* Today though, I caught a quick flash of it. I can’t remember the exact phrase I heard, but it was something along the lines of “lots of Christians use phrases like ‘God willing’ and ‘if God wishes it’ all the time”. Which left me rather puzzled, because even though I’ve known a large number of devout Christians over the years, none of them have ever said any such thing in normal conversation. Maybe one of the good aspects of Thought For The Day is that it makes you realise there are people out there whose view of the world is so partial and skewed, that they really do believe they are standard conversational phrases, just because that’s what all their friends say.

I was talking to someone last night about the next Book I Haven’t Read that I’m going to write about: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s read that all the way through,” she said. “I don’t think you can.” So maybe I should invite additional contributions to the next Book I Haven’t Read post – if you have read House Of Leaves all the way through without cheating, let me know.

Big Dave says he’s found a flat now. A “one-bed studio flat”, or what people Up North** still call a bedsit. At least this means he has the weekend to do his Christmas shopping in, rather than worrying about property-hunting trips down to Barking and Beckton.

* especially if Anne Atkins is the writer/presenter.

** apart from if you’re a property developer, of course. Or you live in Leeds, probably.

Books I Haven’t Read (part seven)

In which we fail to read “Victorian Railway Days” by Francis Bennion

I haven’t read Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement. It is fetching a lot of publicity at the moment, because McEwan has been accused of copying phrases from the biography of wartime nurse and romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews. He, of course, says the claims are ridiculous, and that all he did was normal research. Other people have said the same thing, noting that he has acknowledged his large debt to Andrews.

I haven’t read Atonement; nor have I read No Time For Romance, the book he is accused of cribbing from. This post, though, is about neither of them. It’s about another book they reminded me of, a book that I read some time ago, but was unable to finish, because I felt the author had gone rather closer to his source material than he should have. It’s not a book you’re likely to have heard of, either. It’s by a top lawyer and Oxford don* called Francis Bennion, and it’s called Victorian Railway Days.

It’s an episodic novel about the social changes wrought by the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, owing quite a bit in its style to Charles Dickens’ Mugby Junction stories. I found it in my local public library when I was a teenager, and took it out. I didn’t get very far into it, though, before I found a passage that I recognised, about the importance of the railway station to rural village life. It’s quite long, and I’m not going to quote it. But I am going to quote something very very similar.

The Jones’s who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr Jones would not like the stationmaster to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice, so he sends the stationmaster a hare. The Rev Mr Silvertongue is always wanting to take a party somewhere at single fare for the double journey, or some other concession, so he honours the stationmaster by conversing with him, as an equivalent for concessions. The old lady with her dog would not, on any account, have the little dear put into that dreadful dungeon of a dog box when she travels, so she sends the stationmaster a basket of plums once in the year […] ‘My lord’ knows he has no right to bully at the railway station, so he brings a brace of pheasants, and thus adds Mr Station Master to the train of his servants.

That quote is from an obscure Victorian autobiography called Memoirs of a Station Master, by Ernest Simmons. Obscure, yes, but republished in the 1970s by Leicester University Press courtesy of the historian Jack Simmons.*** It’s the sort of thing that would be vital research material for anyone writing a book set at a Victorian railway station. Moreover, the same passage was also quoted in a well-known book about railway history, The Country Railway by David St John Thomas;**** and that book is definitely one I’d expect Bennion to have read when researching his own.

So, when I came across an extremely similar passage in his novel, I was rather disappointed in it. It was extremely similar indeed. I can’t remember, now, if it was indeed a word-for-word copy, but the basic structure was very clear, and it closed in a very similar way indeed. I wish I’d been able to find a copy of Victorian Railway Days to write this post, so I could put them side-by-side for a comparison.***** I was so disappointed to read something which seemed to my teenage eyes to be such a blatant lift, that I stopped reading immediately, and put the book aside. I’m not going to accuse Professor Bennion of the P-word. For all I know, his echoing of Simmons’ words may have been entirely unconscious. It was enough, though, to make me stop reading. Victorian Railway Days remains another book I haven’t read.

* with a long list of personal achievements – drafted the constitution of Pakistan, formerly ran the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, drafted the Sex Discrimination Act, managed to put Peter Hain on trial for his anti-apartheid protests, and get him convicted, and chaired Oxford United FC, among other things.

** because I don’t actually have a copy of it to hand

*** no relation, as far as I know.

**** originally published in 1976 by St John Thomas’s own publishing company, David & Charles, although the copy I have is a Penguin paperback edition from 1979.

***** I suppose I could always buy one from Bennion’s website and revisit this post another day.

Update, August 27th 2020: Francis Bennion died in January 2015. When I originally wrote this post, I was aware that Francis Bennion was still alive, and moreover was a significant Establishment figure with much greater resources and legal knowledge than I had. I was very careful, therefore, not to accuse him directly of cribbing, plagiarism, or anything along those lines, in case he found my post and dropped some sort of lawsuit upon me. And, indeed, he (or someone claiming to be him) did find this post. He left a comment on it:

If you had looked at the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS at the beginning of my book “Victorian Railway Days” you would have seen that I give “grateful thanks” to Ernest J. Simmons (among others) for “the sparking of ideas for this novel, or useful background material”.

Which is fair enough - except that as I said above, he had lifted an entire paragraph from Simmons, a very distinctive paragraph which has been quoted widely elsewhere. I replied it was unfortunate I didn’t have copies of both books to hand to see exactly how large the similarities were, and pointed out that as I’d already noted above, Ian McEwan had also acknowledged his sources of information. Not to be denied the last word, the grumpy old lawyer replied with a further answer:

Pathetic – not worth a further answer.

I was tempted to say “but you just did…”, but resisted it. If you are into Victorian history, and can find a copy, Memoirs of a Station Master is very much worth your time. Victorian Railway Days is very much not.

Books I Haven’t Read (part six)

In which we fail to read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

As I said last time this series popped up, it was originally supposed to be a bit more regular than this. This entry, too, feels slightly like I’m repeating what I’ve said before. Not only is it a science fiction book like the last one, it’s by an author who has cropped up previously. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I’m not sure what it is about Stephenson books that makes them hard to get through on the first attempt. I certainly didn’t have any problem with the first one I read, Cryptonomicon, but for some reason the others have gone past much more slowly.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book; it’s just that it demands to be read slowly. The terminology, the language, the realised world, all demand effort on the reader’s part. I’m a lazy reader, especially if I’m reading last thing at night; the book was too difficult to make me care about it.

Now, I’m reading it again, as a lunchbreak book instead of an evening book. And, I’m appreciating the start of it much more on second reading. There are awkward passages; but not enough to distract a SF almost-novice. It’s a fast-moving book; which conflicts with its density. It’s still not an easy read, but this time I think I’m going to finish it.