Tag Archives: Steven Galloway

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.

218 St Harper

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)

218 obama2-large

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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Filed under Books, Reading

Music in Novels

I am passionate about both books and music. It’s hard to find music (classical) in novels, partly because it not easy to communicate what music does in words. Here are five novelists who have used music in different ways.

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim  via Wikimedia Commons

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim via Wikimedia Commons

E.M. Forster A Room With A View and Howard’s End

126 Howards EndEM Forster knew his Beethoven and in A Room With A View Lucy crashes through a Beethoven piano sonata revealing her romantic but unformed sensibilities. I’ve done that too! Lucy’s playing style provokes this prophetic observation by Mr Beebe:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ (36)

Beethoven is there again in Howard’s End. Helen attends a concert at the Queen’s Hall.

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is ‘echt Deutsch’; or like Fraulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. (p45)

There is gentle humour in this passage as well as skill. The sentence that begins ‘Whether you are like Mrs Munt …’ is very long, has great rhythm, near-repetitions and at the same time takes us into the characters of several people through their responses to the music. Margaret’s response is contrasted to Helen’s who sees heroes and shipwrecks. When I was much younger I used to listen to music as Helen does. Forster is saying something about Helen’s naivety. In the Adagio she hears goblins and a trio of elephants, and then comes the final movement. We are following Helen’s perspective now:

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for a second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the guts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to it conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. (p47)

A theme of the novel is the contrast between Margaret’s down-to-earth realism, and Helen’s more emotional impulses.

Rose Tremain Music & Silence

126 Music SilenceThis is a historical novel, set in the Danish Court of King Christian IV in the 17th century. Peter Claire is a lutenist employed in the king’s small orchestra, who must endure the most bizarre and harsh conditions, playing in a cellar amongst wine and chickens. It is some time since I read this novel but I clearly remember that the king believed that the function of music was to bolster a sense of order. I am tempted to reread it now I have picked it up again.

Vikram Seth An Equal Music

126 Equal MusThis novel tries to capture what is like to make music, in this case in a string quartet. At its heart is a love story, boy violinist meets girl pianist. We learn a great deal about rehearsing and performing in the quartet. I have the CD that complements the novel, containing the pieces to which it refers. What does it mean if the sound track is available alongside the novel? That the words cannot do the work of the music?

Reviews concluded that it is a flawed but interesting novel. See for example the review by Nicholas Christopher in the New York Times.

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Hoffman Illuminations: a novel

The story, both vivid and frightening, follows a concert pianist, Isabel, who is very passionate and focused on her art and the meaning she makes from the nineteenth century canon, especially Schubert. On tour in Europe she meet Anzor, who is a mysterious Chechnyan. He is passionate too, but about the damage to the codes of conduct and honour of his people. The story turns violent. Isabel observes that we need to pay attention to the ‘unfinished provisional prose of life’, not cut ourselves off in music (however beautiful) or in violent nationalism. This novel questions the meaning of the creation of beauty and the forces of violence and passion.

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

126 CellistThe cellist was a real person, Vedran Smailovic who played Albinoni’s Adagio for 22 days in honour of each of the victims killed on 27th May 1992 by a bomb at a bread queue during the siege of Sarajevo. The Adagio is a poignant piece of music, even if it is almost certainly not written by Albinoni. The novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is not about either the music or the cellist. The music stands for humanity in a dehumanised situation, crystallised by the cellist’s courageous act. Asserting humanity in the face of the destruction and moral decline of war is the theme of this novel.

While music is not a common theme in fiction, fiction certainly appears in music, notably in opera. The novels of Walter Scott are a frequent a source, and Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias was the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata, to notice just two examples.

Do fiction and music mix well? What do you think?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews