Friday, 9 May 2014

What I've been reading: Several Perceptions, Affinity, The Picture (and Confessions) of Dorian Gray

Not a big fan of these new covers
 There are some things in this world which become increasingly rare, some pleasures which one has a finite capacity to enjoy.

Angela Carter is one of those writers whom I wish I could delete from my memory so that I had the pleasure of discovering her work all over again - an impossibility which raises the question: what sort of person would I be had I not read Carter at a formative age?

Still, Several Perceptions was delicious. It was not what I would term 'greater Carter' - not Nights at the Circus, or Passion of a New Eve. It is a more realist work than these, resembling Love in both in its motifs and concerns, but it is a novel more tender, and, lacking Love's element of Grand Guignol, rather sharper, too. The miracles, the archetypes that you encounter, have something of the aggressive quality of Carter's critical writing, the edge of satire to them stronger than Love's more tortured protagonists can muster.

Once again, Carter proves her continued relevance to modern feminism, saying things that needed to be said then and have since been forgotten and thus need to be said again. As I would expect, it challenges the reader, a series of blows that unsettle, unsettle again, but there is an element of self-consciousness her later work lacks. The Carter of Several Perceptions does not draw you in, does not seduce you. There is something cold, a little defensive here.

The writing, it goes without saying, was sublime.

There, that's the required amount of fangirling done for the morning. Shall I do some overtime?

No, I shall be good. I did really love Sarah Water's Affinity, though. One of those fabulous books where I worked out exactly what was going on, but still read the last volume of the novel in about two hour's worth of bated breath intensity. Water's has a very special ability to bring late nineteenth century England - particularly London - to life, and she uses this formidable talent to tell queer stories that are compelling, compassionate and, if I'm honest, magical.

Affinity is the tale of the visits a grieving spinster makes to the women of Millbank prison and her growing 'affinity' with a spiritualist incarcerated for assault and fraud. It is part mystery, part romance. Not the least of its achievements is the fact that although the two main characters do nothing more than hold hands, it is one of the most sizzlingly sexy books I have read in a very long time.

Seriously, it was hot. Like, "I'm blushing as I read this because there are other people in the room," hot. It's Waters' knowingness that does this, her sly, careful invocation of modern sensibilities, of modern subtext. We know what's going on, even if the characters don't. And the characters... well, maybe they aren't so innocent of the implications, after all.

And that ending!


So, from a sizzling, scandalous book set in queer London at the end of the nineteenth century, I take you to a sizzling, scandalous book set in queer London at the end of the nineteenth century. It's not that I haven't read The Confessions of Dorian Gray before now - I just felt like doing it again.

I blame that Waters woman.

Naturally, a good friend on Twitter heard my complaints about my old, first year annotated 'Penguin £1 Classics' edition and pointed me in the direction of this (Amazon link), and suffice to say I want, I want, I want. Still, impressions.

What surprised me most was how boyish Gray seems, and not just in the early part of the novel. He is forever throwing himself down on divans, turning his back, stamping his metaphorical foot. It is not simply his body which is preserved in the first flush of the twenties, his character remains self-centred, passionate, thoughtlessly cruel.

And just as he does not age, does not grow, nor does he ever self define. He remains so very malleable, a conduit for Wooton's words, Hallward's art. In the first and second chapter, all they do is give him orders. Their power over him remains - stay still, Dorian, think this, Dorian. Be beautiful. Make your life art. So he does, of course, and in doing so he simply becomes a mode of expression for others.

Does that absolve him, to some extent?

More interesting: can he change? Can he redeem himself?

And so I will stray away from books, because I've spent a lot of time lately listening to a lot of Big Finish's The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

And doesn't he just look the part?
If you chaps don't know who Big Finish are, they are the guys who do the Doctor Who audios, one of the spin-offs from the show that kept dedicated fans happy between the '96 movie and the 2005's Rose. Since the airing of Night of the Doctor they are canon. At their best, they are also sublime.

Big Finish also make a number audio adventures based upon other cult TV shows, literary characters and occasionally just some stunning original drama. The Confessions of Dorian Gray is, of course, their take on the novel I have just reread.

I was a little dubious about these dramas. The character of Dorian has such cultural cachet with a certain class of young person, among whom I am willing to number myself. How quickly will sensationalism have its sway? How much is going to be 'immortal Dorian' fanwank?

Well, the jury's out, I'm afraid. The dialogue is fantastic - sharp, witty and with some wonderfully underhand references to the novel. Gray is played to near-enough perfection by Alexander Vlahos - who captures that pettish allure that makes Dorian so attractive, so dangerous. But the quality of the stories varies, perhaps too greatly.  

Generally it is a wonderful, sexy horror romp through recent history, The Houses In Between getting honourable mention for being legitimately terrifying, but it veers too much towards the 'eldritch horror being dismissed by Dorian talking at it angrily' that seems a repeated motif in the series. The set-up, the characters, are perfect - the plotting too often a disappointment. There are a few mawkish, bum-notes (especially the last episode in the second season, which... I won't even), but there were also some triumphs where the actual possibilities of Dorian as a character - both psychological and narratively - were pushed. If you get a chance, listen to The Fallen King of Britain as it's fantastic - if a little insistent in its morality.

My only other complaint is that some of the writers appear to be working under the assumption Dorian is gay, which is unfortunate as he is one of the more famous bisexual literary characters we have. Still, whether or not that gives us a good name is another question entirely, of course.

Right, that's it. I've written way too much for one morning. Have a good week's reading!

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