Archive for May, 2015

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

May 28, 2015

I’ve been meaning to come back to this novel, which made a great impression on me when it was first published about ten years ago; its being released as a film finally convinced me.

Nemirovsky describes the fall of France in 1940 in the first half of a long novel; the powerful opening chapter depicts Paris on the verge of being overrun by the Germans: no-one knows what’s going on and all are afraid in different ways. Masterfully, she zooms in and narrows the focus in the ensuing chapters and we focus on a range of families and individuals as they try to flee to safety further south. I found flashes of a Jane Austen-like sharpness in character portrayal, through indirect authorial comment. We see how people react to their approaching fate: numerous tiny details accentuate the growing fear and panic, and selfishness too. She is masterly in picturing the populace totally unable to comprehend what is happening to them and their country.

She achieves subtle yet powerful effects because all the individuals, couples and families she portrays are isolated from their surroundings and from other people, which enhances their meanness, their selfishness, their egotism. The situation descnds into farce when a rich bourgeoise, finally having succeeded in boarding a train to escape, suddenly remembers that she has left her invalid father-in-law behind in their abandoned car… and grim horror ensues when a group of wild orphans kill the priest who is meant to be leading them to safety.

What is perhaps most chilling is that when some of the characters arrive in the relative security of the Midi, they resume their extravagance and posing as if nothing untoward was happening.

Nemirovsky shifts her focus in the second half of the book, setting it well after the defeat and during the occupation, concentrating on the billeting of German troops in a sleepy town near the demarcation line between occupied and Vichy France. The French are confused: how to face and behave towards their conquerors and masters? At first there are echoes of VercorsLe Silence de la Mer, but Nemirovsky recognises the impossibility of sending every German to Coventry: townspeople and troops have to co-exist. The differences between rich and poor, town and country are all laid bare, the rivalries, feuds and point-scoring: nothing and no-one is spared, and the French do not come out very well. Fraternisation with the enemy is complex, and the heroine Lucile, whose oaf of an unfaithful husband is a prisoner of the Germans, gradually becomes fond of, falls in love with, a lonely, thoughtful and considerate German officer billeted in her home, though she is ultimately unable to give herself to him.

It’s clear many of the local bourgeoisie quite like the Germans, who protect them from the peasants and communists they fear, and they are capable of betraying their own people. Things move fast when Lucile first has to conceal a wanted Frenchman and then help get him to safety in Paris.

The novel closes with the departure of the Germans to the Eastern Front; their party celebrating a year since they took Paris closes with the news of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Nemirovsky is very sensitive to nuances of feeling, to the complexities of the emotional lives of those caught up in war, and their conflicts between love, duty and loyalty. And what is possibly, now, most astonishing of all in her achievement, is that this novel was written before the end of the war, which Nemirovsky never saw: as a French Jew, she was deported to Auschwitz and killed there.

Witold Gombrowicz: Trans-Atlantyk

May 20, 2015

9780300175301I should have stuck to the resolution I made after reading Ferdydurke. But I couldn’t resist a cheap French paperback edition of Trans-Atlantyk, which (apparently) some have described as Gombrowicz’ best novel. Hm.

It’s very strange. It’s supposedly a satire, and also a parody of an old Polish literary form, a kind of tale about the doings of the aristocracy. It was the author’s response to the fact that he left his homeland just before the Second World War broke out, and he didn’t go back. The same themes and ideas emerge: the throwing off of the shackles of the past, choosing freedom to be different over the slavery of past memories, symbolised by the hero’s inability to choose between father and son…

There is some interesting use of language, which comes through even in translation, but my overall impression was of Tristram Shandy without the plot or the humour, if you can begin to imagine that. Why write it? Why read it? I’m afraid I can’t answer that. It’s surreal, very much of its time, and therefore very dated; I cannot imagine many people reading it in the future, I’m afraid. I am with the critic, whose name I cannot recall, who said that Gombrowicz’ most important writings are his diaries and journalism.

I shall resist any further urges to read his novels.

Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

May 13, 2015

9780713677669The third play I’m looking forward to seeing at Stratford is Christopher Marlowe‘s The Jew of Malta. It’s a precursor of Shakespeare‘s Merchant of Venice, and in comparison makes that latter play seek like a model of political correctness!

The wealthy merchant in Marlowe’s play is a rich Jew Barabbas, who revels in his money, jewels and luxury, and is renowned for his greed and selfishness among his own people. Antagonism between Jews and Christians is there from the outset (and it must be said that the behaviour of the Christians is far from exemplary): the state seizes Barabbas’ assets to repay tribute owed to the Turks. Having got his money, they later renege on the deal with the Turks, too. His daughter Abigail helps him retrieve some hidden wealth by pretending to become a nun; later, when she discovers that her father has engineered a duel in order to kill off her suitor, she really becomes a nun, at which point her father engineers the poisoning of the entire convent…

We see Barabbas’ increasing rage and growing insanity; he is aided by his Turkish slave Ithamore, who eventually double-crosses him… there is clearly no honour in any race or religion in this play. The end comes when Barabbas betrays the island to the Turks, and then tries his own double-cross by betraying them to the Christians: the Christians double-cross him and come out tops, killing Barabbas, after he has caused the slaughter of the Turkish forces, so that they have the Turks’ leaders as hostages…

What to make of all this? Firstly, it’s fast-paced, and great fun, if you completely ignore the racism, and general vileness of all the characters, and I suspect it will make wonderful theatre. When I compared Marlowe with Shakespeare in terms of their respective plays, I was struck by the crudity of Marlowe’s characters, and the rambling, almost make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature of the plot. Marlowe’s plot is linear (apart from the minor subplot involving the snaring of Ithamore), Shakespeare’s is tight, involved, complex (there are several subplots) and the scenes are interwoven to heighten the sense of the drama. Marlowe has some wonderful language, as he does in other of his plays, but Shakespeare’s characters in the Merchant of Venice probably outdo him.

I suspect it will be fast, crazy, almost knock-about stuff (just as Arden of Faversham turned out to be last year) and that my picture of the Elizabethan stage will be further broadened: it’s wasn’t just Shakespeare that the punters went to see…



China Mieville: The City and the City

May 11, 2015

9780330534192I really enjoyed this novel when I first read it five years ago. It scrambled my brain then, and a re-read hoping to make things a bit clearer produced the same effect, as well as convincing me at the end that it really is brilliant.

It’s a detective story/ thriller with a science fiction twist to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, for example. Mieville sets the story in a city, recognisably East European or Balkans post 1989, but with a difference: it’s two cities in two different countries, but which in some way overlap in places in time and space, occupying the same spaces whilst alongside each other. And if that isn’t clear, then perhaps you’ll understand why I say it scrambled my brain, and perhaps it will be clearer if you read it… or not. Contact via the interstices must not happen, and such breaches are ruthlessly dealt with.

At one level you find political allegories linking to our world and think of Palestine/ Israel, or Croatia/ Serbia perhaps, but only fleetingly. There are also hints that the confusion is the result of some alien presence many centuries ago – reminiscent of the chaos left behind in the Zone in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Then I found myself reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish civilisation seeding planets across the galaxy.

A lone detective investigates a murder which is not what it seems, and involves the spaces between; he has a helpful Watson-type female companion in the first half of the story, but then the roles swap when the investigation takes him to the other country and he must play second fiddle to his detective chaperone from the other national crime squad.

It’s fast-paced, but the extra concepts make the plot more complex and add further twists and complications; out hero eventually ends up in breach of the rules, where he discovers that, even in the spaces in-between, things are not what they seem, and his life is changed for ever as a result. Not all the loose ends are tied up – they rarely are in a novel like this – but the sheer originality of the plot and the ideas blow you away. I’ve written about another of his novels, Embassytown, here, and he’s definitely on my watch list.

Bernard Ollivier: Sur le chemin des Ducs

May 9, 2015

downloadI became a fan of Bernard Ollivier through reading his epic account of walking the entire Silk Route, from Turkey to China, which took him three years and which he completed in several slices. He’s an interesting man, who has also set up an organisation in his native France which aims to help young offenders rethink their lives and get back on the straight and narrow through long-distance walking, and this has had some success.

In this book he’s in his home territory of Normandy completing the pilgrim’s walk from Rouen to Mont St Michel – not a long trek compared with his previous ones. I was also attracted to this book because of my own love of Normandy, where many aeons ago, it seems, for a year I was an assistant at a secondary school. I came to enjoy the food and the landscape.

Ollivier is more relaxed as he walks, in familiar territory, including passing through the town where he grew up. He describes well the beauty of the Normandy landscape and his love of solitude, nature and contemplation comes strongly through his writing. There’s also rather more humour than I recall from his previous books. The episode where he recounts the installation of a new weathercock on a village church is interesting: tradition demands that he takes it to each house in the village to show it, and he is treated to coffee and a shot at each house. He is totally plastered when begins to climb the spire and totally sober on his descent!

Olliver notices the gradual rural depopulation as the flight to the cities continues, and the continuing gentrification of the desirable areas of the region. He clearly loves walking, deploring our increasingly sedentary world where few make the effort to get out on their feet and encounter the natural world and engage with it. A voice crying in the wilderness, maybe, but it’s a great pleasure to accompany him on his travels.

Shakespeare: Othello

May 7, 2015

9780141012315The second up-coming treat is Othello. This is the play I’ve taught most, I think, and I’ve also seen several versions, as well as having studied it at A-Level myself (along with King Lear). I saw an RSC production a couple of decades ago at Stratford, saw the 1986 production with Ben Kingsley in the title role, and have watched the Willard White/ Ian McKellen version countless times with my students.

It’s an astonishingly complex play, which never ceased to make me think, and often to re-evaluate my stance as I taught it and focused in on different aspects of the text. It stretches our credulity in the overview – can Iago really be that evil? can Desdemona really be that innocent? can Othello really be that gullible? – but in the close and fine detail I have always found it stunningly convincing. I still find the short line ‘Ha! I like not that!’ of Iago’s which triggers everything, absolutely spine-chilling, because of its understatedness.

There are lots of things to watch closely: how is Iago portrayed? is his motivation or lack of it, convincing? how effective is his revelling in doing evil? I have always found McKellen’s perfomance the best, because of the pure evil that he exudes, the Austro-Hungarian corporal’s uniform and the hint at the Hitler moustache (which at one point is made chillingly more explicit) and the cold, blank facial expression. Somehow this coldness can seem more powerful than Othello’s passion and torment.

Desdemona is another complex character, as the actor has to portray victim and innocence as she fails to fathom what is happening to her and her husband, and yet she has a very strong womanly presence, self-assured and with a touch of the feminist about her in the early scenes. The relationship with Othello eventually leads one to examine the very idea of love itself and what it is, to measure it up against infatuation, hero-worship and even lust. And Shakespeare shows the horribly destructive power of sexual jealousy and its devastating effects: pair this play up with The Winter’s Tale and there’s nothing else left to say…

Finally, there’s the male environment of the play to watch, too, and how the male-bonding of the military setting necessarily and inevitably seems to sideline and distrust the women; even when they are wives and lovers, male loyalty seems to win.


I’m really looking forward to seeing this again!

Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

May 6, 2015

9781903436813I’m getting ready for my Shakespeare week next month, and the first play is my old favourite, The Merchant of Venice. I came to know and like and appreciate Shakespeare through this play, which I studied for O level several aeons ago. Because of the way we studied and the way it was examined, I still know vast swathes of it off by heart.

When you know a text this well, it’s the interpretations on stage that become interesting and challenging, as they force you to consider something familiar in a new way. I’ve seen several performances over the years, most of them poor; only one, at the Leeds Playhouse about twenty years ago, was interesting, because it explored a tenuous possibility available in the text, that Bassanio was a gold-digger and Portia was almost over the hill. So I’m looking forward to the new RSC take, whatever it is.

There are a range of issues in the play, but in the last half-century or so, that of anti-semitism has come to the fore – is The Merchant of Venice a racist play? How much sympathy are we meant to have with Shylock? How are the relations between Jews and Christians played and explored in performance? I have seen hidden and not so hidden racism from Portia towards Shylock, and again, towards his daughter Jessica when she ends up at Belmont…

What struck me most, re-reading this time, was the tightness of the structure of the play; it flows extremely well, the several subplots are skilfully integrated, as are the various humorous scenes. The play never rests until the climactic end of the fourth act, when Shylock has had his come-uppance and vanishes, and fairy-tale world of love takes over…

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

Gotz Aly: Hitler’s Beneficiaries

May 4, 2015

9780805087260This is not an easy read, but it’s a very enlightening book.

I can’t really see economics as a science: the various theories I’ve read enough about exist and can seem to make sense within their own hermetic little worlds, but once outside these and subject to real world scrutiny, they tend to dissolve in a cloud of contradictions and fairy dust. As someone whose existence was shaped by the Second World War, although I was born long after it ended, I’ve read widely about it, and every now and then return to some aspect of it, in an effort further to understand the ultimately incomprehensible.

Gotz Aly‘s book attempts to show how the Nazi economic system worked and succeeded for so long in its own terms, first within Germany and then, during the war, in the lands under its domination. It’s details like this this us ordinary non-historians never think about unless prompted to: where do you get the money from to launch and sustain such a war, for so long? Similarly (although this isn’t the subject of his book) how do you get so many people on trains to extermination camps without disrupting the entire European rail system, and allegedly without people knowing it was going on?

The author shows how the overriding need was to keep ordinary Germans contented and materially satisfied. If they were, then the war could continue. So taxation was organised to impinge hardly at all on almost all Germans – rich property-owners bore the brunt of internal taxation. When countries were conquered, they were systematically plundered to keep the home consumers satisfied. And then, there was so much Jewish property to confiscate and re-sell…

The entire banking systems first of Germany and then of occupied Europe were inevitably involved; all occupation costs had to be met by the country being occupied, and were, and a parallel money system allowed occupying troops to buy up anything and everything they wanted from those countries was set up, allowing troops to send enormous numbers of goody parcels home; economists kept a close eye on things to make sure that inflation didn’t take off. And Jewish property was carefully confiscated and became state property; the book-keeping relied on all sorts of trickery, some of it supposedly in order to comply with the Hague Conventions(!) and endless loans which could be repudiated when Germany won the war… and forced loans from Jews based on their property and wealth, which they would never be in a position to call in, once they had been ‘resettled’ in the East. The ultimate economic logic of the system was that Germany had to win the war (!) and that the destruction of European Jewry was an integral and necessary part of the economic war plan.

Gotz Aly demonstrates that all Germans, whether they were aware or not, benefitted from these arrangements; what shocked me most of all was how much of the documentation was destroyed after the war by the authorities in both the Federal and Democratic Republics… which, of course removed possibilities of individual compensation claims. As so often when I get to the end of a book like this, I feel that, though I always knew war was an evil and dirty business, it is even dirtier and more evil than I had imagined thus far.

Harper Lee: To KIll A Mockingbird

May 2, 2015

9780434020485It’s curious, coming to reflect on a book which I taught every other year throughout my entire career; I haven’t opened it for four years now, and wonder if I’m developing a different perspective on it. The world and his wife know that a ‘new’ novel in some way related to it is due to be published in the summer (Go Set A Watchman) and there has been controversy over whether this involves some sort of exploitation of the ageing writer who may not be fully in control of what is going on.

I have found myself wondering who the book is aimed at (target audience, for all my ex-students!). Dozens of millions of copies have been sold, and they cannot all have been to UK schools preparing students for GCSE. I’m not sure how English departments across the land are going to cope since Secretary of State Gove’s ukase removed it from the specification on the grounds that it’s not English litereature.

Because I’ve always taught it to young people, I’ve come to see them as the ideal audience for the novel (so I would be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). To me, it has seemed to speak to them, and deals with issues that have some significance at their stage in life. A main theme is clearly parenting and relationships with parents, and the way in which this links into the need for mutual respect; we see a parent striving to live by his principles, and surely, young people spend some time trying to make sense of their world and they way they feel it should work, as well as the ways in which they propose to relate to it.

The children in the novel are gradually working their way towards self-actualisation and self-realisation in the world, and we see how they are helped by their peers, neighbours and experiences. Most importantly, I think, they come to realise that the world is not always a good and safe place, and that there comes a time when parents cannot protect you from the horrors and nastiness of the world, they are not all-powerful, as young children need to believe: Lee explores a crucial phase of growing-up through the trial and its aftermath, where even Atticus’ faith in the world is badly shaken by the attack on his children.

Because I’ve loved teaching the novel, I’ve found myself looking for its flaws. The lengthy introductory section has often been an issue, with students wanting the story to get a move on, when there are a hundred pages just introducing characters and the town; on the other hand, this has offered the possibility for exploring writer’s choices in terms of how they construct a novel, and after the event, students have been able to accept how Lee has been working as a writer, and the effects she has striven to achieve.

The framing of the storytelling (an older Scout remembering and relating her childhood many years later, perhaps through rose-tinted spectacles, where even the horrors are somewhat subdued) does not help, either, and perhaps allows a rather sentimentalised portrait of a black community through the eyes of a white child. And small-town US is not representative of the whole country.

But hey, it’s a novel! Perhaps semi-autobiographical, depending on what you read, involving characters, certainly places from the author’s own childhood. Lee has things she wishes to say, lessons she wishes to teach – and which I feel she does without becoming didactic – and students’ response was often along the lines of “well, it’s not the sort of book I’d have chosen to read myself, but I’m very glad we studied it”. It’s a novel, and it makes readers think and reflect on themselves and their own lives, which, if you’re a regular reader of these pages, you will know constitutes a good book by my criteria.


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