Archive for February, 2016

Writing, writers, language and inspiration

February 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking some more about the craft of writing: it took a while before I told myself I was a writer, because I write this blog (heading for 400 posts now), and because I’ve been working on another study guide recently. I was often asked, while still teaching, if I was going to write when I retired, and I always said no, thinking that people meant lengthy and serious stuff, or novels. And when I was a student I used to write book reviews for SF magazines, and worked on the student union newspaper for a couple of years. Hell, my alternative career choice – to teaching – was always journalism…

I’m supposed to be an expert at writing: I taught it for years; I know all the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling (allegedly); I know all about planning, structuring, drafting and revising. When I write, I particularly enjoy the possibility of choosing my words carefully, and of revising a piece until it’s just what I want it to be. Some of that is easier in front of a computer, some isn’t.

And yet there’s more: there’s inspiration, there’s the original spark of an idea to get creativity flowing. That’s the case with this blog, too: obviously I write about what I’ve been reading, but at other times I get a sudden idea for something to write about. And that has got easier over time. But the sort of flash of genius – the sort of thing I often imagine fires good poetry, for instance – no.

I’m in awe of what good writers can do with language. John Donne is probably my favourite poet of all time (unless you ask me tomorrow, when I’ll choose someone else): he creates moods through language, he varies his tone of voice at will, he uses metre masterfully, and he is witty through his use of language – that supremacy of the sixteenth century mind playing cleverly with words and ideas, that today would probably just seem smart-arsed. Who else would dream of using the image of a flea to persuade a woman into bed?

Shakespeare and Milton are just stunning, when you listen to them. Some of the magic surely comes from their invention of new words, which abound; some comes from the sounds of those words, some from the poetry, some from the ideas and feelings bound up in those words.

James Joyce plays brilliantly with words: the opening chapter of A Portrait of the Artist with its closely observed baby talk; the sections of Ulysses written in the styles of different authors and the masterfulness of the closing chapter. And I haven’t read Finnegans Wake, though the bits I have seen show a wordmaster at work. And someone has translated it into Chinese (?)…

I love the wonderful chattiness, homeliness, conversationality of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, wit its dry humour; I marvel at the way Raymond Chandler creates place, time and sleaze with so few carefully chosen words; I chuckle at the wonderfully subtle and catty put-downs that are hidden throughout Jane Austen, and so easily overlooked.

English is an extraordinary language (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?); although I can read French I don’t feel I can get inside it and appreciate its subtleties in the same ways. And English is special, for the hugeness of its vocabulary – several times the size of other languages – which gives the possibility for precision, shades of meaning, myriad rhymes in poetry and so much more. It is a particularly good language to write poetry in because of this richness, and blank verse works, or has been developed, in ways that I’m not sure exist in other languages – I think of the straight-jacketing rhyming couplets of French dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare.

No wonder this blog is as far as I’ve got…

Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

Harper Lee

February 19, 2016

So, what did she achieve?

She painted a wonderful, if romanticised, picture of the Deep South, in which her love of the place shone through clearly. However, she was also very aware of its troubled past and present. She brought childhood innocence to life in the children she created, again perhaps romanticised, but that is what most of us do to our childhood memories. And she showed how that innocence is often cruelly dispelled.

She wrote an engaging story, that unfolds initially in a very leisurely manner, reaches one  conclusion, but then continues, to an ending which takes us back to childhood, and to the cusp of adulthood, first shocking and then comforting and reassuring her readers.

Because I taught it so often, and always insisted on reading every word aloud in class, it’s probably  the novel I’ve read more times than any other, and I know it extremely well. Its lessons – about racism, about childhood, about families and parenting, have never palled, and with every class I taught it to, raised different questions and discussion points. Sometimes it took a while for some students to grow to like it, but I think they all did.

Some people have carped and cavilled about this or that aspect of her novel. It’s not perfect. She wasn’t Jane Austen or Tolstoy. But she wrote a novel which has endured for over fifty years, more than can be said about most of the other novels from that time. It’s a novel which countless thousands of school students have enjoyed, and Michael Gove – philistine idiot – has deprived English schoolchildren of that possibility now.

I’m saddened by her death, and very grateful for what she gave us. RIP Harper Lee.

Derek Guiton: A Man That Looks on Glass

February 14, 2016

41dUvgaRKOL._AA160_I hesitated before writing about this book, because it’s a very personal choice, and a rather arcane one, too, but I don’t like to censor what I write about what I read.

It’s a theological work, aimed at a very small minority – Quakers who are interested in the possible future of the Religious Society of Friends; it’s a very demanding and also a very thought-provoking book, that clearly links in to my own life and spiritual journey. The author explores theist and non-theist approaches to religion – if you can see how that might be possible – and looks at the difference between the immanent and the transcendent, as he considers what God is, the nature of God, and just how much it’s possible for us to understand about God, if there is one. (My italics).

To me increasingly it seems that in order to have some comprehension of, and some way to approach the idea of God, we necessarily make God in our image, and yet obviously, if there is a God, then that anthropomorphic deity is not God, for God must be much more. In other words, we are very much hemmed in by the limitations of the human mind, and what we can see. And although science is doing its best to dispel God and the spiritual, there are evidently things science will never be able to tell us: what was there before the Big Bang? What will there be after the death of the universe? What is there outside our universe?

And, from his evidently very wide and scholarly reading, Guiton shows us that scientists are actually rather less dogmatic about many of these questions than popular beliefs would suggest… His book is well-written (although headache-inducing in some places); he explains and illustrates his arguments well, and he is clearly arguing from a very specific viewpoint within a small religious society, and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

Quakers haven’t really done theology very much, apart from an astonishing treatise by Robert Barclay at the end of the seventeenth century, the masterly An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, in which he argues and would prove that Quakers have gone back right to the basics of early Christianity. That is a book to which I frequently return, as I shall to Guiton’s.

On being indecisive

February 14, 2016

I wonder if anyone else has this problem: I don’t know what to read next.

It’s not as if I’m short of unread books: no, there are lots of them, of all different genres, books that I’ve bought because I must read them, even though that ‘must’ was five, ten, twenty years ago… books that were impulse buys, because they seemed like an interesting idea at the time. And yet, I’ll get to the end of a book, reach for another, and I’m stuck.

At the moment, the default choice is travel, but eventually I feel tired of surrogate voyaging. Next is often a novel, but I have to confess to having serious problems with fiction at the moment, and I’m a bit mystified as to why. Novels often seem a bit forbidding, a bit long (there are several door-stoppers waiting on the shelf), and I find myself not wanting more invented lives, if you see what I mean. I’m starting to consider whether this has anything to do with growing older; certainly my appetite for novels has shrunk, and if I do fancy a novel, it’s just as likely to be something I’ve read before and enjoyed, rather than something new; in fact this is more likely to be the case.

I’ve written before about my interests changing. Now there’s more of a restlessness: I’ll surf to while the time away, I’ll do crosswords, I’ll read magazines and newspapers until finally that restless mind (sometimes) settles on a book. Perhaps it’s just cabin fever: I do hate winters, and feeling cooped up and unable to be out and about. But it’s also annoying: I do actually want to read all those unread books…

Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton: Shakespeare – staging the world

February 13, 2016

61JAQPrsXCL._AA160_This book originally accompanied the splendid exhibition on Shakespeare at the British Library in London a couple of years or so ago. I really enjoyed the exhibition: it was extremely well conceived, laid out and organised, and it was a great pleasure to be able to gaze at so many artefacts from those times, which linked in to the plays I have long known and loved.

The book is well-written and nicely produced (always a plus in these corner-cutting days); it covers the same territory as the exhibition, obviously, and reproduces pictures of many of the objects that were on display, so providing both a reminder and an expansion of what I saw then.

It’s organised into chapters each with a different focus on an aspect of Shakespeare’s life and times, and offers an excellent contextualisation to those times and the plays, but, more importantly I think, the interaction between them. There are an increasing number of ‘historical background’ books on the period around, and no doubt there will be more, given that this is an anniversary year, but this is one of the best that I’ve come across, in that it’s serious and detailed, appealing to an educated reader, rather than simplifying and dumbing-down what is a fascinating and complex period. At the same time, it isn’t too academic, bogged down in details and reliant on pages of annotation.

One of the things that came out most clearly and strongly to me, in a way that it hadn’t before, is the real shift between the times of Elizabeth I and James I. The changeover took place in 1603, pretty much in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, and had major implications for the nation, and major effects on Shakespeare’s subject-matter and writing: the idea of Britain – because of James’ being king both of Scotland and England – replaces the idea of England, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its consequences impact largely on the country and on the drama. And we move from an era which was concerned about the succession, the ageing Elizabeth having no direct heir, to one that can focus on other things, although the benefit of hindsight reminds us that the Civil War is only a couple of generations away…

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.

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I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…

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One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

On Europe…

February 8, 2016

There’s a lot of talk and argument about Europe at the moment, and it’s not going to go away. So, I’ll add my fourpence-worth, at least, from the perspective of my blog.

Sense of belonging is a curious thing. I’ve never felt British; it’s a weird concept, and alien to me. I know it says it on my passport. If I acknowledge anything, it’s Englishness, as England is where I was born, brought up and have lived; however, half of me is Polish, and I feel an affinity with that nation, too, some of the time, although I feel alienated by its currently bonkers politics… so I’ve never really been sure where I properly belong.

Most of my travelling has been in Europe, a place I feel at home in and understand to varying degrees, depending where I happen to be visiting. We share a great deal in Europe: the past, the Romans (for a sizeable chunk of Europe) Christianity, which for better or worse has shaped our beliefs and philosophy, and our approach to literature and the arts links us together, too. There’s a great deal we can be proud of as Europeans, and probably rather more that we should be acknowledging is shameful.

Although other parts of the world, perhaps tutored by our past example, are beginning to approach the savagery let loose during two world wars, those wars blight our history and collective memory in aeternum. And somewhere, the European project of the last sixty years or so has been about ensuring that we do not slide into that kind of anarchy and mayhem again; apart from the Balkans in the 1990s, on that front we have done quite well. Many nations are increasingly closely tied together by economy, law, travel and culture, and it’s pretty difficult to see those bonds disintegrating.

And yet, the cynic kicks in: despite all those lofty ideals to which our petty leaders pay lip-service, the EU is actually a gigantic capitalist club, increasingly forged in the interests of big business and profits, if not actually run by those businesses, as they pull the strings of the Brussels puppets. It’s not the Europe I’m really interested in, and feel part of.

Then there is the refugee crisis and immigration, which is being exploited by nationalists who would be happy to see the European project dismantled. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable with immigration, and want to help those in need, nevertheless must recognise that we live among other people who are profoundly unsettled by what is going on, who would like to restrict or end immigration and asylum. To this I can never subscribe, being the son of a Polish exile. So what should Europe do?

Because Europe is prosperous and peaceful, it’s attractive to people who live in war zones. And, to begin with, Europe should be looking at its contribution in creating those war zones in the first place: invading Iraq, bombing Libya, bombing Syria: as we collectively trash those countries and interfere in others, we both make ourselves more attractive to our victims, and also make ourselves the potential objects of revenge. It doesn’t take an Einstein to put that two and two together…

So, yes, I feel European, and want my country (England) to remain an integrated part of it. I’m not worried about loss of sovereignty (whatever that may mean); I’m concerned about lack of democratic accountability within EU institutions, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw my toys out of the pram. And I hope to continue enjoying travelling in Europe, visiting its cultural treasures and marvellous landscapes, and enjoying its amazing music and wonderful literature for many years yet. English and happy to be European!

 

On philosophy

February 7, 2016

When I was a language assistant in France, many years ago, I borrowed a school philosophy textbook and read it. It was an eye-opener, a revelation: sixth-formers were expected to follow a basic outline course in philosophy! The book was a great help with the remainder of my university studies, and I still occasionally go back to the notes I made from it, as a basic starting-point. Why didn’t we get to do this in England?

I’ve never made any systematic study of philosophy; some aspects still give me a headache when I try to think about them. And yet it’s fascinating stuff, and for me it has always, inevitably been linked with a spiritual journey, and has therefore overlapped with a more than passing interest in theology; aspects of theology are also capable of making my brain hurt…

As humans, we are uniquely conscious of our eventual and inevitable mortality; the question of how to face this bravely, with awareness, is surely the key to much of our species’ thinking through the ages. How do we seek to live well, to feel satisfied and even contented in what we do and achieve in our limited allocation of mortal time? How do we accept our approaching end? What is there to think and believe about the nature of the world, the universe and its purpose – if there is one?

My limited acquaintance with various thinkers hasn’t produced any magic answers. The wisdom of different cultures has varied through time: the Greeks and Romans seem to have sought to accept and become resigned to our lot; the Chinese look at how to live a good and virtuous life (which I find helpful most of the time). Christianity and Islam, being more religious than merely philosophical belief systems, urge followers to think of the possible hereafter and its rewards or punishments, and have ended up creating temporal systems with enormous amounts of power over both followers and non-followers. And more recently, as our scientific knowledge has advanced by leaps and bounds (though perhaps further in the minds of non-scientists than with scientists themselves) has emerged a tendency to shrink God and the religious or spiritual, or even to seek to eliminate them completely; science becomes the god instead… and yet, such an approach has just as many limitations as what it seeks to replace, if not more, as well as apparently permitting the pillaging of the planet along the way.

Having long had a very logical and rational streak in me, I have striven to understand a solely material world and failed: there is, for me a higher plane which for need of a better word I call spiritual; there are higher things and more complex questions than our limited intellects can fathom.

Philosophy also posits the possibility of perfectibility, which brings us back to the utopian yearnings I wrote of a few days ago. There is a very powerful drive to individual fulfilment, which is inevitably at cross-purposes with our social nature which seeks to co-operate with our fellow-creatures for our greater good. It appears to me that sometimes Western philosophy is very limited in its outlook, in the sense that it originates from, and reflects that currently very powerful part of the world that calls the shots for everyone on the planet; the individualist strand is justified (justifies itself) and achieves a hegemonic position, as supposedly leading to the greatest wealth and profit, determining the political, social and economic lives of everyone. Where that leaves me is – are we asking ourselves the right questions?

Shakespeare: Pericles

February 6, 2016

41CK9T+8zsL._AA160_This was the only Shakespeare play I’d never read before: I’ve no idea why. Someone urged me to read it, a few years back, and I’ve finally got around to it.

Firstly, it’s not all Shakespeare’s own work: it shows, both in the language and the construction, and also in the fact that there’s no really reliable text, only a single quarto apparently scribbled down during performance and immediately after by two different people. So there are plenty of parts that are unclear, or don’t make much or any sense at all.

Then, it feels like a throwback to a more primitive dramatic form: the action is shunted along by a chorus between the acts, aided by a dumb show sometimes, which prefigures the action. There are other times when Shakespeare uses devices like these – the sonnet at the start of Romeo and Juliet gives away the entire plot, for instance, and sixteen years time is magicked away between two acts of The Winter’s Tale – but not in this consistent fashion. Through the entire play, I had the impression of Shakespeare on an off day, capable of better than this.

The plot itself is very loose, and repetitive, full of sea journeys, shipwrecks and visits to various ancient Greek statelets. Aspects of it remind one of The Tempest and also The Winter’s Tale, and the play is part of that period of Shakespeare’s work labelled the late romances.

I suspect I’ve given the impression of a play that’s not really worth bothering with. It seems not to be performed very often, and there’s only one film version available, made as part of the BBC Shakespeare series because it had to be there… and yet, it is much more than this. As the play moved into its second half, it gripped me much more, and I got a sense of the scenes that Shakespeare must have authored: the astonishing brothel scenes, where the virginal Marina is supposed to be inducted into her new role, and the really powerful and moving scene where the aged and long-suffering Pericles is finally reunited with his long-lost daughter Marina. Here there are definite echoes of the Lear and Cordelia reunion scenes, though obviously Marina survives her ordeals. And Pericles is finally reunited with his wife, who he thought had died in childbirth…

I’m very glad I finally got  around to reading it, and clearly need to revisit it soon, to pick up on what I missed first time through.

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