Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My challenge towards the end of the year is to read some of those books I bought with lofty ideals in mind only to place them on my shelf like so much high-brow decoration. When I first conceived of this approach, Moby Dick was the first book I thought of. I bought Moby Dick years ago; I’d like to say I bought Moby Dick because it’s a master work of American literature and I was desperate to read the story of Ahab and his doomed hunt for the infamous white whale, but the fact is that I watched Star Trek First Contact many times and was highly influenced by Patrick Stewart’s masterful quoting of the book. For those (possibly many) among you who have never seen First Contact, the story goes something like this: the Borg attack Earth (the Borg are a race of cybernetic beings comprised of people forced into the collective by means of cybernetic alteration, operating as a hive-mind in which the assimilated are effectively mindless drones). The Enterprise attack the Borg, destroying their cube-shaped ship. The Borg eject an inner ship which is lovely and spherical and which travels through time to alter Earth’s history by preventing the invention of warp drive. The Enterprise follows. The Enterprise is overrun by Borg. Resistance is futile! Captain Picard was once assimilated by the Borg (Locutus of Borg). Captain Picard goes a bit crazy trying to kill all the Borg including his assimilated crew members (Ensign Lynch!). When trying to protect the developing warp ship an Earth woman is injured and brought to the Enterprise. She is called Lily (and she is awesome). When Captain Picard decides that rather than having all their biological and technological distinctiveness added to the Borg’s own his crew should fight to the death or the assimilation, whichever comes first, in a scene which is singularly captivating (for a Star Trek movie) Lily confronts Picard demanding they evacuate and Picard should ‘blow up the damn ship!’. Picard refuses, gets angry and breaks his Enterprise model collection: This far, no further!” he spits. Here Lily retorts: “Captain Ahab gotta go hunt his whale,” in response to which Picard reflects and replies, in his gorgeous well-trained Shakespearean actor’s voice, “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it,” and the whole scene is utterly compelling and memorable and reflective of Star Trek’s many dalliances with Moby Dick and I bought the book shortly afterwards absolutely sure that unlike Lily, who admits post fight “actually I never read it,” that I would certainly read it, then I never did.

Yet this doth no more be true! Avast! Here be the livid tale of monomaniac Ahab and his hunt for that malicious white whale!

I approached Moby Dick with some trepidation, having heard so many conflicting things about it. I have heard it is considered a master work of American literature, but I have also heard tell of its strange digressions into whale-lore and its myriad of spurious information about whaling and whales in general. To my surprise, then, the opening segment of the book is both interesting and compelling, quite an easy read in fact, serving as an introduction to our narrator “Call me Ishmael” and his friendship with the ‘savage’ Queequeg, and how this led them to the Pequod and the strange and disturbing voyage in hunt of the mystical white whale. Ishmael is a naïve and green sort of whaler. He has been to sea before, albeit not on a whaling ship. Queequeg, on the other hand, is an experienced harpooner. Having been thrust together in unusual circumstances at an inn, Ishmael is rather wary of the ‘savage’ Queequeg being fearful of his unusual (to Western minds) ways, but when the cannibalistic Queequeg doesn’t eat him or stab him in his sleep he’s won over and the two become firm friends:

“No more Image result for moby dick book covermy splintered head and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”

Having become friends the two commit to a life of whaling together, and Queequeg foolishly entrusts Ishmael to choose the craft on their behalf. Ishmael signs up for the Pequod having not even met the captain and on decidedly rubbishy terms. Having done so, Queequeg is soon signed up too, and despite some bizarre warnings from a strange and oddly unexplained bystander called Elijah (whose ramblings I never understood and neither, it seems, does Ishmael) the two embark on their voyage. Henceforth matters take a stranger turn. The Captain, whose character has such influence over the lives and wellbeing of his crew, is mysteriously absent and in fact does not appear until around page 100 at which point he inspires his crew to swear an oath to aid him in his hunt for the vicious white whale who tore his leg from him on his last voyage, an act for which Ahab has sworn certain revenge. In examining Ahab’s monomaniacal nature (and that word ‘monomaniac’ appears often), Melville opines thus:

“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Double-triple take, as these are the very lines the temporarily, and rather out of character, monomaniacal Captain Picard speaks but with different words entirely! After a little internet research I find, in fact, that the illustrious and most confident Picard has misquoted and, thus, forever in my eyes stained his otherwise unimpeachable character. I can only infer that his mind was temporarily addled by anti-Borgish rage. Or he read the Klingon translation. Otherwise I can’t account for it.

What follows is a most unusual work of fiction. Those portents of excessive whale-lore and random snippets of information were not entirely inaccurate (read: completely accurate). Over the next several hundred pages the book swings between the story of the voyage of the Pequod and a ‘how to’ guide on whaling. In fact, it’s about 90% how to guide and about 10% story. Thus we learn all about harpoons and the trying room, how to capture whales, what the difference is between Sperm Whales and Right Whales; why whales are fish (this whole chapter was quite funny); the unbearable whiteness of being (not so funny); how to harvest oil from whales; how whales behave; how big whales are; why contemporary whales are no smaller than ancient whales; awesome whalers (Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah and Vishnoo…the latter of which is considered a whaler because legend tells he turned into a whale. Hmm); pitchpoling; the whales’ spout; the whales’ tail; the whales’ enormous battering ram of a head, lots and lots of mentions of sperm. You get the picture, it’s a lot of information about whales. In fact I think it is fair to say that at its heart, Moby Dick is a non-fiction book about whaling with a short story about a man’s maniacal hunt for a whale that, perhaps quite righteously, defended itself from being murdered by a ship-full of men intent on stripping its body of its valuable (to humans, though arguably more so to the whale) oil kind of stretched around it. And in case that’s not a strange enough pairing, there’s a little bit of theatre thrown in as well as Melville tries his hand at a bit of playwrighting now and then. It’s a bit of a strange blend.

As sparse as the story elements are, Moby Dick himself is an even sparser participant in the book, appearing only as myth and legend until the last 30 or so pages, but instead we experience lots of other whales meeting a violent and gory end either as an interlude to the whale-lore calculated to maintain interest, or as a way of introducing more whale-lore. Like here, which led to lots of follow up discussion about the nature of a whale’s eyes and visual acuity:

“As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horrible pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-making of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”

Thus Moby Dick evolves from a textbook about whales with a bit of fictional story-telling and the odd smattering of play-scripting thrown in to a polemic aiming to ennoble the whalers who risk life and limb to keep those gay bridals and churches lit long into the evening. To modern sensibilities this might be a little difficult to swallow for whilst Melville assures his deep certainty that the whales could not be driven to extinction by whaling, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we know better and the ‘noble’ art of whaling is a difficult art to sell. Yet Melville does make an important point which is this: our comforts are bought at a terrible price and perhaps it is important, at least, to understand what that price is. This he lays out in forensic, some might say excessive, detail.

Moby Dick is a strange, strange book. It is long, dense and often difficult to follow. There are large sections of what is pure non-fiction, an instruction manual on whales and the art of whaling wrapped around a short gothic horror story of a man bent on destruction and revenge without a care of who gets caught up in his monomaniacal plan. Ishmael, our promising narrator, appears to be a man without character and who barely acts in the story at all. He is the storyteller, but his role as a participant on the ship is as invisible as a whale’s spout in a thick sea-mist, in fact he is barely there at all. He is, rather, the convenient mouthpiece of Melville, a mechanism through which he can impart his knowledge of whaling. Despite the initial promise in exploring the friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg on land, that all but disappears once they set to sea. Ahab himself barely appears, and when he does his actions are often incomprehensible or presented through strange little expositionary chapters in which Ahab appears to speak to camera, if such a thing existed in Melville’s era. Moby Dick is even more elusive, or perhaps that is the point, perhaps to allow him greater scope to exist in the story would be to throw Ahab’s crazed obsession with revenge into an even more negative light. Of the side characters, the ship’s mate Starbuck is one of the few who have any substance, whilst the other mates – Stubb and Flask – appear to be comic interludes except their drivelling monologues were lost on this modern, non-seafaring reader. In fact whenever Stubb had a chapter devoted to him I was highly tempted to skip it though I didn’t (but much was largely lost on me anyway).

Despite these many criticisms, Moby Dick is also a weirdly compelling book. It doesn’t fit together very well, it is bombastic and sometimes full of drivel, sadly lacking in character or character interaction (barring Ahab and Starbuck who pass some interesting turns). The final confrontation with Moby Dick beggars belief – think Jaws but a whale – whilst ending unexpectedly abruptly. Yet there is still something highly interesting about it. It is as though Melville had this marvellous idea to write a book about whaling but, realising it wouldn’t sell, thinly veiled it in a fictional narrative following a bunch of mismatched characters embarking on a doomed adventure. It didn’t feel to me like he exactly pulled it off, but what he tried to do was quite innovative and there was enough story, running through what would otherwise be a textbook, or a tract of whaling philosophy, to keep the interest flowing. Running in at 478 pages long this would be an easy book to give up on and set aside, but despite my many reservations, and the occasions when I found myself laughing aloud at Melville’s misguided (to modern eyes) opinions, or being appalled by the slightly more frequent casual racism, I never quite felt like giving up on it. It is personable, honest and true in a way I cannot quite describe nor give explanation to. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, nor that I considered myself sold on the idea of it being the ‘great work’ of American fiction it is often lauded to be, but it is innovative and different and it represents a kind of way of being which is (perhaps happily) largely lost to us now and it represents faithfully an age and a type of living which would otherwise be no more than a nasty idea without Melville’s well-intentioned ministrations on its behalf. And through this twisty-turny story Melville reveals something important: the idea that whilst we may seek to destroy what we perceive as monsters outside ourselves (Moby Dick), the true monster is our own rage and pride and need for revenge, for it is Ahab that is the true monster of this story. Ahab and his limitless rage and madness and his willingness to destroy everything that stands between him and the satisfaction of his vengeful dream. It is a message that is as true now as it ever has been; we may not be able to stop the Moby Dicks and the Ahabs that surround us, but we can prevent ourselves becoming an Ahab in our own part and this, I think, is what makes Moby Dick a book that transcends its time and context, and is why it is a book that remains relevant and important to this day. Or maybe people are just more interested in whale-lore than I realised. Or easily influenced by sci-fi movies. Who knows?

And on the Star Trek front I can happily report that whilst Captain Picard failed to accurately represent Moby Dick the villainous Khan did not, for a mere spitting distance (ha ha) from the end I read this: “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  which I recognised from that memorable and yet slightly silly end battle in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, spat from the twisted lips of Ricardo Montalban on a bad hair day, and I felt like, perhaps, Star Trek had brought me honestly to Moby Dick afterall; and having reaped that meagre reward I could, in good conscience, finally let it go.

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Posted in Books I Ought to Read, Classics | 9 Comments

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Image result for leaves of grass barnes and nobleAs I mentioned in my meditation on my library blog I want to approach my reading towards the end of the year more deliberately, challenging myself to read even more deeply and to confront those books I have been avoiding reading. After finishing H(A)PPY for a second time I spent a little time meditating over the books on my shelves, picking out a few which have been wallowing there for some time waiting for that ‘someday’ to arrive when I would be in the right frame of mind to read them. Eventually I settled on Walt Whitman. I’m not exactly sure why Walt Whitman, other than I’ve had a copy of Leaves of Grass for about 5 years now, and I’ve read so many great things about Whitman, how he has influenced so many other writers, that it seems a bit criminal that I’ve not managed to ever read this important work. My copy of Leaves of Grass, too, is huge. It contains both the original 1855 version and the ‘death bed’ version; Whitman continued to edit Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime – he was, I think, the model that Ridley Scott moulded himself on – and the collection expanded from a manageable 140ish pages long to around 600 pages. Whitman was not, it seems, decisive, or perhaps he just enjoyed tinkering and the original material gave him a lot to tinker with. So besides being poetry, which can be difficult to read continuously, it is also a chunky book  – 785 pages in total – and it would require both patience and concentration to read it. Plus I didn’t want to just get through it I wanted to absorb and appreciate it, which I knew would take a bit of time. I couldn’t allow myself to feel pressured or rushed in my reading. Armed with these lofty ideals, I embarked, with some nervousness, on this focused, slow reading attempt.

The poems in Leaves of Grass are considerably more famous than my blog, but there’s a lot more to Leaves of Grass than Song of Myself, and I Sing the Body Electric, or, not to forget, the wonderful O Captain! My Captain! which many people probably haven’t read but know all about from that gorgeous movie Dead Poets Society. Whitman wrote, or sang, of the ordinary daily lives of 19th Century America. He sang songs not just of himself but of the workers, the sailors, politics – notably Abraham Lincoln who he wrote about extensively – slaves, prostitutes; he wrote about love, about the glory of life, about death, about war; he wrote of dawn, of small birds and the wonders of nature; he was, I think, the embodiment of the meditative principle – he attended to everything, to the smallest and meanest of things and he sought and saw the beauty in them. Yet his poems are not calm, they are not measured. They are explosive, passionate, joyful; Whitman celebrates everything. His poems are full of bravado, bragging, self-celebration and yet humility. Whitman had a firm grip on what mattered – love, relationships, kindness, acceptance, respect – and what didn’t. He was a fierce proponent of equality, his poems advocate the equality of the slave and the President, of women and men, of lovers of women and lovers of men. Love, in fact, permeates everything Whitman writes. In this way it made me think that despite their distance in age and geography, somehow Whitman was the natural, divine perhaps, successor to John Donne, just John Donne taken even further. Just as Donne’s poems dripped with passion, with sex, with the desires of the human body, Whitman’s are flooded with them. This was particularly so in the original 1855 edition which is untempered, rougher and, I think, somewhat lovelier for it. By the time Whitman has expanded and refined his poetry for the death-bed edition, it is evident that he had learned to be more discerning, more deliberate, and some of the rawness is lost as a result. The poems are better, but some of the innocence is lost.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my intense reading experience didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped. For a start it is hard reading poetry continuously. I have read epic poetry before, but such poetry has always been in the form of a story; something like Beowulf or The Odyssey where the poetic form allows the story to flow. That’s not the case with Whitman. He is, first and foremost, a poet not a storyteller. He transmits ideas, philosophical concepts, often in heavy metaphors. All of this is difficult to process, it takes time and mental acuity and it is not easy to absorb. I found I couldn’t concentrate on the words if there was any background chatter. Usually I’m pretty good at phasing that out when I’m reading, but for these poems I found they just wouldn’t register if I could hear words anywhere else. Despite these difficulties I managed to get about 400 pages in before I admitted defeat. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the poetry, rather the attempt to read it all in one go was a mistake. It isn’t how poetry, or Whitman’s poetry at least, is best approached. I wasn’t doing the great man justice. I was reading his words but not reading his words, there was a kind of mental numbness that developed and however hard I tried to focus after around 25 minutes I simply couldn’t take any more in. I decided that rather than continuing to slavishly work my way through the book – because it had become work at that point – I would select a few more poems and read them carefully.

Usually I would be disappointed with myself for what I would see as a ‘failure’ in my mission to complete a specific challenge, but perhaps my reading of the Tao has paid off because this time I didn’t. I think I’ve found that more surprising than anything. I felt like I had absorbed the essence of Whitman; I had felt his passion, his soulfulness, his humanity, his irrepressible love. There were moments in poems that had moved me to tears, there were moments that made me laugh, there were moments that made me stop and think. I had realised that to properly appreciate Whitman I had to take him slowly and I could not wolf him down like a McDonalds meal. He deserved much more attention than that. I loved his celebratory tone, the way he celebrated himself in that famous opening to Song of Myself, but not just himself but everyone around him. He saw the world as a wondrous, juicy, delicious feast and he wanted to absorb it with all his senses. He wanted to be drunk on it, overwhelmed by it, and he was. He desired to be no one’s President, he desired neither power nor prestige, just love and love and love in all its abundance, as he describes so beautifully here in this poem When I Heard at the Close of the Day:

“WHEN I HEARD AT THE CLOSE OF THE DAY

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been

receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy

night for me that follow’d,

And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d,

still I was not happy.

But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health,

refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,

When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in

the morning light,

When I wander’d alone over the breach and undressing bathed,

laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,

And when I thought how my drea friend my lover was on his way

coming, O then I was happy,

O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food

nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,

And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening

came my friend,

And that night while all was still I Heard the waters roll slowly

continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me

whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover

in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined

toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was

happy.”

And I’ve learned from Whitman, I’ve learned some important lessons. As I read the 1855 version of Song of Myself, which is huge (over 100 pages long) and magnificent and gorgeously celebratory, I found myself wondering what a ‘song of myself’ would sound like and I realised it would probably be rather self-critical, maybe a bit mopey and grumbly, and I realised, too, that this isn’t the kind of song I wanted to represent my life. Whitman made me think about how it is so easy to find fault and so hard to find joy and beauty, and yet Whitman makes it seem effortless. And perhaps if I change my perspective a little, I can make it effortless too. I resolved to change my song to one which is more bombastic, more humane and more loving. What would your song sound like?

One other thing I realised as I was struggling with Whitman’s words is that poetry, some poetry certainly, needs to be read aloud. It is intended to be heard. I think this is certainly true of Whitman. I managed to track down a selection of readings from Leaves of Grass via Spotify, a lovely rendition read by Ed Begley (of Twelve Angry Men fame, amongst other things). Hearing Whitman brings an extra dimension to the experience, and Begley’s voice is perfect for it, exceeded only, perhaps, by the man himself. Because there are recordings of Whitman reading his own poems. Here you can listen to Whitman reading his quite rarely melancholy, yet lovely poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Why not take a listen for yourself?

I might not have quite achieved what I set out to achieve here, but I’ve learned a lot from the experience. For one this was my first foray into audio books and whilst I’m not a complete convert I can see a space in which audio books augment the reading experience. And I’ve learned from Whitman to be more than just forgiving, to be celebratory, to see the wonder that exists all around us even in ordinary things. I’ve learned the power of attention, attention focused not on pulling something apart but in bigging it up. And I’ve realised that when approaching a work of master poetry, it’s probably a good idea to break it up. If you were thinking of reading Whitman I would recommend reading the 1855 edition and death bed edition separately, though I do think there is merit in reading both editions. Whilst there is overlap, they both have their unique charms. Most importantly, I’ve a much better appreciation of Whitman as a poet and the reasons why his poetry has been so influential to so many people. There’s a wonderful earthiness to his writing, it is physical and sensual, he is rooted in his body and the bodies of others. His humane approach is a lesson to us all, to set aside our endless need to differentiate ourselves and accept that we are different and yet the same. We are connected, we are all as good as each other and if we can approach the world with eyes of wonder and love we can transform our experience from one of disgust and dismissal to one of acceptance and community.

I am glad to have met minds with you, Walt Whitman because every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Posted in poetry | 2 Comments

Meditating on my library

A while ago we converted what was a mostly disused dining room into a library. It was my husband’s idea. We took down our dining table and removed the clunky sideboard; my husband fitted some boxy shelving units from Ikea and almost filled the entire span of one wall, leaving room for expansion. We acquired some secondhand chairs and a sofa which we bought with vouchers we were given for Christmas – we bought the sofa, also from Ikea, on New Year’s Day and if you are ever tempted to visit Ikea at a time when it is quiet, unhurried and relaxed then I can recommend New Year’s Day as the day to go. We drove home slowly via the A roads; the sofa didn’t quite fit into the car, we couldn’t close the boot, so my husband tied it all down and we took a leisurely drive back home; with the boot open it was bracing but surprisingly pleasant. One of the other advantages of New Year’s Day, there’s often very little to do. I filled up the shelves with the books that I had, and at that point there were about 2 shelves un-utilised, but they soon filled up. Books have come, books have gone, but my library is as full as ever. I’ve organised and reorganised it, separating out my non-fiction from my fiction, separating out books that I’ve read from books that I haven’t. I’ve spent almost as much time rearranging my shelves as I have done reading the books on them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my library recently. My library is my favourite room in the house, perhaps not surprisingly. It is a quiet room, it looks out over my (messy) back garden and if the windows are open there is birdsong and lawnmower sounds, maybe the occasional car passing. It is tranquil. There is no TV, TV is forbidden as are (generally) computers and phones. It is a room for reflection, for quiet conversations with, perhaps, a little music in the background. It is a contemplative space. But the books, the books are something else. There was once a time, perhaps not even that long ago (I can’t really remember), when every book I owned was a book I had read; books that I had read and re-read and treasured and kept because I loved them. I can’t recall when it was that I started buying books to be read, books which would find a slot in my shelves and remain there to some long-distant date in the future when I would actually give them the attention I must have thought they deserved. Every book I have bought I have bought for a reason, because I believed I would want to read it. Because at the time I wanted to read it. Yet I set it aside, along with so many others, and once set aside the chances of those books being read became slimmer and slimmer. Because I have been so entranced by the new, the next thing, the future read. I am always looking ahead, rarely focusing on the present.

When I embarked on my slower reading experiment, I really wanted to change my relationship with my books. I wanted to stop always looking to the next one and start focusing on the one in front of me. I have been, I think, quite successful in this enterprise, but I haven’t yet managed to quash my desire, entirely, for the new. I am still borrowing books from the library. I have a wishlist with 14 books on it (after a recent cull, it was much longer) and a library list with 37 books on it. When I am going to read all of these, I cannot say. The situation is better than it has been – in the past I might simply have bought all of those books and added them to my library – but it is still not where I want to be. Every book I own, I have bought for a reason. I wanted to read those books too. Why is it that once I have them securely on my shelves, I don’t actually seem too keen to actually read them?

Doubtless there are reasons, I’m sure a psychologist or an insightful reader could come up with a few, but I’m less concerned about reasons and more concerned about how to change the way I deal with these books. Because I’ve come to realise that whatever the reason, the key to changing my habits lies with myself. I think I need to spend some time trying to reignite whatever it was about that book that made me want to acquire it in the first place. If I can reinvigorate the way I feel about the book then perhaps I can finally get around to reading the book. Which is why I bought it in the first place. And if, perhaps, I can remind myself why I bought all those wonderful books on my shelves, I won’t need, or, perhaps it is truer to say, want to seek books elsewhere. Because I already have everything that I need right here. Sure there are other books I would like to read, but not before I read these books that I wanted to read already. I was vaguely thinking about this when I read this article at zenhabits around which my thoughts began to coalesce.

I have taken the books that I own for granted. I’ve realised that when I inhabit my library I barely pay any attention to the books at all; I enjoy sitting on the sofa, I listen to the birdsong out of the window, I notice the beautiful quality of light at different times of day, I adore the writing desk that we picked up secondhand and which I use for writing and working, I enjoy the feel of the sheepskin rug on my bare feet. But the books: I don’t pay any attention to them. It is as though I have created a work of art, a jumble of colours and textures, and like a work of art I cannot touch it, let alone interact with it. I see the books, but I don’t see the books. When I look for books, I always seem to be looking elsewhere: the library, other people’s blogs, online newspapers or articles. I rarely look in the place where the books most accessible to me, which most reflect my interests and desires, actually reside. I don’t pay them attention. That needs to change.

I have begun meditating on my library. I don’t mean just thinking about it, I mean sitting in front of it and actively looking at what’s there, spending time appreciating it. It’s hard right now, because what I see is shameful, it’s embarrassing, it is a testament to all the ways in which I have been thoughtless and habitual, in which I have acted impulsively and not deliberately. But even so, I spend a little time every day sitting and looking at my shelves and reminding myself what a thing of beauty they are. And not just a thing of beauty, but a living, breathing thing, the combined intelligence of a multitude of great minds that I have the privilege to connect to. Every time I think I want to read a book I do not own, I will go and sit in front of my shelves and remind myself of the value of the things I already own, the things I have been failing to appreciate or see the joy in. In fact I have felt oppressed by them at times, particularly those books which I have bought in a lofty, aspirational frame of mind – the War & Peaces, the Moby Dicks, the Second Sexes, the Shanamehs. Those books that sit on my shelves as a testament to who I wanted to be, the reader I wanted to be, and not necessarily the one sitting mindfully in front of them now.

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I am so privileged. I am so privileged to have such an abundance of wonderful stories, wonderful thoughts, available to me. I am grateful to be able to devote an entire room to the written word. It is gorgeous, isn’t it? I think it is. I am ashamed that I have allowed such extraordinary things to go unvalued for so long. But I am also learning to let that shame go, to let go the weight of the TBR pile and allow myself instead to begin to appreciate it as something into which I can delve and discover, again, those books that so stirred my imagination before. And in the next few months when I finish one book I will go and sit in front on my shelves again, and not just sit in front of them but examine them. I will pick books off the shelf, I will handle them, I will think about them, I will weigh any resistance against the motivation that spurred me to buy the book in the first place. Those that I resist the most are most likely to end up being read. Those that have spent the longest times sitting on my shelves are more likely to be chosen. Those chunky books that I have avoided because they will take so much time and focus to read, those will be read too. It will take me a while, I have a lot of unread books on my shelves and I don’t want to give up on the re-reading either, but I think if I can retain this frame of mind I can do it. When I’ve read a book I will decide whether to keep it – after a realistic assessment of whether I’ll re-read it – or whether to let it go. I expect my library will grow a little more space on the shelves. But over time I will work my way back to those days when my library was full of treasured friends, not neglected prisoners, captive of my flighty and unconsidered actions.

Posted in personal reflection | 7 Comments

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

Nicola Barker is never predictable, or, wait a minute, that’s not quite true. Nicola Barker is predictable in her unpredictability, the unusualness of her work, the sheer blinding extraordinariness of it. You never really know what to expect. Consequently there is never any guarantee that you will like a Nicola Barker book, let alone love one. And that’s true even if you’re a fan of Barker. I enjoy her very much, I love the leaps of imagination, the sheer strangeness of her intellect and the twists and turns of her storytelling. Having adored Darkmans and found Behindlings strangely intriguing, I found The Yips impossible to read. Yet I knew the moment I saw the innovation hinted by mere screenshots of pages from H(A)PPY that it was a book worth taking a leap of faith for, and I set aside my book buying ban and acquired myself a signed, hardback copy. Do I regret that decision?

As you may have noticed, a strange colour scheme has crept into this post and that’s just to give you a little taster of what to expect in H(A)PPY. It’s an extremely visual book. The story follows Mira A, one of The Young, a group of people living in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic future, after The Old have destroyed themselves with excess, with pollution, with floods and famines. The Young are Pure, they are Perfect, everything is known and everything is Open. They live in a harmonious society in which each of The Young is a mere pixel in a wider community, each keeping their community in Balance, supported by the Sensor – an information stream which senses their interests and requirements and supplies them with constant information, as well as sharing their own information – and The Graph – the mechanism by which they can constantly monitor their balance and avoid EOE (Excess of Emotion). Any EOE distorts the balance of The Young and must be avoided. The Young must avoid anything which disrupts the Perfect Now, any exclusivity or excessive interest must be acknowledged and pushed away, they must turn away from anything that acquires their attention because information is dangerous. As Mira A explains:

“In The Past people were suddenly able to make instant connections – for a Golden Period, at least before the onset of the Slow Epoch (when the corporations bought up and owned all seeds, all growth, all hope, all water, all clean air, all assets, all thought. During this Golden Period, The Old were completely awash with facts and non-facts. They asked a question and were promptly answered. A fountainhead of information was released. But was the water clean? Did it quench, revive or simply deluge. Did it not often threaten to saturate and drown.

We have constrained the fountainhead. We have not stopped it. But we have inhibited it. We have redirected its flow. The Young accept that this is necessary. To be unconstrained – to expect total liberty – is not a healthy or fruitful way to coexist. Because The Young do not believe (as The Old once did) that they have a nautral right to information. Information – like all other Old Vices (money, lust, possessions) – can be stored up – amassed – and exploited, or used to manipulate and undermine others. Information is dangerous. It is a weapon. It is explosive. Implosive. It must be handled gingerly. And it must be reliable. But who decided what is to be relied upon? Information is wanton. It is just as likely to be untrue as truthful. So we need Perspective. And The Graph provides The Young with Perspective. We can trust in it. We know that it may be depended upon. So we no longer need to worry.”

The Young are supported by The Graph, by chemicals which are carefully administered into their food and atmosphere; they have dreams that are curated (though some freedom to dream freely), oracular devices which affect their information reception and the ever-present knowledge of each other, because they are one, which keeps them in Balance, they have clamps installed in their heads to mechanise parts of their brain, to make and keep them Pure and in Balance. It is dystopian, but also utopian because the gap between these two things is very thin. The Young choose to be in Balance. There is no one above them or below them, they are not controlled because they control themselves. The Balance is both totally free and totally rigid. Mira A, who shares the name of an oscillating star, who has a sister star Mira B (who may exist only in her mind), finds herself out of Balance with the System. She does not know how it happens. It begins with a guitar, Mira A is a musician (though not exclusively as exclusivity is Out of Balance) she prefers the guitar and becomes entranced, interested, in the tremelo – itself and oscillation – with imperfect guitars, with the guitarist Agustín Barrios and the music of The Past. All of these things, these activities, are forbidden, though not forbidden because nothing is really forbidden for The Young. Yet Mira A is a threat to her perfect society. Her oscillations, her attraction to narrative, her inability to stop pinkening and purpling her graph with emotional words and thoughts create imbalance in the System and that imbalance is infectious.

I won’t attempt to describe H(A)PPY any further than that; like all Nicola Barker books there is something about it which defies description and, being honest, there are elements I still don’t quite understand. There is something extremely unsettling about this book. It’s unsettling because it looks closely at where we are now – with mass information, mass consumption – are considers how it might all work out. And it also considers the alternative – The Young are a society operating with extreme restraint, in many ways The Young are the end-game of many of my own aspirations: controlled input, minimalist consumption, an ability to ‘push away’ those things which don’t add value, avoiding excessive emotion. It is strange to read of these things in a dystopian bent, though Barker does not judge either the old society – excess of information, of stuff, of desire – or the new society – excess of restraint, of communalism, of Balance – as inherently right or inherently wrong. Rather she seems to present both as necessary, and the oscillation between the two – the gap, the space, what becomes The Cathedral in Mira A’s mind – is the space in which true creativity, in which art is formed. Mira A is H(A)PPY as one of The Young, yet she desires the gap, the oscillation, the space in which deep knowledge can develop. She is ‘corrupted’ by her desire for knowledge, for desiring to construct a narrative around the man with the guitar, a young girl in a picture, the tune, for taking an interest in ancillary information, unnecessary information. Mira A’s corruption is what we take for granted every day, that our ‘information streams’ are filled with ancillary and essentially useless information, but without it we become rigid, we cannot develop an interest, we have to connect information to construct a narrative, yet is narrative inherently right? Narrative is what allows us to construct prejudices and biases, it forces people into rigid models of gender, of race, of sexuality. Barker, through Mira A, confronts all of these things, yet there is no conclusion, no judgement. There are only outcomes and possible outcomes.

I found H(A)PPY a quite extraordinary read. In the beginning it is, perhaps, more familiar Barker territory. There is stream of consciousness writing, interjections, interruptions, asides. The book is written entirely from Mira A’s perspective. It flows easily in the beginning, but as the novel progresses it becomes much more challenging, the random flow of information becomes unsettling and difficult to follow, pages and pages are filled with repeated words, unconnected information about the Ayoreo people, the Guaraní language, dying languages and cultures. There are pages of this:

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And this (you can even see the text from an earlier page bleeding through here):

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And this:

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Which jar and confuse and entrance in equal measure. This is not an ordinary reading experience. Consequently I read the book twice – once to let it seep in and a second time to try to understand, to unpick it. And I still feel like there are whole trenches I don’t understand and that I need, like Mira A, to follow the thread of Barker’s mind to my own Cathedral, with my own information stream and my own narrative that I can neatly cleave this book to. But perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe it’s not necessary to neatly fit this book into a narrative, maybe neat narratives are what are confusing us? I don’t know, but I do know that H(A)PPY has made me think about this subject in much more depth, perhaps still less depth than it deserves, and that if I read it five or ten more times I will still have more to think about. And that, I think, is what makes this such a successful book. It is weird, it is uncommon, it is bonkers and it is extraordinary; it is not one thing, but nothing is really just one thing, and that complexity, the lack of a simple explanation, a simple story, is worth remembering especially now, when everything seems to be reduceable, as everything is reduced by The Young, into simple, easy to understand components which deny the complexity of the world in which we live and exist and interact daily.

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Books I Ought to Read No.5: Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

I have, for the longest time, been intending to get around to reading Old Goriot, but as usual never quite got around to it. It seems I am not alone. When I took my secondhand copy, an old Caxton Edition I picked up from my local, and very wonderful, secondhand bookshop, down from my shelf I soon realised that despite its age it can never have been read because many of its pages hadn’t even yet been cut. So I spent a happy ten minutes with my old letter opener, carefully separating the pages. The sound of ripping paper is quite therapeutic.

Old Goriot is part of Balzac’s master work, The Human Comedy, in which he explores human life through a series of recurrent and interlinked characters. According to my Caxton Edition, this is volume eight of the ‘private life’ section of the series. It follows the life of an ageing man, Goriot, who lives in a boarding house in a less than salubrious part of Paris. Goriot is an enigma to his fellow boarders and a bit of a figure of fun. To the proprietess, Madame Vaquer, Goriot at first represented an appealing catch, second husband material, as he arrived in a well-to-do state, replete with silver service and a large pension from his macaroni-making factory, but over the years his fortunes seemed to have suffered and gradually he moved into poorer and poorer rooms in the house and gradually diminished both in stature and in the eyes of the establishment. As Balzac describes:

 “In the fourth year of his establishment in the Rue Neuve-Saint Geneviève he no longer bore any resemblance to himself. The good vermicelli-maker of sixty-two, who seemed less that forty, the fat, sleek, rosy, simple bourgeois, whose brisk looks cheered the passers-by, and whose smile was like that of a young person, had become a dull, wan, infirm septuagenarian. His bright blue eyes had turned iron-grey and lost their lustre; they had faded, and though they no longer overflowed, their red rims looked as if they had shed tears of blood. He inspired some of the boarders with horror; others with pity.”

What had happened to Old Goriot is a mystery to Madame Vaquer and the boarders. Visits from rich young women suggest he may be a dissipated old man, gambling his cash away to keep his ladies happy. Thus he becomes a figure of both speculation and dismissal. Madame Vaquer treats him with distaste, poking fun at him and complaining. The rag-tag collection of boarders – ranging from young students to penniless, cast off illegitimate daughters, spent old women and rascals in hiding – treat Goriot mockingly and without respect. That is until Eugène de Rastignac arrives. Rastignac is a student of law from a well-positioned family from the South of France. His family, despite their good name, are almost penniless and struggling and they have sent their son to Paris to make his fortune and, hopefully, raise the fortunes of the family. Initially Rastignac is a diligent student, studying the law to all hours and living within his meagre means, but soon he becomes entranced by the idea of entering Parisian society. He looks up a rich cousin who offers to help him make his way; Rastignac decides to give up his attempt to make a living through hard work and study and instead determines to become a kept dandy, throwing his chance of fortunes on the hopes of a rich, dissatisfied woman. In the process of entering society he happens across the ‘ladies’ with whom Goriot associates. Rather than being his kept women, a sign of his dissipation, Rastignac discovers the women are, in fact, Goriot’s daughters, though his sons in law keep the old man estranged from them. When he reveals this to his fellow boarders, Goriot’s standing immediately increases, and Rastignac finds himself the recipient of Goriot’s attention. For Rastignac can see his daughters in a way Goriot cannot. The lives of these two, quite different men become entangled.

Whilst Rastignac starts out as quite a naïve and innocent character, he soon becomes entrapped in the world of Paris society, a world for which he is ill-equipped both in social skills and financially. By revealing his association to Goriot he finds himself barred from one of the daughter’s houses, the beautiful Anastasie de Restaud. Having offended Madame de Restaud, her husband and her lover he turns to his cousin, the wealthy and highly respected Madame de Beauséant for assistance. She, too, is entangled in an illicit, but widely known, love affair which is beginning to unravel, and finds her sympathetic cousin a balm to her sorrows and resolves to help him. Here she determines to introduce him to Goriot’s other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen, who is married to a German banker and who exists slightly outside the society her sister enjoys. The promise of an introduction to Madame de Beauséant offers Rastignac a route through Delphine’s door.

Goriot, it turns out, is faithfully devoted to his daughters and his financial poverty, the gradual reduction of his fortunes and material possessions, arise entirely as a result of his efforts to continue to keep and support his daughters however-much their husbands try to keep him away from them. It soon becomes clear to Rastignac that Goriot has ruined himself by his filial love, yet his love for his daughters is all that sustains him. As he explains:

“I cannot explain it to you very well, for I cannot put two words together in a proper way. It is all there,” he added, laying his hand on his heart. “My whole life lies with those two girls. If they enjoy themselves, and are happy, if they are prettily dressed, and walk on soft carpets, what does it matter to me how I am dressed, or where I sleep? I am never cold if they are warm, nor in bad spirits if they are gay. I have no griefs but theirs. When you are a father and listen to your children’s prattle, you will feel that they are your own, bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh, and the best part too. You will be bound up in their existence, and their footsteps will stir your very heartstrings. I hear their voices everywhere, and a single sad look of theirs chills my blood. One day you will know what it is to care more for your children’s happiness than your own. I cannot explain how it is; it is an inward instinct that spreads joy through your whole being. So I really live three lives. Shall I tell you something very strange? When I became a father, I understood the nature of God. He exists everywhere, since all creation proceeded from Him, and so it is with me and my daughters. Only I love my daughters better than God loves the world, because the world is not so beautiful as God, and my daughters are more beautiful than I.”

Goriot is blinded by his love and fails to see how selfishly and dismissively his daughters behave. Whatever they ask for, whatever they need, he gives to them, no matter how much it means he has to give up, whilst they fail to take responsibility for themselves. Meanwhile Rastignac, too, is slipping down a rabbit hole. Having borrowed money that his mother and sisters, people of simple needs and habits, he finds himself dangerously vulnerable to another of the boarders, the popular Monsieur Vautrin, who hatches a plot to hook Rastignac up with a fellow boarder the young and penniless Victorine Taillefer, a woman who has been cast off by her (possibly illegitimate) father. Vautrin sees that Victorine is in love with Rastignac and proposes a plan to secure her affections then arrange for her brother, to whom the Taillefer fortunes have been promised, to be killed in a dual. Once the brother is dead Taillefer would adopt his illegitimate daughter, leave his fortune to her and Rastignac would be assured of a fortune of his own. All Vautrin asked for was 200,000 francs with which he could make a new life running a slave plantation in America. Rastignac, realising Vautrin is a deplorable criminal, balks at the plan and instead chooses to throw his lot in with Delphine. Whether that, in the end, was the best plan I’ll leave for you to discover should you decide to read the book yourself.

Old Goriot is a fascinating book which examines the nature of filial love alongside the dissipated Parisian lifestyle. Goriot’s daughters are self-centred, shallow and mercenary, they take and take from Goriot and he lets them, never letting them take responsibility for their mistakes or the failures in their lives. There are no happy people in this book. Rastignac has so much promise as a moral character, it is clear that his family have guided him well, yet his own mercenary streak pushes him down a path which inevitably leads to his corruption. He can see how Goriot is being used, yet seems to learn so little from the situation. Goriot himself is a hopeful fool, a father blinded by love for his daughters who blames everyone but them for their behaviour, even to the point of blaming himself though only half-heartedly. He believes his love to be God-like and therefore infallible, yet events show how foolish this conclusion is. Meanwhile he hangs on Rastignac, ruining himself further, because of Rastignac’s association with his daughter. Balzac proves to be an exacting skewer of character, he presents Goriot and his daughters, as well as Rastignac, the socialites and the other boarders, as flawed and imperfect people scrabbling for whatever they can get from life, but failing to find joy or happiness in the process. He has a wonderful eye for description and the characters leap, lifelike, from the page. You can see how horribly it’s going to turn out, but there is barely a shred of backbone among them and they prove powerless to control or alter the inevitable events.

I very much enjoyed Old Goriot. It is the kind of book that should be read slowly, in a darkened room with a roaring fire and all the time in the world to absorb it. The characters are realistic and highly naturalistic, they conform themselves to their desires whilst choosing, often, the path of least resistance and least success. Balzac has a good ear for description, and whilst the writing style is generous and meandering the story moves at a pace that makes it hard to put down. Whilst Old Goriot is far from a ‘comedy’ (the human ‘comedy’ being an ironic turn of phrase) there is sufficient humour and a slightly satirical tone which keeps it lighter than the subject matter would otherwise allow for, and the characters’ slightly ridiculous natures makes them more sympathetic than pathetic. All in all, Old Goriot is an accomplished and entertaining book which reveals much of human frailty, and the dangers of unguarded love.

Posted in Books I Ought to Read, Classics, fiction | 6 Comments

Reflections on my slow reading experiment

We’re nearly two-thirds of the way through the year and it feels like a good time to take a step back and reflect on how my experiment with slower reading is going. When I set out on this enterprise at the beginning of the year I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I’d really struggle with it, I was so used to swallowing books down and moving onto the next one, sometimes reading more than one book at a time, that I was sure it’d be really hard to focus my attention on just one book and not feel tempted to move on as soon as I’d finished. That wasn’t my experience at all. Sure I was still tempted by books (that was never going to wear off easily) but having decided to devote at least a week to each book I found that I stopped rushing and stopped thinking about what I wanted to read next. Not buying books became pretty easy too. If I could only read a maximum of four or five books in a month, it became pretty easy to see how fruitless it was to add another book to that list. When would I read it? If I came across a book I thought I’d be interested in, it was satisfying enough to put it on a list and if I really wanted it I could come back to it at some point. Slowing my reading also had some surprising side effects. I found myself thinking more carefully about many things, not just reading. Having quashed one impulse, it became easier to quash others. It felt like slowing down my reading had been the catalyst for some positive change in my life.

That’s not to say it’s not been without difficulty. Temptation waits for those moments when your defences are at their lowest. There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to read unguardedly, without any restrictions. When I’ve wanted to guzzle my book and guzzle down the next and the next and the next. It is hard to hold yourself back when your own resolve is the only barrier and the goal itself seems arbitrary and unnecessary. I have, at times, succumbed to my desire to own a book but I’ve stayed fairly tightly controlled and have tried to read any books I’ve bought straight away so I don’t accumulate yet another stack of TBRs. I have regretted only one of my purchases (so far) and my buying numbers this year are still in single figures which is extraordinary considering my previous habits. I can walk into a bookshop and be satisfied just looking. There have been times when I’ve been intensely dissatisfied with my reading experience, struggled to settle on a book. None of this is unusual, but when your reading is restricted it feels more intense.

Recently I’ve found myself slipping. Partly this is because I’ve been under a bit of pressure and partly it’s down to complacency. I thought I’d cracked it, but I’d just slipped back into not really thinking about it which was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I’ve bought a few books, and I’ve been borrowing more and more books from the library. I always said I would continue to use the library, but I have three library books at the moment and another reservation on the way. That’s a month’s worth of reading, a month when I won’t read any of the books I already own. And it bespeaks a whimsicalness in my reading choices which is one of the things I wanted to defeat. I don’t want, anymore, to be at the mercy of desire and impulse. It sounds a bit weird to say this about reading, but if I’ve learned anything from this experiment it is that being at the mercy of desire and impulse in one part of your life makes you more susceptible to it elsewhere. Reading is, perhaps, the area of my life in which I am most susceptible, perhaps because I have always seen reading as such a positive and laudable activity. But is it? I think there is great benefit it reading, it is one of the best ways to spend time, but when it’s a sticking plaster, or an easy avoidance technique, perhaps it’s not as laudable as it first might appear. When I’ve been listening to the Minimalists recently, they’ve talked a lot about ‘pacifiers’: things we do and surround ourselves with so we don’t have to confront what we really want from life. Our comfort blankets. Sometimes reading feels to me like a pacifier. It is a great way of spending time until it’s used up. No one ever criticizes you for it. In the meantime, other things that need your attention are effectively avoided. And it’s okay to have comfort blankets, and it’s okay to use pacifiers, and there are infinitely worse things to do than reading, but reading thoughtlessly was one of my behaviours I wanted to defeat. I just lost track of it a little bit.

I’ve realised that what I want more than anything is to reintroduce more intentionality into my life. I spend too much time being pulled hither and thither by this and that – the news, this exciting book, that recommendation, this interesting article, that situation that annoys or outrages me. I have come to a realisation of the finiteness of life, or more specifically the finiteness of my energy and attention. If I don’t direct it, it will be directed for me. I don’t want absolute control, just more control. If I read a book in a day I want it to be because I’ve chosen to do so for the pleasure of it (and it is a pleasure) and not out of compulsion or habit. I want it to be a treat, not because it’s just what I always do.

In a way the blog doesn’t help. I don’t have a huge readership, which is a good thing, but I do feel like I should post something once a week. This is something I need to revisit. The blog is secondary to the reading. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy sharing my experiences of books and I still love reading about what other people are reading. But perhaps I need to get myself comfortable with the idea that I blog only when I have something worth sharing and not to a timetable.

I haven’t completely gone off the rails, and perhaps this little lapse has been a good experience because it has highlighted to me more forcefully both the point of starting this in the first place and the underlying need that motivated it. When things go wrong, even if only slightly, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and revisit and reaffirm your priorities. I think I needed this reminder. So I will take those books back to the library, and I will stop reserving new ones. I will delete most of the books from my list. I have hundreds of books available to me, books that I was sure, at one point, that I wanted to read. If I don’t want those books that I add to my lists to suffer the same fate I must find a way to reignite whatever it was that convinced me to buy those books in the first place. I realise I need to add some dimensions to my reading experiment. I need to reinvigorate that intentionality that I was trying to achieve in the beginning. And I think I need to look more carefully at my shelves and rediscover the magic that’s already there.

I’m still glad that I embarked on this experiment. I have learned a lot more about myself over the past few months. I have absorbed almost everything I’ve read, and I’ve had some extraordinary reading experiences. I don’t feel deprived, in fact I feel enriched. Every book has received my focused attention, and considering how much effort goes into writing a book that feels like a respectful way to respond to the writer’s efforts. I am not just devouring their work, I’m savouring it. And I feel like I can take on those works that a more challenging, longer or denser as long as I can convince myself to forget about this little writing corner for a little bit. I know many people can read prolifically and still do these things, still manage an interesting and vibrant blog, but I’ve realised that I can’t. And it’s good to have learned that. If I hadn’t given myself the space and the thinking time to do so, I might never have.

Posted in personal reflection | 7 Comments

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky) #WITMonth

 

“There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love.”

Image result for the unwomanly face of warA while ago I read Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Chernobyl Prayer, her account – by collating lots of witness accounts – of the Chernobyl incident, the meltdown and the way it affected the people who lived in and around the area both at the time and afterwards. It’s a phenomenal book, hard to read and even harder to understand in many respects, but it’s an important read and it stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Alexievich, a Belorussian writer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature before the whole Bob Dylan affair, and like the Bob Dylan affair it prompted a lot of questions though focused around ‘another writer no one has ever heard of’ challenge as opposed to the ‘is it a writer’ challenge, proving that if nothing else the Nobel Prize in Literature always stirs a little debate. Needless to say, I’m glad that Alexievich was brought to my attention. I’ve had my eye on Second-Hand Time for a while, but when I saw that her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, had been published by Penguin I knew I would have to read it.

 “I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet? It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war…” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war…And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls.”

Alexievich’s books all follow a similar style, what is referred to as ‘polyphonic’ reporting. She gathers a number of accounts from witnesses, people who were part of the events that the book focuses upon. The Unwomanly Face of War focuses on the Soviet women who served during WWII, largely on the front line as snipers, pilots, sappers, artillery-people (artillery man feeling utterly wrong here), tank drivers, nurses, medics or partisan operatives. She sets out at the beginning how the men’s story has been told, how the stories of war told on behalf of men often focus on the battles, the strategic priorities, the victories and the events, whereas she wanted to hear about how the war made people feel, how women served and how they were affected both before and afterwards. At a time when we have yet another male-dominated drama in the movies – Dunkirk – a movie which is described as ‘epic’ which may glamorise heroism and stoical self-sacrifice, it felt good to read about that part of war which is often left unspoken: the woman’s war. That’s not to say it’s not important to see how men fought and suffered during the war, of course it is, the war affected so many ordinary men and they were called upon to do extraordinary things. But we often think of women as being behind the lines, safe and secure, when the truth is often something quite different. Here Alexievich allows so many women to tell their stories, to speak of how they felt, how they coped, how they suffered and how they continued to suffer after the war.

“We were in hiding, and I was the lookout. And then I noticed one Germany poking up a little from a trench. I clicked, and he fell. And them you know, I started shaking all over, I heard my bones knocking. I cried. When I shot at targets it was nothing, but now: I – killed! I killed some unknown man. I knew nothing about him but I killed him.”

It is hard to describe, here, now, after days of reading these account the effect this book has had upon me. I find myself torn between admiration and horror, the accounts are brutal, bloody, soulful, often tearful and inspiring. There are so many accounts of young women who forcefully demanded to be sent to the front – sixteen, eighteen, twenty year old women. Their Motherland was under threat and they wanted, no demanded, to protect it. They did not know the horrors of war, but they were willing to face the horror of war. Their anger towards the German enemy was boundless, and understandably so when you hear of all the stories of villages burned, people burned in their homes, women raped, their breast cut off, babies smashed into walls, children thrown down wells, people starved, tortured, shot. The enemy was brutal and as an (ostensibly, I appreciate Soviet Russia is a complex society) egalitarian society the women expected to be defend it.

 “we left for the front at the age of eighteen or twenty and came back at twenty or twenty-four. First there was joy, but then fear: what were we going to do in civilian life? There was a fear of peaceful life…My girlfriends had managed to finish various institutes, but what about us? Unfit for anything, without any professions. All we knew was war, all we could do was war. I wanted to get rid of the war as quickly as possible. I hastily remade my uniform coat into a regular coat; I changed the buttons. Sold the tarpaulin boots at market and bought a pair of shoes. When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears. I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. We had spent four years in trousers.”

For the women the war didn’t end with Victory, having fought their way onto the front line and fought alongside the men, shooting and bombing and defusing mines, communicating, bandaging, dragging away the wounded, the women came back to find themselves ostracised from society. They were treated like whores; many men who’d been at the front didn’t want to marry a female soldier when he came back. Having got their medals, having saved lives and suffered terrible injuries, these women found themselves facing another war. A war in which they were seen as something tainted, something dirty, a war they could no longer talk about. And here Alexievich has done them a service – she has allowed them to speak, to tell of their lives, when the people around them, and the reaction of their society, have kept them silent for so many years.

“We’d had enough, we frontline girls. And after the war we got more. After the war we had another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us.”

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard read. It is a book which renders many complex emotions, which asks us to look at these women and try to empathise with their experiences from our place of cushy comfort and relatively undramatic lives. It made me think a lot about what I think adversity means. Our daily, comfortable lives in which the worst thing we might face is some trolling on social media (not to dismiss trolling, it is a horrible experience for anyone and completely unwarranted and should be stamped out) is a world away from the woman who bit what was left of a soldier’s arm off so she could bandage him and stop him bleeding to death, the woman who witnessed the body of a German woman who had been gang-raped, a grenade shoved up her vagina, the woman who lost both of her legs to frostbite. The horrors are unthinkable, but it was war and these women rose to it just like their men did. Their stories deserve to be told.

“I’ll say this: if you’re not a woman, you can’t survive war. I never envied men. Not in my childhood, not in my youth. Not during the war. I was always glad to be a woman. People say that weapons – submachine guns, pistols – are beautiful, that they conceal many human thoughts, passions, but I never found them beautiful. I’ve seen the admiration of men looking at a fine pistol; I find it incomprehensible. I’m a woman.”

And it wasn’t all terrible, people have this extraordinary capacity to find something joyful even in the worst of time. There was love, though somehow the love was harder to speak of than the horror, there was compassion, there was a coming together of people to defeat their enemy, the invader that had tried to take their country from them, inexplicably. There is heroism, but not of a bombastic kind. Just people quietly trying to keep each other safe the best way they can. It is a powerful account which will linger with me a long time after reading. I wish I didn’t know some of it, some accounts are simply awful to read, but I’m so glad Alexievich made it possible for those women to share their experiences with me, and so many other readers who have it, whether we know it or not, so very, very easy.

Posted in #WITMonth, history, non-fiction, translation, war | 11 Comments