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Archive for the category “literature”

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.

But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.

The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.

In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process.  Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.

It is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma

All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.

Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?

So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?

In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.

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Sometimes there is a void (review)

Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an OutsiderSometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve often found that I enjoy literary biographies and memoirs more than the works of the writers themselves, and this one is no exception. I had read one of Mda’s novels, Ways of dying but I knew him mainly as a newspaper columnist before I came across this memoir in the library. I found it very interesting, partly, no doubt because the life and times of Zakes Mda overlapped so much with my own. As I often do, I’m expanding my review on GoodReads here, adding some reminiscences of my own, and comparing Mda’s experiences of some events with mine, because that was what I found most interesting about the book

Like me, Zakes Mda was born in the 1940s, so we belong more or less to the same generation, one of the ones before Americans started giving them letters. He grew up in Johannesburg and in the Herschel district of the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border. His father was a political activist, first in the African National Congress (ANC), later in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and had to go into exile in Lesotho, along with his family. So Zakes Mda finished his schooling in Lesotho after dropping out and going back to complete his high school education.

He describes one of his drop-out periods as follows

We saw ourselves as part of the international hippy culture. Make love, not war. Janis Joplin was our chief prophetess. “Mercedes Benz”. That was my song asking God to buy me the luxury German sedan. The one that I sang as Mr Dizzy strummed the guitar. I never learnt how to strum it myself, so he strummed it for me. And hummed along. Another prophetess was Joan Baez with her folk songs. And the prophets were Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with his psychedelic rock. When we were around the shebeens of Maseru reverberated with some of their music instead of the traditional Sesotho songs that were a staple of drunken sing-alongs. And Mr Dizzy strummed his guitar.
Source: Mda 2011:159

And I can say much the same of when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg and Durham in the 1960s. Mda mentions Jeremy Taylor’s Black and White Calypso from the revue Wait a Minim, which I saw in Johannesburg in 1962 on my 21st birthday.  Mda heard it sung by his friend Mr Dizzy (Sechele Khaketla) in Maseru shebeens, and it seems that Jeremy Taylor’s satire was appreciated just as much there as it was by the all-white audiences in Johannesburg. And a few years later Bob Dylan’s satire had much the same effect, when he was singing about “you unpatriotic rotten doctor commie rat” — just how the South African government of the time thought of us.

Mda tells his story in a series of flashbacks — visiting places from his past, and then telling of past events in those places. And so I discovered that he was far more than a novelist and newspaper columnist. He had begun as an artist, hawking paintings to tourists in Maseru, and his fame was chiefly as a playwright. He also became a teacher, teaching literature and creative writing both in Lesotho and in the USA.

I knew vaguely that plays that were banned in South Africa were sometimes performed in Lesotho — my wife had once travelled from Durban to Maseru with her cousins to see Godspell, which was then banned in South Africa. What I was not aware of was that there was such a lively literary scene in Lesotho, with local authors and playwrights mingling with South African exiles, so Mda’s memoir reads like a who’s who of southern African writers.

I am more historically inclined, so what I found most interesting was Mda’s take on historical events that I had been aware of, but from a different viewpoint. The ANC/PAC split of 1959, for example, and its relation to the politics of Lesotho. I had then been living in Johannesburg and at university in Pietermaritzburg, where I had once tried to explain it to some of my fellow students, and I was interested to see that my explanations fitted pretty closely with Mda’s experience.

Mda’s father was critical of a preface to a book of his plays, written by Andrew Horn, which said that Zakes Mda questions the basic tenets of the PAC, saying that they rejected class analysis of South African society and adopted a narrower race-based Pan-Africanism, influenced by Marcus Garvey. Mda’s father rejected this analysis.

My father believed that in a free and democratic South Africa there would be only one race, the human race. He spoke of non-racialism as opposed to multi-racialism long before it became the trend in South Africa and wrote against “narrow nationalism”. Race as defined by the social engineers of the apartheid state came into play when he discussed the intersections of class and race. Even ardent Communist leaders like John Motloheloa came to him for his class analysis of the South African situation. Although I am not an authority on my father’s writings, as people like Robert Edgar and Luyana ka Msumzwa are, I’ll be so bold as to say Marcus Garvey never featured in any of them.
Source: Mda 2011:353

And that was how I tried to explain it to white South African students in 1965. The predominant perception among whites at that time was that the PAC was racist and anti-white (and anti-coloured and anti-Indian). And the PAC, being banned, could not correct this impression. No doubt some rank-and-file members saw it that way, and their opposition to communists in the ANC was that most of the communists were white. But that was not how Robert Sobukwe expressed it, and he had been a lecturer at Wits University when I was a student there. Sobukwe said that whites were Africans too, as long as they saw Africa as their home, and did not have one foot in Europe. In his book Mda reports that the PAC later did become more narrowly racist and chauvinist, and he then switched his support to the ANC, but at that time Robert Sobukwe was in prison, and could not influence its direction so easily.

I was disillusioned with the PAC, though I still believed in two of its three guiding principles, namely continental unity and socialism. It was with the leadership’s interpretation of the third principle, African nationalism, that I had a problem. It was quite different from the way in which my father used to outline it for us at one of his family meetings. His was not a narrow nationalism. It was all inclusive of all South Africans who identified themselves as Africans and paid their allegiance first and foremost to Africa. But the way my PAC comrades understood the concept it became clear to me that the rights of citizenship of a future Azania, as they called South Africa, would be limited only to black people of African descent. In the meetings which we attended, especially when I was staying at the Poqo camp, the leaders did not make any bones about that. I saw this position as a misrepresentation of the tenets of African nationalism as propounded by my father.

The PAC wrote extensively against tribalism: African nationalism was essentially about embracing Africans regardless of which cultural, linguistic or ethnic group they belonged to. But our PAC and Poqo cadres in Lesotho, who were predominantly amaXhosa, had a negative attitude towards their Basotho hosts. They viewed themselves as naturally superior to other ethnicities.
Source: Mda 2011:250

I had visited Maseru a few times in the 1960s when attending student conferences over the border at Modderpoort in the Free State. On free afternoons groups of us went to Maseru just to enjoy a freer atmosphere. There we sometimes met a bloke in a pub, Desmond Sixishe, whom we didn’t quite trust, and thought was a South African government spy. On one such visit we saw a procession of vehicles, mainly LandRovers, with flags waving, hooting and celebrating. They were from the Basutoland National Party (BNP), which had just won a by-election. We stood at the side of the road as they went past, giving the hand signals of the opposing parties, the Basutoland Congress Party and the Marema-tlou Freedom Party. A few hours later in the pub Desmond Sixishe told us he had seen us, as he had been in the procession. It turned out he was a big BNP supporter. And from Zakes Mda’s memoir I learned that he had become a cabinet minister. But he later died in an ambush on a mountain road.

I was in Namibia when the BNP lost the 1970 general election, but continued to rule by staging a coup. I was then far away in Namibia, but Mda confirmed that it was just as nasty from close up as it looked from a distance, and after that Lesotho immigration and other border officials went from being the friendliest and most welcoming on the subcontinent to being the surliest and most arrogant and officious.

Another link that I found was that Zakes Mda had stayed at my Alma Mater, St Chad’s College, Durham. Same place, different times. I was there from 1966-1968, and he was there 25 years later.

The following year I went to Durham, England, as a writer-in-residence at the Cathedral there. I was the guest of an organisation called Lesotho-Durham Link which was itself linked to the Anglican Church. My brief was to write a play that would be performed in the Norman Cathedral as part of its nine hundredth anniversary celebrations. I was based at St Chad’s College just across the street from the Cathedral and I spent a lot of time taking walks along the Wear River. It was during these walks that my character Toloki was born.
Source: Mda 2011:357

Durham Cathedral, above the banks of the River Wear, where Mda’s character Toloki was conceived

His character Toloki is the professional mourner who is the protagonist in Ways of dying, and I recall many walks along the banks of the River Wear (as it is called locally — the “Wear River” is a South Africanism). My friend Hugh Pawsey would give names to the strange alien vegetation that I had previously read about in books, but could not have identified or even imagined — beech trees, rhododendrons and so on. Rhododendrons are a bit like oleanders and azaleas, which we do know. I recall the “Count’s House”, a tiny dwelling once the home of a man who was only three feet tall. But I can picture the place where Toloki was born. .

Mda does not tell us how he felt, as an atheist, being asked to write a play to commemorate the centenary of an Anglican Cathedral, but he did leave before his term as writer-in-residence was up.

When I was a student in Durham in 1967 there was a civil war in Nigeria, and the Eastern Region broke away from the federation and became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Someone from the Nigerian High Commission in London came to Durham to speak to the university African Society about the civil war, and noted that the Igbo people of the Eastern Region had a legitimate grievance, because 30000 of them had been killed, but he said that was not a sufficient reason to break up the federation.

I found  it interesting that Mda and I both supported the breakaway state of Biafra, though for quite different reasons. Mda and his friends supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, in spite of its being contrary to Pan Africanism. They knew the Igbo people well because of Chinua Achebe’s books, and did not know of any other of the peoples of Nigeria. In 1967 the only book by a Nigerian author I had read was My life in the bush of ghosts by Amos Tutuola, who was a Yoruba from the Western Region, It was a kind of magic realism story.

At independence in 1960 Nigeria was a federation of three regions. The Northern Region was Muslim and feudal and dry savannah or semi-desert, where Hausa and Fulani people dominated. The Eastern Region, where the Igbo people lived, was around the Niger Delta, largely forest, rich in oil, and the people were mostly Christian. Igbos from the Eastern Region migrated to the north for trade and business, but because of religious and cultural differences were regarded as exploitative foreigners, and were increasingly subject to xenophobic attacks similar to those on Nigerians and Somalis in South Africa in the 21st century. Eventually in a pogrom some 30000 were killed, which led to a civil war, and the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra. And in the northern part of Nigeria the killing of Christians by Muslims has continued to this day.

Mda notes that such a thing went against his Pan Africanist sentiments. He wanted the countries in Africa to be united. He mentions admiring Julius Nyerere, who united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania. What he does not mention, however, is that Julius Nyerere supported Biafra, one of the few African leaders of the time to do so. After the secession of Biafra ended, and Nigeria ceased to be a federation and became a unitary state with the aim of avoiding such secessions in future, Nyerere published a kind of elegy for Biafra, explaining why he had supported it. He said it was an elementary matter of justice. But in this world oil counts far more than justice.

A couple of years later I was living in Namibia, where South Africa was busy tightening its control, and planning to apply the apartheid policy in Namibia as it was doing in South Africa. I saw each of these closer links as a retrograde step, and was glad to see the independence of Namibia. So I am not a strong pan-Africanist. And one of the reasons for that is apparent from Mda’s own life. He was able to escape the clutches of the apartheid security apparatus precisely because Lesotho was not part of South Africa, and though the South African security forces made incursions into neighbouring countries, and kidnapped or killed people, Mda and his family found a safe refuge there. An advantage of having a lot of small countries rather than just one big one is that there are more places where one can take refuge from an oppressive government.

Mda also makes some interesting observations about developments in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He describes attending his mother’s funeral:

Throughout the ceremony I wear a white Xhosa ceremonial blanket, which makes me feel rather silly. These are some of the traditional innovations that have been introduced by Cousin Nondyebo into our lives. We never used to practise any of these customs when my father was alive. We didn’t even know about them. But, what the heck, it’s only for a few hours. I might as well humour the neo-traditionalists in the family and wear the ridiculous blanket. It all has to do with the movement that is sweeping the country of black people trying to find their roots after having “lost” their culture due to colonialism and apartheid. The problem with this movement is that it does not recognise the dynamism of culture but aims to resuscitate some of the most retrogressive and reactionary, and sometimes horrendous, elements of what used to be “tribal” culture but have long fallen into disuse..
Source: Mda 2011:543

This neo-traditionalism and attempts to resuscitate the culture of an imagined past has been much promoted by the SABC, and has led to the phrase “our culture” being used to justify all kinds of dubious practices. A few years ago a student who had studied in another country was told by the college authorities that he would not be readmitted as he had committed adultery with a married woman whose husband had vowed to kill him if he ever saw him again. On being asked about this the student attempted to justify his adultery by saying “it’s our culture”. I wonder what King Shaka, who had no compunction about putting adulterers to death instantly, would have thought about that.

Mda also has some interesting comments on the tendency to refer to the people who used to be called Bushmen in English as “San”:

You’ll notice that I keep referring to these vanquished people as the Bushmen instead of the politically correct term that is used for them today, the San people. The reason is simply that these people never called themselves the San. They merely referred to themselves as “people” in the various languages of the tribal groups. The clans or tribes did indeed have names: the !Kwi, the /Xam and so on. The San label has the same weight as Barwa or abaThwa or Bushmen, it was what other people called them. They were called the San by the Khoikhoi people (who did call themselves the Khoikhoi) and the name referred to those people who were vagabonds and wanderers and didn’t own cattle,. The Khoikhoi even called fellow Khoikhoi who were poor and didn’t have cattle San. So the name, though generally accepted, has derogatory origins.
Source: Mda 2011:306

I found the last hundred or so pages a disappointment, however. Mda was going through an acrimonious divorce, and lets a lot of the acrimony spill over into the pages of his memoir. During much of that time he was teaching at a university in Ohio in the USA, but he says little about his classes or what he was teaching, or the literary characters he met. It was all about his wife and his marital problems. I’ve no doubt that that played a big part in his life and affected his creative work, and so could not be left out. But there seemed to be too much self-justification, and trying too hard to persuade the reader that his wife was an evil villain. But for that I might have given it five stars on GoodReads.

Mda was also asked by many why he lived in Ohio and taught at a university there, now that South Africa is free. Why did he not return home to help build the nation? And he explains that there was no place for him in South Africa, dominated as it is by crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you know and in applying for a job party affiliation trumps competence every time, whether one is talking about membership of the board of the SABC or running a municipal sewage purification works:

Though Mda doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems reasonable to me to infer from what he does say that the ANC has learned a great deal about how to govern from the Broederbond, and in this respect has confirmed the observations of Paolo Freire in his Pedagogy of the oppressed — that the oppressed interrnalises the image of the oppressor.

 

Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.

 

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Books Mentioned

Here are some of the books mentioned at our literary coffee klatsch in April 2019:

David Levey said he enjoyed poems by Theodore Roethke, who writes poetry about ordinary things, but very good poems.

At a book club he belonged to they had been reading Educated, by Tara Westover, a memoir about growing up up a survivalist family with parents who did not believe in education, especially for daughters. This was also linked to works by Octavia Butler.

I have been reading books by John Connolly, and a memoir of Zakes Mda, in a strange order, described here. The John Connolly books I have finished reading and reviewed are The Wrath of Angels and Dark Hollow. These both feature private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but if you are going to read any of that series I strongly recommend beginning with the first one, Every Dead Thing, which I am reading now. There is so much in the later books in the series that refers back to events in this one that it really is important to begin at the beginning.

Also, to get a different idea of John Connolly I read The Book of Lost Things, which is a stand alone fantasy book that does not feature detective Charlie Parker. This one belongs to a sub-genre, which one could call “the boy with sick mother who finds himself in another world” genre. Other books in this genre are The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.In my view The Book of Lost Things is better than the former but not as good as the latter.

I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews that I thought that John Connolly had seemed to be developing in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman, whose books started off spooky, like The Wine of Angels and Candlenight and gradually seem to be becoming mundane whodunits in the vein of Miss Marple. Connolly seemed to be going the other way, from mundane whodunits to spooky, but in reading Every Dead Thing I see that the spooky stuff was there from the start.

Another thing about Phil Rickman’s books is that they say quite a lot about the current ethos of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and we mentioned other authors who had written in a similar vein — the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope, some novels by Ernest Raymond in the early to mid-20th century such as The Chalice and the Sword, novels of Susan Howatch such as Glittering Images, and, for a South African flavour, Expiring Frog by Elizabeth Webster.

For the most horrific and horrible horror novel we voted for The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. And for books that would have been better off without sequels, Duncton Wood by William Horwood (in the same genre as Watership Bown by Richard Adams), To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.

That’s about it for April 2019.

 

 

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a couple of whodunits by John Connolly I thought I would see what he wrote in another genre, and this one is fantasy of the “child entering another world” kind, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unlike those other books, however, I think this one, though it has a child protagonist, is not really for child readers. I find it rather difficult to put my finger on why I think that. On the surface, at least, it looks as though it should be good for children to read. Twelve-year-old David, mourning his dead mother, resentful of his father for remarrying, and jealous of his younger half-brother, by the end of the story has learned to cope with those things in his life. It should surely be instructive for children who face similar conditions in their lives, which many do. But somehow this one isn’t that kind of book.

The Book of Lost Things seems more violent and cruel than the other books mentioned. In the other books there is violence or bloodshed, or the threat of it (“off with his head!”), and there is cruelty (“intercision” in His Dark Materials) but here it somehow seems to be told with more relish, and seems harsher and more cruel.

In this respect it is more like The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King. That book also has a twelve-year-old protagonist with a sick mother, but this one, I think, is better told, and has a much more convincing fantasy world (see my review of The Talisman here). So why did I give them both four stars? On a ten-star scale I would have given The Talisman seven stars, and this one eight.

So if you liked The Talisman I think you might like this one more, but just because it is a book about a child, don’t think it is a book for children. I suppose I might have enjoyed reading it as a child from about the age of 11 onwards, but it’s still not as children’s book.

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Invisible Forms: Curiosities of Literature

Invisible Forms and Other Literary CuriositiesInvisible Forms and Other Literary Curiosities by Kevin Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating excursion into all the bits of books other than the actual text itself. It includes a bibliography (in the chapter on Bibliographies) that shows that each of these “forms” has one or more books dedicated to itself alone. There are books on bibliographies, books on indexes and indexing, books on footnotes and footnoting, and more. Jackson refers to these parts of books, other than the main text, as “paratext”.

Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac D’Israeli, pub 1794

It was inspired by Curiosities of Literature first published in 1791 by Isaac D’Israeli (father of Benjamin Disraeli, sometime Prime Minister of the UK). I have a copy of that too, in three volumes, and one of the oldest books in our house. We have the fourth edition, published in 1794, and it’s on my list to read now. I’ve only dipped into it before, reading an essay here and there (it’s that kind of book), but Kevin Jackson has piqued my curiosity.

My mother once worked at Arthur Meikle’s, estate agents and auctioneers in Johannesburg, and bought this copy at a sale, presumably from a deceased estate, probably of Hedley Williams, who seems to have acquired it in May 1937. There is also an inscription of a previous owner, with the note “Bgt at sale”, so perhaps the physical books themselves have an interesting history.

In addition to the interesting histories and facts about these literary forms, Invisible Forms would be useful to any aspiring writer, as it could give most people a better knowledge of most of these forms, and in one volume, rather than having to get a separate book for each. Are you struggling to find a suitable title for your next novel? Read the chapter on Titles here.

It is also full of droll and erudite humour. Anyone who has worked in academia in the last 30 years and has gradually seen the proportion of administrative to academic staff rise enormously will be amused, or perhaps dismayed, by a footnote on footnotes, discussing the profusion of footnotes and other references in academic books:

There used to be a method, no doubt encouraged by bean counters, whereby the ‘objective’ worth of an article or book was supposed to be gauged by the number of citations received in other books or articles. The effect was predictable by anyone who isn’t a bean counter: academics would set up little back-scratching groups or cartels of citation.

Indexes have taken many forms, and some have taken a narrative form, telling a story in themselves. Jackson notes that some publishers, no doubt inspired by their bean counters, had left indexes out of some of their academic books, not so much because of the extra expense of including them, but to foil academics who, in search of a couple of citations, would simply browse the index in a bookshop instead of buying the book. Jackson gives, as an example of an index telling a story, R.C. Latham’s index to Pepys’s diary:

‘BAGWELL,–; wife of William; her good looks–; P plans to seduce–; visits–; finds her virtuous–; and modest–; asks P for place for husband–; P kisses–; she grows affectionate–; he caresses–; she visits him–; her resistance collapses in alehouse–; amorous encounters with at her house.’ Unsurprisingly, Mr Latham won the Society of Indexers’ Wheatley Medal for 1983 with this fine work.

There are several chapters devoted to pseudonyms, heteronyms and fictional books and authors.

One example of a fictitious book that he gives is The Necronomicon, frequently mentioned, with an elaborate pedigree, in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and Jackson tells of people who have gone into bookshops to order copies, only to be told that it doesn’t exist.

Since this book was published 20 years ago, a more recent example has occurred. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown mentioned similar fictitious books. The protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon is introduced as the author of The Symbology of Secret Sects, The Art of the Illuminati and a few others. When my son worked in a bookshop a few years ago a customer came in and asked if they had one of these books. My son said they did not. The customer then asked him to order it, and my son said he could not, as the book did not exist. The customer angrily waved a copy of The Da Vinci Code, pointing to where the book was mentioned, and my son explained that it was a work of fiction, and the protagonist was a fictitious character, and that the books that the story mentioned were fictitious works. The customer got even more angry, and threatened to report him to the management for refusing to order the book.

Another interesting chapter was on Marginalia. Jackson records some instances where marginalia have been collected and published separately. Something not mentioned in the book, but which came up while I was reading it, was this article: Why Were Medieval Knights Often Pictured Fighting Giant Snails?, which deals with marginalia in medieval manuscripts.

Jackson gives more examples of fictitious authors, some of whom published real works. There were three Portuguese poets who did not exist. Another imaginary character turned up in several books, as various authors joined in the fun.

A quick read was informative and illuminating, but one could have weeks or even months of fun following up some of the more obscure allusions.

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Interrogating silence

I’ve been reading an interesting article by André Brink, on Interrogating Silence, which was in a book I found in the library.

No this isn’t a review of the book, which got poor reviews on GoodReads, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. This is rather some thoughts sparked off by reading a couple of the articles, and memories of old friends, and the kinds of silences that are imposed on us by changing circumstances.

Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 by Derek Attridge

I took this book out of the library mainly because it had an article by an old friend, Graham Pechey, who died in Cambridge, UK, in February 2016. I had known Graham Pechey when I was a student in the 1960s, and it was he who introduced me to Bob Dylan. He lived in a flat next door to another friend, John Aitchison, and had borrowed the Dylan records from yet another student, Jeff Guy, who later became a historian.

On one memorable evening, on 11 November 1965, after Ian Smith had unilaterally declared the independence  of Rhodesia, and Bram Fischer had just been rearrested after several months on the run, and I had received an official warning from the magistrate in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, John Aitchison (who was banned) and I sat with Graham Pechey in his flat, and drank toasts to Bram Fischer, Harold Wilson, and Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve described the occasion more fully in another blog post here.

At that time Graham Pechey was an atheist and a bit of a Marxist, but he later explained his sympathy for monarchy, which I am inclined to agree with, on Facebook on the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

‘The rise of Hitler, Franco and Stalin showed that there are worse institutions than a Monarchy–that a people deprived of a Royal Family can turn to far more dangerous gods. As one Socialist said before the war: “If you throw the Crown into the gutter, you may be sure that somebody will pick it up”‘. Wise words from the Observer, June 1953, reprinted in today’s issue.

Graham Pechey, 1965

Graham Pechey later married my philosophy lecturer, Nola Clendinning, who took to paining ikons, and in Cambridge, I am told, he was a pillar of the local Anglican Church. I would love to have been able to meet with him and chat about these things over a beer, but the last time I saw him was in 1971, and though we  were later reconnected on Facebook, it’s not the best medium for that kind of conversation. So now all I can do is interrogate the silence.

Though I do have the article in the book: The post-apartheid sublime:rediscovering the extraordinary.

The first article in the book, however, is by André Brink, on Interrogating silence.

In it he writes:

The experience of apartheid has demonstrated that different kinds or levels of silence exist. There is the general silence of which I have spoken above and which exists in a dynamic relation with language/literature; but there are also more specific silences imposed by certain historical conjunctions. If any word involves a grappling with silence, the word uttered in the kind of repressive context exemplified by apartheid evokes an awareness of particular territories forbidden to language. Just as surely as certain sexual relationships were proscribed by apartheid, certain experiences or areas of knowledge were out of bounds to probing in words. These were often immediate and definable: certain actions of the police or the military; certain statements or writing by ‘banned’ persons; the activities of the ANC or other organizations of liberation.

That recalled John Aitchison, who was banned from 1965-1970, and after a year of freedom, again from 1971-76. During those periods he was not allowed to publish anything, nor was any publication allowed to quote him. As described in the article mentioned earlier, in 1966 I went overseas to study in Durham, UK and was away for two and a half years. During that time John Aitchison and I were in frequent correspondence, writing, on average, about once a fortnight. In our correspondence we were constrained by the suspicion (which later proved completely correct) that our letters to each other were being read by the Special Branch (SB) in South Africa, so there was a kind of imposed silence there. The SB reports to the Department of Justice frequently referred to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron) for information that could only have come from letters we wrote to each other when I was overseas.

John Aitchison, 1965

At one point John wrote to me expressing the fear that it would become even more repressive. There was a proposal to extend the restrictions in banning orders so that In addition to not being allowed to publish anything, a banned person would not be allowed to write, compose, compile or distribute any document, photograph etc which was not a publication within the meaning of the act, if it contained any political reference at all. That would have been yet another level of silence. Even private letters not intended for publication would have to be bland and non-political.

I returned to South Africa. We shared many ideas and talked about them and bounced ideas off each other. We published a small magazine called Ikon which shared some of these ideas, about human and inhuman settlements, about theological trends and various other things. John was still banned, so his name did not appear as an editor. Articles we wrote jointly bore only my name. By that time John had married my cousin Jenny Growdon, who was an art teacher and did much of the artwork. But silence was still imposed.

Ikon was originally published under the auspices of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group that was itself founded to counter some of the silence imposed by apartheid, particularly on members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. But Ikon proved too radical even for the Christian Institute, which was seen by the apartheid government as dangerously radical, and was eventually itself silenced by being banned; both the organisation itself and its leaders were banned in 1977. But it was the Christian Institute itself that attempted to silence Ikon, so we had to publish it independently. Nine months later I was in Windhoek, sitting in the boss’s office in the Department of Water Affairs. After working there for a month as a waterworks attendant, I was told that I was sacked; no notice, leave immediately. I could see a press cutting on top of the file folder open on his desk,. As it was upside down I could only read the headline: CI keer wilde jeugblad (Christian Institute rejects radical youth magazine). O! the ideological perils of being a waterworks attendant!

John’s ban expired in 1970 and communication was freer, but he was banned again  within a year. I was deported from Namibia in March 1972 and stayed with John and Jenny Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg. We had embarked on a new project, the promotion of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) in the Anglican Church. John wrote a 20-page executive summary of a 600-page book called Theological Education by Extension edited by Ralph D. Winter. I duplicated it on a stencil duplicator on green paper and we sent it to all the Anglican bishops in Southern Africa, and all those responsible for theological education in the Anglican Church.

Then I travelled the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea to the those we had sent the document to. Many of them were suspicious because the “Green Thing”, as we called the document, was anonymous. It was anonymous because if the SB discovered that John was responsible for it, he could go to jail for five years. In 1972 a lot of Anglican bishops were still rather politically naive, and were not really aware that South Africa was a police state. The following year the government expropriated the Federal Seminary, run jointly by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, showing that they did indeed regard theological education as an ideological threat.

My career as unpaid promoter of TEE ended abruptly in July 1972 when I was banned. I was living in the same house as John Aitchison, but was henceforth not allowed to communicate with him in any way at all. More silence. The Minister of Justice dealt with that by banning me to Durban, even though I had nowhere to live there, and was dependent on the generosity of clergy (Anglican and Congregationalist) who took me in.

Steve Hayes and John Aitchison, 13 July 1972, about to part for 4 years, both banned and prohibited from communicating with each other in any way. If the SB had seen this photo and known when it was taken it could have meant 5 years jail for both.

But in a sense, that enforced silence was never lifted. It seemed to have a permanent effect. Even after our bans were both lifted in 1976, our friendship was never again as close. Instead of communicating once every couple of months, or once every couple of weeks, it’s now once every couple of years. Did the double ban make the effect permanent. Apartheid is dead, but perhaps in ways like this its ghost still haunts us. How does one interrogate that silence?

After the end of apartheid I wrote a couple of novels set in the apartheid years. One was a children’s story, Of wheels and witches, set in 1964. You can read more about it here. The other was for adults, set 25 years later, but having some of the same characters. It is The Year of the Dragon.

In these books there is a release from some of the immediate and definable constraints of apartheid that André Brink speaks of, the things that were out of bounds to probing in words, namely certain actions of the police and military.

For such things, the silence has been lifted — or has it?

In the last week of 2018 review copies of the book were available free, and I wondered if anyone would like to talk about these things. Eighty review copies were taken, but so far there have been only two reviews. One you can see on GoodReads here.

John Davies, sometime Anglican chaplain at Wits university, now retired in the UK.

The other review, by Bishop John Davies, has not hitherto appeared on the web, but I did send it, along with the invitation to take review copies of the book, to members of three book discussion groups I’m a member of. One group meets face to face once a month, the other two meet on line.

In all three forums The Year of the Dragon has been met by a resounding silence. Apartheid has ended, and so cannot be blamed for this silence. No one has said they have liked the book or disliked it. No one has said anything at all. It seems as though everyone is avoiding the subject.

How does one interrogate this silence?

In an attempt to get a wider readership than just people I talk to anyway, I promoted the book on Twitter, among other things by using the hashtag #iartg. That is the Independent Authors Re-Tweet Group. It provided an interesting assortment of books on my Twitter feed, quite a large proportion of which had covers featuring male human torsos. Perhaps they’re more attractive than dragons’ torsos.

I’ve invited people to ask questions about the book on GoodReads. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Lutho. Silence.

Can you interrogate this silence?

There is something else about the Writing South Africa book.

As I said, I haven’t read all the essays in it, only the introduction and a couple of the other articles. And it did get bad reviews. But it was about the period before 1995, and so was looking forward to a kind of postcolonial literary future, that would not be dominated by struggle literature. It is interesting to read it 20 years on, and compare hopes and expectations of 1995 with the reality.

After the Zuma years that sanguine outlook seems a little naive and unreal. Most of us are a lot more cynical and pessimistic than we were back in 1995. Is there any hope? Is there any reason for hope?

One lesson some of us may have learned is from a Psalm that is sung at almost every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth, on that very day his plans perish.

And as for hope after the Zuma years, perhaps this:

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed (Joel 2:25-26).

 

Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.

I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.

I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.

One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.

While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.

But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.

In this sense, Bleak House pleads for Christian values as strongly as Atlas Shrugged pleads for capitalist ones.

Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.

And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.

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Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (review)

The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (The Reader's Companion)The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel by Peter Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book quite useful to pick up at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, when Eskom was doing its load-shedding and the electricity was off, for example.

The plot summaries and comments on the selected novels were generally quite good, and served to remind me of books I had read and half forgotten, or to note ones that I had not read but might be worth reading.

One of the weak points, however, was the novels selected for inclusion. Of course one cannot include everything worth reading in the period in a single volume, but one of the first things I noticed about it was that it made no mention of the novels of Charles Williams. It dis seem to include almost every published novel by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They are both authors I quite like, and I think their best work ought to have been included, but Waugh, in particular wrote some quite mediocre stuff, and they could easily have been dropped in favour of Williams.

There were several books by Somerset Maugham, who described himself, quite accurately, I think, as being in the very first rank of the second raters. There was a rather patronising article on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with no mention of his science fiction.

The book was also published in 1993, when there were still seven years of the twentieth century to run — did they think that nobody would write anything worth reading in what was left of it?

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