On Chesil Beach
Erich Maria Remarque:
Quiet on the Western Front
I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Zora Neale Hurston:
Eyes Were Watching God
The Periodic Table
A Short Walk in the Hindu
Collected Short Stories: Volumes 2 - 4
Daphne Du Maurier:
Wonderland and the End of the World
Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi:
The Monster of
A Tale of Two Cities
Richard T. Kelly:
Possessions of Doctor Forrest
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child:
Dave Eggers (Valentino
What is the What
A. S. Byatt:
Before She Met Me
by Jonathan Franzen
A long story, but an enjoyable read over the
Christmas vacation, involving an American family with all their problems
with one another and with the problems of the U.S.A. in its aggressive
dealings with the rest of the world. The main characters are Patty, her
husband Walter, and their son Joey. The daughter Jessica only plays a minor
supporting role, as do the families of Patty and of Walter. But still, we
learn many unpleasant facts about all of them as well. And of course there
is also Connie, Joey's girlfriend, who becomes his loving and devoted wife.
Franzen makes a great effort to paint rounded, many-sided
pictures of the personalities of his three main characters. Even more so
than in his earlier Corrections,
which I also enjoyed. He has Patty reading Tolstoy's War and Peace in occasional scenes throughout the book, so
I suppose we are being encouraged to compare this book to that classic. If
reading Tolstoy, at over a thousand pages, is equated with a marathon run -
or even an ultra-marathon - then the present book, at only about half the
length, is a half-marathon. But still, Franzen's writing is light and fun to
read, not the heavy Tolstoy style (at least in its translations into
English), and unlike War and Peace,
it is not necessary to make diagrams in order to keep track of all the
characters. In this book, we get to know more about the messy details of
this family than we really wanted to know, and in the process, the
relationships of the characters to one another are all too clear. But in the
end, Franzen presents us with a happy ending. Everybody becomes lovable and
devoted to upstanding, politically correct ways of life.
So there you are! The moral of the story is that, after
everything is said and done, the basic values of the U.S.A. are wonderful
Whereas in The
Corrections, published in 2001, Franzen's characters were concerned
with making money in the dot-com stock market boom, and then losing it in
the subsequent bust, in the present book, which was just recently published
in 2010, they are concerned with George W. Bush's wars, and with
eco-politics. (And of course "eco" here is short for "ecological", not
As far as the Bush wars are concerned, there are a number
of possible theories about the reasons why they were started. For example,
amongst many further possibilities which I will not bother to list here, we
I was extremely surprised to find that Jonathan Franzen has chosen
possibility number 4 for use in this novel. And I was even more surprised to
see that in the review of the book in the New York Times, which I have
linked to above, he was not accused of being an anti-Semite.
- It was a conspiracy of the Texas oil oligarchy, their idea being to
corner the market, or...
- A conspiracy of the military-industrial complex, allowing them to sell
lots of military paraphernalia to the Pentagon, or...
- A result of George W. Bush's inferiority complex in relationship to
his father, and his guilt about various supposed alcoholic problems,
- A Zionist plot.
As far as eco-politics is concerned, they are represented
by Walter, Patty's husband. Franzen makes much fun of him, so it is unclear
to me what he is trying to tell us on this score. At the end of the book,
Walter retreats to his lake in Minnesota, or Wisconsin, or something, and
involves himself in hopeless fights with the neighbor's cats, which are
tormenting the poor little songbirds on his property. Yes, I agree that cats
are horrible things. What a relief it is when Walter traps that evil little
devil, Bobby, and then drives it far away to an animal shelter in some
distant town. And yet, being a weak eco-wimp, he immediately loses himself
in feelings of guilt for Bobby.
Besides the standard guilt feelings people are now
supposed to have about being part of the cycles of nature, exhaling that
substance which provides the plant kingdom with sustenance, Walter also
becomes hysterical about the Population Bomb. He is a highly paid member of
the eco-lobby in Washington, living in a lush mansion, buoyed up by his
slice of the billions which are spent on bribery by all of the various
industries living from the eco- gravy train. And so his idea is to organize
a competition of Country and Western singers, to see who can sing the best
song to the theme of "babies are horrible", or something.
What a ridiculous idea!
So what is the reason the populations of many European
countries are now on the decline? It is certainly not the result of the
efforts of Country and Western bands. Nor is it a result of the misguided
preachings of that earlier advocate of control and denial, Paul Ehrlich,
with his 1968 book The Population Bomb.
In reality it is the happy result of the liberation of women into having
jobs rather than babies. And this is demonstrated over and over again in
The only really fertile woman in the book is that
simple-minded Russian Jewess, Galina, who marries Patty's brother. Richard,
the virile Country and Western singer who is Patty's secret lover, and who
maintains that his role in life seems to be to insert his member into as
many females as possible, remains totally barren. While Patty and Walter
have managed to procreate two children, this has been a mixed blessing, and
thus their thoughts and actions - perhaps through frustration - continue to
center upon the act of procreation, but with neither hope nor wish for
success. The worst fate is reserved for poor Joey and Connie who exhaust
themselves in a never-ending, yet eternally fruitless performance of the
sexual act in all its possible variations, lovingly described by Franzen on
page after page throughout the book.
This was the perfect antidote to Jonathan Franzen's
Freedom, which I just finished a
couple of days ago. This is not the "Great American Novel", filled with
political correctness in the hope that it will sell millions of copies.
Instead it is a quiet, simple story, telling us a great deal.
Michael Cunningham's style is more elegant than the jokey
prose of Franzen. He takes us deeper into the minds of his characters and
into the world in which they live. The protagonist is Peter. He has an art
gallery in New York. Not a famous gallery, but it is respected by those in
the know. His wife Rebecca has an art magazine which is floundering. They
live in a fashionable loft in lower Manhattan. But what is modern art?
At the beginning we accompany Peter and another
gallerist, an older woman who is developing breast cancer, into New York's
Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to see Damien
Hirst's shark preserved in formaldehyde. In fact, investigating these
things in the Internet, I find that Hirst is Britain's richest artist, with
an estimated wealth of £215 million. But look at the works of "art" he has
created. Next to the dead shark, he also has pieces of dead cows and bulls
also preserved in formaldehyde tanks. I remember laughing about a picture in
the paper of his more recent work, For
the Love of God, which is a human skull, covered in platinum, which is
then covered completely with diamonds. The price is said to be £50 million.
And yet before reaching the shark, Peter pauses to look
at Rodin's The
Bronze Age. Is Damien Hirst less of an artist than was Rodin? What is
art? What is it that fascinates, even in repelling? And who are the people
who are prepared to spend millions on a dead animal in a tank of
We get to meet Peter's best client, an old woman who
receives millions from the factories established by her ancestors, producing
washing machines or something. She has a second-rate husband, similarly old,
and so her life has become devoted to acquiring the most exquisite works of
art in order to make her house into a complete work of art. Breathtaking,
perfect. The visitor is greeted in the entrance hall by an antique Chinese
chest of drawers which Peter thinks must have cost upwards of a quarter of a
million dollars. The walls are covered with further art of similar monetary
value. Then entering the living room, we are ushered into a collection of
far more valuable works, creating an harmonious whole. Peter is visiting in
order to try to sell her a bronze vase by the up-and-coming young artist
Rupert Groff. It is to be placed in her perfect garden. But Groff has
covered the vase with obscenities, in particular showing how obscene the
people who buy all this modern stuff for huge amounts of money must be. Yet
the old woman is delighted with these obscenities. What a sad, meaningless
world she lives in!
Into Peter's life comes Rebecca's young brother Mizzy. He
had been the adorable little boy, but he has now grown into being a troubled
20 something, beautiful, as far as male beauty is concerned (as I understand
it, Michael Cunningham is himself homosexual), yet dissipated. He has spent
the past few months in a Japanese Zen garden, contemplating stones. Then a
few semesters at Yale, perhaps satisfying family wishes. Always accompanied
by cocaine, or whatever. Now he has arrived at Peter and Rebecca's Manhattan
loft, thinking he would like to do something in art.
Is Mizzy "The Vanquished" - Rodin's beautiful male nude?
Is he a different, perhaps better version of the young Rebecca? Does he love
Peter, and does Peter in return discover gay tendencies he had never before
known? Peter imagines jumping out of this meaningless world of modern art,
running off with Mizzy to a Greek island, turning his life into a wonderful
tragedy. Just a dream.
Hours, by Michael Cunningham
Having enjoyed the last book so much, I decided to
read Cunningham's The Hours, which was made into a movie starring Nicole
Kidman and Meryl Streep. If the idea of casting Meryl Streep as Clarissa,
the aging New York hippie who has become a straight-laced lesbian was
questionable, then the casting of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf was
absurd. The artificial nose which she had stuck on her face for the movie
did not change her appearance into an approximation of Virginia Woolf.
Have a look at the iconic photo of the young Virginia
Woolf, for example here.
She is a fragile, wispy thing, with tender, caring eyes. She looks tired.
Contrast that with the dominating, aggressive expression of Nicole Kidman,
playing the role of the sensual lesbian, full of feline health and energy,
desperately trying to bring something into the role to suggest some sort of
mild insanity. How ridiculous! But we have so often seen that those
Hollywood people turn a good story into the most stupid rubbish imaginable,
so I thought that perhaps that might also be the case with this book.
Well, it certainly was an improvement on the movie. If it
hadn't been based on the novel Mrs.
Dalloway, then I might have enjoyed the story. But I had found both
Virginia Woolf's novel, and also the movie of the novel starring Vanessa
Redgrave, to be so wonderful that a story like this, reducing everything to
simple homosexuality, struck me as nothing but bad taste. On the other hand,
making an effort to pretend that Virginia Woolf was not a part of the story;
say, pretending that Michael Cunningham's book was based on the life of the
lesbian author, Ms. ABC, and her famous novel XYZ,
which - in contrast to the great novel Mrs.
Dalloway - dealt with lesbianism and sickness in the England of the
1920s, and then about the homosexuality of both sexes, and AIDS, in modern
New York, it did turn out to be worth reading.
An enjoyable book about the birds and the bees. It
basically consists of three stories, all of which take place during a
fertile summer in the Appalachians, amongst all those hill-billies:
As I say, it was a nice story, an enjoyable read, so I
don't want to make too much fun of the book. Nevertheless, when reading it,
I did feel like placing a question mark here and there.
- The first story is about a woman who is gradually leaving the phase of
fertility (she is already in her 40s), who is a park ranger on an
Appalachian mountain overlooking a small community. She becomes
impregnated by a wandering hunter who happens to wander into her
- The second story concerns a young woman who has trained as a biologist
in the big city of Lexington, Kentucky, and who marries a student who is
an Appalachian farmer, seeking new ideas about biological farming. Yet
during this summer, her husband dies tragically, leaving her alone on
the farm in the midst of large numbers of hill-billy relatives.
- Finally the third story is about two geriatric farming neighbors: a
old woman who grows "organic" fruits and vegetables, and an old man who
believes it is the will of God to spray everything with pesticides and
herbicides, reducing Nature to the earthy color of Death. As the book
progresses, these three stories come together, and we learn of the
relationships of the characters in each of the stories to one another.
The basic idea of the book is that life is ruled by the
urge to reproduce, particularly in such a fertile environment as the
Appalachians. But it is interesting to remember that this whole cycle of
life - birth, reproduction, death - has only existed on the Earth for the
last six or seven hundred million years. Before that, there were three billion years of single-celled life,
during which none of these events really played such an important role. A
single cell simply splits itself into two, and so lives on in a dual
personality, in turn splitting again and again throughout eternal time.
Where is birth, reproduction, or death for such creatures? Indeed, the vast
majority of life on the Earth at the present time also lives on in this
timeless manner. It is only the multi-celled forms of life which began
during the Cambrian phase of geological time, using sexual reproduction,
which experience birth and death. The birds, bees, trees, moths, and
especially the coyotes, all of which play a major role in this book, are
subject to sexual reproduction, and thus they experience the dramas of a
Prodigal Summer. (Not to mention the people, as well.)
The MESSAGE of the book was the following. Within the
drama of sexual reproduction, predators play a much more important role than
do their prey. Thus, if the farmer sprays his fields with a poison, killing
off everything, then both the predators and the prey are dead. But gradually
the few survivors live on to reproduce themselves. As far as the prey are
concerned, the world is then a Garden of Eden, filled with delicious farm
produce. But for the predators, at least at the beginning, there are almost
no prey. Thus they have nothing to live on. As a consequence, the result of
spraying is that in a short time, the fields are over-run with even more
caterpillars, and what have you, than there were before, ruining all that
nice farm produce. Therefore spraying things with poison is
Yes, an nice theory. All these farmers should just stop
spraying the world with their poisons. The result would be a beautiful world
with lots of good, healthy things to eat, and everybody would live happily
ever after. Such is the moral of the story of this book.
Indeed, I can tell you, dear reader, that this is the way
we live. Nothing but organic food passes my lips! What little meat we eat
comes from farms which treat the animals in sensible ways. No poisons
pollute our garden. The neighbor (not our farming neighbor) once had
somebody come to spray his apple trees, but I protested loudly when I saw
that the sprayer started directing his poisons in the direction of our
property line. We have even affixed a sticker to the back window of our car
which depicts a smiling Sun, and the slogan "atomic power, no thank you!",
in the style of the 1980s. If people would only live sensibly, then the
world would become a better place!
But unfortunately, reality is different from this. And
brutal reality has been demonstrated right here, next to our garden, during
the less than prodigal summer of 2010. Adjoining us is a field which had
lain fallow for the last 20 years or so, buoyed up I suppose by all those
European subventions. It was a paradise for the birds and the bees,
prevented from reverting to its natural state as a forest by the farmer, who
occasionally drove over things with a very impressive mowing device attached
to his tractor.
Suddenly in the spring of 2010 we remarked on the fact
that all of those plants in the field were looking strangely brown. In fact
even some of the plants along the border of our garden were also looking
strangely brown. It was a massive case of Death, apparently initiated by the
farmer surreptitiously, during some dark night. The field was then planted,
using large machines, and soon we saw vigorous strains of corn (maize)
growing like crazy. Before the summer was finished, the corn was huge,
standing two and a half meters high, obstructing our view down beyond the
garden. During this time, we tried planting some corn of our own -
organically - in the garden, but it failed miserably! Therefore I decided to
steal one or two ears of the farmers corn and boil them in the kitchen, just
to see what they were like as corn-on-the-cob. But it was horrible! I just
had to spit it out. Totally inedible.
At the end of the summer, a couple of huge machines came
through, and within hours they had reduced the whole field of a few hectares
to bare mud, and they filled up many truck-loads of hacked up corn -
together with all its stalks and everything - to take away to the local
"bio-fuel" farm. There, this corn will be reduced to methane and ethanol, or
whatever, to be burned as an offering to our present-day, hysterical war on
the air. But I am sorry to say that the air is fighting back nicely against
humanity, producing unprecedented amounts of snow, and the result of the
battle is that the earth in our neighboring field, and the water which is
contained in the ground, has become poisoned. But at least the oil
companies, which according to European law must now add 10% ethanol to
petrol and diesel, are making a nice profit out of this whole business, and
of course the atomic energy industry, which started the whole "global
warming" war against the air for its own profit, has done well. Finally
there are the farmers who now find themselves in the happy position of being
able to sell highly poisoned crops at good prices in the name of
bio-ecology, or whatever it is supposed to be called.
But I am left with the question, why did that sprayed
corn on the farmer's field grow so wonderfully when compared with our
organically grown corn, which hardly grew at all? This seems to be a total
contradiction of Barbara Kingsolver's philosophy.
It seems to me that the solution to this riddle is that
whereas our neighbor, the farmer, initially reduced his field to a lifeless
wasteland, devoid of both predator and prey, he hardly killed anything in
our adjoining garden. Thus, during the initial surge of insects, eating away
at his corn, it was not the case that there were no predators around to keep
them in check. In fact, our predators were there, ready to take advantage of
the situation, jumping over our fence into the corn field, and so ensuring
that the farmer had a larger than expected crop to burn, and thus - at least
according to the thinking of the Powers That Be - contributing to our War
Against the Air. Since the field was fallow anyway, one cannot say that his
crop was contributing to the ever-increasing cost of food and the consequent
starvation of people in third world countries.
A short book, little more than a long short story
with a very sad ending. The little poem of Philip Larkin, "Annus
Mirabilis", the first half of which is quoted in the Guardian review
which I have linked to here, sums it up beautifully. While the second half
of Larkin's poem gives a happy ending to everything, the story on Chesil
Beach ends unhappily. Thankfully though, Ian McEwan has left out the
esoteric nonsense which he saw fit to put into The
Child in Time. I was at first reluctant to read this book, which we
have taken as the next one for our reading group. Nevertheless, it did turn
out to be a nice read.
The story is about a young man and woman in 1962 who have
just gotten married. Both of them come from Oxford, or at least the general
surroundings of Oxford. The woman is a musician, a violinist, with great
musical ambitions. Her mother is a straight-laced Oxford professor. Her
father is a rich, over-ambitious industrialist. They live in a magnificent
villa, somewhere about Oxford. The man comes from a humble situation on the
land beyond Oxford. His father is a teacher in a primary school. His mother
had a bad accident when he was small, receiving a heavy blow to the head
which left her in a slightly imbecilic state. Still, he has passed through
university (in London, not Oxford) studying history, and he is thinking of
continuing on into a Ph.D. He imagines that he might publish a series of
books - for example as Penguin books - on the various people in Middle Age
England who became leaders of bizarre sects, competing with the equally
bizarre Established Church.
But this is all mere background to the story. The idea is
that in the England of 1962, particularly for a fellow in the situation of
the hero of the book, coming from humble origins, courting the beautiful
daughter with classical musical ambitions of established people living in a
villa in Oxford, everything must be prim and proper. In particular, true
intimacy before marriage was a strict taboo.
Thus, whereas the man experienced urgent physical drives
which he longed to still on the marriage night, the woman had a secret
horror of precisely these very natural biological functions. Yet neither had
been able to speak openly with the other about this true situation. On the
other hand, they both loved one another to a depth which truly transcended
these awkward physical problems.
So the marriage night in the honeymoon suite of a hotel
on the south coast of England - just behind Chesil Beach, which you can
investigate via Google Earth - was a complete catastrophe. The woman fled in
the night back to her parents in Oxford, and they, together with the man's
father, undid the whole marriage business, divorcing without fuss on the
basis of the non-consummation of the marriage. We are then told of the
aftermath. The woman, who feels guilt about the whole thing, becomes a
famous musician. Not lonely with all the concerts of her famous string
quartet, but always thinking with regret about the memory of her absurd
little marriage and how she loved, even still loves, the man. On the other
hand, the man loses himself in the swinging London of the 1960s, having many
easy, meaningless affairs. Working casually in bars or record shops. A
marriage in Paris lasts for two or three years. Later, in the 1990s, he
realizes how he has wasted his life, achieving nothing. And he often thinks
of his first love.
What a contrast all of this is to the usual experience
today! As in earlier times in Europe, and as it is indeed the case amongst
primitive tribes-people, a marriage must develop naturally out of an
intimate relationship in which the couple gradually gets to know one
another. The marriage ceremony then becomes nothing more than an
The unnatural idea that the couple should only be allowed
to be together after the marriage is surely something which became prevalent
as marriage became a business, involving the exchange of material value
between different families. How unpleasant is the idea of marriage as a
cold, sober business deal. Horrible! This is the tradition in India, or in
many Arabian countries. And I suppose it was imposed in Europe by the
Catholic Church, that refuge of men who for one reason or another have
chosen not to have normal relationships with women.
Having written all that, I must add that the relationship
between the man and the woman in the book seems to me to be slightly
implausible. It is surely the case that being a musician involves being
aware of one's body, and being capable of expressing one's emotions. A cold,
frigid person would be more likely to be found in the situation of the
mother - a thin, intellectual professor of philosophy at Oxford. Therefore I
think the story would have been more believable if it were the man, the
history major, who had failed on the wedding night.
This reminds me of a very beautiful film which was shown
on TV years ago about a newly-wed Japanese couple who took their honeymoon
in a hotel on a beach in New Zealand. The bride was an experienced woman,
whose social background was perhaps somewhat beneath that of the groom,
whose family came across as straight-laced and arrogant. Upon arrival at the
hotel, surrounded by all the natural beauty of New Zealand, the man was
unable to perform as he had expected. Therefore, following some imagined,
absurd Japanese tradition, he chose suicide, throwing himself into the wild
pacific surf in the middle of the night, disappearing without trace. The
poor bride returned to the bitter hatred of her parents-in-law, and her
monotone secretarial job. In later years she returned to the New Zealand
beach, losing her mind in regret and anguish.
Although this is such a well-known book, I had
never read it before, nor indeed had I thought about it very much at all.
The author's name could have been English, or French. I vaguely knew that it
was about the First World War, and the Western Front was in France, as
opposed to the Eastern Front, which was of no great concern to the English,
who seem to have been the most active nation when it comes to converting
experiences of war into literature. So it was only a matter of vague
recollection when I realized that Erich Maria Remarque was German. The Folio
Society was offering the book this year, so I decided to order it.
After getting through a few pages, I quickly began to get
the feeling that this translation of the original German into English by
Brian Murdoch didn't ring true at all. The narrator in the novel is a young
fellow, named Paul Bäumer, just out of school, or perhaps not quite finished
with school. The school teacher had gotten him and a few of his classmates
to enroll in the army. So they were just young 18 year old boys, sent
together as simple soldiers to be killed quickly on the Western Front. In
Brian Murdoch's translation, near the beginning of the book, one somewhat
older soldier - who is also just a simple private - tells the others that he
thinks the present bombardment is the beginning of a "show".
Now the idea of calling a horrible close battle, with
people being bayoneted, shot with bullets in dreadful private parts, slammed
in the face with rifle butts, horses screaming with their disemboweled
intestines being trampled on the ground - calling all that a "show" is
something that can only be comprehended by the English mind. Indeed, it
reflects the arrogant talk of the officers in an army who spend their time
pushing papers, safely removed from the true horror.
Therefore, looking about the house, I saw that our
children had read the book years ago for school, of course in the original
German, and so I continued on, reading it in its original form. The first
thing that strikes you is that the title in German, namely "Im Westen nichts
Neues" is totally different from the English title. The literal translation
would be "Nothing new in the West". That could be read as "It's still as
horrible as ever in the west", something that certainly doesn't come across
in the English translation of the title. In fact though, the title comes
from the second to last paragraph in the book, where it is simply said that
Paul, the narrator, joins his other schoolmates in deathly oblivion on a day
in autumn, 1918, when things are dying down anyway. In fact it was such a
quiet day on the front that the dispatch back to headquarters simply said
that there was nothing new on that day in the west.
Of course the author did survive the war, having been
wounded after only a month on the front. The book contains a long
description of the conditions in a hospital for the wounded, attended by
nuns. The people languished away, gradually becoming more and more sick and
finally being taken out of the room and into the "departure lounge" for
those in the last day or two before death. Remarque obviously wrote from
personal experience here. What a contrast it must have been in comparison
with my recent medical experiences. These days everything is meticulously
clean. The doctors are absolutely top rate, and the precise, elaborate,
highly refined optical machinery in the operating theater (at least for eye
operations) is fascinating to see. After a day or two, the patient calmly
returns back to normal life away from the hospital. The possibility of
infection is banished with medicine taken during the days following the
The edition of the book which I read - perhaps designed
for the use of German school children - concluded with nearly 100 pages of
quotations from newspapers, and whatever, describing how the book was
received in Germany. At first there are glowing reviews, saying that at
last, here is a book describing the war as it really was. Gradually, after
it became a best-seller, more and more of these newspaper reviewers begin to
criticize things, questioning the qualifications of the author to write
about the war. Was he really a soldier? Wasn't the book an insult to the
honorable German soldiers who fought in a more "dignified" way (in
comparison with Remarque's earthy scenes)? The book was then burned by the
Nazis, and Remarque became a hunted man who escaped to the safety of the
United States. Then after the Second World War, the book has become a
classic, which has become a standard book to be read at school for a more
peaceful and responsible German generation.
The strangest and most interesting of these criticisms of
the book was written by the German author Kurt
Tucholsky, writing under the pseudonym "Kaspar Hauser" in the Berlin
newspaper "Die Weltbühne" on the 11th of June, 1929. Tucholsky himself was
of Jewish ancestry, yet his review of the book was the most extreme
anti-semitic diatribe one could possibly imagine. He accused Remarque of
being a dirty Jew (in fact, Remarque was not Jewish) who had never been near
the Front, and whose sole purpose was to undermine the honorable, Christian
Germans who had fought so bravely. But then, later on, all of Tucholsky's
various writings on other subjects - which today are considered to be in the
mainstream of literature, as you can see by reading the Wikipedia entry on
his life which I have linked to above - were burned by the Nazis, and he
also became a hunted man, seeking refuge in Sweden where he committed
suicide in 1935.
Maria Remarque also survived the 1940s, in exile in the U.S.A., and
returned to Switzerland in 1948, where he lived on until 1970. While the
Nazis were unable to get him, they did get his sister who had not escaped
from Germany before the war. In 1943 she was accused of having said to
somebody or other that the war was lost for Germany. This was enough to
bring down the full wrath of Nazi evil upon her; the judge saying that while
they were not able to execute her brother, at least they would be able to
execute her. And so she was guillotined in a dark Nazi dungeon on December
16, 1943. The charge against her was "undermining morale", which in the
English language seems to be a mild sort of crime, but in the German
language the ugly linguistic construction "Wehrkraftzersetzung" was the
It is often said that Germans are a nervous people,
correct, inflexible, standing on principle. In some situations this is
undoubtedly a good thing. German cars are thought to be of high quality. The
"Green" political movement began in Germany. I have often thought that this
is a result of the German language. According to Plato, the things of the
world are the imperfect examples of the pure "forms" in the world of
imagination. For example, when a teacher of geometry draws a circle on a
black-board, it is not really a perfect circle, rather it is an
approximation of the pure form of a circle. Thus a word, such as "circle",
represents the ideal form of something in the world of chaotic day to day
So given a word, the mind automatically associates this
word with something real. The problem is that whereas in other languages it
is certainly possible to form ugly, nonsensical sentences from collections
of words, in the German language it is often the case that such
monstrosities are considered to be a single word, and therefore they are the
forms of real things. Thus the beheading of Remarque's sister was a result
of the "thing" or "form" which would perhaps be described as the rotting, or
corruption, or decay of the forces which defend, or support society.
These days, one constantly hears nervous German voices on
the radio or on TV (and one reads it in the newspapers) repeating endlessly
the word "Klimaschutz". That is to say "climate protection". I am sure that
most people today would say that the word "Klimaschutz" is less of an
abomination than is "Wehrkraftzersetzung". Nonetheless, both monstrosities
are not the forms of anything real. How do you "protect" the temperature? or
the wind? What are we supposed to be protecting it from? For example, would
it be the case that I would be "protecting the wind" if I followed the
advice of the people who came to repair something on our roof a year or two
ago, and who then suggested that we do a major renovation, putting in lots
of additional insulation in the name of "Klimaschutz"? The renovation would
cost 35 thousand euros, and it was suggested that this sensible investment
would save us, in the best case, 300 or so euros per year in heating costs.
It may be that in the German mind, the wind, or the rain, or whatever, might
be "protected" if I gave lots of money to somebody for something which would
be nearly useless. But I, for one, am determined to preserve my sanity in
A tedious book describing the lives of a number of
ridiculous characters in the London of the 1920s. Cynicism, nihilism,
dadaism (or was that more of a Swiss thing in those days?), I suppose it was
considered to be a sort of pointed humor, describing the sickness at the
core of the British Empire which still spanned the globe back then.
I was amused to read that the book was even banned in
Australia! This was presumably owing to the fact that two of the characters
in the book were a married couple, and it was stated in the most guarded of
ways that the wife had actually had intercourse with another of the
characters, not her husband. I remember that in Australia 50 years ago the
authorities were very eager to protect the morals of society, and so not
only were books banned, but many films were severely censored. Well, yes.
Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to protect us from all of this European
But while the characters in the book are hopelessly
degenerate, still they hardly manage to accomplish anything definite. While
there is much careful and indirect talk about living the free and modern
life, in fact only the one character was able to actually exceed the bounds
of propriety as it was understood in those days. Apart from that, the
various characters simply talk and talk, often in French, demonstrating
Huxley's mastery of that language, with many allusions to classical themes,
demonstrating Huxley's classical erudition.
For me, this was not a wonderful book. But a more mature
Aldous Huxley later in his life did write some good things. His After
Many a Summer is still an enjoyable read.
In order to be able to buy books from the Folio
Society, you have to become a "member", which entails ordering at
least four of their books. Having done that, you are then a member for that
year. Then the next year, if you fail to order four further books, your
membership lapses, which is something the Folio Society seeks to avoid. Thus
as the year of membership draws to a close, one receives increasingly
generous offers of special books at reduced prices if only one will agree to
order a further four books. And so I have discovered that it is a good idea
to wait patiently for them to offer multi-volume sets of books at
drastically reduced prices, and then to take them up on the offer - at least
when the books seem to be concerned with things which might be interesting.
Thus this set of four volumes of the collected short
stories of Chekhov arrived through the post. I have now made it through to
the end of volume one. But already I'm exhausted! There is nothing
light-hearted here. It's all heavy Russian pathos. Peasants toiling
endlessly in the exhausting heat of a Russian summer. The wide, featureless
landscape reflecting the emptiness of people's lives. Meaningless deaths. Or
people lost in a blizzard, seeking refuge in a lonely house, only to find
that the inhabitants are thieves, or even murderers. This depressing
atmosphere shows how ripe Russia was for its revolution. Yet now, a hundred
years later, after the horrors of Stalin, Russia seems to be returning to
the situation described by Chekhov. A society controlled by a few
unimaginably rich oligarchs ruling over a vast sea of poor peasants.
Chekhov himself studied medicine, and therefore a number
of his stories are concerned with medical people. These must be some of the
characters he observed in his life in medicine. One longish story in this
first volume was titled "A Dreary Story". It concerns a professor of
medicine at some university - not in one of the great metropolises: Moscow
or St. Petersburg. Despite this, the professor is famous. Yet he is an old
man. Sixty two years old. He is sick, and he dies at the end of the story.
--- But here I must interrupt things to say that I am now
sixty three, and it doesn't seem to me to be such a great age. If one stays
active, running, bicycling and so forth, then sixty two, or three, is at
most late middle-age. ---
Anyway, the professor reflects on university life. Were
the old days better? Are the students really worse than they used to be? And
what are the answers to such questions here? Well, I now have an almost
limitless supply (three volumes worth) of Chekhov short stories to divert
the mind from such thoughts.
A very beautifully written, lyrical book. Some
years ago we read Cider with Rosie,
which Laurie Lee wrote to describe his memories of rural English life back
in the 1920s and 30s when he was growing up.
His family was poor, and so he had to walk away from home
at an age when today's young people are still languishing in school, out
into the wide world to make something of himself. He first walked to London,
by way of a detour along the south coast of England, often sleeping rough,
and supporting himself by playing his violin on the street corners of the
villages he passed through. In London he found work as a laborer on a
building site, but gradually he realized that there was no future in that.
So the idea formed in his mind to travel to Spain and walk through that
country. The only reason he had thought of Spain was because someone had
taught him how to ask for a drink in Spanish. Apart from that, his English
school education had taught him which goods happened to have been produced
in Queensland at that time, at the opposite end of the Earth, but virtually
nothing at all about Spain.
So he arrived almost penniless, having spent everything
on the ships passage, with a rucksack containing the meager basics and his
violin. The first night he climbed up the hills above the town, spread his
blanket on the ground and went to sleep, only to be woken by wild dogs which
tried to bite him and which he had to fend off for the remainder of the
night. But he survived that. Soon he met up with a small group of young
German street musicians who were traveling endlessly about in Spain.
Apparently they had escaped from the horrors of the Nazis. But then he was
again on his own. This was the summer of 1935. Global warming enthusiasts
might enjoy his descriptions of the heat of a Spanish summer in the 1930s.
He describes the sun as like a lion whose claws of heat rip the heart out of
the traveler. In fact after one particularly hot stage, he collapsed in the
next village and only regained consciousness the next day.
He describes the poverty of the people, and indeed the
poverty of his own condition. Yet he was able to support himself with his
violin, playing on the street to these poor people. He must have been able
to play with much feeling and sincerity. He writes that if he played English
songs, then it meant nothing to the people there and they walked away. Also
if he played something fast, then they walked on quickly in time with the
music. What they liked were the Spanish songs and melodies of that time, and
also Schubert, for some reason.
Indeed, for me, of all the national anthems, the Spanish
one is by far and away the most wonderful. The greatest thing about the
recent World Cup football tournament in South Africa was the fact that Spain
went right through to win the final match, and so before each of their games
we were treated to a moving rendition of the Spanish anthem. It is also a
great moment when Fernando Alonso happens to win a formula one race for
Ferrari (something which happens all too seldom), since then we get treated
to the Spanish anthem, followed by the Italian anthem, which, while not
being quite so good, still isn't bad in itself. But on this note, I must say
that it was a great shame that some time ago, the people of Australia chose
by means of a public vote to adopt a musical abomination for an anthem.
Before that, we had "God Save the Queen", which, if anything, at least it
can be said to be spirited. Yet as a show of independence from the old
Mother Country, it was decided to ditch God Save the Queen, and instead
choose either that wonderful, traditional melody of Australia, namely
"Waltzing Matilda", or else the nondescript, artificial construction
"Advance Australia Fair". And so, in contrast to Laurie Lee's audience of
simple people on the streets of Spain, it was found that the majority of
people in Australia have no feeling for music.
He stayed for a week in Toledo, by chance meeting the
poet Roy Campbell, and he stayed the week with the Campbell family. There is
a nice snapshot
of the young author, together with the poet. Wine flowed freely. We are told
that Campbell's personal daily ration was 4 1/2 bottles! From the
description in the book, we gain the impression that Campbell was an old,
time-worn wreck, at least two generations beyond the young author, feting
the intrepid and impoverished young countryman who could live from his music
on the streets of Spain. But in the photo we see that Campbell was not at
all old. A self-destructive man.
The land of Spain was owned by a small number of vastly
wealthy families, and the poor peasants had no way of buying the land they
worked in order to escape their poverty. The land was ripe for revolution.
Laurie Lee writes that many of the huge estates had existed unchanged since
the time of the Roman Empire. After a year in Spain, the war broke out. He
found himself working in a hotel, doing odd jobs and playing his violin in
the evenings for the hotel guests on the Costa del Sol - the "Sunshine
Coast". Things were getting violent. But suddenly a British gunboat appeared
one morning in the bay, and it transported Laurie Lee and another Englishman
away from Spain back to the safety of England. There he regretted his hasty
departure, and the book ends with him climbing over the Pyrenees Mountains
in the middle of winter, back into Spain and into the war, nearly killing
himself in a sudden blizzard.
This book describes the expedition of Burke and
Wills in the Australian summer of 1860-61 through the middle of the
continent from Melbourne in the south up to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the
north, then back again. The base camp for the expedition was supposed to be
on Cooper's Creek, which is a sort of oasis in the middle of Australia where
in the summer, the daytime temperature - at least in 1860 - stood at between
110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The modern settlement of Innamincka
lies on the Creek, very near to where Burke and Wills finally expired.
It is a fascinating story, and I read the book quickly.
Back in the 1860s, the tragedy of Burke and Wills galvanized the nation. The
failings of some of the people on the expedition, the chaotic organization,
made it a very human story. But then in contrast with this, the people who
quickly went out to search for the lost explorers in the winter and spring
of 1861 were much more competent, traversing vast stretches of country with
little fuss and thus showing that travel in the middle of Australia was
These days, with GPS and satellite telephones, there
would be no question of getting lost, or of being unable to tell the others
where you are. But back in those days, it took weeks, if not months, to
convey a message from Cooper's Creek, or even just from the Darling River,
to Melbourne. In the modern world a message bounces from Europe to Australia
and back again via the Internet in less than a second. So it would have been
nothing for Burke and Wills to just call up their companions and ask for
From the diary of Wills, and the notes both men left
behind, they seemed to be sufficiently well supplied with food. According to
Moorehead, it was a simple case of scurvy. Vitamin C deficiency. But in 1860
it was well understood that scurvy was caused by a lack of fresh food, and
in fact Burke and Wills were eating some of the foods of the Aborigines.
According to the Wikipedia article I have linked to above, people now
recognize the symptoms of their wasting away as being due to vitamin B1
deficiency, that is to say beriberi. They were eating the seeds of the
nardoo plant, which formed the staple diet of the local Aborigines, but they
simply did not understand how to prepare this food properly. Incorrectly
prepared, it contains a chemical which depletes the body of vitamin B1.
However as Wills wrote in his last letter, this death from the extremes of
the climate, combined with beriberi, was not entirely unpleasant.
At the end of the book Moorehead observes that if they
had been saved, then today they would be nothing more than obscure
characters in a footnote of history. But as it is, they are among the heroes
of the early European exploration of Australia.
This is African-American literature. Or, to use
that extremely politically incorrect word which today is totally taboo and
which would undoubtedly raise the hackles of any readers of my little
writings here (particularly those of African-American descent), yet which
was used continuously by such people as Zora Neale Hurston, and indeed,
Martin Luther King, this is a "Negro" novel. Hurston lived from 1891 to
1960, and thus she did not live in the age of political correctness.
Instead, she lived in the time of the Harlem
Renaissance. The arts, music, literature flourished. In those days,
Harlem was the place to be. And in any case, the word "negro"
simply means "black" in the Spanish and Portuguese languages. If people of
European descent are supposed to be "white", then it seems to me that it
would be nicer to refer to them as "Blanco", which is the corresponding
Spanish word, rather than the absurd "Caucasian", with its fascist
But the reason this book is well and truly Negro
literature is due to the dialog with which it is filled. For example, when
Joe, who is Janie's second husband (she is the heroine of the book) arrives
in a town which is just starting up, he goes on in the following manner:
"Just like Ah thought," Joe said. "A whole heap uh talk and nobody doin'
nothin'. I god, where's de Mayor?" he asked somebody. "Ah want tuh speak
wid de Mayor."
And so forth. This is the way of speaking of people in
the Deep South of the U.S.A., even the Blancos (although I think that the
use of the substitution "de" for "the" was more characteristic of the Negro
But still, it is the common convention in literature to
apply a standardized spelling of English even in dialog, despite the fact
that when reading it, we no longer hear the colorful dialect. Thus,
according to this convention, Joe would say: "Just like I thought. A whole
heap of talk and nobody doing anything. My god, where is the Mayor? I want
to speak with the Mayor."
- Bland, politically correct. Meaningless. -
To the generation of the 1960s, this Deep South talk was an embarrassment,
and so Hurston sank into obscurity. Yet now she is considered to be a great
writer. And indeed, consider the first sentences of the book in all their
his dreams mocked to death by Time.
At first, I thought that the title of the book was due to
the expression "I god", which particularly Janie's second husband was
continually saying, and which I have translated above into the common
expression "my God", but in the book it sounds as if Joe imagines that he
himself is God. In fact though, it came up when Janie and her third husband,
Tea Cake, were living in the south of Florida - so far south that it's no
longer the "Deep South". They were planting beans near Lake Okeechobee when
a hurricane hit. Seeking shelter in a house, they stared at the door being
battered by the blasting wind and water. Doing so, "their eyes were watching
Certainly the characters in the book seem to take
religion seriously, and we suspect that the author was also burdened with
religion. As I have mentioned somewhere else here, it seems to me that the
word "God" is unique in that it is the only word in our language which has
no particular definition. Therefore people become hysterical when the
question arises as to whether a person "believes" in the word "God".
The main purpose of religion often seems to be to define
the difference between one group of people and another. We see this in the
horrible wars which go on from generation to generation in the great trouble
spots of the world like cancerous sores, never healing, always in the name
of "God". If this was the definition of the word "God" in the title of the
book, then I am glad that today there is much skepticism in the direction of
religion, both in the Negro and in the Blanco population of the U.S.A.
This is not really a ghost story, although I
suppose it is rather concerned with ghosts. We learn, somewhat towards the
end of the book, that an old tradition has it that a light must always burn
in a theater, day and night, to appease the ghosts wandering about the
stage. (And recently there was an article in the paper about such an
incandescent bulb in some theater in the U.S.A. which is setting a world
record by burning continuously since 1920 or something. It is only said to
consume four watts of power, so hopefully it will escape the wrath of the
The story is concerned with the brief romance of the
actress Molly Allgood, who was the leading lady in the first performance of
John Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World", and the playwright himself.
To be honest, until a year or two ago when we read through this play, I had
never heard of Synge (pronounced "Sing"). The play didn't strike me as
something worthy of huge pathos. Perhaps the jokes in it would have made
more sense if we were to have seen an actual performance of the thing.
As I understand it, it all has to do with the basic
tragedy of Ireland. Over the centuries, the Anglo-Saxon population of
England dominated and gradually exterminated much of the original Celtic
population of the British Islands. The Celtic peoples were deprived of their
land, starved, murdered, forced into emigration. And this one-sided conflict
was represented by the two conflicting religions of protestants and
catholics. Thus we have the tragedy of Molly Allgood and John Synge. She the
poor catholic, he the well-to-do protestant.
At least according to the story of the book - and the
author assures us in a statement at the end that we should not believe that
his narration has much to do with the real-life drama of Allgood and Synge -
Synge's mother was a horribly bigoted example of the Angle-Saxon race. For
her, Allgood, being not only a catholic from the slums of Dublin, but worse,
an actress, was nothing more than the scum of life. And so the romance was
lived in secret. And anyway, Synge was sick and died within the year,
putting an end to any hope they might have had of outliving the mother.
Throughout the book, this Synge is treated as a mystical,
god-like creature. The unquestioned and greatest literary figure to have
ever graced the Earth with his presence. O'Connor lifts himself to such
ecstasies of reverence that the text becomes disjointed, often difficult to
follow. We are in the mind of Molly in her reincarnation as a forgotten,
destitute old woman, living alone in the slums of London in the year of her
death, 1952. Her thoughts swim back and forth throughout her life as an
actress, always to the tearful, overwhelmed acclamation of her audience,
moved beyond reason by the mystical wonders of the great Synge. The pathos
is increased by the text, most of the sentences of which are only sentence
fragments; flowery stream-of-consciousness writings, urging us on to feel
with the author the great emotional depths of Synge and whatever it is he
And so, for me it was a tedious read. Perhaps one must be
Irish in order to appreciate this sort of thing.
Primo Levi is best known for his book If This is a Man,
which I haven't yet read. It is concerned with the year he spent in the
concentration camp of Auschwitz, surviving against all odds. But in the
present book, only two of the chapters are specifically concerned with that
dreadful time. Levi himself was an Italian chemist, and each of the chapters
bears the title of one of the elements.
The first chapter is called "Argon". This element, which
nobody really thinks about, makes up about one percent of the Earth's
atmosphere. It is the hidden element, mixed in with the air. He compares it
with his Jewish ancestors living in Italian society, and it is rather sad to
read in this chapter about the words of contempt they had for their
Christian neighbors, and the words those neighbors had for them. He doesn't
go through the whole of the 92 naturally occurring elements. Instead there
are just 21 chapters. The beginning ones - Hydrogen, Zink, Iron - describe
phases of the author's life growing up in Turin, becoming interested in
chemistry, going climbing in the nearby Alps. Chapter 11 is Cerium, which he
found in an alloy with iron in the chemical laboratory at Auschwitz, and
which was the means of his obtaining morsels of bread for two months,
enabling him to endure until the liberation of the concentration camp. Then
later chapters tell of his experiences after the war as a free-lance
chemist, and also of his work for a large paint factory in Italy. They are
interesting, varied stories. How difficult it often is to discover what is
going wrong in the physical world. I know almost nothing of chemistry, and
so I was impressed with his stories of the detective work which is often
necessary in order to solve some problem in chemistry.
The next to last chapter is called "Vanadium". The story
takes place in the 1960s. Levi is the Director of the chemical laboratory at
the paint factory in Turin. The paint is based upon some sort of resin
imported from Germany. Yet the problem is that it doesn't dry properly.
After application, it remains sticky, oily, indefinitely. It is suspected
that there is some problem with the German resin, and an increasingly
difficult exchange of letters, vague threats of legal action, begins to take
place. Levi remarks that the person signing the letters from the German
factory is a Dr. Müller. A very common German name. For example the greatest
forward in the history of German football was Gerd Müller, who played for
Bayern München. But now one of the stars of Bayern München is Thomas Müller,
who was the highest scoring player in the recent World Cup in South Africa.
Together, they appear in an amusing TV advertisement for Müller's Milk,
which is a large Bavarian company which produces dairy products.
But despite the many thousands of German Müllers, Levi
notices that this Müller who is writing letters defending the resin from the
German factory happens to spell some obscure chemical compound in a
particular false way, and he remembers that the Dr. Müller who was in charge
of the chemical laboratory at Auschwitz also made just this mistake. So he
sends him a copy of the German edition of his book If
This is a Man, hoping to confront him with his guilt. At first Dr.
Müller writes, saying that he was only assigned to the Auschwitz thing at
the end of the war. He had understood that the huge chemical factory at
Auschwitz was really designed to save
the Jewish people by giving them some essential work to do during the war.
But he understood that it was horrible. On the other hand, he had saved
Levi's life by seeing to it that Levi was selected to work in the chemical
laboratory. Also he had valued the discussions he had had with Levi in that
laboratory. He hoped to be able to meet with Levi, perhaps somewhere on the
The author was perplexed by this response. He was willing
to think of this Dr. Müller as a man who was trying to be sincere, but who
was unwilling to face the truth. And so he wrote a more direct letter. After
a longer pause, he then received a long, rambling letter from Dr. Müller, in
which he tried to explain and understand what had happened. Levi found this
to be more sincere. Müller's letter ended with an emotional statement that
he would come to visit with Levi in the next couple of weeks. At the same
time, Levi's paint factory received an apology from the German factory,
saying that they realized that a certain additive, involving the element
vanadium, should have been added to their product, and in the future this
would be included in all their shipments worldwide.
Levi thinks that he really doesn't want to be confronted
with Dr. Müller after all those years. And a week later, he receives a
letter from Müller's wife, telling him that her husband had unexpectedly
This book was an enjoyable read. Years ago I read
his "The Last Grain Race",
more than zero. But he was a young man, I think he was not yet twenty, and
he was looking for adventure. The other sailors were mostly robust Finns who
gave him a very hard time. It wasn't at all amusing.
He then fought in World War 2 and was captured as a
prisoner-of-war in Italy. Unlike Primo Levy he was not Jewish, and thus, as
with most British prisoners-of-war, he had a jolly old time of it. In fact,
according to the Afterword in this edition of the book which I read, written
by his companion on the Short Walk, Hugh Carless, Newby's experience as a
prisoner in Italy was a kind of substitute for the university education
which he had missed as a young man. The other prisoners were constantly
putting on plays and discussions of literature, and what have you.
But to get to the book, it starts off with Newby
describing ridiculous scenes of his life between 1946 and 1956, where he was
working in his family's struggling fashion house, producing lady's dresses.
This was not the life for him. Therefore he decided to call on his friend,
Hugh Carless - who was a young British diplomat, about to be stationed at
Kabul - and ask him to travel together to a place called "Nuristan",
back in 1956, at the time of the Short Walk, this modern tragedy was far
away in the future. Newby and Carless were able to drive about peacefully,
engaging some locals from the neighboring, more civilized valley, to
accompany them on their walk, and upon entering Nuristan over the extreme
passes of the Hindu Kush, they had the feeling that they had walked back
into the England of the Middle Ages.
The main purpose of the walk was to be the first people
to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the district, which is named
"Mir Samir". Neither Newby nor Carless had much of an idea about climbing.
Therefore they decided to travel first to Wales for a weekend and see if
they could get somebody to tell them something about it.
Of course this is also ridiculous. In fact somebody -
some university climbing type with the title of Dr. - was prepared to
sacrifice a day or two of his holiday to show them what a carabiner, or a
piton is. Also two young waitresses in the climbing hotel in Wales took the
two young men out for an afternoon climb on some rocks. And that was the
extent of their preparations. They seemed to have sufficient amounts of
money, for they amassed a large supply of equipment, looking through books
in order to get an idea of what might be needed.
Upon arrival at the Hindu Kush village which was the
start of their walk, and speaking Persian, which apparently was widely
spoken there, they engaged three skeptical guides, or rather people with
three horses in order to carry all the equipment. During the weekend in
Wales, Newby had noticed that his bushwalking shoes were falling apart, and
thus he had bought a pair of Italian climbing boots made in the fashion of
those days with pointy toes. Putting them on for the first time, he
discovered that they were extremely painful. And after the first day's stage
of 10 km or so, his feet were all bloody. But he decided to persevere. Mir
Samir, while being only about 6000 meters tall, is still nothing to joke
about. Newby and Carless were so foolhardy as to reach a very dangerous
height, perhaps only 500 meters or so from the summit. But the whole
reckless and irresponsible expedition did not end in disaster at that point
since they were sensible enough to turn back.
Owing to the humor of Newby's writing and his wonderful
descriptions of the magnificent landscape and the isolated, nearly untouched
inhabitants, this book has become a classic of travel and adventure writing.
It's a bit like that British humorist of more recent times "Eddy the Eagle",
launching himself into the air on the Olympic ski jump with a ridiculous, if
dangerous, amateur style. Thankful to land unhurt a very short distance down
You can read through the archives of the Himalayan
Club, and you see that the first ascent was in 1959. The expedition
described there consisted of real climbers, forerunners of the hippy
generation, driving out to Afghanistan in a VW bus, taking in not only Mir
Samir, but a number of other first ascents as well. The Internet site of the
Himalayan Club describes hundreds of other equally obscure expeditions.
And while on this subject, I find it astonishing that the
account of von Hentig's extraordinary trek through that part of the world
during World War 1, which I have described elsewhere,
has not been translated into English.
I've finally made it to the end of all these
Chekhov stories. Most were very dreary. But at least the last - A
Marriageable Girl - did end on an optimistic note.
Some years ago there was a television film which was
supposed to be based on a Chekhov story, but rather than being set in the
bleakness of Russia, it was transferred to the Australian bush of the late
19th or early 20th centuries. The story was that some relative of the family
arrives from London, where he was a music critic, or whatever; he gradually
drains the family's finances with his insatiable thirst for expensive wines,
clothes, and other things which hardly have a place out in the bush; and we
become more and more aware of how little is behind the extravagant
estimation he has of himself. Although these Collected Stories run through
four large volumes, none of them corresponds to the story of the film, so I
suppose it was a Chekhov play rather than a short story. (In fact, looking
it up, I see that it must have been based on the play Uncle
Vanya.) But the transplantation of anything of Chekhov from its
original heavy Russian scenery to Australia must, of necessity, result in a
total distortion of the thing.
Chekhov's standard theme is the following. It is a small
town somewhere in Russia. The hero, or at least the protagonist, has been
living in the "outside world", namely in St. Petersburg, or Moscow, where
everything is light and wonderful. While living there, he was exposed to the
romantic notion that Nature might also be light and wonderful as well. Thus
he buys an estate and resolves to live happily ever after, in harmony both
with Nature and with the bucolic inhabitants of Nature, who, in earlier,
less happy times were serfs, but now are thought of as peasants. The hero
then decides to get along well with his bucolic neighbors, perhaps building
a school, or whatever. But the peasants steal the building materials and
everything else they can get their hands on, trample all over his ground,
ruining his crops, get drunk on vodka the whole time. Everything submerges
in a mess of filth, vodka, corruption. And in the end, the hero escapes from
this nightmare, back to the "outside world".
In many of the stories, Chekhov tells us of his dreams
for Revolution. He imagines that some time in the future, perhaps in 50
years time, say in the year 1940, everything will be better. Thankfully he
died young, thus sparing himself the reality of the Russian Revolution. What
would he have thought of the horror of Stalin? Now, a hundred years later,
perhaps things are gradually changing for the better. But I think that the
tradition of brutal peasants, drowning themselves in filth and vodka, still
Chekhov's second theme is love. But love in the
claustrophobic world of provincial Russia. From his stories, it would seem
that the only reason a man or a woman married was in order to immediately
get into as many possible "affairs" with other married people as possible,
and then to philosophize on the meaninglessness of love.
Jones, by Henry Fielding
I first read this novel many years ago after seeing
the movie, which starred Albert Finney and Susannah York. I got a paperback
copy back then, which had been "modernized" for the consumption of
modern-day movie-goers by removing the many philosophical observations
Fielding makes on the characters of people and the emotions which drive us
from one thing to another. Without all of these old-fashioned, 18th century
reflections, the book becomes a moderately long story, written in a familiar
style, similar to, say Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, or any number of other equally
amusing romances. But then eight or ten years ago I read the non-purged book
in an elegant edition which I had borrowed from the library. What a joy it
was to read! And so now, when I mentioned it in our little reading circle,
the others decided to read it for our next meeting. So I thought I would
re-read it again, this time downloading it onto my smartphone as an ebook.
I had forgotten many of the details of the story. Perhaps
this time I didn't laugh quite so often at Fielding's jokes, but it was
again wonderful to read the book. His
life was shorter than that of Johann Sebastian Bach, but he survived
him by four years. Living in England, he personally knew the great
Shakespearian actor David Garrick. He often mentions Handel's music. He
tells us that he was good friends with William Hogarth. Fielding's amusing
observations on the life of those days seems to me to be much more valuable
than the modern-day speculations of historians. We really get a feeling for
what things must have been like.
This summer we spent two weeks in Plymouth,
following a number of the walks in the book "100
Walks in Southwest England".
One of these in particular was on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, starting at the
village of Minions. Unfortunately, our old TomTom GPS navigator didn't have
Minions in its map of England, and so we thought the best thing would be to
just drive to Bodmin. After all, you would think that Bodmin Moor was at
Bodmin, wouldn't you?
For people who haven't been to Cornwall, let me tell you
that it is extremely hilly, and if you get off the main roads then you find
yourself on narrow roads just wide enough for a single car, confined between
high vertical walls of thick hedges. Every hundred meters or so the road
widens slightly so that if you encounter another car driving in the opposite
direction then you have to stop and back up to a wider bit. However we found
that the natives of Cornwall were very good-natured, and they were usually
quicker in this process of making room for passing than we were.
Upon arrival at Bodmin, we found it to be a town in a
fertile valley. Not at all moor-like.
If we had taken the main road to Launceston, then we would have passed
directly by Jamaica Inn, soon getting up onto the high moor. The geology
of Cornwall is interesting. Apparently these moors are situated on a
granite foundation. The soil is not very fertile, and thus the moors are
barren, windswept, mostly devoid of trees. More to the southwest, on the
Lizard Peninsula, there are other kinds of rocks, containing tin, copper,
and many other things which were mined in antiquity, leading to trade even
with the ancient Phoenicians.
In any case, in our search for Minions we did not take
the main road to Launceston, but rather we headed off in some direction,
more or less towards the east, becoming lost on these narrow, confining
roads. The people we encountered on the way gradually pointed us in the
right direction, and we finally did arrive at Minions in the early
A few days later we decided to drive over to Tintagel to
see all about King Arthur. Unlike Bodmin Moor, Tintagel was filled with
thousands of tourists. Going into one shop, filled with King Arthur kitsch,
I noticed that it also had a number of paperback books, not all of which
were devoted to esoteric topics involving the mystery of the round table,
and so forth. And so I bought this book by Daphne Du Maurier, and I have now
At first I thought it was also kitsch. But it turned out
to be a good read with a surprising ending which I will not describe here in
order not to spoil it for anybody who might read this and thus be motivated
to read the book.
Back in the old days, it seems that there were "wreckers"
in Cornwall. That is, bands of people who lured ships onto the rocks,
killing the sailors and passengers on the ships, stealing whatever of value
they might find. I have read that such things were also practiced on the
sandy islands of the North Sea, along the coasts of Holland and Germany. In
fact on one holiday to the island of Ameland, I got a map of the various
shipwrecks in the waters around the island. It only covered the period from
1800 to the present. The map was covered with a huge number of these wrecks!
Thousands of sailors must have died just in the 19th century, and just near
to the island of Ameland. But only a few of the wrecks on the map were in
the 20th century. Back in the days of square-rigged ships, when approaching
a coast downwind, disaster was always immanent. What a contrast to now, with
ships under power, independent of the winds, guided by GPS, hopefully with
more complete maps than those which TomTom were issuing a few years ago.
Amazon.com sent me an email to say that a new book
of Murakami will come out in a month or two. This led me to look at the list
of his old books to see if there was anything I hadn't yet read. And indeed,
I saw this one. So I ordered it and have now read it.
Somehow it seems to me that there is a fine line between
pure fantasy writing and the mixture of the fantastic with normal reality,
in the style of much of the rest of Murakami's fiction. The difference is
that pure fantasy writing is often heavy-handed, serious. The authors of
such fiction are presenting us with strange, imaginary worlds, and they are
making great efforts to describe all the details, the mechanisms of such
worlds. We end up with some sort of Star-Trek nonsense, where everything
becomes mechanical, explaining the details of this or that fantasy
mechanism. Some people think that such things are wonderful. For me they are
In contrast to this, Murakami's usual style is to have
normal people doing crazy things in the real world, giving us jokes to laugh
about, and then occasionally the fantastic intrudes upon normality, adding
to the whole story and in the end making us think about the world, life, and
In this book there are alternating chapters, where the
narrator is in the "normal" world, and then alternately in the fantasy world
of his imagination. But even the normal world is full of fantasy.
The basic idea is that in order to conceal the contents
of computers, special people, called "calcutecs", have their unconscious
minds messed about in some way, perhaps splitting the left and right
hemispheres of the brain into separate entities, or something. Then the
information which is to be scrambled into a non-readable form is
unconsciously transmitted from one side to another and then written down by
the calcutec. Only he can then decode the information by passing it back the
other way through the brain. So the story - coupled with some crazy scenes
of fantastic goings on in the underground of Tokyo - is that the brain of
the narrator, a calcutec, becomes messed up, and he drifts off into crazy
cuckoo land. His experiences, and the geography of this cuckoo land, are the
subject of the alternative chapters.
The book was first published in 1985, by which time the
technique of public-key
cryptography had become well established, thus solving the problem.
Given that the plot of the book is primarily concerned with cryptography,
then surely Murakami should have known about such things. Also, in the
"real" world of the story, it is said that the narrator has the choice of
ending his life in this world, bringing things to a nice clean end, or else
he can drift off into his dream world, where he will be forced to live on
for all eternity. This is like the dream world of Christian mythology.
Imagine sitting up on a cloud as an angel, strumming a harp, twiddling the
fingers, and knowing that this is supposed to go on and on into infinity!
What an unimaginable hell of boredom! Even after 10 years of harp strumming,
even 10,000,000 years, even a whole google of years, still your horrible
eternal sentence of harp strumming will hardly have started. You will be
faced with a never ending infinity of further such intervals. Such a
dreadful idea is beyond our imagination.
But according to Murakami's story, the eternity in the
dream world - the "End of the World" - is achieved in a finite time using
Zeno's paradox. Namely that the end of an interval of time can never be
reached, since we first have to travel half way there, then another quarter,
then another eighth, and so forth, never coming to the end. What nonsense.
When turning on the computer, I usually click into
the BBC news site, or the Guardian, just to see what is happening in the
world. And of course they have had many stories about the murder of Meredith
Kercher in the town of Perugia in Italy in 2007. She was an English student,
visiting the University in Perugia for a year. She stayed in a house with a
number of other students, including the American Amanda Knox. The whole
situation is described in great detail in the Wikipedia page here.
In particular, soon after the murder, the police, together with the district
attorney, Giuliano Mignini, decided that Knox, together with her boyfriend,
Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian student at the university, had killed Kercher
in a bizarre, sexually inspired sadistic orgy, perhaps involving ritualistic
elements of black magic, or what have you. And yet there was no evidence
whatsoever that they had actually been in Kercher's bedroom, where her
blood-stained body was found.
On the other hand, there was much evidence -
fingerprints, blood, DNA, and so forth - that another man, the drug dealer
Rudy Guede, was present at the scene of the crime. Furthermore, Guede had
immediately fled from Italy and was only found a few weeks later, riding on
a train in Germany without a ticket. He admitted freely to being present at
the murder, to having raped Kercher (although of course he maintained that
it was by mutual consent), but claimed that another, unspecified man was the
actual murderer, or something. So you would think that the crime had been
solved. Obviously Knox and Sollecito had been falsely accused.
But no. Attorney Mignini had already gone public with his
strange black magic theory, and so in order to "save face" he had to stick
with it, somehow claiming that the drug dealer Guede was also involved with
such occult rituals. The Italian press lapped it up, making Knox, the
citizen of George W. Bush's evil U.S.A., into a symbol of depraved devilish
evil. Much of the English press followed this as well. The fact that she had
a beautiful, innocent face only increased the wrath of the Italian press and
the zeal of Attorney Giuliano Mignini.
After four years languishing in an Italian prison, just
last week she and Sollecito have been cleared by the Court of Appeals, and
Mignini has been disgraced. The Guardian had a number of stories, giving the
background to the whole thing, and in particular it was said that Mignini
turned his anger on the American author Douglas Preston, saying to the press
that he and his book, The Monster of
Florence, was the source of all evil. Thus I immediately clicked
over to Amazon and ordered the book, which I have now read almost non-stop.
A fascinating read!
The book describes other crimes, not related to the
tragic story of Meredith Kercher. Once, in 1974, and five times in the early
1980s, somebody committed a series of strange, horrible killings. Each time
it was concerned with a young couple, parked in their car at night in some
lonely place in the hills surrounding Florence, making love. They had both
been shot, every time with the same Beretta .22 pistol. After killing them,
the murderer then removed the body of the young girl from the car and
mutilated it, removing the female organs. In no case had the murderer raped
the girl, or her corpse.
Eventually the Beretta was connected to an earlier murder
involving a brutal and degenerate clan of Sardinians living in Tuscany.
Their name was Vinci. (Presumably unrelated to the renaissance composer
Pietro Vinci.) One after another they were imprisoned, yet while each in
turn was in prison, the Monster struck again, thus proving that that one was
not the actual monster.
So the feeling grew, together with new groups of police
and investigating attorneys under the direction of Chief Inspector Michele
Giuttari, that the Sardinian connection was a dead end, and instead new
methods should be tried. Using a computer, a list of all possible people
convicted of sexual crimes in the Florence region who were not in prison at
the times of the monster's crimes was compiled. A rather horrible and
monstrous candidate was found: an old, half literate wife beater, raper of
his daughters, murderer of his fiancée back in 1950 or so. A horrible old
man. Giuttari also arrested a couple of his degenerate old "picnicking
friends" as well. There was not a shred of concrete evidence against them.
But they were so repulsive that it was easy to just have a show trial and
throw them into prison, and almost everybody was happy that the problem of
the Monster of Florence was solved. And for some reason, there were no more
monster attacks after 1985.
Then the idea gradually settled in Giuttari's mind that
these people were too imbecilic to have originated the idea of such ritual
slaughterings of young women, extracting the organs for some unimaginable
purpose. Therefore they must have done it on the orders of other, more
important, satanic people. The old aristocracy of Tuscany. Or maybe those
rich medical professionals. Or perhaps degenerate elements within the
Catholic Church. Who knows? The whole thing reminds me of Umberto Eco's book
A witch hunt developed. Crazy theories abounded. People
were denounced and arrested. The American author Thomas Harris descended
upon Florence to write a best-selling thriller, Hannibal,
which was made into a film, shot on location in the palaces of Florence,
starring Anthony Hopkins. Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari himself developed
a literary streak, writing a best-selling book on the Monster. But it was
all without the slightest shred of concrete evidence.
Douglas Preston, the author of the present book, and an
author of many previous best-selling crime novels, arrived in Florence in
the year 2000, not having heard about the Monster story, but rather with the
idea of writing a story concerning a lost painting of the renaissance artist
Masaccio. In order to get some background to the crime scene in Florence, he
contacted the second author of this book, Mario Spezi, whom he was told was
a famous crime reporter. One thing led to another and Preston abandoned the
Masaccio book, instead becoming increasingly obsessed with the Monster
Preston and Spezi show quite plausibly that the Monster
was not some vast and ridiculous satanic conspiracy of the old Tuscan
aristocracy. Instead it must have been Antonio Vinci, the son of that
horrible Salvatore Vinci who killed Antonio's mother and then abandoned him
as a baby.
By showing how ridiculous and incompetent the
investigations of Giuttari were, Spezi himself became a victim of the witch
hunt, being thrown into prison, and Preston was nearly drawn into it
himself. Preston's interrogator was Giuliano Mignini, who was later the
interrogator of Amanda Knox. Preston describes clearly Mignini's overbearing
tactics. Both Giuttari and Mignini were later charged with altering
evidence, misusing their positions, and Mignini has been convicted of those
crimes. It is unclear if he will be thrown into prison himself.
How strange it is that such a person was nevertheless
allowed to continue in his role as investigating and prosecuting attorney,
bringing Amanda Knox into his world of sadistic fantasy and forcing both her
and Raffaele Sollecito to spend four years in prison. At least the saving
grace of the Italian justice system, as Preston tells us, is its system of
appeals. The appellate judges are completely apart and independent of the
judges and attorneys in the first trials. Thus such glaring abuses are
usually corrected, and as a result Italy has a relatively small population
of prisoners at any given time - in marked contrast with the situation in
I've hardly read anything of Dickens. In fact I
can't remember anything at all. Perhaps I did start A
Christmas Carol some time ago, but stopped reading it before coming
to the end. Just now I have started a search through all the book shelves
here, and I see that I have, in fact, read "My
Early Times", and also "Dickens
in Europe", which were published by the Folio Society years ago.
But where is my copy of A Christmas Carol?
It was in a volume with a couple of other Christmas stories by Dickens.
There are simply too many books here. In any case, reading A
Tale of Two Cities just now did not involve buying still another
book, adding to the huge amounts of paper which are consumed by humanity.
Instead I downloaded it for free onto my smartphone, and have read it that
Perhaps those other two books put me off Dickens, since
they were rather heavy going. Depressing. Somehow we associate him with Marx
and Engles, describing poverty, injustice. Were the masses of people back in
those days such groveling creatures?
In the present book, Dickens presents us towards the
beginning with a scene of Paris life. A delivery service is bringing a
barrel of wine to a wine shop in a Paris slum. Unfortunately the barrel
falls off the cart, bursting open, spilling wine all over the muddy street.
Immediately, the slum-dwellers jump into the puddle of wine, slurping it up,
presumably along with mouthfuls of mud, excrement, and whatever further
objectionable substances one could imagine to exist on the street of an 18th
century Paris slum. The purpose of this scene is to show us how poor and
down-trodden the people were, and how ripe the country was for a revolution,
overthrowing the oppressive aristocrats.
But it is not as if some degenerate aristocrat is
standing there with a sword, or a gun, forcing the people to grovel in the
mud, slurping up wine. No. They are supposed to be doing this voluntarily!
Somehow this seems to me to be rather far-fetched. After all, the wine
delivered to a slum-side wine bar would hardly be expected to be of high
quality. Even drinking it from a glass, rather than mud, would probably give
you a splitting headache. And I hardly think that a person dying of thirst
would find much relief in a mouthful of cheap muddy wine. Better to just go
to the Seine and drink a bit of river water, which, while probably not being
particularly clean in those days, would certainly have been an improvement
on such spilled wine.
However, reading on, the story turned out to be an
interesting adventure story, with a climax in the chaos of The Reign of
Terror, following the storming of the Bastille. It was an enjoyable read.
And we get a feeling for the horror of that period.
Quite clearly, Dickens was all for social revolution,
although of a more mild, gradual kind than that of revolutionary France. But
all of this reminded me of Ishiguro's book, An
Artist of the Floating World, where the main character is a Japanese
man, an artist, in the 1920s and 30s, who also sees poverty, injustice. And
he sees a way out in fascism which,
along with communism, was the revolutionary idea of that period. Similarly,
we detect everywhere in this book Dickens' feeling of the superiority of
everything English to everything French. And perhaps - similarly to the
aggressive revolutions of the 20th century - this is reflected in the
oppressive colonial system of the British Empire.
But why are people better off today than they were in the
time of Dickens? Is it because the aristocrats all had their heads sliced
off by the guillotine, or at least, as in the case of England, because the
aristocrats were taxed away into oblivion? Such ideas appeal to
revolutionaries. But it seems to me that reality is different from this.
The reason we are living in a time of plenty, rather than
groveling in the Dickensian streets, is that the world is now full of
machines which do the work for us. Electricity flows with the flip of a
switch. One man can plow a field in an hour or two using a diesel tractor.
And it takes no longer to harvest a field of wheat. A hundred years ago,
many men would have to toil away for days to accomplish the same thing, and
in the process half the wheat would have been lost in the dirt. How absurd
it is that there are people today who think of themselves as being
revolutionary, yet whose goal it is to abolish the basis of our well-being,
doing away with machines; whose goal it is to reduce humanity again to the
grinding toil of Dickens' time.
Three medical doctors who were all friends at
school in Scotland are now practicing their various specialties in London.
We read all about this through alternating chapters,
quoting the journals of the various doctors, and a few other characters as
well - girlfriends, patients, etc. The reviewer of the book in the Guardian
objected to this, since in modern times obviously no normal person keeps a
journal. Instead they write emails, communicate via facebook (whatever that
is), and so forth. Also these "journals" are all written in the same style,
with lots of dialogue, of a kind which would hardly be written into a
journal. But I didn't find this device to be at all disturbing. After all,
the book is a rather ridiculous fantasy anyway. Perhaps the problem is that
the author tells us it is supposed to be a "Gothic" novel, which places it
in bygone times when some people might have written journals; but since the
story takes place in the present-day, this is considered to be an
anachronism. Anyway, it kept me reading on until late at night.
- Doctor Forrest is a plastic surgeon, doing expensive operations on
wealthy, vain women. He himself is a womanizer, going through one female
after another. But now, in middle age, he realizes that life is getting
away from him.
- Doctor Lochran, Forrest's best friend, is a pediatrician, and while
his marriage is not particularly harmonious, he remains a steadfast,
- The third doctor is a psychiatrist, Doctor Hartford. He runs an
expensive private clinic for the (grown-up) children of the moneyed
class of modern England. As a result, he has deep, emotional contacts
with beautifully disturbed young women. Therefore his marriage suffers
The doctors Lochran and Hartford experience many strange
things. Life seems to disintegrate around them. One after another, the
people they know die under mysterious circumstances. Their innermost secrets
are revealed, driving them to ruin. All of this is accompanied by the
mysterious disappearance of Doctor Forrest. It is only in the last chapter
of the book, "The Confession of Doctor Forrest", that we find out what is
really going on.
At first I was disappointed, since there is no rational
explanation. Instead it turns out to be a variation on the story of Faust.
But as is more appropriate in contemporary literature, the Devil is not some
silly man dressed up in a red costume with a pointed tail. Instead she is a beautiful young woman who offers Doctor Forrest
an unforgettable sexual experience. Yet the good doctor finds himself not up
to the task. He is getting old! Therefore the She-Devil offers him the
opportunity of discarding his present, middle-aged body, and instead
entering the young body of whichever victim he might choose. In order to
pass from one body to the next, he must first stab the new body with his
Number 15 surgical scalpel.
And so the book turned into an amusing description of his
possession of one body after another. His first experiment was with a young
sculptor who was the new boyfriend of his last girlfriend. But for various
reasons he becomes dissatisfied with that body. He is particularly irritated
by the fact that the girlfriend, in the midst of a satisfying sexual
encounter, exclaims how unpleasant her last boyfriend, namely Doctor
Forrest, was. Thus he discards that body and moves to the next. A couple of
his adventures take place within female bodies, even those which he had
possessed in a more conventional sense in his original incarnation. This
leads to interesting observations on the differences between the male and
It is not all fun and games. Most of the new bodies lead
lives which are vastly inferior to his original life, and with all of these
deaths, the police and everybody else are after him. In the end, or at least
at the end of the book, he has entered the body of Doctor Lochran's son. He
tries to commit suicide to escape from all of this Faustian horror, but
Doctor Lochran saves him, and since he has now become his own godson, he
decides to try to live on happily ever after. An enjoyable book.
Sword, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
The book about the Monster of Florence, written by
Douglas Preston, was so interesting that when I saw this one in the
bookshop, I decided to buy it too. It has turned out to be a fast-paced,
"action" novel, rather like reading the story of such silly movies as
"Mission Impossible", or "The Bourne Identity". But still, reading a book is
a more peaceful experience than going to the movies and being subjected to
two hours of loud noises, imitating gunfire or bomb explosions, combined
with hectic camera work. So I enjoyed just letting my mind be carried on
from one bit of nonsense in this story to the next, at a pace slower than
such a movie. After all, it is sometimes pleasant to just immerse oneself in
needless fluff from time to time. But it surprised me that Douglas Preston
writes this sort of thing. However I see that the authors have already sold
the movie rights into Hollywood, so it is clear that they are doing it -
probably very successfully - with the expectation of making lots of money.
The basic story is that the "bad guys" are the Chinese.
(I think that twenty years ago, for the purposes of books such as this, the
bad guys were supposed to be Japanese. Now the blame for everything evil in
the world, as far as it is not directed at Arabian peoples, is put on the
Chinese. This must be due to the fact that the Chinese own much of the debt
of the U.S.A.) In typical James Bond style, the Chinese have invented
something which must be evil, perhaps some new weapon, and the hero, a
ridiculous character named Gideon Crew, is assigned the task of Saving the
World. While the good 'ol U.S. of A. is represented by this great hero of
goodness, the evil Chinese put their horrible, slimy fighter, whose absurd,
animal-like name is "Nodding Crane", into the field of combat.
Nodding Crane is unlike his somewhat overweight, crude
counterpart in the movie "Goldfinger". He is not only a ruthless, robot-like
killer, employing the magical virtues of far-eastern martial arts. In
addition, he had learned to imitate modern American culture to such an
extent that he can strum his guitar and sing some sort of modern pop songs
in a way which is even superior to the American practitioners of such arts,
such as are heard on the radio, or CD, or music videos, or whatever other
means the youths of America which are most likely to go to the movie
"Gideon's Sword" might employ to listen to such music.
Yes, what an unsettling idea to titillate potential
movie-goers. Especially those of the "Caucasian" ilk, who imagine that the
U.S.A. is being over-run by hoards of mindless Chinese, or at least people
who look like they might be Chinese. The Chinese can even copy our music!
In the excitement of writing this book, it seems to me
that Preston and Child made a number of small factual mistakes (even though
they do try to place the settings in real places). For example, on page 184,
when Gideon is fast-talking his way into another impossible situation, he
shouts at some official at an airport that "We've got a flight midway across
the Pacific with a known terrorist on board - they let the son of a bitch on
Well, O.K. I've also never been to Lagos, and I have no
intention of going there. And for all I care, it could also be in the middle
of the Pacific, along with Hawaii, Tahiti, and all those other places.
Still, I would think that the airline employee with whom he is shouting
might tend to become skeptical after our hero voices such a sentence. After
all, even the "Dreamliner" is incapable of flying all the way from Lagos the
wrong way around the globe to finally land in the U.S.A. And if it were to
be making an improbable journey from Lagos to the U.S.A. with a stop to fill
up, say in Peking, then the poor "terrorist", who would have been sitting in
the plane for 30 or 40 hours or more, would hardly be capable of doing much
But what is the great weapon which the Chinese, in their
evil way, have invented? According to the story, it is a room-temperature
superconductor. Thus the Chinese could secretly produce wires made of this
substance which would conduct electricity with no losses due to the heat
produced by electrical resistance. The book then asserts that by this means,
the Chinese will take over the world. "Fossil" fuel use will decrease by 90%
(thus saving the world from having the sky falling down upon us).
Furthermore, electrical cars will now be able to travel thousands of miles
on almost no electricity at all, etc. Thus OPEC, Esso (or whatever it is now
called), and so forth, will all be put out of business. But our hero,
Gideon, has made contact with the American Chapter of the Falun Gong, with
their swastika flag
(although the hooks of their
swastika are pointing in the opposite direction to that which was chosen by
Hitler). And it turns out that unlike the Nazis, the Falun Gong, at least in
their American Chapter, are wonderful people, in the mold of that modern-day
hero, Julian Assange, and they have powerful Internet servers, exposing all
of the evil secrets of the world to the clear light of day.
But the problem with this is that if you are going to
write a bit of fantastical nonsense, then you should keep things at least
vaguely in touch with the real world. And I see that, at least at the time I
am writing this, the Falun Gong has not yet startled us by including in
their all-powerful Internet servers new revelations about the existence of room-temperature
superconductors. Even if we were to wake up tomorrow to turn on our
computers and receive such news, the impact would not be as great as
envisioned by Preston and Child.
After all, most of the fuel we burn - over 50% - goes
into heating houses. For that purpose, superconductors would be useless. On
the contrary, looking at the sad state of our real world, we see that the
evil, moneyed people who are in power have made it illegal to use anything
other than poisonous mercury-vapor light-bulbs (manufactured in China) for
lighting our houses. Yet the traditional, banned, incandescent light-bulbs,
using the principle of electrical resistance, produced heat as well as
light, thus helping to warm houses in the winter when they were mainly in
use. And while it may be true that superconducting wires in an electrical
car would eliminate the heat losses in the transmission of electricity from
the battery to the electrical motor, still, that would hardly make any
difference at all. Almost all of the energy expended in the motion of a car
goes into the heat produced by the mechanical resistance of the wheels,
drive train, and so on, and also the heat generated in the air by turbulence
produced by the motion of the car through the air. If anything, I would
imagine that superconducting wires might be heavier than traditional copper
wires, thus adding to the weight of the car and thus restricting its range
even further than the poor results we see with conventional technology.
A wonderful book. The story takes place in the
Massachusetts colony of the 1660s, just 40 years after the Mayflower landed
at Plymouth. But the college at Harvard, which this year celebrates its
375th anniversary, was already 24 years old in 1660. When thinking about
these American universities, I think about the huge explosion, both in the
numbers of young people who these days believe that going to college is
necessary in order to satisfy some sorts of expectations, and also in the
student debt, which will ruin the lives of a large proportion of those
students. But looking at what Harvard has to say for itself in the Internet,
I see that its fees are based on the incomes of the parents of its students.
Thus parents whose incomes are less than $60,000 need pay nothing at all for
the tuition as well as room and board of their children who attend Harvard.
For higher incomes, progressively more must be paid by the parents. Reading
this gives me a feeling of empathy for that great university.
I also see that at present, as much as 1% of the
undergraduate population is "Native American", that is "Indian". But back in
the 1660s, the Indian population of Harvard was much greater than just one
percent. And the first Indian to obtain his bachelor's degree was Caleb
Cheeshahteaumauk. Apparently there is not a great deal of information
about this person which has survived in the annals of Harvard University.
Geraldine Brooks includes a short Afterword in the book, summarizing what is
known of his life. And so this book is a novel, imagining what the life of
Caleb might have been like.
Geraldine Brooks is an Australian, and according to the
information in her website, she lives some of the time in Sydney, and the
rest on Martha's Vineyard. And indeed, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was a native
of Martha's Vineyard. (I will not try to reproduce the unpronounceable
Indian name here.) The story is narrated by Bethia Mayfield. In fact, the
first English settlers at Martha's Vineyard were the Mayhew family, and so
Bethia might be thought of as an imagined daughter of this real family.
It is a complicated story, so I will not try to summarize
it here. We are given a feeling for various words of those days which are
now so antiquated as to be completely forgotten, as well as the religious
superstition which permeated society. The 20 or 30 students at Harvard, at
least according to this book, did nothing more than study Latin, Greek, and
Hebrew, under the single professor, Charles
Chauncy. The idea was presumably to prepare the students to enter
polite society, engaging in trivial, but intellectual, banter in any one of
these three ancient languages, either from the pulpit, or else at cocktail
parties (or whatever the equivalant phenomenon was in 1660). What a
mind-deadening idea! At least Bethis's brother, who at first had the
ambition to become a priest, decided to do something sensible in life and
became a successful farmer. Also Bethia's husband, who at first was a tutor
of these useless subjects at Harvard, travels with his wife to Padua in
Italy, where he attends the university there and learns medicine.
The real-life Caleb had the daunting task of not only
learning those languages to a sufficient extent to engage in such banter,
but in addition he learned English sufficiently in order to impersonate an
English gentleman. For me, who is barely able to cope with only two
languages, both of which are neither ancient nor dead, this seems
incredible. And indeed, the real-life Caleb, as well as the fictional one of
this book, withered away soon after getting his degree, dying of exhaustion
The really impressive figure in the book was Caleb's
uncle, Tequamuck. I wonder if the real-life Caleb had such a magnificent
kinsman. Tequamuck stood resolutely against the great wave of English
colonization which was about to overwhelm his people. Yet some remnant of
the Indians of Martha's Vineyard still remain on the island, and Geraldine
Brooks apparently consulted them when writing the book.
is the What, by Dave Eggers (Valentino Achak Deng)
A difficult book to read. It is concerned with the "Lost
Boys" of Sudan. Back in the 1980s, Valentino Achak Deng was a small boy in
the village of Marial Bai in the Southwest of Sudan, on the southern side of
the Bahr Al-Ghazal River, a tributary of the Nile, which now seperates the
newly founded Republic
of South Sudan from the north. Suddenly wild hoards of horsemen from
Hell rode through the village, burning everything, killing everyone, taking
women and children as slaves. The young Achak ran through the night, hiding
in the woods. And then he ran further. He was lucky to run into a group of
boys like himself who were running away, and who had managed to escape the
slavers. They were led by an older boy, whose name was Dut, and who is one
of the heroes of this story.
The boys set out on a trek across Africa, hoping to be
saved in Ethiopia. They were just 6 or 8 or 10 years old. They had lost
their families. They had no idea what Ethiopia was. Was it paradise?
Looking it up in GoogleEarth, I see that the distance
from Mairal Bai in a straight line to the refugee camp at Pinyudo on the
Gilo River in Ethiopia is about 800 km. But the boys were not walking in a
straight line. It must have been 1500 or even 2000 km that they walked. A
real death march. Then after living in a kind of purgatory in Ethiopia for a
couple of years, the Mengistu
regime was overthrown, and suddenly the Pinyudo camp was itself attacked by
hoards of apocalyptic riders from Hell, killing everything that moved. Achak
was able to escape back across the border to Sudan, and then there followed
a further long trek south into the desert of northern Kenya, where the
Kakuma refugee camp was set up by the United Nations. There Achak stayed,
along with thousands of other surviving Lost Boys, as well as many further
refugees from Sudan. After years of growing up, being taken in by a family
in the camp, he was given the opportunity to be brought to the United States
where he could live freely, to become a student.
What a dreadful story! And yet it is the reality of life
for millions of people in the world today. A friend of Achak's in Marial Bai
was named Moses, a small boy, and he was taken as a slave, tied onto a horse
for days, branded behind the ear. He was then imprisoned with many other
children, and the slave owners took the children every couple of days and
drew blood from them for transfusions. They were being "milked". But Moses
was able to run away and eventually he also escaped to Kakuma, and then to
the United States. At one stage of his captivity (or was it another boy?
there are so many horrors here that I have lost track) he was loaded into a
train along with hundreds of other children and women, so tightly that they
nearly suffocated. The men were loaded in the next wagon of the train. As
with the Nazis, it was said that the train would take them to some place of
refuge, but in reality it was a death train. The wagon with the men was set
on fire, and all the men were burned alive. A true Holocaust, in the
original sense of the word.
Valentino Achak Deng told his story to the author Dave
Eggers, and since he couldn't remember all of the details of the things
which happened: what people said when he was just a boy, they decided to
call this book a novel. Yet according to the subtitle, it is "The
Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng".
It begins with Valentino in his apartment in Atlanta,
Georgia. He has already been in the United States for five years. Valentino
is not really the name he was given by his family in Marial Bai. It was
given to him by the local Catholic priest in the village. He was also called
Dominic in the refugee camp at Kakuma, but that is another story. For the
purposes of living in the United States, the name Valentino seems most
A woman rings the doorbell to his apartment in Atlanta,
asking if she could use his mobile telephone. He lets her in, and suddenly a
man with a gun also forces his way in threating him. They rob the apartment.
They are both "African-Americans", and they taunt him as being not one of
them. The man says:
"Are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"
"Tell me that, Africa, are you telling me what to do,
And so forth. Valentino is afraid of these African-Americans. Many of his
friends, other Lost Boys from Kakuma, have been attacked by
African-Americans. What is it with them? At one stage, between
pistol-whipping Valentino and kicking him in the face, the man seems to say
that Valentino is a representative of the class of Africans who enslaved his
ancestors hundreds of years ago and sold them to the slave traders. What a
bitter distortion of reality!
Is it true that the average African-American on the
streets hates refugees from Africa? This is certainly what is said in the
book. And if it is true, what could be the real reason? Surely it is not the
idea that African refugees in America are slave traders. Despite all recent
evidence of the corruption of modern American society, I still imagine -
perhaps naively - that slave traders do not play any particular role in
modern American life. Surely the real reason for such hatred, if it exists,
would be that such African-Americans would consider themselves to be victims
in a derived sense through the history of their ancestors. Thus it would be
offensive for them to be confronted with Africans who have been directly
victimized, and who are then being helped by the European-Americans. After
all, the ancestors of those European-Americans were the victimizers of the
original African-American slaves.
What a difficult world we live in! It seems to me that
almost all of the horrible little wars we see around the world these days
are caused by people competing amongst themselves to be considered the
greatest of victims so that they are justified in inflicting their horrible
revenge. What a world of complainers, of weaklings, we live in.
And so Valentino tells his story in his imagination to
these people who are mugging him. It becomes somewhat dreamlike. Did the
real Valentino Achak Deng really get attacked in Atlanta in this dreadful
way? Is this the common experience of refugees in the United States?
We learn more and more of Valentino's story as the story
of the robbery progresses. The attackers leave the apartment. Valentino has
been knocked unconscious, and he awakes to find that he has been tied up,
and a small boy is watching television in his kitchen. So he tells the small
boy in his imagination further details of his story. The attackers come,
taking the small boy and the rest of their bounty. Valentino's roommate,
another of the Lost Boys, finally comes back to the apartment and so frees
Valentino from his bondage. They call the police, and Valentino imagines
revenge. He can tell the police many details about the criminals, so that
they can be caught and he and his roommate can recover their possessions.
But only after hours does a disinterested policewoman come. She listens to
his story and then tells him that the police will take no further action.
There are many such robberies in Atlanta every day. The police have other
things to do. Then he goes to a hospital in Atlanta. He offers to pay with
his credit card, but that is refused. There is a pleasant African-American
man at the desk. He is told to wait. And so he, along with a couple of his
Lost Boy friends wait in the waiting room for 12, 14, 16 hours in the
hospital until somebody finally comes to deal with him. The result of the
medical examination is unclear. He leaves the hospital, exhausted, having
But Valentino's story is well worth reading. The title of
the book, "What is the What", comes from a story his father told so many
years ago back in Marial Bai. It is concerned with the way the Dinka
people think of themselves. Valentino tells us the story of his love for
Tabitha, who was a "Lost Girl", and who was settled in Seattle. And then she
was murdered by another one of the Lost Boys in a fit of jealousy. This
I would recommend that you buy the book just as I have
done, since all proceeds will go to a project Valentino has started for
improving the lives of the people in the Bahr el Ghazal region of South
This book was not as fun to read as Byatt's Possession,
or The Biographer's Tale.
Much more serious, self-conscious. It was her second book, first published
back in 1967. Looking up her
entry in the Wikipedia, I see that she is the sister both of Margaret
Drabble, the novelist, and Helen Langdon, who is an art historian.
Drabble was the family name, before each of them got married. From what we
read in the Wikipedia, Byatt does not get along with her novelist sister
Margaret, each of them refusing to read the other's books. Fair enough.
Perhaps this present book is part of the games she played as a child with
her sister, each seeking to better the other. They certainly must have lived
in a very competitive house.
The two sisters in this book are named Julia and
Cassandra. Julia is the sensible one. She writes stories about married women
wishing that they were doing something other than being married. However in
her real life, she is the modern, liberated woman, ignoring the family,
writing her novels, appearing on television talk shows and sleeping with
various television people. Cassandra on the other hand is an embittered,
lonely, barren Oxford "don" in an Oxfordian college for women, teaching
medieval literature. She is very much into the legend of King Arthur, in
Malory's version. The "Game" in the book involved inventing Arthurian
stories when they were young girls.
When describing this, Byatt often mentions the "Pre-Raphaelite"
artists of 19th century England, with their visions of medieval things. In
particular the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I
found this interesting since my grandparents owned Red
House during the 1920s and 30s. Red House was built by William Morris
back in 1860, and it contains various wall paintings and other associations
with Rossetti and Burne-Jones. We visited it on a trip to England this past
summer (when we also took in the Arthurian Tintagel in Cornwall). It is now
a museum, administered by the English National Trust.
But returning to the book, both sisters have "loved" in
various ways a man named Simon. They grew up in Quaker families, and we have
long descriptions of the tedious meetings of the Quaker "friends" in their
dreary meeting house somewhere in the provincial England of the 1940s. Very
sensibly, Julia found religion to be simply irrelevant. Yet she married
Thor, a Norwegian Quaker who is more concerned with the problems of the
world than with the problems of his own family. Cassandra, alone in her
gloomy medieval Oxford college, with its chapel and civilized, hand-wringing
ministers of the Church of England, descends into some kind of insanity. We
become enveloped in complicated, literary dialogue.
In contrast with all this, Simon has become a biologist
and he has gone to South America to produce a television series on the lives
of snakes. These days, television overflows with documentaries about animals
eating one another. But I suppose back in the 1960s, these things were more
of a novelty. In any case, all the literary types in the book go on for
pages discussing the question of whether television, and particularly
televised animal documentaries are the great art form of the Future. Simon
returns to England and the two sisters, where he turns out to be strangely
tongue-tied. In fact, he himself seems to be suffering from some sort of
insanity, perhaps owing to the fact which we deduce indirectly from the
story that he fed his cameraman, with whom he seemed to get along poorly, to
the piranhas of the Amazon. They reduced the poor cameraman to bare bones
within the space of only ten minutes. (Yet according to another
book which I read not long ago, such visions of piranhas are also just
So Julia decides to write a book about the obsession of
her sister with all of these things, and with Simon. It causes a scandal in
Cassandra's Oxford college and she commits suicide. The book ends with Julia
telling Simon that she washes her hands of the whole affair.
I wonder if Margaret Drabble has also refused to read
this book - or if she has been angered by it. But it seems that it did
Antonia Byatt good to have written it, since the subsequent books she wrote,
at least those which I have read, are more fun to read than this one is.
The University closes down for a week or two at
Christmas, so I went quickly into the library to get a couple of books to
read over the holidays. Looking at the "B" section for "Byatt", my gaze
wandered further along the shelf, and so I took out this book by Julian
Barnes. After reading it, and thinking about writing my little review here,
I looked up the name Julian Barnes in the Internet, and to my astonishment I
find that he won the Booker Prize this year for a novel with the title "The
Sense of an Ending". But then rather randomly finding a review of that book
in the New York Times, I see that the reviewer wasn't particularly excited
about the book.
Similarly here, after reading A. S. Byatt's "The Game",
this book by Julian Barnes strikes me as being rather light-weight. It is an
amusing story which can be read almost in one sitting. Graham, the
protagonist, is a professor of history at a university in London. He is
married to Barbara and has a daughter, Alice, who is about 12 years old or
so. Barbara really doesn't like Graham all that much. She is always
complaining, finding fault with him, saying nasty little things to make him
feel bad. But Graham, who seems to be a somewhat flabby, unexceptional
character, lives on in this unsatisfactory state.
Then he meets Ann, who is an attractive thirty something.
Unlike Barbara, Ann actually seems to like Graham, and so he falls in love
with her. Graham pulls himself together and leaves Barbara in order to live
with Ann. Barbara takes all this very badly. She insists on an old-fashioned
divorce based on the concept of guilt. Visiting rights with Alice are as
restricted as possible, and the accompanying interactions with Barbara are
full of her bitterness.
So Graham and Ann marry and are both extremely happy with
one another. Much of life for them becomes reduced to the basic level of
sexual intercourse, devoid of any feelings of procreation.
Before she met Graham, Ann had been a minor actress in
various obscure movies. Graham asks Ann if she had slept with one of the
actors who had been in one of her movies which he happened to have seen. She
is very open with him and is happy to tell him about all of her affairs
previous to meeting Graham. And so Graham begins to become jealous of all
the men Ann knew in her earlier life. He becomes totally consumed by this
idea, having sleepless nights, nightmares, secretly traveling to cinemas
around London to see these old movies of Ann, and to hate all the male
actors on the screen. It is an obsession, a madness.
He seeks the advice of his old friend, Jack, a novelist.
In the end he convinces himself that Jack also slept with Ann, is even now
sleeping with her, and so he takes a knife and stabs Jack to death. Then he
kills himself using what I understand is the traditional Japanese female
method of committing hara-kiri, or seppuku, namely slitting his own throat
with the knife.
I suppose that amongst some peoples even today the idea
lives on that at marriage a woman should be a virgin. Yet amongst those same
peoples, no value is placed on the virginity of the man. Such ideas can lead
to disgusting displays of violence, disfigurement, and what have you. An
unpleasant subject which, in particular, various Arabian peoples might do
well to think about.
Despite this, Julian Barnes has a pleasant, smooth style
of writing which made large parts of the book easy, even amusing, to read.