Having just finished – and loved – War and Peace, and having also battled through/enjoyed Don Quixote, Bleak House and the like, I can state that I do like the long breathed mighty literary classic. “Battled through” can be the issue though. You have to pace yourself, something greatly aided by Tolstoy and Dickens pitching their chapter lengths perfectly.
However, I am grinding to a halt with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1152 pages), although I don’t think I’ve given up. Yet.
There is something to be said for the intrinsic advantages of the short novel. I don’t mean the short story. I’m not sure if I mean the novella either. Despite people bragging about knocking off Tolstoy in a long weekend, I mean the kind of book you can genuinely complete in a day or two, easy to carry if you’re travelling, and possibly just as satisfying as one of the behemoths.
As a comparison, here’s what I mean. I finished the ten on the right in less time than it took to do the bottom left. At my age (middlish) I’m not going to even get close to reading all the books I own (or listen to all the music I’ve bought).
Everyone is rightly going on about Andrew Neil’s glorious trash talk takedown of the ISIS nerds, and here it is as a handy reference:
My only criticism is that he didn’t namecheck Alkan, who is buried in the Cimitiere Montmartre, along with Berlioz, who did get a mention. Neil is a classic example of the gifted Scottish man of the world, a beneficiary of a superb Scottish education (now on its knees).
On the same show there’s the highly intelligent, less formally educated, (and occasional idiot), George Galloway, Dundee’s finest, with a magnificent answer on shooting the bad guys, as well as various other pieces of smart thinking:
Good on you George, whose Middle East knowledge and sympathies are well known. He’s often right, despite the anti-Israel whining. See this brilliant prophetic comment.
Then, inevitably, there is Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, who has been parked by Sturgeon, bafflingly, as the Nats’ foreign affairs spokesman. Eck now lives primarily in his own world of pompous declamatory self serving tripe, whether it’s his lousy economic predictions (see the mighty Chokkablog), or in this case, a completely out-of-step reliance on the embarrassingly discredited UN. It’s entirely in keeping with his ludicrous attempts to patronise combat veteran Johnny Mercer, on Channel 4 recently.
Eck is not just misjudging the mood of the UK, as usual, he’s carrying on with his entertaining mission to estrange himself from his own party. Eck’s closest pal in politics is going to end up as comedic convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan. For both of them the mythical Indyref 2 is becoming the only way to grab the limelight, something even the SNP are dodging now, apart from the dwindling band of ’45 zoomers.
Galloway and Neil are great adverts for the ongoing independent spirit and intellectual bite of the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, Neil looks more and more as if he could have stepped out of a Tobias Smollett novel, a writer who in some ways he resembles. These men are the best of Scotland, in their different ways. The ISIS crisis has perhaps given an unexpected boost to the process of putting Salmond into his cul-de-sac of history.
One of the most striking features of Dickens’ magnificent Great Expectations is the sense of mystery pervading the book, which continues to the last page. It goes well beyond the various plot twists, the whole atmosphere of it is soaked in a feeling of something otherworldly and unspecified swirling around the main character Pip, even in the ostensibly straightforward stretches of narrative. To a lesser extent it’s true of David Copperfield too.
Which in a strange way, makes Alain Fournier something of a French Dickens. His prose (in the original and in translation) is direct and sparse, quite different from some of Dickens’ textual curlicues and elaborate descriptions, but in his main work, and only completed novel Le Grand Meaulnes (otherwise known as The Lost Domain), he achieves a quite mesmerising sense of something numinous and profound, despite, on the face of it, a relatively ordinary story of lost love tinged with tragedy. A few male critics describe it as their favourite novel, and I think it’s because it perfectly captures something difficult to define about male adolescence and growing up, and about the sheer strangeness of events and experiences in those teenage years.
Summarising literary greatness can be difficult, and it’s a measure of the beauty of Le Grand Meaulnes, and the impact it has on the reader, that it’s so easy to find excellent commentaries, from Julian Barnes, Alan Massie and others. They do it better than I can.
Fournier’s own life fits with this theme, and not just in his own unrequited love. An immediately successful novelist, he was killed aged 27 in 1914, fighting in the Meuse area. He had no great hope of surviving the First Wold War, having said in 1911, when things were brewing, that war “is the great game – the great game of death”. He was already famous at the time of his death, and while many efforts were made to piece together the facts of his last minutes (a firefight with Germans), from the few survivors of the fighting, his body wasn’t discovered until 1991. That was thanks to an amazing 14 year search by a French schoolteacher, Michel Algrain. Fournier – identified by a lieutenant’s uniform – had been killed by a single bullet through the sternum and 2nd rib.
As the creator of this great novel, Fournier inspired such dedication, and the following year his body was formally buried with military honours. Le Grand Meaulnes is his enduring legacy.
American journalism, particularly online, doesn’t pull its punches. Here are comments from three fine pieces (1,2,3) on the now retiring Harry Reid from Nevada, a Democratic Party powerbroker, outgoing Senate Minority Leader and all round chancer. They sound strangely familiar:
He has been as near to a personification of everything that is wrong with (American) public life as we ever hope to see…
…a self-interested, dishonest, sanctimonious, unscrupulous charlatan who began his career with an act of cheap theater
…The cheap histrionics, the gross hypocrisy, the outright lies
…In order to.. advance his movements’ goals, Reid has been willing to diminish the influence, power, and effectiveness of his own institution; in order to thwart his opponents, he has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to play dirty … and, in order to satisfy his own need to feel powerful, he has perfected the scorched earth approach
…The truth of the matter is that Harry Reid is a stone-cold killer who has damaged Washington considerably, who has elevated his own political preferences above the institution he was elected to protect, and who has made worse the partisan rancor that our self-described enlightened class claims to abhor. The greatest service he can do America is to go away.
In fact Kevin D Williamson’s phrase, from one of the above articles, referring to part of Reid’s memoir “..in an unintendedly hilarious bit of autobiographical prose” instantly recalls Alex Salmond’s ludicrously titled puff piece ‘The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days That Changed Scotland’, as forensically and wittily reviewed by Chris Deerin, here, which included the phrase “…A comical lack of self-awareness runs like a burbling stream through the book.”
A couple of extracts (from the review):
..a box-ticking exercise, a litany of scores being vituperatively settled. So many, so regular and so varied are the
lunges at those who have had the temerity to disagree with him that the pattern becomes almost hypnotic. Denigration and spite provide the book’s rhythm: it has a backbeat of malice.
…The cumulative effect on the reader is to create a growing sense of unease. This man, with his seething hatreds, grand grudges and thirst for vengeance, was first minister for seven years. The position is an eminent one, and should require any holder to govern on behalf of the entire nation — all of it, and all who live in it — regardless of political persuasion or party affiliation. It is no place for those encrusted in bitterness. Yet Mr Salmond comes across as just such a small, bitter man.
Do we really get the politicians we deserve? Scotland has been desperately unfortunate that a gurning charlatan like Salmond hit the stage at a propitious time, for him. He has already massively damaged Scottish society with his self-absorbed bigoted and divisive agenda, and shows no sign of stopping, if the voters give him the chance.
A few days ago I was lying on a berth in the sleeper train from Euston to Glasgow, reading an old mystery novel in which the key event is the discovery of the dead body of a man on a berth in the sleeper train from Euston to Glasgow. This was a happy coincidence. The book is The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, rated very highly as a mystery writer by numerous people. This blog gives a taste of both the book in question, and Tey’s reputation. Tey was herself Scottish, from Inverness.
I was struck by this astonishingly familiar description, in a passage relating to Wee Archie, an irritating proto-nationalist:
So they made tea for Wee Archie, glum and polite. He produced his own sandwiches, and while they ate he lectured them on the glory of Scotland; its mighty past and dazzling future. He had not asked Grant’s name and was betrayed by his speech into taking him for an Englishman. Surprised, Grant heard of England’s iniquities to a captive and helpless Scotland. (Anything less captive or less helpless than the Scotland he had known would be difficult to imagine.) England, it seemed, was a blood-sucker, a vampire, draining the good blood of Scotland and leaving her limp and white. Scotland had groaned under the foreign yoke, she had come staggering behind the conqueror’s chariot, she had paid tribute and prostituted her talents to the tyrant’s needs. But she was about to throw off the yoke, to unloose the bands; the fiery cross was about to be sent out once more, and soon the heather would be alight. There was no cliché that Wee Archie spared them. Grant watched him with the interest one accords to a new exhibit in a collection. He decided that the man was older than he had thought. Forty-five at least; probably nearer fifty. Too old to be curable. Whatever success he had coveted had passed him by; there would never be anything for him but his pitiable fancy-dress and his clichés.
Anyone who in the past year has has to suffer the mad interminable fantasies of a crazed Nat, particularly in the build up to the dreaded referendum, will recognise the description. Yet the book was written in 1952, long before the rise of the SNP as a meaningful party, albeit one founded in 1934.
All the bitter, chippy losers of the 2014 referendum, best summed up by the absurd pretensions of the ’45, clearly existed in only a marginally different form more than 60 years ago.
‘Who is Wee Archie?’ he asked, sitting down at the table. ‘So you’ve met Archie Brown, have you?’ Tommy said, clapping the top half on his hot scone, and licking the honey that oozed from it. ‘Is that his name?’ ‘It used to be. Since he elected himself the champion of Gaeldom he calls himself Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn. He’s frightfully unpopular at hotels.’ ‘Why?’ ‘How would _you_ like to page someone called Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn?’ ‘I wouldn’t like to have him under my roof at all. What is he doing here?’ ‘He’s writing an epic poem in Gaelic, so he says. He didn’t know any Gaelic until about two years ago, so I don’t think the poem can be up to much. He used to belong to the cleesh-clavers-clatter school. You know: the Lowland-Scots boys. He was one of them for years. But he didn’t get anywhere very much. The competition was too keen. So he decided that Lowland Scots was just debased English and very reprehensible, and that there was nothing like a return to the “old tongue”, to a real language. So he “sat under” a bank clerk in Glasgow, a chap from Uist, and swotted up some Gaelic. He comes to the back door and talks to Bella now and then, but she says she doesn’t understand a word. She thinks he’s “not right in the head”.’
None of this matters greatly, given the referendum result, other than the ongoing irritation of arch-loser Alex Salmond’s typically hubristic machinations to place himself at the heart of the evil Westminster parliament.
These chancers have no shame. It’s all about them, not the UK, not even about Scotland. As Ms Tey goes on to sharply observe of Wee Archie:
‘If he hadn’t had the wit to think up this rôle for himself he would be teaching school in some god-forsaken backwater and even the school inspector wouldn’t have known his name.’
All those ‘great’ films you haven’t bothered with (Citizen Kane, Patch Adams etc), are matched by the much harder challenge of great books that you haven’t opened. In truth, The Knife has been a keen reader all his life so far, but it took me to my 40’s before I really tackled Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy and the rest. Nobody even pretends to have read them usually, until middle age is an established fact.
One book which retains a certain ‘cool’ value though, mainly because of its title and associated spin offs, is Dante’s Inferno, basically best thought of by its less often used English title, Hell. Plenty of people will claim familiarity with all the buzz words: ‘circles of hell‘, ‘abandon hope’ etc. Don’t take this as proof of having read it.
The thing is though, this is a truly magnificent book for very many reasons, but don’t expect an easy ride when you start out. The language can be awkward, the big themes/sins can seem quaint to our ‘sophisticated’ 21st century mindsets (sodomy anyone?), and first time round, it’s almost essential to have a guide, in the form of good footnotes. Unless of course, you’re already au fait with Florentine 14th century bitching and points scoring.
Much of it is a form of high level gossip and retribution, with sin – very specific sins – humanity, morality, fear, regret (a lot of regret) and so on all thrown in. Strangely, in a way, God doesn’t feature in person , and Satan is essentially a failure.
The Knife first read it in the archaic Cary translation, whilst in Tenerife, of all places, though strangely appropriate. That was a difficult read, albeit offset by having Gustave Dore’s brilliant echtengravings. But that is at the heart of this post: as with all foreign language works, which translation assumes huge importance, and with the Inferno, there’s a lot of them (see here for just a few)
So I keep reading them, and here’s the take on four very different ones.
Hollander is a straight prose version, with the Italian original on the opposite page. He keeps the three line format (terza rima), but without the rhymes. The footnotes are probably the best that I’ve read, and the all important flavour of the work is pretty much spot on. The translator is totally immersed in Dante, and is a key part of the magnificent Princeton Dante Project.
Clive James, who I reckon is a brilliant poet, has completed a labour of love translating the whole of the Divine Comedy, and retaining the rhymes – although in a slightly different way to Dante – and doing without any footnotes, by incorporating whatever explanations seem to be needed within his text. A tall order, and only partially successful, in that you have to focus more than with the others. Best read in conjunction with someone like Hollander, but really, an amazing achievement. The rhyming thing is tough because Italian is full of ‘i’ and ‘o’ vowel endings, making it easy for Dante, but in English there’s nothing like as much choice, which lead to some fairly dodgy early translational efforts. James loves this poem though, and his introduction is an erudite and sharp reflection on the poem and his project. He’s an ill man, and it must be very satisfying to have completed such an epic and innovative slog before it’s all over. Reading the reviews is fascinating (such as 1, 2, 3) as they tell you a lot about the whole issue of translation, poetry and Dante’s uniqueness, as well as how prissy some reviewers can get.
Steve Ellis‘s is a great introduction, retaining some of the necessary intrigue, with just enough footnote work to guide you. It’s prose, with an allegedly northern English style, which I didn’t notice, reads beautifully. Writing complex compact themes with simplicity and concision is no mean feat, but that’s what Ellis achieves.
Sanders and Birk produced a real oddity, with Dante’s entire Divine Comedy rendered into straight LA dude prose. Like Clive James, they keep all the explanations in the text, and update a lot of the baddies. So, while medieval popes still take a hit, in the lists of people culpable of similar offences you’ll find US presidents, TV stars and references to contemporary events. Mostly though it’s played pretty straight, and the device of explaining as they go along works very well. A noble effort, with illustrations like Robert Crumb channelled through Dore.
If I was to recommend one version (from my experience so far) for the new-to-Dante reader who may be wondering what’s the fuss about a 700 year old poem suffused with traditional Christianity, then I would go for Hollander, with Ellis as back up.
One of The Knife’s regular amusements in considering the high culture of what we can still call Christendom, is the despairing efforts of atheists and non-believers in trying to claim great works of art for their own, devoid of the originator’s religious sensibilities. For example, here is the author of a book endearingly entitled The Good Atheist, on Beethoven’s religious meisterwerk, his Missa Solemnis:
His most ostensibly religious piece was the Missa Solemnis which was a hymn to deism, and evokes the ideal not of humanity managing to qualify for entrance into a distant heaven above, but..”of a sovereign humanity in ultimate concord here on earth”
Well, nice try, but not what the piece actually states, however much you like the music but reject the sentiments. Poor old Bach suffers from the same hasty judgements. Likewise Dante. If you happen to share Dante’s completely orthodox Catholic faith, then the whole Divine Comedy has infinitely greater depth and meaning. What’s more, the 700 year gap seems irrelevant, everything comes up completely fresh and biting. To quote the late historian J Rufus Fears:
The lessons of history endure, because human nature never changed. All the human emotions, are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.
So Dante really is ‘contemporary forever’. While Purgatory and Paradise make up the rest of the Divine Comedy, it’s the Inferno that continues to seduce readers and translators alike with its bruising, reeking journey of horrors, warnings and promises fulfilled. Its enduring popularity really is extraordinary when you consider the usual cultural priorities of 21st century civilization **. Next up in the reading list is Durling (prose), Pinsky (verse) and Ciardi (verse).
And, as you get older, these things seem to get more relevant.
If you read the bad reviews on Amazon, they frequently end up with something along the lines of ‘..so I gave up about halfway through’. The Knife is averse to doing that, but by my calculations – if I live long enough – I’ve got no more than 800-900 books left to me, and it’s a bit of a waste to spend time on something that’s going nowhere.
Which is how I felt for much of the time when battling through Saul Bellow‘s alleged masterpiece, Herzog. It is emphatically no longer the great book that it might have seemed to be, when it was published in 1964. This is Woody Allen without the jokes, a solipsistic ramble through an American Jewish man’s midlife crisis, and as such has spawned a whole genre of self indulgent novels about nothing in particular. Bellow has some neat turns of phrase, but they don’t balance out the sheer hard work of getting to the end of 346 pages. Compared to another American existentialist novel from the same era (1961), Walker Percy‘s very fine The Moviegoer, it’s night and day.
This recent experience made me reflect on just how often I’ve felt ambushed by believing good reviews, or more often, wild acclaim. It began in 1981 when I worked in a record shop. If you were at the till you got to choose what was played in the shop, so I put on U2’s Boy. About 10 minutes in I realised that it was basically shite (to use the local dialect), and that seems to fit with everything they’ve produced since, despite wild acclaim etc. Another classic example would be the solo works of John Lennon (and most of his Beatles stuff too).
Similarly with films. After about 30 minutes of Reservoir Dogs it became obvious that the hype was just that. A terrible movie of actors enjoying playing, embarrassingly, with guns. I know that description might fit quite a few films, but everyone seemd to be raving about it. Nearly all of Tarantino’s stuff is just as bad. Or the worst film ever made (copyright The Knife), which by coincidence is on tonight, Love Actually.
Classical music has a long list of overpraised bores: Sir Simon Rattle, Paul Lewis, Alfred Brendel, Evelyn Glennie, to name a few. You can waste a lot of money believing the kind of reviews that these people tend to get. A good clue is often yet another regurgitation of the standard repertoire – I think Brendel has recorded the Beethoven concerti about four times. Pointless.
There’s no easy answer to this, but in order to save any passing reader some money, and quite a few hours of their life, avoid all those mentioned above, and for extras, don’t bother with: any ‘serious’ book or film that claims to be about sex; any rock music recorded by someone over the age of 50, or possibly 40; any film with Sean Penn in it; anything involving a British comedian (or more accurately, “comedian”); almost any stage play, unless you genuinely ‘get’ Shakespeare; any singer-songwriter since about 1990; anything at all that might have any connection with or endorsement by Stephen Fry. The list keeps growing.
Ever surreptitiously admired a pulp fiction book cover? Seriously, some of these are quite superb.
One of the masters was Paul Rader, who made a bit of money this way. He was also a noted portrait artist, and it’s said that there’s a modern setting crucifixion scene by him in a church in New York State. That would be worth seeing. His Tumblr galleries are quite something, if you like lurid, with considerable imagination and skill.
It really doesn’t take much to slip from our Western certainties and comforts to unalloyed savagery. I’m not talking about psychoislamicism here (for example, the two Michaels, Adebolajo and Adebowale), but “our” own kind.
When The Knife was growing up, Northern Ireland was in the news, every day, relentlessly. When I finally visited Belfast, it was exceedingly hard to work out what all the fuss had been about. How did such a small, and fairly unappealing place (the weather is dreadful) cause so much aggro? I understand tribalsim and religious sectarianism reasonably well, being of English/Irish Catholic stock myself, but really, how come?
Actually, there are lots of similar examples of a rapid descent into extreme violence. Try reading the legendary Devil’s Guardand work out whether or not it’s true or not. Likewise the gripping Guy Sajer book, The Forgotten Soldier. Though to be fair, both of these books come from out-and-out warzones.
The real shocker is when it’s the same stuff, but in our own streets. An ex-soldier of my acquaintance told me how he never minded killing the IRA, but in Gulf 1 he and his buddies gave the Iraqi conscripts a chance to run away. He’d seen just how bad the IRA could get. Which brings me to Kevin Myers’ truly mesmerising Watching The Door: Cheating death in 1970’s Belfast.
Myers, now in comfortable middle age, is still a superb journalist and writer. Back then he cheerfully admits to entering the “Norn Iron” maelstrom without any real clue – at the outset – as to what was going on. It nearly destroyed him. The book is pretty graphic about the now cliched banality of evil. If you combine it with the NI stuff in Michael Burleigh’s Blood and Rage, you end up with the overriding impression that ordinary people in the UK – me and you – can become vicious killers with remarkable ease. Is there anyone in WW2 who behaved with more brutality than the Shankill Butchers, to take one example? None of this is new, it’s just history repeating itself.
Anyway, the point of this blogpost is only partly an unoriginal reflection on fallen man. Trusting people to behave well given the chance doesn’t necessarily work, a theme which stretches from Thomas Hobbes all the way to what happens when you topple a dictator. The other point is to promote Myers’ book. It’s a memoir of a time, rather than an autobiography, and aside from the unflinching crazed violence by people the author actually came to know very well, it’s funny, filthy, and evokes the grim 70’s with terrific authenticity.
It also contains one of the funniest jokes I’ve heard (page 133, hardback).
One of the risks of appearing on a “best of” list, is that a book, film, piece of music, anything really, will be considered wonderful, possibly even bought, but not actually sampled, and so experienced only by reputation. I’ve still not seen Citizen Kane.
Hence my slight aversion to the list of “must read” works contained in Harold Bloom’s famous The Western Canon. Bloom himself is utterly in love with literature, but has pretty much disowned the list, not surprising when you see some of what’s in it.
One book that always makes it into these exercises though, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. And I have just finished all 940 pages of it.
One of the problems with delving into ‘great’ literature is that much of it has to be read in translation. I’m always left with a slight feeling of uncertainty as to whether that was what the author actually meant. The problem is worse the further back you go – try comparing different translations of the Georgics or the Iliad, to see what I mean.
So, my version of Don Quixote was the translation that first appeared in 2003, by Edith Grossman, with an introduction is by Harold Bloom himself, which is superb, especially if reread after finishing the novel. A concise version of the introduction is here.
I first tried and failed to read Don Quixote in an ancient translation when I was about 18. Probably a bad idea. This timed I enjoyed every page. So, what is it exactly?
Well, it barely has a plot, the characters are nearly all unbelievable, it’s set in Old Spain, which could hardly be less like contemporary Britain, and the hero is a deluded, virginal, middle aged Catholic madman. At least on the face of it.
It’s actually hard to say in a few words why the book is so great. A series of shaggy dog stories, pastoral interludes, ridiculous adventures and coincidences, and an almost non stop dialogue between Don Quixote himself and Sancho Panza, his squire. The obvious answer, which is largely true, is that these two, and the various others who they meet are all shades of Everyman, and like another translated genius, Tolstoy, Cervantes is a subtle and brilliant depictor of ourselves, often at our worst. Unlike Tolstoy, he can be very funny, itself amazing in a 400 year old book. The ending, unlike many otherwise fine books (and films) is masterly.
However, claims like this, however well-intended, can’t really provide the true picture. For that you have to read this remarkable work. The last word goes to Bloom again:
“All novels since ‘Don Quixote’ rewrite Cervantes’s universal masterpiece, even when they are quite unaware of it.”