Archive for September, 2015

Umberto Eco: How to Travel with a Salmon (& other essays)

September 29, 2015

41cDaA0Pp0L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Umberto Eco contributed a regular column to an Italian news magazine, and this is a collection of pieces from it. He writes humorously, satirically, mockingly about a wide range of aspects of our world: the title piece is about his attempts to store a salmon in his hotel minibar fridge. He is wonderful on Italian bureaucracy, too, with the saga of trying to replace his stolen driving licence. It is like something out of Kafka, and while sometimes I did suspect him of exaggerating for effect, somehow this tale rang true.

Eco does write very entertainingly, putting many of today’s no doubt overpaid columnists who knit words to earn their weekly fee to shame. I’m astonished at his scope and versatility – a series of best-selling novels, humorous columns, serious art history and criticism, learned tomes on language, linguistics and translation – I wonder what else I haven’t discovered. His is a mind I can admire.

Some of the columns are doubly amusing because of the way that they have dated, as, for instance, when he writes of wrestling with modern technology like the mobile phone – he takes us back to the problems of the pre-smartphone days, the days of primitive computer programs and the limitations of dial-up internet…those dark ages of a couple of decades ago.

There are also some great intellectual games: how various historical characters might have responded to the question ‘how are you?’, and how his friends attempted to construct an anti-university and an anti-encyclopaedia. And he does also indulge his love of lists, this time in a true Rabelaisian fashion.

It’s not great literature, but it is a good time-filler; like everything I’ve read of his, there’s quality there…

Fact or fiction?

September 22, 2015

41q7VprqrbL._AA160_51C7dr3B2RL._AA160_I’ve just finished a fascinating book and don’t know what to make of it…

Aussi Loin Que Mes Pas Me Portent is by J M Bauer, and was originally published in German in the 1950s; and English translation apparently exists, called As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, and it has also been filmed.

It purports to tell the story of Clemens Forell, a Wehrmacht officer imprisoned in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, his escape from a forced labour camp – a lead mine – at the very edge of the country, opposite the shores of Alaska, and three-year journey to freedom by eventually crossing the Iranian frontier. It’s an astonishing adventure, if it is true. But there are quite a few things that call aspects of the account into question.

It reminds me very strongly of The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which tells the story, allegedly, of the escape of a group of Polish prisoners from Soviet captivity during the same war, who eventually make it to British India. This book was famous among my father’s generation, because this story was the story of their generation, their country and their struggle with he Russians. (It was also filmed, a few years ago.) And it has transpired over the years that the account was not exactly what it purported to be, Rawicz having put together the story as a composite of the accounts of several people he met, rather than his own adventures.

Similarly, when I started to look up the author and the hero of the first book, it turns out to have been put together by a novelist, that the hero’s name is a pseudonym, and that he was back in Germany two years before the events described in the book began. So is this another docudrama, another fictionalisation of reality, or what?

I found it a tad incredible that the Russians would march prisoners from Chita, by the Mongolian border, all the way to Cape Dezhnev, opposite Alaska (look at the map!). There’s nothing that incredible about the journey itself, perhaps, and the hero’s adventures, except that his journey is extremely haphazard, and devoid of almost all detail in terms of place names – the map in the French edition is dreadful and needs a telescope to view it – but after about 450 pages, and a third of the way, the remainder is very telescoped, rushed through, almost. This is not the sign of a good novel, and perhaps enhances the veracity of some of the account. But the hero travels several thousand kilometres through the Soviet Union of the late 1940s without papers or real scrapes or encounters with authority, which I do find barely credible… and this version, the French translation, appears to be twice the length of the English version now long out of print.

I also found the attitudes of Russians and Germans to each other rather stretching of my credulity. Nowhere do any of the Germans acknowledge any war guilt or wrong-doing (perhaps this wasn’t fashionable in the 1950s), but they don’t complain of being hard done by, either. Quite a lot of Russians seem helpful to Forell; this I find hard to take, given that we are only a couple of years after the end of the war, and every Russian would have known of the vileness of German behaviour in the Soviet Union.

So, what’s going on here? Little to glean from any reviews of the book I’ve hunted down, and the various wikipedia articles don’t really dispel all of the doubts and grey areas. On the other hand, as a cracking adventure story, I found it quite compelling. But I also feel somewhat deceived…

My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

French Literature – an eye-opener

September 17, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of the course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency with the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centrism, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Chemin des Dames

September 10, 2015

I like to have a good travel guide when I’m off exploring somewhere, whether new or familiar: there’s always something I want to find out more about, and though it’s possible to access information online instantly, a lot of it is very superficial; you can settle down with a good guidebook, flipping back and forwards through the pages, with a finger in at the page with the relevant map on… and so on. You can tell I don’t do it all through my phone.

So I was pleased, as I revisit some of the key sites of the Great War in Northern France, that Michelin have published a new series of guides to various battlefields. They were quick off the mark in the 1920s with a series in both French and English which has apparently been reprinted (by G H Smith of Easingwold if you are interested); the new series is obviously to link in to the centennial of the war, but seems only to be available in French, and is illustrated with pages from the volumes of a hundred years ago.

I found the volume on the Chemin des Dames very helpful, with lots of thorough background explanation and information; key places to visit and things to look out for were well-documented; the book is divided sensibly into a number of sections according to area, and there is a detailed map, in the usual Michelin style, of each area. This is the only weak aspect of the book, really: I think it could usefully have done with more maps, larger scale and more detailed, rather like the town and city plans they provide in their ordinary guidebooks, because many of the monuments, cemeteries and other landmarks one is looking out for are not easy to find, and often I found I’d driven past before I realised where I was…

Nevertheless, the book is good because detailed and carefully produced, which is the case I’ve always found with Michelin guidebooks: they are objective and informative without being patronising or trendy… and, looking forward (hopefully) to a visit to Verdun next year, I have also purchased that guide to prepare myself.

Ursula LeGuin: Worlds of Exile and Illusion

September 10, 2015

9780312862114Although a long-standing science fiction fan, I’ve never really got on very well with fantasy. I was a little concerned when I started this volume, which is actually a re-publication of three of her shorter Hainish novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, as it rapidly became clear that there were elements that seemed fantastical… I’d read at least a couple of these many years ago, but had no clear memory of them. I’d read and enjoyed her Earthsea Trilogy very much, but never felt the urge or the need to go back to it, partly because of the magic and fantasy.

The fantasy elements are bearable, in the end, because they never take over the story: LeGuin is always more interested in and focused on the ideas: different human-type races and how they may have evolved over time on different worlds; contact between such races from different planets; the vastness of time and space itself, and the cruelty it inflicts on beings as they travel through space, conscious of the fact that they can never go back to the place they came from, as years, centuries will have elapsed and everyone they once knew will have died, and places will be very different. LeGuin is thinking, no, imagining  a universe where we might like to live but never will, she is conceiving some of the future potentialities of our species – if it survives – as well as confronting the thought that we may not be the first, or the only intelligent (?) species. It takes a powerful imagination, and one miles beyond swashbuckling sword and sorcery that has occasionally bored me to tears when I’ve picked it up by mistake. What is fantastical enriches and illustrates rather than becomes the purpose of the story.

So, an envoy alone on a world tracks down where a rebel base, which threatens the peace of the worlds, lies, and enables its destruction. But Rocannon’s World, and the hero’s story, is of his relations with the inhabitants of that world; though he achieves his goal, he loses the friends he leaves behind, living out his life and dying, apparently forgotten, on an alien world. Small details like this can be very moving, in LeGuin’s work.

In Planet of Exile, two different species learn with great difficulty how to co-exist and co-operate, faced with an implacable foe: LeGuin’s focus is on two individuals, one from each species, who form bonds that surpass each one’s fear of the other, and it’s only in the final novel, City of Illusions, set centuries later, that we learn that interbreeding between the species eventually developed.

The final novel is longer and much more complex, set on an Earth in the far future, dominated by an alien race which keeps its people in quiet but peaceful subjugation: civilisation and progress can be lost, move backwards as well as forwards. There is also the personal quest of the hero, and the losses that must be endured, the people, places and loves who must be left behind…

If you look back to my other posts on Ursula LeGuin’s novels and stories, I think you’ll see that it’s the breadth and scope of her imagination, her sensitivity to relationships between people, and her recognition of the great difficulties involved in creating real progress and real equality, as well as her questioning of our present world and way of life, which make her one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read.


Ursula LeGuin: The Word for World is Forest

September 3, 2015

9781473205789LeGuin wrote the story that developed into this novel to express her anger at the US behaviour in the Vietnam War; I was wondering whether I’d be faced with something over-didactic or political. I needn’t have worried – she is superb, as always: it’s a short, and very powerful novel.

It’s another story in the Hainish cycle of novels (if you want to know more, you can find other posts about her stories elsewhere on this site). An entirely forested planet, inhabited by apparently primitive hominids, is being colonised and logged by settlers from Earth, who exploit the natives, and make no attempt to understand them and their ways, although it’s clear their world will eventually be destroyed. LeGuin slowly sets up two clashes, between Davidson, an Earthman whom she has described as truly evil and another who is striving to understand the natives and their ways, and protect them from his own kind, and between the evil Davidson and a native, Selver, who develops the will to resist and ability to fight and passes this on to his people, becoming a god in the process.

LeGuin makes it very sadly clear that no-one escapes the struggle unscathed: the planet’s inhabitants, having learned to kill to liberate their world, can never un-learn this, even though they succeed, and the Earth colonists leave their planet never to return…the evil Davidson has lost his mind, and Lyubov, the anthropologist who hoped to understand the people of the planet and instrumental in saving their world from destruction, loses his life.

LeGuin indirectly criticises the arrogance and ignorance of her own nation, apparently accepts that extreme measures will be taken by people struggling to be free, and shows how, tragically, violence and warfare corrupt all they touch. Forty years later, it seems earthlings are none the wiser.

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