Not long now until Nonfiction November. I’m highlighting three nonfiction books I’ve read over the last few months; any of them would be well worth your time if you’re still looking for some new books to add to the pile. I’ve got a practical introduction to the philosophy and politics of long-term/intergenerational planning, a group biography about the two gay couples who inhabited a house in the Welsh hills in turn, and a wide-ranging work on eels.
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric
I saw Krznaric introduce this via a digital Hay Festival session back in May. He is an excellent speaker and did an admirable job of conveying all the major ideas from his recent work within a half-hour presentation. Unfortunately, this meant that reading the book itself didn’t add much for me, although it goes deeper into his propositions and is illustrated with unique, helpful figures.
Without repeating from my write-up of the Festival talk, then, I’ll add in points and quotes that struck me:
- “some of the fundamental ways we organise society, from nation states and representative democracy to consumer culture and capitalism itself, are no longer appropriate for the age we live in.”
- 100 years as the minimum timeframe to think about (i.e., a long human life) – “taking us beyond the ego boundary of our own mortality so we begin to imagine futures that we can influence yet not participate in ourselves.”
- “The phones in our pockets have become the new factory clocks, capturing time that was once our own and offering in exchange a continuous electronic now full of infotainment, advertising and fake news. The distraction industry works by cleverly tapping into our ancient mammalian brains: our ears prick up at the ping of an arriving message … Facebook is Pavlov, and we’re the dogs.”
- The Intergenerational Solidarity Index as a way of assessing governments’ future preparation: long-term democracies tend to perform better, though they aren’t perfect; Iceland scores the highest of all, followed by Sweden.
- Further discussion of Doughnut Economics (a model developed by Krznaric’s wife, Kate Raworth), which pictures the sweet spot humans need to live in between a social foundation and the ecological ceiling; failures lead to overshoot or shortfall.
- Four fundamental barriers to change: outdated institutional designs (our basic political systems), the power of vested interests (fossil fuel companies, Amazon, et al.), current insecurity (refugees), and “insufficient sense of crisis” – we’re like frogs in a gradually boiling pot, he says, and need to be jolted out of our complacency.
This is geared more towards economics and politics than much of what I usually read, yet fits in well with other radical visions of the future I’ve engaged with this year (some of them more environmentalist in approach), including Footprints by David Farrier, The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell.
With thanks to WH Allen for the free copy for review.
On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell into Place by Mike Parker (2019)
I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s after this made it through to the Wainwright Prize shortlist – it went on to be named the runner-up in the UK nature writing category. It’s primarily a memoir/group biography about Parker, his partner Peredur, and George and Reg, the couple who previously inhabited their home of Rhiw Goch in the Welsh Hills and left it to the younger pair in their wills. In structuring the book into four parts, each associated with an element, a season, a direction of the compass and a main character, Parker focuses on the rhythms of the natural year. The subtitle emphasizes the role Rhiw Goch played, providing all four with a sense of belonging in a rural setting not traditionally welcoming to homosexuals.
Were George and Reg the ‘only gays in the village,’ as the Little Britain sketch has it? Impossible to say, but when they had Powys’ first same-sex civil partnership ceremony in February 2006, they’d been together nearly 60 years. By the time Parker and his partner took over the former guesthouse, gay partnerships were more accepted. In delving back into his friends’ past, then, he conjures up another time: George fought in the Second World War, and for the first 18 years he was with Reg their relationship was technically illegal. But they never rubbed it in any faces, preferring to live quietly, traveling on the Continent and hosting guests at their series of Welsh B&Bs; their politics was conservative, and they were admired locally for their cooking and hospitality (Reg) and endurance cycling (George).
There are lots of in-text black-and-white photographs of Reg and George over the years and of Rhiw Goch through the seasons. Using captioned photos, journal entries, letters and other documents, Parker gives a clear impression of his late friends’ characters. There is something pitiable about both: George resisting ageing with nude weightlifting well into his sixties; Reg still essentially ashamed of his sexuality as well as his dyslexia. I felt I got to know the younger protagonists less well, but that may simply be because their stories are ongoing. It’s remarkable how Welsh Parker now seems: though he grew up in the English Midlands, he now speaks decent Welsh and has even stood for election for the Plaid Cymru party.
It’s rare to come across something in the life writing field that feels genuinely sui generis. There were moments when my attention waned (e.g., George’s feuds with the neighbors), but so strong is the overall sense of time, place and personality that this is a book to prize.
The Gospel of the Eels: A Father, a Son and the World’s Most Enigmatic Fish by Patrik Svensson
[Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé]
“When it comes to eels, an otherwise knowledgeable humanity has always been forced to rely on faith to some extent.”
We know the basic facts of the European eel’s life cycle: born in the Sargasso Sea, it starts off as a larva and then passes through three stages that are almost like separate identities: glass eel, yellow eel, silver eel. After decades underwater, it makes its way back to the Sargasso to spawn and die. Yet so much about the eel remains a mystery: why the Sargasso? What do the creatures do for all the time in between? Eel reproduction still has not been observed, despite scientists’ best efforts. Among the famous names who have researched eels are Aristotle, Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, all of whom Svensson discusses at some length. He even suggests that, for Freud, the eel was a suitable early metaphor for the unconscious – “an initial insight into how deeply some truths are hidden.”
But there is a more personal reason for Svensson’s fascination with eels. As a boy he joined his father in eel fishing on Swedish summer nights. It was their only shared hobby; the only thing they ever talked about. His father was as much a mystery to him as eels are to science. And it was only as his father was dying of a cancer caused by his long road-paving career that Svensson came to understand secrets he’d kept hidden for decades.
Chapters alternate between this family story and the story of the eels. The book explores eels’ place in culture (e.g., Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum) and their critically endangered status due to factors such as a herpes virus, nematode infection, pollution, overfishing and climate change. A prior curiosity about marine life would be helpful to keep you going through this, but the prose is lovely enough to draw in even those with a milder interest in nature writing.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
One of my recent borrows from the public library’s children’s section was the picture book Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Her unrhymed, alliterative poetry and the paintings by Mike Bostock beautifully illustrate the eel’s life cycle and journey.
You simply must hear folk singer Kitty Macfarlane’s gorgeous song “Glass Eel” – literally about eels, it’s also concerned with migration, borders and mystery.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.
I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.
The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?
Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.
This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.
Some favorite lines:
“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”
“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”
It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:
“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”
“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”
A strange but very readable satire on who you’re supposed to love versus who you actually do. My sixth Murdoch novel, and a very good one for book clubs or for newcomers to start with, I think, given how much it tackles in its just over 200 pages.
As in Under the Net, we have a male narrator; here it’s Martin Lynch-Gibbon, 41, a wine merchant’s son who’s writing a work of military history. He’s been married to Antonia, five years his senior, for 11 years now. Martin also has a mistress, 26-year-old Georgie Hands. The thrill of the illicit, of possessing both these appealing women, is too much to resist, but he has a sense of being on the cusp – his delicately balanced life is about to go up in flames.
Antonia gets home from her psychoanalysis appointment and appears to be acting strangely. She soon confesses to Martin that she’s madly in love with her therapist, Palmer Anderson, who is half-American and has been Martin’s friend for years. They amicably agree to part. Martin goes to talk with Palmer, who lays on the Freudian patter and convinces Martin that Antonia is more of a mother figure for him because of their age gap. It’s all very civilized.
We meet Martin’s brother Alexander and sister Rosemary when he goes to Rembers, the family estate in the Cotswolds, for the Christmas holidays. It seems Alexander’s always been somewhat in love with Antonia – he even sculpted her head. After lovely scenes of the snow seen from the train via Reading and a Christmas spent en famille, another player comes onto the scene: Palmer’s sister, Honor Klein, whom Martin picks up from Liverpool Street station. She’s cool and a bit domineering, and a dab hand with a samurai sword. Martin is smitten. But just wait until he goes to visit her in Cambridge…
As the members of this small group fall in and then out of love with each other, Murdoch explores any number of weighty ideas and themes. With a samurai sword around (as pictured on a couple of more recent Penguin covers), you have to wonder if, like Chekhov’s gun, it’s bound to be used in a violent way. At the very least it’s a phallic symbol, turning up in dreams along with blood, which itself is symbolized by the red wine so frequently consumed and sometimes spilled in the novel. I thought of the title as asking what happens when the mind and body become detached from each other and want different things. There are also plentiful references to ancient superstitions and taboos: the cuckold’s horns, the Oedipal impulse, and the rituals surrounding the oracular voice.
What with all the scenes of people bursting into a room and declaring their love for someone else now, and Martin moving his belongings back and forth, this is something like a comic play. It’s one of the few Murdoch novels to have been adapted for the theatre or cinema (it has also been a radio play), and you can see why: it has a theatrical, quick-moving story line, and Murdoch even deliberately references “actors in a play” and “the drama.” Martin’s sense of helplessness is also likened to feeling destined to play one role in life, whether he likes it or not. It’s a very visual novel, too, with objects (like the Audubon prints and the Meissen cockatoos decorating the Lynch-Gibbons’ place, or “we sat enlaced like a beautiful netsuke”) and colors taking on significance in a way that I’m sure must have influenced A.S. Byatt.
A couple of small things bothered me: the overkill in describing Honor’s features as Jewish, and the overall short shrift given to Georgie. But on the whole I really enjoyed this one, especially Martin’s three (increasingly informal and defensive) versions of the same apology letter, and the fact that Palmer almost always appears in his dressing gown. In one 2017 year-end recommendation for Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I saw it compared with A Severed Head, and I guess I can see why: the love quadrilateral, the blend of tragic and comic themes, and the perhaps recklessly optimistic ending. Both are well worth reading.
My favorite snippet of dialogue:
(Martin) “‘We’ve been happy. I want to go on being happy.’
‘Happy, yes,’ said Antonia. ‘But happiness is not the point. We aren’t getting anywhere. You know that as well as I do.’
‘One doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.’”
I’m participating on and off in Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to get through some of the paperbacks I already own. See also her very interesting introductory post on A Severed Head. I have several more of the readalong books lined up for later in the year: The Italian Girl in June, The Nice and the Good in September, and An Accidental Man in December. Join us for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?
Two of my library reads from this month were about different aspects of mind–body medicine. I expected them to overlap more than they did, actually, and hoped that the second might serve as a sort of well-written rebuttal to the first, but in the end they stayed in different camps: the first is about psychosomatic illness and psychiatric treatment, while the second is about the placebo effect and how alternative and holistic treatment strategies might be complementary to orthodox medical approaches. Both gave me a lot to think about.
It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness
By Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a UK-based neurology consultant. I picked this up on a whim because I knew it had won the Wellcome Book Prize, as well as the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. The conditions she writes about go by many names: psychosomatic illnesses, conversion disorders, or functional conditions. In every case the patients have normal neurological test results – they do not have epilepsy or nerve damage, for instance – but still suffer from seizures or lose the use of limb(s). Their symptoms have an emotional origin instead. Many of her patients are outraged by referral to a psychiatrist, as if they’re being told they’re making it all up, but it’s actually a holistic approach: acknowledging the influence the mind has on how we feel.
Along with cases from her own career, the author writes about early doctors who developed the science of conversion disorders, including Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. I read the book very quickly, almost compulsively; these are fascinating stories for anyone who’s interested in medical mysteries. That’s in spite of the fact that O’Sullivan does not strike me as a natural storyteller: her accounts of patients’ cases are often no more than just one thing after another, and in reports of her own conversations with patients she comes across as robotic and not always very compassionate. Ultimately I believe she does empathize with those with psychosomatic illnesses – otherwise she wouldn’t have written a whole book to illuminate their plight – but it would have taken the writing skill of someone like Atul Gawande for this to be a better book. I’m somewhat surprised it won a major prize.
Note: Chapter 7 tackles CFS/ME/fibromyalgia. These are controversial fatigue disorders, and O’Sullivan is aware that even mentioning them in a book about psychosomatic illnesses is “foolhardy to say the least.” I don’t think what she actually has to say about these conditions is offensive, though (and I say that as someone whose mother struggled with fibromyalgia for years). She allows that there may be physical triggers, but that emotional wellbeing and traumatic experiences or regular stress cannot be overlooked.
Chew on this: “More than seventy per cent of patients with dissociative seizures and chronic fatigue syndrome are women.” The author’s best guess as to why this is? “On the face of it, women turn their distress inward and men turn it outward.”
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body
By Jo Marchant
In this absorbing and well-written work of popular science, Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. On the other hand, she shows how stress and trauma in early life can set (usually poor) people up for ill health in later years. She also travels everywhere from Boston to Lourdes to meet patients and medical practitioners, and even occasionally proffers herself as a guinea pig.
A relentless scientist, Marchant is skeptical of any claims for which there is no hard evidence, so when she acknowledges that there’s something to these unusual treatments, you know you can believe her. As Jeremy Howick of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford puts it, “I think it’s more important to know that something works, than how it works.” I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine. The problem, though, is that most medical trials are funded by big pharmaceutical companies, which won’t be supportive of non-traditional methods or holistic approaches.
Do these books appeal to you? Do you have any experience of psychosomatic illness or mind–body medicine?
I don’t participate in a lot of blogger challenges (though I’ll be doing “Novellas in November” on Monday); it’s more of a coincidence that I finished Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s excellent The Tobacconist (translated from the German by Charlotte Collins) towards the end of German literature month.
You may recall that I read Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life, on my European travels this past summer, and didn’t think too much of it. I’d read so much praise for its sparse style, but I couldn’t grasp the appeal. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “This novella set in the Austrian Alps is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.”
But I’m very glad that I tried again with Seethaler, because The Tobacconist is one of the few best novels I’ve read this year, and very much a book for our times despite being set in 1937–8.
Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. “In [Franz’s] mind’s eye the future appeared like the line of a far distant shore materializing out of the morning fog: still a little blurred and unclear, but promising and beautiful, too.”
Though the First World War left him with only one leg, Trsnyek is a firebrand. Instead of keeping his head down while selling his cigars and newspapers, he makes his political opinions known. This sees him branded as a “Jew lover” and persecuted accordingly. One of the Jews he dares to associate with is Sigmund Freud, who is a regular customer even though he already has throat cancer and will die just two years later.
Especially after he falls in love with Anezka, a flirtatious but mercurial Bohemian girl, Franz turns to Professor Freud for life advice. “So I’m asking you: have I gone mad? Or has the whole world gone mad?” The professor replies, “yes, the world has gone mad. And … have no illusions, it’s going to get a lot madder than this.”
Through free indirect speech, the thought lives of the various characters, and the postcards and letters that pass between Franz and his mother, Seethaler gradually and subtly reveals the deepening worry over the rise of Hitler and the situation of the Jews. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
Freud and his family had enough money and influence to buy their way to England. So many did not escape Hitler’s regime. I knew that, but discovered it anew in this outstanding novel.
Some favorite passages:
I’ve been here in the city for quite a while now, yet to be honest it seems to me that everything just gets stranger. But maybe it’s like that all through life—from the moment you’re born, with every single day, you grow a little bit further away from yourself until one day you don’t know where you are any more. Can that really be the way it is?
And as more than twenty thousand supporters bellowed their assent into the clear Tyrolean mountain air, Adolf Hitler was probably sitting beside the radio somewhere in Berlin, licking his lips. Austria lay before him like a steaming schnitzel on a plate. Now was the time to carve it up. … People were cosseting their faint-hearted troubles and hadn’t even noticed yet that the earth beneath their feet was burning.
(from a letter from Mama) Just imagine, Hitler hangs on the wall even in the restaurant and the school now. Right next to Jesus. Although we have no idea what they think of each other.
Freud: “Most paths do at least seem vaguely familiar to me. But it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity—or, best of all, all three at once—can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! In previous years we’ve been able to find canned pumpkin in the UK to make a pumpkin pie, but alas, this year there have been supply issues (my husband blames Brexit). Nor can we find a real pumpkin – they disappear from the shops after Halloween. Without pumpkin pie it doesn’t feel much like Thanksgiving.
At any rate, here’s a flashback to the seasonal posts I wrote last year, one about five things I was grateful for as a freelance writer (they all still hold true!) and a list of recommended Thanksgiving reading.