October 20th, 2010


October Books 9) The Great Tradition, by F.R. Leavis

Back in my Cambridge undergraduate days, we Natural Scientists had a joke about the guy studying English who did not want to look out of the window in the morning, because then he would have had nothing to do in the afternoon. But as I have got more interested in sf criticism, I have felt that maybe I did miss something by not sampling what was on offer in terms of literature studies in the department which was still resting on its laurels from the glory days of Leavis (or rather the Leavises). So I picked up this volume to get a sense of what, if anything, I have been missing.

Well, it's as I expected in one way: Leavis is very judgmental and allows little room for argument. The first half-sentence affirms that "[t]he great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad", and the rest of the book is an elaboration of the greatness of the latter three (Jane Austen having received a separate book of her own). Not having read much of the authors in question, let alone of those who Leavis dismisses as less than great, I can only really react by assessing whether or not Leavis gives me a fresh understanding of those books that I have in fact read, and also by taking his recommendations of books I haven't read as potential future reading.

Leavis does not really satisfy me on the first count. His concept of "greatness" is nowhere clearly enough defined for me to feel whether or not I agree with it, let alone whether or not it's a useful criterion for assessing the quality of a novel. We all know that there are good books and bad books, and most of us will agree that, say, Pride and Prejudice is good, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is bad, and American Gods is good but flawed. Not everyone will do so: there are plenty of people who find Austen's prose impenetrable, Bach deep and meaningful, or Gaiman either indigestible or worthy of uncritical admiration. It is sometimes nice to imagine that there are vaguely objective criteria out there which one can appeal to, and I had sort of hoped that Leavis would fairly clearly signpost what those criteria might be. But he doesn't.

However, if I take Leavis' analysis as an expression of taste, his taste is sufficiently close to mine (we diverge on Wuthering Heights, where I know that I am in the minority who find the book pretty unappealing, but are agreed on Middlemarch and Heart of Darkness) that I did find his recommendations of other novels worth reading, including several by writers outside his chosen few, very interesting: the following therefore go on my Bookmooch list and my Amazon (hawk, spit) wishlist:

Benjamin Disraeli: Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred
George Eliot: Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda (though Leavis recommends skipping the bits that are actually about Daniel Deronda and concentrating on the bits about Gwendolen)
Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians
Joseph Conrad: Nostromo and The Secret Agent
Charles Dickens: Hard Times

A final thought: I'm writing this on a train and won't edit again before I post when I reach my hotel this evening, but I'd be very interested to know if Heart of Darkness might have influenced H.P. Lovecraft. (Or, if I have the chronology wrong, vice versa.) Leavis entirely fairly accuses Conrad of going well over the top, in the style of a 'magazine writer' influenced by Kipling and Poe rather than with the subtlety he was capable of. But the passages he chooses to illustrate this point seemed to me very reminiscent of At the Mountains of Madness. I guess that probably (as Leavis sort of implies) the two have common roots in pulp literature.

October Books 10) Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State, by Richard Cockett

Cockett is the Economist's Africa editor, and has produced here a very readable account of the last few decades and years in Sudan, explaining how the Darfur crisis came about and exploring the international reaction to both Darfur and the sputtering implementation of the peace agreement between the government in Khartoum and the southern part of the country.

Among those professionally engaged in Sudanese matters I am a member of the small minority who are not covering Darfur at all, so I found this book very useful in contextualising my own concerns within the international community's wider agenda. Cockett explores rather viciously (though I have seen even more vicious analysis) the impact of international activism on Sudanese politics and Western policy. He also has a couple of good sections on Asian involvement, particularly but not only China. I missed, however, a decent explanation of the roles of Libya and Chad in Darfur, which borders both. I was also puzzled by his repeated bemoaning of how the politics of building coalition governments doomed Sudan; it's not clear to me (and it certainly isn't clear from his account) that the current regime, effectively a one-party state with a few southern trimmings, has delviered better results than its predecessors. And although the chronology of events in Darfur in the recent period is good, and the accounts of the conditions of life and death are pretty horrific and memorable, I wiould have liked to read a judicious summing up of what exactly had happened and who he thinks was really to blame.

October Books 11) The Many Hands, by Dale Smith

A jolly good Tenth Doctor and Martha novel, which would have made a brilliant TV episode (or couple of episodes). Mostly set in eighteenth-century Edinburgh, where alien tech has created a flock of semi-sentient hands which are terrifying the locals. A good sense of place and a couple of David Tennant in-jokes referencing Bathgate and Hamlet. Entertaining stuff.