Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

“In its simplest terms, then, the path to liberation begins with refraining from hurting ourselves and others. When many people hear ‘”refrain”, they automatically think “repression” and assume that when an urge comes up, they should just push it under. In therapeutic circles, there’s an ongoing debate about which causes more harm: repression or acting out. To me, they’re equally harmful. Once you speak or act, there’s a chain reaction, and other people’s emotions become involved. Every time you speak or act out of aggression or craving or jealousy or envy or pride, it’s like dropping a pebble into a pool of water and watching the ripples fan out; everyone around you is affected. Similarly, if you repress your feelings, everyone is affected by that too, because you’re walking around like a keg of dynamite that’s about to go off.”

Confession: this book was borrowed from the library.

Image result for living beautifully with uncertainty and changeYes, I’ve borrowed a few books from the library recently, breaking my pledge not to borrow or buy books until I’d read all of my own. For the past month or so I have been exploring Buddhist practice in more depth and as I have a very limited supply of books on the subject I have felt the need to dip into the library for a wider supply. I’ve borrowed only 3, which I think is not too bad: a book of poetry by the Zen poet Ryokan, a book by the Dalai Lama and this one. It’s a small deviation and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Which I think might mean I’ve learned something.

This book came as something of a surprise to me, which is odd because I’m not sure I had any clear expectations. I hadn’t heard of the writer before, though it turns out she is quite a force in Western Buddhism, and I was slightly ambivalent about the title. Yet this book has been one of the clearest, most accessible and gentlest texts I’ve encountered on  Buddhist principles. The book centres around 3 core commitments:

The First Commitment: Committing to not cause harm (the Pratimoksha Vow)

The Second Commitment: Committing to take care of one another (the Bodhisattva Vow)

The Third Commitment: Committing to embrace the world just as it is (the Samaya Vow)

Whilst these commitments may seem relatively simple in principle, practicing them is difficult but Chödrön provides some gentle, clear guidance on how to approach the commitments, what they mean and how to go about incorporating them into your daily life. As she describes approaching the first commitment:

“It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are. What most of us have been doing is gearing our lives toward avoiding unpleasant feelings whilst clinging to whatever we think will make us feel good and secure. From a conventional point of view, this makes perfect sense. But from the vantage point of remaining with our direct experience, the vantage point of opening to the tentativeness of life, this strategy is self-defeating, the very thing that keeps us stuck.”

By providing examples from her own life, and examples of what the three commitments comprise and, perhaps more importantly, don’t comprise, Chödrön patiently develops the ideas of the three commitments. We start with the first commitment which involves not causing harm or refrain from unwholesome action if I relate it back to my readings of the Shobogenzo. In approaching the first commitment, we seek to refrain from causing harm to both ourselves and to others. This involves not lashing out at others, not speaking in a way which will cause harm or distress to others, and similarly refraining from self-criticism, from causing distress to ourselves. Instead we pause, we do not send the angry e-mail, we do not defend ourselves, we do not complain about the behaviour of others. This is an uncomfortable place, it asks us not to apply judgement and labels but rather to learn to simply experience the emotion. If someone humiliates you, then you don’t label that experience as bad. Instead you try to experience it in its entirety, as explained here:

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrul teaches the non-violent practice of simmering. He says that rather than “boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup,” we simmer in it. We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in. Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle between two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false. This is the journey of developing a kindhearted and courageous tolerance for our pain. Simmering is a way of gaining inner strength.”

The Second Commitment asks us to extend that practice to encompass kindness and compassion towards others, all others. It asks to us allow other beings into our lives and to care for them. Whilst this might seem like a soft commitment, in reality it is not. In fact I wonder if this is the most difficult of the three because it incites us to be vulnerable, to be open and vulnerable in a way we generally are not. As Chödrön describes:

“Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of “life not on my terms”.”

This might be described as do wholesome action or perhaps more recognisable as the practice of bodhicitta, the offering of compassion to the world. In approaching the second commitment we offer to breathe in the pain of others and breathe out soothing, calmness and joy. It is hard because it asks us to offer compassion even for those who commit acts of cruelty, not just the victims of cruelty. It asks us to transcend our need to apply judgement.

The final commitment is to accept the world just as it is, full of petty annoyances and discomforts, it’s trials, the loss of all that we know and love. This practice asks us to confront the fact that there is no escape, that we cannot avoid pain or death, that we cannot avoid loss. We can fight, or we can relax and smile. This commitment asks us to relax and smile, to respect the difficulties of life as our beautiful practice ground in which we can learn to transcend our instinct and experience life in all its glorious intensity.

“From the perspective of charnel-ground practice, the chaos in our lives isn’t terrible. It’s simply the material that we work with. Viscerally, however, it feels terrible, and we don’t like it a bit. So it takes courage and gentle, compassionate discipline just to hold our seat. What keeps us moving forward is that the practice puts us in touch with the living energy of our emotions – an energy that has tremendous power, the power to wake us up. Because of its intensity, it can pop us our of our neurosis, pop us out of our fearful cocoon, pop us into sacred world.”  

I found this book an extremely clear-eyed, compassionate and insightful way of approaching the difficulties of life a bit differently. I am, as most people are, prone to trying to control the situations I’m in. Consequently I think I have suffered more because not only have my attempts at control largely failed, but I have suffered the additional disappointment of that failure; as well as the twin, and equally destructive, poles of the hope that things will turn out differently and the certainty that if only I had done something differently, or the world was different, that it would have done. Instead of setting my life on track, I have simply moved onto a path which was more wrong. Stopping and confronting, accepting and offering compassion, however, feels much more right, if less instinctive (and therefore more difficult). I thought this book might offer comfort, and it does but it also offers truth and that is much more powerful. I am not sure I am ready, by any stretch, to embrace the world as it is; but by practicing non-harm, coupled with a more compassionate spirit, I may stop running into walls of my own making. And maybe the rest will come, with time and patience and practice.

 

 

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Posted in buddhism, meditation, religion | 7 Comments

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker

“The devotees are mesmerised by the guru. They are in awe. They are transfixed. They are speechless. After a lengthy duration, furtive glances are exchanged, throats are nervously cleared, and then they quietly commence – with hushed and reverential voices – the singing of hymns. It’s as if the Divine Mother herself is now inhabiting the guru. God is here, in this very room. She is he. He is she. They are one.”

I think I should make it clear from the outset that I admire Nicola Barker a very great deal. She is a highly unique novelist. Usually I enjoy books that are thoughtful, spacious, methodical even. Books that are clean and open, sparse writing, ideas driven. Nicola Barker’s novels are definitely thought-provoking, but they are also wild, exuberant, irreverent, playful and, honestly, a bit crackers. Yet this is exactly what I admire about them. They are like a swill of heady champagne, all pop and fizzle, going straight to the very top of your brain and mangling all the connections so you’re left slightly bewildered, a bit tipsy and in possession of a very different view of the world. She’s brilliant.

The Cauliflower tells the story of Sri Ramakrishna a genuine guru who lived in India in the 19th Century. A real man. I didn’t know this until I was about 1/2 way through the book and then I was wracked with curiosity about him (as was Barker, herself). As this is a Nicola Barker book she throws you right in the deep end; the book is written in the first person making it immediate and present; there are segments that unfold as though they are occurring right before your eyes, unfolding like a movie, all of which adds to the sense of theatricality. There are (fictionalised) accounts from the perspective of people who were responsible for the support and spiritual development of Sri Ramakrishna, or encountered him, or heard about him, or spent time with him coupled with shards of poetry, fragments of letters, curious asides. Sri Ramakrishna is surrounded by a large and eclectic cast of characters like Rani Rashmoni who founded the temple to Kali at Dakshinewar where Sri Ramakrishna served; his  nephew Hridayram who serves him with both devotion and  resignation, with one eye ever on his own advancement; Mathur Baba who takes over the temple when Rani Rashmoni died; Narendra who Ramakrishna believes will take forward his movement when he dies (as he does). Overarching these characters is the narrator of The Cauliflower (some kind of documentary, or maybe just the book itself representing its intention) who pops up now and then to add a sense of mischief and theatre to the whole proceedings.

Sri Ramakrishna himself does not speak, except as overheard by others. This distancing reminded me somewhat of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in which the main character, Jacob, is represented by others but never represents himself. Yet there are moments where it may be Sri Ramakrishna speaking. Little haikus which appear like the voice of God, little pockets of wisdom or strangeness amongst the chaos. This all creates a sense of roundedness; we see Sri Ramakrishna from many angles, from the angles of believers and disbelievers, and there are contradictory elements to his character.  What comes across is an odd and chaotic figure, deeply spiritual but spiritual in a way which is visceral and experimental. He spends time emulating (perhaps even being) Hanuman who is a God in monkey form; his relationship with Kali is that of child and mother – he wails for her, seeks her relentlessly, crying, screaming, demanding. He goes into deep transcendent periods of spiritual ecstasy, trances, with disturbing regularity. His pathway to God is strangely agnostic: he embraces the Hindu Gods (Kali, Shiva), Christianity, the Muslim faith at different periods in his life. He develops a following, and that following both reveres and is mystified, in some cases repelled, by him. Perhaps this is part of Barker’s point: that an encounter with God would be bewildering, not subject to human rules, something apart and distant from our daily, routine lives.

Image result for the cauliflower nicola barker“On one occasion Sri Ramakrishna comes outside onto his balcony to find the two of them engaged in a bitchy discussion about the credibility of the non-dualist approach. Narendra is pointing to a water pot that sits on the floor between them and is saying, ‘Is that water pot God?! Is this cup, God?! Are you, God?! Am I God?!’

They are laughing together, scornfully, at the very thought.

‘What are you laughing at?’ the childlike guru wonders, sweetly, and as he speaks he taps Narendra lightly on the shoulder, once again turning the teenager’s entire universe on its head.

Narendra immediately becomes conscious of the fact that the whole world is God. The. Whole. World.

He spends the entire day in this bizarre, heightened state. He tells nobody what is happening to him. He just hopes – desperately hopes – that it will wear off. But it doesn’t. He travels home. Everything is God. He sits down to eat. The plate is God. The food is God. His mother who serves him is God. Her words are God.”

The Cauliflower is an odd, chaotic and strangely compelling book. It is in parts frustrating, in parts annoying, chaotically exuberant and a bit exhausting. In other words, a typical Nicola Barker book. It’s also reverential, explorative, innovative and completely mad. It’s a whirling dervish of a book, eclectic and unpredictable. It includes haiku, strange historical facts, extracts from the Song of Solomon and reference to Dickens. You never quite know what’s going to come next. I loved it. It is a book about faith, joy, about the human spirit, the force of belief and a guru who is childlike, without ego (or is he) and desperate to make a real and true connection with God. Sri Ramakrishna is 5 parts man to 5 parts myth and Barker explores all parts equally, madly and with a curious spirit. It’s a fine line, but she treads it neatly with a little skip in her step. It is joyful, and I loved it.

Posted in fiction | 8 Comments

The Ideal Reader Book 14: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated: and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…”

At the age of 24, Apsley Cherry-Garrard joined Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, Scott’s infamous last and tragic attempt at reaching the Antarctic pole. The Worst Journey in the World was published 10 years after Scott’s death and recounts Cherry-Garrard’s experiences on the expedition, the three years he spent in the Antarctic, the travails they suffered and the horror of finding the polar team, his friends and colleagues, dead several months after the expedition was known to have failed. It is a bleak, strange and emotionally tumultuous book; as Cherry-Garrard famously said: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” and the book lays this out without self-pity or glossing. I find myself at the end of it feeling rather like I need a really good cry.

Image result for the worst journey in the world

The books covers the entire period during which Cherry-Garrard was in the Antarctic, three years in total and longer, perhaps, than any one person can be left in such an unforgiving environment. The worst journey is not, itself, a reference to Scott’s attempt at the pole, rather it refers to an early journey conducted in winter in which Bill Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and Henry “Birdie” Bowers undertook a trip from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier to collect some specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs, the idea being to determine an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. The party intended to camp for a time at Cape Crozier, the better to obtain the specimens and observe the colony of penguins there, but the weather and conditions conspired against them and in the end they collected only three eggs before having to return. During their 5-6 week stint out on the polar wastes, the three men suffered terribly – experiencing temperatures of -30 Fahrenheit to -60 Fahrenheit during the worst parts of the trip. This alongside a kind of self-experimentation on the relative merits of different types of rations it’s a wonder they came back alive at all, though of course later both Wilson and Bowers were to perish in their attempt at the pole. The bonding the three men did on this terrible trip is not lost, and Cherry-Garrard’s fondness for both is both poignant and self-evident in the way he writes about them.

Of Scott himself there is not a great deal said. It seems that Scott was something of an enigma to his men, distant, perhaps, to all but Wilson of whom he was evidently very fond. Much of the book is turned to the polar attempt, not least because Cherry-Garrard himself accompanied the group at least part of the way and the later loss of the polar party, and Cherry-Garrard’s inadvertent hand in it, had such a terrible effect upon him. Scott’s methods left much to be desired; I don’t know if it was the intent of Cherry-Garrard to expose this (I suspect not, as he speaks with great respect for the man) but the mistakes, the unnecessary dangers to the men, leak through. Of course it is easy to judge in retrospect, and I had to keep reminding myself of the time in which they were making this attempt (1911 – 1913) and the poor technology available to them at the time. People still die in the Antarctic, even with the infinitely better technology available to us now. Yet the whole trip seems something like a massive experiment – Scott trying this, trying that, tinkering about here and fiddling about with that – so that the tragic end seems both surprising and unnecessary. He took ponies (ponies!) and dogs which were untrained on the trip; the men were untrained, each left to do what he chose which, bizarrely, was often too much rather than too little. There was little in the way of routine and discipline, Scott did not lead so much as inspire. Yet they were all grown men, free to live and risk their lives as they chose.

And after the excesses, the boredom and inevitable disappointments of Christmas, it was good to be reminded of this:

“Looking back I realised two things. That sledging, at any rate in summer and autumn, was a much less terrible ordeal than my imagination had painted it, and that those Hut Point days would prove some of the happiest in my life. Just enough to eat and keep warm. no more – no frills nor trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The necessities of civilisation were luxuries to us: and as Priestly found under circumstances compared to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday school treat, the luxuries of civilisation satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.”

Despite the horrors, the endless darkness, the cold, the poor food, the danger, the scurvy and frostbite, this is still a strangely beautiful and inspiring book. I am not about to hark off to the Antarctic, however! In all the chaos and suffering, these men found something extraordinary. Something extraordinary about themselves and about the world. They discovered, and like so many important discoveries it had to be made outside of the day to day ordinary life. But at what terrible cost. As Cherry-Garrard himself reflects:

“Such tragedies inevitably raise the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ What is worth what? Is life worth risking for a feat, or losing for your country? To face a thing because it was a feat, and only a feat, was not very attractive to Scott: it had to contain an additional object – knowledge. A feat had even less attraction for Wilson, and it is a most noteworthy thing in the diaries which are contained in this book, that he made no comment when he found that the Norwegians were first at the Pole: it is as though he felts that it did not really matter, as indeed it probably did not.[…]

[…]And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

I think this is just about the most perfect advice anyone can give you about living a life. Your ‘Winter Journey’ might take a different form, it doesn’t have to involve freezing one’s nose off at any pole, but involves, instead, exploring your passion whatever that is, whatever its rewards, however much people might think you’re mad for it.

So I’m off to have my little cry now. Happy 2019. Sledge well, whatever the odds.

 

Posted in exploration, memoir, science, The Ideal Reader | 7 Comments

The Ideal Reader: a refrain

Several months ago I took the decision to start tackling my book habit by finally reading all those books I bought for idealistic reasons; the books that defined the smart version of me, the well-read one, the one who had diverse and varied interests: in other words the ‘ideal reader‘. In May I made a list of all those books that I could clearly identify fell into that category and resolved not to buy or borrow any books until I’d read them all. There were 104 in total, more if you count the multiple volumes contained in some of those books (We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live & The Story of the Stone comprising 12 volumes between them, but I’ve counted them as 2). For the old me, 104 books would more than 1 year’s reading, less than 2, but now I’ve slowed my reading, and coupled with the rather challenging nature of some of the books, I suspect it will take rather longer than 2 years to complete my mission.

So far I’m up to book 14 from my list. It’s not excellent progress but what I’ve found since I started is that the idea of ‘progress’ has melted away. In addition to the 104 books on the list I also have something like 100-150 other books which I haven’t read and aren’t on the list and I’ve been reading from both sections of my library over the course of the past several months. I have books, I am reading books. There is no pressure except that which I place upon myself.

So far my list of books read is as follows:

  1. The Undiscovered Self by C.G. Jung
  2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  3. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
  4. Bushido: the Soul of Japan by Nitobe Inazo
  5. The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Soseki
  6. The Book of Lieh-Tsu
  7. Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton
  8. Wabi Sabi: the Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper
  9. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin
  10. Shobogenzo by Dogen (unfinished)
  11. Cartesian Sonata by William H Gass (unfinished)
  12. Germinal by Emile Zola
  13. The Leopard by Lampedusa
  14. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (in progress)

I say ‘read’ but as you’ll see not all of the books are finished. The Shobogenzo is a huge volume of buddhist writing, not something to be downed in a single gulp, and I’ve been dipping into and out of it over the past several months, sometimes going back over something which I found particularly meaningful. Cartesian Sonata is a collection of 4 novellas; Gass is an interesting but extremely challenging writer, and I’ve found it difficult to read it continually but after I finish a book if I feel I can handle it I have been going back to it and reading a single novella. I have two left. I’ve just started the Cherry-Garrard; it felt like an appropriate read for the season as we enter these days of darkness.

Neither have I reviewed all of the books I’ve read. My intention when embarking on this challenge was to experience the reading and that’s what I’ve been doing. Some of the books have left me little to say, others too much. I am increasingly coming to recognise that my desire to write about what I’ve read isn’t connected to the pleasure of reading itself, in some ways it detracts from it. Perhaps it is the increasing toxicity of the virtual world having an effect on me, but I’m not sure shouting out into the void is really meaningful…though here I am, still shouting.

I have been slightly disappointed to notice that my list involves books predominantly by white men. I wondered for a while if that reflected a deep held bias that equivocated white men with more challenging reads, but when I looked at the books I had already read I realised it was something else. I had already read most of the books by women and people of colour. Maybe it is still a form of bias, just not the one I’d imagined.

I have also cheated, a little. I’ve borrowed 3 books from the library, all in the past two weeks. And that’s okay. I’ve managed 7 months without borrowing a book and I know, now, that I can manage 7 more and another 7 more without difficulty. One of the books was Cal Newport’s Deep Work, something which has helped me to refocus both in reading and in my life. The other two are books of poetry by Tomas Transtromer.  I recently encountered his work and find it beautiful, and I’m not wholly sure that books of poetry can ever be off my borrowing list. I haven’t bought any books, except for other people. With Christmas approaching I have found my desire to acquire new books resurfacing; it seems to ebb and flow in waves. There have been some fascinating books released this year: Crudo by Olivia Laing, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Some Trick by Helen DeWitt, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – all these have tempted me, and perhaps it would be okay to buy them, they are only four after all, but I haven’t. I can wait. I am learning to wait.

I’m not sure I’m learning anything except to be satisfied, patient and settled. It is not easy. Sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to select a book to read, though I have literally hundreds to choose from. And I wonder if my book buying desire has simply been converted to something else: I have spent a lot of time making things – chutneys, wines, kombucha, batch cooking. Maybe my restlessness is manifesting differently, but I’m not sure. There’s a settledness in me that I haven’t experienced before. I am beginning to feel I have nothing to prove, that maybe just being is enough.

I am not sure how much I will be blogging into 2019, but I don’t think it matters either. I will write as the spirit takes me. The world will go on. I have books to read.

Happy reading. Love books. Live life. Be kind.

 

 

 

 

Posted in The Ideal Reader | 13 Comments

The Ideal Reader Book 12: Germinal by Emile Zola (translated by Leonard Tancock)

“While Etienne lingered by the fire warming his poor raw hands, Le Voreux began to emerge as from a dream. He could now pick out each part of the works: the tarpaulin-covered screening shed, the headgear, the huge winding-house, the square tower of the drainage pump. With its squat brick buildings huddled in a valley, and the chimney sticking up like a menacing horn, the pit was evil-looking, a voracious beast crouching ready to devour the world.”

It’s taken me a month to read Germinal, not because it is overly long or difficult or boring or any of those things. No, I have been rather distracted, occupied, work has been difficult and I have been studying for an exam and it has all combined into a kind of depressive fug amongst which confronting this harsh, but exceptional, book has been something I could only take in small doses. But oh! it is exceptional, dense and beautifully written and stirring and awful. A reminder of what literature can achieve. I have spent the last month with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, just as the pit itself is sickening, swallowing families whole and giving them back nothing but black lungs and a hunger which cannot be sated.

Image result for Germinal bookGerminal tells the story of Etienne, a worker who is expelled from his engineering job on the railways due to an angry outburst who finds himself wandering, starving, looking for work. His wanderings take him to Le Voreux, the menacing pit described above, and through a happy (or not) accident he is able to secure himself a job as a haulier – someone who pushes the container of coal to be lifted out of the pit. This is usually a job for girls (surprise! women also worked down the pits) but a policy change means that Etienne is given the role. Here he meets Maheu, a man whose family have worked in the pit for generations, his own father working his last days before receiving his meagre pension, who befriends Etienne and eventually takes him in as a lodger. Maheu’s own family work in the pit: his daughter Catherine, who Etienne desires, his son Zacharie, his other son Jeanlin. At home Maheu has a wife Maheude, a disabled daughter Alzire, twins Lenore and Henri and a baby Estelle. His  father, Bonnemort, also lives with them. With so many mouths to feed, the pittance the family bring home leave them in perpetual debt, barely scraping by.

The poverty of their lives, the destitution and the difficulties of their working conditions are contrasted heavily by the lives of the bourgeoise who live off the backbreaking work of those down the pit. The Gregoires live a comfortable, placid life with full stomachs, warmth, the pleasure of knick knacks and leisure. The contrast is stark. At the time Etienne joins the pit workers, a recession is driving the price of coal down with the result that the pit owners want to cut costs. With a potential cut in wage coming to the already desperate and destitute miners, the conditions are ripe for revolt, which is exactly what happens with violent and unexpected consequences.

“With great difficulty Catherine made herself fill the tub, and she pushed it off. The gallery being too wide for her to get a purchase against the timbers on each side, her bare feet caught in the rails where they tried to get a hold and she moved along very slowly, with her arms held out stiff in front and her body bent double. When she reached the stretch along the corroi, the torture by fire began again, and sweat poured from her in great drops like heavy rain. Before she had gone a third of the relay she was streaming and blinded, and covered with black mud like the men. Her tight-fitting shirt seemed to be soaked in ink, and it clung to her skin and crept up to her haunches with the movement of her thighs; it tied her up so painfully that she had to stop work again.”

Meanwhile Etienne finds himself enamoured with Catherine, Maheu’s daughter. Catherine, however, takes up, accidentally it seems, with another worker Chaval. Chaval is violent, abusive, a situation which Catherine accepts as all she has ever seen is violent and abusive relationships. Catherine’s life is harsh, too harsh. Etienne, in his jealousy, takes up a political education. Etienne is already prone to violence himself, an idealist who is caught in the ideals of communism without the understanding of what it really means. With his mangled concepts he fashions himself as a political leader, leading his fellow miners into a destructive strike. Needless to say, things don’t work out well for anyone concerned.

“Yes, all you French workers have that one idea: you want to dig up a treasure and live on it for evermore in selfish and lazy isolation. You make a great song against the rich, but when fortune gives you some money you haven’t the guts to give it back to the poor. You will never deserve to be happy so long as you have personal possessions, and your hatred of the borgeouis simply comes from your mad desire to be borgeouis yourselves in their place!”

The violence and destitution, the miserable lives of the miners is exposed with pitiless clarity by Zola’s exceptional work. It reads as though it is a documentary, displaying the bare facts and the mistaken thinking of those on both sides, how this leads to inevitable conflict with disastrous results. Consequently Germinal is a stirring but harsh read. Nothing good comes of the strike, but the desperation of the workers’ lives, the sheer lack of hope, of a buffer zone in which the people could breathe, coupled with the wilful ignorance of the pit owners means the action is all but inevitable. Whilst Germinal was written 60 years ago it feels as fresh as though it was written yesterday, and it holds currency too. In some places in the world, workers are still exploited in this way, their lives are small, tight and miserable and perhaps here, in the West, our bellies grow fat on the back of those workers. Perhaps because they are now so far away, we do not see it. And here too the lives of those in poverty are merciless and tight and without hope. Revolution is not the answer, that it clear from Zola’s work, but empathy, compassion, seeing each other as people and not enemies, tools or animals, is perhaps our only hope.

Germinal is a difficult, sorrowful read. I found it hard to read it in long stretches. Fortunately the chapters are short so it is possible to encounter in small doses. But it is also an important book, an exceptional book, beautifully written. It is considered Zola’s most significant book and I can see why; I have read Therese Raquin previously and this, too, is a brilliant book but Germinal is next level. Zola is truly a great writer, though a pitiless one. Or perhaps not. Perhaps his unflinching approach is exactly what it takes to help us all see each other as human, living our different lives as best we can.

Posted in Classics, The Ideal Reader | 9 Comments

Travels with Myself and Another, Five Journeys from Hell by Martha Gellhorn

“What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?”

Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?

I’ve taken a short break from Ideal Reading having become a little worn out after the epic Story of the Stone, struggling to commit to something else from those hefty tomes. This is rubbish, of course, I’m sure I could have read any one of them, but the fact is I came to this stunning realisation that reading from my selection of books that weren’t bought for idealistic purposes wasn’t actually breaking any rules. When my objective was to stop impulse buying and commit to reading from my existing stock, it was utterly permissible to read from any of my stock whether I’d read it before or not. Thus I cheerfully snagged this book off the ‘non-ideal’ shelves; a gift from a friend who made a kind and judicious selection from my wishlist though I cannot recall how or why this book ended up on it except it is by Eland (who I love) and it sounded interesting.

Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?

GellhornThe book is Gellhorn taking a little backwards view at five of the many journeys she’d taken in her life which stood out in her mind as being particularly awful. Gellhorn was a prodigious traveller, famous (although not with me. I am fuming that her name is not as household as the once-upon-a-time husband whose name I won’t mention) for her journalistic activities in places of conflict and war: the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Vietnam. That these trips stood out against those others, which must have been hellish in the extreme, says something for the depredation suffered, the complexities of the awfulness of these specific journeys. She begins in China during the war. China was a place she dreamed of going ‘the Orient’ as she describes it having developed a longing ‘mooning on streetcar travels and stuffing [her] imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham’. The reality was somewhat different, as she describes:

“Mashed bedbugs on the walls, bedbugs creeping over the board beds, peering from the wood floor. Bedbugs smell apart from their bite. Two bamboo chairs, a small table, a kerosene lamp, a bowl of dirty water without spittoon for emptying it in. Down the corridor, a fine modern porcelain toilet in a cement cubicle but not geared to modern plumbing; the bowl overflowed across the floor. The sight was more appalling than the stench though the stench was superlative. I flung Keatings powder everywhere until our room looked as if it had been hit by a powdered-mustard cyclone. We argued as to whether sleeping on the floor was safer than on the board beds.”

Ostensibly she was in China reporting on the war, looking for the mythical Sino-Japanese front, which turned out to be something far less dramatic than she’d imagined (or hoped, I suspect). Still she gleefully describes all the horrors – the boredom, the smells, the terrible poverty, the noises (farting, burping, coughing, hawking – only the last of which made her feel physically sick), the horrors and difficulties of getting from one place to another. Her descriptions of the CNAC air service put my meagre difficulties, the minor delays and overcrowding, on what is the now legendary Northern Rail service into sharp relief as I contrasted the smelly warm crush with the unheated, unpressurised flights, flying in the dark invisibility of fog to avoid the Japanese fighters which Gellhorn still describes as being “never a dull moment. Glowing with adrenalin and high spirits, I would gladly have started again on the next flight.” I begin to feel like an over-pampered, sulky white western princess conflating even the most minor discomforts, which is in fact exactly what I am.

From there Gellhorn moves to the Caribbean where she spends a not very fun time in boats, skipping from island to island trying to get sunk by a German U-boat. I kid you not. It was a trip in which she suffered great boredom and little peril, though it was clear the idea was considered more than a little crazy:

“Word of my scheme got around and resulted in a visit from a burly Texas Major in charge of guarding the island. He brought me a miniature pearl-handled silver plated derringer. It looked just the weapon for a crackpot wearing a negligee trimmed in ostrich feathers who planned to shoot her lover. He gave me four bullets, blunt-nosed 32s, showed me how to load this lethal toy, told me earnestly that it would cut a man in half and not to hesitate to use it. ‘You don’t now what can happen, all alone out there,’

I said I could not accept his expensive pistol, had never used a handgun and was never anxious about my honour. He insisted until finally I thanked him, wrapped the pretty thing in Kleenex, put the bullets in an airmail envelope and the lot at the bottom of my suitcase. Somewhere during the journey, I must have given it away.”

Not a U-boat seen, though she rescued a cat and learned to hate the sea. By now I was enjoying myself immensely, and though it is evident Gellhorn did not her wry, droll sense of humour shines through and what might be a tragedy in other hands is light comedy in hers. From all the horrors, the mistakes, the bad food and perilous journeys, you get the impression Gellhorn is in her element.

From the glistening Caribbean to the wilds of Africa and what becomes the longest section of the book, a self-funded trip to West and East Africa which Gellhorn describes in great detail. It is evident that Africa had a significant impact on Gellhorn, in fact she built one of her ‘several’ residences there and wrote about it more extensively afterwards. Did that mean she had a great time? Of course not! These are journeys from hell after all and perhaps the hell of Africa was not Africa itself but the fact of it coming out from under ‘civilised’ European rule:

“I lay under the mosquito net and thought white people were boobs, Africa has nothing to do with us and never will have. I also thought of politics: Cameroun has a black gentleman in European clothes representing his nation at the UN in New York. The naked pagans and the barbaric chiefs will be spoken for, in French, by an African who has learned the European tricks, and will be a black copy of the other gentlemen gathered in that glass palace on the East River. African politicians outside Africa, must represent their people even less than politicians generally do; or else they represent how their people might be a hundred years from now.

It is all mad and a joke. We are fools; we believe in words, not reality which the words are supposed to describe. Politics – the bungling management of the affairs of men – is a game played among themselves by a breed of professionals. What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?” 

And this is what I also loved about Gellhorn, for all the comedy of her trips she had a keen insight and really saw the lives of the people she encountered. They were not a battlefield statistic, an idea, a section of coloured blobs to be moved around a board. They were real, physical, soulful people; real in every sense, with all the senses high tuned to their glories and miseries (and smells, definitely smells). Gellhorn gets to the root of the matter. Africa was not for Europeans, the Caribbean was slower but better off (culturally, if not financially) before American money transfigured it into a pleasure palace. Gellhorn had been out into the world, really lived there, and seen it change. Her final journey was to Russia, a place did didn’t want to go and hated for all the right reasons and some unexpected ones too. I wonder what she would say if it now?

I adored this book, adored and admired it. Of course I want to read everything by Gellhorn now, though I’m restricted to this one little volume for the moment. I feel like I’m late to the party, yet her name is not one I’ve heard from any corners and when you search for her she appears most frequently in relation to her brief marriage to that other, more famous, writer and I find myself livid that we still live in a world in which female achievement is eclipsed, female experience erased, except such as it appears as a footnote in the lives of men. I suspect it is a scenario which would make Gellhorn herself equally livid, and yet I think she would also breezily ignore it and get on with whatever it was she had in mind to do, which is an excellent example I intend to follow. But in the meantime I’ll sing her name from the rafters along with those other extraordinary women – Dervla Murphy, Christiane Ritter, Jenny Diski, Svetlana Alexievich – who too have gone out into the world and played it as they chose, seen it in their own way, regardless of this odd social construct which spins around us, trying to control and erase our lives.

Politics the bungling management of the affairs of men: what has it to do with us, after all?

Posted in Eland, non-fiction, travel | 9 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volumes IV and V (translated by John Minford)

“When grief for fiction’s idle words

More real than human life appears,

Reflect that life itself’s a dream

And do not mock the reader’s tears.”

One of the difficulties of reading the same book for 6 weeks is how it leaves you once it’s finished, where you go from there. I imagine it’s why people continue watching soap operas, because the characters seep into your daily life. They become real. In my life the characters of The Story of the Stone have become real and now my journey with them has finished, I miss them. And perhaps that’s the point; all along the book trips in these little reminders: fiction and truth overlap; if we think the story is a dream then we must remember that life, too, is a dream. A story we tell ourselves.

The last 2 volumes of The Story of the Stone took a turn for the dramatic. I think I mentioned that in volume 3 there were pre-figurings of a downturn in fortunes to come; in volumes 4 and 5 those downturns happen at speed. All is not well with the Jias. Their lives lived large come crashing down as one thing after another goes wrong. Meanwhile our hero – Bao-yu – and his sickly cousin Dai-yu grow ever closer while his family have very different ideas about his future bride, his more level-headed cousin Bao-chai. Needless to say this doesn’t turn out well for any of them, a message, perhaps, that interfering in heavenly matters is not for the unenlightened. Bao-yu loses his stone. Uncle She is charged with misdemeanors and loses his title. Even the upright Jia Zheng (Bao-yu’s father) is brought down by scandal. Deaths deplete the Jia numbers. Even the best are lost.

Meanwhile, Bao-yu is beginning to realise that enlightenment is his path. He has always been attracted to the tellings of the Taoists and Buddhists – Chuang Tzu, Lieh-tzu – a habit which has been a significant source of dismay on the part of his father and the people around him who expect a more practical life – passing exams, doing the family credit, having children and so on. I found the juxtaposition fascinating – the way in which the people around him try to deter him from meeting his spiritual needs and focusing on the practical elements of life. Can they prevent him from achieving his destiny? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Despite my uncertainties during volume 2 and 3, overall I found The Story of the Stone a wonderful read. When I finished reading I felt like I ought to go back and start again, picking out the warning signs about how the Jia’s fortunes would ride out, enjoying those moments of poetry. And I felt a little bereft. I missed Bao-yu, Aroma, Dai-yu, Bao-chai, Xi-feng who comes to a sad end (though she probably deserved it). At the beginning of volume 1 Bao-yu has a dream in which he reads the fortunes of the ladies of the Jia family and I found myself turning back to it as those lives unfolded, beginning to understand how their destinies were predicted. It made me realise that there was much hidden between all those parties, those delicacies eaten and games of ‘guess fingers’ played. There was a depth I had missed, distracted by the dream of life.

So where do I go from here? I finished reading The Story of the Stone about a week ago and I’ve flopped between one book and the next feeling dissatisfied and unsure. What is all this reading for? I can’t say I know. And that passage above springs to mind – am I dreaming my life away caught in a fiction? Perhaps that’s the key message of The Story of the Stone, woven in gilt and embroidered luxury, that however adeptly we disguise it our lives are stories we tell ourselves and the lives of others are too. Maybe that’s the only way we think we can live, but then Bao-yu shows us otherwise. Accepting our fate and living with the ‘flow’ (or the Tao) of life may be the surest way of buffeting ourselves from the trials and the joys on which we might otherwise depend. A deep book after all, yet and entertaining one.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, The Ideal Reader | 5 Comments