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Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

July 30, 2019

91BBJbiHQXL._AC_UY218_QL90_  It’s a long time since I came cross such a frustrating book. I count myself as a walker, in that I try and walk everywhere I can in my normal daily routines, and in that I love going off on walking tours, exploring hills and forests and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Although I’d also like to undertake some long-distance trails, I think that age and a foot problem probably exclude this. So a book about walking ought to be right up my street (!).

But reading this was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Gros hardly ever seemed to be going anywhere clear, he rambled (verbally) and spent a lot of time stating what I’m afraid I have to call the bloody obvious if you are a walker yourself, leading me to think that, if you’re not a walker, then you won’t find this book very helpful, either.

He writes about famous people who apparently walked a lot – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant and others, but I could never really see what he was achieving by using them as examples. A good deal of what he had to say was plain common-sense dressed up a philosophy, banal to any serious walker, I would have thought. I found him most (and that wasn’t very) interesting on Thoreau and the contrasts the latter drew between frugality and austerity, and between benefit and profit, when considering decisions about how to run his life. Gros also had a few thought-provoking comments about the idea of pilgrimage too, and I learned more about Gandhi and his many non-violent protests, which also involved a lot of walking.

So, what was the purpose behind this book? What can it say to us ordinary walkers? To this one, it was vacuous and ultimately forgettable, as well as pretentious in a way that only a certain type of very annoying French writer can be. Professional, long-distance walkers and pilgrims could write something far better and more interesting: let me point you in the direction of another French walker who is miles (!) better: Bernard Ollivier. I’ve written about many of his books, if you care to search my posts. He writes about the astonishing walks he’s actually done, the people and places he’s been to and encountered, and, more to our point here, a real philosophy of walking (though I’m not sure he’d call it that) emerges as he walks and writes…

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia

May 5, 2019

51i-FvQSB0L._AC_UL320_    A1pKb0cRToL._AC_UL320_    I’ve often written about utopias in posts, and I finally re-read Ecotopia, the most recent one I know of, after a long time. Callenbach wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, setting it 1999, with his hero visiting a country which had seceded from the US in 1980; he is the first American reporter to visit Ecotopia (the two countries do not have diplomatic relations) and the book takes the form of reports he sends back to his New York newspaper, interwoven with a more personal diary of his stay in Ecotopia.

In structure and presentation it’s no different from many other utopias: the visitor travels around the country, meeting people and learning how the place works and how good it is, comparing it with his native land, gradually being convinced of its advantages; it’s no surprise at the end of this novel that our visitor elects to stay… What interests is how close many of the concerns of the novel are to those which today’s world needs to address, and I’m somewhat mystified as to why this novel seems so rapidly to have faded into relative obscurity. There was a prequel a few years later – Ecotopia Emerging – which I once had a copy of, but seem to have mislaid or disposed of.

Ecotopia is basically hippyland – I oversimplify grossly, but anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will know what I mean. The social cost of everything is taken into account, which our traveller finds hard to understand: who is ultimately responsible for the problems, issues, illnesses and other socially harmful consequences of a product or an action, – its producer or consumer? A question surely very relevant today. The economy aims for steady state, not growth, the country is decentralised, recycling, re-use and repairability are at the forefront of all consumer products, and the inhabitants of the country are committed to living in balance with nature… the only contemporary issue missing is climate change.

The two different perspectives the reporter offers us: ‘official’ newspaper articles and a ‘personal’ diary, complement each other and we are able to see him unwillingly seduced into accepting the attractiveness of the alternative model. Ecotopians have gone a long way towards equalising gender roles (though there is absolutely no mention of homosexuality or gay rights, and interracial issues are sidelined by the idea of separate development and decentralisation) and I found myself perceiving some similarities between this society and that of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s better and rather better-known novel The Dispossessed. The main difference is that there is no outsider in the same way in her novel; rather the hero from the utopia visits the non-utopian outside, in a sort of reversal. Women played a major role in the original revolt which led to the independence of Ecotopia, and have a leading role in its government. Decisions are made through consensus.

It is still ‘America’ and so Ecotopians have not given up on guns… and with an American author and American setting, none of the solutions are socialist or communist: at the most there is vigorous state direction or control of some aspects of the economy, and this is explained and justified in American terms. But there is a national health service, though it’s not called that. There is a little background to the origin of the new nation and the transition to it, including the inevitable economic dislocation, although this material was clearly the subject matter for the prequel mentioned above.

Utopias, and indeed all SF novels set in the future, date quickly, and the most glaring example in this novel is the absence of the internet. I was also struck by the absence of what I would call ordinary people – we never meet any working-class Ecotopians, and ugly, elderly or uneducated ones, and I cannot believe that everyone in the nation was hippified, beautified and educated in only twenty years… it’s a lovely but very bourgeois, middle-class future society.

Most novels fade into well-deserved obscurity quite rapidly, but here is one that raises questions and issues still salient today, that chimes with many of the things being challenged at this moment, and yet it already in some ways appears as quaint as Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia of 1887 set in the United States of the year 2000: Looking Backward. Perhaps every generation needs its utopia, in which case, what is today’s?

On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

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?

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

Philip K Dick: Dr. Bloodmoney

January 31, 2019

51rslz-9fgl._ac_us218_I’m picking up my re-read of Philip K Dick’s novels after a Christmas break, and just finished re-acquainting myself with Dr Bloodmoney after forty years – so that must have been around the time I was working on my MA thesis. It’s hard to know where to start with it, really. If we go for the links with what’s gone before, then there are the first tentatives at colonising Mars, which in this novel are interrupted by nuclear war: the story jumps between the future of 1981 and 1988 and it’s clear that at some time in between these dates, US civilisation has been seriously disrupted by unspecified nuclear conflict. As usual, Dick makes the insanity clear: war was instantaneous, unexpected, nobody knew what it was about and it may have been an enormous mistake…

Or – and here Dick is off on another nature of reality trail – the war is caused by a madman who imagines that he is God and by concentrating his powers he can make war happen; he is plagued by his guilt at having been a nuclear research scientist responsible for an ‘accident’ at some time in the past, and obsessed with the need to atone for this. It’s certainly Dick’s most disturbing novel so far, for my money; he will go on to develop some of these ideas even further in Deus Irae.

Even after war, which may be construed as a warning from God, the remaining humans rebuilding their lives persist in behaving in the same old stupid and venal ways. Practical knowledge and skills are obviously vital for a surviving and recovering society: in the US they are a commodity, for sale as always.

As a narrative, it’s quite episodic and disjointed, though characters re-appearing provide some continuity. It’s a pretty nightmarish small-town world that Dick creates, of ordinary people as well as a host of mutations caused by radiation. The one unifying force in the crazy times is the prospective Martian colonist marooned by the war in orbit above the earth, broadcasting hopefully to those he passes over, and the forces of chaos are embodied not only by the scientist who has survived but also by an increasingly power-crazed ‘phocomelus’ – a survivor of the thalidomide drug which caused so much damage to newborns in Europe in the 1960s – who also enjoys supernatural powers.

It’s a worthwhile and chaotic read, with so many of Dick’s ideas up in the air at the same time that it lacks the power of many of his other more disciplined novels. But you have to admire the man and his ideas: he gets you thinking on so many different fronts…

Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

On photography

September 13, 2018

I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, when a Polish cousin gave me a basic Soviet 35mm camera on my first visit to Poland. He was a keen photographer who had a darkroom of sorts at home, and when I got back to school in England I spent more time with a friend in the school darkroom learning about processing black and white film.

One of the first things I bought myself when I moved to Lancaster in the late 1970s was a good quality camera, an Olympus OM10, and I’ve never looked back since then. I’ve never been able to get my mind around very much of the technicality of exposure, depth of field and the like, sadly, having been rather useless at physics at school, so I’m sure I’ve never fully explored what this very rewarding hobby has to offer.

Whilst I do take some portraits from time to time, what I really like most is outdoor photography, of landscapes, nature and buildings, and this is where I take most time and care, because I want my shots to be good. I will spend ages waiting for people to move away out of shot so I get my picture without them; the same with trying to avoid having traffic in my pictures. I like to frame my shots carefully: when I used a film camera this was important because it was expensive to waste shots, and I suppose this is where I learnt the little I know about how to get a decent picture; now that it’s possible to take almost unlimited numbers of pictures with a digital camera, I’m still as careful with framing a shot, obsessive sometimes about getting the exact image I want in the frame. I try to remember the effect of a picture taken from a different height, ie not just at eye-level when I’m standing, and I also like shots that aren’t necessarily level, looking upwards in order to capture interesting aspects of an object or building. And finally, of course, photography allows me to create a record of my travels to enjoy later and bring back memories.

I enjoy going to exhibitions of photography, and am often astonished by what true professionals achieve. When I went to the Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool last autumn, there was an exhibition of portraits from the 1930s by the German photographer August Sander which was truly stunning, and while in Arles the other week I saw some fascinating monochrome landscapes and close-ups by a French photographer from the 1940s whose name I have, annoyingly, forgotten.

I also found myself reflecting on why I detest all those painted portraits in art galleries – old masters? – which seemed to me to be attempts at photography before its time, if you get my meaning, and yet which I almost invariably find utterly unbelievable and unconvincing. Photography does it perfectly, for me. It has something to do with sharpness of image, as well as use of light and shadow, and the close-ups that are possible with the newer medium. And somehow monochrome can enhance the image, whilst at the same time being less true to life than the colours of the portrait painters of the past. Maybe it’s also the informality that photography allows, that portrait painting couldn’t…. It seems to me, in my relatively limited understanding of both art and photography, that it was the invention of the latter that finally allowed art to break free of the constraints of being representative, and to move in new directions.

It took me a long time to accept digital photography, and to buy a digital camera -a modest Nikon D3100 – but I now do like the ability to take as many pictures as I like and then select and keep the most successful ones. And they don’t clutter up the world like packets of photos and albums did, and it’s a lot easier to spend time revisiting them…

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