What to read next?
Each season we intend to post our Forest Bookstore recommended reads here: one old, one new, from either Anne and Allan or from invited readers.
Peirene’s Wonderful Idea.
Peirene Press’s publication list is like no other, and the success of its vision is both pleasing and exciting. Exciting, because its stated aim is to present ‘Contemporary World Literature. Thought provoking, well-designed, short.’ The TLS describes these as ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.’ Our discerning readers are keen to endorse these views, and after reading ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov – thanks to the recommendation of friend and customer, Sandy of Stow – so am I. Thanks, Sandy.
The blurb on the back cover almost tells you too much, and I’d advise against reading it fully. Suffice to say that it’s the story of the life of Yerzhan, told by him to a fellow traveller in a train. This traditional form of narration subtly adds to its effect, as the listener is educated and sympathetic – and very different to the teller. Yerzhan was born and has grown up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons have been tested. The effect of this accident of birth is to affect his life in a devastating way, and the environmental legacy of ‘The Zone’ is made acutely personal in his story.
However, it’s the ‘filmic’ quality of the book which will affect you right from the start. The description of landscape – of the endless Steppe, of ‘The Zone’, of what is seen from horseback – and of other characters and their way of life, is fascinating and strange. It’s a potent mix of tender and shocking, of auspicious and grim. Senses and
mind fully engaged in a brief, intense read.
Here’s a review from 2006, re-run for a favourite book.
Kathleen Jamie, Findings (Sort of Books, 2005)
Journey stories, stretched travel notes, woven bits of way-books, these are essays gathered and arranged for ear and eye by an assured poet. A particular texture of thought is revealed. We feel the slow-ed process of looking intently, or of listening deeply. There’s a rhythm to appearances – bird, web, bone – objects patterned in thought. Maybe it’s her caesura-styled essays, with their delays built-in, the gaps, pauses and turns in approaching her subjects which make the reading like seeing, like listening, like breathing itself.
North through “a smir of cloud” to Orkney. At mid-winter solstice, we drift, night-sailing, into wild intimacy of hope: the North’s darkness redeemed. Elsewhere, she observes rays of sunlight strike the underside of a male peregrine falcon “pale and banded like rippled sycamore”. She’s out to catch the veiled significance of everyday sights and sounds too: jackdaws sitting like pairs of shoes, hawks with attitude, duende even, one with “beak and talons buttercup-bright” after rain. That’s in blossom-clad Fife in colours of now unseasonal Earth. She watches for flickers at the edge of senses, skies, existence. The peregrine’s howling, its stoop or dive, is heard against fighter jets shearing the Leuchars sky – that “outrage of noise”.
The eponymous essay of the group gathers flotsam on Ceann Iar’s deserted island dunes, “a bleached whale’s scapula” and “an orb of quartz” two special finds amongst all those transformed by death or weather. On this wind-attacked western islet, between glimpses of elfin terns, class-act gannets, twisting skuas, nesting fulmars, piping oystercatchers, Jamie re-thinks the nature of plastic, quickly, as our enforced re-evaluation of durability in our 21st century midden of urban waste, techno-detritus.
Elsewhere, ecological musing lights up a familiar scape-land. The “long conversation between water and sky” that is the Hebridean isle of Coll returns us to the long forgotten sound of the corncrake, crex-crex. This marvel of an essay enfolds its moral, the mutual dependence of all creatures, in a mythic rendering of everyday encounters. Doing this lightly, convincingly, is beyond mere technique. Questioning, figuring, the poet’s patterning recovers hope from lost sounds, those once heard in all the fields of mainland. Here, Kathleen Jamie keeps company with the likes of John Clare and Richard Mabey, kindred spirits.
Of all the essays, that which sparkles most for me, a water eulogy, is ‘The Braan Salmon’. All humanity is by the salmon leap. The poet-essayist returns conversational phrases through a philosophical grinder. The exclamation ‘Ho!’ is here established in literary language, against the technologists’ world of standing reserve, accumulation, obsessive control. We leap between wonder and hopelessness. There’s something of the ancient Chinese poet-painter in this Fifer-philosopher watching fish. Her humility is felt at every turn, in affirmation of others’ worldmaking. That’s heartening in any writer as long as the emotion remains clear, which it is invariably. In a later essay, her tears fall in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall, escaping the abjection of “its jars of stilled disasters and diseases”, nurturing resolve on pity as motive force of power and purpose, no dark end in itself.
As a book of observations upon noticing, “the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed”, attention and mindfulness come into their own as forms of recovery and remembrance, both.
Kathleen Jamie as a questing soul of the North has a kinship too with fellow Scot, the poet-essayist Kenneth White (Across the Territories, The Wanderer and His Charts) but the historical-geographer White is big-brush gestural compared with her careful, image-bearing, film-like handling. Grounded thinkers both, they work in the manner of another poet-essayist, Gary Snyder. Deep ecology, geopoetics, that’s their calling.
The Polar Journeys* by Ernest Shackleton
I May Be Some Time by Francis Spufford
Sometime last year, I read a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin which recommended the reading of Shackleton’s account of his Antarctic expeditions. By chance, Allan had acquired some weighty tomes from the excellent library of awesome auto-didact J.D. of Hawick; amongst these was a copy of ‘The Polar Journeys’ – Ernest Shackleton’s own writings, published by Birlinn in 2002. I was rather surprised to find myself spellbound from the very first page…
Another surprise was to find news of a ship marooned in the Antarctic over the Christmas period. That ship was re-tracing the voyage of Douglas Mawson, a character I had become familiar with during Shackleton’s 1907-9 journey. Ice, indeed, seemed to be everywhere I turned during the festive holiday when I was often found reading Shackleton.
The photographs of Shackleton on the cover of the book are themselves fascinating: with pomaded hair and stiff collar, he appears the epitome of Edwardian gentility; but in the background is a faded image of a Hemingway-esque character, which breathes of this explorer’s life of adventure. In fact, it seems that Shackleton was not so genteel. For example, after ardently courting Sir William Beardmore to fund his Antarctic journeys, he rather too ardently courted Beardmore’s wife. Somehow or other, the funding was still provided. However, although the book’s introduction does its best to present Shackleton as a bit of a buccaneer, his own writing goes far to dispel this image.
Throughout, Shackleton is magnanimous in his description of his companions. When Mackintosh loses an eye through an accident on the deck of ‘Nimrod’ even before the expedition has properly begun, Shackleton says, ‘It was a great comfort to me to know that the expedition had the services of thoroughly good surgeons’, and laments over Mackintosh’s departure – ‘thus the expedition lost, for a time, one of its most valuable members.’ In heavy ice, during a ferocious gale, the ‘Nimrod’ is weighted down with ice over a foot thick, and the ropes were about to be frozen into a solid mass. Again, Shackleton compliments the men who had to hang overboard wielding heavy axes to break holes in the bulwark in order for water to escape.
Sometimes the descriptions of hardship are monstrous, sometimes oddly amusing. In extreme circumstances that beggar belief, Shackleton and three others have to jettison all their supplies in a bid to reach the pole. They have nothing to eat for their final 30 hour ‘march’, and have ultimately to turn back. However, what I remember best of this harrowing stretch – full of snow-blindness, frostbite and hunger which you feel might flare up at any moment into violence – is the discarding of the scissors. With their long beards turning into sheets of ice, this is one decision that Shackleton regrets!
The beauty of the Antarctic is captured eloquently here too. ‘The very clouds at this time,’ he writes, ‘were iridescent with rainbow hues. The sunsets were poems.’ Indeed the brilliance of the surreal colours witnessed, the play of light and shadow on the blue ice and the sheer scale of towering cliffs of unimaginable height suffuse the book with a sensory energy.
In the past, I can imagine that these accounts were primarily read by men, and although excerpts from Captain Scott’s journals were included in many older school textbooks, the gender divide tended to sequester this genre for the male reader. Brave women are now often joining or leading their own explorations, a far cry from those women rejected by Shackleton when recruiting for his 1907 expedition, as recounted by Francis Spufford in his fascinating analysis of the character and motivation of explorers. ‘I May Be Some Time’ (the title, of course, the famous last words of Scott’s comrade, Titus Oates) gathers facts about this collection of men and attempts to find some common ground between them. Were they mostly single men? Which were married? How did relationships survive? How close were the men? What was their profession, or class or belief system? The answers are as varied as the men themselves.
*incorporating ‘The Heart of the Antarctic’ and ‘South’
Related and recommended reading: Peter Matthiessen, End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003)
Then, thinking of these frames of Empire and beyond, of life – death confrontations …to Wade Davis, Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (2011)
Reviewed by Anne Harkness January 2014
A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape
Shambhala 2012 £10.99
Review by Allan Harkness
‘Vast and majestic, mountains embrace your shadow;
broad and deep, rivers harbour your voice.’ T’ao Ch’ien (365-427)
Every so often someone stands out in achievement, if one acknowledges the bravery of translation to be significant – its overt wrestle with meaning and experience across cultures, its deliberately troubling philosophical game-plays on language, its Janus-like address to past sources and a fully flowing contemporary life. Edith Grossman, Alfonso Lingis, Alastair Reid always struck me as heroic figures encamped between armies, homelands, life-worlds somehow living two lives and making them one as if by magic. Modern exiles they would have to be, yet seeking densely interwoven material and spiritual realities in the lives of others. Imaginative, but anchored to place and collective historical being.
Over two decades, David Hinton’s translations of Classical Chinese poetry (Tu Fu, T’ao Ch’ien, Meng Hao-jan especially) come to fruition here in this special ‘field guide to mind and landscape’. Progressively, the reader is drawn into Hinton’s theatre of translation, crossing between the original secular, existential ‘austerely minimal language’ and the showy intricacy generally characteristic of English. The spare, allusive nature of 5th century classical Chinese is in extreme contrast to the receiving language, and each is shown to carry differing ecologies of self. In his ‘reciprocal configurations’, Hinton opens up the ‘field of meaning’ of single poems. From petroglyphs to oracle bone and bronze scripts, to the graphs and characters of the evolving language, his commentaries move with ease through pictorial etymology and the conceptual steps or leaps involved in establishing the standard. He shows the creative expectations demanded of the reader in constructing meaning in that minimal pictorial system. Hinton on T’ao Ch’ien’s ‘Drinking Wine’ and Tu Fu’s ‘Moonrise’ is revelatory, hypnotic reading.
Journeys through the language are shown to be journeys in cosmology: each time, following a path on his Hunger Mountain (his own Vermont, Green Mountains home mountain), we are with him exploring an ancient culture’s ‘deep conceptual framework’. It is language-nature of ‘ a solitary self cast against the elemental sweep of the universe’, a poetics of Being where individuals share awareness of ‘a boundless generative organism’. Taoist mountain landscape, where ‘nothing holds still’ and Ch’an Buddhist sitting meditation (emptying mind/self/name) are interwoven with Hinton’s perception of his always unfamiliar pale schist peaks, high ridges, streams and mist-filled valleys. His walks-meditations-translations settle on the philosophical constants of all Nature-Self enquiry: presence-absence, beings-Being, separation-unity, thing-process. Exploring the character ‘Sincerity’, at one point he attests: ‘things in themselves remain beyond us, even after the most exhaustive and accurate scientific or philosophic account, the most compelling mythology, or the most concise and penetrating poem.’
Taoist thought in Hunger Mountain is nothing less than ‘a spiritual ecology’, tzu-jan (occurrence in itself) perhaps a key value in culture and existence. Of course, Lao Tzu’s ontological way and the Shao Wen (first dictionary) figure strongly in the means of his making, but David Hinton takes western readers to the boundary of their alphabetism, speech governance and relational psychology, then beyond into an aesthetics of self and world with very different supports.
Poets in particular ought to read Hunger Mountain for its approach to language and consciousness, the concern for self(less)/aware tensions and oscillations, not just the marvellous critical commentaries: ‘meditative practice reveals that we are most fundamentally the opening of consciousness that watches thought coming and going, rather than the centre of thought and intention with which we normally identify’. Walkers and climbers too, dwelling in shifting light and dark, will recognise its feeling for the act of perception as both a spiritual act and one of observational science, things wondrously ‘utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient’.
The version of interiority – of ‘mind and landscape’ – one might be expected to clarify for a discipline or an aesthetic code, or for a professional practice in our institutional times is presented (in the sense of given an obstacle or a challenge) with a kind of cold beauty in this text. Sometimes, the enjoyment it brings seemed similar to that of raga improvisational movements, if I reach for equivalents in how it feels in the reading. The open emptiness of music and space, put together with the empty grammar and minimal, imagistic power of Chinese graphs helps us in recognising the qualities and values at stake in Hinton’s project.
Organisationally, there are twenty-one chapters, each unfolding a particular Chinese character in essayistic, explicatory fashion. The desired effect is cumulative too, and the author’s weave of association, significance, deep connection is warm, convincing, trustworthy. I have on my shelves other books ordered by characters – Yu Hua’s ‘China in Ten Words’, and Cecilia Lindqvist’s ‘China:Empire of Living Symbols’. The first is a novelist’s set of essays unthreading change in his Mao/post-Mao lifeworld, the latter a wonderful cultural history of China through changing calligraphic forms. Hunger Mountain has a linguistic richness and philosophical closeness in its graph-set unity of design.
Translation is a complex world of truths, not Truth. Arthur Waley, Ezra Pound, A.C. Graham, Robert Henricks, Cyril Birch, Burton Watson and Gary Snyder have each revealed to us some of the world’s finest poetry, most meaningfully as ‘wilderness poetry’. To have someone with such good heart and clear mind as David Hinton doing this for us now is to be celebrated.
Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale University Press, 2013 Hardcover £15.99
The 1978 Paris section is much more engaging than the seemingly shorter New York part which concludes this interview, though the major theme of illness and love is sustained throughout. The flow is diverted, lost somehow towards the end, as happens often in life-friendship conversations over time. Sontag, a protector of independent critical consciousness within mass-modern society, was 45 years old, mature in her critical thinking at the time (having written Against Interpretation, On Photography and Illness as Metaphor by the mid-1970s). She was in the wake of cancer treatment, senses and body re-oriented, when we meet her in Jonathan Cott’s frame of reference. Cott came brilliantly, expertly prepared, as if for an old-style examination. He is cool-headed, admiring, but disciplined enough throughout to keep a distance within what is shared. What transpires, because of Susan Sontag’s verbal verve, directed fluency and sheer range of thoughtful responses has the deep weave of a generational culture and intellectual moment in recent history. It is completely refreshing to re-discover – and be held to personal account again – on questions of the purpose of intellectual life, literary-minded reading, moral-political agency and action, in Sontag’s defence of modernism and history. This is especially so if one shared the historical moment as a youngster, or if one evaluates the life one leads through its dialectical energies, its contradictions and sweeping changes.
Sontag’s armour-y show-iness is never far ahead of her honesty and determination as a cultural thinker. She points to her films and fiction but is most convincing in critical essayist mode. Freelance, solitary but famous and wealthy, keen on the space apart for everyone. Not an instituted academic but a moralist and aesthete engaged discursively in writing for her age and its turmoil. Her stances with regard to women, power and restless cultural enquiry are memorable, as is the fine insistence that “thinking is a form of feeling and…feeling is a form of thinking.” Arne Naess from a Deep Ecology perspective argued much the same. It’s a principle which helps see through falsehoods on all fronts. It appears as hard scepticism but hopes to uncover good action for others.
The sorts of spoken responses from Susan Sontag made me wonder whether the live constructed expression was down to practice in listening, sparring and speaking in high seminars? Or was it born of a mind developed in reading? Writing as the parent of speech? That cogency and formal fluency is possibly due to a familiarity in the turn of the question and issues on the page, in the library, not off the tongue? Now and again, a flight of thought is held back for the tighter response, so it is not a dialogue but an interview.
Paul Ricouer on metaphor might be a follow-up to this book’s passages on scepticism towards metaphor. Also, for flowing lucidity in extended textured thought in an interview, I aim to have another look at Emmanuel Levinas in Ethics and Infinity (in conversation with Philippe Nemo) and some of Jacques Derrida’s slow-motion acrobatics for questioners in Points, Interviews 1974-94. Sontag and Cott, together, point to shared interests in American literature. Paul Goodman’s early short stories, along with works by Anne Carson and Laura Riding are recommended. For the epigraph box: “the thing in itself really exists” (considering illness) and “there is no possibility of true culture without altruism”. Susan Sontag, “besotted aesthete/obsessed moralist” is the centre here, modernism and popular culture the operating discourse. Moving on to re-read or first discover Stendahl, Baudelaire or Thomas Mann is a likely route from this text, in keeping with Sontag’s major ‘freelance’ essay legacy. Allan Harkness
The late discovery of Barry Unsworth…
It was probably through reading an obituary of Barry Unsworth that my curiosity was aroused. How had I managed to miss this writer, when he’d been joint winner of The Booker Prize in 1992 and seemed to choose subjects which were both historically and morally sweeping in scope and yet, somehow, fundamental? I started with that prize-winning novel of The Slave Trade, and have been on a delightful journey of discovery ever since…
‘Sacred Hunger’ reveals the greed and cruelty of the trade in human lives, but manages to show in Unsworth’s marvellous characterisation the complexity of conflicting feelings and beliefs which exist in, or rise above, a particular historical moment. The central character is a good doctor who has suffered tragic misfortune and has no choice but to join the slaver at Liverpool. His own lack of freedom, power and status is, of course, only relative to the galley-slaves; but his goodness and moral strength are enough of a catalyst to help propel the ship to Florida where the unimaginable happens. The seeds of a better society are the result of mutiny, but further events confound the reader’s expectations propelling the narrative to its moving conclusion.
‘The Quality of Mercy’ is sequel to ‘Sacred Hunger’, and set in Durham, Unsworth’s home town. Interestingly, the novel moves to coal-mining as the new primary source of wealth for Britain’s capitalists and Lawrence is evoked in the dialogue and intense feeling conveyed in Unsworth’s prose. The social observation is more reminiscent of Hardy or Dickens; the modern novelist’s twist provides subtle moral and psychological dilemmas.
There’s a wealth of subjects and places to explore in this writer’s other novels: ‘The Stone Virgin’, set in Venice, juxtaposes the creation of a 15 Century masterpiece and its tragic trajectory with a 20th Century artist whose life in Venice mysteriously mirrors that of the earlier craftsman; ‘Pascali’s Island’, set on an Aegean Island in 1908, tells the story of Pascali – a spy during the last years of The Ottoman Empire. The latter was filmed in 1988 and stars Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren in this tale of deceit, betrayal and tortured romance, on the eve of the war which was to change the face of Europe and the balance of power and religions, decisively.
My most recent fascinating non-fiction read was Adrian Desmond’s biography of T.H. Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. As a life-long fan of Aldous Huxley, I found the family background and singular achievement of grandfather Thomas shed much light on the formative influences of his grandson. T.H. was a great populariser of Science, in days when public lectures and self-improvement caught the spirit of the people. Like Darwin, he made voyages of discovery, and jostled with other scientists to come to conclusions about the fossil evidence he found. However it was his talent in delivering news of his findings to the ordinary man – and more than occasional woman – which gives this biography its driving force. The contrast between this sharp, intelligent and witty man and the solitary and sickly Darwin suggests that ‘the bulldog’ exerted a Svengali–like influence on the latter; and yet the mutual friendship and respect held by these two is palpable. Volume 2 of this biography awaits me. After that, Desmond’s ‘Darwin’ will just have to follow…