Sunday, March 15, 2009

Books read in March, part one

As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
A professor of anthropology loses his physicist girlfriend to a tiny experimental bubble universe. By which I don't mean that she's involved in a lab accident, but that she falls in love with it and leaves him for it. It's not every day you read the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman and a quantum phenomenon. This is only a short book, but rich - Lethem's good for a quirky turn of phrase and a nice metaphor or two. Always a pleasure to read.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin Abbott
Another brief book, but very satisfying for the brain. Abbott's thought in quite surprising detail about some aspects of how sentient geometric shapes might live their lives (even if he's left a number of other aspects completely untouched on). 2-D society is alarmingly totalitarian, I must say. I don't know if it might have seemed less so to readers at the time. Perhaps we might start a rumour that it directly inspired that other mathematical dystopia, Evgeny Zamyatin's We? Anything for a laugh, eh?

Captain Britain and MI13 vol. 1, Paul Cornell
Birthday book #1. Paul Cornell's avowed intent is to make British comic book superheroes great again, not in a kick-ass American way but in an upbeat, proud-to-be-British way. I must admit that I'm not especially patriotic (not really at all, when it comes down to it), but there certainly is something special, something stirring about a comic book in which a young Muslim woman in a khimar can cry an "Allahu akbar!" of thanksgiving at the sight of a beefy man wearing a Union Flag and carrying a sword. I'm all for that. Plenty of material here with potential for future development.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Tonight on Fox: When Ingenus Go Bad. A provocative study of People Who Really Need A Good Slap. I think it might be pushing it a bit for the introduction to this edition (1966) to claim that Wuthering Heights is "a thriller in the modern sense", but it certainly is gripping. What I don't quite get is why people - people who have, presumably, actually read the thing - believe that it's a love story, or that naming their children Heathcliff and Catherine is a sane thing to do. Or that Kate Bush's #1 hit could possibly be interpreted as a love song, and not the succubus song of a damned soul.
Wuthering Heights is surely a Gothic horror story. It looks a lot like Frankenstein - man defies nature and a supernatural revenge is visited on him and his family. And here, as in Frankenstein, the defiance of nature and the revenge are both embodied in the same individual - Old Man Earnshaw's Monster, the demonic foundling Heathcliff. His defiance of nature is, of course, to raise Heathcliff as his own favourite child at the expense of neglecting his own children, and it all goes horribly wrong from there. Heathcliff comes across as a Victorian social climber with the surface of polite manners ripped away (or in fact, never applied in the first place). His behaviour, and his corrupting influence on all the characters around him must have inspired nothing but horror in mid-nineteenth century readers. I'd be interested to know if people then reacted to the book in the same way that people now react to video nasties and violent computer games.
My only other question about the Heights is just what accent Joseph, the unpleasant old servant, is supposed to have. I would have guessed Yorkshire, but it reads like a strange mix of Geordie and Scots, with occasional moments of Cockney thrown in. What really gets me is that, even though it must be a second language to them, all the other characters can speak and write Joseph fluently to each other. Perhaps there's a dictionary of it somewhere with agreed spellings, just like there must be one for New England Hillbilly that all of HP Lovecraft's heroes have read.

Edit: Well, now I've seen a few online critiques and commentaries of Wuthering Heights - the Freudian interpretation, the Jungian interpretation, the "storm/calm" interpretation. To these I'd like to add my own response: the "weaponised character" theory. (Surprisingly, not pinched from Jasper Fforde, honest guv.) Perhaps Heathcliff isn't merely a demon in human form, or Catherine's own id/animus personified, but the ultimate in narrative warfare. Perhaps Emily Bronte's novel was an inoffensive, ordinary rustic romance called Thrushcross Grange, until some agency as yet unknown sent in Heathcliff to undermine it. Perhaps, somewhere out there, there's a book that's been infiltrated and converted into the bridgehead for a series of attacks on other books, a factory novel stockpiling Heathcliffs of Mass Destruction? Or perhaps it got into a fight with another book, who knows? Perhaps we should look for the other combatant - a novel that shows the marks of counter-attacks, with its characters and story dented and buckled but unbeaten.
If we can find a novel populated entirely by arseholes who talk in an unidentifiable regional English dialect, so much the better, because that would back up my further theory that Joseph is Heathcliff's "handler".

Double edit: I'm thinking maybe Cold Comfort Farm. It's got videophones in it, which looks suspicious for a start. And Flora Poste would appear to be the counter-attack, sent into a grim rustic novel to subvert it into parody. Success on both sides, then - a Pyrrhic victory.


Jo said...

"Or that Kate Bush's #1 hit could possibly be interpreted as a love song, and not the succubus song of a damned soul."

Even before I'd read Wuthering Heights, I always heard it as a ghost song (not helped by the shrill notes to the song...) - the "It's so cold" and "Let me in your window"...

Christopher Pittard said...

Ah, Zamyatin's *We*. Written (or at least started) when he was a resident of Newcastle... I don't think he gets a plaque like Wittgenstein, though.