Memoirs of a Fox Hunting
Dorothy L Sayers:
The Nine Tailors
The Art of War
The Folio Society:
The Girl Who Played Go
True History of the
Patrick Leigh Fermor:
A Time of Gifts
The Hungry Tide
Sonia and Alexandre
A Journey to the
Western Islands of Scotland
The Vicar of
A Town Like Alice
The Wasp Factory
Time and Again
The Secret River
J. D. Salinger:
The Catcher in
For Esmé - with Love and
Squalor & Other Stories
The Collected Short
Cry, the Beloved
The Discovery of Tahiti
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Tender is the
The Matisse Stories
Little Black Book
East of the
Joyce Carol Oates:
The Museum of Dr Moses
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
The Great Gatsby
On The Road
A beautifully written book. Sigfried Sassoon was
one of those poets of the First World War. I'm not really interested in
poetry, so I have only occasionally read one or another of his poems. But
this book has no poetry in it; it is poetic prose.
At first I thought it was pure autobiography, and so I
tried finding the various places mentioned in the text using Google Earth.
Butley, Herons Gate, Hugget Hill, and so forth. But strangely enough, such
places seemed to be in distant parts of England, and they didn't fit in with
the story at all! Furthermore, the book is concerned with the life of
"George Sherston", so I thought that perhaps the unusual name "Sigfried
Sassoon" must have been his literary pseudonym. It was only after getting
further into the book that I realized that it is a kind of novel, written by
the real Sigfried Sassoon, describing his real life with a few of the
details changed. This was the first of three linked books, which are the
imaginary autobiography of George Sherston. Then later in life, he wrote
three more books, giving his true autobiography.
The real Sigfried Sassoon did survive WW1, and he lived
on into a ripe old age. But this book describes his youth before the army,
and then his first taste of the trenches of Flanders. It seems that as a
soldier, he displayed extreme personal bravery, earning the nickname "Mad
Jack" among his men. Despite this, he hated the war. Perhaps his bravery
resulted from a wish to be done with this sordid life; certainly it was not
motivated by a joy in killing. But as a boy, and a young man before the war,
he spent the summers playing cricket for the local Butley team, and in the
winters, he devoted himself to the fox hunt.
Now it seems to me that fox hunting is also an
unpleasant, degrading business. But I am hardly in a position to take a high
moral stand on this point. After all, I shot my fair share of rabbits in
Australia. The farmers there are required by law to keep the rabbits in
check, and shooting them is really much more humane than poisoning them, or
infecting them with myxomatosis. You put them in the cross-hairs of the
telescopic sight, pull the trigger, and they are instantly transferred from
a pleasant, quiet time in an evening meadow into oblivion.
With fox hunting, the "sport" involves chasing the poor
fox through fields and hedges for miles, putting it into a state of panic,
running for its life, chased by a large pack of dogs, with 50 or 100 people
on horseback, blowing bugles, shouting, laughing, jumping hedges
unnecessarily. At the end, the dogs eat it alive. Or if it finds its lair, a
small terrier dog is sent down to bite it out of its hole so that it can
then be killed by the pack of dogs in the open. Where is the skill of the
hunter? Where is the honor in galloping chaotically about the countryside,
jumping hedges for no rational reason, only indirectly motivated by this
tormenting of a poor living creature? But even if I wasn't put off by such
considerations, it seems to me that it would be extremely boring to waste so
much time, pointlessly riding around in the winter's mud.
Still, despite all this, the book was well worth the
read. Sigfried Sassoon was not really interested in the foxes. The one time
he mentions actually confronting a fox, he embarrassed himself by feeling
pity and so ensuring that the fox escapes. No. For him, it is all about
horses, the outdoor life, meeting country people, being a part of the land.
The title of this book would suggest that it has
something to do with the clothing industry. But it doesn't. In fact it has
much to do with the ringing of the bells in the tower of a large church in
the Fens of England. Motivated by this, it is a murder mystery, first
published in 1934.
Elsewhere in Europe, at least as far as I have heard it,
most church towers seem to have just two or three bells. Then on Sundays, or
the evenings, or whatever, they are set in motion, swinging back and forth,
perhaps through an arc of 90° or so, and that is sufficient to cause
the hammer in the middle of the bell to bang against the sides in a more or
less regular rhythm of gongs. The two or three bells tend to swing with
different periods, so that they gradually get into, and out of, step with
one another, giving a somewhat chaotic demonstration of the principle of
interference. After the bells have been made to produce this clamor for a
sufficient amount of time, they are allowed to gradually come to rest; the
gongs getting weaker and weaker, and with a few desultory last clangs, the
performance comes to an end. Such is the external sound of a church
throughout the mainland of Europe.
But in England, things are different. An extremely
precise, technical system of ringing the bells has been developed over the
centuries. I have given a link above to the website of the "Central Council
of Church Bell Ringers" of England. It is a very interesting thing to look
into. They explain the whole business: there are sound files to demonstrate
what it sounds like, and also animations of the technology, showing all the
details of this English bell ringing tradition.
Now "change ringing", as it is called, is not music, in
the sense of playing some sensible melody or harmony, as is done in the
carillons of the churches of Holland. Instead, English change ringing
involves 8 bells, tuned to an octave of the normal diatonic scale. Each bell
swings back and forth, and each has the same period of about 2 seconds. So
they are swung in sequence, giving a repeating pattern of notes. For
example, the simplest pattern would be for the sequence to be the scale
played downwards, starting from the highest note. If the ringers simply
continued this pattern without "changes", then it would sound like the
rather boring and mindless practicing of a single scale by a musician.
In order to introduce some variation, pairs of bells are
made to change their positions in the pattern. Thus if the first pattern is
the simple scale "12345678", then the next change might be "21345678". That
is, the two highest notes in the scale change their places. As I understand
it, the lowest note, here the number 8, given by the largest bell, which
generally weighs a few tons, always comes last, in order to set the basic
beat of this whole business.
Well, as any mathematician knows, there are 7!=5040
possible permutations of the numbers from 1 through to 7, thus 5040 possible
different sequences for the bell ringers. A "peal" of the bells involves
systematically passing through all the different permutations, without
repeating anything. Mathematically speaking, this is the "symmetric group of
order 7". Of course there are various subgroups which could also be
investigated. For example, the set of even permutations gives the
alternating group, having only half as many elements. So in this case, the
alternating group of order 7 consists of only 2520 permutations. Thus, given
that each permutation lasts about 2 seconds on a set of English church
bells, it follows that the full peal of the symmetric group would last about
three hours. If the ringers were not quite up to that, they could satisfy
themselves with the alternating group, which would only last an hour and a
half. Of course there are many possible patterns of changes which give the
full set of permutations. These patterns have obscure and traditional names.
It is a centuries-old tradition in England, and all of this contributes to
the murder mystery of the book.
So this was all very interesting. And the characters, and
the talk of both the country people and the more refined upper classes of
the English of those days gave a good read. Still, I found the book to be
rather longish at 374 pages. I'm not a great fan of murder mysteries, and I
prefer things to be resolved in a more reasonable time without such a great
deal of superfluous detail. In fact, something more in the style of Timothy
But only after 360 pages or so, do we learn what we have
suspected all along. Namely the victim wasn't murdered at all, at least in
the conventional sense. What happened was that he was locked up, with his
hands tied, in the belfry, somewhat by mistake, just when the overly
enthusiastic minister of the church was about to organize a long and
involved peal of the bells. Now you might think that that is nothing
special, but I can confirm that up close, a church bell is horribly loud! We
recently were up in the bell tower of an ancient church near here, having a
look around, and the minister suggested that we try very gently, pulling the hammer over to the rim of one of
the stationary bells, and just touching the side with it. Even that produced
an extremely loud clang; I'm sure it was at least 90 decibels, if not more!
We had to hold our ears. Imagine what it is like standing next to the bells
when they are really ringing! I can well imagine that it could kill a
person, that it would at least rupture the eardrums. In any case this was
the fate of the poor victim in this book.
The largest, and deepest bell in the church in this book
had the name "Paul Taylor". And the tradition of the village was that when
anybody died, then Paul Taylor would be rung. If it were a man who had died,
then there would first be three groups of three gongs, then a steady
ringing, giving the age of the deceased. If it were a woman, then the
initial gonging of Paul Taylor involved only six gongs, namely just two
groups of three. An unfortunate example of sexism in an earlier epoch of
As an added note, let me say that all of this reminds me of a little episode
I had when I was a student in Canberra many years ago. In those days,
England gave Australia a carillon
to commemorate the founding of the Capital, 50 years before. It was erected
on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, and afterwards one often heard the
tinkling of bells off in the distance. The carillon has a modern design,
totally unlike a Dutch church tower. It consists of three vertical
triangular towers, enclosing a triangular space. Perhaps 20 or 25 meters
above is the actual carillon, topping off the space with another smooth
surface. Therefore, if you stand within the enclosed space on the lower
surface, you are surrounded by vertical walls, capped with a smooth ceiling,
with three gaps to the outside. If you clap your hands, then there is a very
strong echo effect, echoing back and forth many times.
So I decided one night to try out the acoustics of the
place with my flute. The carillon was flood-lighted from outside, but it
seemed deserted. I played Waltzing Matilda a few times, getting carried away
by the gigantic reverberations of the place. Then suddenly I was aware of
footsteps coming out of the darkness! Two people emerged, but thankfully
they were quite peaceable. They also thought the sound was cool, and then
they told me that they had made an interesting discovery. Namely, the key of
their car fitted in the lock next to the elevator. So we all got into the
elevator and rode up into the carillon. I suppose it would have been
interesting to see if we could tinkle the bells too, but as I remember it,
we only stayed a minute or two.
Joel Agee is the son of the author James
Agee, and apparently a more distant relative of Philip
Agee, who has just recently died, but who did much to expose the
excesses of the CIA. Joel Agee's mother was Alma, whose maiden name was
Mailman. I don't know if James Agee was much of a writer, since I haven't
read anything he wrote, but he certainly wasn't much of a husband. He was an
alcoholic, and just a couple of years after marrying Alma, he left her to
live with somebody else. Alma, who was a bit of a bohemian, moved down to
Mexico with Joel, who was just a year old. There, she met Bodo Uhse, who was
a German writer and a communist, and was living in exile from the Nazis.
They married in 1945; then in 1948 they moved to East Germany where Bodo was
given a luxurious job editing a "cultural" magazine. He was thus a Bonzen,
which is the German word given to those lucky few in the former East Germany
who lived well at the expense of the "workers and peasants".
To be fair though, the Bonzens were hardly as degenerate as present-day
Wall-Street managers are reputed to be. Nevertheless, their status seemed to
guarantee them their pick of East German women (Bonzens
were, of course, men), and so Bodo, although being basically a good, and a
loving step-father to Joel, had various affairs, culminating in the birth of
a baby to his secretary at the cultural magazine. This became too much for
Alma, so she returned to the USA, having spent 12 years in East Germany,
from 1948 to 1960, with her two children: Joel, who was now 20, and his
younger brother Stephan, whose father was Bodo. This was just before the
construction of the Berlin Wall.
I have certainly not read anything by Bodo Uhse, so I
cannot say whether or not he was much of a writer. In any case, he also
became an alcoholic, and he died just three years later, in 1963. While the
general availability (as far as one can judge from this book) of attractive,
naked women for the members of the Bonzen
class of the DDR seems to have contributed to all of this, it was also the
case that Bodo made life difficult for himself by rashly writing a few
positive words in his cultural magazine in the direction of the people who
were rising up in Hungary in 1956. The less scrupulous members of the Bonzen class carried on till the wall
fell down in 1989, at which point they formed Seilschaften,
which were informal societies, whose purpose was to secure mutual advantages
at the expense of others. Not unlike, say, fraternities, or the free masons
club in the USA.
So Alma, who seems to have been a very attractive, lively
person (with a rather feline face, judging from the photos in the book) did
not find true happiness and fulfillment in marriage. And for Joel, this was
obviously a strange, disjointed way to grow up.
In Mexico, although he spoke Spanish just like the other
children, still he remained a gringo, and was thus subjected to the wrath of the
neighboring children. But things were different in Germany. Within a short
time he could speak like everybody else, and so he was immediately accepted
as a German himself. In particular, he was part of the progressive,
forward-looking, socialist, world of the
future; being driven around in the family's personal limousine,
with personal chauffeur, housemaid, cook, etc; entertaining the artists,
writers, musicians, who visited the DDR in order to participate in the
building of this new world.
He was obviously a very serious person. Having two
well-known authors as fathers, he devoted himself to writing. He was
continuously reading the great books of serious literature. (Unlike the
mixed bag which you see me reviewing here!) He is not only fluent - he is
actually a native speaker of three different languages! So this book is very
well written. In a way, it has much in common with a certain kind of
"serious" German literature. This is where the author - an intellectual Übermensch - reminisces about his childhood, the famous
men he has met who have influenced him in his taste for literature, music,
and so forth. And Joel Agee does go on at length about how he debates the
relative merits of Mozart and Bach with famous visiting musicians, or the
fine points of Tolstoy, and what have you. All of this makes the reader
aware of the fact that his own childhood was, in comparison, nothing more
than a vacuous waste of time.
However, thankfully, these memoirs do break away from
this heavy stuff, and we learn that the author was sufficiently creative as
to be a total failure at school. I suppose most of us learn to endure the
boredom of school, and manage to survive until finally being able to do
something more interesting at university, or in the "real world". But Joel
Agee was unable to put up with it. He spent half the time "cutting" school,
and going off somewhere by himself to read his literature, or practice his
poetry. The other half of the time (and at least half of the book) was
devoted to his unsuccessful efforts to lose his virginity, despite countless
opportunities. Eventually, after failing twice, he dropped out of school
without finishing and became a laborer in a huge factory making ships. But,
just in time, Alma rescued him from that, carrying him away from the DDR and
back to the USA.
Sun-tzu lived in China, back then in 500 BC or so, near
the end of the "Spring and Autumn" epoch of Chinese history (772-481BC),
just before the "Warring States" period. This book of wisdom on the
conduct of war is a classic which has influenced many warriors down the
ages. For example, the Preface (which comes before the Introduction in my
copy of the book) is written by Rupert Smith.
I don't know if he goes down as one of the great generals
of military history. I had certainly never heard of him before reading this
book. However he says that during his time at the Sandhurst military academy
in the 1960s he first read Sun-tzu, and meditated upon it, thinking that it
might be relevant for the jungle warfare of that period. As fate would have
it though, he rose through the ranks and became the commander of the UN/NATO
force which was observing the Serbs shooting at people in Sarajevo in the
1990s. In order to stop them from doing this, he decided to apply the basic
principles described by Sun-tzu. In particular, the fact that war is
concerned with deception. Thus he let the Serbs laugh at the impotent
blue-helmeted UN forces which he helplessly paraded about in front of them.
But in secret, he arranged that NATO would suddenly hit them with a swift,
unexpected strike, as described in The
Art of War. This brought the 1,300 day siege to a quick end.
Ten years ago, I also believed all the propaganda which
is continuously thrown at us in the daily news. In this instance, it was the
idea that the Serbs were like the Nazis, with mass murder and concentration
camps. But thanks to the internet, I am now able to read the various points
of view concerning such conflicts. Still, whatever the merits of one side or
the other may have been, I'm sure it was a good thing that Rupert Smith was
able to end that Sarajevo business quickly.
The actual text of The Art of War is quite short. Thirteen chapters, each of
which is only a page or two. Very practical and sensible guidelines for the
commander in the field. In particular, Sun-tzu emphasizes the fact that the
supreme object is to resolve conflicts without
war. But if war is inevitable, then it should be accomplished decisively.
Of course it is amusing to contrast the teachings of
Sun-tzu with the actual performance of that modern-day war hero, George W.
Bush. As we see, he violates each and every one of these ancient tenants of
warfare, and thus, as Sun-tzu observes, he loses, throwing his country into
a great calamity.
The Introduction to the book, written by the translator,
Roger T. Ames, is seventy pages long. The differences between the "Western"
and the "Eastern" ways of thinking are explained at length. Quite frankly, I
found much of this to be rather dense, expressed in obscure philosophical
jargon. But the basic idea is that "we" in the West - following the Greek /
Judaeo-Christian tradition - think of the world as being composed of two
parts: namely the abstract, ideal "form", and the imperfect, chaotic
reality. Thus, George W. Bush imagines that his war-time leadership is
inspired by a Divine Being in the ideal world of forms. In contrast to this,
we have that great Chinese warrior, Mao Zedong. Within the Chinese
tradition, Mao's greatness was achieved by creating harmony in the chaos of
the single world of reality. He led his people by becoming not only a great
general, but also he was a poet, a great athlete (amazing the world by
swimming 50 km in 30 minutes, or whatever), and so forth.
This is a collection of stories, taken from a number of
collections which the Folio Society has published in the last ten years:
Russian Short Stories (1997), Japanese Short Stories (2000), etc. So this
book has eight or ten stories from each of Russia, Japan, America (that is,
the USA), Ireland, France, and England. Each section has illustrations by an
artist from the respective countries. So it is interesting to contrast the
stories themselves, and also the different illustrations.
The Russian stories generally deal with drunken
debauchery and poverty. In fact, the story by Boris Pasternak, called Aerial Ways, was for me so totally
surreal and incomprehensible that I imagine he wrote it in a state of
complete inebriation. Possibly, in order to understand it, the reader must
also down ten vodkas to put his mind into a suitably sponge-like state. But
I couldn't be bothered. There was also a story about the brutality of the
The Japanese stories deal with sex, insanity, and so on.
The American stories are filled with violence. I didn't feel like
(re)reading the first story in this collection, Edgar Allan Poe's The
Pit and the Pendulum, since in this era of George W. Bush, we are
already sickened by the (all too true) stories of torture coming out of
America. It progresses through a story of somebody killing his father in the
American Civil War, to Hemingway's The Killers, and finally Steinbeck's The
What a relief to arrive at the Irish stories! The first,
The Adventures of a Strolling Player,
by Oliver Goldsmith, is a light-hearted satire of the English fear of Irish
terrorists, written in the 18th century. How much better the world would be
if this horrible so-called "war on terror" which we are presently being
subjected to could also be exposed in literature for the absurdity which it
is. There is much Irish humor here. But also a disturbing story about the
modern-day conflict in Northern Ireland. Somehow the English had a knack of
withdrawing from their earlier colonial possessions - not only in Ireland;
in India, Iraq, Sudan, etc. - in such a way that conflict is bound to
terrorize the poor inhabitants of those regions indefinitely.
The French stories are, of course, concerned with love.
The first one, by the Marquis de Sade, is a rather explicit account of a
husband being tricked into sexual reconciliation with his wife. I wonder how
openly that one was published in the 18th century? Finally the English
stories are also about love, but rather they are concerned with the duty,
the dullness of love. For example, The
Lady of Glenwith Grange, by Wilkie Collins is concerned with a
woman who loves her younger sister as if she was the mother. (The true
parents have died.) But the flighty sister goes and marries one of these
baseless French men. He is an impostor, a criminal. Luckily, a French
policeman turns up at the family's English manor house and shoots his
compatriot dead in the nick of time.
Of course the editors of the Folio Society have
demonstrated their bias in the selection of these stories. Any selection
must necessarily be biased. I know that it is not the case that all
inhabitants of the USA are entirely preoccupied with violence. Also not all
French (despite the performance of the present-day leader of that country)
are preoccupied with flighty love. But these preconceptions, prejudices, add
spice to the whole thing.
I always find it to be an effort to put my mind into
getting started on a story. What is it all about? What is this style of the
author? After the first few pages of a full-length novel, one begins to live
in the story. But reading this book of varied short stories gave me a
disjointed, almost unsatisfied feeling.
Many people who fiddle with computers also like to play
the game of go. Twenty years ago the Atari computer was popular, and go
players all know that the word "atari" has a similar meaning in the game of
go to the word "check" in chess. More recently, it has become possible to
play go over the internet with people anywhere in the world, at any time of
the day or night. I think the foremost internet go forum is the "igs" go
server in Japan, at "http://www.pandanet.co.jp/English/".
Chinese. I did play a few games at the igs some years ago. But my experience
was that some of the players tended to be rather aggressive, rude, impolite.
Of course you have to be aggressive in playing the game. That's what it is
all about. But for example, when your opponent simply writes a nasty
comment, or just suddenly drops out when he is losing, then it leaves a bad
feeling. (That is called "escaping", and these "escapers" are despised in
the world of internet go!) My experience was that things are more civilized
at the "kgs" go server, at "http://www.gokgs.com/".
It may be that Europeans and Americans tend to play more at kgs, whereas the
Asians are at igs. On the other hand, the good players, with high dan
ratings, are at igs, so it is often interesting to watch these games online
as they are being played. Sometimes professional Japanese players even take
part, not only playing, but giving lessons as well.
Of course I am very far indeed from being much of a go
player. My rating would be something like 6 or 7 kyu. Hopeless! The problem
is that I just like looking at the patterns of the stones as they develop. I
can't be bothered with thinking through a position four or five moves ahead.
It's more a spontaneous thing with me.
I first learned about the game through my thesis
supervisor in Canberra back in those days. He had studied at Princeton with
Ralph Fox, a professor of mathematics who had obtained a dan rating in go.
Anyway, in Canberra we often used to play non-stop from morning tea at
10:30, through till afternoon tea at 3:30. Doing so, I learned not only
something about go, but we talked about mathematics as well. The basic
problem with life here in Germany is that people take themselves too
seriously, and thus there is no morning and afternoon tea; things like go
are just considered to be a waste of time.
But I must admit that I don't really like conflicts
(harmony is better!), and so I don't have the necessary "will to win" in
order to enjoy playing competitive games with other people. Go is, of
course, a much more subtle game than chess, and therefore it has not been
possible to construct computer programs which can play at much above the
beginner level. Ten years ago, the available programs were totally hopeless.
However now, the open-source program Gnu
Go, written by many enthusiastic hackers over the years, does
play at about the 8 or 9 kyu level. And so I enjoy giving it a few handicap
stones and playing against it on the computer in the evening.
( - Note: having written that a few years ago, I have now discovered that
tremendous progress has been made with computer go, using new monte-carlo
search algorithms. While the open-source Gnu-Go has not been improved, there
now exist commercial programs which are capable of playing at the level of
strong amateurs (2 or 3 dan) on today's PCs, or notebooks.)
Therefore I immediately bought this book when I saw it in the bookshop in
town. Shan Sa (whose real name is Yan Ni Ni) is Chinese, and she moved to
France from Peking when she was 18. She writes in French, so my copy of the
book is a translation from French into English. It is beautifully written.
There are 92 short chapters in the 280 pages of the book, and they alternate
between the narration of the 16 year old Chinese girl, and her opponent, the
24 year old (if I remember correctly) Japanese Lieutenant. It takes place in
the home town of the girl, in Manchuria in the 1930s, when it was occupied
by Japan. The Japanese invaders are living in their heavily guarded
barracks, and the patriotic Manchurians are resisting them. Thus the
Japanese involve themselves in a brutal, disgusting "war on terror". The
captured terrorists are subjected to unimaginably horrible tortures.
Unlike his compatriots, the Japanese Lieutenant can speak
Chinese and he has great respect for the ancient traditions of China. The
officer in his unit who is chiefly responsible for "counter-terrorism" has
observed that in the "Square of a Thousand Winds" in the middle of town,
people gather together and spontaneously play go out in the open. He
suggests that the Lieutenant disguise himself as a Chinese civilian and
involve himself in the go scene in order to see if he can pick up any
information about the terrorists. So the Lieutenant goes there and finds the
girl sitting alone, waiting for somebody to challenge her to a game.
But they don't play rapidly, in the style of internet go.
(If you wait for more than a minute or two - particularly on the igs server
- then your opponent is likely to begin throwing various comments at you, to
hurry up!) No. This game, played in the Square of a Thousand Winds, takes
days. At the end of a session, they write down the position in order to
start again the next day. All this is similar to that great book The Master of Go, by Yasunari
Kawabata. That is the true story of the match for the highest honor in go,
the Honinbo title, back then in 1938. One single game was played over six
months in 14 sessions. A must read for all go enthusiasts!
The Lieutenant, who comes from an ancient samurai family,
knows that the ultimate purpose of life, as in the game of go, is death. And
the girl, whose ancestors are of the highest levels of nobility in
Manchuria, but who has become pregnant by one of the patriotic "terrorists",
also knows that death is inevitable. At the end of the book, the Lieutenant
shoots the girl and then himself in order to save both from the savagely
blood-thirsty Japanese soldiers around him.
It is often said that life is like go, or go is like
life. Hermann Hesse wrote The Glass Bead
Game, also in the 1930s, presumably having been inspired by what he
had heard about the game of go. But in reality, he describes some sort of
idealized, semi-religious sect, whose purpose is to preserve art, and
whatever, in a disintegrating European civilization. All very celestial. The
masters of the Glass Bead Game are universal geniuses: masters of music,
poetry, painting, I suppose mathematics too, etc., etc. Not at all like real
go. That is very simply concerned with having a good fight about life and
death on the go board!
Ned Kelly is a famous icon in Australia. A Bush Ranger;
the Wild Colonial Boy. He inspired the works of the painter Sidney
Nolan. His life is very well summarized in the link I have given above
to the "Culture and Recreation Portal" of the Australian Government's
Ned Kelly was born to an Irish family whose members and
ancestors had been transported to Australia as convicts of the English
Government. The history of the English occupation of Ireland is an
unpleasant one, which has produced reams of literature. But the poor Irish
who were transported to Australia suffered even more than their countrymen
who were able to avoid that dreadful fate. Once in Australia, if they
managed to survive the English prison colonies, the Irish families tried to
exist by farming the scrub land which was left over after the English
"squatters" had grabbed the best parcels. ("Squatters" was the Australian
jargon for English immigrants who owned large tracts of land and then
pretended that they were the equivalents of English country squires. The
fact that they were not squires, but rather simple people squatting on
whatever they could grab, is nicely conveyed by this appellation.) Obviously
the contrast between the poor farmers and the squatters produced a great
deal of conflict in 19th century Australia.
Looking back on this time from our vantage point in the
21st century, our sympathies go to the oppressed small farmers, and we
revile the squatters. I am afraid to say that I cannot claim to have any
convict ancestors in my Australia ancestry. But on the other hand, I can say
that one of my ancestors was a founder of the Sydney
Herald newspaper in 1831, which eventually was sold to John Fairfax in
1841 when it became the Sydney Morning Herald. It is the oldest continuously
published newspaper in Australia, and it remains a bulwark against the
oppressive influence of the Murdoch empire.
Be that as it may, the present book is an attempt to
bring to life the whole Ned Kelly saga. Peter Carey uses the device of
imagining that Ned Kelly wrote a journal of his life in packets, trying to
justify his actions and hoping that it would be published. But it
disappeared, to be rediscovered 120 years later by the author, who now
presents it to the reading public.
Certainly, Ned Kelly was not an educated man. After a
year or two of schooling he had to quit in order to help out full time
clearing the scrub on his mother's property. Thus we expect his journal to
contain certain grammatical errors. A small sample, having just now randomly
opened the book to page 59, is the following:
Annie should of been
busy with her mother but instead called to me she found a yabby in the
creek. I told her to fetch a bit of bacon rind and a length of string we
took it down to the creek and I instructed her how to tie the bait I were
not surprised she didnt watch.
Well, I am also rather weak in the grammar department. It seems to me that
if you convey the meaning, then the writing is OK. Without these modern
computer spelling checkers, I am hopelessly lost!
In contrast to this, Peter Carey - twice winner of the
Booker Prize (this book was one of them) - does not suffer from a congenital
writing weakness. He is a great artist with the pen! (or at least, the
word-processor) So I was a little disappointed to have the feeling that this
is not really what the journal of the ill-educated Ned Kelly would look
like. Given that he systematically switches the plural and the singular (you
can do this in your word processor by doing a find-and-replace operation,
changing each occurrence of the word "was" with "were", and each "were" with
"was"), and he doesn't even know where sentences begin and end, then surely
such advanced words as "instructed" or "suprised" would not be part of his
vocabulary. (If I took the trouble to search through four or five pages, I
could find lots of words in this book which would be even less appropriate
for the pen of Ned Kelly.)
This distorted style of writing, and the depressing
subject of Kelly's life, made for tedious, heavy reading. But it was a good
bedtime contrast to the more euphoric feelings of a weeks skiing in the
The iconic character of Ned Kelly stems not only from his
rather questionable role as a 19th century Robin Hood. Rather it is due to
the costume he created for his last stand as a bushman. He confronted the
mob of policemen in the town of Glenrowan in Victoria in a suit of
boiler-plate armor. The bullets bounced off him. But after an initial
engagement, he was shot in his unprotected legs, taken prisoner, and later
hanged. This vision of a boiler-plated figure in the hot Australian sun is
the basis of Sidney Nolan's art. Perhaps it is an allegory of the European
experience of Australia. We fight against the harsh conditions of the
environment with steel, concrete, what have you. How different from the
original Australian Aborigines, who were able to live in harmony with the
ever violently changing climate of that wonderful continent.
During my time as a student at the ANU in Canberra, an
English movie company made a film about Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger. I
think it was his first experience of acting. We students laughed about the
reputed homosexual tendencies of the English production crew. (Those
poofters!) For some reason, they decided to make the movie in the small town
of Braidwood, near Canberra. This is some distance from the towns in
North-East Victoria which were the true setting of Kelly's life. But we were
more familiar with the festival of those days, where the students descended
on Braidwood for the purpose of seeing if it was possible to "drink the town
dry". Owing to the various rather disgusting barnyard scenes which resulted
from the extreme intake of liquid, and the relative lack of toilets, I did
not stay to the end to see if the endeavor had met with success. In any
case, the movie did make much of the mysterious ancient gum forest in the Brindabella
Ranges, with its early morning mists and strange bird noises.
Last year, I read Between the Woods and the Water, which describes the
second part of Fermor's walking tour from Holland to Constantinople. This
book describes the first part, following the Rhine down to South Germany,
then the Danube along through Austria, finishing with a short train trip
with a friend to Prague, then a detour through Slovakia, to end while
crossing the bridge at Esztergom into Hungary.
I very much enjoyed Between the Woods and the Water, but this one left me
rather cold. In the book Fermor sets off when he is 18 years old in the
winter of 1933-34, and snow is everywhere. It's freezing. All through
December and January he is walking through snow. And much of February as
well. People are all very friendly, helping him as much as possible, but he
keeps moving on, making rapid progress. It is only when he arrives at Munich
that something starts happening. So to fill in the narrative, the author,
writing over 40 years later, gives us a flowery account of the
half-remembered musings of his youthful self, speculating on the history of
Middle Europe, of Art, Literature, Architecture, and so on and so forth.
At the end of the book the author apologizes for not
dealing more with politics, but he says that that subject has been dealt
with sufficiently in other books. And yet the reader is left with a feeling
of disappointment. We would prefer to have known exactly what the young
wanderer thought about the emerging wave of Nazi emotions which he was
passing through in 1934. What did the people say to him about politics back
then? This would have been more interesting than this jumble of disjointed,
but erudite historical thoughts regarding the ancient politics of the Middle
Ages, which have been dealt with in even countless more books!
And I cannot remember having read another book with such
a collection of obscure words. For example, a rather randomly taken sentence
towards the end reads as follows:
the diapered soffits and sanctuary lamps of a chantry, a casket like a
brocaded ark of the covenant enclosed the remains of a saint.
Don't ask me what that means!
But I did remark at the following sentence, where he
describes his first encounters with Gypsys in Slovakia. They have a
"dancing" bear. (Thankfully, it is now illegal to torment animals in this
way, even in Eastern Europe.)
few seconds, his leader jangled a tambourine to put the animal through
his paces; then he laid a wooden flute to his lips and blew an ascending
trill of minims.
Well, that is a sentence which I can understand.
In music, a trill is defined to be a rapid oscillation
between two adjacent notes. On the other hand, a "minim" is half of a
semibreve, and twice the length of a semiminim in the mensural musical
notation of the Renaissance. The English use these words even today to
describe music. Most of us, however, think of the minim as being the
half-note. It is true that in the Middle Ages, the minim (i.e. the "minimum"
possible) was the shortest notated note. Thus a rapid sequence of notes
might have been notated using a collection of minims. But in modern times
(that is to say, at least for the last 300 years), the beat of the music is
usually given by the quarter-note. That is one half of a minim. Therefore,
the idea of having a trill of minims is ridiculous. And I don't know how the
trill can ascend.
So having gotten that out of the way, I will say that the
book was still worth the read. Upon arrival in Munich, the epicenter of Nazi
barbarity, he heads straight for the Hofbräuhaus,
which he finds to be filled with loud, preposterously fat, gorging and
vomiting SS officers. Rather than joining them, he descends to the cellar,
filled with similarly loud and fat, but very friendly, Bavarian farmers and
wives. There he drinks himself into a totally comatose state, waking up the
next morning somewhere to find that his rucksack, with everything, has been
stolen. But he survives. In fact he makes his first contacts with the landed
gentry, who give philosophical wings to the rest of his journey, that very
This is a biography, with lots of illustrations. I think
the original edition of the book, by Harper-Collins, which you can get via
Amazon, has even more pictures in it than the Folio edition which I've just
read. Of course we all know Michelangelo's famous David, and the Pietà , the
Sistine Chapel, and the Moses statue, and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. But
I didn't really have a clear picture about his life, how these things all
At the beginning, as a young man, he started off with a
very nice statue of Bacchus, depicted not as a fat drunkard, but rather as a
sensual youth. Then he carved the Pietà, which caused a sensation and made
him famous. Back in Florence, he carved David - still as a young man - and
he was asked to become involved with various further projects. But then the
church grabbed him, and that was more or less the end of his life as a free
Those renaissance popes were extremely brutal! First
there was the project of the tomb for Pope Julius II. When that project
gradually seemed to be sinking into chaos and he began to hear threatening
rumors, he fled from Rome back to Florence, hoping to be free of it. He even
considered fleeing to Turkey to work for the Sultan there. But he didn't,
and soon the wrathful Julius invaded Bologna with his armies, and
Michelangelo was forced to come to him, begging him on his knees for mercy
and his life. As punishment, the pope ordered him to stay in Bologna and
make a gigantic bronze statue of himself (Julius). That took a year or more
of Michelangelo's time, and a few years later it was simply melted down to
make canons for the wars of the renaissance. Then Michelangelo was ordered
to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - very much against his wishes.
He did not consider himself to be a painter. And so on. Finally, towards the
end of his long life, he was ordered against his wishes to become an
architect; but again, in this field of art, as in the others, he became a
Looking at all the pictures, it is clear that
Michelangelo was the first person in "modern" times to approach the level of
sculpture which had been reached in ancient Greece and Rome. Yet it is
surprising how few statues he actually completed. One sees how everything is
concentrated on the subject of the male nude. Of course the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel is covered with them, in all poses. As Howard Hibbard says,
it gives the place rather a bath-house atmosphere. I wonder what those
celibate cardinals think when they gather there and gaze upwards at all the
bulging buttocks and penises? And the famous female statues in the Medici
Chapel, of Night and Dawn,
hardly look like females. Rather they look like male models who have
consumed rather too many steroid pills during their body-building exercises.
In order to convert them into females, Michelangelo has simply left the
space between the legs blank and added ugly, unnatural breasts. How
different this is to, say, the beautiful sculptures of the female nude by
Rodin! But at least the face of the Mother in the Pietà is recognizably that
of a beautiful woman. However it was criticized in the 16th century, since
she appears hardly older than the beautiful Christ which she is holding. She
is more like his girlfriend.
What a contrast all this is with the art of the ancient
Greeks! How light and enjoyable is the atmosphere in the rooms of the Louvre
where the Greek statues are. Smiling people find ever more delight from one
statue to the next. Small children sit in a circle and listen to the stories
of the ancient world and then laugh and dance about. The atmosphere is
magical. The nude figure, both male and female, is wonderful.
But somehow the association of nude, he-man images with
the gloomy thoughts of tombs, or churchs, is simply depressing. How much
more dignified is Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy in the Cathedral in Florence,
when compared with its counterpoint, Michelangelo's Medici Chapel. And all
those muscular male nudes in the Last Judgment, seemingly just having
emerged from the weight-lifting room of the nearest fitness center; for me,
it simply lacks dignity.
People back then in the 16th century assumed that
Michelangelo was an active homosexual, and not a few thought that the boys
who worked as apprentices under him were in danger. But Hibbard doubts that
this was the case. Michelangelo was an extremely religious man, and perhaps
all his love went into his art.
Michelangelo is contrasted with Leonardo da Vinci, who
was not at all religious. In fact they were great rivals, and they hated
each other. But Leonardo's art rises above all this religious gloom.
Returning to the Louvre, and the crowds pressing to get a closer look at
that greatest of all paintings, the Mona Lisa, I will say that I was able to
squeeze my way up to about five meters away; and from there, even with the
view obscured by its protective glass enclosure, I had the impression that
the painting had a warmth and liveliness which I have never seen before in a
painting. This doesn't come across at all in reproductions of the Mona Lisa.
Surely it is the greatest work of art in the world. This is the real world
of life, not these dismal visions of death.
Whew! What a wonderful book! I had started reading one
book or another recently, then putting them away without getting interested;
but then this one came along, and it really turned out to be one of those
books where you feel as if you are living in the story, being carried along
The story takes place in Bengal, which is the bit of
India over in the east, around the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
The book starts off in the train station at Kolkata. Since I had never heard
of that place, I tried zeroing in on it via Google Earth. It's a reasonably
big town. Only later, a few pages into the book, did it become clear that
Kolkata is the politically correct way to spell Calcutta. Anyway, while
waiting at the station, Kanai, the urbane, educated Indian from New Delhi,
is eying Piya, the youngish American woman of Indian descent who is also
looking to get on the train to Port Canning.
So they sit next to each other on the journey, and Kanai
invites Piya to come over to the swampy island of Lucibari, where he has
some family business to attend to. Piya is a marine biologist, and she is
there to investigate the Irrawaddy
dolphins, which she suspects might be living there in the waters
around the mangrove swamps of the Sundarban district.
We become immersed in a fascinating adventure which
develops from page to page. And we learn much about what goes on in Bengal.
For example there is the Bengal
tiger. According to the rather garbled entry in the Wikipedia, there
seems to be a total of only about 800 of them in the Sundarbans. Of course
every zoo and circus has its collection of tigers, so the world population
of tigers in captivity undoubtedly exceeds that of the wild-living ones. And
the number of Irrawaddy dolphins in the world seems to be even much less
than that of the number of free-living Bengal tigers. So obviously, people
say that we should protect the native habitats of these endangered species.
On the other hand, if you are a low caste Indian, native
to the Sundarbans, yet thrown into a kind of concentration-camp somewhere in
the barren middle of India, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire doing
forced labor, then you would like to escape back to your native lands and
freedom. This is what some people tried to do back in 1979. They occupied
the island of Morichjhapi.
So the book is a kind of elegy for the people who were violently slaughtered
by the Indian police and park rangers, whose duty was to protect the virgin
lands of India from these hoards of starving, untouchable people.
But who are we for? Are we for the tigers, which kill
many of the people in Bengal each year? Or are we for the people? The answer
would seem to be that we should remove the people from Bengal and let it be
a wilderness area. After all, it's far away from here. Who cares about
Bengal anyway? But then why shouldn't other places, like here in the middle
of Germany, or London, or New York, also be declared to be a wilderness
area? Just get rid of all these hoards of people; shoot them, as they did in
My first thought was that this conflict between free
nature and civilized humanity is a symptom of the over-population of the
Earth by humanity. Well, that is undoubtedly true, for what it is worth.
However, I think that even in past centuries, when the world was not so
totally over-populated, people were still killed by tigers. The maharajahs
had them for their "sport", and so it was illegal for the untouchable mass
of normal people to defend themselves.
Perhaps one could say that Greenpeace, or the World
Wildlife Fund, have now become the modern-day maharajahs. The sport of
modern society is to take such a deadly carnivore as a tiger, or a polar
bear, and portray it as lovable little baby. Save the bears! They can't kill
you when you are looking at them through your television set, so they may as
well be babies.
But the reality is that tigers and polar bears are the
most deadly animals there are. Don't be mislead by those fake pictures of
polar bears on icebergs. They can jump off and swim 50 kilometers through
the open ocean to kill you! Of course it is difficult for them to kill
humans. Therefore they concentrate more on killing their favorite food,
namely seals. What about seals? Didn't Bridget Bardot (along with all those
other caring people) go and have her picture taken with all the seal babies
a couple of years ago? And so it goes on.
It is certainly true that there are just too many people
on the Earth. And if we want to alleviate this problem, then we must accept
that there will be fewer babies to go around. But I wish people would stop
pretending that animals are a substitute for their missing babies. We should
leave the animals alone as much as possible, and respect them for what they
are. And in any case, tigers and polar bears are really only a vanishingly
small part of the natural environment. More important is the mass of
nameless small animals and plants, and whatnot, which is being overwhelmed
by the pollution of humanity.
This is not a novel; rather it is the story of David
Thomson, an Englishman who was invited to be the private tutor of the two
daughters of the Kirkwood family at their property in Ireland in 1930. He
was an Oxford student, who came in the long vacations to teach them Latin
and Greek, and History, Literature and so on. The older girl was Phoebe, who
was twelve in 1930. She also practiced her violin for three hours a day. And
their days were filled as well with other chores on the farm; riding the
horses; bringing in the harvest (it was all done by hand); talking to the
neighbors. He waxes lyrical on the beauties of country life. He says that he
was unable to satisfactorily master the art of plowing, but there was
nothing better for him than to listen to the sound of a plow slicing through
the deep, dark earth, being pulled by a team of horses, producing a
wave-like furrow the length of a field. I marvel at the efficiency of these
big modern machines which plow through, or harvest, a hectare of wheat in a
few minutes. But for David Thomson, plowing was as much of a pleasure as
surfing is to a modern youth.
David fell in love with Phoebe, and the book is the story
of his love. These days, when people are prepared to become hysterical about
anything at all, I am sure that the love of a young student for a schoolgirl
would be considered to be a crime. But back in the 1930s, David Thomson was
as innocent as Phoebe was herself. They were as brother and sister.
Gradually, David becomes part of the Kirkwood family,
living at Woodbrook through the 1930s and into the war years of the 1940s.
He offers himself to the English army, but they reject him since his eyes
are extremely near-sighted, and he has trouble adjusting his sight from
light to dark. Ireland does not join in the war, but Woodbrook suffers,
since everything on the farm is concentrated on horse breeding, and the
market for horses falls to zero. Eventually they are overwhelmed by debts,
and the family retreats to a house in Dublin.
David lives simply in London, writing letters to Phoebe,
who is about to enter university at Trinity College in Dublin. He thinks he
has lost her, but accepts an invitation by Ivy, Phoebe's mother, to visit
for Christmas in 1944. They walk together as in old times. When parting, the
whole family sees him off at the front door and he thinks it is hopeless to
imagine that Phoebe might love him. Yet suddenly she rushes out and sees him
to the tram, and kisses him, they hug one another and she says that he must
come again at Easter. He thinks about nothing else all the way back to
London. But in January he receives letters saying that she has become ill;
she must go to hospital, where she writes to him as if it were nothing; but
Ivy writes to say that it is serious. Then at the end of January, 1945, the
last letter comes, telling him that Phoebe has died.
It is a wonderfully written book. David Thomson is an
historian, and he tells us much about the history of Ireland. I had not
realized just how brutal the English were. In the 16th century, during Queen
Elizabeth's reign, things were particularly terrible. We are used to hearing
the story that Queen Elizabeth, being a woman, brought England into a
peaceful phase, leading to prosperity. But then it is said with a smile that
she did, indeed, encourage all those pirates who preyed upon the Spanish. In
Ireland, her policy was quite simply to have the natives of Ireland
exterminated, to be replaced by English colonists. They were hunted as
animals, rather like a later generation of English hunted the natives of
North America. Those who survived were to be starved out, or, at the very
least, subjected to slavery. Even in the 19th century, during the potato
famine, the English refused to allow imports of food into Ireland. In fact,
much of the produce of Ireland was exported! The English landlords took the
opportunity to evict most of their tenants, hoping that they would starve to
death, or be killed openly by the police. Or at least be removed to America
Thus, in contrast to the rural people of England, David
Thomson found no one in Ireland who thought that the past was the "good old
days". The past was a nightmare of poverty, cruelty, starvation. Thank
goodness that most of Ireland became free in the 1920s, and now it has
become a prosperous part of modern Europe. But of course the English managed
to retain their modern version of a "festering sore" (it was Dublin, back in
the Middle Ages) in the side of Ireland, by retaining Northern Ireland,
which even today remains a center of hatred and violence.
by Michael Crichton
Getting in the mood to read something simple, fast-paced,
I saw this one in the bookshop. But it has turned out to be the weakest book
which he has written and which I have read. Of course it is a fast-paced
adventure story, as are all Crichton's books, but it is practically devoid
of any new ideas.
The book consists of various stories which are vaguely
related to one another. The main story concerns the idea that parrots or
chimpanzees might be able to talk if we stirred in a bit of human DNA into
their genomes in some way. But I think that H.G. Wells treated this subject
over 100 years ago in a more shocking and interesting manner in his The Island of Dr. Moreau. And despite the advance of
knowledge of biology in the last hundred years, Crichton has also been
unable to provide us with any sort of convincing mechanism for producing
such hybrid organisms. As he writes, not only in his own country, the USA,
but also in Nazi Germany, and in Stalinist Russia, attempts were made to
fertilize female chimpanzees using human semen. He doesn't go into the
question of what mechanism was used here! In Crichton's story, some
"scientist" somehow takes a bit of his DNA, or perhaps his semen (Crichton
gives us no detail here), sticks it into a parrot or chimpanzee egg, stirs
it up, and Hey Presto!, out comes the talking animal. But in contrast
to these fantasies of Michael Crichton, there do exist quite normal,
which have astonishing linguistic abilities. In fact I'm sure that many
animals are far more intelligent than Crichton imagines, without
having their DNA diluted by anything human.
Apart from the fantasy of talking animals, the other
stories are concerned with the obvious legal problems arising from the
examination of peoples DNA. For example, what if a daughter disputes the
idea that her apparent father, who has just died in a traffic accident, was
her real father, and then the mother sues the hospital for allowing them to
have a DNA test made? Or what if some private company owns the patent on the
DNA of a living person? Do they then have the right to obtain fresh tissues
from that person against his will? What about people who are chimeras?
And so on, and so forth.
The one real problem which he doesn't
address is the fact that it would be easy for a "scientist" to perform a
"DNA test" on a crime scene, collecting samples of all sorts of things which
could have become polluted in various ways, and then "prove" that some
innocent person is guilty. Since the world, or at least all legal people,
now seem to have lost themselves in the worship of this kind of "science",
which they don't understand, the innocent person will no longer have any
recourse to reason.
But Crichton seems to be more concerned with describing a
world of ill-gotten wealth, where people - that is, men - occupy themselves
with the pursuit of continuous sexual stimulation (apparently mainly with
female humans); and when they are not doing that, they are concerned with
absurd legal points within a nonsensical US system of litigation. Crichton
himself is undoubtedly a very rich man, so perhaps he is writing here about
his personal observations of other people moving within his circle of rich
If the book does have any merit, it is in exposing the
evil of applying the system of patents to such things as genes, or living
cells. Or indeed, computer programs. I had hoped that the present, rather
mild upheavals in the US financial system might lead to some reform of these
abuses, but undoubtedly this hope is in vain.
Trek, by Sonia and Alexandre Poussin
Sonia and Alexandre Poussin are French, and they have
walked the entire length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope, through to
Egypt and ending in Jerusalem. This book is the narrative of the first half
of the trek, through South Africa, traversing Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique,
Malawi, and then Tanzania, finishing up by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Well, the first reaction might be to say that lots of
people have done that, haven't they? Actually, no. Africa is much bigger
than one might first think. This trip involved about three years of being
continuously underway. What do you eat? Where do you sleep? Apparently there
have been people who have walked the whole length of the continent with a
car, or truck driving along beside them for support. A sporting challenge.
But the Poussins were not interested in that. They carried almost nothing
with them, putting themselves at the mercy of the people they met along the
way. The idea was to follow the African Rift Valley - the cradle of man -
and continue on to Jerusalem, understanding the people of Africa.
Alexandre seems to have done most of the writing, and he
expresses his love and admiration for his wife Sonia on page after page.
Nowhere are they robbed, or assaulted. They hear shocking stories of what
has happened to other travelers, but everyone they meet is friendly,
helpful. Everyone wants to help them along on their pilgrimage. Perhaps the
reason for this is their innocence. In contrast to this, I am sure that if a
cynical old man, such as I am, were to try a similar trek, then he would be
assaulted at every step of the way!
So my admiration for the Poussin's is boundless.
Nevertheless, I can't restrain myself from thinking that, as French people,
they cheated somewhat by following the Rift Valley up the eastern
side of Africa. That was the focus of English, Portuguese, and Italian
colonialism. The western side was
dominated by French colonialism. Therefore, I imagine that if they had tried
the western route, then they would have experienced some degree of hatred
amongst the local people. On the eastern side of Africa, people think of the
French as being sophisticated; lovers of good food, wine, and so forth.
They start off from the Cape of Good Hope on January the
first, 2001 on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Well, OK. But I would have
chosen a different date to begin the journey. Quite frankly, I thought it
was ridiculous that all those smart people told us that the new millennium didn't start at the beginning of the
year 2000, but rather in 2001. The problem
is that when that medieval philosopher, Dionysius Exiguus, took his copy of
the Scriptures and tried counting things up, he concluded that Jesus Christ
was born on a certain date. At this point, he made a simple mistake, which
is analogous to a common source of modern-day computer programming errors.
Namely, he declared that Christ was born on the first of January in the year
one! But, as everybody knows, you
first have to live for a year as a baby before
you reach your first birthday. And in any case, King Herod is known to have
died in the year 4 B.C. So if he ordered all male babies to be killed in
order to kill Christ, then Christ must have been born well before that date.
Therefore, even if we were to correct things by including the year zero,
still that would also be false in some religious sense.
But I digress. Getting back to Africa, we are impressed
with the size of the place. South Africa alone is huge. It takes the
Poussins months just to walk over from Cape Town along the coast to the
eastern part where their journey begins in earnest. This alone is the
equivalent of a number of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. But unlike
the experience of pilgrims in Spain, the Poussins find the South Africans,
both black and white, to be overwhelmingly hospitable. They are walking with
only a few kilograms of necessities in their rucksacks. No food; practically
no money. Yet every day, people stop and ask them to stay in their houses
overnight. They are feted and admired.
The real African experience starts with their traverse of
Lesotho. The idea of white people walking across Lesotho was unheard of, and
so they are continuously in the center of great feasts and celebrations.
Emerging at the eastern end of Lesotho, they descend to the lowlands and
spend a few pleasant days at Ardmore
ceramics, below the Drakensberg Mountains. Then they set off northwards,
being handed on from one farm to the next along the way, always with the
greatest warmth and support.
But they hear dreadful stories. At one place, just a week
before their visit, the old people (70 years old) at the neighboring farm
had been attacked in the night. The frightened overseer and his family heard
screams the whole night long. The following morning, they found that the old
people had been slowly skinned alive, but were now thankfully dead. And this
was typical of many stories. They were told that it was mad to walk on the
roads as they were doing. But the killers were not the local people. Instead
they were hired to come from the slums of Johannesburg, and the killing was
a revenge for abuses committed during the apartheid period. The tragedy was
that the torture of the old people was a mistake. A confusion of names. The
bad farmers had already left, or been killed. The farmers the Poussins met
all got along well with the black Africans around them, and they were deeply
attached to Africa.
In Zimbabwe, everyone was afraid of the "war vets"
terrorists of Robert Mugabe: the black Africans even more so than the white
ones. The Poussins experienced it as a country in continuous fear. People
(that is, black people) came up to them, seeing them walking along the road,
and thinking that they must be farmers who are fleeing from the "war vets".
They then begged them to stay, to help save Zimbabwe. But they were
disappointed to learn that the Poussins were just French tourists. At a
dilapidated stand at the side of the road they bought a Coca Cola, and
somebody started talking to them, asking them if they wanted to interview
some politician. They didn't, fearing retribution at the hands of the "war
vets", but then they were driven someplace, where Morgan
Tsvangirai came out of a simple hut with his family and spoke with
them. It was his first interview with foreign people in many months.
People warned them of the terrors of Mozambique, but they
were again greeted everywhere with the greatest friendliness. Soon they were
in Malawi and followed the road up the length of Lake Malawi. At every step,
children followed them, shouting "Give me money". The soil in Malawi is
rich, there is abundant rain, but the people live in chaos, begging for food
from European and American aid organizations.
What a relief it was for them to step over the border
into Tanzania. It was the same soil and rainfall, and the same ethnic group,
but the people were living in prosperity. This was due to the efforts of
that great president, Julius
Nyerere. The other presidents of African countries tended to favor
their own tribes at the expense of the others in their respective countries.
The problem is undoubtedly the fact that the colonial conquerers of a
century ago simply split Africa up into overly large pieces which bore no
relationship to the people who lived there. However Nyerere, and of course
the great Nelson Mandala, have been able to transcend these differences and
unite their countries.
The final leg of their passage, at least in this book,
involved a long, lonely walk along a disused track going past the Ruaha
National Park. This stretch - about 200 km - was almost totally deserted.
During the days they were accompanied by swarms of biting tsetse flies, and
the night was filled with malarial mosquitoes. After each rain, they saw
many fresh lion tracks. (Of course, they had no guns to defend themselves.)
Luckily, they only came down with malaria at the mission station at the end
of this stretch of the trek. If they had gotten it in the middle, then they
would have died there. Also, in the week they stayed at the mission, about
five people in the neighborhood were killed by lions!
Looking at the Poussin's website, I see that they did
survive this whole trek, but it was an adventure which was way beyond
anything which I would even think of doing. So I am left with the greatest
admiration for them. In the end, I found the book to be somewhat exhausting,
just thinking of all these adventures!
This is the journal of his travels in Scotland, together
with James Boswell, in the year 1775. They started off in Edinburgh, making
rapid progress up the west coast, through St. Andrews, Montrose, Aberdeen,
and then around the corner in the direction of Inverness, traveling
elegantly via post-chaise. They are entertained in these cities by the
various Superior Personages of the districts, and we learn something of the
antiquities of these cities, and the characters of the various colleges and
universities. But soon the roads become bad and they must ride horses. From
Inverness, they ride along Loch Ness, but then rather than following it
south to Fort William, they turn west and go across the mountains to the
island of Sky. There they are entertained by one Laird after another in the
Western Islands, enjoying the hospitality in Raasay, then Coll, Mull
and Iona, and a number of other islands as well.
From descriptions of travel, Johnson gradually progresses
into extended philosophical observations about life in wild climates, and
the human condition in general. In particular he is fascinated by the
relationship of the Laird of the Clan to his subjects, or tenants. In a
primitive feudal society without money, the Laird owns the land, and his
subjects pay him rent in kind. There is no possibility for the common people
to advance themselves; and for the Laird, as long as he can protect himself
from the other war-lords in the neighborhood, without money, hence debt,
there is no way for him to lose the land. But beyond this, Johnson gives us
many further observations about the landscape, and life in general. For a
gentleman of the 18th century, the world was totally different from our
world of the 21st century. The modern person, jaded by the hectic comings
and goings in the neighborhood supermarket, finds the freedom of a rocky,
windswept landscape to be an expression of paradise. But for the 18th
century traveler, these were scenes of dark, gloomy despair. And the
enlightened traveler was interested in the possibilities there might be for
improvement; for making this wasteland more fruitful.
The copy of the book which I have read came from our
library. Johnson's text is only 137 pages. But then the Commentary, Textural
Notes, Pedigrees of the various Highland families, and what not, take up a
further 200 or more pages. I didn't bother reading all this extra stuff.
When taking the book out of the library last week, it was
only at the desk that I noticed that it had a yellow classification number.
The white ones can be freely borrowed, but the yellow ones are supposed to
remain in the library. It is true that the professors can take out the
yellow books, but I am really only supposed to be able to do this with the
mathematics books. Nevertheless, the friendly woman at the desk asked how
long I would have it (normally, we can take these things out for months),
and so I just spontaneously said, two weeks. Thus I should return it next
But between last week and this, the library has become
the focal point of a new instance of mass hysteria. Whereas, forty years ago
when the whole building was built, asbestos was considered to be a sublime
product of Nature, protecting the inhabitants of buildings from the danger
of fire, today it is considered to be one of the most dangerous substances
known to man. An Investigator has examined the dust which has accumulated on
the tops of the fluorescent lamps, and he has found a fiber of asbestos in
one sample! What horror! The library has been sealed off; nobody is allowed
in except for the specially equipped forces who are qualified to deal with
this disaster. They wear special protective clothing, pressurized from
inside so that none of these deadly fibers might penetrate their protection.
Gas masks protect their breathing. It is said that they must specially clean
each of the millions of books in the library!
So it seems that I might retain this book for more than
two weeks. On the other hand, it may be that the University will recover
from its fit of hysteria before that time, and the library will again become
accessible. But I wish that Samuel Johnson were with us today, in order to
write down his amusing philosophical observations on the various forms of
hysteria which have become so prevalent in modern times.
This link goes to an online version of the book.
Unfortunately, our library remains closed, so I won't be able to borrow real
books for some time into the future. However I wouldn't really recommend
reading The Vicar of Wakefield as
an ebook. Somehow, the whole feeling of the thing involves holding these
nice thick pages in the hand; imagining what it was like to live back then
in the 18th century, perhaps sitting in an English garden on a summers day,
holding a leather-bound copy of this novel with its old fashioned typeface,
and listening to the other ladies and gentlemen about you chatting on about
one thing and another.
Of course the topic of conversation was marriage, and
prospects of marriage. And scandal. At the beginning of the book, the Vicar
of Wakefield, Dr. Primrose, is living happily with his family and his
church, somewhere in the English countryside. He has two wonderful daughters
who are just entering the marriageable state (that is, 17 or 18 years old).
There are also two sons and two further small children. His wife devotes
herself particularly to the question of the marriage prospects of the
daughters. Dr. Primrose himself is proud to be a strict monogamist. That is
to say, he is not only opposed to the idea of polygamy, and divorce. In
fact, he maintains that a widow, or a widower should also maintain true
lifelong fidelity to the deceased spouse. As in all these 18th century
novels, money plays the determining role. But also, from the moral point of
view, it is always shown that the heroine, or hero, while being fabulously
rich, is still fabulously "good".
At the beginning of the book, when explaining the general
emotional and financial situation of the Primrose family, it is stated that
Dr. Primrose has a fortune of £14,000. Now, in order to convert this into
todays totally deflated money, we can put this number into the inflation
calculator, which can be found here.
Accordingly, we learn that Dr. Primrose's fortune, expressed in 2007 money,
using the retail price index, would be £1,378,362.08. Or something like one
and a half million euros. (There are other methods of measuring inflation.
For example, as a fraction of the GDP, Dr. Primrose's wealth today would be
many times this!) Given a return of 5% per annum, that would be about
€75,000 per year. A comfortable fortune. Thus Dr. Primrose was also in a
position to endow his daughters with comfortable dowrys. His eldest son was
in love with the beautiful daughter of a much richer family in the
neighborhood, so his prospects were even more happy.
But, as always in these books, this idyllic situation is
disturbed by Adversity. One thing leads to another, and Dr. Primrose ends up
in prison, totally destitute, his family disgraced and starving. Yet in the
end, after a chain of ridiculous coincidences, Dr. Primrose's fortune is
restored; the eldest daughter, who, unfortunately had been tricked into
marrying the villain, must remain married, yet she receives a substantial
fortune and has the task of reforming her husband; the younger daughter
marries the fabulously wealthy and good Sir William Thornhill; the eldest
son marries the wonderful, beautiful and wealthy Miss Wilmot, and they all
live happily ever after.
During the travails of Dr. Primrose, we experience long
philosophical passages, where Oliver Goldsmith explains the various points
of his philosophy to the reader. For example, he shows that Democracy, as a
political system, is flawed, since it becomes dominated by the Rich at the
expense of the Poor, leading to ever greater levels of inequality and
injustice. Indeed, just as I am writing this in the spring of 2008, we are
seeing further instances of this truism. In that Great Casino of Wall
Street, various manipulative insiders placed bets on the financial markets
at the expense of numbers of rather naive bank managers. The result has been
that the bank managers have lost their bets. Rather than committing suicide
by jumping out of windows, as was earlier the case in such situations, they
have declared that if the Government doesn't help out, then the world will
collapse. Thus the Government has given them many billions in order to
"save" them, by allowing them to pay off their bad gambling debts. All of
this is formulated in complicated financial jargon. But in reality what has
happened is that the poor people in our democracy have had huge amounts of
money taken away from them in the form of ever higher taxes, and this money
has been transferred directly into the pockets of the winners in the great
Wall Street Casino. Billions and billions of it. As Oliver Goldsmith
explains, a monarchy is a superior form of government, since it provides
some restraint on such excesses.
This book is concerned with domestic violence. How
unpleasant! Yet Adichie writes about these horrible things in her
wonderfully lyrical way, producing a very moving story.
Why is it that beautiful young women who are great
novelists always seem to choose such dreadful themes for their novels? In
contrast with this, we have the example of Jane Austen, who seems to have
been a comfortably average sort of person - not a great beauty - and her
books are not filled with these violent passions of hatred and pain.
But to return to the present book, I suppose there are
all sorts of forms of violence which can develop within a family. The mother
and the children are often financially dependent upon the father, and if the
father is a monster, then he might use this position to terrorize the rest
of the family. For example, he might attack the mother, leaving her battered
and bleeding on the floor. Or he might get into a cycle of continuously
raping one or more of the children. The mind revolts at the thought of such
disgusting, frightening scenes. But we imagine that the victims of such
domestic violence have, at least, the possibility of going to the police, or
some house of refuge. We read in the papers that such monsters are then shut
away from society in prisons for many years, and we hope that there are few
such true terrorists still left at large.
But what is the source of such evil? Can it be that the
violence begins with a warped, deformed kind of love? Think of the
child-raper. We imagine that his sexual drives are an expression of his need
to humiliate and degrade the helpless victim. But could it be that it is
also some form of monstrously deformed love and dependency? The father in Purple Hibiscus does not rape his children. Instead he
slowly pours boiling water over their feet to enjoy listening to their
screams. He throws his daughter, who is the narrator of the story, to the
floor and kicks her senseless, even continuing after she loses consciousness
so that she nearly dies in hospital. He batters his wife, carrying her to
hospital, leaving a trail of blood on the stairs, causing her to have a
miscarriage. Then, at a later stage in the story, he hits her full in the
stomach with a massive wooden writing table, again leading to
hospitalization and a further miscarriage.
What is the motive the father has for all of this? It is
religion. Perhaps it is also sexual frustration caused by his fanatical
attempts to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. After battering,
torturing his wife or children, he immediately hugs them, kisses them, tells
them how much he loves them. How disgusting!
The horror is increased by the circumstance that the
father is a rich man, respected, almost worshiped in the community. He is
universally considered to be the giver of welfare, the pillar of moral
integrity in a corrupt world. How could his family leave their luxurious
house and go to the police - or indeed to the church - to report on these
crimes? Everybody knows that the police themselves are corrupt, and the
father is the one person in the community brave enough to stand up to the
police. And the father is the middle point of the church.
In the end, thankfully, the mother gradually poisons the
father to death by putting something in his tea. The police discover that he
has been poisoned to death and come to the house to begin their
investigations. But the son, in order to protect his mother, immediately
says that he did it. At the end of the book, the son has languished for
years in horrible, disgusting conditions in the local prison, but the family
still has money, and so they have gradually been able to bribe a sufficient
number of officials in order to have him freed.
The setting of the book is in Nigeria, but the problems
it addresses are universal; they are not exclusively African problems.
Is it true that religion is the source of all evil? It is
easy to argue that this is the case. And it is easy to say that the reason
Africans generally are living in poverty and need is that their minds are
still wallowing in the depths of religious superstition (to the great joy of
recent Catholic Popes!). But surely that is an over-simplification. Many of
the conflicts in Africa are due to the fact that the European colonial
powers subdivided the continent arbitrarily, with no regard for the people
living there. And then they enslaved the people for their own gain. European
religion became a method for enforcing this enslavement, replacing the more
natural associations of religious feeling which people had previously had.
How much more noble is the worship of nature, and of ones ancestors, than
this groveling before foreign priests!
About a week ago, the old movie On
the Beach was shown on television in the middle of the night. So I
recorded it and watched it the next day. Gregory Peck was a great actor! It
was almost 50 years ago that I saw it at the movies, and seeing it once more
after all this time made a great impression on me again. Of course the idea
that it would be possible to kill off all the people in the world - without
exception - by exploding all of the atomic bombs in the world, is simply not
I suppose the United States and Russia each have about
15,000 one megaton bombs these days. France, England, China and Israel must
have a couple of hundred each: say 2,000 all together. Then India and
Pakistan would have fewer still. Lets say at the most 35,000 in the world at
Undoubtedly there are numbers of euphoric Christians in
the United States who would like to enrapture themselves in what they
imagine would be a wonderfully exciting trip into the fairyland of
Armageddon. However, in the humdrum world of true reality, beyond the
psychedelic visions of the religiously inclined, the hill of Megiddo
was the site of various real-life battles in the ancient world. The authors
of the Bible were apparently inspired by one of these battles when writing
this episode into their narrative.
But of course, dreams and reality are often very
different from one another. Even if the wildest dreams of the followers of
George W. Bush came true in some gigantic religious happening, still, I can
hardly imagine that it would result in the explosion of more than say 1,000
bombs. If these bombs were exploded at ground level in order to maximize the
fallout to the greatest possible extent, then certainly millions of people
would die. Yet I am sure that of the seven billion or so who are now living
on the Earth, at least six billion would survive. And even if all 35,000
bombs were to be simultaneously exploded at ground level, I think that there
would still remain at least half of the world's population. After all, the
radioactive dust would soon be washed out of the atmosphere. Indeed, as we
now see around the town of Chernobyl, large areas of land would be returned
to its natural condition, allowing wild plants and animals to again thrive.
Nevil Shute was the author of the book On
the Beach, and he wrote A Town
Like Alice as well. For some reason, I had thought that the title
of this book was "A Town Called
Alice", and it would be a story about what it's like to live in the town of
Alice Springs, which is situated in the middle of Australia. I have never
been there, but according to Nevil Shute, it is supposed to be a very
I think that numbers of people immigrated to Australia
from the United States, or Europe, back in the days when On
the Beach was playing in the movies, thinking that they would have
good prospects of surviving an atomic war in the Southern Hemisphere. One
might at first think that Alice Springs would be especially safe in this
regard, owing to its isolation. But that would be an illusion. In reality,
Alice Springs would be completely pulverized, turned into a smoking,
radioactive crater in the very first spasms of atomic euphoria. The reason
for this is that, unfortunately, the Australian Government agreed to allow
the United States Government to construct a gigantic radio station at Pine
Gap, directly next to Alice Springs, in the 1960s. The purpose of Pine
Gap is to be a central communications center for coordinating the details of
an atomic war. Therefore, an opponent of the United States in such a war
would have the greatest interest in destroying Pine Gap, and thus Alice
Springs, to the utmost extent as quickly as possible.
Why did Australia agree to such an unpleasant business?
Well, the reason can be found by looking back at the history of the Second
World War. In those days, many Australians very naively called England their
"home", even though they had never been there. Many English laughed
cynically at the rustic colonials in Australia who were unable to develop a
culture of their own, far from the "mother country". Thus, at the beginning
of WWII, Australia sent practically its entire armed forces to Europe and
North Africa in order to defend the mother country. Doing so, Australia was
then rendered defenseless. Soon Japan got the idea of conquering Australia
in order to capture its mineral wealth. Of course England couldn't have
cared less. Yet the United States, in a series of air battles over the
Pacific, and in particular the Battle of the Coral Sea, was able to save
Australia from Japanese occupation. And so the memory of these heroic deeds
lives on in the national spirit of Australia.
So this book, written in 1950, is very much concerned
with the War in the Pacific. In an Authors Note at the beginning of the
book, Nevil Shute says that the story is based on a true story which was
related to him during a stay in Sumatra in 1949. In their rush to conquer
Australia, the Japanese quickly overran Malaya and Indonesia. A group of 30
women, all married, except for the heroine of the book, and their children
and babies, find themselves stranded on a dock somewhere. The Japanese take
them prisoner, but they don't know what to do with them. They are marched
off to the next town, but the commander there doesn't want to know about it,
so they are marched on further. And so forth. This goes on for about six
months. They have little to eat. They get malaria, dengue fever, they are
bitten by poisonous reptiles, insects, whatever; worms, who knows what.
During this time, one or two Japanese soldiers are "guarding" them. But in
reality, they try to help as much as possible. They help carry the sick
children. They carry the sick women on stretchers. They are not cruel at
all. They cry too when one of the group dies. It is just what you would
think a normal person would do. But after six months, half of the women and
children are dead.
So it was a very real "death march", but the deaths were
a result of the circumstances, not active cruelty. I'm sure that this story,
written immediately after a long conversation with such a "victim" who
emerged from the war as a better person, is much more typical of reality
than the hysterical nonsense which Hollywood continues to spew out in ever
more preposterous distortions these days.
Anyway, in the story, an Australian cattle farmer who is
a prisoner of the Japanese is horribly beaten and tortured for making fun of
the Japanese commandant. But he survives, and the end of the book is that
the English heroine marries the Australian hero in the obscure little town
of Willstown, in the Gulf Country (that is, near the coast of the Gulf of
Carpentaria in North Queensland). She sees the potential of the place, and
owing to a lucky inheritance which she had unexpectedly received in England,
she is able to invest it wisely in Willstown. Hundreds of people rush to
become part of this thriving new development. And everybody lives happily
ever after. Therefore, this book is not about Alice Springs; rather it is a
Town Like Alice.
So it seems that Nevil Shute also got caught up in the
idea of Developing the North, which was the big thing back then in the
1950s. Australia invested huge amounts in the Ord
River Scheme in those days, but it was not a success. Living in the
tropics brings difficulties which are different than those which one
experiences in England, or the more southerly regions of Australia.
Also, for those of us who are not members of the "Nevil
Shute Norway Foundation", and who thus feel free to criticize his writings,
I must say that some of his high moral values do not stand the test of time.
He equates the Aborigines in a negative way with what we now call the
African-American population of the United States. Thus they are the
unreliable "boongs", who tend to go "walkabout" at a moments notice. When an
ice-cream parlor is opened in Willstown, the problem arises as to what to do
if the unspeakable happens; namely if a boong came in to buy an ice-cream!
The solution, as in apartheid South Africa, was to open a "black" section,
apart from the normal "white" section. The book does not say what was to be
done to cope with the problem of the mixed-race "coloreds". But the English
heroine does have great sympathy, and she gives moral support, to the poor
farmer who resorted to the dreadful expedience of marrying a "lubra"; that
is, a native Australian woman.
Still, if one is prepared to put up with such things, the
book is a typically sentimental read, in the style of Nevil Shute. And as
the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation shows, many people still enjoy reading his
Many years ago I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In those days, I
remember taking a few looks at Finnegans Wake, and finding it to be as entirely
incomprehensible as it was reputed to be. Ulysses would have been readable, but I recall giving up
at the beginning after becoming somewhat disgusted by the hero dwelling
overly much on the properties of snot.
Dubliners is a
very different book. A collection of short stories, giving a feeling for
life in Dublin a hundred years ago. They describe episodes, often without
coming to a definite conclusion; feelings that different people have. For
example the first story is about two schoolboys cutting school for the day
and walking out to an open field. An older man comes and sits down next to
them. The one boy gets up and plays in the field some distance away, but the
other boy, the narrator, remains and is spoken to by the man. What does he
want? Why is he speaking with the boy? Is he a pedophile? The boy gets up
and walks away, leaving the man sitting. Without looking back, or appearing
to run, he is afraid that the man may grab at him before he gets away. And
that's the end of the story. A disturbing situation!
Then the last story is a long narrative called "The
Dead", involving a collection of people - most of whom are related to one
another - having a dinner party. It goes on and on, going nowhere. Finally
it comes to an end late at night, or even almost at dawn the next day. The
man who has been the center of the party sees his wife standing, listening
to the somewhat drunken words of a song being sung in another room. The man
and the wife return to their hotel, and he is admiring his wife, even
lusting after her. But she breaks down in tears and tells him that when she
was young, she was in love with another man who had sung that song, and he
loved her so much that he had done something for her which was such that he
died afterwards. She cries herself to sleep, and the husband is at first
resentful, incensed, but gradually he realizes that he does not know what
love is, and he thinks about what it would be like to be able to truly love
After having read David Thomson's Woodbrook,
I found myself wondering whether James Joyce was a true Irishman, or was he
simply the descendant of a family of English colonists which had "gone
native" some generations before? Looking in the internet without much
searching, I find no clear answer to this question. But somehow it seems to
me that a true Irishman would not have been writing about the decay and
degeneration of society. Rather, he would have been looking forward to the
joy of finally ridding Ireland of the source of this decay, namely English
colonialism. On the other hand of course, it is plausible that an Irishman
could write about decay as a property of that foreign element which is soon
to be expelled. But this thought is contradicted by the cynical mood in the
story "Ivy Day in the Committee Room".
What a contrast all of this is with the simple
sentimentality of Nevil Shute! If anything, James Joyce is brutally honest.
For that, he was a poor man, living from money borrowed, or begged from
After writing my piece about Nevil Shute, I have had a
closer look at the story of his life, as given by the Nevil Shute Norway
Foundation. In the 1950s, Shute, who was living in Australia at that time,
was paying almost 30,000 Australian pounds in income tax alone! That would
be well over a half a million euros in todays money! So one sees that
"kitsch", "schmaltz", really does pay. I have also seen that Nevil Shute
changed the story of the women prisoners of the Japanese. In fact, they
didn't have to walk from place to place. Either he didn't pay attention to
what Mrs. J. G. Geysel-Vonck was telling him in Sumatra, or else he
intentionally changed it in order to increase the sentimental impact.
Therefore, the conclusion which I drew about the humanity of soldiers must
be withdrawn, based as it was on nonsense.
Also it is said that Nevil Shute was totally upset about
the way the movie On the Beach was
made, since it seemed to say that Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner were living
in the same hotel room with one another towards the end, thus even having
sex! This upset Nevil Shute so much that he was struck with a heart attack
which killed him, even though he was only 60 years old, or so. Whew! What a
sense of morality! And what a bad heart. So this just goes to show that
money doesn't necessarily buy you happiness.
Apparently Joyce's Dubliners drew much criticism for its lack of morality
back in those days. People found comfort in hiding their true thoughts and
suppressing the emotions which Joyce describes. But surely such dishonesty
is the true source of much of the immorality in the world.
This is the story of the life of the preposterously named
Albion Gidley Singer, narrated by himself. He was born in Sydney in about
1875 into the wealthy family of a supplier of stationary products (paper,
envelopes, pens, etc.) He is totally awkward as a child, and as he grows up,
he has the feeling that he himself is nothing but a tiny speck in the middle
of his large body. In order to hide this fact, he develops an outward
display of bluster, thereby - he imagines - making a great impression on the
world. He is afraid of his father, but soon the father dies and he inherits
the business and the family house.
Albion imagines that he knows the scientific principles
which govern the world. His mind glories in the accumulation of endless
lists of encyclopedic facts. As a boy, and a young man, growing up in an age
of hypocrisy, he had no clear picture of the anatomy of women. But this
ignorance is resolved for him by a prostitute during a drunken student
revelry at a hotel in town.
The behavior of the prostitute convinces him that all
women are entirely sexual creatures, driven by simple biological principles.
Nature has only supplied them with inferior brains, just sufficient to the
task of producing children. On the other hand, he himself, a gentleman of
the world, superior also to the male members of the lower classes of
society, has an imperative destiny to procreate himself using some
appropriate specimen of female humanity.
Thus he marries Norah. The book dwells somewhat on the
unpleasant couplings which poor Norah must endure, and upon his observations
on the superiority which Nature has provided to the male of the species. He
observes also that the male has been provided with an excess of procreative
energy, and so he uses his position as the owner of his company in order to
force himself onto the various young saleswomen in the shop. He also
regularly visits two prostitutes. All of this seems to him to be entirely
natural and sensible.
Norah produced two children: Lilian, a robust little
girl; and John, a weakling. Gradually Lilian grows up and even enters
university. She has become a big, almost fat young woman. Albion sees
himself in his daughter Lilian. But he thinks that nature has gone somewhat
awry with Lilian, since she, a woman, is also a formidable intellectual
opponent to his boorish observations on life. Norah, who has withered during
these years with such a man, is sent off on a long cruise around the
Pacific, and thus Albion is alone in the house with Lilian. All of this
culminates in incestuous rape, after which Albion has the feeling that he
has finally united with himself. Lilian, on the other hand, gradually
degenerates and is locked away in an insane asylum and forgotten.
This book describes the dark depravity in the mind of
this kind of man. And I'm sure that it would be false to say that while
Albion may have existed in the "bad old days" of a century ago, now, in our
progressive modern age, people are no longer like that. In fact, just now,
in the Spring of 2008, the papers have been full of the story of that
horrible monster in Austria who locked his daughter in the cellar for 24
years and raped her so often that she produced seven children. How
But I think that there are many other men who, while they
might not do such monstrous things, still their minds are just as full of
these disgusting dark places as was the mind of Albion. Surely it is a good
thing that Kate Grenville has illuminated this darkness with a bright light.
According to the article about this book in the
Wikipedia, the Independent newspaper declared it to be amongst the 100 top
books of the 20th century. Of course such lists, put out by these English
papers, should always be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, the
Guardian's motor racing writer, getting carried away in his celebration of
the Lost Glories of England, saw fit to publish a list of the 10 greatest
racing drivers of all time, which included such also-rans as Stirling Moss,
and yet which excluded Michael Schumacher!
Anyway, it is said that Iain Banks, who is a Scottish
writer, cut up his passport and sent the pieces to Tony Blair in protest
against the wars which he, and his his good friend George W. Bush, have
thrown us into. Of course the newspapers also constantly inform us that
George W. Bush is a "born again" Christian, whatever that is supposed to
mean. And we read that Tony Blair has discovered the catholic side of
himself, receiving his blessings from the Pope, and then declaring himself
to be the new Saviour of the Holy Lands, to the evident disgust of Robert
Fisk, that great reporter of the Independent.
Iain Banks really cares about these things, and so this
book is concerned with war crimes, and with religion. But these are not
the war crimes of grown-up men. Rather, the protagonist and narrator is the
16 year old Frank Cauldhame. He seems to be suffering from some sort of
physical and emotional deformity. I won't say here what it is, since if
anybody reads this and then decides to read the book, then knowing what it
is might spoil the story. We only find out what the situation is with Frank
on the last couple of pages.
He lives with his father in an isolated house on a sandy
island adjoining the east coast of Scotland; from the description, not far
from Inverness. Frank's crimes include the killing of three people: two
cousins, and his younger brother. He was only 7 or 8 years old when he
killed them, making it look like an accident in each case. But now he thinks
of himself as a soldier, defending the island from imaginary dangers.
Is an eight year old child capable of murder? Can it be
that such a young child is capable of such evil? Since the story takes place
in Scotland, and we associate that place with heavy whisky consumption and
violent football hooligans, perhaps it is plausible. We, as grown-ups, look
at children and think of them as being innocent, happy little things, still
unspoiled by the evil of the world. Yet, as in Golding's Lord of the Flies, it may be that the thing which is
keeping them from evil is the knowledge that they are being restrained by a
higher authority. The unfortunate thing is that for such people as Bush and
Blair, the only restraint they perceive is given by religion (or perhaps
their masters in the secret moneyed classes of society).
So Frank invents a religion based on killing small
animals. The title of the story refers to an apparatus he has constructed in
which he inserts a living wasp. Once inside, the wasp wanders about and is
eventually killed by one method or another. The method of death which the
wasp chooses is considered by Frank to be a message of the gods. He has an
altar to his religion where he prays, both before and after this sacrifice.
He also sacrifices rabbits, mice, and so forth. But his main shrine is in an
old bunker in the sand dunes.
It seems that, just as the Nazis covered the dunes on the
continental shores of the North Sea with concrete bunkers, aiming to shoot
at whatever came at them, the British did the same with the dunes on the
east coast of Scotland. And Frank has established his Sanctuary in the
depths of the local, half buried bunker. It has a locked steel door, to keep
out intruders. There, in secret, he lights candles and worships the skull of
the old family bull-dog, together with various other relics. All of this is
not unlike the gloomy depths of the cathedral of Vézelay,
where amongst the inquisitive tourists, the occasional individual is gripped
with a feeling of religious mysticism, falling prostrate before the skulls
and bones of the famous relics. But they would do well to remember that
Vézelay was the place where that ancient war criminal, Bernhard of
Clairvaux, sent an earlier army off to destruction in the Holy Lands.
Frank's brother Eric is an even worse tormentor of
animals than is Frank. Eric has been put away into an insane asylum, but he
has escaped and he returns to the island at the end of the book, provoking a
crisis. We learn something about the reason for Eric's insanity, but his
cruelty is none the less disgusting.
Another Iain Banks book. The library has a whole collection of them, so I
thought I would see what this one is about. Like The
Wasp Factory, it also involves lots of brutality. It's a
complicated story; a murder mystery, where the murderer is a sadistic serial
killer. And he sets things up so that it seems to the police that the
narrator of the book, Cameron Colley, is the murderer.
Cameron is a journalist, an investigative reporter,
writing for a newspaper in Edinburgh (Scotland). He believes in goodness,
and exposing the evil people who perpetrate badness. Yet, like many of these
people who believe too much in goodness, his personal life is a degenerate
mess. It's a bit like Chandler's Philip Marlow. But our good Mr. Colley not
only guzzles the whisky and chokes on mountains of cigarettes, he is also
constantly sniffing or swallowing cocaine, amphetamines, and whatever else
he can get his hands on. Since he is opposed to violence, he does not kick
people in the teeth, and he certainly does not carry a gun, but we gradually
learn that as a boy, he witnessed the horrible homosexual rape of his best
friend by some strange, perverted man who attacked them in the woods. At
first he ran away, but then he returned with a heavy log of wood with which
he smashed the man on the head. His friend Andy then finished him off,
smashing the rapist again and again, killing him.
That was back when Cameron and Andy were children, or
young teenagers. Now, in the time of the book, the killer is systematically
killing established people in society who are responsible for various evil
things. The killings often involve sickening tortures which reflect the
things which these people have brought upon others. I won't explain here
what was done to a rich pornographer. Horrible. But, for example, a rich and
famous titled gentleman whose money was made by selling weapons is killed by
blowing him up in a great explosion.
So it's all a matter of taking justice into ones own
hands. The book was first published in 1993, so it predates the sickening
developments which we have had to see in the George W. Bush era. Would the
world be better off if the people who are responsible for all of this
torture, ruined lives, crying injustice, were made to experience on
their own persons that which they have visited on others? Perhaps many would
say that they deserve it. And surely bringing an end to the present
situation would be a good thing. But revenge, an eye for and eye and a tooth
for a tooth, is precisely what motivates these evil people in the first
place. What virtue is there in lowering ourselves to their level?
Bridge: A very different book from the last two. In a
nutshell, the story is of somebody driving in Scotland while totally drunk;
having a very bad smash; being in a coma for seven months during which he
experiences weird dreams; then waking up and getting on with life.
Most of the book is concerned with these disjointed,
often nightmarish dreams, giving us a fantasy world where the narrator is
living in a transformed version of the railway
bridge which crosses the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Somehow it seems
monstrous. An ugly behemoth from an earlier age, contrasted with the
elegant, sweeping suspension of the Forth Road Bridge standing next to it.
The railway bridge looks like three gigantic dinosaurs, each standing on
their four huge feet.
In the dream world of Alex - the man in the coma - these
dinosaurs have become huge buildings with thousands of people living in
them. The whole bridge is a huge city, with not three, but rather an unknown
number of dinosaur-like sections, perhaps without end. Maybe encircling the
whole earth and coming back to complete the circle. Who knows? It doesn't
make any sense to ask the other people living in the Bridge, since they all
seem to be crazy too.
Alex is suffering from amnesia, and he is being treated
by Dr. Joyce, a psychiatrist who analyzes Alex's dreams. Alex is thus a
privileged patient, and so lives a comfortable life, being waited on by the
workers of the Bridge. Dr. Joyce suggests a course of hypnosis, but for some
reason, Alex refuses, and thus Dr. Joyce loses interest in his case and
dumps him. He is then immediately demoted to the most menial class of
inhabitant of the Bridge and is severely beaten when he tries to contact his
old acquaintances. At least Miss Abberlaine Arrol, who is an attractive
young woman of the upper classes, is still interested in keeping the
friendship alive. Eventually he smuggles himself onto a train traveling
through the Bridge, and after weeks of travel, the train reaches land; it
becomes a troop transport train; Alex experiences the horror of war, and so
on, and so forth, through various more or less connected nightmares.
So that was the dreamworld part of Alex's reality.
The real-world part is a love story, where Alex is in
love with Andrea Cramond, who is also Scottish. (Andrea here is, indeed, a
woman. For some reason, the name "Andrea" is considered feminine in English,
although in the original Greek, it means "manly"!) Anyway, Andrea comes from
a rich family, and her father is a lawyer. They have expensive cars,
expensive houses, they travel to Paris, Italy, the USA, etc., etc., on their
frequent holidays. On the other hand, Alex's family is poor. He must work in
the holidays. Still, for some reason, the beautiful, rich, sexy Andrea
remains friends with poor Alex. He works hard at his studies, gets a job as
an engineer, gradually earns more and more money himself, and so is also
able to afford expensive cars.
Andrea decides to learn Russian - in Paris - so she
leaves Alex to his diligent work in Edinburgh and says that she will come
back to him in two years, or something. Obviously she has any number of
further boyfriends in Paris. In particular, she seems to be as close to
Gustave, the Paris boyfriend, as she is to Alex, her Edinburgh boyfriend.
Gradually, she becomes a commuter, commuting back and forth between Alex in
Scotland, and Gustave in Paris. Time passes. They are approaching fortyish
middle age. Andrea includes her widowed mother in her circle of commuting
acquaintances, staying here, there, and then at the other place.
All of this is extremely frustrating. Why can't Alex
simply forget Andrea, with her "manly" name, and find some better woman to
love? What is the point of becoming a workaholic in order to afford one
complicated, expensive car after the other, and one expensive, meaningless
holiday after the other, wasting life on nothing? Is this reality a greater
nightmare than the dream of the Bridge? At the end of the book, Alex is
faced with the problem of choosing between the one dream and the other. He
decides to choose Andrea.
Somehow this is rather disappointing. There is some hope
for Alex, since Gustave has come down with multiple sclerosis. But
unfortunately it takes a long time to die of multiple sclerosis, and even
then, it is unclear if Andrea will be prepared to be more devoted to him.
A story about time travel. This book should be required
reading for all those modern-day theoretical physicists who toil away at
their meaningless equations, trying to equate nonsense with reality.
The fact of the matter is that even if thousands of them
meditate continuously about space-time wormholes, or black-holes, or jumping
through the eleventh dimension, congratulating one another on their
successes; even if they make hundreds of "science" fiction movies on these
subjects, satisfying the satiated senses of a mindless viewing public; even
if the flow of research funds stifles all common sense - still, nonsense
This book - which was first published in the year 1970 -
begins with a simple-minded Clark Kent sort of character, working away in an
advertising agency in some gray sky-scraper in New York City. A mysterious
man suddenly appears and invites him to take part in a top-secret government
research project of awe-inspiring dimensions.
We learn that everything is possible! We are told that
Einstein showed that light has weight (He didn't!) That the weight of
sunlight on an open field is many tons (Meaningless nonsense!) And so on and
so forth. After this introduction, the mild-mannered Clark Kent is invited
to enter the Project at a certain address in New York City. It turns out to
be an old warehouse. He knocks on the door, and the janitor asks him what he
wants. After saying the secret word, a secret door opens, and he enters a
huge secret laboratory, with hundreds of secret workers. This is like that
television program which we used to see back then in the 1950s or so. The
Twilight Zone. Or those secret evil factories which James Bond always used
But where do all those secret workers go at the end of
the day? Are they allowed to troop out of the secret door at the back of the
janitors room and out onto the street, to the curious eyes of casual
passersby? Or are there secret tunnels under the City, so that they can
swarm out, hidden from public scrutiny? Or must they remain locked up in the
warehouse for years on end, until the project is completed, as was the case
with the atomic bomb project out in the wastes of New Mexico?
One way or the other, this is not the concern of the
book. Instead, the concern is with the goals of this Great Project, namely
to send people back in time in order to change history to the advantage of
the Government of the United States. A very serious, top-secret military
endeavor! Just imagine. An agent of the CIA could be sent back in time to
assassinate Castro, thus eliminating all those problems the USA had with it,
and leaving Cuba in its former sublime state as a dependent playground for
the members of the Underworld of the USA. Or Hitler, eliminating all that
trouble with World War II. Or going back a bit further in time, maybe it
would be good to get rid of those religious figures who have caused so much
trouble over the ages: Christ, Mohammad, and so forth.
But wait a minute! If Castro was eliminated, then he
wouldn't even have been there in the first place to be
eliminated, would he? So what was the point in going back to eliminate him?
Oh. Let me think......
Or what would even be the point of thinking? Thinking
involves ordering the thoughts which one has at a given time, leading to new
thoughts. But if we can just go forward in time, then return to the present,
then we will know what those future thoughts will be. So there would be no
point in thinking in the first place. From the viewpoint of the future, the
past is fixed; therefore going into the past - which is the same as knowing
the future - transports us into a fixed world without thought.
Well, OK. So maybe we shouldn't take all of this so
seriously. Just flip on the TV and let the time flow past, watching Star
Trek, or Deep Space Nine (or whatever it is now called), fantasizing about
time travel while turning the thinking cells of the brain off. After all,
even Steven Hawking made his guest appearance in Star Trek. So we could just
let the time we have on the Earth gradually drain away to nothing, like the
sand in an hourglass.
Of course, one could approach this novel in an entirely
different way. Namely as a comparison between Life in New York: Then and
Now. But we already know what the comparison is, since both Then and Now are
not in the Unknown Future. And in fact, there are countless novels which
were actually written back then, giving us a true idea of what life was
Back then, if you were rich, then life was as described,
say in the novel Washington Square,
by Henry James. It was a time of hypocrisy. Women were forced to cover
themselves in uncomfortable layers of clothing, rather like the situation
today in many Islamic countries. The rich transported themselves in
expensive chariots, drawn by horses, in order to avoid the filth of the
streets. For the poor, life was simply brutal and short.
In the present, and even in the year 1970, which was
hardly different from the present in New York City, there were lots of big
buildings, too much traffic producing too much pollution, and too much
noise. Life for the rich was even more corrupt than it was a hundred years
before. But at least the rich were allowed to wear more comfortable clothes,
and the poor were better off than their poor predecessors of a century
The thing that irritated me about this book was the fact
that the author, Jack Finney, constantly has the narrator saying: Wow!!
This skyscraper, or that skyscraper is not here in 1882!! Wow! Wow! This is
what 5th Avenue looked like. Wow! And there were even farms back in those
days! Wow! Page after tedious page of this, saying how wonderful this was,
and that. But if the narrator thought that a city without skyscrapers, or
even rural life, is so wonderful, then in 1970 he could have simply left the
high-rise urban sprawl of New York City and soon landed in a better
All of this is not to say that I have never enjoyed a
light-hearted time-travel fantasy. For example, there was a wonderful little
book in German which I read years ago, where a 10th century Chinese mandarin
suddenly appears in Munich, and somehow sends letters back to his friend in
Old China, giving his often rather bawdy observations on the Life of the
Future. The book then consisted of his collected letters.
The trouble with this book is that Jack Finney takes
himself too seriously: a common fault with American writers. The book is
filled with reproductions of old photographs and newspaper clippings from
the New York of 1882, and the story is then built around these props, making
great efforts to say that it is real, as proved by the photos and the old
Rather than having a Time Machine, in the style of H.G.
Wells, where the Time Traveler gets in and dials the number, then sees the
days flashing past in a stroboscopic hallucination, in the present book, the
Time Traveler simply meditates himself into the past, and back to the
Well, yes. I also tried the Transcendental Meditation
thing back in the 1970s. But I was neither elevated, nor did I transcend
time. I didn't try LSD, which was reputed to provide a more effective means
of transcending time and space. Perhaps if I had, then I might have been
more able to appreciate this book.
A very sobering book about the founding of Australia by
English convicts at the beginning of the 19th century. The book deals with
the life of William Thornhill. He grows up in the slums of London, becoming
apprenticed to be a boatman on the Thames, rowing people across and along
the river, unloading ships into his rowboat, carrying things to the docks.
Day and night, rain and snow; in the freezing cold of winter standing in the
filthy water to his hips, holding the boat steady so that the gentry can get
on nicely and sneer at him while doing so.
He marries Sue, the daughter of his employer, and he
hopes that he will inherit the business, leading to a better life. But
during an especially cold spell, the Thames freezes over and London has a
frost fest. There is no income for the boatmen. His mother-in-law gets sick,
and the father-in-law has the best, most fashionable London doctor come to
look at her at three guineas at time, every day. He buys her expensive
medicines which make her even more sick. After a few weeks of frost and
sickness, she dies. Soon after, the father-in-law also sickens and dies as
well. So William and Sue are left with an inheritance consisting of
ruination and debt.
But they have a baby to support and another on the way.
William is forced to steal things in order to survive. He steals from his
employer, is caught, and is sentenced to death. But Sue manages to get his
sentence commuted to transportation for life to the penal colony at New
South Wales. She has also arranged that she be sent out as a free settler,
and she is assigned William to be her servant so they are able to live
together as a family in the fledgling settlement of Sydney. After a year,
Sue confirms that William has behaved well, so that he is no longer
indentured to her. Another couple of years later, the Governor grants him a
Meanwhile, William has established a business of sailing
a small boat out of Sydney Harbor, up the coast along all the famous beaches
of Sydney's North Shore, around Barranjoey Head and into Broken Bay, where
the Hawkesbury River flows into the Pacific. He then sails up the Hawkesbury
as far as Richmond to bring the produce of the settlers there to market in
Sydney. That seems to be ideal country for agriculture. William has his eye
on some virgin land on a bend in the river, and he is keen to establish
himself on it before anybody else does. After all, this land is all there
for the taking. And who would have imagined that he, a lowly slum-dweller
from London, would ever be able to become an established landowner? So he
brings his wife and children out there to settle, makes a bark hut, clears a
plot of land, and plants corn. Soon he has two convict laborers working for
him as well.
The problem is that there are other people living on the
land already. He, as well as most other people along the Hawkesbury, regard
the native aboriginals as being worthless savages who are only interested in
stealing their hard-earned crops. After all, these ex-convict settlers work
from dawn till dusk, sweating away in the hot sun, planting, weeding, making
fences, etc., etc. Yet the black savages do no work at all! Useless! They
just spear a fish or two, or a kangaroo, and dig up some roots or berries
growing out there in all that thick bushland. Then they just have a good
time sitting around, doing nothing, and when they feel like it, they steal
things from the hard-working farmers.
Such was the point of view of the ex-convict settlers.
For the Aborigines, the situation was totally different.
They, and their ancestors, had been living on this land for at least the
last 40,000 years. That is more than three times as long as native Americans
had been living in the Americas. They lived in harmony with nature, not
fighting it. They did not worship some cruel, distant God of torment and
suffering. For them, there was no such thing as private property, working to
establish dominance over others. Grabbing as much as possible and fighting
to keep it.
In fact the aboriginal culture was the antithesis of
everything which modern civilization worships. If we listen to the
television news, it is all about how the economy has grown (plus is "good";
minus is "bad"), how things are changing (progress is "good"; stagnation is
"bad"), how the threats to other countries are developing (domination is
"good"; subjugation is "bad"), and so forth. All of these things did not
exist in the universe of the aborigines! The world, heaven, hell, dreams;
everything was here in reality, in nature.
But suddenly these aggressive English people started
settling in this world of Australia. Some of them were cruel. Whipping the
native people. Shooting them, as if they were animals. Chaining them up and
tormenting them. So obviously the Aborigines had to try to defend
themselves, occasionally spearing the worst of the settlers. And the
settlers retaliated many times over. Finally, at least in the story of this
book, the settlers slaughtered most of the aborigines along the river, thus
solving the problem, and in the end, William Thornhill becomes a wealthy
Thinking about all of this, one sees that there are many
places in the world which have been settled by alien populations, driving
out the indigenous people. The settlers often invent a false history,
pretending that the land that was grabbed was free and empty back in the
time of the "founding fathers". But deep down, everybody knows that is
wrong. It is a kind of "original sin" - if one wants to think in those
At least for the Africans in Africa, or the Asians in
Asia, and even for the few Aborigines left in Australia, or American Indians
left in the the Americas, the people know that they are living on a part of
the world where they truly belong. This is something which the European
settlers of Australia, or the Americas, can never know. And for a person of
European ancestry, when living here in Europe one is aware of the ancient
traditions, the towns which have grown up naturally over the centuries, the
castles and cathedrals, and one feels a part of it, for better or worse.
In the book Time
and Again (see above), the Time Traveler must go to the Dakota
Building on Central Park in New York in order to kick off into his
psychedelic trip through time. The book was first published in 1970, ten
years before the event which has defined the Dakota Building in the
awareness of the modern world; namely the shooting of John Lennon by Mark
David Chapman on December 8, 1980. After shooting Lennon, he did not
run away. Rather he just remained on the scene, reading from this book, The Catcher in the Rye. His obsession
with the book was mirrored by the obsession of John Hinckley Jr. with the
movie Taxi Driver, and
particularly the character played by Jodie Foster. Hinckley shot Ronald
Reagan on March 30, 1981.
An interesting line
of speculation proposes that these two events were not unconnected.
Rather it is said that they were examples of "Manchurian Candidates", whose
minds had been warped by the MKULTRA
program of the CIA, turning them into zombie-like killers. The fact that
George H. W. Bush was the Head of the CIA somewhat before this time, and
Family was connected with the Bush family - and of course the fact
that the Bush family has lead the USA into a period of moral decay since
that time - lends interest to this speculation.
Whatever the truth of the matter is, I thought I would
try reading The Catcher in the Rye,
just to see what it was which could affect somebody like Mark Chapman so
profoundly. I had always thought that the book was part of the Grapes
of Wrath genre - all that 1930s farmland business. I really had no
idea, and I didn't really care. It was one of those books American high
school children are forced to read for their English classes, and as far as
I can remember, most such books seem designed to reinforce the standard
comic-book vision of the world which most Americans still have.
So it was a surprise for me to find out that the book was
totally different from what I had expected. It has nothing to do with wheat,
rye, corn, and the various other products of the rural economy. In fact it
is the long-winded rant of a privileged, 16 year old schoolboy whose father
is a rapacious New York lawyer, providing the family with enough money so
that they can live in a luxurious apartment house, perhaps even the Dakota
Building itself! They throw money at everything, living life in a false
world. The narrator, Holden Caulfield, rebels against all this phoniness.
His moneyed parents have sent him from one expensive, phony private school
to the next. And he refuses to do anything other than fail in all his
subjects, except for English. The only true friend he has; the only person
who is not phony, is his little sister Phoebe.
Unlike say Sirhan
Sirhan, who still maintains that he has no recollection of the
assassination of Robert Kennedy, Mark Chapman does recall the whole
business, and he can speak rationally about it. And there was no mysterious
girl with a polka dot dress lurking somewhere in the background. So it seems
to me that all of this weakens the theory that Chapman did not kill Lennon
on his own. After all, what possible motive could George H. W. Bush have had
to get rid of John Lennon? The idea seems quite far-fetched.
But I can understand Chapman's narrative. To begin with,
he had a labile personality; the typical symptoms of schizophrenia. Then he
"believed in" not only Christ, but also the Beatles, as representing
"Goodness", "The Truth", as opposed to "Evil" and "Falsehood". Therefore his
mind had difficulties in coping with John Lennon's assertion that the
Beatles were more famous than Christ. Even worse, in this modern age of
Democracy, Goodness and The Truth are supposed to be the virtues of the
common people. Not those rapacious, phony, rich people who live in the
Dakota Building. Therefore Chapman perceived that John Lennon, an
inhabitant of that Building, chauffeured about in his luxurious limousine,
was a phony. And so, taking matters even more into his own hands than Holden
Caulfield, he imagined that he was standing before a cliff, protecting the
children of the world from falling off into the Land of Phoniness.
Indeed, it seems to me that the modern culture of Pop is
just about the epitome of phoniness. After all, if we see an actor playing a
role in a movie, then we don't expect the life of the actor to be
that role, do we? For example, the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz played Hitler in
the movie Der Untergang (the
English title was Escape from Hitler's
Bunker). But nobody would pretend that Ganz, who has played all
sorts of totally different roles, has the personality of Hitler.
So why is it that when people go to a concert with say
Paul McCartney, they listen to him singing about the common man, and then
they imagine that in real life he has anything to do with common people?
After all, he swims in money! Something like a billion dollars. So it's all
an act. When he acts the role of the common man, singing simple songs, then
I can appreciate what he is doing in the same way that I can appreciate
Bruno Ganz's acting skills. But the problem is, I think the act is rather
phony. And it is the same with the rest of those pop stars. In contrast to
this we have the example of such country singers as Pete Seeger, whose life
really was his art. Or say, Barbra Streisand, who is such a wonderful
singer, yet nobody pretends that she is the personality she is acting in the
Returning to the book, its total sales has been over 65
million copies, and 250,000 more are sold each year, even now. I didn't buy
a copy; rather I borrowed one from the library. It was a paperback which the
library had acquired over 20 years ago, and which was falling apart. It was
printed on newspaper quality paper which has now become dark brown and
brittle; the glue on the back was flaking off. I made an effort to open it
as carefully as possible to avoid having the thing disintegrate in my hands.
Therefore the library will soon have to replace it with a new copy to add to
the 250,000 annual sales. I'm sure that J.
D. Salinger gets more than the paltry 5% which an unknown author would
receive. More like 15 or 20%. So this book alone has made him a wealthy man.
But he is not a phony. It is true that this rather
childish book has provided him with a comfortable, secure life. And this has
led him to become a recluse, perhaps living somewhere in New York. It is
said that he enjoys writing and has written further books, to be published
posthumously. As a young man, he was friendly with Ernest Hemingway, who was
much impressed with his writing. In any case, he has published collections
of short stories, and I have borrowed one of them from the library. Unlike The Catcher in the Rye, it is properly
bound and printed on higher quality paper which is still soft and a pleasant
beige color, even though it was printed in 1964, over 40 years ago.
Esmé with Love and Squalor & Other Stories: This book was
published in the USA in 1953 as Nine Stories, but the edition I have read has the title
given here, which is the title of one of the stories in the book. It is an
interesting, varied collection. A lot of fun to read. Much better than the
story of Catcher in the Rye.
It starts off with A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which is supposed to be one
of Salinger's most famous stories. A shell-shocked ex-soldier shoots himself
after a day on the Florida beach, presumably during his honeymoon. The story
is so abrupt and unmotivated that we are left quite up in the air. The war
which shocked him was World War Two, and that war plays a role in a number
of the stories - in particular the story which is the title of the book.
Salinger himself attended the war, and in the aftermath, as a person fluent
in both German and French, he interrogated numbers of prisoners. From what
we hear about the present war in Iraq, the process of interrogation can be
sufficiently shocking even for the interrogator to suffer such remorse that
he becomes violent, or suicidal. (The situation for the person being
interrogated must be so horrible as to be beyond my imagining.) But I would
like to believe that in an earlier age, before the present state of moral
degeneration of the USA, J.D. Salinger interrogated his people in a
dignified and civilized way. Thus we can interpret the Bananafish story as
either his inability to speak of such things, or - preferably - his
observations of the emotional disturbances caused by more noble war-time
experiences with which he would prefer not to burden the reader.
Many of the other stories are concerned with situations
which he must have experienced as a child in Manhattan. The children have
well-to-do parents. They live in spacious apartments with maids, doormen,
elevator attendants. Even in the middle of the night, it seems that somebody
had to remain sitting on a chair in the elevator on the off chance that one
of the rich people in the apartment house might want to use the elevator at
4 in the morning! Everybody is continuously dragging on cigarettes. The
cigarette ash falls everywhere. The butts are ground into the floor, or just
onto some convenient tabletop. Thank goodness smoking is going out of
fashion, or at least is prohibited in most of the places where I breath.
The last story, Teddy, describes a 10-year old boy on a luxury ocean liner
crossing the Atlantic to New York. It seems that Salinger was interested in
Buddhism, and in this story, Teddy is the reincarnation of someone who had
nearly, but not quite, attained Nirvana in his previous existence.
Unfortunately though, he had spoiled it by falling in love, and thus the
gods have set him back a step in the cycle of eternal reincarnation,
punishing him this time - according to Salinger - by being born into an
American family. The father swears at him continuously while polluting
everything with his equally continuous production of cigarette butts. The
mother lolls in bed the whole day. The small sister bullies whichever even
smaller unguarded children she can find in the playgrounds of the ship.
The reason Teddy is on the ship in the first place is
that he, and therefore his family as well, has been invited to Europe so
that his spiritual powers can be investigated by all the great professors of
the universities of Europe. Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Stockholm,
Innsbruck, and what have you. The great professors have eagerly recorded his
pronouncements on the profound philosophical questions of mankind.
But then, amidst these wonderful psychedelic
investigations, their thoughts become poisoned with the question which
troubles so many people. Namely, what will the future bring? How long do I
have to live? Teddy, in his great wisdom, knows that these are evil,
world-destroying questions, and while he knows the answers, he is only
prepared to hint at certain ideas which might lead the famous professors
into a better, more virtuous life. Teddy is the ulimate guru, who knows the
I wonder if Salinger had been in touch with Jack Finney
when he was onto all this stuff? In any case, as noted above, with or
without LSD - which was just becoming the rage amongst these literary types
back in 1953, nonsense remains nonsense. Still, this story at least had the
virtue of being amusing.
by John Wyndham
A short book of science fiction. I remember reading one
or two other of his books many years ago, but I've completely forgotten what
they were. Having read a couple of time-travel books recently, I thought it
would be good to try one of these light-hearted books of Wyndham.
It is the story of a very normal and sensible English
family of the 1960s. The father is a prosperous and dignified accountant,
and the mother, while having studied history at university, stays at home to
look after the house and the two small children: a boy and a girl. The boy
was adopted as a baby and is now 12 years old or so, the daughter is 8 or
10. The father is the narrator of the book.
When the girl was very small, she went through a phase of
pretending to have a make-believe friend whom she continuously scolded and
bossed around. And the parents were forced to take part in the whole
charade, giving the make-believe friend a chair, waiting for it to come into
the car, and so on. Everybody was relieved when the daughter got some real
friends and gave up on the make-believe one.
But then, to the consternation of the parents, the boy,
Matthew, subsequently decided to get his own make-believe friend: Chocky.
The parents were not amused. But they went along with it, hoping that
Matthew would soon grow out of this childish phase. He didn't. On the
contrary, Chocky began to develop a life of its own. Suddenly, Matthew was
asking all sorts of strange questions about the Earth: why don't animals
think about things more than they do? why do people drive such primitive
cars? why can't people understand physics better than they do? Sometimes
Chocky takes over Matthew's movements, and so he paints strange and
The story is that Matthew has become possessed
by a spirit from another planet. The conditions on Chocky's planet are
deteriorating, so the beings there are sending various spirits around to
other inhabited planets, looking for someplace to invade and take over.
However, luckily, the Earth is too cold and too wet for these
extraterrestrial beings. (When John Wyndham wrote this book in 1968, all
those Al Gore characters were becoming hysterical about the Earth cooling
down to the next ice age. But if their more currently fashionable visions
were to become reality, then perhaps the Earth will be more amenable for
Chocky in the future!)
Anyway, rather than just leaving the Earth to its fate
and proceeding on to look for a more suitable planet elsewhere, Chocky has
been given the task of helping Humanity into a better future. Most people
today seem to think that the best way to proceed into the future is to
reject all this dangerous technology, and instead return to the natural,
biological, ecological lifestyle which people lived a thousand years ago,
during the Middle Ages. So it is interesting to read a book like this from
those bygone days of 1968, when people had the opposite idea.
There is the problem of how Chocky was able to wisk him-
or herself from the home planet, so many mega parsecs away, over here to the
Earth in almost no time at all. The answer given in the book was that while
material cannot travel faster than light, still spirits can do it! All of
this reminds me of the fantasy of tachyons,
which were first thought of in the psychedelic 1960s, and which some lost
souls in the community of physicists apparently still cling to.
Nevertheless, as Einstein showed long ago, travel faster than light - even
as a "spirit", or as a particle of "imaginary mass" - would be the same as
traveling backwards in time at one place. Therefore we land squarely back in
Jack Finney's nonsense!
But the book was not really spoiled by this problem of
time travel. Perhaps the author simply got the facts a little wrong. For
example, I could imagine that Chocky arrived normally on the Earth in a
flying saucer, whose mother ship traveled gracefully into our solar system
after a passage of millions of years, during which, countless generations of
extraterrestrial beings lived their lives on board. Perhaps the mother ship
is presently moored somewhere out in the region of Saturn, or so.
The real problem with the book is the question of how a
foreign being could take possession of the brain of a human. In the world of
the ancient Greeks, the school of thought which derived from Democritus, and
which flowered in the Epicurean philosophy, maintained that everything in
the world was composed of "atoms". Given this, then also the spirit, and
more practically, thoughts themselves, must be ultimately composed of atoms.
Since some people can think rapidly, it must follow that the atoms of
thought are extremely light, flitting back and forth within the body at
great speed. The Greeks wondered why it was that the atoms of thought did
not simply fly out of the body with their great speed, and their ability to
pass rapidly through the bodily tissues. Indeed, this is a major
philosophical problem! The ancient philosophers concluded that skin had some
especial property, like a vessel, confining the spirit atoms within the
body. After death, the vessel gradually became leaky and the spirit atoms
could then escape, perhaps later to assemble themselves in a newly formed
animated body. Many of these ancient ideas have become embedded in modern
The problem is that we now know that this theory of
spiritual atoms is false. In reality, thought is a result of the structure
of the brain. To make an analogy with computers, it is definitely not the
case that a computer operates by flinging millions of tiny silicon chips
back and forth at high speed within the vessel of its plastic covering. Then
when the computer wears out and is thrown in the garbage, breaking its
plastic vessel, all those little chips fly out into the air, swarm about,
then find a new vessel of plastic to assemble themselves into a new
computer! No. That is not the way things work! And similarly, the idea of
the brain, within the vessel of the skull, suddenly being possessed by a
spirit flying into it through many mega parsecs of intergalactic space, can
be safely relegated to the dustbin of religious superstition.
This collection includes many stories which were not in
the earlier book Sleep It Off Lady,
which Jean Rhys had published in her lifetime. The beginning stories are
mostly very short. Just a page or two, giving the atmosphere of a certain
situation. She was practicing writing, and writing about the things around
her. A disjointed, unhappy life of unfulfilled longings.
The stories are about women, and about how women are
cruel to one another. The Introduction to this book was written by someone
named Diana Athill, who says that she knew Jean Rhys for the last 15 years
of her life. She writes that Jean Rhys used to say "When people are paranoid
you can bet your life they have something to be paranoid about". Judging
from these stories, she was not paranoid in the sense of the mental illness
which is described by that word. Undoubtedly she must have been a difficult
person. An alcoholic. But life had not been easy.
Two stories describe the defining moment in her life. Her
husband was acting as translator to the Japanese delegation attending some
lengthly conference in Vienna, negotiating the diplomatic mess which had
enveloped Europe after the First World War. They lived in luxurious hotels,
enjoying the high life. Jean Rhys imagined that her life would go on like
this forever. But the husband involved himself in some shady currency
dealings on the black market. After fleeing across the Continent in their
limousine with chauffeur, the husband was arrested in Paris, thrown into
prison, and Jean Rhys was left in the lurch. She remained that way for the
rest of her life. Often dreaming of the lost paradise of her childhood in
Some of the stories which she wrote as an old woman,
living alone in provincial England, are very touching. Particularly the
story Who Knows What's Up in the Attic?
We can imagine this really happening to the aged Jean Rhys.
There is an old paperback which has been sitting on the
shelves here for years and years, namely an English translation of Hermann
Hesse's The Journey to the East
("Die Morgenlandfahrt"). Thirty or forty years ago, many people seemed keen
to read these books of Hesse. Taking it down from the shelf, I noticed that
it also included an Introductory Chapter by Timothy Leary. For him of
course, the GREAT QUESTION was: Did Hermann Hesse also take LSD?
Well, no. LSD was only invented in 1938 by Albert
Hofmann, working for the Swiss pharmaceutical concern Sandoz. (In this
connection, it is interesting to know that that other drug, heroin, was
patented by the German pharmaceutical concern Bayer - which still continues
to make all that aspirin - back in 1896. It was first synthesized by Felix
Hoffmann, who was a chemist working for Bayer. The trade name "heroin" was
coined for this new drug in order to suggest that after consuming it, you
will feel like a hero.) Therefore, although it is possible that Hermann
Hesse may have been under the influence of heroin while writing this book
(Rosshalde was written in 1912/13, and the Journey to the East in 1932),
this was before the age of LSD. Actually though, I'm being a bit unfair
here. Timothy Leary's brain had not become so addled at the time he wrote
this Introduction as to be unaware of all this. His great question was
actually: Did Hermann Hesse write whilst under the influence of mescaline?
The answer, according to Professor Klüver of the University of Chicago, an
expert on Hesse to whom Leary had turned, was no.
So I thought I would try reading one or another of
Hesse's books in German, rather than those old English translations. The
library has a beautifully bound set of his complete writings in 10 or more
volumes. The one with Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game - I think that
was Volume 4 - had been borrowed, so I took out Volume 3. It contains four
of these short novels, the first of which is Rosshalde. I did read Rosshalde
in English back then in the 1970s. But it is quite different in German. An
antiquated, literary version of the language which nobody speaks these days.
It gives you a feeling of heaviness, sadness.
The story is about a husband and wife living on a large
estate with manor house, lake, and across the lake, a studio-house for the
husband. He is a famous painter, and he seems to be earning millions and
millions by selling his pictures in order to support this opulent life. Yet,
perhaps as with most rich and famous people, he and his wife no longer have
any good feelings for each other. Yet they both cling to the little boy
Pierre, who wanders back and forth between them. The artist would like to
just leave, but his wife refuses to let him "have" Pierre. Therefore he
stays, spending months at a time in a hermit-like existence, painstakingly
painting his detailed and deeply emotional scenes onto canvas. In the end,
Pierre gets sick and dies horribly and tragically. But during the death
scenes, the wife tells the husband that he can "have" Pierre. Therefore, at
the end, the husband makes a great point of reminding the wife that the dead
Pierre belongs to him, not the wife.
All of this is depressingly unpleasant. It is made more
unpleasant when we read in the Wikipedia that the book is largely
autobiographical. In fact, Hermann Hesse and his wife did not get a divorce
until years after this book was placed into the limelight, for the amused
eyes of everybody. How brutal! What did Hermann Hesse's wife think about
this very public humiliation? No wonder she became mentally unstable. Was
Hesse himself as much of a monster as the figure he depicts in this book?
One thing that didn't make all that much sense to me was
the question of how realistic it is to imagine that a German painter of the
period around 1910 could make so much money from his art as to live a life
as described here. Now it is true that some paintings are sold for many
millions. In fact, just recently, a Russian oligarch spent over thirty
millions for a painting of a fat, naked woman lying on a couch, by Lucian
Freud, who is still living. But that is an exception. After all, those
oligarchs have limitless funds to spend on a good laugh. No, the painter in
this book painted painstaking, emotional
subjects. Today, and also one hundred years ago, such art would fall
squarely into the category of kitsch.
Thus it would be relatively worthless, at least in terms of money.
The problem with paintings is that they can only be sold
once. In contrast to this, musicians can become extremely rich. While one
Russian oligarch is prepared to write a check for 30 millions for a picture
of a fat woman, there are many millions of people who are prepared to spend
50 or 100 dollars for a ticket to a concert. And then they buy the CDs,
which still cost 10 or 20 dollars, or something. Thus the really rich
artists are people like Paul McCartney, or Luciano Pavarotti. Also writers
can sell millions of copies of books like "Harry Potter and the something or
other". The authors of such books soon amass a fortune of hundreds of
millions. But the painters of kitsch are doomed to poverty. So it seems to
me that Hermann Hesse was not very much in tune with the realities of the
real world. Still, the rest of the world around him appears to have lived in
a similar state, so he was able to sell many copies of these books and
accumulate enough money to live a comfortable life in Switzerland.
This is the third novel in Volume 3 of his collected works. The others are Knulp, and Siddhartha.
But I think that I have now read enough from Hermann Hesse for the time
being. He wrote Demian in a rush in only three weeks, in 1917. It was
published in 1919 under the pseudonym "Emil Sinclair", and that is the name
of the protagonist of the book. According to Thomas Mann, it had an
"electrifying influence" on the youth of Germany in the years after the
First World War. But quite frankly, I hardly think it could have much
influence on anybody today.
The hero, Emil Sinclair (a strangely English name for a
young boy in a South German town) introduces himself as a child of ten. The
world at home with his mother and father and sisters is a world of pure
goodness. Yet the world outside on the street, which he must traverse in
order to walk to school, is full of evil. He falls under the influence of a
street urchin. But thankfully, he is saved by an older child in his school
whose name is Demian, who intervenes on his behalf, putting the urchin in
Emil gradually grows up, and he learns from Demian and
one or two other characters the fact that there is both good and evil in the
world. Life is a balance. Philosophy. The pains of growing up. It is obvious
that when Hesse wrote this book in 1917, the sexual revolution of the 1960s
was far in the future. For example, in one episode, when he is away at a
boarding school, a younger school comrade almost commits suicide, owing to
his feeling of guilt which results from the "evils" of masturbation. What a
contrast with Joel Agee's experience in the DDR of the 1950s! Anyway, Emil
certainly remains "pure" in the sense of never advancing beyond the most
In fact, the kiss was placed on the brow of Demian's
mother who was a dream-like, mature woman, appearing in Emil's imagination
as both an object of erotic longing, and also the source of esoteric
speculations in philosophy. All of this seemed to be leading into rather
strange and kinky directions. There were only about ten pages of the book
left. But at this penultimate stage of things, the story cleared itself up.
The moral of the story is that most people are only
concerned with egotistical things. Yet some people - perhaps the "chosen
few" - transcend egotism and see the world as a whole. They are free to seek
true forms of fulfillment. And occasionally, an entire people transcend
their chaotic, individual, selfish lives, and become part of a common dream.
This is namely the case during a time of war. It is a collective, unselfish
passion. And so the book ends with Emil and Demian, living a dream-like,
heroic existence in the trenches of the Great War. In fact, in the last
sentence of the book, Emil sees himself united with Demian, his "Freund und
I see that the apologists for Hermann Hesse are united in
declaring that he was a peaceful Buddhist, and so forth. But of course there
were very violent and corrupt Buddhists in ancient China and India. So
Buddhism is no excuse. On the other hand, we should have a clear picture of
what things were like in 1917.
At that point, Germany was certainly playing the more
honorable role in World War One. It was trying to stop the fighting and
declare a peace on the basis of the status quo before the advent of
hostilities. But the French, and particularly the English, were hell-bent on
world domination. They achieved this after the war, but it led to even worse
wars, the aftermath of which continue today. In this book, Hermann Hesse
certainly is not arguing for pacifism; but equally, it seems to me that
hardly anybody in George W. Bush's America is doing that either. And I have
not seen that George W. Bush would like to end his war on the basis of a
fair status quo.
The plot of this book is well summarized in the Wikipedia
article I have linked to here. The book was first published in 1948. This is
the South Africa of 60 years ago. The author was not a native, or black
African. Instead he was a white inhabitant of South Africa of European
descent. But even there the distinction must be made that he was of English
ancestry, not the Dutch ancestry of the Afrikaners, or Boers. Thus he wrote
the book in English, rather than Afrikaans, which is simply a dialect of
Dutch. In fact, one of the white characters in the book, when discussing all
these language problems (the black characters are members of the Zulu tribe,
and thus speak Zulu) said that he didn't speak, or understand Afrikaans,
The book starts off on a flowery note. The first sentence
is: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills." And so
forth. Indeed, Ixopo is a real place, as you can see by consulting Google
Earth. It's over on the eastern side, near Durban. A smallish town. At the
time I am writing this, Google Earth does not have a sufficiently high
resolution of Ixopo for us to judge whether the system of land reform
described at the end of the book has born fruit. But there does seem to be
quite a bit of healthy forest around the place, so it is undoubtedly in a
very much better state than was the case 60 years ago.
However, the subject of the book is not really land
management or the virtue of African scenery. It is a very direct and
emotional situation involving the interaction of the Zulu and the English
communities. The main character is an old man, a Zulu Christian priest. His
son, and his sister have disappeared years ago into the slums of
Johannesburg. The local farmer, or squire, is also an old man, and his son
has also abandoned the farming life for the big city. But of course, since
the white people had grabbed everything for themselves, the farmer's son had
not disappeared into a horrible slum. No. He was living a comfortable life,
surrounded by wife, small children, servants, books, philosophy, and all the
good things of the world. All of this has led him to open his heart to the
suffering of the native population, and he becomes a hero in the struggle
for goodness against evil.
As fate would have it, the son of the priest, in his
struggle for survival, attempts to rob the house of the son of the squire,
and in a moment of confusion, he shoots him dead. This is a profound tragedy
which is explored in all its facets in the book. As I say, it was quite an
emotional read, and I found it to be quite moving at times. Nevertheless, it
is not a book which a black African would write.
The world in 1948 was still full of European colonialism.
Alan Paton himself was
profoundly involved in the struggle against apartheid. Yet how could that
have achieved anything 60 years ago? A bloodbath would have been necessary,
as in Algeria, or the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. After all, the Afrikaners
had been living in South Africa as long as the English settlers in North
America, so they hardly considered themselves to be colonists. And
which white inhabitant of the USA today - after most native Americans have
long since been murdered - would consider himself to be a colonist? So the
rather feeble hand-wringing of Alan Paton hardly led anywhere. South Africa
had to wait for the world to change, to revile apartheid, and to greet the
great figure of Nelson Mandala.
Perhaps the best that could be said is that people like
Alan Paton helped to prevent a bloodbath happening in South Africa. And they
may have helped to change the general ways of thinking of the white
population. But living in a dream world, simply trying to ignore the
unpleasant facts of life, is not always the best. For example, the book
makes much of the library of the squire's son in Johannesburg, and his large
collection of books on Abraham Lincoln.
Was Abraham Lincoln sent to Earth by God in order to Free
the Slaves? A visitor to Washington D.C. might well believe this to be true.
For a magnificent marble temple has been erected to the god-like Lincoln in
the style of ancient Greece, with a huge statue of the deity to overwhelm
prospective worshipers. In
reality though, Lincoln was a racist who pushed the United States into
a bloody civil war whose purpose was to prevent the southern states from
being allowed to separate and form their own country. How ridiculous it is
that the followers of Lincoln in today's Washington spew their dangerous
nonsense about the various countries which were able peacefully to separate
from the former Soviet Union a few years ago! And of course, Lincoln
definitely did not free the slaves of Kentucky, which was part of the Union
in the Civil War.
The title of this book in the original Japanese edition
of 2004 is "Afutãdãku". Trying to pronounce this in my mind, I think that
the English title "After Dark" seems to come out in a distorted kind of way.
Perhaps this means that the concept of nightlife - life after dark - is
something which was unknown, or at least not considered worthy of its own
special word, before the arrival of western culture to Japan. Be that as it
may, as with many other things, and judging from the story of this book, it
seems that the Japanese have now embraced the concept of nightlife to a far
greater extent than is known in most other countries in the world.
The book is concerned with the doings of just a few
characters somewhere in Tokyo on a particular winters night between 11:56
p.m. and 6:52 a.m. the next morning. The main characters are Mari, a 19
year-old girl, and Takahashi, who is a young fellow who plays trombone in a
band which practices in some cold Tokyo cellar through the night, since they
have nowhere else to play. At precisely 5:00 a.m., Takahashi, who has been
playing a long solo sequence, decides to call it quits and try to rejoin
Mari somewhere. So he must put his things together and pack his trombone in
its case. Murakami writes that he "dismantles his trombone, spills the
accumulated saliva on the floor, gives the instrument a wipe-down, and
begins putting it into its case".
Now I must take issue with Murakami on this point. He
writes as if he knows lots about music, but here he demonstrates that he
knows almost nothing about wind-instrument playing. Water accumulates inside
an instrument owing to the fact that the breath we exhale is rich in CO2 and
water vapor. On the other hand, the instrument is generally considerably
colder than exhaled air. Thus the water condenses on the inner surfaces of
the instrument. Particularly with brass instruments, if too much water
accumulates at an inside bend, it can disrupt the flow of air, causing the
instrument to malfunction. There are little valves placed at the critical
points so that the player can let the water out during pauses in the music.
For the flute, this is not a great problem. However, water can drip out the
end. The fact that this is actually water, and not spit, is demonstrated
when you play on a very hot day so that the instrument has the same
temperature as your breath. Then it remains dry. If a flute player were to
spit into the embouchure, then the flute would immediately become
unplayable. Similarly, if a trombone player were to spit into his instrument
then, since saliva is rather viscous and slimy, and since the inner bore is
small, it would be impossible to simply "spill it on the floor". In fact,
the player would have to wash out his instrument with detergents and lots of
water to rinse things clean. Therefore it is ridiculous when people who are
ignorant of this phenomenon imagine that the water which can drip from a
wind instrument is unclean.
So having gotten that out of the way, I will say that I
enjoyed this book, just as everything else of Murakami is enjoyable to read.
Mari's sister has gone to sleep two months before and has not woken up since
then. Or maybe she does wake up secretly when nobody knows, and has
something to eat, goes to the toilet, and so forth. There is a TV set in her
room which is unplugged, but somehow mysterious forces cause it to flicker
and produce pictures of a strange room. There is a strange, faceless man in
it. Suddenly Mari's sister seems to be transported out of her bedroom and
into the room of the TV. Maybe the whole story of this book is really part
of the dream world of Mari's sister, and Takahashi and his saliva-filled
trombone are nothing more than the fleeting visions of Mari's sister's
dream. Thankfully though, at 5:09 a.m. Mari's sister has been transported
out of the mysterious TV room, and she is again sleeping normally in her own
There is also a side-story which doesn't seem to come to
a definite conclusion. Mari is able to speak Chinese, and she is summoned to
"Alphaville", which is a love-hotel where young Tokyo couples can have an
undisturbed coupling, but also where men can meet prostitutes in the middle
of the night. One such customer has beaten-up a beautiful young Chinese
prostitute and has left her bleeding on the floor. Mari's task is to
understand what she is saying. The manager of the love-hotel is a
middle-aged woman who used to be a champion of wrestling. She is able to
extract an image of the face of the man, and she sends it to the people of
the Chinese mafia who keep the prostitute. They vow to find the man and take
their revenge, come what may. This is another instance of the many faces of
the dark forces of the night.
Stories: Haruki Murakami only wrote one of the stories in this
collection, and in fact it was also included in Blind
Willow, Sleeping Woman, which was a collection of stories which he
wrote. All of the stories here have to do with birthdays. Not that I'm much
of a birthday person. I try to ignore them (which often isn't a good idea).
Murakami translated these stories from English into
Japanese, and published them in 2002. But of course this book has the
original versions. Only Murakami's story has been translated from Japanese
into English here. All the stories which he translated are by contemporary
(or almost contemporary) American writers.
For a writer, the idea of simply writing a story about
somebody being happy on a birthday, receiving presents and enjoying things,
would be much too mundane. So generally, unpleasant things happen. Two of
the stories involve married couples, where the partner gives a present of a
sexual adventure with a third party. But in both of those stories, while the
present is appreciated, it seems not to have been such a wonderful success.
The one by Andrea Lee, The Birthday
Present, involves an American woman who is married to a rich
Italian lawyer working for some political party in Milan. Each of these
stories is introduced by a short paragraph or two, describing the author.
Murakami tells us that he did meet Andrea Lee once; she is an American who
"fell in love with and married an Italian aristocrat, had two children and
now lives in Turin". Therefore, I suppose this story must reflect her
observations on life in the upper levels of modern Italian society.
Observing cheap foreign prostitutes standing along the roads. At the
birthday party beforehand, where the friends of the lawyer and their wives
come for an expensive dinner, the talk and the jokes are all about sex. The
pair of prostitutes which the protagonist of the story arranged for her
husband cost a million lira for a few hours in the evening. He took it in
his stride. Nothing unusual to get excited about. According to Murakami, one
critic wrote, "she may be one of the only writers whose actual life might be
more interesting than the fictional ones she invents for her characters". I
certainly hope so!
Murakami's story is the only one where there does appear
to have been a happy present - a wish was fulfilled - but we are not told
what the wish was. It is the story which remains an enigma.
George Robertson was the master of H.M.S. Dolphin, which
sailed from England in 1766 and a year later became the first European ship
to visit Tahiti. The captain was Samuel Wallis. This book was first
published by the Folio Society in 1955, but I have a later, reprinted
edition. It has been sitting on my bookshelves for years, and so I decided
to read it again. The book is short; without the Introduction it is only
about 100 pages, just describing the stay at Tahiti. It has been extracted
from Robertson's Journal of the whole circumnavigation of the globe by the
Back then in 1766, the learned men of Europe looked at
the maps of the world which were available to them and decided that things
would look somewhat more symmetrical if the blank part in the southern
hemisphere which we now know to be occupied by the Pacific Ocean were to be
filled more by land than by water. Thus H.M.S. Dolphin was dispatched in
order to find this missing land. By the time the ship reached Tahiti, most
of the crew were suffering from scurvy. Also the captain and the other
commanding officers were very sick. They just wanted to get some fresh food
and water to revive themselves, and so sail on to see if the mountains of
Tahiti were indeed part of the coastline of the vast, imaginary Southern
Continent. (For some reason Australia - which was called New Holland back
then - did not count in this quest.)
Robertson's description of the first impressions of
Tahiti are fascinating. The ship's crew saw a carefully cultivated landscape
along the coastline, with thousands and thousands of neat houses everywhere.
They imagined this might be some sort of extension of the high civilization
of China. The feeling was perhaps similar to the feeling - infinitely
compressed in time - which the modern traveler experiences when descending
for landing into a new country. One observes the streets and houses from the
air, gradually becoming larger as the airplane approaches the runway. What
will it be like in this strange country? What will the people be like? How
will one survive the time in this strange new place?
The Dolphin tried landing somewhere along the coast, but
they were approached by hoards of hostile people in canoes. They continued
along the coast, finding a good place to stop in a bay behind a coral reef.
Again, thousands of people came out in their canoes, surrounding the ship,
and they began trading iron nails for fruit and pork. Since Tahiti is
composed of volcanic basalt, there is no accessible metal ore. Therefore
iron was an extremely valuable substance. I suppose it would have been more
valuable for the Tahitians then than gold is for us. Perhaps in their great
travels, the Polynesians did obtain some tiny trickle of iron across the
Pacific from Asia, and thus they were familiar with its uses.
But it soon became apparent that the Tahitians were
intent on capturing the ship and either killing, or enslaving the sailors.
After all, the first encounter of Europeans with the Maoris of New Zealand
occurred over a century before this time, in 1642. A Dutch ship commaned by
Abel Tasman sailed in and sent a small boat out to greet the natives. The
Maoris immediately killed them all! So the Polynesians were certainly not,
by nature, peaceable people.
The Dolphin at Tahiti suddenly found itself besieged by
thousands of canoes, filled with stone-throwing warriors. It was found that
firing mere warning shots from the cannon was useless, since the Tahitians
had no idea how destructive they were. Thus they were forced to destroy some
of the canoes, in particular the ones containing some of the chief warriors.
But even then, the Dolphin still found itself under siege and unable to
obtain supplies and fresh water. They had to fire the cannon at the people
on the shore in order to show them the power and range of their weapons.
Then, after a week or so of this conflict, the situation
changed dramatically. As shown in the link which I have provided above, a
woman, whose name was Purea, took over control of things. She was the wife
of Amo, who was chief of the tribe of Teva, whose fleet had been destroyed
by the Dolphin. Rather than practicing war, she showed the people that peace
- and indeed love for the poor sailors who were sailing for years without
women - would be much more sensible. A great trade in iron nails developed,
as did friendship between the Tahitians and the sailors of the Dolphin. In
fact, on a visit aboard ship, during which the sick captain was bedridden,
Purea became fascinated by the healthy, muscular build of the narrator,
George Robertson. She insisted on him accompanying her ashore, and made it
quite clear to him in front of thousands of her subjects that he should
spend the night sleeping with her. But he refused. In the end she took it in
her stride. Yet at the end of their month-long stay, she tried everything to
prolong the stay of the Dolphin, crying profusely when they departed.
The Frenchman, Bougainville, arrived just a few months
later, but only stayed ten days. Yet despite the briefness of his visit, he
saw fit to publish his book "Voyage" in France, in which he depicted Tahiti
as a paradise - a reincarnation of the imagined dreams instilled by a
classical education. Soon Rosseau, and in a later century, Margret Mead,
satisfied the varied romantic imaginings of an eager public.
This is another book which has been sitting for years on
my bookshelves, but until now it had remained unread. It is a very nicely
bound volume, with an illustration at the head of each of the books which
constitute St. Augustine's Confessions. It is also heavily indexed, but when
turning to the final pages where the hundreds of indexed passages are
explained, we see that they are simply references to countless biblical
Augustine was a rhetorician. Rhetorics is the science of
composing and delivering speeches. I suppose that today most people are
rather hopeless at delivering speeches, but in the ancient world, this was a
major field of study. Perhaps modern lawyers study rhetorics in order to win
juries to their cases. And while Augustine left the rhetorics profession in
order to become a religious figure, still these "Confessions" are hardly
what I would have thought that the true, honest, personal confessions of a
penitent person would look like.
When I first got the book years ago, I started
reading the first few pages, but got bogged down in the torrent of euphoric
outpourings, written in the style of a prophet of the Old Testament, with
which it begins. Therefore I just put it away to gather dust on the
bookshelf. However this time I decided to continue on to see if there was
anything more personal and interesting, and soon it does become quite
He begins with his birth and childhood. Here he observes
that babies often cry angrily for their milk, and some bad babies will even
push away their rivals in order to grab more milk for themselves. Is this
sin? Is it an indication that even babies are filled with evil?
Then comes school. He says that he sinned in that he was
only interested in playing games with his school friends, rather than
applying himself to more "serious" things. He was afraid of the frequent
beatings he received from his teachers, and he says that he was often left
with "stripes" after such episodes. In fact, later in the book, when his
mother dies, he says that his father was a cruel man, often beating his
mother. And the women of the town all lamented the violence of their
husbands, displaying to one another the injuries and wounds which had been
inflicted. But his mother was a most saintly woman since she did not
criticize his father. Rather she told the other women to bear their burdens
with dignity. Presumably this was God's will! His mother was a devoted
Christian (the father was not). So we have a picture of a horribly brutal
society where the people gathered at the local gladiatorial arena for an
evenings entertainment before returning to the family home and actively
enjoying a post-gladiatorial outburst of violence inflicted upon the other
Augustine was then sent to Carthage to study. He followed
the "Manichean" religion, or philosophy. Apparently this was the idea that
the world consists of the two elements: "good" and "evil". Thus the various
activities we see unfolding upon the stage of the world are simply
manifestations of the conflict between these two elements. That sounds like
medieval theology. But back in the days when Augustine was writing this (ca.
400 A.D.), there were many different lines of religion and philosophy. Lots
of different schools of thought. And so, as perhaps a philosophically
inclined person in the modern world might examine all sorts of varied ideas,
this is what Augustine did as well.
But the overall picture that comes across is of a vain
man, writing what he professes to be a confession, yet filling the book with
long arguments meant to display his many virtues as a philosopher, biblical
scholar, ascetic, and so on. The reality was that when he had attained the
position of a well-paid professor of rhetoric at Milan, his mother decided
to arrange a marriage with an under-aged, but wealthy heiress. So he
immediately dumped his faithful girlfriend of 15 years with whom he had a
teenage son, and then took on another girlfriend in order to bridge the two
years till the heiress became of age. However, his meditations led him to
realize that all of this would probably not lead to personal happiness, and
so he decided to join the church. We find no remorse for his dreadful
treatment of the first girlfriend and mother of his son. Instead, we wade
through pages of vague talk about his triumph over the carnal pleasures of
the world! So it is no surprise that he rejects the Manichean religion and
instead embraces the mainstream religion where he can be assured of finding
the greatest possible following.
Despite all of this, some of his philosophical
observations are quite sensible. For example, towards the end, before things
reach a climax of exultation, he mediates on the character of time. Does
time exist by itself, or does it only exist as a measure of the movement of
material? This leads to the question: What did God do before he created the
Heavens and the Earth? Did He just sit around twiddling His thumbs
surrounded by nothingness? This seems to be a question which occupies the
minds of various theoretical physicists in the modern world! But very
sensibly, Augustine concludes that time only exists within our world. And
furthermore, our world should be seen as a whole, not just that which is at
the present time, but the entire world throughout both past and future time.
This then leads to a long philosophical discourse on the
nature of the spiritual world in relation to the physical world. But
somehow, despite his skill as a rhetorician, I gradually lost track of the
innumerable threads of this tedious argument, and so gave up. Much of the
argument is clearly derived from the far more cogent account of Lucretius,
which was written over 450 years before Augustine. The same can be said for
his treatment of the nature of memory.
While the confessions are formulated as a long monologue,
directed at an anthropomorphized God, still, Augustine devotes large
segments of this monologue to an analysis of the meaning of the word "God".
He confesses innumerable times that he doesn't know what it means, but in
the end he seems to be saying that it denotes the basic plan which
underlines the structure of the world. What is it which determines all of
nature and that mysterious thing which is consciousness? If that is what the
search for God is, then I agree that it is a noble cause.
It took me a while to get into this book. Again,
this is another one of those books which I have had for years without
reading till now. The problem is that it starts out with a young American
movie actress, Rosemary, arriving at a hotel near Cannes on the Cote d'Azure
with her mother, then immediately falling in love with Dick and Nicole
Diver, who are a married American couple living the high life, together with
a further circle of characters. Rosemary goes from one party to another,
finding everything soooo... wonderful. And she is so in love. The parties
are described in wonderful, flowery language by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Thus, after 20 or 30 pages of this, I thought it must be a trivial,
meaningless book about the parties of the degenerate American upper classes
in the 1920s, who were soooo... sophisticated, since they were having them
in France, rather than on Cape Cod, or Long Island, or whatever.
But this time, reading on, I find that it turns into a
beautiful story. Dick and Nicole are not just shallow party-givers. After
about a hundred pages, the story returns in time to the beginning of their
love for one another. A complicated story. Her mother has died; her father,
upon whom she is totally dependent, has sexually abused her (although only
once, and, at least at first, apparently forgiven and forgotten). But now,
as a young teenager, she has been simply relegated to an expensive clinic
for mentally unstable people on the shores of the lake at Zürich. Thus her
wealthy family buries Nicole - the unspeakable skeleton in its closet - in
Swiss obscurity. Dick is a doctor with vague connections to the clinic.
We live through the complicated love they have for one
another, and then the things that make it impossible for them to stay
together. Is she cured, or is she still his patient? And is Dick, the
brilliant doctor, someone who has merely been bought by Nicole's rich,
degenerate family to be a convenient solution to the problem of keeping the
skeleton of Nicole safely locked in the closet? In the end, he cannot live
with this situation, and Nicole knows that with all her money, she can have
anybody else she wishes, so why waste time hanging on to Dick? It is a
beautifully told story of seduction and intrigue. One of those books where
one lives in the story, feeling the emotions of the characters.
It seems that F. Scott Fitzgerald put much of his own
life into this book. His wife Zelda had a nervous breakdown and recovered in
a Swiss clinic. Also the scene where Dick punched an Italian policeman in
Rome after a drunken night, and was then thoroughly beaten and kicked into a
prison cell, was an experience from the life of the Author.
All of the action takes place in Europe, and the
protagonists are continuously moving within large groups of extremely rich
Americans. I am not much of a traveler myself, and perhaps I have avoided
the places where the rich congregate. But it is not my impression that
modern Europe is filled with huge numbers of ultra-rich Americans. There is
the example of Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, who have settled into a palatial
mansion somewhere in the South of France. But as far as I can see from
reading about them in the papers, they seem to be a rather lonely and
ephemeral exception to the rule. Looking at all those 200 meter long "motor
yachts" lined up in the harbor at Monte Carlo for the annual Formula 1
races, I see that they belong to the mega-rich Russians. One feels sorry for
the "poor" American bank and hedge-fund managers who must live with a
paltry 50 million or so per year. They can only afford a puny 100 meter
motor yacht, or even less. How embarrassing! Obviously they avoid Monte
Carlo during the racing week. Maybe they avoid the Mediterranean
completely and keep their boats safely in Long Island Sound, away from the
scoffing view of those Russian oligarchs.
Thankfully though, it seems that help may be on its way!
Just this week, all the people around George W. Bush have gotten into a
panic and said that if the taxpayers of America don't get together and give
the American bank and hedge-fund managers 700 billion dollars so that they
can buy themselves decent yachts to compare with those of the Russians, then
all sorts of calamities may occur. Therefore it may well be that, as in the
Roaring 20s, all the fashionable Swiss clinics and mansions on the Cote
d'Azure will again become filled with huge numbers of ultra-rich Americans,
recreating the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This link leads to a web-page which has the entire text
of the book, nicely formated in html, to be read online. (The Project
Gutenberg version is better yet!) However I saw that Amazon.com had a
paperback version for only €4; and after all, it is always more pleasant to
read something on paper.
It is a beautiful story about the pioneering families of
Nebraska. A love story, narrated by Jim Burdon, a young boy who grows into a
man, and it follows the life of Àntonia. Jim's parents have died, and he is
sent out to the plains of Nebraska to live with his grandparents. On the
train out to the Great Plains, and then in the wagon out to the farm, rides
a family which has immigrated to America from Bohemia (that is, the
modern-day Czech Republic). All of their money has been taken by the cost of
the trip and the unscrupulous people who have cheated them along the way.
This is Àntonia's family. So they must live through the first winter in a
hole in the mud of Nebraska. Life is not easy. There are tragedies. But
through hard work, they survive, and eventually they prosper. The land is
settled by many other immigrant families living through the same trials.
They come from Austria, Poland, Norway, Russia, as well as Bohemia. The
author, Willa Cather, grew up in Nebraska in the 1880s, so she knew what she
was writing about. As I say, it is a beautifully told story, showing what
life was like in Nebraska a hundred years ago.
I've never really thought much about Nebraska before. I
associate it with the Strategic Air Command, in Omaha, with hundreds of
Minuteman rockets scattered about the Great Plains, pointed at Russia, ready
to transport us into an atomic Armageddon at the touch of a button. Also
that richest of men in the money world: Warren Buffet, lives in Omaha. And
then one reads of the horrible scandal,
involving the poor children who had been trapped in Boystown in Omaha. Lots
of bad associations!
So my avoiding thinking about it meant that I had to look
at the map to see just where in the Midwest it lies. It is north of Kansas,
and about 500 miles south-west of Chicago. Using Google-Earth, I see that
the eastern part of the state is all subdivided into precisely rectangular
fields, aligned according to the compass along lines of latitude and
longitude. But scrolling over to the western half, away from the horrors of
Omaha, it seems to be open, hilly country, free of much human interference.
The situation Cather describes is of an empty country,
devoid of indigenous Americans and of buffalo. Some unexplained force has
exterminated these things, leaving a new, virgin countryside of sod for the
great wave of immigration out of Middle Europe in the 1880s. Therefore it is
almost as if the book is a story of Europe, and we hear much of the
important goings on in the world in Vienna, or Prague. The characters are
nostalgic for the elegant life they have left back there, in the middle of
the civilized world. Yet they triumph over the hardships in this empty,
lonely land. We are inspired by their triumph, their creation of a new and
prosperous farming community.
This is a small book containing three stories, all of
which are connected in one way or another with the painter Henri Matisse. He
was particularly known for his voluptuous paintings of the female figure.
Each of the stories in this book is preceded by a suggestive line drawing
from Matisse's later period. The first story, "Medusa's Ankles", is an
amusing account of the relationship of a middle-aged woman to her hair
dressing salon, whose proprietor is named Lucian. She has been attracted to
Lucian's shop in the first place owing to a painting of a Rosy Nude in the
shop window. After a year of hearing the story of Lucian's life, and his
approaching divorce (owing to the fact that his present wife has fat
ankles), the narrator has had enough. She throws things wildly about,
demolishing the salon. But Lucian is most understanding, saying that he is
happy that things have been demolished so that he can now start a new life
with his girlfriend, setting up a stall in the Antique Hypermarket.
The second story is about a wife who works hard
supporting her husband, who is an unsuccessful painter. Debbie, the wife,
works for an art magazine for women. The story is suggested by Matisse's Le Silence habité des maisons.
Actually, looking about the internet, I find that there are in fact two very
different pictures by Matisse with the same title. One is a still
life, showing the bright, striking colors of cups, a jug, some fruit.
which Byatt particularly describes at the beginning of the story, is of two
bland, faceless figures sitting at a table in an otherwise featureless room.
It seems to be a mother with her son. There is a lot of color outside,
through the window. On the wall, up high, is a kind of stick figure. Perhaps
a man of some sort. So Byatt makes an interesting and amusing story out of
this situation. The husband contemplates the meaning of color and the
hopelessness of life. And he terrorizes Mrs. Brown, who comes every day to
clean, cook, and take care of things generally. He explains in a
heavy-handed way the meaning of color to Mrs. Brown. Debbie attempts to
convince the elegant woman who is the proprietor of an art gallery to
exhibit the husband's pictures. To the surprise of everyone, it turns out
that Mrs. Brown is the successful artist, and she has an exhibition -
accompanied by great acclaim - of the primitive works she has been
accumulating in her council flat.
The final story is of the Dean of the Faculty of Woman's
Art somewhere in London, dealing with the problems of her profession. Women
coping with men. All of these stories are a joy to read.
This is the story of a quest. A most ambitious and erudite book. It is
concerned with two love affairs - then and now.
The one back then in Victorian England was between two imagined poets:
Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Ash was an established figure in
Victorian poetry. Perhaps not as romantic and handsome as Tennyson, but we
can think of him anyway. And I imagine somebody like Christina Rossetti when
thinking about Christabel LaMotte.
Then, in modern times, both Ash and LaMotte have become
the subjects of established and long entrenched schools of study in the
English departments of the universities of the world. The two preeminent
professors in the world of Ash scholarship are an American Professor in an
obscure but rich private college in New Mexico, and a Scottish Professor at
London University. (Presumably this is not the University of London, but
rather an imagined institution for the purposes of the novel.) Needless to
say, neither of these professors are part of the modern love affair in the
book. Instead it is Roland Michell, who is a poorly paid assistant to the
Scottish professor. When examining some dusty volume which had once belonged
to Ash, Roland finds a few papers falling out from between the pages. They
are tentative drafts of a letter Ash had written to some female
acquaintance. Who was it? Soon he realizes it must have been Christabel
LaMotte, and so he gets into contact with the leading figure in the LaMotte
school of academic research in England. Her name is Maud Bailey.
The leading LaMotte professor in the U.S.A.
is Leonora Stern, an expansive, extravagantly dressed woman. Unlike the
two professors of Ash studies, who hate one another, Maud and Leonora are
very friendly. Leonora almost overwhelmingly so. The difference is that
while Ash is considered to be the established pillar of Victorian romantic
values, LaMotte is considered to be the archetypical lesbian theorist.
Feminists who do not fall into the lesbian mold are thus considered to be
inappropriate candidates for inclusion in the LaMotte school of English
studies. And so, while Leonora has had a number of marriages and various
children, still she professes her lesbianism to the world, both through her
academic works, and also in her private life.
Maud is more coolly English, having had an unpleasant,
messy affair with one of those male Ash scholars. And Roland has been living
together with his girlfriend, Vic, who also studied English, but who is fed
up with Ash. She has learned typing, and so she now supports both Roland and
herself on the little money she can earn as a stenographer. They are living
in a grubby London cellar, where the smell of cat urine from the flat above
has gradually seeped down through the walls over the years. Their landlady
keeps 15 or 20 cats in her place.
So Maud and Roland escape together and discover the
letters and poems which Ash and LaMotte wrote to one another, retracing the
scenes of those romantic adventures in 19th century Yorkshire and Brittany.
It turns out that LaMotte had a baby by Ash, and the baby turns out to have
been the great, great, great grandmother of Maud. Roland is somewhat
overwhelmed by all this feminism and English class snobbery. (His background
is definitely working class.) Also he has had enough of his girlfriend. And
so, while being in love with Maud, he is careful to keep a certain distance.
It is a great story, beautifully told.
Byatt makes up long original poems to represent the
manuscripts Maud and Roland find on their quest. Now I am not much of a
lover of poetry. All of this blank verse in iambic pentameter doesn't really
appeal to me. It is like a heavy plodding down the page, not getting to the
point. But still, at least for a person as ignorant of such things as I am,
it seems to me that Byatt has constructed this poetry very much in the style
of Tennyson's blank verse. Of course, his true, rhyming poetry, such as the
first few lines of The Lady of Shalott
side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
quoted to describe a scene in the book, is beautiful. And much of Byatt's
poetry is also written in this style. But I must admit that I skipped
through much of it in order to read on through the story.
At the end of the book, these new discoveries about Ash
and LaMotte are destined to cause great upheavals in the world of English
scholarship and academic life. While Ash and LaMotte have been shown to have
been so "politically incorrect" as to actually have created a baby, it
remains unclear whether or not Maud and Roland will do the same thing.
Since the book was made into a movie, and despite the less than enthusiastic
critique which I've linked to above, I decided to order the DVD via Amazon.
It arrived today. So just now, this evening, I have seen it.
Well, yes, it is a different story than that which Byatt
wrote. Roland is an overly handsome American student, and Maud is Gweneth
Paltrow, who is much more lovable than the Maud of the book. And of course
everything must be shortened to fit into the framework of a movie. In the
end it is a simple love story, which the book is not, but it is beautifully
told, and well worth seeing.
Black Book of Stories: This collection is quite mixed, running
from the bizarre to the touching. For example "A Stone Woman" imagines a
lonely woman suddenly discovering that she is literally turning to stone.
Her skin develops streaks of basalt, granite, even a few semi-precious
stones. The condition spreads. She realizes that she will become a stone
monument. And she also enjoys being out in the open air like a stone, rather
than in a confined apartment. At first, she thinks that it would be a good
idea to finally solidify in a nearby graveyard, along with all the other
stone statues of angels, and other half decomposing female figures. But then
she discovers an Islandic stone carver working in a corner of the graveyard,
who takes her away from London to his house amongst the stones of Island
where she discovers that she has become a troll, or something.
And then "The Pink Ribbon" is about an aged husband
looking after his aged wife who has succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer's
disease. A younger woman knocks on the door, saying she is being chased by
someone, and he lets her in. Gradually it becomes clear that she is a kind
of reincarnation of his wife, as she was before.
The other three stories in the book are equally strange,
and well worth reading.
Prince, by Niccolò
A short book, and not really what I had expected. The
situation in Italy in 1500 was a catastrophe. Many small kingdoms fighting
amongst one another, led by weak, cruel warlords and their families. Amongst
these warlords was the Pope himself. As Machiavelli writes, he was
personally acquainted with Pope Alexander VI, and with his son Cesare
Borgia. Machiavelli considered Alexander to be the most dishonest person he
had ever met. And while Cesare was famed for his brutality, Machiavelli saw
in him the potential for someone with the character to unite Italy and so
put an end to the chaos and conflict under which the common people were
continually suffering. But Cesare was struck down by misfortune, in that he
was seriously ill just at the time his father died, and thus he was unable
to ensure that a pope favorable to his position would be elected as the next
pope. So the book is addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, in the hope that
perhaps he will become the savior
Machiavelli does not waste time with irrelevant
moralizing. Instead he shows in very practical terms what the leader of a
country must do in order to survive and prosper. Many examples are given,
both from the ancient world of Greece and Rome, and also from the
contemporary happenings in Italy, Turkey, Egypt, and so forth. The main
business of the ruler is to ensure that the army is strong, and divisive
elements in society are weak. He shows that while it may seem to be
convenient to employ mercenaries when things are going well, when things go
badly, they are worse than useless. Donald Rumsfeld, with all his
"outsourcing", seems to have been unaware of this truth.
Somehow though, much of what Machiavelli writes does not
seem to be particularly relevant to today's world. For example, although
Rumsfeld was such a dreadful advisor to George W. Bush, it doesn't follow
that he is now experiencing the consequences of his actions. He has not been
imprisoned or executed, as would have been the case during the Renaissance.
Perhaps the U.S.A., which today is the principal source of military
conflicts in the world, is in a similar position to the great empires of the
past - Rome, or Persia - and so the properties required of a ruler are
different from those required in a period of chaos and lawlessness. The
ruler of such an empire must preside over a seething mass of corrupt,
immoral forces. The simplest policy, and apparently that which has been
followed by George W. Bush, would be to let these forces take over the
government, thus gradually contributing to the eventual decline and downfall
of the empire. A ruler of the character of John F. Kennedy, who was prepared
to resist these forces, met the fate which Machiavelli saw was all too
likely in such a case.
I had thought that by reading this book, I might be able
to gain some insight into the motivation for the invasion of Iraq by the
U.S.A. in 2003. But I am afraid that Machiavelli can offer no explanation.
It remains a mystery, a puzzle. Indeed, Machiavelli offers many arguments,
showing that the situation in Iraq is hardly tenable.
Life, by Richard Fortey
The author is a paleontologist who is associated with the
Natural History Museum in London. His specialty is the study of trilobites.
During my first year of university studies in Canberra in 1966, I took the
first year course in geology, just for fun. One of the day trips involved
driving over to a small creek near to Canberra Airport, and if you look at
the rocks there, you see that they are filled to overflowing with trilobite
This book starts off by describing a more extended
excursion of the author in the year 1967, when he was already finishing his
geology studies at Cambridge University. It involved a long trip by ship and
boat up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean, and being dumped on a lonely
beach, far from the main town of Longyearbyen, together with some dried
food, a tent and sleeping bag, and a pile of warm clothes. His companion was
another student in the same situation, named Geoff. They were left to
themselves to brave the freezing winds and storms for two months or more,
with the task of looking for trilobites in the rocks of the island. Towards
the end of this time, a supply boat came by with a few extra supplies, and
the news that the author, Richard Fortey, had passed his exams at Cambridge
for the previous year, yet Geoff had only gotten a lowly second class honors
degree, which precluded his further academic advancement. This is given as
an example of the Luck of the Game of Life in a number of places in this
book. On the other hand, as the example of my student days shows, it is
often possible to change, or at least bend, the rules of the Game of Life so
that a poor student such as me, or that other Geoff, is able to enjoy life
Be that as it may, the book takes a long geological sweep
through the history of the Earth, showing that life started as long as 3 1/2
billion years ago, existing as single-celled organisms throughout the vast
majority of the life of the Earth; then only in the last 500 million years
branching out into multi-celled life. The author imagines what it would have
been like to stand on the rocks and see what life looked like during various
phases of Earth's history.
For all of those billions of years of single-celled life,
the land would have been just bare rocks, devoid of life. But the oceans
would have looked much like they do today. Yet they were teaming with single
cells. These cells were able to create huge reefs which can still be seen in
some geological formations. And of course, they gradually changed the
atmosphere from being a benign mixture of carbon dioxide and other stable
chemicals, to the present atmosphere, composed in large part of that highly
reactive, toxic chemical: oxygen.
The first three billion years worth of life are so far
away from us now that it is difficult to say exactly what it was like.
Still, Fortey does describe what is known, and much of this was new to me.
But the majority of the book is, of course, concerned with multi-cellular
life, starting in the Cambrian and late Precambrian eras.
During my year of geology in 1966 there was no feeling
that life had started so long ago. Instead it seemed that things only went
back a short way into the Precambrian epoch. So it is surprising that life
started much earlier than that, only a few hundred million years after the
formation of the Earth itself. The question is then, how unlikely is it that
molecules just bang around together by chance and spontaneously assemble
themselves into a viable bit of DNA, sitting inside a viable living cell?
Somehow, this seems to be extremely unlikely! Fortey
speculates that at the beginning, there may have been organisms which only
had RNA, together with some of the proteins of life, but no DNA. Yet, given
RNA, how is it possible for it to be "deconstructed" into DNA? After
all, given a successful form of life based on RNA alone, then what plausible
pathway is there for intermediate forms containing partial sequences of DNA
to be successful as well?
For me at least, the simplest explanation is to say that
the universe did not start in some sort of neo-religious "Big-Bang".
Instead, it has always been here. Thus, given that it has existed for
infinite time, it follows that there has been infinitely much time for the
most improbable things to happen - such as the creation of Life. But then,
given the propensity of life to grow and multiply, it follows that it must
exist in lots of places in the universe. For example we now know that comets
consist mainly of water, mixed in with various organic molecules, giving a
"dirty snowball" whose core melts when approaching a star. So I am looking
forward to the time in 2014 when the Rosetta spacecraft will make a soft
touchdown onto the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Will it find life? In
fact, is it equipped to answer this question?
As Richard Fortey explains, the "steady-state" theory of
the universe has been associated with the name of Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was a
Cambridge physicist who also wrote a number of very interesting science
fiction novels. But although he was very much part of the British
Establishment, being a professor in that most established of universities,
knighted by the Queen, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and so forth, still,
his personality was such that he wanted
to be an outsider! This led him to issue various assertions concerning one
thing and another, with the purpose of provoking "The Establishment".
One such episode described in the book involved Fred
Hoyle asserting that the well-known fossils of Archaeopteryx must be all
fakes, since they did not conform with something in his version of a
steady-state theory. But unfortunately, this led to the rest of the
scientific community obediently letting themselves be provoked into the
totally illogical conclusion
Hoyle increased his level of provocations even further by appearing (or at
least sending his associate, Professor Wickramsingh) into the Deep South of
the U.S.A., where religious bucolics even today believe that Science is the
work of the Devil. In particular, these bucolics provoke contentious
litigation concerning whether or not science should be even taught in
schools at all! Hoyle's idea was to appear as a witness for the Prosecution,
giving the opinion that the ideas of most other scientists were false.
And thus, as Richard Fortey explains, the life of an
individual person mirrors, in some way, the chaotic and varied history of
all of Life on the Earth.
As an added note, I find that by looking up the appropriate
article in the Wipikedia, it is clear that the Rosetta spacecraft will
not be equipped to answer the question about whether or not comets contain
life, The original mission of the Rosetta project was to return samples of
comet material to earth, to be examined in the laboratory. But, as always,
although such a mission would have been technically possible, in order to
save money only a partial mission was actually launched.
On the other hand, if the theories of Panspermia
are, in fact, true, then perhaps it is a blessing that such comet material
does not reach the Earth. According to Hoyle, such material might cause a
catastrophe similar to the visions of Michael Crichton!
In many ways, this book is similar to Guterson's earlier
Snow Falling on Cedars. An American
Pastoral. Men fighting against Nature in the Pacific Northwest. And
recalling their experiences in the Second World War. But in this book, the
hero was sent Eastwards towards the Enemy in Germany, rather than Westwards towards the Enemy in Japan,
which was the fate of the hero in the earlier book. Both experience war as a
long, unpleasant, meaningless business of being trained, transported from
one place to another, and finally arriving in some arbitrary landscape where
the enemy is somewhere nearby. At that point, either the hero, through no
fault of his own, suddenly has his arm blown off, or in the case of the
present book, his best friend in the army receives a number of shots in
various critical parts of the anatomy. He then carries the friend to a
medic, accompanies him to a field hospital where he admires the skill of the
army surgeon, and then decides to become a surgeon himself. In neither case
- for better or worse - does the hero appear to contribute anything positive
by way of influencing the course of the respective battle.
But the story of this book really takes place in the
present time, or at least the present, as it was perceived when the book was
first published in 1999, before the era of George W. Bush. Ben Givens is an
elderly man living in Seattle. A retired heart surgeon. He is 76 years old.
His wife died a year or two ago. He has a terminal case of cancer of the
colon. And as a doctor, he knows what a mess it is to die of cancer
(particularly that kind), both for himself, and for his daughter and
grandson who also live in Seattle. Thus Ben decides to set off with his two
hunting dogs and drive across the coastal range to the East of the
Mountains, to the apple country where he grew up, and there to commit
suicide, making it look as if it is a hunting accident. This will spare both
himself, and also his daughter and grandson, the problems of going through
the messy business of him dying from this cancer.
So he gets into his old 4-wheel drive SUV with the dogs
and starts driving. But the whole thing turns into a big dog problem. On a
slippery, rainy mountain road, the younger of his dogs jumps onto the front
seat and causes Ben, who is shouting at him to get back into the back seat,
to drive off the road and crash into a tree. At the scene of the crash, a
young man and woman stop to rescue him. They are a pair of hippie-like
people who drift from one mountain to another, climbing, skiing, whatever.
In the USA, Europe, the Himalayas, just as long as there are mountains. They
give him a lift a few hundred miles over to the East.
Ben now finds himself in the town of Vantage,
Washington, standing by the side of the road in the wind with his dogs and
his old shotgun, looking at the bare hills. He decides to set off up the
hills somewhere, looking for birds to shoot. It is only after his wife died
that he again took up this unpleasant "sport", which his father had
introduced him to back in the 1930s on the old apple orchard. His daughter
also disapproves. Yet, as I said, the book is an American Pastoral, and so
the shooting of poor little birds with guns is a requirement.
Ben can't summon sufficient courage to shoot himself just
yet. Presently night falls with him out under the stars where he falls
asleep on the ground, feeling the pain of his cancer. Suddenly he is woken
by his dogs, who have become excited. Other dogs come. There is a big
dogfight, shooting. A real mess! The brutal owner of the enemy dogs steals
Ben's shotgun. And thus the story develops. A real page-turner which I
couldn't put down. David Guterson is a great story-teller.
Thinking about the story, I wonder if it is true that
medical doctors, who are continually confronted with sickness and death,
might be more afraid of death than most "normal" people. After all, their
lives, their profession, is devoted to the business of putting off death,
prolonging life. Therefore, perhaps more so than other people, when finally
coming to the end of their lives and being confronted with the inevitable
Fate which we all face, they might be unable to come to terms with it. Death
must be fought against, even violently, at all times.
On the other hand, I am sure cancer of the colon is a not
a pleasant way to die. The good news is that these days it is easy to avoid
such cancer. Now that I have passed the 60 year mark, I have been urged to
overcome my usual policy of avoiding medical doctors at all costs, and
submit myself to a medical examination. Only after a great deal of
persuasion did I agree to do this. One goes to a hospital and has a very
pleasant talk with the specialist in these matters. Then one is put to sleep
so that the whole business takes place in another world, while one dreams of
other things; and then one is awakened by a smiling nurse, to say that
everything is OK.
The fact of the matter is that almost all cancers of the
colon grow very slowly, over a period of 10 years, or more. During all that
time, they can easily be found and removed by a non-invasive procedure, thus
eliminating the risk of cancer of the colon. I was told that at present,
only 10% of the population of elderly people bothers to take this
examination. Yet the risk of developing this cancer is quite high. (For
example one of our neighbors has it.) You can avoid the risk by having this
simple medical examination done once every 10 years. So, as the doctors told
me - putting it most drastically and brutally - if you just can't be
bothered to have the medical examination, then getting cancer of the colon
is your own fault!
This book was
written 10 years after Possession,
which had won the Booker Prize. The present book, The
Biographer's Tale, is similar to the earlier book. A student of
literature becomes obsessed with a quest to discover and understand a number
of obscure ancient literary documents. This format allows Byatt to
demonstrate her erudition in various fields of knowledge, and perhaps it
also demonstrates the adage, "Don't change a winning formula". But why
should she? After all, there are numbers of standard literary forms: the
murder mystery, science fiction, the western, and so on. And she is not
alone in this particular branch of literature. We are reminded of some of
the books of Umberto Eco.
But frankly, I enjoyed Possession more than this one. It had a sensible story
which developed as the book progressed, so that we read on to see what
happens next. And we become involved in the two love stories which mirror
one another in a beautiful symmetry. The present book lacks all that.
The protagonist is a literature student with a funny
name: Phineas G. Nanson. He is doing a Ph.D. course based on the concept of
"post-deconstructuralism" (whatever that is). His theme is something to do
with feminine threads in the novels of a number of the authors which are the
usual subjects of such academic theses. Byatt takes this opportunity to
provide us with some good jokes about contemporary literary criticism.
In any case, Phineas is fed up with
post-deconstructuralism. He wants facts
rather than meaningless words, and so he decides to quit. He tells the Head
of Department about his decision, but he is then given a three volume
biography of a fictional 17th century character named Elmer Bole, written by
the biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, who the Head of Department says
is the greatest biographer of recent memory. Phineas takes the books home
and becomes fascinated with Destry-Scholes work, perhaps owing to the fact
that he has an even stranger name than Phineas himself.
Thus Phineas decides to devote himself to the project of
writing the biography of the biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes.
Unfortunately, although Destry-Scholes lived recently - in the 1950s, still
it is difficult for Phineas to find anything about his life. His publisher
had been taken over by a larger American publisher, which in turn had been
taken over by a German conglomerate. Somehow, a small part of the archives
of the original publisher had found its way into some university department,
and there were some disordered sheets of paper, which had fallen to the back
of a filing cabinet, which may perhaps have been written by Destry-Scholes.
The pages 37-95 of the present book reproduce these
papers. It is all rather obscure and ridiculous. Gradually we learn that
these are fragments of three biographies, namely of Carl
Galton, and Henrik
Ibsen. Well, OK. These are certainly three interesting historical
figures. Linnaeus, in particular, seems to have had some crazy ideas about
various things. There is much made of the infamous Maelstrom,
or Moskstraumen, as it is known in Norwegian, which, if Linnaeus had
actually gone there, he would have seen that it is not a huge vortex, but
rather just a disturbed current flowing around the Lofoten Islands of
Northern Norway. Anyway, whatever Linnaeus or Galton or Ibsen had to do with
it, it was rumored that Scholes Destry-Scholes had gone on a hunting and
fishing holiday to the Lofotens, and had drowned in the Maelstrom.
By a lucky chance, Phineas gets into contact with
Destry-Scholes niece, Vera Alphage. He also gets involved with a Swedish bee
expert, Fulla Biefeld. Therefore, whereas at the beginning of the book he is
an isolated, friendless, lost student, at the end of the book, he has two
interesting girlfriends with funny names with which to sleep.
Vera has a number of things of Scholes Destry-Scholes in
her attic. There is a box with a couple of hundred large index cards, with
various obscure writings on them, presumably related to the three personages
Scholes was researching before becoming lost in the Maelstrom. Also a box
full of old photographs. Vera becomes fascinated with a collection of her
uncle's marbles, before finally inviting Phineas into her bed.
It seems that Galton, who was interested in identifying
the inferior elements of humanity, and finding ways of encouraging them not
to reproduce, spent much time seeking ways of scientifically accomplishing
such an identification. One method was to identify a certain type, or
category of person. Thus, for example, one could take the pictures of the
faces of all the murderers in a prison, and superimpose them all, one on top
of another. The resulting composite photograph would be a picture of the
Murderer, as type, or Form. This could easily be done today using computer
graphics software. Back in the 19th century, Galton tried exposing
progressively a photographic print, using such collections of individual
photos. Thus, perhaps Destry-Scholes was interested in Linnaeus, Galton, and
Ibsen, as being representatives of a particular type, or form of humanity.
Byatt then fills the book with long quotations from many
of the index cards. It all adds up to nothing much in particular. Lots of
obscure literary nonsense. And so, in the end, Phineas gives up on his
project of writing the biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, and instead
gives us this book, as its narrator, telling the story of his attempt to
become a biographer.
This is another book of Byatt's short - and not so short - stories. It is
subtitled "Stories of Fire and Ice". Well, particularly the one entitled Cold, which is a sort of fairy tale
about a princess whose distant ancestor was herself a princess of the North,
is concerned with fire and ice. She grows up in a temperate climate, but her
northern genes, or spirits, mean that she wilts in the heat of summer, and
she is only happy when dancing naked in the snow of a winter's night. As
fate would have it, she falls in love with a prince of the desert who spends
his days making glass in a fiery furnace. Living with him almost kills her,
but her loving prince creates a glass castle for her in the high mountains
of the moon, beyond the desert, where, up in the heights, his princess can
find relief in the snow.
concerned with a group of men who had to attend some sort of conference in
an Asian setting. It was expected that their wives accompany them. The
heroine of the story would much prefer to have stayed comfortably at home.
It is thankfully the last day of the trip. The women are transported to a
gigantic shopping center in a limousine, which will pick them up to
transport them to the airport and home in two hours time. Since the heroine
gets along badly with the other ladies, she sets off to explore the shopping
center by herself. Gradually she realizes she is lost. In a panic, she is
unable to find the exit. The time for the rendezvous has long passed.
Suddenly she finds that her credit card is missing. Her passport is also
missing, as is her airline ticket. She becomes disheveled, no longer the
kind of person who belongs in this expensive shopping center. The guards
come to remove her to the slums outside. A nightmare!
Each of these stories is preceded by a drawing. For
example, the first story is called Crocodile Tears, and the drawing is of a Roman coin,
Crocodile de Nimes". The last story is quite short, and its drawing is
a small corner of "Kitchen
with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary", by Velázquez. Yes, it is
a plausible little story for this picture. I think these stories are
motivated more by their pictures, than by the theme "Fire and Ice".
It seems to me that Byatt is more at home, more
inventive, more amusing, when writing these short stories as compared with
the rather too longish and predictable Biographer's
The photo of
Joyce Carol Oates in the Wikipedia article which I have linked to here is
not very flattering. But then there is a short video
on YouTube, where she gives a talk about how she goes about writing. She
seems to be a pleasant person, and one sees that she is so thin owing to the
fact that she does lots of running (during which time, she thinks about what
to write next).
I was aware of her before reading this book. For example,
she edited a book of short stories which I read some time ago. Also I knew
that she is a professor at Princeton, and is considered to be one of the
great figures of The Establishment in the field of American Literature.
Therefore, seeing this book on the table in the bookshop, I thought I'd see
what it is like. Undoubtedly the library has many of her books, which can be
borrowed for free. But with a spontaneous thing like this, I don't begrudge
the €10 for a paperback. After all, it costs so much to buy a ticket to the
movies; and books usually give a much greater quantity of entertainment.
Getting into this one, which consists of 10 more or less
short stories, I was surprised by what they were. I had expected an even
greater level of erudition than Antonia Byatt brings to the page. But the
stories in this book are not like that at all. In fact, reading through the
Wikipedia article about Joyce Carol Oates, I see that she is noted for her
prolificacy. I didn't go to the trouble of counting the number of books,
plays, and what have you, listed as being her life's output, but it seems to
extend to well over one hundred! This is so great a number that any normal
person must question the value of all of these writings. In fact, one
reviewer is quoted as writing that Oates "slop[s] words across a page like a
washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones"!
I am reminded of a situation years ago here in our
University, where two candidates were considered for something or other. One
of the candidates had published over 100 papers, and the other had published
nothing at all. Yet the second candidate had accomplished something which
was considered to be worthy of merit, and thus he was ultimately successful.
I would like to think that this is also the system which would be applied at
Anyway, all of the stories in the present book are
"horror" stories, involving death. They are often brutal, even disgusting.
But often the horror is totally unmotivated. For example, the first story, Hi! Howya Doin!, follows an athletic
young man jogging around a university campus. He meets one person after
another, each of whom he greets in a friendly way. Then the last person he
meets pulls out a gun and blasts him in the face, killing him. What is this?
Does Joyce Carol Oates imagine that somebody might shoot her during her
daily rounds of the gardens of Princeton? Or does she, a lightweight,
fragile, wispy figure, imagine that it would be a good idea to finally get
out a gun and blast the smithereens out of some athletic, viral young man
who also happens to be running at Princeton?
Also the story which provides the title of this book
seemed to me to be totally unmotivated. One is left up in the air, thinking
that the characters are hardly human. They are like figures in a badly
written play, where we go away and say, How stupid!
For me, the only interesting story here was titled Feral. A wealthy married couple finally
achieve pregnancy when the woman is 40 years old, or so. They move from New
York City to a sheltered, rural paradise, somewhere up the Hudson, where
their baby son Derek can grow up in an ideal environment. He is totally
lovable, if rather dull. At age 10, on an idyllic summer's day at the local
country club, he is swimming in the pool, yet everyone is distracted by a
disruption, caused by an hysterical little girl. Suddenly it is realized
that Derek is floating face downwards at the other end of the pool. His
breathing, and indeed, also his heart, stops working. He seems to be dead.
Yet the emergency services bring him back to life, and he appears to recover
perfectly. But he is changed. No longer the lovable little boy. He cringes
when his mother tries to hold him. He bites his father! Then he bites other
children at school as well. He seems to have turned into a cat-like being
who secretly slinks out to dark places in the night. In the last scene of
the story, his parents follow him in the moonlight through bushes and
thorns, keeping out of sight, and eventually they see him at the far bank of
the overgrown local reservoir, surrounded by other mysterious, nighttime
feral half-humans. They hope that they have not been seen, and they clutch
each others hands in fright.
When this was
suggested as our next book, I was not as enthusiastic as some of the others.
These days, "Fundamentalist" always means "Islamic Fundamentalist". Which in
turn is taken to mean "Islamic Terrorist" in the usual equation:
Fundamentalist = Terrorist. Therefore, since we are supposed to be fighting
an eternal War On Terrorism, the title of this book would suggest that
Mohsin Hamid - whose name certainly does sound Islamic - would be describing
something to do with all this unpleasant hysteria. Yet it seems to me that
there are just as many Christian, and even Jewish Fundamentalists, as there
are those of the Islamic variety.
In reality though, if the true religion of our time is
the religion of Money, then it is indeed true that the world is polluted
with an overabundance of Economic Fundamentalists. And as it turns out, the
book is very much concerned with this problem.
The protagonist is a Pakistani, who comes from an old
established family of Lahore which has fallen upon straightened times. He
travels to the United States and studies at Princeton University. (The
author himself did that in real life, completing his studies after Princeton
at the Harvard Business School.)
He doesn't waste his time at Princeton in the literature
classes of Joyce Carol Oates. No. Instead he studies serious
things, relevant to the religion of Money, applying himself to such an
extent that he is able to supply precisely the answers his Princeton
teachers expect him to reproduce in his exams; and so he finishes top of the
class! Thus he is a prime candidate for entry into one of the leading Houses
for the Worship of Money. It is a company whose business it is to examine
the financial state of other companies. Such information is invaluable for
the various High Priests of Wall Street who then go in, in the style of a
biblical plague of locusts, taking over the offered company, breaking it up,
selling it for a profit - or a loss - depending upon which way the bets had
been placed at the beginning of the transaction - and throwing the employees
of the company out onto the streets. Our hero, whose name is Changez, is
overwhelmed with gratitude when he is offered a job in this House of
Examination of other companies.
He is given a very comfortable salary, expense account,
and so on, and he applies himself to serving these High Priests of Money
just as diligently as he had served his professors at Princeton. Although he
is working 18 hours per day at this business, still, at least he does have a
little time left over to attend to the amorous side of life. This involves
Erica, a wonderfully athletic, intelligent, fellow Princetonian with whom he
conducts a careful courtship. She is a member of one of the Elite families
of Wall Street. But there is a problem. In fact there are two problems. The
first problem is that some of the buildings of the World Trade Center, near
Wall Street, fall down, and this is attributed to Islamic Terrorists. The
second problem is that Erica had a boyfriend with whom she is still in love.
Unfortunately, the earlier boyfriend died of cancer some time before the
events of the story. Thus, while Changez is in love with Erica, Erica is in
love with the dead boyfriend, and imagines it is not Changez, but rather the
imagined boyfriend she is embracing. All this drives her mad, and she ends
in an asylum where she apparently commits suicide by flinging herself from a
cliff into the Hudson River.
The events at the World Trade Center have the consequence
that war is threatened in Pakistan, and Changez realizes that his family is
in danger. He tries to avoid listening to the distorted hysteria which is
developing around him in New York. During this time, he is assigned the task
of Examining a company in New Jersey. The poor employees of this company,
who must face the consequences of his Examination, take out their anger on
Changez, accusing him of being an Arab, deflating the tires on his rental
car, threatening him vaguely with violence. He immerses himself in his work,
and in the problems of Erica. After his Examination of the New Jersey
company has been executed with flying colors, he takes a holiday, visiting
the old home in Pakistan.
Upon his return to New York, he is sent on an important
trip, along with one of the directors of his company, to perform an
Examination of a publishing company in Chile. The depressed director of this
company sees that Changez has become disillusioned with his role as a
Novitiate Examiner in the religion of Wall Street. He suggests to him that
his role is analogous to that of the janissaries
in the Ottoman Empire. And thus Changez quits his Wall Street job and
returns to Lahore, where he becomes a university lecturer, inspiring his
students with the idea of rejecting the religion of Wall Street, which has
brought untold suffering and death to millions of people in this evil War on
Terror. At the same time, he remains still hopelessly in love with the
(presumably) dead Erica.
The author of the book, Mohsin Hamid, has himself lived
through large parts of this narrative, and so it is very much an authentic
account of the story - the tragedy - of our time.
We have had to endure endless reports about the
deleveraging of hedgefunds. Credit default swaps. Packaged sub-prime
mortgages. Panic on Wall Street and on the other stock exchanges of the
world. Most people these days say that these investment bankers are the root
cause of the evil. Yet, as Hamid shows, this worship of money is a strict
and unforgiving taskmaster. An investment banker is himself always being
examined and forced to run on, surrounded by worries. Will the latest bet on
the money markets pay off? Will my rival in the firm be rated more highly
than me? And surely they themselves suffer under the evil of the system.
Why is it possible for an investment banker to place bets
on anything without restraint? For example, let us say that two people bet
against each other, and the object of the bet is the question of whether or
not a third person will be murdered. Surely such a bet is illegal, since one
of the two betting people will thus have the motivation to murder the third
person. In precisely the same way, an investment banker placing a credit
default swap with an investment banker at some other hedge fund is betting
on whether or not a third company will fail, and thus default on its debts.
Thus one of those bankers will have a vital interest in seeing that the
third company comes to grief. And this is not only legal, these transactions
are the basis of today's world of money!
Instead of manufacturing useful things, the post-modern
economy has become based upon gigantic gambling houses on Wall Street, or
the City of London. These are supplemented by hoards of lawyers, like
vultures, fighting over the spoils of each carcass. Looking around our house
here, and further afield, I find nothing which has been manufactured either
in the United States, or in England. In earlier times, those countries were
centers of manufacturing innovation. For example, it used to be the case
that Black and Decker made sensible woodworking machinery. So I bought a
Black and Decker tool some time ago. But it turned out to be a piece of junk
which had to be discarded almost immediately. Thus we have learned - to my
regret - to avoid buying anything made in England or the USA, and instead to
invest in higher quality, more expensive products, manufactured in Europe or
It is only the people at the apex of this system of
finance and political power, exemplified in the highest degree by that
favorite - or at least favored - son, George W. Bush, who bask in the
comfortable warmth of the produce of this system. What a daunting task the
new President Obama faces! I hope that he will be able to at least begin to
correct some of the evil which the world has fallen into.
paperback was sitting on my shelves somewhere, I must have read it before,
but I can't really remember when. Or perhaps one of the children got it for
school 15 years ago, for a school assignment, or whatever. I must have read
it for school myself, almost 50 years ago, but somehow it didn't make much
of an impression on me back then, since I had forgotten the story entirely.
However, this time it certainly did make a very great impression!
It was wonderful to imagine what New York was like back
then in the 1920s, when people enjoyed themselves and were not consumed by
all this vague angst about muggings, drug addicts, terrorists, and all the
other fantasies into which the modern world of the East Coast of the USA has
now fallen. Many years ago (well beyond the 1920s, but still a long time ago
now), I also cruised out on Long Island Sound in a boat; indeed, even
stopping at Port Jefferson for a night. So this is right in the neck of the
woods where Gatsby had his mansion, and the narrator, Nick Carraway, had his
little house next door.
As I say, I had forgotten the story completely. The fact
that Jay Gatsby was living the high life based on criminal conspiracies
(together with the Jewish mob - an extremely politically incorrect concept
in the modern world!), and the fact that he is shot dead at the end,
fittingly, but by mistake.
The book is deservedly considered to be one of the
greatest classics of the 20th century.
Another one of
those books which I started many years ago but didn't finish. This time
around, having read the whole book, I can see why I gave up on it back then.
It's just too depressing.
Kerouac was one of those writers who wrote novels which
were really just collections of episodes from their own lives, but with the
real names of the characters changed into fictional ones. I have found a webpage, which
gives a table for converting the fictional names back into their real-life
forms. The fictional name of the main character in On
The Road is Dean Moriarty, but his real-life name was Neal Cassady.
He is the second character speaking in this
video (together with Allen Ginsberg). In fact the book is so much
concerned with Neal Cassady that it seems to me that a better title would
have been something like "Travels with Neal Cassady", or so. Kerouac was
totally fascinated with Cassady, yet from his descriptions I can hardly
imagine a more offensive character with which to travel! The way he grabs
himself in his pants in this video summarizes the way he behaves throughout
But to get on to the book itself, it consists of five
parts. In part one, Kerouac - or at least his fictional character, Sal
Paradise - is living in New Jersey, and he has never been out West in the
USA. He has lots of friends from his time at Columbia University (the
real-life Kerouac was an athlete who had a scholarship, in order to play
football for Columbia). Many of the friends are in the West, particularly in
Denver and San Francisco, and he dreams of hitting the road, cruising out
west to visit them, even to hire on to a steamer and voyage further into the
Pacific. Kerouac writes beautiful, poetic prose here, giving us the feeling
of freedom people had back in 1947. Life was cool. The road swept back past
the car whose tire kissed the middle line. If you were stopped by the cops,
then you moved on further down the road. And into the next episode of life.
After a short, abortive attempt at hitch-hiking, Kerouac
gives up and takes a Greyhound bus to Chicago. He then does continue on to
Denver in the hitch-hiking mode, but finds it to be exhausting. After a few
degenerate, hard-drinking days, with girls and "tea" (apparently the slang
for cannabis back in those days), he again takes the bus on to San
Francisco. And that is the extent of his experience with hitch-hiking, or
riding the trains with the hobos.
In San Francisco he works as a kind of prison guard for a
few weeks. He finds San Francisco to be a mess, and so heads down to L.A.,
picking up a Mexican girl on the bus. Then he spends a few weeks hiding from
her parents, her husband, and whatever, supporting himself with hopeless
attempts at cotton-picking, for which he finds that he has little aptitude.
All of this is no more than the sad, abortive attempts which many young
people have when they reach the age of leaving home and trying to exist on
their own. Kerouac's experience was simply even less successful, and
involved even more depravity, than is usual in such cases. The worst thing
was that he became attached to this Neal Cassady person.
So the second part of the book is where he has been back
in New Jersey for a year, living at home, and he gets the itch to again try
his hand at travels. Cassady turns up in a 1949
Hudson, which was pretty cool. Cassady had bought it new with a
down-payment on the West Coast, and had driven it like crazy across to the
East Coast to pick up Kerouac, ruining the bearings in just a few days.
There followed a high-speed, crazy, crash-filled drive back across America,
at the end of which, huge amounts of whiskey, cannabis, heroin, girls, and
various other things had been consumed. Cassady's principle girl was LuAnne
Henderson, who filled the role of the typical dumb blond. After two
weeks of this, the Hudson was presumably returned to the car dealer as a
worthless pile of junk.
During further parts of the book, Cassady was able to get
his hands on other cars, which he dutifully proceeded to reduce to various
states of junked wreckage, each time in a surprisingly short time. All
accompanied by the continuous consumption of whiskey, girls, and further
substances. The whole thing becomes nothing more than a sad account of
meaningless destruction, both of property and of other peoples lives.
Indeed, both Cassady and Kerouac burned themselves out quickly and died in a
state of degenerate consumption at an early age. What a sad book!
The fourth part describes their expedition to Mexico
City, for the purpose of getting a Mexican divorce from one of Cassady's
wives. Here Kerouac is able to again achieve a more lyrical style of prose
when describing this exotic new environment. They drive on day and night in
Cassady's beat up 1938
Ford. With reasonable companions, that might have been a cool trip.
But of course with Kerouac, Cassady, and a third character, it was a typical
mess. The first stop in Mexico resulted in a long, tediously related stay in
a bordello, using the sad prostitutes, yet philosophizing in gallons of
whiskey and bushels of cannabis on the the nature of the lives of
prostitutes, and how they were suffering in their plight. Finally, upon
arrival in Mexico City, Kerouac becomes seriously sick with dysentery, or
perhaps malaria, with all the mosquitoes they encountered on the road. Yet
Cassady had already obtained his divorce papers, so he just got back into
his 1938 Ford and drove back, leaving Kerouac in the lurch, lying comatose
and helpless in an obscure Mexican hospital. What a way to treat a friend!
And despite this, Kerouac saw fit to write this book.
It is supposed to be the "Bible" of the "beat
generation", whatever that is supposed to be. The word "beat" has a number
of different meanings. For example, one sees, or hears young people these
days with walkman plugs in their ears, yet with the sound turned up so high
that the tinny beat of the music can be heard 50 meters away! Within a few
years such people will become deaf, and thus they will suffer from isolation
and the sad association "deafness = dumbness", which most people
unconsciously assume when dealing with deaf people. I suppose they will then
drown their sorrows in whiskey and heroin. Another meaning of the word
"beat" is if you lose, when playing a game. Even the game of life. Or beat
can simply mean the condition of being down-and-out.
The book is saved from being nothing but "beat", in that
it does contain many passages of lyrical beauty in the first, and the fourth