Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’


Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Any article on the internet listing the most influential novels of the 20th century is sure to include Henry Miller’s 1934 work Tropic of Cancer. At the centre of a high-profile obscenity trial, the book challenged the literary status quo and revolutionised the canon, toppling regulations surrounding literature deemed ‘acceptable’ to print. In this way, Miller helped expand the breadth of authorial voice, allowing authors to write about, amongst other subjects, the sexual realm, with a newfound confidence and transparency. 

I found the opening few pages of the text to be engaging but quite overwhelming. The narrator (who we later found out is Miller himself) flitters from one thought to another: the essence of the book he is writing, his love interest, Tania, the Villa Borghese and animal genitalia are each considered within a few pages. In the first paragraph, the reader is introduced to the kind of ‘honest’ carnality that features throughout. Miller writes candidly about happenings with his roommate: ‘Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits … . We might never have known each so intimately.. had it not been for the lice’. Unfiltered and unashamed. But the opening section is integral in other ways. The essential philosophy of the text is express in another frank admission: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive’. Celebrated here is the now clichéd motto of ‘living in the moment’. ‘Hope’ is imagined as a destabilising instinct that rejects the present in favour of an unforeseen, incalculable future. Rather than being fettered by expectation, one should ‘seize the day’. The quote also captures the anti-materialist spirit that runs throughout the book. For Miller, the trappings of bourgeoise life are heavy and repressive; he experiences the most profound sense of freedom when he is destitute. 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy”.

As aforementioned, the style of writing is raw and the subject matter is often brazen. Miller roams through seedy Parisian side-streets, meeting drunkards, prostitutes and down-and-outs, but also spends time with wealthy and morally reprehensible expats. He records his encounters in a visceral and graphic manner that echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Nonetheless, there is also a clear poeticism to the prose – a graceful and imaginative quality that is almost incongruous with the carnal themes. Take these two sentences, for example:

‘In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dôme looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone’. 

A notable structural feature is the abrupt – and often confusing – diatribes that crop up during the text. These enraged, philosophical passages on the human condition break out suddenly during episodes, emphasising the need to find freedom from overbearing power structures. 

Rather than focus on humankind’s goodness, Miller takes base desires and instincts as his loci. In a self-reflexive passage that foreshadows the novel’s publishing difficulties, he writes: ‘If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what really is his experience, what truly is his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens’. Throughout the narrative he depicts his friends and acquaintances in a stark light, exposing their faults and selfish inclinations; Fillmore, for example, leaves his pregnant (and physically abusive) wife Ginette in Paris and escapes to America; Van Norden demonstrates a rampant, destructive sexuality. Rather than impose narratorial judgment, Miller merely paints them for what they are and recedes. There is no moralising or sermonising, but instead an admission that human nature contains an inherently dark streak, an ignobility that George Orwell recognised when he wrote of Miller: ‘“He knows all about me” you feel’. 

The novel is also controversial in that it espouses a patriarchal world-view, one in which women are sexually objectified and frequently referred to as ‘cunts’. Even the female characters afforded greater character development fit a range of derogatory stereotypes: seductress (Tania), abusive wife (Ginette), femme fatale (Yvette). Anti-semitism is similarly rife in the text; Jews are repeatedly insulted and singled out for their unethical behaviour. The representation of the hostile Rabbi, who turns away Miller and his associate when they are destitute, encapsulates this xenophobic spirit. Consequently, a key tension when reading the novel is how to reconcile Miller’s brave attack on social – particularly sexual – mores with his more regressive and troubling views. 


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I’ve been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was this curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In … Continue reading Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I’ve been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was this curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the work by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’sformidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ represented a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the book give further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in his operas. For Kraftwerk, art extended beyond their musical output, and also included their 3D visuals, album artwork, performance and painstakingly constructed group image. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a music novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography’


Sourcing my ‘fix’ of sport has been a largely unrewarding and mutating process during lockdown. From re-watching English domestic cricket finals, to playing badminton in the garden and mulling over downloading Football Manager, I’ve sought a number of outlets. Last week I was pleased to stumble across Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, hidden away at the back of my shelves. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, but the book promised, at the very least, a temporary respite during these sport-barren times. 

A highlight was the focus on the signings Sir Alex made during his tenure as Manchester United manager. A range of vague names from the past crop up: Kleberson, Male Biram Diouf and Alexander Büttner to name but a few. Sir Alex explains his reasons for signing each player, citing their strengths and weaknesses, and commenting on how they could improve his current squad. He emphasises the importance of both rebuilding and forward planning in maintaining a team that could continually challenge for the Premier League title; we are told, for example, that centre backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were viewed well in advance as the natural successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. 

Some of the most intimate details are also linked to transfers. United’s troubled dealings with Daniel Levy and Tottenham when signing Micheal Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov defer them from pursuing Luka Modric at a later date: a real shame for a Manchester United fan. Whole chapters are dedicated to Sir Alex’s relationship with high-profile players during his reign: Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand. Beckham is painted as a precociously talented and dedicated academy prospect who, influenced by fame and other external factors, fails to live up to expectation and become a club great. Much like Beckham, Van Nistelrooy becomes a destabilising force in the dressing room and is expelled for challenging Sir Alex’s authority. The recurring message is: no player is bigger than the club. 

‘The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did Ruud van Nistelrooy score”

Intimate details are however at a premium. Reading the autobiography, I had the sense that Sir Alex was barely scratching the surface. Much of the information and events alluded to are already in the public domain. The structure also compromised the flow of the narrative. Within each chapter, Sir Alex would repeatedly go off topic for a few pages, and then sharply return to his original point or story. In fairness, blame surely falls to the editor here. This is an easy read and the content is digestible, but it’s not so much an exposé as a recap, and rarely reaches a level of complexity or insight that makes it a worthwhile venture. 

Yesterday I ordered two new books: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (another on the bucket list) and Uwe Schutte’s Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. The reviews I’ve read indicate that Schutte analyses Kraftwerk as a phenomenon permeating and influencing various forms of cultural representation (music, graphic design, cinematography), and so I’m particularly excited to get stuck in.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head. 

Competition and Co-operation in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

Today I stumbled across a few of my old essays from university and thought I’d share one. The essay in question felt pertinent in the current climate given its focus on competition and co-operation. It explores the contrasting value systems in Charles Dickens’ great satirical novel, Hard Times

Discuss Competition and Co-operation in Hard Times

Much of the narrative tension in Hard Times revolves around the ‘opposition of two value systems’. The circus, espousing co-operation and empathy, is a site where counter-cultural ideas are expressed and practiced. In contrast, the prevailing ideology is one that permits conflict, promoting self-interest at the expense of others. Mr Bounderby and Bitzer come to embody this hegemonic world-view, and Sissy Jupe the former. Competition is ubiquitous throughout Coketown, and is embedded into institutions like the school; it is the circus-folk’s marginalised existence that shields them from this destructive force. Dickens mistrusted the ‘reductive but compelling account of laissez-faire capitalism’ offered by political economy. His depiction of a hyper-competitive environment, where social relations are warped and ethical development is shackled, speculates on the potential damage to a society built on the mantra of self-interest.

Centred around the fundamental value of Fancy, the circus purports an ethical code in opposition to the prevailing ideology of the novel. Analysing the meaning of Fancy in Hard Times, Sonstroem concludes that one aspect relates to ‘fellow feeling: compassion, sentiment’. The human ‘pyramid’ that the circus men enact highlights these ideals in practice; based on mutual experience and interdependence, the pyramid requires each man to respect and trust his fellow showman. The circus folk’s commitment to forming co-operative relations is apparent throughout, particularly in their treatment of Sissy Jupe following her father’s disappearance. Indeed, Sleary proposes the formation of a surrogate family, promising the girl that ‘Emma Gordon… would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thither’ (p. 41). In attempting to alleviate the burden on Sissy and replace the familial ties she has lost, Sleary demonstrates an instinctive desire to provide for the girl, altruistic behaviour that is commonplace in the troupe. Further, the narrator implies that it is Mr Childers’ manners and craft that prompt Gradgrind’s compassionate proposal: ‘he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl’ (p. 37). Childers, in part, secures Sissy the right to an education, allowing her the opportunity to fulfil her father’s will. 

If the circus is the main site of co-operation in the novel, then Sissy is its agent. Her presence ensures that the doctrine of compassion reverberates around the narrative despite Dickens’ limited engagement with the circus. In the wake of Louisa’s emotional breakdown, Sissy offers her companionship: ‘‘‘I would be something to you, if I might”’ (p. 209). Laid bare is Sissy’s genuine desire to form intimate relations. Although shunned by Louisa following Bounderby’s proposal, she retains no ill-feeling, and her honesty and warmth suffuse through Stone Lodge. Jane’s ‘beaming face’ (p. 204) is attributed to the humanising influence of her adopted sister, and contrasts with the ‘doubtful flashes’ (p. 17) evident in a young Louisa, schooled instead in Gradgrind’s repressive theories on human nature. The major triumph of Sissy – and indeed the values she symbolises – is her confrontation with the James Harthouse, who antithetically epitomises rugged individualism. Spurred by the ‘commission of.. [her].. love’ (p. 215), Sissy pressures Harthouse into leaving Coketown, temporarily renouncing his self-interest in a complete subversion of character. The use of the noun ‘commission’ implies that she cannot but submit to a deep-rooted impulse to protect those around her. Harthouse’s departure is, then, a victory for solicitousness over egocentrism. 

Antithetical to the circus is the school, a space in which co-operation is limited. The Coketown school is under the influence of the caricatured utilitarian dogmatist, Mr Gradgrind, and his Philosophy of Fact. Singled out in front of the class, Sissy is noted to have ‘blushed’ (p. 8, 10, 11) multiple times in the chapter ‘Murdering the Innocents’, a telling indicator of her shame. As the chapter title suggests, the school is a hostile environment in which relations are governed by fear and students are ridiculed into conformity. If, as Humphrey contends, the novel bemoans the lack of  ‘moral virtues.. in personal relations but also the work-place and government’, it looks towards educational institutions also. As later in Hard Times, Sissy represents an incongruous force; quizzed on the basic tenet of political economy, she replies to Mr M’Choakumchild ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’ (p. 57). Paraphrasing Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’, Sissy’s answer reads as a satirical riposte to the cold-hearted self-interest at the basis of Gradgrind’s philosophy. Her misplaced allusion to Christian ethics is Dickens’ affirmation of a world-view that promotes mutual respect and and affection. 

Stephen Blackpool’s rescue in ‘The Starlight’ is one example of co-operation that is not spearheaded by Sleary or his company. Inter-class synergy is vital to the effort, as representative members of the middle-class like the ‘surgeon’ (p. 248) unite forces with working-class men counting a ‘pitman’ (p. 250), to achieve a shared goal. There is an organic quality to Dickens’ description of the community: ‘Every one waited with his grasp set, … ready to reverse and wind in’. (p. 250). Uniformity of action turns the individual members of the rescue party into a collective force for good. When Stephen is raised from the Old Hell Shaft ‘A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud’ (p. 251). The capacity for empathy amongst the community is highlighted, closely mimicking the allusions to crying noted earlier in the novel when Stephen is ostracised for refusing to join the Union. In the absence of Slackbridge’s divisive discourse, the people rally together, a nod to the potential inherent in society for co-operation.

Returning again to Sleary’s troupe, the ending demonstrates their ability to co-operate with wider society – namely the Gradgrinds – despite apparent ideological differences. Their willingness to help those outside of their peripheral existence is not reflected by Coketown’s inhabitants, who largely perceive the circus-folk as ‘useless vagabonds at best, and at worst as evil seducers of the ignorant and unwary’. The narrow-minded, prejudicial attitude is epitomised by Gradgrind, who initially comes to tell Sissy that ‘her connexions made her not an object for the school’ (38). Bigotry is thus an integral part of the hegemonic culture. Sleary, however, challenges this notion by preventing Bitzer from incarcerating Tom and risking Bounderby’s wrath. He tells Sissy ‘The Thquire stood by you, Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire’ (266), invoking the spirit of solidarity synonymous with the circus. In allying with Gradgrind, Sleary looks beyond their philosophical differences and rewards empathy with empathy. The closing scene functions as a reverse of the second chapter, with Gradgrind becoming student, not teacher. Here a new philosophy is preached, built around ‘a love in the world, not all Thelf-intheretht after all’ (p. 269); it is a message of inclusivity and acceptance that serves to complete Gradgrind’s metamorphosis. 

Having analysed ‘co-operation’ in some detail, the remainder of this essay considers ‘competition’ in Hard Times. As Hilary Schor asserts, Dickens sought to ‘represent the systems of thought that both produced and sustain[ed]’ the miseries of industrialism. The ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, one such thought, is epitomised by Mr Bounderby, the self-centred and cold-hearted industrialist. Recalling those who exploited him in his mythologized childhood, Bounderby claims ‘‘They were right; they had no business to do anything else’ (p. 21). Exposed is a world-view that naturalises competition and equates ruthless individualism with what is morally sound. Bounderby’s belief that struggle is a fundamental part of society distorts his perception of industrial relations. He identifies a chasm between man and master, policing his workers, whose sole aim is ‘to be fed on turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ (p. 120). This anxiety centres around a fantasy that Coketown’s employees are seeking to profit at his expense. The implication that the workers are somehow work-shy and hedonistic is grossly misinformed, but the discourse of antagonism at the core of Bounderby’s attitude skewers his view of reality. He is, on a symbolic level, the product of a socio-economic system that validates conflict in the name of individual gain. 

It is also Bounderby who Dickens employs to critique the organic vision of society at the heart of political economy. Hard Times is particularly conscious that ‘industrialising, commercial society featured economic losers as well as winners, have-nots as well as haves’. This reality is apparent in the Stephen-Bounderby dynamic. For, it is Bounderby’s fear of insubordination amongst his workers (‘chaps who have always got a grievance’ (p. 143)) that prompts him to cruelly dismiss Stephen Blackpool, whose subsequent fall into an old mining shaft completes a metaphorical descent into hell. The presence of ‘economic losers’ like Stephen and fundamental power imbalances in the novel problematises the view that free competition might create ‘a rational, mutually beneficial and dynamic way of connecting people’. More broadly, the hardship of the workers is a reminder that in such a system for one to prosper many must suffer. The Hands live in a ‘labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts’ (p. 64) where the macabre motif of the ‘black-ladder’ (p. 67) is a stark reminder that death looms ever present. This claustrophobic, hellish evocation of Coketown contrasts patently with Bounderby’s arcadian country grounds: ‘a rustic landscape, golden with heath’ (p. 157). 

The fractious nature of Coketown is further attributed to a flawed educational system. Bitzer, the austere bourgeois aspirant, is shown to be a product of his schooling. Likened to a vampire, Bitzer’s ‘cold eyes’ and skin ‘so unwholesomely deficient in… natural tinge’ (p. 9) hint at both his future parasitic behaviour, and also his emotional detachment: common traits within an ideological apparatus that ‘consciously institutes division’. During the scene in the school Gradgrind sets up a paradigm of competition that the impressionable Bitzer will follow throughout the novel. In an act of public shaming, Gradgrind shouts “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!”’ (p. 9), humiliating Sissy for placing imagination above fact. A repeat incident occurs some two chapters laters, whereby Bitzer imitates his pedagogue, asking Sissy ‘‘if she would know how to define a horse to-morrow’ (p. 29). Evidently Bitzer’s propensity to expose those who are vulnerable or unconventional is formed in Coketown’s educational academy; a failure to properly cultivate his youthful ‘imagination leads to egocentrism and a lack of understanding for others’ as the narrative continues. 

Bitzer, then, develops into a competitive and exploitative individual in the mould of Bounderby. He comes to hold the ironically ‘respectable office of general spy and informer’ (p. 109) in the bank, claiming a small bonus at christmas. Espionage is an apt service for the light porter, who is willing to sever relations in the name of material gain. Bitzer believes rational behaviour is that which benefits the self, and is consequently troubled because the Hands do not betray their Union, relinquishing the opportunity to ‘earn a trifle now and then, … and improve their livelihood’ (p. 112). In his view betrayal is a means to an end – and the underlying motive, social elevation, always justifies the means. Burdened by his stunted moral development, Bitzer retains a calculated and removed outlook that is sub-human in nature. Despite the tension in penultimate chapter, he calmly foresees his future prosperity: ‘I have no doubt that Mr Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr Tom’s situation’ (p. 264). The dialogue is bereft of emotion, and Dickens details no hint of hesitation on the part of Bitzer, even though Tom is sure to be imprisoned as a result. He has become robotic in his ways: an example of the danger to one’s humanity posed by Gradgrind’s marrying of utilitarian ethics and political economy. 

If Hard Times can, and should, be read as a critique of rampant individualism and conflict in society, the ending somewhat problematises this interpretation. In ‘Final’ the omniscient narrator relays the future prospects of the characters; Bounderby, who will soon ‘die of a fit in the Coketown street’ (p. 272-73), is clearly punished for his belligerence. Nevertheless, it is Bitzer who escapes repercussions, described as ‘the rising young man… who had won young Tom’s place’ (p. 272). He has ascended from relative poverty into the aspiring middle-class, usurping Tom at the Bank. Immoral behaviour notwithstanding, this ranks as a success for the philosophy of self-interest. Dickens is not however endorsing Bitzer’s actions, instead, his victory functions as a caution that the ‘self-interested, materialist emphasis of political economy.. [could].. dominate and thus diminish humanity’s potential’. The narrator’s final comment: ‘Dear reader! It rests with you and me’ (p. 274) stresses the reader and writer as agents alike in countering the ethical rot that Dickens had delineated in the novel.

Although Hard Times is sceptical about the systems of thought informing conceptions of social relations, there is a sense of optimism in the organic model offered by the circus. Incidents like the removal of Stephen Blackpool from the Old Hell Shaft also signal co-operative and sympathetic behaviour in practice. As aforementioned, this is offset by the desire to compete that is so ingrained into the psyche of many characters, and has disastrous implications for, amongst other things, industrial relations and human potential. A social apparatus founded on a belief in individual self-interest is thus shown to inevitably lead to conflict. Most worrying is the notion that in striving for success one must invariably trample upon others: Bitzer and Bounderby even equate this notion with what is rational, or morally sound. Considering that Hard Times celebrates moments of co-operative behaviour, for additional research it would be apt to consider Dickens’ negative portrayal of the Union, as this has not been considered in this essay.

Quarantine Reading

So I wanted to write a short post covering what I have been reading during quarantine. Being a furloughed worker during lockdown has given me ample time to tick off some of the novels on my book bucket list. That said, I have not been too formulaic, and often ordered a book on a whim, or been drawn to a particular/author genre after reading literary articles online. As a result, my list is quite eclectic, but this is true of my normal reading patterns. I’m always branching out and, perhaps like many others, daunted and impelled by the notion that there is still a lot out there I haven’t encountered. 

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a novel that has been on my reading bucket list for a few years. During my first year at university, I delved into a lot of Russian Literature in my spare time (Gogol’s Dead Souls and Grossman’s Everything Flows are memorable), and this is perhaps where the desire to read The Master and Margarita sprang from. At the beginning of lockdown I was looking for a comic novel and Bulgakov’s work fitted the bill. In Will Self’s introduction to the translation I read, he alludes to the novel as a precursor to the magic realism popularised by Latin American authors like Jorge Luis Borges. This analysis really stuck with me throughout: Bulgakov’s Moscow is simultaneously ordinary and realistic, as well as fantastical and supernatural. Woland’s (Satan’s) party and Margarita’s flight across USSR stand out as particularly magical episodes. From a purely comic perspective the novel did not disappoint. The magic show at the Variety Theatre, where Bulgakov critiques the greed and materialism of the Moscow elite, was another highlight. 

I read Julian Barnes’ England England alongside The Master and Margarita. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I dedicated a whole post to the novel, but it was my first experience with Barnes and I enjoyed it so much that I recently ordered The Sense of Ending, his 2011 Man Booker Prize winning work. 

Next up was Chuck Palahniuk’s cult classic Fight Club, another on my list. I’d watched the film a few times and loved it, and a lot of people had suggested that the book was even better. I found the book actually triggered a more emotional response – Palahniuk writes in direct, graphic, savage and visceral prose. The narrator – Tyler Durden – is despairing and distant, and his thoughts capture the generational psychosis that Palahniuk was so perturbed by. I also enjoyed Tyler’s ruminations on IKEA furniture (“I want to be that type of person, so I buy products that cohere with that sense of image”) and the attack on consumer culture. The book is short, punchy and damning, and achieves a lot in only 200 odd pages. 

Since finishing my English Literature degree last year I have been reading a lot of non-fiction, a conscious break away, I think, from three years of studying fiction. I’ve tried to fill in gaps in my historical knowledge by reading texts on specific historical events/peoples (lately I’ve turned my attention to the Vikings, the Medici and the Egyptians). A limited understanding of the Normans and   the subsequent Norman colonisation of England impelled me to read Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest. This is a great piece of historical fiction – Morris’ vast narrative is accessible and moves at an appropriate pace without compromising on essential details. It pays close attention to contemporary evidence, demystifying popular assumptions about the Normans and their involvement in England. Upon finishing, I had a much better understanding of the historical process and the staggering impact that William the Conqueror’s fated journey across the Channel had on English secular and religious society. 

I’ve now moved on to the daunting prospect of David Foster Wallace’s acclaimed work Infinite Jest. My former colleague, also a friend and science fiction fan, gave it to me as a secret santa gift at last year’s work Christmas party. I started it soon after receiving it but became disillusioned after 50 or so pages and moved on to different pursuits. Now, with time in abundance, I’m ready to give it a second go. 

Julian Barnes, ‘England England’

After fittingly revisiting Albert Camus’ The Plague at the start of quarantine, I next wanted to read an overtly comical novel that was lighter in tone. After some research, I ordered Julian Barnes’ England, England; having never encountered Barnes’ oeuvre before, I was not disappointed. I actually read England, England alongside Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal work The Master and Margarita, and whilst I enjoyed both, Barnes’ novel resonated more with me. 

England, England loosely follows the life of Martha Cochrane from her adolescence, through to her working life and later years. Martha, a Special Consultant, is employed by the heavily satirised newspaper magnate, Sir Jack Pitman, who dreams up the idea of creating a microcosmic, mini-England on the Isle of Wight for wealthy tourists to enjoy. Martha and her co-worker turned love interest, Paul, eventually blackmail the megalomanic Sir Jack and assume control of the island, only for scandal and betrayal to deprive her of her job. In the third and final section of the novel, Martha returns to a nostalgic ‘Old England’, which has regressed to a pre-industrial state. 

On reading Barnes for the first time, what stood out to me immediately was his range and mastery of language. The prose was rich, evocative, symbolic and, at times, shocking. It could also be visceral and sexual: ‘With Christine he burst into a world of condom-unrolling and menstruation, of being allowed to put his hands anywhere’; ‘she slid a finger into her mouth, and then into the top of her cunt’. His characters engage in witty and calculated conversations (Paul and Martha’s bedtime conversations are a real highlight) and the entire novel is deeply satirical. But whilst it is undoubtedly a ‘funny’ book, there are poignant moments and strands that infiltrate the narrative, particularly when Martha philosophises on her childhood, gender and sexuality. 

The prominent themes relate to national identity and national myths. When Sir Jack asks his Concept Developer, Jeff, to come up with a list of the fifty quintessences of Englishness, he bemoans the ‘character assassination’ of the English that the survey implies: ‘snobbery’, ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘whingeing’ are all traits that potential visitors to the island consider integral to Englishness. Throughout, Barnes deconstructs, subverts and re-interprets powerful ideas about the nation and identity. Attractions and historical figures are simplified and caricatured. Myths are re-imagined so that they are purged of any perceived impurities and made accessible for the doting visitors. Nell Gwynn (mistress of Charles II), for example, is presented in pure and unthreatening terms as a friendly, elderly lady selling juice: ‘her essence, like her juice, had been concentrated’. Yet later in the book the actors playing Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men adopt their roles so readily that they literally become outcasts, stealing livestock and shooting arrows, ‘rebelling against the Project, against .. [the].. repositioning of the myth’. 

England, England is a complicated and multi-faceted novel that is both unwaveringly critical and farcical. I will definitely be returning to Barnes in the near future.