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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

Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I do enjoy Murakami. His themes – the uncertain nature of reality, the possibility of hidden connections, glimpses of the ineffable – are seductive. And he has a lovely, spare, deceptively simple style.

The plot concerns the Tazaki of the title, and his attempts to find meaning in his life. The story has a dreamlike quality, which is sort of trippy and mesmerising. It evokes Japan rather beautifully, as well. Indeed, the novel could only be set in Japan.

Murakami glories in the quotidian and the constant possibility that it is a veil, behind which some other reality persists. Very nice.

 

“The human heart is like a night bird. Silently waiting for something, and when the time comes, it flies straight toward it.”

Haruki Murakami, in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Conundrum by Jan Morris

This is a really marvellous and interesting book. It is an autobiographical account of the author’s change from being male to female. She wrote formerly under the name ‘james Morris’ and became a woman as an already established writer and journalist.

She is an immensely civilized writer, as her books about Venice and Trieste attest. But what is so enjoyable about this one is her humanity and the practical, sensible way she addresses questions, whether of the heart, the body or the soul.

It is not a  long book but gives insights only available to someone who has lived, generously and well, as a man and as a woman. When there is a lot of hysterical nonsense talked about transgender people, this is an amusing and thoughtful counterpoint.

Possession by A S Byatt

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It is a technically a brilliant achievement, running parallel stories about love and relationships while creating two wholly fictional oeuvres, complete with letters, for two long dead literary figures, also fictional characters.

The plot is one of plots within plots, with clever similarities among them brought out as the book progresses. The plot set in the present concerns two academics and their respective interests in the poet Randolph Henry Ash and his friend Christabel LaMotte. This plot includes lots of satire about academic life and mores. The other main plot concerns Ash and LaMotte and their relationship, recounted through long excerpts of their work and their correspondence. All of this the author must have created, mostly written in iambic pentameters, and it is very impressive indeed. It feels authentically Victorian and authentically English.

An excellent book.

Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo

I have to confess to some disappointment with this book. I was very keen to read it after an enjoyable visit to Trieste, where Svevo lived and where he is revered. He was a friend and supporter of James Joyce, whom he met when Joyce lived in the same city. I was told when I was there that this book is a standard text in Italian schools.

I found it hard going, though. I don’t know if it was the translation (by William Weaver in the Penguin edition), which is an unfair question to wonder about, since I have no way of assessing its quality, but the language was stodgy and events unfolded very slowly. I am reasonably sure that is deliberate – the novel is a sort of stream of consciousness, an interior monologue by the eponymous protagonist, and you glean a lot about his character from living inside his head. However, I found it quite repetitive and a bit dull. Zeno is very human in his failings – he is always justifying his bad actions to himself, and this is funny. He always has excuses for not giving up smoking, for drinking, and for having sex with women other than his wife. He is a hypochondriac and very petty bourgeois. A bit like Mr Pooter in Diary of a Nobody.

But, overall, I found it a bit slow. I wish I had enjoyed it more than I did – I did try, honest.

 

Capitalism – Money, Morals and Markets by John Plender

Plender is a journalist on the Financial Times, a London-based newspaper and probably the best and most highbrow among the notoriously corrupt and degraded British print media.

This is a very enjoyable read, if, like me, you are interested in economic history and in understanding the moral tensions in the capitalist system. The best thing about the book is his use of quotes, from Marx, Goethe, Keynes and many others. He does an excellent job of bringing to business and economics the insights of the artistic and literary imagination.

At times it reads like an assembly of his (very good) journalism but it also avoids technicalities and highlights the big moral questions facing modern capitalism, in fresh and engaging ways. He ends with a lukewarm endorsement of capitalism, drawing on Churchill’s famous observation about democracy, and saying that it is the worst possible way of organising human affairs, except for all the others.

A very readable analysis of the problems facing capitalism, which avoids technical language and embraces philosophical and artistic perspectives.

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.” – John Maynard Keynes, from Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, 1930

Thank you, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse

Another entertaining outing for Bertie Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves. Very polished and elegant, with an amusingly inconsequential plot about wealthy Americans and their daughters and Bertie’s unconsciously ironic view of the shenanigans.

One aspect of the story is both dated and interesting. The story revolves around Wooster and another character applying boot polish to their faces to pretend to be black musicians. The musicians are performing at the country house in England where the plot unfolds. They are described by Wodehouse as ‘negro minstrels’ and, earlier, using the other word beginning with ‘n’ that is now even more taboo than ‘negro’. The plot device of ‘blacking up’ could not be used unironically today and, even then, would need careful handling. The reason for the involvement of the musicians in the plot at all is that Bertie is annoying everyone by playing the banjolele and he tries to see them to learn from them, on the assumption that they will be masters of the instrument.

So it is mixture of racism, which reflects poorly on the mores of the time of writing; a stereotypical assumption that black people will be good at playing musical instruments; and, worse, that the appearance of a black person, even when it is a white person wearing make-up, is a cause for drama and comedy. So a good book, but dated. (Which some will see as a bit of a lenient verdict, I realise.)

Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith

I read this book partly because have enjoyed several times the excellent Anthony Minghella film, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, and partly because I heard the philosopher John Gray, whom I admire, praising the Ripley novels.

It is an interesting read, though I feel it helped to know that Ripley is a psychopath before I did. Taken as a freestanding, one-off read, I think the book might be a bit puzzling.

There is a clever deadpanness to the language that does highlight Ripley’s weird disconnection from normal human emotions. He kills someone then puts on some music, while the body is still warm; he deliberately embroils someone in mafia killings, just to see how they react. So it is an interesting book, if a little bit dated, The dialogue is quite wooden but the psychology of the plot is excellent.

I realised as I read it that I used to look at my mother’s copy as a child. A phrase stuck with me, from a scene when one of the characters meets a man with a large scar: ‘He didn’t say anything about the scar but Jonathan suspected a dull knife in a nasty fight somewhere.”. Not a great line of poetry or even of prose, but I have always remembered it. Funny how the memory retains these seemingly random things and it was nice to make the connection over the decades. Perhaps only books can do that.

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