Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “literature”

Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

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On the Eve by Turgenev

On the EveOn the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a lot about Ivan Turgenev, especially in connection with nihilism, but this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read, mainly because it’s the first one I’ve seen. I picked it up from a toss-out box at the Russian Church in Midrand. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

It’s a story about romantic love and romantic nationalism during the build-up to the Crimean War There’s not a breath of nihilism in it that I could discern.

Concerning nationalism, I was once inveigled into joining a web site called Quora, where people ask questions and other people try to answer them, though most of them are quite unanswerable, and if you want examples of “begging the question”, you’ll find plenty on Quora. One of those questions was Why is nationalism bad?. I was tempted to respond with corollary question: Why is imperialism good?.

On the Eve will not answer either question. But what it does do is give a sympathetic portrayal of the nationalist hero, which, I think, shows insight into the mindset of 19th-century romantic nationalists. Though the hero is not a poet, and is in fact rather prosaic, he did remind me of romantic poets like Byron and Shelley who sympathised with nationalist struggles in the Balkans.

Twentieth-century nationalism seems somehow to have been less romantic. There were plenty of nationalist struggles in Africa and elsewhere against imperialist powers, and some of them generated poetry and novels, but nothing, to my knowledge, as overtly romantic as this.

To the person who asked “Why is nationalism bad?” on Quora, I would recommend this book. As I said, it won’t answer the question, but it may show why it is the wrong question to ask. When it comes to the question whether nationalism is good or bad, a brief answer is “It’s complicated”, and I’ve written more about it here Orthodoxy and nationalism and here Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, but that goes a long way beyond Turgenev’s book.

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Falling man

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. The title relates to a performance artist, David Janiak, who emulates those who jumped or fell from the World Trade Center when the two towers caught fire after planes crashed into them. Using a safety harness, he hangs himself from various structures around New York. But he gives no explanation of his behaviour.

The protagonist is Keith Neudecker, whose office was below the fire, and so he was able to escape, and instead of going home, he went to the home of his estranged wife, and is reunited with her, and their son Justin, whose age is not mentioned until much later in the book, and it turns out that he is about 7 when his father comes home.

The book follows Keith and his wife Lianne, and to some extent their son Justin over three years. It purports, in the blurb, to show how the events of 11 Septermber 2001 affected American consciousness, but I must be dim, because I didn’t see it. Several of Keith’s poker buddies are dead, so for a while he doesn’t play poker, but then resumes. Lianne continues her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and is rather distressed by their inevitable deterioration. But the fall of the towers seems to have nothing to do with this.

We are told little about their lives before the fall of the World Trade Center, so it is not really possible to see how their lives have been changed. The story is not clear, and it is often difficult to tell whose experience is being described.

In spite of this, however, I found it compelling reading. I wasn’t bored, and read to the end of the book.

If you want to read a better review, try this one Inner Diablog: Falling Man, which I largely agree with. But I didn’t feel I could say much about the book, but rather about some thoughts it provoked in me. One thing that struck me in the book was Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. She encourages them to write down their memories while they can, and when one of them can no longer do this, they want to wrote about her. That struck me as very sad, but it would have been sad with or without the fall of the World Trade Center.

Another thing that struck me was that within a couple of days of the events, reporting on them stopped. For two days we were saturated with images of planes flying into buildings, the buildings burning and then collapsing, and then it all suddenly stopped. In other such disasters one often find that within a few months a book is published, with stories of witnesses and survivors, explaining what happened. But in this case there was a strange silence. I believe there is now a TV documentary showing, but 16 years later. Kids like Justin in the book would now be 23.

And so I wonder if this silence is why the book about it is a work of fiction, but really what is needed is for survivors to tell their own stories. Perhaps they did, in New York, so maybe I’m missing something that was there all along, but it it seems to me the kind of topic that doesn’t lend itself to fictional treatment.

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Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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Five Children and It (book review)

Five Children and itFive Children and it by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I had heard about, but never seen, until my eye lit on it in the library this week. It’s good bed-time reading, because each chapter is almost a self-contained story.

I suppose coming so late to it, probably many people have had an opportunity to read it before me, and it is too well-known to need much children — four children and their baby brother discover a Psammead, a very ancient sand fairy who grants wishes. And, as I’m sure many others have said, the theme “be careful what you wish for” runs right through the book. In each chapter the children spent most of their time, energy, and, sometimes, money, trying to undo the damage that their wishes have caused.

It is interesting that most of the best books for children that have lasted have been fantasy books. Most of the children’s books from before the First World War have probably been all but forgotten, but many of those that have lasted and been reprinted have been fantasy books.

Another thought is that the children in the story, and therefore many of the first readers of the book, would have been of the generation that fought in the First World War. They grew up in a kind of idyllic world that was to vanish in their generation.

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The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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Gilgamesh: it’s a long way to home

GilgameshGilgamesh by Joan London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frank Clark, an Australian soldier, wounded in the First World War, marries Ada, an English orphan, and takes her back to Australia with him. They try farming in south-western Australia, but life is hard, and their two daughters grow up, one helping on the farm, and the other working as a maid in a nearby hotel. A visit from an English cousin and his friend leaves the younger daughter, Edith, pregnant, and she sets out to find the father of her child in Armenia, just before the Second World War breaks out.

It is a book about travel, about friendship and loss, and about the way in which peoples lives connect for a while, and are then parted and they never see each other again, or sometimes met again in unexpected ways. In that way it seems similar to real life, where the twists and turns of the story are not driven by plot, but often by chance, or spur-of-the-moment decisions. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. And so this story has a ring of truth, and seems close to real life.

Yet it also has a dream-like quality. I don’t know about other people but many of my dreams involve preparing and planning for things that never seem to happen, because something else intervenes and turns things aside at the last minute.

It is this combination of realism and dream that made the book interesting to me, wanting to see what happens in the end, because one never knows what to expect. The characters read The Epic of Gilgamesh, who, like them, travelled a long way from home. In some ways home is where you are, and in others, it is always somewhere else.

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Create your own personal canon with a life author

Bensonian

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, Leland Ryken writes:

Every lifelong reader needs to compile a private list of classics. It may or may not resemble the traditional canon of classics, but for us personally, these works meet most or all the criteria for a classic (the criterion most likely to be missiRyken.jpgng is cultural influence).

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever encountered in regard to reading came from an old book first published in 1941. To show how much things have changed, the book (Poetry as a Means of Grace) was written for ministers by a famous professor of English at Princeton University and was published by Princeton University Press in the United States and Oxford University Press in England. The author, Charles Osgood, wrote the book as a guide and encouragement to preachers to keep up their contact with imaginative literature…

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Borderliners

BorderlinersBorderliners by Peter Høeg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borderliners is the second book about “abnormal” children I’ve read this week, the first one being The outcast, so I can’t help comparing them.

The Outcast is about a privileged child from an upper middle-class background, and the action takes place at home, in the school holidays. Borderliners is about an orphan, a ward of the state, with a legal guardian who had more than 200 other children to care for. He has no home to spend holidays in, and the action takes place at the school.

The Outcast (my review here) was about my contemporaries, those who were at school in the 1950s. We had or rebellions, too. I was at Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and when I was 11 the whole school went on strike to protest against an unjust and authoritarian teacher. When the strike ended the headmaster lined us all up outside the classroom and made each of us bend over at the door for two cuts with his cane (I think more for the ringleaders), and once we were all inside he made a little sexist speech about the teacher, saying women were sometimes like that. Even at that age I thought it was sexist. I’d known other female teachers who weren’t authoritarian. But she did not return to the school the following term, so the stiike achieved its purpose.

Borderliners, however, is about those at school in the 1970s, and I remember the 1970s quite well. What do I remember about the 1970s? I saw the film If, which was also about a rebellion in a boarding school. I was on the board of governors of St George’s School in Windhoek. I was manager of several farm schools in Northern Natal. But never did I come across a school that was anything like the one in this book.

Borderliners is set in Denmark. What did I know about Denmark? When I was at school our geography teacher Steyn Krige told us the story of a South African visitor to Denmark who threw an empty packet out of a car window. After driving several miles a traffic cop stopped him and gave him the packet and said “You dropped this.” “Oh I don’t want it,” said the South African. “Denmark doesn’t want it either,” said the traffic cop.

In the 1960s I was a fan of Kierkegaard, and was impressed by the bourgeois morality and dull conformity of people in Denmark that he described. But that was in the 19th century. In the 1970s my impression of Denmark was that it was free. It was the model of the “permissive society”. But Borderliners gives an entirely different impression. Both books reminded me of my own schooldays, but Borderliners impressed me by how regimented it was, far more than any school I attended in the 1950s — especially the lengths they went to to stop pupils talking to each other or having friends, with never-ending surveillance. It was 1984. Could a Danish school in the permissive society really have been like that? No social interaction permitted. Pupils forbidden to talk to each other or even be seen together?

This is never explained in the book. Perhaps for a child at school, it needs no explanation or interpretation, but the book is written from the point of view of an adult looking back and an adult would try to make sense of childhood from the point of view of the wider world. So I’m left wondering why a school in Denmark in the 1970s should be worse, far worse, than a concentration camp. In a concentration camp people are locked away and for the most part forgotten about. The aim is to isolate them so that they can’t influence others. The perimeter is guarded to prevent them from escaping, but there is not, as in this school this constant surveillance, this prohibition on talking to other pupils, a kind of solitary confinement in the company of others.

In the book Peter Høeg links it all to a perception of time. I suppose in any school one becomes aware of time. There is a timetable for classes and other activities, so one’s life is regulated by bells ringing to mark the end of one activity and the commencement of another. But no theory of time can explain the concentration camp character of this school.

So it seemed a very strange book. It also seems to be at least semi-autobiographical, with a good measure of teenage solipsism. That I could identify with. It seems that many people toy with solipsism in their teenage years. Perhaps all do, or perhaps only those who go to boarding schools where time is strictly regulated.

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Outcast (book review)

The OutcastThe Outcast by Sadie Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book follows Lewis Aldridge’s life from the age of 7, when his father returns from the Second World War, to the age of 19. He grows up in an upper-middle-class commuter village in Surrey, where the fathers commute to to work in London, and the mothers supervise the servants and occasionally visit each other.

The children of the neighbourhood play and fight with each other. They go out for bike rides. and walk in the woods together, but Lewis feels increasingly cut off from them and from the adult world as well. The only exception is youngest of the neighbouring children, Kit Carmichael, who is four years younger than Lewis, but is secretly in love with him.

While the novel focuses on Lewis as the protagonist, I felt most strongly for Kit, and my heart ached for her. Perhaps that was because she was the same age as me, and I could measure her life against mine, though I think I liked Elvis Presley more than she did, but I could forgive her that. If one can measure the success of a novel by the extent to which readers identify and empathise with the characters, then this one succeeds.

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