Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

Objects of Desire

August 1, 2017

I found myself thinking about books as physical objects, and as objects of beauty and desire; strangely this was triggered by seeing one of the most awful books I’ve ever seen on sale in this country, a new hardback novel on poor quality paper, badly bound and with a flat rather than curved spine as is usually found on hardback books….

I alternate between seeing books as potentially beautiful objects and seeing them in purely practical terms: words on paper available reasonably cheaply for me to read. When I was younger and less well-off, I went for cheap or second-hand; I was initially happy when the net book agreement was axed as it offered me cheaper books, though (as is often the case) now, wiser later, I’m aware of what the real cost of that move has been. As I worked and became better off, I could treat myself to new hardbacks as soon as they were published. Now, I’m more discriminating, and many of the books I’m after are long out of print so second-hand is the way to go.

I have many hardbacks in the beautiful Everyman’s Library series which re-launched in the 1990s: the austere dust-jackets of the pre-20th century texts are preferable to the gaudier 20th century ones, I feel, but in both cases there is the nice cream paper, the real cloth (as opposed to cardboard) cover, and the silk marker; the books are well-made, with the pages properly sewn into signatures. The Könemann Classics series is much rarer, with not many texts in English, but with similar high-quality production standards: they too are books I’m pleased to be able to show off on my bookshelves.

The original Penguin Books, with their colour-coded spines and cover design are another instance of beautiful books; the simplicity of the design was what struck most in a combination of aesthetically pleasing and practical. All this was lost in the 1970s and after with gaudy full-colour covers and the haphazard approach to design and series, though there have been half-hearted attempts to re-create some of the effects of the past. But once it’s been lost, it’s too late. I felt the same about theh simplicity of the design of the Picador paperback series when it first appeared in the mid-seventies, and the French Folio paperback series which began publishing around the same time.

One of the reasons books look attractive on the shelves is repetition: when you have several or many of a similar design. Lest anyone think I’m only interested in the superficial externals, I must emphasise that for me the pleasure of reading a nicely made book – holding it in my hands, turning the pages and looking at them – is a lasting one. Obviously paperbacks used to be cheap and used cheap paper: some of my 1970s science fiction is disintegrating now. Cheap glue in binding was the bane of many books produced in this country in the 1980s: it dries out and crumbles and the entire book falls to pieces… Fonts are important in terms of readability, and French paperbacks often fall down really badly here, being presented in horrid fonts of strange sizes and pointing so that reading them is actually physically very tiring on the eyes. Penguin used to make a point, in the 1970s, of telling you what font they had used to set a particular book, with a few lines detailing the origin and history of the font. Some of the Everyman’s Library series, beautifully presented as they may be, have been reproduced from very old editions with ugly fonts.

Production values in the USA, where the market is so much larger and the economies of scale allow it, are generally, in my opinion, much higher than in the UK, to the extent that I will quite often check whether I can buy the US edition of an expensive paperback or hardback at a similar price, in preference to what I know will be a shoddier UK offering.

For me books have always been both physical objects to like, and to handle with pleasure as well as repositories of entertainment, learning and mental stimulus; it’s wonderful when both attributes are available in the same volume.

 

 

The anally-retentive reader…

July 31, 2017

I’ve kept a reading log for about 45 years now: I just log the date I finish reading a book and its title. I bought a very large and sturdy ledger in a sale about that long ago, and it’s served me well. So I can quite easily survey what I’ve read over the years and how much I’ve been reading – or not. And in pencil, I also note inside the back cover of each book, the date I finished reading it, which means I can always know how long it is since I read a particular book, how many times I’ve read it, or indeed if I’ve ever read it.

It’s not a lot of information, but I’ve found it interesting to note that I’m reading far less in my retirement than I originally expected to: partly, I’ve taken on board longer and more demanding books, I think, and also I have a raft of other things to occupy my time. I’d had bright ideas like spending a year re-reading Shakespeare, or a year reading science fiction, and never even got started on either of those projects. And I’ve also been astonished, when coming back to some of my old favourites, by just how long had elapsed since I last read them…

I’ve also kept an accessions register of all my books ever since I was at secondary school, which at some point when I had the spare time, got developed into a database; now I can quite easily check whether I have a particular book before I end up uselessly buying it for a second time… and I can do all the usual database things with my list of books, by author and subject-matter and so on. Dry and dull but useful, especially as I can also take a slimmed down version of it with me on my smartphone. I suppose it is also useful for insurance purposes, if anyone ever decided to steal a ton of books, or anything worse were to happen…

No doubt someone with a more statistical bent than I have might glean all sorts of useful and interesting information that I’ve never suspected; until I decide to build a second database of all the books I’ve read – some 3000 or so since my school days – that information will just lie dormant. But for the minimal amount of effort it’s taken over the years, I do commend the kind of record-keeping I’ve outlined, to serious readers out there, as a mine of useful information in all sorts of ways.

On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

Making sense of it all…

July 29, 2017

I occasionally have moments of existential doubt about all the reading I do; I realise I could be spending large chunks of my life doing something else – though I have no real idea what – and I realise that one day all the carefully garnered knowledge and developed opinions will be no more than fading and ultimately extinguished electrical impulses in a no longer-existing brain… which is, I suppose, the ultimate fate of all human existence. Angst-inducing, nonetheless.

So what is it all for?

I’m a pretty fortunate human being, comfortable and retired, living in a peaceful part of the world at the moment. And I see all sorts of mayhem going on all around me, from the obscenity of warfare such as in Yemen and Syria, to the effects both current and feared of our species’ wrecking of the planet’s climate and environment; I see the rank stupidity of politicians and businessmen the world over, and the manipulation of ordinary people by selfish elites pursuing power and money. In short, something verging on dystopia.

I also look around and see marvels of human achievement: the exploration of space and the landings on the moon are my favourite examples, along with the achievements of writers like Shakespeare, the music of Bach and the paintings of Turner. I see the stunning beauty of the planet. And I find myself thinking, how have we managed to make such a pig’s ear of so much? does it always and inevitable have to be like this? Is this what the Fall was about – knowledge of good and evil?

And this is where my reading seems to come in: I’m trying to understand how we have, over time, sold our souls to the pursuit of money, riches, material goods; how we have allowed small cliques to take power, take possession of resources, oppress and kill others. And at the same time we have praised sages, wise men and religious leaders who have exhorted us to do the opposite, and not done it…

If we ignore the past, we are condemned to repeat it, said someone once. That’s it for the factual side of things. Now for the imagination:

Writers of fiction imagine things. They imagine and describe people, their world, their behaviours. And they help us to understand why people behave in the ways they do as individuals. Maybe we end up wiser at the end of a novel or a play. Writers of science fiction, and utopian fiction, go even further: they attempt to imagine and to bring to life how things might possibly be different, better.

Very often, they merely imagine the blissful future state, however, but are not able to imagine the transition from now to then, from our present to their future. Sometimes their future may seem rather dubious: who would want to live in Huxley‘s Brave New World? (Answer: quite a few of my sixth form students, at various times in the past…) Sometimes writers do try to move us from now to the future, and the way there is not smooth, is sometimes bloody.

And how do we know we will like that future? and if we do, how would we ensure it stayed like that? Given that there are so many different kinds of people, what do we do with those that don’t fit, or don’t want to fit? In Huxley’s world, the lucky ones were exiled to an island and closely supervised to see that they did not contaminate the rest of the utopia with any mischief. In Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time, misfits were put to death…

So I’m doing all this reading and thinking in order to try and work out how the world might be better in future, how the human race might live peaceably with itself and the rest of the species we share a planet with… in a future I’m not going to be a part of. But, it seems to me, it’s in the nature of human beings to want to think, explore, invent, discover, and through my reading I’m merely taking part in that enterprise; through this blog I’m sometimes sharing where I’ve got to with my journey; I don’t expect to make any earth-shattering discoveries, but I can remain hopeful. Is that enough? If I hadn’t done all the reading I’ve done over the last fifty years or so, I’m sure I’d have quite a few spare years, but I wouldn’t be me, and would I do anything more useful with that time?

To be continued, I suspect…

On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

More second-hand bookshops…

June 25, 2017

One of the things I always enjoy on holiday is visiting second-hand bookshops (in spite of my vow not to buy any more books) and after our recent holiday in Suffolk I feel moved to enthuse about two really good ones, both to be found in the village of Westleton, a couple of miles inland from the famous village of Dunwich, the mediaeval town swallowed by the sea…

I’d been to Chapel Books before, on previous holidays to this part of the country, which we like very much. As its name suggests, it’s in a converted chapel. There was a very large selection of books, well-arranged and all of decent quality. The travel section – always a touchstone for me – was particularly good, and I came away with some interesting swag, including another of the wonderful cerise Penguin series from the 1940s, by a communist woman journalist who reported from the Soviet Union shortly after the Nazi invasion. There were lots of books I managed to resist, fortunately for my wallet and the space in our house. The owner was friendly, and provided tea whilst I browsed.

The other shop – Barnabees – I’d not known about before, was five minutes walk away in a large cottage. The owner was very friendly and we chatted about all manner of things, and I came away with a couple of things I’d been looking for. Her shop was not as well organised and categorised as she would have liked, she admitted, but again the stock was wide-ranging and good quality, with a particular emphasis on art.

I mention these two shops because they are exceptions to the general rule in a number of ways, I feel: friendly owners, good quality stock – I’ve lost count of the number of shops where I feel that most of the mouldering books should have been in a skip or recycled long since; pretty well-organised – again, many shops could be tidied up by a well-placed bomb; and sensible prices – not given away, but not taking the mick either, as was the case in another shop in a nearby town which I will not name, where the owner had decided that all paperbacks should be four quid, no matter what the age or condition…

On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…

With pickaxe and rifle

May 2, 2017

Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been quiet lately; I’ve been away, and also re-reading a door-stopper of a novel by the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, which I’ll be writing about in my next post. But I thought an explanation of my fascination with Albania and things Albanian might be in order first.

If you are old enough to have listened to radio on medium wave, and remember the atmospheric interference that happens in the evenings especially, then you may recall having heard a repeated short  burst of music, which would have been a call sign or interval signal, leading up to a broadcast. The one I particularly remember turned out to have been from Radio Tirana, which in the days of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania had one of the most powerful transmitters in Europe, so powerful that the BBC was forced to change the wavelength on which it used to transmit Radio 3. (Sadly, wordpress won’t let me link directly to it, but if you’re interested enough, visit this website, and look under Albania and you will find it.)

As a student, I began listening to their propaganda broadcasts in English: half an hour of stilted speech, in a broadcast which invariably offered ‘the news’, a ‘commentary’ from the party newspaper, and a ‘feature’, about some safe aspect of the country’s culture or history. And their broadcasts were unique among those from the eastern bloc, in that they reviled the Russians as much as, if not more than, the Americans: they were ‘Soviet social imperialists’ as opposed to the mere US variety of ordinary imperialist. And there were dry as dust production figures from the economy, which were often laughable; a 100% increase in rail locomotives actually meant that they had bought another steam engine…

When I lived in London, I discovered that there was a tiny Albanian shop in a cellar in a back street in Covent Garden. It sold postcards, books of Comrade Enver Hoxha’s speeches and back copies of the party newspaper Zeri I Popullit, four pages of incredibly badly printed (and incomprehensible) propaganda, and various ethnic nick-nacks. And then, one of Kadare’s novels appeared in English, in the late 1980s – Broken April, I think it was, and I started to learn more about the country, and it fascinated me. I was well and truly hooked.

I’d have liked to visit it as a tourist, even at the cost of shaving off my beard, which was one of the conditions under which decadent westerners were allowed in for their decadent but useful currency. Alas, this never happened. But a visit is still on my wish-list, which I’m working my way through. Meantime, I have the novels of their only novelist who has been translated, and who, according to some stories I have read, is potentially in line for the Nobel Prize.

To be continued…

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