Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘English’ Category

A Few Words About Sydney Carton

In English, Essay, Literature, Writing on 07/02/2012 at 16:30

I’m not a fan of Charles Dickens. It’s mostly because I don’t like Victorian prose. I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but I find Victorian prose too knowing and self-conscious, and the characters flat and unconvincing. But, as it is Mr. Dickens’ 200th birthday, I’ll be nice and write about the one character of his that I really love.

Most of Dickens characters, to me, fall into types- the virtuous ones, the crooked ones, etc. But in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is the character of Sydney Carton.

Sydney Carton is a brilliant lawyer. But he lacks self-confidence and cannot resist a drink. He falls in love with Lucie Manette, knowing that she is in love with his doppelganger, the impossibly good aristocrat Charles Darnay. Sydney loves Lucie quietly, knowing that she would not requite his love. Carton is very self-aware. He knows that he would not be good enough for her or bring her any happiness.

This is where we get into spoiler-territory. If you don’t know the ending of A Tale of Two Cities you should go and read the book. If you do know the ending, I shall continue.

For me, Sydney is one of the few heroes in literature I believe in. Charles Darnay is meant to be the ‘good’ one, but I find his goodness to be blind, naïve and he’s not smart enough to see the trap laid for him in France. But Sydney Carton comes through, despite it been contrary his public character and not really what he wants to be. Charles Darnay is to be executed, so surely, he could let him die and then catch Lucie on the rebound? But he knows, even with Charles dead, she would not return his love.

This is how Sydney Carton becomes a hero. Hemingway said heroics is ‘grace under pressure’ and I think Sydney Carton shows that. He calmly sees the only thing left to do to save Charles- to take his doppelganger’s place in waiting for the guillotine. I’m not doing him or the novel much justice, but the end is so beautiful and sad. The famous last lines of the novel made me cry. He calms goes to his death knowing the happiness of his loved one is secured.

Maybe I’m just a romantic old fool, but I really love the character of Sydney Carton. He does the right thing not because he’s a pure ‘good’ character like Darnay or Oliver Twist, but because he wants peace for his failings and to find meaning in his life. He struggles with himself more than external forces. He’s a well rounded character. He is a hero not because he is good but because he is good in spite of himself.

Favourite Reads of 2011

In American, English, Japanese, Literature, Miscellaneous, Russian on 26/12/2011 at 14:11

Presented- a list of the books I most enjoyed this past year. Circumstances gave me a chance to read more than ever this year. My selection is personal opinion and includes novels, short story collections and non-fiction.

Ray Bradbury- Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky- The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Bob Dylan- Chronicles, Volume One (2004)

Jennifer Egan- A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

F. Scott Fitzgerald- The Beautiful and Damned (1922); The Great Gatsby (1925); This Side of Paradise (1920)

Ernest Hemingway- In Our Time (1925)

Carson McCullers- The Heart is a Lonley Hunter (1940)

Yukio Mishima- Death in Midsummer and other stories (1966); Thirst For Love (1950); The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963); Spring Snow (1966)

J.D. Salinger- Franny & Zooey (1961)

John Updike- Your Lover Just Called (1980)

Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Steve Waters- The Secret Life of Plays (2010)

Richard Yates- A Special Providence (1969); The Easter Parade (1976); Young Hearts Crying (1984)

‘Perfect Lives’ (2010) Polly Samson

In Book Review, English, Literature, Review, Writing on 21/08/2011 at 12:05

Despite the glowing words of praise that cover the copy of Perfect Lives (2010) I can’t say I was impressed with it. The quotes call it funny, compelling and moving, but I thought it never gets beyond its middle-class trappings. Polly Samson seems to be lampooning the middle-classes while remaining very much a part of it, and celebrating it in the final story. The book begins with an epigram from Leonard Cohen, and on finishing Perfect Lives, I found that one quote had something more interesting to say than the stories in the book.

The prose had a tendency towards a knowing lyricism; you can almost hear the author saying ‘I am going to be poetic now’. I’m not a fan of that kind of prose. She makes some melodramatic descriptions, the worst offender been this, which I had to read three times before I realised she was been serious: “Leszeck’s eyelashes would always make every woman he met think about having his baby.” I’m sure some people think it’s marvellously poetic but it’s very silly to me.

The stories are all set in a seaside town. Not much is made of the setting, other than it’s a middle-class seaside town. Characters crossover, much like in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan. In A Visit From… the connections between characters are never presented with a flourish, but appear casually and without comment, as connections between people do in real-life. In Perfect Lives when a character from another story turns up in another, there often is a melodramatic flourish in the reveal. The character that appears most (an unnamed amateur photographer) is sadly the least interesting and goes on no real journey other than a happy acceptance of a bourgeois life.

Unlike A Visit From… none the stories in Perfect Lives moved me. Polly Samson finds nothing insightful about the characters she presents. I think part of my trouble with reading this book was I took a dislike to it pretty early on. Taking a dislike to a book early on is like when you take a dislike to a person you just meet- no matter what they say you’ll always find it a bit irritating.

I imagine that if I spoke to Polly Samson (after she hits me for disparaging her book) I’d find little crossover between the authors we like. There seems to be a hint of the British Victorians to her prose and I really dislike British Victorian literature. I can see why people would give this book glowing quotes, but it is not things I enjoy in a book. I don’t imagine she’d think much of my stories, either.

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