Reviews of books I have read, cover to cover, and in addition occasional essays on more or less academic topics. My own books are all available at Blackwells.co.uk with some at discounted prices. They can also be found on Amazon. There are no e-book versions.Trevor Pateman
and memoir is a perilous business. We forget
and what we do remember has often been re-arranged in our minds but without
our knowledge. Then there is embarrassment about how we were then,
embarrassment which we may try to counter with a heavy dose of irony signalling
that Yes, We know, This is toe-curling. Then there are anxieties about what can
and can’t be said because so-and-so is still alive or because we reckon that
our audience will boo rather than laugh if we go down some particular,
incorrect path as we surely at some point did. Everyone has their satanic moments.
Recently, I tried to
imagine what I might say if asked to talk, autobiographically, to a student
audience in Oxford and I came out in a sweat. I'd like to think this had something to do with the fact that I see little point in public talk which does not have somekind of
edge. Nowadays, at any rate, I wouldn’t want simply to make an audience feel
good; I would want to challenge them a bit. Oh, I’m willing to come at it
gently enough but, eventually, I want to get to the edge, the point at which I
say something like Excuse me, I am not
convinced. The problem is not a tucked away, shit-covered statue of Cecil Rhodes.
The whole genre of monumental sculpture is misconceived. The thinking behind it
is essentially atavistic and the realisation is almost always artistically
without merit. Imagine there’s no statues. It’s easy if you try. The worst
thing that can happen is that we pull down one lot only to put up another.
Some of my fellow
students in 1960s Oxford were born with a silver spoon in their mouth - in some
cases, a fistful of spoons. Thus William Waldegrave, whose A Different Kind of Weather I reviewed here on 28 April 2015. Others were
nourished from birth, and sometimes force-fed, with cultural capital which in
Michael Rosen’s case spills in a continuous stream onto the pages of his
memoir. It’s hard to believe anyone could acquire so much capital so early in
Rosen (born 1946) is
the younger son of second generation migrants who are upwardly mobile. Through
the 1950s and into the 1960s, living in London, they manage at the same time to
be Communist, Jewish and sharp-elbowed, though it’s unclear in what order. I
knew Michael Rosen’s father a bit, a very lively and committed external
examiner on a university course I directed, and before that I knew his son as a
student at Oxford and then later as someone whose books I read to my children.
His memoir is lively
and funny. His coming of age chapter La
Colonie when at sixteen he goes to summer camp in France, without parents
or older brother, is very well done. I found the book most interesting when he
assembles bits of his cultural capital as it stood at a certain date and then stands back to reflect on what is
going on in his life. But for the most part he sticks to a conventional Memoir
form and, for example, does not attempt to link Life (to age twenty three) to later Work,
except very incidentally. Maybe that is simply someone else's job.
Life from an early age
was busy, and Rosen has always been busy – over 140 books, says the blurb.
Perhaps too busy. I found my father intolerable because he played the part of
an alcoholic who makes everyone around suffer, and my father most of the time wasn’t
even drinking. He was just uninterested in other people’s needs or wishes when not actively hostile. I
got very little from him, or worse. But Michael Rosen describes a father who is
always there, always solicitous, always urging on. His mother tries to shield her
son a bit, “Leave him alone. He’s tired”, but rather ineffectually it seems.
Despite never having had such attention, I am sure I would have found a father
like that intolerable and so I tend to read some of the incidents of
rebelliousness catalogued in the later part of the book as a reaction to
Harold’s omnipresence in his son’s life as well as to the absurdities of the institutions including Oxford that we attended. Michael cannot resist a jape and
sometimes they backfire. He closes his book with a letter addressed to his father but written after the latter's death and even though the content is not directly about their relationship, indirectly I suspect it is all about that.
I seem to be included
at page 270 but remember absolutely nothing of the story there except that I
know it must be true because I have a photograph which is in my Archive. At the time, this has been pinned up
on a board and graffitied. I still find it excruciating, which may explain why
I have so completely forgotten why I am there on the right playing the part of
a complete prat or prick (take your pick), though possibly outperformed
by Judith H in the middle who has just told her mum she is going to be in the
school play. Martin W is looking behind having been struck by the appalling
thought that we three may be parading alone along Broad Street, Oxford.
Click on Image to Magnify *
On this business of cultural capital. Michael Rosen absorbs it with his mother's milk and his father's spoonings. It does make a difference. I got all my capital from school and the balance from home was probably negative. How many children learnt to eat up their lettuce because it contained lodnum [laudanum] which was good for you? But being entirely school-made, my guess is that you always feel a bit of a fraud. Michael Rosen was cheated out of a First Class degree by a spiteful examiner, Professor Dame Helen Gardner. He ends his book on the story with which I was familiar and which reads as if it still rankles. But I doubt her spite does cut into his capital, or much into him.
I wasn't cheated out of my First and indeed got one with knobs on - a congratulatory letter. About thirty years later I started to have a recurrent anxiety dream. I had decided to do the Oxford PPE course again, as a sort of refresher and challenge. But it had become much harder and I was unsure that I would be able to finish the course and increasingly certain that I would not get a First, might not even Pass. The anxiety became more intense, and I would wake up with the thought that I would have no option but to quit the course before I was put to the test. Because without the public endorsement, there was nothing in me.
In 1978, Svetlana
Alexievich (1948- ) began the interviews which comprise this book. It was
turned down for publication in 1983, but Soviet Perestroika allowed it to be published in a censored and
self-censored but impressively large state edition in 1985. It is now
translated in an edition which restores omitted material, but it was the 1985
edition which underpinned the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to
Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but is now Belarussian by nationality.
in-depth oral history and then composes her material into books where there is
only a small amount of authorial narrative. In this book, she assembled the
voices of women who were with the Red Army in the second world war, at the
front and especially in the bloodlands of
Russia’s western front, Germany’s eastern front. Partisan, underground
and liaison front liners are also well represented.
The narratives are
harrowing and I read the book slowly, in sections, so as not to skip too easily
over what was being told. Several times I was struck by the thought that these
are the women who survived and lived to tell the tale thirty of forty years
later, often hesitantly and in tears. Many others would have survived the war but died
before then; some would have emigrated to Israel and maybe other countries;
some refused to co-operate with the historian.
Several times also I
thought this would make a splendid choice as a core text for a course in gender
theory. It would disrupt a great deal of polite and facile thinking. Alexievich’s
women have a lot to say about being women at the front line and are acutely
aware of the tensions between their transgender occupations as snipers and
fighter pilots and their previous existence as young women – often girls – in pretty
frocks. There are no lesbians in the book, which I am sure has everything to do
with Russian culture not the author’s selectivity. There is one woman who claims to be a man to get into the navy and tells a very funny story about it (pp. 202 -3). But there is a general
absence of vodka which surprised me. There are many splendid examples of young women refusing to take No for an answer even from hardened Soviet bureaucrats. Most of those who fought at the front had first to overcome attempts to place them at the rear when they volunteered. Several simply hitched lifts or hid under tarpaulin to get to the front line and once there tried to make themselves useful and resisted attempts to send them away. Some were under eighteen and under average height. A repetitive theme is the complaint that they had to wear men's army uniforms and boots many sizes too big for them.Only late in the war did the Soviet bureaucracy start supplying appropriate clothing.
and empathy – she cries a lot too – is rewarded with astonishing cameos and
vignettes which made me cry too. Not the ones which are tales of the kinds of
barbarism which still happen every day in modern war zones, but the absurd and
poignant. There is the female commander of an anti-aircraft gun, listening to a wireless in the middle of the night and first to hear
the Victory declaration. She then rouses her team from sleep to ready their big
gun, and personally fires a four-round Victory salute, only to be arrested and
then promptly un-arrested by the senior officer she has woken up (p 204). There
are the boy and girl kissing publicly on a ghetto bench while a German pogrom is in progress. They are observed with
horror by a female Soviet underground fighter who then realises, as the couple stand
up and are shot, that they have seen their public kiss as a way of ensuring
that they die together (p 208 - 09).
She also elicits oral one-liners
which any writer would be proud of and she saves a couple until late in the
book. An underground fighter explains that now, decades after the war, she
doesn’t like spring. The war stands
between us, between me and nature. When the cherry trees were in bloom, I saw
fascists in my native Zhitomir (p 277). And on the last page, a
medical assistant, Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, tells us that There can’t be one heart for hatred and
another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my
heart. (p 331)
Do read this book and remember that the context is a war in which twenty million Soviet citizens died, leaving after-shocks which still continue. _______________ See my Blog of 7 February 2017 for a review of Alexievich's Second-Hand Time