I have an in-built resistance to the current glut of self-help books on the subject of “happiness”. I’ve had a few of them sent to me and find them all very much the same, and I somehow doubt that you can learn to be happy by reading a book. Happiness is a nebulous thing anyway – most of us seem to be pretty content to bumble along feeling reasonable enough but also having no illusions that a state of constant happiness is either achievable or even desirable.
After all, isn’t a state of happiness only possible if you’ve known a corresponding period of unhappiness? We only enjoy weekends because we’ve had to go to work in the week. Before I ramble on too much, let me say that whatever my feelings about “happiness” books in general, I’m going to make an exception for this one, A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson.
The book is simple in concept. It contains 99 written accounts of times or things which made people happy, the “people” in this case being a wide and highly eclectic range of historic characters such as Robert Schumann, Anna Seward, John James Audubon, Montaigne, Horace, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Wordsworth and Anselm of Canterbury. Each episode is followed by a short commentary by George Myerson who tells his readers a little about the writers and fills out the context of the short pieces with information about what was going on in their lives at the time.
The result is rather like reading many short diary extracts, and reminded me a little of John Sutherland’s excellent anthology Love, Sex, Death and Words which provides a daily snapshot of an equally varied set of people (I have this book on my Kindle and often look up the entry for the current day). But with this Happiness book, I find that it does actually remind me to look for those little episodes in the day when everything comes together in a brief moment of calm. Continue reading
Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.
I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so. I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.
It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page. As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”. What a job for a translator!
Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge. But would reading it be enough? Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.
I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.
Back in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny. The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.
The “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).
Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route. He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s. His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.
Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.
Anyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans – A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.
Philip did rather well in Britain. While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy. He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian. His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring. If you’re prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.
It would be easy to write this review entirely by quoting some of the more memorable passages from the book. To see British culture through German eyes is not always an experience which makes you feel proud of your country, especially when for example, you read of Philip’s induction into the tradition of the British Sunday lunch.
“One of my father’s new colleagues had invited us for a welcoming meal which she announced as ‘a Sunday roast’ when we stepped into her house. We had barely taken off our jackets when our host – all wavy coiffured hair and buck teeth – hugged us emphatically and tried to kiss me on my cheeks. She had accompanied the words ‘Sunday roast’ with a showy movement of the hands, like a butler lifting a silver dish cover, conveying an impression of ceremony and theatre. A Sunday roast, this hand movement tried to say, was not like any other meal”.
The story of the 20th century can be told in big, sweeping brush-strokes charting the rise and fall of dictators and political movements, the vast spread of world wars and the chaotic effects of natural disasters. But so often the stories of individuals have so much more to say to us about the day-to-day impact of world movements, the way in which the super-scale phenomena of geopolitics can shape a single life from birth to death and say more about the past than any text-book history.
Yudit Kiss’s book, The Summer My Father Died, tells the story of her father, a Hungarian academic and ardent communist, a Jew, who as a child found himself in a foundling home and somehow missed being transported to an extermination camp unlike most of his relatives. Yudit’s book focuses on the last years of her father’s life, during which he suffered two brain tumours, surviving the first one for seven years until being hit by the second which eventually killed him.
However, the book is more of a memoir than a biography for as she writes at the beginning of her book, “the story of my father’s death is interwoven with another story that is not concerned with the series of real changes in my father or the events surrounding him. This other story is made of memories, thoughts and emotions that followed, blended with and, in some cases anticipated reality”.
A new book from Giles Milton is always welcome – he is a fine writer of what might be called “narrative non-fiction” – often telling the story of forgotten episodes in history, such as in Nathaniels Nutmeg, about the battle between the Dutch and the English for control of the nutmeg trade, or Paradise Lost, a harrowing account of the the sacking of the Turkish port of Smyrna in 1922. I think if I were a writer I would very much enjoy taking Giles Milton’s approach – selecting an episode which no-one else has written about in recent years, conducting in-depth research in libraries across the world and then compiling a wholly well-written and readable book which is more or less certain to be well-received.
In the case of Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War (Kindle edition here), Giles Milton was able to work closer to home for it tells the story of his father in law, Wolfram Aïchele, who managed to become a successful Paris-based artist after defiantly surviving several years in the German Army during the Russian Campaign and the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Elif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.
This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here. The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).
I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read. As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.
I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!). Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.