Monday, December 12, 2016

Recent Reads - December 2016

At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blackwell

If you don't know your Heidigger from your Husserl this is the place to go. It traces the roots of Existentialism from its beginnings in Phenomenology to its literary apotheosis in the writings of Sartre and Camus. It also introduces you to that unfailingly nice man Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  The core of existentialism is personal freedom and personal responsibility. You're on your own mate so get on with it. The concept of angst is the dread that can accompany that requirement to constantly make ourselves who we are. The essence of this book is that it makes the discussion around these concepts accessible and that it uses the lives of the protagonists to illustrate this philosophy in practice. And we get further detail on how that great feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir pimped for Sartre. He was apparently too pug ugly to look for himself.

One of Us by Anne Seierstad

 This tells the story of Anders Behring the right-wing crank who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.  It's an absorbing read and tells us as much about Norwegian society and the essential decency of its people as it does about its sociopathic villain. At the end of the book when Behring has been captured and is being interviewed ("interrogated" would be too strong a word) you will be astonished at the forbearance of the police at his arrogant demands. After what's gone on before you are hoping for a bit of old-fashioned police brutality. The book takes us through Behring's unsettled childhood and over-protective mother and charts the various intercessions of the social services who certainly play a very proactive role in Norwegian life. Behring was at various stages a prominent tagger (graffiti artist), business man and political activist before settling in to a life playing violent computer games. Maybe that's why he found it so easy to embark on a deadly shooting spree - just adding another dimension to what he'd been doing online. The book also inserts us into the lives of a number of his victims so we can feel their loss more acutely. It's a engaging and disturbing book.

 Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

 This biography will not make you like Ted Hughes. And the occasional prurient details it provides of his sex life (it mentions twice how he "ruptured" Assia Weevil during sex) don't seem necessary. However, it is very good on the details of his background and on his inability to deal with Plath's suicide in his poetry until late in his life. A lot of his energies went in to maintaining a network of girl-friends and you end the book with a sense of a failed career. Between the highlight of Crow and the later confessional Birthday Letters (which dealt with Plath's suicide) there was much mediocrity.  He produced an inordinate number of small and very expensive limited editions of his existing poems. The best side of him was his love of nature and his passion for fishing. He spent many holidays in Ireland in the company of Barrie Cooke and of Richard Murphy and often spoke of settling here - away from the incestuous London literary world.

 Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson

 This biography will make you like Samuel Beckett even more. Is there a more self-effacing major writer in the history of literature? His rueful self-deprecation is so pronounced as to be a shtick. He is living his dictum 'I can't go on ... I'll go on." Knowlson was a friend of Beckett's and is very good on his European influences and his incredibly broad range of knowledge. He was a true intellectual. He seemed to court the company of artists more than writers and was a big fan of Jack Yeats. I hadn't realised how extreme his poverty was during the early years of the War - he and his long-suffering wife Suzanne literally lived on hand-outs. Suzanne was very important in the promotion of his career before he achieved fame but then gradually faded into the background of his life. Once he achieved financial comfort following Godot, he was extremely generous to all and sundry. For a man who asserted the meaninglessness of life and the futility of endeavour he was pretty punctilious in supervising the productions of his plays all over the world. He was notorious for making a pedantic nuisance of himself at rehearsals and was on occasions asked to absent himself. His love life was hardly attenuated either and in fine French fashion maintained a mistress right to the end.