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“… it’s better to die violently and not too old.” #georgeorwell

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I can’t recall now what it was that prompted me to dig out my old Penguin edition of vol 4 of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, to seek out a specific essay; but I’m glad I did because as usual George is spot on… The essay in question is called “How The Poor Die“, and it was first published in November 1946. In it, Orwell looks back to time spent in a public ward of a French hospital in 1929 (presumably during the time covered in “Down and Out in Paris and London”); and what he relates is quite chilling…

Orwell was, of course, really living down and out in Paris at the time, and so when he was taken ill with pneumonia he had no option but the nearest hospital because he certainly couldn’t afford a doctor… The treatment he received was quite shocking: cupping, a mustard poultice, indifference from the various doctors and nurses, and disgustingly insanitary conditions where disease must have spread unchecked. Patients died and were left in their beds until someone could be bothered to move them; whether you were actually treated by the doctors often depended on how ‘interesting’ your illness was; and running through all this was an attitude from those supposedly caring of total disinterest, with most of them treating the patients as if they were less than human.

A few feeble protests that I uttered got no more response that if I had been an animal. I was very much impressed by the impersonal way in which the two men started on me. I have never been in the public ward of a hospital before, and it was my first experience of doctors who handle you without speaking to you, or, in the human sense, taking any notice of you.

Orwell escapes as soon as he’s well enough, though not before he’s thoroughly shocked by what he’s experienced; and he compares it with the kind of treatment he would have received in an English hospital which would have been very different. However, this was in the pre-NHS days, so presumably the kind of treatment you got still depended on how much money you had (something which I picked up in my reading of the British Library Crime Classic, “The Port of London Murders” – here, the struggle from hand to mouth and the cost of medical care was very much an issue). Anyway, Orwell rounds up his essay reflecting on the fact that in 1929 medical treatment was often viewed with suspicion, being still in its infancy in many ways, and up until the introduction of anaesthetics most people tried to avoid doctors and hospitals…

As always, Orwell is a wonderful essayist – immediate, clear, getting to the point, yet setting his scene wonderfully and capturing the experiences he lived through so vividly. “How the Poor Die” was profoundly moving in places, focusing on the poor suffering people with no way out other than a cold, lonely death. Orwell seems of the opinion that it’s better to die young and quickly, rather than a long and lingering and eventually painful death at an old age – and I can see where he’s coming from…

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This essay also set me thinking about our own NHS, so lauded, yet often criticised, underfunded and under threat. Having read about the cost of healthcare, and the horrors of trying to get treatment, in the USA, I’m glad we have the system we do; although I think other countries have more efficient systems than ours. And I see the NHS is under attack again at the moment; I try not to stray into politics too much on the Ramblings, for the good of my blood pressure; but having witnessed what Orwell saw and went through, all those years ago, I really think we need to start protecting and improving the system we already have in place. As always, Orwell’s wonderful writing really does bring clarity and focus the mind!

“… all young readers are omnivorous…” #kennethgrahame #paganpapers

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Pagan Papers by Kenneth Grahame

In much the same way that A.A. Milne‘s career was overshadowed by the success of Winnie the Pooh, the author Kenneth Grahame is nowadays only really remembered for his classic work “The Wind in the Willows” (1908). However as a recent re-release from Mike Walmer reveals, Grahame had an illustrious career as an esteemed essayist long before his hit with “Willows”…

Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but grew up in Berkshire, spending the majority of his working life at the Bank of England. He published essays and stories in literary journals, and three collections of these were issued between 1894 and 1898; this is the first volume from 1894 which established his name.

In book-buying you not infrequently condone an extravagance by the reflection that this particular purchase will be a good investment, sordidly considered: that you are not squandering income but sinking capital. But you know all the time that you are lying. Once possessed, books develop a personality: they take on a touch of warm human life that the links them in a manner with our kith and kin.

“Pagan Papers” collects together 18 pieces and they really do make for entertaining reading. Grahame has a very individual voice, which shines through, and an interesting take on things. He considers roads, the romance of walking down them and wondering where they might lead or what adventure take you on. He ponders railways and although a little resistant to progress, recognises they have a romance of their own too. Grahame’s views on books and reading are bracing; he acknowledges what will be familiar to any bibliophile: the joy of possession and the hopeless inability to read all the books one owns. As someone basically self-taught, I was less in tune with his views in “Cheap Knowledge” where he eschews the idea of lending libraries and the access they allow everyone to learning. However, he *is* in favour of novel reading, so that’s something!

….blessed blank oblivion, happiest gift of the gods! For who, indeed, can say that the record of his life is not crowded with failure and mistake, stained with its petty cruelties of youth, its meannesses and follies of later years, all which storm and clamour incessantly at the gates of memory, refusing to be shut out?

Needless to say, Grahame’s paean to the pleasures of smoking is something which would be frowned upon nowadays, but is entertaining to read. And it’s quite surprising to see him obliquely referring to the pleasures of opium in the essay “The White Poppy” – though that might account for some of the stranger scenes in “Willows….”!!

All in all, this was a enjoyable, entertaining and, yes, quite thought-provoking collection of essays which definitely deserves to see the light of day again. Mike Walmer has released it in a nice paperback edition as part of his ‘Belles-Lettres’ series, and if you’re keen to read some classic essays (in elegant but slightly old-fashioned language, it has to be said!) I can highly recommend it to you!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

 

“… funny, learned, vagrant, strange…” @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #supposeasentence

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Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

I first explored the writing of Brian Dillon back in February when I co-hosted the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with Lizzy. His collection “Essayism” was a highlight of the event for me; a marvellous meditation on the art of the essay, blended with autobiographical elements, it was compelling reading and one of those books which resonates and stays with you long after finishing it. So when I discovered that Dillon had a new book coming out in September, with the intriguing title of “Suppose a Sentence”, I was naturally very, very keen to read it!

Beautiful sentences, Gass wrote, are ‘rare as eclipses’. I went chasing eclipses: those moments of reading when the light changes, some darker lustre takes over, things (words) seems suddenly obscure, even in the simplest sentence, and you find you have to look twice, more than twice.

“Suppose…” (which draws its title from Gertrude Stein) takes an intriguing approach to its subject, which is, fairly obviously, the sentence. Working chronologically, Dillon gathers together groups of words he’s recorded in notebooks over the years and explores what makes them so special. They’re sentences which resonated with him for one reason or another, lodging in the brain and demanding to be recorded; and the authors range from Shakespeare at the start (and in many ways I suppose, he *is* the start of things) to a final piece on Anne Boyer. In between the two, in pieces ranging from less than a page to several, Dillon takes in a dazzling array of writers. Donne, De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, Ruskin, Stein, Woolf, Bowen, Didion, Barthes, Sontag – well, you see why I was so keen to read it.

The sentence demands patience; it is like waiting for a photograph to develop.

Dillon’s angle on his sentences varies a little from piece to piece; but one thing this isn’t is a book about only about the structure of a sentence. He does dip lightly into linguistics, but he’s really more interested in exploring the context of his particular choices and the effects they have on the reader. Often the sentence will stretch outside its proper structure, testing the bounds of grammar and how a sentence is *supposed* to be constructed; and as I dislike regimentation in writing I found that refreshing. The sentence can be such a varied form – which is quite clear from this book – and although Proust is not present here, the book did set me off thinking about the complex and labyrinthine structure of his writing which really is an art in itself

Maybe the world of the novel – and maybe the world – is like a densely woven fabric, and the best we can do is pick at its pattern in one place, hoping thereby to comprehend the whole.

Like all good essayists, the personal is present as Dillon explores his relationship to the authors and the sentences, and when they might have appeared in his life. He’s always an engaging narrator, throwing out clever and provocative ideas, and the book ended up being a wonderfully stimulating read. It’s fascinating how focusing on just one sentence can be used to bring such insight into that author’s work; but each set of words, whether short or long, is distinctive and deserving of such close study. The book is riddled with references to favourite writers and their work, making it impossible to pick out favourites; it has to be seen as a whole. I was, however, particularly struck by his reaction to Elizabeth Bowen; her writing about her trip to Italy was for him, like me, a recent discovery. And I had a ‘yes!’ moment when Dillon pointed out how like Montaigne was Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill“; which I hadn’t realised at the time, not having yet read Montaigne himself. However, it also introduced me to some new authors, which will necessitate a little exploring…

… ‘phrase-maker’ ought to be an admiring term of art, not an insult reserved for writers who are judged insufficiently robust, altogether too transported by language.

I have to confess to being someone who is seduced by the power of words, and I love nothing better than a good sentence. To me, much current writing suffers from the loss of a decent sentence; short, staccato phrases don’t usually have the same effect and this is probably why I find a lot of modern books thin and unexciting. I suppose the question has to be asked – how do Dillon’s sentences stand up to scrutiny? Well, I found them to be a thing of great joy; he really knows how to string a good one together himself. And in the same way that Dillon picked out his sentences over the years, I found myself marking his to be saved in notebooks (as you can see from the sheaf of post-its…); a good phrase or expression is always worth recording.

Suppose a Post-it….

So “Suppose a Sentence” was everything I wanted it to be; snapshots of the work of a fascinating range of writers (several new to me); a book about words and their meanings and the effects they can have on you; and a wide ranging look at the sentences our fellow humans have felt the need to pen over the centuries. It’s also very brilliantly structured in a way about which I shall say no more… And it’s one of those very dangerous books which you finish reading with a whole list of works you want to check out (and the notes at the back help with that…) It sent me running off to check I still had some of the below lying about and also is responsible for one of these arriving to swell the tbr…

Suppose an Influence… I had a minor panic when I thought I’d donated De Quincey, but luckily hadn’t. The Hogg I already owned. The Schwob was a gift. The Jaeggy is new…

I’ve read quite a number of Fitzcarraldo Editions this year, and I haven’t been disappointed once. “Suppose a Sentence” comes with a number of (well-deserved) plaudits for its author (and I would agree with John Banville’s description of Dillon as a ‘literary flaneur’). It’s very much a book for lovers of words and reading; and if you like essays, writing, books, language or simply to have your thoughts provoked, then I highly recommend “Suppose a Sentence” – a wonderful read!

“Suppose a Sentence” will be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 23rd September; many thanks to the publishers and Clare Bogen for kindly providing a review copy.

#1920club – “Let us wash the roofs of our eyes in colour; let us dive till the deep seas close above our heads.” #virginiawoolf

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While I was digging about for Virginia Woolf stories to read for 1920, it occurred to me that there might well be some essays from that year which I could read; which then caused a bit of rummaging through the books of Woolf essays I have! As well as a variety of collections (including both Common Readers), I also have the first three volumes of her collected essays; they’re chunky books, and I’m gradually collecting them when I come across a reasonably-priced copy as the completist in me *needs* to have them, but they’re not cheap and I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to reading them! However, luckily Volume 3 covers 1920, so I had a bit of an explore to see what it contained.

This is probably the first time I’ve had a good look at the books, and interestingly it appears that many of these ‘essays’ are actually reviews of books, exhibitions and the like. Which is not a problem, but perhaps made it a little harder to pick out what to read! The books are beautifully presented, though, with notes and sources for each entry, so quite a triumph of scholarship by editor Andrew McNeillie. Woolf was obviously busy in 1920, with 31 entries showing in the contents list for that year, and the subject range was wide – from Kipling to Chekhov, Woolf had an enquiring mind. In the end, I settled on two pieces: “Gorky on Tolstoy” and “Pictures and Portraits“.

I chose to read “Pictures and Portraits” for the simple reason that its opening paragraphs resonated so strongly with me. Woolf describes the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, relating in her usual beautiful sentences how easy it is to visit, gaining access to all manner of wonders inside. Both are places I love and visit on a regular basis whenever I’m in London, and it really hit me hard to realise how long it will be before I can go through those doors again… Her words evoked my visits to both Galleries and reminded me how lucky we are to have the arts in this country; it also made me worry about the arts going forward after this particular crisis. Anyway, the essay itself is a meditation on an exhibition of the works of Edmond X. Kapp, of whom I’d never heard, but I have to say that Woolf’s prose does convince me I should look him up!

National Portrait Gallery by Wei-Te Wong from Taipei City, Taiwan, Republic of China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

As for “Gorky on Tolstoy”, I guess it’s no surprise that I should choose that one! This is a review of Gorky’s reminiscences of the great Russian author, and it reminds you of how taken the Bloomsberries were with the Russian authors, as well as instrumental in bringing them to an English audience. It’s a short but fascinating review, pulling out some intriguing pieces from Gorky’s book and musing on how well we know or see another person.

So Gorky shocks us at first by showing us that Tolstoy was no different from other men in being sometimes conceited, intolerant, insincere, and in allowing his private fortunes to make him vindictive in his judgements.

Woolf the journalist is a little different from Woolf the writer of fiction; a little more formal, a little more traditional perhaps; but still with those wonderful flights of fancy and unexpected turns of phrase we expect from her. I can see that the best way to read these essays might be to take a dipping approach, even if a chronological one, reading one or two at a time so as to savour them and get the most out of them. Now there’s an idea for a lockdown reading project if ever I heard one! 😀

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