Thursday, 30 September 2010

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart 2010)

Set in three parts, 'In a Strange Room' is a work of meta-fiction mixing old fashioned story telling with travelogue in a way very reminiscent of WG Sebald. The stories see the narrator (also an author named Damon) travelling first in Lesotho then throughout central Africa and finally in India. We see him interacting with an unusual rather emotionless dark German figure called Reiner with whom he goes walking, then with a group of Europeans travelling north together through Africa and then with a unstable friend hell-bent on killing herself.

The book takes its title from the William Faulkner quotation "in a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep" and if there is a theme that connects the three stories it is the discomfort that quote speaks to, for the book is a disquisition on uneasiness. Whether it is the hint of unexpressed homosexual desire, the awkwardness involved in being in a group that one has no connection or history with or of facing a traumatic situation in a country that is not just foreign to you but whose social norms are so wildly different from those of the country you call your home. First published as three short stories in the magazine Paris Review you could be forgiven for worrying that the book would be disconnected but that is really not a problem as the themes that connect the stories are so strong. The character Damon doesn't just find himself in uncomfortable situations, he is a character who is ill at ease with the world forcing him to move from place to place.

It is a short novel coming in at only 180 pages and Galgut plays a bit fast and loose with his punctuation but this has been one of the best books I've read in a long while. It stands, in my opinion, easily heads and shoulders above the other Booker shortlist novels I've read so far. I'm not sure how to rate its chances for success because whilst this type of novel is particularly suited to my tastes, I'm not sure how widely popular it would be. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Hamish Hamilton 2010)

Set in the Jamaica of the early nineteenth century, the Long Song is the memoir of Miss July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation. July is plucked from her mother as a young child by Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the master of the plantation, to be her attendant up at the house where she is renamed Marguerite. When rumour spreads that the King of England has freed all the slaves of Jamaica, the Baptist Revolt begins. Retribution from the plantation owners is swift and violent but the path to freedom  is too far advanced.

When Caroline's brother dies, the English and devoutly religious Robert Goodwin comes into the fray. After falling in love (or in lust) for Miss July, he marries Caroline so he can keep July close and the love triangle begins. However, Robert's abolitionist principles are put sorely to the test when his interest change from humanitarian to business and one soon sees that the end of slavery only worked to move the black population of Jamaica from a legal bondage to an economic one.

The story is supposed to be one of a woman with a big character who overcomes some rather extreme adversity and passes plain spoken judgement on a rather dark period of history but I don't feel that July's character was developed well enough to bring about the requisite empathy required of the reader. Her escapades throughout the book make you cast doubt on her moral centre, and okay she is a slave with little or no education but how are you supposed to feel concern for a character that you aren't convinced enough to even like? There are moments of humour and moments of pretty graphic violence but the lack of connection with the main character makes you watch it all as a pretty disinterested observer.


Saturday, 18 September 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins 2010)

Based roughly on the case of Josef Fritzl who incarcerated and repeatedly raped his daughter Elisabeth, Room tells the story of a woman, kidnapped at the age of 19 by Old Nick and held in captivity over a number of years. Told from the point of view of her five year old son Jack, 'Room' is essentially Jack's universe where everything that exists outside of the sphere of his physical experience is 'TV'. That is until one day 'Ma' learns that 'Old Nick' has been made redundant and she realises that the relative status quo of her past existence in 'Room' has the chance of coming to an abrupt end were the house to fall into foreclosure and so she has to escape one way or another.

Did I mention the fact that the narrative came from Jack, the five year old boy? If I repeat myself it's because that it is something that needs to be seriously driven home. No matter how intelligent or how wide the vocabulary of a child of five years, he is still only five and 300 pages is a long time to go in the mind, as it were, of a five year old. At first this narrative style annoyed me to the stage that my teeth ached and even after I grew somewhat accustomed to it as the book went on, I was glad to be finished. The concept of the book is pretty morbid but there is lots of scope there for examining the impact of such a traumatic life experience on the characters not to mention how one would go about child-rearing under such extreme circumstances so it is understandable that a novel has been written on the subject however the narrative is so important to any novel that it simply shouldn't be left to a five year old to carry all by themselves.

My first reaction to this book was a violent dislike and from working in a book shop I know that quite a few people have given up on this book early on, probably people who were equally put off by the childish voice introducing them to the world of Room. I started to warm to it as events unfolded (something I didn't forsee at the outset) and I will concede that this is quite an original book on a very difficult subject and told, and developed in an intelligent way (even if it would not be the way I'd do it). Room has also been subject of many laudatory reviews and is a front-runner for the Booker Prize. This is where I start to get a sense of deja vu; here we have a book I didn't particularly like but that was loved by the critics and is also favourite with the bookies. If it does go on to win this will be exactly what happened with Wolf Hall last year! Although whereas I wanted AS Byatt's 'Children's Book' to win last time round, there has been none of the short listed books leap out of the list at me as particularly worthy winners this year but as I'm only half way through the list I shall put off my wailing and lambasting the state of modern fiction, well, at least till I've read another one.

The narrative let it down for me:

Sunday, 12 September 2010

C by Tom McCarthy

C by Tom McCarthy (Knopf Canada 2010)

C is for Serge Carrefax who is, I guess, what passes for the hero in this tale of the son of a wealthy family whose patriarch runs a school that teaches deaf children how to speak. Set in the early 1900s the book is split into four sections that deal with his adolescence and his intense relationship with his sister, his teenage years at a spa in Central Europe to treat his unexplained build up of what historically would have been called black bile, his young adulthood as a spotter/navigator in the budding air force of the First World War and finally his life in Egypt as the representative of the murky Empire Wireless Chain scrambling to deal with an country in the throes of a struggle for independence.

If C is for Carrefax then it is also for communication as a strong theme that runs through the novel. As a child Serge is fascinated by CB radio, tracking the beeps and background noises he picks up on the waves. His father is also interested in communications and as he experiments with an ammeter he believes that the world reverberates to the echoes of past conversations and thoughts, what he believes makes up white noise and that if it was possible to isolate the individual strands of thought and expression then one might be able to listen to the words Jesus said on the cross.

Tom McCarthy is an unusual author whose own pretensions to avant-gardism and involvement in the semi-fictional (whatever that might mean) group the International Necronautical Society makes me think he is either an interesting and boundary pushing author or someone whose head has been sucked in by the vortex created in the general area of his backside. This is certainly not a book without flaws as the plotting is patchy and the last quarter is disappointing, ending on more of a whimper than a bang. However there are some interesting scenes such as one early on where Serge and his sister start playing an early version of Monopoly then take to making it a physical game played around their estate and finally one of the imagination directed from their bird's eye view of their grounds up in the attic of the house.

McCarthy has previously written about Tintin and aspects of C hearken back to Herge's creation but given the post-modern treatment. Serge's character whilst at school studying architecture has troubles drawing buildings with any perspective and so creates a portfolio made entirely of top-down plans and that is very reflective of a character who has little depth. As booker prize prospects go I would be tempted to put my money on this one to win (although my previous selection didn't even make it into the shortlist) as the strongest of the picks I've read so far despite the problems I've found with the book but there is the chance that the judges might think it too inaccessible generally to be a suitable pick.

Interesting if not flawed:

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Random House 2010)

Parrot is the son of a journeyman printer and apprentice engraver whose master, Mr Watkins, appears to die in a fire set by the owner of a publishing house on the discovery by local officials that the particular skills of Watkins have been used in producing forged currency, a crime punishable by death. On the run he meets a one-armed Frenchman, the enigmatic and mysterious Tilbot, in whose services he travels first to Australia, then to France and finally to America to provide assistance to Olivier.

Olivier is essentially a re-imagining of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the son of a noble family who managed to avoid the guillotine during the reign of terror. On finding himself snubbed as the Bourbons return to the throne following the July Revolution, Olivier's father fears for his son's safety and so with Tilbot's help Olivier's mother arranges for him to travel to America ostensibly on behalf of the French government to undertake a survey of the American Penal system but what he writes is a book on the people and institutions of the budding democracy.

If any of this sounds complicated then I can assure you that this is very much a simplification of what is a sometimes irritatingly convoluted book. The narrative goes back and forwards between the two main protagonist  as the old world invades the new and there are some very telling judgements made on the culture, political institutions and the nature and social etiquette of the people of the new democracy and as an Englishman living in Canada it has made think a lot about the differences of living in a nation that still has some notions of aristocratic entitlement as compared with a nation when essentially anyone can reach the heights that come with public office, especially when one has money to grease the wheels.

Peter Carey I think had a great theme for his novel and there is in evidence some first rate research and one can almost see the 18th century America through de Tocqueville's ever widening eyes however he didn't really seem to have thought up a story to match his vision and as the story meanders its way with little or no conclusion at the end one can't help but feel that the plot was made up on the fly, so to speak. There are some great set-pieces but they don't do enough to rescue the book from its faults. I don't think Parrot and Olivier in America deserves to be short-listed for the Booker and it is definitely not strong enough to win.

Great idea but the plot let it down


Saturday, 28 August 2010

February by Lisa Moore

February by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press 2010)

On 15th February 1982 an offshore rig, the Ocean Ranger, whilst drilling an exploration well off the east coast of Newfoundland, sank in bad weather killing all 84 crew aboard. Their mayday call was picked up by the back-up vessel the Seaforth Highlander who were ill-prepared to deal with a rescue in such weather conditions and in the end they were left to watch the crew in the water succumb to hypothermia and drown.

In February 1982 Cal, the husband of Helen the main and unlikely protagonist of the novel, is aboard the Ocean Ranger. Helen has three children and is pregnant with a fourth at the time of the accident and as the story bounces backwards and forwards in time one soon grasps that there are three narrative threads in play. The first is of Helen's grief, contemporaneous with the accident and in the decades that follow. How she has to raise four children by herself and how she tries to learn every little detail about the sinking of the rig; she likes to imagine Cal playing cards when the Ocean Ranger goes down, she doesn't like to think of him knowing too long before and have to suffer the panic. Helen is also persuaded by her sister to renovate her house and the stirring of her physical and emotional desires by the continuing presence of Barry, Helen's carpenter forms the second thread.

Finally her son John followed Cal's footsteps into the oil industry first by working in the pipelines looking for weaknesses that could lead to leaks. John soon moves into a job as an advisor to the industry whose main role is to increase efficiency by making recommendations to discard unnecessary or redundant safety procedures, many of which came into force following the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. John's work requires a substantial amount of international travel and on a work trip in Iceland he meets and unknowingly impregnates a fellow Canadian traveller bringing up questions of whether he wants to inflict the effect of an absent father onto another generation.

As you can imagine of a work where grief takes centre stage, this is a very sad book and it makes you fear ever having to be in the situation of losing such a close loved one so well before their rightful time. There are moments of comic relief as middle-aged spread meets Yoga head-on but the over-arching spirit of the book is sombre and introspective. It is undoubtedly well-written as Moore brilliantly examines the nuances of love and loss. Having said that, I don't see February making it through to the Booker shortlist and whilst these may be tired criticisms of Moore, February is perhaps a little too feminine and a little too Canadian to have a wide enough appeal that the Booker usually requires.

I don't think I was the target audience for this one.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Knopf Canada 2010)

Jacob de Zoet is a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company stationed in Dejima, a small trading post near Nagasaki in the closed and highly secretive Japan of the 18th century. The port is effectively Japan's only conduit to the outside world and the Westerners are treated with great suspicion, spies are everywhere and Christianity is forbidden. When Jacob falls in love with Orito, midwife and assistant to the grouchy Dr Marinus, he is pulled into the murk and mire that is the politics of a closed feudal society. Things take a turn for the worse when Orito is purchased by a darkly powerful Lord Abbot and emprisoned in his shrine at Mount Shiranui.

David Mitchell is known for playing around with narrative structure as with his excellent book Cloud Atlas and in this book he manages to create instantly distinguishable voices for the Dutch and the Japanese and when the British, who had been fighting on and off with the Dutch for a couple of centuries, finally arrive on the scene, their entrance is felt as that of an alien nation. His prose is, however,  far from perfect and there are devices he uses which pop-up with annoying regularity. For instance Mitchell likes to describe two things at once almost as a way of creating  a feel of momentum and so there are conversations that take place during a card game, during a game of billiards, during an execution and so on with alternating lines between the different narratives and it's repeated use began to irk me. Also Mitchell's prose verges on the poetic which is perfectly okay but when towards then end of the novel, a description of Japan descends into actual rhyme it is pretty painful.

The novel crosses the boundaries of style, it is a love story, it is partly adventure, partly disturbing fantasy and there is a great deal of mystery to it and the book takes a very dark turn which isn't foretold by the opening chapters. It is, however, at heart a historical fiction and very well researched at that and as with AS Byatt's Children's Book which made the shortlist last year, one can't tell whether the book idea gave rise to the research of whether the book itself became just a vessel for displaying the research. If I was in Britain I would put a tenner on Mitchell winning the booker not because I think it's going to be the best book of the bunch (I'm far too early into my reading to make that kind of estimation) but because I think having been nominated and lost twice already, the judges may feel it is time to reward Mitchell for his course of work rather than for this novel in particular.

It is an interesting book but I wouldn't call it a classic.


The Booker Prize 2010 Challenge

Last year Kristine and I challenged ourselves to read the shortlist of the booker prize as way of prompting us to read more contemporary fiction. I read five of the six and whilst I didn't think I read anything that could ever achieve classic status it was a very interesting experiment to capture a snapshot of current literary trends so why not make it a yearly thing?

This year's longlist was announced on 27th July. The aptly named Booker's dozen are:

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue - Room
Helen Dunmore - The Betrayal
Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy - The Long Song
Tom McCarthy - C
David Mitchell - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Lisa Moore - February
Paul Murray - Skippy Dies
Rose Tremain - Trespass
Christos Tsiolkas - The Slap
Alan Warner - The Stars in the Bright Sky

My early hunch is that one of the usual suspects will win. Either the twice denied but greatly lauded David Mitchell will be rewarded for his course of work or Peter Carey will break the records and win a third Booker prize or perhaps, having just rewarded historical fiction last year with Hilary Mantel's Tudor tome Wolf Hall,  they will take a look at the more avant garde Tom McCarthy.

I can't promise to read them all before the winner is announced but I will read as many titles as I can. Keep an eye out for the reviews.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses: Annotated Students Edition by James Joyce (Penguin Classics 2000)

Last month saw an article in the Guardian regarding some comments made by Gabriel Josipovici, former professor of comparative literature at Oxford University. The thrust of his argument was that the works of the current batch of lauded English novelists are the hollow works of 'prep-school boys showing off'. To quote him in full he said "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation -- Martin Amis, McEwan -- leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world'.

 Josipovici argues that Lawrence Sterne is still far more avant garde than the current self-proclaimed avant garde are. 'An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration'. For all the knowledge of technique they produce books that follow established plot-lines and in the end leave us unaffected because at heart they really have nothing to say.

You can choose whether to agree with Josipovici and it probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that he has a book coming out and so would profit from some timely but controversial words however I will say that there is nothing around now that can challenge Joyce for his ingenuity or inventiveness. Take David Mitchell's much lauded 'Cloud Atlas' for instance, for all his quoting of Nietzsche, his episodic structure and his thin and ultimately trivial connections between the unconnected he cannot offer up the dish of intertextuality or inventiveness of the narrative form that takes place in Ulysses.

Joyce too was frustrated with the state of literature in Ireland at the time he wrote, so much so that it drove him to continental Europe, to Paris and Trieste. He left a country, the servant of two masters (England its colonial master and Italy, its spiritual master), a country trying to muster up some semblance of national pride with a rebirth of Celtic ideals; Joyce also saw the dangers of the new nationalism inspired by people like Yeats and Synge and these ideas are parodied throughout Ulysses.

It is interesting to note that in the current batch of books longlisted for the booker prize that there is no place for Amis or McEwan or Rushdie so perhaps Josipovici is correct but I will also bet you that within the Booker's dozen there will be no author who breaks ground like Joyce did and I think we are all the worse off for it.


Monday, 19 July 2010

Talking of Joyce by Umberto Eco and Liberato Santoro-Brienza

Talking of Joyce by Umberto Eco and Liberato Santoro-Brienza (University College Dublin Press 1998)

As of now I am only a third of the way through my elephantine edition  of Ulysses which stands at over 1,200 pages so I decided to fit in this small and rather interesting volume of literary criticism on the works of James Joyce.'Talking of Joyce' is a collection of lectures one by Umberto Eco on Joyce's search for the perfect language given at University College Dublin on 31st October 1991, on the anniversary of that institutions conferral upon Joyce of his Bachelor of Arts and one given four years later by Liberato Santoro-Brienza on Joyce's position in the Italian literary tradition.

Umberto Eco's lecture entitled 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Bachelor' argues that the unique seminal idea of Joyce's career was to pursue  grammar as 'the primary science. The rest of his life was devoted to the invention of a new grammar, and his quest for artistic truth became the quest for a perfect language'. He draws upon the Book of Kells, an example of the labyrinthine Hisperic aesthetics, as an influence on Joyce. "The book is a luscious vegetation of interlace, of stylised animal  forms, of small simian figures amidst impossible foliage that covers page after page...the book is the lucid vertigo of a language that is trying to redefine the world while redefining itself, with the full realisation that - in a dark and uncertain age - the key to the revelation of the world is not to be found in a straight line but rather within the labyrinth".

Umberto Eco suggests that, for Joyce, the key to his aesthetic theory is not trying to find some pre-Babelic language, the language with which Adam spoke to God but pursuing a language that delights in imperfect complexity. 'To understand that human languages are open,  imperfect and capable of begetting that supreme imperfection that we call poetry,  constitutes the only aim of any quest for perfection'.

Liberato Santoro-Brienza views Joyce's literary output as a dialogue between Joyce, Aquinas, Dante, Bruno, Vico and Svevo and he traces all the veiled and not so veiled references to these authors in his works, most interesting are the links to Vico and Svevo. Giambattista Vico, the Italian philosopher, traced historical development in his Scienzia Nuova as a series of cycles, the Divine, the Heroic and the Human.When Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake he divided it into four cycles, three long and one short, three representing each of Vico's cycle and the fourth being a reflux that draws the book back to the beginning again. Finnegan's Wake is essentially a dialogue between Joyce and Vico and demonstrates 'Vico's and Joyce's treatment of language. Joyce was acutely aware of living in an age which had witnessed the abnihilsation of the etym and he believed it was the job of the artist to build a new world of language out of the ruins of the old'. And so when the Danish author Tom Kristensen needed help with Finnegan's wake, Joyce instructed him to first read Vico.

Joyce's relationship with the author Italo Svevo is enlightening when it comes to understanding the character Leopold Bloom from Ulysses. A 25 year old Joyce met the middle-aged Svevo when the latter required English lessons to help him with some business venture that had led him to open up shop in the UK. The Jewish Svevo had two published novels already but to little renown or praise and Joyce was able to use his connections in Trieste and Paris to greatly increase his reputation and Svevo was to remain Joyce's only true author/friend. The relationship between the two closely echoes the relationship between the mature Jewish Leopold Bloom and the naive, fresh from university Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses with 'Svevo's maturer, objective,  peaceable temper reacting upon the young man's fiery mantle'.

The lectures are by two Italians in English about an Irish author who preferred speaking in Italian and speaking as someone with Italian heritage it was rather charming reading about Joyce's relationship with Italy by two people who with a sense of camaraderie refer to him as Jim. Reading Joyce is a mixture of pure joy at such ingenious structure in the face of chaos and frustration as one attempts to see the wood for the trees. Reading books like 'Talking of Joyce' both act to increase one's wonder at the genius of Joyce's creation and give me a keen sense of my own ignorance for all that I don't see in his works. However Joyce probably wouldn't be so hard on me because in recognising the complexity of his own text he said that to understand it fully you would need to be an 'ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia'.

This is a small book so don't expect to find all the answers to help you unlock the secrets of Joyce's labyrinthine texts but it will give you an italianate slant on the Irish hero.

Definitely worth a read.


Sunday, 4 July 2010

Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco

Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose (Cambridge University Press 1992)

In 1990, Umberto Eco was invited by Cambridge University to give the annual Tanner Lecture. He chose for his topic the somewhat academically contentious area of literary interpretation or rather the question of whether one can set limits to the range of what a text can be said to mean. Over the course of three lectures Eco tries to establish that, whilst it may not be possible to prove which of any competing interpretations is correct, one may be able to point out those interpretations which are perhaps unfounded. Following the three lectures are responses by Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose with a final reply to his critics by Eco although in this review I shall focus upon Eco's lectures..

In his first lecture on 'interpretation and history' Eco traces the history of Hermetic tradition in interpretation dating back from the dialogues of Hermes Trismegistus (one of my favourite names from philosophy, Trismegistus meaning thrice wise). He shows how, if we accept Hermetic thought, interpretation is essentially endless. "A plant is not defined in terms of its morphological and functional characteristics but on the basis of its resemblance, albeit only partial, to another element in the cosmos. If it is vaguely like part of the human body, then it has meaning because it refers to the body. But that part of the body has meaning because it refers to a star, and the latter has meaning because it refers to a musical scale, and this in turn because it refers to a hierarchy of angels, and so on ad infinitum'. Essentially a text would never have meaning because each interpretation could lead to another leaving the text as a meaningless shell. If we reject this theory, he argues, we arrive at the conclusion that a text has meaning. We are "not entitled to say that the message can mean everything. It can mean many things, but there are senses which it would be preposterous to suggest". This is the theme he takes up in his second lecture.

Overinterpreting texts is the subject of the second lecture and Eco starts by listing the ways in which images or words can be connected, the very basis of semiosis, by similitude, by homonymy, by irony, by sign and so on. Similarity is important for interpretation because 'the interpreter has the right and the duty to suspect that what one believed to be the meaning of a sign is in fact the sign for a further meaning'. However, as Eco puts it, 'the passage from similarity to semiosis is not automatic'.  In other words if a text suggests something to you by means of similarity does not mean to say that it is a valid or useful interpretation of the text. Eco shows how Gabriele Rossetti's attempt to interpret Dante in the light of Masonic-Rosicrucian symbolism is ill-fated as he goes in search of a pelican and a rose. "Rossetti, in his desperate and rather pathetic fowling, could find in the divine poem seven fowls and eleven birds and ascribe them all to the pelican family: but he would find them all far from the rose". Rossetti's interpretation had another pitfall to overcome, that he was looking for symbolism that was not conceived until after Dante had written his Divine Comedy.

In the third lecture Eco poses the question of whether 'we should still be concerned with the empirical author of a text', his rather surprising answer is not really. Taking an example from his own work The Name of the Rose, in the trial scene William is asked 'What terrifies you most in purity?' and he responds 'haste'. On the same page 'Bernard Gui, threatening the cellarer with torture, says 'Justice is not inspired by haste, as the Pseudo Apostles believe, and the justice of God has centuries at its disposal'. A reader asked Umberto Eco what connection he had meant to establish 'between the haste feared by William and the absence of haste extolled by Bernard. The answer was that the author had intended no connection but that the text had created its effects whether he wanted them or not.

The responses are interesting. Richard Rorty, ever the pragmatist argues that interpretations are essentially pointless and what is more important is how we use and enjoy literature. Jonathan Culler attacks Eco's notion of overinterpretation and takes up his example of Rossetti's Dante interpretation arguing that it is in fact underinterpretation as Rossetti had been following false leads rather than positing valid interpretations of the material that was actually there. Finally Christine Brooke-Rose rather side-steps the debate with a lecture on Palimpsest history.

It is certainly an interesting debate and Eco makes his arguments with his usual charm and good humour (I would love to see him talk). Sadly it appears that Eco's respondents were not supplied with his lectures in advance which meant that Rorty's response was to an earlier piece by Eco in which he put forward a different argument and Brooke-Rose was off-topic nearly altogether but the most interesting aspect of the book is Eco himself. His general principle is spot on, there definitely has to be scope for determining the degree to which any given interpretation is valid. He is also right in suggesting that once a text has been created that it takes upon a life independent of its empirical author therefore any appeal to the author for a 'correct interpretation' is not strictly valid.

I also agree with Jonathan Culler that this framework should not be used to discourage the search for meaning in texts. "At the beginning of his second lecture Umberto Eco linked overinterpretation to what he called an 'excess of wonder'...this deformation professionelle, which inclines critics to puzzle over element is a text, seems to me, on the contrary, the best source of insights into language and literature that we seek, a quality to be cultivated rather than shunned'. Basically I'm saying feel free to interpret texts any way you like but I reserve the right to say that you've overinterpretted.

In sum, the book would have been better if all speakers were singing from the same hymn sheet although what does get said is very interesting.


Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The White Rose by Inge Scholl

The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943 by Inge Scholl (Wesleyan University Press 1983)

The White Rose was a group of intellectuals in Munich who began an ill-fated campaign of resistance against the Nazi authorities. Led by Hans and Sophie Scholl (brother and sister of the author) the group included fellow medical students Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and their professor of philosophy Kurt Huber. Over a period of nine months between June 1942 and February 1943 they wrote, printed and scattered six leaflets advocating active resistance and sabotage and calling for an end to the mass slaughter of the Jews.

"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be 'governed' without oppositions by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil  has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure - reaches the light of day".

Sophie and Hans Scholl, and Crisoph Probst were captured when distributing their sixth and final leaflet. Spotted by the custodian of the university they had targeted, the Gestapo were informed and the trio were quickly apprehended. At first they insisted upon their innocence but they soon, and independently of each other, tried to take the entire ownership of the whole enterprise to try and save as many of their collaborators as possible. Brought before the People's Court before the notorious judge Roland Freisler and charged with high treason they stood little chance. After being lectured by Judge Freisler all three were sentenced to death. Sophie was offered a deal that neither Hans nor Cristoph were, were she to recant her beliefs she would be spared the guillotine but she declined the offer, instead she was to be executed first as an act of kindness, the Gestapo officers knowing that at that stage the waiting was the worst part.

The book was written in 1947 aimed at children from thirteen to eighteen. Aimed at children who had grown up in the Hitler Youth, "children who at that time were asking their parents, 'How was it possible for you to be taken in by the Nazis? It was written also for those of their elders who were ready to face up to their past". As well as a description of the events, the book contains transcripts of all six leaflets, the indictment for the People's Court, court transcripts and the death sentences. The message of the book is that what these kids did was important. Their resistance was short lived and other than a small group in Hamburg who redistributed the materials of the White Rose, their deeds did not inspire the mass popular resistance they desired. What it did do was give people hope. The deeds of the White Rose were heard about in the concentration camps and on the Eastern Front. Thomas Mann on his German language radio station in the States talked about their deeds in 1943 and German prisoners of war held in Russia used their example and wrote leaflets of their own campaigning for a Germany free of Nazi oppression.

Clive James dedicated his book Cultural Amnesia to Sophie Scholl and much of his essay of Sophie goes in to something of a boyish crush on Natalie Portman (whom Clive James believes would be the perfect actress for Sophie were Hollywood ever to be trusted with telling the story). Talking about the bravery of Sophie he remarks "She was probably a saint. Certainly she was noble in her behaviour beyond any standard that we, in normal life, would feel bound to attain or even comfortable to encounter. Yet the world would undoubtedly be a better place if Sophie Scholl were a household name like Anne Frank, another miraculous woman from the same period."

The uncomfortable question the book asks is of us. It ask us whether we would be brave enough to do as Sophie Scholl did in the full knowledge that their efforts would lead their death. Sadly I think for most of us, the best we can do is admire the deeds of the White Rose with the knowledge that we wouldn't be able to equal them.

Very inspiring!


Monday, 21 June 2010

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James (Picador 2007)

Growing up in Britain in the Eighties and Nineties I used to watch the Australian presenter interviewing celebrities on ITV in the Clive James show amongst other things. The show featured the bizarre Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan, whom I believe Clive James (CJ) discovered in a New York department shore, and who would give unbelievably tone-deaf and Hispanically inspired renditions of pop songs, not quite high culture. Nothing of that show led me to realise that CJ harboured a secret, that he was and still is an incredibly intelligent polymath.

Cultural Amnesia is the result of many, many years of wide reading and the scribbling of notes in the margins (as well as copious underlinings and end notes). Alphabetically ordered, the book deals with over 100 writers, poets, philosophers, film directors, musicians and talk-show hosts ranging from Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Josef Goebbels, a whole host of Manns (Golo, Heinrich, Michael and Thomas), Beatrix Potter, Ernesto Sabato to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aleksandr Zinoviev. After an introductory biographic paragraph or two CJ takes a quote of suitably aphoric quality and uses that quote as the basis of an essay.

When I started my first professional job a few years back, on or around my payday I would take the tube over to Eustion Square Station and go down to the academic branch of Waterstones on Gower Street in London. Finally earning a professional salary I was excited that I could now buy interesting books. The boring and drab reading I had to do for work was rewarding me with the chance of becoming a polymath and I started to read voraciously into semiotics; Umberto Eco,  Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and so on. CJ echoes that excitement with a very catching love of and striving towards knowledge.

As I wrote about in my earlier post on polyglossia CJ can read in an astonishing eight different languages and he talks about and references writers of German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian languages that you either could not read in English or whose works would be better to have read in the original. This could be a serious downside of the book with CJ almost taunting you with an ambrosia that was out of reach if his love of languages and their learning was not so infective (an infection I have since caught).

As wise as he is I do take issue with some of the conclusions that CJ draws. For instance in his essay on Sartre (and in quite a few others too) he is rather unjustly grilled for making the most out of his time in the resistance as he only held meetings rather than actively resisted. CJ's persistence on this point feels somewhat tacky to me, a rather poor ploy to try and undermine him. Sartre is also criticised for his failure to critique the Soviet regime and one can't help but feel that CJ is more forgiving to those who stayed silent to the Nazi atrocities. CJ is generally pretty critical of those he describes as 'gauchist', Bertolt Brecht, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw are all, amongst others, judged somewhat harshly. The reason is that, as with George Orwell, Clive James wants to drive home the wrongs of the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia and Maoist China; socialism and liberal democracy do not seem to be able to live side by side in his mind.

There are some problems with the book, some essays are not long enough (the essay on Proust should be a lot longer) and some essays fall into somewhat mindless mental wanderings and asides such as the essay on Arthur Schnitzler which is mostly made up of a discussion of the movie 'Where Eagles Dare' or more specifically, Richard Burton's hair in the movie. However, this book has excited me like none other I have read in a long time. I feel enthused to reading, learning and languages and have an Amazon wishlist a mile long so I shall not be short of inspiration for something to read for a long time to come. Because of this excitement I can only give the book one rating.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Today I need to make a confession that will have a large impact on any claim  I could have to my being anything close to being widely read: I have never read Dante. Over the years I have owned two different editions of the Divine Comedy, one a Penguin Classics in three volumes and the other I believe was a Wordsworth Classics in one volume. The reason, having owned two different versions, that I never read either is that one of them rhymed and the other did not so which of the copies should I read? The Italian language, because of the common vowel endings, lends itself to rhyme and in the original Italian the Divine Comedy was in rhyme however how much of the poetic language would be lost by struggling to fit the English translation into an English rhyming scheme? How much would be lost in translation?

There are some authors we are reliably informed who are so intrinsic to their language that they are rendered virtually unintelligible (in terms of their original poetic value) in any translated state. In German it is Goethe, in English it is Shakespeare and we are told that to enjoy Dante we simply must learn Italian first.  This leaves a problem for anyone who, possessing only one language,  wishes to become widely read amongst the greats of European literature.

Clive James's answer to this problem was to become a polyglot, at least in the sense of the written word. The cultural critic is able to read in eight different languages including French, German,  Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. His technique was to take a foreign language book, usually something non-fiction like a work of history or a book of essays and then sit with a dictionary and work his way through it looking up any words he doesn't understand. He is by no means fluent in these languages  and I doubt he could have an in depth conversation with someone from Japan in their language, but he can read in them and once you have that skill you open yourself to that culture. You're not just opened to books which are supposedly intrinsic to their language but to all the rest of the works, both fiction and non-fiction, which remain untranslated (and the proportion of works that remain untranslated even of well known or classic authors is huge).

This idea excites me a lot. I doubt that this is an easy route into a language and I know it will take a few books before I'm comfortable with a language but I think I'm going to give this a try. The languages I want to learn are French, German and Italian and I'll  keep this blog updated with my progress.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Managed Economy of Books

The Guardian Newspaper carried a rather interesting story last week. There has been a move to protect "part of Paris's intellectual soul". The cause of this move is the worrying decline in numbers of the 'librairies' in the Latin Quarter, a central hub of Paris's cultural and educational heart down from 231 to 127 from 2000 to 2008. The mayor of Paris has set out scouts in its fifth arrondissement to hunt down locations for possible bookshops or publishing houses and then ensuring that the premises are only available for those purposes. The French capital prides itself upon its host of independent retailers and does not wish its high streets to end up resembling those of its anglo-saxon counterparts.

How effective the Parisian measures will be will be told in time but it's an interesting step and something the British should take heed of because it is a country in which the high streets of its towns and cities suffer from a tiresome and boring ubiquity with the same chain stores gracing every city. Take Waterstones for instance who own 303 stores throughout the country many of which are in London and they will, other than in their strictly academic branches, have a stocking policy that is popularist rather than enlightening or niche.

The effect of Waterstones' success can be seen on Charring Cross Road, the historical home of London's independent book stores which are closing down and not being replaced with other book stores. Were the mayor to step in he could be taking steps to ensure that the road retained its place as the cultural and intellectual heart of the city but instead the shops will go and maybe some time down the line Waterstones will open their Charring Cross branch and we'll be thankful that whilst we can't buy any more Brecht or Akhmatova, we might settle for the new Jackie Collins novel.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (John C Winston Company 1925)

First published in 1886 in the magazine Young Folks, Kidnapped is essentially historical fiction loosely telling the story of James Annesley, the presumptive heir to titles in both England and Scotland who, tricked by a wicked uncle and kidnapped into being an indentured servant who somehow escapes many years later and fights his way back to lay claim to his lost fortune.

Set in Scotland and to the background of the Jacobite Rebellion (the attempt to put a Stuart back on the throne following the Glorious Revolution, that pit clan against clan in Scotland) Stevenson's story follows David (Davie) Balfour who, on his father's death is sent on a mysterious errand to his wicked uncle Ebeneezer who, with an eye on the titles of his brother arranges Davie's kidnapping aboard the Brig, the vessel of the malevolent Captain Hoseason.

Violence breaks out aboard the ship when Alan Breck Stewart is brought aboard and he teams up with Davie against the treacherous crew of the Brig. Thereon there is a shipwreck, a murder (the Appin murder, an actual historical event in which the real Alan Breck Stewart was supposedly complicit in) run ins with the British Red Coats and a return to seek just claims to his property.

I chose this book because I was going to the beach and if Treasure Island was anything to go by, kidnapped should have been a good adventure story for some semi-mindless reading however I found myself somewhat bored by the novel. For adventure stories there seems to be an ideal ratio in which events are drip fed to you at such a rate that you have just enough to get a sense of what's going on but little enough to keep you reading further (people like Grisham do this very well, it doesn't make for good books necessarily but it does help build a tempo which is how people read thousands of them a year and still devour more). Kidnapped doesn't seem to achieve this because nothing enough really happens. Where there is action it is exciting and the chapters around how Davie and Alan Breck meet and take on the crew of the Brig had me glued to the pages. Without the tempo you are left to dwell on the clumsy sentences and the painful dialogue and the somewhat indecipherable Scots dialect used intermittently.

Partly why I also read Kidnapped was because it was referenced in the biography I had just read of Gladstone in which he is said to have been so absorbed by the novel that he finished it in one day and was none to pleased with any interference to that reading. Gladstone's praise isn't without prestigious company as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and even Margaret Atwood list the book amongst their favourites which makes me feel as if I've missed something.

The story is interesting, the backdrop even more so I just wish a bit more action happened. Sadly I think you need to look to more renown Stevenson books if you want a good beach holiday book.


Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins (Pan Books 1995)

Other than Queen Victoria herself, William Ewart Gladstone is probably the persons who defines the Victorian period. Four times Prime Minister (a record so far unmatched and very unlikely to be matched in the years to come) in a career spanning 1832-1895.

After the typical Prime Ministerial education of Eton and Oxford, Gladstone first made his mark on the world in a fiercely conservative tome 'The State in its Relationship with the Church' in which he argued that membership in the Church of England should be prerequisite for anyone who wished to serve in public life and that the aim of the nation should be to uphold the principles of the Church (it is something of an irony that Gladstone was the man to bring about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and argued for the same in Scotland and Wales). Lord Attlee described Gladstone as being a 'frightful old prig' for his religiosity particularly in relationship to his proposal to his wife. 'Fancy' he said 'writing a letter proposing marriage including a sentence of 140 words all about the Almighty. He was a dreadful person'.

Gladstone was first elected as MP for Newark in a semi-rotten borough and supported by a local duke, hardly a democratic start. His first major oration in the House of Commons was rather surprisingly pro-slavery with a defence of the negro apprentice schemes on the West Indian plantations, talking for over two hours (a pretty standard length for a Gladstone oration). Gladstone had a pretty amazing career prior to taking the highest office serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in successive governments effectively he was the man who made the job what it is today. Jenkins argues that 'Churchill would have been little more than a footnote to history had he died on the threshold of his premiership. This would certainly have been true of Salisbury had he gone in 1886, or of Macmillan had he done so in 1956...but such obscurity would not have been the fate of Gladstone had he died instead of becoming Prime Minister in 1868.

On being told that the Queen had requested Gladstone to form his first government he uttered the immortal phrase 'my mission is to pacify Ireland' and his Irish policy was to dominate all four of his premierships. In his first premiership Gladstone managed to enact legislation disestablishing the Church of Ireland, reforming land rights and access to the Irish universities however it was the decisive issue of Home Rule which thwarted his attempt to bring peace to that land and caused somewhat irreparable divisions within the Liberal party (which were later blown apart in the power struggle between Asquith and Lloyd George) as the Whigs deferred to the Conservatives in large numbers.

Gladstone was such a strange man. In his earlier years his passion was to rescue prostitutes, a pursuit to which he devoted a large amount of his time and energy spending many hours talking to these women about religion, even when he was in high office. Whilst these activities no doubt expressed some sexual repression for which Gladstone punished himself (an act his diary either noted as 'the scourge' or was annotated with mark that looked rather like a little whip) there is no reason to believe that his actions were nothing short of moral and charitable although one cannot imagine a politician today being able to act like this and rather speaks to a certain naivity of Gladstone's as well as a firm belief in his own moral rectitude. In later life the rescuing of prostitutes was replaced by an equally bizarre hobby of chopping down trees, a pursuit he encouraged his children to take part in.

Gladstone was a voracious reader and is said to have read some 40,000 volumes throughout his life although his favourites were always the Latin and Ancient Greek classics, Homer, Dante and Horace (his speeches were littered with untranslated Latin and Greek quotations). The sheer volume of books despite having worked the highest offices in Britain shows one of the key Gladstone characteristics which is that he believed himself at war with time and it was his duty to fit as much into a day as he possibly could.

The book is well written from a man who has had his own time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also his own turn at dividing political parties (as when he fractured the Labour Party to create the short lived Social Democrat Party which eventually merged with the Gladstone's old Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrat Party). He rather glosses over a lot of the nitty gritty of the different Gladstone premierships however to go into that detail would probably require a book of some number of volumes that I most certainly would not have bought. The book also lacks a summary chapter which would have been nice to tie things up and not end upon the sad note of the Grand Old Man's death.

If you're interested in the politics of Victorian Britain then this book is a must buy.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

On Snooker by Mordecai Richler

On Snooker: The Game and the Characters who Play it by Mordecai Richler (Knopf Canada 2001)

This is a weird book, weird in the sense that two parts of life I always considered separate somehow manifest themselves into this one volume and I found it very hard reconciling my visions of Mordecai Richler as a working class Jewish, smoked meat sandwich eating hustler from St. Urbain Street in Montreal with the waistcoats, bow ties and bottled water that is the professional snooker circuit in Britain.

Richler's book details the origins of the game and the word itself and goes into the lives of some of the characters of the game. Alex Higgins man seemingly wrought on self-destruction, Jimmy White who seems to have done pretty well for himself despite his perennial loser tag, the successful but largely ignored Canadian Cliff Thorburn, the less successful but much more of a cause célèbre in Kirk Stevens. He, however, does not place his loyalty where the drama lies as it seems most fans do, he pins all his hopes on Stephen Hendry winning that one more world championship.

What is more interesting is why Richler is a fan himself. Richler tells us that 'North American literary men in general, and the Jewish writers among them in particular, have always been obsessed by sports. We acquire the enthusiasm as kids and carry it with us into middle age and beyond, adjudging it far more enjoyable than lots of other baggage we still lug around. Arguably we settled for writing, a sissy's game, because we couldn't "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," pitch a curveball, catch, deke, score a touchdown.'

I want Richler's life. He spent half his year wintering in England living in an apartment in Chelsea (an was hence able to follow the snooker) and the other half in Canada spending his summers on Lake Memphremagog. I feel that we would have gotten on very well, Hendry was my favourite player, I also have an irrational dislike towards Stephen Lee. If you know snooker then this book won't tell you too much that you didn't already know but my image of Richler is now radically altered. I particularly like his reasons for why Snooker gave him hope and I shall end on that:

"Look at it this way: if Higgins could make a maximum, or David Cone pitch a perfect baseball game, then just maybe, against all odds, a flawless novel was possible. I can't speak for other writers, but I always start out pledged to a dream of perfection, a novel that will be free of clunky sentences or passages forced in the hothouse, but it's never the case. Each novel is a failure of sorts. No matter how many drafts I go through, there will always be compromises here and there, pages that will make me wince when I read them years later. But if Higgins could achieve perfection, maybe, next time out, I could too."


Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory by David Plouffe (Viking 2009)

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 looked to be the most amazing upset. As a young and vibrant black senator with negligible experience who would not only have to go in and carry all the states won by John Kerry back in the 2004 election but make inroads into traditionally red states Obama did not seem to have an obvious path to victory. This book shows how the impossible was achieved, not just defeating McCain but triumphing over the other must beat candidate, Hilary Clinton.

Beating Clinton was quite an achievement and nearly the first half of the book is dedicated to the first year spent almost entirely in Iowa building up a phenomenal grass roots base and putting Obama on the map. Winning Iowa would mean building up the momentum that, a long way down the line, finally brought him the nomination. His path to victory was built upon expanding the electorate, registering new voters, appealing to moderate republicans and campaigning in the counties and areas of the states which would maximise his delegate count and thus secure him the nomination.

The book shows Obama to be better organised, better prepared, better disciplined, better financed and running to a better strategy than either Clinton or McCain. There is a lot to admire in the way they fought these campaigns, the grass roots organisations they built up rather than relying on in-state old party king-makers, the use of new media to communicate with members and supporters and often to break news directly to the party first is all commendable. One cannot help but feel that they these are people who know the system and played to the system. Against Clinton the focus of the campaigning was winning the delegates and against McCain it was about playing the board making the best electoral college arithmetic and arrive at the magical number 270. At no point do you feel that winning the popular vote was a real concern and I guess that just means that they were smart but one cannot help but consider the efficacy of an electoral system that would allow the popular vote to be a secondary concern.

A very interesting dose of insight!

Friday, 23 April 2010

The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley

The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley (Viking 2010)

The Servants of the People published in 2000 chronicled Labour's election and first term in power, this book details everything that has happened since. Rawnsley, political columnist for the Observer, quotes from quite an impressive array of sources as he writes the story of New Labour, 9/11 and the war on terror, the Iraq War and the dodgy dossier that got us there and the financial crisis. It also goes into deep details of the personalities and conflicts between the main protagonists.

Rawnsley comes across as quite Blairite and for him other than when he details the David Kelly affair in which is he quite vitriolic about Blair's involvement, he is portrayed almost as the man who can do no wrong and when things do not turn out as they should, the finger of blame is nearly always pointed at Brown and those in his team who push him into being more extreme than he would be on his own (all of Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Ed Milliband and Damian McBride do not come out of this book looking good). In a chapter entitled 'the long goodbye' he details what he sees as the highlights of TB's 13 years in power:

"generous investment in health and education which reversed years of neglect of the public realm. State-funded childcare was introduced alongside the minimum wage. There was considerable redistribution, mainly the work of Chancellor, from the affluent to the poor. Tax and benefit changes since 1997 broadly raise the incomes of the poorest fifth of society. This was not enough to entirely counteract the global forces which were stretching the inequalities and the super-rich continued to pull away from every one else...he left Britain wealtheir and more diverse, but not much happier than how he found it."

The book received a great deal of press pre-publication for the details of Gordon Brown's temper and the book paints him as palpably mad. He is seen as moody, sulking, petty and violent. The reason, it is made to look, that there was no real challenge to Brown for the Labour leadership is that he crushed any promising talent that might challenge what he viewed as his solemn right to govern Britain. He and his team are shown to continually brief and leak against Blair, the content of his budgets were rarely divulged up to a couple of hours before they were announced when they were already at the printers and he is shown to be the worst micro-manager possible.

The book is far from perfect and you are painfully aware that the author is still working with the people he is writing about and so tries to stay away from making personal judgement. However in an election year and despite whatever economic competence he portrays Brown as having you cannot but arrive at the conclusion that Gordon Brown is insane.

An interesting if not biased account.


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

My Struggle by Paul Merton

My Struggle by Paul Merton (Boxtree 1995)

As with his much more recent book and accompanying television series on the heroes of silent comedy show Paul Merton has a real interest in the earlier forms of comedy and this book is no different in what is a spoof fictionalised 'autobiographical' account of an East End music hall performer.

Born to theatrical parents, the music hall act Bert and Mary (the Marvellettes) a water stirrer and a cough check girl who surprised a lot of people by marrying very quickly 'the ceremony lasted only eleven seconds', Paul was quite literally shot into fame via a vintage cannon, a rubberised nappy, an overhead smash that would have graced the centre court at Wimbledon and the safe hands of King George V. Baby Paul's early days in Hollywood involved acting in Western's before he could talk and throwing his rattle in a fight with a Sioux Indian. He returns to England in acrimony and life begins a series of ups and downs, entertaining the Germans during the second world war, radio comedy with Peter Sellers, game shows and children's entertainment alongside his faithful hippopotamus. There are of course several murders, a friendship with Prince Charles and a defining relationship with an agent with whom he communicates through the second-hand fridge section of the newspaper 'Dalton's Weekly'.

The jokes start, of course, with the title which needs translation into German for its effect. The book is a very nineties and a very English phenomenon so be prepared for some Bruce Forthsyth and Max Bygraves jokes. It is thoroughly sarcastic and incredibly tongue in cheek and I'd argue that it has also not aged well. There are some passages which made me laugh aloud but as the book goes on you get the feeling that he ran out of enthusiasm with the project and the narrative begins to meander. I am a fan of Paul Merton and his rather unique sense of humor and so have a soft spot for this book but I can't actually contend that it's any good.

I love it despite all its faults:


Monday, 22 February 2010

The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr (Macmillan 2009)

Written, as it were, as a prequel to his book and accompanying television series 'A History of Modern Britain' this book charts, as Andrew Marr puts it, England 'from Queen Victoria to V.E. Day'. The books illustrates the rise and fall of Edwardian Britain, the rise of the working classes, chartists, trade unions, suffragettes (and suffragists) and countless other groups. Britain ceased to be a country ruled from grand country estates and power passed to the people and Britain became a true democracy. In the process she underwent the Boer War as well as two World Wars and had approximately eleven different Prime Ministers, the death of the Liberal Party and the birth of the Labour Party.

Except during the world wars when the history is presented in a more linear order, Andrew Marr presents us with a television handy series of scenes or vignettes charting not just the political or military aspects of the history but the social scenes including some great sections on music hall, the birth of the motor industry and the early days of the BBC. When he does the political history Marr has a knack of cutting through to the heart of complicated sets of facts such as the manoeuvres that led to the passing of the Parliament Act ending the power of the House of Lords and propelling Lloyd George into prominence and the machinations that enabled Churchill to come back into the fold as Neville Chamberlain proved an ineffective war leader.

The book is very readable and Andrew Marr shows himself as a revisionist historian showing sympathy with the tactics of oft criticised generals such as Haig and Kitchener (they after all did not know then what we know now...although I'd like to venture that we don't quite know now what they knew then either), praising Chamberlain's preparations for war and criticising Churchill for all that he didn't accomplish trying to show that he was not the steadfast and power hungry man making every decision from the top. His book is also written from quite a leftist perspective, the heroes of the story are no doubt people like Seebohm Rowntree treading the streets of York chronicling dire cases of poverty, the Welsh railwaymen fighting to unionise, the new radicals as Lloyd George and Churchill were (although Churchill's radicalism came with not so much concern for civil liberties and a rampant thirst for risky military adventure) and growth of the Labour movement is lauded, the growth of right reviled.

I recently criticised Peter Ackroyd for using popular historians as sources in a piece of popular history. Andrew Marr goes one step further and quotes from no sources whatsoever and the few endnotes he uses prove utterly useless because no page numbers are given in the notes section. He claims to have done the research entirely by himself and it shows as there are factual errors, and events are glossed over or generalised. Also if you've studied this period of history in any length (and in British schools the wars are covered many times) he presents no surprises. It is a book written to be televised and that tv series is a whole other kettle of fish (his impressions are excruciating). I wanted to dislike this book but Andrew Marr, despite his popularism and bombastic and journalistic style prose, comes across very amiably and it certainly doesn't hurt to be a leftist to read this book so for the first time I shall reward a book higher than 3/5.

It's a close call but it just makes it to:


Monday, 8 February 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago 2009).

Set in 1948, Dr Faraday is the son of working class stock who one evening is called out to the Hundreds Hall, the seat of the Ayres family, the estate where his mother worked when he was young as a nursemaid. This is just the beginning of his entanglement with the house and its family; Mrs Ayres the widowed matriarch and hangover from Edwardian society, her son Roddie, an injured and limping veteran of the war now master of the estate though not coping with the responsibility and Caroline, the intelligent but plain daughter who is often to be found wandering around the estate with her dog.

Things take a sinister turn as Roddie becomes convinced that he is being visited by a phantom with malicious intent who is leaving dark marks around his room and when the Ayres's dog attacks the young daughter of a nouveau riche family only new to area it begins his descent into what Faraday believes to be a severe nervous disorder.

The book is essentially a story of the end of the Edwardian dynasties and the break up of the estates of the landed gentry that followed the second world war and the election of Clement Atlee's Labour government. It is also a gothic-esque ghost story in the traditions of Edgar Allan Poe however I draw that similarity very loosely as it is at best a pastiche of that story telling. The book reminds me of peristalsis with its slow and steady pace building up a tension that releases itself not with a bang but with a wimper as any dramatic tension is dissolved with a disappointing last 100 pages. Dr Faraday proves an extremely boring narrator and as his affairs become increasingly entangled with those of the Ayres' it's hard to muster the requisite sympathy.

I have now read five of the six shortlisted books of the 2009 Booker Prize and I cannot say that I have been overly impressed by the quality. Hilary Mantel's' Wolf Hall' with its nauseating prose and unbelievable revisionist history, Adam Fould's rather insubstantial 'The Quickening Maze', Simon Mawer's screenplay of a novel in 'The Glass Room' and probably the best of the lot in AS Byatt's charming Middlemarch-esque tale of two Edwardian families in 'The Children's Book', none of these are books one can imagine recalling in ten years time, from this roster of historical fiction I do not see anything approaching classic status.

I am now fully aware that I have now reviewed three books and so far they have all been 3/5 and I'm afraid this shows the forgettable nature of them, 2 would seem too harsh and 4 unmerited therefore I'm afraid I shall have to do so again.

Probably better just wait for the movie:


Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand

The invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand (Verso - 2009)

On May 14th 1948 the British Mandate of Palestine and the Jewish People's Council issued 'The Declarations of the Establishment of the State of Israel'. It reads as follows:

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept their faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and to hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom'.

This is a history I have never questioned, the people of Judea, later renamed Palestine by the Romans, were forced out of their lands, dispersed and lived in exile of thousands of years before their return and the founding of the state of Israel. Throughout the book Sand attempts to undermine some of the central tenets of Zionism and nationalistic right wing politicians in Israel. He attempts to show that the Jewish people aren't all the racially pure descendants of the Hebrews (the chosen people). That there was never a mass exodus of people during the Roman occupation of Judea, that although modern Judaism isn't quite the proselytizing religion now, the ranks of Jews throughout the middle east and the Mediterranean came (at least in part) through mass conversions and that the present day Palestinians (at least in part) do also descend from the ancient Hebrews who after the Arab invasion converted to Islam to reap the tax benefits.

I am no historian therefore I can't tell you about the veracity of the events as he states and whilst the arguments he makes are interesting there is quite a lot of dramatism and hyperbole in the way he makes them. What is more interesting than the book is perhaps the reception it received. Topping the best-selling lists in Israel when it was first published in Hebrew, it has won prizes in its French translation and it has brought itself a considerable reaction in the English translation. Many academics have questioned the author's credentials to write such a book (a history professor but not of Jewish history) and bloggers have been fiercely divided (the book is either essential reading or the work of a Stalinist anti-semite.

Sand's purpose seems to be twofold, to dispel the idea that Judaism is something more than a religion and to undermine the idea of their divine right to the land of Israel. His sights are firmly set on the Zionism and the right wing politicians of modern Israel. It feels as if he sets up a belief system that perhaps few genuinely follow and creates targets for himself that are easy to knock down. I was uneasy about carrying this book with me daily and the reaction of some being to call Sand an anti-semite make me think I do have reason to have felt that way. I feel that Sand's intentions have been honourable but his execution perhaps flawed. Interesting nonetheless.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

I read an awful lot of interesting books last year and I regret that I did not take the time to record them so here seems as good a place as any and if there are nice publishers out there who want to send me preview copies of their books then I'm a more than willing recipient.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd (Vintage - 2001)

After Peter Ackroyd finished writing this 800 page monster he suffered a heart attack and for Peter this was something quite appropriate of London as a city, an angry and violent place; a place that kills (although I might suggest that his portly stature belies a different truth). This is a history book without chronology which rather than following a standard narrative (Romans, Normans, Plague, Fire, Queen Vic, Empire and Blitz) is more a series of essays on London as Theatre, Crime and Punishment, Mobocracy and Violence etc... As disconnected as that sounds there are themes that penetrate the essays: London's innate theatricality or the continuities that exist and have throughout the centuries. Camberwell, for instance, as the home of disquiet was invaded by Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt, that the Chartist movement grew up there, that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed there first on their return from Botany Bay, that a revolutionary press was founded upon the green by the likes of Elanor Marx and that during his stay this press was used frequently by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that in the 90s the communist daily the Morning Star had its offices in the area and that now it is inhabited by the magazine for the homeless and unemployed, the Big Issue.

I've learnt some interesting details about events and people some of which leave me wondering how there has never been a film about them. The story of Jack Sheppherd is one such story. He was a criminal hero of london held at the infamous Newgate Prison which once stood where the Old Bailey stands today and who gained notoriety by escaping from confinement six times using his skills gained as a carpenter's apprentice.

The first time he was arrested he escaped within three hours by cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground using the sheets from his bed as a rope. The second time he was pinioned with links and fetters and managed to saw through the fetters, cut an iron restraint and bored through a wooden bar nine inches thick. While out he was recaptured by the notorious criminal taker Jonathan Wild and sentenced to death. Somehow he managed to smuggle in a spike with which he managed to carve an opening in the wall and with the help of friends on the outside was dragged out through it disappearing into the crowds of the Bartholemew Fair. Once again he was recaptured and brought back to Newgate and he was removed to the 'stone castle', chained to the floor, legs secured with irons and hands cuffed and kept under surveillance. Somehow he managed to slip out of the cuffs, loose a link from the chains on his legs, squeeze his body through the chains and then with a nail broke the locks of five doors on the way to his escape. During his freedom he stole some money, bought a suit and hired a coach and following on with the theme of London theatricality, drove the coach right through the front gates of Newgate Prison. This time he was recaptured within two weeks and sentenced to be hanged within the week. Sheppherd had one more escape planned but the pocket knife with which he wished to cut his noose was found upon his body and on the 16th November 1724 he was finally executed. It's a fantastic story with so much intrigue and showmanship, would be a wonderful film, I'm sure Johnny Depp's available.

Now for the confession, I didn't like this book. Peter Ackroyd's pretension strikes you from the off with the title 'The Biography' as if stating its place as the definitive book on London which it certainly is not. There is so much that annoys me, first is that he is a popular historian but his sources are of other popular historians (I can't count the number of times that Jenny Uglow is quoted for instance), there is little evidence of any actual academic historiography in view and in fact the book feels like an aggregation of other people's work. Quite often he uses literature when he's seeking to make a point which also annoys, I'm quite happy with quotations from literature but if you're trying to make a point about a characteristic of London history or people then surely the connections are better made with actual people or events? And speaking of events, some are so horribly glossed over (like the great plague) that you wonder how ever this book could be considered definitive. The interesting facts are too few and far between and the obscure points he makes could be made about any city and its relevance to London appear slim. I really did want to enjoy this book not least because it is about the city I live in and see about me every day but because I was going to be with it for 800 pages however Peter Ackroyd's pomp and arrogance were too much for me too overlook and I am confident that there are far better books on London history to be had out there.

To sum up, it's a bit disappointing.