June 2018 re-reading: Mary Midgley

For the first time, I’m re-reading a work of philosophy for this blog. As background, I’m going to have to do some autobiography (after all, that is partly the point of this blog) before I get round to the philosophy.

The year is 1994, and of the 25 books I listed as read that year I’ve chosen The Ethical Primate by Mary Midgley – which I may not have read from start to finish the first time. What I did do, though, was interview the author for a journalistic feature. Not only that, but the interview was reprinted two years later in Beyond the Glass Ceiling (subtitle Forty women whose ideas shape the modern world; Manchester University Press, 1996), an anthology of interviews with female academics. (There were some notable omissions from those 40 – e.g. Philippa Foot, Patricia Churchland …)

How did all this come about? 1994 was the year my job at Boston University came to an end. Clever Wife had already got a job back in London, while I stayed in Boston to keep Clever Son number 2 company until he finished his second year at the US university; but by June he and I were back in our old London suburban home. Meanwhile, I’d started writing features for the London-based Times Higher Education Supplement (these days called Times Higher Education) about the US academic scene, so once I was back in the UK I managed to continue writing for the weekly as a freelance. I can’t remember if it was the features editor’s (Sian Griffiths’s) idea or mine, but it happened that Mary Midgley had a new book out, and as a fairly high-profile (retired) academic she was a good candidate for a lengthy profile. So one day in September I took an early-morning train to Newcastle and then a taxi to where MM and her husband lived, in one of Newcastle’s leafier suburbs. I remember being treated to a lunch of Geoffrey Midgley’s home-made soup before I actually interviewed his wife. And I was back home in London the same day. …

The interview itself, as I wrote it up, is as much about MM’s career path as it is about her philosophy — looking at it again, I think I should have sought some quotes from others as to the impact and soundness of MM’s ideas; there’s not really anything critical in the piece, as there was in (for instance) a later interview I did with Bernard Williams for the same publication. But her career was interesting: she was at Oxford during the war, when women students had more opportunities to shine than usual, before going into the Civil Service. Later, having taken time out to raise three sons, she resumed academic philosophy, but very much from the viewpoint of someone who had meanwhile taken an interest in other topics such as animal behaviour.

If you look up what’s been written by and about MM, you’ll notice that her first book-length work of philosophy didn’t come out until she was well over 50 (she was 75 when I interviewed her); and that in the early 1980s she was involved in some serious disagreements with Richard Dawkins, among others, about the application of ideas about evolution to human behaviour. Kenan Malik in Man, Beast and Zombie (2000) writes of her “withering criticisms of sociobiology”, some of which is “the product of a misreading of modern Darwinian theory, and some is gratuitously hostile”.

There’s certainly a pugnacious air about some of The Ethical Primate (and a suspicion that in places she’s arguing with straw men) which perhaps didn’t worry me so much the first time round. In the book, to quote my 1994 self, MM “continues her arguments [begun in earlier books such as Evolution as a Religion] against the reductionism of various philosophers and scientists while seeking to reconcile free will with the apparently deterministic ideas of evolution”.

But the 1994 interviewer is not the same as the 2018 re-reader: I’d like to think that in revisiting MM’s book I’m doing so from a better-informed standpoint. How so? Because I’ve now completed a master’s degree in philosophy (strictly speaking ‘Ethics and Social Philosophy’). Having been roused by my journalistic work in academia into a revival of an interest in philosophy – which had been smouldering underground, as it were, since my undergraduate days – I finally went further in the subject academically a few years ago and took an MA course at Cardiff University (which I recommend). And as it happens one of the modules I took – which required a 4,000-word essay at the end of it – was labelled “Philosophy of Evolution”. My essay was on “morality and natural selection” and wasn’t entirely a success: of the four essays I had to write for the course, it was the one that got the lowest mark. But it did have some overlap with what I’d forgotten MM wrote.

One of the principal messages of The Ethical Primate (subtitle Humans, freedom and morality) is, as I have said, anti-reductionist. The idea of a “single fundamental explanation” for human behaviour, such as she attributes to sociobiologists or “selfish gene” theories, is mistaken; “questions about how people act and how they are moved to act are far more complex than we usually notice,” she writes (p.43). Apart from that problematic “we”, I would agree, and it’s interesting that just before this passage she suggests seeing human behaviour as “perhaps something like a mountain. Different approaches show this mountain from different sides.” Derek Parfit, a much greater philosopher, used a similar metaphor in his On What Matters (2011), claiming that apparently conflicting moral theorists were not really in disagreement but were “climbing the same mountain on different sides”.

As well as scientific reductionists, MM’s other target is the “egoistic theory” that she detects in Sartre and “unthinking Hobbism” (after Thomas Hobbes). And I was heartened to see her trace some of this back not to Darwin (whose Descent of Man she commends) but Herbert Spencer, who saw evolution as “the sole guide to morals” and thought that the “survival of the fittest” was a principle to be followed in human affairs. But I would have liked to draw her attention to an older opponent of Spencer’s who she may not have been aware of: the Russian anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin. I tried, perhaps mistakenly, to shoehorn him into my own evolution-of-morality essay; and I think MM would also have found useful support in Kropotkin’s classic Mutual Aid (1902) and its assertion, specifically aimed at Spencer, that “in the ethical progress of man, mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part”.

So am I glad to have re-read The Ethical Primate? Mary Midgley is a good, forceful writer, but I wasn’t convinced, this time round, by all her arguments. I think I have to agree with Susan Wolf in the Philosophical Review, who though generally laudatory thought that MM was “more concerned to stand up for her views and to expose the weaknesses in popular conceptions of the opposition than to carry the level of debate to a higher, more intellectually probing and rigorous plane”. But I am grateful for the intellectual stimulus this re-reading has provided. I think I must go back to reading more about the contractualist tradition in ethics, about which she is (unfairly, I think) somewhat dismissive. And continue to ponder a question about priorities in current philosophical ethics: is its aim descriptive or prescriptive? Is the point of ethics to examine why and how moral rules and judgements are made, or should it simply be an account of how we ought to live? Or can the two aims be achieved together?

Enough for now of this longer-than-usual blog. Mary Midgley is, I am glad to say, still alive – she’ll be 99 in September. And if you want to read anything by her, I’d suggest her Wickedness may be her best book.

 

In June I also read: Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (disappointing after his great first novel, Then We Came to the End); The Comedians by Graham Greene (why haven’t I read this before?); dipped into Richard Sennett’s latest, Building and Dwelling (especially interesting on Jane Jacobs and her impact), and have started reading Clair Wills’s interesting Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain.

 

 

May 2018 re-reading: Frederick Douglass

We were still living in the USA in 1993, the year I’m revisiting for this month’s re-reading exercise. It was a year when, according to my records, I read 24 books. What kind of thing did I favour? With only two representatives from British fiction in the list (Michael Frayn’s Now You Know and Julian Barnes’s The Porcupine), North American fiction and non-fiction seemed to predominate. There was a scattering of what might be called reportage: it ranged from Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night (a fun and enlightening read, as I recall), via David Simon’s Homicide (which of course was the basis for that great TV series of the later 1990s) to a collection of A.J. Liebling’s old journalism. My US and Canadian fiction reading included both old classics – As I Lay Dying, Native Son and Huckleberry Finn – and fairly new stuff by Ellen Gilchrist, John Steffler and Carol Shields.

But, as with last month, I’ve gone for something that wasn’t in my list but that I almost certainly read in 1993 – the best evidence being that inside my (second-hand) copy was an April 1993 concert ticket that had been used as a bookmark. It’s quite a small book, but one that had a big impact in its time: to give its full title, it’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. For those who don’t know, it’s the self-penned autobiography, first published in 1845, of Frederick Douglass, born into slavery in the American South. It was written just a few years after he escaped from Maryland, after which he had become something of a star speaker for the abolitionist cause and contributor to anti-slavery journals. (For a useful introduction, Radio 4’s In Our Time had a good discussion about Douglass back in February: it’s still available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qb0kc)

Although it can be nice to live in the USA – for the most part we enjoyed living in Boston for three-and-a-bit years – any thinking person living there can’t help but be aware of the two great crimes on which the country is founded. These are the transatlantic slave trade and the almost total elimination of the native American. I can’t say I read much about the latter, but on the former abomination Douglass (who I don’t think I’d heard of before coming to America) was an enlightening eye-witness. Also in 1993, as it happens, I interviewed the writer Charles R. Johnson (previewing his visit to the university I was working for) and must have at least skimmed through his novel Middle Passage, a historical slave-ship novel. And back at Manchester University Clever Daughter no. 1 was reading English and American literature and had asked me to find her copies of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer for one of her courses. So books about the African-American experience were in the air, as it were.

Anyway, what struck me on re-reading Douglass’s Narrative was its sheer readability, not something one necessarily expects in a book published over 170 years ago. If we accept that he was born in 1818 (he himself wrote that “I have no accurate knowledge of my age”), Douglass was just 27 when the Narrative was published; for a young man who had by his own account taught himself to read at the age of eight this was quite an achievement. As is the rhetorical force of his language:

The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. (Ch II)

On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, — its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star … stood a doubtful freedom – half frozen – beckoning us to come and share its hospitality. (Ch X)

At other times he can be less high-flown, plainly narrating the bloody brutalities of slave-masters, traders and others involved in maintaining the American South’s slave system:

Mr Thomas Lanman, of St Michael’s, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed. (Ch IV)

Douglass is also scathing about Christianity – “I assert most unhesitatingly that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid of crimes, – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, – a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds” (Ch X) – to the extent that in an “Appendix” he felt the need to defend himself against the supposition that he might be “an opponent of all religion”, contrasting the “plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” with “the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ”.

The Narrative‘s only disappointment – if that’s how it can be described – is the lack of any information about his escape out of the south to New York. But Douglass explains that “what means I adopted [to reach the north] … I must leave unexplained” so that other escaping slaves could, in the years before abolition, use the same methods. Or as he puts it more poetically: “I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. … Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother” (Ch XI). Much later, in his Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892) he feels free to explain that by “borrowing” the papers of a “freeman of color” resident in Maryland he was able to impersonate his benefactor on his journey north by boat and train. (I found this in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader [1996] – recommended for further reading – which includes extracts from his other books, and some speeches, including a remarkable 1853 one in favour of women’s suffrage.)

Needless to say, there are present-day resonances to all this, which I don’t really have the space to expand on here. But all in all I’m glad I revisited Frederick Douglass.

 

What I also read in May: two novels – Muriel Spark’s The Only Problem (bizarre plot, redeemed by Spark’s style) and the really good All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski; plus The Little Karoo, a collection of bleak short stories from the 1920s by Pauline Smith, a protege of Arnold Bennett; and the invaluable A Short History of Truth by Julian Baggini.

April 2018 re-reading: Seamus Heaney

And now I’m looking at 1992. At the time we were living in the Boston area, within walking distance of Brookline Library, and one thing I remember about that excellent resource was that it always had a display of recently published books available for borrowing. Some of what, according to my records, I read in 1992 came from that display, I’m sure: Nadine Gordimer’s short story collection Jump!, Jim Crace’s Arcadia and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. But there seem to be omissions from my list, one of which is Seamus Heaney’s then most recent collection (published in 1991), Seeing Things, which I distinctly remember borrowing, probably (let’s say) in 1992. So I decided on a revisit to Heaney.

My awareness of the talent of “famous Seamus” goes back a long way. For a while I thought that he and I had been in the same Universities Poetry back in the 1960s – but no: he was in UP 5 (published in 1963) with two poems (‘Turkeys Observed’ and ‘Fair’), while I was in UP 6 (1965), where I was mis-attributed to Cambridge, alongside Terry Eagleton. (Interesting to see some of the names in these anthologies: alongside the obscure and forgotten, like myself, are writers such as Michael Longley and Ken Smith who have had notable poetic careers, or people who have distinguished themselves in other fields such as Derek Parfit [philosophy] or Angus Calder [contemporary history].) Then in 1966, working as a trainee journalist on Merseyside, I came across SH in person. I’d been writing a feature* about the poetry scene in Liverpool, and after interviewing Brian Patten and Adrian Henri I looked for poetic activity at Liverpool University and found David Selzer, an English student who was editing a magazine called Phoenix. So I interviewed him, too – but more importantly, thanks to him I went to a reading at the university by this up-and-coming Northern Irish poet called Heaney. For some reason I came away with typescripts of SH’s poems – ten pages, 13 poems, including ‘Digging’, ‘Blackberry Picking’ and ‘Mid-Term Break’ – which I still have.

Of course, this was all before the so-called Troubles began in Ireland, and I think at the time of his first Faber publication (Death of a Naturalist, 1966), SH was seen as a nature poet, a sort of Irish version of Ted Hughes. Events, and SH’s own output, changed that perception. I have a copy of an excellent** 1992 anthology, A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and the poet most represented there is Heaney, with 28 poems (next nearest are Tom Paulin with 21 and John Hewitt with 17). Yet many of these 28 deal only obliquely with the Troubles, even when memorialising someone killed. Outside the context of a ‘Troubles’ anthology, poems such as ‘The Harvest Bow’ are hardly about what was happening in the Six Counties at all in the way that more urgent (and perhaps more urban) voices such as Ciaran Carson’s or James Simmons’s were. Still, good poets aren’t obliged to choose their subject matter from current headlines.

But what about Seeing Things? Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I think I was nevertheless surprised, first time round, by the absence of Troubles references in the collection (this was the early 1990s, when reports about the problems of Northern Ireland were still regularly to be found in the Boston Globe). Heaney himself was living part of every year in the Boston area, as a professor at Harvard, but hardly anything in this volume alludes to America, either. What struck me on re-reading the book was that it was very personal, very Irish and at the same time anxious to be seriously Poetic with a capital P: it starts with a translation of a passage from the Aeneid and ends with two-and-a-half pages of Dante. I looked up a contemporary review by Michael Hofmann (London Review of Books, 15 August 1991); he describes the book as “a departure in style, tone and purpose” and suggests that this has something to do with the death of Heaney’s father in 1986. Certainly a number of poems allude to the father – and there seems to be a pervasive harking-back to Heaney’s rural childhood in the collection.

What was interesting about this re-reading, though, was the difference in life-knowledge I was able to bring to the poems. Though I had an Irish mother-in-law, my familiarity with Ireland in 1992 was limited to visits to the Republic and her arguments about the legitimacy of the IRA. Now, having lived in Northern Ireland for seven years (2004-2011), I can “get” more of Heaney’s language (Ulster words such as “thole” and “kesh”) and local references, for instance the “wishing-chair” at the Giant’s Causeway or the roads of County Antrim. Or these lovely lines towards the end of his poem-sequence Squarings:

… when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
When wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

Some parts of this sequence – 48 twelve-line poems that may or may not be linked – are harder to puzzle out, though. And his verbless sentences can sometimes feel, well, in need of a verb:

Overhang of grass and seedling birch
On the quarry face. Rock-hob where you watched
All that cargoed brightness travelling …

There’s a lot more to be said about Heaney – and there’s now a lot of books and articles saying it – so I’ll just end with another fragment of autobiography. I last saw and heard Heaney at Derry’s Millennium Forum on 14 August 2013, in a programme that was part of the city’s hosting of the all-Ireland Fleadh. While noticeably frail, he was in good voice, sharing the stage with the piper Liam O’Flynn, as he had done before; most of the poems he read seemed, appropriately, to be about his youth as a pupil at St Columb’s College or his ancestral home in Bellaghy, County Derry. Sixteen days later he was dead.

His work is very much alive, though. In 2016 Mid Ulster council opened the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy (http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com/). Having visited it last year I can recommend it as an exemplary arts centre that celebrates not just the poet but also his literary heritage and the Derry landscape that informed his work.


* The feature appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post some time in the spring of 1966: I haven’t kept a cutting and can’t be more specific about the date.

** excellent except for the fact that of the 66 poets anthologised, only five are women (the editor was Frank Ormsby; it’s now out of print, I believe)


I also read in April: Nothing Happens in Carmincross by Benedict Kiely (disappointing); Paris by William Owen Roberts (translated from Welsh, the sequel to his more successful – in my opinion – imagining of revolutionary Russia in Petrograd); and Leontia Flynn’s latest collection The Radio, which, coincidentally, includes a fine poem, “August 30th 2013”, about the death of Seamus Heaney.

March 2018 re-reading: Peter Taylor

The year I’ve just been back to is 1991 – my first year of living in the USA, and a year in which I seem to have read only 18 books. Two of them were pretty big, though: Charles Palliser’s pseudo-Victorian The Quincunx (at the beginning of the year) and Our Mutual Friend in the later part of the year. This was also the year my mother died, at the end of the summer in her 81st year; more or less at the same time I was feeling my way into a new role as editor of an American university’s weekly newspaper-cum-propaganda-sheet, leaving me little time (as I recall) for literary exploration.

Still, I managed to discover some US authors I hadn’t read before: Allan Gurganus, Andre Dubus, Peter Cameron … and Peter Taylor, whose In the Miro District I’ve chosen to re-read, mainly because it is still on my shelves. Who he? A well-thought-of US fiction writer (1917-1994), his fame doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic. I don’t think I’d heard of him before I moved to live in the US; and maybe it was only after I had picked up this book, with its “Pulitzer Prize winner” label, in one of Boston’s (then) many second-hand-book stores that I perhaps knew anything about him at all. The cover of this paperback (see below) is rather odd, incidentally: it’s not credited to any artist, and I’m not sure what story it’s supposed to illustrate.

20180330_211042

I have to admit that my memory’s not much help here: at no point in my re-reading this collection of eight short stories did anything come back to me from 1991. In other words, it felt like I was reading In the Miro District for the first time. What did I think of it? At first I was put off a little by the “Southernness” of the stories: nearly all of them are set in Tennessee, and quite a few of them purport to recall a past well before they were written, in the 1970s. They are also nearly all about well-off white families, who often have (black) servants. Take the opening story, ‘The Captain’s Son’: it begins with a disquisition about the differences between Nashville and Memphis – not the Memphis of the 1970s (where, after all, Martin Luther King had been shot only a few years previously) or the Nashville of country music fame, but as it was during the 1930s, among socially important families who have histories of grievance and entitlement stretching back to the “Spanish War” or earlier. “[D]uring those Depression years our family was doing whatever it decently could to cut corners,” the narrator notes at one point, but it is clear that economic conditions have little to do with the story of his older sister and her unfortunate marriage.

Once I got past my own prejudices I have to admit Taylor was a skilful writer, capable of a few surprises. The least “Southern” and backward-looking of his stories, ‘Her Need’ and ‘The Instruction of a Mistress’ both have unexpected trajectories: these and two others are written – I’m still not sure why – in irregular-length lines of free verse:

She tries to imagine herself
In one of those other parts of town
That she never went into as a girl.
And she doesn’t feel like herself at all.
She feels like something
That somebody else has made up. [‘Her Need’]

Or

I remember your longing to know
How the man who wrote that poetry in his youth
Could waste the rest of his life
Writing those dull essays, those endless analyses … [‘The Instruction of a Mistress’]

We’re back in Tennessee for the final story in the book, ‘In the Miro District’, which is set in Nashville “in or around 1925”. It is a sort of meditation, from the vantage point of old age, on the narrator’s youth and his odd relationship as a teenager with his grandfather, a veteran of the Civil War (rather like, I suppose, from a very different point of view, Alice Munro’s narrators often look back on earlier periods of their life). It seems to have quite a personal basis: according to Wikipedia, Taylor’s grandfather had fought in the Confederate army and also (just like the grandfather in the title story) had a narrow escape from death at the hands of Tennessee’s notorious Night Riders. It’s the longest and, in some ways, the most technically accomplished of the stories in this volume.

So anyway, in the end I was quite grateful for this revisit to Taylor’s world. Next month – what? I haven’t decided yet …

 

Also read in March: in fiction, Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (not a patch on Jane Eyre) and Last Friends by Jane Gardam (sequel to, but not as good as, her Old Filth). And in non-fiction, quite a few articles and chapters on the philosophy of sport.

February 2018 re-reading: Penelope Fitzgerald

I’m now revisiting 1990, a momentous year: Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mrs Thatcher resigned, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Germany was reunified. For my family and me big things happened too: at the end of the year I left Radio Times after 19 years and Clever Wife got a job in the US, which she started in September of that year – I wasn’t to join her there until the following January. Meanwhile Clever Daughter no. 1 started at Manchester University (Clever Son no. 1 was already at Leeds), and I was a temporary single father for nearly four months. All the same, that year (according to my records) I managed to get through 22 books.

Probably the best book I read that year was Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, but for re-reading I’ve chosen another top-class female author: Penelope Fitzgerald, whose The Beginning of Spring I remember reading and not-quite-enjoying in the autumn of 1990. (Curiously, it’s one of two novels I read that autumn that featured husbands temporarily deserted by their wives: the other was John Updike’s Rabbit Redux.) I think the reason I borrowed it from my local library, though, was that it had been on the Booker Prize shortlist two years previously, in 1988 – the year when Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (which I read in 1989) won. I’d already got through another of 1988’s shortlist, David Lodge’s Nice Work, but I’ve still not yet read another of that year’s shortlistees, The Satanic Verses. Did I use the Booker Prize as a guide to my reading those days more than I do now? The last BP winner I’ve actually read is, I find, Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007).

But I digress. What did I remember about The Beginning of Spring? First of all I was puzzled about the subject. Why choose as your central character – whose point of view we rarely stray from – an Englishman running a printing works in Moscow in 1913? Penelope Fitzgerald’s Wikipedia entry is some help: she had learned Russian in the 1960s, visited Moscow in a 1975 trip that also included a visit to Tolstoy’s house, and was friends with an art curator who had been brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia. So it wasn’t a setting plucked out of the air, as it were. I also remember feeling encouraged by the fact that PF was famously a late starter: she wrote her first novel at the age of 60 (although she had been active in literary circles from much earlier), and was 71 when TBOS came out.

As a novel TBOS is “gloriously peculiar”, to borrow a phrase from Jan Morris’s review at the time of publication. Frank Reid, our “hero”, is head of a printing business he has inherited from his father, and the novel is mostly confined to the few weeks between March and April 1913, when Moscow thaws and spring arrives (hence the title). There is a chapter set in 1911and there are backwards glances to Frank’s apprenticeship in England, his meeting and marriage to Nellie, and the process by which he took over the printing works from his father; but mostly we are in 1913 Moscow. There seems to be a lot of geographical detail about the city (would an accompanying map have been any use?) and we meet a variety of its inhabitants, from printers and student revolutionaries to an Anglican chaplain and an English governess. Perhaps most memorable is the unlikely figure of Selwyn Crane, the print works’ accountant who is “not quite sane-looking [and] seemed to have let himself waste away, from other-worldliness, almost to transparency” (he is a follower of Tolstoy). For some reason – we are never sure why – Selwyn arranges for the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna to look after Frank’s children in their mother’s absence. That’s one of the appealingly odd things about TBOS: things often seem to happen for no explicit reason.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic style, which got the 1988 reviewers reaching for phrases such as “deceptively simple”, “superb eye for detail” and “pellucid”, certainly carries the story along. After a while I started noticing her frequent use of “as though” and “as if” constructions. For instance:

“I’m twenty-six,” she said, as though it might as well be said now as later (p29 in my library edition)

Selwyn took back the notebook, as though he did not like to see it in less expert hands (p98)

Voldya’s expression was strained, as though he had entered his remark for an important prize (p135)

… he made a wide gesture with both arms, as if he was scattering food for hens (p136)

… the room filled with that peculiar silence, as though it was stretching itself, which follows when a great number of people have left (p157)

The reviewers also praised TBOS’s “authenticity” and its author’s detailed knowledge of such things as printing techniques, Russian feast-day observances and what happened at Moscow’s Merchants’ Club. Sometimes this is all too much, as when she goes in for lists (Frank’s printing works produced “parcel labels, auctioneers’ catalogues, handbills of rewards leading to the arrest of thieves and murderers, tradesmen’s cards, club cards, bill heads, bottle wrappers …” Oh stop!). Yet I spotted at least one mistake: Frank’s younger daughter Annushka is born “towards autumn” of 1911 (chapter 6); but in March 1913 (chapter 1) she is “two and three quarters” – and elsewhere talks more like a three- or four-year-old. Do such errors undermine one’s trust in an author?

 

Also read this month: Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (an early novel, not one of his best); Trollope’s Doctor Wortle’s School; and I’m abut half-way through Leif Wenar’s masterly Blood Oil, an interesting combination of reportage, political philosophy and indignation.

 

January 2018 re-reading: Joseph Roth

So my project is now one year old: for 12 months I’ve managed to re-read, at the rate of one a month, a book from each year in my list of “Books Read” that started in 1977. So far, though, I haven’t chosen anything in translation. And so, turning to 1989’s list, I looked at what might fit the bill: short stories by Chekhov and I.B. Singer? The Double Bass by Patrick Susskind? No, it had to be Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the somewhat obscure Austrian writer whose short novel Hotel Savoy I first read in 1989 and re-read this month.

Actually, to call Roth “Austrian” is a bit of a stretch: his birthplace, Brody, is now at western end of Ukraine and was in Poland between the two world wars. But before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it is that empire whose existence and disappearance is at the heart of Roth’s output. His major novel, The Radetzky March (which I’ve also read), is about three generations of an Austro-Hungarian military family; other novels and stories look back on the lives of more humble empire functionaries.

After fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One, Roth made his living as a somewhat rootless journalist: one of his translators, Michael Hofmann, says he “lived out of two suitcases in six countries”. Hotel Savoy (1924) seems to have been Roth’s first full-length published novel, and began life as a serial in a German newspaper. It certainly has journalistic elements, including, on the first page, a sentence that sounds like the opening of a report from a rather self-important foreign correspondent: “After five years, I stand again at the gates of Europe.” This is Gabriel Dan, the narrator, writing about his arrival at the Hotel Savoy, where most of the novel’s subsequent action (such as it is) takes place.

Gabriel has been a prisoner of war in Siberia, and is one of thousands of ex-soldiers and refugees moving westwards in the aftermath of war and revolution. While others continue westwards, he stays in the hotel in this dreary nameless Polish town (“a town of rain, a comfortless town”); visits his well-off but unsympathetic Jewish relatives; and gets to meet the hotel’s various employees and inhabitants, from the knowing lift-boy to ageing circus performers, dancing girls and visiting businessmen. “One might arrive at the Hotel Savoy with a single shirt and leave it as the owner of twenty trunks” is a comment, with variations, that recurs several times in the novel. Indeed, many of the hotel’s inhabitants seem to be waiting for their luck to change, stuck where they are because they have no money.

In part 2 of the novel two quite different agents of change turn up: the first is Zwonimir Pansin, a wartime comrade, who arrives at the station at a time when the narrator is there hoping to get work as a porter. Zwonimir, a Croat and “a revolutionary from birth”, is perhaps the novel’s most vividly sketched character; he has a galvanising effect not only on the narrator but also the hotel: “Zwonimir makes independent excursions inside the hotel, goes into empty rooms, leaves notes with greetings and knows everyone within three days”. The other arrival is Henry Bloomfield, a rich American “whose arm was long and could reach across the Great Pond [and who] had a finger in every factory in the old town of his birth”. Bloomfield/Blumenfeld returns to revisit his father’s grave and (perhaps) spread his wealth around; he hires Gabriel as his secretary to help deal with all the petitioners besieging him, but in the end leaves the town much as he found it. Worse, in fact: there’s an outbreak of typhus and revolution is in the air. And on the final pages the Hotel Savoy itself is burned down.

Did I enjoy this re-reading? I remember very little of it from my first reading, and I was initially put off by the way Roth wavers between present-tense and past-tense narration. But it seemed to settle down into its own fragmentary rhythm, and, yes, it was good. There was a palpable feel of an insecure early-1920s middle Europe about the novel, and I liked Roth’s occasional unexpected images:

Once again it is time for the returning soldiers. They come in groups, many at a time. They come in shoals, like certain fish at certain times of the year.

Or

Things are going badly with these people, and their sorrow towers before them, a great wall. They sit enmeshed in the dusty grey web of their cares and flutter like trapped flies.

 

More than one English translation of Hotel Savoy is available: I went back to the 1986 translation by John Hoare that I read first time round, which is not always elegant (but then maybe the original isn’t, either). There is also a translation of Hotel Savoy available by Jonathan Katz – I’ve no idea if that’s any better. The Hoare volume, a library borrowing, also includes a couple of interesting short stories by Roth: Fallmerayer the Stationmaster and The Bust of the Emperor. These are later Roth products, and are somewhat more polished, but the latter story in particular, about Count Mortsin, a Polish aristocrat who refuses to believe that there is no longer an Emperor to show his allegiance to after the Great War, is unexpectedly moving.

 

Meanwhile, I began 2018 by reading Mike McCormack’s fantastically good Solar Bones (I think it would easily win the title of Greatest Novel Ever Written That Is Set in County Mayo); went on from there to Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Simenon; and then took some time to get through Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (good but not as convincing as I thought it might be), while also dipping into Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey – about which I reserve judgement…

On to February!

 

 

December 2017 re-reading: Alice Munro

In 1988 I read War and Peace and 22 other books, but rather than go back over Tolstoy’s masterpiece (which I really must revisit some day) for December I opted for a re-read of one of several collections of Alice Munro stories I have on my shelves. Because, let’s face it, she’s a great writer.

The collection I read in 1988, and have just re-read, was The Progress of Love, published just the year before. How had I discovered Munro? I think I must have first read her in the New Yorker, copies of which seemed to appear fairly regularly in the old Radio Times office and which I would occasionally borrow to read on my commute. Anyway, I see that in 1987 I read a library copy of her earlier collection The Moons of Jupiter, and from then on saw her as a writer worth seeking out. I’ve always liked reading short stories, and Munro’s I liked more than most. The only problem with reading a collection like this one is that you (or rather I) can’t rush straight through, as it were: I have to leave space between each story to get the full impact and not let one blur into another. Reading most of The Progress of Love on a long flight– which is what I did – may not have been a good idea. I had to leave breaks (for meals or naps) between stories.

Now that Munro is super-famous and has won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 2013), perhaps there is not a lot of point in adding to the literary world’s praise. But I’ll still make a few remarks after my re-reading:

1 Was it a good idea to call the collection The Progress of Love? True, that’s the title of the first story in the collection (though I’m still not sure why) but it does suggest the whole book is full of romantic clichés, which it isn’t. The titles of some of her other collections, such as Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You or Too Much Happiness seem to have more of a Munro-esque flavour

2 That title story is a good illustration of her stories’ “tendency to move forward and backward in time” (to borrow a phrase quoted in her Wikipedia entry). “I got a call at work, and it was my father” is the opening sentence. The narrator’s mother Marietta has died, and within a couple of pages we go back to 1947 when she (the narrator) was twelve and about to meet her mother’s stepsister Beryl; then we go back further, to an incident in Marietta’s childhood about which it turns out Beryl has a different version; after that we go forward to 1965 when the narrator’s childhood farmhouse home is sold and eventually lived in by “hippies”. In the final pages or so we are (I think) in a later time frame than the opening, and the narrator is revisiting the house which is now up for sale and recalling – perhaps not accurately – how her mother burned the money she had inherited from her father, some time before 1947. This is more complicated time-wise than most of Munro’s stories.

3 Despite such complications, Munro’s prose is generally uncomplicated, and her sentences straightforward and not too long. Take the opening of ‘The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink’)

Sam got a surprise, walking into Callie’s variety and confectionery store. He expected a clutter of groceries, cheap bits and pieces, a stale smell, maybe faded tinsel ropes, old overlooked Christmas decorations. Instead he found a place mostly taken up with video games. Hand-lettered signs in red and blue crayon warned against alcohol, fighting, loitering and swearing.

One thing I noticed in this re-reading, though: the frequent occurrence of questions in the course of a story. It certainly makes sense in a first-person narrative that’s unsure of the truth (three out of the 11 stories here have first-person narrators), but everywhere it seems there are unresolved puzzles about people’s behaviour:

Why did Violet do this? Why did she send those ugly letters to Trevor, and put such a note with them? (‘A Queer Streak’)

Why does Trudy remember this moment? … What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life – what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all? (‘Circle of Prayer’)

Why is it that Rhea always knows the tricky question to ask, in spite of her predictable mockery, lectures, and propaganda? (‘Eskimo’)

4 Of course Munro is notable for being Canadian and making much of the Canadian setting of her stories – only ‘Miles City, Montana’ in this collection strays across the border, and its central characters are a Canadian husband and wife and daughters. More than one story highlights the difference between the inhabitants of small towns and the usually poorer farmers of their hinterland (Munro herself grew up on a farm outside Wingham, Ontario). But the attitudes that people express here – condescension, resentment, curiosity and the like – are easily recognisable in lots of other contexts. Similarly although Munro often writes from a woman’s point of view there are plenty of instances where we enter the minds of the men in these stories. One of my favourites, ‘Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux’, is told mostly from a man’s (Colin’s) point of view; yet one of the important points of the story is that a woman, Nancy, knows more about car engines than either Colin or his brother do.

Will what I’ve written here make anyone want to read Alice Munro who hasn’t already done so? I don’t know. But I’m certainly glad I re-read The Progress of Love and will continue to revisit, and think about, her stories as time – her continuing theme – goes by.

Also read in December: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (more short stories); Even the dogs by Jon McGregor (memorably good); and The Watch House by Northern Irish writer Bernie McGill …

So, to look back: I read some 50 books in 2017, about 30 per cent of which were by women writers (four out of 12 of my re-readings were by women). Top six? In no particular order, The Underground Railroad, Even the dogs, Notes from Overground, Go Went Gone, The Immigration Handbook, The Noise of Time. Most on rather serious subjects, I’m afraid.

 

November 2017 re-reading: Wells’s Tono-Bungay

I’m now looking back 30 years, at 1987, when (my records allege) I read 26 books – although that total did include three novels marked as “unfinished” (one of them, The Man Without Qualities, I note I had another go at in 2001 and still failed to finish).  And I’ve marked that 30th anniversary by going back to a novel that has certainly been worth re-reading: Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells. My 1987 reading of it took place, I recall, while on a week’s holiday on Skye …

Like his contemporary and friend Arnold Bennett – they were born less than a year apart – Wells seems not to have been treated very well by English literature’s canon creators: the pair don’t have the status of (for instance) Conrad, Woolf or Forster. Perhaps it’s because quite a lot of what they both wrote was written in a hurry and for money … But actually, to judge by the edition I used for my re-reading (a Penguin Classic, published in 2005 with an introduction by Edward Mendelson) quite a bit of scholarly work has been done on Tono-Bungay, perhaps Wells’s best-regarded novel.

Although it’s set more than 100 years ago, Tono-Bungay certainly has resonances beyond its period. A “story of activity and urgency and sterility”, as its narrator George Ponderevo puts it, it is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of his uncle Edward Ponderevo, “whose comet-like transit of the financial heavens happened – it is now ten years ago!” (The novel was published in 1909, so we are to imagine nearly all the novel’s action taking place before the end of the nineteenth century.) Edward is the creator of Tono-Bungay, an ineffective patent medicine marketed as “The Secret of Vigour”.  Thanks to imaginative advertising this supposed cure-all is a success, and lays the foundation for Ponderevo’s further commercial adventures – which finally crash, like other real-life capitalist over-reachers, into bankruptcy. I was reminded of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now in the narrator’s observation of establishment figures

calculating consciously or unconsciously how they might use [my uncle] and assimilate him to their system, the most unpremeditated, subtle, successful and aimless plutocracy that ever encumbered the destinies of mankind. Not one of them, so far as I could see, until disaster overtook him, resented his lies, his almost naked dishonesty of method …

Although nephew George assists in the development of Tono-Bungay, for most of the novel he is a sceptical observer. This apparent detachment doesn’t, however, stop him using the money gained from his uncle’s schemes to finance his other ventures, building flying machines and designing warships – his attempts at heavier-than-air flight take up a good few pages of the novel. And its memorable final pages follow the progress of his newly-built destroyer down the Thames from Craven Reach to the North Sea – “out to the unknown across a great grey space. … Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways.”

As a first-person narrator George says has “seen life at very different levels” and wants to draw lessons from his experience with his uncle and from his early life as the son of a domestic servant in a country house:

I want to … say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels

Later, in his last chapter:

I think of all the energy I have given to vain things. I think of my industrious scheming with my uncle … It is all one spectacle of forces turning to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever of trade and money-making and pleasure-seeking

There’s a good deal more to be said about Tono-Bungay as social critique, much of which has been said by others, but here I just want to remark that like some of the best nineteenth-century novels (Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and – yes! – Treasure Island) it’s written in the first person. Some modern first-person narratives can be bland and apparently reliable; others very deliberately “unreliable”. Wells’s first-person is idiosyncratic in its own way, and is awkwardly frank about his relations with women such as his lower-middle-class wife Marion and aristocratic lover Beatrice. Rather oddly, although this is a “true” narrative in the book’s terms, he calls it a “novel”:

I want to trace my social trajectory (and my uncle’s) as the main line of my story; but as this is my first novel and almost certainly my last, I want to get in too all sorts of things that struck me, things that amused me and impressions I got … My ideas of a novel all through are comprehensive rather than austere

Here I’d like to make use of a piece by Adam O’Fallon Price I found recently on the website The Millions (https://themillions.com/2017/10/in-defense-of-third-person.html). Disagreeing with W.G. Sebald’s remark that “fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture”, Price argues that third-person narrators “are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness”. He champions “the explicit machinery of third-person narration” against the view “that first person [narrative] is somehow more transparent or ‘honest’ than third”, and I think I can agree with him. But of course there is a place for first-person narration, as he says: “It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel … make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration.”

I think Tono-Bungay is a good example. The narrator may lack style and be somewhat repetitive with his opinions about British society and his relations with women – but that’s no doubt the point. We’re reading the words of a person who supposedly is unused to writing at length but is keen to tell us as honestly as he can about his experiences and what he has learned from them. If some of them coincide with the views of H.G. Wells, is that so surprising?

Also read this month (November): Southern Adventure, the fifth volume of Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoirs which I am gradually working through; Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (not one of his best – perhaps a bit over-thought) and Venusberg by Anthony Powell (early, Waugh-ish but not as good as Waugh). Those last two, it may be noted, are third-person novels.

October 2017 re-reading: Notes from Overground

For my October re-reading it was the turn of 1986, and out of what I read that year I selected a book I’ve dipped into a few times in the intervening years. That’s because Notes from Overground by the pseudonymous “Tiresias” is a dippable kind of book: fragmentary, reflective, sometimes quite funny. The subtitle “A Commuter’s Notebook” makes it clear what the subject matter is – and it’s spelled out on page 12: “These notes, to be explicit, concern daily commuting on what is at present known as Western Region, between Oxford and Paddington.”

I was myself commuting daily in 1986, albeit for a shorter distance, from Chingford to W1, via (usually) the Victoria Line, so Notes, published only two years earlier, was a book that I must have felt had something to say about my own life. (The copy that I first read isn’t the copy I have now, which was acquired later when it was, as the official stamp puts it, WITHDRAWN FOR SALE by Waltham Forest Libraries.)

What makes it worth reading? First, it’s an idiosyncratic view of the everyday experience of travelling by train. It’s also, I notice particularly on re-reading, full of despair, anger and sadness – but somehow expressed cheerfully. Here, for instance, is one of 38 “anti-kontakions” scattered through the book’s 200 pages:

A curse on the train. Defecating freak. Micturating mastodon. Incontinent container. Untrained train. Fouler of its own fairway. Polluter. Contaminator. Commuter-exterminator. Anathema sit.

At other times Notes is simply a delightful compendium of observations:

Paddington Station. Along the route stations are anxious to declare their identity. Strings of signs on lamp-posts tell us: Reading Reading Reading … But here you can with difficulty find any indication you have arrived at Paddington, and no indication whatsoever that you reached London. …

Sometimes a goods train passes, wheels dripping sparks, like a horse splashing through sunlit water. …

On a red mini-tractor at Didcot and on certain wagons: For Use On Brute Circuit Only. Revelation dawned one morning at Oxford where a chalked notice: Danger, Keep Away, Do Not Move These Brutes, was propped … beside three or four trolleys which were supporting a broken fence. So Brute, disappointingly, equals something like British Rail Utility Trolley. …

Chalk cuttings like scenery from a spaghetti Western. On brink, against blue sky, black and white cat seems an outlaw watching our stagecoach pass. …

Observant he certainly is – in fact he objects to reading or writing much on the train because “one misses things. One does not buy a ticket for the theatre and read a book or write letters throughout the show.” What he calls “the entertainment provided” – fellow passengers and passing views – “frequently surpasses that to be seen on the stage, let alone in-flight movies”. Yet I re-read much of Notes from Overground on a train, from Cardiff to London, which after Didcot followed the same tracks as Tiresias’s and confess I was making notes for this blog rather than looking for what was different from the 1980s – how many, for instance, survived of the 15 “trackside industries” he noted.

Yes, the sadly out-of-print Notes has an extra appeal now, as a report from the distant pre-rail-privatisation, and pre-mobile-phone, era of over 30 years ago. Carriages with compartments! Buffet cars! Newspapers! Overheard conversations where both parties are visible! (Although there’s a presage of what was to come when the author records travelling “in a full compartment where a man sat in a corner unconcernedly using a Dictaphone as he went through his correspondence”.) Then there’s a reference to “the great new road to the west” near Paddington (i.e. the now ageing Westway); and Didcot is just Didcot – not Didcot Parkway. When did that unnecessary suffix start being appended to station names?

Interestingly it’s also a book that wonders, reflexively, what it is. “Have begun this notebook as occupational therapy” we read on the first page; later, Tiresias calls his book “a disjointed medium for a disjointed existence. Deliberate but not planned.” The genre, he decides, is that of Premeditated Notebook, and the best example he can think of is The Unquiet Grave by “Palinurus” (pseudonym of Cyril Connolly). It contains “whatever turns up in the sidings of my mind” and is “locomotion recollected in immobility”. And on the last-but-one page: “It has developed like a tumour, this long disease my book. Now must pluck up courage to ask the medical wallahs whether malignant or benign.” Benign, I’d say.

One small unanswered question: if this is a book about the whole commuting experience, what happened after the author reached Paddington? Unless he had an office near the terminus or took a bus, he would have trudged through that narrow corridor to the Circle Line or down the escalator to the Bakerloo to finish his journey. Concerning that part of his commute he is silent.

As for the pseudonymous author, “Tiresias” is not much of a disguise, as we know his real name from the line “©Roger Green 1984” after the title page. If you look him up on the web via a search engine – I recommend DuckDuckGo if you want to avoid Google – you’ll find that after giving up commuting Green moved to Greece, and lived (still lives?) on the island of Hydra, where he wrote Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen and is the author of several volumes of poetry.

Coincidentally in October my other reading included John Berger’s and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (also fragmentary, and also published in 1984), where this passage occurs:

Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams? … Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted. … The railway station – whatever the extravagances of its “decorative” architecture – remained stark. And it remained so because it was a site of arrival and departure, where there was nothing to muffle the significance of those two events. Coming and going. Meeting and parting.

OK, Berger is a great writer, but he is rather prone to the portentous over-generalisation, I feel, as in his evocation of an “ancient sense of destiny”. If we’re going to have generalisations, I think I prefer this, by Patrick McGuinness in a recent London Review of Books:

To be sure, trains and stations represent escape, travel and bohemia; to others, drudgery, offices, the rut of life and a particular sort of existential stasis that we only notice, paradoxically, because we’re moving – though only a little. That movement helps us sense our stasis better, in the same way that we’ll admit a bit of sadness into a happy moment because it helps us to tune the happiness we feel and feel it even more.

Also read in October: Outline by Rachel Cusk (disappointing, after all the praise I’ve read); Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (really good); and Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, another important book from Germany.

September 2017 re-reading: David Lodge’s Small World

My September re-reading had to be from 1985, when the records state that I read 26 books, most of them novels. Although one of them was Middlemarch (well done, younger me), this looks like a year when I went for fairly recently published stuff, including two from the previous year’s Booker Prize shortlist: Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Small World by David Lodge. (Neither of them won; they were beaten by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.) I decided on Small World because I’ve been a Lodge enthusiast for some time – and this particular book I remember as one of his most entertaining.

Small World is a kind of sequel to DL’s Changing Places (1975), which I read soon after it came out, and the characters of Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp, the first book’s memorable protagonists, are fairly central again, joined here by a much larger group of dramatis personae. But what I remember is that unlike Changing Places (and most of Lodge’s other fiction) Small World is – how shall I put this? – far-fetched. Despite its “realistic” surface, its plot is based on various Holy Grail quest legends and Spenser’s Fairie Queene (T.S.Eliot’s Waste Land also plays a part); like its models it is full of coincidences, long journeys, an innocent hero and an elusive heroine. It nevertheless fits into the “campus novel” genre, and is structured around a series of international academic conferences about literature. This makes it sound rather forbidding: but it has proved enjoyable even on a second reading.

In fact I may have got more out of Small World – subtitle “An Academic Romance” – this time, as since my first reading my life has got closer to academia. Admittedly, in 1985 Clever Wife was nearing the end of a PhD, but I didn’t know much about the academic world. Now, having worked as a journalist-cum-publicist at a US university in the 1990s, later freelancing for a higher education weekly and doing quite a lot of academic copyediting, I feel more clued up (though I am still an amateur when it comes to English literature: I don’t even have an A-level in the subject).

Although Small World is fun to read, I feel that, more than any other of Lodge’s novels, it’s designed to be the subject of learned academic exegesis. Sure enough, you can find essays such as “Quest and Conquest in the Fiction of David Lodge” and “The Reader as Discoverer in David Lodge’s Small World” online, and the novel has also been quoted in some philosophical literature. Here’s Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen’s Truth, Fiction and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective, which I happen to have borrowed recently: in a chapter on “The Theory of Novelistic Truth” they quote Small World‘s “Author’s note”. In this, before pointing to some unlikely things in the book that “really” exist – “an underground chapel at Heathrow and a James Joyce pub in Zurich” for instance – Lodge states that his novel “resembles what is sometimes called the real world, without corresponding exactly to it, and it is peopled by figments of the imagination”. This is rather like the note at the start of Lodge’s Changing Places: “Rummidge and Euphoria [where much of the novel’s action takes place] are places on the map of a comic world which resembles the one we are standing on without corresponding to it”.  Such disclaimers, Lamarque and Olsen write, “implicitly make the claim that [the author’s] work is of a type that naturally can be construed as presenting truths about particular historical events or personages. For the very act of issuing a denial presupposes that there is something that needs to be denied.”

I could digress at some length about novelistic truth, but I’ll save such philosophical ramblings for another time. Meanwhile, some further random observations about Small World:

1. I don’t think I’d noticed this before, but Lodge’s narrative switches between present and past tenses frequently. While some readers (and writers) dislike the use of the narrative present, I feel it can add some urgency – which seems to be why DL uses it. For example he jumps rapidly from one character to another at the beginning of Part II to describe more or less simultaneous events in England, Australia, New Hampshire, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, Turkey and elsewhere (is this an echo of the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses?). Sample: “In Paris, as in Berlin, it is 7.30. … In the high-ceilinged bedroom of an elegant apartment on the Boulevard Huysmans, the telephone rings beside the double bed. Without opening his eyes, hooded like a lizard’s in the brown leathery face, Michel Tardieu, Professor of Narratology in the Sorbonne, extends a bare arm from beneath his duvet …” (p.97 in my edition).

2. Perhaps inevitably, some of the novel has dated. Here’s Morris Zapp talking about the “global campus” in Chapter 1: “There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine” (p. 43). In 1984, the Internet was still a few years away.

3. Yes, there’s a lot of air travel in Small World. And we are reminded that in the 1980s, long before Al-Qaeda was a threat, airport security was already a hassle: “He joins a long line of people shuffling through the security checkpoint. His handbaggage is opened and searched. Practised fingers turn over the jumble of toiletries, medicines, cigars, spare socks … Few privacies are vouchsafed to the modern traveller” (p.102).

4. Maybe it’s a bit too long, though – 339 pages in my paperback, compared to Changing Places’s 251. The kidnapping that occurs in Part IV doesn’t seem necessary to the plot, for instance. Does it correspond to an incident in The Faerie Queene or some other romance?

5. I rather like the cover to my 1985 paperback (below), which is by Ian Beck, and has the merit of suggesting that the artist has actually read the book. (You can see more of Beck’s work at https://ianbeck.wordpress.com/, where I’m reminded he used to do illustrations for Radio Times, and at least one cover – for the 1987 Proms issue.)

small world cover

Also read in September, two Brits and one American: Down and Out in Paris and London (something I should have read years ago); P.G. Wodehouse’s Doctor Sally (lightweight even by Wodehouse’s standards); and You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits (who’d have thought a novel about urban redevelopment in Detroit would be such a page-turner?). Plus some chapters of Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From – stimulating thoughts relevant to this blog …