Archive for July, 2014

Michael Asher: Thesiger

July 29, 2014

41CXHPZB44L._AA160_Michael Asher seems to be exactly the right person to write what is probably the definitive biography of Wilfred Thesiger: he’s a seasoned explorer himself, and familiar with many of the places Thesiger explored.

Thesiger comes across as a very conservative, dyed-in-the-wool aristocratic type, anti-democracy, anti-progress, in favour of people knowing their place – in short, a man from the past. He had a sufficient private income to fund whatever he did, and used to say that he had never worked a day in his life.

He deplored the ease of modern travel. He sought to live with the local people, as one of the local people, in his travels in Arabia and Iraq particularly, although Asher makes it clear that this was, at the same time, on Thesiger’s terms, and within his power; although he rejected previous explorers’ aloofness, superiority and difference from local tribes and peoples, he couldn’t actually escape it himself: how much can an outsider blend in and become part of a tribe? Through interviews with some of those Thesiger travelled with, Asher shows both how much they accepted him, and at the same time how he was always an outsider.

It’s as much a book about Asher as it is about Thesiger, in the end: Asher’s admiration of his predecessor shines throughout, though it is not romanticised, indeed it is often sharply critical; certainly Asher is clear about the many contradictions and inconsistencies in Thesiger’s life, and approach to people and exploration; he sees how Thesiger’s world-view was shaped and developed by his early experiences; he sees the flaws and self-delusion for what it was.. In the end, it boils down to this: what Thesiger liked was the tribes and peoples before they were ‘contaminated’ by contact with Western civilisation and technology, unspoiled, as it were, and he wanted them to remain like that, it seems almost in a zoo-like state, never mind that those tribes and people actually had the right to a choice about their futures and wanted progress and technology and Western medicine, for instance. To this reader, it seems that at times that Thesiger glimpsed the even bigger question about the nature of progress and what it does to us and our world, as a whole species, and unwittingly, but he was never able to ask the right questions at that level.

Asher was clearly fascinated by Thesiger the man, and the places he explored and peoples he lived with, at the same time as cutting him down to size and demythologising his approach; he recognises the greatness of his achievements as a traveller, and poignantly portrays his decline into old age.

Ultimately we are all creatures of our times, and Thesiger was from a bygone age even as he began his travels; Asher’s travels are different, and equally fascinating, and his perspectives on the people and places he has explored are more relevant (if that’s the right word) because more securely anchored in the issues of our times.

 **I have written about some of Michael Asher’s travel books elsewhere on this blog; you will find them if you search the archive.


July 24, 2014

Dystopias are the other side, and seem to be a more recent development, perhaps reflecting our recently-developed ability to destroy the planet and exterminate our own species entirely – a whole subset of the genre looks at post-nuclear war scenarios – and they have a rather different purpose from utopias: they are written to warn…

To create a dystopia, a writer extrapolates from some currently trend or possibility. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually the danger of planet-wide atomic war; in the 1970s and 1980s, ecological disasters and overpopulation emerged as themes. Extrapolation accepts that x is currently happening, and imagines what the situation might be like in y years if nothing changes in human behaviour… there are 7+ billion people on the planet now, what happens when there are far more? Global warming is having x effect now, what will the situation be like in y years if nothing is done to address the issue?

Clearly, a dystopia is easier to imagine, and to write, with none of the difficulty of imagining how we might get from our now to the perfection of a utopia, for instance; you just carry on regardless…

The value of writers writing to warn as well as entertain, using imagination, is important: scientists and experts can write official reports warning of x disaster if y is not done at once, or over the next z years, but a reader’s response and reaction to fiction is rather different; dry and dusty officialspeak is replaced by the imagination, the bringing to life of a particular scenario, peopled by humans with whom we may identify and empathise, as we see ourselves in their situation

If utopia is an attempt to visualise a perfect society or world, then perhaps dystopia imagines the worst possible world, though not necessarily for everyone. Disaster and/or oppression may be ecological, nuclear, political, social or religious. Let’s consider some key examples (and, as I write, I realise that I shall reserve the post-nuclear apocalypse scenario for a later post of its own).

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia for all women in the imagined society of Gilead (future USA), who are merely vessels for reproduction. Arguably, it is a utopia for some of the men, particularly those in power or with privilege. And yet, as the story progresses, it’s clear that it isn’t, as the creators of that society have managed to banish intimacy for everyone, and the coda to the novel makes it clear that the society eventually collapsed. A similar novel, in which the state – this time in Britain – takes control of women’s reproductive capacity can be found in Benefits, by Zoë Fairbairns.

A forgotten, but chilling warning from 1937, Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, imagines what the world would look like seven centuries after a Nazi conquest of the world.

The archetypal political dystopia is probably George Orwell‘s 1984, although it resembles a much earlier Soviet dystopia, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which everyone also is reduced to a number, and surveillance is facilitated by everyone living in transparent buildings. Orwell’s dystopia is more complex, as is its visionary history: in the actual years prededing 1984 the novel acquired a bogeyman effect as everyone feared the world really would turn out that way; consequently the novel seemed really dated when the times didn’t develop according to the prophecy. More recently, with the revelations of our surveillance society, perhaps Orwell’s’ world is coming into its own again?

And then, there’s Brave New World, a utopia or a dystopia or both, depending on your perspective…(for more on this novel, see my previous post).

What dystopias have in common is writers warning against removal of freedom: what we must think further about is that it’s our Western freedom to, with its focus on individual self-expression, rather than a freedom from, which much of the rest of the less privileged world might be rather more interested in. Our fetishistic, capitalist freedom facilitates consumption and profit, with a circumscribed individual freedom as a side-effect, whereas freedom from, say, violence, hunger, homelessness, unemployment would probably lead to the greater happiness of far more people. But that’s another story…


July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about utopias for a few days, partly in preparation for a possible writing project in the autumn, partly because utopia is a genre to which I regularly return.

When teaching, I occasionally found myself asking a class what they would do if they became world dictator; I would usually throw in a few off-the-wall ideas of my own. It struck me that this is what an utopian vision is, in essence: a writer creates and describes her or his idea of a perfect world – it’s often deathly dull and boring, because it lacks the dynamics imperfection creates in our own, really-existing world.

Why do they do it? Obviously it’s an act of the imagination, wishful thinking, magical thinking in the face of the awfulness of the world we live in. How we get from here to there is almost always where the sticking point is; I have come to see that as an actual impossibility, rather than any of the societies and worlds described in fiction. A world of wars, of inequality, of racism is replaced by one of peace, harmony, equality. And we would all like to live there. Or not.

Democracy is clearly a flawed concept, in our multinational and highly complex world, but of all the options it is the least worst, it seems. But many utopias are based on coercion of some kind, perhaps not physical, but emotional or even chemical, and we need to ask ourselves whether the inhabitants are happy, or sometimes, are they human.

Let’s consider a few examples. An attempt at a taxonomy might slot them into categories such as religious, political, ecological, feminist… Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is an interesting place to start: is it a utopia or a dystopia (see next post)? Everyone has their allotted place, there is unlimited sex and drugs, even misfits and people who want to be unhappy are catered for. The society was imagined as a response to the chaos of the early twentieth century; Michel Houellebecq in Atomised points out that we now have the technological capacity to realise Brave New World if we choose to. And the people are happy. Yet, in my classes when I taught the novel, although some students decided they would be perfectly happy to live there, we also ended up deciding that the inhabitants of Brave New World were not human as we understood it.

Ursula LeGuin imagines an anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed. It’s one of the best I know. And it’s also grim, constant hard work, and when faced with the temptations a more unequal society can tempt you with, sometimes people opt out. But it’s very good for getting one thinking about the real issues involved in striving for perfection. Ivan Yefremov jumps hundred of years into a future where the whole world in now the Soviet Union: Andromeda portrays a utopia which might perhaps be liveable in – but how would we ever get there? Ernest Callenbach imagined an ecological utopia springing up in 1980s California in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging; he tries to suggest how people got there, but looking back on the novels, this aspect seems naive in the extreme: the system would not allow it, full stop.

I must return to Austin Tappan Wright‘s monumental 1940s utopia Islandia which I love. As I recall, his focus is also on how one sustains a perfect society against an imperfect and therefore attractive outside world.

Various feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s imagined utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, much earlier, had created Herland, a society without men, as did Suzy McKee Charnas in Motherlines; Marge Piercy creates an attractive feminist utopia in Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which women and men do manage to co-exist on a rather different basis, but then we learn that they execute misfits… a measure of how difficult it is to deal with those who do not want to be part of your perfect world.

There are lot more which I haven’t mentioned: the ur-text, More’s Utopia from 1516, W H Hudson‘s strange and haunting A Crystal Age, and the satirical Erewhon, by Samuel Butler… it is a fascinating genre, which pushes us to reflect on our own world and its imperfections, and ought to make more of us realise that a good life, a good world has to be striven for, and is very hard work. it’s probably called heaven, probably a figment of our imagination, and when you reach a certain age, you choose to cultivate your garden instead.

Ed McBain: Mischief

July 20, 2014

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries have always been on my list of enjoyable detective stories: this one, however, disappointed, for the first time…

I’d collected a large number of these novels about thirty years ago, but foolishly got rid of them when I needed to have a clear-out: there’s a message there! I’ve been gradually re-acquiring some, and have realised that the earlier ones are much better; this one is a relatively late one, and not helped by the feeling that the author seems to have felt the need gratuitously to up the level of sex and bad language in order to keep up with the pack, whereas he has an interesting enough setting and group of characters to keep his readers hooked.

Continued character development always helps retain interest in a series of such stories, but there is none in this novel; they could be any detectives rather than the personalities that were built up in earlier novels, and McBain does have some interesting characters among his precinct detectives. The plots are bitty and rather haphazard; there are two main ones running in parallel, one gratuitously racist and in rather poor taste, I thought, and the other verging on the ridiculous; neither was properly clued or investigated, and one was left hanging at the end so that the character could perhaps be used again: I know Conan Doyle did this with Moriarty, but the Deaf Man had already been used once before…

I shall now be concentrating on the earlier books in the series as I trawl second-hand bookshops.

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

Geoffrey Moorhouse: To The Frontier

July 17, 2014

9780753804780The frontier in question is, of course, the North West Frontier; Moorhouse travelled there in the early 1980s. I’d already been impressed with The Fearful Void, the tale of his encounter with the Sahara, and was looking forward to this: I wasn’t disappointed.

He travels from Karachi to Lahore, succeeds in visiting the Khyber Pass, and eventually ends up in the real wilds. He was travelling at an interesting time: the Soviet Union had recently entered Afghanistan to support its puppet regime and was becoming increasingly embroiled in warfare with the Afghans, and Pakistan was in a period of turmoil after the seizure of power by General Zia and his judicial execution of the previous Prime Minister. So, at the time one needed clear contextual background to the travels and the people he met, and this is even more the case, reading of his travels thirty years later. And this he does very well: the details and the complexities are clearly explained, not touched upon or glossed over as some writers nowadays do, and I was grateful for this, even though I can remember those events.

Moorhouse describes people, places and the journey clearly, in detail, and evokes a sense of atmosphere: he took me there, and I understood new things, which is surely the mark of a good travel writer.  He made sense for me of some of the complexities and grey areas of the regional history and politics. His visit to the Khyber Pass was particularly interesting; his sense of the past history of all the frontier places and how they fit into the stories of the British Empire allowed me to admire the courage and stamina of people involved, even if I did also think that their whole premise was bonkers. I think what I liked most of all was Moorhouse’s openness and honesty in his writing, and his ability to background himself: none of the tiresome ‘me, me, look at me!’ that has put me off quite a few recent writers.

I’ve noticed that there are quite a few more books by him to look out for as I trawl secondhand bookshops on my travels…

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Turgenev: On The Eve

July 13, 2014

9780140440096Reading for the Russian literature group again; unusually, a short Russian novel! Apart from Fathers and Children, I’ve not really been terribly moved by the other Turgenev we’ve read (mainly short stories) but I have enjoyed and been surprisingly moved by this tragic tale, the ending of which remind me very much of Charlotte Bronte‘s Villette.

The plot is predictable – Russian bourgeoisie with no purpose or meaning to their lives, and someone trying to find one – but Turgenev excels in creating a sense of place at atmosphere: lazy, warm, idyllic Russian country summer. No-one has anything they need to do other than talk (echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters here). The characters are very skilfully outlined, sketched, and yet come fully to life as the story develops.

It’s a tale of love: two men both in love with the only available woman; she loves only one of them, then along comes someone who doesn’t want to be in love, and they fall in love… the twist is that he’s an outsider to Russian life, he has a  purpose and meaning to his life which she comes to share, and they cause major upheavals in everyone’s cosy and comfortable lives. If I make it sound banal, it isn’t: Turgenev’s writing overleaps this, and achieves a well-rounded, minor tragedy.

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

Soviet Literature

July 8, 2014

Or maybe I actually mean anti-Soviet literature… literature written during Soviet times, anyway. I’m continuing some of the ideas I developed in an earlier post here.

If you read the history of Soviet times, you quickly realise that the first few years were, in many ways, a time of revolution and bold experimentation, especially in the world of the arts and literature; eventually, as the 1920s develop, the lid closes, the dead hand of Stalinism closes things down. There’s a further crackdown in the 1950s, a brief liberalisation at the end of the 60s/ in the early 70s and then it’s crackdown time again. Authority was clearly afraid; authority in the West is often afraid too, but has different and rather less obvious ways of crushing dissent and opposition.

So, what was there to be feared? Truth, in the end: there was much violence as the Soviet Union was built, collectivisation, repression of the kulaks, famine in Ukraine, political purges, show trials, people turned into unpersons, the gulag; religion was off-limits, as was any admiration of the West. If you take all these aspects of life, apparent to most people who had their eyes open, then there wasn’t much to write about, and it’s the writers who pushed the system to its limits and challenged it, often at great risk, that are still read and remembered, not the creators of the wooden socialist realism that was the official literature. What did Bulgakov mean, by having the devil rampage through Moscow in The Master and Margarita, with its sympathetic portrayal of both Christ and Pilate? And why did the KGB tell Vassily Grossman that his astonishing epic Life and Fate could not possibly be published for at least two centuries? Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy, which explored the darkest times of the Stalinist purges and show trials, only saw the light of day with perestroika. Solzhenitsyn explored dark times, and exposed some of the truths about the gulag, and ended up persecuted and then exiled; Varlam Shalamov‘s Kolyma Tales is even more shocking. Vladimir Voinovich got into trouble for humour and satire, and The Private Life of Ivan Chonkin is as funny (and biting) as Hasek‘s Svejk any day.

These are some of the best books of the last century in my opinion, created at the authors’ peril, mirrors of the sad failure of the experiment that came off the rails so quickly. The writers have real questions: how can one be free, how can one tell the truth, how can one resist oppression? Sometimes they wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ ie, put their manuscript away, knowing it could not be published, sometimes they took the risk – as did Solzhenitsyn – of samizdat (self) publication, typescript copies circulated in secret, sometimes smuggled to the West for publication.

And yet, culture in the Soviet Union was for all and readily accessible. Books (officially approved) were published in vast editions at giveaway prices, cinema and theatre cost next to nothing to attend; I wish that were the case over here, in the free West… not everything said, written or done in the Soviet Union was evil, yet I would not have wanted to live there.

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