Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Helen Zenna Smith: Not So Quiet…

August 17, 2017

This novel was apparently written in a few weeks, based upon the diaries of a woman who had served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front; it appeared a little while after the much more well-known All Quiet on the Western Front by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque and was intended as a version of this novel from a female viewpoint. Certainly the similarities are noticeable. But it stands very much as a powerful, if little known work, in its own right. It shocked me when I first read it, and has lost none of that power.

Women were recruited as volunteers to work in various roles near or at the front; nursing and ambulance-driving were the most perilous because they meant being very close to the action. Many middle-class and upper-class women served, and they saw at first-hand the products of mechanised warfare; they cared for and tried to repair broken men; they were fully aware of the horrors.

We follow the transformation of a respectable English woman, shocked by what she has to deal with and also the unbridgeable gulf between what she sees and knows and what the do-gooding matrons back home with their committees imagine. Here she is as determined as Siegfried Sassoon to let everyone back home know the reality, and the hypocrisy, even though we are more than ten years after the end of the war. The bitterness comes across even more strongly than Sassoon’s, and the overt anti-war stance and criticism of politicians extends even to some of the young men due to go into action.

Initially we gain the impression that some self-censorship of the horrific details is going on, but this is merely to lull the reader into a false sense of security: alluded to obliquely at first, the full horrors hit us as she describes the unloading of the ambulances at the field hospital, in her mind addressing her mother back home, whom she wishes could see and experience what she is actually going through. There is no heroism or glory here: the narrator is terrified a lot of the time and admits to this…

Behind the scenes everything is about keeping up appearances, whilst sexuality rears its head and lesbianism lurks in the background; this last is a little muted and some critics have accused the writer of seeking to normalise the heterosexual: this may be true, and the context is complex, and also not what I’m interested in here. What does come across is the extraordinary pressure on both men and women when so close to the possibility of death: the narrator’s sister has to procure the money for an abortion, and the narrator herself chooses to sleep with an officer heading to the front lines the next day. Later on in the novel she learns that her fiancé has not only been blinded and lost a leg from the hip, but has also been emasculated.

There is a feeling – partly from the hectic pace of the novel and the nature of the narrative style – of great honesty in the narrator as she shares her experiences and feelings, including the death of her friend in an air-raid, and she raises the question of what is to become of her once the war is over. I mentioned similarities with Remarque’s novel earlier, and this is one of them: in All Quiet, Paul wonders what his generation will be like after the war; he is never to find out, of course, although the author does explore the lives of those who returned. There is also the return home: Paul returns on leave and hates it because he has nothing to say to those back home, who are incapable of understanding; so too the heroine of Not So Quiet, who is sent back home on sick leave, and clashes with parents, relatives and all those who are ‘doing their bit’ to support the ‘war effort’ without knowing what that actually entails.

Women like her are mentally and emotionally destroyed just as the men are, even though they may have missed out on the actual fighting in the trenches. Ultimately everything is taken from her, and although I rate All Quiet as probably the most powerful and effective novel that came out of the Great War, there are enough punches to the gut in this book to make it a worthy challenger for the title.

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

Emmanuel Carrère: The Kingdom

June 27, 2017

41NhBTMsvIL._AC_US218_512fu00TIRL._AC_US218_Searching for an illustration for this post, I was surprised and pleased to discover that this book, which I read in French, has just been published in the UK.

It’s quite an astonishing book, and one that perhaps may not appeal to very many. It’s by one of France’s best-known and most popular contemporary novelists – who I hadn’t heard of until I came across a review of this book – and yet it’s not a novel; it’s quite hard to assign it to a single genre, as it’s part spiritual journal, part religious and biblical history and part a novelist’s imagination of what might have happened two thousand years or so ago…

The writer cannot decide whether to go on an organised tour of places in the life of St Paul, on which he has reserved a place: this leads into the first section of the book which is an account of his own spiritual journey, one that led him to spend three years of his life as a convinced practising Catholic, believing in and accepting the tenets of the church, and during which he embarks on various spiritual exercises, including a detailed journal on his reading of John’s gospel. We share in how his godmother encourages his growing faith, the religious practices he adopts as part of his new-found faith, and then we see the gradual emergence of doubts and fears, which eventually lead to his drifting away from that faith, and putting all his notebooks away for a number of years, indeed to what seems a deliberate hiding of three years that he felt somehow ashamed of.

Carrère is not an atheist or an agnostic, but what I suppose I must call a seeker after truth, a label with which as a Quaker I can identify. He accepts that something of great moment and significance happened in those years of what is now the first century CE: a man called Jesus did exist, travelled around Palestine preaching, and was executed by the Roman authorities for some reason. And then there are the stories which grew up around the man, which Carrère finds harder to accept or understand, because neither he nor we can know the truth, which has been so obscured, over time, both accidentally and deliberately, in so many ways and at so many different levels. What kind of man was Jesus: a political or spiritual leader? and why was he executed? who brought about that execution, Romans or Jews? how did the work of various groups of his followers end up as today’s church? how did the rivalry between the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians play out? what was the role of Paul in all this? who wrote the accounts in the gospels, the Acts? who wrote the various letters to the early churches?

Carrère reads widely as he explores all of these questions and imagines various possibilities about those early years, the participants in the events, and where there are various possible alternatives he explores them as a novelist might, not seeking to confuse or waylay his readers, as he always makes clear when he is drifting into the realms of what if…

It’s quite difficult to write coherently about such a complex book that ranges so widely and speculates in such an interesting way: if the early history of Christianity interests you, or if the idea of life as a spiritual quest speaks to you, then I recommend it highly. It obviously makes one think quite deeply about the notion of faith, which Carrère had, or thought he had, briefly; it’s something I think I had once, too, but now find myself in a similar situation to the author, of being a seeker of something, but I’m not quite sure of what…

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