Archive for March, 2015

Bruno Schultz: The Street of Crocodiles

March 31, 2015

51ft9Cr66yL._AA160_I finally picked this up and read it for the first time (having bought it new in 1980!) because I learned from Gombrowiczdiary that the two knew each other, and Gombrowicz rated Schultz quite highly.

It’s a collection of linked short stories centred on Schultz’ hometown of Drohobycz, formerly in eastern Poland. The atmosphere is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in places; there are echoes of Kafka‘s short story Metamorphosis as Schultz writes about his father, though the transformation is slower and more drawn out than that of Gregor Samsa.

Although they are divorced from reality, there is a hypnotic feel to the stories; the characters are also unreal: the closest comparison I could come up with as I thought about them was with Marquez and magic realism, that style which was to emerge much later on. The language is often beautiful, lyrical as we shift from semi-reality to fantasy. Echoes of some of Boris Vian, too. I often wonder which writers have read, heard of or comes across each other when I pick up on similar traits like this in different writers.

The two most accomplished stories are The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops (this collection is sometimes given the name of that story as its title), both powerful and haunting visions of aspects of the town. When I read something like this, I find myself reading quite differently compared with how I interact with a more conventional novel or short story: here, I drift too, in a dreamlike state, through the almost poetic visions and imaginings of the writer, rather than absorbing words and thinking about them as I seek to take plot and character on board. Quite a magical experience.

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

Ursula LeGuin: Four Ways to Forgiveness

March 30, 2015

512VerrEiIL._AA160_Catching up with unread Ursula LeGuin stories has been more of an eye-opener than I had expected, and has certainly confirmed my feeling that she is probably the most thoughtful and imaginative writer of science fiction I’ve ever come across.

I’ve read several volumes of stories over the last few months (posts here, here and here), all part of her Hainish cycle, and I think this is the last volume (if you know different, please let me know!). The stories are loosely linked by the ideas of betrayal and forgiveness, which makes them moving enough before you start to think about the broader issues she is approaching.

The Hainish civilisation is three million years old, we learn, and has gone through many, different, peaceful stages. Two million years previously it had seeded various suitable planets in the vicinity; those worlds are now coming into contact with each other, having developed differently physically, socially and culturally; there is a very loose-knit federation of planets called the Ekumen. This complex – and not completely developed – system gives LeGuin enormous scope to reflect on how humans live, or don’t live, together. One realises that her father’s having been an anthropologist has perhaps shaped LeGuin’s approach to science fiction somewhat.

The four stories in this book comes across as tantalising fragments, disjointed, disconnected and yet that doesn’t do them justice: there are numerous subtle links and connections between them as she explores and recognises how hard and yet how necessary it is for peoples to understand how they develop and are conditioned over time, and how a deliberate effort to change behaviours may be needed. She puts gender relationships, relations between races, and issues about slavery and freedom under her microscope. This may make LeGuin seem didactic; only a limited and churlish response would stop there, however. She is optimistic about people and the possibility of emotional as well as scientific and technological progress.

Ideas: a world that has not known a war for several millennia; that it’s fine to be part of your own limited and circumscribed little world if that is where you are happy, but that the entire universe is open to you if you want that; that hard and painful choices have to be made and that we cope with them and move on, as what is important to us in our lives changes as we grow older. In many ways, as I read the stories, I came to think that they are actually deeper, more profound and more challenging in a way than the fully-fledged novels, such as The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness are. If you haven’t read any of her science fiction, you have missed something great.

Witold Gombrowicz: Diary

March 25, 2015

51d6XzdUABL._AA160_I recently read his Memories of Poland, which dealt with his early life and the pre-war years in Poland; this massive tome (800 pages) deals with his later life and is apparently regarded as his most important work; he sailed to Argentina a couple of weeks before the outbreak of the second World War and didn’t return to Europe for twenty-four years; he never went back to Poland.

So he’s in a world I’m familiar with from the writings of several other Polish authors, Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz the first two that spring to mind, an involuntary exile. The Poland that they left behind disappeared; the Poland that re-appeared under Stalin’s thumb in 1945 was not their home; in many cases their home soil was no longer in Poland…

Gombrowicz is still focused on the relationship between Poland and the West, its inferiority complex and its immaturity, its need to boast, to prove itself a peer of other, really European nations; in places it almost seems an obsession, and, whilst it’s pretty clear what he is criticising, what he would replace it with is much less so. There is a yearning for Poland and Poles to be authentically themselves and original rather than be imitative of, or worhipful of Europe. Despite the lack of clarity I experienced, there is true challenge and originality, questioning and analysis in Gombrowicz’ work. He is very interesting on Milosz’ important work The Captive Mind, a study of intellectuals under communism.

The Diary feels like a blog from the 1950s, before the invention of the concept; it’s certainly not a diary in the ways many of us would understand it; occasionally there are bizarre, even hallucinatory passages; sometimes he writes about himself in the third person. Some aspects of his own story and his past are clarified. There are some real nuggets buried in places, such as his enthralment with Beethoven’s late string quartets, which he writes much about.

He develops a detailed and very interesting – I can’t judge how accurate – analysis of why the inter-war Polish Republic was ultimately a failure, and why Polish art and literature failed: his focus is on the real difficulty of a new nation emerging after 120 years of non-existence, and yet still clinging to the baggage of the distant past. And yet I found myself thinking of the emigre and his relationship to his country, from a distance of 8000 miles and two decades or more; as time passed, he seemed to become more tormented or perplexed by his relationship with Poland, with other emigres and Polish emigre journalism; he seems out of sympathy with many of his peers. When he finally returns to Europe for the last five years of his life, he seems rather lost and out of place. The diary confirms for me the awfulness, and the loneliness of exile and separation from home, even in such a perverse character as Gombrowicz.

Usual moan: for a book from Yale University Press, I’d have expected a much higher standard of proof-reading.

On feminism

March 19, 2015

I was prodded into thinking about this topic by a former student; I spent several years studying and writing a thesis on feminist science fiction in the nineteen-eighties, and read a good deal of theory, analysis and criticism. Although I’ve never gone back to it, it has informed – I think – my attitudes and behaviours over the years. I have been a little surprised at how some of the key theoretical texts from that time seem now to have faded into obscurity, along with a lot of the literature, too; I suspect that much of it was very much of its time, and has consequently dated. Novelists such as Marge Piercy explored a wide range of different relationships between women and men, and women and women, and she wrote an excellent utopian novel called Woman On The Edge of Time, which I’ve never gone back to (though I’ve often thought I should) unlike other utopias and dystopias I’ve enjoyed.

I have also been struck by the way that feminism has been dismissed, or sidelined, by women and by the media, as if it had done its job and was therefore superseded, no longer necessary. This seems to have been a rather superficial – and therefore not very surprising – response, in a world where responses to so many things are temporary, fashionable and superficial.

I am also beginning to wonder how much one’s attitudes change, or are modified, as one grows older. There are certainly ways in which I perceive myself as rather more reserved, conservative, old-fashioned, although I don’t think that this impinges on my commitment to gender equality as far as that is possible. I am still sent back, as I was thirty or more years ago, to the differences between the biological givens (which technology hasn’t really changed thus far) and the culturally and socially-conditioned attributes of gender, over which we do have rather more control, if we choose to notice, and to take it. Where I think I am more reserved than I once was, is about how much biological gender shapes and affects the ways we interact with and judge the world; though we can be aware of this, I’m unsure of how much we can change, how far we (men or women) can be different.

This is where I have found, and continue to find, the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin most challenging and thought-provoking, showing as it does one of the ways in which this genre can contribute something significant to literature and humanity that no other genre can. She is the only author about whom I wrote then, to whom I have returned. Recognising human biology for what it is and how it shapes us, in her Hainish cycle of novels and short stories, but perhaps most particularly in the award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin imagines human types on other worlds, whose biology, physiology, psychology, sexuality and culture are very different from our own; it is a stunning effort of the imagination not just to realise such people but also their own problems and shortcomings in relation to each other and to other species. Of course, it’s fantasy, you may say, all imaginary; yes, and it helps us, precisely through the imagination, to reflect on ourselves and perhaps gives us new perspectives, shedding new light on old problems…

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my reading choices as a male reader. I find myself wondering about gender determinism: just how much freedom do I or any other male have to change the ways in which I think and behave, with the hope of moving towards a fairer world? And then I am also brought back to the Marxist analysis of the gender question, which basically says that feminism, though important, sidelines the real issues facing humanity, which are, of course, class issues. The gender problem will be solved after the revolution… hum! The older I get, and the more history I have lived through, the more I am drawn to thinking that Marx was right about the class issue being primary. But that’s another question

On determinism

March 16, 2015

I have been thinking about the ways my upbringing, childhood and parents have shaped my world, and in particular, my tastes in reading. Jesuits have said ‘Give me the child until he is five, and I will give you the man’; I rather tend towards the line in Philip Larkin‘s This Be The Verse – if you know the poem, you know what I mean, and if you don’t, you need to look it up and think about it…

What set me to thinking about this particular topic is my increasing awareness that I don’t read very much that overlaps with what my friends and colleagues read, with what is popular or of the moment; I don’t feel that I’m being either perverse or snobbish in this, and it is nevertheless the case. I find relatively few people that I can discuss in detail what I’ve read with; I hope that this blog might spark some responses and dialogues, and sometimes it does.

So, beginning with the obvious (at least as it seems to me): I read a lot of literature from and history of Eastern Europe, and not exclusively from Poland. Given my antecedents, that’s not too surprising. I’m also very interested in religion and matters spiritual; having had a fairly strict and conventional Catholic childhood, that is probably not surprising either. I read a lot of travel writing, as anyone who’s skimmed this blog will be aware; again, given my father’s origins and his extensive (enforced) travels during the Second World War, the idea that there were lots of other unfamiliar, curious, and even strange lands all over the planet took root pretty early on. I was used to hearing a foreign language spoken from my earliest years when my father chatted with his fellow-exiles.

Yet my studies have been in English (mainly) and also French literature, which I can’t say I imbibed from my mother in the same way that I’ve acknowledged my father’s influence above. I have realised that it has been largely English literature which has moved me (sometimes I have strayed into American) and that I have never had any interest in exploring Scots or Welsh or Irish literature in the English language. That leads, of course, into the Englishness versus Britishness debate, and how one views oneself… Though I feel some kind of blood loyalty to Poland, it’s the language and literature of Shakespeare, Donne, Austen and others that have spoken so strongly to me. Although there is Joseph Conrad

And then there are the tastes I have acquired whose origins I cannot fathom. Where did I get my very early love of science fiction from – what made me read Dan Dare in the Eagle so avidly? And whence the (almost) obsession with Sherlock Holmes? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read each of the stories and novels; I know what happens in each of them, the solutions to the mysteries, and I still go back to them. And, why don’t I read the things that I don’t read – if you see what I mean. For a student and teacher of literature, large swathes of it remain literally a closed book to me – there’s a post about that somewhere in here, too.

Is it part of ageing, that one starts to wonder how one was shaped, influenced and became the person that one is, that one inevitably is, and that now, as I accept growing older, I realise that I cannot be anyone else?

On learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

Modris Eksteins: Walking Since Daybreak

March 5, 2015

41NX3WWBQ5L._AA160_This book adds to the territory covered by Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, with a specifically Latvian perspective, but overall, it’s rather flawed in its execution. But over here, in the (relative) security of western Europe, we know very little about the Baltic nations, and we ought to know more. For centuries, Latvia and Estonia were German-ruled provinces, athough often subject to Russian supervision and control: this is still an issue today, when Russia may seem to regard the area as its own backyard, much in the way that the US regards and treats Latin America…

It’s the structure of the book that’s ultimately at fault, I feel: Eksteins wants to bring out significant parallels between what went on pre-1914 and post-1989, along with recounting the sufferings wreaked on the small nations by the Second World War. Interwoven into his historical account is his own family’s history, which is fascinating, but there’s rather too much going on for the book to retain clarity.

Small nations caught between the German and Russian steamrollers inevitably suffer from both sides, and their suffering is accentuated by picking the wrong side to support. The history, both national and racial, of the region, is very complex – as Snyder has clarified so expertly – and Western oversimplification of the issues, and naivete in response to the Russians, betrays a total lack of understanding which the people do not deserve, and which is, ultimately, potentially very dangerous.

I had not known about the horrors of the wars between Russia and Germany over the Baltic region in the aftermath of the Great War. Eksteins also manages to clarify an issue I had wondered about, namely the Latvians’ support of the Nazis during the Second World War and their collaboration in the killing of the Jews, which seems to have resulted largely from the previous Soviet occupation, where many of the leaders and powerful figures were Jewish…

Ekstein’s family ultimately end up as displaced persons in Germany before they eventually are accepted as immigrants to Canada; again, I learned much about the trials of displaced persons at the end of the war, their horrendous treatment by all sides – that’s Germans, Russians and the Western Allies – but the focus gets lost towards the end of the book as the family story leaves the centre-stage and the author expresses his indignation at the Allied atrocities of carpet-bombing of German cities. He is absolutely right about the moral swamp that both sides were mired in, though: yes, the Germans started it all, but war corrupts all who engage in it.

It’s a useful, harrowing and challenging book, and it’s easy for me to say that the structure is a problem, as I’m not sure how else he might have done it. In the light of current events in Eastern Europe and the gross oversimplifications and posturings of our leaders, it was a timely read.

In pursuit of knowledge…

March 3, 2015

Whether one takes a religious line and believes that God gave us reason and intellect and therefore we should use them, or a more secular approach, believing that the human brain is one of the peaks and marvels of evolution, surely our curiosity and ability to pursue knowledge is one of the greatest things about our species; I have always felt this.

Humans have always sought to know and to understand their world; over millennia our knowledge and understanding has grown. Men have sought to write down the sum of what is known – Pliny‘s Natural History is a fascinating example of this, although for me the pioneer has always been Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk who wrote what has sometimes been called the world’s first encyclopaedia, his Etymologies, a series of twenty short volumes which attempt to classify, categorise and explain all things that were definitely known in his time. For his pioneering work, he has earned the title of patron saint of the internet, which I think is wonderful. The organisation and content of the Etymologies is at times weird and/ or bizarre, but it’s the effort and determination, and the understanding that it needed to be done, which earns the respect.

Similarly, travellers and explorers, about whom I often write, have dedicated themselves, through the centuries, to finding out about the furthest corners of our world, often at extreme risk and peril; the more I read, the more I am astonished by how much was known and discovered long ago, in many different lands. But then, knowledge can be lost, and I do feel that there is a Western bias in the way that discovery is presented to us nowadays, in that a thing or place in unnown until someone from the west has uncovered it and written about it.

When I was 14, men landed on the moon for the first time and walked about on it; I got myself up at three in the morning to watch the event live on grainy black and white television, and it is still, all those years later, the most marvellous thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it remains etched clearly on my memory. Yes, they knew where they were going, how far it was, and how long it would take, and the risks involved; they did it, and it’s the furthest humanity has physically got in its exploration of the universe. I doubt that I will still be here when men walk on Mars, but I do believe that money, time and effort spent on getting there is worthwhile, compared with many other things on which we waste our time and resources.

When Wikipedia first began, the idea seemed weird: an encyclopaedia anyone could contribute to, and yet as it has evolved and developed it has become a veritable goldmine of information (yes, I know not all of it is reliable, but its reach stretches way beyond anything else) and it lives on in the spirit of Isidore, as a recognition of our search for knowledge.

The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck

March 3, 2015

51MpS2dTK5L._AA160_In 1253, Friar William and a companion set off on a journey into the unknown, which lasted two years. With an introductory letter from the king of France, they set off for the court of the son of Genghiz Khan, with the intention of preaching to him and, if possible, converting him to Christianity. That task itself was not quite as insane as the journey, as Nestorian Christianity was quite well established in those regions.

I’ve sometimes alluded to the differences between exploration, travel and tourism in my posts on travel writing, and this book helped clarify those differences for me.

Nowadays, we have a mental map of the world in our heads, with varying levels of detail according to our geographical education; we know of routes from place to place, the various nations and peoples of the globe, where particularly dangerous areas are; there are no blank spaces on our maps. Back in the mid-thirteenth century, some routes were known, some places and some peoples too; there were no maps as we know them, so distances were unknown; there were no compasses, so directions themselves were unclear. News as we know it did not exist, so there was no way of knowing if one were heading into the equivalent of twenty-first century Syria, or Libya, say… so Friar William had to trust to God and his fellow humans, and allow himself to be led by people he hoped were honest and well-meaning. And he went.

He observes details, and records them carefully, for his report to the French king: places and peoples, routes and distances, customs, what people eat and drink and how they marry and bury their dead. He relies on vague previous knowledge and legend at times; he makes some judgements and offers some opinions which show his Christian bias or prejudices, but overall he is pretty impartial and even scientific in his approach to reporting.

He got there and back, although he left behind his companion who was too ill to travel back; he failed in his intended mission although he seems to have received a courteous enough reception from the lord of the world. We know almost nothing about William himself except a small detail that reveals thar he must have been quite a portly man.

I find myself in awe of such a traveller, lost in the mists of time, his achievements and how his account has survived over 750 years. It’s partly thanks to the Hakluyt Society, who are dedicated to publishing accounts of travel and exploration which might otherwise disappear from our knowledge; their books are beautifully produced and edited, usually with helpful maps, and copious introductions and footnotes.

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