Tuesday, 25 September 2007
Lord Jim and a Tree
Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my hobby horses is talking about the world's great literature, particularly that of the non-European and non-English speaking world. Think of all those African and Asian writers we know so little about, I say. Haven't we heard enough about Dickens and Austen? Isn't it time for something new?
The only trouble with this is that there is a tendency to turn my back on English literature, of which for the most part I'm actually quite fond. Take Dickens, for example. A few months back, my girlfriend returned from the local library bearing two DVD box sets. One was Simon Schama's The Power of Art and the other was the BBC's recent production of Bleak House. As I look up to Schama as something of a role model, I was most keen to see the former, but Bleak House? Oh please, I said, I can't sit through that. I'd read Bleak House when I was at university in England and written essays about it, and I'd sat through the old BBC production with Denholm Eliot and Diana Rigg.
Bleak House is a fabulous book, one of the essential reads of English literature, but I'd already ticked that box, I couldn't possibly sit through the whole thing again. Yet I reluctantly watched the first episode and before I knew it I was completely hooked. This is the BBC at their absolute best - the marvellous performances turned in by the cream of the British acting profession (Charles Dance in particular is outstanding as Tulkinghorn), the superb screenplay and directing - all make it compulsive viewing. In the end, I watched the last six episodes back to back and was so filled with long-forgotten Dickens enthusiasm that I wanted to go back and re-read Bleak House. Instead I have vowed to read Little Dorrit in the near future, one of those (probably) essential classics that I have never got round to.
I had a similar wave of English literature longing/ nostalgia earlier today at my house in Japan when I read an interesting review by Cedric Watts in the Financial Times of a new book on Joseph Conrad. Apparently the author of this new book remarks that Conrad is not quite a 'great' novelist. I must admit to being something of a Conrad fan myself, having read in my early twenties all of his novels. Conrad's work is certainly something of a mixed bag. The late stuff like Chance is pure pap, and while I have a fondness for Victory I certainly wouldn't claim it to be a great novel. There's something to the idea that Conrad's work never recovered its intellectual intensity after Conrad's nervous breakdown incurred while writing Nostromo. Even the political stuff like Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent don't quite hit the spot for me. And yet when Conrad was at the top of his game - in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo - it really is as good as it gets in terms of literature.
I flew back to Japan on Sunday and, under a little pressure from my editor in Tokyo, spent the entire flight working on the final proofs for my new book. I arrived a little boggle-eyed and made my way to my house in Nishinomiya and having done a bit of last-minute fact checking in the library of books I keep in Japan I finally conked out at 7pm. I then woke again at nearly midnight, and carried on working on the proofs until morning, when I finally got the proof back in the post to Tokyo. Completely shattered, I went to bed again at 1pm.
While all this was going on however something very disturbing was happening in the close proximity. My house overlooks a centuries-old tree, kept in the garden of the neighbouring large house. It is one of the very few natural wonders in the sea of suburban concrete that stretches for miles around, and one of the main reasons why I chose to live in this particular house. I can look out my windows and see nothing but greenery and, best of all, the tree is protected by Hyogo Prefecture.
Yet yesterday, I noticed that part of one of the tree's branches was lying in the neighbouring garden. I assumed it had perhaps been blown off in a recent typhoon. But then this morning, to my horror, a squadron of 'tree surgeons' arrived with a heavy vehicle and automatised extension ladders and began setting to work systematically cutting off section by section the lower parts of the tree. The older couple who own the large house next door had obviously taken it into their heads to drastically reduce the size of the tree.
It was a sickening sight, like watching a gang of mindless henchmen at work at some profoundly evil act. It wasn't just pruning, it was literally cutting it back in places towards its stump, as if it was some kind of giant bonsai. It is one of the few truly beautiful things for miles around, that has taken decades to reach its present expanse, and yet here it was having its limbs casually amputated.
I felt truly flustered by this whole business. How could this be happening? Wasn't there a preservation order from the prefecture on the tree? Had the owners got permission to do so? I felt that I should ring up the town hall and try and find out or go out and talk to the owners. But I was dead-tired with jet-lag and under pressure to finish the proof-reading and besides, this wasn't even my own country and I'd only been back a day. So I just tried to put the tree out of my mind, get on with my work and go to bed.
But perhaps due to reading about Conrad earlier in the day, when I woke up I started thinking about Lord Jim. It's one of Conrad's great insights that personality is revealed through action, that it is how we act at moments of sudden crisis that reveal what type of person we are. In the case of Lord Jim, he feels responsible for the deaths of a boatload of Muslim pilgrims, and is haunted by his own sense of failure at the crucial moment and desperately seeks to redeem himself.
We all I think potter about thinking that if we were faced with a crisis then we would act in the right way. We marvel for example that people in the 1930's sat back and watched, or merely put their heads in the sand while the Nazis perpetrated their horrors. We wouldn't do that, would we?
And yet, here I am, having faced my own little moment of unexpected crisis and discovering that I have completely failed the test. I sat back and did nothing. Now I am living next door to a somewhat mutilated tree. Like Lord Jim, I looked for my moment of redemption and waited to see if the 'tree surgeons' came back today. 'I might be in a foreign land, but if they do, this time they will have a fight on their hands!', I vowed. But today all is quiet. The 'pruning' of the tree is presumably over. I feel quite sorry for the poor old tree and even more ashamed of my lack of resolution, pointless as it may have been. I look up at the remaining branches and, to paraphrase Flaubert, mumble 'Lord Jim? C'est moi'.