Book Review: The Paradise Ghetto

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Published in Dec/Jan Buzz Magazine, page 50

Fergus O’Connell (Accent Press)

There is an argument that art is nothing more than delusion, and perhaps history repays this notion. At Theresienstadt, the ghetto established for ‘privileged’ Jews during the second world war – where Fergus O’Connell sets The Paradise Ghetto – a rich cultural life flourished; there were lectures series, recitals and even schooling. O’Connell’s narrative tells the tale of the intense relationship which forms between two Dutch inmates in Theresienstadt, Julia and Suzanne, as well as that of the book they write. The novel becomes an escape, and perhaps a saviour, as they become the war will end once the novel is complete. The story within a story construct is not original, and sometimes the novel is rather clunky, yet O’Connell manages to keep your attention engaged in both narratives. More importantly, he leaves you asking an interesting question: is fiction a futile, even damaging, delusion?

Price: £8.99, Info: https://www.accentpress.co.uk/

Image: OuadiO/Flickr (All Creative Commons)

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Culture: Chick Lit or Hit?

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8 February 2013, Varsity Culture Section

The life and death of Sylvia Plath have always been cloaked in controversy. From her marriage to Ted Hughes, and her suicide at age 30, Plath has always been able to shock and stir the emotions of her public. But her work has always been more scandalous than her celebrity. The Bell Jar, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in January, is her most controversial work due to its stark depictions of modern psychiatric care and female sexuality in a repressive society. So, it is entirely consistent that this work should cause controversy this week, with accusations that Faber’s 50th Anniversary cover art for the novel is reminiscent of ‘Chick lit’ rather than ‘serious’ literature.

It is certainly hard to view Plath’s work as typical of the ‘chick lit’ genre. The tale of Esther Greenwood’s gradual loss of sanity upon entering a world of work, parties and hedonism is perhaps one Cambridge students are familiar with, but could hardly be classed in the same category as a Cecelia Ahern or Jilly Cooper novel.
However, I have taken little issue with the much derided-cover art; in fact, I believe it rather neatly sums up the message of the novel which is about the potency of female social norms, and the potential damage that can be done to the individual. What I found to be of interest in this debate was the derogatory use of the term ‘chick lit’.

The critics laid bare all the supposed obscenities of the genre in response to this cover art: it limits female ambition; it is anti-feminist and so on and so forth. Few critics noticed the subtle misogyny in these seemingly forward thinking reactions. Chick lit is derided due to the plots of its stories, which are frequently romantic relationships and female friendships: In short, the lives and interests of women. In this sense, Sylvia Plath is queen of chick lit. Her work puts the female subject to the fore as much as any Mills and Boon as well as their hopes and desires.

Chick lit, unlike its critics, suggests that the lives and lifestyle of women is as worthy of glorification as the lives of great generals, monarchs and, most importantly, men. Those who deride the chick lit market are actually deriding the lives of women. Esther Greenwood would probably laugh at the controversy. Perhaps her tale deals with more shocking issues, but it is nonetheless an illustration of a woman trying to establish her identity against the world.

Conversely, the queen of chick lit, Jane Austen, celebrated her 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice in January to much critical acclaim. Her portrayal of the lives and loves of her characters was applauded for its cleverness and much-loved heroines. Few would claim Austen was limiting female readers for having all her novels end in the marriage of her heroine to a wealthy handsome suitor. Chick lit may be seen in this light as the ultimate symbol of progressive, and Plath’s work is clearly worthy of the label.

Image: Flickr

Feature: Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!

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2nd June 2016, Varsity, Online Culture Section

It has been two hundred years since an 18-year old girl woke from a lucid dream, and a story that would become the cornerstone of science fiction and Gothic literature was born. Since its conception on the shores of Lake Geneva, Frankenstein has become one of the great modern creations myths: the young brilliant scientist, drunk on ambition and knowledge, who discovers the secrets of animating flesh and brings to life a monstrous creature, which then seeks to destroy him and the lives of those he loves.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the story has come to engender its own creation myth. The tale begins on a dark and stormy night of June 1816, which later became known as ‘The Year without a Summer’. Mary was part of an unprecedented gathering of literary minds, which included her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a recently exiled Lord Byron, who was staying at the Villa Diodati. The days were dismal. Candlelight flickered within the house and violent lightening flashed across the surface of the lake. The group were high on the sublime, sensation, and probably more illicit substances, when the challenge was put out by Byron: “We will each write a ghost story.” After many days, Frankenstein was born, quite suitably, out of a nightmare. Mary, somewhere between dreams and reality, saw the “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out … On the working of some powerful engine, [it shows] signs of life.” She had her story.

Her story has now become so well known that it has come to feel life a modern fable, a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent to scientific endeavour. During her stay at Diodati, Mary was a silent but devout listener to the conversations between Byron and Shelley on the new experiments of the time, the work of Erasmus Darwin and ‘Galvanism’. Mary herself had the intellect to foresee the future of such possibilities. Her father, the philosopher William Godwin, had introduced her to some of the great minds of the time, including her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Shelley was born. Many critics have argued that we need look no further than the novel’s subtitle – The Modern Prometheus – to understand the meaning of the work: the aspiration of men to master life and death.

But there is something not wholly satisfactory about this explanation. One of the most notable things when you read the book is the absence of the science and technology that supposedly birthed the tale. Even the very ‘creation’ scene, which is inextricably bound with Frankenstein, is a myth in itself: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open” is all that the information we get before Frankenstein leaves the being he gave life to. Despite her exceptional intelligence, it was as much as a mystery to Mary Shelley, as she outlines herself in the 1831 preface to the book, as it is to the readers how she, “then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea.”

Perhaps this idea has partly developed from the myth of Frankenstein itself. The tale of the Villa Diodati and the horror stories of reanimated corpses hold such a power over the imagination that they have overshadowed the life that produced the tale, and, unlike these tales, the life of Mary Shelley was neither neat nor romantic. Although brought up in a radical atmosphere of free-love, Mary was disowned by her father when she eloped with Percy Shelley. Their whole life together then went on to became a saga of bankruptcy, births and deaths, he continuing to practice the ideal of free-love, while she, never a willing participant in this milieu, was forced into understanding an empty hearth. By the time she came to write Frankenstein, she had already endured the birth and death of an infant.

It is not difficult to see a parallel between these figures of Godwin and Shelley, and Mary’s Victor Frankenstein. All three dreamed of progress and thirsted for power, and all three abandoned their offspring. The central point of the novel is not creation of the monster, but Frankenstein’s rejection of him: it is this lack of responsibility – a science without ethics or conscience – that lies at the heart of the novel. The first victims of his creature are inevitably the dependent children and women, and happy families, as Mary had enough first-hand experience of chauvinistic heartlessness to understand that. Frankenstein never gains any real self-knowledge or comes to realise the cost of his curiosity and desire for glory. Shelley’s narrative lays bare that it is the life-creating Victor who is more monstrous and culpable than the unloved creature he abhorred. “I was benevolent and good — misery made me a fiend”, recalls the being, Frankenstein’s Adam.

Later in life, Mary remarked: “For my own private satisfaction all I ask is obscurity… One thing I will add – if I have ever found kindness it has not been from Liberals”. A bitter remark from someone misused for too long, and exposed to the hypocrisy of too many people. Of course, her novel hasn’t faded into obscurity, even if she has. She had the intuition to see that the technologies that seek to civilise us are only as good as the hands they are in, and it is an intuition we could too easily forget.

Image: WikiCommons