Posts Tagged ‘Jean Giono’

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

2021 has been a very conservative reading year. I’ve apparently only bought 20 books (I received another 3 for Christmas), but I have read over 90, so there’s been a lot of re-reading going on, and this has mainly been comfort reading to help me through the strange times we are living in. And the big clear-out also continues, as I get rid of books I know I’m not going to read or refer to again.

I spent quite a while revisiting Richard Brautigan’s novels, which have been in my library since my hippy days. They are light-hearted froth in a lot of ways, and yet some of them are very well-written, and I didn’t decide to get rid of all of them, but kept one or two just in case, as you do. The same is true of Hermann Hesse’s novels: I’ve now re-read all of these apart from The Glass Bead Game, which somehow I can’t face at the moment, even though some think it’s the best of all his works. I have a very vague recollection of it being a bit of a disappointment way back in the 1970s, too. But as I grow older I realise that Hesse’s fiction, and his ideas about the self and personality were pretty influential in my younger years in terms of how I saw myself and the world I lived in, and the connections between Hesse’s characters’ lives and the psychology of Carl Jung has been quite to the forefront when I’ve been re-reading the novels. Necessarily this led to a re-reading of some of Jung as well. In the end, I think the pandemic has caused me to undertake some fairly deep reflection on my entire life, and I know this has been the case for a good number of people.

There have been some new books this year, and a good number of them I read because they were choices of other members of my current book group. I’m a little surprised that I’ve stuck with the group – I like the people a lot – but at other times when I’ve been in a book group, I’ve dropped out fairly quickly because I didn’t like other people choosing my reading matter for me…

I’ve also realised that I read very little travel writing this year, which struck me as rather odd since my own opportunities for travel have been necessarily rather constrained for the past couple of years. I re-read a short and very lovely book Something of his Art, by Horatio Clare who travelled in the footsteps of my hero J S Bach, making the journey on foot from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the early eighteenth century. Clare records his impressions of the walk and reflects on the music and musician.

Discovery: I’ve wrestled with the Tao Te Ching a few times but not really got anywhere. My liking for Ursula Le Guin led me to get her version (ie version rather than translation, with plenty of her annotation and commentary) and I feel I’m now getting somewhere with it and something from it.

Blog report: more visits than ever this year, but this is largely due, as last year, to the number of what I imagine are students of the literature of the Great War reading up about various poems and poets as part of their studies. I’m grateful for their visits, and for everyone else who reads rather more widely in my meanderings through the world of literature, and I enjoy your comments and interactions.

Best SF: Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, although strictly speaking it’s an alternative history rather than science fiction. But a superb ‘what if?’

Best new novel: this has to be the (for me) long-awaited The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, which was a challenging but rewarding read and shows why she is a Nobel-class writer. Looking forward to more from her.

Best non-fiction: I found Adrift, by Amin Maalouf a fascinating account of the current state of the world, and how we got here. He’s a Lebanese writer, mainly a novelist but he has written about history and society before. He anchors so many of our current political problems in the Middle East and the effects that interfering outsiders have had over the past century as they struggled for control over the region and its resources. That’s oversimplifying a great deal, but is a very thought-provoking approach and one which matches the way I have thought about the world and seen it changing over my lifetime. The West’s appalling and cavalier treatment of Palestine is at the heart of so many problems and conflicts…

Best re-read(s): Amin Maalouf again, and Leo The African, his amazing re-creation of the true story of the Muslim boy from Spain at the time of the Reconquista, and his life, travels and adventures. Simply wonderful. Also Jean Giono’s Regain, about the resurrection of a remote village in France, the power of nature and those who live in harmony with it. Another book from my student days.

Next year’s plans: I want to continue with my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve also made a resolution to read/re-read more history. I shall continue to sort and tidy up my library, and attempt to buy no new books at all… I am allowing myself one exception, which will be the final volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, if it’s published. And lest you think I’m being extremist here, I will point out that I have several feet of as yet unread books on my shelves…

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

August 11, 2021

     Literature set in the Great War is fairly well-known and accessible; literature set in the aftermath, exploring attempts to come to terms with that horror rather less so. And the more I’ve gradually discovered and read, the more powerful it seems, and the more I realise the extent of the trauma of the survivors.

Wiechert wrote this novel after the Nazis released him from what was basically a warning imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What is the former naval captain, who commanded a ship at Jutland, to do with himself? What can his life mean now? Well-meant advice from a priest suggests meaning comes through work. He abandons wife and son and home and treks into the depths of the forests of East Prussia (Wiechert’s homeland), returning to earth and nature as manager of an estate fishery and living in a hut on a small island. He is joined by his former first mate, who saved his life during the naval mutiny at the end of the war.

His life becomes a cleansing, redemptive, un-religious though spiritual experience; withdrawal from the world leads him to an almost timeless, contemplative state, and we come to understand how devastating the war must have been for so many people. I was often reminded of the French author Jean Giono, who lived, experienced and wrote at the same time, and remembered studying his novel Regain for A-level: it’s also about forsaking the world to bury oneself deep in nature…I must track it down and re-read it.

I’m really not sure how good a novel it is; it’s flawed in some ways. The idyllic simplicity seems at times too good to be true, and the relationship with the granddaughter of the retired general on whose estate the fishery lies, feels ever so slightly creepy in our post-Lolita days, though it’s never a sexual one, and that possibility is clearly ruled out.

There is the mutual incomprehension of father and son, the perennial difference between generations, and the son and his peers imagine that they will regain the glory of the German navy through their efforts.

It’s also a novel about the end of an era, with things never the same again – echoes for me of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, certainly – the Prussian aristocracy is dying out, and for us there is the added hindsight: Hitler’s war is to come, and East Prussia ceases to exist in 1945, divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, the German population extirpated.

I’ve now read this novel four times; it’s one of my all-time favourites. How it speaks to me has changed over the quarter century since I first read it. Sadly, it’s a novel very much of its time, and consequently will probably vanish into obscurity. It’s a novel about ageing, growing older, and what that means for a thinking person (remember Socrates’ dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’!) It’s about acceptance of oneself, who one is and who one has become, coming to terms with one’s lot, one’s life and one’s achievements. It’s about the hope, the wish for contentment and a sense of achievement. I think it’s marvellous. And the theme is haunting: from Psalm 90 ‘Swift as a breath our lives pass away.’

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

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