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Wednesday 14 December 2016

Review: Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

The Victorians have left us so many narratives of themselves that we are spoilt for choice if we want to re-invent them for ourselves and in our own image. Sarah Perry’s historical novel – set in 1893 -  is very well crafted and constructed, the scenes tight, the prose never slack, but her characters do tend to those which will be handled without too much difficulty in the polite Creative Writing class discussion or the Sunday School (or Guardian) book club. Oh, true, there is adultery but not too much and even-handed lesbianism and male homosexuality but of a delicate kind to which even a vicar would have to give his blessing. It’s one of the helpful things about the Victorians; they did generally keep their clothes on. There is a minor sexual assault (p 178), but even then everyone appears to remain fully clothed. It sits rather awkwardly but  I assume it is there to provide one more motive for Naomi Banks to run away from home, but those motives are so dispersed through the book that I suspect readers may have forgotten them by the time Naomi reappears two hundred pages later.

Projection of our own wishes into the past is one of the risks in writing – and reading - historical fictions. Another and simpler risk is that of anachronism, the kind which a friend or an editor will spot. Sarah Perry knows her material well and has been left to slip only occasionally: a first-class stamp ( p 415), unknown to the Victorians proud of their classless system - for most of the period, one penny for a letter and a half-penny for a postcard; an urban housing situation which is unsustainable (p 282), a term which belongs in the  literary gutter anyway; and poor William Ewart Gladstone gadding about with hookers (p 48) which sounds to me so wildly out of place that surely I am wrong and it is a Victorianism revived by Sarah Perry. For most of us, Gladstone walked the streets in search of fallen women or prostitutes.

I read the first hundred and fifty or so pages – probably more - with ease and pleasure, but then there is a hundred pages where the chapters become over-burdened with sub-plots, specifically those set in London. These sub-plots take us away from the powerful device of the Essex Serpent, which is one of Perry’s big creative devices. Then it picks up again when the serpent returns. Her other big creative devices are her child characters, who despite what I presume are nods in the directions of autism and gender fluidity, are all splendidly imagined and largely unthinkable as modern children. Her mad woman in the attic, the tubercular Stella, is also very interestingly imagined. 

There is a short scene which moved me at page 387, a scene beautifully concluded, at the bottom of the page, by one of Perry’s infrequent and restrained flashes of humour.

I bought this book partly because I’d read an interview with the author in which she discussed her writing habits and partly because Waterstones had a very attractively bound and jacketed version on sale. The design and presentation of so many books in the shops is dire; this one has been thought about.

Monday 12 December 2016

Review: Dear Willy ... Edited by Claire Ohlsson Geheb

Click on Image to Magnify

This is an unusually interesting compilation of family letters and personal journals, kept in a suitcase by Willy Geheb (1900 - 1988), a blacksmith's and small farmer's son from rural Saxony in the eastern part of Germany. After the First World War, he leaves his home village to make his fortune in Brazil, Mexico and finally Chicago where he becomes an American citizen in 1934. He maintains - and keeps - a correspondence with his parents and members of a large family much of which survived to be discovered after his death, though material from the period after 1947 is missing.

From the point of view of a social historian, there is much here of interest. There is the hard life of an immigrant, the ambivalence of his family about his departure, their own changing circumstances as Germany struggles in the 1920s, their prompt adoption of Hitler in 1933, and their total dependence on Chicago-based Willy and his wife Irma for material help after Germany's defeat and the incorporation of their region into the Soviet Zone of east Germany. The letters which detail the contents of the parcels they have received are testimony to the poverty of immediate post-war Germany. But the birth of children is a constant of the family history, and no one ever hints at the possibility of achieving a better life through limiting family size. For, traditionally, children were assets to farming and small artisanal families. But in this story,not all of them survive and many are plagued by ill health.

Willy's blacksmith father is a conscientious letter-writer and tries to hold together a narrative and a set of values for the whole family until his death in 1945. He is stern, moralising and does not have a moment's hesitation in adding Hitler and Nazism to the Lutheran Christianity which serves him up until 1933. One of his sons, Paul, who comes across as rather unpleasant in his earlier letters to his brother Willy becomes an active Nazi. Willy in his letters is always urging other members of his family to get out and make their fortune in the USA but none do. His own letters are lively and concerned and, in the end, after 1945, he becomes the typical migrant burdened by the material needs of those back home, though he never complains and goes well beyond the call of family duty..

The family documents itself in photographs as well as letters, and the documentation must be unusually extensive for a family where no one has much formal education, even though by the standards of their village, they are well-established and relatively prosperous.

There is a Wikipedia page for Willy Geheb's home village of Schmirma and this book should certainly be added to the references on that page. There was no point at which the translation struck me as likely to be forced or wrong, and the book reads easily with fairly unobtrusive editorial comments to help sustain transitions in the story.

Most books I review here are ones I have bought; this one was sent to me for review.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Reading To Some Purpose - Advice to a Young Academic

I sometimes imagine some post-mortem pie chart which shows how I used the hours of my life. 

Sleeping will provide the biggest slice, of course. Next might come eating but I am pretty sure that in my case it will be substantially beaten by reading. I began reading a lot when I was about eleven and, since mine was a home without books, they came at first from public libraries. In the sixth form, I began buying my own books. Newly arrived at university, my rather scary Economics tutor, the late John Corina, snapped at me, “Book a day, Pateman! Book a day!” thus setting a reading target which I often fulfilled then and, fifty years later, sometime still do. And there aren’t many books you can read in under six or seven hours, not if you read them as I always do, cover to cover. I very rarely skim a book. So Book a Day is almost a day’s work a day.

Asked that standard question about how – given a second chance - you would live your life differently, I would have to reply that I would think more about why I was using my time reading the book in my hand. Looking back, I have read far too many books for no obvious purpose, not even just for pleasure. Indeed, it would have better to have read more books for pleasure and fewer for the rather obscure purposes of self-improvement, or because the author was famous, or because it was sent to me for review, and so on through a long list.

I would certainly have written more academic papers – books, even - if instead of listening to that “Book a day!” injunction, I had told myself to read all and only that necessary to write the next paper which might then become a chapter of the next book. If any young academic ever asked my advice (they don’t), I would have to say, Always read with some purpose and the more narrowly-defined, the better.

I can see that there is a case against that view (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?). If you stumble around as a typical “general reader” (which is how I classify myself), you will chance upon things and, if you persist long enough – like decades - some things will link up and allow you some new insight denied to the researcher who sticks studiously to the literature “in their field”. That is surely true. 

Recently, I have been turning some old journal articles in Pragmatics into a book – optical scanning plus copy and paste makes it a cakewalk. I took the decision to make a consolidated Bibliography for everything rather than leave references at the end of each chapter. And when I checked through the fourteen pages which resulted, I was very impressed. Whatever the quality of the chapters - probably mixed - the Bibliography is in a league of its own. And (with two or three exceptions) I have read everything on it. But no one is going to buy my book to read my Bibliography, even though I can’t help feeling it deserves a prize for effort.

What I now see in that Bibliography is the disproportion between the effort expended and the result. Many of those things read contributed no more than a sentence in a footnote and, frankly, a sentence in a footnote is not worth several hours’ work, not unless the result is a very highly polished pearl of a sentence. But if it’s that, it shouldn’t be in a footnote in the first place and it shouldn’t be a sentence. Academics nowadays are measured for their output of orange juice, and you will be out of a job if you only produce concentrated orange juice.

I find it hard to break with old habits. Not so long ago, I ordered a dozen books off Amazon, some deliciously obscure. One of them, I knew in advance, might contribute one sentence to something I was working on. I was going to read four hundred pages on Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought to squeeze out that one sentence. I just had to make a pearl of it. But, for once, reason won out and after making myself skim the book I decided not to try for that one sentence.

In truth, I know there are short-cuts. Take my advice. Use them.

The Times Higher invites emailed submissions of short Opinion pieces. I sent this in a few months ago, but got no reply, so here it is on my Blog