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

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.

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.

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