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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.

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The Shadow Puppet by Georges Simenon

A classic Maigret, in many ways: lots of rain in a grey, sombre Paris; a self-contained community within which a murder takes place; and a sort of inexorable process of justice being done. Maigret novels are not thrillers. There is little of the whodunit about them. They are tales of psychology, really.

Very good.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Sometimes you see so many references to a writer, so much critical applause, that you have to go and check them out afresh. I read some Chandler a few years’ ago but needed to reacquaint myself with his style.

It is brilliant. Sharp, funny and sometimes bewildering, mainly because the slang of 1930s Los Angeles has not always endured. The humanity of Philip Marlowe is worn lightly, coming through at poignant moments when he realises who the real victims in some messy situation really are.

A classic, with a finely paced ending as the significance of the high window becomes clear.

Ulysses by James Joyce

I have just finished this strange and astonishing book. I tried to read it twice before but was unable to get past one of the more abstruse sections. I was encouraged to have another go after visiting the James Joyce Museum in Trieste and meeting the young curator, who had read the book and had lines from the book tattooed on her arm. I imagine that was a first for the tattooist.

So much has been written about the book, so much literary criticism, that I am not going to attempt to add to it here, not that I am qualified to do so. But, for the practical reader, I offer the following suggestions:

  • read it quickly and in as long and as few sittings as you can. One great beauty of the book is how it repeats themes, ideas and personalities and this is hard to grasp if you keep having to read yourself into the mood, by putting down the book frequently and picking it up again;
  • some sections are very hard to follow without looking at the notes (I was reading the Penguin Annotated Student’s Edition), while others depend on keeping with the flow of the text. So I chose to look at the notes only sparingly sometimes, accepting that many references and allusions would pass me by; and
  • accept that the plot is rambling and full of digressions and seeming irrelevancies ( I am sure some readers will think everything is meaningful if only we could fully understand Joyce and others will think that some things are, simply, irrelevant) but keep going and it does start to come together, or it did for me, anyway.

The final monologue by Molly Bloom, one of the most famous parts of the book, is utterly brilliant. It is, in a sense, separate from the Odyssey-themed chapters that precede it but depends for its power on what has gone before. I found myself moved to tears by the last sentences, which does not happen with many books.

I wouldn’t recommend the book to everyone. It is a slog at times. But it is truly a work of genius and I am very glad to have read it.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

One irony of this book is that it gives a very entertaining and insightful account of how modern Russia is awash with conspiracy theories and, at the same time, offers one of its own: that Russia is a gangster state where everything is manipulated in its interests.

The difference is that the latter feels very believable, when presented in this book. The writer is a television producer who has worked extensively in Russia. His style is fast-paced and engaging. He gives the reader a series of stories that, together, suggest that modern Russia is a truly frightening and unstable place, especially so for the people who live there.

Russia and China, today, are gigantic experiments, it seems to me. Something new has emerged from the clash of capitalism with the remnants of socialism, a hybrid that throws up a lot of unpleasantness, with no stable outcome in sight. China still seems to have the ballast of its ancient civilisation, despite the attempts of the Communist Party to destroy it, whereas Russia, according to this book, is very unpredictable and spinning around all over the place. Scary.

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

I read this after seeing, and really liking, a piece by Emma Cline in a recent issue of Granta magazine, called ‘The Best New American Writing’, or something similar. So it was good that the taster format led me to this book.

What she does really, really well is create an atmosphere of menace, especially menace towards women. Her writing is unsettling. The plot concerns a cult-like community in California in the 1960s, and one person’s involvement with it. I liked the way the narrator’s perspective reflected what she didn’t know, or hinted at it, as well as what she did. It made me think, as I have often before, of how male-dominated a lot of the hippy, free love thing became. In both of the pieces I have read by Cline, her acute analysis of the psychology of her female characters is very powerful.

Very good book.

Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson

I learned after reading this book that it was made into a TV series. It is good, but a little overlong and repetitive. Overall, though, very enjoyable and the author has a real gift for turning a phrase and changing the mood.

It is set in Belfast and makes great fun of the weirdnesses that surround that city. I was there recently and this book was given to me for that reason. It is very funny but sharply satirical at the same time. If you knew nothing about Northern Ireland, a lot would be missed. But it is very entertaining.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Books are frequently described as ‘must reads’, or ‘essential reading’. This is as close to that description as any book I have read. It is the second in a trilogy of history books about post-1949 China from this Dutch historian. This book deals with the Great Leap Forward, from about 1958 to 1962. It was a period when political theory was treated as axiomatic and policies were enforced by self-interested bureaucrats with no residue of decency to restrain them and no means of escaping the pressures of the system.

The book, like the others in the trilogy, is founded on hard scholarship, drawing on archives only relatively recently opened. Many remain closed in the authoritarian state that is modern China.

The author’s estimate, the best available I imagine, is that 45 million people died in the famine and associated horrors brought about by Mao’s policies. That is, 45 million more people than would have died anyway. Most died of starvation, some were murdered, some committed suicide and some were killed and their bodies boiled down for fertiliser. The old and children were worst affected. The catalogue of horrors is harrowing reading.

But what is most awful and most astonishing is that the whole thing was entirely man-made. Crazy ideologically-founded ideas, like letting peasants, with no education or tools, build tractors from scratch, on the basis that proletarian zeal can work miracles, took hold and were promulgated and enforced with vigour and violence. The greatest destruction of property in human history saw many buildings broken up and ploughed into the land as fertiliser. Enormous irrigation projects, badly designed and failures from day one, were executed by thousands of poor farmers who were forced to abandon their crops in pursuit of Socialist modernisation.

The Great Leap Forward must stand as the worst example of ideological lunacy in human history. But the reason it is important to read this book is that the period is within living memory. The Party that did all this is still in power. Makes you think.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud

I think one book by Freud is probably enough, unless you are into the detail. His theories are incredibly interesting but they do boil down to one big idea: that the activities of the human mind are interconnected by many layers of meaning and consciousness. So even the most trivial mental event has ramifications and causes.

I confess I did not read all of this book, as the detail of his cases did not interest me sufficiently, fascinating though they are, especially for psychologists and psychiatrists. So much of Freud has soaked into our everyday language – ‘Freudian slips’ and quips about penis envy – that it is easy to forget what an amazing and revolutionary thinker he was.

I suspect true followers of Freud must spend a good part of each day analysing the smaller part of the day during which they did something else. Almost everything is susceptible to analysis, almost without limit. Which is as daunting as it is exciting.

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.

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