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

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 2

Today real walking started. We walked 22 km along the coast from San Sebastian to Zarautz, with a total climb of 550 m, enjoying scenery of exceptional beauty. You can watch this video to get some sense of the place.

In practical terms, I planned a walk in my nature reserve that I know well by know, and I estimated it would be roughly 22 km. I was right, 21,68. Of course, my climb wasn't quite the same, only 323 meters, but I didn't take any extra climbs. The walk took me seven hours, with a half-hour lunch break and two short breaks. I had more stuff to carry than usual: more provisions, water and extra gear, such as waterproof trousers, having the recent hailstorm in mind. They say Camino del Norte is less crowded than the main route, and I didn't meet more than a handful of people on my walk. Did I get tired? You bet! Runkeeper says it was my longest walk since I started using the app. On a longer walk you come to a point, for me after about 15 km, when you stop noticing anything around you and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. At 17 km, knowing how much I still had to cover, I sat down by the lake, took off my boots and sank my feet into cold water. It was bliss, and after this I suddenly had more energy. Right now my whole body aches, in a pleasant way.

Yesterday evening, I re-watched The Way, to get into the mood. A question that goes through the whole story, that the characters ask each other, and that the Camino managers ask them at the end: Why are you doing this? Why did I want to walk the Camino? I have no faith, I don't believe in miracles. I have done three longish walks before: Norfolk Coast Path, Hadrian's Wall and the Orkney Islands. Why? Just because I could. Because, as the saying goes, they were there. Did I find whatever I was seeking on those walks? Possibly. I had good company, the scenery was stunning, and walking gives me a peace of mind like nothing else. I enjoy a good chat after a long day, but I don't want to talk while walking (and listening to music would be sacrilege). I want to be in that place, that space, engaging all my senses in the experience. I appreciate beautiful scenery, even though it isn't essential. But Camino was supposed to be exceptional.

I hadn't planned any travel this year because I wanted some quiet time after the recent turbulent period of my life, with retirement, move to Sweden, and more. But when my walking society offered a walking holiday on Camino del Norte, I signed up at once (first making sure I had cat-sitting covered). Like with the Orkneys last year, I was a bit anxious about being fit, so I have been walking a lot in my nature reserve. I have walked 500 km since January.

It was of course disappointing that the trip was cancelled, but hopefully it will still happen next year. But why, you may ask, am I pretence-walking now? What am I getting out of it? I kept asking myself this question today, and I don't have the answer. Maybe again, just because I can? Walking keeps me in good physical and mental shape, and staying healthy and fit is right now my highest priority and a full-time occupation. I am fortunate to have this nature reserve on my doorstep.

Anyway, I am extremely proud of myself for completing today's walk because now I know I can do it, even though the climb will be twice as high. But the scenery will be my reward.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 1

This week I am doing a virtual walk of Camino del Norte, a dream shattered by the current situation, but now scheduled for April 2021 so this will be a good preparation.

On the first day, we are strolling leisurely around in San Sebastian, place name that rings many bells, but I haven't been here before. The closest I have been is Pamplona, which is inland and already a different kind of place.

I have done some homework, learning to begin with that the correct name in Basque is Donostia, which is etymologically the same as San Sebastian. The city has a remarkable history, including being burnt to ashes by the British during Napoleonic war. It was the European capital of culture in 2016. Those of you who wonder why I am doing this virtual trip: why would I otherwise bother to learn facts about Donostia? The only incentive to learn something is when it's relevant.

Other interesting facts include that Donostia was the first city struck by influenza pandemic in 1918, and that it is the second in the world, after Kyoto, in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita.

I have watched some videos about Donostia, including one on local food. As a part of my immersive experience, I have made pintxos. The proper way of having an evening meal in Donostia is to go on a pintxos bar crawl. I am going to four bars tonight: Sukaldea, Balkoi, Egongela and Logela. Now you have something to figure out.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

A time to every purpose

I have been writing this post mentally for quite a while, long before the current situation, but it feels more relevant now than ever. I have been reluctant to share my reflections because I might sound self-righteous, and I am also aware that I am exceptionally privileged, since in my retirement I have no obligations, I have stable economy, good health and other benefits many people are denied. And yet I am disturbed by what I hear and read these days about frustration and boredom; all kinds of highly contradictory statements. Some people say time has stopped, some that it has expanded beyond reason; some don't know what to do with their time; some feel the “before” was centuries ago, some look in horror at just a few weeks back; some see no future, some cannot wait for future to arrive.

I have written a book about time in children's literature. After twenty years, I still think it is the best book I have written, unjustly not having received as much attention as it should have. In this book, I explore the use of circular, mythic time in classic children's books and the ways this archaic time – kairos – occasionally opens into linearity, chronos. But kairos is not simply here and now; it's vast, it includes all past down to the beginning of time and it stretches into the future to the end of time and beyond. It is recurrent in changes of seasons, in death and rebirth. It includes all parallel worlds, beliefs and imaginings. Australian Aborigines' concept of Dreamtime is one of the closest ways of grasping it, although it is hard for us, Westerners, to understand, because we are conditioned to value linear, measurable, goal-oriented time; we are told that the so-called carefree time of childhood is something to leave behind and grow up and start living according to clocks, calendars, schedules, timetables, and achievements. This is what children's literature endeavours to prepare us for. Yes, the little boy and his teddy bear will always be playing in the Hundred-Acre Wood, and yet we know that the boy is going away to boarding school, where he will be introduced to spelling, multiplication tables and citizenship. This is inevitable, but all great children's books remind us of kairos, of the “very long time ago, maybe last Friday”. Of the time of always, usually, habitually, every Sunday, every summer. Some languages have tenses and modalities to express this iterativity.

What no literature, children's or other, has prepared me for, is return to kairos in old age. I am not sure whether the rapidly expanding academic area of age studies has paid attention to this phenomenon. And I don't remember any work of fiction that describes it. There are of course numerous stories about old people, but usually with negative connotations, focusing on illness, loneliness, disappointment, fear of death. I cannot think of any story that highlights the pleasures of getting old. Maybe because halcyon old age doesn't constitute a good plot. It isn't as exciting as opening up childhood idyll into constant linear advancement, nor promising the vague, even if encouraging happily-ever-after. But as people of my age know, there is more after happily-ever-after. Once our linear progression slows down and eventually stops, we don't die yet. Instead, at least some of us are blessed with returning into Dreamtime, to the all-encompassing Grand Time we lost when we decided or were forced to grow up.

They say that senescence is the second childhood, but it is not true. As Clémentine Beauvais demonstrates in her research, a child is mighty because of their vast resources of time-left, time-yet-to-spend. An old person, returning to kairos after a life of stressful, competitive linearity, has limited time-left. I don't know exactly how much time I have left, but statistically it is significantly less than I had when I was a child. Yet this is only true if we think in linear, goal-oriented terms. If kairos has no beginning or end, if it has no structure, then it makes no sense to measure it the way we measure linear time. I don't have any deadlines or goals. I may still want to walk a thousand kilometers by the end of 2020 or climb to the height of Everest adding up my daily climbs; I may want to build another dollhouse or harvest tomatoes on my balcony. Yet these are desires, not goals. I have left all anxieties of my adult life behind (and yes, once again, I am aware of being exceptionally privileged). Like a very young (privileged) child, I don't have to worry where my next meal comes from. I am my own master, and unless I want them, I have no societal constraints, no rules to play by. I have got rid of as many possessions as I could; when you don't owe much you don't worry about losing it. Like in childhood, procreation is not an issue. I have no fear of death, because, although I hope to live a few more years, death will not rob me of my life, long and on the whole quite satisfactory. While a young child is not yet aware of their own mortality, I have come to terms with it and thus become immortal. My present life is a life of total harmony. A life in Arcadia. A life in kairos.

This is where the current situation comes in, and this is where I am running a risk of sounding sanctimonious. I feel leaving chronos behind is a relief. I still need to keep track of days to know when my groceries delivery is coming, and I need to know when the live-streamed concert starts, but apart from that days are determined by sunrise and sunset, meal time is when I am hungry and bedtime is when I am tired. In between there are so many exciting things to fill my days, and every day is Sunday, and it is always summer. Unlike childhood, there is nothing I must learn because it will be useful later in life. I can gather totally useless knowledge and acquire totally useless skills. I can “waste time” because I have unlimited supply of it. I have the peace of mind to feel joy about everything I do, everything I see, hear, touch, smell. I do not look back with nostalgia or regrets at my past. I do not look with hope into the future. I do not feel anxious about the future either. I am not longing for anything, least of all any return to my previous lifestyle. I enjoy being away from civilisation and close to nature. And of course remoteness and isolation are the very tokens of kairos.

All this happened to me before everyone's lives changed so dramatically. Therefore I believe I am so much better prepared for the current situation. I don't want to preach, just to share my experience. Even if you still have your commitments, stop and reflect. This is the opportunity to capture a few moments of kairos, if only to realise that it is there for you when you feel you have completed your linear, measurable, goal-oriented existence. Don't misunderstand me: I used to live that hectic life myself. We are trained to in our society. Returning to kairos involved a lot of effort and determination, but it was worth the trouble. Your voluntary or involuntary isolation is a valuable, albeit temporary escape from linearity, but not a nostalgic escape to prelapsarian childhood – you still have your adult responsibilities, and you can never shed your adult knowledge and experience; neither a blind-folded sideways escape to idyllic fantasy from which you return no wiser. It is a glimpse of the reward to come – if you let it come, if you don't lament the “waste of time”, the days and weeks and months stolen from you, but see them as days, weeks and months gifted to you as a password to kairos when your are ready. To everything there is a time and a season. A time to rush, and a time to pause.

 Ill. Kate Greenaway 

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Re-Reading A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust was my random choice for 2020 re-reading challenge out of many novels by Evelyn Waugh, although I probably read more of them than my friends, and definitely more than my parents and their friends, because I could read them in English. Inexplicably, Waugh's novels in paperback were sold among a handful – no pun intended – English-language books in a major bookstore in Moscow. The price was 5 or 6 rubles – my salary was 100 rubles (for comparison: a kilo beef was 2 rubles; a pair of tights was 10 rubles). I bought as many books as were available, maybe spending a month's salary. That's what you did. The reason those paperbacks made their way into Russia was that a couple of Waugh's novels had been translated into Russian, including A Handful of Dust. In a handbook of British literature, written by an esteemed Russian scholar, Waugh was presented as ultra-reactionary, so it is surprising he was translated at all, but there was never any logic behind what was or wasn't acceptable.

I remembered merely one detail from the book, which I also believed happened in a totally different book. A young boy is learning to ride a pony and gets kicked off. His coach tells him it happened because he ”opened his bloody legs and cut an arser”. The boy dutifully reports this to his parents. This was the first time a rude word was published in a Russian book, and my father was delighted. He read it outloud for my mother and me, and later to several guests. Maybe this is why I remembered this particular episode, because I didn't remember anything else, and it didn't come back as I was reading. So I can almost say I had never read this book before.

It is one of those books where all characters are repulsive, but unlike many books with repulsive characters I was curious about them and wanted to get to know them better. Against all my convictions as a reader, I wished I could warn them: Don't be a fool, stop doing this! I wished I could change their destinies.

My scholarly self prompts that Waugh's sarcastic writing goes back to Jane Austen, although he would probably deny it. Anyway, the book is brilliantly written, and I may re-read it again soon. Warmly recommended.


Thursday, 16 April 2020

Re-reading The Little Lady of the Big House

I have included this, frankly, mediocre and unremarkable novel in my re-reading challenge because for some reason it was exceptionally significant for me and my friends, and also my parents' generation knew it well. Jack London was a popular author in Russia, maybe the most popular American author after Mark Twain. We had his collected works in 10 volumes in my childhood home. I wonder why he was acceptable for the Soviet regime, probably because of his socialist views and support of working class movement. Martin Eden, a Künstlerroman featuring a protagonist with a working class background, was introduced officially as his best work. I don't think I ever read it (anything officially introduced as good was perceived as bad). We read The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but they were never my favourites, because there were other, more powerful animal stories I liked. We were greatly fascinated by The Star Rover, an early sci-fi novel, and my father's favourite was John Barleycorn, an autobiography focused on alcoholism.

But why The Little Lady? In my case, I was so obsessed by the novel that I would cast people in my surroundings as the characters, and this was probably the closest I ever came to having a crush on a literary character. The reason, as with so many other books from the same stage of our lives, was love. The love triangle in the novel was the attraction, and the tragic outcome only amplified it. Remember, we were not familiar with romance, not with with any kind of trash, but particularly not romance since it had nothing to contribute to the formation of the new socialist citizen. Therefore any book - or movie – with any kind of romantic plot worked as a substitute for mass-market romance.

As with most books on my re-reading list, I had rather vague memories of my once great favourite that I certainly read over and over again, first time probably when I was thirteen. I remembered some key scenes, I remembered there was a lot of horseback riding. Some details came back as I was reading, others didn't ring a bell. What I had completely forgotten, most likely because I didn't pay attention to it before, was the extensive focus on Dick's agricultural projects. Actually, the title character does not appear in the first quarter of the novel. However, Dick's fixation on his business provides an essential background to the central conflict, whether intentionally or not. Every time Paula comes in visit her husband in his office, he is in a hurry, looking sideways at his spreadsheets while she is trying to catch his attention. They have separate quarters and meet at lunch and dinner, seldom on their own as the house is always full of guests. Their marriage is explicitly presented as happy, while it is quite clear that it is a disaster, which makes Paula's fascination with handsome, exciting Graham much more plausible. Her dilemma is not between two men she loves – even though she says so – but between love and duty. Dick himself admits that she never loved him the way she loves Graham. A detail I had completely forgotten was that Dick eventually decides to commit suicide, staging it as an accident, so that Paula is spared the choice. Hearing a gunshot, he says: “She beat me to it”.

It was illuminating, once again, to consider what might have been attractive about this book fifty years ago when I clearly see that at least half of it would be of no interest to a seventeen-year-old, at least not the seventeen-year-old me. The more I re-read, the more I wonder whether I used to skim-read, slowing down at more “interesting” passages (read, “about love”) because some I remember by heart.

I started by stating that The Little Lady was a mediocre novel, and I stand by this judgement. The plot is trivial and not really convincing, the characters are flat (the external descriptions are so stereotypical you could puke), there is a lot of political and philosophical discussions among secondary characters, that feel pointless. The writing is not particularly good. Still, I am glad I re-read the book so that I am now rid of the distorted image I had from my youth. I would not recommend anyone to read it. If you want romance, there are so many other books that do not pretend to be anything other than romance. 


Thursday, 2 April 2020

Re-reading 2001: A Space Odyssey

I wouldn't call myself a voracious science-fiction reader, but I was obsessed with space since I was a young child, wanted to be an astronomer and until certain age firmly believed that I would one day travel to Mars and Saturn and beyond. Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke were my house gods, and not only mine – they were highly regarded among my friends and my parents' friends. I never saw the movie until I came to Sweden, so my memory of 50 years ago is of the book alone.

Even today there are certain images and verbal passages describing deep space that give me the creeps. Maybe it's true about everyone – it's just too overwhelming. I remember reading the chapter in which Bowman is falling through the shaft, me feeling nauseated and intoxicated at the same time. Otherwise, as with most books on my re-reading list, I did not remember much. I did not remember the first, lengthy part in pre-historic time that is so marvellously transposed into screen. I must say, it didn't quite work for me now, narratively, but not to the degree I was disturbed by it. It was the same with later chapters told from the point of view of the superior aliens that had planted the monoliths on Earth, Moon and Japetus. The omniscience of the narrator was a bit problematic for me as a professional reader. I am sure I didn't notice it back then.

I believe that we are all highly affected by the movie and cannot “unwatch” it, therefore my memory of Hal the computer was that he – it – was an evil rebel, malicious AI in conflict with humanity. It has been a while since I saw the movie but as I remember this is the way Hal is portrayed in the film. In the book, he – yes, I will refer to Hal as he – is presented as a more ethical being than the humans. He has a moral dilemma because he has been programmed to lie to the crew about the true nature of the mission. But he also needs to complete the mission, and the imperfect and mendacious humans are in the way. I fully empathised with Hal and felt unhappy that he had to be destroyed. He was only doing his duty.

The detailed description of Bowman's isolation resonates in a weird way today. And I wasn't at all disturbed by outdated details, as I know I might have been with a less engaging story. I started reading with apprehension: what if the book felt hopelessly obsolete? It didn't.

And I wonder whether Clarke had read The Magician's Nephew and referred to it, consciously or subconsciously, in the depiction of interstellar Grand Central Station.

Now I want to re-watch the movie.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Re-reading The Group

I included The Group in my 2020 re-reading challenge because it fit the criterion of a book that was important fifty years ago and that I hadn't re-read since. It was important to me and my female friends as a source of information we could not obtain elsewhere; it was also enticing in a way few other books were. Remember: we were behind the Iron Curtain where anything even remotely hinting at a possibility that human beings practised sexual reproduction was outrageous. Unlike the other books I have re-read, The Group was obviously not translated into Russian, so someone smuggled paperback copies from the West at great risk, because it was certainly on some top-secret list of banned pornography. It was pornography in our eyes because it was the closest we had ever seen or read of explicit sex. It also depicted glamorous life we were denied.

I remembered two details from the book. First, that one of the girls went to get a pessary. We had heard vaguely that there was such a thing; rumours had it that the Bolshoi ballet dancers were given them. There is a detailed description in the book of the procedure, which triggered our imagination. The second episode was another girl being shocked to see her friend's naked baby. I don't know why it made an impression on me. Even at that time I had seen naked male babies.

As young readers in the Soviet Union we were multiply displaced from the story and its protagonists. The USA was another world, a galaxy far far away. We didn't know what Vassar was, and although it is clear from the book that it is a women's college the connotation was lost on us. We didn't understand that the girls and their families were privileged because we thought everybody in the USA was rich. We probably didn't notice that the novel, published in 1963, takes place in the '30s. I definitely had no memories of the extensive political discourse. Today, I winced at some male characters being Communists, clearly with the author's sympathy.

The preface to the Kindle edition I have now read, written by someone who is presumably famous and of whom I had never heard, states that the novel, despite repeated claims, is not a forerunner to chick lit because it has literary merit. If so, I failed to notice it. Now, I am not an expert in chick lit. At the same time as The Group, we also read Valley of the Dolls, which puzzled me, since I just didn't get it. Some years ago I tried to read a couple of chick lit novels my daughter had recommended, and again, I didn't get it. The lifestyle, views and aspirations of the girls of The Group are totally alien to me and not interesting enough to want to know more. While whatever was attractive fifty years ago isn't any longer. I finished the book because it was part of the challenge, but it was painful.

A friend has told me that their grandchild loved the book. I wonder what it offers to the young generation today.

This is the paperback edition I read fifty years ago

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Coping with isolation

In addition to food shortages, which I discussed in my previous post, journalists and bloggers seem to be concerned about isolation. How will they cope with two weeks isolated from their regular networks? Well, to this I can only say: Think of all people who spend years in isolated prison cells. I knew some political prisoners in Russia who had spent years in isolation and survived. Many survived because they were educated and could recite poetry to themselves.

If isolation becomes necessary, I am in an incomparably more privileged situation than a political prisoner in the Soviet Union (or today's Russia), and I don't share the concerns of people who have expressed their fears of boredom.

To begin with, I am already isolated in a way, living on my own. I have two cats I talk to – in Russian of course, and I talk to my children and some friends on the phone or skype. If I am restricted in movement and not allowed to meet other people, I will still have those connections. Hopefully isolation will not preclude walks because I enjoy walking and will only be happy to walk on my own 10-12 kilometres a day. Better than going to a gym (and my gym is closed anyway). If I am not allowed to go outside, I will exercise and meditate indoors.

All public events I typically attend have been cancelled: concerts, theatres, public talks. I will have to do with streaming movies and music. As long as there is internet. Wait a minute, maybe I should download some movies and music, just in case. And books. I can never get bored as long as I have books. Get a couple dozen e-books. In case internet is cut off. But what if electricity is cut off, and there is no way to charge the devices? Then there will be no movies and no music either. I can sing to myself. I can read printed books. Even though I have got rid of so many books, I still have two shelves of favourites, and I can re-read them many times. I also have a couple dozen books about dollhouses and miniatures. They may not be as exciting as novels, but there is a lot of reading. If there is no electricity, I will do what our ancestors did: go to bed when it's dark. It will soon be daylight most of the day.

I can write. As long as there is electricity I can use my laptop. If there is no electricity I will write by hand in pretty notebooks. I can write poetry, short stories, reflections or a sequel to my memoirs that I concluded with my move to Sweden forty years ago. A lot has happened since then.

I also have my crafts, for which I do not need electricity. I have a hundred and fifty miniature furniture kits, and I have tons of supplies for do-it-yourself. I have a damaged dollhouse I need to mend, and another dollhouse to renovate. I have fabric and thread to sew dolls' clothes. I have supplies and tools for book-binding. I have origami paper. I have knitting needles. I am spoiled for choice.

I also have my balcony garden. I haven't yet received the main delivery, but even what I have will provide some happy hours every day. Of course if they cut off water, the plants will die. On the other hand, if they cut off water, boredom won't be my main concern.

 One of many remedies against boredom

Friday, 13 March 2020

Coping with shortages

After a couple of my comments on Facebook, I got a request to share my experience of coping with shortages during hard times, and since hard times were constant during my childhood and youth, I have no problems coming with examples.

My parents and grandparents had of course lived through war, famine and rations, but by the time I was born our family was relatively affluent and even privileged. As a child I never wondered where food came from and how much it cost, and it was in my upper teens I realised how much things had deteriorated, or as the saying went: Communism has won a total victory over [cheese, sausage, caviar, salmon, bananas – substitute as required].

     An old lady enters the famous deli department store in Moscow.
    - I remember this shelf used to have fifteen kinds of cheese. That shelf had twenty kinds of sausage. The shelf over there had ten kinds of tea…
     One salesperson to another:
    - Hell of a good memory this granny has!

I remember those fifteen kinds of cheese on occasions when someone took me shopping, which didn't happen often. I remember hams and sausage and pate. I remember the smell of newly ground coffee. My grandfather, a great coffee lover, would blend one third of Arabica, one third of Colombia, and one Costa Rica. I remember that tea connoisseurs prefer Ceylon over Indian, and totally despised Grusian.

Variant of the above:
     - I remember this shelf used to have salmon, sturgeon, red and black caviar, shrimp, oysters… What was the harm of it all?

 By early 1970s, there was one kind of cheese, one kind of sausage, one kind of tea, and ham was a sweet memory.

     - Is there really no cheese in your shop?
     - No, it's the shop next door that has no cheese, we have no sausage.

     - Can you slice 200 gram sausage for me?
     - Of course we can, just bring your sausage.

These are jokes, but they were a close reflection of reality. So how did we cope with shortages, when there was shortage of everything? One day I will tell you how we coped with shortages of clothes, shoes, tights, shampoo, cosmetics, baby pacifiers, book shelves (not to mention books), rugs, female hygiene, pencils, notebooks, towels, bed linen, detergent, paper napkins, sewing thread, electric bulbs, Christmas candles, and many more items people in the first world take for granted. I may tell you how we coped without washing machines, or dishwashers, or freezers, or record players. But this will be another story that will be told another time. This story is a response to the current situation and will therefore focus on the current issues, such as toilet paper and food staples.

When my daughter Julia was three or four, we went to visit family in Moscow, and at the airport she needed a pee. I took her to ladies room, and after she was done she asked me helplessly: “Mummy, where is toilet paper?” She could not in her wildest dreams imagine that what she saw was toilet paper, more like sandpaper. For me, it was by far not the worst. I was used to wipe my bum with newspapers, as everybody else. As a child, when we ran around in nature, we would use leaves and grass.

During the worst shortages of toilet paper in the late 1970s and '80s, people would steal toilet paper from work – if it was available there. In nicer public toilets, for instance, in theatres and museums, there would be an attendant providing strictly one square of paper per person.

In mid-'80s, a Swedish writer was staying with a colleague in Moscow, a highly intellectual, refined lady. The Swedish guest was an idealist and had decided that during her visit she would live like ordinary Russians. The first culture shock came one early morning, when the hostess woke her saying: "Get up quickly. I have been told that in a suburb shop fifteen metro stops and ten bus stops from here there will possibly be toilet paper later today. They will allow twenty rolls per person. The shop opens in two hours, we must go as soon as possible and queue". The Swedish writer never believed in victorious socialism after that.

At that time you could see famous writers and artists walk Moscow streets carrying packages of toilet paper. A roll would be the best birthday present. This wasn't an emergency or a crisis, it was our everyday life.

When it comes to staples, I remember well when at the age of ten we were all promptly dispatched to queue for flour, equipped with pillowcases, since there were no bags available: flour would be poured from huge sacks into whatever you brought. It was rationed to maybe two or maybe five kilos per person, and after we children had queued for two or three hours, the rest of the family would join, each with a pillowcase.

Yes, that was the country of victorious socialism.

The manifesto of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, adopted in 1960 and aiming at completed communism by 1980s, promised in accordance with Karl Marx's slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". 

A sign in a shop window during completed communism: "There is no need for milk today". 

The most important item every person always carried on them was a net bag, the infamous just-in-case bag, a Soviet citizen's best friend. It was fifty-odd years before environmental concerns so we didn't use our environmentally-friendly bags for ideological reasons, but exclusively because there were no shopping bags available in shops, and you needed to have your just-in-case bag just in case you saw something worth buying. Maybe potato, maybe apples, maybe cottage cheese, tea, salt, oats, pickles, mustard. And when you did see something, you were a good friend and bought as much as you could carry, to share with others. It wasn't shopping, it was hunting. For some things, such as cream, you had to bring your own jar.

The problem with just-in-case was that everyone could see what you were carrying. A friend once heard two guys behind her:
     - Look what a smart babe! Look at her fir-coat! She must be a foreigner.
     - No way! She is carrying five frozen chickens in her net bag.

I remember one day a friend and I were going along a central street in Moscow, on our way to visit some other friends. We saw a line and joined it without even asking first what was on sale. It turned out to be bananas, something we hadn't seen for many years. The line was long and moved slowly. People were buying as much as their just-in-cases could carry, and more. We were initially going to buy a kilo, but as we progressed forward in line, our appetites grew. We would buy a kilo each. No, we would buy more and give to our friends. No, we would buy more still and share with folk at work. By that time, the line got anxious that the kiosk would run out of bananas and demanded that they were restricted to five kilos per person.

On another occasion, a co-worker went hunting – during working hours of course, as was the accepted practice – and came back with ten boxes of a very special nostalgic candy from our childhood. We all happily paid for a box each, then looked at each other and said: “Let's eat it now. Our children don't even know what it is, so they won't miss it”.

This is, very briefly, how we coped with shortages. Firstly, you learned to manage with what was available. In winter, apples was the only fruit you could get if you were lucky. Once again, my little daughter caused indignant sensation during a visit in Moscow when she was offered an apple and asked for a pear instead, the spoilt Western brat! Secondly, you were nice to each other and shared. People who had allotments would share whatever they managed to grow. We made preserves, dried apples when they were abundant. We picked and dried mushrooms. I give you dried mushrooms, you give me a jar of jam. I give you a bar of chocolate, you give me a bar of soap. Thirdly, when you have no reference frames, you don't know what you are missing. Yes, we did remember the hams and cheeses of our childhood, but our children didn't, so they were happy with whatever we could put on the table. Buckwheat porridge, cabbage soup, potato cakes, bread and butter and cheese of the only kind available, “cheese”.

With this background, I am watching the current stockpiling with some amusement. That said, I have stockpiled toilet paper, chicken peas, beans, lentils, rice, buckwheat, coffee and cat food. I think I will survive. 

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Re-reading The Centaur

The move from Hemingway to Updike might not seem natural, but for me it was, since both were part of that joint reading experience in my youth when everyone I knew was reading the same book. Let me remind you that it was a serendipity which translated books reached Russia. But when they did they were always a sensation, and because there were never enough copies the few lucky people shared their treasures with friends. Queues in libraries were enormous. Like many translated and original works, The Centaur was published in a literary magazine, probably in several issues. I don't remember reading it as a book, and I don't think I even read it in English, although I read the Rabbit novels, Couples and Marry Me in English.

Of The Centaur, I remembered two details: the very last sentence, “Chiron accepted death”, and a notice in a autorepair shop,



 I figured out, rather than remembered, that the main character had some connection with Chiron the centaur, and I know I would have recognised all the mythical allusions back then because I knew Greek mythology inside out, and Chiron had always been one of my favourites.

I did not remember the main character's name, which is forgivable, and not one single detail of the plot, which is less forgivable if this was an important book. I did not remember that part of the novel is told by Caldwell's young son. I did not notice then that the other parts are told in the narrative present tense, which has become so common today that some people think it was invented in the 21st century. Memories did not appear as I was reading (as they did with Hemingway and even Marquez).

I am in two minds about the novel. I did enjoy some of it, for instance, Peter's sarcastic comments on his father, or the lengthy description of the father and son attempting to start a dead car. Peter saved the book for me – I wasn't interested in the pathetic father at all, and he didn't deserve the comparison to the noble Chiron. I am not the kind of reader (or critic) who needs a moral, but I couldn't help wondering why the author is telling me this story.

I will not re-read this book, and I won't recommend anyone to read it. When I am finished with my re-reading challenge, I may try another Updike, either Rabbit Run or Of the Farm.