Thursday, June 25, 2015

Something Definite

8 Ramadhan 1436


In the run-up to the fasting month my reading suddenly took a new direction. I decided to break off from attempting to reread Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell with The 'From Hell' Companion at hand on the grounds that it all felt a bit too dark for me at a time when I was going to soon be consciously striving for light. The decision was reinforced just after arriving in KL when I read the final volume in Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing, having bought it on a visit to the Kinokuniya bookshop at KLCC. It took only a day to finish and, even though I found it basically readable, there was a tiredness about the work, or perhaps about me, that made the experience feel somehow less than substantial.

I felt I needed something more definite; more focused on genuinely lived, as opposed to imagined, experience; and more charitable in its understanding of the human stuff under analysis. So I turned to Trollope. And I was right to do so.

I've had an old, unread paperback of The Last Chronicle of Barset for the longest time, and this has constituted my reading for pleasure of the last eleven days or so. Initially I wondered whether I might break off the reading for the fasting month and resume later, but I was so gripped by the opening chapters that this was never a real possibility. Those chapters essentially focus on the Reverend Josiah Crawley, and he's the triumph of the novel. The poor guy is caught in a seemingly impossible situation as the story opens, having been accused of stealing a cheque for twenty quid and finding that even he himself cannot account for his possession of the cheque, genuinely wondering whether he has, in fact, stolen the money without realising that's what he was doing. I know this sounds unlikely, but Trollope is so good on the precise circumstances surrounding the cheque - and, as always, the actual amounts of money involved in the situation are given in powerfully convincing detail - that you feel caught up in the nightmare that takes over the man's life. The eventual explanation of what really took place around the cheque, which comes some seven hundred pages later, is also entirely probable and convincing. The triumph comes in the brilliant delineation of Crawley's character: Trollope makes him deeply sympathetic, in many ways brave and admirable, yet something of a monster as well. A man of real humility yet, at the same time, one of monstrous self regard.

The intensity of his suffering is such that it's quite possible to imagine him doing away with himself simply through neglect. He comes close on at least two occasions. I can't think of anything else by the great Victorian that explores the territory of abject despair with such complete understanding to this sustained degree. I couldn't help but be reminded of such how awful the writer's own experience was in his early years, especially at school, an aspect of his life completely at odds with the persona he later created as a successful writer and civil servant. It makes you wonder to what degree the powerful sensitivity of Trollope to a wide range of character types, especially women, is founded on those years of misery and the painful insights they afforded him.

And speaking of women I should mention that the other obvious triumph of the novel is the portrayal of the outspoken, feisty Lily Dale. I really thought that she would eventually accept her suitor, the thoroughly decent Johnny Eames, and that Trollope was, typically, drawing out the whole thing to add to the happy impact of the eventual pay-off of final acceptance. But no, she turns him down, and for no very good reason, except that of the mystery of the human heart. She consciously chooses to be an 'Old Maid' (her words) in a full understanding of what that will mean for her whole life and, whilst Trollope doesn't exactly endorse the decision, he allows his character the imaginative freedom to make it for, what can finally only be described as, her own reasons.

There are, of course, other goodies involved in the novel (and one or two dull bits, including one entirely pointless sub-plot that doesn't even take place in Barsetshire) and I must say I can't think of anything I've read this year that's provided me as much fresh air and wholesome sanity as The Last Chronicle.


When I first began observing the fast, in the 1990s, I often felt hungry enough in the evenings to feel like eating all the time. Nowadays I generally feel full within twenty minutes of breaking the fast - and this is not because I've been gorging, I hasten to add. The drinks alone seem to fill all available space. I think Noi feels the same. We now eat our main meal late at night and that can feel like fulfilling an obligation regardless of how delicious the food is. I suppose all this is connected with aging in some vague way.

In stark contrast to our sense of heavy completion-cum-repletion we were looking at a sad video the other of two little lads, around ten years old, foraging on the ground for bits of bread to take back home for the breaking of the fast. I think it was filmed in Syria. For some reason, loss of identification I think, the family couldn't claim the aid others in the area were being provided. The two lads explained this to an off-camera adult interviewer with a touching acceptance of the bitter facts of their daily lives, as if the situation were almost normal. The world is out of balance. Heart-breakingly so.


Just back from Best Speedy Carwash. Bit of a misnomer as they're not speedy at all - but I don't say this in any spirit of complaint. The guys manning the hoses and cloths are super-meticulous and work really hard, and it's incredibly cheap: 13 ringgit for a full wash and vacuum. It certainly deserves to be described as the 'Best'.

Saw one guy there, a customer, rolling his own cigarettes. Didn't know that people still did that. Last saw it as a teenager. Put me in mind of something I easily forget: smokers can't light-up during the hours of fasting. Must be a real strain controlling that and dealing with everything else demanded of you.

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