Monday, 23 April 2018

The injustice of man's justice

It's a Battlefield "Do you believe in the way the country is organized?" asks Caroline Bury in It's a Battlefield. She's a woman who's connected, who "had chosen to exercise her passion for charity" in the territory of politics. The story follows Caroline and others as they try to prevent a London bus driver named Jim Drover from hanging.

Graham Greene described the book as his 'first overtly political novel'. It was published in 1934, when Britain was experiencing the effects of the Great Depression. Although the story references unemployment and poverty, for example when the Assistant Commissioner considers that "the beggar did not beg because he would not work", it's not primarily concerned with them (check out Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier for this). Instead, Greene claimed its theme is 'the injustice of man's justice'.

The Assistant Commissioner, perhaps the story's primary character, questions a justice system which allowed a company director convicted of income tax fraud to repay his debt at "twelve shillings in the pound to save [him] from bankruptcy, to save him from a nervous breakdown." In comparison "men who stole a little jewellery from a rich man's house" might go to gaol for five years, because laws, he says, are made to protect property.

The book also conjures up the experiences of working class females in a matchbox factory. Greene uses the same phrases with which he'd earlier written about life in prison, and the women come out worse. Certain prisoners "have certain privileges", "as many library books as they want", and "more butter with their bread", whereas the girls, from eight in the morning until six in the evening stood "between death and disfigurement, unemployment and the streets, between the cog-wheels and the shafting." They worked until they married, like Milly Drover, the condemned man's wife, who will have to return to the factory whatever happens to her husband. If his sentence is repealed she'll face 18 years waiting for him. Would it not be better if he were to hang?

It's all very bleak, apart from Kay Rimmer, Milly's sister, who was determined to have a good time whilst seeking a husband. I particularly enjoyed the episode where Jules takes her away for a night. Greene very briskly gets the sex scene out of the way: "He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune."

The writing style in the first chapter reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in how it follows individual characters as they travel around London between work, home and leisure, exposing their thoughts, worries and hopes. Greene opens a new section to clearly demarcate the shift from one character to another, although I was occasionally confused by the much too similar names of Conrad, the condemned man's brother, and Conder, the journalist.

This is the first time I've read It's a Battlefield, although in my early 20s I used to devour Graham Greene books. What attracted me to the author then was the way in which he juxtaposes religion (Catholicism) and communism, and this book did not disappoint. I re-read Stamboul Train last year and am now determined to tackle all his books again.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bunkum and claptrap

Veronika Decides to Die Just what is wrong with being a librarian? Around half way through Veronika Decides To Die, we learn that "Veronika [-] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian." This is not the sort of thing that endears an ex-librarian to a narrator. But I'd already made up my mind about Paolo Coelho's book before the end of the first chapter.

The story is about a young Slovenian woman called Veronika, who tries to commit suicide but fails. She wakes up in La Villete mental institution in Ljubljana, where the action is mainly set, and is told she has only a few days to live. The story then deals with how Veronika's prognosis affects her and the other inmates.

Many years ago I read Coelho's blockbuster The Alchemist and remember wondering what all the fuss was about. My overriding memory was that it was very twee. Veronika Decides To Die has not improved my opinion of the author. It was full of bunkum and claptrap. The style left me cold because there was so little descriptive depth that I found it impossible to immerse myself in the story. It consists mainly of ensuring that I get the message by hitting me over the head with it. And it was a particularly worrying message. The author's thesis appears to be that people who suffer from mental health problems are not ill, they just want to live outside the accepted norms of society. According to the character Dr. Igor, the cure for these people is "an awareness of life" and the medication is "an awareness of death".

Coelho has said that "when you write a book, you use your experience", and in the Afterword he relates his own detention in a mental institution as a teenager. This was the best bit of the book for me (because it is the most truthful). He has also said "if you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul." I'm obviously not Coelho's target audience. I found this book very boring and thought it suffered from a lack of research. My preference is for intelligent writing, and I don't really care about the author's soul, which in Paolo Coelho's case seems to resemble an ego as big as a planet.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Strange noises and messages written on walls

The Haunting of Hill House On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House is a straightforward ghost story, where four strangers meet in an isolated gothic mansion and experience supernatural phenomena. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, has rented the haunted house for three months. He hopes to make his fame and fortune "upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances." His search for suitable assistants unearths Eleanor Vance, who had dutifully cared for her mother for eleven years, leading a life of "small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair." Two others agree to join the Doctor, Theodora, for whom duty and conscience are "attributes which belonged properly to Girl Scouts", and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit Hill House, and who "was a liar" and "also a thief."

There is one memorable scene early in the book that depicts the strange folk in the town of Hillsdale, but other than this the action takes place in and around Hill House. The quartet of characters are subjected to strange noises, inexplicable temperature variations and messages written on walls. But these are not what make the story frightening. It is how the characters think and react that provoke feelings of unease and dread.

Although I found the characters fascinating, the ghostly events are somewhat cliched. Shirley Jackson's writing style is very evocative of 1950s America and the dialogue reads like a film script. My personal preference however is for a British, more modern setting, such as The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley or Sheep by Simon Maginn, both of which contained more psychological terror. The Haunting of Hill House feels dated compared to these, but it is nonetheless a classic of the horror genre.

Surprisingly there was a fair amount of humour provided by the unwavering Mrs. Dudley and Dr. Montague's eager wife. The star of the book however is Eleanor. Throughout the story she repeats a line from a song by Shakespeare, "Journeys end in lovers' meeting", but I thought a more suitable refrain would be from The Smiths's There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: "I never never want to go home, Please don't take me home, Because I haven't got one".