Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Marguerite Yourcenar: L’Oeuvre au Noir

June 18, 2018

51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_51HB6gDD2sL._AC_US218_Have you ever read a book, thought, “That was really good!” and realised that you hadn’t really grasped more that half of it? That happened again, with another Marguerite Yourcenar novel, just as it had a few years with her more famous Memoirs of Hadrian… I shall be going back to both of them, because there’e so much more in there.

This novel was translated into English as The Abyss by Yourcenar’s lover. It’s a bildungsroman in a sense, as it’s Zeno’s life and development that we follow mainly, in the development of the mind of a Renaissance genius and freethinker – so you know really that it’s not likely to turn out well for him. The early sixteenth century, with its explosion of knowledge plus a certain measure of intellectual liberty (in some places) unleashed by the Reformation, holds a fascination for writers; this novel recalled for me the award-winning (and soon-forgotten) Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and the astonishing Q by Luther Blissett, the only novel I know of written by an anarchist collective… Also in there is an echo of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, as Yourcenar does spend time comparing the attitudes and fates of Zeno’s childhood companion, too.

Zeno’s main interest is scientific – including alchemical – and medical research, many aspects of which were fraught with all sorts of dangers in those days. The rich heir, Zeno’s friend and companion of his early days, rejects that world in favour of soldiering and whoring; they meet up after many years in a significant encounter. Indeed there are many chance encounters and re-encounters throughout this novel, which add layers of depth and meaning to events and characters.

The turbulent backdrop of warfare and religious strife forms a panorama to the book; Yourcenar is clearly very interested in what people then knew and didn’t know, what they cared about and didn’t care about. The picture she develops is quite different from our twenty-first century picture of what things were like back then, and her picture of the isolation of thinkers, writers and savants in a time where communication was a lengthy process or hardly existed at all, where one didn’t learn of quite major or catastrophic events until months later is quite an eye-opener. Little knowledge being disseminated, it was possible for significant research and discoveries to be lost forever; equally laborious work might be duplicated unwittingly. It was a long time before a world of new learning had accumulated sufficient critical mass to become a permanent fixture, incapable of being suppressed by religious or temporal powers.

Yourcenar also evokes brilliantly through the character of Zeno how the mind of a savant in those times so different from our own might have worked, explored, wandered from subject to subject, and attempted to work things out; from the historical and the psychological perspective it’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel, and a reminder of both how dangerous knowledge can be, and how tenuous our hold on progress and civilisation is, too.

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Rereading Sense and Sensibility

June 17, 2018

However often I return to Jane Austen, there is always something new to notice, and to reflect on. Sense and Sensibility is not my favourite of her novels, and it’s quite a while since I last read it. I’ve usually found the main characters rather tiresome, people that I could not really care very much about, and my reactions were similar this time around.

Austen always goes into great detail about the minutiae of financial arrangements in bourgeois families, especially insofar as they affect the female characters and their future prospects, and this is particularly the case here, from the very outset, where the dire situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters, and the penny-pinching meanness of her relations, is outlined. Austen, of course, was particularly aware of such financial issues in her own family. What does a woman do, if she has no money of her own, and cannot attract a suitable match?

But the whole novel is about the pursuit of money, in a way that the other novels are not, and Austen seems much sharper in her criticism of those characters who pursue wealth, John Dashwood and his immediate family especially; he is unable to contemplate any situation or potential relationship without instantly doing his sums, and rates people solely on their financial worth. This time around he struck me as a far more repellent bean-counter than I’d ever judged him previously, as also did Lucy Steele, for whom I’d previously had a certain – though limited – sympathy.

Austen also provided me with rather more laughing out loud moments than I remembered, especially when the Palmers are in shot, and was rather more vicious in her putting down of Lucy Steele through her appalling grammar than I recalled, too.

I noticed a certain symmetry in the situations of Elinor and Marianne, despite the ways they are also very much contrasted in character: both have devious and secretive lovers – Willoughby who leads on Marianne so that everyone thinks them secretly engaged, and then ditches her for the wealthy Miss Grey to solve his money problems, and Elinor, with whom Edward Ferrars falls in love in spite of the fact that unbeknown to her, he is secretly engaged to the dreadful Lucy, who is also on the make. So there is actually a very interesting and elaborated contrast in the ways in which the two of them confront and come to terms with disappointment (even though things turn out fine for Elinor and Edward in the end).

It also struck me that this is the novel in which the villain is give some redeeming touches, even though he must be terminally damned by his treatment of Colonel Brandon’s ward. He does come to realise that he loved Marianne and has irretrievably lost her; in the detailed conversation he forces upon Elinor at Cleveland this is made clear and even Elinor warms slightly to him, but in the end, the conversation is all about him, rather than the damage he has caused by his behaviour. Yet, compared, say, with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, he comes off reasonably, and surely the morally reprehensible Crawfords in Mansfield Park are far worse in their attitudes and behaviour?

The conclusion to the novel I always found rather unsatisfactory, financially and emotionally, and Colonel Brandon is another of the cradle-snatcher heroes as I like to call them, like Mr Knightley in Emma, whose marriages to women only half their age today feel distinctly odd… Ultimately I feel Sense and Sensibility is a satire on greed…

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

Older Men Don’t Read Fiction…

April 8, 2018

I recently alluded to some research suggesting that older men didn’t read (very much) fiction and, as I fall into that demographic category, I have been thinking more about it, and about my habits. I’ve been prompted to revisit it because of the difficulty I’ve experienced in choosing a couple of books to take away with me on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes.

How is that difficult, you may wonder, as I’ve often mentioned having piles of books waiting for my eyeball time? And those piles include a fair number of novels that I’ve bought, with the obvious intention of reading them; recommendations by friends or ones that had good reviews, or books by writers I already know and want to explore further. But I can’t decide: shall I take a new novel, or a history book? Shall I take some old favourite novels which I’ve been promising myself to re-read for ages? I can see I shall reach the stage of randomly grabbing a pile and thrusting them into my bag early on the morning of my departure, a last-minute eeny-meeny-miny-mo…

So, I asked myself in the middle of the night, what on earth is going on? I went back to my reading journal: this year, out of 22 books read so far, two (!) have been novels, and one of those was a re-read. Last year, 27 out of 64 were novels, of which only five were new. In 2016, 10 novels out of 52 books, two new novels; in 2015, 20 out of 71. I have to go back to 2014 to see more than half of the books read being novels, and even then, there were an awful lot of re-reads. There’s the evidence.

Next, the excuses. I haven’t felt there are an awful lot of good new novels being published, or at least, ones that call to me to read them. I am in the middle of a history and travel reading phase which has been going on for several years. Pretty thin as explanations go, I have to acknowledge.

At the moment I feel happier re-reading novels I’ve read previously, even if a long time ago. Here I think there’s something of a comfort factor going on, re-acquainting myself with old favourites, old friends – and there are times I look wistfully at a book on my shelves and think to myself – am I ever going to find the time to re-read that one? A new novel feels like much more of a challenge: am I going to enjoy it? can I actually be bothered? will it make that much of a difference to me? And it’s easier for non-fiction to draw me in at the moment. If a novel is vicarious living, vicarious experience, perhaps I’m not in need of so much of that in my retirement, perhaps I’m getting on with my own living at the moment…

Yet somewhere in the back of my mind there is a nagging doubt or uncertainty; I cannot quite believe that I’m avoiding reading novels, that I’m actively expecting to be disappointed, and feeling that I don’t want to make the effort. So, if there are any other men out there who count themselves as ‘older’, I’d be interested to hear from you. And from anyone who has ever ‘gone off’ reading fiction, for whatever reason. I’d like to get to the bottom of this one.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

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A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre

March 21, 2018

41mxwSdzuzL._AC_US218_I don’t exactly remember how, at a recent family gathering, we ended up with a lively discussion of the character of Mr Rochester, but I did end up agreeing to re-read Jane Eyre and remind myself of what I thought. The heavy-duty gothic elements of the novel had faded somewhat since I’d last read it – the dreams pregnant with significance, the weighty use of pathetic fallacy, as had the super-sized lashings of Victorian Christianity. On the one level, the author displays outrage at the more hypocritical aspects of such religion and the attendant ‘charity’ (Lowood School, obviously) and its meanness, but the whole of Jane’s life is driven by the need to be ‘good’…

As a bildungsroman it’s worth consideration as we do see how her character is formed by certain crucial events – Lowood, Helen Burns’ friendship, Miss Temple, encounters with Rochester and St John Rivers – and she moves quite convincingly from timidity to self-confidence and self-reliance through her experiences of love and trust, as well as hardship and deprivation.

Rochester’s appearance is trailed well in advance, and I was brought up short by the fact that he’s twice her age: another cradle-snatcher, almost, like Emma Woodhouse‘s Mr Knightley. What is it about women and older men in novels of that century: is it crudely reductionist to see a sublimation or even repression of youthful sexuality here? What is the attraction? He behaves oddly at their initial encounter: he is awkward, forward, forthright, abrupt and domineering, it seemed to me. Quickly they are established as intellectual equals, yet her supposed superior morality – through her religion – is underlined, and contrasted with the rakish behaviour tolerated in males of the time.

Rochester is unconventional, and this makes him interesting, and attractive to Jane. But he is a flawed character and must suffer for his offences, even though she has fallen in love with him. The portrait of an ageing playboy lumbered with an insane wife (and, importantly, his ensnarement into this marriage goes some way to excuse his behaviour) does show us a tormented and tortured man craving happiness when he recognises its possibility, but he is surely wrong – whatever century we are in – when he seeks to beguile Jane into a bigamous relationship.

There is rather too much coincidence in all the long-lost family connections and money for this modern reader, and the creepiness of St John Rivers palls very quickly, as the author again criticises – though mildly and carefully now – Victorian religion and missionary fervour, while making her case for a woman’s right to real love and happiness on her terms. The maiming of Rochester goes too far for me, as does his conversion to religion in the maudlin and sentimental conclusion to the novel; I was confirmed in my feeling that Villette is the superior novel, and also very surprised at how the two novels end so similarly, with the deaths of potential lovers…

So, Mr Rochester: a lively and attractive mind but not sexy as that wouldn’t do in the 1850s; a forthright and open-minded character (perhaps as a would-be bigamist, too open-minded); a match for Jane intellectually, but a life-partner? possibly. There I’m not convinced.

 

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018

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I really liked If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and have read it a couple of times. I wondered why I’d never read Invisible Cities, and something else I was reading recently re-awakened my interest and prompted me to get it and finally read it, and it was marvellous. The concept itself is astonishing: a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which the traveller describes a range of imaginary cities to the great Khan in a series of prose poems. All the cities are named after women, fall into a range of different categories, and are woven symmetrically into the whole. Interspersing the nine chapters of the book are conversations between the pair, reflecting on a range of connected ideas.

I found myself very quickly reminded of Jorge Luis Borges in a number of ways. Firstly, the writing is in short sections or chapters; like poetry, each deals with a single subject, or here, city. And the slightly magical, slightly ethereal style is also reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer, although, of course, my judgement is limited as I can read neither in the original.

Each city is different, disturbing, dislocating; each contains enough in itself, in its own story, to shake you up, make you reflect and ponder. Some will truly enchant you, others will hardly move you at all. At one point the great Khan realises that in each city Marco Polo may be describing a different aspect of Venice, his home city; equally he is contemplating aspects of our life journey in the world. Sometimes a city verges on the truly surreal, in a way in which the language itself seems to lose its meaning – rather along the lines of Ben Marcus‘ bizarre The Age of Wire and String – you read the words, and they are words you can comprehend individually, but the ways in which they are related to each other challenges perception…

Each city is its own prose poem: the cities are weird and the magic of Calvino’s words and images conjures up vivid if implausible, unreal or insane places, at times in a drug-like haze. Many of the places have a very seductive appeal, and even though the travels are going nowhere, for these places do not exist, the magical and haunting lyricism of the cities timelessly suspended in eternity carries you along in a trance.

How does it work? We listen to an intriguing story-teller; we are in the territory of myth; we are travellers visiting unknown places along with him. Words create vivid pictures, and ideas make us think. The ethereal nature of the places and the encounters carry us effortlessly along… and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s a lovely book, and I don’t use that word about many books.

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