humour

MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS BY AMOS TUTUOLA

Boo.

No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.

Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.

“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”

Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.

In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.

There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food, their weird practices and their impenetrable gobbledygook language.

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Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.

Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’

The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.

Boo-hoo. Boo-haha.

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THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

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Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

HILL BY JEAN GIONO

It wasn’t often that I went to school, but, during my irregular appearances, I somehow managed – perhaps by virtue of having a big mouth and an even bigger chip on my shoulder – to develop a friendship with the tough kid. He was stocky and ginger, like a red brick wall, and lived out of town, on a run down farm. His attendance record was almost as sketchy as mine, only he went hunting when he skipped school and I went to the local library. Yet sometimes we would both be in lessons on the same day and we would sit together and talk about whatever young men talk about when they have nothing in common except their poverty and their anger.

Looking back, it seems strange that his interest in hunting didn’t immediately lead to hostility between us. It was almost as though I didn’t really know what hunting was. I lived on a council estate; nature was unreal to me; it floated nebulously on the periphery of my consciousness, far from my conception of the world. Then one day he brought something into school for me, a present. It was a squirrel’s tail. Only it was not a squirrel’s tail, no more than a severed hand belongs to the man from whom it was removed. It was dead matter; and it nauseated and disorientated me. For years I had witnessed human beings fighting each other, beating and abusing each other, but it hadn’t before occurred to me that this was how we treated the earth too.

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals? Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder? It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill. And when he scythes, he slays. So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

Hill was Jean Giono’s first novel, of something like fifty, and was published in 1929. It begins with an almost edenic description of the Bastides Blanches, where ‘bees dance around birches sticky with sap’ and ‘a fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter into the wind.’ It is, he writes, ‘the land of the untamed’, of wild and flourishing nature. And it is the land of people also. There are white houses ‘perched like doves on the hill’s shoulder.’ In them live an isolated agricultural community, so isolated, and distant from others, that even the postman rarely visits and a doctor makes excuses not to return as the journey takes too long.

The men and women of the Bastides Blanches are often described in natural terms, giving the impression that, at least for the author, the two – humanity and the natural world – are not, or should not be, separate entities. One man has the ‘movement of a growing branch,’ another dances ‘the way marmots do’, still another is said to pant rapidly like a bird. Indeed, one of the principle characters, Gagou, is essentially an animal. He is mentally impaired, his sole form of communication being the grunting of his name. His needs are animalistic too, in that he appears only to require shelter, water and sex. Moreover, the way that he dies is, one might say, by sacrificing himself to nature, or in an attempt to become one with it, by walking into a fire.

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Yet while this united kingdom, this trinity, of people, animals, and earth is for Giono clearly the ideal, he was too smart to suggest that it is a reality. Indeed, in a significant, if perhaps somewhat heavy-handed, move the idyllic opening I touched upon earlier is violently disturbed by the introduction of a human presence, when Jaume fires a round of buckshot at a boar bathing in a spring. The truth of the matter is that the community at the Bastides Blanches are reliant upon the natural world, take from it, use it, but do not give anything back; they are, in the phoney war between the three forms of life, the aggressors, the tyrants, the exploiters.

It is Janet, the bed-bound quasi-mystic, who gives voice to this truth and others like it. He is, you might say, the community’s bad conscience. ‘The world isn’t made for you alone’, he admonishes Jaume when he seeks the old man’s advice. As the conversation unfolds, which is in fact more of a cosmic monologue, he talks about the suffering of animals, of trees, of ‘hundreds of holes in the flesh of living creatures and in living wood’ out of which ‘the blood and the sap flow over the world like a gigantic river.’ Janet is a truly memorable creation, so captivating and believable that, even in his most theatrical moments, his sermons unnerve the reader as much as the characters.

Much is made in reviews of the environmental aspect of the narrative, and yet, while the above shows that it is quite clearly there in the text, I believe that it is overplayed, or overemphasised, to the exclusion of its other noteworthy themes or qualities. I used the word ‘war’ before to describe the relationship between humanity and other forms of life, and I think there is something fascinating, and grimly amusing, about the way that we – for I don’t exclude myself from this – view inanimate objects or unconscious creatures as our enemies, as being in opposition to us. Consider for a moment the scene with the boar: Jaume, after firing at it, calls it a ‘son of a whore’ as though it had personally wronged him, as though it could understand this taunt, this insult, when of course it had not and it could not.

As the novel progresses, the characters, rattled by Janet’s ramblings and a run of bad luck, come to believe that the earth is out to get them, is bent on revenge; not figuratively, literally. If this sounds like the clever set-up of a comedy, that is because it is. There is no doubt in my mind that Giono plays for laughs, that he deliberately ramps up the absurdity. At one point, the men gather together in order to discuss their options, to make a plan, and what they decide is to go down to the woods…with their guns. Seriously. Their plan is to shoot nature, to pistol-whip the wind. They also bolt their doors; and one of them moves his bed into his mother’s room. What we see here is an exaggerated, satirical, form of the mindset outlined in the previous paragraph, which is that of imbuing the natural world with human, or even supernatural, qualities, and then pitching ourselves against it.

I would also argue, and I have already hinted at this, that Hill is a horror story. It is often said, when discussing the horror film genre, that the scariest examples are those where the ‘evil’, where the malevolent entity, remains off screen or hidden, where it is implied rather than proven by sight; and that is exactly how Giono’s novel plays out. Bad things start to happen – people fall ill, the water supply dries up, and so on – and no one can explain how or why; these events are, for the men, inexplicable, their causes unseeable, and therefore frightening. Out of this fear, a paranoia develops, and they begin to place significance in ordinary events, such as the appearance of a harmless black cat and the ‘foreign’ silence. It is telling, in this regard, that when a forest fire breaks out Jaume is relieved, because, he himself admits, he now knows what he is dealing with; this terrible something is better than a terrible nothing. Indeed, the men aren’t oppressed by a spook, they spook themselves, and Giono’s novel is, in this way, something like a Gallic, superior version of The Blair Witch Project.

THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

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One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

AUTOPORTRAIT BY EDOUARD LEVE

I have read a lot of French novels in my lifetime, many of which I consider to be amongst my favourites. Two of these French novels were written by Edouard Levé. I have never had a sexually transmitted disease. I once thought that I might have one, but the test result was negative. I own a cat, but I prefer dogs. I believe that my cat and I are too similar in terms of our personalities. I often think about giving up reading. This would of course mean that I would not read any more French novels, including those written by Edouard Levé. It is a fantasy of mine that I will do more with my life than just read. I once spent a day with a beautiful Russian girl from Sochi who gave me a 100 rouble note to remember her by. I keep it in my wallet. People frequently accuse me of being aloof and distant. I am scared of spiders, but not scared of rats or snakes. It is rare that I enjoy writing about books. I decided to write about Autoportrait in this way out of laziness, and because I do not have a lot to say about it. I am not very generous with money. The company and conversation of most people bores me, including many of my friends. As a child, I once threw away all of my mother’s make up because I thought it might have been tested on animals. I have a tendency to focus on my character flaws, even though outwardly I appear confident and sure of myself. Generally speaking, I am not attracted to white English women. The prospect of my own death terrifies me. One thing I can say about Autoportrait is that it is composed of a series of banal, apparently factual, statements. This is itself a banal factual statement. I do not own a TV. I once let a spider live in my room because it appeared to flinch when I went to kill it. It is possible that I later killed it believing it to be a different spider. I lost my virginity at eighteen. I once drank a pint of tequila and almost died. As a result, I did not drink tequila for years, until a Czech girl ordered it for me in a nightclub in Prague. I do not speak Czech, and therefore I could not communicate to her my aversion to that particular drink. I am convinced that if I met myself I would despise me. I do not believe in God, but I often pray to him and ask favours of him. I do not know how to spell bureaucracy. As a child, I once fell in a river and had to be pulled out by my hair. I found reading Autoportrait an emotional experience. Although individually many of the sentences are uninspired, when taken as a whole Levé’s novel gives you a sense of a real man. It may be the only novel in existence that does this. Having read the book I feel as though I simultaneously know a lot about Edouard Levé and nothing at all. I have never cheated on a partner, although I have been accused of it numerous times. I am left-handed. I know all the words to Stickwitu by The Pussycat Dolls. If asked to sum up Autoportrait I would perhaps say that it is a kind of autobiography with all the important events, all the drama, edited out. I feel as though I consistently punch above my weight in terms of the women I date. I have never kissed a man, and have no desire to do so. I cannot whistle. I have never cried at a funeral. The idea behind Autoportrait is a great one, but I usually find this kind of ‘gimmicky’ literature tedious to read. I am addicted to cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes even though I hated the smell of cigarette smoke as a child. I smoke cigarettes even though I am terrified of death. I did not smoke a cigarette until I was twenty-two. Edouard Levé sniffed the books he was reading, but I do not. However, I did sniff Autoportrait in preparation for this review. It doesn’t smell of anything, except perhaps cigarette smoke. I smoke a lot while I am reading. I was once locked in a bathroom when the handle of the bathroom door came off in my hand as I attempted to exit. I seriously considered jumping out of the window, even though, being far from the ground, I would likely have badly injured myself. I masturbate every day. When I masturbate I usually think about receiving oral sex. Autoportrait is not one of my favourite novels, although I certainly enjoyed it. I once had sex in a photobooth in Paddington station. I brush my teeth three times a day. My favourite Kraftwerk album is Computer World. I find the minutiae of human existence moving. I am 5’9″ tall. I am 5’9″ tall, in the right kind of shoes. My waist is 26″. I do not enjoy live music. I find the posturing of most musicians ridiculous. I have never wanted to play the guitar. I have eight tattoos. I want my hands tattooing, but I am concerned that it would harm my job prospects. I regularly fantasise about winning the lottery. I do not play the lottery. Autoportrait occasionally made me laugh, but most frequently it made me smile. I have never smoked marijuana. I do not like the idea of a drug that would make me sit around on my arse all day laughing like an idiot. I like to dance. I am not shy, I am just unfriendly. I believe that I may be Autistic. My ex-grilfriend’s nickname for me was Rainman. After reading two of his books I am still undecided as to whether Edouard Levé was a genuinely talented writer, or merely a clever one. I consider myself to be unlucky. I find the fetishisation of books, and the cult of reading, extremely tiresome and, quite frankly, weird. I have never wanted to meet a famous person. If I had been offered the opportunity to meet Edouard Levé, I would have turned it down. I read Autoportrait cover-to-cover. I do not own a single photograph showing me with any of my friends or ex-partners. It is not true to say that Autoportrait is a random series of sentences in no discernible order. The final sentence, for example, strikes me as having been carefully chosen. I won an award at the age of sixteen for a short story I had written. I did not go to the ceremony to collect the award. I am more excited by the idea that Autoportrait could be entirely fictional, rather than factual or autobiographical. I would not describe the book as confessional, although my review of it perhaps is. I do not enjoy making other people unhappy. I often find that I enjoy my memory of experiences more than the experiences themselves. I have never seen the Lord of the Rings films. I frequently burn pizza. At some point I intend to review Autoportrait in a more conventional manner, but I probably never will. I have fired a gun. I intensely dislike my brother. My mother loves me, but does not like me very much. I believe that I write better book reviews than anyone else. I do not think that I am especially talented, simply that other writers and reviewers are less talented than me. I do, however, acknowledge that this review is particularly poor, and am prepared to accept that numerous other people will have reviewed Autoportrait better than I.

MIDDLEMARCH BY GEORGE ELIOT

I am not, I must confess, terribly fond of Englishness. I suppose that being English I find it too familiar, and therefore unexciting. Or perhaps it is the case that my tough upbringing worked on me as a kind of aversion therapy, so that everything connected with my homeland strikes me as unappealing. I don’t know. Until I came to think about this review, I had never really sought to thoroughly explain to myself my preference for things foreign, a preference that extends to the women I have been in relationships with, landscapes [I find the English countryside incomparably dreary], art, film, and most other aspects of my private and intellectual life. One consequence of this attitude is that, I now realise, I’m particularly tough on English literature; I make fewer allowances, I let less slide. And so a novel written by an English person has a much steeper mountain to climb to reach the summit of my affections. Of course, some have managed it [Charles Dickens, for example, found the going relatively easy and has become a particular favourite; Jane Austen laboured somewhat, but got there in the end], but they are certainly in the minority up there. The purpose of all of this is to give some perspective to my claim that Middlemarch by George Eliot is not one of the finest English novels [a statement that coming from me would mean very little] but one of the greatest novels, period.

With Emma it was, apparently, Jane Austen’s intention to create a heroine that her readers might not like immediately, or at all. To some extent she was successful in this endeavour, for many appear to find the title character irritating. Yet I have never felt that way about her; she is too energetic and silly to engender any kind of antipathy. However, if George Eliot had ever had, while writing this book, the same aim in mind she absolutely nailed it. In the interests of fairness, one ought to point out that Dorothea Burke is not without positive traits, such as her desire to help the poor, but she is without charm. Indeed, if I were asked to choose a bunch of adjectives to describe someone who I would cross the street to avoid, those pertaining to Eliot’s heroine – pious, self-denying, proud, judgemental – would be high on the list.

For me it is these qualities that inspire her to forgo the more obviously appealing Sir James in favour of the musty Mr. Casaubon. In this respect, I was reminded very much of another strong-willed young woman, Isabel Archer from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Both women, to themselves, justify their strange choices as wanting to be useful or challenged. Dorothea, in fact, likens Casaubon to Locke or Pascal; she thinks him a superior soul who will instruct and lead her, while she will aid him in his work. Yet, as the reader, one can’t help but think that marrying him is a kind of sacrifice, or martyrdom. She prides herself of not valuing frivolous things, and of being able to give them up [like horse riding, or jewels]; she doesn’t admit it to herself, but in picking Casaubon she gives up physical attraction, or at least trades it so that her intellect, her soul, can be, ahem, given a good seeing to instead. But even in this, even in denying herself, one could argue that there is a kind of vanity or egotism, that, just like Isabel, she chooses one, Casaubon, over another, Sir James, in order to show that she knows better, that she can make her own obscure choices, will go against the grain.

That Eliot allows her heroine to get off on the wrong foot, so to speak, with her audience was a brave move. I can imagine some readers clapping the book shut and throwing it away from themselves, in order to be rid of the haughty Miss Brooke. However, if you do persevere I am confident that your attitude will change towards her, or will soften at least. The reconciliation between the reader and Dorothea is most likely to take place during her disastrous marriage to the mummy [as Chettem calls Casaubon]. Before the couple tie the knot one might have been in two minds as to whether it would be a success, because, although the ageing clergyman, who is not in the best health, may strike you as unsuitable for marriage with a young woman, Dorothea’s personality is such that the union does, on the surface, pretty much make sense. Even her Uncle concedes that it is not sheer folly, and that Sir James would not have been a good match; but once Dorothea is alone with her husband she quickly comes to realise that life with him will be a lonely, frustrating, and unhappy one. And Eliot uses the contrast between the husband and the wife to expose aspects of Dorothea’s character previously unknown to the reader, making her much more agreeable.

Edward Casaubon, is, quite rightly, one of the most well-known and cherished characters in English fiction. Of all the people who feature in this vast novel, he was the one I best remembered from my first read, the one I would reference in conversation with others. Yet it was interesting to note during this reread that, while Eliot’s reputation is as a fair-minded author, a creator of finely crafted, sympathetic, flawed but human characters [and it is a deserved reputation], she is fairly relentless in mocking Casaubon, at times reaching Dickensian levels of satire. He is a terminally boring, self-absorbed and passionless man. Eliot makes this clear in numerous ways, but a number of his speeches [one about painting in particular – where he speaks about admiration without ever giving the impression that he feels any himself], and his letter to Dorothea asking for her hand in marriage, are almost painful to read in their formality and dryness.

“MY DEAR MISS BROOKE, — I have your guardian’s permission to address you on a subject than which I have none more at heart. I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.”

Perhaps the deepest thrust Eliot delivers is in relation to Casaubon’s work, his life’s work, called the Key to all Mythologies. It is an ambitious, comprehensive study that he is, of course, incapable of bringing to completion. He isn’t, then, only self absorbed, monomaniacal, and emotionally limp, but also completely ineffectual. I have known a number of people like this, such as my friend’s father, who left his wife, isolated himself from his friends and family, and then spent the next two decades faffing about with complex computer programmes and photography equipment, never getting within even sniffing distance of achieving anything. Or, to call forth a more famous example, what about Austrian author Robert Musil, a man of questionable temperament apparently, who dedicated the majority of his career to writing The Man Without Qualities, and yet died leaving the work unfinished? Indeed, what Eliot most impressively nailed with Casaubon is a particular kind of male behaviour or psychology or approach to the world. Many men are, to some extent, obsessive, are prone to cutting themselves off and getting lost in their hobbies or projects, be that football, gardening, or whatever. Moreover, a lot of us do not have a sense of our own ridiculousness, of how tedious we can be when we hold forth on these subjects; nor do we understand our own capabilities or limitations. This is especially true of men who are engaged in intellectual pursuits.

I must admit that I had an uncomfortable realisation during the book that there is a very real danger, not that I am a little bit like Casaubon, but that I could go full Casaubon. And you should never go full Casaubon. For example, one of my girlfriend’s once left me because I had stopped paying her attention as I worked my way through Cao Xueqin’s multi-volume Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone [totally worth it though]. Moreover, I once decided that I wanted to be able to name the greatest novel from each major country and spent at least two years engaged in research; and this is without mentioning the years I spent on my own writing projects, including a [never completed, of course] work that was meant to incorporate all of the [hundreds of thousands of] pieces and fragments of prose I have accumulated throughout my life, which I believed would, in toto, result in a bildungsroman for the modern age! Casaubon is, in this way, a warning to people like me. He is the ghost that visits you on Christmas Eve, proposing to show you who you could turn into if you are not careful.

In light of all this, it is not difficult to see why Dorothea suffers so much in the marriage. She thought she was aligning herself with a Locke, but instead got with an old man of no genius; she thought she would share in, and help with, his work, and yet she ends up being little more than an unpaid secretary or unvalued pupil.

“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

Since first reading Middlemarch I have, whenever the subject has arisen, claimed that it is the greatest novel ever written about love and relationships; and I have found, on this occasion, more than enough in the text to back that up. Indeed, while Casaubon and Dorothea are endlessly fascinating, I perhaps enjoyed the Lydgate and Rosamond storyline even more. As with the more famous couple, Eliot’s great skill is in being able to make you see the potential for success in the relationship, while also observing its possible flaws. Despite their age and attractiveness, Lydgate and Rosamond getting together isn’t mindless star-crossed lovers fluff; the coupling is psychologically sound. He thinks that her beauty and grace will enrich his life, which is understandable, and consistent with his personality, while her air of vulnerability, of needing to be looked after, is also consistent with his profession. Likewise, she wants a man who is not a Middlemarcher, who is superior, and Lydgate fits the bill. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a marriage based on such superficialities will likely flounder.

As central as love and marriage are to the narrative, what unites or defines almost all of the couplings formed during the duration of the novel is a sense of eventual disappointment or, more precisely, disillusionment. Indeed, this feeling plays a part in many other aspects of the story, including, for example, Fred Vincy’s dreams and ambitions. In this way, I can’t help but think that, while the name Middlemarch has served the book adequately, the two most appropriate titles were already taken: Great Expectations and Lost Illusions. All of the major characters approach life hopefully, with expectations of success, and yet nearly all find their hopes dashed.

“Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight–that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

Again, Dorothea and Casaubon provide an interesting example. As noted, Dorothea finds that marriage is not all she thought it would be. Yet, crucially, she cannot really fault her husband; he did not make false promises, nor did he change upon signing the contract. It is more a case that Dorothea, like most people entering into relationships, took every small example of admirable traits or behaviour during the courtship to be but a taster of the huge amounts of such qualities the person in question would have in store. Likewise, Casaubon is also left disappointed; he imagined Dorothea would ease his strain, would support, rather than question, or make demands of him. To return to Fred Vincy, he considered it a fait accompli that old Featherstone would leave him a sizeable legacy, but things do not work out as he envisaged. In fact, the only people who avoid disappointment are those who never had ideals for living, or great hopes, in the first place, such as Mary Garth. As a consequence, I’m not quite sure what the novel’s message really is. Do not hope? Have small ambitions? Be sensible? Maybe. Or perhaps to speak about a message is to turn down the wrong road. I prefer to believe that Eliot wasn’t interested in pedagogy, that her novel is simply showing you life: in its smallness, its meanness, its disappointments, as well as its joys and its successes.

While there isn’t an out-and-out message, Middlemarch does engage with important issues, such as the women question, as I have anachronistically heard it called. As one progresses through the book one comes to realise that Dorothea could be viewed as a kind of unassuming feminist icon. What defines her character is a desire to be active and useful; she draws plans for poor housing and wants to donate to the local hospital. She may not want equality, or never voices that idea, but she does want to do good, to contribute to society. On the other hand, many of the male characters treat her as ‘a vulnerable little woman’; her uncle, for example, worries about her overtaxing herself, and thinks that too much knowledge is bad for a woman; Sir James Chettam thinks that she ought to have been given stronger guidance [i.e. be told what to do and what not to do] when weighing up Casaubon’s proposal, indicating that he believes her unfit to make this so important decision. It is vital, for me, that Eliot allows Dorothea to be both feminine and strong; she is vulnerable, but no more than anyone else, than any man, and she is emotional. While her decision to marry Casaubon is shown to be a poor one, she at least made it herself and insisted on it in the face of opposition. Through her Eliot explores how difficult it was for women to find a useful place in society, one where she is allowed to be significant and make a difference. Lydgate is a doctor, her uncle dabbles in politics, and so on, but she is expected to be little more than a wife.

In terms of Eliot’s style, she has a fine authorial voice: frequently wise and warm, while also capable of irony and a kind of wry humour. I’ve read elsewhere that some find her omniscient, Godly approach not to their taste, and while there were occasions when she unnecessarily breaks the spell [for example, when she addresses the reader and notes that you may or may not be interested in so-and-so], I found it, generally speaking, not to be a problem. What certainly is worth trumpeting is her ability with metaphors. This is an area that I am particularly interested in, for I think that it is a dying, or dead, art [if you’re going to liken, say, a pale face to milk or ivory then you might as well have not bothered at all]. In fact, most rappers turn out better metaphors that this generation’s acclaimed novelists. Eliot’s, however, are supreme; they are constantly surprising and illuminating [which is the point of a metaphor – to enable you to better understand, or appreciate, the thing that is being described by way of comparison].

Before I conclude, I want to outline some minor criticisms. I said at the beginning of this review that you will probably come to change your mind about Dorothea, that although she seems unlikable at first, I am confident that you will come to like or admire her. Yet one of the failings of the novel, for me, is that her character changes too abruptly, that, more specifically, she loses her illusions regarding Casaubon too suddenly. It is not that Eliot does not provide justification, it is simply that the reasons she gives are not entirely consistent with the character of the Dorothea that we meet in the opening stages of the book. For example, during the marriage Casaubon is shown to be lacking passion, and this dismays his wife. Yet she never indicated a desire for passion prior to the marriage, only intelligence and learning [which he has]. Furthermore, by the end of the book Dorothea has become a kind of Jesus figure; forgiving, full of love and understanding. That’s lovely and all, but it just seems too epic a journey, too big a change, to have undertaken in the course of the novel. Another problem with the book is that Will Ladislaw, who is the closest Eliot comes to a romantic hero, is dull as shit. Seriously, I yawned my way through almost all his bits. In any case, none of that was enough to spoil my enjoyment or to dampen my affection.

Finally, then, if this review seems somewhat confused or poorly structured [I hope it doesn’t but I fear it does], or far too long, that is because I struggled to write and edit it. However, I struggled not because my ideas wouldn’t come, or would not allow themselves to be moulded into coherent sentences and paragraphs, but simply because I had so much I wanted to say, because every time I started to lay down my thoughts and feelings I was aware that there were other fascinating aspects of the novel that I could be engaging with. I felt, as I wrote, always as though I was grappling with something bigger than me,  like a fisherman trying to land a shark. That, for me, is the sign of a truly great book – one that will not politely submit itself to a nicely-formed, perfectly manageable 1000 word review. Oh no, Middlemarch made me drag this this out of myself, all 3000 words of it.