Archive for June, 2021


June 30, 2021

There are quite a few things in the world of literature that make me cross. For the life of me – and I’ve read it several times (because I had to!) – I cannot see what some people find to rave about in The Great Gatsby. It’s always struck me as being about superficial, trivial, privileged people who I couldn’t care less about and the narrator puts me off right from the start.

Equally, I fail to see why some think so highly of Lolita. I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times, by people whose opinions and tastes I rate highly. I’ve tried to read it at least three times, have never got beyond fifty pages or so. I’ve found it dull, and I’ve also found it toe-curlingly creepy, in a perverted sort of way. I shan’t be bothering again.

I shall also confess that I find Wuthering Heights grossly overrated. I read it, unravelled the complex plot at the time, and could now tell you almost nothing about the book or its characters, so deep an impression it didn’t make on me. Emily Bronte I can do without; her sister Charlotte, on the other hand, I rate very highly: the ending of Villette is an absolute master-stroke.

At least I’ve made the attempt with those books. There are writers I haven’t really bothered with – Dickens, and Hardy for instance: I had to read Hard Times in my first year at university, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles too. The former I quite enjoyed, the latter I found rather silly because of the leaden hand of fate that rested on the heroine’s shoulders throughout. Certainly, I’ve never felt called to use up any more eyeball time on those writers.

I have quite a large blind spot about British and American fiction of the last few decades: I haven’t read very much of it at all, because very little of it has recommended itself to me, and quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve missed much. My general feeling has been that writers in other countries and continents have found much more interesting stories to write. No recent English language writer has, for me, reached the heights of Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco or Amin Maalouf, for example.

I’ve enjoyed having a bit of a gripe here, and I can imagine some of my readers thinking, “Well, I never saw anything in Philip Pullman, or, what has Josef Skvorecky got to say to me?” So, what are the books or writers you consider overrated?

The search for meaning

June 30, 2021

I’ve clearly reached a stage in my life where I’m looking back and reviewing things, wondering where I’ve got to, and I’ve found myself returning to a number of novels I first read in my student years, with the perspective and hindsight of a lifetime.

I can still remember the powerful effect of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on me, while I was still at school: the idea of travelling the world searching for what life was all about, and the sense of freedom called to me, and I suppose I responded by becoming a hippy and doing a modest amount of travelling and exploring alternative lifestyles. I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous On The Road while at university, and that reinforced the notion of complete freedom to go wherever the whim took me; not so easy to accomplish in the UK in the 1970s, though. I quickly came to find that book somewhat superficial and haven’t felt the need to go back to it; when I read his Desolation Angels, with its accounts of solitude in the forests, I was more responsive. There has always been a part of me that has craved solitude, and I have always loved forests.

Round about the same time, I encountered Hermann Hesse, and if you look back over the past few months’ posts, you will see I’ve been revisiting his novels; I’ve just re-read my favourite of all time, Narziss and Goldmund, and there will be a post about it in a few days. It’s all about the duality of human nature, being torn between freedom and adventure, and the urge to seek safety and security, issues I’ve felt pulled in both directions by throughout my adult life: there was the immense freedom of my student and hippy days, the era of career, family and responsibilities, and now, in my later years a renewed sense of freedom and openness to do what I like, which is, sadly, a little curtailed by physical ageing. Hesse explores it all, which is why he spoke to my condition all those years ago, and still does. The rather more deliberate spiritual journey he describes in Siddhartha is just as powerful and moving, though in a different way…

More recently – that is, in my adult years – I came to read Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life, which is also about the values of solitude: set after the Great War, a German sea-captain, disgusted by what he has seen and experienced, leaves the world behind for the deep forests of East Prussia, to live with a single companion in a simple hut. It’s a somewhat romanticised vision of solitude, and undercut by the looming Nazi period and the eventual disappearance of the place after the war, but it’s appealing in its portrayal of the attractions of simplicity, away from the noise, complication and corruption of the outside world. I suppose part of my reading of books like that is that I’ve always imagined myself transposed into the setting, and wondered how I would (a) manage (b) enjoy that existence. That goes right back to my very first reading of Robinson Crusoe.

The final writer I’ll mention is not a novelist, but a traveller – and I use that word advisedly – Ella Maillart. She began her travels after the Great War, having experienced a sense of alienation from Europe and what it had just inflicted on itself; the Second World War she spend studying and practising with a guru in India, having realised that the external journeying had become an internal one. I have found her accounts of travel and her reflections on what she saw, experienced and learned through seeing the world, very interesting and enlightening; her move to introspection in her later life is another thing I have come to recognise in myself.

Where this all gets me, I suppose, is an awareness of my internal restlessness, and a strong sense of having been drawn in two different directions as I’ve lived and experienced my life. It has been both helpful and enlightening to learn, through my reading, that I’m not alone in this, and to accept the likelihood that the journey goes on as long as I do… The books I’ve mentioned I have found compelling and powerfully moving whenever I have returned to them, so much so that I often hesitate before picking them up again, knowing that I’m heading for an emotional and mental shake-up.

A Brief Epiphany

June 29, 2021

I took a book down from the shelf: The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Skvorecky. It’s my choice for next month’s book group discussion and I realised I’d need to re-read it myself, as well as inflicting it on my colleagues. That will be the sixth reading, according to my records. I don’t mind: obviously it’s one of my favourites, for many reasons, and yet it wasn’t on my ‘time to revisit’ list. Slight disconnect in my thinking, choosing it, perhaps.

But at the same time came a moment of sudden clarity, of revelation. How fortunate I am, have been, in that I have spent pretty much my entire life engaged in reading books, something I fell in love with as soon as I learned how to do it.

I don’t mean I haven’t done anything else: I’m happily married, I’ve fathered and helped raise a family, travelled Europe quite a lot, gardened, listened to music and so on. But my whole life is inseparable from reading, and it was wonderful to see it like that, all of a sudden.

I read my way through the school library, Stamford Public Library, studied literature for O Level, A Level, for a bachelor’s degree and researched for two master’s degrees. I taught English language and literature for my entire working life. I’ve written study guides about literary texts, and I’ve maintained this blog – about reading and literature – for over ten years. And now, happily retired, I have all the time I want to read, when I want, what I want. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy any and all the books I want and need.

What more could a person ask for?

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf

June 21, 2021

     Back to my re-visiting of the novels of Hermann Hesse, and this one which was all the rage in my student/hippy days such a long time ago…

Autobiographical again? The hero is called Harry Haller, after all. A man lost and oppressed by bourgeois convention, a Mr Normal and his shadow, in Jungian terms, an endless wanderer and seeker who feels that suicide is the only way out of his perceived dilemma of being unable to square the circle, and reconcile being endlessly pulled in two different directions. Haller echoes and parallels some of the heroes of Hesse’s earlier novels, and their dilemmas, but here they are much more sharply focused, more central. It starts off as a treatise on the Steppenwolf, Haller’s name for his darker self, and feels like a manifesto, or an apologia for his condition. This part felt rambling, dated, tedious and self-indulgent this time around.

But Haller is turned away from his sourness, bitterness, mockery and self-loathing by a woman – Hermine – whom he meets in a bar. A hermaphrodite (Herman!), she humanises the misanthrope through a series of drug-like experiences and encounters, opening him up to a new world of self-exploration and self-knowledge, as well as leading him to accept that there are other people, like himself, who do not fit into the conventional world, and who therefore make a new and different one for themselves in which they can flourish.

Partly this is a novel that reflects some of the strangeness of the interwar years – it was published in 1927 – and partly it reflects Hesse’s lifelong interest in Jungian psychology (the two were contemporaries) which explores the duality of our human psyches, and, for me, is recounted most clearly and fully in the beautiful and haunting Narziss and Goldmund, which I hope to re-read next. And although there are all those connections with his earlier novels, here is a much greater depth, maturity and intensity to the writing. I now have a much clearer sense of the unity of Hesse’s oeuvre, and, I suppose, his sense that one’s entire life is a journey, a search for meaning, a notion that speaks to my own condition. There is a sense of the vastness of humans’ potential once one dares to look beyond the limits one has imposed/ had imposed on oneself.

I found myself reflecting on myself and how I’ve changed as I’ve aged; as students we raved about how brilliant this book was, the idea of being great, notable, different… not sliding into being part of the mainstream of life. And yet, this is what happened to most of us; although I never forgot or rejected those hippy days, I followed – happily – the conventional path of career, family, mortgage and have only in retirement felt able to pick up some of those earlier, left-aside threads of my life. Curious, and now more understandable to me at least, that I laid these books aside when I did, and have now returned to them, with a new and different sense of appreciation…

Nicole Avril: Les Gens de Misar

June 14, 2021

     After 45 years I’ve returned to one of the strangest novels I know; it was recommended to me all those years ago by one of my students while I was an English language assistant in France. There are echoes of so many other writers and classic novels of the twentieth century that I still can’t decide whether it has an originality of its own or is merely derivative.

A Frenchman, a university lecturer, accepts a posting to a country that has deliberately cut itself off completely from the world for the past thirty years. It seems that partly he is fleeing an unsuccessful love affair, and wants to be away from all that’s familiar. He has studied the language and history of the desert nation and its capital city, Misar, though.

Misar is a rigidly organised and conformist society, applying its laws, which everyone knows, very strictly. He accepts and goes along with this. Great poverty as well as great privilege is evident in a stratified class system; he is part of the privileged elite. He observes and reports, giving the clear impression of being out of place; what he sees seems to jar but he can do nothing, and even to ask questions is not acceptable. The weirdness of the city was reminiscent of China Mieville’s excellent thriller The City and The City. I felt distinct echoes of Kafka here. At this stage he is a passive entity: when the sister of his university colleague appears in his bed offering her sexual services he accepts and performs; this becomes a regular occurrence and a real relationship – of a kind – develops between them. But all is never what is seems.

Gradually he learns more of the way the state functions; law is enforced by ritual public stranglings, and it transpires that the current appointed executioner is the older sister of his lover. This uneasy and unnerving implication with the forces of death reminded me of Jill Paton Walsh’s weird Knowledge of Angels, as well as Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre au Noir. And there is a strangle kind of licence permitted in the mysterious public gardens, which again are more than they seem. Here is a world where all is fine as long as you abide by the rules, which everyone knows. Shades of Huxley’s Brave New World, rather than Orwell here, I thought. And yet, our hero seems to be committing thoughtcrime, in wanting information about matters he ought not to be concerning himself with: the dangers of curiosity in a totalitarian state.

Misar regards itself as a haven from the rest of the world which is chaos, and is biding its time, unaware that the rest of the planet has just forgotten about it. Danger rears its head when having watched an execution to which he was invited, it’s made clear he’s now regarded as ‘initiated’ – one of them. And there seem to be people in Misar who are aware of the stasis, entropy even, into which the place has fallen, and hope that the outside may be able to do something to break the cycle when he returns home.

His fascination with the executioner leads him to uncover the secret from which he has been warned away, and the inexorable system into which he has been accepted means that he must die…

It’s an unnerving read, a compulsive read and one which makes a number of allegorical interpretations available at different stages. At the moment, I really can’t decide how original or how good it is. And in another 45 years, it will not matter. I have not discovered an English translation of the novel.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks

June 12, 2021

     I’m a sucker for books about desert travel and exploration; I’m can’t remember what pointed me at this account from 1980 of a woman who decided she wanted to buy and train camels and travel with them across more than half of Australia, though desert, alone, from Alice Springs to the west coast. The book is an easy read, her tone chatty, and her mind open. And the journey is real travel and adventure, not tourism.

I was struck first by the horrible, open racism of white Australians towards the aboriginal population, and by the ridiculous machismo of white Australian men. Then I realised just how crazy Davidson’s plan was, along with her single-minded determination to succeed, against any and all odds. It quite quickly became evident that the book is as much about Davidson herself, her personal problems, and her developing self-knowledge, as it is about the camels and the desert, and I felt rather deceived, deprived of the account of the desert I had been expecting. A good half of the book has passed before she actually – finally – sets off on the trek.

Everything becomes messier and more complicated than she anticipated. The native Australians are suspicious of her because she is often accompanied by a photographer – she eventually sought sponsorship from National Geographic magazine for the journey. Camels turn out to be rather trickier to manage, and at times she’s less and less clear about what exactly she’s doing, or why. She also offers considerable insight into the world of the aborigines, their lives and the meanings and explanations they have accumulated over millennia of living in some of the harshest conditions on the planet; her revulsion at the whites’ behaviours and attitudes is very evident. The most interesting section of her journey is the one where she is accompanied by a single, elderly aborigine who decides to go part of the way with her; she learns much from the encounter.

Her account also becomes interesting – but only briefly – when she’s alone, and faced with nature in the raw, and she experiences these times as liberating her of all inhibitions, and describes places and feelings in more detail, sometimes conveying a clear sense of the isolation and the beauty of it all.

I’m glad I read it – I did get a sense of the vastness and the emptiness of the continent, as well as the ways it’s being pillaged by whites – but it’s not one I’ll be going back to. Too short on the desert and the description.

Thomas Kelly: A Testament of Devotion

June 8, 2021

     I ventured into this book written by a Quaker mystic some eighty years ago. By and large, I didn’t like it, it didn’t move me, and it felt very dated and at times somewhat arrogant. On the other hand, it triggered a good deal of useful thinking for me…

The language is very God and Christ-centred and I found this off-putting; I realised that my thinking about the wonders of the universe, my sense of awe when contemplating it, my whole spiritual experience, has moved on from such a way of looking at things. Personification of a male God jars severely nowadays. And whilst the idea of the Spirit speaks to my condition, by and large I cannot and do not think about capital ‘G’ God, or Christ.

When Kelly focuses on the inner, the deeper, what is within us as opposed to what he thinks is ‘out there’, then I can connect with what he has to say; when he writes about our urge to discover how to learn, recognise and practise right living, I am very attentive, although again his ideas are expressed in outdated words. And there’s not much of that sort of thinking, anyway.

I realised that I cannot really ‘do’ mysticism, at least in Christian terms. I found his approach annoyingly elitist at times, and this surprised me very much in a Quaker; there was the idea that he had found and experienced something wonderful, special, much better than what ‘ordinary’ folk enjoyed, and that everyone ought to be striving for the same. It’s this ‘better than your religious experience’ that stuck in my craw most of all: it reminded me a little of how hippies used to rave about how their experiences and insights whilst on drugs were so ‘amazing’ and how everyone needed to try them, and how it was impossible to explain to you ordinary people what it was all like… I quickly realised that not everyone was capable of being, or wanted to be like that, thank you very much.

So in the end I learnt little from this mercifully short book; it has not diverted me from my spiritual journey, merely confirmed once again that it’s my own and I need to get on with it myself, with help occasionally from some and not from others.

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

June 7, 2021

     For some reason, despite being a great admirer of Philip Pullman, I’d deliberately avoided this novel when it was published; a chance encounter with a pristine copy in a secondhand bookshop was an impulse buy…

Mary has twins in this version of the story: Jesus and Christ, which did feel like a very clumsy device. Jesus is the human Jesus we would probably recognise, Christ a background figure who at times overlaps with the Tempter/Satan figure, and who is initially manipulated by a mysterious stranger – some kind of angel – who encourages Christ to see the future potential of Jesus’ story and message, if only it is recorded and used correctly… you can see pretty early on where Pullman is going with this, and it’s not very subtle at all. He’s doing what many have done over the ages, exploring the contrast between the original Jesus and what Christianity has become over the centuries, while recognising that unravelling the deliberate obfuscations of the past is pretty impossible. And, as an avowed materialist, Pullman is having none of the miracles nonsense.

It’s a roman à thèse, didactic, what have you. Christ starts out following the stranger’s instructions faithfully to record Jesus’ sayings and actions but soon realises that he can embellish for a more effective future purpose. And yet Pullman is a very skilled and experienced novelist, and his Christ character is not as baldly presented as this: he does have a character of his own, doubts and concerns about what he’s been drawn into, feelings and weaknesses that are gradually revealed. But in the end he does what is asked of him, and allows the obvious fraud of the resurrection to be perpetrated – you saw this coming a mile off, after all.

You can see why traditional Christians either avoided this novel like the plague, or attacked it roundly. So, what was Pullman trying to achieve? Obviously, to rattle his readers, to make them question what they may long have accepted as ‘the truth’. There is the idea that realpolitik ruins everything: for Pullman, it elides Christ and Judas at times, and he dares to offer a slightly sympathetic picture of Caiaphas, too. And there is the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which dared to suggest that Judas’ betrayal was a necessary part of the entire Christian redemption story, and therefore offered a judgement of Judas rather different from the traditional one: that Gospel died almost without a trace, too.

Pullman is clear that two millennia later we have no chance of separating truth from invention, and that too much is invested in the ‘accepted’ narrative. His Afterword is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting part, reflecting on his own journey and his motivations. His Jesus, in the novel, is abandoned or ignored by any existing God the Father figure. I think we have to go back to the end of His Dark Materials, to the idea that we must get on, by ourselves, and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth, for ourselves, etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no god) as it has been succinctly put.

An interesting read, and a challenging one if you are a traditional Christian. But then, your faith is strong enough to stand up to challenge.

Laurent Binet: Civilisations

June 6, 2021

     Here is a fascinating alternative history: in nutshell, the Viking settlement in Greenland does not die out; instead, contact is made with pre-Incan civilisation in the Americas; Columbus fails to discover the Americas; the Incas and later the Aztecs discover and conquer and partition Europe between them; Cervantes and a fellow artist (the Greek, so El Greco?) find themselves exiled to the Americas…

It’s a four-part story, carefully structured to add credibility to the vision. So the first section is vaguely styled like a Viking saga, chaotic, murderous and linking into many of the stereotypes we hold of the Vikings. Cohabitation and then alliance between them and the early North American civilisations is forged through the efforts of a powerful Viking queen whose intentions are peaceful rather than warrior-like, and who is disturbed at the realisation that her people have brought with them illnesses that decimate the local inhabitants.

Columbus’ tale is marked by his cupidity, stupidity and obsession with imposing the Catholic faith on everyone he encounters. He is unsuccessful in skirmishes with the inhabitants of the Americas who have metal-working skills acquired from their encounters with the Vikings several centuries earlier, and so better weaponry; they also have horses, acquired the same way. The Europeans are outwitted by the Incas or the Aztecs – we don’t know, partly because Columbus isn’t interested enough to find out. He dies alone, last of the Europeans in America.

When we meet the Incas, they are beset by internecine feuds and capable of random acts of bloodthirsty cruelty. A small army of renegade Incas do a ‘reverse Columbus’, and sail East, helped by those descended from the Vikings and who defeated Columbus and his men a few decades previously. They land and establish themselves in the ruins of a Lisbon which has been flattened by an earthquake and tsunami, and take things from there. I did find myself wondering how, suddenly, and with no apparent prior experience, the Incas had become quite skilful navigators and pilots…

Columbus’ adventures meant that Atahualpa’s princess understands Spanish, and can converse with the Queen of Portugal: communication is established. The Incas enjoy as much luck in their conquest of Europe as Pizarro and Cortes and their men did in reality, in their conquest of the Americas. This is the central and most interesting section of the novel, and the way that Binet weaves in various characters from history is skilful and enlightening: there’s a fascinating, imagined exchange of letters between Thomas More and Erasmus on the subject of Inca sun-worship…

The final section is the adventures of the Spaniard Cervantes, which includes a lengthy stay with Montaigne in Bordeaux before he ends up being sent across the ocean to work in the Americas, for the Incas and Aztecs have need of artists and writers, areas in which they have limited experience.

It’s an alternative history, a piece of total fantasy, as are all novels of this kind; it’s a ‘what if?’ which reminds us of the chance nature of a good many developments in our world. It entertains, as well as makes the reader think, and it showcases an excellent imagination. Binet has conceived the work well, and for me the open, incomplete nature of the four-part structure, and the use of associated styles and mannerisms, added a vitality and a sense of conviction (if that makes sense!) to the novel for me. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, and I’m really pleased to see it has been translated into English now…

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police

June 5, 2021

     I’d never heard of the book or the novelist before it was chosen as a title for our book group; it provoked a full and thoughtful and detailed discussion, with lots of different takes on what I felt, and still do feel, is a somewhat shapeless and not fully-conceived novel. On an island, presumably part of Japan, items and objects disappear. Initially things do physically vanish, and from people’s memory too; then they ‘disappear’ in the sense that they are not allowed any purpose or existence any longer, but have to be destroyed or disposed of by the inhabitants. Disappearances are reinforced by the Memory Police, a sinister and never properly explained, totally male organisation, and most of the islanders are content to just let the objects go. Very few people are capable of remembering their names or purposes a little while after their disappearance.

The narrator is a woman, a novelist who is struggling to write a novel, the events of which are some kind of parallel to what is actually happening on the island; creating things from inside her head seems to become increasingly difficult, especially when novels themselves disappear.

I found it annoying that the purpose of the Memory Police was never really clear, nor why sometimes the islanders were expected to ‘disappear’ the objects that has already ‘disappeared’. Nor was it really clear why to remember, or to retain, disappeared objects, was pursued with great rigour. There are echoes of Orwellian ‘thoughtcrime’ here, but why? People need to be hidden from the Memory Police if they remember past objects, but again, why?

I persevered with the novel, although I didn’t find it that compelling or captivating, driven by the hope that some things might eventually be made clear, but they weren’t. The initial concept had been intriguing, but I was increasingly driven to feel that the writer wasn’t clear where to go or what to do with it. I sought allegories, and parallels: was it a story about dementia, or Alzeimer’s, the progressive loss of memory and understanding of what objects are, and used for? This idea was perhaps reinforced by the fact that most of the characters are unnamed. Was it about people’s supine acceptance of whatever authority deems necessary?

When we got to parts of people’s bodies disappearing – except they didn’t, physically, and obviously their owners didn’t destroy them, I felt we had reached the realm of the ridiculous. The narrator gradually fades to nothingness, and this disappearance finally liberates the man – her editor – she had been hiding because he remembers everything. A whole raft of interesting ideas with no real coherence behind them, nothing linking them together in a fluent narrative. Or did I miss something? In the end I felt cheated…

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