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How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.
I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?
Ladies and gents, after a hundred and eight reviews I think I may have stumbled upon my favourite book for this year. Ambitious, yet without pretension, with a vast storyline stretching across centuries, though revolving around a single theme, Cloud Atlas is something special.
Usually at this point I discuss the plot of the books I review. The problem here is that this book concerns several plots. In fact it concerns several texts, scattered throughout history and each story is discovered by the protagonist of the following tale. It begins with the diary of an American notary sailing across the Pacific during the colonisation of the Antipodes, then skips forward in time to an English composer fleeing to a villa near Bruges, appointing himself as a musical amanuensis to avoid his debts shortly before the Second World War. A tale of industrial espionage in the disenchanted seventies is followed by a Keseyian yarn involving skulduggery in the publishing industry. Finally a future utopia founded upon a horrific secret gives way to an even more distant future where language itself has become dissipated by time.
Essentially this is everything Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain wanted to be, but just could not quite capture. In fact I heard a rumour the Wachowski brothers plan to film this next. I can see how it might work and if they pull it off, we could be looking at a cinematic treat to rival this marvellous book.
Above all this is a story that hints at greater narratives and meanings, but does not trouble itself with having to explain all of them. The central protagonists in each section may be reincarnations of one another, as suggested by the repeated motif of a tell-tale birth-mark (as well as the repetition of the phrase ‘cloud atlas’). However, they may also be fictional characters in books, films and anti-government propaganda, which capture the interest of their future selves, only for us to discover that they too are not ‘real’.
The tone of these stories within stories switches from the macabre, to rich comedy. The heroine of the section within the seventies, Luisa Rey, is a journalist who would not be out of place in a novel by Stieg Larsson. The following chapter titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, feels like a rewrite of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Will Self. An Orison of Sonmi-451, concerning a clone-slave, referred to by the dominant human caste as a fabricant, and her journey of self-discovery, name-checks Huxley and Orwell, just so we know for sure that we are in the realm of allegorical dystopia. Even the Yankee notary remarks in his diary how his voyage compares to Melville’s writing.
While this is a book rich in intertextual references, it is in no way obscure, or pretentious. The far-future sections described in broken English are tough, but if you can weather Beat-poetry you should be fine. As this is a book principally concerned with storytelling, Mitchell is considerate to his audience and has fashioned above all an enriching and entertaining collection of tales, telescoping through history and then returning to its starting point. Each of the sections during the first half of the novel end abruptly and we share the succeeding character’s frustrating in not knowing what happens next. The composer Robert Frobisher’s reaction to only having half of the notary Adam Ewing’s diary is especially amusing.
On the rebound, returning back from the future, each of the stories is brought to a fitting conclusion. This assurance that everything will be explained makes the book more similar to serialised fiction and its reliance on cliff-hangers. Thankfully, David Mitchell does not punish us with any loose story threads signifying a sequel.
I have gushed enough. Rarely have I had this much fun with a contemporary author’s writing. I can think of no higher praise really.
An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.
One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.
A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?
Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.
This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’
Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.
As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.
Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.
Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. Abrams’ Lost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.
Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.
It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.
Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.
‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.
Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.
The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow’ (a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.
Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’
Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.
It is so important (perhaps the most important of all the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib) not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes Englishmen do often love Indians – native officers, forest rangers, hunters, clerks, servants. Sepoys will weep like children when their colonel retires. Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.
The introduction to this novel describes the desperate attempts by publishers to shield themselves from legal action if too close attention was paid to Orwell’s story. Unlike Animal Farm, or 1984, there was no way to pass the book off as a parable with a political subtext. Always a pragmatic man, Orwell cheerfully signed off on amendments to the text, although this led to lithographic errors that enraged him. The story features a newspaper named the Burmese Patriot. For the American edition, the author proposed it be renamed the Burmese Sinn Feiner. This speaks to the bloody-minded humour of Orwell, eagerly employing truth as a bludgeon.
The story begins with the corrupt bureaucrat U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional Magistrate of the Burmese town of Kyauktada. He has climbed up the rungs of power through deceit and a willingness to destroy the reputations of his rivals. His conniving nature is such that he is known to take bribes from both parties in a legal dispute and then resolve the matter on the facts presented. This incongruously has led to him becoming known for a curious kind of impartiality. U Po Kyin has decided the only obstacle to further advancement is his superior, the British Empire loving Dr Veraswami. The doctor is well-known and has almost become an equal to the Europeans who run the businesses in the town. Immediately the rival for the doctor’s social status begins spreading rumours and lies designed to bring the good man low.
Meanwhile the European Club of Anglo-Indian ex-patriates is thrown into dismay when their chair Mr McGregor announces that they are to vote on the matter of inviting a ‘native’, to join their select group. The most vocal opponent to the proposal is Mr. Ellis, a hateful bigot who is thrown into apoplexy at the mere thought of racial equality. Flory, a more impartial member, keeps his council, but is known by the others to be a friend to Dr. Veraswami and is accused by Ellis of being a traitor to the British Empire. Flory is also warned by his ‘native friend’, that U Po Kyin will conspire against him if he becomes too great a threat. Prepared to leave well enough alone, the self-pitying timber merchant takes no direct action, until the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, a niece of one of the club members. Delighted by her apparent education and experience of the Parisian bohemian scene, Flory tries to introduce her to the sights and sounds of Kyauktada, hoping to enchant her enough that she will agree to be his wife. Much as he wishes to be free of the society of ‘pukka sahibs’, though, the broad-minded Englishman is unprepared for the danger waiting for him. Hoping to live equally in two worlds, he finds himself abandoned by both.
Anthony Burgess once proposed that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother and Ingsoc was originally meant to occur closer to the date of publication in 1949. By setting the action in the far off future of nineteen eighty four, the threat posed was lessened. In Burmese Days the threat is very much close to the heart of the British Empire.
This is a condemnation of their behavior towards the indigenous peoples of occupied lands. Flory and the doomed Dr Veraswami engage in a recurring debate as to the nature of the British regime. Flory describes it as theft conducted on a massive scale. The blinkered Veraswami assures his British friend that everything good in Burma has come from their conquerors. Both men criticize their homelands in favour of the other. Both are outsiders, belonging nowhere.
There is a blackly comic tone to the proceedings (Flory rescues Elizabeth from a docile buffalo; Orwell includes a scathing description of her bohemian past in Paris), but also a sense of anger given full force. The muted tragedy of the last sentence of the book leaves the reader feeling hollow and cold. Visceral and brilliant.
I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.
Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.
North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.
There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.
Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger ‘a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.
I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.
However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.
Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.
In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.