Archive for May, 2020

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

On being a member of a not very intelligent species…

May 23, 2020

Warning: politics ahead

Once I’ve waded my way through the acres of knitted words, confusion and hypocrisy about COVID-19, sometimes I’m reminded that there’s a world out there that’s increasingly wrecked thanks to our stupidity. Today I came across this article, which told me of temperatures hitting 27 degrees inside the Arctic Circle and 30 degrees in Western Siberia. So global warming, melting icecaps, and release of methane from thawing tundra proceed apace, creating irreversible change…

We are (quite reasonably) currently preoccupied with a dangerous disease, and yet we are also allowing the rich and powerful to continue wielding the wrecking ball, as they strive to return us to ‘normal’: the main concern at the moment seems to be, will people be able to jet off on holiday, or will airlines and holiday companies go out of business? We are still wondering whether there needs to be another runway at Heathrow, and various people want to expand our local (Leeds/Bradford) airport. We are planning to spend astronomical sums on a high speed rail track that will not benefit most of the country. We are not thinking, here is an opportunity to rethink transportation and working practices in order permanently to use far less energy and produce far less pollution.

And this is where I come back to an increasingly frequent thought: we really are not a very intelligent species, and it’s showing more and more. The very rich and powerful have always managed and will always do so: they will survive the ravages of disease and global warming by doing whatever they need and want to do. In the end most of the rest of us can die off, and they will just preserve enough slaves or serfs to sustain their luxury.

I’m currently reading an interesting and unusual take on the story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent attempts to build socialism, and I’m constantly reminded of what a Polish friend who is a historian once told me: a different group managed to take over the reins and they assumed the power, wealth and privilege that goes with it… and all things considered, that is exactly what happened. The rich and powerful are not intelligent, merely rather clever: they see how the current system works in their favour and work single-mindedly to keep it that way. If they were more intelligent, they might see how to do just as well or even better out of preserving the planet for everyone, but that’s not actually necessary from their selfish perspective.

Which leaves the rest of us also deficient in the intelligent stakes, because we collude in allowing all of this to continue, to our detriment. Are we really that stupid?

Keeping us distracted is the first thing. There is so much to watch, do, buy, consume, that we do not have the time to contemplate alternatives, and our media see to keeping it that way. Deceiving us is next: democracy gives us just the right amount of soft power and manipulable choice that we think we are in the best of all possible systems. If that doesn’t work, there’s always brute force to keep us in our place (Chile 1973). So even though a relatively small number of us might succeed in seeing through (some of) the murk, it gets us nowhere…

I get quite depressed seeing this picture of our species, and seek to raise my spirits by thinking of all the astonishing inventiveness and creativity that we have demonstrated through the ages, which has helped get us to our current, quite advanced, state of development. And I think of all the good, helpful, and selfless people I know, those who in so many ways are serving their fellow humans. Is it intelligence that is lacking in all of us, that no-one has yet come up with a way to show enough of us that we must do things differently, and to offer a way of achieving this? Are we so easily duped, deluded and side-tracked?

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

8 May 1945 – 8 May 2020

May 8, 2020

So, today I remember the end of a war which began in support of the Polish nation, victim of Nazi aggression: today I remember that at the end of the war it suited the UK and the US to sell Poland down the river, and it became a Soviet satellite for 45 years.

Today I remember the Soviet aggression of 17 September 1939 which sent my father to Siberia and then to Britain, and which divided his family into three parts, living in different countries.

Today I remember the German Willy Brandt’s act of contrition in Warsaw in 1970. I also remember Mikhail Gorbachev’s admission that the Soviets carried out the massacre at Katyn. I remember that Russians today still refuse to acknowledge their aggression. I acknowledge the incredible sufferings and efforts of the Soviet people, without which the war could never have been won.

Today I fear those nationalist, racist and supremacist forces and politicians who would push us in dangerous directions which might lead to history repeating itself: today I am horrified how little of the history of those dark times so many around me know.

And today I have no trust in politicians and men of power who refuse to learn the lessons of history.

I remember the untold millions who died in those dreadful years, and today I wish you peace for the rest of your lives.

On a 75th anniversary

May 5, 2020

This week sees the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and commemorations somewhat muted under current circumstances. I have to say, I’m in two minds about this.

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the war, my father’s two years in Siberia ending in his joining the Anders army, coming to England where he eventually met our mother… his war was a horrific experience of destruction, starvation and disease which separated his family in different directions, and he never got to return home and see his parents again.

I shall be glad that the celebrations in the UK will be muted. We’ve heard enough nonsense about the famous ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and surviving ‘the Blitz’ in connection with the current virus pandemic, from all sorts of idiots who weren’t even alive in the war. My mother was a schoolgirl, and her memories of those awful years were rather different: knitting gloves and scarves for sailors in the Arctic convoys rather than getting an education, and a father who was very frightened as Germans flew over their peaceful bit of the Yorkshire countryside on the way to bomb the hell out of the docks in Hull…

And yet, even more strongly, at a time like this I feel that the ending of that war must not go unremembered. It was fascism that was defeated, an ideology that triaged people into human and non-human prior to extermination, an ideology that subjugated and enslaved humans to a war machine. I carry no brief for Stalin and Soviet communism, but we are not aware in our comfortable West that without the immense sacrifices of the Soviet Union, the war may well not have been won. And the post-War short-sightedness of Western leaders soon plunged us into the Cold War, a mistake that some of our current ‘leaders’ are apparently eager to ape in their posturing towards China at present.

One aspect of George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-four which is often overlooked is his notion of the three world power blocs being constantly at war. That has always been the case and is still going on, if you look closely enough at those parts of the world which slip out of the news bulletins because of the lack of entertainment value: the major powers are fighting proxy wars all over the planet and thousands of innocent people are being killed every year. This supports capitalism’s immensely profitable arms industries, as well as allowing nations to attempt to corner the market in various natural resources which may be in short supply…

Where I’m heading with this is the notion that a lot of us so-called thinkers and intellectuals, particularly in the “free” West, have the idea that we are so much more liberal, tolerant, civilised nowadays, and that therefore the horrors of the past are safely locked away in the history books. We delude ourselves. Capitalism embeds competition and sees no higher cause; collaboration and co-operation removes profits and cannot be allowed. So those organisations which aim to foster international collaboration are emasculated and underfunded – the WHO, the UN – or vilified – the EU.

Human memories are short: the survivors of the last war are dying out. And history has a way of repeating itself if we are not careful. I cannot help thinking that we are actually living in rather dark times.

Lockdown Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

May 3, 2020

Last year I saw a radically different The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford, in which all the genders had been swapped; it was a very uncomfortable experience for men in the audience, this one included, and raised all sorts of questions about this most dubious of Shakespeare’s plays.

So I decided to watch a more traditional version yesterday afternoon: the BBC Shakespeare one, from 1980, with John Cleese as Petruchio. Now the BBC Shakespeare has always seemed a very strange kettle of fish to me: a prestige project to film all of the plays as theatre performances, with some very well-known names, and in ‘traditional’ costumes and settings, almost as an archive for all time. It now seems more like a museum: the productions and performances are stilted and frozen in time, and not in a good way, it seems to me. And this one was another of those. I have to say that the only thing worth watching was what Cleese brought, sometimes in a Pythonesque way, to a traditional performance. The hysterics of the women and the fopperies of the men were just about tolerable. Then watching the famous Act 5 ‘submission’ speech, not believing my eyes and ears.

A number of Shakespeare’s plays are regarded as ‘problem’ plays, for different reasons; some just don’t work in our age, I have come to feel. The anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice can be challenged at various points in the performance and some occasional sympathy can be elicited for Shylock, but he is a pretty dreadful character, considered as a whole; I have seen a couple of performances that worked well. But the outright sexism, the male chauvinism, the vileness of father and suitors, the treating of women as chattels and objects to be sold to the highest bidder? I do not see how these aspects of The Taming of the Shrew can be made palatable or acceptable, and I’ve yet to be convinced that after two hours and more of this, that that submission speech may be delivered in a twentieth-century, would-be feminist manner, acceptable to a contemporary audience. The BBC version ended with the characters singing a hymn together, which lauded the traditional virtues of a wife!

I’ve sometimes wondered about the bardolatry, the hagiography of our national playwright: can he do no wrong? Even today? He was of his time, and pace Ben Jonson, not always and in everything for all time. I’ve regularly found Shakespearean comedy difficult, rarely enjoyed teaching it, with the exception of Twelfth Night. Seventeenth-century audiences found different things funny and entertaining; they enjoyed public executions, for goodness’ sake… for me, a play like The Taming of the Shrew may have been a good play, a successful play in its time, but I think it’s not one that can work today. Back with last year’s gender-swapped production: if it had me squirming and feeling uncomfortable, then how many women spectators will have been appalled at previous performances? Suspending my disbelief was not really an option: the play is now offensive.

Lockdown Shakespeare: King Lear

May 2, 2020

My first foray was to the BBC screening last weekend of Richard Eyre’s 2018 adaptation of King Lear. Since it came in at a running time of just under two hours, I wondered what we might lose. But the adaptation was smooth, and the quick pace didn’t detract much from the essence of the play, indeed the telescoping of all the scenes of madness and wandering about on the heath was a good move, given that a good deal of the language and the humour is pretty impenetrable nowadays without textual glosses. Obviously I noted some cuts, but again, didn’t dwell very much on them, although some good lines were lost.

My main gripe – let’s get it out of the way first – was that, although it’s a dark play, the setting and lighting was too dark too much of the time. I wondered about how the modern military setting, so fashionable at the moment in Shakespeare productions with any sort of war connection, would work, but it was very effective, particularly when it came to the final scenes, with twentieth-century Dover under modern military onslaught…

Anthony Hopkins played a strong Lear, with the focus on dotage in a man who couldn’t see what he was doing or what was happening to him, and I thought Emma Thompson was powerful and deliberately understated Goneril. Gloucester’s role seemed to be more foregrounded by the adaptation of the text, and for me this helped to bring out the key theme of loyalty. But I felt that both Edmund and Edgar faded rather into the background.

That old age should give place to the young came across clearly in the paralleled plot and subplot; Lear’s irrationality made it clear initially that one could not take sides between him and his daughters, who came across as sweet reason. It is a play about age and ageing, and the gradual loss of our strength and faculties (cue Jacques’ Seven Ages of Man speech), and as it progresses we are increasingly uncomfortable as we are made to wrestle with reason shading into self-interest and amorality, while the values of love and loyalty come to the fore, yet are cruelly insufficient to avert tragedy.

It’s quite a long time since I read or studied the play, and I think I only ever taught it once, quite early on in my career, as it seemed to be deemed ‘too difficult’ (along with a goodly number of other classic works of english Literature) by the minions in our country’s examination boards… But it’s still the most powerful of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies for me; the two scenes, of the blinded Gloucester’s mock suicide aided by his loyal son, and the deaths of Cordelia and Lear can still bring tears to my eyes. This was a good performance to begin my season with.

Shakespeare in lockdown…

May 2, 2020

Since I retired a few years ago, one of the high points of my calendar has been a Shakespeare course in May which I have been fortunate enough to secure a place on each year; I go to stay at a comfortable manor in rural Oxfordshire, there are talks and explorations of plays, and workshops, and a couple of trips to Stratford to see plays which are in performance that season, with some of the best seats in the house. For a one-time teacher of English, it’s most enjoyable – and this year it cannot happen, and so I won’t be going to see The Winter’s Tale or The Comedy of Errors, both of which would have been firsts for me. You see, I had also promised myself that I would try to see all of the canon in my retirement, and thus far, had been doing quite well…

So far I have seen a number of plays for the first time, and others in rather better performances than some of those which were put on for schools audiences back in the day. And what has been becoming ever clearer to me is the wide range of possible interpretations it is possible for a director and actors to give to a play, how a play comes to life onstage, and how skilled Shakespeare was in his craft, in terms of leaving so much open at the end of a play.

Exploring the language, and how skilled actors bring it to life and can shape an interpretation, was the subject of many of our workshops, and we often had the pleasure of these being led by Jane Lapotaire, the well-known Shakespeare actor, who also had many interesting stories from her acting life with the RSC and other companies. More than anything, it has been wonderful not to be the teacher, but to be taught, to learn and to get new perspectives on Shakespeare, to explore and discuss with equals.

I have collected a number of DVDs of performances of a wide range of plays, some which I’d previously seen onstage, others new to me, and I have been somewhat remiss in watching them, so I hatched a plan to make up for my missing Shakespeare week this year by trying to watch them, and I shall be reporting back here.

If you are interested in what I wrote about previous performances I’ve seen, then searching this blog for ‘RSC’ should get you there…

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