With pickaxe and rifle

May 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…


On living in a bubble

April 15, 2017

I think I was probably a fully paid-up hippy in the 1970s, and that means I read quite a bit of what I suppose must be hippy-lit in those days, too, writers like Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as others like Hermann Hesse who, though not hippies themselves, were adopted by them. One book I’ve hung on to since then – Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins – I’ve just been back to, for some reason, probably the trippy cover, I suppose. And it’s got me thinking…

I enjoyed the book back then, read it twice according to my back-page notes. This time around it was just ever so faded, dull, not boring but I didn’t really care whether I finished it or not: I’d out-grown it. And I’ve written before about this idea, too. It’s an amusing tale, full of zany characters and outlandish events, plenty of sex, drugs, music and anarchy, the kind of things I suppose I aspired to way back then.

I found myself realising how much of a bubble I lived in then, still do now, and thought that perhaps actually we all do, in our different ways. Here was a novel in which nobody did anyone any harm, everyone strove for pleasure and a happy life free of restrictions – what’s not to like? Except, of course, that there were plenty of people then who didn’t like such ideas, such freedom, such lifestyles: think of the ending of the film Easy Rider.

We all discover the things, places, people and pastimes that we enjoy and find superior to others; this allows us to look down on and make judgements about those who have different preferences. I don’t read chick lit, war novels, westerns, fantasy, novels about sport or horse-racing; I read proper literature, novels from other cultures, the classics, dammit! And when you realise that the entire world is actually fragmented into uncounted numbers of subgroups in terms of so many things – literature, food, drink, television, religion, politics, then you realise just how hard it would actually be to get enough people to agree on enough things to actually make any positive changes in the world we all share. I’ve read plenty of dystopian novels about overpopulation, pollution, climate change… most people haven’t, and probably don’t give a monkeys.

And this is where I find myself getting political, and remembering that feminist slogan from the 1970s: the personal is political. We all make choices, and choices have consequences. It serves the needs and continuation of the current system very well that we all live in our own little bubbles, that we all belong to so many subgroups according to our particular concerns, and that we don’t come together to make a bigger challenge to the status quo: divide and conquer, as the Romans realised a very long time ago.

Back to my hippy novels – which I’m revisiting prior to the next clear-out, I think – whilst I don’t actually think many people at all would disagree with the idea that we should all be nice to each other, not fight wars, enjoy ourselves, be nice to the world and cherish our environment, there are few places for ordinary people to discover that about each other or to share what they really believe in. Mass communications and the media are in the business of keeping us separate, individual. Ray Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is our scary world: utopia is a lot further away than I imagined.


On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.


On re-reading

April 11, 2017

I know there are people who never read a book twice; I’ve never been able to understand why, since, if I’ve really enjoyed a book, I always want to come back to it again and again. We often used to discuss this in class at school, and I was happy that most students would agree with me; they also liked to return to a story once enjoyed, and when we looked more deeply, we found ourselves agreeing on the reasons why, too.

I think most of us would probably accept that on a first reading, it’s the plot that we are most interested in, and depending on how gripping or exciting it is, we perhaps find the pace of our reading increasing, and our attention to other details falling off. And, although I find I can forget quite a lot of the details of a plot, depending on how much time has elapsed since I read a particular book, I never forget everything; there has to be something left in my memory to trigger the pleasurable memory that drives me to eventually pick the book up again.

Second time around then, plot isn’t so important, and I can focus more closely on a different aspect: perhaps development of character, or the writer’s intentions, or her/his use of language; there will be something else to hold me as I relive that first pleasurable reading. And the same will be true in subsequent re-reads. My favourite novels have been re-read up to half a dozen times, I think – certainly Jane Austen, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in my science fiction collection, the novels of Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Philip Pullman is catching up with them…

These well-loved books sit on the shelves in and among less-popular tomes; sometimes they are replacement copies because my first one has actually worn out and fallen to bits. But what actually triggers a re-read? Sometimes it’s a conversation – perhaps some aspect of Jane Austen’s work comes up, or we watch a film of one of the novels, and it will come to me that it’s several years since I last read a particular book, so I pick it out and read it. Sometimes I’ll be in a certain mood and feel a need for some science fiction, and go and pick out three or four Philip Dick novels – I rarely read only one when I go back to him. I may be gazing vaguely at the shelves when something will suddenly strike my eye. One novel may suggest another: I certainly find it difficult to have a plan of what books I’m planning to read over a certain period of time. Something else will always push itself in… There are some novels that do feel like old friends, needing to be visited every now and then, and there are others which are like nurses and come to look after me when I’m under the weather.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those novels that have been read once and put back on the shelves with the thought, “I’d like to re-read that one day…” and that day never comes; after some years I will realise that the moment has past, that I don’t actually want to read it again, and if I have the self-discipline at the time, I’ll put it on the pile to donate to the next Amnesty International book sale. And don’t mention the books that I’ve bought thinking, “That will be a good read one day…”. They sit there, calling and reproaching, elbowed aside by something else.


Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.


Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

April 5, 2017

I’ve read the books at least three times, and listened to the unabridged recording in the car twice, and I’m even more impressed by Pullman’s achievement: the Dark Materials trilogy is a masterpiece. And as I approached the end this time, I was determined to try and work out why I think it’s so brilliant. Partly, he’s an absolute master of the English language, which he uses beautifully: you really notice this aspect of his writing when you listen to the audiobooks.

At times it’s quite easy to think: kids’ books. And I’m sure I’d have been stunned to read something like this at the age of ten or eleven, say. But I was in my forties when I first met them, introduced to them by my daughter who probably was about ten or eleven at the time. I had flu: I hoovered them up and remember dispatching someone to a bookshop to re-purchase the second volume, which had gone astray somehow…

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of parallel worlds, and the possibilities of moving between them. And there are lots in His Dark Materials; the story only focuses on three or four, moving between them quite frequently.

The link between Pullman’s novels and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I also love, is evident, and acknowledged by Pullman. We see good facing evil, innocence and experience side by side, the desire to move from the former to the latter state and then the impossibility of going back; there are links with mythology: what happens in the land of the dead? Can one ever return from it?

Pullman introduces fascinating new ideas: daemons, for instance: everyone in Lyra’s world has one, an externalisation of part of their personality (or soul?) in the form of a living creature which is visible to all, and accompanies them everywhere. Humans and daemons are inseparable. And in our world, we don’t have them. But what if we did? Here we shade into what science fiction does so well: the ‘what if?’: make your reader think… What happens – or could happen – after you die? There’s the land of the dead, there’s the Christian heaven, or there’s the idea that one becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, a different kind of eternity from the psalm-singing and God-praising one.

Pullman’s characters are vividly created, sustained and developed: if we ever feel he has strayed into the world of science-fiction, he certainly doesn’t do the archetypal cardboard characters of that genre. We come to know and like and feel for his characters, even quite minor ones, or very alien ones: their fates matter to us. And his imagination runs wild: armoured bears, gallivespian spies, the mulefa with their wheels. But these creatures aren’t wildly unbelievable, they have convincing personalities and feelings and they interact with the story’s heroes.

I would have to like Pullman anyway, because he’s a writer who loves ideas, and you know I crave stories which get my brain working. Friendship and loyalty are important to his characters, and he shows us the strength and value of these traits over and over again; we see many examples of individual resilience too, and reflection on the importance of doing what is right, and learning to discern what this may be. And, of course, Pullman shows us love, the love that gradually develops between Will and Lyra as they pursue their fates across the worlds. This time, I was struck by how subtly and slowly and carefully he prepares us for its flowering as the book draws to its close. Theirs is a second, happier Fall, a movement from innocence to experience that we can only welcome, a love that redeems the universe rather than requiring a redeemer to undo it… and inevitably, the tragedy of eternal separation is woven in there too: who can fail to be moved by the ending of their story. And yes, I know a certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary for their love to have meaning – just as in Romeo and Juliet…

I know I’ll read and listen to the books again; I’m really looking forward to The Book of Dust in the autumn, hoping that Pullman will sustain what he started.


Geza Vermes: Christian Beginnings

April 3, 2017

Geza Vermes was one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism, and the early history of Christianity; I’d planned to read this book for a long time. I have always been fascinated by how the Church got from the time of Jesus’ death to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Vermes analyses and explains in detail here. I learned an awful lot.

For starters, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the sixth century BCE: previously it had been a monolatry, ie only worshipping their god. Judaism is shown as a religion of one race or people, based on deeds and observances, whereas Christianity quite rapidly became a cosmopolitan religion of believing. Vermes shows us that the gospels portray Jesus as a charismatic prophet and healer, conventional in his Jewish beliefs and practices, but preaching that the end was near.

Vermes very carefully unpicks, and evidences, from the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles of Paul and others, the nature, development and practices of the early church; differences and distinctions emerged very early on. At first, everyone expected the imminent second coming of Christ, which never occurred; the early church gradually worked out how to respond to this. The first structures were devised by Paul, and again, Vermes is able to show in practical terms the gradual, deliberate and necessary development of church organisation and ritual. He has an enormous grasp of detail, and from his research and evidence we get a clear and careful unpicking of the early years of the church, and we can see how much was gradually added and superimposed, as well as just plain changed by the church as it moved away from its Jewish cradle to the Roman and Greek world outside; most notably in the gradual process of turning Jesus from man to god and then to the Son of God.

Quite rapidly – by the middle of the second century – the church became embroiled in fantastical complications and contradictions, inventing dogma tentatively at first as it began to assert Jesus’ divinity, and working its way towards defining the Trinity. Anti-Jewish aspects gradually begin to emerge, too, as did the idea of heresy, and excluding those who disagreed with you. Vermes ends his exploration with the Council of Nicaea in 325, convened by the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and was increasingly frustrated by the doctrinal disagreements that divided it…

What was an eye-opener for me was how so many aspects of Christianity that are nowadays accepted and believed as if they have always been, were in fact gradually devised and invented over several centuries, in other words are nothing to do with the person who was Jesus of Nazareth, but are about politics and power-games as an increasingly large and powerful organisation manoeuvred for its place in the world. And I was angered by the human arrogance, presumption or sheer stupidity – whichever you will – of human beings trying to define God, his nature and intentions. If there is a God, s/he is way beyond such pettiness and silliness. On the other hand, as Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote, human beings have invented God in their own image. Obviously.

The book was fascinating; I learned a lot, as I noted earlier, and it hasn’t changed my beliefs one jot: Jesus remains a preacher, philosopher and prophet who had an important message – just as others did – and who has had a huge impact in so many different ways on our part of the world.


On betrayal

March 30, 2017

Warning: political rather than literary post ahead!

So a certain D Cameron has the effrontery to say that the EU had been poisoning the nation’s politics for years and he was right to allow the referendum. Of course, it was the Tory party’s politics that had been poisoned, and Cameron gambled and lost, and thus betrayed the future of younger generations.

If you’ve read more than a handful of posts on this blog, you’ll know I’m half-Polish. But I was born here, raised here and have lived, worked and paid taxes here all my life. I’ve taught English language and literature as my career, and count myself as English: many people and many things tie me to this country. And this week I feel well and truly betrayed by our rulers, by our entire political class, and by the Labour party who should have been an opposition rather than supporting mayhem.

I can remember being glad that we’d decided to join the ‘Common Market’ when I was still a teenager; a couple of years later when there was a referendum and it might have made sense to leave, as I was going through a hard left phase as a student, I voted to leave what seemed to me at the time to be merely a capitalist club. We didn’t leave, and over time and after much travelling and learning rather more about the world, I came to appreciate more and more the significance of the European project to the countries on the mainland: it cemented peace and co-operation and a whole new way of going about things into their world, after the insanities through which they had lived a generation previously. Britain, on the other hand, came off relatively lightly from the Second World War, which we thought we had ‘won’ (although we did finally lose an empire). It always seemed a great shame, as well as a serious error, that we did not commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the project and seek to exert a real and formative influence on its development. We never really took Europe seriously.

In my darker moments I realise that I owe my very existence to a betrayal, Britain’s betrayal of the Poland for whom she allegedly went to war in September 1939 and then betrayed at Yalta in 1945; the country was allocated to the Soviet sphere where it languished for forty-five years, and my father’s region was annexed by the Soviet Union and he could never return. Yes, I know about realpolitik. I’ve also read about the grubby way this country treated her ally, and the men who made such arduous journeys to make their way here and join the fight for freedom.

I find myself rather envious of several friends who may read this, who have left these shores to make their lives elsewhere in Europe; you, of course, are rather younger than me, which perhaps makes it easier to uproot yourselves, and make a new or different life not too far away, but spared the mayhem here; I wish you well. I’m not a free agent for a number of reasons, and won’t be following you. I also know that I’m relatively fortunate in that I am retired and fairly contented in many other ways, and that I may perhaps not be too badly affected by the coming chaos. I am much more concerned for the future of my own children and their families, and their prospects in a straitened and inward-looking nation, indeed for entire generations who will not have the broader futures and prospects that will shortly vanish. And yes, I am aware of the many flaws of the EU, its organisation, bureaucracy and governance. Babies and bathwater and so on.

I can see that we will leave the EU; personally I do not and will not accept this decision, although I cannot change it; if I am eventually offered some form of voluntary European citizenship, I shall accept it gratefully. I can and do enjoy my Englishness, but I count myself equally European, and I am deeply ashamed of what this country has decided to do.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.


Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.


On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…


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