Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Bildungsromane

October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

Iain Banks: Espedair Street

October 27, 2021

     Long ago I’d read and liked a couple of Iain Banks novels – SF probably – but wouldn’t have picked up this one except for it being a book group choice. The title made me think: Espedair/despair? espérer=hope (in French)? To me it seemed apt, for a story of a working class youth becoming a mega rockstar, torn away from his roots and home, class and country, having enjoyed the wealth, sex, drugs and fame, and brought to the point of wondering what the hell was the point of it all, or anything, really…

The first thing that struck me was Banks’ amazing fluency in his use of our language, lovely writing and imagery that seemed to flow effortlessly from his pen (or keyboard), lyrical at times without being poetic, although he gets to indulge that streak when he creates the rock band’s lyrics, I suppose.

The narrator is the lyricist, whose talents enable the band to break through to the big time. And he must leave his Glasgow roots, his past and his working-class origins, and the people he knows, for that kind of success happens elsewhere among different people. There is Catholic guilt, poverty, a woman on whom he has a teenage crush…and leaves behind.

Banks creates a vivid and convincing picture of the excesses of the success enjoyed by rockstars with stratospheric wealth: parties, sex, drink, drugs, recklessness, all verging on insanity. There’s an equally convincing portrait of the seamier and more violent sides of Glasgow life. Gradually, and piecemeal, a powerful series of questions forefront themselves in the narrator’s mind, and herein, for me, lies the brilliance of the novel. Have all these youthful years of success and excess been an utter waste, pointless and empty? Has he derived any happiness or even satisfaction from it all? On the contrary, as time passes, the regrets become clearer for him, it seems: he has achieved fame, but two other members of the band are dead. He has left his working-class Glasgow roots behind – the other members are from rather wealthier backgrounds than his – and feels that he’s somehow sold out, betrayed himself, his family and friends. Looking back, he realises how much of all this he has hidden from himself all this time. Who is he, really?

He reaches a point where he contemplates ending it all, but is unable to bring himself to do it; then, through a series of happy coincidences which were to me perhaps the least convincing aspect of the novel, comes to realise what really matters, giving away his wealth and realising he can still live more modestly from his talents, and ends up almost happy ever after with his teenage sweetheart. Was this a cop-out of an ending? Perhaps, but it didn’t detract from the power of the novel for me. Briefly I did ask myself, is this a boys’ book? Probably.

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

Heinrich Gerlach: Breakout at Stalingrad

October 19, 2021

     The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning-point in the Second World War; its history is chronicled well in Anthony Beevor’s book, and the Russian (Soviet) experience of that part of the Great Patriotic War is portrayed very effectively in Vassily Grossman’s two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, the latter being one of the greatest war novels ever, in my estimation. So I was interested to read something from the German perspective.

The history and genesis of this autobiographical novel – for Gerlach is lightly concealed in the character of Breuer the intelligence officer – is astonishing in itself: written during his captivity in a Russian camp, confiscated by the Soviet authorities, re-created using hypnosis for recall after his release and originally published as The Forsaken Army it became a bestseller; then the original – this book – was rediscovered about ten years ago in Russian archives and finally published. It’s apparently rather different from the bestseller.

The most striking thing is the utter chaos, lack of clear information, how overstretched the Nazi forces have managed to get themselves, and the luxurious lives the general staff and higher ranking officers carve out for themselves while the ordinary footsoldiers suffer the atrocious conditions of the Russian winter, poor equipment and lack of food. The picture of what the Germans are trying to do is never clear, and their actions are hamstrung by their blind obedience to Hitler’s unhinged orders and their fear of the consequences of personal initiative. There’s no sense of unity of common purpose here, and you do get a clear image of the moment when Nazi Germany finally overreached itself and sealed its eventual fate.

I have to say that, in the end, this description of chaos became rather tiresome to read. What saves the book is the exploration of the manifold psychological effects of the gradual realisation that there can be defeat, after so many years of success and hubris; intelligent officers finally begin to ask the questions they should have been asking and responding to long before. The focus is largely on the general staff attempting to do the impossible, and unable to face reality or tell the truth.

There are enlightening moments, such as the aftermath of the capture and interrogation of a Russian prisoner, where the German officers begin to see through the propaganda fog which has surrounded their atrocities so far, and yet are unable to realise the hypocrisy of the attitudes they must continue to espouse… And there are moments where you begin to feel sorry (!) for some of the Germans, when they begin to realise how they have allowed themselves to be misled and duped by their leaders and generals, and they have now been abandoned to die, and thus create a heroic myth for the German nation. Faced with the inevitability of surrender or death, scales fall rapidly from eyes… there is powerful stuff here, presented mainly through the thoughts of the author’s alter ego. (I honestly never imagined being able to write those last few lines.)

I wouldn’t describe it as a compelling or necessary read, but it’s worth it if you have the time and interest. Ultimately the message is the same as emerges from any number of novels, really: ordinary folk catch all the shit; leaders are vain, deluded, ambitious, insane but persuasive and are usually allowed to play out their mad ideas.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

October 18, 2021

     There are now a huge number of books about the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, many of which were sited on Polish soil; Auschwitz has become a sort of shorthand for all the horrors. Yet of all the books I’ve read, this collection of stories remains the bleakest of all. Written a few years after the end of the war by a Pole who had been interned there and who killed himself a little while after writing it, the book shows the depths to which human beings can be reduced, or can reduce themselves.

Death and horror are a normality in these short stories, a necessary part of the struggle for survival. The vileness of the arrival of the transports, the selections, the scrabbling for food and belongings, the cameraderie of the survivors: this is the challenge to every reader – what would you have done? We dare not try to answer…

I think part of the powerful shock effect comes from the short story form, one which I generally avoid reading. There are fewer details, less development of character or personality in short stories and somehow this sketchiness, a sort of distancing-effect, amplifies the awfulness of situations and behaviours. The horrors are gut-wrenching, powerful compulsive; other writers pale by comparison with Borowski’s candour. And we must read these stories; it is vital that what humans did eighty years ago is not forgotten, is not buried by thoughts of such things being so dreadful that they must be made up, exaggerated. You need a strong stomach to read the stories; they had to be written; these things were.

Narrative, truth and lies

September 14, 2021

The idea that all narratives are lies surfaced during a discussion (of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) in our book group recently, and has been preoccupying me since then. The notion quickly needed some qualification. I think it’s clear we refer to fictional narratives here, to describe which we might use the words ‘invented’ ‘untrue’ ‘lies’, all of which have certain connotations. At one level it’s clearly a matter of semantics, but we normally overlook the invented-ness of fictional narrative and the implications thereof. The word fiction itself means something made, as in invented, and this should lead us, as I recall frequently reminding my students, to reflect on the author, the maker, as well, and her/his purposes and choices as s/he made their narrative. What had they chosen to include, exclude, emphasise? How had they ordered their invented artefact, and how did that affect the ways we received, understood and interpreted it?

There is perhaps a certain relative innocence to fiction, in contrast to the benefits from making things up, or lying in other contexts. Untruths in the personal and the imaginative spheres are not qualitatively the same thing… we may tell untruths for personal gain or advantage: consider almost any politician you care to name (said he cynically).

We like and enjoy made-up stories, and this reflects a higher stage of development and mental operation, that we can imagine, visualise, and create things which are not. Even in our prehistory, humans created art, music, poetry, story. It is deeply hard-wired into us.

Stories we read, as well as entertaining us, broaden our knowledge and experience of the world vicariously: we can explore situations and emotions we may not have experienced personally, and learn something from them. Someone – I have a suspicion it may have been Umberto Eco – pointed out that a reader lives thousands of lives as well as their own. And narratives – factual ones, based on real events we have experienced ourselves – are also surely a way we use to make sense of our own lives, as we see progressions and developments, and become aware of connections between events and experiences.

Mitchell was trying to make a point about other narratives, too, I think: the narratives that we, as a species, the human race, tell about ourselves: our histories. And these may be based on facts, have facts behind them, but are nevertheless made, shaped and interpreted by those who write them, and there are agendas and effects that we need to be aware of behind such narratives. In some ways, I think he was saying, the created narratives can over-write the realities they sprang from…

If, for instance, we read a narrative of ourselves as basically a selfish, or a warlike species, or a cruel species, do we unconsciously accept and integrate those interpretations unthinkingly? Do we believe we are innately competitive, that it’s about the survival of the fittest because we have been told this so often? In which case, who told us, and why? And if so, what if we tried different narratives, ones which focused on co-operation, on mutual self-help, on our capacity for good? Might this affect our future behaviour, might it be capable of changing subtly our lives and our world for the better? Interesting stuff…

Jean Giono: Regain

September 11, 2021

     Correction: I made a mistake in my last post about Jean Giono’s Le Grand Troupeau: being sent back to my school and university notes (no longer in a crate but scanned onto my laptop) by a reference in Regain, I discovered that it hadn’t in fact been one of my A Level French texts, but one from my first undergraduate year.

I really enjoyed coming back to Regain. The language is a challenge, just as it was in the previous book, because there’s so much particular vocabulary, from the Provence landscape and the agriculture of a century ago, as well as the idiom in which the characters speak… having a dictionary on your phone alongside you as you read isn’t always enough with a text like this: Le Petit Robert came down off the shelves a number of times.

Giono writes of the slowly emptying and abandoned villages in his region of France, as people moved away for an easier life, and the elderly died off. There’s a feeling of great sadness about it all; the villages are lovingly described in their decay, and the sense of loss, even of a very hard living, is palpable. There’s something important about people being connected to and rooted in their land, that Giono manages to convey with great power.

And the life is hard: there are no aspects or elements of 20th century civilisation in evidence in the villages; even money seems a curiosity. How to bring it all back to life? This novel is part of the Pan trilogy, and Panurge, the final inhabitant of his village, needs a woman to help him, to be a companion and co-worker. The old woman who has left, saying she will send him one, is almost a witch-like figure, or an earth-mother/goddess as we might probably say now. And the last man is finally joined by a woman, and they start to change things…

Arsule had been someone else’s woman, and he had used her as a beast of burden. We now see her coming into her own as a person, with ideas, an equal part of the enterprise. Primitive instincts or basic human urges may have drawn her and Panurge together initially, and this seems right, in the greater context. The transformation of home-making and the woman’s influence may strike one nowadays as very traditional, but the over-riding victory is of the return of life to the village of Aubignane. Their farming is eventually a success and there is a very real and simple joy in it; they are eventually joined by another family with children who move into the village, and at the end of the novel, Arsule is pregnant.

At one level simple and predictable, naive even? A nostalgic view of peasants’ mutual self-help? A romanticised vision of rural France? Possibly, but I’m not sure. There’s a harsh realism as well as a lyricism in the description of the landscape, the weather and the harsh life of the very poor peasants in the ruined villages, and there’s hope. If you add in the return to the simple life of the past as a reaction to the vile horrors of the Great War (read my previous post) then it makes a kind of sense. And Giono really knew the land, the area, and all this is reflected in his lovingly detailed and sensuous descriptions. It’s an excellent read.

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

August 27, 2021

     Various friends have recommended this novel highly over the years; someone selecting it as their choice in our book group has finally got me to read it, and I’m glad I did, despite finding it annoying and frustrating at times.

It’s another of those late 20th century, very long and rambling novels, almost shaggy-dog stories really, with enough varied subject-matter to arouse one’s interest and more than enough narrative skill to keep one hooked, although early on I did wonder where on earth Mitchell was going with it. At times I was reminded of Anthony Burgess, at others of Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Baroque Cycle. Sequentially in time we work our way from the early nineteenth century through six stories, to our present and then into the future, and then cycle back through them to where we began; there are various links and connections skilfully woven in between the stories, too. If you realise early enough that this is what will happen, you do also then begin thinking about Mitchell’s overall plan and direction.

For me the most interesting sections were a sort of future utopia based on current North Korean society, which was a real tour-de-force, a variation on the innocence/ experience trope, and I could see many traces of ideas from Daniel Keyes’ excellent Flowers For Algernon, as well as passing acknowledgement of Huxley and Orwell, in terms of unpicking the differences between utopia and dystopia. I remember from my teaching days being rather surprised at how many students said they would be quite happy to live in Brave New World. They had a point, sometimes unshaken by my next question, ‘OK, but would you be human?’ The recycling of the fabricants recalled both quite a few of Philip Dick’s SF novels, and also Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, which was the source of the cult 1970s film Soylent Green

The central, post-apocalyptic future world is really well-conceived and described, and finally convinced me about how good the whole novel was. Again, there are echoes of earlier novels, particularly Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker which I found reflected in Mitchell’s narrative style and use of language.

Mitchell’s ultimate question seems to be whether entropy is finally drawing the human species on to eventual self-destruction. My feeling now – some twenty years after its first publication – is yes, but Mitchell wants us to examine our thinking and realise that a better world may be possible, despite his not having described one in any of the various strands of his novel. Our response to our world, and the choices we make, depend on how we look at that world, how we visualise things and describe them, and in the end the stories we create about the past and the future, because it’s the stories that persist rather than what actually happened…in other words we create our realities and we could therefore create different or better ones, if we looked at ourselves differently, thought differently and described our world and ourselves differently. At least, that’s my take on this epic at the moment.

It’s a thought-provoking novel at many different junctures, and Mitchell attempts to reflect his thesis in the way he has structured the cyclical stories, but I did think that this wasn’t fully clear, and tended to obscure his meanings… A stunningly good read, though.

Jean Giono: Le Grand Troupeau

August 21, 2021

     I first came across the French writer Jean Giono as a student of A Level French literature half a century ago, with his novel Regain, which was about the gradual rebirth of an abandoned rural village. Not idyllic, not hippified, but bloody hard work done by people who loved the land and understood its importance. I have made a mental note to track it down and re-read it.

This novel (translated into English as To The Slaughterhouse) is about the devastating effects of the Great War on French rural society, on villages hundreds of miles from the front lines. Who is to manage the countryside, the land and the beasts, once the men have gone off to war, many killed and many others mutilated so that even though they return, they cannot work the land? The troupeau (herd) in the French title is both the abandoned or requisitioned animals and the men gathered into battalions for the slaughter. The peasants who find themselves armed and at the front lines in short order are completely lost, disoriented, often wounded and left to die.

It’s an incredibly powerful novel, impressionistic in many ways, disjointed and at times understated, yet clear in its focus on rural life and the organic connections between people. The war is brutal and vile, yet at the same time backgrounded as alien to the positive forces Giono is interested in. Women are forced to be stronger than they can be; we see the devastating effects of the news of deaths on women and the older men back at home in the faraway villages. One truly heart-wrenching scene is the rural mourning ritual for an absent corpse. Nor does Giono ignore the sexual longings and desires of the women deprived of their menfolk, either. An account of trying to bring about an abortion a century ago was quite graphic. And when he wants to shock, Giono spares nothing: there is a truly obscene and detailed description of swarms of rats and how they start eating fresh corpses; then crows arrive and do their bit too… Some soldiers go mad, haunted by visions of their dead comrades.

I found the novel quite hard to read in French: there is much slang and rural vocabulary and idiom from over a century ago, and dictionaries were not often much help. The overall effect is quite different from English fiction about that war, with a much more powerful sense of utter waste, and the total futility of it all. The times come across as deranged, insane.

In the end, I found it rather too disjointed and hallucinatory, perhaps because it was just so utterly alien from my experience, even though I have considerable familiarity with the literature of this period. It recalled Henri Barbusse’s famous Le Feu, which was also a very challenging read a number of years ago. Giono had been there, and his vision of the solidity and solidarity of the ordinary people, the peasantry of France and its potential for renewal of society, was at least partly a reaction to those four years of mayhem: he does leave us with glimmers of hope at the end.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

August 11, 2021

     Literature set in the Great War is fairly well-known and accessible; literature set in the aftermath, exploring attempts to come to terms with that horror rather less so. And the more I’ve gradually discovered and read, the more powerful it seems, and the more I realise the extent of the trauma of the survivors.

Wiechert wrote this novel after the Nazis released him from what was basically a warning imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What is the former naval captain, who commanded a ship at Jutland, to do with himself? What can his life mean now? Well-meant advice from a priest suggests meaning comes through work. He abandons wife and son and home and treks into the depths of the forests of East Prussia (Wiechert’s homeland), returning to earth and nature as manager of an estate fishery and living in a hut on a small island. He is joined by his former first mate, who saved his life during the naval mutiny at the end of the war.

His life becomes a cleansing, redemptive, un-religious though spiritual experience; withdrawal from the world leads him to an almost timeless, contemplative state, and we come to understand how devastating the war must have been for so many people. I was often reminded of the French author Jean Giono, who lived, experienced and wrote at the same time, and remembered studying his novel Regain for A-level: it’s also about forsaking the world to bury oneself deep in nature…I must track it down and re-read it.

I’m really not sure how good a novel it is; it’s flawed in some ways. The idyllic simplicity seems at times too good to be true, and the relationship with the granddaughter of the retired general on whose estate the fishery lies, feels ever so slightly creepy in our post-Lolita days, though it’s never a sexual one, and that possibility is clearly ruled out.

There is the mutual incomprehension of father and son, the perennial difference between generations, and the son and his peers imagine that they will regain the glory of the German navy through their efforts.

It’s also a novel about the end of an era, with things never the same again – echoes for me of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, certainly – the Prussian aristocracy is dying out, and for us there is the added hindsight: Hitler’s war is to come, and East Prussia ceases to exist in 1945, divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, the German population extirpated.

I’ve now read this novel four times; it’s one of my all-time favourites. How it speaks to me has changed over the quarter century since I first read it. Sadly, it’s a novel very much of its time, and consequently will probably vanish into obscurity. It’s a novel about ageing, growing older, and what that means for a thinking person (remember Socrates’ dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’!) It’s about acceptance of oneself, who one is and who one has become, coming to terms with one’s lot, one’s life and one’s achievements. It’s about the hope, the wish for contentment and a sense of achievement. I think it’s marvellous. And the theme is haunting: from Psalm 90 ‘Swift as a breath our lives pass away.’

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