Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

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.

 

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

Literature and terrorism

August 24, 2017

Recent events in Spain and else where turned my thoughts to this topic: pretty nearly everything in real life has been the subject of fiction at some point…

When I think about how terrorism has been portrayed in novels I’ve read, I instantly go to Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent is the best example I know. Written a century ago, it’s still a masterpiece of the suspense genre, as Conrad uses his technique of non-sequential narrative to great effect. So, from the outset we know there is a terrorist outrage in London, but we don’t know who carries it out, or the consequences, until much later in the book, and it’s the narrowing gap in our knowledge that draws us ineluctably and frighteningly forward. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, so I won’t… but the interplay between the plotter and his wife is marvellous.

The time when Conrad was writing was the epoch of nihilism, as well as that of plots against the Russian monarchy, so terrorism and its consequences rears its head in other of his novels, too, perhaps most notably in Under Western Eyes. And Conrad’s attitude to terror and what it seeks to achieve seems to mirror ours today: the perpetrators are warped and deluded people, devoid of conscience and humanity, expecting their outrages to change people’s minds and bring about some kind of momentous change, which it never does: the innocent die and life goes on.

If our minds unconsciously turn to the Middle East when someone mentions terrorism, then perhaps we should go back further in time, reflecting on the Western interference in other nations’ affairs, which is allegedly the prime mover for many of today’s attacks. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, John Watson is an ex-army doctor who has served in Afghanistan and been invalided out because of an injury from a ‘Jezail bullet’. So we’ve been interfering in that country for a century and a half, and still haven’t learned our lesson. In Naguib Mahfouz‘ brilliant Cairo Trilogy, for a vast part of which we are unaware of British rule in Egypt, a demonstration against it suddenly intrudes with powerful and tragic consequences when the beloved son of the family is killed. Remind me again, exactly why the British were ruling Egypt?

A more modern example I’m aware of is in Michel Houellebecq‘s novel Platform when Islamic militants attack a holiday resort favoured by Westerners; Julian Barnes, in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, recalls an actual incident when hijackers took over a cruise ship in the 1970s 0r 1980s, I forget which…

I’ve mentioned before how much of the world that was open to us to travel in my younger years is now closed to us because of the risks and dangers: no more hitch-hiking along the hippy trail through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to India. And it’s rather more perilous for travel writers to make their way through such countries, too. Gone is the physically arduous but not politically risky travel of the 1930s; people still make their way through the territory, but always looking over their shoulder, aware of the possibility that some group may find their presence unwelcome and challenge it, or worse.

I know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place largely because we in the West think we have the right to do what we please where we please, economically and militarily; equally, it’s perfectly possible that if we weren’t behaving like this, maybe some other nation would. Lines we drew on maps over a century ago are still wreaking havoc on lives in the Middle East and by proxy here at home, and it seems to me that very few people are minded to ask the right questions about what should be done.

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

51XFpHt6JBL._AC_US218_

I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

Paul Theroux: Dark Star Safari

January 5, 2017

41d180a54cl-_ac_us200_It took a long while to get into this book: I found Theroux‘ approach initially very annoying. The whole premise of his journey came across as self-indulgent, and his attitude to many of the people he met seemed patronising, to say the least. Then I found myself coming back to my taxonomy of travellers and travelling, and realised that here was another example of wealthy and sophisticated Westerners being able to do just what they liked: when he feels like it, he can hop on a plane, take a train or a taxi, spend a night in a luxury hotel…

I’m also being terribly unfair here: Theroux lived and worked for several years in Africa when he was younger, and obviously developed an empathy with and understanding of its peoples, too; here is is re-visiting some of his earlier haunts and meeting up with some of those he knew and worked with in those earlier days. What I was trying to tune in to, with varying degrees of success, was his attitude to Africa’s perceived current problems, and what he thought possible solutions might be.

There is a good deal of excellent description of places and travelling in this book; his approach is thoughtful, once I’d tuned in to it, and he clearly was both shocked and conflicted by the lack of progress, the regression even, that he saw since he had last visited some of the places he writes about.

A great deal of Africa’s problems stem from whites, colonisation and exploitation which lasted several centuries; Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness serves as a shorthand for such attitudes and behaviours. Tourists compound the problems, as much infrastructure serves them rather than Africans, and tourists come away with totally false perceptions of what the continent is like. Parasites is too kind a word.

Foreign aid is another serious issue, and Theroux is rightly scathing about this. Aid exists in its own self-perpetuating bubble, creating its own elite, again divorced from the realities of the continent and what it really needs: the charities recycle foreign money endlessly in a closed loop, and very little goes towards building African economies, supporting African ways of life. This, in turn, tends to foster corruption in governments and leaders, whose interest lies in things staying the way they are, rather than any change of direction…

At times, it feels like a portrait of despair, and that Africa really is the basket-case that many glibly name it. Theroux clearly loves the place with a great affection, and his frustration bursts through at various points as we see outsiders doing all the wrong things because it suits them, and Africans being fatalistic and unwilling to help themselves, almost expecting others to provide them with a living. It’s the cities that are the real problem; out in the sticks, people muddle along as best they can as they have always done, when wars don’t intrude…

As the Irishman said when asked for directions, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…’; this is what I felt by the time I’d got to Cape Town in Theroux’ company; our interference has compounded so many problems, perhaps we need to leave and let the people begin to sort themselves out. And yet, there’s the small question of our (partial) responsibility for the chaos in the first place. A sobering read, ultimately.

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website (www.litteratureaudio.com) dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

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