Ministry of Truth – a biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey: “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.

This very readable and informative biography of George Orwell focuses on his adult life, culminating in his last novel, “ Nineteen Eighty-four” ( referred to here as“1984”).

In the year 1984, the long-deceased author was criticised for failing to foresee how technical advances would benefit ordinary people, and being unduly pessimistic about the threat of political leaders crushing freedom. Forty years on, the book seems more relevant now with even “democratically” elected populist leaders like Trump using “alternative facts” and “fake news” to achieve their ends, while the Chinese Communist Party “moulds model citizens” by means of technical surveillance combined with a system of rewards and punishments, reminiscent of the telescreens used to indoctrinate and spy on the inhabitants of Airstrip 1 in “1984”.

Dorian Lynskey makes us aware of the many writers engaged from the late c19 century in attempts to imagine the future, notably H.G.Wells with his “social fantasies” , and the Russian Zamyatin with a ringside view of tyranny, author of “We”. Although they clearly infuenced Orwell, to the extent that he was accused of plagiarising the latter in “1984”, the main point seems to be that important ideas were being explored.

In his development of the manipulative leader “Big Brother”, Orwell’s main motivation was not to predict what he defined as a “pessimistic utopia” (i.e. non-existent place, the word “dystopia”, not being in common use until a decade after his death in 1950). He did not seek to be a prophet of doom, nor did he turn against socialism in later life as some of his opponents liked to think. “1984” was simply intended as a warning against governments which suppress freedom by gaining excessive control over people’s lives, and stifling opposition. As he dictated just before his death from TB in early 1950, “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.

Orwell saw the effects of distorting the truth first-hand when fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where he naively joined an anarchist brigade, following rejection by the better-equipped Communist forces because he was thought “unreliable”, for being one of the first to question the Moscow “show trials”. In a chaotic Barcelona, he met a Russian called “Charlie Chan”, thought to be an agent of Stalin’s secret police, who tried to stir up an already unstable situation by claiming that anti-Franco anarchists were really trying to aid the dictator!

Orwell obtained much useful material from those who wrote about their experiences of totalitarian regimes. He probably came across formula “2+2=5” in the work of Eugene Lyons, who turned against Communism when he witnessed “the propaganda, persecution and industrial-scale dishonesty” during a visit to the USSR to interview Stalin. Ironically, several publishers initially declined to print “Animal Farm”, for fear of offending Stalin, a Second World War ally at the time. Needless to say, “1984” was fiercely attacked by readers from the far left, and delighted those from the right, who failed to grasp that Orwell was attacking repression of all political types.

The coining of the term “Orwellian” by Mary McCarthy, together with the adoption of such terms as “Newspeak”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, “unperson” and “Big Brother” have become embedded in our culture, but I had not appreciated the extent of the writer’s influence since his death on a surprising variety of people, as covered here in somewhat rushed and indigestible detail. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was inspired by “1984”. Artists like David Bowie made abortive plans to produce a musical version of “1984”. In the run-up to the year 1984, commercial products from Macintosh computers to sisal-look wool carpets were promoted via references to Big Brother – that is, a book warning against controlling people was used to manipulate them.

Orwell’s complex personality is revealed through numerous anecdotes and quotations. He once wrote to a friend, “I find that anything outrageously strange ends up by fascinating me even when I abominate it”. He was a remarkably hard-working journalist and writer which he somehow combined with a very active social life. “His conversation was like his writing, unaffected, lucid, witty and humane”. He loved to argue, and was surprised when a writer, whether a friend or a celebrity like H.G.Wells, was upset by a barbed comment in one of his reviews. He gave 1984 ’s Winston Smith his own pathological fear of rats, which once led him to fire his rifle at the wrong moment, alerting the enemy Spanish who destroyed his side’s cookhouse. He was married twice and had close women friends, but created a wooden character lacking an inner emotional life in the form of Julia in “1984”. This could of course have served to indicate the damaging effects of being brought up under Big Brother’s domination. Orwell chose to write “1984” on the bleakly beautiful Scottish island of Jura, well out of reach of the hospitals where he needed treatment. With nostalgia for an idealised pre-1914 past, he detested every aspect of modern American culture.

He wrote just after the Second World War, “No thoughtful person whom I know has any hopeful picture of the future”. Ill health may have depressed his spirits – but what would he have made of the world today – not least virtual reality machines?

“House of Glass”, The story and secrets of a twentieth century Jewish family by Hadley Freeman – Knowing the past…..

Growing up in the US, Hadley Freeman noticed that her glamorous grandmother Sala was often sad, but she was only prompted to investigate the reason for this by the discovery, after her death, of a shoebox containing a motley collection of mementos: photos of Sala ripped into quarters partly taped together, or in the company of an unknown man whose face had been erased; a metal POW tag from 1940; a drawing on a “scrappy piece of paper” signed “Avec amitié, Picasso”.

Hadley Freeman’s often poignant account of what turned out to be her father’s family history from the turn of the C19 will strike a chord with many Jewish readers: poverty in a Polish shtetl (Jewish village), driven to emigrate by a pogrom in the aftermath of World War 1, finding opportunities in Paris, but feeling the bitter sense of rejection when forced into hiding, or to move on yet again in order to survive when France was overrun by the Nazis.

In fact, the Glass family suffered less as a result of the second World War than most ordinary Jewish families. What sets the Glass family apart is the remarkable success and wealth ultimately gained by two of the author’s great uncles. Handsome, self-effacing Henri invented the Omniphot, a machine capable of copying a variety of documents at different scales, including the reproduction of blueprints on microfilm – clearly in demand during wartime. Pugnacious, volatile Alex possessed an unlikely artistic streak which enabled him to become a successful producer of “high fashion” and later a collector and dealer in art to celebrities, who cultivated the friendship of people in high places, including Christian Dior and Picasso.

Sala (centre) and Alex (right)

This biography has been hyped by readers who seem undeterred by the way it is padded out with repetition, a fair amount of trivia, and some rather superficial and subjective analysis. The space given to speculation is perhaps inevitable since the narrative often seems to revolve round Alex, who proved an inveterate “myth-maker”, concealing and rewriting his past to suit his purposes. Did he really escape from a moving train bound for the death camps, by trading on the good will of a tall companion (whom he left to perish) to lift him up to a convenient hole in the carriage roof? Did he find a safe hiding place by exploiting a connection with a comrade-in-arms from his days in the Foreign Legion, who ironically was engaged simultaneously in deporting Jewish people from France to Germany? Is it an exaggeration to claim that post-war, “despite the surface fabulousness of Alex’s life, his business was crippled by debts, and he would go for days without eating in order to pay his staff of 150”? Particularly in the light of Alex’s unreasonable detestation of his sister-in-law’s fluency in German, which she had acquired long before the rise of the Nazis, the author takes an indulgent view of his willingness to work with suspected wartime collaborators, designing costumes for a Parisian ballet director “for the career-saving sum of 500,000 francs”. Such details are hard to follow and “square up” at times, and frankly somewhat wearisome.

It is a pity that, in the paperback version, the numerous family photos embedded in the text are generally too small and dark to see the details clearly. The focus on a particular family may help readers to empathise with their situation, but if the underlying aim was really “to know the past in order to understand the present and plan properly for the future”, to paraphrase Chaim Potok’s observation which Hadley Freeman cites, there are too many important broader aspects e.g. political aspects concerning Israel, which this overlong story omits to explore.

“Travels with a Donkey” by Robert Louis Stevenson – modern reevaluation of a classic

TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN THE CÈVENNES (Taylor & Guild Annotated Classics) by [Robert Louis Stevenson]

When I was a child, a dark red leatherbound copy of “Travels with a Donkey” lay unopened on a shelf for years as a classic I knew I ought to read. When recently I finally got round to downloading it on my Kindle, I was put off by hearing on the radio that Stevenson’s donkey Modestine had in fact been judged unfit for travel, so that the author had to include the last leg of his journey through the French Cévennes by stage coach. This, I discovered, was after only twelve days in which the poor animal, “not much bigger than a dog”, weighed down under a “monstrous deck-cargo”, was goaded, often by means of a whip or spiked stick, to trot some hundred and twenty miles up and down a succession of steep slopes.

Stevenson’s admission of feeling horror over his cruelty makes his persistence in this seem even worse – as when he rearranges his own load to free an arm with which to “thrash” Modestine, “two emphatic blows” needed for every “decent step” which the poor animal takes. Combined with his failure to plan in advance how best to reduce the load to manageable proportions, I set about reading this somewhat prejudiced against the famous author. To be fair, in the 1870s, lightweight synthetic materials were not available. But does it excuse the author that a local peasant insisted on making him a spiked goad as the only way of managing a donkey?

At first I was also impatient with Stevenson for undertaking the journey in late September, where he was likely to find “cold…grey, windy, wintry” weather four thousand feet above sea level. However, the weather seemed to improve as he travelled south, and I suppose it might have been too hot to walk earlier in the summer.

With overnight stops at a Trappist monastery “Our Lady of the Snows” where his admission of being an atheist prompted two visitors to combine in trying to convert him, at a number of remote inns or with a villager prepared to offer him hospitality for a small fee, Stevenson was able to portray the lives and attitudes of the local inhabitants. He was clearly impressed by a historical struggle which has deeply affected the area: the doomed uprising of the Protestant Camisards against the oppression of the Catholic majority in the early 1700s.

What finally won me over at least to the extent of appreciating why this novel was so famous for more than a century, is Stevenson’s ability, as he passed through the regions of Velay, Gévaudan, Mont Lozère and Cévennes to describe the landscape, and his wanderlust, in such vivid and precise terms.

“I lay….studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …I wear a silver ring. This I could see faintly shining as I raised or lowered the cigarette; and at each whiff the inside of my hand was illuminated, and became for a second the highest light in the landscape…..The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a habitable space…. I thought I had rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists: at the least, I had discovered a new pleasure in myself”.

In the valley of the Tarn, where Spanish chestnut trees have been so important to the economy, his portrayal makes it possible to visualise them without ever having visited the area.

“Some, trusting to their own roots , found strength to grow and prosper and be straight and large upon the rapid slopes of the valley; others, where there was a margin to the river, stood marshalled in a line and mighty like the cedars of Lebanon. Yet even where they grew most thickly they were not to be thought of as a wood, but as a herd of stalwart individuals; and the dome of each tree stood forth separate and large, and as it were a little hill, from among the domes of its companions…..autumn had put tints of gold and tarnish in the green; and the sun so shone through and kindled the broad foliage, that each chestnut was relieved against another, not in shadow but in light. A humble sketcher here had laid down his pencil in despair”.

It is probably an advantage at least to have passed through the area, stopping off at places like Florac or St. Jean-de-Gard, but the names of the the remoter points he passed are intriguing, prompting one to search the web for maps and images: Cheylard-L’Évèque, Chasseradès, Cassagnas, or Le Pont-de-Montvert.

“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.