Posts Tagged ‘Katharine Burdekin’

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

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Counterfactuals, or alternative histories

February 20, 2015

We are reading about our own era, our own time, but the world is not ours: it’s slightly different, or greatly different, but things have changed, and we are mesmerised, drawn in to see what happens, why it is like this. There has been a fair amount written about alternative histories recently; it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s time to share my thoughts and recommendations…

At the obvious level, such writings are fantasy: that world is never going to exist. The novel is entertainment, often very good entertainment – and yet it is more. It is thought-provoking in the reader because it reflects the consequences of a different choice at some time in our past, and as humans we make choices all the time. It may reflect a different outcome to an action or an event, an effect of chance, and we are reminded that we are at the mercy of events, at the mercy of our own flawed decisions. On the micro level this is the story of our life, and on the macro level it becomes history.

There are some wonderful novels which consider ‘what if’, such as a successful Spanish Armada conquering England in 1588 (Pavane, by Keith Roberts), the Reformation never happening (Kingsley AmisThe Alteration), the Confederacy wins the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee), the Nazis succeed in building their thousand-year Reich (Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin), the Axis Powers win the Second World War (The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick), Christian fundamentalists take power in the USA (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I also have a whole collection of short stories written a century ago imagining the various possible outcomes of the coming Great War between Britain and Germany.

Historians have mocked the value and significance of alternative histories. I don’t see why; it’s hardly encroaching on their territory. But they have made the valid point that there are many factors involved in a chain of events, that no one, single change can be that powerful in isolation – for instance, the First World War would have happened even if Princip’s bullets had missed their target, the Second World War would have happened even if Hitler had been assassinated…

On that last question, I’m reminded of a fascinating novel La Part de l’Autre by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I don’t think has been translated into English. It’s about a young Austrian would be art student; it begins as a single story but forks into two different tracks and becomes two parallel novels in the same book. One track follows Adolf Hitler (for it is he) through failure as an artist, experiences in the great war, into politics and the rest is history. The second track imagines that same student a successful artist who serves in the Great War and comes home to develop a successful career as an artist; events gradually diverge from the ones we know: Hitler’s life as an artist has a public effect, the Second World War still happens though without his help, but still provoked by the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles… It’s not a brilliant novel, but it is fascinating and compelling precisely because the author has written the two diverting stories in parallel so we can see the gradual unfolding and diverging of the alternate history before our eyes.

For me, such writing is entertaining, and it’s valid as an exercise in humans reflecting on themselves, their choices and their errors and the consequences of these, and, as a citizen, I could wish that certain people did an awful more of that.

Dystopia

July 24, 2014

Dystopias are the other side, and seem to be a more recent development, perhaps reflecting our recently-developed ability to destroy the planet and exterminate our own species entirely – a whole subset of the genre looks at post-nuclear war scenarios – and they have a rather different purpose from utopias: they are written to warn…

To create a dystopia, a writer extrapolates from some currently trend or possibility. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually the danger of planet-wide atomic war; in the 1970s and 1980s, ecological disasters and overpopulation emerged as themes. Extrapolation accepts that x is currently happening, and imagines what the situation might be like in y years if nothing changes in human behaviour… there are 7+ billion people on the planet now, what happens when there are far more? Global warming is having x effect now, what will the situation be like in y years if nothing is done to address the issue?

Clearly, a dystopia is easier to imagine, and to write, with none of the difficulty of imagining how we might get from our now to the perfection of a utopia, for instance; you just carry on regardless…

The value of writers writing to warn as well as entertain, using imagination, is important: scientists and experts can write official reports warning of x disaster if y is not done at once, or over the next z years, but a reader’s response and reaction to fiction is rather different; dry and dusty officialspeak is replaced by the imagination, the bringing to life of a particular scenario, peopled by humans with whom we may identify and empathise, as we see ourselves in their situation

If utopia is an attempt to visualise a perfect society or world, then perhaps dystopia imagines the worst possible world, though not necessarily for everyone. Disaster and/or oppression may be ecological, nuclear, political, social or religious. Let’s consider some key examples (and, as I write, I realise that I shall reserve the post-nuclear apocalypse scenario for a later post of its own).

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia for all women in the imagined society of Gilead (future USA), who are merely vessels for reproduction. Arguably, it is a utopia for some of the men, particularly those in power or with privilege. And yet, as the story progresses, it’s clear that it isn’t, as the creators of that society have managed to banish intimacy for everyone, and the coda to the novel makes it clear that the society eventually collapsed. A similar novel, in which the state – this time in Britain – takes control of women’s reproductive capacity can be found in Benefits, by Zoë Fairbairns.

A forgotten, but chilling warning from 1937, Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, imagines what the world would look like seven centuries after a Nazi conquest of the world.

The archetypal political dystopia is probably George Orwell‘s 1984, although it resembles a much earlier Soviet dystopia, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which everyone also is reduced to a number, and surveillance is facilitated by everyone living in transparent buildings. Orwell’s dystopia is more complex, as is its visionary history: in the actual years prededing 1984 the novel acquired a bogeyman effect as everyone feared the world really would turn out that way; consequently the novel seemed really dated when the times didn’t develop according to the prophecy. More recently, with the revelations of our surveillance society, perhaps Orwell’s’ world is coming into its own again?

And then, there’s Brave New World, a utopia or a dystopia or both, depending on your perspective…(for more on this novel, see my previous post).

What dystopias have in common is writers warning against removal of freedom: what we must think further about is that it’s our Western freedom to, with its focus on individual self-expression, rather than a freedom from, which much of the rest of the less privileged world might be rather more interested in. Our fetishistic, capitalist freedom facilitates consumption and profit, with a circumscribed individual freedom as a side-effect, whereas freedom from, say, violence, hunger, homelessness, unemployment would probably lead to the greater happiness of far more people. But that’s another story…

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