Wednesday, September 25, 2019

'Watership Down' by Richard Adams

Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

My family can't always understand my reading choices. When he saw my current read, my oldest son said, 'Isn't that a bloodbath about rabbits killing each other?' I guess he's partly right, but that sentence falls far short of the epic this is. It's one of my favourite reads this year, and I'll never look at wild bunnies in quite the same way again. I love and appreciate each of the main characters like family members. It's easy to get totally sucked in to their journey, and even now, I'm humming Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes', which was written as a sound track for this story.

Here's how it all goes down. Little Fiver was the runt of his litter, and holds no sway with the others at all, but he does have a rare gift of prophecy that enables him to foresee big trouble heading for his warren. (Readers are told upfront that residential developers have claimed the area for housing.) Fiver's older brother Hazel is the only one who'll listen, since he's seen Fiver's gift in action before. When the big chief brushes off their warning, they muster a small group of a dozen who dash for freedom in the nick of time. The rest of the novel recounts their adventures and perils.

While enjoying the hospitality of an aristocratic, super-sleek dude named Cowslip, they learn a shocking secret about his burrow. Later, they make the valuable friendship of Kehaar, a very cool black-headed seagull. Then later again, they come across Efrafa, the totalitarian regime of a controlling fuhrer rabbit named General Woundwort. All through the story, young Hazel, though not the smartest or strongest, proves himself to be a generous, big-hearted and able leader of their own little group.

I actually think it should be a compulsory read for wannabe chiefs rather than dry old text books. Anyone aspiring for a leadership role should study Hazel's successful approach. It's not just that he's level-headed, tactful, decisive and humble, although he's certainly all that. Hazel's biggest strength is recognising the unique strengths of his team members, and acknowledging ways in which they're superior to him. It's the very best skill to have. They all know that his directions are based on his interest in them as people, and respect him for it, grudgingly or otherwise.

And what a team it is! Fiver is the runt, but they'd be nowhere without his gift of second sight. Blackberry's innovative mind squeezes them out of many scary jams, and Dandelion, their storyteller, understands the importance of a strong tradition of myths and legends to keep a group's morale high. Even Bluebell, with his sassy one-liners, provides the quick wit that can boost the spirits, or at least the retaliative energy, of the whole company. Perhaps most of all, I love the gutsy Bigwig, who has more courage in his furry body than dozens of other literary heroes have all together! Seriously, what a guy! Together, under Hazel's wise and caring leadership, they each pool their individual resources to make one super rabbit body.

Richard Adams declares in his intro that he never intended the novel to be some sort of allegory or parable, but simply a tale about rabbits that he made up to amuse his daughters in the car. Well, sorry Richard! Sometimes readers must override an author's opinion and hijack a story for ourselves. This book is teeming with parallels and allegories for those of us who enjoy spotting them.

There's the Old Testament Exodus sentiment from the very start, when two brothers (Hazel and Fiver in this case) approach a mighty leader to appeal for the people's release, only to be mocked and refused. Then there's the Pilgrim's Progress momentum in the journey itself, which keeps us sticking with our small group, knowing that when they find what they're looking for, we'll sense the rightness in our own hearts too.

And there are several political and social analogies we can't help snapping up as mirrors of human nature. The rabbit 'owslas' or police forces are pecking orders of henchmen surrounding a chief. We can tell that each rabbit in the owsla appreciates his position of privilege, and secretly laps up the prestige directed his way. But the great warrens of Efrafa have turned sour under the leadership of General Woundwort, a dictator in the truest sense of the word. He clearly needs to be taken down, but genuinely believes that he's doing all the rabbits under his dominion a favour, by keeping them safe from harm. Instead, his radical restrictions are actually curtailing their fulness of life and causing them harm instead.

Overall, I think the biggest appeal for me is the dignity and relatability of the characters. In the grand scheme of things, aren't we humans a lot like Hazel's gang? We're edgy, vulnerable and a tad jumpy in our big wide world of threats and insecurity. We fear our own brand of 'elil' or enemies that lurk in shadows and may try to cut us down at any moment. But day after day, we rise up to keep going, clinging to friends who have proven true, and boldly trying to take a stand for what we deem important.

I have to call it one of those rare books I'd recommend to anybody. You must add it to your reading lists, it's so fresh and inspiring.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 or more like 🐰🐰🐰🐰🐰

Monday, September 16, 2019

Totally Different, But Exactly the Same

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which reminded me strongly of another novel I read earlier in the year. After some head scratching, I realised it was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. At first I wondered how I could have missed it, the parallels are so striking. Both stories are set in the same decade, the 1950's, and the chief plot take place in under a week. In both cases, the main character sets off on a short journey. Holden Caulfield decides to skip school, so he can hang out in the city before going home to his family. And Stevens the butler has been given generous leave from his employer to take a driving holiday, and decides to visit an old friend. But most of all, both main characters narrate their stories in a similar manner as they travel. They each deliver streams of consciousness, in which sudden memories pop into their heads, and tug the stories into all sorts of meandering and revealing deviations, and dense backstory.

So overall, the biggest factor in common seems to be the resemblance of the two main characters. But hold on a minute! The more I think about that, the more totally crazy it seems. Nobody could possibly be more dissimilar than these two guys. Surely they are poles apart. The evidence of this is overwhelming.   

1) Stevens is a senior gentleman, and Holden is a 16-year-old.
2) Stevens takes every implicit social rule totally seriously, while Holden finds holes in everything, and takes no establishment seriously at all.
3) Stevens is fully committed to his post, and Holden is a free spirit, committed to nothing.
4) The decorous Stevens would never do anything that would raise an eyebrow, but sassy Holden has just been expelled from school.
5) Holden is attracted to girls, and attends a dance, hoping to strike it lucky with a one-night-stand. Stevens considers himself way removed from thoughts of romance at all, since it would take the focus off his all-important job.
6) Stevens doubts he'll ever pick up the knack of banter to suit his new employer, while Holden's smart-alec comments have long been his facade.
7) Stevens takes every opportunity to shovel pomp and ceremony on for appearance sake. Holden detests anything that remotely reeks of phoniness.
8) Stevens is the ultimate conformer, and Holden is the ultimate rebel.
9) Stevens is the sort of guy Holden would roll his eyes at, and maybe even despise for adding to all the pretension and snobbery at large in the world. And Holden would be way below Stevens' notice.

So why do these two main characters, polar opposites in almost every way, remind me of each other? I think it's because their minds keep skittering back to their deepest regrets, which sets them off trying to justify the inevitable self-recrimination that floods in. Then they each think out long and convincing rationales and justifications to help them hold their emotional pain at arm's length. These male protagonists stand for totally different values, yet in their innermost hearts, they're pretty identical. It makes me wonder whether we'd find this touching vulnerability true of most people, if only we'd give them a chance.

There are such big implications for us readers, who follow the circuitous reasoning and storytelling of both Stevens and Holden with sympathy and liking. Even though their personal ethics and priorities are each the inverse of the other, we are willing to spend the hours with them that it takes to read the books. If we can like two polar opposites, maybe we can like anybody, if we catch the fleeting common denominator that often remains hidden. I believe I've struck one of the benefits of reading novels. I'm beginning to think that anyone who claims to be a serious fiction reader surely can't hold grudges, form prejudice, or make snap judgments as easily as those who aren't. It must to occur to us some time that those we find most annoying or hard to understand, are possibly just the same as us where it counts.

Has this struck you the same way, along your reading journey?

Friday, September 6, 2019

'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. 

I'd never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro before, so picked it up when I saw it at the library. It's a stream of consciousness narrative by Stevens, the butler. His employer, Mr Farraday, has offered him a chance to take a driving break for a week. He decides to spend it by visiting Miss Kenton, a former head of household staff. Stevens wants to see if she'd consider coming back to resume her old post, since she's indicated her marriage may be shaky. On the way, he records some events that happen to him along the road, and also reminisces lots about days gone by. So the story lapses into frequent flashbacks.

Stevens turns out to be one of those super-polished butlers who live out their role 24/7. He refuses to let his personal life spill into his job, and slams so many doors, there's really no personal life left to seep in anyway. Brilliant British butlers were all about never being shaken out of their professional roles. He believes that a butler of any calibre must be seen to inhabit his post, and not take it on and off like a pantomime costume, and that only the British have the correct dignity and restraint to make the job an art form. Those of other nations were really only second-rate manservants, but the Brits were butlers to the core. So he reaches a point where he's stiff and starched even in his down-hours, which to Stevens, is a mark of total success.

Butlers also took great pride in accepting posts only from masters whose work they could totally respect and support, and Stevens has devoted most of his life to his former employer, Lord Darlington, who passed away three years previously. The poshest butlers are really serious about reflecting the glory of the great men they serve. In such a way, they consider themselves contributing their own input to world affairs. The bulk of Stevens' memories take place between the two World Wars, when Lord Darlington was sympathising with the Germans, who had such a huge financial and economic burden to carry because of the rough terms of the Versailles treaty. Nobody had a clue that certain unscrupulous Nazi's would take advantage of this simple man's generosity and manipulate it for their own purposes.

So what happens when the cause to which you've devoted your life turns out to have a shaky foundation? As the plot unfolds through flashbacks, we see how Lord Darlington, used as tool by the wrong hands, lived to be discredited and taken-down. His memory is an embarrassment to those who knew him, so should that reflect on Stevens too? He wonders if Lord Darlington's fall from grace means that he's wasted his own life.

Kazuo Ishiguro does a great job of getting Stevens to ponder these questions in such a subconscious way that he hardly realises he's even thinking along these lines. The occasions when he flatly denies ever having even worked for Lord Darlington are quickly explained away with some conscious rationale. And Stevens questions may apply to us readers, or at least get us thinking. Does misplaced zeal for anything mean that we've wasted heaps of time, or even squandered our lives?

Another regret Stevens skirts around is having wasted every opportunity for a deeper relationship with Miss Kenton. The memories he digs up shows that there was definitely a mutual attraction, but both were unwilling to take the plunge over the lines of respectability of their professional roles. Twenty years further on, it's a case of accepting the choices they believed were best at the time, and the lives they led to. They each shape their philosophy to equip them to handle the rest of their days with optimism.

Miss Kenton says, 'One cannot be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realise one has as good a life as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.'

As for Stevens, he finally shapes his vague misgiving into words. 'I'll try to make the best of what remains of my day. What can we ever gain by looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives haven't turned out quite as we might have wished?' He decides that big sacrifices must be made wholeheartedly, and should be a cause for pride and contentment regardless of results.

It's a nostalgic but melancholic sort of novel that sets us pondering where our own priorities should lie. For me, they've never been about work first, and never will be. I prefer Pip's old chum Mr Wemmick from Great Expectations as a role model for a good work/leisure balance, and definitely not poor old Stevens. I haven't seen the movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, but since it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, I'm wondering if I should.