Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks is a carry over book from December 2019 that I finished early this month. It’s one I read thanks to my 2019 New Years Resolution not to buy new books until I’d read those already acquired. I’m sorry I took so long to get to this one; it was published in 2014 so it’s probably been on my list for three or four years. I found it very stimulating. He’s an Englishman, living in Milan where he teaches creative writing and literary translation. I know of because of his essays in the New York Review of Books and New Yorker. I didn’t know he also writes novels but given how much I like his non-fiction writing I might seek them out. This was quite dense and full of interesting ideas, but all clearly expressed making it easy to read. It doesn’t need to be read in one go, but could be dipped into.

It’s all about writing and reading; divided into four parts each consisting of a series of short sections, some of which pose interesting questions. Here are the different Part Headings and some of the topics. Part 1, The World Around The Book: Do we need stories? (No). Should we finish books? (No). Why do we disagree about books? ( Our responses reflect our childhood reading experiences). Part 2, The Book In The World: What’s wrong with the Nobel? (Writing is not like the World Cup). What’s better – writing adrift in the world or art that stays home? (They both have value but I think he favours the latter). Part 3, The Writers World which includes anecdotes from his experience teaching writing. Part 4, Writing Across Worlds where he draws on his experience writing novels / essays / articles to think about the different forms which he sees reflected in the question often put to him Are you the Tim Parks who….

I loved the discussion the sections on why readers disagree and where I’m reading from in the first part of the book. As Parks says people are rarely dissuaded from their initial response to a novel. I’ve always been interested in these different responses. Parks is talking about novels but I think the same applies to any work of art and maybe especially to films. He thinks our very different responses to writers and novels can be explained by systemic psychology – every person’s personality develops in the force field of a community of origin. This is usually as a child within the family. Each family has a system that determines whether a child receives praise or criticism and this system will have a dominant theme. Family members manifest the qualities – positive and negative – around which family conversations revolve.

For Parks, whose parents were evangelical Christians, this was about being good which could only be demonstrated by renunciation of things that were bad. Other systems within families could revolve around things like courage versus cowardice or independence versus community. Every family member will be seeking to find a place within the polarised values the family esteems. Our response to different books depends on whether the issues in those books resonate with our system. He cites examples; In The Brothers Karazamov characters line up along a good/evil axis; in Thomas Hardy novels the dominant them is reckless versus cautious behaviour; in Chekhov characters divide along whether they want to belong or to escape their situations.

In Parks’ case, given the views of his parents and family dynamics, Dostoevsky’s novels resonate. He returns to them often; attracted to their focus on the question of good versus evil. He responds in a similar deep way to the novel Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. He’s not so taken with the novels of Per Peterson who is concerned with fear versus bravery. This is despite Peterson being a very fine writer whose books Parks has reviewed positively.

Ever since I read this I’ve been trying to work out what my system is and how it affects my responses to works of art – both novels and films. If you accept Parks’ theory my strong Catholic upbringing (now rejected) must has something to do with it. Is there something about rebellion there? I don’t recognise it. My strong affinity with the existentialists when I first encountered them may influence me. My most immediate and visceral response to novels when I was younger was to Camus’ The Plague and Graham Greene’s Power and Glory. This was followed shortly after while at university by Camus’ The Fall which so moved me I started to re-read it the minute I finished it. I had a similar response to Sartre’s trilogy The Roads To Freedom. So maybe alienation versus commitment is my theme? I grew up in a small, relatively isolated community where everyone knew everyone else and I remember my feeling of liberation when I came to the city – that nobody knew anything about me. So maybe another theme is community versus freedom. I find this all fascinating so enjoyed this part of Parks’ book. But it is interesting about lots of other things aspects about literature. I recommend it for anybody interested in books and writing.

As soon as the new year began Joe and I took ourselves off to Readings where I purchased The River Capture, by Mary Costello. Great title and cover.
I couldn’t remember why this novel was on my list of books to read (this often happens). It wasn’t until very late in my reading that I remembered it was described as a witty and clever homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m a bit slow on the uptake – the protagonist, Luke, is a teacher with a special interest in Joyce and Ullyses in particular. He spends the first part of the novel wandering around the place pondering his lack of direction in life à là Stephen Dedalus. He’s separated from his long term partner and returned a while ago to his family house in Waterford to care for an aunt in her final months. That aunt has now died but there’s another aunt nearby he’s helping out now; driving her to doctors and shopping for her. A nice nod to Joyce’s close relationship to his aunts who he pestered for details of Dublin while writing the novel.

Having taken time off from teaching to write a book about Joyce or maybe Leopold Bloom Luke wanders around the village doing chores or just passing time. All the while his inner monologue is musing on Joyce, the characters and storylines in Ullyses, his childhood, the deaths of his mother and father, life in the village including some of the characters. All done in a similar way to Ullyses but nowhere near as compelling! A love interest emerges followed by family tensions which appeared a little contrived. It might reflect my lack of appreciation of the original but I got bored and skim read the chapters towards the end which replicated the question and answer sections in Ulysses. They were bad enough in the original but written with enough flair to keep you going. Not that I read every word something I in Ulysses the second time around so this is an accurate homage perhaps! It’s one for Joyce and Ulysses afficiandos only I’d say.

I asked for Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick for Christmas and Joe duly delivered. A handsomely produced book but I found it infuriating. Throughout she treats de Beauvoir as hard done by – not acknowledged as a real philosopher, treated as a mere novelist, seen as merely an appendage to Sartre, regarded as inferior intellectually to Sartre, of interest only because of her love life and so on. It felt as though she had scoured the world for disparaging remarks about de Beauvoir including being cast as Sartre’s prey, being described as Sartre’s victim, and as having secondary status to Sartre, being called Sartre’s derivative double who passively succumbed to S’s spell and as Sartre’s disciple. This is just a tiny portion of the disparaging remarks quoted on nearly every page.

She claims a new biography is warranted because new evidence, de Beauvoir’s youthful diaries as well as her letters to Claude Lanzmann, is now available. And she claims this material contradicts de Beauvoir’s rendering of her life. Especially her view that she wasn’t a philosopher. She then seeks to show that de Beauvoir rather than Sartre was responsible for much of existentialism and many of its key theories such as bad faith. The trouble with this is that it’s always been acknowledged that she played a key role in the development of Sartre’s thought. So I thought the whole thing was over-egged and very disappointing. As were the supposedly new revelations about her relationships with people other than Sartre. I’ve read The Patagonian Hare by Lanzmann (the most egotistical, self indulgent, self aggrandising book I’ve ever read) and so knew about Simone and him so that was not new to me, nor I suspect to many others. It’s been in the public domain since 2012 and revealed everything about his affair with Simone and the shenanigans at Les Temps modernes. Some reviews claim that this new biography of Simone looks at her philosophy in greater depth than Bair but I didn’t think it did. Her development of an ethics for existentialism was praised but without much supporting evidence – of which there is a lot. There was no in depth analysis of The Ethics of Ambiguity for instance. Adding to my frustration was a completely inadequate index.

It made me so wild, I went back to the first book I read about de Beauvoir, A Life of Freedom by Carol Ascher.
This was published in 1981, while de Beauvoir was still alive although the author didn’t ever speak to her. She’s obviously a fan and takes de Beauvoir’s memoirs at face value. It holds up remarkably well. It’s terrific on the early life – and as comprehensive as the latest Kirkpatrick one about that period. It includes really good analysis of the novels and of The Second Sex. I was pleased to re-read it.

Then I read the Deidre Bair biography to see whether I’m being too harsh about the Kirkpatrick life. I’ve seen lots of references to this biography in my reading about de Beauvoir so it seems very familiar but I’ve never read it.
I found this far more evenhanded and it seemed to cover everything that was in the Atkinson. She recognises where the memoirs gloss over, or worse, manipulate the truth. de Beauvoir was very important to me and remains so, recognising the pretty compromised lives that she and Sartre lived towards the end of their lives. She was an amazing thinker and trailblazer given her background and the time at which her key insights into the lives of women were published. All of the biographies recognise that.

Joe and I are doing a course next month entitled The Ambiguous Ethics and Politics of Simone de Beauvoir run by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. We have enjoyed two of these courses over the last two years including one on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. They’ve been terrific.

This one will include analysis of her essay The Ethics of Ambiguity which was hard for us to get hold of. The Bair biography quotes Simone saying in her memoirs Of all my books, it is the one that irritates me the most. Bair goes on to say at the end of her life she called it ‘a frivolous, insignificant thing, not worthy of attention’. She attributed its inadequacy to the fact that ‘it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s supposed to be a defense of Existentialism and a definition of morality, but at the time I wrote it I was too conscious of myself to think objectively’. Bair then notes that most readers would agree that this is her least popular work and that scholars have generally tended to ignore it. We will see.

I’m not yet finished with de Beauvoir, on my second visit to Readings this year I picked up Parisian Lives by Deidre Bair and this is now on my ever expanding to read list. Another very handsome book.

Letter to D: A Love Story by André Gorz is another that has been on my to read list for ages and I was pleased to find it at the library. It’s translated by an Australian, Julie Rose. This translated version was published in 2008. It was a publishing sensation when it was released in France. A lovely cover.

Gorz got a mention in the Bair biography of de Beauvoir as he was on the board of Les Temps modernes at the end (and not taking Simone’s part in one of her last battles over Sartre’s reputation). This was written at the end of his life, when he was 83, as a letter to his 82 year old wife, Dorine, who was terminally ill. She suffered from Arachnoiditis which is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the nerves of the spinal cord, characterised by severe stinging, burning pain and neurological problems (this is not in the book). It’s a very short (100 pages), very personal book; beautifully written; very spare and unsentimental. There’s not a superfluous word nor a word out of place. He describes their life together from first meeting to their current situation. He stresses throughout how important she has been to him. The extract highlighted on the back cover gives a flavour, you gave all of yourself to help me become myself. That makes her sound self sacrificing but he makes it clear that she was never that; that her’s was a richer, fuller life than his as a self obsessed writer and philosopher.

He apologises for how he depicted her in the book that made his reputation, The Traitor in which, describing the relationship at the centre of the book, he paints the woman as the vulnerable party, dependent on the man – when in fact he was more dependent on her. They both had difficult childhoods and had more or less fled their families. He was Austrian, she English but they lived the 58 years they were together in France. When she was diagnosed she was given a 50/50 chance of living 5 years. He discovered at the end of the day, only one thing was essential to me: to be with you and pledged to live completely at one with the present, mindful above all of the wealth of our shared life. He gave up his editorial position and they retired to the country. She lived another 30 years.

The book finishes with him foreshadowing what he/they intended. He writes that at night he imagines her funeral and in the dream says I don’t want to be given an urn with your ashes and hears Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Die Welt ist leer, Ich will nicht leben mehr ‘ (The world is empty, I don’t want to go on living’. A year after it was published they took their lives together. Here’s a picture, from the book, of them at the time it was written.

My final book from this month is another longstanding one from my to read list and also from the library. Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller who now lives in America. Here she is as a little girl on the cover.

The great title comes from a poem by A. P. Herbert (variously described as a British novelist, essayist, humorist poet). The full line is contained in the epigraph on the title page. Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight, For mother will be there”. It’s a memoir about growing up in Africa. I’m astonished by how, in the best memoirs, authors are able to distance themselves and write unsentimentally about really devastating things. And so it is here. This is a warts and all account of growing up, the child of white Scottish parents, midst the turmoil of the fight for black independence in what was then Rhodesia; and when that war had, in their view, been lost, their subsequent stints in Malawi and Zambia.

She describes, clearly and unsparingly, her parents’ and her own casual racism towards, and ignorance about, the people and landscape around them. The contingent lives of expatriates is devastatingly portrayed. Insular and uncaring to those around them. The reality of living in a war zone as children is vividly brought to life; with the author and her sister instructed how to use weapons. The sister’s antagonism to the whole thing is sensitively portrayed. The family endures terrible poverty and hardship – but not so great as those who work for them. While both parents are vividly drawn it is the mother who is central to the story which explains the epigraph. At times she’s indomitable, at others a drunken mess. Capable of making a home in the most inhospitable of circumstances but at the same time seemingly feckless with respect to the day to day business of bringing up her daughters. Enduring the tragedy of the deaths of three children – meningitis, drowning, stillbirth. It’s all recorded here in frank and unsentimental writing. The relationship between the two sisters is unflinchingly honest. Through it all we experience the cruelty and glory of the African landscape. A great read and strongly recommended. If I haven’t convinced you, here’s a terrific review by the novelist Anne Enright.


2 Responses to Books January 2020

  1. Joe Burke says:

    A very stimulating month of reading. Looking forward to February!

  2. [...] Books January 2020 [...]

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