Archive for the 'memoirs' Category

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces


This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

Frank Richards: Old Soldiers Never Die

January 14, 2018

Certainly one of the most interesting memoirs from the Great War I’ve read so far, because of the different perspective: this one isn’t by a well-spoken, articulate and reflective officer, but by a private, a Welsh miner who gets on with what is expected of him, without thinking too much about it. He grumbles a good deal, certainly, but the most astonishing thing is he survives the entire war, a large part of it as a signaller, which was one of the most dangerous jobs of all. A reservist, he returns to the ranks the morning after war is declared, serves in Flanders and on the Somme, and is there at the Armistice…

So here we have a genuine, working-class voice, straight-spoken and calling a spade a spade. He passes judgements on many of the officers he encounters, most of which seem accurate; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and this probably contributed to his survival. The book, however, is rather chaotic at times, and often slides into a vaguely connected series of anecdotes, often wryly humorous, and certainly painting a picture of the total chaos in the early days of the war. The book abounds in rather annoying typos, some of which may be due to the writer’s level of education, but it could certainly have done with a better editor and proof-reader.

Richards is often in the very thick of the action in different places on the front. His tone is rather even, unvaried, which can make for some monotony in places, but it’s his perspective that ultimately makes it a successful and worthwhile read: his outlook may be narrower that that of other memoirs from the likes of Graves and Sassoon (both of whom he obviously met whilst at the front, for he name-drops them along with many other officers he encounters) but it feels genuinely true-to-life. He’s not a philosopher, he doesn’t really reflect on things, but he is very touching in the way he accepts the deaths of many pals in his stride: there’s a genuine affection and comradeship that comes across along with the fatalism.

As the war progresses, between the lines the utter charnel-house of trench warfare emerges clearly, and I could understand precisely why the strategy wasn’t repeated in the next war, and hasn’t been since. Richards is highly critical of the recruiting and lack of proper training given to conscripts in the later stages of the war – they really do come across as mere cannon-fodder – as well as the increasing numbers of men who sought cushy numbers behind the lines; he understands fully why they would, and we can sense the unfairness he feels as a man doing a decent job and accepting of the likelihood of death at any instant…

Overall, this was a man I warmed to as the book progressed, and I was outraged by the disgraceful treatment of real soldiers in terms of disability payments and pensions once the conflict was over; no surprises there, really, as that always seems to be the way that powerful states treat those who have fought and suffered in their armed forces.

If you only read one account of time in the trenches this year, I’d suggest it ought to be this one.

Bernard Adams: Nothing of Importance

January 4, 2018

51yxyb3Bv0L._AC_US218_A couple of months ago I finally watched a documentary on poets and writers of the Great War which I’d recorded a couple of years ago (!). And, despite having taught the literature of that time to sixth-formers for many years, several writers who I’d never come across were mentioned. Tracking down texts wasn’t difficult and I’m catching up on some literature of those times.

What far better-know title does Nothing of Importance remind you of? Bernard Adams‘ book is nothing like the great Erich Maria Remarque‘s masterpiece, though. Whereas Remarque’s novel gives the lie to its title, being full of violence, mayhem and chaos, much of Adams’ memoir is of what comes across as a very quiet time at the front. He spent time first in Flanders, before being transferred to the Somme for the four months leading up to the great July 1916 offensive.

What struck me first of all was how ordinary he made it all seem: his matter-of-fact tone meant that nothing surprised him, nothing really shocked or horrified him. Shelling, squalor, the occasional death or wound, everything quite easily became normal, routine. And although he is aware of this, it doesn’t move him much.

He’s very good at explaining all sorts of technical details to the ordinary reader through careful pencil diagrams which pepper the text, and his maps also clarify a lot of the details of the safeties and dangers of being in the trenches; his approach made issues of topography a good deal clearer to me. He was absolutely fascinating on mines and countermines, and I realised where some of the more recent writers like Sebastian Faulks might have got some of the knowledge they used in their fictions.

There are blow-by-blow accounts of things like patrols into no man’s land which again fascinate because a century later a reader finds it hard to imagine the fine details. We share his exhilaration, even though we also find ourselves asking, ‘yes, but what, exactly, was the point of that?’ And because, although we know exactly where he is on the front lines, his experiences are not linked to the greater sweep of the war itself, are in isolation, really, it’s impossible to understand the significance of anything that he sees or does… It’s clear he was regarded as an effective and efficient soldier and officer, by his men, his peers and his superiors.

The book, and his tone, become a good deal more serious, though, when a number of his fellow officers are killed: the suddenness and meaninglessness of it hits him hard, and is thereby so much more powerful in its effect on the reader. The real horrors do seem to begin to shake his sanity, though the language of a century ago conceals this somewhat. He is pleased to receive a ‘blighty’ wound towards the end of June 1916, when everyone can see that something big is in the offing; we experience his shock, and as he gradually convalesces, his anti-war sentiments come out more strongly. He’s not outspoken in a Sassoon sort of way, but comes over more as a decent sort who can make points effectively.

He obviously wrote his book while convalescing, for after recuperation he went back to the front, and was killed there in 1917. It’s a good read, because very much of its time, and is available as a free download on the Internet Archive website.

Friedrich Reck: Diary of a Man in Despair

November 22, 2017

A German conservative and royalist who loathed Hitler and the Nazis and all they stood for and did, kept this astonishing diary up until almost the end of the second world war, though he was to die of typhus in Dachau a few weeks before the end…

He is frequently very scathing and extremely outspoken. Yet he was also one of those who, though disapproving, did not manage to see how far the madness was capable of going and would go – when he writes of all kinds of atrocities he sees or hears of, he comes across as hardened, inured to them – and this is a warning to us now, living in a potentially far more dangerous world…

Keeping this diary was of course incredibly dangerous – even reckless – as he’s warned, but he succeeded in keeping it hidden.

He’s an old-fashioned German, obviously, with both a deep love of his country and a deep loathing of what it has fallen to, and yet all he does is keep a diary? This is one of the thoughts that will occur to any reader, but then one asks oneself, what could he have done? Yet he admires the bravery of the Scholls, guillotined by the Nazis for their opposition – and has taken considerable risk in finding out their story – and he knew some of those involved in the July 1944 plot. He does gradually seem to be moving towards more overt opposition, and indeed it was his refusal to join the Volkssturm that finally drew him into the authorities’ nets; he was denounced, arrested and charged initially with a crime that attracted the death penalty.

Reck’s isn’t the only diary from these times; there’s Victor Klemperer‘s massive tome, Christabel Bielenberg‘s The Past Is Myself to name but a couple. So what’s special about Reck’s book? He’s an Aryan German (Klemperer was Jewish, Bielenberg British) for starters. He knows war is coming, quite early on; he acknowledges that everyone should collectively have acted much sooner – and we all know what a wonderful thing hindsight is – and he’s strongly critical of other countries for not acting sooner against Hitler, which I found interesting because there’s not a lot of overt criticism of other world powers for their inaction in the 1930s. There are shocking details – perhaps exaggerated – of the adulteration of food stuffs during the Nazi era. And his pain and horror at the evils his countrymen are perpetrating is genuine and touching. Although the vitriol against the Nazis and Prussians palls after a while, the book is a real glimpse into the minds of those who didn’t approve; it’s salutary to learn more about such people, even if ‘internal exile’ is as far as they got, and not tarring everyone with the same brush is something many of us still need to learn about…

John Howell: The Life & Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

October 7, 2017

life_adventures_alexander_selkirk_1301Daniel Defoe‘s novel The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is generally acknowledged to have been the first novel in English. Published in 1719, it is based on and inspired by the sojourn of a Scots sailor and buccaneer, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years voluntarily marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile.

Defoe was also a journalist, and certainly succeeded in making his fictions appear to be factual, as did many writers in those early days of the novel, when this new form was gradually being developed and its potential discovered. A Journal of the Plague Year reads convincingly as an account by someone who lived through the London events of 1665, yet Defoe had not even been born in that year. And Jonathan Swift went out of his way in 1726 to try and lend verisimilitude to the far more outlandish Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s clear that Defoe would have had access to accounts of Selkirk’s stay on the island, which is quite sketchy, but mentioned many of the things that Defoe was skilfully to develop and enhance: the need for shelter, how to feed and clothe himself, fear of strangers landing on the island and capturing him – though, of course, Defoe makes the strangers savages and cannibals rather than mere French or Spanish sailors – and the comfort brought to a solitary man by his faith in God. Defoe’s hero remains on the island for far longer, and is assisted by the shipwreck which provides him with all sorts of useful supplies and equipment that Selkirk never enjoyed; his stay on the island lasts over twenty years, and he eventually gains the companionship of the faithful Friday… you can see how a novelist puts his imagination to good use with his source material.

John Howell, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, thoroughly researched Defoe’s source material, tracing Selkirk’s life and interviewing surviving relatives, as well as mining archives of obscure magazines and other publications; in this relatively short account – an excellent Librivox production – he gives us all the material with a commentary. No aspect of Selkirk is left untouched, and we have clearly laid before us the bare bones from which Defoe worked to produce his masterpiece. If you’ve enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, you may enjoy this…

Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams

September 25, 2017

This was a Librivox recording that I listened to as I travelled on holiday recently. Someone once suggested it as worth a read; I’m not really sure, actually.

The Adams family, of Boston, was clearly a long and distinguished line which produced presidents and diplomats; the Henry of this autobiography was born in 1838, and lived into the early twentieth century; he recounts his life from the perspective of learning and education, in terms of what he did and did not learn in various places and from various experiences, and the pursuit of education was a lifelong quest with him. He travelled widely in Europe, though not, it seems, in his own country, and during the American Civil War his father was US ambassador in London and Henry was his secretary.

The book was tiresome in its detail and endless sequence of names, details no doubt much more relevant and interesting a hundred years ago, and in the USA, and the evenness of its tone became dull eventually, allowing the impression to grow of someone born with a golden spoon in his mouth, able to live a life of privilege, without ever really needing to take work seriously.

What kept me reading? I was certainly minded to give up after a while, but Adams’ reflections on how one learnt and how one didn’t learn I found interesting, and they turned me to reflecting on my own experiences of education through my life. He raised the well-worn trope of the relative pointlessness of what school, college and formal education offers one – though I still tend to disagree with this argument. I suppose, in the end, as someone getting on in years myself, I was hoping for some interesting reflections from Henry Adams’ own later years, but to my great disappointment, these he skated over alarmingly rapidly and cursorily, so I might as well have given up…

The most interesting section of the book for me, in the end, was that dealing with the Civil War because Adams was in London with his father dealing with diplomatic issues and the British Government, and I had no idea of the crassness, or the ignorance, or the self-serving nature of the British politicians and their behaviour during those years… although now, I do ask myself – why are you so surprised?

And I am grateful – slightly – to Adams for calling forth some serious reflections on my own life and education, which I think I may write about here at some point in the future. And the Librivox recording was a very good quality one.

John Morris: Traveller from Tokyo

June 26, 2017

51pZmjS9F+L._AC_US218_I’ve mentioned the cerise Penguin series of travel and adventure writing before in these pages; they date from the 1940s and 1950s and were, I presume, later superseded by the Penguin Travel Library. They presented some amazing accounts of travel and exploration, and I always look out for them when I visit second-hand bookshops. Because they date from the early days of paperbacks, and also because many of them were published under wartime restrictions, on very poor quality paper, they are quite rare, and often quite fragile.

I bought John Morris’ account on a whim, realising I’d never read anything about travel to or in Japan, and it was a real eye-opener. He was employed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry to teach English at one of Tokyo’s university campuses during the period leading up to and immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and because of his unusual employment status was apparently the only Briton who was not interned when war was declared, whereas all other foreigners he knew were. Eventually he was evacuated through diplomatic channels.

He presents us with a picture of many aspects of Japanese life, language, culture and history as he experienced them in the very early 1940s; it’s a detailed, balanced and thoughtful account, which does recognise the growth of Japanese militarism and its increasing effect on all aspects of society: he can see the growing tensions between Japan and the US. And his account of his personal treatment and growing concerns as he becomes more and more isolated after the start of hostilities is fascinating: he is not ill-treated, though he fears for his friends and colleagues, and since he has treated us earlier to an in-depth account of the vagaries of the Japanese legal and justice system (which starts from the premise of guilt until proven innocent) we can understand those concerns. We are relieved when he is able to leave the country.

There is something special in reading, so many years after the events, and when we have the benefits of hindsight, an account with the immediacy that comes across so strongly and clearly in Morris’ book. It was a really good find, well-written, though, surprisingly for a Penguin book of that vintage, riddled with spelling errors…

Sadly unable to find an illustration of the actual cerise Penguin edition.

Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

March 27, 2017

I felt drawn to re-read this (there’s an earlier review on this blog if you want to look) by Maitland‘s occasional columns in The Tablet, which I always enjoy. She’s a radical Catholic hermit – at least that’s how I’d sum her up – and recently mentioned a lengthy period of recuperation which had tested her decision to live in extreme isolation in Galloway.

She considers silence compared with solitude, observing that they do not necessarily go together, and nor are they mutually exclusive. Her own journey, in the latter part of her life, has moved from noise to silence to solitude. In many ways I see her personal account of silence as a companion to the excellent Silence: A Christian History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which I’ve also written about.

Is silence the absence of language or the absence of sound? Is written language silent? I noted that she always has reading matter with her when she isolates herself. As I Quaker, I worship in silence, but share that silence with a group of other like-minded people. Maitland had me reflecting again, in many different ways.

My personal interest in silence comes from how I find the world increasingly noise-ridden; perhaps this is exacerbated by my hearing difficulties. But I dislike how everywhere I go I must be accompanied by noise: traffic and people (and I choose to live in a town rather than miles from anywhere, I know) but in shops I am assaulted by random music, and quite often driven out of shops before I’ve made any contemplated purchase; in the street harangued by talking vehicles; deterred from entering cafes and restaurants by the thought of music I haven’t chosen accompanying my food or drink…I find unnecessary noise intrusive, and I also do worry about how so much of the world gets on my nerves as I age!

Maitland reminded me how much of every other aspect of life apart from the human is quiet or silent; I’d not ever seen the world like that before. She explores an enormous range of human experiences of silence and solitude, and places of hermitage in woods, mountains, islands and deserts through the ages, quoting in detail, as well as narrating her own journey of self-discovery and the choices which led her to her current retreat from the world. At times, she seems to take her pursuit of attentiveness to extremes, certainly much deeper than I might; she is fascinated by others’ observations and wants to emulate them, perhaps in the way that a novice hermit might seek a mentor? It was interesting to follow her as she gradually worked out what, exactly, it was that she was seeking…

She catalogues closely and in great detail the effects that silence and isolation has on her, particularly during a lengthy retreat on the isle of Skye, and links these in to others’ experiences as well. Her observations about research which suggest that too much exposure to noise has the potential to make people ill, made sense to me.

When I go away travelling, I often spend considerable lengths of time alone, walking and thinking, as far away from other people as I can get; curiously, this does lead to occasional very interesting chance encounters and conversations. But I am always glad to get back to the company of those I know and love; though I’m occasionally tempted by the thought of hermit-like silence and solitude, I honestly don’t think I’m called to it. But I really enjoyed seeing how someone else gradually found herself in that place.

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