BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2020

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,  Trans. with Introduction and Notes, James Grieve, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (orig.1919)

In Volume 2 of Proust’s epic seven volume In Search of Lost Time, our narrator leaves childhood behind and is a teenager in love with every pretty girl who comes his way. The two key relationships are with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette and takes place in Combray. The he second is the elusive Albertine and takes place at a seaside holiday resort Balbec where the narrator’s escort is his grandmother. 

The complexities, embarrassments and misunderstandings of young love are all in play here and at the writing is engaging and provocative with the narrator’s gauche mistakes and overweening self-congratulation both entrancing and amazing the reader.  Along with “young girls in flower” we are introduced to some of the narrator’s male friends including the elegant Robert de Saint Loupe, the Jewish uptight and scheming genius Bloch, the landscape painter Elstir, and the writer Bergotte who appears to be a combination of Anatole France and John Ruskin.

Alongside the narrative of the narrator’s search for young love comes much deeply thoughtful commentary on art, literature, architecture, politics, sailing, philosophy and much else besides. At these points the reader can be distracted as Proust happily reverts from the first person to the third and as a “commentator on all the above themes” appears to be an unknown source of knowledge of artists and other ideas that appear to be well beyond even  the precocious and highly intelligent seventeen something year old narrator, ( Proust never reveals the age of his protagonist, enabling him the freedom to have things both ways!) This unresolved tension is a challenge for the reader who has to decide whether he is reading a love story or a lecture.

There are memorable thoughts and ideas on many of these pages and the reader is compelled to reflect on the vagaries of love of course, as well as changing life circumstances, life and death, common-sense and common kindness and self-knowledge. The honesty of “yawning all the way through the composition of a masterpiece (p.389); the recognition of complete egoism on p431; the discovery that Wisdom cannot be inherited, one must recover it for oneself on p.443; the realisation that we are inescapably alone in the world (p485) and finally and sadly, the conclusion that the best of things was not up to much! in resigning us to death. ((p.525).  We may or may not agree with Proust on these things but his powerful writing forces us to examine the questions. 

James Grieve’s translation is elegant, clear and very readable and his introduction and notes are first class. This is my second volume of Proust’s masterpiece and I am looking forward at the moment to the next volume.  5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,  London, Fourth Estate, 2001. 

GERALDINE BROOKS
YEAR OF WONDERS Geraldine Brooks’ first fictional novel

Australian born, now living in the USA, Geraldine Brooks has worked as a foreign correspondent around the world including six years in Islamic nations.  Year of Wonders was her first fictional novel and became an international success followed by many other impressive novels including Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord. 

The Novel is based around the 1665-66 bubonic plague outbreak in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The Anglican rector the Revd William Mompesson persuaded the whole village to lock themselves away from the rest of England with food and other requirements left at the edge of the village courtesy of the Earl of Chatsworth. This was an act of extraordinary generosity on behalf of the village and the death toll was vast.  When you drive in Derbyshire today you can still see the sign to Eyam, called “the plague village’.

Brooks has fictionalised many of the historic characters in her novel and introduced completely fictional characters and events in telling a gruelling narrative of the drawn out plague and its horrendous death-toll.  Anna Frith emerges as a patient, forgiving, and rather startling heroine and carries the story line of the novel, somehow managing to avoid the plague herself while supporting many others. The parallel with Camus’ famous novel The Plague is strong in the sense that, in both novels, the priest, while having some redeeming features, ends up badly (Paneloux in The Plague and Mompellion in Year of Wonders. 

Brooks’ historical research is impressive delving into lead mining in the area, C17th knowledge of witchcraft, herbal remedies and prevailing theological views of both Anglicans and non-Conformists.  It was an interesting novel to read during the Covid19 crisis here in Victoria and around the world. Although our scientific knowledge has been extended in giant steps since the C17th the world can still be brought to its knees by natural forces at present outside our ability to control. One potential weakness of the book in my view was the rather artificially contrived conclusion to 

Brooks is an amazing story-teller and this novel leaves a deep imprint on the mind.  5  stars.

Gustave Klimt Paintings and Drawings
Gustave Klimt
Tobias G. Natter, Editor of Taschen Book Gustave Klimt

Ed. Tobias G. Natter: Gustav Klimt: Drawings and  Paintings, Cologne, Taschen, 2012  

Mysterious and controversial Austrian artist Gustav Klimt comes to life in this gorgeously illustrated Taschen book which contains high quality presentations of nearly all of Klimt’s paintings and drawings.  Never married, Klimt fathered fourteen children from various lovers, had a long standing deep friendship with fashion designer Emilie Flöge,  moved through the classical mode to the avant-garde and became perhaps Austria’s finest artist along with his protege Egon Schiele. 

Klimt’s “golden period “ paintings including the The Kiss and his portrait of Vienna society lady Adele Bloch-Bauer stolen by the Nazis from the Altmann family and celebrated in the film Stealing Klimt, have been sold for some of the highest prices in the higher echelons of the art world.

Klimt’s portrait prortrayals of women range from the intensely accurate to the wildly erotic and aroused both outrage and esteem in equal quantities.  His landscapes with a strong impressionist influence are mesmerising and irresistable. Klimt was a secretive person in relation to  his own philosophy and central ideas but his paintings and drawings highlight the glory, fragility and  ultimately the tragedy of life from the hopes of new life to his unremitting and searing portrayals of old age and depression. 

Natter’s editorship includes essays from many thoughtful artists and critics, many  photographs of Klimt’s artistic and personal life, and a detailed biography and bibliography. As with all Taschen books, this book is itself an impressive work of art.  5 stars Tobias G Natter

Natasha Moore, with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh,   For the Love of God + – : How the Church is BETTER + WORSE than you ever imagined, p/b, Sydney, Centre For Public Christianity, 2019  (2020 Winner,  Australian Christian Book of the Year). 

Natasha Moore authored For The Love of God together with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh. This book won the award for the best religious book of 2020

This is one of the most tiring and uncomfortable, yet rewarding books I have ever read! But don’t let me put you off having a crack. It is tiring and uncomfortable because in several chapters the writer describes in withering detail some of the church’s most evil and shameful events and movements.  It is rewarding because of its stories of the impact of some exceptional Christian individuals, movements and historical impacts.

As for the worst of the church, we are all aware of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Papal indulgences, witch hunting,  wars of religion and child abuse in the modern church. We may be less familiar with the horrendous auto-da-fé and the abuses of the Jubilee year in the C14th. What we are probably not ready for is the relentless and detailed description of these horrors perpetrated and authorised by the church. This book never at any stage seeks to minimise these horrors. The writers do however reduce the scandal by detailed analysis which shows that millions more folk were killed and maimed by world wars, violent regimes and governments that regularly murdered and tortured their own people. The “religious wars” chapter is particularly enlightening to non-historians in showing that the issues were largely about territory and influence and that Catholics and Protestants fought as much together against foes as against each other.

As for the best of the church the book is demanding because the defence of the good achieved by the church has been based on actual live interviews with extensive quotations from some of the most influential and sharply minded philosophers, writers, theologians and researchers operating across the world’s cultural scene and major universities today. These include Karen Armstrong, Markus Brockmuehl, John Harris, David Bentley Hart, Edwin Judge, Marilynne Robinson, Rodney Stark, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Nicholas Wolterstorff and many more too numerous to name. All of these folk write carefully and thoughtfully. You cannot take shortcuts through their contributions. 

There are powerful and honest insights and stories about the Christian heroes of massive social change including the Knights Hospitaller, William Wilberforce,  

Luther, Tyndale, Bonhoeffer, the amazing  William Carey and his friends in Serampore India, Father Damien of the Molokai leprosy centre in Hawaii, Lord Shaftesbury, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King and many others.  In addition the role of Christian faith in relation to the “invention of charity”, the “invention of  humility”, the genesis of human rights, the importance of the “image of God” and the notion of a just war all receive careful and thoughtful analysis.

The appendices include a good section of Jesus’ words from the New Testament, a full  list of interviewees and a detailed index. I can see why this book won the 2020 award. It is brave, honest, deeply challenging and in the end powerfully encouraging. There is a film and a video series if you prefer! This book would be marvellous for a thinking Parish study group but not for faint hearts. 5 stars

Clive James: Collected Poems, 1958 – 2015: London, Picador, 2016  

Clive James
Collected Poems of Clive James

Clive James was a remarkable polymath, with varying degrees of fluency in seven languages..English, Italian, Japanese, Russian, French, German and Spanish.  His erudition and vast reading across the Western intellectual tradition and his skills in literary criticism, classical literature, poetry and literature review were substantial and included, late in life, a well regarded translation from the Italian of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. 

James’ professional interests included expertise in fields as varied as bike and formula 1 racing, music, drama, comedy and television and radio production and presentation. His television and radio interviews and analysis of culture were often extraordinarily funny. 

 Born in Australia, he lived most of his time in Britain but regularly visited Australia. He has degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge universities. James was a heavy drinker and smoker for much of his long life.

Collected Poems was assembled by himself and does not include a number of his longer poems. The poetry is varied, engaging and often complex with literary, classical and other allusions abounding. Luckily for the reader this collection contains detailed notes at the rear with  many explanations of his more scholarly and obscure references.

  His themes vary widely and he has an interest in interested people including many fellow poets.  He writes about Johnny Weissmuller, James Joyce, P.G. Burnam, Egon Friedell, Arthur Stace (the “eternity “ man, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. Poets he wrote about include Philip Larkin, Auden, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Donne, Shelley, Robert Lowell, R S Thomas, e.e.Cummings, Les Murray, Byron, Yeats, Ian Hamilton, Peter Porter, Whitman, amongst others.

Overriding themes in James’ poetry include a variety of Australian people and scenes , beautiful women and a large number of poems about his own impending death including remorse about his failure to live a more healthy life as well as remorse about relationships. I enjoyed reading these poems and gaining some understanding of the life, fears and skill of this man’s very full and long life. 4 stars.

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