Posts Tagged ‘James Joyce’

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

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August favourites #25: city

August 25, 2018

I’ve explored many cities in my time on the planet, and my favourite is definitely Gdansk, in Poland. I was first taken there on my first trip to Poland as a teenager, in the old days of people’s power. It was a beautiful city then, reborn from the ruins of the Second World War, the city which – as Danzig then, a Free City – was the ostensible cause of that war, as Hitler wanted to re-attach is to his reich. A year or so later I encountered it in Gunter Grass’ stunning novel The Tin Drum, which evokes the city in the interwar years as the Nazi threat grew, through a raft of Polish, German, Jewish and Kashubian characters; he did for that city what James Joyce did for Dublin in Ulysses. I’ve been back there several times since that first trip, explored its churches, mediaeval buildings, streets and wonderful waterfront. It even has a Shakespeare Theatre and a Shakespeare festival. What more could an English teacher want?

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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.

 

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been reading quite a bit about schools and education recently, and started to think about how writers treat the topic in literature, too. Although I’ve been retired from the profession for over six years now, I still keep in touch with some former colleagues, and my impression is that things have got worse, in terms of pressure, stress and workload since I left; there is less trust in teachers, and the notion of teaching as a profession, where teachers have been trained and acquired specific skills, rendering their work and opinions worthy of a certain respect, has diminished considerably.

Partly I feel as a society we are unclear what we want from schools: I’d suggest literacy, numeracy and oral communication skills to a level where people can understand the possibilities open to them, and have the opportunity to develop themselves further, when and how they wish, as a minimum… many people settle for school as a free child-minding service. I think it’s important that opportunity for education is available life-long: I’ve picked up two new languages and yoga, to name a couple of things, since leaving school.

Young children need the opportunity to play, mix with peers, and learn to be sociable. Older children need to have the opportunity to use their imagination, and to be creative; they need to be give freedom, and trusted as far as it’s possible. Such approaches foster open-mindedness and tolerance, and our entire society suffers – has suffered over recent decades – when we lose sight of these important values.

So I found myself wondering why school and education seemed to have by and large received such an appalling press in the books I recalled! Did all these writers have such awful memories of their schooldays? Charlotte Bronte‘s account of Lowood School in Jane Eyre is horrendous, and partly autobiographical, I understand. Mark Twain paints a ridiculous picture of small-town US schooling in Tom Sawyer, and the teachers in Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird don’t come off very much better.

Looking more closely, we have Dickens‘ satire of English education in Hard Times, with Mr Gradgrind as a cannon waiting to fire facts into the little girls and boys; no room for feelings, emotions, creativity there. A horse is a graminiverous quadruped, we are informed; Sissy can’t have pretty wallpaper in her bedroom with animals on it because in reality miniature animals don’t walk up and down walls… And although by the end, we see where such attitudes and practices get you, I often have the growing impression we’re headed back in that direction today…

Then there’s the truly evil account of Stephen Dedalus’ schooling in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce‘s thinly-disguised autobiography. There’s the vicious physical punishment with the ‘pandy-bat’ for something that was no fault of the boy’s, and there’s the horrendous hell-fire sermon which sends the adolescent into something verging on insanity, or at least a nervous breakdown.

I racked my memory for positive accounts of school and only came up with Josef Skvorecky‘s The Engineer of Human Souls, which hardly counts anyway, as we are with Canadian high school students studying literature for goodness’ sake, and anything and everything is grist to the mill in the author’s classes, although some of what we encounter there also testifies to the stultifying nature of education in earlier years…

At the moment I put it all down to the opposition between the creativity that is so embedded in the soul of a real writer and the rigidity of so much of schooling in the past. And yet, isn’t school where writers learn at least the rudiments of their craft?  I can see that a necessary drilling in the basics is necessary for survival in a relatively complex society can be – but doesn’t have to be – rather soul-destroying and dull. And this is one of the reasons why I really feel it’s time there was a proper, dispassionate consideration of what we want education to provide for our future citizens. I’m not holding my breath…

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?

My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

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