Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

February 23, 2017

51yhyoyvael-_ac_us218_I’m not quite sure why I went back to this, 42 years after I last read it as an undergraduate. But it was an interesting little digression: Rasselas, the privileged prince, escapes from the happy valley where the emperor’s offspring are confined and determines to explore the world and find out what to do with his life; he’s pretty quickly tied up in the philosophical problem of whether to work out the best way to happiness and contentment or to get on with actually living life…

It was published in 1759, exactly the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, which it immediately reminded me of, except that Voltaire’s conte is more obviously and deliberately satirical, whereas Johnson’s tale mocks lightly while ultimately bringing our naive hero gently to his senses.

Rasselas discovers there’s no happiness to be found in stasis: we must always be striving for something new, and we also need to see and experience misery in order to recognise happiness. Is it better to get on with living and enjoying life, rather than trying to plan ahead to achieve perfection? Equally, it’s important to be yourself, rather than to imitate someone else, or to strive to be someone you are not: there is no place for gurus. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. As the prince, his sister and their companions travel around, everyone they meet who initially appears to have found the answers and to be happy, is actually dissatisfied in some way with their lot…

Johnson also explores the contrast between innocence and experience, which William Blake was to present in his songs some thirty years later: would it be better to just be satisfied with the state of innocence in which Rasselas begins? or perhaps explore and experience the world and then go back to seclusion? Where can there be true happiness, in that forever sheltered state of initial innocence or some carefully sought out, deliberately tried and tested path, from which clearly it’s not possible to return to the womb, as it were?

We are in the early days of the development of the novel, it occurred to me: Fielding’s Tom Jones was published ten years earlier, and what a difference! True, Rasselas isn’t really a novel, and has a philosophical purpose whereas Fielding sets out to divert and entertain. I was struck, nevertheless, by how sophisticated Tom Jones was as a text, by comparison, in terms of form, structure and language, but above all, characterisation. Rasselas is didactic, a tale of ideas, and also part of prose fiction finding its feet, writers exploring the potential of a new form, but it’s not a book I gaze fondly at on the shelves of my library…

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shipping Forecast

December 28, 2016

517com7q2bl-_ac_us160_This kind of book is known as a stocking-filler; I was very glad to find it in mine. It was compiled by the BBC, who broadcast the shipping forecast although they don’t produce it; it’s been a bit of a rush-job as a stocking-filler because the editor hasn’t found all of the silly little errors which should have been picked up during proof-reading.

I don’t know when I first heard the shipping forecast. I do remember gale warnings on the wireless when I was a child; presumably they were broadcast on the Light Programme as that was the long-wave station at the time. These were always precisely worded, and used the area names we are familiar with; they always began solemnly, “Attention all shipping, especially in sea areas….”

It took a while to learn how to decode the mysterious terminology: you gradually realise that the announcer is going round the coast in a more-or-less clockwise direction, then that the information concerns wind speed, wind direction, visibility; these are predictions, followed by reports from coastal stations which are actual readings, and also add barometric pressure, and whether it’s rising or falling. The pace and tone of voice are important for comprehensibility as anyone familiar with listening to AM radio from far-off stations will understand.

Much later on, I also came across the inshore waters forecast, which is exactly what it says it is; again we travel clockwise around the coast of Britain, this time the names are different, the pace isn’t quite so slow and solemn, and the information doesn’t seem quite as ominous…

The book takes you through all 31 sea areas and we learn the origins of the names, their history – some of the names have changed over time, some new ones have been added like the Utsires, which were never there in my childhood and came as rather a shock when I first met them; there is information about temperatures, wave heights and the like in each sea area and a few interesting snippets about them. Waves the height of seven double-decker buses are not anything I ever wish to encounter.

The shipping forecast has been romanticised over the past few years and treated to a number of books in its honour. I suppose it is part of our cultural heritage in a way and a strong reminder that we live on an island. It is very restful, peaceful, soothing if one listens to the late-night version (which I’ve only heard a few times), clearly holding a small place in the affections of many as well as performing a vital task, though perhaps less vital in our more technological days. And this book is a soothing tribute to it.

My A-Z of Reading: K is for Knowledge

November 25, 2016

knowledge_magazine_and_encyclopaedia_issue_1A little knowledge (well, actually it was learning, but that won’t fit so neatly with my subject) is a dangerous thing, said someone, once, long ago.

Part works are a curious publishing phenomenon, a great way of tying you in to buying something every week for a long time, and thereby ensuring a regular income stream; nowadays all sorts of utterly bonkers things are on offer, usually in that dead ‘nobody has much money left’ after-Christmas period, but when I was young it was all sorts of good and wholesome things like encyclopaedias and history books that built up week-by-week.

Knowledge was one of those magazines; it was carefully designed so that it would built up into a proper encyclopaedia for children over a period of four years: it eventually built up into eighteen volumes (for which you could, of course, buy hideous, cheap and crappy binders) each with a table of contents and an index; you removed the outer cover, and then all the pages were sequentially numbered as in a proper book; the covers could also be bound up into another quick reference work. The magazine was evidently pretty successful, as it ran through four editions. My parents bought it for me – two shillings, later half-a-crown a week.

I’ve found myself thinking about these encyclopaedias quite a bit lately; I need to finish binding them all properly, about fifty years after I acquired and read them all, and now that I have a grandson, I’ve wondered vaguely whether he may one day enjoy looking at them…

Although it was apparently an Italian invention, Knowledge was clearly modelled on Arthur Mee’s famous Children’s Encyclopaedia of the nineteen-thirties, a ten-volume compilation of all sorts of knowledge, puzzles and patriotism that is still to be found in secondhand bookshops and at jumble sales even today. We had it in the classroom in whatever was Year 6 back then, and I devoured it… good wholesome stuff that instilled in me the intellectual curiosity that’s driven me ever since.

The clever thing about Knowledge was that, although encyclopaedic in its scope, it didn’t present material in alphabetical order, which would have been a sure-fire way to turn any child off. Instead, a range of the various branches of knowledge were visited in each magazine, in articles of from one to three pages, all illustrated in colour – a bit of a novelty at the time – not photographs but drawings and painted illustrations, the point being that they brought the topic to life and livened up the pages. But the text was detailed, continuous prose: a topic was covered in decent depth. I felt I’d learned something when I finished an article.

Reading the magazines helped me in several ways. I got a broad picture of all the different areas of knowledge, and I gradually came to see which areas interested me and appealed to me more than others: history, geography, astronomy in particular. And then gradually, over time, I could see how lots of different and separate ideas started to link together. Usually I would read each magazine from cover to cover as soon as I got it, and then later I would go through them again and concentrate on the articles which I found especially interesting.

So began my introduction to the wide world of knowledge and understanding. It was money well-spent by my parents; my dad started binding the magazines properly for me, and I learned bookbinding along the way, but he never finished the task. I’ve still got all the books and magazines and will be returning to them, and finishing off the binding along the way…


Changing Worlds, or, my collection of atlases

December 7, 2015

51bORWQkC9L._AA160_I found myself turning the pages of my 1981 edition of the Times Atlas Comprehensive Edition, which is well-worn and grubby, with lots of interesting bits and pieces sandwiched in between its pages – lists of previous names of towns and cities in Poland, old maps of Danzig and Königsberg, information about the collapse of the USSR and the renaming of cities and regions. It seemed to me that the colours were brighter and easier on (old, tired) eyes than the later versions, and the pages layout rather simpler and straightforward.

However, you can perhaps understand why an avid armchair traveller would have bought an updated edition in 2003: so many places (towns, cities and countries) have acquired new names. There is no such place as Leningrad any more, for starters, and it goes on from there… There are a lot more transliterations of local usage place-names – the editors trying to be helpful, which is laudable, but also ending up being confusing – colours and fonts have been changed, perhaps for the sake of it, and I don’t think it’s as well printed as the earlier edition.

When you think about it, this is a major issue: atlases rely on double-page spreads to present larger areas, and the binding – the matching together of two separate sheets in a signature of the book, so that they align perfectly down the middle, and, most importantly in an atlas, so that there is no thin white line separating the two pages of the spread – this is not done so well in the more recent edition, and it’s annoying. Especially when it costs £150!

This gripe took me back to an almost-antique: the Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas of 1919, which I picked up for a song at the end of a second-hand book fair years ago. Up until half a century ago, there was a different way of printing and binding atlases, which took single, double-page spreads and bound each one individually by folding it and gluing it to a paper strip which was sewn into the binding, so that each individual map is a centre-page spread, if you see what I mean, and there are no problems of misalignment or thin white lines between pages.

It’s a gigantic atlas, much larger and heavier than the Times one, as large as the wonderful Soviet Atlas Mira I once saw second-hand and didn’t buy… The maps of the North Pole and Antarctica are largely white and labelled ‘unexplored’. And it’s post Versailles Treaty but pre-plebiscite so that various areas are left white as unattributed to any country – I imagine you’d have felt quite peeved a year later, if you’d bought this one!

So much of the world is unrecognisable to modern eyes – Africa and Asia completely transformed form almost a century ago, the Middle East still awaiting the finalisation of the Sykes-Picot chaos that still plagues us today, huge tracts of the world labelled as part of British or French empires… the arrogance is astonishing. But it’s a stunning book, with wonderful cartography.

One also notices how atlases are ‘slanted’ in various ways: your own country often gets proportionally far too much space and attention, and maps at a larger scale; other parts of the world are relatively ignored, which can be very annoying, and sometimes necessitates buying another map to compensate. On the other hand, the Peters projection atlas, which attempts to compensate by mapping the entire world at the same scale, is basically an academic exercise, not really fit for serious use.


In short: the big Times Atlas is the one to have.

Jan Zalasiewicz: The Earth After Us

June 7, 2015

9780199214983Serendipity… a while ago, the question somehow came into my head – what if there had been some kind of intelligent species that developed an advanced civilisation on this planet 500 million years ago, and then somehow became extinct: would any traces of it still remain by now, and would we be likely to come across any of them? And then I found this book in a sale in my local library.

Zalasiewicz looks at the question from the other end of the telescope, as it were, and asks what might remain of our civilisation in a hundred million years time for future explorers and archaeologists to uncover and deduce about us, but the idea is there. He puts homo sapiens and our relatively speaking tiny amount of time on the planet into perspectives of time and space, and offers a range of options about our possible future and for future explorers of Earth.

What came across very strongly to me, as a non-geologist who also knows precious little about archaeology, was the idea of the earth as a mechanism, with tectonic movements constantly creating and destroying continents, and the line between land and sea as the place where destruction of artefacts takes place. Things are both preserved and destroyed, through sedimentation and erosion…

It became clear that on   a geological timescale humans are seriously affecting the planet’s climate, atmosphere and prospects for the continuation of life as we understand it, though he also says that it is too early to be sure in cosmic terms what the ultimate effect of this will be; what is sure is that it cannot be business as usual for very much longer.

Zalasiewicz considers the nature of the traces humans will leave behind, and speculates in some depth as to what might happen to a range of human artefacts in different places over enormous lengths of time.

The different chapters of the book are well-framed, with an opening paragraph imagining what the alien explorers a hundred million years in the future might be deducing about their finds; he does not seem to over-simplify as do so many ‘popular science’ texts. His picture of how time and geological process will inevitably skew any record of us that does survive, is quite sobering, as is his sense of perspective.

Only one question remained for me at the end: will there be no trace of our nuclear waste to inform the future explorers?

I remember I used to tell my students to aim to learn something new every day, and reading this book I really had the sense of learning a lot of new things.

Shakespeare: Othello

May 7, 2015

9780141012315The second up-coming treat is Othello. This is the play I’ve taught most, I think, and I’ve also seen several versions, as well as having studied it at A-Level myself (along with King Lear). I saw an RSC production a couple of decades ago at Stratford, saw the 1986 production with Ben Kingsley in the title role, and have watched the Willard White/ Ian McKellen version countless times with my students.

It’s an astonishingly complex play, which never ceased to make me think, and often to re-evaluate my stance as I taught it and focused in on different aspects of the text. It stretches our credulity in the overview – can Iago really be that evil? can Desdemona really be that innocent? can Othello really be that gullible? – but in the close and fine detail I have always found it stunningly convincing. I still find the short line ‘Ha! I like not that!’ of Iago’s which triggers everything, absolutely spine-chilling, because of its understatedness.

There are lots of things to watch closely: how is Iago portrayed? is his motivation or lack of it, convincing? how effective is his revelling in doing evil? I have always found McKellen’s perfomance the best, because of the pure evil that he exudes, the Austro-Hungarian corporal’s uniform and the hint at the Hitler moustache (which at one point is made chillingly more explicit) and the cold, blank facial expression. Somehow this coldness can seem more powerful than Othello’s passion and torment.

Desdemona is another complex character, as the actor has to portray victim and innocence as she fails to fathom what is happening to her and her husband, and yet she has a very strong womanly presence, self-assured and with a touch of the feminist about her in the early scenes. The relationship with Othello eventually leads one to examine the very idea of love itself and what it is, to measure it up against infatuation, hero-worship and even lust. And Shakespeare shows the horribly destructive power of sexual jealousy and its devastating effects: pair this play up with The Winter’s Tale and there’s nothing else left to say…

Finally, there’s the male environment of the play to watch, too, and how the male-bonding of the military setting necessarily and inevitably seems to sideline and distrust the women; even when they are wives and lovers, male loyalty seems to win.


I’m really looking forward to seeing this again!

Frederic Chaubin: CCCP – Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

January 6, 2015

downloadI love Taschen books, and this tome on Soviet architecture has long been on my list; this Christmas  it finally came my way. It’s a book to look at, to marvel at, and to get one thinking.

The Soviet Union lasted over seventy years: there was time to think of, and build for, the future. Obviously, no churches or cathedrals were required, but other types of public buildings were: palaces for weddings, and places for remembrance and funerals, sports centres, arts and cultural centres, theatres, and an awful lot of circuses, apparently. And then there were the public monuments…  I always found it touching how newly-weds would go to take flowers and pay their respects at the monument to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War, even in the midst of joy and celebration; this is a duty which I don’t think we in the West can even begin to understand.

There is a lot of grim and horrid stuff, just as there is anywhere else, but also much effort was put in to designing uplifting public buildings; certainly there was a Soviet ‘style’, and this is well explored and documented in this collection of photographs. There are detailed and interesting analytical essays, too.

Rather too much use seems to have been made of concrete – a symbol of modernity, perhaps, which the country strove for – cheap, easily available, and very perishable, as we know from some of our own post-war and industrial architecture… even more likely to crumble in the Russian climate. I felt that much of it was no uglier than our banal shopping centres, and a good deal of the buildings pictured aspire to, and achieve, a curious kind of beauty or elegance.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, many of the buildings have been abandoned, some vandalised and some demolished. The neglect means that they are unlikely to last very long…

How long should they last? How long will anything we build today last? Do we build anything with the ability to stand the test of time, such as the churches, cathedrals and castles that have dotted our English landscape for centuries? Here we have English Heritage and similar organisations to preserve our past. This book records how a nation that strove (and ultimately failed, it seems) to do things differently, tried physically to build itself. I’m not sure that it should all just be allowed to crumble into oblivion.


December 19, 2013

I’ve posted a couple of lists as new pages on the blog: suggestions for reading linked to the First World War, with the up-coming anniversary in mind, and also some ‘my best’ lists if anyone is interested in my all-time greats.

%d bloggers like this: