Archive for May, 2014

Susanna Moodie: Roughing it in the Bush

May 19, 2014

Roughing_It_Bush_1301 I recently finished listening to this audiobook which I found on the librivox site; it accompanied me on a drive through France and Belgium to a walking holiday in Luxembourg. I picked it as travel writing, which is was, in a way, although more of a memoir, and it was made particularly enjoyable by an excellent reading from Moira Fogarty. As I’ve mentioned before, the quality of readings offered on the site does vary quite considerably, given that readers are volunteers and they presumably record and upload books that particularly speak to them.

Susanna Moodie and her husband and family emigrated to the wilds of Canada in the 1830s, and this is her tale of their tribulations and difficulties in settling down, establishing their farmstead, getting to know people and generally surviving in those days of very early frontiersmen and women. There’s nothing really exciting in it: the interest comes from the details of daily routines, the difficulties of travel, the interactions with the natives and the locals, recounted by an energetic and independent woman of great determination.

I’m glad this book has been saved from oblivion by someone who cared.

Secondhand books and bookshops

May 19, 2014

I discovered secondhand bookshops as a student: there was one in the Students’ Union where you could buy all the dreary texts you knew you had to read for seminars and tutorials, but would never want to waste eyeball time on again, for a few pence, the rejects of previous generations of students with exactly the same attitude… and then there was the Mersey ferry trip to the bookshop in Birkenhead where you could fill a bin-liner with science fiction for a couple of quid.

The thing about secondhand bookshops is that you never know what you will find – perhaps something you’ve been vaguely looking out for for ages, or something you never knew existed but you can’t resist. There are fewer and fewer of them around now, as Amazon marketplace colonises the market, along with the charity shop chains, and the internet generally. Some are brilliant, huge gold-mines where you need hours to comb through the possibilities, and others aren’t worth the trouble, full of mouldering tomes that no-one will ever buy and that should have been pulped years ago, or, even worse, aren’t properly arranged or categorised, meaning that you can never look properly for anything: the kind of shop that you could tidy up by throwing a grenade through the door…

There are even booktowns now: everyone’s heard of Hay-on-Wye, which is very good; I’m aiming to visit Newton Stewart sometime soon, and every time I drive to the Ardennes the sign for Redu calls to me…

Charity shops have seriously muscled in on the market; many are full of trash, and certain of them, Oxfam in particular, are ridiculously over-priced, with corporate greed dictating pricing policies that put many off. Online booksellers are a minefield: Amazon has encouraged a lot of chancers who flog books with totally inaccurate descriptions; there has been a detailed code for the description of secondhand books offered for sale by post for many years, but Amazon doesn’t use this, sowing confusion and disappointment. On the other hand, it’s now possible to access an enormous range of books you’d never had come across in a lifetime, and track down all kinds of really interesting things.

Another thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is the growth of POD (print on demand) which delivers new and often cheaper new copies of old books that are out of copyright, than are available used. The market is definitely changing here, although one needs to be wary of the quality of scanning and proof-reading that took place before the reprint. I’ve noticed, for instance, that there are often very poor quality scans that have been done by the world’s largest search-engine and uploaded to the web…

Now that I have all the books I need (haha) I’ve become very picky. Thanks to secondhand bookshops and the web, I’ve completed my collection of the second series Arden Shakespeare hardbacks. When I visit secondhand bookshops, I make a beeline for the travel section (that won’t surprise readers of this blog). And I recently discovered a very rare Baedeker I was slightly interested in, had been scanned and put online – saved me three figures, if I’d decided to treat myself…

So, I do now ask myself: do I really need it? will I ever actually read it?

Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems

May 16, 2014

After my recent visit to Craiglockhart I realised that, although I’d often browsed through Owen‘s Collected Poems, I didn’t even have Sassoon‘s; I rectified the omission, and read through the volume, and found myself – perhaps not surprisingly – unable to avoid comparing and contrasting the two.

It’s a complex business; Sassoon survived the war, and some of the poems in the collection date from the 1920s and 1930s; though he can do hindsight, I didn’t necessarily feel he did it that well. Owen, on the other hand, perhaps gains in our estimation from his tragic death a week before the armistice. Sassoon is usually spoken of as Owen’s mentor, in their Craiglockhart days together, and you can see his influence on Owen at certain points, but there are inevitable similarities and reflections in their work because they were moved to write by the same horrendous events, and there are only so many (limited) words that can be used to write about them.

What I noted particularly: Sassoon’s highly effective use of the third person viewpoint (the omniscient poet?) to shape his reader’s response, particularly when focusing on a single individual. Counterattack is the obvious example, but I was surprised by how many others there were in a similar vein. He uses a variety of verse forms; he does the sardonic/ sarcastic far more than Owen, and very successfully.

Similarities between Sassoon and Owen: Sassoon’s attitude to those at home, and to women, seems pretty similar to Owen’s, in poems such as Glory of Women and Their Frailty. In subject matter and tone they are often (inevitably?) similar; we can understand, perhaps, how close they may have been whilst at Craiglockhart, writing about the same war, the same events and places, having the same responses to what they had seen. Though I frequently found echoes of Owen in Sassoon’s poems (purely because I was more familiar with Owen), and similarities at times in style and use of language, Sassoon is far less inventive and experimental in his use of verse structure, language and imagery.

Surprises: the scariness of The Kiss, Remorse, the trope of a rewritten bible story familiar in Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young and unfamiliar in Sassoon’s Devotion to Duty.

I don’t think I changed my opinion, that while Sassoon is wider in scope in his poems, Owen is, in the end, the more powerful poet. I did find myself reflecting on anthologies: when you have the complete collections in front of you, you can’t always see why certain poems are picked out (always the same few) to be included in general anthologies of war poetry, and others, which are good or better, are passed over. And, it’s significant that the best writing about war is poetry…

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014


I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

May 5, 2014


After his death the other week, I told myself it was time to re-read Marquez’ classic One Hundred Years of Solitude; imagine my surprise on taking my copy down from the bookshelf, when I discovered it was twenty years since I’d last read it… and I’d been recommending it to friends and students alike all that time, on my memory of the book alone.

So I re-read it, and it’s still brilliant. I found myself comparing it with Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’ve re-read more recently: the former has a much broader scope: a town, a huge family, a century, whereas the latter, though covering many years in the story, seems more narrowly focussed on a group of people, and especially, the intensity of personal relationships. I felt that One Hundred Years was a more youthful, a more playful novel, whereas Love felt like a work of more mature years, more reflective, and, in my memory, more expressive in its language and imagery. I think I might find it harder to say which was the better (if that means anything!) of the two novels.

Everyone says ‘magic realism’ when Marquez comes to mind, and it’s useful genre shorthand, but what does it mean? what is it, exactly? It’s not a fantasy world, in the Tolkein vein, though the setting counts as ‘exotic’ for the Western reader, perhaps (there were times when events in the novel, such as the civil wars and the banana plantation, reminded me of Conrad‘s Nostromo, with its civil wars and silver mine). The sequence of narration is not always linear, but that’s not exclusive to magic realism. The characters seem real, plausible, as do the events and places, but somehow – I think partly through a lyrical written style – Marquez manages to weave in increasingly unlikely happenings and have his reader accept them as part of the story, and eventually some completely impossible events occur, and we are so enmeshed, so drawn in, that we continue… yet the characters never become completely unreal.

In Macondo, which is totally cut off from the rest of the world, travellers arrive with new objects and discoveries, and these amaze and captivate the innocent inhabitants; some of these things verge on the fantastical, or seem like magic to the townspeople; though we know they aren’t, we partake of their sense of wonder, and we are not surprised when a person becomes obsessed with one of them. The story focusses on the Buendia family and its increasingly bizarre descendants – perhaps partially explained by intermarriage and even incest – some of whom are mad, some visionary, some very old: these last eventually becoming ancient caricatures of their original selves, adding to the sense of strangeness, but also endearing us to them because of their permanence. I am still unable to fathom what Marquez is suggesting through the character of the ageing matriarch Ursula, or Colonel Aureliano of the thirty-two civil wars and the gold fish, but there is something about the cyclical nature of time (which leads to the great cleverness of the ending which leaps on you unexpected and left me breathless) and the impossibility of really achieving anything permanent.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of genius (I think I’ve read it four times now and my feelings haven’t changed) and I’d agree with whichever critic it was whorecently said it was the most important or best novel written in Spanish in the twentieth century. It retains its place in my top three novels of all time.

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