Reading Diary: Feb. 25-Mar. 3

71a16qvvuyl** spoilers follow** Look at that cover, eh. That’s pretty much what London’s looked like for the past week or so, although it hadn’t started snowing when I picked up The Secret Agent. It’s subtitled “A Simple Story”, which I think is some sort of bleak sarcasm on Conrad’s part, since much of the plot revolves around a young man whom we would now refer to as having learning difficulties. This is Stevie, the brother of Winnie Verloc, a young woman who is married to Mr. Adolf (yes, really) Verloc, a dealer in pornography and also a closet anarchist who has been employed by the Russian Embassy in London as an agent provocateur for thirteen years. The novel opens as Verloc’s handlers inform him that he’s been sleeping on the job, and that they wish him to precipitate some sort of public scare, so that the British government will be more likely to support Imperial Russia’s moves towards authoritarianism. The plan is to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (an attack on the prime meridian! On time itself! What could be more disturbing?) but things go awry and poor Stevie is killed.

The cunning trick of the novel is in the way its focus pivots from Adolf Verloc, whom we think is going to be the protagonist of the piece, to Mrs. Verloc, whose tragedy it turns out to be. Realising that her marriage, which was contracted almost entirely in order to provide Stevie with a safety net in the event of her mother’s death, was actually the instrument of Stevie’s destruction, Winnie murders her husband and then, it is heavily implied, leaps from a cross-Channel ferry to her own death. I’m not wholly convinced by the way that Conrad effects this shift of focus; it works, but it seems very sudden, and the entire novel is profoundly nihilistic in a way that makes one wonder why he thought he was writing it. (An Author’s Preface is included; clearly Conrad came under fire for the supposed immorality of the story, and felt the need to defend his choice. He makes it clear that he didn’t set out to offend, but he doesn’t entirely explain why he thought the story worth telling in the first place.) The prose is quite dense, and requires focus, which will put some readers off, but in its mercilessness, The Secret Agent is not unlike The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and fans of early Le Carre would benefit from reading it.

51wl6eg0jzlHaving been in a bit of a reading funk since the previous week, and having expended considerable mental energy in elbowing my way through The Secret Agent, I picked up something completely different: Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin. It is essentially a rom-com with the part of the matchmaking friend played by two AIs, or rather “machine intelligences”. Jen’s job is to teach one of them, an AI called Aiden; he’s super-efficient but needs help learning how to behave like a human, so Jen spends every day talking to him about books and movies, watching the news with him, expanding his conversational and cultural repertoire. Unbeknownst to her, Aiden has escaped from his “twelve metal cabinets in Shoreditch” onto the Internet, and can now roam at will. In this way, he discovers that she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is sad; he runs the numbers and decides to find her a new man. There’s more to the story, involving another escaped AI, Aisling, and a malevolent one, Sinai, but suffice to say that hijinks, missed connections, and true love with a divorced ex-adman named Tom ensue.

There are issues with Happiness For Humans: it doesn’t manage to totally avoid some gender-reductionism with regards to characterisation, the evil AI is fairly cliched and gets a deeply unsatisfactory (and somewhat disturbing) ending, and Reizin is suprisingly patronising about a) anyone under thirty, and b) computer programmers. But it completely snapped me out of my reading slump: it’s funny and charming, and although there’s what film rating boards would call “mild peril”, we’re never in much doubt that our hero(es) and heroine(s) will prevail. A warm bath book in the dying days of February.

atpacoverAll the Perverse Angels is a book I feel quite personally about, because I inititally came across it about two years ago, when it was still being crowdfunded on Unbound. At the time I was skint, and couldn’t support it financially—but now that it’s been published, I can support it by selling the hell out of it. A dual-timeframe narrative is one of those techniques that either works brilliantly, or fails miserably; Marr manages hers very well, by keeping her point of view characters to two, and by not belabouring the parallels between her present-day protagonist (Anna, a curator recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown precipitated by her female partner’s infidelity with a man) and her past one (Penelope, a first-year Oxford undergraduate in 1887—when female students were just starting to be accepted—has an unfortunate affair with the husband of a don at her college, and discovers true love, and disaster, with a fellow student). All the Perverse Angels isn’t afraid to reflect its difficult themes in its style; Anna’s narration is often just a tiny bit disorienting, as her mental associations run riot, leading her to conflate memories of childhood and the recent past with her present experiences. Marr is also an excellent describer: one of my favourite subgenres of fiction is “books about other art forms”, and the way she writes about paintings had me reaching for my laptop at least once a chapter to see for myself. (Note: Cornelius van Haarlem’s 1588 painting Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured By A Dragon is absolutely horrible enough to cause a panic attack, as it does in the book.) Anyone who loves art and art history, or who is interested in fictional treatments of marriage, fidelity and relationships, should read this.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Three books instead of four in a week represents the slump’s effects, though I’m well out of that. Both Reizin’s and Marr’s books are very new on the market—I’m thrilled to be able to promote them even more assiduously—and I’m equally pleased to have managed a classic that had escaped me til now.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.