Archive for September, 2019

On peace and forgetfulness

September 26, 2019

When I reflect on my life, and seek the source of the contentment I feel in my later years, I am drawn back to feelings of gratitude for the greatest thing of all: that I was born, grew up and have lived in peacetime.

I have benefited from peace in Europe; I have been incredibly fortunate. Yes, I’m well aware that we had our own civil war in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century, that Britain has been involved in wars in many parts of the world, and that Europe had its own extremely nasty conflicts when the Federation of Yugoslavia collapsed in the aftermath of the fall of communism. For me, and many like me, that was the stuff of newspapers and radio news bulletins. I’m aware that there was the Cold War: I think we also had saner and more intelligent politicians in those days…

I return to this idea of peaceful existence more and more often, because I see it under threat, by neglect, by those who should know better, by those who don’t think, and by those in positions of power who are acting irresponsibly. For example, many of those of the older generation, who support Brexit, are wont to bang on about the wartime spirit, the spirit of Dunkirk, that got us through those times and will get us through the coming chaos. And I think, not only were most of those people not alive during that war and even conscious of that alleged spirit – my mother who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers sheltering under the kitchen table from German bombers on their way to and from Hull – but they will have grown up after the war in the times when everyone did pull together to rebuild the nation, and with the benefits of the greatest British achievement, the NHS. So yes, such people make me angry.

Time leads us to forget. We’ve been at peace in our corner of the world for a very long time: three quarters of a century next year. Most people now only know from history books where vile racism and nationalism lead. They do not imagine, cannot imagine, such perils ahead of them now.

My own family history, which I’ve referred to often enough in my blog, also makes me aware that most Britons’ notions of war are not those of other Europeans, who experienced occupation, starvation, deportations, persecutions and executions. You only have to visit battlefields anywhere in continental Europe, and memorials in any country to discover the traumatic effects of war, to see where entire cities and towns had to be rebuilt. Wherever I travel, I see and hear evidence of European nations determined to collaborate, to ensure that the horrors of the past do not return, their determination not to forget. Dad’s Army, the Blitz, and ration books are not how the rest of Europe experienced the Second World War.

Because in a sense peace is an absence – the absence of war – it’s hard to see its benefits. Then I visualise these advantages disappearing overnight, as, for example in former Yugoslavia or in Ukraine, and I can see how truly fortunate I, my family and almost everyone I know has been.

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

September 25, 2019
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I mentioned this poem briefly in a post about life choices last year, and something recently recalled it to my mind again.

Why is the wood yellow? Is it a mature wood, it is autumn there, and if so, why? I really don’t know. Both paths seem equally appealing to our curious walker who looks as far as he can see down the first. But there is a corner, beyond which the path and future are unseen. I’ve often found myself on a path in a wood, knowing that at some time I will need to turn around and return the same way; looking ahead I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll just walk as far as that turning’ and then come back. In life, that’s not an option anyone has…

The speaker takes the other path on the grounds that it looks brighter and less-used, whilst admitting that there’s really not all that much in it. There is a jauntiness, a casualness in the decision – he’ll come back another day and follow the other track, again whilst admitting to himself there’s not really much chance of that happening.

Is there a sigh of regret in the final stanza? After so much time has passed he will remember that moment of choice, a brief hesitation marked by the repetition of ‘I’ at the end and beginning of lines. And it made all the difference: what difference is he actually talking about? He doesn’t, can’t know…

It is a deceptively simple poem, because the tone – casual, offhand even – mirrors the way we take a lot of the decisions we make in our lives: this or that course, this or that job, journey and so on. And we have to: to agonise too much is to paralyse ourselves and in the end we have to leap and act. Only as we grow older, perhaps, like the speaker or the poet, do we pause, look back and reflect on the significance of choices which actually did shape of change our lives. Is that what he means by ‘all the difference’? For the choices we make shape the person we become, and if we are content, then we approve and validate the choices we made, as the poet does.

The language is simple – no difficult words in the poem – the sentences quite long and involved, nevertheless, for the poet wants to create a thoughtful and reflective mood, and such sentences mirror the slow thought-processes as he recalls and evaluates his choices and how they shaped his existence. The first sentence is twelve lines! Then a single exclamatory line, another short sentence and then the final sentence is the last stanza, summing up his complex train of thought.

For me, it is a wonderful poem, one that I suspect will last a long time in anthologies and possibly become the poem Frost is ultimately remembered for, for its deceptively easy profundity and lasting effect, and the way it surely speaks to most of us and our condition. Existential, perhaps, but without the angst…

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

September 22, 2019

81wJPxZyoYL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I only very recently came across a reference to this novel, and had to read it; I think I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and pessimistic novel I’ve ever read. It was worth reading, but be warned: you will be made fully to feel the utter pointlessness, meaninglessness and futility of human existence…

Initially, it struck me as Kafkaesque. Then existential angst shades rapidly into the idea of one’s life inevitably and irretrievably slipping away, devoid of purpose: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher. Interestingly, this novel is much better known in France than Britain.

A young, newly trained officer is posted to a fort in the desert, at the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever happens. Pointless routine abounds, and it’s impossible to get away. Is our anti-hero tricked into staying there? Yes, by his superiors as well as his so-called friends, but he also tricks himself into staying, for it’s quiet, easy and he doesn’t have to think about anything… he stays in the rut, imagining that something will happen eventually, something exciting, some action that will bring meaning and significance to his existence. Except it doesn’t. There are false alarms, signs of ‘the enemy’ in the distance. Then the enemy spends fifteen years building a road to the fort, and then disappears.

Finally the prospect of real action arrives, and our hero is too old, too ill, and his brain too addled for him to be of any use: he will be medically evacuated before anything happens… which we don’t hear anything about, of course. The real enemy is death.

We imagine that we are in control of our own destinies (ha, ha). It doesn’t quite feel like Kafka, trapped by a senseless bureaucracy, though perhaps the end result is the same: it’s a twentieth-century, non-religious response to the existential question. The book is frightening, in the sense that, I imagine if one read it as a young person, you’d fear getting stuck like the protagonist; reading it as an older reader you fear that you have been trapped like him. Habit is comforting, things familiar are secure and living adventurously is hard, so let’s go with those easier options.

And you cannot go back: the world has moved on and left you behind; there is only distance and disappointment back there, so why bother? More suicidal than a Leonard Cohen song. There is the inevitability and terror of ageing, imperceptibly, and this awareness is even more chilling for the reader who can see this happening to the anti-hero, while he is only dimly and slightly uncomfortably aware. And eventually we begin to move into absurdist territory when history begins to repeat itself a generation later, like the circularity of an early Ionesco play. Another new officer arrives, to be greeted by our greying protagonist.

He dies, forgotten and unloved, in an inn in the middle of nowhere, unwanted and unmourned. Reader, it is a good novel, but read it at you peril.

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Margaret Atwood: The Testimonies

September 16, 2019

71KFmh0gnCL._AC_UY218_ML1_   This was a binge-read, because at first reading the plot is what one is mainly interested in; I shall be re-reading the novel more slowly sometime soon and may come up with different and more considered responses. I hadn’t expected a sequel to a novel I’ve read and taught more times than I can remember, and was keen to see what Atwood would do with her ideas. (Warning: this post probably contains spoilers!)

The Historical Notes at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale tell us that Gilead is no longer in existence, and offers various ways in which the story might be continued. As I read my way through The Testimonies, I became aware of a deliberate choice: the previous book had been the Handmaid’s tale, in the Chaucerian sense if you like, and this sequel does not give a voice to any handmaid; instead it might perhaps have been titled ‘The Aunts’ Tales’, for it is around their world, and completely different perspective, that the plot revolves, and instead of the cold horror of the Handmaid’s isolation in the earlier work, there is a sense of women together being powerful and capable. And coming from The Handmaid’s Tale, this is completely unexpected.

The novel’s structure resembles that of the earlier novel, with perspectives shifting between sections, and fairly quickly we are with Aunt Lydia, who is apparently writing a secret journal preserving information about Gilead for the future. The cynical tone of the narrator as she writes suggests that all is not quite what it seemed. Along with her perspective, there is that of other Aunts, as well as those of several young girls being groomed for their future roles in Gileadean society, and it transpires that one of the ways to avoid becoming a Wife is to get yourself taken in to become a Pearl Girl, a trainee Aunt. Eventually there are two stories developing: Aunt Lydia’s and Baby Nicole’s (and it turns out that she may have been one of the Handmaid’s babies smuggled to Canada in the earlier novel).

In a similar way to how there is almost some sympathy elicited for the Commander at certain moments in The Handmaid’s Tale, we are initially shocked by feeling sympathetic towards Aunt Lydia; then we are possibly heartened to learn that she seems to be playing an incredibly dangerous double game, which is rendered plausible by rather more backstory to Gilead than we had in the earlier novel.

It becomes a compulsive and gripping read because we know the previous book and are connected to some of the characters again; by the middle it feels almost like a thriller, quite conventional in a way, and this jarred for me as I recalled the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testimonies is a more conventional novel, less inventive and experimental, less bleak than the earlier novel, although there are some echoes I noticed: the Bible is still altered to suit the purposes of the regime, there is another bog Latin phrase to play with, and occasionally there is some of the playfulness with language that was so clever in the earlier novel. And there is still the meaningless war going on, 1984-style.

As I approached the end, I was realising just how good the novel is, building on what The Handmaid’s Tale gave us more than thirty-five years ago: the backstory of the transformation of the US into Gilead is much more detailed, convincing and scarily possible in the changed times we’re living in now. The picture of Aunt Lydia, which initially seemed a deus ex machina, is more believable when we look at the two novels side-by-side: the Handmaid was utterly isolated and powerless, and the Handmaids in The Testimonies still are. We do not fully understand the world of the Aunts at the very beginning of Gilead; later on their potential becomes clearer. Atwood offers hope in what she calls women’s silent power, that of finding things out, and it is that accumulated knowledge that Aunt Lydia seeks to use…

Atwood’s power and craft shine through, I think. It’s a satisfying enough sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – which didn’t need one, but there are always those who don’t like open endings, who want to know what happened next, as if the characters and situations were actually real – and there is genuine hope in the idea that even in a society like Gilead, you cannot suppress the minds and thoughts and ideas of everyone. And no, I really didn’t expect The Testimonies to end with another Historical Notes…

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