Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

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In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

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The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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Let slip the novels of war

War novels have their own ‘best of’ lists on the internet. Frequently these lists have too many testosterone-fuelled novels and horror for me. The five novels I pick out in this post have something else. They use the best of the novel to reflect on something beyond the experiences of most readers. They show the bigger picture – bigger geographically, in scope and in meaning – through individual stories. They use the power of story to explore the urge to survive, the horror of what man does to men, women and children, and how humans react when faced with the vastness of war.

Here are my five (plus two) to think about.

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques

The First World War will be the subject of much remembrance as we reach the centenary of its outbreak. In Britain literary merit seems to be the preserve of the poets. The novel of choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques, written, of course, in German. I did not read it until 2012, having been presented with extracts on a writing course. It was published in 1929, eleven years after the Armistice.

Paul Baumer tells the story in the first person. He and his school friends enlisted in the German army in 1916 as 18 year olds, on the encouragement of their schoolteacher. The story opens on the battlefield and hardly leaves it, except to go home on leave and for a spell in a military hospital. The narrator is killed in October 1918, feeling he has nothing left in his life, that the young person he was has been destroyed in the war. It has killed his friends one by one, and his country has been reduced to sending inadequately prepared raw recruits into battle to die. There are vividly descriptions of battle, but also some lighter scenes such as the theft of the goose, or the canal swim to be with some girls one evening.

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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

My choice for a novel set in the homefront in the Second World War has to be The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen – the subject of a Readalong on my blog earlier in 2013. You can find my review here. One of the best novels of the twentieth century I believe.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The fate of the author (in Auschwitz in 1942) and the location in war-time France meant I was initially reluctant to read this book. But I was charmed and thrilled by it.

Part 1, Storm in June, concerns the flight from Paris in June 1940. The story follows several families as panic hit the capital and they scrambled out as the German army advanced. It’s an amazing exploration of what people do in a crisis, how some have great generosity and others think only of themselves. There is lovely humour, black in places, great tenderness and overall an affectionate look at people through the details of their lives.

Part 2 called Douce concerns life in a village in occupied France a year later, when German troops are billeted on the population. Here the story picks up some of the characters from Storm, but mostly concerns the relationship between a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the young cavalry officer, Bruno. The development of the relationships between victors and conquered, between occupiers and residents is beautifully observed, as are the accommodations that people make to this situation in order to preserve their own values and lives.

The manuscript was carried by Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters, taken in haste to remind them of their mother. It was only produced for publication recently.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

For a novel from the battlefield (or the air battle in this case) in the Second World War I must nominate Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is one of my desert island choices because it is so inventive, so rich in detail, so brilliant at showing the absurd in absurd situations. The title and some of the characters have entered our culture.

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Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some brilliant writing came out of the Vietnamese War. The novel that made the strongest impression on me was Dispatches by Michael Herr. It’s a searing condemnation of what happened to the fighting men. It convinced me that war is never an answer to anything. The damage inflicted upon the participants is as futile in the Vietnamese war as all others, despite individual acts of heroism.

And the first other one:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

On publication it was celebrated as the work of a new voice, creative and strong. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is about US soldiers in the (second) Iraqi war. I read it in preparation for this blogpost. In my reading log I commented, ‘nothing to like here’. Too much of that male stuff here for me. Geoff Dyer was more critical of it in a review of another (non-fiction) book about the Iraq war. You can find his comments here: Thank You For Your Service. He includes these comments:

Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. … [His novel is] inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Here’s an example of creative writing class fiction perhaps: ‘while we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’ (p1) There was plenty more like that.

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The title comes from a US Army marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

 

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …

And the second other one:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This one is on my tbr pile, having been recommended by a friend. Have you read it? Have you an opinion about it?

And a few more recommendations from browsing the web

Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War)

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Napoleonic invasion of Russia)

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (Second World War)

D.M Thomas The White Hotel (Second World War)

And there are countless excellent non-fiction books as well.

 

Powerful stuff. What have you read that spoke to you about war? I was disappointed to find nothing outstanding in the twenty-first century. Have you come across anything you would recommend?

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reviews