1984 by George Orwell

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Are classic works beyond criticism? Perhaps. Since literary professors have devoted their careers to hallowed sentences, should one dare to question their opinion, with the threat of passive aggressive comments later (or is that just from fandoms)?

Yes. One should continually review and question the work of the professors, not just to discover the merits (or the conceived merits) of classic pieces, but to learn of your own stance on such controversial topics discussed.

The most notable thing that spruced from this book was the lack of tangibility concerning the characters. The protagonist, Winston Smith, had no defining traits or features, except for his rebellious streak which might not even set him out to be individual, but as one of many aspiring revolutionaries. My hope was to discover a Bonsai: a character that had been nurtured, not necessarily sheltered from action though, and cultivated into their own skin of ink and imagination. Sadly not. Driven by a desire for sex and Victory gin and not much else, Winston is a pathetic man to spend your afternoons with. When he is tortured, it’s not painful to read- unpleasant certainly- but the fires of anguish and sympathy are not ruthfully burning. You would think that Orwell would have devoted a bit more time to fleshing out, but if Winston was to be discovered on paper, it seems like paper he would remain.

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English Socialism-a political philosophy

It is common knowledge that 46% of American adults cannot understand the label on their prescription medicine, so perhaps the language used in the mid-20th century would be a problem for the masses. Alas, alas, if only it were so. The writing is bland. Bland like builder’s tea (I’m much more a green tea person myself). Or cardboard. Perhaps this is the message that Orwell was trying to spread to us: we should inherently not use paper for anything like writing stories as it’ll only bore you: all theses papery references must count for something. I did count down the pages until the end which is never good a sign either.

The pace is unforgivable. My tortoise could waddle 100m faster: yes, there’s a climatic moment (Orwell was not an idiot after all) and perhaps intrigue, but generally it plopped along with an agenda that would horrify all overly zealous 3rd Grade teachers. (The  high intonations and tattooed on smiles never seem to go out of fashion in the education industry.) In fact, only a tree would grow slower than the pace. Coincidence? I think my point is proven. The arc of the plot is predictable to say the least, so it seems that there is little of interest in literary terms with 1984, except…

On the other hand (always a risky sentence starter) the ideas that are conveyed do hold significant weight. The themes of the proletariat rising to power, a theory cultivated by Marx, and their potential to do so was intriguing. At the time it must have caused the upper society to melt into enraged philosophical discussion, however today our society has evolved into something more unusual. The nature of the working classes, when nations are compared, is that they are astoundingly contrasting, so for a society like the one in 1984 to be created where the lower classes rise to power, it would have to be localised to a country or region, with people rebelling against a certain government/ specific policy. Not a worldwide movement as many people stand for many things.

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There is a flaw in the argument as at the moment not only are people under different governmental regimes, which means when the proletariat united rise to power their idea  of how power should be would, realistically, differ depending on culture (so not all inherently communist), but that at the moment many people are happy with the status quo.

Jo Brand said 1984 was ‘more relevant today than almost any other book’, however I feel that whilst identity and freedom are discussed, the underlying motives of the plot are entirely mischaracterised by Brand. Of course with more digital products entering our lives, it is easier to collect personal data. So the concept or value of privacy has undoubtedly evolved, but it is not eliminated like it is the book. In 1984 people are ruthlessly violent and racism is rife towards the prisoners of war with insults breeding everywhere:​ in the age of `Generation Snowflake’, there hardly seems a time where people are more emotionally protected or more sheltered from raw comments. But perhaps because now more than ever, they have to be.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My ideal holiday is one where I’m always busy- reading. On my annual trip to Italy, the days are spent sprawled in a sun lounger, watermelon slices gradually turning tepid due to neglect and heat, and noses shamelessly inserted between pages. I chose to immerse myself in Catch-22 and explore Heller’s most prestigious work. It wasn’t your typical holiday read, a novel that you could ooze into as you slowly inflated on pizza, but nevertheless I undertook the challenge. It was a challenge. I was required to adopt a surgeon’s precision, trying to peel apart the meaning behind each sentence. So although I couldn’t fall into a typical holiday induced mental slumber, there were benefits: I would finally be able to nod my head, and smile genuinely, when people spoke airily of that old novel. Oh, and the  phrase ‘Catch-22’ would have 518 pages of context behind it.

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In a way, this novel did help me let go…of my preconceived notion that plot is essential to a novel, and made me stop fishing around Heller’s chapters for sense. It’s a confusing read. Yet I will try to sum up the thread I could identify; Yossarian, the protagonist, serves as an American pilot in 1944, on the island Pianosa. He is terrified by the prospect of death, with the clear attitude that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” Yes, there is a paranoid edginess throughout. And not only that, but the sense of desperation Yossarian has to flee the country and find refuge from the violence and imminent threat of death. It’s not a surprise, really. All around him is friends are either flying, dying or decaying, and then hurriedly forgotten.

Yossarian is a typical anti-hero, perhaps one of the most notable of the 20th century. He continually attempts to escape his military duty and is perching on the end on the coil of sanity. He is not particularly inspiration, being one of the 20th century’s greatest anti-hero, as he is willing to abandon his comrades in order to save himself. But he does ignite laughter. And that is crucial, because the humour in Catch-22 was one of the few things that made it bearable. Another thing which was engaging, and lightened the tone made damp by the subject of war, were the colourful exploits of Yossarian abroad. Whenever he left Pianosa for a holiday trip, miniature adventures would ensue; the brief escapades were brimming with action, and the characters cameoing were marvellously outrageous. Imagine: Yossarian chasing a girl throughout the streets of Rome, ducking into restaurants and racing through streets frantically- of course this is going to be more interesting than his monologues and moaning in the field.

But the novel is not as straight forward as that, unfortunately. The events take place non chronologically, and there is never any indication that the time period has changed, or is about to. So that was initially a struggle for me to comprehend, and I found it unconformable to read as I was unaware of what was actually taking place. But Catch-22 hasn’t been sold more than 10 million times for it’s perplexity. The language is exceptional, gouged from a scholar’s thoughts. The style and syntax is alien to what we’re accustomed to today, but I can only see this as an opportunity to examine 1960s literature, and to expand my vocabulary! Having said that, some of the words were so unbelievably long and complex, that I thought that the only reason Heller put them there was to be pretentious, but still.

On the whole, I think that this is a novel worth reading, yet only once. As you know, I am an avid reader, and even I had to set myself daily benchmarks to force myself to persevere  through the literal sludge. 100 pages a day normally isn’t too ambitious, yet I was reading for 3 hours a day and just about managed to stumble through the pages in that time. Of course, I could have meandered through the novel, picking it up when I felt the urge, but that approach relied on you wanting to read the novel, at all, in the first place. And although I was starting to enjoy Catch-22 by the end, the deep madness and blatant contradictions were a constant challenge. But an unique novel is going to tough, is it not? The perspective on war is much less poetic than other novels, and fills you with a sense of the massive impact the conflict had on everyone’s life. For us, 6 years in history seems like nothing, merely a couple of words in a sentence, referring to something decades ago. But in this novel, you can see that everyday was signifcant, something they had to suffer through, ponder continually Is this the day I will die? So take the plunge, and challenge yourself. The waters are icy, but by the end you’ll acclimatise, and in although it’ll feel like a gruelling experience at the time, when you look back you’ll smile.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

I should note now, before you have any misconceptions of my reading habits, that I am not an overly large fan of science fiction; admitted, I enjoy dabbling in the genre, yet only generally in the moderner novels. So it will surprise you to hear, that a month ago, when I went to the rather unique and charming Shakespeare’s Bookshop in Paris, I bought exactly what I have been trying to avoid reading for years.

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The book was small, only 248 pages (but more on that later) and I thought to myself, as the popular press often tells one, that I should take a risk. So, a perfectly appropriate way to do so would be if I submerged myself in the unfamiliar waters of strange science fiction plots, planets and pulsesars , in the hope of being rewarded by enjoying the novel.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I will forever will know that The Left Hand of Darkness has 248 pages, due entirely to the fact that I was constantly flicking to the last page, hoping that the numbers had blurred and metamorphosed into a much, much, much smaller one. Yes, it turns out that my brave leap into the world of Gethen was not, as I had hoped, rewarded.

The novel is in itself is based around the fascinating concept of an entirely single sexed society; despite it being written in the late 1960s I think that in a way it is almost topical, because of the drive for more equality within gender today. Although, this book (as far as I am aware) is not written as a response to gender issues in the 20th Century, it is an unusual and under-explored idea that I was excited to read more about. Thus, I bought it.

Yet strangely enough, even though the single sexed society aspect was a clear theme in the book, it was almost pushed out of the spotlight which disappointed me. I would much have preferred it if more was written about it, because granted that although novels should not be theme-driven, I was disappointed about how LeGuin neglected to further explore this rare idea. Part of this idea was destroyed due to LeGuin having everyone addressed with the male possessive pronoun so that one automatically assumes it is a male-only society, not a neutral one as LeGuin attempted to illustrate. To add to that, I feel that it, or some other neuter pronoun would have been more suitable, so that the reader does not receive the impression of one sex being more dominant than the other in these world.

An aspect I enjoyed in the book was that there were multiple perspectives; in the first half of the book it was that of Genly Ai, whilst littered chapters were ancient stories that held a certain relevance to the rest of the novel. Then, for the second half, it was predominantly Genly Ai’s perspective (again) with several chapters from the viewpoint of Estraven. This definitely improved the reading of the novel because the two characters, whilst being physically contrasting (Genly Ai is an envoy sent from Ekumen to persuade Orgota, Karhide and the other countries on that planet, to agree to a trade agreement, whilst Estraven is a native to the planet, and therefore initially thought of Genly as an alien), they are even more so mentally and therefore it was refreshing to notice a change in style in the narrative.

Incontestably, the multiple viewpoints was a relief because of the dry content. It was so dry it was desert with only infrequent adjectives to relive the my stultified brain; thankfully those rare stylistic devices were beautiful, creating incredible imagery. Why then, could there not be more of them? Honestly, did LeGuin’s editor set her a limit? Anyway, I was frequently checking how many pages I had left (248!) and willing the whole thing to be finished. The fist part of the novel was definitely the most interesting, and at that point it wasn’t that insufferable. At times, dare I say it, I even enjoyed it, but then Ai gets rescued from that farm, and they start that trek through the snow. Until the very end, a very large proportion of the novel is merely “It’s snowy and hard to pull the sledge.” Up until that point it was going so well, so to see the death of such a strong, young plot was heart-breaking. And I had to suffer the consequences in order to be fully qualified to write this review. Needless to say, I was unbelievably satisfied to be finished with the novel.

Another reason I believe I had a lack in interest generally was because the protagonist was generally weak and was difficult to relate to (except if you suffer from the cold badly). Genly Ai, admittedly, was a stranger on the planet, but there was a gaping hole, charred around the edges perhaps, where tales of his past should have been.

The same issue is associated in my mind with Estraven. The fact he lives on an alien planet is irrelevant. He is a dull, boring character and the most exciting thing that has happened to him his whole life is being exiled, which is poor if you happened to be the prime minister. I was looking forward to some jovial anecdotes about his time in residency but, as a wise man once said, some things just aren’t meant to be. (Spoiler!) I sense that the ending should have been emotional, but when Estraven got shot down, I didn’t even feel a pang of remorse or sadness.

Obviously, I am not an original Science Fiction fan, so there may be those raving about The Left Hand of Darkness further afield, but that was my just opinion. I would recommend this if you are looking for something a bit interesting, and have a lot of time on your hands, (because if you only have several hours a week, this isn’t what I think you’d want to be spend it reading), but if you are on holiday and are open minded enough to endure a new experience, who knows? Perhaps you’ll like it much more than I did… all 248 pages.