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Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Forever Flowering - Vasily Grossman

The birth and growth of the USSR were horrific. If you want to learn what happened, read a history book. If you want to understand what happened, how men could - can - inflict awful sufferings on other men, read this novel.

Grossman is a superb writer. He is able to convey the magnitude of those sufferings, as well as explaining the causes. He understands the distinction between what men do and what they think. He is a master of the telling detail. He does succumb to the temptation of lengthy philosophising, but for me it was nearly always interesting. (A minor objection: in explaining historical processes, by imposing certain orders on them, Grossman should have been more careful about not accepting the inevitability of the historical course.)

You owe it to yourself to on occasion confront what man did to man in the twentieth century. Reading a novel by Vasily Grossman is one way of doing so.

Saturday, July 30, 2004

What Men Live By - Leo Tolstoy

There are special moods. One is when you look to the stars and are awed. Another is an unselfish joy, when you look at those around you and are happy, smiling instinctively when you see another person. A third is a feeling of something divine. Something that permeates our lives even though it is greater than them. Something that is self-evidently perfect. Something that is the reason for, and gives the value to, our existence. I am an atheist. I have only felt the third mood on a handful of occasions. It is unclear whether the previous two sentences should be joined by 'therefore' or 'because'. My mind is limited in the higher forms of imagination, but when reading this short story I felt the power of belief in God.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Wild Swans - Jung Chang

It's sometimes easy for me to forget just how much I have, living in a Western democracy. Wild Swans has reminded me. It is a novel filled with inequality, hardship, and brutality from the petty to the barbaric.

Yet at the same time we see a family fighting with a great spirit to survive and to retain its integrity. In the same situations we see some of the very best of human behaviour, not only some of the very worst. Jung Chang manages to relate these things using measured and straightforward language (although she uses cliches too often). But the latter is irrelevant when compared to her highly effective communication of ideas from the study of a totalitarian regime to the individuals closest to her.

Sunday, May 9, 2004

It is those that cannot connect who hasten to cast the first stone.
E. M. Forster, Howards End.

Sunday, May 9, 2004

The (fictional) Mr. Dooley comments on 'President Theodore Roosevelt's appointment of a commission to study the causes of unhappiness among American farmers.'

I wud like a little more loose change in th' till. I prefer to be a year or two younger, an' to be able to sleep an hour or two longer in th' mornings. An Act iv Congress curin' th' pain in me back or causin' a few tufts iv hair (wavy brown preferred) to grow on th' top iv me head wud be much appreciated. An appropriation f'r a new stovepipe hate f'r St. Pathrick's Day wud be as balm to me ag-nized spirits. I have two or three acquaintances I wud like to have bastinadoed. But beyond these simple wants there is nawthin' I cud ask the commission to do f'r me, an' they'd pay no attention to thim. They'd probably repoort that th' plumbin' in me house was defictive an' that th' roof needed mending, as if ayther iv thim things caused lines in me face.

[Stolen from someone who claimed to have stolen it from Finley Peter Dunne, On Making a Will and Other Necessary Evils]

Sunday, April 4, 2004

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

My view of the universe is based on linearity, cause and effect. My moral standards are standards, if sometimes flexible. The imagination is something I see as a good and fine thing, although I'm wary of it leaving the confines of either cause or effect or said moral standards.

Rather distressingly, Master and Margarita hurtles in and out of these confines. Conventional views of time, space, truth, morality are cruelly shaken, stirred, reconstructed. New truths are created. The devil? he exists, he has sidekicks (cats are cute), he can do magic, and most distressingly he's not outrightly evil. We see Jerusalem and Pontius Pilate. We see Moscow in the 1930s, slightly sanitised although with added magic. But fragility turns to strength, simplicity turns to complexity, reality and the supernatural dart around each other. Against the odds the fusion is successful, and we have an indescribable cohesion.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman

Life and Fate is a wonderful Russian novel set in the Second World War. It shows what people did and thought in the circumstances in which they were put: intelligentsia, soldiers, apparatchiks, citizens, lovers, friends; a guard in a concentration camp; a letter from a mother to son, the former knowing that she will be executed the next day; even Hitler and Stalin; ... . This is more than brilliant journalism. Grossman, by separating thought from action shows us a view of people that is sympathetic and understanding. Through this we can begin to comprehend the enormity of what happened in those years.

We understand more of the Holocaust through the details: of the boy continuing his lessons even though he knows he will be executed the next day; the meticulous engineering of the gas chambers; the Jewess who adopts a child as they are killed. We learn more of Soviet society: how people struggle and survive in and around a totalitarian regime, how they struggle despite and because of it, how they can be given life, hope, opportunity or crushed by it, how they still have courage to show. We learn more of life itself.

It ends not with the 'flag raised over Berlin'[1], but with a greater triumph, with some of those who struggled surviving, free.

[1] Heirs of Stalin, Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Aspects of the Novel - E. M. Forster

It is flattering and educative to be addressed as an equal by an intelligent man. In Aspects of the Novel Forster combines this with mastery of language as a tool to communicate his ideas in concise, memorable and engaging ways. The most important thing communicated is an appreciation of the tremendous wealth and diversity of literature. Not for him to say that novels are 'about' something or 'for' something else; and neither it is for him to pompously use arcane literary terms to describe the mechanical nature of an author's work. Instead he uses broad categories as a way of illuminating the different treasures that can be found in novels.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov (rather than intruding) is the medium through which 'Humbert Humbert' reveals himself. His love for Lolita came from his passion for what he calls 'nymphets'; a passion that consumed his life. Or that is how he writes his memoir: with a brutal intensity, seemingly honest about his every desire. But at the end we discover, with tremendous implications, that his name is not Humbert Humbert (a name which does indeed express some of 'the nastiness best'). So he was an unreliable narrator: throughout he has shied shamefully away from acknowledging his true role and the reality of others, creating and seeing himself, what he did, and the world in a (often hilarious) fictional light when what happened was all too real. Even at the end of his life, remaining obsessed with Lolita, he recognises 'rape' as his only crime, and not his murder of Cue neither the death of Mrs 'Haze' neither his litany of other misdemeanours.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller

Willy Loman is a man who has not examined his life. His values and ambitions strike us as incongruous, arrogant and ignorant. He hopes for success (riches); to become 'number-one man'; to be 'well-liked' by all. For him this dream is a superficial one, detached from both morality and truth.

'And you tell me he has no character?' No. At the same time as all this hubris he loves his wife and his children. Unfortunately this just means that he wants them (with a passion that leads to delusion) to live the life he has imagined that they should live. He commits suicide loving his eldest son, hoping that his life insurance will give 'that magnificence' enough money to 'make it'. This self-sacrifice is his way of finally connecting his natural human feelings with his artificial dream.

Chance Witness - Matthew Parris

I came to his (nearly 500 page) autobiography after having read and admired some of his columns in The Times, prepared to admire him further. But as he makes clear, Matthew Parris is not a great man. Only mildly well known, he has not done any particularly great things that will be remembered. Instead he has thought. He has thought about what he has seen and what he has done and what he has seen done. Writing well, he is convincingly candid, compassionate to humanity in general, often interesting, and often funny.

Friday, January 2, 2004

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Shakespeare, The Sonnets, 65