Posts Tagged ‘War’

Grand Tour #28 – Ireland. Days Without End / Sebastian Barry

December 15, 2017

To the end of my journey, and what a journey it’s been. Well, not really, it’s just been 28 books, and most of them have left me not much wiser about anything, let alone their countries of origin. But some of them (thinking particularly of those from Germany, Greece and the UK) have been treasures, and it’s always a good idea to read something out of one’s comfort zone, and to read books in translation.

Not that my final book is in translation, or obscure, or even set in its author’s own country; but it is a joy. It’s Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which won the Costa Book Award in 2016. It’s narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant, and relates his experiences in the America of the mid-19th century, fighting in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War, at the same time telling the story of his love affair with a fellow soldier, John Cole, and their establishment of an unconventional family unit.

The book is dedicated to Barry’s gay son Toby, and Barry has spoken in interviews about how his writing of the book was informed by Toby’s coming out. I raised an eyebrow slightly at this, dubious about the event’s momentousness. Is coming out such a big deal for a parent nowadays, does it change one’s view of things so profoundly? Well, perhaps so, and it’s not for me to say, and Barry is an earnest and amiable man (I just listened to his Private Passions), and if in some way the book represents a testament to his son’s sexuality then it’s one of the most beautiful tributes imaginable.

Not that you’d call it a gay novel, necessarily. Its focus for much of the time is fighting, not loving. The battle scenes can be brutal, and at the start they brought back memories of my foolhardy decision, aged 10 or so, to take an after-school class on the Wild West taught by my maths teacher, purely on the basis of my having loved Copland’s Billy the Kid. Goodness it was dull. It took me years to recognise the appeal of the Western as a genre (though I did, and couldn’t now write a list of my favourite films without at least Shane on it). Other things I was reminded of, to give a vague idea of the book: Cormac McCarthy, Huckleberry Finn, Brokeback Mountain, and The Oregon Trail (not that they get anywhere near Oregon), which we used to play on the school computers, giving each character an obscene name.

Only it’s not boring like Mr Hake’s (let’s call him) Wild West course, and the battles are immediate and even, to my surprise, given books rarely (i.e. never) have this effect on me, exciting.

Sergeant shouts draw sabres so he does and now we show our thirty swords to the sunlight and the sunlight ravishes every inch of them. Sergeant never has given that order in all our time because you might as well light a fire as draw a sabre in the brightness as far as signals go. But something has the wind up him. Suddenly an old sense of life we haven’t remembered floods back into us. The air of manhood fills our skins. Some can’t help hollering and the sergeant screams at us to keep the line. We wonder what he is thinking. Soon we are at the fringes of the tent town, we tear through in a second, like riders in an old storybook, sweeping in.

You can hear Thomas McNulty’s voice clearly here, conversational, informal, occasionally fragmentary, yet eloquent and poetic. I’m not always conscious of hearing someone speak when I read, but I frequently heard his voice, sometimes with an Irish accent, more often with an American one. His experience is that of the typical American soldier of the time, I imagine, only as a shrewd observer of humanity he’s better placed to chronicle it than most others.

Time passes in the book without your noticing it. Thomas and John effectively become the adoptive fathers of a young Sioux girl they call Winona; one blink and she has become a teenager, and yet the feeling is not of having jumped ahead but that time has flowed so organically as to be almost invisible, as time passes in our lives. How is it that this thing I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday actually happened 18 years ago? How is it that Thomas and John are in their thirties already, when only a moment ago they were teenagers earning money by dressing as girls for miners to dance with in Mr Noone’s saloon, ‘two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world’.

The matter of cross-dressing is treated with sensitivity and beauty. Over time Thomas finds he prefers wearing women’s clothes, emboldened perhaps by his encounters with berdache Indians, and this cross-dressing extends to gender fluidity. When dressed as a woman Thomas feels himself female, and goes by Thomasina, even going through a marriage ceremony with John in this persona. None of this feels remotely anachronistic, and I felt exhilarated at Thomas’s delight in his gender expression. (What did feel anachronistic to me sometimes was Thomas’s complete lack of racial prejudice, at any rate against the black characters, whose cause he champions; in this respect he seems a 21st-century man, but I suppose there had to be some forward-thinkers then for us to get where we are today.)

At the heart of the book is the love story, which I suspect is affecting precisely because of its being low-key and because neither Thomas nor John expresses emotion readily (hints of The Remains of the Day, perhaps, though thankfully there’s some consummation in this book). The first proof that they are lovers is a ‘We quietly fucked’ that is dropped in matter-of-factly but not dwelt upon. The story really caught my imagination at the point where, discharged from the army, they set up house together, the switch from military to domestic being more to my taste, and the intensity of war making civilian life seem all the sweeter.

In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment.

The book (spoiler alert) ends on a happy note, and I’m pleased to end this project similarly. It’s brought some joy and some frustration, but mostly the former, and I suppose that’s what one hopes for in reading as in life. Thanks for reading, if you have been. The blog will now fall into its customary neglect but I’ll be back presently with the end-of-year/start-of-year posts I generally do.

Advertisements

Grand Tour #20 – Slovakia. That Alluring Land / Timrava

September 16, 2017

To Slovakia, and to Timrava, the enigmatic pen name of Božena Slančíková (1867-1951), a handful of whose stories I read in an anthology called That Alluring Land, translated by Norma L. Rudinsky. It’s a collection of six stories written from 1894 to 1918, the last of which, ‘Great War Heroes’, might be better classified as a novella, being around 100 pages long.

It took me a disproportionately long time to read this book, and part of the fault is Timrava’s. I don’t mind writers reusing names across their stories, which she does incessantly (was there a pool of only ten Slovak names to choose from? everyone’s a Pal’o or a Ďuro or a Jano), but I do draw the line at having more than one character with the same name in a single story, which is asking for trouble. ‘Great War Heroes’ has an Anča, an Anka (called Anička as a diminutive), and another Anička. Am I just being racialist? The failing is doubtless mine too. I struggle to remember who’s who in Russian novels (for instance) much more than I do in English, French or German ones. Let’s move on.

Chronicles of Slav peasantry are always a thrill, I’m with you on that one, but what makes Timrava’s writing of particular interest is that she’s a woman, and moreover a feminist. Two stories seem to anticipate Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman needs a room of her own. The first story, ‘The Assistant Teacher’, turns on its protagonist’s bedroom being given over to the eponymous teacher, arriving from out of town. ‘This room will no longer be mine,’ she says to herself, though her thoughts quickly turn to fantasies of falling in love with the new man. A humorous story, ‘The Ťapák Clan’, has a stand-off between the indolent Ťapák family, who live fourteen to a house, and the enterprising and intellectually stifled Il’a, who has married into the family and is irritated beyond belief by their inertia, miraculously resolved by her moving back into her old house where she has her own space to live.

Il’a is a magnificent heroine, strong-willed but fallible. She walks out on her apathetic husband Pal’o, convinced that it won’t take more than a few days’ absence to make him realise her value, and is horrified to find him apparently having learned self-sufficiency, and wearing a dazzling white shirt. The job she has taken as a school cleaner (which brings shame on the Ťapák family) is a letdown in its own way.

They didn’t let her sit for a single hour but ordered her to do a hundred things at once. She would never have thought educated people could behave like this. She had imagined that at least once a day they would invite her to sit down on a nice chair, or on the sofa, and converse with them about the intellectual matters her mind thirsted for. They used to do that when she would visit the schoolhouse. But now they didn’t – not once since St. George’s Day! They didn’t treat her as an enlightened woman but just as an ordinary hired girl.

This dashing of hopes is common to all Timrava’s stories, and often relates to romance or matrimony. ‘The Assistant Teacher’ has elements of the Austenesque comedy of manners, acutely observed and witty, its conclusion a bittersweet capitulation. ‘Battle’ is the acrimonious story of a wrangle for a ring (to borrow Larkin’s words), Marta and Mária a pair of marriageable sisters at war with a number of other young women for the affections of a small number of men. Mária’s reputation as a vamp breeds suspicion among the others. Emotions are repressed, expectations variously scuppered or deflatedly submitted to. The sins of the parents are visited on the children, and the chance for redemption arrives far too late. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is simply what life is like for Timrava’s people: a struggle and a disappointment. The story ‘No Joy at All’ is aptly named.

Not that they don’t try to fight it. In the 1907 title story, ‘That Alluring Land’, America seems to offer an escape. Jano is inspired by the plans of other men from his town to go to America, a common dream among Slovaks at the time, to earn capital that he can use on his return home in a couple of years. When he gets there, the reality, told through a letter home, is even more brutal than that of the life he has left behind.

The final story in the collection, ‘Great War Heroes’, is the most ambitious and the most impressive. It’s a darkly satirical portrait of how the inhabitants of a town react to the outbreak of the First World War, and was written as the war came to its end. It’s a striking companion piece to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, though less absurdly humorous. For some, the war is an opportunity: one woman sees the calling up of her abusive husband as a blessing, and the hypocritical notary Baláň is delighted to have an excuse to do some browbeating; but most simply fear the death of the town’s young men. The heroes of the title are thin on the ground, but the assistant notary Širický, the one voice of reason, is the closest thing to a traditional hero in any of the stories. Although at times he toes the party line, he is at heart a pacifist, world-weary, and disillusioned with violence. The final chapter is bitter and resolutely unsentimental. Timrava’s stories are sometimes compared to Chekhov’s, and this is perhaps where she comes closest to the master.

Grand Tour #9 – Czech Republic. Closely Observed Trains / Bohumil Hrabal

April 29, 2017

The best known work of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is probably his short novel of 1965 Closely Observed Trains (sometimes Closely Watched Trains, Ostře sledované vlaky in the original Czech) – best known probably because of Jiří Menzel’s acclaimed film adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. I’ve been meaning to watch the film for about 20 years, but haven’t got around to it yet. The book, though, I have read, in the translation by Edith Pargeter, herself best known for writing medieval murder mysteries under the name of Ellis Peters.

It’s a blackly comic portrait of life at a rural railway station in early 1945, told from the perspective of young Miloš, a graduate trainee railwayman who returns to work after three months’ sick leave following a suicide attempt. The other main players are the blustering station-master Lánský, more interested in his pigeons than his work (‘They pecked at his cheeks, but so tenderly, as though they’d been his little children’), and the dispatcher Hubička, who is in trouble with the authorities for stamping the bottom of his inamorata Virginia with official railway stamps. Bureaucracy and sex, it’s a lethal combination. It made me think of Gavin Ewart’s silly poem about office life.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

The presence of lively Hubička, the embodiment of sexual freedom, seems to promise adventure for Miloš, whose suicide attempt was the result of what David Nobbs would have described as an amorous disappointment. The sex comedy is quite broad, the most farcical scene involving Miloš forcing himself on Lánský’s wife, who protests she’s going through ‘the change’. There are hints that she might have liked to accept him otherwise, Lánský himself not being a great proponent of sex. ‘The curse of this erotic century!’ he fulminates. ‘Everything’s saturated with sex, nothing but sex and erotic stimulants!’ (Of course, this may be a front.)

Hrabal’s comic writing has a great economy. Lánský is a case in point, his character distilled into small descriptions. From this alone you can tell what kind of man he is.

He combed his hair carefully so as to smooth it from the left side over his bald patch to the right side, and again from his right ear over the bald patch to the left side. But sometimes when he walked out on to the open platform without due care, and there was a wind blowing, it blew the strands apart, and stood both wings of his hair on end like a Gothic arch.

See also what might be my favourite sentence of the book.

‘Sit down,’ he invited me, and as he rose from his table a leaf of the palm laid itself on his head.

But despite the comic interludes and daydreams, I felt that the predominant tone of the book was one of pity. In his unpreparedness for the brutalities of war, Miloš might be any one of us, and the brutalities are not ignored. The book opens with a German plane crashing. While the locals steal the wings for metal, Miloš goes to inspect the fuselage, finding the body of the pilot. Trains arrive carrying people wounded by the bombing of nearby Dresden. There are bombing raids, dead horses, cattle rotting alive, and gutted train carriages streaked with blood. I didn’t think of The Catcher in the Rye often, but this passage where Miloš remembers his stay in hospital shows a sense of pity at the fragility of human beings that he shares with Holden Caulfield.

I was sad that day, because lying next to me was a fifteen-year-old girl. She’d found in the cupboard a present her parents had bought for her, it was a pair of felt boots, and she couldn’t resist putting them on and going off to Prague in them, but there among the rocks by Satalice this train she was in collided with another passenger train, and the seats were rammed together in such a way that the girl’s feet were crushed. When she came out of the anaesthetic she was all the time crying: Put my boots in the cupboard, please, my boots …

Even amid the pity and tragedy, there is beauty. There is a spellbinding description of Miloš returning home from hospital to discover that the frost has been so hard that the rooks and crows in the wood near his house have frozen on the branches in their sleep.

I stamped the sole of my shoe against the trunk of a tree, that time, and out of the boughs and branches showered hoar-frost and dead birds; several of them brushed my shoulders, but they were so light that it was only as if an empty beret had fallen on me.

The chief of the mail train that carries the wounded of Dresden utters the phrase that becomes the motto of the book: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’ (‘You should have sat at home on your arse.’) As a portrait of the futility of war, it’s a minor entry in the literary canon, but a poignant one. As a comparison I’d recommend Josef Škvorecký’s less farcical novel The Cowards, which I wrote about several years ago here.

The 1947 Club: Doctor Faustus / Thomas Mann

October 14, 2016

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend was a book I vowed to myself to read at the start of the year, and when the 1947 Club came along and I spotted the publication date of Mann’s book it seemed a pleasingly neat coincidence. I’ve loved Mann since discovering Death in Venice at 14, a book I’ve read more times than probably any other, and given it’s been five years since I was blown away by Buddenbrooks, it was high time to try another. I read the 1997 translation by John E. Woods, then Michael Beddow’s volume on the book in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.

doktor-faustus

The book, ostensibly a fictional biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn written by his friend Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann’s reimagining of the Faust myth. Leverkühn, perhaps in a hallucination brought on by syphilis, makes a pact with Satan: he will forfeit his soul in exchange for 24 years of success. Success comes, but at great personal cost. Leverkühn’s story is set against the rise of Fascism in Germany. Beddow:

The relationship between Mann’s novel and the history of Germany is in one sense simple to the point of crudity. Adrian Leverkühn is meant as an allegory of modern Germany.

I’ll get the apologies out of the way at the start: because my own understanding of the book is indeed at the crudest of levels, I will restrict myself to a handful of observations that occurred to me as I read it. This is very much a novel of ideas, and though my musical education enabled me to follow the musical elements (which, as you’d expect, are several), I floundered during the lengthy discussions of philosophy, theology and political theory.

Within the first few pages I was put in mind of a favourite book of mine, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another fictional biography. Nabokov’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, is an egotist who sees himself represented throughout the work of his subject, the poet John Shade. I was pleased to see Beddow draw the same parallel. Did Nabokov, who detested Mann, intend the Kinbote/Shade relationship to be a travesty of Zeitblom/Leverkühn, he wonders. There are many similarities, and most of Mann’s humour (and he’s not a humourless writer, though next to Nabokov he can seem that way) comes from Zeitblom’s pomposity, enhanced by the occasional hint of passive-aggressiveness. On the subject of names:

Our use of familiar pronouns is rooted in those years, and he must have addressed me by my first name back then too – I can no longer hear it, but it is unthinkable that as a six- or eight-year-old he did not call me Serenus, or simply Seren, just as I called him Adri. It must have been during our early years at school, though the exact moment cannot be determined, when he ceased to grant me that intimacy and, if he addressed me at all, began to use my last name – whereas it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to reply in like fashion. It was so – though far be it from me for it to appear as if I wished to complain. It simply seemed worth mentioning that I called him Adrian, whereas he, when not evading use of a name entirely, called me Zeitblom.

Mann and Nabokov must both have enjoyed the invention of fictional bodies of work for their creations. Mann also does it with Aschenbach in Death in Venice, devoting several pages of the novella to a description of the writer’s output, establishing his credentials as a man of letters. Zeitblom again:

It was my lot in life to spend many years in intimate proximity with a man of genius, the hero of these pages, to know him from childhood on, to witness his growth, and his fate, and to play a modest supporting role in his work. The libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn’s mischievous youthful composition, comes from me; I was also permitted some influence on the preparation of the texts for both the grotesque opera suite Gesta Romanorum and the oratorio The Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Nabokov goes so far as to present Shade’s poem ‘Pale Fire’ in its entirety as a preface to the analysis/biography. Leverkühn is a composer, and so isn’t accorded this luxury, though Mann describes certain works of his in detail. The violin concerto, untypically romantic, sounded bewitching to me in Zeitblom’s description, like the most beautiful piece ever written, and I wondered if any composer had tried to extrapolate any of the music from the book. Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata too: there are various pieces thought to have inspired it, but has anyone set out to compose the piece in real life? A thought that occurred to me in passing.

Theodor Adorno, scourge of music students throughout the world, advised Mann on the book’s musical content. Some readers equate Leverkühn with Arnold Schoenberg because Mann has Leverkühn invent twelve-tone composition. Schoenberg was a bit put out by this, and Mann was obliged to insert a disclaimer at the end of the book setting the record straight. In fact Leverkühn resembles no single real composer, but in some respects Stravinsky is a closer fit than Schoenberg. Around the time of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), Leverkühn composes a work, Marvels of the Universe, that feels very much its counterpart, and the changeability of his style recalls Stravinsky’s series of chameleon-like self-reinventions.

While Zeitblom’s laughableness is entertaining – the fact that as a student he misses his own lectures to attend Leverkühn’s, so convinced is he that he must observe everything his idol does, already certain that one day he will write this biography; the conviction (like Kinbote’s) that he sees cryptographic messages in the master’s work that no one else does – his political observations make for sober reading, perhaps because his horror of the rise of totalitarianism feels eerily current. There are innumerable passages about art as the antidote to extremism, about the anti-intellectualism of his society, about the ‘anti-humanity’ of the odious iconoclast Chaim Breisacher, misrepresenting Bach and Palestrina as hateful reactionaries who despoiled the glory of monophony, and about the scourge of nationalism, where I felt sharp pangs of recognition as I read. His shame at the moral bankruptcy of his country mirrors what I have sometimes felt about my own in recent months:

Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, had been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world … is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word – shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt? Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can “Germany,” whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind’s concerns?

In these passages, where (perhaps) we see ourselves reflected, this is a viscerally terrifying book, more so than any horror story I’ve read. Books don’t usually scare me, but I was glad to get to the end of this one. It’s brilliant, but profoundly unsettling. Part of the scariness, as my fellow blogger the Argumentative Old Git has observed elsewhere, is that Germany has such a rich cultural history. If Germany could turn to barbarism, what hope for the rest of us? Let us pray that we heed the lessons of history.

Back to the allegory: the political life of Germany in the first part of the twentieth century seems to correspond to Leverkühn’s own. He sells his soul and ends up killing the things he loves and descending into madness. But although the two mirror each other, their stories don’t seem inextricably linked, and the comparisons are not exact. Take Leverkühn’s music. Serialism – a democracy of tones in which no single note of the twelve is superior to any other – is a logical extreme, a dead end. There is nowhere beyond it to go, which is not to say that much great serialist music has not been written. With political extremism, when things are pulled down we have no option but to carry on, and good generally emerges from the wreckage. (I suppose I mean the NHS.) What came after serialism? Minimalism, blankness, emptiness? I think I’ll keep Schoenberg, thank you. The more I compare political with musical extremism, the more I see it can’t be done. For the reader of Doctor Faustus to feel tempted to equate twelve-tone music with Nazism is, I think, to misread the book. I just can’t say exactly why.