Posts Tagged ‘Olga Tokarczuk’

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading differently

September 11, 2021

Just a few brief thoughts here as I realised the other day just how much the act of writing this blog for the last decade or so has changed the ways I read. Not in any dramatic fashion, because as a lifelong student of literature, once the bug had bitten me in my teens, through three different degrees at universities and a lifetime’s career, I feel that I have always sought to go below the surface. But for a long time, in the middle part of my life, I ‘just’ read books… one sometimes leading to another.

Now there is a greater deliberateness to my approach. Yes, I’ll allow myself to be sidetracked by a sudden discovery, but there’s more of a sense of planning to what I read and when, as I’m increasingly conscious of limited time. I’ve set some time aside this November for reading the new Olga Tokarczuk novel The Books of Jacob, which is finally scheduled to appear in English translation – and I’ve resisted buying the French version which is already out there because I like the work of her English translator Jennifer Croft – and there’s a part of me that remembers, every now and then, that I need to live long enough to read the final part of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy…

So I read a little more carefully now, with a slip of paper and a pencil to jot down ideas and thoughts, links and comparisons and anything else that occurs to me as I read. And I rejoice in the modern technology which means that if my phone is with me, I can look up words and references instantly, without leaving the sofa, and I do look things up rather more than in the past.

I’m thinking more about what I’m reading, with the discipline of this blog in the back of my mind: my promise to myself was that every book I read would get a post, and I don’t think I’ve broken this rule. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting more out of the reading that I’m doing, which can’t be bad.

Men don’t read books by women (?)

July 16, 2021

I’ve written about and around the issue of books by men and women, and which I choose to read, before; an article in The Guardian last weekend prompted me to do some more thinking. The premise of the article was that men did not read books by women writers… roughly speaking.

I turned to my shelves and noticed just how large a proportion of the books, of all genres, were by male writers. I cannot deny this, so why is this the case? As someone who spent several years researching into feminism and science fiction as a postgraduate student, it was a sobering realisation. And what women writers have I allowed into my library, and why?

When I consider the classics of fiction, then women writers figure very strongly on the list: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte are right there are the very top and if I were pushed to choose between them and Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example, I’d be hard pressed. And I note that that there are no English males in my list, for the simple reason (pace some of my readers) Dickens and Hardy and the like just aren’t up there for me.

With more recent and contemporary fiction, males do dominate, without a doubt. But then I thought, actually it’s not the gender of a writer that attracts me, it’s the subject-matter, the themes and ideas. So Margaret Atwood is there for her speculative fiction and her feminism, Pat Barker for her brilliant imaginings and psychological insights about the Great War, Ursula Le Guin for her speculative fiction and feminism just like Atwood. And similar reasons for reading Angela Carter, Marge Piercy. Olga Tokarczuk and Agota Kristov are there because I explore Eastern European fiction. And although there are clearly traits that draw me to writers, both male and female, I do also appreciate the qualities of their writing, and what they bring to the human conditions they illuminate.

I looked at the non-fiction section of my library, and found Mary Beard, whose take on the classical period I like very much and have found a most interesting counterbalance to the picture of the ancient world I imbibed as a school student many years ago. And there was Karen Armstrong, whose histories of religion and theology I have found very thought-provoking over the years. I read those authors not because of their gender but because of the subject-matter: theology, religion and history have always interested me deeply.

Somehow I feel as though I’m offering excuses here, as much as explanations or reasons: are there really fewer women writing in the subjects I’ve come to find interesting over the years? I don’t know.

Then I thought about travel-writing, my major more recent area of exploration, and realised how much I have appreciated the women travellers of the last century of so. There’s Ella Maillart, the intrepid Victorian Isabella Bird, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Edith Durham, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Jan Morris… certainly men still dominate the shelves, but the women writers are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. Here, I suppose, it’s because there’s not the macho posing and posturing a good many of the male travellers have gone in for at times. Instead there is the close observation, detailed description, sharing of the lives of those among whom they travelled, a sense of intimacy and belonging and appreciation of differences. Not that men travelling aren’t capable of those things, but that women do them better and more consistently and have left me with a fuller appreciation of their travelling…

I’m as confused as before. I don’t think any of my choices are gender-driven, though, and I’d be interested to hear what any of my readers think on this question.

Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

Christmas books

December 26, 2018

It’s always lovely to receive presents at Christmas, and, as you might expect, a number of mine are usually books, and ones that I’m really looking forward to reading; no change this year!

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A slim but beautifully produced volume: Something of His Art, by Horatio Clare. This one was prompted by J S Bach’s epic journey on foot, of some 230 miles (each way) from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Luebeck in northern Germany to visit the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude; last year the writer covered various stages of this journey for the BBC, accompanied by a sound recordist and saved his impressions.

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Seasoned readers of my blog will be aware of my fascination (obsession?) with deserts. William Atkins’ book The Immeasurable World (Journeys in Desert Places) is therefore right up my street, and I can’t wait to get started, but the Bach will come first…

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Travel and photography are two of my interests and so I’m looking forward to serious browsing in a weighty tome Travelogues, by Burton Holmes: this American travelled worldwide in the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century and took thousands of photographs of all the places he visited: here’s a chance to look at photos of places as they used to be in the days when travel meant travel and not tourism, and was a serious business.

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One novel, this year, which has had rave reviews wherever I’ve come across them – and I’ve read other books by this contemporary Polish writer – Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ll let you know…

Olga Tokarczuk: Primeval and Other Times

October 29, 2015

51q23Ej2pPL._AA160_Well, this gets my award for the most powerful and moving book I’ve read this year so far…

The simplest way to categorise it is to call it Polish magic realism, I think. These are tales of a mythical Polish village through the troubled twenthieth century, though that’s a very bald description; they are stories, descriptions, reflections and philosophising too. As we meet and follow a series of characters, Tokarczuk also reflects on the nature of the world and our existence in a century which didn’t seem to care about people or the planet.

I’d read her novel House of Day, House of Night about ten years ago, and obviously enjoyed it enough to put this book on my Christmas list…four years ago! It’s another novel about a small place, and I don’t recall a thing about it; that might explain why t took me so long to get around to this one.

In some ways, Tokarczuk’s writing is very ephemeral: one seems to glide or float through the pages, yet the impressions are very powerful and you are irresistibly drawn in to her world; her style is very lyrical, and it does seem to have been beautifully translated. There is an absolutely magical chapter in which a child explains the family treasures she has come across in the drawer in the kitchen table; not only are you drawn further into the child’s world, you create your own version of the drawer at the same time – or at least, I did.

Some of the characters are there throughout the book, some pop up only a couple of times. Chaos begins with the First World War, continues through the reborn Polish nation, erupts again with the Second World War, though not as horrendously as one might expect, except for a dark and vague chapter where Jews are killed, and we cannot tell who the killers really are. Tokarczuk seemed to me to be alluding to those still murky episodes in Polish history which have yet to be owned and fully revealed…

She challenges religion in a number of ways, not aggressively, but through offering new angles on ages-old beliefs, perspectives which the reader is invited to explore and entertain, at least for a while. There are also some curious takes on some well-known Bible stories.

One of the main characters is a boy – hard to describe other than to say that in some ways he is half-witted or mentally different (itself hard to say, given the circumstances of the novel itself) – who is also one of the most learned characters, perhaps the one who I liked the most. And his name is Izydor…

I do like it when I am utterly bowled over by something I did expect to like when I finally read it, but didn’t have such great hopes of.

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