Monday, 1 May 2017

Great classics on the 23rd April

This time they are my 1st and 2nd year ESO students the ones who write about those great English classics and stories everybody knows about: Romeo and Juliet, Oliver Twist, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, The Jungle Books...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Roald Dahl (1916 -1990)

This 13th of September marks the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth. Loved by millions of readers all over the world, not many people know that this Welsh children's author was also a Second World War Royal Air Force pilot and spy. He met and worked alongside Ian Fleming, who would later become James Bond's creator . As a screenwriter, Roald Dahl himself would write the script for You Only Live Twice.

His charming characters  are unforgettable. His skilful and magic stories keep the reader enthralled from start to finish. Although they are widely popular nowadays also thanks to their screen versions - like Spielberg's Gremlins,  Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Danny de Vito's Matilda or James and the Giant Peach - he firmly believed in the importance of reading, and he was not always pleased with these adaptations.  "I'm probably more pleased with my children's books than with my adult short stories. Children's books are harder to write. It's tougher to keep a child interested because a child does not have the concentration of an adult. A child knows the television is in the next room. It's tough to hold a child, but it's a lovely thing to try to do."        

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

150th anniversary of Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland

First published in 1865, Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland has just turned 150. This timeless children book, playful and puzzling, was inspired by real events and a real child. Lewis Carrol, Charles L. Dogson´s pen-name, was a lecturer in maths in the Christ Church college in Oxford. Although he suffered from a bad stammer, he was a natural storyteller who liked to invent tales to entertain his friends and this speech dysfunction seemed to disappear when he spoke to children.

On a summer day, three years earlier, he had taken a boat trip up the river Isis (the Thames in Oxford) accompanying the Dean of his college and his three young  daughters for a picnic. Lewis Carrol started recounting them about a bored little girl called Alice who, while looking for adventure, tumbled down a rabbit hole. So enthralled was everybody that the medium girl, also called Alice, implored him to write it down. 

Once published, it soon cut the mustard and people of all ages were drawn to it. Both Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde adored it, for instance. His personal circumstances might have had a bearing on the creation of this masterpiece. The mathematician is well-known to have suffered a rare neurological disorder that provoked hallucinations in him and affected his vision of the size of objects. Besides, the surreal world into which Alice falls is oddly mathematical and logical.

Both Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, inaugurated a new era of children literature, which did not longer have to be didactic or moralistic. Lewis Carrol broke new ground by adding a whole world of imaginative whimsy which would let the children´s minds roam free. The tragic and unavoidable loss of childhood innocence, life as a meaningless puzzle or whatever it might represent, what is certain is that Alice is considered one of the most beloved characters in the classics today and she has kept us good company ever since.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Henry James, Washington Square and Cervantes

Like many 19th c. Americans, Henry James (1843 -1916) grew up with that feeling that culture, beauty and sophistication lay on the other side of the Atlantic. Living in a country with no antiquity or mystery, but only with commonplace prosperity, class distinction involved travelling to the Old World to imbibe all its art and elegance; probably, just a question of snobbery. He could afford doing so and so could and did many of the upper-middle class characters in his novels.

He anchored most of his cosmopolitan writings in an idealised aristocratic Europe, focusing on personal relationships and aiming at a kind of psychological realism: The Golden Bowl, The Portrait of a Lady, The Turns of the Screw... Although Washington Square is mainly set in the New York quarter where he was born, describing his maternal grandmother's house, Austin Sloper and his daughter also cross the ocean. It is something brief, but "she failed to gather animation from the mountains of Switzerland or the monuments of Italy". A wicked father, an unscrupulous suitor and a virtuous and wronged heroine were familiar types from Victorian melodramas. This novel, which defies a happy end, was turned into the unforgettable The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift; a film I watched a long time ago, and before reading the book, probably too young to understand how Catherine could resign herself to a lonely future, locking the door against the man who had once betrayed her love.

In a recent trip to New York City, I wanted to visit the place. Nowadays there is a residential neighbourhood which has developed around Washington Square Park, a green space to hang out and stage demonstrations, a park adored by the locals and a kind of sanctuary for the Beat Generation of the 40s and 50s. Strolling around, just a few metres away from the park arch, we arrived at NY University campus where, at the end of a courtyard just off the 5th Avenue, we unexpectedly met... a statue of Cervantes.

We could read it had been a present to the city from the mayor of Madrid in 1989 and, first intended to be located in the middle of Washington Square Park, the statue had been considered too fragile and they had opted for this charming alley instead. Surfing the net, we also learnt that at the end of the 19th century the small Spanish colony in New York had already made an unsuccessful proposal to raise money to donate the city a statue of Cervantes in order to improve the hostile image of Spain at that time due to the war in Cuba. The statue would finally manage to turn up a century later, but by other means and for other reasons.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Another World Book and Copyright Day

"As a lad," the elderly bookseller reminds, "we all queued up at midnight for a book about a wizard. It was the vogue."

The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling; Robinson Crusoe, by Defoe; Moby Dick, by Melville; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, by Tolkien; Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl; Frankestein, by Mary Shelley, Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain.. .These are some of the classics in English literature I have remembered today with my 1st year ESO students:

And my 2nd year Bachillerato students have also reflected on the power of words and reading:

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was born in the Ukraine, but naturalized British. Captain in the English merchant marine, his novels were outlined from his wide experiences at sea and in other different parts of the world; he was even embroiled in arms smuggling for the Carlist cause in Spain. Due to the malaria, he had to stop travelling and it was then that he started writing. 

He wonderfully depicted English characters against exotic backgrounds and rendered the dangerous life aboard vessels, with skippers yelling through gale force winds. His work is set in the context of colonial expansion in late Victorian England. The nature and effects of European imperialism, brutal and brutalizing, are less central in Lord Jim than in other novels like Heart of Darkness, masterpiece which would be the basis for Apocalypsis Now. Both novels share the same narrator, Marlow. In Heart of Darkness, his trip along the river in the Belgian Congo (which Francis Ford Coppola marvellously turned into the Vietnam background) is compared to Dante´s descent to the inferno, while in Lord Jim he explores the question of honour and moral conflicts of man's struggles at sea. 

Captain Marlow tells about Jim´s fall and redemption. He is a British naval officer disgraced by a single act of cowardice in the past and haunted by a guilty conscience since then. He, who had always dreamt of proving his heroism at sea, was paralyzed with fear the day he had to put his courage to the test. Together with the other disreputable crew, he abandoned their ship in a storm, not taking care of the sleeping passengers who were unaware of their peril. The story, which is partly based on true events, is about moral dilemmas, humiliation and second chances, about men who despite their heroic appearance are quite hollow.

A Greek hero? Like in all Aristotle's tragedies, Jim has got a flaw: probably his romantic idealism. Duty, conscience, self-sacrifice, self-knowledge, personal growth... Is death the only way honour can be retrieved? Does anyone care about all this? We are more than likely to be just talking about old-fashioned values, no longer valid nowadays...

Friday, 16 January 2015

At the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome

At the right foot of the Spanish Steps, in the very heart of Rome, I´ve just visited the Keats-Shelley House, a museum dedicated to the second generation of the English Romantic poets. It preserves the memory of Keats, Shelley and, to a less extent, Byron. All of them, geniuses who have attained an iconic status, died very young. In fact, it was as if the Romantic spirit and its intensity of feelings had to be associated with youth and that peculiar and sublime immaturity. 

The house was the final dwelling place of Keats, who had travelled to Italy with symptoms of consumption, in vain hope of a better climate to alleviate his poor health, but who would finally die here at the tender age of 25. He was the archetype of the young, beautiful and doomed Romantic writer. On his gravestone (also on one of the walls of the building) a Greek lyre was carved with four of its eight strings broken, in order to "show his classical genius cut off by death before its maturity".

Devastated by his death, Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais. A year later, he would drown off the coast of Tuscany at the age of 29. A volume of Keats´ poetry was found in his pocket. Both are buried in Rome´s Protestant cemetery.

Also imbued by the classical mythology, but having the epic ancient Greece in his imagination, the aristocratic Lord Byron would die (from a fever) for the cause of Greek independence against the Turks, in an adolescent attempt at making himself a Homeric hero.

Definetely, the museum was worth the visit. And a great pleasure to leave, at least for just half an hour, the hustle and bustle of the overcrowded Piazza di Spagna outside. I could enjoy the quiet solitude of the library, full of first editions, and, strolling around the rooms, gaze not only at original letters (by authors like Mary Shelley or even Oscar Wilde or Borges, who adored Keats) but also at a variety of memorabilia such as a lock of Keats´ hair or a carnival mask Byron once bought in Venice.

These tortured poets were dreamers who created a religion from the spirituality of their own experiences. And it is inspiring and overwelming to believe that the fellowship and reciprocal admiration they maintained was genuine and sincere. Nothing to do, I´m afraid, with the so often recurring rivalry between some green-eyed authors nowadays.