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“…whatever it is that makes a man follow a beckoning star.” @VersoBooks #FrédéricGros

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Walking is such a basic human function that it’s something we never think about as a rule, completely taking it for granted. Yet a strong case can be made for walking being much more than just a case of putting one foot in front of another until we get to our destination; and a recent purchase from Verso Books, which I’ve been lauding online, does just that. The book is “A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe; as I’ve previously mentioned, I picked up a copy when Verso were having one of their regular sales (this time a 50% off one) – and it was definitely money well spent!

The little biog on the Verso site states: “Frédéric Gros is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris. He was the editor of the last lectures of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France. He has written books on psychiatry, law, and war as well as the best-selling Philosophy of Walking.” I can see why this book *would* be a best-seller, as it combines some beautiful writing with some accessible exploration of philosophy as well as some very moving tales of famous walkers. It’s also enhanced with some lovely illustrations at the start of each chapter by Clifford Harper. For me, it was compelling reading and a real winner!

An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition.

Starting with a chapter entitled “Walking Is Not A Sport”, Gros goes on to explore why we walk, what we get out of it, its effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as touching upon a number of intriguing and tragic lives. Of course, in the past walking was the only option for most people; until we took possession of horses or other animals, learned to build wheeled structures to be pulled and then eventually invented methods of travel independent of organic creatures. But as Gros reflects, that speedy mode of transport not only removes much of the pleasure of travel, it also disconnects us from the world around us – we can’t truly appreciate a place unless we move through it at a natural pace.

When you really walk, farewell follows farewell all day long. You can never be quite sure of ever setting foot in a place again. This condition of departure adds intensity to the gaze. That backward look when you cross a ridge, just before the landscape tilts. Or the final glance at last night’s lodging as you leave in the morning (its grey mass, the trees behind). You turn round again, one more time … but that restless gaze doesn’t aim to grasp, possess or keep: rather it aims to give, to leave a little of its light in the stubborn presence of the rocks and flowers.

Lest you get the impression this is simply a book wanting us to reconnect with nature, let me assure you it’s much more! Gros considers famous walkers and thinkers from Nietzsche to Gandhi: their place in the world, their individual beliefs and philosophies, and the way they used the process of walking. Many authors and thinkers have claimed to get their greatest ideas in motion; and although I’m not one of them, I do find that all sorts of ideas pop into my head when I’m walking!

Nerval’s is a landscape of castles and battlemented towers, red swaying masses of thicket on the green of valleys, orange gilding of sunsets. Trees, and more trees. Landscapes flat as slumber. Bluish morning mists making ghosts rise everywhere. October evenings made of old gold. You walk there as if in a dream, slowly, without effort (little steep or broken terrain). The rustle of dead leaves.

Then there are those whose constant walking is more of a flight; often from what they don’t actually know, but his pen portrait of Rimbaud, always on the go as if trying to escape from the world, is evocative and moving. And the chapter on the dark and troubled Gerard de Nerval, stalking Paris in a state of melancholy until he could finally take no more, is still haunting me (and sending me off in search of the lost streets and alleys of the city). Rousseau and Thoreau also stride through these pages, both contemplating the world in their own ways. There are chapters on pilgrimage, strolling, the flaneur; psychogeographers and the situationists pass through, and Wordsworth popularises walking for pleasure – really, it’s a wonderfully varied and involving book. The part on Ghandi was something of an eye-opener too: I had little knowledge of him beforehand and was stunned to read of the cruelty of the Imperialist British (though I guess I shouldn’t have been). The story of the salt tax was just awful, and Gandhi’s marches inspirational. And we still do march in search of change or peace or to save the world; but I doubt in this modern world we will ever be as successful as he was.

Well, this was a marvellous read; it reminded me that walking is a pure kind of travel, when you can really appreciate the world around you rather than whizzing through in a vehicle of some kind; and it also drew me back towards authors I’ve not read for a while or who I’ve intended to explore more fully. In fact, this is one of those very dangerous books which creates its own list of further reading – there *is* a section with that title in the back, and any number of enticing mentions in the text. I’ve already sent away for one book, dragged another load off the shelves and created a list – gulp…

A Gros-inspired pile…

Anyway, this was another case of a particular book shouting loudly from the shelves to get my attention and turning out to be the perfect read for now; and as the only walking I’m doing at the moment is the ten minutes to work and back, escaping in the company of Frédéric Gros was a joyous, often moving, and thought-provoking experience. And rather dangerously, Verso also publish another couple of his books…. ;D

Some thoughts on the @VersoBooks Book Club – plus a little giveaway! :D

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll no doubt have seen me regularly complaining ruefully about the wonderful offers the left-wing publisher Verso Books often runs; they’ve been responsible for any number of volumes arriving on the TBR, and a quick glance over the shelves revealed I have a surprising number of their books lurking on there! I’m refusing to say how many are hanging about digitally…..

Just a few of my Verso books….

So when they announced not only offers to celebrate their 50th birthday but also a new book club, I was really sorely tempted. In the end I caved in – first off, these two books arrived on the shelves at half price and I was *very* excited! Another Saramago plus a book about walking (of which I do a lot…) – treats!

However, the book club was also appealing. At half price for the first few months, I would get a physical book every month (a choice of two) as well as digital copies of all new releases. Plus the Verso diary and a notebook as well. Blimey – what’s not to love! I’m a big fan of Verso, because their focus is pretty wide – though they lean to the left, it isn’t all just dry politics, they cover art, culture, philosophy, gender studies, architecture, history, sociology, ecology, music, economics, race – you name it, they probably have a book which fits into the category in which you’re interested. And there are so many favourite authors – Sartre, Benjamin, Saramago, Berger – well, you can see why I’m often tempted.

So needless to say I succumbed… I signed up for the Verso Book Club, and the first two months have brought forth the physical delights shown above! The digital delights are – well, there’s tons of them (as you can see from the list below)!! I probably have at least a year’s reading already, which is rather wonderful, and there are lots of titles I’ve wanted to read for ages so that’s a bonus! October’s looking good too…

The observant amongst you might have noticed that there are two copies of “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” on the stacks above and there’s a good reason for that, which I’ll come to. This was the September Book Club title, and I was very excited about this, as Noam Chomsky is an author I first encountered in my teens and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’ve begun to dip into this book which looks scarily relevant; the first pages reveal that the Doomsday Clock is now pointing to 100 seconds…

You might recall my coverage of Richard Clay’s excellent radio programme “Two Minutes to Midnight” back in 2018, which looked at our attitude to nuclear annihilation. To realise that we’ve now reached an even closer point is shocking, and you can still catch up with Richard’s programme here – it makes sobering and fascinating listening…

But I digress… Owing to a glitch in their systems, Verso sent out two copies of “Climate Change…” to me this month. I contacted them and offered to return it, but they were happy that I didn’t and so instead I thought I would offer this as a giveaway to anyone who is interested. This will have to be UK only I’m afraid, as overseas postage has shot up horrendously lately. So if you would like the book, please leave a comment and perhaps suggest an independent publisher you recommend that I should support – as I’m most definitely in the state of mind to keep doing that at the moment!

Meantime, if you’re interested in reading thought-provoking books, I definitely recommend you take a look at Verso’s list – there’s an awful lot of good stuff there! As for me – well, I’m thinking I may have to start a dedicated Verso bookshelf… ;D

“History is an angel….” #WalterBenjamin @versobooks #germanlitmonth

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The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin
With Illustrations by Paul Klee
Translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski

It seems that I’ve been aware of Walter Benjamin for longer than I might have realised; although the first thing I read by him was “Unpacking My Library“, that was fairly recently (and I have revisited it at least once). A renowned German Jewish author, he had an illustrious career but took his own life in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. But he was in the back of my mind as an important thinker and critic, though possibly I was a little intimidated by his reputation. However, oddly enough, he had a considerable influence on me through his influence on one of my favourite artists, Laurie Anderson. I’ve adored her album “Strange Angels” since it came out in 1995, and a favourite track was “The Dream Before”. In the CD booklet this is dedicated “For Walter Benjamin”, although at that time I probably had little idea of the significance of the dedication. But more of that later…

I’ve amassed a number of Benjamin books since first reading “Unpacking…”, although really all they’ve done is sit on the shelves. “The Storyteller” is a good case in point; I obviously picked it up during one of Verso Books’ regular offers (do sign up for their newsletter – it’s really worth it!), but it had been languishing since along with some other volumes. However, I think it was the Baudelaire connection that spurred me on to this reading (as well as German Lit Month!); particularly when I sent Melissa an image of the contents page of Benjamin’s “Illuminations” collection, pointing out the Kafka content. There is also a Baudelaire essay, and a little bit of online research (always a dangerous thing!) led to the discovery that there is a considerable body of Benjamin writing about Baudelaire. Picking up “The Storyteller” as my next read was a no-brainer, and I’ve been dipping into it alongside a collection of Baudelaire’s selected poems in prose translation, and the two books together make a heady mix. I’m not qualified by a long chalk to ‘review’ Benjamin’s work – that would feel ridiculously presumptious – but I can share my reactions to this excellent book and perhaps encourage you to explore this marvellous writer’s works. I know I’ll be doing just that.

As I mentioned, I’ve always thought of Benjamin primarily in terms of philosophy and cultural writing, particularly in the field of critical theory (“a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.”) Therefore, to discover that he had wandered into fictions as well was intriguing, and this exemplary collection brings together for the first time all of Benjamin’s stories in one volume, along with marvellous illustrations by Swiss German artist Paul Klee and erudite commentary by the translators/editors. It’s a heady collection, which they’ve divided into three themed sections – “Dreamworlds”, “Travel” and “Play and Pedagogy”. I believe the majority of the works haven’t been translated into English before, which makes this book even more valuable; I imagine there must be shed-loads of Benjamin untranslated, and I’ve actually found myself in a bit of a book jungle trying to work out which of his books/collections I should pick up.

Of all those songs, the one I loved the most was a Christmas song that filled me, as only music can, with solace for a sorrow not yet experienced but only sensed now for the first time.

So what of the contents themselves? The translators/editors point out that the stories reflect many of the themes of Benjamin’s theoretical work. I’m not well-versed enough in the latter to really comment but what lingers most from reading these inventive, sparkling and often strange fables, stories and meditations is the sheer sense of playfulness (an element also highlighted in the introduction). Benjamin’s very fertile mind lets itself loose in fabulous ways, ranging far and wide over topics as diverse as children’s primers, dreams (both sleeping and waking), gambling, life in cities (which resonates with the Georg Simmel collection I read recently) and the moon. Many are short, fragmentary pieces but some extend over several pages, and each is beautifully written and memorable. I was reminded in some places of Bruno Schulz; in others of Borges. But each piece warranted the pleasure from slow and thoughtful reading, and I imagine I’ll return to this collection again and again over the years – it’s that good. The introduction reminds us of the importance of our imaginations – “Dreams shape history and are shaped by it” – and Benjamin’s is in full force here.

By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 – Akademie der Künste, Berlin – Walter Benjamin Archiv, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17162035

Each of the 43 chapters has an image by Paul Klee at the start, and ends with the sources of the actual written material, individual translation credits, as well as details of the picture; all books should be this well presented and annotated. I don’t like to pick favourites, but one particular stand out for me was “The Hypochondriac in the Landscape” with its vivid, witty imagery :

At the peak of the landscape we find him again. A ruin stood there, overgrown by the green of nature. Storms and tempests roared more fiercely here than elsewhere. The place was created for the indulgence of every conceivable suffering…

And:

After dinner, physicians and patients organise germ hunts in the park. Oftentimes it happens that a patient is accidentally shot. In such cases a simple bed of moss and forest herbs is prepared as the patient sinks to the ground. Bandages lie ready in the tree hollows.

It’s clever and funny and dark, and sets the tone for much of the collection – I loved it! And a lovely piece entitled “Detective Novels, on tour” is a beautiful paean to the joy of reading a book while travelling by train.

As for Paul Klee and the Laurie Anderson connection, well that realisation was part of what send me down my recent Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole. There is a Klee print called “Angelus Novus”, which was owned by Benjamin and is now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It informs one of Benjamin’s last and most important works, as essay called “Theses on the Theory of History”, and that essay is in turn the source of Anderson’s lyrical imagery in her song “The Dream Before”. Bearing in mind that the essay was written while Benjamin was being pursued by the dark forces of history, the song and essay are even more poignant.The Klee painting seems to have been a real touchstone for Benjamin, and it even appears on the back of my copy of “Illuminations”.

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ.
By Paul Klee – The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25188355

So I’m still down the Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole; as you might have seen from recent posts I’ve been raiding the library for related books (in particular the volume which collects Benjamin’s essays on the poet). Although I’ve finished the Benjamin stories, I’m still savouring the Baudelaire poems and I’ll no doubt share some thoughts later. However, what I would say about them is that I’m finding the prose translations much more satisfying that those put into verse form which have me questioning the translator’s choices…

But I’ll leave you with the great Laurie Anderson, and her wonderful channelling of Benjamin; and I think that while we struggle on through one of our most difficult times, we need once again to be reminded of our past…

Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations…

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(of the house, that is….)

Yes. I’m afraid the sorry state of the book piles continues with yet more arrived chez Ramblings… and here is the latest bunch:

Pretty, aren’t they? But not small…  And probably not much I can say in mitigation, although there *are* yet more review books:

All of these are titles I requested and want very much to read – in fact, I’ve just finished “Malacqua” which was quite stunning and it’s going to take me a while to work out what I want to say about it. I’ve started the M. John Harrison and the first few stories have been outstanding, so I’m very excited about that one. And “Locus Solus” just sounds – very intriguing…..

Ahem. As I am prone to say, damn you Verso Books with your money-saving offers! Currently, the publisher has 50% of ALL of their books (so I make no excuse for using shouty capital letters because that’s an offer worth shouting about!). Yes, I know I have the e-book of “October”, but I loved it so much I wanted the tree version. And I’ve wanted “Night Walking” for ages too, and this was the time to buy it. 50% off. With a bundled e-book if one is available. Go check out Verso. Now!

This was a beautiful and unforeseen treat, in the form of the wonderful Seagull Books catalogue. It’s known to be a work of art in its own right and I was over the moon when the publisher kindly offered to send me a copy. It has masses of content including contributions from such blogging luminaries as Melissa, Joe, Anthony and Tony, so I plan to spend happy hours over the Christmas break with it. Plus they publish Eisenstein – how exciting!!!

As for this – well, it came from The Works over the weekend when I was browsing for Christmas gifts. I picked it up because it looked pretty, imagining I would find it a bit sappy or soppy, stuffed with twee verse. Well, there *are* the usual romantic love poems (the classics, which is no bad thing) but there were some powerful pieces I didn’t know, including one by Marina Tsvetaeva. I was hesitating till I looked at the last poem in the book, by Owen Sheers, and it was so stunning I had to buy the book…

And finally – a little bit of madness in the Oxfam:

This weighs a bloody ton, frankly, and I ended up lugging it round town for hours. But – it cost £1.99 and how could I resist pages like this:

and this????

Mayakovsky! A Bulgakov picture I’ve never seen! And so much more! I confess OH looked at it a little askance and sighed, but it was a no-brainer. My shoulder is still recovering, however…

So – I’m definitely still seizing the book – time for another clear out, methinks…. =:o

‘I have gone where you did not want me to go’ (Lenin) @VersoBooks

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Such enthusiastic bedlam might seem a nightmare, or a strange, faltering carnival, depending on one’s perspective.

First up, before attempting to discuss this book, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast. I’ve read a good number of books about the Russian Revolution over the years since first studying the subject at Grammar School (I mean REALLY a lot!) and this one of the best – if not *the* best. Yes, it’s that good. And this is going to be a very personal response, rather than anything approaching a formal review…

“October” is published by the left-wing imprint Verso Books, and I hesitated initially before buying it. Having read so much on the subject, would I find anything for me in yet another work on the great upheaval of 100 years ago? Nevertheless, I *did* pick up an e-book version when it was on offer earlier in the year (damn you, Verso, with your constant money-off emails!); and what tipped me into reading it, as the anniversary approached, was Mieville’s appearance in that execrable documentary on BBC2 that I moaned about here. Along with Tariq Ali, he came across as a voice of sanity, and as I have been becoming heartily sick of right-wing revisionist readings of those cataclysmic events, I decided that this was the time to read the book. And that was most definitely the right decision.

From the very first paragraphs Mieville hooks you; his writing, as he debunks the myths about the founding of St. Petersburg, is just marvellous. Immediately, you sense that Mieville is bringing his novelist’s sensibilities to the telling of a history and the results are stunning.

After providing a succinct background of the Russian nation, Mieville takes you into the heart of his story, with a series of chapters devoted to each month between the February and October revolutions. There’s no point me relating the story, as the author does this so well, but basically the monarchy falls at the beginning of the book, with a variety of provisional governments attempting to rule alongside, or in opposition to, the soviets and myriad other groups with an interest in bringing democracy to Russia. And there are endless meetings, discussions, talks about having talks until you despair a little and wish someone would get on with seizing power!

Political activism through passive–aggressive dinner parties.

By the second, rather bloodless revolution at the end of the book, the in-fighting and dissension amongst political groups, added to lack of food and the failure of those temporarily in charge to end the ruinous first world war, led to the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the first socialist state in the world. Mieville touches on the aftermath, but most reading this book will know how the 20th century panned out for Russians. The search for freedom and utopia would certainly go horribly wrong…

‘The man of the future in Russia’, says Alexander Herzen at the start of the 1850s, ‘is the peasant.’ Development being slow, with no meaningful liberal movement in sight, the narodniks look beyond the cities to rural revolution. In the Russian peasant commune, the mir, they see a glimmer, a foundation for an agrarian socialism. Dreaming their own better places, thousands of young radicals ‘go to the people’, to learn from, work with, raise the consciousnesses of a suspicious peasantry.

So – what makes this book stand out so much from the many others I’ve read? Well, a number of things, actually. There are other books that are more detailed, more politically involved, perhaps even more analytical, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that brought events to life so vividly. Drawing on a vast range of material, which he uses to bring the story truly to life, he renders complex events with incredible clarity and sheer narrative drive – this is writing so good that it gives you shivers as you read it. Mieville has a wonderful way of delivering snappy one-liners that cut right to heart of the matter at hand, and his narrative makes sense of the dizzying array of political groupings. Even though I knew what was coming, Mieville’s narrative was nail-biting; and as history can be dull, this was a considerable achievement!

3 a.m. Kerensky, who only a few hours earlier had claimed to be ready to face down any challenge, tore back, distraught, to General Staff headquarters, to hear a litany of strategic points falling. Loyalist morale pitched. Worse, though, quickly came. At 3:30 a.m., a dark presence cut the shadowed Neva. Masts and wires and three looming smokestacks, great jutting guns. Out of the gloom came the armoured ship Aurora, making for the city’s heart.

“October” also reminds us that the revolution was the result of a combination of factors – the push for reform by the revolutionaries, and perhaps more importantly a populace that had had enough of war and poverty. Mieville says everything that needs to be said about the Russian Revolutions, and much more eloquently than I possibly can.

Gone was the obsequiousness of 1905. Citizens across the empire waged what Richard Stites called a ‘war on signs’, the destruction of tsarist symbols: portraits, statues, eagles. Revolutionary fever infected unlikely patients.

Yes, there was iconoclasm; in the more modern definition of the word, literally ‘image breaking’, and applied to all representations of power in public space and not just religious ones. When you’ve been downtrodden for years and you come across the symbols of that repression what more visceral reaction is there likely to be than the need to destroy those symbols?

It was endgame at the Winter Palace. Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

Whilst decrying the violence that took place, Mieville recognises the urgent need for change and the crippling inequality which was perpetuated by an ineffectual regime. And he’s not blind to the faults that existed within the various revolutionary groups, refusing to be drawn into hagiography and acknowledging that no one person was responsible for what happened and that often events led with revolutionaries following.

To be a radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. ‘To patiently explain.’ How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.

What’s also refreshing is that Mieville strips away the layers of dismissal that have been applied to the Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and not only attempts to get back the state of mind that recognises that change was essential and inevitable, but also refuses to judge those events by what came afterwards.

Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin. Today, any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, moustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state – the -ism that bears his name. There have been decades of debate about the aetiology of Stalinism, volumes of stories about the man’s brutality and that of his regime. They cast shadows backwards from what would come.

With the horrors that came after the revolutions and the fall of the monarchy, it’s easy to forget just how radical a change took place in Russia; what had been a feudal, autocratic country, which failed drastically to fit into the parameters defined by Marxists of a place that could host a revolution, actually *had* one and needed to be dragged, screaming into the modern world. The expectation of a world revolution was a mistaken one, leaving Russia isolated in its attempt at socialism. The incompetence of the Romanovs is quite clear and Mieville nails the ineffectual Nicholas II beautifully:

He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu.

And later:

The tsar paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.

Running through the books are masterly portraits of the protagonists, and Mieville is always fair in his portrayal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky appear in all their complex and contradictory glory, and the latter comes across as a powerful and crucial contributor to the success of the uprising. The narrative always comes back to Lenin, however, and although the revolution was in fact an often ramshackle and random affair, there is the sense that events would not have finally succeeded without Lenin’s vision and drive. Mieville also acknowledges that it is very hard to look at 1917 without hindsight and a knowledge of what would come later (and he includes some lovely little nods to other great authors…)

And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.

Fittingly, I finished “October” as the anniversary dawned, and as I was composing my post on this truly magisterial work I was watching the revolution unfold ‘live’ on a fascinating iPad app which drew on, and provided, much of the same material as the book (yes, it’s taken me that long to pull my thoughts together…) I found it impossible not to be caught up in the emotion and the excitement of it all while I was reading “October” and whatever your political colour, this book will give you a marvellous insight into the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries.

The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.

There are a lot of quotes in this post, I realise, but I could have pulled out so many more – the writing is that good and Mieville’s take on events so necessary. What makes this book particularly vital is its acknowledgement that change was, and still could be, possible; and that we should not accept inequality and corruption but should strive for a better world. In a year when the world seems to be getting madder and madder, and the lunatics really *do* seem to have taken over the asylum, we need to be reminded that we can and should still dream of a utopia and an alternative. Read this book.

*****

There are a number of videos and interviews with Mieville available online which a quick search will bring up. They are making fascinating watching and reading as I start to explore them…. 🙂

Documentaries – A Coda…. :(

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“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.

Problems:

  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

The Curse of Modernity

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All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman

Growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, it was impossible to ignore the changes going on in society around me. The old towns around me were being torn down and developed into brutalist and modernist concrete blocks; the shops were full of shiny consumer goods available to all; standards were changing; and new technology was dawning starting off with simple things like domestic cassette recorders and pocket calculators. I’ve consequently always had a nostalgic fondness for 1960s architecture and furniture, and this was one of the things that first attracted me to Berman’s book (along with the fact that it had long sections on Russian writers!). However, a read of this large and fascinating tome makes it quite clear that modernism is not something that began recently….

solid

As Wikipedia tells us: Marshall Berman (November 24, 1940 – September 11, 2013) was an American philosopher and Marxist Humanist writer. He was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching Political Philosophy and Urbanism. His book, subtitled “The Experience of Modernity”, defines the modern age as having started when human beings made the transition from a feudal, rural kind of living to an urban, mechanical style and he uses the text “Faust” by Goethe to exemplify this change. The book goes on to travel through a wide-ranging series of works, discussing and debating the human experience of living in, and coping with, the modern world and all its conflicts. Berman covers texts by Baudelaire and Marx; Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Bely; and the late 20th century experience of living in New York during rapid and often brutal redevelopment.

It’s a breathtaking and audacious study, and quite amazing to read. Even if you haven’t read all the works Berman discusses, you can still understand the points he’s making. “Faust” for example is a story I know the basic plot of, but I’ve never read the full book. According to Berman, this is where modernisation begins, with Faust himself being the first large-scale developer, building huge cities and trampling all in his way. Cities and their boulevards become a crucial element in modern life, with the public space changing the ways humans interact with each other (a fact recognised by Baudelaire) And the section on Petersburg is inspirational, reflecting Russia’s attempts to engage with the rest of the modern world, dragging a hopelessly feudal and serf-bound society towards a way of living it couldn’t really comprehend.

By the end of the book, in the sections about the wholesale development and destruction of parts of New York during the 20th century, Berman has come full circle; we are once again witnessing the kind of large-scale push for progress that Goethe’s Faust was aiming for, and it seems that in our desperation for change and modernity, it is the little people and their human needs who will be swept aside. There is a dichotomy here, as Berman recognises, and even all this time after his book was written I’m not sure we have solved the problems.

MarshallBerman

“All that is Solid…” was first published in 1982 and has had something of a cult following since; Verso brough out this edition in 2010 and the book has had a new lease of life . Although some aspects are dated the basic premise, and the discussions of the dilemmas facing us, have not really changed (although he could not have foreseen the technological world with all its modern trappings that we are having to cope with and the political and social systems in which the individual is the least important thing).

In many ways the final section of the book, the New York portion, is the least successful; Berman moves from focusing on a literary/historical interpretation of the past to a much more personal response to the modernist developments of his lifetime. The focus has changed, and the arguments are a little harder to follow because of the author’s emotions about the destruction of the neighbourhood in which he grew up, all in the name of progress. The parallels with Faust are clear, but his narrative seems to have diffused a little. Nevertheless, it’s still a fascinating read, particularly with the perspective we now have of the decades that have passed since Berman wrote this book.

However, the part of the book I found really enlightening was the discussion of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, particularly in relation to his views of the ‘Crystal Palace’. I’d often wondered quite why the Underground Man was so against a glass structure in London, but Berman puts the whole thing into context; explaining how Dostoevsky (and many other writers, in particular Chernyshevsky) had visited London and seen the Palace, and how it symbolised the progress of the West, with which Russia was unable to keep pace. Chernyshevsky had lauded the Crystal Palace, and it was this with which Dostoevsky had a quarrel (and indeed which Zamyatin satirised in parts of “We”). This section alone was worth reading the book for, and although I didn’t always agree with Berman’s take on things, it was always entertaining.

It’s pretty much impossible to go into the detail that this book deserves in a blog post, as there are numerous complex and intriguing arguments on display which I think could occupy many happy evenings of discussion. However, if you’re at all interested in how we got from a feudal world to a highly mechanised one, or in the works of art that reflect that change, this is definitely a book you want to pick up!

In which I (gasp!) read a graphic novel…

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Yup – I really did! It was “Red Rosa” by Kate Evans, and this is the first time I’ve read a graphic novel since, ooh, probably around 1991 when I blubbed through “Maus”. If I’m honest, it’s not a genre I often dip into, much as I love good comic book art, but reading about this one on the Verso site (such temptation on there) made me keen to explore, and fortunately a proof was available via NetGalley. The book is out in November, and I really, really recommend it.

red rosa

The titular Rosa is of course Rosa Luxemburg, left-wing thinker and revolutionary, and the book tells not only her life story, but also fills the reader in on her theories and thinking in a way that makes it approachable and understandable. Born into a Jewish family in Russian-controlled Poland, she had disadvantages from the start; her sex, her religion and a hip ailment causing a limp were all against her. But Rosa had a ferocious intelligence and fought for education and to go to one of the universities which would accept women. After obtaining her degree, she made her life in Germany, devoted it to the cause, as well as having a very healthy love life!

It’s clear from the graphic novel that Luxemburg was a formidable intellect, with many regarding her as on the same level as Marx (and indeed she did take many of his ideas and develop them further). She was involved in agitation all her life, imprisoned at times, and pivotal in the German revolution of 1918-19. However, as the book makes clear, the revolution failed when the Social Democrats (who should have been sympathetic to their cause) had the uprising crushed; and Rosa and fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered.

Author Kate Evans' view of herself.

Author Kate Evans’ view of herself.

“Red Rosa” is inspirational on a number of levels: there are Rosa’s feminist struggles in a world that is really not comfortable with intelligent women; her belief in her right to love who she wants when she wants; her anger at the poverty and inequality she encounters; and her constant fight to overcome the prejudice she meets as a Jew. Kate Evans’ artwork is excellent, capturing brilliantly Rosa’s look, and some of the larger spreads, covering double pages, are dramatic and impressive. The pages dealing with the effects of WW1 are stunning and the book is a perfect example of what a graphic novel can and should be. The book also succeeds wonderfully in explaining complex theories and issues, and is an excellent primer on Luxemburg’s thought. It does deal graphically (though always tastefully!) with her many loves, and gives a rounded portrait of a woman who was much more than just an anarchist bomb-thrower.

I was absolutely entranced by “Red Rosa”; both the artwork and the concepts made the book one I just couldn’t put down. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to read the life of an inspirational woman!

(Many thanks to publisher Verso and NetGalley for the proof copy – the book comes out in November, and I’d highly recommend getting a physical copy so you can appreciate the artwork properly. Kate Evans has a website here which is worth checking out).

A pair of Verso Volumes

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Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
America by Jean Baudrillard

It’s becoming quite obvious that I’m spending much too much time hanging about the Verso Books site lately… Trouble is, they keep having wonderful flash sales and offers, and I confess to being something of a sucker for these. I went a little mad when their e-books were all on sale with 90% off (!) but these two titles are hard copies I picked up recently, and both rather thought-provoking volumes.

bento

John Berger is, of course, an author I’ve been reading recently, and I loved his novel “A Painter of our Time”. “Bento’s Sketchbook”, however, is something completely different; it’s a lovely, large format paperback filled with Berger’s sketches and musings, as well as extracts from the philosopher Spinoza – the Bento of the title. Spinoza was rumoured to have always carried a sketchbook during his short life, which was lost after his death. Berger had often wondered what the sketchbook would hold and when a friend presented him with a brand new sketchbook of his own, he decided this would be Bento’s Sketchbook, and went on to fill it accordingly.

It’s a fascinating work, full of random thoughts and musings; autobiographical tales; quotes from Spinoza; and some wonderful sketches by Berger. He recalls visits to Dresden after the bombing; a recent visit to sketch in the National Gallery when a jobsworth guard behaves like a moron (I’m still cross about that bit); an encounter with an exiled Cambodian artist; and each of these pieces is shot through with Berger’s humanity and intelligence. Much of the writing is concerned with the process of drawing, and as a total amateur who’s always wanted to draw but never been able to, I found these pieces fascinating. Berger observes the world around him with a clear eye, seeing and recognising the inequalities, and I ended up feeling that nothing he writes could ever be dull. The scope is wide-ranging too – in a long life, full of experience, Berger has encountered many people and events, all of which inform his philosophy.

What’s distinct about today’s global tyranny is that it’s faceless. There’s no Führer, no Stalin, no Cortes. Its workings vary according to each continent and its modes are modified by local history, but its overall pattern is the same…

I came to the end of Berger’s book intrigued, interested, thoughtful and oddly reassured – while there are minds like his in the world there is still hope.

amereica

“America” however is quite another kettle of fish. Baudrillard is a highly regarded French postmodern thinker, and the book is a collection of his meditations on the USA. Framed by thoughts on the desert landscapes (which haunt the book), Baudrillard muses on the differences between American and French culture, the attitudes of both countries and how geography shapes personality. It’s a complex work which I confess often lost me (I’m not that knowledgeable when it comes to philosophical terminology) and yet there are parts that jumped out at me; places where he nailed the essence of things and also some wry humour at the expense of both countries.

The book was written in the 1980s and much of his analysis still seems relevant. However, once place where I think he was off-centre was in his thoughts on race; he almost seemed to be implying that though there were racial tensions in Europe, in the USA these did not really exist any more and all peoples were getting alone fine in the country’s melting pot. Recent world events show that that’s not the case on either side of the Atlantic and in some ways Baudrillard’s analysis seems a little simplistic.

Nevertheless, this was an intriguing book, if difficult in places, and I might be tempted to try another of his books one day… 🙂

Portrait of the Artist as Political Animal

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A Painter of our Time by John Berger

I confess to being partial to a number of independent publishers, and a recent discovery has been the left-wing imprint, Verso. They product a lot of very interesting-looking non-fiction (I am currently trying to resist the call of “NIghtwalking), but I was intrigued to discovery recently when they had a flash sale that they also publish fiction. A title which caught my eye was this one, by an author who’s probably best know for being behind the TV series (and book) “Ways of Seeing” – John Berger.

a painter

Berger has a long history in the arts, but the section on this novel on Wikipedia deserved picking out and reproducing here:

In 1958, Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, which tells the story of the disappearance of Janos Lavin, a fictional exiled Hungarian painter, and his diary’s discovery by an art critic friend called John. The book’s political currency and detailed description of an artist’s working process led to some readers mistaking it for a true story. After being available for a month, the work was withdrawn by the publisher, under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.The novels immediately succeeding A Painter of Our Time were The Foot of Clive and Corker’s Freedom; both presented an urban English life of alienation and melancholy. In 1962 Berger’s distaste for life in Britain drove him into voluntary exile in France.

I found in fascinating that the book should have been considered so subversive in 1958 that it had to be withdrawn; but then I remembered that the world was still in the grip of the Cold War, and that 1956 had seen the abortive Hungarian uprising. So it was a given that I had to pick up a copy to see what it was all about.

As the Wiki entry states, the book is narrated by art critic John, whose commentary frames the diary kept by Janos Lavin, the Hungarian painter of the title. Lavin, a Communist by belief, has washed up in London with his second wife Diana after a life spent moving around the continent: from Hungary, through Berlin then to France and finally on to Britain. His political beliefs and activities have been at the root of his constant movement, as each country becomes too hot to hold him, and he’s retreated from active politics, instead spending his time scraping an existence teaching, painting and being supported by Diana (who comes from a monied family and has a personal income, supplemented by work in a library). But although Janos seems to have cut himself off from the past, it is never as clear-cut as it seems; and as John reads through the diary, much of Janos’s past (previously unknown to John) is revealed. But where has Janos gone, and what prompted his disappearance?

“A Painter of our Time” was an absolutely fascinating read. One one level, there is a mystery, the solution of which gradually becomes clear as we make our way through the diary. However, the book is in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of art; why we create, whether it’s relevant, whether political action is a better choice and so on. Janos, having abandoned political activism, puts everything into his work: his beliefs, his wish for the world to change, the accumulation of all his life’s experiences. And as his story is gradually revealed, like someone scraping away layers of old paint, it seems that he has indeed had a very active life; his memories of torture, betrayal and all the nastiness existing in the early part of the 20th century are powerful. All is not dark, though – there are hints of happiness with his first wife in the early days of their marriage, and of his powerful, comradely friendship with Laszlo.

As Communists we believe that we understand how, on a far more urgent and immediate level, we can make life better, richer, juster, truer with a speed that has never been possible before. I believe this despite the harshness, the treachery, the deaths. I believe it with Asia and Africa, for whom such an improvement is life and death for their own and the next generation. The point from which politics starts for me is hunger. Nothing less.

In fact, without giving too much away, Laszlo is a critical element of Janos’ tale; the events in Hungary during the 1950s inform Janos and Laszlo’s eventual destinies, and trigger pivotal decisions. I don’t want to say any more as it would risk spoiling the development of the book – but a basic knowledge of the Hungarian situation in the 1950s would help…

john berger

There is also a little light relief, to be found in the form of Len, a ‘Sunday painter’; a butcher by trade, he’s fascinated by the clichéd image of a tortured Parisian in a loft with a beret (rather reminiscent of Tony Hancock in “The Rebel”) and longs to paint his wife Vee in the nude, much to her bourgeois embarrassment. Len regards Janos as the real deal, and despite the man’s limitations, Berger is surprisingly kind to him and his artistic ambitions, almost as if he regards his naive aspirations as more honest than some of the posing of the so-called professional artists. The book also captures brilliantly the atmosphere of foggy, post-War London and Berger’s writing is quite evocative in places:

I can see the moon through the skylight, and somewhere there is an owl. It is surprising how many owls there are in London.Writing as I have done makes me nostalgic. Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me, whilst the recollection of sailing under it, lying on my back on the bottom of a dinghy, leaves me only incredulous about the way I lived then? Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me? The bridge has been destroyed, anyway.

Janos is very much an outsider, and you get the sense he has been all through his life. It’s only towards the end of the book, ironically, that his work gets an exhibition of its own and it seems as if his paintings might become fashionable and start to sell. However, unexpected events take over and choices have to be made.

“A Painter of Our Time” was an absorbing read, giving a fascinating snapshot of political and artistic life in the 1950s. I felt that Berger had really captured the dilemmas that must have been faced by intellectuals at the time. Janos is a man drawn in two conflicting directions, torn between politics and art – can they ever be reconciled? The book also hints at just how little we humans really know each other; John is chastened to find out how little he really knows about Janos, and if it hadn’t been for the diary he would have had no idea what was going on beneath the painter’s surface level daily life. I’ve definitely had my thoughts provoked by “A Painter of Our Time” and I think I might well nudge “Ways of Seeing” closer to the top of Mount TBR…

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