Posts Tagged ‘Andre Brink’

Now All Roads Lead to France

February 15, 2012

It is somewhat peculiar to be only half-way through February, yet already to have read what will be my best book of the year.

While there are several books that easily make me laugh out loud, or at least snigger, there are very few books that have made me cry. I’m afraid this was one of them.

The sad yet inevitable thing about most biographies is that the subject tends to be dead. All the way through you know it’s coming. It’s not like in a novel, where although there might be the threat of untimely death, there’s a reasonable chance the main character will survive.

Matthew Hollis announces the tragic death of Edward Thomas at the very beginning of Now All Roads Lead to France. It was on Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras offensive. The contents page reveals that the book stretches only from 1913 to 1917. We will be with Edward for just four years. His death looms over the book, making one dread the turning of the pages, wanting to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.

And yet, in opposition to this desire to put off the end, Hollis creates a page-turner. It’s astonishing really to think that a book about a poet and a few of his literary relationships – in particular his friendship with Robert Frost – can be so compelling, but it’s very hard to put it down. Hollis has cleverly split the prose up into short sections, moving between different characters and different places, holding our attention tightly. And thanks to his love of cliffhangers, literary life has never been so dramatic:

It was a debt that Frost feared he could never repay.

But he had already begun to repay it.

Or:

Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.

I promise, when you read it in context, it feels like edge of your seat stuff.

I wrote about Thomas’s most famous poem ‘Adlestrop’ last year. Hollis explains that Thomas’s favoured method of composition was reworking old prose material that he’d jotted in his notebooks. So it makes for an exciting moment when we read of his train journey in Summer, 1914. At 11.44 the train drew up at Oxford. Hollis quotes Thomas’s notes:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Hollis is such a tease! It is impossible for anyone who’s heard of Edward Thomas to read these notes without holding their breath. This is it. This is the beginnings from which the magical poem will sprout, just a few months later. Yet Hollis doesn’t so much as mention ‘Adlestrop’ the poem here. He just skips on to the weather at Dymock. Needless to say, I read the next sixty pages very quickly, longing to get to the moment of composition itself.

It’s fascinating to see what Thomas has taken from his notes: ‘willow herb & meadowsweet’, the ‘hiss of engine letting off steam’, the man who’ clears his throat’. And, of course, the ‘chain of blackbirds songs’. Perhaps it’s even more fascinating to see what has been omitted. The ‘grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals’ don’t appear in the poem at all. Strange, as the image of shiny metals could make one think of war, which was very much on Thomas’s mind. Perhaps he wanted to expunge all notion of the war from the poem and preserve it as a final pastoral moment before the war began.

But I must stop all this gushing about ‘Adlestrop’. Robert Macfarlane points out in his nuanced review of Now All Roads Lead to France for the Guardian that the book ‘helps us to understand how much more there is to Thomas than willow-herb and meadowsweet and haycocks dry’. So I shall endeavour to leave the beauty of ‘Adlestrop’ behind.

‘Talk-walking’. Robert Frost’s word for Thomas’s and his habit of – you’ll never guess – walking and talking together. I love it! I am very fond of a long walk and talk. Not quite as long as theirs, which on occasion stretched, rather alarmingly, for twenty-five miles. I love the way Hollis captures the spirit of these walks. Yes there’s all the talking, the musing, the finding inspiration in nature and in each other’s company, but there are also the more human details:

Frost chuckling as Thomas havered over which route to take, Thomas grinning at another enquiry from Frost as to whether they had much further to go.

They seem little more than schoolboys – carefree and happy, free from the weight of the world. And yet, not unlike Thomas’s poetry, beneath the bucolic dream lurks a troubled reality.

Thomas’s havering over which route to take is symptomatic of the indecision with which he is constantly plagued. And, for Thomas, this indecision often manifests itself over his physical place – he is literally not sure which route to take. Should he live with his wife, or stay with his friends? Should they live in London or in Hampshire? Should he go to confront the gamekeeper or run away? And there is the vital decision which hovers over most of the book – should he fight in France or emigrate to America to live with Robert Frost? And, rather neatly, the poem at the heart of it, isn’t ‘Adlestrop’, but Frost’s even more famous ‘The Road Not Taken’. It is unfortunate to say the least that what Frost meant as a little tease about Thomas’s indecision was taken so seriously by him, even going so far as to hasten his decision to go to France. Of course it has also been taken seriously by so many since him.

Coincidentally, you might remember that just a month ago in South Africa I was reading André Brink’s A Fork in the Road. Now I might not have been too impressed with most of the book, but one thing that really stuck with me was what he wrote in his Foreword. He took up this image of a ‘fork in the road’ – or, in Frost’s words ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ – and suggested that rather than just taking one path, you can simultaneously travel both of them:

The traditional either/or is replaced with an incomparably more complex notion of both/and.

Brink quotes the South African artist William Kentridge, with his idea of a ‘highway of consciousness’:

Thought may follow one particular path, but there are all the other paths not taken, and all the other paths still being thought through, or not yet thought of, that language can latch on to at different stages as it goes.

It’s taken the example of Edward Thomas for me to fully understand this idea. For surely that’s exactly what happened to him.

Thomas enlisted in Summer 1915 and thus embarked upon his army career that would see him volunteer to serve at the Front. He chose the road to France, not America; the road of soldier, not poet.

Yet, apart from a short gap, all the while Thomas was in the army, he continued to write poetry. A nice detail in the book is a photograph of one of his poems composed in 1916. On the page it looks just like prose. Thomas disguised it so that none of the other soldiers would know he was a poet. But it certainly is poetry, with capital letters used to indicate new lines and paragraph breaks for new stanzas.

And, although Frost went through a frosty (sorry) patch and stopped responding to Thomas’s letters for a little while, Thomas continued to write to his American friend, desiring his company all the more. His final words to Frost were these:

You are among the unchanged things that I can not or dare not think of except in flashes.

His friendship with Frost is ‘unchanged’, their paths still close even though Thomas had chosen the path away from him. And, luckily for us, while physically treading the soldier’s road to France, Thomas still mentally trod the road of the poet.

Reading in South Africa

January 23, 2012

Gosh it has been such a long time since my last post. I do hope it’s not too late to wish the dear and forgiving reader a Happy New Year.

My excuse – perhaps a little feeble – is that I’ve been on holiday. On my honeymoon, in fact. So I thought it fair enough to have a little break. And before that our roof and car broke. And before that it was Christmas … and … ummm … the dog ate it.

I have not, however, had a break from reading.

Christmas was a spent grazing on some of Stella Gibbons’s short stories, winningly republished by Vintage as Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Perfect for the Reading-Gassing Challenge. And I read Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, which was utterly delightful and spurred a New Year’s Resolution to read more children’s books.

Indeed, I wrote rather an irreverent piece for the Spectator about New Year’s Reading Resolutions – which you can read here. One of my suggestions was to read geographically, which I expect many of you know is a firm belief of mine. So it’s a great shame that I didn’t follow my own advice when it came to picking books for my honeymoon in South Africa.

I had been reading The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen over New Year.

It is a magnificent book, about a love affair in wartime London. Ever since I so enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen’s book about her family home in Ireland, Bowen’s Court (see this piece here), I longed to read more, and I thought that Christmas was a good time for such a treat.

I won’t go on about Bowen too much – as otherwise I’ll never get up to the South Africa bit of this post, which is what it’s supposed to be about. I should quickly warn you that it’s a bit of a tricky book to get into. It’s full of long sentences with clauses that seem to come in rather a peculiar order:

She had left a lamp alight on the stool beside him: the watery circle on the ceiling seemed for the moment to swell or tremble – so earthquake stories begin; but this could be only London giving one of her sleepy galvanic shudders, of which an echo ran through his relaxed limbs.

It’s a beautiful sentence which makes perfect sense, but wow does it meander along. And the language and inflection does seem curiously dated, sounding less natural now than it might have in the forties.

But I loved it. There are two passages in particular that are some of the best writing I’ve read anywhere. In fact, I reached the first one on the sleeper train up to Inverness just before New Year’s Eve. I lay in my bunk reading it in a sort of dream, absolutely spellbound. It was only when the steward came in, looked shocked to see me still there and told me we’d been at the station for the past fifteen minutes, that I realised it really was something else!

As far as books go, I was still in that sleepy, holidaying, Christmassy mode when it came to choosing what to read during my honeymoon in South Africa. That first week of January was quite dreadful for me. Everything in London went horribly wrong and our car broke and the balcony was leaking and we had to do all sorts of exhausting things like rip up decking and lug trees around and phone up insurance companies, so I momentarily stopped reading anything whatsoever – there wasn’t a spare moment to read anything other than terrifying To Do lists.

So, although I eyed up a couple of Damon Galguts and Coetzees, I simply didn’t want to buy them. I still yearned for the indulgent reads of Christmas – the pleasure of reading sure-fire hits, books that I knew I’d love and had been longing to read for ages. Which is why I ignored the geographical rule…

I packed Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, which I suspect will win the Costa Prize tomorrow. (Some of you might remember my lusting after the hardback, which prompted my reading Hollis’s new edition of Thomas’s poetry, written about here.) I also took along New Finnish Grammar, which turned up rather fortuitously in my stocking, and, finally, Maurice by Forster, as I’ve wanted to read it ever since getting drunk one night at university and somebody telling me it was one of the best books he’d ever read. I do love E.M. Forster.

In short, I was a nincompoop.

Of course I got to South Africa and found the experience of reading Elizabeth Bowen on safari far too strange. How could I spend from 5am to 9am being driven around, looking at lions and giraffe and other amazing creatures in the boiling beauty of the Kalahari desert, only to return to the room and read about London being bombed? Well I managed it, but it was such a shame to force this disconnect between the different worlds. Rather than them enhancing each other, I had to enjoy them as separate things, each one an escape from the other. I’d much rather have read it in London, where I am 99% of the time.

After our amazing few days on safari – how I could go on about the giraffe in particular, but I shall spare you – we went to Cape Town. On finishing Elizabeth Bowen, I discovered that I had no desire whatsoever to read anything I’d packed. I wanted to learn more about South Africa. I was there and so of course wanted to try and make sense of it. I wanted to read about the big things like their very troubled history and about the little things like people making ‘brais’ all the time (barbecues – they’re obsessed). I knew that I couldn’t let my brain be taken over by Edward Thomas, E.M. Forster or anyone else who wasn’t South African, while I was there.

So I found myself in the idiotic situation of needing to find a bookshop as soon as possible. Talk about a busman’s holiday.

But we found a very nice bookshop, had a good little browse, and in the end I settled for a newish memoir by André Brink, A Fork in the Road. Gosh I was cross that I hadn’t bought it from my own bookshop!

To be completely honest, I don’t think it was the best choice. It was definitely quite good. And I was pleased to read it out there. Having just seen springboks bounding through the desert, I could immediately identify the one on the cover.

It was particularly interesting to read about Brink’s childhood, growing up in a small village, and learning about the unquestioned separation of the whites from the blacks – even when they played together as children:

As the daylight faded, we would disperse and go to our different homes: we, the white boys, to the sprawling homestead of the farmer, the black boys to their huts and hovels. This was never discussed. It didn’t even occur to us to do so. It was how the world functioned, according to the same immutable laws that governed the rising or setting of sun and moon…

Brink writes very well about fear. He uses the striking image of his childhood fear of there being a black man under the bed to crystallise a major issue for the country. (Please somebody write a thesis about the black man under the bed compared to the madwoman in the attic.) He also writes well about there being so much violence:

Somewhere in the background there always lurks something vaguely sinister or overtly menacing, something violent, something inexplicable. A sense of sin and menace without which no village could survive.

The instances of violence from his childhood are shocking and appallingly well-rendered, haunting stories that mean I’ll never forget the ‘blood-streaked face’ and the ‘dull smacking sound of those blows’.

On the back cover, the Literary Review is quoted saying that Brink is ‘at his considerable best’ in ‘the first sixty pages of his autobiography’. And I’m inclined to agree – the first sixty pages really are stunningly good. And there are some more good bits later. His account of being followed by the Special Branch police force during the seventies, when Apartheid rule was at its peak, is chilling to say the least.

But there are also endless digressions about all the women he’s loved. Ingrid, H, Alta, Karina … one beautiful poetic tragic nymph is lined up after another, which I’m afraid left me feeling bored and a little nauseous. And there’s rather a lot of Brink placing himself at the centre of a literary and artistic scene, which at its worst feels like long chunks of name-dropping.

And – dare I say it? In my exceedingly humble opinion, I thought there were quite a few passages that were very pretentious. They are mostly while he’s off gallivanting around Europe. For instance, there’s a terrible bit about  seeing some Picassos at the Tate:

… a spiritual tsunami. Never before this day had I fully realised that the impact of Picasso was comparable to that of Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Beethoven.

That kind of writing is just not my cup of tea. I kept wanting to shout: ‘Shut up and get back to South Africa and write about how it was growing up and being a liberal writer under the Apartheid regime!’ Because those bits really are good. Oh well, as one would say in South Africa, ‘shame’.

Well I now have a rather pleasing South African hangover in the form of The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Black Diamond by Zakes Mda. Now they are sitting by my bed in London, next to the as-yet-unread Matthew Hollis, E.M. Forster and Diego Marani, newly-plucked from my suitcase, and a few others that have been jostling for my attention at the end of last year. And, I have to say, it feels pleasantly exciting to know there’s a stack of good books to keep me going through the winter. I feel a little like a squirrel with a stash of hazelnuts. The only tricky thing is choosing which to read first.