Sunday, 23 April 2017

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the illiterate get a look in. It’s a strange story, full of unreliable narrators, including the author himself, who appears as a shepherd in the story.

It’s a thriller whose thrill is based on the Calvinist theory of predestination. Yes, you read that right. Apparently predestination was a hot topic in the eighteenth century. It’s the idea that as the saved are a chosen people, and as God has planned your life in advance, if you are one of the chosen you are always chosen, no matter what you do: you can’t sin yourself out of your pre-determined salvation, even by sinning a lot. This makes a sort of sense, if you think about it a lot, and shows the dangers of thinking a lot on anything. Logic has a lot of dead ends.

Predestination was I guess a kind of a cultural madness, and Hogg attempts to show this by taking it to its furthest extreme. A young man who believes himself saved is approached by another young man (‘Gil Martin’) and encouraged to think that it is his duty to smite the unbelievers. He’s hesitant, but is eventually convinced that even if he is in the wrong, he is saved in any case, so any error cannot keep him from heaven. He starts by smiting a local parson with whom he disagrees on some microscopic points of doctrine, and it goes downhill from there. It’s obvious to the reader from the beginning that Gil Martin is probably Satan, and over time it becomes horribly obvious to the young man also, who is driven to ever more desperate measures.

It made me think about the young men who join Daesh. It must take real courage to do what you think is right, and more courage to realise you were wrong, and an even more terrible courage to do anything about it.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

BEL CANTO by Ann Pratchett

This sounded like it was going to be good: 50 wealthy people taken hostage and held by terrorists for four months in a ballroom. But I found it unfortunately rather bad: a great premise, but a lame and unlikely story.

First thing that was unlikely: there is an opera singer among the hostages, who decides she needs to practice, and so sings for two hours a day - and the people ACTUALLY LIKE IT. This strains credulity. I can’t imagine anything worse than being imprisoned and then made to listen to opera. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on the universal redemptive power of great art but I guess what I learnt is that I don’t believe in that power.

Second thing unlikely: this opera singer and some man fall in love, despite not speaking the same language. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on love existing on a plane beyond language. I guess I also don’t believe in that.

Third thing unlikely: one of the hostages and one of the terrorists fall in love. This, despite a truly vast gap in class and experience in violence. I guess I do believe in Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t think that’s what Pratchett was going for.

In short, I guess this book was educational. I learnt I don’t believe either art or love conquer all.

Monday, 17 April 2017

BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763 by James Boswell, edited by Frederick A Pottle

I don’t suppose many people read Boswell, and those who do probably don’t begin with his lesser works. But there you go: such are the perils and pleasures of not letting the Amazon algorithm suggest what you read, but rather the mysterious inner workings of a charity shop at Clapham Junction.

The algorithm rationally assigns you what you would probably enjoy (i.e., the big classic: Boswell’s Life of Johnson). The British Heart Foundation shop erratically suggests the reading preferences of whoever has died that week. This I really quite enjoy, as for some reason this particular charity shop has really rather highbrow donors. It’s surprising. I suspect it is because readers of similar tastes go there, and so donate there, and so go there. It’s me and a bunch of OAPs, would be my guess. So that’s the story of why I am reading a relatively obscure 18th century diary in an even more obscure 1950 edition the cover of which I struggled to find on Google images for your thumbnail enjoyment.

I love a good diary. There is something extraordinarily reassuring in seeing the day-to-day of someone else’s life, even if that someone has been dead for 200 years. Here’s a flavor, from the footnotes:
About this time he (Boswell) began also to write a series of memoranda, one octavo page every day, apparently jotted down the last thing before he went to bed or the first thing in the morning before he put on his clothes. In them he tells himself, always in the second person, what to eat, what to wear, what supplies to get in, what books to read; makes schedules for calls; gives directions for pleasures; orders himself to keep his journal posted; implores himself to try to attain to greater gravity.

It’s touching to see how other people suffer days when they are down, for no reason; that other people have to make resolutions; have to find self-control, and exercise that boring daily discipline of happiness. It’s particularly touching to read the diary of someone in their early twenties, as I don’t think that’s something often preserved (unless they are a suicide). I’m struck by how much time Boswell spends resolving on ‘manner’ – on being this or that type of person. I recall that from my twenties, and it’s interesting to see I don’t seem to do that anymore. Perhaps I am actually an adult.

There’s also a charming and sometimes horrifying flavor of 18th century London. Boswell is always to be found drinking coffee, going to the theatre, eating in chop houses, etc. Here we are with a prostitute (he’s always having sex with these poor women in the street):
In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her sixpence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens pushed her up against the wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more whores and soldiers came to her relief.
I have a lot of questions that I don’t really want answered about all of that. Near the end of his diary Boswell finally meets Johnson, and we see here his first notes that would become the famous Life. It’s enormously quotable, and makes me feel I need to work on polishing my conversational knife a little further:
Sir, I was once a greater arguer for the advantages of poverty, but I was at the same time very discontented. Sir, the great deal of arguing which we hear to represent poverty as no evil shows it to be evidently a great one. You never knew people laboring to convince you that you might live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.
And:
Mr Johnson said today that a woman’s preaching was like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.
Also charming are the editor’s almost insanely detailed, and sweetly dated, footnotes, which clearly mark how much this academic loves this man. Example - Boswell is busy with another prostitute, and the editor comments: “ ‘roger’ of course has a different meaning today, in this age of radio-telephony”

I love that line of Alan Bennett’s about reading being "as if a hand has come out and taken yours” from across time. This book made me feel like that, in the best possible way.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

This is a wonderful novel, deeply engaging, remarkably concise; creating a world and characters you care about in a brief 250 pages. It is at the same time entirely forgettable. It's a strange mixture. I felt like I just swallowed it whole and now it's over and I have some kind of eater's remorse.

BROOKLYN tells the story of a young Irish woman who moves to America, leaving behind her widowed mother and sister, as she is unable to find work at home. She is deeply unhappy at first, but finally finds love with an Italian. It's an interesting window into a truly immigrant New York, where she has to be trained in how to eat spaghetti before she goes to meet his parents. Then SPOILER ALERT her sister dies, and her boyfriend asks that she marries him before she goes home to see her mother, as he is scared she will never return. She does so, secretly, thinking it a little silly, as she fully intends to come back. Once in Ireland, she finds out - as do many who return home - that home is strangely powerful. Almost immediately America disappears like a dream, in the scary way that not-here can do.

She meets someone new, and it turns out it was smart of her Italian to get the marriage done before she left. It comes out, the world being a small place even before the internet, and she heads back to America, wiser now, confident that home too can disappear, given time.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

EMPIRE OF THE SUN by JG Ballard

Anthony Burgess called EMPIRE OF THE SUN "an incredible literary achievement," and he's not wrong. It's a remarkable work. I am perhaps the more struck by it because I first read a much earlier and less sucessful book of Ballard's - THE DROWNED WORLD - which, though a sci-fi set in London, has many of same themes: apocalyptic collapse; loneliness; final decisions. It's fascinating to see a writer take the same set of pre-occupations and move them from middling to masterpiece.

The book is based on Ballard's own experience of spending his early adolescence in a Japanese prison camp during the second world war. The Ballard proxy, a child named Jim, lives a privileged life in Shanghai until he is about ten, when the war comes and he is interned. Let's caveat though that privileged is perhaps a relative term, as pre-war Shangai sounds fairly intense. The Chinese are taking it to the next level with frequent "public stranglings" and some delicious street snacks
He turned away, tripping over the charcoal brazier in which a pavement vendor was frying pieces of battered snake. Drops of fat splashed into the wooden bucket, where a single snake swam, thrashing itself as it leapt at the hissing oil.

Yum. After a little while interned in the camp with 3000 others, the fried snake starts to sound pretty good. The prisoners get very little to eat, and go from picking out the weevils to cherishing them for their protein. It's interesting to see particularly how pragmatically the child handles the war. The adults are bogged down in morals and sentiment, but Jim isn't burdened with any of that. Here he is thinking about a doctor he meets who has made a passing comment on dentistry:
He was suspicious of the physician, of his long legs and his English manner and his interest in teeth. Perhaps he and Basie would team up as corpse-robbers? Jim thought about the goat which Dr Ransome wanted to buy from the Japanese. Everything he had read about goats confirmed that they wree difficult and wayward creatures, and this suggested that there was something impractical about Dr Ransome. Few Europeans had gold teeth, and the only dead people the doctor was likely to see for a long time would be Europeans.

The peace proves more dangerous than the war. Once the Japanese leave them, they have no more food, and no one to protect them from the various other starving groups: the communists, the nationalists, the civilians. Then the Americans start dropping canisters of food from their planes. Jim manages to find one, which is full of Spam.
Smiling to himself, Jim thought of his mother - he could no longer remember her face but he could all too well imagine her response to the Spam.

The book is fantastically interesting historically, emotionally compelling, and very beautifully written. Much of the book is, bizarrely, given its subject matter, very lovely. Particularly, there is a focus on the beauty of aviation. Jim develops an elaborate fantasy life around the airplanes he sees in the sky, mixed up with the dark time he spends as slave labour on a kamikaze plan runway.
The whiteness of the runway excited Jim, its sun bleached surface mixed with the calcinated bones of the dead Chinese, and even perhaps with his own bones in a death that might have been.
It's a remarkable translation of horror into poetry.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

As the title suggests, LIFE AND FATE is a novel with a wide scope. It's a gigantic account of Stalinist Russia, mostly during the second World War, written by someone who was there: who survived the siege of Stalingrad; who lost his mother to the Holocaust; who took items from Hitler's desk immediately after his death; and who of course - in the best tradition of all truly important Russian novelists of the twentieth century - saw his own novel kept from publication till all relevant people, including himself, were dead.

To give you some measure of how vast it is, and how difficult it is to write any kind of pathetic little blog post on it, let me tell you the list of characters alone is eight pages long. And it's desperately needed, as you move wildly around from Stalingrad, to kolkhozes, to death camps (on both the Fascist and Soviet sides), to Moscow laboratories, to minor Ukranian towns, to the Lubyanka. This last is a major prison in Moscow, in which I spent so much time in Solzhenitsyn's THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO that it was like meeting an old friend.

I read some years ago the autobiography of Lenin's wife (hilariously pictured below), and was struck then by what seemed an almost insane level of idealism. There was lots of sitting around in cellars with your three friends from university and talking about how you were going to bring down Tsarist Russia. Then incredibly they actually did bring down Tsarist Russia, not without some serious weeping in the streets of Zurich while singing the Internationale.
And you see in this book the end point of this kind of wild belief in a better future. There is a long dark shadow of "1937" across this book, which is a kind of code for talking about Stalin's purges. I'd heard of these before, but in this book I really learnt of their scale. Almost the entire leadership of every area was executed (or "sentenced to ten years without right of correspondence," i.e., executed). This meant huge number of highly capable people were lost, but as the system insisted on confessions, and denunciations, and 'evidence,' it also left behind an even larger number of people carrying an enormous - and in some cases - unbearable burden of guilt, for providing the requisite denunciations and evidences. And yet somehow many people still convinced themselves that the state was still fundamentally right, and revolutionary justice was outside the realms of ordinary justice. People informed on each other left and right, and felt alright about themselves while doing it. Overall, it makes some African dictatorships I know of look pretty good.

In fact, this book made my life overall look pretty great. Try this, on the siege:
The German air raids stopped at dusk. A man arriving in Stalingrad at night, deafened by the guns, might well imagine that some cruel fate had brought him there just as a major offensive was being launched. For the veterans, however, this was the time to shave, to wash clothes and write letters; for the turners, mechanics, solderers and watchmakers this was was the time to repair clocks, cigarette-lighters, cigarette-holders, and the oil-lamps made from old shellcases with strips of greatcoats as wicks.
Or this, on life in the Russian military:
All his life as a soldier he had been afraid of having to account for lost ammunition and ordnance, lost fuel, lost time; afraid o fhaving to explain why he had abandoned a summit or crossroads without permission. Not once had he known a superior officer show real anger because an operation had been wasteful in terms of human lives. He had even known officers send their men under fire simply to avoid the anger of their superiors, to be able to throw up their hands and say: 'What could I do? I lost half my men, but I was unable to reach the objective'

While dark, the world of the book is also hilarious and very weird. This is because I think it is pretty much written direct from life. Grossman himself was asked to denounce people, and did so. So he knows what he means when he speaks of guilt. Try these conversations from Stalingrad:
"He's a fine fellow. A Bolshevik. A true Stalinist. A man with experience of leadership. And stamina. I remember him from 1937. Yezhov sent him to clean up the military district. Well, I wasn't exactly running a kindergarten myself at that time, but he really did do a thorough job. He was an axe - he had whole lists of men liquidated."
Apparently that's how we speak about the security organs. And here we are on the correct Stalinist view of women:
"She's got legs like a stork, no arse worth speaking of, and great cow-like eyes. Call that a woman?"
"You just like big tits," Chentsov retorted. "That's an outmoded, pre-revolutionary point of view."

I could go on. I think I've given you a flavour of maybe ten percent.




Saturday, 25 February 2017

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu

I haven't read much Chinese fiction, and certain never any Chinese science fiction. It is plenty weird. First, it is written by a former software engineer and it shows. How delightfully loopy is this:
Battles like this one raged across Beijing like a multitude of CPUs working in parallel, their combined output, the Cultural Revolution.
. Or this reflection on a woman the protagonist is in love with:
Wang subconsciously thought of her as the long-obsolete DOS operating system: a blank, black screen, a bare “C:>” prompt, a blinking cursor. Whatever you entered, it echoed back. Not one extra letter and not a single change. But now he knew that behind the “C:>” was a bottomless abyss.

The story covers the first contact of humanity with an alien civilization, who are seeking to leave their planet, Trisolaris, because it has a catastrophic climate driven by the fact that is has three suns. This is the 'three body problem' that the aliens spend many millenia trying to solve. It's a major achievement to make a math problem into an exciting element of your novel's plot, and Liu doesn't manage it. I skipped a lot of this part, not least because it was unfolded in a - wait for it, this is so dorky - video game. Important note, prospective authors: just as dreams are boring in ordinary fiction, so are video games in science fiction.

Back on our planet, a Chinese astrophysicist who has lost her family in the Cultural Revolution manages to send a message out beyond our solar system. She gets a reply, which is incredibly: "Do not answer! Do not answer! Do not answer!" It is sent by a pacifist on Trisolaris who knows that if the Trisolarins can figure out where the messages are coming from they will come to take over the Earth. In an awesome twist, the astrophysicist immediately responds. She is furious with humanity for what has happened to her family and believes that we deserve what is coming to us. Even more awesomely, the Trisolarins immediately do two things: send out a fleet to reach us, and begin to plot how to kill or confuse all our physicists. They are not afraid of our current armaments, but of what our science could do; and most particularly of what the physicists could do, as no major breakthrough happens without them. It's not often you think of physicists as our first line of defence.

Anyway, despite what has turned into a generally positive review, and the fact that this book won the Hugo I thought it was kind of boring. The characters are truly impressively thin, and the plot while fun was deeply questionable. On the other hand, it was not quite like anything else I've ever read, so I'm glad I blitzed through it.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...