Set in post-war Prague, Bohumil Hrabal’s stories in Mr Kafka, and Other Tales are deeply, deeply peculiar, but strangely mesmerising nonetheless. I don’t think I can really do them justice – let’s just say that you’d be unlikely to find anything quite like them anywhere else. “The rest is all just warming up the soup and watering down the vodka.”
It is only in Spain and Russia that time stands still.
Imagine that Don Quixote’s many-times-great-grandson is a Catholic priest, living in the same village of La Mancha where the Don came from. Also imagine that Don Quixote is still a book in this world, and most people believe that it’s fictional. And thirdly, imagine that this Catholic priest calls his car “Rocinante” and his friend, the Communist Mayor, “Sancho Panza”, because of his sense of humour. Now you have the seeds of Monsignor Quixote.
Now all we need to do is introduce a little knight-errancy to this tableau. Father Quixote is made a Monsignor and will have to leave his village. His friend the Mayor loses his job (Franco’s death was very recent in 1982, and Communism not necessarily popular with all members of Spanish society). And so the two of them, both believing like old Don Quixote in their respective “books of chivalry” – the Monsignor in his Bible, and the Mayor in his Communist Manifesto – set out to travel Spain on (or, rather, in) Rocinante. It’s very funny (“someone called Ramsay MacDonald – I suppose he was the Prime Minister of Scotland”; “Holiness and literary appreciation don’t always go together”; “Bishops, just like the very poor and the uneducated, should be treated with a special prudence”), but it’s also a very moving book about faith, and doubt, and perhaps the importance of doubt. “There are many holy words written which are not in the Bible or the Fathers.”
The depiction of the friendship between Sancho (i.e. the ex-Mayor) and Quixote is also especially wonderful – what is sometimes described as an “unlikely” one, between two people whose creeds are so entirely different. “It is strange how quickly a bottle can be emptied when one debates without rancour.”
I’ve not read much Greene – I think, apart from this, not any – and it certainly makes me want to remedy that.
The future is a door into a darkened room and however much you fumble for the light switch you will never find it.
I read this book on a rugby tour to Spain. It was slightly incongruous.
Palestine. 1946. Evelyn Sert, a British Jew, “a work in progress, not even that; a preliminary sketch for a person”, has arrived to – what? To build an Israel? To play her part in the forging of a new Jewish identity, one with a homeland and a unity? To reinvent herself? “Of course he was a Zionist. Who wasn’t back then?”
From Tel Aviv to the kibbutz and back again, with run-ins with the British authorities and the Jews of all nations, Evelyn finds – well, I’m not really sure what she finds. In some ways, perhaps, this isn’t that kind of story. “I seemed to contain several selves and each of these seemed to me as valid as the next.” It’s just a story about being a Jew in Palestine in the years after the War – not an easy but a hopeful place to be. It’s about identity and loyalty and love. It’s really very good indeed.
I was a little unconvinced by The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I must say. Mma Ramotswe is hardly Sherlock Holmes, and the string of proposals she receives stretches credulity to breaking point. I think it grew on me, but I did find the central character a tad aggravating, with a tendency towards the holier-than-thou. And in terms of prose style, I think I preferred McCall Smith’s writing in Emma.
India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously – the midday sun always excepted.
Plain Tales from the Hills is a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling about life in India under the British Raj; it was his first collection of short stories. Moving, observant, amusing – they are all of these and more. There’s something very honest about Kipling’s presentation of humanity; and it makes a nice contrast with the fauna-focused Indian tales of The Jungle Book.
The Age of Innocence is a … love story? I suppose? I really don’t know what to think about it. It seems to be defying my attempts to categorise it – comedy of manners? Sort of, perhaps. In the barest sense, it’s “about” the United States, in the 1870s, specifically life among the New York “aristocracy” of the time. It is very good, driving human emotions and convictions up against the strictures of Society. Maybe that’s what it’s about.
“My nerves are bad tonight.”
—TS Eliot, The Waste-Land, II: A Game of Chess
I first read A Chess Story several years ago – ten? More? It was at school, in Yorkshire, I’m sure, so about that. I’ve remembered it ever since, dimly, but I couldn’t for the life of me have produced the name until I saw it on the counter in Waterstones – the bookshop equivalent of those serried ranks of chocolate bars in newsagents. A memory was stirred, and the lady behind the till very patiently waited while I picked it up, glanced at the blurb, and quickly read a couple of pages at random; that was all it took to know my initial hunch was correct.
It’s not a long book. It’s an exceptionally powerful one, however, about the strengths and limitations of the human mind; about isolation and obsession. It’s centred around chess – as a tool for worldly advancement, as a way to retain sanity and purpose, as a focus of a monomania. A few games of chess on an ocean liner; you wouldn’t think it would have had such an impact on me, but it is really good.
I dreamt that I was in Hell, and that Hell is a place full of all those happenings that are improbable but not impossible. The effects of this are curious. Some of the damned, when they first arrive below, imagine that they will beguile the tedium of eternity by a game of cards. But they find this impossible, because, whenever a pack is shuffled, it comes out in perfect order, beginning with the Ace of Spades and ending with the King of Hearts.
I bet nobody expected Bertrand Russell (most famous works: The Problems of Philosophy, Principia Mathematica, A History of Western Philosophy) to appear on this blog. I certainly didn’t; I thought I was shot of him. But apparently, in his eighties, the grand old man decided to turn his hand to writing fiction. Nightmares of Eminent Persons is a result of that, and it’s actually, almost shockingly, absolutely excellent.
Now, I will admit that some of the jokes in the earlier stories are funnier to me because of my degree (cf. especially “The Metaphysician’s Nightmare”, from which I took the epigraph for this section, and which goes on to make Hume jokes and talk about Satan as a bad linguistic habit). But others are far easier, and there is a real dry wit to the prose style (in fairness to Lord Russell, I always thought that was the case in his philosophical work as well). “She seemed to have the bad habit of letting the argument determine her conclusion, instead of first deciding on the conclusion and then making the argument fit. There was in this, they felt, something anarchic and dangerous.”
In addition to the Nightmares themselves – designed to showcase, Russell claims, the danger of dominant passions and their attendant dominant fears, and how an “isolated passion is, in isolation, insane” – there are two longer stories: Zahatopolk, an excellent dystopia; and Faith and Mountains, a satirical but cautionary tale about manufactured cults-stroke-religions (amusingly, Nightmares of Eminent Persons was published in 1954, the year L Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology). The founder of one of the faiths is described as someone “whose religion and business acumen were perhaps not quite so separate as one could wish.”
So if you’ve made your way through “On Denoting” and the Principia, here’s a change of pace for you.
There are some feelings which perhaps are too tender to be suffered by the world. The world is in general selfish, interested, and unthinking, and throws the imputation of romance or melancholy on every temper more susceptible than its own.
The Man of Feeling is probably the canonical example of “the sentimental novel” – the sort of book that Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility has read entirely too much of. Our hero is Harley, of whom Mackenzie writes, “It was ever the privilege of misfortune to be revered by him.”
He has a varied life, from being taken advantage of to doing good, but always wearing his emotions on his sleeve. It’s a rather touching book, actually, and interestingly structured (the fiction is that vast amounts of the original manuscript are missing – more precisely, have been used as wadding for a gun). And it’s impossible to dislike Harley; although emotional, he is also honest, decent, bold, and straightforward. It wouldn’t hurt a lot of people to try to be more like him.
Mr Kafka, and Other Tales
Author Bohumil Hrabal
Best character The guard in “The Angel”: “nothing could prevent him from continuing –inadequately and against regulations – to protect the women in his care.”
Author Graham Greene
Best line “Forget the English – they never conform to any rules, not even of economics.”
Best character The Mayor – “Sancho Panza”.
When I Lived in Modern Times
Author Linda Grant
Best line “Show them you’re on top of the world, even if you’re not. What have you got to lose?”
Best character Mrs Kulp.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Author Alexander McCall Smith
Best line “I said to him that Zululand sounded fine, but that every man has a map in his heart of his own country and that the heart will never allow you to forget this map.”
Best character Mr JLB Matekoni, the garage owner.
Plain Tales from the Hills
Author Rudyard Kipling
Best line “In life as in racing, all the worst accidents happen at little ditches and cut-down fences.”
Best character Miss Kitty in “Cupid’s Arrows”. Honourable mention to Mrs Hauksbee. “At a moderate estimate there were about three-and-twenty sides to that lady’s character. Some men say more.”
The Age of Innocence
Author Edith Wharton
Best character Granny Mingott.
A Chess Story
Author Stefan Zweig
Best line “And then, isn’t it also terribly easy to consider yourself a great man if you aren’t hobbled by the slightest inkling that a Rembrandt, a Beethoven, a Dante or a Napoleon ever lived?”
Best character The doctor in the hospital.
Nightmares of Eminent Persons, and Other Stories
Author Bertrand Russell
Best line “Avaunt! You are only Symbolic Conveniences!” (“The Mathematician’s Nightmare”.)
Best character Shakespeare’s head in “The Psycho-Analyst’s Nightmare”.
The Man of Feeling
Author Henry Mackenzie
Best character The unofficial guide in the lunatic asylum.