That is all. As you were, guys.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, the ‘silent twin’ of her debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I finished it last week, and it’s been hanging around in the corners of my mind ever since. Tonight’s my last night at home before my dad gives me a lift back to Leicester tomorrow, and once I’m back there I’ll be straight back into uni work mode (the deadline for my dissertation is in less than a month, and I have three exams at the end of May) and won’t be able to read or blog about anything without disproportionate feelings of guilt, so I’m taking this opportunity to talk to you about it.
The book begins with The Wrong Crib – Winterson’s adopted mother would say that she had been led to adopt her by the devil. That just about sets the tone for what’s to follow - Winterson’s childhood in Manchester with her adopted parents, starved of love and books. When she was 16, she was evicted from the house because of her relationship with another girl – the exorcism her mother had arranged previously to rid her daughter of her homosexuality having apparently failed. The account of her early years ends when Winterson gets herself to Oxford University. Fastforward some 25 years, and two things happen – her relationship breaks down, and she discovers her adoption papers whilst moving her father to a nursing home. This triggers a nervous breakdown, a suicide attempt, and a gruelling trek back towards the light.
This is the first book by Winterson that I’ve read, so I hadn’t had the initiation through OANTOF that I imagine a lot of people had had when they read WBHWYCBN. In any case, it reached into my insides, got a good grip and hung on in there. I was bewitched. Not just by the narrative itself, which was harrowing and uplifting and moving, but by the rawness, urgency, energy and pure love of life pulsating off the page. This is not a misery memoir in any way, shape or form. This is a book about a person’s absolute refusal, even at the last, to stop running headlong into life, love and language.
Having not read anything else by her, I don’t really know if the way this book is written is usual for Winterson. It’s kind of fragmentary, told in smallish chunks, not always continuing chronologically from one event to the next. But I don’t think it’s detrimental to the book – in fact, I think it communicates Winterson’s urgency, almost her desperation, to be understood and to understand what happened herself.
Something else that was pretty amazing (and I don’t think I really know how she did it) was the way I didn’t hate any of the characters. Not even repressed, miserable, damaged Mrs. Winterson, who locked her daughter out of the house all night, threw her in the coal hole as punishment and burned all her books in the garden. I find myself feeling sorry for her, just as I feel sorry for Winterson herself, and her father who never stood up for her, and her birth mother who gave her up. I didn’t really feel like she was evil, even though she did evil things. She was just monumentally, catastrophically damaged. She couldn’t find her way out of her dark, like Winterson herself managed to do.
I found the second part of the book, about Winterson’s breakdown seemingly at the height of her success, more distressing in a lot of ways than her difficult childhood – the lifeline that had been created in her early years by literature and by language had been drawn so vividly that when it seemed to have been broken, as her emotional freefall rendered her incapable of writing, or even talking, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. I also didn’t feel any contradiction, which I suppose some people might, between her ultimate enthusiasm for life and existence and her period of sucidal thought – I totally understood how someone might feel that if the wholehearted life they had experienced before was gone forever (which I suppose it must have felt like it was), then the next step would be the feeling that it might be best not to live at all.
There’s so much truthfulness in this book. Every event, every feeling explored is engaged with fully, with both hands and feet. It was like being handed Winterson’s resilient, words-full, love-hungry heart – a book-shaped heart. As you can tell, I’m in love.
A couple of nights ago in bed, I finished Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. I seem to finish most books in bed these days. Probably because during the daytime I feel too guilty when I pick up some fiction and then glance over at the huge stack of uni-related books that always make the trip home with me for the holidays. When I’m at university, I either finish books in bed or sitting by the radiator during heating time. Those of you who’ve been hanging out at this blog for a while will know that sometimes I even blog from the radiator. In the couple of days before I came home, I was fantasising about my dad’s log burner. One of the best things about being at home is being warm all the time.
Anyway, I digress. Brazzavile Beach. This is my first William Boyd novel. It’s about a British scientist called Hope Clearwater, who lives and works on a nature reserve in an unspecified African country, observing chimpanzees. In direct contrast to everything human beings thought they knew about chimps up until this point, Hope begins to observe in her subjects some unusual behaviours – darker and more savage than anyone had seen before. This presents a problem, because scientist Eugene Mallabar, who runs the reserve and is the world expert on chimp behaviour, hasn’t seen it either and refuses to believe what Hope relates is really happening. Interspersed with this story in Africa there is also another narrative, that of Hope’s life before she came to Africa and her marriage to brilliant but increasingly tortured mathematician John.
Well, I suppose the first thing to say is that I found the whole thing terribly suspensful. From the moment Hope discovers what can only be described as cannibalistic behaviour in the chimps she’s been observing, it is clear that Mallabar – and as a result most of the other members of the team at the project – does not want to hear her findings, and even goes so far as to attempt to destroy the evidence. The increasingly tense atmosphere was really well developed both in this strand of narrative and also in the one following Hope’s married life with John – from the very beginning of the book we sense that by the time she arrives in Africa they are no longer together, but what exactly happened to break them apart is kept hidden until a significant way through the novel, and that kind of tension-with-hindsight (dramatic irony? is that the proper phrase?) is also built up well through those parts. All the chimp behaviour described in the book is factually accurate apparently, as similar scenes to those that Hope witnessed were observed by scientists in the 1970s, so on a purely “wow, I didn’t know that” level, all that stuff was really interesting.
I also really genuinely liked Hope as a character, in a different way to the way I often enjoy female heroines. By that, I mean that instead of feeling like if she was real I’d quite like to be friends with her, I felt like she was quite a lot like me. The two don’t always go together – I often think I wouldn’t want to be friends with me! But I felt a familiarity with Hope, as in I felt like she behaved in various situations how I think I would behave. That’s often the frustration with books that have tension and suspicion in them – I often find myself thinking “why on earth are you doing that/telling him/not telling him?!” while I’m reading. But Hope reacted, particularly in the situation with the chimps research, in exactly the way I think (or maybe I hope?) I would have done – she kept her head, wasn’t overly trusting, and continued in her determination to get to the truth.
Despite all this, I did have a couple of problems. Firstly, in between the two different narratives there was also kind of a third – Hope after the events in the novel had happened, living in a beach house on the Brazzaville Beach of the title, reflecting on what has happened to her; in fact, I think it’s supposed to be this Hope telling us the story. And it’s often joined to these sections that we get treated to small italicised extracts of mathematic theory – in line with the problems her husband grapples with. For one thing, I didn’t understand these bits, not even a little bit – I’ve done hardly any Maths since 2007 when I breathed a sigh of relief because I’d passed my maths GCSE. And this is serious maths, theoretical scary maths – and I’m not very good or gracious about not understanding things, so those bits annoyed me. And I also felt like we the readers were supposed to apply the rather grandiose statements in these sections – things like “What I like about Fermat’s Last Theorem is that it remains one of those conjectures about the world which are almost indubitably true, that no one would ever deny, but which, in the final analysis, we can’t actually, physically prove” – to parts of the story, or to Life in general. I might be wrong about that, but that’s what I felt like I was being nudged at me, and it wasn’t working for me.
My other problem was a narrative one, and it started about two thirds of the way through the book when (spoiler alert) Hope and one of her collegues go off in a Land Rover on a trip to the nearest town and get taken prisoner by a small group of soldiers (all the while the chimp stuff is going on, there’s a civil war going on in the background). This was the part of the story which, while I was in it, made me less enthusiastic about picking the book up again, whereas all the stuff about the chimps I’d been speeding through because I found it so exciting. I guess that’s weird, preferring academic intrigue (of a sort) to real-life “adventure” as a hostage. But I didn’t really understand what the point of that bit was – especially seeing as immediately before this happened, Hope and Mallabar had had a violent argument, with the issue with Hope observing behaviours that didn’t fit with the analysis of chimps that Mallabar had based his life’s work on, so I was desperate to find out how that all worked out, and I felt like I was made to wait an unneccessarily long time before that was resolved while we bumbled around the African wilderness with Hope and some random soldiers.
Overall though, I think it’s a really original and for the most part gripping novel. And I’m sure brigher people than me would get the maths parts.
About a week ago, in bed, I finished the last book in the Smiley-Karla trilogy by John le Carre. It feels like I’ve been hanging out with George Smiley forever – I started Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in September/October. So basically it’s taken me six months to read three books, although to be totally fair I’ve read a couple of other things as well since then. Right now I’m on my bed, under my blanket, and it’s snowing outside. I think the weather god of the UK has forgotten that it’s March. I’m hoping that it’s going to stop when I have to walk to work this afternoon…
For those of you who’ve read my review of the prequel to Smiley’s People - The Honourable Schoolboy - you might remember that although I found the whole reading experience enjoyable, I’ll freely admit to having lost any idea of what was going on at a relatively early stage. Well, for SP that thread of understanding hung on for a little bit longer. The book’s about 450 pages long, and I was at least 200 in before I began to lose what the significance was of various characters Smiley seemed bent on pursuing. This book is set after the dust has settled from the operations featured in THS, and Smiley gets into a last ditch attempt to capture Karla, his opposite number in the KGB (or “Moscow Centre”). Actually, I think “capture” might be a bit of a misleading word – Smiley’s aim in this novel is not to imprison Karla; it’s to entice him over to the West, to pursuade him to defect from Britain’s Cold War enemy. This was what he tried to do when the pair first met, an encounter described searingly in TTSS, and Karla refused, at the same time appearing to see into Smiley’s soul, and into his weakness – his relationship with his wife Ann. But in this novel, Smiley – and of course his motley crew of assistants and experts – has sensed a chink in Karla’s armour, a avenue available for blackmail if you will (it’s so hard to talk about this without giving the whole thing away!)
I don’t think it was the narrative drive that I enjoyed particularly here, although by the end (as with the previous two novels in the series) I was tearing through to find out what was going to happen. It was the set-pieces, the scenes that were like shots from a film in my head they seemed so real. The climatic scene towards the end where Smiley is interrogating a key individual in his quest for Karla is full of tension; there’s also a sequence quite near the beginning where Smiley’s tramping around in a park on a misty day looking for clues that a recently deceased collegue might have left, and I felt like le Carre really painted that picture very well indeed. I also really liked one of the last scenes – in Berlin, at the border between East and West. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about what that kind of almost no-mans land would look or feel like.
There’s also a real sense of Smiley’s struggles with morality in this one, as he struggles to decide whether to use the one expression of Karla’s humanity that they’ve been able to find in order to trap him. By the end, I don’t think he knows if he’s come out on the right side of this crisis or not – and I don’t think I did either. If anyone else reads it and thinks they know the answer, please let me know!
The thing with the Smiley books is that I don’t think they’re really for people who are into James Bond – although to be fair I’ve never read any James Bond, so maybe I’m wrong. Smiley definitely isn’t that kind of spy. These are maybe spy books for the more cerebral reader – clearly more cerebral than me, seeing as I can’t hang on to the plot through the whole thing! But as hopefully you’ll have been able to tell, that didn’t stop me from having a good time reading them.
Hopefully next time I’ll be broadcasting from home, because it was the last day of the spring term yesterday and I’m going home for the holidays on Monday – that’s if the snow will allow my dad to come and fetch me! I’m already thinking longingly about the log-burner.
I went home to Shropshire at the weekend for a fleeting visit, mostly to hang out with my brother who was flying solo this week because my dad was visiting my mum in Dubai (which is where she lives now, long story!) And on the train journey there, I FINALLY finished The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in the ‘Karla’ trilogy of John le Carre spy novels, the first of which is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s taken me so long partly because THS is quite chunky, but also because my life in the second term of my third year of university doesn’t allow for much leisure reading time!
Anyway. Reading this book has been a strange experience, as was reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, actually, because to be quite honest with you for a lot of the time I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. I mean, I had the general premise – George Smiley is the head of The Circus (British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6) that has been chronically weakened by the recent unveiling of a Soviet mole in a critical position, placed there by Karla, George’s opposite number in Russia and his arch nemesis (read TTSS for the fully story on that). George and his motley crew of MI6 staffers are, as part of their battle against Karla’s pefidious influence in their service, pursuing a shady Chinese gentleman called Drake Ko, who is connected to a bank account stuffed with Soviet money. The Circus man on the ground is a journalist/spy called Jerry Westerby – the Honourable Schoolboy of the title – who is sent to Hong Kong to try and uncover Ko’s game. All the while, the American secret service (known amusingly as the Cousins) are circling the Circus operation, waiting for an opportunity to dive in and scoop up the prize themselves.
And that is literally all I would be able to tell you about the plot. I spent the vast majority of the novel not having any real idea what was going on – which is also what happened when I read TTSS; until the last 50 pages or so I really had very little idea what the significance of any given scene was. I had no idea what any of the myriad of characters that Jerry encounters on his quest to get to the bottom of the mystery added to the investigation, when it is revealed that Ko’s relationship with his brother Nelson is very significant I had no idea why, and I had absolutely NO clue what relevance anything had to the original suspicious bank account!
But I had such a nice time reading it. Despite the fact that I had no idea what was going on, I really enjoyed it – I guess just for the quality of the writing. I felt suspense (even when I didn’t really know what for!), and every scene was like a movie in my mind I could see it so clearly. The plotting is probably brilliant – I have to say probably because most of its intricacies I think went over my head, but I’m sure a person with a mind able to grasp them would marvel at it. I also thought that a lot of the dialogue really was something special – especially the tense scenes back in London with meetings between Smiley and his team and Marcello (the American representative) and his guys, the exchanges felt so realistic, the rhythm of the phrasing and the suggestions of the way characters sat or moved while they spoke. I enjoyed going back to it each time, not in an urgent way (although it was at the end) but in a faintly curious way, a “I wonder what strange turn we’re going to take with Jerry Westerby today” kind of way. Also, I really am very fond of George Smiley, and was desperate for his plot to corner Ko to succeed, and for the glory not to be taken by the Cousins. He’s just such an excellent spy, in such an ordinary man’s body. I love it when characters seem mediocre on the outside, but are extraordinary on the inside – and that’s George Smiley through and through.
My almost complete failure to follow the story line hasn’t put me off – I’m now 2 chapters in to the final book in the trilogy – Smiley’s People. I just have to know how Smiley’s battle with Karla ends. I’ll let you know if I manage to keep track any better with this one. But I’m beginning to think it doesn’t really matter.
OK, here we go, first proper post of 2013! I have an exam on Indian history on Monday morning, and it feels like I have been doing nothing but revise for it for the past 2 weeks, so having put a decent amount of hours in today I’m going to have a blogging break.
So, at the end of September, I won a £100 Amazon voucher, spent it all in one go on books and CDs and audio books and computer games, and as a result took delivery of what I took to calling My Amazon Box of Fun. Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes was a resident in that box, and I finished it in bed a few nights ago.
If you haven’t heard of Orlando Figes, he’s a bit of a Russian history juggernaut. JSMW is his latest book, and it is based on an archive of letters housed in a Moscow museum between Lev and Svetlana, a Muscovite couple, both science students in their early 20s at the outbreak of WWII. Lev joins the Red Army, is captured by the Germans and, when he finally gets back to Russia, is accused (falsely) of being a collaborator and sent to a gulag. Svetlana, or Sveta as she’s mostly called, is still in Moscow, working as a scientific researcher and caring for her mother and father. Between 1946 and 1954, they wrote around 2,000 letters to each other – around twice a week for eight years. The letters, as Figes points out in the prologue, are remarkable not just because of how many there are, but because they are uncensored – they were hardly ever sent by post, always smuggled in and out of Pechora, the labour camp where Lev was imprisoned, by friends. Figes reckons that Lev’s letters might be the only major contemporary record of daily life in the gulag that will ever be found – there are other memoirs, but not on the level of this vast amount of uncensored material written during imprisonment. JSMW is the tale of Lev and Sveta’s ‘love and survival’, using these immense cache of letters as a documentary base.
Obviously, the history student in me loved the very idea of this book – an untapped primary source as rich in detail and with as compelling a backstory as these? Right up my street. I have a particular fondness for love through letters – my parents used to write to each other when they were young and my dad was at sea. But the story-lover in me relished this book as well. In case you’re wondering, the entire book isn’t entirely made up of letters – Figes weaves Lev and Sveta’s narrative through reference to the letters but also through interviews with them and their families and friends, as well as archives and the narratives of other inmates of Pechora. It’s very skilfully done, striking a delicate balance between novel and historical monograph – the story-telling flows without compromising the truth of what actually happened. It doesn’t assume too much knowledge about 20th century Russian history from the reader – which is helpful, because that’s definitely not one of my areas of expertise. But at the same time, Figes gives you a sense of the bigger picture – I guess it would be easy, focusing in on one little love story between two small, unimportant people, to lose any idea of the world that they lived in, the politics and culture that surrounded them and how that informed what they talked about and how they expressed themselves, but Figes gives you just enough of that to give you a real sense of time and place.
The letters themselves – and there are nevertheless quite a lot of them – are something else, I think. For one thing, it struck me while reading this how unlikely it is for people to ever write like Lev and Sveta did to each other again. No one writes letters anymore, really, not handwritten ones. People write emails, they text, they call, they send Facebook messages or tweets. My friends and I have written to each other since some of us have been at university, but that’s tailed off a bit this year just because we’ve all got crazy busy. So the great thing about Lev and Sveta’s letters, is that they really are a proper conversation between them, because they are the only way they can communicate with each other – their voices are strong and distinct in their letter-writing in a way I think few of us could muster now, full of interjections and changes of subject just as when people are face to face. In their day-to-day letters, too, the couple face the difficulty that we with our modern technology very rarely have to face – the over-lapping of letters, the not knowing if someone has got your last letter or not, or multiple letters arriving at once or in the wrong order, all of which make sustaining a conversation difficult. They also don’t have a copy in their “Saved Messages” – so when you’ve written hundreds of letters to each other, it must be hard to remember if you’ve told someone something already or not! But despite these logistical problems – and these quite apart from the fact they’re separated by hundreds of miles! – Sveta and Lev communicate in a deeper, more confessional and more intimate way than most conversations with voices.
The story itself, of their relationship and their enduring love for each other, is a pretty extraordinary thing. But don’t think for a second that it’s soppy, clichéd, mushy stuff in these letters – not a bit of it! They live in Soviet Russia, Lev’s in a Gulag, they see each other once a year for a couple of hours if they’re lucky – there’s no room for any of that. The subtitle of the book is “a true story of love and survival in the Gulag” – and it’s true, the book is as much about survival as it is about love. Lev struggles to stay alive and sane and hopeful in his confinement, and Sveta struggles against the lonliness and strain of her life in Moscow without Lev, and her recurrent clinical depression. They also get angry with each other in these letters, have arguments even. But in amongst it all, there are some breathtakingly beautiful expressions of love. Sveta is more restrained, but Lev gets very lyrical at times – so I’ll finish this post with one of my favourites, a letter he writes after a rare, dangerous and illegal but precious visit from Sveta:
You are everywhere with me. If something lovely comes to mind – a melody, or a piece of Pushkin or Burns or a painting – I think of you and see you, your face and eyes and I feel easier remembering your smile. I don’t know whether it’s good that I write to you about this – I would write for myself and not for you, but I can’t not write. Sveta, my Svet, my dear Sveta. When I hear a melody I know you like, it seems I’m listening to it with you and I grow calmer, more able to bear things. I become kinder to people. My Sveta, how wonderful it is that there is you, that always and in everything – in poetry, or prose, in music, or even in my circuit diagrams – I see only you.
Hello. Happy new year! It’s been months since my last post. Since we last saw each other, this blog and I, I’ve powered through my first term of my third year of uni, lolled around eating chocolate and watching telly (and doing a bit of revision!) for four weeks of Christmas holidays, and come back for my second term. As you can probably imagine, the reason I haven’t posted is because last term’s work load got pretty intense. In fact, I spent a couple of weeks in the middle of November feeling distinctly overwhelmed. But having recharged my batteries at home, I’m back for more.
I’ve been missing blogging, actually – I’ve missed rambling on about books in my own little corner of the web; but if I’m honest, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve finished a book to be able to talk about it on here! I think I only read 2 books (not course-related) from start to finish in the whole of last term, and didn’t get a chance to write about them because I was writing other things, like essays about Hindu-Muslim relations in India, or about Polish ghettos during WWII. I even stopped coming onto WordPress and reading the wonderful blogs that I have found and loved over my time here so far, because looking at other people’s blogs made me feel bad about this one! But as you can see if you’re a returning visitor, I’ve had a bit of a revamp around here, and my new year’s resolution is to read more, and blog more (hey, I didn’t even realise that was my resolution until I just wrote it right now!).
So here’s the deal. I’ll just give you an update on what’s been going on over the last couple of months, and then I’ll do a separate post for my first book of 2013. OK? OK.