September-October 2015: My Reading

But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant. Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.

                                                                                                                      Michel Houellebecq

FICTION

How I laughed when reading the opening to this review of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission:

For some, a new Houellebecq is the only event that approaches the childhood memory of a new Famous Five.  XS

I am not old enough to actually have ever been waiting for a new Blyton but completely understand the sentiment. I have been counting the days since learning his new novel would be translated for release in September this year and finished the day it arrived on my Kindle.

It should be mentioned, I had already read the book before reading that review and bitterly disagreed with the final line of the opening paragraph: Not only are Houellebecq’s books about disappointment, they usually disappoint. They are about disappointment but unlike Enid Blyton (especially The Secret Seven), Houellebecq never leaves me disappointed. Gasping at his provocations and trenchant satire maybe but never bored or anything like disappointed. I greedily read every line, sucking the marrow from the bone, usually finishing his latest morsel before the English reviews are written.

“…the 2022 Presidential election approaches, two candidates emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the mainstream parties, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for François, life is set on a new course.” (Back cover synopsis)

Submission courted controversy, as most of Houellebecq’s novels do due to their subject matter but unfortunately, the launch of the book happened only a few hours before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I love that Houellebecq will explore topics that other writers would not touch with a very long pole but the timing of all this made it seem like a more than just a moment in our collective understanding of the zeitgeist. The literary, the satirical and the reality of a world where ideas, imagination and cheek result in violent death for men with pencils merged and was completely, overwhelmingly, too surreal to truly process. I suspect Houellebecq felt this too as he cancelled scheduled events.

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2901459/jesuisCharlie-world-s-cartoonists-react-Paris-massacre-poignant-drawings.html

For those of us who grew up laughing with the artful cheekiness of Monty Python and Life of Brian, it is not possible to accept that artistic freedom to poke fun at the foolish, powerful or the institutionalised authority, that still divides and conquers us, could be ever be effectively curtailed. Seeking truth will always be more important than following dogma but when it results in sudden death, when there are no longer front lines in the war, it is truly disorienting.

Houellebecq can craft a sentence or offer an insight that makes the reader choke with delight – or outrage. I never feel that Houellebecq is either a left wing or right wing writer. Like all good satirists he skewers convention, conformity and received wisdom so well that one often feels intellectually violated.  His references, to popular, political and literary culture are often worth pursuing further. I have only read one novel by JK Huysman but will pursue more as soon as possible after Houellebecq’s ruminations about this French writer. I loved that Nick Drake is on Houellebecq’s playlist too. The late English vocalist is perfectly, serenely melancholic accompaniment to any novel by Houellebecq.

I could choose dozens of great quotes from this latest offering but have chosen just a few that will give the uninitiated the general idea and more often than not a giggle – albeit a very guilty one:

Chubby little cumulus clouds drifted across the sky. For me these had always been the clouds of happiness, the kind whose brilliant whiteness only heightens the blue of the sky, the kind children draw when they represent an ideal cottage, with a smoking chimney, a lawn and flowers.

While I was waiting to die, I still had the Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies.

Western nations took a strange pride in this system (democracy), though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.

‘You’re what,’ I asked, ‘Catholic? Fascist? A little of both?’ It just popped out. I was out of practice with intellectuals of the right – I couldn’t remember how to behave.

If you’re looking for a politician who can embody the humanist spirit, he’s perfect: he thinks he’s Henri the Fourth bringing peace through interfaith dialogue. Plus he plays well to the Catholic base, who find his stupidity reassuring.

If you control the children, you control the future. So the one area in which they absolutely insist on having their way is the education of children.’

Staying connected was obviously not a priority in this establishment. After I’d unpacked, hung up the clothes I’d brought, plugged in my tea kettle and my electric toothbrush, and turned on my phone to find no messages, I started to wonder what I was doing there. This very basic question can occur to anyone, anywhere, at any moment in his life, but there’s no denying that the solitary traveller is especially vulnerable.

To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run foul of some agency or other. I knew it would take several days to get back up to speed.

I opened my mailbox for the first time since I’d got back from Brussels; there were still bureaucratic headaches to deal with, and bureaucracy ‘never sleeps’.

Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac. The only shops in the village were a baker – closed – and a cafe on Place des Consuls, which also seemed to be closed.

I knew the hardest part was behind me: in the beginning, the solitary traveller meets with scorn, even hostility. Then, little by little, people get used to him, whether they’re hoteliers or restaurateurs, and dismiss him as a harmless eccentric.

As time went on, I subscribed more and more to Toynbee’s idea that civilisations die not by murder but by suicide.

You will likely enjoy these quotes from Submission too

Houellebecq will not be music for all ears but I cannot wait to see what he does next.

 

There’s a reason why the story of the ghetto should never come with a photo. The Third World slum is a nightmare that defies beliefs or facts, even the ones staring right at you. A vision of hell that twists and turns on itself and grooves to it own soundtrack. Normal rules do no apply here.  (says Alex Pierce)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James won the Man Booker this year and is a special joy for those who appreciate characterisation and the vernacular more than plot. James’ rendering of speech, especially for his Jamaican characters, seems authentic (not having been to, or read anything about Kingston) and I can only assume very successfully captures life in the streets circa 1976, at the time Bob Marley was dodging assassination attempts and performing at the Smile Jamaica concert

The novel is lengthy, as well as technically ambitious and this reader certainly appreciated the ‘cast of characters’ listed at the opening of the book. I believe that listening to the audiobook – read very successfully by multiple narrators – enhanced my appreciation of the dialogue. Some of it was so good I dipped into the written text at various points to enjoy what was going on for a second time.

My list of favourite characters is long but all the gang members in the slum of Copenhagen City, especially Josie Wales, the leader of the Storm Posse, Papa-Lo (the don) and the psychotic Bam-Bam were truly original creations. Other great characters included Alex Pierce, a music journalist, Nina Burgess, an unemployed receptionist and her sister, Kimmy.  Nina’s feistiness really made me laugh and James’ insights into the kind of musical journalism, purveyed by magazines like Rolling Stone, was an amusing, highly intelligent analysis of the genre and the nature of writing about stardom and identity. I am not sure why James writes with such wit and intelligence about music journalism but it is perfect considering the characters and plot heavily all revolve around reggae and the peace concert.

The internal monologues or stream of consciousness passages – perhaps rants is a better description – are almost always sustained. The author captures thinking well. I read a quote attributed to Marlon James (I assume from an interview about his second novel) which explains much about the dialogue of his female characters: I think that’s what Toni Morrison and Alice Walker understand, the secret language of women. That it’s not a secret at all; men just don’t know how to listen. 

A Brief History… is gritty and literary, fun but often shockingly horrible. One wonders what James will do next after this exploration of the world of ‘the singer’ and the impoverished of Jamaica? One hopes he will explore more nasty political and criminal machinations from a cast of new characters living in sun-splashed and blood-splattered Kingston or somewhere where we can get lost with a world of characters never met before.

forest

“Ten thousand times the web could be destroyed, and ten thousand times the spider would rebuild it. There was neither annoyance nor despair, nor any delight, just as it had been for a billion years.”   Cixin Liu

“Time is the one thing that can’t be stopped. Like a sharp blade, it silently cuts through hard and soft, constantly advancing. Nothing is capable of jolting it even the slightest bit, but it changes everything.”   Cixin Liu

“English, formerly the most widely used language, and Chinese, spoken by the largest population, had blended with each other without distinction to become the world’s most powerful language. Luo Ji learned later that the other languages of the world were undergoing the same fusion.”  Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu is the second book in the Three-Body trilogy. I read the first book earlier this year and eagerly awaited the translation of the next instalment and was not disappointed. The challenge of reviewing the book, without creating terrible spoilers for readers of the first novel is one that cannot be overcome really – unless one does not review the book at all.

The epic scope of ideas is truly extraordinary. Cheekily – considering Liu is known as “the Chinese Arthur C Clarke” – he names and quotes the great American sci-fi author in this book. There is no doubt that he owes much to the tradition established in the middle of the 20th century by such authors. The awesome, unbounded imagination such writers conveyed with their respect for, and knowledge of science is certainly worth celebrating.

In short: read this book if you like the genre. If sci-fi is not your thing, I’d still recommend you make this trilogy the exception. A Chinese produced film adaptation will be released next year if you cannot make the reading commitment.

NON FICTION

“Teachers of creative writing used to urge their students to write about what they know – perhaps they still do. But when you you’re eighteen or nineteen and keenly aware of how thin your experience really is, it’s hard to put a directive like that into action. The truth is, a family and a hometown will afford you material to last a lifetime, but when you’re a youth neither seems important enough to address.”

Tim Winton

Tim Winton‘s “landscape memoir” – Island Home – is must-read material for an Australian.

Winton always manages to write like its summer when a Southerly Buster hits. Of course, as a Western Australian, he wouldn’t write about this weather phenomenon that cools us citizens of NSW but sentence after sentence, year after year, Winton writes in an Australian vernacular that makes Australian readers feel good.

I am not sure that Winton feels too great himself though.

Increasingly Winton, always an activist, has an anger that has become rage about a range of political and environmental issues. One senses this again in this non fiction offering, as one did for his last novel, Eyrie. He does see progress and political opportunity with the rise of new, environmentally conscious parties but there is some deeper melancholy that permeates his books. For me, it is that sense of the Australian landscape, tinged with sadness and isolation, one has when alone within it. Most Australians know the feeling. One always senses Winton feels his own insignificance and by extension, we feel ours.

I wholeheartedly agree with his passages about cars:

Seeing the country by car, you may think you’re in the landscape but really you’re in a geographical limbo. Enclosed in your steel cocoon you experience the car first, the place you’re in comes a distant second.   Tim Winton

You should find the section on his summer holiday trips and read knowingly. For those readers who made long trips, without air-conditioning and the dog at our feet, he transports us back to the 70s.

Published over twenty years ago, Winton’s, Land’s Edge: Coastal Memoir, is one of my favourite books written by an Australian. For me, Colin Thiele, Clive James and Tim Winton have written most memorably about growing-up in ways that spoke lovingly and shaped how I see it too. This recent effort from Winton is very enjoyable but does not resound in the same way as Land’s Edge, although he is at his very best when talking about experiences and feelings from his first decades on the planet. Unlike Winton, the West Australian author, Randolph Stow, never really spoke to me about landscape or childhood but I have not re-read any of his books for 20 years, so maybe I should try again. 

The brief (7 minutes) promotional video that follows will give you the flavour of this latest Winton book.

 

One good book leads to another…

History, being an intellectual, nonreligious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse. Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context. History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose. Memory wells up from groups that it welds together, which is to say…that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple yet specific; collective and plural yet individual. By contrast history belongs to everyone and to no one and therefore has a universal vocation.           Pierre Nora

I became aware of an important four volume French history via an essay by Tony Judt and managed to get hold of Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past (Volume 1) compiled by Pierre Nora via interlibrary loan (Ken has been kept busy at Kiama library in recent months).

I have not finished this very dense book completely – or rather have much of it to re-read – and have renewed it again. The following two quotes will get you into the ballpark of the speculations about how we remember the past in this French magnum opus:

What we call memory is therefore today not memory but already history…we should be aware of the difference between true memory, which today subsists only in gestures and habits, unspoken craft traditions, intimate physical knowledge, ingrained reminisces, and spontaneous reflexes, and memory transformed by its passage through history, which is practically the opposite: wilful and deliberate, experienced as a duty rather than as spontaneous; psychological, individual and subjective, rather than social, collective and all-embracing. How did this transition from the first, immediate form of memory, to the second, indirect form take place?

Modern memory is first of all archival…The process that began with writing has reached its culmination in high-fidelity recording. The less memory is experienced from within, the greater its need for external props and more tangible reminders of that which no longer exists…

The book is divided into three sections: 1) Political Divisions; Minority Religions; and, Divisions of Time and Space. The opening chapter about Franks and Gauls made me thing a great deal about similar debates and ideas re: British identity. In particular, the representation of Anglo-Saxons v Celts or Norman and Scandinavian influence. I feel strongly that DNA analysis is going to assist us to re-consider origins and the way we construct national identities but there will be along interval between this knowing and changed perception. The chapters on Catholics and Secularists, Gaullists and Communists are also very interesting ruminations on identity and collective remembering.

 

The chapter on Vichy France, in Realms of Memory, made me think a great deal about reading history forwards, rather than backwards. This is incredibly difficult to do but reading good writing, by smart people of past periods, does give us some hope of understanding history as it unfolded rather than with the wisdom of hindsight. Ish. Of course, we get their prejudices, education, cultural perspective and what the writer read in the newspaper that week but that sense of hearing such voices, so unaware of what would happen on the morrow, is a big part of trying to read history forwards.

One interesting example is Arthur Koestler‘s, Scum of the Earth.  Tony Judt’s essay on Koestler, who arguably was the most famous intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, really made me feel I should explore his writing, especially after reading about Vichy in Nora’s book. I have never read his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, and knew absolutely nothing about his non fiction writing but did know of his unpleasantness and misogyny which was the main reason I’d always left his books on the shelf.

Scum of the Earth certainly raises some interesting perspectives on the opening of World War II that are difficult to see, reading that terrible conflict backwards. Koestler, a Hungarian, was imprisoned, as an alien, during the period when France was preparing for war with a militarily rejuvenated Germany. He was bitterly aware that “hatred of foreigners, as such, seems to be the oldest collective feeling of mankind since tribal days…” and makes the point that during 1939-40, the French xenophobia, of which was a victim, was but a “variation on German anti-Semitism”. An interesting fact I did not know about the fall of France, related by Koestler, tells us a great deal about the impact of WWI on French behaviour in 1940:

By the end of 1918, France had lost one and half million men; up till May, 1940, she had lost less than a thousand. In 1917, the nation nearly bled to death, but survived; in 1940, she was succumbing to  kind of moral anaemia, more deadly than any wound.”

Koestler also posits that “those poor, senile, arterio-sclerotic old generals…believed that every trade unionist was a Bolshy, that Socialism meant murder and rape, and that Hitler was a gentleman.” Koestler believed the French ruling class committed suicide scared by the ‘spectre of revolution’ that did not exist’ and had done this repeatedly:

“Both in 1792 and 1870 the French ruling caste had betrayed the nation and preferred the Prussians to revolution.”

I am certain that Koestler’s perspective is very debatable but we forget how much sympathy the aristocratic classes had for “that nice man Hitler” and how commonly held his racist views of life were across Europe and America.  So often we read the history of WWII backwards unable to imagine anything other than post-holocaust perspectives on Hitler and his regime. This transcript and video may interest.

Like all good memoirs, Koestler is very aware of literary tradition

“The life we led was a proof of man’s capacity for adaptation. I think that even condemned souls in purgatory after a while develop some homely routine. That is, by the way, why most prison memoirs are unreadable. The difficulty of conveying to the reader in his armchair an idea of the nightmare world from which he has emerged makes the author depict the prisoner’s state of mind as an uninterrupted continuity of despair.”

and I must say, for the reasons Koestler suggests, I can not really recommend this memoir to anyone other than the most ardent enthusiast for such books or this particular period of history.

Latest readings by Clive James is more about the author’s re-readings than new books which suited me fine. Australian readers, and others, have probably been surprised that the very ill James keeps on keeping on after expecting his demise, any day, for some years now. He has always been prolific but the spectre of death has certainly kept his pen pushing along and acutely focused his reading.

James talks about a wide-range of different books, high and low brow, as you would expect, in this latest effort. One feels his love of and for books on every page. One can almost see a battered collected works of Shakespeare, held together with string and tape, too heavy to be still held in his dying hands. He still has a penchant for grown-up boys own adventure tales too – remembered so fondly from his childhood growing up in Kogarah – evident in the loving reviews of the many sea novels of Patrick O’Brian.

James likes to stir. His review of former prime minister John Howard’s, Lazarus Rising, seems more about baiting “the pseudo intellectual left” than reviewing the book. He praises Howard ad nauseam and focuses on emotive issues, such as refugees in boats seeking asylum. He is quite the trolling of monarchist and these passages feel dusty and crusty.

I think it fair to say that his book feels like a few hastily collected notes slapped together, unformed and without shape, that would not have been published if James’ felt he had any great longevity. I enjoyed it just the same.

 

The Face of Britain – A Nation Through its Portraits by Simon Schama is a tv series* and exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I finished the audiobook, while travelling in England, before visiting the gallery and am still working my way through the hardcover. This has been a really interesting progression into the portraits, listening to Schama describe each before seeing them. Of course, I was familiar with some but many were very new for me.

*The six-part tv series is not yet finished but some of the production values, especially the lighting, were below par. Also, the script needed work. It seemed to neglect important backgrounding to many of the portraits, or rather the subjects. This was not an issue for me, having read the book but did seem poorly done.

The most interesting story behind the artists and the sitters – of which there were many – belonged to Winston Churchill. Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint the Great Man as a present from the nation on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Still the prime minister, many would have felt this likely to be the last public image of the man and one can imagine the pressure on the artist. Churchill certainly had pretensions to art himself and his offer to paint Sutherland sounds like a mind game of the most interesting kind.

When the portrait was completed Churchill hated it. Watching the newsreel footage of him delivering his “thanks” on being presented with the portrait is quite fabulous entertainment. Churchill has his revenge by describing the painting as “a remarkable example of modern art” to gales of laughter and one can literally see the artist squirming on his seat (which is not evident in the footage above but can be viewed watching Schama’s program). Although it only became known after her death, Lady Churchill destroyed the painting several months after it was delivered to their home.

All we have left is the photo.

The other story about Churchill and that most famous of photographic portraits is worth retelling too. Churchill was unexpectedly requested to sit for a photo after addressing the Canadian parliament and was tired, cranky and hugely unhappy about it. Yousuf Karsh, the photographer, requested Churchill remove his signature cigar for the portrait. Churchill refused. Karsh, rather bravely one would have thought, walked up to him, plucked the cigar from the prime minister’s mouth and quickly pressed the shutter. That iconic image of steely determination is actually the look of a man who has had his cigar extracted against his will. Most amusing.

As Irish historian Eoin MacNeill sagely said in 1920, there is no Celtic race, any more than there is a Germanic race or a Latin race, if by ‘race’ we mean some set of physical features that clearly distinguishes one from another.

We are still prone to this today. So it needs to be said that what MacNeill surmised in 1920 we can now prove. He felt that all the present nations of Europe are a mixture of the same ancestral components in varied proportions. He was right. As we shall see, there are three main components to the modern European gene pool. They came from ancient hunter-gatherers, early farmers and a Copper Age people. The modern Irish have a mixture of all three, as do the modern Germans and Italians. Any genetic differences are far too subtle to talk in terms of a Celtic race.

I much preferred the earlier book that Jean Manco wrote which looked closely at what we are uncovering about our past using DNA evidence than her latest one, Blood of the Celts. It feels a little rushed and one imagines a keen publisher asking for “about anything Celtic and DNA” as quickly as possible.

Having said that, it is still an interesting read.

Politics

Since he birched Latham a decade ago for veering too far left, Shorten has stuck to the middle ground. His politics are blue-collar conservative. If he is proposing policies now that were fringe back then – like marriage equality and renewable energy – it’s not because he has shifted. They have moved to the centre, where he has always been standing. He has no radical designs, no great plans for reform. His goal is power for Labor and Bill Shorten…

David Marr‘s latest Quarterly Essay is all about ALP federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten. I read Faction Man dutifully (as it is important to understand who our leaders are) more than with any great interest. It put a little flesh on his bones and told me more about Shorten’s political, professional and personal background but it just was not all that interesting. I wish I’d read it before Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the prime ministership as now it seems Shorten is very unlikely to become PM. He will probably after losing the next election in late 2016 or very early 2017.

qe59_cover

Walking New York

I will be in New York next year as the lucky recipient of a NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship and have started reading widely about the city.

You know I like walking so, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William B. Helmreich, Professor of Sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and City College of New York is clearly a book that would be very interesting to me.

The book actually proved to be much more than I expected and is a very rich sociological exploration of the city. It gave me a good introduction to the different boroughs but I really should have had a map to consult. Not having been to NYC before, I know that much of this book will become more real after I have clocked up a few miles pounding the pavements.

The stats presented makes me confident I have a good chance of surviving, wherever I walk, compared to a few decades back when homicide rates were shocking. The author seems very conscious of this and has quite a deal of advice about the appropriate way to conduct oneself in certain parts of the city. I found some of this cringeworthy but overall, the book comes from very clearly lived experience which made this an interesting perspective from a local.

I listened to an audiobook and am certain to re-listen to it again on the long flight to the USA next year.

ny

Here is my reading shelf for the last two months.

What have you been reading? What would you recommend a traveller visiting New York reads?

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2 Comments

  1. Jane:

    Currently reading The Outlander Series by Diana Galbaldon. I have finished book 1 of a 7 book series about time travel set in the 18th C very good so far.

  2. I have two ideas for your trip to NYC. For your girls you should visit Book of Wonder a terrific childrens and YA book store. If you have time I recommend a tour I did of the subway system looking at the art. The guide was a terrific NY character himself a little like a young Seinfield.
    Here is the link…
    http://www.nycsubwaytour.com

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