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

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

Underground by Haruki Murakami

I wanted to read this book, partly because I love Murakami’s writing and partly because I was living in Tokyo at the time of the sarin gas attack, in 1995. I was actually across the road from Shinjuku station, where much of it unfolded, and saw the emergency services in action.

It is Murakami’s assiduous attempt to understand how those acts of terrorism affected the victims, and what motivated the perpetrators, who placed packages of liquid sarin on commuter trains and then burst them with umbrellas, before escaping. Many people died and hundreds were injured.

This particular book brings together his various writings on the subject, some of which have appeared in Japanese magazines. He says himself the is following the approach of Studs Terkel, and it works very well. He interviews victims and members of the Aum cult, which lay behind the attacks.

His summary of all this is brilliant, if only a few pages long. He identifies an enduring problem for Japanese society, maybe for many societies, which consists in its structure and expectations. Not everybody fits in, so what are they to do? That might imply he is soft on Aum – he isn’t. Some of the best pieces are his arguments with them about their beliefs. But, overall, it is a measured and thoughtful book, and a great example of what a writer’s sensibilities can bring to very difficult problems.

“O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorry sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, ‘I alone am alive – behold!’ even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun… snow…..and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose.” from First Love by Ivan Turgenev

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

This is a beautiful novella. I read it years ago but wanted to come back to it because it is translated, in this Penguin edition, by Isaiah Berlin, whom I greatly admire. It is allusive and poetic and perfectly modulated. I take it as a finely drawn illustration of the singularity and complexity of the individual human heart and how imperfectly the world can be understood.


The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

This was recommended to my by a friend. I am not sure I would otherwise have picked it up. It is a pretty good novel, about a young astronomy academic and her emotional life, confused by the death of her older sister when they were children. It is poetic at times, and very nicely written. The bits about being an astronomer are good fun. It peters out a little, as if the writer wasn’t quite able to pull the strands, good as they are, together.

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