Category Archives: Book Review

Old Truths and New Cliches

Old Truths and New Cliches

Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Edited by David Stromberg

Princeton University Press – £20.00

When I went to heder as a boy and studied Akdamut, the poem for Pentecost, I was amazed by the verses which said that if all the skies were parchment, all people writers, all blades of grass pens, and all the oceans ink, these would still be insufficient to describe the mysteries of the Torah. That parable became my credo: the skies were indeed parchment, the grasses pens, and all people in fact writers. Everything that existed wrote, painted, sculpted, and sought creative achievement.

God is the sum of all possibility.

(‘Why I Write As I Do: The Philosophy and Definition of a Jewish Writer’)

Divided into three prime sections (The Literary Arts, Yiddish and Jewish Life and Personal Writings and Philosophy), this is a book which delves deep unto the ever meandering thought process of a most complex, and altogether endearingly restless mind.

Edited by the writer, translator and scholar David Stromberg, Old Truths and New Cliches traverses an array of occasionally dense subject matter. Ranging from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Jewish background in Warsaw, Poland, to philosophy and censorship, to literature and indeed, art itself: ‘’Artists, like plants, must have roots, and the deeper the soil, the deeper the roots. Art is the opposite of analysis. Sometime, five-year-old ‘’wunderkinds’’ show great powers in mathematics. But there is no prodigy in literature or painting – not even in composition. At the moment when art tears itself away from its soil, it becomes technical, difficult, pretentious, and tedious’’ (‘Old Truths and New Cliches’).

How exceedingly spot on and accurate.

Like George Orwell, Singer always spoke and shot straight from the hip of potentially, inflammatory telling it, as it so desperately needs to be told. The former from a more politically induced premise, with Singer from that of more literary persuasion.

Both writers heavily endowed with the ability to bequeath a menagerie of wonderful one-liners. The top four herein being:

Real art touches the thing in itself, the very essence of being and creation.

The Hitlers, the Mussolinis, and the Stalins turn to dust, but the works of the spirit are ever imbued with new life.

Intellectual prodigies are rare, but when it comes to feelings, we are all prodigies.

The wicked sit day and night in a theatre, eat pork, and sin with loose women.

There’s enough material amid these 205 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) to provide the likes of Woody Allen with a further trilogy of scripts. Even The Ten Commandments isn’t free of critique: ‘’But Mr. Moses is naive if he expects the world to take his commandments seriously. They will be read and forgotten, unless Holywood decides to make them into a movie… (‘The Ten Commandments and Modern Critics’).

Spontaneous, to the point and witty, simultaneously complex and multi-varied, Old Truths and New Cliches doesn’t make for yer every day reading. There again, Isaac Bashevis Singer doesn’t make for yer every day writer.

David Marx

Orwell & Empire

Orwell & Empire

By Douglas Kerr

Oxford University Press – £25.00

His political ideas were fairly unformed; it would be more accurate to speak of his political emotions.

(‘Class’)

On the whole the literary history of the ‘thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics.’ Politics, meanwhile, will not keep out of literature. The novel, in particular, was the canary in the political coal-mine, because it could only breath in an atmosphere of freedom of thought. In the age of totalitarian dictatorships which seemed to be coming, ‘literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death.’

(‘Literature’)

Rumour has it that the despicable Boris Johnson has a desire to return to journalism.

If such be the case (and I, for one, sincerely hope not), he’d be well advised to heed the following: ‘’Orwell was becoming a professional writer, and no doubt he was on the look-out for good copy. But more importantly, he was trying to unlearn superiority, and to see things from the underside’’ (‘Class’).

Where class per se, along with recurrent, prime-time ignorance, has always been Britain’s quintessential downfall (one need look no further than the country’s current, pending disaster), this book – perhaps by default – sets the record straight.

There again, Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, has always set the record straight. In fact, he is renowned for having done so; while in the ultimate big scheme of things, Orwell & Empire is no exception.

By focusing on the writer’s work that derives directly from Orwell’s Burmese years – which include such narratives as ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ it has to be said that nigh every avenue amid this book’s 167 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) culminates with an exploration unto humanistic honesty and fair-play. Former British traits some might say, which the current Prime Minster knows absolutely nothing about. And Orwell (perhaps inadvertently) everything about: ‘’But when Orwell returns home from Barcelona, he finds a country outside narrative, living its immemorial ways, perilously unaware of what is going on in the world, ‘sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England. It would take a war to wake her up.’

Indeed it would. Indeed it did.

Frank, to the point and written from a stand-point of exceedingly well researched knowledge, Douglas Kerr has herein written a fine contribution to be placed alongside the ever increasing pantheon of Orwellian induced literature. As Kerr unconditionally states: ‘’This book puts the powerful oriental dimension in George Orwell’s work in the foreground. I am aware of the negative connotations of the word ‘oriental’ for most modern readers, its association with mastery, selection, and prejudice. But my aim is to show how Orwell struggled all his life, and not with complete success, to exorcise the Orientalism […] which came with his Anglo-Indian patrimony.’’

Upon reaching the end of this book, said ‘patrimony’ appears to be the least of Orwell’s protracted trajectory.

David Marx

Travellers In The Third Reich

Travellers In The Third Reich –

The Rise Of Fascism Through The Eyes Of Everyday People

By Julia Boyd

Elliott Thompson – £10.99

The German people, like their master,’ wrote Francois-Poncet, ‘combined an inferiority complex with a sense of pride.’

(‘Hitler’s Games’)

Why, one wanders, did Du Bois not point out more robustly the hypocrisy of Americans who, while expressing righteous indignation at the treatment of German Jews, were content to ignore the lynching and torture of African-Americans?

(‘Academic Wasteland’)

A more than interesting premise from which to historically grapple, this overtly readable/if not enjoyable book, sheds an array of politically illuminating light on a period of Germany’s history that was cloyingly calamitous to say the least.

But where Travellers In The Third Reich – The Rise Of Fascism Through The Eyes Of Everyday People really comes into its own, is the extent to which it (perhaps inadvertently) substantiates how much of the horribly English class divide, was responsible for turning a blind-eye.

A seethingly calculated blind-eye might one add, to what was fundamentally taking place right under Hitler’s altogether ghastly watch during the thirties.

As much is nigh wholeheartedly brought to bear in the aforementioned chapter ‘Academic Wasteland,’ where Julia Boyd writes: ‘’There were of course professors […] who genuinely sympathised with Nazi ideology and eagerly sought to identify with the regime. But many other academics chose to travel in the Third Reich because Germany’s cultural heritage was simply too precious to renounce for politics, however unpleasant those politics might be. They allowed their reverence for the past to warp their judgement of the present. As a result they wilfully ignored the realities of a dictatorship that by 1936 – despite the Olympic mirage – was unashamedly parading itself in all its unspeakable colours’’ (my italics).

Moreover, what I really like about Boyd’s enticingly understated writing, is how every now and then, she is able to establish the degree to which history really does repeat itself before our very eyes.

If we’re prepared to open them that is.

For instance, just how exceedingly pertinent is the following in direct relation to Boris Johnson’s current abysmal excuse for a government: ‘’Tugged by forces within and without, by foreign powers and foreign money-lenders, industrialist plotters, embittered generals, impoverished landed gentry, potential dictators, refugees from Eastern Europe, the government reeled from crisis to crisis, within a permanent crisis’’ (‘The Noose Tightens’).

As Lucy Lethbridge has since written in The Tablet: ‘’This absorbing and beautifully organised book is full of small encounters that jolt the reader into a historical past that seems still very near.’’

To be sure, much of Julia Boyd’s writing appears to float like the quintessential butterfly, yet sting like an over zealous bee; which, given some of the perplexing subject matter herein, is no mean feat.

David Marx

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy –

Memoirs Of A Working-Class Reader

By Mark Hodkinson

Canongate – £16.99

History has not recorded how A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines was added to the school syllabus in the early 1970s, but it had a remarkable and lasting impact and was the bridge by which these young teachers and teenagers could cross and meet. It changed my life. Billy Casper, the book’s protagonist, was the definitive emblem of a ragged generation. Everyone knew a Casper – half-boy, half-pigeon, disowned by his family and school, left to hobble through life in a ten-bob anorak and half-mast trousers. Viewed from a modern perspective and an improved standard of living, Casper can appear an exaggerated literary creation, but he was real and he was was everywhere.

(Chapter Four)

I’m not sure how, but Italians do philosophical and ridiculous so well, often within a few pages or scenes in a film. They are always either thinking or talking or eating, sometimes all three at the same time […].

(Afterword)

As an avid reader and musician myself, there’s rather a lot I can appreciate and relate to within the 351 pages of this book.

Be it the variant choice of material proffered, such as the literary dissertation and thought(s) of the above two opening quotations; or the musical appreciation of ye agonisingly suave-cool-Mancunian band, The Smiths: ‘’The heavy boot of conformity was crushing in the early 1980s. Unemployment was high and self-worth low, especially among young people. Accept what you’re offered, boy, no matter how measly. How lucky you are, was the message. And then Morrissey appeared, fully formed, this lanky, lisping hero, dressed in a big girl’s blouse, wearing National Health glasses, beads around his neck, warbling and grunting and singing quite beautifully on Top of the Pops‘’ (Chapter Ten).

But where No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy – Memoirs Of A Working-Class Reader kind of leaves me a tad off kilter (tad, in and of itself, being a word the author makes a point of not necessarily warming to), is it’s adjacent tract of diary in direct relation to the author’s grandfather.

A clearly colourful character admittedly, whose occasionally poignant presence, I personally found got in the way of that which the book’s title suggests.

That aside, there are numerous nuggets of daring demeanour, wherein the trajectory of Mark Hodkinson’s elongated control of meandering thought are a delight to both behold and embrace.

A particularly pertinent example being when he himself quotes one Terence McKenna in chapter fifteen: ‘’If we as a community believe in anything, we believe in feeling good in the moment. The felt presence of immediate experience. This is what has been stolen from you. By capitalism, by religion, by linear thinking, by strategising. We’re always about to be happy. Or we’re about to be free. And while we’re about to be free and about to be happy, life passes us by. This is because western ideologies are always ideologies of delayed gratification. It comes after death, after retirement, after coitus. It’s always after something that it comes. Well, I’ve got news for you, this kind of thing is chasing your own tail. The felt presence of immediate experience is the only world you will ever know. Everything beyond that is conjecture and supposition.’’

Philosophical food for thought or what?

And how about the sheer (personal) honesty of the following: ‘’I have a particular dislike of poetry when spoken aloud. As soon as I hear the first gathering breath of a poet I snap off the radio. If I’m caught by surprise at an event and a poet is summoned to the stage wafting pieces of paper, I feign illness to escape the room – get me out of here, a poet is on the loose. I am wary of anyone self-identifying as a ‘poet’; it feels such an indulgence, a job or role made up on the spot, the same as claiming to be a talker or a watcher. Poetry is the easiest art form to undertake but the most difficult to master. Only poetry can be both conceited and corny at the same time’’ (Chapter Twelve).

As Benjamin Myers has since been quoted as saying: ‘’With verve, insight and perfectly-captured period detail, Mark Hodkinson reminds us that not only are books sacred objects that should be available to everyone, but also that working-class voices remain more marginalised and under-represented than ever.’’

In relation to such books as the aforementioned A Kestrel for a Knave, this is resoundingly true; whereas the excerpts concerning his grandfather ought to have perhaps made for a book in its own right.

David Marx

The Social Distance Between Us

The Social Distance Between Us –

How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

By Darren McGarvey

Ebury Press – £20.00

Could it be that Britain’s problem is not that there is a lot of poverty but that we keep putting rich and powerful people in charge of sorting it out?

MPs are now paid over £16.000 more than they were in 2010, while nurses, teachers and doctors are, in effect, paid less. The poorest women and children have seen their benefits slashed as a shrinking group of multi-billionaires, enabled by lax systems of taxation, increased their lion’s share of the spoils.

(Introduction)

Because you’ve got a big cheque book, doesn’t mean you’re right

(‘A Different Class’)

To say this is a substantially enlightening read, might be considered a gross understatement; especially if in Britain at least, one insists upon reading such right-wing newspapers as the purile (and ultra horrific) Daily Mail and Daily Express. For those who may thankfully resort to a more centrist if not leftist leaning media, Darren McGarvey’s The Social Distance Between Us – How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain still makes for an unequivocally, eye-opening read of a rather brutal yet at times, poignant persuasion.

The following excerpt from the chapter ‘Second Class Citizens, being one of (many) prime examples: ‘’Inequality is written into the education system’s DNA. The educational offer made to poorer children is not only inferior to that offered to middle-class kids but also subtly restricts their potential by constraining their aspirations as they slowly become adjusted to the idea people like them just don’t do certain things in life. When kids don’t see their peers succeeding, they learn something profound about their own place in the world. Children attending a school in a poorer community are placed at an immediate disadvantage and it is in the generational reproduction of this structural disadvantage that the education system derives a great deal of its ‘credibility.’

To think said DNA may change within a fraction of a fraction amid Britain’s education system – as a direct result of Boris Johnson’s supposed resignation last week – may be asking, if not hoping, for just a little too much. For as the blood hounds of colossal criminality continue to fight among themselves for the Tory leadership, so much of what has been most intelligently written herein, won’t unfortunately, even glean a second glance.

Such is the distance between the them and us.

[…]

The rich and poor.

[…]

The haves and have nots.

[…]

The horribly entitled and unwashed masses of visceral sufferance.

A mire if not a virus of continuing disgrace, that is both necessarily and haughtily brought to bear throughout these 368 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources and Further Reading, and Index): ‘’This book is about distance. The distance between the powerful and powerless. The affluent and the poor. A book about how their interests and values diverge, and the assumptions they make about each other’s experiences and intentions in the absence of any meaningful interaction from which to draw more accurate conclusions. The distance between media and the facts, and the chasms between the various political actors across the political spectrum and the working people they are currently making overtures to.’’

Just one of the many variant qualities that is so warming about McGarvey’s writing, is his piledriver insistence upon driving his point home – of which the following two excerpts are again, pertinent examples:

‘’To the extent that health care becomes a commodity it becomes distributed just like champagne. That is rich people get a lot of it. Poor people don’t get any of it […]. Perhaps the saddest aspect of life here is that the places many people associate with happiness, pleasure and connectedness also play a decisive role in their needlessly abbreviated lives’’ (‘Health’).

‘’But it’s the hypocrisy of it all that should really anger us. The blatant double standards of a political class, which has for the longest time enjoyed a parallel benefits system which not only distributes public money to them far more generously, in the form of subsidies, expenses and other entitlements, but also one where the rules in place around it are nowhere near as punitive’’ (‘Welfare Reform’).

To be sure, the ‘’culture karma’’ so currently resonant within British politics is perfectly placed centre stage wherein McGarvey states: ‘’put simply, if all the best people are in all the top jobs, why is Britain such a fucking bin fire?’’

Precisely.

According to The Guardian’s Nick Cohen: ‘’McGarvey is a rarity: a working-class writer who has fought to make the middle-class world hear what he has to say.’’

And even if ten per-cent of the middle-class – let alone the current corrupt cabinet – get to hear what he has to say, maybe we’ll ALL be just a little better off for it.

Here’s hoping.

A terrific book either way.

David Marx

The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth von Arnim

Oxford University Classics – £8.99

[…] and talking just like a church.

Mrs. Wilkins had no doubts, but she had fears; and March was for her too an anxious month, with the unconscious Mr. Wilkins coming back daily to his dinner and eating his fish in the silence of imagined security.

As with Virginia Woolf, there’s something indelibly correct about Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing. A certain je ne sais quoi which just cannot be argued with. Although the general tonality and original premise from which they both wrote, could, for whatever reason (a longing for adventure if not a partial slight of feminism perhaps) be perceived as having always pursued of a certain trait of escapism.

Regardless of how transient or temperamental, as the following might invariably suggest:

‘’In Paris there was no time to think of him because their train was late and they only just caught the Turin train at the Gare de Lyons; and by afternoon of the next day when they got into Italy, England, Frederick, Mellersh, the vicar, the poor, Hampstead, the club, Shoolbred, everybody and everything, the whole inflamed sore dreariness, had faded to the dimness of a dream.’’

Indeed, what is both interesting and captivating about The Enchanted April – other than the language and some of the imagery on display – is the undeniable humour that is so unquestionably immured in what is at best, a troubled trajectory of semi-intransigent subject matter. This is substantiated in this edition’s Introduction where Isobel Maddison writes: ‘’[…] ‘by using humour and whimsical domestic commentary to peddle a conservative cultural feminism,’ von Arnim brings ‘feminist fiction to the mainstream’ without alienating her readership, while acknowledging with genuine emotional generosity the complex realities of women’s lives.’’

A humour and deft, lightness of touch, regularly brought to bear throughout: ‘’The man with the lantern then made signs to them to follow him, talking loud and quickly, and Beppo, they noticed, remained behind. Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay.’’

Yet no matter how whimsical some of the writing may occasionally appear, there is an undoubted, strong torrent of vertiginous morality throughout The Enchanted April. A quality upon which the reader can almost lean on, if not definitely rely: ‘’The Great War casts a long shadow in The Enchanted April most obviously in terms of lost reputation, unfettered predatory clergy-men, and the pains of thwarted love. But, von Arnim handles the topic with a light hand in the main and, by redirecting the inevitable and lingering grief of young widows in the wider context on to misunderstandings about married women, and wartime disgrace to Mrs Fisher’s waspish gossip, the pill is sweetened sufficiently to maintain the comedy around which the novel is structured.’’

Anchored within the lives of four very different women, this overtly potent novel is endemic of the era in which it was written, whilst simultaneously timeless and all transcending.

David Marx

Yorkshire – There and Back


Yorkshire – There and Back
By Andrew Martin
Corsair – £20.00


Everyone’s either raving or mumbling monosyllabically.


Michael Parkinson would be another example. When, in 1977, he was riding high as a chat show host, Peter Cook said, ‘I think most people know by now that Michael Parkinson hails from Barnsley. I will donate £5 to any charity (unconnected with Barnsley) for every Parkinson programme that omits the word ‘’Barnsley.’’ I know it will be hard, Michael, but it can be done.


(‘The Professionals’).


What happened between Priestley and Hattersley was the war, in which Hull was the most heavily blitzed city after London, but at least the bombs dropped on London were meant for London. In the case of Hull, insult was added to injury by the fact some of the bombs were dropped by way of afterthought from German planes getting rid of surplus on their way home from bombing Liverpool. (And Bridlington suffered an even more demeaning fate, in that it got bombs left over after Hull).


(‘Larkinland: Hull’).


Nostalgic, informative, inviting, pleasant, attractive, mildly obsessed with ‘hard’ men as well as a keen purveyor of train talk, Andrew Martin’s Yorkshire – There and Back is many things. But one things for sure: it’s an outstanding read; and upon reaching the end (really quickly), I felt compelled to start all over again.


Or read more of his work.
Perhaps this is because so much of the above falls within the parameters of essentially being so to the point.


There again, this is a book about Yorkshire.
So would anyone expect anything less than something like the blunt honesty of: ‘’A Yorkshireman in the south will always take care to let you know that he regards you as inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the north that life is ‘real’ life, that the industrial work done on the north is the only ‘real’ work, that the north is inhabited by ‘real’ people, the south merely by rentiers and parasites’’ (‘The Professionals’).


Moreover, I partly read this book due to currently spending time in Hull – a city with a fine residue of poetry it would seem. And being something of a poet myself, I cannot help but feel compelled to investigate the city (a whole lot) further: ‘’Insofar as Larkin has been adopted by Hull, so he has also by Yorkshire. Andrew Motion finds in him ‘a very English, glum accuracy,’ which sounds to me like a Yorkshire quality. Surely it might also be used to describe the work of Alan Bennett?’’(‘Larkinland: Hull’).


Likewise, Yorkshire as a whole, which is why I’m heading to Leeds next week: ‘’In a way, Leeds is Yorkshire. It was known as ‘the city of a thousand trades’ and it has its finger in all the Yorkshire pies’’ (‘Many Stories Told’).


Followed by Scarborough the week after, followed by who knows thereafter…


As Barry Forshaw has since written in The Independent, this book is: ‘’iconoclastic, entertaining and often devastatingly witty;’’ which may partially explain why I’d like to read more of Andrew Martin’s work.


After all, it’s not often one stumbles across such a heart-warming and inspired read.


David Marx