Archive for the 'history' Category

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

On being a member of a not very intelligent species…

May 23, 2020

Warning: politics ahead

Once I’ve waded my way through the acres of knitted words, confusion and hypocrisy about COVID-19, sometimes I’m reminded that there’s a world out there that’s increasingly wrecked thanks to our stupidity. Today I came across this article, which told me of temperatures hitting 27 degrees inside the Arctic Circle and 30 degrees in Western Siberia. So global warming, melting icecaps, and release of methane from thawing tundra proceed apace, creating irreversible change…

We are (quite reasonably) currently preoccupied with a dangerous disease, and yet we are also allowing the rich and powerful to continue wielding the wrecking ball, as they strive to return us to ‘normal’: the main concern at the moment seems to be, will people be able to jet off on holiday, or will airlines and holiday companies go out of business? We are still wondering whether there needs to be another runway at Heathrow, and various people want to expand our local (Leeds/Bradford) airport. We are planning to spend astronomical sums on a high speed rail track that will not benefit most of the country. We are not thinking, here is an opportunity to rethink transportation and working practices in order permanently to use far less energy and produce far less pollution.

And this is where I come back to an increasingly frequent thought: we really are not a very intelligent species, and it’s showing more and more. The very rich and powerful have always managed and will always do so: they will survive the ravages of disease and global warming by doing whatever they need and want to do. In the end most of the rest of us can die off, and they will just preserve enough slaves or serfs to sustain their luxury.

I’m currently reading an interesting and unusual take on the story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent attempts to build socialism, and I’m constantly reminded of what a Polish friend who is a historian once told me: a different group managed to take over the reins and they assumed the power, wealth and privilege that goes with it… and all things considered, that is exactly what happened. The rich and powerful are not intelligent, merely rather clever: they see how the current system works in their favour and work single-mindedly to keep it that way. If they were more intelligent, they might see how to do just as well or even better out of preserving the planet for everyone, but that’s not actually necessary from their selfish perspective.

Which leaves the rest of us also deficient in the intelligent stakes, because we collude in allowing all of this to continue, to our detriment. Are we really that stupid?

Keeping us distracted is the first thing. There is so much to watch, do, buy, consume, that we do not have the time to contemplate alternatives, and our media see to keeping it that way. Deceiving us is next: democracy gives us just the right amount of soft power and manipulable choice that we think we are in the best of all possible systems. If that doesn’t work, there’s always brute force to keep us in our place (Chile 1973). So even though a relatively small number of us might succeed in seeing through (some of) the murk, it gets us nowhere…

I get quite depressed seeing this picture of our species, and seek to raise my spirits by thinking of all the astonishing inventiveness and creativity that we have demonstrated through the ages, which has helped get us to our current, quite advanced, state of development. And I think of all the good, helpful, and selfless people I know, those who in so many ways are serving their fellow humans. Is it intelligence that is lacking in all of us, that no-one has yet come up with a way to show enough of us that we must do things differently, and to offer a way of achieving this? Are we so easily duped, deluded and side-tracked?

On a 75th anniversary

May 5, 2020

This week sees the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and commemorations somewhat muted under current circumstances. I have to say, I’m in two minds about this.

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the war, my father’s two years in Siberia ending in his joining the Anders army, coming to England where he eventually met our mother… his war was a horrific experience of destruction, starvation and disease which separated his family in different directions, and he never got to return home and see his parents again.

I shall be glad that the celebrations in the UK will be muted. We’ve heard enough nonsense about the famous ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and surviving ‘the Blitz’ in connection with the current virus pandemic, from all sorts of idiots who weren’t even alive in the war. My mother was a schoolgirl, and her memories of those awful years were rather different: knitting gloves and scarves for sailors in the Arctic convoys rather than getting an education, and a father who was very frightened as Germans flew over their peaceful bit of the Yorkshire countryside on the way to bomb the hell out of the docks in Hull…

And yet, even more strongly, at a time like this I feel that the ending of that war must not go unremembered. It was fascism that was defeated, an ideology that triaged people into human and non-human prior to extermination, an ideology that subjugated and enslaved humans to a war machine. I carry no brief for Stalin and Soviet communism, but we are not aware in our comfortable West that without the immense sacrifices of the Soviet Union, the war may well not have been won. And the post-War short-sightedness of Western leaders soon plunged us into the Cold War, a mistake that some of our current ‘leaders’ are apparently eager to ape in their posturing towards China at present.

One aspect of George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-four which is often overlooked is his notion of the three world power blocs being constantly at war. That has always been the case and is still going on, if you look closely enough at those parts of the world which slip out of the news bulletins because of the lack of entertainment value: the major powers are fighting proxy wars all over the planet and thousands of innocent people are being killed every year. This supports capitalism’s immensely profitable arms industries, as well as allowing nations to attempt to corner the market in various natural resources which may be in short supply…

Where I’m heading with this is the notion that a lot of us so-called thinkers and intellectuals, particularly in the “free” West, have the idea that we are so much more liberal, tolerant, civilised nowadays, and that therefore the horrors of the past are safely locked away in the history books. We delude ourselves. Capitalism embeds competition and sees no higher cause; collaboration and co-operation removes profits and cannot be allowed. So those organisations which aim to foster international collaboration are emasculated and underfunded – the WHO, the UN – or vilified – the EU.

Human memories are short: the survivors of the last war are dying out. And history has a way of repeating itself if we are not careful. I cannot help thinking that we are actually living in rather dark times.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

Do you really need another reading list?

April 12, 2020

One or two bloggers whom I follow have posted lists of books they recommend during the current lockdown. I haven’t done this, but felt moved to revisit one of my ‘pages’ (as opposed to ‘posts’) where I listed my favourites way back in 2013, to see if I still agreed with what I said way back then. Here we have my listing of world fiction, which is of writers who hadn’t originally written in English:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this, and it still blows me away every time. The magical rise and fall and eventual disappearance of the city of Macondo and the Buendia family sweeps you along, and the final section is, for me, a tour-de-force almost on the level of the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. However, Marquez’ other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, has grown on me and crept up to become an equal, as I’ve found myself in my later years reflecting on what exactly I understand by love, and what it means/has meant to me.

Günter Grass: The Tin Drum. I was fifteen when I first visited Gdansk, then behind the Iron Curtain, and as we went on a boat trip out to Westerplatte, where the Polish forces heroically held out for days against the Nazis in September 1939, I noticed graffiti, which my father translated for me: “We have not forgotten, and we will not forgive.” I was pretty shocked. Gradually I learned about what the Second World War had done to Eastern Europe, and I understood a little more; a couple of years later I came across this novel, which is another I have regularly re-read. It recreates a loved and totally vanished world. Some ten years ago a relative took me around some of the sights and places Grass writes about: it’s now a much-followed tourist-trail. Grass opened my eyes to what many Germans have tried to do by way of understanding and trying to come to terms with what they or their forbears did in those awful years.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. This one is often top of my list, Eco’s absolute best, filmed well and also a reasonable TV series. I think it’s what Eco does with time that moves me most, with the aged Adso looking back after so many years to his days with William of Baskerville, unravelling the mysteries and murders at the abbey, a forerunner of our beloved Sherlock Holmes. We are connected both to eternity and to our own mortality through Adso’s reflectiveness, and the beautifully created mediaeval setting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment. Russian novels can be a slog, more of a duty than a pleasure, although they are usually worth it, and this one certainly is. The murder is quickly done, and it’s the aftermath that grips you: the man who thought he was so strong he could kill and not be affected by the deed, and how his conscience and the police investigator reduce him to an ordinary human who must suffer, repay his debt to society and redeem himself. And he does.

Giovanni di Lampedusa: The Leopard. Here’s another novel that lyrically recreates and recalls a vanished past, this time of Italy before its unification in the late nineteenth century. It must be coming up to time for a re-read because I remember very little other than the powerful impression it has on me; I had a copy of Visconti’s film for years, intending to watch it and not got round to it yet.

To be continued…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

March 19, 2020

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Defoe was born in 1660; the Plague Year was 1665, so this purported account is clearly a very clever fabrication by a master journalist who has some claim to being the first real English novelist.

From the outset his account is presented as a ‘journal’ – so a truthful account by someone who was there and observed and lived though those times; verisimilitude is assumed, and a wealth of local details and knowledge of London establishes the tone of a historical account. There are dates, street-names, figures from the contemporary Bills of Mortality, and stories presented as truthful because acquired from others who were also there at the time.

The scene is established with general historical details in the opening section, after which the narrator introduces himself and his work, and insinuates himself into the historical narrative. It’s clear that Defoe’s is a clever construction, as there is much here that would be commonly available and accurate information, into which he can weave various ‘fictional’ elements that obviously may have some basis in truth… “as I was informed” is a frequently used tag in this narrative.

There are tales of horror and shocking behaviour as well as tales of selflessness and even heroism on the part of some: here is Defoe the journalist with an eighteenth-century eye for good copy.

There are a number of lengthy digressions from the factual narrative, which give more depth and colour but must either be completely fictional, or elaborations based on tales which circulated at the time. It’s interesting to see the early attempts at presentation of dialogue in these early days of the novel: it’s actually set out as if it were a drama script.

Re-reading (after over 30 years) at this particular moment, I was obviously going to notice comparisons with our own day, and these leapt off the page from the beginning: the fake news and concealment of the situation when it began – as seems initially to have been what happened in Wuhan in China – and the rich running away from danger, with rip-off merchants and rogues homing in for a quick buck wherever opportunity offered itself. Defoe details the massive economic consequences to London (and England) of the plague outbreak, something that we are equally focused on at the present. And people can be ill and contagious without exhibiting symptoms: contagion is passed on by the apparently healthy. In the seventeenth century, it was not known that fleas were the plague vector, although there are some hints at the concept of bugs or bacteria when theories about the ‘miasma’ or corrupt air are outlined…

It’s a difficult read, because Defoe is working his way to a narrative style which was only fully to flower much later in the eighteenth century: the overall feel of the work is rambling, disorganised and repetitive: there is no real sense of structure, and there are no chapter divisions. But the main downside for the contemporary reader is the almost complete lack of variation in tone, which leaves the reader feeling tired, and also inclined to skip over tedious sections of narrative: there is nothing to ‘grip’ in the sense of plot development. The lengthy section devoted to the three men of Wapping and their travels about the outer London area are probably the most interesting and closest to what a twenty-first century reader expects from a narrative.

Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.

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