Archive for April, 2015

Umberto Eco: Confessions of a Young Novelist

April 28, 2015

9780674058699Eco knows how to get you thinking: his first question asks what we actually mean by creative writing, and we’re off…

What he has to say about the genesis of The Name of the Rose, which has been one of my top three novels ever since I first read it, was very interesting: he added both to my understanding of, and pleasure in the book by explaining the origins of certain moments and episodes. I like it when an author colludes with his readers like this. There were also some fascinating insights into Baudolino, which I love almost as much; I was less interested in Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, though I’ve read these too.

When an intelligent writer enters into dialogue or conversation with readers like this, we gain greater understanding of their work; we can also tune in to Eco’s evident enjoyment of his art and his craft. He’s clear that his readers have a certain amount of work to do: I like this honesty, having long felt that a good novel is more than mere diversion or entertainment. Eco I love because he has a brain that joys in questioning, thinking, annoying, finding connections.

He moves on to some very interesting and thought-provoking reflections on our relationships with various fictional characters: why are novels, and some of the characters in them, able to have such a powerful effect on the reader? His prime example, which he explores in some depth, is the reader’s response to the heroine’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. He recognises that we are capable of being influenced by fictional characters, and explores the nature of their ‘existence’ in ways which had never occurred to me… and Eco is at the same time anchored in that idea which we so often lose sight of, that fiction, and characters, are deliberate constructs.

In the second half of the book, Eco becomes a little more self-indulgent as he rides one of his favourite hobby-horses, the list and how it has been used in literature by himself and other writers. It is interesting, and clearly a rider to his full-length, fascinating tome The Infinity of Lists.

There’s rarely a dull moment in any book from a writer of such erudition; there were pointers for me in lots of new directions, as well as reminders to get on and re-read certain books as well.

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Tete-Michel Kpomassie: An African in Greenland

April 17, 2015

9780940322882I don’t remember what prompted me to re-read this wonderful travel book, but it was well worth it. Tete-Michel Kpomassie is from Togo where, as a boy, he had a fearful encounter with a snake; reading in a book about Greenland, a country where there are no snakes, he decides he will go there. He leaves home as a teenager in the late 1950s and travels and works his way there gradually, continuing to educate himself, earn money through various menial jobs, and receiving help from benefactors along the way…it takes him about twelve years altogether, from when he runs away from home until his first landing in Greenland. And he doesn’t really understand what the idea of ‘freezing’ means.

You can’t help but respect his determination and perseverance, and you love his cheerfulness and good humour: he never once thinks of giving up. Finally he sails from Copenhagen into a world of ice and lengthening nights, and the shock effect on the Greenlanders of the first black man arriving there is astonishing, too.

He is thoughtful and observant, comparing customs of Greenland and his native Togo and finding connections. He soon tires of the alcohol and loose sexual behaviour in the towns; he wants to move further north, to explore and experience traditional Greenland hunting and fishing which is gradually dying out; he learns the language – Inuit (he already speaks Danish) – spends time on fishing boats, drives husky teams, shares food and women and learns how people cope with the winter nights.

There is a marvellous sense of warmth and humanity about him, and his response to the people he meets and who welcome him. In the end, after spending sixteen months there, he realises he could stay for the rest of his life, but realises he has a duty to return home and teach his people about what he has lived and experienced. It is a truly wonderful and heart-warming book.

Death of a Writer

April 13, 2015

So, farewell Guenter Grass.

I first read him at school, when I came across Cat and Mouse, and then The Tin Drum. They made a deep impression on me, as did later the superb film of (the first half of) The Tin Drum. With an imaginative, fantastical, even magic realist approach, he sought to portray and explore Germany’s war guilt, to see whence the madness arose.

I visited Gdansk (Grass’ former home city of Danzig, now part of Poland) in 1970. I remember being shocked by a large graffito which I had my father translate: ‘We have not forgotten. We shall not forgive.’ I can understand the painful sense of loss of home which Grass feels, his homeland erased forever, places still there and yet not there, because they have new names, new owners, new purposes. This happened to my father too: his homeland vanished, is now another country, different territory.

I’ve been to Gdansk since, and seen various of the places immortalised by Grass, and monuments to his childhood home and school. They seem to reflect the spirit of reconciliation that I feel Grass sought. Though some of his novels became self-indulgent and rambling, one of them links the stories of the city of Danzig, lost to its German inhabitants, and that of the Polish city of Wilno, lost to Poland and now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Some attacked him for concealing his volunteering for the Waffen-SS at the very end of the war, when he was a boy of sixteen. I felt I could understand, and could excuse this concealment; I felt it did nothing to mar the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, and his death will send me back to revisit some of his novels. When I read writers like him, I feel how insular and boring we are here in England, and also how incredibly fortunate not to have suffered in the ways so many did, in Poland and Germany and elsewhere, during those years.

Al-Tahtawi: An Imam in Paris

April 11, 2015

9780863564079This was a fascinating read. In the 1820s, the Khedive of Egypt, aware of how relatively backward his country and other Muslim regions were, relative to the West, sent a delegation to France to learn whatever they could, in order to come home and help their country into the ninteeenth century.Al-Tahtawi threw himself into this task with a vengeance, and he was the only member of the delegation also to write about his experiences. He spent five years living and learning in France.

These were also exciting times, as he lived through the constitutional crisis and overthrow of the French monarchy in 1830, and writes about this, too, for his Egyptian readers. The very framing of the book gives a hint of the differences between his world and ours right from its rather fawning and grovelling dedication to his benefactor, and the numerous recallings of this as the book proceeds. Yes, Western writer dedicated books and acknowledged patronage too, but not in this manner. Furthermore, conformity to the teachings of Islam is the first consideration, when he writes and describes the places, people and customs of France, and the possible applications of new knowledge. This is not done in any slavish manner, but one never forgets its primacy, again, rather different from our approach. Accounts of science are interrupted by paeans to the lands of Islam, their superiority to all others, and appropriate religious deference to God in all things.

Al-Tahtawi is clear about the relative backwardness of his world, and a sense of shame emerges that so many areas of useful knowledge are unknown or uncultivated back home..

He explains and describes all sorts of things he sees on his travels; he is struck by the changeability of the weather; he is particularly struck by the relative cleanness and cleanliness of France; he is horrified by clerical celibacy; he is very observant, detailed and fair in his reportage. When he tries to clarify and explain some of the differences between the French and Arabic languages, for his readers, he is very interesting, and I realised how difficult I would find it to learn such a conceptually different language. He manages to dismiss French literature in half a dozen lines: his judgement – not bad!

There are clearly areas where al-Tahtawi is on risky ground: as well as necessary deference to religious sensibilities, we see through his omissions when writing about the rule of law and everyone’s equality before the law in France, that Egyptians do not enjoy such rights. In the end he manages to put a convincing case together for the breadth of education in the West and the advantages that this confers on its citizens and nations, and it seems that he played a considerable part in the Khedive’s attempts at modernisation on his return.

Although not a particularly exciting book, I really enjoyed the insights offered by such a perceptive observer, and the picture of how our world appeared to an outsider. The book is very well-translated and supported by annotation and critical apparatus.

Boris Vian: Froth on the Daydream

April 7, 2015

9781846689444This is one of the oldest books in my library: I’ve had it since I was at school. I came back to it as a result of reading about the film Mood Indigo (which I have yet to see) and realising that the film came from Boris Vian‘s surrealist novel. I’m wondering how true to the book the film can be…

Apparently, there are three different translations into English of the novel: mine’s the earliest, and is very good, with all sorts of wordplay, jokes and other humour carefully preserved from the French, or suitable adapted so that they work in English.

I suppose it’s a tragic love story really, enhanced by the pathetic fallacy operative throughout: the characters’ physical environment mirrors their moods. It’s almost delightfully childish in tone at the start, with the beautiful people and their world and pastimes, carefree, privileged and full of happiness: only love is needed to complete it. All is accompanied by a light and airy jazz soundtrack.

Love, of course, is not so obedient to one’s moods and desires: one character is literally taken over by his obsessive collecting of books by a certain existentialist philosopher, and the books won’t share him with anyone else… while ominous notes creep into the love world of the hero and heroine even before the end of the bizarre wedding ceremony: she is eventually laid low by a mysterious waterlily growing in one of her lungs. The increasingly desperate search for a cure will not be successful, we can tell, as entropy increasingly takes over their world. The beautiful people realise they need to work to sustain their expensive lifestyles, and work is shown up for something unwanted, nasty, and obviously in the way of real life…

It’s very hard writing about a surrealist novel. It is an easy and enjoyable and quite short read, and it takes one completely out of our own grubby world – pure escapism, except that it isn’t, as even in a surreal world there are unpleasant truths to be faced. Some readers may wonder why I read it in English, given that it’s a French novel and I read French: I have the French original and have read it, but as I grew up with the English translation, it’s the one I naturally gravitate towards. I think I’ll read the French version soon and see how well they match up.

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

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