Archive for the 'fiction' Category

On living in a bubble

April 15, 2017

I think I was probably a fully paid-up hippy in the 1970s, and that means I read quite a bit of what I suppose must be hippy-lit in those days, too, writers like Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as others like Hermann Hesse who, though not hippies themselves, were adopted by them. One book I’ve hung on to since then – Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins – I’ve just been back to, for some reason, probably the trippy cover, I suppose. And it’s got me thinking…

I enjoyed the book back then, read it twice according to my back-page notes. This time around it was just ever so faded, dull, not boring but I didn’t really care whether I finished it or not: I’d out-grown it. And I’ve written before about this idea, too. It’s an amusing tale, full of zany characters and outlandish events, plenty of sex, drugs, music and anarchy, the kind of things I suppose I aspired to way back then.

I found myself realising how much of a bubble I lived in then, still do now, and thought that perhaps actually we all do, in our different ways. Here was a novel in which nobody did anyone any harm, everyone strove for pleasure and a happy life free of restrictions – what’s not to like? Except, of course, that there were plenty of people then who didn’t like such ideas, such freedom, such lifestyles: think of the ending of the film Easy Rider.

We all discover the things, places, people and pastimes that we enjoy and find superior to others; this allows us to look down on and make judgements about those who have different preferences. I don’t read chick lit, war novels, westerns, fantasy, novels about sport or horse-racing; I read proper literature, novels from other cultures, the classics, dammit! And when you realise that the entire world is actually fragmented into uncounted numbers of subgroups in terms of so many things – literature, food, drink, television, religion, politics, then you realise just how hard it would actually be to get enough people to agree on enough things to actually make any positive changes in the world we all share. I’ve read plenty of dystopian novels about overpopulation, pollution, climate change… most people haven’t, and probably don’t give a monkeys.

And this is where I find myself getting political, and remembering that feminist slogan from the 1970s: the personal is political. We all make choices, and choices have consequences. It serves the needs and continuation of the current system very well that we all live in our own little bubbles, that we all belong to so many subgroups according to our particular concerns, and that we don’t come together to make a bigger challenge to the status quo: divide and conquer, as the Romans realised a very long time ago.

Back to my hippy novels – which I’m revisiting prior to the next clear-out, I think – whilst I don’t actually think many people at all would disagree with the idea that we should all be nice to each other, not fight wars, enjoy ourselves, be nice to the world and cherish our environment, there are few places for ordinary people to discover that about each other or to share what they really believe in. Mass communications and the media are in the business of keeping us separate, individual. Ray Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is our scary world: utopia is a lot further away than I imagined.

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

On re-reading

April 11, 2017

I know there are people who never read a book twice; I’ve never been able to understand why, since, if I’ve really enjoyed a book, I always want to come back to it again and again. We often used to discuss this in class at school, and I was happy that most students would agree with me; they also liked to return to a story once enjoyed, and when we looked more deeply, we found ourselves agreeing on the reasons why, too.

I think most of us would probably accept that on a first reading, it’s the plot that we are most interested in, and depending on how gripping or exciting it is, we perhaps find the pace of our reading increasing, and our attention to other details falling off. And, although I find I can forget quite a lot of the details of a plot, depending on how much time has elapsed since I read a particular book, I never forget everything; there has to be something left in my memory to trigger the pleasurable memory that drives me to eventually pick the book up again.

Second time around then, plot isn’t so important, and I can focus more closely on a different aspect: perhaps development of character, or the writer’s intentions, or her/his use of language; there will be something else to hold me as I relive that first pleasurable reading. And the same will be true in subsequent re-reads. My favourite novels have been re-read up to half a dozen times, I think – certainly Jane Austen, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in my science fiction collection, the novels of Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Philip Pullman is catching up with them…

These well-loved books sit on the shelves in and among less-popular tomes; sometimes they are replacement copies because my first one has actually worn out and fallen to bits. But what actually triggers a re-read? Sometimes it’s a conversation – perhaps some aspect of Jane Austen’s work comes up, or we watch a film of one of the novels, and it will come to me that it’s several years since I last read a particular book, so I pick it out and read it. Sometimes I’ll be in a certain mood and feel a need for some science fiction, and go and pick out three or four Philip Dick novels – I rarely read only one when I go back to him. I may be gazing vaguely at the shelves when something will suddenly strike my eye. One novel may suggest another: I certainly find it difficult to have a plan of what books I’m planning to read over a certain period of time. Something else will always push itself in… There are some novels that do feel like old friends, needing to be visited every now and then, and there are others which are like nurses and come to look after me when I’m under the weather.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those novels that have been read once and put back on the shelves with the thought, “I’d like to re-read that one day…” and that day never comes; after some years I will realise that the moment has past, that I don’t actually want to read it again, and if I have the self-discipline at the time, I’ll put it on the pile to donate to the next Amnesty International book sale. And don’t mention the books that I’ve bought thinking, “That will be a good read one day…”. They sit there, calling and reproaching, elbowed aside by something else.

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

April 5, 2017

I’ve read the books at least three times, and listened to the unabridged recording in the car twice, and I’m even more impressed by Pullman’s achievement: the Dark Materials trilogy is a masterpiece. And as I approached the end this time, I was determined to try and work out why I think it’s so brilliant. Partly, he’s an absolute master of the English language, which he uses beautifully: you really notice this aspect of his writing when you listen to the audiobooks.

At times it’s quite easy to think: kids’ books. And I’m sure I’d have been stunned to read something like this at the age of ten or eleven, say. But I was in my forties when I first met them, introduced to them by my daughter who probably was about ten or eleven at the time. I had flu: I hoovered them up and remember dispatching someone to a bookshop to re-purchase the second volume, which had gone astray somehow…

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of parallel worlds, and the possibilities of moving between them. And there are lots in His Dark Materials; the story only focuses on three or four, moving between them quite frequently.

The link between Pullman’s novels and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I also love, is evident, and acknowledged by Pullman. We see good facing evil, innocence and experience side by side, the desire to move from the former to the latter state and then the impossibility of going back; there are links with mythology: what happens in the land of the dead? Can one ever return from it?

Pullman introduces fascinating new ideas: daemons, for instance: everyone in Lyra’s world has one, an externalisation of part of their personality (or soul?) in the form of a living creature which is visible to all, and accompanies them everywhere. Humans and daemons are inseparable. And in our world, we don’t have them. But what if we did? Here we shade into what science fiction does so well: the ‘what if?’: make your reader think… What happens – or could happen – after you die? There’s the land of the dead, there’s the Christian heaven, or there’s the idea that one becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, a different kind of eternity from the psalm-singing and God-praising one.

Pullman’s characters are vividly created, sustained and developed: if we ever feel he has strayed into the world of science-fiction, he certainly doesn’t do the archetypal cardboard characters of that genre. We come to know and like and feel for his characters, even quite minor ones, or very alien ones: their fates matter to us. And his imagination runs wild: armoured bears, gallivespian spies, the mulefa with their wheels. But these creatures aren’t wildly unbelievable, they have convincing personalities and feelings and they interact with the story’s heroes.

I would have to like Pullman anyway, because he’s a writer who loves ideas, and you know I crave stories which get my brain working. Friendship and loyalty are important to his characters, and he shows us the strength and value of these traits over and over again; we see many examples of individual resilience too, and reflection on the importance of doing what is right, and learning to discern what this may be. And, of course, Pullman shows us love, the love that gradually develops between Will and Lyra as they pursue their fates across the worlds. This time, I was struck by how subtly and slowly and carefully he prepares us for its flowering as the book draws to its close. Theirs is a second, happier Fall, a movement from innocence to experience that we can only welcome, a love that redeems the universe rather than requiring a redeemer to undo it… and inevitably, the tragedy of eternal separation is woven in there too: who can fail to be moved by the ending of their story. And yes, I know a certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary for their love to have meaning – just as in Romeo and Juliet…

I know I’ll read and listen to the books again; I’m really looking forward to The Book of Dust in the autumn, hoping that Pullman will sustain what he started.

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?


I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?


I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.


One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

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