William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.

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Philip K Dick: Martian Time-Slip

January 6, 2019

5156jr1yvcl._ac_us218_At the outset, it’s hard to know where we are going or what to make of this one, really.

It’s entirely set on Mars, in the new Earth colony, which survives with difficulty and is looking to expand massively by encouraging emigration from Earth; there are the remnants of a dying-out humanoid Martian race who resemble the Aborigines of Australia, and who are either ignored or exploited almost as slaves by the colonists. Many of Dick’s novels feature colonies on Mars, perhaps reflecting the optimism about space exploration of his day – we are still five years or so before the Moon landings – as well as the relative lack of knowledge at the time about that planet. Obviously Mars performs the same isolating function as a desert island in earlier fiction…

Dick’s main concern in the novel, though, is with schizophrenia and autism (which is much more widespread in his future society than it is now) in various of his characters and how they cope (or do not) with their conditions. He shows a great ability to make his readers see and empathise – as far as that is possible – with those characters; the story itself seems almost unframed and unplanned: you can’t really see where he intends to go with the plot, but you know there will be a point to it all. It all develops quite slowly, though never failing to grip; it meanders, taking in a whole range of characters, and Dick’s focus is, as usual, mainly on ordinary decent people.

I did find myself considering what a trained psychiatrist would make of Dick’s exploration of the interior experiences and workings of his characters. Is the author an expert, or an amateur?

There’s also a strong anti-trade union line in the plot through one of the main characters, a repellent man who uses his power to manipulate and punish others. I wondered if Dick was here reflecting experience of unions in the US in his time.

Ultimately the plot hangs on the idea of both autistic and schizophrenic people to perceive time differently from the rest of us, to interact differently with it, and even to be able to travel through it. This makes the plot confusing at times, but I found the development and conclusion of the story very powerful. As always, Dick manages to confront us with real questions about the nature of our reality, about moral decisions, and about issues in the world today which we are apt to ignore: he frames those questions through fiction and approachable characters, so that we cannot ignore them.

While I am aware that there is a preference for not using the term schizophrenia today, I use it in this post for simplicity’s sake, because this is how Dick refers to the condition in his novel.


Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….


Walter Kempowski: All For Nothing

January 2, 2019

61xYa-pKCfL._AC_US218_It’s hard to find the right adjective for this novel: it’s very good, powerful, moving and yet none of those words does it full justice. It’s a novel about Germany in the closing stages of the Second World War, and another of my reactions as I finished it was anger, as I realised it would have been impossible for an English writer to produce such a novel, and because this feeling once again highlighted my country’s inability to understand other nations’ experience of that conflict, or their desire, through the European project, to ensure that it was never repeated.

To prevent this piece becoming a rant, and because I want to do justice to a remarkable book, I’ll slow down and explain. The novel is set in the depths of East Prussia, an area of the Reich that was cut off as the Russians swept westwards, and eventually impossible to escape from. East Prussia no longer exists, its territory having been divided by Stalin between the Soviet Union and Poland, for the latter nation as recompense for all the territory Stalin took. And I declare a kind of interest, as much of my Polish family live in those once German lands.

But we need to go further back into history to understand: in those territories for centuries many different peoples had lived along side each other reasonably peaceably – Poles, Germans, Kashubians… after the end of the Great War there had been plebiscites and some areas had chosen to become part of the re-born Polish Republic, while others opted for Germany. The Nazis’ treatment of other nationalities and races as subhuman meant the end of any further co-existence, and Stalin enforced ethnic cleansing throughout the region. The region is beautiful countryside and you can see German characteristics in many of the buildings which survived the war, but it is now indelibly part of Poland. I remember great shock when visiting as a teenager in 1970, and seeing the wreckage of the old German cemeteries, which were being demolished and removed…

Back to the novel: apparently Kempowski spent years collecting information, testimonies and evidence from those who fled – as he had done as a child. So although some of the places in the novel are fictional, the whole is solidly rooted in fact. And he manages to create a lyrical picture of an epoch, a place and a way of life which had totally vanished, which had to vanish, and yet make us regret its loss; the only other novel I’ve read which had succeeded so powerfully is Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Because it’s a tale of the gathering flight from the region, there are many characters who pass through, as well as those who are more fixed; there are glimpses of Nazism and also the impression that the Nazis have passed them by, which of course they have not. There is a great sense of naivety about many of them, and of wilful blindness and collusion about others, as well as a complete inability to grasp the epic scale of the calamity which is overtaking them. And they are all basically decent people, deep down: they cannot understand what is happening to them. Death arrives horribly suddenly and brutally. Nazi bureaucrats and minions continue to wreck lives in nit-picking little ways even as the Reich is crashing down around them: no-one is spared. People are capable of great goodness and great pettiness; Kempowski shows us it all, achieving a strange, almost Brechtian distancing from his characters and their fates. Perhaps much of the book’s power comes from this, through the sense of ordinary people swept along by the tide of events, both complicit and yet also tragically victims. His neutral tone is also important, helping create a certain sense of nostalgia and sadness, as well as inevitability, and giving a dream-like quality to the lost world. There is an unreal, even surreal quality to many characters’ thoughts and actions, which unnervingly leads the reader at times to attribute innocence to them; yet there are chilling hints of their knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by the regime which acts in their name. The moral complexity is both challenging and necessary.

The book has been translated very well, I feel, and the novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s introduction to this edition, in which she writes about Kempowski’s research, is also very useful background.


On contradictions

December 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead

As I grow older – perhaps wiser, though I have yet to be convinced about this – I do find myself increasingly aware of a number of contradictions about our lives and they way we conduct them. Some of these I list below, in no particular order.

We live in the late capitalist era, under an economic system which depends for its existence on our continuing to buy more stuff. At the same time, in this country, houses are being built of ever smaller capacity; the number of “secure self-storage facilities” (lock-up sheds) is increasing rapidly.

In our country we have always wanted cheap food. Cheap food is cheap because it is full of fat and sugar (both of which are cheap). Fat and sugar are not healthy; they eventually make us ill, with ailments like diabetes and obesity.

Healthy food like fruit and vegetables can be relatively cheap if we use cheap immigrant labour to harvest them; many people do not want to let immigrants in to the country. Who will harvest our fruit and veg, those (relatively) cheap and healthier parts of our diet?

We claim to worry about pollution and the environment, and yet love the convenience of tonnes of plastic, fretting about relatively little things like straws and carrier bags. Poor air quality due to exhaust products from vehicles will shorten the lives of many, and affects the youngest most, yet the number of SUVs continues to increase and their use is particularly noticeable on school runs… because we have an education system which does not encourage people to use their local school.

We think electric cars will be the answer, while nobody takes account of the pollution involved in the production of the batteries or the extra electricity. We worry about global warming but we love the cheap flights and the cloud storage.

We want the police to keep us safe, schools to educate our children, hospitals to care for us when we are ill, social care when we are old, but we don’t want to have to pay for it all.

We fear terrorism yet sell weapons to everyone we can, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and start and fight wars in them, too, unable to see why people might want to flee from all that.

Two years ago the British people (well, some of them) made a decision which will have major effects on the employment and travel prospects for younger citizens and limit their citizenship rights. These younger citizens did not get a vote on their future while large numbers of retired and elderly citizens who will be far less affected did, and largely voted to remove the rights of the younger ones…

It was not a sudden urge to be more democratic that gave us that vote; a political party felt that the vote was the only way to prevent itself exploding under its internal contradictions…

Increasingly I find myself wondering whether we never really were that intelligent a species, or whether the system under which we live is infantilising us, or whether we are just wilfully blind.


2018: My year of reading

December 27, 2018

A bit more reading than last year: I’ve managed to slow down the number of acquisitions slightly and have passed on quite a lot of books to Amnesty International this year. So far I’ve read 68, and can also report that unlike last year, I don’t seen to have given up on any. Out of the total, 21 were novels, half of those science fiction, and most were re-reads; I’ve read almost no new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature for some reason.

A resolution for 2019 is to read more fiction, as is to continue with clearing out books I shall never read again, trying to buy fewer books, and trying to read more of those on the waiting pile, which I think has probably stopped growing(just as well) but hasn’t shrunk appreciably…

Awards for 2018: most disappointing read was Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point, his autobiography completed shortly before he killed himself. I struggled with Thomas Mann as a student and his son’s book sat on my shelf for over 30 years. His daughter Erika’s collection When The Lights Went Out, a collection of short stories about life in a small town under the Nazis, however, I did enjoy, and wrote about it here last year [?]

Again there is no award for weirdest book: I haven’t read anything weird this year.

Best new novel: an easy choice, this one, as there were so few to choose from, but it would have been my choice anyway – Stefan Brijs’ masterpiece set in the early days of the Great War, Post for Mrs Bromley. I do hope someone is out there working on a translation into Englsh.

Best novel (as in not one published recently) I think has to go to Ernst Weichert’s The Jeromin Children, although Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre Au Noir comes a very close second.

I have a difficult choice to make for the next two categories, Best non-fiction and Book of the Year, as they are both non-fiction. Since it’s my blog and I’m allowed, I’ll cheat. I award Best non-fiction title to Alberto Angela’s Empire, a really good example of the popularisation genre that actually works: the story of the Roman Empire told through the travels of a one sesterce coin. That allows me to give my Book of the Year title to Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, one of the most horrifying and depressing books I’ve ever read, but which absolutely needed to be written and published, as such things must never be forgotten.

I’ll finish by thanking all my readers for your interest in my thoughts, and for your comments if you’ve made any; I hope you’ll continue to visit and find worthwhile things to read here in 2019…


Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.


Christmas books

December 26, 2018

It’s always lovely to receive presents at Christmas, and, as you might expect, a number of mine are usually books, and ones that I’m really looking forward to reading; no change this year!

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A slim but beautifully produced volume: Something of His Art, by Horatio Clare. This one was prompted by J S Bach’s epic journey on foot, of some 230 miles (each way) from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Luebeck in northern Germany to visit the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude; last year the writer covered various stages of this journey for the BBC, accompanied by a sound recordist and saved his impressions.

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Seasoned readers of my blog will be aware of my fascination (obsession?) with deserts. William Atkins’ book The Immeasurable World (Journeys in Desert Places) is therefore right up my street, and I can’t wait to get started, but the Bach will come first…

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Travel and photography are two of my interests and so I’m looking forward to serious browsing in a weighty tome Travelogues, by Burton Holmes: this American travelled worldwide in the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century and took thousands of photographs of all the places he visited: here’s a chance to look at photos of places as they used to be in the days when travel meant travel and not tourism, and was a serious business.

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One novel, this year, which has had rave reviews wherever I’ve come across them – and I’ve read other books by this contemporary Polish writer – Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ll let you know…


Philip K Dick: We Can Build You

December 24, 2018

511UzZrk1BL._AC_US218_After the previous novel, this one comes as a complete contrast and quite a shock. Biographies of Philip Dick detail his various mental health issues and We Can Build You seems to reflect them, and his preoccupation with them. We are in a weird future world where mental illness is the norm and treatment mandated by the Federal Government; the various illnesses are vaguely linked to fallout from nuclear testing. This is another recurrent Dickian trope, the after-effects of all the atmospheric explosions in the fifties and sixties. At the same time, the first human simulacra are being perfected (we would nowadays call them androids).

So, utterly different territory from The Man in the High Castle. Here at one point the narrator decides he must be a simulacrum, and as he appears to collapse into mental illness himself as the story develops, it seems that the woman to whom he is attracted is also one.

We are in Frankenstein territory here, but with a twentieth century twist: is life being created when a simulacrum is built and then programmed with detailed memories of its actual human forbear? Does it have rights? Is it human? What sort of relationship can it have to our world, if it is out of its own time, and what responsibilities do its manufacturers or creators have? Once again, we are seeing what good literature and good science fiction can do: make us pause and reflect on our own world. We can also see the origins of a more famous Dick novel in which simulacra feature more dominantly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the film Blade Runner. Even the main female character has the same name…

Can one have sex with an android? Can a human be in love with an android? Here are questions which we may be considering in our own world in the not too distant future. And if a person suffers from a personality disorder which makes their behaviour and reactions resemble those of an android, where on earth are we then? Dick is most definitely on the level of ordinary people and their lives and feelings in this novel, which eventually seems to resolves itself into an unrequited love story, and a very sad one at that.

It is rather rambling and shapeless at times, as his narrator disintegrates mentally, and even so it does become quite a gripping story as we want his love to be returned. Dick presents psychosis quite clearly, along with other more common human emotions and feelings, and as I approached the end of the novel, I could see that the next one in the timeline, Martian Time-Slip, which also deals with a range of mentally disturbed states, flows out of this one, as does the treatment of such disorders with the use of hallucinogenic drugs – much explored in the nineteen-sixties – and this leads us on to the astonishing Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Because I experienced the novel working effectively on a human level, (and I think that this is part of the unrecognised brilliance of Dick), I found the ending of the novel very sad and very moving. I also have to recognise that there were rather too many loose ends left unsorted, though…


Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.


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