The Spire – William Golding


The Spire
by William Golding

Available from Amazon

William Golding’s ‘The Spire’ is the sort of book that you read at your own risk.

The book challenged my thinking, disturbed my emotions, unsettled my presuppositions, exercised my intellect, and for such a tortured book, inadvertently consoled my spirit. How many books achieve that end?

Who is not familiar with the concept of mankind’s desire to aspire to something greater than himself?  Dean Jocelin is no exception.  Believing that God has chosen him to build a spire on top of the already unstable foundations of a cathedral, he relentlessly and stubbornly pursues the insurmountable task in the face of both opposition and reason.  The spire is an architectural impossibility, being built upon an already over-weighted existing structure.  However, neither the Master Builder’s resistance nor the multiple confronting forces both around him and within deter Jocelin from what he perceives to be God’s call.  The process is deeply tortured and the Dean is comforted neither by the encouragement of his fellow men nor God Himself.

The stream of consciousness narrative is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t profess to have understood every word but Golding’s penmanship nevertheless worked its magic.

In his Nobel Lecture given in 1983, Golding himself said:

Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion and the luck of writers, prove to be the most powerful thing in the world’.

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There is tremendous breadth of subject matter in Golding’s novels which, according to the Nobel Foundation ‘illuminate the human condition in the world today’, ‘with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth’.  The writer’s own struggle and effort (he was haunted into adulthood by a lifelong fear of the dark) are reflected in Jocelin’s Macbeth-like overarching ambition, on one level a tremendous testimony to the force of human resolve and on another a terrifying indictment of his pride, arrogance and presumption.

Despite the passion of his vision, Jocelin is blind to the tuberculosis that is gradually claiming his life believing that the fluctuations in the physical pain he experiences are in fact a personal devil or angel at his back. He is blind to the fact that it was his aunt’s sexual influence at court that resulted in his promotion to the lofty position of Dean rather than his own merits. He is blind to the reality of Goody Pagnall’s earthy character and appetites and in denial about his own. But Jocelin is also blind to the God to whom he reaches out, seeing Him as a distant unattainable deity rather than the compassionate and loving Father brought near to us in the person of Christ – Himself the sure foundation.

 

Salad Days

Salad

You are what you eat.  Or so we are told.

Today, I want to suggest that we are what we read.

In a former life when I taught English to feral boys,  I told them that to eat a variety of nutritious foods was good for their health and to read a range of well-written books was good for their minds.   Eat junk – get spotty.  Read junk – get …flabby, mentally flabby.

My own reading this summer has not got off to a good start.  Like a good and thrifty housewife I determined to read some of the books that I’ve bought at some point but not yet read before going out to buy anything new.  Alexander McCall Smith’s ’44 Scotland Street’, the first in the series, and Lyndsey Davis’ ‘The Silver Pigs’ about a Roman detective called Falco, accompanied me on a week away near Chichester.  I didn’t spend very much time reading the Bible as often happens when away on family holidays and with little else available to read,  I chewed my way through these two books like a grumpy child who quickly realises he is not enjoying his meal but knows he must eat up or there’ll be no pudding.

My husband, on the other hand, nearing the end of a second reading of ‘Middlemarch’, has been deeply moved, wholly absorbed and stimulated to lots of Christian thought, self-reflection and engaging conversation.  I need to choose with a bit more care what I read for the remainder of the holiday.  Eating up what’s in the cupboards may be economical financially, but if it’s not good for you, throw it away.

Blogging – One Year On

Roquesreviews reached its first anniversary last week.  On 25 May 2015 my first book review appeared and now here I am a year on, 26 posts later, reflecting on how it’s going.

26 posts doesn’t sound very impressive, does it?  That’s an average of two a month which, given that the posts are mostly book reviews, is reasonable.  Not a complete disgrace anyway.  But is anyone actually enjoying the blog?  Social Media has been my main source of  readers but to be honest, though there have been a good number of visits and views, the likes can be counted on two hands and that’s pretty dispiriting.  Is there some coffee I need to wake up and smell here?

Cup of coffee

Reluctant to quit,  I’ve been doing some research. I recently stumbled upon WordPress’ ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course which advises posting answers to various questions whether you’re new to blogging or have been at it for a while.  Today I’m focussing on this one:

Why are you blogging publicly instead of keeping a diary?

  • Predisposition
    The main reason is that I love writing.   Secondly,  I love reading.  The third reason is that I’m a Christian and I want to serve God with these two passions.  So I review the books that have touched my heart and mind in the hope that you might read them too and be encouraged and stimulated whether you share the Christian faith or not.  I keep a diary too as it happens (and have done since the age of 11) but the diary cannot by definition be a blessing to another.   It’s private.  And I want to bless others with my writing not store it up for myself.
  • Inspiration
    I was a late starter when it comes to literature.  It wasn’t until my ‘A’ levels that I really got going and became an avid reader.  Up until then I’d existed mostly on a diet of ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘Flambards’.  Then two English teachers and a friend studying art history, in their very different ways, inspired me.  I discovered Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rees, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster – the list goes on and on and despite a rejection from Oxford University I went on to study English at St Andrews… and read on.  I enjoyed writing about the books I was reading and have kept records ever since.
  • Conviction
    In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how the Lord can use literature (and the arts more generally) in the life of a believer to his/her own, and others’ encouragement.    Novels, music, paintings and films are not the big bad distraction from the Gospel that I’d always feared but are part of what is sometimes called ‘Common Grace’.  (I’m not talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here).  What I really want to do by writing this blog is to bless others, Christian or not, by sharing my thoughts on books (and the occasional painting or other art form) and how they have helped me understand and love Jesus more.

My prayer is that you will be helped or encouraged by what you find here.  It will then all be worth while.

 

The Reader on the 6.27

The Reader on the 6.27
The Reader on the 6.27
by Jean Paul Didierlaurent

Available at Amazon

Each morning, on the 6.27 train,  Guylain Vignolles reads aloud rescued fragments extracted from standard paperbacks with ‘passionate dedication’:

‘The tree oozed a thick resin through the gashes streaking its trunk, fat tears of sap that beaded on the surface of the bark and then seeped slowly downwards.’

Starting work reluctantly at 7.00am, Guylain ironically operates The Zerstor Funfhundert, a greyish green metal beast (loathingly named ‘The Thing’) which ‘crushes, flattens, pounds, squishes, tears, chops, lacerates, shreds, mixes, kneads and boils’…books.  All day long.  It is the leftovers that Guylain reads to his fellow commuters both to their delight and their indignation.

One day, he discovers a mislaid memory stick and Julie ‘bursts’ into his life through the pages of her diary.

Eventually, through sheer determination and the detective work of his legless friend Guiseppi, the two are movingly united.  The book is a simple, delightful, romance which, according to the Sunday Times, ‘champions the power of literature.’

It is worth reading because it is hugely enjoyable but there are subtleties that make it more than just a bestselling French novel.

Jean Paul Didierlaurent draws some distinctive and vivid characters.

Lucien Brunner, Guylain’s ‘chuntering’ colleague is an ‘idiot beyond redemption’, ‘a serpent of the worst kind, a cobra ready to strike at the tiniest blunder.’  Delighting in the destruction of the written word, he is described as an ‘executioner’.  Guylain hates him.  Their boss, Felix Kowalski, is ‘a little god keeping watch over his dominion’ another whose verbal capacities extend only to torrents of abuse.  ‘He barked, yelled, bellowed, cursed and roared but he had never been able to talk in a normal voice.’  Yvon Grimbert, by contrast, is an alexandrine loving soul-mate whose food is literature and black tea drunk by the thermos full.

Guiseppi Carminetti, Guylain’s predecessor, lost his legs to the ‘Thing’ in a ‘shambolic incidence’ of ‘gross negligence’.  Guiseppi researches shopping malls in Paris to help Guylain to find Julie and Guylain visits Guiseppi weekly to help him with the housework and to aid him in his search for ‘Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days’, the published reincarnation of his lost limbs.

While the writer seems to have no particular religious interest, his language is nevertheless peppered with biblicisms.  References to Armageddon, hell, redemption, theology, snakes, beasts, high priests of the temple and cleansing liberally inhabit the prose.

Julie’s diary is beautifully descriptive and poignantly honest, but aspects of the translation grate.  References to ‘hissy fits’, ‘newbies’  and overuse of the words ‘exhumed’ and ‘exude’ make me wish I had a better grasp of written French.

Despite the love story which crowns this work being something you might find in a highly unlikely fairy story, the final chapter brought tears to my eyes.  The Reader on the 6.27 left me, like the commuters, with ‘the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.’  Isn’t that the power of a good writing?

Because He Loves Me

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Because He Loves Me
How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life

by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick

Available from Ten of Those

What motivates a person to serve God?  This is the question that biblical counsellor and author Elyse Fitzpatrick asks in this devotional and biblically thorough book about Christian transformation.

I recently finished the first in the series of C. J. Sansom’s thrilling Shardlake novels, Dissolution, in which the murderer, Brother Edwig, Bursar of Scarnsea Monastery, loses his life falling from a high balcony clinging to the bags of gold he believes will purchase forgiveness from God for the heinous sexual sins of his past.

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Wikipedia informs me that ‘In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” which may reduce either or both of the penance required after a sin has been forgiven, or after death, the time to be spent in Purgatory.’

The Bible asserts that Christ has already taken the complete punishment deserved for the believer’s sins (1 Peter 3:18) and yet, in effect, Fitzpatrick suggests we can sometimes serve Christ out of a penitential attitude of legalistic fear rather than offering what she calls ‘gospelised obedience’.  In other words, we have forgotten something.  We have forgotten Jesus.  We have forgotten that He loves us and are suffering from ‘Identity Amnesia’ spending our days ‘scratching around for glory’ here on earth instead of gratefully loving others as we have been loved.

I thank God that he used this book to draw me  back to Himself.  I ‘hadn’t felt his absence because [I was] so preoccupied with living for him’.  (p18).  I was ‘hiding in the shadows, focusing on performance, fearing his wrath’ (p24) just like brother Edwig cowering in his monk’s habit instead of rejoicing in Christ’s robes of righteousness.

Fitzpatrick reminds us ‘The purpose of our life is to reveal to others how wonderful [Jesus] is and to glorify and enjoy him eternally’ (p56).  This means that we don’t have to prove ourselves or impress others and we certainly do not have to appease God with our efforts.  Jesus’ blood has already done this.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who suffers from ‘performancism’.  It is a deeply encouraging and challenging read; and if you’re looking for a little relaxation, the Shardlake series isn’t bad either.

 

 

 

The Sunrise

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The Sunrise
by Victoria Hislop

More famously known for her first novel, The Island, Victoria Hislop, wife of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, is a writer whose work I’ve only recently tasted.

They say you should not judge a book by its cover but I just can’t help it.  With repeated romance/beach motifs adorning her books I’m afraid I assumed that the books wouldn’t even qualify as ‘intelligent trash’.  However a trip to Greece this summer required something ‘light’ so I took and devoured ‘The Sunrise’, published this year.

Far from being ‘low brow’ this novel thoroughly and intriguingly traces the tumultuous political background to the Turkish invasion of Famagusta, Cyprus after the military coup by the Greek Cypriots in 1974.  This political drama provides a backdrop to the front-stage action set in the Mediterranean’s most glamorous resort dubbed ‘the millionaire’s playground’ on an island where Greeks and Turks have, until now, worked harmoniously alongside one another.   For a full review, see Susan Elkin’s article in The Independent.

Hislop begins her account with descriptions of Famagusta, this ‘most important port in Cyprus’ where ‘residents, workers and visitors alike enjoyed almost immeasurable contentment.’  It is along the sea-front of ultra modern hotels that ‘The Sunrise’ is being built.  ‘Fifteen stories taller than the rest’ with ‘imposing gates’ and ‘high railings’ I’m reminded of the Tower of Babel and further biblical echoes come to mind as the first impressions of the hotel are described.

The first thing that should impress was its size.  A man would be reminded of a football pitch.  A woman would think of a beautiful lake.  Both would notice the impossible gleam of the marble floor and experience what it might be like to walk on water.

The man behind this ‘vision’ is Savvas Papacosta, married to the impossibly beautiful and intelligent Aphrodite whose enviable glamour is, by the end of the novel, stripped from her along with her money, her jewellery, her home and her dignity.  The only seemingly fulfilling relationship in Aphrodite’s life with her husband’s colleague, Markos, ends in abandonment, theft and betrayal of the most negligent kind when he witnesses her rape by a Turkish soldier but passes by on the other side.

Two families, one Greek (the Georgious) and one Turkish Cypriot (the Ozkans), know a contentment never experienced by the nakedly ambitious Papacostas.  ‘Instinct told them that extravagance did not equate with happiness’.  They laugh and enjoy friendship ‘bemused rather than jealous’ of the opulence by which they are surrounded.  They seem to have unconsciously grasped the biblical exhortation to ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.’  They do not seek the limelight.  Indeed there is none to seek when they become the only two families left on the island after the Turkish retaliation.

Living in hiding there is no audience for their lives in real terms but as readers we witness their daily struggles, courage, decision-making and emotional turmoil.  The two matriarchal figures of these families exemplify simple hard work, passionate love and commitment to their sons and daughters and the ability to overcome prejudice and boundaries to friendship in the face of extreme danger.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy.’  So much of this novel is redolent of Christian truth.  By the end of the story, the coastline of Famagusta is littered with the ‘shells’  of deserted, unused hotels with outdoor building works frozen in time.  How quickly something man made can be destroyed.  How fragile money, power and influence turn out to be.

The book has been described as a tender and well researched treatment of ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’.  It is just that and sparked far more reflection that I would have anticipated from a holiday read.  My son’s English Teacher was right when she said at a recent address to parents that we should not be ‘snooty’ about our children’s reading choices.  I need to take her advice in my own reading!

A Very English Family Saga

The Cazalet Chronicles
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
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Elizabeth Jane Howard who died early last year aged 90 is a writer whose work I first came across as a teenager when my father gave me ‘A Beautiful Visit’, her first novel, published in 1950.  I never read it despite its prize winning status.  (It won the John Llewllyn Rhys memorial prize).  The intellectual snobbery of youth meant that I quickly assumed the condescending attitude of her critics who described her as a writer of ‘women’s novels.’  They might just as well have said ‘magazines’.  As an aspiring English Literature student I was looking for the higher brow.

It was not until twenty years later that I came across her again when her Cazalet Chronicles were republished after the event of her death.  Looking for an ‘easy’ read I came across Volume One, The Light Years, began reading and was pleasurably gripped by the novel and its four successors (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) for the next few months.  Howard combines pure story-telling brilliance with an enviable elegance of style.

Jane, as she was known, was born in London in March 1923.  Now recognised as an acclaimed novelist in her own right, she was formerly referred to purely as Kingsley Amis‘ wife or Martin Amis‘ stepmother.  Margaret Drabble famously omitted her from the 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a slight which she took with commendable equilibrium.  Married three times, she sadly described herself as a ‘tart for affection’ having had a troubled relationship with her mother, re-enacted with her own daughter Nicola by the Naturalist Peter Scott, her first husband.

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Perhaps the appeal of the novels for me lies in their Englishness.  A large family country house in Sussex, a kindly matriarch and her ageing husband ‘The Brig’,  three brothers and their spinster sister, troubled marriages, growing children, boarding school angst, coming of age, unrequited love and the onset of war.   The details of upper middle class England are minutely observed alongside the repressed emotions of its inhabitants.  These books are a delight.  There is a time for everything under the sun and there is a time for reading for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story.

Her work doesn’t come into the category of improving reading, there being no Victorian moral didacticism nor any particular heroic protagonist to emulate.  Instead, we are introduced to an array of humanely portrayed, utterly credible characters crafted lovingly with failings and idiosyncrasies, insecurities and foibles with which the reader is only too able to relate.  Getting to know their personalities and what drives them, seeing their motives and their regrets is an education in patience, compassion and human understanding.

Her autobiography ‘Slipstream’ if read after this family saga reveals how much of her own life she drew upon for her Cazalet novels.  It is an ‘achingly honest’ portrayal of her life, her marriages, her mistakes and her writing.  Writing was clearly a form of therapy for her alongside the formal psychotherapy she received in her later years.

Fascinatingly, Janet Watts in her Guardian obituary of 2 January 2014 writes:

Jane once admitted that writing was the most “frightening” thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it.  “I find it much too anxious a business”, she said.  She once tried to give it up altogether.  But she couldn’t.

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It is terribly moving to see how frankly she faces up to the ‘mess’ she made of her life.  With three failed marriages, an abandoned daughter and a string of affairs one can see why she might have felt this way.  However, with such a legacy of literary work, a final reconciliation with Nicola, her daughter and a long life ‘full of years’ she has also left a valued mark on the landscape of English fiction and is to be admired for her courage, her perseverance and her insights into the English psyche.