Dodds, Robert: The Garden of Earthly Delights

goedWe were fortunate to have the author of this book in our midst. He described how he first wrote the story as a radio play and then as a stage play. In 2011 he began working on the novel.  The fifth draft got as far as an editorial meeting at the publisher Polygon, but was narrowly turned down.  It took a further year and a sixth draft before the author arrived at the version that was finally self-published in 2014. We pondered long and deeply on the issue of how an author gets his/her work on the bookshelves in the High Street or into the online marketplace of Amazon.

What did we think of this self-published work?

The first few pages reminded some of us of Hilary Mantel’s work. The use of the historic present tense certainly engages the reader, but above all the images, stenches, and the stark emotions are writ large on every page.  This powerful portrayal of medieval life stays with the reader throughout the book: the squalor, the plague, the evil, the superstition and the all-pervading and bitterly cruel injustice. We are plunged into the year 1490, and we are in the town of Den Bosch, famously the home of Hieronymus Bosch (here he becomes ‘Jerome’). The Roman Church is the main power in the land (and elsewhere), and this power is enforced though agents, the Inquisitors, who go looking for sin.  They punish it ruthlessly with vile tortures and hideous machines.

Jerome, the hard-working artist, is married to Aleyt, and at first they seem like a nice couple albeit surrounded by a chaotic and thoroughly nasty world. But all is not what it seems. She loves Hameel, another local artist and lifelong friend of Jerome. Also living in the house is the stupid servant girl Mary, who is far from discreet about what she has seen and heard. It’s an explosive situation. Now enter the Inquisitor Jacomo, whose commission from Rome is to establish the town as a regional centre for inquisitorial work, and especially to make an up-to-date Inquisitorial Dungeon with the aid of the skills of the local bell-maker. Now add to this the Abbess Dominica, who maintains a public face of piety and as a wise governor of her convent whilst secretly being gluttonous, avaricious and manipulative.  She hates Jerome, who makes no secret of his insight into her true character.

It is a gripping tale that cannot be told in the few paragraphs of this page. The book itself is hard to put down. There are many twists and turns in the storyline. We all enjoyed it. The plot is carefully-woven and logical; there are no loose ends. As I read it a second time, it seemed almost mathematical.  Parts of it are charged with cruelty and gore, and some people might put the book aside for that reason. But not we of the Monthly Book Group: we are inured, habituated, seasoned readers of the shocking.

The most obvious theme is betrayal: lovers betray each other, the Abbess betrays the Church and God, and Hameel betrays Jerome in the manner of Judas Iscariot. But there is also forgiveness: Jerome forgives Hameel in the end, in the manner of Christ himself.  Ironically, the Inquisitor Jacomo shows himself to be a man of integrity: he is incorruptible and capable of admitting that he made a mistake. Jerome is preoccupied with his work and his weird dreams; his sexual energy and hatred of the hypocrisy of the church seem to be given full expression in his paintings. The rest the characters are all, in one way or another, dodgy.

The author’s recreation of the medieval world reminded some of Chaucer. Whilst we have yet no means of time travelling, serious academic scholars of the medieval world present a view which is not very different from that portrayed in this book (e.g. Daron Burrows’ The Life of St Clement).

We discussed the title. Would readers browsing the bookshop ‘get it’? Is Bosch’s work well enough known? Probably ‘yes’, and the design on the cover would lure them to it anyway, if they had an interest in historical novels at all.

Rather little is known of the real history of the time, and the author has exercised his creative talents to a full extent. There is much evidence of underlying research. A historical novel generally attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past era.  This book seems to do that very well.

Apart from Hilary Mantel, comparisons of this work were made with The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the novels of Haruki Murakami, and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999).

As it stands, it would translate easily into a film or play, and perhaps a graphic novel. It is rich in imagery, and the dialogue is well-crafted.


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment

As a rule we read the Introduction after completing the book. Of course this means the scene is not set, but we avoid the assessment of the book until we have formed our own opinions. Also the casual give-aways do not detract from the impact of the scenes as we read them. While the murder of the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna is not a surprise for an educated reader, there is much, even on the second reading, that should be left to the author not a literary critic. After finishing the book, of course there are insights in the Introduction that can illuminate the book.

So Rodion Romanovich, known as Raskolnikov, is a poor, hungry, student drop-out. His father had died and he was the centre of attention for his mother Pulkheria Raskolnikova and his sister Dunya. To them and many others, he was good-looking, very intelligent and with a great future. This had influenced Raskolnikov’s high perception of his own worth: “why do they love me so much, if I don’t deserve it?” He preserves this certainty throughout the book (though possibly doubts are shown to emerge in the Epilogue). As a superior being he decides to take the life of the pawnbroker both to show that he is able to murder lesser beings and also because her wealth may be used better by him as a great soul.

The murder (and the unplanned killing of the pawnbroker’s sister) prompted the obvious debate as to why? The reasons given above are amended and refined in direct conversations with characters in the book and in Raskolnikov’s subsequent thoughts and agonies. This is the heart of the book. However, the literal translation of the title is “Stepping Across”, which suggests the long journey he has before in the end he has crossed and achieved peace. This matter of translation is always difficult unless one knows the language of the author. There have been eleven known translations into English of the book, published in Russia in 1866, starting with Whitshaw in 1885, then Garnett in 1914 and so far finishing with Ready in 2014. The first two may well have recognised this as a mid 19th century book. This would have been helpful as the reader expects the flavour of other authors of the same period. The more recent translations have sought to give the flavour of Russia. As a detail “I do not give a spit” is clearly a Russian idiom and works. To refer to “pubs”sounds 20th century British and is, we thought, a mistake.

Some clues are lost to the English speaker. Thus the characters’ names have in some cases other meanings in Russian. And also colours are clues: yellow denotes suffering. Blue eyes suggest genuineness. So Raskolnikov’s inspiration and spiritual rescuer Sonya has blue eyes and dresses in yellow. However, one of the most interesting figures, Svidrigailov also has blue eyes. We debated what this was about. Mostly the group thought he was a murderer and a sexual predator. A few simply concluded that he was a great literary creation who had generous impulses suggesting compassion and who killed himself out of guilt. There is a fascinating comparison between him and Raskolnikov. A notebook entry by Dostoevsky is that: “Svidrigailov is despair, the most cynical. Sonia is hope, the most unrealizable…. He [Raskolnikov] became passionately attached to both”. But there can be a big gap between the simplicity of the original idea and the subtleties of the finished work. To an extent artists create characters and then struggle with them to bring the book to the intended conclusion!

The novel may be seen as a group of incidents developing from minute detail through a very gradual build up of tension into dramatic conclusions. This is obvious with the central murders, but may also be seen in the funeral banquet leading to the death of Katerina Ivanovna, and also seen in the interrogations of Raskolnikov by the detective Porfiry Petrovich. The same applies to the meeting between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov leading to the latter’s encounter with Dunya, Sonya, and his bride-to-be, and culminating in his suicide. This is how the novel moves, from a slow pace until one is totally immersed and then on to a quite different mood. We discussed how this happened, and noted that “Crime and Punishment” may have started as a novella. Then Dostoyevsky incorporated much of an earlier book “The Drunkards”, and parts of a Pushkin story, and finally adapted it for serialisation. The end product is a complex but brilliant work of art.

We pondered the impact of Religion. Here Sonia, despite having her “yellow ticket” as a prostitute, is the committed Christian. Others adopt only the form. The priests seem to be functionaries. Raskolnikov is asked to read the Biblical passage about the resurrection of Lazarus in a moving scene with Sonya. In prison he has the Bible unread under his pillow. But this surely reflects Russian society at that time. It is claimed that Sonya is the vehicle of divine intervention and that God guides him through self-discovery, confession, punishment and finally peace. Evidently Dostoyevsky claimed this was his intention, and also had very much in his sights the fashionable English utilitarian philosophies which he saw as inimical to the truths of the Russian Orthodox Church. But was that what actually inspired his imagination when he was writing it? If it were a work of art we would say that it is not what the artist intended with his conscious mind, but how we see the work of art, shaped by the artist’s imagination, feelings and unconscious, that matters. And the same applies to literature (a simple idea enshrined in the grand-sounding critical concept of “The Intentional Fallacy”).

There can be no disputing that the opposition of utilitarian and Christian thinking informed some of the plotting and the characters (the ruthlessly mocked Luzhin, for example, is a fan of utilitarian thinking, and Raskolnikov’s ghastly and arrogant belief about his superiority and right to murder is at some points attributed to utilitarian thinking). But we do not read this novel for an exposition of nineteenth century philosophy. We read it for its unremitting tension, for its brilliant cast of characters, for its insights into human psychology, morals and foibles, for its evocation of immense poverty and what it drives people to: in a nutshell, for its insight into the human condition.

We also noted the shaping and balance of the book, which shows, in addition to all his other talents, a superb craftsman at work. Parts I-III present the rational, proud Raskolnikov, and parts IV-VI the emerging irrational, humble Raskolnikov. The first half shows the progressive death of the first ruling principle, and the second the progressive birth of the new ruling principle. The change happens half way through giving a mirror like image. Parts I, III and V deal with his family life, and II, IV and VI with his dealings with the authorities and his father figures.

What then of psychology? Here Raskolnikov is a victim both in his own thoughts and in his debates with Porfiry. However, while he changed his account of his motives, was this a progress towards self-awareness?  It seems more an attempt to fob off others, in particular Sonya. However, few novels are so rooted in the soul of the main character. It may have influenced Camus in his book “L’Etranger”.

And politics? Dostoyevsky was sentenced to face the firing squad as a result of political associations (although the sentence was commuted at the last minute by the Tsar). He was not writing as a casual observer. The great changes that affected Russia at the time figure in a number of conversations. Off stage there is a commune linked to Lebezyatnikov. This adds spice, but is only illuminating in a historical context. St Petersburg was busy to the point of turmoil and the main characters were also in turmoil. Did one reflect the other? The point was made that the poor were mostly good and the rich were a bit naughty.

However, the conclusion of the book is strictly moral. If critics at the time did not think so they have not given proper attention to it. Had the ending been with Raskolnikov simply giving himself up, we would possibly conclude that he thought he was right to murder, but had been too weak in living through the consequences. In the Epilogue Dostoyevsky makes quite clear that a good woman saves him. The style here is different. Some thought a modern novel would have been better without it. The message is delivered in a perfunctory manner. So far as we know nobody has suggested that his publisher or a friend told him to make sure the message was a wholesome one. He was possibly in the process of moving to the political right at the time he wrote it. Possibly he was simply convincing himself that Sonya was the saint, and Raskolnikov had come to heel.


Postscript: after the meeting, there was further reflection on the relationship between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov. In the last meeting between them Raskolnikov felt Svidrigailov had “some hidden power that held sway over him“. Fairly obviously he could go to the police but possibly Raskolnikov saw more than that. As it happened Svidrigailov offered a plan to get him off to America. Svidrigailov used the meeting to explain his actions.

Why? The retrospective view is that possibly he really still hoped to form a friendship with Raskolnikov. Had he succeeded Raskolnikov might have heard a fuller confession and acted as some kind of Sonja. This may seem far fetched but what happens is that because of Sonja Raskolnikov does not commit suicide while Svidrigailov does. There is a rather tiresome piece by Svidrigailov about lechery [part VI chapter 3]. Svidrigailov thinks it is acceptable in moderation but to fail to control the desire might lead to suicide. Everything has to be in moderation. So Raskolnikov, revealing his state of mind, asks if Svidrigailov would be able to kill himself. “That’s enough! Svidrigailov countered in revulsion.”

Svidrigailov was interested in Raskolnikov and those associated with him. In the case of his sister the interest was wider, but he took particular care to help Sonya. Was dealing with her siblings and paying her 3000 roubles to help Sonya or to help Raskolnikov? It is possible that he genuinely loved Dunya and saw something of her in Raskolnikov. Many times the two are compared and were both of course good looking.

So he found that he could get nowhere with Raskolnikov. He had his planned meeting with Dunya, but possibly he would have expressed himself differently had he found some bond with her brother. He lost his nerve in dealing with her, but without Raskolnikov’s support he had no chance with her other than by force.

Another strange element in his last day on earth was his 16 year old bride. He said this attachment was because he had (early in the novel) given up on Dunya. 15,000 roubles is a large gift, and on top of other earlier purchases. Did he feel enormous guilt that he was not going to marry her? His actions are confused throughout. Most prospective suicides do not have such a varied and constructive last day on earth!

Dickens, Charles: Great Expectations

Introducing “Great Expectations” (1861) the proposer drew attention to the key facts of Dickens’ biography. These included the formative years he spent as a child in a boot-blacking factory while the rest of his family were in the debtors’ prison, and his early years as a law court reporter. This novel was the second last complete novel Dickens was to write. The episodic method of original publication could be detected in the book, but the proposer did not feel it harmed the novel. For the proposer, this novel, even when little was happening, was simply scintillating – in its descriptions, which evoked the very texture of what was being described, its subtle humour, its characters, and in so many different ways. But perhaps Dickens was an acquired taste – how did the wider group feel?

Slightly more than half of the group were in the pro-Dickens camp. “My favourite author after Shakespeare, whom I read again and again”. “Coming back to the novel again after a long period I found more layers in it than I expected – simply superb”. “It was all intelligent design”. “I particularly love the humour”. “Above all I love the texture of his writing – the freshness and vitality of the language, the originality of the similes and metaphors, the brilliance of perception on every page”.

A substantial minority tendency – several of whom had bad memories of Dickens being force-fed to them at school – was less enthused. Some disliked the dated language. They felt the novel rambled, particularly in the middle section, eg in the passages about the Pocket family and the extraneous scenes about plays (but wait a minute, interjected the majority tendency, this is an unusually compact and disciplined novel for Dickens!). It was dark in every sense – both descriptively and in the dysfunctional relationships it portrayed.

One – although a fan of other nineteenth century novelists – had disliked Dickens as a young reader. He had liked him a bit more this time, but still found fault with the sentimentality, the characters being portrayed as caricatures, and the implausibility of the plots. Give him a cooler, more rational author! Indeed, he ventured to suggest (hot-foot from an audience with the Emperor Alex, no doubt coincidentally) that Dickens’ faults might be characteristically English! And was it not telling that Scott had outsold Dickens in the nineteenth century (half the novels sold in the nineteenth century being by Scott), and must have had a bigger international reputation?

Daggers drawn and we were off. Have you forgotten about Dickens’ fame in America? That Tolstoy quoted him as a major influence? That Marx said: “Dickens issued to the world more political and social truths than have been issued by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”. And Scott was writing earlier with fewer competitors.

Sentimentality? Well, suggested one, much of the “sentimentality” revolved around the figure of Joe, and Pip’s feelings really comprised guilt mixed with nostalgia for life in the forge. But most readers did find sentimentality, and sentimentality was by no means a feature of all Victorian novelists. The problem was that Dickens lost his sense of humour when writing in sentimental vein. And there were some surprisingly brutal comments from Pip about old people needing to die – wasn’t violence the flip-side of sentimentality, as could be witnessed in American culture?

More political incorrectness! Whatever next?

Well the next thing was a dog running into the room with a strange sort of plastic light shade round its neck. It nosed through the legs of the group but no-one seemed to notice except your correspondent. Was I imagining this? How much of that el cheapo red had I had? But back to note-taking…

Too many implausible coincidences for the minority report! But, hold on, were they so implausible when you think that Jaggers was the fulcrum of the plot, bringing the protagonists together? Modern authors also used coincidences as plot devices – for example Ian Fleming. And the book was certainly a fine illustration of how one chance event – Pip meeting the convict on the marshes – could determine the whole course of a life.

And when were the events set? The proposer resolved this by pointing out that Dickens had left a manuscript note of dates for planning the novel. This suggested that Magwitch was born in 1760 and Miss Haversham in 1764, and the opening scenes of the novel set in 1803.

And what age was Pip meant to be when he recounted his tale? Some felt he was telling the tale just after his final encounter with Estella – for no reference was made to any subsequent events. Others, however, felt that the nostalgic, almost elegiac, tone suggested this was the work of a man near the end of his life.

Dickens’ heroes and heroines were normally cardboard cut-outs, with his great characters being the comic minor players, defined by some memorable trait or phrase (such as Pip’s sister being “on the rampage”). However, Pip and Estella were more interesting than most. Pip was very rare amongst Dickens’ characters in undergoing a transformation of character through experience. (Well, if these characters are interesting, how boring must his other heroes and heroines be, observed one). But there was agreement that Magwitch and Miss Havisham were great characters, and most found the minor characters such as Pumblechook highly amusing. Miss Havisham was a deliberately fantastical character (suffering, in Pip’s words, from a monstrous “vanity of sorrow”).

One of the main themes of the novel was that of identity. Miss Havisham wanted to forge Estella’s identity as a man-hater, just as Magwitch wanted to turn Pip into a gentleman. Both these representatives of an older generation wanted to live vicariously through the younger. Orphans – lacking identity – abounded. Wemmick explicitly had two identities – the heartless one for the law office, and the other for home. Clothes were often the expression of attempts to find a new identity, most amusingly in Pip’s scenes with Trabb the Tailor (and wasn’t Trabb’s boy one of the funniest of Dickens’ creations, particularly in the scene where he humiliated the rich returning Pip?). And even the apparently irrelevant scenes with Wopsle at the theatre showed another country dweller trying to find an urban identity, while Mrs Pocket showed someone who had sought the enhanced identity of a title.

And what about Jaggers? There was much amusement at the satire on his legalistic mode of conversation and on his coaching witnesses, part of the wider attack on the legal establishment in the novel. Particularly fine was the dinner scene in which he – and Wemmick – displayed to Pip just the tiniest amount of humanity. And were we to assume that his human nature was displayed more fully in a relationship with his housekeeper – she of the thick wrists and wild temperament – which Victorian mores could not allow Dickens to portray directly?

The majority tendency were fans of Dickens’ descriptive writing. Imagery of marshes, mists and the dark decay of London haunted the novel. Mist was deployed as a symbol to convey both a sense of mystery about the past and of uncertainty about the future. Dickens’ later novels such as “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were similarly powerful in their use of dark brooding imagery.

Dickens could be seen as the poet of urban squalor. Although he portrayed it as horrible, he also conveyed a sense of fascination, and it was difficult even nowadays to see parts of London without seeing it through his eyes as “Dickensian”. One of his devices for creating atmosphere was to depict things – buildings, trees or furniture for example – as people. Thus:

“ Mr Jaggers’s room was … a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it…”

At the same time as he anthropomorphised things, he would depict his comic characters, particularly his caricatures, as things – for example describing Webbit’s face as a post box.

(And there was the dog with the plastic cone round its neck running round the room again… why could no-one else see him?)

Dickens was the great Victorian novelist of the city (while Hardy was the great Victorian novelist of the countryside). People had flooded into the cities with the Industrial Revolution, and there was a need for artists to provide them with ways of feeling about, seeing, and interpreting urban life. Dickens’ fondness for endings that showed unexpected family links between characters could be seen as responding to the sense of isolation that people felt in the amorphous mass of the city.

So what of the ending of this novel? What did we make of Pip’s behaviour? Arguably he had only done two good things in his life: helping Magwitch (out of fear) and helping Herbert (partly out of a patronising misunderstanding of his capability). On the other hand, he had finally gone back to accept the moral compass provided by the lowly born Joe (a gentleman in the moral not the financial sense) and Biddy. And he had been shamefully manipulated. Well, yes – but wasn’t rushing back to propose to Biddy having ignored her for years just another example of his presumption?

Was Pip a broken man at the end? For some yes, and Estella was a broken woman. For others they had both learnt and were simply sadder and wiser. They had been purged of snobbery in Pip’s case and heartlessness in Estella’s (“sorted out by Bentley Drummle” in one member’s inimitable phrase). We reached agreement on the formula that they were broken but not ruined.

Was Dickens right to change the ending at Bulwer Lytton’s suggestion? For some suggesting reconciliation with Estella put a sentimental gloss on what would have been a fairly hard-edged conclusion. For others the new ending was famously ambiguous. Others wondered if it really mattered – there were other novels such as “The Return of the Native” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” which worked well with alternative endings.

So – challenged the minority tendency – was Dickens really much read these days? Well, you could find copies of all his novels in the bookshops, which was more than could be said for many famous modern authors. And think of the large number of his characters, such as Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham or Oliver Twist who had become household names embodying certain types of human behaviour. The endless television dramatisations no doubt also contributed to keeping him in people’s minds.

Dickens lent himself to television, suggested one, because he wrote his scenes in dramatic form. Unfortunately, however, television tended to take the drama but miss out the humour. And what a great sense of humour! Just imagine what, for example, Dickens would have made of a Book Group solemnly discussing his work when a dog with a gigantic plastic collar round its neck was running between their legs…

(So I hadn’t imagined it! What a relief! A tumbler of negus for me, please!)

Soon the assembled company was spilling out into the autumn night, with the minority tendency conceding to the majority tendency that the book had at least been more enjoyable than they had feared. Not that anything said had made either party change its mind…

Dalrymple, William: The City of Djinns

“The City of Djinns” is a travel book about Delhi. The proposer of the book had always been interested in India, partly because of ancestors serving there in the army. As background to the discussion of the book he showed us a century-old album of photographs of Delhi, which we were able to contrast with a modern day album of Delhi photos taken by another member of the group.

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the award-winning “In Xanadu” when he was twenty-two. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching the “City of Djinns”, his second book, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The book therefore ante-dated the recent surge in Indian economic growth. More recently he has published “White Mughals” to critical acclaim. He and his wife now divide their time between London and Delhi.

The majority found this book a beautifully observed and sympathetic portrait of the city, full of fascinating detail and eccentric characters. It proved the pleasure of exploring a limited area in depth rather than a wider area superficially. They liked the relaxed, affectionate, entertaining style, and the wealth of easily assimilated historical detail. It was also amusing (though not really funny in the Bryson manner). Some of his descriptions – we picked out those of rivers as goddesses (echoing Kim), of conversations, and of the death of Norah Nicholson – were particularly effective.

A minority took a different view – they found the style irritating, the view of India and its characters rose-tinted, and the structure lacking in proper background and context.

The structure of the book was unusual. Starting with a range of mildly comic characters whom Dalrymple and his wife met, and occasionally returning to them, the writer would start to delve into the history either of individuals or more commonly of buildings. The different historical layers of Delhi and wider Indian history would emerge, but they would not be recounted in a simple linear fashion : rather, he would circle round stories such as the Mutiny and Partition before covering them in detail. Perhaps he overdid the history somewhat, by the end grinding the reader down with the story of yet another civilization. The book was closer to a history book than a travel book (although all travel books contain an element of history), but was really sui generis.

For most of us, a particularly powerful technique was to find the remnants of the past in the present – whether in the buildings, or in characters washed up by the passage of time, such as Anglo-Indians betrayed by Partition, or someone who had known Lutyens when he worked in Delhi. His search for such living relics of history – such as his search for remaining eunuchs – brought the urgency of the detective adventure to the book. The cumulative effect of this technique was very powerful, revealing the city in four dimensions. For a minority, however, this anecdotal approach was irritating and self-indulgent, particularly if one did not start with any particular knowledge of India and its history.

For the most part, we found the book well-written and his style very easy to read. Some felt he sometimes tried too hard to use Indian imagery in his descriptions of the seasons – to say that the sun was as blonde as clarified butter, for example, was strained and jarring. We did not all find his portraits of local “characters” (as opposed to his historical portraits) satisfactory. Some thought they were unrealistic – for example in using quaint English such as “tip-top”, which Indian students in this country do not use. Those who have visited India, however, felt that this was accurate for the generation of Indians portrayed. A minority felt that the characters – whether Indian or British – were portrayed in a rather patronising way. Another criticism was that nothing of the poverty and disease of India was portrayed, and little said about the untouchables – however, India was a vast subject to deal with.

We moved on finally to a discussion of the wider historical issues raised by the book.

We noted, for example, that the Scots and Irish (there were large numbers in the East India Company) tended to be portrayed more sympathetically – as more open-minded and tolerant towards the Indians – than the English. Was this a bias in the writer? On balance we felt not. He was not anti-English, but was opposed to a certain type of Englishman – evangelical, xenophobic and bigoted. The book showed the British in India in the eighteenth century acting much more generously to native Indians than in the evangelical nineteenth century.

We also discussed whether the writer acknowledged the deaths caused by the British in India, and here most felt he faced up squarely to the issue, notably in relation to the Mutiny. Was the Mutiny the first plea for independence, or just a mutiny? We felt it was the latter, compounded by an unfortunate combination of circumstances and an incompetent military. Finally, it was suggested that Partition, because of the massive population shifts and slaughter that followed, was the greatest disaster of the British Empire.

Dylan, Bob: Chronicles Volume 1

This book generated an unusually diverse set of reactions, and an unusually long discussion.

For some, “Chronicles” displayed a master of the English language showing himself as proficient in prose as in verse. For others, the book was a boring failure, and for them it was bizarre that the book had won so many awards.

The proposer of the book, a self-confessed Dylan buff, saw Dylan as the greatest singer-songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century. He was, however, a divisive figure, who attracted fanaticism and hatred alike. Dylan had generated an enormous volume of critical literature, much of it from universities, that speculated about his influences, meaning and life. Having been through a bad phase – partly described in the book – of doubting his ability to play, and also having suffered illness, he had clearly become more comfortable with himself and his past. Departing from his usual reticence, he had taken the opportunity – in this book and in the Scorsese documentary – to set out his perspective and counter the endless speculation about his life and influences.

Dylan did not have an academic intellect, but his account of his life and influences showed that he picked things up very quickly. It was a primitive intelligence almost – he was a great primitive. He showed himself as a creative introvert struggling in a world of extroverts. And this book demonstrated his capacity to find the fascinating turn of phrase as readily in prose as in song. He hated the tag of the modern revolutionary, and in fact took a great interest in the past,. This showed in the echoes of earlier American writers such as Twain, Whitman and Kerouac in this book, or in his interest in the Civil War, or in his interest in the great blues and folk singers of the past. Above all, his carefully crafted chronicles demonstrated the creative process at work.

Some others had responded equally warmly to the book. They found many a brilliant turn of phrase, such as his comparison of John Wilkes Booth to Brutus. They enjoyed the explanation of his creative influences and the creative process. They liked his ability to evoke atmosphere, and his skill in using metaphor. They also enjoyed the period detail, such as the nuclear bomb practices in school.

However, some readers did not like the book at all. They found it very superficial. He pretentiously listed great artists as influences, but drew the tritest of conclusions from them. He would self-indulgently record mundane events, and list taxonomies of furniture, as if his mere presence invested them with significance. And for them the structure of the book was hopelessly confused.

Most readers were intrigued by the section of the book in which Dylan explained how he hated being seen as the leader of a protest movement, and hated his privacy being invaded by those who saw him in this role. Some were struck by his reaction against the introduction of him at a concert of “take him he’s yours” and wondered whether any other of the great icons had been seen as public property in quite the same way. Engaging as this humility was, some noted that in the later section about his sessions with Daniel Lanois, he seemed much more egotistical about claiming to have described great truths for the world. There was an odd combination of humility and arrogance in the book.

Dylan’s apparent recall of detail was remarkable. We debated whether he was blessed with a photographic memory, whether he was making up the apparently concrete details, or whether he had kept a journal. In any event, the immediacy with which he could summon up past years was very effective. Moreover, he seemed able to recreate his thinking and outlook at the different phases of his life, so that there was a different persona writing for each of the different episodes. The title “Chronicles” aptly captured this approach.

The structure chosen for the book – a series of different shots in time presented in a circular rather than linear manner – provoked wide differences of view. For those who did not like the book this structure was simply awful. Even for some Dylan fans the circularity and complete lack of references or even dates was the major weakness in the book. For others, including some non-Dylan fans, the circularity of structure, cleverly moving through time to end back at the beginning, was not very different to many modern novels. It helped to illuminate cause and effect in the creative process. Dylan had a similar approach to his songs as he argued the order of the verses did not matter.

Guileless as the book appeared, we felt there must be some shaping – or re-creation – of his image involved. He never criticised anyone, and this became irritating and implausible after a while. He went to great lengths to list all the writers he had come across in the libraries of his friends, without saying much of substance about what he took from them. We wondered if this was partly a response to academic speculation about his influences, but felt it also revealed the insecurity of the auto-didact. That being said, his years in New York had clearly served as a very valuable education in the university of life. On the subject of his influences it was pointed out that he seemed to have little or no knowledge of black music in his early formative years. But the most interesting insight into his influences was the role played by reading old newspaper cuttings in public libraries.

Surprisingly open as the book was, he was still enigmatic in some areas, starting with the complete lack of introduction or dedication for the book. We were surprised to be told that the “wife” he refers to in two different episodes was in fact two different wives (the second wife being revealed for the first time to Dylan scholars through the publication of this book). We also noted that he, presumably deliberately, never referred to the colour of any person he mentions.

We ended as we had begun with a wide range of contradictory views. This might be partly explained by the fact that the book assumed in the reader a wide knowledge of Dylan’s life and works. However, while most of the non-Dylan fans were not fans of the book, this was not true of all of them, and while most of the Dylan fans were fans of the book, this was not true of all of them either.

There was some common ground. One of the two most interesting aspects of the book was Dylan’s account of his dislike of the nature of his early fame. The other was the insight the book gave into the creative process as it actually happened. However, few could understand how the book had come to be nominated for a Nobel prize!