7th Decade Thoughts
Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.
- Name: Susan Helgeson
Monday, March 29, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Maps of places I've been -- sort of fun
Monday, March 15, 2010
The Children's Book by AS Byatt
Last spring I was in London and one of the first things I read in the newspaper was about the publication of a new Byatt novel. Off to the Waterstone's near the University of London for a copy. Later found a signed copy in Hatchard's on Picadilly and bought that too. I'm not an autograph collector, but for me Byatt is special.
I admire Byatt's ability to pick a period (in this case the end of the Victorian period and the run up to WWI), to pick a theme or collection of related themes (in this case liberal social thinking--Fabians, feminists, advocates of free love, a whole range of social reformers) who sought to extend the Victorian theme of a world getting better and better to human interactions and worked for personal freedoms and personal development) and to pick a place (in this case Kent--earlier Byatt books have focused on York where she grew up or London) and then to concoct characters and story lines that completely subsume all the ideas and the research that in so many novels these days stick out like sore appendages, into her story.
Her title rings many bells. First, the main character, Olive Wellwood, writes children's stories. A case can be made that children's stories (a la Peter Pan and Kim and The Railway Children) was Britain's main contribution to literature in this period. Olive also writes an individual story book for each of her seven children, adding to the stories often as she has her tea in bed everyone morning. For her it becomes a kind of mothering, one that works differently (and not all successfully with each child.) It's an age in which childhood comes to be seen as a separate, formative, stage of life that merits adult attention--and initially at least, Olive and her husband Humphrey in their big house in the woods, Todfright, with her sister Violet as organizer and child minder, seem to have created an ideal childhood for Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Florian, Robin and Harry.
The novel abounds with children: in addition to the Wellwood children there are Julian and Florence, the children of Prosper Cain, an administrator at the V&A in London who's an advisor to Olive when she needs historical background for her stories; Charles and Griselda, the children of Humphrey's banker brother Basil and his rich German wife Katharina; Geraint, Imogen and Pomona, the children of neighbor and genius potter, Benedict Fludd and his wife Seraphita (really Sarah-Jane) who'd been a model for pre-Raphaelites painters; Philip Warren, a dirty runaway whom Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain find breaking into the museum to sketch beautiful things, and whom Olive, herself an escapee from the North where her father was a coal miner, takes home to "do something for". Eventually we have Philip's sister Elsie too who makes her way from the potteries where their mother died from lead poisoning as she worked painting dishes. Philip begins to work with Fludd (who needs an apprentice and organizer and who recognizes Phillip's talent) and Elsie becomes housekeeper at Dungeness where Seraphita is disorganized and mentally absent most of the time, managing only to clothe her daughters in loose flowing but dirty and badly made dresses, while totally neglecting her less artistic but more practical son.
The Humphrey Wellwoods host a Midsummer party every year to which all these children and their parents come as do as all the artists and do-gooders and liberal thinkers for miles around--and this was a back-to-the-land movement so many many had moved, like the Wellwoods, to the countryside in Kent. It's a costume party with some acting of Shakespeare's play. Idyllic, at least on the surface.
A subplot of the novel involves a family of German puppeteers from Munich--and their children--who, with Katharina Wellwood, give some insight into artists and liberal thinkers in Germany.
The basic canvas of the book is this Midsummer party of 1895 with its huge cast of characters, many of whom are children supposedly being raised in freedom and love with encouragement to discover their passions in life. In reality, the canvas is more complex and far darker than it appears and these children will become part of the great children's crusade which was World War I, lurking in the background to snap up their youth and their innocence and ending the Victorian certainty of a world ever improving.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Interesting book, partly historical, partly about the author's trip to the Amazon--all in search of the lost city of Z (or El Dorado or at least evidence that a well-developed civilization which once existed in the Amazon). The central focus of the book is Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who, after many expeditions into the Amazon where he proved his ability to survive in the jungle and to deal gently and effectively with Indians he met, put together an expedition in the 1920ies consisting of only himself, his 21-year old son and his son's friend. They vanished and were not heard of again--not all that unusual for Amazon expeditions, but everyone who knew anything about Fawcett didn't expect that. Many lives were lost in the ensuing years in a search for the Fawcett party. An artifact or two would show up but stories about their graves and which Indians killed them usually proved mistaken. The author decided to go too and his well-equipped contemporary trip is chronicled alongside that of Fawcett and other Amazon explorers like American Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice. Fawcett's entire history as explorer is woven in as well.
I read with fascination Charles C Mann's 1491 about civilization in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and this book plays right into those ideas, though it's more an adventure tale than an idea book. A quick read and worth the time.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
The intrusion of the real-life author into a novel is a mark of post-modernism designed force the reader to step back and look at the novel as a fiction (something created by humans rather than inherent in the natural world) and one way writers have been doing that for 50 years has been to intrude themselves into the novel.(Of course this intrusion of the writer was also rebellion against H James' insistence that the fabric of the fiction be inviolable, allowing none of the "dear reader" stuff of preceding fictions.) Sort of like Hitchcock makes tidbit appearances in his films, a face in the crowd, a man on the bus, etc. It reminds us that this world we're been participating in is not real, that the story and its focus is "made up" by one person. (I always saw Hitchcock as egotistical in his obsession to appear in his film, but all creators have big egos--otherwise how could they sustain their work which is done absolutely alone with bare-minimum tools and depends entirely on their own ability to "make up stuff"?)
In this novel it's like Pamuk, in using himself as character (you must think of the Pamuk in the novel as a character as well of course) creates sort of an after-the-fact frame for his tale. And indeed, the minute we recognize Pamuk is telling the tale, its significance broadens and we see clearly that this is not just a tale of one man's obsession with a woman but a sociological study of a man who's love puts him on the outside to observe the society he is (or was) a part of. A society changing as it grows in wealth and experience of the outside world. As Fusun is the focus of Kemal's museum, so Kemal is the focus of Pamuk's.
Of course, when we run into the Pamuk family early in the story and when Orhan attends the engagement party we must be expecting something like this. That was a little more blatant than Hitchcock waiting for a bus in whatever film that was.
I thought it was a bit arbitrary to kill off Kemal, but it makes it much easier to turn his story into an archeological/sociological one.
I'm curious too how this story became a meditation on museums, what they're for and how they come about. We go from an admittedly nutty man who saves the salt shakers from the table where he eats with his beloved to challenging the notion of what a museum is, what it means to society and how it's used. (There I see some commonality with Byatt's The Children's Book where there's a minor but significant focus on the V&A and how it developed, what role it was intended to fill, etc.)