The Red Pony / John Steinbeck

I read John Steinbeck’s sequence of three stories comprising The Red Pony. This pastoral shot through with sombre realism is set on a farm in the Salinas valley in California – a landscape that has a deep personal significance for Steinbeck. It is like Mont Sainte-Victoire for Cezanne, somewhere to rehearse his sense of himself – to illumine his hidden consciousness buried deep within. All the characters in the little dramas that play out here, whether it be the ranch hand Billy, Jody, the young child, a returning paisano, looking for the vanished past or the mother and father working the land and the animals, dependent on the vagaries of weather, are given a depth that resonates behind their outward actions, the play of their physical beings in tune with the quiet murmur of their lives. The dogs and horses that share this domain have a presence and personality – they are characters themselves, much as the humans that share in their destiny. What we see in young Jody who forms a sometimes still but quietly changing centre of the sequence, is a keenly drawn young child taking tentative steps into the worlds and thoughts of the adults he moves amongst. There is a quietness and stillness over the whole arch of the piece, such sounds as we hear, more sharply defined, such sights more clearly and fully seen. Jody’s is a harsh world but rooted firmly in these seemingly timeless landscapes. Although in some sense as luminous as the child in the great Stevens Western Shane – the romantic feel of that work – the radiant music score – has become a silent backdrop for portraits and evocations that give us a heightened awareness of nature’s immensity and indifference. This is a home for these people but one wrested from lands that move away for miles – and only the ocean lies beyond the furthest horizon. Birth and death bring this sequence to an ending but we know there is a promise in this way of living.

The Wanderers / Richard Price

As natural and unforced as breathing, Price’s book about underprivileged teenagers in sixties New York crackles with smart dialogue (a rich vernacular), and is so well structured, conjuring the interplay of the teenage gangs as their lives come gradually into focus through startling debacles, familial conflicts and rites of passage. The author knows these kids and their parents inside out. He knows their neighbourhoods, the architecture of their lives. He writes a kind of camerawork over the scenes such that echoes of American Graffiti and Amarcord tremble across the page. A great debut back in the seventies.

The Shepherd’s Life – a Tale of the Lake District / James Rebanks

Following the seasons and reliving its author’s early years, this book carries overtones of change and even decay, although finally it suggests a way of life – that of the shepherds and farmers of hill country in Lakeland – which persists despite the encroachments of the modern world. Rebanks recalls the preceding thirty years of his existence – taking him from his early teens to his forties. In his tone already there seems a suggestion of a much older man – youth seems distant in his rapidly changing world. We learn of his closeness to the farm where his ancestors toiled for millennia and he guides us through his life which is marked by outside influences and the recognition that his closeness to the Cumbrian landscape can only survive through accommodation with a world that has left these lives of dignity and struggle behind. The cycle of years bringing divided loyalties and new horizons beyond fields and moors, moves as the background to the changing seasons on the farm. The tasks of the shepherds and farmers are lovingly detailed and his deep knowledge of these activities and the physical and mental hardships they exact forms the backbone of this meditation. Whether it is sheep shearing, or helping the ewes give birth, working the fells and the flocks, his dogs and himself against the elements, this book establishes a candid, confiding voice, opening a window on hidden lives, lives hardened by unforgiving economic choices but leavened by strong familial bonds and community ties that are capable of softening or subsuming the cash nexus. Rebanks is not sentimental about the canny lives these men and women of the hill lands lead – he looks their competitive drives in the face but senses their dignity as guardians of traditions. customs and practices whose worth the preceding centuries have fostered in good times and bad.Rebanks fashions the physical sense of the land, its animals and people in carefully worked language – for language for him, through university study and close reading has become a tool like those he masters as a shepherd – something to convey with uncomplicated directness his impressions and feelings of oneness with his vocation. The lives of the farmers and shepherds are precarious and he himself has other work – a freelance adviser to UNESCO World Heritage Centre on enhancing the relationship between tourism and the communities where it develops. Rebanks like many others who wish such places and their cultures to endure has to walk a tightrope across an uneasy divide between traditions and identities, and the new world that displaces those dearly won real lives that give true meaning to human endeavour. As his courage and hope revive each spring, his divided self sounds a note of cold eyed realism that tempers my own engagement with all I have read.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann (Original title: Joseph und seine Brüder) – translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter

I think that what a reader will remember of Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann is first and foremost what an epic journey it is. It is a journey for the reader and the narrative encompasses many journeys for the characters. Mann creates a mighty edifice from the Old Testament episode. He recreates the Ancient Near East with a fidelity that borders on obsession. I remember landscapes portrayed with a cinematic splendour and festivities that play out as moving images crowded with movement and life. If the original story is passionate and dramatic – this drama in Mann’s work is always contained by his authorial voice. This above all seeks to find truth in character portrayal and to see truth as a destination that is dearly attained – a celestial city appearing on the horizon – drawing the reader as a pilgrim, a seeker after wisdom who must negotiate an imagined reality, a recreation of what might have happened if you were a witness to the events or an interpreter of narratives that are constructs of both the participants and those who write the accounts. We can live with the vivid dramas of Joseph’s suffering as prisoner, his seduction by Potiphar’s wife or the moving reconciliation with the brothers and Jacob the patriarch submissive to the deity, guided always by an all knowing power – experiencing these events as drama on the highest plain, and yet overlaying this is the serene progress of the narrator’s voice, distancing us, allowing us to contemplate the events as a divine plan, bringing confidence and certainty to quieten humanity’s frail condition and moral questioning. We have a candle to guide us through darkness and to light the way for the troubled being caught between animal and angel. Joseph’s and Jacob’s dilemmas and failings, their triumphs and sorrows more than ever in Mann’s narrative bring echoes and a foreshadowing of other famed Biblical narratives – the story in Mann’s work is seen as part of a huge tradition stretching backwards to the earliest patriarchs and forwards to the Gospels. Mann’s account also anticipates some of the concerns of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is a world where dreams can displace reality, where individual selves are split and identities are malleable and shifting and relationships are threatened by deception and duplicity. This insecurity permeates the narrative through to the final pages as Jacob leaves his beloved son a dying wish that all will be healed between him and his brethren – he does not have confidence that this will really happen without a formal intervention from beyond the grave. Joseph himself perhaps personifies the strength of God’s overarching plan – a figure who comes to embody the progress of God’s story that gives meaning to all events and leads the characters towards a destiny may be mirage or salvation but one that will have design and ultimate purpose.

Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells by Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey

I finished reading Elgar, Vicat Cole and the ghosts of Brinkwells – the joint work of Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey. This is a lovingly worked account of the three way relationship between a house and its two distinguished tenants. The artist Rex Vicat Cole rented the isolated cottage of Brinkwells in West Sussex from 1905 onwards. A painter who remained on the fringes of the art world and pursued an intensely personal vision, Vicat Cole sublet Brinkwells to the composer Edward Elgar at an interesting point in his compositional career. The last years of the Great War saw the ageing composer seeking the peace of the West Sussex countryside to reawaken his fading creative faculties. At Brinkwells the closeness and separation of the natural world encouraged a late flowering of works with an otherworldly character. This mysticism is uncannily related to a similar temperament in Vicat Cole and thus a web of connections is established that provides the foundation of Fitzgerald and Harvey’s generously illustrated and elegantly structured volume. This poetic tribute by the joint authors is not thankfully too misty eyed or impressionistic for it is grounded in a realistic appreciation of the cottage and its surrounding countryside. The life of the Elgars during their tenancy is simply and gratefully described. We get a sense of physical privation and isolation as well as a pantheistic oneness with the surroundings. The daily concerns and activities of the Elgars, Alice and Edward are minutely shown, this realism working in tandem with the acute chapters on the artistic vision of Vicat Cole. Cole had a deeply poetic appreciation of nature but this ran alongside a profound study of trees, their physical makeup and their individual character. Their character according to species establishing a distinct relation to people and a deep level of communication that recalls the Tolstoyan vision of War and Peace. It is impossible to forget in this context the momentous visionary experience of Andrei Bolkonsky in the great novel, as he contemplates the oak at a special turning point in his life. The last section of Fitzgerald and Harvey’s book which offers a close analysis of the musical masterpieces that Elgar created at Brinkwells draws together themes of pantheism and mysticism and offers a succinct account of how these works seem to portend a new direction in his compositional output – a direction that disappears poignantly with the ending of the Brinkwells idyll as Alice Elgar, worn out with shoring up the sensitive Elgar;s frail temperament, fades from life in the pitiless embrace of cancer.Although the analysis that the author’s offer could be seen as overly subjective even impressionistic, the quietness of the tone and the well thought out presentation keeps the ideas couched within a bracing atmosphere of objectivity and well balanced exposition. I think the book works on a number of levels – it is not overwhelmed with academic theory and speculation but nevertheless has a certain rigor in its musical and artistic appreciation and offers an enticing vista for further exploration based on an appreciation of how places and people interact in ways that seem to have a universal significance for the human predicament. Places can symbolise forgotten dreams and future hopes – endings and beginnings coalesce in fruitful harmony. There is that Wordsworthian appreciation of something ” far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns”. Some might say it is something of a coffee table book but I think its purpose is refreshingly idiosyncratic and the avenues it follows are unfrequented ones and therefore valuable for genuine enthusiasts and maybe also the jaded academic mind.

K: A Biography of Kafka by Ronald Hayman

This book is a scrupulous analysis of a life lived in places where identities are hard to determine and where there is always a sense of displacement, for Kafka grew up in Prague then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a German speaking Czech Jew. Czech nationalism was always bubbling beneath the surface – and suspicion and prejudice were rife directed both at Jews and German speakers. This cauldron of enmities and threatening presences was made more menacing to the sensitive Kafka by his father a strong and dominating personality who found commercial success in running a hardware shop.These were the dynamics at work in Kafka’s fevered imagination. Hayman’s book certainly made me wish to turn once more to the haunting stories and novels. The book skilfully interweaves the gestation of the works with the circumstances and conflicts from which they appear to derive. Throughout this life there is a fear of parental disapproval and scorn and a guilt arising from this fear. There are fraught relationships with women characterised by a deep need for company and acceptance in constant terrifying interplay with a struggle for personal and creative freedom. Tumultuous dramas play out in the tempestuous letters to Felice Bauer and later to Milena, a translator of his work, whose personal circumstances (she is married) provide further insurmountable obstacles to add to those self-inflicted torments that suffocate his yearnings for love.It would be wrong though to view the life purely as some desperate melodrama exploding from the darkness of a damaged psyche for Kafka always attracted friends. He had natural gifts for warmth and playfulness and a capacity for selflessness in his obvious devotion and care for others. This manifests itself in his relationship with his sister Ottla, he appears caring about her future and lives contentedly with her at various times. His working life at the insurance office is characterised by professionalism and innate ability. There is evidence of stability and strength which maybe only illness, family circumstances and the unforgiving tides of history swept from his grasp. Hayman explores all these contradictory impulses and differing perspectives, building a rich and subtle portrait. I remember particularly the tender vignette provided by his office cleaner who tidies his workspace following his retirement – on his desk “the slender glass vase holding two pencils and a penholder, the blue and gold teacup and saucer he used for drinking milk and sometimes tea”. This is an intensely human portrait. We can get close to the author, see beyond the disordered consciousness, the fevered brain and encounter the man that might have lived in kinder times – an imagination whose flowering fell early on the stony ground of a cruel fate. The major stories and novels are placed amid the chronology of his short life. We can see them shaped by personal and wider historical circumstances.The biography itself reads like drama at key moments as in the opening pages, Hayman shows the writing of the story, Das Urteil (The Judgement) – confronting us with the feared father in both art and life, and then again in the closing scenes a tender romance develops between the dying author and Dora Dymant and vividly Hayman shows the tableau at the grave, a prostrate Dora and the figure of Kafka’s troubled father turning coldly away from these tears.This biography is as much a lived experience as a considered exposition of a complex and disturbing life. It is worth much more than a second reading.

SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) by Mary Beard

A wonderfully flowing and ebullient account of the period from the foundation of Rome through to Emperor Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to all across the Empire. This book uses letters, archaeological remains, inscriptions and decorations from the period to flesh out the often shadowy story of how one settlement in Italy came to be the dominating force and nucleus of an empire which stretched across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The literature of the Romans and many other achievements parallel those in the Greek world. That wonderful opening of Virgil’s Aeneid “Arms and the man I sing” – acknowledges the role of heroic battles, warriors, and the Roman army but Beard also finds and records details of the less dramatic ordinary lives of Roman citizens.
There are great character portraits of the major actors in the drama like Augustus and Cicero. Beard is down to earth in her assessments and her recognition of the problems of interpreting events and motivations that are so dimly present to us. She debunks some assumptions – were Gaius (Caligula) and even Nero as bad as they have been portrayed? She gives us a window on to the journeys of many disparate peoples who travelled widely throughout the Roman world. We learn of a Syrian who found himself at Hadrian’s Wall. Beard’s style is so communicative and enthusiastic that I was sorry that she ended her book when she did. I would definitely return to this stirring volume.

Rimbaud : a biography by Graham Robb

Graham Robb’s biography of Rimbaud presents the life of one of the most problematic and troubling of literary artists. There are many extracts in translation of the enigmatic poems and these astonished me by their invention and almost casual brilliance. In many cases they are the work of a teenager. A teenager brought up by a terrifying disciplinarian of a mother with an absent father and a feckless and cold brother and two rather more sympathetic sisters – albeit subservient to the awful mama. This early life it seems marked him permanently – he remains an emotionally detached figure – who seems to seek some kind of revenge on the despised human race. Early lionisation by his literary peers does not lead to any kind of stability and his rejection of the narrow confines of bourgeois existence is mirrored in the poems’ flight from rational coherence and his own early disenchantment with the pursuit of literature. Robb documents the initially fruitful shared life with the poet Paul Verlaine which brought them to London in 1872 and the eventual collapse of their partnership. The book shows Rimbaud’s subsequent anti-literary career turning against this former life and embarking on a remarkable series of odysseys first to Java as a mercenary and ultimately to Egypt and Abyssinia as a trader in coffee, arms and much else besides. Always in the background lurks that arid relationship with the steely matriarch – Mme Rimbaud. His African career is astounding as it shows Rimbaud’s determination to forge a new existence as an explorer and businessman – demonstrating the brilliance of the man in taking on tasks involving immense danger and difficulty – and winning the admiration and confidence of his business associates. His complicity in slavery and arms dealing makes him disturbing but he is you must remember one small part of the general late 19th century colonial enterprise which cashes in on the willingness of African despotic chiefs to participate in power politics and exploitation of fellow humans. This is the heart of darkness in the “Dark Continent”. Rimbaud is a desperate figure – finding a way to survive in a world that suffocates and shuns him at every turn. His is a quest for meaning that leads to death and a posthumous canonisation that he never sought and would have left him unimpressed. This is a life that challenges our assumptions about art and artists and leaves us staring uncompromisingly and bitterly into the void.

Whatever (original title: Extension du domaine de la lutte) by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever – (Original title: Extension du domaine de la lutte) is a breezy bleakly comic satire with a wonderful first person narrator whose every remark seems marked by a particularly sharp and acidic negativity. He works for a software company as an analyst-programmer – a post that seems guaranteed to encourage dissociation. Although it appeared in the nineties this fable seems even more apposite for now. It slices through many current sensitivities with gorgeous aplomb, dispatching contemporary life and simultaneously lamenting its casualties, most prominently the authenticity that is increasingly beyond the reach of everyone. Travelling to Rouen for the company in order to train clients in the use of a software system, he is accompanied by Tisserand a colleague from the same outfit. This hapless individual, in his fruitless search for love and sexual fulfillment, seems to embody what the narrator calls the “progressive effacement of human relationships” that is now common currency. As the book progresses, the narrator necessarily becomes ever more isolated, a latter-day Alceste from Moliere’s Le Misanthrope. What is astonishing is how characters like this simultaneously attract and repel, creating an intoxicating blend of the humorous and the tragic, the ridiculous and the strangely true. By the end of this book I felt comfortably or uncomfortably ensconced in that state of uncertainty that Keats called “negative capability”, a state conducive to the fullest aesthetic response towards life’s bewildering conundrums and philosophical dead ends, where a kind of perception of beauty offers the surest recompense for the human predicament.

The Strangest Man – the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo

The Strangest Man, the Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo provides what seems a definitive overview of this enigmatic figure from the remote and secretive world of theoretical physics. A founding member of a pioneering group that brought quantum theory out of the darkness of nature’s most hidden recesses. Cambridge was the centre of their world but their influence and presence was felt across continents.

Farmelo is himself a theoretical physicist and the book has many descriptions of subatomic particles and their behaviour – attempts to add flesh to the bones of Dirac’s theories – as they are shown emerging and engaging with the minds of other leading thinkers, sparking reactions and counter-reactions and developing through time from the 1920’s up to the book’s conclusion in the 1980’s.

The book is not merely a journey of scientific discovery revealing the infinitely small phenomena which are predicted and confirmed in theories and experiments – it is also an individual and family drama – showing a singular figure emerging from uneasy beginnings and then oscillating between a self-imposed isolation and membership of an elite group of figures dwelling within rarefied academic environments, whose shadowy but towering presences enrich one another and shape the history of the 20th century. Heisenberg, Born, Bohr, Oppenheimer – these are names to conjure with as icons of scientific excellence, and circling them and then mixing with them is the slightly separate figure of Dirac himself.

The book releases its dramas through a compelling presentation of oppositions which clash with each other and then absorb their differences in dynamic synthesis. For the obsessive and relentless Dirac, beauty is a profound aesthetic when considering a successful explication of his theories. This is in opposition to the pragmatic rigor of some of his peers. Dirac is a figure that seems to bridge the gap between the theoretical realm and the experimental realm – two sides of the intellectual endeavour that alternatively complement each other or ignite conflict and generate a competitive struggle for ever more accurate comprehension of the functions of the universe.It is a psychological work as much or more than an attempt to present the most obscure and problematic corners of mathematics and physics in language accessible to the layman. The portrait of Dirac is as richly realised and fraught with ambiguity as some remote and lonely figures from literature – such as Prospero, so seemingly wise and yet cast out from ordinary society, a figure for whom emotional bonds remain tenuous beside some grand destiny removing him always from the claims of family and friends.

The final years present a man mellowing as his principal purpose fades to make way for future luminaries . Farmelo analyses the roots of Dirac’s alienation offering a tentative final conclusion to these speculations. The last chapters affirm his legacy and the mists of theory and higher physics clear to reveal practical applications for Dirac’s discoveries. These final pages have a serenity which gives the narrative a sense of arrival and completion. The volume has a progress, development and conclusion as satisfying as some of the finest musical compositions.