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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 31 March 2019

"Equus" by Peter Shaffer

This classic play is by the author of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which I saw at school, and Amadeus, of which I have seen the film version. Equus was first produced in 1973 at the National Theatre but I saw it at the Theatre Royal Stratford at the matinee performance on Saturday 23rd March 2019. I was stunned. Zubin Varla starred as Martin Dysart. The young lead, Alan Strang, was played by Ethan Kai (@EthanAvdiyovski) who was perfect as a troubled teenage. It was directed by Ned Bennett. But the stand-out performance was the horse, Nugget, played by Ira Mandela Siobhan (@iramsio).

In the National production the horses were acted using horse head masks in the manner of a Greek tragedy; there is a chorus too. In fact, Shaffer states in his notes in this text that “The actors should never crouch on all fours, or even bend forward ... Animal effect must be created entirely mimetically, through the use of legs, knees, neck, face, and the turn of the head ... the masking has an exact and ceremonial effect.” (Author’s Notes on the Play xxvii) In the Stratford production masks were done away with. The horses were grey-clad actors. Nugget was a well-built male actor wearing only shorts; he bent forward slightly and stuck his arms in from of him as though they were the stiff forelegs of a horse. And then he moved his body so that I believed he was a horse. Somehow he could manage to ripple his muscles in the way that you can see shivers running through a horses flanks; somehow he twitched and shied and nuzzled exactly like a horse. It was perhaps the most remarkable purely physical performance I have ever seen any actor give; the first time in my experience that the best performance was entirely without words.

It was a production of intense sexual power. Both acts begin with Alan in an embrace with Nugget. In the first Act there is a moment when Alan has his first ride on Trojan, sitting on the shoulders of a horse played by a mostly naked actor and in front of the Horseman, and the rhythmic movements of horse and Alan and horseman were like the rhythmic thrustings and swayings of the pelvis during sex. After wards Alan says "There was sweat on my legs from the neck. The fellow held me tight ... All that power going any way you wanted ... His sides were all warm, and the smell ..." The first act ends with Alan riding Nugget, "naked in his chinkle-chankle" in an act or worship as orgasm; he shouts "I'm stiff! Stiff in the wind!" and "I want to be in you ... Equus, I love you! ... Make us One Person!" But it is the end of the play which is, almost literally, the climax. Alan and his girlfriend take their clothes off in the stable to make love but he can't do it with the horses watching; he gets upset and tells her to go; she gets dressed and leaves. Then, whilst he is naked, in a sort of dance, with the horses plunging all around him, in religious ecstasy and guilt, he blinds the horses and collapses.

My heart was beating and I found that I was holding my breath. It was wonderful.

Great lines:
  • It is my object to tell tales; to conjure the spectres of horror and happiness, and fill other heads with the images which have haunted my own. My desire, I suppose, is to perturb and make gasp: to please and make laugh: to surprise. If I am a peacock in this respect, at least I am aware that peacockery is one of the dramatist’s obligations.” (A personal essay by Peter Shaffer; vi - vii)
  • I write and destroy the writing; I rewrite, and destroy the rewriting - and I continue in this way until not only the images but the words are entirely clear in my mind, and the flavour of each scene is strong on my tongue.” (A personal essay by Peter Shaffer; viii)

Act One
  • The only thing I know for sure is this: a horse's head is finally unknowable to me. Yet I handle children's heads - which I must presume to be more complicated” (S2)
  • It's just professional menopause. Everyone gets it sooner or later.” (S6)
  • That's the funny thing about religious people. They always think their susceptibilities are more important than non-religious.” (S7)
  • The horse isn't dressed. It's the most naked thing you ever saw!” (S 13)
  • We were brisk in our wooing, brisk in our wedding, brisk in our disappointment.” (S 18)
  • All my wife has ever taken from the Mediterranean - from that whole vast intuitive culture - are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps, and two china condiment donkeys labelled Sally and Peppy.” (S 18)
  • Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods.” (S 18)
  • The Normal is the good smile in a child's eyes ... it is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills ... It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal.” (S 19)

Act Two
Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?” (S 25)
  • To go through life and call it yours - your life - you first have to get your own pain. Pain that's unique to you” (S 25)
  • That boy has known a passion more ferocious that I have felt in any second of my life.” (S 25)
  • I shrank my own life. ... I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity. The old story of bluster, and do bugger-all.” (S 25)
  • We keep saying old people are square. Then when they suddenly aren't - we don't like it!” (S 31)
  • I kept looking at all the people in the street. They were mostly men coming out of pubs. I suddenly thought - they all do it! All of them! ... they're not just Dads - they’re people with pricks! ... and Dad - he's not just Dad either. He's a man with a prick too.” (S 31)

March 2019

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Saturday, 30 March 2019

"Cut Short" by Leigh Russell

A police procedural introducing Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel.

This book starts with a description of the killing. This is not uncommon; I suppose it provides a 'hook' to grab the reader's attention on the very first page so that they know what they are buying and want to know more. The problem is that it instantly gives away some details about the killer. We know, for example, that he is male. More seriously, we know that he doesn't know the victim. I find this a problem. It means that many of the people that the police subsequently interview, such as the girl she works with in the cafe and the male cafe owner cannot be suspects.

As such this is more of a crime thriller than a murder mystery.

The characters are swiftly sketched. They often seem to be stereotypes. There is a slightly clunky bit towards the end in which Geraldine's potential love interest asks her about herself ("You could start by telling me about your family") allowing the author to outline Geraldine's back story. This reminded me of those opening scenes in some Shakespeare plays in which two citizens in the street update one another on the context for the story that is about to be told.

Some of my favourite lines

  • "However hard it might be, life was precious."
  • "He spent his working week selling cars. Now he was selling his innocence."
  • "He was like David who beat a giant even though he had his arm in a sling. He had a sling once but it never made him strong. And it never helped him fight anyone."
  • "They published their questions without bothering to look for an answer"
  • "Without thinking she raised her hand and smoothed the lines on her forehead, making a mental note to avoid frowning. And smiling. And raising her eyebrows."
  • "Glamorous figures smiled up from the covers, mocking the squalor around them."

This is a typical example of the genre.

March 2019

"Family and Friends" by Anita Brookner

This book, which reads more like a memoir than a novel, starts and ends by considering the characters in the first and last photographs of a family album. It follows the fortunes of Sofka's four children: brothers Frederick and Alfred and sisters Betty and Mimi; each of these pairs presents a contrast in that the former will leave home and the latter will stay; the  former have what appear to be on the surface exciting lives and the latter lead lives of what seem to be dull conformity.

The book is told from an omniscient point of view. The novelist not only lets us be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters but is also sufficiently detached to pass judgement on these. So the effect throughout is like that of a wise old aunt commenting on each of the characters as she sees their photo in the album and saying, well that Alfred, he was a deep one. This gives a sense of deep control which is reinforced by the writer's tight command of her prose, both in its language and its structure. It also gave the feeling that these were puppets upon a stage and that all that they were performing had been scripted. I found it difficult to get excited about what was going to happen and even harder to feel as if I cared. These were lives that failed to live up to their promise; indeed, whose life does? They were brilliant portraits. But they failed, for me, to command urgency.

One of the reviewers compares her with Henry James and I can see the resemblance in the elegance of the prose and the slightly stiff maneuvering of the characters.

Brookner also wrote the brilliant Hotel du Lac and the beautifully written if devastatingly sad Brief Lives.

There are, however, many moments of profound insight into the human condition.

  • "Alfred ... knows from his reading that virtue is its own reward. This seems to him rather hard, for by the same token vice is also its own reward." (C4)
  • "Although his French is excellent it is the French of Victor Hugo and it has not been of much use to him so far." (C 4)
  • "He is like a man on a diet who has visions of outrageous excess, yet who is plagued by some inner and inalienable knowledge of checks and balances. If I do this, then I can do that. Why, one might object, why not do it anyway?" (C 8)
  • "To suppose that those who are sexually inactive are also sexually inarticulate is a grave mistake, but one which is made with disheartening frequency." (C9)
  • "So much good behaviour has been visited upon him that he has felt himself becoming dull, neuter, destroyed as an independent being." (C9)
  • "Sofka does not sleep, but addresses the Almighty, rather as she would address her bank manager, with the assurance of one who has always been solvent." (C9)
  • "Betty is the only member of the family to whom reading does not present itself as a silent activity." (C 12); Indeed, for Betty, it is a social activity.
  • "Max's films are interesting because they concentrate on emptiness, on the time before things happen, the time when the outlaw might just get away with it." (C 12)
  • "It is the prodigal who does not return who makes the idea of goodness a mockery." (C 13)
  • "Alfred is aware of the need to do something. As far as he is concerned his life has been spent in the wings while other members of his family have arranged their futures to suit themselves." (C 13)

March 2019; 187 pages

Thursday, 28 March 2019

"The Stolen Child" by Keith Donohue

Hobgoblins steal a little boy and replace him with one of their own, a changeling. In alternate chapters we follow the life of the stolen boy as he becomes a hobgoblin and adapts to the life of the tribe of hobgoblins in the forest on the edge of the town, stealing and foraging to live, and never growing old. We also follow the life of the changeling as he grows from little boy into musical prodigy and rebellious teenager and musician and man. Both hobgoblin and changeling have to try and find the child they used to be in this very different take on the search for our identity.

It seems to me that the greater demand that an author makes on our willingness to suspend our disbelief, the more detail is necessary. Science fiction writers talk about world-creation and this book too requires a richly imagined detailed creation of a world with its own rules. But whereas (usually bad) writers give you all the world creation in a more-or-less indigestible lump, Donohue drip-feeds it in so that the reader is lulled into believing this weird world. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the tribe of hobgoblins: Beka, the only one stolen after he had passed puberty and thus the only boy to be able to have sex although the others can and do form romantic friendships, Speck, the newest but one and thus nearly at the bottom of the hierarchy, who can stand up for herself and for others and show a great deal of kindness and empathy, the two Italian boys and the thoughtful but cigarette addicted Luchog. This was a great band of kids.

I wasn't quite as keen on the real humans. Nevertheless, Donohue can certainly create memorable characters. My only problem was that I found it difficult to care about them. I enjoyed their antics but I didn't really empathise with their fears. 

He has some great lines:
  • Those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world.” (C1)
  • Her face betrayed her every emotion: blotchy skin, chapped with salty tears, her pale blue eyes rimmed in red, her hair matted and disheveled.” (C1)
  • They were mere tots, with more teeth than sentences, and could not articulate the mysteries of their young minds.” (C1)
  • Matters in the forest were far more existential. Living depended on sharpening instincts, not memorizing facts.” (C3)
  • The more adept my skill and understanding grew, the more I realized the power of musical phrasing in everyday life. The trick involves getting people to listen to the weak beats and seemingly insignificant silences between notes, the absence of tones between tones.” (C7)
  • How will we ever find our way back home if we never leave home? ... How can we ever avoid danger if we don't know what danger is?” (C9)
  • You only knew part of the story. There's more to a salmon than the fin.” (C13)
  • The guy with the deja vu face.” (C13)
  • Dreams are ... and you cannot will them away, any more than you can call them into being. You have to decide whether to act upon them or let them vanish.” (C23)
  • You want to be a great composer, but you never write a song ... true art is less about all the wanting-to-be bullshit, and more about practice. Just play the music, baby.” (C23)
  • He’s a tockless clock.” (C34)

An interesting and unusual novel. March 2019; 319 pages

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

"My name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok

The last book I read, Eros Island by Tony Hanania, was characterised by paragraph-long sentences, with multiple commas and semi-colons, which explored descriptions with unusual words and vivid metaphors. It jumped around in time and the characters merged into different worlds. I found it difficult to follow the narrative, at times to work out who was who. This suited the world being created, a world of decadence and decay, spoilt rich kids, drug-taking, disillusion.

The world of Asher Lev is very different. He grows up into a highly organised and secure world, that of a Jewish sect in Brooklyn. The narrative has a linear structure. The sentences are typically short, blunt and declarative, such as: “My father found me like that in the doorway. We walked home together. My mother was asleep. We ate supper alone. It continued to rain.” This is from chapter one and it can be seen that as Asher gets older his sentences can become more complex, especially when he is talking about art.

Asher Lev is a born artist. He is a child prodigy of the visual arts. But the world into which he is born is one which does not value his gifts. This is a no-nonsense world in which men work and people worry. It is typified by his father, who works for the leader of a Jewish sect, rescuing Jews from Stalin's Russia. Asher attempts to conform; for a while he learns to live while stifling his gift. But he can only be fulfilled by embracing his art and this means he has to rebel, to hurt his community and his mother who wants him to make only "pretty" pictures and his father who characterises what Asher does as "foolishness". Asher's rebellion is articulated when he exclaims: “Foolishness is something that's stupid ... Foolishness is something a person shouldn't do. Foolishness is something that brings harm to the world. Foolishness is a waste of time. Please don't ever call it foolishness anymore, Papa.” (Chapter 5) Still the sect leader attempts to make Asher conform: “Many people feel they are in possession of a great gift when they are young. But one does not always give into a gift. One does with a life what is precious not only to oneself but to one's own people.” (Chapter 5)

It is interesting that the sect is trying to rescue Jews from Stalin's Russia while simultaneously attempting to impose conformity upon their own dissident.

This is a book that does for the visual arts what Patrick Susskind's Perfume did for scents. Time and again Asher talks about the technicalities of his craft:

  • The drawing felt incomplete. It bothered me to have it incomplete. I closed my eyes and looked at the drawing inside myself, went over its contours inside myself, and it was incomplete.” (Chapter 1)
  • That was the night I began to realise that something was happening to my eyes.  ... I felt myself flooded with the shapes and textures of the world around me. I closed my eyes. But I could still see that way inside my head. I was seeing with another pair of eyes that had suddenly become awake.” (Chapter 4)
  • How would I paint that, the rain dripping from the branches, the rain streaking the window, the grey rain filling the world with dismal mist? People walked beneath umbrellas. The asphalt glistened. The bleak sky hovered menacingly over the tops of the buildings ... I saw the clouds moving swiftly and dark across the buildings and I wondered how I could catch that dark movement, that watery swirl of light and dark greys ... how I could paint the street crying.” (Chapter 5)
  • What if I took some of those squares? I thought. Won't that make it more interesting?” (Chapter 6)
  • I will teach you composition. I will teach you how to create tension. I will teach you how to handle rage in colour and line.” (Chapter 8)
  • There are two ways of painting the world. In the whole history of art, there are only these two ways. One is the way of Greece and Africa, which sees the world as a geometric design. The other is the way of Persia and India and China, which sees the world as a flower.” (Chapter 9)
  • The only honest way to paint today was either to represent objects that are recognisable, and at the same time integral to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas, or to do away with objects entirely and create paintings of colour and texture and form, paintings that translated the volumes and voids in nature into fields of colour, paintings in which the solids were flattened and the voids were filled and the planes were organized.” (Chapter 10)
  • We talked for a long time about the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, about illusion, depth, planar structure, points, areas, lines, dispersive and progressive shapes, surface control, colour separation, values, contrasts, accents, matrix.” (Chapter 12)

There are also comments about what art means and what it means to be an artist which apply to whatever dream you are following:

  • Every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who is showing the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.” (Chapter 8) This reminded me of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.
  • Guilt should not interfere with your art. Use the guilt to make better art.” (Chapter 8)
  • A man's painting either reflects his culture or is a comment upon it, or it is merely decoration or photography.” (Chapter 10)
  • Art is not for people who want to make the world holy. You will be like a nun in a bro - in a - theatre for burlesque.” (Chapter 8)
  • Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.” (Chapter 8)
  • Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.” (Chapter 8)
  • It would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work.” (Chapter 13)

There are other great moments:

  • Gossip, rumours, mythmaking and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth.” (Chapter 1)
  • She did not appear to be bothered by the sun. It was as if there were nothing behind her eyes for the sun to bother.” (Chapter 1)
  • By November, the trees were almost bare. Solitary leaves clung to the branches as tenacious reminders of life. They fell and the trees stood naked on the street. It rained and the leaves layrotting in the gutters. It snowed and the leaves were gone.” (Chapter 6)
  • Sometimes I think it is not wise to grow too old ... but I am not aware that we are given a choice in this matter.” (Chapter 11)
  • He walked surrounded with the sense of his achievement.” (Chapter 12)
  • There are distinct disadvantages to reaching eighty ... but it is better to reach it then not to reach it. I think I will try for ninety.” (Chapter 12)
  • My frames of reference have been formed by the life I have lived.” (Chapter 12)

This is a wonderful novel about individual freedom and the artistic urge. March 2019; 320 pages

It has a sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev

This is one of the books that my sister Jane has given me. Jane is an English teacher in Bradford and her selections are usually excellent, for example:

  • Winter by Ali Smith (which meant I had to buy Autumn by Ali Smith and read that first)
  • The Dry by Jane Harper: Jane and I have always enjoyed a good crime novel and this is excellent
  • The Hate you Give by Angie Thomas: Jane's teaching means she is always good at spotting teen novels and this is one of the best.

Monday, 25 March 2019

"Eros Island" by Tony Hanania

I found this a difficult book to understand. It jumped around in time and location and in between the story of the main protagonist and his first love and the story of the narrator's father and uncle, twins, who grew up as part of an Orthodox Christian(?) community in East Jerusalem and were forced to become refugees following the Israeli takeover of that city. I think.

Even the story of the narrator's love swings between his schooldays in a privileged English boarding-school and summer holidays on a Spanish island where he takes up with a set of teenagers which includes the girl he adores. But some of the characters seem to spread themselves between the two locations. And many of them merge into the narrator's subsequent life as a student in London at which point his world lurches into a world of sex and drugs and partying.

For most of the book I wasn’t sure what was going on. I’m still not clear. I need another go at it. But you don’t read this book for the plot.

You read it for the descriptions. This author has a distinctive voice. His paragraphs are often single sentences which wind on and on with wonderful words:
But on that afternoon you were late for the performance, across the stub-pocked carpet of the empty foyer a silver glare from the entrance-hall, at the counter a girl reading alone, a spread of softening brownies and carrot cakes, over the high window posters of forthcoming releases, a Kieslowski Memorial double-bill, a spoof Sixties spy film, the rigid suaveness of the star with pistol and gloves crossed over his chest like the effigy of a Pharaoh bearing his golden sceptres, his glamorous assistant in diminutive scale, as if a vassal queen.” (Book 1: 1997 September)
When the gardeners no longer came the tall grass concealed the coils of discarded snake skins fine as the gauze of surgical stockings, among the tall old books warped and mildewed from sea travel in the Illuminated volume of Jules Verne the pictures of the undersea mummies grey as a caterpillar hives in the stone pines spinning their long thin files of brown-backs over the dust-blown lawns into the weave of a vast net lifting the house and the gardens high above the burning skies of the city.”  (Book 1: 1997 September)
The room was almost bare, no jackets or coats in the wardrobes, a row of wire hangers, the spent larvae of the unzipped suit bags, on the shelves the charcoal card pages of the albums empty but for the plastic corners and dark rectangles like ground plans for buildings never constructed.”  (Book 1: 1997 September)
Beside the cupboard the antique cameras with their jack-in-the-box lenses, lilting tripods like drill-rigs, their shadows against the shuttered glare the legs of giant insects, and beyond along the wall old flaps and drops, the fading facade of a rococo palace, a willow-sheltered pond under a silver moon, a balustrade before a distant view of snow-turbanned mountains.”  (Book 1: 1997 September)
It is the flat of someone who spends little time at home, curdled milk and mould-scabbed yoghurt in the fridge, on the sideboard glass vases filled with pond-grey water and still-wrapped sprays of dead roses, the sitting room given over to a ripped ironing-board and over the chaise-longue and armchairs tin-foil take-away containers used as ashtrays, the radiators hung with shrivelled jeans and T-shirts; the windows unwashed, the only view the dark and narrow street which rarely saw the sun.” (Book Two; 1993 - 1997; I)

Breathtaking. This is poetry in prose. I had been wondering where the Kerouacs and Burroughs of today are and I think I have found one of them.

Other great lines:
  • When he smiled it always came as an afterthought, his face creasing uneasily, like a dry scroll.” (Book One; 1982. 1981;II)
  • I knew I would go to long and foolish things to witness that face with int into pleasure.” (Book One; 1982. 1981;II)
  • The dumb-show of a youthfulness which he had never truly owned, and could only mime now, from the outside.” (Book One; 1982. 1981;II)
  • An Englishness petrified and distilled by long expatriation, and extinct to England like a grafted grape which thrives in foreign climes long after the original vines have been destroyed by pestilence.” (Book One; 1982. 1981;II)
  • How would I have discovered so much if I had always found my way home?” (Book One; 1983,  1984;II)
  • You disavowed all tenderness, but always in your eyes the lights of a lonely house; when it was over only a fraternal clasp, like friends after a wrestle.” (Book One; 1983,  1984;II)
  • His face is oyster-grey, shadowed by bad nights, and he brings the food to the table with an overdetermined care, as if walking beside a chasm, his bowed gait warped by some unspoken shame.” (Book One; 1985 - 1989; III)
I need another go to understand it but what I have read is wonderful. March 2019; 177 pages

Also written by Hanania
Homesick: his first novel, based on his prep school experiences. There are still moments of descriptive bliss but it is much easier to understand. I can understand (and I approve of) his transition from this part-memoir part-allegory into Eros Island.
Unreal City (written in between the other two) which I MUST tackle next.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

"The History of the Peloponnesian War" by Thucydides

This translation by Sir Richard Livingstone was first published in 1943 and the author makes parallels with events leading up to the Second World War. The translation is selective of parts of the original, and orders those parts on a slightly different order from the original, but this mostly works. The flaw is that it includes very little of the eighth book which Thucydides left incomplete but of which Livingstone leaves merely a stump.

What is remarkable about the book is that it is so modern. The events recorded cover a period in which Athens, mostly from sheer hubris, went from Empire to defeat. As such there are interesting parallels with the present situation in which the oligarchical Brexiteers hark back to the days of the British Empire in order to persuade the citizens of Britain to take risks. Let us hope that the results are not as devastating for the British as they were for the Athenians.

Thucydides has a very modern point of view. He is realpolitikal:

  • “Men secure peace by using their power justly but by making it clear that they will not allow others to wrong them.” (1.71)
  • “It has always been a law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” (1.76)
  • “Where force can be used, law is not needed.” (1.77)
  • “Bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority.” (3.37)
  • “Ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows.” (3.37)
  • “Three failings most fatal to empire - pity, sentiment, and indulgence.” (3.40)
  • “The question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength ... the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.” (5.89)

But he is also good at the psychology behind democratic politics:

  • “Men seem to resent injustice more than violence; the former is regarded as unfair advantage taken by an equal, the latter is compulsion applied by a superior.” (1.77)
  • “It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter.” (1.78)
  • “Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking.” (book 2)
  • “Villainy is sooner called clever than simplicity good, and men in general are proud of cleverness and ashamed of simplicity.” (3.82)
  • “The secret of this was the general extraordinary success, which made them confuse their strength with their hopes.” (4.65)
  • “It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use reason arbitrarily to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” (4.108)

The battle tactics include a perceptive observation about:

  • How men fight:because the shield was held on the left arm making the right side more vulnerable the hoplite armies tended to swerve towards the right; this, he suggests, was because the man on the extreme right tended to move right leaving his neighbour's right exposed so he moved right, and so on.
  • Disinformation: “Fire-signals of an attack were also raised towards Thebes; but the Plataeans in the town at once displayed a number of others, prepared beforehand for this very purpose, in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible, and to prevent his friends getting a true idea of what was passing.” (3.22)
  • Geophysics: “About the same time that these earthquakes were so common, the sea at Orobiae, in Euboea, retiring from the then line of coast, returned in a huge wave and invaded a great part of the town, and retreated some of it still under water, so that what was once land is now sea; the inhabitants who could not reach the higher ground in time were drowned.” (3.89)

Other great lines:

  • “My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession, not the show-piece of an hour.” (1.22)
  • “They [Athenians] were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.” (1.70)
  • “We are wise because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them.” (1.84)

OK, it got a bit tedious when there was yet another battle in a place whose name I failed to recognise but this is a problem I have with all war histories. Otherwise it was surprisingly readable.

March 2019; I read it on holiday in Greece travelling from Athens to Delphi, Olympia, and Nafplion; it was a little disappointing to drive past Sparta but at least I was on the Peloponnese.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

"Music and Silence" by Rose Tremain

The winner of the 1999 Whitbread Novel award, this is a historical novel set in the court of King Christian IV of Denmark, who was a contemporary of Charles I of England (who appears briefly). Tremain also wrote Restoration and its sequel Merivel which were set in the court of Charles II of England, and The Gustav Sonata which is more contemporary.

Despite the title, Tremain seems to concentrate rather on the visual analogies of light and darkness. This starts on the first page:

  • “Until this moment, when the flame of the lamp flares blue, then settles to study yellow inside its ornate globe, the young man had been ... questioning the nature of this darkness. For it seemed to him not merely an external phenomenon, having to do with an actual absence of light, but rather as though it emanated from within him, as if he had finally crossed the threshold of his own absence of hope.” (p 1)

It continues throughout:

  • “Since the death of Karen she has not been comfortable with the way shadows in the lamplight move at such astounding speed.”
  • “She was my sister and she told me a rhyme. What is the world made of I do not know, sometimes it is made of dancing snow. Sometimes it is made of darkness.”
  • “She is tired of living in the dark, weary of the perpetual shadows and the dripping of the candles.”
However, other aspects of the book are clearly based on musical forms. For example, the plot has the complexities of Grand Opera and the story is told from the point of view of many of the participants, as though these are the instruments of the orchestra.

The plot is labyrinthine. It follows the fortunes of Peter Claire, a lutenist from Harwich, England, who has an angelically beautiful face. He falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, a serving woman to the Queen's wife Kirsten Munk, a splendidly horrid woman who dislikes all her many children and is having an affair with a Swedish nobleman. It is Kirsten's intrigues and manipulations which prove an obstacle to the young lovers. Such a convoluted plot reminded me of grand opera. On the other hand, I had the impression that the plot lacked structure; there seemed to be the feeling of 'what else can be done in order to keep the lovers apart for a little longer?' It seemed almost picaresque in its lack of an overall shape, a criticism that could also be made of The Gustav Sonata. A third perspective could be that such is life, it is a meandering journey in which no direction is discernible for long; however, that is rarely true of a piece of music. The fourth way that one could consider the plot is in terms of the Hero's Journey. Peter Claire 'enters the labyrinth' (a stage in the classic Hero's Journey) when he meets the King at the Danish Court; here he has adventures including the trip to the silver mine and he is made to undergo trials by wicked women. Equally Emilia has a similar journey from the moment she goes to court until she escapes from Kirstenm and returns to her father's farm; there is still a final trial required of her here.

The story is told in little snippets from many of the main characters including the King, mourning his friend, the dyslexic nobleman Bror Brorson; Peter; Peter's previous lover the Italian/Irish countess from his previous job in Ireland; Emilia; Kirsten; Peter's dad back in Harwich; King Charles I ... It is as if there are many instruments in the orchestra, each one having its moment to predominate if not solo. Sometimes this approach, especially when involving minor characters, seemed bitty but it was impressive how Tremain could mimic so many voices.

My favourite character is the villain: Kirsten, unfaithful wife of the King. She has great lines:
  • “Why do husbands refuse to understand that we women do not for long remain their Pet Creatures?”
  • “This is the principal trouble with Children: they do not let you do one single thing but they must do it also, and this Habit of Copying does so grate on me that I declare I wish I never had never had any children whatsoever.”
  • Kirsten talks about babies: “The noise they make is infernal. The stench of them is scarcely to be endured, for they are ever spewing out strings of pearly vomit or straining till their eyes start from their heads to produce farmyard motions. Their talk is plain nonsense. At the least thing, they wail and scream.”
  • “She is merely Like All Other Babies, and that is: ugly, foul-smelling, cross-eyed, mewling, farting, uncomfortable, angry and Wretched.”
Many, many wonderful moments of insight into the human condition:
Part One
  • “They say the devil, driven out of churches by the implacable Lutherans, began to seek unbaptised souls to inhabit and that he flew round the crowded cities at night, sniffing for the odour of human milk.”
  • “Learning he loved, this was certain. It was the passing on of this learning that he did not love entirely.”
  • “A man can travel too far from his point of departure and become lost and never find his way back. All that remains to him then is to keep moving forward and pray that hope does not desert him too.”
  • “Running ... with their dark cloaks flying, as if time had been sewn into their garments and was now pursuing them”
  • “Hope is a strange commodity. It is an opiate. We swear we have relinquished it and lo, there comes a day when, all unannounced, our enslavement to it returns.”
  • “Nature locks away her secrets like a courtesan, to tease us with longing.”
  • “When you find yourself at odds with life, strive not to fight with fortune but fight instead with your own weaknesses.”
  • “Not being Shakespeare appears to him ... as a not inconsiderable burden all Englishmen are forced to bear.”
  • “He finds himself ... in a grey desert where the horizon is unpeopled yet the ground is covered in shadows.”
  • “Man at his greatest is still mortal. A nail in the sole of his foot can snatch his life away.”
  • “Should a man strive ... only to let in those thoughts which proceed logically from other thoughts and to protect himself from everything that had about it the feeling of uninvitedness? Or, might it be true that certain kinds of valuable perception only arrive as the wind-blown seed arrives in the water meadow, their provenance for ever unknown or unrecorded?”
  • “In his twenty-seven years of life, women have behaved towards Peter Claire asd the sea behaves towards the wind. His power to disturb their calm, to whip up their longings ... has never before deserted him.”

Part Two
  • “Man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question ‘How may I be brought to the divine?’, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine by their music.”

Part Three
  • “A man’s vision, before it has achieved its intended form, habitually expresses itself in confused strivings.”
  • “To stay Alive, we are forced to Scheme. To have any Joy, we must Steal like Magpies from the Pitiful Store of it.”
  • “‘Just at present’ is not a fixed entity. It is not the sundial ... but the moving shadow cast by the sun.”
  • “Once the dancers are balanced on their rope, the crowd will long only for them to fall.”
  • “The secret of a successful life is not to die before one’s death.”
I enjoyed the richness of the world created by Tremain; the details brought me into the Danish court so that I became a part of it. However, I found the repeated postponement of any possibility of a happy ending wearisome and I skim-read the last twenty pages or so because by then I cared for little except that I should finish the book.

March 2019; 454 pages

Books by Tremain reviewed in this blog include:

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

W B Yeats; poems selected by Seamus Heaney

I don't really know my Yeats. I was impressed and surprised.

This work is arranged chronologically. 

The young Yeats is very much a nature poet. He celebrates an Ireland which is predominantly rural. 
Thus, for example, the first poem in the collection is The Indian Upon God in which the narrator listens to animals and plants as each describes God. For the moorhen God is a big bird, for the Lotus he is a plant, for the deer "He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He/ Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?", for the peacock a peacock. It has a theological point (Man makes God in his image) but it is a pretty little poem. The next poem, The Stolen Child, is about the tradition that the faeries lure and steal children; it compares the world of faery, of rural nature, favourably with a world that is “full of troubles/ And is anxious in its sleep.

The young Yeast is very much concerned with physical love. A narrator is with his sweetheart and in the first ‘set up’ stanza: "She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;/ But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree." and in the second ‘consequence’ stanza: "She bid me take love easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;/ But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears." In The Collar-Bone of a Hare, he seems to celebrate free love: "...the best thing is / To change my loves while dancing / And pay but a kiss for a kiss." In Broken Dreams he sees a once beautiful old woman: "There is grey in your hair./ Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath/ When you are passing"

These poems have relatively simple rhyming schemes, often couplets. Later poems have more complex structures but Yeats throughout remains committed to rhyme and rhythm. The later poems begin to reference a classical education, talking of Leda and the Swan, and Helen of Troy.

There are also political poems. Yeats lived through (and knew the actors involved in) the Easter Uprising and the Civil War that gave birth to the modern Eire. There are poems that mourn and heroise the dead and there are poems that make clear the often indiscriminate savagery of fighting. For example, in An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, the eponymous airman protests that he isn’t flying because of law or duty and he knows that his “countrymen Kiltartan’s poor” will neither lose nor benefit from what he does but he is flying because he loves it. In Easter 1916 the narrator remembers seeing the ordinary men going to begin their rebellion:  "Coming with vivid faces/ From counter or desk among grey/ Eighteenth-century houses" and recognises that this is a moment of transformation: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." But in Meditations in time of civil war he observes: "Last night they trundled down the road /That dead young soldier in his blood" and in Nineteen hundred and nineteen the nightmare gets worse: 

Now things are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

Near the end Yeats has multiple references to the old man that he has become. He also starts using song structures, particularly with refrains. 

I think of all of it my favourite poem was Leda and the Swan. The sonnet is a fourteen pline poem written in iambic pentameters with a strict rhyming scheme which traditionally has love at its subject matter. This poem celebrates, in erotic language, the coupling of Leda, a woman, with Zeus in the form of a Swan; this led to Leda giving birth to an egg from which Helen of Troy is hatched who causes the devastating Trojan War. So this act of love causes multiple deaths. Thus Yeats has a thirteen line sonnet with the final line anattached and unrhymed, as if to demonstrate within the form itself that love has gone wrong. 
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush, 
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? 

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                     Being so caught up, 
So mastered by the brute blood of the air, 
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop

Immortal lines:
He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The Coming of Wisdom with Time
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

The second coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Among school children
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time

I thoroughly enjoyed this selection of great poetry and I thank my mate Fred for this introduction to a great poet. Fred's impeccable taste may be seen from the reviews of the other books he has lent to me:
The Fred Collection

  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
  • The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace: a true story of a world obsessed with tying feathers and the crime that this provoked
  • Amo, Amas, Amat ,,, and all that by Harry Mount: a book that tried but failed to encourage me to learn Latin
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: a Booker Prize winning novel narrated by ghosts
  • The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey: an informative yet readable introduction to the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.

March 2019

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

"Heroes" by Stephen Fry

This book was a birthday present from my wonderful step-daughter Alexa. It is a sequel to Mythos, which it often references.

Fry tells the story of the key Ancient Greek heroes: Perseus, the Labours of Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason and the Argonauts not to mention the wicked Medea, Atalanta, Oedipus and Theseus and the Minotaur. Fry writes with a beautifully simple, indeed elegant, narrative style and yet he brings an utterly alien world, in which the gods regularly intervene, to our modern sensibility by casting his heroes as real people with real personalities. Thus:

  • “Perseus had never believed his mother's wild story about Zeus coming to her as a shower of golden rain. He had taken it for granted that his real father was some itinerant musician or tinker whose name she had never discovered.”
  • Heracles "was, as we might say today, far from the brightest pixel on the screen.”
  • “Orpheus was the Mozart of the ancient world. He was more than that. Orpheus was the Cole Porter, the Shakespeare, the Lennon and McCartney, the Adele, Prince, Luciano Pavarotti, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar of the ancient world.”

At the same time Fry brings his customary erudition to bear with knowledgeable and insightful comments:

  • “Twins were forming in her womb, two sons - one fathered by Zeus and the other by Amphitryon. This phenomenon of polyspermy is common enough in littering mammals like cats, dogs, and pigs, but is rare in humans. Rare, but not unknown. It rejoices in the name heteropaternal superfecundation.”
  • “It is your fate to be Heracles the hero, burdened with labours, yet it is also your choice. You choose to submit to it. Such is the paradox of living. We willingly accept that we have no will.”
  • Hymen was the half brother of Orpheus. “A minor deity of song (he gave us the word ‘ hymn’) Hymen served as one of the Erotes (the young men in the love god Eros’s retinue), with a special responsibility for weddings and the marriage bed. Our words ‘hymen’ and ‘hymenal’ also derive from him.”
  • “Love came to peasants, kings and even gods. Love made all equal. Love deified, yet love levelled.”
  • “Human sacrifice, especially involving the young, was now looked on as barbaric, an unwanted legacy from the days when gods and men were crueler. But gods and men never lose their cruelty.”
  • “In a fight, do not do what you want to do, but what you judge your enemy least wants you to.”
  • “Their heroism, perhaps, derived from their ability to bring their mix of the human and the divine to bear against the grinding pressures of fate.”
  • “He may have been the first cruel, abusive and unfit parent to reclaim a child once they became famous or rich, but he would certainly not be the last.”
  • “Oedipus is a detective who employs all the fields of enquiry of which the Athenians were so proud - logic, numbers, rhetoric, order and discovery - only to reveal a truth that is disordered, shameful, transgressive and bestial.”

Heroes, like Mythos, has been a joy to read and I hope that Fry is hard at work preparing a third volume in the series, about the Trojan War and the Voyages of Odysseus. Please.

Brilliant perfection. March 2019; 415 pages

Sunday, 10 March 2019

"The Ancient Olympics" by Nigel Spivey

This is a book about the Olympic games as they were enacted at Olympia in Greece every four years for nearly a thousand years from, according to legend, 776 BC. Spivey compares the legend to written documents and archaeological records. Despite being a scholarly overview, Spivey's narrative is readable. Indeed, there are moments when he offers very contemporary insights, such as when he describes Achilles as "Achilles - whom no warrior at Troy can match in his capacity for multiple homicide” and suggests that the prizes at the funerary games in the Iliad include ”several pretty girls who can sew, and some useful lumps of pig-iron.

In chapter one he borrows a phrase from George Orwell who said that sport was “war minus the shooting”. He suggests that Nietzsche characterised the classical Greek age as one with a Hegelian zeitgeist involving ‘agon’, contest. Spivey traces this Greek lover of competition to Hesiod in 700 BC, a contemporary of Homer. Hesiod compared good strife (eris agathos) with bad strife (kakochartos): “Good Strife, born of a coupling between Zeus and the Night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth; Bad Strife set up lusts for battle and bloodshed. Good Strife nurtured desires for wealth and fame; Bad Strife was a destroyer of lives and property. Good Strife encouraged creative industry, stirring the energies of emulation.” The word ‘athlete’ seems to come from the Greek aethla or athla meaning ‘contests’ or ‘prizes’.

In chapter two Spivey tackles the idea that the Greeks saw athletics as a way for boys to look beautiful, and that this ideal of beauty was derived from the idea that they should be fit for war. He explores the homoerotic potential of the gym, especially when, as for the Greeks, gymnasium involves nudity: “nuditorium is how it literally translates”. He suggests that gyms were places where older men ogled “tautly toned teenagers, out of puberty but not yet using a razor” and that "it was a normal practice ... for a wrestler to tie a string knot around his foreskin, probably to inhibit the sudden awkwardness of an erect phallus.” Nevertheless, “Beyond war, beyond sex, lay the peculiar but pervasive Classic Greek belief that beauty was invested with morality; that to look good was necessarily also to be good.”

In chapter 3 Spivey explores the events. He suggests that the legend of a Sacred Truce was ... legendary but describes how athletes had to arrive a month beforehand to a place that was so unbearably hot in mid-August that in Roman times bad slaves used to be forced to spectate as a punishment. Before Roman times the facilities were even worse: “Illustrious figures travelling to Olympia from all around the Mediterranean were expected to pitch camp or sleep rough in fields.”

Spivey goes on to describe the events in the order in which they were run:
  • Chariot racing (in which it was the team owner who won the wreath, including the famous Alcibiades, Philip II of Macedon, and several ladies) and “bareback riding and riding without stirrups
  • Foot races (the single stade of about 200m, the double stade, and longer races up to about 2400 m) and the pentathlon which included “running, jumping, discus-throw, javelin-throw, and wrestling."
  • Wrestling, boxing (“Since no padded gloves were worn for a bout, only tightly wrapped leather thongs, serious damage might be inflicted ... The bronze head of a boxer recovered from Olympia displays the troughs and corrugations of a face repeatedly hit hard.”) and pankration (no-holds-barred fighting)
  • Full armour race.
Legend says that naked running started 720 BC when Orsippos from Megara lost his loin cloth but went on to win the stade race at which point Akanthos from Sparta discarded his loin cloth to win the two stade race.

In chapter 4, Spivey considers the rewards of victory. “The victor’s reward was a crown (stephanos)". Some scholars propose “that the primal origins of athletic contest should be located in rites of kingship or succession to a throne.” There were also jars of olive oil to be won; the first prize was worth in today's terms £50k. Finally there was the fame which professional athletes could translate into appearance fees of 30,000 drachmas. Star athletes had poems (especially odes by Pindar) written for them and statues made of them. But others could be envious:
When Theagenes died, one of these enemies came each night to flog his honorific statue, as if inflicting posthumous revenge. But the statue of Theagenes eventually fell off its pedestal, killing the assailant. The statue was then prosecuted, convicted on a charge of homicide, and ‘drowned’ in the sea as punishment.

And losers were lampooned. The opponents of Apis, a boxer, “set up a statue to him ‘because he never hurt anyone’” It was said of one Marcus, a contestant in the full armour race, that he was so slow that he “was locked in the stadium because the groundsmen mistakes him for a statue.

Chapter 5 is about the politics of contest. Spivey suggests that Greekness was a real concept. When a Macedonian king wanted to compete the judges had to decide whether he was Greek (they did). To start with Olympia was dominated by Peloponnesian athletes, later from the rest of Greece and eventually from far-flung Greek colonies such as Alexandria. But Greekness was not an ethnic thing; rather it used the test of language. “Hellenistic strictly implies only that Greek was used as a language of convenience by non-Greek peoples

The Olympics were sponsored. In the late stages Nero was a munificent benefactor to Olympia and Greek athletics in general and Herod the Great “rescued the sanctuary from financial straits by personally subsidizing the festival.” Furthermore, “the Olympic ‘trademark’ was franchised abroad by the Eleans.

Then Theodosius I prohibited pagan sanctuaries

Chapter 6 deals with the origins of Olympia. A founding myth of Olympia is that Pelops sought the hand of the daughter of Oinomaos who challenged every such suitor to a chariot race and killed the losers. Pelops persuaded Pelops’ charioteer to replace a bronze axle pin with one made of wax so that when it melted during the race the wheel came off and Oinomaos (and the cheating charioteer?) was killed. Thus the founding myth of Olympia involves cheating! However, “The archaeological record suggests that in its earliest phase as a sanctuary (c1000 - 750 BC), Olympia was no more than an occasional meeting-place frequented by local inhabitants.

This is a great book packed with fascinating information and written in an accessible way. I loved it.

Some more great quotes:
  • Implausibility, or the begrudged suspension of disbelief, is a modern demon. Once there were pilgrims for whom the loose ends of this story were not troublesome. What mattered to them was the myth’s essential security: it's clinging impingement upon the world.
  • Myths relate to truth as rainbows relate to the sun ... wondrous as they may seem, myths are the phenomena of history's atmosphere. For the Greeks, myths might be written up, dramatized, recited, and parodied; but ultimately, and originally, myths happened.
  • Some knowledge of ancient athletics was preserved through the Middle Ages in Europe by medical experts, dependent as they were upon the writings of Galen, one-time emergency surgeon to gladiators at Pergamon in Asia Minor, subsequently doctor to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century.
  • It was not with Homer but a copy of Tom Brown's Schooldays at his elbow that Coubertin conceived his dream of an Olympic renaissance.
March 2019; 256 pages

This book was loaned to me by my good friend Fred, even before he had finished reading it. Fred's impeccable taste may be seen from the reviews of the other books he has lent to me:
The Fred Collection
A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
The Song of Achilles a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace: a true story of a world obsessed with tying feathers and the crime that this provoked
Amo, Amas, Amat ,,, and all that by Harry Mount: a book that tried but failed to encourage me to learn Latin 
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: a Booker Prize winning novel narrated by ghosts

Spivey has also written How Art Made the World and Enduring Creation.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

"The Devil's Dice" by Roz Watkins

A debut crime thriller.

DI Meg Dalton starts a new job on the murder squad of a police force in the English Peak District. The body has eaten a cyanide-laced cake while sitting in a cave reading stoic philosophy. Is it suicide or murder? And how can there be a picture of the Grim Reaper carved into the cave wall, together with the initials of the dead man, which has been covered by plant growth for years?

A classic mystery with a thriller ending.

Watkins writes some beautiful descriptions of the setting:

  • “Fields sprinkled with disgruntled-looking sheep and edged with crumbling dry stone walls. A mist of evidence-destroying drizzle in the air.” (C 1)
  • “Georgian buildings crowded around a cobbled marketplace like teeth that needed braces.” (C 19) 
  • “A bunch of fluffy chickens marched over and gave me a bit of a talking to. They seemed to have something important on their minds.” (C 8)

She can also encapsulate mannerisms:
  • “I noticed my toes were curled in my shoes as if I was clutching the floor with them.” (C 3)
  • “I could smell the lie as it slithered out of my mouth.” (C 10)
  • “Jai flicked his head around briefly, then reverted to staring forwards in the manner of men forced to get naked near each other.” (C 40)
She has taken a typical group of characters and given them a new spin: 
  • The protagonist is a loner who lives off junk food and has demons in her background. She is attacked and injured at least three times during the book. Inevitably she is taken off the case but continues to investigate on her own.
  • Her 'partner' cop is Jai. He is a lapsed Sikh going through a divorce. He fidgets a lot. He too has vulnerabilities and he is a dreadful driver. In moments of extreme danger he is in the background but will lend a helping hand (literally) at the last moment.
  • Craig is the cop who gives her grief and seems to be angling for her job. He is racist and sexist and generally obnoxious but easily crushed by a witty riposte.

Other great lines:
  • “She judged other women according to a formula involving their husband’s earnings divided by their clothes size.” (C 18)
  • “It wasn't Imposter Syndrome after all. I really was incompetent.” (C 34)
  • “You're sweating like a paedo in a Santa suit.” (C 2)

March 2019; 328 pages

My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
    • Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
    • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.
    • Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
    • Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic: a murder mystery set in Australia in which the PI is deaf
    • The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal: classic Chandleresque Mexican noir
    • The Closer I get by Paul Burston

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse


Harry Haller (HH like the author) lives in a room in a boarding house with his books. He believes he is a warring mixture of two personalities: a man and a wolf from the steppes (Steppenwolf). “A wolf of the steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness.” Seeing and despairing of the mundanity of everyday life, he is brought to the brink of suicide. Then he discovers a door in a wall. This reminded me strongly of the opening of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Steppenwolf, the door is labelled: “Magic Theatre. Entrance not for everybody. ... For madmen only!”. Searching for the entrance to this Magic Theatre he discovers a book about himself.

He meets a girl, Hermine, who reminds him of his childhood friend Herman. She teaches him to dance and enjoy jazz. He meets Pablo, a charming and handsome jazz musician, and he begins an affair with a dancer. Then Pablo offers him drugs and the chance to enter the magic theatre.

Is this a novel of magic realism? Certainly strange things occur which cannot be rationally explained. It has some elements that might be described as Kafkaesque. But it also reminded me of Brechtian drama with its insistence on signposting what was unreal.

Steppenwolf is an exploration of what it means to be an Outsider in the Colin Wilson sense. (Wilson uses Steppenwolf as a key text.) Thus: 
  • He feels alienated from the everyday world:
    • “Wolfishly seen, all human activities became horribly absurd and misplaced, stupid and vain.”
    • “It had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man”
    • “There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for those bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out, on which everything only whispers and tiptoes around.”
    • “The majority of men day by day and hour by hour in their daily lives and affairs ... without really wanting to at all, pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain ... and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognising the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead, and the awful ambiguity grinning over it all.”
  • Rather than being a lonely outsider he seeks some sort of mystical union with the universe:
    • “I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart.”
    • “All births betoken the parting from the All, the confinement within limitation, the separation from God, the pangs of being born ever anew.”
    • “The intoxication of a general festivity, the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy ... My personality was dissolved in the intoxication of the festitivity like salt in water.”
  • The problem seems to be the idea that one's Self is a single self:
    • “It appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. ...in reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.”
    • “We demonstrate to anyone whose soul has fallen to pieces that he can rearrange those pieces of a previous self in what order he pleases, and so attain to an endless multiplicity of moves in the game of life.”
    • “I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket.”
    • There is an echo of this idea in The Biographer's Tale by A S Byatt

Some great observations:
  • “He was brought up by devoted but severe and very pious parents and teachers in accordance with that doctrine that makes the breaking of the will the corner-stone of education and up-bringing.”
  • “He who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.”
  • “Let every reader do as his conscience bids him.”
  • “Jazz was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day. For me too, its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of Instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality. ... It was the music of decline.”
  • “What we call ‘bourgeois’ ... is nothing else than the search for a balance. It is the striving after a mean between the countless extremes and opposites that arise in human conduct.”
  • “It is ...in the middle of the road, that's the Bourgeois seeks to walk. he will never surrender himself either to lust or to asceticism. ... The absolute is his abhorrence. He may be ready to serve God, but not by giving up the fleshpots.”
  • “The heroes of the epics of India are not individuals, but whole reels of individualities in a series of incarnations.”
  • “‘Supposing you were too obedient to learn to dance when you were young ... what have you been doing with yourself all these years?’
    • ‘... ‘studied, played music, read books, written books, travelled -’
    • ... ‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learnt. ... But to do as you do and then say you’ve tested life to the bottom and found nothing in it is going a bit far’.”
  • “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”
  • “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of superior things in your heads; but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we, too, have our dreams and fancies.”
  • “Life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and radio music.”
  • “Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death.”
  • “There flared within me a last burst of desire which made me run all over her garden, and I bit once more into the sweet fruit of the tree in paradise.”
  • “War is childishness on a grand scale.”
  • “From her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember.”

A profound and important book. March 2019; 252 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Friday, 1 March 2019

"A Boy's Own Story" by Edmund White

Six episodes in the growing-up of a homosexual. 'Cornholing' a younger boy, working for money to hire a rentboy, living in a hotel with mother and sister, having oral sex at summer camp, adoring the most popular boy at middle school, and seducing and betraying a teacher at boarding school.

There are three things that lift this book high into the stratosphere of literary greats. First there are the character portraits. White describes his mother and father and teachers and fellow students and all the other characters with enormous sympathy, chronicling their strengths and weaknesses, charting their complexities, and never ever descending into caricature. The father, for example, is a businessman who can't quite fit in'to the local social scene, who is easily hurt and a bit of a sissy, but who can talk baseball and do manly things such as building steps, who owns the speedboat but isn't at ease with it because he can't swim. He works all night and sleeps all day. He thinks 'love' is a word to be used by women, men 'like'. He has sex with one of his workers and then dismisses her but when his maid needs help he rushes to assist.

  • “We were both afraid of the water, he because he couldn't swim, I because I was afraid of everything.”
  • “He throbbed with the pressure to contend, to be noticed, to be right, to win, to make others bend to his will.”
  • “Naive and proud at the time of her divorce, she wanted to conserve money but also maintain a good address. She decided the three of us should live in that expensive hotel in one furnished room with twin beds, my sister and I taking turns sleeping on the floor.”
  • “My mother was a tedious Penelope weaving her tales and tearing them up.”
  • “I, who thought only of survival, had no interest in philosophical questions. The proximate ones were enough to obsess me, not as things I choose to contemplate, but as decisions rushing up at me as out of oncoming traffic. These were the things I thought about: Am I boring Tommy? Mill he mind if I rest my elbow on his shoulder? Should I powder my white bucks or keep the scuff marks? How low should I let my jeans ride?”
  • “There was nothing about this actor that couldn't be read from the top balcony.”

The second feature of this book is the insight it offers into the human condition. Some of this is from the perspective of a boy who will grow up gay in a society that considers homosexuality as a disease, a weakness, a failing: “I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness. In fact, I took it as a measure of how unsparingly objective I was that I could contemplate this very sickness.” But other aspects are more general comments on life:

  • “He hadn’t invented another life; this one seemed good enough.”
  • “I feel sorry for a man who never wanted to go to bed with his father; when the father dies, how can his ghost get warm except in a posthumous embrace? For that matter, how does the survivor get warm?” 
  • “The price of freedom - total solitude - seemed more than I could possibly pay.”
  • “That was the secret of the imagination - its creations were feeble only to the maker but stronger than life itself to the observer.”
  • “All of our daddy's dollars were casters on which the furniture of our lives glided noiselessly.”
  • “Busoni once said he prized the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one ‘good part’ to another. He said such workmanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer - the actual vernacular of his imagination - then the deliberately bravura moments.”
  • “Someone who seemed not at all eager to confide in me or seek my friendship or even comments, as though he recognised that this life, at least, was worth enduring only if it remained unexamined.”
  • “She taught me that the loneliness I felt like a bad burn could be soothed. I most certainly had been lonely. I had ached and writhed with loneliness, twisting around and smearing it on me as though it were a tissue of shame pouring out of my body: shameful, familiar, the fell of shame.”
  • “Under my sister's tutelage I learnt that love or at least friendship must be coaxed, that there are skills ( listening, smiling, remembering, flattering) that lure it closer.”
  • “When I was growing up I had never glimpsed the underbrush of kid society that lay just behind the topiary of the classroom. .... Nor did I suspect some kids saw each other every day after school, saw and saw each other strolling under a shifting leaf spray of social life and sexual shadows.”
  • “Except when he sang. Then he was free, that is, constrained by the ceremony of performance, the fiction that the entertainer is alone, that he is expressing grief or joy to himself alone.”
  • “If the Devil were listless, if he were a pale man in his underwear who watched television by day behind closed venetian blinds - oh, if that were the Devil I would fear him.”
  • “We were Shadows, like the dead after Orpheus passes them on his way through the Underworld, after this living man vanishes and the last sound of his music is lost to the incoming silence. All my life I've made friends and lost lovers and talked about these two activities as though they were very different, opposed; but in truth love is the direct and therefore hopeless method of calling Orpheus back, whereas friendship is the equally hopeless because irrelevant attempt to find warmth in other shades. Odd that in the story Orpheus is lonely too.”
  • “Because I loved her she was opaque to me.”
  • “The world is governed by a minority, the sexually active, ... they hold sway over a huge majority of the nonsexual, those people too young or too old or too poor or homely or sick or crazy or powerless to be able to afford sexual partners ... All advertisements and films and songs are addressed to sexuals, to their rash whims and finicky tastes, but these communications cleverly ignore nonsexuals, those pale, penniless, underdeveloped bodies, blue nipples flung like two test drops of ink from a new pen across the blotting paper of a chest, or high, hairless buttocks, unmolded by hands into something lovely, something enticing, left pure and formless like butcher’s lard.”
  • “‘Just because you feel something is no reason to act on it’, the priest said. ‘Americans hold up their feelings as though they were ... dispensations’.”

But the feature of this book that simply blew my mind away was the description. White's descriptions of sex and fearlessly honest and yet not in the least tacky. His descriptions of the world are lush and gorgeous and yet precise, like a Caravaggio.

  • “Squeals, breathing, a tussle. then release, followed by the sound of two boys just being.” 
  • “His breath smelled of milk. His hands and feet were cold. ... His back and chest and legs were silky and hairless ... A thin layer of baby fat still formed a pad under his skin. Beneath the fat I could feel the hard, rounded muscles.” 
  • “That such a tough, muscled little guy, whose words were so flat and eyes so without depth or humour, could be so richly taken - oh, he felt good. ... Here he was, pushing this tendoned, shifting pleasure back into me, the fine hair on his neck damp with sweat just above the hollows the sculptor had pressed with his thumbs into the clay.”
  • “The night, intent seamstress, fed the fabric of water under the needle of our hull, steadily, firmly, except the boat wasn't stitching the water together but ripping it apart into long white shreds.”
  • “A world so sensitive, like a grand piano, that even a step or a word could awaken vibrations in its taut strings.”
  • “One opulent drop of water rolled down his high, compact chest into the hollow between his nipples, the right one still small and white from the cold, the left fuller and just beginning to color. The other drops were not so heavy; studying his body impressionistically with light, they didn't move; they slowly evaporated.”
  • “As the sun, like life returning to a body, stole over the world, the beam from my father's flashlight grew less and less distinct until it had been absorbed in the clarity of something that was new yet again.”
  • “I looked up at a face sprouting brunet sideburns that swerved inward like cheese knives toward his mouth and stopped just below his ginger mustaches. The eyes, small and black, had been moistened genially by the beers he'd drunk.”
  • “As the bottle slowly empties, its brown liquid, like kerosene fuel in a lamp, radiates, in words and more words, the intense heat of despair.”
  • “Folk songs in need of a pitch pipe.”
  • “The sound of a voice choking on its own phlegm.”
  • “The path I took girdled the hills that rimmed the lake; at one point it dipped and crossed a bog that looked solid and dry, planted innocently in grasses, but that slurped voluptuously under my shoes.”
  • “The sun solemnly withdrew into its tent of cloud, disappointed with the world.”
  • “ I could see Tom’s muscles like forked lightning on his taut stomach; here was this boy so handsome and free and well liked and here were we flanking him, looking up at him, at the torso flowering out of the humble calyx of his jeans.”
  • “Mr Beattie was brushing his right hand back and forth over his crew cut. He seemed to be concentrating on this job, getting the feel of those soft quills against his palm.”

This is writing as appetising and fulfilling as a carefully crafted meal at a top-class restaurant. I am in awe of someone who can write so beautifully. Wow!

February 2019; 218 pages