The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – Early Twentieth Century Pride

The Rainbow is D.H. Lawrence’s 1915 novel about three generations of the Nottinghamshire Brangwen family, covering a period from around 1840, to the early 1900s. 

It was banned in Britain soon after publication, and would not be available for eleven years. D.H. Lawrence remained a controversial figure right up until 1960, when Penguin faced a public prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act following publication of their unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Maybe the 1960s is a good place to start this review, since Lawrence was very in vogue then, what with his reputation for the free expression of love, commitment to personal development, and a sense of the mystical value of nature. It was all very modern. So, how does Lawrence, the rebellious Victorian hippy, portray in The Rainbow that period of time when the modern world came into being?

The first part of The Rainbow is focused on the traditional ways that people indulged their mystical leanings, which after all were not invented in the 1960s. Will Brangwen, for example, has a vague, highly emotional, religious enthusiasm, centred on church architecture and religious paintings. Meanwhile, Anna, his wife, pokes fun and points out logical pitfalls. The “lamb of God” comes in for a lot of snark. We don’t really get the feeling that traditional Christianity is the way to go for the forward-looking seeker of enlightenment.

Later in the book, we see people trying something more up-to-date. Compared to a traditional rural society centred on the local church, modern society based on vibrant cities and the wonders of science, might offer new hope for people to develop themselves and lead fuller, more meaningful lives. Young Ursula Brangwen certainly hopes so. She leaves the village where she grew up, heads to the town of Ilkeston, and then to university in Nottingham, with dreams of following her own independent path as a teacher. However, teaching at a tough school soon brings Ursula’s high hopes crashing down. The reality of her work is training children to accept the regimentation necessary to work in factories and offices. It’s a brutal business for all concerned.

So finally we follow Ursula through the most famous section of The Rainbow, where she tries to find something bigger than herself in the glories of nature. There is much lyrical writing about moonlight and rainbows, all of which Ursula celebrates with a kind of wild euphoria. I think we can feel that as far as D.H. Lawrence is concerned, this is the most real “spirituality” available to people. But we also see that even this path has its drawbacks, leading to embarrassments – and unplanned pregnancies – once the heat of the moment has worn off.

The book in the end doesn’t really have a philosophy of free love or individual freedom, or anything else you can embrace as a “cause” in the 1960s sense of university sit-ins or demos. In fact, The Rainbow is more of an exploration of different approaches to finding something meaningful, where upsides are balanced against downsides. Nothing is really a final answer, and nothing is dismissed out of hand. Will does find a transcendence in his church architecture even though his lamb of God is a joke; Ursula’s school is horrible, but on her last day the other teachers buy her a present, and reveal themselves as human beings doing their best. Maybe if there was a clear answer, this might only serve to reduce the value of an endless search, which of course the rainbow comes to symbolise. 

I enjoyed the book. There isn’t any plot in the traditional sense. It’s a family saga, where people grow up, have love affairs, endure black moods, interspersed with joyous interludes, get married, have children, who then go through the same process, each generation trying to find meaning in its own way. The writing style is often over-heated, but there is a surprising amount of humour – all those digs involving the lamb of God, for example. There is also a lot of thought to set against the emotion. And as I say, the final feeling is not of answers, but of continuing questions, which I suppose is how a book written in 1915 is still able to remain relevant many years later. The rainbow is a symbol today of acceptance of different points of view rather than prescription, and that’s how it works in the hands of D.H. Lawrence.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller – Do You Like Your Truth Ugly Or Beautiful?

Tropic of Cancer is a notorious novel from 1934 by the American writer Henry Miller. Banned on grounds of obscenity, it was not published in the United States until 1961.

When I read the book, it made me think, ironically, of Netflix comedy Emily in Paris. Oddly for a country which makes such a big deal of freedom, America is in many ways a morally conservative, sometimes puritanical country. This gives humour to Emily’s situation, where a poised, self-possessed young woman from Chicago collides with louche Parisians. Tropic of Cancer is a similar idea, only taken to much more of an extreme. The American in this case is Henry Miller – yes the narrator has the same name as the author. He is vaguely a writer, sometimes a proof reader, occasionally a teacher of English, who leaves his marriage in America to try and find artistic freedom in the hedonistic environs of Montparnasse. Henry might not be self-controlled like Emily, but he is the product of a relatively repressed culture crashing into a society that is altogether more rakish.

How does this American do? Well it’s all pretty chaotic, and with a crazy book I think it helps to make sense of it in terms of other things. So moving on from Emily in Paris, I also found myself reminded of the Rocky Horror Picture Show where alien Frank N. Furter flees his home planet and comes to Earth, hoping to do whatever he likes. But after a while, even having fun becomes hard work. At one point a disillusioned Frank moans: “It’s not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache.” There is a lot of that in Tropic of Cancer.

Tropic of Cancer basically has two modes. There’s the relatively straight-forward and frequently hilarious approach of sections describing Henry’s dealings with friends and acquaintances. My favourite is the one where he meets a turbulent Russian princess trying to make it as a film star. Using my comparisons technique, these passages are like Withnail and I. The second Tropic of Cancer mode is a stream of consciousness style, where reflections and opinions tumble along wild tangents. These segments are by turns poetic, incomprehensible, and smug. There’s the feeling that if you are not suffering, or living in poverty, or having extreme relationship dramas, you are not really getting through to the truth of things. I admit I sometimes found this attitude tiresome and weirdly snobbish in an inverted sort of way – though I got the point that being too comfortable might not be the most creative way to be.

Giving a book like this a star rating is not easy. You can imagine what Henry Miller would think of star ratings: drink in hand he would declare five stars to be “a brilliant constellation, in a night hung close, dagger-pointed, drunk as a maniac, an infinitude of emptiness.” This is a book that wants to get away from easy categories of good and bad, worthwhile and worthless. So rather than passing judgement, I can only really go with my personal reaction, which is – very funny in parts, sometimes moving, often distasteful, and perhaps misguided in believing that if something is miserable, dirty and horrible then it must be true. Didn’t Keats say that beauty was truth? So that’s at least one person who thinks that a disgusting flat, filled with bed bugs and drunk people is not necessarily the last word in veracity. From a writing point of view the book is well crafted, which is part of the irony of Tropic of Cancer. It might seem as though the author is throwing down the first thing that comes into his head, in a mad burst of creative abandon; but our narrator Henry Miller also talks of revisions and drafts, which tells us that his writing freedom is hard won. Henry works as a proof reader, and you don’t get to be one of those without understanding that writing takes work. Fittingly, the free-form but crafted writing of Tropic of Cancer is just like many other ambivalent liberties explored in the book. As you escape, there is always a kind of equal and opposite reaction to bring you back again – which even in its frustrations, can be oddly reassuring. But you will have to look hard for the reassurance. Henry Miller’s instinct is to be miserable.

A Gentleman In Moscow By Amor Towles – His Excellency Will Be Over To Take Your Order Shortly

This novel from 2016, tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, who is arrested after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, on the charge of being a social parasite. While most people in his situation would have been shot, the Bolshevik government mistakenly believe Count Rostov to be the author of a revolutionary poem of which it approves. So a lesser sentence is imposed – permanent house arrest at his current place of residence, which happens to be the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The hotel’s lifetime resident is obliged to move from his luxury suite to disused staff quarters in the attic.

The early stages of his house arrest see Count Rostov continuing in the role of hotel guest. But a telling scene, when Rostov witnesses poor service in the restaurant, foreshadows what lies ahead. A young couple, who are about to say significant things to each other, are interrupted by a thoughtless waiter wanting to take their order. And if that isn’t bad enough, this incompetent then goes on to recommend an inappropriate wine for their meal! The count cannot help but interject. You begin to see that an aristocrat is potentially a very good waiter, attuned to refined, respectful behaviour with a intimate knowledge of the etiquette of dining. And, fittingly, needing work to fill his days, a highly competent waiter is what the count becomes.

I enjoyed this aspect of the book, the nuanced way it explores social and political questions. The count, unfailingly open-hearted and charming, serves to demonstrate that an apparently divided society might not be as disconnected as it appears. Aristocrats and waiters are not necessarily class enemies, forever pitted against each other. They are in fact people who resemble each other closely. Similarly, there is also reference to the hidden parallels between Russia and America, two countries which believe themselves to be implacable adversaries. A senior Russian government minister calls regularly upon Rostov who, as a well travelled man, can provide the minister with an understanding of America and the West. During their conversations, they realise that America and revolutionary Russia share an essential defining characteristic – an unflinching willingness to brush the past aside. The book’s contradictions also extend to the philosophical, as the hotel, this place of restriction and punishment, becomes a sanctuary where the count lives through some of the most precious moments of his life with people he loves. And the final contrast lies in the way a gentleman, who spends his life showing consideration, refinement and empathy can also display grit and ruthlessness. But observing “reviewing etiquette” regarding spoilers, you will understand why I won’t reveal to you, sir, or to you, madam, any more information about the denouement at this time. I would not wish to spoil your reading enjoyment.

I will just say that A Gentleman In Moscow is charming, and warm. It appeals to the emotions, but also sets you thinking about divides and oppositions, which might actually offer opportunities for fellowship and common ground. This is a graceful, humane book, serving as an antidote for divided times.

The Queen’s Gambit – Playing The Perfect Game

Netflix drama, The Queen’s Gambit, tells the fictional tale of orphan Beth Harmon, who after a difficult start, goes on to become world chess champion. I loved it. As a bit of geeky fun, here is the story of The Queen’s Gambit told as though it were a chess game. Start the clock.

Beth begins as a pawn, the smallest and weakest piece in the game. She has lost her parents and lives in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Her fortunes begin to change when the janitor teaches her chess. After showing great promise, Beth plays boys at a local high school chess club. In chess, a king has a similar range of movement to a pawn, which means the most symbolically important piece is essentially a dressed up version of the least powerful. Beth, as yet only a pawn, soon reveals the high school boys as emperors with no clothes.

Now it’s time to move our knights, pieces which are often involved early in a game. Knights are men who owe their important social position to an accident of birth rather than merit. Is there a subtle nod towards the unfairness of life in the way these aristocratic knights come at their enemies in a sneaky L shaped movement, jumping over other pieces. Beth is not a knight. She was born with no advantages beyond her talent. You could say in playing the boys, many of whom have a sense of entitlement, she is playing against the knights.

So we’ve opened with our pawns and knights. Next, let’s get our castles involved. These pieces move in straight lines, vertically and horizontally. If chess is a model of life, then you could say that castles are all about the straight line virtues – rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. Beth is a castle in many ways. She is supremely competent, does her homework, and as potential boyfriends find to their cost, can be cold and unemotional. However, Beth is not all castle. Playing the Russian master, Vasily Borgov in Paris, she objects to his “bureaucratic” style. The dour Russian is very much a straight up and down castle. Beth is different, often plays intuitively, sometimes even chaotically, especially when she over indulges in alcohol and tranquillisers, which she feels enhance her instinctive play.

And that brings us to the next piece, the bishop. The enigmatic bishop moves not on the castle’s straight lines, but on diagonals. Beth has an intuitive, almost spiritual aspect to her play. She can enter a trance-like state and see chess pieces moving in beautiful patterns on the ceilings of dark rooms. If any of the pieces symbolise this aspect of Beth’s play, it must be the bishops with their oblique direction of travel. However, nothing is simple in chess, and as with castles, there is a downside with bishops. You could see a tendency to self interest in the fact that the two bishops cannot support each other as the two castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. When Beth becomes co-American champion with former child prodigy Benny Watts, it is Benny who points out that the dour Russian champions are strong because they support each other. American players tend to be in it for themselves. Americans are bishops in that sense, isolated on their diagonals. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, closed off in their dark or light squares. This all seems reminiscent of the closed-minded religious group which tries to offer Beth money to attend a tournament in Moscow, on the understanding that she will present her victories as the triumph of Christian America over atheist Russia. Beth tells Christian Crusade to take their money and get out of her house.

As our game gathers pace, we now have to try and use all these pieces together, balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Beth has to do the same thing with her various personal attributes. She needs to bring castle discipline to the intuitive bishop aspect of herself. In this spirit of compromise, Beth eventually stops drinking, throws her pills away, and finds a way to use her instinctive powers without these props. She works with the castle and bishop sides of her, each one enhancing the qualities and minimising the downsides of the other. In bringing disparate elements together, she also finds a way to work with the knights, her former opponents, who show their best, gallant side in giving supportive advice during a recess in a climactic match against Borgov in Moscow. The turning point against Borgov is the moment when one of Beth’s pawns reaches her opponent’s back row, and is turned into the most powerful piece in chess, not the all-show-and-no-substance king, but the queen – the only piece which combines the straight and diagonal abilities of both castle and bishop. The game has come full circle, the most humble piece transformed into the most powerful. And Beth’s subsequent victory turns out to be everyone’s victory, because this is a triumph where different sides combine to win. Her final success against Borgov pleases no one more than the Russians themselves, who as chess enthusiasts can truly appreciate a game played out between two great competitors. Borgov and Beth join hands, both of them triumphantly holding aloft the defeated black king.

The Queen’s Gambit ends with all the diverse aspects of Beth’s life, her qualities and weaknesses, her friends and opponents all coming together in one beautiful game. That I suppose is what chess can be, and what it suggests life should be. A winner does not have to diminish a loser.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, An Accidental Classic

The Naked And The Dead is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, based on his experiences with the United States Army in the Philippines during World War Two.

Mailer was only 25 when he published this book. In the Introduction to Penguin’s Modern Classics edition, he describes his young self as an enthusiastic amateur writer, who uses too many obvious adjectives with his nouns. But that’s really only the start of it. There are other “school boy errors”. A typical piece of advice given to beginner writers is to be consistent with point of view. I’ve been pulled up on that one myself. The thing is, point of view is all over the place in this book. It can change from one line to another. Beginners will also tend to use all their material, including back-story, while more experienced writers will explore these notes privately to give themselves a hold on a character. Back-story in The Naked And The Dead is shoe-horned into sections awkwardly entitled “Time Machine”. Finally, there’s the fact that young Mailer is trying to emulate a successful writer, a typical stage a novice goes through whilst looking for their own voice. Most days, before setting to work on The Naked And The Dead, our starry-eyed author would read a few pages of his hero, Tolstoy, who clearly influences the book in the way events dominate people rather than the other way round. So you can imagine a keen, promising youngster, thinking he is the new Tolstoy, deciding to write his own War and Peace without too much experience to back up his grandiose ambitions.

But darn it, the 25 year old Norman Mailer largely gets away with it. Maybe he succeeded in writing a bestselling classic through a happy combination of circumstance. The Naked And The Dead was published a few years after the end of World War Two, and during those war years, soldiers were generally portrayed as national supermen. Afterwards, however, Tolstoy would be a useful influence in reassessing the war in a more realistic and human light. As in War and Peace, Mailer’s generals are as powerless as privates when it comes to shaping events. There are no heroes, just a group of people with sore feet, tummy problems, dodgy kidneys, and personality defects, tossed around on the tides of history.

As for Mailer’s point-of-view-hopping style, the army is a many headed monster with one body – so the variable view point just happens to be an effective way to explore the beast

There is a very telling episode towards the end of the book, when a less than competent officer, Major Dalleson, finds himself thrown into command while his general is away. Most men in The Naked And The Dead go through agonies of endurance for no reward, just as most writers toil on their manuscripts for years and never find a publisher. In contrast, Dalleson finds his cack-handed decisions just happen to work out successfully. In effect he finds himself defeating the Japanese by mistake over the course of an afternoon. In a similar way, you might say that the young Mailer, dashing through this 700 odd page book in just 15 months, wrote a classic by accident. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Despite reservations, I did end up admiring The Naked And The Dead. This was because I came to feel that the many soldiers, or writers, who don’t find success in an afternoon can find succour in its pages. The most powerful sections involve men making supreme efforts to achieve a goal, which turns out to be irrelevant. But hope appears unexpectedly, in the way a soldier will characteristically feel the full bitterness of wasted effort just as the sun is coming up. The lack of satisfactory destinations suggests continuity, the reassurance that things will go on no matter what happens. Kipling said we should treat triumph and disaster just the same, and if ever there was a disastrous book which somehow works as a variety of triumph, it’s The Naked And The Dead..

Circe By Madeline Miller – An Alternative View Of Heroes

Circe by Madeline Miller is a modern reworking of The Odyssey, by Homer. This Ancient Greek classic tells the story of Greek warrior Odysseus, who after fighting in the Trojan wars, makes a long and eventful journey home. Circe is one of the characters he meets on the way, a witch living on a deserted island, who uses her magic to turn his men into pigs.

Madeline Miller tells this story from Circe’s perspective. We learn about her childhood as the daughter of Helios the sun god, her aptitude for “phamakos” – the use of plants to make healing and transforming potions – and her banishment to a remote island, for apparently misusing magical powers. In exile, Circe makes a life for herself, developing magical skills, and defending herself from passing sailors who occasionally come ashore looking for food and drink. This is how she eventually meets Odysseus.

There’s much you could say about the unusual woman’s point of view. Circe is traditionally portrayed in the various myths about her, as a predatory woman. She turns trusting men into pigs and seduces travellers. But hang on a moment. What is the likely scenario when a boat load of soldiers, brutalised after a long war, arrive at an island where the only inhabitant is an attractive and lone woman? What might actually happen in this situation? Let’s think. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that from a woman’s point of view, a boat load of heroes looks more like a boat load of vile animals. Now we see that turning those men into pigs is a sensible measure of self preservation, with a metaphorical helping of just desserts.

So the viewpoint is very interesting, and says a lot about the historical portrayal and situation of women.

But I wouldn’t say this book was just about a woman’s perspective on personal power. It’s also about the way people in general try to influence their world and protect themselves. Circe, as daughter of a god, is immortal, which means that all the scars of her trials and tribulations fade away as if they never existed. She realises that in such a situation, it is very difficult to grow, to amount to anything. We also see Circe’s efforts at securing protection rebound on herself. Early in the book, she falls in love with a fisherman, and wanting to protect him from the dangers of his life, transforms him into a god, only to lose him in the arrogant deity she creates. Later, in an effort to protect her son, she gives him a spear tipped with the venomous tail of an ancient sea creature. Inevitably such a dangerous weapon causes an unintended friendly fire incident. These contradictions fill the book, and demonstrate that power itself makes certain things impossible, and security creates its own dangers. By the same token, vulnerable mortals have power and protection that even gods lack.

I recommend Circe. It gives a humane, feminine view of stories which have traditionally been told from a “heroic” male viewpoint. Its nuanced view of power offers a refreshing view of the strength of women. But whether the reader is a man or a women, they can enjoy a fascinating exploration of power and security in general. Circe is like Stonehenge – it has the spirit of something that looks like an ancient fort with mighty walls, but has plenty of space between the stones to allow in the light.

V2 By Robert Harris – Novelists And Rocket Scientists

This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.

So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.

A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.

This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.

Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.

Pale Fire – An Internet Rabbit Hole From 1962

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life.

I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G.

Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea.

If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.

Light In August – Background Reading For Anyone Tempted To Hide In Books

The political and social state of the world in 2020 is such that it is tempting to retreat into books. That would be the approach of Gail Hightower, a character in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light In August. He is a former Church minister, forced to resign after the upstanding people of Jefferson Mississippi found out that his wife was an adulterer and had committed suicide. He retreats from the 1930s American South into monastic seclusion, where he tries to find consolation in books.

From the stand-point of wishing to find consolation, reading Light In August can be a demoralising experience. Unpleasant as the world might be, retreat is not presented as an attractive option – Hightower’s house is oppressive, seedy and lonely. But if you do venture outside the four walls, then you face, on the one hand, criminals who care for nothing but themselves, or upstanding folks who are just as bad, since they have gained their position on the basis of a skewed set of values. The police, for example… If you ever wanted a sense of the historical background behind the Black Lives Matter movement, then this book is required reading.

Neither cutting yourself off, nor getting involved, are presented as the answer – which seems to leave a reader without much scope for finding something hopeful. However, by the end I did feel that there was some comfort to be had in this harsh book. It lies with a character called Lena, a sweet, trusting young woman who, whilst in a state of advanced pregnancy, travels on foot across the South in search of her child’s father. The father promised that he was only leaving to find work and would send for Lena once he had set up a nice home for her. Lena is ridiculously naive in believing that her boyfriend’s letter must have got lost in the post, and he is out there somewhere choosing soft furnishings and curtains. She goes looking for him, putting herself in an extremely hazardous position. But even though she has no idea where she might eat or sleep next, help materialises from people wherever she goes, even from people who despise her. Lena gets by, her faith in people seemingly abused, while it is also repaid.

Light in August is not the easiest of reads. There is a lot of chopping and changing of viewpoint, with some characters only introduced to tell a part of the story, which can feel forced. I also found sections of various interior monologues hard work. But I admired Light In August for its modern-feeling exploration of race, religion and morality; and for its own clear eyed, unsentimental sense that things will work out.

Schitt’s Creek – Bringing Liberals And Conservatives Together

In the TV show Schitt’s Creek – now showing on Netflix after a six year run on Canadian and U.S. television – the wealthy Rose family are left destitute when their business manager is charged with embezzlement. They end up moving to a small American town, called Schitt’s Creek, where they live in the local motel. Despite a rocky start to their new life, the Roses soon find the town’s folk accept them for who they are, rather than for how much money they might, or might not, have. This acceptance extends to the Rose’s bisexual son David, who finds love in Schitt’s Creek, when he couldn’t find it in New York.

I loved the show, but there was something about it that puzzled me. Why was this small American town so liberal and tolerant? In reality, rural America was a generous source of votes for Donald Trump. Election maps show a stark divide between liberal, densely populated cities and conservative, sparsely populated countryside. Social scientist, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University has recently published a book, called Why Cities Lose, trying to explain this split. There are various theories – some going back into history: one idea suggests that people with personalities more open to new experience headed for the nineteenth century’s emerging industrial towns, while those of a more cautious, conservative bent tended to stay on the farm.

This urban rural divide has become increasingly deep in recent times, exacerbated by voting systems which give too much weight to physical size of voting area. The fact that liberal-voting city dwellers are packed into small areas, can give them less electoral clout compared to fewer rural voters spread out in larger spaces. This is a particular problem in the United States, where Democrat candidates can win with massive majorities in urban areas, but lose by slim margins in many rural locations. With a first past the post system, the result is fewer seats for Democrats than their individual votes would actually represent, which is how Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, even though more people voted for her. So you end up with a gulf between conservative people using electoral advantages to hold onto their world view, resentful of city dwellers becoming wealthy due to urban economic advantages, who in turn feel they are unfairly represented politically.

How to overcome this divide? Schitt’s Creek has a go by disguising a racially diverse, culturally tolerant city, as a small town. Despite frequent linking shots of out-of-the-way grain silos and quiet railway crossings, there is much of the nature of a densely packed city existence in Schitt’s Creek. The Rose family are thrown together physically, in two neighbouring motel rooms, when up until now they have led isolated lives in luxury apartments. They are also obliged to live and work closely with various different sorts of people around them.

So, is this city-like town just a delightful fantasy? Is it a way of escaping the painful realities that are dividing many countries, America especially? Partly I think the answer is yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, urban life has pitfalls. The economic advantages of a city can create great wealth, and there is nothing like money for cutting people off in an entitled bubble. The Roses are not bad people, but they did fall into the isolating money trap during their glory days. A small town is a good place to strip away the wall of wealthy sophistication, and get back to relating to people in a more real, down-to-earth way. Johnny Rose, former head of the massive Rose Video chain, takes an interest in the dilapidated motel that has become his home, and starts working with its manager to try to make improvements. This means cleaning rooms, and working on the reception desk. Johnny’s son, David, opens a shop where he learns that you have to welcome customers, rather than keeping them away in the interests of exclusivity. Johnny’s daughter, Alexis, finds herself in a real relationship with the local vet, in contrast to her wealthy life, which had her moving through a series of high-profile but empty liaisons. Johnny’s wife, Moira, once a TV soap star, finds herself working with locals in singing groups and amateur drama productions.

In the end, understanding and acceptance of others is the key, and Schitt’s Creek suggests that aspects of both city and rural life can help us with that. The trick is to combine the best, and limit the downsides, of both.

If you haven’t seen the show I won’t give away the outcome, other than to say that if the Roses learnt a few things living in Schitt’s Creek, I learnt a few things watching them. Bravo, Dan and Eugene Levy, and their great cast. You made a show for our times.