John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

This weekend John Berger will be celebrating his 90th birthday. For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series, Ways of Seeing, that with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. In the decades that have followed, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with more television documentaries, novels,screenplays, drawings, articles and essays. So today’s post celebrates John Berger, who in all the variety of his work has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art, a Marxist ‘among other things whose words are sometimes those of the angry polemicist, but which invariably celebrate everyday experience and artistic expression with probing insight and subtle tenderness. Continue reading “John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing”

Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place

<em>Addlands</em>: the inescapable ties of geography and place

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”

Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud

<em>Satantango</em>: humanity flounders in the mud

There’s a DVD I’ve had for years but never watched, except for the first ten minutes or so. I’ve always been overwhelmed at the prospect of the long haul that lies ahead. Made by the director Béla Tarr, it’s a seven hour long adaptation of the first novel by fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, called Sátántangó.

The book was published in Hungary in 1985, and Bela Tarr’s film came out nine years later.  But it was only in 2012 that an English translation of the novel appeared. Lent it by my friend Dave, I finished it in just less than the time it would have taken me to watch the film version. But what to make of it? Continue reading Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud”

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.

Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain.  Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’.  Dickens did not concur. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

What does it mean to come home?
Home, page 106

Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels.  Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all.  The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

Just as the our century seems likely to be defined by the act of terrorism perpetrated in New York in 2001, so was the twentieth century defined by the shots fired in Sarajevo in 1914. In a brilliant passage in The Radestky March, Joseph Roth describes how the news of that world-changing event slowly seeps into the consciousness of a drunken outdoor celebration on the far eastern margins of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a storm breaks on one sultry night in July 1914.

But that is just one of many such superb passages in The Radestky March. I don’t know how I could have lived so long before reading such a marvellous book. Roth’s elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire and its dominant class might seem unexpected  from an author born to Orthodox Jewish parents who named him Moses Joseph Roth, and a man who began his journalistic career in Vienna after the First World War, writing for left-wing newspapers under the pen-name Red Roth.

Das bin ich wirklich; bšse, besoffen, aber gescheit
Joseph Roth

For that was Roth’s own story – born in 1894 in Brody, a town on the far eastern edge of the Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia, where two-thirds of the population were Jewish. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (then known as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. The circumstances of Roth’s birth begin to explain the vision of the novel he came to write in 1932, amidst the turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.

The title evokes the twin monarchy of Austria and Hungary and the music of Johann Strauss I, who composed the march in honour of a field marshal who won key battles that asserted Austrian domination of northern Italy in the 1840s, and which soon became the theme song of the empire. But, whereas the historical novel usually celebrates the triumph of the nation-state, in The Radestky March Roth reverses the trend, seeing in the nationalist movements that inspired the terrorists in Sarejevo and which contributed to the end of the Hapsburg Empire the force that destroyed his own heimat, his homeland. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ his translator Michael Hofmann wrote, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’

Reviewing Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s Collected Stories for the NYRB in 2002, JM Coetzee added this:

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at university in Vienna, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 in number. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude‘ (a Jew from the East), remarked Roth, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.’ Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews. Roth was an outstanding student, but his education was terminated by the war. Although he had pacifist leanings, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. In 1917, ethnic tensions in the imperial army led to him being transferred out of a German-speaking unit to a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia.

Galicia, the most distant and northernmost province of the Hapsburg Empire, is the setting for the scene referred to earlier in which a celebration, organised by the local army unit, is taking place outdoors. As a summer heatwave breaks, thunder draws closer and sheet lightning illuminates the night sky:

No one heard the rapid gallop of the orderly who raced across the forecourt, came to a sudden stop, and in full regulation kit, with glittering helmet, rifle across his shoulders and cartridge pouch on his belt, white lightning flashing around him and purple clouds darkening him, looked not unlike a herald of war in a play. The dragoon dismounted and asked for Colonel Festetics. He was told the Colonel was already inside.  A moment later, the Colonel came out, was handed a letter by the orderly, and went back inside. He stopped in the circular hall, which had no ceiling lighting. A footman came up behind him, with a branched candlestick in his hand. The Colonel tore open the envelope. The footman, though trained from earliest youth in the great arts of serving, was nevertheless unable to keep his hand from shaking. The candles he was holding started flickering violently. He made not the slightest effort to peer over the Colonel’s shoulder, but the text of the message came within view of his well-trained eyes, a single outsize sentence written very clearly in blue copying pen. As incapable as he would have been of ignoring through closed eyelids one of the flashes of lightning that now were quivering in ever faster succession in every quarter of the sky, so he was averting his eyes from the terrible, large, blue letters that spelled out: ‘There are unconfirmed reports that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo.’

The words struck home, like a single, unbroken word, into the consciousness of the Colonel and the eyes of the footman standing immediately behind him. The envelope slipped from the Colonel’s hands. The footman, holding the candlestick in his left hand, stooped down to pick it up with his right. When he stood up straight again, he found himself staring at Colonel Festetics, who had turned round to face him. The footman took a step back. He held the candlestick in one hand, the envelope in the other, and now both were trembling. The flickering candlelight played over the Colonel’s face, alternately lighting it and darkening it. The coarse, flushed face of the Colonel, graced with a grey-blond moustache, was now purple, now chalk-pale. The lips trembled slightly, and the moustache quivered. No one else was in the hall, only the Colonel and the footman. From the interior of the house came the sounds of the first muffled waltzes from the two bands, the jingling of glasses, and the murmurs of conversation. Through the door that led out to the forecourt they could see the reflections of distant lightnings, and hear the feeble echo of distant thunder. The Colonel looked at the footman. ‘Did you read that?’ ‘Yes, Colonel!’ ‘Not a word to a soul!’ said Festetics, applying his finger to his lips. He walked off, tottering slightly. Perhaps it was the uncertain illumination that made his walk seem unsteady.

Joseph Roth in Berlin

Joseph Roth in Berlin

The Radetzky March brims with such brilliant passages.  The novel follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, loyal servants of the crown.  The first Trotta is a simple soldier who is elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 (the last major battle at which all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs).  This man of lowly rank dares to push the Emperor Franz Joseph to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet which would have struck the Emperor. But Roth instantly (in only the fourth sentence of the novel) gives us a foretaste of the grandiosity and ridiculousness of an empire that will decay:

Fate had elected him for a special deed.  But then he made sure that later times lost all memory of him.

The Hero of Solferino is celebrated in a textbook for the schoolchildren of the Empire.  But the account is exaggerated, and Trotta seeks an audience with the Emperor to ask for things to be put right:

“Listen, my dear Trotta!” said the Kaiser.  “The whole business is rather awkward. But neither of us comes off all that badly.  Let it be!”

“Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “it’s a lie!”

“People tell a lot of lies,” the Kaiser confirmed.

“I can’t, your Majesty,” the captain choked forth.

Trotta requests his discharge from the army, though Imperial favour does not abandon him. He is made a Baron, 5,000 guldens are allocated for his son’s  education, and – thanks to the Emperor’s casually expressed wish – the offending textbook disappears from the monarchy’s schools.

Trotta’s son – partly because of his father’s legendary status – obtains a secure post in the Civil Service, eventually becoming a prominent District Commissioner, conscientious, totally dedicated to routine and order, but lacking all imagination His son, Carl Joseph, is an army officer who begins to feel a growing sense that his life is dissolving into futility as the Habsburg mystique he is reminded of each Sunday when a military band plays the Radetzky March, loses its hold on him.  Finally, he perishes without issue in the Great War. The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the decline of the empire.

Continue reading “The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire”

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt, author of 'The Goldfinch'

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch

I enjoyed reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, remaining gripped throughout its 800-odd pages.  Whether the novel amounted to a great deal more than a thoroughly good read: of that I’m doubtful.  The question only arises because of the serious issues hinted at, but not developed in any significant way, in the novel’s powerful opening chapter, and by the Macguffin at its heart – the precious and exquisite work of art which accompanies the narrator from his childhood bereavement, through teenage dissipation to a chilling endgame in Amsterdam.

Readers had been waiting a long time for a new book from Donna Tartt – eleven years to be precise – so, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch has a bestseller, as well as garnering  much critical acclaim.  In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, called it ‘a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole’. However, the critical reception hasn’t been wholly rapturous: a review in the London Review of Books described it as a ‘children’s book’ for adults.

It really depends on your expectations.  Having read (and enjoyed) Tartt’s two previous books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), I was not expecting great literature that probed the urgent moral and social of our time.  The Goldfinch, indeed, shares many characteristics of the two earlier novels: situated for at least half its length in a childhood or adolescent milieu, and turning out to be, basically, a superior sort of thriller. Tartt is especially good at getting inside the minds of pre-adult males, and is acutely observant of teenage mores and amoral behaviour.  To that extent, the first two-thirds of The Goldfinch follow the pattern of her earlier books.  In the opening chapter it seems as if it might offer more.

Donna Tartt, 'The Goldfinch'

After a brief prologue in Amsterdam, Tartt begins by rewinding 14 years to the day when Theo, the novel’s narrator, loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes as they are visiting  New York’s Metropolitan Museum. This chapter, written in gripping prose, reminded me of the astonishing first chapter of Don de Lillo’s Underworld.  Theo and his mother are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are brilliantly written.

There’s a sense here that themes of great significance may be unfolding.  No reader could fail to sense some sort of parallel with 9/11.  And when Theo leaves the wreckage of the museum with a painting – one that actually exists in the world, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius – the anticipation grows that Tartt’s novel might resonate with the concerns of a time that has seen the treasures of great cultures destroyed in acts of war and terror. For surely, Tartt means us to recall the explosion, in Delft in October 1654, when a gunpowder arsenal blew up, killing hundreds of people, among them the young painter, Carel Fabritius. Perhaps her intention is that we should meditate on the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan buddhas?

But it’s not to be, despite the fact that, minutes before her death, Theo’s mother tells him as she stands before the painting, ‘Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. This may be what irritated some critics: apart from a couple of paragraphs at the end of the novel that feel tacked on, the miraculous survival of Fabritius’s painting in two explosions (one real, one fictitious) matters to Tartt only insofar as it provides the motor for the art-world crime thriller that makes up the final third of the book.

The longest section of the The Goldfinch is one which has led some critics to compare the novel to Dickens’s Great Expectations. A motherless child, Theo is first taken in by the wealthy Manhattan family of a nerdish school friend, presided over by the Miss Haversham-like figure of Mrs Barbour. But, after a few months his estranged alcoholic gambler of a father turns up to whisk him away to a barren suburb of Las Vegas.  There, Theo meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend: Boris, a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenage Ukrainian who leads Theo into a world of excess.

Along with the opening section, this was for me the best part of the novel.  Theo’s friendship with Boris – the son of a crooked Russian businessman, portrayed in vivid terms by Tartt –  is the backbone of the story.  It is this friendship, not anyone’s devotion to art and its ideals, that saves ‘The Goldfinch’ – and Theo himself.