Saturday, 19 July 2014

Michael Irwin's 'The Skull and the Nightingale'

 … it seemed that his habitual correctness was indeed a mask for timidity. p. 142.

And it is in this line, perhaps a quarter of the way through Irwin’s book, that I find the focus of his philosophising novel.
‘The skull and the nightingale’ centres on a young man in his early twenties, Richard Fenwick, who in the 1700s is in search of living well (in other terms wealthily) he strikes a bargain with his godfather Mr. Gilbert (besides him, Richard is an orphan). This bargain requires Richard to be paid to live an experimental life that indulges the senses and then relate every detail to Mr. Gilbert so as this elderly man can live vicariously through him to understand our human and animal natures alike.
And while this may seem rather droll to most of you (beware, I think I feel Elizabeth Bennett being channelled slightly), it is watching a young man’s life in regards to drinking and debauchery (mainly that means sexual encounters). Again, this may not seem new to readers, but setting this book incredibly well in the 18th Century (the language and knowledge is gorgeous in this book!) is the point of enabling such a philosophical debate that might not be as plausible today because of the different structures of social society.
This is one of the reasons I loved the book. I look at a time and place that is so different from my own, and then a layer of philosophical understanding of human nature (and whether passions like lust are really human) is added that can make one look at their life and ponder about the self. Even in today’s society, which is much less restricted than Richard Fenwick’s, shows the ability to look at one’s life and question how human they are in their relationships, whether created from love or otherwise.
Philosophising aside, I really enjoyed the depth Irwin went to in order to recreate 18th Century London. He wrote with great detail and linguistic flair that made me feel like I was there. The characters were solid within the text, and if his idea was to make me look at myself and my own identity through each of his characters, he accomplished his task well. His characters were well rounded and human; no superhuman heroes in sight. And not that there should be: this is as humanist a book as possible. In fact his characters are flawed and beautiful in different ways so as to look at human nature at the most real, and sometimes basic, nature. Whether one can wholly relate to a character or not in that way I don’t know, but it does enable questions about human passion and why we may or may not yield to them and why. Is it just because they make us feel good that we do it? And should the self society sees be the mask we wear until our deaths? Is there always more than one ‘self’ to an individual?
Okay, so this book is going to make you think if you last through the whole of it …
It is probably seen as a laborious read as I could find it rather slow in places. If you were looking for great dark deeds that reek of Dorian Gray, you may need to look for a different book, because though I find reminiscences here, I don’t think Fenwick or Mr. Gilbert come close to matching him. I also don’t necessarily think Fenwick was as double-minded as he tried to be in this book. I enjoyed him as a character; but I don’t believe his mind’s trouble with acting like his godfather’s puppet was as strong as it could have been. He really didn’t seem so strongly against ‘immorality’ as he saw it. Maybe that was because Fenwick never really was bothered by morality, but just made a show of it … However, maybe it is there if you think of the time period this book was set in (for as Sarah states to Richard in regards to her own qualms about her life):
“Dressed as Diana I was a different person. In darkness I was a different person – I am a different person. When you kissed me I was a different person. Why should not these other selves be allowed to live? What stifles them? Nothing but habit and fear and propriety. Is not propriety a kind of murder?” p. 370
This has been a rather long review. So, let’s sum up: I don’t recommend this book for anyone looking for incredibly dark deeds or a book full of action, or even characters full of integrity. You won’t find that within these pages. I do recommend this book for historical readers because the atmosphere and language are brilliant, and even for the amateur philosopher if you are willing to give it a shot (which is why I did with Irwin’s book).

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