Archive for the 'memoirs' Category

W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp

May 15, 2021

     Here’s a book written well over a century ago; it’s been in my library since 1985, apparently unread (though I actually have a vague recollection of having read it at some point). It’s an autobiography – well, a partial one – an interesting slice of life which sustains the reader’s interest because it’s so far from the norm, the story of younger years spent on the road, by a man of humble enough beginnings, but with a clear literary bent. Davies is basically fortunate, having been bequeathed a legacy of ten shillings a week, which was actually plenty enough to live on at the end of the nineteenth century…

He ends up in the USA, where he learns the skills and science of being a man on the road, hustling and begging successfully; he recounts several years of adventures bumming around the country, working for a while and then blowing the wages on a spree with his mates, spending time with a whole crowd of varied and interesting characters. Davies is clear, from his experiences, about the friendliness and camaraderie between the down-and-outs, the way they share and look out for each other, and provide companionship for weeks at a time before moving on. It struck me that in a sense these men were the gig economy of their day.

His observations on, and experiences of the racial divide in the Deep South are scary: he witnesses at least one lynching.

Home – England – calls eventually, and although he has not touched it for five years, he acknowledges that the pension he has serves to make him lazy and fritter time away pointlessly, not that he ever comes across as feeling too guilty about this. Home again, he is unable to settle, and heads back over the Atlantic, and the Klondyke goldfields. Suddenly an accident – he falls from a moving train he has attempted to board, and loses a foot – changes everything. He writes of many kindnesses from total strangers in Canada, and then heads back to England to try and make a life as a writer, but cannot manage this, and reverts to a hand-to-mouth existence, which is evidently harder to sustain on this side of the Atlantic. His accounts of all the different ways it’s possible to scrape a living are fascinating, and I am sure that some of the inspiration for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London must have come from reading this book, which was helped to eventual success by impressing George Bernard Shaw, who contributed the preface. A good, easy and eye-opening read.

Re-reading Hermann Hesse, part 3

February 24, 2021

I’ve been continuing my re-acquaintance with Hermann Hesse, with mixed feelings…

     The thing I learned from reading Autobiographical Writings (because, although I bought the book in 1975, I don’t appear to have read it) was just how much of what went into his fiction was thinly disguised autobiography, especially the early novels that deal with childhood and early adult life. I found it enlightening reading accounts of episodes I’d previously encountered in fiction. Hesse comes across as an acute observer, someone who reflects and thinks deeply; often, but by no means always, this is very interesting. I did find myself skimming quite a lot of this book, however; there was a lengthy and tedious account of a stay at the spa in Baden-Baden, and another about a journey to Nuremberg, where I thought, ‘who could possibly be interested in this?’ On the other hand, a piece on moving to a new house was fascinating, as was a moving tribute to his last surviving sister after her death. The final piece, his thoughts on Narziss and Goldmund, was really good, as that is my favourite of all his novels and I’m really looking forward to reading it again shortly.

     Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of three novellas. There is an oppressive tale of an unhappy schoolboy who has issues with his social class and religion, and is obsessed by his sense of his own sinfulness, even wickedness; his utter misery and self-torture is painful to read. In the second tale a man escapes his wife and marriage by embezzling money and disappearing to Italy; there is the fleeting exhilaration of total freedom in the existential choice he has made and carried out, but he cannot cope with the guilt. He wanders, experiences dreamlike states which verge on madness, craves extinction, rejects the possibility of love and companionship and eventually drowns himself. In the end, I’m afraid I found it all a bit too silly; a similar theme is treated far better in the earlier Knulp.

The final eponymous tale focuses on the power of inspiration to the artist, as well as the power and strength of male friendship bonds. Women are incidental and even friendship is ultimately evanescent; one should live for the moment and delight in the world.

There is a great deal about mental instability and illness in Hesse’s novels, beginning in childhood and shaping or even poisoning later life, and as I’ve discovered, there is a good deal of the writer’s own life and personality woven into these stories. So far, I feel that all of these themes have been treated rather better and more imaginatively in the earliest novels, and when he has reworked them later, they have become oppressive to the point of incomprehensibility at times.

     If The War Goes On is a collection of pieces, mostly but not all about the Great War and its effects and consequences, followed by a couple of pieces after the Second World War. One needs to remember that Hesse, though a German, lived for much of his life in Switzerland and Italy, and thus escaped much of what happened in his homeland. His humanitarianism shines through from the start; he refuses the label ‘pacifist’ though it’s hard to see exactly why. He observes the lack of rationality or sanity in people’s behaviour in wartime circumstances, and expresses a great sense of oppression by war and its implications, despite his distance from it. After 1918 there is the sense of a great tragedy having taken place, along with what now appears to be incredible naivete as he sees the potential for new beginnings after the horrors. Attempting to address the sense of despair in Germans, he urges people to turn inwards… and then, of course, it all happened again, even more horrifically. The best two pieces in the book for me were two brief tales which were basically science fiction, imagining the war still going on in 1920, and imagining the state in total control of individual lives and fates, in the manner of Zamyatin and Orwell. Worth it for those two alone…

To be continued…

Miron Białoszewski: A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

December 13, 2020

     I’ve read a number of historical accounts of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, notably the excellent account by Norman Davies in Rising ‘44. This memoir is a completely different thing. Historical accounts enjoy the benefits of hindsight and can make judgements broad in scope; they can give a full and complete overview of what the situation was at any particular point. Białoszewski’s memoir was originally written a number of years after the events in which he took part, and not published (in a slightly censored version) until 1970, yet it has an astonishing sense of immediacy which can be breathtaking.

Warsaw was already a pretty chaotic place after nearly five years of war and German occupation, and the previous year there had already been another brave but futile rising in the Jewish Ghetto, brutally suppressed by the Nazis, who then razed it to the ground. And the Soviet army was approaching the city from the east, although it decided to sit and await the outcome of the rising, and the consequent weakening of the Home Army…one of the most cynical of Stalin’s many vile calculations.

Białoszewski’s account shows us the camaraderie and self-help, among the ordinary citizens themselves and between them and the fighting partisans: here is ordinary humanity, sharing deaths and cruelties which are sprinkled through the account in a completely matter-of-fact way, which is alarming to those who have never experienced such random existence.

The narrator frequently to admits a sense of total confusion; details of time and place are often vague, descriptions impressionistic, laconic even. There is never a clear picture of the overall situation or state of play, for how could there be for someone in the middle of it all, and deprived of any certainties other than death? The feeling is one of suspended animation and it’s deeply disturbing.

As the rising progresses – Warsaw, or parts of it held out for 63 days in total, against the might of the Wehrmacht – Białoszewski and his family and companions move about the city, seeking new, safer havens temporarily, undertaking dangerous journeys through the city which he describes as existing on three levels: the gradually-demolished buildings on the surface, an immense network of interconnected cellars, and beneath these, complex routes through the city sewers…

We share people’s fears, panics and frequent calculations about potential safety in particular streets and buildings, under shellfire and bombing from German planes. We see them living underground from day-to-day, sometimes without food, sometimes with plenty of it, like insects constantly on the move.

Stylistically the writing is very interesting, and the translator – who has done a marvellous job – tells us how difficult her task was. Sentences are frequently very short, often verb-less and so non-sentences, creating a disjointed pace, and vivid impression of the universal chaos and violence surrounding everyone, and just dropping the reader in the middle of it all. Time isn’t linear – Białoszewski flits back and forth, and often drops back to the autumn of 1939 when the war began, to draw out connections and parallels, as well as to remind us just how long this hell has been going on for.

Not an easy read, by any stretch, but a strangely gripping and fascinating one, once you wade in and go with the flow, which is all anyone there in 1944 could do, anyway…

The Virago Book of Women and the Great War

October 31, 2020

     This anthology was compiled and published over twenty years ago, and it is a worthy but flawed collection, I feel; worth having, but the curating and editing could have been better done. I wasn’t impressed reading in the introduction that the bulk of the literature of the Great War was written by British writers – a sweeping statement which is easy to challenge. And decimal currency was introduced in 1971, not 1972…

Having griped a little, I will admit that this is a pretty catholic selection, from some French and German sources but largely from British women writers. The main interest lies in the individual pictures of life and work in those times, and the way that many excerpts counter the general, broad sweep of ‘official’ history: not everyone partied and rejoiced at the outbreak of war, not everyone was eager to volunteer and join up. We also see British women involved, mainly in medical and caring roles, in all sorts of places I hadn’t expected: Serbia, Russia, Austria and other countries.

The editor ranges very widely in her choice of sources, but even to this experienced and hardened student and reader of Great War literature, there’s rather too much information, as the current saying puts it. And yet, I can accept that such an anthology needed compiling before all sorts of material disappeared. There is a clear focus on women’s very real role and contribution to the war effort, men’s reluctant realisation and acceptance that this was both the case and very necessary to the achievement of Britain’s war aims. Women established themselves widely in the workforce and strove for equal pay and conditions with men; clearly the desire for suffrage and other rights was also in the forefront of the efforts of many, and this is evidenced in great detail from contemporary accounts and material.

And yet, there’s a bit too much here; the best is the personal accounts of front-line experiences.

Georges Duhamel: Civilisation

September 7, 2020

I encountered Duhamel the novelist when studying French at A Level: Confession de Minuit I remember vaguely as a short tale of a strange misanthropic fellow who gradually fell out with everyone and everything, and became a recluse… I’m sure I paraphrase badly from a memory nearly half a century old. I had not know until relatively recently of Duhamel’s service as an ambulance and first aid orderly in the First World War, and his accounts of his experiences.

The title is clearly ironic, as he reflects on where the marvels of our Western civilisation, of which we are so proud, have finally brought us: the trenches of the Somme. He was a Frenchman, his country invaded and parts of it occupied; his angle and viewpoint are thus quite different from accounts by British writers and combatants. Nonetheless, he maintains a distance as he observes, describes and occasionally comments. He writes in detail, with a reflective tone, passing judgement from time to time. As a stretcher-bearer he sees all aspects of the death and the mutilation of young and old.

One overwhelming impression is of the mechanisation of warfare, and the sheer masses of everything – men, horses, equipment, munitions – involved, gathered, marshalled and then distributed ready for destruction: a sense of utter derangement and insanity emerges from these descriptions.

He describes deaths at great length, clearly deeply affected by what he saw, including a close friendship which develops, with a man he knows is doomed to die, but who himself does not know. It is quite heart-breaking…

How is this book different from all the others I’ve read or listened to about this conflict? Here, warfare – the fighting itself – is almost a mere detail. These are the philosophical reflections of an educated, intelligent and sensitive man, involved against his will and deeply aware of the insanity and obscenity of it all as he conveys it lucidly to his readers, and we are shocked and disturbed when we pause to reflect on what he has been telling us.

Here is a catalogue of gruesome episodes and encounters, related with great humanity, detailed descriptions of the torments of the wounded and the dying, and in these accounts they are humanised, they are individuals with stories, and no longer the telephone numbers of the vast casualty lists. Duhamel sums up his message in a powerful final and reflective chapter called ‘Civilisation’.

It’s short; it was an eye-opener to this seasoned reader of Great War literature; it’s available free in English from the Internet Archive.

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…

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria

August 19, 2019

5115JQXvznL._AC_UY218_QL90_  I very rarely read biographies or autobiographies, mainly because I’m busy leading my own life. However, I recently read an article in The Tablet (one of the more interesting weekly magazines at the moment) by Richard Holloway, and was prompted to get a copy of this book, which tells the story of his finding and losing faith, up to the time where he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh.

I was gripped at the outset by his description of life in what I would describe as an Anglican junior seminary, because there were so many reminders of my own Catholic upbringing and schooling. The early part of his life and ministry can only be described as very High Church or Anglo-Catholic: he talks of ‘mass’, and goes to confession and participates in the evening service known as Compline…

The tone is not what one perhaps would expect of a one-time senior clergyman. The genuineness and honesty of a good man, and a real thinker shine through; he’s extremely well-read, as the literary references and notes show. I liked him for his liking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, both of whom speak to his religious condition at different times, and for being a solitary walker, too.

We read of his growing spiritual crises, with belief or lack of it in the Resurrection, and ultimately in God; for him, agnosticism is learning to live without an answer. In our unreligious times he makes a clear case for a place for religion in people’s lives, and certainly reminded me why, though largely rational myself, I cannot go with those who decry all religion as mere mumbo-jumbo and pixie dust. We are formed by our earliest experiences, and if they are shaped by religion, some need of spiritual consolation is, I have come to feel over the years, both inescapable and not something to be ashamed of. For Holloway, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty: where you have certainty, you don’t need faith. This I found comforting!

Ultimately Holloway became ever more political and radical and questioning, until he reached a point where he felt he had lost his faith, and resigned his position. Having come to believe that religion certainly was a human invention, he wondered if perhaps God was, too. This is where he chimed in with where I have reached: out of our spiritual needs as humans, we make God after our own image. I can completely understand Holloway’s still being religious, and wanting religion to be there as a space for people to wonder and listen.

In many ways an unexpected pleasure of a read.

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

May 29, 2019

51MaV5P65oL._AC_UL436_91rR4LYMI5L._AC_UL436_ I’ve just re-read this novel, which is regarded as a minor classic. The dying emperor recounts and reviews his life in a document addressed to his adoptive grandson, who will one day become the well-known philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. He has reached the advanced – for Roman times – age of sixty, and is able to be calm and reflective as he becomes aware of the narrowing of his world, and the things he is renouncing forever as he weakens and the end approaches.

The novel is a major effort of the imagination, not least in that it’s by a woman trying to be inside the mind of a man, as well as going back over the centuries to an age when beliefs and attitudes were so very different.

Hadrian recounts his life story and what he thinks he has learned from his experiences. We gain insight into the constant manoeuvrings and machinations behind the scenes of the empire. He exudes the confidence of power and entitlement to that power, whilst being reflective, self-critical at times and also self-indulgent (he was the emperor, after all). We learn of his growing up under Trajan, a warrior emperor, and how he (Hadrian) gradually comes to see the advantages of consolidation rather than expansion, which will come to be the characteristic of his reign. We see and come to appreciate his love of Greece and all things Grecian.

Then there is the plotting, his adoption and nomination as Trajan’s successor and the secret and underhand deeds that took place – which he never learns the truth about, or even seeks to know – at the time of Trajan’s death, and which ensured a smooth transfer of power.

He is interesting on slavery, deciding that it will never truly be abolished, but the name of the condition will probably be changed; this struck a chord even today, for me. He never questions the idea of emperor, advocates democracy, or says anything about what might have been the golden days of the republic. We gain the impression of a busy and tireless man with clear ideas about the maintenance and preservation of the empire as a duty to which he dedicates himself entirely.

His relationship with the boy Antinous, and the boy’s mysterious death, plays a central part in the novel and in Hadrian’s life, obviously. Because of the time when the novel was written (1950s), we are given no insight into the sexuality of that relationship, and we gain the impression that love was perhaps an emotion regarded rather differently at the time. But we can be in no doubt of the deepness of the attraction and attachment.

Again, second time around, I found the novel a tour-de-force of the imagination and the novelist’s art, although at times it did feel dry and monotonous in its evenness of tone. So much of it was also under the shadow of the speaker’s impending death and his awareness of that; the stoical acceptance I can understand, but the overall gloominess is a little hard to take at times.

I found myself reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of first-person narrative, in the context of this novel. Here, we have constantly to be aware of the unreliable narrator, the selective narrator, the narrator whose sole perspective controls the reader’s impressions and responses, and the deliberate decision of the novelist to present the novel this way; we have to imagine the gaps and what is not said or considered, even though it’s only a novel. It is a good if challenging read, well worth the effort.

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