Archive for February, 2018

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 4

February 28, 2018

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Men (these are figures from all the nations involved in the war)
10 million dead
19 million wounded
10 million mutilated (I think this refers to amputees)
7 million prisoners
9 million orphans
5 million widows
10 million refugees
74 million mobilised

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
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Balance-sheet of the First World War – 3

February 26, 2018

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The French dead

killed by (gun/shell) fire 674,700
died of wounds 250,000
missing presumed killed by (gun/shell) fire 225,300
died of disease 175,000
= 1,325,000
losses among colonial troops 66,000
total = 1,391,000

(continuation of a series translating this French poster)

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 2

February 24, 2018

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Comparative table of belligerents' losses
This table doesn't really need translating: the three columns give the following figures:
Total population
Numbers mobilised
Numbers killed

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 1

February 22, 2018

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As outlined here, I’m posting the individual sections of the poster, and translating them:

The hecatomb:
In France one inhabitant in every 27 killed
in Germany one inhabitant in every 30 killed
in England one inhabitant in every 57 killed

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

The balance-sheet of the Great War

February 20, 2018

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We are moving towards the centenary of the Armistice and the end of the Great War, and I have to say that, after my initial doubts about various suggested commemorations, we seem to have been sober, sensible and respectful in what we have remembered. Perhaps, actually, we have stayed away from it, still unable fully to comprehend the enormities of a century ago, against the background of a world that is still very troubled, and still affected by those events of the past.

I’m attempting to do something a bit different in a series of posts which will appear in the coming weeks. I hope that the images I will use are clear enough for readers to see, if you magnify them on your device.

I first saw this poster in the museum at Albert, on my first visit to the Somme. From the way it’s written, and the typefaces and design, it apparently dates from some point between the two world wars. On a visit to Verdun last year, I was pleased to see it had been reproduced for sale, at the modest price of 5 euros. It’s obviously focused particularly on the effects of the Great War on France, but there are important and useful messages for everyone. As my contribution to remembering the centenary of the end of the war in 2018, I’ve scanned each section separately and translated it for an English-speaking audience; over the coming days and weeks the sections will appear in my blog, and when completed, I will add it to my pages, so it’s easily accessible…

This synoptic table compiled from official statistics by Georges Pineau and illustrated by André Galland, was published by the Newspaper of the Combatants and War-Mutilated, Paris.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

K & Z Weinersmith: Soonish

February 15, 2018

51hyU-PQsYL._AC_US218_When I actively think about it, I have to be astonished at the rate of technological change in my lifetime (I almost wrote ‘technological progress’ there, but paused…): from the black bakelite ‘push button B’ telephone to a miniature computer in my pocket, from being taken to visit the first electronic calculator in the district by our school maths teacher to… my laptop, from a black and white television with two channels to streaming almost anything on demand, from a children’s encyclopaedia to the internet.

This was an unexpected book – a birthday present – and I do like being surprised. The authors review and explain changes in various areas of technology that are in development and may affect our lives sooner or later… hence the title. They are very good at explaining why current ideas, machines and materials work, what their limitations are, and where it may be possible to go next. A good deal of very serious and hard science is presented and explained pretty clearly, with some humour, in a way that a non-scientist like me can usually understand (though not always without feeling a headache coming on). The chapters are helpfully arranged in size order, as the authors move from technological developments in space down to the micro-level, within the human body. The difficulties involved in automating certain complex processes are explained, and various routes and solutions are evaluated.

What surprised me quite a lot was the remarkable overlap between where science currently seems to be heading, and science fiction that I’ve read over my lifetime, for example everyday objects that can communicate with the user, such as abound in the novels and stories of Philip K Dick. You may be thinking, well, isn’t it obvious that SF would foreshadow what is coming up in reality? but not so. Much of what has happened in the recent past SF did not foresee, especially the incredibly rapid progresses in computing power and miniaturisation. You can read novels set a century in our future where they are using computers we would have found obsolete in the 1990s…

It may well be related to my age, but a good deal of what is up-and-coming scared the daylights out of me, particularly in the area of food; augmented reality (AR), which I’m quite interested in along with VR, also seemed pretty scary in terms of its full potential. As an arts and humanities person first of all, I’ve always been a little unsure of whether scientists are fully aware of the complexities and implications of what they are doing. We shall see – or rather, it’s probably the next generation that will…

Ionesco: Macbett

February 12, 2018

51IYbJ5xszL._AC_US218_I’ve always liked the theatre of the absurd, ever since I had to study Ionesco for French A-level; my recent reflections on Macbeth sent me back to his version of the play, Macbett, which I hadn’t read for many years.

There are the moments where a pair of characters share and repeat identical or almost identical lines, pantomime-fashion, just as in some of his earliest plays like La Cantatrice Chauve, echoing each other; often the phrases repeated are platitudes or even nonsensical, contradictory. Elements of farce develop as an aftermath of the opening battle where in Shakespeare‘s version Macbeth and Banquo show great valour: war is portrayed here as insane, with lengthy catalogues of slaughters and millions of innocent deaths, and the two ‘heroes’ make identical speeches and claims, which further undermines them. Indeed the entire train of events is absurd, for Duncan is a coward to whom no perceptible respect is due, and he and his wife are caricatures, anyway. Everything is called into question when the women appear far braver than the men, and the king spouts rambling nonsense rather than making regal speeches…

In this play the witches appear with their prophecies in the middle of the play, and their encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is much lengthier and more serious: they spend considerable time persuading Macbett that he should move against Duncan. And Lady Duncan is actually one of the witches, physically seducing Macbett at the same time. Ionesco’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that wealth, sex and power are inseparably intertwined.

Although for me the play lacks the power of Le Roi Se Meurt, it does nevertheless work, particularly because it is a re-writing, a re-conception or re-imagining of an original we know well and are very familiar with. Thus, although there are most of the events and plots of Shakespeare’s play here, and the end results of them are very similar, the words are different, the focus is different, and the thought processes of the characters are different; it’s alienation in the true Brechtian sense that unsettles the audience. It’s very much a twentieth century play. And it ends, after the death of Macbett and Macol‘s coronation, with his rehearsing the speeches of Malcolm in that very tedious interlude in Act IV of Macbeth where he tests Macduff‘s loyalty – Ionesco has translated Shakespeare’s text word for word here – except that we have the eerie impression that here, Macol really means what he is saying…

So, definitely not a tragedy – a farce if anything – deliberately absurd, very entertaining although very tricky to stage, I think. And I came away from it with all sorts of comfortable Shakespearean preconceptions shaken and stirred.

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