Happy Christmas, dear reader(s). I’m feeling festively empty-headed so will make this a pictorial post. Mum has given me a lovely 1937 edition of Lawrence of Arabia’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with pictures, which confirmed everything I suspected about pictures in books being a Good Thing. These photos of it open up very big if you click on them.
(‘the sword also means clean-ness + death’)
Careful observers will notice a stripey cat’s backside in the corner of some of these pics. He wasn’t to be moved. As well as pictures, I love a good map in books, and this gets bonus points for it being a fold-out map, and one designed so that you can consult it whilst turning the pages as it sticks out.
I’ve been very preoccupied lately with The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, which, despite it being on my Trilogies Reading List, I hadn’t read. I was on a bit of a deadline with it as the tv version, The Fortunes of War, is this year’s Yuletide Boxset (a traditional part of Christmas celebrations in my part of the world). So I had to get all 1,000 pages read by Christmas – present-shopping be damned.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of the book(s) concerns Guy and Harriet Pringle in Bucharest waiting for war to descend upon them, but it is a really good read, full of brilliantly realised characters. It has something in common with Isherwood, I suppose, but is epic in scale as opposed to his vignettes. There’s no character in it that you completely like, as they all have their annoying or obstinate sides, but you feel sympathy for them: my favourite was Yakimov, ‘your poor old Yaki’, who I hated to start with.
The atmosphere of the times is well portrayed: all these ex-pats with varying degrees of self-delusion, going about their own business while the Nazis chase them across Europe. There’s a brilliant bit when a massive explosion knocks Guy and Harriet out of bed one night in Athens, and she, in shock, says something like ‘well, this really is a bit much’.
Unfortunately I discovered shortly before finishing the book that the tv series The Fortunes of War is not just based on it, but on the follow up, The Levant Trilogy, as well. So it seems I might not be able to get my head out of a book at all before Christmas.
Last week a teenage friend lent me a copy of Twilight. Twilight, for those who don’t have contact with teenagers, is a series of books revolving around a forbidden love between a vampire and a girl, set in Washington State, U.S.A. It’s now spawned two films, with more to come.
I wasn’t keen on reading it because, firstly, I don’t tend to read that sort of thing, and secondly, I’m a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I can’t possibly believe there could be another vampire romance as good, and thirdly I read this interesting article by Lucy Mangan which points out that, above and beyond the dubious abstinence theme, the central relationship is abusive. Edward the vampire cannot have sex with Bella the girl because if he loses control of himself he might kill her. Generally speaking he warns her not to get him riled up in case he attacks – all quite suspect.
But anyway, I read the book, because I’ve been pontificating about it for a while and I thought I should read it in order to pontificate more accurately. To my surprise I found it quite absorbing- not brilliantly well written but atmospheric and a decent page-turner. One detail I thought was especially well drawn: vampires, in this conception, are extremely good-looking, Godlike in their magnetism. Humans are unescapably attracted to them; they lure their prey in this way. Nice touch, I thought, although it slightly undermines the romance: is Bella really in love with Edward, or is she just drawn to his wonderful sparkling skin and (oft-mentioned) scent?
However, I had a number of problems with it. Like Mangan I found it disturbing in terms of the relationship portrayed. Bella is taught to watch herself carefully in case she upsets her potentially violent boyfriend; she isolates herself from her friends or family in case any of them realise that she’s in danger. Worse still, Bella is portrayed as a weak and gobsmackingly incompetent klutz who can barely walk across a room without tripping over something, in need of rescuing by Edward on a minute-by-minute basis. This is poles apart from Buffy, who does her own rescuing.
Secondly, the abstinence thing is ridiculous: when she and Edward get together he mentions almost in passing that they can never have sex and she responds as casually as if he had banned them from ice-skating. In Buffy the unresolvable sexual tension between her and Angel is a real problem, whereas for the Twi-lovers it doesn’t seem to bother either of them that much.
Thirdly, the lore of vampires is entirely missing from the Twilight world. Being a vampire is simply something you catch. There are no mystical elements to it, which is really weird. It’s (forgive the pun) a bloodless rendition of the old myth, one shorn of actual myth. Part of Buffy is to do with respect for ancient traditions and prophecies and the like, the importance of being in touch with the ancient, the mysterious, the unknowable. In contrast there’s nothing supernatural about Twilight, and little historical. In Buffy they used myth as metaphor for the problems of growing up – my teacher is a monster, my ex-boyfriend is evil. It offers a proper sort of escapism, whereas Twilight brings vampires literally into daylight, tearing them away from the mystical night and denying the reader that sort of transcendence of reality that such fantasy stories should offer. And – leaving aside the subtext of abuse, the bad writing, and the questionable abstinence message – this is what disturbed me most about the book.
Twilight takes itself a lot more seriously than Buffy, which has much more interesting characters and is far funnier. That said, if I was laid up with a cold or something, I probably wouldn’t mind reading the next in the series.