Posts Tagged ‘Hermann Hesse’

Bildungsromane

October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

The search for meaning

June 30, 2021

I’ve clearly reached a stage in my life where I’m looking back and reviewing things, wondering where I’ve got to, and I’ve found myself returning to a number of novels I first read in my student years, with the perspective and hindsight of a lifetime.

I can still remember the powerful effect of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on me, while I was still at school: the idea of travelling the world searching for what life was all about, and the sense of freedom called to me, and I suppose I responded by becoming a hippy and doing a modest amount of travelling and exploring alternative lifestyles. I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous On The Road while at university, and that reinforced the notion of complete freedom to go wherever the whim took me; not so easy to accomplish in the UK in the 1970s, though. I quickly came to find that book somewhat superficial and haven’t felt the need to go back to it; when I read his Desolation Angels, with its accounts of solitude in the forests, I was more responsive. There has always been a part of me that has craved solitude, and I have always loved forests.

Round about the same time, I encountered Hermann Hesse, and if you look back over the past few months’ posts, you will see I’ve been revisiting his novels; I’ve just re-read my favourite of all time, Narziss and Goldmund, and there will be a post about it in a few days. It’s all about the duality of human nature, being torn between freedom and adventure, and the urge to seek safety and security, issues I’ve felt pulled in both directions by throughout my adult life: there was the immense freedom of my student and hippy days, the era of career, family and responsibilities, and now, in my later years a renewed sense of freedom and openness to do what I like, which is, sadly, a little curtailed by physical ageing. Hesse explores it all, which is why he spoke to my condition all those years ago, and still does. The rather more deliberate spiritual journey he describes in Siddhartha is just as powerful and moving, though in a different way…

More recently – that is, in my adult years – I came to read Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life, which is also about the values of solitude: set after the Great War, a German sea-captain, disgusted by what he has seen and experienced, leaves the world behind for the deep forests of East Prussia, to live with a single companion in a simple hut. It’s a somewhat romanticised vision of solitude, and undercut by the looming Nazi period and the eventual disappearance of the place after the war, but it’s appealing in its portrayal of the attractions of simplicity, away from the noise, complication and corruption of the outside world. I suppose part of my reading of books like that is that I’ve always imagined myself transposed into the setting, and wondered how I would (a) manage (b) enjoy that existence. That goes right back to my very first reading of Robinson Crusoe.

The final writer I’ll mention is not a novelist, but a traveller – and I use that word advisedly – Ella Maillart. She began her travels after the Great War, having experienced a sense of alienation from Europe and what it had just inflicted on itself; the Second World War she spend studying and practising with a guru in India, having realised that the external journeying had become an internal one. I have found her accounts of travel and her reflections on what she saw, experienced and learned through seeing the world, very interesting and enlightening; her move to introspection in her later life is another thing I have come to recognise in myself.

Where this all gets me, I suppose, is an awareness of my internal restlessness, and a strong sense of having been drawn in two different directions as I’ve lived and experienced my life. It has been both helpful and enlightening to learn, through my reading, that I’m not alone in this, and to accept the likelihood that the journey goes on as long as I do… The books I’ve mentioned I have found compelling and powerfully moving whenever I have returned to them, so much so that I often hesitate before picking them up again, knowing that I’m heading for an emotional and mental shake-up.

Re-reading Hermann Hesse, part 3

February 24, 2021

I’ve been continuing my re-acquaintance with Hermann Hesse, with mixed feelings…

     The thing I learned from reading Autobiographical Writings (because, although I bought the book in 1975, I don’t appear to have read it) was just how much of what went into his fiction was thinly disguised autobiography, especially the early novels that deal with childhood and early adult life. I found it enlightening reading accounts of episodes I’d previously encountered in fiction. Hesse comes across as an acute observer, someone who reflects and thinks deeply; often, but by no means always, this is very interesting. I did find myself skimming quite a lot of this book, however; there was a lengthy and tedious account of a stay at the spa in Baden-Baden, and another about a journey to Nuremberg, where I thought, ‘who could possibly be interested in this?’ On the other hand, a piece on moving to a new house was fascinating, as was a moving tribute to his last surviving sister after her death. The final piece, his thoughts on Narziss and Goldmund, was really good, as that is my favourite of all his novels and I’m really looking forward to reading it again shortly.

     Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of three novellas. There is an oppressive tale of an unhappy schoolboy who has issues with his social class and religion, and is obsessed by his sense of his own sinfulness, even wickedness; his utter misery and self-torture is painful to read. In the second tale a man escapes his wife and marriage by embezzling money and disappearing to Italy; there is the fleeting exhilaration of total freedom in the existential choice he has made and carried out, but he cannot cope with the guilt. He wanders, experiences dreamlike states which verge on madness, craves extinction, rejects the possibility of love and companionship and eventually drowns himself. In the end, I’m afraid I found it all a bit too silly; a similar theme is treated far better in the earlier Knulp.

The final eponymous tale focuses on the power of inspiration to the artist, as well as the power and strength of male friendship bonds. Women are incidental and even friendship is ultimately evanescent; one should live for the moment and delight in the world.

There is a great deal about mental instability and illness in Hesse’s novels, beginning in childhood and shaping or even poisoning later life, and as I’ve discovered, there is a good deal of the writer’s own life and personality woven into these stories. So far, I feel that all of these themes have been treated rather better and more imaginatively in the earliest novels, and when he has reworked them later, they have become oppressive to the point of incomprehensibility at times.

     If The War Goes On is a collection of pieces, mostly but not all about the Great War and its effects and consequences, followed by a couple of pieces after the Second World War. One needs to remember that Hesse, though a German, lived for much of his life in Switzerland and Italy, and thus escaped much of what happened in his homeland. His humanitarianism shines through from the start; he refuses the label ‘pacifist’ though it’s hard to see exactly why. He observes the lack of rationality or sanity in people’s behaviour in wartime circumstances, and expresses a great sense of oppression by war and its implications, despite his distance from it. After 1918 there is the sense of a great tragedy having taken place, along with what now appears to be incredible naivete as he sees the potential for new beginnings after the horrors. Attempting to address the sense of despair in Germans, he urges people to turn inwards… and then, of course, it all happened again, even more horrifically. The best two pieces in the book for me were two brief tales which were basically science fiction, imagining the war still going on in 1920, and imagining the state in total control of individual lives and fates, in the manner of Zamyatin and Orwell. Worth it for those two alone…

To be continued…

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Without women the novel would die: discuss

December 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books that changed my life

August 9, 2018

A fellow-blogger recently posted about books that had changed her life, and I realised I’d never thought about my reading in those terms. Turning to my bookshelves to remind me of such books wasn’t very helpful: I’m a lot older than my fellow blogger, and I realised that I’d actually got rid of a lot of the books that had changed my life, precisely because they had changed me, and I therefore didn’t need them any more… so it became a thinking exercise instead.

41wLBBhi15L._AC_US218_Gordon Rattray Taylor: The Doomsday Book

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, ever since I bought and read this book when came out in the early 1970s: the first book I ever came across that provided detailed evidence of a pollution crisis that was changing the planet. Since then, of course, we’ve had the greenhouse effect, global warming, plastic pollution, CFCs, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and I don’t know what else; we’re still filthying our own nest and denying it. I’ve always thought that small changes collectively make big differences, so I do what I can and preach when I can.

51C7lWT946L._AC_US218_James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This was an A-level set book. It was also about a young man growing up and rejecting the shackles of the Catholic church at the same time as I was growing up and questioning that faith, which I’d also been brought up in. It was about someone who was faced with all sorts of hard choices, and found the courage to take the leap. I was in awe of someone who could decide, in one fell swoop, to leave family, faith and country behind, because he felt they limited and restricted him…

51WlQxTGLFL._AC_US218_Jean-Paul Sartre: Roads to Freedom

This was an incredibly influential trilogy for many in my generation: existentialism (so out of fashion nowadays!) and a stunning BBC television dramatisation that for some unaccountable reason has never been shown again. You are responsible for your life, and the choices you make create your existence, so do something, be something, get on with it. Political engagement was the thing, and though I’ve always been political, I’ve never had much faith in politicians or political parties, I’m afraid.

317RC0nV1EL._AC_US218_Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

The personal is political, said the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies, and that chimed in with what I was realising about my life and the choices I was making about it. I pick this novel as representative of the numerous feminist texts and novels by women I read at this time and which influenced me in different ways. It’s a feminist science-fiction novel and feminist utopia, too, which pulls no punches.

51K2ncM1zsL._AC_US218_Jack Kerouac: On The Road

I was also a hippy in those days, and Kerouac’s book was our bible: self-discovery through travel. I never got to hitch-hike across the USA, but this book inspired me to do lots of travelling around Britain and Europe using the power of the thumb. Thousands of miles a year, many practical – as in saving money while a relatively poor student – and also many on holiday in Europe. France was always a bugger, usually because of drivers’ insurance rules; Germany and the Low Countries were a lot friendlier, as was Switzerland, although every Swiss person who gave me a lift emphasised how bourgeois and unfriendly their nation was, while treating me very kindly… I met lots of really interesting people, too. Sadly, by the time I got a car of my own, hitchikers had largely disappeared, due to cheaper bus and train travel, and Thatcherism.

51ZOka6wyzL._AC_US218_W Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge

Another of my reads as a teenager, this was about the need to explore one’s spiritual impulses, featuring characters in the nineteen-thirties who travelled widely, including to India, which was where many went much later in search of enlightenment. It opened my eyes to possibilities, which I have never lost sight of completely, though I may have been temporarily sidetracked.

51d-U+XeXPL._AC_US218_Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

Every hippy and many students read Hesse in the seventies; most of his books still grace my bookshelves, though the appeal has narrowed itself down to this single volume to which I have returned nostalgically a number of times. Set in mediaeval times it focuses on two friends’ life journeys. One fixes himself in a monastery and devotes himself to contemplation and the spiritual life, the other goes out into the world to make a life and a living. Their paths cross and re-cross for a lifetime as they both seek and find satisfaction, and are thwarted by the frustrations of their choices. To me, that is life. I love this book.

41CD6F0HV7L._AC_US218_Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

Only one book has joined the list of influential ones in my middle years. This quietist novel, written in the aftermath of the Great War when everyone was sickened by what it said about us as a species, seeks rest in isolation, and satisfaction with little in material terms, focussing on the inner life and looking for where contentment may be found. I like it very much, because it came along at a certain point in my life when I was beginning to realise the need to slow down, and accept that I’d ‘ambitioned’ enough, as it were; it was time to become more reflective about what I had achieved, and contemplate the next, and different, stage of life.

It was an interesting exercise, putting this list and summary together. I think I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned changed the way I looked at the world and the way I think about it, or the ways I look at myself, and so have, in various, often indiscernible ways, changed my life.

 

Marguerite Yourcenar: L’Oeuvre au Noir

June 18, 2018

51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_51HB6gDD2sL._AC_US218_Have you ever read a book, thought, “That was really good!” and realised that you hadn’t really grasped more that half of it? That happened again, with another Marguerite Yourcenar novel, just as it had a few years with her more famous Memoirs of Hadrian… I shall be going back to both of them, because there’e so much more in there.

This novel was translated into English as The Abyss by Yourcenar’s lover. It’s a bildungsroman in a sense, as it’s Zeno’s life and development that we follow mainly, in the development of the mind of a Renaissance genius and freethinker – so you know really that it’s not likely to turn out well for him. The early sixteenth century, with its explosion of knowledge plus a certain measure of intellectual liberty (in some places) unleashed by the Reformation, holds a fascination for writers; this novel recalled for me the award-winning (and soon-forgotten) Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and the astonishing Q by Luther Blissett, the only novel I know of written by an anarchist collective… Also in there is an echo of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, as Yourcenar does spend time comparing the attitudes and fates of Zeno’s childhood companion, too.

Zeno’s main interest is scientific – including alchemical – and medical research, many aspects of which were fraught with all sorts of dangers in those days. The rich heir, Zeno’s friend and companion of his early days, rejects that world in favour of soldiering and whoring; they meet up after many years in a significant encounter. Indeed there are many chance encounters and re-encounters throughout this novel, which add layers of depth and meaning to events and characters.

The turbulent backdrop of warfare and religious strife forms a panorama to the book; Yourcenar is clearly very interested in what people then knew and didn’t know, what they cared about and didn’t care about. The picture she develops is quite different from our twenty-first century picture of what things were like back then, and her picture of the isolation of thinkers, writers and savants in a time where communication was a lengthy process or hardly existed at all, where one didn’t learn of quite major or catastrophic events until months later is quite an eye-opener. Little knowledge being disseminated, it was possible for significant research and discoveries to be lost forever; equally laborious work might be duplicated unwittingly. It was a long time before a world of new learning had accumulated sufficient critical mass to become a permanent fixture, incapable of being suppressed by religious or temporal powers.

Yourcenar also evokes brilliantly through the character of Zeno how the mind of a savant in those times so different from our own might have worked, explored, wandered from subject to subject, and attempted to work things out; from the historical and the psychological perspective it’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel, and a reminder of both how dangerous knowledge can be, and how tenuous our hold on progress and civilisation is, too.

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

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