Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Long Absence

Moving house shares some characteristics with childbirth (or what I'm told of it). It's a painful and traumatic experience at the time, but yet between moves the memory fades enough to convince us that it wasn't so bad, and so we do it all over again. Having just moved to a new city on the hottest day of the year (45 degrees Celsius), from a large house to a tiny flat up three flights of stairs (no lift), I am currently swearing that I'll never move again.

All this moaning is by way of apologising for not blogging recently. Not being able to find my computer under all the boxes is partly to blame, as is the ongoing and very ugly fight we're having with our ISP which means we still don't have the internet connected at home. Sigh. But I have been reading some interesting books which I hope to write about very soon- The Night Watch by Sarah Waters and Disgrace by JM Coetzee.

The chaos here is sure to end soon!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Gertrude and Claudius

The word that springs to mind when I think of how to describe Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike is 'adult'. Maybe this is because I have been reading a lot of YA fiction lately and have become used to teenage protagonists. Whatever the reason, it was a refreshing change to read a proper grown-up book.

Gertrude and Claudius is the story of the royal court of Denmark leading up to the events of Shakespeare's Hamlet. As the title suggests, the central characters are Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, who of course famously becomes the king by poisoning Hamlet's father. In John Updike's Denmark, Hamlet is a sulky young man who is whiny and ungrateful, and his father, the king, is boorish and warlike. Gertrude is carefully drawn as a vivacious and well-loved noble women who is forced into a tactical marriage by the powerful men who surround her. By describing in detail Gertrude's unsatisfying marriage and the lack of control she has over her circumstances, Updike transforms her into a sympathetic character. When she embarks on a late-in-life affair with her husband's brother it gives her a glimpse of happiness and I, for one, was cheering her on.

Since the novel forms a kind of prequel to Hamlet, the reader knows what will eventually happen to the characters. Thus the emphasis moves back to the 'how' and not the 'what' of the plot. There is a feeling of suspense as plot unfurls and we wait for the murder that will spark the
events of Hamlet.

Updike writes in a muscular style. He is a writer who knows how to make the words do as he says. It's an interestingly masculine style in which to describe one of the most famous, most discussed and probably most disliked, women in literature. Updike gives Gertrude a life beyond the play and makes her believable. We escape Hamlet's view of the world to see how events might have been interpreted from a different perspective, one in which the dead King Hamlet is not perfect and his uncle not necessarily a total villain.

I loved Gertrude and Claudius. Updike creates a vivid picture of the windswept landscape and harsh life of medieval Denmark. He gives a fresh perspective on a familiar story and ultimately writes a great, tragic love story. A quirky aspect of the novel is that the names of the characters change three times- a reference to the different names given the characters in the various historical versions of the story. I found this slightly annoying, although I suppose it's an effective way to remind readers that the story of Hamlet is much older than Shakespeare.

I'll end with a quote about Shakespeare's Hamlet that Updike refers to in his afterword. It's from G. Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy:

Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counsellor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The New Year

Happy New Year to all! The Christmas/ New Year period has not proven to be good for either reading or blogging for me. Too much food, too much alcohol and too much racing around the country to various friends and relatives. While all of these things are wonderful in themselves, they have left little time for anything else.

Anyway, before Christmas I had begun to think, like many other bloggers, about what I would classify as my literary highlights of 2006. I tend to not keep up with current releases, since most of my books are bought second hand (my current read- Sarah Waters' The Night Watch- being a decadent exception) so my highlights wouldn't make any of the newspapers' 'best books' lists.

The absolute discovery of the year for me was Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I've no idea why I left it so long to read this novel, but I was blown away by it. Nabokov creates a feeling of overwhelming discomfort, luring the reader into a relationship with an abhorrent but charismatic central character. I found myself on some level liking Humbert Humbert at the same time as being repulsed by his motivations and actions. Nabokov's wordplay and joy with language help to balance the confronting material and mean that Lolita is a surprisingly funny novel- certainly not something that I expected.

Other highlights of the past year would include two great female novelists: The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, which has made me a great fan of her work, and Kate Grenville's The Secret River. For pure 'eww' value I also have to mention Perfume by Patrick Suskind, probably one of the most disturbing and unforgettable novels I have ever read- ever wondered how to make perfume out of dead people? Patrick Suskind has and is happy to share...