Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

This is a lovely book. Wise, witty and restrained. It is a mixture of memoir, story and essay. The structure is based around the elements, each chapter dealing with one of them. The writer's training and career as a chemist provides the narrative flow and there is profound commentary on the nature of knowledge and science, and how they relate to human existence.

Later in the book, the writer reflects on the success of his Auschwitz memoir 'If this is a man', and how its fame affected his position as a working industrial chemist.

His style is unaffected and humane. All in all, a joy.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley

This is a very snappy, enjoyable read, with lots of tasty one liners. An example: "Strange how in America, in the 1950s, at the height of its industrial and imperial power, men drank double-martinis for lunch. Now, in its decline, they drank fizzy water. Somewhere something had gone terribly wrong."

Or, "His whole life was meetings. Did they have this many meetings in the Middle Ages? In Ancient Rome and Greece? No wonder their civilisations died out, they probably figured decadence and the Visigoths were preferable to more meetings."

Essentially, it is an extended satire with libertarian leanings on the cynicism of modern American media and communications culture. The story concerns the lead spokesman for the tobacco lobby and his emotionally stunted attempts to deal with the moral ambivalence of his job and motivations.

It is great fun and Buckley has a whale of a time making the point, again and again, that everyone has their price and that, as the lead character says, we all have to pay the mortgage. I think the band Dead Kennedys, in the 1980s, had a song called 'We are all prostitutes'. Same basic point. Everyone in this book is out for what they can get.

But this is an artful and clever book, though it sometimes reads like a film screenplay. It was made into a very successful film, so maybe that was always in the author's mind.

I chose to buy it after reading in one of those 'my week' type columns in the Financial Times that Buckley was a great writer. I think it was written by Malcolm Rifkind, of all people. That is the sort of incongruity Buckley himself would love.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Belle Epoque, those 20 years or so before the First World War, have long held a fascination for me. I have read Proust's 'In Search of Lost Time' twice, in different translations, which must testify something, as it is set in precisely this period. This book gives a new perspective on those 'vertigo years', as Europe spiralled into madness, as well as providing a delicately-woven tapestry of how objects and lives intersect over a century.

The book's central narrative concerns a collection of Japanese carvings - netsuke - and their history within the author's family. It becomes a beautiful and elegaic meditation on the nature of physical art and its relationship with real, human lives.

The Jewish family became wealthy in Odessa and Vienna and then fragmented under the intolerable pressures of Nazism. Any account of the Jewish experience of the Nazi years brings prickling to the eyes and this is no exception. But the author is dispassionate, using objects as the foundation of his story; this is very powerful and profoundly moving.

The British (and I venture to think, the American) reader today can only marvel at the international nature of continental Europe's intellectual life in the first half of the twentieth century. This awe-inspiring cosmopolitanism, when languages were not a barrier since everyone seems to have been fluent in at least three, is well described by Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, as well. Artistic sensibilities seem to have been heightened by this broad and flexible cultural legacy. Opera, music, art, poetry - all of them seem to have occupied a far greater slice of attention than they do in today's diffuse and cacophonous Anglo-American culture.

The custodian of the Japanese carvings at their time of greatest danger is virtually unknowable to the author as she was a servant. The information sources of family letters, legal documents and official records are simply not available in relation to her, as they are for her rich employers. This raises again the question that often, for this writer, emerges from accounts of the past. Is it only the rich, with the leisure and the opportunity that wealth affords, who can ever populate our history? I have often looked with astonishment at the intellectual achievements of people like, say, Charles Darwin or Bertrand Russell. But when you realise how privileged they were, you wonder what others with the same privilege might have done.

Today, it is remarkable how many famous people have famous parents. In acting, of course, it is very common. Is is simply that growing up in an environment ,where famous and brilliant people are around daily. imparts some confidence or lustre to the mind and ambition? I suspect so.

This is an utterly captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book. It is about travel, war, time, family and, most of all, the enduring nature of aesthetics for the human mind, in spite of all that the world throws against it.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

To the reader of today, one of the most interesting things about this well-paced and beguiling novel is that it was written in 1973. It makes a bold and intriguing effort to get inside the minds of the colonial settlers of the 1850s, as they wrestle with the consequences of the Indian Mutiny. But the reader of today is conscious of India primarily as the rising economic giant, where software and call centres grow with astonishing pace. The world's idea of India is having to be updated constantly. So the novel is a snapshot both of the time at which it is set, 1857, and of British attitudes to India at the time of writing.

The characters of the novel are drawn almost exclusively from the British colonial class and Farrell devotes a lot of intellectual energy to portraying their thought processes as they deal with a bloody and in many ways horrific uprising. Part of this artifice requires him to describe real horrors in the most mundane and workmanlike terms, reflecting the distant and incomprehending viewpoint of his characters. This is sometimes hilarious.

The all-consuming concern of some protagonists for doctrinal disputes within the Church of England, even in the face of impending death, is both amusing and, to the modern eye, almost satirical in its description. But it serves a purpose in reminding us that such matters were of real significance. After all, what are the equivalents in today's Britain? Whether the X Factor is better than Britain's Got Talent? Whether nuclear power should be eschewed?  What would we worry about if we thought we would be either violently murdered or starve to death within the next couple of days?

The description of the Victorian sensibility for progress and its virtues is excellent. Sometimes, the portrayal of the Victorian mind can seem somewhat caricatured. But this is a book of primary colours, and the story rattles along with a lot of humour while covering essentially inhumane and desperate events.

I liked it.