Tag: memoirs

Women in the Polar Night: Christiane Ritter and Sigri Sandberg

I’m continuing a Nonfiction November focus with reviews of two recently (re-)released memoirs about women spending time in the Arctic north of Norway. I enjoy reading about survival in extreme situations – it’s the best kind of armchair traveling because you don’t have to experience the cold and privation for yourself.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (1938; English text, 1954)

[Translated by Jane Degras]

In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. He’d participated in a scientific expedition and caught the Arctic bug, it seems, for he stayed on to fish and hunt. They shared a small, remote hut with a Norwegian trapper, Karl. Ritter was utterly unprepared for the daily struggle, having expected a year’s cozy retreat: “I could stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content.” Before long she was disabused of her rosy vision. “It’s a ghastly country, I think to myself. Nothing but water, fog, and rain.” The stove failed. Dry goods ran out; they relied on fresh seal meat. Would they get enough vitamins? she worried. Every time Hermann and Karl set off hunting, leaving her alone in the hut, she feared they wouldn’t return. And soon the 132 straight days of darkness set in.

I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. “A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord.” She thought of the Arctic almost as a site of spiritual pilgrimage, where all that isn’t elemental falls away. “Forgotten are all externals; here everything is concerned with simple being.” The year is as if outside of time: she never reminisces about her life back home, and barely mentions their daughter. By the end you see that the experience has changed her: she’ll never fret over trivial things again. She lived to age 103 (only dying in 2000), so clearly the time in the Arctic did her no harm.

Ritter wrote only this one book. A travel classic, it has never been out of print in German but has been for 50 years in the UK. Pushkin Press is reissuing the English text on the 21st with a foreword by Sara Wheeler, a few period photographs and a hand-drawn map by Neil Gower.

My rating:


With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.

Notes: Michelle Paver drew heavily on this book when creating the setting for Dark Matter. (There’s even a bear post outside the Ritters’ hut.)

I found some photos of the Ritters’ hut here.

 

An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg (2019)

[Translated by Siân Mackie]

Ritter’s book is a jumping-off point for Norwegian journalist Sandberg’s investigation of darkness as both a physical fact and a cultural construct. She travels alone from her home in Oslo to her cabin in the mountains at Finse, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Ninety percent of Norway’s wildlife sleeps through the winter, and she often wishes she could hibernate as well. Although she only commits to five days in the far north compared to Ritter’s year, she experiences the same range of emotions, starting with a primitive fear of nature and the dark.

It is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Happy fact. I’m willing to accept this. I try to find it comforting, helpful. But I still struggle to completely believe that darkness does not actually exist. Because what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? And what about the black holes in the universe, what about dark matter, what about the night sky and the threats against it, and … and now I’m exhausted. I’m done for the day. I feel so small, and I’m tired of being afraid.

Over the course of the book she talks to scientists about the human need for sleep and sunshine, discusses solitude and dark sky initiatives, and quotes from a number of poets, especially Jon Fosse, “Norway’s greatest writer,” who often employs metaphors of light and dark: “Deep inside me / … it was like the empty darkness was shining”.

In occasional passages labeled “Christiane” Sandberg also recounts fragments of Ritter’s experiences. I read Sandberg’s book first, so these served as a tantalizing introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night. “Is there anywhere as silent as a white winter plateau on a windless day? And how long can anyone spend alone before they start to feel, like Christiane did, as if their very being is disintegrating?”

This is just the sort of wide-ranging nonfiction I love; it intersperses biographical and autobiographical information with scientific and cultural observations.

[Another recent book, Dark Skies, tries to do a similar thing but is less successful – partially due to the author’s youthful optimism, but also due to the rambly, shallow nature of the writing. (My review will be in the November 29th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)]

My rating:


With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.

 

Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

 

Spitsbergen glacier. Rob Oo [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D.


Do you like reading about polar exploration, or life’s extremes in general?

Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Nonfiction, 2 Super-Short Fiction

Short books; short reviews.

 

Nonfiction:

The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968)

[150 pages]

I learned about this from one of May Sarton’s journals, which shares its concern with ageing and selfhood. The author was an American suffragist, playwright, mother and analytical psychologist who trained under Jung and lived in England and Scotland with her Scottish husband. She kept this notebook while she was 82, partly while recovering from gallbladder surgery. It’s written in short, sometimes aphoristic paragraphs. While I appreciated her thoughts on suffering, developing “hardihood,” the simplicity that comes with giving up many cares and activities, and the impossibility of solving “one’s own incorrigibility,” I found this somewhat rambly and abstract, especially when she goes off on a dated tangent about the equality of the sexes. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)

[143 pages]

“Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.” This resonated with the Extinction Rebellion handbook I reviewed earlier in the year. Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. At first I thought it depressing that 15 years on we’re still dealing with many of the issues she mentions here, and the environmental crisis has only deepened. But her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Lama by Derek Tangye (1966)

[160 pages]

Tangye wrote a series of cozy animal books similar to Doreen Tovey’s. He and his wife Jean ran a flower farm in Cornwall and had a succession of cats, along with donkeys and a Muscovy duck named Boris. After the death of their beloved cat Monty, Jean wanted a kitten for Christmas but Tangye, who considered himself a one-cat man rather than a wholesale cat lover, hesitated. The matter was decided for them when a little black stray started coming round and soon made herself at home. (Her name is a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s safe flight from Tibet.) Mild adventures ensue, such as Lama going down a badger sett and Jeannie convincing herself that she’s identified another stray as Lama’s mother. Pleasant, if slight; I’ll read more by Tangye. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)

 

Fiction:

The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico (1951)

[47 pages]

Like Tangye, Gallico is known for writing charming animal books, but fables rather than memoirs. Set in postwar Assisi, Italy, this stars Pepino, a 10-year-old orphan boy who runs errands with his donkey Violetta to earn his food and board. When Violetta falls ill, he dreads losing not just his livelihood but also his only friend in the world. But the powers that be won’t let him bring her into the local church so that he can pray to St. Francis for her healing. Pepino takes to heart the maxim an American corporal gave him – “don’t take no for an answer” – and takes his suit all the way to the pope. This story of what faith can achieve just manages to avoid being twee. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)

 

Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (2002; English translation by Jay Rubin, 2003)

[42 pages]

Reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet to celebrate the author’s 70th birthday, this is about a waitress who on her 20th birthday is given the unwonted task of taking dinner up to the restaurant owner, who lives above the establishment. He is taken with the young woman and offers to grant her one wish. We never hear exactly what that wish was. It’s now more than 10 years later and she’s recalling the occasion for a friend, who asks her if the wish came true and whether she regrets what she requested. She surveys her current life and says that it remains to be seen whether her wish will be fulfilled; I could only assume that she wished for happiness, which is shifting and subjective. Encountering this in a larger collection would be fine, but it wasn’t particularly worth reading on its own. (Public library)

 

I’ve also had a number of novella DNFs so far this month, alas: Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville (not engaging in the least), By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (fascinating autobiographical backstory; pretentious prose) and The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West (even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him).

Onwards!

 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

Reviews for Shiny New Books & TLS, Plus Simon’s “My Life in Books”

I recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.

 

Shiny New Books

 

Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

These three reviews are forthcoming.

 

The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.

 

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.

 

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.

(See also Susan’s review of this one.)

 

Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.

(See photos of the shed here and here.)

20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell

It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.

 

Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)

If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.

They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.

It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.


Favorite lines:

 “Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”

(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”

 

 

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)

(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.

Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.

There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.

 

 

An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)

This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?

The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”

 

I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.

(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)

 

Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:

  • Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
  • Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
  • Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)

Women in Translation Month 2019, Part I: Ernaux and Poschmann

Two rather different books to start off #WITMonth: a brief (c. 70 pp.) account of a mother’s decline with dementia; and a haiku-inspired novel of the quest for life and death in disorienting modern Japan. Both are admirable but detached – a judgment I seem more likely to make about work in translation – so don’t earn my wholehearted recommendation. My rating for both:

 

I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997; English translation, 1999)

[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]

This is the second short, somewhat harrowing autobiographical work I’ve read by Ernaux this year (after Happening, her account of her abortion, in March). A collection of mostly present-tense fragments, it’s drawn from the journal she kept during her mother’s final years, 1983–6. “I Remain in Darkness” were the last words her mother wrote, in a letter to a friend (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” which more literally means “I have not left my night,” strikes me as cryptic and poetic, though maybe I’m missing a colloquialism). Slipping into Alzheimer’s, her mother spent these years in a long-term hospital geriatric ward. Ernaux could see her mother becoming like a child again:

This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed. I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.

Now her room is on the third floor. A bunch of women circle us, addressing my mother with the familiar tu form: ‘You’re going to be in our group?’ They are like kids talking to the ‘new girl’ at school. When I take leave of her, she looks at me in panic and confusion: ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’

—and herself becoming like her mother: “It’s crystal-clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me – the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck”. Ernaux vacillates between guilt, fear and cruelty in how she approaches her mother. She tenderly shaves the older woman’s face every week when she visits, and buys her all manner of sweets. Food is one of her mother’s last remaining pleasures, though she often misses her mouth when she tries to eat the cakes her daughter brings.

Superficially, this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. But where Barnes is reassuring and even humorous at times, Ernaux refuses to give any comfort, false or otherwise. This hospital is a bleak place that reeks of urine and is hiding excrement everywhere (really). A lazier reviewer than I generally try to be would brandish the word “unflinching.”

The entries from a few days after her mother’s death explain what the author is trying to do with her work, whether memoir or autofiction: “I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that – an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage … I’ll have to tell her story in order to ‘distance myself from it’.” That dual purpose, saving and distancing, makes her work honest yet unemotional, such that I have trouble warming to it.

This is easily read in a sitting. I may try again to get into Ernaux’s novel The Years, which, like the Poschmann (below), was on this past year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist.


I Remain in Darkness will be released on September 18th. With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.

 

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2017; English translation, 2018)

[Translated from the German by Jen Calleja]

(Though I read this mostly in July, I finished it on August 1st, so I’m including it in my WIT Month coverage. It’s the first of the author’s books to be made available in English.)

A man wakes up from a dream convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and sets off for Tokyo on a whim, where he embarks on a Bashō-inspired pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. This Gilbert Silvester, a beard historian, acquires an unlikely companion: a young man named Yosa, who’s looking for the best place to kill himself and takes Gilbert along to cliffs and forests famous for their suicide rates. Although there are still cherry blossoms and kabuki theatre, Gilbert soon learns that this isn’t Bashō’s Japan anymore.

From the haikus he composes and the letters he writes to Mathilda back home, we track his inward journey as it contrasts with the outward ones he undertakes. I enjoyed the surreal touches – Yosa says he once dated a woman who was actually a fox – and the Murakami setup (the wife’s adultery and the hair patterns are reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

Somehow, though, for me this is a book that succeeds more in its ideas (searching for the essence of a place but only finding the clichés; coniferous versus deciduous trees as a metaphor for what lasts in life versus what fades) than in its actual execution. It never all quite comes together, and the inconclusive ending makes you question how much of this has been a dream or a fantasy. It’s ambitious and intellectually impressive, but something about its dignified aloofness is hard to be enthusiastic about.

Do watch Lost in Translation, one of my favorite films, afterwards…

 

And a DNF: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The time has come to admit that I simply do not appreciate Ferrante’s work. I could only make it 25 pages into this one; I’ve read a different short novel of hers (The Lost Daughter), and skimmed another (My Brilliant Friend). While I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, I found that I had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out.

 

Up next for Part II: The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, on its way from Charco Press, and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera.

 

Are you doing any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?

Too Male! (A Few Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books and TLS)

I tend to wear my feminism lightly; you won’t ever hear me railing about the patriarchy or the male gaze. But there have been five reads so far this year that had me shaking my head and muttering, “too male!” While aspects of these books were interesting, the macho attitude or near-complete dearth of women irked me. Two of them I’ve already written about here: Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden was a previous month’s classic and book club selection, while Chip Cheek’s Cape May was part of my reading in America. The other three I reviewed for Shiny New Books or the Times Literary Supplement; I give excerpts below, with links to visit the full reviews in two cases, plus ideas for a book or two by a woman that should help neutralize the bad taste these might leave.

 

Shiny New Books

 

The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle

Boyle lives without electricity in a wooden cabin on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland. He speaks of technology as an addiction and letting go of it as a detoxification process. For him it was a gradual shift that took place at the same time as he was moving away from modern conveniences. The Way Home is split into seasonal sections in which the author’s past and present intermingle. The writing consciously echoes Henry David Thoreau’s. Without even considering the privilege that got Boyle to the point where he could undertake this experiment, though, there are a couple of problems with this particular back-to-nature model. One is that it is a very male enterprise. Another is that Boyle doesn’t really have the literary chops to add much to the canon. Few of us could do what he has done, whether because of medical challenges, a lack of hands-on skills or family commitments. Still, the book is worth engaging with. It forces you to question your reliance on technology and ask whether making life easier is really a valuable goal.

  • The Remedy: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies, which I’m currently reading for a TLS review. Davies crosses Boyle’s Thoreauvian language about solitude and a place in nature with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during the ongoing housing crisis, she moves into the shed near Land’s End that once served as her father’s architecture office and embarks on turning it into a home.

 

Doggerland by Ben Smith

This debut novel has just two main characters: ‘the old man’ and ‘the boy’ (who’s not really a boy anymore), who are stationed on an enormous offshore wind farm. The distance from the present day is indicated in slyly throwaway comments like “The boy didn’t know what potatoes were.” Smith poses questions about responsibility and sacrifice, and comments on modern addictions and a culture of disposability. He has certainly captured something of the British literary zeitgeist. From page to page, though, Doggerland grew tiresome for me. There is a lot of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance. The location is vague and claustrophobic, the pace is usually slow, and there are repetitive scenes and few conversations. To an extent, this comes with the territory. But it cannot be ignored that this is an entirely male world. Fans of the themes and style of The Old Man and the Sea and The Road will get on best with Smith’s writing. I most appreciated the moments of Beckettian humor in the dialogue and the poetic interludes that represent human history as a blip in the grand scheme of things.

  • The Remedy: I’m not a big fan of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but a couple of the best such novels that I’ve read by women are Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

 

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

The Knife’s Edge: The Heart and Mind of a Cardiac Surgeon by Stephen Westaby

In this somewhat tepid follow-up to Fragile Lives, Westaby’s bravado leaves a bad taste and dilutes the work’s ostensibly confessional nature. He has a good excuse, he argues: a head injury incurred while playing rugby in medical school transformed him into a risk taker. It’s widely accepted that such boldness may be a boon in a discipline that requires quick thinking and decisive action. So perhaps it’s no great problem to have a psychopath as your surgeon. But how about a sexist? Westaby’s persistent references to women staff as “lady GP” and “registrar lady” don’t mitigate surgeons’ macho reputation. It’s a shame to observe such casual sexism, because it’s clear Westaby felt deeply for his patients of any gender. And yet any talk of empathy earns his derision. It seems the specific language of compassion is a roadblock for him. The book is strongest when the author recreates dramatic sequences based on several risky surgeries. Alas, at its close he sounds bitter, and the NHS bears the brunt of his anger. Compared to Fragile Lives, one of my favorite books of 2017, this gives the superhero surgeon feet of clay. But it’s a lot less pleasing to read. (Forthcoming in TLS.)

  • The Remedy: I’m keen to read Direct Red by Gabriel Weston, a memoir by a female surgeon.

 

(Crikey! This was my 600th blog post.)

Classic of the Month: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

I’d of course read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this was my first taste of George Orwell’s nonfiction. It was his first book, published when he was 30, and is an excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. I started it on the Eurostar between London and Paris and have enjoyed dipping into it over the past couple of weeks. I most appreciated the first two-thirds, in which Orwell is working as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week and has to pawn his clothes to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. Chapter 3 is a masterful piece of writing that, with its second-person address, puts the reader right into this desperate situation with him. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive:

Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger

Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently.

It is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but I was too hungry to care.

Even as he’s conveying the harsh reality of exhaustion and indignity, Orwell takes a Dickensian delight in people and their eccentricities. His pen portraits of those he associates with – Boris, a former captain in the Russian Army who is always coming up with new money-making schemes in Paris; Paddy, a tramp he falls in with in London; and Bozo, a “screever” (street painter) who “managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty” – are glistening passages enhanced by recreated dialogue. There are a few asides, such as a chapter about London slang and swearing, that break up the flow, and I might have liked more context about Orwell’s earlier and later life – how he slipped into poverty and how he worked his way out of it again – but he more than succeeds in his aim of exposing the truth of what it was like to be poor at that time.

Depressingly, though, this is not merely a period piece: well over 80 years later, the poor are still in danger of homelessness and enslavement to low wages and zero-hours contracts. No doubt it is still what Orwell refers to as a “dismal, demoralizing way of life,” and the poor “are ordinary human beings … if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of [that] way of life.”

Our town has its fair share of the down-and-out, as was brought home to me just yesterday. My husband had an unpleasant encounter with a group of them when he tried remonstrating with a man who was cutting flowers in the community garden we’ve volunteered our time to create – the very day before the Britain in Bloom competition! When I dropped by later to help get the garden tidy for judging, they were still hanging about on the other side of the canal, smoking and drinking. Then I spotted with them an older woman who goes to our church. I’ve broken bread with her on a regular basis. She borrowed a couple of books from the theological library last week. And she must be a hair’s breadth away from homelessness, if not actually homeless. It felt like a wake-up call, a reminder that these people whose lives seem so hopelessly foreign are not as distant or as different as we might like to think.

George Orwell’s 1943 press photo. Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ). [Public domain]
Since 1994 the Orwell Prizes have been awarded to the best political writing. It’s clear that we still need voices like his to reveal what’s going on in the world and call us comfortable folks out on our complacency. As he caricatures a rich person’s response here, “don’t expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us”. I would commend this to any nonfiction reader, and hope to read much more of Orwell’s journalism.

My rating:

 


Next month: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley