Archive for June, 2012

Lost Books – The Holy Tree

June 24, 2012

Though largely unregarded in the rest of the UK, Robin Jenkins remains valued in Scotland thanks, at least in part, to the continued presence of The Cone-Gatherers, his novel of conscientious objectors harvesting cones in the forests of aristocratic Christian Lady Runcie-Campbell during World War Two, in classrooms. (A stage adaptation is due later this year). Another novel of Scotland, The Changeling, about a young boy from the slums who is befriended by a teacher who feels he has potential, is also taught (though whether either remain so after the Scottish Qualifications Agency publish their list of set Scottish texts remains to be seen). Among readers, Jenkins is a novelist where acquaintance often leads to love, and this has kept many of his novels in print from Scottish publishers such as Canongate and Polygon. A few, however, have never been reprinted (a couple of years ago I posted about A Toast to the Lord), largely those set outside Scotland. As was the way in those days, Jenkins spent the first twenty years of his writing career publishing novels while also working at a ‘proper’ job as a teacher, first of all in Scotland then later in Afghanistan, Spain and Borneo. A fictionalised version of Borneo became the setting for a number of his novels, The Holy Tree among them.

Much of Jenkins work- The Changeling and The Cone-Gatherers included – is concerned with issues of class and morality, and The Holy Tree is no exception. The novel’s main character, Michael Eking, is a nineteen year old who has recently graduated from Primary school with the hope of going onto College. The Primary school’s headmaster, Mr Chin, has reduced Eking’s marks to prevent this happening, largely because of Eking’s origins:

“His family were jungle-kampong folk, poorer than church mice, for the latter had a decent shelter over their heads.”

The discrimination is also racial with Malayan society being rigidly hierarchical, with the British at the summit, the Chinese midway, and the native Dusuns (of which Eking is one) stranded at the bottom. The morality of the situation, then, seems initially very clear-cut: we know who to root for and who to boo when they appear on-page. However, right and wrong are more complex issues where Jenkins is concerned. He is, first of all, a master at the unfashionable omniscient narrative, moving from character to character, revealing both their choices and why they make them. Mr Chin is not only convinced that “so dangerous a pagan should not be rewarded by a Christian school,” but he correctly recognises Michael’s flaw:

“Eking’s desire for self-improvement…was a hunger, a greed, an obsession.”

It is this that will cause Michael to betray his own brother, a wanted man having fallen in with the leader of a failed Dusun revolution, in order to be granted the education he desires, forgoing any monetary reward:

“That is what I want, sir: a place in Api College. The money I shall give to the Principal to buy books for the library.”

Some characters approve of Michael’s choice; others find it abhorrent. Much is made of whether he is a ‘Judas’ (religion is never far from the surface in Jenkins work, and the professed Christianity of characters is often tested). It is into this web of moral complexity that the reader is forced and frequently tangled: it would take a certain sense of conviction (of which I can’t help but think Jenkins would disapprove) to be able to easily decide right from wrong in this novel.

If that were all, it would be enough, but Jenkins also raises political questions relating to both revolution and colonialism, and sex (more common in his foreign novels than his Scottish ones – it must be the climate) is also thrown into the moral mix. If you’re looking to discover and undiscovered writer, then Robin Jenkins would be a good place to start.

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Kafka’s Other Trial

June 8, 2012

Although much of Penguin Modern Classics time now seems to be spent publishing what they call ‘pure classic escapism’, every so often they release something interesting and unusual, a perfect example being Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial. Canetti was a restless Jewish intellectual, one among many who light up the literature of Europe during the twentieth century. Born in Bulgaria, educated in Vienna, he moved to London during the war, and then relocated to Zurich where he died in 1994 (having received the Nobel Prize in 1981). That he was restless intellectually can be seen from the fact that his best known works cover a number of genres: the novel Auto da Fe, a three volume autobiography, and a study of crowd behaviour, Crowds and Power.

Kafka’s Other Trial is also a study, an examination of the letters Kafka wrote to Felice (which were published in 1967) in connection with his fiction, particularly The Trial. Canetti says he “found these letters more gripping and absorbing than any literary work I have read for years past.” The Penguin Classics edition of Letters to Felice comes in at around 700 pages so, if nothing else, Canetti provides a useful summary of the relationship. As only Kafka’s letters remain, his explanation of the circumstances surrounding the letters, including reference to other letters Kafka wrote at the time, is vital to a full understanding of the relationship, which is far from straight forward.

Kafka and Felice first meet in the apartment of Max Brod on August 13th, 1912. He writes to her for the first time over a month later but, as Canetti says, “The correspondence developed rapidly with daily letters coming from Kafka and Felice soon replying at the same rate.” The letters are especially important as, despite becoming engaged, they rarely meet. It is clear that Kafka prefers an epistolary relationship as even when they plan to meet he resists certainty:

“And besides it is not yet at all certain that I’ll come; it won’t be decided until tomorrow morning…”

Even as he establishes a closeness with her that is characterised by his excessive honesty, he resists her actual presence, as Canetti comments:

“One of the countermyths he has set up for his own protection, seeking to prevent physical proximity and Felice’s intrusion into his life, is the one that involves his aversion to children.”

Basically, if you’re writing a thesis on the emotional selfishness of artists then take a look at Kafka. His letters are almost entirely taken up by discussion of himself: his ailments, his writing, his constant anguish over their relationship. He is so self-absorbed it is difficult not to feel a certain amount of admiration for him alongside the repugnance.

Also, as Canetti argues, the relationship has a positive effect on his writing:

“The opening of the correspondence was so important for Kafka that its effects continued to be felt by him for three months; further, it led to works as singular as The Metamophosis.”

Canetti goes on to suggest that events in the relationship, in particular their engagement and the ‘tribunal’ which followed, were an important influence on The Trial:

“It can be shown that the emotional substance of both events entered directly into The Trial which Kafka began to write in August, The engagement becomes the arrest in the first chapter; the ‘tribunal’ appears as the execution in the last.”

Kafka’s Other Trial is a fascinating work of biography and literary criticism. It is not a good introduction to Kafka because he is not easy to like outside his work, but for those who have read him it adds another dimension to understanding his work.

All Star Squadron

June 1, 2012

Comic of the Month

When Roy Thomas left Marvel comics for DC in 1981 he had many years of writing successful comic series behind him, perhaps most notably The Avengers and Conan. No surprise, then, that his first new series at DC were the Conan-like Arak, Son of Thunder and a superhero team book – All Star Squadron. All Star Squadron, however, had more in common with another team book Thomas had written at Marvel, The Invaders, as both are set during World War Two. All Star Squadron not only allowed Thomas to write about the Justice Society of America (the original superhero team) but many other silver age characters that had long been forgotten. (We can see this slightly obsessive tendency in the way that comics from the 1940s are footnoted throughout the series).

The premise is simple: as World War Two begins (for America that is) a group of superheroes band together to fight the Axis Powers (and you won’t get far with this unless you quickly acquaint yourself with phrases like ‘Axis Powers’). The flaw in this retelling of history is obvious: surely a group of superheroes would swiftly bring the war to an end and thus make the historical period in which the book is set redundant? Luckily Japan is soon discovered to have a supernatural barrier that turns superheroes into villains if they get too close (although this doesn’t prevent many heroes, generally the well-known ones from the Justice Society, from enlisting in the services – why use super powers when you can fight like a man?). Of course, superhero comics in general, and nostalgic ones in particular, are not where we go to find verisimilitude. Here is Hawkman’s own explanation of his origin:

“In my laboratory I realised for the first time that an unseen hand had been guiding the experiments I’d been making there, even my creation of crude hawk-mask, which I’d seen in an earlier dream, and then felt compelled to fashion in reality. Then there was the strange belt I’d made of an element I’d recently discovered – or perhaps remembered from Khufu’s lost knowledge – and christened ‘ninth metal’ for reasons that escape me.”

If you’re prepared to put logic to one side, however, this series is great fun – largely because you sense Thomas is having fun. He puts together a cast of forgotten heroes – The Shining Knight, Robotman, Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hawkgirl (and rebrands Firebrand to balance the sexes) – and makes them all individuals, just as he did with The Avengers. Hawkman and The Atom from the Justice Society also make frequent appearances, and Steel joins the group in issue 8. Mix in some history (Pearl Harbour, Winston Churchill) and some pulp villains (largely Nazis and mad scientists) and you’ve got all you need for light-hearted adventure.

The art on the first five issues is by the excellent Rich Buckler, who is then replaced by Adrian Gonzales, an artist I could not recall at all despite having bought the original comics. He drew very few superhero comics – I think only this and a some issues of World’s Finest – but is perfectly efficient beneath the inks of Jerry Ordway, who to a large extent gave the book its look and (I think) went on to pencil it himself later. The first Showcase volume prints issues 1 -18 and the first Annual – all in black and white, of course, on cheap paper. (But comics at that time were printed on cheap paper and the colour wasn’t up to much either). the only disappointment is that it only includes the All Star Squadron issues of a team-up with The Justice League thereby not only missing out three episodes but the conclusion of the story. Marvel are much better at including these extra issues: this sometimes means an issue is reprinted twice but that’s preferable to not having it at all. That said, while far from being a classic, this remains one of my favourite comics.