The link below is to an article that takes a look at 50 classic novels under 200 pages.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 50 classic novels under 200 pages.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on Oxford University Press putting its ‘World Classics’ online.
For many lovers of classic literature, opportunities to devour the works of undiscovered authors can be enough to make people’s eyes light up. For those who aren’t as keen on the genre, the appeal of these titles is a little less obvious. In fact, it’s one of the reasons museum professionals are running into issues when it comes to inspiring new generations to read such works.
Engaging young people is a challenge for museums and the traditional approaches that literary heritage museums take when dealing with classic authors is becoming a problem. This is because literary heritage museums usually focus on presenting the biographical story, personal effects or archival collection of an author. Relevant and interesting perhaps to those already familiar with an author’s works, but perhaps less successful at engaging would-be readers. The language of some of these authors can also be a barrier to new readers, as can the difficulty of reading “a classic” – which might be seen as irrelevant or out of touch with the modern world.
As the community, learning and engagement officer at Wirksworth Heritage Centre in Derbyshire, my role is to engage audiences of all ages with the local history of Wirksworth. A key element to Wirksworth’s heritage is its literary connections to writers (including George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Daniel Defoe) and the inspiration they took from the people and the landscape of Wirksworth. My PhD research considers how literary heritage is presented in museums throughout the country. I have a particular interest in Nottingham, which was awarded the Unesco City of Literature bid in 2015 due to its rich literary heritage, but also has some of the lowest literacy levels in the country.
Since COVID-19, finding new ways to share our literary heritage both inside and outside of museum walls has become incredibly important. So how should museums show that these authors remain relevant in the 21st century? Literary heritage museums are doing this in a whole host of ways, but here are the three examples of approaches I believe are particularly successful.
From the Austen Project to the many graphic novel retellings and classic novels reimagined as text messages, retelling stories with a contemporary twist is a well-trodden (if not always well-reviewed) path. It’s also a method of interpretation that literary heritage museums are beginning to embrace.
Using new and creative formats can remove some of the barriers to young people wanting to experience these stories and can inspire them to try the “real thing”. As part of my own curatorial work with Dorking Museum, I wrote a book entitled Forster in 50 which accompanies the exhibition Forster at 50. The book provides visitors with an overview of five of Forster’s novels in only 50 words with illustrations, providing more of an accessible introduction to EM Forster’s work.
Technology and literature may have seemed like a mismatch once upon a time, but more and more museums are using different technologies to engage audiences with their collections. Before its closure in 2016, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre presented the 1915 censorship trial of Lawrence’s The Rainbow through a series of Twitter posts in their exhibition No Right to Exist: The Rainbow and Other Books Which Shocked. This condensed the complexities of the trial into a series of 140 character posts, allowing younger audiences to explore the debate in a familiar format and go on to consider what we consider scandalous in literature today.
My own work has included the co-production of Walking with Lawrence, a digital walking tour written from Lawrence’s perspective which allows the listener to connect the author with the city they see today. The use of a creative narrative which is listened to rather than read provides a format that’s easier to understand, removing some of the barriers created by large amounts of text.
Working with creative partners such as artists and writers can help museums to reach new audiences, providing more approachable information for younger generations in particular. Graphic novels and comic books are incredibly helpful in this respect. I’m working with Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s writer in residence Helen Greetham, who’s currently producing a graphic novel about the literary heritage of George Eliot in Wirksworth.
A similar project is underway in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, working with young people to produce their own Lawrence-inspired graphic stories. The Eastwood Comics project aims to engage “700 further young people (who) will learn about the author and his birthplace by taking part in activities inspired by the young writers’ research”. Here, participation in creative projects and reading new stories help new generations to connect with Lawrence’s heritage in more meaningful ways than regurgitating information about the author.
The pandemic has provided an unprecedented challenge to the heritage sector, but the closure of our sites doesn’t mean we can’t continue to connect people to our history. These new and innovative ways that museums have engaged and inspired younger generations can continue regardless of whether physical buildings are open. In the months ahead, I hope more buildings take similar approaches.
Some books can really bring to life the place in which they’re set. Their words knit together in such a way that whole landscapes or entire floorplans of buildings you’ve never visited before spring forth in your mind.
Often these settings are based upon real places. So with domestic travel restrictions set to be relaxed from April, that might be the opportune moment to discover some of the UK’s best literary heritage sites. From violently beautiful windswept moors to boisterous town squares, here are five such places and the books they inspired:
Poirot commented on the geography of the property, ‘So many paths, and one is never sure where they lead’ … They passed the Folly and zig-zagged down the path to the river.
Agatha Christie’s house at Greenway on the River Dart is the setting for her 1956 novel Dead Man’s Folly. About a charity game of murder that becomes a bit too real, this Hercule Poirot mystery vividly came to life on my visit to Greenway.
Not only is the Georgian house itself perfectly depicted, but the zig-zagging path to the murder scene in the boathouse is so uncannily described that to visit it is chilling. The house and grounds are so evocative that Greenaway was used in ITV’s 2013 adaptation of the book.
2. Nottingham in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Market Square lights danced all around him.
Sillitoe’s cult novel set among the working class in Nottingham follows Arthur Seaton (rebel, thinker, drinker and womaniser) after he puts away 11 pints and seven gins one Saturday night.
Nottingham might have changed somewhat since 1958, but Sillitoe’s detailed descriptions of the city’s streets are still wonderfully recognisable. Nothing says Nottingham like wondering amid the drunken revellers in Market Square or experiencing the cacophony of the annual Goose Fair, one of the largest funfairs in the UK. The many locations Seaton visited over his fateful weekend can be further explored on The Sillitoe Trail.
3. Wirksworth, Derbyshire in George Eliot’s Adam Bede
Look at the canals, an’ th’ acqueducs, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford.
George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) provides a snapshot of the rural Midlands at the beginning of the 18th-century. Eliot’s aunt was a Methodist preacher in Wirksworth, and the local landscape, coupled with her aunt’s reminiscences, became the germ of the novel
Thoough Eliot irritably rejected suggestions that any of her characters or settings were carbon copies of real life, Wirksworth can certainly be found in the industrial landscape that she conjures. Arkwright’s mills can be still be explored, the canal strolled along, and the remains of the mining industry discovered.
4. The West York Moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
But it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and the after-punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at.
Wuthering Heights (1847) is a tale of obsessive love. Divided in life, Cathy and Heathcliff are finally joined in death and their spirits roam the Yorkshire moors. For me, Emily Brontë’s classic is more about the landscape than love. When first reading the novel, my interest in Cathy and Heathcliff’s undying love was secondary to my imaginings of the moorland that is their playground and escape. The windswept barren landscape feels synonymous with freedom.
You can walk in the Brontë sisters’ footsteps by following the Brontë Stones, which are situated between Thornton, where the girls were born, and Haworth, where they wrote their classic novels. The Emily Walk is marked by a poem carved into a rocky outcrop from Kate Bush, whose 1978 number one Wuthering Heights was inspired by the novel. The walk leads you away from civilisation and takes in the lovely ruins of Top Withins farmhouse, which is believed to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw home in Wuthering Heights.
5. Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers
The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block.
Lawrence’s most autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), follows the fates of a mining family in Nottinghamshire.
The once coal-mining town of Eastwood and the surrounding landscape has been recreated in detail gleaned from Lawrence’s memories of his childhood, from The Breach where his family lived (“The Bottoms” in the novel) to descriptions of the Moon and Stars pub (actually the Three Tuns). Visiting The DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum, visitors can step inside a typical mining family home of the period.
Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.
To ensure these works can be read, a team of authors, librarians and researchers are working together on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project.
By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.
Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.
Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.
The novel describes the trials of Red Burke, a bullock driver in Western Australia, trying to make a living in a post-war Australia.
Just after the novel’s original publication, it was described by John Sleeman of The Bookman in the UK as “the high-water mark of Australian literary achievement in the novel so far”.
Sean Williams has written over 50 books, including co-authored titles with authors such as Shane Dix and Garth Nix which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.
Metal Fatigue was Williams’ debut. Set in a small American city 40 years after the end of a nuclear war, the residents must decide if they want to join the newly forming Re-United States of America.
Depicting a dystopic future of violence, shortages and a divided USA, it still feels remarkably current today.
This poetry collection from activist, writer and member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Professor Anita Heiss, skewers Australia’s racist underbelly.
I’m Not Racist, But… explores identity, pride and political correctness; proposes alternative words to the national anthem; and reveals how it is to grow up as an Indigenous woman in Australia.
This is a landmark work along Australia’s slow road to racial reckoning.
The multi-award winning Space Demons was Gillian Rubinstein’s first book and began the much-loved trilogy of the same name.
It follows four ordinary kids drawn into a dangerous new computer game – instead of simply watching the game on the screen, they become part of it. And there is no way to know if they will escape.
With its gripping plot and local setting, Space Demons introduced many children to Australian science fiction – and led to many Australians first discovering their love of reading.
In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.
This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.
Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.
This is an essential work of Australian history.
Frank Hardy was known for his political activism around labour rights, and as the author of 16 books. Almost his entire backlist is out of print, with the notable exception of Power Without Glory (1950).
In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.
Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.
The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.
A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.
Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.
The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.
The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.
Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.
Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.
Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor; Director, Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, Postdoctoral Fellow, ‘Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project’, University of Melbourne
I’m a scholar of literature who spends a lot of time thinking about why certain stories continue to be revisited, and what works can be considered classics today.
So I’m looking forward to seeing Greta Gerwig’s film version of “Little Women,” even though I’ve seen similar movies before. Gerwig’s film is the eighth film adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel that lets readers escape into the 19th-century New England world of witty Jo March and her three sisters. It will arrive in theaters on Christmas Day.
But I believe in a broader notion of what counts as a classic than books which are most widely recognized. That is why I’ve written a children’s book that introduces kids to an array of famous authors including ones you may not have heard of.
Gerwig, an actress and filmmaker, has talked about how the issues facing the women in Alcott’s novel feel modern and urgent to her. Her passion for the story told in “Little Women” gets at the heart of what makes something a classic: a tale generations of readers can relate to.
Other examples include Lewis Carroll’s story about an imaginative young girl who learns to find her own way in “Alice in Wonderland” or Charles Dickens’ tale of financial hardship, family and personal redemption in “A Christmas Carol.”
These books are beautifully written, of course. But the reason they are told and retold in countless adaptations is because they express themes that people relate to.
In my view, what counts as a classic today must come from an ever-expanding range of authors.
This is especially important for children. Parents, teachers and librarians are demanding more representation in the books that children read because reading more diverse books can benefit readers from all backgrounds.
Diverse books can help all readers develop empathy for other people’s experiences. And opening the gateway to a broader spectrum of books can lead to reading experiences that are rich, stimulating – and just plain fun.
By all means, go ahead and read – or re-read – Alcott’s “Little Women” and similar classics.
In addition, kids and readers of all ages should also become familiar with works by authors like Sui Sin Far, who wrote about the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, one of the first Mexican-American novelists.
They should also, pick up a volume of poems by African-American poet Langston Hughes and sway to the blues in his haunting lines. Read the accomplished Native American musician and writer Zitkála-Šá’s raw account of a young girl who leaves her Indian reservation to start a new school and is nervous about making friends. Learn about the dreams of the young Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who was nominated 14 times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
The link below is to an article that questions the ‘need’ for children to read classic children’s books.
Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.
The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.
The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.
He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.
The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.
All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.
The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.
We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.
Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.
The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.
The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.
A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.
The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.
The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.
It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.
Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.
In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
My own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.
There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism.
What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.
One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.
Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:
For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.
Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,
My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.
Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:
Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]
Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.
Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.
“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”
The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.
In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:
I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.
In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.
The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.
As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?
One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:
They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.
A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.
Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.
She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:
He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.
Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.
What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.
She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:
In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.
Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.
Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.
The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.
American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.
While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.
Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.
The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.
Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.
It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.
Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:
Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.
The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.
“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.
As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.
In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”
They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.
The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.
Tom Robbins says:
It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.
Anthony Bourdain has said:
Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.
Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”
The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”
This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:
What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.
Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.
Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:
Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.
One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”
This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:
Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.
Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.
Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.
Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.