Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

August 11, 2022

     This astonishing novel remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever, like its subject-matter: I studied it, along with Conrad’s other works, at university, I taught it to sixth form students, and I’ve come back to it after many years for my book group. Conrad is not much read or studied now, sadly I feel, because he has so much to say. And this particular text I have often seen referred to as racist, colonialist, offensive… and I don’t buy these interpretations.

Heart of Darkness is very short. My American paperback edition has fewer than seventy pages. And yet so much is densely packed into that brief space: there are the carefully layered levels of the narrative; the settings of Victorian London and deepest central Africa, contrasted and yet also likened to each other; the density of Conrad’s descriptive language. And that’s before we engage with the subject-matter: a steamboat journey to nowhere in search of a man who has become a myth. All the time we are wrapped in the question of understanding and not understanding, which for me is the kernel of the entire work: just how much can a white man, a westerner, comprehend of the so utterly different world of the natives whose world he invades? And what on earth do those Africans make of the strangers, the invaders, their weird machinery and brutal actions?

Conrad pushes the situation to extremes because he is questioning the crazed rush for colonies, plunder and profit that the ‘civilised’ European powers were engaged in at that time, but the question is also a more universal one: at what level, to what extent is anyone capable of understanding someone from a different nature or a different culture? Can we ever really know or share? Kurtz, the man/myth at the heart of the novella, has been driven insane – in my understanding – by the powers he has managed to acquire over the native population, and Marlow, the narrator, has fallen deeply under his spell, but is in some slight way capable of understanding Kurtz and his power.

Ar some level, I suppose the question of whether and how much we can understand of ‘the other’ is also rather meaningless, for we are what we are and have to make the best of that, although we should surely respect other cultures and traditions rather than strive to pillage and exploit them. But once again, Conrad brings me to reflect on my own particular situation. I’m half Polish. I know a fair amount of that nation’s history and my father’s family and past, I’ve visited the country a number of times. There are aspects of the country and its people I love, others I loathe, and yet I do wonder how much I really know or understand. If I had moved to live there as a student – I was offered the opportunity but didn’t take it up – would I ever have become fully Polish? Similarly, although I have lived my entire life (apart from a year) in England, I feel I can never be one hundred percent English: there are things about this island I do not like or understand. And yet I know I could not live anywhere else, and my life’s work has been centred on the study and teaching of this country’s literature, which I do feel I understand pretty well.

Conrad is enigmatic, as I said. He makes his readers think, think hard. To me it’s pretty evident that, although he may not be able to understand Africa and its people, to him what the westerners are doing there is evil, and in some ways actually insane. And I have to respect a man who is a giant of English literature, even though English was his third language.

Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

July 30, 2022

     Another ripping yarn, and with characters and events linked to the others. Reading this, years after meeting His Dark Materials, you can see an accomplished writer, assured of his audience, shaping up to write his masterpiece. There is, for example, a clear forerunner of the sinister Mrs Coulter and her monkey daemon in the villain of this novel, whom we previously met in The Ruby in the Smoke; indeed you can see how the whole concept of the externalised aspect of the personality and soul which a daemon is, may have developed from here.

We are thrust head-first into an outrageous situation and mystery: why should anyone forge a marriage and then a divorce with the aim of seizing a child? Pullman also hints at the darker side of sexuality in Victorian times: paedophilia is not a late twentieth century evil, and some readers may recall Anthony Horowitz digging deeper into this murky cesspit in The House of Silk, one of his excellent additions to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Pullman makes clear the potential for unfairness in the application of the law of the land, with the balance in favour of those with money and influence, and also in favour of men in an age when women were mere chattels. There is no protection for the innocent or the underdog when they are faced with corruption and crooked lawyers and policemen.

Equally, Pullman creates strong female characters, independent women with determination, living towards the end of the nineteenth century when women were getting their struggle for equal rights and the vote under way. There is a strong advocacy of social justice in the book, and somehow Pullman just manages to avoid being preachy, and sliding into a roman à thèse for young adults.

The plot of the novel involves a revenge plot consequent on the dénouement of The Ruby in the Smoke, and a good deal focused on poverty in the East End of London, as well as the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which led to an influx of immigration, consequent exploitation, and resentment by the local population which was fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own dark purposes: Pullman seems to be suggesting that nothing much has changed in a century or more in this country. It’s pretty unputdownable, really: well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists in the plot, cliff-hangers, and interesting incidental characters. I’d have loved meeting a novel this well-written in my schooldays of exploring Stamford Public Library.

Philip Pullman: The Tin Princess

July 29, 2022

     This is another of the four Sally Lockheart novels, detective stories of a sort, set in the late nineteenth century. It’s clearly a tribute to Sherlock Holmes in some ways, in terms of time and place, and there is also a gang of helpful street children clearly modelled on the Baker Street Irregulars. There are also links to an earlier novel in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke.

What interests me is that Pullman’s target audience is evidently younger teenagers, even more so than with His Dark Materials, but his readers are treated from the start as intelligent and thoughtful, and Pullman weaves in complex ideas and themes without ever being patronising, preachy or moralising.

It’s a fast-paced story, as Pullman knows that is what his readers will expect. The setting quickly shifts from Victorian London to an invented, small Central European kingdom threatened by the global ambitions of both the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This was perhaps the aspect of the plot that I found least convincing, but then I’m an ageing reader well-read in history, and of Eastern European origin myself.

Pullman doesn’t avoid emotional attachments between his characters, and complex relationships either; nor does he dwell too long or in too much detail on them. It really is quite eye-opening to see how such a skilled writer has a sharp focus on the people he’s writing for. As in his better-known series His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Pullman shows his strong belief and trust in uncorrupted young people, who will be decent and do the right thing given the opportunity; corruption and deceit comes with adulthood, and this theme is obviously developed more thoroughly and in a much more complex manner in the later books, where innocence and experience are more foregrounded, and the myth of the Fall is much deliberately under the microscope.

It’s a ripping yarn in which despite the heroic efforts of the young, in the end evil triumphs – Pullman is only being harshly realistic here, and in our sad world, young people need such lessons – and adults are exposed as corrupt, servile and hypocritical. And Pullman does ultimately leave his readers with a glimmer of hope at the end, in that there are also some decent grownups in the world too. But it’s clear, good must be fought for, cannot be assumed.

Nella Larsen: Passing

July 11, 2022

     I find this rather a difficult book to write about, given that it comes from a culture I don’t have many ways to approach. Passing is a novella written in the US about a century ago now, by a black woman, and it’s about the concept of ‘passing’ in the sense of a black person passing themselves off as a white person and living undiscovered in white society. There are evidently attractions and manifold perils in the practice; I imagine it was a phenomenon of its time…

At the start we see the world through the eyes of Irene, the narrator; fairly early on a relatively unsubtle incident reveals or confirms to us that she is a black woman; before, it was not possible to be certain. I think Larsen intends this. Culturally, it was very difficult for me to understand some of the nuances of black and white society in the US of the time, but it is clear that Irene’s ‘friend’ Clare successfully passes as white and has a successful marriage to a white businessman, and a child. One of the perils of ‘passing’ was children: genetics means that a child might be very obviously one race or the other; contraception was pretty basic in those days, too…

I was shocked by the brutality of white racism, in terms of language and attitudes, and uneasy at its being presented by a black writer, too. Larsen creates the dangerous edginess of conversations very powerfully and effectively in a number of potentially risky situations which Clare engineers, as we gradually discover that she has very mixed feelings about the ‘passing’ she has been successful in. She yearns for her past, although her growing torment at her situation is not that convincingly presented, I felt: we are just told by the narrator. And yet, in such a short work, a whole raft of moral dilemmas for various members of the community is revealed. Irene’s reluctant fascination with Clare and her life is convincingly done.

I found myself wondering whether the whole work might not have been more successful if developed as a proper full-length novel, although I also had to admit that then, I’d probably not have read it. Irene’s husband Brian’s wish to leave the US and remove to South America, obviously a source of much tension in their marriage, is never clearly explained, and we never find out who the mystery man is who brought Clare to Irene’s table in the hotel at the start of the story. The denouement – Clare setting her sights on Irene’s husband – was rather too obvious and also not really prepared for, and I found the predictable ending rather too open and unsatisfactory as well.

I’m glad I read it: it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable a number of times, and it has me thinking about the question of how much we ever can get to know or understand a culture that is very different from our own. That does not mean that we shouldn’t try, of course.

Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found In Saragossa

June 15, 2022

     I dug this out to re-read at least a couple of years back, and finally got around to it: why did I take so long? I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it apart from the fact that I’d really enjoyed it first time around. Now I can’t wait to watch the film, which is apparently a 1960s cult classic.

You won’t get much of a summary of the plot, because there isn’t really one, and because it would be impossible. It centres on the bizarre adventures of an officer in the Wallonian army while travelling through Spain in the eighteenth century, but he’s really only the vehicle for an astonishing series of interlinked fantastical tales narrated by a group of different characters, ranging from a gypsy chief, various Spanish nobles, the Wandering Jew and many more. It’s a picaresque ramble rather than a novel, very reminiscent of the nested tales which are the famous Thousand Nights and One Night; it’s fluent, easy reading which rapidly draws you in, and you’re hooked, with no real idea where you will be heading…

The history of Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is woven into the backcloth, but where truth ends and fantasy begins, I have no idea.

Potocki – and if you read any biographical account of his life, you’ll quickly discover what a curious character he was – creates a very wide range of interesting characters who all have tales of varying degrees of complexity to share; the tales are broken off regularly, in the same fairly simple fashion, every evening, and someone’s tale will be resumed, or a new one will start, the following day. Thus there is some suspense of a sort, if you can retain all the different tales and characters in your head.

I found myself wondering what Potocki was trying to achieve, since when he wrote (early 19th century) the novel was rather more developed in terms of plot, style and characterisation in quite a few countries. He certainly comes across as a freethinker in terms of both morals and religion, via the activities and attitudes of his characters. There is also a certain amount of self-reference in terms of the nature of narrative, its complexity and how stories should be told; he engages with his readers, somewhat in the manner of Fielding.

Potocki’s great learning is clearly in evidence, as are his wide travels, and various Faustian aspects are woven into some of the tales: we never know whether the devils are real or not, and our hero never reveals the secret to which he is sworn in the earliest chapters. It works its way to a fair whirlwind of an ending; the whole thing is quite a stunning tour-de-force, and I’m intrigued now to see how on earth anyone managed to turn it into a film. I may report back…

Sequioa Nagamatsu: How high we go in the dark

April 10, 2022

     My acquaintance with Japanese fiction is pretty slight, and I’ve found it hard to access in certain ways, as I find it quite different from what I’m used to (European, English, American fiction mainly). Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and the novel was written in English, but there’s an approach to story, and also a narrative tone, I think, which I find hard to get used to. And I’ve forgotten what it was that prompted me to want to read this novel.

It’s set in a near, and fairly recognisable future, a world where the climate emergency has continued and made the planet far worse; it has released a deadly virus from the distant past through the melting of frozen land in Siberia, and humans no longer have any defences against it. The novel is a series of loosely related chapters or episodes that cluster around the consequences of this event, as they gradually unfold and humanity grapples in a pretty ineffectual manner with them.

The prose feels business-like, but is polished; there is pace to the unfolding of the plot, and interesting intellectual concepts are explored, too. Characters develop interestingly. Initially the plague seems only or mainly to affect children: euthanasia parks in the manner of Disneyworld are set up. Then adults become susceptible, perhaps to a different variant, and the story becomes more disjointed, almost hallucinatory at times. I think one of the things I found challenging was the matter-of-fact tone of the narrative here, almost as if the writer is saying, “well, of course this is what would happen, naturally this is what we would do in these circumstances” whilst at the same time describing what we think of as quite alarming courses of action… And the characters are emotionally involved in the events; the overall effect is Brechtian, unsettling in the extreme. At the same time as realising that such events are easily possible now, there is also a sense almost of detachment, disembodiment from our world. Robot pets, to which people become strongly emotionally attached, are people’s response at one stage. A reflection of Japan as a technological nation? That’s trite, I know, and the chapter is surprisingly poignant.

It’s very depressing, at times surprisingly maudlin, and yet the images of a disintegrating world, beyond our capacity to put right, are very powerful. It’s not an easy read, but it is a compelling one, given that mortality is at the heart of the novel, watching death and dying, following characters experiencing it. One most unnerving chapter tells of a woman whose marriage falls apart as she has an affair with a dying man…

I found many of the separate chapters intriguing, even gripping, and yet I had an overall feeling as I worked my way to the end of something missing, the sense of an ambitious hotch-potch that didn’t quite gel, at least for me. At the same time, I realised I was possibly being unfair, and decided I’d read it again soon.

The novel ends with humanity sending a craft into space to try and reach another planet to colonise it; while it’s on its centuries-long journey, somehow the plague is cured, and humanity sets about addressing the climate emergency; the people on the spacecraft are left to their own devices. Bleak, this one, in so many ways.

Philip Pullman: The Ruby in the Smoke

April 4, 2022

     Philip Pullman has written a series of mystery/detective stories featuring a young woman – Sally Lockheart – as the heroine, set roughly in the Sherlockian/ Victorian London of the late nineteenth century; I’ve read some of them and had been intending to revisit them when my hand was forced, by the absence of my library during our recent house move. As with the His Dark Materials trilogy, there’s both the sense that the novel is written for a young adult readership, and also the feeling that Pullman writes for everyone and for all time, if I may put it like that; I certainly didn’t feel excluded.

We’re thrown in at the deep end, and Pullman quickly shows how he can create a sense of mystery, and speedily develop real characters with whom we can empathise. It’s a fast-paced yarn, that develops well – no surprises there, then, given the writer’s pedigree – and various political and social messages and moral lessons are also woven in as the plot progresses, linking in to behaviour and attitudes, but even more into the idea of trusting oneself and believing in oneself.

There is the sense of a debt to Conan Doyle, perhaps particularly in the way that children and young people assist the hero in her quest (in the vein of the famous Baker Street Irregulars), but here, while the hero of the story is female, the villain is a particularly vicious and nasty woman, too. There are echoes of The Sign of Four, too. Plenty of excitement, tension and suspense here, although there was a bit of a deus ex machina moment in the denouement which I found a trifle disappointing. Overall, though, a superb story which gripped me thoroughly, and I’ll be looking out for the rest of the series some time soon.

Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier

February 15, 2022

     An early start with the book group choice for next month, and what an astonishing book this first novel by Rebecca West, published in 1918, was. As First World War literature was one of the topics I specialised in teaching towards the end of my career, I was surprised never to have encountered this short novel, but since the Great War is only incidental to its plot, perhaps this is not surprising.

An officer suffers from shellshock, and all memories of fifteen years of his life have vanished; he has no recollection of his wife, the death of their small son, any of the changes which have taken place at his home. His memories are stuck on the idyllic happiness of his first love years back, and the first message from the field hospital contacts her… you can imagine the complexities West has set up here.

You are quite shockingly thrown in at the deep end, and West’s style is brief, sparse, and yet very tightly focused in terms of close observation of characters’ movements, gestures; it felt cinematographic in many ways. I was struck by how she developed a complex, moving and ultimately tragic plot in fewer than a hundred pages, and mentally imagined how a contemporary writer might have wittered through several hundred more without any improvement… Equally, I realised the immediacy West achieved, a quality I’ve encountered in other writings from the war itself and its immediate aftermath, where the horrors are well-known and widely known, as opposed to today’s writers who have to weave in so much contextual information and background a century and more later.

The flaw for me, and obviously it’s a reflection of the time when West wrote, was the simplistic use of Freudian psychology as a trigger for the denouement; it’s a minor flaw as it’s merely a trigger and the ending itself is brief enough and tragic enough to overshadow it.

Although the story is ostensibly about the return of the soldier – and the multiple meanings of the title have only just leapt out to me – actually the main interest is the complex and evolving relationship between the three women, the soldier’s wife, his first love, and the cousin who is the narrator but also deeply involved with the events as they unfold.

From the time itself, all those years ago, the story seems to express a longing, a nostalgia for the time before, the world before, the innocence before the horrors, at the same time as perhaps unconsciously recognising that those times are gone forever, that you cannot rewind. It’s a very powerful, well-written and extremely moving novel.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

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