Classics diversion

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and London is awash with celebrations, exhibitions, publications and tenuously linked products connected to the great writer.

Regular readers know that I am partial to a classic novel (both modern and your more classic classics) and Dickens is one of my favourites, so the Charles-o-rama is okay with me, for the time being anyway. It’s not often a writer has such public focus for an entire year, so although I assume one will get a little tired of hearing of his brilliance and listening to lectures proposing what Dickens would think of Twitter and the crisis in the Eurozone were he alive now, overall I see it as a positive and inspiring thing. (A colleague of mine has been so inspired he is planning on having a year of Dickens to kick through some of the novels he never got around to reading. Fabulous idea, if you ask me.) It’s also had me thinking about classics in general and when my writing muscles are back in shape I have a couple of recently read titles to post on — including a Dickens’ novel. Until then, here is the always firm-thinking and eloquent Richard Flanagan on our relationship with classic literature.

There’s no place like book group

It’s a funny thing homesickness. It can creep up on you in such an unassuming, disinterested kind of way that you aren’t aware of its stealthy pursuit until all of sudden you find yourself struck down with some kind of antipodean homesick blues. One moment you are ordering a pint of lager in a voice reminiscent of an extra in a 5th grade production of Oliver Twist and explaining how of course you miss certain people but that London is fabulous; and the next you are grumbling about it being so bloody cold all the time and asking how come it’s so hard to find a proper decent cappuccino and some sourdough toast in this overcrowded sunless city?

And then you calm down and try to re-embrace your sense of adventure and acceptance of experiences new; you remind yourself that moving to the other side of the world away from your regular life, comfort zones and loved ones is difficult at the best of time. And, really, I’m basically having the best of times; I can’t complain at all. But the homesickness has caught up with me of late and it seems a long road back, despite all the good things and wonderful people around me, to those half cockney/half crocodile hunter union jack waving pip-pip jolly good times. But I know it’s a phase that will soon pass. I’ll stop drudging about, buy myself a decent coat, and be all warm and keen and able to blog like a decent proper book blogger.

One thing that I think will help a lot is that this week I went to a meeting about joining a newly formed (well currently forming) book group. It was very exciting and my potential book group members were lovely and enthusiastic, and the organisers of the wider company of book groups (my group will be no. 18 or so that they have helped put together) were friendly and organised and encouraging. I’m very much looking forward to it kicking off. Stay tuned for a discussion of the first book selection.

On the day of that meeting I was ill, over my job, tired and lacking in any recognisable features of charm or sense. By the end of the get-together I no longer felt quite as ill, nor as world-weary, nor as overwhelmed by that wispy feeling of being a long, long way from home and I cheerfully trotted off to the tube and into a pub for the night’s next appointment.  It didn’t cure my antipodean homesick blues, but even the initial manoeuvrings of a book group get-together shone a lot more light on my little world. I felt like I might be finding some of my people – well some new ‘my people’ – and it reminded me how comforting, and also inspiring, the book world is for me, and how much I miss being a part of it; even if only as one of the many who like to meet up over a drink and talk about a novel for an hour. At the new pub, when I went to the bar to order a drink, there was definitely a little more of a Dick van Dyke chimney sweep in my voice than there had been for a while.

Book 29: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Every time I picked up this book I had ‘Hard Times’ by The Cruel Sea on high rotation in my head. Great song, but a little distracting from the industrial, smog-filled English countryside of one of Dickens’ less-famous novels. Listening to The Cruel Sea makes me feel like sitting on the grass in a friend’s backyard on a summer’s eve, with my mates close by, the barbie sizzling and a pale ale in hand. Reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens made me feel slightly morose, uninspired and asthmatic.

My Great Aunt’s Hat, Pile o’ Books, did you just criticise the great English storyteller, one of your favourite authors?! Well, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with Hard Times, but there’s also nothing particularly stupendous about it apart from a few of the usual Dickens’ gems with names and humour (calling a teacher Mr M’Choakumchild for example – love it). And the reason for the morose, uninspired, lung-capacity difficulties this novel brought upon me was because it is a story about an uninspiring, saddening place, full of mostly undesirable or hopeless (and I mean, without hope) characters, and it all happens in a mill-town when manufacturing was king and the unsightly burkha of thick black smoke loitering over the valley was a sign of progress.

You know how sometimes if the writing is so good or the story being told so captivating, you can get past the slightly mundane or unsympathetic characters and storyline? Well, with this book, I was happy enough to keep reading it and just as happy when I turned the last page to never think too much about it again. It’s a small book in a way, a treatise from Dickens on the industrialisation of England and how it affected People. One of his favourite topics but here there was no hard-done-by orphan to latch on to, no kind-hearted servant, no caricatures to laugh or squirm in horror at. Wait. There were. But I didn’t latch.

For all those who put up with me trying to foist Dickens upon them, don’t start with this one. Read David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist (note Oliver! is the musical – ahhhh Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes…) or A Tale of Two Cities. Read Hard Times once you have been captivated by one of the greatest storytellers ever and you are happy to simply read his words and follow him on his journey as a trustingly novelistic companion. And listen to The Cruel Sea too. They really are rockingly awesome.


Hard Times was started in Lake Louise, wound through Jasper and Vancouver but wasn’t finished until I was back in Sydney.

North Americans revere Dickens. I can’t tell you how gosh-darn impressed any Canadian or American was when they spied my crumpled popular penguin in my hand or lying casually on a table. Even though none of them had heard of Hard Times in particular, and many had never read Dickens at all, they say his name in a hushed tone reserved for dali lamas, and though I am a ginormous fan I find this blind reverence intriguing. Mind you, many North Americans think I speak like the Queen and anyone who has heard me order a ‘Kafay Lahtay’ in my convict tones knows that is far from the truth… so maybe the Dickens-worship is a cultural cliche. I speak clearly and intelligently so I must be well-bred English, Dickens is one of England’s greatest ever storytellers so one must defer to him as royalty.

Book 12: Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Book twelve and already some old friends are back in the fold. Perhaps this is a sign that my reading tastes are too narrow. Perhaps I’m just running with a few themes at the moment. In any case, as with Mr Pip and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins pop in to say hi, in fact, Mr D is the subject of half of this book which deals with desire and the strictures the times (Victorian) and one’s position in society places on one’s life, one’s happiness, one’s actions and one’s existence. ‘That’s on a large scale. It deals with so much more. Love, for example. The strong, the denial of, the forbidden, the innocent, love in all its forms both present and absent. 9781741666557The other subject of this novel which takes it’s starting point from history but fills in many gaps with imaginative guesswork, is Mathinna, the young aboriginal girl adopted (and then abandoned) by Sir John and Lady Franklin in colonial Tasmania.

The only place the stories cross is via the Franklins. For a while I kept waiting for Dickens to magically appear in old Hobarttown thinking that the main characters had to meet for the novel to come full circle. But it’s not in the subjects that the story connects but in the ideas. Reading Wanting reminded me that Mr Dickens, though I love his books, was not always the most admirable of men. And it reminds me of a fabulous book I read as a child (and later too) called Mathinna’s People by Nan Chauncey. It also reminded me that even when a book leaves you with a somewhat sad and despondent feeling at the end, that it can still be something worth reading.

Richard Flanagan gave the closing address at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year and it was fantastic. To add a political flavour to the Pile o’ Books blog for the first time, I implore you all to read it. It is a fantastic speech and a powerful argument against changing the current territorial copyright laws. You can read the full transcript here

Book 9: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

resized_9780747597285_224_297_fitsquareNon-fiction makes its first appearance in my pile o’ books  this year with a fascinating and accomplished book from Kate Summerscale.  (Though I should explain that this work encompasses many of my fiction loves and does indeed read somewhat like the murder mystery genre which was inspired by the events The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details… just in case you suddenly thought we were going to be travelling down some modern history/current affairs/biography path for the rest of the year. We’ll be back to fiction next time)

The murder of a young boy becomes an almost obsessive interest in 1860’s England with the details of the crime and the search for his killer, playing itself out throughout the land in any 2-bit rag that could print a story. For the first time, the reporting on this crime allows the public into the privacy of the middle class family home (previously sacred) and sets off a chain of investigations, hearings, theories and more letters to the editor than you could imagine. The most well-known police detective in London is sent to solve the murder – his name is Jack Whicher – and the case leads both to his prolonged fame and fall from the graces of a fickle society.  

What you learn in Summerscale’s fantastic book is that Whicher and the Road Hill House murder were the inspiration for detective fiction to come. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ Bleak House, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and her manor house murders, gosh, I’ll even suggest that Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library, and just about any modern detective story some gruff, unmarried loner can poke a bottle of 12 year single malt at, all have some kind of beginning in Jack Whicher and Victorian society’s fascination with the art of detection. Summerscale blends details and comparisons such as this with the real-life story of Saville Kent’s murder and the quest for his killer.

This is the kind of non-fiction I like: an interesting topic, told from a fresh angle, written in a narrative style and peppered with tidbits, facts and historical suppositions, such as you have never before encountered. The excitement the case roused and the endless appetite the public had for stories of ‘detection’ is fascinating, and you find yourself drawn in to the investigation and lives of the main players in a similar way. Victorian society’s intrigue is contagious and Summerscale entices you to try to work out the culprit for yourself and work out why they would do such a thing (just like you would if you were indulging in some Miss Marple).

Kate Summerscale is coming to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m going to see her speak (she is a former literary editor and has judged the Booker prize, which is interesting in itself). I’m also now keen to add Wilkie Collins to my reading pile and brush off some old Arthur Conan Doyles.

Not a bad review for a book then, if its readers want to see the author and read some of the books her book discusses…

Book Five: Mr Pip, Lloyd Jones

mr-pipPeople who like books and reading like to read books about books and reading. And as you would assume that novelists are included in that bunch of  ‘people’ there are a lot of novels out there with books, reading, libraries and authors as their theme. Mr Pip is a novel about how one novel in particular was an integral part of a girl’s life and the affect it had on her life.

The novel in question is Great Expectations. This was probably the main reason I wanted to read Lloyd Jones’ award-winning novel. I love Dickens and as a result I tend to want to read novels that claim to be about him or one of his novels (look out for Wanting and Hard Times later on in the year). Why do I love Charles Dickens? His works give me great pleasure, and for me, that is one of the best compliments I can give a book. Yes they are long and ye old-e world-e and he loved a bit of over-drama and poor, forlorn females but I love them I tell you. But back to Mr Pip.

Set in PNG in  the 1990s during  the troubles between mine, rebels, Port Moresby, Francis Ona etc. (if you can’t tell, my understanding of this time in PNG is extremely limited) the lone white man left on the island teaches school by reading Great Expectations to his charges. This man – Mr Watts – is a mystery in himself, and the combination of this and the wondrous spell of ‘Mr Dickens’ entrances the narrator, Matilda, and her fellow pupils.

Throughout the story we learn of the effect Great Expectation‘s protagonist, Pip, has on our own protagonist. We also learn of the simple life she and her fellow villagers are living and the very real fear they live with being the pawns in a battle between the  government’s ‘redskins’ and the rebels. In a way it is an easy-to-read non-taxing kind of narrative. A simple story in a way. But it is powerful and though I won’t give it away the climax is all the more affecting because of the ease in which you have read up to it.

I think that is the success of this novel. It appears like a small, easy read but it is actually quite layered. Because you follow most of it through the eyes of a young girl who knows nothing but this small village, I found myself often falling into step with her innocence and merely enjoying her enjoyment in Mr Dickens and Pip. I knew what dangers she and her village were in, I knew there was vast poverty and sorrow, I knew that we couldn’t ignore the rebels, soldiers and coups and I knew that there had to be more to Mr Watts, but tended to join Matilda at her level of understanding of life until we were both forced to face reality.

I can’t say I adored Mr Pip the way I adore Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Great Expectations, but I can see why it has come in to so much praise. It’s definitely worth a read – if anything because it speaks to us book people of something we can utterly relate to: the power a book (books) has to change, enhance, support and shape our lives.