In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift turns the full force of his satirical powers on European society, and it’s amazing. From the petty Lilliputians to the arrogant Brobdingnagians, from the earnestly Projecting Balnibarians to the spirit-conjuring magicians of Glubbdubdrib, and finally to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.
Everybody knows about Brobdingnag and Lilliput – the adjectival forms have entered our language, for heaven’s sake. Anyone who knows about the book will also know how its final period is his time with the gentle and civilised horses who call themselves Houyhnhnms, and the brutish, dirty and violent humanoids called Yahoos who carry out such manual labour as they can be trusted with; and that this period confirms him in his misanthropy.
So prominent are these parts that even when you’ve read the book before, they predominate in the memory. What really captured my imagination this time, therefore, were the other experiences. The Laputians, whose language and thought is obsessively mathematical and musical, and who spend their days in airy speculation so intense that they employ servants to hit them on the eyes, ears or mouth, respectively, when it is necessary for them to see, hear or speak; the Projectors of Balnibari (the island ruled by the floating city of Laputa), who spend their days wrapped up in fine but futile attempts to ameliorate the human condition; the necromancers of Glubbdubdrib, and the spirits of the illustrious dead they summon for Gulliver to speak to; and the immortal Struldbrugs of Luggnagg.
Of these four, a word perhaps on two of them. First, the Projectors. By this Swift means, not cunning arrangements of lights and lenses and mirrors, but people who adopt and pursue great Projects. The Projectors of the Academy of Balnibari are full of theories and objectives, whether scientific or political, and Gulliver presents to us first the scientific. We are shown the linguists who sought to abolish all language in favour of producing physical objects; we are shown the teacher who writes mathematical propositions on thin wafers which he then feeds to his students; the biologist who seeks to engineer a race of sheep without wool; the astronomer who aims to put a sundial on a weather vane, and to correct for the motions of the wind by adjusting the movement of the Earth and Sun; and the man whose one purpose in life is to extract sunbeams from cucumbers to warm the air at some later date.
And, having shown us how the projects of the Academy are without exception hopeless, pointless or both, Gulliver moves on to political objects.
These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to choose Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Public Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities and eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: of choosing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimeras, that never entered before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.
Hopeless, pointless or both, indeed.
As for the Luggnuggians, their society has the peculiarity that a portion of the population is born to be immortal. These favoured (as Gulliver at first supposes) few are known as Struldbrugs, and Gulliver waxes lyrical on the projects he would undertake – the nigh-divinity he would take upon himself, the all-governing Illuminati of his ilk he would establish – if he had been so blessed.
But, like the Trojan Tithonus, the Struldbrugs are given only eternal life. Every other disadvantage of age – infirmity, decrepitude, ill-temper, hardness of hearing and brittleness of bone – accrues continually. Far from being the wise and all-knowing gentle sages Gulliver imagined, the Struldbrugs are nothing more than a group of crotchety old men and women, legally dead from the age of eighty, and serving as a salutary example to the Luggnuggians of all that we can expect from life beyond our allotted time. They illustrate, as Swift has it, the futility of, with “one Foot in the Grave,” struggling desperately to keep the other one out. Senile and physically broken, the inescapable eternity of the Struldbrugs tells the people of Luggnagg that life is only worth preserving and extending when it is worth living, and that death is not the worst thing that can await you.
Danny Scheinmann’s Random Acts of Heroic Love is based (at least in part) on the true story of his own grandfather, an Austro-Hungarian soldier who was captured by the Russians during the First World War and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia. He escaped and, although it took him three years, walked back home to his childhood sweetheart. Scheinmann’s father came to England on the Kindertransport.
The other part of the story centres on Leo, an academic whose girlfriend Eleni dies in a bus crash in South America. Both parts of the novel are about the things we do for love, and the ways we cope with loss and grief. It’s really two very different love stories, whose themes resonate and contrast with each other as we move between them. There’s Roberto, an Italian professor of quantum physics who peddles a lot of hypnotic quasi-physics pseudo-philosophy humbug, and whose soothing nonsense Leo clutches at like a drowning man at – well, whatever drowning men clutch at. Anything, presumably. There’s Király, so constitutionally miserable that he wouldn’t be happy if you put him on a beach “with a beer and a cigarette”. There’s Hannah, the long-standing friend whose approach to the world, and to other people, is baffling. There’s Lotte, the distant object of Moritz’s unwavering affections, and the thought of whose kiss sustains him across the icy wastelands of Russia. And paralleling Lotte, there’s Eleni, even more unattainable, on the other side of an even more untraversable desolation, who haunts Leo’s every movement, a spectre of regret and longing.
HE Bates lived among the bomber crews of the RAF during the Second World War, publishing under the name of Flying Officer X. How Sleep the Brave collects the fruits of this period in a single volume, a collection of vignettes, snippets, episodes, snatches, glimpses – whatever you want to call them. There’s no overarching story, just events or even mere impressions, mostly fewer than ten pages long and each a masterpiece of the short fictioneer’s art. The old mails pilot whose wife and children were killed in a bomb attach of “Yours is the Earth”; the solid Frenchman who “gave the impression, entirely without fuss, that there might even have been a mistake about the Croix de Guerre”; the jolly and cherubic and implacable Dibden of “It’s Never in the Papers”; E.G., who had no medals, of “The Sun Rises Twice”. There’s a startling reality about it all, an immediacy to the problems and the triumphs and the action that makes it all seem very present. Bates’s narrator is generally inactive, a conduit through which these men come to us in all the vibrant life that requires the proximity of death to be realised. We are there, in the mess with these men, and their several hopes and motivations and quirks. We don’t know them, and we don’t understand them, but we know enough, and understand enough, to know what it would be like to understand them.
I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough, or conceive of anyone not loving it.
A slightly less serious book is The Wizard of Oz. It’s hard to talk about it without using words like beloved and children’s classic, and other such abhorrent clichés. Unfortunately, that leaves me with little to say; no deep insights, no fun trivialities. It’s a fairy tale, fun and easy to read.
Kipling’s Jungle Book is a rather different beast from the Disney film. Mowgli is banished to human civilisation for a period, for one thing, which means a significantly different narrative arc, and overall the book is actually rather darker than the film. “Now he is telling his wisdom to the kites, but he told me everything before I broke his back.”
It’s also littered with snatches of poetry that are pure Kipling, and really rather wonderful; and the actual Mowgli stories are just a small part of the work. We also have Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose who rid the bungalow of Nag and Nagaina, and Her Majesty’s Servants (the four-legged kind), among others. Every single one of these stories is wonderful, if you ask me, each in their own way. Personally, I think that reading The Jungle Book is a favour everybody should do themselves at some point in their life.
“Hang on a minute,” I hear you say. “I might not remember much, but I’m sure the Odyssey is a poem rather than a novel. I’m wise to your tricks.” Well, yes, cleverclogs, you’re right. But you also flatter my Ancient Greek if you imagine I’m reading the original, and since my translation is a prose one by EV Rieu, I’ve taken the executive decision to count it as a novel. So there.
I’ve already mentioned my fancy for cunning heroes, and Odysseus is right up there. It’s particularly enjoyable that not only his wife Penelope, but also his son Telemachus (“Few sons, indeed, are like their fathers. Generally they are worse”), display the same sort of guile, the same way of looking at the world. Odysseus himself is unfailingly loyal to his nature, lying even to Athena, his patron and advocate; he sees through his schemes to the extent of vicious self-flagellation; and when the time comes, he is of course mercilessly violent.
I’m sure some classicist will tell me that my translation is thoroughly disreputable among the cognoscenti, but I greatly enjoyed it. The only stylistic choice I really disliked was the constant reuse of sentences or passages, either verbatim or very nearly – like Homer is just repeating large chunks. I suppose it makes sense for what is originally aural and to be memorised – if much the same idea needs to be communicated, why not repeat a passage you’ve already learnt? I’d be interested to know what sort of scholarly positions there are about this, and whether this is the sort of thing people refer to when arguing about whether Homer was a single historical figure or not. (Do people still do that? You can tell I was only ever a dilettante, can’t you?)
Author Jonathan Swift
Best character Gulliver’s carer among the Brobdingnagians. Or possibly all the random seafarers who pick him up after each adventure.
Random Acts of Heroic Love
Author Danny Scheinmann
Best character Frank, Leo’s father.
How Sleep the Brave
Author HE Bates
Best character The Wing Commander in “It’s Just the Way It Is”.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Author L Frank Baum
Best character The tin man.
The Jungle Book
Author Rudyard Kipling
Best character Mother Wolf; that is, Raksha, “the Demon”.
Author Homer (trans. EV Rieu)
Published 1946 (this translation, obviously)
Best character Telemachus.