Books 2018

Books 2018 – All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski

all-of-nothing

I discovered Walter Kempowski’s novel, All For Nothing, during a trip to the London Review Bookshop where I spotted it on the LRB Recommends shelf.  I hadn’t previously heard of the author but I was attracted to the story as it was described on the outside back cover which begins,

“It is January 1945.  The German army is retreating from the Russian advance and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot”.

I still harbour a deep interest in the war, developed during childhood through playing with Airfix models and Airfix toy soldiers and this was a story I was familiar with through the books of, amongst others, Anthony Beevor.

Walter Kempwski, I learned, was a chronicler of German history throughout the war and All For Nothing was his last book before he died in 2007.  It is translated which caused me to baulk slightly due to the last German book I read which was poorly translated from the German, Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada.  I noticed the translator of AFN was Anita Bell who, through the power of the internet, I learned is the brother of Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent known as the Man In The White Suit during the time he successfully campaigned to become MP for the Tatton constituency as an Independent MP in 1997.  Ms Bell’s credentials are impeccable and I seem to recall reading she has received an OBE or was it an MBE?  I can’t remember but she provides an excellent translation.

What a story.  By 1945 the tide of the second world war in the East had turned decisively with The Red Army standing at the border of the German Frontier waiting for the order to launch a counter invasion and bring the war to an end.  Scores of refugees are already passing through the little town of Mitkau in Eastern Prussia, fleeing from the occupied territories in the face of the Russian onslaught.  The story centres on The Georgenhof, a once grand country estate now in semi-ruin where the beautiful but unworldly Katharina von Globig lives with her son Peter while her husband Eberhard has a comfortable desk job in Northern Italy supervising the sequestration of Italian produce to feed the Third Reich.  Along with the von Globigs lives a sinewy old spinster, the indomitable housekeeper ‘Auntie’ who keeps everything running, a pair of squabbling Ukrainian women and a former Polish army private.  The house is visited upon by a succession of characters who help make up the ensemble cast of the book and whose own stories intertwine with those of the refugees in their great trek west.

The pessimism contained in the book’s title provides an inkling of where the story goes as defeat for Nazi Germany looms and the family face the prospect of joining the refugees or staying to face the Russians.  Refugees are temporarily billeted in the house and each have their own stories to tell which pepper the book with interest and intrigue We often meet up with these characters somewhere else as the story progresses as we learn their fate, often seen through the eyes of a child.  It’s a story of epic movement and touches on the plight of refugees in the modern world and the human story of those millions of people who give up everything to flee in the face of something cataclysmically worse.

Here’s a great book, written around an extraordinary story from recent history by an author we really deserve to read more of in the English speaking world.

Books 2018

Books 2018 – Ways of Seeing

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Phew, what a read;  I think I read each paragraph, on average, three times or as many times as it took for me to comprehend what was on the page.  You see, when it comes to art, I don’t know my stuff.  The book is attributed to John Berger as author but inside its making is credited to five individuals, none of whom I have heard of, except for John Berger.

John Berger, I know, was an intellectual.  I have watched a couple of videos of him including one of him in conversation with American intellectual giant Susan Sontag and I recently finished another of his books, Confabulations (see previous review).

Published in 1972, Ways of Seeing is written by an intellectual in an intellectual style.  But at a time when there were only 2 or 3 TV channels and AJP Tayor could command a huge prime-time TV audience just by standing infant of a camera and speaking, off the cuff, about history for half an hour.  Our population at that time had not yet been subject to the dumbed-down, celebrity led culture which began in earnest in the 1980s.  Before then, when miners formed their own poetry groups, people could read this kind of stuff and understand it.  I often struggled but even though I feel like I read this book three or more times in one go, I kind of got it.  In fact, part way through I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and the knowledge I gained from both this book and the recently read Keeping an Eye Open by Julia Barnes helped me enjoy a much more tangible experience with art.

John Berger was a committed Marxist and saw art as the province of the ruling classes.  He makes many references to capitalism, ownership, class and the objectivity of women in art.  Many of his political points are supported by the inclusion of a gallery of paintings depicted in black and white thought the book.  Published in 1971 it is the earliest example in a book I know of which covers the subject of sexism by the objectification of women in culture and art in the centuries of patriarchal society.  Berger describes a painting of a nude woman by Memling (1435-1494).  An attractive woman painted in full frontal nudity, is holding a mirror and thus the painting is called Vanity.  The mirror is a device simply used to disparage the woman and detract from the real intention of the commissioner or buyer of the painting to provide sexual titillation, a  form of 15th century pornography.

The final chapter brings art up to date (or as up to date as it could have been in 1971) by both focussing on publicity and drawing on the parallels between painting in oil and advertising.  I took from this chapter the line, “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.”   Where art was once commissioned by men of property to project their status, now, publicity is used to fill the space caused by the deficit in democracy in our age of consumerism by projecting the image of our future selves which, as much as we envy it, is never attainable always deferred.

If, like me, you’ve been to a gallery and felt intimidated by the sheer volume of art on display without having a real understanding of whether it’s any good or not, you will gain a great deal of insight from this book and books like it.  I read it through over three days but feel like I read it three or four times it was that much of a challenge.  It was first published in 1972 at a time when miners formed poetry groups at colliery meetings and austere historian AJP Taylor could command an enormous prime-time TV audience just from standing before a camera and speaking, unscripted, for thirty minutes on a topic from history.  It’s a reminder of just how dumbed-down our culture has become over the past three decades but this book remains accessible if challenging and the reward for reading it is immense.  Read it and then visit a gallery.  I was pleased to note that some of the art on display at The Whitworth was crap but other was sublime – that will be Francis N Souza.

Books 2018

Books 2018 – Confabulations

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What would you like to know about this book?  That I couldn’t put it down?  That I read it over two days?  That I can’t remember much of the content?  That it is utterly brilliant?

When a friend mentioned the name John Berger to me recently it lightly tinkled a bell in my subconscious but nothing Quasimodo would be interested in peeling.  But on being told his book Ways Of Seeing is a must read insight into understanding art, I was more intrigued by the content of the back cover of Confabulations which begins, “Language is a body, a living creature…”  I bought it.

John Berger is a story-teller; or rather was.  I learned he died in 2017 and, prompted to look at some videos he produced, I recognised that familiar, rugged face.  There is an episode of a 60 minute programme he made for Chanel 4 television back in 1984 called About Time in which he explores the concept of time, punctuating his own thinking with fables and stories of old in a style reminiscent of Aesop and a book of his fables I read as a small boy.  Another video sees him in an hour long tête-à-tête with Susan Sontag.  They discuss story-telling but lofty as the conversation is, it felt contrived.

Confabulations is a book of stories from Berger’s own experience which he relates to the subject of language.  Language in all things, song, in art, in objects, even in flowers all born of the mother tongue.  I was reminded of a line in Maggie Nelson’s book, Argonauts, my first reading of 2018 in which she asked, are words good enough?  John Berger is certain they are not:

“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic.  And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

John Berger’s stories are wonderfully entertaining and the great thing about reviewing a book is it provides an opportunity to revisit them.  I did and they contain more and offer more the more they are read.  They are mainly about lives, lives different to our own but appealing lives, lives we would perhaps like to live ourselves if only we weren’t so tied to the lives we live.

Please read this book.  It has helped me understand where language exists and where to find it.  It is a book of discoveries and to discover it is to enrich.

 

books

Books 2018 – Keeping an Eye Open

julian-barnes-art-essaysI first came across this book in a review on another blog.  It would be a struggle for me to find it again but it was complementary and struck me as a book which could teach me a thing or two about art and how to enjoy it.  Last year I visited The Manchester Art Gallery and The Walker Gallery in Liverpool.  I saw some paintings I liked and many I didn’t or couldn’t really be bothered to give more than a five second glance to.  To be honest I didn’t ‘get’ many of them and didn’t know how to.  In fact, I felt quite disappointed while walking around The Walker; pictures you had to walk backwards and backwards from due to the position of a light throwing an almighty blob of luminescence right across the canvass at the optimum viewing angle.

But then, a few years ago, lazing by a swimming pool in Spain I read Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians which shed its own light on paintings from the Victorian era. The book described how many works of art from the period reflected the growing technological advances of the era and the developing sense of women’s sexual awakening.  Paxman spent a good few pages on Ford Madox Brown’s, Work which I confronted me during my walk around The Manchester Art Gallery.  The whole canvass was a revelation because I got it, I really did get it because, thanks to Paxman I knew how to read it and solve it.  It was a revelatory moment during which I genuinely enjoyed regarding a painting.  And when the Arts Officer at the local council told me what a wonderful gallery The Walker is, I realised I was missing something, largely through ignorance.

So on another visit to the wonderful London Review Bookshop I bought Keeping an Eye Open.  I began it in mid January but my reading was curtailed for two weeks when I was struck down with flu and I had neither the energy or inclination to do anything as remotely active as holding up a book.  But on making a full recovery I returned to this very readable book which contains a collection of essays by the author primarily known for writing novels including Booker winner The Sense Of An Ending.  This work of non-fiction focuses on the art and lives of, in mostly chronological order, a succession of artists rom Géricault to Hodgkin, many of whom I hadn’t even heard of.   It’s by thanks to the wonder of the internet as well as some handy prints on the pages I realised I had seen many of the paintings described but had done nothing more than assign their image to my subconscious.

Each essay offers a compact biography of each artist highlighting their friends, their contemporaries, their lovers and their beligerancies.  It helped me understand that a painting is not some two dimensional drawing on canvas but an expression of the thought and attitude of the artist which contains more within it than the latest box-set available to download from Netflix.  As the title tells us, it’s all about keeping an eye open and not being a “window-shopping gallery-goer”, who will give a painting, “a five second glance”.

Keeping an Eye Open is a great introduction to artists and art.  It doesn’t talk down to the reader but invites them to see art for what it is and how to enjoy it.  Now I’ve completed it, I can’t wait to re-visit The Walker!