The Dawn Watch: When fiction trumps history?

This is my review of The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff.

Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to have read much Conrad to be fascinated by him: the author admits to having struggled to read what some regard as his work of genius, “Nostromo”, and what most struck me when first reading Conrad is his remarkably fluent grasp of the English language, which he only began to learn when he went to sea as a young man.

What is really interesting about Conrad is his acute observation of human nature in a changing world where the romantic hardship of sail was giving way to the more profitable transport by steam, while European powers and the United States vied for control of resources in “less developed” areas, bringing the hell of exploitation, destruction and corruption with their good intentions to establish Christian culture, education, law and order. Maya Jasanoff finds in his life and fiction, “a history of globalisation seen from the inside out”, a grappling with “the ramifications of living in a global world”.

Conrad’s cynical, questioning approach must have been shaped by the hardship of early childhood in the exile to which his Polish parents, members of the landed gentry, were sentenced for his idealistic and unworldly father’s political activism against Russian domination. Yet it was typical of Conrad’s contradictions that years later he refused to sign the petition against the execution of his onetime colleague the Irishman Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising: “by emotional force he has made his way and sheer emotionalism has undone him”.

Being orphaned very young, a solitary only child with no stable home, may have triggered Conrad’s wanderlust, the desire to get as far possible from landlocked eastern Europe onto the open sea. Perhaps because his father had been a writer who taught him reams of patriotic Polish poetry, he developed the motivation to jot down stories about places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines”…”among human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world”.

Since Maya Jasanoff is a historian rather than a literary biographer, her main interest is in how he dealt with “the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technical change”, with only passing reference to his writing style or any real literary evaluation of his work. Two interesting maps, which could have been superimposed, show the clear overlap between the far-flung countries he visited as a seaman and the settings for his novels: five months spent as captain of a steamship on the Congo inspired “Heart of Darkness”; service as first mate of the steamer Vidar plying between the ports of Borneo and Sulawesi led to “Lord Jim”. Yet, “Nostromo”, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguano, was based totally on the knowledge of an obliging friend.

Conrad was a man of strong opinions: although his son only once saw him pray over his own father’s grave, Conrad believed that “even the freest” is to some degree hemmed in by “fate”. Sickened by the fact that his later work, which he regarded as “second rate efforts”, which are no longer read, earned him so much more than such works as “Heart of Darkness”, he refused honorary degrees or a knighthood, but would have valued the reward of the international Nobel Prize, which was never offered. Even his humour was caustic: in his final years of belated fame after years of struggling as a writer, he remarked that Esperanto was “a monstrous jargon” but people could translate his work into it if they so wished.

Despite the earnest bleakness of much of his work, his periods of depression as a struggling middle-aged writer and his frequent illnesses, he clearly possessed a charm which drew a wide circle of friends, including well-known authors. After years of desultory flirting on shore-leave with attractive, highly respectable young women, and an intriguing correspondence with a widowed aunt only a few years his senior, he married a “to tell the truth rather plain” teenage typist called Jessie, perhaps as ever shrewdly realising how she could support him on a practical and emotional level – yet he clearly developed a strong affection for her to the end.

Minor criticisms: most of the historical maps included are too small-scale to be legible, the evocative photos embedded in the text would have been better if larger. Maya Jasanoff’s long, somewhat clunky resumés of Conrad’s better known works seem like padding, questionable since they include too many “spoilers” for those wishing to go on to read them. Although the chapters are mainly in chronological order, the thematic approach fragments Conrad’s life story so that a time-line would be useful. Despite all these reservations, this is an absorbing and very readable treatment of a complex and interesting man, flawed yet impressive.

 

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee – “The man who looked like the sort of man who would vote for Attlee”

This is my review of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee: Winner of the Orwell Prize by John Bew.

This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain an independence, sadly marred by bloodshed.

Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he traded a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George VI. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in the end he resorted to their development in order to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing.

The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of its current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of a powerful US support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel.

With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem even less likely than before for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain power for so long. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a regret that we do not have more politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination yet moderation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Could any book do greater justice to its subject than this?

This is my review of The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa & Royal Society Prize Winner by Andrea Wulf.

It is hard to think of a more impressive book than this – gripping, entertaining and informative as the author marshalls with great skill a mass of facts and ideas.

Although largely forgotten now, with his unflagging energy and curiosity, Humboldt achieved widespread fame during his long life (1769-1859) as a traveller, explorer and writer. Fortunate to have been born before it was necessary to be a specialist, Humboldt was influenced by Goethe to view the world as a unified whole, consisting of multiple interactions. Although, as a scientist, he continued to believe in the importance of close observation and precise measurement in understanding the world, he also grasped the need for imagination. “Nature must be experienced through feeling” and those who limit themselves to the simple classification of plants, animals and rocks “will never get close to it”.

Humboldt was a visionary thinker, ahead of his time. He suggested that creatures had evolved years before Darwin, in turn inspired by Humboldt’s writing, began to think about natural selection. He conceived the idea of an ecosystem, or groups of organisms coexisting in the same environment, decades before another disciple, Haeckel, coined the term “ecology”. Always looking for patterns, Humboldt was quick to notice how plants seemed to differ according to climate, in turn linked to latitude. In the same way, mountains, like the dramatic snow-topped Chimborazo which he climbed in Ecuador, demonstrated predictable zones of vegetation according to altitude, ranging from the tropical palms of the lowland, through the oaks and ferns of temperate climates up to the barren surfaces above the treeline. Through observation, he developed ideas of human-induced climatic change, as in the case of excessive clearing of forests in both Europe and South America. He even invented isotherms.

He realised that the nocturnal outbreaks of cacophony in the South American forests were not, as the natives claimed, the animals’ way of worshipping the moon, but “a long-extended and ever-amplifying battle” as the jaguars chased the tapirs, whose flight scared the monkeys, who disturbed the birds” and so on.

Unable to travel outside Europe before gaining his inheritance at the age of about thirty, Humboldt found the added difficulty of obtaining passage on a suitable vessel when most ships were needed for the Napoleonic wars. Then there was the further risk of being attacked by British warships when he eventually sailed to the South American colonies on a Spanish frigate.

His jouneys were full of bizarre incidents: the natives of the South American Llanos drove a herd of wild horses into a pond to drive up to the surface the electric eels that he was keen to study. Not only did some of the horses perish, but Humboldt and his colleagues made themselves ill from the shocks which could still be generated by the weakened eels. Years later on a trip to Russia, in defiance of the authoritarian government which sought to control his movements, Humboldt took his party on a 2000-mile detour at lightning speed to see the Altai Mountains where Russia, China and Mongolia meet. When their route was blocked by a major outbreak of anthrax, the ruthless Humboldt simply stocked up with uncontaminated food, and dashed through the affected area with all the carriage windows closed.

In the quarter-century gap between a five year odyssey in South America, often totally cut off from events in Europe and his visit to Russia, it is initially surprising to realise that he spent much of the time in Paris, which he loved for its cultural opportunities, or serving through gritted teeth at the court of the King of Prussia, where he disparaged Berlin as “little, illiterate and over-spiteful”. Yet he was far from idle, being prolific in writing detailed, often richly illustrated books about his journeys and ideas on nature in relation to man, lecturing and corresponding with other scientists and thinkers. Having impoverished himself through his travels, publications and supporting young scientifsts, he was forced to endure a tedious court post humouring the king, when his preference was for democracy, along with his condemnation of slavery.

He longed to travel to India, but was blocked by the all-powerful East India Company’s refusal to grant permission for this, despite his fame.

This is not merely the biography of a hyper-active, charismatic, workaholic genius, liberal-minded, often generous, yet sharp-tongued and dominating conversations in his unconscious assumption of superior knowledge, even talking over a piano specially played for his benefit, only to astound students by quietly taking notes alongside them when he knew there was something new to learn in chemistry or geology.

The final chapters also cover some of the gifted environmentalists who were inspired by him, such as George Perkins Marsh who in “Man and Nature” assembled comprehensive evidence of the destruction of the earth by human activity. “The Old World had to be the New World’s cautionary tale”. But, with the 1862 Homesteads Act which gave every loyal American over 21 the right to 160 acres, how could the march of change be prevented? Another example is John Muir, who set up the Sierra Club, now the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the US, and who was responsible for the establishment of the Yosemite National Park.

This is a fascinating book to encourage others to read, and return to again.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

The imponderable bloom of life and relationships

This is my review of At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell.

I read this popular philosophy in search of enlightenment on a fundamental but elusive theme: “the nature of being”.

Sarah Bakewell is strong on anecdotal biography, linked to a vivid sense of time and place. Sartre with his “down-turned grouper lips.. and eyes pointing in different directions..but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence”. When held as a POW by the Germans, “his eyes gave him his escape route”, in the improbable form of a medical pass to leave the camp for treatment. Yet he missed the comradeship of being forced into close quarters with other prisoners. It filled him with fear to enter a Parisian café to observe “the few drinkers… more distant than the stars…each entitled to a huge section of bench…these men shimmering… within their tubes of rarefied light seem inaccessible to me”. Then he enraged his soul-mate Simone de Beauvoir by criticising her for having given in to the practicalities of life under Occupation, by buying tea on the black market, and signing a paper to certify that “she was not a Jew or a Freemason”.

I liked the illustrations which, being untitled, are open to one’s own interpretation: the influential Heidegger and Husserl, his former mentor and the “father of phenomenology” (definable as “the ways we experience things”), standing on a sunny slope against a background of wooded hills. Are the two men arguing over their different viewpoints, or exchanging polite banalities to mask how far they have grown apart?

The author ends the first chapter with useful if partial definitions of what existentialists do, in their concern with “individual, concrete human existence”. Individuals are responsible for all their actions, in a world where, as Sartre realised to his initial horror, everything is “contingent” and “it could all have happened a different way”, if individuals had taken alternative courses of action.

The author sheds light on some difficult ideas like Sartre’s “specific nothingness” with the example that when one has made an appointment in a café to meet a friend, the most important factor is the absence of that person. She is good on analysing the importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s arguably undervalued “The Second Sex” and the theories of the polymath philosopher-cum-psychologist Merleau-Ponty, also underestimated. His ideas may seem more accessible than most since they are underpinned with a scientific knowledge of neurology. It is easy to relate with a sense of relief to his views that an understanding of child psychology is essential to sound philosophy, that we need to study perception scientifically to make sense of the connection between our consciousness and the world around us. We have to connect socially with other people to exist in a meaningful way ourselves, rather than speculate about the reality of existence external to our own, as many philosophers have done.

Sarah Bakewell refers frequently to the opaqueness, and radical shifts in thinking of Sartre, Heidegger and Levinas. Sometimes, this seems like an excuse for the inability to present a coherent explanation of the essence of their ideas. With what often seems like the prime aim of entertaining us, complex theories are fragmented into bite-sized chunks, with explanations descending into a kind of woolly gimmickry which falls apart under close scrutiny: “If you had to sum up Heidegger’s opening sally in ‘Being and Time’ in one word, that word might be ‘wow!’..As a fresh starting point for philosophy, this ‘wow!’ is itself a kind of Big Bang. It’s also a big snub for Husserl… and his followers…..They have forgotten the brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes….Wake up, phenomenologists! Remember being – out there, in here, under you, above you, pressing in on you. Remember the things themselves, and remember your own being!”

Although I found parts of this book very interesting and felt the need to reread it, I also doubted whether this would actually add to my understanding. Apart from the fact that a chapter or two pulling together the essential theories would have been useful, I cannot escape the sense that much of the philosophy covered is highly arbitrary and subjective. It may appeal to one’s emotions, like Heidegger’s “notions of humans as a clearing into which Being emerges into the light”, but such ideas merge into each other in a muddled morass.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Caught in a pigeon tunnel of writing, spying or both?

This is my review of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré.

A BBC Radio 4 serialisation of this book caught my attention at the point when Le Carré invites Alec Guinness to lunch with Maurice Oldfield, former Chief of the Secret Service so the actor can get some ideas for the part of George Smiley. The chameleon actor joins with Oldfield in deploring the adverse effect of Le Carré’s books on the Service, mocks Oldfield’s “vulgar cufflinks” after he has gone, but studiously copies these and other aspects of his dress in his portrayal of Smiley.

The chapters can be read in almost any order, providing fragments of anecdote and observation across a wide field. The author comes across as well-connected, casually mentioning friendships with the rich and famous as one might expect from an old Etonian who achieved cult status as a novelist at an early age, yet also critical of the Establishment, with a cynical take on the world and sympathy for the underdog. I agree with other reviewers who sense a remoteness in his personality, a withholding of many aspects of himself in superficially frank memoirs. This may be due to a combination of factors: his mother’s abandonment of her two sons at an early age, his reaction against a flamboyant conman of a father, whose schemes left him frequently broke or in jail plus Le Carré’s time spent working for British Intelligence, compounding his natural secrecy. The book culminates in a long, bitter rant about his father, with his “infinite powers of self-delusion” in which the author perhaps comes closest to revealing his emotions.

Least satisfactory for me are the chapters on intelligence work and spying, not only because of their necessary vagueness but also owing to the indigestible acronyms and department titles from around the world. There is the additional suspicion that it is all a bit of a charade, as borne out by the exposure of “the final official secret” in the last chapter. The most interesting spy-theme chapter covers the author’s notes on Nicholas Elliott’s account of his friend Kim Philby’s confession to having been a Soviet spy. As Le Carré observes, it gives “a window on the British espionage establishment in the post-war years, on its class assumptions and mind-set.

I was more interested in how Le Carré researches his books. Having plotted a pursuit by ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon only to discover too late it had been replaced by a tunnel, Le Carré now goes to extraordinary lengths to check out his facts and feel the ambience first hand. So, to preserve his authenticity, he travelled to the East Congo when advised that it was unsafe, in order to interview warlords on both sides of the conflict in the Congo. A priest describes how ethnic hatreds can make extremists even amongst his fellow African Brothers: “Thus it was in Rwanda that otherwise good priests were known to summon all Tutsis in their parish to church , which was then torched or bulldozed with the priests’ blessing”. Another chapter finds him trying to draw out a politely uncooperative radicalised German activist, imprisoned in Israel after joining Palestinian terrorists. Afterwards, Le Carré is surprised to realise that the Prison Governor has spoken to the woman in English, despite being fluent in German. She explains, “When she speaks German, I cannot trust myself…You see, I was in Dachau.”

This book probably flits back and forth over too many incidents in a fully-lived life to make a lasting impact but a few insights lodge in the memory., such as Le Carrés reluctance to take part in interviews about himself, except with the charming Bernard Pivot. “First, you invent yourself, then you begin to believe your invention. That is not a process compatible with self-knowledge”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Obstinate questionings of sense and outward things”

This is my review of Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A S Byatt.

Daily life, the structure of society, political views, education and childhood, the literary world and the landscape: these themed chapters explore the response of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two pioneers of the Romantic Movement, to the unsettled period in which they lived with the fear of political revolution and disruption of industrial development.

The introduction supplies some very astute analysis of the marked differences between their personalities: “Wordsworth, in his innermost self, proud, solitary, courageous and self-regarding was on the surface suspicious and awkward. Coleridge, who lacked self-respect or self-confidence at the deepest level, was on the surface charming, warm, welcoming and quick to relax and involve people…Wordsworth increased Coleridge’s sense of his own value” and Coleridge had a “humanizing influence” on Wordsworth. Both, initially excited by the French Revolution, were so appalled by its violent excesses that they both became much more politically conservative with age, but Wordsworth, as a respected national figure , became ever more “remote, arrogant, self-absorbed and self-praising”, while Coleridge, a much more profound thinker, found his life severely blighted by frequent illness and opium addiction, for which he was too often dismissed contemptuously.

This book is packed with entertaining anecdotes and fascinating observations. In his sincere if somewhat theoretical concern for the deserving poor, Wordsworth’s poem about “The Leech-gatherer” was based on research that they “did not breed fast and were of slow growth” because of dry weather and being gathered too much so that “formerly 2/6 per 100, they are now 30s”.

Both poets agreed that young children should be allowed to develop naturally, with education a process kindling natural curiosity. Coleridge’s observation of his small children makes moving reading (“a little child, a limber elf, singing, dancing to itself”), and his natural skill in teaching them through play sounds quite modern. It is therefore a shock to learn how he abandoned them for long periods, at one point preferring to stay in Germany where he was having a good time studying rather than return to England to comfort a wife grieving over the loss of their infant son.

Wordsworth questioned the desire of Utopian idealists to educate working class girls on enlightened lines since it was likely to make them “unsettled…..indisposed to any kind of hard labour or drudgery. And yet many of them must submit to it or do wrong”. This was arguably true, but not what one might hope for from a Romantic poet.

A.S. Byatt is clearly shocked by Wordsworth’s support for capital punishment on the basis that time spent in the condemned cell gave a fortunate opportunity to repent. Nimbyism is evident in the opposition to construction of railways in his beloved Lake District which would be spoilt by “droves” of working people from Lancashire who would not appreciate the mountains

He opposed the extension of the right to vote, as likely to produce frequent parliaments and “convert the representatives into mere slavish delegates, as they now are in America, under the dictation of ignorant and selfish numbers misled by unprincipled journalists”. In view of the recent shock of democracy producing a Trump victory, these ideas seem remarkably relevant today, even if one disagrees with his opinion.

Perhaps because he tended to consider issues from more angles, Coleridge comes across less clearly than Wordsworth, but as more engaging. Yet even he came to fear democracy as the misguided pursuit of an abstract idea: “the incorporation of individuals into one unnatural state, the deluded subjects of which soon find themselves under a dominion tenfold more oppressive and vexatious than that to which the laws of God and nature attached them”.

The many quotations are often inserted clunkily into the text, and assume more practice in interpreting poetry than most readers are likely to possess. The passages wrapped round these extracts are often indigestible, even disjointed, since they read as if condensed down from detailed notes.

Recommended, but best read with other texts, such as the biographies of Richard Holmes on the Lakeland poets.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

A marmite of reflections

This is my review of This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes.

Having read his two-part study of Coleridge, and “The Age of Wonder” which explores how the Romantics were influenced by “the beauty and terror” of the scientific discoveries of their day, I admire Richard Holmes as outstanding amongst biographers. So perhaps my expectations were too high for “The Long Pursuit”, the third in a series of reflections on the nature of biography, fleshed out with brief portraits of past lives.

Despite attending a lively talk by the author, I remain unclear about the three-part structure of this book: “Confessions” which explores the process of writing a biography, with many digressions, asking to what extent it can be formally taught as a “body of knowledge; “Restorations” which amounts to five short biographies of it would seem arbitrarily-chosen women who mostly formed part of the Romantic period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, already covered in his work “Footsteps”, and finally “Afterlives” which focuses on five “Romantic era” men, mostly poets (Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake) with the at times almost invisible “common thread” of how reputations may fluctuate after death, as individuals are misremembered, judgements alter as society's attitudes change, source materials are selectively destroyed or discovered, biographers develop rival interpretations, and so on.

The book contains fascinating “nuggets” such as the author’s collection of two-hundred handwritten notebooks, with objective facts on the right-hand page, and subjective responses to the person under study on the left. There are amusing anecdotes such as the fact that, when Richard Holmes- who rightly travels in the footsteps of all his subjects – climbed on to the roof terrace at Greta Hall where Coleridge wrote and observed "the old moon with the new moon in her arms", he found that the pupils at what is now a girls' boarding school hid their vodka and cigarettes there. The portraits included as illustrations are also striking.

However, the book contains too much rehashing of “old material”, a patchwork of fragments from works by Richard Holmes which I have already consumed, leaving me with a sense of being cheated. In all the previous books of his which I have read, there has been a strong cohesive theme linking the chapters, providing a clear context for the often minute detail. Here, I felt unengaged by the continual flitting around without a clear purpose. I concluded that the book is best treated as a series of free-standing essays.

“This long pursuit” has a detailed index, and may include points of value to students. It has a “serendipitous” quality by which I mean that reading it, you may discover the odd point of interest by chance, without actively looking for it. This may make it very appealing to some readers, but I suspect others will skip through or abandon it with a sense of regret.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars