Turn Over a New Leaf for 2014

This new year, will you make a resolution? Characters in the classics love making resolutions, so why not follow in the footsteps of the bildungsroman and go on a journey of self-improvement to kick off 2014.

You could resolve to be more considerate and to stop getting involved in your friends’ love-lives like:

Emma in Emma

Jane Austen defines her heroine by her flaws. Emma’s not-so-tragic flaw is that she is so interested in other people’s happiness that she thinks she knows what’s best for them despite having no real interest or experience with love herself. With the help of her childhood friend George Knightley’s patient warnings and the disintegration of her ill-informed schemes one by one, Emma resolves to listen to her friends’ feelings and support them. In the end, it is Emma’s own wit and conscience that allows her to right her wrongs and realize that her own perfect match has been right in front of her all along.

You could resolve to aim higher like:

Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion

Eliza Doolittle is determined to improve herself so that she can strive for a life bigger than the street-side flower selling she has grown up with. Henry Higgins is determined to prove his talents and turn Eliza into a lady. But the real resolution comes after Eliza’s apparent transformation, according to George Bernard Shaw. Instead it is Eliza’s triumph in remaining true to herself. She is too proud to return to Higgins’ side to be belittled by him. As in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, upon which Shaw’s play is based, Higgins (Pygmalion) sees Eliza (the statue, Galatea) come to life at the end and is equally proud of his prodigee.

You could resolve to follow your own path no matter what the obstacle, like:

Dorothea in Middlemarch

Against the will of her late husband, George Eliot’s heroine Dorothea makes the noble resolution to marry loyal Ladislaw, even though she knows that she will surrender all her inherited fortune. She chooses love and independence instead of money, a choice that seemed to be lurking all through the story but only really appears to her after she has experienced the confinement of her ambitions. The story ends by describing Dorothea’s humility but the incalculable effect she had on those around her, reminding the reader that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”.

Or if all this moralizing is getting you down, what about resolving to not make any resolutions at all and do whatever you like? Get inspired by the cast of The Great Gatsby for a hedonistic Hogmanay!

Do you have any resolutions inspired by literature? Or are there any books you’re resolving to read in the new year? Tweet us about them @towerbabel

Resting on our Laureates

What does the Nobel Prize say about our literature and our values?

In the all-important aftermath of the announcement of the Nobel prizes, we are drawn to reflecting what literature is and should be.

Though the prize is decided by the opinions of a group of experts and there is no yard stick against which to stand these opinions, the Nobel Prize is nevertheless revered as a marker of genius and its bestowal often signifies what writers will do in the future as much as it signifies what they have already achieved.

Alice Munro, the 2013 winner, as a woman, a Canadian and a short story writer, shows how the short story form has progressed but will also no doubt effect a trend of loyalty to new forms and will inspire female short storyists.

But the prize falls short of defining the most popular literature throughout the world, throughout time. In fact, it is much less universal. It presents the writers of a particular niche.

For a start, they’re living. It seems obvious to point out, but dead writers cannot accept the award (Erik Axel Karlfeldt was awarded the prize posthumously in 1931, but since 1974, the Nobel Statutes declare that no posthumous awards will be bestowed).

Secondly, the writers are nominated by invited members of a literary elite, including university professors and previous laureates.

Thirdly, and this is perhaps most interesting, is the fact that each laureate is chosen for a quality so akin to moral virtue that the prize comes to mean something quite different to, for example, a bestseller list or the Man Booker prize. It comes to mean something about humanity and goodness. The average writer may find this flattering, that his art form is lofty and important for humanity, or offensive if he’d rather believe that his art is for art’s sake.

Let us examine three winners and see how this quality continues to manifest itself:

Herman Hesse 1946 “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style”

Hesse is a good example of a fiction writer who has surfed many disciplines with his work including philosophy and theology. Sitting right beside “qualities of style” in this dedication are the “humanitarian ideals”, which secretly seem to be the key to the Nobel Prize. Hesse was awarded the prize following the publication of his last novel The Glass Bead Game, which is often viewed as an attempt to conjure a utopia, in response to the oppressive world of Nazi Germany.

William Churchill1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”

Churchill’s “mastery of historical and biographical description” gives him literary chops but what commends him to the Nobel committee is the “human values” that he protects. Churchill embodies the literature-with-a-purpose message of the prize, being much more well-known as a speaker and politician than as a writer.

Alice Munro 2013 “for her mastery of the contemporary short story”

Alice Munro, the latest in this long line of humanitarians of the written word, was aged 82 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize this year. She has a huge body of work, has in fact been publishing for over sixty years, and so the choice to honor her career shows respect not only for her mastery but for her commitment to the genre of the short story.

The human values and humanitarian ideals to be found in mastering the short story are perhaps yet to be understood but there is certainly an instinct (surely this is why we give prizes) that good short stories signify something of the greater good. I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf‘s confession at the end of A Room of One’s Own, that she believes in the inherent goodness of fiction, though she doesn’t quite know yet how to expain it.

“… There runs through these comments and discursions the

conviction–or is it the instinct?–that good books are desirable and

that good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity,

are still good human beings. Thus when I ask you to write more books I

am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the

world at large.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Three Novellas that Define the Form

You can read it in one or two sittings, it allows for fully developed characters, settings and lives, but retains an air of being brief and fragmentary – the novella has always been a bit of an in-between creature. But though the word novella doesn’t dictate any stylistic or formal quality other than length, there is a trend for the novella to hinge on a kind of existential unease. These three novellas each typify this uneasy quality in their own way.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The idea of his own death haunts Ivan Ilyich to the point that he is paralysed and transformed by a sense of impending doom. His illness is really undiagnosed and it is his fear that seems to cause the deterioration of his health and ultimately kills him. The strangeness of psychosomatic illness creates the plot here. As it becomes less and less clear what is Ivan’s mind and what is the illness, death becomes a looming, shape-shifting presence and causes us to wonder how much we are really in control of our own fate.

The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James

This is one of the most famous novellas of the twentieth century. James created epic, complex lives in his novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors and others but in this shorter work, James creates the thrill by overshadowing his protagonist with an unknown threat. The Beast in the Jungle represents John Marcher’s fear that something huge and disastrous is destined to happen to him at some point in his life. Because of this irrational fear, his life is controlled by worry and obsession – this becomes the real Beast. The novella form helps James to create an intense crucible atmosphere for Marcher, perfect for obsession and the unknown to take hold of both the characters and the reader.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This novella seems to wear its unease on its sleeve compared to the others. Gregor Samsa undergoes an extreme and complete transformation from man to insect and must adapt to a new life while disgusted at himself. But Kafka’s novella is not a simple folk tale. Since its publication in 1915, The Metamorphosis has gone far beyond this literal context. Firstly, in terms of its translation. In his native German, Kafka was able to construct the style of The Metamorphosis in a particular way that made each sentence full of suspense until the final clause. This is just a feature of the formal German grammar Kafka used masterfully but is somewhat inimitable in English. Secondly, Kafka himself has admitted that Gregor’s metamorphosis is not significant for the form he takes, it is instead Gregor’s disgust at his transformation that should take centre stage. This leaves the actual cause and psychological implications of the bug-like alter ego much more ambiguous .

The novella has produced some of the greatest enigma characters and the greatest mysteries of psychological phenomena, and far from being a confused form, has something of a collective identity that the short story and the novel forms don’t, even if this identity is pretty uneasy.

Here are some other novellas that use the uneasiness of the unknown to drive their mystery:

Quotation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

The culture of the epigraph and where it’s going next

Most people who sit down to start writing fiction have almost innumerable influences that they consciously or unconsciously draw on. In fact many of our best-loved pieces of work comprise more than one voice, and many are veritable patchwork quilts of voices, until it seems that our literary history has been collaborative from the very beginning.  Here are some of the ways writers have been confronting and honoring their influences over the past century and how the trend is evolving:

T S Eliot filled his opus poem The Waste Land with references to dozens of writers, Homer, Ovid,Saint Augustine of Hippo, Shakespeare, Hermann Hesse, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, to name but a few. Though it’s common practice to read the poem with the help of an annotated guide that contextualizes these references, the poem exists by itself unapologetic of its texture of borrowed voices. The references themselves are part of a complex network of influences. Shakespeare also read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for example, and Stoker was reportedly very influenced by Whitman and so on.

James Joyce made his Ulysses dense with references too and even with an annotated guide ten times the size of the work itself, the reading experience is at times hallucinatory, at times unintelligible. There is consequently a realm of stuff that lies behind and around the text itself, informing it and messing with it as we read. Different readers will have different reactions, not just because of how they relate to the story of Leopold Bloom in Dublin but because of their varying knowledge of the other sources.

More recently, Jorie Graham, in her collection Overlord takes her influences a step further. Overlord is not a typical collection; instead of a group of discreet, finished poems, it protests against finished-ness, presenting several “drafts” of some poems. Within one of these unfinished poems, “Disenchantment”, Graham reproduces a whole page of text from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Amid Graham’s reworkings comes Woolf’s unmistakable prose describing Mrs. Ramsey’s existential wonderings while observing the come and go of the lighthouse’s flare across the sea.

The epigraph is a form of this tradition that continues to be wide-spread and is as popular today as it was in the twentieth century. Many authors have dedicated their work to other writers by using quotes, infusing the story to follow with some quality of their admired contemporary or predecessor. Mary Shelley for example foreshadows her Frankenstein with this quote of John Milton:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
Shelley fills the opening of the book with the sense of mystery and grandeur that Milton created in his epic poem. Eliot’s aforementioned The Waste Land also has an epigraph, taken from Petronius’ The Satyricon, which, when translated from the Latin and Greek, means “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.” This epigraph, as well as a dedication to Ezra Pound, has been scrutinized in the same vein as the poem itself.

So we see that behind the orderly shelves of the library of world-changing books lies a labyrinthine other library, of influences and collaborations. A network so vast that we will never be able to consider it in its entirety. And this has huge implications for where literature goes next, with our increasing dimensions of virtual interaction and influence to draw on and a more collaborative online writing culture.

Winter Tales

The festive period is a time for storytelling. Narratives of Christmas, whether from the Bible or the flurry of films shown and released in December, or even from the longer and more sentimental commercials on television, will make the coming month a reflective and romantic time. Christmas particularly brings out our love of performance and stories read aloud.

The popular seasonal tale A Christmas Carol had the public interest at heart at its conception, and perhaps this is why it has become such a classic example of the oral storytelling tradition. The story of its creation and popularity truly embodies the Christmas motto “Good will to all men”. Originally trying to create a political pamphlet about the destructiveness of the New Poor Laws, Charles Dickens wrote the story with a practical moral in mind. And the result of the story’s popularity was a tangible increase in charity towards the poor in London from all kinds of people, most notably factory owners and people of influence in society.

Charles Dickens was a master storyteller. He was a rare breed among Victorian writers because he chose to give public readings, performing his own tales in town halls and meeting places. A Christmas Carol was performed by Dickens for the first time in 1853, after its fame was well and truly thriving. He read it in a town hall in Birmingham to a two thousand strong, paying audience. He continued to stage performances throughout his career and A Christmas Carol was the most loved – in fact, Dickens chose it for the final performance of his life, at St James’ Hall in London, to rapturous applause, and died shortly afterwards.

Dickens’ readings had become a significant part of his identity as an author and he influenced generations of writers to do the same – writers like Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote enjoyed reading their fiction to audiences and had charismatic stage personalities just like Dickens.  Firsthand accounts of Dickens’ performances describe them as dynamic one-man shows, in which Dickens seemed to embody many characters in one voice. The author Thomas Carlyle, a contemporary of Dickens’, wrote after seeing one of these performances, that it was “like an entire theater company … under one hat”.

He reportedly had many superstitious and strange rituals before going on stage. At his half-hour call, he would drink a glass of sherry with an egg beaten into it, for example. And he always surrounded himself with the same humble mise en scene, a rug, a reading desk and electric lights.

A Christmas Carol is still widely read and performed every December. Now, Gerald Dickens, the great great grandson of Charles Dickens, tours the world with his take on his ancestor’s lively readings and A Christmas Carol still draws in the crowds. Actor Clive Francis also regularly performs his one-man version of A Christmas Carol in London’s West End.

Here are some more popular titles to warm your cockles as December comes knocking or to try your hand at performing in your own front room:

Bleak House – though a little long for one sitting (it was originally published in twenty installments), this morbid classic, from Dickens again, is great for reading aloud because of its challenging array of characters.

The Woman in White – chilling in every sense of the word, this mystery by Wilkie Collins is a suspenseful thriller for a late night by the fire.

Twelfth Night – a musical tale of mistaken identities and romance from William Shakespeare. Full of fun comic distractions, this adventure in five acts is bound to get the whole family laughing.

Or click this link to choose from dozens of titles http://www.towerbabel.com/search/?q=christmas