Archive for October, 2014

Ursula LeGuin: The Birthday of the World

October 29, 2014

9780060509064As I’ve got older, I’ve sometimes been surprised, when coming back to a writer or a book that I’m familiar with, how vague my recollections have become over time. I’ve always liked Ursula LeGuin: I’d forgotten just how astonishing she is, but this collection of stories brought it back to me.

I’ve mentioned, in recent posts, her Hainish novels and stories, and most of the stories in this collection link into that universe. She has imagined a number of variations on the human species, all descended from the same ancestors way back in time, but that have undergone separate development on their various planets. LeGuin is convincing in a Swiftian or Defoean sense, almost journalistic in the way she writes about these people; we receive glimpses into their possible lives, tantalising us, and then they are left: often her narrators are ambassadors or reporters sending information back to base, as it were, so their writing has a specific purpose, one different from ours as consumers of fiction. Sometimes we are left feeling frustrated, but we have our own imaginations…

LeGuin’s main idea is to explore a whole range of different gender and sexual possibilities in her almost-human types. There are androgynous races, races which are asexual most of the time, but then assume – randomly – a gender temporarily for the purposes of sexual pleasure and/ or procreating, races which have complex marital arrangements and sexual preferences. Yes, it’s all fantasy, if you like, yet LeGuin puts our own world, our own gender and sexual issues under a microscope, in the sense that there could be other possibilities and just because we are what we are doesn’t mean that we can’t think outside our own cultural and social conditioning. She challenges her readers: I wish that rather more of these stories had been available when I was researching my MPhil thesis back in the early 1980s: I had only come across The Left Hand of Darkness then.

There are a couple of other, unconnected stories in the collection; the title story The Birthday of the World imagines life on a spacecraft travelling to an Earth-type planet over a period of two centuries. How does contact with the home planet change, become less relevant as new generations who have never lived on Earth grow and run the ship? Why should their priorities be the same as those of their originators? What can they know of the risks and dangers of life on a planet when they finally get there? Isn’t the luxurious and safe coccoon of the craft a heaven, away from danger. Brilliant!


I’m tempted to go back and re-read everything I have by her…

Mary Shelley: Mathilda

October 26, 2014

A little-known novella by the author of Frankenstein and The Last Man; it is apparently available in print, but my e-copy came by way of the excellent Project Gutenberg. Thanks to a former student of mine for the recommendation.

Shelley pushed the boundaries in her fiction – the creation of life and the extinction of it in the two novels mentioned above; in this novella she tackles the subject of incest. It’s almost pure narrative, with some, though not much dialogue, so I was conscious of the author directing and shaping my response to events as I was being told rather than discovering and developing my own opinions; like Frankenstein, it’s a nested or layered narrative: the tale is an explanation to be read by a friend/confidant after the narrator’s death, to explain the unexplained to him, and within this container the narrator sets several other stories…

We learn of the narrator’s father, his young love and her very untimely death shortly after the birth of the narrator; grief leads the father to disappear for many years (very Gothic!), and this did lead me to wonder how come she knew of hos childhood and past in so much detail. She is raised in isolation by a distant and unloving aunt – here is exceptional existence number two. Eventually the father returns and the two are joyfully reunited, but everything takes a turn for the worse when a suitor takes a romantic interest in her; the father’s love for his daughter is turned into incestuous sexual desire, which he combats as he should. She, however, as a loving daughter urges her father to tell what has changed him and his feelings to her. He does. There is no physical incest involves; he flees in horror at what has become of him and kills himself, amid plenty of characteristic Gothic description. She again isolates herself from the world to suffer, actively seeking death, which she eventually brings about in true Gothic fashion from catching a chill, thus being saved from the taint of suicide. This all after failing to confide in a new friend who has also lost his intended unexpectedly.

I’m aware the summary makes it sound rather dated, and sometimes laughably Gothic – and it is. It lacks the hectic pace and feel of Frankenstein (thank goodness) until the middle where she urges her father to reveal the causes of his sadness, and we contemplate the horrors of incestuous feelings which, though unrequited, are clear on his part and hinted at on hers, I think. The tale lacks the moral complexity of the issues raised in Frankenstein, or the thought-provoking nature of The Last Man.

Surely the novella would have been shocking to a nineteenth-century reader, and I was surprised initially that a writer could have put such a delicate and taboo subject before her readers, even though she has them both die – but then Shelley, like any good writer, challenges her readers.

Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty

October 24, 2014

9781409109471Sometimes I feel like a traitor, reading Sherlock Holmes stories that are not part of the official canon, but then Horowitz does have the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. But do I need an excuse? First, a warning: if you intend to read this book, there may be details mentioned in this post that you don’t want to know, so read with caution…

First of all, I must confess to feeling a little deceived, in that Holmes is not really in this book, except for an additional short story at the end which is a sort of coda to the main story. There are gaps of time in the canon, a number of years which elapse after the Reichenbach falls episode in The Final Problem, and Holmes’ reappearance in The Empty House; perhaps I had naively imagined Horowitz treating us to some of Holmes’ adventures during that hiatus. Certainly there are lots of promising possibilities. And, as the narrator points out, the explanations offered by Watson for Holmes’ demise are distinctly dubious. Other writers have added stories, and I have written elsewhere about The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. But, after the excellent House of Silk, Horowitz has struck out in a different direction.

The Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty, is engaged in a struggle to the death with a rival and interloper from the United States who wants to annex his patch: nineteenth century turf wars. We are introduced to an interesting pairing trying to make sense of various events in London: a detective from Pinkerton’s agency in the US and a London police inspector, Athelney Jones, who appears in several of Conan Doyle’s original stories, and who strives to emulate Holmes’ detective methods, either with success or failure, depending on your perspective.

The writing is good, the yarn is a decent one. It’s very definitely a twenty-first century story – far more violence and gory description than Conan Doyle would have been allowed to inflict on a Victorian magazine audience. An American narrator shifts the focus, language and style somewhat. And, because Holmes is absent, I felt that there wasn’t that much real detective work going on – Athelney Jones is a devotee, certainly, but a poor imitation of the real thing. I got a real sense of how important Watson is to the original stories, from his absence, too.

It’s Horowitz’s second foray into the field and, ultimately, although I really enjoyed it, especially the several twists at the end, I like the House of Silk rather better as a supplementary yarn because Holmes and Watson are there, and Horowitz did extend and develop their characters well. Both stories are far more daring than anything Conan Doyle wrote, but The House of Silk felt rather more immediately plausible, and therefore convincing. I shall re-read it soon, to pick up on what I’m sure I overlooked as I was being swept along by the plot. Once I have prised it back from the clutches of my daughters, who have formed a disorderly queue to get their hands on it…

The frustration of buying books online…

October 24, 2014

Am I the only heavy reader who is finding what used to be a boon – the ability to track down and buy almost any book online – increasingly a nightmare? Amazon is now a minefield with its postage charges unless you spend a tenner. Well, I’m sorry, I’m not about to search your store for some crap I don’t want to get my order up to the minimum. So, for instance, when I was out to buy the new Sherlock Holmes tale Moriarty, the £9.00 tag didn’t hook me. I waited, and did click & collect for a tenner from my local Waterstones. Anyway, the more I learn about Amazon means the more I seek to avoid them, with their tax dodging, shitty treatment of their workers and bullying of other booksellers in their effort to create a monopoly. Thank heaven for price comparison websites, especially since if you buy from the Book Depository or Abe Books you’re also buying from Amazon. Wordery is now my bookseller of choice.

The situation with secondhand books is even worse, and it’s my latest experience that has provoked this rant: a paperback plastered with green highlighter pen….  Sellers juggle with daft prices and excessive postal charges to maximise their take, especially when Amazon is taking its cut, and Amazon marketplace is the worst but other sellers are fast catching up.

First there’s the book ordered which never arrives. OK, tell them, and usually there’s an automatic refund. But – did the book exist in the first place? Inventory control isn’t wonderful out there, and anyway, if I’ve waited the two weeks for it to not arrive, then I’m seriously fed-up and have to start all over again.

Then there’s the book which isn’t as described – the most common issue, and where getting redress becomes more difficult. It seems most sellers never check the condition of what their machinery is mailing out, so pencil, biro and felt pen or highlighter abounds. Although secondhand booksellers have for many years had a detailed code for giving the condition of their books, Amazon has its own; most sellers will describe any book as ‘good’ in my experience, even when not. So, it’s a bit of a lottery out there when faced with a choice of half-a-dozen or so sellers all offering the book in good condition, all at the amazing price of £2.81!

When one does complain, often one is made to feel a cheapskate for complaining about something so cheap – a penny! – but the postage charge changes all that. Huge book barns out there handle enormous numbers of books, and their inventory control often includes barcode stickers. OK, fair enough, but on the back and the front of a book? and using non-peelable labels? Come off it!

Real secondhand bookshops are disappearing fast; their stock is often limited, sometimes mouldering and inventively priced. Charity shops have muscled in on the act, and one of the chains has an absolutely barking pricing policy. But hey, it’s a charity! I know I’m old-fashioned, but there are times when I yearn for the days of the Net Book Agreement and real shops. I’d probably spend more, overall, and more gladly. And then I think about all the amazing things that the web has allowed me to track down…

Rant over; if you got this far you may award yourself a prize…

Usrula LeGuin: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

October 22, 2014

31+OgXW2LGL._AA160_I’m following on from my post of a couple of days ago, really. LeGuin‘s subject is in many ways a fairly recherché one: what kind of communication, co-operation or collaboration might be possible between different species of humans on other worlds, in the context of the novels and short stories known as her ‘Hainish‘ series. Of course, the cultural and gender issues explored are meant to have us also reflect on ourselves here on Earth and how much we can really know and understand; LeGuin advocates caution, as well as openness, tolerance, understanding and (perhaps) acceptance. We also need to consider how far it might be either prudent or moral to take this…

Various writers have explored contact with alien species and what we might be able to understand: the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris was turned into a demanding, perhaps impenetrable film, as was the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (Stalker). Even if or when communication were established, what would we actually be able to understand? We are into epistemological and metaphysical territory before we know it…

I’ve always thought that one of the most amazing and worthwhile things that humans do is to explore, and I often feel a thrill at the thought that my lifetime coincides with our beginning to explore cosmos and seek out other life and intelligence. I enjoy the insights offered by scientists such as Professor Brian Cox in his current TV series Human Universe, and then also feel a sadness that although I was in on the beginning of space exploration, I will not be around when we do make contact with other life forms.

LeGuin also has me reflecting on the differences between the novel and the short story, both of which she does wonderfully well. My expectations of the development of plot, character and ideas towards a resolution at the end of a novel are so different from what I find in a short story, where a single track moves relatively swiftly towards closure. I think what I lose in complexity, and in depth of escape from my reality, I perhaps gain in terms of the sharper and more detailed (because uninterrupted) focus on a single idea, character or event. I will need to take my thinking further: after years of ignoring and down-playing the short story in general, I am finding new things.

If you have enjoyed any of LeGuin’s novels or stories, then I think there is something for you in both the collections I’ve read recently. I’m awaiting delivery of another volume.

Words, words, words…

October 20, 2014

As Hamlet put it. I have always loved words and been curious about them, no matter what language they were in. And so, I cannot imagine ever being without a dictionary. For many years, Chambers has been the one-volume of choice, and I think we are well on the way towards wearing our our third copy in this household. It succeeds most of the time, and is the dictionary of necessity for a crossword fiend like myself. But, it’s not big enough – doesn’t have enough words in it. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was my mainstay during my student years, though suffering from not being updated – the edition I bought in the 1970s dated from forty years previously…

And so to the greatest of them all – the OED itself. It does seem to have everything I want in it, definitions, pronunciations, etymologies and examples of usage through time. I bought a micro-edition, all twenty volumes in one, nine pages to a page and a beefy magnifying glass to read them. The school I taught in invested in the CD-ROM version when it was first published. And now, wonder of wonders, I have free online access to the latest version through my local public library. You can’t browse it as you can a printed book, but if electronic books were invented for any purpose at all, surely it was things such as this.

French is the only other language I feel (almost) fully functional in; at university we were ordered to move on from the limitations of bilingual dictionaries such as Harraps‘ (which I still have and is my first port of call) to the monolingual Petit Robert, which I still find to be the most useful and wide-ranging. When it’s not up to the mark, then there is the Littré online, which I rarely need to call on.

And then there’s my own personal dictionary, a notebook in which I’ve collected most of the words which have baffled me at some time, when I’ve either been not within reach of a dictionary or too lazy to get up and fetch it, so I’ve jotted down words to look up later, and kept them. Two of my favourites: aglet  (which ex-students of mine may recognise) and eleemosynary, which just looks so baffling…

The internet has spawned many websites offering to broaden our knowledge of language(s). One of the oldest, and one of my favourites, is language hat, who posts regularly on a very wide variety of topics, though sometimes with a little too much Russian for my liking, and A.Word.A.Day has posted thematically linked words and definitions for many years, too. This idea was too good to pass up on, so the OED now also delivers a new word to my inbox each day, as does Word Spy, who concentrates on neologisms. And, if you like vulgarity and are not too easily offended, then there’s always the Urban Dictionary.

I always used to urge my students to learn a new word everyday, and try to, myself. I’ll be dust long before I’ve exhausted the OED…

Ursula LeGuin: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

October 19, 2014

51CTnN8CWPL._AA160_I’ve enjoyed Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction for many years, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness being among my all-time favourites. Something recently prompted me to look her up on the internet, and part from discovering that she will be eighty-five in a few days, the bibliography suggested several volumes of short stories that I immediately wanted to read.

Her imagined worlds are carefully constructed, starting from the premise that, many thousands of years ago, lots of worlds (Earth-type planets) were ‘seeded’ with different types of hominid races by one highly developed species; these races and planets are gradually reaching a level of development where they are discovering each other and coming into contact. There is a loose federation of worlds. What this very clever set-up does is allow LeGuin to put our specific Earth humans (us) under a microscope by comparing them with other possible tracks of the development of a similar species. I’ll make this a bit clearer by referring to The Left Hand of Darkness as a particularly good example: it is set on a planet where the humans are both male and female – androgynous – and at certain times, depending on a range of factors, temporarily ‘become’ one or other gender. Sex, sexuality, gender and relationships are clearly going to be rather different from what we are familiar with, and if you add a visitor from our Earth, then you have the possibility to explore many aspects of our own lives and conditioning…

Similarly, in The Dispossessed (you will find an entire post devoted to this fascinating novel somewhere on this blog if you search for it) LeGuin imagines a society run along truly anarchist lines: it is hard work, but appealing in many ways, especially when contrasted with a society like our own.

Anyway, I discovered that, along with the several novels I was familiar with that are set in the Hainish worlds, there are also many short stories that look at various aspects of those worlds, vignettes, if you like, rather than complex narratives. And they are a wonderful addition, that I was previously unaware of. LeGuin is obviously a highly political (with a small ‘p’) writer; she is also able to touch the reader (this reader) very powerfully through the worlds, the peoples and the complex relationships that she sets up in a few pages: I like the characters and their worlds and was drawn in and involved very rapidly. She moves beyond the narrower confines of more traditional science fiction very quickly, and, for me, does what a good writer in any genre should do: she makes me think.

So, this was a very enjoyable collection of stories, whether you are familiar with either of the two novels I’ve mentioned above or not. I’m already onto the next collection…

Freya Stark: Ionia

October 16, 2014

9781848851917I’ve usually enjoyed reading Freya Stark’s travel writings: she travelled widely a long time ago, and she wrote knowledgeably and intelligently about the places she visited. However, I was disappointed in this book for a number of reasons. The map is poor; very small and hard to decipher, with ancient Greek and modern Turkish names almost on top of each other and rather hard to tell apart, too. On the other hand, Stark’s many atmospheric black and white photographs from sixty years ago are very good, giving a clear sense of all the remains and ruins half-buried and forgotten in long-abandoned places.

What doesn’t work is because Stark tries to do too much in this book, in which she visits many ancient Greek towns and other sites in what used to be called Asia Minor, in fact the western coastal regions of present-day Turkey. She tries to tell us all about Greek history, in far too much detail: there are too many names and dates and digressions and quotations from Greek authors – and in a previous existence I studied Ancient History at school. So the sympathetic portrait of Asia Minor and its current inhabitants, and the lyrical descriptions of the decaying remains of ancient civilisations are swamped by information which we cannot process, lacking much of the context. She attempts to set the scene in her introduction, but sadly that was not a lot of help.

I hadn’t really realised how far Greek settlements had spread, or how many traces still remained today in far-flung and abandoned places, overgrown by vegetation and plundered over the centuries by locals in need of building materials; I had some picture of the intermingling of Greek and Turk populations until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War led to ethnic cleansing and the creation of the new Turkish state. And although Turkey is an Islamic nation, and has been for centuries, many of the Greek settlements she describes were where Christianity first established itself after the journeys of St Paul; many of the apocryphal epistles of New Testament times were addressed to communities in Asia Minor. So it was potentially a fascinating read, but didn’t really meet my expectations.

Siegfried Lenz

October 13, 2014

I learnt from a casual visit to the New York Times yesterday of the death of the writer Siegfried Lenz; nothing seems to have appeared in the British press so far.

Lenz was another German writer – rather less known over here than the likes of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll – who wrote about the Nazi period in Germany, the issues of resistance, and what was lost with the war. The German Lesson tells of an artist out of favour with the regime who is sent to live in a remote village near the Danish border, and his relationship with the country policeman who is deputed to keep a vigilant eye on him. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but I do recall vivid descriptions of the area and its remoteness, and of the understanding that develops between the two characters.

The Heritage shares rather more with Grass, I think. Both came from the same region: Grass from the former Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland) and Lenz from rather further east, the town of Lyck in East Prussia, now Ełk in Poland. It’s from this convoluted geography that springs the tragedies they both recall in different ways, for before the Second World War, the region was inhabited by Germans, Poles and other, smaller, minority groups who had lived side by side for centuries. The Versailles settlement of 1919 began the process of separating peoples via plebiscites in various parts of the region, with the choice of belonging to Germany or Poland; the special status of Danzig/Gdańsk became one of the focal points in the lead-up to the Second World War.

It seems to me that extremism – nationalism – furthers division between people, and after the horrors of the war, nothing could remain the same. Ethnic cleansing came to this corner of Europe: the Germans were removed from Gdańsk, which became a purely Polish city, and so many of Grass’ novels and writings paint a picture of a vanished world, and the sadness that it was lost; similarly, East Prussia could no longer exist: the population fled in before the advancing Soviet armies. Lenz depicts this trauma in The Heritage; centuries of a shared past vanish in a few months. Those who didn’t flee were expelled by the new Soviet and Polish administrations. And you can’t say that they could or should have done anything else, when you read of what the Nazis did and encouraged Germans to do to non-Germans in those areas.

All of this is, of course, fading into history with the passing of those who knew it and could write so well about it; it exists in old maps and place-names, and in the ideal of different peoples being able to live together. Of course, this was an ideal; the history of the borderlands tells a grimmer story, and yet something has surely been lost for ever with the coming of national homogeneity.

Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

October 12, 2014

9780099541066A change from what I usually think of when I think of Tolstoy: not the door-stopper tomes of Anna Kerenina or War & Peace, but a novella: sixty scant pages, but a very powerful story. I wonder what the Russian literature group will make of this…

In a modernist way, Tolstoy begins at the end, with the awkward, elusive and rather bored reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s work colleagues to news of his demise. From this point, I think we know we are in for a challenging read: a nineteenth century writer not presenting the standard, respectful clichés and responses to death. Furthermore, Tolstoy takes us in close, inside the unspoken thoughts of his characters, revealing the more unpleasant sides to their souls.

Having established death, Tolstoy backtracks to Ivan Ilyich’s rather dull, routine and unsatisfactory life, his lack of continued success in his profession and his empty marriage. It takes a while before we realise just how cleverly Tolstoy is manipulating his readers: he has deliberately chosen to have his hero nondescript, ultimately a sad failure in our , and eventually his own, eyes: the movement towards death of a more contented, well-balanced and likeable person would have perhaps had an altogether different effect. I also realised that calling his hero Ivan Ilyich has an immediate significance for Russian readers which might escape us: the name is the equivalent of John Smith in England, and thus Tolstoy invests him with the potential to be almost an Everyman figure: this is what it will be like for all of us, this suffering and emptiness is a much more widespread lot that we may care to think.

Medically, the premise behind the ‘accident’ which causes Ivan Ilyich’s fatal illness is nonsensical, but that’s hardly the point: his death is a consequence of his striving for material success and conspicuous consumption; the illness is drawn out over enough time for the effects on the hero and his family to be clear.

Again we are manipulated by the nature of the narrative, which focuses solely on the death through the hero’s point of view, thoughts and consciousness: we are given hardly any response from the perspective of his wife, daughter and son, which underlines his isolation and suggests their total lack of love for him.

So he must come to terms with his unsatisfactory life, and his inevitable death, all on his own; yes, the family are there, on the periphery of things, but he seems to feel they resent him, and he has the picture of them getting on with living whilst he must get on with dying: this is true, and what else can one do? But Tolstoy makes us realise the pain and torment this can add to the physical process of death. And Ivan Ilyich comes to hate his family for it…

‘Tout le monde est le premier à mourir’ says the king in Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt. ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ as Hans Fallada called his powerful novel. And this is something that we all must come to realise one day. Sorry if I’ve depressed you; it is a very good read.

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