Sunday right here

This is a notice of a book I have just read, called The house of twenty thousand books, by Sasha Abramsky.

I don’t remember how I came to find out about this book. As far as I can recall, I was interested in book collecting, and whether anyone had written much about that. Reader, they have! There were bibliomanes with larger collections than Chimen Abramsky’s, but his story seemed interesting. This book was available in the Boroondara Library network — the link above points to their record — so I took a punt on it.

Chimen Abramsky grew up in the Soviet Union, the son of a rabbi. His father, Yeshevel, was arrested under Stalin’s regime, and the family was exiled to Britain when Chimen was 15. Despite this early experience of totalitarian rule, Chimen became interested in Marxism, and joined the British Communist Party. After the war he and his wife bought a house in Hampstead Heath (for 12 pounds!), which became a kind of left-wing salon. Thinkers including Eric Hobsbawm and Isiah Berlin were guests. At the same time Chimen maintained his Jewish cultural links, working in a Jewish bookstore, which also sold religious artefacts. He became a collector of books and memorabilia relating to Socialism and Hebraica, and helped develop the auction market for the latter area in particular. As this market expanded, he become an advisor to Sotheby’s in Hebraica. Chimen also had a later career as Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London — this without holding a formal degree. 

The book had several themes of interest to me. As well as his book collecting and trading activities, Chimen was a leading British Jewish left-wing intellectual. After the war, Socialism was an article of faith to many idealists and progressives (including, at this time, my father). Socialism appeared to promise a fair, equitable, and peaceful society free from discrimination and exploitation. Of course, as the saying goes, someone who is not a socialist under the age of 21 has no heart, and someone still  a socialist after that age has no head. Chimen’s political views evolved in the direction of liberalism, prompted by the the persistence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union as well as the revelations about the show trials and prison camps.

(This isn’t specifically mentioned in the book, but I have noticed that many who were attracted to socialism at this time also either identified as Christians, like Graham Greene, or grew up in a religious family like Orwell. There was no shortage also of adherents to Communism from a Jewish background like Chimen’s. Perhaps the structure and discipline of Party membership gave the same feeling of security that religious belief had provided. For some, belief in a Socialist “heaven on earth” was not mutually exclusive of belief in the traditional life after death. In other cases, Socialism became their new religion. Chimen ceased believing in Judaism in a religious sense when he became interested in Marxism. He did not, however, wish his family to realise his apostasy, and maintained Jewish cultural traditions such as wearing the yarmulka and keeping a kosher kitchen.)

The Jewish aspect of the book was of personal interest also. Judaism has had a peripheral role in my life. As family readers will know, my father was half Jewish, originating on his father’s side. Judaism being a matrilineal religion, orthodox Jews would therefore not regard me as Jewish. My father had no religious faith, and was completely uninterested in Jewish cultural traditions. So I grew up as neither a religious nor a cultural Jew. Nevertheless, I was conscious, when growing up in the largely white-bread Australia of the 1960s, of having origins in a minority group. This was reinforced by Jews being the butt of many jokes and other stereotyping. By now people have largely stopped using “Jewish” or “Ikey” as a synonym for meanness. (This is complicated, however; the best Jewish jokes I ever heard were told to me by Dad’s friend Lionel Cohen.) 

Chimen’s was not an interesting life in its external aspects. His collection, which came to take over his and his wife Miriam’s house, is now scattered between the individuals and institutions to whom it was sold. His ideological and personal journey, however, provide a window onto the development of post-war Britain. Sasha Abramsky is the author of books such as The American way of poverty and Inside Obama’s brain . He tells Chimen’s and Miriam’s story with love, but also with the detachment and objectivity of an experienced author. Abramsky’s book is both an act of devotion to a great bookman, who happened to be his grandfather, and a fascinating record of a tumultuous time. 

What’s been and what’s to come

Before the main part of the post, there is a small addition to the Resources page in the form of the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms .

We are now just a few weeks from Christmas. Those who know me will know this is my favourite time of year! (Not.) Still, it brings us to a sort-of review time for 2018.

The last twelve months has been one of numerous changes, and some milestones. I bought a new car, and we replaced some big-ticket things like the ducted cooling and the bed. The Blu-Ray recorder, and some electrical equipment, was also replaced. For the first time ever, my beloved moved to part-time employment. Most importantly, we are to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary at the end of this year.

It has also been a huge twelve months or so health-wise. My treatment summary from November 2017 to now is the story of my cancer:

  • radical open prostatectomy
  • subsequent treatment with a physiologist specialising in continence
  • referred to a radiation oncologist, with whom I
    • had radiation therapy, with moderate success
  • then referred to a medical oncologist, with whom I
    • had androgen deprivation treatment and chemotherapy.

Of course the last of these is ongoing. However, being in remission is a great result for the treatments I have received under the care of Dr Parente and the staff of the oncology ward in Epworth Eastern. My GP has been terrific as well — someone I have been seeing for many years. Modern cancer treatment of course relies on adjunct modalities, and I feel my exercise physiologist (a recent referral) will become someone else I rely on.

My progress through these treatments has been one from specific to general, i.e. from treatments focusing on individual mets, to ones that are treating the whole body. This has been driven by the failure of the specific treatments to keep pace with the growth in the tumours.  I believe the progression in the treatments is also from ones with lower potential side effects to those with more potential side effects, but more efficacy. (Time, as ever, will tell.)

The chemotherapy  has been less of a big deal than I expected. I have dropped some social engagements in order to lessen the risk of opportunistic infection — something my immune system is less able to handle than usual. However, I haven’t wanted to become a recluse. So new year resolutions include doing a better job of keeping up with people, both individually and through groups like the local Cancer Survivors.

The chemotherapy is adjunct with androgen deprivation therapy. Their combination gives apparently an increase in efficacy of 10% in absolute terms, over either treatment singly. I started with the ADT some weeks before the beginning of the chemo, and I will continue with that as long as I remain in remission.

(On the subject of keeping up with people, we have been having a lovely time just recently having an old friend to stay for a couple of nights. She came down from Sydney for Die Meistersinger at the opera, which we all saw last night. Amazing! The second act was quite the most spectacular I have ever seen live. The orchestra played every bit as well as the Gewandhaus, whom we heard in the Leipzig Ring, and everyone acquitted themselves extremely well in the principal roles, especially Michael Kupfer-Radecky, the third singer to be engaged as Hans Sachs. And Warwick Fyfe as Beckmesser! Is there a better anywhere? Anyway, I hope that 2019 includes more Wagner as well as more socialising. Wagner’s beautiful libretto also gave me the latest candidate for my memoir title: How spring has to be.)

I need to do more to keep the remaining grey matter active next year, too. I think 2018 was the year of Karl Ove Knausgaard. (I have the final volume of his autobiographical novel sequence to finish off.) I feel that enrolling in a course would keep me at something better than if I were just doing it under my own steam. Some candidates include a couple of online masters programs in creative writing. Doing the internet course Modern Poetry over the last few weeks was great as well; it is very well-supported. Hearing the beautiful German in the Wagner last night, however, and even understanding bits of it, put this further up the batting order as something I could re-engage with.

I would also like to read through In Search of Lost Time again, with a group. Ever thought about it? Or even just wanted to see what the fuss is about? (For example, Maugham regarding it the greatest novel of the twentieth century.) I will do it via Skype, if required. So come on, all you wavering Proustians! Carpe the diem, grasp the literary nettle, and let’s get down to it. I can issue a portentous promise — your lives won’t be the same.

Anne Tyler and insomnia

When I glance at Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock dance, I keep misreading the title as Clog dance. (The cover does have a beautiful backlit photo of a couple of girls dancing on a footpath.)

Do I keep thinking of the wrong title because of this photo? Is there some sly, ironic echo that she has set up here? Or is it just a mnemonic irrelevance, that keeps forcing its way to the surface because I am sleep deprived? For whichever reason, I find her to be a writer in whose seemingly modest domestic dramas, unexpected things happen.

I woke pretty early this morning with a kind of anxiety dream about this book. Actually, I felt more pleasure than anxiety: I could write about the way my dream fitted with the novel. I just had to go to the toilet first. Of course, when I had stealthily gotten up, made a cup of tea, and was sitting in the study with the cursor pulsing away at me on the laptop screen like a therapist possessed of implacable patience — after all this, there was no more dream, just a memory of a mood. No matter; I can just write about the book.

Well, once I got WordPress working, I could! The incestuous thing wasn’t saving drafts. I looked through the help procedures, but there wasn’t anything that related to “can’t save drafts” or similar. I saved my post as a Word file, then looked up “Contact us”, expecting to get an email address. I actually ended up in a chat session with a Happiness Engineer — I kid you not!

He did solve the problem — assuming it was a him — so kudos to him. After some to-ing and fro-ing about why they don’t have a procedure for solving this, I browbeat him into saying he will “see if we can get a document up” with the basic steps in it that he has suggested for me. By the time all this had occurred, I had absolutely had it, and went to sleep for about half an hour in the study.

So to the book. The plot covers the familiar Anne Tyler territory of eccentric extended families. Willa, a woman who was made a widow in her forties, has remarried. She has moved to Arizona with her second husband, Peter, who is eleven years older than her, and inclined to be patronizing. This situation is preceded by a sort of prelude in which she is shown as someone that things happen to; a typical Anne Tyler character, sleepwalking through her life.

A phone call changes everything. Her son’s former girlfriend, Denise, who lives in Baltimore, has been shot in the leg. There is no-one available to look after Cheryl, the daughter. Despite the fact that the child is not her son’s daughter, Willa decides to fly to Baltimore to take care of her. Peter decides to come with her because he doesn’t think Willa can manage without him. Time passes; Peter goes home, Willa stays in Baltimore.

This is a book with a lot of love for the characters, and a boundless appreciation for small things. There is a lot about food. Cheryl bakes, proficiently. Peter barbecues, elaborately. Willa goes grocery shopping and makes suppers for Cheryl and Denise. Willa’s life in Baltimore is almost studiedly mundane, but she finds herself staying longer than she needs to, because she feels needed there. Just as Willa is drawn into her temporary life, the reader is lulled by the rhythm and pacing of the novel, to the point where the idea of someone fetching up somewhere like that seems plausible. You can see why Nick Hornby called her the best line-and-length novelist in the world.

There are strange echoes of Portrait of a Lady. What would that book look like if Isabel Archer had travelled to Baltimore instead of Italy? If she had married Gilbert Osmond, left him, nearly gone back to him, but backed out of that at the last minute, to go where she could be loved? If she could take Pansy with her as well? Ralph Touchett and Lord Warburton are in this book as well. It is all quite playful and very subtle, and goes down like a big tub of the best ice cream. You can see I loved it. Give it a go.

The blazing world

Before I return this book to the library, overdue (oh, the shame!), I wanted to write a brief notice of it.

The book is The blazing world, by Siri Hustvedt. The following, an excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review, will give you the flavour:

Art isn’t easy, and according to Hustvedt (What I Loved), the art market can be especially rough on women who are over 40, overweight, and overtly intellectual, which is why the novel’s protagonist, Harriet “Harry” Burden, a frustrated artist and art dealer’s widow, exhibits her artwork using male stand-ins in a performance art experiment that goes terribly awry. Suffering from deep depression after her husband’s death, followed by extreme elation, Harry relocates to Brooklyn, where she produces modern masterpieces dotted with clues to her identity, then shows them under a male collaborator’s name.

Choosing this plot sets up a series of interlocking themes: the male domination of the art world (particularly in New York), the vapidity and shallowness of that world, and the nature of gender and artistic originality. Harry’s plan is to pass off her work as that of the three male artists, then reveal herself as the creator. Echoes of the Ern Malley hoax abound. It won’t surprise anyone to know that her plans backfire spectacularly.

The book purports to be a series of diary entries and interviews with the protagonists in the hoax and those involved with them. These are preceded by an introduction from a fictional academic who has edited and compiled these texts, and whose commentary on the story becomes one of the sources. Yes, folks, we are in post-modern territory. The author has (literally in Harry’s case) shuffled off, leaving the presence of an absence. There are footnotes. The multiple narrators frequently contradict each other’s version of events. This technique is the same as that used in Faulkner’s As I lay dying, and is used with very nearly the same degree of virtuosity.

This all might sound about as enjoyable as a bowl of cold sick, but it is really good fun. Hustvedt realises the character of Harry in particular vividly and plausibly. The latter is quite a polymath, being knowledgeable about Margaret Cavendish, Edmund Husserl, WTH Myers, William James, and much more. Minor characters like the hippy-dippy Sweet Autumn Pinkney are much more than caricatures; her brief appearances add a great deal of texture to the narrative. Hustvedt lectures in psychology in addition to her writing career. This discipline is personified in the character of Harry’s analyst; it also possibly informs the psychological insight Hustvedt brings to the characterisation. I thought of Henry James, particularly The portrait of a Lady; the males are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or cold-hearted users and betrayers. Like that book as well, there is no neat resolution in which the loose ends are tied up and every dog gets a bone.

I can’t do more than hint at the multiple strands, rich content, and ingenious construction of this book. The overriding thing for me was the sense I had that Hustvedt enjoyed writing it. Forget the post-modern stuff; you will enjoy it too, and want to find out what really happened. Good luck with that!

The magic mountain

Thomas Mann’s The magic mountain loomed large in my life for about 6 weeks – I forget exactly – while I was reading it. I had heard about for many years before I read it; my mother often referred to it. Some literary works are like that, in that you feel you know them without actually having to read them. A list of iconic books can be like Room 101 in 1984: everyone has their own idea about what it contains.

The magic mountain has a plot that is simple on the face of it. The action is set in the early years of the twentieth century. Hans Castorp is a young German man, who visits his cousin, Christian, in a sanatorium in the Swiss alps. The main matter of the plot concerns his stay with Christian. This stay proves unexpectedly extended. Castorp enjoys the physical surroundings of the sanatorium (the Berghof), the extensive meals and morning and afternoon teas, and the extremely comfortable lounge chair on which he, like all patients, rests on his balcony for several hours regardless of the weather. Although he enjoys the surroundings and the alpine environment, he finds some odd physical symptoms. The cigars to which he is devoted have lost their savour to him. He finds himself feeling hot in the face. Attempts to go on an extended ramble result in a nosebleed. He is examined by director of the Berghof, who finds a moist spot in one of his lungs. He is encouraged to stay a while. This stay imperceptibly becomes years. It concludes only at the start of the first world war, when all the surviving patients hastily depart for their respective countries before the outbreak of hostilities.

Much of the book, as might be expected, is concerned with Castorp’s fellow inmates at the sanatorium. Their groupings, intrigues, love affairs and fallings-out loom large in the narrative, as no doubt they do where people are unexpectedly thrown together. Castorp falls in love with the mysterious Clavdia Chauchat, who sits at one of the Russian tables. She leaves, only to reappear as the travelling companion of a wealthy Dutchman, Peeperkorn. Other patients live away from the sanatorium, notably an Italian, Settembrini, and his sparring partner, Naphta. Castorp and they engage in extended, and at times rather tedious, arguments on matters of political and social philosophy.

The narrative is recounted by a rather pedantic character, who is never named. Sometimes this narrator is quite a smarty-pants, like some of Nabokov’s narrators. At other times he just relates the action unobtrusively. Castorp is seen with a mixture of irony and compassion. He is an everyman character, whose ordinariness is emphasised. Nonetheless he is curious and kind-hearted. The Berghof emerges as a microcosm of humanity in all its vanity, aspirations, and futility. The ending, where Castorp is caught up in action as a member of the German army, is quite veiled. One never finds out if he is cured or not.

The gradualness with which things happen in this novel is quite marvellous. With the exception of In search of lost time, it feels like real life more than any other book I have read. There is a similar alternation of action and reflection, and a concern with how the experience of time can be compressed or elongated. To reduce a work of this enormous length to a single conclusion would be trite. Obviously, however, illness is a metaphor that underlies the book. Like the magic ring in Wagner’s Ring operas, illness is something that can stand for many other things. The rise of Nazism, self-absorption and pleasure-seeking, our ability to act without humanity to those we perceive as “the other” – all these things can take us over imperceptibly. I felt a bit let down when I had finished it, as though someone had left my life. Some time, I will read it again.

Quite liking "Loving Vincent"

Well, I went to see Loving Vincent at the Balwyn Cinema. A number of my discerning readership is accomplished in the visual arts, so I thought a mini-review might be of interest.

I had no idea, really, what the film would be about. I did absorb the fact somehow that a large number of artists had worked on making an animated feature which was based visually on Van Gogh’s paintings. What I didn’t know was that, instead of being a quasi-documentary, as I had vaguely imagined, there is a narrative which revolves around an undelivered letter addressed to the artist. A year after Van Gogh’s demise, and following several unsuccessful attempts at delivery through the mail system, a postmaster charges his son with taking this letter to Avers-sur-Oise, the site of the artist’s death. Got that? Good, read the IMDB entry; there will be a short test following! Now forget about it, and read on.

I must confess that I didn’t stay until the end of the film. However, this was really because outings are still a bit problematic for me, in terms of urinary continence, and I felt like getting home. (Spare pads were definitely useful! I imagine those who have had children, or have taken them on outings, will know the drill.) I did stay for 75% of it, and would, under normal circumstances, have seen the lot. It is certainly no hardship to see Van Gogh’s late period pictures so lovingly rendered on the big screen. I liked the landscap-y bits more than the dialogue. The face of each character was based on that of the actor doing the voicing, so that, for example, Doctor Jabert’s housekeeper somewhat resembled Helen McCrory. The animation made the faces creep alarmingly, as if they were having a palsy of some kind. However, the cast does a very fine job, although the regional British accents are a little unexpected. (This was preferable, however, to having English-speaking actors putting on an ” ‘Allo, ‘allo” cod French accent; still less a Dutch one.) Under the circumstances, the mystery about the artist’s death didn’t really register, as it might had I felt able to see the whole thing. But just drink in the visuals; they are quite stunning. And I can guarantee you will never see a film like it this year!