Archive for April, 2014

Peter Mayne: The Alleys of Marrakesh

April 26, 2014

I’ve mentioned earlier how much I have enjoyed the ancient cerise Penguin series Travel & Adventure; I always look out for these in secondhand bookshops, although some now seem to be offered at silly prices. I’m always glad when I come across a new (to me) title, though it doesn’t happen often.

This title took me back to my hippy days of nearly forty years ago, when I spent several happy weeks in Morocco with a friend, though we never made it as far as Marrakesh – Fez and Meknes were the highlights of that trip, along with the remains of the Roman town of Volubilis. Mayne took time out from Western civilisation sixthy years ago and went off to Marrakesh for a year to write and live somewhere different.

His travel journal is very interesting: the French colonists and administrators are absent, and he settles down to live a genuine life among Moroccans, who are initially suspicious, eventually accepting and helpful, and always out to make a bargain and come out of a situation with a profit. They can’t understand the concept of a novel, or that someone would spend time writing one. Mayne lives in a shabby little hotel, rents apartments and houses, hires servants and has adventures, and writes about all of these in an engaging and involved way, very much living in the present and for the present; the occasional Western acquaintance who appears as a tourist cannot understand what on earth he is up to…

You see someone gradually grow into becoming a part of a place, accepting and understanding, questioning and judging sometimes, but always with an open mind, and this is what I particularly liked about the book. In the end his money ran out, he found that he wasn’t succeeding in writing as well as he expected to, and so he left. He moved on, as one does, leaving this part of his life behind. It made me think about how often and easily we can do this, and what it says about us…

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Arden of Faversham

April 25, 2014

Another read in preparation for my Shakespeare week next month; not one of the plays in the canon, but apparently experts have been able to attribute one scene from the play to him.

Alice loathes her husband Arden and has a lover, Mosby; they want Arden out of the way, and so a range of murder plots are cooked up to get rid of him; various people agree to do or organise the deed, either for money or because they think they might end up with Mosby’s sister as a reward for their services…

Poisoned soup fails (he notices before he’s eaten enough); various plots are hatched to bump him off while he’s away on business; there’s even a weird artist who can apparently paint a picture that will poison the person looking at it, so a portrait of Alice to be given to Arden is commissioned (and yes, apparently the artist can paint it without being poisoned himself), and then a crucifix that will kill the beholder. Next, Black Will and Shakebag, two hit men, are hired, and everything that can go wrong, does…

Arden is suspicious of Alice and Mosby, but his suspicions are very easily allayed. In the end his is murdered, but the killers give themselves away and all end up on the gallows.

Arden of Faversham is billed as an Elizabethan domestic tragedy, and it’s apparently based on a true story. For me, it verged on the farcical. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, it was an easy read, and I’m looking forward to seeing it, but catharis? pity? terror? No, I’m afraid not.

Shakespeare: Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)

April 24, 2014

I’ve been doing my homework for this year’s Shakespeare week – reading the plays, and thinking about them, before I get to see the RSC performances.

Shakespeare explored the problems created by a useless king in Richard II. The realm goes to rack and ruin, and he is deposed and murdered. You can’t have a spare (more legitimate) king around, so he had to die. And you need someone to run the kingdom properly. The trouble is, the king is also God’s anointed and no-one can change that. Christopher Marlowe also considered this issue in his play Edward II, another king who was deposed and murdered, but who in the end was succeeded by his legitimate heir Edward III.

So, although Henry IV does a better job as king, he has no legitimacy: he’s an usurper. Shakespeare shows England descending into a state of semi-anarchy as the nobles who supported Henry’s moves against Richard feel short-changed and rebel against him, whilst there are also problems with the Welsh and the French.

The heir to the throne – who will become Henry V – is a great disappointment, drinking and whoring around with his friend, and great favourite of Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff.

Chaos on all fronts, then: the scenes with Falstaff are great fun, and anyone could improve their knowledge of swearing and general abuse by watching. The rebels are incompetent, ready to double-cross each other, always with an eye to covering their backs.

Politics at their crudest, with the incompetent chasing the illegitimate, and vice-versa (no change there then, haha!); meanwhile there is a country – England – that deserves better. Shakespeare doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

As usual, Shakespeare is playing fast and loose with the details of English history, but it’s the broad sweep, and the ideas that he’s interested in. The only hope seems to be that Henry V is made of better stuff, and with have rather more of the legitimacy that his father lacked… and yet there is a sadness about his repudiation of his old mate Sir John as he assumes his new mantle at the end of the play.

On Shakespeare’s birthday…

April 23, 2014

Well, I imagine you would expect me to have something to say on what is (probably) the Bard’s 450th birthday. I’m old enough to remember the celebrations of his 400th, and have the commemorative set of stamps that went with it, although I’m sure I hadn’t a clue who he actually was, at the time.

Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was for all time, and he seems to be right. I can’t think of anyone else I’d put on the podium as the greatest Englishman that ever was. In some ways, this is now a self-fulfilling prophecy: there has been so much critical analysis, so much adulation, for so long, that it’s impossible to imagine him falling into obscurity in a few centuries. Although there are those who wonder what the story might have been if Christopher Marlowe hadn’t met such an untimely end.

Shakespeare wrote about themes that are always going to be with us: ambition, young love, repressive parents, sexual jealousy, incompetent rulers… I could go on. What, to me, is different, is his exploration of these issues: he recognises the complexity of human beings, the fallibility of human beings, and their vulnerability, in so many ways, and, most importantly, he never suggests that there are easy solutions to our problems, because he knew there were none. So his characters find no answers to their dilemmas, and nor do we.

But… this makes Shakespeare sound like some psychologist, or therapist. He did far more, through his mastery of the stage, the dramatic, and the wonderful language that we have; he grips his audience anew every time we see a play; his language is fresh, powerful, playful. And, he left his plays open to re-interpretation, re-exploration, so that every age can find something new.

As a teacher, I enjoyed some of my happiest moments passing on the wonders of Shakespeare to a new generation.

Alan Moorehead: Cooper’s Creek

April 21, 2014

Another fascinating second-hand acquisition, this book was written over half a century ago, to mark the centenary of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition which set out to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. Although they succeeded in making it to the Gulf of Carpentaria, they died on the return journey.

As I read, I was struck by the similarity between their story, and that of Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole. Both achieved their goal, both died on the way home. Scott and his colleagues died a few miles from safety, trapped by the weather. Burke and Wills, in desperate straits, arrived very belatedly at a support camp which their colleagues had left a mere nine hours before, after waiting for months and finally giving up hope that they were alive.

I’ve read some accounts, but not many, of the exploration of Australia, and what has stuck in my mind is the sense of it as a totally alien continent to the first travellers. It was completely unknown to any other nation before European sailors finally encountered it; its only inhabitants were the natives, who had been alone there for thousands of years. Nobody knew what might lie in the interior of the vast continent: there was even speculation that there might be a huge inland sea in the centre. The harshness of the terrain and the climate (Burke and Wills record temperatures  between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius!) reminded me of the accounts of travellers such as Thesiger and Bertram in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, but they had guides who knew the terrain.

Moorehead’s account is clear and well-written, given the relative scantiness of the information available to him; there was a bit too much detail given to the investigations and commission of enquiry after the loss of the expedition, adn I would have liked even more detail to the maps that accompanied the text.

A sad day today

April 18, 2014

I can’t let the day go by without expressing my sadness on hearing of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I knew he was ill, and I knew dementia meant he would never write again. He brought me much pleasure when I discovered his novels over thirty years ago, and One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera stand out particularly to me; I cannot say which I prefer. Someone wrote that he was the greatest Spanish language writer of the twentieth century; I can’t really comment on that, but in my reading of literature from many lands, I felt he was one of the greatest writers of the century in any language.

I know Colombians are proud of him: early in my teaching career, at a school where I worked, the Spanish assistant was from Colombia, and when he learned that I had read Marquez, he translated for me and wrote out by hand, Marquez’ speech of acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you don’t know his novels, you are missing a great treat; if you do, I’m sure you agree the world has lost one of the greats.

Too many books?

April 14, 2014

Increasingly, I’m feeling I have too many books. Before you begin wondering about the state of my mental health, I’ll try and explain why. First, some facts. My spreadsheet tells me I have 2373 books in my library; the accession number is 3640, so over my lifetime I’ve disposed of about 1300 items… which was a bit of a shock, when I realised. These books take up a lot of room, several rooms, in fact. And they weigh a ton…literally.

Why keep a book?

Because I bought it, is the obvious answer.

Because I want to read it, one day…

Because I read it and enjoyed it, and want to read it again (perhaps) haha! But how to decide what to re-read, when there are so many unread books? If they weren’t there nagging me, would I bother?

Because I read it, enjoyed it, and will definitely re-read it… probably have, several times already. Think Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Umberto Eco, Josef Skvorecky and others, in no particular order.

Why get rid of a book?

Because I have several copies of the same book. Increasingly, I buy something by mistake, that I already have. But also, over the years, I have accumulated different editions of books I particularly like: nice copies of Jane Austen for my library, a much more portable edition to take away for holiday reading. Library and study copies of some books. Excuses!

Because I didn’t particularly like it. Actually, I’m not bad at getting rid of these.

Because it’s out of date: reference books, critical works and the like.

Because I’ll never read it again… time is short, and I see books on the shelves that say ‘you enjoyed me once’, but I know I haven’t the eyeball time to spend.

Because lots of books are now available as free downloads. This ought to make it easier, though the poor quality of downloads and the way that formatting sometimes goes all over the place on e-readers puts me off, as does the fact that I often have nice editions of classics.

So, there are a lot of books that I could get rid of. It’s rare that one can get very much for secondhand books as there are so many of them on offer all over the place, so the money spent is put down to entertainment and pleasure at some time in the past, and the books go to some charitable cause. And yet, I find it harder than getting rid of CDs, DVDs, old gadgets and general stuff… in the end, my library is part of my identity; it says who I am and how I got here, and reducing it in size is a bit like amputation (OK, OTT image, perhaps) getting rid of a part of myself.

My library defines me, so I keep it. Don’t ask to come and see it, you’ll think I’m very weird.

The high cost of reading…

April 8, 2014

Yesterday’s post about translation also got me thinking about the cost of books here and abroad. The Mars Bar test of the relative costs of articles is quite interesting in this case. When I first bought paperbacks, as a child, with birthday or Christmas money, paperback books cost 2/6d, 3/-, or 3/6d, which is 5,6 or 7 Mars Bars respectively. If you take today’s Mars Bar at about 60p, then 5,6 or 7 Mars Bars equates to £3, £3.60 or £4.20, none of which amounts would buy you a new paperback book. New books start at £6.99 and up. And what’s with the 99p business? who are they fooling? So the price of books increases in £1 jumps.

Thinking about France, whose book market I’m reasonably familiar with: book prices there increase in 10cent jumps, which is a lot more reasonable. Equally, paperbacks start at 5€ and 6€, which is rather cheaper than here in Britain. And in France they pay VAT on books! I have long had the impression of being ripped off by greedy British (or multinational) publishers, and looking at the maths does nothing to dispel this…

I’ve also long been peeved by the poor quality of books sold here. Hardbacks (starting at around £20) are often printed on cheap paper which browns quite quickly, the spines are often glued rather than sewn, and the covers are thin, paper-covered cardboard. Paperbacks have improved a little since the 1980s when they were bound with dreadful glue that splintered and cracked, with whole sections falling out: I’ve lost count of the number of treasured books I’ve had to re-bind. But we seem to have been royally ripped-off by the shift to the ‘B format’ paperback (larger than the old ‘A format’), which seems to have been nothing other than an excuse for whacking prices up further. It’s interesting that the US market still produces some A format mass-market paperbacks, and also produces hardbacks to a much higher standard. They do have a bigger potential market, of course, and the related economies of scale.

I think publishers here have been greedy. They lost the battle over the Net Book Agreement, so seem to have marked prices up in order to safeguard the bottom line in the era of price-cutting. They didn’t see the huge shift to internet sales coming, and don’t really seem to have a plan.

I think it’s a great shame that so many bookshops have gone out of business, but when over-priced books of relatively poor quality are available at a realistic (i.e. discounted) rather than extortionate (i.e. full) price online, I’d be daft not to go that way. Of course, in France they have a law that restricts discounting to 5% only, in order to protect bookshops. I don’t know how successful it has been.

Basically, I’m getting old…

Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

Dostoevsky: The Idiot

April 4, 2014

Another novel for our Russian literature group, and I’m really not sure what to make of it! Dostoevsky was clearly a man of ideas, a thinker, and had lots to say, but is he too complex or confusing for the modern reader?

Prince Mishkin, a Christ-like figure or a simpleton, depending on your take, certainly an epileptic, and someone often openly referred to as an idiot, returns to Russia after several years treatment in a Swiss sanatorium. Wherever he goes, he tells the honest truth about everything and anything, to anyone and everyone. People are struck, shocked, impressed even, and mayhem ensues because society doesn’t work on this basis, and though Mishkin may be honest and truthful, nobody else is. Many try to take advantage, financial and emotional.

There is a very complicated plot involving the Prince and two women, each of whom he may be said to love (?) and two other men, one a rich rogue and the other dying of consumption. Woven all through the novel is Dostoevsky’s social criticism, based on his own life experiences, criticism of lberalism, Catholicism, the Russian nobility, and nihilism, not to mention hypocrisy, deceit and decadence. Yet it seems increasingly clear that Prince Mishkin’s approach is not the answer. So is Christ also not the answer?

By the end of the novel, there has been much chaos, much unhappiness, murder, judgement and imprisonment, along with a complete relapse for the Prince.

And yet, once I got about half-way through it, the novel was strangely captivating, even compulsive at times. But it was also shapeless, wandering, constantly off at a tangent – indisciplined is probably the best word to describe it. Also, rather worrying, even unnerving, for this reader. It has got me thinking about whether time makes it much harder to approach and appreciate certain books. Certainly, the notes and family tree appended to the very good translation I read were very helpful. I may return to this broader question later on.

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