Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stranger In My Life by Janet Holt and Helen Parker

“Sorry, please look after the animals” was scribbled on a note that Fred pinned to a door. It was intended for the eyes of Janet Holt, who had helped out on Fred’s farm for years and had become his business partner. Presumably, Janet heeded the message. The word “presumably” may seem strange, but it is relevant because the note was read during a four day period in March 1976 that became elided from Janet’s memory. For thirty-four years, she had no recollection whatsoever of what transpired in those days and it is the search for the story of that blanked out time that forms the centrepiece of Janet Holt’s autobiography, The Stranger In My Life.

At one point, late in the book, a misprint tells us that her dogs have “tales wagging with excitement”. Janet had always been close to animals and loved to care for them. And if the animals described in the book – the dogs, horses, cattle and pigs in particular – could in fact tell their tales, then we would know for sure that Janet did in fact heed the note and remember to look after them. In the absence of their first hand witness, we must rely on Janet’s perhaps incomplete account, reconstructed with therapist help more than three decades after the event.

The Stranger In My Life begins with a conventional, perhaps quiet childhood. Janet Holt’s interest in animals was manifest from an early age, and by ten she had Lucky, her own pony. A rural setting in a village near New Mills in Derbyshire in the north of England offered her an excellent setting to pursue her interest. And then Janet got to know Fred Handford, a farmer who in the nineteen sixties still ploughed with shire horses. Janet helped on the farm and soon became skilled in animal husbandry, milking, pig feeding, mucking out and the like.

Janet wanted to pursue this outdoor life, but her parents insisted she get a real job, so she eventually became a clerk in a New Mills legal firm. Janet’s dependability, interest and enthusiasm allowed her to combine a full time desk job and the farm work she loved. Indeed, a financial arrangement with Fred saw her become a partner in the business.

And then, in 1976, in her mid-twenties, Janet suffered a kind of mental and physical collapse. Four days disappeared from her life and her business partner Fred disappeared from her and everyone else’s life, having left what was interpreted as a suicide note. But then, there never was a body…

Janet took over the farm, but needed to continue with the paid work. In many ways she became a stranger to herself, since she left herself no time to reflect, relive events. A career and a farm, plus sleepless nights and recurring nightmares seemed to leave little time for anything apart from the here and now. And by then that included an affair with her boss from the legal firm, an arrangement that was to last twenty years. The four days around Fred’s disappearance remained stubbornly blank, but ever dominant. In any case, just how much do we know of ourselves? Given the task, could any of us recall the events of a particular week in our lives well enough to relive them? But in Janet’s case, the emptiness of the missing time continually returned to dominate the present.

Years later, after serving a prison sentence and with the help of a loyal friend and a therapist, Janet Holt attempted to relive those days with drastic results. But even then the story remained incomplete. The affair with the boss had lasted all those years and had ended in acrimony. Janet had never been afforded status above the mistress used for sex, and she had shared that status with others in her boss’s life. Scorned, she exacted revenge where it hurt the man the most, in his wallet, but she paid the price for the fraud. Her time inside did nothing to alleviate the pressure still exerted by those missing four days from two decades before, but it did help to identify new priorities for her life, and eventually an attempt to relive the trauma materialised. Once through proved to be less than adequate as complication compounded complication and in the process Janet, the storyteller of her own life, seems to meet a stranger she knew only in nightmares, a person who lived those four missing days.

The Stranger In My Life is an autobiography. Its style is matter of fact, its language transparent and often deceptively simple. But the content is stranger than fiction, revealing a person who became a stranger to herself, her very existence denied. There is an immediacy that brings the past to life, though never literally, and it is a past that still might not have fully revealed itself. We have to believe what Janet tells us, but still we are never sure of events. “Sorry, please look after the animals” is what Fred’s note said, but it is only the animals themselves who could tell us the detached detail of whether Janet did as she was asked.

Friday, October 26, 2012

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers forms the fourth volume of The Pelican History Of England. Now sixty years old, this particular text examines a period of transition, perhaps from the traditional towards the modern, at least in spirit. The author cites the fifteen thirties as the decade beyond which medieval values and assumptions were in terminal decline. The modernity that replaced them was merely incipient, however, and took centuries more to transform English society, but the case made in this book for the fifteen thirties forming the cusp of that change is compelling.

The book certainly presents history as a top-down affair. The king and his concerns are ever central, and most of the rest revolves around this core. It is Myers’s case that medieval societies were characterised by a need for an all-powerful figurehead whose authority was perceived as derived directly from God. And given this, the history of the entire period was thus the history of the exercise of this authority. There were strong kings, who commanded the allegiance of those who held power of their own, and there were weak ones who thus invited plot, conspiracy and instability. The divine right of kings, it seems, was subject to Darwinian market forces: those who succeeded in attracting sufficient authoritative godliness prospered, while those who did not were deposed.

A measure of the monarch’s strength during this period seems to have been the ability to fight foreign wars. The word “foreign” is problematic if the Angevin origins of this empire are acknowledged. In the eyes of those who viewed contemporary life, perhaps, England and their France were never perceived as separate entities, but merely part of the same, unified heirloom estate that happened to have a strip of sea through the middle. This view of the political geography of the time is not stressed by Myers, so a sense of England versus France pervades the narrative.

Myers devotes time to the arts, economy, society in general and ecclesiastical life, as well as to descriptions of court life, intrigue and military campaigns. His discussion subtly charts the growth of trade and the rise of a class of nouveau riche business families who eventually supplant the older, land-owning aristocracy. And it is these people who eventually provide the stimulus that encourages the adoption of humanism and other renaissance traits that had developed a century earlier on mainland Europe. They thus appear to occupy the role of a modernising elite.

The fourteenth century in England was a century of plague amidst almost constant warfare, either with France or, if that had temporarily run out of steam, internally, where the Wars of the Roses saw the Houses of York and Lancaster vie for the English throne. It was perhaps this conflict that resulted in medieval values persisting in England when elsewhere they were already in decline.

But what is really satisfying about Myers’s account of late medieval England is that in a short volume he manages to communicate and illustrate the complications and exceptions, as well as the general thrust. This is a work of true scholarship and understanding that strives to portray the big picture, but accomplishes this via an attention to detail that brings the story completely to life.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Edgar Drake is a piano tuner and is the principal character of Daniel Mason’s novel. Based in late nineteenth century London, he is also something of a specialist. No doubt he will tune any instrument, but Edgar Drake advertises himself as a specialist the Erard, the brand of piano that Franz Liszt had chosen for its special, perhaps unique qualities. And so, perhaps, Edgar Drake is not just any piano tuner: he is a tuner of Erards, a star performer of sorts, though personally he aspires to no sort of stardom.

He is clearly not short of work. He and his wife, Katherine, live a thoroughly middle-class life from his earnings. They could afford to support a family, but after several years of amorous marriage they have no children. It appears that Erard pianos might just be Edgar Drake’s children, so dearly does he care for their well being, their present and their future, there being no space left for any other concerns.

A letter arrives to disrupt this professional and domestic blissful stability. It’s a request to tune, re-voice and perhaps repair an Erard piano. There is nothing special about that, perhaps, but the letter domes from Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll from his outpost on the very edge of the British Empire, deep in the jungle highlands of Burma. Anthony Carroll, Edgar Drake is told by a gentleman in the War Office, lives in the highlands of the Shan states which span the Burma-Siam border, an area noted for its political and military insecurity. How on earth did an Erard grand piano make its way to such a place? And why? Is it a mere plaything of a serviceman stationed far from home? And why is the request to repair it being handled through official channels? Edgar Drake will be well rewarded if he accepts the commission, but he will be away from home for months and, unfortunately, such a journey is not suitable for a woman.

Well, of course he accepts. Edgar Drake’s journey by steamship via the Mediterranean, Egypt, Arabia and India form the first part of The Piano Tuner. Some of those whom he meets along the way - especially a man who tells every traveller just one tale - play a part in the book’s story, but these roles are revealed much later, and subtly. The true significance of any event or claim by any character in The Piano Tuner in never immediately apparent.

Edgar Drake is hosted by the colonial military during his stays in Rangoon and Mandalay. He is reassured that the official, thoroughly British establishment is behind his venture. But as time passes it becomes clear that the task that he is being asked to accomplish is not considered by anyone with an opinion as being a simple, technical job on a musical instrument. And it is not just the threat of raiding bandits, the trials and tribulations of a river journey, the oppressive climate and threatening diseases, or even a visit to the politically unstable Shan kingdoms on the edge of imperial influence that provide the complication. There is clearly something that Edgar Drake is not being told.

The piano tuner grows ever more frustrated while he waits to start his assignment. When he eventually travels, it is unclear whose support he retains or whose commission he is undertaking. It is then that the place, its beauty, its culture, mysticism and promise begin to bewitch Mr Drake. The more he is exposed to the stimuli of Burmese life, the more he becomes absorbed by his surroundings and obsessed with a task that he does not want to end. Soon he finds himself at the centre of events and relationships he could never have imagined when he first read the letter that explained his commission back in London.

Edgar Drake is very much at the centre of The Piano Tuner’s plot. It is his story, his perceptions and reactions as life reveals itself to him that are described. The book unfolds from his consistent point of view, but Drake’s views are changed by experience and we live through these experiences with him. He becomes a competent, reserved hero who responds to surroundings and experience and is changed by both. The true success of the novel is that the reader feels these same transforming sensations as the story unfolds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess is a work that almost defies description. The only way to get a sense of its world is to enter it by reading the book. The novel’s journey is vast, it’s absurdity often hilarious and its dark humour often tinged with a biting perception of the real.

As with many Anthony Burgess novels, the start is staggering. The first hundred pages - as is usual for Anthony Burgess - race past at a hilarious pace. Reginald Morrow Jones - inevitably Vegetable Marrow Jones to his friends – is a Welshman. Enough said… So was King Arthur. What links them? Precious little until you have read the book and then, perhaps, quite a lot less.

But then, as ever with this author, after the initial headlong spurt the pace seems to fall away. It could come as a relief to many readers, since being dragged along at the rate of the opening could easily exhaust. There is, of course, the necessity to develop the characters and their predicaments. Anthony Burgess does this by viewing their lives from different perspectives. This works in part, but the overall similarity of style tends to blur this use of different points of view.

Merely listing the scenarios in which the characters find themselves raises the breathing rate. Anthony Burgess does not need to reinvent history so that his characters may live through it. So, in Any Old Iron, we have a Titanic survivor, Russians in New York with a restaurant business and a sex-starved daughter who seems to like the new cook. After a visit to the First World War, there’s an escapade or two on the streets of St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad eventually - take your pick - as the Russian revolution unfolds. We participate. This is a long way from Wales, about twenty pages or so. Somehow we find ourselves in Manchester. There is a Jewish family with an even more sex-starved daughter. She takes up percussion with her musical ear. World War Two? Thought you would never mention it… Yes, let’s have a bit of that. How about a trek across the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union? Did I forget the posting to Gibraltar that had such a profound effect on a soldier’s career? And what about fluency in Spanish? Where did that come in? National identity is always good for the soul, so while we are talking about the foundation of Israel, why don’t we have a bash at Welsh independence?

The text is peppered with puns, intellectual references, linguistic tricks and occasional insight. We learn, for instance, in quite relevant circumstances, that for Russians water and vodka are regarded as being just about the same thing, the letter k being the only difference. We learn that a letter A embossed on a once shiny, now corroded steel sword originally signified ownership by one Attila the Hun. I mean, can we really dislike Attila the Hun? The same sword later became the property of one Arthur of Wales, the legendary King Arthur of the Knights and Round Tables. The sword, by the way, was later nicked, by theft, not corrosion, and had to be nicked back via an inside job at the Ermitage in Leningrad. (Got the name right this time…) Oh, and there’s that tour of duty in Gibraltar, where a serviceman kills an off duty German as part of the war effort and is accused of murder. What about the trek across a Soviet winter? Already mentioned that…
Any Old Iron, frankly, defies description. Right from the first paragraph, “I’m no metallurgist, merely a retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy” to the last, “It was a pity that Reg had lost his sense of smell,” Any Old Iron taunts the reader with innuendo, humour, double-entendre, intellectual challenge and linguistic trick. What it perhaps does not do is offer a rounded and familiar character that we thoroughly get to know. But part of the point in this novel that addresses ideas of identity is that none of us is knowable in that way. Life presents itself and we live it as it comes along. Circumstance, chance, imagined magical association and loyalty are all quite real and often get in the way. Any Old Iron is seriously funny.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys

In his One Hundred Best Books, John Cowper Powys confidently selects a reading list for all humanity. Written in 1916 by a man already in his forties, it offers a selection that can be labelled as distinctly pre-war, pre-First World War, that is. Given that the author was the product of an English public school - that means private, by the way, if you are not English - and then Cambridge University, one would expect the list to be dominated by the classics, ancient and modern. And, indeed it is, but there are numerous surprises.

One Hundred Best Books is a short text and offers only a potted critique of the works chosen. More often than not, John Cowper Powys chooses an author rather than a work. So, for example, Sir Walter Scott manages to have three books listed, and Dostoyevsky four, while Chares Dickens manages just one. So, in fact this list is not one hundred best books, more like a hundred favourite authors. The critiques, therefore, more often than not relate to the author’s perception of the writer’s overall oeuvre, rather than to a specific work.

This list might be almost a hundred years old, but it remains an enlightening and enjoyable tour of the literary perception and, to a certain extent, the bigotries of the time. Selections are often more revealing in what they omit rather than what they include and One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is no exception. Indeed, towards the end, the text appears to descend into mere advertisement, but this part can be safely skimmed or ignored.

A statistic that reveals much of its time is the stark reality that only two of the hundred writers listed are women. A third woman, who chose to write under a male non de plume, George Eliot, is omitted altogether, which, given that she had died over thirty years before this list was published, is a surprise. Though the list covers ancient classics and includes works from Russia, France, Italy, Germany and the United States, there is no place for the naturalism of Emile Zola.

But neither is the list merely a safety first trip through big names. A number of the French and Italians listed would not be immediately recognised by a contemporary reader. And some names, such as Gilbert Cannan, Vincent O’Sullivan and Oliver Onions have apparently almost disappeared.

John Cowper Powys is not afraid, however, to describe those he has chosen in colourful terms, sometimes revealing much about prevalent ideas of the day. How many people, in the twenty-first century, would advise the following: “a few lines taken at random and learned by heart would act as a talisman in all hours to drive away the insolent pressure of the vulgar and common crowd,” especially when referring to The Odes of Horace? And today would the phrase “the greatest intellect in literature” be attached easily to Rabelais?

On Nietzsche, we are advised that “To appreciate his noble and tragic distinction with the due pinch of Attic salt it is necessary to be possessed of more imagination than most persons are able to summon up.” Theodore Dreiser is lavished with praise: “There is something epic—something enormous and amorphous—like the body of an elemental giant—about each of these books…  All is simple, direct, hard and healthy—a very epitome and incarnation of the life-force, as it manifests itself in America.” What literature of the Unites States in the early twenty-first century, I wonder, aspires to simplicity coupled with directness, hardness and health? If it exists, I bet it’s not fiction.

Thackeray has one work included. One wonders whether John Cowper Powys really wanted it. “Without philosophy, without faith, without moral courage, the uneasy slave of conventional morality, and with a hopeless vein of sheer worldly philistinism in his book, Thackeray is yet able, by a certain unconquerable insight into the motives and impulses of mediocre people, and by a certain weight and mass of creative force, to give a convincing reality to his pictures of life, which is almost devastating in its sneering and sentimental accuracy.”

Charles Dickens is nowadays credited with being a great social realist. Powys includes only Great Expectations and seems to regard Dickens as something less than real. “His world may be a world of goblins and fairies, but there cross it sometimes figures of an arresting appeal and human voices of divine imagination.” And who, today, would say this about a writer? “Mr. Shaw has found his role and his occupation very happily cut out for him in the unfailing stupidity, not untouched by a sense of humor, of our Anglo-Saxon democracy in England and America.”

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is a quick and easy read. It is always useful to remind ourselves that perhaps the way we think about the world changes our psyche as much as changes in fashion alter our appearance. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Problem With Genre - Master Of The Moor by Ruth Rendell

As crime fiction goes, The Master of The Moor by Ruth Rendell is perhaps one of the more subtle examples. The action is set in a moorland community, presumably somewhere like North Yorkshire, though the book’s place names are pure invention and geography is not defined. There has been a murder, a fairly vicious affair where the young female victim – perhaps a cliché in itself – has not only been stabbed but scalped as well. The body has been discovered by Stephen, a large man, passionate enough about moorland rambling to write a regular column on the subject for a local newspaper, and thus is probably not unknown in the community. The plot will not be spoiled if it is revealed that, primarily because of his intimate knowledge of the moor, coupled with his solitary nature, Stephen becomes suspect number one. There is another murder and yet another in this small, apparently tightly-knit place.

Stephen is apparently happily married in an unhappy marriage. We learn of his sexual dysfunction, as if it is advertised, while he questions his own birthright. He has a confused elderly relative who lives in a care home. There’s a famous local novelist, now dead, famous for his moorland romances, a writer with whom Stephen feels a strong and special association.

There is Dadda, meaning Stephen’s father, a giant of a man who runs a furniture restoration business. His son is an employee. There is Nick, the man Stephen’s wife is seeing. And then, inevitably, there are policemen involved. There has, after all, been a murder.

Ruth Rendell’s descriptive writing captures the landscape well and also communicates Stephen’s life-long love of the place, its history, its flora and fauna, and its uniqueness. The plot eventually works its way through its own machinations and there is something of a surprise towards the end. So why, then, is such a competently written, engaging and enjoyable book eventually such a disappointment? The answer, surely, is that demands of the genre dominate and diminish the writer’s ability to communicate. And here are four ways in which this happens.

Firstly, there is the all-seeing person at the heart of the process – the writer. As previously stated, Ruth Rendell’s book is very well written and is certainly much more than competent when compared to almost any other form. But the writer here is clearly not to be trusted. There are ideas, facts and facets relating to almost all of these characters that the writer deliberately hides from the reader, merely so that they can be revealed when the plot demands. This happens despite the God-like, all-seeing standpoint that the non-participant narrator adopts and the shifting point-of-view where, apparently, we can be inside the thoughts of any of the characters at whim. And still we do not know what they think! In The Master Of The Moor, for example, Stephen apparently changes colour when he gets angry. We only learn this some way through the tale. Do we assume that this is a new phenomenon? Has he never before been angry? Has no-one ever noticed this tendency, or remarked upon it in this small, tightly-knit community? Perhaps it is merely a convenient vehicle for the story-teller, introduced with little warning to create a spicy moment. Perhaps, then, it is disingenuousness of this type that prompts someone like Alan Bennett to confess that writers generally are not very nice people.

Secondly, there is the function of the characters in relation to the plot. Throughout, the reader senses that the only reasons for identifying aspects of character is to link them to a linear plot that will eventually be resolved, with revealed detail functioning as either evidence or motive. As the process unfolds, such details are revealed sequentially as clues to notice, like scraps of paper strewn on a forest floor to dictate the route to follow. We know that these people only exist as mere vehicles, functionaries whose existence is to serve the illusion. And the journey feels ever more like being led by the nose.

Thirdly, and by no means any less importantly, is the requirement that all belief be suspended, even within a setting that seems to rely upon establishing a sense of realism. Genre fiction seems to be, in relation to this demand upon the reader, to be more demanding than fantasy, horror or even opera. In Master Of The Moor, for instance, we have a total of three bizarre murders in a small, rural community. Not only are these crimes committed in a very short space of time, they are also in the public domain. Meanwhile people in these small towns seem to go on with their lives without those recent events dominating their thoughts, conversations or actions. There have been three murders, and yet it is the local police who are still doing the investigating. Three murders, and still there is neither a plethora of imported reinforcements from even nearby forces, nor is there any invasion by researchers, presenters, technicians or temporary twenty-four hour studios of national and international news gathering organisations. Life, and death, it seems, just goes on. There have been three murders, and apparently not even journalists from local or regional media are on the streets of this small place drubbing out a story. There have been three murders, and yet people still do not have them at the forefront of their gossip. There is no finger pointing. There are no tearful press conferences, and little speculation. And people still discuss furniture restoration, moorland grasses, old mines and out-of-date books before any of the three murders. Reality, the currency of the genre, seems to be strangely absent.

Fourthly, and perhaps most important of all, is the sense that everything presented is formulaic. The victims are all young and female, of course, and men with sexual problems behave strangely. Most people conform to social class stereotypes and anyone with an interest worthy of remark is a suspect.

Master Of The Moor is a good read. It is an enjoyable book. But, via its form, prescriptions and preconceptions, it presents an at best two-dimensional world. Its plot and characters are truly one-dimensional within that frame, mere lines that join up pre-placed dots. There is nothing wrong with the book, but, like its characters, it is imprisoned by the confines of genre and cannot transcend the imposed framework. The experience it offers the reader is therefore limited. Imagination, somehow, seem to be lacking.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett clearly sets out to offer a mildly propagandist view of the First World War. Within a few pages of the start of its survey of sites of recent action in France and Belgium, we have learned that - apparently immutably - on the one hand France and its culture represent just about the pinnacle of human achievement, while on the other everything German is barbaric, aggressive and wantonly destructive. But by the end of the book, even Arnold Bennett seems no more than merely exhausted, merely bombed-out, like the skeletal remains of the city of Ypres he was then describing. It is this transformation through the progress of this short book that makes it still worth reading.

Where Vera Brittain’s Testament Of Youth sees the consequences of the first World War’s conflict in generally human terms, Arnold Bennett approaches his descriptive task with the sentiment and mission of a propagandist. He was there to fly the flag, there is no doubt. But he had already lived for several years in France and was also a professional journalist. Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front is therefore less of a personal reflection and more of an attempt to provide a - theoretically, at least - dispassionate, if committed and one-sided view of the conflict.

Today, passages that scorn German tactics because they seem bent on the destruction of architectural heritage read as merely quant. We all know that the reality of war demands destruction, especially of symbols of power and identity. As an example, one wonders what the strategic value was of bending flat a grotesquely over-sized metal Saddam Hussein? Precisely none, since this was clearly an act driven by its symbolism. We also know that scruples are not ammunition in war and that defenders and aggressors alike often hide behind the communally sacrosanct, first for potential cover and second for the potential propaganda value should the first aim fail. When Arnold Bennett expresses anger at German shelling of Gothic cathedrals in places such as Rheims, one wonders, given the opportunity, what he might have made of carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two? We know that his view would have remained partisan, but such a stance was only to be expected, given his journalistic associations and the politics of his employers.

It is when Arnold Bennett is touring the destroyed city of Ypres that the doubts really begin to surface. Bennett was a believer in the worth of everyday experience. As a novelist he at least aspired to the basing of his work on quite ordinary lives, believing them to be inherently of interest because of their simple humanity. In Ypres he describes the wrecked houses of ordinary people who were forced out, bombed out, chased away or merely killed. Questions clearly arise in his mind about the nature of war, but they never quite become explicit enough to demand answer.

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett is a short book that is worthy of re-reading today for two reasons. One is Arnold Bennett’s journalistic ability to describe what he saw. Through this he is able to provide a vivid and reasonably accurate account of day-to-day warfare in the trenches. But secondly, Arnold Bennett writes from the committed, partisan position of a man of his times. There is no detachment in his view, only commitment and conviction. This reminds us that in times of war, at least for the protagonists, there is no scope for detachment, since taking sides is part of the action.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Put simply, Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a beautiful book. But it is also challenging, engaging, shocking, endearing and enraging at the same time. It also offers truly enlightening insight into the psychology, motivation and eventual expression of a great writer. Anyone who has admired Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat will adore Dreams In A Time Of War, because the fiction that rendered the novel such a complex and rewarding read is here as reality, in all its greater rawness of immediacy, contradiction and conflict.

Dreams In A Time Of War is an autobiography, covering Ngugi’s infant and childhood memories until the day he left home, as an adolescent primary school graduate, to join Alliance High School. Thus we journey in Ngugi’s account from a homestead shared with a father, four wives and numerous siblings to the start of a Western education with its subject boundaries and prescribed canals of thinking. It would be easy to suggest that this represented a journey from the traditional to the modern, but that would be naïve. It would also miss the point.

Tradition, in Ngugi’s recollections, is extremely important, especially the magic of language. Words, clearly, were always for him much more than labels. The Kikuyu language that was his birthright offered a richness of expression and meaning - not to mention an identity - that fired his imagination from a very young age. It was also a language that was denied and derided by at least part of an education system that proselytised on behalf of the colonial, the modern. Throughout Dreams In A Time Of War we are aware of this potential for conflict, where the clearly academically gifted young Ngugi yearns to read and learn, but is regularly reminded that the only acceptable vehicle for that activity was the English language. For some who emerged through the vicious selection for entry into the educated elite, this denial of identity led to a rejection of birthright, origin and perhaps culture, so that they might more completely and convincingly adopt the new status to which they aspired. In Ngugi’s case, this demanded denial of his own background led him to appreciate it, its values and its worth more acutely. It is a mark of the book and equally the man’s complexity, however, that he not only retained an insider’s appreciation and understanding of his birthright, but also embraced the English language and education to become one of the language’s greatest writers.

Ngugi’s description of tradition is never static. At the same time, his view of modernity is never uni-dimensional. He recognises that his people’s ceremonies have changed over the years and that their significance has altered. Old men’s stories may still enthral the young, but the world described has already changed. Farmers have been driven from their land. Estates growing crops for cash and bounded by fences have been established. Factories offering wage labour have opened. Many of the structures that bound families and communities together have been transformed, perhaps not broken down, but have at least been challenged by new allegiances and aspirations.

Equally the modern is not presented as a monolith. Two different education systems coexist, one that transmits only Christianity and European values, and one that admits local language and learning. In the same way that individuals are influenced by what they are taught, they are also transformed by their experience of employment, of nurture by institutions and comradeship. In Kenya, for some this included loyalty to King and country via service in two world wars, acceptance of Christianity, responsibility to exacting employers and land owners, as well as, for others, acknowledgement of and adherence to tradition, family values and kinship transmitted by oral culture. And the reality that Ngugi portrays so beautifully in this book is that these apparently opposing poles were often mixed up within the individual, almost every individual.

If there is still anyone who retains the notion that British Imperialism was tantamount to spreading pixie dust, then such a person ought to read Ngugi’s childhood memoir. Here are descriptions of hooded informers - no doubt paid to say the right names, of indiscriminate detention, concentration camps and cold-blooded murder. And all this was backed up by a wholly unjustified and erroneous assumption of racial superiority. By the way, it’s about the same way they treated the working class back home, even down to denying most of them access to the educational goodies that legitimise social class identity.

Readers please do not be put off by the difficulties posed by the Kikuyu names and words. If they are unfamiliar, then find a way of summarising and merely recognising them. But do read this beautiful childhood memoir and thus do understand a little more of the experiences that motivate writers - and others – to explain. The view is partial, of course, that is why it is both entertaining and illuminating.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain is significantly more than an autobiography of a young woman. It presents, at least initially, a portrait of a society that nowadays appears quite foreign, takes us through a war that changed that society and rendered it obsolete and then leads us into an era that promised a new start, but which proved to be no more than a transition to the kind of modernity we now recognise. Testament Of Youth thus reads like a personalised view of history, written by an author who was conscious of change as it happened, and, indeed, was am agent in that change. Vera Brittain was also capable of appreciating the consequences that would follow.

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, Vera Brittain inhabited what were then described as the English middle classes. They bore no resemblance to what we nowadays identify with that label. These people were not merely professionally employed and propertied. They might proudly own two or three abodes here and there. They probably had servants, though they might not have referred to them as such. Private income was common, as were assumptions about education, marriage, career, deportment, manners and a host of other social trappings.

This, of course, was an era when only a small fraction of the population had any access to higher education, where women could not vote, where Britain still thought she ruled the waves. The Empire was still very much intact. Despite her commitment to feminism and her desire for independence, Vera Brittain seems, at the start of her memoir, to be heading by default straight for convention, as currently assumed by her class. But then the war came.

World War One lasted more than four years. The carnage was on a scale the world had never previously witnessed, and of an industrial type that had only recently been manufactured. Unlike modern warfare, however, the majority of the casualties were combatants, not civilian. By World War two, of course, the paradigm had changed,

World War One killed off almost a complete generation of young European men. Like many women, Vera Brittain joined up herself, feeling that she must contribute to the war effort in some direct way. But she became a nurse and her experiences caring for the wounded from the trenches form the bulk of Testament Of Youth. Her description of her work and those she nursed are vivid but balanced by detachment. She relates her experience without exaggeration, lists the horrors without once trying to shock for the sake of effect. Some of the most moving passages relate to those whose injuries were so severe they were left untreated. The stoicism with which they accepted their deaths is portrayed in its full, cold, terrifying inevitability.

At the end of the war, Vera Brittain can only be described as being in a state of shock. She had lost family and friends, and the man she would probably have married. She had nursed countless wounded, many close to death, many disfigured or jut shot to bits. By the end of 1918, it was clear that the world was not going to return to what it had been at the start of the decade. Women, of necessity, had done work previously denied them. They had the vote. A generation of young men had been interred.

And so Vera Brittain returned to university, but to study history rather than literature. Her desire to write was still there, but now she wanted to do something political or journalistic in an attempt to prevent the carnage she had seen from ever happening again. She offered support to the League Of Nations. But there remained a vast hole in her personal world, an abyss that nowadays we might diagnose as post-traumatic stress.

Eventually, she has her writing published and the possibility of marriage and a family reappeared, just when as a woman in her thirties, she had begun to assume her life would not take that route.

Testament Of Youth is a magnificent account or war, not of combat or heroism, nor indeed of comradeship or anything to do with militarism. Testament Of Youth describes consequences, both direct and indirect, and reminds us of the depths of suffering plumbed by the insanity of conflict. It deserves a wide reading today, since there seems to have emerged a tendency to portray war as mere memoir, rather than as wholesale, industrial, indiscriminate slaughter.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Waiting For Sunrise by William Boyd

In Waiting For Sunrise William Boyd returns to his very best form.  The novel’s central character is Lysander Rief, an individual every bit as intriguing as a Mountstuart or a Todd. Rief is an actor with an English father and an Austrian mother. He was brought up in England, but his German is passable and improves, and his French is not bad. He also possesses a few exclamations in Italian, we learn.

At the outset, we find him in Austria just before the outbreak of the First World War. Initially, the impending conflict does not seem to figure but, rest assured, no self-respecting novelist could let such momentous events pass without comment. The War does in fact become the principal theatre for the plot. Initially, however, Lysander Rief is visiting Vienna for purposes of consultation. He has taken time out from his professional life to seek help with a slight problem. Like so many of William Boyd’s males, situations arose when one day Lysander was caught with his trousers down. Readers of William Boyd’s novels will appreciate that his male characters are rarely backward at coming forward when trouser dropping is on the agenda. Lysander’s particular circumstances, however, offer some surprising perspectives on the practice.

Early on he meets Hettie Bull, a petite English sculptor with a common law artist partner. She has a few problems of her own, it seems, though these seem hard to pin down. He also meets a couple of relative smoothies from the British Embassy who are destined to figure significantly in subsequent events. They offer what might be described as professional assistance when needs arise. Lysander finds himself in a few pickles whose solutions depend on external input, and eventually quite a number of other challenges that originate from that initial input of assistance. His unconventional departure from Vienna leaves him in debt.

The First World War breaks out and Lysander enlists. There soon proves to have been some spice in the Viennese pickle, spice that got Lysander noticed. Assignments materialise and offers are made that cannot be refused. There is a need for special training, but even these new skills might prove no match for the challenges posed by an attractive widow in Switzerland.

Lysander needs a while to overcome the after effects of his experience Geneva. At first it seems that the case is complete, but there are more questions to be raised, questions of contacts closer to home, questions that urgently need answers. These lead to another task, an assignment that generates even more complications. And who would have thought that the libretto of a risqué opera would have caused such a stir? Surely this was no more than an illustration of Vienna’s peculiar mix of decadence and eroticism at the turn of the twentieth century. Surely? This was a city, Lysander was told, beneath which ran an incessant, fast-flowing river of sex. And which city might not?

When William Boyd is in this superb form, the plot seems to race past with surprises at every turn. But what it never does is appear in episodic form, via scenes that apparently materialise merely to move the story along. Throughout, Waiting For Sunrise is beautifully constructed and integrated, with several aspects of the action experienced, interpreted and then retold to be reinterpreted, perhaps differently, before anything comes clear – if anything ever does. The reader feel that events are really developing through the characters eyes and experience, and never feels that these people are mere cut-outs being flashed across a miniature stage.

William Boyd’s speciality must be his treatment of people like Lysander Rief, talented men whose self-assurance is significant but internally denied, whose earthy frailties, given half a chance, usually get the better of their highly developed but easily suppressed powers of reflection. Lysander Rief, when such a trousers down moment is in prospect himself reflected on this, “and noted how the promise of unlimited sensual pleasure blotted out all rational, cautious advice that he might equally have given himself.” Rief surely has fellow travellers in Mountstuart or a Todd. For Lysander, there is a fiancé called Blanche, Hettie the sculptor, a comely wench in a guesthouse, a captivatingly unattainable widow in Geneva and several dancing girls along the way, not to mention an alluring mother. The here and now always demands the total attention of such characters.

Considerations of style also separate William Boyd’s work from the mere story teller. Not only does he pepper his text with references and allusions to the historical and philosophical, he also requires the reader to change point of view. These characters inhabit the real world we, ourselves, share. They do not live in a made-up fantasy that seems to exist as a vehicle for the writer’s imaginings. And, by various devices, all of which make sense in the context of the book’s plot and revelation, we encounter Lysander Rief both from within and without, as both a first and a third person. We read about him, and we also read his own reflections on himself and the events that befall him.

Spying, espionage and intrigue during the First World War, these are at the heart of Waiting For Sunrise, and it is the plot that drives the narrative. But this plot is much more than a string of events. The only way to experience everything is in context, to join Lysander Rief on his journey of discovery. Perhaps, by the end, you will know him a little better. Perhaps.