PORTICO asks UCL academics to choose their favourite books.
Interviews Kate Hilpern Illustrations Hanna Melin
by Toni Morrison
This book is one I have read and reread for many years. It is a historical novel about the immediate aftermath of American slavery, told with both foreground and background.
It is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped to freedom in Ohio from slavery in Kentucky in 1856, but who, facing capture later that year under the Fugitive Slave Act, killed her young daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. In the novel, which is named after the daughter, it appears that the daughter comes back to haunt the mother.
I like the author’s eye for detail, the intensity of her focus on this tragedy of 1856 and, strange as it must sound, the sense of humour that underpins the narration. She is careful to reveal the central incident indirectly and slowly in fragments that, along with most other parts of the story, must be reassembled in order for the story to make sense. The novel is thus an absorbing but challenging read. And when reread, it keeps giving you things you haven’t seen in it before.
Its storytelling techniques are regarded as post-modern because they are so varied, but in fact this variety is no more than a reflection of perspectives on the same incident, as witnessed or discussed by the many different people in the story.
A good novel should draw in any reader regardless of his or her background. Mine is certainly different, but I think that this novel is one of the finest I have read. It is an intellectual as well as emotional challenge.
Professor Richard North was born in Oxford and lived and studied in Cambridge and Groningen. He came to UCL in 1989, where he has since taught English literature, specialising in Beowulf, Chaucer and Old Norse.
by Nicholson Baker
From the very moment I opened it, The Mezzanine tantalised me. The temptation to wolf it down in one greedy sitting was strong, but the deliciousness of rereading the first few lines, of lingering in, rather than skimming over, the details of the footnotes was even stronger.
The Mezzanine chronicles (and extends) the often hilarious undercurrents of our quotidian thought processes, the bizarre footnotes buzzing away at the edges of our minds, as we physically go about our daily lives. It is an exploration and celebration of the infra-ordinary on a literary canvas often dedicated to the epic. In this way, and many others, it is a strikingly singular, funny and precociously clever novel.
Critics have compared it to the work of Proust. But this is misleading because it’s really, really short, and as much about anonymity as individuality. It focuses on one lunch hour in an unnamed office building in an unnamed city, and its protagonist, Howie, is in many ways easily replaceable. For me, Baker’s innovative use of footnotes is fascinating as a way into the weightier, magisterial work of David Foster Wallace.
Among the aspects of The Mezzanine that resonate deeply with me is the inimitable nature of the narrative voice. The prose is unmistakeably that of Nicholson Baker. Another is the ability to twin this strength of prose style with a potentially mundane or non-literary subject. The Mezzanine achieves both with wit and intelligence.
Dr Nick Shepley is a Teaching Fellow in English 20th Century Literature. He is the organiser of One Day in the City, a bi-annual celebration of literature and London at UCL that will next take place in 2016.
The Golden Bowl
by Henry James
The Golden Bowl, which is one of James’s big three late novels, sees him return to the subject he’d written about at the beginning of his career: rich Americans in a sophisticated Europe. But it is far more ironic and self-aware. You could describe it as romance with a very tough edge.
It is a world where everyone is manipulating everyone else and where many things go unsaid. James’s handling of these silences, to my mind, is quite brilliant – a bit like the way secrets work in Dickens, but more refined.
Particularly interesting is the way that James refuses to make moral judgements that would have been standard in the Victorian novel. He never uses the word “adultery”, for example. It’s a kind of fluid moral experiment – observing how the situation works itself out without imposing the usual categories.
James’s late style is famously difficult and demands the kind of attention that we’re unused to these days – and I include myself in that. But for those who manage the immersion it requires, it is immensely rewarding.
Philip Horne is a Professor in the English Department. He is the author of Henry James and Revision: The New York Edition (OUP, 1990); editor of Henry James: A Life in Letters, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, and James’s The Portrait of a Lady (all Penguin). He was also co-editor of Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film (Manchester UP, 2008). He is the founding General Editor of the Complete Fiction of Henry James for Cambridge University Press.
Seven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
translated from the German by Richard Graves
I recently decided on a whim to travel to Tibet this autumn. Flights booked, I tried to appease my excitement by reading as much as I could about the Land of Snows. This was the first book
I came across.
I’d seen the 1997 film adaptation (made famous, in part, by Brad Pitt’s appearance) and I remembered its dazzling panoramas, and breathtaking evocation of height and space. The book is certainly full of sublime vistas, but in other respects proved very different from the film. It is, for instance, markedly reticent about Harrer’s personal life. But what it holds back in human interest it amply makes up for in its crisp, often funny, observations of every aspect of Tibetan life and culture.
The book is a riveting kaleidoscope of foreign scenes. The place names (Nvenchen Tanglha, Norbulinka, Tashilhunpo) have a magic all of their own and the pages swarm with yaks, yak-butter, yak-skin boats, yak-hair tents, leopards, dzos and elephants, monks and serfs, superstition and ritual, colour and incense.
The memoir is candid about some of the less exalting realities of life in Tibet – the poverty and hardship of nomadic life, the dirt, the extreme conservatism of the country’s ruling monks. But throughout it is clear that this is the view of an enthralled, if occasionally baffled explorer. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for travel narratives or an interest in mountaineering and exploration.
Dr Scarlett Baron is a Lecturer in 20th and 21st Century British and American Literature. Her principal research interests are in modernist literature – especially James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Gustave Flaubert – and in the history of critical theory.
- Contents 2014/15
- New Centre for Brain Science
- Free Radical
- Jeremy Bentham Speaks
- Why isn’t my professor black?
- Extra Curricular
- The Strong Room
- Market Economy
- Head in the Clouds
- R is for Reading
- Back to the Future
- On Beauty
- Hello London!
- Cruciformed medics
- A vision for 2034
- Reading List
- London vs World