Archive for October, 2015

These I have (also) loved…

October 30, 2015


(continuing the theme of literatures from other lands)

 It does seem a little unfair to put so many writers and nations together under ‘other’ but you will understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough time to read everything I would like to, and that some countries and authors will just have to wait for my next existence…

I’m glad I read Don Quixote once. I’m not sure I’ll have time to come back to him, but I did understand why the Spanish love him, and I learned quite a lot about the development of the novel in its early days.

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has intrigued me and I’ve read several of his novels; Blindness, which I believe had been made into a film and which I’m definitely NOT planning to watch, is one of the scariest and most horrifying novels I’ve read. Almost everyone is struck blind over the course of a few days, and the anarchy and human vileness which is released makes the world of Lord of the Flies seem like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It’s stunning, and fearsomely convincing. However, it’s Antonio Tabucci‘s Pereira Maintains that I have liked best from that country’s literature. He conveys the spookiness of the long Salazar dicatatorship very effectively indeed.

I’ve read several Italian novelists. Umberto Eco I’ve written at great length about elsewhere in this blog if you care to look, so no more about him. Primo Levi I have found very moving. He was an Auschwitz survivor who eventually committed suicide, but not before writing a powerful memoir, If This is a Man, and an intriguing, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his life (he was a research chemist) called The Periodic Table, which I think is a masterpiece, especially the final chapter. And I love the lighthearted feel of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, by Gregorio Bassani, with the hidden undertones of menace in the background… but if I had to pick the very best, then I’d undoubtedly go for Giovanni di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard, a stunningly beautiful and lyrical tale of the emergence of modern Italy and the disappearance of an era seen through the eyes of a man who knows it must happen, wants it to happen and knows it makes him redundant, inescapably part of a past that has gone forever.

I also have to mention the Albanian Ismail Kadare. Older friends of mine will be acquainted with my fascination with the country, largely due to listening to propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tirana in the evenings. So when I came across translations – mainly into French, but some into English, of this astonishing writer, I was hooked. Broken April is set in the tradition of the kanun, or blood-feud, a historically Albanian thing, with all sorts of rules about who you can and can’t kill, and when. The Pyramid is an allegory of sorts about his own country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, while telling the story of the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, and The Palace of Dreams creates a bureaucracy to rival Kafka‘s. And then there are realistic novels set in the Albania of the fifties and sixties as she fell out with the Soviet Union (‘social imperialists’)and came to ally herself with the Chinese, The Concert, and The Great Winter. He is a masterly chronicler of his times and his country, and an entertaining novelist.

I’m glad to have been able to get to know (I’m sure merely skimming the surface) the literature of so many other lands; I do think it’s sad how many people I meet who, though they may venture far from our shores on holiday, never do so in the realms of reading. What they have missed…

Olga Tokarczuk: Primeval and Other Times

October 29, 2015

51q23Ej2pPL._AA160_Well, this gets my award for the most powerful and moving book I’ve read this year so far…

The simplest way to categorise it is to call it Polish magic realism, I think. These are tales of a mythical Polish village through the troubled twenthieth century, though that’s a very bald description; they are stories, descriptions, reflections and philosophising too. As we meet and follow a series of characters, Tokarczuk also reflects on the nature of the world and our existence in a century which didn’t seem to care about people or the planet.

I’d read her novel House of Day, House of Night about ten years ago, and obviously enjoyed it enough to put this book on my Christmas list…four years ago! It’s another novel about a small place, and I don’t recall a thing about it; that might explain why t took me so long to get around to this one.

In some ways, Tokarczuk’s writing is very ephemeral: one seems to glide or float through the pages, yet the impressions are very powerful and you are irresistibly drawn in to her world; her style is very lyrical, and it does seem to have been beautifully translated. There is an absolutely magical chapter in which a child explains the family treasures she has come across in the drawer in the kitchen table; not only are you drawn further into the child’s world, you create your own version of the drawer at the same time – or at least, I did.

Some of the characters are there throughout the book, some pop up only a couple of times. Chaos begins with the First World War, continues through the reborn Polish nation, erupts again with the Second World War, though not as horrendously as one might expect, except for a dark and vague chapter where Jews are killed, and we cannot tell who the killers really are. Tokarczuk seemed to me to be alluding to those still murky episodes in Polish history which have yet to be owned and fully revealed…

She challenges religion in a number of ways, not aggressively, but through offering new angles on ages-old beliefs, perspectives which the reader is invited to explore and entertain, at least for a while. There are also some curious takes on some well-known Bible stories.

One of the main characters is a boy – hard to describe other than to say that in some ways he is half-witted or mentally different (itself hard to say, given the circumstances of the novel itself) – who is also one of the most learned characters, perhaps the one who I liked the most. And his name is Izydor…

I do like it when I am utterly bowled over by something I did expect to like when I finally read it, but didn’t have such great hopes of.

The Travels of Ibn Jubayr

October 28, 2015

31upp0x-EQL._AA160_In the twelfth century, an Arab traveller from Andalusia sets off on the long journey to perform the hajj.

Ibn Jubayr is clearly a devout Muslim: this comes across through the countless prayer tag-phrases when people are named, and through his virulent verbal abuse of Christians in territories where they rule over Muslims, although he actually paints a picture of peaceful coexistence between the various peoples of the book wherever he goes. In this he is no different from other travellers of that time. It is fascinating to recall that he writes at the time of the Crusades, and before Constantinople has fallen to the Turks: the perspective is completely different.

Ibn Jubayr made me aware of numerous divisions and sects within Islam of which I had not known; sometimes the reasons behind these divisions were clear, sometimes not, but what I noticed was that they were about people rather than aspects of belief, about aspects of practice rather than theology. I was also surprised by the amount of ritual within Islamic practice and prayer which he described; here it seemed to resemble Christianity quite a lot: the past, various places associated with religious worthies and relics all seemed to receive veneration from the faithful. Again, this seems very different from what I read about current practice, where anything that might smack of idolatry is roundly condemned, and the Saudis seem to be eradicating much of the past of Islam.

Ibn Jubayr became homesick for his beloved al-Andalus, and was very glad to return home: again, to a twenty-first century reader, this appears very strange, but emphasises how much those lands were once an integral part of the Arab world.

His description of places generally left a lot to be desired; he is often vague about details, slipping frequently into generalised superlatives in praise of many things, so that eventually the impressions all become much of a muchness, and very little stands out to distinguish one place from another. This is particularly true in the lengthy chapters on Mecca and Medina: he is much better when describing actual travel, particularly the lengthy sea journeys across the length of the Mediterranean.

I was particularly saddened when I read his lengthy descriptions of the beauties of Syria, and particularly Damascus and Aleppo, given the horrific situation in that country at the moment.

As I remarked in my previous post, I think this was probably a book too far, though in the end I’m glad I’ve read it, but it didn’t add very much at all to the accounts of Arab travellers I’ve already read.  The texts is a print-on-demand one from an Indian publisher: beautifully produced, with two tipped-in maps (!) and reasonably priced: let me note this clearly, given my frequent complaints about such things…

On compulsive book-buying

October 27, 2015

I have too many books. There are people who would say you can never have too many, and I was once one of them. But they are taking over, and what is worse, I can’t see myself ever reading them all. Life is now too short.

The problem is, I love bookshops, especially secondhand ones, and I love looking in bookshops when I’m in France, with a chance to see all the books that are never going to be translated into English. And I treat myself, rather than regret not doing so, later. The books pile up; a lot of them do get  read, but for some of them, the moment passes and they just sit there, reproachful.

I have often been scathing about people who spend money on things I don’t approve of, who waste or fritter money away, by my standards, on things they’ll never use, clothes they’ll only wear a couple of times, and so on: I’m very moralistic about such things. And then I think about my book-buying habits: how is buying a book I’ll never get round to reading any different? Except that I can tell myself it’s something worthwhile, cultural, mental stimulus or whatever, and therefore superior to other people’s fripperies. The fact of the matter is that I’m likely now only to read it the once, or maybe twice if I really like it…

With other stuff, that other people (and I) accumulate, disposal seem easier. But parting with books is, while not exactly painful, pretty difficult for me. I can always tell myself, well, you may read it one day, well you may re-read it one day, if you’ve got rid of it then it will be harder to find when you do want it and it will cost a lot more than the £x you paid for it… I don’t have the patience to re-sell books online, so I end up giving them away to charity, a sort of tax, if you like.

I can criticise others for impulse-buying, and yet that often happens with books! I’ll be in a secondhand bookshop and see something, think, ‘That looks interesting!’ or, ‘I read something about that last year and I’d like to read more…’ and another book joins the pile. So, last week, a book about Prester John joined the pile, because I love Umberto Eco‘s Baudolino which is partly about the quest for Prester John, I enjoyed John Buchan‘s eponymous novel, and I have two volumes of a weighty Hakluyt Society publication about Prester John that have beenwaiting for me to read for over ten years…

I’ve also gradually learned that there’s something like overeating, but with books: I can follow a theme or topic and overdo it, acquiring and trying to read too many books on that subject, eventually too full with it, as it were. So, my next post will be about an Arabian traveller of the twelfth century, with whom I probably should not have bothered, like an extra serving of cheese or pudding…

Theodore Kröger: The Forgotten Village

October 18, 2015

51u3TCAJy4L._AA160_Well, this was astonishing, and unforgettable. A bestseller in the 1930s when first published, it’s not been reprinted in English for sixty years, but fortunately the French haven’t forgotten it.

Son of a German watchmaker, settled for many years in Tsarist Russia, the author of what’s described as an ‘autobiographical novel’ (interesting genre, that) attempts to flee to Germany at the start of the First World War, but is captured, condemned to death as a spy and then instead exiled to the wastes of northern Siberia.

Initially he suffers as a prisoner in horrendous conditions, but eventually, thanks to powerful connections in St Petersburg, his life in exile is made rather easier and he rises to prominence in a settlement in the middle of nowhere, becoming the bosom friend of the local police chief. Eventually, through his connnections and family fortune he succeeds in bringing some prosperity and development to the town, ameliorated the living conditions of the thousands of German POWs in the area, and marries a local Tartar girl.

The writer’s love of the place and its people develops and becomes clear, shining through the pages; it’s evident that though unbelievably harsh, Siberia is a beautiful place, in a space and time continuum of its very own. And he discovers a remote village, completely cut off from the ‘outside’ world, which he and his fellow-prisoners aid to become completely self-sufficient and to hide itself from the coming ravages of the Revolution…

There are moments of true horror in his story: a nearby village is stricken by the plague, and in order to stop it spreading, they massacre all its inhabitants and burn the village down. The Kerensky government orders the release of all common criminals: these begin to wreak havoc on the town, and are all eventually killed or driven away.

The writer explores some of the totally unknown areas of the country and he and his companions come across a ghost town, its inhabitants all long dead in their homes; then they discover a large settlement of savages who still hunt with bows and arrows, and manage (just) to escape with their lives.

The utter chaos after the October Revolution is appalling; whole swathes of the country are abandoned to cold and famine and the winter of 1917/18 is atrocious; very few of the several thousand townspeople come through alive…

Some of the story stretches credulity just a little, I think to myself as I read, but then I recall other accounts of Siberia a century ago that I’ve read, and other travellers’ tales, and I think, no, this could well all be true. If in the late 1970s a small settlement could be found, of people who had seen not another living soul for over forty years, then Kroger’s account could be true. It doesn’t read like a novel: there’s no plot, the narrative is linear, people come and go as the author moves around. It’s very powerful, and very moving.

Not a historian

October 15, 2015

I made a very deliberate choice at 16. I chose to change one of my A level courses from History to English Literature; the consequences have been with me ever since. I don’t regret the choice at all; my sixteen year-old self told me that I could always read history books anyway. And since then, I have.

So I have pursued my own particular interests in history, quite eclectic and I’m unsure whether anyone else shares them. History of Poland (my ancestry), history of Eastern Europe and the Second World War (my origins). History of religion (brought up religious, one never seems to leave it behind). And the question of experts and expertise often rears its head: one of the things I can’t always be sure of is how reliable a particular writer is, what axes s/he has to grind, that might be getting in the way of a clear understanding and judgement. Is X a ‘real’ historian, or just a populariser for the masses?

Expertise is a tricky thing; I once read that sometime in the seventeenth century there was so much knowledge being discovered and published that it was no longer possible for any one educated person to keep up with it all. Isidore of Seville was lucky: he lived a thousand years earlier. No-one can now be up-to-date in the entirety of any field of knowledge or learning. At school, students used to regard me as an expert on literature. True, I had studied, and acquired degrees, but what they didn’t know, unless they dared to ask, was where my gaps were – the periods I hadn’t studied, the lectures I’d skived, the authors I’d never read because I found them too dull… they knew I was well up in Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries, Jane Austen, twentieth century literature from all sorts of odd places…

It was also empowering to students to demonstrate to them that there were subjects in which they were also experts, especially compared with me, and I remember the dawning of the awareness, as I drew to the end of my time at school, that there were some areas where I now knew (almost) as much as my teachers, and clearly after a few more years of study, I had surpassed them. I used to remind my best students that they would also be in that position one day, and how empowering that would be.

History I find fascinating, partly because it connects me with the rest of the human race and our collective past, which I can never be part of, though it has surely shaped and influenced me, and also because it reminds me that there is a future which I will never know about or be part of. The human story is a fascinating one, and I waver constantly between marvelling at our achievements as a species and being overwhelmed by our apparent collective stupidity. We can create stunning works of art and music: Bach’s cantatas still leave me speechless, and I can never forget the day over forty years ago when I was fortunate enough to be taken to a cave in the South of France where I saw real cave paintings from thirty thousand years ago… And then, we invent horrendous devices of torture and mass destruction and still fondly imagine that war and greed are capable of solving the world’s problems, leading us to a better future.

It has been fascinating, over the course of a lifetime, to see how research in certain areas of history seems to have changed and developed our understanding of various periods – thinking particularly of new material coming to light about Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, for instance. Equally, though, I have noticed perspectives changing, themes and topics moving up and down an agenda according to what suits research interests and also the interests of today’s politicians: history is clearly not a neutral discipline! But, I’m not so sure I’d necessarily make the same decision if I could rewind to my sixteen year-old self…

Death of the e-reader?

October 14, 2015

I read last week that sales of a certain e-reader are so low that Waterstones are to stop selling them. Is the day of the e-book coming to an early end, I wondered? And that got me thinking about the nature of texts.

I know that hieroglyphs, one of the earliest kinds of sign-making, originally represented specific objects, later coming to stand for specific sounds, and that this was a stage on the way to the developments of alphabets, and the kinds of writing most of us are familiar with, unless you are Chinese, in which case you have ideograms, which to me seem to be a different progression from hieroglyphs.

What one writes on has also moved on; clay and wax tablets co-existed with papyrus and vellum; lightness and flexibility seem to have been the game-changers. The Romans wrote on scrolls, and these have serious limitations in terms of usability, which seem to be similar to the limitations of e-books: when the codex gradually developed into the paper book which we recognise, had it reached its most flexible and lasting form?

If you’re reading a certain column in a long scroll, you are basically stuck there; you can go back or fast-forward a column or two relatively easily, but that’s it. The same is true of an e-book, really, unless you know exactly what page something you’re looking for is on, and page numbers may change if you adjust the font size… with a ‘real’ book, you can easily flick through all the pages in either direction pretty rapidly, and your eye can often pick out what you’re looking for from the smallest of clues. Or you can jump to the index, or table of contents. Obviously the paper book can be reasonably light, pretty durable, and apart from daylight needs nothing else to enable you to read it. And books that have sat on my shelves, in some cases for a decade or two, can still be opened and read. True, the glue may have rotted and the paper be foxed, especially if it’s a book printed in Britain, but no-one has had an e-reader long enough to try the same experiment yet.

I have an e-reader, and use it very occasionally. It’s earned its keep through allowing me to read long out-of-print books that cost a small fortune to buy in paper form. But I’m not sure I’d buy one again, now. I think that the rise of the tablet has doomed the e-reader, even though reading is actually easier on an e-ink screen.

I can see that it’s logical for reference books and dictionaries to be replaced by online electronic versions: they’re much more up-to-date and easier to access. I find it so much easier to refer to online dictionaries when I’m reading a book in French: type in the word, and there’s the definition; no 2kg of Petit Robert to haul up from the floor with its 2500 pages to turn through. When I’m doing my German or Spanish homework, an online dictionary is really helpful: all possible variants, parts of speech, tenses etc illustrated on the same page, again triggered by the typing of a single word.

So I think the e-reader was a passing phase, an attempt to improve on something that didn’t really do the trick, or at least insufficiently well to break the monopoly of paper. And the tablet has its place for reference books or books on holiday, and probably scores because it can do so many other things as well. And although the fields where paper does it best have narrowed slightly, the death of the printed book is not about to happen.

Reading is a solitary activity…

October 11, 2015

I’ve been thinking about reading, and what it has done to me. Linked in with this is my father’s comment, when I would challenge him about something, using evidence that I’d read, that ‘you can’t get everything from books’.

Reading is, per se, a solitary activity. By this, I mean not that you have to be alone to read, though you often are, but, that by reading you are cutting yourself off to some degree from your surroundings, including other people who may be in the same room. You are not conversing with them, or interacting with them, apart, perhaps, from an occasional comment or observation: otherwise, you aren’t really reading. And, as you have no doubt found, if you are reading and someone interrupts you, it can be very annoying. For me this is particularly the case when I’m working my way through the last few pages of something I’ve been really enjoying…

OK, you may say, nothing particularly new or astonishing there. And you are right. But then, I reflected on how much reading I do, and how much reading I’ve done over the course of a lifetime, and all the things I did not do with all that time, what else I might have been doing. Again, reading is usually in reasonably-sized time slots, though when I’m ill, for instance, I read for hours and hours non-stop (that’s how I read Lord of the Rings in a day and a half – I had flu at the time). So I can’t really say, well, last year instead of spending a total of, say, ten days reading, I could have gone on a cruise or walked Hadrian’s Wall.

But, I feel there are, and there have been, choices involved – unconscious ones that may have shaped the person I have ended up becoming. For, loving books from an early age, there were obviously many times when I chose to read rather than be sociable, or go out to the theatre or the cinema, many evenings when I’ve read rather than conversed. Days when I’ve sat and read rather than gone for a walk or a hike. Has this led to my becoming a rather quieter, more withdrawn and introverted person? Am I less inclined to do adventurous or risky things, when I can curl up safely with a book? Have I been missing out on potential experiences whilst living other, fictional, lives vicariously? Has reading been, if you like, a displacement activity?

Again, I read a lot of travel writing. Has this allowed me to be satisfied with others’ accounts of people and places, rather than making the effort to see them for myself? And, does this matter at all? There’s no point if it does, as rewinding the pages of time isn’t an option. I love reading, and don’t regret how I’ve spent my time: sometimes I just wonder, wistfully, what might have been.

Words, words, words, says Hamlet. Marvellous words, connecting with my mind and my reason, which are for me two of the greatest wonders of being alive. Or am I missing something?

Ivo Andric: The Bridge over the Drina

October 8, 2015

51p5h3T72JL._AA160_I bought this book three and a half years ago; I began reading it in August and have only just finished it: this might give the impression that it wasn’t very good, perhaps a bit of a chore; not so.

Andric‘s style is cosy, warm, almost welcoming, rapidly drawing you into the tale of the bridge over the river at Visegrad – yes it actually exists – the time before, the decision of the Turks in the sixteenth century that it should be built, and their cruelty. I’ve never read a detailed description of an impalement before, and one is enough.

The slow passage of time, the mingling of the peoples in this corner of the Balkans, the slow effect of the centuries on the town and the bridge is almost hypnotic. And there is the complexity of the relations between the peoples with their different faiths, their violent politics, and the casual cruelty that seems a natural part of life. The stonework of the bridge endures whilst people come and go, are born and die, their memory fading away.

After three centuries, things speed up as the Turks retreat and the Austrians march in: we are in the 1880s, in relentless buildup to the Great War and our hindsight (and that of the author) adds an ominous feel to the unfolding of events and lives. And yet, in spite of the changes, tempestuous events, impending doom, the measured tone of the narrative carries us along like the flow of the river Drina, giving a certain sense of permanence which we see in the enduring of the bridge itself.

Andric weaves together stories of the town and its outlying villages with vignettes of individual, no doubt representative characters, and detailed and touching elements of local colour.

We feel a very clear sense of the end of an era as the war draws ever closer and sucks many of the town’s inhabitants into its madness, as the outsiders which are the armies move in, take over, mine the bridge for when it will be necessary to destroy it: Andric captures this sense of ending as cleverly as does Lampedusa in The Leopard, or Philip Larkin in MCMXIV. Calamity strikes, the bridge is blown, one of the characters whom we have been following for quite some time, reaches his end too.

I found the book very moving, in a low-key kind of way, if that makes any sense. Through fiction, I have learned something about the complexity of this region and these peoples, whose tragedy has been replayed in my lifetime. Andric drew me in, kept me interested, drew me back after a gap of over a month; it was worth it, it is a marvellous book.

Ursula LeGuin: The Telling

October 7, 2015

51pnzOxgvHL._AA160_I think I’ve now got to the end of all Ursula LeGuin‘s Hainish stories with a re-read of this novel, which I have to say I don’t think is one of her best, as the plot is a bit thin.

She writes about a world where developments seem to echo what took place in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and in Tibet since the Chinese occupied the country, exploring the importance of one’s cultural past to a people, as well as the consequences of trying to erase a people’s past wholesale, with the damage that ensues. The issues are complicated by enforced development (echoes of The Great Leap Forward, perhaps) so perhaps you can see that I have found it just a little too obvious and didactic in places.

Having said that, nothing LeGuin writes is trite or trivial, and The Telling is no exception: there is plenty to make one think here. The envoy from another planet this time is from Earth, but a future Earth where the consequences of religious fundamentalism that we see so much of nowadays has not really played itself out.

So here are some familiar LeGuin tropes: what is religion, and how useful is it to a people, what is one’s past and one’s history and how important is that? Along with reflections on comsumerism and planetary destruction, and what rights one has to interfere in the affairs of other places, peoples or worlds, there is plenty to dwell on. And one nugget, which is perhaps easily overlooked: her imagined world is a single continent, therefore a single nation, so there are no aliens, no-one is different, or an outsider…

Overall, it’s clear, as LeGuin has herself said previously, there is no definite plan or construct to the series of stories and novels (quite considerable, as you have seen if you’ve followed all my posts). The idea of a league of worlds, a loose-knit federation, the Ekumen as she sometimes calls it, is an appealing one, romantic in a sense when it’s created and described by a writer of her talent. It has given her the opportunity to reflect on, and present to her readers, all sorts of gender- and culture-related issues which cause any intelligent reader to consider their own world and how it might be different. This is one of the things that good science fiction does best; it’s seen most convincingly in LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and it was the brilliance of those two novels that led me to hunt out everything she has written in the Hainish cycle.

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