Let’s hear it for the blurb writer

Apologies – to the three people who actually follow this blog – for the long silence. I have been dwelling in that intellectual desert, Hong Kong. Now some people will criticise that statement on the grounds that there is probably a great deal of intellectual endeavor going on in that place – just that it is taking place in another language. Quite right too. I consider the wrist slapped. So I will fall back on the existential, only-talking-from-my-own-extremely-limited-personal-perspective, position.

Now, for those who don’t know me, I used to live in Hong Kong and I have many connections to the place – I was brought up there, lived many happy years there, married there, founded charities there, wrote books there, brought up 2 children there, walked along hillside tracks there and all in all treasure these memories. But this time I went back after 5 years and …felt completely disconnected from the place. The words that come to mind are remorseless and relentless. There is a constant battle with surging humanity – a lot of it mainland in origin. Believe me there are going to be ructions in Hong Kong – serious ructions (in the form of demonstrations, even riots) – so it will be a long time before I go back. The great thing about the trip was falling into old conversations frictionlessly with old friends as if I had been away a week rather than 5 years. So it was an extraordinary pleasure for me – on my return – to stand in the street not far from here and savour the solitude of the place. This is something you can never feel in Hong Kong. There is nowhere you can escape to – nowhere urban – where you can feel so wonderfully alone. I’m sure that will pall but it was a great pleasure.

A pleasure too to browse the book racks again. I discovered a new writer – Walker Percy, a Louisiana doctor turned novelist. There were four of his books in the racks (the good thing about this second hand world is that collections sometimes stay together) – here we had the leavings from the table of someone who had once enjoyed Walker Percy. I bought two of the books on the grounds that they might be good (to buy all four smacked too much of an investment). However, 100 pages into the first of these books – The Thanatos Syndrome – I was excited enough to rush out to get the other two – but then the second half of the book did not quite live up to the promise of the first – was it a thriller, a social commentary or black humour or what? Anyway, he writes well,and thoughtfully, about the Louisiana folk heritage – and he’s Catholic so we can’t ever quite escape the philosophical excursions into the murky swamps of guilt and sin. He was certainly well reviewed as a leading American writer (who wasn’t that well known) – Here is the Amazon summary bio:

Walker Percy (1916-1990) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he was the oldest of three brothers in an established Southern family that contained both a Civil War hero and a U.S. senator. Acclaimed for his poetic style and moving depictions of the alienation of modern American culture, Percy was the bestselling author of six fiction titles–including the classic novel The Moviegoer (1961), winner of the National Book Award–and fifteen works of nonfiction. In 2005, Time magazine named The Moviegoer one of the best English-language books published since 1923.

OK. So I should have known about him, I guess – and so it is a pleasure to make his acquaintance even if I have done so rather tardily.

The point is I could never in a million years bump into a second hand copy of any novel by Walker Percy in the cultural desert of Hong Kong (though some people see it as more of a cultural dessert!)

And then another book rack on another day brought me face to face with Aritha van Herk and her book The Pig Pen. I see from a brief excursion into the ethernet that van Herk is a contemporary Canadian author. I have to say that a novel with the title The Pig Pen doesn’t excite the intellectually questiing juices and I left the book there. This was despite a sub-title that pulled out all the stops: “One woman. Nine men. The wilderness.” – the back cover talked of passions bubbling to the surface and the book ending in a loud climax. 

I think the blurb writer was Ms van Herk herself – it often is the author who has to do this job – and that she was having a joke. I hadn’t realised – it was a post-modernist joke – and that she was probably laughing as loud as I was. I was screeching with laughter. One day I must buy the book.

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Who runs Britain? Discuss.

OK. It’s been too long since my last post but that can be explained by the tenant who went into a spiral of anger melt-down and clinical paranoia. Yep. It’s all go-go-go at chez-moi. But hopefully he has gone to a better place (and never gets back in contact!)

Anyway, among the many books that have passed my eyes are two books that have the words “Who Runs Britain? Prominently on the front cover. One is the book of that title written by Robert Preston of BBC fame and the other is Friends in High Places by Jeremy Paxman of BBC fame. (the title says it all really). If you didn’t go to a major public school and then on to Oxford or Cambridge well that’s tough – little chance of you progressing in government, law, politics, banking or the BBC. Though your chances of making mega bucks increases sharply (no-one with mega bucks went to these elite establishments, they were too busy making money.

Paxman’s book was written  in 1990 (actually it was published that year and given the obvious sweat that went into it, I think it will have taken him a year or two to do the research. But what do I know? Perhaps he had a bevy of research assistants who did all the reading and left him usable quotes. Whatever the process, the result is a highly readable and very depressing account of how unmeritocratic England was at that time.  However this survey of all the sectors of the establishment does offer a very rounded description set within a fully explained historical context. Five stars for Paxman

Preston’s book starts out well – and urbanely enough – but then descends into a deconstruction of the business deals and financial shenanigans immediately prior to the great melt down of 2008 (the year it was published). Preston does not begin to look at the rest of what is going on in Britain – money is king in his view and everything else is irrelevant. The new serf classes (us) are to be completely over-powered and overshadowed in every way by the mega rich. And Preston seems to think this is reasonable. I note that a recent commentator on the as-we-speak US Elections, rather agrees. He doesn’t think it much matters who wins because  “The guy in the White House is really taking his orders from finance.” – Max Keiser.

Have things changed since Paxman wrote his book? Well, he quotes a civil servant who predicts that by 2016 a third of the senior posts would be held by women. “We’ll see!” snorts Paxman. I thought this was a statistic worth checking so I googled “percentage of women in senior civil service positions” and came up with this:

“As of April 2011, women made up 35.9% of the senior civil service as a whole (compared to 35.6% in Sept 2010). Women in top management positions (at permanent secretary or director level) rose to 29.5%, from 29.2% in September 2010.” – Guardian

So change is occurring and we are a lot more meritocratic than we were in yesteryear.

One other difference between the Paxman book and the Preston was that Paxman’s had the feel of a book that you could settle very comfortably in the armchair and read for an evening or two or even three (but by that time I start getting impatient with any book). The Preston book took me 30 minutes to understand where he was going and another 30 minutes to skid and slide through the remaining pages. Two stars at best.

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While we’re on the subject – the great poet Wilcox

It’s not often that a new poet breaks into my life but I have just discovered the works of E.W Wilcox. Who? You might ask. Ella Wheeler Wilcox (November 5, 1850 – October 30, 1919) and we are not far off the centenary of her death.  She was not a great poet but an amiable one perfectly as capable as Kipling at jerking a tear out of us. I mean look at this – the last two lines could very well have been by Kipling.

It is easy enough to be pleasant,

When life flows by like a song,

But the man worth while is one who will smile,

When everything goes dead wrong.

Of course Kipling is generally derided as a poet and is seen more as a versifier. He is very likely to have been aware of E.W Wilcox and I would argue that these last two lines might have prompted Kipling’s great poem: If, Compare this with these random lines from that poem

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Then you will be a man, my son! 

And certainly Wilcox is not worse than this (also by Kipling):

Cities and Thrones and Powers

 Stand  in Time’s eye,

Almost as long as flowers,

  Which daily die:

And Wilcox has that rare distinction – shared with Shakespeare – of having lines from her poems becoming part of the weft and warp of the fabric of our language

Her most famous lines open her poem “Solitude”:

Laugh and the world laughs with you,

Weep, and you weep alone;

The good old earth must borrow its mirth

But has trouble enough of its own.

But my own interest was caught while I was having a pee in a new friend’s toilet and there in the wall was a poem that caught my fancy – capturing as it does a point that could be usefully translated into Pushtu and Arabic.

So many gods

So many creeds

So many paths that wind and wind

While just the art of being kind

Is all the sad world needs.

I will leave you with that thought to meditate upon.

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Byron on God and other matters

Let me say straight away that I know nothing about Byron except that he had a gammy  leg, swam across somewhere (the Dardenelles?) and died in the Greek civil war at Missolonghi (wherever that is). But looking him up on Wikipedia I found the fascinating detail that one of his forenames was also Byron – the full moniker was Baron George Gordon Byron Byron (or BGGBB for short) – the ‘Gordon’ was his mother’s surname. Curiously there is no mention of the swim on Wikipedia but a lot about his affairs and supposed incest with his half sister. (His father interestingly was Captain “Mad Jack” Byron. Now there’s a moniker to be proud of.) – so why am I talking about Byron? Because for the princely sum ofg £1.20 I got a paperback edition os his ‘selected letters and journals’.

I have dipped into it and he writes with a certain passionate verve and self-possession that it is with a certain shock that I realise that he is only 22 or thereabouts when he starts. I suppose things were different then and you were supposed to be a man from the age of 15 onwards. Of course it also helps if you are a genius, educated, moneyed and…I wanted to say arrogant but there is nothing patronising about his relations with his social inferiors with whom he appears to have got on with in a direct and generous manner; nor will self-confident do. It is the sense that he assumes equality with the very highest. This is not a conscious thing, it is embedded in the bone. Anyway you get the gist of what I am trying to say.

So: here is a gem almost exactly 201 years ago to the day. He is referring to his beliefs in the matter of religion: “I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist, Gentile Pyrrhonian, Zoroastrian than one of the seventy-two villainous sects who are tearing themselves to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other. Talk of Galileeism? Show me the effects – are you better, wiser, kinder by your precepts?… Is there not a Bonze who is not superior to a fox-hunting curate?…I trust that God is not a Jew but the God of all mankind…I do not believe in any revealed religion because no religion is revealed…God would have made his will known without books…had it been His pleasure to ratify any peculiar mode of worship.”

Well quite – and well put.

One feature of the book that I have just noticed is a final section listing his bon mots so that you don’t have to plough through all that damn narrative stuff. Several of these start with the words “I have fallen in love with…” He seems to have done well on the woman front. And then there is the delightfully shocking: “I am all for morality now – and henceforth will confine myself to the strictest adultery.”

So that is one book that has passed before my eyes in recent days. Another that I meant to comment on before is Fred Forsyth’s novel The Afghan. It is of course the usual thriller tripe – but sometimes you have to read these kinds of books as a kind of palate cleanser. Especially after trying to see what the secret was of Fifty Shades of Abysmal Boredom. But although Forsyth’s ending here was utter crap, the rest had the ring of well-researched, very gritty, factual truth.

And then there was Quirkology, the study of everyday lives. How many people does it take to start a Mexican wave at a football match? Professor Richard Wiseman knows. He ‘secretly’ counted how many people wore their baseball hats forward pointing or rear facing. Readable,  and (while some seemed utterly pointless) many of the research projects that he describes were actually rather interesting.


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A good week

Where to start? This afternoon I went into my favourite remainder’s shop (actually the only one I know – but still it would be my favourite even if there were others). This is a serious collection of mainly hardback books for sale from £3.99 and up. I browsed and settled on a book called Does God Hate Women? Which looked at some of the abuses against women perpetuated (of course I mean perpetrated) by people who justify what they do on religious grounds (if ‘abuse’ is the kind of word you can use to talk about men taking 13-year-old girls and stoning them to death for the crime of being raped. Yeah God really hates that kind of thing!). You know where this happened. I don’t have to tell you. OK you all will have come up with different answers – but, you know what? You’re all right. Only the names have been changed. Anyway as I was purchasing the book, the owner just nodded “Know what? I think she hates men as well!”. We have a high level of discourse in my town.

This has been a really good two weeks for buying books. First off, I had just posted my last thoughts on Herman Hesse when I went to my favourite book street stall that’s only there on Saturdays. I don’t know what he does the rest of the week. He surely can’t earn what he needs to live on in one day. Anyway, what is the first thing I see? A box of a dozen books by or about Herman Hesse some of which are exceedingly rare. Clearly a man who treasured Hesse had moved on or passed on or maybe even got married and had to throw out a load of books to appease the woman in his life. How do I know it was a man. Well, you know, Hesse is a male thing. So is being so obsessed you buy up everything you can lay your hands on – including an exchange of letters between Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. Anyway I wasn’t going to lay out whatever would have been necessary to acquire the collection (though my heart grieved because collections are valuable – and this one was going to be cast to the book jackdaws to peck away at.) Anyway I depleted the collection by one book – though I have promised myself to return it. This was a collection of Essays called ‘My Belief’. I thought there might be something here that would help me understand The Glass Bead Game better. There wasn’t. The Essays reveal Hesse to be a man of impeccable liberalism well ahead of his times in his appreciation of the cultures (and particularly the literature) of China and Japan. So, although some of these essays were written 80-90 years ago they actually sound modern (if somewhat banal) – but apart from one essay in 1933 decrying the rise of the Nazis, that’s it. Now, maybe the editor has ignored a body of anti-Nazi essays – though I would have thought that unlikely (far better to depict their man as a thorough-going enemy of the Nazis). What we are left with is a discussion of Klingsor’s Last Summer and Steppenwolf. There is nothing here to disabuse my original impression of a man who simply ignored the Second World War. There is much to support this point of view. In the Glass Bead Game the time of the novel is two centuries in the future and their world was created as a reaction to the awful time when the world was in a mess way back in the mid-20th Century. That’s it. This is in line with Hesse’s theology in which he says that the enlightened man realises he is not responsible for ‘the imperfections of this world, or our own, that we do not govern ourselves but are governed, that above our understanding is God or It whose servants we are and to which we may surrender ourselves.”

So Hesse is likely to have taken the view that the rise of Hitler and the war had nothing to do with him and so he ignored it and got on with his work. And maybe that was the smart, civilised, theologically-acute thing to do. Hesse does comment that his articles continued to get published in Germany under the Nazi regime – so presumably there wasn’t much there to offend them.

Anyway, enough of Hesse.

Among my haul (11 books for £25 (US$40)) was a Vintage collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing, mainly from the New Yorker, among which is his classic essay on Joe Gould. When I saw the book I did not remember the name of the author but I read his article on Joe Gould ( a New York street bum)  some years ago and it stuck in the mind as only the very best writing does. Sadly I bought this book new for £12 – but on the plus side this means  the rest of the books cost me around £1.40 each. Letters from Flaubert; City of Sin – the sex life of the city of London (fascinating); The way of the Sufi: a collection of sufi literature (including such gems as these: “Speed becomes a virtue when it is found in a horse but by itself it has no advantages” and “Is the shepherd there for the flock or the flock for the shepherd?”); along side this was a book by Danny Wallace that I hadn’t read. And as Danny is the nearest thing to a sufi that I know – he is an exponent of the wisdom of innocence. For those who don’t know him he wrote Join Me – in which he asked people to join him – and when they asked “To do what?” he said he didn’t know yet and it wasn’t for him to decide, that would be for the all the people who joined him to decide. His second book – The Yes Man – was made into a film. For a period of time he decided he would say ‘yes’ to every suggestion made to him, without exception. And now there was a third (title: Friends Like These) in which he decided, aged 30, to look up all the close mates he had ever had. Just read the opening chapters but it looks promising – if only because Danny (I’m not usually on first name terms with writers I have never met but in Danny’s case this seems the best way forward) is clearly such a naïve innocent and nice guy to boot.

One thing I noticed while browsing my favourite shop with outside book racks was the number of biographies: Mozart, Tchaikovski, Wilde, Nabakov, Proust (it had the same biography in both English and French!), Flaubert, Kipling, Cromwell and a number of others. The rack was heaving with these fetishistic attempts to possess the lives of writers and musicians. I got a copy of Flaubert’s letters because they were written by Flaubert but I am only interested in the flights of his mind not the drudgery of his life. All lives are forms of drudgery. Does reading about Nabakov’s Russian past help us to enjoy Lolita more? I’m not sure it does. I think it helps some people think they know the man better but all they know is the facts of his life – a very different thing. Don’t get me wrong. Some people live fascinating lives – but very few of these are famous writers or musicians. We don’t read a biography of Mozart because he had an interesting life, we read it because he created great works of music. That’s no different than reading Heat magazine to perve on Jordan’s latest goings on.

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Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

For years I have looked at Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game with a curious sense that this may be ‘difficult’ and beyond me in some esoteric sense. However,  I was recently ambulanced into hospital with a …well, you don’t need to know the details but it involved a racing heart beat. Before leaving home I snatched up the thickest book I could find to keep me occupied.  And so it was that I found myself with three days in bed with nothing else to do but read The Glass Bead Game.

What can I say? Here was Hesse’s masterpiece , cited in his Nobel Prize for Literature (1946). Well, where do I start?

First let’s deal with the difficulty. It’s not. There is a turgid introduction to the main novel that does not explain what the game is – and then it is the simple story of Joseph Knecht who…

First, let’s talk about the context. The real context ie the background against which Hesse was writing was the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hesse had fled to Switzerland where he spent the war years. The Glass Bead Game was published in 1943.

So, naturally, we need to interpret this as a response to his times – so what was the narrative context? Some future time (some centuries into the future) in which a region (of Germany?) had been hived off to become a centre of learning and cultivation – a region to which particularly gifted children were sent where they either made it or were creamed off and sent to the other world – the world of practical endeavours. And in this weird world where learning is cultivated but artistic creation specifically ruled out (Platonic or what?) the ultimate achievement is The Glass Bead Game.

Now this game is a weird sort of game. You don’t play against anyone – though there is some sense that there are winners – or at least people who are good at it and who are therefore admired. There is nothing so crude as a score or a penalty shoot-out. To the extent that one gets a sense of what the game is, it is a masturbatory playing with cultural connections – a sort of mental performance art.

The novel itself is simply the story – the inexorable, unremitting story – of Joseph Knecht who is born, is educated, shows promise, develops, becomes good at the Game, becomes a master of the game – The Magister Ludi – and then… (should I save you days of pain? Why not?) He leaves this world and enters the real world and …. Let’s just say that he has a fatal contact with reality.

And that’s it. What a let down the whole book is. This is Hesse’s commentary on the horrors of Nazism?  How are we to interpret this world in which Joseph Knecht grows? Is it a world that is a valid counter to the real world of Nazism? Not in my book. It is a sterile world. I can only interpret this world as a retreat on Hesse’s part, an averting of the eyes. There is no wisdom here. We keep expecting wisdom (Hesse’s oeuvre – Steppenwolf, Siddhartha – is suggestive of wisdom) but it eludes us – well, let’s keep this real, it eluded me.

What was the point of this alternative world? Perhaps the only point is to say that such a world – a world in which cultural memory is the only value – is a world which on contact with the real world will instantly freeze and die. But does Hesse think this world in which people play games with cultural memory (but are not permitted to add to this culture through the writing of new books, the creation of new musical compositions, the painting of new pictures) – does he think this is a good world? Is it a world that we should try to create. There is no sense of this.

If I were to summarise the book’s message (and Hesse is an author associated with messages) then I would suggest that this book is a work of despair – reality is intolerable but so is the masturbating with culture. The message is that there is no message. There is no hope.

Of course Hesse can write and this book is written with solid stone – but oh dear – it requires the forced vacation of a stay in hospital to keep you reading (why do I keep thinking you will have the same response as me?).

The version I have of the book is the new Vintage paperback edition – and the strange thing is that these normally come with a learned introduction. In this edition there is no such introduction. It would seem that no-one quite knows what to do with this book.

And the other amusing aspect of the book – set centuries in the future – is the failure of Hesse’s technological imagination. People walk from town to town. This is not because cars don’t exist – they simply don’t make an appearance until around the three quarter mark. There is some reference to radio but none to Television or computers (which had not of course been invented in 1943). This is not a book about the future. It is a book about the past – not the historical past but the foetal past of childhood, a past of lakes and streams and innocence.

Here is my summary: This is a book that epitomises Hesse’s failure to confront his times – instead he curls up and whimpers.

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A literary hoax???

One of the delights of the discount book racks is that you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find. Often enough there’s nothing interesting: aged thrillers, sad fantasy epics,  lesbian fiction (should I be focusing only on straight male fiction?), chick-lit. Nothing, that is to say, to detain a thoughtful person. And it was on this assumption that, passing near one of my usual haunts, I thought: “No point.” And I was about to to move on in the direction of the supermarket when another voice said: “Go on. Just have a look!” Thank God I did. I thought at first it was another fantasy epic. but I picked it up anyway, which is how I came to have in my hand one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time.

The City of Light by Jacob D’Ancona, edited and translated by David Selbourne. Or so said the cover. This is (or if you prefer ‘purports to be’ ) the account of a 13th century Italian rabbi who travelled to China for the purpose of trade and to repair his family’s fortunes. He travelled there a few years before Marco Polo.

This is an extraordinarily detailed account of his travels out to the city of Zaitun (now considered to have been Quangzhou (Not Guangzhou which is of course the city formerly known as Canton) where he found himself involved in the debates and intellectual ferment stimulated by the impending arrival of the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan.

Apart from the early travels – in which we learn that there are well established and thriving Jewish communities all along the trade route – including India – the book has a large section that transcribes seemingly verbatim a number of debates. And the interesting thing is how modern these debates sound. Should they defend themselves against the Mongols or open their gates and welcome the attacking armies, thereby hoping to conciliate them and avoid massacres; Should there be unfettered freedom to pursue one’s own interests, or is there a need for taxation, a sanitation system, law and order, someone to help the needy – and so on. These sound like the right-wing Tories and bankers versus the Lib-Dems. As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I have seen the weakness of handing government over to the merchant class – no principles, no back bone – sleazy deal-making is the order of the day.

As I read the book the suspicion did indeed arise in me that this was ‘too good’ to be true – and then, reading the back cover (I usually don’t pay much attention to these blurbs) I saw that I was not alone. “If it is genuine…” says Paul Theroux; “If genuine…” says the Daily Telegraph. No-one wants to be caught praising a book that turns out to be a fraud.

Well, why not just analyse the original manuscript. Surely that will settle the matter. Ahah! Here is the crux of the issue. Mr Selbourne tells the story that he was introduced to the manuscript by an Italian Jewish family who had had it in their possession for centuries. He was allowed to read it and translate it – and indeed publish his translation on one condition: that he did not reveal where the manuscript was nor who owned it.

Well, that has scam written all over it. And yet… Old Italian families and institutions – the libraries of the Vatican spring to mind – must have documents and parchments going back not just centuries but perhaps millennia. It is not entirely incredible. It is indeed perfectly possible.

So what then about the internal evidence. As I read I teetered on the fence. It was really very very good – and there was nothing that gave the game away. So, if we say there was no manuscript and that Mr Selbourne invented this (a suggestion that he vehemently denies –  and has a postscript arguing against the many critics who have said this is not an authentic document) we would have to say that he would have to be an expert in medieval Italian, medieval Hebrew, Jewish religious practices and behaviours, Chinese politics and philosophical thought, medieval European nomenclature for things Arabic, Indian and Chinese and a number of other esoteric subjects. He would also have to be a novelist who eschews modern novelistic conventions and habits. In short, if this is a scam it is a brilliant scam.

However you look at it, this book is a work of strange genius, which must be as if true (in order not to be exposed as a fraud) if it is not actually true.

And it has been a delight (though admittedly a slightly tiresome delight when we get bogged down in the debates) – and while these may seem remarkable for the fact that someone with no Chinese is able to record these in such detail (he did have an educated Chinese translator at hand), it would be no less remarkable to invent such debates – though interestingly Mr Selbourne (who is not known to be a novelist) has written widely on political matters so these discussions are very much to his taste – and the extensive notes show that Mr Selbourne has read very, very widely around the subject. The truth is, if anyone could have faked this convincingly, it would have been Mr Selbourne – nevertheless I am inclined to take his side and say that I accept them as being true. If he faked them he did a bloody good job – good enough to get away with it. Definitely 5 stars*****

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