Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.

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On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

On keeping my brain alive

March 7, 2019

It’s something I never heard anything about when I was younger, perhaps because people hadn’t then tuned into it as an important idea, or perhaps because when you are young, certain things just don’t cross your radar, but as I enjoy my retirement, it’s hard to miss all the exhortations to do things that will exercise your brain, keep you mentally active, and –who knows – perhaps stave off the horrors of eventual dementia. I suspect there is some sense in not vegetating, but I’m not sure about deliberately taking new things on board just in the hope…

Do I keep my brain active? I hope so. I keep up my French and German in conversation groups here, and obviously when I’m travelling, and probably about a quarter of the books and novels I currently read are in French; I also read a monthly current affairs magazine in French. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ as I found in those long years of being a parent, when holidays abroad faded somewhat into the background. I’m still quite proud that the French often have to ask what country I’m from – they can now tell I’m not French, whereas in the years just after I’d graduated, they often didn’t realise… And a few years ago I took up learning Spanish, with the aim of being able to manage some holidays in Andalucia eventually. I’m enjoying the mental challenges and have been fortunate in finding a really good teacher. I’m not sure what particular parts of the brain language learning uses, but I’m still fascinated at the way communication can come out in a different language without my having to do deliberate processing.

As a student, I taught myself to do The Guardian cryptic crossword, and it has brought me endless pleasure; there’s serious and tortuous brainwork involved – anagrams have always been my speciality – and I can do it by myself or with a friend. In my early teaching days a colleague and I had the goal of finishing the Times and the Guardian cryptics before the end of the school day, and succeeded more often than not. I’ve occasionally wrestled with even harder ones like Azed in the Observer, but haven’t the patience for them. My one small indulgence, in terms of actually paying for an app on my phone, is the one that gives me the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning: I download it before I leave the house and use it to while away idle waiting moments anywhere. Sudoku I’ve never managed to wrangle, unlike my other half, who whizzes through it; an aversion to numbers on my part, I thought until I came across Calcudoku, which I now enjoy, although at beginners’ level.

Those are the only ‘mental gym’ type activities I can bear; other than that it’s reading and writing, both of which I enjoy and do a lot. I have a very moralistic attitude to my brain, I realise, along the lines of “God gave you it, so use it!” Certainly, as I’ve grown older, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by how complex and wonderful an organ it is and what it’s capable of doing; reason should be capable of enabling us to live in a rather better and fairer world, but it hasn’t… and it seems a great shame that all those electrical impulses eventually just die away, after all those years of hard work, and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

How do you keep your brain agile?

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

March 3, 2019

51qthu117qL._AC_US218_I’m a little under the weather at the moment and when I’m poorly, I crave ‘easy’ reading, so I’ve revisited an old favourite. Some of my readers will be aware of my penchant for detective fiction, particularly Sherlock Holmes; as I re-read The Big Sleep, one of the things I was trying to do was work out how Philip Marlowe is different.

He’s very observant, which comes across in the little details in his descriptions of people and places; he’s very laconic, and his humour reminds me a little of Mark Twain. The plot develops – or unravels – slowly, jigsaw-style; nothing is clear from the start either to us or to Marlowe. The story is effortlessly readable, casual, atmospheric: the 1920s/30s California setting permeates Chandler’s stories as completely and easily as Victorian London does those of Conan Doyle. The reader has the feeling of detecting along with Marlowe, unlike the way we feel excluded from Holmes’ thoughts and deductions and are eventually presented with a solution.

Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Philip Marlowe ones are full of stereotypes: the women, the hoods, the cops: can the genre do without these? The story which gradually develops in the novel is far better presented than in the famous film: here, there is room for the detail, atmosphere and leisurely pace whereas for me the film showcases the actors and not a lot else.

So, what is the difference? Marlowe is a loner, whereas Holmes has Watson as his narrator, his sidekick and his foil. This does make a major difference: Watson can and does choose what to tell us and what to leave out, and of course – in Conan Doyle’s fictional invention – he is not party to Holmes’ thoughts and reasonings and can therefore only share with the reader what Holmes deigns to tell him; the entire plot structure and narrative method is different. Marlowe is a loner, narrating in the first person, obviously, so along with the immediacy of this narrative style, we are automatically as in the dark as Marlowe is (or as enlightened). We have to share his reasonings and his hunches, the red herrings and the mistakes, or there is obviously no story.

Holmes does go out looking for clues and examining crime scenes; he’s not averse to getting his hands dirty, or to danger, though we don’t always know a lot about this unless he takes Watson along with him. Marlowe is constantly out there, on the ground: we perhaps have the impression that Holmes’ approach is more cerebral, as he sits for days smoking and thinking. Holmes interacts with others, but comes across as rather remote, distant; again, Marlowe has to appear more engaged with others because of the first-person narrative.

Violence and menace never seems very far away in immediately post-Prohibition California; in Victorian London it is always presented as something rather surprising or shocking – Conan Doyle is thinking of his genteel Victorian readership and how not to shock them too much. Both authors operate under the restraints of their times: thus, there can be no sexual crime in the Sherlock Holmes stories, other than blackmail linked to a ‘past’ or attempts to coerce marriage, and while sexual misdeeds and even homosexuality are rife in Chandler’s stories, presentation is always sufficiently vague so as not to shock or offend too much, disapproval often hinted at.

I’m at a disadvantage here – and perhaps my readers may help me out – in that I’m not au fait with the latest wave of crime and detective fiction, so cannot make any more recent comparisons. From what I do know, Chandler seems rather out on a limb with his solitary shamus, and yet he has made the style work, completely differently but no less effectively, according to this reader at least…

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

On heresy

January 23, 2019

A punishable drift from accepted orthodoxy, but how, and by whom: who decides what is ‘correct’, the ‘party line’, and how? And why are organisations so fearful of other views?

I came to ponder the topic after looking up a reference to Pelagianism which came up in something I was reading. Pelagianism was a fifth century heresy which denied original sin, in other words, Adam’s sin was his alone on not visited on every subsequent human generation, as the church (or St Augustine of Hippo, anyway) taught; this meant that infant baptism was not vital… once you get into the hair-splitting nitty-gritty of questions like this, that way madness lies, as someone once said. I have read several interesting novels whose outcome hinges on heresy: Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterpiece L’Oeuvre Au Noir, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, and Luther Blissett’s Q. This last novel, set in the early days of the Reformation and centred around various divergences from the Lutheranism that was gradually becoming an orthodoxy itself, was apparently written by a collective…

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It’s the same in politics, although the need for rigidly politically correct lines of thought seems more to affect left wing and progressive organisations. I was reminded of the political acrobatics described in Ismail Kadare’s astonishing novel The Great Winter, recounting the split between the Party of Labour of Albania under Enver Hoxha, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: so many words, so little difference, so much significance. The party members in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four are oppressed by the need to follow and toe the party line; we follow the workings of the Stalinist purges in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Ultimately, of course, it’s all about control: if someone has to spend all their time ensuring that they know the official party line, that they think correctly and do not deviate from it, then they are in a constant state of self-induced anxiety, which is worsened by the often random nature of arrests and purges. And also, everyone is watching everyone else…

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I wonder if this kind of nit-picking explains my lifelong reluctance to join political organisations, or religious ones. I still spend ages thrashing out my own ideas and understandings, unwilling to take on board anyone else’s wholesale, although I do read lots of other people’s ideas. There came a point when I was on the verge of losing my Catholic faith, when a priest whom I respected responded to something I said with ‘that’s a bit too Protestant for me!’ And I realised that some of my thoughts were therefore definitely unorthodox, even heretical… Whereas I knew others who seemed quite happy to live with a whole series of contradictions and still practise their religion, I couldn’t.

Oppressed by books

January 23, 2019

My study has needed re-painting for a while, and I finally tackled it last week; it took far longer than I expected, because of the books, and rather alarmingly, by the end of it, I felt quite oppressed by them. Although the study is quite roomy, it’s full of stuff, all of which had to be moved, along with the 1000 or so books on six different sets of shelves, before a particular section of the room could be painted. As I finally re-shelved the last of the books, I did a small cull, wishing I could do a bigger one. Am I ever going to read that again? I found myself thinking.

There’s always an – and yet – though.

There’s a particular physical comfort and sensual pleasure from being surrounded by books, most of which I’m quite attached to in some way or other. Many of them are physically nice objects, with quality paper, good quality binding, well looked-after… and that’s before I think about the contents. I love the Everyman’s Library series and have quite a lot of these: they are not OTT in the way I find the Folio Society collection, for example. And I also have quite a lot of cheap French paperbacks, which I like for their fine design – echoing Penguin in earlier days – and basic quality paper.

I like the various sections that line my study: almost a wall of travel writing which I’ve gradually collected over the last couple of decades, a wall of literature with its complete hardback Arden Shakespeare Second Series in individual volumes, shelves of history, atlases. I feel at home in this room, and it’s good to have so much within easy reach of my enormous desk.

And yet, I felt oppressed. Many of the books will go eventually, as I age, and re-read before reluctantly parting with them. But others need to go now. I piled up all the Polish albums of photos of cities, gifts from the socialist era when there was plenty of spare cheap printing capacity and the regime wanted to boast both of the nation’s past and the socialist construction: I probably looked through them a couple of times forty years ago and never since. I don’t have the time or the inclination to try and sell books online, so they will go to Amnesty. And there are many other lovely coffee-table type books that I cannot bear to part with at the moment.

I know that a disciplined approach would have me ruthlessly go through everything and select only the books I could definitely justify keeping (ha ha!). I recognise that my feelings are changing with age, and I do try and de-clutter, but I cannot understand the various lifestyle coaches who just say ‘get rid of it all, you can always buy it again if you need it’ and readers who claim to keep everything they need on their e-readers cannot really be serious, in my books. My books do increasingly remind me of my mortality: they can outlive me, and will not have the associations they have for me, for others…

Anyway, I now have a newly-painted study, in exactly the same colours as it was before but cleaner and fresher, and in another ten years I may well not care about re-decorating…

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

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