Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer reading

Of all the millions of books in the world it is curious to think about what makes you choose the relatively few that you read in your lifetime. For instance, I was introduced to post-war Eastern European literature by the only student of mine to have actually given me a reading list. I was teaching an Access course in Buxton, Derbyshire some fifteen years ago and he was on my Monday evening history module. He did his project on literature and Stalinism. It was superb and, at my request, he produced an extensive bibliography with recommendations so that I could read more. I have been working my way through the list ever since, usually taking one or two novels with me on each summer holiday. He kept in touch for a short while, as many students do until their new lives overwhelm the old ones. A very short man, his last postcard was from the decidedly avant-garde art college where he was studying creative writing, saying that he was going out with a six-foot woman who had just written an oratorio about sperm.

Initially, my desire to read more was aroused by European politics and history. Instead, I found something more interesting. The literature that I read was actively and powerfully philosophical. Philosophy is central, certainly because these works were written in and about a society in which power was mediated through ideology. Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind put it stunningly effectively:

It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.

Writing about the impact and absurdities of ideological abstractions was an obvious and compelling act of dissent. However, there was something more in the books than moral and intellectual revulsion. These writers saw Stalinism as an existential crisis as much as a political one.

Communism was not just the projection of state power. The system was run by people, people survived within it, they constructed their lives in it. They grew up, married, loved, committed adultery, had children, and saw their parents die, all within a system that was both alien and familiar. They wrote about that system in different ways. Some prospered, some were spied upon and arrested, some forced into exile. Yet their censors and oppressors were other individuals who were also living and loving in the same world. It seemed to me that this whole body of literature was engaging with the unique individual contribution of people to the maintenance of oppression and the equally unique individual resistance to it. It was exploring a philosophy of people's relationship to the state at its most elemental - real life. It is the proper realm of fiction and is one reason why a politics that eschews literature will tend to sterility.

This year my reading was not from the list. Instead, its source was, indirectly, Will. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude, not only for directing me to the best and worst of the writing on the Internet and elsewhere, but also for inviting me to post at the Drink-soaked ones, thereby introducing me to the splendid writing of the other contributors. And this summer, I decided to read some of the published work of George Szirtes.

I have been dazzled by his themed collection of poems, The Budapest File, but I want to post on his superb translation of the extraordinary allegorical novel, Metropole, by Ferenc Karinthy. It is set in an urban dystopia and if you ever have those anxiety dreams where you endlessly search for something that you need but can never find, you can get the sense of the surreal edginess of the novel. The vast fictional city in which it is set is a familiar theme with distinct echoes of Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis. Though the book may have its roots in genres that either celebrate or reject urban, industrial modernity, I see older nightmares peeping through. As I read, the crowded, tormented figures of Hieronymus Bosch came to mind. This metropolis is a vision of a modern, secular hell. Hell is alienation and each isolated individual has their own individualised torment, which can only be glimpsed, rather than shared, by others – such as in the tears of the lift girl. For Budai, the protagonist of the book, his torture is the horror of being an expert linguist in a city where he can neither speak nor recognise any aspect of the language. This disables and disorients him as he struggles against an incomprehensible world into which he has suddenly and inadvertently arrived.

The hell of religion is eternal and inescapable and, at times, you are lulled into thinking that this is what Karinthy is writing. Budai throws his whole intellectual and physical energy into escape. He is frustrated at every turn, whether he uses his analytical mind, his cunning, or engages in rebellion, there appears little way out. Yet hope never dies as he searches for the clues or contacts that will release him. The novel seems to be saying that though escape is not easy and that secular hells may be resilient, they are not eternal and limitless. They are worldly and can be overcome. Slowly and patiently we can reach our heaven of happy human relationships, lived in freedom with open communication, the most ordinary of utopias. And a far from ordinary novel.

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