Saturday, 19 September 2020

Re-reading The Sound and the Fury

My re-reading project is getting more and more revealing. I chose The Sound and the Fury of all Faulkner novels we read fifty years ago because it is perhaps his most famous, and I have referred to it repeatedly in my research as an example of mission impossible: giving verbal expression to something that a character cannot express by words. Benjy as this impossible narrator features in every work on narratology, and I wonder whether I have done the unforgivable: cited someone else rather than going to the source. For I hadn’t re-read the source when I was referring to it, and now I wonder whether I have read it at all. Maybe it is one of those books you believe you have read, but actually haven’t. I cannot be sure, because this re-reading exercise has clearly demonstrated that I had no memory whatsoever of books I had definitely read. So maybe I did read The Sound and the Fury fifty years ago and not only pretended I understood it, but pretended I liked it and went on pretending, to the degree that I gave it five stars on Goodreads when I was building my shelf about twelve years ago (it was called Shelfari then). Maybe I did read it, but I am totally confident after re-reading it now, that I could not have understood much of it. Not just because of Benjy, since all other narrators are just as incoherent, and although this time I was reading slowly and carefully, I cannot claim that I was able to reconstruct the course of events. I didn’t enjoy the language enough to ignore the plot, and I wasn’t too engaged with the characters. If I hadn’t been reading for my challenge I think I would have given up, just as I have repeatedly given up on Ulysses.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Re-reading A Clockwork Orange


I am resuming my re-reading challenge after a long break as I was reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light – slow read of many, many pages that took me over two months. Goodreads points out to me that I am behind schedule.

I included A Clockwork Orange in my list because it seemed an obvious choice, and now I cannot remember whether I read it before I saw the movie or after. I saw the movie in 1975 at the very earliest (a pirate black-and-white copy), and I haven't watched it since so I have just glimpses of episodes and no memory of whether the movie follows the novel. Not unexpectedly, what I remember is the worst scenes of violence and the worst scenes of Alex's therapy. I don't remember how the film ends, actually don't remember the rest of the plot after therapy. Likewise, my memory of the novel was extremely vague.

My current copy has a foreword, from which I learned that the novel was published in the USA without the final chapter and that the film was based on the American version.

Since I was prepared for the violence, it didn't shock me, and it is possibly less shocking because it is narrated by Alex matter-of-factly in his idiosyncratic language. I was much more disturbed by the moral and political messages which I find far two explicit and therefore less effective. Maybe it is the spirit of the early 1960s.

The most fascinating aspect of the novel is the language, much of which is obviously missing in the film. I haven't counted, but I would guess at 5 to 10 slang words per sentence, and I wonder how many make sense unless you know Russian. You can always figure out the meaning, but for me part of the joy of reading was recognising the Russian words cleverly disguised by English spelling and grammar. I am not referring to “gulliver” and “horrowshow”, but to much more subtle and imaginative usage. In some cases it took a few instances before I got it - “oddy knocky” was one, not straightforward to get from the context.

What Burgess and his critics perhaps didn't know is that at the time the novel was written, Russian nadsats, or teens, were actively using a similar kind of jargon where you not only needed the knowledge of English, but also a good deal of creativity. So you could hear phrases such as: “Я митингую с герлой в восемь клоков” (I am meeting a girl at 8 o'clock), ”У меня трузера штатские” (My trousers are from the USA) or ”Чилдренята, напутонивайте шузы” (Children, put on your shoes”), which is exactly the way Alex uses language. I have tested these examples on some Slavic scholars, and they didn't pass the test. I wonder whether Burgess would have passed it.

I got curious about how the novel was translated into Russian, and the translator used this very same kind of slang, spelling – and misspelling – English words in Cyrillic and inflecting them by Russian grammar. So Alex's droogy becomes his frendy, mesto becomes pleis, litso becomes feis, and deng becomes mani. No Russian reader today would have problems with this language, it is common currency.

In terms of language, A Clockwork Orange is compared to Finnegans Wake and Ridley Walker. I never got past the first page of Ridley Walker because I am not a native speaker, but in Finnegans Wake it helps to be multilingual.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Memories of Orkney, part 2

Read the beginning of this story.

I will not account for the trip day by day because it will be repetitive, but I will point out some highlights. To begin with, I was, as mentioned earlier, a bit anxious about sharing a room with a stranger, but I decided to be positive and proactive, so the moment my roommate Shelley and I stepped into the room, I offered to make tea, and while we had tea, we chatted and told each other about what we did when we didn't go on walking tours. Shelley's luggage got lost at her connecting airport, which is always a good conversation starter. It turned out she was a retired lawyer with specialism in children's rights so we even had some common point of interest. She was from Arizona and had lived in Canada. At dinner that night we all introduced ourselves more properly: a couple from Oxford (non-academic), a father and a pregnant daughter from Denver, a lady from Texas, another from the UK. All nice, all eager and experienced travellers. This was what I had hoped for: people my age or older (except the pregnant daughter) who go on walking holidays and can afford relatively expensive trips are the kind of people I can deal with. There are certain unwritten rules for such travel, for instance, rotating seats in the van. When someone's luggage is lost everyone supports and shares whatever can be shared. And it was an interesting and diverse bunch of people so there were no problems finding subjects to talk about. Shelley had brought her flute! She and I got along well: we conversed a bit, then opened our iPads and let each other be; we had no arguments about who would shower first, and we didn't mind seeing each other walk about the room in pyjamas. If I ever travel again, I would prefer a single room, but I now know that I can share with a stranger if necessary. I think it helped that four of us were elderly single ladies, and three other people were also at the same stage in life. Everybody hinted at high blood pressure, and nobody was concerned about other people farting. 

The days were intensive. We had early breakfasts and sat in the van by 8, to drive or to take a ferry to one of the islands. We had packed lunch: the horrible triangular sandwiches, but I hadn't expected anything else. At least there was a variety of them, and you could choose the evening before. Dinners were exquisite, but very late for me; some were in our hotel, some in local pubs. Maybe other people stayed up for a while, but I collapsed directly after dinner.

Most walks were coastal and highly enjoyable. The trip was ”grade 2”, or easy, and I had no problems keeping pace. The weather changed dramatically, but we were all well equipped, and when it started raining – and once even hailing – we simply put on our waterproof trousers and walked on. 

Some days, or portions of days, were warm enough to wear three layers of clothes rather than six. So you had to carry stuff for all occasions. On walks like this, you always come to a point, some time in the afternoon, especially if you are wet and walking uphill for ages, when you start asking yourself why you are doing this, voluntarily and at high cost. When you no longer are able to appreciate anything around you and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. There isn't much else you can do, because you cannot lie down on wet ground and have a tantrum, and you are also pressed for time because you need to catch the last ferry. Then suddenly it goes over, and life is great again. For me at that time, worrying about where to put my foot meant I had no time worrying about other things, which was exactly what I needed. And it was good to know, as we compared notes during evening meals, that everybody was dead tired – in a good way. 

As I said, I had not done my homework properly, but even if I had, Orkney is full of surprises. I have travelled a lot, and Orkney is not like any other place. It was much larger than I had anticipated. All islands are different, and none is like Mainland – that has a fresh-water lake and marshes! The scenery is stunning everywhere, with stone arches and other remarkable stone formations, like the Old Man of Hoy. Wildlife is abundant. All those thousands of birds on the cliffs – precisely like an Attenborough film. We did see puffins. We also saw all kinds of cultural stuff: Neolithic, Iron Age, Vikings, standing stones, WWII. I didn't know Orkney was so important strategically.


Even in a really tiny area – Orkney has a population of 22,000 – there is a competition between the capital, Kirkwall, and the next largest city, Stromness, that boasts of being more cultural. My Orcadian friend is born in Stromness so when we met in Kirkwall she immediately drove me
to Stromness because it was more interesting. It had a book store that carried local children's authors. I bought a few. And suddenly Farewell to Stromness made sense.

Already by reading Orkney Tapestry I realised how close it was to Norse culture, most tangible in place names. Kirk is obviously the same word as church, but closer to Nordic kirke/kyrka. Ay in many island names: Rousay, Birsay - is Nordic ö or øy. Brogh is borg, castle. And so on. I was perhaps the only one in our group who appreciated it. On another matter, my travel companions thought it weird that it was still full daylight at ten in the evening, while for me it is of course perfectly natural. 


All walks were remarkable, although Hoy was probably the highlight for me. Generally, I felt I got good value for my money, and I also got precisely what I needed most at that point: total break and peace of mind. Our guide was nice and knowledgeable, and he very cleverly planned our walks and visits to cultural sites to avoid crowds (there were huge cruise ships coming in every day). And I got role models in single female travellers!

Whenever I travel I typically get enthusiastic about the place and determined to come back. There is a lot more to explore in Orkney, and I even had an idea for a walking seminar, but I knew even then that I would probably never go back. Today, as the world has changed, I definitely know it will never happen. Therefore I am incredibly lucky to have done this trip, getting everything I had hoped out of it tenfold.

Travel home turned out to be a nightmare, but I won't tell you about it. 


Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Memories of Orkney

Facebook has been reminding me of my trip to Orkney last year, and I have realised that I never wrote up this story although I shared pictures on the go. Staying at home with slim chances of travel in the observable future, it may be a good idea to re-live the experience. I will use my travel diary, but inevitably add reflections from today's vantage point.

It all started five years ago when I made acquaintance with an Orcadian at a conference. Of course I knew vaguely about the existence of remote islands off the northern shores of Scotland, but they hadn't really been on my list of places to visit. Talking to this colleague got me fascinated, particularly as she mentioned Island Studies. Imagine, there was a discipline called Island Studies! I have always been intrigued by islands of all kinds and sizes, although I don't perceive Great Britain as an island. Many years ago when I studied Scandinavian languages I considered specialising in Faeroe Islands and becoming a unique expert in all things Faeroese: language, history, culture, even politics. It didn't happen, but some twenty years ago I was invited to Faeroe Islands to lecture – sadly it clashed with another commitment. In Sweden, I have been to many islands, large and small. I went to Iceland twice. I visited Madagascar some years ago. I wandered on Inis Mor off Ireland's west coast when I was at a conference in Galway. There is something special about islands – I have written an academic paper on the topic.

Listening to my new colleague triggered my imagination, and of course like you do at conferences she invited me to come and give a talk. Then we forgot about it. Or almost. Every now and then I looked up Orkney and considered a self-guided trip, but it always felt intimidating, and there was always something in the way. Two years ago there was a conference in Orkney that I wanted to attend, but it clashed with another conference I was running. Last spring I realised that I would be moving away from the UK soon, and it was now or never. Self-guided still felt daunting, and I checked travel agents for small-group walking tours with reasonable comfort. All trips were unsurprisingly fully booked except one space in the end of May and a couple in September. September seemed too far away, and I am glad I didn't opt for that since by September I had already moved back to Sweden. End of May is still term time, and I was not supposed to be away from Cambridge during term time, but I decided that if I told my students discreetly that I wouldn't be able to meet them for supervisions for a week we could keep it between ourselves. I booked the trip, paying in full since it was less than a month in advance. I wanted a single room, but it wasn't available, and I had to accept it, booking last-minute. That last space seemed like destiny.

As I have mentioned some times before, I am not good at preparing for travel when it comes to reading guidebooks, but this time I wanted to make the most of it so I started, as you do, by trying amazon and getting 600 hits. It felt hopeless so I asked my Orcadian friend for recommendations. The best was The Orkney Tapestry, by George Mackey Brown, a book worth reading regardless. It provided more or less everything essential I needed to know about my destination, while also being deeply personal and engaging.

I read the travel agent's brochure and studied various maps. Orkney consists of seventy islands, and we were supposed to visit several. It was exciting. It was right in the middle of a very difficult period in my life, and I was looking forward to a break far, far away from everything and offline. I was tremendously anxious about travelling on my own, among strangers. I had done it dozens of times in the past, but recently I had preferred company, just to be on the safe side. I do have a condition, and I am not young anymore. I was, however, confident that I was in good physical shape after extensive power walking.

The trip started in Inverness, and I first considered taking the night train, but I didn't want to run a risk of not sleeping properly and be tired in the morning. So I booked a B&B in Inverness, arriving in the evening and having a good rest. In the morning I walked to the station, worrying that I wouldn't find my guide. I always worry about silly things like that. I was hugely worried about the crossing because guidebooks said it could be rough, and I have bad experience of rough seas.

I found the guide and my travel companions, just eight of us. I was going to share a room with one of them, and while we drove up to John O'Groats, I looked at them, hoping that my roommate would be nice. People going on demanding walking holidays are usually nice.

To be continued. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Re-reading Catch 22

I had no memory of this novel at all, although I know I read it all those years and years ago. Of course I know what “catch 22” means, and I had some vague memories of pilots having to fly more and more missions, but I am not sure whether I remembered it from the book or from the film. I know for sure that I remembered the most gory detail from the film and was waiting for it to turn up in the book. It did, at the very end. I don't know whether the knowledge spoiled my reading experience.

I am confident that I didn't understand anything of the novel when I read it fifty years ago, and as with most books on my re-reading list, I wonder how much I bluffed then. The plot is non-existent, and at that time plot was more important than anything else. The book is exceptionally repetitive, and an inexperienced reader – as I was then – would certainly get bored, unaware that repetition is the most prominent and of course deliberate narrative device. It is used in conjunction with another powerful device: omission, or paralipsis, to use a fancy word. The same episode is told over and over again, each time slightly differently and each time omitting the most significant detail that would explain everything that is going on. How clever! It also employs an intricate temporality as events follow upon each other randomly, as deviations, by association, connected solely by a reminiscence, or even without any tangible connection at all. Each chapter seemingly focuses on a secondary or sometimes completely peripheral character, and only in hindsight do we understand why the story had to be told at all. If I were still an active academic I would write an article on this novel and include it in my courses. Not as a war novel, but as an example of exquisite storytelling.

However, the greatest surprise to me was that the novel is so wonderfully hilarious. Of course I remembered, more from criticism than from actual reading, that it was a satire on war. Yet a satire is not necessarily funny, and the novel is. I don't often laugh outloud when I read, but I did. Pity nobody was listening except my cats. I would almost claim that Catch 22 is the twentieth-century reply to Alice in Wonderland with its twisted logic and magnificent wordplay. Maybe this is the only possible way to write about the horrors of war.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Reflections on virtual travel

It is hard to believe that as recently as ten weeks ago I was still hoping to be able to travel to Spain and walk Camino del Norte in the second week of May.

The idea to do the walk virtually was spontaneous, so I hadn't prepared as thoroughly as I should have. To be fair, I don't always do my homework before travel which means I probably miss interesting things to see and do. This time, the focus was on walking the distance I would have walked on the Camino, even though I could not achieve the same climbs. But I also wanted some experience of the place, even though second-hand, so I re-watched The Way and watched some Youtube videos to get into the mood. The Way was what made me want to do the walk in the first place, and the reason I watched it some years ago was that I learned that a cousin of mine, who was the last person I would expect to go on search for spirituality, walked the whole of it at one go and has been doing it again and again ever since. I have no faith, so this aspect of the Camino does not mean anything to me, and until recently I wasn't a walker at all. I started walking with the Ramblers in Cambridge after I heard a friend of mine share her adventures with an international Rambler group somewhere in France, not the Camino. I discovered that walking was something that, next to gardening, was the best healing for body and mind, and since then I cannot imagine my life without regular walking. These days I am amused thinking back at how proud I was having walked 3 km in Milton Country Park. I have so far walked 540 km this year.

Back to Camino, the virtual Camino. I explored the route, planned my own daily walks, read some travel sites, watched videos. Of course, it is not the same as doing the real thing. But in the current situation, doing it virtually is still better than not doing it at all. And we may be doing more virtual travel in the future. I believe VR will be invaluable. I am surprised that it hasn't become more popular these days, although I have read some explanations why. But technology is developing at incredible pace, and I am sure more and more destinations will be available in satisfactory ways. I have cut down on travel substantially in the past few years, and I will be happy to keep it to a minimum if I can get a somewhat adequate experience of places I want to visit. I may even visit places I have never intended to visit, such a climbing Kilimanjaro or crossing Antarctica.

In other words, first lesson learned: even though it was not the real experience, it was interesting, valuable and exciting in itself, not just as poor compensation.

On my last day, I finally had company. A friend back in Cambridge suggested we walk-along, and here is how we did it. I knew where she would be walking, and I sent her a map of my nature reserve with my route marked. We connected on WhatsApp and started walking, exchanging photos and observations on the go. What we could have done, if we were emulating Camino, would be checking where we would have been up there and looking up facts and pictures, but it would probably be too much. In the evening, we cooked the same local meal. Once again, not the real thing, but better than nothing. I will certainly do it again, with or without a virtual route.

Cooking local food was a huge boost. I always like to try local food when I travel, even if it is jellied cockroach (in South Korea) so I would definitely be eating the exciting Basque and Cantabrian dishes. Learning the difference between tapas and pintxos was illuminating, and I think I will include pintxos in my habitual cooking. I like cooking, but I am rather conservative so it was liberating to try something completely different and find it palatable. It wasn't so much the ingredients as the methods, and I now want to learn more. So this was a side effect. Attending a cookery school was a part of my retirement visions, and now I see that I don't have to travel or even leave my home. I know this option has been available all along, but like with so many other things, you need a push.

Did I find what I was looking for? Since I have no idea what I would have found on the real trip, it's hard to say. If I was looking for a way to make up for the canceled trip, I believe I was highly successful.

What can I recommend to a potential virtual traveler, based on my experience? Firstly, perhaps, consider what you want to get out of it. My objective was to emulate demanding and intensive walking, therefore everything else was a bonus. If your objective is to see a new city or museum you may do it without leaving your room. Secondly, don't be too ambitious. I could have enhanced my trip in many different ways, by reading some fiction and non-fiction, watching more videos, learning some basic Basque, making a virtual album of local plants, marking my progress on a map, keeping a journal and writing poetry. But it would probably have proved too stressful. Also, I cut the last day's walk because I had got tired. If you feel you've had enough, stop while you are still enjoying it. Thirdly, I missed sharing my experience. Next time, I will try to find a companion for the whole journey. There is an advantage with virtual travel: you can get offline if you don't want any more company that day. Like going up to your hotel room while the rest of the group is having drinks.

Anyway, I have enjoyed it, and maybe some of you will get inspired and go on a virtual trip of your own.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 3

Today we deviated from the Camino route and walked along the coast, first to the fishing village of Getaria, then to Zumaja, 10 km. You can see the trail if you zoom on the map. I don't know why the travel agent chose this trail, but my guess is that they had a good deal with a lunch restaurant in Getaria. This is usually the reason for detours, and I don't mind. Also the main route goes a bit inland, and a coastal path is always attractive.

In real life, I took a 11 km walk with a 167 m climb. I thought I would ache all over after yesterday's walk, but it felt like a leisurely stroll. I climbed hills, walked on lake shores, had my coffee break on a hill top and my lunch by the lake. I saw fields of lillies-of-the-valley, not in bloom yet, but soon. I saw cranes. I felt good.

For dinner tonight, I am making salmon marmitako.

My mock Atlantic