Posts Tagged ‘Book review’

SELECTED POEMS/POEZII ALESE by Richard Livermore
Copies available from the author, http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html
£8.00 each, plus £1.00 p and p

This is a very handsome book.
Printed in Romania as part of their contemporary literature series Orizont Literar Contemporan, the production values are high. This is a book of which to be proud.

The cover carries a copy of a Munch painting, Melancholy. A gloomy subject? But the background colours are lovely: blues, olive, yellows, and a moment of white. The colour scheme of the cover uses this as its base, an overall black is banded with blue, and the main focus of white script.
On the back cover is a photo of Richard. Look closely, here again we see a similar mood, pose, and the colours in the background, out-of-focus, once again capture the overall range of the Munch.

Inside we have a Profil cultural, rather than biographical details. The focus is different, away from self, and towards how the writer has responded to place and time. The emphasis is on where self and cultural world interact. This is healthy, and does not engage with writer-status or celebrity.

What we are presented with here is a selection of Richard’s poetry from 1973 up to 2016. It is dual language book, with Ioanna Agafitei translating poems 1 to 12, and Elena Tapean 13 to 29. So, a dual-translator, dual-language book.
Richard certainly puts them through their paces at times. On page 23 for an instance, he gives Ioanna ‘…only when life is a was will it be.’ The poem is written in 5 quatrains with occasional end-rhyme and much alliteration and assonantal play. To cope with maintaining argument and form’s playful use of language, she gives us a 9-line stanza, combining the last two quatrains, and capturing the connotations.

***

If you were to send a message to Romania, knowing what happened in 1989, Christmas day 1989… what would you send? This is a generation on, but the question remains: what would you send?
What we now know of Romania, apart from tennis players, the old guard poets, are EU open borders, workers bringing their own interpretations of what they find here.
What can we say to them? More important, how can we say it, where would be the weighting and emphases fall? This is the West – what stories did they have of us? Officially degenerate, of course.
Whatever it was, it was fairy-tale.
For people to travel all that distance for work here, and to find austerity, closing borders, scratching round for low-paid jobs….
What can we say to them?

And this is where Richard Livermore judged his selection well, for what he sends are messages of recognition, of struggle, disappointment, of the value and worth of the person caught up in the machinery of time and place.

One commentator, Ian MacFadyan, called Richard’s work ‘dark star poems… shot through with bright images of wonder….’ And they are.
In form they are short, rarely over a page in length, and often two or three stanzas each. In structure we find full rhyme, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme. Rhythmically tight, with not a syllable wasted and yet not stifled by that; the freedom comes from the audacity of image and movement.

They are supple, as well as subtle. If you look for heritage then think of Kant’s antimonies – the form lays down the argument, but then it pivots into an unexpected image, which unlocks its depths of meanings. And as you read you become aware of richness, of exploration, insight, thought. The antimonies give you the argument and conclusion, then present you with an alternative one you had not thought possible.

‘Here we are locked/ in a prison of words’, ‘Here’ begins (did you think of Dylan Thomas?), and ends ‘here life is reprieved.’ How it gets from beginning to end is through the vehicle of language, image and sound. Yet it is aware that this is a vehicle, for it is to the inner movement that our attention is drawn. This is where people meet, in their inner experience of the world, not the immediate-demand response.

We feel locked into our habits, cultures, socially trapped. In ‘Pi’ he writes ‘I know very well/ what  it is to be  Pi/ for they keep reining in// my potential as well.’ Who cannot empathise with that? How can we move from this position? The structure, use of modern knowledge systems, are subject to the mind’s capabilities. Quantum effects, he gives us, open up other possibilities to us.

Yet don’t think all the poems use this stance – there are tender poems, see ‘Engraved In the Stars,’ and poems of mythic proportion, ‘Hidden Agendas,’ and playful poems, and poems of serious play.
There are riches to be found here.

One of the many riches is in the glorious sound textures Richard Livermore creates. How translatable are they? Take, for instance, the following from the first poem, ‘Wind/Vant’:
the burly, brusque bull-whale/ of a wind with it’s buffalo’s/ biffing and bellow, billowing…‘ Notice how the use of the line’s pause steers the rhythm, creating excitement. The translation can capture the checked flow that holds and then lets go, but cannot mimic this alliterative dynamic. Elsewhere the translation gives, rather than takes, texture; in ‘Prophecy’ we have:
What is the cloud doing/ storming the sky/ and why does it want//to bring down the moon… The Romanian has: Ce face norul/ furtuna cerul/ si de ce doreste// sa darame luna –I cannot reproduce the accents.
The line length is shorter, the metre changed, end-rhymes introduced, and the lines’ internal chiming of sounds changed.
The structure on the page informs how we read: this is poem structure, and in each case we read for the line because syntax and rhythm instruct us to do so. I leave out the vexing discussion of whether the translation is an entirely different poem, or an extension of the source-poem.

‘I don’t see why  words/ should always wait table‘ he writes in ‘Words Running for Cover’, the last poem in the book. Words, language, are the vehicle for exploring self and world, but only a vehicle. Our engagement with, our  living in, the world is the real subject. Always.

This is a book that you will go back to, often, and discover new riches each time.

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

sttrain

This was one of Graham Greene’s first novels to win great acclaim.
Published in 1932, it is still a gripping read. His list of characters is wide, varied, and their depictions, like the overall storytelling, accomplished.

It does have major problems, especially for the modern reader. Remember the date of publication.

It is a classic ‘Orient Express’ story: characters trapped on the great journey to Constantinople, as it was then: a three day journey.
The book opens after the ferry crossing, in the Ostend dock yard, as passengers shuffled through rain to the train. We met there the main characters. The ferry purser wondered after their passing whether a big story had just passed him by. This sets us up: something is afoot.

Passengers joined, and left, as the train travelled through pre-World War II Europe. Chapters take us from Ostend, to Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, then Constantinople.
Who are they? Why this journey?
Graham Greene makes several attempts at giving credible female characters. The best perhaps is Coral Musker. She is a dancer, going the whole journey to join up with the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe. She does not reach there. Her journey was long and winding. The cold, for a start. Her background, for another: remember the date. Impoverished, underfed, thin and alone. Then she collapsed on the train from the cold. Weak heart, the doctor said.
Here we have a story in itself: a dancer, with a weak heart.

She was offered a bunk for the night, she could not afford one herself. She accepted; the man slept outside. In the morning she woke to the implications. There would be a price to pay; this was her life, as accessory, as a woman alone. And yet, we learn, on paying the price it was her first time. The man was aghast, after all, he had expected….
He hoped he had not hurt her – because, of course, at the time he would not notice the pain, blood; he would be enjoying himself.
And here Graham Greene gives her a classic line: ‘Well, it was no picnic.’

There is an anomaly in the story-line: Richard John, the schoolmaster, had joined the train at Ostend. He attended to Miss Musker when she collapsed. And yet he then joined the train in Cologne. Had he got off for a snack, and most importantly, a newspaper? It is not clear; he had been drifting off to sleep at the end of the previous chapter as the conductor announced the station arriving: ‘Koln, Koln, Koln’.

One of Graham Greene’s greatest failings is his naivete in certain matters. One of those matters is Mabel Warren, British journalist, based in Europe. It is she who recognises the person behind Richard John.
The problem here, you see, is that Mabel Warren is gay. A later conversation with her companion journeying to meet her uncle, centres on ‘But what can she do, a woman like that?’
The male prurience.
‘Kissing.’ Answers her companion, ‘Endless kissing.’ This sense of impotence is assumed of gay love.
And yet, it is also in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the fair youth, the sense of physical need but complete lack of means. Shakespeare, as the 1920s, was fully aware of the possibility of a complete gay relationship.
Graham Greene shows a degree of squeamishness with the physical. He counters this with a slightly over-the-top worldliness; but here, as we see, he was out of his depth.

So, what of Richard John, schoolmaster? And where exactly was he travelling?
He said Vienna, but Mabel’s news nose told her, Belgrade. And his real name was Dr Czinner. A medical doctor, hence his aid to Coral Musker, but one who had realised the people of his country needed greater help than medical. They needed political help.
The threat that was turning Europe upside down was the recently established Soviet Union. It was still  in its internationalism phase.
Richard John/Dr Czinner was returning to head an uprising. Only, it had already happened, and failed, he discovered in his newspaper. And he was trapped on this train heading into who knew what reprisals.
For Mabel here was a front page story.

And then we come to Carleton Myatt. Myatt was travelling all the way, on business. He was wealthy. Well, he would be, because Graham Greene takes every opportunity, and more, to tell us that Myatt is… A Jew.
I expected… I had to check the date of publication several times… that the atrocious Nazi race propaganda was at work here, seeping through into every aspect of professional life. But 1932, and written 1930-1?
Myatt cannot help his race’s splayed hands gesture, we read; he catches himself at it. At the end of the book he is asked to be charitable, he answers to the effect that I am a Jew, Charity is a Christian virtue.
What utter and obnoxious nonsense is this?
So why did he give his bunk, indeed his First Class ticket, to Coral Musker at the beginning? She assumed there was a price. That particular price. Because that was what was expected of a poor working woman. But he did not expect it; companionship would have sufficed. All to do with reading social expectations.
But what did Graham Greene give us with Myatt? A caricatured stereotype. He attempted to get inside the man, but could not get around this gargoyle he had made, and was busy shoring up.
More importantly, why did Myatt pay over the odds for a car journey back to Subotica, to search for her?

Because Coral, and Dr Czinner, were arrested at an out of the way station near Subotica.
Subotica was just over the border into Yugoslavia/Serbia. Next stop was Belgrade. The military were waiting for him. He saw them coming and slipped a letter to Coral. It was seen.

I suspect we are to read that Coral goes out of the frying pan into the fire, at the end. She is rescued, but by the newly deserted Mabel. Mabel wants the exclusive on the news story, naturally. But she was also quite taken with Coral.
Good luck to them, I say.

And that is an indication of how deeply the reader invests with the characters. So when we get such a crass caricature like Myatt, we either react against book and author, or we wonder about the moral responsibilities of the writer of realist fiction.
The anti-semiticism, I read elsewhere, is to reflect attitudes prevalent in Europe at the time. And yet the internal dialogues Graham Greene gives us is of one who’s very essence is based around this attitude.
Are we to read sociologically, here: is it that it is one’s environment makes one? It is difficult to determine how much of the public attitudes to his Jewishness en route is Greene, and how much observation.
Then what of Graham Greene’s Catholicism? It is shoe-horned clumsily into the story at points, that stretch credibility, like shoe leather. Does it make a fit?

That we are to read it sociologically is backed up by the character of Dr Czinner. He was the one who described Coral as having a bad heart. His reaction we then read in hindsight. She had a bad heart partly through poverty, poor and irregular meals, the circumstances of her trapped position in life. All these had turned him from a doctor to a political fighter.
It is from that initial kindness of his that she took the smuggled letter. She was subsequently held, questioned, and was to be deported. Back to the clamouring for bit parts again at stage doors. As it is….

There are humourous interludes in the book. One led to a brief legal case: was the character of cockney popular writer Q C Savory originally a poke at J B Priestley? He thought so. The character was re-written later.

Graham Greene described the book as a deliberate attempt to make money by tailoring it to popular reading, and film, taste. In succeeded on both counts.
Such a motive does indeed work in your favour sometimes.
We also read here the dangers of courting popular tastes: did Graham Greene reflect what he saw, or further promote bigotry by writing about it so pointedly, and without any form of condemnation? Once again, the question of responsibility.

The writer, publisher and all-round good man Richard Livermore has very pertinent comments to say on this issue:
There is nothing in the rule-books which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.

For more on Richard Livermore, and I urge you to go, see: http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html

JUDAS, by Amos Oz, Chatto and Windus, 2014.

WARNING: Contains Spoilers.

A most interesting and intriguing novel.
It is full of story parallels, deft discussion, of sense of place and time. Amos Oz has a wonderful way with description, sense of place, with character, mood.

1
It was the winter of 1959. The setting is as much the major character as the others in the book: it is Jerusalem, just ten years after Independence.
This is the real story.

There is the story of post-graduate student Schmuel Ash, Schmuel had to leave his studies, his finances had fallen through. That is a story in itself. And then there is the matter of his girlfriend: she had left him and gone back and married her previous boyfriend.
Schmuel joined a strange household that provided board and lodging, a little income, for providing in turn company for an aged man, Gersham Wald.
It was an old house, in the extreme west of the city. Also in the house was Atalia. Atalia had married the man’s son; the son died early in the War of Independence. Her father was known as ‘the traitor’. He had been a top Zionist, a member of the council, but resigned at the outset of setting up the State of Israel, for advocating Arab friensship.
His story is most fascinating; he offered an alternative to the State, the possibility of harmony with the Arab population. It was an opportunity missed. Could it have worked?

All is speculation.

Schmuel’s dissertation topic was Jewish Views of Jesus. His research led him to believe that Judas was the only true believer in Jesus, the one and only true Christian. All the other disciples had denied him at that crucial time. All but Judas. Yet Judas was the cause for all future anti-semitism. Judas was the true believer, yet also the traitor.
Like Atalia’s father.
What is suggested here, is that it is possible her father’s ideas for co-habitation, sharing, were the true ones.
All is speculation.

Jerusalem in winter.
It rained nearly every day; it was bitterly cold at times. Schmuel walked the night streets constantly, sometimes with Atalia, often alone. They walked through Gehenna: We’re in hell, he said to her. Aren’t we always? she replied. They went up on Mount Zion to catch the sunrise, it was bitterly cold; a soldier was on guard at King David’s tomb. He had been there all night.
Shots rang out: there was always a sniper over the border hoping for a lucky hit, no matter what time of night or early morning. And there were borders everywhere in the city.
We are constantly made aware of the barbed wire, the nearness of borders, the ruined Arab villages.

There are presences, missing, but brooding constantly: the son and the father, Micha and Abravanal. And of course over all there was the living presence of David Ben-Gurion, and his vision of the Israeli State. Like the Christian Trinity.

Over all is winter, and its sense of aridity. This sense grows throughout the book: Atalia and Micha had no children; Gersham Wald’s child Micha was dead. The way he died, Atalia found out much later and by accident, was horrific; she could never shake it. Neither she nor Gersham could sleep at night afterwards.She could never have another lasting relationship. Schmuel’s own relationship, and it is hinted also with his family, had broken irreparably and thrown him back into his self-enclosedness, as epitomized by this household he had retreated into.
We see this in the Socialist groups Schmuel was a part of at the university. They would meet and have discussions at the workingmen’s café, and yet the closest they ever came to the working people a table or two away was to timidly ask for a light.
Part and parcel of all this in the novel’s context is the image of Abravanal,  Atalia’s distant and unapproachable father, whose message could have saved all, and yet who neglected his family: the universal that fails the personal.
And so we come to the present state: Gersham Wald, Schmuel’s aged companion, speculates and argues fruitlessly and endlessly with old sparring partners over the phone every day. All is arid, without fruit, without a future.
This is also a metaphor for embattled Jerusalem, surrounded by enemies. The mood only lifts once Schmuel leaves the city.

We can read this as the State of Israel itself, surrounded by enemies, without friends or allies, or  recognition. A State completely cut off from all, and friendless.
The State of Israel, 1959.
2
All through the book Atalia is described as eminently desirable, yet unattainable. She is a strong woman, a property owner, and works for her living. Is she Israel in potential, with their lost future?
This could be a criticism of the book. Atalia must always be dependent on male interest, she cannot live for herself. They flock around her; every reference to her by others and the author is coloured by this. Amos Oz is trying to write a strong independent woman character – is it the society he places her in, she is part of, or is it the author’s opinion also, that she cannot be allowed her own place in the world? Her missing partner always throws an imbalance to her existence. Is Israeli culture so inflexibly male-dominated?

On one level this is a story all about alpha males: Avaranal was ousted, and so turned bitter and retreated into himself. David Ben-Gurion won the narrative-of-the-State contest. Atalia can do little but serve the failing father.
Schmuel is an interesting foil, he is passive, and has a carer personality, he learned to his surprise. To Atalia he becomes another male to be cared for as he fell badly, and was laid up for a couple of weeks. Her response to this is not resentment, for she is intrigued by him, his passivity, and also his enthusiasm.

On another level the book is all about Big Narratives. they figure prominently. It was when Schmuel espoused his theories that his previous girlfriend had taken him to bed; it was when he told Atalia of his thesis that she responded. Avaranal and Gersham Walt were tied together not just as fathers in law, but over the theory of the State of Israel. All their fates, Micha as well, are all bound up in David Ben-Gurion’s theory of the State.

Schmuel’s thesis got to the point where he thought Judas was only the only disciple who truly believed in Christ’s divinity. He engineered the crucifixion, in Jerusalem, as incontrovertible proof. It failed, he thought.
On the level of parallels, we see here that Avaranal’s ‘dream’ of co-habitation, harmony, like the love that Christ preached, as ultimately failing also.
Which leaves them with… a moment-by-moment piecemeal arrangement, peace and war: and hoping the peace lasts longer than the fighting.
But the heart had gone out of it: on the ruined Arab village there had been attempts to build a hall. It was unfinished, restarted and again unfinished. The heart, the sense of reconstruction, had gone out of it.
3
Reading through online reviews of the book I was amazed at the intemperate language  used; it was downright vicious in places. Many clearly had no idea of the aesthetics and concerns of novel-writing, they were using their platform to hit out at the author. He was accused of being a neo-Marxist, or anti-Zionist, of giving the State of Israel a bad press, of toadying up to anti-Israeli Western media. A traitor.
That is what the book is about, that word Traitor. It can be a product of hindsight, of present actions; it can also, the book claims, have positive intent that is turned by events.

All this is very much the battened-down attitude of a State under attack: there can be no nuanced, open discussion; there can be no questioning voices.
There is a similar attitude in Russia at the current time.
These are the tactics of States still fighting for their legitimacy. How long will it take?
All the more imperative to open those discussions, questions, nuances now.

See also: Days of Ziklag, by S Yizhar, 1958.http://www.ithl.org.il/page_14274

see also What is Happiness/Wat Is Geluk?

http://derrenbrown.co.uk/

Derren Brown, the magician, mentalist, entertainer, has recently published a new book: Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine, Bantam Press, September 2016.

A Sunday newspaper reviewer of the book that I read was being either deliberately obtuse, or just plain ignorant in his write-up.

If I was to ask you what you thought of happiness, 10 to 1 you would say something like I did: something to do with fun, friends, good times.
Lack of worries comes into it. Control of one’s life is not something occurs immediately, but it is what it mostly amounts to also.  And also, as the current mood has it, of giving up that control if the fun-factor is high enough.
In other words our ideas of happiness are mostly tied up in the life-style tropes that ads feed us. At the heart of the marketing is this equation:

Happiness = Wealth, Youth, Health
In that order.

We can only be happy if we have plenty of money.
We can only be happy if we are young.
Health, well, we need that to do and enjoy all the extreme sports, the trail hikes, the yachting? we see as necessary to be happy.
Because happiness is, to use a metaphor, about bungee jumping into excitement, extreme experiences. Preferably somewhere sunny, hot: a tropical setting.

So, what did Derren Brown say happiness is? The reviewer pinned it down as something like ‘constant contentment.’
Couldn’t be more different.
All excitement – slippers and cocoa.

Derren Brown wrote how he hates being a magician – he has seen the reception side of trickery and it’s no fun. He hates the big production showman deals. He admires the skill, the craft, oh yes, but it’s the message. Or the lack of message. The message is usually Admire Me! Or production-line entertainment.

Derren Brown is a thinker; for him everything must have a meaning, a purpose.
His latest shows in particular, have all been to do with empowerment. That is, empowerment of people, ordinary people: the passive audience, who have stumped up the money for the travel and the show.

In his latest show MIRACLE, he implores the audience to consider their moment in time, their uniqueness; to consider the miracle of their genetic heritage and the millions of risks and successes throughout millennia that have led from the beginnings of life itself, to themselves at that precise moment. How they are all part of that.
It is, he says, miracle on miracle we are here , and also here now in this theatre.

For Derren Brown happiness is not what we have been sold.
We desperately need another narrative than the one we have taken on board without realising, and on which we still base our ideas of fulfillment, success, happiness.
He wants to provide an alternative narrative.

His narrative is by no means The Answer.
His narrative is meant as a corrective to the Wealth,Youth, Health equation.

Happiness is not about spending loads of cash.
Happiness is not all about running around on tropical beaches.
Happiness is not about being a morally vacuous and patronising vacationer, in places where locals are in awe of out Western ways, our wealth. OK, that last bit’s mine.

The narrative he is putting across could well be the one we need most in post-Brexit Britain.
It is about valuing what we have, our uniqueness, our quirkiness, our ‘character.’
It is appreciating what is in front of us, around us, here, now.
And it is not about hopelessly, endlessly yearning  for that other that costs so much in money, air-pollution, and political and cultural harm to other countries. And that bit’s mine, too.

Derren Brown’s book is about the need to re-evaluate, re-think, re-consider ourselves, our lives, our communities, our world, and our places in the world.

 

 

THE FLOATING CASTLE, by Karen Margolis, 2012. £3.59.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Floating-Castle-Karen-Margolis-ebook/dp/B008A661LI/

castlep

The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.

 

2016-09-06-13-39-15

Negative Energy, by Richard Livermore.
24 Essays and Blogs. Elefantasia Press, 2016

ISBN: 976-1911357-17-9                  Price £.7.99 (Postage free in the UK)

The book can be purchased from:
Richard Livermore, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh, EH3 6HN, Scotland, UK.
livermore.chanticleer.richard@gmail.com

 

Richard Livermore should be better known.
He founded and edited Chantecleer Magazine, and its later online form Ol Chanty:

http://www.chanticleer-press.com/

He has been active in the literary and poetry worlds for many years. He is a seasoned campaigner for wider dissemination, deeper understanding, for the neglected and the deserving of better readership.
But he never shies away from the difficult questions, the tricky areas.

Aficionados of literature, poetry, film, philosophy, culture will feel very at home in the world of this book.Why? Because

This Is The Book For You!

 

2016 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
I mention this in this context because my favourite essay so far in this collection contains a wham-bang essay on Shakespeare. He opens by questioning Why he was never given a place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

What he gives us in response is SHAKESPEARE AND THE QUESTION OF LEGITIMATE POWER.
In this mere eight pages he takes us through the pungency of Shakespeare’s response to power as he found it in London under Elizabeth 1, and earlier claimants. He shows how Shakespeare ran the gamut of realisations from Timon of Athens, to the big three of Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear. This he argues persuasively was a zeroing-in on the subject of the nature of power itself. Timon, he writes was about money as power; no, the real kick came when Shakespeare found a way around censorship via history, other cultures, to look at, pull apart, expose the gaining, use and abuse of political power.
This is why Shakespeare was difficult to domesticate. He had to be ‘bowdlerised’ as one term has it; he had also to be rendered benign through academic study modules.
That is why it takes an essay like this, outside of the academy, to reveal just how much Shakespeare pushed perceptions; how he threw it out into the open, to the populace, to people outside privilege and court circles.

I wrote above that essay was my favourite ‘so far’. Admit it, our likes, our desires, change. They grow develop. Or do they? Is the pack just reshuffled after a time? Time, yes. Time is the problem. What happens to us over time?
Some have attempted road maps (of the soul) for us. Whether they are religions, philosophies, politics or ethical systems, the intent is similar: how do we navigate our combined lives through time, in our shared space?
These essays and blogs take us through these invented landscapes searching all the time for that thing that makes our lives. He has his own particular criteria.

A close second on the Shakespeare essay/blog is EPIC PERSPECTIVES.
Being challenged can be one of our greatest pleasures, as well as spurs to learning, to knowing. In this piece Richard Livermore brings us to that body of writing I have long wanted to dive into and swim, The Mahabharata. In this instance it is Carole Satyamurti’s version. His love for the work is obvious on every page, and it illuminates the text.
The Mahabharata is, of course, another way of navigating time and space. This time it does not follow on the Greek/Classical rationalism method, but uses an older means, that of story. It is an unfolding story, series of stories, though, and this is important: it is not a static, rendered-into-text, finished product. The stories went out into the villages, were added onto, changed, re-valued. What we have here is one-off screen-shot of The Mahabharata’s vast complex of stories.

Think Game of Thrones has twists and turns, and conniving and general skullduggery? Try The Mahabharata. The difference is that The Mahabharata has Dharma, it has a through-line of purpose, intent, that is responsive to current and contemporary situations. G R R Martin certainly knows his predecessors.

On the topic of time, duration, and identity, Richard Livermore takes us through the book  Difference and Repetition, by Giles Deleuze, in his essay DELEUZENARY STATES
It is necessary for any thought-traveller to have some grounding in Deleuze (and Gatari), and this essay is an excellent place to begin. We encounter Kant as a major contributor. Kant occurs throughout the essays and blogs: his contribution to modern thought is given due recognition.

What do you think of democracy? That sacred cow of the enlightened Western world: Do not touch; do not question; just accept it as the best we have to offer.
Well, is it?
Richard Livermore writes: ‘Personally, I would  extend the notion of democracy and limit it at the same time.’ You see, it is possible to think further, think round corners, look at democracy from other sides, angles, and not just the big sell part. In our small worlds of personal interactions, equality and diversity etc, it has proved invaluable. On the big stage it can take on an appearance as lumbering, out-dated.  ‘A means to an end, and not an end in itself.’ he writes. Once an idea, a political ideal, becomes realised it is limited by its success, its existence, even. We sit back: the work is done. It is never done, though, is it. Democracy is just a station on your way, to quote Leonard Cohen.

So what does he mean by Negative Energy? It is part of an equation with positivity. Positivity denotes creating, building up, aspiration and achievement of promise. Negative Energy is not its opposite – that way of thinking, of universals, logical oppositions, contradictories etc is not helpful. Negative Energy is the energy released from the break-down, break-up, of ossified structures and systems. Sound familiar? Sound like someplace you know? The energy can be just as creative, just as vitalizing. The best of our works, our books, plays, symphonies we value as such because they give us the struggle of the breaking out and rebuilding.
It is quite a whoosh when you realise that!

The book is in no ‘particular order – chronological or otherwise’ Richard Livermore writes in his Preface. I see that as a strength, it gives the book a jewel box quality, full of surprises and sparkles, some dark, some glittering, some challenging our icons, some valuing them.
That is not to say there are no through-threads, themes, obsessions, even. There certainly are, and it provides us with a pleasure to find topics occurring in unexpected places.

We glimpse a very human heart and mind at work here behind the essays and blogs on film, opera, novels, plays, poetry, philosophy, science.
Here are our cultural nodes and political moods, explored and unraveled for us. For us to carry on the work.

The Collapse – The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. By Mary Elise Sarotte.
Basic Books, 2014. ISBN 9780465064948

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I want to recommend a great recent book on the story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. (This piccie of the cover does not catch the eye and face of a border guard peering through the gap in the Wall at the photographer.)  It’s a history book – but don’t let that put you off.

The author, Mary Elise Sarotte, is Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard, and Dean’s Professor of History at University of Southern California.

Another link worth following:http://www.katrin-hattenhauer.de/

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I’d like you to meet Harald Jager. He was born in 1943, the son of a Border policeman in what was soon to become East Germany. By 1964 he had entered the Border patrol himself.

What is special, in this story, about Harald Jager?

He was the senior Stasi employee on Bornholmer strasse Border Crossing Point, on the night of 9th November 1989. ‘He was essentially a record-keeper, one of the deputies to the senior figure…’ Mary Elise Sarotte writes.

He had begun work at eight that morning for a twenty-four hours’ stint at Bornolmer. He was the senior figure on duty. He was also very worried, to begin with: he had just had a test for possible cancer. He was nervously waiting for the results.

Gunter Schabowski, the Politburo member for the Media, had made a hasty announcement at the end of a tedious TV broadcast that evening. This end announcement was itself a hastily patched-together script; it couldn’t be examined by top Politburo people because they were tied up in internal wrangling. Nor could it be given assent by the Soviets because they were on extended leave celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

They all presumed it was bona fide, and gave it the nod.

What was it about, this script? The relentlessly growing pressure inside East Germany had forced the authorities into giving some kind of placatory announcement. But there were those, the hard-liners, favoured the China Approach: the Tiananmen Square resolution to trouble-causers. And there were the ones who called for more diplomatic solutions. The two were destabilising the already atrophied regime from the inside.

This script announced that East Germans would be able to travel outside, legitimately. But it was an emigration only exit. They must apply for permits of course. And here the regime thought they were being crafty: such permits would be difficult.

When would this come into effect?

Right away.

The gabbled announcement on TV – he had not read it through beforehand – seemingly handed to East Germans an exit visa. Not only that but the announcement named West Berlin, a rare occurrence in connection with travel. Especially during this period of great unrest: the Hungarian border-leak had been plugged; the Czech leak was causing great upset and putting even more pressure on the East German regime,

 

Harald Jager was senior man on duty that night. He had twenty-five year’s loyal service behind him.
Then people started turning up at the check point, demanding to be let through. They had heard the broadcast, and very few regime members had bothered to listen. Harald Jager had heard it – he was astounded.

People began to turn up in their hundreds. This was happening at every check point. The numbers grew all night long. They were peaceful, but insistent. Thousands came, and they were growing.
This was on the back of the huge demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden

In a centralised system like East Germany, all permissions had to come from above. Harald put through about thirty calls to his superiors that night: How do we deal with this?

And they had no idea. They tried all sorts of tactics, but outright denial of exit would most certainly make matters worse, turn a peaceful gathering of people into a potential danger.
All guards had received instructions months before not to fire unless attacked themselves.

One tactic the superiors suggested was take in the ring-leaders, the trouble-makers, as though processing for exit, then let them out – but do not allow them to return. They did this.

The trouble was people saw others getting through.

The regime had misread the people so badly: there were no ring-leaders; trouble-makers were just people who were more insistent, made more noise.

This made the pressure worse.

He rang his superiors again: What do we do? Harald’s superior patched him into a conference call: Don’t speak, just listen.

And what he heard was his superiors, out of touch, out of the loop of what was actually happening on the ground, questioning his abilities, calling him a coward. The connection was cut. Harald was left to himself, fuming, betrayed, abandoned.

We all know what happened, but it is the How that is most important. Read and find out.

Harald Jager in later life, at Bornholmer strasse:coll1

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This is just one of the fascinating, heartbreaking REAL stories contained in this book.
All are meticulously researched: many, like this one, are pulled together from  interviews cross-checked with Stasi phone transcripts.

What happened to Harald? In unified Germany he had no job. He managed odd work here and there. Then he retired, on a meager pension.

Oh, and his cancer tests proved negative.

Many East German dissidents felt let down by the unification. Some felt that a greater democratisation was already on its way. Think of Gorbachev and his modernisations, his Glasnost etc. But the Czech and East German regimes opposed them. This disunity played its part in the communications failure of 9th November 1989.

Some dissidents hoped for – and I have read this recently as well – that the new Germany would combine the best of both East and West. In the event they felt, rightly, they had been steam-rollered by the Western powers. I had hoped this would happen too: creating a new European model – ah, the old dialectical synthesis idea, how it lingered.

One of the many commendable aspects of this book is how Mary Elise Sarotte has kept Western (USA, Britain, France) politicking out of the story. Hers is a story told by the participants, and they were the people on the ground, the streets.

Mary Elise Sarotte:

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Many talk of ‘tipping points’ in history. This seems a bit of a lazy idea: maybe it is that concepts of such a thing as ‘history’ gives birth to these things. History is the story the historian tells from the information of all sorts, in all forms, its nuances and contexts: history is in reality a scatter of information around several centres within an event time-frame. This posits a psychological angle on the presentation of history as history: the historian’s predilections. It is inevitable. How they get around this, I suspect, is why many seized on Derrida’s ideas so readily: history as the text of texts of texts: objective, measurable to some extent.

An identifiable tipping point is the construct of the historian.

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Wikipedia gives us the following; let’s use it as a footnote:

His claim to be the first to breach the Wall was questioned in 2009 when Heinz Schäfer, a former colonel in the East German army, claimed that he had opened his crossing at Waltersdorf in the south of the city a few hours earlier, which would explain the supposed presence of East Berliners in the area before Jäger opened his gate.[6]

Later life[edit]

Following the fall of the Wall, he was unemployed. In 1997, he was able to save up enough to open a newspaper shop in Berlin with his wife.[2][3] He has since written a book about his experience called The Man Who Opened the Berlin Wall.

The day after: 10th November, 1989, Bornholmer strasse Crossing Point:

Berlin, Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße

ADN-ZB-Roeske-10.11.89-Berlin: Rund eine Million DDR-Bürger besuchten am Sonnabend Berlin (West). An den Grenzübergangsstellen, wie hier an der Bornholmer Straße wurde zügig abgefertig. Vom Ministerium des Innern wurden seit dem 9. November weit über 10 Millionen Visa für Privatreisen und über 17 500 Genehmigungen für ständige Ausreise aus der DDR erteilt.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1118-017 / Roeske, Robert / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5424866