Sunday, 30 December 2012

Not a biography

Echenoz's book about Emil Zapotek is called Courir in French and Running in English, with the subtitle Un roman - A novel, published in 2008 by Editions de Minuit, Linda Coverdale's translation appearing a year later under the imprint of The New Press.

It is the story of Zapotek and of Czechslovakia and its people, during a difficult time. Emil Zapotek loved running and loved his country. He was the fastest man on earth (long-distance) for some 6 years or so, winning many Olympic medals. Gentle Emil often smiled and found it hard to say No to people's requests. He saw himself as an ordinary man and remained matter of fact and humble despite his success, becoming a most loved figure in Czechoslovakia.

Like most people of my generation, I recognise the name Zapotek from my childhood. He was world-famous. The Czechs seem to have the rare ability to produce wonderful people, and to recognise and honour them. I am thinking of another Czech hero, Vaclav Havel. Apart from that, I am not very knowledgeable about the Czechs.

When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in the 50s, and put a stop to the Prague Spring (this was Dubcek's time), Zapotek, then in his forties, spoke up at a protest rally and said that the URSS should be boycotted at the Olympics in Mexico (I remember that happening). He was stripped of his rank as a colonel in the Czech army, lost his job, was banished from Prague and sent to work in a dangerously radioactive mine. After he had been there for some six years, the apparatchiks thought it would be a good idea to humiliate him by giving him work as a garbage collector in Prague. 

The crew he was assigned to refused to let him handle the garbage, and he simply ran behind the truck, while the people hung out of the windows applauding him and bringing the garbage to the truck themselves, so that in the end the authorities recognised their failure and made him a filing clerk somewhere obscure...He had a loving wife called Dana. During the time in the mine he managed to escape three times to visit her in Prague.

This is a story about a person who existed, yet Echenoz describes it as a novel. There is no reference to his sources. He has chosen to leave out many things. There are no years/dates, no listing of the times Zapotek achieved, no clear description of his training method - we learn that the next person to finish a race took 20 minutes longer, or that he was the first man to run 20 km in under an hour...Echenoz calls him Emil - the name Zapotek only occurs 3 times in the entire book, the first time on p. 80 (out of 122). The other names are his wife's, those of a few other runners, and of a couple of statesmen. Also: no quotation marks for speech. There isn't much speech anyway.
The story unfolds chronologically, with few flashbacks. The language tends to be calm, moderate. The words everybody, everywhere are used often - the word everyman seems to be waiting in the wings. This is how good an ordinary human being can be.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


An almost-centenarian of my acquaintance very much enjoyed Mrs Queen Takes the Train, by William Kuhn (Allen & Unwin, 2012). Mr. Kuhn is a journalist and has no fear of cliches. The dialogue is often wooden and one can almost hear him giggle as he writes the predictable repartee between gay characters.

That is the book's main drawback - the way it is written. The story is funny and entertaining, as long as you like reading about royalty and don't expect anyone to behave realistically. I read the edition for sale in Australia, and the jacket is as cheerful as the rest of it. I finished it in one sitting and enjoyed myself. I liked the queen's foray into yoga, a good idea. 

I double-checked and found via the web that Paxton & Whitfield 'since 1797' do exist, and on Jermyn St too. They have a well-developed web-site which makes no mention of this book anywhere - a lack of whimsy on their part. They will benefit enormously from the publicity, even though the cheese in the book is bought for a cheese-loving horse. The horse, after all, has been named Elizabeth and is stabled at the palace.

Oh, and the Duke of Edinburgh has been left out of the story. It is a mystery.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Proust on friendship

Back to Proust. I am reading A La Recherche - about to finish Volume 3, Le Cote de Guermantes.

Joseph Epstein has written a moving review of M. Proust's Library, by Anka Muhlstein, published in the Wall Street Journal. I have not read this book, yet.

There is mention of a 1905 essay by Proust entitled On reading, which I shall try to get hold of . Here is what Ms. Muhlstein says about it, according to Epstein:
" Proust's freeing himself to write his great novel, he quoted Descartes: "The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated of men of past centuries who have been their authors." Proust's examination of "the original psychological act called reading," that "noblest of distractions," holds that books are superior to conversation, which "dissipates immediately." A book, he felt, is "a friendship . . . and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving." Books are actually better than friends, Proust thought, because you turn to them only when you truly desire their company and can ignore them when you wish, neither of which is true of a friend..."

The final paragraph of the review includes the following description of Proust, which corresponds exactly to my own dawning realisation:
"...No other modern author was more alive than he to the toll taken by snobbery, cruelty, brutishness; none so exalted kindness, loftiness of spirit, sweetness of character, the kind and generous heart..."

However clear-sighted he is, and conscious of people's foibles, he is never less than kind and compassionate in his writing about them. Also very funny.

The rest of the review is worth reading too.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Pleasant characters

I re-read Margery Allingham's Coroner's Pidgin (first published by William Heineman in 1945, more recently by Penguin).  It's an Albert Campion 'thriller' - the quotation marks are there because I didn't thrill.  It is a period piece which brings back my teenage years, when I was first allowed to read her books, supposedly for 'grown-ups'. The writing itself is excellent, but the story is twee.

Her story includes a description of war-time London, in ways which can be unexpected: London's "thin, war-time traffic", someone leaning back on the taxi's leather seat, ARP personnel "on duty in the square" keeping pigs there, and calling them 'old girl', a soldier finding himself "living in two worlds which were utterly different" - the civilian and the military, familiar landmarks vanishing - "avenues of neatly tidied nothingness".

Returning the book to the shelf, I found another of her books, Tiger in the Smoke, written in 1952. Again, Albert Campion plays a role, and so does Canon Avril, a wise and kind excentric. There is a cute warning, printed as a small block in italics in the middle of the page preceding the table of contents:

Only the most pleasant characters                                                              in this book are portraits of living                                                                   people and the events here recorded                                                             unfortunately never took place.

The characters' behavioural cliches made me cringe at times, but I remained compulsively involved right  to the end.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

'Madam Idiotina of the Highest Order'

Read Vivienne Plumb's The Diary as a Positive in Female Adult Behaviour (1999, Headworx), a small mysterious book.

As well as being mysterious, it is very well written: on p. 10, the story teller - diary writer - sees

"...the Cakeman's bubblegum pink van. It was the pink of sticking plasters or like those baby girl clothes they sell in those baby clothing shops that close down and get turned into burger bars...".

Then she writes:

" The Cakeman was parked opposite the 24-Hour Shop and he was delivering chocolate lamingtons, frosted finger buns, brandy snaps, sticky jam donuts, and thick wedges of oozing custard squares.

The sliding rear doors of the van were open and inside I could see the Cakeman himself, a small man in bermuda shorts with his arms full of apricot pies. I asked him if I could buy a donut and he agreed and invited me into the van.

In the soft cakey dark the Cakeman's long socked leg brushed against mine as he handed me the donut. The jam gleamed evilly from the centre, an evil ruby pirate eye winking and glinting, aye, aye, eat me why don't you, aye, why don't you eat three of me in one go?"

I have noticed that Plumb generally avoids capital letters - she writes 'friday'  - which makes Cakeman's capital C salient. He is delivering unhealthy sickly sweet food from the van's dark hole. Even though he is only 'a small man in bermuda shorts', one feels that he is a being with some awful power, there is a sense of danger when he 'invites her into the van'. Innocence perverted by male power. There is a soft darkness and a long leg brushing against her (Yuk!). The donut gleams evilly - there! now it is said outright, he is evil. He tries to draw her into into an 'in-depth philosophical debate'.

My other favourite bit is at the end of the book, when she reports behaving particularly stupidly under the influence of  sexual desire:
"I am a fool.
I know I am a fool.
I am Madam Idiotina of the Highest Order."

That delighted me, it is the kind of things teenagers say to each other and to themselves. A funny dialogue develops between the different parts of herself - MADAM IDIOTINA and the OTHER PERSONA, GENERALLY IGNORED. I laughed out loud.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A bow to Semadar Megged

The Rabbi's Daughter by Reva Mann (2007)  - an unpleasant read. Too much sex told too vividly: the main character is young and desperate and continuously makes decisions based on a desire to escape from her loneliness, and I found I had little patience for her desperation, though I finished the book to see what happens, because I am a compulsive finisher. The Jewish Orthodox lifestyle rang true as described there. It was interesting to find out what their rules are for sex. Less stringent than I'd heard.

On the other hand, I read Enrique Vila-Matas' Never any End to Paris, which he wrote in Spanish in 2003 and which was translated by Anne McLean in 2011 (New Directions Publishing). It is very well translated, in the sense that it is fluent and one does not feel any obstacle between oneself and the author's thoughts:  the style is limpid. Reading Vila-Matas reminds me of when I first plugged earphones into my ears and listened to someone speaking: the voice seemed to exist in my head as if there was nothing between my ears except the words passing through, like a beam of light in the dark.

I liked the cover and all that it hints at: this is the second time I've come across a cover by Semadar Megged, and I think she does it intelligently; it is a pleasure to wonder about what she has done and why, though the poor translator deserves a bigger font here.

I want to read this book a second time because it is so rich. I want to understand as much as possible what is in there. Vila-Matas mentions Hemingways' iceberg theory of the short story: never tell what is most important. He writes ironically about irony, and my feeling is that Hemingway - who is a major figure in the book - Hemingway took himself immensely seriously.

The book contains other strong presences: the city of Paris, with its cafes and grey streets, Marguerite Duras who lets Vila-Matas live in her garret, his best friend Raul Escari, and all the other famous people who lived in the garret before him.

All of this divided into 113 sections in lengths varying from several pages to short paragraphs. Why 113, I wonder? All I know is that it is a prime number the three cifers of which can be permutated to form two other prime numbers, 131 and 311...

Monday, 5 November 2012


From Bodil Malmsten's blog Finistere - translated from Swedish with the help of Google Translate:

Mitt Romney, tax evader, presidential candidate
Vanity Fair August 2012

Sweden is not the United States. This is not America, but still. The money, all Mitt Romney's money, his personal money, private equity, how much money banks and big companies donate to Mitt Romney's campaign; how we think when we think about money, whether we consider the distribution of money, how we think about taxes, how we think about having and not having, how we think about money - this is not about Mitt Romney, the elections in the US - this concerns everyone everywhere, every day.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

About not doing and driving

I can't get myself into what I want to do.
When I was translating, I was consumed by it, ran from my bed to the computer every morning, forgot to eat.
I have several things on the go right now, besides the neglected garden, which will remain neglected because it is last on the list.
I have to finish the form to renew my driver licence - realised after 30 years in this country that the local name is driver licence, not drivers' licence. A licence to drive, it is mine, but the name means that the fact that it is mine is not the point. Maybe it should be called a driving licence.

I want to :

translate from German an anti-Semitic sentence which was carefully painted in Gothic script on the wall of a house in Bavaria in 1934, richly illustrated, full colour.


painstakingly insert corrections into a translation and publish it.

translate more stuff.

Instead, I have spent the last hour or so reading Bodil Malmsten's website, translating from Swedish with Google translate, a muddled affair. I almost wrote 'with the help of Google Translate', but sometimes I feel it is 'in spite of'. I mustn't, because without GT, I couldn't read her at all. Only a little of her work is translated to English, just the wonderful The Price of Water in Finistere. Very sad.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Willa Cather and her name

From attending one seminar by creative writing Ph D students at Massey University, a host of new authors or old authors to revisit. I had heard of Willa Cather. This time there was a connection with Eleanor Catton - I can't remember how, except that one of the characters in her award-winning book The Rehearsal (which I read since the seminar) is called Willa. I liked that: both that it is an uncommon name and that it refers to this famous Willa.

Willa Cather wrote My Antonia, which I read, avidly. I made myself turn off the light half-way through - it was after midnight . After two hours spent staring at the ceiling, I resumed reading. Two hours later: still not tired, but made myself switch off, to lie awake for yet another hour. My mind was not whirling, I was neither tense nor stressed, sleep was simply absent. Today will be no good for writing. I blame Willa and the people she wrote about.

The main character is young Jimmy: his parents have been killed off in the first chapter. No explanation is given nor does Jimmy appear to suffer from their absence. He does not miss them or refer to them at any later time. When Antonia's father dies, the shock and loss are visceral, though it is hard to understand - that he was so wonderful and disciplined in many ways, yet could give in to depression and inflict his suicide on his family.

It is a gripping book strongly anchored in a time and a place, among immigrants to America - the old world versus the new. In A.S. Byatt's preface, she writes about Antonia's tremendous energy. (I used to think about this kind of energy as a prerequisite to achievement: as a mother of young children I was tired all the time and felt doomed to fail. The children having grown up, the issue seems more a question of choices, application and timing.) Antonia works very hard her whole life and has many children. She is beginning to show a weakening towards the end, but her physical energy is one of the attributes which has helped her through the difficulties.

It is not, however, what we like most about her. What is attractive about her is that she loves people and she loves life. She is genuine and intelligent and also quite simply, as someone says towards the end, a good person.

Monday, 29 October 2012


Saw The Truth Game: Sex, Lies and the Fourth Estate, a play by Simon Cunliffe - fun enough but a bit predictable - a soap on stage. The media are changing, what will be the fate of traditional newspapers? Meanwhile the lust for sex and power remain the drivers of people's actions today as ever.

However, there were a couple of lines which surprised me and held some truth. (Are they a commonplace to journalists round the world?)
Here they are in approximation:
"What is humanity's deepest urge?"
Which the novice journalist answers tentatively and shyly with "Sex?"
But it was "The urge to make changes to someone else's copy". I took that away to brood upon.

Also saw Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary film by Malik Bendjelloul (despite his Muslim name, hails from Sweden and UK), about US rock musician Rodriguez, and the impact of his music on South Africa in the 60s and 70s. The film is rivetting, heart-rending and uplifting. The story of a bodhisattva.

It won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit at the Sundance Film Festival (couldn't find which year, but fairly recently).

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Many one, many two, many many, lots

Read Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal (Victoria University Press, 2008) all in one go in 24 hours, hard to put down. I should re-read it to find out more about how she does what she does.

I enjoyed the saxophone teacher, her hard nasty thoughts and exchanges with the mothers who come to talk to her for reasons often remote from their daughters' musicality or welfare. I think I'll discover more when I re-read it.

I usually don't have patience for abuse stories - for all kinds of reasons. But here it was well treated - the salacious interest of all parties, the shame the sister experiences, the unpleasant groupiness of the schoolgirls. I liked that the relationship between the man and the girl was real and important to the girl - enough for her to  keep its details private and to continue seeing the man against all odds, even though readers are shown that he is unreliable and weak. Maybe it was all sex. I would like it otherwise, and the author allows the possibility to exist.

I have taken up Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1990) by Patricia Highsmith, on a friends' recommendation. A little every day, some of it might rub off.

Read very quickly George Orwell's War Broadcasts: the facts of the situation are there. Besides a solid description of the London Blitz, it shows the censorship that the so-called Ministry of Information exercised on the BBC - he called it 'the Ministry of Truth' in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the first documented cases of the 'Black is White' phenomenon predominant in advertising today - eg  Buy XX and Save!!

Checked my library card : 8 books out, too many - an arrogance.  (The title of this post is a Terry Pratchett quote, a family favourite).

Friday, 12 October 2012

Proust on sacrifice and the art of editing

Proust on the art of leaving things out: “ en est d'un salon au sens social du mot comme au sens materiel où il suffit de meubles qu'on ne trouve pas jolis mais qu'on laisse comme remplissage et preuve de richesse, pour le rendre affreux. Un tel salon ressemble à un ouvrage où on ne sait pas s'abstenir des phrases qui démontrent du savoir, du brillant, de la facilité. Comme un livre, comme une maison, la qualité d'un salon, ..., a pour pierre angulaire le sacrifice." (Le Côté de Guermantes, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Vol III, p. 415, NRF)

Free translation: " is with a salon in the social sense of the word as well as in the material sense, that it is enough to leave, as padding and proof of wealth, furniture one does not actually like, to make it horrible. Such a salon is like a work where one has not known to abstain from the sentences which demonstrate knowledge, brilliance, ease. Just like a book, like a house, the quality of a salon has sacrifice as its corner stone."

Editing applied to life.

The previous paragraph- and a substantial proportion of the book - is about snobbery, behaviour differences between the strata of society  and the way choices are made as to whom one allows into one's life. Also how desire waxes and wanes - in this case sexual desire for a particular person.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


The end of A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur  is mysterious, and seems like a key to everything I've read before and not understood or not paid enough attention to.

Narrator, grandmother and maid are spending what seems like several summer months at the Grand Hotel in Balbec. Siestas appear to be imposed by the grandmother,  though he comments several times how much he loves spending time on his own, the sweetness of it, and how exhausting it is to spend time with other people whom he always wants to please. He seems to succeed in pleasing very well, in fact something else is going on, because people mostly are attracted to him, desiring his friendship, for instance the painter Elstir - this is unexpected and unexplained.

At the end of the narrator's rest period, Francoise - the devoted family maid - opens the curtains. This is more complicated than one may think, as they have been pinned shut.There was a mention earlier about Francoise and the pins, but at that time it was unexplained. One has to forge ahead trusting that all will become clear. (I of course thought that I'd forgotten something or not read thoroughly enough.)

All along, in this section, Proust writes about the sun - how it slipped past the barrier of curtains, a golden bar on the wall, how it created a pattern on the carpet which he delighted in bathing his naked feet in and then finally when the curtains are fully drawn (open), the world beyond appears as a mummy which has been unwrapped - desemmaillotee - and revealed in its golden-ness. End.

The real world is from the past, dead and golden.

Proust wrote A la Recherche after the death of both his parents. He shut himself up, and wrote. In this book he describes separating from his mother at the railway station, how he wept leaving her. Once arrived in Balbec, he does not mention her again, she is gone from the story and he has adapted to the new circumstances. One understands better why he went 'searching for the lost past', recreating what had been through his writing.

Have picked up a short booklet by Samuel Beckett, Proust (1931, Grove Press) who writes learnedly - to my mind obscurely at times - about Proust, Time, Memory and Habit. Proust writes about habit and Habit, two different experiences. The lower case habit is what enables us to live our lives without acknowledging the fact that we are about to die, or could die at any time - to live as if our lives extended for ever.

Some people I know often make complicated plans for the distant future. The plans may even involve other people. They appear to believe that they are in control.

At the moment of giving birth, I experienced how much the creature of biology I am, not in control of anything at all. You might say, but that was a special moment...Our genetic makeup decides a lot for us. Free will is an illusion - see Sam Harris' recent book of that name.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The home and the heart

Have finished reading James McNeish's Touchstones (Random House, 2012), all in one day.The narrative is framed by his relationship with his father - the last and best photo is of him. The other photos seem to have suffered in the printing, one of them at least is all shadows.

McNeish worries away at the notion of the 'outsider', a leitmotif in his life, as a writer, a New Zealander overseas, or a Pakeha among Maori - though there is Maori in him, too. One stretch of his life was spent removed from the rest of the country, 15 years writing from a sand-spit where he lived with his wife. Asked in a recent interview where home was, he said: "Wherever my wife is".

Writing in a remote place is also the subject of Colm Toibin's latest book of essays, New Ways to Kill your Mother, about how writers achieve the distance from home needed in order to develop their writing. In Brian Moore's case, he left his mother-country, Ireland. The end of his life was spent in an isolated spot on California's coast. Toibin writes: "Imaginatively he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America". The perils of exile, the damage.

This does not apply to McNeish, a New Zealander writing about his own people. But the same theme is in his book - the need to get away,  to meet new people in different countries, to  see oneself and one's culture in as broad a context as possible. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Choosing a name

Anne Tyler wrote The Beginner's Goodbye, about  a man grieving the loss of his wife. That is the basic story. Then are the many particular aspects - the kind of person this man is, the manner of his wife's death, the nature of their relationship - told in a light quiet voice, entirely believable. I enjoyed the reading. And yet, it seems like froth.

I am not sure why. The story is well told, it develops as time goes on, it rings true and it held my interest all the way through. There were no jarring tones. It is a bit like a bed-time story for grown-ups. Nothing too upsetting, nothing too deep. And consummate skill.

I particularly like the names Tyler gives her characters. The neighbour is plain Jim. His wife who matters more is Mary-Clyde. The sister is Nandina. The hero is Aaron.  See what I mean? The title is clever too...Am contrasting this with Emily Perkins' The Forrests - a multitude of people with bland names, too many names...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Deja vu? Deja ecrit?

Anne Korkeakivi has written An Unexpected Guest, and it is hard to put down. Not excellent, but a good read.

I was bothered by something in it, an echo of something else, which resonated while I was reading about the asparagus...The heroine of the story lives in Paris, the wife of a British diplomat. She is preparing a formal dinner which could be a crucial event in her husband's career. Her ally is the cook, who is rather a scary person, given to moods and sensitivities. She might sabotage the whole thing. At least the heroine thinks so.

And then I remembered: this whole scenario is Proust. In A la Recherche, he writes sensually about the long purple-tinted asparagus stalks. There too a gifted cook is at work behind the scenes. She is nasty to those below her in the pecking order, as Mathilde is here.

I am left wondering - I don't have Proust to hand. I don't really mind, am just glad that I found out where the niggle came from.

Another review mentions a similarity to Mrs Dalloway:  that did not ring any bells, except for the fact that it all takes place in one day - no harm in that, a pleasing device.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

An unkind moment

Read The Forrests by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Circus, 2012). Beautifully written, artful, creative.

Children who believe they are neglected. The effect of poverty.

For me, not enough.
I couldn't really care for the characters. Nothing develops very much, except that people grow wiser as they age. Their names are undifferentiated, bland.

There is one aha moment. One.
Maybe I missed something, because some are suggesting it might be a Booker Prize winner.
The style is good enough, for sure.

Maybe I'm just unkind.

Forms of evil

I have read two contrasting books: one was by Jenny Erpenbeck, The Old Child and The Book of Words (two novellas in one book) and the other J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.

I started Coetzee's book last night and read until my eyes closed, woke up early, and plunged straight back into it, with a feeling of relief and pleasure, because I loved the central character so much.

He's the Magistrate (no name) and runs a small outpost, a little town, on the frontier of an Empire. A Secret Service man arrives in the first paragraph and from there it is downhill all the way. What can be done about  paranoia and abuse of power?

Not a depressing book, on the contrary. I loved it.

Jenny Erpenbeck writes very very well, but her book was troublesome.  Finishing the first novella - The Old Child - I felt the need for a shower, to wash off something evil ...The world described reminded me of Elfriede Jelinek's descriptions of Austria - which I could not read for long either. A world lacking kindness, lacking soul. The Child does her best to cope. It is unrelenting.

Both Jelinek and Erpenbeck are Austrian. The friend who lent me this book said that Erpenbeck's second novella, the Book of Words, was troublesome for her...I didn't dare read it.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Pressure of Sunlight Falling

Fiona Pardington is a New Zealand photographer whose work I like. I know of her from two projects: one was a series of large colour photographs of museum store-rooms: stuffed birds, furniture, walls hung with wooden Maori objects - I remember long wooden poles - were they paddles? The efficiency and cleanliness with which they are stored is shown - harmony, a sense of permanence, soothing for the heart.

The later works I saw were part of an exhibition at the City Art Gallery. I attended an introductory evening. We sat on untrustworthy folding chairs, aluminium tubing and white plastic, rows and rows of us. In front, they were talking to us and showing us things. But on the white walls on either side, there hung four big portraits, two on our left and two on our right, FP's work. Their silent presence dominated the event.

The photographs were of live casts (plaster casts): one of a tattooed Maori man's head, and one the head of a Pacific Islands man - I think. (It's hard to remember exactly now that I've seen more in the book.) The photos show the front and the back of their head individually, in black and white. One of the heads was stained dark, photographed against a pale background. The other was pale, I think. The photos were as wide as a door, not as high. The eyes were shut, of course. I spent time looking at them.

They made me very curious. They were real people. I felt as if they might open their eyes and laugh out loud any minute. But the neck ends in a plinth: it wasn't a photo of a real person, the real person was at one remove from what had been photographed. I had to remind myself of this several times.

I saw a book about FP on display at the Central Library sometime later, and took it home. The title is Fiona Pardington: The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Kriselle Baker (Otago University Press, 2011). It includes the photographs and a collection of good articles about them. Fiona P found out as an adult that she is part Maori. One of the heads is of a person who is related to her - she could tell by the moko. I imagine the sense of something coming right when she met him, a sense of completion.  He was stored at the Musee du Quay Branly in Paris. I don't know if he is still there now. They repatriate the real heads; I don't know if they tried to get these back too.

The book includes many photos of casts of heads from a variety of Pacific nations, and they have the dreamy real-life quality I tried to describe above. Except for the photos of Dumont d'Urville's - the French scientist  who had the casts made and took them back to France- and the casts of his family, which are a dirty white on a grey background and look somehow pinched and tight. I couldn't get over the difference. D'Urville must have been a person beyond the norm, an exceptional man,  to carry out the sort of research he did, to convince people to go along with what must have been rather an uncomfortable procedure. That is not how he comes across in the cast. His children look young and innocent, as you'd expect. 

I read several of the articles, which was satisfying. (In particular David Elliot, the curator.) But the one that mattered most was  Kriselle's essay describing FP at work, the care, the immense trouble taken with the lighting...

I checked the photos again and realised that FP had not taken the photos of Dumont D'Urville and his family: they are labelled as coming from the Musee.

I suppose all artifacts are photographed for the record, and the photos of the casts of D'Urville and his children are equivalent to a photo from one of those booths in railway stations where you can get your photo taken in a few minutes.

It turns out that FP chose the title, from a description of what happens to objects in space...I hope I have got all of this right, I have already returned the book to the library and could not check everything. It is a wonderful book.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Slowly reading Shakespeare's Henry V (after seeing the Kenneth Branagh film) and enjoying it - We band of brothers, we happy few...and alternating - this is bedtime reading -  with reading about Shackelton and his last trip to Antartica - (The Endurance, Shackelton's legendary Antarctic expedition, Alfred A. Knopf 1999).

None of my education took place in English, so never studied Shakespeare. I've tried to read him in the past, but only now is my command of English good enough to cope. Here is one word I loved: womby -  we would say something like womb-like nowadays...I search an old dictionary for some of the words I don't know and they are mostly there, whereas more modern words usually don't feature.

Something interesting: Shackelton, who was gifted with great leadership qualities and was mostly revered by his men (except for the grumpy, exceptionally skilled chippy McNish) felt threatened by one man and therefore kept him close to himself: the clever daring photographer Frank Hurley, also endowed with leadership qualities. Shackelton did not trust him. The two other men who helped run the expedition were loyal beyond questioning.The fantastic photos are the originals are Hurley's originals.The story reads easily and fast.

It is very harrowing: I've reached the point where they are in open boats after the ship sank. They had spent many months on an icefloe, sometimes having to watch all night in case it broke up and they were separated from their provisions and their goods. They slept in tents which were very thin, so thin that the wind could blow the cigarette smoke about inside them; they had no waterproof tent liners to lie on, no real protection. They had used igloos before - could they not build them now? The book is by Caroline Alexander and she evokes the atmosphere very well - so well that I've decided not to read the book just before going to sleep.

I lie awake and wonder: how did they arrange the toilets when they were on the floe? People only seem to suffer from sciatica - not diarrhea or digestive upsets, despite the odd food (penguin meat) - and they lie down for long periods because of it. They were together there for so long, what about homosexuality? There were 27 of them, so statistically there should have been 2 or three...

The link between Henry V and Shackelton's expedition is happiness: a strange bird, this happiness, who knows what makes it alight. One man - Lee - wrote in his diary about feeling extremely happy - and is described as a loner. I wonder if being stuck on an icefloe meant that he was at last part of a group even though they used his snoring as a pretext to get him out of one of the tents and make him sleep in the supplies hut...He was acutely aware of the food shortages and so was under no illusions.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

France today a la Houellebecq

Visitors and writing don't mix, despite strenuous efforts. Neither do events like the annual Passover ritual of the Seder. Our household will only tolerate a Humanist Haggadah (a Godless one) and the one I've downloaded for us to use is so limp as to have no impact on readers. T and I immediately set about correcting it with the help of the old Progressive Haggadah, finding the bits that would be acceptable to our atheists and inserting them where we could. Every now and then T would say something which I thought  worth writing down as well, and I think that we might in due course make our own Haggadah, rewrite it at the seder and make something with more oomph and less political correctness. One can be oomphy and still offend no one, there is no need to crawl and creep around.

The discipline of writing was rewarding as managed to do some for my own book which I am pleased with. Today there was no time due to preparations for the Seder. But got home early thinking about writing and managed to squeeze this in.

The author I have been obsessed with over the last four days is Michel Houellebecq, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt for his book, La carte et le territoire (Flammarion, 2010)- published in English as The map and the Territory (translated by Gavin Bowd, Knopf). A review was published in the Canadian Globe and mail which explains the controversy around him well. Houellebecq's reader is given an insight into the way France is now - different from how I remember it from my childhood many years ago. The insights he provides document the status quo, a little as if he were a friend arriving with news he knows I'll want to know.

What kind of thing? That only 10% of the people staying at French tourist hotels are actually French, many of the visitors are Chinese and Russian. The French can no longer afford their own hotels. (P said glumly - I suppose that will be true in the UK as well). That there are areas of Paris where the police dare not go because gangs have taken over. I have heard since that he calls Islam a 'stupid' religion - or was it 'idiotic'? I'd like to read the piece where he says that, to find out why.

Some of the patterns of modern life he describes are familiar, and those ring true, so I am inclined to believe the rest as well. I also very much like his style of writing, which takes the back step, so that you can concentrate on the content or rather listen easily to his light voice telling you a story you want more of.

Am now reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Slow and fast (Farar Straus & Giroux, 2011). A thick tome, reads marvelously - no effort involved, though one is aware of being shown things and being made to think.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

On religion

Finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (Free Press, 2008) and couldn't sleep afterwards. Not because of the description of brutal genital mutilation in an early chapter.

What particularly stayed with me was the clear-sighted description of life in Europe, from the point of view of a newly-arrived Muslim person. I believe that Holland is a particularly advanced and open society (having lived and worked there for six years). She witnesses the mostly calm and measured way in which ordinary people air their differences and resolve them. In her experience until then, hierarchy enforced its wishes violently - her mother for instance beat her and her sister relentlessly. People - women in particular - seemed powerless to effect any change in their lives.

There is a beautiful moment when she refuses to marry a man and her statement to a Court that it is her soul which refuses the union, is unexpectedly respected by a senior Muslim man - what an amazing liberation this must have been for her. This official reappears later, and again acts in a beneficial way - and he is unique in the narrative, the single Muslim person capable of ethical, thoughtful conduct. I am sure he is not in fact the only one, but there does not seem to exist any education or modelling within the ambit of most people around Ayaan at the time she lived in Muslim countries which would enable them to grow into such a person. Her mother for instance does not cope with life: she is tormented and explosive.

Ayaan documents her slow move away from Islam. It happens little by little, and the book portrays it most believably. Having finished reading it, I thought about Islam and how dangerous extremism is, and then realised - as if it was an entirely new thought - that this was true of all religions.

I felt as if I'd been led by the hand and given an education. It is not that I haven't thought about this often - it is a topic of frequent discussion in our home. But here I had reached a clear conclusion. It is a very good book. She is an impressive woman.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Getting it wrong

Something to think about - my son just sent it to me. It is  read out by the author here.

Another sense of an ending,
(after Julian Barnes)

by Sam Gwynn
(born 1948)

It's pestered you for years and years,
Your private little worrywart
Like something buzzing in your ears,
Some static-tattered last report
From someone in the pockmarked fort
You'd never trusted all along--
The shitty, sentimental sort.
Suppose you got the whole thing wrong.

It's aggravating, like the lead
--Eberhard Faber, #2--
You'll carry (till you're done and dead!)
In your left palm. It's part of you.
It fits you like a worn-out shoe;
It's part of what you bring along:
Your baggage, and you think it's true.
Suppose you got the whole thing wrong.

Suppose the words were insincere.
Suppose you never got the joke.
Suppose you really were veneer
But sold yourself as vintage oak.
Suppose you suddenly awoke
To hear the real words of the song.
Suppose you spoke but never spoke.

Suppose you got the whole thing wrong.

In short, the short is what you are,
And short is always less than long,
And near is never more than far.
Suppose you got the whole thing wrong.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The End of the Land?

I've read David Grossman in the past - not always easily: literature, not entertainment.

Again a book about ending, about life and death.

I was given his latest book,To The End of the Land, in a small paperback edition, with a flowery cover, poppies, I think, a cheerful red. Then I spotted the book elsewhere, in the Jonathan Cape edition. It is larger, easier to read. On the black and white cover, a deep window-less aperture in a stone wall - an abandoned Arab house on the Golan Heights ? - frames the small silhouettes of a couple, a man and a woman, seen against a white sky. I bought that book, traded the other one in.

I can understand the flowers, but not forgive them. I noticed the same kitchiness on the cover of Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness: the copy I'd bought showed a young boy reclining in a field with a book, in a golden glow. As if the illustrator had been told - 'Reminiscences of boyhood' - and nothing else. Friends owned a hard-cover version by a different publisher, with a dull photo of a young boy walking by peeling walls in a city, the photo carrying a sense of menace. Much better. My copy has disappeared, someone has not returned it - I don't mind. As time passed, it offended me more and more.

In this book, the wild flowers are described exactly as the couple wander through the Galilee - the way an Israeli nature-lover would describe them. Of course the woman is a nature-lover, as well as being in Flight from a Message - (the Hebrew title).

I once worked with a client like this woman: from a war-torn country, she had somehow been exported here as a refugee, her two daughters remaining behind with her husband and his second wife. She was as they say, 'beside herself' with worry about the girls, spent her days in ceaseless walking over the hills around our town, tortured by terror about their fate, irritable and angry. In this book, Ora feels she has to leave in order to avoid/to prevent the death of her younger son. (My clients' daughters arrived safely after many months of anguish).

I've read several reviews of this book - one by a Patricia somebody, is a litany of complaints because she does not understand the culture in which the author is writing. Indeed for a non-Israeli, some work will be required - but then, Wikipedia is at your fingertips and most of the code words - names of villages, names of people - will be listed. For anyone with an Israeli connection, this book is very clear.

For those who carry Israel in their heart, the book is also painful. For I believe that when he calls it To The End of the Land, the author is showing how this may lead to the end of the dream - can Israel survive these losses?

Despite visiting Israel recently, I find that I now understood Israeli reality differently. For instance, why my brother-in-law was not keen to eat in a restaurant. The atmosphere of fear generated by suicide bombers. The soldiers' pitilessness. The Arabs' hatred. The desperate, frantic way many people live.

Some reviewers say that Ora's life appears overly narrow; I would disagree: this is what happens in moments of crisis - the only people who matter are those to whom you are very close.

Grossman does a wonderful job portraying Ora's feelings, though maybe he does go on for a little too long. The writer Avram comes to life - Ora's husband Ilan less so. There are moments which remain in the mind - the four-year old who learns about meat, the Palestinians in the school at night, and the scenes on the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. I admire the way he unwraps the story little by little, giving hints and clues and allowing links to emerge gradually, as in real life. It is satisfying to experience.

I think that this book will endure and gain weight, as time goes on and its prophetic voice emerges more strongly.

David Grossman speaks about this book here.