Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tarttThe Secret History, Donna Tartt 1992, Penguin 1993

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

This book was very excellent at escapism. I read through it in two days and hardly put it down. It was never boring and like all great storytellers Tartt made me forget sometimes I was reading a book and made me see the story playing out in my head.

It is like watching a modern Greek tragedy from very close up looking at this story through the protagonist, Richard. But if we had seen it through the other characters it would have been like being in the tragedy itself.

Except for the sullen unrequited desire for Camilla, Richard does not seem to feel any depth of emotion at all.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty- unless she is wed to something more meaningful- is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.

This for me mirrors the concept of this whole book. It is the argument that the French teacher Laforgue makes as to Richard as to why the Greek professor heading this elitist group is not perfect. I think the main problem I had while reading this book (not that I didn’t enjoy it very much!) was that the snobbish clique did not appeal to me and I found it shallow and ridiculous.

The other characters Charles Francis, Camilla and even Henry, we find, are driven almost mad by their passion and love and jealousy but in a way Richard is like Bunny and just jealously watches from the outside unable to feel the frenzy for himself.

I would have liked to actually see the bachnaal instead of just hearing hints about it from the other characters. In fact the love affairs, the bachnaal experiments, the luxury rooms in Italy were all heard from the other characters so I kept expecting Richard would experience something of this for himself but it never happened.

This is a mystery well worth reading. As the author said herself its not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. We know the character Bunny dies from the first page but the slow eerie build-up to his murder is still horrifying to watch and still a surprise when it happens. Tartt is brilliant at building a slow cold tension and the book is claustrophobic and fairly suffocating to read.

I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen I would have loved it and loved the idealised light the characters paint themselves in and the elitist world they build for themselves but now I see them building themselves from surface and pretensions.  Tartt shows us the pretty decadent looking world and then hints at the sham that it is.

Review: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

In Istanbul, in the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day- in the European manner. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?

This book is beautiful! It took hold of me right from the beginning where we hear the laments of a corpse at the bottom of a well. Orhan Pamuk has such artistry with language and the translator has transported it like a murderous lovely dream full of voices and stars into English.

Pamuk switches from starkly different voices as easily as embroidering the story with a new colour of thread. I don’t know quite how he does it but he is one of the best writer’s I’ve ever experienced in immersing you in day to day life of his world so vividly that you hear the noises of the bustling coffee shops, the crowded narrow streets, the heat and the cold and the loneliness and horror of the bottom of a well. His writing is literary escapism, I forgot I was inside my own body.

Throughout the mystery of who killed the miniaturist we see the story though the eyes of people, paintings, animals and even a piece of gold. When I reached the chapter of the thoughts of the colour red and the voice Pamuk uses for it in all it’s vibrancy and colour I couldn’t stop smiling in glee at the mastery of this storyteller.

The culture clash between the artists of East and West was a major thread in the plot and I learnt that I knew almost nothing of art of the Ottoman Empire which was described so frequently and detailed throughout the story. Having grown up in Britain I am used to European art so at first when looking at art from different cultures they seem unusual. I have not considered before what European art must look like to other parts of the world.

Pamuk illustrates differences beautifully in the chapter from the voice of a painting of a tree.

A great European master minituarist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”

I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be it’s meaning.

As we are introduced to a number of human voices and the cast of characters it is tempting to try to figure out which is the murderer seeing as it is definitely one of these people. I did not especially love any of the characters the only one I was a little attached to was Black, the man who attempts to find the murderer and deal with his love for the beautiful Shekure.

I recommend this book for the beautiful use of language and surprising use of narration, the mysterious and philosophical plot, the depiction of the culture clash in Eastern and Western art and the stunning portrayal of Istanbul. It is funny, dark, provoking and intelligent and I will definitely be reading another Orhan Pamuk novel.