Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Monday, June 29, 2020
Sunday, June 28, 2020
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a deceptively complex book. The deception is borne of its author's skill to render complexity in a subtle, sensitive and simple way. Simplicity comes from the focus on a small group of families who interact in many of the ways acquaintances do. This is small town Switzerland, where perhaps very little of the unexpected ever arises. Complexity arises, however, from the ubiquity of sexual relations, passing lives, an approaching world war, with its persecution of Jews and a need to adopt neutrality.
The neutrality arises from the book's setting, which is Switzerland. But even in a land of clockwork, nothing is straightforward or predictable. Even time is not linear. When we start, we encounter Gustav and Anton, two young friends forging a relationship together. Their families are also close. They go on holiday together. The boys form a bond.
Then some years earlier, we encounter Gustav's mother, Emilie, as a teenager, still a maiden as Rose Tremain describes her, at a festival in her home town of Matzingen. It's an ordinary place, between the Jura and the Alps, not mountainous, not clockwork-pretty, just local. Both local and personal considerations fill the consciousness of Emilie, who instinctively knows the time is right. Erich was in the police and she was much arrested. A marriage ensues, and there are children. But there is little that is conventional about the eventual birth of Emilie’s son, the Gustav of the book's title. Rose Tremain would surely point out that in life little is ever predictable.
The Gustav Sonata is a book whose plot consists of the substance of people's lives. Any review that describes their relationships is pure spoiler. Even a list of elements might come too close to detail best left to the reading. But suffice it to say that there are multiple elements of interrelation between the families we meet in the book. Erich has a superior in the police. The boss has a wife. The Second World War turns everything upside down. Jews need to escape from neighboring countries. Emilie and Erich's close friends are Jewish. They have a son called Anton. Anton and Gustav are friends.
There is insubordination, sexual dalliance, splits and reformations. There is time spent back at home with mother. Disgrace appears in its ugliest form, and destruction ensues. Ambition drives achievement, but careers never quite materialize.
The Gustav Sonata is a beautiful book because its characters come to life. Their experiences are particular, but always credible. They almost tell one another what they want, but gaps will inevitably widen, and misunderstandings, deceptions and outright lies breed in the void.
What is so refreshing about this book is that none of these people ever achieve greatness, and none of them fall to complete destitution. Events remain local, personal or familial. And precisely because of that, everything remains credible. The effects are magnified by their closeness to home.
Throughout Rose Tremain's always surprising but always simple and free-flowing prose provides the perfect vehicle to communicate these complex relationships in their simplest, yet most vivid form.
Saturday, June 27, 2020
The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes is a novel. Its subject is real. The person lived a famous life. This, however, is neither memoir nor biography. It is not a critique. Neither does it claim to be fact, though the factual record and history form the spine of the work. In some ways, Julian Barnes is revisiting the territory of Flaubert's Parrot, but in a more intense, completely personal way, without the potential distraction of a fictional author as a go-between.
The Noise Of Time deals with the life and work of a composer. Novels about music tend to miss their intended mark. Carpenter's The Lost Steps and McEwan's Amsterdam might quality as exceptions. But here, Julian Barnes approaches from an original angle. The music is there, but its existence is assumed, its generation simply a part of its creator's life. The author does not need to describe every meal that sustains the life of one who needs to eat, and so Julian Barnes can safely by-pass the process by which a compulsive composer creates. In The Noise Of Time it is the art's context, political, social and historical, that drives the plot and thus constructs the character of the undoubtedly real composer.
The composer is Dmitri Shostakovich, prodigy, genius, icon of the state, embodiment in sound of the revolution. Or was he? Obviously not. Why obviously? The world is aware of his achievements - fifteen each of symphony and string quartet, two concertos each for piano, cello and violin, chamber and choral music, ballet scores and a couple of operas, including that particular opera, that infamous opera.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is perhaps our starting point, because it, along with the Fourth Symphony marked the start of the composer's brush with state power that was Stalin's State, the Power. This music, to bureaucrat and dictator alike, represented formalism, the tendency of the artist to inhabit the self rather than society, and write for an elite rather than a public. We are all guilty.
To illustrate an artist's life in conflict with authoritarian expectation, Julian Barnes adopts a particular and unexpected style. It is a choice that is very hard to bring off, but Julian Barnes does it with apparent ease. Via a third person narrative, more suited to linear narrative or formal record rather than episodic reflection, we enter the passing thoughts that flit through the composer's mind as he faces the immediate dangers that confront him. Initially this grates. It seems to fall between first person narrative reliving experience and a detached historical record. But then, quickly, a reader realizes that any artist inevitably becomes alienated from published work, because it becomes the property of those who claim it for their own experience. It is the artist, often the composer, who becomes an internal third person, someone who already exists for posterity, rather than the present. The work is already complete, but posterity has yet to be created, and in whose image will that be?
The novel runs across three large chapters, entitled On the landing, On the plane and In the car. These apparently momentary encounters with Dmitri Shostakovich occur at significant points of his brushes with authority and power. These are moments when he must reflect on what it means to be an artist, a servant of the state, a husband, father, Russian, a hero of the people and a coward, all alongside the pressure of staying alive. Occasionally, apparently, he composes and plays music.
Because of Julian Barnes's stylistic choice of third person narrative married to an implied record of the character's own thought, the text can inhabit the external world of historical fact and Shostakovich's internal doubts simultaneously. The reader, like the artist, can cope with a third person who behaves like a first. And so, when the text also includes elements of dialogue to describe the composer's intermittent brushes with Power, we feel we are there alongside the artist fearing for his life, choosing his words as carefully as he has chosen his notes both to project himself and to protect himself.
Thus, via a short but intense novel, Julian Barnes presents a rounded portrait of the artist, a flavour of his times and its history and an appreciation of the composer's achievement. There are even musical techniques built into the fabric of the piece. Leitmotifs, apparently minor details or asides, reappear. Oranges and pigs, a Mercedes for Prokofiev, an imagined Red Beethoven are some of the germs that reappear throughout the text, just like D-S-C-H permeates the composer's output, perhaps as a means of communicating when he was writing for himself, and not following dictates.
The Noise Of Time is the kind of book that passes quickly, but whose impression and influence will be long-lasting. Just like its subject.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Edward B Taylor’s Anahuac, Mexico and the Mexicans, proved to be a thoroughly surprising read. Not only was this written in the late 1860s, but it was composed and expressed in apparently modern terms and modern language. Some of the attitudes might be old fashioned, and the concept of the noble savage keeps rearing its head, but the general feeling throughout was that here were travellers who brought minds open enough to be influenced. One wonders if most modern tourists are as flexible. And here was the United States to the north, just emerging from the Civil War, not yet the established world power it would be just a couple of decades later. On reflection, one is reminded of the rise and growth of China since its own, more protracted upheavals of the mid-twentieth century.
A Pushcart At The Curb is a set of poems by John Dos Passos. Its language is unremarkable, hardly poetic in places, but interesting, nevertheless.
Brief Diversions, Tales, Treatises and Epigrams by JB Priestley is what it says on the tin, and often embarrassingly straightforward.
A History Of England Volume 1 by David Hume is enlightening, literally, from the period of enlightenment. Hume’s prose is wonderfully transparent, the clarity sometimes brilliant.
A revisit to Chekhov via Uncle Vanya recalls that evening in Scarborough that would have been, perhaps, in 1968 or 9, when one, being me, was revising for trial exams on holiday, when a production, no doubt directed by Alan Ayckbourn made such a strong and lasting impression.
Edward Potts Cheyney’s An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England made little of an impression.
Italian Hours by Henry James takes us on pretty well-known Italian sights. But is it possible for this particular author to express himself, albeit with a true talent for sentence construction, and notwithstanding his undeniable grasp of vocabulary, though sometimes rather mis-placed, I might say!, ever, despite his quest to communicate the immediacy of experience, to write a simple sentence?
And then a revisit to The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance by Bernard Berenson. I’ve not read that since I was a student, methinks. It’s still a work of astounding scholarship and perception, despite the fact that now I have seen much of the material he is describing at first hand.
Essays by David Hume range in their subject matter, but not in their quality, which is always superb.
Kate Atkinson´s read for the first time in the form of Behind The Scenes At The Museum. It’s a magical realist style, quite superbly virtuosic and utterly vivid in everything it tries to do. It’s the story of Ruby, a 1950s girl whom we meet, like Tristram Shandy, before she is born. She seems to have perfect recall for a memory, which later on becomes something of a contradiction, because the plot hinges on a particular empty area of her past, something that she has apparently blocked out completely. Ruby's ability to recall detail of events where she was not even present seems astounding, and makes her inability to remember anything about a twin whom she is, after all, accused of killing is all the more incredible. It was her sister’s fault anyway. Overall the book is beautiful, but just once in a while I wanted it to break free of the confines of the family, just for a while. The garden gate seemed to be open, but we could never quite et through it. This limitation did not detract from what was in itself a beautifully constructed and brilliantly written book,
The Jealous God by John Braine was published in 1964, just a short while after his blockbusting Room At The Top and its sequel, Life At the Top. Braine was one of the original ‘angry young men’, those upstarts of English life, who had not been nurtured entirely by the conventional establishment, and who at least began their careers by attacking and satirising its safe conventions and patronising assumptions. At least that’s how they began…
By the time we reach the mid-1960s and The Jealous God, however, there are already signs – now overt where previously they had been only implied – of the author’s apparent yearning to ally with convention. His espousal of establishment thinking, however, seems still to be an uneasy relationship, still suffused with doubt and at least some guilt.
The Jealous God, like most of Braine’s work, is set in what was the West Riding of Yorkshire, with its uneasy marriage of coal, wool and engineering, alongside a deeply traditional agricultural sector in which medieval landowners still held their stake. Suffused with notions of class allegiance, the region’s inhabitants brushed shoulders as they walked the same streets, but they voted along social class lines for different political parties, displayed utterly different cultural identities and drank different drinks in different pubs.
Unlike Room At The Top, The Jealous God lives solidly in the lower middle class world of a history teacher in a Catholic Boys’ School. And that also, though not here forming an issue, would have been a Grammar School, so precious few working class lads would have been present in Vincent Dungarvan’s discussion classes, and even fewer of them would have ever have spoken up. It is the Roman Catholic faith of Vincent and his family that takes centre stage in the book’s plot.
Fifty years on a reader might be forgiven for assuming that homosexuality and child abuse might also figure as themes, but they simply do not. Vincent Dungarvan may regularly, albeit subliminally, question his faith, but he is never an abuser of it.
Vincent is a teacher. He’s educated, but perhaps also pedantic and just a little pedestrian. We rarely, in fact, follow him into the classroom and, unlike most teachers, he hardly ever talks about his work in his hours of relaxation. He rarely spends his time marking, it seems. He is already thirty years old and remains an unmarried virgin. His mother, a devout, guilt-besmirched widow, really did hope that he might become a priest, but by innuendo worries that he is continually sinning, either by lack of conscience or embrace of Onan.
Vincent, himself, seems not really to have had a past. His present begins on page one and rather progresses from there. One feels there might be more to tell, but nothing much is shared. He has two brothers, one who drinks rather too much and neglects his child-laden and frustrated wife. The other, more successful but inferior intellectually, seems to be a pillar of familial convention, even down to seventeen inch televisions and house extensions. Vincent also has a grandmother who seems pious, philosophical or pragmatic at whim. Grandparents often are.
John Braine’s book proceeds to examine events that see Vincent in the arms of two different married women, both, for different reasons, remaining unavailable until he can break free of the manacles of his own and his mother’s faith, a seemingly impossible ask. Guilt associates with momentary ecstasy, always mingled with disbelief and self-doubt. He seems willing to be flexible, but reverts to type whenever he starts to bend. Eventually, and unfortunately, he becomes something of a vehicle for the statement of women’s dilemmas, though these were probably not at the forefront of the author’s intentions. Though Vincent appears to want to espouse convention, the circumstances in which he finds himself, alongside his own reactions to them repeatedly place him at odds with the very assumptions he deep down wants to uphold. And so there’s questionable parentage, dilemmas of ideology and bucketsful of guilt to negotiate, especially as he negotiates with his own conscience as to what do about Laura, the apparently unlucky librarian. Laura’s own dilemmas are the more interesting, but we approach them only via Vincent’s interests.
But what is eventually fascinating is how John Braine conveniently offers his characters redemption. Having apparently begun as a free spirit, Vincent eventually finds himself willingly espousing convention, albeit in circumstances he could never have envisaged. As a snapshot of its time, The Jealous God remains a thoroughly engaging book. As a catalogue of how its author migrated from angry young man to conventional conservative, it is both informative and vivid.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Urala is a village near Galle in the south of Sri Lanka. Its existence might be fiction, but equally it might have been, or be reality. Everyday life there, just like anywhere, is a mixture of the expected and unexpected, change and tradition, ritual and experiment, received values and new directions. In fact, Urala is pretty much like anywhere in that folk live their lives, set up homes, get married, have children, perhaps, grow up and die, for sure. So what is special about Urala? Well, on the face of it, nothing. But this village does have the distinction of having its day-to-day life described in some detail by J. Vijayatunga in his book, Grass For My Feet.
Reviews often begin by warning of spoilers. Neither excuse nor warning here for saying that Alison Weir’s book, Innocent Traitor, recounts the public and political life of Lady Jane Grey. She was sixteen years old and married by agreement when, in 1554, she was beheaded upon the order of Queen Mary of England, after being convicted of treason. Mary, you see, was a Roman Catholic and Lady Jane Grey was a Protestant. The young lady had been elevated to the throne by interested parties and had herself been Queen of England for just nine days after the death of the juvenile, and himself manipulated, Edward The Sixth. Jane Grey’s elevation to the throne had been nothing more than a blatant plot to hold on to power by a group led by the dead King’s Proetctor, if that be the word to use. The plot, which had not involved Lady Jane herself, was a ploy to maintain the Protestant identity of the English crown. Mary, Henry The Eighth’s daughter by Spanish Catholic Katherine of Aragon perhaps had the greater claim to the throne. She was the old king’s daughter, but she had been born of an annulled marriage to a queen who had also formerly been married to Henry’s brother, a fact that in some eyes rendered the marriage to Henry illegal from the start. Opinion was determined by which side of the religious divide was asked. But, as ever, pragmatism surfaced and interests ruled. But no-one can hold on to usurped power without support. And when what you have ebbs away, you get it in the neck. Here endeth the spoilers.
A review of Capital In The Twenty First Century would itself have to be a book, so let this be a mere reflection on some of Thomas Picketty’s wealth of material. And there is no better place to start than his startling demonstration of how little changes in the structure of the ownership of wealth, unless war intervenes. Furthermore, his demonstration that things are getting back to ‘normal’ after the twin conflict shocks of the twentieth century’s World Wars could, unless tempered by resigned realism, easily provoke depression in the reader. Thomas Picketty’s book ought to be required reading for anyone – certainly anyone who happens tp be British – who benefitted from the social mobility available in the 1950s to 1970s. We have tended to blame the 1944 Education Act for providing the abnormal conditions that led to a measurable, albeit temporary, decrease in inequality. But Thomas Picketty sets the record straight by clarifying that it was merely a result of the aberrations of war, which for a few decades weakened the power of capital. Normal service has since been resumed.
Picketty desribes how unevenly capital is distributed, especially in the developed societies. Typically, half of the population owns nothing, while the top ten per cent has about half of the wealth. For Picketty, capital means fixed assets that could potentially be traded, whose ownership can be bought and sold. It includes fixed assets, property, equity or cash, and excludes all forms of human capital, which may be an asset and may have value, but, he argues, its ownership can only be traded in slave societies, which now do not exist. He considers capital distribution and income distributions separately, however, so at least an element of human capital is represented in the latter. He observes that income is always more evenly distributed than fixed capital, with the top ten per cent receiving just 25 to 30 per cent of total incomes. As a consequence, if there has been any shift in the identity of the capital-owning elite in recent decades, then this has come about at least in large part as a result of the very highly remuneration available to certain professions at the very top of the income ladder. The phenomenon has also resulted in an increase in inequality observed in developed societies during recent decades, especially in the USA and United Kingdom. Inequality continues to increase.
One of Picketty’s fundamental laws is that capital always grows faster than the wider economy. Thus success via earning power inevitably leads to a graduation into the rentier class, a transformation that is needed if newly acquired status is to be consolidated. Furthermore, if the inequality stating that capital growth is greater than economic growth holds true, it implies that even the advantages of growth in the general economy will also eventually accrue to the owners of capital.
Historically, economic growth has been strongly associated with increasing population. Without the demographic element, economies have consistently attained no more than around two per cent growth. Two per cent is still a significant rate if maintained. But spurts in growth come with spurts in population. The opposite is also likely to be true, which in itself allows some facets of the current world economy to be seen in more informative light. Population surges produce economic surges, however, and this comes as no surprise. What does surprise a little is Picketty’s assertion, perhaps assumption, that since France experienced population growth before other developed societies, then we must all look to France as the setter of the international economic agenda, the historic standard, if you like, that others followed.
Another historical reality that shows up very clearly in his data is the effect of foreign earnings throughout the nineteenth century and through World War One. These “invisibles”, as they have sometimes been labelled, were simply the profits from colonialism and slavery. They financed deficits, borrowing and consumption at the heart of the empires from which they were drawn. In the modern world, he points out, there is perhaps a greater degree of foreign ownership of capital than ever before, but the benefits and capital transfers are two-way, as are the benefits, and thus net transfers are small.
This history is illustrated in economic data. He cites a number of cases where an imperial power, having amassed large debts after periods of conflict or downturn, managed to earn five per cent or more of its national income from invisibles, thus allowing the country in question to service debts that otherwise would have been crippling. In the modern world, crucially, this get-out-of-jail card is perhaps no longer available.
One aspect of Picketty’s analysis does surprise us. Throughout the book he uses fiction as a source of illustration, a source that will cause many an academic reader of the text to pause and wonder. Picketty often cites examples from Balzac, Austen and others to illustrate general points about the behaviour of capital. The process, though highly selective and, it must be said, apocryphal, does eventually convince, but it is the novelists that eventually shine through, not the economic model. His argument, which he claims is illustrated so clearly in nineteenth century fiction, is that it is always more likely that capital will be inherited or indeed married rather than earned. The endless machinations associated with finding a suitable marriage partner for eligible females in nineteenth century fiction are mere recognition that it is easier to marry money than earn it, capital growth being always lower than economic growth.
If Capital In The Twenty First Century can be criticised, then it is in its rather scant, even dismissive coverage of human capital. Yes, this becomes absorbed into income data. But the author does maintain that “democratic modernity is founded on the belief that inequalities based on individual talent and effort are more justified than other inequalities – or at least we hope to be moving in that direction.” He contrasts this belief with a Balzac character who foregoes the chance of studying law in order to seek marriage to a fortune, and then asks who would do such a thing today?
Now if credentials as well as skills obtained by participants in education do develop human capital, even if this is only reflected in increased earnings, then access to high quality education is needed before these skills and credentials are attainable. It might even be argued that now the educational experience is not only sufficient for capital advancement but also necessary, since even the opportunity to wed capital may hinge on the attainment or not of educational levels that are preconditions for entering that particular market.
And so if education has become just another commodity offered via a market, then the cost of accessing the most highly developed and effective delivery systems will rise, since these are the most effective means of securing access to capital, whether via earnings or marriage. Such costs will also rise since, having become a market, educational demand will be highest from those with a need to protect their existing ownership of capital, and they have the resources to pay for what they need. Education thus becomes a means of confirming and re-asserting wealth, rather than a potential avenue for social mobility. Perhaps today it is still easier to marry wealth than earn it. Except that today the option of marriage may be determined by an educational credential that can most effectively be secured by existing access to wealth.
This argument, it seems, closes the loop and illustrates how, even in a materialistic society, capital will always grow faster than the economy as a whole and why inequality will not only persist, but increase.
No book review should concentrate on what a book is not. So as a final note let me describe Thomas Picketty’s book as essential reading for anyone with a brain. If you can disprove its analysis empirically, rather than merely deny its significance on ideological grounds, then please present your data. If you can’t, then join the call for policies that will attempt to address the destructive imbalances that result in growing inequality. It must be remembered that, underpinning Capital In The Twenty First Century is a need to examine whether a certain text called Capital in the nineteenth century contained a grain of truth in asserting that eventually the capitalist system would collapse under pressure of its own inevitable imbalances. The conclusion appears to have been demonstrated, and the case for re-reading that other book is thus made.