Friday, March 23, 2012

1,001 Books - the next five

Embarrassingly, it appears that I haven’t had to choose the next five books in my 1,001 book challenge since this time last year, which just goes to show how easily I can get distracted.  Anyway, having finished four of the last five and having been unable to find an English translation of Platero and I (if anyone knows of one, please do let me know!), I’ve cranked up the Random Number Generator and it has tasked me with the following:

1.         Chess Story by Stefan Zweig.  Confession time.  I’m so backlogged on posts that I’ve already read and finished this one.  I loved it and so the post will be going up next week.  It’s a story of a monumental chess match played on a cruise ship bound for Argentina but it’s also so much more than that.

2.         A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Having not read him in my first 40-odd years of life, this is the second time in two batches that Ishiguro’s come up on my schedule.  Having thoroughly enjoyed An Artist of the Floating World, I am definitely looking forward to this one.  It’s apparently about a Japanese woman, living in England and mourning the death of her daughter, who spends her time reminiscing about one summer in post-war Nagasaki when she and her friends were trying to rebuild their lives.  If I’m honest, the synopsis doesn’t grab me but I do love Ishiguro’s writing so I am betting on it being a goodie.

3.         Claudine’s House by Colette.  I’m afraid Colette and I have history………and not the good sort.  Le Blé en Herbe (aka Green Wheat or Ripening Seed) was one of my set books for A-level and, having been mis-sold it by our teacher on the basis that it was a kind of semi-respectable dirty book of the early 20th-Century, we were all completely disappointed with it when it turned out to be just a little bit dull.  In fact, pretty much all I can remember is that Vinca, the "heroine", is constantly described as smelling of periwinkles (i.e. fresh and innocent) whereas the older woman who ensnares Paul, the “hero”, is described using thicker, heavier scents.  Anyway, Claudine’s House is supposed to be a memoir of her childhood in Burgundy.  By the way, this is a different Claudine to the heroine of Enid Blyton’s school books.  I wouldn’t want you to confuse the two……not the same at all.

4.         The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë.  I suppose it had to happen at some point.  Having never read any Austen or anything by any of the various Brontë’s, I’ve managed to live my reading life in blissful ignorance of the authors whom many bloggers and commenters appear to love with a passion.  But the Doom is upon me and the damned Random Number Generator has presented me with a tale of spousal abuse and betrayal, a novel considered as the first sustained feminist novel (according to Professor Wikipedia). Oh, yippee.  Feel free to call me a philistine thickie or even a dead, white member of the phallocracy but I am so not looking forward to this.  The one consolation is that there is a free copy available for Kindle on Amazon so at least I won’t have to pay for it.

5.         Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia.  This is much more like it.  It’s the story of a gang of Argentine bank robbers who end up being besieged by the police.  I’m not sure whether it’s based on a true story or is purely fictional but I’m looking forward to it.

It’s a mixed bag this time but, hopefully, it won’t take me as long to get through them as last time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

2,497: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by George Walter

In a world where many, if not most, “classics” can be obtained online or on e-reader for nothing or next to nothing, it may come as some surprise to hear that I would almost always prefer to pay the full price for a Penguin Classics edition.  A big reason for this is the fascinating introductory essays and explanatory notes that they tend to come with.

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is no exception to this and, as well as a glossary of military terms and a set of notes explaining the various cultural, historical and literary references in the poems, has an excellent introductory essay by the anthology’s editor, George Walter.

In his essay, Mr Walter summarises the conventional arc of the story of the First World War, which most of the numerous anthologies of war poems follow.  First there is the patriotic, enthusiasm of the summer of 1914, during which legions of young men volunteered to fight, fondly imagining they’d be home for Christmas.  This phase is followed by the emerging horror of trench warfare, a growth in cynicism and bitterness as the war becomes a grinding war of attrition and ends with the mourning of the dead.

Mr Walter puts this down to the crystallisation of the popular image of Wilfred Owen  and, to a lesser extent, Siegfried Sassoon as symbols of the war and to the cultural imperatives of the Sixties and Seventies when many of the anthologies were published.  He disagrees with this construct and points out that, throughout the War and for many years afterwards, the overtly patriotic Rupert Brooke was much more popular and highly regarded than Owen and Sassoon and that many soldiers retained a sense of patriotism and enthusiasm for the War until its very end.

By contrast, Mr Walter groups his selection of poems into themes, which allows him largely to avoid a strictly chronological series of poems.  He also refuses to follow the conventional narrative by collecting poems that show different viewpoints of the theme in question.  He also departs from the usual run of anthologies by acknowledging that war poetry was not only the preserve of combatants but was also created by, in particular, women.  He includes a good selection of these poems, describing the impact of the War on female lives which range from the caustic to the angry to the poignant, such as May Herschel-Clark’s The Mother, an imitation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, which begins, “If you should die, think only this of me” and ends powerfully:

“And think, my son, with eyes grown clear and dry
She lives as though forever in your sight,
Loving the things
you loved, with heart aglow
For country, honour, truth, traditions high,
- Proud that you paid their price. (And if some night
Her heart should break – well, lad, you will not know.)

Of course, as I have already implied, there are a host of First World War poetry anthologies out there and the question has to be asked: do we really need another?  Hopefully, I have already demonstrated that this anthology, taking as it does a different approach, is a welcome addition to other anthologies but there is another hurdle that The Penguin Book has to overcome.

As Mr Walter points out, most British schoolchildren are introduced to First World War poetry at school (although he notes with some asperity that, these days, it is more likely to be in a history class than an English class).  As school anthologies tend to contain a relatively consistent selection, this means that there is, if you like, a core of incredibly well-known poems – such as The Soldier, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Dulce et Decorum Est and I Have a Rendez-vous with Death.  This causes the would-be anthology editor a bit of a problem.  If you include all of the standards, you limit the space available for others and end up adding nothing to what has gone before.  If, on the other hand, you go for novelty and include only lesser-known poems, the anthology will feel wilfully obscure and somewhat lacking.

Mr Walter solves this conundrum with aplomb, collating a nice balance of the standard and the lesser known.  He is assisted by the fact that this anthology is substantial in length but I found a lot that was new to me, many of which were either thought-provoking or emotive.

It is interesting that the First World War remains, I believe, unique amongst conflicts in the amount, variety and quality of the poetry it generated.  I have no idea why this should be but am continually drawn to these poems.  I can’t recommend this anthology highly enough to anyone interested either in poetry in general or in the First World War.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

2,498: The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac

Left to my own devices in a bookshop, I am a bit like a bibliomanic butterfly, flitting from section to section at a whim.  In fact there are so few sections of the average bookshop I shy away from that I can pretty much name them – gardening, mind body and spirit, romance, erotica, horror and, most pertinently, true crime.

I have to confess that I just don’t get the whole true crime thing.  I don’t get the fascination that some crimes and criminals have for the reading public.  It all seems a bit tawdry, a little voyeuristic and slightly creepy.  I can’t help but feel that there’s even a faint tang of hero-worship about some of these books and I’m even suspicious of the self-proclaimed experts who write these books.

So, it won’t come as a surprise that I have virtually no interest in Jack the Ripper, probably the most iconic of British serial killers.  In fact, all I knew about him was that he killed a number of prostitutes in Whitechapel towards the end of the 19th Century and that he was never caught.  Unlike the army of Ripperologists (yes, really), I really don’t care whether he was Walter Sickert (Patricia Cornwell’s chosen perpetrator), the Duke of Clarence or any of the other more or less plausible suspects (including Lewis Carroll, believe it or not).

Consequently, when the lovely people at Transworld kindly sent me a copy of The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper (TAJTR), my heart didn’t exactly leap from excitement.  In fact, I almost didn’t bother with it, which would have been a shame as it is, at the very least, an intriguing read.

If you believe (or are happy to suspend your disbelief) the book itself, TAJTR is a printing of a manuscript found by one Alan Hicken, proprietor of the Montacute TV, Radio and Toy Museum, amongst the papers of S.G. Hulme Beaman, creator of Larry the Lamb.  The manuscript purports to be the autobiography of one James Carnac, who claims to be Jack the Ripper.

The book is divided into three parts: the first recounts Carnac’s life up until the summer of 1888.  The second deals with the period during which the Ripper murders took place and the third recounts the remainder of Carnac’s life, including an explanation of why the Ripper murders suddenly ceased.  There is also an epilogue, inserted into the manuscript by a third party (for reasons that will be apparent if you read the book).  Finally, there is an analysis of the book by one Paul Begg, who has made a number of contributions to the canon of Ripperature (no, I didn’t make this up) and is, apparently, a Ripper expert.

The story itself can be dealt with quite quickly.  It’s a perfectly well-written story which jogs along nicely.  If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s lifted by purporting to be the life story of Jack the Ripper – I suspect if it had been the autobiography of “just another serial killer”, the writing wouldn’t particularly hold the attention.
But that would be to miss the point because this is purporting to be the Ripper’s own story and that’s the whole point of it.  The story itself is almost of secondary importance and, in fact, the psychological explanation for the Ripper it gives (likes blood and knives, kills prostitutes to sate his bloodlust because they are worthless, would welcome the release from life and so he is not harming anyone) is unexceptional.  The intriguing thing about TAJTR is what the book really represents.

For, of course, it could be one of a number of things.  Firstly, it could be the actual autobiography of Jack the Ripper and could be doing just what it says on the tin.  There are a number of objections to this.  I would have thought that if it were truly what it claims to be, there would have been front-page news interest in the book, rather than just trade interest.  Also, Begg seems not to have been able to corroborate the story despite there being so much detail in the manuscript that it should have been possible to do so, even accepting that the author used pseudonyms for the characters.  

Moving down a layer, this could actually be the autobiography of a James Carnac, who was laying claim to be Jack the Ripper.  This would be pretty odd, given that the manuscript was apparently only to have been published after his death, thus depriving him of the thrill of the ensuing notoriety.   It also seems to be a pretty pointless exercise if this were the case.

More plausibly, TAJTR could be a work of fiction.  This is my view and it’s supported both by the above thoughts and the fact that it reads like a novel, has the structure of a novel and has a suspiciously neat and fitting conclusion that almost screams “fiction” at the reader.  The question still remains, however, of who the author is – Hulme Beaman or Hicken and Begg (or one of them).  It could be either, I suppose, although as both Hicken and Begg point out, if Hulme Beaman was the author, it would be radically different to anything else he wrote during a lifetime of writing and would also have been totally out of character.  If true, of course, the book would have some niche interest to those fascinated by early radio in the UK.

I can’t be certain, but I do believe that TAJTR is a very clever concoction by Messrs Begg and Hicken, using inconsistencies, uncertainties and some cod analysis and provenance to create a fascinating book that is not just not what it claims to be but is also not what it claims it probably isn’t.  It’s witty, well thought through and put together with an attention to detail that helps it leave just enough uncertainty to make you think – could it really be true?

I’m still not that fussed about the whole Ripper thing but I did enjoy this book – it was one of those books that made me secretly giggle for the cleverness of it all.  I really do hope that Hicken and Begg were responsible for it; if any of the other possibilities are true, it would, perversely, make it a worse book.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

2,499: The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

I remember being slightly stunned when I first saw my great-grandfather take off his foot and prop it up against the wall.  To my young eyes, this was a pretty cool trick to be able to pull off.  It was only later that he told me that it had been blown off during the First World War.  According to him, his commanding officer had been wounded and was lying in no-man’s land.  My great-grandfather had gone out there and had picked him up to carry him back to the British trenches when he was shot in the back and had his foot blown off.  For this, he was mentioned in despatches.

As I got older and showed more interest in history, he began to share some of his stories with me.  I am sure he gave me a sanitised version of them and, looking back, he never really talked about conditions in the trenches or the actual fighting.  In fact, as far as I can remember, he never even mentioned the names of the battles in which he fought.

And yet I confidently tell people that he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme.  I have no evidence for this and it is unlikely that I will ever have any as his military records appear to be amongst the majority of First World War army personnel records that were destroyed by German bombing in 1940.  Nevertheless, it just seems to be right to me that it was this battle that he would have been involved with.  He probably wasn’t but the received truths and symbols of that war tell me he must have been.

Geoff Dyer tells a similar story in The Missing of the Somme, a wonderfully thought-provoking meditation on the nature of remembrance and the Great War.  His family history has it that his grandfather was an underage volunteer who turned up at the recruiting office only to be told by the recruiting sergeant to go away and come back in a couple of days when he would be two years older.  This story had been faithfully passed down the generations but Dyer, having been able to find his grandfather’s records, discovered that it was completely untrue.  The image of the underage volunteer in the heady summer of 1914 has become so engrained in the collective memory of the War that we cling to it even when the facts don’t fit.

For those who haven’t come across Geoff Dyer, he is a writer who is difficult to pin down.  He is the author of a number of novels that blend fact and fiction and his non-fiction flits across whatever takes his fancy.  He claims to be inherently lazy (one of his books is entitled Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It) and The Missing of the Somme was originally meant to be a novel based on Tender is the Night).  Despite all that, his writing is enviable, especially the virtuosity with which he writes about so many different subjects.  If you haven’t tried him, I recommend you give him a go.

The Missing of the Somme takes a very tangential approach to the First World War.  It starts with the opinion (with which I am in total agreement) that it was, for Britain, the defining event of the 20th Century and that pretty much everything else is framed by it.  Received wisdom has it that the years prior to 1914 were golden and peaceful by comparison to everything that came after, an image that conveniently ignores the class unrest, the prospects of civil war in Ireland, the strikes and the militancy of the suffragettes that were features of this period.  As Dyer points out, the darkness of the War has the effect of softening what came before.

Dyer’s focus is not actually on the War itself but on the impact it has had on later generations and, in particular, the way it has been remembered.  He looks at the way that this collective memory has been framed and fixed by literature, art, photography and even architecture.  There is a section discussing how the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the writings of Siegfried Sassoon have effectively come to dominate the way we view the War and, in doing so, he points out the incongruity of the memorials that have “Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” inscribed on them in homage to the Glorious Dead.

Another point Dyer cleverly makes, although in a slightly forced way, is how the imagery of the War was being created almost before it was actually fought.  Every British person over the age of about seven or eight will be familiar with Lawrence Binyon’s words:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.”

It’s a stanza that is engraved on many war memorials and is recited at almost every Remembrance Day service every year.  I find it incredibly moving despite its familiarity and, even typing it now, my eyes have clouded.  Yet the iconic phrase of remembrance was actually written in 1914, only a few weeks after war was declared and before more than a handful of soldiers had fallen.  In a sense, it was creating the framework of memory before the fact.

Amongst the history and the discussion of remembrance, Dyer weaves in snippets of a journey he made to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium with a couple of friends.  At times, these stories can seem a bit jarring, disturbing the almost languorous rhythm of the book but, towards the end, they begin to make sense as he describes his visit to the Menin Gate at Ypres.

The Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, is, along with the Somme and Gallipoli, one of the totemic events of the War for Britain.  Although the figures are disputed, the consensus would appear to be that around 260,000 casualties were taken by both the British and German sides, with a further 10,000 French casualties.  The Menin Gate is a huge memorial to the allied casualties of all the Ypres battles whose bodies have never been found.  Stood on one of the roads that led to the front lines, the local fire brigade close the road every evening at 8 p.m. and a bugler sounds the Last Post.  This ceremony has taken place every evening since 2 July 1928 save for the years of German occupation in the Second World War.  It resumed on the very day that Polish troops liberated the town.  As a schoolboy, I visited Ypres and witnessed the ceremony.  It is simple, dignified and incredibly moving.  I can’t explain how much it means that the local community still do this.

Dyer worries about whether future generations will continue to remember.  He is a decade or so older than me and wrote The Missing of the Somme in the 1990s, wondering about what would happen when the last veterans of the War were to die.  This has now happened.  No more will we see them march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.  The living can no longer honour their contemporaries.  Dyer writes that the dead of the British Empire would take three and a half days to march past the Cenotaph.  

Personally, I believe we will continue to remember and to honour those who fought but it will take a positive effort to ensure that future generations understand the sacrifices their ancestors made.  I suspect that almost every family in Britain, France and Germany has a direct link to the War in their history and it would be a real tragedy if the losses and suffering were to be forgotten.

The Missing of the Somme is a brilliant encapsulation of thoughts about the War and its effects on Britain and, despite not being a history book or a memoir, I think it should be required reading for anyone studying the War or who is interested in it.  For those who are interested but have little time to spend with the voluminous literature on it, I would recommend a trio of short books:  Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme.

I read The Missing of the Somme for the 2012 Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

2,500: 1,001 Books Challenge - An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

One of the fascinating things about my 1,001 Books challenge is the sheer variety of writing styles and themes that the members of the list display and, in particular, the contrasts that are constantly being thrown up even with the random selection approach I am taking to book choice within the list.

An Artist of the Floating World and my last review, Blood Meridian, demonstrate this perfectly.  The latter is a full-blooded, Hieronymous Bosch-like portrayal of violence with a writing style that almost has a physical presence, so solid is it.  The former could not be more different, both in subject matter and style, being a graceful and subtle examination of perspective and belief.

Masuji Ono is an elderly artist, living in an unnamed city in Japan in the years immediately following its unconditional surrender and near destruction in World War II.  Ono is a widower but has two daughters and a spirited grandson, on whom he dotes.  He appears to have been a well-known and celebrated figure in Japan’s artistic world prior to the end of the world.  Indeed, the first thing Ono tells us, the reader, is that he lives in a house that he could not have afforded, were it not for the fact that he had won an “auction of prestige” to buy the house at an affordable price.

Ono’s chief concern in the book is to arrange the marriage of his younger daughter, Noriko.  A marriage had been arranged some time before the beginning of the novel but this had fallen through as, according to Ono, the prospective groom’s parents had felt themselves socially beneath Ono and his family.  But, as the story begins to unfold, the dissonances start to appear and a very different picture emerges.

Ishiguro lets us see things solely through the eyes and mind of Ono and it is only in the actions of the other characters that Ono’s perspective is questioned and the truth is revealed.  Having set us up to believe that Ono is some kind of artistic lion and a person to be reckoned with in society, Ishiguro then starts to drip feed an alternative view into the story.  Ono, it becomes apparent, is, even by his own words, an unreliable witness to his own life.  Indeed, at times, Ono himself adverts to this by admitting uncertainty about his own memories.

The novel flips back and forth from scenes of Ono’s personal history to his current life.  Having started as a young artist of promise, he is accepted as a pupil by one of the city’s foremost artists, who specialises in creating images of “the floating world” of artists, geishas and pleasure seekers.  Ono eventually moves away from this school and becomes a propagandist for Japan’s militaristic establishment.

At the end of the war, much of Japanese society went through a kind of psychological disintegration as the philosophy of superiority that had been at the heart of Japan’s aggressive imperialism was shown to be patently untrue.  Some of the older generation, taking responsibility for leading Japan to defeat, committed suicide, whilst others, like Ono, simply refused to accept any responsibility or that there had been anything wrong in their beliefs and actions.  A kind of unqualified acceptance of the American victors and their culture also took root amongst many, especially the young.  In the novel, we see this in the views of Taro, Ono’s son-in-law and in the imitations of Popeye and the Lone Ranger by Ichiro, his grandson.

As the novel progresses, we see that Ono is not the respected figure he believes himself to be but is in fact a pariah, one of the old generation responsible for Japan’s defeat, a social undesirable.  In the concern his daughters have about Noriko’s potential engagement,  Ono is actually a potential stumbling block.

Ishiguro’s themes are the effects of defeat on the Japanese, the changing nature of the relationship between the generations and the unreliability of memory.  His writing is elegant and subtle, without getting to the level of obliqueness that some Japanese writers seem to prefer.

His clever technique of allowing Ono to tell his story whilst using the other characters and external events to show up the self-delusion of Ono can be illustrated perfectly in one vignette where he encounters an old protégé, Kuroda, who had spent much of the war in prison, having been tortured for his political beliefs and is estranged from Ono.  As they meet, Ono reflects that he had had cause only to make some criticisms of Kuroda to the authorities so that they could encourage him to mend his ways and that he hadn’t intended for Kuroda to be punished.  The truth, as Kuroda points out, is that Ono had denounced Kuroda to the authorities which had led directly to his imprisonment.  Now, of course, in the new Japan, Kuroda’s sufferings mean that he is seen as reliable and is on the way up, in contrast to Ono.

As the novel progresses, Ono begins to realise that his previous position and his association with the old ways may have an impact on Noriko’s marriage negotiations and takes a decision to accept his responsibility for the sufferings of Japan in the War.  And it is here that Ishiguro plays his ace.  The family of Noriko's potential spouse find Ono's confession odd and it later transpires that the father, a local notable has no recollection of ever having met Ono by contrast to Ono's claims of a real acquaintance.  It becomes clear that, not only is Ono deluding himself in his belief that he is still a respected person and that his political views were correct but, in fact, he was never as important or as influential as he thinks.

Ishiguro gives us the image of the floating world of the pleasure seekers but his picture of post-War Japan is also a floating world in which beliefs shift and perspectives are altered.  An Artist of the Floating World is a subtle and ingenious novel that I loved.