Posts Tagged ‘Narziss and Goldmund’

The search for meaning

June 30, 2021

I’ve clearly reached a stage in my life where I’m looking back and reviewing things, wondering where I’ve got to, and I’ve found myself returning to a number of novels I first read in my student years, with the perspective and hindsight of a lifetime.

I can still remember the powerful effect of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on me, while I was still at school: the idea of travelling the world searching for what life was all about, and the sense of freedom called to me, and I suppose I responded by becoming a hippy and doing a modest amount of travelling and exploring alternative lifestyles. I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous On The Road while at university, and that reinforced the notion of complete freedom to go wherever the whim took me; not so easy to accomplish in the UK in the 1970s, though. I quickly came to find that book somewhat superficial and haven’t felt the need to go back to it; when I read his Desolation Angels, with its accounts of solitude in the forests, I was more responsive. There has always been a part of me that has craved solitude, and I have always loved forests.

Round about the same time, I encountered Hermann Hesse, and if you look back over the past few months’ posts, you will see I’ve been revisiting his novels; I’ve just re-read my favourite of all time, Narziss and Goldmund, and there will be a post about it in a few days. It’s all about the duality of human nature, being torn between freedom and adventure, and the urge to seek safety and security, issues I’ve felt pulled in both directions by throughout my adult life: there was the immense freedom of my student and hippy days, the era of career, family and responsibilities, and now, in my later years a renewed sense of freedom and openness to do what I like, which is, sadly, a little curtailed by physical ageing. Hesse explores it all, which is why he spoke to my condition all those years ago, and still does. The rather more deliberate spiritual journey he describes in Siddhartha is just as powerful and moving, though in a different way…

More recently – that is, in my adult years – I came to read Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life, which is also about the values of solitude: set after the Great War, a German sea-captain, disgusted by what he has seen and experienced, leaves the world behind for the deep forests of East Prussia, to live with a single companion in a simple hut. It’s a somewhat romanticised vision of solitude, and undercut by the looming Nazi period and the eventual disappearance of the place after the war, but it’s appealing in its portrayal of the attractions of simplicity, away from the noise, complication and corruption of the outside world. I suppose part of my reading of books like that is that I’ve always imagined myself transposed into the setting, and wondered how I would (a) manage (b) enjoy that existence. That goes right back to my very first reading of Robinson Crusoe.

The final writer I’ll mention is not a novelist, but a traveller – and I use that word advisedly – Ella Maillart. She began her travels after the Great War, having experienced a sense of alienation from Europe and what it had just inflicted on itself; the Second World War she spend studying and practising with a guru in India, having realised that the external journeying had become an internal one. I have found her accounts of travel and her reflections on what she saw, experienced and learned through seeing the world, very interesting and enlightening; her move to introspection in her later life is another thing I have come to recognise in myself.

Where this all gets me, I suppose, is an awareness of my internal restlessness, and a strong sense of having been drawn in two different directions as I’ve lived and experienced my life. It has been both helpful and enlightening to learn, through my reading, that I’m not alone in this, and to accept the likelihood that the journey goes on as long as I do… The books I’ve mentioned I have found compelling and powerfully moving whenever I have returned to them, so much so that I often hesitate before picking them up again, knowing that I’m heading for an emotional and mental shake-up.

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf

June 21, 2021

     Back to my re-visiting of the novels of Hermann Hesse, and this one which was all the rage in my student/hippy days such a long time ago…

Autobiographical again? The hero is called Harry Haller, after all. A man lost and oppressed by bourgeois convention, a Mr Normal and his shadow, in Jungian terms, an endless wanderer and seeker who feels that suicide is the only way out of his perceived dilemma of being unable to square the circle, and reconcile being endlessly pulled in two different directions. Haller echoes and parallels some of the heroes of Hesse’s earlier novels, and their dilemmas, but here they are much more sharply focused, more central. It starts off as a treatise on the Steppenwolf, Haller’s name for his darker self, and feels like a manifesto, or an apologia for his condition. This part felt rambling, dated, tedious and self-indulgent this time around.

But Haller is turned away from his sourness, bitterness, mockery and self-loathing by a woman – Hermine – whom he meets in a bar. A hermaphrodite (Herman!), she humanises the misanthrope through a series of drug-like experiences and encounters, opening him up to a new world of self-exploration and self-knowledge, as well as leading him to accept that there are other people, like himself, who do not fit into the conventional world, and who therefore make a new and different one for themselves in which they can flourish.

Partly this is a novel that reflects some of the strangeness of the interwar years – it was published in 1927 – and partly it reflects Hesse’s lifelong interest in Jungian psychology (the two were contemporaries) which explores the duality of our human psyches, and, for me, is recounted most clearly and fully in the beautiful and haunting Narziss and Goldmund, which I hope to re-read next. And although there are all those connections with his earlier novels, here is a much greater depth, maturity and intensity to the writing. I now have a much clearer sense of the unity of Hesse’s oeuvre, and, I suppose, his sense that one’s entire life is a journey, a search for meaning, a notion that speaks to my own condition. There is a sense of the vastness of humans’ potential once one dares to look beyond the limits one has imposed/ had imposed on oneself.

I found myself reflecting on myself and how I’ve changed as I’ve aged; as students we raved about how brilliant this book was, the idea of being great, notable, different… not sliding into being part of the mainstream of life. And yet, this is what happened to most of us; although I never forgot or rejected those hippy days, I followed – happily – the conventional path of career, family, mortgage and have only in retirement felt able to pick up some of those earlier, left-aside threads of my life. Curious, and now more understandable to me at least, that I laid these books aside when I did, and have now returned to them, with a new and different sense of appreciation…

Re-reading Hermann Hesse, part 3

February 24, 2021

I’ve been continuing my re-acquaintance with Hermann Hesse, with mixed feelings…

     The thing I learned from reading Autobiographical Writings (because, although I bought the book in 1975, I don’t appear to have read it) was just how much of what went into his fiction was thinly disguised autobiography, especially the early novels that deal with childhood and early adult life. I found it enlightening reading accounts of episodes I’d previously encountered in fiction. Hesse comes across as an acute observer, someone who reflects and thinks deeply; often, but by no means always, this is very interesting. I did find myself skimming quite a lot of this book, however; there was a lengthy and tedious account of a stay at the spa in Baden-Baden, and another about a journey to Nuremberg, where I thought, ‘who could possibly be interested in this?’ On the other hand, a piece on moving to a new house was fascinating, as was a moving tribute to his last surviving sister after her death. The final piece, his thoughts on Narziss and Goldmund, was really good, as that is my favourite of all his novels and I’m really looking forward to reading it again shortly.

     Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of three novellas. There is an oppressive tale of an unhappy schoolboy who has issues with his social class and religion, and is obsessed by his sense of his own sinfulness, even wickedness; his utter misery and self-torture is painful to read. In the second tale a man escapes his wife and marriage by embezzling money and disappearing to Italy; there is the fleeting exhilaration of total freedom in the existential choice he has made and carried out, but he cannot cope with the guilt. He wanders, experiences dreamlike states which verge on madness, craves extinction, rejects the possibility of love and companionship and eventually drowns himself. In the end, I’m afraid I found it all a bit too silly; a similar theme is treated far better in the earlier Knulp.

The final eponymous tale focuses on the power of inspiration to the artist, as well as the power and strength of male friendship bonds. Women are incidental and even friendship is ultimately evanescent; one should live for the moment and delight in the world.

There is a great deal about mental instability and illness in Hesse’s novels, beginning in childhood and shaping or even poisoning later life, and as I’ve discovered, there is a good deal of the writer’s own life and personality woven into these stories. So far, I feel that all of these themes have been treated rather better and more imaginatively in the earliest novels, and when he has reworked them later, they have become oppressive to the point of incomprehensibility at times.

     If The War Goes On is a collection of pieces, mostly but not all about the Great War and its effects and consequences, followed by a couple of pieces after the Second World War. One needs to remember that Hesse, though a German, lived for much of his life in Switzerland and Italy, and thus escaped much of what happened in his homeland. His humanitarianism shines through from the start; he refuses the label ‘pacifist’ though it’s hard to see exactly why. He observes the lack of rationality or sanity in people’s behaviour in wartime circumstances, and expresses a great sense of oppression by war and its implications, despite his distance from it. After 1918 there is the sense of a great tragedy having taken place, along with what now appears to be incredible naivete as he sees the potential for new beginnings after the horrors. Attempting to address the sense of despair in Germans, he urges people to turn inwards… and then, of course, it all happened again, even more horrifically. The best two pieces in the book for me were two brief tales which were basically science fiction, imagining the war still going on in 1920, and imagining the state in total control of individual lives and fates, in the manner of Zamyatin and Orwell. Worth it for those two alone…

To be continued…

Hermann Hesse: Early Novels

January 28, 2021

        .    I went back into my hippy past a few weeks ago with my re-reading of Richard Brautigan, and I’ve done some more by re-visiting Hermann Hesse; a good many of the novels I haven’t touched for getting on for half a century, apart from Siddhartha and Narziss and Goldmund. But way back in the day I hoovered up everything I could find as soon as it appeared in paperback: what attracted me to it?

In the end, Hesse writes bildungsromane, and I think it was the fact that I was at that stage, too, which drew me to him: young people (men) beginning to explore the world and discover and assert their identity, and realise that meaning and satisfaction in life had to be striven for, they didn’t just happen along. And this time around, I’ve dug into the author’s life-story too, and discovered that so much of what he recounts as fiction in the early novels is in fact thinly disguised autobiography; he writes so movingly and effectively at times because he’s been there…

Peter Camenzind, his first novel, was written when he was 27. A young boy is taken out of his rural milieu to continue his education: it becomes evident he has the potential to become a poet; he struggles with feelings, and with relations with women, and his one deep friendship, with another man, clearly has homosexual undertones, though nothing is spelled out openly. The sudden loss of this friend leads to self-isolation, drinking, and a feeling of aimlessness in his life; nature becomes a restorative, a curative for the problems of individuals and the world. In the end, he learns that all that one can rely on is oneself; friends leave, or die, and the women we desire are unattainable, in the sense that we build up expectations that can never be fulfilled. So he returns home to his village and his roots and settles back into his original world, with the feeling that leaving briefly was an experience, but not where he was meant to go.

The Prodigy (sometimes titled Under The Wheel in English) is highly autobiographical: an academically bright young boy from a simple background is hot-housed academically by father, teachers and ministers; he is clearly unhappy being gradually taken away from his childish pleasures and pastimes, symbolised by some beautifully lyrical passages about fishing. He must fulfil others’ dreams and expectations at college, and fill his head with purposeless and dull learning. He best friend is a rebel to whom he fails to remain loyal, and over-studying takes its toll and makes him physically ill: he has a nervous breakdown. After he has dropped out, to the disgust of all his formerly eager mentors, he contemplates suicide, then takes up an apprenticeship, and accidentally drowns while drunk. It’s an incredibly sad and very depressing read.

Gertrude is the story of a man, crippled as a teenager in a tobogganing accident, who regards himself as marked for life and doomed to unhappiness as a result. He becomes a very successful composer, and a loner, choosing to avoid others and their companionship, apart from another man who is a successful opera singer and philanderer, who eventually marries the woman to whom he was attracted. That marriage brings misery to both, and our hero can only watch in dismay from the sidelines. It’s a story of discovering where contentment, meaning and satisfaction may be found, and how hard these are to achieve; they seem to come with time, after much isolation and suffering.

At times I have been finding Hesse’s style in these early works rather too gushing, and over-effusive in his descriptions of nature and the ways it affects his characters. He often writes extremely wooden and unconvincing dialogue too (I can’t imagine that it’s merely the result of poor translation). And yet he writes with a wisdom about all ages and stages of life, even when he hasn’t experienced those stages himself; he has his characters reflect with maturity on their lives and predicaments, and it’s clear that what I found astonishingly deep, as well very romantic – in the German sense – in my younger days must have come from deep within the writer himself. In my twenties, I had some idea of what I was looking for; now I am pushed to reflect on where I have reached.

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Books that changed my life

August 9, 2018

A fellow-blogger recently posted about books that had changed her life, and I realised I’d never thought about my reading in those terms. Turning to my bookshelves to remind me of such books wasn’t very helpful: I’m a lot older than my fellow blogger, and I realised that I’d actually got rid of a lot of the books that had changed my life, precisely because they had changed me, and I therefore didn’t need them any more… so it became a thinking exercise instead.

41wLBBhi15L._AC_US218_Gordon Rattray Taylor: The Doomsday Book

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, ever since I bought and read this book when came out in the early 1970s: the first book I ever came across that provided detailed evidence of a pollution crisis that was changing the planet. Since then, of course, we’ve had the greenhouse effect, global warming, plastic pollution, CFCs, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and I don’t know what else; we’re still filthying our own nest and denying it. I’ve always thought that small changes collectively make big differences, so I do what I can and preach when I can.

51C7lWT946L._AC_US218_James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This was an A-level set book. It was also about a young man growing up and rejecting the shackles of the Catholic church at the same time as I was growing up and questioning that faith, which I’d also been brought up in. It was about someone who was faced with all sorts of hard choices, and found the courage to take the leap. I was in awe of someone who could decide, in one fell swoop, to leave family, faith and country behind, because he felt they limited and restricted him…

51WlQxTGLFL._AC_US218_Jean-Paul Sartre: Roads to Freedom

This was an incredibly influential trilogy for many in my generation: existentialism (so out of fashion nowadays!) and a stunning BBC television dramatisation that for some unaccountable reason has never been shown again. You are responsible for your life, and the choices you make create your existence, so do something, be something, get on with it. Political engagement was the thing, and though I’ve always been political, I’ve never had much faith in politicians or political parties, I’m afraid.

317RC0nV1EL._AC_US218_Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

The personal is political, said the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies, and that chimed in with what I was realising about my life and the choices I was making about it. I pick this novel as representative of the numerous feminist texts and novels by women I read at this time and which influenced me in different ways. It’s a feminist science-fiction novel and feminist utopia, too, which pulls no punches.

51K2ncM1zsL._AC_US218_Jack Kerouac: On The Road

I was also a hippy in those days, and Kerouac’s book was our bible: self-discovery through travel. I never got to hitch-hike across the USA, but this book inspired me to do lots of travelling around Britain and Europe using the power of the thumb. Thousands of miles a year, many practical – as in saving money while a relatively poor student – and also many on holiday in Europe. France was always a bugger, usually because of drivers’ insurance rules; Germany and the Low Countries were a lot friendlier, as was Switzerland, although every Swiss person who gave me a lift emphasised how bourgeois and unfriendly their nation was, while treating me very kindly… I met lots of really interesting people, too. Sadly, by the time I got a car of my own, hitchikers had largely disappeared, due to cheaper bus and train travel, and Thatcherism.

51ZOka6wyzL._AC_US218_W Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge

Another of my reads as a teenager, this was about the need to explore one’s spiritual impulses, featuring characters in the nineteen-thirties who travelled widely, including to India, which was where many went much later in search of enlightenment. It opened my eyes to possibilities, which I have never lost sight of completely, though I may have been temporarily sidetracked.

51d-U+XeXPL._AC_US218_Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

Every hippy and many students read Hesse in the seventies; most of his books still grace my bookshelves, though the appeal has narrowed itself down to this single volume to which I have returned nostalgically a number of times. Set in mediaeval times it focuses on two friends’ life journeys. One fixes himself in a monastery and devotes himself to contemplation and the spiritual life, the other goes out into the world to make a life and a living. Their paths cross and re-cross for a lifetime as they both seek and find satisfaction, and are thwarted by the frustrations of their choices. To me, that is life. I love this book.

41CD6F0HV7L._AC_US218_Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

Only one book has joined the list of influential ones in my middle years. This quietist novel, written in the aftermath of the Great War when everyone was sickened by what it said about us as a species, seeks rest in isolation, and satisfaction with little in material terms, focussing on the inner life and looking for where contentment may be found. I like it very much, because it came along at a certain point in my life when I was beginning to realise the need to slow down, and accept that I’d ‘ambitioned’ enough, as it were; it was time to become more reflective about what I had achieved, and contemplate the next, and different, stage of life.

It was an interesting exercise, putting this list and summary together. I think I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned changed the way I looked at the world and the way I think about it, or the ways I look at myself, and so have, in various, often indiscernible ways, changed my life.

 

Marguerite Yourcenar: L’Oeuvre au Noir

June 18, 2018

51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_51HB6gDD2sL._AC_US218_Have you ever read a book, thought, “That was really good!” and realised that you hadn’t really grasped more that half of it? That happened again, with another Marguerite Yourcenar novel, just as it had a few years with her more famous Memoirs of Hadrian… I shall be going back to both of them, because there’e so much more in there.

This novel was translated into English as The Abyss by Yourcenar’s lover. It’s a bildungsroman in a sense, as it’s Zeno’s life and development that we follow mainly, in the development of the mind of a Renaissance genius and freethinker – so you know really that it’s not likely to turn out well for him. The early sixteenth century, with its explosion of knowledge plus a certain measure of intellectual liberty (in some places) unleashed by the Reformation, holds a fascination for writers; this novel recalled for me the award-winning (and soon-forgotten) Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and the astonishing Q by Luther Blissett, the only novel I know of written by an anarchist collective… Also in there is an echo of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, as Yourcenar does spend time comparing the attitudes and fates of Zeno’s childhood companion, too.

Zeno’s main interest is scientific – including alchemical – and medical research, many aspects of which were fraught with all sorts of dangers in those days. The rich heir, Zeno’s friend and companion of his early days, rejects that world in favour of soldiering and whoring; they meet up after many years in a significant encounter. Indeed there are many chance encounters and re-encounters throughout this novel, which add layers of depth and meaning to events and characters.

The turbulent backdrop of warfare and religious strife forms a panorama to the book; Yourcenar is clearly very interested in what people then knew and didn’t know, what they cared about and didn’t care about. The picture she develops is quite different from our twenty-first century picture of what things were like back then, and her picture of the isolation of thinkers, writers and savants in a time where communication was a lengthy process or hardly existed at all, where one didn’t learn of quite major or catastrophic events until months later is quite an eye-opener. Little knowledge being disseminated, it was possible for significant research and discoveries to be lost forever; equally laborious work might be duplicated unwittingly. It was a long time before a world of new learning had accumulated sufficient critical mass to become a permanent fixture, incapable of being suppressed by religious or temporal powers.

Yourcenar also evokes brilliantly through the character of Zeno how the mind of a savant in those times so different from our own might have worked, explored, wandered from subject to subject, and attempted to work things out; from the historical and the psychological perspective it’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel, and a reminder of both how dangerous knowledge can be, and how tenuous our hold on progress and civilisation is, too.

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

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