Monday, September 30, 2013

Book 134, Isle of Man: "The Manxman" by Hall Caine

UEA’s library isn’t quite as voluminous as some I’ve seen, but it does contain some nice surprises. I was originally planning to read some book of folklore for the Isle of Man (which is actually classified as a separate entity from the UK). While searching the catalogue, I also happened to come across a biography of an eminent Victorian named Hall Caine – a bestselling author and playwright, a companion of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and a proud Manxman.

Once a recognizable face on both sides of the Atlantic, Caine is largely forgotten today. This online biography suggests that his greatest work was The Scapegoat, but the library offered me a copy of The Manxman instead: 29th edition, printed in the 1920s. Sadly, I dropped it - the librarians will have some gumming together of spines to do after this – and resorted to reading an online edition for the remainder of the week.

But heavens, this is good stuff. It’s fundamentally the tale of a love triangle: simple Pete, his smart half-cousin Philip, and the fair Kate. But the story follows them from birth to childhood to adolescence to tumultuous adulthood, their drama playing out against the charming backdrop of Sulby, a coastal village alive with superstition and fishermen’s rebellions and Christian extremism and ridiculous codes of honour – Philip and Pete, for instance, are both the grandsons of the old Deemster, a high-born judge in his castle, but the father of the first was disowned when he married a common-born girl and the second was the fruit of an affair with his mother paid off in cash for her shame. There’s this stupid, stupid taboo against marrying below or above your station – it’s something a gentleman simply cannot do if he wants to continue receiving the respect of the tiny island community.

But I suppose it’s character that really drives the tale. Philip's a social climber, guilt-tripped by the memory of his late father whose ambitions were ruined by his love for his lower-class, equipped with the intelligence and the personality for a rising career in law and politics, ultimately becoming a Deemster, or a judge for the island. He falls in love with Kate, who used to be Pete's sweetheart, before Pete set off for the diamond mines of Kimberley for five years, so he could earn a fortune worthy of her hand. The guilt of this tortures him utterly - and it tortures Kate too. Meanwhile, Pete's just the most big-hearted, loving man possible, unaware that his every forgiveness of Kate and his kindness to Philip just tortures them further.

Basically, this is a story of adultery in which everyone involved is actually a good person - sure, they do terrible things sometimes, but they feel horribly guilty about it (mind you, they're the sort of folks who feel guilty even when they do good). And it works. We're thrust into the minds of all three protagonists, and we struggle with them, feeling for them. (Me particularly: I'm in a weird halfway state in my relationship to a very good person, and I'm not sure where how it's all going to end up.)

But there's also a huge level of absurdity to the characters' quandaries - their values, their conceptions of sin that outweigh any considerations of social achievement, are very un-Asian (or perhaps un-21st century, or simply unworldly). It's a little mad, how a successful young man with a rising career, a credit to his race, et cetera, should be in agony over the thought of marrying a "fallen woman" - or indeed, that any woman should consider herself fallen at all.

Messy thoughts today. Also on my mind is the fleetingness of Caine's fame - he peddled his exotic status as the "Bard of Manxland" in a manner that presages the workings of "world literature" as a contemporary genre, but because he was only a geographical minority, not a racial of gender one, he's fallen quite out of the Canon. Plus, his irrelevance to my current course: it'd be unwise for me to emulate his maudlin histrionics, no matter how effective they may still be.

Plenty more reading for me to do for school. If, however, you'd like to spend just a couple of hours with the story, you could check out the film version, directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock!

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Representative quote:
That night Philip dreamt a dream. He was sitting on a dais with a wooden canopy above him, the English coat of arms behind, and a great book in front; his hands shook as he turned the leaves; he felt his leg hang heavily; people bowed low to him, and dropped their voices in his presence; he was the Deemster, and he was old. A young woman stood in the dock, dripping water from her hair, and she had covered her face with her hands. In the witness-box a young man was standing, and his head was down. The man had delivered the woman to dishonour; she had attempted her life in her shame and her despair. And looking on the man, the Deemster thought he spoke in a stern voice, saying, "Witness, I am compelled to punish her, but oh to heaven that I could punish you in her place! What have you to say for yourself?" "I have nothing to say for myself," the young man answered, and he lifted his head and the old Deemster saw his face. Then Philip awoke with a smothered scream, for the young man's face had been his own.

Next book: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, from Guernsey.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book 133, Ireland: "Ulysses" by James Joyce

Yes!!!! I’ve finally finished this classic of world literature, one day before my classes start! Read it half through a paperback copy (which got wet in my bag, which made its cover to tear off when I later dropped it), and half via Kindle (which cost US$0.99 and a great deal of headscratching over whether certain Unicode symbols were scanning errors or modernist experiments).

I’ve been called to read this so many times – once as a child, when I happened across an encyclopaedia of the English language in a bookstore which exhibited the weird drafting process of Mr Joyce; once in university, when I learned that this had been part of the original CoreCurriculum syllabus but had been replaced for political reasons with Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; once when Kenny at BooksActually was announcing a Bloomsday event.

And now I’ve finally finished it. Whoop huzzah!

As for understanding it, that’s a entirely different matter.

The first chapter is surprisingly digestible: it’s the young intellectual Stephen Daedalus having a chat with his friend in the morning, them throwing around literary references like nobody’s business – but I get that; that’s how I talk to my sister sometimes. Sure, it’s weird, but that’s more or less the point – you don’t come to Joyce expecting stories written in plain English. (This was perhaps why I couldn’t see the point of Dubliners.)

Once we enter the world of the middle-aged quasi-Jewish retiree Leopold Bloom, however, I get pretty lost – how is this character related to Stephen? Who are all these other characters, anyway? My friend Rachel Westbrook actually recommended that I read the SparkNotes on the book simultaneously, and I did refer to them a little on my smartphone. (I’d heard that each section corresponded to a different period of English literature, and I was picking up on a few references to the Odyssey, but the Hamlet parallels had eluded me.) This casual 3G business became more difficult once I travelled overseas, of course.
Now that I’ve finished, though, a few things stick in my mind:

1) This book is very dirty.

No wonder it got accused of obscenity! Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies/recollections are quite shockingly explicit, and Leopold’s recollections/fantasies are as scatologically perverse as Joyce's own fart-obsessed correspondence. Although the charge does turn out to be over Bloom's masturbation scene over 20 year-old Gerty's legs in the park, which I totally did not get.

2) The book is surprisingly global.

I'd known, of course, that this was an encapsulation of the whole of the western tradition, but I'd forgotten how much of the east and the south had leaked into the west by the Edwardian era, partly because of the hugeness of the British Empire, which Ireland was the very first building block of (unless you count Scotland and Wales, I suppose). Sailors showing off Chinese tattoos, faces that look like Indian gods, Japanese attending imaginary socialist conferences, veterans of the Boer Wars, the word "nigger" thrown around to talk about straw hats or lips or hair or cannibalism, a reference to Zarathustra and Buddha.

And even the Italian waiters hanging around, and Bloom's Hungarian heritage. Dublin might've seemed like a cold nowhere town, but there was stuff happening there, the world streaming in. Search for keywords on the html version, if you don't believe me.

3) The book is of its time.

Of course every book is, but we think of epics as timeless, so it's strange to be reminded of how this is all taking place on the specific date of 16 June 1904, in the wake of Parnell's failed struggle for Irish independence, when Yeats was the only literary Irish giant; ten years before Joyce would start working on this and twenty before it was published in America, a time span in which Joyce aged from Stephen Daedalus's twentysomethingness to Bloom's fat forties.

And all the references to Jews, and the casual antisemitism - sobering to think that this was written before the Holocaust, indeed during the Great War which would lay the foundations for the Third Reich.

And now Ireland's had its prosperity, risen and fell as a Celtic Tiger, had the resources to celebrate its great literary heritage. (I suppose I ought to honour the memory of Seamus Heaney here, even though I always thought of him as Northern Irish.)  It's a different land, and yet this relic of a novel from an age of pessimism is such a prize in the nation's treasure trove, because it's so rich, because it's so daring, because it's so strange.

Oh it's tempting now to conjecture how one could write a Singaporean Ulysses, drawing the craziness of Asia and the West together on a trek down Armenian Street. But how true would it be? Would it be an attempt not to create something great, but to create something for the sake of greatness?

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Representative quote:

THE BISHOP OF DOWN AND CONNOR: I here present your undoubted emperor-president and king-chairman, the most serene and potent and very puissant ruler of this realm. God save Leopold the First!
ALL: God save Leopold the First!
BLOOM: (In dalmatic and purple mantle, to the bishop of Down and Connor, with dignity) Thanks, somewhat eminent sir.
WILLIAM, ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH: (In purple stock and shovel hat) Will you to your power cause law and mercy to be executed in all your judgments in Ireland and territories thereunto belonging?
BLOOM: (Placing his right hand on his testicles, swears) So may the Creator deal with me. All this I promise to do.
MICHAEL, ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH: (Pours a cruse of hairoil over Bloom's head) Gaudium magnum annuntio vobis. Habemus carneficem. Leopold, Patrick, Andrew, David, George, be thou anointed!
(Bloom assumes a mantle of cloth of gold and puts on a ruby ring. He ascends and stands on the stone of destiny. The representative peers put on at the same time their twentyeight crowns. Joybells ring in Christ church, Saint Patrick's, George's and gay Malahide. Mirus bazaar fireworks go up from all sides with symbolical phallopyrotechnic designs. The peers do homage, one by one, approaching and genuflecting.)
THE PEERS: I do become your liege man of life and limb to earthly worship.
(Bloom holds up his right hand on which sparkles the Koh-i-Noor diamond. His palfrey neighs. Immediate silence. Wireless intercontinental and interplanetary transmitters are set for reception of message.)
BLOOM: My subjects! We hereby nominate our faithful charger Copula Felix hereditary Grand Vizier and announce that we have this day repudiated our former spouse and have bestowed our royal hand upon the princess Selene, the splendour of night.
(The former morganatic spouse of Bloom is hastily removed in the Black Maria. The princess Selene, in moonblue robes, a silver crescent on her head, descends from a Sedan chair, borne by two giants. An outburst of cheering.)
JOHN HOWARD PARNELL: (Raises the royal standard) Illustrious Bloom! Successor to my famous brother!
BLOOM: (Embraces John Howard Parnell) We thank you from our heart, John, for this right royal welcome to green Erin, the promised land of our common ancestors.

Next book: Hall Caine's The Manxman, from the Isle of Man.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I'm in the UK!

And I'm now reading Ulysses on the Kindle!

Admittedly, it's odd to be now surveying world literature from a centre of hegemonic production. I actually take pride in being on the margins, commenting on the rest of the world. Zero authority, zero responsibility, zero blame.

Some friends have compared my project to A Year of Reading the World, which the UK writer Ann Morgan did over 2012, in conjunction with the London Olympics. I always liked to point out the differences: she focussed only on fiction from the UN's independent nations, written/translated into English - even had some writers writing stuff specially for her. I thought my multipolar, multigenre, sorta multilingual project was *better* in some way.

But no matter now. I have left the periphery and am now the centre!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Deal with My Year Abroad

Well, I'm just under halfway through Ulysses. Which means there's no way I'll finish it before leaving Singapore this coming Thursday, 12 September.

As I've mentioned before, I'm spending a year at the University of East Anglia to pursue an M.A. in Creative Writing (Prose). My course starts in Norwich on the 23rd; in between I'll be doing a bunch of settling in, some finishing up of articles, some preparatory writing, some reading.

But after that? Well, that's the big question. I'm going to UEA with the specific ambition of training myself to become a more rigorous, disciplined writer, which means fewer distractions. Which means that I'm not sure how much time I should allow myself to nance about with random artefacts of world literature. Which means that this blog might become even less regularly updated than it already is.

It's odd, the thought of abandoning this project, even temporarily. It's become one of the few constants in my life over the past few years. And it might not happen.

Just giving everyone a heads up, just in case.