Ella Maillart: Ti-Puss

October 23, 2020

     I’ve long enjoyed the travel writings and photography of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart (you can find reviews elsewhere on this blog if you’re interested) and this, as far as I’ve been able to find out, is chronologically the next to last of her books, dating from her time in India during the Second World War. By this time, she had largely moved on from roaming far and wide around the globe and the focus of her personal journey had moved inwards: in India, she explored Hindu philosophy and spirituality under various teachers, and remained in the country for a number of years, and subsequently returned regularly,

Ti-Puss is a curious little book, largely focused on Maillart’s deep relationship with an Indian street cat which she adopts, and through this relationship she learns and writes much about love, affection, attachment and separation, in personal as well as spiritual ways.

She is clearly familiar with India and some of its ways, having already been there some two years before she meets and takes up with her new companion, and we see a genuine affection develop, which appears mutual – and we all know how independent cats are! The very idea of a cat as a pet or companion is a very unusual concept in India and Maillart is aware of being perceived as self-indulgent, but clearly craves and needs the closeness. From reading all her books (and I’m aware that these are not necessarily any clue to the wholeness of a life) I’m unaware of any similar attachment to another person…

What she learns at this stage of her journey is largely mediated through life with the cat. She is as descriptive as ever: in the days when travel was relatively limited, photography a complex and quite expensive process, and television in its infancy, a writer’s ability to create a real sense of being somewhere still largely depended on the skilful use of words. We also have brief accounts of some of her discussions with various sages, as well as mentions of other westerners who seem to be on variations of a similar journey to hers. Again Maillart embeds herself as far as possible in the local way of life, habits and routines, and this has always seemed natural in all of her travels. Clearly as a published writer and relatively privileged European she has sources of income, but she remains true to the way in which she had begun some twenty or more years previously, immersing herself in her surroundings and observing people and places very closely.

As I said before, the cat is at the core of the book, and when Maillart leaves her for two weeks to go climbing in the Himalayas, the cat finally asserts her independence, and the sense of loss, at leaving the cat behind and never knowing what has become of her, is genuinely moving, even painful – if you’ve ever been a cat-owner, you will know what I mean. Although it’s a good read, I would have liked to know more about the places and the spiritual quest, too…

Philip Pullman: Serpentine

October 19, 2020

     It’s another of the slim volumes complementary to His Dark Materials, like Lyra’s Oxford, and Once Upon A Time in the North, with a chapter’s worth of narrative and some good illustrations in a nicely-produced little volume, a sort of taster to keep readers alert for the next big volume, which will probably be the final volume in the Book of Dust series, as well as the end of Lyra’s adventures…

We’re back in the frozen north, as Pullman and Lyra explore the interesting idea of humans able to separate from their daemons, which of course Lyra and Pan have been able to do since she and Will travelled through the world of the dead. How many others can actually do this? Witches can, but evidently there are more humans with this ability, and of course the situation in Will’s world is quite different. And what about the effect on both the human and the daemon of separation? How can Lyra manage her changed relationship with her daemon? There is now the potential for each to know and experience things that the other does not…

This also sent me back to thinking about the enforced separation of human and daemon – intercision – for which the centre at Bolvangar was set up.

If you’re a fan of Pullman’s alternate universes, then this little book, which time-wise sits between the end of the Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, then you won’t want to miss this one. And you get an afterword where Pullman explains the genesis of the story…

Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East

October 17, 2020

     I decided to take this one down from the shelf – last read 1975! – partly because I’m in the mood to revisit Herman Hesse at the moment, partly prompted by a fellow-blogger. My edition has a pretty weird introduction by Timothy Leary (!) who wants to persuade us that Hesse must have taken psychedelic drugs because of some of the experiences he writes about… I found this weird, and was then rather surprised by my reaction; I’m getting old.

A mysterious League enables various people to engage in a journey to the east, which appears to involve movement through space and time, too, and also links in various personalities from the early twentieth century with whom Hesse was familiar (I was surprised to find Ferdynand Ossendowski in there as a possible ‘fellow-traveller’). It’s obviously a metaphorical journey – perhaps too obviously – and as I read on, I found the story mirroring the rather more comprehensible journey we read about in Siddhartha. But the focus is different. And a strange distancing effect is created by the shifting sense of time and space.

Perseverance and steadfastness in the journey are stressed, but Hesse seems to be rather more concerned about becoming lost on the way, and the fact that he fairly obviously writes himself into the narrative through his initials is an autobiographical hint, at least to this reader.

The entire narrative shifts suddenly when certain objects and documents apparently vital to the travellers are misplaced, stolen or disappear, and I found myself thinking of Siddhartha’s wariness of teachers, in the sense that one should find one’s own way rather than someone else’s; the absence of these papers throws the narrator completely off course, and we suddenly find him engaged in a clearly futile attempt to write an account of his journey: why must he do this? Would he become a teacher, one of those whom we have learned that we should become wary of? HH’s realisation of his utter failure at this point leads him to suicidal thoughts, and I realise we are at the same point reached by Siddhartha after his years of enjoying worldly success and wealth, and then perceiving that he has completely lost sight of the journey he is supposed to be on.

The story’s ending becomes increasingly hallucinatory and Kafkaesque (and we should remember that Kafka was also writing in the early twentieth century), and the final moments of revelation are an obvious reprise of the final pages of Siddhartha.

I’m glad I came back to it; equally I’m glad it only took up an evening of my time, and I can mentally file the knowledge that Siddhartha is a far better representation of our journey to meaning and purpose…

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Nicolas Offenstadt: Le Pays Disparu

October 12, 2020

     As a teenager I travelled twice through the GDR en route to Poland. It was a weird experience – almost empty motorways, which were the original autobahns built by Hitler, and certainly showing their age by the 1970s. No stopping allowed; strict border checks; enormous and beautiful transit visas in our passports; compulsory driving insurance that was completely useless to us… now you can drop in and visit the museum that was the enormous car and lorry checkpoint at Helmstedt/Marienborn, completely deserted.

Offenstadt’s book – only available in French, and I don’t imagine a translation is very likely – is a very thorough and timely exploration of how an entire country has been thrust into the 1984 memory-hole, erased deliberately from existence, and the reasons for this are also touched upon.

The GDR was not just a dictatorship; as a workers’ and peasants’ state it was conscious of, and proud of, its connections with the workers’ movements and history from the pre-Nazi days. It was very easy and convenient for the triumphalist West to label it as one dictatorship following on another, eliding Nazism and Stalinism, and to completely gloss over what the GDR achieved in forty years of existence. Clearly it ultimately failed as a state, though the final push came from outside; economically it was unable to satisfy all its citizens’ wants and needs, and it watched over them as closely as does China or North Korea today, and it killed people trying to leave ‘illegally’, but it enjoyed successes in many areas and also the loyalty of many of its citizens, as Offenstadt amply documents. But the West ‘won’, and the victors had the power to de-legitimise the predecessor.

Offenstadt is an urban explorer as well as rather obsessed by the disappeared country. His is a full, serious and thoroughly documented work, based upon personal exploration and a wide range of interviews and conversations with former-GDR citizens. It is important that he goes so much deeper than the trite Western picture of an economically failed state, and an economic system that allegedly cannot work, a picture that deliberately throws the baby out with the bathwater for its own ideological reasons. Equally, he does not slip into sentimental ‘Ostalgia’ and is conscious of his rather curious status of very interested non-German.

The GDR was not a warmongering 12-year nightmare like Nazi Germany, but a country that rebuilt after the Second World War along totally different lines from its Western counterpart, and without the massive financial support of the USA. It was a country for 45 years, for its citizens to grow up and live in, make lives and careers in, to build and be proud of, and Offenstadt catalogues the advantages it gave its citizens, particularly in terms of women’s rights, childcare, education, employment and housing, many of which were lost when the two Germanies were ‘re-united’. Increasingly there are historians who judge that actually it was another anschluss, an annexation of a weaker state by a more powerful one.

Interestingly, Offenstadt advances the idea that the Federal Republic’s drive to remove all trace of the GDR (and he catalogues the removing of plaques, statues, the re-naming of streets, schools and public buildings, the closing down of institutions, demolition of landmarks and much, much more) and play up the evils of the Stasi as reflecting back on its earlier almost complete failure in the de-Nazification process after the Second World War…

It was an interesting and useful read, though in the end perhaps a little too detailed when it came to the eradication of plaques and monuments to the various celebrities of the GDR, and it’s a shame that the photographs reproduced so poorly in what is a mass-market paperback, but these are minor gripes, and I’ve yet to come across a similar work on the GDR in English…

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

On curiosity

September 21, 2020

Yes, aphoristically it killed the cat, but I’ve always been a curious type; I notice things and want to know more, to ask questions and get answers. Why? For the sheer satisfaction of knowing, I think. And throughout my life I’ve always been a little surprised that not everyone is like me: there are so many people who just appear to plod on through life without ever wanting or needing to know why…

There are things I’ve always been interested in, and found relatively straightforward: reading and languages in particular. They helped turn me into a bit of a traveller, one that couldn’t help but be curious about all those different places, their habits, behaviours and customs, their food and drink…

Equally, I’ve always enjoyed talking about and discussing all sorts of subjects, arguing at times, too, although less of that as I’ve grown older and perhaps more reflective and more accepting of differences – or better at avoiding people with whom I’m not going to get on. As a student, many evenings and nights were spent ranging widely as we attempted to set the world to rights, far into the early hours.

There have been times when I surprised myself by doing something rather more adventurous, moving out of my comfort zone, as it were. Learning to drive was something I affected not to be interested in for a good while, but while still in my hippy days I decided I would learn; it was not easy or straightforward, but it was worthwhile and at the moment I have the confidence to take myself off on solo road trips all over Europe, visiting places I would otherwise never be able to get to.

I was dismissive of computers and IT as well, until they began to creep into the teaching profession, at which point I was incredibly fortunate in having a self-taught head of IT as a mentor in school; she encouraged me and assisted me in so many different ways, and I developed abilities and competences and explored far more widely than I needed to, and discovered I actually enjoyed playing with computers and the internet. I ended up teaching myself to use linux pretty competently when I got too frustrated with Windows… and was an IT volunteer at my local library for a while after I had retired from teaching. And I managed successfully, at the end of a telephone, to keep my mother of eighty-plus years happily online for a good few years: she got a lot of pleasure from the internet, too.

I never expected to become as interested in gardening as I now am. I started collecting and caring for houseplants as a student, moved on to cacti, and when we were finally able to afford homes with gardens, found calm and relaxation and satisfaction in weeding and tending the garden, fruit bushes and trees especially.

What is the point of it all? In the end I have a limited number of years on the planet, and will not be able to do everything I want to do, travel everywhere I’d like to see, or read everything I’d like to read, so I have grown used to making choices. And I have realised that curiosity has opened new doors at various points in my life, and given me new opportunities. I know that the incredibly complex bundle of biology and electricity that makes me tick will stop at some point, but until then I’ll chase whatever catches my eye. Asking ever more questions is the way to go, along with realising that there are no easy answers…

Sanmao: Stories of the Sahara

September 21, 2020

91Xc988sUGL._AC_UL320_      This book came with three strong recommendations – from a fellow blogger, from a former student, and the very fact that it had ‘Sahara’ in the title: I’ll go for anything that’s about deserts.

It was very different from what I’d expected. Sanmao was a young Taiwanese woman in a relationship with a Spanish man (eventually married to him) working in the phosphate mines which were the mainstay of the economy of what was the Spanish Sahara in the 1970s. She was fascinated by deserts and wanted to live in one, and these stories are about various aspects of their lives in the colony, in the years running up to the independence struggle and eventual annexation by Morocco. So there’s not a lot of actual travel in the Sahara, but a lot of detail about life there.

Sanmao observes and records just how different life is for the Sahrawi people from that of relatively wealthy and educated Westerners. She feels great sympathy with their difficult lives (especially the lives of the women), respecting local customs and behaviour and tending to remain silent at times when they behave in ways which appal her: there is a sensitivity to a culture of which she is not a part and which she is conscious she may not fully understand. She shares her misgivings with her readers.

At times she seems quite laconic in her attitude, necessarily distant in so many ways from the people she lives among, yet though the series of stories we do sense he involvement with them, a bond and an empathy with people. Though not overtly feminist, she stands up for the Sahrawi women in ways in which she can, attempting to set up a school for them, and, of course, as a woman herself she is granted insights into local life, culture and traditions which no man could access. There are times when both she and her husband seem incredibly naive in their approach to the world of the desert and its people. I got a sense of just how different a culture and a place can be from what one is used to…

The stories are short chapters, often merely tantalising glimpses of a different world. Sanmao’s love of the desert is a simple one. And yet, she is also capable of very powerful and moving accounts, particularly later on, when insurgency and warfare directly impinge on her life and on the people she is closest to. The violence and brutality are horrifying and she is unable to help or save any of her three local friends. And the narrative of her encounter with slavery was truly shocking. For her it was a cultural shock which she did not really understand and clearly could not accept, and the power of the writing came from the very powerlessness she experienced in that situation.

It was a surprise that such a different and moving relation of encounters with the Sahara and its people had taken so long to be translated into English, and I do hope it’s widely read: I certainly recommend it.

Georges Duhamel: Civilisation

September 7, 2020

I encountered Duhamel the novelist when studying French at A Level: Confession de Minuit I remember vaguely as a short tale of a strange misanthropic fellow who gradually fell out with everyone and everything, and became a recluse… I’m sure I paraphrase badly from a memory nearly half a century old. I had not know until relatively recently of Duhamel’s service as an ambulance and first aid orderly in the First World War, and his accounts of his experiences.

The title is clearly ironic, as he reflects on where the marvels of our Western civilisation, of which we are so proud, have finally brought us: the trenches of the Somme. He was a Frenchman, his country invaded and parts of it occupied; his angle and viewpoint are thus quite different from accounts by British writers and combatants. Nonetheless, he maintains a distance as he observes, describes and occasionally comments. He writes in detail, with a reflective tone, passing judgement from time to time. As a stretcher-bearer he sees all aspects of the death and the mutilation of young and old.

One overwhelming impression is of the mechanisation of warfare, and the sheer masses of everything – men, horses, equipment, munitions – involved, gathered, marshalled and then distributed ready for destruction: a sense of utter derangement and insanity emerges from these descriptions.

He describes deaths at great length, clearly deeply affected by what he saw, including a close friendship which develops, with a man he knows is doomed to die, but who himself does not know. It is quite heart-breaking…

How is this book different from all the others I’ve read or listened to about this conflict? Here, warfare – the fighting itself – is almost a mere detail. These are the philosophical reflections of an educated, intelligent and sensitive man, involved against his will and deeply aware of the insanity and obscenity of it all as he conveys it lucidly to his readers, and we are shocked and disturbed when we pause to reflect on what he has been telling us.

Here is a catalogue of gruesome episodes and encounters, related with great humanity, detailed descriptions of the torments of the wounded and the dying, and in these accounts they are humanised, they are individuals with stories, and no longer the telephone numbers of the vast casualty lists. Duhamel sums up his message in a powerful final and reflective chapter called ‘Civilisation’.

It’s short; it was an eye-opener to this seasoned reader of Great War literature; it’s available free in English from the Internet Archive.

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