Posts Tagged ‘The Simple Life’

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.

 

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Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.

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One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.

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I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…

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One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

German literature and me

August 29, 2015

I’ve always been fascinated by Germany, its history and its past. I first read Günter Grass in the sixth form at school, the short Cat and Mouse first, a little thrown by the nature and development of the narrative and the authorial interaction with his reader, but drawn in by his yearning for and love of his home city Danzig which I’d visited the year previously in its Polish incarnation as Gdansk. For me, The Tin Drum, his first novel, remains his best (and Volker Schlondorff‘s film is a wonderful version, but only of the first half of the book); some of the later ones are a little self-indulgent. His memoirs, the cause of much controversy, are fascinating.

Grass, and his contemporary Heinrich Böll, were two German writers who made the attempt to come to terms in some way – if that is possible – with their country’s Nazi past; Siegfried Lenz also does this in two novels little-known in this country, The German Lesson and The Heritage. On my travels in Germany I’ve noticed that nation’s recent attempts to be honest with itself, and to ensure that the past is not forgotten (though it was not always thus). However, I have found the occasional slight hint in some quarters ‘don’t forget, we were victims too’ à propos of the damage inflicted by bombing on the country, or the expulsion of Germans from former territories, to stick quite heavily in my craw.

My reading of German literature has been mostly twentieth century novels, though I have read some Goethe (Elective Affinities) and loved Fontane‘s Effi Briest. I have been unable to get anywhere with Thomas Mann, I’m afraid. My favourite read of all remains Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life, a haunting tale of a sea captain’s response to the horrors of the Great War: he flees everything and buries himself in the depths of the East Prussian countryside, to live the life of a hermit. It’s a beautiful book, which I’m sure appeals to the ex-hippy in me; I have to go back and re-read it every few years and it never palls.

Hermann Hesse was the big discovery at university – another writer briefly popular in the sixties and seventies but who has now slipped back into obscurity. Siddhartha was the most widely-read novel (there’s an excellent Librivox recording, too) although it was Narziss and Goldmund, a tale of two young men and their relationship in mediaeval times, that really spoke to me. Again there was a really clear sense of time and place, and of the longing for something sought for and lost.

This seems to me, on my limited acquaintance with German literature, to be one of its markers or strengths: the past as somewhere beautiful and hearkened back to, along with the need to know and find oneself. Perhaps it’s something about the landscape and territory the further east one goes? The plains and the forests stretch on for miles and miles and it’s possible to get really in touch with one’s relative insignificance. Being reasonably familiar with Gdansk, and what was East Prussia (most of it is now part of Poland) I think I can understand the feelings of Wiechert, Lenz and Grass.

What I know of Germany, and what I have seen of it, I love. For me, as a half-Pole, its recent past does render it ultimately incomprehensible, though.

 

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

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