“D H Lawrence, A Personal Record by ’ET’ – Jessie Chambers” – a vivid memoir which everyone interested in Lawrence’s life and times should read

Jessie Chambers was the second daughter of the smallholder of Haggs Farm where the teenage D H Lawrence became a welcome visitor because of his “exuberance, his gaiety, his powers of mimicry, his resourcefulness….his readiness to help” causing even Mr Chambers to exclaim “Work goes like fun when Bert’s here: it’s no trouble to keep them going”.

Jessie and Lawrence became close friends, paying weekly visits to the library where they took out more books than were strictly allowed, read and discussed them earnestly. For about a decade, Jessie was the sounding board for Lawrence’s musing over, say, the obligation to use one’s talents to do good, the nature of love, or his need to be free to travel abroad, without a fixed home which was a foretelling of the course his life would take.

Sadly, this intellectual closeness aroused the jealousy of his over possessive mother, who forced them to consider the emotional aspect of their relationship. With the callousness he was to show so often in the future, Lawrence told Jessie, “I’ve looked into my heart and I cannot find that I love you as a husband should love his wife”. Yet since he could not bear to give up her company, he suggested they could marry if she wanted, but he would need to seek physical fulfilment elsewhere, or if he managed to find a woman to satifsy him physically, he and Jessie could continue a clandestine intellectual relationship. Clearly this marred their friendship, obliging Jessie to conceal the love she felt for him, until his elopement with the married mother-of-three Frieda Weekley put an end to any further relationship.
In the meantime, her distress did not prevent Jessie from copying out some of Lawrence’s poems and sending them to a publisher, when he was all for giving up the attempt to get his work accepted after several rejections. Years later, he wrote to thank “the girl (who) had launched me, so easily on my literary career, like a princess cutting a thread, launching a ship”.

D. H. Lawrence A Personal Record by E.T. (Illustrated) by [Jessie Chambers, Marciano Guerrero]

Jessie was also among the first victims of his habit of including people he knew in his books without any attempt to disguise them, although in making Jessie his model for Miriam in “Sons and Lovers”, what really upset her were the distortions in the portrayal of her relationship with Lawrence. This was despite his assertion “It isn’t meant for the truth. It’s an adaptation from life, as all art must be”.

This memoir was written after Lawrence’s early death from tuberculosis in 1930. Written with great clarity, this impresses the reader as utterly authentic, insightful and moving. Along with her inner suffering over his overt insensitive agonising, she notes his love of nature, acute powers of observation, and gift for putting sensations into words.

The memoir is also a vivid evocation of life in the early C20 in the rural and mining communities of Nottinghamshire. In a world devoid of television and social media, Jessie’s father read magazine instalments of Tess of the D’Urbervilles aloud to his enthralled wife, and the family acted out Macbeth under Lawrence’s direction, “half-amused, half-vexed” when Mr. Chambers , horrified by what he had to say as McDuff, was driven to exclaim, “Oh dear, oh dear! How awful!” Yet ironically, in the awful social class divide, Lawrence’s first publisher Hueffer was uncertain how to talk to working men, clearly unaware that they could be sensitive and self-educated.

Even the comments included in inverted commas in the memoir could be precisely what was said, because Jessie first began writing an account of her friendship with Lawrence under the title “The Rathe Primrose” as early as 1911. After her final break with Lawrence in 1913, she destroyed this manuscript, and it is interesting to speculate whether she was the victim of the sexism of the day when a publisher rejected it earlier as “unlikely to be a commercial success”.

“The Married Man” by Brenda Maddox: tortured and flawed genius

The Married Man: Life of D.H. Lawrence by Maddox, Brenda Hardback Book The Cheap

This engrossing doorstep of a biography focuses on the eighteen years of D.H. Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda, his former tutor’s striking, ebullient, promiscuous German wife. Lawrence was probably attracted by her lack of inhibition and belief in free expression which she had picked up via a previous lover from continental thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud, in such sharp contrast to the narrow, Congregational chapel world of the Nottinghamshire mining community in which he had grown up.
In turn, Frieda believed herself to be nurturing and inspiring his genius as a writer, arguing after his death that, if he had married his first girlfriend Jessie Chambers, he would never have been more than “a little local poet, a watered down Thomas Hardy”.

For those who admired Frieda, there seem to have been more who regarded her as a very damaging influence on him, even to the point of contributing to his death by failing to use common sense and insisting on obtaining proper treatment for the tuberculosis which he denied for years, almost to the end. Admittedly, he could only tolerate life in a sanatorium for a fortnight when he eventually admitted defeat. Apart from her frequent infidelities which Lawrence seemed to tolerate, her worst fault seems to have been provoking him quite knowingly into the savage bursts of anger in which he beat her, even in front of visitors and friends. This, together with the undeniable misogyny in some of his later writing, plus his preoccupation with male dominance in marriage, triggered the condemnation of the 1970s feminist movement, as represented by Kate Millett.

As a result, Lawrence now remains well-known, but not particularly revered, so it is interesting to learn how quickly and easily he gained initial recognition, although his growing fame was fed by the notoriety of his later work, culminating in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, banned in both England and America, which it is disappointing to learn was written simply to earn as much as possible quickly when he knew he was dying. Apart from his main rival James Joyce, Lawrence was admired by famous writers like E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley, although many were offended by his habit of including them undisguised, but often caricatured in his novels. They were repelled by the too frequent violent outbursts which made even friends doubt his sanity at times.

This could of course be attributed to his frequent ill health, and the suppressed knowledge that he had a disease which caused him considerable pain, and would kill him prematurely. When he was a child, his mother’s possessiveness, heightened by the need to nurse him through a long illness, and generally to protect him from infection, must have affected his emotional development. Her bitter contempt for her husband, which she encouraged her children to share, must also have damaged Lawrence’s ability to form stable relationships, but author Brenda Maddox does not explore these aspects much.

Lawrence is fascinating in his dual personality. Many found him charismatic, charming and entertaining, although his skilful mimicry must have been insensitive at times. He was industrious, with many practical skills, often generous with his time and money, when he had it, to help others. Yet he could also be cruel, abusive, sharp-tongued, dogmatic and opinionated to the degree that one might question how “good” a writer he really was when he committed some of his bizarre, often confused, ideas to print.

A restless wanderer to Italy, Ceylon, Australia or the high plains of the US state of New Mexico and Mexico itself in search of the pure air at high altitudes to ease his lungs, Lawrence gained the material for his memorable travel writing. His keen observation of nature and animals (which did not prevent his vicious beating of a pet dog) produced some striking poetry: “A snake came to my water-trough….” . “Sons and Lovers” is an enduring classic, although a clear example of the degree to which he drew on his own experience, in the process misrepresenting his relationship with Jessie Chambers, which he would justify by arguing that “art is not life”, even if it draws on real people for inspiration.

His later work, as summarised and quoted from in this book, often appears too farcical, perhaps intentionally, produced too quickly, with a loss of his earlier more subtle and considered style. But whatever one’s view of his work, Lawrence and Frieda remain an intriguing couple, rattling through their world of evocative places and famous names from the past.

“Burning Man”: The Ascent of DH Lawrence – Flawed genius?

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by [Frances Wilson]

Perhaps to achieve an original take on D H Lawrence, Frances Wilson’s biography “of imagination”, links the author’s middle years, “the decade of superhuman energy and productivity” from 1915-25, with the events of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. So the war years of 1915-19 which Lawrence spent in England, being too sick to enlist, are “Inferno; “Purgatory” applies to 1919-1922, spent in Italy with his wife Frieda, who had abandoned her husband, his former tutor, and her three children for Lawrence, while the years spent in America and Mexico, 1922-25 are “Paradise”.

This approach made me realise the influence of Dante on the education of men of Lawrence’s generation, as well as on earlier writers like Shelley whom he admired, at least in his youth. Having only a sketchy knowledge of Dante myself, I probably missed the cleverness of many allusions, but the device seemed to me too contrived, and ultimately rather tedious.

Just as streams of consciousness can add power to fiction, the author’s continual roller coasters of digressions from digressions often bring Lawrence and his associates to life. However, the style creates a hectic quality, at times overloaded with detail or repetition. The stated intention to focus on some of the more “minor” characters in Lawrence’s life leads to what seem disproportionately long sections on for instance, Maurice Magnus, the conman lover of flamboyant writer Norman Douglas. Towards the end, with the restless Lawrence ricocheting round the world, from Australia to Ceylon to New Mexico in the company of characters portrayed as larger than life, amoral, highly eccentric, even mentally disturbed, like American patron of the arts and Indian rights, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the book verges on black farce. The author’s interpretation of the latter’s neuroses seems open to question, and a distraction from the business of trying to understand DH Lawrence.

Wilson’s tendency to provide potted summaries of some of Lawrence’s later plots, presenting them as increasingly bizarre, is counterproductive in deterring one from wanting to read them. Yet it is worth ploughing through the verbiage to glean the occasional insight. For instance, Rebecca West “compared his wanderings to those of the mystic or Russian saint ‘who says goodbye and takes his stick and walks out with no objective but the truth’ ”. She noted his “vision of mankind that he registered again and again…always rising to a pitch of ecstatic agony”. She also saw how “his shoulder-blades stood out through his clothing “in a pair of almost wing-like projections” – a sign of tuberculosis spotted long before in Roman times. His strong “sense of place” often led to disappointment: he detested Ceylon, probably because it aggravated the consumption which he refused to acknowledge, but loved the high desert regions of New Mexico which suited his declining health.

Influenced by Carl Jung, Lawrence told his first love Jessie Chambers, “I’m not one man, but two”: “the second me, a hard, cruel if need be, me that is the writer which troubles the pleasanter me, the human who belongs…… to nobody, not even to myself”. Combining intense introspection with acute observation of others, Lawrence caused many people distress through portraying them so unmistakably in his novels, often incorporating real events. As shown in his striking poetry, he had an affinity with animals, which being dumb did not arouse his wrath.

The author seems to gloss over the more positive aspects of his personality, to focus on the flaws. He is mainly portrayed as an arrogant, opinionated monster, given to bigoted, offensive outbursts, but did he really mean them? The man who dreamed of founding a utopian “little colony”, with “no money but a sort of communism as far as the necessities of life” seems at odds with the one who rails against democracy. He beats his wife in front of horrified friends, although this may be a kind of theatrical act, triggered by Frieda’s provocative actions – the fag hanging from the corner of her mouth – almost a writerly experiment in experiencing anger in order to describe it. Towards the end, the rants become more extreme, the prose style grows intentionally cruder (to be more “American”) as Lawrence seems to disintegrate into a kind of madness. According to Frances Wilson, he “had once more changed his shape: no longer a marauding fox or a red wolf or a plumed serpent, he now saw himself as Pan, sex-god of the mountain wilds”. Is this artistic licence on her part? At worst, he might nowadays simply be diagnosed as having manic tendencies.

I would have liked a more thematic approach, analysing more objectively his dual personality perhaps better described as complex. To what extent was he damaged by his mother’s possessiveness, and her contempt for his father? In a class-ridden society, as a miner’s son he must have felt keenly the snobbery he encountered. The blinkered British censorship of some of his work, with even “The Rainbow”, condemned by the prosecution as “disgusting, detestable and pernicious….in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action” must have stimulated his tendency to murderous thoughts, and his desire to quit a land with its “dead muffled sense” of everything being “sand-bagged”. The debilitating respiratory illness he suffered most winters, and in some climates, must have fed his negativity.

Finding this book by turns intensely gripping and tediously overblown, impressed by the author’s remarkably deep research, I am left with a sense of vital missing pieces in the jigsaw, distorting her portrayal of Lawrence. This motivates me to read the record of Jessie Chambers, the calm, intelligent girl on whom the youthful Lawrence “hammered himself out”, and to seek out another biographer to enable me the better to to judge to what extent his intense introspection ultimately blighted his genius.

Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi – Brilliant novel approach

Dostoevsky did not live to complete his intended autobiography, but Alex Christofi has done both him and us a great service in this daringly original fictionalised biography, based on meticulous research, which skilfully weaves in Dostoevsky’s own words, printed in italics. It seems as if many of the quotations are taken from a piece of fiction, but applied here with astonishing aptness. Despite revealing Dostoevsky’s many flaws, literally warts and all, the author succeeds overall in painting him in a sympathetic light.

The dramatic hook of a prologue, largely in these italics, presents what Dostoevsky believed would be his final thoughts in December 1849 during the last moments before execution by firing squad for involvement in a group which had acquired a printing press to organise a coup against the Tsar. “The most terrible part of the punishment is…the certainty…that in half a minute your soul will quit your body and you will no longer be a man”.

Reprieved but sentenced to four years of hard labour in Siberia, at first “broken by the monstrous strangeness”, he began to absorb every impression of his new world, even questioning fellow convicts about what it felt like to receive more than 500 lashes: “But I could not get a satisfactory answer…it scorches like fire, as though your back were being roasted”. The prison hospital was the only place where he could record all this on smuggled paper.

Although I have only read “Crime and Punishment”, it was fascinating to see how much of it is drawn from his own thoughts and experiences. Dostoevsky practised his belief that a great writer needs to suffer. The circumstances of his early life were tragic enough. The small country estate awarded to his father for “zealous service” as a doctor was burned down. His mother died of TB when he was fifteen. Driven to drink, his father was found dead in a ditch, possibly murdered by a disaffected serf.

Perhaps his worst misfortune was debilitating epilepsy which repelled his first wife Maria, and made it increasingly difficult for him to work in later life: “As a result of the falling sickness..I have forgotten the plots of my novels. I do remember the general outline of my life.” Yet he even found something positive in his first full fit. “The sense of life, the consciousness of self, were multiplied ten times in that lightning strike…. My mind and heart…flooded with extraordinary light… all unease…..anxieties…. submerged in a lofty calm…serene harmony, joy and hope”. The next part was of course “unendurable”.

The serious gambling addiction which should have destroyed his second marriage to Anna, but for her at times inexplicable love, makes painful reading. Christofi gives us blow by blow accounts of the cycle of Dostoevsky borrowing yet more money to win initially, fail to quit, lose the lot, pawn his watch, pawn Anna’s jewelry, lose some more and lack the funds to return from the fatal attraction of the German casinos to Russia where such gambling was not allowed. Apart from his obsession with finding the formula “to overcome the crudity of blind chance and win” the money he needed to be free to write without continual worries over debts – he was not a rich landowner like Tolstoy or Turgenev – he admits to deriving “acute enjoyment” from the risk of gambling “at the cost of torture” in the process.

With acute self awareness, he had a character confess how an “exceptionally shameful position, some more than usually humiliating, despicable and, above all, ridiculous situation always aroused in me not only boundless anger but ….an incredible sense of pleasure, an intoxication…..from the agonising awareness of my own depravity. I confess that I often sought it out because for me it was the most powerful of all such sensations.”

Sensitive and romantic, too quick to propose, appeared Dostoevsky easily obsessed with the idea of love rather than the woman concerned. Maria, at first unobtainable because she was married, and reluctant to wed him when she was widowed because he was by then a low-ranking soldier, seemed to lose her appeal once she became his wife, her bitterness no doubt fed by his neglect. Did he become infatuated with the beautiful, intelligent student Polina because she strung him along so tantalisingly? If he had been prepared to leave his dying wife for her, would his love for Polina have evaporated in turn? Even during his second loving marriage to the highly supportive and collaborative Anna who also proved to have a sharp business sense, despite a deep love for their children, with the single-mindness of a creative artist, his work came first. His routine was to sleep every morning in order to write through the night without interruption.

Criticised by former colleagues for attacking the nihilism of the next generation of rebels, briefly editing a journal regarded as arch-conservative, Dostoevsky was in fact an independent thinker whose ideas evolved over time, “chopped and changed” in the unceasing attempt to communicate them. Having developed a strong religious sense during his imprisonment, he observed that “if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ wasn’t real, I would rather stay with Christ than with the truth”.

Dostoevsky crammed a wealth of diverse experience into his fifty-six years. He managed to regain and surpass his early success as a writer so that, by the end, Victor Hugo was inviting him to a prestigious conference in Paris, the Tsar was demanding a copy of his latest book and his speech in celebration of Pushkin was met with an extraordinary emotional ovation, and a laurel wreath a metre-and-a-half wide.

Dostoevsky’s concern with social justice for serfs and social outcasts mirrored that of Dickens whom he revered. Unable to understand Tolstoy’s popularity, rather despising his focus on the world of aristocrats and gentry, Dostoevsky was groundbreaking in exploring human nature even to the depths of depravity, paving the way for modern prose via those he inspired in turn: Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

“My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky: staying humane in a barbarous world

Gorky as a child with his father

When his young father dies of cholera, and his mother Varvara has a miscarriage, no doubt triggered by grief, five-year-old Alexei is taken back to her family home: “Angry people rushed about in all directions like passengers about to disembark from a ship, ragged children swarmed all over the place like thieving sparrows, and the whole house was filled with a strange pungent smell”. This is his introduction to the house-cum-dyeworks presided over by his grandfather, a self-made man who flogs him for minor acts of mischief, sometimes to the point of losing consciousness, through a mixture of sadism and the genuine twisted belief that it will “do him good”. Recognising his intelligence, Grandfather also teaches him to read, tells him stories, works with him companionably in the garden, yet ultimately casts him out to make his way in a harsh world when he is still a child.

By contrast, his peasant grandmother, despite showing great presence of mind in a crisis, for the most part escapes harsh reality through a mixture of snuff, vodka, veneration of bejewelled icons and folk tales which stimulate his vivid imagination, also showing him the affection he needs for emotional support.

This account of Gorky’s childhood is so bleak in some respects that I could usually only manage to read a chapter at a time. Yet I also found it compelling in his ability to capture how an observant, inquisitive child, with a rudimentary sense of justice presumably gained from his kindly father, continuously tries to make sense of the world. Often, we cannot quite grasp what is going on because he cannot do so. Only gradually does he piece together the grim backstory of the dysfunctional Kashirin family.

Yet in the midst of a childhood often made tedious and unhappy, either by poverty or the oppression of adults who have themselves been warped by hardship or a lack of love, Gorky manages to show us the moments of unexpected beauty in a grim existence: “watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky round the golden cupolas of the Church…diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net”. There is also “the new kind of life, entertaining beyond description” which comes alive in the kitchen when Grandfather has gone to the Sunday evening service: races on the table between cockroaches harnessed to paper runners, followed by the “uninhibited but strange gaiety” of the songs and dancing contrasting with guitar laments, all fuelled by vodka as the samovar “softly hummed.”

We see a future writer’s continual fascination in the variety of people he meets – the long-suffering workers who slave for Grandfather; the motley crew of lodgers in the “large, interesting house” over a tavern which the old man buys when he retires; when poverty strikes, the wily band of urchins whom Alexei eventually joins in stealing wood – “wasn’t considered a sin”, to help their families. Most of these characters are a complex mix of good and bad. The few who seem completely beyond the pale belong to his mother’s family the Kashirins, namely the two warring uncles, Mikhail and Yakov, each desperate to get one over the other in extracting enough money from Grandfather to set up an independent dyeworks, but too incompetent to succeed.

My Childhood (Illustrated) by [Maxim Gorky]

“When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them” He answers for himself in the affirmative. Firstly, it is necessary to understand and face up to the truth, in order to be able to erase it in the future. Secondly, he is confident that life will always surprise us by the creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through “the bestial refuse”, awakening our “indestructible faith” in a better and more humane future.

This may appear over-optimistic and undermined by the lack of corruption and democracy still all to evident in Russia as I write this. Ironically, having been proclaimed the father of Soviet Literature, Gorky died in 1936 from poisoning at the instigation of his political enemies, unlike the modern dissident Navalny who survived Novichok poisoning.

“On Chapel Sands” by Laura Cumming: How everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster”

In 1929, on the long golden Lincolnshire beach of Chapel Sands, three-year-old Betty Elston was abducted when her mother wasn’t looking, but found safe and well in a house nearby a few days later. Why did Betty so readily accept being kidnapped and why were no demands for money involved? Perhaps understandably, her parents did not reveal that she had been adopted until an incident ten years later but why was she kept so isolated from local people? Why did the kind-hearted Betty come to reject her adoptive father to the extent of not going to his funeral? And why did the baker’s boy deliver bread to the neighbouring households, but not hers?

Although this reads at times like fiction, it is art critic Laura Cumming’s biographical “homage” to her mother in which “all the characters and events are real” with “only one name… changed, in the final chapter”. Skilled in interpreting what lies behind a painting, the author deftly drip-feeds the intriguing details of her mother’s life, some not discovered until years after the event.

Betty’s adoptive mother Veda seems sweet and submissive, perhaps worn down by two decades of infertility in a community where being a wife and mother was the main point of one’s existence, not to mention dealing with George, allegedly an “extremely intelligent but domineering and somewhat like a character from Dickens.”. Adoptive father George seemed cast as villain of the piece but I felt that the author was rather too hard on him, only softening in the revelation saved for the final chapter. In the kind of life where much of the excitement comes early on, in his case with a valiant role in the Boer War, ending up as a travelling salesmen during the years of Depression and World War Two must have been an anti-climax. Yet his skill in making elaborate models and using a simple Box Brownie character to produce some evocative photos suggests he may have been a frustrated artist, whereas Betty and Laura, born later, had the chance to develop their artistic talents.

Perhaps a little too thin at times, leading to repetition and reliance on speculation, the facts are fleshed out with descriptions of local celebrities like Tennyson who wrote of Chapel Sands as “a sand-built ridge….the spine-bone of the world”, together with vivid accounts of social life in rural Lincolnshire in the last century. Here were tightknit, inward-looking local communities where everyone knew each other’s business, but no one said a word to Betty about her origins. We are reminded of a lost world of self-sufficiency: in the 1920s the village of Hogsthorpe “numbered not quite five hundred people” with “a surprising range of shops – a butcher, a baker, not one but two shoemakers, a pair of blacksmiths….– a confectioner, three separate grocers, a bricklayer, plumber and wheelwright.… you could have your hair cut, have bicycles and baskets custom-made…the elementary school had room for more than a hundred pupils” – all this long gone.

Linking her mother’s life to the pictures she collected, Laura Cumming provides a detailed analysis of Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: the sturdy farmer ploughing improbably close to the cliff edge seems oblivious to Icarus drowning in the sea, just as the locals ignored the Elston family drama, while George is likened to Icarus in his hubris. It is a pity my Kindle could do justice neither to George’s photographs nor the paintings cited , so I advise reading a paper copy of the book if possible.

This book follows the same forensic technique as Laura Cumming’s “The Vanishing Man”, interpreting and speculating on the works of the great painter Velasquez. I was more impressed by the latter, but it may be a matter of taste whether one prefers the smaller-scale, more domestic canvas of the life of an ordinary girl who escaped a narrow world to find fulfilment as a painter and weaver, against the odds.

“Les Années” or “The Years” by Annie Ernaux: an individual take on “collective memory”

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Galileo Watcher of the Skies – obscured somewhat by the fog of academia

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by [Wootton, David]My fascination with Galileo, the brilliant thinker who was eventually gagged by a bigoted Inquisition, was fed by Michael White’s absorbing biography, “Galileo Antichrist”. Although very strong on childhood influences, personality, dealings with friends and family, his inventions and the tortuous path by which he fell foul of the priests pulling the strings behind an insecure and neurotic Pope, the biography seemed a little thin on the all-important scientific theories to do with motion and astronomy, and to have gone too far into trying to make ideas accessible by “dumbing down” the details.

In seeking out David Wootton’s much denser and more academic work, I got both more and less than I bargained for. Following an essentially chronological but more thematic approach, the author devotes lengthy passages to, for instance, experiments dealing with specific gravity, the physics of the motion of falling objects, or mathematical calculations to evaluate the respective merits of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy versus the more “heretical” Copernicus, and “fudged” Tycho Brahe. My lack of basic scientific knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the author’s explanations and arguments, but I also suspected that, himself a historian, he may have strayed out of his own comfort zone. He certainly seems to make things overly complicated and long-winded.

Despite many examples of Galileo conducting practical experiments, Wootton is at pains to stress that these were mainly to demonstrate the truth of his real love, abstract theories, which is what led him to mathematics. Although he sometimes seemed too arrogantly confident, or perhaps simply busy, to put a theory to the test, he seems to me to have combined the two approaches, so that to suggest otherwise is hair-splitting. How could Galileo have done otherwise at a time when the words “experiment” and “scientist” were not used, and it was common for inquisitive thinkers to be polymaths.

Wootton concedes the limitations placed on historical research by the loss and corruption of data. So, we learn that much of the writing from Galileo’s most fertile period of invention was used by a butcher to wrap meat, or sold off as scrap paper. Similarly, his former student Viviani, who did so much to foster a positive legacy for Galileo, was not above fabricating appealing myths, such as the claim that he devised “the law of the pendulum” from observing the swinging of a lamp in Pisa Cathedral. However, in the absence of hard evidence, Wootton seems to me to indulge in too much academic conjecture as to, for example, the extent to which Galileo was a Catholic or even a Christian. For a man born in 1564, I see no contradiction in the fact that he, with unconscious male chauvinism, sent his two daughters to be nuns, that he paid lip service to Catholic belief when there was an Inquisition actively engaged in torturing and executing alleged heretics, but was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific enquiry which some Jesuits themselves pursued, yet could not deny what his reason told him to be true, unless his own life was at risk.

Not until two-thirds of the way through does Wootton state that his “primary purpose is to provide an intellectual biography of one of the world’s greatest scientists-to reconstruct the development of his ideas over time”. At the same time, he observes that, ”Amongst professional historians, biography is not an intellectually respectable genre”. He then makes what seems like a self-evident case for what he calls “a characterological approach to biography” to enable us to understand the study of scientific progress and cultural change, fitting themes for a historian, it would seem. This line of argument appears unnecessarily tortuous. However it explains why Wootton glosses over Galileo’s childhood and career, and why references to his family often seem awkwardly squeezed in, sometimes so condensed as to be hard to follow. I was troubled by the subjectivity of a chapter suggesting out of the blue that a bullying and devious mother may have been to blame for his reluctance to get married, his lack of communication as regards his emotional attachments and private beliefs, and also explain his aggressive, driven personality. In his summing up, Wootton writes, “the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and influence shaped Galileo’s internal life and constitute the cosmography of his self” but I could not find clear and convincing passages in the book to support this.

Similarly, I was surprised by the author’s sudden break from the build-up to Galileo’s trial in order to speculate on his frustration over a missed opportunity to consummate a relationship with some married woman, Alessandra Buonamici who had not clearly figured in the story before. I would have preferred more along the lines of the moving account of Galileo’s close relationship with his daughter Marie-Celeste, a nun, to provide a more fleshed out picture of the man.

Although the work is informative and gripping in places, it continually frustrated me by failing to provide the further insights and deeper analysis I was seeking. The above factors make it an unnecessarily hard and opaque slog at times.

“Forever nude” by Guy Goffette

I read this in French, but presumably my comments still apply, although it is hard to imagine how the distinctive French “stream of consciousness” style could have been translated without something being lost.
With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.

Galileo Antichrist A Biography by Michael White – pure reason versus fear of thinking

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo was a man of remarkable intelligence with the misfortune to be born at a time of intense religious bigotry. Nowadays he would no doubt be a media celebrity explaining and debating his many theories, a multi-millionaire through the sale of his inventions and a Nobel prize-winner to boot.

Instead, in the understandable desire to avoid life imprisonment in his old age and possible burning as a heretic, he was browbeaten into a humiliating refutation of his support for the theory of Copernicus that the earth rotates in orbit round a static sun. His scientific approach, based on observable evidence and mathematical calculations foundered on the Catholic Church’s arbitrary insistence on the immutable truth of Aristotle’s flawed deductive reasoning that an all-powerful God kept the sun and planets orbiting round the earth. The supreme irony is that Aristotle was a “heathen” Greek. Another is that Galileo might have avoided punishment if he had been prepared to escape to a Protestant country like the Netherlands or England, even stayed in the more tolerant city of Venice rather than throw in his lot with the Medicis of Florence, who were less prepared to stand up to the Pope.

In this fascinating account, which makes science comprehensible even to a reader with very limited prior knowledge, the author has a tendency to try to capture our imagination with a good deal of speculation. The most significant example of this is his support for a recent theory that the heresy for which Galileo was convicted was in fact a cynical distraction from the issue which really concerned the somewhat unstable Pope Urban VIII and the fanatical Jesuits at the heart of the Vatican. This was that Galileo’s nascent views on the existence and nature of atoms threatened the belief at the heart of Catholic doctrine, which sets it apart from Protestantism: namely, that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, whilst maintaining their original physical appearance.
Although widely admired in his lifetime, Galileo was no saint. As a young man, he was known as “the Wrangler” for his argumentative approach. Never backward in asserting his intelligence and his contempt for those of lesser intellect who contradicted him, he accumulated a number of enemies who were eager to play a part in his ultimate downfall. To gain a teaching post at the University of Padua, he was prepared to give a lecture estimating the dimensions of Lucifer, a topic he must surely have regarded as somewhat ludicrous.

His curiosity ranged widely to include radical thinking on the behaviour of pendulums, the speed of falling objects, even the cause of the tides, where his thinking was in error. He showed entrepreneurial skills in commercialising his invention of the mathematical compass, a widely used tool for making calculations, driven by the need to support an extended family including his feckless brother with a growing brood of children. Despite being an excellent communicator, Galileo detested teaching: he out-manoeuvred a rival to corner the market in another invention with practical application, one of the first telescopes, and used it as a means of gaining a plum post in the Florence of the Medicis, one of the conditions being that he could give up teaching.

The telescope enabled him to view the moons orbiting Jupiter and the “crackled and wavy” surface of a moon which the Church insisted was a perfect, smooth sphere: Galileo’s critics argued that, if it was covered in mountains and craters, it must be contained in a translucent layer which would make it the “right” shape. It is not surprising that Galileo presented his arguments in debates in which foolish arguments were demolished, but when the “fall guy” voicing views held by the Pope was named Simplicio, based on the Italian word for simpleton, he was clearly sailing to close to the wind.

Galileo’s fateful trial is covered in some detail in translations of a tortuous procedure involving legalistic language and specious theological argument which despite being somewhat dry has the power to enrage the modern reader over the injustice of the situation. Yet with successors like Newton to build on his work, the genie could never be returned to the bottle.