Thursday, 4 August 2005

Vanity Fair

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828.

Just read:

W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair.

This is a nineteenth century classic, and sufficiently good that I’ve now come back to it for a second time. It centres on two young women characters: Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky is an opportunistic woman of dubious parentage, with a real desire to get ahead. Amelia is more bourgeois in background, and much less worldly-wise than her friend. The contrasts between the two characters mean that there’s lots of interesting variety in how we see scenes and other characters. I’d say Thackeray was much fonder of Becky: her cynicism matches that of the narrator quite often, while Amelia comes across as a tedious sap rather too often.

To steal a line from Blackadder, this is a real roller-coaster of a novel, with lots of neat twists and turns, and piles of interesting minor characters. In comparison with novels by Dickens, Vanity Fair doesn’t seem as carefully plotted, and some of it seems a bit episodic rather than clearly moving the plot along. On the other hand, Thackeray definitely wins over Dickens because none of his characters are perfect. Amelia’s sappiness is something that Thackeray is perfectly aware of and comments on. The nearest thing to a saint is Captain Dobbin, but even he comes across as a bit dim at times.

In form, Vanity Fair is ultimately a romance: loving hearts are united, and all that, though Thackeray gets lots of twists out of this, and lots of opportunity for that amusing cynicism. In addition, Becky has to better herself too, and her attitude to romance is more that a man is a route to power and money rather than love and happiness. In this way, Thackeray manages to combine two sorts of stories at once. His novel is perhaps too long, with a slightly unsatisfying ending, but there’s lots to admire and enjoy on the way. (The drama leading up to and around the Battle of Waterloo is particularly effective.)

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Signalling from Mars

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Six romances on words by Japanese poets, Op. 21. Sung by Vladimir Kasatschuk, with the Koln Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

Just read:

Signalling from Mars: the letters of Arthur Ransome, selected and introduced by Hugh Brogan.

Being such a Ransome fan, I was very happy to take this opportunity to get to know him a bit better. I read a biography a while ago (it might have been Brogan’s), but not much of it stuck. (Now that I have this ’log, I can record my thoughts for all posterity, and need never be in that horrible position ever again!) Reading writers’ letters is a classic literary activity. All the best authors get their correspondence collected: as I said about Jane Austen last month, it’s a great opportunity to eavesdrop on a person as they talk to friends, family and others. These days people don’t put so much into their letters, but they do write web-logs instead, so perhaps there’s some law of conservation of written evidence at work here.

Anyway. Ransome had a fascinating career. Well before his career as a children’s author, he was a well-regarded foreign correspondent for first the Daily News and then the Manchester Guardian (now just The Guardian). He got to provide coverage of the Russian Revolution, and was able to interview significant players. He met his second wife in Russia; she was Trotsky’s secretary.

Meeting a second wife while still married unfortunately meant that his relationship with his first wife, already bad, became completely awful. This also affected his relationship with his daughter, who later claimed that her mother had ceaselessly tried to turn her against him. This worked all too well, and the most depressing and sad letters in the collection are some of those between Ransome and his daughter Tabitha.

Ransome never wanted to make a career of journalism: he’d known from a young age that he wanted to be a proper writer. In 1930 he finally chucked in the Guardian (and the requirement to go to places like China and Egypt), and began his career as a full-time writer. When Swallows and Amazons and its immediate sequels came out, and were so successful, he was set for life.

There’s lots else that is interesting in Ransome’s correspondence: he exchanged a couple of letters with Tolkien; he’s constantly plotting sea voyages in the various yachts he owned and renovated; or he’s writing to his publisher in fits of anxiety about whether or not his latest is up to it, or (during the war) whether or not they had paper to print it on. All in all, a very worthwhile read.