Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

Ten years’ blogging

December 10, 2019

Looking at the data that WordPress offers me, I realise that I’ve been running this blog for getting on for ten years, which feels like a bit of an achievement, and perhaps time to take stock, as well.

There are well over 900 posts, and I have about 350 followers, although no way of knowing how many of you drop by regularly or read every post. This last year, a lot more visitors seem to have been digging back into the archives and looking up specific posts. And I don’t know why certain posts are so popular – on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Wound in Time, her poem commemorating the centenary of the 1918 armistice, on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature. Ismail Kadare and Josef Skvorecky are popular this year; Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is a perennial favourite post. I’d really like to know more about why people visit and what they think, but you seem to be pretty reluctant to post comments, so I guess I’ll never know… But it is quite satisfying to think that people are stopping by regularly to read what I have to say.

As I blog about every book I read, the activity of blogging has affected the way I read and think about what I read, in a positive way for me. Sometimes I wonder if it also affects what I choose to read, but nothing yet has shown me that this is the case: I read what I want to read, one thing leads to another, and each year is punctuated by certain books I’ve looked forward to. This year’s have been Margaret Atwood’s The Testimonies and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth.

In the past I was also reflecting quite a lot on my experiences as a teacher, and the teaching of English, but as I’m now in my ninth year of retirement, there’s rather less of that. I’m still in touch with some of my former students, and pleased that they remember me, and often say appreciative things about the past. I’m aware that the nature of the teaching profession, and what teachers are expected to do, has changed quite radically in this country in recent years, even though the corpus of English literature hasn’t; to me, this means that a good deal of my experience is no longer relevant today. However, I’ve spent some of my time writing some study guides (on The Handmaid’s Tale, Antony & Cleopatra, and Journey’s End – if you’re interested in these you will need to visit the ZigZag website) which I’ve enjoyed doing, and which has helped to keep my brain in gear and use some of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom (?) of the years.

I’ve occasionally also written political posts, and sometimes have felt like writing more, but have not done so. I want to keep this a literature and reading blog above all else, and often think there’s too much political pontificating about without someone else adding more…

I shall keep going with this as long as I’m able to, as it currently feels like a useful discipline. There are dozens more books piled up waiting to be read, and somewhere I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never get to the end of them…

Thank you to all my readers, whoever and wherever you are. And do post a comment to let me know what you like or don’t like, what you agree or disagree with.

Margaret Atwood: The Testaments

September 16, 2019

71KFmh0gnCL._AC_UY218_ML1_   This was a binge-read, because at first reading the plot is what one is mainly interested in; I shall be re-reading the novel more slowly sometime soon and may come up with different and more considered responses. I hadn’t expected a sequel to a novel I’ve read and taught more times than I can remember, and was keen to see what Atwood would do with her ideas. (Warning: this post probably contains spoilers!)

The Historical Notes at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale tell us that Gilead is no longer in existence, and offers various ways in which the story might be continued. As I read my way through The Testimonies, I became aware of a deliberate choice: the previous book had been the Handmaid’s tale, in the Chaucerian sense if you like, and this sequel does not give a voice to any handmaid; instead it might perhaps have been titled ‘The Aunts’ Tales’, for it is around their world, and completely different perspective, that the plot revolves, and instead of the cold horror of the Handmaid’s isolation in the earlier work, there is a sense of women together being powerful and capable. And coming from The Handmaid’s Tale, this is completely unexpected.

The novel’s structure resembles that of the earlier novel, with perspectives shifting between sections, and fairly quickly we are with Aunt Lydia, who is apparently writing a secret journal preserving information about Gilead for the future. The cynical tone of the narrator as she writes suggests that all is not quite what it seemed. Along with her perspective, there is that of other Aunts, as well as those of several young girls being groomed for their future roles in Gileadean society, and it transpires that one of the ways to avoid becoming a Wife is to get yourself taken in to become a Pearl Girl, a trainee Aunt. Eventually there are two stories developing: Aunt Lydia’s and Baby Nicole’s (and it turns out that she may have been one of the Handmaid’s babies smuggled to Canada in the earlier novel).

In a similar way to how there is almost some sympathy elicited for the Commander at certain moments in The Handmaid’s Tale, we are initially shocked by feeling sympathetic towards Aunt Lydia; then we are possibly heartened to learn that she seems to be playing an incredibly dangerous double game, which is rendered plausible by rather more backstory to Gilead than we had in the earlier novel.

It becomes a compulsive and gripping read because we know the previous book and are connected to some of the characters again; by the middle it feels almost like a thriller, quite conventional in a way, and this jarred for me as I recalled the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testimonies is a more conventional novel, less inventive and experimental, less bleak than the earlier novel, although there are some echoes I noticed: the Bible is still altered to suit the purposes of the regime, there is another bog Latin phrase to play with, and occasionally there is some of the playfulness with language that was so clever in the earlier novel. And there is still the meaningless war going on, 1984-style.

As I approached the end, I was realising just how good the novel is, building on what The Handmaid’s Tale gave us more than thirty-five years ago: the backstory of the transformation of the US into Gilead is much more detailed, convincing and scarily possible in the changed times we’re living in now. The picture of Aunt Lydia, which initially seemed a deus ex machina, is more believable when we look at the two novels side-by-side: the Handmaid was utterly isolated and powerless, and the Handmaids in The Testimonies still are. We do not fully understand the world of the Aunts at the very beginning of Gilead; later on their potential becomes clearer. Atwood offers hope in what she calls women’s silent power, that of finding things out, and it is that accumulated knowledge that Aunt Lydia seeks to use…

Atwood’s power and craft shine through, I think. It’s a satisfying enough sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – which didn’t need one, but there are always those who don’t like open endings, who want to know what happened next, as if the characters and situations were actually real – and there is genuine hope in the idea that even in a society like Gilead, you cannot suppress the minds and thoughts and ideas of everyone. And no, I really didn’t expect The Testimonies to end with another Historical Notes…

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

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.

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

On freedom

December 29, 2016

Freedom is one of those words most often taken for granted, not really thought about or understood properly, a totem which can be crassly used to belabour those with whom one does not agree. I found myself scanning my bookshelves, as I often do when I’m reflecting on how to frame and develop a blog post, looking for novels that tackled the subject, and was struck by the fact that there weren’t/ I haven’t any from before the twentieth century… did this really mean that freedom wasn’t an issue in earlier times in the way it has become more recently?

I’m sure for thinkers, philosophers and theologians freedom was theoretically an issue, in the sense of free will, or how much scope we have for choosing and acting as we would like to, and this aspect of freedom continued into the twentieth century with the existentialists. Those of my generation will surely remember reading Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, or even seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of it in the 1970s: we were each free to deliberately make the choices we wanted to, in order to validate our existence… or not, as the case might be. Certainly the question of freedom has become a theme in literature in the last few decades.

When I wonder why this might be, I think we need to look at its opposite, oppression and slavery. The United States technically got its house in order with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War; the question of freedom for slaves is explored in such novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck’s mental gymnastics as he considers the issues while travelling with Jim the escaping slave on the raft down the Mississippi are as clear an exposition of the issues as any I’ve come across.

Russia, and then the Soviet Union, was rather different, and has perhaps determined how the issues were framed in the twentieth century. Serfdom was finally abolished in the 1860s; it hadn’t been quite the same as slavery in the US, but wasn’t terribly different it its effects. But then the authorities continued to deprive political dissidents of their freedom and march them in chains into exile in Siberia: Chekhov wrote about this in his travelogue The Island; Dostoevsky experienced it first-hand. And the Soviets took this much further; the West was easily able to frame the picture of the Soviet Union as a land where nobody was free.

As is so often the case, this is rather an oversimplification. We need to consider two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to. In the West we have foregrounded the latter, and ignored the former: we are free to move where we like, to travel where we wish, to work at whatever profession we choose, to live where we like, to believe what we like and worship how we choose, and everyone should similarly be free. Fine, all well and good, as long as we have the necessities of life – actually the money, if we are honest – to allow us to exercise these freedoms.

George Orwell is often regarded as the author who explored these issues most clearly in – allegedly – his devastating critiques of communism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. The animals win their freedom and are then oppressed even worse than previously. In Nineteen Eighty-four everyone is under Big Brother’s constant gaze and has no freedom of action or speech. Except that we oversimplify. The animals abdicate their responsibilities: freedom once won has to be watched over and preserved by everyone; Big Brother’s gaze is the watch of the totalitarian state, of whatever political colour or direction; it’s convenient but untrue merely to say Orwell is criticising communism.

Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian vision The Handmaid’s Tale, is a writer who invites us to look much more carefully at freedom from and freedom to. At some level the latter is a bourgeois luxury that most of the world cannot even dream of enjoying. Before you can be free to do loads of things, you need freedom from hunger, thirst, homelessness, violence, unemployment, and a few other things besides; most of the world would settle for this kind of freedom. And, like it or not, the Soviet Union and its allies did assure these freedoms as a minimum: there was shelter for everyone (yes, quite grotty flats sometimes, but better than railway arches), food was cheap, very cheap (not a lot of choice and frequent shortages), everyone had a job (and yes, some were pointless, make-work schemes and often you had to work where you were sent) and so could earn money. The basic essentials of life were available cheap.

I’m not saying the Soviet Union was better, or that I’d like to have lived there. What I am saying is that the attitudes we have, the slogans we parrot and the freedoms we allegedly need, are worthy of deeper consideration than they are given, and that we need to be aware of the very privileged positions from which we pontificate.

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.

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

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