Archive for the 'memoirs' Category

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…

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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.

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions

January 25, 2017

41mz5m030gl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This book has been sitting on my shelves for over twenty years; its moment finally came. I read Rousseau’s On The Social Contract while I was at university and found it very interesting, and I am often reminded of the eighteenth century French literature course I did, and which I enjoyed so much, because it covered the enlightenment and its philosophers who were beginning to cut away from the religious domination of thought and ideas for so many centuries. This course came along at the very same time as I was attempting to free myself from a religious upbringing…

It’s a new genre of writing: apart from St Augustine’s Confessions, no-one else had told the story of their life and development – autobiography, if you like – in such a way; Montaigne includes a good deal of biographical material in his essays, but not in a structured, CV kind of way. Rousseau has an astonishingly detailed memory and pretty good recall of names and events from his past; he demonstrates great sensitivity towards his own and others’ feelings, and a frankness in writing about his rather curious sexual adventures that I hadn’t expected from that era (and then I remembered Diderot’s Memoirs of a Nun!). He recounts his own sins, and shameful acts, with great honesty, even seeming to expect us to admire him for this openness.

I hadn’t expected such a renowned philosopher to come across as such a disorganised wastrel, his early adult life filled with all sorts of half-hearted attempts to make a living and a name for himself; neither had I realised how much one could be dependent on the patronage and protection of wealthy aristocrats, or how easily one could get caught up in the infighting between them and end up being used as a pawn…

I found various aspects of his life shocking: his sexual relations with a woman he called ‘maman’, his handing over of five children fathered on the woman he eventually came to marry, to a foundling hospital without so much as a backward look because they would have been inconvenient…

He seems to have led a pretty chaotic existence all-in all, and his accounts of all the infighting and squabbles that were part of cultural and literary life did become rather tiresome in the end. But he did seem, as he aged, genuinely to espouse the idea of the simpler life, away from the centre of glittering French high society, although his idea of simple didn’t really match mine, rather like Mrs Dashwood’s ‘cottage’ in Sense and Sensibility.

It was a mildly interesting read but not one I’d really recommend unless you’re very keen on enlightenment philosophers. In the end, it’s writing of a kind rather too far removed from what we are accustomed to nowadays.

Note to readers who may be interested: you can keep up with what I’m in the process of reading by seeking me out on Instagram, and you can follow me on Twitter too, if that makes your life any easier..

Ronald Blythe: The View in Winter

November 18, 2016

51idp2y8lzl-_ac_us160_I’ve learnt a few things as I’ve grown older. One was that nobody prepares you for how long the middle part of your life lasts, when you have the career and the family and the home… work goes on for years and years. At least I was lucky in enjoying my job immensely. And nobody prepares you for growing gradually and inexorably older, and what this does to both body and mind. So I approached this book with both interest and trepidation, and it was a real eye-opener – frank and open interviews with elderly people from all walks of life in which they speak of their experiences of becoming older and what this has done to them…

Blythe’s lengthy and reflective introduction considers the change in age, ageing and attitudes to ageing that have taken place over the past century or so: pretty nearly everyone now grows old, whereas in past centuries, old age was an extraordinary thing. Although I came across an interesting reflection on Russia the other day, where women reach pension age at 55, men at 60 – and average male life expectancy there is 59…

The interviews are collated thematically in chapters, interspersed with Blythe’s commentary and sharply perceptive analysis – or so it seemed to this ageing reader. There’s a wide range of views and comments, which are sometimes quite shocking, even more so when you remember that the book is nearly forty years old, and always enlightening. I found the thoughts of the matron of an old people’s home quite frightening and scary because she revealed angles on ageing and older people which I had never imagined. And some sixth-formers’ perceptions of the elderly were a bit of a shock, too.

A chapter which interviewed veterans of the Great War was revealing, giving quite a different picture from more recent interviews with the very last survivors; far less about the horrors of the front. The dullest – and most surprisingly dull – chapter was the retired and elderly religious (priests and monks) recollections: dry as dust and empty of any real spiritual depth, I felt.

For me, the most interesting chapter was the one where ageing teachers spoke of their lives, with an astonishing account from a teacher in his eighties – so born at the end of the nineteenth century – in which he describes his own schooling, which might have taken place in Shakespearean times, so primitive did everything sound. And then off he went to university to get a second class joint honours degree in English and French, which was a bit near the knuckle for yours truly.

There are times when I can’t believe I’m past sixty: where did all that time go, can I have some more please, there’s so much more I want to do? And then I start to think about all the places I’ve been, all that I’ve done and the people I’ve met and I’m astonished by it all. At the moment I’m enjoying relatively carefree time and trying to live adventurously (after a fashion), but I do think I could quite easily put together e programmer for my next existence…

Europe, war and the imagination

June 29, 2016

It’s a century since the start of the Battle of the Somme this coming Friday, July 1. Before I start this post, honour to the memory of those who died!

I’ve been reflecting on human imagination, and more specifically mine, in the context of the Great War. Obviously many writers, from those who lived through the events and times and wrote in prose and verse – and who didn’t need to use their imaginations because they were there – to those who have written much more recently, and mainly novels, have been able to put words onto the page, which have shown readers over the years the nature and effect of the war, and the havoc it wreaked.

I have been so fascinated by what they wrote, that I taught First World War literature at school for a good number of years, and always with a focus on messages for us as readers today: what might we learn? how might we behave differently? And this fascination has led me, in recent years, to make a number of visits to various battlefields: relatively brief excursions in Flanders, but two lengthier explorations of the Somme, and visits to the Chemin des Dames and the Verdun battlefield, by way of seeing the war from a French perspective.

So I have walked some of the ground. I have seen some of the places where the carnage took place. I have mementos – some fragments of barbed wire from Mametz Wood and a machine-gun cartridge case from the outskirts of Peronne. I’ve walked French and German and British war cemeteries, seen the French memorial at Douaumont and the British one at Thiepval.

2016-04-19 10.41.03 verdun

And I’m still stunned. My imagination is defeated totally by the scale of it all. I’ve stood at the Lochnagar Crater and thought, God, you could get half my street in that! but can’t begin to conceive what it could have been like for a German in the front line when that mine went off. I’ve stood at Thiepval and oriented myself, and thought, how could anyone possibly survive walking that distance gradually uphill towards machine-gun fire? The scale of it all is just too much. And, although one can read about the number of deaths and casualties, it just isn’t possible fully to conceive or make sense of the enormity of it all.

One thing was brought home to me very clearly, with out the need for my imagination. This photo, from a display in one of the museums at Verdun, shows graphically what an exploding shell does; I am no longer surprised by accounts of men being torn to pieces and bodies being unrecognisable…

I think it’s really important for people to visit these places and to remember the past; I’ve noticed that Germans are now also coming to find the graves of their ancestors, and I’ve been very moved by the tributes GCSE History students on school trips have left in a number of war cemeteries, on the graves of combatants from both sides. It’s really important for people to keep on reading the literature from and about those times. This war – and another, perhaps even more horrific in other ways – happened in our, civilised Europe, and until very recently, in living memory, and deliberate efforts to ensure that such things never happen again germinated the European project that Britain managed to reject a few days ago. We have had more than seventy years of peace in Europe, and that’s far longer than any period of time peace before then. Imagination may defeat us, but memory should sustain us.

Pause for thought Friday 1 July 2016, 7.30am.

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

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