Amnesia by Peter Carey

I don’t understand why people are down on this, I thought it was a cracker. First Carey I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed for many years. I am only uneasy because it reads like a movie. When you can see the movie reeling along as you turn the page – it makes me wonder whenever I read a novel which seems like it’s waiting to become a movie. If the author wrote the novel aiming for the screen is this okay? Are we reading a movie pitch or a novel?

If you want a book to read on a plane which is well-written, a nicely evoked picture of Australia starting at WWII and ending when children are computer hackers, stereotypical characters whom we all know – really well done, I thought – this is it. I won’t read it again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once.

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The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

William the Fourth by Richmal Crompton

Early last year I came upon the dregs of the library of a very wealth Swiss family. The dispersal of the expensive chattels of the estate, including the better books, was undertaken by one of those auction houses that specialises in the disposal of rich history. But the dregs of the books, as well as other very minor bits ended up in the stock of one of the sellers I frequent at the open air book markets in Geneva. A few of the items, though valueless, had the emblem of the house upon them, which is why I could tell what they were.

Rich or not, this was a family which had loved reading over hundreds of years and here were items from the 1920s to 1970s or thereabouts, reflecting their interest in English literature for young and old. Some of it I bought out of sheer curiosity, authors like Barbara Pym I’d never read, but perhaps I should. William I bought because I adored these books as a kid and haven’t read them since the 1960s.

They had aged well then – this early one was first published in 1924 – and fifty years later again they are still standing up as fresh, fun and elegantly written. Apparently an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Crompton as a writer for adults. I must dip into that: if they are anything like as good as her books for children, they’ll be a pleasure to snort over, taking care not to spill one’s cup of tea while doing that.

Most of the stories are strong – I see one or two complaints on GR that they are repetitive from book to book, but children want that. If they are going to reread the same book over and over, why not stories that are the same but different?

I particularly love the one where a big company opens a sweet shop in the village, undercutting Mr Moss with whom they have always shopped. Come Saturday they take their money to the new shop, get served by a girl who doesn’t care and thinks having to sell to them in h’penny lots is ridiculous. As they walk along chomping on their lollies, they pass Mr Moss’s shop. He is very sad, quite unlike his usual jolly self. He can’t put his prices any lower, but, just like Amazon, the new shop has the financial power to sacrifice short term profits for the long term gains of putting Mr Moss out of business with the cooperation of the locals. He stresses to the boys that they are doing the right thing, of course they have to go to the cheaper shop, but vague ideas appear in the minds of the boys.

William and his gang start realising that it isn’t necessarily good to buy cheapest. They want Mr Moss to be happy. They talk about how when they buy from Mr Moss he cares, he is always interested in what they buy. He welcomes their purchasing a h’penny worth at a time. They are sure, now that they think about it, that his sweets taste better too. But what to do? Start a campaign to make people buy from Mr Moss, but how can they, they have no weight, why would anybody notice?

Ah, but William, as usual has a plan. And as usual, no matter how many plans go awry, his followers fall into the next without a moment’s hesitation. The Duke is going to be in town to open a Sale of Work. When he appears on stage to do that, unbeknownst to him, he has a big sign on his back advertising Mr Moss’s shop. As he wanders around the Sale, the locals summon the Vicar to tell the Duke what’s on his back, a large crowd following him around due to the unlikely sight. Just as the Vicar explains and takes the sign off to show the Duke, William and his cohorts appear, each wearing placards with creative spelling announcing the various benefits of Mr Moss’s sweets.

The Duke can recognise a ringleader when he sees one. He asks for William to be brought to him. William in his tripping over his tongue enthusiastic way explains about Mr Moss and the Amazon-like attempt to close him down and how much they want to help and that nobody would notice them unless, he thought, they could put their sign on an important person who would be decent enough to care.

Well, the Duke’s been to more Sales of Work than he cares to think about and this is the first bright moment he’s had for many an appearance. He tells William and the others that they must discuss this further over ices. The eager captive audience of lads listens to his tales of adventure like big game hunting and together they discuss Red Indians and pirates. Then the Duke, with boys in hand, goes to visit Mr Moss. He buys a pound of sweets for each boy and he makes a standing order for himself of cokernuts. Instantly Mr Moss is known as supplier of  cokernuts to Royalty. The Amazon shop closes down, Mr Moss is reinstated as the place to go to.

And of William?

It was Miss Spence who voiced the prevailing sentiment about William. She did not say it out of affection for William. She had no affection for William.

William chased her cat and her hens, disturbed her rest with his unearthly songs and whistles, broke her windows with his cricket ball, and threw stones over the hedge into her garden pond.

But one day, as she watched William progress along the ditch – William never walked on the road if he could walk in the ditch – dragging his toes in the mud, his hands in his pockets, his head poking forward, his brows frowning, his freckled face stern and determined, his mouth pucked up to make his devastating whistle, his train of boy followers behind him, she said slowly: ‘There’s something about that boy –

In some ways it’s a mystery I’d like these books so much, books about a boy who doesn’t like to read (except the worst books), likes to fight and get dirty and climb trees, all of which I’m happy if I never do in my whole life. But the thing is that William is above all for fairness. Admittedly his attempts in the first story of this book to introduce Bolshevism into his family fail, but his mates are all share and share alike. He loves the life that poor children live around him, he hates the comfort of his bourgeois existence. All this is at some gut feeling level, it isn’t an intellectual pose. But how can one not admire it. Then there is his ingenuity, his inspiring leadership, his creativity and imagination. He’s splendid.

Lately I’ve been trying my hand at Little Nicolas, who is a sort of French equivalent, entertaining, but not a patch on William. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of this series, I think maybe part of the reason is that William has an additional layer in it. Little Nicolas has small children and adults. William also has his older brother and sister who are substantially his senior, dating and so on. It will not be a surprise to hear that his siblings’ interest in the opposite sex is rather disgusting to him. He simply cannot understand what young men see in his sister Ethel when he knows the truth of how awful she is. Big sisters. Uggh. He could tell them a thing or two.

This reminds me of the time in my life I really feel like William was my model. I went to a large school in Adelaide in my primary years which had an area out the back where boys would park their cars and girls would join them to pash. I doubt it went much further than that, late sixties. My siblings and I, who being oldest was the leader, occasionally had to hang out at school waiting for my mother, a teacher. We would sometimes go out to the back and dance around the cars like a bunch of Red Indians maybe, saying ‘No spooning here’. ‘Kissing banned’. ‘Stop pashing’. And such like. We were highly amused by ourselves and thought we were terribly clever, though I’m not sure we even knew what ‘spooning’ meant. Probably the kids in cars didn’t either, it was already an anachronistic word. The teenagers must have been ropeable, restrained, no doubt, by the knowledge that anything they did to us was to the kids of a senior teacher. We were probably untouchable, luckily for us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if every occasion I was bad as a kid was because of William? I’d never thought of blaming him at the time, but I did find it hard to separate my reading from life, so who knows? Just hoping now that I don’t regress. I wonder how many of them I’ll have to read before that happens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone

I have a friend who’s a rellie of Edith Bone and as a consequence discovered her story which is truly astonishing, every bit of it that we know and no doubt the parts that will continue to unfold as classified documents from MI5 and Soviet counterparts are made more available.

But for now, looking at only her period of isolated imprisonment, I offer this from wiki:

In 1949, Bone was acting as a freelance correspondent in Budapest, affiliated with the London Daily Worker. She was accused of spying for the British government when leaving Hungary, arrested by the State Protection Authority (AVH) and detained in solitary confinement without trial or a prisoner identification number for seven years. During her detention, Bone managed to avoid the mental instability or insanity that typically accompanies isolation. She developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, the several languages she knew and vocabulary. She mentally reconstructed the plots of all of the books she had read, made a comprehensive list of all of the characters in Shakespeare she could remember, and made letters out of the dense black bread she was fed; out of these she composed poetry. Perhaps most stunning was the weeks-long effort she put into to removing a very large nail from the iron-hard oak door of her cell. To accomplish this, she slowly removed single threads from towels and wove them into a solid rope with which to work the nail. After weeks of straining effort to get the nail to begin to wiggle and then loosen, she finally got the nail out. She then sharpened it on the concrete floor and used at as a drill to create a small peephole in her cell door so she could finally see out of her cell. She used these projects to keep her mind stimulated, to fill her time with goal-oriented actions, and to keep her sanity during her long period of extreme isolation.

Bone was freed during the last days of the revolutionary Nagy Government in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A student group had seized control of the Budapest political prison where Bone was held, and processed political prisoners for release.

I’m sure it’s true that the Hungarians intended her to die as a result of her privations. Apparently they couldn’t actually kill her directly as it was known she had disappeared, though the British did precious little to get her out. Why doesn’t that surprise me.

There will be more of her incredible life to come. I will end by noting that Aung San Suu Kyi gained her inspiration to survive from reading her book as a teenager.

Edith Bone wrote her own epitaph:

Edith Bone (1889-1975)
On Myself

Here lies the body of Edith Bone.
All her life she lived alone,
Until Death added the final S
And put an end to her loneliness.

The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.

Shackleton

Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index

 

Rives

Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:

 

Does James Bond have to go through airport security?

Geneva airport, our plane is boarding. We have just got to the top of the security check queue which is so long today that they have extended it into the airport pathway. That, after a ten minute wait in the fast track of Easy Jet luggage checkin. And today, of all days, is the first time our Easy Jet flight has been on time for years. That’d be right.

But we were okay now, through the thing where you might beep but don’t. Hand on my luggage when a voice says:

‘Is that your luggage ma’am?’

And you look up and say ‘yes’ to the female security guards who ask you to ‘come this way’.

‘Do you know why we are going to search your bags, ma’am?’

I give a seriously stressed out answer because I’m seriously stressed out.

‘So that I miss my plane?’

‘It’s because you have a large knife in your bags, ma’am.’

Do they think I’m a complete idiot? What sort of dickwit would pack a knife in their carry on luggage? Manny comes over and I tell him when he asks, ‘They are looking for the large knife we packed this morning.’ Spoken with all the sarcasm I could muster, which was quite a lot.

Losing it in Switzerland isn’t a great idea. Losing it in airports isn’t a great plan either. Swiss airports? Don’t even think about it. But our plane was boarding. They couldn’t find the knife. They are inclined, in fact to believe me and turn to look at the X-ray dude who has put me in this position. He stares at me and shakes his head in a way that says ‘Think you are getting away with this? Forget it.’

I start getting a wind up, I’m ranting away. ‘Hello? Do you really think ‘a big knife’ could be in there’ as one of them unzips my purse which is maybe 2 inches wide. They are pulling everything out of my bags and I’m in the middle of ‘What are you guys doing, seriously. Why aren’t you out catching terrorists instead of harrassing innocent travellers like -‘ and I don’t actually finish my sentence because as I’m saying that, it dawns on me that one of them is pulling a knife out of my carry-on, where it is hiding in the side at the bottom, just about where you would hide a knife if you were.

Hiding a knife. Which I wasn’t. But there it was. Undeniably there was what I would not call a large knife, but a decent sized one all the same in my carry-on. If Sharia law insisted that somebody’s head had to be removed from their body during the course of our flight to Gatwick airport, this knife wouldn’t cut it. But absolutely one could see it sticking into somebody’s heart or slitting their throat.

Or…as I recollect during the horror I am feeling, cutting cheese and fruit. The weekend before we had been on a train trip and I’d taken the knife to cut things for lunch. Here it was, still in my bag.

Fucketty-fuck. Grovelling apologies. Tip to the X-ray man who was so on the job. It turns out it only looks like they aren’t really looking. How tricky can you get? I’m explaining away and these very nice security guards who have just put up with my diatribe couldn’t be, well, sweeter about it. Maybe their English wasn’t up to it, I don’t know. Or it’s because I’m short. But although they said it was all right, no problem, they did nonetheless take my particulars.

They put my name and address in a big black book whilst telling me not to worry. If they don’t want you to worry, why is it big and black?  Couldn’t they make it pink or something? And smaller. A Hello Kitty notepad, something like that.

The terrorist register. I can just see it. And my worst fears are confirmed. I’ve felt like a terrorist since September 2010 when I was given my second passport. I guess lots of people have two passports from two countries. But mine have two names on them. Now I’m a person with two passports with different IDs and a penchant for packing dangerous weapons in my carry-on. James Bond, eat your heart out.

Anton Chekhov A Brother’s Memoirs by Mikhail Chekhov

For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.

I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.

So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.

The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are. I am mystified as to why this book has been frequently panned. It’s nicely written – I’m surprised Mihkail Chekhov doesn’t seem to be remembered for his writing – with anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic. Some of them are directly about Anton and have, I gather, found their way into many a resource on him.

But much of the book is about the surrounds of the Chekhovs. How people like them lived in that period. The collective Russian artistic community, the intelligentsia, the bohemians, the people of the stage, the publishers of presses and magazines are the stuff of this book. We see how poverty-stricken, talented Russians like Anton and his siblings survived, not only economically, but spiritually in a period of censorship which is hard to credit. It serves to remind one that the Soviet model did not spring from nothing, nor did it spring from Marxism. It sprang from what was already in Russia, subservient masses, an aristocracy and a Tsar. It is an exceptional period in the history of the world and this book puts the reader vividly, right in the thick of it.

One vignette will serve to illustrate how extraordinary the censorship was in this period of late nineteenth century. Mikhail mentions the presence of detention cells in the universities. One of the reasons for being put in a cell was for applauding one’s professor. You may reread that last sentence, it won’t change. Every attempt was made to drum free will and independent thinking out of students. To publicly appreciate one’s teacher was punishable. You can see where Stalin comes from, not to mention Gogol.

I sense a strong connection between English and Russian. I gather it can’t be technical, but may be emotional. That doesn’t surprise me. Maybe the English and the Russians stand historically undefeated in similar ways, sharing a similar psyche, in some regards at any rate. It suits Russian to be translated into English is my gut feeling. The translator in this case, Eurene Alper, is a specialist translator of Chekhov. You can find at his site his translation of Chekhov’s doctor’s recollection of him. It will give you a taste for more. Then you can buy the book.