The gull sees farthest who flies highest. Richard Bach
As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Tony Judt
I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them. Antoine Saint-Exupéry
History & Biography
Tony Judt (1948-2010) has become the historian I wish was still alive and writing. I read his magisterial book, Postwar, a couple of years ago and have been intending to read some of his other works but just didn’t seem to get around to it until this month, when I read three in a row.
Judt pursues the ‘role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals’ throughout each of these books and his themes seem more important than at any time since the middle of the 20th century. In an era where truth, more often than not is a casualty not enough of us see fall, Judt is a beacon of light. His ways of seeing are deeply impressive and, as an added treat he writes brilliantly well, and cheekily too. He is a social democrat, with a pen, who reminds me a great deal of George Orwell, especially in his preparedness to criticise friend as well as foe.
Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century is the finest collection of essays, published in leading journals and newspapers between 1994-2006, one could hope to read about thinkers and politics in the 20th century. Essays on Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Said and Pope John Paul II are particularly interesting, as is the final section of the book about the ‘American half-century’. I need to look again at some of my own prejudices and reading gaps in light of Judt’s book. For example, I have never read any Koestler (more on this next month) and love Hobsbawm, whose achilles heel, his refusal to completely cast off his affection for communism, is explained with great nuance by Judt, who was a fellow at the same college.
I could happily re-read Reappraisals but have more of Judt’s back catalogue to explore before I do.
Thinking the Twentieth Century (with Timothy Snyder) is an immensely enjoyable and satisfying read. Judt, while dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, spent some months talking about his life and work. These conversations illuminate his personal ideology and reveal his unrelenting belief in speaking out, regardless of how unpopular, against hypocrisy and foolishness.
Judt is more than just a historian. His journalism and analysis of contemporary events is par excellence. When so many intellectuals, like Christopher Hitchens, were getting into bed with Bush and the neo-cons over Iraq, Judt stood firmly against the deceit of politicians leading the ‘war against terror’. Like Orwell, Judt is completely prepared to criticise ‘the left’ and error in analysis wherever he sees it. Judt also articulates the limitations of his own kind of analysis and writing, which is read by comparatively so few.
By the end of the book I felt I knew Judt from his conversation rather than in the usual linear, biographical manner. Particularly interesting are his early years in England, including is education at Cambridge and forays into the communal living in Israel before eventually moving to the USA permanently. His experiences, as a historian in France, add breadth to his credentials and certainly make it a little clearer why he is obsessively interested in the role of the intellectual in society.
Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956 is really worth reading for anyone who wishes to pursue the early development of Judt’s line of thinking about the responsibilities of an intellectual. Judt is angered by those abrogating their personal responsibility and is particularly critical of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. Like Robert Conquest before him, Judt rightly could not accept that thinkers would accept the oppressions and murder of others from the relative safety of their own lives for ideological reasons.
I find it hard to see why some of Judt’s essays and thinking, especially those on Israel and American foreign policy are described as ‘controversial’. He is in many ways a very traditionally minded liberal humanist who rejects contemporary, fashionable, post-modern approaches to writing history. His work will be stand the test of time, and like Orwell, maintain an admiring audience who will, with the clarity time brings, increasingly see he was right. He has my highest recommendation!
More about PKD*
“Seventeen years ago I sold my first story, a great and wonderful moment in my life which will never come again.” PKD
To The High Castle: Philip K Dick – A Life 1928-62 by Gregg Rickman is a fascinating insight into the sci-fi author’s early life. I read it straight after finishing Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words and hoped to continue on to Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament but for the first time in a long while the inter-library loan system has failed me and this book cannot be located (or rather, will not be lent as there are so few copies).
Rickmann is an unusual biographer in that he seems obsessed with understanding PKD’s psychological motivations and influences, often without citing too much in the way of evidence. He believes that PKD was sexually abused as a child but does not seem, after extensive investigations/interviews, to find anyone who Dick confided this too and it almost remains more a hunch than anything else. PKD was a twin and Rickmann spends much time analysing the impact of his sibling’s death, at birth, on the author too. He is on firmer ground with this as PKD did speak about this as the most significant event in his life.
PKD’s reading makes for particularly interesting reading as he firmly believed in having ‘good prose models’ for his own writing. Dick was not a great reader of contemporary novels, preferring the classics, philosophy and history although he did like “early Henry Miller” and James Joyce was, “above and beyond all else” his abiding literary passion. He did not like Shakespeare much. Some of his favourite authors include Stendahl, Flaubert, Balzac, Proust, Tolstoy, Checkhov, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Dante, Aquinas, HP Lovecraft and strangely, to my eyes, George Bernard Shaw. He was well-versed in the pulp sci-fi of the 1930s and 40s but really wanted to write literary, what he called “straight”, novels rather than ‘pulp’ sci-fi.
There are lots of moments in the book where Dick’s discoveries, of music, books, words or concepts illuminate his fiction. If you know his work you can imagine how much he enjoyed discovering German concepts like doppelgänger. It was interesting that PKD followed WWII so closely using detailed maps and used to think strategically about what the Germans might do next, arguing with his teachers often over tactics.
This biography ends with the publication of his Hugo Award winning novel, The Man in the High Castle. PKD’s relationships end often; he was married five times and this novel, probably his best, was written after having a two year break from writing while he worked in his new wife’s jewellery store. If you know the book it is easy to imagine how much time he spent thinking about what is authentic, design and the worth of any given piece.
*Some trivia: Interestingly enough, the ‘K’ in Philip K Dick is for ‘Kindred’ which was also his mother’s middle name.
My children still enjoy being read to almost as much as I delight in reading to them. At 9 and 11, they are able to appreciate a wide-range of genres and authors. Over the last month of two we have been reading some of my all time personal favourites and maybe these books will become important to them too.
A beautifully bound centenary edition of The Wind in the Willows (1908) has been wonderful to share with the kids. Robert Ingpen‘s illustrations are extraordinarily evocative, making Kenneth Grahame‘s memorable characters even more very real for us. We really took our time and read slowly, over many weeks, discussing and laughing at many of the humorous situations and odd, “old-fashioned” sentences. I last read the novel in the early 1990s when teaching English to a Year 7 class who struggled to enjoy the book. They certainly did not get the mysticism of the chapter, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, which is one of my favourite parts of the novel. I read key passages twice – on request – as my daughters grappled with what was happening at dawn on the riverbank.
Both the girls loved the chapters with Toad and Miss 9 asserted that “Toady’s conceited songs are the best bits”. They now know the author created the character partly as a warning for his son, who tragically died in his late teens, about boastfulness. They girls did wonder why the constabulary never end up chasing the escaped convict Toad back to his manor but were prepared to overlook this plot flaw.
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach seems to polemicise readers. If you look at Goodreads, surprisingly many people rate it** just one or two stars and rail against it for a variety of reasons while others wax lyrical, seeing the book as magical and special. Some see the book as soppily christian, others sadly hippy or a rip-off of buddhist thought. Quite a few think there’s too many pictures of seagulls. It is probably true that you need to read the book at the right time in your life. I must have because, along with The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry, I can think of few books that mean more to me and I wondered how my daughters would react on first hearing these read aloud, in the same week.
I was relieved that they loved both books. Miss 11, when I asked her about TLP, said, “it’s beautiful” but Miss 9 sent me a brief review JLS:
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is different to other seagulls. His ambition is to fly like his flock has never seen before. But when he is rejected, he leads himself into trouble just because he sees the world differently to other gulls. He discovers the true meanings of existence and limits.
This is an extremely good book. It shows us a whole new perspective of life. This book made me think about my true limits. I loved it!
It should be noted that I was surprised by the new resolution included in the 2013 edition of JLS. Richard Bach re-discovered Part 4 many years after publication and decided it added to the story. I agree. Without giving too much away, a cult, with seagull-like rituals, builds around the memory of Jonathan and the seagulls he teaches. I found it brilliant and illustrative of how our societies have always worked. I highly recommend this latest edition.
**It is reassuring to know that most people who have read the JLS, at least according to Goodreads, are more likely to think it special, than trash. It gives one hope for humanity. 😉
Justifiably, TLP, is less polarising and much more universally loved and highly rated at Goodreads.
Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park is a novel I read in my early teens, when it was first published, then again as a teacher and now as a parent. Miss 11 loves historical fiction and has read the book multiple times but was still happy to hang out while I read it aloud to her sister. Set in 1970-80s Sydney, Abigail, the protagonist, is transported back to a time one hundred years in the past when the area she resided was a slum.
The Rocks has always had a mystique about it in my imagination and I can never walk around that area of Sydney without thinking of Park’s novel. Next time we are down that end of town I’m sure the kids will notice some of the key streets from the book that Abigail, Beatie and co. walk. There’s still a couple of older parts to be found, although it is a long time since the streets were filled with slum dwellings and plague. Now, there’s mostly over-price boutiques flogging Australiana to tourists. If you look hard enough though, there’s a few interesting buildings remaining in the shadow of ‘the Bridge’ like this one I shot a couple of years ago:
The girls both rated the book 5 stars. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it aloud, the character voices were beyond me more often than not. The book has not really dated and even though it is close to 40 years old would still speak to many other young readers. I did mention there is a film adaptation but they are not keen to see it as it would likely spoil our memories of the novel. The film was not shot in Sydney but Adelaide which is a pity as the area has changed quite dramatically in recent decades.
My Brilliant Friend
“We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.”
My feed has been flooded with information about Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels for some time. My Brilliant Friend, the first of four novels in the series, is really worth any reader’s time. The characters are well drawn, the plot intriguing and the theme of female friendship explored in an absolutely engaging manner. The author’s identity is unknown so one suspects the characters are drawn more than usual from autobiographical episodes, especially as the narrator’s name is Elena. It feels very real, very raw and really readable.
This is a novel that explore class and opportunity, or lack of it, especially for women. The threat of violence is omnipresent. Recent reading about education and political policy post WWII has made me more aware of the poverty and lack of schooling opportunity for many Italians in the south of the country. Several years ago I was in Naples and was shocked at the garbage piled up in every street and the general lack of contemporary infrastructure. Ferrante’s novel is evoking the time and place skilfully and I suspect, as I read the other novels, much more of the larger world her characters inhabit will be explored.
Like many great books, it is a novel about language and literature with many references to what the two main characters are reading. One aspect I really enjoyed is the power of the many startling images, often involving food. The reader, as is often the case in bildungsroman stories like this, knows more than the protagonist as they endeavour to navigate the streets of their lives, in this case postwar Naples. There is a brutal honesty in some of the episodes that makes one flinch, as well as admire the artistry.
….creeping up behind us or coming down towards us with a long knife, the kind used for slicing open a chicken breast. There was an odour of sautéing garlic…(his wife) would put me in the pan of boiling oil. The children would eat me. He would suck my head, the way my father did with mullets.
This is a rites of passage story and a very good one at that. The appeal of such stories is broad but I suspect women will read this novel more than men. That may be due in some part to this awful cover. However, I will be reading the next three books unless there is a serious decline in quality and recommend this first novel highly even though there were some moments where I felt a little bored with soap opera of the interpersonal relationships and wanted more depth.
I will be in The Lake District, London and Stratford-upon-Avon, York and Durham, on the South Downs and the Isle of Man this September and have been dipping into a swag of books about New York and Washington too in preparation for a research trip to the USA next year.
I have read Lonely Planet books for close to thirty years but increasingly want something else for more interesting insights into the places one plans to travel. Both Quiet New York and The Monocle Travel Guide Series: New York are great little books for reading some different perspectives on the city. I applaud the idea of personal essays the Monocle Guides provide on a range of topics and feel it is much better than what other guides are doing. I really admired the photographic style on display in Quiet London but the New Your version of the books seems to lack, comparatively, some pictorial panache. The tips are grand though!
What are you reading?
FEATURED IMAGE: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/12375281584 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license