Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

March 20, 2023

      This feminist utopia from the 1970s called for a re-read; I explored it thoroughly for my thesis on feminist science fiction in the early 1980s, and returning to it after 40 years has been very interesting. It’s from an era when various women writers were exploring two very different future possibilities: one without men at all, and one where physical and social differences between men and women were being gradually erased, in a move towards androgyny. Woman on the Edge of Time is one of these, and at some level may be compared with some of Ursula Le Guin’s novels.

The androgyny aspect is interesting because it felt at once slightly dated, and at the same time rather prescient, in our days of gender fluidity: the 22nd century inhabitants have solved the pronouns debate rather more neatly than our present, using ‘per’ (short for person) as a non-gendered third person pronoun. And it doesn’t jar too much after a while, given that focus is not primarily on gender.

Many of the 1970s feminist themes are present: male violence, mental health, therapy as growth and a means of problem-solving and conflict resolution; whilst I read I felt that I’d gone back in time, and yet reminded myself that things have not changed that much, and most of what was being said in the seventies sadly still rings true. Those radical visions of half a century ago have faded somewhat, though certain aspects do seem to have been integrated in some people’s lives.

There is pace and intensity to the narrative, and the atmosphere of poverty, violence, mental illness and general hopelessness of the life of Connie the protagonist is swiftly and vividly established. Then arrives the 22nd century interloper in her life and with her help, Connie visits and learns about the utopian society of the future; these visits provide welcome relief from her actual situation of abuse and neglect by her family and in the mental hospital where she is incarcerated.

Piercy creates an authentic-feeling future society and language to go with it (though its actual coming about is unclear), and explores it through skilfully through the interwoven strands. The utopian world in some ways resembles that of both William MorrisNews From Nowhere and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia novels; the technology Piercy envisions does not seem too silly, out-paced and old-fashioned even 50 years later.

How convincing is the utopia, though? It seems to have come about after some sort of societal breakdown; there are clearly far fewer people for the world to have to support. I can see why Piercy did not go into much detail here, given that it’s the difference in the people and their lives that interest her, the potential for a new society, but I do think that a successful utopian vision needs to take the reader some of the way along the journey there.

Finally, the novel raised the question we often found ourselves discussing in sixth-form English class: which books will survive to be read by future generations, and why? While it was interesting enough, in a scholarly sort of way, to revisit this novel, I can’t see myself wanting to read it again. It has dated, its future vision a little too ‘twee’ and also out of touch with the current age. The issues it raises are important and we must not lose sight of them, but in my judgement, it’s Ursula Le Guin’s treatment of them that stands the test of time.

Paul Fussell: Poetic Meter & Poetic Form

March 14, 2023

      This is a pretty old book – even the revised edition is over 40 years old – but I found myself thinking, “I wish I’d had this when I was teaching.” It’s a slim volume that does what it says on the cover, comprehensively. I like Fussell; his books on the effects of the First World War, and on war itself, are great insights into how people and artists have been affected by this plague on the species. He is American, and at times his scansion reveals this…

This book is quite technical, almost mathematical at times, but always in a useful sort of way; it requires serious concentration as the different kinds of poetic meter are explained and illustrated, in a logical and historical sequence. It’s highly informative, and very much worth the effort, and even after years of teaching poetry and practical criticism in the English school system, I had a greater awareness of the hidden or unnoticed artifice in the construction of poetry.

There are myriad excellent helpful examples and illustrations in the section on metre, with relevant parts inflected for clarity. He offers pithy and cogent judgements throughout, particularly about free verse and its excesses; he illustrates both bad and good, which is illuminating, and there are helpful comparisons at times. I found him particularly good on the sonnet.

Overall, the book offers a good and logical way into the joys and complexities of practical criticism, and despite the necessary analytical approach, nowhere does Fussell lose sight of what poetry actually is, what it does and how it can affect us. His ultimate aim is clear: the ‘trained reader’, for ‘the innocent eye sees nothing’. If you can track down a copy, well worth it.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

March 7, 2023

      I’m really not quite sure where to start with this remarkable novel, and I can’t fathom why it’s taken twenty years and a book group choice to bring it to my attention. Influences: the focus on mediaeval times and integration of philosophy into a novel inevitably reminds me of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. The astonishing plot structure, hooking the reader with a major event and then immediately dropping it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a massive explosion in London: how did that happen? The writer teases, and you have to read and piece so many things together to get there and understand. And the interweaving of the three plot strands and the cutting from story to story in such a skilful, cinematographic way…

I was also hooked because of the setting in an area of Provence I’ve known and loved since my student days; I had vivid pictures in my mind as I read. Pears linked in to my interest in Roman history, church history and the Renaissance as well. Two things stretched my credulity just a little too much: the likelihood of Oliver the poet gaining access to the Pope and having such a powerful influence in him, and also the chance encounter between Julia the artist and Picasso.

So three stories are interwoven, from the start, each with a male hero and a significant female: a Roman aristocrat striving to sustain what remains of Roman civilisation in Provence in the mid-fifth century as all around is collapsing; a troubadour poet at the time of the emerging Renaissance and the arrival of the plague epidemic in the mid-14th century; a dilettante French intellectual in the 1930s as Europe lurches towards the inevitable crisis. The similarities in their situations and in their concerns are gradually revealed as the interwoven stories develop, and the 20th century character gradually unearths and pieces together the history of the other two characters.

The women are equally significant: one of the last-surviving Greek philosophers, a woman briefly glimpsed by a poet who instantly is love-stricken, and an artist seeking inspiration and originality.

Where is truth, is one of Pears’ questions, as multiple versions of his characters’ pasts are unearthed, explored, theorised about. How much is lost over time, drifts into myth, or is deliberately distorted for others’ purposes. An even bigger issue is the idea that good people should strive to preserve the values of civilisation while the world around them crumbles into chaos. This is a difficult task, and fraught with compromise and betrayal, as each of the characters must discover; characters who we warm to and come to like have their very dark moments; we may be shocked, and at the same time we much acknowledge our gratitude at never having been tested in that way. Surrendering to barbarism is actually quite easy; it creeps up on you.

Pears digs deeper, though: what, exactly, is civilisation, and is it worth preserving? The perspective of the good or the worthy is restricted by their own time; later generations will look differently, judge differently. Each of the three male characters sells out or compromises himself in order, supposedly, to preserve that which is dearest to him, and in the grand scheme of things the enormous betrayals achieve very little. Interestingly (or significantly), none of the female characters does. In some ways, I found this a profoundly pessimistic novel, because so true to the human condition, it seemed to me.

It is a novel of ideas, and yet the characters are also vividly and convincingly drawn; I was surprised and moved by how Pears developed the initial flirtation between Julien the intellectual and Julia the artist into a powerful relationship, and what it ultimately led to. It’s a very thought-provoking read, at least to me; I shall hope to return to it some time soon, not least to try and unpick what Pears’ imagined characters explore about God, the soul and our purpose as human beings. Anyway, highly recommended.

Natalia Ginzburg: All Our Yesterdays

March 4, 2023

      Until I got halfway through this novel, I really wasn’t sure; I’d been a little put off by Sally Rooney’s gushing introduction and was wondering what on earth she had been on about. There wasn’t any sudden epiphany moment, but a growing sensation that this was good, the perspective was interesting and the message was becoming clearer.

It’s a novel set in Italy in the years of fascism leading up to the Second World War, the compromises people made, and the effect of Mussolini’s collapse and the German takeover. As the story progressed I found myself more and more reminded of Irène Nemirovsky’s astonishing Suite Française. There is the utter confusion of ordinary decent people whose lives are overtaken by war and who don’t know what to do, and a powerful anti-war message about the futility, pointlessness and total insanity of it all; even when war is over, the survivors are still lost. That’s a statement of the bloody obvious, and yet it takes skill to make us see it so powerfully and effectively.

There are so many characters you need to draw yourself a miniature family tree, just as if you’re reading a Russian novel. The gradual buildup to war is very much the background to the family story in the first half, with the focus on the youngest member, Anna, and her somewhat childish fantasies and dreams about revolution; people drift aimlessly, not conscious of what is going on around them or what is about to happen. Life happens to Anna, and this comes through in the evenness of the tone of the narrative, and the writer’s eschewing of reported speech.

Everything sharpens halfway through, with Anna’s unexpected pregnancy, a marriage of convenience to save her honour, and her move to a village deep in the south, in the middle of nowhere; here I was also reminded of Carlo Levi’s stunning Christ Stopped at Eboli, with its picture of dire poverty, isolation, ignorance and hopelessness.

Until I got into the rhythm of the story, I found the monotone, the evenness of the narrative, the lack of variation in pace a little annoying; the use of purely sequential narrative is not a style of story-telling that is much used nowadays. There were no twists in the plot, no subplots, no suspense, and yet it all gradually became a more and more compelling read. There’s not really a lot of story, if truth be told, there are just people, lives and consequences, and the way the effect of it all crept up on me was pretty powerful. I recommend this one.

1623-2023: the First Folio of Shakespeare

February 27, 2023

I allow myself extravagant treats from time to time, and quite a few years ago one of those was a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was published 400 years ago this year. It’s gorgeous to look through, but serves absolutely no useful purpose in my life; I sit and leaf through it occasionally, and let my eyes dwell on some of my favourite passages…I’m reminded of the power of Shakespeare though the magic of his use of our language, probably at a critical stage in its development.

It’s an incredibly important document, in that many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays are only known from their texts in this folio, ie they weren’t previously printed separately in individual quarto versions, and so would have possibly been forever lost without this volume. It also seems like a tribute to the man from those who had known him and worked with him, in that it was published seven years after his death, and both the theatres and popular tastes in drama had already moved on; some of the plays would not be performed again for a very long time.

It’s also an incredibly shoddy document, in terms of production values, as we’d call them today. Act and scene divisions appear in some of the plays, others are only divided into acts, some aren’t divided up at all – Romeo and Juliet, for instance. That play is also missing its prologue. In some plays, we start off with act and scene divisions and then these just disappear part way through the text. Pagination is all over the place. In some of the plays, nouns are capitalised, as in German, in others, not. Troilus and Cressida seems to have been an afterthought, or initially forgotten, because it’s just inserted into the middle of the volume without any page numbers. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is sometimes named as Shylock, sometimes just as ‘Jew’…

Thinking about the logistics of its production, it must have been a massive task, with one-sided, single sheet printing and the need for multiple type compositors, printing a batch of sheets then breaking up the type so that it could be used for more of the nearly one thousand pages… and yet, another, similarly massive project, the King James Bible, had been completed a decade previously without anywhere near as many errors. But then, that involved a sacred text and it was a state-sponsored project.

My own acquaintance with Shakespeare started at school, obviously: we studied The Merchant of Venice for O Level. Not an easy play for so many reasons, but I enjoyed it immensely, partly thanks to an inspirational teacher; I can still recited sizeable chunks off by heart. We moved on to two of the great tragedies, Othello and King Lear, at A Level. And then, of course, at university, we met a good many of the rest of the plays. I can still remember lectures by Kenneth Muir, at the time one of the greatest Shakespearean scholars, who would march around the dais as he lectured, and call forth any lines from any of the plays when he needed them…

Angus Macvicar: The Lost Planet

February 24, 2023

      Courtesy of the wonderful Internet Archive and a library in India I have just gone back 60 years in a time machine…

I’ve written before about hoovering up the contents of the children’s section of the Stamford Public Library before, during my younger days. One of the books (a series, actually) that’s always lurked in my memory is The Lost Planet, by Angus Macvicar. Given that it will be getting on for sixty years since I read them, tracking down anything was going to be a challenge, I felt, but for books that first introduced me to, and hooked me on science fiction, it was going to be worth it, and it turned out rather easier than I expected.

The novels are categorised as ‘juvenile science fiction’. The one I tracked down and re-read is a fast-paced yarn with a boy hero, and the science is so far-fetched as to be risible. A planet that seems to wander around the solar system much as a comet does, coming almost as close to Earth as the moon actually is, a small group of scientists and engineers building an atomic-powered spacecraft in (almost) a back garden in remote Scotland in order to go there…international rivalry with a thinly disguised Russian project – Americans nowhere to be seen! — spies and secret agents. The whole thing smacks of the Eagle comic and Dan Dare, and of course it is of the same era.

Their ship is irreparably damaged in a crash-landing on the planet. It’s Earth-like but smaller, and they set off exploring much as one might set out on a country hike. The weirdest thing is the widespread presence of a deep-rooted and scented white flower, which appears to exert a physical and mental calming influence on the members of the party, and when their Russian rivals bump into them (just like that!) the latter are friendly enough to offer to take them back home on their spaceship.

As I said, it’s a kid’s book (I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense at all) so lots of things that are potentially very interesting are only briefly touched on or hinted at, before the story moves on, but – as my own case shows – seeds are sown.

Other books in the series are not easily available, but the planet has inhabitants who are of a pacifist inclination, having wrecked their own planet through ‘atomic experimentation’, and one of them is brought to Earth with their message. It all seems uncannily prescient, in an incredibly naive way, and I have also found myself wondering if the books not only sowed my love of SF but also nudged me in the direction of pacifism, which I realise I began to entertain seriously in my early teenage years. Stap me, as some folk may remember me saying…

Charlotte Mullins: A Little History of Art

February 22, 2023

     It’s an ambitious book, but I’ve enjoyed others in this series, particularly the poetry one, so feeling my knowledge of art history was a bit patchy, I gave it a go. Mullins traces the history and development of various art forms from prehistory, through their use in ritual and religion, and eventually to their current place in temporal and political power, supported by the patronage of the wealthy. She also attempts to range globally, which I think is important and valuable, though it will eventually be interesting to read other critics and historians who also broaden their scope, and see if their judgements come together…

She shows us how, in the Christian world, there was a particular emphasis on art for religious purposes; equally we learn of the central importance of developments during the Renaissance, when the art of the classical world was rediscovered.

There’s an interesting highlighting of a good number of female artists of whom I’d never heard, and rather earlier in time than I’d been aware of, too.

For me, because it links in to the art that I like most and am most interested in, she was very helpful on the emergence of landscape as a subject rather than mere background, as well as the increasing interest in light. And she also confirmed what I’d felt about the way that the emergence and development of photography in the early 19th century had freed art from mimesis and allowed so much more freedom and experimentation. I liked the way she showed links, developments and connections in a wide range of ways.

Perhaps inevitably, the closer it gets to the present day, the less clear it all becomes, as we move into the disputed territory of value judgements about art from which we have insufficient distance in time. I’ve always found this problem with contemporary literature, too: what, of those works of any kind being created or written now, will survive the test of time? There are aspects of all art forms which can be lazy, derivative, too experimental, too self-indulgent; equally, brilliant things are being created which the future will value.

Necessary explanations of technical terms occasionally became naive and even irritating. There are a decent number of (small) illustrations and reproductions, but in a text covering so many works of art, they weren’t really sufficient: perhaps a linked online resource to more reproductions might have been considered? All-in-all, a useful tome, though.

Books that changed me

February 17, 2023

I have a log of every book I’ve read since I was 18, so for the last half century, and one day I’ll add up the total and horrify myself. But, having spent so much time reading and enjoying reading, inevitably there are books that I recognise changed me and the way I look at the world. I wonder what yours are; here are a selection of mine.

As a child, I plundered Stamford Public Library, and there was a series of children’s science fiction called The Lost Planet, by Angus MacVicar. As I now vaguely recall some sixty years later, the concept was totally devoid of any scientific plausibility: a planet, inhabited by humans who spoke English, that somehow for a few years came within reachable distance of Earth, and was visited a few times by a small group of earthlings, including children, before it travelled ever further away and became unreachable. I was gutted, realising that the imaginary heroes would never see that planet and its people again… and I’d caught the science fiction bug, which has never left me since. (Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to track down and download a copy of the first book in the series!) And it strikes me that the members of the Ekumen, in Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous Hainish stories, suffer the same fate as they travel between worlds, leaving their homes and kin behind forever.

I had a Somerset Maugham Tphase as a teenager; the only book I still retain and have any care for is The Razor’s Edge, which I’ve re-read a couple of times, and it opened my eyes to the possibility of a personal spiritual quest, which might involve travel to remote parts of the world; I think it was the legitimising of the quest, an idea which had obviously been germinating in my young self, that was most powerful effect of that novel.

Hermann Hesse came into my ken slightly later, as a student, and now in my later years he still speaks powerfully to my condition, and none of his novels do so more powerfully than the obviously heavily Jungian Narziss and Goldmund. Ostensibly the story of two friends in mediaeval times, whose lives take very different paths, one spiritual and the other secular, it can also be seen as an examination of two parts of a single personality, and how it’s possible for one to be torn by contrary impulses. Whichever way you read it (or both at the same time) the friendship which endures throughout life as both men explore their impulses and yearnings is – for me – incredibly powerful and moving, and it has always lurked somewhere deep in my sub/unconscious, and its ideas have accompanied me on my own quests.

The last book I’ll mention here is not a novel, but a series of essays: Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques, which was on our reading list at university. It was part of a course on the Enlightenment as I recall, and I was strongly drawn to the idea of thinkers demystifying the myths and half-truths of the past, questioning everything in search of rational explanations. And, as I’ve often been told, being an Aquarian, this sort of thing obviously would appeal to me. These essays, and the thinking they led me to, caused me to take the decision to leave the Catholic Church, in which I had been brought up and raised. Back in those days, I thought that the new atheist me had all the answers, but that was not to be, either, since the unrequited spiritual emptiness led me, via the music of Bach, to Quakerism. But that is another story. However, when I last opened my copy of the Voltaire, after many years, I discovered that he had written several letters about Quakers, whose approach to the world intrigued him and earned his respect. Plus ça change…

Hans Peter Richter: Friedrich

February 16, 2023

     I can read books in French; my German isn’t of a high enough standard to cope with books. But someone in our German group recently lent me a book – in German — and I took it to read because I had used it so many times during my teaching career – in English translation, of course – with my Y8 classes as an introduction to what I suppose would nowadays be called Holocaust education. It was an interesting experiment, I’ll say ‘working my way through it’ rather than reading it in German: I was made even more aware of my deficient German grammar and restricted vocabulary.

Friedrich is a clever and carefully written book, from the perspective of two young boys of an age, whose families live in the same apartment house in an unidentified German town. One is Jewish, the other is not; when they are at primary school, the Nazis come to power. It’s written as a series of loosely connected chapters, identified by a year in the English version. You can see where it’s going: the impact of the Nazi regime on both boys’ lives, in very different ways. They are forced apart, and we see many of the adults around them also changed by the times and the regime, and the drift towards war.

It’s a short novel, simply written; events speak for themselves. For my students, apart from the growing horror at what happened as time passed, what was even more shocking was the historical timeline given as an appendix at the end of the book, the list of many of the laws and regulations that gradually destroyed the lives of the Jews in Germany. I can still recall the gasps as they read of a law passed which forbade blind Jews to carry white sticks and wear white armbands to identify themselves in the street and among traffic… it was such ‘ordinary’ abominations that were most shocking.

I imagine the book is not much used, if at all, nowadays, superseded by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is, to me, a much less effective and far more contrived tale, stretching credibility just a bit too far. However, if it is also succeeding in ensuring that the horrors of those years are never forgotten, then it is also performing a useful task.

Wieslaw Rogalski: The Polish Resettlement Corps 1946-49

February 15, 2023

      I had a vague awareness of the Polish Resettlement Corps from my father’s stories about the war, and from his military records which we obtained from the MoD, as well as from other historical accounts, but this book offers very detailed chapter and verse about a particular time in history, focused around the sense of the British government’s perceived betrayal of its wartime ally by agreeing to Stalin’s takeover of Poland in 1945, at the Yalta conference.

Rogalski sets out in detail the terms of the agreements and promises made in 1939 as war approached, which were pretty much abandoned from the very start, with Britain and France actually doing very little of what they said they would, in the event of German aggression. He has clearly trawled through all the details of negotiations and debates in Parliament, as set out in official records, from an entire decade, 1939-1949.

One clearly gets the impression of some sense of guilt, almost, on the part of the British authorities, at the way things had turned out, and their excuses in terms of realpolitik for the enslavement of Poland; certainly from Rogalski’s account a good amount of care and effort and detail went into the setting up of the PRC, and into ensuring that it worked.

I was not shocked at the opposition to the plans from sections of the British population, and particularly (and shamefully) the trade unions. This opposition was based partly on misinformation and partly on the unions in particular and the left generally, taking the side of the Soviets, and therefore deciding to see the Poles as fascists… This appalling attitude was at the heart of my father’s lifelong conservatism and opposition to trade unions, matters about which he and I had many bitter arguments. Reading this account, I feel he is entitled to my apology, which of course I cannot now make.

Integrating nearly 200,000 displaced persons was no easy task at that time, and it seems as if a decent enough job was done. My father, thanks to his medical training while in the 1st Independent Polish Paratroop Brigade, found work reasonably quickly. He and his comrades found a place, mainly at the bottom of the social pile, and were grateful not to be returned to what was no longer their homeland, as many of those who remained here were from territories annexed to the Soviet Union, and would therefore have been liable to serious measures for leaving the country without permission, had they made the mistake of returning. Some did, including comrades from whom my father never heard again…

Rogalski’s book fills a necessary gap; it’s a full and comprehensive piece of history, well-researched, fair and balanced, with a good, summative evaluation by way of conclusion.

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