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Archive for the category “literature”

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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Children’s science fiction and more

We met for our literary coffee klatch at Cafe 41, and Tony McGregor arrived almost straight away. David Levey arrived soon afterwards, and we pronounced that we had a quorum.

Dan Dare — pilot of the future

David said he had noticed on my reading list that I had read a lot of children’s fantasy, and said that he had also read quite a lot of Dan Dare comics as a child, and Dan Dare frequently tangled with a fat-headed green Venusian called the Mekon, who was often up to no good.The producer of the Eagle comic was a Christian and tried to incorporate a Christian message in the Dan Dare stories.

I mentioned that I had an Eagle annual at home, featuring Dan Dare and the Mekon at the Interplantary Olympics, which were held on Venus, and I think it involved a terrorist plot to blow up the Olympic stadium when the Olympic torch was brought in. I also now recall that that was the first time I encountered the word “plinth” in the wild. Somewhere, somewhen, within the last two or three years, I encountered an online discussion about the word “plinth”.

The Mekon — Dan Dare;s Nemesis, or was Dan Dare his Nemesis?

I had not read much children’s science fiction when I was young, but I did read a fair bit of “adult” science fiction when I was at school, and two stories from an anthology called Looking Forward had particularly impressed me. One, called “Ultima Thule” was about a spaceship whose hyperdrive went wrong, so it jumped right out of the universe into nothingness, but because the universe is expanding, it expanded to reach the spaceship 17000 years later, and Captain Vanderveen was welcomed back by his descendants many generations hence. I’m reminded of it by the Queen song about the land that our grandchildren knew.

The other story was a kind of anti-colonialist satire called “The Last Monster” by Poul Anderson. It’s about a planet that has been colonised from earth, and the last of the native inhabitants is dying, and in a poetic and tear-jerking ending says “There’ll always be a shadow just beyond the fire.”

David mentioned two children’s science fiction stories he’d read. One was The cave of time by Paul Capon, which was a boy who discovers a cave and falls through a hole which leads to another cave, which comes out in a different time. I found it interesting because I’d just written a scene in a follow-up story to my children’s novel in which a boy head-butts another boy who is bullying his friend, and he disappears. He later says he didn’t mean to do that, he only wanted to butt him into the middle of next week, and one of the others suggests that that might be what had happened.

The other novel David recommended was The Death of Metal by Donald Suddaby, in which space aliens appear who make metal go soft.

Tony McGregor wrote on Facebook:

“She crossed the lawn like some strange memory, and passed statelily towards the water.” Sometimes a sentence in a book just hits home in a rather mysterious way. Don’t you just love the word “statelily”? As for the “strange memory”, well, that is just wonderful. Any guesses as to what I’m reading?

He promised to reveal all at the coffee klatsch, so we asked him and he produced Women in love by D.H. Lawrence. None of us would have guessed. He said he was re-reading D.H. Lawrence, which he liked, but confessed that he had never managed to read more than a couple of pages of The Hobbit. Val suggested that he start with Lord of the Rings as she had.

I recalled recently reading an article (which I now can’t find) about how fiction has changed. Premodern fiction was all about events: this king mustered an army, he sent it out, they won battles, they conquered their enemies. Modern fiction, however is more about the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Tony said he had read a book like that, East of the mountains by David Guterson, where all the events that took place were related to the interior thoughts they sparked in the protagonist’s mind. Val had enjoyed another book by Guterson, Snow falling on cedars, about Japanese interned during the Second World War.

Postcards

PostcardsPostcards by Annie Proulx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loyal Blood is a farmer’s son who leaves home after his girlfriend dies. How she dies is never revealed, though he feels somehow responsible, and after that has an allergic reaction if he touches a woman. He wanders around doing various odd jobs. and occasionally sends postcards back to his family, but they can never reply because he leaves no address.

The book covers about 40 years, from 1944 to about 1984, and in some ways was an evocation of my childhood, remembering things like turning the handle of the milk separator to get the cream, and turning the handle of the wooden butter churn to make butter. Remembering what it was like to have no mains electricity, and waiting four years for the post office to install a telephone line. That was life back in the 1950s. I recall going to the Rand Easter Show, and looking at agricultural machinery, shiny in red and green paint, with springy metal seats for the operator, and then seeing such machinery, abandoned and rusted and useless, behind a ramshackle shed.

I wanted, at times to be a farmer in those days, and used to read Popular Mechanics and the Farmers’ Weekly. I never read the articles, just the small ads of farms for sale, or farm equipment. There was a course advertised in Popular Mechanics on “How to break and train horses”, which cost $50.00. That would have been about R40.00 in those days, but about R6000 in today’s money.

And this book brought it all back, with its descriptions of rural life, the life behind the Popular Mechanics ads. And the reason I never took it up is that farming is hard work with no let-up. Those cows have to be milked every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. The milking shed has to be cleaned or they get foot-rot. There are no weekends off, no holidays. And the book brings this out.

And I wonder if the urbanised people who talk about land redistribution are aware of this. Your grandfather may have been unjustly dispossessed back then, but are you prepared to go back and recreate his life, and take up where he left off? Back in the 1950s there were no big supermarket chains whose bulk buying could squeeze prices they paid for agricultural produce.

In Postcards Loyal Blood is sometimes a farm hand, sometimes trying farming on his own account, sometimes a fur trapper, sometimes a miner, sometimes a uranium prospector. And most of these rep[resent a way of life that has vanished. I remember those ads in Popular Mechanics for geiger counters and books on how to get rich quick as a uranium prospector in the 1940s and early 1950s. And somehow Annie Proulx manages to capture all of that.

So what genre is the book? A family saga? A snapshot of a period? Or a series of snapshots. It’s quite well done, in a way, and yet strangely unsatisfying. What happened to the girlfriend? Did he kill her? Did her family look for her? Did anyone wonder about her?

For the last 40 years we have been researching our family history, and in a way real family history is very like this book. There are snatches of recollections and old photos of cousins who disappeared and no one ever heard from them again. But they must have had lives, and perhaps some of them ended up like Loyal Blood in this book.

I recall Joan Rogers, who at one time lived in a caravan in our driveway. She had a horse called Royal and an old pointer dog. She worked in the lab at the South African Institute for Medical Research beyond Silvamonte, and at one time showed us the dessicated button spiders that they ground up and injected into the necks of horses to make the antivenin for the spider bites. She was something like Loyal Blood in the book, a wanderer, whose path intersected with mine for a couple of years but where she came from and where she ended up is unknown, at least to me.

And it was things like this that the book was evocative of. For other people it will be evocative of something else, other scenes, other people, other experiences.

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Elidor: children’s fantasy

ElidorElidor by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Elidor for the seventh time (or is it the eighth?), and was quite surprised to see that it was nearly 25 years since the last time I read it.

What prompted this reading was that someone wrote a rather nice review of my children’s book Of wheels and witches, and I began to wonder if it was worth trying to write a sequel, and I began to re-read Elidor to get me in to mood to think about it.

That’s because Elidor is, in my view at least, a kind of paradigm case of what a children’s fantasy novel should be.

It’s a bit like a combination of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Though Lewis wrote stories for children, Charles Williams never did, but I imagine that if he had he would have written something like Elidor. The first 50 pages are like Lewis — some children are snatched away into another world, the devastated dying world of Elidor. But the rest of the book is like Williams — the other world irrupts into this world.

The protagonist of Elidor is Roland Watson, the youngest of four middle-class siblings who live in Greater Manchester. In various parts of the story Alan Garner satirises bourgeois tastes and values and contrasts their tameness with the wildness of Elidor, which only Roland really appreciates until, in the end, the wildness of Elidor overwhelms them all.

We are not told how old the children are, though, because of the time that elapses in the story, a little over a year, they would be a year older at the end than the beginning. The one clue is that at the end the eldest, Nicholas, buys bus tickets for the four of them and asks for “one and three halves”. If Manchester was anything like Johannesburg, then children started paying full fares after they turned 12. So Nicholas is about 12, his sister Helen about 11, David about 9, and Roland, the protagonist, about 7 or 8. And they would all have been a year younger at the beginning of the story.

What I find interesting about this is that we are told that children like to read stories about children slightly older than themselves, and are less interested in ones about children who are younger. Yet in Elidor the protagonist, the one who takes the initiative, is the youngest. When my son was about the age of Roland in the story he tried to read it, and gave up because he found it “boring”. He was, however, quite happy to have it read to him. I think that may have been because he found it difficult to read. The reading level is more for 10 or 11 year olds.

So I wonder whether any children actually liked Elidor. Or any adults, for that matter. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

But then I looked at the GoodReads lists that Elidor is on, and it is on quite a number of them. And perhaps the most telling, in the light of what I have just written, is:

Books for an 8-yr old boy with an older reading age

That pretty much says it all.

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Postscript

I originally posted this on 3rd April 2017, right after I had finished reading Elidor. As I usually do, I posted a basic review on Good Reads, and copied it to this blog with a few additional comments.

Three days later, at our literary coffee klatch, Prof David Levey raised one of the points I had made here — about Alan Garner’s fantasy stories being as much about this world as about other worlds, and the other worlds entering this world, rather than people leaving this world to go to other worlds.

I wanted to share the link to this post on Facebook to draw it to Prof Levey’s attention, but Facebook would not show the illustration of the book cover in the link, but rather something in the sidebar, linking to a Facebook group for a network of South African bloggers.

It seems that the people at Facebook, preferring people not to click on links that would take them out of Facebook, gave preference to an illustration linked to Facebook, no matter how irrelevant, rather than one in the article itself. In the past Facebook used to give one a choice of what illustration would display in links, but now there is only their arbitrary choice.

Eventually I deleted the widget with the link to the SA Bloggers Network, and copied this entire article into another blog post, and deleted the original. Then, and then only, did the link appear in Facebook with the book cover illustration. All that is to explain why this article is dated three days after it was actually written and posted, and why the link to the SA Bloggers Network on Facebook has been removed.

 

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It you read the blurb at the top of the Good Reads entry for this book, you will see it’s described as a hipster story from the 1990s. That puts it in the same genre as other semi-autobiographical hipster novels, like those of Jack Kerouac. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I liked Jack Kerouac’s books better. Or perhaps I just identified more closely with the hipsters of the 1940s (On the Road) or 1950s (The Dharma Bums) than w1th those of the 1990s. I found The Dharma Bums far more hip.

Dave Eggers, however, helps his readers.

He says pages 209-301 are just stuff about people in their 20s, and the book could just as easily have stopped at page 109. I agree. I quite liked it up to page 109. The story about this family in Chicago whose parents died, and they moved to California, and Dave Eggers ends up looking after his younger brother Christopher (Toph for short).

I read about 30 pages beyond page 109, got bored, and following the author’s recommendation skipped to page 301. But the last pages were not as good as the first ones. He goes on and on and on and on describing his thoughts when trying to decide whether or not to throw his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan. I was occasionally tempted to start skimming such passages in Ulysses, but the temptation was far stronger here. The best bits are better than Kerouac at his worst, but don’t approach Kerouac at his best.

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The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

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