Archive for January, 2022

Tolstoy: Resurrection

January 22, 2022

     Tolstoy tiresome and tedious: I never knew I’d find myself writing that one day, but in the end that is my considered verdict on Resurrection. I just about kept going through its 500+ pages, prepared for ultimate disappointment, and was…

The idea of a worthless man being saved by his loved for a woman had been done rather better 30 years previously by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment; the plot of Resurrection is a vague approximation, on first sight. Raskolnikov our hero isn’t. No murderer, just a useless Russian aristocrat with nothing to do other than live a pointless life off his estates, he thoughtlessly seduces a servant girl, gives her money as if she’s a prostitute and disappears. She falls pregnant, and her life degenerates into prostitution and pointlessness… until he finds himself, ten years later, on jury service where she is on trial as one of the co-accused of a murder. He is conscience-stricken, and determines to follow the unjustly convicted woman to Siberia and hard labour, whether she wants it or not.

Very quickly, the problem becomes the author’s moralising tone as he tells the reader what to think about every evil of contemporary Russian society – and we are given a very thorough tour of it all. It’s particularly annoying when we have to endure pages of this just in order to see how the plot will move on.

The hero’s psychology and his introspection as he reconsiders his life, and ponders the evils of society and how they might be remedied, are interesting enough, though obviously not as dramatic as in Dostoevsky’s novel. But in the end both the psychology and the introspection feel rather too saccharine, too mealy-mouthed and goody-goody, perhaps because conveyed through internal monologue, though again I remember Dostoevsky managed to carry this off very effectively.

The plot rambles seriously, losing itself in an interminable examination of the Russian justice and penal system, and I did find myself wondering where on earth Tolstoy was going with all this. The characters fade almost into cardboard cut-outs amid Tolstoy’s didacticism. Certainly we are provided with a scathing indictment of everything that is wrong in that society, but I had thought I was meant to be reading a novel… And I found myself also thinking that nothing much seemed to have changed in the intervening century or more, as far as Russia and the Russians are concerned. The country just felt too large to ever be able to function fairly and efficiently.

So, a social novel, then. I did find myself admiring the hero’s determination to follow through his attempts to right his initial wrong – the seduction – and his encounters with the criminal and revolutionary classes of his day, and his attempts to use his privilege and influence as an aristocrat to help people, were also interesting, but the author’s heavy hand weighs too much for us not constantly to be aware of it.

The ending is most unsatisfactory. Having been scathing about the church in his society – one of the most extraordinary chapters is Tolstoy’s savage attack on the Orthodox Mass, which he depicts almost as a circus activity – we are left with the hero realising that the woman has saved him by determining she will not marry him, and that the answer to all the evils and problems of his society and the world are to be found in the aphorisms presented in Matthew’s gospel. Not that I reject that gospel, but it was an almighty cop-out.

Anthony Brigg’s translation is excellent, flowing well and managing, for this reader at least, to smooth out some of the awkwardnesses that can occur in Russian literary style. His endnotes are very useful, too.

Credit where it’s due

January 17, 2022

I had a good moan some weeks back about Wordery’s appalling customer service. After their p*ss off and die response to my complaint, I thought there was no harm in approaching the publishers, Everyman’s Library, to explain the issue. I received a courteous response, which acknowledged that of course faulty copies emerged from the printers occasionally, and offered to send a replacement copy. This arrived this morning, so I record my thanks to Everyman’s Library for their first-rate service. I still scratch my head and wonder what it would actually have cost Wordery to respond in such manner, but heigh-ho, their loss.

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

Dismantling our NHS

January 6, 2022

No apology, politics ahead

If you asked most Brits what one thing we could be proudest of as a nation in the last century, I imagine most would say, the NHS. Healthcare cradle-to-grave, free at the point of use, set up in the aftermath of the Second World War as a response to the poverty and deprivation so many had endured previously. Set up by a Labour government, privately loathed by many Tories, some of whom have sought to undermine and destroy it ever since. And they are now well on their way to that goal.

The NHS never found the running smooth or easy; there was always a conflict between the necessary taxation to fund it and people’s resistance to being taxed. Eventually, charges for prescriptions, dental treatment and optical treatment were introduced. Many people shrug these off nowadays; reading glasses are cheap, you don’t need a prescription that often. But others have had to give up on their teeth completely, and increasingly there are people who ignore a health issue until they find themselves turning up in dire straits at A&E.

If you think about it, your health stays in the background until you have a problem. Then, suddenly, you may need healthcare, and perhaps lots of it. People in the USA spend their life savings, lose their homes sometimes, because healthcare is such a lucrative business there. Because it’s in the background, you don’t think about it. And you easily come to resent increasing taxes, and stories of ‘inefficiency’. But if you need healthcare, it’s not efficiency you want first of all, but accessibility and effectiveness.

Ever since Thatcher’s day, the NHS has been under ever-increasing pressures, deliberately engineered or not. Continued reorganisations in the pursuit of efficiency and cost-savings, because it’s ‘your’ money that’s being ‘wasted’, allegedly. Pressures to be competitive, tendering to outside companies and agencies who are cheaper and more efficient, allegedly, whilst providing profits to shareholders and salaries to directors? We don’t stop to consider how illogical that is. If private companies can get a foot in the door, they are onto a cash cow, because there are always going to be ill people to make money from.

So, for thirty years and more there has been a more or less constant stream of stories about the NHS being in some kind of crisis or another. Now, think carefully about what this implies; think hidden agenda. There are now a couple of generations of voting adults in the UK who have grown up with this constant belittling and undermining of the NHS, who have been taught (by whom?) that it’s inefficient, that it doesn’t work properly, that there might be ‘better’ ways of doing things. Young and mainly healthy, they haven’t had to contemplate the need for healthcare – yet. They are the ones that the current Tory government are looking to get onside as they contemplate further privatisations, which are being pushed forward even as I write.

Younger voters are potentially more open to ‘trying out’ alternatives; the fact is that once the NHS has been terminally broken, it won’t be possible to resurrect it, as all its constituent parts will have been sold off in so many different directions, in so many different ways. And let’s not forget the increasing add-ons offered to many people in their jobs nowadays: little extra private medical, dental, even alternative health insurances that cost companies little, generate considerable profit, and further undermine people’s sense of the NHS being necessary or useful… until you have a serious condition, when the private companies are suddenly not interested in you any more…

This change is being driven by people who do not have to rely on the NHS, who do not have to use it, among others by a chancellor whose family are billionaires and so who is utterly out-of-touch with the needs and worries of ordinary people. And that’s before we think about the rest of the Tory party, many of whom have holdings in private healthcare companies and stand to make fortunes eventually…

Finally, COVID. We’ve all been expected to clap for the NHS. We haven’t been asked to put our hands in our pockets to pay decent salaries to its workers. Other countries have paid bonus salaries to their health workers in recognition of their extra efforts. We have spent (wasted?) eye-watering amounts of (your) money on private purchasing, without competitive tendering, often deliberately excluding the NHS from taking part, often enriching friends of ministers with vested interests in weakening the NHS.

What is to be done, as someone once asked?

People need to wake up, realise what is being done, ask questions, think about themselves and their families and how they intend to manage without the NHS. And if they can’t, then they must shout and complain and do something about it. This obviously includes using one’s vote wisely!

Realise that nothing comes free.

We are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and should be able to look after our citizens.

Are other sectors expected to be efficient in the ways that are expected of the NHS? The armed forces? The government itself?

What is a reasonable amount of tax to be paying?

Declaration of interest:

My mother trained as a children’s nurse at the very beginning of the NHS. She knew what it had been like before, and the benefits the NHS brought. As children we had all our vaccinations, health checks in school, dental treatment and all the other support young bodies and minds needed, courtesy of the NHS. My sister is a nurse in a children’s burns unit at the moment. Her stories of the pressures she has to work under are often hair-curling. And that was before COVID. And I’m in my late sixties, have made relatively modest use of the NHS so far, paid my taxes willingly, and am hoping that should I need it, the NHS will still be there in my declining years.

Tayeb Salih: Season of Migration to the North

January 6, 2022

     I can’t now remember where I came across the review which aroused my interest in this novel, by a Sudanese writer, first published in 1969. It’s a challenging read, powerful and perplexing. I’m happy to admit that, as an inhabitant of the first world, I find novels from African and Asia difficult reads at times, in the sense that they come from and are about cultures and lives that are so different from the ones I’m familiar with from my privileged European perspective. And yet, I’m curious to know more.

This is the story, set about a century ago, of two Sudanese men who spend time in Britain – their country was a colony of ours at that time, the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’. Both eventually return home; one having had a decent education, becomes a minor government official; the second is rather odder: falling in love with the western lifestyle, he realises he is exotic to western women and leads a wild life seducing and abandoning them, and eventually murders one he had married. He escapes hanging and eventually returns to the Sudan, seeking anonymity… after a fashion. The lives of the two men are inevitably intertwined, given their common background.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, that fails to do the wider story justice, as there is much broader reflection on the nature and effects of colonisation, on both coloniser and colonised, on the mutual incomprehension and on the ultimately destructive connection. It is hard to avoid the picture of Sudanese lives blighted by contact with Britain.

The storyteller is happy to be back in his homeland, but has become not quite a stranger in his home village but someone now different from everyone else, and all his friends and neighbours are inevitably curious about the strange land across the sea where he has lived. The other man seeks him out, befriends him, and evidently has a secret which he eventually shares partially before being lost in a Nile flood, leaving the narrator to piece together the rest. There was a weird unworldliness about him, a man without feelings or emotions, only focused on the intellect; he leaves behind a curious locked room in his house, which the narrator eventually visits: it is a shrine to Britain and things British.

It’s well-written, with sudden bombshells lobbed in that create both suspense and astonishment; the narrative thread shifts in time and focus, blurring the flow, slowing us down and forcing the reader to reflect. What, exactly, is the message here? The insidiousness of rule by another race and nation which regards itself as superior percolates through everywhere, and the inevitable corruption which follows in its wake is also laid bare.

It’s a challenging novel – as I mentioned at the start – perhaps particularly to the western reader who knows himself to be perhaps not a target, but certainly implicated in the blame, perhaps also because it comes from a place that we as westerners are not, and cannot, be a part of; there is no sense of comfort or tranquillity available to such a reader. I can’t pretend I’ve exhausted everything the novel has to say on a first reading, and so I expect to be re-reading it quite soon. If you’re up to be rattled, I recommend this one.

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