Read about the Summer Reading Challenge here.
Roald Dahl, Danny Champion of the World (1975, Puffin Books 2013)
I bought this on a long weekend in Rhyl (don’t ask); I was in the children’s section of W.H.Smith with my toddler, who chose it for me, maybe because of the yellow cover. I’d read a few of Roald Dahl’s books as a kid (George’s Marvellous Medicine, The Twits, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and although I couldn’t remember much about them, I remembered that I liked them very much. Reading Danny Champion of the World, I realise I’ve forgotten how subversive children’s books can be. I’m guessing that even when the book first came out in 1975 it was set in an England that didn’t exist, but I can’t be sure. Danny lives with his dad in a gypsy caravan and the garage which his dad runs; after a few small adventures illustrating his life, the main action focuses on poaching in the local woods, owned by the rich but deeply unpleasant Mr Victor Hazell. It’s not so much anti-authority as anti-authoritarian; teachers and vicars and policemen are decent folk, except the hideous ex-army teacher who bullies the schoolchildren, and of course the villain Mr Hazell, who thinks nothing of kicking dogs and being rude to pretty much everyone. I can’t say game birds were a big feature of my childhood, but I’d read enough books that the word ‘poacher’ carried sinister connotations. In Danny, Champion of the World, poaching is portrayed much more as the past-time, and necessity, of the underdog, rather than an evil underclass:
“I caught the poaching fever… when I was ten years old and I’ve never lost it since. Mind you, in those days just about every man in our village was out in the woods at night poaching pheasants. And they did it not only because they loved the sport but because they needed food for their families. When I was a boy, times were bad for a lot of people in England. There was very little work to be had anywhere, and some families were literally starving. Yet a few miles away in the rich man’s wood, thousands of pheasants were being fed like kings twice a day. So can you blame my dad for going out occasionally and coming home with a bird or two for the family to eat?” (p.31)
An immensely enjoyable read, with a wonderfully inventive comeuppance for Mr Hazell. I must get a copy of Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine to re-read.
Robert Crumb & David Zane Mairowitz, Kafka (Fantagraphic Books, 2007)
I bought this book in Prague in 2007 (it must have newly come out), which gives you an idea of how long some books can stay on my shelf unread. I’d only read ‘Metamorphosis’ and some other short stories in one of those ‘Pocket Penguins’ brought out to celebrate the publisher’s 70th anniversary: The Great Wall of China, which included ‘Before the law’, which I’ve discovered from reading the Crumb & Mairowitz book, comes from Kafka’s novel The Trial. This under-reading of Kafka, in contrast to the widespread use of the word ‘Kafkaesque’, is tackled immediately in the book, where the authors note with irritation Kafka’s existence as an adjective. This book (comic-book? graphic biography?) introduces Kafka’s work in the context of his biography. I didn’t know anything about Kafka, I thought he’d died unread, but it turns out that he was part of a literary circle in Prague, and that was pretty much how he came to be published posthumously, his work edited by one of his literary friends Max Brod.
The book is a good overall introduction to Kafka, although I don’t think it’s necessarily encouraged me to read further. I know people for whom Kafka is their favourite author. But I also remember someone telling me that the worst novel they had ever read was by Kafka. I think there’s a gender issue at play here; when she was telling me how awful the Kafka novel was, I silently thought “surely not, I’ve read ‘Metamorphosis’ and it was a great story,” but now I’ve read Crumb & Mairowitz, I can see what she likely meant. Her specific comment was, “only a man would have written something so bad,” and it does sound as if women were definitely an Other for Kafka, his female characters strange amalgams of comfort, sexual awakening and sexual terror. I won’t speculate why; Crumb & Mairowitz provide their own convincing outline of his life, and point out that “No writer of our time, and probably none since Shakespeare, has been so widely over-interpreted and pigeon-holed.” (p.5)
Kafka is a good read for anyone interested in the writer; if he’s already your favourite writer, you’ll probably simply enjoy adding to your reading about him; if he exists as an adjective for you (as I suppose he does for me), this may or may not inspire you to read more. I will probably read some more of the short stories; I may one day try and read the unfinished Amerika (the title provided by Max Brod), but given how long it’s taken me to get round to reading this book, who knows when that might be.