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'.


Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Losing God in Stockholm

Well hello, blogsters. Yes, I know it’s been a while. How have you been keeping? I’ve been meaning to write for the longest time, but with one thing and another…

It’s always fatal of course to pronounce – as I did in June – that I was looking forward to getting some writing done. No sooner had I written up my Argentine notebooks than the first draft of my new book in Japanese (Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature) arrived from Tokyo. Now I had in mind that this time – unlike my previous book excursions – the whole process would be rather easy. After all I had written the book in English and it was being translated into Japanese so there would be no excruciating ponderings of Japanese syntax. But how wrong I was! It was of course incumbent upon me to check the veracity of the translation and to generally answer editing queries, but gosh, what a long and drawn-out process it has been. As the weeks of summer have rolled on, the proposed date of publication has gently rolled back, and still there is more fact-checking and fine tuning to be done. I can as ever only be enormously grateful to my editor and translator for their ceaseless efforts to make this long-delayed book something special.

Meanwhile I was also busy on a variety of other fronts. I gave a couple of talks, one in Japan to group mainly consisting of professional translators, and one at Manchester Art Gallery, to a group who were an eclectic mixture of people with Japan interests plus a variety of friends. I was quite worried on both occasions that no one would actually show up, but the first event attracted about thirty people and the second event about fifty, pretty much filling the lecture theatre, so both may be said to have gone well. I’m starting to get on a roll with these talks, supplementing my ramblings with power point presentations and amusing images which my girlfriend supplies. I’ve been invited to give a couple more in the autumn so I’m beginning to feel like a seasoned performer with a list of tour dates.

Anyway, as well as embroiling myself in the usual editing hell, giving the odd talk and embarking on a building project on my house in England, I have also made a few excursions. For five nights I stayed on a wonderful Croatian island called Sipan. It being August, the weather was a little too hot, but the island really was paradisaical – what I imagine the Greek islands were like back in the 1960’s before all the concrete arrived. On Sipan, there is just one hotel by the port and a genuine village atmosphere and nothing else to do all day but potter by sea through the olive groves or sit in the shade and read.

For the past ten days however, I have been in Sweden – somewhere I have long wanted to come and am writing this from the poolside of the Sturebadet spa in Stockholm, having just enjoyed a full Swedish massage. My reading material in Sweden has not been what you might expect. I should have really perused the plays of Strindberg (to my shame I have never read any of them, nor could I be bothered to visit inside his house, though I walked past it). Instead, about a year after everyone else, I have been ravenously reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

What a marvellous book this is. I find it bizarre that it has taken me so long to get round to reading anything by Dawkins, but I think what initially put me off reading The God Delusion was that I already didn’t believe in God so it seemed like ‘What was the point? I don’t need convincing, I’m convinced already.’ Indeed, I inwardly groaned when I heard of staunch, committed and confirmed atheists reading it. It was too soft a target, I thought.

The important thing about The God Delusion however is that Dawkins not only convincingly points out all the reasons why a belief in God is irrational, but also that he then goes on to highlight all the ways in which religion has a pernicious influence. He targets the unquestioning respect which is afforded to religious faith and the absurd way in which religious leaders (surely the most deluded of the deluded) are wheeled out to pontificate on the problems of society as if they have a particular (god-given?) right to do so.

I am 95% in agreement with everything Dawkins writes and heartily recommend the book to everyone, but I must say there are a couple of areas where Dawkins and I part company. For one thing, although I admire the whole scientific enterprise and find lots of fascination in the latest scientific discoveries and theories, I’m not convinced that science is somehow going to give us ultimate enlightenment about the universe. It seems to me that while science is incredibly valuable in changing our perception of the world, it has a tendency to keep on raising as many questions as it answers. (Which is of course a good thing).

Some people seem to think that the gap between scientific understanding and ultimate enlightenment is where God comes in. Dawkins rightly points out that this is a nonsense. However what I don’t agree with is that science itself is going to bridge this gap. I’m all for getting rid of God and religion, but that doesn’t mean that science should attempt to take their place. It would be smarter – and a lot more realistic in my opinion – to realise that ultimate enlightenment is just not going to happen. And frankly we don’t need it anyway.

Dawkins starts off The God Delusion by quoting Douglas Adams who asks whether it isn’t enough to wonder at the beauty of a garden without believing that there are fairies at the bottom of it. But I would respond that we don’t need to ‘wonder’ at all. Frankly I don’t go into my garden and ‘wonder’; nor do I believe there are fairies at the bottom of it.

It’s curious in the ‘science versus religion’ debate that science has the tendency to come over all religious itself. We should ‘wonder’ at the miracle of evolution and all the billions and billions of stars in the sky. How wondrous is the cosmos that we live in! How precious our human consciousness within that cosmos! Carl Sagan – the archbishop of ‘wondrous’ science – wrote at the beginning of Cosmos how thrilled he was in the vastness of space and the countless aeons to share a lifetime with so-and-so. But it’s all such terrible schmaltz. Can’t we dump God and religion in the dustbin where they belong without science feeling it has to get all doe-eyed, ‘wondrous’ and full of religiosity in its place?

That’s where I slightly disagree with Dawkins – that somehow science is a replacement for religion, and that science and religion are the only games in town. You can, I think, have freed yourself from the evils of God and religion without giving yourself over totally to ‘science’ and ‘rationalism’ (important and valuable though they are).

For me, there will always be a place in my heart for godless irrationality, for holding two thoughts and two conflicting instincts at the same time. I’m with Nietzsche. God is dead. But science is not the new God. There is no new God. And thank heaven for that.