My #reading April 2016

Every day I work on the edit of my book. I slog away, shifting chunks of material and moving them back, eating my salad in a daze, wondering if the linking passages I’ve written are leading me up a garden path, or are sentimental, or violate some unarticulated moral and technical code I’ve signed up to and feel trapped in or obliged to. The sheer bloody labour of writing. No one but another writer understands it—the heaving about of great boulders into a stable arrangement so that you can bound up them and plant your little flag at the very top.

Everywhere I Look is Helen Garner’s most recent book of non fiction. There are only a few new pieces and the collection spans the 21st century, so it is not really ‘new’. I had read quite a few of them before but certainly did not resent the fact. Garner is always masterful. Her prose is a window and we get to look in, as well as out; it is a mirror too, with cracks.

Garner ranges over topics as disparate as a secondhand couch and a moment on a bus to anecdotes about well-known Australian authors, like Raymond Gaita, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolley. She writes about old age and grandchildren, parents, suburbs and houses. She finds a grudging respect for Russell Crowe or at least for his acting. She etches portraits of Australians who have committed unspeakable, heinous crimes. They are unflinching and challenge many readers:

I see now that for some years already I had been trying to turn myself into the sort of person who could look steadily at such things, without flinching or turning away. I remember how my friends reacted when I begged them to come with me and look at the photos at the Justice and Police Museum: most of them really did not want to see them; they couldn’t understand why I thought they were beautiful. But I knew I could learn from them. So I went back, again and again, usually on my own. I longed to mimic in my own work the brutal simplicity of the police photographs.

Memories of books and other mysterious delights and sensations from childhood abound. The anecdotes she shares of primary school – and her adult discovery of the reality of life for that teacher – makes particularly fine reading:

You said, ‘An adverb can modify an adjective.’ Until that moment I had known only that adverbs modified verbs: they laughed loudly; merrily we roll along. I knew I was supposed to be scratching away with my dip pen, copying the list into my exercise book, but I was so excited by this new idea that I put up my hand and said, ‘Mrs Dunkley, how can an adverb modify an adjective?’ You paused, up there in front of the board with the pointer in your hand. My cheeks were just about to start burning when I saw on your face a mysterious thing. It was a tiny, crooked smile. You looked at me for a long moment—a slow, careful, serious look. You looked at me, and, for the first time, I knew that you had seen me. ‘Here’s an example,’ you said, in an almost intimate tone. ‘The wind was terribly cold.’ I got it, and you saw me get it. Then your face snapped shut.

Garner can always make the reader look again at a familiar societal landscape. Her sympathy for the people of Moonee Ponds, in Melbourne, makes us looks less favourably on Barry Humphries’ lampooning of decent people. She relentlessly interrogates her own responses, positions and prejudices. Garner relates feeling “…ashamed now of my bohemian contempt for the suburbs of my childhood, of my longing to be sophisticated”. I would like her to write more about the ‘hippiedom’ of her younger years.

One good book always leads to another. I will pursue the “great American journalist”, Janet Malcolm, who is the writer Garner says influenced her more than any other. If you believe what a person says about another says more about themselves, you will enjoy this description of Garner’s literary hero:

I have never met her, or heard her speak, but I would know her written voice anywhere. It is a literary voice, composed and dry, articulate and free-striding, drawing on deep learning yet plain in its address, and above all fearless, though she cannot possibly be without fear, since she understands it so well in others. She will not be read lazily. She assumes intelligence and expects you to work, to pace along with her. Her writing turns you into a better reader. There is no temptation to skim: its texture is too rich, too worldly, too surprising. She is brilliant at revealing things in stages, so you gasp, and gasp, and gasp again. She yokes the familiar with the strange in the way that dreams do—suddenly a wall cracks open and a flood of light pours in, or perhaps a perfectly aimed, needle-like beam. Reading her is an austerely enchanting kind of fun.

Sounds like an articulate description of Garner’s writing; one that I wish I had written.

If you have not experienced Helen Garner’s non fiction, Everywhere I Look is a good place to start. You will find no better writing about being alive today from an Australian author. Certainly there are few anywhere who can look at life with such an unflinching eye and explore it so honestly. One would have to agree with, and draw strength from, the following sentences which are the bones of the skeleton of what it is Garner does:

Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for.

hg

“I have never lost my conviction that writing, and being involved in the media, is one of the ways you can help change the world.”

Craig McGregor

Left hand Drive: A Social and Political Memoir by Craig McGregor transported this reader into a very familiar, reassuring paradigm of the period from the end of the Second World War to the turn of the century through the eyes of a thoughtful Australian with a social conscience.

He seems to have been involved, as a journalist and citizen, in numerous momentous social and political events across three continents. McGregor, who grew-up in Jamberoo close-by to where I now reside, lived in the USA and the UK during the socio-political upheavals of the 60-70s. I particularly related to his years in London and England. The energy of the time, his own personal excitement at leaving Australia and the joy of meeting his life-long partner is communicated with precision. This section is the strongest part of the memoir along with his reflections about the challenges of writing and journalism.

The unfolding text of McGregor’s intellectual development and the formation of his values is also very interesting. The thread, from school to a journalism cadetship at a newspaper to university and then out into the wider world worked well for this reader. It flowed.

McGregor won Walkley Awards for his journalism. His insightful profiles of Hawke, Keating and Howard are memorable. His analysis of the period leading up to The Dismissal of Gough Whitlam was particularly interesting; as is his passionate disbelief that Australians could produce a parvenu, like Sir John Kerr, who acted so abhorrently.

The first book of McGregor’s I read was Class in Australia. It still resounds. McGregor, fervently, optimistically believes in ideals like this one he quotes from Pericles, “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy…” His aside smarts: “sounds like Australia used to be.”

Reading this memoir helps this long-time reader of his articles and books understand how McGregor’s own passions and life experiences helped produce such insightful analysis. His experiences in rural Australia, as a youth, and later on while owning his own property and raising his own children on the land contrasted sharply with experiences in London, New York and Sydney. This sentence resounds and tells much about our Australian context:

I came to realise, however, that being so close to the land and its elemental nature can grind away at your sensibility until, over the years or perhaps generations, someone like the familiar Australian countryman is fashioned: stoic, laconic, unimaginative and possibly cruel.

“One of Moorehead’s chief themes in these years is an exaggerated horror of being pinned down, of getting stuck, and the absolute necessity of avoiding it, either in a place, or with a woman, or – worse – with a wife and the prams and toddlers and suburban front yard he assumed came with one.”

An excerpt in The Monthly from Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish so impressed I pre-ordered the book last month and now that I have finished can say it has given great pleasure. Moorehead made a life travelling and writing. He seemed to know everybody and have been everywhere. His flight from the continental confines of Australia inspired the likes of Robert Hughes, Clive James and other would-be expatriates. At one stage, Alan Moorehead was Australia’s most famous writer.

This is not a conventional biography. McCamish’s book is something special. He is clearly enamoured with Moorehead and communicates the adventure of his ‘search’ for the war correspondent, traveller, husband, father, womaniser, journalist and writer skilfully. I was hooked. There’s just so much to enjoy in the story of Moorehead as well as the author’s thought about his subject’s legacy and life. I particularly enjoyed reading about the challenge of writing:

Back in Cairo in 1941, Moorehead had devised a method for writing books he’d stuck with ever since. He would sketch out by hand a blueprint of the entire book on sheets of foolscap, indicating roughly the contents of each chapter, including inspired phrases or lines of dialogue, and refine it until all his ideas were in the right place. Once this ‘cartoon for a tapestry’ was complete, it was time for the actual writing. It was a methodical, painfully costive process that demanded a steady, unrelenting input of working time. When a book was on the go, he worked six days a week; he rose before 7 a.m., made himself a huge pot of coffee, and trudged out to the studio. There he sat, back to the tumbling vineyards and shining sea, not leaving his seat until lunchtime. In the afternoons, he corrected the morning’s work, read, or redrafted. The greatest lesson Robert Hughes absorbed at the feet of the master, he said afterwards, was business-like hours. ‘Whether he was writing anything or not, he’d be sitting in front of the typewriter, and generally just by the sheer process of shaming himself into sitting there, 1000 words a day would come out.’ Moorehead remarked in the late ’50s, ‘people sometimes tell me they enjoy writing. I just look at them and wonder how long they’ve been at it.’

Roberto Bolaño says genuine travel “requires travellers who have nothing to lose’” and it is easy to admire Moorehead’s ability to travel endlessly; he certainly fits a mould always admired from afar. I have ordered secondhand copies of several of Moorehead’s travel books and will re-read others over the next few years.

To write about Gallipoli, however, Moorehead would have to overcome a lifetime’s distaste for the very word. A boy when the Great War ended, Moorehead had grown up surrounded by its maudlin remembrance, bitterness and human wreckage. Anzac Day was a torment in the 1920s. He hated it all: Kipling’s poetry and the turgid speeches; the ‘bitter, hopeless grief’, the boozy sentimentality and the ‘endless stories about what old Joe did on Hill 60’. It all ‘bored me and bored me and bored me’. Not that you would ever dare say so.

Professional historians never had much time for Moorehead and he was one of the first great popularisers of history to sell well. I had read two of his books previously, about Gallipoli and Darwin, but intend to re-read them when I have a chance. Germaine Greer is quoted as saying Moorehead’s book about Gallipoli was the first, and the best-written.

After finishing McCamish’s book a secondhand copy of A Late Education arrived (culled from a library in Ottawa). I read it in one sitting, understanding what compelled McCamish to pursue the largely forgotten Australian in library archives, via old friends and in places he lived or worked. Moorehead writes very masterfully and with a voice, however unlikely this seems, stripped of ego. His dislike of school is palpable:

I had been a most unsuccessful schoolboy, invariably at the bottom of my class and unable to get into any of the teams, but this hardly explains the sense of loathing—yes, positively loathing that still overcomes me whenever I think of that place. I attended the school as a day-boy for ten years, and surely there must have been pleasant episodes in all that time. Yet all I can remember now is those meaningless morning prayers, the heat of those overcrowded classrooms through the long droning afternoon, those second-rate masters brought out from England with their harassed and defeated faces, those windy red-brick corridors with their clanging metal shutters, and the dead hand of suburbia over all. The bearded dominie who was the headmaster was, I believe, a kindly man and much loved, but to me he was an ogre and I still have a feeling of panic when I recall that awful voice, ‘You boy. Come here!

Clearly all this is very unfair, and indeed my sister, who is some years older than I am, has told me that I was a cheerful and happy little boy, and although I did not do very well at my lessons I was as bright as a button.

But I see a different picture.

Moorehead’s early years in Australia and the period prior to the outbreak of WWII, when he was a young man in Paris, Germany, Gibraltar and Italy for the first time are particularly engaging. The bit about when he met Hemingway is great too. His voice – which has such honesty that he makes Knausgaard look shy – makes for wonderful reading.

Moorehead had insurmountable health problems at a relatively early age (although he seemed to outlive all his WWII contemporaries). Tobacco, alcohol and stress must have had much to do with his stroke. I find it deeply melancholic thinking the horror of those dozen years or so when Moorehead was unable to read or write or talk much at all. This seems so terrible for such a man. And lonely.

Lucy, his wife (and after all his infidelities) was the one who constructed A Late Education from her husband’s notes while he was incapacitated. The book is unbalanced but nevertheless the best that could be hoped for with Moorehead in such bad shape. It was a terrible blow to this reader when his wife was killed and it seemed all the more terrible to think about again after reading her efforts to compile this book. Really terrible.

He died in 1983. His wife had been killed in a car accident in 1979. Buried in London, at Hampstead, his epitaph is brief and wholly appropriate:

Alan Moorehead: Writer

.

George Orwell’s third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), is much better than the author personally rated it. Orwell never wanted it reprinted and claimed it was only published as he ‘needed the money’. I can see why he felt this way; the plot, characterisation and style need development. However, I gobbled it greedily feeling pleased that after all these years of reading Orwell that there was still such pleasure to be found in this novel the author wanted pulped.

Orwell worked in a bookshop at Hampstead while he wrote it which will explain some of these lines:

“He was alone with seven thousand books…mostly aged and unsaleable.”

“At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all. Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place.”

He had already published Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). He would do the research that led The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and his enlistment to fight in Spain that would result in Homage to Catalonia (1938).

Listening to a sample of Richard E Grant, who played the protagonist in the 1997 film adaptation, narrate the story would convince even the most reluctant to buy the audiobook. He is superb. It is obvious that playing the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, in the movie has added significant depth to his reading. Comstock is often an annoying character, his whining and negativity can be cloying but Grant inhabits his character with at least some lightness of tone, even though much is quite bleak.

Orwell’s perspective on London in the mid-1930s, socialism, money, poverty and class is fascinating. You can see him thinking out his ideals and seeing through some of the genteel socialists that were in part of the London literary milieu. Even some cursory reading reveals the likely sources for some of his characters but it is the development of Orwell’s particular understanding of democratic socialism that one can see in these pages that interests.

“For after all, what is there behind, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O lord, give me money, only money.”

Orwell is always at his best when describing what he sees. It is a joy to accompany him into pubs and cafes, bookshops and the streets of the Monopoly Board. I know of no other female character in Orwell’s books as successfully realised as Rosemary, Gordon’s girlfriend. Their relationship unfolds in a believable manner, although some of the dialogue is stilted. This is particularly true of Gordon’s obsession with the corrupting nature of money which is not always skilfully rendered. Some of Orwell’s attitudes are certainly of there period.

Anyone who is a student of Orwell, twentieth century politics or English literature, really should read this one. As an aside, The Left Book Club (1936-48), which was supported by Orwell’s publisher and featured several of his books, was reformed late last year. One would hope that some new books that examine our age as successfully as Orwell did his will be highlighted by the club. Here’s the first books on their list.

Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty is a collection of the economist’s articles for the French newspaper, Liberation. Piketty’s voice has great authority and his ideas on how democracy must make capitalism work for all of us are sensible and supported with convincing empirical data. Topics range from the financial crises over the last decade, especially in Ireland and Greece to American politics. He knows Europe must forge political and economic structures collaboratively and points a way forward.

Piketty writes about the rise of extreme right and left wing movements that endanger the European Union and democracies everywhere if the disparities between the exceptionally rich and the rest are permitted to grow even more. There’s not many who would disagree with that. Piketty consistently advocates for redistribution through a progressive global tax on wealth. Many would be surprised to read how heavily taxed the wealthiest were in the Europe and the USA prior to the neoliberal reforms that commenced with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Piketty, as always, presents hard data to support his positions.

Politics goes in cycles but many feel the game is fixed through the economic hegemony of the uber-wealthy. Piketty helps shine the light into dimly lit places. The zeitgeist is always unfolding but in the last few years fundamental democratic inequalities and the way pubic discourse is manipulated for the benefit of the wealthiest few is bubbling through into public consciousness and writers, economists like Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, are unexpectedly on international bestseller lists as a result.

A randomly jotted list shows a perfect storm – the economic global meltdown commencing in 2008; the taxation scandals revealed via the Panama Papers; the turmoil economically and politically in Greece; governments breaking all kinds of laws, as shown by Edward Snowden and Wikileaks – that is leading to a concerted fight against the corruption at the heart of the political and financial system.  All this is coagulating in the public consciousness as state infrastructure is neglected, public schools under-funded and austerity policies punish those least responsible for financial crises in many countries.

There is a change in the air and many (look at the bestseller lists) are looking for economists, intellectuals and thought-leaders like Piketty. The UK Labour Party after losing all seats in Scotland at the most recent election has a “left wing leader” again, in Jeremy Corbyn, signalling a break from the neoliberal consensus of the last two decades and Bernie Sanders has had far more support than expected in the American process of choosing presidential candidates.

You can see from the screenshots above that Piketty mostly writes about difficult economic issues with an acute awareness of the political context in which these challenges have arisen. My favourite piece in this collection, Secularism and Inequality: The French Hypocrisy, draws the veil from any notions that the state is truly secular in the way it treats religion. Roman Catholicism is privileged socially and economically, especially in schools. This is a legacy of history but not discussed publicly as the official, grand narrative, that “France likes to present itself as a model of neutrality, tolerance and respect for different beliefs without privileging any one of them…” is shown to be false.

Piketty writes of the job discrimination that young muslims experience in his country. He is particularly disturbed to see that ‘discrimination is greatest for those who have met for offical requirements for success’ and the highest levels of education and best credentials. He quotes from studies with particularly clever methodologies revealing that the name on the top of the CV makes all the difference.

This collection of articles is a good introduction to Piketty before taking on the challenging book that made him famous outside of France. Highly recommended.

Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis is a quick, informative read that has a great deal to offer a wide-variety of readers. Many will be surprised to find out about the business and legal challenges facing Gutenberg in raising money to develop his printing press. Other considerations, including secrecy were also interesting. Gutenberg developed different parts of the press at numerous locations to prevent industrial sabotage. His legal troubles, as a result of challenges raising money and ‘shipping’ on time, made for interesting reading. The more things change…

Jarvis successfully compares both Gutenberg’s press and context, as an innovator, with contemporary development in the American tech industry. His observations about the impact of the printing press compared with the contemporary platforms, like social media via the World Wide Web, are very worth reading.

I think Gutenberg the Geek is potentially a great book for secondary students to read, in any number of subjects or contexts. It is certainly available as audio or ebook at a bargain price of just a few dollars.

“…we are running a 21st century digital economy on a 13th Century printing-press era operating system.” Douglas Rushkoff

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff is a great read addressing a topic of profound importance, especially for our children and planet. The book is not really about Google, or rocks hurled at buses. This is a book about legacy systems – corporate, economic and societal – with a few suggestions of what may ameliorate the situation in our current, 21st century digital context.

Rushkoff does a good job analysing how the current economic model, to which most digital startups and tech companies are unable to escape, is ultimately unsustainable, socially and environmentally. The system is broken for the majority but the small, very small minority of people who benefit have inordinate power to keep the growth engine it cranking along. He takes particular aim at corporations:

“The economy we’re operating in today may have been built to serve corporations, but not many of them are doing too well in the digital environment. Even the apparent winners are actually operating on borrowed time and, perhaps more to the point, borrowed money. Neither digital technology nor the corporation itself is necessarily to blame for the current predicament. Rather, it’s the way the rules of corporatism, written hundreds of years ago, mesh with the rules of digital platforms we’re writing today. A corporation is just a set of rules, and so is software. It’s all code, and it doesn’t care about people, our priorities, or our future unless we bother to program those concerns into it.”

The long, slow death of Twitter makes all of us sad and Rushkoff’s analysis of what has happened to the ten-year old social media platform is an instructive example of the above quote:

(Evan Williams) and his partners turned Twitter into a publicly traded, multibillion-dollar company and in the process sacrificed a potentially world-changing app to the singular pursuit of growth. Here was arguably the most powerful social media tool ever developed—from organizing activists in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements to providing a global platform for citizen journalists and presidential candidates alike. And it wasn’t particularly expensive to create or maintain. It certainly didn’t require a multibillion-dollar cash infusion in order to keep  functioning.  

Having taken in this much new capital, however, Twitter now needs to produce. It must grow. As of this writing, the $43 million Twitter profited last quarter is considered an abject failure by Wall Street. In 2015, Twitter investors complained* that the company was too far from reaching its “100x” growth potential and forced out the CEO. Shareholders are demanding that Twitter find better ways of monetizing its users’ tweets, whether by injecting advertisements into people’s feeds, mining their data for marketing intelligence, or otherwise degrading the utility of the app or the integrity of its community. Whatever actually may have been disruptive about Twitter will now have to be made less so.

It’s not that Twitter isn’t successful; it’s just not successful enough to justify all the money investors have pumped into it. There was already enough revenue for the employees to be happy, the users to be served, and even the original investors to be well compensated in an ongoing way. But there may never be enough to satisfy shareholders who expect to win back one hundred times their initial $20 billion bet. To do that, Twitter must  grow into a corporation bigger than the economy of many entire nations. Isn’t that a bit much to ask of an app that sends out messages of 140 characters or less?

This disproportionate relationship between capital and value— or invested money versus actual revenue—is the hallmark of the dominant digital economy. If anything, the digital economy has laid  bare the process by which cash, labor, and productive assets from the real, transactional marketplace are extracted and converted into frozen capital—all in the name of growth.

Indeed. We all noticed.

I enjoyed Rushkoff’s explanation of the medieval marketplace and extrapolations to the modern peer to peer economies, like eBay and the growth of local cash/barter/exchange/sharing economies in Japan and Spain that combat high unemployment or rampant inflation. His explanation of ROA (Return on Assets) vs ROI (Return of Investment) makes an important point about the fundamentally flawed nature of the quarterly economic cycle in encouraging genuinely unsustainable growth. He quotes a from a recent study:

“the conclusion is inescapable: big hierarchical bureaucracies with legacy structures and managerial practices and short-term mindsets have not yet found a way to flourish in this new world.” 

This sounds very similar to challenges we have in education.

The title of the book is probably the worst thing about it, although one does tire of it towards the end probably feeling a little more disappointed that there are not really many solutions other than a few examples of peer to peer transactions or using local currencies. Rushkoff seems to steer away from political solutions.

History is far more than a series of events and the biographies of big names; it is the subtle interweaving of human actions spread over vast landscapes and through deep time creating a dense fabric, every thread of which has significance. The wonder of it all lies in how interconnected everything is.

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia is another extraordinary book by Barry Cunliffe. The scope – and this certainly is “big history” – astounds. Although the book gallops along the “great swath of steppe, some 9,000 kilometres of it stretching from the Great Hungarian Plain to Manchuria” and across 10 000 years one is able to stay in the narrative saddle. There are numerous peoples, locations and periods of history that this reader was very unfamiliar with and Cunliffe’s quite informal “Guide to Further Reading” at the end of the book could keep one busy for many, many years.

If the mountain ranges created barriers to easy communication between east and west, the great steppe corridor provided a remarkable uninterrupted route running almost the entire length of Eurasia between latitudes 40° and 55° north. Beginning in the Great Hungarian Plain the steppe extended, unbroken, to Manchuria, a distance of some 9,000 kilometres. The vastness of this ecozone called for rapid movement. This was the land of the horse rider, of the pastoralist tending his flocks and herds, and, later, of the warrior horde.

The steppe is the most remarkable natural corridor in the world. It is here that the first horses were domesticated and ridden, where mobile pastoralism first emerged, where the fast two-wheeled chariot was invented, and where riders first learnt to work together as cavalry with world-shattering effect.

Although this is big history there are many smaller stories of individuals who were remarkable. Landscape painters, merchants, monks and travellers also people this landscape we can really only learn about by sophisticated scientific analysis of archaeological remains. I particularly enjoyed the story of Faxian (337-422 CE) a who was a Chinese buddhist monk. He travelled to India seeking scriptures and was understandably content on returning home to spend the rest of his life writing an account of his travels, translating and editing the texts he had collected:

The accounts that he gives of the sea-voyages provide a tantalizing insight into the maritime systems at work at the time and the massive scale of the enterprises then under way in Indonesian and Chinese waters. In the ports at the mouth of the Ganges and on Sri Lanka he could well have found himself in the company of Roman ships’ masters who had set out from the Red Sea ports of Egypt, and heard the stories of their very different worlds.

Along with Faxian’s work, I’d love to track down Guo Xi’s (1020–90) book, “Advice on Landscape Painting” which discusses how sensible it is for humans to “seek solace in the forests, streams, and hills, but duty requires them to remain in the busy world”. He says, “the purpose of the artist is to provide them with landscape paintings to offer peace in the home when they return from work”. Sound advice that.

This book is not just about ‘the steppe’. Cunliffe has always written about ancient and prehistoric seaways which seem to hold a particular fascination for him. Those familiar with Homer’s stories will recognise the source for this passage:

To return after a long journey with esoteric knowledge or exotic goods set the traveller apart: he held a power that other men did not, and story-telling about distant parts became an art. This was the very stuff of the heroic societies reflected in the works of Homer. When the unknown traveller Telemachus and his entourage arrived at the palace of Nestor, he was accepted, bathed, and fed without question, and only when the rules of hospitality had been observed could Nestor ask: ‘Who are you, sirs? From what part have you sailed over the highways of the sea?

Cunliffe’s next book, provisionally titled Exploring the Sea of Perpetual Gloom”  pursues this interest and will be with his publishers shortly (he tells me). How can one not want to read more from such a learned person who also has enough of a sense of humour to write this towards the conclusion of his book:

The causal interlinking is, of course, infinitely more complex than the bare skeleton outlined here, as anyone who has read the previous eleven chapters will recognize, but the advantage of attempting to tease out the essential threads is that it reminds us that history is much more than ‘just one **** thing after another’.

Yet the name Inklings, as J.R.R. Tolkien recalled it, was little more than “a pleasantly ingenious pun … suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” The donnish dreaminess thus hinted at tells us something important about this curious band: its members saw themselves as no more than a loose association of rumpled intellectuals, and this modest self-image is a large part of their charm.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski is a detailed look at this very famous literary group of fellow-travellers in the middle of the 20th century. For those who have read much about Tolkien there is not much that is new but contextually, this book is which explores is friendships does offer deeper insight into the period and his world.

I learnt a great deal about CS Lewis; although much of it just made me like him even less, if that is possible. Lewis’ fall, from secular atheist to christian apologist, is particularly well covered by the authors. I knew very little, almost nothing about Barfield and Williams but found the latter more interestingly covered in the book (or maybe just a genuinely weirder figure than the other three).

The sections on Lewis and Tolkien, especially about their developing philosophies and ideas, are by far the most interesting parts of the books; as are their perceptions of this literary circle. Lewis always said of the Inklings that they were “…a group of Christians who like to write” but the authors of this book posit that these individuals really shared “intellectual vivacity, love of myth, conservative politics, memories of war, and a passion for beef, beer, and verbal battle…(with a) set of enemies, including atheists, totalitarians, modernists, and anyone with a shallow imagination”. It was, in my assessment, more of a bloke’s drinking club than anything else. They were all reticent to talk out of turn about each other, especially as their individual fame grew but Tolkien wrote an unfinished novel, The Notion Club Papers, which I would like to read as it seems to be an exploration of the Inklings that Zaleski and Zaleski feel is the best representation of the group we have; ’notion’ being a synonym for ‘inkling’.

Lewis was to become, after his BBC radio talks, “the foremost Christian apologist in the English-speaking world”. He was much more well-known than Tolkien – “who had a widespread academic reputation as a time waster and dreamer” – and whose fame only really spread when he was an old man and after his death. Lewis certainly had a moral political agenda that was clear to others, like the writer and journalist, George Orwell. Lewis’ broadcasting approach was successful, in Orwell’s opinion, as his “chummy little wireless talks” succeeded in making everyman listen and were “not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look.” Quite simply, “since becoming a Christian, his teaching, reading, writing, and scholarship had all acquired zest and purpose. He had found his vocation: to fight the Lord’s battles in the academy and the world at large, armed with wit, dialectic, and invincible faith” believably suggest Zaleski and Zaleski.

This was not Tolkien’s style at all. He believed that while myth and fairy tale must reflect religious truth, they must do so subtly, never depicting religion as it appears in “the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” Lewis certainly, well at least after his conversion to Christianity in the early 1930s, had no such compulsion. He was happy to proselytise and use allegory, which Tolkien rejected. Tolkien insisted on the strict separation of the allegorical from the mythopoeic but Lewis thought they mixed.

I really do not like Lewis as a writer, person or for his philosophy one bit but certainly admire his knowledge of English literature and ability to read with absolutely undivided attention for long periods of time. There would be few people, in any era, more well-read than he. Whenever I have read Lewis’ fiction or non fiction he leaves me feeling annoyed. This book has let me see more deeply into why that might be.

I am with Philip Pullman – “the most dangerous man in England” – in railing against the works of Lewis. Pullman sees Lewis as “bullying, hectoring and dishonest in all kinds of ways” and describes the Narnia books as “very dodgy and unpleasant – dodgy in the dishonest rhetoric way – and unpleasant because they seem to embody a world view that takes for granted things like racism, misogyny and a profound cultural conservatism that is utterly unexamined.” Pullman hates how Lewis “pours scorn on little girls with fat legs. And, as one commentator said, among Lewis’s readers will be some little girls with fat legs who find themselves utterly bewildered by this slur on something they can’t help and are embarrassed and upset by already. It’s the position, as this commentator said, of the teacher who curries favour with the bullies in the class by bullying the weak children with them.” (Quoted in ‘The Guardian’ 20/11/2013)

The following quotes from made me grimace more than a little (smile a little too) and certainly provide an insight into the complex young man who went from being such a militant atheist in his youth to one seeking forgiveness in the Christian faith and encouraging other sinners to find God too. Perhaps they go some way to explaining the dodginess that Pullman notes, while also making us feel a little sorry for Lewis:

“Lewis’s increasing fixation during this period upon sadomasochism. Four of his letters to Arthur he signs Philomastix (“whip lover”), sometimes in Greek characters to thwart snoopy readers (Lewis’s father snatched up and read his correspondence whenever possible, and Lewis may have feared that the same reign of terror prevailed in Greeves’s household). He daydreams in these letters about lashing young ladies of his acquaintance; he even wonders, baselessly, whether William Morris was also entranced by “the rod,” on the strength of a stray sentence in The Well at the World’s End. Sadomasochism may be the English vice, but Lewis’s jaunty tone, his eagerness to describe his imagined victims and their stripes, suggest a mind knocked more than usually askew by the fierce energies of teenage sexuality.”

“Lewis as a youth was extraordinarily uncomfortable in his body. Dances were a torment, sports a nightmare.”

“Each thumb had only one joint, a defect that led, when shaving, tying laces, or attempting other normal manipulations, to fury and tears. He inhabited his young body as if it were a suit of armor; and if his face was doomed to miscommunicate his true feelings…”

“As Tolkien looked to the future, Lewis rummaged in the past. A letter Lewis wrote on November 22, 1916—forty-six years to the day before his death—reveals an eighteen-year-old with the energy of a schoolboy and the tastes of an octogenarian.”

If this is the first book about Tolkien one has read than titbits, especially from his formative years, will interest. Those of you who are not fond of spiders will appreciate one of his earliest experiences:

“…a large spider, perhaps a tarantula, bit baby Ronald. Tolkien would later deny any connection between this childhood spider bite and the spider-monsters of his fiction; yet it is tempting to imagine that this horrific creature nestled in his subconscious until it reemerged, swollen to gigantic size, as the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit, the insatiable Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, and Shelob’s mother, Ungoliant, in The Silmarillion, the primary collection of Tolkien’s mythopoeic tales.”

I did not know of the timing of Tolkien’s father’s death and found this following passage deeply affecting:

“News of his illness arrived via telegram on the same day that Ronald, barely four years old, was preparing to post his first letter—his first literary production of any sort—a rapturous note to his father anticipating their reunion. Arthur, only thirty-nine, died of a haemorrhage the next day. The poignancy of hope denied is acute, as is the circumstantial intertwining of literature and tragedy, touchstones of much of Tolkien’s later work.”

You my have seen this interview (1968) with Tolkien where he talks about what The Lord of the Rings is all about:

The story of Tolkien’s extended courtship with Edith, his wife to be and the subsequent tales of Beren and Lúthien that developed, will also interest many fans. Tolkien, convalescing after the experience of the Western Front, is able to spend time with his wife (see the final photograph at the end of this post):

“Love ripened between the parents-to-be. Tolkien wrote, read, and drew, while Edith enchanted him with her piano playing and, one day in a “small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire,” with her dancing, offering to his exhausted eyes a vision of beauty and grace, a glimpse of paradise. “In those days,” he wrote, “her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance.” The forest interlude inspired him to write “Of Beren and Lúthien,” to his mind the narrative heart of The Silmarillion. A quasi-autobiographical tale, it recounts the love of Beren, a man, and Lúthien, an Elven princess he spies dancing in the woods, and their terrible trials in search of a magical jewel…”

There’s a good deal to be gleaned from this book about Tolkien’s books. I learnt that in the earliest versions of The Hobbit that Gandalf was the chief dwarf. Tolkien borrowed the names for the dwarves from the Dvergatal (dwarf list), a section of the Old Norse Eddic poem Völuspá, which mentions Durin, Dvalin, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thrain, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Eikinskjaldi (Oakenshield)—and Gandalf. You may be interested to know that in 1977 the word “hobbit” was found listed in a two-volume collection of folklore studies (1895) about the preternatural beings native to northern England.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings kept me interested but does have some pretty dull stretches to be weathered. The book has not made me wish to read the works of Lewis, Barfield or Williams but it has deepened my appreciation of the intellectual friendships that nourished Tolkien and as such, was definitely worth the time spent on such a lengthy tome. It certainly amused me to read that Germaine Greer famously declared that “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century”. Germaine surely would agree, with some frustration, with the authors conclusion that Tolkien:

“…by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature, beginning with Virgil and the Beowulf poet; (recovering) archaic literary forms not as an antiquarian curiosity but as a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties and longings.”

Tolkien's grave, Wolvercote Cemetery

Featured image: screenshot of book titles.

Share

1 Comment

  1. Unkle Cyril:

    Marvellous Darcy. I have made a couple of reservations at the library inspired by your blog. Cheers.

Post a Comment

*
* (will not be published)

Random Posts

LOAD MORE
UA-6171563-2