Posts tagged ‘Kipps’

Jun 17, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 5 – Men-Lizards, Serge and Men in Prison and pathetic women

Books on a shelf Week 5

Last time I left you to carry on reading H. G. Wells’ Kipps. Finished it. Life teaches Kipps some hard lessons, as might be expected of an uncultured ‘little person’ finding fortune smiling down on him, if only briefly. Mrs Kipps’ socialist brother and his wife named their child Master Walt Whitman Pornick who is

a cheerful young gentleman of one and a half, who was given a spoon to hammer on the table with to keep him quiet…

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I really don’t know the reason why but so many books on this shelf have some association with the 1940s – the majority are second-hand but that can’t explain it. Possibly there is no explanation beyond coincidence for the house is choc-a-block with books as I repeatedly explain and they surely can’t all fall into this category – I know they don’t.

First published in Prague in 1936 Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts is a satire on the ruthless exploitation of colonies by European imperial powers. As well as historical examples Čapek was living through a time when this was still very much to the fore – European countries pillaging resources of militarily weaker nations and exploiting native populations for cheap labour. Czechoslovakia was threatened by German chauvinistic nationalism and their was not dissimilar behaviour by Britain (England) and France so the author has plenty material to hand to work from. In War with the Newts he exposes and ridicules the crushing ruthlessness of colonialism and needless to say his novel fell foul of Nazi censorship.

Captain van Toch recognises the value in exploiting Sumatra’s giant newts – for they are intelligent and skilful creatures. All goes to plan for a time but the plan has a flaw – the very intelligence that attracted him to exploit the newts means they are capable of out-smarting  their human enslavers. Like all the best exploited creatures – they rise up against their tyrants.

War with the Newts has a complex and innovative structure and is divided into three books. Book one examines the ‘Strange Behaviour of Captain van Toch’ – a man who casts a cynical eye over his fellow humans – or are they human? This Dutch ship’s captain is savagely racist and xenophobic. When informed the native Bataks are devils, Toch retorts –  

Man, there aren’t any devils. And if there were, they would look like Europeans. That thing must have been some kind of fish or something.

Eventually we discover more about the Men-Lizards from the Pacific Ocean through scientific study and reports written about them which, it is claimed, will not be read by many outside the scientific elite. A case is made for exploiting the newt population similar to all justification used by imperial powers. First overpower through armed superiority then denigrate the native population to create an impression of providing benefits instead of taking advantage of them. The pseudo-science used to justify capitalising on the newts makes up the second book within the novel. The final book introduces the war of the title.

A cleverly constructed piece of fiction that is not so far-fetched as the title may suggest for it is really about European powers in the 1920s and 1930s riven by racism, social divisions and ambitious militarism.  

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Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler is short; a novella. Schnitzler died in 1931, five years before War with the Newts was published. Born in Austria in 1862, Schnitzler’s family name was Zimmermann (as in Bob Dylan’s family name.) He was an author-dramatist who gained a reputation for his openly sexual works – which impressed fellow-Austrian, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. The explicit nature of his writing led to accusations of him being a pornographer – this was certainly the opinion of another fellow-compatriot, Adolf Hitler, who as Germany’s chancellor, dismissed Schnitzler’s books as Jewish filth (not Austrian filth) banned and had them burned.

Dream Story aka Rhapsody was written in 1926. The protagonist, Dr Fridolin, attempts to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies about another man while he puts himself about a bit. If this sounds familiar it may be because Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based on the novella. I haven’t seen the film but understand that Nicole Kidman plays the doctor’s wife as a woman confident of her own sexuality unlike Albertine in the novella who is a bit of an innocent in these matters – impassive as her husband makes love to her – well, has sex with her. You can see how this ties in with Freud’s view of women; women were inferior in all ways to men and men were anatomically superior to women inducing their penis envy. In their dreams.  

At first she gently raised her hand as if to prevent him, but he seized it and held it in his own, both questioning her and pleading with her as he looked up, so she nodded her consent and he began.

She lay there quietly, her hands behind her neck, and remained silent a long time after Fridolin had finished.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for today’s women to be confronted by such obvious misogyny. Women now, as then surely, were not the vulnerable submissive creatures Schnitzler and Freud fantasised about – their women docile as a means to an end. Will I read all 98 ½ pages of the book? I doubt it.

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Victor Serge’s Conquered City is one of a trilogy of novels that includes, Men In Prison and Birth of Our Power. George Orwell described Serge’s writing as –

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle …

Serge’s biographer, Susan Weissman, Professor Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California wrote of him –

Victor Serge is one of the most compelling figures to have emerged from the history of the Soviet Union. A lucid observer and a great writer, his is the story of a course set on hope, a pursuit of truth, dignity and human justice set against some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Forty years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR because his writing was critical of the state, Serge was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported. He travelled to Brussels (where he was born to Russian émigrés who fled Tsarist Russia) then to France. Forever hounded by the communist state he refused to stop criticising it and was constantly slandered as a result. From one persecution to another he also fled the Nazis and his final years were spent in Mexico where he died in 1947 at the age of just 56.

As Victor Livovich Kibalchich he left Brussels for France where as a youth he joined a French anarchist organisation and edited its magazine. He escaped the guillotine in 1912, unlike three of his comrades, but was jailed for five years for his political activities. Briefly in Spain on his release from jail he arrived in the newly established Soviet Union in 1919 where he became acquainted with the American journalist and communist, John Reed. Reed covered the October Revolution in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) and wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World. He died in 1920 of typhus, unable to get medicine because of a blockade against the Bolshevik government. He was thirty-two.

Conquered City is set during the civil war, the Terror that followed the Russian Revolution – terror inflicted by both Reds and Whites in 1919-20. Set in Petrograd in 1919 the story opens on a chilly night with frost clinging to all the familiar statuary and elegant buildings in that city, beautifully described. This is a political novel – how could it not be? – set when and where it is but it is no dour piece of writing. Far from it.  

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? but the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Anderson’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak house tops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store; “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No. 23 on the ration card …” How sad life is without flying carpets!

There is a lecturer whose monotone voice “fell like a fine rain” and who “was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it.”

I am now reading the entire novel.

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Our copy of Birth of Our Power has the feel of a book never opened, far less read, though my other half assures me he has read all three. Let’s take a peek at book two.

As with Conquered City, Birth of Our Power is set during revolutionary upheaval not only in Russia but also in France and Spain and not during the better-known Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 but the brutal period of the barbarous Great War when revolution broke out in Russia and Spain.

Spain entered the twentieth century, after its stunning defeat by the United States in 1898, as a backward, corrupt, priest – and soldier -ridden monarchy.

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

Recent events in Catalonia have demonstrated Spain continues in that tradition of cruel repression of its citizens which can be traced as far back as the Inquisitions that began in the 15th century. Serge’s hope was that eventually Spaniards might be freed from the iron clad fists of governments that tortured and murdered so many of them, if not in the period in which the novel was set then in the near future. I feel he would be sorely disappointed with how that country has turned out.  

The guardia civilis went forth on horseback, in rectangular formations, black on black horses, shoulders square under their black capes, towering over the crowd with their tricornered hats and their stiff heads, as impassable as painted wooden figures. Their vigilant eyes searched into the corners of alleys, into dark doorways, into tightly pressed groups, into anything that might hide deadly aggression, bullet or bomb, the sudden great stride of death over frightened heads towards the tense horsemen riding towards their fate. Theirs, ours!

The Spanish revolt of 1917 ran out of steam but in Russia revolution succeeded, though at a terrible price.

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Finally, Men in Prison – it is 1914 – a political activist has been sentenced to a term in prison where brutality mirrors the savagery of outside society.

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be usefully compared … The truth for Serge was something to be undergone.

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

Though he shared many of their aims, Serge was always wary of the Bolsheviks – of their authoritarianism and openly criticised their abuses. He had friends who suffered terribly under the pitiless hand of the Cheka (the Bolsheviks’ political police) while Serge, himself, was imprisoned, deported and constantly slandered by the Soviet state.

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

Chapters come thick and fast: The Lockup —Yet Life Goes On —Capital Punishment —The Will To Live —The Years —Dying — Surviving —More Deaths —About To Be Discharged —

Three gray straw mattresses on crude cots – gray with filth, spattered with all sorts of stains, stinking of dust, old straw, sleeping animality –The mattresses and the drinking cup are apparently never cleaned. After the first hour, I wanted a drink. I was clumsy enough to shake the jug, and a greenish slime rose to the surface where wisps of straw, odd leaves, hair, bits of threat, and a broken match were floating.

Serge used his own prison experiences to paint his vivid descriptions of life in Soviet jails. He writes so well but the material is by its nature harrowing to read.

This blog post should have been up days ago but one or two passages from Serge’s books stuck in my head though unfortunately not sufficiently to quote him and, of course, I didn’t write them down at the time of reading. There was a comment about hope which struck me as the sort of clever statement I fancied pinching to use on social media. Again, I failed and now am doubting the remark was Serge’s at all. Note to self – always write down references and don’t chuck the scrap of paper into the recycling before reading it again.

Finally on Serge a word about his translator, the American Marxist, Richard Greeman, now 81, whose whole life has been spent in left politics as a writer, lecturer and, of course, translator. He was befriended by Serge’s son, the painter Vlady, an encounter that led to him translating Serge’s novels, including this trilogy.

Finally, finally – I’ve become so fascinated with Serge during this preliminary encounter with him and a his writings that once I finish Conquered City I intend reading Susan Weissman’s biography of the man. People who are brave enough to stand up to rotten regimes deserve attention.

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 4 – MacDiarmid, freedom of speech and watered beer

I’m listening to the elderly Johnny Cash while writing week four’s book selection so forgive me if I get maudlin.

Think I might be stretching credulity to its extreme if I try to link first up author and book, Hugh MacDiarmid and Songschaw, to Cash in any way but that won’t stop me trying. MacDiarmid, a major Scottish poet, made an enormous contribution to Scottish culture while American culture has been enriched by singer-songwriter Cash, a man who had good Fife blood flowing through his veins. And as culture has no barriers so everyone can appreciate both men and their talents.

Enough of this distraction. MacDiarmid might have been an awkward beggar in life but his role in the restoration of Scottish literature from the trough of its inferiority complex cannot be denied though I bear a grudge for his bloody-minded one-time dismissal of Doric, the rich dialect widely spoken in Aberdeenshire and Angus, possibly through his unfamiliarity with it though if my memory serves me correctly he became a good friend of that wonderful poetess, Helen Cruickshank, whose works are written in the Doric – they were near exact contemporaries.

The young Christopher Murray Grieve was bibliophile; his massive head stuffed full of knowledge from the time he was a boy. Political too, the teenager joined the Independent Labour Party and after the Great War in which he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps he married and lived for a time in Angus where, under the pseudonym MacDiarmid, he began to write poetry so lighting the touch paper of a new Scottish literary movement that expressed itself through the language spoken by Scots and not some affected airy-fairy literary construct. Vernacular Scots writing shamed into silence with the Act of Union has not shrunk out of a sense of inadequacy since the 1920s, thanks largely to MacDiarmid.

MacDiarmid’s best works were arguably his early poems, before he grew into an irascible grouch – and masculine. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is masterly in any language in any time – described by Kenneth Buthlay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as –

without quite bursting at the seams, is able to hold all or almost all of MacDiarmid—which is to say that it is crammed full of fine lyrics, satire, flyting, parody, burlesque, occasional verse, Rabelaisian jokes, metaphysical conceits, translations and adaptations, sustained meditations and speculations on philosophical and religious problems, elemental symbols, and allusions recondite and otherwise.

Lallans, the synthetic Scots, most associated with MacDiarmid’s writings was dispensed with towards the end of his life for English although he expressed the view that Scots was a greater medium for descriptive language than English.

Sangschaw he dedicated to his mother. This is from the preface by the author John Buchan.

Once upon a time the Scots vernacular was a national speech, and men like Henryson and Dunbar used it for the highest matters of poetry. But at the Reformation it was rusticated from court and college, and by the eighteenth century it had become a tongue only for familiar conversation, and in literature it was confined strictly to the homlier humours and affections. It was still capable, as Burns showed, of heights and profundities, but its lateral range was narrow . . .

 And Buchan added that MacDiarmid – and Robert Burns – did not confine the language they used in their works to a single dialect but selected words as appropriate from the Doric of Aberdeen in the north and all dialects south the Cheviots.

D. Cleghorn Thomson of The London Mercury wrote this of MacDiarmid in November 1924 –

Mr Hugh MacDiarmid’s little snatch of eight lines, The Bonnie Broukit Bairn is the rarest of things, a poem not to be measured by its length – humour, wit, magic, and revelation mingled as in an April rainbow.

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun

The hail clanjamfrie!

Crammasy – crimson; gowden – golden; wheen o’ blethers – lot of nonsense; broukit – neglected; hail – whole; clanjamfrie – worthless lot.

The poet is looking up into the night sky to Mars, the red planet, green Venus and the golden moon. The broukit bairn is Earth – not considered to be in the same illustrious company as the grander Mars, Venus and Moon yet the poet’s concern is with Earth and not the din coming from the three more acclaimed celestial celebrities. Earth where humanity is found – in us.

MacDiarmid was a Scottish nationalist who longed to live in a Scotland that was better than the place it became after the Union. As with his politics, MacDiarmid’s poetry was filled with certainty. No mere pretty verses satisfied him, they were vehicles for ideas in pursuit of the political and social equality he yearned for.

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Next along is John Milton, Selected Prose. That took the smile off yer faces. Or is that the philistine in me surfacing? Likely, because there’s no argument about Milton’s place as a giant of English literature and immense influence in the development of ideas and behaviour in Britain.

I wasn’t however enthusiastic about this book and less so after a quick read through the flowery introduction by Malcolm W. Wallace, Principal Emeritus at University College, Toronto. I had a bed to change and worldly things to get on with so lost patience with Mr Wallace and went straight to the nitty-gritty – ah, Of Reformation Touching Church-discipline in England and the causes that hitherto have hindered it. It’s complex and anti-semitic? I’m thinking about which sheet to use. Turned to his advocacy of press freedom and freedom of speech, Areopagitica A speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing To the Parliament of England.

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise,

Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace;

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spririt, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

also from Areopagitica which can found above the Main Reading Room of New York Public Library and the work has been frequently referred to in court judgements – including in America restrictions over the rights of members of the US Communist Party to free speech.

The title, Areopagitica is a reference to a speech by the 4th century BC Greek rhetorician,  Isocrates, while Areopagus itself is a hill in Athens formerly used as a court for settling disputes.

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Nestled up along alongside this little World’s Classic volume is its twin from the series of Milton’s work, The English Poems of John Milton.  The dust jacket provided me with a biography of the man – son of a scrivener, born in London and educated at St Paul’s school and Christ’s college, Cambridge. Milton was a pamphleteer – his Areopagitica appeared as a pamphlet when first published in 1644 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (usually abbreviated to the English Civil War.) Milton was a Latin Secretary to Cromwell and arrested at the Restoration (of the monarch.)

A touching piece to his deceased wife took my mind off sheets and pillowcases.

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

He’s best known for Paradise Lost but I’ve selected one or two lines from Death of a Fair infant Dying of a cough

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

I think it’s fair to say, Milton creeps up on you. That said I was hoping the next book wasn’t another of his. It wasn’t but be careful what you wish for.

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The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb is a wee volume packed with all sorts of writing from the English poet and essayist.

First up is The South Sea House followed by a wide range of topics such as Valentine’s Day, The Praise of chimney-Sweepers, a Dissertation upon Roast Pigs and Confessions of a Drunkard.

The South-Sea House is a slow burner and doesn’t get beyond smouldering – for me, at least. Actually, Valentine’s Day isn’t much better though I liked the line

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

And it’s a case of pity the poor postie struggling under the weight of all those Valentine cards

The weary and all forspent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own.

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

I like to meet a sweep – understand me – not a grown sweeper – old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive – but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek – such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young sparrow . . .

Charles does like to go on a bit.

I reverence these young Africans of our own growth – and from their little pulpits [the tops of chimneys], in the nipping air of a December morning, preach a lesson of patience to mankind.

Lamb is amazed at the ability of the home-cultivated Africans to climb a chimney and survive to peep out the top.

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I was fair longing to get down the sheets after sampling the stodge and expansive wordiness of Lamb but my spirits soared on seeing H.G. Wells was his neighbour. That’s more like it.

Kipps – the story of a simple soul

Until he was nearly arrived at manhood, it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he had come into the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other little boys.

Kipps is a grand read. Apparently Wells’ own favourite. Absorbing, funny it demonstrates Wells’ facility for observation of the human condition. He has such an eye for behaviour and the eloquence of his language carries the reader along on a magic carpet of amusement. I’m currently reading the whole thing.  And loving it.

‘Orphan’ – illegitimate Artie (Arthur) Kipps is brought up by an aunt and uncle who run a shop in the south of England. Kipps is educated to a degree below that of anything remotely recognisable as education and subsequently is packed off to learn the trade of draper – when that was a trade and not something intuitively picked up by anyone in off the street.

Kipps is signed up to seven years apprenticeship with Mr Shalford – sufficient time to fill the youth’s head with all that is necessary to know about black elastic, rolls of ribbon and silks – and a type of commercial shorthand that is essential to the drapery trade. But above all Kipps learns servility.

Mr Shalford –

What he put into Kipps was chiefly bread and margarine, infusions of chicory and tea-dust, colonial meat by contract at threepence a pound, potatoes by the sack, and watered beer.

The average late 19th century Briton’s diet to a T.

Not maudlin at all I hope you agree but then lots of different music has passed across my ears since beginning this. Stravinsky’s just packed up and left the CD player and The Doors have stepped up to see this through to the end.

Get vaccinated. Carry out the twice-weekly Covid tests at home – they’re free! Stay safe and keep us all safe.