by Kim Gordon
by Kim Gordon
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?
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?
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.
by Patti Smith
“Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away.”
I read “Just Kids” while on holiday in New York City recently.
The book was a promise to her sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had an intense relationship as a young girl, which continued in a different form as he became aware of and confident in his homosexuality.
Above: Robert Mapplethorpe
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe came to New York in 1967 as teenagers where they met and became part of the avant garde in that city. They both came from Roman Catholic families, the beliefs of which they would both renounce, and yet incorporate into their work. They were both incurable romantics, and as time went on and their career paths and life choices became clear and separate, they still remained great friends. Smith became famous for her blending of rock music and poetry, while Mapplethorpe became a photographer, at times controversial for his graphic homosexual images. He was part of the generation greatly affected by AIDS and died of the disease in 1989. Smith fell in love with a Detroit musician, married him and had children, but never abandoned her belief in Mapplethorpe’s genius. I enjoyed reading about a world that is both fascinating and foreign, with various cameo appearances by people like the playwright, Sam Shepard and other people in the punk rock and art scenes.
The book really is an elegy to youth, young love and New York the city, and its bohemian elements and quirky elements in the 1960’s and 70’s.
This second book, only written by Smith two years ago is about the other end of the spectrum; it’s about old age, the need to keep creating to keep death at bay, and about loss of a life partner.
The book takes the reader on an odyssey, as Smith travels to different parts of the world, yet always comes back to the same Greenwich Village cafe. In some ways the book is about nothing, something Smith acknowledges:
“It’s not easy to write about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. ____ But we keep going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.”
Much of it however is an ode to the irreparable loss of her husband, musician Fred Sonic Smith, who died only in his forties from heart failure. His image and memories of him crop up constantly in whatever Smith is writing about. Parts of this book are very sad, but ultimately art and its making is her saviour and what enables her to keep going.
She writes of crying during a plane trip:
“I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I woke snow was falling over Tokyo.”
Smith travels to many unusual places, and in all of them she writes of cafes visited, in Mexico, Berlin and Japan, as well as graves she visits of writers that have been an influence on her. Her travels seem to be treks or pilgrimages to express gratitude to such creatives that have influenced her -Plath, Genet, Kahlo.
With certain passages Smith hits the nail on the head with her writing, in others she goes off on esoteric tangents. But at her best, her writing is very powerful and poignant.
” We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Pease stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”
After her husband’s death, she writes of “performing small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.”
Later she writes of what she believes in:
” I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. When I was child, I thought I would never grow up, that I would will it so. And then I realised, quite recently that I had crossed some line. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron coloured hair.”
I enjoyed this book, but it’s probably not for everyone, as it’s slow paced and often sad.
by Nikolay Gogol
Nikolay Gogol was a Russian writer, of Ukrainian and Polish parents. He was born in 1809 and with Aleksander Pushkin the poet, was responsible for starting the great Russian literary awakening of the 19th century.
The short stories I have read from this collection are among his most famous: The Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat and The Nose.
Themes of a society dominated by bureaucracy and corruption, and of tragic and submissive heroes who live out sad, impoverished lives are evident in all these stories, and Gogol oscillates in all of them between comedy, bitter satire and tragedy.
“The Nose” is a strangely surreal story of a low ranking bureaucrat who literally loses his nose.
Kovalyov is obsessed with his ranking in the civil service, and losing his nose is an affront to his fragile image of himself in the societal system. He is further enraged when reports emerge of his nose becoming a ‘person’, obtaining a higher rank than his owner and lording it about town in a superior coach and clothing. He won’t rest until his nose is returned, and is suspicious of a number of people he thinks are responsible, because they are out to get him in his mind. The nose’s abscondment becomes a parody of the nonsensical bureaucracy that existed in Tsarist Russia. In St Petersburg there was later even a statue erected of the nose, who has become a much loved ‘character’ in Russian culture. A fun satire about the absurdity of rank.
“My nose is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor. That’s why I’m asking you to print this advertisement announcing the first person who catches it should return the nose to its rightful owner as soon as possible. imagine what’s it’s like being without such a conspicuous part of your anatomy! if it were just a small toe, then could put on my shoe and no one would be any the wiser. “
“The Overcoat” is a sad story of a lowly clerk, a copyist in a government office who is overlooked by everyone. He is barely surviving on a meagre income, and yet is totally obedient to the system that enslaves and dehumanises him. His old overcoat is in tatters, and of course in the Russian winter, a good overcoat is essential to survival. He goes to a tailor, who tells him there is no point trying to repair the coat, he needs a new one. The poor man can’t afford it, but by literally almost starving he is able to eventually buy the most basic of overcoats, just as winter sets in.
When he receives the new coat, he feels for the first time in his life on top of the world and is invited to a party by another clerk. Here the tale takes a darker turn. A gang of thieves robs him of his overcoat and leaves him defenceless in the snow. The police are totally uninterested in helping him recover his coat, and Akaky dies of a fever brought on by extreme cold.
In a final surreal element, Akaky comes to haunt the city as a ghost. His target is men with overcoats, that he forces to shed, a punishment for those that belittled him and brought about his death. This is a sad, haunting tale and hugely influential in later 19th century Russian literature: it was Dostoyevsky who famously wrote ” We have all come out from Gogol’s overcoat”.
“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on …just as though he had never even existed… But who would have imagined that this was not the last of [him], and that he was destined to create quite a stir several days after his death, as though he were trying to make up for a life spent being ignored by everybody?”
‘Diary of a Madman’ is I think one of Gogol’s best stories. It’s the only one written in the first person, and is a devastating critique on the Russian bureaucratic system and its effects on human happiness.
Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant, who is constantly lambasted and criticised by his superiors. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, becoming obsessed with trying to gain her attention and approval.
The diary records his gradual slide into insanity, as in madness he finds the confidence he yearns for, and comes to believe he is the heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s portrayal of this slide is very realistic, as Poprishchin reads about the Spanish War of Succession in the newspapers, and to him it makes perfect sense he may be the heir.
” Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight… The first thing I did was tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously never set eyes on the King of Spain before.”
The last diary entries are poignantly tragic as Poprishchin is taken to an asylum and becomes subject to great cruelty and corporal punishment, yet sees this as a trial to be endured to establish his right to the throne.
All three stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in their use of the grotesque and the absurd, but Gogol was himself a master at veering between comedy and tragedy, and it was a great loss that his last novel, “Dead Souls” was incomplete at his death, and moreover that he burnt great parts of it. But these stories are testament to his great talent in laying bare the great inequalities of Tsarist Russia, and for his skill in simultaneously portraying human banality and suffering.
” Read in order to live.”
Gustave Flaubert in a letter, 1857
I have been active on Instagram/Bookstagram for nearly two years and have noticed how my reading habits have changed over that time. From being a laid back reader of whatever I felt like, I have changed to feeling I need to read a book just because others have reviewed it or raved about it. So, I want to get back to a more relaxed reading pace, just following my whims.
It’s a double edged sword to always be hearing about lots of different books. It can add needless anxiety, stress, and competition, which if carried too far can be detrimental. That’s what I found anyway. I have never had a massive TBR, yet I hear that this is common. Some people’s TBRs are in the dozens or even more.
It’s great to hear about what other people are reading, but it doesn’t mean I will then rush out and necessarily buy a particular book.
I have always been a very spontaneous reader, if I become obsessed with a subject I follow it as far as I can. Recently I reread ‘Jane Eyre’, one of my favourite classics. This led to me reading Clare Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, a book recommended on Instagram. Absolutely amazing book! Well, this led to reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë, as I knew nothing about her. Very much an underrated classic. Then I decided to read ‘The Brontës” a huge biographical tome by Juliet Barker. So you get the idea, I’m obsessive. That’s my favourite kind of reading, following a particular passion, rather than trends.
My favourite types of books are classics, contemporary literary fiction, biography and poetry, also books about art and artists, with occasional sprinklings of YA.
So here is my current TBR, pretty modest but I may go to the library tomorrow and see something amazing which I will then read first instead!
Gogol -it’s a bit embarrassing, but I studied Russian Literature at university, yet never read Gogol. This need to be remedied.
Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – I read this classic many years ago, and want to reread it in a new translation. This is a magnificent book, a murder mystery and a sweeping drama of sibling rivalry among three brothers.
Dracula- just because. It has been hugely influential in current vampire literature, but I have no idea what the original story was. Hope it’s a fun read.
I would love to hear what your current TBR is, and what you are reading at the moment.
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.
Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela
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 ⭐️
by Robert Lowell
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Poetry is one of my favourite genres and I hope to post on a particular poem regularly.
There’s so much happening in this poem, with its vignettes of a declining town, its alliteration and precarious line endings. Also what a great image of a mother skunk and her tenacity!
The ‘hermit heiress’ is a self centred loner, and the repetitive use of the possessive pronoun ‘her’ emphasises her elitism and her dreams of past glory. She longs for a past before her exclusive world was invaded by outsiders like our ‘summer millionaire’. Deluded, he wishes to find acceptance in the heiress’s world, unaware that it is crumbling.
Poignantly, the possessive pronoun used about the ‘fairy decorator’, which here instead of selfishness and exclusivity, indicates a subtle pride in his work and tenuous outcast identity.
Lowell became known as one of the first ‘confessional’ poets, and his mental torment is expressed with dramatic intensity in lines like ‘my mind’s not right’ and ‘I myself am hell, nobody’s here’, which references Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.
The skunks are shown to have a unity and sense of community missing in the human world of the poem. They take the poet out of his nightmare experience, into a feeling of hope that he will survive, due to the example of their stoicism and single mindedness. ‘a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail’. I love this poem with its strong imagery and its ending of a mother skunk that ‘will not scare’.
Lowell was born in 1917 to an old Boston family that could trace its origins to the Mayflower, and is his poetry he is both repelled and fascinated by his Puritan heritage. He had a tumultuous life, having three difficult marriages, and dying in 1977. Much of his poetry deals with his mental illness. He suffered from bipolar disorder and had frequent stays in mental hospitals to manage his condition
He wrote intensely and uninhibitedly about his family, his privileged background and his mental health struggles in “Life Studies” from which this poem is taken.
In an era where on-line confessions about our innermost thoughts are so common, it’s difficult to comprehend how the candidness of his confessional poetry was so incendiary. His best poetry is intimate, disturbing and very powerful. He is without doubt one of America’s best poets of the twentieth century.
This Faber edition of his selected poems is a good general introduction to Lowell’s work.
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