Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

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I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

Christmas in literature

December 18, 2019

As I grow older I find Christmas more and more difficult; nothing seems to remind me more clearly of just how old I am, and the tree and the decorations each year bring a sadness as I recall the innocent happinesses of the past years, of my own childhood and then that of our children, moments that can be remembered but never re-experienced, times, meals and presents I particularly appreciated, people who are no longer here…

I love the idea of a midwinter festival, marking the solstice, and the time when the days cease to grow shorter, but actually begin to lengthen in preparation for the renewal of life and the eventual arrival of spring. The worst is over. It’s right that there should be a time of rest and recuperation, some feasting, and the sharing of food and gifts with those we love and care about is surely part of that. The Christian festival, for those who celebrate it as such, is clearly part of that ancient idea of new life and new hope; even if older ideas and festivals were colonised and annexed by the new religion, that doesn’t really seem to matter to me; everyone recognises the same new beginnings in their own ways.

I find it sad that every year there is the commercial urge to an ever more crass blow-out of binge-eating, drinking and spending, in which certainly the religious and spiritual aspects of the festival are totally lost, but even the symbolism of marking midwinter.

I racked my memory for instances of Christmas festivities in literature, but was surprised at how few I could summon up. Obviously there is the maudlin and sentimental Dickens – although I can happily watch the Muppets Christmas Carol every year! There is the one Sherlock Holmes story where Conan Doyle also cashed in, The Blue Carbuncle; the over-rich Christmas pudding which the boy is not allowed to eat, in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and the feast and squabbles and the presents of air rifles in To Kill A Mockingbird. And I can’t omit Milton’s poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, nor the episode in Emma where the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse is worried about going out in the snow… Finally, to return to the Great War with which I have been quite preoccupied with in this blog over the years, there is the story of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front, not repeated in subsequent years as far as I’m aware. Overall, not a lot from a lifetime of reading, although perhaps I’ve forgotten a few other mentions. Perhaps you can prompt me, dear reader…

Without women the novel would die: discuss

December 10, 2019

This post has been prompted by this article, telling me that women buy 80% of all novels, and out-buy men in all categories of fiction except fantasy, science fiction and horror…

I was genuinely taken aback by this article, which is fascinating and full of food for thought, especially for this male reader, who felt challenged immediately. It’s not so much that the premise surprised me – I’ve always felt that women probably read more fiction than men, and in my own case know that I have read less fiction and more non-fiction as I’ve grown older. I’ve even written posts mentioning I’d realised this, and wondered why it should be.

The challenge to me from the article was, why do men read fiction? And I can only write from my own experience.

I’m reminded of something my dad often used to say in response to my saying I’d read something in a book: you can’t learn everything from books. And he was right. But I have always felt that there are so many lives to read and experience in novels: I only get to live this life of mine once, but I can experience so many more – admittedly fictional, but so what? – by reading novels. I can experience other people, other places, other times, other cultures: I can think about and reflect on what I’ve read. Vicarious experience, others’ wisdom through the creativity of so many writers, reflecting their lives and experiences of the world and life. It feels like an almost unimaginable richness

Reading fiction as a child showed me the vastness and variety of the world out there; fantasy such as the wonderful Lost Planet series encouraged my imagination to wander widely and introduced me to the feeling of being lost in the vastness of the cosmos. I have never lost this feeling, and would never want to be without it.

As a young man, novels like Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge introduced me to the idea of life as a spiritual quest or journey, and reading Hermann Hesse’s novels as a student deepened this experience. It has helped me make sense of my life, the people I have known, encounters I have had, and places I have been.

At university, reading English and French Literature, I obviously made acquaintance with a wide range of the classics. Such novels showed me the sense of their time, how people lived and loved, how people were different in other ages, as well as the ways they were the same; to see other lives unfolding at the same time as I felt mine was, gave me much food for thought and reflection. Sometimes it helped reading about how others wrestled with difficult emotions as I wrestled with mine. I find myself wondering now, whether a serious reader can ever untangle her/his own life from what they read…

As I grew older, acquiring a family and a career, and discovering just how much of life there was to be lived, I suppose it was inevitable that my reading would head along more specific tracks. As I’m half-Polish, I’ve clearly never felt completely English, and I ended up reading a great deal of literature from Eastern Europe in a quest to understand what had happened to my family and why, and to see how they had been shaped by experiences which, thankfully, I was never to undergo. Realising that my existence had to a considerable extent been shaped by war, I read widely in the literature of war and came to understand how deep and wide an effect it has had on us as a species, and how we are perhaps doomed never to escape the cycle of violence…

I have remarked else where in a number of posts how in my later years I have drifted away from fiction. It feels at the moment that I’ve lived a good proportion of my life, and perhaps fiction no longer has much to show me, although even as I write those words I can see how unsatisfactory a response that is. But my exploration of the world through the literature of travel has been very enjoyable as I visit places I will never physically get to, in the company of other travellers and explorers.

To come back to the original premise: why do men read fiction? This man has read to widen my experience of life and emotions, to feel the feelings of others – admittedly fictional characters – this man has read because I cannot imagine a life without reading.

Ten years’ blogging

December 10, 2019

Looking at the data that WordPress offers me, I realise that I’ve been running this blog for getting on for ten years, which feels like a bit of an achievement, and perhaps time to take stock, as well.

There are well over 900 posts, and I have about 350 followers, although no way of knowing how many of you drop by regularly or read every post. This last year, a lot more visitors seem to have been digging back into the archives and looking up specific posts. And I don’t know why certain posts are so popular – on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Wound in Time, her poem commemorating the centenary of the 1918 armistice, on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature. Ismail Kadare and Josef Skvorecky are popular this year; Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is a perennial favourite post. I’d really like to know more about why people visit and what they think, but you seem to be pretty reluctant to post comments, so I guess I’ll never know… But it is quite satisfying to think that people are stopping by regularly to read what I have to say.

As I blog about every book I read, the activity of blogging has affected the way I read and think about what I read, in a positive way for me. Sometimes I wonder if it also affects what I choose to read, but nothing yet has shown me that this is the case: I read what I want to read, one thing leads to another, and each year is punctuated by certain books I’ve looked forward to. This year’s have been Margaret Atwood’s The Testimonies and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth.

In the past I was also reflecting quite a lot on my experiences as a teacher, and the teaching of English, but as I’m now in my ninth year of retirement, there’s rather less of that. I’m still in touch with some of my former students, and pleased that they remember me, and often say appreciative things about the past. I’m aware that the nature of the teaching profession, and what teachers are expected to do, has changed quite radically in this country in recent years, even though the corpus of English literature hasn’t; to me, this means that a good deal of my experience is no longer relevant today. However, I’ve spent some of my time writing some study guides (on The Handmaid’s Tale, Antony & Cleopatra, and Journey’s End – if you’re interested in these you will need to visit the ZigZag website) which I’ve enjoyed doing, and which has helped to keep my brain in gear and use some of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom (?) of the years.

I’ve occasionally also written political posts, and sometimes have felt like writing more, but have not done so. I want to keep this a literature and reading blog above all else, and often think there’s too much political pontificating about without someone else adding more…

I shall keep going with this as long as I’m able to, as it currently feels like a useful discipline. There are dozens more books piled up waiting to be read, and somewhere I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never get to the end of them…

Thank you to all my readers, whoever and wherever you are. And do post a comment to let me know what you like or don’t like, what you agree or disagree with.

On translations of the Bible

December 8, 2019

I’ve written elsewhere about what I like reading in the Bible and what I avoid or find tiresome. This post is by way of reflecting on the question of translations, and I will start by emphasising that I am no expert in any area of the field of biblical studies or translation, just that I have read the Bible through several times, and that I read a lot of literature in translation.

Raised a Catholic, the version available to us was the Douay-Rheims version of the late 16th/ early 17 century, pre-King James. I recall it being a bit wooden and styleless in the reading, and later discovered that what I had been reading was in fact an 18th century revision. I gather that the original translation was made to counter the very Protestant Geneva Bible, which was the one that Shakespeare would have been familiar with.

As Catholics we were obviously discouraged form reading the 1611 King James or Authorised Version – in fact, in those long-ago days it might actually have been forbidden! However, in my later years I have grown to like and appreciate its literary beauty. A good deal of this classic version was in fact lifted from William Tyndale’s much earlier translation, for which the poor fellow ended up being burned at the stake. Equally, some parts are indebted to the Catholic translation I mentioned earlier; certainly James I’s committee of translators had it to hand.

If we wanted something in accessible language, we had the one-man translation produced by Ronald Knox earlier in the twentieth century; I remember it read well. It has now been almost completely forgotten, but what an achievement, to have produced it by oneself. Still, Luther, St Jerome and others can also claim to have done that.

I recall from my schooldays the enormous publicity given to the publication of the New English Bible in the late 1960s, and remember large displays of it in the largest bookshop in the centre of Nottingham: you could have the version with or without the Apocrypha included. That was always a difficult point for Catholics, in that non-Catholic Bibles almost always had various books Protestants deemed non-canonical removed. Apparently this decision happened early in the 19th century with the growth of the British and Foreign Bible Society, responsible for translations into so many foreign languages as part of the Empire’s missionary work. Surely economics had something to do with it…

The weird thing about the New English Bible, as I discovered when I read the New Testament, is that, although it’s a good, modern translation that read and flowed easily, especially aloud, the translators had decided to retain old-fashioned ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s in certain places, particularly when prayers were translated. Very quickly that came to jar, and was one of the things that were changed when the version was updated as the Revised English Bible. I wouldn’t say that the NEB has vanished without trace, but its popularity was short-lived, although it has recently been reprinted.

The most interesting development for Catholics was the appearance of the Jerusalem Bible in the mid-1960s, an English version of La Bible de Jerusalem produced by the renowned Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. It was, however, a translation from the French, and the New Jerusalem Bible twenty years later was a much more thorough and careful rendering into English referencing the original texts, and very quickly become respected by Catholics and non-Catholics equally, for its readability, scholarship and the quality of the detailed notes in the full version. Both versions were unusual in adopting ‘Yahweh’ as the word for ‘the Lord’, an attempt at replicating the unspoken Name in Hebrew. However, Benedict XIV disapproved of this, and the recent further revision – the Revised New Jerusalem Bible – has removed it, along with much of the very useful contextual annotation, and at the moment it appears that it’s the New Jerusalem version which will remain the gold standard. It’s the one I have grown to use and appreciate over time for many different reasons and the one I shall stick with, although there are times when it’s the traditional King James version that does it for me.

What makes a good translation? You get an artificial sense of reverence through the archaisms of the King James Bible, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s language (and no, there is no evidence of his having been involved in the translation) and a sense of tradition. On the other hand, it’s difficult for many people to follow nowadays. A modern translation needs to be readable, yet to avoid slang, colloquialisms and other modernisms which would detract from its quality as a ‘holy book’, a scripture. It needs not to be rooted too much in the English of a particular decade or it will date very quickly and sound awkward (perhaps the failing of the NEB) so translators are aiming for a certain timeless quality as well as enduring accessibility. And it also needs to read aloud well. All in all there are a lot of criteria to address. And this is perhaps why there have been so many attempts in recent decades, with no single version standing out far above the competition.

It is interesting that a single Catholic and a single Protestant English version lasted though three centuries, and that only in the twentieth century have there been so many different attempts to ‘modernise’, to ‘update’, to ‘make more accessible’. Some of there have been gimmicky, some crass, some appalling. I can see arguments for being able to read the Christian scriptures in a more modern English – and then I realise that nobody has advanced a similar argument for Shakespeare’s plays. But I also accept that that is a ridiculous comparison.

Have you a preference? For which translation, and why?

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

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