Wednesday 22 March 2017

a duck-fart in a hurrycane

'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell has been sitting around the living room for quite a while; what an utterly brilliant book. Not one story but six, linked by slightly intangible factors that come together as the pages pass. I confess I had all but forgotten the first story by the time we finally returned to it, but that's almost the strength of the book that he manages to get the reader completely engaged with each narrative so quickly. There are six stories: a lawyer takes a sea voyage in 1850 across the Pacific, letters to a friend by a young man in the home of a reclusive composer in Belgium in the 1930s, a young woman investigating corruption and safety at a nuclear power plant, a middle aged publisher ends up in a rather scary retirement home to escape the attentions of some small time criminals, a corporate Korean 'brave new world' where fabricated humans do all the drudge work on the promise of a Hawaiian retirement, and a post-apocalyptic future where humans live a nasty, brutish and short life and the heroine of the previous tale is worshipped as a god. When we reach the last story the book then dives backwards through the others, picking each one up where they were abandoned (sometimes mid sentence) and bringing each to their (somewhat) satisfactory conclusion. 

I found the book satisfying because it made an interesting point about stories, about how real they can feel when you are in them, but then from one step removed you suddenly realise they are just stories, and that the history of human beings is just layers and layers of stories. Wanting to be remembered or whatever by history is pointless because no matter how big your impact or your contribution, one day you will just be a story. I didn't write many quotes down, which is usually a sign that I am embroiled in the narrative. Each story was so unique, but it was not like a series of short stories, the links were subtle but they were important enough to make the book a complete whole.

"To men like Ayres, it occurs to me, this temple if civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants and foot-soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists and, most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization's architects, masons and priests. Ayres sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer's profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, 'Look, there is Vyvyan Ayres!'
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes because winter is eternal and because if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.
R.F." (p.82 Letters from Zedelghem)

In the far distant future the world has returned to ignorance and superstition, lacking knowledge and technology, the people in awe of the Prescients who arrive periodically by boat to trade. In this central story Zachry goes on a journey up the mountain with the visitor Meronym. Here they discuss what will happen when they reach their destination and his fears of a mythical figure of Old Georgie, and the reader is left in no doubt that their history contains some cataclysmic events that have wiped out the relevance of all previous lives. I find it is often the case that fiction about the future is laced with not so subtle messages about what humans are doing to their world. I liked the style in this story; the notion of what it might be like to write down speech for a culture that was no longer literate and so had lost formal conventions of spelling and grammar:

"Meronym said the weather was way more scaresome to her.
I spoke my mind: You don't b'lief he's real, do you?
Meronym said Old Georgie weren't real for her, nay, but he could still be real for me.
Then who, asked I, tripped the Fall if it weren't Old Georgie?
Eery birds I din't knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old'uns tripped their own Fall.
O, her words was a rope o' smoke. But Old'uns'd for the Smart!
I mem'ry she answered, Yay, Old'uns' smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an' made miracles ord'nary, but it din't master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o' humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old'uns'd got ev'rythin'.
O, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big but it weren't big 'nuff for that hunger what made Old'uns rip out the skies an' boil up the seas an' poison soil with crazed atoms an' donkey 'bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an' babbits was freakbirthed. Fin'ly, bit'ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar'bric tribes an' the Civ'lize Days ended, 'cept for a few folds'n'pockets here'n'there, where its last embers glimmer.
I asked why Meronym'd never spoke this yarnin' in the Valleys
Valleymen'd not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ'lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person's b'liefs ain't true, they think you're sayin' their lifes ain't true an' their truth ain't true.
Yay, she was prob'ly right." (p.286-7 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After)

Even though things worked out for our characters I was left with the idea that we are all, in the grand scale of things, duck-farts in a hurrycane.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Mathematical Poetry

In celebration of the United Nations World Poetry Day I give you (partly for Monkey who is a fan) PI by Wislawa Szymborska:

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
the pageant of digits comprising pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief - a mouse tail, a pigtail - is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurements two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Pandiagonal magic squares

The last week started on Monday evening with Simon Armitage (cool portrait on his website, do go and see), a Manchester Literature Festival event to launch his new collection 'The Unaccompanied'. Julie and I have seen him several times before and it was an excellent and entertaining evening, where I resisted buying the book. 

Monkey and I have been hard at work learning the capital cities of the world, so she made me a birthday cake with a map on it; she was disappointed to be unable to fit in Greenland once America was stuck on, but Africa is excellent. There were candles to mark specific capitals that I mainly failed to get right.
Then we did a charity shop trawl around Chorlton and came home with quite a substantial pile of books. I am particularly pleased with Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Sebastian Barry. Candide and the two Asimov are for Monkey, and Ulysses is just to sit on the shelf for that moment when I feel inspired to tackle something hard.

Today Julie took me out to Elizabeth Gaskell's House to see a performance called 'Exploding Women', part of the Manchester Histories Festival, produced by the dynamic duo LipService Theatre. The show presented the chequered history of Manchester women of science, including Caroline Birley, Marie Stopes, Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker and Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw (The pandiagonal magic squares are one of Kathleen Ollerenshaw's significant contributions to mathematics.) We also had an interesting conversation with one of the volunteers at the house, about Mrs Gaskell's friendship with Charlotte Bronté, and, after my unexpected enjoyment of Emily Dickinson's biography this time last year, I am definitely inspired to read her biography of Charlotte. 

Sunday 5 March 2017

The General and the Guest

Tish, Monkey and I descended on London yesterday with a couple of hundred thousand other people to protest the destruction of the NHS. In its nearly 70 years the National Health Service has provided cradle to grave care for the people of Britain; it is a straightforward redistribution of resources that allows ordinary people to go through life without the threat of ill health and destitution hanging over them. It seems bloody obvious that it has been a huge benefit to both the people and the economy of this country but its systematic dismantling by successive governments in recent years has slowly undermined the founding principles. Nye Bevan must be spinning in his grave.

It was a long coach ride there and back again, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is a very heavy book that I didn't want to carry around with me all day, so I found 'Embers' by Sándor Márai on the TBR shelf and had consumed it by the time we got home. A Hungarian writer who moved the America in 1948 his work has not been translated until much more recently. 'Embers' is the story of two men, Henrik and Konrad, one the wealthy son of the Officer of the Guards, the other the son a Spanish Baron reduced to penury to support his son's education. A friendship forged in military school becomes a lifelong bond, broken, some 41 years before this tale unfolds, by Konrad's abrupt disappearance. The aged General sends the carriage for his oldest friend and they dine together one last time as blue candles burn down, flickering light on the room that is untouched since their previous meal in the company of Krisztina. 

This is a beautiful, intimate book about a friendship, but also about friendship itself, that the General talks about at length. Mostly the General talks, I did not feel that we got to know his Guest much at all, he says very little, but partly he is there so that the General can talk, can expunge the memory of their parting and its consequences. Set in the early years of the Second World War, that is barely mentioned, the book portrays the dying of their era, the end of the way of life that the aristocracy had entertained unchanged for centuries, a life where honour and duty are the guiding principles. The writing in the book captures this era so well, you can almost hear the crunch of the carriage wheels and feel the chill from the abandoned rooms in the neglected castle:

"He got to his feet and stood in front of the sway-bellied white porcelain stove that had once warmed his mother's bedroom. It was a large stove, at least a century old, and it radiated heat like some indolent corpulent gentleman intent on mitigating his own egoism with an easy act of charity." (p.21)  

I loved this piece that felt like a critique of the British; Konrad describing what happens to people when they live 'in the tropics':

"The English know how to defend themselves. They arrive with England in their suitcases. Their courteous arrogance. Their reserve. Their golf courses and tennis courts. Their whiskey. Their evening dress, that they change into every night in their tin-roofed houses out in the middle of the swamps. Not all of them, of course. That's just a legend. Most of them turn brutal after four or five years just like the others, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch. The tropics eat away their college manners the way leprosy eats away skin. Oxford and Cambridge rot down. Back home in the British Isles, everyone who has spent time in the tropics is suspect. They may be respected and honoured, but they are also suspect. I'm convinced that their entries in the security files are annotated with the word 'tropics', the way others would be stamped 'blood disease' or 'spying'." (p.94-5)

After a lot of circling round and reminiscing we finally we get to the issue in hand; Krisztina, the General's wife. I think he is a writer of his era, because he 'others' women, they are not the same as men, virtually another species. He repeatedly talks about how only men understand and experience true friendship. And his wife is this 'thing' that he has. He protests as length that he is not interested in knowing about the nature of their betrayal, but the more he goes on about it the more you know that it does matter to him, even now they are old and Krisztina is long dead. It is as if he knows nothing about women, so he cannot write about her, and as so often in this kind of book she is merely a symbol. It is what it is, and as a reader I think you have to read books within the context of when they were written. But I think that the General does not see that the pride and arrogance that are his inheritance caused his reaction to the betrayal and led to the wasted life he has passed, waiting to get his revenge.

"And I know Krisztina's days and nights, her body and soul, as well as I know my own. It's a crazy notion, that you and Krisztina ... and I am almost relieved when I make myself examine this notion. It must be something else. Whatever happened is deeper, more mysterious, less comprehensible. I have to talk to you. Should I have someone observe you? Like the jealous husband in a comedy? I am not a jealous husband. Suspicion has trouble taking hold in my nervous system, I am calm when I think about Krisztina, whom I found the way a collector finds the prize of his life, the rarest, most perfect object in his collection, the masterpiece, the goal, the meaning of his existence. Krisztina does not lie, Krisztina is not unfaithful, I know all her thoughts, even the secret ones that are thought only in dreams." (p.184-5)

Like 'Expensive People' it is just one side, we never know what Konrad and, much less, Krisztina were thinking and feeling. The General does not even know what it is that he wants. In the moment of betrayal he lost the two people he loved the most. He missed them and longed for them all the rest of his life. It is almost as if he just needed his Guest to listen to the story. Sometimes there can be neither forgiveness nor revenge, there is just the story.

Expensive People

'Expensive People' by Joyce Carol Oates has been my breakfast book for a month or two, slow going for such a tiny book. I don't have many books so yellowed, desiccated and disintegrating with age, and only costing 35p (when this edition was published in 1972). It reminded me somewhat of Lolita, a narrator telling their story, one side of the events, their own particular interpretation of the events, and even more unreliable because this narrator is a child, trying to make sense of life and utterly failing. It is also the tale of the parent/child relationship from the point of view of the child, the story of what happens when a child cannot rely on their parents.

Richard likes to spy on his parents; he sits on the landing and listens to their rows, their conversations, their telephone calls, their comings and goings, this is the crux of the story:

"I'll tell you about it: years of anguished, guilty spying. I had to spy - how else could I have known what life was, or who they were, my parents, what they were? So I spied and I learned and I tabulated, calculated, speculated. But at these special times when we were together I thought that i had somehow, magically, captured a man and a woman from another land, foreign and exotic and not quite speaking my language, who were tamed by my power and love and who walked obediently after me, robust and comely and healthy as horses. Such fine horses! These were my true parents. The others - the dissatisfied Natashya Romanov, minor writer, and blubbering breast-beating executive Elwood Everett - were nothing but cruel step-parents." (p.20-1)

He informs us on the first page that he is a murderer. For a while I expected it to develop into more of a mystery, but it is the story of his childhood, the petty traumas and the more significant ones, that drive him to this one dreadful act. It is his explanation, his justification for it, and he is asking the reader (whom he addresses directly) to act as his judge and jury. 

While it is both his parents that he watches, it is Nada, his mother who draws the utmost devotion, she is this strange misunderstood person, unreliable, who has left them before, and will do so again:

"And she stood, quiet sand serious, looking at me the way she looked at Father or women with their hair in rollers out on the street or the messes neighbourly dogs made on our lawn. Her face was magnificent and pale, her eyes dark,a little demented, as if tiny curving pieces of glass had been fitted over them for some weird theatrical purpose. Oh, I don't know! I don't know what she looked like! I watched and watched her for years. I stared at her and loved her. I have photographs of her in my desk drawer that I finger and caress and still I don't know what she looked like; she passed over from being another person into being part of myself. It was as if Nada, my mother, had become a kind of embryonic creature stuck in my body, not in a womb maybe but part of my brain. How can you describe a creature that is lodged in your brain? It's all impossible, a mess ..." (p.84)

He loves her but often feels of secondary importance to her, being taken along on her adventures almost like a dog, but he doesn't mind, because his adoration has doglike qualities. I so often felt sorry for him, though he never seems to pity himself or wish for a more normal, predictable life. Here his thoughts when Nada takes him to the library:

"A lovely library - how I love libraries, any and all libraries, those sanctuaries for the maimed and undanceable, the lowly, pimply, neurotic, overweight, underweight, myopic, asthmatic ... Few are the flirtations in a library, I insist, though Nada never had to search far for an adventure. Few are the assaults, physical or verbal. Libraries exist for people like me." (p.85)

I think his narration is unreliable for different reasons, mostly because he often does not understand what is happening, and you get such a strong sense of his insecurity, his confusion. Here, part of the story of the dog Sparky, one dog, but also several dogs who they all pretend are the same dog:

"What kind of a day? Misty, mild; spring. Nada dressed in beautiful new suit, new gloves and purse in hand, ready to press the button and raise the garage door and drive off, destination unknown. Yes, I can see her there. In a minute she will leave.
Happy days are all one big blur of confusion, but so are unhappy days; in my sordid life, all days were blurs of confusion. But this was a happy day and blurred as usual with my shouts of joy and Sparky's little whimpers and his fuzzy, downy stomach (much more downy than the soft blonde down of Nada's arms) and his caramel-candy-coloured coat. He was delicious enough to eat! I hugged Sparky in my clumsy arms and helped his wave goodbye to Nada, who drove out and away, and I didn't turn aside from his wet leaping tongue.
And then ... not a minute later there was an aqua laundry truck." (p.127-8)

Slowly and surely, the years of his childhood pass. During another of her repeated absences he reads the forbidden stories that she has published. His feelings for her are eroded; not his love for her, but his sense that he knows and understand her, and the scene begins to be set of the denouement:

"You who've never read the secret words of the familiar, the domesticated people you love, and who've never snuggled into their brains and looked out through their eyes, how can you understand what I felt? It's as if I had opened a door ands Nada not as she wanted to seem to us, but Nada as she really was, a stranger, a person Father and I did not know and had no connection with. We are accustomed to people existing in orbit around us, and we dread thinking of their deaths because of the slight tug we will feel when their presence is gone - we'll be drawn closer to the rigidity of darkness, space, death. We are accustomed to these smaller planets always showing the same sides to us, familiar, predictable, secure, sound, sane, accommodating, but when I looked through Nada's eyes I knew that I had been tricked, that she showed only her narrowest, most ignorant side to me, and that she had cheated me all of my life." (p.160)

His experience after the event, of nobody believing his confession, seems to sum up the surreal nature of what he does, almost like an out-of-body experience, and his sense, throughout the story, of never being sure of what is real and what is not, of the truth of anyone's emotions or actions:

"I tiptoed to the staircase and went upstairs. Nothing creaked. At the top I waited. I was good at waiting. A kind of sunny haze enveloped me, and I stood there waiting and not-waiting, thinking that Nada and I were alone in the house, all alone, and she did not know it. I was in a kind of agreeable trance. Later, when I was to recount all this as part of my confession, they checked with my maths teacher, Mr Hale, and to my amazement he told them that I hadn't been absent that day! according to his records, this 'Richard Everett' had had perfect attendance up until the time he stopped coming altogether. But I insist, my readers, that I was absent, yes, I was absent from class that morning, and all but absent from even this perch at the top of the stairs my mind was drifting and wandering." (p.196)

It turns out the disintegration of his trust was totally justified, and things were not as they had appeared. A thoroughly disconcerting book, but Joyce Carol Oates is always a writer to recommend.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

The Essex Serpent

I have whizzed through 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry since it is in a long queue and the library limits the loan to two weeks.  I was a little bemused by this book since I expected some kind of mystery, certainly a dark threatening undercurrent and sinister happenings, but there was nothing like that at all. It is in effect a love story; a story about love in all its many and varied forms, filial, romantic, platonic, sexual, unconditional and (by no means least) unrequited. It is the bonds between the characters that forms the basis for the story; Cora and Martha, Luke Garrett and George Spencer, William Ransome and Mr Cracknell, Joanna and Naomi. And silently observing them all, Francis, son of Cora and Michael Seaborne; a slightly odd young boy with what are obviously autistic qualities, not understood by his mother, but recognised and acceded to. They are all interesting and well rounded characters, who manage to make the somewhat haphazard story engaging. I felt there was rather too much going on, that too many different tracks were being followed. The basic tale of a village under the threat of a mythical monster becomes a slightly confusing one of mass hysteria. The young man who's stab wound is repaired by Dr Garrett becomes the focus of attention in the political storyline that Martha is pursuing, and the man with a grudge against him makes a somewhat irrelevant reappearance. Stella falls ill and no one seems to notice when she drifts off into la la land. People seem to spend a lot of time just trudging round the countryside. It's almost as if each character has to be given their own private crisis, because the Essex Serpent turns out to be such a non event (sorry, spoiler). Several people are enamoured of another who does not return their affections, and on that front the outcome for pretty much every body was unsatisfactory. Some aspects of the story all felt a little contrived. 

I did like the fact that there was some real politics, which you don't find much in novels. Here is Spencer, contemplating the new housing policy:

"What at first had been merely a means of pleasing Martha has become ann obsession: he pores over Hansard and committee minutes, he puts on his worst coat and goes walking down past Drury Lane. He discovered Parliament's habit of making policies benevolently enough, and then covering its eyes and shaking hands with industry. Sometimes the greed and malice of what he sees appals him so much he thinks he must've misunderstood; he looks again, and it's worse than he thought. the local authorities tear down slums, and compensate landlords according to lost rents. Since nothing makes a tenement more profitable than vice and overcrowding, landlords facilitate both as diligently as any pimp in the street, and government rewards them handsomely. The tenants then turned out find themselves considered too immoral for a smart new Peabody home, and are left to find rooms in lodging-houses: there are times when the streets and full of firelight as tenants burn furniture too poor to be sold. Spencer thinks of his family home in Suffolk, where recently his mother discovered another room they'd never known was there, and is nauseated." (p.182-3)

I think my favourite character is Joanna Ransome (daughter of Will and Stella) and her transformation from superstitious child into thoughtful, intelligent and ambitious young woman. She epitomises how important role models were (and are) for young girls; she meets Cora and sees in her a woman who knows about and is interested in all manner of subjects, is always learning about things, and has a life beyond the domestic sphere. 
Things I did not like: dropping in brand names for products that people are using, it is unnecessary and jarring. And, sorry, but a really bad writing award goes to any author who gives a character 'violet eyes', it is a clichéd and lazy way of trying to make them seem unique, used by fantasy writers the world over and should definitely not be included in anything with pretensions to literary fiction. 
I have read several admiring reviews for this book, and although I enjoyed it I do not think it is anything special.