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Archive for the category “literature”

Neoinklings: Tolkien in South Africa

At 10:30 we went to Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road for our monthly Literary Coffee Klatsch of Neoinklings, and David Levey joined us to inkle, as he put it. It seemed a rather felicitous term.

He told us of a thesis someone had written, or was writing, on Tolkien’s South African connections, and we had a rather discursive discussion about that — Tolkien had left South Africa when he was 3 or 4, and as far as I know he never returned. Most of one’s memories of that age seem to be a series of still pictures. I recalled Leo Aylen, a poet who was the son of a former Anglican bishop of Zululand, who visited there about 35 years ago. He said the Australian aborigines had a concept of early childhood as one’s dream time, and he was revisiting the scenes of his dream time to give him something to write about.

Goanikontes, Namibia

Goanikontes, Namibia

We talked of the landscape — the Free State, where Tolkien was born, seems to be like the land of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, and Val said that Goanikontes, in the Namib desert, was like Mordor though it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have visited it. Goanikontes had been where Val’s great great great grandparents, Frank and Frances Stewardson, had lived for a while, in the 1850s, and it may have been there that Frank Stewardson had been mauled by a lion.

We talked about the identity, or lack of it, of white English-speaking South Africans. It will be interesting to see if the thesis mentions whether Tolkien had such an identity, but generally speaking white English-speaking South Africans do not have a distinctive identity or a distinct culture. There is no consciousness of being a “volk”, like the Afrikaners. Though one could put them in a Venn diagram, it would be far less significant than a set of white Afrikaans -speaking South Africans, or Zulu or Tswana-speaking South Africans. I mentioned a friend who had recently written of “we”, referring to white South Africans, and that I find that to be one of the primary markers of racism, using “we” to refer to a group defined by race, and “they” or “these people” to refer to the outgroup. David said that John Lambert, one of the former history lecturers at Unisa, was writing about white English-speaking South Africans, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

He also mentioned that the history department at Unisa has now been reduced to one lecturer, which is very sad, and does not augur well for the future of South Africa — all of history before 1994 will, in effect, become dream time, and labelled “Van Riebeeck”.

 

Adam Bede

Adam BedeAdam Bede by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a love story.

It’s set in the fictional English county of Loamshire at the end of the 18th century, which is some kind of rustic paradise until things start going wrong about halfway through the book. Unlike Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, whose romance novels are peopled with the landed gentry and their urban equivalents, this one is set among the yeoman class.

The book has been on our shelves forever, and I’ve been meaning to read it some day but kept putting it off, partly because of things I’d read about George Eliot, and partly because of plot summaries I’d read. Reading plot summaries can be a bad idea. It made it sound too simple, and a 600-page novel with such a simple plot must be boring, mustn’t it, with all that padding?

But Eliot’s descriptions of country life, though perhaps too idyllic, are part of the interest of the book, and she makes the characters sound interesting. I don’t know how accurate her description of early Methodists is, but she probably knew several of them personally and perhaps some of her description is based on their recollections.

It’s when the action starts that the plot holes appear. The reader is kept ignorant of some things, which is a common device in fiction, but when the characters themselves appear to be ignorant, the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. At one point there is a rather improbable Deus ex Machina, but it’s still a good read.

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The life and times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael KLife and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael K is a gardener in Cape Town whose mother, a domestic servant, is ill, and fears she may lose her job, so he decides to take her back to Prince Albert in the Karroo, where she grew up. But there is a war on, and people need permits to travel, and though he applies, the permit is lost in red tape, so he decides to set out on foot, with his mother in a home-made wheelchair. She takes a turn for the worse, and is admitted to a hospital in Stellenbosch, where she dies and is cremated. Michael K continues alone, with his mother’s ashes, but has only the vaguest notion of the farm where she grew up from her description.

When he finds a farm that he thinks may be the right one, he find it abandoned, and so lives as a recluse, shunning human company and becoming self-sufficient, but though he has left the world, the world keeps breaking in on his solitude, and trying to remould him according to its own values.

It is well written, and has won several literary prizes. I found it more readable than other books by J.M. Coetzee, and quite a gripping story. The first part, about the journey to the farm, is reminiscent in a way of Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway, which describes a similar journey, though of a child rather than an adult. After Michael K becomes a recluse, it is quite different.

There is also a surreal quality to the book. It was first published in 1974, which was in the middle of the apartheid era, but there is no mention of apartheid in the book. Race is never mentioned, and so it seems unreal. The bureaucracy is there, but the people are more kindly than they were in that era. So while the book is set in South Africa geographically, it seems to be a South Africa in an alternative universe, as if it had taken a different turning, and developed in a different way.

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A who’s who of writers and scurrilous gossip column

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal.

After reading this one, I’m still not sure if I’ll read any others, but I found this one quite interesting, and in many places, especially the earlier part, witty and humorous. As the title suggests, he jumps backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing over what he has already written, and sometimes the chronology is a little confusing, especially when discussing people he had known for a long time.

As a writer he met lots of other writers, and the book is a cross between a literary who’s who and a scurrilous gossip column. On the whole, however, he didn’t much like the company of other writers, even though he had met quite a lot of them, and he seems to have had fallings out with those he knew quite well, among whom were Tennessee Williams the playwright and Truman Capote the novelist. I was most interested in what he said about Beat Generation writers, as I have been particularly interested in them, and he knew Allen Ginsberg quite well, and had met some of the others, including Jack Kerouac, in whose book The Subterraneans he appeared as Arial Lavalina.

There is also quite a lot of political gossip, which throws an interesting light on American politics in the early 1960s. Vidal and Jackie Kennedy Onassis shared a common stepfather, whom both of their mothers had married for his money. Vidal himself even stood (or ran) for election at the time that Jack Kennedy was running for President, though he did not have a high opinion of most of the other members of the Kennedy administration, or of Kennedy himself, whom he regarded as a warmonger.

Concerning his own life, Vidal hated his mother, and had only one true love, Jimmy Trimble, whom he met at school, and they were lovers from the age of 12 until the age of 19, when Jimmy Trimble was killed in the Second World War. Thereafter Vidal had a preference for casual anonymous sex, a preference which, he says, he shared with Jack Kennedy, and thought sex was inimical to friendship. He did have a lifelong companion, but according to Vidal their relationship was premissed on “no sex”.

Vidal was also involved in film and television, and wrote several plays, some for television, some for the stage, and he also wrote the screenplay for several films. As a result quite a lot of his personal reminiscences involve actors, directors and producers in the film industry, and it is only his acerbic wit that keeps the parts of his book that deals with them from being a standard celeb gossip column.

An enjoyable read, and quite illuminating, but I’m still not sure if I’ll try to read any of his fiction.

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Authors familiar and unfamiliar

A friend asked on Twitter whether people read anything by authors that were unfamiliar to them, and I thought that if an answer to that was to be worthwhile, it needed to be longer than 140 characters, so here are some thoughts about it.

Yesterday I went to the Alkantrant branch of the Tshwane public library, and for the first time I went armed with a list of books and authors to look for. Usually I just browse the shelves and pick out anything that looks interesting, but this time I had a list of books that had been recommended by various people, a bucket list of books, as it were.

So here are the books I found:

Actually only one of them was on the recommended list of authors I hadn’t read, the John Banville one. I had read another book by Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, which I read about 50 years ago. And the recommended book by Jessica Anderson was Tirra Lirra, by the river, but that wasn’t on the shelf at the library, though she does count as an unfamiliar author.

And then I went browsing for some non-fiction (not on my list), and found this:

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal. In my youth I was vaguely confused about Gore Vidal and Vidal Sassoon, who were both celebs at the time, though I wasn’t quite sure what the cause of their celebrity was.

Much later a relative in New Zealand sent a transcript he had made of my wife Val’s great great granduncle’s diary. He was Edward Lister Green (1827-1887). In it he describes travelling by ship from Bombay to Hong Kong, and striking up a friendship with David Sassoon, the “million heir” (I wondered whether that was the normal spelling of “millionaire” at the time, or just an elaborate private pun). That got me reading The Sassoon dynasty, about this remarkable family of Iraqi Jews whose business in Bombay (now spelt Mumbai) expanded over most of southern and eastern Asia. I also read Siegfried Sassoon the biography of the poet, who was a member of the same family, as was the Vidal Sassoon who provided a very tenuous link with Gore Vidal.

When I’ve finished reading those (or abandoned them, if I don’t like them) I still have these on my list:

Anderson, Jessica — Tirra lirra by the river
Bell, Sara Hanna — December Bride
Burgess, Anthony — Earthly powers
Byatt, A.S. — The children’s book
de Bernieres, Louis — Captain Corelli’s mandolin
DeLillo, Don — Underworld
Hosseini, Khaled — The kite runner
Kadare, Ismail — The successor
Tartt, Donna — The secret history

Not all those are unfamiliar authors either — I’ve read other books by A.S. Byatt and Ismail Kadare — the latter I had never heard of until we were sitting in a cafe in Tirana, Albania, and our friend told us that Kadare was sitting at the next table and was the most famous author in Albania. A little while earlier we had seen the most famous film star in Albania, riding his bicycle down the street, but I forget his name.

So this might be the appropriate point to mention the last book I got from the library, though it’s not on the list and I was browsing the shelves in the non-fiction section.

Albania: The Bradt Travel GuideAlbania: The Bradt Travel Guide by Gillian Gloyer

One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 16 years ago and I’m unlikely ever to travel there again unless we win the Lotto, which is unlikely even if I do remember to buy a ticket. So I took this book out of the library to remind me of our previous visit. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this book was available when we visited Albania in 2000 — the first edition seems to have been published in 2005.

So it’s really for the memories, and perhaps to find out a bit more about the places and things we saw.

And I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when we have our Neo-Inklings Literary Coffee Klatsch, and Duncan Reyburn will be telling us something about G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is not an unfamiliar author to me, though I’ve only read a few of his books. And if anyone is interested, and living in or near Tshwane, come and join us at Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road (opposite the US Embassy) at 10:30 am on Thursday 7 July 2016.

 

 

Nostromo

NostromoNostromo by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our local library has a table with unwanted books, probably donated from deceased estates, and I saw a copy of Nostromo, which I hadn’t read, and paid R2.00 for it, which is probably three times the price it would have cost new when it was printed in 1955, but seems like a bargain today.

I tried not to read it with any preconceptions about the content, and it struck me as strange. It started with a description of the town of Sulaco in the fictional South American republic of Costaguano (does that mean what I think it means?) where a citizen of English descent inherits a concession to a long defunct silver mine. He is possessed by the entrepreneurial spirit, reopens the mine, begins to work it and makes it pay, His wife, who is compassionate, cares for the families of the miners, and worries about what it is doing to her husband. The mine provides employment for many, and profits for its overseas backers.

Then there is a revolution, and the upper classes of Sulaco together with the European expatriates, think that it will be better if the Occidental province becomes independent. Nostromo, an Italian sailor and supervisor of the local stevedores, is entrusted with the task of taking the silver output of the mine out to sea to keep it out of the hands of the revolutionaries and to buy arms for the separatists.

Up to this point the story seemed a bit slow, and it wasn’t clear where it was going. Then the pace picked up, though it still wasn’t clear where it was going. Was it the story of a workaholic businessman who opened a silver mine? Was it the story of a revolution? Was it a story about a bold war-time heist of silver? In the end it was none of these things and all of these things. And it ended up as a love story, which one would never have expected from the beginning, or even the middle.

The point of view of the story shifts from one character to another, and each of them sees the events in a different way. And having reached the end of it, I think I might start again at the beginning to see where it went and how it got there.

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Underground People

Underground PeopleUnderground People by Lewis Nkosi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the story went along, and in the end I enjoyed it very much.

At first the descriptions seemed over the top, like one of those old TV sets where the colour and brightness levels were turned up too high. For example, “She was slim but strong, with long haunches like a well-bred horse, impressive in a solemn kind of way, shy yet provocatively earthy, painfully reticient but when drawn into converstion likely to unfold suddenly, as a quick responsive mountain flower after rain.”

It’s set in the dying days of the apartheid era (OK, I’ve given the game away, but it’s not really a spoiler, just a puzzle I had, trying to work out if it was set in the 1960s or the late 1980s). The National Liberation Movement sends Cornelius Molapo to his home ground of Tabanyane, to coordinate a local uprising with the national liberation struggle. To account for his disappearance they put around the story that he had been detained by the Security Police, which brings Anthony Ferguson, who works for an international human rights NGO, to South Africa to investigate his disappearance. For Ferguson, a South African expatriate who had been out of the country for 15 years, it was as much of a strange homecoming as going home to Tabanyane was for Cornelius Molapo.

There are many surprising twists in the plot, and eventually Anthony Ferguson comes face to face with Cornelius Molapo, in circumstances he could never have imagined.

______

A couple of extra notes, not included in the Good Reads review.

One of the things that makes books by South African authors more interesting is that they are likely to be set in places one knows, and sometimes, as in this case, one may even have met the author. I met Lewis Nkosi when he spoke at a Progressive Party house meeting in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It was in October 1960, just after the republican referendum, and he was asked to speak to the predominantly white audience on “The African and the republic”. He was then a journalist on Drum magazine, and said that Africans were not much interested in the republic question, as it would not make much difference to their oppression. I got to drive him to the meeting, and found him an interesting person to meet. Soon after that he left South Africa, and spend the next 30 years in exile, and perhaps that was why I found it hard to work out the time his book was set in — he may have been drawing on old memories in writing it.

One example of this is that in the book white people refer to black people as “natives”, but during the 1950s the politically-correct Afrikaans term became “Bantoe”, and among English speakers it became “African”, and remained so during the 1960s. In the 1970s “black” became more common, and “native” was seldom heard, and by the 1980s “native” seemed to have vanished completely.

I was sad to learn that Lewis Nkosi had died; you can read his obituary here.

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The One Ring

People have often discussed the symbolism of the rings of power in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Some have tried to interpret the story allegorically, an approach that Tolkien himself rejected, and the question keeps cropping up.

Someone recently asked, in a Tolkien newsgroup:

Assuming Sauron’s fears would have come true, and Aragron had brought the Ring to Minas Tirith.

What could he have done with it?  Or did Sauron consider the unexpected appearance of the Army of the Dead as something that Aragorn had done with the Ring?

It seems to me that even attempting to answer that question would indicate that one had missed a central point of the story. Nevertheless, people do ask such questions, and there seems to be no adequate way of responding to them.

But the other day someone posted a graphic on Facebook relating to the elections taking place in the USA later this year, which seems to be an excellent response:

BernHil1

It says quite a lot about the US elections, and it says quite a lot about The Lord of the Rings. At least that it how it seems to me, writing from 10000 miles away from the US, in South Africa.

Of course it assumes familiarity with the plot of The Lord of the Rings, and it also assumes a certain degree of familiarity with US politics, and the different approaches taken by different candidates. Not being American, I rely on those online quiz thingies to tell me which candidates come closest to my way of thinking, and one of them told me that I side 94% with Bernie Sanders on most 2016 Presidential Election issues. Hilary Clinton came second. But the graphic summarises quite nicely the difference between them, if one is familiar with The Lord of the Rings, and it also, if one is at all familiar with the positions taken by the candidates and their supporters on various issues, helps to make the significance of the ring in the plot of the book clearer.

So one small graphic can help to clarify a political question, of who to vote for in an election, and a literary question of the meaning of a central artifact in a well-known novel.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel of a dystopian future

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.

Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.

HandmaidPerhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid’s Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.

In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.

The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.

One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid’s Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).

Women's March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

Women’s March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women’s Day, the 9th of August. They didn’t actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.

In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.

There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 — Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I’m not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for.

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The Angel’s Game (book review)

The Angel's Game (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #2)The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third of the books I’ve read in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and I’ve just realised that I’ve neglected to write reviews of the other two either here in GoodReads or on my blog.

I read The Shadow of the Wind first, followed by The Prisoner of Heaven. But since the books follow in a series, and share many of the same characters, I think I might need to reread them in the correct order.

There is something about Zafón’s books that is reminiscent of Phil Rickman, with the shared characters, and the undertone of fantasy and horror. The difference is, as I can now see, that Zafón’s books need to be read in order, even though The Angel’s Game is a kind of prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.

In that respect they are more like C.S. Lewis‘s Narnia books, where it is better to read them in published order rather than the chronological order in the sequence of stories. Chronology is an obsession of modernity, and Lewis, in particular, was trying to lead his readers out of modernity into a mythical world.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a similar intertwining of the mythical and the modern, though in a somewhat darker and more adult way than Lewis.

Having said that, I’m not sure I can review The Angel’s Game now. I think I will have to re-read The Prisoner of Heaven first, since I have forgotten most of the plot.

So for now let me just say for that the series is about different generations of the Sempere family who run a bookshop in Barcelona, and the different generations of the family are introduced in turn to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where they are invited to leave a book that has been, or is likely to be forgotten, and to take one forgotten book and read it. Behind this lurks the idea that the book has something of the soul of its author and its readers embedded in it.

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