Archive for April, 2021

Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…

RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.

Russell Banks: The Sweet Hereafter

April 24, 2021

     I really didn’t enjoy this book, but because I was reading it for our book group I stuck with it. It’s a tale about the moral complexity of everything, presented through the aftermath of a school bus accident in small-town USA in which a number of children are killed. It’s told through the separate stories of four of those involved, and this is where the problem started for me. Yes, in a Conradian sort of way, you can be told very briefly at the start about the accident by the woman driving the bus, and then there’s the build-up as she works her way though the events leading up to it. But when the speaker is monotonous, chatty and folksy, it quickly became annoying and dull. The second narrator, father of one of the children on the bus who is killed, is a little more interesting; the third is an out-of-town lawyer on the make, and the fourth a teenager who is permanently disabled as a result of the accident; the book ends with a brief coda from the bus driver.

The monotony of the narration, whoever it speaking, is an issue with this method of telling a story, as is the choice of characters. The speakers – bar the teenager – are all evidently avoiding all sorts of things; they all speak in a similar folksy, chatty manner which adds to the monotony. The only character I warmed to was the teenage survivor, and that response was complicated by Banks’ decision to include a history of sexual abuse by her father. Her honesty meant that I almost liked her. And yet her lies at the pre-trial deposition liberate her at enormous cost to others, and ultimately led to what felt to me like a flawed, unclear, cop-out of an ending to the entire novel, in a would-be cathartic demolition derby at the town carnival.

I’m still trying to clarify why I felt so annoyed by the book. Certainly, I didn’t find the characters convincing, and I was often too conscious of being manipulated by Banks’ choice of characters and the unsubtle way in which he presented them. The style suggests a realistic narrative, almost documentary, whereas it’s so obviously fiction, almost falling into the ‘misery porn’ category that was so popular a few years ago. Nevertheless – looking for the positives – Banks would have his readers reflect on a couple of importance ideas: what is the truth of any given situation, and the need to avoid simple answers and judgements… Maybe the film is better?

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

April 21, 2021

     Reviewing the past century, exploring it, understanding it and coming to terms with it, has been one of the major currents of German literature, and it’s obvious why. Writers who lived though the Nazi era wrestled with making sense of what they had lived through – Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz spring to mind instantly, but more recent writers, who weren’t alive in those times, such as Walter Kempowski and Jenny Erpenbeck are still nevertheless preoccupied with them. And at some level, whilst Germans do have a traumatic century to reflect on: societal collapse post First World War, rise of Nazism, Second World War and the Holocaust, a divided nation and the DDR, reunification, not to mention the complex relation with neighbouring lands like Poland and Russia, at least there has been an ongoing determination to face the horrors and the guilt, unlike many other, more complacent nations such as my own…

Erpenbeck’s novel focuses on a specific place – a small lakeside community somewhere near Berlin – and how it evolves, develops and changes over time, reflecting the history of the nation. At one level there is the sense of permanence that comes through those who have always lived there, rooted in the place; these are only touched upon, apart from being represented in depth through the abiding presence of the gardener who lives through it all, a silent and obedient servant to all the different outsiders who come in to develop their holiday homes in the village… ask no questions.

German history is revealed through the changing property ownership and developments that take place during the twentieth century, and profiteering from the gradual dispossession of Jewish owners is part of this. Everyone colludes, quietly, as the horrors progress. The gardener transcends time, doing whatever the owners request and pay him to do, dependent on the times and the circumstances. The corruption of the Nazi era, and the DDR times is clear, as is the profit to be made after reunification. I was particularly moved by the reflections of a young Red Army officer billeted in the house in 1945:

The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.

At times the novel is reminiscent of, if not indebted to, the fictions of Grass, but there is not the dialogue and the humour of his writing: everything exudes a Germanic seriousness; there is an evenness of tone – which is not monotone – that places pleasure and horror disturbingly on the same level, emphasising further the permanence of place as opposed to people. Even the Holocaust becomes human incident against this stern backdrop. The uncomfortable reader is forced into reflection.

There is a deeper question underlying everything: what is ‘home’, where is ‘home’ when our existence is temporary and fleeting, against the backdrop of geological time? Here is a conundrum that Erpenbeck can only reflect, never answer. And her book ends with the systematic, legally enshrined, following the tiniest niceties of German laws and regulations, demolition of one of the main properties whose various owners and inhabitants have been at the centre of the novel…

On feeling oppressed by books…

April 19, 2021

I glanced sideways at my bookshelves recently and caught a glimpse of a title and author, realised that, yes, I’d read and enjoyed that book perhaps ten or twenty years ago and now I didn’t have a clue what it was about, or any desire to read it again to remind myself. And this got me thinking about books that we read and go back to because they leave a permanent and lasting impression, and the books like that one, that sit there, not even reproachfully, until they are bundled off to a charity shop…Partly, I’m a hoarder and I’ve always loved having a large library, so I’m reluctant to dispose of books, although I have found it easier in the last few years.

I’ll buy a book (and normally read it straightaway) if it’s a really interesting recommendation from someone whose tastes I share, if I come across a good review, or if it crops up in my research on something I’m interested in at a specific moment. But then I move on.

I can’t apologise for constant references to getting older in my posts as it’s something I’m increasingly aware of at the moment, I’m sure heightened by all the necessary changes in my life and routines that COVID-19 has brought about. But I have found myself thinking about my library with the fact of ageing in the background.

I used to enjoy having a large library and being surrounded by books; now I’m finding this more than a little oppressive. When I was younger, I could look at all the books – I reached about 3000 at the peak library point – and think yes, someday I will want to get around to re-reading that/ those. This, obviously, is no longer the case, and I have weeded out many hundreds of books over the past few years that I know I have grown past, if you get my meaning, and that I will never want to read again, or waste eyeball time on, as I usually put it.

I still buy books, although far fewer than I used to, and buy them accepting that I’m only likely to read them once, now, because there’s so little time… there’s still the same great pleasure in buying and reading a new book, however. There is – fortunately – the money to have whatever takes my fancy. And having read a book I usually know pretty clearly whether there’s any point in keeping it, or whether the discipline of disposing of it already will be good for me.

And the library has been shrinking to encompass those particular favourites I know I will want to return to as long as I am able. Somewhere there is a list I have been drawing up of those books I absolutely must keep; there are many of the usual suspects on this list, as well as some surprises. One day, I’ll write about that vital list of books I am deliberately choosing to keep because I intend to re-read them and I (probably) have the time. I can already feel a certain sense of liberation in that.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

April 19, 2021

     Vonnegut uses a folksy, chatty narrative tone throughout this novel, which deceptively undercuts the seriousness of the plot, allowing for occasional very powerful effects on his reader. The story is framed around Vonnegut’s personal experience of the Allied firebombing of the undefended city of Dresden in February 1945, which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It quickly becomes evident how powerfully Vonnegut was affected; he makes it clear that there is no possible rational explanation for what happened, in what gradually shapes up into a very strong pacifist novel.

The events are narrated through the life-story of a naive young American POW, Billy Pilgrim, who is also a reluctant time-traveller; his shapeless and rambling tale begins with his capture during the Battle of the Bulge. All is complicated by the notion of simultaneity: that everything, all events in what we call time, co-exist rather than follow each other sequentially, and Pilgrim has learned this through his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. One might imagine this way of framing a story rather gratuitous given the subject-matter, but the jumbled juxtaposition of so many moments of Pilgrim’s life-story, weaving in past, present and future wars, and evident mental disturbance too, increases the effectiveness of Vonnegut’s message.

Imprisoned in a zoo on Tralfamadore, with a fellow-captive movie starlet as companion, Pilgrim the time-traveller can be at any point in his life whenever he chooses. For the Tralfamadorians, there is no such thing as free will or freedom of choice, given that all events already, and always have, existed.

There is a great deal to unpick in this unconventional narrative, and much food for thought and reflection on the human condition, as well as warfare in all its forms. Within this frame, considering all the supposed justifications and excuses for war, means that it comes across as utterly deranged, and destructive of the sanity of the participants. And obviously, the playing around with time allows Vonnegut to remove any suspense in the story, any fixation on the sequence of the plot, meaning that his reader must focus on, be driven by something else as they read…

The laconic, low-key style, almost throwaway at times, has a cumulative effect as we work our way through the novel – which of course would not be possible on Tralfamadore, where the novel is not a big literary form – and the combination of the disjunctures in time, the time-travelling and the innocence of the central character all conspire together to make Slaughterhouse Five one of the classics of science fiction, in my humble opinion.

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021


If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

Jane Austen: Sanditon, Minor Works, Juvenilia

April 13, 2021

     I decided it was time to re-visit Jane Austen’s minor works and juvenilia, as it’s been 25 years since I last looked. I wondered how Andrew Davies had been able once to develop the screenplay for an entire TV series out of the unfinished final novel, Sanditon, of which there are only about 80 pages. It begins promisingly, suddenly, with a carriage accident which throws various characters together, and is centred around the machinations of a seaside property speculator. It has quite a satirical feel to it, as there’s no real depth or development to any of the characters in such a short space, and I felt she must be sending them up. And she is still very much focused on the financial difficulties faced by women in her time.

Similarly The Watsons focuses on match-making, and the need for a woman to try and marry well to ensure future financial security. In this unfinished novel one can see glimpses of how she will develop characters, situations and relationships in the well-known novels.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, and this had me doing some thinking about that old and now forgotten form. The archetype is LaclosLes Liaisons Dangereuses, which I recall reading and enjoying at university. But it was a difficult read, as one needs a way of keeping track of who all the characters are, who is/ has written to whom, who knows what and who doesn’t know it; all of these are far more difficult than following the plot of a more conventional novel, and I wonder if that is the main reason the epistolary form has fallen into desuetude. One can do a lot with shifting perspectives it is possible to create through the timing and sequencing of the letters, and yet I imagine the writing of such a novel is also rather difficult for the author. Lady Susan is a very interesting character, and the novel is worth a read for an insight into eighteenth-century machinations around marriage.

The various juvenilia are very interesting indeed; many short, many unfinished, trial pieces almost, and marvellous when one realises they came, most of them, from the pen of a teenage girl and clergyman’s daughter. They are often deliberately ridiculous, yet you can already see Austen’s sharpness of observation, and how she delineates character and suggests authorial judgements, all of which eventually become aspects of her literary greatness. Even at a very young age, she is conscious of the parlous financial situations of many respectable women. You see a style of writing which, when toned down, less extravagant and more matured, I suppose, becomes the wit, the subtlety and the irony that is developed at much greater length in the major novels. I don’t think any of the works I’ve mentioned are ‘must reads’ but they are valuable insights into the development of a great writer.

Sallie Tisdale: Advice For The Dying

April 6, 2021

     I came across a thoughtful review of this book a few months back; increasingly intrigued, I decided to buy and read it. Death, in particular contemplating the inevitability of my own, and that of those close to me, as we all gradually age, is not an easy topic to face; as a Quaker, I’m nevertheless exhorted to reflect on it by way of trying to be prepared for that moment, as well as to ensure that I do not leave complications behind for others to unravel. Sensible advice, but…

The writer is American; she is a nurse by profession and has spent much time with people who were dying, and with their close family and friends. She writes clearly and thoughtfully and covers pretty much every aspect of death and dying from the perspective of the person who is dying and those who are necessarily involved, participants and bystanders. It is interesting that the book’s title in the USA was ‘Advice for Future Corpses’ whereas in the UK it has been toned down to “Advice for the Dying’, which to me isn’t quite the same thing at all. She has ensured that the resources section in the UK edition is relevant to those of us on this side of the pond; only the chapter on hospices does not ring true for me, as the US version of a hospice death seems to be to get family and friends to do everything at home whilst absolving one’s medical insurance program of needing to do anything much at all; my experience of hospices in the UK is very different, and I have been very impressed with what they will do, if a space is available for the person at the time.

I was conscious of feeling somewhat nervous as I read, not quite skimming at times, but not reading too carefully either, not thinking too much about what I was reading. I was also matching what Tisdale was saying with my existing knowledge and understanding, and trying to feel reassured rather than alarmed. A fair amount of what she said I was familiar with, and felt like good common-sense. I also told myself to come back to the book and re-read it more carefully, soon…

Tisdale ranges widely, and her advice is carefully focused and practical; she deconstructs and reassures, covering every aspect of the lead-up to death, dying, burial or cremation (and some alternatives). She has been a lifelong practising Zen Buddhist, but does not forefront her beliefs, though they do allow her helpful reflections and observations at times. She also included a range of interesting quotations on the subject of death and dying, from a wide range of people through history. It felt like a helpful and compassionate book, definitely not an easy read, sobering as it must be, but also in various ways both helpful and empowering.

I can reassure any readers who may be wondering, that I am currently enjoying good health.

Lockdown activities

April 6, 2021

I’ve used a couple of good ideas originally mentioned by someone else to focus myself and renew pleasures during lockdown. Somewhere, I read about someone who had decided to listen to a Bach cantata a day, and someone else had decided to read aloud a Shakespeare sonnet every day.

I’ve finally reached the end of listening to all the cantatas now; it’s taken me since the beginning of November and there are about 200 of them. I haven’t listened to one a day regularly or religiously; sometimes I did, sometimes I forgot or didn’t find the time, and other times I binged, but it has been very interesting renewing my acquaintance with them. I took the opportunity to compile a list of my favourites and a list of the ones that really didn’t do very much for me. The whole exercise has made me want to go back to the list of my favourites and listen rather more carefully, with the texts alongside, and deepen my understanding and appreciation of the music and the words.

I’ve had a working knowledge of probably a dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teacher; they came in useful when teaching the open-ended Love Through The Ages unit at A-Level back in the day. Now I’m working my way through all 154 of them, and I’m about a third of the way. It was interesting how hard I found reading them aloud initially, getting the phrasing and pauses right, and sometimes needing a couple of attempts; now I’m really into the rhythm, and I like the way I can wade in confidently and deliver a classroom-ready rendition straight off…

What I’m actually discovering, reading all of them for the first time, is how dull, pedestrian and same-y a lot of them are: there are only so many ways in which you can re-work a fairly hackneyed trope in a fourteen-line poem, The good ones are powerful because of their originality; that’s the key. But I have also renewed my intention of studying at least some of them in rather more depth once I have finished this read-through. And I came up with an original project of my own, too: I would like to re-read all of the plays, in chronological order of their writing (insofar as that’s known). How far I’ll get with that resolution before I’m side-tracked by something else, I don’t know…

And somehow these two activities have got me thinking again about the nature of genius, because in my mind J S Bach and William Shakespeare represent two examples of that kind of person. Sometime, there will be a post on that subject.

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