Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

Based on this and Zorba, Kazantzakis was a bit like D.H. Lawrence: the first highly educated member of a working family, and suffering a crisis of masculinity as a result. But with Cretan shepherds instead of Nottinghamshire miners.

This book in particular, which is about a rebellion against the Turks, exhibits a glamorous, nostalgic view of the macho culture of Crete; manly men who sweat and fight and drink and feud and hold to the kind of code of honour that largely involves killing people at the smallest perceived slight. And who despise book-learning.

I don’t want to be unfair; the book is more nuanced than that account might suggest, and I don’t think Kazantzakis is whole-heartedly endorsing the palikari warrior culture he portrays. But considering the way his characters behave, he manages to seem a lot more admiring of them than I would be.

It’s also worth pointing out that the main Turkish character in the book is just as much of a palikari as any of the Greeks, so it’s not completely one-sided in that respect.

Anyway, leaving nationalism, gender politics and Kazantzakis’s internal class struggle aside for a minute, I enjoyed it. It’s a big dramatic novel full of striking characters and action, and if it edges into melodrama and stereotype, well, it’s that kind of book.


Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

This is rather less heavily drenched in the smell of male sweat than Freedom and Death, but it has rather similar themes of the relationship between education, thought, action and masculinity. Again I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence, and the Buddhism in this one brought Herman Hesse to mind; you could draw a parallel with Steppenwolf, for example.

The narrator is an intellectual, working on a book about Buddha, who buys a lignite mine, and develops a friendship with the man he has employed to run it—Zorba. There’s a very clear dynamic set up between the narrator’s intellectualism on the one hand and Zorba’s spontaneity and openness on the other. The bookish man learns all sorts of lessons from the enthusiasm for life of the man of action, as well as his untutored philosophy.

It would be very easy to make into the most awful kind of Hollywood movie* because of the rather obvious nature of that relationship, but the novel is better than the summary would suggest. Mainly because Kazantzakis writes good characters, dramatic situations and generally has the storytelling virtues that one associates with the great C19th novelists. And the details are interesting and unexpected enough to lift it above the obvious.

*I haven’t seen the movie version, so this isn’t a comment on that one way or the other.


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I’ve been meaning to read this ever since it came out because it just has the most brilliant title ever.

cover from Amazon

Is it just me, or is the cover of this edition really odd? It looks like it ought to be a novel about a stressed out career women and a handsome but bucolic farmer who are brought together by their shared love for a mischievous piglet, rather than a novel about everyone in the world being killed by genetically modified diseases.

Apparently Margaret Atwood strongly dislikes this book being referred to as ‘science fiction’. But by any obvious definition, a novel set in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by unbridled capitalism and scientific hubris is, well, sci-fi. Reading it, it didn’t even feel particularly far out of the mainstream of SF. I think you’d have to have read very little SF to believe that any of the ideas here set it apart. Not that I’ve read much sci-fi recently.

I do have some sympathy with writers who don’t think that their choice of subject matter automatically assigns them to a genre, though. I mean, it really isn’t very helpful to refer to Jane Austen’s novels as ‘romantic fiction’. Though J.K. Rowling’s claim that the Harry Potter books are somehow not fantasy novels really does seem a bit desperate.

Anyway, it’s well-written, as you’d expect from Atwood, and I enjoyed it, though the post-apocalyptic bits more than the pre-apocalypse flashbacks. Perhaps ‘literary sci-fi’ would be a fair description.

Culture Other

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The NY Times ‘sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”‘. You can see the list of works that got more than one vote here. I’ve read embarrassingly few of them; one that I have read is the most recent, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I read in Spain.

Considering the glowing reviews I read, I thought it was completely ordinary. The historical aspect of it – the speculation of how the US could have wandered into fascism under a Lindbergh presidency – was quite interesting and convincingly done. But as a literary work it did nothing for me. It felt like it could have been written by a journalist or a historian to make a historical point. I was reading it directly after some Pynchon, which probably made the style seem a bit flat in comparison, but still, the characterisation and dialogue seemed unremarkable to me. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been set in, say, Surrey instead of Newark it would have been more immediate for me, but I still wonder how it would have been received if it didn’t have Roth’s name attached to it.

The Pynchon, on the other hand (Gravity’s Rainbow), clearly was a remarkable bit of writing, but I’m not sure it was more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s generally a problem, though, with these sprawling, disjointed modernist novels going right back to Joyce and indeed Sterne – can the diversions and oddities justify themselves.

Anyway, I’m now rambling. I think it’s probably a mistake trying to talk coherently about literature and listen to the cricket at the same time. Jayawardene and Maharoof are doing a good job at the moment settling down the Sri Lankans but

And at that moment Hoggard took Maharoof’s wicket, caught and bowled. Leaving Sri Lanka on 129/7 in reply to 551/6 declared, which, in translation for my American readers, means they’re almost certainly going to get thrashed.


‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

I’ve just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which I found a bit disappointing. My problem, I realised after a while, was that I was expecting literary fiction and it was actually genre fiction.

Which is a slightly difficult statement to justify. It’s not literally true – there is no genre the book neatly fits into. It’s about people doing magic, so I guess you could call it fantasy, but the real-world setting (Regency London) means it would be just as fair to call it magic realism, in terms of subject matter. It doesn’t have a happy ending. It has some rather literary quirks – the whole thing is presented as a C19th text, complete with footnotes.* Certainly none of the (glowing) reviews quoted on the cover suggest it is anything but literary – though they’re only excerpts, of course, and may say more about the publisher’s marketing strategy than anything else.

It’s quite difficult to put my finger on why it reads the way it does. Prose style? Characterisation? It’s not straightforwardly a quality issue – there are plenty of bad books that are clearly literary in intent, and JS&MN is competently enough written. It’s something to do with the approach to storytelling, perhaps.

I should have checked Amazon; not the reviews, which are full of idiots comparing the novel to Austen and Thackeray, but the bit where it says:

Customers who bought books by Susanna Clarke also bought books by these authors:
J.K. Rowling
Terry Pratchett
Jonathan Stroud
Jasper Fforde

I might actually have enjoyed it more if I’d picked it up with different expectations – I do read plenty of non-literary fiction, including Pratchett and Rowling. Though I suspect JS&MN really needs to be cut down by a third, literary or not.

* I found the footnotes were pretty tedious, on the whole.


‘Blood and Roses’, ‘Being in Being’, ‘Don Quixote’

some thoughts on Blood and Roses, Being in Being, and Don Quixote

I recently finished Don Quixote (the new Edith Grossman translation). I read about half of it in my teens, before getting sidetracked, and decided that the 400th anniversary was a good time to have another go at it.

DQ is a great idea for a character, and Sancho Panza has his moments as well, and it stands up pretty well for something written in 1605, but… to be honest, I found it repetitive and a bit tedious. It felt like the same joke over and over again, and the characters didn’t develop as much as they could have. It’s also, considering that it’s famous above all as character-based humour, very literary and very rooted in its period. I’m unfamiliar with the romances that it is parodying, and that distances the whole thing. I also found it odd that, in a book which pokes fun at someone for believing in the literal truth of an earlier literary tradition, there are pastoral episodes about nobles going off into the woods to live as shepherds which seem to be treated unironically. It’s a familiar literary convention, of course, from Shakespeare (As You Like It, I think), but I found it hard to tell whether the pastoral episodes really were unironic or if I was just missing the joke. Perhaps it’s better in Spanish.

Being in Being is one of the volumes of Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Haida oral poetry – in this case the collected works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (The Haida are the native inhabitants of Haida Gwaii – i.e. the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific North-West). I find the poems generally quite intirguing, for their insight into the culture and the oddness (or differentness) of the literary conventions, but quite difficult to grapple with. The narrative logic of them wasn’t apparent to me, and even with Bringhurst’s notes and having read the introductory volume (A Story as Sharp as a Knife) I was aware of how much I was missing. I’m sure all sorts of details were supposed to carry some kind of significance that passed me by. There are all sorts of appealing aspects, though, like the way that the characters (most of whom are spirit beings) put on the skin of a person or animal to become that animal; or the way that, if an object is half blue-green and half reddish-brown, that means it will turn eveything upside down (literally or metaphorically) because those are the colours of the mallard, which up-ends to eat.

The stories are quite messy, structurally, very geographically rooted (many of the characters are the spirits attached to particular places in Haida Gwaii), and it seems, quite flexible according to who’s telling them and the occasion. I imagine that they give some idea of what the Greek myths would have been like when they were originally told, but we get them through the filter of hundreds of years of literacy and a couple of millennia of artistic response. As a result, not only do they tend to have a sheen of white marble about them, but they tend to be very tidy, canonical versions with very clear narrative logic. It may be that the assumption – that one early myth-telling tradition will be much like another – is a false one anyway. Perhaps the hunter-gatherers of the Peloponnese had a quite different way of telling stories.

One thing – after having watched Ray Mears making a birch-bark canoe from scratch on TV the other day, I did at least have a clearer idea of things like splitting cedar and tying things with spruce roots. Now if he could just make a program about fishing for halibut and hunting whales from a dug-out canoe using traditional tools.

Blood and Roses is a book I’m reading about the Paston family from Norfolk. They are famous in medievalist circles because a large selection of their personal correspondence has survived from the C15th. I have a copy of the selcted letters, but never got very far with it. Helen Castor has used them to produce a more conventional bit of history writing, supplying the context and helping you keep track of all the people (including the three different John Pastons). It’s still quite dry and repetitive – they spend most of their time up to their necks in legal disputes about land ownership – but once I got into it I found it quite involving. They were newly wealthy gentry; William P was a miller’s son made good as a successful lawyer, and the book mainly conerns his son and grandsons. So not exactly toilers in the fields, but still ‘ordinary people’ in that they weren’t important historical figures. It was the time of the Wars of the Roses, of course, and very turbulent. You do get a sense of how all of society – including the law – was tied into a system of patronage and influence, and that influence could be erratic, capricious, subject to political expedience, and corrupt. And of course, in a time of civil war, people could gain and lose influence extremely rapidly. And the Pastons were strong characters whose personalities emerge clearly from their letters.