literature

Living on the edge of the unknown

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that life can change completely in a single second.”

So I responded to an upset eighteen year old Canadian as we sped towards Lyon airport, the sun setting to the right of us, the long shadows of an unknown future striding to catch us from behind.

Two hours ago we had been told that everyone had to leave Taize. In a split second we had accepted an invitation to evacuate to England, our common colonising ancestor. After a stressful hour six of us had booked tickets for the only two flights we could find, for 2pm the next day. We had packed our belongings in 10 minutes, and now we were rushing to make it to the airport before France went into lockdown and the rumours of closed borders, unknown restrictions, and cancelled flights became reality.

Even as I spoke those words I was aware they were pretentious, patronizing and rather idiotic. I was also aware they were true.

Using up my last euros at the airport…

We constantly live on the edge of uncertainty. Some of us have had more reason to be aware of this than others. For as long as I can remember I have known I will not have my mum forever, and yet that split second phone call during my lunch break at work when I heard she had a mass in her pancreas still changed everything.

For as long as I can remember I’ve devoured books where dramatic things happen. Kids die too young; people are wounded in battle; last minute inheritances save the day; all is lost and all is rescued over and pver again. Yet I still remember exactly where I was when I found out that my ten year old friend had died suddenly from an undiagnosed brain tumour.

In the weeks leading up to my travels I chose not to dwell on my hopes and excitement because I knew that life is rarely smooth and expectations often go unmet. Still, the last thing I expected was a pandemic, and the hours that preceded our hasty departure will be remembered for a while.

I don’t know how my story will end, but after a sleepless 30 hours spent watching as flight after flight was cancelled and wondering if mine was next while praying the UK would not close its borders before I got in, I am currently enjoying a happy interlude.

Isn’t this stunning? There are times out on the moors when I feel God has given me eternity in the space of a few seconds.

My days are filled with sharing household responsibilities between the five of us; watching TV; knitting; Taize style prayers; walking on the desolate moors; and reading. It’s a dreamlike existence. Each morning I am beyond thankful to have a place to stay thanks to a generous friend (and their generous family) and each evening I am beyond thankful to hear that my family in Australia are still well and healthy.

At times I feel like I’ve entered an Enid Blyton book. I love moss so so much; it makes me so happy you wouldn’t believe.

I don’t know what will happen once the UK emerges from lock down and we come out of quarantine. I don’t think anyone does. The world will never be the same, and so I wait and watch and pray. I hope the lays of Europe will settle in beneficial lines for me, but I do not know.

A pastoral scene

Each of us, all the time, live precariously. It’s easy to forget this. To forget just how quickly the world can be remade, to forget how easily all the future can be undone. We are but dust and ashes, and so, so fragile. All this pandemic has done is pull back the veil a little. Right now everyone of us is being confronted with the reality of our existence simultaneously: It is uncertain. It is unknown. It is terrifying.

And so what? Do we sit and wait around for the world to end in either a bang or a whimper? Do we throw in the towel, or begin to cotton wool our nests against an apocalypse? You could. People do. But isn’t there a better way?

So many times in those chaotic few days I thought I’d never reach Yorkshire. In the first few days after I arrived I still felt like it would all be snatched away. It still could, but that’s in God’s hands, not mine.

Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. I find this really comforting. Life always was uncertain, always has been terrifying. What this pandemic does is give us the opportunity to see clearly and to decide how we will respond. Not just to the current crisis, but to the remainder of our unstable lives.

God was the answer when life seemed safe, and he remains the answer know we know it is not.

I feel utterly and entirely spoilt. God did not have to send me off to quarantine to such a place as this – and I am so, so grateful.

And so we march on. Wavering on the precipice of eternity, hands held out to Jesus. For this minute I am alive, and all the other minutes have been woven carefully into the very material of the universe by a Master Craftsman. What is unknown to me is known by He who knows me and makes himself known.

For now, that is enough.

Only in Britain..

Reading:

Making Money, a discworld novel – Terry Pratchett

Thomas Clarkson’s  award-winning (and literally world changing) “An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African” (1785)

The wrath of a loving God, unravelling a Biblical conundrum – Br John of Taize

Sel. From Martin Luther’s Table talk

Various fan fictions and online meta analyses.

… I also watched North and South for the first time. Seemed appropriate given the locale (I’m living in the North now). I know everyone seems to love it, but… I just couldn’t deal with the romance. On what basis do they love each other? They’ve never even had a proper conversation. It drove me up the wall.

Our rewatch of Good Omens and Doctor Who was much more enjoyable. And also appropriate given Eccleston is northern?

And credit for the title goes to the Star Trek episode “the city of the edge of forever”. Likewise, credit for the second title in the previous post goes to Gabriel Marquez’s Love in the time of the cholera.

Lastly, T. S. Elliot owns “a bang or a whimper” and his poem is absolutely stunning: https://msu.edu/~jungahre/transmedia/the-hollow-men.html

The “Carton Effect” (or, self-sacrifice in literature)

We all know the fictional ‘trope’ of “self-sacrifice.” It’s what Aslan, Harry Potter, Timothy and Jesus have in common.

I’ve recently been musing on a specific type of sacrifice ‘trope’ (for want of a better word) which seems to crop up again and again in literature. I’m calling it….

“The Carton Effect”

Sydney Carton, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, is often expounded as a heroic example of self-sacrifice. Let’s analyse his actions.

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A biblical interpretation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I wrote a review of sorts for the BBC series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it occurs to me that I have neglected to write about book by Susanna Clarke of the same name.

There are multiple book reviews for this 800 page novel on the web. Some brilliant, some dry, some which encapsulate what I believe to be the heart of the book and others which appear to miss it altogether.

There are also many critical interpretations: I’ve read essays which address social class, feminism, LGBT representation, historicism, religion, textual structure, folklore and nationalism.

I haven’t seen a Biblical interpretation (although I saw an interesting gnosticism one) and so I’d like to attempt that here. I feel, however, that I ought to state some disclaimers:

  1. By analyzing JSMN from a biblical perspective, I’m not claiming that this is how Clarke constructed the text. I am simply doing what literary critics do and reading it with a specific framework in mind.
  2. I’m also not claiming that ‘the Author is dead,’ and Clarke’s intentions don’t matter. I think that such a reading devalues the text. Nevertheless, the reader has a right to interpret to the extent that they can back their arguments with textual examples.
  3. By reading JSMN through a biblical framework, I’m not claiming it’s an allegory. There seems to be the mistaken idea that reading something “with a Christian perspective” simply involves finding a Christ-like figure and pinpointing a resurrection – as if textual interpretation is some sort of bizarre Where’s Wally? Game. It’s so much more than that.

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In defence of Fiction

This post was written in response to someone who dared to suggest in my hearing that non-fiction trumps fiction. (Don’t worry, we’re still on speaking terms!)

My defence of fiction (firstly, let’s make sure we’re on the same page)

Firstly, we cannot include the Bible in this debate. I believe that the Bible stands alone as the Word of God, a sacred text, written by the Divine. It is Truth embodied.

Secondly, we can’t say one is better than the other. To do so is to misunderstand the debate. They are both literary genres. Neither is the exclusive bulwark of Truth, although both embrace it. Non-fiction does not have the exclusive rights to ‘objectivity,’ to ‘practicality,’ or to ‘clarity’. Neither does fiction alone protect the last vestiges of ‘creativity,’ of ‘beauty,’ or of ‘refreshment’.

Fiction fulfils a different purpose to Non-fiction, but it is of equal importance, and thus deserves equal attention. This is my proposition. These, then, are my arguments:

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Thinking Fiction: Why we like characters who work undercover for the ‘good’ side

I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. This is part of my foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.

Who or what are ‘characters who work undercover for the ‘good’ side’?

I’m not sure if this is a universal ‘like’, but it’s certainly one of mine. I really enjoy reading a book or watching a TV series in which a character has to hide their true allegiances from others.

These characters appear ‘less than’ noble, ‘less than’ dependable, and at times downright villainous to most of the other characters, yet are actually working for the side of ‘good’. If they are the protagonist they are likely striving to ‘help’ society or a faction thereof, if they are not the protagonist, they are often an undercover champion for the protagonist’s cause.

An extreme example of this is when an individual the protagonist believes is ‘evil’ is revealed at the end of a series or novel to have been working for ‘good’ the entire time.

This is an extreme and difficult example to plot for three reasons:

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a year in reading 2018

A year in reading 2018

Happy New Year everyone! Following the tradition, here we go!

Books read 2018: 70

Trends:

  • Number of books is increasing (67 in 2017, 56 in 2016, 55 in 2015)
  • I am ‘reading’ more audio books
  • I am also reading far more e-books than paper
  • This year I included (for the first time) in my list novel-length works of fan fiction (but not in my summary here).

Ratio:

49 fiction/21 non-fiction

37 e-kindle/11 audio/22 paper print

Longest paper book:

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Shortest paper book:

The Importance of being Ernest – Oscar Wilde

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Thinking fiction Why we like socially disadvantaged characters

Thinking fiction: Why we like socially disadvantaged characters…

I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. Join me on a foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.

Who or what are socially disadvantaged characters?

Socially disadvantaged characters are those who are oppressed by their society. They have little power to change the (sometimes horrific) world they live in. They are often children, poor, slaves or people of a marginalised race.

For all this, these socially disadvantaged are often the heroes of their tales. In ‘rags-to-riches’ narratives the reason for this is obvious, but there are many other stories where they play central parts – so why are they so popular?

Examples of socially disadvantaged characters

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Review: The Children Act (2017)

Based on the eponymous novel by Ian McEwan. 

As the High Court Children’s Judge, Justice Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide whether to give a Jehovah ’s Witness boy a blood transfusion against his wishes.

I entered the cinema expecting a clear-cut film condemning religion and extolling the power of ‘free choice.’ Instead I watched a gripping drama filled with flawed characters grappling with what it looks like to love their neighbour.

After visiting the precocious teen in hospital, Justice Maye rules according to the court precedent (“life over dignity”) and chooses to save his physical body, sparing little thought for his soul.

Yet when the disillusioned young man adopts her as his spiritual mentor and her own marriage begins to crumble, Justice May must confront questions such as:

How far should you be expected to go to save a child who is not your own?

Is it always right to separate your professional and personal lives?

What does it take to save a marriage when both individuals have committed betrayal?

This film explores the beauty of life, but also asks: what does it take to sustain it? Are we as Christians willing to give it?

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Sherlock Holmes vs. Shakespeare

“Here, though the world explode, these two survive.”

(Vincent Starlett, “221B”)

Sherlock Holmes vs. Shakespeare: which will last the ages?

If you’re at all familiar with the ‘English speak’ of High school English classes, you’ll know that a common phrase is “enduring appeal”. Shakespeare always has it. It grants the text an ability to transcend time and culture. It means that a story can still entertain an audience and challenge critics hundreds of years after it was first written.

Such is the case with Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – they were enjoyed, are being enjoyed, and doubtless with continue to be enjoyed in the future.

I’d like to argue that the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories have this sort of enduring appeal. No other literary character has been so consistently appropriated, updated and represented. The collection of tales reluctantly written by a struggling medical doctor have spawned numerous books, poems, films and screen-plays – not to mention museums, monuments and societies.

The brilliant but eccentric detective and his humble but loyal biographer have permeated their way into popular culture, and demonstrate no sign of leaving anytime soon.

Why? What is it about this cannon of works that has generated such enduring appeal?

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The Problem with Redeeming Severus Snape

I love amateur literary analysis. Love reading it, love writing it. Here’s some pondering on a very well known character of an extraordinarily well known series.

Severus Snape is a complicated character

Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, has gained many followers.

I understand why.

He’s a complicated character and there’s much to explore and much subtext to read. He joined the Dark side in his youth, returned to the Light after he realised the love of his life (married to someone else) was in danger. After her death he swore to protect her only son, who was the spitting image of his childhood nemesis. He worked as a double, triple agent, ultimately on the Light side, yet spending much of his time working with the Dark. He was anti-social, unpleasant and held tightly to the grudges of his youth, killed the ‘greatest wizard of all time’ and the only one who knew his secret, yet died himself before he could see his side win.

He was the only character who didn’t receive his just deserts. He didn’t receive acknowledgement for the work he did. Many characters died, but he was the only one who perished without everyone knowing who and what he died for.

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