Archive for November, 2014

Turn the page and look at the pictures…

November 30, 2014

I wrote about books as objects of beauty here a few  weeks ago; doing some tidying up of my shelves, I was reminded of all the books I love to look at, rather than read from cover to cover. I’m sure everyone must have some. I had thought of calling this post ‘book p*rn’ but thought that might give some people the wrong idea…

I’ve always loved atlases; one of my earliest Christmas presents as a child was an atlas, and I’ve never looked back. No contemporary atlas beats The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, though it doesn’t balance easily on the knees; I’m onto my second copy, what with the world having changed so much in 1991 and subsequently that I needed a new one for all the place name changes. But I can pore over it for hours, looking at the beauty of placenames, contours, mountains, islands…

I scored a great bargain about twenty years ago when I go a copy of the Daily Telegraph Atlas as published in 1919 – a veritable time machine with an almost unrecognisable Europe and a completely unrecognisable rest of the world. Beautifully produced, it make the Times Atlas look small. Some years ago Taschen, the German publishers, reproduced a large selection of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior of the 1660s, and I couldn’t resist that! You can see the world part way through Western white man’s discovery of it; the engravings are beautiful. the illustrations and decorations – especially in the unknown parts of the world – magnificent. I turn the pages and wonder.

You would expect an ex-English teacher to have something to say about Shakespeare…I treated myself to a reproduction of the First Folio of 1623, and I love to look at my favourite plays and read the speeches in that antique font, the old style ‘s’, the ligatures between ‘c’ and ‘t’. It’s an object of great beauty and fascination, and whenever I’m in London near the British Library I go in to see the real thing, and shivers run down my spine.

I’ve written enough about desert travel in this blog for no-one to be surprised that I have several books of stunning photographs of deserts in various parts of the word. I prefer my deserts without people; I don’t mind close-ups though I think I prefer panoramas, and I’m still amazed at the variety of landscapes, rocks, colours, since the immediate association with the word ‘desert’ is usually ‘sand’.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to explore the world of art more deliberately, and to learn a little. I like exhibitions, when I can get to them, and galleries when I’m on my travels, and books of reproductions when I’m unable to do either. I can gaze in wonder upon Turner’s oil paintings and watercolours happily for hours. I did not realise my luck in seeing my favourite of his, Modern Rome, at an exhibition in Edinburgh before it was snaffled by the bottomless money-pit that is the Getty Museum in the US. And large tomes of Monet, and Kaspar David Friedrich are also on the shelves, and often off them.

There’s something about sitting down and just turning pages, rather than reading, that makes me feel a little guilty, but I comfort myself with the thought that it’s a throwback to my childhood days, when one was allowed to turn over pages and look at pictures…

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Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles

November 28, 2014

31ZJ8BB6C6L._AA160_So, I’ve revised the opinion I expressed a few days back, because this volume is surely Bradbury’s masterpiece. In places the language verges on the poetic, in other places he is still mawkish and sentimental, but the overall achievement is marvellous.

For some reason which I haven’t fathomed yet, The Martian Chronicles was published in the UK as The Silver Locusts, which meant I spent a while hunting for a book which I thought I didn’t have, but had all along. It dates from the 1950s, and is a collection of themed short stories, about Earth colonising Mars. The stories are dated from 1999 to the late 2020s, during which time Earth manages to colonise Mars, exterminate all the Martians, and then exterminate themselves back on planet Earth by having a nuclear war. Bradbury’s portrait of Mars is clearly not an accurate one, in terms of our current knowledge: for him and his characters, it’s basically Earth but a bit colder and the atmosphere is thinner. But the book is actually much more successful in having us as a species and a civilisation (?!) reflect on ourselves and what we do to our world and its inhabitants…

I was thinking about the silver locusts business, and realise that the silver may be the colour of the hulls of all the spacecraft heading for Mars, and the locusts represent the effect of the hordes of Earthmen taking over and trashing the planet. The Martians have only one advantage over humans – telepathy – and they try vainly to keep us off their planet, but ultimately fail, and are wiped out by a human virus. Remind you of anything? Their ghosts haunt the planet as humans colonise and reshape it the way they want. Thousands flock there, inspired by the dream of a new life. Remind you of anything? And white folks back on Earth are outraged when all the people of colour in the US emigrate en masse…

And the foolishness of our race knows no bounds – the war which everyone feared in the 1950s comes to pass, and the humans on Mars watch in horror as they see Earth glowing with nuclear war, and then all dash back patriotically to do their bit, leaving only a few lonely souls behind, to be joined by some who are sensible enough to flee the ruins of Earth in the hope of starting a new life. The story August 2026 There Will Come Soft Rains is wonderful.

It is very much a piece of its time. It’s barkingly unrealistic, beautifully lyrical, and a powerful allegory about many of the things that are wrong with our world. If anything of Bardbury’s oeuvre survives the test of time, it deserves to be this.

Ray Bradbury: The Golden Apples of the Sun

November 26, 2014

9780380730391A collection of short stories, which I’ve reread, trying to work out whether I really rate him any more.  There are some surprises here – an eye-opening glimpse into the race-relations issues in the 1950s US, and a very prescient story which seems to address today’s issues about omnipresent and intrusive social media communications. Then there is the very famous time-travel story, The Sound of Thunder, which explores the idea that going back into the past – if it were possible – would be very dangerous, because of the possibility of a chain-reaction in changes to that past. I shan’t say any more lest you haven’t come across this story, which is one of the classics of the genre, and has been anthologised many times.

Bradbury is big on Mars – we need to remember that the Soviet Union hadn’t launched the first space craft when most of these stories were written – and the possibilities of colonising another planet and emigrating to it. He links this in to the old frontier days of the early United States. I’m planning to read his collection The Martian Chronicles next, as my final catch-up with him.

There’s an awful lot of dross, though. Stories written by the word to make money, published in long-dead magazines, with magic, witches and the twee-ness of small-town American life presented in a very saccharine or maudlin manner. And then there’s the Cold War, always lurking in the background, always ready to leap into Hot War unexpectedly. This last is a more convincing and genuine recurrent theme, though others have developed it better, I feel. I’m beginning to feel that Bradbury is now a name to which readers pay reverence as a pioneer of the SF genre, and the SF story in particular, without necessarily being all that familiar with much of his work, and that he will eventually fade into obscurity.

Ionesco: Le Roi Se Meurt

November 24, 2014

A review in the paper at the weekend of a revival of this play in English sent me back to it; the book I have I ‘forgot’ to return to school after I’d studied the play for French A level in 1972! It was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd, and I suppose was one of the texts from which I began to learn and develop the skills of literary analysis and criticism which have played a major role in my life and work…

Coming back to this story of the reluctant death of a king who has always refused to come to terms with its inevitability is obviously very different, given that I’m rather closer to that possibility myself than I was way back in 1972. The metaphorical meanings were clearer, for a start: it’s the death of a king because everyone (Everyman?) is at the centre of his/her own universe, solipsistically: everything revolves around us, from our perspective, and no matter how significant we imagine we are, we must eventually let go of that importance, that permanence, and fade into insignificance. The king is aided and tormented by his two queens, one rather matter-of-fact, insistent on the necessity of what must happen, in a no-nonsense way, and the other representing attachment, to people and objects, all of which must be let go of… The interplay between acceptance and resistance is at the heart of the drama, as it surely is at the heart of the human condition, cruelly inevitable.

What attracted me to the play way back then – the absurdity which breaks through, which jars, which shocks us into new ways of seeing and responding – is just as powerful to me now. We create the meaning to our life if there is one, and there is another perspective from which it is absurd, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. ( Ionesco later wrote a version of the Scottish play, too). I wondered then, and felt that the play was a tragedy, no easy thing to write in the godless twentieth century, and I still think so. Perhaps there isn’t a so much of a sense of tragic waste, but there is a sense of loss at the end as everything gradually vanishes and collapses around the dying king.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the title, which is a sort of play on words which cannot really be translated into English – the rather banal ‘Exit The King‘ doesn’t do it justice. The point is that the verb ‘mourir’ – to die – in French is a normal verb, whereas Ionesco makes it a reflexive verb, one of those curiosities which drive English learners of foreign languages to distraction; it’s on the same level as other things that one does for oneself, like getting dressed, sitting down, cleaning one’s teeth, so to make the verb ‘to die’ a verb like those others, gives it an extra edge: to die in himself? for himself? to himself?

And, I have always found a great profundity in the line from the play (translated here) “Everyone is the first person to die.” Think about it.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

November 23, 2014

9780007491568The temperature at which paper catches fire (apparently). This dystopia from the days of the Cold War (1954) is one of the oldest in my library: I’ve had it so long, I noticed the price on the back cover is in real money (3/6 if that makes any sense)… It starts out from a single idea, that the written word is dangerous because it confuses and divides people, causes disagreements – so it’s outlawed. The hero is a fireman, except that in this dystopian USA, firemen go around burning down the houses of people found in possession of books.

Ironically, it’s a book. The film of the novel, made by the French director François Truffaut, is better, because it does just that: there is no written word or letter in the film; titles and credits are recited.

Utopias and dystopias are notorious for their didacticism, and this one is no different: various characters preach to the reader, telling us how certain situations came about and what must be done; these parts are as annoying as some of the most difficult bits of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eightyfour. I don’t know if it is possible to get around such excesses: the author has a point that just has to be made, no matter the effect on the story. And Bradbury is capable of some very lyrical and descriptive writing, with his nostalgia for a mythical golden age in the past where everything was just hunky-dory.

It’s a trope of his – and a very relevant and well-presented one, not just in this novel, either – that in modern society people are increasingly alienated from themselves and each other: conversations are not ‘real’, everyone is diverted constantly by noise, advertising and endless, meaningless, trivial entertainment. People who hang on to the past and its ways are dangerous; Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is probably the most chilling example of this.

And yet, real analysis is sadly lacking. Bradbury seems to hint at this alienation being some sort of communist plot – he was writing in 1954 – but this doesn’t wash at all nowadays: I would argue that we see ever more of this alienation and triviality around us nowadays, and that it is a logical and expected facet of late capitalist and consumerist society: if you divide people from each other, you can sell them more stuff; if you fill their heads with trivia then they will consume more in a desperate search for meaning and fulfilment…

The novel ends with the start of a nuclear war, and the only vague hope Bradbury can offer us is a group of misfits hidden in the wilds who have memorised sections of books in the hope of being able to pass them on to future generations. It’s not as grim as the boot stamping on a human face forever, but it’s hardly any more hopeful. In the end, the concept is rather more powerful than the execution; coming back to this novel after a very long time, I was somewhat disappointed.

Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

Lucas Bridges: The Uttermost Part of the Earth

November 11, 2014

5196kYhPYsL._AA160_Well, I never imagined I would describe a book about sheep farming in Argentina as fascinating, but this one certainly was. First off, since I moan so frequently about maps in travel books, I will acknowledge that the maps in this volume are excellent: clear, and a decent scale. Obviously they were taken from the original 1948 publication of this book.

I’ve never really understood Christian missionaries setting off to prosyletise in the back of beyond either, but they often write very well about the people and places they encounter, and The Uttermost Part of the Earth starts with the author’s father establishing the first mission to the pagan tribes of Tierra del Fuego, on the very tip of South America. The tribes, the Yahgan and the Ona, are primitive and savage, and in the end not terribly interested in Christianity – they seem to have no gods or religion at all, only some superstitions and rituals –  and the father gives up being a missionary, but raises his family and develops settlements where life is hard, sheep are raised, the land is gradually settled, and in some ways the lives of the natives are improved. However, the writer acknowledges that the encroachment of the white races, as Argentina and Chile gradually claim and fill up their territories, leads to the inevitable extinction of the tribes.

The writer, however, is increasingly fascinated by the natives, learning their unbelievably complex languages, and sharing their lives, habits and rituals, often risking life and limb as he becomes unintentionally embroiled in some of their internecine feuds. He grows up among them and knows no other way of life; he relishes the adventures and takes all the hardships in his stride as a young man. He describes the lives of the settlers and the tribes in great detail, and, for someone writing about events over a century ago, is very open-minded and non-judgemental about what he encounters. At this level, the book becomes quite compelling, and once again I had the feeling of real explorers (Europeans, yes) discovering somewhere and exploring it for the first time, enduring genuine hardship and privation when they could have been somewhere a lot more comfortable. Clearly, you can’t avoid the ‘what on earth are Europeans doing there anyway?’ and the issue of colonialism and its deleterious effects.

The writer’s father spent years compiling a dictionary of the Yahgan (or Yamara) language, which was stolen, pirated and didn’t actually see the light of day for over fifty years. Fascinated as I am by weird languages I went straight to the bizarre Christus Rex website, which is the best place I know of to see examples: they have versions of the Lord’s Prayer in about 1700 languages, and sure enough there it was… further research was rather chilling, as one of the two languages (Yahgan and Ona) was listed as extinct, and the other, in 2013, had only one living speaker. As I started off by saying, I was rather more touched and moved by this book than I expected to be.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

November 6, 2014

9780099496953 I can’t off-hand remember how many times I’ve taught this text to sixth-formers. After a few years, I’ve come back to it, in order to write a study guide. As always, there is something new to notice, even when coming back to a text one is very familiar with.

For a novel that’s been around for thirty years or so, and can be described as ‘speculative fiction’, it’s dated remarkably little; many of the ideas that Atwood found already part of society when she was writing are still evident. Certainly it reads more convincingly that, for instance, Nineteen-Eightyfour thirty years after that novel was first published.

Offred’s story – that of a woman in the newly established Republic of Gilead, in the eastern part of the former USA, a fertile female assigned to a deserving male for breeding purposes – still has the power to shock, but, more importantly, to make the reader reflect on so many aspects of the power relationships between men and women in society. However, it was not this aspect of Atwood’s novel that spoke most strongly to me this time around.

The tone of the narrative is marvellously developed and sustained: Offred tells her story is the first person, experiencing, feeling and describing, with even her dialogue and that of others subsumed into the texture of her narrative, partly by the very simple device of not using inverted commas to demarcate any speech. This reinforces the timelessness of her story, in which most of her life is just waiting around, frittering time away, being bored, and being tormented by her memories of her past. She is intensely focused on words, language and meaning; she tunes into plays on words, definitions, shades and changes; even her illicit nighttime encounters with her Commander are filled with games of Scrabble… the time she has on her hands, this superfluity, adds an almost poetic quality to her narrative. It’s highly effective, helping draw the reader more deeply into Offred’s tortured being.

The second thing that struck me even more forcefully this time was the cleverness of Atwood’s narrative structure; the layering of the stories reminded me more than once of Shelley‘s Frankenstein. This deliberate – and oh so subtle – shifting of our perspectives and opinions nudges us in the direction of realising the complexities of the sexual-political issues Atwood is exploring via Offred’s experiences. And Atwood offers us no easy answers; it’s no strident feminist diatribe with all men as the enemy, and the deficiencies of our own society are as much under the microscope as the horrors of the Gileadean future.

In the end, for me the crux is the human desire for intimacy with another, and what becomes of that intimacy. Atwood has written a novel which will stand the test of time as well as or better than other dystopias of recent years, and which will not lose the power to make its readers think deeply about themselves as well as their world.

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