Eyes on the Prize

Is this one of the emptiest motivational statements ever invented? I mean it must come close right? No-one sits down to write a prize winning work – it’s enough pressure just filling out a page with a few hundred words.  The worry over the next bit of dialogue,  the next chapter,  the next paragraph, this character background, that description.  The whole thing coming together in some sort of cohesive, sensible, whole.  Every word having to be dragged forth from the depths of somewhere. These are the things that concern writers.

Publishers and marketeers however like prizes.    Prizes achieve two things; increased visibility and money – both of which a writer needs.  But to win a prize is also an encouragement so I should get down off my high horse and start trying to answer the main question of today which is who will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020?    

Or if it is not a big question in terms of global pandemics, it is a big question for book bloggers who care about such things. 

So far on the 2020 shortlist I have read:

Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other

Natalie Haynes 1000 Ships

Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet (Reviewed Below)

Jennie Offill Weather

Photograph of Frensham Ponds. By Frances Spurrier

I have not managed to read Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light and I have not managed to read Dominicana by Angie Cruz

I have thus read only four out of the six shortlisted titles.  Yet today, 9th September, at 7pm UK time the winner is being announced.   So I have run out of time.  While it is not normal to  choose a winner on the basis of having read four out of six shortlisted books (!)  I am in the fortunate position of being a blogger and not a judge.   

Evaristo’s book concerns itself with the experiences of 12 different women of colour in contemporary UK with bits set in the US.  Natalie Haynes book is of women’s experiences as survivors of war in ancient Greece at the time of the Trojan wars and Hamnet  – in 16th century Stratford on Avon where Maggie O’Farrell lays her tale  (incidentally also a time when theatres are shut because of the plague) is about a woman and two children whom history has forgotten while canonising her playwright husband.    

Photo by Jarod Lovekamp on Pexels.com

These books are all works of vision, the writing is lucid the characterisation articulate, they are all executed with compelling panache.   These authors have created story where there was no story before,  just absence, silence and history’s marginal note.  These authors have produced strong and highly visible stories of women from times and places where women have been most silenced and most invisible.  Only Jenny Offill has dealt with the future.  Without the imperative of historical context,  she alone considers how we are moving into an unknown territory of climate destruction and for a while she was my front runner.    

Then as I read each one of these books I thought that this must be the one that wins. Until I move on to the next and then think, no, this one.  Ultimately perhaps it does not matter.  All these books are here to stay.  Today I vote with my heart rather than my head.  I do not think I shall ever again envisage the life of the bard of Stratford without seeing it as O’Farrell has written it, without seeing him married to the Agnes of this book, or parent to the Hamnet of her devising,  an unknown child whose name was given to one of the world’s most famous plays.  O’Farrell has written a scene for Hamnet and his twin sister Judith which will bare comparison with anything that was penned by their famous father, and this is my choice for winner


Hamnet

The name Shakespeare overwhelms every thought that one might have of writing about him.  I mean unless from a purely biographical point of view and that must be hard enough.  In any book that is ‘about’ him, he must automatically be the most important character must he not?

How do you overcome that?  This is the genius of O’Farrell’s book.  In the whole 372 pages the man himself is referred to as the husband, the son, the father, even the latin tutor, or ‘Latin Boy’ by Bartholomew, his brother in law, but never is the name Shakespeare mentioned.  Not even a ‘Will’.  And although it sounds as though it cannot be made to work, it does work and I was half way through the novel before I even thought about it.   This is what gives the other characters in the book room to breathe and particular his wife Agnes and son Hamnet.

“How can he live without her?  He cannot.  It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.”

So what new do we learn about the bard? Nothing.  At least nothing except that he did not do it all on his own, that he had support.  That the cost of all that success was not borne solely by him.

“The father comes to the new house twice, sometimes three times a year.  He is home for a month in the second year they live in the house.  There have been food riots in the city he tells them, with apprentices marching on Southwark and pillaging shops.  It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut.”  

Some things just don’t change.

A Thank you Letter to my Followers … Lessons from the Wildflowers … and Why I Blog

Living takes courage. 

Even writing a blog takes some courage.  Will anyone read it?  Does it matter what I think about this book or that?  Is this a good use of time? 

Ah … time, that elusive quality of being.  There is never enough it seems. We wish for more of it or sometimes less; it moves unbearably slowly, drags us down with its weighty refusals.  Time and comparing ourselves with others.   Those twin pressures can sometimes feel paralysing.  

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Pexels.com

This much I know.  To give air time to books encourages authors –  and to encourage authors is to encourage literacy and education. To encourage any art form – as opposed to the mechanisms of publication – is to create value towards a more egalitarian way of being.  It is to encourage dialogue.  When we take the decision to write, or paint or draw or dance, whether we are recognised or not, paid or not, we take a stand for culture and for education. And it is these things – rather than politics or economics – that are the bedrock of peaceful societies.

All we can really decide as Gandalf said to Frodo in the LOTR trilogy,  is what to do with the time allotted to us.

Time is that great unknown.  We are all going to run out of it someday but until that moment comes we want to use our time in the best, most creative way.  What that creative way is will be different for everyone but encouraging someone – the most creative of all acts – is something everyone can do even if we are not the next Ishiguro or the next Damien Hirst.

Photo: Llangrannog, West Wales by Frances Spurrier

One thing that everyone on this planet has in common is our DNA – and our desire for peace.   Our hope.  But it seems we can’t agree on how to get to that place.  An essential part of any peace process has always been dialogue – and writing is part of a dialogue.

A Buddhist philosopher says a candle can light up a place that has been dark for thousands of years.   The setting of the sun promises a bright tomorrow.

Nothing is easy, but from this moment on is always an opportunity for change.  Even things which seem entrenched can be changed and sometimes opportunities come in disguise.  It took the pandemic only a few weeks to dismantle systems that previously were thought inviolable.  Far from being the individual being powerless, we discovered a new term ‘key workers’ and learned that individual actions count for everything.

Wildflowers are neither vain nor haughty, neither jealous nor servile.  They neither envy other flowers nor belittle them … they take pride in their individuality, knowing that each is a flower with a bloom like no other. 

Daisaku Ikeda

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

the-new-york-public-library-mOhXYbJmSiI-unsplash

Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

***

In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

Lockdown Summer? With no books!

Well the weather is sunny here in  London but all else seems much awry. Are we facing a whole summer in lockdown? With closed bookshops?   I very much hope not. 

book chapter six
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The good news is that I have discovered that my local bookshop is still doing deliveries – it took me weeks to have the commonsense to check their website to find out.  I am so over buying things from certain online giants who shall remain nameless that I’m only reading real books from now on!

Here is a look at some of my planned summer reads. These books are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 #ReadingWomenChallenge which includes both suggested reads and books from the 2020 prize shortlist. It’s an exciting list.

From the 2020 prize shortlist, I will not be reading the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light because I haven’t yet read the second book.

Some of their suggested books I have already read:

  • Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I read some years ago and is shattering and iconic and I don’t think I could add anything to the reams that have already been written about it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which I adored and preferred to her more recent books Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered, the latter reviewed here.
  • I have already reviewed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo here.
  •  

So here are my TBR’s from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2020.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ((Fourth Estate) 2006

This book is so famous I can’t believe I haven’t got to it yet. I am now rectifying that mistake. The story is set in Nigeria in the 1960s against the backdrop of approaching civil war. I am only a couple of chapters in but I already love the compelling character of the house boy, Ugwu, Odenigbo the man he calls Master, and the elegant soon to be arriving Olanna. There is a palpable atmosphere about the early chapters and I look forward to learning much about Africa through the story.

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Wiedenfield & Nicholson) 2011

The sound of this storyline is intriguing. There is an intergenerational mystery which is always a winner with me. When a tiger escapes from the local zoo – what happened to the boy who refused to be terrified of the escaped tiger? His grandaughter would very much like to know. Her investigations will, apparently,  lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book …

This is also partly a war time story set during the conflict in the Balkans.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees…”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Mantle) 2019

Natalie Haynes gives voice to all the women – not just the famous Helen – whose lives were affected by the fall of Troy. No longer are women the minor characters in the stories of men.

The blurb reads:

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greems and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash….

If and when I can get copies, I will add other shortlisted titles including:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farell 

Weather by Jenny Offill

 Dominicana by Angie Cruz.

and hope to announce my own winner before the Judges decide in the Autumn. 

‘Like a Ghostly Roll of Drums’: Four Inspirational Women Writers Beat the Measure of Life

I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series.  Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four  inspirational women writers.

Virginia Woolf

virginia_woolf_quote

In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of  Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia  wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926.   The dress appears to be of taffeta silk,  has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture.  It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young,  yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.

This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’.    In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced.  In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.

Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life.  But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot).   Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century.  Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.

Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group.   She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.

I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue.  Perhaps it was just an appealing idea;  who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken?   But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist,  aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.

In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman.  As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….

“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’

Maybe.  But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.

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Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit in 2010

This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.

I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.

For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.

“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”

If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.

 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait.jpg

Someone who understood those power structures,  and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!

  • Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500.   She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
  • Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
  • Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:

“[in the 1970’s] …  we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”

My Own Words  is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.

“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”

Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.

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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.

That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.

How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?

Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:

 “As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent.  There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth.  You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”

Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing,  and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.

The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote:  “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”

 

“You can see nothing of her but her head

Bent over the page, her hand moving

Moving again, and her hair.

I wrote like that once.

But this is different.

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

From:  Is it Still the Same?

(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you do not like the way we tell our story then you are an enemy of the state…

Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives.  Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?

Salman Rushdie’s  posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read.   It is a question that is more urgent than ever.    For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.



 

Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly  used as carte blanche for  breaches of human rights.

Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever.   Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ?   For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.

Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too.  Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:

Without literature, there can be no meaningful freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no meaningful literature…

With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered  a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic,   trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.

He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age.  At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then.  In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line.  But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:

  “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”

We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true.   Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it?  Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:

In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased.  It was the argument itself that mattered.  The argument was freedom.  But in a closed society those who possessed  political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates.  We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means.  We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way.  If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…

In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever.  Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Riding the plains on a borrowed horse…

I never made it to the end of War and

Peace. I struggled even to watch the TV series – I’m not sure why. It is not so much the tome-sized tome , the style of address or the massive cast of characters.     It is more an oppressive sense of doom – the doomed world of the Russian aristocracy already in self-destruct from Page 1.  The same with Anna Karenina – the train has in a manner of speaking already left the station.

I had none of this difficulty however with the hugely readable trilogy The Writing on the Wall by Miklós Bánffy, despite comparisons with Tolstoy being inevitable. These books too operate within the twilight of an empire – although this time the Austro-Hungarian empire in the decade leading up to the first world war. Like Tolstoy the author is part of the fabric of the vanishing aristocracy.  There is a love story but it is more a love story to a fading landscape and history, than to any particular woman.   The main character, based on Bánffy himself, spends his time riding from baroque castle to baroque castle, attending balls (which never seem to end before 7 in the morning – what did these people do for sleep) parties and race meetings. Duels are fought over comments considerably less offensive than any trawl of twitter would produce on a given day.

Writing the foreword to the English translation of Bánffy’s work, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor remembers his own travels in this region when in 1934 aged 19, he walked (as you do) from Holland to Turkey writes:

“… nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This of course is what happened to the descendants of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.”

“…Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and at moments is almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and douceur de vivre was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries.”

Traces of great empires are hard to extinguish – we no longer have a great empire and by ‘we’ I mean anyone on the planet – but we do have societies, environments and a lot left to lose. Strange how you can see the impending destruction of a society only with the benefit of hindsight.  Or perhaps it is less a lack of seeing than knowing what to do, pressed as we are to the front of that speeding train , we elect leaders who sometimes mean well and sometimes don’t. Then sit back and wait for something right to happen. Should we be surprised if it doesn’t? Take away the baroque castles and we all ride those plains on borrowed horses.

 

 

The Lonely City

Olivia Laing, Canongate, 2016

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

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If this reads as an entrée into an examination of the work of American artist Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) – among other things, it is.    Looking at Hopper’s work it is hard to avoid a sympathetic response to the situation of his characters as people who are alone in their urban environments, with all the ensuing emotional cost that this involves. Although the artist himself did not like to admit to his paintings as studies of loneliness, Laing finds it hard to separate his work from this idea.

Laing also casts her compassionate eye over the life and work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the last to me completely unknown, but perhaps the most extreme in a literal realization of what it means for the personal of the artist to be physically and emotionally isolated, yet still create. Darger’s work was discovered posthumously writing and paintings of a Faustian world, containing scenes of both torment and paradise.

The essential isolation of the human condition! Considering there are so many of us – why is this?   As Laing points out, mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel these feelings, rather it exacerbates them, containing within itself the potential for voyeuristic opportunities to put the viewer in the situation of unauthorized observer of other lives, a situation which Hopper appears to explore in Night Windows.

Living in the country may sometimes be a lonely experience but surely it is harder to feel that sense of complete isolation when other beings are birds, insects, trees, grass. How do we know the pain of other lives? The difficulty … the joys? We don’t.   Those who are artists, painters, poets, musicians, writers of all ilk spend agonizing hours trying to find out. Or perhaps our lonely little planet spinning in its void is so much a part of us – as each of us is part of it – that it is inevitable we should share in the planetary sense of impending oblivion.  Is this what Plath meant when she wrote :

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

(The Moon and the Yew Tree)

If the grasses grieve that we must grieve too. Humanity is not god but it has behaved as an irrational god achieving dominion over its environment then destroying it. What, faced with this relentless destruction, can an individual do? The answer lies in re-establishing broken connections – not in a caustic business sense of networking – but in a sense of identifying life as a shared process. Olivia Laing’s book sheds light on the artworks she travelled to the US to examine, but in the process she found out about herself and it is these insights that enable the reader to connect, as much as the lives and times of the artists she writes about.

Knowledge is not wisdom

Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.

Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.

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But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.

The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged  would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book  The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded).  In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.

We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”

We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book.  Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.

What do massive tech companies want from their employees?   They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves.   Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.

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But where there is use, there is abuse. In her book Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) Martha C. Nussbaum says:

“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”

A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House.  Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.

When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.

Here is another worrying thought from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).

In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ?  If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender?   Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?

There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.

But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Life would be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant.   This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.