Tag Archives: Iris Murdoch

Tales of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl

As the autumn nights drain the colour from the day, I find that dipping into Roald Dahl’s short stories makes for a suspenseful evening read. Dark, disturbing, direct, Dahl’s tales take the reader into everyday normal scenarios, a familiar world of daily occurrences, tea, nicely turned-down beds, cosy fireplaces, friendly policemen and then he twists up the macabre volume to full. The everyday becomes the horrific, fear filled flights of fancy.

His writing reminds me of the great Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Take the infamous shower scene; you never actually see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin. It’s all in the clever editing, the final cut (pardon the pun). This is precisely what Dahl does with his short stories; it’s what is not said that is most disturbing. It leaves the reader to fill in the cognitive gaps.

tales of the unexpected

I remember being disturbed by the beginning of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected when I was a boy. The title sequence consisted of silhouettes of dancing-girls with a backdrop of flames, followed by Dahl’s personal welcome. The tall, skeletal man perched in his armchair, his gaze piercing and speaking like a quintessential English Aristocrat.

dahl skeleton

He reminds me of my friend Hogarth, who I have in my study. Frida Kahlo used to have a full skeleton above her bed, to remind her of the fact that we never know when we are going to die, so must live for the moment. I liked this idea. For there is a danger that with all the pre-disposition with technology, worries about work, politics and balancing lives on an ever-increasing treadmill, we can actually forget to look around at what we have, take stock, appreciate and enjoy. After all, tomorrow is a long way off.

But please note, I do not wish to offend the respected author in any way, I am describing him through the eyes of a child. In fact, given some of his descriptions of adults in his works, I think he would find it rather complimentary.

I recently viewed the television series again as a 36-year old man; with a little bit more experience of this insane place we call earth. My particular favourite is A Lamb to the Slaughter, involving infidelity, murder and a frozen leg of lamb. Oh, and Brian Blessed, roaring the role of an investigative policeman. I am not going to announce ‘spoiler alert’ or even tell you what happens, I would instead encourage you to have a look at this episode and read the tale, you will not be disappointed!

Dahl is still making the headlines as a figure of controversy even now after his death; with the recent re-publication of his iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, re-issued with a cover specifically for adults.

roald-dahl-charlie-chocolate-factory-2014

I’d say that if an adult feels that to be seen reading a tale that happens to have been written for children as a problem, they need to have a word with themselves and grow up. Besides with the amount of trees that are sacrificed to publish some of the mindless tripe these days, Fifty Shades of Clever Marketing for example, you are best grappling with great works, children’s lit and all.

It disturbs me how Waterstones has to label whole tables of books, chick lit, potential cult classics etc. Let people decide themselves! You might even stumble accidentally upon something you like. That is how I found Iris Murdoch, who in my head I’d thought was like Catherine Cookson, how wrong was I? It is fortunate that there are contemporary writers like Donna Tartt, releasing books only when she sees fit that they are ready, not to a marketing schedule.

the gold finch

A literary Kate Bush! When you read a tome like The Goldfinch, how you are reminded that sometimes things are worth waiting for, particularly when they are richly textured and poignant as this piece of literary genius is. Sentences that need to be savoured and a plot that engulfs. One lady of Liverpool letters Madam Le Smith, summed the book up in three words, “What a ride!”

And I can guarantee that Dahl’s short stories will also provide a ride, a tempestuous ride into the dark recesses of your soul.

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A year in reading

It seems that ‘inspired by’ is the term to use when one is shamelessly borrowing another’s good idea. With that in mind, this post is inspired by/pinched from Sean Lotman’s wonderful post of the same name. You are encouraged to take a look at the original as well as this weak derivative.

An earlier post on ten minutes hate details my early designation as the family bookworm and the part that public libraries have played in creating my reading habits. There are times when a ‘to read’ list is put into use, but more often it is the joy of discovering something unintended that makes a trip to the library worthwhile. So it was around the time that borrowing took over from buying books that, realising that some gems would no doubt be forgotten along the way, I started making a note of titles and authors as I travelled.

Engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

The writer, engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

Looking at my list, the first failure to note is that it doesn’t come close to Mr Lotman’s staggering 42 books. Shamefully, mine is barely half that. It is interesting that in the comments to the original post, the balance between reading and writing is mentioned and it is true that, for the first half of the year at least, writing took up almost every available moment of my free time. Then there was the temptation of reading long-form journalism on my phone instead of carrying physical books on commutes and journeys. Although some of the listed books were read on a Kindle app (being too lazy to buy yet another gadget) the majority of them were paper and ink and, however much technology adds to other areas of my life, I foresee that continuing.

Another notable trend is that, while reading will always be something done primarily for pleasure, there are words here that I took a more professional interest in. Mr Lotman talks about the joy of reading, saying that often, too many readers see it:

as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.

Usually I would be in complete agreement, however other motivations for reading have intruded this year. My list contains a few books that were of interest for research purposes, or read in draft stage and edited, or – in perhaps the biggest leap of personal development – read in order to develop a hopefully interesting and stimulating literature curriculum. Teaching classes based on loved books, having hated everything school forced me to read in English class, was at times tough, although ultimately enjoyable. Still, it is rare for a book that you feel you ought to be reading to become as much of a favourite as one you are free to delight in.

This joy of discovery shows in the publication dates of many of these titles, few are contemporary, perhaps only a couple would have been marked ‘the book of the moment’ or reviewed by a Sunday newspaper. That is due to distance: picking up books via second-hand bookshops and swapping with fellow expats tends to rule out hardbacks and new releases. Many of my list were gifts or recommendations and there is something lovely about hearing ‘I think you will enjoy this book’ from a friend before finding that to be true.

Here then is my list of books read in 2012, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Let’s Start Again, ABCTales short story compilation
  3. Hana Walker’s Half-Life 2:46, Our Man in Abiko
  4. Babylon Revisited, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Musings of a Monkey, Steven Baxter
  6. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  7. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Moonraker, Ian Fleming
  10. Manituana, Wu Ming
  11. Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren
  12. In Pursuit of the English, Doris Lessing
  13. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  14. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  15. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  16. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. Dr No, Ian Fleming
  19. Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore
  20. The Mammy, Brendan O’Carroll
  21. Bon Voyage, Mr President, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  22. A View from the Chuo Line, Donald Richie
  23. The Maginot Line, Fiction Desk short story compilation
  24. Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

I managed 24 books, two for each month. Four were re-reads, six were ebooks, eight were purchased by me and the rest were passed on by friends.

Impossible to choose one favourite, but the books by Doris Lessing, Wu Ming and Knut Hamsun were particularly enjoyable, for wildly different reasons. With Lessing taking her ‘pursuit’ into a post-War London suburb, the Wu Ming viewing the American Revolution from an unconventional perspective and Hamsun’s anti-hero lurching around late 19th century Kristiania (Oslo), my love of stories set outside my own time is clearly demonstrated. Despite their differing subject matter, all three were lively, gripping tales, fascinating and relevant.

Publishers will tell you that compilations of short stories never sell, however a busy year meant this format was far easier to dip into and out of than a 900-page novel. From the Fiction Desk compilation, The Maginot Line, Benjamin Johncock’s The Rocket Man was a haunting tale of a small girl grappling with an uncertain future, soundtracked by Bowie. My first reading of a Helen Dunmore novel also provoked the first negative review I have ever been bothered to write, while Haruki Murakami demonstrated more flaws than claims to greatness and Will Wiles’ first book sadly did not make me long for another from him.

Finally, it is with a sense of guilt that I note that there are five downloaded but yet to be either started or finished books lurking on my Kindle app. This is something that I hope to address very shortly, as an extended holiday break in England with typically wintry weather offers little incentive to venture outdoors. With a little luck, 2013’s list will offer even more gems than this one.

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Top 5 doomed literary loves

Perhaps it isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the season, as everyone loves a happy ever after, but sometimes it has to be acknowledged that the really great literature lives elsewhere.  With that in mind, and with Valentine’s wishes to all readers, here are ten minutes hate’s favourite star-cross’d lovers…

1. Anna and Vronsky – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The fairytale prince (though really a Count) escapes his destiny to marry the sweet-as-sugar Princess Kitty and skips off with the more captivating Anna instead.  Russian society at the time taking its cues from Paris, they might have been forgiven for carrying on behind her husband’s back.  Yet it is when the pair decide they can’t breathe without the other in the room and decide to throw career (him), family (her) and sanity (both) on the bonfires of love and lust that all hell really breaks loose.

Anna watching her lover fall from his horse mid-race and having to contend with his possible death under the suspicious eye of her husband is one of the finest scenes in the book, or possibly ever written.  And while the parallel story of Kitty and new love Konstantin provides a more realistic portrait of the early years of a marriage as well as acting as counterpoint, it is the raging, ultimately destructive, passions between Anna and Vronsky that linger long after reading.

2. Helene and Jean – The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir

Few things are more tragic than the discovery of crucial knowledge too late to do anything useful with it.  Witness reluctant hero Jean Blomart’s night of remorse and reflection as he only realises how deeply he cares for on-off girlfriend Helene after she has taken a bullet helping her ex escape from the Nazis.

The long vigil allows him the chance to reflect on the choices he has made in his life, politics and behaviour towards Helene – while wrestling with the decision over whether to send others out on a similarly dangerous mission – all in a suitably existential manner, of course.  But the philosophy never detracts from what is a cracking tale of betrayal, deceit, love, and ultimately, death.

3. Jake and Anna and Hugo and Sadie – Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Perhaps not since A Midsummer Night’s Dream have the forces of love got it so spectacularly wrong, with emotions in Murdoch’s first novel entangling to such a degree that no-one seems likely to get what (or who) they actually want.  Perfectly capturing the often comic choices of still-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better hero Jake Donaghue as he attempts to sort his chaotic life out enough to get the money, the acclaim and – of course – the girl he deserves.

His continuing mis-steps on that path to contentment, made due to his unvarying misconceptions of his world, are handled with such a light touch that it is impossible not to sympathise, even while desiring to give him a good shake!  A scene where he trails Anna through Paris, seeing her without her ever realising he is there, is beautiful in its longing and sense of loss.  This is another philosophical novel which never betrays the humanity of its central characters.  The inadequacies of language in conveying our perspectives – the ‘net’ of words we are all caught in – will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to tell someone they love exactly how it is and how it’s going to be.

4. Robert and Maria – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The whispered conversations, while curled in his sleeping bag, their hopes for their life together, the brutal intrusion of their final goodbye.  It is a short yet grand passion, full of idealism and beauty, despite – or perhaps due to – the death and horror that surrounds them.  The earth even moves.

Yet, like the Republic they are fighting for, it is not destined to last.  As with The Blood of Others, Fascist bullets ultimately prove too strong for even this perfect love to overcome.

5. Winston and Julia – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

What else could it be?

Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy realises that is because he wants girl really.  Boy gets girl.  Boy convinces girl to join him in overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship.

Fails.

Looking back over my choices I realise that perhaps there is a common theme, that love can’t survive in a world bedevilled with totalitarian regimes, Fascist atrocities and the stern disapproval of a rigid society.  Those structures will always be incompatible with such deep feelings because, as noted by Jonathan Carroll, in his excellent tale of un-doomed love, White Apples:

…real love is always chaotic. You lose control; you lose perspective. You lose the ability to protect yourself. The greater the love, the greater the chaos. It’s a given and that’s the secret.

The idea of love as anarchy works better for me than all the diamonds and flowers and chocolates paraded at this time of year.  Perhaps Saint Valentine, killed for his opposition to the Roman Emperor, would approve.

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