Faust

Faust

Title: Faust (Part One)
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by various
Publication date: 1808
Genre: Drama; tragedy

What’s it about?Faust

Goethe’s version of this classic tale sees Faust, a brilliant scholar, feeling dissatisfied with his life. He makes a pact with Mephistopheles, who in his turn has made a wager with God that he can win the soul of this mortal.

The devil will help Faust access areas of learning he could only previously dream of, and also convince him of the desirability of more worldly pleasures. Faust is unconvinced of Mephistopheles’ power, and says that if he can achieve this, he will happily offer up his soul.

Faust is taken on a whirlwind tour of the world and its seedier pleasures, eventually falling for a young girl whom he seduces. Her life falls into ruin, and although she is ultimately redeemed and admitted to Heaven, Faust is left distraught, pondering the calamity he has wrought.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I was considerably more organised this time round, and managed to get this out of the university library. However, I wasn’t quite organised enough to realise that the book I’d found was Part One: Part Two is a separate work. So I may or may not decide to follow up this week’s read with Part Two at some point – but this blog post is only about Part One. Sorry.

What did I learn from it?

I learned – or, rather, was reminded – that this version of the Faust story is just one of many. Up to this point I was really only familiar with the Christopher Marlowe version, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which I’d studied for A-level and enjoyed very much. But it plays out in a very different way to Goethe’s tale.

In Doctor Faustus, the majority of the story concerns Faustus’ explorations and experimentations in the world; we see him causing havoc and mayhem wherever he goes. In Faust, 200 years later, we see less of this; more emphasis is given to the unfolding plot of his seduction of Margareta (Gretchen), and the effect his actions have on her life and those around her. The two plays also present very different endings for the Faust character.

As well as these two classic works, there are many other variations on the Faust story: some are overt, using the name, and others merely draw on the theme of a pact with the devil. Clearly – and unsurprisingly – it is a topic of perennial human interest…

How did it make me see the world differently?

The play is written predominantly in verse. Now, even though I am familiar with verse drama and know that you don’t have to pause for ‘breath’ at the end of every line, there was a part of my brain that kept wanting to do that! In other words, I wanted to be swept along by the rhyme and the rhythm of the piece rather than focusing purely on the sense of it.

This was a real wake-up call as to the power of poetry, words and rhythm. One of the things I’m trying to do with the Book Diaries is to demonstrate how personal a response a story can evoke. A single word, image or allusion can spark an association in someone’s mind that wouldn’t occur to someone else – and when those words are backed up by the hypnotic power of poetry… wow.

This is a reminder of the power of stories to transport us into another world, where we can escape our daily cares and let the story carry us through until we emerge, blinking, into the daylight.

The other purpose of the Book Diaries is to encourage you to think about what you will do next. Certainly, enjoy each story in its own right – throw yourself in, let it sweep you away! – but then come back to reality; pick out the bits that have particular meaning for YOU, and act on them. Figure out how the story makes you feel about your own life – and make changes accordingly.

Maybe something as simple as a rhyming couplet will spark that association…

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things, one that I can do this week and one that will have to wait until next year:

  1. Realising that I’d only read Part One of Faust reminded me that I have a bit of a backlog of unfinished jobs (in addition to reading Part Two…). There are a couple of 3-month updates for Book Diaries posts (which will go into the published book next year, so you can see whether I made all the changes I said I would!); and there is a bunch of ‘urgent but unimportant’ stuff that has now mounted up. So I will make every effort to clear these off my to-do list this week.
  2. I’ve been getting increasingly interested in doing some more writing for theatre. There may even be the opportunity to do some short works for performance in a more informal setting than my am dram group – and so I’m going to make this a priority for exploring as a sideline to my Book Diaries work. Past experience suggests that this may be just another pipe-dream that will never manifest – but then I’d have to admit that to all of you in the book of the Book Diaries, and that wouldn’t look good, would it?

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

Title: Pride and Prejudice
Author: Jane Austen
Publication date: 1813
Genre: Classic fiction

Preliminary note

As with a couple of other books in this challenge, this is not the first time I have read Pride and Prejudice. I have, in fact, become particularly familiar with it over the last couple of years, as I co-wrote a stage adaptation of it for my amateur dramatics group. However, the book remains on my list for 2015: and so I am choosing to view the changes it has inspired in my life in the context of writing the adaptation.

 

What’s it about?Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters must find husbands, or be turned out of their home when their parents die. When rich, handsome Mr Bingley and his friend Mr Darcy appear on the scene, it looks as though the girls’ luck may be about to take a turn for the better.

However, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy do not immediately get along, and it takes many twists and turns of the plot for them to resolve their differences. Her prejudice and witty banter set against his pride and reticence make this a tense yet spirited relationship, with many obstacles to overcome before they can find true love.

Jane Austen’s novel manages to accurately capture human behaviour and societal mores, which are still recognisable to us 200 years later. Her biting satire of the foolish, along with her natural grasp of more subtle human emotions, make this book not only unputdownable but also – perhaps surprisingly – ‘laugh out loud’ on occasions.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I have a secondhand copy of this novel, which I think came from a secondhand bookshop. It’s the same edition as the text I studied at school 30 years ago, and is quite possibly the same age, as it’s beginning to fall apart at the seams. It has been very well thumbed!

What did I learn from it?

In the context of writing the adaptation, I learned that Jane Austen has a tendency to repeat herself: to say the same thing in a variety of ways. (See what I did there…?) Perhaps this is standard practice for a novel, when the author has the space to elaborate on issues and points as much as they please.

However, when trying to condense the dialogue for the stage – with only a couple of hours of performance time available – I found myself having to wield the red pen on numerous occasions. Hack! slash! there goes another sentence! It actually made it relatively easy to edit: just ask whether a phrase adds anything new, and if not, chop it or merge it with another one.

I also learned perhaps the most fascinating thing about adaptations, which is how to determine which elements of the story to convey/emphasise. It would be impossible to cover the full scope of Austen’s storylines in just two hours, so we had to decide whose story we were telling, what the key points were, and then ruthlessly cut anything that didn’t further this story in some way.

I wrote a few blog posts about this experience, which don’t form a visible part of my website any more, but which you can still access here if you are interested in learning more about the process.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The book reminded me of how frustrating it must have been for a woman with a brain and an independent spirit to exist in such a world. To be dependent on hitching one’s fortunes to a man in order to have any standing in society, not to mention a home, seems outlandish to those of us who are fortunate to live independently in the 21st century – and I thank my lucky stars that I do live now and not then.

It also made me realise how some people have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to matters of importance. Mrs Bennet is desperate to get her daughters hitched, and despite her lack of social graces, we can at least sympathise with this predicament. But am I the only one who rolls her eyes heavenwards as Mrs Bennet totally fails to recognise that Mary, the middle daughter, would be the perfect match for Mr Collins?

In an episode of the TV show The Big Bang Theory, the character Sheldon Cooper, having read Pride and Prejudice, declares it to be a flawless masterpiece. When I see this missed opportunity for Mrs Bennet to solve all her problems (presumably because then there would be no story…) I sometimes think Sheldon has got it wrong.

But maybe it can be explained by the point I made above: that Mrs Bennet truly is clueless when it comes to human relationships. Rather than this oversight being an unlikely scenario, designed purely to keep the plot going, perhaps it simply underlines the idiocy of the character even further – thus making it even more likely that Darcy should resist marrying one of her daughters…

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

One of the realisations I’ve come to over the course of this year is that I love adaptations of all stripes, and I’ve already made the commitment to focus on writing more of my own in 2016. I have at least three alternative versions of Pride and Prejudice floating around in my brain, and I intend for at least one of them to see the light of day. (Note: does not include zombies…)

Re-reading the novel has also given me a hankering to visit Derbyshire. I believe Chatsworth House stood as the location for Pemberley in the 2005 film version, and I’d love to go back there and to the villages in the surrounding countryside. I went to Derbyshire a lot in my youth, mostly on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, and it would be quite a blast from the past to revisit some of my own locations. Much like Mrs Gardiner in the novel.

We’re saving up for a big holiday next September, but if we get a chance for a weekend away any time soon, I’m going to be suggesting Derbyshire – and Chatsworth – as top of my list.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers (original title Les Trois Mousquetaires)
Author: Alexandre Dumas, translated by various
Publication date: 1844
Genre: Historical fiction; adventure; political thriller

What’s it about?The Three Musketeers

The young D’Artagnan sets out for Paris with dreams of making his fortune and joining the King’s Musketeers. He quickly becomes firm friends with the Three Musketeers of the title – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and the four of them embark on a series of adventures that brings them into conflict with the King’s advisor Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the story – and the world in which it is set – is a very masculine one, characters such as Constance Bonacieux, Milady de Winter and the Queen of France play no less important a role than do our heroes. The plot is chock full of intrigue, deception and political manoeuvring; but also love, honour and loyalty.

Some of the good end happily, some unhappily; the same is true of the bad: this is not a sugar-coated romance with an all-round happy ending. It is a real swashbuckler of an adventure, with enough politics thrown in to engage those with an interest in the historical developments of the time.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Like The Origin of Species, this came from the collection on my late grandmother’s bookshelves. It has a lovely, musty, old-book smell, which added considerably to my pleasure in reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the political history of the period in which the novel is set: 17th-century France at the time of Louis XIII. One of the key plot twists even works the fictional story of the Musketeers into a real event (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers!). I was so fascinated by this that I had to go and look up the details of the historical event, to see which parts Dumas had invented and which were fact.

I also made some more observations about the ways in which stories are adapted for other purposes. As I myself have been involved in adapting a classic novel for the stage, it was interesting to see how the plot of this one book has been modified to suit the framework of the recent TV series The Musketeers. Some of the events in the novel are very conclusive (i.e. people die), so it’s clear that the story has been tweaked so that characters who might prove to be popular can continue to draw the TV crowds.

(Obviously the story has been through a number of dramatic adaptations. Have you read the book and want to comment on its treatment in film and TV? Please share below – I would love to know what you think!)

How did it make me see the world differently?

My sense of feminism got a real workout when observing the character of Milady. Although at first it was pleasing to see a female character play such a dominant, active role in such a masculine story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether (spoilers!) her ‘bad end’ was an indication that any woman who steps beyond the bounds of traditional feminine decency will be duly punished.

I’m still not entirely sure, but the extraordinary detail with which Dumas describes Milady’s many crimes does make me incline to believe her a true villain. She portrays herself as a victim when she isn’t one, and although it could be said that her original position in society left her with no option other than to commit crimes just to get by, I’m not convinced. Her offences are against other women as much as men, and she is motivated by greed and revenge rather than by a desire for right and liberty.

If nothing else, her part of the story has helped me become freshly aware of the difficulties women still face in the world, especially the male-dominated parts of it. Action needs to be taken – but precisely what form that action should take is still debated to this day.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

One of the overwhelming messages of this book is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how much antagonism or enmity this awakens in others. It was brought home to me after I finished the book just how difficult this can be. Last weekend I shared on Facebook some thoughts on the political situation in the UK – and was stunned by the level of vitriolic comments this attracted from a very small number of acquaintances.

My reaction at the time was to ignore this, deeming the comments unworthy of a response (in Musketeers’ terms, not worthy of a duel). However, afterwards, I felt disturbed by my lack of action: should I have stated publicly that I found them unacceptable? My usual boundary for deleting comments is if they sink to the level of personal insults – and these didn’t stoop quite that low. They weren’t duel-worthy: just unpleasant and unconstructive. But my lack of input – i.e. allowing them to remain on my timeline – left a nasty taste in my mouth.

I realised that, although I am not scared off voicing my opinions by a few naysayers, it is exhausting having to spend time dealing with the fallout. There are some people who will never agree with what I say, and although I am happy for them to express their own views in their own space (indeed, I rely on having access to other perspectives so that I can constantly measure mine against them and see whether I agree), I do not wish to expend energy having to deal with them, unasked for, in my space.

What I have therefore already done – possibly the first time I’ve made a change even before writing the post – is to unfriend these people on Facebook. I won’t actively avoid them in real life, as it’s conceivable I could have a meaningful discussion with them there – but I will not engage in unproductive to-ing and fro-ing on comment threads. I will instead use my online presence to build up relationships with people who are amenable to my views – and who, I hope, will help me to share them more widely. And if these views reach anyone who feels the same way, but who is feeling bullied into keeping quiet by similar loud critics, I hope they will realise that they are not alone.

I am not a fighter, like the Musketeers. I am not a politician, like Cardinal Richelieu. I do not like conflict, and I do not enjoy manipulation. All I can do is share what I believe, in the hope that my constancy, positivity and determination will ultimately make waves. The changes I may be able to effect may be small – but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins

Title: Mary Poppins24-book challenge
Author: PL Travers
Publication date: 1934
Genre: Children’s fiction; fantasy

Mary PoppinsWhat’s it about?

Mr and Mrs Banks are looking for a new nanny for their children, when Mary Poppins flies into their world (literally, on the East Wind) and takes the position. The children Jane and Michael soon realise that Mary Poppins is not their normal kind of nanny.

Over the course of the book, Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael on many adventures, and shows them a world of magical possibilities that they had never dreamed of. Each chapter features a new exploit and introduces a new set of strange and eccentric characters.

She is not sweet and saccharine, however; she seems to have almost a disregard for their happiness if not their welfare. It is impossible to guess what she is truly thinking at any time, and at the end of the book she flies away on the West Wind, just as she promised.

The book is the first in a series of eight, so we have not seen the last of Mary Poppins.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I searched my local library catalogues but couldn’t see any copies in a library near me, so I downloaded this one to my Kindle app. It cost me 99p.

What did I learn from it?

The main thing I learned from this book was how different it is to the film/musical version. I was prepared for this, as I’d seen the movie Saving Mr Banks, which looks at the back story of PL Travers dealing with Walt Disney in his attempts to produce the film, and I’d become aware that the character of Mary Poppins in the book is very different to how it is depicted in the film. But it was quite an eye-opener to read the book in its entirety and realise that this isn’t the only difference.

For a start, and perhaps not unexpectedly, there are changes to the Banks household. There are four Banks children (baby twins in addition to Jane and Michael); Mrs Banks is not a suffragette; and there is a third member of staff, essentially a gardener, to accompany Ellen and the cook.

There are also many more stories in the book’s 12 chapters than are featured in the film; in fact, with the exception of the first and last chapters, dealing with Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, only three chapters tell stories that are familiar from the film version:

  • the trip into the cartoon world with Bert (which, in the book, Mary Poppins enjoys on her own; the children do not accompany them);
  • the visit to the uncle who levitates when he laughs;
  • the observation of the Bird Woman.

It’s also worth noting that the latter contains no mention of a run on the bank.

The book feels much more like a collection of miniature tales, bookended by Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, whereas the film – again, not surprisingly – offers a more holistic narrative with plot and character development. However, given that the book is only the first in a series, this is perhaps an unfair comparison to make. I guess I need to read the others to see how it all pans out… Maybe the Banks family will have their epiphany after all.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with any fantasy book, it reminded me that there is something magical to be found in every aspect of our daily existence. In this particular book, I found that the wealth of ‘what ifs’ in the different adventures could be used as lead-ins for pondering questions about the nature of the world around us.

For instance…

  • Do the stars really come from gold paper that a strange woman steals from our closet and pastes up in the sky? If not, where do they come from?
  • What happens in a zoo at night? Do the animals communicate with each other in a way they can’t do when the humans are there?
  • Do dogs have a class system? A pecking order? Is there anything to prevent one type of dog befriending another dog?

The book works as both a joyous series of escapades, undertaken for the pure fun of it, and as a treasure trove of imaginings for sparking further ideas. In this latter sense it is, perhaps, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of this book challenge, where the quest is to find inspiration in the unexpected and even the ordinary; to encourage further thought, questioning, and – hopefully – action.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The biggest change for me was inspired not by the book itself so much as the difference in interpretation between the book and the film version. This is the story told in Saving Mr Banks, where Travers tries to ensure that the character she created is portrayed in a way that is true to her original intentions. The film deals with the give-and-take that accompanies any adaptation of a story from one medium to another.

This rang many bells with me, as at the time of reading Mary Poppins, I had just emerged from a read through of our Pride and Prejudice stage adaptation, where I’d received feedback on my half (Act II) from my co-author and the Artistic Director. They felt that Elizabeth spoke too often in monologue, which she hadn’t been in the habit of doing in Act I, and they suggested I cut down on this in order to make the character more consistent.

While I do generally bow to their greater experience in this area, I felt quite strongly that there were reasons why Elizabeth needed to ‘talk to herself’ in Act II, which hadn’t applied in Act I; not least the fact that she now has more secrets to keep and does not feel she can confide in people quite so freely as she did before. And so I kept faith in my understanding of this character: although I did eventually cut a few lines, I left many of the others in place – and explained to my colleagues exactly why I had done so.

From the story of PL Travers and Mary Poppins I have learned to hold true to my notions of artistic integrity, and to believe in myself. I will still listen to input from others – but I will not necessarily let that hold sway over what my own gut is telling me.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!