Category Archives: Reading

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst was written as Europe approached war in 1913-1914 and published as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceased their campaigning. The WSPU were familiarly known as suffragettes, distinguishing them from the less militant suffragists. It is my choice in the Decades Project for 1910-1919 on this blog.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her story before she knew the outcome of the struggle to gain votes for women. Raised in a radical family, married to a man who promoted women’s suffrage, like many others she was frustrated by the lack of progress, despite many years of suffragist campaigning. She writes about the reasons for establishing the WSPU in 1906.

This, then, was the situation: the government all-powerful and consistently hostile; the rank and file of legislators impotent; the country apathetic; the women divided in their interests. The Women’s Social and Political Union was established to meet this situation, and to overcome it. (53)

She launched the WSPU with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. They determined to draw attention to the cause by any means necessary until victory was achieved. In her account she relates how it was necessary to increase the pressure as they were successively knocked back. They began with peaceful demonstrations and other activities to publicise their demand for Votes for Women, such as unfurling banners at election meetings and asking ‘when will there be votes for women?’ and making speeches in as many places as possible. The campaign was aimed at recruitment of activists and at discomforting cabinet members who were resisting their demands. They were frequently thrown out of meetings. Hostility, including violent reactions, was common.

As franchise reform was repeatedly postponed by Liberal governments the WSPU took to opposing Liberal candidates in by-elections and general elections. The government’s response became more determined. Women were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Police were instructed to manhandle the demonstrators as they marched towards Parliament on Black Friday 1910.

Ernestine Mills at the entrance to Parliament November 1910.

The suffragettes aimed to cause as much difficulty as possible for the authorities, so in prison they campaigned for political prisoner status, refused to follow prison regulations, including going on hunger strike. The official response was brutal: force feeding and later the Cat and Mouse Act.

From Mrs Pankhurst’s account one learns the meaning of this brutality for individual women. They continued, devising more and more ingenious ways to thwart the authorities, and adopted tactics of guerrilla groups to keep going as leaders were picked off. Following the failure of the Conciliation Act in 1910 they escalated the campaign to include damage to property. Golf courses were damaged, empty houses set alight, post boxes burned, windows broken.

Mrs Pankhurst is voluble about the sexist double standard in treatment of political activists. Women were harshly treated by the justice system for advocating the same actions as the Irish Nationalists, although the WSPU did not go as far as taking lives. The men were allowed to get away with these crimes. The women were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, released if on hunger strike, rearrested after a few days of recovery, and the organisation of the WSPU, including its weekly newspaper, was disrupted.

Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst in 1910

 

One learns of the determination of members of the WSPU, and especially of Mrs Pankhurst’s single mindedness. I think she was an unpleasant woman. Those who were not with her were considered her enemies. Certain that her ends and methods were right, she allowed no democracy within the WSPU.

Her arch nemesis was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She spares none of her vitriol as she charts his political chicanery. Lloyd George and Churchill are not far behind.

Many at the time felt that the WSPU had set back the cause of women’s suffrage. She did not agree. Reflecting on the achievements of their campaign in 1914 she has this to say.

… It must be plain to every disinterested reader that militancy never set the cause of suffrage back, but on the contrary, set it forward at least half a century. When I remember how that same House of Commons, a few years ago, treated the mention of women’s suffrage with scorn and contempt, how they permitted the most insulting things to be said of the women who were begging for their political freedom, and how, with indecent laughter and coarse jokes they allowed suffrage bills to be talked out, I cannot but marvel at the change our militancy so quickly brought about. (326)

And what did happen to Votes for Women?

In February 1918, even before the war had ended the coalition government passed the Representation of the People’s Act which enfranchised more men (on residency qualifications) and some women: those over 30 with property or married to men with property or graduates voting in a university town. 8.4 million women gained the vote, about 43% of the electorate.

War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise. (George Cave, Con, Home Secretary. From Hansard)

The government that introduced this legislation contained many ministers who had vigorously opposed women’s suffrage before the war. Women had to wait until 1928 to gain the vote on the same terms as men.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914) Vintage 327pp

See also No Surrender by Constance Maud a novel by a suffragette published in 1911, republished by Persephone Books.

In March the Decades Project choice is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1929.

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Photo Credit.  Ernestine Mills, artist and suffragist, is on the ground with gloved hands over her face. The man in top hat intervening in her behalf is Mills’s husband, Dr. Herbert Mills. Beyond the scrum of police, protesters, and spectators lies an entrance to Parliament. Daily Mirror 19 November 1910 via WikiCommons.

Photo credit: Arrest of Mrs P Nationaal Archief on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.

#ReadingMuriel2018

For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

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My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia was Willa Cather’s fourth novel. She wrote twelve in all. Her early novels appeal with their frank nostalgia for the pioneer life in Nebraska. She has feisty young women in her stories, and this too is attractive.

The story of My Antonia

My Antonia is a story of pioneers, based on Willa Cather’s own childhood. It is told by Jim Burden, and features Antonia Shimerda his childhood companion. The story begins with their shared childhood and continues into mature adult life. Jim is orphaned and comes to live in Nebraska with his grandparents. Antonia arrives with her family at the same time. The Shimerdas come from Bohemia and have little English and no sense of farming, so initially do very poorly. It emerges that it was Mrs Shimerda who argued for the family to emigrate in order to give her oldest and favourite son Ambrosch the best start in life. The difficulties mount in winter and the father shoots himself. The family struggle to make a living.

Antonia works hard, sometimes on the family farm, sometimes helping families in the towns. As a young woman she departs to marry a train conductor who leaves her pregnant and unmarried. She returns to Nebraska, marries a decent guy and has many children. Jim visits them on their modest farm in Nebraska. By this time Nebraska is no longer frontier country, farming is established and people are settled.

The appeal of My Antonia

Antonia is an attractive character, flawed but engaging. From the start she demonstrates a strong will and a determination to learn. Much of the pleasure of this novel comes from the childhood Antonia and Jim shared on the wild plains, especially in the summer months.

As with O Pioneers!, the landscape of Nebraska is a character in this novel. These are the first farmers, and in Jim and Antonia’s childhood there are no fences, few delineated fields. But the freedom of the prairies brings the need for hard work and community. Willa Cather is at pains to show the strength that this life required of the settlers and especially of the young girls. Only 50 years later American women were being encouraged to buy a very different dream – life in suburbia.

Willa Cather Prairie, Nebraska

As the pioneers face the winter conditions and Antonia’s family’s attempts to make their way Willa Cather offers us the virtues of the community. When Antonia’s father shoots himself their neighbours set to and organise the funeral and then support the family until they can stand up for themselves. The families share hardship, bounty and celebrations.

Hard work is another virtue, also celebrated in O Pioneers! All the successful and likeable characters turn their hands to everything, and work tirelessly to ensure the farms keep going. Sometimes special effort is required, as in deep winter or harvest time. The women in particular are shown as every bit as significant in their labours as the men. In a section called The Hired Girls, Willa Cather describes what these early settler girls took on even as they became more independent.

Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service. Some of them after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behavior as they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father’s farm. Others, like the three Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But everyone one of them did what she set out to do, and sent home those hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten. (97)

Some of the young pioneer women take up other enterprises, and they do well. Lena, for example, knows her mind from early on. Despite being very attractive to men she has determined not to marry.

“I don’t want to marry Nick, or any other man,” Lena murmured. “I’ve seen a good deal of married life, and I don’t care for it. I want to be so I can help my mother and the children at home, and not have to ask lief of anybody.” (80)

Lena becomes a very successful seamstress. She does not marry. She supports her mother.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She led an active life as a journalist, writing novels, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. A prairie is named after her (see photo)

I reviewed O Pioneers! in the decades project series (1910-1919) last year. You can find a link to the post here.

My Antonia Willa Cather first published in 1918. I read the Dover Thrift edition. 175pp

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Picture credit: Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Webster County, southern Nebraska, September 2010 by Ammodramus, via WikiCommons

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My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I did love reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. This book was chosen for January by my local book group. I don’t always welcome memoir, but the case was made for it and I began reading it as soon as it arrived. I found myself enjoying it way more than I had expected. Let me count the reasons after a brief introduction to the book.

Introduction to the book

Gloria Steinem is perhaps best known for co-founding the influential American feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.

I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine. [from 2011 Documentary – Gloria: In her Own Words]

Spring 1972

My Life on the Road reveals that the magazine was only one part of a much broader pattern of activities addressing equality issues, especially in relation to women. She describes her career in these terms.

At first I was a journalist telling stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. (xxiii)

Can you imagine telling the careers officer, ‘I plan to be an itinerant feminist organizer’? If I had had such an idea in my head in the early 70s my career would have been very different.

The itinerant part turns out to have been extremely important, for travelling allowed Gloria Steinem to have hope encouraged by all the people she has met. Travel brings hope by passing on stories; being on the road forces you to live in the present; it provides alternative ways of looking at human activity. So I honour her efforts and her latest book by passing on something of my enthusiastic responses to her book.

  1. Her father’s story

Leo Steinem, her father, led an itinerant life, and was a big man in many ways. Gloria Steinem describes him as an unusual, restless man, open to change and differences. Many fathers pass on their political attitudes to their offspring, whereas Leo Steinem’s big-hearted generosity can be seen in his daughter’s story, the value of travel. A life on the road was his legacy.

  1. Nostalgia

Nowadays we refer to the Second Wave of feminism, but living through that exciting time of growing awareness in the late 60s and early 70s felt like a tsunami. Reading once more about this period of my past I felt something similar to when I read Harriet Harman’s recent autobiography. It was an exciting time to be alive and to take part in the struggles, some of which stretched across the Atlantic. Consciousness raising, cooperative and direct action, building the sisterhood, these were the lessons we learned. Some of us were propelled into the abortion debates. Later we battled against the placing of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, or supported the fight for fair wages with the Dagenham women and so on. Gloria Steinem tells of parallel struggles in the US.

Raissa Page, Greenham Common 1983

  1. Some specific women she met

I found myself wishing I had met so many of the women she describes. Many were activists who have been compelled to take action by local issues, standing up against inequality in their neighbourhood. There was Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation. And Hillary Clinton, in whose race for the Democratic nomination she worked and then helped unify when she lost to Barack Obama. Robin Morgan, another writer, and many, many more. How lucky to have met all those wonderful women and worked alongside them.

  1. The significance of listening

Women have expressed dismay at inequality over the years. What Gloria Steinem identified and reported in the book is the importance of listening to these experiences. On the individual level that was why consciousness -raising groups were so important: they gave women both a forum to speak and a forum to be heard. We are learning more and more about how women are silenced (I refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain things to Me and Mary Beard’s Women and Power.).

In My Life on the Road Gloria Steinem describes how listening was the basis of her learning. It was the basis of cooperative, democratic actions. She did not bring answers, but modelled listening and finding local answers.

  1. Feminism is everything

By writing feminism is everything, I do not mean that it is the most important thing, I mean it connects every aspect of human life: the personal, the political, the physical, the relational, the economic, and so on. Gloria Steinem demonstrates a set of values that are not bounded by feminism, rather link her responses to inequality based on gender, to inequalities based on race, or class or undemocratic actions.

  1. Gloria Steinem

We must honour our heroes, and Gloria Steinem is undoubtedly one of mine.

Gloria Steinem 2012

  1. The struggle goes on

There is still a long way to go, and it is likely to take many more waves. The book was published in 2015, that is before some of the most depressing undemocratic developments of the last 18 months. But in addition to the election of a misogynist US President, and a referendum which will cause especial difficulties for women, who always bear the worst of the burden of social problems, we are today in a time of fighting back.

Steady progress has been made in respect of LGBT+ rights and expectations. Victims of male violence, and especially of male sexual violence are speaking out and naming men as never before, and being applauded for it. I write as Hollywood honours the #MeToo campaign at the Golden Globe awards and it becomes possible to think that a step has been taken that cannot be untrodden.

And there are the role models and actions that brave women are taking. I especially honour the example of Senator Elizabeth Warren, from whose actions the hashtag #shepersisted was coined. Remember how the majority leader tried to silence her when she read Martin Luther King’s widow’s letter to oppose Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General? Sessions had used his position against black voter registration. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I like persisters. I think Gloria Steinem is a persister too.

Ms. Magazine 2007 – 35th anniversary issue

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published by One World in 2015. 312pp

Additional picture credits:

Ms. early and anniversary issues from WikiCommons Liberty Media for Women.

Author Photo via WikiCommons. Jewish Women’s Archive by Joan Roth, March 2012.

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Bookshops in Books

Today I am blogging about books set in bookshops I am celebrating two things that add great pleasure to my life: books and bookshops. And the occasion is that this is my 400th post on Bookword. Setting a novel in a bookshop allows for an eccentric proprietor and a variety of customers and other visitors. The novels in this post do not disappoint.

Since my blog is bookish I thought I would indulge myself. Here are five books about bookshops to recommend to you. I’m sure you could suggest others. And please enjoy the next 400 posts.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This novel is set in 1959-60 in Suffolk. Florence Green is a widow with experience of selling books. She decides to set up a bookshop in Hardborough, the small town she inhabits on the coast. By opening the bookshop she offends many people in the neighbourhood because she did not consult them or ask for advice, or because books bring culture and challenge to the town, or simply because it represents change and hope. She achieves some success, for example with Lolita, but in the end is out manoeuvred by the local grande dame, Violet Gamart.

Hardborough is populated by a range of people with odd characteristics and big human failings. The bookshop attracts them. There is indolent Milo, who works at the BBC, reclusive Mr Brundish, Christine the girl who runs the subscription library for Florence, the builder, solicitor, bank manager, the rapper (a poltergeist) and many others. None helps her to save her shop. But she tried, and will go on to other endeavours.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) Harper Collins. 156pp

Shortlisted for the Booker prize

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino

This is the ultimate meta-novel, a novelist’s novel. Calvino addressed the reader in alternate chapters, and creates a novel in the others. Each chapter featuring the novel explores some aspect of novels. Each reader chapter considers other aspects of reading and writing. Ultimately there is a discussion between readers in a library, who all read in different ways and to different purposes. Each discussion deserves to be lingered over and so it can take some time to read.

It is wonderfully playful, playfulness – such a good quality in writing. Playing with the reader, as reader. Philosophical too. It begins as you, the reader, open a newly purchased copy of If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, but there is an error in the pagination …

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, first published in Italian in 1980 under the title Se una note d’inverno un viaggiatore. I read the edition published by Vintage in 1998. 260pp

Translated by William Weaver

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

The action of this novel begins with a discovery made in the second hand bookshop in which Roberta works. Her father is dying and has given her some books to dispose of (in the suitcase of the title). She discovers a letter in one book that puzzles her. The book belonged to her grandmother but the letter does not seem to be consistent with what Roberta has been told about her grandmother.

Roberta uncovers her grandmother’s story; death of her baby, husband goes to war and abandons her, she falls for a Polish squadron leader, a land girl gives birth unexpectedly and Roberta’s grandmother finds a solution to all this.

Roberta’s story is also resolved – she has worked for ever for the bookshop owner, looked after him, cleaned up his mess and discovers he too has kept a secret.

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014. 294pp

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

This little volume is well named. Neil Gaiman’s quote on the cover is also apt: ‘So funny, so sad … Read it and sigh’. Here’s a sample so you can see how right he was.

CHILD: Mummy, can we buy this book?
MOTHER: Put that down. We’ve got quite enough books at home.

§

(Local author comes into bookshop, lifts his books from the bookshelf and starts rearranging them on the table in the middle of the room.)

BOOKSELLER: What are you doing?

LOCAL AUTHOR: Well, they’re never going to sell when they’re sitting on a bookshelf, are they?

§

CUSTOMER: Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?

§

CUSTOMER: Do you bother to arrange your books at all, or are they just plonked places?

BOOKSELLER: They’re in alphabetical order …

CUSTOMER: Oh.

§

CUSTOMER: Where do you keep Hamlet? You know, ‘to be or not to be’? Is it in philosophy?

Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Published by Constable in 2012. 119pp

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A fun read, a nice mixture of hi-tech, good old-fashioned values and pleasure in reading. It’s a page-turner with some nice interactions between old and new technologies.

Clay takes a job in the bookstore and soon realises that he has stumbled on a cult. The entrance test into the cult seems far-fetched but Clay solves it in a few minutes through the application of computer technology. Together with his friends he solves all the mysteries of the cult, and he finds out how important is friendship.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, (2012), Atlantic.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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Ms Jekyll and her Garden

I decided that in 2018 my decades project will explore non-fiction by women and immediately landed myself with a problem. Women’s non-fiction writing in the first decade of the 20th century has left very little impression on our available electronic databases. One can explain this: the world of non-fiction was the exclusive world of men; women by and large were still excluded from higher education, and their knowledge and experiences were not valued. If women wanted to write they were expected to produce fiction.

There is an exception. Gertrude Jekyll began to publish her influential gardening books when she had reached the age of 55. By the turn of the century she had an unrivalled reputation as a garden designer, developed over many years of experience and commercial success. And once started she published 13 books, no less than 7 in the decade 1900-1910.

Home and Garden

From all the possibilities I chose Home and Garden. Its subtitle is: Notes and thoughts, practical and critical of a worker in both. I found a second hand copy of a Macmillan edition published in 1984. The original was published in 1900 with 53 photographs by the author. 16 colour photographs were added to the later edition.

Gertrude Jekyll uses the style of writing based on the belief that there is no need to use just one word when a whole paragraph will do much better to convey the full nuanced meaning intended. The subtitle suggests a certain lack of structure and rigour in the writing. This is a miscellany.

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, in no sequence that I could divine. Roses and Lilies, Large and Small Rock Gardens, these are to be expected and instructive. But we also have Gertrude Jekyll’s thoughts on a medley of other topics: the Workshop, the Kinship of Common Tools, the Making of Pot-Pourri, the Home Pussies, Things Worth Doing. The opening chapter is long and is called How the House was Built.

Some heavy oak timber-work forms the structural part of the inner main framing of the house. Posts, beams, braces, as well as doors and their frames, window-frames and mullions, stairs and some floors, are of good English oak, grown in the neighbourhood. I suppose a great London builder could not produce such work. He does not go into the woods and buy the standing timber, and season it slowly in a roomy yard for so many years, and then go round with the architect’s drawing and choose the piece that exactly suits the purpose. The old country builder, when he has to get out a cambered beam or a curved brace, goes round his yard and looks out the log that grew in the actual shape, and taking off two outer slabs by handwork in the saw pit, chops it roughly to shape with his side-axe and works it to the finished face with the adze, so that the completed work shall ever bear the evidence of his skill in the use of these grand old tools, and show a treatment absolutely in sympathy with the nature and quality of the material. (15)

This is not so much about gardening as about building a house to her own specification in a beautiful setting, with an award-winning friend who happened to be the architect Edwin Lutyens. The extract illustrates her style, but also the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

There is plenty in the book of what one might call gardening advice. In the chapter on Midsummer, having listed the advantages of many types of Iris Gertrude Jekyll then broadens her comments to include other flowers and combinations.

One of the happiest mixtures of plants it has ever been my good fortune to hit on is that of St Bruno’s Lily and London Pride, both at their best about the second weeks of June. The lovely little Mountain Lily – fit emblem of a pure-souled saint – stands upright with royal grace and dignity, and bears with an air of modest pride its lovely milk-white bloom and abundant sheaves of narrow blue-green leaves. …

The well-grown clumps of this beautiful plant (it is the large kind and nearly two feet high) are on the narrow west-facing bank that slopes down to the lawn. The place would be in the full blaze of the late afternoon sun, but that it is kept shaded and cool by a large Spanish Chestnut whose bole is some ten yards away. Between and among the little Lilies is a wide planting of London Pride, the best for beauty of bloom of its branch of the large family of Saxifrage. Its healthy-looking rosettes of bright pale leaves and delicate clouds of faint pink bloom seem to me to set off the quite different way of growth of the Anthericum so as to display the very best that both can do, making me think of any two people whose minds are in such a happy state of mutual intelligence, that when talking together bright sparks of wit or wisdom flash from both, to the delight of the appreciative listener. (112-114)

You will notice that only lengthy quotations do justice to Gertrude Jekyll’s style, her mixture of knowledge about plants and observations of humans. Her painterly approach to gardening, to the pleasure of being in the garden (rather than the show gardener might put on) is evident here. This was the essence of her skill as a garden designer. And she has included a photograph of the St Bruno Lily planted with London Pride to add to her case.

But I am wondering for whom this book was written. The style suggests that the reader needed leisure. And they needed disposable income for they were expected to have gardeners to do the heavy and dirty work.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Miss Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson, 1920

Gertrude Jekyll is credited with a new form of gardening, one that combined the experience of being in a garden with knowledge about the soil, aspect and combinations of plants. She brought a painterly approach, appreciation of texture and structure that have influenced so much in modern gardening. While she did not invent the herbaceous border she brought her own knowledge and eye to her guidance on this most English garden feature.

Her first ambitions were in painting, and she went to Art School before developing her career in garden design. During her long career she designed 400 gardens, mostly in Britain, but a few in the USA and Europe. Sadly most of her gardens have disappeared, although her own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, where she lived, has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. She advised on the planting of the gardens at Castle Drago in Devon a National Trust property, which is currently undergoing restoration.

She was a prolific writer, contributing more than 1000 articles to Country Life, besides her 13 books.

Gertrude Jekyll Rose

Her influence on gardens and gardeners has been recognised in two notable ways:

  • A rose has been named after her, which has twice been voted the nation’s favourite rose.
  • The googledoodle for 29th November 2017 celebrated her achievements.

She never married and had no children. You can find more about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens at the official website.

The Decade Project in 2018

This year I plan each month to choose a non-fiction book written by a woman and review it here. Next month, February, I plan to read and review My Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, published in 1914. Suggestions for further decades are welcome, especially for the 1930s.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2017 please follow the link to the final post here The Decades Project one year on. This post listed all 11 choices of novels.

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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Is Literary Fiction in decline?

Is literary fiction in decline? And if so, is the decline terminal? In the market place, where literary fiction meets commercialism, literary fiction is coming off very badly, at least in England. Don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and now The Arts Council has published a research report it commissioned called Literature in the Twenty-first Century: understanding models of support for literary fiction. Notice, in the subtitle, the emphasis on action to support literary fiction. The Arts Council has developed a series of supportive actions. The situation is largely bad with a few bright spots.

The state of literary fiction is a sad reflection on our cultural situation. It also means the unique social value of literary fiction is lost: increasing empathy levels in readers. The same social gain is not found in popular genre fiction. (See Claire Armitstead, link below).

Literary Fiction vs Commercialism: What’s the problem?

Old Bookcase by Friedrich Frotzel, 1929

In the long-term the following have all contributed to the depressed sales of literary fiction: the end of the Net Book Agreement, the arrival of the internet, on-line book-selling, proliferation of competing media, the attack on libraries. Since the bankers’ crash of 2008 literary fiction sales have not recovered. Authors receive less income. This is what the Arts Council report found:

  • That print sales of literary fiction have fallen over the last decade, particularly after the recession. Today, despite some recent positive indicators, they remain significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties

  • There is only a small ‘long tail’ of novels that sell in sufficient quantities to support an author; all bar the top 1,000 writers (at a push) in the country sell too few books to make a career from sales alone

  • The price of a literary fiction book has fallen in real terms over the last 15 years. Not only are book sales down by both volume, but, crucially, publishers are receiving less money for every copy sold

  • While ebook sales have made up much of the fall in print sales elsewhere in the book market, this does not appear to be the case for literary fiction. Genre and commercial fiction predominate in ebook format

  • Large prizes have become even more important to literary fiction

  • Advances are very likely to have fallen for most writers

  • Literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’; breaking into these still proves tough for many

  • Not-for-profit support for literary writing is unable to fill the gaps created by the above [from the Executive Summary, my emphasis]

What are the outcomes for literary fiction?

Fewer authors are able to make a living from their writing. (40% made their living from writing in 2005, but by 2013 it was down to 11.6%.) Only the top 1000 books are commercially strong, the rest see low sales and low prices.

Diversity in literary fiction has not improved.

Publishers have increased their reliance on film tie-ins and books series (proven sellers), the ‘continuity imperative’ identified by Claire Armitstead (see link below).

Self-publishing is an area of growth and, according to the report, is ‘increasingly upending the entire publishing industry.’ (p49) But self-publishing (especially electronically) means books are priced lower than ‘real’ books and as a consequence writers earn less. Moreover attitudes to self-publishing are largely hostile, including for the main ways in which literary fiction receives endorsement and sales: through broadsheet reviews and literary prizes and festivals.

The reader finds more homogeneity and less experimental fiction promoted by the dominant publishers. Their profits have increased, by the way, but this has not been passed on to authors.

Any other hopeful signs?

The report noted some positive aspects

This, then, is not an easy time for literary fiction. Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots:

  • New independent publishers continue to emerge
  • There is no conclusive evidence that publishers are reducing their marketing, even if this is a common feeling among writers
  • Film rights, translation rights, audiobooks and new crowd-sourcing models are all on the rise as ways of supporting literary fiction
  • The growth in creative writing courses offers teaching opportunities for writers, but also creates a more competitive landscape for authors

… As the above suggests, though, our research indicates this is emphatically not an easy time, and that models to support literary fiction are stretched thin, more than at any point in recent decades. [Executive Summary]

via visual hunt

And what can readers do?

Buy more books. Preferably at full price.

Buy and read more adventurously.

Support Indie Publishers: subscribe, promote, buy their books, remind others about this vibrant and growing sector.

Encourage initiatives to support BAME writers, as diversity in literary fiction is not improving. This means buying books by BAME writers, and supporting events and other promotions, such as prizes, workshops and so forth.

Support libraries. Support libraries. Read more books.

Links

You can find the full text of the report and the Arts Council’s response on the Arts Council Website.

A New Chapter must begin for Literary Fiction by Claire Armitstead in the Guardian 15.12.17.

I wrote about the premature announcement of the death of real (print) books in a post in August. Here’s the link.

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The Return by Hisham Matar

What are the effects of disappearance, long imprisonment and brutal dictatorship on people, individuals and their families, their communities, their countries? And how is it to live in exile, from a country you loved and from the knowledge of what happened to your father? Hisham Matar has campaigned for more information about the brutal years of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and specifically for in information about what happened to his father. And when relations with Libya were normalised by the Blair government he campaigned for the human rights of political prisoners. And finally, when Gaddafi was toppled, in that brief period of hope for Libya, he returned to his home country. This is his account of these events.

What is known

Jaballa Matar was a leading dissident who opposed Gaddafi and like many others took his family into exile to continue the struggle from abroad. But he was kidnapped in Cairo and delivered to the Libyan regime. He emerged in a notorious prison in Libya. Jaballa Matar was kept separately but other prisoners heard him recite poetry during the dark nights of captivity. His fate is ultimately unknown, although it seems likely that he was murdered in a massacre in the Abu Salim prison in 1994. His family received some letters but when these ceased, and when reports of sightings dried up the family was unable to discover confirmation of his fate. It is believed that at least 1270 men were killed in the prison massacre. An account by a witness is included in the book.

Documentary evidence is scant. And witnesses have also disappeared or may be unreliable. Researching his grandfather’s activities brought him to the absence of an archive of the period of Italian occupation and to the same frustrations he experienced in his search for the truth about his father.

I was back in that familiar place, a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying the possibilities, like a house with endless rooms, inescapable and haunted. (161)

What it means

This is a beautifully written memoir. In part it provides Jaballa with a legacy. He was an opponent of Gaddafi, and for that it is likely that he paid with his life. But he was also a father, husband, brother, cousin, uncle and son, a patron of many as well as an inspiration to young men. They also pay the price.

Those in exile also suffer.

Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure. (105)

And family relationships are damaged.

We tiptoed around each other, trying our best to avoid confronting the ways in which political reality manages to infiltrate intimacies, corrupting them with unuttered longings and accusations. (110)

Family relationships are central to this account, and although Hisham Matar’s family are strong and supportive, they’re also stretched by long periods of separation, and by conflicting family loyalties and beliefs. When fathers have been in prison for more than 20 years their sons have grown into young men, strangers.

The history of the family becomes more and more significant as tiny fragments of information are gathered to add to the incomplete picture. We learn of the heroic stances of other members of the family: the grandfather who resisted the colonisation and destruction of the Italians; the young fighter Izzo a cousin who killed in the last battles of the revolution to unseat Gaddafi. His story was relayed on Facebook. Or the cousin, a judge, who leads a strike to demand judicial independence in the new Libya. And Hisham Matar’s own campaign to find the truth about his father.

The writing

Hisham Matar is also a novelist. I heard him talk about his novel In the Country of Men and was profoundly impressed by the way he spoke about his novel and its relationship to his own situation. This was at Ways with Words in the summer of 2012 and I was struck by the sparse attendance at his talk, which was so good, in contrast to the Radio 4 celebrity event that attracted a much larger crowd to the main hall at Dartington.

What struck me was his use and control of language.

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.

This is the opening sentence of Anatomy of a Disappearance, which he told us came to him after a couple of years being blocked and allowed him to write. Here is another example of his control, describing how people used their houses differently since Gaddafi took power:

Light is no longer welcome in the houses. It is shut out, like other things that come from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news. (51)

There is control too in the account of Hisham Matar’s many conversations with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the dictator. The grotesque nature of his promises, sympathy and bargaining in these transactions is evident. But there is no rancour in the text. We can be happy that Saif is currently in prison and Hisham Matar is free to write.

And this is the description of Libya in 2012, in that brief period of hope called the Arab Spring. Hisham Matar is writing about Benghazi.

I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other. (140)

I read this with the avidity of a novel reader. Reading is important to understand the varieties of damage caused by oppression and violation of human rights. In his fiction as well as in this memoir Hisham Matar brings us face to face with our responsibilities to resist.

The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between by Hisham Matar (2016) Penguin 280pp

The Return attracted several prizes including 2017 Pulitzer Prize for biography and memoir, Pen American Award, Slightly Fixed best first biography award and reaching the shortlist of several more prestigious awards.

Fiction by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006) Viking Penguin

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (2011) Viking Penguin

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