1984

 

Above: Front and back cover of my ‘1984’ edition, published by Text Publishing Company, Australia, 2016

By George Orwell

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same.”

~

Doublethink, thought crime, Ministry of Truth and Big Brother have entered the English language and people’s psyche in the modern world. This is a frightening book and of course was meant to be. It was a re-read for me, even though reading it plunges one into despair. The message of the book is chilling, because it seems that humanity and its leaders have learned nothing from the past. In a world where “alternative facts” and resentment of, and contempt for intellectuals, or indeed any individual thinking is becoming the norm, this book gives us a glimpse of a possible grim  future that may not be that far off.

The book is centered on Winston Smith, who is haunted by images of a pre- totalitarian world, and Julia, the woman who becomes his lover and fellow rebel in a world where it is a crime to love. They both pay a high price for their defiance, and the ending is ambiguous. Has Winston been finally brain washed or not?

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Orwellian is described in Wikipedia as “an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.” This included control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past. Sounds familiar to the present day?

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The only hope I can see is to resist as much as possible the current trend towards simplification and prejudice. As Winston Smith muses “ He knew better than before that he was not mad. Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad .”

A classic, this book deserves to be read, re-read and debated, especially in the current political climate. Would love to read your thoughts.

5 🌟

 

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Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

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“Prologue: 18 May 1152

In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. the young man, aged nineteen, was stocky, with red hair, and restless with pent-up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice in this furtive ceremony.

Few would have guessed, from the lack of pomp and splendour, that the marriage of this couple was to change the face of Europe.”

I really enjoyed re-reading this biography, which I pulled off my shelf while taking a break from my TBR.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was born in a court where troubadours flourished and courtly love was all the rage. She was not a meek wallflower by any means. She was first married to Louis VII of France, that union later being conveniently annulled. While married to the French king, she was shocked and appalled by the cold winters of Paris, having come from the warm South, and introduced what were then innovations at court: wooden shutters to keep out draughts, and fireplaces! Her second marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou and later King of England was one of love, rare for medieval times. Henry was a forceful personality, intelligent and hyperactive, but Eleanor was more than a match for him with her sophistication and learning.

Opinions about her were divided: One chronicler noted that “by reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations”, while another stated that she “surpassed all the queens of the world”. I think it could certainly be argued  that the family of Eleanor and Henry was amongst the most dysfunctional in British history. While originally in love, the couple’s happiness was not lasting, and both spent the later part of their lives undermining each other, with Eleanor eventually backing one of her sons in treason. Her sons are well known to history: Richard the Lionheart and John who said of his mother that she was an “unhappy and shameless woman”.

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Above: Tombs of Eleanor and Henry, Fontevrault Abbey, Anjou, France

Eleanor was an extraordinary if controversial personality, and held considerable influence if not actual power, given the constraints on women of that time. This was a fascinating read, for anyone interested in history and one woman’s role in it. I would give it 4 ⭐️.

 

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

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“Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window.”

” My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out  around him like great wings” 

This novel is the prototype for all subsequent vampire fiction, but for me the main interest was its preoccupation with women’s morality or lack of it, their perceived weakness, and their need to have male rescuers to save them from their inherent or potential wayward natures.

I think this book tells us a lot about Bram Stoker, and the 19th century ‘fin de secle’ obsession with sex, its relationship to morality and death, and Victorian male anxiety about the “New Woman”. I lost track of how many times the word “voluptuous” was used, and not in a positive way.

“The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.”

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped thr white sharp teeth.”

There is fascination with the erotic and desire of it here, but fear of where that desire might take you.

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Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, the son of a civil servant.  Following study at Trinity College, he married, and later became business manager to Henry Irving, the famous Skakesperian actor and enterpreneur. He wrote Dracula at the age of 50 in 1897, while employed by Irving.

Underneath a conventional life as the epitome of Victorian rectitude, Stoker must have had unfulfilled desires and uneasy thoughts gnawing at him, because he wrote in his diary of a strange dream: ” Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical this man belongs to me I want him” This bad dream, with its homo-erotic undertones must have been frightening to a man like Stoker. This was the germ of the novel, and Stoker transforms these lines into part of Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula’s castle.

The novel opens with Harker, a young solicitor and engaged to be married, travelling to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of  a London house for a count. The horrors he encounters there almost get him killed, and then almost make him lose his sanity. For me they are the best part of the novel. Dramatic and frightening, they show Harker and Dracula in a deadly fight for supremacy of one, and survival of the other.

” This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood… the very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.”

After Harker’s escape from the castle, strange and disturbing events begin to unfold in England: a young girl awakes with bite marks on her neck, a ship is wrecked and its crew mysteriously lost at sea, a lunatic at an asylum starts raving about the arrival of his “Master”.

The rest of the novel becomes a pursuit of Dracula by a group of young men, who are presented as the cream of Victorian manliness, but in reality come across as very irrational and emotional, qualities that are frowned upon in the women. Helping them in their quest is a so-called vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, who indulges in long diatribes about the vampire’s powers and the peril he embodies.

The entire novel is a mixture of letters, diary entries and newspaper extracts, which makes it at times very dull and long winded. Many parts of it seem scarcely credible, such as Lucy, the young girl having been bitten by Dracula, then being given a transfusion a day over four days by four different men.

After the initial section where Harker is prisoner, we hardly see or hear from Dracula again. It all becomes a race against time, to stop the terror he has unleashed, but to be honest it all gets very turgid and boring. The only interesting character is Minna, at first engaged, then married to Harker, and definitely the brains of the entire outfit. She is very practical, getting the timetables for the trains to Transylvania, whereas the men come across as  emotional and fragile.

“He grew quite hysterical…he stood up and then sat down again, and the tears ran down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him…he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, while he shook with emotion.” from Minna’s journal

Even Van Helsing, who considers himself the expert, bows down to Minna’s logic:       “Ah, that wonderful Minna! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart.”

“Our dear Madam Minna is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded. Now we are on the right track once again, and this time we may succeed.”

There is a thread of fear of women’s sexuality running through the entire book. Lucy and Minna are the two female characters showing the possibilities in women’s character. Lucy is portrayed as very beautiful and dangerously wayward, hence her susceptibility to the Count, whereas Minna has a man’s logic, yet a tender moral heart that keeps her one step ahead of being enthralled to Dracula.

This isn’t a great novel by any means. It is interesting for its exploration of Victorian fears, and says more about Stoker’s obsessions than anything else.  When you compare it for example to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with its weighty philosophical themes of the ethics and responsibilities of  science, and the duty owed by a father to his child, it comes up short. It is still a fascinating story though, as can be seen by the influence it has had on the vampire fiction still popular today.  3⭐️

If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

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by Laura Thompson

This family couldn’t be made up. No one would believe it. The family line went all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England, and every member had a diamond hard unshakeable confidence that whatever they decided to do was not only appropriate but did not need to be explained or excused to anyone.

The six sisters and one brother were born into upper class, country house privilege and were prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of 1930s London. Then each sister took a very different path, some of them a very dangerous path.

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Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

In summary:

Nancy –  became a famous novelist, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and spent many years in France after World War 2, following a divorce.

Diana – the most beautiful of the sisters, and adored by many men, married the heir to the Guinness fortune and had a life of immense wealth in Belgravia. She gave all that away as well as  her social standing to have an affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Later she married him. A Hitler sympathiser, she visited him and other Nazi officials in Germany many times in the 1930s.  Both she and Mosley were interned during the war and were social pariahs after it.

Pamela – probably the most ‘normal’ and also detached of the sisters, she became a solid country woman who bred poultry.

Unity – what a strange girl! She was part of Mosley’s Fascist party, and became totally obsessed by fascism and Hitler himself, basically stalking him until he took notice of her. He liked her and indulged her. It’s hard to understand what her thinking was, it’s tempting to think she was mad as nothing else seems to explain some of her behaviour. When war broke out, she was still in Germany and so upset by the thought of war that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, Hitler actually allowing her safe passage to neutral Switzerland. She made it back to England, but was never the same again, her health severely affected by a bullet in the brain that could not be removed.

Jessica – married a Communist, and became a fervent one herself, and went to live in America where she became a well regarded journalist and writer. She totally distanced herself from everything her family was and wrote a controversial memoir about them.

Deborah – the youngest, and apparently the most well adjusted, married and became well known as the Duchess of Devonshire for her efforts to save the ancestral home of her husband by opening it to visitors.

This was a very well written and researched book, which was gripping and engaging due to the incredible variety of the sisters’ lives and allegiances. As characters however, they were not likeable all, their arrogance was breathtaking, specially Diana, who insisted on praising Hitler even after the war. A comment she made in response to a critic perhaps sums up the whole family, “Shame is a bourgeois notion”.

A fascinating insight into another world and into a supremely dysfunctional family, not that they would have seen themselves that way.  4 ⭐️

 

 

 

The Book of Disquiet

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by Fernando Pessoa

“My boss Vasques, Moreira the book-keeper, Borges the cashier, all the lads, the cheery boy who takes the letters to the post office, the errand boy, the friendly cat – they have all become part of my life.  … Moreover, if I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear, what else would I do? Because I would have to do something. And what suit would I wear? Because I would have to wear another suit.”

The above is our introduction to the complex and neurotic disquieting thoughts of Senhor Soares, for whom Pessoa is the vehicle.

Fernando Pessoa was a fascinating man and writer. Ironically his surname in his native tongue, Portuguese means “person”.

He was born in Lisbon in 1888, the same year as T S Eliot, and at nine years old his family moved to Durban in South Africa for almost a decade. There he learned English to a high degree of proficiency, and later translated a number of English literary writings into Portuguese. He was well read in both English and French.

He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death. He worked as a translator of correspondence for various firms, and was virtually unknown when he died, having avoided not only literary circles, but society in general. His quiet demeanour in life, belied the incredible inner workings of his mind. He died in 1935, at the age of 47, leaving behind in a wooden trunk thousands of pages that still have not been fully edited.

Part of this cache was The Book of Disquiet, but to call it a book is a little misleading. Who knows how Pessoa would have wanted to present it? It consists of diary entries, some fragmentary, written across decades of his life. These have been edited into this book. I think it is true to say that there is nothing else out there like it.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”

Philip Pullman wrote “This is the very book to read when you wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep – mysteries, misgivings, fears and wonderment. Like nothing else.”  I would have to agree.

Within Pessoa, there were a multitude of ideas, characters and styles of writing. So he took this to an unprecedented conclusion and wrote under a number of ‘heteronyms’. This concept differs from a pseudonym (Greek for “false name”). Instead heteronyms have their own style and biography as though they actually existed. Pessoa went so far as to create astrological charts for them.

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. what I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”

“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”

In The Book of Disquiet, the heteronym is Bernardo Soares, a clerk who works in the Lisbon business district, and in diary fragments relates his thoughts on life, death, the universe and everything. It is tempting to think that Soares is Pessoa, although he might deny it.

“Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.”

Was Pessoa genius or neurotic borderline madman? It’s a fine line, depending on your point of view.

This is a fascinating book, an insight into a singular mind, but not recommended if you’re feeling depressed or melancholy, as it will certainly accentuate those emotions.

“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”

Pessoa was intriguing to the end. On 29 November 1935, he wrote his last lines in his diary in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Note: All quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from the Serpent’s Tail edition, published in 2010, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo of Pessoa: copyright Getty Images

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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By Susan Cain

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – ‘the north and south of temperament’,  as one scientist puts it -is where we fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.”

This is the book that started a Quiet Revolution. And it was a revolution that needed to happen.

Susan Cain is a passionate and persuasive writer, and her case for the power of introverts is skilfully made with many real life stories. Without introverts we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, Van Gogh’s sunflowers or the theory of relativity.

As an introvert myself, with an introvert daughter, I found this book to be informative and empowering. Extroverts take up an inordinate amount of speaking space in employment, schools and in social life. Introverts have as much to offer, but being quieter it is not always noticed, or they themselves do not promote it.

Introverts often think deeply, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words fluidly and confidently. So inevitably, extroverts are more likely by their confidence to get more attention. This is specially troubling in schools. Cain presents research showing that for many teachers the “ideal student” is an extrovert. This is extraordinary when you think of classic introverts like Einstein, Steve Jobs and George Orwell who ironically enough did not do well at school.

There are many chapters on this and other research that has been done on introversion, and on the excessive rise of the extrovert ideal in modern society.

This book is a must read for introverts and extroverts alike. 5 ⭐️

If interested in this topic, I highly recommend the website: quietrev.com founded by Cain to address issues that prevent introverts from achieving their best both in work and in life. As Cain so poignantly puts it:

“If I had one wish, it would be to reverse the stigma against introversion for children so that the next generation doesn’t grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grown-ups today. “

If you have read this book, I would love to read your thoughts on it.