Archive for September, 2017

Edith Wharton: Fighting France

September 29, 2017

51zB99-bd4L._AC_US218_Another very interesting Librivox find: despite having taught Great War literature for years, I do keep coming across interesting finds. I’ve never felt moved to read anything by Edith Wharton but downloaded this a while ago. Apparently it was a best-seller during the war years.

An American by birth, she was living in Paris when the war broke out, and describes the scenes in there at the time, as well as her own impressions and reactions. Her account covers roughly the first year of the war, and in 1915 she embarked on a tour of the Western Front from Dunkerque to Belfort, with some official help; aided by her connections, she was one of few foreigners allowed to travel like this. I have the impression that the French wanted the right kind of message to get back to the USA, and her narrative is also spiced with stories of German atrocities. She got to visit Verdun, and various other places now part of the history books including Ypres and Dunkerque; she got taken to front-line trenches, watched bombardments, and did seem to have been in one or two slightly hairy situations, saw parts of Lorraine which had been re-captured from the Germans, dined and conversed with French troops and officers… All very different from the ways in which reporters and journalists are handled in war situations today!

It’s a relatively short book, only six chapters, the last of which sums up her impressions of France, the French, and their efforts thus far. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing: clearly the dreadful grind of the later years was still to come, when such journeys could not have been undertaken, and there is also a certain freshness and innocence in accounts written while the war had not reached its end. On the other hand, there is no indication of the horrendous French casualties in the early months of the war when they threw everyone they had at the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt their advance. A very interesting read, or rather, listen.

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Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams

September 25, 2017

This was a Librivox recording that I listened to as I travelled on holiday recently. Someone once suggested it as worth a read; I’m not really sure, actually.

The Adams family, of Boston, was clearly a long and distinguished line which produced presidents and diplomats; the Henry of this autobiography was born in 1838, and lived into the early twentieth century; he recounts his life from the perspective of learning and education, in terms of what he did and did not learn in various places and from various experiences, and the pursuit of education was a lifelong quest with him. He travelled widely in Europe, though not, it seems, in his own country, and during the American Civil War his father was US ambassador in London and Henry was his secretary.

The book was tiresome in its detail and endless sequence of names, details no doubt much more relevant and interesting a hundred years ago, and in the USA, and the evenness of its tone became dull eventually, allowing the impression to grow of someone born with a golden spoon in his mouth, able to live a life of privilege, without ever really needing to take work seriously.

What kept me reading? I was certainly minded to give up after a while, but Adams’ reflections on how one learnt and how one didn’t learn I found interesting, and they turned me to reflecting on my own experiences of education through my life. He raised the well-worn trope of the relative pointlessness of what school, college and formal education offers one – though I still tend to disagree with this argument. I suppose, in the end, as someone getting on in years myself, I was hoping for some interesting reflections from Henry Adams’ own later years, but to my great disappointment, these he skated over alarmingly rapidly and cursorily, so I might as well have given up…

The most interesting section of the book for me, in the end, was that dealing with the Civil War because Adams was in London with his father dealing with diplomatic issues and the British Government, and I had no idea of the crassness, or the ignorance, or the self-serving nature of the British politicians and their behaviour during those years… although now, I do ask myself – why are you so surprised?

And I am grateful – slightly – to Adams for calling forth some serious reflections on my own life and education, which I think I may write about here at some point in the future. And the Librivox recording was a very good quality one.

My travels: R is for Rügen

September 22, 2017

The island of Rügen, off the northeast coast of Germany, is one of the places that’s long been on my ‘must visit’ list, and I’ve finally made it. German friends had recommended it, and there are the famous chalk cliffs that inspired some of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It was a long trek, but really worth it: I’m not sure I can recall more stunning scenery in any other place I’ve been to…

I stayed at Prora, which apart from having beautiful beaches, is home to the Colossus of Prora, Hitler’s holiday camp for 20,000 German visitors at a time, a strip of concrete six-storey blocks which stretches for three miles: it truly is vast. The war broke out before it had a chance to welcome any holiday-makers; parts were used by the German army, then some bits were blown up by the Russians when they overran the area, so two blocks are ruins, but the rest still stand in varying states of repair and disrepair, and they are gradually being transformed into luxury apartments for wealthy German holiday-makers of the 21st century. During the time of the GDR, parts were a training centre for the People’s Army, and part a sort of sanatorium and rehabilitation centre. The history of the place is documented in a fascinating museum on the site which is crammed with memorabilia from the nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-nineties.

The geology of the island is curious, and it’s littered with granite boulders and fields of flint; there are a lot of flint beaches. Near where I stayed was a curiosity and rarity, the feuersteinfelde or flint fields, an area a couple of miles long and half a mile or so wide which was entirely flint, with its own flora. Because of its remoteness, the eastern edges of Rügen are home to primaeval beech forests were never used or exploited, and these now form the Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site; there is much wonderful walking here. And then, of course, there are the famous chalk cliffs, two hundred feet high in places, spectacularly beautiful with their forest covering. Dangerous in many places partly due to sea erosion, and also because of winter frosts causing collapses, the views are stunning as you walk along: glimpses of precipitous, creamy-white cliffs, trees dangling perilously off the edges. Occasionally there are wooden staircases which allow fit walkers to get down to the beach below (and back up again!) and admire the cliffs from below. I could see how the painter was inspired.

On the south-eastern corner of the island lies the Mönchgut peninsula, which is completely different, being far less forested, and also slightly hilly, so that it’s possible to survey the sea and inlets in all directions and get the feeling of being on an island. There, I found a restaurant which offered me “the best poppy-seed cake you’ve ever had in your life”: I tested the hyperbole, and found it to be accurate.

Sadly, large parts of the island I never got to see for lack of time. Many of its villages have ancient redbrick churches, tiny but perfectly formed, and which reminded me of some of the churches in the Romney Marshes in Kent; there are picturesque thatched cottages, and the remains of a number of ancient Slavic fortifications. At times, I was reminded of Cornwall by the sheer touristiness of the place, where every other house is a holiday let, and wondered what it was like in winter, and what life was like for the locals… Other places I visited included Kap Arcona, the most northerly and easterly part of the island, with its lighthouse, and the village of Altenkirchen which has the oldest church on the island; magically, the organist was practising when I visited… this is a holiday I’ll never forget.

My travels: L is for Lübeck

September 22, 2017

I’ve wanted to go to this northern German city for a long time, mainly to see the Marienkirche, because that’s where Dietrich Buxtehude was organist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; my hero, the young J S Bach, walked the two hundred miles from Arnstadt in Thuringia to hear the celebrated organist and learn from him. Having absented himself from his post for several months, Bach then walked back to work… apparently he could have stayed, and inherited the post of organist, at the traditional price of marrying the incumbent’s daughter (!), but Bach didn’t fancy Miss Buxtehude who, shall we say kindly was no beauty and quite a bit older than him.

The Marienkirche is truly stunning. First of all, it’s vast – the largest brick Gothic church in the world, a helpful verger told me (but wrong, as I surmised, the title going to St Mary’s in Gdansk, which I also know, and thought was bigger) – and it’s beautiful inside and out. It took me many years of church-visiting to realise that in Western Europe, churches and cathedrals are stone because there is stone, whereas there isn’t further east, so when in mediaeval times the citizens became jealous of what the French and English were building, they persuaded the architects to come and help them create similar wonders in red brick. There is a Backsteingothik route all the way across northern and eastern Europe, ranging from tiny village churches to huge basilicas and cathedrals, and the more I’ve seen, the more astonished I’ve been.

The RAF fire-bombed Lübeck in 1942, and the Marienkirche burned. The bells fell from their tower and remain smashed where they fell as a memorial to the wanton destruction; a small plaque notes that the smaller one had rung for over 430 years, the larger for some 270. The church maintains links with Coventry Cathedral. But, as the verger explained, the dust and grime was burned off the walls which had been whitewashed at the time of the Reformation, revealing wonderful mediaeval painting and decoration.

More about the Reformation became clearer to me in this quincentennial year as I explored this and other of Lübeck’s churches: the altar is relatively unimportant, and the glorious centrepieces of the churches are the pulpits and the choir-lofts, because for the reformers, the sermons expounding the word of God and the hymns singing his praises were at the heart of everything. The choir-loft and organ in the Aegidienkirche (St Giles’), the smallest of Lübeck’s churches, left me speechless; the marvellous altar-pieces and gilded carvings there and in other churches made me realise just how much art we must have lost here in England in that orgy of state-sponsored vandalism that was the Reformation here…

There’s much else that is wonderful about this city, small enough to be walked around, surrounded by water, its two mediaeval gates, its astonishing town-hall, the numerous tiny alleys with courtyards and streets of houses almost hidden from view… and it’s also the home of marzipan. Which was duly sampled and enjoyed.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

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