On Reading, Part Three

The reason why there hasn’t been one of these for a while is not that I haven’t read anything, the truth couldn’t be further from it, but the fact that nothing I’ve read has been truly stand-outish, anything particularly noteworthy. Sure, there have been enjoyable books and mediocre books, but none of them truly rated a mention here. One exception is, of course, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

I first read Arcadia over a year ago after I bought it in one of London’s many second-hand bookshops. The idea was enough to entrance me, but I never really ‘got’ the play when I first read it; it didn’t make much sense to me, I didn’t manage to ‘unlock’ it. With Arcadia, part of the allure comes from its period setting – Regency England, c.1809 – and the idea of two disparate time periods united by a single room in a stately house, the way in which each informs the other, scene after scene. While I used to think that Travesties was Stoppard’s best work, that’s not really the case any longer; it’s quite impenetrably dense, although there are some brilliant scenes (Tristan Tzara’s demonstrations of Dadaism, the limerick-scene), and the interpolation and appropriation of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into its own structure is immensely clever. Arcadia, however, is something quite close to perfection. There’s love, sex, intrigue, mystery, romance, more than a hint of intellectual arguing, chaos theory, hermits at the bottom of the garden, fractals, rice pudding with jam… what’s not to like about it? In typical Stoppard fashion, it sets two quite separate ideas against each other, in this case the Age of Enlightenment is set against the encroaching Romantic and Gothic periods, and many of the play’s ideas and themes come out of an extension of this juxtaposition. By using mathematics and chaos theory as a perpetuation of Romanticism, Stoppard is able to link the two quite disparate time periods in a way that beguiles and dazzles, a kind of refracting mirror that distracts (temporarily) away from the story and events at the heart of the play. I described it to my friends as being like two separate halves of a ball which are slowly screwed together, inch by inch, only coming fully together in the last scene, the last moments of the last scene. And given the Sydney Theatre Company’s enchanting recent production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, I’d love it if the same team took on Arcadia in the same Wharf 1 space next year.
John Logan’s Peter and Alice, another play, is a bit of an oddity. While Logan is perhaps better known for writing the play Red, and the films Skyfall, Rango, Sweeney Todd, Gladiator and Hugo, his latest play doesn’t quite reach the same standard as his other work. It’s set in the Bumpus bookshop in London, in 1932, on the occasion that Peter Llewellyn Davies met Alice Liddell Hargreaves, when Peter Pan met Alice in Wonderland. It’s an enchantingly beautiful idea, full of an impossibility that we will never know what they spoke about. But what Logan does is have them talk about the price of being famous, about being shackled to their fictional counterpart, about always being seen as someone you’re not, someone you never really were to begin with. And it’s a bitter play, something which is not easy reading, and I don’t know what it would be like in performance, even if it is at the hands of Ben Whishaw and Judy Dench as the titular pair. There are moments in it, too, that seem a bit too glib, a bit too schmaltzy for its own good – like when Peter Pan enters, “just as you’d always thought he would be,” or when the fictional characters interact with their real-world adult counterparts; it’s written a bit like a pop-up storybook, a toy-theatre where people and objects can disappear at will, can fold up and down from the stage and… it’s all a bit distracting, really. Whereas Red was a two-hander (and so is Peter and Alice, in essence) and one whose power was built and derived from its interaction between it’s two unflinchingly stubborn characters, Peter and Alice seems to slip into a bickering, a taunting questioning about self and living and being one’s self when everyone thinks you’re something completely different, ‘always a child, never growing older,’ as Peter Pan says. Maybe I’m too cynical, or maybe it works better in production than on the page; I just don’t think Peter and Alice had the magic that it could’ve had, that Red had, that Logan’s other writing has.
I’m currently reading D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And it’s interesting, reading it, in seeing how Lawrence writes about sex, writes sex, how he uses it in his story, what function it serves. There are, throughout the book, seven sex scenes (for want of a better term); as they occur, they get progressively longer, more vivid; Lawrence gets more ‘explicit’ in what he describes and how he describes it. But, for all the furore over Penguin’s publication of its unexpurgated text in 1960, it is even more mundane than it should be now, even though that is to be somewhat expected. Lawrence has a way with his writing in this Lady Chatterley, whereby once he finds words he seemingly likes, he’ll use them again and again. The rhythm of scenes, of pages, even of the ‘sex scenes’ are broken up by this repetition of words in a short space of time; while I acknowledge that it might have been the point, to create a repetitive rhythm (not unlike the act of sex itself), it soon becomes a bit tiresome; the scenes lose their focus and momentum, and slide into a kind of post-orgasmic slump. It’s also rather fascinating reading about the book’s obscenity trial, the world’s first (and by no means last), and how it broke down the taboo on ‘four letter words’ in print. If anything, the most erotic part of the book is its cover.

What I’ve read this year, part three
Silver, Andrew Motion
Arcadia (play), Tom Stoppard
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
Burial, Courtney Collins
Life Class, Pat Barker
Regeneration, Pat Barker
Us, Richard Mason
84 Charing Cross Road, Helen Hanff
Peter and Alice (play), Tom Stoppard
Notes from the Teenage Underground, Simmone Howell
BC (play), Rita Kalnejais
Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence 

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