Week 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?

images

PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci

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Week 101: The Convalescent Reader

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Fallen prey to the New Year Virus, I have spent the last few days coughing and sneezing and staying in bed, huddled in shawls and tissues and proving conclusively that I do not make a good invalid, inclining towards the bored, the tetchy and the Napoleonic. The news has on the whole been as dispiriting as the leaden grey weather – the world already felt a little smaller, sadder and drabber without David Bowie, and then they came and told me about Alan Rickman – and I have had too much time to ponder on mortality and wonder if, after all, there is not as much time left as I had blithely assumed. Time, definitely, to turn to the books by the bed to find some good cheer and quiet encouragement to pull myself together.

The bright side of a post-Christmas virus is that it offers the opportunity to read all those Christmas-present books that you had longed for, hinted heavily for, but so often turn out not to get round to reading once they are actually yours. Not this year: the lovely haul has been read, mulled over, discussed, lent. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From fulfils expectations (it’s by Tim Parks, it’s probably going to be good): a wonderful bringing-together of his blogs for The New York Review of Books (incidentally, if you never have, succumb to one of the endless offers to receive The London Review of Books free for a year; you are unlikely to be disappointed). Parks freewheels through the very fabric and meaning of the stuff we read – it is no coincidence that these meditations were first published on the internet – and for all of us with New Year Resolutions to live up to about what we read, or don’t read, or what we write this year, Where I’m Reading From is pretty much essential groundwork. (For more about New Year resolutions of a bookish kind, by the way, hop over to the Book Club pages of this blog to see what we got up to in January).

Even the less-than-good, encountered from a soothing pile of pillows, herb tea (that it should come to this) and acres of dogs to hand, offer pleasures. It has been good to find that I still have some sort of critical faculty functioning through the fog of flu-like symptoms, as proved by reading Donna Leon’s latest in the long line of Commissario Brunetti novels, Falling in Love. A treat as always to be reunited with this most uxorious of detectives, but the book feels as if it has been put together by formula. What would be impressive from a lesser writer falls far short of Leon’s usual standard, with sketchily-drawn stock characters, some irritatingly dangling loose ends and an ending carved out of solid woodenness.

I cannot tell a lie.  I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan's

I cannot tell a lie. I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan’s

But three to restore my joyful faith in books. Father Christmas, a good egg if ever there were one, came up trumps with Kate Atkinson’s heavily-hinted-for A God in Ruins, forcing me to indulge in a re-read of Life After Life and revel in her master-classes in the art of fiction. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn turns out to be every bit as good as the film-of-the-book, so if you haven’t, do (I have carried on to discover that Nora Webster is every bit as absorbing). And Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane and recommended at the December NorthernReader Book Club, is every bit as delectable as I had hoped.

What next? As this wretched virus at long last starts to pack its bags, I can at least look further than Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. No more the humbling lesson on how to make the sickroom a place of inspiration. Farewell to contemplating the pre-antibiotic world of Betty MacDonald’s fabulous The Plague and I. No need, after all, to start learning the words of Mimi’s farewell aria. I can once again read Keats, the Brontës and Chekhov without a morbid inclination to identify with their every little cough. Time, clearly, for some bracing pull-yourself-together reading, and a heartfelt sense of gratitude at my good fortune to have been born in a very wealthy country in the second half of the twentieth century. It would no doubt be very good for me to read some harrowing tales of unhappy or persecuted lives as an aid to counting my blessings, but I think I might take the softer path and slip back onto the sunlit uplands of life with something cheery. The Wind in the Willows is the ultimate Convalescent Book, at least in the NorthernReader household, although Emma runs it a very close second. Ah, comfort books: this seems as good a place as any to confide in you, now we know each other a little better, that the night before my wedding, sleep eluding me, I read Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. All of it. Make of that what you will.

But here I am this January, restored to health and raring to go on my readerly way. And my treat, my reward, if not for good behaviour exactly then for having come through the porridge-brained phase of ‘flu in which Noddy might pose too much of an intellectual challenge? Well, Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, has just been published to rave reviews. Bliss it is this dawn to be alive. Happy New Year, everyone.WP_20150129_026

Week 98: Books for Birthdays

untitled (15)The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.

Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even.   It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?

untitled (14)Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.

Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.

And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.

Michelangelo-creation-of-adam-index

Week 55: Country Pursuits

realclay4Had you sidled up to me to impart the information, possibly in a whisper, that spending a morning trying to shoot little saucers made of clay out of the sky would be such fun, I just might have looked askance at you. But you would have been right, and I would have been …. less right than usual. Clay shooting is great, not least because it is a precious addition to my little fund of Sports You Can Chat While Doing. Companionable, only madly competitive if you do it in the company of madly competitive people (the very nice Peter Wilson, Olympic gold medallist, for example), and the tiniest bit silly: what could be more fun? My new addiction is fed by Alan Hawkings at Northumberland Clays (that’s what to do when next you are in this neck of the woods sorted, then. You can thank me later).

All this country living had already introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. I think I should tell you that the first time a fishing trip was proposed to me, I did not thrill. Fishing was right up there with golf and bridge as hobbies I hoped I would reach my desired quota of 103 years without ever having experienced. And then Finlay The Ghillie From Heaven showed me how to cast my first fly ….. Now I have a secret nagging doubt. What if I’m …. less right than usual about golf and bridge as well? It is in this reflective frame of mind that I turn to books for guidance

I have three indispensable bedside books for fishing. They are Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots, which I recommended to you in Week 30. Paxman may be famous in legend and song for the worthwhile pursuit of politician-baiting (and pompous-student-deflating on University Challenge), but his heart clearly lies out on the river and his fishing anthology is an abiding pleasure. Walton is one of those Ur-books that are more talked about than read, I suspect, and yet another pretender to the title of the most-reprinted book in the galaxy. The fly-fishing chapters were added by his chum, Charles Cotton, and remain perfectly practical and sound advice. Norman Thelwell’s Compleat Tangler, on the other hand, is probably less useful as a manual, but it is heaven fthelwell 1or those of us who adore his inimitable illustrations of English country life. To be completely honest, his fishing cartoons lag behind his glorious pony pictures – but then, what doesn’t? They have to be the most perfect commentary on the horsey life ever published.

Shooting, and the perils thereof, is covered by Isabel Colegate’s atmospheric The Shooting Party, which has something of the suspenseful atmosphere of LP Hartley’s mesmerising The Go-Between about it. They are both completely successful in evoking the pre-Great War world in which they are set, and both somehow feel as if that world is holding its breath in anticipation of what is to come. Chekhov also wrote a novel called The Shooting Party, which I have not read and truth to tell, had not heard of until I spotted a copy at Barter Books last week. I will immediately get reading, not only in a spirit of topic-based enquiry but because I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘Chekhov was a genius’ society. It is the only novel he ever wrote, and – hurray! – it is a detective story, so I think I am in for a splendid time.

I never could resist a good profile

I never could resist a good profile

The Mitford sisters –or the speakable-of ones, at any rate – proved adept at chronicling country pursuits, both traditional – Lord Redesdale was an indefatigable rider to hounds, courser of hares and bagger of pheasant, partridge and grouse – and less so – the invention of the child-hunt, when foxes were thin on the ground, being one his more notable achievements. He appears as himself, more or less, in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is as good an account as you’ll get of (eccentric, I grant you) country life among the upper classes in the Thirties; and as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s affecting The Pursuit of Love, which, with its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, is howlingly funny as well as tragically sad.

The thought of the Mitford children being pursued by a pack of hounds reminds me of the hound in the red jersey in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The children, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are actually exemplary incomers to the countryside, scampering about out of doors and making their own entertainment – although the bitter truth is probably that, given today’s technology and half a chance, they’d have been stewing indoors glued to a console. Beware romanticising the past, in other words, and always remember that Bobbie and Phyllis were wearing those terribly useful red flannel petticoats because it was bloody cold out of doors.Unlike, I am delighted to report, here. After a brief encounter with Hurricane Bertha, we have pleasingly reverted to our customary glorious weather. Time to get outside. If not with fishing-rod, shotgun or dog-leash in hand, how about with a book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits.  Spotted the film-of-the-book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits. Spotted the film-of-the-book?

Week 43: Woof Woof

 

The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

KatePonders has gone mad and bought a puppy. This means that the NorthernReader household currently comprises three people and three dogs. Some wariness is called for, as the grandmother who began all this by living in Northumberland, and who was the tiniest bit eccentric, had ten dogs. And twenty-four cats. And assorted other wildlife. No surprise, perhaps, that she is still vividly remembered in this part of the world, some thirty years after her death.

So what help, advice, role models and – as if we need any – encouragement can we find in books?

William Brown’s Jumble is a bit of a doggy hero. Clearly possessed of the sort of spirit that would have stood a Battle of Britain pilot in good stead, Jumble follows William fearlessly where other – lesser? wiser? – dogs might have chosen to stand back and let the young master take the hit. For fortitude, faithfulness and valour, Jumble, we salute you. Enid Blyton’s Timmy, by contrast, is a bit of a cipher. Can anyone remember a single thing about him, other than the fact, now that I’ve prodded your memory, that he was a dog and an honorary member of the Famous Five? Like Harpo Marx but without the curls or the musical talent. We’re much, much better off with the dashing Pongo, brave dog-of-action in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

duchessBefore the infant reader makes it to Blyton or Crompton, the delights of Spot – rather pleasingly known in KatePonders’ Welsh childhood as Smot – beckon. How sad we were to see that Eric Hill, Spot’s creator – should that be owner? – died this week.  We loved Mick Inkpen’s charmingly dim Kipper, too (still do, to be honest), and we adored Duchess in Beatrix Potter’s The Pie and the Patty Pan (definite contender for Best Potter Book). Our other great favourite was A Dog Day. It was written by Walter Emanuel, and if he is your relative or specialist subjectcecil_aldin_pudding_sm2, I apologise, but I know nothing about him: the point, really, of A Dog Day is the illustrations, which are by Cecil Aldin and, therefore, perfect. How very much cheerier all these books are than Rudyard Kipling’s Thy Servant a Dog. Being Kipling, it is strikingly written and, once you get used to the voice he finds for Boots the Aberdeen Terrier (times have changed and this might be another candidate for Dorothy Parker’s ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’), engagingly sure-footed (pawed?) on giving us the dog’s perspective. But Kipling takes no prisoners and, be warned, you will howl at the end. It marches in my memory together with a particularly glum book inherited, I think, from previous generations, called Jack & Me. Time is a great healer and I am now hazy on the details, but I am pretty certain that No Good comcaldecottes to the puppy that Me and her brother are given. Oh Lord, yes, and there were Randolph Caldecott’s poignant illustrations for Oliver Goldsmith’s The Mad Dog: was mine, I begin to wonder, a particularly strange childhood?

But are there no dogs for grown-ups? Well, of course there are. Montmorency must head their tribe, a deserved accolade for a chap who ‘put his leg in the jam’ when boating with three men. Bartholomew, the assertive Aberdeen Terrier who stars in several of PG Wodehouse’s peerless books, is pleasingly direct in his dealings with mankind – especially, of course, the male of the species. And I retain a soft spot for Muggs the Airedale, ‘The Dog that Bit People’ fondly memorialised by James Thurber. There are, of course, nice dogs in literature as well, but rather like nice people, they are sadly less kc-reg-english-bull-terrier-pups-51e8385ebdb51memorable than the rapscallions, the ne’er do wells and the biters. Bill Sikes’ Bull’s Eye, far and away my favourite character in Oliver Twist, for example: no-one’s idea of a good dog. Jip, Dora Copperfield’s lap dog, is as irritating as her owner (how hugely unkind Dickens could be). The Pomeranian in Anton Chekhov’s superlative The Lady with the Dog won’t do either: we can concede that it is crucial to the plot, but the wretched animal doesn’t even have a name as far as I can recall, and while offering to bite the man’s hand shows it be quite a good judge of character, it probably, strictly speaking, disqualifies it on the Nice Dog stakes.

Another would-be biter is Flush, Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel. He failed to engage his target, the young Robert Browning, and found himself swept up in the Barrett-Browning romance and whisked off to Italy. A happily-ever-after story, and a true one. Virginia Woolf’s biography, Flush, is too often overlooked, but if you like Woolf – as who could not – both poets (ditto) and cocker spaniels – heart of stone not to, obviously – then a great pleasure awaits you if you happen not have read this yet.

The very nicest dog in literature, it suddenly occurs to me, is Cyril, the canine component of the ensemble cast of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books. It might just be the gold tooth, but I think that it is Cyril’s reasoned philosophical approach to life that wins us over. That, and his pleasing habit of peeing on the command, ‘Turner Prize.’

Vivien Leigh - by Laszlo WillingerAs for the latest addition to the NorthernReader household, at present she appears to be modelling herself more on Slinky in Toy Story than any heroine of literature, although her Vivien Leigh looks suggest she might enjoy reading AEW Mason’s Fire Over England, or of course Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she’s a little older (and hands/paws up anyone who’s actually read it? Really? All I remember of the film is crying out ‘O please, no!’ when the lovely Miss Leigh declared ‘I will go back to Tara’, and I have an uneasy feeling that the book is even longer. Up to you, of course). Oh well, it could be worse: at least she doesn’t seem to be too influenced by Gerald Durrell’s puppies (My Family and Other Animals), who, you will recall, are named Widdle and Puke.

 

PS NorthernReader Walking Book Club news on Walking Book Club page. Hope you can come.

Week 28: Books for Vladimir Putin

bank-bridge-in-st-petersburgI have never been to Russia.  I cannot read Russian.  I do not even know any Russian people.  I am, therefore, completely unqualified to pronounce upon what seems to be a pretty sorry state of affairs at the top there. But we readers form a gloriously democratic community that knows no boundaries and is not disheartened by what it does not yet know.  Books, we readers believe, can enlighten the darkest minds and lift the most troubled hearts.  Here, then, is my gift to you, Lt Col Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man I do not know: a small library of books you might like to read.

I would love it if you would read John Le Carré’s The Complete Smiley and let me know how they strike you from the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. The television version was terrific, if you haven’t time to read all eight books, what with running several countries and all the other calls on your time: or – even better – you could listen to the completely wonderful BBC radio version starring Simon Russell Beale, even though I suspect he isn’t your sort of chap.  And of course I’d be interested to hear your views on Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six and Alan Bennett’s plays about the Cambridge lot: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.  We’ve developed a tendency here over the last twenty or thirty years to romanticise Philby and his chums, but, quite apart from the sheer bloody boys’-games pointlessness of it all, they did directly contribute to an awful lot of deaths, didn’t they?  Of course, you would know, from your time in the KGB, exactly how many: although, as my grandfather said to my mother when she expressed horror at the sheer number of people who died in the concentration camps (before your time but the point holds), ‘How many would have been alright?’

Lucky you, President Putin (you are president at the moment, aren’t you? Again?): you can read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and – best of all – Chekhov without the need for translations.  If you have a spare moment, I would love to hear which is your favourite: Uncle Vanya, perhaps.  Do you see Serebryakov selling his late wife’s estate as progress or treachery?

HvorostovskyI only know your home town, St Petersburg, from books and films.  I suspect that novels set in the Siege of Leningrad – even one as good as Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road – may seem downright impertinent to you, as your family were there and suffered terribly.  Crime and Punishment is set there, of course, and so is the compellingly wonderful Eugene Onegin.  If you haven’t time to re-read Pushkin, listen to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous opera, especially with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the lovely Nuccia Focile as Tatiana.  You’re not going to let the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay stop you from celebrating his music, are you?

It is just possible that you may have Ukraine much on your mind at present.  Have you read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin?  It’s set in Kiev and Misha the penguin is a give-away from the zoo there (at least he didn’t get eaten by the President).  Do read it.  From what I have read about you, Mr Putin, you do not tend to empathise with people who are unhappy or being caused distress.  Perhaps you might find empathising with a penguin a good starting-point on your journey towards kindness.

vladimir-putin-riding-bearWould it be asking too much to suggest that you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Only – just in case you haven’t come across it before – please don’t treat it as a checklist for your prisons.  The idea is that you should read it and weep.  Because I do want you to weep, Mr Putin.  It would be good to have a world leader who was unafraid of compassion and did not think that posing naked to the waist down while dismantling either a Kalashnikov or a bear was manly.  Can I add Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to your list?  Oh, and some Oscar Wilde as well.  He was the chap who said, ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’  But to be honest I’d just like to see you curled up in a corner of the Kremlin reading An Ideal Husband.

The latest in our imortant series of non-gratuitous illustrations

The latest in our important series of non-gratuitous illustrations

You do seem to be a bit troubled by homosexuality, don’t you?  Perhaps reading Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain will at least make you realise you have more in common with America than you thought.  Red-neck Mid-West America, anyway.  Oh, go on, watch the film.  You know you want to (and you can get in some more weeping practice at the loss of the luminous screen presence that was Heath Ledger).  But wouldn’t you – and your fantastic country – be happier if you spent more time worrying about world peace?  So here are some suggestions for books that encourage us to know the human heart rather than discount or despise it.

First – and first on any bookshelf of English books about Russia – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow in 1913, this deft, dryly humorous, sometimes shocking and always perfect short novel captures a world that is shifting, thawing, changing.  Next, the Russophile Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales: you might enjoy Ransome’s own account of the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography as well.  You will know, Mr Putin, that Ransome married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary.  When you are at a loose end, come and visit their grave in the tranquil churchyard at Rusland in his beloved Lake District, and celebrate a truly happy Anglo-Russian union.  Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!  Richard Feynman’s family originated in Russia, so you could proudly claim him as one of your own.  He was wise –Nobel-Prize-winningly so – breath-takingly clever and, even more rarely, funny.  He worked with Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.  Feynman had the brilliance to help develop the atomic bomb, the judgment to agree to work on it to forestall Germany getting there first, and the magnificence of soul to re-evaluate his decision and conclude that he had been wrong.

Aah, changing your mind and your actions: the hallmark of greatness. My final gift to you, Vladimir, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   спокойной ночи и удачи (good night, and good luck).

We are all together on such a small place, after all

We are all together on such a small place, after all

Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.