Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “literature”

Did Not Finish — books only half-read

It seems that lots of readers on GoodReads are using the Did Not Finish or DNF shelf. In my GoodReads shelving I’ve used Abandoned for such books. The 15 Most Common Books Never Finished, According To Goodreads:

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF (or “did not finish” a book) isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others.

What I would like to see is GoodReads making that shelf, or tag, official, like Read, Currently Reading and Want to Read. At the moment I’ve got a whole bunch of them sitting on my Currently Reading because I haven’t read them and I don’t want to read them, so I must be currently reading them, only I’m not.

When I read the article cited above two books that I hadn’t finished immediately sprang to mind: Jane Eyre and War and Peace. I could look at my Abandoned shelf to find more, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind. We actually have two copies of War and Peace — one, whose cover is illustrated here, and a much older single volume edition. Perhaps I should try the older translation, because one of the things I didn’t like about the translation by Rosemary Edmonds was the rendering of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy as “Mass”. I also found the notion of the spirituality of Freemasons rather alien, though perhaps they were different in Russia in 1812 from what they were in South Africa a hundred years later, when most of our grandfathers seemed to be involved in Freemasonry. My picture of Freemasons is solemn moustachioed stout gents in Edwardian suits with waistcoats and silver watch chains wearing fancy aprons, with all the spirituality of a bourgeois grocer.

Anyway I pulled out my copy to check the ISBN, and found my bookmark still in place on page 522 where I had stopped reading, two-thirds of the way through volume 1.

I checked some of the other books on my Abandoned shelf and found Underworld by Don DeLillo, The story of the last thought by Edgar Hilsenrath — I must admit that I was attracted to that one by its cover, a good example of why one should not judge a book by its cover.

Others were The Shack by William Paul Young, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke, and The Information by Martin Amis.

Also sundry books by Charlotte Bingham, which I had bought in error, perhaps because we had enjoyed a book called Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, and I’d later confused it with the name of the author of a number of mediocre novels. We released them into the wild on BookCrossing, and no one has responded saying they’d found and enjoyed them, so they must have ended up in the well of lost plots.

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

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A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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All of a winter’s night

All of a Winter's NightAll of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose one could sum it up by saying this this book is to morris dancing what The nine tailors by Dorothy Sayers is to church bell ringing.

I looked at this book very carefully before buying it, to make sure that it was not Midwinter of the spirit sneakily published under a different title, since they have republished old Phil Rickman books under new titles before, as a trap for the unwary.

It turned out, however, that I had not read this one before.

Phil Rickman‘s early books were of the fantasy/horror genre, but he seems to have been moving in his more recent ones more towards the crime and detective genre. In this one, however, he seems to have been trying to give equal prominence, switching scenes between the Revd Merrily Watkins, Church of England Vicar of Ledwardine in Herefordshire, who is also the diocesan exorcist, but with the updated and rather twee title of “deliverance consultant”, and Hereford detectives Annie Howe and Francis Bliss who do their detecting while trying to keep their affair secret from their colleagues.

It’s a while since I’ve seen a new Phil Rickman book — as I noted, the last one turned out to be a false alarm, mutton dressed as lamb. Perhaps I have rosy memories of his style, or perhaps his writing style has changed, but I found this one stylistically disappointing. I don’t know whether is writing style has got worse, or whether I have just become more critical.

One of the problems is that he has sudden changes of scene, but the characters are only indicated by pronouns. So you have “he said” and “she said”, but only halfway through the paragraph do you realise that the he and she are not the same people who were in the previous paragraph, and go back to the beginning and read it with different characters in mind.

In the first few chapters, in Particular, it looks as though Rickman has been reading the elementary text books on fiction writing that give advice to wannabe writers — especially the advice to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. The problem is that for the first 15 chapters or so the build up to the cliffhanger falls flat in the next chapter, so that every chapter begins with an anticlimax. This becomes tiresome after a while. So one learns that people have been terrible things in a churchyard. It turns out to have been morris dancing.

I first learnt about morris dancing from the comic strip The Perishers, which appeared in the Daily Mirror back in the 1960s. The role of the morris men in the comic strip was never terribly clear, but they struck me as nostalgic old gits who were trying to keep alive imagined traditions of a Merrie England that had never existed. Twenty years later I saw them performing in real life in a series of church fetes in Pretoria, the ind of events announced on their posters as a “Fayre”. I once made a video juxtaposing them with a group of Pedi women doing a folk dance in what is now Limpopo province, but was then called the Northern Transvaal. Two folk traditions, one local, the other imported.

Rickman tried to introduce morris dancing as though it was uncanny, spooky and scary, but in my experience, however, it was just quaint and nostalgic, and morris men no more sinister than people who liked going around ringing church bells.

As the book goes on it gets better, at least as far as the plot is concerned, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that ultimately the villain turns out to be capitalism, especially as exemplified by property developers. In that it doesn’t differ much from some of the other more recent Phil Rickman books.

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The Western Canon

I took this book out of the library because I had read about it and its author online, and was curious to know more. I won’t, however, be adding it to my books on GoodReads because I doubt that I’ll finish it, which means that it would stay forever in my “Currently Reading” queue.

Is “The Western Canon” a thing? That’s what I was hoping to find out by reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, except that the opening chapter is “An Elegy for the Western Canon”, so apparently if it was a thing, it is so no longer, and all that is left is a lament that it is no more.

I resorted to two of my favourite reference books for such things to find out whether the Western Canon is a thing, and if so what kind of a thing it is. But neither The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature nor The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought had anything to say about it, either under “Western” or “canon”. The latter did note that “western” was “a perennially popular genre in American cinema since 1903”, but that was about it.

So what am I to make of the Western Canon, other than that it is a list of books that Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University in the USA, happened to like? And his elegy seems to be a lament that there were other people who either didn’t like those books, or who liked other books that didn’t happen to be on his particular list.

In my youth I studied English at university for three years. I never got to be an English Major, however, because I repeated English I three times, twice at Wits University, and once at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP, now UKZN). I passed each time, but they wouldn’t give me credit for it.

At UNP I learned all about canons. Back in the 1960s the English Department there followed the Leavisite canon of D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and D.H. Lawrence. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad were permissible but everything else was taboo. One English Honours student once noticed a copy of Ulysses on a professor’s desk. We speculated that he might have confiscated it from a wayward student. My friend, Ritchie Ovendale (where is he now?) asked if he should read it, and was advised against it, as it might leave his critical faculties impaired.

The Wits English Department was a bit more broadminded. They included E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and William Golding in their set works for English I, but I was sad that I never made it to English II. I attended more of the English II lectures, though, because there was a lecturer, Cronin, whose lectures were packed with students who were not taking his courses, because of his wit. Even engineering students came along for the entertainment.

Bloom appears to like Dante and Milton, though I’ve tended to avoid both of them, out of pure prejudice, possibly. When I was 13 I used to pore over a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy owned by some friends. What interested me, however, was not so much the text as the illustrations by Gustav Doré. And Doré managed to make hell look a lot more interesting than paradise or heaven.

But since then I’ve steered clear of them. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two wrong attitudes one can take to the devil and his minions, the “lowerarchy”. One is to pretend that they do not exist, and the other is to take an unhealthy interest in them. At 13, influenced by Doré, I was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the lowerarchy, trying to classify demons and the like according to their infernal ranks. And I suspect that Dante and Milton have had a big influence on Western theology in areas where it differs from Orthodox theology. For one thing, there is no purgatory in Orthodoxy. There are occasional theological disputes about toll houses, but I don’t think either Dante or Milton mentioned those. Yes, it’s prejudice, but until I can read an Orthodox equivalent, I’ll give them a miss. Reading them might impair my critical theological faculties or something.

So I’m not much wiser about the Western Canon. Is there an Eastern Canon?

 

 

 

 

The Secret History (book review)

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crime novel, but not a whodunit, because you know who did it right from the first page. But the crime is central to the lives of the main characters.

I read this book because it was recommended in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t rate it quite as highly as that, but nevertheless found it quite an interesting read.

It takes the form, almost, of a student diary. I kept a diary as a student, but not in as much detail. This one weighs in at over 600 pages covering one academic year; mine for any one year was not more than 200. So the book goes into great detail, including what they ate, what they drank, what they smoked and how they smoked it,

In some ways the detail enhances the book. A middle-class small-town Californian student, Richard Papen, goes to study at Hampden College in Vermont. The landscape is unfamiliar to him, so he describes it in detail. I found that useful; not having been to Vermont it helped me to picture the scene, and not to mix it up with universities that I am familiar with.

Having done some ancient Greek at his previous college, Papen decides that he wants to major in it, but is advised against this. The professor, Julian Morrow, is fussy about which students he takes, and indeed rejects Papen at first, though when he accidentally helps some of the other students on the course in the library, he is eventually accepted, and becomes part of an elite group of six students who hang out together. The others all seem to have rich parents, though one of them, Bunny Corcoran, does not receive much support from his parents, and behaves like the last of the great spongers. It is Bunny who is eventually murdered by his fellow students.

The setting is the late 1970s or early 1980s, when personal computers were rare and smoking less outré, though the classics students, unlike most of the students of those days, go round in formal dress, the males in suits and ties, and even braces, even when working in the garden. The more casually dressed students they despise as “hippies”, under which label they seem to lump everyone who doesn’t fit their social model.

The leader of the group is Henry Winter, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of money. In the book Richard Papen does not, however, play Boswell to Winter’s Johnson, or treat him as the Great Gatsby, though there are echoes of those works in his writing from the periphery, observing the great man. It is only in retrospect that Papen recognises how much influence Henry Winter had over others in the group and so his descrip[tions are of his perceptions of the others, and he is quite self-effacing; we know what the others look like, because we see them through his eyes, but we never see him through their eyes.

The central theme of the book is the effects of their crime on members of the group — both in planning it and in trying to avoid discovery afterwards. Though in some ways the central group are the privileged among the privileged, and somewhat eccentric in their old-fashioned ways and manner of dress, in others they are fairly ordinary students, and their crimes are not those of monsters exiled from the human race. Crime is not confined to the “criminal classes”, nor are the criminals uniquely monstrous. What comes across is the banality of evil. Somehow amid their normal student pursuits — drinking, arguing, playing cards and, occasionally, studying — they murder one of their fellow students. In a way this book falls somewhere between Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby, but it isn’t as good as either.

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White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.

 

 

Steinbeck: American or British?

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

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

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

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

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

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