What I’m reading this month – Jan 19

Christmas holidays are indeed a good time for reading. Not simply because, as I intimated in my previous post, we tend to give and receive books at Christmas (and I mean “we” both in the general, possibly optimistic sense about people and in the very specific what-our-family-does sense) but also because we have time to read. I am a university lecturer, and reading is really part of my job, yet I know I don’t do enough of it professionally. Colleagues who drop by my office when I’m sitting in my corner chair, reading, have an indulgent grin on their faces, like they’ve caught me dreaming out the window or playing solitaire on the computer. At any rate, that’s not the kind of reading I’ve been packing on this last week nor this week we’re currently in. It’s a special, protected space to read eclectically and unapologetically.

Something of His Art by Horatio Clare (a very lovely cover)My wife read my suggestion of new books at Christmas as an instruction. This is not how it was intended, but it gave her a good opportunity to tease. I do expect she had this plotted already anyway, given how hard it seemed to be to track it down in time for Christmas. The book she’d picked for me is Something of His Art by Horatio Clare. He’s not someone I knew hitherto, though he seems to occupy a Robert Macfarlanesque space in the British popular imagination. The conceit is simple: he walks the supposed route J. S. Bach walked when he left Arnstadt to listen to and learn from the organist Dieterich Buxtehude, 250 miles away. He is accompanied by a radio producer and sound recordist, and he muses about art and artist along the journey.

I can see why she picked this book for me: it ticks all the boxes. It’s about long-distance walking, central-eastern Germany, music, and radio. It also has a gorgeous cover – the publishers were most certainly thinking of Christmas. Who knows how these timings go? We have pretty good imaginations anyway, but with my wife’s increasing insights into the publishing world, she can imagine the marketing machinery pretty well. Clare’s other book from this year is a diary account of his diagnosis with seasonal depression. It’s been getting very good reviews, but it might not be the cheeriest gift to offer someone under the tree at Christmas. Oh, but look – he did a series for Radio Three! And he ends up in Lübeck, which is where they make that nice marzipan. Okay, give it a pretty cover and we’re set.

In fact, Clare does include some discussion of his depression in the chapter I just read last night. It was clearly and movingly done – not overboard or indulgent, but then nothing in this book is, clocking in as it does at under 100 pages and growing out of the crisp directness of radio writing. He reveals his first proper encounter with Bach in his third year of university, after a big breakup and before his final exams and essays were due. Depression could easily have derailed him, and as it was his first proper encounter with the illness, he had not learned any coping mechanisms. But his dad had given him a CD of Bach’s cello suites, and this helped him to focus and pull through.

Clare writes well about music and about the images he sees as he walks. (Birds feature more heavily than I would have expected, but this is aimed at the Brits.) He writes decently about his imaginings of Bach and superbly about his companions and his discoveries about radio and sound. My feeling is that nothing in this book is objectionable and everything is pleasant. But it is not terribly structured. I sense from Clare’s writings that he feels a great purpose behind the journey and the reflection, but it hasn’t been communicated to me. Paragraphs are lovely, but what brings us from one paragraph to the next? The rationale, besides the obvious linear one of the journey – from Arnstadt to the Halz, from Lüneberg to Lübeck, etc – is not clear. I’m sure Clare is capable of doing so, but the constraints first of the brief radio format and, consequently, the brief impressionistic essay-chapters disallow it. Still, it is beautiful and undemanding reading for the holidays.

Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie never gets to not be a demanding read – he is, to quote Paddington, that sort of bear. I admit to not being much of a fan. I’ve read three of his novels, including the much ballyhooed Midnight’s Children, and though his writing is vivid and imaginative, it wasn’t so much to my taste. I remember reading an interview with Michael Ondaatje (author of one of my all-time favourites, In the Skin of a Lion) from a while back – probably about the time this memoir encompasses, honestly – and he damned Rushdie wonderfully with fulsome praise, to the effect that when someone is juggling seventeen balls at once, it doesn’t matter if a couple of them drop, because the overall feat is still so impressive. Ondaatje said he preferred to just juggle three balls well, and I absolutely agree (though I disagree that this is all Ondaatje accomplishes – he’s author of some amazing literary feats himself). Rushdie was named “Booker of Bookers” at the time of the award’s 25th and 40th anniversaries; Ondaatje’s The English Patient was later named “Golden Booker” of the lot on its 50th anniversary. You figure it out.

Rushdie is a talented, imaginative writer, and he is also a courageous human being, though that’s not how he was painted for much of the period described here. When we think “Rushdie” we think “fatwa”, and when we think “fatwa” we think “death sentence”. Though neither association is accurate or fair, each is what we in the biz like to call a “social fact”, and that’s what we have to deal with. I believe Rushdie when he says he didn’t intend to provoke all that happened to him – the protests, the controversy, and the legal ruling from the dying Iranian ayatollah Khomeini decreeing the religious rightness of the author’s death. Yet provoke he did, with consequences that turned his personal life quite upside down. His memoir is a compelling retrospective of this time, as well as an opportunity to clear some things up, such as his relations with his Special Branch protectors and the financial costs he bore for moving about so frequently. It is clearly rooted in his perspective, and though I found this problematic – for a sophisticated, nuanced writer, he draws some clear lines in his personal and professional life in terms of whether one was for him or agin him – I can also understand it. His ass was most obviously in the sling as no one else’s was, and if anyone deserved to make such judgements, it would be him.

There is plenty I can go along with him on, but I find myself flinching when he discusses Islamophobia and the commentators – religious, scholarly, political, and literary – who came down on the wrong side of his line. This is my own line of work, now, and I happen to be supportive of the general concept and highly sympathetic to Muslims who feel aggrieved by a smarmy or outright hostile secular society. I guess I’m lucky to have entered the field a couple of decades on from this period, so no one is asking me for my opinion. The book’s most pressing effect at the moment is to have me nattering at people as we drive through the Welsh valleys, “Hey, is this anywhere near Talybont? Did you know Salman Rushdie had to hide out here for a while?” At any rate, it’s a gripping read – not one I would have sought out on my own, but my wife grabbed it for me when she was at Hay-on-Wye early last month, and this holiday period has been an opportune time to get through its more than 600 pages in a more concentrated fashion.

The Freedom Papers (front cover)The last book I’ll mention for my non-work related reading this month is The Freedom Papers – a collection organised by the Edinburgh Book Festival and distributed as an issue of Gutter Magazine. Some might quibble that Rushdie’s memoir is not quite “non-work related”, and they’d be right; this also strays deep into my line of work, as the theme is meditations on freedom in the context of anxiety over migration. Scottish writer Leila Aboulela, originally from Sudan, is essay number four in the collection, so representation is rather high on the agenda. This was a gift from former neighbours of ours in good ol’ Edinburgh, and they thought when they got it that it might have some resonance for my work. Nonetheless, it’s not a scholarly book or journal article, so I think I’m free to treat it as pleasure reading.

The Freedom Papers (back cover)It’s also, I don’t mind saying, a pleasure to look at, just as Horatio Clare’s book is just a physically pleasant object. The back cover is art from Ehsan Abdollahi, one of the writers also included inside the covers, so I though I’d picture that as well. It’s a mix of personal creative non-fiction and poetry. Some of it is predictably earnest and right-on. But it is a good collection of words to have in the face of Brexit, when the impulse is to say no so categorically. This is a decisive appeal for better. Authors come from all over the planet – the festival solicited meditations from those speaking at this summer’s event, so it is global and current. Some of it is in translation and, super-bravely, also printed in its original – Spanish, Mandarin, Polish.

With such a feast of voices, the unity of the theme “freedom” in this current political context can lead to some more predictable responses. Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far, I can’t say I’m surprised by it. But from these early essays, I have been most struck by the voice that is, not surprisingly, most like my own. Michael Faber, author of my Christmas book from a few years ago, The Book of Strange New Things, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend, contributes one of the early essays that really spoke to me. It describes, quite simply, how the idea of free movement and migration allowed him to bimble and bump around the planet – from Netherlands to Australia with his parents, from Australia to Scotland with his wife on basically sort of a whim – without needing to demonstrate his worth or justify it to authorities and systems. He could just do it. It was a move of intense privilege, and he recognises that element completely. He holds it up as a virtue, an ideal. And though he even understands why some are now trying to deny this freedom, or at least hinder it with more bureaucratic gates through which to pass, he knows from his own story how blessed it is to be free of those limitations.

I’m not the right person to express any anxieties about the threat that foreigners might pose to ‘my’ way of life. Neither I nor my parents were ever asked to prove we’d be tortured, raped and murdered if we stayed where we were born. … I was never threatened with expulsion if I didn’t hurry up and demonstrate that I could write prize-winning books instead of sponging off the state.

And, as he says, he will not be the one to kick that ladder away now that he’s climbed up it.

Brief scorecard from my last post: yes, I did endure through Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, though I was ready to quit. Wilson didn’t exactly make me care for the characters any more than he already had(n’t), but the story had enough of a hook by the hundredth page to draw me along, so I saw it through. Still wouldn’t recommend it. Still think Anthony Burgess was given a big crate of wine for his efforts. Wilson appears early in Rushdie’s story, after Midnight’s Children wins the Booker but before the fatwa is pronounced, and reflects on what it’s like to be the flavour of the moment in the public’s literary imagination. I will say this: though Rushdie is not my favourite thing, it’s an immense step up from Wilson.

And we just completed The Dark Is Rising at bedtime – read the final chapter on the first of January. I liked reading it aloud, and the kids seemed really hooked, especially by the poetry of it. Yet, though I can’t remember quite what disappointed a 22-year-old me about the books when I returned to them, I certainly felt disappointments as a 39 year old. Probably about the same things – the easy improbability, the lack of agency. But I try not to let that judgement come through in my reading. The kids like it, so it seems Susan Cooper had a good understanding of her target demographic.

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