Archive for December, 2015

2015: My year of reading

December 30, 2015

Time for the annual review and stock-take of what I’ve been up to this year:
Books acquired – 42 (up from 37 last year)

Books read – 71 (down from 88 last year) what on earth is going on here? Retirement was supposed to mean more reading, not less! Looking back through the log, it appears that I did next to no reading whilst away on holiday, and I did have quite a few holidays this year.


Looking through what I actually did manage to read, there’s quite a lot of Shakespeare; there have been a number of plays I’ve wanted to re-visit, and I still haven’t quite finished. Also a lot of science fiction, as I’ve been filling the gaps in my Ursula Le Guin collection (and reading more SF was one of last year’s resolutions), and a vast amount of travel writing. Very little ordinary fiction, I’m afraid, and the resolve to re-read Jane Austen I made last year did not happen, either.



Weirdest book read in 2015: Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz

Most disappointing book of 2015: Blindly, by Claudio Magris

Best non-fiction book of 2015: From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple

Best new book of 2015: no award this year, as I haven’t read any new books…

Reviews of the books mentioned above can be found in this blog if you search for them…


Some resolutions to break in 2016:

I shall continue to work on diminishing the unread pile. Actually, I didn’t do too badly this year, and managed to get rid of quite a few books too, which suggests that with some books, the moment just passes… perhaps this will encourage me to buy fewer books. Next year I may include a ‘books disposed of” count.

I shall read more Shakespeare.

I shall read some more poetry. I love poetry, but somehow it does get overlooked; when I want something to read, I don’t naturally reach for poetry.


In summary I can report that there is little that beats lying on the sofa with a good book (sometimes accompanied by a glass of Belgian beer. I have acquired a new and stronger pair of glasses this year…

Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

December 26, 2015

4106MBV4HRL._AA160_This is quite an early Shakespeare play, which I’ve enjoyed in the past, but found a little tiresome this time round, for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is tiresonely symmetrical: a king and three nobles woo a princess and three ladies; all are ultimately successful. And for each of the three courstships, the stages are alike: you would not find such a lack of variety later on in the dramatist’s career. The comic subplots using the clowns and other menial character I therefore found rather more humorous and diverting.

The language is correspondingly limited, too: the blank verse is very structured, and very frequently moves into rhymed couplets, or alternate line rhymes, which grows tiresome after a while. There’s a great deal of wit and wordplay, much prized at the time and still very clever today, if you can penetrate it. My preferred edition of the plays is the Arden (second series) which appeared over about forty years from the 1950s onwards; this being an early edition, it’s interesting to see the editor doing his best to avoid having to explain the vulgarities and obscenities that abound, or couching them in euphemistic terms. Later editors of other plays were nowhere near this circumspect. But often, to understand much of the humour, a twenty-first century reader does need glosses.

One gets a clear picture of Shakespeare as a developing craftsman from this play; familiarity with a range of his work clarifies all sorts of different stages and experiments, and from this early work it’s possible to see a number of tracks that he would eventually explore: a lot more disguise and cross-dressing, a lot more experimentation with the versatilities of prose and poetry, bolder comic heroes and heroines (I was aware of how far he had yet to go to create the Viola of Twelfth Night, for example), much more complicated plots and subplots…

I suppose my closest comparison for anyone not familiar with this play would be Romeo and Juliet, which was written maybe a year or so later. it’s a tragedy (obviously), but, if you look closely at the text, rather than watch one of the quite heavily edited film or stage versions, you will still see some of the rather tiresome overuse of rhyme, and leaden emotional over-exaggeration (the Nurse’s lament at discovering the apparent death of Juliet), over-long set-piece speeches (Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech) and other signs of a still-developing playwright. Just read it alongside Antony and Cleopatra and you will see what I mean.

However, I always find it useful to be reminded that our greatest dramatist had to practise and learn his craft, and make a few mistakes along the way.

Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

December 20, 2015

51drgdDFhEL._AA160_A friend took me to task the other day for omitting Twelfth Night from the list of Shakespearean comedies I liked in my post on The Taming of the Shrew. I was so astonished at my own oversight that I went back to the play…

I recall a wonderful amateur production many years ago at my last school, when we were lucky to have a sufficiently talented group of actors to put on a production (I stage-managed) which went down very well. I think I’ve seen the play once or twice in the theatre, too, but not recently, so there’s something to look forward to one day.

Re-reading the play set me off thinking further about comedy. So much more seems to be riding on the language than in tragedy. Yes, in the tragedies there are the great set-piece speeches and soliloquies too, and I’m not disparaging these at all, but they accompany clear onstage action, and the emotions and responses expected from an audience are clear; in spite of any issues with the sevententh century language, a twenty-first century audience is in no doubt about what’s going on – the deaths and murders that are the stuff of tragedy are obvious.

There seem to me to be rather more obstacles to the appreciation of Shakespearean comedy, which I’ve been aware of in the theatre when I’ve often found myself much readier to laugh than most of the audience (which is fine, as I love laughing). The language is sharper, the exchanges between characters are more rapid, quick-fire wit is the key: a modern audience will surely understand if they have the time to take everything in, if they are as quick-witted as Shakespeare’s characters, but comprehension is often lost: puns, innuendos and obscenities that make up the core of the humour flash by too quickly. And then, there are the changes in the use of the language itself, and the different context of some of the exchanges, before we even get on to the action onstage.

What the actors themselves are up to may also be less easy to interpret: yes, there is cross-dressing and hiding and general silliness which one can usually understand, and there’s certainly lots of this in Twelfth Night, but one also needs to be clear about the very diferent attitudes to courtship and marriage, which are woven into the complexities of the plot.


With this re-reading, I was struck quite forcefully by the perfection of the plot of the play, the wonderful symmetry of the story of brother and sister lost in shipwrecks and ending up with weddings at the end, as well as the chaos of the many subplots and distractions so artfully woven together, the Malvolio story and the antics of the two drunken knights, and the Duke and Olivia story that is not to be, with the added complexity in the role of Cesario as the go-between…

Shakespeare: Measure For Measure

December 18, 2015

510ADQNZXKL._AA160_I’ve re-read Measure For Measure several times, and I still can’t completely fathom it; it’s a tragicomedy, seemingly, as dark as The Merchant of Venice, but much more unclear in terms of where blame or guilt may be apportioned for the sorry state of affairs which is ultimately, and perhaps rather unsatisfactorily, put to rights – of some kind.

There are so many questions. Why does the Duke disappear (or pretend to), leaving full powers to a man (Angelo) less experienced than another (Escalus)? There seems a weakness, a remissness in the Duke’s behaviour here, and remissness is a serious flaw in a ruler. And this weakness seems to have affected the way he has ruled, but contrasted with Angelo’s rigour, we become less sure about this; again we compare Angelo with Escalus, and we feel the subplots also call his approach into question.

Then there’s the main, Claudio and Juliet story: Claudio’s (apparent) crime isn’t fully a crime as they were promised to each other, and certainly does not seem to merit the death penalty. Justice and mercy are set face-to-face as in The Merchant of Venice; the issue is complicated by Claudio’s weakness (or his human-ness?) – he wants to live, and would therefore persuade his sister to give herself to Angelo. Is her outrage, and rectitude something we are meant to approve of? Or is she too harsh? Is our response a twenty-first century one, and at odds with the way a seventeenth century audience would have viewed things?

Then there’s Angelo himself: very sure in his sense of right and wrong, and meting out justice with great confidence, but then apparently tormented by his lust, revealing a (slightly) more complex aspect to his character in soliloquies, taken over by his evil side. Is it frailty and human weakness, or wickedness, or a sense of guilt at his previous treatment of Mariana?

The Duke’s behaviour meanwhile grows more and more questionable: pretending to be a friar and usurping the religious privileges and duties of one, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a web of deceit which will go nowhere – just a Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet steps outside the bounds of his religious order (except he really is a friar). In a situation where we are surely prepared to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the drama, the performances with the faked executions and letters and so on become less and less believable…

I realise that this post is basically a series of questions, and will come to a close with another: where is Shakespeare taking his audience with all this? And I should attempt an answer, which is about as far as I have got with this play: Shakespeare is constantly showing his audience that nothing, no case of right or wrong, no person, whether apparently good or wicked, is as simple as appears on the surface; he is forever turning a situation on its head to have his audience think further, or to make them uncomfortable with the upsetting of their simple responses… will that do?



Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

December 17, 2015

4116zMytiZL._AA160_I have realised it’s taken me a very long time to begin enjoying Shakespeare’s comedies as much as his tragedies, and I have been thinking about why this may be. Perhaps the tragedies are easier to access: a (pretty) clear plot, and message, and an expected audience response. Certainly, I understood Othello and King Lear when I studied them for A Level. At university, I preferred the tragedies, saw some sense in the histories, and managed, largely, to overlook the comedies.

The Taming of the Shrew is wonderful, for its plot, its framing, its message and its language – full of wit, pun and obscenity. I think the quick-fire, rapier wit exchanges are also probably somewhat more difficult for twenty-first century audiences to grasp quickly, meaning the moment has often passed before we know what to laugh at. Although I’m getting better at this. The interaction/ interplay between Kate and Petruchio is masterly, often hilarious. And again, what audiences find humorous or witty does change over time, whereas the subject-matter of tragedy remains pretty constant.

So, the range of Shakespeare I enjoy has broadened: I’ve grown to like Love’s Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor; I may even go back to some of the more obscure ones like The Comedy of Errors, or All’s Well, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I did once, many years ago, see a wonderful production of it.

The challenge in Shrew comes with the ending: what has Kate said, and done? Is it a feminist declaration, as some would like to think, or is it shades of St Paul, putting all women in their place, silent and subordinate? I always read the last couple of scenes particularly carefully for this reason, and I look forward to seeing a production again one day, to see how it comes across. The best account I’ve come across is in the Arden two edition introduction, by Brian Morris, who sets the ending very carefully in its context, which cannot be feminist, yet also elucidates the freedom and happiness open to a Kate who understands her position in her world and what it offers her…

Andrei Bitov: Pushkin House

December 15, 2015

51LvwcASCmL._AA160_This is apparently a Soviet post-modern novel. It’s extremely hard work, and I can see why the Soviets wouldn’t publish it. It’s chaotic, in a Joycean or Shandian sense, and parts of it recall the weirder bits of Ulysses; because it’s about literature and responses to it, it’s presented almost as an academic work, with sections and subsections and appendices and notes and footnotes…

The author is forever interfering, or deliberately intervening in his own narrative, sometimes interacting with his hero, offering variants of particular episodes, alternate endings and the like, so attempting to track a linear narrative is not really allowed or possible. The power of the author is obvious – he can do as he likes, and we are allowed at times to assume there is a direct identification between author and hero, and at other times not. He can also write himself into a corner with his hero’s mad antics, and then magic him out of it again.

Ultimately the plot isn’t sufficiently interesting to sustain this reader’s interest; it’s no doubt clever in its convolutedness and self-reference, but it doesn’t draw one along like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses do. Partly, I think, this is because so much of the detail and reference is Russian-specific; even my reasonable acquaintance with nineteenth century Russian literature didn’t help me wade through the mire of mentions of authors and quotations from their works, plus details of their biographies… and a novel that requires complex notes and glosses ceases to be a novel – though perhaps this is part of Bitov’s intention.

The one thing which did stand out as a consummate achievement was an astonishing drinking binge involving eight bottles of vodka being consumed by five people over a night or so; the weird states, hallucinations and outlandish behaviour are every bit as insane as the drug-fuelled ramblings of the late Hunter S Thompson, or the craziest section of Joyce’s Ulysses. Only Russians are capable of drinking like this, and if you do want to read a novel about epic drinking, then you should probably go for Benedikt Erofeev‘s Moscow Circles rather than this one, I suggest.

In the end, I’m afraid it wasn’t quite worth the eyeball time.

On being informed…

December 13, 2015

images (1)    imagesI’ve always felt it’s important to make sure I’m well-informed about what’s going on in the world, and not just what will affect me. This has usually meant reading newspapers and magazines on current affairs, and I think it’s getting progressively harder to keep up with the world…

I discount television and radio, which are by nature less detailed. Television is more concerned with images, even though a picture may perhaps be worth a thousand words. Nowadays it’s about mugshots of nonentities standing pointlessly in front of buildings and holding forth in a few sceonds about issues that need hours… Radio sometimes does better; some programmes on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service are dedicated to analysis in depth.

It is the downhill path of almost all the printed media, particularly in this country, that concerns me most. We once had a quality press that could be counted on to consider important issues with some seriousness. The Guardian excelled in many fields, particularly analysis, the Daily Telegraph in the scope and depth of its news coverage. The Independent used to be serious and once lived up to its founders’ ideals. I’m certainly not convinced it’s just about my growing older, but all the papers seem to aim at frothy lifestyle coverage more than serious news, all aimed at a younger readership who are less likely to buy printed newspapers, and in the process are driving away older readers who might. I know we will eventually fall off our perches (that’s the story of the Daily Express par excellence), but meantime we might buy the papers and respond to the adverts.

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I won’t knowingly buy any Murdoch-owned paper, but the other three ‘serious’ papers have grown ever more trashy. There used to be many columnists who knew their field and wrote knowledgeably. Now Gary Younge has stopped his reporting for the Guardian on the US; Tim Garton Ash still manages to provide reflective coverage on Eastern Europe, and the Independent’s Robert Fisk is far and away the best writer on the Middle East. Otherwise it’s columnists writing by the yard to fill a regular allotted space, no matter whether they have anything meaningful to say or not…

It’s the fact that one needs to write at length to explore and analyse a topic thoroughly that’s at the heart of the problem: today’s reporters (!) and readers either have, or are judged to have, the attention span of a hamster. In English, serious and lengthy commentary appears in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, but, although they do print more general articles, they are, as their names suggest, primarily about books. Le Monde Diplomatique (do not let the title put you off) allows its reporters and analysts the space – one or two full pages, quite often; they write knowledgeably and analyse in depth, from a left-wing perspective. And the magazine is available in lots of different languages. Increasingly I respect and rely on its analysis. There are no pictures (!) and a dossier most months consisting of a series of articles examining a particular issue of world moment.

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How important is all this? I’ve had a bit of a rant here, and don’t apologise for it; I always used to tell my students to beware of anyone who came along offering simple solutions ot problems. Intelligent people deserve better than what the British press currently offers them.



The Art Museum

December 11, 2015

61IMIf4BSBL._AA160_I’ve been thinking about my preferences in art as I’ve leafed through the pages of this enormous book again. I bought it a couple of years ago as I realised that, being retired, I had more time to devote to exhibitions and galleries that I previously had. It is as near as you can get to a single volume guide to the world’s art and its history, although it has vaarious flaws, which I’ll get on to eventually…

For some reason, I’ve come to enjoy ancient Egyptian art, particularly statues and sculptures, and a recent visit to the Neues Museum in Berlin was wonderful, although I did come away with the feeling that the only reason the Germans hadn’t brought the pyramids back was that they were probably a bit too big… I suspect my interest dates from seeing the first Tutankamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Over the years I’ve come to enjoy the impressionists a great deal, and have fallen in love with German romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, but my greatest pleasure at the moment comes from Turner‘s paintings, watercolours and sketches. But then there are also unexpected, one-off discoveries, like the astonishing Otto Dix series Der Krieg, based on his experiences of the First World War. My tastes are very catholic, as you can see. And modern printing technology allows books of reproductions of very high quality.

As I thought about what I liked, what gave me pleasure or spoke to my condition, I also wondered about what I didn’t like, or, more accurately, felt I couldn’t access or understand. Some art I find so culturally distant from what I have grown up with that it is hard to approach or understand – the art of Africa, India, South East Asia or the Pacific, for instance; I find European and Middle Eastern art much easier on the eye and the brain. In a slightly different way, I have also felt that, upon reflection, time is also important: I find a lot of religious art, particularly paintings (sculpture and architecture less so) too austere and remote, and most portraiture from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leaves me totally cold and uninterested. This, I think, is because it strove to be representative, and, in a post-photography age, it just doesn’t work for me at all.

Everything is in this book, in small doses sometimes, and overdone at others. My first gripe is that, when I’m looking at pictures, I’d like to know where I can go and see the original: that information is clearly given, but in an appendix at the back of the book, and this book is so large that quickly flicking to the back just isn’t an option. By the time I got to the end of thebook, I felt that there was an undue emphasis on recent – late twentieth century – art and sculpture, whereas earlier eras were a bit skimmed over. Or is it just that there is so much more art being created now, a greater variety and more experimentation? How subjective is the selection made by the editors? Picures and scupltures are reproduced in high quality, and there is a very informative glossary, annotation and location of every work ‘exhibited’ in the book. It will continue to be a useful companion in the future, though I suspect it won’t stop me acquiring other, more detailed collections of particular artists’ works.

Jonathan Tucker: The Silk Road Art and History

December 9, 2015

31GFEU8hIDL._AA160_If you have read may of my posts about travel writing on this blog, you will know that I’m fascinated by the Silk Road, that collection of routes (for there was no single route, like the M1) which linked East and West from the times of Alexander the Great onwards, allowing people to trade, and to exchange ideas and knowledge. This book is clearly a labour of love: it is helpfully illustrated by many maps of all the different routes that are known, and liberally illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photos of people, places, artefacts and treasures.

The fact that the routes have existed for over two thousand years does put our own world, with its empires and trade routes into a different perspective: how long will what we have invented or created endure? Equally, although these two millennia were never times of unalloyed peace and neighbourliness, it is fair to observe that Christians, Muslims and Buddhists managed to co-exist, to be interested in each other, to preserve contact, to trade, and to learn from one another. Maybe that was easier in a world full of unknowns and uncertainties – after all, travellers never knew whether they would reach their destination…

I marvelled at the vastness of the spaces along the routes, in lands where there was room for unwanted and no longer used buildings just to be left to decay and gradually disappear naturally, crumbling in peace after the people had long gone. They continue to crumble: it is also interesting to realise how the dryness of the desert treat the remains of human settlements, compared with the damp, humid and temperate lands we inhabit: out there, there are reamins of wooden buildings erected over a thousand years ago: shades of Ozymandias, I felt…

I was saddened to think how many of the places described and illustrated are nowadays inaccessible because of ongoing conflicts, and also realised how much had been destroyed by fanatics and fundamentalists since the book was written – the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman remains of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

This is probably the book to have on the history and culture of the Silk Roads, as a companion to any other reading on the subject.

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