Friday, October 31, 2008

Trick or treat

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.”

Emily Dickinson
One Need Not Be a Chamber to be Haunted (1862)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

book review - Books do Furnish a Room

No doubt reflecting the urge of the time having spent three books on the war Anthony Powell is keen to take the reader on to a post-war world. In the case of the main character Nicholas Jenkins that means back into the literary world writing and reviewing books.

As a result some of the livelier characters emerge with the establishment of a literary and political magazine Fission. Most of the characters that have been connected with reviewing and political writing are involved with Quiggin and Members both having a connection with the magazine.

But it is the arrival on the scene of the writer Trapnel and the editor of Fission Bagshaw, who is responsible for the quote about books furnishing a room. What gives Fission its life is ironically the sudden death of Erridge who was planning to launch a left-wing magazine. His trust allows for the magazine to go ahead with Widmerpool, now an MP, helping steer the magazine through its tricky first few months.

Lurking in the background throughout the story is Pamela whop has married Widmerpool but is still odd. She turns up late at the funeral and then is sick in a vase in Erridge’s house before walking out and leaving her embarrassed husband to maker her excuses.

She becomes intertwined with other characters throughout the story and emerges as Trapnel’s lover and for a period leaves Widmerpool to set up home with the writer. Trapnel becomes some sort of focus of the novel as he expounds his theories of writing and what it takes to produce a masterpiece. He has one popular work of fiction to his name but still feels that he has more in him. He shares his views with Bagshaw and Jenkins in various pubs and while not writing, drinking or lecturing he is on the look out for the chance to tap up anyone for money.

So it is ironical that Pamela, who likes the fines things in life runs off with him, but it is through Trapnel that her character starts to unravel. She is effectively frigid; motivated by attention that derides from her behaviour and in the end destroys not just Trapnel’s unfinished novel but also his spark.

With his real life experience as a literary editor Jenkins is able to paint a very realistic picture of the publishing world with a fair degree of pretension running round a fairly limited and clearly defined social circle. Into this mix several critics are introduced, Sillery’s secretary Ada, who has plans to become a writer herself.

But the main axis is between the writer X. Trapnel, Bagshaw the editor and Widmerpool the financial string puller. In the end the magazine bites the dust because Trapnel writes and Bagshaw publishes a parody of Widmerpool’s left-wing economic ravings. Plus of course Trapnel has run of with Pamela.

As a bridge to a post-war world, Fission serves Jenkins well giving him the chance to re-establish himself in the literary world. Unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Quiggin, he remains a reviewer and novelist and doesn’t become a publisher.

But the storm is brewing with Widmerpool and Pamela and that is clearly going to be carried over to the next book.

I have to confess Pamela, as a character and woman, does nothing for me. Part of it I suspect is because I have a suspicion that she is some sort of classical reference to some Goddess or other that captivates then destroys men. Failing to grasp that reference, but being slightly aware of it, makes you dislike her even more. Through the references to art and classical mythology Powell is trying to draw your attention to other places but I am failing to get those and the result is a slight feeling of frustration.

Still the story is now entering its final phase and there is a real determination to see how things turn out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post IV

Had a go at it and got a bit further on with the moment when Gideon meets the devil about to be described. Before he slips into the Black Jaws he gets entangled romantically with Elsie, his old friend telling her that he loves her, and then has to disappoint fellow minister Lorna who reveals she has fallen in love with him.

But it is the moment he falls into the Black Jaws that he starts to get more interesting. The problem is that as a result of the mysterious start you know what is going to happen and that really is the main criticism.

The only real mystery is why Mack was seen after he had died but presumably his testament had been completed before that. Equally there is going to be some reaction presumably from Elsie and John, Gideon’s old friends, but getting through another hundred pages to get there is slow going.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stuck in a reading rut

Having looked back, via the wonders of the Internet, to what was happening this time last year it has occurred to me that I am stuck in a bit of a rut. Both The Gutenberg Elegies and The Testament of Gideon Mack have effectively stalled and although I sneaked in a bit of Bulgakov the thought of finishing those other two books is starting to haunt me.

I know some people would just walk away but I like to finish a book once started and so with a hundred odd pages – roughly a third or half of the book – already consumed the task is going to be to knuckle down and just get on with it.

The problem is the bright lights of what lies ahead is almost overwhelmingly distracting. More Bulgakov, a great looking Russian book Lines of Fate by Mark Kharitonov and then some other bits and pieces that have been acquired from charity shops and bookshops in the past few months.

Those people who can genuinely keep several books on the go have my admiration. After trying to balance three and occasionally four I have concluded that I am strictly a two-book man at most.

Anyway back to it, come on Mack and Gutenberg…

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post III

The book ends with a twist but not the one you might have been expecting. The pressure starts to mount as the dog/human gets a job ridding the city of cats. He starts to throw his weight around Moscow and in the end drives the doctor’s to conspire against him with the reader led to believe that the doctors will kill him.

In a fireside discussion they talk of the consequences and reveal that they will lose everything if they do kill the thuggish lodger. It sums up the risks that those who thought that they could fight the authorities had to weigh up with most like these men deciding that the costs were not worth it.

In the end the dog is returned and those looking for a murderer are dumbfounded and disturbed by the transformation that they have witnessed. Were they equally as concerned as the country tore itself apart?

There are also questions here about science and is it a dog’s heart or a man’s heart? Where does the evil come from?

Cracking book. A review will follow soon…

Sunday, October 26, 2008

bookmark of the week

Might seem like an odd thing to post about bookmark of the week next to a blank space but the point here is that increasingly bookmarks are one of the items that are absent from the gift shop. Couldn’t find one in Legoland in the shop today, mind you it was a scrum in there, but that is not an unusual occurrence and fewer shops are selling them.

Bookmarks are special and worth selling because they encourage reading, help preserve memories and are often one of the more affordable items. Let’s see more of them…

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Updike every page you turn

John Updike must obviously be doing the press tour to promote his latest the Widows of Eastwick. He pops up in a couple of papers today with an insight into his views of growing old and remaining a voice.

I haven’t had the chance to read this yet but there is an interesting couple of pieces with David Baddiel talking about the author in his column in The Times and the Telegraph running a longer feature.

Will get round to reading them but for Updike fans it seems the publicity machine is currently cranking out a fair bit of material.

Friday, October 24, 2008

book review - The Unfree French

On the ferry heading over to France for my holiday this year I noticed that the shop on board had a few books that were crammed in with the chocolates, fags and booze. On the way home I chose to dispose of some euros and picked up Richard Vinen’s book. It seemed an odd thing to be selling on a boat that would include a fair amount of French passengers.

Still why not with this promising to dispel some of the myths of the occupation years and inform a general reader of what happened in France just before Hitler and company took over and the resulting four years.

If there were one word that sums up what happened during those years it would have to be “confusion”. No one seemed to know what was going on and as a result the army fled, fought when the war was over, and the general population often had no idea what was going on. In terms of the politics it was almost the same with Vichy trying to stand for some sort of French rule while having to accept that there was powerlessness in the face of German demands and wishes.

The other word that could also be taken away from this book is cruelty. Sometimes the fate for those that were taken as prisoners of war dragged to work in Germany or dammed by association with Germans was incredibly cruel. Obviously the Jews suffered but other groups were also victims of a regime of oppression and a country that was occasionally quite prepared to denounce each other.

The reasons for the fall of France are probably covered better elsewhere in military histories but the military historians usually walk away after the battles have been fought. Vinen is different and what he does is use letters, memoirs and other primary sources to patch together what it felt like to be living in France during the war years. As a result he manages to get that randomness of fate that meant some survived and others took a wrong turn and were dealt a much harsher hand.

One of the lasting impressions this book will leave me with is the impact that Blitzkrieg can have not just militarily but on the psyche of a nation. France never really recovered from the attack that swept pass the Maginot Line and saw Hitler walking into Paris. The people had various groups to blame - the army, the politicians and external agents – but ultimately the fingers could have been pointed into the air because there was no satisfaction for anyone trying to pin blame.

History needs to be understood and read because it contains millions of stories of normal people that were living through extraordinary times. Vinen gives voices to several and the effect is to open your eyes. How would you have reacted? Would you have fled, supported Vichy or joined the resistance and fought on? The insights of those who really faced those decisions can provide a great deal of food for thought but ultimately thankfully the reader of this history doesn’t have to find answers to those questions.

A trip to France will never quite be the same again and for that Vinen deserves a great deal of recognition.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post III

There is an obsession with this stone that Gideon has discovered in the woods and no matter who he tells about it he is always met with incredulity and when he attempts to photograph it the images are blank.

He then also introduces a previous minister’s tales of darkness and mystery surrounding a local waterfall known as the black jaws.

All of this is happening before and after his wife’s death in a car accident. That leaves Gideon not only alone but open to the possibility of a liaison with Elsie, his wife’s best friend, and then he becomes a target of love by another minister and a god fearing woman in the local community.

Because he is alone in the house most of the dialogue he has is now with himself and his own thoughts and that adds to the sense that he is slowly going mad. One of the continuing features of the story that is starting to nag at me is the fact that no one else gets the chance to see this stone that has cropped up in the hills and Gideon starts to keep it more as a secret which has the irritating consequence of keeping the stone from every having that second independent validation.

More to come…

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post II

This is a great idea with the story entering Jekyll and Hyde territory as the professor swaps the brain of a man and testicles with the dog. Just as with Frankenstein and Stephenson’s work the dilemma is for the bender of scientific laws as he has to face up to the consequences of his action.

Sure there is something immediate about the changes that the communists were trying to impose on Russia in an attempt to politically rejuvenate the country but as they found out handing power to certain types of people backfired.

As the stitches sew back up the dog’s skull there is a pause as you expect some sort of intelligent dog to spring forth but the result is not quite what you would expect with the dog becoming humanised. He takes on the character of a thug that appears to be a mixture of the stray dogs own upbringing and the roughness of the man who had a background as a criminal.

The result of this thuggish beast is to turn the world of the professor upside down. Firstly the introduction of foul language and violence but then he also starts to drag his owner/creator into a dispute into with the housing committee which results in the professor losing some of his rooms.

The irony is that this dog/man is exactly the sort of Russian and Russia that the opera-loving professor had tried so hard to keep out of his home.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post I

There is something that is wonderful about Russian literature when it is being delivered by someone with the skill of Bulgakov. The imagination is running at full speed with the narrator for large chunks being a stray dog, and the satirical look at Soviet society is also revved up. But there is also something else that leans on the author’s experience in the medical field as the dog meets and moves in with a professor dedicated to the strange art of rejuvenation.

Monkey’s ovaries inserted into old women and god knows what else inserted into elderly politicians to keep them performing in the bedroom all happen as the dog starts to regain health and acclimatise himself to his new surroundings.

Meanwhile the professor faces a stand-off with the housing committee about the number of rooms he enjoys using and then lectures his assistance on his dislike of the proletariat. The professor has the support of those he treats but he is sailing close to the wind if that were to ever fail.

That as well as a hint he might have some plans for the dog keep you wondering just where this is going. Plus you wonder what other secrets of the dog’s mind will be revealed with so far the lessons of associating colours with meat and butchers emporiums something that I had top confess had never passed my mind.

More tomorrow or it might be some more Gideon Mack, see how things work out…

The reader's dilemma

One of the biggest problems right now is struggling to keep with the books I am currently reading while walking past and sleeping next to piles of other tempting titles that are stacked up by the bed.

It is hard not to go from a casual flick through a book to getting involved in it and then wishing you had more time to take it on. That is my dilemma right now and the reason for introducing a third book into the current reading mix.

In an ideal world I would live in a library with food and drink occasionally delivered in but no other demands on my time…

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post II

Not sure about this. I get the need to tell the back story to put the events that are going to be the centre of the book into some context but I have to admit I am not that bothered about Gideon Mack.

As a result the life story is starting to drag a bit and you want uit to move with quicker speed to something more dynamic. It is hard to be bound over by an awkward man like Gideon. Someone who has compromised his whole life and done what he thought other people would like is a hard trait to admire.

He ends up going out with the girl he didn’t want after his friend nabs the one he was actually after. He ends up doing what his father wanted and becoming a church minister despite not believing in God and he continues to lie to himself and others.

Maybe that is going to be the point of this that the meeting with the devil is the moment when the compromising stops and he feels that he can start to reject everything.

We will see. More tomorrow…

Sunday, October 19, 2008

bookmark of the week

I took the kids to the Imperial War Museum today because my eldest son had expressed some interest in learning about the First World War. It’s odd because you don’t realise how difficult it can be sharing history until you try and sum up the causes and consequences of the First World War to a six year old.

The museum helped a bit but you still get the feeling the majority of the exhibits are designed to be consumed by adults. Still in the shop afterwards the boys helped me find a bookmark for the collection and came across this one celebrating the life of Winston Churchill. Decided that the conversation about Churchill can wait for another day, until after I have worked out how to translate some of my thoughts into easily digestible chunks...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

book review - The Military Philosophers

Of the three books in the series of Dance to the Music of Time that cover the war this is the most enjoyable. The other books that Anthony Powell wrote that covered the war had the main character Jenkins failing to find a role and hanging on to the coat tails of Widmerpool, hoping that his ambitious old school acquaintance will help him.

By the later stages of the conflict Jenkins is working in a department that liaises firstly with the Poles and then the Belgians. The war is coming to an end with the Germans in retreat. Jenkins still connects with people from his past with Widmerpool and Farebrother working in Whitehall. But a character that emerges, initially as just a minor mention driving Jenkins, suddenly becomes something quite obsessive. Pamela Flitton, the niece of Charles Stringham is an odd woman.

You are introduced to a woman who is rude, sexually a tease and spreading herself through London and at the same time an enigma that Jenkins keeps meeting but never quite getting to unwrap. She is going through men at a rate of knots and manages to bewitch most of the Poles and Belgians that Jenkins has to work with.

She also manages to drive Templer into the jaws of death making him feel too old sitting in Whitehall so he goes out to chase bullets. She also mingles with Odo Stevens who she leaves in the middle of an air raid.

If there is a theme apart from Pamela emerging it is about remembering the past. The numerous references to Proust are not accidental and then underlined when Jenkins and the allies visit the hotel Proust described in his books. This is not just about allies rediscovering the countries that they had been locked out of for years as Hitler was in control.

There is also a sense of Jenkins mulling over his own past as he hears of the deaths of his old school friends Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. Memories of the era that is described in the first couple of books is fading fast. There is a sense of how much the war cost a certain generation and a certain class. Those that had been able to exploit their connections and had their eyes on power managed to use their war to their advantage.

But those that came into the conflict already battered and weak were finished off by enemy and friendly fire. Although not too much is said it is the death of Stringham as a POW in a Japanese prisoner of war camp that is most poignant to Jenkins.

It is for that reason that as he sits with foreign officers at the service of remembrance he thinks of those he has known to have died and casts his mind back to a Proustian world of safe and comforting childhood.

As he leaves the church to walk off into a military-less future he comes across his old flame Jean and is reminded of a pre-war world and the reader is pulled back from further recollections. Unlike Proust, who naval gazes for too long over the same period Powell seems keen to move the reader on.

And onwards we go to the next volume...

Friday, October 17, 2008

The testament of Gideon Mack - post I

Starting this book I had flashbacks of something I read last summer, Imposture by Benjamin Markovits, that started with a prologue that described how the publisher came to have the text that follows in their hands.

It is a literary device that is deployed with greater skill here because the idea is to grip the reader from the start with a journalist phoning up a publisher with a manuscript that has come from a missing priest who has just turned up dead in the Scottish mountains.

The key to the priests disappearance is the events leading up to his wanderings in the wilderness with an apparent meeting with the devil making him appear mad to most of those around him.

There are mysteries of why even after he is meant to have been dead for months he was seen by three witnesses alive on the mountain his body eventually turned up on.

Having got through the preamble, which does have you convinced in its authenticity the text from the mad minister himself starts.

In some respects it is quickly into the supernatural with the minister describing how he stumbles across a stone while out running that has literally appeared out of nowhere. This starts some sort of self examination that gives Gideon Mack pause to question not just his standing in the community but his standing with God.

Oddly addictive it is growing on me and as the quality of the writing kicks in the shame of reading a Richard & Judy book club choice is starting to wear off.

More tomorrow…

Books should weather the economic storm

Everyone is looking for a safe place to hide right now as the global economy crashes around their ears.

One area that might remain safe, according to those heading up European publishing groups, is going to be the book. Apparently it is not seen as a luxury item, people still have the money to buy books and of course it has the power to transport people away from the current misery.

That verdict came out of a session at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which has been across the wires and picked up by Reuters.

The book is a cheap gift. The book is always affordable," said Fran Dubruille, director of the European Booksellers' Federation, "Actually, maybe the crisis is a chance for booksellers to reassert their role in the community as providers of pleasure, of knowledge, for a very, very cheap price."

It might just work as long as the bookshelves are not packed full of economic tomes and guides to getting a perfect CV like some bookshops I have wandered past recently…

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hearing Secret Harmonies - post IV

The end of the end comes with an odd move by Powell to use a long quote and an outro that has a dream like quality to it.

In some respects there is a feeling of anti-climax but the more you think about it there is an increasing sense of the right side having won. What I mean by that is that with the announcement of Widmerpool’s tragic death the last survivor of the original passages of the first book is Jenkins.

He actually reminds you of the start with a reference to the smell of the workmen in their hut using a brazier to keep warm as he stirs up his bonfire. Of those characters, Stringham and Templer died in the war and Widmerpool has now bitten the dust. He does so in a way that is so tragic. Bullied and victimised in his own home by the young cult leader Widmerpool tries one last time to assert himself and as they run through the woods, naked, he goes to the front “I’m the leader” he shouts before his old and infirm body hits the floor.

These books are about power, with Widmerpool’s quest for it the most obvious, but there are numerous characters in search of money and influence. Jenkins drifts in and out of these worlds. He is in a position to do so because he went to Eton and Oxford and so knows a great deal of the figures that come across his path at functions and in numerous settings.

But this is also about a lost age. Although Britain is still a country riddled by class prejudice and contacts and connections are vital to making your way through to the top the landed gentry described here have largely gone. The age of the debutantes slipped into history and the second world war saw off a number of the generation that would have carried the torch forward.

In that sense as the reader turns the last page and leaves an image of an elderly Jenkins burning a bonfire in his garden in autumn it is a world that you leave behind with that last lines. A world of intelligence, appreciation for beauty, art and culture, but also a world that had the ugliness of the hunt and quest for money and power.

A review will follow soon…

Why do we do it?

Overheard this conversation today between two sales staff on my floor who were discussing reading.

After one told the other he was reading Steinbeck, but couldn’t remember the title, the following philosophical exchange took place:

Salesman one: “I have been asking myself and friends recently about what are the benefits and the point of reading?”

“I have decided it is to be entertained. You want to have a good read that is entertaining”

Salesman two: “yes but it is also a chance to read about places, history and other people”.

It would be an interesting question to sit and ponder for any of us I expect…

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hearing Secret Harmonies - post III

Dare I say it but you start to feel sympathy for Widmerpool. The young cult leader Scorpio bullies him and at a meeting with Jenkins at a wedding he reveals he has been forced to atone for previous moments of aggression with deeds of penance. You can only guess at what they are but in a moment when Widmerpool attempts to apologise to an old acquaintance for the things he did wrong by falling prostrate at his feet it gives you some idea.

Add to that the nudity, sense of the distance from the House of Lords to a house full of blue robe wearing harmony seeking cultists and the fall of Widmerpool is complete.

Jenkins remains detached as he has done all through but you wonder what he real feels as his old acquaintance who has shadowed his life ends literally begging in public to leave the cult and being bullied into heading back for more penance and punishment.

Powell is able to use father time to start to sweep up the numerous characters as most fall to old age and those that are left become increasingly obsessed with their health and immobile. Yet for all of that there is remarkably little reminiscing on the part of Jenkins. Others, Stringham’s Aunt for instance, are happy to talk about the past and try to draw some summaries but for the narrator it is simply a question of watching and recording.

Even when Gwinnet turns up and leaves the story with a bride clinging to his arm it gets the same straight commentary as the battle to protect his local stone-age monument from a local quarry expansion.

I am going to miss being able to look into this world when it is gone, which looks like being tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 9

Computers can provide the tools but the problem is when it becomes more than that and it becomes the only way that people learn a crutch that has replaced books with a collection of video, soundbites and selected texts.

“The danger should be obvious: The horizon, the limit that gave definition to the parts of the narrative, will disappear. The equation itself will become nonsensical through the accumulation of variables. The context will widen until it becomes, in effect, everything.” Pg 138

The question being asked here is whether or not the user can handle the data.

Chapter 10

Along with his belief in reading being connected to the soul the other phrase that most people connect with Birkerts is ‘deep reading’. Here he sets out exactly what he means by that:

“Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. The printed page becomes a kind of wrought-iron fence we crawl through, returning, once we have wandered, to the very place we started.” Pg 146

He then goes on to talk about audio books and how they change the process of ‘reading’, if that’s what it can still be called. He likes audio books but believes the reader has lost control, their rights, having to sit through a telling and a single interpretation of a text.

More tomorrow…

Monday, October 13, 2008

book review - Midnight's Children

This is a big book in many ways. In terms of printed pages it falls into the category of doorstopper at 600 plus and in terms of reputation as the Booker of Bookers it cannot get much higher. Add to that the larger than life author Salman Rushdie and you come to this with a certain sense of trepidation.

In some cases minds are clearly made up before the book is given a chance. One friend saying he didn’t like Rushdie and therefore wouldn’t try the book. But there has clearly got to be something there if it won the awards it has and has remained such a popular read even after a couple of decades since its first publication.

After reading it the first thought is that it might have made more sense to have gone through some sort of brief Indian history refresher because the crucial years in the book and the lives of the main character Saleem Sinai are connected with Indira Ghandi and events I had no knowledge of, the state of emergency she declared and then abused. In some respects you pick a great deal up but with the mixture of myth, fantasy and reality it’s not always clear what did happen or what is a dream.

What you can say for sure is that this weaves you through a period of history where India had gained its independence but struggled to find its soul. The splits in society quickly emerged and the country split, went to war and then consolidated with seething bitterness still continuing in some quarters.

Taking the reader through the thirty plus years of independence is Saleem who discovers that he has the ability to communicate telepathically with all of the other children who were born in the midnight hour on the arrival of independence.

It is the Midnight’s Children that link Saleem to a different world, an India of old beliefs and strange powers, as well as a hope that the future will be different from the past. But in the end the children are literally neutered as they fail to break with tradition and produce an India of their dreams.

The second thought is that you wish there was a way that a book could come with a sense of smell because this invokes many smells and tastes that although described well would have been pouring out of the book like an Indian market had smell been possible.

In the end it is the sense of smell, both natural and almost supernatural, that allows the hero to reconnect with his past. But just like his country he is disintegrating into a million pieces.

At the end you realise that imagination and fantasy can be powerfully deployed to help make sense of a real history that at times must have seemed to be unreal.

The final thought is about the writing and the style. There are motifs established in the early part of the book that return again and again. There are big themes with justice, love, betrayal and religion all getting their chance to be played out in the form of grotesque characters and situations.

Time is crucially important. Being born at Midnight not only gives Saleem his telepathic powers but also makes him who he is in the sense of being a child of national prominence. He can only talk to the others after the midnight hour has been struck and it is the sense of his own time running out that ruins through the book from start to finish.

An odd feeling about the book is that in places it feels cinematic to the extent that you see the images as if shown on a screen and the impact of cinema is clear on the writing technique.

But ultimately I guess the real question is not about the writing, the story or the length of time it lingers in the memory but whether or not it is enjoyable. It is intimidating but after a while even with the madness of circus freaks, wars and a family of flawed characters grows on you.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

bookmark of the week

This is a bookmark from Leeds Castle in Kent. I have a bookmark acquired almost a decade ago when I last went but this is the latest offering from the shop. Still the traditional leather – they have not yet shifted over to the now obligatory magnetic bookmarks.

A great place for a day out because it combines stately home/castle, aviary with a large and enjoyable children’s play area.

Apologies the image appears to be upside down. You get the idea though...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hearing Secret Harmonies - post II

Having described his role as a judge on the Magnus Donners biography prize Jenkins and fellow judges are panicking that nothing will turn up for this years award when Gwinnet’s biography of Trapnel is submitted. The prize is run past Widmerpool who is a trustee of the prize and he seems to have no objection but does demand to be allowed to come on the night.

He turns up accompanied by the Quiggin twins who wait until Widmerpool has stolen the stage shouting on about the need for non-conformity and the need to shy away from the system before letting off their stink bombs.

The impact of the moment is to underline just how strange Widmerpool has become and that continues with another chance meeting with Jenkins later on. Widmerpool is now obsessed with meeting up with Scorpio Murtlock and the idea of the two combining forces is something both strange and potentially interesting.

Will Widmerpool be able to hear the secret harmonies?

More Monday…

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hearing Secret Harmonies - post I

Right here we go. The last book, the promise of loose ends being tied up and although you sense this is going to again be about Widmerpool you want to see what happens to Jenkins.

The clock has ticked on from the last book and now a slowing Jenkins is involved as a judge on the Magnus Donners biography book prize. Totally embroiled in the literary world this book opens with a feeling that unlike the war novels or the school starts and Oxford this is really describing Jenkins in his own world.

There is more mention of his wife as a result and the chapters come faster than in some of the other novels. That gives it a pace that us fuelled by the move towards a meeting between Widmerpool and Gwinnet the American that Pamela Widmerpool fell in love with before her death. Piecing together the story it seems that knowing of his obsession with death Pamela took her own life to satisfy her lover.

But that is nowhere near as strange as the figure of Widmerpool who has become a university chancellor and also some sort of hippy and cult leader. He seems to have renounced all that he previously worked so hard for.

There is a sense that this is an era of cults, drop-outs and protests against the Vietnam war and the establishment and there is a passage where Jenkins allows a small-scale cult leader, Scorpio Murtlock, to camp on his land.

These books have been about the quest for power, the way it consumes, changes and destroys people and the society that helped create people like that. In some respects this is a historical novel but in others it is totally contemporary because the lust for power continues today as much as ever.

More tomorrow…

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 8

He uses an anecdote of the time he went as a book buyer to a 19th century literature professor who was selling off all his books as he went into computing.

The professor is an extreme case of one world replacing another and a case that Birkerts says is not isolated.

But the immediate threat is described as coming from television with the mindshare that grabs being the most pressing threat to reading. Presumably as this is pre-YouTube has Birkerts come across that it would be his own special version of hell – video and computers.

The great thing for Birkerts about tapping into the whole video versus books debate is that you are onto something big. But you are also potentially into something of a diversion. It is largely an educational debate about how children learn.

He warns about a modification in the form of reading:

“Whether all of this sounds dire or merely “different” will depend upon the reader’s own values and priorities. I find these portents of change depressing, but also exhilarating – at least to speculate about. On the one hand, I have a great feeling of loss and a fear about what habitations will exist for self and soul in the future. But there is also a quickening, a sense that important things are on the line.”

The things on the line are all of the things about reading that Birkerts values and he starts to list the developments that could happen as a result of erosion from technology and television.

1. Language erosion as dumbing down and simplification becomes the norm
2. A flattening of historical perspectives: “Once the materials of the past are unhoused from their pages, they will surely mean differently…”
3. The waning of the private self as social collectivisation challenges the individual isolated self

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Getting hold of Le Clezio

There has always been a cause and effect for authors named on prize lists that the publicity leads to more sales. While that is true, the figures bear it out, it has never particularly had an impact on the way I read. Mind you when the news came out that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio had won the Nobel prize for literature it does make you wonder about seeing if any of his work is in translation.

Last year I did pop to the library and read some Doris Lessing so maybe it’s the Nobel prize that triggers a reaction?

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 6

The impressions and images, the codes and symbols, are remembered from books even if the actual passages of dialogue and some characters slip the memory.

The reading memory is also connected to the experience of reading, with certain books able to conjure up memories of the situation they were read in. That is the result of something solitary and deep.

“The writing process begins in the writer, the life; it branches odd onto paper, into artifice; but the final restless resting place of every written thing is the solitary life of the reader.” Pg 108

Chapter 7

There is a relationship between the reader and the writer that is an important result of immersion in a novel. They are both to a certain extent on the same side and able to share the same experiences.

“When we read we bring the life – ultimately our life - to the words.” Pg 113

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 4

The chapter seems to be concentrating on what he calls the ‘reading state’ the reaction that a reader has to the actual process of reading.

“…it involves a change of state and inner orientation and if we contemplate the reading process in this light we can hardly get away from introducing the world soul (or something very like it) into the conversation”. Pg 80

Crucially he believes that process, the magic of reading starts off when you are a child. It is not said but the implicit implication of that is if a child knows nothing other than technology they will miss out on ever learning to reach the ‘reading state’.

“I would guess that most adults who are now devoted readers began at a young age, and that they formed a good part of their essential selves through interaction with books.” pg 84

Chapter 5

Reading is about formulating the self and that is vital in adolescence in terms of shaping ambition and widening horizons. Post thirty reading offers a different experience but one as important.

“..there is a very special transformation that takes place when we read fiction that is not experienced in non-fiction. This transformation, or catalysing action, can be seen to play a vital part in what we might call, grandly, existential self-formation.”

Monday, October 06, 2008

Temporary Kings - post IV

The book ends with confusion about the exact fate of Pamela Widmerpool but her death occurs after some sort of overdose. The painting described in the first third of the book with the King viewing his wife as she makes love to her lover is a theme of Pamela and Widmerpool's sex life.

he is the voyeur and she seems, and I might be wrong here, to love but also hate that fact.

But the final third of the book is saved by the reappearance of Moreland who is sadly dying. He reminds the reader of the power of nostalgia as characters of the past breeze through the pages and memories of those that have gone before reappear. Among the memories there is a sad reminder of Stringham's death in a Japanese POW camp.

By the close of the book Widmerpool has managed to save himself from a spying charge and although he is now without mother and wife his quest for power, which has defined him from the start, is now the only thing keeping him going.

Roll on the last book.

A review will follow soon...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Getting back to normal

This is just a short post to apologise for the way things have been going recently. I am aware that the reviews are stacking up again and that the content is not that great, it is partly because so much of this year has been bogged down with Dance to the Music of Time. Hopefully with the last book and a half read there will be a chance for other things before the year ends.

Hopefully that will be more entertaining and my hope is that it will allow me to shake of this lethargy and get back to being on top of the blog...

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - post II

If there is one thing that I will take away from this book it will be to understand the power of the imagination. Even locked into his body he manages to fly away to memories and undiscovered countries. What helps him get there is an imagination that has been fuelled by trips abroad and his experiences but also by literature.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a reference but this is something that increasingly is informed by his own view of the world and the scenes where he brings back the moment when the founder of the hospital must have first arrived. The weaving of historical fact with imagination and dreams really works well. Plus there is the sadness that is of course throughout in the background and when he recalls the moment when he fell into a coma it is left close to the last. In a way had the book opened with that it would have been much more self-pitying tone.

This is a short read but something that once read is unlikely to be ever forgotten.

A review soon…

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - post I

Having sat and watched the film last night I picked up the Diving Bell and the Butterfly this morning and spent my commute going through it.

It is an incredible book to read because you know how it was written, with a paralysed author dictating through the blink of an eye. But even with that factor it is something that has a quality that makes you realise that humanity can carry on well beyond when most of us would give up.

Although stuck in a statue like state Jean-Bo manages to keep his humour, imagination and love alive and only occasionally heads into self-pitying territory. The result is a story that grabs you and gets you interested. Partly because, at least in the first half, he doesn’t reveal how he got into that position.

In some ways this is better than the film because where that uses film footage to reinforce the idea of taking flights of fancy here the words and the descriptions transport you in a different way.

Other half tomorrow…

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Temporary Kings - post III

The action is still based in Venice with Jenkins bumping into old acquainteces and making new friends as he weaves between the writers conference and the house party being attended by Pamela Widmerpool.

Jenkins meets one of his first employers, who used to be a friend of his father’s, who has become a painter with high socialist principles after turning his back on the publishing trade. But the meeting with Tokenhouse is interrupted as they bump into some of the crowd from the conference.

Regardless of what people are doing the focus of attention seems to be the Widmerpool marriage, with its rows and odd scenes and talk starts to spread across the little groups at Venice that Pamela is seriously thinking of leaving her husband.

It would be good to get back to London but with everyone turning up in Venice, including now Odo Stevens the connection from the war, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Temporary Kings - post II

The reappearance of Pamela Widmerpool makes you wonder about the women across the whole series so far. Powell seems to have little difficulty describing the motivations and various different characteristics of men but women are a different matter.

With Jenkins’s own wife completely in the shadows the women characters are either mistresses, wives or oddities like the old fortune teller. Pamela is an unlikeable character because of her rudeness and her control of her beauty but she seems to be the main catalyst for various interlinks between characters and situations.

The problem is that by now, with the end of the series looming you rather wish that she would shuffle off and someone more agreeable could be introduced centre stage.

More tomorrow…