Archive for November, 2015

Claudio Magris: Blindly

November 30, 2015

41GxxrU2uFL._AA160_Sometimes a book I’ve read confuses me: I look it up to see what others have said and thought. I got no further enlightenment, however, from the critics and reviewers who raved about this book, as if it was the greatest thing since I don’t know what.

I read Magris’ Danube a number of years ago, and enjoyed it, and on the back of it, decided to try Blindly. It was pretty much a mistake, and a waste of eyeball time.

A man – in some kind of hospital, I suspect a mental institution, talks to a doctor or psychiatrist of some kind, who never replies. The entire book is a monologue. The man tells several stories, interwoven (or jumbled, take your pick) of several characters he claims to have been in the past – a short term king of Iceland, a Danish adventurer, a convict banished to Tasmania in the early nineteenth century, an Italian or Yugoslav partisan during the Second World War. Oppressed, and on the side of the oppressed, he is keenly aware of the ways in which attempts at revolution, changing the world, bettering it for ordinary folk, seem to end up corrupting and destroying themselves, the oppressed eventually becoming the oppressors, and concealed near the end there seems to be a vision of Mikhail Gorbachev as the ultimate betrayer – I think… but I didn’t need 450 pages to go around the houses telling me that.

There are times when I worry because I haven’t enjoyed, or got anything from, a book that is supposed to be a good one. Am I going soft, losing my touch, my critical faculties, or what? In this case, I really don’t think so, and I gave Magris the benefit of the doubt, and stuck with it to the end.

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Umberto Eco: Numero Zero

November 28, 2015

51dLXWHIREL._AA160_I think I shall stop looking forward to new novels from Umberto Eco, as the last couple have been disappointments. The previous one, The Prague Cemetery, was long and a bit tiresome as Eco got off on conspiracy theories with his take on that old chestnut, the Protocols of The Elders of Zion; this one is at least shorter.

It’s another conspiracy theory novel, and so the narrative is layered like an onion, to create vagueness and obscurity, as a fake newspaper, never intended to be published, is projected and developed in order to blackmail a leading industrialist; we are quickly embroiled in murky Italian politics of the sixties, seventies and eighties, enmeshed in various events and names we vaguely recall having heard of but never really understood. Perhaps Eco’s native readers will get rather more from this than the rest of us? And then the big conspiracy, the possibility of Mussolini’s death having been faked using a double, is introduced, and this is where it all seems somewhat rushed, and becomes a little tedious, as it feels a bit as though this section has been spliced into a rather lighter novel… Various plot developments are also rather predictable after this point. After I got a bit tired of all this, Eco collapsed the entire plot into an interestingly twisted conclusion: is his heroine’s logical and matter-of-fact explanation of everything the obvious one, or are there just endless layers of conspiracy at work, ultimately normalising everyone’s paranoia, and allowing the dark forces to continue their work unobserved?

Eco establishes the atmosphere at the start of his novel really well: there is powerful satire of the media, particularly the press. Its penchant for inventing, creating and managing the news agenda rings very true in these times; Eco casts serious doubt on all journalistic enterprise, and rightly so, it seems to me, living in a country where so much of the press is controlled by rapacious business interests. Very quickly we become unable to distinguish the truth from the lies, either from his fictional hack journalists, or from Eco’s own pen; the likelihood of hidden agendas adds more layers of obfuscation, and this is his best achievement in Numero Zero. We become clear that newspapers groom their readers, in order then to provide them with more of the same: think about it… (or am I just drawn into the conspiratorial web?)

Eco is a mediaevalist primarily, and that is why his two novels set in mediaeval times, the superb detective story which is The Name of the Rose, with its tribute to the master, Sherlock Holmes, and Baudolino, with its fictionalisation of the Prester John legend, are such masterpieces. His other novels are much paler in comparison.

Ambrose Bierce: The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary

November 28, 2015

51K2So37DsL._AA160_There are times when small is better… a few years ago, I was quite amused by a slim volume which was a selection from The Devil’s Dictionary; I gave in to the temptation of the full version in a second-hand bookshop, and to be honest, it was rather tedious.

The concept is an interesting one: humorous and/or cynical definitions of various words in use in our political, philosophical, literary and artistic vocabulary, but it does pall after a while. I think the real problem is that the definitions have dated, along with the style and approach: Bierce apparently disappeared in Mexico in 1913…

I also think that the idea was rather better done by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which is worth looking up if you like this sort of thing. Otherwise, stick with potted versions and don’t seek out the full feast…

Philippe Bourseiller: Call of the Desert

November 25, 2015

51FPEHDBV6L._AA160_This is a wonderful book to browse during an English winter! It’s a series of essays about various aspects of the Sahara desert, illustrated by hundreds of stunning photographs.

I’ve thought long and hard about why I’m so fascinated by deserts, but haven’t really come up with a clear answer. I’ve been to Britain’s only desert and loved it (where? answer at the end); in my student-day travels I suppose I got close to the edges of the Sahara: a friend and I spent a day at Volubilis, a ruined Roman city in the Moroccan desert. The city was stunning, the ruins wonderfully preserved, there was plenty of sand and it was unspeakably hot… when we got back to where we were staying, we were told that it had probably hit 50 degrees out there… I have always preferred the warmth and sun of summer to any other season, as I feel more comfortable and more energetic and more alive generally; in the depths of winter, I fantasise about emigrating to the Sahara…

The photographs show simple landscapes, stark landscapes, weird shapes of rock and sand, incredible contrasts of light and dark, beautiful colours. There’s a romance about them, that I know logically I wouldn’t necessarily feel if I were actually out there, but the sense of the unknown, alien even, is captivating, breathtaking.

As I browsed, I found myself thinking, “I wish I could take photos like that!” (photography is the only creative art, after writing, that I practise). Then I thought that, actually, in such an environment, one would just need to point one’s camera and shoot: one would be guaranteed a stunning image, and at home it could be cropped until perfect. You just need to be somewhere out of the ordinary, exotic. But then I looked carefully at the credits: photos shot with a Leica, using film stock…you get out what you put in. Eat your heart out, National Geographic, I thought.

The book (originally a French production) is beautiful, and very thoughtfully put together. Because the photos are the thing, there are no page numbers and no captions on the pages: just photos. And what a difference this makes – no borders, the image is all you get on the page. So, at the end of the book, there are thumbnails of every page, with not just captions, but a rather more detailed commentary and explanation. And the printing is superb, too.

(Dungeness, on the Kent coast, if you didn’t already know.)

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

November 24, 2015

51WZ6k3-NzL._AA115_As I’ve re-read and listened to the stories, I’ve come to realise that the setting –Victorian London – is far more important than I’d realised, or given Conan Doyle credit for: the sense of pride in the largest city in the world, at the heart of the Empire, with its wealth and its grittiness and its underworld. The crimes are always mentionable, the details never dwelt upon, in the way such things are today…

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes – the second time such an enterprise has been undertaken – is three magnificently produced volumes, which I was given for Christmas a decade ago. Two volumes contain all the short stories in the canon, and the third volume the longer tales. The annotation is copious, detailed, and as all decent annotation is, on the page alongside the stories rather than tucked away at the back of the book, so that any and every note you want to read is instantly accessible. And the annotation is probably needed now, to enable new generations of readers to make sense of all the small details, places that have disappeared, and other minutiae that Conan Doyle has his characters refer to. There are photographs and line drawings from the time, maps and diagrams, and a chronology of the times so that one can situate world events, too, although it’s only when we approach the First World War that Holmes and Watson seem to be involved in the periphery of actual events. There are also many pages of references to scholarly articles on each of the stories that have been published in various magazines devoted to Holmes, over the years, and also web links, which are well worth exploring.

The two characters are still at the heart of the stories for me, and I still marvel at the way Conan Doyle developed the formula which so many other have since followed and copied: you need the two characters for their interaction, and, as I mentioned above, the sense of place provides a pretty secure anchor, whilst the chaos of crime unfolds and is then (usually) resolved. Colin Dexter put Morse and Lewis in Oxford, and for me, that combination also worked well, as does Ellis Peters‘ pairing of monk and sheriff in the Brother Cadfael series, with its Shrewsbury setting.

If you want a treat from someone in the festive season, then the three volumes of the Annotated Homes are a great idea. The only downside is that they are quite seriously weighty and so do not provide for a portable reading copy: you need a sofa to enjoy them, really. The best easily portable set remains the old (and only available second-hand) two-volume hardback set from John Murray which is what I take on holiday…

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Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior

November 23, 2015

41dl+3ku-+L._AA160_If you’re a regular reader, you will know of my fascination with maps and atlases. I aksed for an atlas for Christmas when I was seven, and haven’t looked back; as soon as I could afford one, I had a copy of the massive Times Atlas. But I have been going back in time with Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major.

Holland was the centre of the cartographical world in the seventeenth century, when exploration of the world was is full swing, and a number of very detailed and extremely beautiful atlases were produced there. Taschen reproduced a selection in this huge tome which I had to buy…

Maps from that time are quite different from those we know today. They are very colourful, decorated with engravings of all kinds: native costumes, coats of arms of local rulers, impressive buildings in local towns, flora and fauna adorn the edges of most of the maps. Great attention is paid to delineation of borders: whose land is it? Mountains, rivers – and obviously bridges – are marked, as are placenames; totally absent is what we probably find most important and useful nowadays, the transport infrastructure, because there wasn’t one. Not even roads are marked; I suppose the assumption was that there would be roads between places and if you were actually in a place, then you’d find the necessary road.

The level of detail varies considerably according to where the map depicts; Europe and the Mediterranean does pretty well, but the rest of the world is rather variable, and there are no maps that even hint at Australia or Antarctica. The still-to-be explored lands are probably the most interesting, for a number of reasons. For Africa and the Americas, there is plenty of coastal detail, because that’s how the discoveries and maps were made; the hinterlands are blank – Brazil is almost completely empty. In the Americas there are vague annotations in places along the lines of ‘gold is to be found in these mountains’ and the like. Interesting, for Africa and the Americas, is the fact that all places have indigenous names: we are in the pre-colonisation days, before Europeans took overand placed our settlements with familar names, that still endure in many parts of the world. Pictures of the local fauna also abound, as a way of filling up some of the blank space on the maps, so that buyers felt they were getting something for their money…

I always get a sense of how enormous the world must have seemed to travellers and explorers in those days, and the dangers that they ran in their journeys in days before longitude could be accurately determined, meaning that they often didn’t know where they were – literally. There is something wonderful about our species’ urge to know and to discover, even though it often gets us into a mess…

Thou shalt not covet…

November 20, 2015

41wmVdzREbL._AA160_I thought about calling this post ‘book p*rn’ but decided against it, lest anyone get the wrong idea, but perhaps you may see my thinking after you’ve read further…

A number of years ago, feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare. I don’t have a use for it, I just wanted it. I’ve seen a real one several times, and it looks gorgeous: serious paper, made to last, just like the binding, beautiful print, nearly 400 years old. And a reproduction was the nearest I could get. Every now and then I take it down from the shelf, ease it from the slipcase, and browse the pages, read some of my favourite speeches in that marvellous seventeenth century font. It’s a beautifully produced twentieth century book (from an American publisher, of course) on lovely, quality paper, sewn and cloth-bound.

It’s a curious book, in a lot of ways. For one, the First Folio doesn’t contain all of the plays – for some reason, Pericles isn’t included. As a production, it’s rather shoddy: there are lots of mistakes in the pagination, for example, and a whole raft of other inconsistencies. Because it was a huge undertaking for the time, it had to be typeset and printed in sections, and the type re-used; time and money pressures meant that there were several compositors, not all of the same standard; for some pages, text had to be crammed in towards the bottom of a page so that particular section would fit, so it’s not set out ‘properly’ (as we know it)… But if it hadn’t been produced, chances are we would have far fewer of the Bard’s plays.

The facsimile itself is a labour of love from half a century ago. The main use of such a work is for critics and other textual analysts to try and work out what Shakespeare actually meant in various places where his meaning isn’t evident, or clear: by comparing all printed editions (quartos and folios) over time, it is hoped to unravel some of the mysteries… There is a library in the US, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has gradually acquired the largest collection of copies of the original First Folio – it’s still not really known how many were printed in 1623, but it seems to have been less than a thousand – and there are many subtle differences between existing copies, depending on whether the pages had been corrected or not, and at what stage in the printing they were actually produced. So pretty nearly every copy can differ from its fellows in tiny ways.

This also means that I have a facsimile of a book that doesn’t actually exist! Because, having many copies to work from, it was possible to go through all those copies, and for every page, make a reproduction of the best (most textually correct, and sharpest/clearest printing) available page from all those copies, before collating them into the 1968 version.

It is truly a work of art. And every time I open it, there is something of a frisson when reading those well-known speeches or exchanges that one has loved and studied in the past, in the script and font from the time of Shakespeare himself; somehow I am taken closer to the man himself and his time…

A limited acquaintance: Latin American writers

November 17, 2015

51S71FNH8ML._AA160_51sX1TFZKpL._AA160_51W50mnoFDL._AA160_My acquaintance with the literature of Latin America is very limited: I’m familiar with some of the novels of the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the short stories of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. I tried Mario Vargas Lhosa and found him impenetrable, and gave up on the acclaimed Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes; I don’t think it was my loss, either…

Marquez I have grown to love; One Hundred Years of Solitude is on my list of best novels ever; I return to it every few years and never cease to marvel. What is magic realism? It’s almost the literary equivalent of a drug: normality is there, in the characters, their lives, actions and speech, and then, imperceptibly it has happened: you are outside the frame of the real, things have an enlightened, extra edge or perception to them, sometimes a great warmth, welcoming and pleasurable. It’s seductive, more-ish, a totally different perspective on everything. Marquez gives us the (hi)story of a family, a town and an epoch, and it blows me away… the ending is truly astonishing.

As time has passed I have become more fond of Love in the Time of Cholera; perhaps it’s an older person’s novel? A tale of enduring unrequited love, magically sustained long beyond what seems possible, and eventually attained, a marvellous and exotic setting, beautifully described, again taking us beyond the real so subtly that it takes a long while for us to realise what the author has done…

Others have also wandered around in the territory of magic realism; I’d put some of Gunter Grass‘ fiction in this category, but I feel increasingly that there is something specifically Latin American about it, and that Marquez really did invent and develop a new genre.

Borges is so utterly different, enigmatic and sometimes utterly twisted, one eye on eternity which he knows is incomprehensible, but her just won’t leave it alone. Some of his stories might be compared with the drawings of Escher. He’s preoccupied with libraries and the organisation and categorisation of knowledge; the mad blind librarian Jorge in Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose is that writer’s tribute to Borges… Could all knowledge, every permutation of every letter and sign, ever be contained in a storehouse? Borges prefigures the immensity of the internet, and a website I discovered recently, the Library of Babel, tries to replicate what Borges imagined: warning! – the website may mess with your head.

Hardly a representative sample of Latin American literature: others of my readers out there may correct me, but I’m interested that the continent has given us two such different writers, writing things that perhaps Europeans never could.

Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

No-go areas?

November 15, 2015

I try to eschew overt political comment in my posts, because this blog is meant to be primarily about books and literature. However, the combination of the recent appalling events in Paris, and my enjoyment of travel writing combined to produce a small epiphany this morning.

Most of the travel writing I read is about areas of the planet that, over my lifetime, have virtually become no-go areas for (safe) travel. When I was a teenager, yes not all of the planet was safe to visit, but as far as I can recall, South East Asia was the major danger zone, because of the Vietnam War, which ended forty years ago. Now when I mentally review the planet, the entire Middle East stretching as far as India, the states that once formed the southern Soviet Union, most of North Africa, the Sahara and Sudan are pretty much off-limits. I knew people in my younger days who hitch-hiked from England to India, via Afghanistan – how far might one get nowadays, I wonder?

The regions which have interested me most as a reader have been the Middle East, the Silk Road countries, the Sahara and the Soviet Union. I’m astonished when I look at what’s happened to so much of the world and realise the changes which have taken place. And I’m saddened that so much of the mayhem and death which has blighted these countries has been due to interference from outside, and especially from the West. I cannot perceive anything positive or of longterm value that we have achieved by this.

I was particularly struck by something I read during the past week or so, written by an Arab traveller in the twelfth century, who was either on his way to perform the hajj or making his way home from it, I can’t remember which and it isn’t important. He was travelling through Palestine, at the time of the Crusades, and passed somewhere where Christians were in the process of besieging a Muslim stronghold. He and his companions encountered no problems passing through the region, because they were travellers about their own business, and the siege was nothing to do with them! We may well be over eight centuries later in time, but in attitudes and behaviour?

I’m a quiet life merchant generally speaking; I don’t mind the small adventure of driving hundreds of miles across Europe to visit places and people I want to see, but I can do without extra excitement, thank you. And in these pages I’ve often written appreciatively of explorers who have taken great personal risks, venturing into the unknown or unpredictable on their travels and written entertainingly and knowledgeably about what they saw and who they met. I’m struck by how much of humanity’s past history there is in some of these newly-forbidden places, particularly the Middle East. I know that people are more important than places and buildings, and yet I am always horrified when some relic of human history is destroyed by ignorant fundamentalists – the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the city of Palmyra are two recent instances. In some ways we are an astonishing species, capable of great things, and in other ways we seem collectively not very intelligent at all.

So, for all those places which I cannot imagine ever getting to see with my own eyes, I am very grateful to the travellers, explorers and writers who have brought them to my sofa.

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