Archive for December, 2016

2016: my year of reading

December 31, 2016

Looking back on 2016, I’m struck by how little reading I’ve actually done this year – only 51 books finished, the lowest total since 2001. There are a couple of ‘started and paused, probably given up’ (Celine’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, and Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, if you really want to know). And I’ve managed to reduce my acquisitions for the year to 38, which is a reasonable achievement in my judgement; it would have been considerably lower but for a spree in November… And I’ve continued with the culling of the library too, although I’m not sure it really shows.

My blog – this one, which you are currently visiting – has been a bit more popular this year, in terms of visits and people signing up for regular access, although I can’t say I’ve made the big time. I have been a little surprised by what have been my most popular posts: both of the following have pretty much the same number of reads. There’s Theodore Kroeger’s The Forgotten Village – I’m not sure why so many have wanted to read about this obscure volume; it’s recently been republished in France, which is where my copy came from, but the visitors haven’t been from there. And then there was Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass, an even more obscure book on the future of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); I suppose many of those visitors may well be Quakers who have heard about the book. And I get visitors to the blog from so many different countries, though not unsurprisingly the UK and USA head the list.

Awards for 2016

Best new book: definitely Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, which I’m currently devouring and will review later, when I get to the end. I could have given the award to her book Chernobyl Prayer (see below)

Weirdest: probably Vassili Peskov’s Ermites dans le Taiga, a true tale of a family totally isolated and surviving in the depths of Siberia for almost forty years without any other human contact.

Best non-fiction: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. You haven’t read anything about the Chernobyl accident until you read this book. The first chapter will break your heart.

Most disappointing: Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit, by Celine, which I’ve felt guilty about for years for not reading, and started this year, but put down for something more interesting. It wasn’t that the book was boring or unreadable, just not gripping enough to keep me interested; I’ve kept thinking that I’d go back to it but so much time has now elapsed that I’d probably have to begin again, which I can’t see myself doing.

Resolutions for 2017: repeat last year’s to buy fewer books, read more, and diminish the pile of unread books sitting in piles everywhere. I’m also, slowly, contemplating the possibility of a re-design of this blog, so that it looks a little less austere, and is perhaps a little easier to find your way around. Would that be a good idea, or do you prefer it as it is?

And so farewell to the world of words for 2016.

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

On freedom

December 29, 2016

Freedom is one of those words most often taken for granted, not really thought about or understood properly, a totem which can be crassly used to belabour those with whom one does not agree. I found myself scanning my bookshelves, as I often do when I’m reflecting on how to frame and develop a blog post, looking for novels that tackled the subject, and was struck by the fact that there weren’t/ I haven’t any from before the twentieth century… did this really mean that freedom wasn’t an issue in earlier times in the way it has become more recently?

I’m sure for thinkers, philosophers and theologians freedom was theoretically an issue, in the sense of free will, or how much scope we have for choosing and acting as we would like to, and this aspect of freedom continued into the twentieth century with the existentialists. Those of my generation will surely remember reading Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, or even seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of it in the 1970s: we were each free to deliberately make the choices we wanted to, in order to validate our existence… or not, as the case might be. Certainly the question of freedom has become a theme in literature in the last few decades.

When I wonder why this might be, I think we need to look at its opposite, oppression and slavery. The United States technically got its house in order with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War; the question of freedom for slaves is explored in such novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck’s mental gymnastics as he considers the issues while travelling with Jim the escaping slave on the raft down the Mississippi are as clear an exposition of the issues as any I’ve come across.

Russia, and then the Soviet Union, was rather different, and has perhaps determined how the issues were framed in the twentieth century. Serfdom was finally abolished in the 1860s; it hadn’t been quite the same as slavery in the US, but wasn’t terribly different it its effects. But then the authorities continued to deprive political dissidents of their freedom and march them in chains into exile in Siberia: Chekhov wrote about this in his travelogue The Island; Dostoevsky experienced it first-hand. And the Soviets took this much further; the West was easily able to frame the picture of the Soviet Union as a land where nobody was free.

As is so often the case, this is rather an oversimplification. We need to consider two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to. In the West we have foregrounded the latter, and ignored the former: we are free to move where we like, to travel where we wish, to work at whatever profession we choose, to live where we like, to believe what we like and worship how we choose, and everyone should similarly be free. Fine, all well and good, as long as we have the necessities of life – actually the money, if we are honest – to allow us to exercise these freedoms.

George Orwell is often regarded as the author who explored these issues most clearly in – allegedly – his devastating critiques of communism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. The animals win their freedom and are then oppressed even worse than previously. In Nineteen Eighty-four everyone is under Big Brother’s constant gaze and has no freedom of action or speech. Except that we oversimplify. The animals abdicate their responsibilities: freedom once won has to be watched over and preserved by everyone; Big Brother’s gaze is the watch of the totalitarian state, of whatever political colour or direction; it’s convenient but untrue merely to say Orwell is criticising communism.

Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian vision The Handmaid’s Tale, is a writer who invites us to look much more carefully at freedom from and freedom to. At some level the latter is a bourgeois luxury that most of the world cannot even dream of enjoying. Before you can be free to do loads of things, you need freedom from hunger, thirst, homelessness, violence, unemployment, and a few other things besides; most of the world would settle for this kind of freedom. And, like it or not, the Soviet Union and its allies did assure these freedoms as a minimum: there was shelter for everyone (yes, quite grotty flats sometimes, but better than railway arches), food was cheap, very cheap (not a lot of choice and frequent shortages), everyone had a job (and yes, some were pointless, make-work schemes and often you had to work where you were sent) and so could earn money. The basic essentials of life were available cheap.

I’m not saying the Soviet Union was better, or that I’d like to have lived there. What I am saying is that the attitudes we have, the slogans we parrot and the freedoms we allegedly need, are worthy of deeper consideration than they are given, and that we need to be aware of the very privileged positions from which we pontificate.

My A-Z of Reading: Z is for Zeitgeist

December 28, 2016

Warning: this post is political, and I make no apology for that.

The spirit of our times is selfishness. Thatcher’s Britain – me, me, me; there’s no such thing as society. For two generations now, this mantra has been dinned into everyone; the neoliberal tentacles have spread in every direction so that even to suggest that some things are better done by the state on behalf of everyone in society is to seem to exhibit signs of lunacy, and one is treated as if one is somehow wrong in the head. Writers such as Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, to name but a couple, who challenge such orthodoxy, are regarded as being on the extremes of politics.

The US is the individualist society par excellence, with power and influence far beyond its shores. The individual self-fulfilment preached by the hippy movement of the sixties and seventies was soon co-opted by consumerism, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction and the balance between individual and collective was lost, to everyone’s cost. Britain suffers perhaps more than any other nation because we have the misfortune to share a similar language with the US, which means that every crackpot idea from that land can reach us virtually instantly, unmediated. Not that we aren’t short of home-grown crackpots, mind…

Where is the literature in all this, you may wonder, as that is supposedly the driving force of my blog? Two novels spring to mind. The first I must go back to soon, as it’s more than thirty years since I last read it: Robert Tressell’s masterpiece from the early twentieth century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which reduced me to tears when I read it; it makes an irrefutable case for socialism being a fairer way to run society in the interests of the vast majority of people. And then there’s a utopian, science-fiction classic from the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Dispossessed, which shows us how an anarchist society might be run, and what it might feel like to be part of one. Life isn’t easy on Anarres, but people feel that what they have is worth working for, struggling for. In different ways, both these writers take us outside the mainstream bubble and show us how things might be very different.

In my younger days, as a student, I mingled with all sorts of political groups on the left, and the communist party analysis then, straight from Marx, was that the class struggle was the paramount struggle, and if that was won, the other issues in society, which did exist, such as racism, sexism, ageism, environmental issues and the like, could then be resolved. Other interest groups, however, chose to prioritise their struggles in their particular areas, dividing the opposition exactly as the hegemony wanted.

In my older years I’m coming to think that Marx was right, and that over the years energies have been diverted from the main problem: look at what has happened in the recent US election, where one might say that the struggles by people of colour, women, environmentalists and others, kept the Democratic Party fragmented and led to its losing, while somehow Trump managed to present himself as the champion of an impoverished and disenfranchised class… and won… There are two classes, however you look at things, and what is vague is where the dividing line between them is drawn, but there are the wealthy few who take money from the many ordinary people, the few who enjoy a far greater share of wealth and property than they have right to or need of, right across the world, and are prepared to use violence of all kinds to keep things as they are.

I suppose that brings me to the second spirit of the times: violence. The world is a much more violent place now than when I was a student: you could feel safe travelling pretty much anywhere. I had friends who hitch-hiked to India, via Afghanistan… now even in the relative safety of Europe there is the risk of a terrorist outrage at any moment. How did we get here? Two things stick out, for me, based on what I’ve seen in my life so far. The first is the failure of the West to contribute to a resolution of the Palestine problem; in fact our attitudes and policies have made the situation much worse, and helped poison the feelings of much of the Middle East towards us. And secondly, we can’t stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Capitalism needs unfettered access to their raw materials, and again this manufactures conflict. Nor can any country be allowed to offer a working alternative model to capitalism: far too dangerous a precedent for our system. See Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits for further exploration of this idea, or just read up on modern history. Writers have always been political: Shakespeare explored contemporary political issues, as did Jane Austen.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this blog will return to dealing (mainly) with literature, teaching and travel…

The Shipping Forecast

December 28, 2016

517com7q2bl-_ac_us160_This kind of book is known as a stocking-filler; I was very glad to find it in mine. It was compiled by the BBC, who broadcast the shipping forecast although they don’t produce it; it’s been a bit of a rush-job as a stocking-filler because the editor hasn’t found all of the silly little errors which should have been picked up during proof-reading.

I don’t know when I first heard the shipping forecast. I do remember gale warnings on the wireless when I was a child; presumably they were broadcast on the Light Programme as that was the long-wave station at the time. These were always precisely worded, and used the area names we are familiar with; they always began solemnly, “Attention all shipping, especially in sea areas….”

It took a while to learn how to decode the mysterious terminology: you gradually realise that the announcer is going round the coast in a more-or-less clockwise direction, then that the information concerns wind speed, wind direction, visibility; these are predictions, followed by reports from coastal stations which are actual readings, and also add barometric pressure, and whether it’s rising or falling. The pace and tone of voice are important for comprehensibility as anyone familiar with listening to AM radio from far-off stations will understand.

Much later on, I also came across the inshore waters forecast, which is exactly what it says it is; again we travel clockwise around the coast of Britain, this time the names are different, the pace isn’t quite so slow and solemn, and the information doesn’t seem quite as ominous…

The book takes you through all 31 sea areas and we learn the origins of the names, their history – some of the names have changed over time, some new ones have been added like the Utsires, which were never there in my childhood and came as rather a shock when I first met them; there is information about temperatures, wave heights and the like in each sea area and a few interesting snippets about them. Waves the height of seven double-decker buses are not anything I ever wish to encounter.

The shipping forecast has been romanticised over the past few years and treated to a number of books in its honour. I suppose it is part of our cultural heritage in a way and a strong reminder that we live on an island. It is very restful, peaceful, soothing if one listens to the late-night version (which I’ve only heard a few times), clearly holding a small place in the affections of many as well as performing a vital task, though perhaps less vital in our more technological days. And this book is a soothing tribute to it.

My A-Z of Reading: Y is for Yesterday

December 27, 2016

There has long existed the myth of the Golden Age, the idea that everything was better in the past; it’s an infection that spreads through the brain as one ages, I am finding, and it’s one from which the world of literature is not exempt. Is Shakespeare the best dramatist, or the best writer, even, who ever lived? Has no-one since then approached him in brilliance, grandeur, stature? Is it really all downhill since then? Is Jane Austen the greatest English novelist? – and this is a question I’m sure we’ll be asked with considerable frequency next year, the 200th anniversary of her early death…

In the end such questions are surely pointless, as one is never comparing like with like; each age develops new themes and ideas and ways of exploring and illuminating them. Ibsen isn’t Shakespeare, he’s radically different; he challenges, too, and leaves us without easy answers: look at the ending of Ghosts, with the mother frozen in time forever. Should she offer her doomed son an easy death? And they wrote in different languages, at different epochs…

Each age produces an enormous amount of literature, of varying quality. Much of it vanishes fairly rapidly, without much trace: who now reads the novels of Dennis Wheatley, Hammond Innes, Arthur Hailey and their ilk, all best-sellers in my early days? How many people read D H Lawrence, touted as one of the twentieth century greats when I had to study him at university? Theodore Sturgeon, once a pretty well-known science-fiction author, once said, “95% of science-fiction is crap. But then 95% of everything is crap.” And he’s right, if you think about it. I’ve been in second-hand bookshops stacked with fading hardback novels from years ago, and thought, “No-one will ever buy any of this stuff. The shop belongs in a skip.” Most of the authors I’d never heard of, and I’m reasonably clued up on literature.

Which brings up another question: what will survive of what is being published and read today? I often initiated discussions about this with my sixth-form classes. What are the criteria which lead to writers such as Shakespeare or Austen surviving the test of time, and others not? Clearly, inclusion in university and school programmes of study help, but what leads critics to think that writer X deserves study by seventeen year-olds, whereas writer Y doesn’t? You can come up with such ideas as universal or timeless themes, but it’s not only Shakespeare who has written about sexual jealousy or filial ingratitude, for instance.

I’m not convinced that any of my favourite twentieth century writers will survive the test of time, even though I’d like to think so. How long will Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez enchant us? How long will readers be interested in Guenter Grass’ explorations of German war-guilt? My touchstone for current students has been Harry Potter: will the books still be popular and read in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time? I’m not convinced, anathema as it might seem to say such a thing.

What will survive? What ensures the survival of a particular writer or text? Answers below, please…

My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

Colin Thubron: Mirror to Damascus

December 21, 2016

517pyetfy1l-_ac_us160_This is a lovely book, by a true traveller who clearly lived in Damascus for a serious length of time and fell in love with the place. I’d never heard of it before, found it in a secondhand bookshop in the summer and felt I wanted to read something about this country that has been tearing itself apart for the last few years… it seems to have been Thubron’s first book, published in 1967. It has beautifully-drawn maps which are nevertheless not quite as informative as they look, and quite a lot of blurry black and white photographs.

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Thubron takes us through its history, episode by episode, epoch by epoch, linking us to significant places and describing them in detail, often lyrically: we get a picture of a city of great age, rambling and ramshackle, home to many different tribes and peoples, full of historic remains from many different centuries, and cultures. There is a Roman Damascus, a Jewish one, a Christian one, a Muslim one, an Ottoman one, a French one…

To Thubron, the people are friendly, welcoming, curious; he wanders far and wide, seeking out places he has heard of, remains he’s interested in, sometimes finding and sometimes not, observing and reporting with an open mind, non-judgemental, talking with anyone who will speak with him: an ideal traveller. There’s also a fascinating chapter about the many travellers who have visited the city through the ages…

I’m not aware that Damascus has been quite so comprehensively wrecked as Aleppo or Homs in the current conflict, but have found myself wondering how much of this lovely place that he visited fifty years ago still exists. The chapter on the French Damascus reminds one just how much responsibility the West bears for the unspeakable horrors that are going on in Syria and other Middle Eastern lands, and underlines for me that it would be far better if we just left other nations to sort out their own internal affairs. Thubron’s book manages to capture some of the relative peace and innocence of earlier days, and I really enjoyed it.

My A-Z of Reading: W is for Words

December 20, 2016

I suspect everyone has a favourite word, or some favourite words, that they particularly like the sound of, or the meaning, or the shape… what are yours?

For some reason, I have always liked the word CONCATENATION. And ELEEMOSYNARY is probably my favourite of all, because of its bizarre etymology: it’s the adjective from the rather shorter English word ALMS…

As a child, I loved the nonsense words in Jabberwocky, which I can still recite (with glee!) And, as you’d expect, I enjoy Scrabble, when I can find someone who will play. I always find this a little unfair, as although I do have a decent vocabulary, the letters one gets in the game are random, and usually infuriating. I am a little proud of the fact that I once, many years ago, won a game of French Scrabble, against French opponents.

And then there is the internet, which has spawned a host of websites offering information about words. My favourite is still A Word A Day, to which I was introduced a very long time ago, in the very early days of the internet, by one of my students. You get a new word every day, usually on a theme for the week, its definition, pronunciation and etymology along with some examples of its use, and a random quotation that has nothing at all to do with the word, but is always worth reading. All in an e-mail, for nothing.

Finally a mention for another of my favourite sites, language hat, who blogs most days about words, language and reading, and has far more followers than I do. I come across lots of interesting things there.

My A-Z of Reading: V is for Vade Mecum

December 20, 2016

What books could you not bear to be without? Or, let’s rephrase that: what book would you take along with you to your desert island, along with the Bible and Shakespeare? If you were going into a home which only had room for one small bookcase, what would you absolutely have to have on it?

Any real reader will know that those are impossible questions. Where do I start? I’ve written about culling my library and how painful it is; I’m still trying to thin it out a bit so there’s room to move. And the loft is creaking under the weight of the boxes waiting to be sorted out.

Musts: Shakespeare. The lightweight single volume on bible paper will do to save space, as will my two-volume complete Jane Austen, also on bible paper. I need my complete John Donne poems, too. Dictionaries I’ll pass on, if I can have a laptop instead. I want one of my reference books to Bach’s cantatas, though, and my trusty Times Comprehensive Atlas. And I’ll have my complete Sherlock Holmes, the two-volume one to save space.

And I could stop there, I suppose, using the excuse that anything pre-1923 is available free online, again as long as I can have the laptop. That just leaves the rest of the twentieth century, literature, history and travel.

You can see that it’s a ridiculous exercise; the laptop is clearly cheating; perhaps you should try it sometime? My house would feel naked, I’d feel naked, without my library surrounding me. One day, I’ll try the exercise, allowing myself 100 books… that feels like a more sensible number. And I’ll post the list.

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