Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

Books for Prisoners

I saw that every night that I read I was being cleansed of my sins, and that if I didn’t read I would rove the narrow, basalt-stoned, dank streets of the Castle of Sinners. I learned that not reading was to summon one’s sins. I learned that reading was the thing that tied me to life and rendered me sinless. As I read I saw that six-square-metre cell transformed into the world’s biggest centre for hermetic seclusion: a sanctuary, a colossal temple, a school where wise sages sat and debated.

As I read in prison I became myself, I returned to being myself, I added colour and harmony to my stagnant life. As I read I became myself.

(From Reading in Gaol, by Muharrem Erbey, translated from the Turkish by Erda Halisdemir. Published in The Author in Autumn 2014.)

Why does the Minister of Justice in the UK, Chris Grayling ignore the impact of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP), which limits prisoners’ access to books. And why does he ignore the effects of staffing cuts on prisoners’ access to prison libraries? Access to books in prisons is part of a dubious behaviour control policy. I have written about this before, in March 2014, see Books in Prison.

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

And why do Conservative MPs (my MP anyway) not engage with the issues? Actually I know the answer to that question, but it’s still frustrating! And why is Simon Hughes, Lib Dem minister at the Justice Department openly challenging Chris Grayling about so much of his prisons policy, including limiting books to prisoners (reported in the Independent on 7th November 2014).

Why does it matter?

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

I care passionately about books and education. In Norah Colvin’s phrase I am a meliorist. They are civilising influences in a world where powerful forces seem to want to revert to the worst of human nature. This government seems to represent the view that a prisoner forfeits all rights to be treated decently, as if the person is the crime.

I do not believe it is wise to make prisoners resent their treatment. Rather we should provide all possible opportunities for them to read and learn and reflect on life, their own as well as their victims, and the lives of others – in short to return to their best selves. Everyone can benefit from reading about the world, how it is, how it could be and how people live in this world.

Muharrem Erbey kept his best self alive and provides the eloquent vindication of reading in prison quoted above. He was in Diyarbakir High Security Prison for more than four years as a result of his Human Rights activities in Turkey. He determined to turn his situation to advantage by reading.

In the new worlds open to me by the books there was beauty beyond my wildest fantasies. I was free in that world. And everyone was equal. There were no walls. There were no doors that shut on people.

I wrote to my MP

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

I try to take action when I adopt a strong position on an issue. In this case I did what active British citizens can do – I wrote to my MP – Anne Marie Morris. I complained about the reduced access by prisoners to books and libraries as a result of staffing cuts to the prison service. And I asked some pertinent questions about my local prison – Channing Woods.

In February 2013 an inspection report suggested that some prisoners were spending up to 20 hours a day confined to their cells. Since then there has been unrest among the prisoners. And this summer staff voiced their own worries about staffing levels.

I would like answers to the following questions:

How often can prisoners visit the library at Channings Wood Prison?

Who runs the library at Channings Wood Prison, and what is its budget?

From which outlets can prisoners buy books in the prison?

Can prisoners get specialist books from the library if they have a hobby or are doing a course?

I received no answer to these questions, no reference to Channings Wood at all in her letter. Rather my MP responded to some points I had not made, including this statement.

There has been a considerable amount of misinformation on this issue recently. Books are not banned [this I know] – indeed all prisoners have access to the professionally run prison library service.

That’s why I was asking about access to the library at Channings Wood, especially in the light of the prison staff’s own concerns about staffing levels.

I shall have to write again.

Can you take some action?

See what writers and others concerned about this issue have been doing:

  • Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Wilson, Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Maureen Freely and Joanne Harris have called for the justice select committee to consider the impact of the IEP scheme in November 2014 (details from English Pen here);
  • There was a silent protest during a House of Commons justice select committee hearing in June 2014;
  • Leading writers (Mark Haddon, AL Kennedy, Rachel Billington), protested at Downing Street, also in June 2014;
  • Publishers led by Pavilion Books organised a fundraiser event called A Night in the Cells in May 2014.
Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Campaigning has brought a small concession: prisoners will not in future be limited to 12 books per cell.

See also The Howard League for Penal Reform and English Pen for details about the campaign activities.

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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Stoner by John Williams

What is a good life? This question stalks my reading, of fiction about older women, of feminist texts and of last year’s surprise success – Stoner by John Williams. I had read references to it in the end of year lists, and it was especially endorsed by Julian Barnes in the Guardian Review in December 2013. I was also drawn to it by its academic setting, having been employed for the last 20 years in a university.

85 Stoner cover

This is not a novel that made an immediate impact, for it was first published in the US in 1965, and in the UK in 1973. Even today it is apparently more popular in Europe than in the US. I don’t know what made it become a word of mouth success last year, but it did. In his piece Julian Barnes describes how the introduction by John McGahern led him to the opening page and then how he was drawn in.

… And the prose was clean and quiet. And the first page led to the second and then what happened was that joyful internal word-of-mouth that sends a reader hurrying from one page to the next; which in turn leads to external word-of-mouth, the pressing of the book on friends, the ordering and sending of copies.

The narrative follows William Stoner entering the new University of Missouri at 19 to his death, at the age of 64 when he was an assistant professor of English Literature in the same university. His career, we are warned in the opening paragraph, was unremarkable and he was held ‘in no particular esteem’ by his colleagues. Why, then is his life the subject of a novel of nearly 300 pages?

In some ways one might perceive Stoner’s life as a slow accumulation of failure and disappointment. In the closing pages of the novel, Stoner is lying on his deathbed and considers his life.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. (p285)

He considers his career in teaching, mostly he concedes as an indifferent one. And he asks himself repeatedly, ‘What did you expect?’ And the reader must ask this question, about the novel and about life.

Despite the apparent failure, (and we need to stress the appearance of failure, as Stoner does in the first sentence of the extract above) he has managed a life that is sad, but good. By relating Stoner’s life from boyhood to death in ‘clean and quiet prose’, Williams reveals its small actions, or inactions, all performed from a sense of integrity. His marriage is loveless and gives very little to either of them, and for much of their life together they can hardly be said to share anything. Even their daughter grows up to escape them through an early pregnancy and then alcoholism. She goes to live far away. Stoner’s career is overshadowed by a long feud with Lomax, who becomes his head of department, and they don’t talk for years. Lomax is vindictive, which Stoner accedes to (class schedules) for years until he finds a way to rebel. The breakdown in their relationship occurred because Stoner doubted the competence of a student favoured by Lomax.

He falls in love with a young woman, it is reciprocated and for less than a year he experienced love, companionship and delight with Katherine. Their behaviour was unacceptable in the 1950s, and they part. Their separation marks the end of Stoner’s only happy period.

And he becomes a teacher. He himself was overcome with the importance of English Literature when as an undergraduate he was exposed to Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. Since that moment he has immersed himself in teaching the subject. For me, this was the weakest element of the book – not the moment of revelation, which leaves Stoner silent, unable to breathe or speak. But we get no sense of his classes, his relationship with his students, the pleasures he derived from teaching. We are told on the first page that ‘very few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses’.

John Williams

John William’s writing is spare and even. He is able to provide insights into his character’s behaviour without flourish. Here, for example, is Stoner’s wife Edith. She is not a bad woman, but she was brought up in a way that did not encourage a decent relationship.

Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from the recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfil them. (p54)

I think that just about sums up the moral education of young women for millennia, and why it has been so important to oppose it.

John Williams is very good a portraying awkwardness between people – Stoner and his parents, who hardly ever speak, with his wife and his head of department. I wished he had had the courage or the beliefs that would allow him to take on his wife as she manoeuvred him about the house as if he was an inconvenient piece of furniture. The prose is spare, never racy or dramatic, reminding me of John McGahern’s novels and also of James Salter’s All that Is. These writers are also skilled at retelling the lives of men who lived in difficult circumstances – not so far removed from our own experiences – and for whom everyday activities and concerns add up to decent lives.

In addition to Julian Barnes’ piece, I also recommend this review on the Vulpes Libris blog.

 

Have you read Stoner? How did you respond to it?

 

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).

 

Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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