On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…


Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.


Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.


Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.


Wilfred Owen: Disabled

August 10, 2017

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, 
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, 
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 

About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,- 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 

There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He’s lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches, carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, 
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why. 
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts, 
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, 
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts 
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; 
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. 
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt, 
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits 
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul. 

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, 
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come 
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Whenever I had to teach a unit of First World War literature, either at GCSE or in the sixth form, I used to begin with this poem; it took me a few years to make it a fixed plan, as it were, but eventually I came to see just how perfect an introduction to the subject it was for them. You see, the hero of the poem is nineteen (perhaps younger), so younger than them, and at nineteen, everyone thinks they are immortal… And, at a certain moment in time, there was briefly a hit song connected with being a soldier in the Vietnam War, called ‘Nineteen’, which reinforced my point even further.

It is a brilliant poem: let’s look at some of the reasons why…

I like the way it’s structured: several sections, which you’d be hard put to call verses. Each one stands separate from the others, a separate moment of the day, train of thought, almost like a cameo, or a brief film-clip. Further continuity isn’t necessary for the poem’s effectiveness. In Blunden’s edition of the collected poems, they are separated from each other by a row of asterisks, accentuating the separation.

When you read – and you have to read aloud to receive the full effect of Owen’s mastery of the language and poetic technique – the alliterations and the pauses are striking. Notice the words which receive stress. Why is it a ‘wheeled‘ chair, not just a wheelchair? What does the chilling succinctness of ‘legless, sewn short at elbow‘ actually tell us of the extent of the boy’s injuries?

Time shifts into the second section; we are in his past, his memories, the impressionistic lamps ‘budded‘ in the ‘light blue trees‘. He remembers girls, as a teenage boy would. Owen’s hints at the world of sex and intimacy are subtle ‘slim| girls’ waists‘, ‘how warm their subtle hands‘; none of this excitement or pleasure for him ever again… will the boy die wondering?

Next, we are back with a narrator, perhaps. Certainly we’ve shifted from the memories of before the war. We’re told he was handsome; age and youth now contrasted, he has lost his colour: we are back to the ‘ghastly‘ grey of the first section briefly. He was a sporty type, which made him more attractive to girls, and in the key fourth section we learn about the turning point: drunk one day, he joins up, maybe to please a girl, maybe imagining the ceremonial uniform. Owen’s quite clear, he wasn’t thinking what signing up really meant. Again we have the chilling brevity, ‘Smiling they wrote his lie’: listen to how the stresses fall in that half-line, and how much detail is contained in those few words. We’re invited to reflect on what ‘fears| of Fear‘ might actually mean: is this something we can possibly understand?

The three lines of the fifth section are for me the saddest, and the bitterest in Owen’s poem; so short you can be past them without thinking full about the implications.’Some‘ cheered him. Who is that solemn man? a clergyman, obviously, which makes us reflect on preparation for death, perhaps. He thanks the boy – for what? That shocks me deeply. How does the boy respond to being thanked? And the priest enquires about his soul, because there’s not much body worth enquiring about…

Then there is the closing loneliness of the final section: he cannot do anything for himself, he is totally dependent on – or at the mercy of (whichever you like) others – all he can do is look, and think. And he is back with his thoughts about girls, women, the life he has lost.

Owen was committed to telling the truth of what he saw and knew about war. He doesn’t rub his readers’ noses in things quite as deliberately as Sassoon does, but his selection of details and his careful use of the wealth of our language means that no careful reader can escape his unspoken question: was it really worth it. I’d argue strongly that this is one of his very best poems.

 


On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…


Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…


Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…


Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.


Objects of Desire

August 1, 2017

I found myself thinking about books as physical objects, and as objects of beauty and desire; strangely this was triggered by seeing one of the most awful books I’ve ever seen on sale in this country, a new hardback novel on poor quality paper, badly bound and with a flat rather than curved spine as is usually found on hardback books….

I alternate between seeing books as potentially beautiful objects and seeing them in purely practical terms: words on paper available reasonably cheaply for me to read. When I was younger and less well-off, I went for cheap or second-hand; I was initially happy when the net book agreement was axed as it offered me cheaper books, though (as is often the case) now, wiser later, I’m aware of what the real cost of that move has been. As I worked and became better off, I could treat myself to new hardbacks as soon as they were published. Now, I’m more discriminating, and many of the books I’m after are long out of print so second-hand is the way to go.

I have many hardbacks in the beautiful Everyman’s Library series which re-launched in the 1990s: the austere dust-jackets of the pre-20th century texts are preferable to the gaudier 20th century ones, I feel, but in both cases there is the nice cream paper, the real cloth (as opposed to cardboard) cover, and the silk marker; the books are well-made, with the pages properly sewn into signatures. The Könemann Classics series is much rarer, with not many texts in English, but with similar high-quality production standards: they too are books I’m pleased to be able to show off on my bookshelves.

The original Penguin Books, with their colour-coded spines and cover design are another instance of beautiful books; the simplicity of the design was what struck most in a combination of aesthetically pleasing and practical. All this was lost in the 1970s and after with gaudy full-colour covers and the haphazard approach to design and series, though there have been half-hearted attempts to re-create some of the effects of the past. But once it’s been lost, it’s too late. I felt the same about theh simplicity of the design of the Picador paperback series when it first appeared in the mid-seventies, and the French Folio paperback series which began publishing around the same time.

One of the reasons books look attractive on the shelves is repetition: when you have several or many of a similar design. Lest anyone think I’m only interested in the superficial externals, I must emphasise that for me the pleasure of reading a nicely made book – holding it in my hands, turning the pages and looking at them – is a lasting one. Obviously paperbacks used to be cheap and used cheap paper: some of my 1970s science fiction is disintegrating now. Cheap glue in binding was the bane of many books produced in this country in the 1980s: it dries out and crumbles and the entire book falls to pieces… Fonts are important in terms of readability, and French paperbacks often fall down really badly here, being presented in horrid fonts of strange sizes and pointing so that reading them is actually physically very tiring on the eyes. Penguin used to make a point, in the 1970s, of telling you what font they had used to set a particular book, with a few lines detailing the origin and history of the font. Some of the Everyman’s Library series, beautifully presented as they may be, have been reproduced from very old editions with ugly fonts.

Production values in the USA, where the market is so much larger and the economies of scale allow it, are generally, in my opinion, much higher than in the UK, to the extent that I will quite often check whether I can buy the US edition of an expensive paperback or hardback at a similar price, in preference to what I know will be a shoddier UK offering.

For me books have always been both physical objects to like, and to handle with pleasure as well as repositories of entertainment, learning and mental stimulus; it’s wonderful when both attributes are available in the same volume.

 

 


%d bloggers like this: