Friday, 28 June 2013

Will Wiles, Care of Wooden Floors (Harper Press, 2012)

As you can tell at once from the date of its publication, Care of Wooden Floors is a new acquisition, post-dating our Edinburgh-Manchester move.  I had seen the novel on display in bookshops and been drawn to its title; then a Twitter exchange between Gregory and the author, Will Wiles, led to its purchase and arrival in our home.

Despite the fact that I was busy with events in London while I was reading this book, I finished it in about a week.  It's a relatively short novel at just under 300 pages, but length doesn't really have much to do with how quickly I read a book.  It can take hours just to get through the first chapter of something less absorbing, or just denser in style and content.  Care of Wooden Floors, in short, is one of those novels which, once you've started, you've just got to finish, and quickly.  If you share my sense of humour, you'll also be laughing out loud, even in a public place.  Or perhaps especially so, if you enjoy making displays of mild exhibitionism.  

The protagonist, whose name we never learn, has travelled to an also-nameless East European city to house-sit for his old university friend, Oskar.  Oskar's relationship with his Californian wife, Laura, has unravelled; he has been called to Los Angeles to finalise arrangements for their divorce and, nervous about leaving his flat and cats unattended, asks his friend (whom I will call X for clarity) to help him out.  Our hero arrives to find that the flat which is to be his home - and responsibility - for the next few weeks is a haven of pristine, monochrome minimalism.  On the kitchen table is a letter from the absent host giving useful details of how to look after the cats (including a request to prevent them from sitting on the white leather sofa), when the cleaner will visit and, most importantly, what to do if anything should happen to the pale wooden floors of French oak which Oskar has had laid throughout and whose importance to him he is at pains to emphasise.  None of this sounds too difficult, despite the fact that the cats are already on the sofa, and X looks forward finally to having the space and time to work on his novel.  Writing copy for London borough councils on recycling and parking regulations leaves him little time for more literary ventures, and he is convinced that the words will flow in his new environment.  What could possibly go wrong?  Everything and anything, of course, as the set-up in the first chapter makes clear, and it does.  As X's stay lengthens, he begins to feel micro-managed by the peremptory notes from Oskar which confront him at every turn, and a rebellious spirit sets in.  X, we soon discover, also has a close relationship with alcohol, and, predictably enough, booze and minimalism don't mix.

Along the way we learn something of X and Oskar's relationship during their student days and since, including Oskar's fruitless quest to make undergraduates understand the importance of using coasters and the disasterous dinner party at which X is first introduced to Laura, his friend's soon-to-be ex-wife.  X reflects on these incidents while wandering aimlessly around the city that Oskar has made his home and where he composes and conducts classical music for the local orchestra.  Wiles conveys a powerful sense of the dislocation of being in an unfamiliar city, which he accentuates by not disclosing which city it is, if indeed it is a real place and not a fictional construct.  X tries and fails to make the place give up its secrets, encountering only menacing dogs in canal-side wastelands, impenetrable concrete behemoths and hard-drinking locals who entice him into lap-dancing clubs.  The book jacket tells us that Wiles is an "architecture and design journalist", and this comes as no surprise - he knows his Modernism from his Brutalism, and uses this knowledge to create a strong sense of space and place, both in Oskar's exquisitely-maintained apartment and its murkier environs.

Oskar, in X's words, is a man who has "fought entropy to a standstill and forced it to accept his terms".  X, on the other hand, "signed an armistice" with the same long ago, as the wine stains and cigarette burns which decorate his basement flat in Clapham testify.  Care of Wooden Floors weighs these two positions in the balance, asking whether it is in fact possible for human beings to fight the natural slide of objects and events into chaos, and win.  The answer - it isn't - is not perhaps a surprise, but the twists and turns of events which reveal this conclusion have an exhilarating, even a bravura quality to them.  We think we are watching disaster unfold and are enjoying our gasps of horror at each new development, but in the end disaster is not quite where we, X, Oskar, and his wife arrive.  One of the cats and the cleaner, on the other hand - well, perhaps it's best to pretend that some things never happened.     





Saturday, 27 April 2013

Mark Cocker, Crow Country (Jonathan Cape, 2007)

As I noted back in the summer, this blog has strayed somewhat from its original purpose.  Crow Country, however, is one of the books which I took from Edinburgh to Manchester as part of my project of reading the books I already own.  As some followers of this blog will know, Gregory and I have now moved again, this time to the Quaker Community in the beautiful Peak District (see - as you can tell, hyperlinks are still beyond me).  The eponymous books travelled with us, but have now been joined by many more of their fellows.  We have more space in our new living quarters, and - surprise, surprise - Gregory has filled a certain amount of it with books.  Finally he has fulfilled a life-long dream of having bookshelves made of planks laid on bricks, in the manner of a French intellectual or somesuch.  The bricks were liberated from the bike shed adjacent to our previous home, where they had evidently been sitting in piles since the flats were built, and the planks were foraged from the considerable collection here at the community.  The resulting shelves, I have to say, look great, and the joy of my husband was well worth the labour of transporting the bricks by van and wheelbarrow.  

Despite this expansion of their numbers, my efforts to keep dipping into the original selection of about 150 books continue - and so to Crow CountryThe inscription on the flyleaf tells me that it was a present from Gregory's sister and brother-in-law for Christmas 2007, shortly after its publication.  G was deeply impressed by it and spoke of it often, usually when flocks of rooks or jackdaws flew overhead while we were out walking.  Finally I have picked it up myself.

Cocker first got interested in corvids - as the genus is called - when he moved with his family from Norwich to the countryside outside it.  The ubiquity of the birds didn't put him off, and as he began to track their movements around the Yare Valley his attraction increased, almost to the point of obsession.  Cocker's attempts to understand these most commonplace yet symbolically potent birds took him the length and breadth of the UK and through the pages of countless texts on the subject.  Yet the image that remains from his book, for me, is of the author himself leaving his house at dusk, crossing the fields, searching for the right spot in which to station himself and waiting for the magical moment of the birds' departure for the nightly roost.  There's so much fascinating detail in this book, and so much wonderful writing, that it's hard to choose an exemplary passage.  This one, however, describing the dusk flight of a group of rooks and jackdaws, gives some flavour of the simplicity and intricacy that characterises Cocker's prose:

It begins almost casually.  A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost unnoticed until this point.  Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night.  Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape.  The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever-growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock.  It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba - one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.  (p. 4)

I read Crow Country while spending a week in the tiny Gloucestershire village where my father spends most of his time.  I found myself choosing to go out for walks at around five or six o'clock in the afternoon: prime roosting time.  I've often complained about people who stop and start when they walk - I prefer to keep the rhythm of my stride going, and get irritated if I can't do so - but on these excursions I found myself pausing, listening out for the crows, trying to work out where they were coming from and where they were going, distinguishing between rooks and jackdaws by their shape and call.  None of this can be done whilst on the move - I had to stand still and pay attention.   As I stopped for some minutes by a tree that was obviously a roost, picking out the different sounds emanating from it, I reflected that this was how Mark Cocker must have stood, gleaning the material for passages on the variety of the birds’ calls and how they reflect their mood.  I’ve known the Coln Valley for twenty-two years, since I was twelve, but now it was becoming legible, alive: the birds were more than background noise, the landscape more than a pleasant backdrop to my own exercise-induced musings.  Perhaps the greatest gift of nature writers like Cocker is their habit of patient observation, the time they've spent honing the quality of their attention.  Gregory is also a close observer of the natural world, and the most frequent recipient of my exhortations to just keep moving, but as I stood by that tree I had a glimpse of that elusive thing: the inner life of one’s partner.  He would stand just like this, I thought, watching and listening, and this is what it feels like. 

Nature writers sharpen our awareness of everything around us; and perhaps there's no true environmental witness without this kind of attention.  Books like Cocker's invite us to slow down enough to learn to read the natural world, and from there to understand the smallness of our place in it.  Through them, the intelligence of other species becomes observable, as pattern layers itself on pattern and the infinite richness of life reveals itself.  The same is true of the kind of environmental witness based on bringing care and attentiveness to everyday actions: being sufficiently present not to over-fill the kettle or let it boil longer than it needs to, or any other of the endless ways in which we can try not to take up quite so much space in the world.  Can we slow down enough, then, to minimise the damage we do?  Time, it turns out, is the currency of a slower, greener, more satisfying world.  Time to spend with each other, so we don’t need to consume to fill the gaps in our lives.  Time to grow vegetables and then cook them from scratch, time to make bread, time to gather and chop wood.  Time to go for a walk and appreciate what's out there.  Time to read.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

John Lanchester, Capital (Faber & Faber, 2012)

Ah, the joy of Christmas - being given books as presents.  I received some wonderful ones this year: Trollope's Barchester Towers (my dad), Jenny Uglow's The Pinecone (fascinating-sounding biography of the nineteenth-century woman who designed a church near Carlisle; Gregory) and John Lanchester's Capital (my brother).

John Lanchester started writing a novel set in the City of London a few years before the financial crash, but what he found there inspired him to turn to non-fiction instead.  The result was Whoops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010), an account of the crisis which I found dismaying and exhilarating in equal measure.  The sheer excitement of discovering exactly what a Credit Default Swap is prevented me from feeling quite as angry as I should have at the way they and other financial instruments were used to undermine the global financial system.  Bailing out the banks has left us all poorer: some missed their bonus for a year, others lost their jobs, others their disability benefit and yet more their access to public libraries and parks.  And yet I found Lanchester's book curiously empowering.  Those of us who are not mathematically minded tend to think that we couldn't possibly understand the complex workings of the financial markets; as it turns out, there were good reasons for keeping us in this subserviant state of ignorance.  Never again, shows Lanchester, need we let anyone pull the wool over our eyes: if we want to know what's going on, who's selling what to whom under what spurious triple-A credit rating and why, we can.  Knowledge may not be power in this instance, but it might inspire us finally to get on with it and take our overdrafts somewhere else.  And that can only be a good thing.

So I was already positively disposed towards John Lanchester - not just for Whoops, but also for Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour, his second and third novels.  Set over the course of the year leading up to the financial crisis, Capital zooms in on just one London street.  Pepys Road is London in miniature, a microcosm of a city whose property market has brought rich and poor into uncomfortably close proximity.  Petunia Howe, now 82, is still living in the house at no. 42 bought by her grandfather before it was even built.  Roger and Arabella Yount, by contrast, bought theirs, no. 51, for two and a half million pounds around the turn of the millenium.  The Kamal family live in a flat above the corner shop which services the needs of Pepys Road's diverse community.  Freddy Kamo, a seventeen-year-old football star fresh from his recruitment in Senegal, has just arrived at no. 27 together with his father.  Quentina Mkfesi, an asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe, patrols the streets as a traffic warden, while Bogdan (real name Zbigniew, but that's a bit of a mouthful for Arabella Yount), a builder from Poland, attends to the insatiable hunger in the street for new wet rooms and conservatories.

Pepys Road is fertile territory for a novel about having money, trying to get more of it, and losing it all.  Capital is also about the forces which shape the life of a city and how they intersect with the lives of its inhabitants as they flow in and out, seeking a share of its wealth and opportunity.  From the young footballer totally uncorrupted by his sudden rise to fame to the 40-year-old banker who finds himself in genuine need of his million-pound bonus to sustain his family's lifestyle, Lanchester demonises no-one.  If I have a criticism of Capital, however, it is of its tendency to pit the honest immigrant worker against the over-privileged native.  The builders and traffic wardens gain our sympathy while the bankers and their wives do not.  Nonetheless, this is a very enjoyable novel - one of those big 600-odd-pagers that you can devour in a week, and as such it gives a very particular pleasure.

What else have I been reading?  Some folk will know that we moved once again in January, this time to the Quaker Community in the Peak District, and the upheaval has caused several books to be read without being recorded.  Before Christmas I read a number of books on simplicity, the Quaker testimony and spiritual practice, in preparation for a weekend on decluttering which I was due to facilitate at the community.  I read Alison Moore's Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse and thoroughly recommend it: spare, menacing, impressively taught and easily worth its many accolades which have also brought its publisher, Salt, a well-deserved higher profile.  Since Capital I've read Catherine Fox's novel Angels and Men, an evocative and enjoyable campus novel set among students at a thinly-veiled Durham University.  The richness of its fictional world made me reluctant to start another novel too quickly, and so I've turned to Mark Cocker's Crow Country, which is already making me gaze upwards and try to distinguish between a rook and a jackdaw, and which I'll write about next.      

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (Andre Deutsch, 1987) and How It All Began (Penguin, 2012)

Penelope Lively is one of those writers whom I associate indelibly with my childhood; not so much from my own reading, though I dimly recall The Ghost of Thomas Kempe passing through my hands, but because I remember my mother reading her.  A copy of Moon Tiger took up residence by the parental bed in, presumably, 1987, when it won the Booker Prize, making its author a minor celebrity in Islington, where she was living and I was growing up.  I didn't start reading Lively myself until recently, when it emerged that Gregory had, perhaps unusually for a man of his generation, a great enthusiasm for her writing.  One of his teachers had managed to persuade a class of 14-year old boys to read The Road to Litchfield, and in one of them at least he planted the seed of an enduring interest.

The Road to Litchfield (1977), Lively's first novel, is a quietly impressive piece of work, and nothing else I'd read by her had equalled it until I read Moon Tiger.  Gregory's copy must be the very same one that I remember my mother having: the distinctly 1980s cover design is sharply familiar.  It's an intricately crafted novel which wears its craft lightly, covering a lot of historical and emotional ground deftly and, ultimately, very movingly.  The central character is Claudia Hampton, whom we first meet during her final days in hospital.  Her life, rich in adventure and touched with tragedy, is ending, and as the novel shuttles backwards and forwards in time we gradually piece together the events which have shaped it and the people who have charted its course.  The core of the novel takes place in wartime Egypt, where Claudia is working as a journalist.  She is resilient in the face of discomfort, danger and sexism, laying the foundations for a distinguished career as a writer and historian, but she has much worse to face in the form of a devastating bereavement.  As she struggles to make sense of her life in its aftermath, we see her becoming not just tough but toughened, and the results become clear in the relationships which she goes on to form.  Moon Tiger is a serious and subtle novel, offering at the same time the pleasure of encountering a whole spectrum of characters at different stages of their lives from a variety of perspectives.  It's like a multi-faceted ornament, reflecting light from each surface as you turn it in your hand.  At only 200 pages long, it seems to contain vastly more than many much longer novels.

How It All Began is Lively's latest novel.  I bought a copy after a talk she gave as part of the Manchester Literary Festival this year, a wonderful event in which she was unfalteringly interesting and entertaining for a whole hour - no small achievement.  Her topic was her life not as a writer, but as a reader: a very refreshing approach and an unusual one in the context of a book festival, where writers are mainly concerned to promote their latest book.  Unfortunately I hadn't read any of the three novels which she recommended as essential reading for anyone interested in how novels are written - Henry James's What Maisie Knew, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and William Golding's The Inheritors - but who knows, maybe one of them will show up on this blog in due course.

How It All Began has a likeable if unastonishing premise: how an event in one person's life can trigger a ripple effect, quickly having repercussions in the lives of complete strangers.  The novel opens with a series of such events: Charlotte, an elderly woman living in London, is mugged in the street, leaving her in hospital with a broken hip; her daughter Rose cannot therefore accompany her employer, an aging historian, to his lecture engagement; his niece Marion is obliged to go instead, causing her to cancel a meeting with her lover; the text message conveying this news is read by his wife, precipitating the end of their marriage.... and so on.  We might expect that by the end of the novel things will never be the same for any of them ever again, but in fact this is not really the case: most of the characters are in pretty much the same place as they began, having weathered a year of unforeseen and potentially life-changing events.  Perhaps Lively is suggesting that life is more cyclical than linear, or perhaps that we rarely learn from experience, contriving instead to dodge opportunities to change our lives.  I read How It All Began in a couple of days and found it very entertaining, but it doesn't compare to Moon Tiger for depth or complexity.  I recommend them both, for two rather different reading experiences.                  


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Summer reading and reflections on blog-keeping

Regular readers will notice that there has once again been a period of silence from me on this blog, for which I can only apologise.  I've been busy with other things, most notably preparing for and then taking my yoga assessment - which I passed.  So now there's no excuse not to get round to all the things which I put off in the run-up to the exam. 

I've been enjoying writing this blog and feeling very grateful that people actually appear to read it, but at the same time I've found keeping it up a bit difficult.  I thought I would take a pause from book reviews and share some of why that is with you.  As someone who has worked mainly in self-driven ways for the last several years - doing a PhD, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship, mixed in with training as a yoga teacher - I'm very familiar with the peaks and troughs in my own self-discipline.  Inevitably, this blog has sometimes felt like yet another thing I need to get round to, and yet another source of self-reproach.  But what I've found hardest about it - which many of you may find entirely unsurprising - is sticking to the perameters which I set for it in the beginning.  You may recall that I started this blog in February this year in a fit of enthusiasm for reading the books I already owned, or rather those of them which had travelled from Edinburgh to Manchester in the eponymous wine boxes.  And some of them I have indeed read, and been very glad that I have - the satisfaction of discovering what lies between the covers of a book that's been sitting on the shelf for years is a very true and pure one, combining pleasure with virtue, and for how much of what we do in life can we claim that distinction?  The discipline of then writing a short piece about each book has also been welcome; I've enjoyed the process of crafting sentences which encapsulate something of the essence of the book and give a sense of my response to it, as well as something of the background that may have conditioned that response.  It's reminded me that I do actually enjoy writing, something that doing a PhD has a tendency to call into question.

But - and it's a big but, as it's turned out - the blog has also reaffirmed some of what reading means to me, and not all of it is compatible with the discipline I set for myself.  For me, as I'm sure for many of us, reading is one of the ways in which I think.  I seek out books which I hope will help me reflect on whatever is currently preoccupying me: the things that interest me, the decisions I have to make, the skills I want to acquire or refine.  I suppose this is the result of having been brought up as a reader, and having therefore unconsciously absorbed the notion that books and life are inseparable. 

At the same time there is an aspect of my reading life that is close to my desire to see new films as they come out at the cinema: keeping up with the new and emergent.  Here having a writer for a husband and living in a city which seems to put on a literary event every other night do not help.  The "one-in-one-out" book purchasing policy which pertained in Edinburgh has been abandoned in Manchester, due to Gregory's tardis-like office, apparently ever capable of accommodating more books.  We go to a lot of readings, and when we like what we hear we often buy the book.  Well, you've got to support new authors, haven't you?  And there's the thrill of discovery - the new voice that's not quite like any other you've heard before, but may be hearing a lot more of.

All of which adds up to saying that confining myself to reading the books I already owned when I moved to Manchester has proved beyond me.  So in the future I propose the following: I will alternate my posts, one on a long-owned book and the next on something else.  Sometimes one has to be flexible to be sustainable, no?        

In this new spirit of diversity I'll tell you a little about what I read over the summer and since.  The big read was David Mitchell's second novel Number 9 Dream, the only one of his five novels which I hadn't read and which I pounced on in the Chorlton Oxfam bookshop.  There's something satisfying in having read everything by a particular author, and there aren't many that fall into that category for me.  Anything by Mitchell is well worth reading - he's entertaining, intelligent and constantly surprising.  Number 9 Dream is set in contemporary Tokyo and centres on nineteen-year-old Eiji Mijake and his search for the father he has never known.  From murderous bowling alleys to pizza delivery outlets, it's a rollercoaster of a quest story, leaving me wondering more than once what had really happened and what was, as the cliche goes, all just a dream.  Perhaps this doesn't really matter so much, but those of us who had it drilled into us at primary school that getting oneself out of a narrative cul-de-sac by suddenly announcing that the main character woke up and found that it had all been a dream is not acceptable literary technique may find more to quibble with.  Number 9 Dream is also a novel to be read quickly, as I realised only once I had picked it up and put it down several times, the summer months not giving much opportunity for sustained reading.  Nonetheless I recommend it, whether as an introduction to the wonderful David Mitchell or to fill in a gap in your reading of him.

Other reads were much shorter and fell into the category of things that happened to cross my path.  Browsing in the Buddhist Centre in the Northern Quarter I came across a small book by a Buddhist woman on community living; since Gregory and I had spent much of the late spring and summer considering whether we ourselves should go and live in an intentional community, I found it a helpful read.  I also read a short and very incisive book by a Quaker of our acquaintance, David Blamires, entitled Pushing at the Frontiers of Change: A Memoir of Quaker Involvement with Homosexuality.  This was a fascinating account of how Quakers came to be in the fore-front of sexual equality - something that I as a younger-generation Quaker have felt very proud of, without having any real understanding of how it came about and how uneven the road towards it was.  David starts with the 1960s and the landmark publication of a text which came to the very forward-thinking conclusion that it was the quality of the relationship between two people which mattered, not their sexuality or marital status.  This was the work of a small group of Quakers, however, and stirred up much controversy.  It was probably the last time that Quakers made national news until the recent decision in 2010 to celebrate same-sex marriage and to campaign for a change in the law.

Reading books by people I know is another feature of my reading life, and the next post will return to the original purpose of this blog with a review of The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough, hopefully before too much time has elapsed.  After that, Penelope Lively. 



Friday, 24 August 2012

David Leavitt, Florence: A Delicate Case (Bloomsbury, 2002)

The non-fiction strain of this blog continues with the next book, a beautifully produced, enticingly slim number I bought I can’t even remember when, and have hauled around ever since intending to read.  David Leavitt, an American academic and writer of fiction who divides his time between Florence and Florida, contributed this book on the Tuscan city to a series which Bloomsbury published under the title “The Writer and the City”.  My own visits to Florence must have inspired me to buy it, and limited as my experience of the city is, Leavitt seems to me to have captured something essential when he writes about it as a place which plays host to thousands of visitors, drawn by its heavy freight of art and culture - fully a fifth of the world's stock, according to Leavitt - while concealing its real life behind closed doors.  The streets of Florence, as anyone who has been there will know, are strangely forbidding: tall, heavily rusticated walls keep the narrow alleys in perpetual shadow, hiding courtyards only glimpsed by chance as someone arrives or leaves through thick, iron-bolted doors.  Sparkling light, greenery, flowers, burbling fountains: all these are hidden away, not for the lowly tourist who spends hours queueing for his or her glimpse of the priceless works of art contained within the Uffizi or the Academia. 

Perhaps part of the attraction for Florence’s historically large ex-pat community was the challenge of penetrating this closed world, of becoming one of the elect observing the melee from the heights of Fiesole or Settignano, drinking tea at the invitation of a Countess.  This is the world on which Leavitt turns his gaze.  The book's title is taken from Henry James, who apparently described the city as "a delicate case", pointing to the strange fact that, as Leavitt notes, its most famous citizens, at least in the last 150 years, have all been foreigners who, in many cases, thought they knew better than the Florentines how to preserve their precious treasures.  Leavitt proceeds to regale us with a seamless flow of anecdotes about these various foreigners, each vignette the basis for a book in itself.  We move between well-known figures - E M Forster, staying with his mother at the Pensione which would become the model for the more famous one containing the room with the view; John Ruskin, bemoaning the erection of an omnibus stand by the bell tower in the Piazza della Signora - and more obscure ones.  Leavitt has a particular interest in Florence's appeal to gay men and women, recounting the exodus from London that took place at the end of the nineteenth century in the wake of the Labouchere Amendment and its dire consequences for Oscar Wilde.  Ironically, Labouchere himself ended up in Florence on his retirement, living "cheek by jowl" as neighbour to Lord Henry Somerset, who had fled London and his wife after she found him "in flagrante delicto with a teenage boy named Harry Smith".  The resulting scandal played out worse for the wife, Isabel, who made her discovery public and thus "flouted the Victorian code of 'reticence for women'", finding herself "persona non grata in English society".  In the more relaxed environment of Florence, Lord Henry, by contrast, set about enjoying his exile.

The art of Florence, of course, also features heavily.  There is a wonderful section on Michelangelo's David, which left me wondering once again how on earth Leavitt had uncovered all this stuff.  David's left arm, apparently, was broken off in 1527 when a riot broke out in front of the Palazzo Vecchio where he was on display.  The sculpture, having been moved shortly after its completion, was shifted once again in 1873, this time into its current home inside the Accademia.  Leavitt's descripton of David's progress through the streets of Florence in a cart running along specially constructed rails, is marvellous: "His famous posture - head turned, eyes glancing hesitantly over the left shoulder - takes on new pathos [...], as if what he is regarding with such worry is actually the gradual disappearance of the only home he has ever known".  The David now outside in the Piazza Signora is a replica, but even this has not been immune to mistreatment: a vandal broke off one of its toes in 1991.

Florence's artworks have suffered disaster several times, and Leavitt knows about them all.  The most moving account is of the great flood of November 1966, when the Arno burst its banks and muddy river water coursed through the city, reaching a height of six metres inside the Duomo.  The catalogue of what was lost is heartbreaking, but a light was shone into the horror by the generosity of hundreds of students and young people who came from all over the world to help repair the damage.  When Senator Edward Kennedy arrived in Florence to survey the scene, he found in the National Library "thousands of students up to their waists in water, working by candlelight", fishing the damaged books out of the water and passing them from hand to hand so they could have absorbent paper inserted between their leaves.   Who knows how much greater the loss would have been without the interventions of the volunteers, who became known as the "angeli del fango", or mud angels.  One young woman, of course, met her future husband in the line at the library, and never returned to the US.  In 1996 there was a 30th anniversary reunion in Florence for the mud angels, and another American woman, who had celebrated her twentieth birthday during the flood, returned for her fiftieth.

I'm sure that having visited Florence added a lot to my enjoyment of this book.  Nonetheless, I recommend it highly even if you haven't been to the city.  As an example of how to write this kind of book - an intelligent, lightly academic, amusing mixture of history and contemporary observation - it probably cannot be bettered. 


Friday, 22 June 2012

Karen Armstrong, Buddha (Phoenix, 2000) and A Short History of Myth (Canongate, 2005)

Sorry for the long-ish gap in posting.  Initial blogging enthusiasm has perhaps been tempered by poor blogging discipline as the months have gone by.  Nonetheless, since this blog has focused exclusively on fiction so far, and since this represents neither a true picture of my reading habits in general nor the selection of books that came to Manchester in particular, it seems appropriate to turn to some non-fiction.  I hope you'll forgive the gap when you see that this post combines reviews of two books by the same author: a biography of the Buddha and A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Karen Armstrong to me.  I first came across her when her memoir, The Spiral Staircase, was the book of the week on Radio 4 early in 2004.  Having caught a few episodes, I went out and bought the book.  Perhaps I mentioned earlier that I buy very few books: something, clearly, had persuaded me that this one was worth it, and, my goodness, my instinct was right.  Armstrong's account of life after seven years in a convent is compelling, moving and inspiring, but what also struck me was her suggestion that there were more ways of being religious than I had taken into account.  I had assumed, like most people, that religion was a matter of belief: for those of us brought up within the Christian tradition, either you accepted certain premises about the nature of God and the events around the crucifiction and resurrection of one Jesus Christ, or you didn't.  If you did, you could be a Christian, go to church and so on, and if you didn't, you couldn't.  I wanted to believe those things, but increasingly, as I wandered from church to church in an attempt to have some kind of religious practice in my life, I found that I just didn't.  I was going from time to time to the church across the road from my flat in Edinburgh, but growing more and more uncertain than I was in the right place.  I was getting tired of saying to myself, "but it's just a metaphor", as I repeated the words of the creed, and other ways of getting round the obvious (to me) untruth of what seemed to be the central tenets of the Christian faith.  Then I read Karen Armstrong, and began to understand that the emphasis on literal belief was a very modern element of religious observance, and that other religions weren't nearly so keen on it.  The stories of the Bible were, she explained, to be taken as myth, not literal, scientifically-provable truth.  If they inspired their followers to live deeper, richer, more outwardly-focused lives, then they were doing their job, regardless of whether the events described had actually happened or not.  Practice was the important thing, and, in particular, the practice of compassion, which has since become Armstrong's principal concern. 

Karen Armstrong never mentioned the Quakers, and it wasn't until October 2006 that I attended a meeting for the first time, but the seed of my life as a Quaker, as it would become, was laid with her book.  For that, I am profoundly grateful.  In the Quakers I found a group of people who seemed to be following the principles that Armstrong had identified: less concerned with belief than with practice, they never asked me to define what I understood by God or make any statements of faith, but they did expect me, like all Quakers, to make a serious attempt to live by the testimonies of peace, truth, simplicity and equality.  In the gathered silence of a Quaker meeting I found a depth of experience which no other religious ritual had previously offered me; that silence seemed the most eloquent response possible to an awareness of the sacred, and when Friends did speak, what they said often spoke to me much more profoundly than the traditional Christian liturgy.  Through the Quakers I came to understand what a religious community could be, and why anyone would want to be a part of one.  For the first time it seemed possible actually to be friends with the people with whom I was worshipping, rather than dashing away as soon as I could in case someone hijacked me and put me on the flower rota.

Well, the rotas came along later, but by that time I was hooked, and being asked to make coffee or welcome people at the door seemed more like an opportunity than a burden.  Since that first meeting I've re-read The Spiral Staircase several times, and acquired copies of Buddha and A Short History of Myth.  I started Buddha some time ago, got half-way through and got distracted, so, having brought both books to Manchester, it seemed a good moment to finish one and read the other, and review them together here.

Armstrong had written a number of books on religion before Buddha, including a biography of Mohammed and the magisterial A History of God.  She seems in very comfortable territory with Buddhism - a non-theistic religion whose focus is on right action rather than right belief, and whose founder always insisted on the central importance of experience over second-hand knowledge.  The Buddha's story is an inspiring one, of a young man compelled to leave his home, go out into the world as a mendicant monk and devise a new religious system for a people restless and dissatisfied with what was currently on offer.  At the same time, I can't help feeling for the Buddha's wife and infant son who found themselves abandoned in the cause of the new faith; several years later, when the Buddha came back to his home town and converted many there, including his father, his wife refused to forgive him, and who can blame her?  As Armstrong recounts the principal events of the Buddha's life - his birth, departure from home, search for a new approach to life, formation of a group of adherents or Sangha, travels around ancient India and finally his death - we of course learn a lot about Buddhism, and what an appealing religion she makes it appear.  The original monks, she tells us, were a cheerful bunch, whose apparent happiness with their lot drew comment wherever they went  Fundamentally, the Buddha was "trying to forge a new way of being human":

The evident contentment of his bhikkhus [monks] showed that the experiment was working.  The monks had not been infused with supernatural grace or reformed at the behest of a god.  The method devised by the Buddha was a purely human initiative.  His monks were learning to work on their natural powers as skillfully as a goldsmith might fashion a piece of dull metal and make it shining and beautiful, helping it to become more fully itself and to achieve its potential.  It seemed that it was possible to train people to live without selfishness and to be happy. [...] 'Unskillful' states, such as anger, guilt, unkindness, envy and greed, were avoided not because they had been forbidden by a god or were 'sinful' but because the indulgence of such emotions was found to be damaging to human nature. (pg. 129-30)

The "method" devised by the Buddha used well-established practices of concentration and meditation, chiefly from yoga, to transcend the temporal, illusory and impermanent and to break free of attachments to possessions, status and, ultimately, life itself.  The idea of status, together with the wealth which it brought, was an illusion, since these things could never endure but must give way to the more powerful forces of change which govern human life.  Aligning oneself with reality, then, meant submitting to this knowledge, and, in doing so, to achieve a kind of liberation: clinging on to possessions, people and comfortable ways of living could never bring an individual into a deeper spiritual life.  This is a familiar message to anyone conversant with even the rudiments of religious teaching: all faiths exhort their followers to break free of convention and question their most dearly-held assumptions about what matters in life.  Buddhism does this, however, without reference to an omnipotent, omniscient God - human beings can achieve enlightenment all on their own.  The yogic disciplines mentioned above are pretty intense, though, and Armstrong leaves us in no doubt that enlightenment, while theoretically attainable by anyone, is the result of a lifetime of hard spiritual work and not of a week's course in an ashram.  I was nevertheless interested to find concepts emerging which were already familiar to me from my study of yoga - many readers will know that I am training to be a teacher of the Iyengar method.  It's widely thought that yoga is a form of exercise, good for stretching the body and maybe feeling a bit calmer, but this is not in fact the case - physical postures, or asana, are only one of the eight limbs of yoga.  The first two, discussed by Armstrong, are yama and niyama - ethical disciplines which provide the basis for the adherent's practice and which include non-violence, truthfulness, self-control, non-covetousness, cleanliness, contentment, enthusiasm, self-knowledge and surrender to something greater than oneself.  The remaining limbs, after asana and pranayama (breathing exercises), are forms of meditation increasing in intensity from withdrawal of the senses from external stimuli (pratyahara) to complete absorption in the oneness of the universe (samadhi).  Most of us who practice yoga only get a short way along this path.  The Buddha and other "enlightened ones" went all the way along it, and yet remained in the world to teach others: the compassion essential to Buddhists demands that they share their knowledge and not vanish into a private spiritual realm of their own, however tempting that may be.

A Short History of Myth appeared in 2005 as the introduction to a series published by Canongate of ancient myths retold by contemporary authors.  They couldn't have asked a more appropriate person to provide a framework for the stories which followed.  Armstrong is clearly drawn to the mythic mode, finding in it a way of interpreting the world far more fruitful than literal belief.  She defines a myth as a story which, while not being literally true, contains a deeper truth about human experience.  Hence, she argues, the central importance of myth in religion, which, as we know, she sees as held back in modern times by an obsession with belief as an acceptance of factual propositions.  Myth, furthermore, goes hand in hand with ritual - and so it is that all religions link their central rituals to specific events in their mythology.  The Christian Eucharist is a re-enactment of Christ's death and resurrection, and has meaning whether you think that the man in question actually rose from the dead or not.  Similarly with the Jewish festival of Passover:

We do not know what actually happened when the people of Israel escaped from Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds [or Red Sea, when, according to the Bible, the waters parted to let them through], because the story has been written as a myth.  The rituals of Passover have for centuries made this tale central to the spiritual lives of Jews, who are told that each one of them must consider himself to be of the generation that escaped from Egypt.  A myth cannot be correctly understood without a transformative ritual, which brings it into the lives and hearts of generations of worshippers.  A myth demands action: the myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others.  By ritual practice and ethical response, the story has ceased to be an event in the distant past, and has become a living reality. (pg. 106-07)

There is much food for thought here, as in all Armstrong's writing.  For anyone interested in religion, there is no better guide to this famously bumpy terrain.  If more contemporary commentators on religion had even half her intelligence, open-mindedness and concern for compassion, we wouldn't be in the mess of wilful misunderstanding and intolerance of each other's faith, or absence of it, that we currently are.