Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

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Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

May 29, 2019

51MaV5P65oL._AC_UL436_91rR4LYMI5L._AC_UL436_ I’ve just re-read this novel, which is regarded as a minor classic. The dying emperor recounts and reviews his life in a document addressed to his adoptive grandson, who will one day become the well-known philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. He has reached the advanced – for Roman times – age of sixty, and is able to be calm and reflective as he becomes aware of the narrowing of his world, and the things he is renouncing forever as he weakens and the end approaches.

The novel is a major effort of the imagination, not least in that it’s by a woman trying to be inside the mind of a man, as well as going back over the centuries to an age when beliefs and attitudes were so very different.

Hadrian recounts his life story and what he thinks he has learned from his experiences. We gain insight into the constant manoeuvrings and machinations behind the scenes of the empire. He exudes the confidence of power and entitlement to that power, whilst being reflective, self-critical at times and also self-indulgent (he was the emperor, after all). We learn of his growing up under Trajan, a warrior emperor, and how he (Hadrian) gradually comes to see the advantages of consolidation rather than expansion, which will come to be the characteristic of his reign. We see and come to appreciate his love of Greece and all things Grecian.

Then there is the plotting, his adoption and nomination as Trajan’s successor and the secret and underhand deeds that took place – which he never learns the truth about, or even seeks to know – at the time of Trajan’s death, and which ensured a smooth transfer of power.

He is interesting on slavery, deciding that it will never truly be abolished, but the name of the condition will probably be changed; this struck a chord even today, for me. He never questions the idea of emperor, advocates democracy, or says anything about what might have been the golden days of the republic. We gain the impression of a busy and tireless man with clear ideas about the maintenance and preservation of the empire as a duty to which he dedicates himself entirely.

His relationship with the boy Antinous, and the boy’s mysterious death, plays a central part in the novel and in Hadrian’s life, obviously. Because of the time when the novel was written (1950s), we are given no insight into the sexuality of that relationship, and we gain the impression that love was perhaps an emotion regarded rather differently at the time. But we can be in no doubt of the deepness of the attraction and attachment.

Again, second time around, I found the novel a tour-de-force of the imagination and the novelist’s art, although at times it did feel dry and monotonous in its evenness of tone. So much of it was also under the shadow of the speaker’s impending death and his awareness of that; the stoical acceptance I can understand, but the overall gloominess is a little hard to take at times.

I found myself reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of first-person narrative, in the context of this novel. Here, we have constantly to be aware of the unreliable narrator, the selective narrator, the narrator whose sole perspective controls the reader’s impressions and responses, and the deliberate decision of the novelist to present the novel this way; we have to imagine the gaps and what is not said or considered, even though it’s only a novel. It is a good if challenging read, well worth the effort.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!

R H Mottram: The Spanish Farm Trilogy

May 20, 2019

51m2b9ula+L._AC_UL436_  I came across this in a second-hand bookshop last year; I’d never heard of it or the author; now that I’ve read it, I really am not sure what to make of it…

Let’s start with a summary: according to Wikipedia, R H Mottram wrote dozens of novels, all of which seem to have disappeared without trace. He served in the Great War, and published this trilogy in 1929, so ten years after, like a good deal of the literature from those days. The novels are linked by place: the Spanish Farm, which lies more or less on the Belgian/ French border, and a few miles behind the British front lines in Flanders, around Ypres. The first book describes events from the perspective of a young Flemish woman, a farmer’s daughter, showing how she struggles to survive when troops are constantly passing through, being billeted, demanding to be fed, and helping themselves to whatever they fancy. She helps her father to keep the farm running and is also determined to track down the son of the local baron who actually owns the land, with whom she had an affair before he went off to war. And she also has a brief relationship with a French-speaking British captain who is billeted at the farm.

The second volume looks at the war from the same place, but this time from the perspective of the British officer, Skene: we see his war experience as well as the relationship that develops with Madeleine, the farmer’s daughter. The third part is from the viewpoint of yet another British officer, this time a behind-the-lines one who is charged with trying to resolve a growing scandal which is creating tensions between the British and French: a British solder vandalised a wayside shrine on the farm’s property and in due military form there must be an identifiable culprit, an arrest, an investigation and the payment of compensation… in the middle of the war. A satire worthy of Evelyn Waugh…

A good deal of the trilogy is actually pretty dull – the writing is lacklustre, the use of language run-of-the-mill, and yet it also rings true as a document of the times which could only have been written by someone who had been there. There is the grimness of the border territory – which anyone who has passed through the area will recognise – and the struggles of ordinary people to get on with their lives, their business, their survival. And the central female character is particularly feisty and determined and usually gets her way – a very interesting creation by a male writer in the late 1920s. Her sexual freedom is quite convincingly depicted, too, and I found myself reminded of some of the strong women who populate various parts of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.

The portrayal of the British army officers is also very enlightening. We see how family, background, schooling and career paths were considered so important. Ridiculous amounts of time are spent in bureaucracy and infighting between various sections with different axes to grind; I did get the impression of everything being ultimately on so colossal a scale that nothing was ever going to work as intended, and that therefore the ordinary soldier was randomly disposable.

All novelists who have set stories during the Great War seem clear about the general incompetence of the higher levels of command, and also the utter futility of trench warfare, and Mottram is no exception. The experience of leave is generally portrayed as surreal, and men are glad to get back to the reality and camaraderie of the front, even though death stares them in the face: those at home just do not get it…

So Mottram was there and experienced it all, understood the total pointlessness of the war, and at times comes across as powerfully as Barker, Faulks and others. He doesn’t pass over shell-shock, either. Upon reflection, what shocked me most was the laconic nature of his presentation of warfare: no gross or gruesome details; insanity as routine and accepted as a side-effect of warfare.

And then there was the cynicism, the bureaucracy, the class divide, the casual racism of the logistics corps behind the lines, low-risk jobs and a cushy number generally: a whole class of officers totally divorced from the reality of the war itself.

I said at the start of this post I was unsure what I felt: ultimately it’s a useful read, interesting at times but not all the time, a book that complements other reading but probably isn’t necessary unless you’re after completeness.

On children’s literature and children in literature

April 20, 2019

I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t occurred to me to write on this theme before; perhaps it’s grandchildren that have turned my thoughts in that direction and prompted me. There are many marvellous classic children’s books out there that I’m hoping one day I will have the chance to share with the next generation: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers and The Phantom Tollbooth to name but a few. Wonderful new stories appear with each generation but the old favourites will endure too, I think.

However, it it books that feature children that I am particularly interested in here. I regularly introduced my classes to Mark Twain’s wonderful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I think most of them got something from it; it has a lot of those things that children fantasise about: skiving chores, school and duties, running away from home, finding treasure, as well as scarier things such as witnessing a murder and being lost in a dark cave. It may be set more than a century and a half ago, but the themes still appeal. Sadly, only a couple of opportunities arose to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is in some ways an even greater achievement, treating as it does the cusp of childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and showing us the learning that can take place at that time. Huck’s symbolic journey with Jim on the raft down the Mississippi is at times humorous, fantastical, true to life and very moving.

Elsewhere I’ve written about To Kill A Mockingbird, where once again two children have two grow up and grapple with adult issues rather earlier than they may have wished; I have no time for those who carp and cavil about this novel for whatever reason; Harper Lee creates people, time and place brilliantly to explore a whole range of ideas.

I’ve also waxed lyrical in many posts about Philip Pullman’s masterly achievement in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and also in the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy. There is something very refreshing as well as thought-provoking about having children as the central characters in such astonishing books, and the adults merely taking subordinate places. The process of growing up, the realisations and the learning that take place gradually or suddenly as we pass from innocence to experience are well worth contemplating again as adults; I can only wonder what the experience of reading these books first as a child, and then returning to them as a grown-up, might be like: I will never know, of course. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines tetralogy – which I’m working up to re-reading – also has children as its central characters, although their adventures are not cosmos-changing in the way that Will and Lyra’s are in Pullman’s books.

It’s a truism that our childhood years form us and shape the adult that we eventually become; we don’t realise this is happening whilst it is actually happening, and we are perhaps rather more eager to leave childhood and childish things behind for the more exciting and ‘real’ world of adults. Only as we grow older do we realise the meaning of the true innocence of those childhood years which we can never have back. Perhaps it is the experience of raising our own children, and enjoying our grandchildren, that provoke us to contemplate what our past did to us; understanding and acceptance are all that we can acquire now, as time marches on…

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

On holiday reading

April 13, 2019

What sort of things do you take away to read when you go on holiday? I’m thinking about this because I’ll be off on a walking holiday soon, and it seems that every year I find it harder to decide what to take with me to read…

Sometimes I’m attracted by the idea of easy reading, re-acquainting myself with something I’ve read before. Then I remember that in my student days, when I had to ration myself because I was backpacking and there was only room for one book, that I’d save a real doorstop of a book especially for the summer holidays. Some of the reading from those heady days: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which I remember buying in Amsterdam, because I’d run out of things to read; War and Peace; Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; the two volumes of Yevgenia Ginsburg’s gulag memoirs (there’s light holiday reading for you!); Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don; Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz… The other thing I remember about holidays is I used to treat myself to Le Monde every day, because they used to have special summer series, lengthy articles on a historical or cultural theme that ran for a week or two.

So I look at the shelves and there are plenty of thick tomes awaiting my attention: shall it be one of them? The problem is that, in my younger days, holiday reading was always fiction, so a long novel fitted the bill; nowadays there’s far less fiction I’m interested in, and the weighty volumes of history or about religion are not quite the stuff of holiday relaxation. Stymied again.

What usually happens is that I start a pile a couple of weeks before I go, as I’m gradually gathering together all my other kit. The pile of books gets bigger and bigger until the day before I go, when I have to finally plump for a couple of them to last me the ten days or fortnight that I’ll be away. So, they get packed, and then I’ll find myself buying something far more interesting in a local bookshop while I’m away: I can never pass up the chance to scour French bookshops for things that aren’t going to make it into English.

On my current pile (awaiting weeding) for the upcoming holiday: R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – novels set in the Great War – and the Selected Writings of Alexander von Humboldt. I’m also contemplating Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, which I know has had mixed reviews, and Jan Potocki’s Travels.

I’d be interested to know if I’m the only one with such dilemmas, and how any of my readers make their choices.

Gilbert Sinoué: Le Livre de Saphir

April 1, 2019

81gEuxNWzxL._AC_UL436_This is quite a fascinating and gripping mystery, set in Spain in the final years of the Reconquista, shortly before the fall of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. It’s set around the search for the Sapphire Book, hidden somewhere by one of its last guardians; it purportedly contains proof of the existence of God. There is a whole set of cryptic clues which send the searchers on journeys all across the country. The searchers are three, one from each of the faiths of the book: an ageing rabbi, a middle-aged sheikh and a young monk, who each have been entrusted with a partial version of the clues: Sinoué is setting up his trio for dialogues about God, faith, religion and their three differing interpretations.

So, at one level it feels like a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but there’s rather more to this Egyptian-born writer’s novel than that. The focus is on the similarities and connections between the religions, which even the three adepts are not always aware of. Their quest is complicated when they are joined by a female who is a plant from the Inquisition who have gained knowledge of the quest and through subterfuge have obtained some of the clues: she is a clever and learned woman, confidant of the Queen, but is playing a dangerous game: as well as being in constant danger of giving herself away or being uncovered, she is tailed by the Inquisition and also a rival group linked to the Queen…

An atmosphere of sadness permeates the story as we know the Moors are about to be driven from Spain, and the Reconquista will shortly mean the expulsion or enforced conversion of Jews and Muslims. I was saddened by the suspicions between the three seekers, as well as the way trust gradually grew as they advanced in their journey, and came to realise how much more similar than different their faiths were; all of this makes the story so much more tragic, of course. At times the book felt worthy of a writer like Umberto Eco, and I did find echoes of his Baudalino occasionally.

The female agent improves the story as a foil to the men, and provides romantic interest as it is she and the monk who find their lives and fates entangled further than they expected. All are changed by their shared adventures: the monk becomes a killer and a lover, the treacherous woman comes to understand a purpose to her life and is disabused of her fanatical Christian opinions, and the Sheikh learns what forgiveness means.

I enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, for making me think, and for exploring the nature of faith. I was annoyed by one gross error which someone ought to have picked up: a reference to the work of Copernicus and his dangerous astronomical discoveries, when that learned monk would actually only have been 14 years old at the time the story takes place… and if I’ve whetted your interest, I’m sorry that the novel has not been translated into English.

P D James: Death Comes To Pemberley

March 31, 2019

41FmZ-a8YQL._AC_UL436_I remember attempting to watch the TV series and giving up in disgust; nevertheless a brand new copy of P D James’ novel for a £1 – in Poundland, of course! – tempted me and I took it as a holiday read. She doesn’t attempt to imitate Austen’s style, thank goodness, but her own dry and at times rather arch tone is reminiscent of Austen, especially in her clever summative opening chapter, which establishes continuity with the events and characters of Pride and Prejudice. She can construct an awkward conversation almost as well as Austen.

Of course, the novel is pure escapism, an opportunity to spend extended time with characters we have previously known and loved; however James does cast her net rather too wide and brings in a host of minor characters, servants and menials included, who are far too many to keep track of. There are some nice melodramatic and Gothic touches, reminding us fleetingly of Northanger Abbey, and she also managed quite skilfully to link the devious Wickham to events and characters in Persuasion. I did find references to ‘the Police’ in 1803 somewhat anachronistic, and I often felt James was being carried away by her strength in crafting twentieth century whodunnits. She does slip very easily into this mode, and even let her little-Englander prejudices slip out in apparently pro-Brexit comments by one of her characters. I don’t think I’m being too sensitive there…

The plot becomes slightly too wild as it progresses, and the courtroom melodrama and deus ex machina resolution is also a tad unsatisfactory. However, the post-trial denouement is undoubtedly gripping and cleverly worked, but then overdone, by squeezing in some of the characters from Emma. In the end I realise I am carping a little too much about what turned out to be miles better than the televised version, a pretty good yarn that isn’t Jane Austen and isn’t meant to be. Worth a read.

Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days

March 22, 2019

21E6JZ4N4TL._AC_UL436_I used to have quite a soft spot for Garrison Keillor, but after revisiting his most famous book, I do think it has palled a little.

Lake Wobegon is an utterly invented place, as are its inhabitants; no different from other fiction so far. But whereas other writers may invent a place and some characters as the background for a story, here the place and people are the story, and the question arises, is there enough to be interesting, or is our author merely being self-indulgent?

The invented history of the foundation of the town in the depths of Minnesota, down to its location being obfuscated by supposed errors made by drunken land surveyors, is a direct lift from the much briefer and more relevant account of the origins of Maycomb, in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird; Keillor is far more long-winded. His aim is to get the place populated by Norwegian and German immigrants, whose antics he will then hope to amuse us with.

And this is what the book depends on – light, humorous mockery of small-town USA, in the way that Mark Twain did so well in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But again, Twain used his settings as the background to interesting stories. Never having visited the USA, I’m obviously dependent on all the different accounts of the place I’ve read to form my impressions of the place, and I do have a mental picture of the vastness of the country allowing such communities quite cut off from the mainstream of US life to exist and accumulate a certain type of character who isn’t, or doesn’t have time to be, interested in the outside world.

So is Keillor wanting to make a more serious point about the isolationism of a large part of American society, towns without any real intellectual life, where homespun wisdom is at the heart of everything? The portraits are often affectionate, but often equally deeply worrying if they bear any resemblance to reality. I can certainly understand the deep-seated desires of some to escape…

Keillor mocks the religious extremism of the Exclusive Brethren that his character’s family belong to: I found myself mentally comparing his version with the rather more real horrors depicted in Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised account of her upbringing, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Maybe it’s times that have changed – I first came across Keillor some thirty years ago, and the mentality of small town USA and the effects of that world-view seem rather more pernicious nowadays than I recall it then. His laconic tone and close observations of the mannerisms and language of his characters produce a good number of laugh-out-loud moments, but overall the book came across as quite long and rambling at times, and I found myself wondering, will I ever want to come back to this again, and will I even bother to look at the other books of his I have on the shelves?

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