Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Re-reading The Power and the Glory

Yet another book that I was sure I had read, but as it turned out didn’t remember a word of. I think I remember the cover of the paperback I borrowed from a friend of my mother, but I could not find it on the web. Could it be that I started reading it, age 16, and gave up? There isn’t much of interest in the novel for a sixteen-year-old without any religious background. Extremely dense text, no action, scarce dialogue, no romance, alien setting, totally incomprehensible historical circumstances. Of Greene’s novels, two were translated and published in Russia in the 1960s, Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, apparently because they depicted “the decay of capitalism”, which was the standard wording in Russian literary criticism of the time. The Power and the Glory could not be translated because of its theme. Religion was banned in Russia, and priests had been persecuted and shot, just as in Greene’s novel, but the author’s sympathy is not on Red Shirts’ side, and even a skilful foreword writer wouldn’t be able to explain it to the Soviet reader. 

I didn’t know anything about Mexico’s history then, as it wasn’t part of our history curriculum, and I must admit that I had to look it up now as well. Parallels to Soviet history are striking. But there is, as far as I know, no Russian novel portraying a persecuted Russian priest, at least not in the same poignant way. Greene’s protagonist is not a helpless and innocent victim; he is not particularly likable, and yet I kept falling into the unforgivable reader fallacy of yelling at him: Don’t do this, can’t you see it’s a trap? Which I think is the intention.

The Power and the Glory is perhaps the strongest impression of my 2020 re-reading challenge. Several books proved better on re-reading, but this is superior by far. I will read it again in a couple of years or maybe even sooner.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Re-reading Homo Faber

Max Frisch’s novel was not on my re-reading list, and I cannot remember why and how I decided to re-read it, but I know that it was an important book when I was young so it should have been on the list.

Once again, I know it was important, but I had rather vague memories of it. The strongest memory was of the final call at the airport, which, in my memory, was the final scene in the novel, while it actually happens right in the beginning. I remembered it contained incest, which was disturbing and fascinating. I remembered a particular reflection on human reproductive act that I could have sworn came from the girl, while it actually is Faber’s. That’s it. A general theme and two details, both wrong.

I did not remember at all the Conradesque adventure in the jungle. I did not remember Faber’s betrayal of his girlfriend, and I didn’t remember that he meets her again under dramatic circumstances. I winced at a casual remark by the narrator early in the novel, “if… then Sabeth would be alive”. I did not remember that she dies, still less how she dies, which right now strikes me as implausible, something from a TV thriller rather than a highbrow novel. When I was young I probably thought it was romantic. I didn’t reflect on why male authors always need to sacrifice female characters to redeem their male protagonists.

I don’t think I had read Lolita before I read Homo Faber, but now I see similarities, although Sabeth is twenty and not a minor. The similarity is in the narrator who is trying hard to exculpate himself, repeating again and again that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t resist, that it was Sabeth who seduced him, that it wasn’t his fault at all that he abandoned Sabeth’s mother, that they had agreed that she would get an abortion… and so on, over and over again.  And he is confident that he is objective - the novel's subtitle is "Report". I am sure I didn’t understand this fifty years ago, any more than I understood that Humbert Humbert was trying to acquit himself. But today I find such unreliable, self-delusive narrators one of the most interesting features of contemporary fiction. (I keep saying “contemporary” about books published seventy years ago because they were contemporary back then. By now, they are vintage if not classics).

Another thing that I enjoyed about Homo Faber is that it didn’t feel as translation. I am sure I could have read it in German, but I didn’t, and not once did I stop to consider that I was reading a translated book, which otherwise is for me a good reason to put a book aside. Fifty years ago I read it in Russian, and apparently that was a good translation too.

I strongly recommend this book if you haven’t read it – or if you have, but like me have forgotten.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Re-reading Margaret Drabble

Similar to Muriel Spark, I had a Margaret Drabble period when I read everything I could get hold of, which wasn’t easy behind the Iron Curtain – it wasn’t just the matter of popping into the nearest book shop. I had The Summer Bird-Cage on my 2020 re-reading list, but it wasn’t available on Kindle, so I chose The Millstone instead although I am not sure I read it back then. I know I read The Garrick Year and Needle’s Eye. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because The Summer Bird-Cage and The Millstone are thematically similar, and since both are Drabble’s early novels I would guess they are similar in other ways too. And I only have a vague memory of the former.

I can see what was attractive to me in Drabble’s novels then. They are set in a time almost contemporary with mine, in a place I was curious about. They have female characters of a background similar to mine: educated, intellectual, high aspiring women. At the time I read them, I was a single mother, but I never experienced the shaming Rosamund in The Millstone went through. She and I shared some human – female – experience, but otherwise lived on different planets. And I think mine was nicer.

I finished the book because it was part of the challenge, but otherwise I would have stopped early. I guess it wouldn’t be labeled chic lit because it is Great Literature, but then I am not well read in chic lit. I found Rosamund repulsive, which perhaps was intentional, but if so why would the novel be praised as feminist? When she finds herself pregnant after her first and only casual sexual experience – isn’t it one of the most banal plots in literature? - she first tries to get rid of the baby, and failing spectacularly with the totally inefficient method of hard liquor and a hot bath (another literary cliché) decides that she will keep the baby and love it beyond measure. I think the narrator is trying to convey her emotions, but it is mostly external events of a most trivial kind. Which in itself can be interesting as documentation of its time, but I was mainly irritated. The ending is pathetic, but I believe it is exactly a tear-jerker that I would have liked fifty years ago.

I will definitely not re-read any of Drabble’s early novels that I enjoyed then, but I may try one of her latest to see whether she has become more to my current taste.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Annual report

Typically, annual reports are written at the end of a calendar year. I have done so myself repeatedly in this blog. But today is a year since I retired, and I feel it's a good moment to look back at my long and winding road from there.

I came back to Sweden after eleven years in Cambridge without a permanent home, with unsold property in the UK, not knowing exactly what my financial situation was, and uncertain about reconnecting with my old networks. I wasn't even sure I would feel at home in Sweden. I won't enumerate the various health issues I had, but there were a few.

And yet I was determined not to let any external circumstances interfere with the new phase of my life in which I had decided, well in advance, to be contented, physically and mentally active, to pursue new interests and enjoy the time-left.

I joined a walking club, signed up for Pilates classes, got a subscription for Stockholm Concert Hall, reached out to old friends who were remarkably responsive and nice. I started a small business.

By December, I had a home of my own, the UK property was sold, my financial situation was stable, and in January I was adopted by two charming cats. I was invited to a miniature-making club, attended classes, joined another gym, met more friends, took my grandchildren to theatre. I did 10-12 km walks several times a week – I firmly believe I have walked myself back to sanity.

We all know what happened next. I am ashamed to admit that I wasn't as drastically affected as most other people. Unlike many other countries, Sweden never went into total lockdown, and most restrictions concerned people over 70, but I decided to play it safe and self-isolated. Concerts and theatre shows were cancelled, cinemas were closed. In mid-March I was supposed to participate in a miniature show. My dream holiday, walking Camino de Santiago de Compostella, planned for May, was postponed more or less indefinitely. My Cambridge friends who were supposed to visit in April… and so on.

But I am grateful to be alive and in good health, to have a home and not worry about where my next meal is coming from.

Just before everything closed, I had a garden designer start my balcony garden, and every morning I go out into my tiny garden full of colours and fragrances.

By mid-May, Swedish grandparents were permitted to meet their grandchildren outdoors. I am blessed with grandchildren who happily came over for walks and picnics.

By mid-June, I started cautiously to use public transport to go and visit friends and family. I also decided it was safe to let friends with cars take me for walks and swims. It would have been practical right now to have a car, but on the other hand I decided a year ago that I would never drive a car again. I became friends with a neighbour, and we have made many pleasurable excursions together.

Summer is a quiet time in Sweden as most people go away to their summer cottages. By now, they are back, and it feels safe to start meeting again. Cinemas have reopened, and I have already been once. There were just seven people in there.

I am not sure about gyms; I am not sure about how the Concert Hall is going to organise the concerts, but I have renewed my subscription, and I have already attended a concert with fifty people in the audience, which was weird, especially when it came to clapping. Fifty people clapping in a large hall is a strange experience. Otherwise, there are streamed concerts almost every day.

My walking club has resumed the walks twice a week, and although I have enjoyed walking on my own, the sense of community is great after a long forced break. I have even signed up to become a leader! 

Similarly, the miniature club is meeting regularly. All miniature shows are cancelled until further notice, but there are some online activities.

I have organised walking seminars of my own, built around some famous children’s books set in Stockholm. To my surprise and joy they proved to be popular. All were booked up within hours of announcements, and there are long waiting lists. In this way, I combine my passion for walking with my professional qualifications. And I am leaning a lot about my home city.

The current situation is not going away any time soon, so everybody will have to adjust. It is weird that the first year of the new phase of my life coincided with such a major global change.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Re-reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


Curiouser and curiouser! I will never again claim that I have read a book if I read it more than three months ago. I know for sure that I had a Muriel Spark period in my early twenties, meaning that I read as many of her books as I could get hold of. Looking at the Wikipedia entry, I recognise the titles The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Abbess of Crewe, but couldn’t say what they are about, and I have a vague memory that The Mandelbaum Gate takes place in Jerusalem and the main character has doubts about her Jewish identity. I chose The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for my re-reading challenge because I thought I remembered it well, and I didn’t. I didn’t remember it at all so, as with some other books on my list, I now wonder whether I had read it back then. Maybe yet another book I thought I had read because it is one of Spark’s best known. Sometimes I made a point of not reading an author’s most famous book that everybody else read.

Anyway, I read this novel as if for the first time or perhaps indeed for the first time, and I enjoyed it very much, certainly much more than I would have when I was young. If I did read it, it's unlikely I was familiar with the concept of flashforward, which is its most prominent narrative trait, alongside omission. I first got a bit concerned when the narrative was told predominantly through one schoolgirl’s point of view: I have read far too many girl school novels. But of course it is not a girl school novel; if anything, it is a parody on a girl school novel, and fifty years ago I wouldn’t have recognised it as such. The irony and sarcasm would have been lost on the young me.

So if you like stories elegantly told, with all characters equally horrible, but each in their own way, give this novel a chance. It has aged well.

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.