György Dalos: 1985

May 10, 2021

     So, here is a novel that purports to be a sequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, in which Oceania is defeated by Eurasia and reduced to only the British Isles, and it turns out that the country resembles our current picture of North Korea in comparison with its rivals…

It’s based on the writings of O’Brien, Winston Smith and Julia, and annotated by someone who is allegedly a historian, fifty years after the events. And it’s poor, it’s shoddy, it’s unconvincing.

There’s nothing of the utterly broken and defeated Winston and Julia from the end of Orwell’s novel, no sense of the boot having stamped on the human face forever. There’s no Newspeak. Big Brother’s regime has collapsed in the wake of military defeat, is followed by reform and then revolution, both of which fail. Neither events nor characters convince; the events are necessarily chaotic but, aided by the strange Historian figure comments and ‘analysis’, verge on the comic, and the characters are mechanical, cardboard cutouts who strive to survive on the coat-tails of their namesakes from Orwell’s novel.

The new world of 1985 fails to hang convincingly together as Orwell’s did, and the novel fails to add anything of value or significance to the idea or the message of Nineteen Eighty-four. Clearly, Orwell’s novel is now rather dated – it was interesting living through the actual years preceding that ominous date, and then after them, with the speculations and the comparisons in the chattering press – but the overall messages about totalitarianism, manipulation, power, and the urge to control are as valid now as they were back then, even if the methodologies and the technologies are different. Dalos never really engages with any of this.

I found myself wondering why I had kept this book since I bought it, way back in 1985. Maybe I felt differently then; I never went back to it. Dalos was Hungarian, and although Janos Kadar’s regime was one of the more successful and liberal in the Eastern Europe of that era (within the limited meanings of both those terms in that context), he will nevertheless have been very familiar with the machinations of such regimes and their manglings of the language. But perhaps from inside he was not really capable of looking outside with any real insight. It’s a maddeningly superficial novel, trivial and not worth eyeball time.


Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

May 8, 2021

     Revisiting this astonishing novel, which was second entry in this blog nearly eleven years ago… and only got a short write-up back then. It’s a fictionalisation – though backed by some careful historical research – of the story of the Ismaili sect of the hashishin or assassins which sowed chaos and wrecked the Seljuk rule in Persia at the end of the eleventh century. It’s also a study of power, and the uses of power, and is perhaps significant for being written in Slovenia in the late 1930s, a time when the heavy hand of absolute power lay over much of Europe.

Girls are bought and trained to become houris – the virgins who welcome male martyrs to paradise. Boys are trained in blind obedience to become fedayin, martyrs for the cause. And then via the use of hashish and trickery the boys are taken to visit paradise for a night, and then told that this will be their reward when they die for the cause.

Among all this there is much astute political reflection by Hassan, the leader of Alamut, the impregnable rocky mountain fortress of the assassins. How much can one actually know? Ultimate knowledge is impossible, for our senses lie to us. So, if we can know nothing then everything is permissible: power is the only thing that matters and that works, and the European leaders of the 1930s seemed well-versed in this. And the masses are afraid of uncertainty, and can be deluded with stories of other-worldly paradise after they die, to make up for the suffering in this world…

So is Hassan, the commander of Alamut, an evil genius? Power-crazed? He certainly understands how to trick and deceive, to manipulate, to achieve and maintain power. Yet, even as he succeeds and the rule of the Seljuks begins to crumble under his carefully-crafted attacks, even as he becomes master of worldly power, things do not go smoothly. Problems emerge with lovers and relationships, with friendships, with family, and all of these must give way to the remorseless logic of power; Hassan seems inhuman at times, and yet a deeper reflection belies this: the power of friendships, loyalty, values and integrity still speak out.

In the end, this time round, I experienced a much more powerful novel. At the same time as the achievement of ultimate power there emerged the question of, yes, but what for? There is no God, it is clear, who is interested in us and who will save us from ourselves – and this I found interesting given the novel’s background and setting in the Islamic world. Behind the politics and the religion is a really good and gripping and well-written novel, with many interesting and carefully-drawn characters; it’s no roman à thèse.

Hassan’s icy harshness, cruelty and iron discipline are chilling, and yet in his spirit of enquiry into meaning, he adopts and frees the feday who would have assassinated him, and sends him out into the world to continue the quest. He is enigmatic to the end, not completely understood even by those closest to him, even as they admire his success. And somewhere, behind it all, from the depths and darkness of the 1930s, Bartol has a message about his own times and its leaders…


Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.


Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…


RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.


Russell Banks: The Sweet Hereafter

April 24, 2021

     I really didn’t enjoy this book, but because I was reading it for our book group I stuck with it. It’s a tale about the moral complexity of everything, presented through the aftermath of a school bus accident in small-town USA in which a number of children are killed. It’s told through the separate stories of four of those involved, and this is where the problem started for me. Yes, in a Conradian sort of way, you can be told very briefly at the start about the accident by the woman driving the bus, and then there’s the build-up as she works her way though the events leading up to it. But when the speaker is monotonous, chatty and folksy, it quickly became annoying and dull. The second narrator, father of one of the children on the bus who is killed, is a little more interesting; the third is an out-of-town lawyer on the make, and the fourth a teenager who is permanently disabled as a result of the accident; the book ends with a brief coda from the bus driver.

The monotony of the narration, whoever it speaking, is an issue with this method of telling a story, as is the choice of characters. The speakers – bar the teenager – are all evidently avoiding all sorts of things; they all speak in a similar folksy, chatty manner which adds to the monotony. The only character I warmed to was the teenage survivor, and that response was complicated by Banks’ decision to include a history of sexual abuse by her father. Her honesty meant that I almost liked her. And yet her lies at the pre-trial deposition liberate her at enormous cost to others, and ultimately led to what felt to me like a flawed, unclear, cop-out of an ending to the entire novel, in a would-be cathartic demolition derby at the town carnival.

I’m still trying to clarify why I felt so annoyed by the book. Certainly, I didn’t find the characters convincing, and I was often too conscious of being manipulated by Banks’ choice of characters and the unsubtle way in which he presented them. The style suggests a realistic narrative, almost documentary, whereas it’s so obviously fiction, almost falling into the ‘misery porn’ category that was so popular a few years ago. Nevertheless – looking for the positives – Banks would have his readers reflect on a couple of importance ideas: what is the truth of any given situation, and the need to avoid simple answers and judgements… Maybe the film is better?


Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

April 21, 2021

     Reviewing the past century, exploring it, understanding it and coming to terms with it, has been one of the major currents of German literature, and it’s obvious why. Writers who lived though the Nazi era wrestled with making sense of what they had lived through – Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz spring to mind instantly, but more recent writers, who weren’t alive in those times, such as Walter Kempowski and Jenny Erpenbeck are still nevertheless preoccupied with them. And at some level, whilst Germans do have a traumatic century to reflect on: societal collapse post First World War, rise of Nazism, Second World War and the Holocaust, a divided nation and the DDR, reunification, not to mention the complex relation with neighbouring lands like Poland and Russia, at least there has been an ongoing determination to face the horrors and the guilt, unlike many other, more complacent nations such as my own…

Erpenbeck’s novel focuses on a specific place – a small lakeside community somewhere near Berlin – and how it evolves, develops and changes over time, reflecting the history of the nation. At one level there is the sense of permanence that comes through those who have always lived there, rooted in the place; these are only touched upon, apart from being represented in depth through the abiding presence of the gardener who lives through it all, a silent and obedient servant to all the different outsiders who come in to develop their holiday homes in the village… ask no questions.

German history is revealed through the changing property ownership and developments that take place during the twentieth century, and profiteering from the gradual dispossession of Jewish owners is part of this. Everyone colludes, quietly, as the horrors progress. The gardener transcends time, doing whatever the owners request and pay him to do, dependent on the times and the circumstances. The corruption of the Nazi era, and the DDR times is clear, as is the profit to be made after reunification. I was particularly moved by the reflections of a young Red Army officer billeted in the house in 1945:

The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.

At times the novel is reminiscent of, if not indebted to, the fictions of Grass, but there is not the dialogue and the humour of his writing: everything exudes a Germanic seriousness; there is an evenness of tone – which is not monotone – that places pleasure and horror disturbingly on the same level, emphasising further the permanence of place as opposed to people. Even the Holocaust becomes human incident against this stern backdrop. The uncomfortable reader is forced into reflection.

There is a deeper question underlying everything: what is ‘home’, where is ‘home’ when our existence is temporary and fleeting, against the backdrop of geological time? Here is a conundrum that Erpenbeck can only reflect, never answer. And her book ends with the systematic, legally enshrined, following the tiniest niceties of German laws and regulations, demolition of one of the main properties whose various owners and inhabitants have been at the centre of the novel…


On feeling oppressed by books…

April 19, 2021

I glanced sideways at my bookshelves recently and caught a glimpse of a title and author, realised that, yes, I’d read and enjoyed that book perhaps ten or twenty years ago and now I didn’t have a clue what it was about, or any desire to read it again to remind myself. And this got me thinking about books that we read and go back to because they leave a permanent and lasting impression, and the books like that one, that sit there, not even reproachfully, until they are bundled off to a charity shop…Partly, I’m a hoarder and I’ve always loved having a large library, so I’m reluctant to dispose of books, although I have found it easier in the last few years.

I’ll buy a book (and normally read it straightaway) if it’s a really interesting recommendation from someone whose tastes I share, if I come across a good review, or if it crops up in my research on something I’m interested in at a specific moment. But then I move on.

I can’t apologise for constant references to getting older in my posts as it’s something I’m increasingly aware of at the moment, I’m sure heightened by all the necessary changes in my life and routines that COVID-19 has brought about. But I have found myself thinking about my library with the fact of ageing in the background.

I used to enjoy having a large library and being surrounded by books; now I’m finding this more than a little oppressive. When I was younger, I could look at all the books – I reached about 3000 at the peak library point – and think yes, someday I will want to get around to re-reading that/ those. This, obviously, is no longer the case, and I have weeded out many hundreds of books over the past few years that I know I have grown past, if you get my meaning, and that I will never want to read again, or waste eyeball time on, as I usually put it.

I still buy books, although far fewer than I used to, and buy them accepting that I’m only likely to read them once, now, because there’s so little time… there’s still the same great pleasure in buying and reading a new book, however. There is – fortunately – the money to have whatever takes my fancy. And having read a book I usually know pretty clearly whether there’s any point in keeping it, or whether the discipline of disposing of it already will be good for me.

And the library has been shrinking to encompass those particular favourites I know I will want to return to as long as I am able. Somewhere there is a list I have been drawing up of those books I absolutely must keep; there are many of the usual suspects on this list, as well as some surprises. One day, I’ll write about that vital list of books I am deliberately choosing to keep because I intend to re-read them and I (probably) have the time. I can already feel a certain sense of liberation in that.


Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

April 19, 2021

     Vonnegut uses a folksy, chatty narrative tone throughout this novel, which deceptively undercuts the seriousness of the plot, allowing for occasional very powerful effects on his reader. The story is framed around Vonnegut’s personal experience of the Allied firebombing of the undefended city of Dresden in February 1945, which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It quickly becomes evident how powerfully Vonnegut was affected; he makes it clear that there is no possible rational explanation for what happened, in what gradually shapes up into a very strong pacifist novel.

The events are narrated through the life-story of a naive young American POW, Billy Pilgrim, who is also a reluctant time-traveller; his shapeless and rambling tale begins with his capture during the Battle of the Bulge. All is complicated by the notion of simultaneity: that everything, all events in what we call time, co-exist rather than follow each other sequentially, and Pilgrim has learned this through his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. One might imagine this way of framing a story rather gratuitous given the subject-matter, but the jumbled juxtaposition of so many moments of Pilgrim’s life-story, weaving in past, present and future wars, and evident mental disturbance too, increases the effectiveness of Vonnegut’s message.

Imprisoned in a zoo on Tralfamadore, with a fellow-captive movie starlet as companion, Pilgrim the time-traveller can be at any point in his life whenever he chooses. For the Tralfamadorians, there is no such thing as free will or freedom of choice, given that all events already, and always have, existed.

There is a great deal to unpick in this unconventional narrative, and much food for thought and reflection on the human condition, as well as warfare in all its forms. Within this frame, considering all the supposed justifications and excuses for war, means that it comes across as utterly deranged, and destructive of the sanity of the participants. And obviously, the playing around with time allows Vonnegut to remove any suspense in the story, any fixation on the sequence of the plot, meaning that his reader must focus on, be driven by something else as they read…

The laconic, low-key style, almost throwaway at times, has a cumulative effect as we work our way through the novel – which of course would not be possible on Tralfamadore, where the novel is not a big literary form – and the combination of the disjunctures in time, the time-travelling and the innocence of the central character all conspire together to make Slaughterhouse Five one of the classics of science fiction, in my humble opinion.


On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021

 

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?


%d bloggers like this: