Archive for the 'history' Category

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.


On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

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…

Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

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 honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

%d bloggers like this: