My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.
An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from email@example.com
This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.
About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.
THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.
The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.
She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.
When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.
But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”
The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.
The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.
But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.
Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.
The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.
Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.
Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.
The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.
None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.
Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.
The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.
The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972’s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.
In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star
Two days off from the cutting edge of contemporary literature that is Five Leaves Bookshop (a description not universally shared, by the way) and I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller. To anyone tempted to say “get a life”, I can only say “this is the life”…
The Diary, recently published to acclaim, covers a year starting 5th February 2014. I might have missed the reason the book covers that strange calendar year, but if feels stranger that the book has only been recently published. Given that the author lives in Wigtown, the cornerstone of the year was the ballot on Scottish independence. It seems a long time ago now.
Wigtown is a “book town” with several bookshops and a large festival. The Bookshop is at the heart of this with the shop also providing a gathering space for visiting authors and a “festival bed” that can be booked in advance. The cover tells us that Bythell is a misanthrope and bibliophile. The former is not completely true, but if any of the Five Leaves’ workers talked so publicly and critically about our customers they’d be out on their ear. I should have seen the traffic light red warning on the cover: “warm, witty and laugh-out loud funny” said the Daily Mail. It was certainly not warm or witty to to write of the last day of one of his workers who, as she was leaving, was given a hug. “She hates physical contact, so it was particularly gratifying to see how uncomfortable it made her”.
Ir’s not all Black Books by any means, though it perhaps sells well in the wake of that programme. Some of the author’s comments did ring true, however. I can’t find the exact quote but if someone does come in and shout something like “Books! I could spend a fortune and all day in here!” it is a guarantee that they will spend nothing and be gone in ten minutes.
Having spent more years than is healthy working in the new books trade, I realise how little I knew about the second-hand world. Where do they get the books from, for example? Death and downsizing mostly, often involving the author in long drives to pore over collections that might or might not hold gems. Many such collections seem to be covered with cat hair. Bythell augments his sales by a subscription-based Random Book Club and bits and pieces picked up at auction. But throughout the book there are gibes followed by rants against Amazon for driving down the price of second-hand books, even charging 41p commission on the, then, £2.80 standard postage charged via to consumers on purchases via their Marketplace.
Other than occasional coups, sold privately, standard income is over the counter or via Amazon or ABE (owned by Amazon…). Day by day the totals are noted. Only on one day, during the book festival, do sales top £1000. Mostly they are in the low hundreds and, during the dog days of winter, tens. The nadir being the last day of the diary. Five online orders but only four paying customers in the shop, till total £18.50.
There is some genuine humour in this book, especially in the relationship between the owner and the incompetent and contrary part-time worker Nicky, whose specialism was bringing in squashed and unidentifiable food found by dumpster diving. But I did not laugh out loud.
As the number of second-hand bookshops declines, so has the literature about them increased. But I tell you what, borrow this book from the library and wander in to Jermy and Westerman on Mansfield Road and spend your £14.99 there. That will help keep our city’s main second-hand bookshop alive. And if you buy second-hand online, check Alibris first as they are not owned by that big river.
There’s nowhere called Yiddishland, except it is everywhere, it’s a state of mind. You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish, you don’t have to be Jewish (though both of these make life easier). And you don’t all have to be in the same state of mind as the other inhabitants, other than to value the diaspora and have an interest in the shared history of a disparate community of Yiddish speakers.
Not every part of Yiddishland in the past was a happy place, Hersh Mendel, quoted in this book, remarked that he “cannot remember one single joyful hour” at heder (religious education classes). He became a revolutionary.This was the period, one of the periods, when Jews lived in abject poverty. Yaakov Greenstein recalls “a neighbour’s farm where there were eight children at home. The father went from village to village with a colleague, collecting scrap metal. They had a cart but no horse to pull it; one of them took the front, the other pushed, and they went along the roads, in this way, among the goyim, from dawn to night.” For some, the answer lay in socialism which could lead to family problems such as disapproval from religious parents annoyed because the Bund (the main Jewish socialist organisation) published its daily newspaper on Shabbos, on the Sabbath.