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jefferies[1]

My most treasured book by Richard Jeffries is not this one but a fragile early edition of The Amateur Poacher, (1879). The Amateur Poacher is a collection of essays detailing bucolic life around Jeffries’ native Coates, in Wiltshire and is cherished for its evocation of a rural England now lost. But there’s something else in it, not so much written as alluded to through the intensity and the beauty of Jeffries’ prose. What that is exactly is hard to describe but many have felt it, and wondered,…

Let us get out of these indoor, narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Traditional ideas of spirituality and religion are but the ossified remains of this ineffable thing the ancients called “divine”, but it’s still present in the world and can be felt anywhere where the last sleepy cottage slips from view, where we can immerse ourselves once more in nature and intensify our experience of it through the lens of the psyche as well as the senses.  Jeffries allows that nature can be cultivated – meadows, coppices, fields of wheat – it does not have to be wilderness. It’s the life-energy in it that’s important to the soul, while the built world – the towns, the cities – are dead places more associated with the soul’s decay.

The nature of this ineffable “something” haunted Jeffries. While it’s hinted at throughout his writings, it’s here in “The Story of my heart” he attempts a more direct understanding of it. It’s not an easy book to summarise and must really be experienced, so there’s little I can do here but grant a flavour of it.

Written in the intense and emotional language of a prose poem, the book treats mankind as a being both of and keenly attuned to beauty, also as something apart from the world and capable of great perfection on our own terms, both physically and mentally. Nature, on the other hand, though at times ravishing to the senses, is more reflective of something within us, while being of itself blind to our existence. Though not intentionally cruel, nature can easily harm us. Also when we see the low creeping forms of life, it can be ugly, even offensive to the soul. Only superficially then can we describe Jeffries as a nature mystic. He does not deify nature, more something in man that’s higher than anything we can imagine.

“The sea does not make boats for us,” he says, “nor the earth of her own will build us hospitals.”

But for all our efforts with boats and hospitals in the last twelve thousand years, we’ve done nothing more than struggle for subsistence. Yet if we put our minds to it we might harvest in a single year enough to feed the entire world for decades. That we don’t suggests a deep failing, that we allow ourselves to be perversely distracted by everything that is bad for us, deliberately avoiding the need for cultivating the soul-life. Instead, we eulogise enslavement to largely meaningless and unproductive work.

He describes observing traffic in London, the crowds the carriages, the mad, rushing crush of it, everyone driven by an insatiable craving for motion and direction. Yet for all of that, he says, we are going nowhere, and shall continue to do so: while money, furniture, affected show and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude.

He sees the general human condition as one of perpetual ignorance and suffering,… so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. He dismisses religion in all its forms, also the idea of deity entirely on the basis of the evidence,… that there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs.

Our miseries are our own doing, he insists, and we must own them: because you have mind and thought, and could have prevented them. You can prevent them in future. You do not even try.

For us to progress, he urges us to reconnect with the higher mind, what he calls the “mind of the mind” – this being the soul, or the psyche because:

The mind is infinite and able to understand everything that is brought before it. The limit is the littleness of the things and the narrowness of the ideas put for it to consider.

Neither religion nor the physical sciences can offer us anything in this regard, those modes of thinking being completely wide of the mark. But as one who has felt the full blistering force of his own higher nature, Jeffries cannot be wholly pessimistic about our lot either, only lamenting that we need a quantum leap in understanding if we are not to spend another twelve thousand years going around in circles.

But while he tries his eloquent best to tell us the story of his heart, the abiding impression of this book is of an exquisitely sensitive man beset all his life by visions and feelings of such sublime loveliness they left him virtually speechless.

I was sensitive to all things, the earth under, and the star-hollow round about; to the last blade of grass, to the largest oak. They seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me.

Branded heretical in his time, pilloried by the Church for his paganism, and by urbanites for his unflattering views of London, the book did not sell well and many critics dismissed it as unintelligible. But for others, including me, Jeffries’ prose describes most powerfully those things all sensitive countryphiles have felt, and which we know point to a greater understanding of our place in the Cosmos – if only, like him, we could open our hearts to it properly, and find the words.

*[Richard Jeffries, English nature-writer, novelist, natural historian. 1848-1887]

For more information about Richard Jeffries you can do no better than to click here.

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A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

 

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jbp+12+rules

Pitched perhaps a little tongue in cheek as a self help book, 12 Rules for Life weighs in as something altogether more substantial, so much so I note there are now books that summarise it. Although clearly and compellingly written, I found I could only digest it in small bites, but these are big ideas, and worth mulling over. They’ll also lead you into other avenues of thought, some of them very old and which seem to be coming from so deep inside of us we’ve forgotten they’re there. Psychologically speaking then, these are archetypal patterns, in the Jungian sense, which, when we encounter them afresh like this, they join certain dots in the psyche and light us up.

Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the university of Toronto, rose to fame when he refused to obey a law that compelled the use of gender neutral pronouns when addressing members of the transsexual community. Viewed by some as an intolerant stance, the resulting furore was also evidence supporting Peterson’s thesis that many of our most intractable societal problems are the result of low resolution thinking, and ideologically half-baked responses to highly complex questions.

It takes only a little research to uncover the fact it was the compulsion of speech by law to which he objected, rather than the actual use of particular pronouns, that by submitting to such we risk sacrificing our freedom of discourse on a bonfire of indiscriminate political correctness. What this also tells us about Peterson is that if, on any given subject, political correctness is pointing in the opposite direction to the psychological reality, he will not hesitate to say so. This can be labelled courageous or provocative, depending on your point of view and has certainly won him both friends and enemies in equal measure.

He also draws fire for his view that in any society there can be no equality of outcomes for individuals, that there will always be a hierarchy. This is as pre-programmed into human behaviour, as it is into lobsters. Therefore, he argues, ideologies that promise egalitarian utopias are inherently doomed, that the important thing for the individual is to accept the reality of hierarchies, understand how they work, understand one’s place in them, and work towards ensuring those hierarchies do not become corrupt and tyrannical for those at the bottom.

Peterson is also known for his Youtube lectures, in particular the series on understanding Biblical stories from a mythical perspective. Much of that material, along with similar analyses of the works of Jung, Freud, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, also anecdotes from his own life, and from his long clinical experience are all bought together here in a powerful synthesis. But, as happened with Nietzsche, psychological theories can be misrepresented to suit a notably right-wing agenda and to a degree, the same thing is happening with Peterson.

His outspoken criticism of left-leaning ideologues, gives succour to ideologues of the right, which, in turn, results in simplistic media support to the idea Peterson is himself right-leaning, when in fact he warns us against all ideologies, left or right. It is holding to ideologies, he says, in the absence of something else, that has resulted in the deaths of countless millions over the course of the twentieth century. It is what that “something else” is – the true essence of being, how we realise it, and how we can bring it to bear in our lives – Peterson tries to get at here.

Popular with young men in particular, who Peterson argues have been left behind, undervalued and to some degree even demonised in recent decades by a more strident feminist Zeitgeist, the book provides guidance on how to mature successfully, how to face the world in all its complexity, tragedy, absurdity and horror, as a competent, powerful and self motivated individual, without needing to seek support in otherwise seductive and simplistic ideologies. Ideologies might promise clarity and equity, but always fail to deliver on their particular Arcadias. The reason? People are not machines, they will often act contrarily and irrationally to authority, to rule and dictat. That’s when the trouble starts and the ideologues in charge turn to oppression, authoritarianism, and eventually to killing in order to maintain control.

Twelve Rules is intended to help us rediscover a sense of personal empowerment and to find the courage to face a chaotic world without the risk of harming ourselves or others in the process. The result is a psychological, philosophical and quasi-religious treatise that aims to put us back on our feet, essentially by reacquainting us with the underlying mythological, archetypal bedrock of our culture. I certainly feel I understand my own shortcomings a little better from reading it. Whether I have the courage to do anything about that is another matter, which I suppose is the challenge Peterson sets us, either to overcome the malaise of the secular west, first by overcoming it in ourselves, or to go on as we are and allow it to sink without trace, and ourselves with it.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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Survivalcraft for wordpress

Writing stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are, but you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years it’s taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of muck on your wellies too. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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