On the hundred-year-old child and the difference between children’s and adult fiction

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”
― Roald Dahl, The BFG

 

Every now and then, it does us good to once again see the world with a child’s simplicity. As adults, we have made it a very complex place, full of politics, agendas and serious issues. There is something to be said for a child’s ability, in their unawareness of such issues, to take things at face value. With their judgement untainted by background knowledge and the restrictive limits of perceived probability, they are able to take pleasure in the magic of first impressions and form their own opinions without the burden of someone else’s bias.

This is a skill we tend to lose in the course of our journey into adulthood. We gradually become more aware of the complexity and darker side to the way the world works, and begin to feel more keenly the pressure to adapt to this in order to survive and succeed. We have to find the right relationship, the right job, earn the right amount of money in order to be able to buy the right things and live the life that is expected of us. The life we are told to want.

As such, many of our fantasies in fiction revolve around these expectations. The hero always gets the girl, the heroine finally excels in her dream job and both have the power to shape their lives as they wish and truly affect the world around them.

Yet even these dreams are restricted by the values of the adult world. A child dreams differently: they do not doubt in the world’s capacity for magic or their own ability to change it. They are not concerned with fitting in or meeting expectations. They simply want fun and adventure.

I was reminded of this difference recently when I discovered a rare gem: an adult book written with a child’s imagination. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a magical tale of adventure where the main character travels the world making unlikely friends, getting into dangerous scrapes and generally being a nuisance to sensible, self-important adults who don’t know how to have fun. In many ways, Allan Karlsson is similar to the young protagonists of the books I read in my childhood. But there is one difference – he is one hundred years old.

The titular centenarian handles life very much like a child would, albeit one with an adult’s ability to fend for himself. He has no interest in politics, religion or other “boring” adult topics, and when a situation becomes too dull for him he simply ups and leaves, be it his own birthday party or a Soviet gulag. Yes, he drinks, but not as many adults do, to escape the pressure or banality of their lives. He consumes schnapps simply for the fun of it, to celebrate the moment he is currently living in. Nor is he ever an aggressive drunk – indeed, we rarely see any effect at all from the alcohol, save for a little loosening of the tongue and poor decision-making.

In many ways, Jonasson’s approach to writing and view of the world reminded me of my own childhood favourite, Roald Dahl. It has been many years since I read one of Dahl’s books, but I still remember the whimsical sense of “why not?” that motivated his characters’ actions, and his flagrant disregard for stuffy, grown-up ideals of how the world works. There is a brilliant part in The Hundred-Year-Old in the early 1930s where, travelling to Spain with a friend who wishes to fight in the Civil War, an excited Allan meets his first “negro”. Having experienced much fear and hatred of these strange beings from the authorities in his homeland, Allan quickly loses interest when he finds that, really, the only difference between the two of them is the colour of their skin. This simple dismantling of a complex political agenda is reminiscent of the scene in The BFG where the giant questions Sophie on her perception of good and bad:

 

‘I is not understanding human beans at all,’ the BFG said.’ You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans. Right or left?’

‘Right,’ Sophie said.

‘But human beans is squishing each other all the time,’ the BFG said. ‘They is shootling guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans.’

 

This matter-of-fact approach is key to Jonasson’s storytelling. The tale is clearly idealised, with Karlsson and his friends enjoying far more good luck than your average, realistic adult would expect. Yet everything that occurs is still very much within the realms of possibility, even if it is highly improbable. There is no magic, and there are no monsters or mythical creatures.

As such, The Hundred-Year-Old Man differs in content from much children’s literature. It very clearly takes place in an adult world, and handles historical and political topics very astutely. Yet these details are tempered by the lens through which we see this world – by the child-like way Allan Karlsson simply potters from one hilarious encounter to another, picking up friends along the way. Everyone gets along more or less famously, and within the group there are never any real issues or tensions of the type that often drive the plot of other adult novels.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is escapist, as many books are. Yet this is a child’s escapism. Despite all the encounters with prominent historical figures, Allan Karlsson never sets out to foil dastardly terrorist plots or government conspiracies. He does not bed bevies of beautiful women like the action hero of an adult film. When he wins the day, he does not revel in his own glory, and nor does the narrator. His pleasure – and thus our own – is in the joy of the adventure itself, and once each instalment is over we simply wait for him to stumble into his next mishap.

Although the book’s protagonist is older than most of us could ever hope to become, his naivety and easy-going approach to life take us out of our dreary, complicated, worlds in a way that so few “adult” stories do. This is a joyous read for the inner child, and I recommend it heartily.

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Discovering worlds outside our own – the importance of reading and imagination to both adults and children

We are all encouraged to read from an early age. Even before we really know what they mean, we sit in our parents’ laps and try to follow the words they recite to us from our brightly illustrated books. Reading is a natural part of our make-up; as an expression of the understanding of language, it is crucial to our ability to function in the social structures we have created in the western world and beyond. It is a life skill, and helps us to understand and interact with our environment.

Yet it also does so much more. When we open a book, it takes us into a different world, sparking our curiosity and fuelling our imaginations. We are then taught to channel the results of this combustion into our own writing, as a form of creative play that aids us in developing our problem-solving skills, sense of self and many other attributes, less quantifiable but just as important.

As a child, these were activities I loved. I always had a vivid imagination – not for me the toy cars and model trains, miniature imitations of an adult’s world. I could see that world around me, and it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So I lost myself in tales of hungry giants and enormous crocodiles, witches and aliens, magic bicycles and silver space elephants. I would tell anyone who cared to listen that, when I grew up, I was going to be an author. My parents and teachers saw this as a Good Thing, commendable behaviour for a young boy.

Time went by, and I eventually progressed from primary school to secondary school. Lessons became more serious: homework, deadlines, exams. It became more obvious that we were meant to know certain facts by certain points in time. Questions in class were discouraged unless directly relevant to the topic at hand. While creativity was still nurtured in some classes, it existed now within more rigid boundaries, and had to fulfil a specific aim once complete. Curiosity and imagination took second place, eclipsed by the looming shadow of the Real World for which we had to prepare.

Outside of school, too, we were expected to be growing up. I remember early in the first year of secondary school being asked by one of my new friends whether I was still “in the toy phase”. I didn’t know how to respond. In the end I gave a non-committal answer, but inside I was reeling at the idea that toys were meant to be “just a phase”, and moreover one that I was expected to be growing out of. Yet the pressure to fit in is an amazing motivator, and it wasn’t long before my robots and monsters were packed away in cupboards, gathering dust.

I still read, but it became more something I did in my spare time; a hobby of my own choosing, rather than part of my education and overall development as a human being. I cannot recall whether I wrote, in a creative sense. Gradually, I came to accept that the more imaginative part of my psyche was not a stable basis for my future. When the time came to choose subjects for our final school exams, the thought of including Music in my programme barely crossed my mind, despite having played violin and guitar for years. I was not alone in my decision.

As the years went by, this downward spiral continued. At university – that blissful period where one has access to the pleasures of the adult world but is not yet burdened by its responsibilities – I played in a band, but we never saw it as an opportunity to become professional musicians. We always knew our ways were going to part before too long. My reading time was mainly taken up by books required for my course, and otherwise by familiar authors and genres that wouldn’t tax my brain too much. By the time I moved to Berlin and began work as a translator, I was far more interested in exploring the wonders of my new city than writing or singing about them.

And so it continued, until eventually my creative output became something close to nil. I barely even read anymore; there were that many words flowing through my head in the course of a day’s work that I scarcely wanted anything to do with them by the time I got home. Instead of books, my shelves started to fill with DVD box sets, which required much less active thought to enjoy.

Then, about two years ago, I realised my brain was stagnating. My job was satisfying enough, especially since I had turned freelance and gained my freedom from the restraints of corporate hierarchy, but my imagination also needed fulfilment. So I made the conscious decision to read more, and with more variety. I read outside my comfort zone, and was astonished at what I found: all these places, all these people’s imaginations I had been missing out on! I travelled to strange island communities half the world away, slid into the depths of the seedy Glasgow underground and mourned the fates of Gods whose worshippers had long since forgotten them.

By the time I travelled to South America at the end of 2012, my mind was open once more. I felt truly able to appreciate the stunning scenery, the wildly different culture and customs. During our journey, my friend and I wrote song parodying our experiences – something I hadn’t done for a long time. And by the time I returned, one thing was clear in my mind: I needed to write.

So I began this blog, as a basis for all my worldly musings. I discovered and began to write for Slow Travel Berlin, and by the end of the year had been published in the website’s first book. I also began to play in a band again, which re-ignited my desire to write music. Suddenly, my life felt much more fulfilled and balanced. This year, I’m taking things a step further, finally realising my childhood dream by starting to write fiction (more of which at a later date). The five-year-old Roald Dahl fan in me couldn’t be happier.

When I look back now at those fallow years, I feel a sense of regret that I neglected a key part of my personality for so long. It is almost as if there were a black hole in my timeline, where nothing of value happened. I don’t mean to say I was unhappy – I had some great times with some amazing people – but in hindsight it has become clear that, on some level, I wasn’t being true to myself.

It is such a shame that society steers us away from fulfilling our creative potential. Without human imagination, there would be nothing in the world to enjoy, nor would our society be anywhere close to as advanced as it is now. Yet its value is so difficult to quantify in empirical – and thus monetary – terms. It is not seen as an essential asset in the results-driven system we have created.

But nothing ever stands still, and we are already seeing signs that the system no longer works as well as it once did. To find alternatives, to adapt to a new situation – arguably our defining ability as human beings – we will need creativity. We will need libraries, music clubs and art lessons. We will need to read. And we will need all of this not just as children, but at every stage of life. Because if we lose our ability to imagine worlds beyond our own, the world we live in will run us into the ground.

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The language of comics

I thought I’d do something different this week. Over the past year or so, I have used this blog mainly as a platform from which to spout my pontifications on language, and how our choices in it affect and are influenced by the world around us. It’s fair to say that this is a blog about words. But not today. Continue reading

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When the language tank is full – Revitalising one’s language learning

So, another year has gone, and I have to admit, 2013 was pretty good to me. I launched into January with abandon and ambition, armed with an array of resolutions, most of which I more or less achieved. I did regular sport, was adventurous in the kitchen, got my writing career off to a decent start and threw myself back into the world of reading. All in all, it was a year when, refreshed by my travels the previous autumn, I found myself able to devote more attention to the things that are important to my everyday lifestyle.

However, there is one glaring omission from that list of achievements; one resolution that was once more conspicuous by the neglect afforded to it. One thing I failed to do that should surprise anyone who’s known me for any length of time: I did not learn Spanish.

As those who have been reading this blog for a while will have noticed by now, languages are “my thing”. They are “what I do”. I love languages, and always enjoy learning something new in any language, even if it’s just the odd word. In fact, here are some choice ones I learned last year:

  • Heimskur – An Icelandic word meaning both “stupid” and “one who has never left their home”, a connection that resonates with my own ideals
  • Petrichor – The scent of rain on dry earth, a wonderfully evocative term taken from the Greek words petros, meaning stone, and ichor, the blood that courses through the veins of the Gods
  • Curglaff – The shock felt in bathing when one first plunges into the cold water
  • Resistentialism – The seemingly spiteful behavior shown by inanimate objects
  • Tyromancy – Divining by the coagulation of cheese
  • spahči – a reindeer with tall, slender antlers

Over the course of my 27 years, I have managed to learn English, German, Swedish and French to varying levels of competence, and am able to understand decent amounts of other languages as a result. Yet Spanish seems to have eluded me. It is, in fact, not the first time the Hispanic language has graced my list of resolutions – it debuted at the beginning of 2011, originally as part of the preparations for my planned trip to South America later that year. As it was, I learned very little before I landed in Buenos Aires, and a lot more in the six weeks that followed. Most of which has since been forgotten, the holiday now having ended more than a year ago.

“Spanish is an easy language; you’ll learn it in no time!” This is what I’ve heard and, indeed, what little I’ve learned seemed pretty easy to pick up. What’s missing is the drive. When I began to pick up French again 5 years ago, I was able to get to a reasonable level relatively quickly by studying at home with textbooks and then speaking with a tandem partner once a week, after which I enrolled in a couple of intermediate to advanced-level courses to fill in the gaps. I watched French films once a week and tried to read in the language regularly (an endeavour which was made easier by the volume of comic books available through the library at my language school).

In view of this experience, it was only natural for me to assume that a similar method would work for Spanish. True, this time I would be starting completely from scratch, but I still wanted to avoid a beginner’s course because…well, I rather snobbishly thought it beneath me. From what I know of such classes, they are often aimed at those with no prior experience of learning foreign languages, and the idea of having to sit through hours of explanations of what a verb is was nothing less than nightmarish to me. I wanted to learn by myself, then visit courses later on to polish my own knowledge. Yet two years and a variety of aborted methods later, I find myself not much better off, my level of expertise in Spanish still close to nada. How can this be?

As a freelancer, I have more free time than now than I did when I was learning French. I probably also have more money to spend on books, films and the like. Every now and then over the past twelve months, I would pick up my textbook or sign up to new easy online method that would inspire me to a brief flurry of activity, filling my head with conversations about various professions and directions for getting across a hypothetical town. Then, just as suddenly, something else would come up and distract me. I forgot to put the time in, or convinced myself I didn’t have it, and all my shiny new vocabulary began to gather dust on the shelves at the back of my mind.

Where was the motivation? Surely, if this was something I really wanted to do, I wouldn’t be forgetting to do it. Would I?

It is something I really want to do, of that I am sure. What’s frustrating is the pace. Even without the course, it takes a long time until you have something you can put to practical use. The crawl of the word-by-word, “Hello/How are you?” phase of learning a new language was frustrating me, resulting in a loss of focus. I continued to try different methods, all the time telling myself that all I needed was the right structure.

Then, a few weeks ago, a horrible thought struck me. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with how I was learning – after all, the same methods had worked for me before, right? Perhaps, with four languages already up there fighting for attention, my mind was actually full?

It was a terrifying thought, but nevertheless one that, by this point, I had to give some serious consideration. The general consensus is that it is easier to learn languages when you’re younger. Is my brain’s resistance to Spanish a consequence of my now undeniable presence in the land of adulthood? Has my mind started to become closed to new ideas, new cultures? The thought of this panics me. Languages are what I do, right? For so many years they have been an integral part of my identity – how can I have lost the ability to learn them?

Then I think back to my time in South America. I was only there for six weeks, but by the end of them I was able to muddle through basic conversations in Spanish pretty well. With more time, I felt certain I could have picked it up properly. When I returned a year ago, I was filled with a renewed drive to finally get to grips with this slippery tongue. So what happened?

The answer, as it turns out, was obvious. Life happened. In South America I was on holiday, with little else to occupy my mind than thoughts of the current day’s sightseeing activities or where my next empanada/artisanal beer was coming from. Consequently, there was plenty of RAM leftover to dedicate to new words, phrases and grammatical discoveries. When I returned to Germany and started taking on jobs again, that processing time was once more needed to translate and organise my schedule. What little free time I had was often going into my writing and music, or simply winding down and switching off. There was no space in my head for Spanish – not because of the languages already in there, but because of everything else.

So, as another new year begins, how do I deal with this problem? I’m still freelancing, and I obviously don’t want to sacrifice my music and writing time; as creative outlets they use a different part of my mental energy and offer rewards that the more input-intensive process of language learning can’t give me.

Instead of taking time away from those activities, perhaps the best method would be to fit Spanish into my working day. After all, it’s mainly for work that I’ll be using it. This also has the added advantage of slotting my learning into a part of my life that is already actively structured, thus relieving some of the self-inflicted pressure of feeling I have to use my free time productively.

My new year’s resolution for 2014, then, is the same as it has been for the past two years. Except now, there’s a twist. Instead of forcing myself to crack open a textbook at night when I get home from work, I’m going to start my day with Spanish. Just half an hour at first, at least three times a week. Maybe read a newspaper article, learn some vocab, do a couple of exercises in my book. The key will be to keep the momentum going. Fingers crossed I can see it through – third time’s a charm, and all that…

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When a joke goes too far: David Foster Wallace and the Infinite Jest

A little while ago, in my ongoing search for new ideas, I decided I was going to expand this blog to include discussion based around books I’d read; not reviews per se, but more an exploration of the ideas and thoughts they inspired in me. I began with a look at Herodotus and the birth of history as we know it, a somewhat ambitious read which I then followed up with…nothing. A good four  months of nothing, to be precise.

Despite what you might think, this wasn’t because the idea had been forgotten, or I hadn’t been reading. It’s just that my next reading project was perhaps even more ambitious than a two-and-a-half-centuries-old chronicle of the Greco-Persian wars. A modern leviathan of a book with prose so dense, one sometimes feels the need for a machete to cut through to the actual point. I refer, of course, to the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I came about the book partly by accident – Foster Wallace came highly recommended to me as outstanding writer, and the morning after one particularly boozy night spent having his virtues extolled to me, I went ahead and ordered what seemed to be his most popular novel. It wasn’t until the package arrived that I realised the scale of the undertaking before me:

image
If this doesn’t put you off, proceed with caution – from here on in I’ll be dealing with the plot in more detail, so those averse to spoilers would be wise to turn away now.

Ostensibly, the plot is based around the search for an “après-garde” American film-maker’s final work, the titular “Infinite Jest”, a piece apparently so entertaining it induces in its viewers a catatonic stupor and, eventually, death. In a dystopian near future that probably equates roughly to our time (the book was first published in 1996), a group of hardline Québecois separatists wishes to find the film for use in a terrorist plot that will finally enable their homeland to withdraw from the Organization of North American Nations, under which Canada and Mexico are effectively run by the U.S. President, former crooner Johnny Gentle.

All in all, a relatively intriguing storyline, albeit one whose daunting complexity already begins to shine through from the brief outline above. From the outset, the book is filled with detailed observation, dark humour and a sharp linguistic awareness that allows the author to adopt a variety of styles and voices to suit different characters and situations. It is immediately and abundantly clear that David Foster Wallace is a skilled writer, and he wants us to know it.

Unfortunately, impressive though these attributes are, they do not – on this evidence, at least – make Foster Wallace a good storyteller. Though brilliant in parts, the text is filled with unnecessary asides and obsessive amounts of detail that detract frustratingly from the actual events taking place. It often lacks discernible structure; the associations between the different plot threads are so intangible that they come off less as a storyline and more as variations on a theme, often hinting at a deeper relationship to one another yet never truly coming to fruition.

About halfway through the tome, the reader does eventually begin to feel the various narrative lines start to drift closer to one another. Yet the final step of tying everything together is never taken, the book ending abruptly without even hinting at how the final conflict will pan out. No cliffhangers, no foreshadowing, nothing. The narrative simply stops, at the end of a section which brought me, as a reader, no closer to a feeling of dramatic climax than any other paragraph in the previous 980 pages.

Why would an author of such skill do this? Was it because he couldn’t think of an ending? At first glance this seems too simplistic a reason, but then when your story takes up nearly a thousand pages (plus another hundred of “endnotes and errata”) and covers such a vast array of themes and characters, it must be nearly impossible to come up with an ending that truly satisfies and makes the rest of the book worthwhile. However, Mr Foster Wallace didn’t seem short of confidence in his own writing skills, so it seems unlikely that such fears would have stopped him from trying.

The other – and to me, far more likely – solution is that the ending was deliberately abrupt; part of the eponymous joke. The much-vaunted film of the title is an allegory for the book itself: a new form of “entertainment” (a term often used ironically in the book) created with the express purpose of winding up critics by refusing to conform to their norms. It is not meant to be entertaining, at least not in any traditional sense. The lack of a conventional ending to the book, like the avant-garde approach to chaptering and coherent storylines, is all part of the ruse, an infinite loop of self-referential smugness.

Very metatextual, very clever, ingenious even…but it doesn’t make the story any better. Whether by accident or design, the result is the same: a book that contains some  brilliant writing, yet is anything but well-written. For such an acclaimed writer, David Foster Wallace published surprisingly few novels, and many consider his rambling musings more suited to short stories and free-form essays such as Consider the Lobster. Perhaps Infinite Jest would have shone more brightly in such a format. Then again, maybe I’m just smarting from the realisation that, having spent four months of my life struggling through what is meant to be a modern literary masterpiece only to find it has no ending, the joke is on me.

 

 

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New article in Slow Travel Berlin!

Interested in Berlin? Airports? History? Urban planning? Crazy golf?

…or all of the above?

Check out my new article on Slow Travel Berlin, A brief history of Tempelhofer Feld, and delve into the past of the city’s most fascinating open space. Nazi concentration camps, dramatic Cold War stances of defiance and public protests fitted as standard.

 

Cheers 🙂

Ian

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New Words!

Hi folks,

sorry for the delay. It’s been a busy summer, and I’ve been doing a lot of Outside Things instead of Indoor Writy Things. However, I’ve also spent a lot of time researching and writing an article for the amazing Slow Travel Berlin, an institution I’m very proud to be a part of. It’s about Berlin’s Turkish population, and it was published on STB’s brand-spanking new website last week. Take a peek at it, please 🙂

A Short History of Turkish Berlin

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