Browsed by
Tag: Time

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork OrangeAfter a short break from reading, I’m thrilled to return to my Library series today and to one of the most compelling novels of all time. A perfect way to start reading again, thanks to its short yet intense burst of genius, A Clockwork Orange is an unparalleled masterpiece.

A Clockwork Orange was the first, and to date only, novel I’ve read in a single sitting. I can’t remember why, but I was staying at my grandparents’ house for a few nights, perhaps home from university. For some reason, I found myself with a copy of the book and dove into one night, finishing it several hours later at 3am.

Divided into three parts, A Clockwork Orange, follows the story of Alex, a young and violent man who spends his evenings taking part in “ultra-violence”, beating, maiming and raping with his gang of three “droogs”. Caught and sentenced to jail, Alex is subjected to an experimental treatment which removes his free will and makes even the thought of violence turn his stomach.

The novel is one of a select few where it’s impossible to choose a true highlight, indeed it’s the perfection of the whole that makes A Clockwork Orange so successful. The prose is tight, explosive and yet works away at subtler themes than it often gets credit for. Of course, there’s free will under scrutiny, but so too is government interference, youth culture, violence, prisons and religion.

While the prose shines, it is often the narration that many remember, spurred on by Burgess’ nadsat, a language compounded from Russian, rhyming slang and pure invention, oh my brothers. Alex, our humble narrator, is the voice of his generation. He’s an anarchist, intellectual and philosopher rolled into the malevolent heartbeat of a disconnected teenager. He delights in violence and crime, despises authority, but you often sense is just a little too bright to truly believe he can last forever that way.

Martin Amis, in his 2012 essay on A Clockwork Orange, rightly celebrates the almost whisp-like nature of the novel:

“It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration.”

Like Amis, my main reaction the novel has always been a sense of wonder at the sheer perfection Burgess accomplished. Written in just three weeks, the book reads as if it was born in a storm of white-hot but short-lived fire. No other novel I know of better captures its tone, story and meaning in so few words. Perhaps The Great Gatsby is the closest in terms of creating a single, atmospheric story. Yet even Fitzgerald rests his novel from time to time. Burgess, you sense, did not blink.

A Clockwork Orange is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels and one of The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.

About the Author
Anthony Burgess is best known for his 1963 novel A Clockwork Orange, which was adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. As well as writing many novels, Burgess composed over 250 musical works.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyAlongside The Big Sleep and Wuthering Heights, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby in high school. I wrote an essay about the themes of illusion and reality in both Gatsby and a novel called The Last Resort, which I thoroughly detested. Part of that may have been the incredibly disparity in my instant affection for the former and tedious acceptance of the latter.

Since the first few pages, The Great Gatsby has captivated me like no other novel. It’s followed me through life, giving me a connection and new meaning at almost every turn. Reading it again, I’m back where I began, imagining myself as Gatsby, perhaps through some urge to be the protagonist of my own life, rather than a side character.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was not an instant success, only gaining its status after the author’s death. Following the larger-than-life Jay Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway describes one summer in 1922 where his and Gatsby’s lives intertwine with tragic consequences.

It almost seems foolish to attempt to review The Great Gatsby, as so much has been written about in the past 90 years. For me, the most enduring reason to praise the novel is the quality of Fitzgerald’s writing. In just over 50,000 words, he creates a great American mythology. Even in just a few hundred pages, no character is underwritten, no image is under-drawn and manage passages take on such lyrical beauty that they might have stretched for ages under the pen of a less-skilled craftsman.

A mysterious and often suspicious character, Gatsby’s story is revealed over the course of the novel through his conversations with Nick and long-lost love for Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan. We learn how Gatsby created his own personality, built a life and became rich, all to find a way back to his dream of meeting Daisy again. On the way to trying to recapture the past, he either becomes corrupted or takes on enough rumour that he might as well be.

Sarah Churchwell writes in her essay The Great Gatsby Delusion, “For Fitzgerald, Gatsby’s vast wealth is a sign of the failure of the American dream, not its success.” Its testament to Fitzgerald’s incredible ability that many miss this reading of the novel. With Gatsby, the story reads you as much as you read it. It can give you hope, but it can also teach you that the means you might need for the ends, make the ends impossible to capture. As Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby, “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

Nevertheless, The Great Gatsby has always given me hope. No matter its message, I have always read it to mean that our dreams are what make us great, not average. It reminds me to dream big, to dream romantic and most of all, just to dream.

The Great Gatsby is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Guardian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely known for writing The Great Gatsby, often called the best American novel. He is also renowned for his other novels and short stories, chronicling the 1920s.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

WatchmenI can’t remember when or why I first picked up my copy of Watchmen other than it being some time before the 2009 film adaptation. I don’t say that to make myself out to be a more worthy fan of the book, it’s simply my only point of reference. Watchmen seems to be a novel that, once read, can never again be separate from your life. Though I know I didn’t, I feel like I grew up with the characters and have memorised dialogue for decades. Perhaps like one of its leads, Watchmen exists in the past, present and future simultaneously. Hopefully, that’s not the only superpower that rubs off on readers.

First published in 12 issues over 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is often considered the best graphics novel ever created. As well as traditional comic book panes, the first 11 chapters include supplemental material published within the fictional Watchmen universe.

Watchmen follows the lives of a group of superheroes in an alternate 1985. Following the murder of one hero, we follow the investigation through the eyes of his former colleagues. Weaving through time periods, the narrative builds layer after layer of drip-fed information about each character, whilst pushing forwards as the world tries to avoid nuclear war.

By far one of the best pieces of fiction ever created, Watchmen is a masterpiece of storytelling and design. Complex, deep and morally ambiguous, it tackles questions most stories would never mention. It offers all sides of society a mirror but no judgement. Moore and Gibbons ripped the superhero comic to shreds with Watchmen and somehow made something even better from the remains.

It’s next to impossible to choose a single highlight from Watchmen and no doubt each reader has their own view. For me, it’s the detail in Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Every re-read, even now, seems to reveal another secret. Whether it’s a newspaper headline flapping on the wind, the brands that seem to fit the world around them better than anything or the many echoes of the doomsday clock, each panel is a true piece of art.

For Alan Moore’s writing, it’s his inventiveness and audacity in changing perceptions of an entire medium and a whole genre. Speaking to The Guardian around the release of the Watchmen movie, he said:

To me, all creativity is magic,” he says. “Ideas start out in the empty void of your head – and they end up as a material thing, like a book you can hold in your hand. That is the magical process. It’s an alchemical thing. Yes, we do get the gold out of it but that’s not the most important thing. It’s the work itself. That’s the reward. That’s better than money.

Everyone should read Watchmen at least once. It’s one of the finest example of how stories and entertainment can transcend genres and formats to teach us about who we are. It’s great literature, brilliant art and essential reading.

Watchmen is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels

About the Author

Alan Moore is the writer of many famous graphic novels, including Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Dave Gibbons has drawn the likes of Batman and Green Lantern.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big SleepMuch like my introduction to Tintin, I was first passed a copy of The Big Sleep by a favourite teacher. This time is was well into Secondary School, either GCSE or A Level years and it was my English teacher, Mr Dawson. Beyond my family, he was most responsible for both my love of reading and long-standing dream of writing my own stories.

Following a class reading of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which I’d read before and was something of a naïve expert on, he brought a copy in and offered it to me as a loan. For some reason, the book sat in my room until he gently reminded me that he’d need it back. Shocked at my forgetfulness, I raced through the pages in a few nights and returned it the same week.

The connection to Sherlock Holmes seemed at once clear and distant. The novel’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, is as determined, intelligent and single-minded as his predecessor. Yet, this was something new too. He was involved in his case like Holmes rarely seemed to be, messing around with victims and suspects. Where Holmes intervened to solve a crime, Marlowe almost seems to propel it forward and wasn’t too bothered with loose ends. Without Mr Dawson and that book loan, I might not have come to appreciate detective fiction’s diversity.

The Big Sleep, I soon learned many years ago, is the first novel to feature Phillip Marlowe. Published in 1939, it builds an a number of Chandler’s many short stories featured in Black Mask. The story follows the Private Detective as he investigates the blackmail of a wealthy family’s wild-child daughter. Before long, Marlowe uncovers much more than he’d being paid to find and the bodies start mounting up.

In truth, the plot of the novel is only marginally relevant. It’s purposefully loose and messy, something Chandler makes no apology for. The real genius is in the atmosphere of mystery, double-dealing and noir that the author builds with every turning page. Perhaps even more so, the flawless characterisation of the deeply flawed central character (even here I hesitate from labelling Marlow as our hero as he’s no such thing, although more riotous than he’d care to admit).

Genius is a strong word but highly used with Chandler, who has long since shaken off any reputation for writing ‘detective fiction’. In his review of the novel, Robert McCrum quotes another literary titan:

The Big Sleep transcends its genre, moving WH Auden to write that Chandler’s thrillers “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”.

Reading The Big Sleep is essential to understanding why we read anything. It’s a mix of pure entertainment, mystery and literary art. There’s a reason its been chosen in top 100 lists by Time, Le Monde and The Guardian. Consider this essay your personal English teacher, reaching out with an opportunity to change how you think about what novels can achieve.

The Big Sleep is one of Time’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Gurdian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

About the Author

Raymond Chandler was born in 1888 and is best known for popularising ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction. His lead character Phillip Marlowe is considered the archetypal private detective. Chandler died in 1959.