Archive for February, 2014

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

Parrinder: Jesus in the Qur’an

February 25, 2014

9781851689996Firstly, this is a very curious book. The publishers have made a rather ham-fisted attempt to conceal the fact that this is a reprint of a book originally published in 1965; only the copyright details acknowledge this.  But a little detective work: the strange pagination, with even-numbered pages on the right (!), the absence of a bibliography (there must have been one, given the detailed footnotes in the text, but it has been removed), the quotations taken from two very old translations of the Qur’an and no mention of many recent ones, the dated fonts contrasting with the modern font used in the blurb inside the front cover… what were they thinking?

However, it’s also a very good book, in terms of the content, and detail, from a writer who clearly was very familiar with his subject matter. I came away saddened as I realised that we all seemed to have gone backwards since 1965, Christians and Muslims alike, in our knowledge and understanding of each other’s faiths and beliefs. From my own earlier reading I had been aware of links and connections between the sacred writings of these two religions, but did not realise how close they were in their earliest days, given that the Qur’an was revealed in a land surrounded by Christian lands, lands which had been the cradle of Christianity, where there was daily close contact between Jews, Christians and early Muslims. Parrinder lists and explores many very close links between various aspects of Christian theology, and its central characters, and references to all these in the Qur’an.

The book obviously begins from a Christian perspective, and is structured around the person of the historical Jesus, the Christian understanding of God,  and the development of the Christian Churches, but Parrinder is careful to recognise that references to Jesus and to Christian ideas are only a very small part of the Qur’an. I found his approach very thought-provoking, and his response to Islam very sensitive; he lists many references to research by Muslim scholars into the early connections between the two faiths; these were new to me, and the picture he paints is of two great religions much closer to each other in many ways, ways which do not seem currently to be recognised very widely.

I have never forgotten, as a child some fifty years ago, my first meeting with a Muslim, and the reverence with which he treated his holy book when he brought it along to show our family; I remain fascinated by the connections between the two religions, and in an age in which it is fashionable to mock and scorn religions, I feel that they do have real messages and good advice to offer us today, even if it is far harder, or impossible, for us to have the faith that people used to have. For my readers who have not yet met it, I commend a poem – Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. He said it better than I can.

A Study in Scarlet

February 21, 2014

My comfort reading continues with a re-read of the very first Sherlock Holmes story, one of the four long ones.

It needed to be a long story to introduce Holmes and Watson to each other and to their readers, and to begin to shape their relationship, which was to last (fictionally) for three decades. It has been observed that the story is flawed as a detective story in that there is no way that the reader can solve the mystery as s/he reads, since the killer is only introduced and named as Holmes reveals everything at the end. Is it possible that Conan Doyle was, even as he nursed and developed this relatively new genre,  already looking beyond the mere confines of detection and mystery-solving? Certainly the plot could have been developed and resolved in far fewer pages…

Holmes and Watson are introduced to each other, take up lodgings together in Baker Street, and their relationship begins to develop as Watson is drawn into the first of the crimes he is to chronicle. It’s a mere outline of characters, although the quirkiness of Holmes is already there, the violin, the moodiness, the suspicions of narcotic use. What Conan Doyle has to do first, and he does it admirably if you focus clearly, is to convince the reader of Holmes’ detective and deductive skills, and the soundness of his methods; these are contrasted with the clumsiness and ineptitude of the regular police force, which becomes a regular trope in the canon. Neither character is subtly drawn at this stage; Holmes is young and full of himself, and Watson lacks the gravitas and the compassion Conan Doyle gradually allows him to develop as time passes.

Already we are shown that justice is not a simple business, and that the due process of law is capable of being flawed as the murderer escapes the courts, but is submitted to a higher (God’s) judgement, a careful appeal to Victorian morality, which also allows a sense of fair play, and a concept which was to be used several times in the stories.

Structurally it’s odd, sharing with The Valley of Fear a lengthy excursion into the lawless areas of the Wild West of the United States, which no doubt brought a certain frisson to the bourgeois Victorian magazine reader. The long digression into the early history of the Mormons and their trek to Utah has been judged controversial, but surely pandered to Victorian moral strictures, with the accent on polygamy as well as violence.

It’s a good beginning to the stories; it leaves  readers intrigued and hoping for more, and they were not to be disappointed.

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice

February 20, 2014

61o3TNR3byL._AA160_I was going to call this post ‘Comfort Reading’, as detective fiction is one of the kinds of reading I automatically turn to when I’m not feeling well; it’s an easy read, not too demanding, yet satisfying. I got to thinking about the Brother Cadfael series of mediaeval whodunnits, and read up on their author. My initial attraction to the books was their Shrewsbury setting.

If you’re not familiar with them, they are a series of twenty novels set in the Shrewsbury area in the mid-twelfth century, focused on an elderly monk as the detective, working in collaboration with the deputy sheriff of the town. The timing is interesting: less than a century after the Norman Conquest, so still plenty of resentment towards the invaders, a remote setting in the disputed borderlands between England and Wales, and at a time of civil war between Stephen and Matilda.

There’s a genre similarity, if you compare these stories with the archetype, ie Sherlock Holmes. There you have the late Victorian era, very settled rather than tumultuous, and the setting of the great metropolis, London being the largest and most important city on the planet at the time. Cadfael’s is a religious, Holmes’ a secular age.

There are also character similarities and differences: Cadfael is freelance, like Holmes, in the sense that he is a monk who is unofficially allowed by his superior to engage in detective work from time to time. He is a mature and wise monk who experienced life in the wide world before taking to the cloister, and he works with Hugh Berengar the deputy sheriff, a secular official, and less of a side-kick than Holmes’ Watson, who nevertheless has professional expertise as a doctor, which at times is useful. The Cadfael/ Berengar pairing feels more equal; the collaboration works; the Watson as author trick is unnecessary.

One of the keys to success in the genre does seem to be the accretive approach over time: as one reads the twenty novels, time passes, historical events unfold, develop and affect different stories in different ways; our knowledge of places develops too, as does our understanding of and sympathy with the characters. The same is obviously true of Holmes and Watson as we follow their developing friendship through a period of some twenty or thirty years, Watson’s marriages as well as their shared lives in Baker Street. And the same is true of the characters and places in Ed McBain‘s 87th Precinct mysteries.

There is a major difference, clearly: Conan Doyle set his stories and characters more or less in his own time, as did McBain, whereas Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) deliberately moved back in time eight and a half centuries. Her research seems very thorough and convincing; she is reckoned to be the originator of the genre of historical detective fiction, now imitated by dozens of writers. Did Umberto Eco and she have their inspirations almost simultaneously?

One thing which doesn’t change over time is crime: theft, greed, murder are pretty much the same through the ages; methods of killing may be a little more ‘advanced’ nowadays and science a little more helpful, but careful observation and reflection have always been needed to get to the bottom, and justice is not always done…

Slawomir Mrozek: The Elephant

February 15, 2014

9780141193045After my recent complaint about short stories, I’ve just read this slim volume of forty-two of them… as Walt Whitman once said (I paraphrase) I see no virtue in being consistent. The stories were all very short, and I really enjoyed them, laughing aloud quite frequently. Why did they work, for me? Each plays with a single idea, taken to absurd extremes, purely to mock something; there is no plot, no character, merely an idea to play with.

Although these stories are described as satirical, and I suppose they are, the absurdist angle struck me more forcefully. Mrozek wrote during the times of the Polish People’s Republic, and he mocks the bureaucracy of the times, the leaders and their pretensions, and the cravenness of their followers, the strange behaviours people often adopted in order to live and stay out of trouble. It was a strange world, one that has begun to pass into history, its absurdities now only in the memories of the older generations. I cannot forget the weirdness of once going into what was called a supermarket, and finding every shelf stacked with pasta, pasta of every kind and shape, but almost no other food of any kind on offer. Or of setting off with a cousin to visit another city and being asked by some one to look out for paint, and to buy some if any were available.

Mrozek’s stories are frivolous, light-hearted, very different from the moodier writings of Czech authors such as Kundera or Skvorecky, or the much more detailed satires of Russians such as Voinovich (The Adventures of Ivan Chonkin) or Zinoviev (The Yawning Heights). It’s as if the regime was so ridiculous that it could not be taken seriously, and in many ways this was true. Poland by and large had a more ‘liberal’ communist regime than any other Eastern European country during that period, and opposition made itself much more noticeable, perhaps because of the strength of the Catholic Church.

I have always found Eastern European literature from this period fascinating. Oppression seems to have stimulated creativity: writers strove to find ways to make their points in covert ways to elude censorship, and often succeeded. Their concerns seemed to have a vitality and an urgency which I found missing in western writers (sweeping statement, I know), but there was the impression that the regimes knew writers were important, could challenge, needed close supervision, that the written word had Power, whereas in the west writers could safely be allowed to write whatever they liked – a safety valve – because no-one really took them seriously and they would never pose a real threat to the system…

On the Great War

February 13, 2014

I know I will be revisiting some of the literature of the First World War over the coming months and years. With the arguments about the rights and wrongs, the blame, whether to celebrate or commemorate already under way, in the usual unseemly fashion here in Britain anyway, I decide to put some thoughts on paper.

We remember (supposedly) the war(s) and war dead every year on 11 November. It has increasingly become a matter of routine: do we actually reflect on what it means? To me, the centenary means an opportunity to slow down, and to think properly about what actually happened, and how it has affected our word today. For me, it’s about commemoration, and respect for the dead.

The blame game – who started it, whose fault was it? – is irrelevant, really: the war happened, all those people died. That cannot be undone. Politicians’ job now is to ensure such things never happen again.

We will have the opportunity to remember the actual horror that war is – the deaths, the injuries, the maimings, the mourning: there will be plenty of detail about all that. We need to realise that such things happen in all wars, everywhere, whether our country is involved or not, whether we think a war is ‘just’ (?) or not.

The traces of the Great War remain with us: the places, the cemeteries (I was left at a loss for words so many times on my visit to the Somme battlefields last autumn), the art and the writing. I’m going to write about my reactions to writers from the countries that were involved.

More importantly, the consequences of the Great war are still with us. Eric Hobsbawm‘s massive history contains a volume entitled Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. It’s a fascinating take on the period, which has always made sense to me: everything flowed from that war – communism and its associated excesses, fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the millions of deaths associated with them. As half-Polish, I remember that Poland re-emerged as an independent nation as a result of the war. And the crazy boundaries in the Middle East, drawn by French and British diplomats and bureaucrats continue to wreck the lives of so many people.

I’ve always felt that war solves nothing. That’s not intended as a glib statement, and it’s sometimes hard to defend, but, as a self-labelled ‘intelligent species’ it’s one that I hope many people will be reflecting on over the next four years.

My problem with short stories…

February 12, 2014

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t like short stories, and why I resist reading them. This post is provoked by my needing to read a selection of Turgenev‘s stories for the next meeting of our Russian literature group. A doorstop of a Dostoevsky novel would have been no problem: I’d have hoovered it up ages ago. But I’ve repeatedly put off approaching the short stories…

Through years of reading, I’ve never really been interested. There are tomes of Chekhov and Waugh stories that have sat on the pending shelf for years, unopened. I managed a volume of Mark Twain‘s stories, but only because I love Twain, and everything else he wrote, at longer length, is better.

I have read, and re-read many times, the Sherlock Holmes short stories; to me, they are much better than the full-length novels. I’ve read Raymond Chandler‘s short stories; they were good, but not as good as the novels. And I’ve read lots of science fiction short stories, including all of Philip K Dick‘s.

Short stories are short, focused, with a smaller group of characters. There is usually less description and setting of atmosphere. Often there’s a single plot line. This clearly works in detective fiction: solving the crime, a detective and his sidekick, description of the crime scene are sufficient. In science fiction, the writer wants to create a world and an atmosphere that’s different, alien, strange in some way compared with what we know, without overwhelming the reader, and again the simplicity of the short story seems to help. so I can see why I have always go on with these subsets of the wider genre.

But… in ‘ordinary’ fiction, for me, the short story doesn’t attract, and I’m starting to feel I must be missing something. Maybe there isn’t enough plot to draw me in? Maybe I don’t escape far away enough from daily reality? When I get to the end of a short story, the usual feeling is ‘unsatisfied’…. Maybe I haven’t tried the right stories?

Does anyone have any reactions, or advice?

Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative

February 12, 2014

9780142437162When I think about racism, I find myself mostly wondering about its origins: somewhere it seems to be rooted in a deep-seated fear of what is different, and the potential threat that might present; understandable, perhaps, in a less secure past, but less so nowadays. And yet who cannot, at some time, have felt anxious, uncertain, when faced with something, someone different, who we cannot immediately understand, and fit into the ways we make sense of the world?

Olaudah Equiano was an African, free man, captured and sold into slavery in the late eighteenth century, and he tells his story in this book. His account of his childhood and younger days in an African village, of their customs and habits, is fascinating, and full of a sense of innocence, naivete even: their lives are simple and in tune with nature; they do not want for anything.

After his enslavement, his is an adventurous life at sea. His condition is not as straightened and cruel as we are used to read about in accounts of slavery, but he is nevertheless clearly owned, and controlled by a master, and subject to his every whim; masters change as he is bought and sold, and their consideration and cruelty vary. Equiano paints a clear picture of the actual experience of slavery, the conditions, the treatment, the circumscribed relations with other people, and their attitudes to people of another race who they believe to be less than human. Slaves enjoy a limbo status and are fair game for exploitation, cheating and general underhand behaviour.

Equiano succeeds, through his skills as a seaman and the trust he inspires in his owners, in eventually saving the money to purchase his freedom, though this is not the end of his travails: as a free black man, he is still unequal in the eyes of the law and fair game for cheating whites who know what they can get away with. His story unfolds against the growing agitation in Britain for an end to the slave trade, and when he acquires his freedom, he devotes his energies to this cause, although he dies before it is achieved.

The least satisfactory aspect to his making his way in the world of the white man is his acquisition of religion: his discovery of the doctrines of predestination and the fears this caused him, saddened me. And overall, throughout the book, is his sense of inferiority, and his need to be grateful to white men for whatever he has managed to achieve; truly here is a picture of the most evil aspects of racism.

The Journeys of Celia Fiennes

February 6, 2014

41wiY0Sy-PL._AA160_I’ve often noticed that all of a sudden, I’ll see the same book, that I’ve never seen before, in several secondhand shops within a short period of time, as if everyone with an old copy has decided to get rid of it at the same time. So it was with this nicely-made volume, which eventually tempted me to buy it.

Celia Fiennes travelled very extensively throughout England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. She hoovered up the miles, keeping a carefully tally of how far she’d gone each year, and often complains about how the miles are much longer up North than in the south of the country. She mainly travelled on horseback, accompanied only by a small number of servants. She has good social connections throughout the land, and describes their houses in minute detail; the lower classes are almost completely absent from her accounts.

What was interesting, for a twenty-first century reader, were her impressions of various towns and cities compared with how we perceive them nowadays; this gives a measure of how much England has changed over three centuries. Nottingham is very high on her list of beautiful towns, whereas she finds York grotty and run-down… Some parts of the country are totally different – the Isle of Ely, for example, which really is an island and often difficult to access; I was reminded that we are just about at the era when Dutch engineers came over to assist with draining the Fens. Buildings mentioned are almost exclusively cathedrals, churches and country houses; occasionally a municipal building gets a mention, in a larger town. Roads are often poor, frequently only passable with difficulty.

I’ve been reminded that I have a copy of Defoe‘s journey around Britain, which he made a few decades later, and also Cobbett‘s Rural Rides, waiting to read, and probably compare with this small gem.

Vladimir Sorokin: The Ice Trilogy

February 1, 2014

productimage-picture-ice-trilogy-134_jpg_70x479_q85I was drawn to this by rave reviews on a certain internet retailer’s website, but was mildly disappointed: I think when you’ve read once SF conspiracy novel, you’ve probably read them all… Somehow, I’ve actually been let down by most of the modern (ie post Soviet) Russian fiction I’ve come across; they obviously need to get it out of their system, but do seem obsessed by the mafia, gratuitous sex, violence and sadism; is this what intellectual freedom is all about?

The ice that buried itself deep in Siberia when the Tunguska meteorite hit in 1908 apparently was a special ice with properties to awaken in 23,000 selected humans their belonging to a superior race with telepathic properties, whose destiny it was to gather together and mystically put right the great mistake in the cosmos which was the creation of intelligent human life on earth. They hunt each other out and their special properties are re-awakened when they are hit hard in the chest by a hammer made from this special ice. From this point they are driven by the urge to complete the search for the rest of the 23,000, no matter who they harm or destroy on the way. The NKVD, the Nazis, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all are involved.

I found the ending a let-down; the three novels are over-long as a whole; there are a limit to the number of ways hitting someone in the chest with a hammer can be made interesting. I’m glad I read it, but can’t imagine repeating the experience; the redeeming feature of the trilogy was the craft of the writer: multiple viewpoints and  different literary styles went a good way to relieving the tedium at times, and I got a clear picture of life in post-Soviet Russia (!)

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