Sunday, 24 February 2013

Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity - Hermann Hesse

I lost a glove this week. Not an exceptional glove. Certainly not an exceptional event. Only it’s very annoying, isn’t it? It’s black. Goes with everything. Has been with me for a jolly long time. 

I hate losing anything. Consequently, I don’t do it often. This particular time, I took the glove off to read my book on the bus. I lay it in my lap. And never saw it again. I’m tempted to go to the bus company just in case they have it. But it’s just a glove, right? And yet loss is such a waste. I am impatient with myself for being so remiss. So very careless. I went home that day with a cold hand and heavy heart.
And so how ridiculous do I feel today? When I stepped out of my Classics Club challenge and stepped into reality.  Which is rarely a good move. Reality being rarely a happy place...
I read Missing Lives.  A series of accounts of individuals who lost family members during the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. The term “lost” being somewhat banal here, you understand.  As though they too had simply been careless. But Missing Lives is so far removed from anything banal. The lives it recounts are lives that were taken. Stolen. Thrown aside. Many families have never received news of those missing. They live in limbo. In a strange and unconvincing hope.
How can I care so much about a lost glove when there is much greater loss elsewhere?  And indeed not that far away?

The interviews were compiled by Nick Danziger and Rory Maclean along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They make a harrowing read. I have no idea how they stood before these people and heard what they said. Never mind had the courage to work on it over and again for publication. Detachment is impossible.
And yet we need such accounts. The tears we shed over these few pages are necessary. They give form and life to all the meaningless numbers and statistics anaesthetising us to the terrifying events we hear of year on year. They could be the experiences of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of any conflict at any time. 
How do people who have lived through such unimaginable horrors carry on living?  And with such dignity? That must be the humanity that survives the inhuman. That must be what we are striving for...

Friday, 22 February 2013

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures - Jessamyn West

Can you believe that it’s nearly the end of February?  Already?  How is that possible? Time is flying.  Over a year since my accident.  Still having problems.  Back at the physio.  Do I go on about this?  Methinks I do.  It’s very annoying.  For me too.

So I progress with my Classics Club challenge.  Book number 2:  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Now, what do you think when you read “letter”?  I was thinking of the written word.  Confessions of the soul.  A condemning note. Or a novel through letters.  Highlighting a very specific one.  And as mentioned previously, I like novels through letters. 

But no. This was not a novel through letters. There was only one letter in question here. The letter A. In red. In 17th century Puritan Boston. A tad terrifying somehow.
In fact, the red "A" has a starring role. It never leaves the main focus of the story. Nothing happens without its influence. Souls live and die because of it. 
Hester Prynne has an affair and gives birth to a little girl, Pearl.  As a result, she is condemned to wear the scarlet letter A. Forever. And consequently to be the scorn of all around her. To be abused, disregarded. Excluded. 
Her lover is protected by her. He destroys himself through the guilt. Her husband arrives to wreak vengeance. He destroys himself through his hatred.
Not a jolly tale, I agree. But captivating all the same. The narrator tells the tale without ever taking a side. Which is good, because frankly there’s quite enough judgment in the book. Society has judged Hester Prynne. She judges herself. Her lover judges himself.  Her husband judges the lovers. Even little Pearl has a view on matters.
Yet it is a tale that remains captivating. To watch society’s ways from a distance.  To see how moral decisions can be taken on the conduct of others.  To see the moral superiority of ones over others. To see who is deemed worthy – or not – of acceptance. To see how repentance and forgiveness can be completely sidelined.  Did anyone else wonder how in the space of seven years in this severe Boston society, only Hester Prynne sinned?  
The olde worlde style of English used kind of adds something to the whole.  Giving the sense of age.  Adding to the sense of a dated understanding of judgment and condemnation. 
And I learned a new word.  Gules.  The blazoning term for red. Never heard of that one before.  And I had to wait to the end of the book to find it.  Not sure I’ll have too many opportunities to use it, mind.  But look out for it in my future posts.  I may just slip it in there… :0)

Monday, 11 February 2013

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy - Edward P. Morgan

This weekend I launched forth into my Classics Club challenge. I'm excited but nervous too. Trepidatious, even. I really want to enjoy the process. To enjoy the ride, as it were. Instead of aching for the result, the end. Which is my normal state of affairs. Mmm, did I say this would be a challenge?

I chose to begin with one of the biggest players: Leo Tolstoy. To somehow underline the enormity of the task at hand. I am inexplicably drawn to the Russians. And they rarely disappoint. LT's The Kreutzer Sonata certainly didn't. It was totally compelling.

Tolstoy has such a beautiful, natural writing style that makes reading easy. A joy. I think many may be put off by the grandeur of the man. The personality that is Tolstoy. His reputation. His name. But seriously, this is a mistake. The man was an artist of the written word. Recounting tales so naturally that the only natural thing is to read them. Naturally. 

Now, I’ve since read that, on publication, this was a controversial book. Possibly still is. And I must say that it is heavy on morality. Which is always controversial. 

The tale in itself is of great simplicity: one man on a train explaining to a total stranger how he came to kill his wife.
In essence, the man on the train, Pozdnyshev, condemns human behaviour. In particular, the behaviour of men in relation to women. He condemns a society which promotes a conduct in men he believes is unbecoming. And which reduces the value of women in both man’s eyes and their own. 
His tough stance and the forceful projection of his ideas and ideals are somewhat softened by their presentation. In the conversation of a man almost broken by what he has lived through. He stands in judgment of himself, as much as of anyone else. And opens himself up for judgment by others. Warts n all. With a compelling honesty.

And ends his discourse asking for forgiveness. From the stranger. Or possibly from his wife. Or even from the world in general.
Honesty in writing is mesmerising. I think We need to talk about Kevin had a similar effect on me when I read it. Reading words that are never said, somehow never should be said. You almost stop breathing. Can’t breathe. So much honesty. Too much honesty. Like seeing into someone’s soul. Which is tempting. But ultimately undesirable.
I’m not saying that I agree with everything LT says. Far from it, indeed. However, it cannot be denied that he raises interesting issues and makes some valid points. And this can only be applauded. Don’t we all need somebody to challenge our beliefs and principles from time to time? To make us consider or reconsider what we accept without thought? Unconditionally?

And can I say that I enjoyed this first journey very much. I hope that bodes well...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library - Jorge Luis Borges

I'm restless. I don't know what's going on, but I don't seem to be able to settle. Still having tests and seeing doctors about my shoulder, would you believe. One year after my accident. How depressing is that?

So I'm looking for a new challenge. To focus. To settle me down. To put my energy into. Instead of moping after things that I cannot control. That I cannot have.

And, as if by magic, The Classics Club appeared. A group of bloggers reading books they consider classics. And sharing the experience with fellow bloggers. Sounds fab to me.

The challenge? To join, you need to provide a list of a minimum 50 books that you pledge to read over the next five years maximum. As you know, I cannot resist a list. And a list of classics?! It was a no-brainer.

So I’ve mooched and wondered. Reflected and puzzled. Checked out my other lists. And here’s what I’ve come up with. The classics that I would really like to read by 10 February 2017:

3. Adam Bede, George Elliott
4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
6. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
8. Cider House Rules, John Irving
9. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann
10. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
12. Faust, Johann Goethe
13. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
14. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
16. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
17. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
18. Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos
19. Metamorphoses, Ovid
22. Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov
23. Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham
24. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, Ivan Turgenev
26. Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera
27. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
29. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
31. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
32. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
33. The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
36. The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
37. The Odyssey, Homer
39. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
40. The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine
41. The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell
43. The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis
44. The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
47. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
48. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
49. Utopia, Thomas Moore
50. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Now I don't say that I'll read them in this order. I usually have to go with what I’m feeling at any particular time. But we’ll see. And I’ll keep the list updated as and when I read them. So feel free to pop back and check up on my progress.

I'm excited by the challenge. I'm pleased with my list. More or less. The only books that I'm really concerned about are the Dickens, Ovid and Homer.

We studied Dickens in school. In particular, Great Expectations. I was not a fan. I am still not a fan. Now I love his stories. And they make stunning films. But I just don’t love his style. It’s way too heavy on the descriptive for me.

Still, I felt compelled to put The Old Curiosity Shop in there, because it has sat on a bookshelf of mine since I was 12 years old. I received it as a school prize. My copy still has the congratulatory school certificate on the inside cover. And it’s hardly long, is it?
As for the Ovid and Homer, well, just reading their names seems well over my head. We shall see. As I said, this is a challenge. It's not meant to be easy, is it??  Wish me well. Join me if you dare…