Sunday, 30 January 2011

A struggle for Life, by Llewelyn Powys

Selected essays of an Epicurean

Reactions to the written word can be extraordinarily diverse and startling. I have been taken aback by replies to e-mails I have sent, for instance. Critical evaluations of literature often tell you more about the critic than the text. Judgements about irony, sarcasm, sentimentality and so forth are quite subjective. I find that one’s reactions to a piece can alter, according to time, place and mood, or, even more intriguing, one can hold two different feelings about a writer simultaneously.

I was interested to note in Anthony Head’s excellent introduction that the poet John Wain judged one of L. Powys’s books to be the ‘corniest’ book he had ever read. I can empathise with that reaction, and had a streak of that judgement as I read some of the essays collected in the book. L. Powys tries hard to tug the heart strings, and waxes eloquent in a florid, almost Euphuistic style at times. One could easily parody and satirise his writing.

However, more strongly, I felt a personal closeness to the experiences of the author and the views he expresses. For one, he lived in Africa for five years, somewhat paralleling my own decade or so living in Zambia in my childhood. He also has an abiding love of the culture and nature of the English countryside, which I share, though bowing to his much greater knowledge and experience. His reverse Pilgrim’s progress away from what he sees as the syrupy delusions of conventional Christianity, has many points of contact with my own philosophical journey. The debilitating and serious disease he suffered from finds a kinship in my heart, given my own medical problems. Lastly, his love of Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ and of the beauty of the stars are big recommendations for me too.

Head has made a judicious selection, covering many topics and the broad sweep of his life, in Dorset, the USA, East Africa and Switzerland; only one of which I have read before – ‘Bat’s Head’. The first essay ‘A struggle for life’ introduces us to the central tragedy of his life, his contraction of pulmonary tuberculosis, diagnosed when he was only 25 years old. This damaged the rest of his life, eventually killing him, but did not hold him back from enjoying his time on earth to the full. This essay is written in an unsentimental and un-self-pitying way, that is admirable.

The four essays on aspects of his life in Africa are vivid, but reveal a colonial callousness. He shoots leopard and hippo without any compunction, all the more surprising given his otherwise tender nature, and the later essays ‘Christian Fingers’ and ‘Barbarians’, in which he criticises hunting and cruelty to animals.

His time in America seemed to have sparked little creative writing, though he mentions a striking image of him sleeping on the roof of buildings in New York, looking up at the night sky, and waking covered with light snow.

The philosophical essays appealed particularly, though I find his attitude to religion inconsistent and unstable. He often refers to God, admires aspects of Christian culture and expresses sentiments close to conventional religious opinions, yet he professes himself an atheist at other points. In the essay ‘The Epicurean Vision’, he declares his adherence to a joyful, sturdy enjoyment of the simple physical pleasures of life. He criticises ‘Christians at prayer’ as ‘obsequious’, ‘sycophantic’ and ‘craven, unhealthy, neurotic’. Strong words! He dislikes the creed of the church in trying to discredit life upon earth, with all its talk of absurd Trinities, fables about ascensions, dead men rising from the grave and a focus on a mythical heaven. Powys follows the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, wanting us to look at the world we live in now, to make the best of it, with unfaltering loyalty to our senses. He urges us to “enjoy our hour of sunshine”.

Powys’s philosophy of life is expressed even more eloquently in ‘The Aebi Wood’. He stared at this green wood for many hours from the balcony of his sanatorium in Switzerland, and is came to symbolise the immediacy of the physical life and world we inhabit. He writes “Make no doubt of it, it is matter that matters. In all else there is mirage, man himself, for all his vaunts, being but a cheap and accidental phantom of cleaver clay. There may well be other dimensions, but in so far as we allow the suspicion of their existence to dim our worship of what is, we suffer ourselves to be entangled in a cloud-net of folly. Our paradise, our hells, are here and now, we shall see no other.”

His most powerful chapter is ‘Reflections of a Dying Man’. Somebody suffering from worsening Tuberculosis, with no cure in sight, has a right to record such reflections, I don’t find this passage ‘corny’. It is unblinking and objective, rejecting easy solutions, recognising mankind is blessed with self-knowledge “on a rainbow planet that is tumbling through a physical universe of inconceivable dimensions”. He preaches joy in what we have, and an admirable stoicism: “It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature? Surely to look at the sunlight for the last time should rather be an occasion for the trembling of our marrow bones with gratitude.”

So lovely a country will never perish, by Donald Keene

Japanese wartime diaries

It is often not felicitous when you are given books by friends, but this was an exception. Once I started reading these extracts and commentaries on diaries of Japanese writers during the Second World War, I was rapidly drawn in. It may have had extra resonance for me, due to my close personal connections with Japan, but I think it would widen and deepen anyone’s understanding of history.

Donald Keene, a renowned scholar of Japan, has read, edited and selected from the diaries of prominent Japanese writers, who recorded their thoughts and events during and immediately after the war. This is history as experienced first-hand by individuals, not from tendentious text books. The diaries reveal the raw thoughts and emotions of our (former) enemies – though admittedly not those who fought in the front line. But these men (mainly men) had experiences being bombed and working in some overseas territories. It occurred to me that all school children should read history written by our enemies, not those written by our own side, especially those blessed by our own governments.

The diarists from which Keene quotes were all novelists, poets or literary figures of some fame. They naturally experience the war differently and interpret events differently. They are swept along by the euphoria of success in 1941-42, and are scorched by the defeats and humiliations of 1943-47. It is sobering to see how the zeitgeist, public opinion, rumours, military lies and government propaganda have a large influence on their thinking. It is even more sobering to reflect that such large-scale influences impinged and still impinge on all of us – such as the way the USA and Britain were swept into war with Iraq.

I have to confess that there were not sufficient markers for me to distinguish between the different writers. Unfortunately they blended into one self-contradictory voice for me. Maybe symbols in the margins would help, as Pullman uses in ‘The subtle knife’?

We peep into the minds of these diarists through the choices that Donald Keene has made for us. So one may pause to wonder how representative they are. It is a question of trust, and I give him that trust. By inserting some personal information about his own war experiences, such as his interviewing of Japanese prisoners of war, and his landing on Okinawa, we can perceive that he is a sympathetic and balanced commentator. Anyway, his distillation of these various diaries are something I have read and enjoyed, whereas it is unlikely that I would ever have had the chance or inclination to read the whole of each of the diaries. Even with diaries, we often have to encounter them at one remove.

The bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Taleb

Philosophical and practical aphorisms

This elegant little hardback is Taleb’s latest publication (2010). It contains thoughts that carry straight on from his arguments in ‘Fooled by randomness’ and ‘The Black Swan’. Instead of a narrative and argument in a full book, he presents us with his private almost-poetry. We are given a series of aphorisms, well spaced out, only four or five to a page. This slows us down and persuades us to pause to think about each cluster of words.

The aphorisms are generally witty and designed to provoke a fresh perspective. They do not have the frivolity of Oscar Wilde, and do not achieve his level of charming, mischievous humour. They are certainly often wise and counter-intuitive, shaking us out of a conventional, shallow view of our modern world. Some structure is given by clustering them in chapters, revealing the preoccupations with which his readers will already be familiar. For instance, there is a chapter called ‘Fooled by Randomness’, one on ‘The scandal of prediction’ and one on ‘Robustness and fragility’.

Taleb is a wise man, and well worth listening to. His erudition and originality are on full display. Here are samples to give you a flavour:

“The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.”

“Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way round.”

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.”

“English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence towards the temporarily powerful) and arrogant down (directed at the small guy).”

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

“Suckers think that you can cure greed with money, addiction with substances, expert problems with experts, banking with bankers, economics with economists and debt crises with debt spending.”

You may notice that he blends a wide vocabulary with American idioms such as ‘Guy’ and ‘Sucker’, which lends a disconcerting instability to his voice. But he generally achieves the balance of an epigrammatic style, and there is an immediate impact for most of his aphorisms, plus an added sequence of afterthoughts, akin to the sensation of a perfume.

I remain a fan of Mr Taleb, and would urge others to read this book too. However I have a complaint that must be articulated. This may sound like an ‘ad hominem’ attack. I agree that the ‘ad hominem’ riposte of questioning a man’s motives or qualifications for saying something is inadmissible in civilised argument. His book is not an argued case, but much closer to a literary work, hence I believe this complaint is valid.

The author has made a lot of money trading options, and more recently from the sales of his books. Fine, and the best of luck to him. Possibly he is the beneficiary of randomness, as he may admit. Now he sets himself up as a philosopher and part poet. He has valuable things to say, but (and here is my complaint) he adopts a sneering tone against the majority of humanity, believing himself as someone much superior in understanding and heroism. I find it hard to stomach his long stream of aphorisms despising those having to work – which is the majority of us. Hence he shows a lack of respect for the readers.

“Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working.”

“There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment.”

“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave better by convincing him that he is an employee.”

And so on. Mr Taleb has revealed too much of his nasty side, diminishing himself. While he sits on his millions in Treasury Bills, I can do without the sound of him snickering as I trudge off to earn an honest penny. Where is his heroism in this attitude?

Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb

The hidden role of chance

There is more chance in the universe than we acknowledge. Mr Taleb has meditated deeply and acted wisely on the implications of chance. In this book he shares with us the fruits of his eloquence and meditations and readings and experiences. A quotation from ‘Fortune’ on the front cover of my Penguin paperback describes this as “one of the smartest books of all time”. I agree – or at least within the limited universe of books I have chanced to read.

I read and reviewed this book in 2008, and the financial crisis was unfolding. Now, over two years later, with the financial crisis still burning in some underground patches and the forest fire of the sovereign debt crisis gathering force, I have felt impelled to read it again, and write on it more extensively. It strikes me a even more smart on a second reading. The author is smart in several senses: a high pure intelligence quotient; a stunningly wide knowledge of literature; the deployment of remorseless logic; creative lateral leaps between seemingly unrelated but truly interconnected topics; an ability to out-fence and de-throne revered figures or ideas; a wonderfully wide vocabulary; elegant writing style; a sharp street-wise roughness; an engaging sense of humour; the deft speed of a card sharp.

This man clearly is lucky enough to be endowed with the right genes of intelligence, as he would admit, and not hide with false modesty. This may strike some people as arrogance, but we need his forthright intelligence in some many dumbed-down fields. I defer to his intelligence and hope to pick up a few scraps of wisdom from his books. He has read widely books of classical civilisation, psychology, medicine, history, mathematics and many other categories of knowledge. Maybe his voracious reading efficiency is partly down to his self-discipline in avoiding the time-wasting ‘noise’ that pours from 24-hour TV ‘News’ and Economics. I plod slowly in his footsteps, and feel that he pats me on the head when I can claim some passing acquaintance with some of his reading, such as Montaigne.

He drops vocabulary for me to pick up. For instance: ‘Péché mignon’ – a guilty pleasure. He mentions this is describing his own and our universal humanity. We are not pure rational calculating machines, as assumed by many economic theories. We all have and need our guilty pleasures, whether they are chocolate or cigarettes or something far worse. He has flashes of wry humour, and more moments of self-depreciation that I had previously noticed. His outspoken attacks on stupid thinking had made a stronger impression when I first read this book. That is what I mean by a street-wise toughness; as well as the fact that he has been through the refining fire of a dealing room, where he succeeded, whereas I failed (though still benefited from the experience in the long run).

When I say he is a ‘card sharp’, I do not mean he is literally dishonest or even intellectually dishonest. He is quick –way ahead of most of us. I would not engage in a trading contest against him, for he would probably take money off most of us – in the long run.

In the short-run, as he explains, many things in life are dominated by chance. What we are seeing is randomness in action, and we are often fooled by it. The daily ticks up or down of the stock market reported on the news constitute pure noise. The variations of daily weather (even seemingly extreme snow or wind) cannot be said to constitute a climate pattern until many many years of data come in. The performance of football teams on a game by game basis has a high variability. Why sack a manager after a run of 10 bad games? The performance of a fund manager cannot be ascribed to any genius over the short run. It is frightening to consider how long that ‘short-run’ really is. Can you be sure that you have a genius fund manager after even 5 years (20 quarters) of performance data? Taleb would be very sceptical.

One of the most challenging aspects of the book is what he calls ‘The problem of induction’. Induction is the process of arriving at a general hypothesis from particular data. One can gather as much data as one likes, but it never proves anything with 100% certainty. He gives an amusing absurd example: “I have just completed a thorough statistical examination of the life of President Bush. For fifty eight years, close to 21,000 observations, he did not die once. I can hence pronounce him as immortal, with a high degree of statistical inference.”

We laugh, but we can observe versions of this fallacy all around us. “The market has never gone down 20% in a given three-month period”. We also attach too much importance to the immediate past, and what is in front of us: “It has been snowing for the past five days, so global warming is obviously a fallacy.” Also the opposite: “We have observed 10 of the hottest years in the past 20 of our records, so global warming is a certainty”. And so on.

Taleb explains succinctly the answer propounded by the great philosopher Karl Popper. He expresses it completely baldly as follows:
“There are only two types of theories: 1) Theories that are known to be wrong, as they were tested and adequately rejected; 2) Theories that have not yet been known to be wrong, not falsified yet, but are exposed to be proved wrong.”

By shifting the burden from verification to falsification, Popper gives us a whole new and adequate solution to the problem of knowledge. It is also deeply uncomfortable, and goes against our natural propensity to write stories about things, or to find causal links between things. Taleb recognises how difficult it is for all of us to keep rational amidst a cacophony of random noise and genetic instincts endowed to us by evolution, which is itself not concerned with rationality but survival of genes.

Having stripped away many of our illusions, one of the best things of the book is that he gives us some practical ‘tricks’ to overcome our human weaknesses, and made randomness work to our advantage. Want to know what those tricks are? Read the book! Actually, I find his prescriptions at the end the weakest part of the book: preaching stoicism in the face of fickle fortune may be wise, but some more practical suggestions might be useful. Maybe I am expecting too much.

Nassim Taleb is exhibit ‘A’ for advocating the virtues of a wide liberal education, fighting back the tide of stupid pseudo-scientists who increasingly dominate our world, unfortunately. I am sure many of you will agree that this is one of the smartest books of our time.


Shakespeare's Philosophy, by Colin McGinn

More meaning behind the plays

Colin McGinn is a professor of philosophy. He has turned his hand to interpreting Shakespeare’s greatest plays, using his philosophical tools. The result is not deeply original, but I found it provided valuable insights into the world’s greatest writer. Shakespeare’s text are a mine of endless wealth. McGinn emerges into the sunlight clutching some new nuggets.

By reading this book, one can learn more about Shakespeare’s plays, and can enjoy gentle instruction in philosophy. For instance, it tightened up my understanding of words such as ‘Epistemology’ and ‘Teleology’, and quoted a good deal of Montaigne’s works. None of this is ‘hard’ philosophy, so do not be put off. Much can be described as existentialist philosophy, an angle which I personally found quite useful in writing some of my own essays of literary criticism at Oxford many years ago.

I always feel uncomfortable about books that tell us what Shakespeare thought. We can never know what Shakespeare thought, since all his written works are explicitly works of fiction. One cannot ever ascribe a particular phrase in a play to Shakespeare’s point of view. Everything is spoken by a character in a play, put in the mouth of an actor to portray that character. Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, and almost nothing certain is known of what he read, beyond the texts from which he derived his plots (such as Holinshed). I am not aware of any unequivocal evidence that Shakespeare read Montaigne’s works, even when some of the phrases have much in common. However, McGinn’s frequent parallels drawn between the two authors are striking. There is often a zeitgeist that affects various creative people who may never know each other’s works directly.

To give an example of how my understanding has been advanced by this book, I would cite his chapter on ‘Macbeth’. He demonstrates how this play is much more than an action-packed bloodthirsty thriller, spiced with the supernatural. He draws out the philosophical themes about 1) the relationship between character and action, 2) the power of imagination, 3) the ambiguity of appearance and reality, 4) the nature of time. I had not consciously noted how the play is packed with references to time, even from the very first line “WHEN shall we three meet again?”. The chapter moved me to quickly re-read ‘Macbeth’, and I was thrilled to gain new perspectives on this familiar work, thanks to McGinn.

He also gave me insights into other major plays. For instance, I had previously thought of ‘A Midsummer night’s dream’ as a charming but flimsy work. McGinn has helped me see more of how the play is about the difficulty of distinguishing dreaming from wakefulness, illusion from reality, what is merely imagined from what is veridically perceived. (‘Veridical’ means ‘coinciding with reality’; another little lesson from Professor McGinn.)

In the latter part of the book, he explores themes, such as Gender and Psychology. Sometimes he is knocking down theories that I don’t think anyone seriously believes in (at least anymore). For instance he ridicules the idea that Shakespeare is exploring notions such as Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex’ in the play Hamlet.

A week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

Fiction or reality?

Sebastian Faulks has written a novel covering one week in December 2007, set in London. It following the intertwining lives of a handful of characters, and aims to be a state of the nation novel, in the tradition of Disraeli, Gaskell and Dickens. It is up-to-date, with descriptions of second worlds on the internet, ‘reality’ TV programmes and sickeningly rich financiers (though what’s new there?).

The story opens with a hostess drawing up her guest list, which introduces us to some of the main characters. The bombardment of names and details is hard for the reader to digest. I had to turn back and reread the first eight pages to absorb who was who, and what they did. The novel is almost ends with the actual dinner party, which neatly brings some of the characters together in conflict, lust and other interactions. I noticed that one person on the guest list, a schoolteacher called Radley Graves, was not mentioned at the dinner, which may be an error and a missed opportunity on the part of the author.

The final pages are devoted to the climax of one drama: a Muslim boy who jettisons his backpack of bomb fuses in the Thames, and visits his girlfriend instead. The final scene is of the evil hedge fund manager, John Veals, who stands at the window of his office, on the verge of his scheme’s success, and laughs.

The parallel is clear for the reader to draw: Veals does ignite his bomb; his financial bomb. He has obtained insider information about a bank, and set up a series of massive positions for his hedge fund, with the aim of making much money, and helping to topple the bank in the process. Since the book was published in 2010, the reader knows about the fall of RBS, HBOS etcetera in the financial crisis, and so the conclusion to the story does not need to be told explicitly.

One part of my brain was saying that Faulks is naïve and does not know how things work, or at least paints too unrealistic a black-and-white picture of hedge funds. Yet just after reading this book, I have had occasion to study some examples of ‘rogue traders’ and ‘rogue fund managers’, and have been reading about insider trading cases at hedge funds such as Galleon and Moore Capital, and dubious actions at Gartmore and Henderson Asset Management. Suddenly I did a mental flip, and perceived Faulk’s portrait of John Veals in the novel as deadly accurate.

Veals, the hedge fund manager, lacks an emotional centre and a moral compass. His family is a train wreck, with his wife lonely and semi-alcoholic, while his son gets hooked on drugs in his bedroom upstairs. Hassan, the would-be bomber is a parallel life, whose parents are also unaware of how far their son has slipped down a dangerous slope – though they talk and debate with their son far more.

The withering satire on many other types in British society is accurate and wincingly painful, whether it is a cynical literary critic, or a foreign footballer, or his girlfriend earning money from pornography on the side, or an aspiring politician’s wife. The layers of the satire become somewhat painful to read and depressing. It is a bitter book.

There are some redeeming features, though they curiously point to the redeeming power of literature. A modest girl, who drives Circle Line trains, likes to read books. An underemployed Barrister is similarly a sympathetic character with a wide knowledge of books. He has the intellectual curiosity to read the Koran, and criticises it as being simply full of assertions. This appears to me to be Faulks’ own voice attacking Islam, together with the story of the corruption of the young Hassan. As far as I know, Faulks has avoided a Fatwa.

A Glastonbury Romance, by John Cowper Powys

A book like this gives rise to divergent opinions, with each individual drawing their own unique meaning from it. ‘A Glastonbury Romance’ is large (1120 in my Overlook Press edition) that it provides an astonishing richness of character and event. It is a treasure-trove of language, myth, legend, place, philosophy, literary allusion, conflict, humour and much more.

Powys was an erudite man, who often lectured on English literature for his living. He wrote this novel in what one could call the Nineteenth Century tradition, emulating models such as Dickens, Hardy and George Eliot in England, and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia, to cite but a few influences. He explicitly refers back to deep legend from Welsh, French and English sources, by using the nexus of stories concerning King Arthur and Merlin. He also employs the many stories invented in Glastonbury about Joseph of Arimathea, the thorn tree, the holy grail, the chalice well and so forth. Yet he is also a modern Twentieth Century novelist, dealing openly with sexual matters, communism and new technology, such as aeroplanes.

The story centres for most of the book on the small town of Glastonbury, a cradle of English national identity (however fraudulent). At one level he is exploring the nature of Britishness (I say that advisedly, since he is also concerned with nearby Wales). He does this by presenting the lives of many characters in the town, creating a complex web of concurrent, intertwining stories, just as George Eliot did for the fictional town of Middlemarch. I cannot think of a novel that explores a single town with such loving detail, as Powys does of Glastonbury.

Powys spent much time researching the town, and is extraordinarily detailed and faithful in his presentation. There are minor errors of fact, such as Mat Dekker looking West over the Bridgwater bay at the purported rising sun. There are deliberate liberties taken, for the sake of the dramatic action. He has a tin mine dug at Wookey Hole, and a road constructed across the Somerset Flats. He puts an upper floor in St Michael’s tower on the Tor. He imagines that an aeroplane could land on the constricted space of Wirral Hill. This is easily allowable to the omnipotent narrator.

Some commentators think Powys is an obscurantist, seduced by the silly legends of the town, yearning for a non-existent romantic past, after the horrors of the First World War. I think that is a false judgement. Powys is his own man, and he frequently pokes fun at the myths and legends, while being fascinated by their literary and cultural power. His whole outlook on life is dualist. He loves to conjoin and contrast the quotidian and the cosmic, the material and the spiritual, the ancient and the modern, the good and the bad.

For example he has Sam Dekker experience religious ecstasy in a coal barge: “He had ceased to be a man sitting on a coal sack at the stern of a barge. He had become a bleeding mass of darkness. His consciousness was a dark surface of water; and up through this water, tearing it, rending it, dividing it, turning it into blood, shivered this crashing stroke, this stroke that was delivered from abysses of the earth, far deeper than the bottom of the Brue”.

This leads us to his metaphysics, which some people find irritating and objectionable. Certainly his frequent reference to ‘The First Cause’ is startling and idiosyncratic. He boldly rejects the conventional Christian view of the moral universe, but paints a picture of a cosmic force that is simultaneously evil and good – in other words dualistic. This insistence on spiritual forces and even angels influencing and intervening in the lives of men is hard to reconcile with the modern, sceptical parts of the book. It seems to reflect an almost Medieval view of the world, and it impossible to tell if Powys is being ironic or tongue-in-cheek in these passages. They are certainly challenging – and I can imagine him in a pub or at a dinner table stirring up debate for the sheer love of intellectual stimulation and the exploration of points of view.

The challenge starts with the long first sentence of the novel, which has probably deterred many browsers in bookshops from buying the book! “At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.” Personally I was intrigued by this sentence and felt a need to walk a journey with the author, although I knew it would be a long, hard road.

The author assumes a very God-like status in the book, looking down on “this microscopic biped” from a great height, and then zooming in, much further than a Google Earth map into the hearts and thoughts of his characters. He vouchsafes them visions of Excalibur and the Holy Grail, and finally washes them in a mighty flood, like the old testament God.

The challenge and excitement of Powy’s idiosyncratic genius hit me when he starts conveying the point of view of plants: “The now darkened conservatory listened to the placid sub-human breathings of heliotrope and lemon verbena, the latter with a faint catch in its drowsy susurration…” Then he talks about the house as if it had its own consciousness too: “Silent and alone the broad staircase fell into that trance of romantic melancholy which was its invariable mood when the hall lamp was first lit”.

So in this novel we live in a universe of multiple consciousnesses, at many levels: cosmic, natural, human, cultural and more. I think he wants to jolt us out of our dullness into a more vivid plane of thinking and feeling, and he succeeds. However, there are some aspects of Powy’s authorial point of view that are difficult to swallow. His pronouncements on how women feel and think (eg. “in a trance of mindless passivity”) seem objectionable at times, though delicate at others. His obscure references to the erotic sadism that preys on the mind of Mr Evans (purportedly a self-portrait) seem frustratingly obscure and helpful to me, though they play an important part in the plot.

Different people in the book want to turn the town into something new to fit their personal views of the world. Philip Crow, a businessman, want to modernise and enrich the town and “beat down this pious Glastonbury legend, this piece of monkish mummery.” The evangelical preacher Geard, wants to utilise the legends to further his own power, and express his enigmatic faith. Sam Dekker wants to explore sensual erotic passion, but later converts to a mystical asceticism. Red Robinson, Paul Trent and others want to overturn the current order of society and bring in a communist/socialist heaven on earth. John Crow, Edward Athling and others want to express themselves in pageants and poetry. There are many other currents that reflect on the overall development of British society in the 1920s. In that respect it is a deeply interesting reflection of society, culture and politics of the age, just as ‘Middlemarch’ reflects the society of the 1840s.

If one persists with the book (and frankly it took me many months), one becomes drawn into the characters and wants to discover how the many currents of their aims develop. The book starts in too leisurely a fashion, but rises to a fast-paced climax in the latter pages that is exciting, vivid and rewarding. On reaching the end, I felt an urge to start reading it again. I resisted this temptation, having other objectives in my life than reading books, but dipping into the earlier chapters again revealed a richer texture in the tapestry than I had first appreciated.

One may receive the impression from what I have said and quoted so far that the book is all portentous and high-flown. Far from it. ‘Glastonbury’ is lightened by many fine passages of conversation, delightful Somerset dialect, humourous touches, comic moments and light poetic perceptions. There is much to entertain the reader along the way. I find the light and the dark, the heavy and the light entwining in Powys’ fertile, dualistic brain. This is a characteristic he shares with his brother Theodore Powys, who wrote the novel ‘Unclay’ – a parallel work to this, set in a Dorset village.

Of the all the influences on Powys, apart from his own talented family, I think Thomas Hardy is the most prominent. I believe the brothers met the great man in person, and they certainly read many of his famous novels. They follow in his footsteps of creating a great native body of fiction rooted in the ‘West Country’ of England. Hardy created tragedies in the backwaters of Wessex, and the Powys family succeed in doing the same. However ‘Glastonbury’ cannot be simplistically labelled a tragedy. The word ‘Romance’ is wholly appropriate in the title of the novel.

‘Romance’ is a tricky word, since it is used in many different senses. The sense in which Powys used it, and which I say is appropriate, it chivalric romance, drawing on the tradition of High Medieval stories about heroic knights. This links directly with the most popular cycle of romances about King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Powys weaves in many references to the Arthurian legends, and he sets out to portray struggles and spiritual journeys, and several love stories. There are no crude references to damsels in distress or dragons, though you might identify Nell Zoyland and the aeroplane as such, if you choose.

The book is enriched by drawing on folklore, sagas, ghost stories and even satirical takes on the romance genre, such as ‘Don Quixote’ or ‘Sir Hudibras’. In this manner Powys aims to absorb, without judgemental condemnation, the many contradictory strands of human life. J.C. Powys was one of the earliest readers of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and he succeeded in creating a work of comparable resonance and many layers.

Birds without wings, by Louis de Bernieres

‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is probably the author’s most famous work (assisted by being made into a film). The Financial Times reviewer described this book as “A more ambitious novel than ‘Captain Corelli’, and a better one.” Certainly it is more ambitious, covering a sweep of twenty year’s of Turkish history. However that leads de Bernieres into long passages that read merely like a history book. Hence it is difficult for me to say that it is a better novel than ‘Captain Corelli’, though it is certainly an excellent one.

The book employs the same formula of describing an idyllic village and then allowing evil and destruction to erupt into it. The peaceful co-existence of the Muslim Turks and the Christian Greeks and Armenians is beautifully described; touchingly described. The intertwining of their lives and cultures, ignorant of radical religion and nationalism, is particularly made flesh in the characters of Philothei, a beautiful young Christian girl, and the doting goatherd, Ibrahim.

There is much humour in the first half of the book, and I particularly liked the story of Rustem Bey bringing home a Circassian Mistress (though his treatment of his wife and her lover prefigures the violence to come). The happy village life has dangerous undercurrents, mainly based on ignorance, but they are controlled by the love and humanity of most of the inhabitants.

The book becomes progressively darker, as Turkey enters the First World War. The descriptions of the warfare in the trenches of Gallipoli (from the Turkish point of view) is especially vivid and gory. Things go from bad to worse, including the deportation of the Greeks and Armenians – though the historical lecturing makes clear that Turks also suffered from forced marches and other appalling cruelties. The cruelty of man bursts through the surface, and many are not brave or strong enough to prevent it. The machinations of foolish politicians at the top of the tree in Greece, Turkey, Britain and so on, are lacerated by the author. The horrors culminate in the burning of the (then) Greek city of Smyrna – now modern Izmir.

The 625-page book is epic in its size and scope. I think it would have benefited from the historical narrative being cut back, since the best parts are undoubtedly those describing the lives and deaths of the village inhabitants. This is a sad and informative book, well worth the time to read it. Now I understand better the deep mutual suspicion that still exists between Greece and Turkey.

The Custer Wolf, by Roger Caras

My volume is a Puffin edition, costing 4 Shillings and Sixpence, with a faded spine and browning pages. I read it recently for nostalgic reasons, but also partly to carry out a thought experiment of re-reading everything on my shelves. I need never buy another book!

Caras is a fine and prolific writer about the natural world. In this book he tells the story of a wolf that wantonly killed and injured cattle around the town of Custer in North Dakota, in the 1920s. The first half of the book is imaginary and based on his deep knowledge of nature and the behaviour of wolves. He invents a traumatic event, where the white wolf’s mother is killed by a stampede of cattle and his father killed in a trap. This explains his hatred of man and his beasts, providing an explanation of his renegade behaviour.

Caras is very much on the side of the wolves, and the story of how he is eventually hunted down exemplifies the prejudice and destructive power of the (white) men who colonised the USA. Any wolf was a target for traps, poison or shooting, and the species was almost eliminated. Ironically, that led to an explosion of animals, naturally controlled by wolves, who did far more economic damage to the environment. In recognition of this, wolves have been re-introduced to the Yellowstone Park, for instance.

This is an educational and fine book, though the second half loses its lyrical freedom, as the author is tied down by relating the facts of the Custer Wolf case.

State of Revolution, by Robert Bolt

This is a serious historical play in two acts, first published and performed at the National Theatre in 1977. I went to see the original production, and admired the playwright’s skill in distilling history, and making it excellent theatre on the stage.

It is about the Russian Revolution, focusing on the central figures of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the other leading Bolsheviks. It teaches much about the characters and events of the revolution. The rise of Stalin is cleverly plotted. Personally, I think Bolt is much too sympathetic towards Lenin, who was clearly a nasty piece of work.

Worth reading and seeing on the stage, if ever anyone chooses to produce it. I think it is a better work than Buechner’s ‘Danton’s death’ which I saw recently at the National.

A Hollow Crown, by Helen Hollick

Historical fiction is a tricky business. It can illuminate history better than a conventional ‘history’ book, but what in the text is fact, and what is fiction?

Helen Hollick has conscientiously stuck to what are perceived to be the facts. She has used every scrap of information from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’ and other authors to create a large novel, on the life of Emma, wife and queen to both King Ethelraed and King Knut. This covers the period 1002 to 1042, a time of extraordinary drama in English history, when the Danes conquered and ruled the country.

I was drawn through the book rapidly, probably due to my interest in and knowledge of this period of history. Hollick makes sense of history, filling in the gaps, as a novelist is entitled to do. She takes the story line that Emma hated and despised her first husband, Ethelraed (famously known as the ‘Unready’), and loved Knut deeply. That imposes a black and white simplicity on what was probably a more complex and miserable reality. But it makes sense of many of her actions later, in ignoring and abandoning her progeny by Ethelraed, and her stout support of her son by Knut, Harthacnut.

Her attention to detail and willingness to interpret the facts for a good story penetrates the whole book, down to small details. For instance, she spots the oddity of the fact that the body of Saint Aelfheah was transported across the Thames on a boat, rather than across London Bridge. She neatly explains this as popular opposition to the loss of their Saint (who was being translated to Canterbury), leading to an angry mob blocking the road over the bridge.

But in a novel, do you need to squeeze in very drop of detail available from historical documents? There are too many characters to keep track of, and get to know. Hence the book sprawls over 856 pages. Too long for most people, I would imagine. I think the author and her editors could have profitably cut down the character and page count to a more punchy, succinct text. Something like 600 pages would still have given a sense of saga-like length and depth.

There is a paucity of information in history about Knut’s reign, after he established his regime on a firm footing. (The main reason why the English accepted Danish rule was for the prospect of peace, which was delivered.) Here Hollick has the opposite problem of filling in a gap. She interpolates a detailed imaginary account of Emma climbing the cliffs of Robin Hood Bay, with her baby son, when cut off by the rising tide. This is based on such a real life event by her own Grandmother. I have no objection to this interpolation, and think it a charming thing that an author can insert something from their own family history into a novel. But it is quite out of keeping with the rest of the book – a sort of refreshing interlude.

Actually I don’t buy the historical truth that Emma ‘loved’ Knut. But who can tell? A book like this reminded me that much of conventional histories of the period are vitually novelistic interpretations of tantalisingly few scraps of information. Even the records themselves are deeply suspect as to their veracity and balance. They are evidently peppered with fiction themselves. Alfred burning the cakes is a wonderful story. So is the story of Knut ordering the tide to turn back. An example of how a historian of Anglo-Saxon England has to inject huge amounts of supposition into their work is ‘Emma’, by Isabella Strachan, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

I felt satisfied to read ingenious and coherent novelistic interpretations of history in Hollick’s book, and felt it was time well spent. Also I confess to feeling disappointment. This is for a personal reason. I have felt for some time that this period offered many dramatic events worthy of a novel. This idea formed as far back as 1992, but my study and writing has been limited and fitful. Publishing in 2004, Hollick has knocked me out of the ring. Congratulations to her for a good job overall.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This 1925 novel was considered by the author to be his masterpiece. Certainly it has achieved fame as a prime romantic story, a classic of American literature and a distillation of the Jazz Age. It is actually an odd book, told obliquely by a narrator who is part of the story – a technique perhaps borrowed from ‘Wuthering Heights. The romantic encounters are short, though Gatsby’s passion for Daisy Buchanan permeates the book, with his extravagant parties sending out a sad, wasteful message across the bay to his married lost love.

After reading this book at least three times in my life, I feel that Scott Fitzgerald did not write this love story from his heart. Rather, I have the uncomfortable sense that he is striving for a commercial success, which gives a stilted emptiness to some of the events and phrases. For instance Gatsby’s comment that Daisy’s “voice is full of money” itself is odd, but then it triggers a series of comments by the narrator that try too hard to catch the reader with poetic allusiveness: “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbal’s song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…”

Or how about this overblown famous final sentence? “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Maybe it works. It works for many people, and it works for me in some moods.

There is a wildly-swinging ambivalence in my attitude towards this author. I can’t help admiring him too, for he mixes spot-on observation of modern life with a theatrical romanticism. And yet I feel he is putting on a show – a theatre show of a romance. The reader is being manipulated, and there is a shallowness in the characterisation sometimes.

There are many good elements to appreciate in ‘The Great Gatsby’. Brilliant title, to start with. The choice of a tragic ending is totally right. The discovery of their past towards the end of the book heightens the tension. The murder in the swimming pool is high and ironic drama.

It is a gem of a book, with sharp dialogue, masterful weaving together of plots, employing an economy of means: creating an epic feel in a mere 180 pages. It is the sort of enigmatic book that draws you back repeatedly to read it. No doubt, he will entice me to a fourth reading before too long…

The Fall, by Albert Camus

This short book is a monologue by a Paris barrister, who used to be very successful in his professional and sexual exploits. He seemed to be the epitome of good citizenship and decent behaviour – for instance he likes to defend the weaker members of society in court and he likes to assist blind people across the road. However, at the opening of the book he is hanging around in an Amsterdam bar close to the foggy waterfront, having thrown over his career and exiled himself from his circle of society.

Now he inhabits an innermost circle of hell, echoing Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The canals of Amsterdam around him are the circles of hell. He has fallen from his high and blessed condition, echoing Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. He notes that part of the city’s wealth was built on the slave trade, but also suggests that all of us in modern society are enslaved in some sense. He takes a melancholy pleasure in his surroundings: “I like the breath of stagnant waters, the smell of dead leaves soaking in the canal, and the funeral scent rising from the barges loaded with flowers”.

Why did he fall from his ‘Eden’ of Paris, and why does he describe himself as a ‘Judge Penitent’? This is the complex theme of the monologues to a stranger he met in the waterfront bar. The reasons grow out of his growing sense of his own hypocrisy, and reflect an existentialist ‘nausea’ (to use Sartre’s word). The explanation is the drama of the book, and its epigrammatic style its beauty. Camus artfully draws of the legacy of Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde. The book has many echoes of the themes of ‘The outsider’, especially in the protagonist’s desire to be judged and desecrated.

The theme of judgement reaches a climax when he asks his listener to open a cupboard, to reveal the original painting of ‘The just judges’. This panel from the Van Eyck altarpiece ‘The adoration of the Lamb’ was stolen from the Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and never recovered. Camus cleverly and smoothly inserts this real event into his story. This painting embodies the falseness that is an obsession of the book. Visitors to the Cathedral would never know that the replica replacement is not original. So the ‘Just’ judges are the ‘false’ judges. Who has a right to judge others and condemn them? First we have to judge and condemn ourselves.

Camus injects much of his own tortured thoughts about life into the book, but does it in an elegant and controlled manner. It is a book of philosophy, in literary form. It also appears to me to be a strangely, deeply religious book.

The Outsider, by Albert Camus

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure”. That is the laconic opening (as translated by Stuart Gilbert) of this short novel by Albert Camus. It illustrates the cool, detached, matter-of-fact style of writing, and the central character of the story.

In fact, the death of his mother, or, rather, the cool, apparently uncaring reaction of the son, becomes a key factor at the end of the book, when the narrator, Meursault, is on trial for murder. The prosecutor uses witnesses to the funeral of the mother to besmirch his character, instead of just the clear facts of the callous murder of a native Algerian on a beach. Meursault does not deny the murder and cannot explain his motives. It is an absurd, existential act.

Camus is feted as a central figure of the philosophy of ‘Existentialism’, and I personally find him miles ahead of that nauseous, selfish, puffed-up figure Sartre. Camus is best as a novelist. His more philosophical works, such as ‘The myth of Sisyphus’ are far less successful. I think he was adversely influenced by Sartre. ‘The outsider’ is 95% novel, and the 5% of philosophy is successfully embedded in the story in a non-didactic way. In fact the lack of didacticism or overt ‘message’ is one of the charms of the book.

The flow against conventional morality is startling, as exemplified by the last sentence of the novel: “For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained was to hope that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”

The story and the location is drawn from the author’s person experience living in Algeria. There is an atmosphere of hedonism, relaxing in the sun. It also reveals the embedded prejudices and colonial mentality that prevailed amongst white people there at the time, before the 2nd World War. The lack of sympathy evoked by the murderer and the court for the Algerian victim is symptomatic of the prevailing racist frame of mind. I remember such attitudes in Africa, and of course have read about them in history books. The central character does not hate the non-white. He just does not care.

Meursault is so cool and detached that he almost exists in a void of nothingness. When offered a job in Paris by his boss, this is his reaction: “I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.” When his girlfriend asks him to marry her, he responds: “I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.”

Camus has created an elegant portrait of an existentialist crisis where (in the words of Freddy Mercury) ‘nothing really matters’.

The General, by C.S. Forester

I bought this Penguin paperback as a schoolboy for 4 shillings, and read it as an indictment of the British military leadership in the First World War. This dusty, yellowed book was taken off the shelves again immediately after a visit to Ypres this year in May, and this time I perceived it as more balanced and understanding of the character Curzon, who is ‘The General’.

The visit to Ypres included the Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke, which vividly conveyed the history of the battle in great detail, and included an ‘experience’ of a British bunker in the basement. I started to grasp the geography and events. It was amazing to learn that 200 tonnes of armaments are still dug up every year in Belgium, needing disposal. We drove to Passendale in ten minutes, using the sat-nav, in our air-conditioned car, and back to Tyne Cot cemetery. The soldiers in the battle of third Ypres took five months to slog to the top of the Passendale ridge, where only a pile of rubble remained. At Tyne Cot there were 35,000 names of soldiers completely lost in the mud and explosions. I found the landscape to have a spooky feeling to it. Wind rippling the long grass sent a chill down my spine, as if ghosts were caressing the tortured ground.

Having re-read this book, I think Forester was genuinely trying to understand the mind-set of the officers in the British army. He is very good at describing and analysing the small things that turn a battle and make a decisive difference to history. He also does this in ‘The ship, ‘The gun’ and ‘Brown on Resolution’. For instance here he shows how Curzon was promoted after getting lost down a gully in a Boer War battle which fortuitously brought him out behind the enemy lines, enabling the battle of Volkslaagte to be won.

In the First World War he shows how Curzon was again lucky to be promoted rapidly, through small chance events and decisions. There is an air of grim satire about some of the unforeseen consequences, but he is simply reflecting the role of chance and chaos in war and human affairs. The General’s rigid frame of thinking leads to tragic losses of life for his men, for he is not one to give up and retreat or admit defeat. Forester fairly conveys his honour, his patriotism and his courage, but always within a fatally limited world view. In the end, the General is a failure, even if society does not recognise him as a failure.

This book is a useful resource to understand the First World War’s Western front. It is accurate and fair, though it remains a product of its time (published in 1936), when people were questioning the achievements of the British military. The view of that war as a tragic series of blunders reached its satirical apogee in the 1960s. Since then historians have developed revisionist interpretations that recognise it was not all futile, and was a truly difficult situation for all the leaders concerned, grapping with new destructive technology. Novelists and many ordinary people remain fascinated by the whole tragedy.

Equus, by Peter Shaffer

This is one of the most remarkable plays of modern times. It certainly had a startling impact on me when I first saw it in the Seventies in London. Like all plays, it lives much more vividly on the stage than on the pages of a book. The human voice, lighting, costumes, stage and so forth create a powerful artistic package. I saw the play again in Cape Town, though it did not achieve the same impact on me then. There is also a good film based on ‘Equus’, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Richard Burton as the pyschiatrist, which I have seen.

If you have the chance, see this play. Also, see the play first, before picking up the text, for the stage directions on the page are not easy to envisage. One reason for the startling experience is complete nudity at the climactic scene. Another reason is the brilliant artistic depiction of the horses.

‘Equus’ is about God, or Gods. To the psychotic boy, Alan, horses are his God. The psychiatrist who ‘treats’ him reads about and dreams about Greek Gods in coffee table illustrated books, but comes to envy the complete passion of his patient for his God, ‘Equus’. For the boy, ‘Equus’ represents power and dignity and holiness, in a passion transferred from his devotion to religion. It is about sex, desire and guilt. He is mentally torn apart by his desires and guilt, leading him to blind six horses with a spike (apparently a true story, the germ of the idea of the play for Shaffer).

The play is structured as a probing of the past by the psychiatrist, revealed in flashbacks and re-enactments of past events. So the truth is gradually revealed and the complexities of Alan’s relationships with his parents come out, layer by layer, episode by episode. The boy’s discovery of his own father’s ordinary human sexuality is comic, and also affecting. The first encounter of the young boy with a horse on a beach is vivid.

The story drives towards the ultimate meaning of psychosis and the purpose of a psychiatric ‘cure’. The psychiatrist, Dysart, end the play with a monologue about what he has achieved: “I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads!”

Dysart is questioning the value of what he does, and the values that underlie society, particularly its cruel treatment of animals and its brain-washing of the hoi polloi. It is an ecstatic cry for freedom – a rejection of narrow rationality and conventional moral values. There is a place for wonder and worship in our souls, which can break out in destructive ways if suppressed.

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

This novel is a portrayal of a claustrophobic backwater of Burma, during the pre-second world war days of the British Empire. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) experienced it first-hand as a police officer for two years, and is able to convey the physical and cultural atmosphere of the place with vividness and conviction.

He gives us a number of set pieces (such as a brilliant description of a tiger hunt), woven together in a clever narrative. The characterisation is good, shot through with a cynical and satirical spirit. One thread of the narrative concerns the main character, Flory, a timber merchant, who yearns to break free from the stifling prejudice and pettiness of colonial society around him. His main hope is to marry Elizabeth, a young Englishwoman who comes to the village. The ups and downs of his (failed) courtship are the main concern of the book.

The subsidiary characters are drawn with depth and irony. The young Indian Army officer, Verrall, is particularly distasteful. The author clearly hates much of the British Empire, but neither does he have a rosy view of the natives or the country of Burma. One of the villains of the book is the scheming, evil magistrate, U Po Kyin. One takes from the book and overall impression of alcohol-sodden white men, corrupt locals, appalling heat and a narrowness of society that drives you to the edge of violence and madness.

I would recommend this book for its skilled (skewed?) descriptions of Burma, and its story. We sympathise with Flory and find his defeat, and that of his Indian doctor friend, tragic. It is hardly an uplifting book, but makes an unflinching interpretation of the mutually corrupting nature of colonial rule.