Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

February 23, 2017

51yhyoyvael-_ac_us218_I’m not quite sure why I went back to this, 42 years after I last read it as an undergraduate. But it was an interesting little digression: Rasselas, the privileged prince, escapes from the happy valley where the emperor’s offspring are confined and determines to explore the world and find out what to do with his life; he’s pretty quickly tied up in the philosophical problem of whether to work out the best way to happiness and contentment or to get on with actually living life…

It was published in 1759, exactly the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, which it immediately reminded me of, except that Voltaire’s conte is more obviously and deliberately satirical, whereas Johnson’s tale mocks lightly while ultimately bringing our naive hero gently to his senses.

Rasselas discovers there’s no happiness to be found in stasis: we must always be striving for something new, and we also need to see and experience misery in order to recognise happiness. Is it better to get on with living and enjoying life, rather than trying to plan ahead to achieve perfection? Equally, it’s important to be yourself, rather than to imitate someone else, or to strive to be someone you are not: there is no place for gurus. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. As the prince, his sister and their companions travel around, everyone they meet who initially appears to have found the answers and to be happy, is actually dissatisfied in some way with their lot…

Johnson also explores the contrast between innocence and experience, which William Blake was to present in his songs some thirty years later: would it be better to just be satisfied with the state of innocence in which Rasselas begins? or perhaps explore and experience the world and then go back to seclusion? Where can there be true happiness, in that forever sheltered state of initial innocence or some carefully sought out, deliberately tried and tested path, from which clearly it’s not possible to return to the womb, as it were?

We are in the early days of the development of the novel, it occurred to me: Fielding’s Tom Jones was published ten years earlier, and what a difference! True, Rasselas isn’t really a novel, and has a philosophical purpose whereas Fielding sets out to divert and entertain. I was struck, nevertheless, by how sophisticated Tom Jones was as a text, by comparison, in terms of form, structure and language, but above all, characterisation. Rasselas is didactic, a tale of ideas, and also part of prose fiction finding its feet, writers exploring the potential of a new form, but it’s not a book I gaze fondly at on the shelves of my library…

Andrei Amalrik: Involuntary Journey to Siberia

February 21, 2017

51wdlkz8lil-_ac_us218_I’m revisiting this book which I last read nearly 25 years ago: it’s astonishing what a curiosity it now seems. I’m still interested in books about life in the Soviet Union, and still can’t make up my mind about the whole experiment, which so many younger people now know almost nothing about; increasingly history is written by ‘the victors’ and a balanced approach to more than seventy years of Russian history eludes us. I’m no apologist for Stalin and his crimes, the gulag or anything else; I am conscious that in the beginning it was an experiment in different ways of organising society politically and economically, and that there may be things we should learn from it…

Amalrik was a minor thorn in the side of the authorities in the sixties and seventies and was eventually driven into exile. His book recounts his prosecution as a ‘parasite’ and year of exile to the Tomsk region of Siberia as punishment for this offence.

The investigation, prosecution, trial, sentence and appeal are very interesting. In the West we are used to living in a rechtstaat, that is a country governed by the rule of law, with clear procedures, and accountability; certainly in Stalin’s time no such governance obtained, but in the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev there seems to have been some attempt, however imperfect, to do things by the book. By our standards everything seems rigged, with decisions being taken behind the scenes, and until we look at some of the corruptions and miscarriages of justice in various Western nations, no doubt we feel self-righteously superior to the Soviets.

What is particularly interesting is the calm and dispassionate way Amalrik writes, observing closely and recording in depth his experiences and those of others involved in his case, the decency of some and the vindictiveness of others. He avoids the polemics and the rantings of Solzhenitsyn, and we learn something of how ‘justice’ worked in those days and times. When he reaches his place of exile and must work on a collective farm, his account of conditions and inefficiency leave us in no doubt that the country was in a pretty grim state. Again he is clear, calm and balanced; alcohol abuse is a major issue wherever he goes, and the system does not give the people a real stake in their work, so everything is badly done, botched because there is no incentive to do anything differently.

Broader political analysis offered by other writers – Noam Chomsky in particular – makes it clear that the US did everything it could to cripple the Soviets’ economic prospects through the arms race, and ultimately succeeded. Monitoring of the news from the US and the UK and other countries shows us a system just as flawed, just as cruel to some, and just as inefficient in different ways, except that it’s now the only system, and we have ‘freedom’, so that’s OK…

Accounts like Amalrik’s, and those of others from those places and times, as well as fiction from that era, are important as records and reminders of how things went so awfully wrong, but also of the idealism that was originally behind the experiment. Our own experience must be evidence that we haven’t got everything right, either.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

February 20, 2017

519dthny83l-_ac_us218_I’d been quite looking forward to reading the Mars series for a good while, and I finally got started…now I’m not so sure. It’s certainly a very ambitious work (and I’ve only read the first part so far) but what does Robinson actually want the book to be – political treatise, detective story, travelogue around another planet, Swiss Family Robinson on Mars? – it’s all of these at different times, and none of them very well at all, at least to this reader.

There’s plenty of hard SF – if you like that sort of thing – about terraforming planets and building space elevators, and some thought given to the politics, psychology and ideology of a major human effort like colonising Mars. It all comes from a rather limited US perspective, at least to this European reader. There’s a compelling enough story about the clashes of personalities and approaches to colonising a planet, which draws the reader forward, though with a tendency to skim at times.

My biggest gripe, and it’s not one that I’d direct at this novel alone but at an awful lot of SF, is the poor characterisation. And I know one might say I’m a bit spoilt with the kind of ‘softer’ SF that I tend to prefer, and that I’d be bound to notice failings in this area. Robinson’s characters (he starts off with a hundred of them, the first group of colonists selected, which isn’t a terribly good idea in itself, I fear) are sketchy, some more than others, but some just random and interchangeable names at times, making the novel as hard to follow as a Russian classic. It’s hard to care about most of them, as they exist to serve the plot, and are picked up and dropped willy-nilly as the story unfolds. It’s all very well to say, but this is hard SF, this is a novel of ideas, but that’s not good enough when the genre is nearly a century old, it’s actually very frustrating. And I could get side-tracked into questions of genre, and science-fiction as literature, which I researched and wrote theses about years ago, but I won’t.

The one main point that I latched on to, that I think the writer does explore well, is just how difficult it is (will be?) for humans anywhere to escape their past, not so much their biology and physiology as their conditioning and their ideology, which lead to political and military conflict wherever humans go, and are reproduced with drastic consequences even on another planet. This pessimistic strand is quite well explored, and gave me pause to think…

In the end, I think that there’s just too much material Robinson wants to cram in, too much time and too many events and so the key elements of any story, and in particular characterisation, are just spread too thin. But it’s a compelling enough page-turner and I’ll probably read the rest when I find then in a second-hand shop, but there’s no real rush…

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

Gaston Dorren: Lingo

February 12, 2017

41worvkgq7l-_ac_us218_This was a very welcome birthday present and it didn’t take me long to devour it: I’ve always been fascinated by languages, the connections between them, the curiosities of grammar and etymology, and this book gave me lots of new things to think about. The author is Dutch: his nation is renowned for its multilingualism – as a Dutchman who gave me a lift in my hitch-hiking days said to me, ‘Who on earth learns Dutch?’

It’s certainly not an academic work and doesn’t purport to be; it’s a very useful piece of vulgarisation, in the sense of prodding the reader to take their interest in language further. It’s arranged in short chapters, some of which focus on a single language, and many more, whilst focusing on one particular language, demonstrate all sorts of connections and similarities with others. He ranges widely, with a focus on Europe overall, though he spreads that net quite wide, taking in Armenian as well as some minority languages spoken by very few people, as well as a couple of dead languages. So the poor schoolchildren of Monaco who have to spend seven years learning Monegasque are probably the only people in the principality who actually speak it, and then only at school. I was surprised to learn that there are languages with even more complex grammar than Polish, and that a dictionary is not particularly helpful in Welsh as the initial letters of words can change according to their grammatical purpose…

I really enjoyed the book, and will go back to it and look up examples of some of the languages, to take my exploration a bit further. I was happy because I came to see even more connections between languages and countries, and I was saddened to be reminded what a nation of insular monoglots we are here in the UK, and what a large number of people have decided to leave behind.

DDR Design

February 9, 2017

51gxywyzp2l-_ac_us218_I have a collection of books on art and some on design; I don’t read them, but every now and then, one will call to me for some reason, I will take it down and look through it and enjoy it. Today it was the turn of this small Taschen volume on consumer products of the former GDR. I have this book as a reminder of a now non-existent, but completely different way of looking at producing and selling everyday products.

Eastern Europe was in many ways a very difficult place to live on a day-to day level, with shortages of many things, and whole ranges of food and other products at times unobtainable. And the quality at times left a good deal to be desired, too. I went into a supermarket in Poland once where every shelf was full of pasta; there was nothing else on sale. And often there would only be one version of a product available, a box labelled ‘washing powder’ or ‘toothpaste’ for example: none of the dozens, if not hundreds of choices we are daily overwhelmed with.

But the most astonishing thing, on my several visits, was the total absence of advertising, which I found very refreshing. Newspapers and magazines were a lot thinner (and full of propaganda), billboards and hoardings were for political slogans, not selling me consumer products.

This books shows us a whole range of the food and household products which were on sale in GDR shops, both the items themselves and their packaging and labelling. To a Westerner, everything looks crude and old-fashioned; simplicity is the keynote. You are told what the product is, where it was made, the quantity, and the price is printed on the carton. And, to my mind, if I’m buying a tin of tomatoes or a packet of flour, then all I need to know is that basic information: the packaging will end up in the recycling. And white flour is white flour, rice is rice, oats are oats: how much does a choice really mean here, or am I being waylaid, deceived, manipulated?

There was little or no choice in Eastern Europe back in those days, and I’m not sure that mattered: what did matter and did hurt were the constant shortages of very basic items, and the need to queue up for almost everything. The regimes never did satisfy their consumers and when they fell, when Germany was reunited, everyone was initially seduced by the vast array of Western products immediately on sale: beautifully designed and packaged, and much more expensive, they made the old, homegrown products look cheap and nasty, inferior – which they sometimes were.

The pictures are good to look at, creating the same sense of nostalgia for the past as a wander around the shops at somewhere like the museum at Beamish, with all the packaging and goods from long ago. But being reminded of an alternative consumer model is also thought-provoking: our economy that depends on ever-increasing consumption, often of stuff that we don’t really need but are made to desire, is slowly wrecking our planet, and making many people unhappy because they can’t afford to keep up with it all. Quite honestly, I don’t need to choose between six hundred kinds of shampoo, and pay for the fancy packaging and expensive advertising of all of them. I just want there to be shampoo in the shop when I need to buy some.

Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

February 1, 2017

51-njcrlnl-_ac_us218_I only once had the chance to teach The Winter’s Tale, sadly; it was a bit of a challenge, though, with the sixteen-year time-lapse between Acts 3 and 4, and that very strange interlude which is Act 4 itself. But I’d have liked another opportunity.

So my main approach to it has always been as a comparison to and contrast with Othello as a play about sexual jealousy, and to a lesser extent, a comparison with The Tempest as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, as part of that curious grouping often labelled ‘Shakespeare’s Last Plays’ and categorised as a ‘romance’, whatever that may mean. In terms of genre, it is hard to classify: beginning tragically, it ends quite happily, yet doesn’t seem to merit being called either a comedy or a tragicomedy…

The sexual jealousy in Othello is fomented by an outsider – Iago – while that in The Winter’s Tale comes from within the unsteady mind of Leontes himself; both are triggered by a tiny incident, very few words, Iago’s semi-aside ‘I like not that’ and Leontes’ observation ‘Too hot, too hot’. Both fits of jealousy can initially appear incredible before we think about the nature of that emotion. Othello is never left alone long enough to come to his senses and ask the right questions; Leontes goes as far as to ask the oracle at Delphi about Hermione‘s adultery, and then rejects its judgement when it flies in the face of his own obsession.

There are many close parallels in the language of the two plays: ‘call her (Hermione) back’ and call him (Cassio) back’ were immediately striking, and then there was the idea of the hero’s mind being ‘abused by some putter-on’; in both plays, as jealousy reaches its peak, the language becomes very tortured and convoluted, but is especially so in The Winter’s Tale, and it’s not just Leontes’ language, either.

Where the plays differ, obviously, is in their resolutions. Othello is reduced to the depths, destroys the thing he loves most, and sentences himself to eternal torment for his crime; the perpetrator goes unpunished. Leontes suffers for sixteen years, having lost his heir and his wife, he thinks, but the curious fourth act allows romance to develop between his and Polixenes‘ heirs, as well as laying the groundwork for the reconciliation between the alientated friends. This is then effected in the final act, along with the miraculous coming to life of the statue of Hermione.

This all does stretch our credulity immensely. We have to remind ourselves, firstly, that Shakespeare never worked in our so-called ‘realist’ mode, and then to accept that he is exploring the possibility for, and the nature of, both forgiveness and reconciliation: he has moved on from tragedy, having exhausted its possibilities earlier on in his career as a dramatist. And though he is very different here, I have come to find the conclusions of these final plays – The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline and Pericles – as powerful and moving as those of the greatest tragedies, because they offer hope, and faith in ultimate human goodness.

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?

Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

January 29, 2017

516lgrk3f0l-_ac_us200_Antony and Cleopatra is a later play than Julius Caesar; it’s also longer and more subtle, and it has real human interest: the characters and the characterisation draw us in and engage us. The infatuation of Antony with Cleopatra is convincing, as is their flirting and their quarrelling: the portrait of an ageing man torn between duty and pleasure, between resolve and weakness, is brilliantly drawn. Beautiful poetry, haunting images support and enhance the pair’s relationship, fleshing out character, and their entourages further develop the picture: Cleopatra’s women, and Antony’s close friend Enobarbus are an integral part of the play.

The other thing that’s hard to notice unless you are aware of it and deliberately look out for it – and it will be clearer in performance, I’d imagine – is how little the pair are actually together onstage. In Shakespeare’s time, Cleopatra’s role would have been played by a boy, of course (she refers to this in one of her final speeches when she imagines the horror of being part of Caesar’s triumph in Rome) and the last thing that Shakespeare would have wanted would be for his couple to look ridiculous. So, the passion is largely created by what the two say about each other when they are apart – it’s then that their feelings for each other are strongest, whereas when they are together the relationship is stormy, to say the least – and through what other characters say about them and their relationship, particularly Antony’s friend Enobarbus. When you look out for the way Shakespeare has managed it all, you have to agree the achievement is brilliant.

And it’s also perhaps through the storminess of their relationship that Shakespeare is most successful: it’s not puppy-love at first sight, as with the teenagers in Romeo and Juliet; this is mature love between two people who have, to put it mildly, been around a bit, and Cleopatra (who is 38) is clearly worried about being past her beautiful best, in comparison with Octavia…

In their political and military defeat, the ties between them, and their love, grow stronger in spite of their mutual recriminations; now they only have each other, and are inseparable, even by Caesar, for this is another twist Shakespeare adds to the power of their relationship: how calculating is Cleopatra? is she playing a double game? will she come to a deal with Octavius? As an audience, I suggest that we desperately hope not: we are involved, and we want this to be real love, and love to die for, which in the end it is. And Shakespeare produces some of his most sublime poetry to show it.

Students used to ask me which was my favourite Shakespeare play. They never got a straight answer, because I usually found that my favourite play was the one I was currently teaching. Now that I can take a step further back, as it were, I think I can be clearer: though Othello comes a close second, I really do think Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite. (For now.)

On 1984 and alternative truth…

January 27, 2017

51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_51vs8inu1tl-_ac_us174_51he12tg6ml-_ac_us174_Suddenly, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is back in fashion, and particularly for its focus on the abuse and manipulation of language. But before we get into all that, a few reminders are also timely: it’s not a book about the dangers of communism, as many think. Orwell was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and his target was totalitarianism of all colours, states where there was no rule of law, and where all information was under tight government control, where the lives of citizens were strictly regimented in the service of the state.

One thing which eludes many of today’s commentators on Orwell is the obvious fact that 1984 has been and gone, and its nightmare world has not come to pass. At one level, I’m stating the blindingly obvious, but you had to be alive and a reader of the novel before 1984 to know and understand its full prophetic power all those years ago. And in those days, there were totalitarian states aplenty, both in Eastern Europe, but not forgetting Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and Pinochet’s Chile. A good deal of the novel’s power to scare has been lost in the thirty-three years since that ominous year.

The dangers facing our world are rather different more than seventy years later, and social stratification, consumption and hedonism as ways of controlling people, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are rather more likely to be realised. Certainly the genetic manipulation necessary to produce the different social castes of the novel are well within the capacities of today’s scientists, as Michel Houellebecq noted in his novel Atomised, which tangentially considers some aspects of Huxley’s masterpiece.

It seems to me that Orwell on language, truth and manipulation is much more relevant. And let’s not get misled by the ‘alternative truth’ offered by Trump’s idiot advisor. Orwell doesn’t show us any alternative, which implies different versions between which a choice is possible. In the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith is in the business of creating replacement truth, with then becomes the only truth through the eradication of every vestige of the previous truth. And memory has nothing to do with truth; memory is deadly dangerous. This replacing of one truth by another is carried out whenever necessary: truth becomes fiction and one’s compass is lost.

The danger to us today lies in our media, which is not narrow and state-controlled, but rather so wide, so amorphous and so focussed on triviality that it swamps truth and the search for it, blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment so that everyone – or enough people, anyway – are so totally disoriented they haven’t a clue about important issues, how to vote, or the consequences of their vote… A good deal of the manipulation is deliberate: the media are controlled by big business who increasingly render governments powerless because business is transnational.

Language has always been abused, and Orwell is good on this in his essays, which are often overlooked. Governments and politicians of all types, democratic and authoritarian alike, twist words and give them new meanings – collateral damage = killing innocent civilians, friendly fire = killing your own troops by mistake – examples abound. I think that the advertising industry has a great deal to answer for here: they have led the way in abusing the language in order to sell stuff and make money, and politicians were quick to follow suit.

As Chernyshevsky (and Lenin) said, What is to be done? Demand media accountability – only in the UK, as far as I’m aware, do we allow our media to be controlled by non-Brits. Mistrust or avoid all advertising as far as possible. Use an adblocker, avoid Google. Ask questions. Challenge politicians. Challenge anyone who repeats lies and disinformation, whenever and wherever. Seek reliable media wherever you can, and keep yourself informed…

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