Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
– Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
It is difficult to know where to begin when responding to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, such is the sweeping, panoramic vision contained within its covers. What I can say at the outset is that Life and Fate has to be the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century. Here is a novel which ranges from the Stalinist purges and the Ukraine Famine during collectivisation in the 1930s to the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3 and the lost souls of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag; a novel whose characters debate good and evil, totalitarianism and individual freedom, and in which the author dares to take the reader beyond the sealed doors of the gas chamber. Written by a journalist who was witness to many of the events which form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, Life and Fate is utterly essential. Continue reading “Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’”
Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these rude promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.
– John Ebenezer Stewart, 1917
Still started out as a commission to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme by 14-18 NOW. The organisation tasked with developing a five-years programme of new artworks to mark the centenary of the First World War approached Simon Armitage who eventually came up with the idea of a sequence of poems written in response to aerial or panoramic photographs of the Somme battlefield taken during the First World War. Still was presented as an exhibition combining poems and photographs at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in May 2016. Now it’s been published as a book. Continue reading “‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield”
In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is an article by John Lanchester in which – although he’s writing about Brexit – he makes an observation that seems to resonate with a novel I read recently: ‘England’, Lanchester writes, ‘is both a small country and a big one …there is a lot of Deep England out there.’
Tom Bullough’s Addlands is set in deepest Radnorshire, a story of hill farmers battling with the forces of nature in one of Britain’s wildest, poorest and least populated areas. Historically a Welsh county, culturally Radnorshire has been a law unto itself, its people declaring their identity as neither Welsh nor English, but Radnor folk, people of the Borders; and fiercely-contested borders between fields and farms form one of the threads in a novel that spans the decades from the 1940s to 2011. Continue reading “Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place”
We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.
On 1 July 1916, 2,069 men of the 36th Ulster Division were among the among the 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, and some of the men of the 36th went over the top wearing orange sashes.
With the centenary of the Somme less than two weeks away, it was apt to have the chance of seeing a revival of Frank McGuinness’s great war play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme at the Playhouse in Liverpool – especially as this was a co-production of Headlong, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and the Everyman. Continue reading “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme”
Marceline Loridan-Ivens is one of around 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. ‘I was quite a cheerful person’, she writes in the opening words of But You Did Not Come Back, her moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen when she and her family were rounded up by French police before being despatched to Auschwitz, she survived but her father did not return.
After seeing the acclaimed film Son of Saul, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ slim volume has been the second journey back into the dark heart of Auschwitz that I have made in recent days. Continue reading “But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father”
This morning I was reading War and Peace, and had just reached this passage when news began to come through of the carnage in Brussels, and the casualties mounted. It’s the scene during the battle of Borodino when Prince Andrei is is hit by an exploding shell and suffers a terrible stomach wound. Lying in agony in the dressing station, he sees Anatole Kuragin, the man he despises for attempting to elope with Natasha to whom he was engaged; Anatole’s leg is being amputated.
The tent which serves as a dressing station is a scene of bloody horror. Everything changes, it seems, but nothing changes. Continue reading “Reading War and Peace as news arrives from Brussels”
Writing about FW Murnau’s silent film Sunrise
in my previous post, I mentioned a poem called ‘Silent Cinema’ that I had come across. It was by Arthur Tessimond (1902-1962), a poet about whom his current publisher, Bloodaxe Books admits on their website
‘almost all trace … has disappeared.’
Continue reading “The British: ‘a people living in shells, reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious’”