Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

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Miroslav Holub: The Fly

July 11, 2019

She sat on a willow-trunk
watching
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the trampling and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
meditating
on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and only the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and only
a few arms and legs
still twitched jerkily under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
fleeing
from the fires of Estrées.

I’ve always found writing that tries to look at human events from a non-human perspective fascinating; it often says as much about the writer as the subject. Here (in a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub) we have a nasty and insignificant fly observing nasty and insignificant humans killing each other in battle.

We’re back in the fourteenth century. Yes, it’s the battle of Crécy, but the fly knows nothing about that; probably not watching the battle, not having any conception of what’s going on – we humans think everything is about us. She does fly things: copulates, sits on carrion, lays eggs and gets eaten by another creature who doesn’t know what is going on in the world of humans either (although she is affected by it).

Holub uses the innocent creatures – flies, horse, bird – to put a different perspective on the human events, which he skilfully locates using names, times and places, all human-only aspects of the world.

We see flies as repellent creatures, but what is actually repellent here? There are the gross images of what the fly does, and yet the grossness – dead horse, dead armourer, burning villages – is all human-created.

Even through translation, the horrors of the battle and its consequences come over vividly: the actions of battle in three nouns and two participles; the disembowelled horse, the blue tongue of the armourer. Limbs twitch jerkily as the whisper of decay – what a marvellous image! – softly circles (notice the alliteration there) the bodies…

And the poet is not only alert to the irony of the humans’ situation in all this, but to the fly’s too: moments after apparently reflecting on her species’ immortality, she is eaten… and yet flies are everywhere, omnipresent, and after any war will no doubt abound, for a while.

Not a great poem, not brilliant in terms of technique or use of language, but clever enough to make a reader pause, see something from a perspective s/he would otherwise never have thought of using, and reflect briefly before moving on: for me that’s the essence of a poet’s art, something I can’t do and the poet can.


On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…


On forests

July 7, 2019

My father was born and grew up in some of the most remote forests in Europe, far away on the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bielorussia as they were before the Second World War, forests so large and impenetrable that it was said that during the war, Germans dared not enter the forest because they would not come out again… which is probably why my father’s home village was burned to the ground because of partisan activity. And yet vague traces of the tiny hamlet of four houses are still faintly visible on Google Earth…

So I’ve often wondered if my love of forests is inherited. Yes, I know that biologically that’s a nonsense, but all the same, I love forests: nothing beats a walk in the woods where I am surrounded by trees of all different kinds, an astonishing variety of shades of green, amazing effects of dappled sunlight through the leaves and branches. If it’s raining, there’s the gentle sound of the downpour on the leaves. There’s all the birdsong from all sides, and the possibility of encounters with creatures: last year in Luxembourg I met a wolf, and the year before, mouflon (wild cattle).

I have family, friends and acquaintances who rave about the Lake District and the views, and who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by trees. But I like the element of surprise, rather than having all the landscape permanently visible when the hills are bare: in the forests, suddenly there will be a gap in the trees and a surprise view; half a mile or so further on, another opening will reveal quite a different picture: nothing is ever the same. I can enjoy open spaces, but nothing cuts it for me quite like a forest.

When I’m off walking in Luxembourg, I can walk for an entire day without meeting a soul: I like this, not because I’m some kind of misanthrope, but because I do find such solitude very conducive to reflection and meditation. It’s rather like being on an open-air retreat. I can take stock of the past year, or of my whole life; I can ponder problems and difficulties I may be faced with; I can elaborate future plans. And there’s my phone to record notes, ideas, flashes of brilliance whenever they occur.

Recently and rather belatedly it has occurred to me that I do need to be rather more careful when wandering off on my own like this, and I do now make sure that I have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and various useful supplies with me in case of any mishap: at nineteen I may have been immortal, not any longer. Each year I take a day or so to re-remember my basic map-reading and way-finding skills, and on the rare occasion when I have briefly strayed from the right path, the combination of maps and GPS on my phone has helped me get back on track.

I’m looking forward to a trip into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland soon, and another visit to the forests of the Ardennes in the autumn.


On the first moon landing

July 6, 2019

  downloadI’ve alluded to this event, the fiftieth anniversary of which is coming up later this month, in my blog at various points and labelled it as the single most amazing event in my lifetime. When I was at primary school, my best friend and I used to play space adventures in the playground at playtime and we wanted to be the first men to land on the moon. That says something about my age, as only a few years after I left primary school, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins beat us to it. I lost touch with that school friend and the last news I had about him was that he was a Russian Orthodox priest; I ended up a teacher…

Obviously everything about the landing was calculated to fit the US TV schedules, so I remember watching the landing late one evening and then going to bed, having set my alarm for 3.30am, which was when the actual walk on the moon was to take place. And it was absolutely amazing: I can still remember it, fuzzy, grainy black and white film, muffled voices from a quarter of a million miles away. It was an astonishing achievement, and for me has always symbolised something about what humans can do when they set their minds to it, the human spirit of intrepidity, and our urge to explore the universe and further our knowledge; I have no sympathy at all with those who say, but we could have spent the money better: just look at all the idiotic amounts of money wasted on armaments and warfare and then talk to me about spending money sensibly…

Next morning I went out and bought as many of the daily papers as my pocket money would afford; I still have these carefully stashed in the attic, along with a couple of treasures brought back for me by friends who happened to be in the USA at the time – the New York Times of the day they landed, and the following day when they left the moon.

Of course, it was a propaganda exercise, and a race with the Soviets who could not possibly be allowed to win; there were a few more Apollo missions that took more men to the moon and then the programme stopped. More realistic and useful research was later undertaken jointly by the USA and the USSR, with the space station Mir. But apart from that, it’s all gone pretty quiet. When will someone land on Mars? I’d hoped it might be in my lifetime but now I’m not so sure. Of course, I know that all sorts of knowledge is being acquired via all sorts of satellites, telescopes and other devices, and that this research is actually a far more sensible and cost-effective use of money and resources. And I’m amazed to know that the mobile phone in my pocket has more computing power than was available to NASA when the Apollo 11 mission took place.

I am always enthralled when I watch television programmes such as the recent The Planets series on the BBC with Brian Cox, when I was astonished to see just how much had been learned by the various unmanned missions to the planets compared with what was known when I was a child with my first interest in astronomy. The thought that the two Voyager space probes long ago left the region of our solar system forever, travelling into the unknown vastnesses of space, blows my mind. And when I look up to the night sky, and see our moon up there, I tell myself that half a century ago, humans walked there… and I think I believe it…


On not reading fiction…

July 6, 2019

I think I posted on this topic a while back; I’m still not reading very much fiction at all, though I have been re-reading some science fiction, but that doesn’t count, really – what I’m referring to is that I’m not discovering any new fiction, because I don’t really seem to want to…

There was research published not so long ago that suggested that men are less likely to read fiction, and I’m coming across more evidence that this seems to be the case; casual evidence, if you like, rather than research: of the literature-related blogs that I follow regularly, those by men tend to write about non-fiction, those by women write about fiction.

Someone (who – Umberto Eco?) once said that the person who reads novels lives 5000 lives whereas the person who doesn’t, only lives one. That has left me thinking that I’ve participated in thousands of lives in my time, and now that I’m increasingly aware that my time is limited, perhaps I’m concentrating on living my one and only life? But that just feels like a cheap crack, a throw-away response to the issue.

If I look at my ‘pending’ shelf, there’s quite a bit of fiction there, waiting for my attention. What actually happens quite often is that I will finish a book, and head to the pending piles for the next one, and find myself totally unable to decide on what to tackle next.

There are a decent number of novels waiting for me to choose from, and yet although at the time I bought them, they called to me, they now no longer do, and I can’t really figure out what is going on. I look to books I want to re-read, as a kind of comfort read, rather than having the courage to embark on something new, a challenge. Often I will wander off, defeated, and take refuge in a magazine or a crossword.

Does anyone else out there have this kind of problem?


Norman Douglas: Old Calabria

July 6, 2019

81wSI-iJP9L._AC_UL436_  Here was a disappointment, especially since the blurb on the back promised one of the best travel books ever written…

I’d heard of Norman Douglas a good while back and meant to try some of his writing. He was writing earlier than I’d imagined, in this case shortly before the First World War, as he makes his way around southern Italy, describing places some fifteen years before Carlo Levi’s masterpiece, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Douglas is much more interested in the places and landscape than the people, it seems, and indeed at times is quite vituperative against the locals. His sceptical and mocking tone often belies his love of the charm and peacefulness, and the decaying beauty of the past.

His prose is often lyrical, his attitude leisured, and yet there is not enough to retain the reader. He treats all sorts of subjects in this omnium gatherum of a book; I loved the entire chapter on the supposed plagiarism by Milton of the story of Paradise Lost from a sacred Italian tragedy, and went off to do further research forthwith; I also loved the entertaining chapter of utterly bonkers stories about the supposed lives and escapades of various saints, especially those who could fly (although some, apparently, could only fly ‘a little’…)

Douglas clearly loved the places he wrote about, and knew the country extremely well, but ultimately I’m afraid I found the book rather a ragbag of disconnected pieces, with an evenness of tone that led to dullness, monotony even. Nothing really stood out as special in any way, and I found myself rushing towards the end of this disappointing read. I cannot decide whether it’s rambling and self-indulgent, or if it has just dated rather too much. However, there are many travel journals from much earlier times that I have read and found much more gripping and entertaining.


John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 


Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019

71cOYL3oaHL._AC_UL320_

I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.


Carol Ann Duffy: Education for Leisure

June 23, 2019

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

 

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

 

As I seem, for some reason, to be channelling Carol Ann Duffy at the moment – my post last autumn on The Wound in Time has been my most popular post ever (I would love to know why) – I thought I’d write about another of her poems which I’ve always liked a lot.

Duffy always inveighed against Thatcherism and its consequences, especially for those overlooked by society, and here she gets inside the head of an asocial misfit who feels he has no future in Britain. It’s shocking, powerful, and always provoked debate when we studied it in class in preparation for GCSE.

There’s nothing complex about the language, form or structure of this poem, reflecting the thoughts and mindset of the speaker perhaps: five simple, four-line stanzas and no discernible rhyme-scheme; the narrative is linear. So how does the poem work, and where does it derive its power from?

Immediacy in the opening line: today, and the idea of killing, muted a little by something, then ratcheted up a notch by the full stop, pause and subsequent one-word sentence Anything. The rhyme with the previous word helps the effect, too. The first person is emphasised throughout: count the recurrences of I, me, my. Look at how the I comes at the start of sentences and at the beginnings of lines: extra emphasis there. And there is power in the determination to play God. Nothing special about the day except that the speaker seems to have reached breaking-point: the image of boredom stirring in the streets is vivid, oxymoronic, fits in with the character of the speaker which is gradually built up.

Violence at the start of the second stanza, as well as a disgusting image. The Shakespeare reference is wonderful (King Lear: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods | They kill us for their sport), reflecting the speaker’s condition, and startling up, perhaps, with the idea that he’s not an unintelligent young man, having studied and understood some literature… then flinging the other language back at us in a witty comparison. We’ve all written our name in mist on glass at some point in our childhood; the speaker breathes out talent. What is Duffy doing with her character here?

Could he be a genius? The real issue is he’s one of many to whom society has not given a chance, for whatever reason. Then we’re back with his desire, intention to make an impact, but he doesn’t know how: something’s world will be changed, though. There is a growing sense of the sinister as the cat avoids him.

More violence: destruction of the goldfish, in the bog: that monosyllable, as well as the slang, the vulgarity of the word, heighten the sense of menace. He has been marauding against dumb creatures so far, but we sense something more. Again a glimpse of his intelligence, as he quotes the Bible: I see that it is good. ‘And God saw that it was good’ is a phrase repeated several times during the creation story in Genesis.

There is the old ritual – which I remember well from my own student days – you had to go to the local employment office to sign on as available to work, in order to receive unemployment or supplementary benefit if you weren’t actually working. Remember the speaker has talent, is a genius: he has an autograph!

Alone back home. Has he done for the budgie now? The radio-station fails to recognise the superstar, and the presumably seven-second delay means his words are never actually broadcast. Then the menace becomes real as he goes out: are the glittering pavements meant to remind us of Hollywood? The final half-line is superb, the perfect ending via the shift in the personal pronoun as the speaker connects specifically, individually with the reader: I touch your arm.

In many ways this seems a rather simple poem. The genius is in the brief but vivid creation of a character and a specific situation or moment; the poet faces us with something we would never have thought to imagine or visualise for ourselves, and briefly we share her creation, her vision and perhaps her anger at the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation. The language is straightforward, economical, and clever at times. Ultimately, however, I think the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive: I certainly couldn’t have written it…


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