Quick Review: “John Macnab” by John Buchan.

Back to the Buchan for me. I enjoy the Hannay novels greatly (dodgy Tory politics and off-colour remarks about jewish and black people aside). At his heart, Buchan is a master of plot and pacing. There is absoloutely no beating around the bush with this writer: He knows where he’s going and he never loses the reader on the way.

As with Hannay’s best stories, then, so with John Macnab. Unlike the Hannay books, the tone here is lighter by dint of a more light hearted plot. Set at the time of its writing in the 1920s, the book concerns three men (an emminent barrister,  a Cabinet Minister and a City bigshot) all of whom are in their early 40s. They are rather jaded and suffering from enuui, a sense of everything being too easy in life and of nothing providing them with much of a challenge any more.

I suppose I too would be more than a little bored and on the lookout for some diversion, if I were able to do my job with my eyes closed and had no money worries whatsoever. Strictly speaking, these aren’t the most engaginng characters in the world. We have a barrister who doesn’t really care about his clients’ cases; a Cabinet Minister who feels like he’s on autopilot (at one point Buchan descrbies him giving an off-the-cuff speech which is all waffle, consisting of platitudes stiched together from previous speeches given elsewhere); and a City high flier who I can imagine being more interested in watching raindrops fall down a window pane than counting his dough). How the heart bleeds.

Nonetheless, Buchan’s storytelling skill manages to invest this upper class ragbag with enough inherent interest to keep the story going. What these three need is an escape. Together they cook up a plan based on a tale they hear, about a man who a few years previously felt rather the same way. His way out was to poach fish and deer from properties that bordered his Highland property.

Duly inspired, these three pillocks of the establishment decide they will spend the late Summer at a Scottish property belonging to a younger acquaintance. Collectively adopting the pseudonym of John Macnab, they write to the owners of three neighbouring estatyes, informing two of them that a stag will be taken on a set date, and telling the remaining one that a salmon will be taken. By giving advance notice of the date, ‘Macnab’ is giving the owners’ fair warning, thus turning the whole criminal enterprise a sporting air.

What follows is a (of course) superbly written and flowing tale that never ceases to engage. And of course this being a Buchan adventure tale, the success of the enterprise is always in doubt, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ nature of the task forming the core of the narrative.

Along the way there are a couple of comments about jews and a few asides onTory politics, but these are altogether less dodgy than the like in the Hannay books. There’s also the whole concept of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, things that some find distasteful but which here, of course, are discussed as if they’re as natural as making a killing in the City without one’s heart being in it, conducting court cases with one’s eyes closed, or feeling bored by one’s Cabinet level job. But then this is world Buchan knew and inhabited. Take it or leave it, we can’t change it.

All in all, then this is a classic Buchan. Read it with a sense of irony from our 21st century perspective, or just take it for what it is. Either way, if you try it you’ll more than likely enjoy it.

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Short review: JL Carr “A Month in the Country”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the Penguin edition that I’ve just read. It sums up the novel well, but I will add couple of points of my own following the quotation:

J.L. Carr’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, first published in 1980 is a gem of a novel which explores the power of art to heal and restore. Tom Birkin, a damaged survivor of the First World War, is spending the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of [the ficitious Yorkshire village of] Oxgodby. Joined by another veteran employed to look for a grave outside the churchyard he uncovers old secrets that bear on his experiences of conflict.

It’s not a long book. In fact it’s one of those which in a way are pretty much novella length (such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but which get classed as novels because of the depth and scope of themes and overall ambition.

Birkin is a specialist, called in as part of the bequest of a recently deceased local woman, one Miss Hebron, charged with uncovering and restoring a wall painting in the local church. His counterpart- Moon- is an archaeologist given the job as part of the same bequest to look for “the grave of Miss Hebron’s forebear, one Piers Hebron” who died in 1373.

Art, and its capactiy to heal and restore through our own contemplation and enjoyment of it, is certainly a key theme of the novel, as the blurb writer alludes to. The steady rhythm of work certainly has a calming effect on the shellshocked Birkin. At one point he states that “this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content”.

However, it’s also about memory, and our own perceptions of certain events in our lives when we look back. It’s also about people. As the narrator, who is Tom Birkin in later life looking back, says, “God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather- gone as though they’d never been”.

In fact, the passage I quoted first about having a foot in both present and past see Birkin say a little later on that uncovering “a great work of art wasn’t all of it [i.e. helping to clam him and make him generally  more positive]. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers.”

And of course it’s a about the people listed above too, especially the Ellerbeck family who take a shine to Birkin, regularly having him over the Sunday lunch and getting him to help out at the Sunday school they run. And it’s also about Alice Keach, wife of the uptight vicar whose church it is that Birkin is working in. Birkin unquestionably gains much from his carefully practising his craft, which in turn uncovers the work of a great unknown artist in the church, but he also gains a lot from being immersed in a local community which accepts him. His relationship with the Vicar’s wife is altogether more problematic, but it seems even then that he comes away from this brief entangelement stronger in a way.

There’s not much in the way of out-and-out humour in the book, but I found the overall tone of it rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, straight to the point in an engaging way. In a sense this would jar with what we’d understand Birkin’s initial state of mind and general mood to have been, for not only was he shellshocked and plagued by a nervous twitch in his face as a result of his wartime experiences; it also transpires that his unfaithful wife has just run away with another man. However, it’s the old Hemingway-esque trick of making the tone and language jar with what’s being described, in order to make the reader fill in the emotional gap and make the full realisation for themselves.

Birkin’s tone as a narrator looking back is eaxctly what’s required, however, as it emphasises the distance in time and temerament from himself then as a young man in the very early 20s, to himself as an older man looking back at that healing month in the country. That month was the pivot in his life.

(The book was made into a 1987 film, which I’ve never seen, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you probably can’t judge an entire film by its trailer. However, on balance I won’t bother to seek out the film. While the book’s core story is strong enough to bear a film adaptation, there is far more depth to this novel than you can really replicate on screen: inevitably too much is lost, and not enough is gained. The tone set by the trailer feels over-serious to me, wheras the book’s various moods are far more lifelike in their ebb and flow, the highs and lows and in-betweens.)

Verdict: A straightforward but very deep book that is satisfying on every level, with pitch-perfect yet uncontrived symbolism. It’s also  a very quick read to boot. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Chilers

The Riddle of the Sands is something of a landmark in English fiction. Of its wider significance I will speak later. To start, however, here’s a brief summary of the book.

It concerns a young English Civil Servant, Carruthers, who out of the blue at the beginning of Autumn, one afternoon in the early years of the twentieth century, receives a telegram from an old acquaintance called Davies. Davies requests Carruthers’s company on his boat which is currently on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Not having anything better to do, and despite his initial misgivings, Carruthers agrees to go and see Davies.

Initially Carruthers feels that his worst fears have come to pass. He hates Davies’s boat, feels like he’s wasting his time, and what’s more Davies seems to be acting rather strange and distant.

Tensions build until they finally come to a head, when Carruthers gets his friend to come clean about what’s on his mind and affecting his behaviour. It is then that Davies tells his tale and the story really starts.

Davies tells of a chance encounter when he was sailing his boat, the Dulcibella, along and around the German North Sea coast. There he met a German called Dollmann. One day when they were out sailing in bad weather, Dollmann said hat he would take Carruthers through a short cut among the coastal islands and islets, in order to take him to the nearest safe haven. Davies soon gets into trouble and loses sight of Dollmann’s boat, however, and he is convinced that Dollmann in fact was trying to get him killed through capsizing or being run aground.

Piecing things together for Carruthers’s benefit, Davies theorises that Dollmann wanted him out of the way because, as an Englishman, it would be dangerous for him to gain so much knowledge about how to safely navigate the German North Sea coast. Furhtermore, Davies’s belief that Dollmann wished him fatal harm at sea fuels the Englishman’s sense that something suspicious may be going on along the North Sea coast. When pressed on this, Davies admits to Carruthers that he fears there may be some kind of build up of forces or long term planning for a possible attack on the English coast. He even suggests (and remember that this book was published some eleven years before World War 1) that an all-out confrontation between the two nations may be a distinct possibility one day.

Gradually Carrathers starts to see things from Davies’s point of view, and the rest of the book becomes the account of how the two attempt to unravel the ‘riddle of the sands’, a title which can be taken on at least three levels: Who is Dollmann and what is he up to? What is the true nature of this unique and difficult-to navigate coastline? And is there any substance to Davies’s fears of a German naval build up in the area?

As a tale, Childers’s story is engaging and plausible, while as a piece of descriptive writing it brings to life this fascinating part of the world. Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, the book also has claim to being one of the very first of the modern spy stories. Apparently it was a favourite of John Buchan, and a close reading if Chapter One of the The Riddle of the Sands illustrates the clear general resemblance between Carruthers and Buchan’s famous hero Richard Hannay as that character describes himself in Chapter One of the great story The Thirty Nine Steps. Both are rather jaded and cynical young men-about-town going somewhat stale in London, and who reveal better aspects of their respective natures once pressed into vital- if wholly unexpected and unlooked for- work that turns out to be of national importance.

Childers’s book in my view still stands up in purely narrative and literary terms. Yet its significance goes far further. From its first publication, this was a book that changed minds and had significance: one could say even genuine political influence. In its description of the potential German threat to a British coast that was relatively weakly defended (at a time when Britannia still ruled the World’s waves, but to the relative neglect of its own shoreline) Childers’s book turned heads among the powers that be. It partly helped inspire the construction of new naval bases along the east coast as well as  the bolstering of the North Sea Fleet, all of which played an important part in naval engagements during World War One.

Yet arguably even more intriguing than the riddle posed by this evocative novel, is that which stands front and centre in Childers’s own life. Clearly this was a man who loved his country and its Empire so much that he wanted to warn people about what he perceived to be a threat on its own doorstep. And yet he ended his life embroiled in Irish Nationalist politics and executed in that country by the Free State in the early 20s.

Just riddle me that.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

Walter de la Mare: A fine English all-rounder.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.

Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.

Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.

Here it is:

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.

Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.

I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.

So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.

The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.

In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.

 

A review of TS Eliot A Short Biography by John Worthen.

This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite  a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.

Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.

Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.

After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say-  The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.

To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.

zweig

Stefan Zweig in happier times looking very relaxed (in complete contrast to how I felt reading his book). 

 

I read Beware of Pity at the end of May, but have only just got round to finishing my review, which if it tells you anything indicates that sometimes it takes me longer to get my thoughts down than it does for me to finish reading a novel, which itself is often very slow indeed.

Not so Beware of Pity. I read it in a state every bit of frenzied and feverish as the hapless narrator of this book. If this tells you anything it indicates that a) this novel is a real page turner and b) I was indeed frenzied and feverish since quickly after finishing the book I was laid up in bed with the flu.

Zweig’s Beware of Pity was published in 1939 at the outset of the Second World War, but it is actually set in those months leading up to the Great War in 1914. In many respects it is a broad political allegory, although in ways which I find very hard to fathom and express. Perhaps keener students of Zweig, Austrian history and the First World War can do this better than me. Suffice to say that I think it’s a broad allegory about the mindset of the ruling and military classes that led Austria to war.  However, I think that it is first and foremost a tale about one man’s tortured emotions and the exceptionally delicate social web he finds himself caught within. This lends the book a wider relevance that all of us can relate to in some degree.

The main character is Toni Hofmiller, a 25 year old second lieutenant in the Austria-Hungary cavalry. At the beginning of the novel Zweig supplies a useful note, which goes a long way to describing the degree of constraint imposed by the Officer’s Code by which Hofmiller must live and act as an officer in the Empire’s army. Stricter than the code governing, say, the British, German or French armies at the time, Hofmiller is bound by rigid conventions on how to act among his men, his fellow officers, and when out and about in society as a whole.

The actual plot is quite straightforward. Hofmiller finds himself invited to the home of the richest man in the district in which he is garrisoned. One evening at a dance at the man’s home, he notices that his daughter is not dancing and that no-one has asked her. Thinking it his duty as an officer to do the gallant thing, he cordially invites her to dance.

She reacts hysterically. How was Hofmiller to know that the girl was disabled and completely unable to dance? It was a faux pas of sorts, but Hofmiller feels it far more deeply than that. Feeling that he has not just embarrassed himself  but his whole regiment, he feels a deep sense of shame and feels he must try to make good on what he has done.

Hofmiller is utterly mortified and crushed by the embarrassment. In an attempt to make amends he sends flowers by means of an apology. This is accepted and in turn he finds himself invited back to the house. By twist of fate, he immediately finds himself invited back again and again, until his daily visits are expected by all the members of the family, above all by the young disabled girl.

Hofmiller is drawn there by a sense of duty, born out of the pity he feels for the girl and her situation. While on one level she is conscious of this, knowing that Hofmiller is in a very real sense humouring her, she cannot prevent herself on a deeper emotional level from seeing his attentions as indicative of a deeper emotional bond, and she falls in love with the young officer. And this is where the screw tightens on Hofmiller.

Zweig takes this basic situation and examines it at length. You wouldn’t think it’d make for a good novel, or even a great one, but it does, owing principally to Zweig’s skill at making the narrator’s explanation of his thoughts and feelings every bit as interesting and the awkward social situation and emotional deadlock he finds himself in.

Bound by a sense of honour and pity to visit the girl, horrified at the increasing emotional bonds tying her to him, yet feeling utterly powerless to extricate himself from the situation, how on earth is Hofmiller to escape?

This is crux of the novel, and this is what will keep you reading.

So beware of Beware of Pity. It’s guaranteed to grip you and put you too through the emotional wringer (it won’t necessarily give you the flu though, so at least that’s okay).

 

 

 

 

David Jones: The Overlooked War Poet?

This year being the anniversary of World War One’s outbreak, there is of course no end of books, exhibitions, television and radio programmes and the like devoted to it.

Inevitably people’s minds are also focussed more at the moment on those writers who wrote about the War. I suppose, being cynical about it, that the anniversary represents something of a commercial opportunity for a lot of publishers to release or re-release editions of Great War poetry or the many memoirs written by survivors.

Less cynically, I like to think that the reading public would have gravitated back to the works that came out the War anyway, since so many of them are part of the cultural landscape. Generations of Britons have studied poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in school. Books like  Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front have also been widely read since publication and remain not only popular but classics of their kind.

However, there is one writer who took the War as the theme for one of his great long works, but who remains somewhat off radar as far as the general public is concerned, and is one mainly for the scholars. His name is David Jones. Jones was actually both a talented writer and artist. Born in 1895, a Londoner of mixed Welsh-English descent, he served on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His first major literary work to be published was In Parenthesis in 1937. It drew directly on his experiences as a soldier on the Front. Published by Faber and Faber, TS Eliot acknowledged it as a major work, and wrote an introduction to it. Hailed upon publication, it remains highly rated today and remains the work for which Jones is most well known.

It was followed by The Anathemata, another long poem, in 1952.

Jones probably isn’t more widely known because, to be frank about it, both of these poems on which his reputation rests are both very long, and quite difficult. I am currently reading The Anathemata, and while there are passages in it of great beauty, and phrases that leap out at me and strike a chord, more often than not I console myself with TS Eliot’s phrase (which always springs to mind when I encounter verse that defies me to make sense of it) that “a poem can communicate before it is understood.”

In Parenthesis  is less of a challenge in comparison to the later work, but remains a challenge nonetheless. Though his work is rooted in myth, religion and the ancient past, as a writer he is every inch the modernist, having much in common with poets like Eliot, Pound and Bunting. He is an experimenter, and challenges the reader. That said, although Jones weaves in all manner of historical, mythical and religious allusions into the text, it is most definitely about the War and his experience of War. There is, therefore, plenty to help the reader orientate him or herself when reading the poem. 

I’m in danger of making the work sound more inaccessible than it actually is. While not every single line might connect with its audience first time (and some may not at all), there are passages in the poem of great power. Jones’s visual art naturally informed his written work, and results in vivid images and passages that are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Here is a link to a Guardian Books podcast, where Robin  Robertson reads from the final part of Jones’s poem. https://audioboo.fm/boos/1276875-guardian-books-poetry-podcast-robin-robertson-reads-david-jones#t=2m14s

Recordings also exist of Jones in later life reading from the poem in a very evocative voice that is part drawl, part growl. If I find a link I’ll add it to a future post.