Archive for the ‘Mind’ Category

Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.

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Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

Grand Tour #17 – Bulgaria. Street Without a Name / Kapka Kassabova

July 24, 2017

I didn’t set myself strict rules for choosing EU books, but I did make a conscious decision to avoid poetry where possible, poetry being (to my mind) the medium least susceptible to translation, and to favour fiction over non-fiction. So it was that I didn’t read a work of non-fiction until book sixteen (Cyprus); book seventeen (Bulgaria) is not merely non-fiction but also my first non-translated book, having been originally written in English, albeit by a Bulgarian writer and on the subject of Bulgaria. And I must admit, if the objective of this project was to understand what life is like in each book’s country of origin, this book has succeeded better than the preceding sixteen. The book is Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova.

Kassabova’s book is in two parts, as suggested by the title, the first a chronicle of her childhood in the Bulgaria of the ’70s and ’80s, the second a travelogue by the adult writer, now an émigrée living in Britain, returning to Bulgaria for more or less the first time since her childhood. Her mission in writing the book is to make Bulgaria personal, not just another ‘country without a face’. I’m certainly guilty of laziness in my own conception of Bulgaria. Dour, tough-tackling footballers, poor Georgi Markov and his poison-tipped umbrella, the lev, and, to a lesser extent, the stotinka.

But amazingly there is more to Bulgaria than this, and Kassabova’s observation of small details is telling right from the off, people-watching at Frankfurt Airport as she waits for her flight to Bulgaria, knowing instinctively from their bearing which passengers are Bulgarians and which aren’t. When they touch down in Sofia, the Bulgarians applaud. ‘Bulgarians know not to take anything for granted,’ she writes.

This is 2006, and Bulgaria is on the verge of joining the EU, though the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Kassabova’s compatriots are understandably anxious. She takes a train journey.

The old man goes to the toilet and returns at once, scandalized.

‘Have you seen the toilet?’ he cries out in anguish. ‘It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty, stuff all over, words fail me … How are we going to get into Europe with this toilet? Tell me, how!’

Theory: the state of any society’s public toilets is an indicator of its prosperity. (Not that it’s a watertight theory, as anyone who has visited the gents’ at Cambridge station will verify; the old ones, with their sticky floor and mirror walls, were gross, but it’s taken next to no time for the refurbished ones to go the same way. Please spend more of my tax money sorting this out, government. Though it’s the taxpayer’s fault they’re in such a state, isn’t it; incontinent male commuters. I accidentally went into the ladies’ once and it was like Narnia. Where was I.) When young Kapka’s mother accompanies her father on a work visit to Delft University, she is moved to tears by the cleanliness of the public toilets, and too embarrassed to explain why to her husband’s concerned colleague.

Although Kapka’s childhood appears by and large to be a tolerable one – freedom at home, piano lessons, humourless strictness at her state-controlled school with its attendant shadowy threats – it isn’t until her parents return from Delft that the poverty of her country is borne in on her.

They brought records of Western pop music you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria, like Barry Manilow and a two-record album The Best of the Beatles – finally, twenty years late, my father could listen to his favourite band. A pair of tiny wooden clogs, a gift from my father’s Dutch colleague, which took pride of place in our living-room. A tin of salted, peeled peanuts. We had peanuts, of course, but they were unprocessed and sold on street stalls. Someone in Holland had shelled, peeled and salted these peanuts especially for us. A giant packet of raisins. There were no raisins in Bulgaria, only grapes. Next, an electric blue T-shirt for me with a girl doing aerobics printed on it, and orange trousers with multiple pockets, in which I felt ultra-cool. In fact, wearing these clothes made me feel so obviously Western that I imagined the envious eyes of all Sofia were on me.

Western! To Kapka, even Libya seems a Western dreamland (the atlas confirms it), a place where lavish and exotic presents are brought from. Kapka turns sixteen in the momentous year of 1989 – the Berlin Wall comes down, the Ceaușescus are executed, and the Communist regime in Bulgaria ends. Before too long, she emancipates herself.

The toilets may not have improved in the post-Communist thaw, but how are other things on Kapka’s return? Well, the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind. The arrival of Western accoutrements has not altered the character of the country or its people. Who would have guessed capitalism wasn’t the answer, that moderate monetary prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness.

I, being me, was less interested in the places and people adult Kapka visits than in her own reactions to the remnants of her past. The pang of nostalgia on returning to Plovdiv to find her beloved semolina cake restaurant closed, or to the coastal town of Balchik, scene of idyllic childhood holidays, to find it eroded away, irrevocably changed. The bittersweet experience of returning to a childhood home, something one once thought one’s own property, now modified beyond recognition.

At the end of the book, Kassabova quotes the 19th-century travel writer Felix Kanitz, who observed that a journey through Bulgaria is ‘marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras’. That comes across strongly during the travelogue section of Kassabova’s book. She writes apologetically at the start that the portrait she will sketch of modern Bulgaria is ‘almost never flattering’, but it is at any rate honest and sympathetic, and enlightening.

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasionally as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.