Reading in order to live

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Notes on books I have read

This blog is simply my notes on the books I have been reading. I hope they are of passing interest to those who pass by.

Featured post

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I read Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, when I was too young to understand it. This novel is about an American – David – in Paris, who cannot reconcile his homosexual love for Giovanni with the expectations of convention and his lifestyle.

It is quite harrowing and intense but gripping and rather sad. The atmosphere of Paris is beautifully constructed and the feelings of the characters are convincingly portrayed. David’s fiancee, Hella, is a particularly vivid character, in contrast to those of Maugham (see below).

The book must have been pretty edgy for the 1950s. A very good read but serious and thoughtful.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham

An enjoyable novel, but flawed. Maugham’s great strength is his ability to write aphoristic, clever, declaratory sentences. But his weakness is his complete failure to write convincing female characters, at least in this book.

The story concerns a fictional painter called Charles Strickland, based on Paul Gauguin, who abandons his comfortable middle class life in London and ‘drops out’ to become a painter in Paris. He then goes to live in Tahiti, where he lives in extreme poverty before dying of leprosy. He is sociopathic and entirely unsympathetic as a character, consumed by his artistic mission.

The narrator is a writer, who observes Strickland but is never a friend, as Strickland has no friends.

It is a well-paced, very sophisticated novel but the female characters are unconvincing and serve only as illustrations of the effects of Strickland’s strange charisma.

A pleasant holiday diversion but a bit dated, truth to tell.

Ruined City by Nevil Shute

This was recommended – a little half-heartedly – by an acquaintance of mine who is a merchant banker. It concerns a merchant banker (funny, that) who comes to question the purpose of his all-consuming work and, after a spell in a hospital in the depressed North East of England, decides to use his wealth and prestige in the City of London to bring jobs back to a poor and workless town.

I had not read a Shute novel for many years, though with A J Cronin and one or two others, he was a novelist I read a lot as a teenager.

This book has a lot to dislike for the modern reader. Lots of racism, which I suppose was normal at the time of writing; some very two dimensional ‘oriental’ characters, set in a fictional state in the Balkans; a working assumption that Britain is best, for everything; and an assortment of cheerfully simple-minded working class characters.

For all that, it rattles along. But it is a bit rubbish, really.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories, all dealing with the same characters and all set in a kibbutz. I was attracted to a kibbutz myself, when I was about 18, probably towards the end of the period during which working on one was on the list of things that people of that age in the UK did, along with riding on a double decker bus to India and working as a helper on Camp America.

The stories are all about the relationships within the kibbutz but they are never cloying and each, in its own way, raises questions about the system: the way in which women are not treated equally; the restrictions imposed by communal living on personal freedom; and the dominance of the articulate and the ideological. It also reminds the reader of the embattled and politicised nature of Israel, at least as understood by the kibbutzim.

There are some phrases repeated, not particularly meaningful ones, in several of the stories but I put that down to the translation.

Overall, I am not sorry, after reading this book, that my youthful flirtation with heading off to a kibbutz never led anywhere. It all sounds a bit weird.

The Drinker by Hans Fallada

This book was a gift from a kind friend for whom I had done a trivial service. The author is most famous in the UK for Alone in Berlin, which is the story of a couple who are executed for leaving subversive postcards on stairwells during the Nazi regime. His real name is Rudolf Ditzen. The name ‘Fallada’ comes from the name of a horse, called ‘Falada’, in one of Grimm’s fairy tales. The horse’s head is cut off and the heroine speaks to it as she passes until her betrayer is caught and killed. Typically dark – Grimm by name, grim by nature.

This story is about a man lapsing into drunkenness and madness. It is partly autobiographical. Ditzen was himself imprisoned as well as confined to mental hospitals, and he was an alcoholic. The complex relationship between writers and alcohol is detailed very well here.

He was part of a literary movement in 1930s Germany called ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’, or ‘the new matter-of-factness’. A sort of social realism, I think. And that is very much the style of this book – matter of fact, almost banal, but portraying something awful and compelling about how the individual is subsumed into organisational structures and norms of behaviour. The first person narrator, Erwin Sommer, is a respected businessman who just degenerates very rapidly into a raging alcoholic and is then swept along by the system of incarceration. It is set in Nazi Germany but that does not figure very much, although some see it as an allegory of Germany’s own descent into madness.

The reader sympathises with Sommer, to an extent, because we are inside his head. But it is also clear that he is not an especially good or admirable person, as he himself admits. So it is not a simple book, but the economical style is not judgemental. The reader has to bring a lot of him or herself to the party.


John Maynard Keynes by Robert Skidelsky

This biography is readable and detailed. If I was writing a book review, I would call it ‘magisterial’, since that seems to be the word generally used to describe such works. Keynes was a fascinating figure and one of the greatest economists ever. But the aspect of the book I found most interesting was historical. Keynes was closely involved in world affairs during both world wars. It was particularly interesting to read of his role in negotiating financial settlements after the Second World War. He headed the British delegation to Washington and it is timely for us to be reminded that many in the US were very distrustful of Britain, which they saw as an imperialist power trying to cling on to its trading rights. The idea that the UK and the US have been close friends forever is simply false.

Keynes invented a new kind of economic thinking and was right in his judgements of Stalin and Soviet communism. He devised the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He was, really, a policy genius. We could do with someone like him today.

The First Circle by Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn

This long novel is complex and very gripping. It is a portrait of the Soviet system of oppression, seen through the eyes and thoughts of a range of different characters. There are bad people but they are not presented as all that much worse than most others; it is the system that is analysed and picked apart, and it is horrifying.

The novel is set, mostly, in a prison that is one of the better places to be among the forest of prisons, camps and detention centres that make up the vast architecture of militarised repression in the Stalinist Soviet Union. The characters include prisoners, so-called ‘free workers’, who come in from outside to work with them, wardens, officers and soldiers. All of them, in their different ways, feel the system of organised repression bearing down on them. None of them can relax. It is a brilliant description of how such systems can be both banal and depraved.

The ‘first circle’ of the title refers to the first circle of hell, in Dante’s Inferno. The lower circles are even worse, and include the labour camps and the extermination camps.

I remember another of his books in my house as a child, The Gulag Archipelago. I looked at it a lot, but remember mainly the pictures now. I had him in mind as a dissident, rather than a novelist, but this really is an excellent novel. A sort of Russian epic of politically-induced misery and squalor. Excellent and, today, a reminder of how bad things can become under a ‘strong leader’.

Noon Wine by Katherine Anne Porter

This is the third novella in the edition I have, entitled ‘Pale Horse Pale Rider’. Like the eponymous story and its sequel, ‘Old Mortality’ it is a heavily psychological work, written in spare, pellucid prose. The story concerns a family living in South Texas whose farm is struggling, but which is revitalised by the arrival of a hand who rarely speaks but works extremely hard and turns the place round. One senses this cannot last and when the outside world interferes in this happy arrangement, the farmer kills a man and is unable to deal with the consequences.

It is a bit like Hemingway – short sentences, simple structures, but meanings inferred and implied. A story which invites the application of the reader’s imagination.

“The sad fact is that language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality – with all that extraneous matter weighing down like a rock on any actions we take. In the end, unable to comprehend each other’s words, we’d part, each going our separate ways” – Haruki Murakami, in Underground

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