Tag Archives: non-fiction

‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’ by Hilary Spurling

I have always been rather ambivalent towards biographies as I find the minutiae of people’s lives rather dull reading, especially when we have to wade through the subject’s childhood and ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’; but certain people have generated enough interest in me to find out about their lives and quite a lot of those subjects have been authors. Typically those I have read biographies of have been authors that have led exciting or extraordinary lives, those I’ve read a large amount of their work and those whose work is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Part of the interest of reading biographies of those authors whose work is at least partially autobiographical is comparing the work with their real life and this was, in part, the interest for me in reading this recent biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling. Writers, such as Powell and Proust, as well as their biographers warn us that we shouldn’t be looking for real life comparisons of characters in their books, but in the end it’s just too tempting to resist, especially when many of the novelists’ characters do have real-life counterparts and events are similar to those in the author’s life; I then think we are justified in looking for them and as long as we’re grown-up enough to realise that there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one connection, that not all the characters are taken from real life and that some may be a mixture of different people or just inventions of the author then I don’t see any harm in this pastime.

At first Anthony Powell’s life doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting topic but as with his novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, it is the characters that he comes in contact with as well as his reflections on them and himself that ends up making this an interesting book to read. Spurling doesn’t attempt anything fancy, instead she cracks on from 1905, the year of Powell’s birth, giving a brief description of Powell’s mother and father and his childhood years before surging on. The opening sentences gives a picture of these early years.

Small, inquisitive and solitary, the only child of an only son, growing up in rented lodgings or hotel rooms, constantly on the move as a boy, Anthony Powell needed an energetic imagination to people a sadly under-populated world from a child’s point of view. His mother and his nurse were for long periods the only people he saw, in general the one unchanging element in a peripatetic existence.

His mother was very introverted, religious and had a liking for the occult, whereas his father was explosive and demanding and mostly absent from Anthony’s early life, especially once WWI began as he was an officer in the army. Spurling then covers Powell’s school years at New Beacon School in Sevenoaks, Kent followed by Eton, where he became friends with Henry Green, and then on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh.

Although the sections on Powell’s schooldays and university period are of interest as we get to see the young Anthony Powell and we can compare it with Nick Jenkin’s life in the first novel of ‘Dance’, the biography really became interesting for me after he left university and he began work at the publishers Gerald Duckworth and Co. in London. It’s here where we start to see several interesting characters filtering through Powell’s life. Duckworth’s was a strange publishers for young Powell to end up at as the owner seems rather uninterested in publishing books and tries to block any attempts to revitalise the firm. But it is at Duckworth’s that Powell begins to experience life more fully and on his own terms. During this period he has love affairs, meets artists, buys a car and starts writing his first novel, Afternoon Men. Spurling does an excellent job in portraying the rather seedy bohemian lifestyle that Powell was immersed in. His rather dilapidated lodgings in Shepherd Market appealed to him as a counterpoint to his life at Oxford. Reading the chapters on this period in Powell’s life has really made me want to read more of his pre-WWII (and pre-‘Dance’) novels, especially What’s Become of Waring?, which is set in a publishers much like Duckworth’s – see Karen’s review at Kaggsybookishramblings.

During a visit to Pakenham Hall, Ireland, he met and fell in love with Violet Pakenham, whom he married in 1934. Powell left Duckworth’s and tried, but failed, to make it in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. During the war he entered the army as a Second Lieutenant and, like Nick Jenkins, ended up in Intelligence. The post-war years were somewhat difficult for Powell, as they must have been for nearly everyone. Spurling describes Powell’s moments of depression during this period, convinced that he’d wasted the most productive years of his life and that he’d never write again. During the war years his sole work had been a biography of John Aubrey but it is during this period that he came across Nicolas Poussin’s painting, A Dance to the Music of Time in the Wallace Collection which was to inspire his own work.

Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection, London.

Powell worked as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and wrote a regular column at the Daily Telegraph. Powell became friends with many famous people whom most of us have heard of, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Julian MacLaren-Ross, Ivy-Compton Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and many other interesting people that I hadn’t heard of before such as Gerald Reitlinger, Edward Burra, John Heygate etc. He seems to have formed deep and lasting friendships with many of these people and to have enjoyed socialising with them, possibly making up for his rather sombre childhood at home and young adulthood at university.

Powell began writing A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of ‘Dance’, in March 1948 and which was published in 1951. When the first volume was published Powell had envisaged the whole work as ‘at least a trilogy’ but he was to continue over the next twenty-five years to publish a new novel in the series roughly every two years. It was only when he was writing the volumes relating to WWII that he knew that it was going to consist of twelve volumes. Curiously, Spurling seems to race along with the narrative once Powell begins work on ‘Dance’ and even stranger is that the biography more or less ends with the publication of the last novel of the series. There’s a Postscript which covers this period from 1975 up to Powell’s death in 2000 but it appears rather rushed especially as Powell still produced a couple of novels and a four-volume set of memoirs during this period. This is my only criticism of this excellent biography and is recommended to anyone who has read the novels of Anthony Powell.



Filed under Non-fiction, Spurling, Hilary

Ten Random Books

Today Simon at Stuck in a Book published a post called 10 random books to tell us about yourself inviting us to do just that—select ten books at random from our bookshelves as a way of getting to know fellow bloggers from their bookshelves.

So, I followed Simon’s approach and used my GoodReads shelves and an online random number generator to see what popped up. The books include everything, fiction, non-fiction, books that have been read, unread books, books I’ll probably never get to read, comics, plays, poetry etc. etc. Here’s the results:

1. ‘Travels with My Aunt’ by Graham Greene
I had a bit of a Graham Greene session a few years ago, having not read anything by him up to then, but never got round to reading this one. I’ve read several reviews by other bloggers and it really appeals—it will probably be my next Greene book.

2. The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction’ by John Sutherland
I can see why I added this to my GoodReads TBR shelf but to be honest I doubt if I’ll ever get round to reading it. I’m sure it would be a fun read though.

3. ‘Varney the Vampire Or the Feast of Blood’ by Thomas Peckett Prest & James Malcolm Rymer
I added this to my TBR as it was a group read for the Gothic Literature GoodReads group. I didn’t get round to reading it but it looks like it would be a fun book. It was a serialised Victorian gothic horror ‘penny dreadful’ first published between 1845-7. It’s not going to be top-notch literature but looks interesting enough and must be one of the first vampire stories.

4. ‘The Quarry’ by Iain Banks
This was published just days after Iain Banks’ death on 9th June 2013. I read it a few months later, along with a re-read of my favourite Banks novel The Wasp Factory, as a commemoration of Iain Banks life and works. I enjoyed it and found it somewhat similar to The Wasp Factory.

5. ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’
by Henry Fielding

This is one of those classics that I keep forgetting about. I’m sure I’d like it though I will probably want an edition with some notes. I saw the 1960s film years ago.

6. ‘Betty Blue’ by Philippe Djian
Ok, so I saw and loved the film when it came out in the late eighties but have never read the book, or anything else by Djian. I’ve read a couple of reviews recently (here and here) of Elle, which has also been made into a film starring Isabelle Hupert. I should see about reading something by Djian.

7. ‘Rowlf’ by Richard Corben
Richard Corben was a comic book artist/illustrator who produced work in the underground comics of the late 1960s and moved into the mainstream, contributing to magazines such as Heavy Metal. His work could very often be categorised as horror, sci-fi or fantasy but he had his very own distinctive style. I have a copy of this buried away somewhere along with many others; one day they will be allowed out in the sunlight again.

8. ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ by H. Rider Haggard
Basically a late Victorian adventure story. I read this in 2010 and remember being surprised at just how good it was though I was in just the right frame of mind when I read it. It’s probably incredibly poitically incorrect and I can imagine some people getting in a rage over it. Personally, I’m not shocked when Victorians don’t have the views of twenty-first century Western intellectuals.

9. ‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles
I’ve read a few books by Paul Bowles but nothing recently. I first discovered his work when I first got into ‘The Beats’; I soon realised that I generally preferred those authors that inspired the Beats rather than the Beats themselves. Every now and then I get the urge to re-read Let It Come Down and then remember that I got rid of my copy. Up Above the World looks as if it will be similar to his other works, involving travellers adrift in an alien and hostile environment. Sort of like a nastier Graham Greene and with more drugs.

10. ‘Identity’ by Milan Kundera
I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one but I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I think I was a bit disappointed with it at the time but I’d be interested to see what I’d make of it now. I had half-planned to read/re-read Kundera’s later works (i.e. post-Immortality) but haven’t got round to it yet. However I have a copy of this one and as I’m trying to read as many books from my physical TBR pile this year this one could well get read soon.

All the book cover images were taken from GoodReads.


Filed under Fiction

‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes

Figes A People's TragedyThe Russian Revolution is one of those pivotal events in world history. Did anyone see it coming? Did anyone, at the time, realise the implications for Russia and the rest of the World? I doubt it very much. I studied the Russian Revolution at school but have read surprisingly little about it since then, but I had always wondered how it was that the Bolsheviks in particular managed to gain power over such a vast country; after reading Figes’s book I think I have my answers: luck, brute force and lack of a coherent opposition. It took a long time to get to this answer though as the book is physically large and runs to over 800 pages (+100 or so pages of notes) and due to its size I could only read it during weekends as it is too bulky to read on my workday commute; as such it took me nearly three months to read—but it was a fascinating three months and I would recommend this book as a brilliant one volume history of the Russian Revolution.

The full title of the book is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and in the introduction Figes justifies starting his narrative in 1891 as this was when ‘the revolutionary crisis really started, and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the tsarist autocracy.’ And he ends it in 1924 with the death of Lenin when the revolution was basically over. At first I thought that Figes was spending too much time on the early period but I soon began to appreciate the time spent on this preliminary material. Part One, of this four part book, covers Russia under the Tsarist regime; and if we think that life during the revolution was hard and brutal then we only have to refer back to these early chapters to realise just how brutal life could be for the majority of people under the Tsars. Russia was basically a medieval society for the peasantry where the lifestyles of the urban aristocrats would have seemed totally alien to them. Figes summed up this split in Russian society thus:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

Figes devotes time to describing the nature of Tsarist Russia, especially to Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Figes portrays Nicholas as a man who was unsuitable to run Russia, especially during such turbulent times. He could be described as an ineffective ruler but he still believed in his autocratic right to rule; he was wary of competent ministers and any form of democracy and worked against these whenever he felt he could.

In a sense, Russia gained in him the worst of both worlds: a Tsar determined to rule from the throne yet quite incapable of exercising power. This was ‘autocracy without an autocrat’.

Of course, we find out about the Tsar’s household, Rasputin etc. But an interesting chapter, ‘Red Ink’, was on Russian literature during this period, how Marxism came to Russia and Lenin’s involvement in the Social Democratic Party and subsequent split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. From the outset Lenin proposed ‘a centralized and conspiratorial party of professional revolutionaries’. Although it’s more complicated than this, the essential difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is that the Mensheviks were more pro-democracy and were happier to compromise with the liberals and bourgeoisie whereas the Bolsheviks were more intransigent and bullish. Once the revolution had started these differences became more marked. In fact, reading this book made me aware of just how much Lenin orchestrated events. I had assumed beforehand that he was more of an opportunist but instead he had a plan, or rather a method, to gain power and hold onto it by whatever means necessary.

‘It all began with bread’—and so the February revolution errupted. As with other revolutons and wars details of events are very complicated with rapidly changing allegiances and power struggles. An added complication was that the revolution occurred whilst Russia was at war with Germany and her allies in the First World War. A Provisional Government was established which lasted until October when we had the Bolshevik take over. Figes explains why and how the Bolsheviks were succesful:

Everybody cursed the Bolsheviks but nobody was prepared to do anything about them.

But the crux of the Bolshevik success was a two-fold process of state-building and destruction. On the one hand, at the highest levels of the state, they sought to centralize all power in the hands of the party and, by the use of terror, to wipe out all political opposition.

As if the revolution and the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t enough there was then a civil war that lasted several years. This was an incredibly brutal war between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, national groups, Whites, Social Democrats, peasant groups etc. The Bolsheviks used whoever they could to gain power and turned against them as soon as they felt they were safe enough. Terrible atrocities were carried out by all sides and Figes lists a whole load of tortures and abuses; the Bolshevik secret police organiation, called the Cheka, was particularly brutal and sadistic in its activities and had such a level of independence that even Trotsky didn’t feel safe from them, however, Figes points out that many of the Cheka’s techniques were borrowed from the Tsar’s police force. Of course whilst reading about the chaos and suffering involved in the Russian Civil War it was difficult not to draw comparisons to what is going on currently in Syria where it is equally difficult to see how any diplomatic solution can be succesful.

One criticism of the book is that I didn’t really find out much about the main Communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin; early on in the book Lenin was portrayed as a cowardly clerk who seems to be absent whenever the important events are occurring but then turns in to a tyrant once the revolution is imminent; Trotsky has power but seems to be unpopular with everyone and Stalin appears only near the end of Lenin’s life to take over. It’s probably unfair to expect Figes to cover a lot of biographical information but I felt that it would have been useful to know what they were doing during the important events. Another criticism is that I had little understanding of how the decisions were made during this early period of rule. At times it appears that Lenin issues orders to everyone whilst other times decisions were made at Politburo meetings.

I think it’s fair to say that Figes doesn’t particularly admire many of the people who were involved in the events in this book as they are often portrayed as violent and/or incompetent but the one exception is undoubtedly Maxim Gorky, the writer and early Bolshevik supporter. Excerpts from Gorky’s letters and books are used throughout the book; his comments on events, his criticisms of the Tsar, Lenin and revolutionary abuses are very humane and often prescient. He not only wrote articles and books but he often tried to help people through his connections with Lenin or by giving people food and shelter during these difficult times. In the end the civil war was too much for him and he had to flee Russia. His words in a letter to Romain Rolland in 1921 sum up his feelings:

I feel very tired: during the past seven years in Russia I have seen and lived through so many sad dramas—the more sad for not being caused by the logic of passion and free will but by the blind and cold calculation of fanatics and cowards…I still believe fervently in the future happiness of mankind but I am sickened and disturbed by the growing sum of suffering which people have to pay as the price of their fine hopes.

If you can cope with the constant descriptions (and photographs) of brutality then this book is a brilliant one-volume book of not only the Russian Revolution but the whole period leading up to it.


Filed under Figes, Orlando, Non-fiction

‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Michael Grant

Grant_Roman-Empire-fcX-700pxMichael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire was a quick non-fiction ‘hit’ that I needed after reading too much fiction. It is a 200-page summary of the reasons behind the fall of the Roman Empire. This can be a bewildering subject as there are no easy answers to the question ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’ Listed below is an even more condensed version of the reasons why. For anyone that wants an even simpler explanation Michael Grant sums it up in the introduction by saying ‘It was brought down by two kinds of destruction: invasions from outside, and weaknesses that arose within.’ The list below is an elaboration of these ‘destructions’ and will hopefully be of interest to some.

Thirteen Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West:

  1. The Generals against the State – There was no effective method of succession. Each emperor was in effect dependent on the army which resulted in endless coups détat and civil wars.
  2. The People against the Army – Rich and poor didn’t want to serve in the army. The state had to depend increasingly on German troops.
  3. The Poor against the State – The taxes to pay for the army fell disproportionaly on the poor driving them into destitution, banditry, slavery or death.
  4. The Rich against the State – The rich Senators evaded taxes and did not get involved in political life. They were snobbish and opposed to change.
  5. The Middle Class against the State – The middle class of merchants and small landowners were squeezed out of late Imperial life. The population consisted mainly of rich and poor.
  6. The People against the Bureaucrats – The late Roman bureaucracy was oppressive and allowed very little social mobility. The civil service was inefficient, bloated, corrupt and resistant to change.
  7. The People against the Emperor – The later Roman Emperors had little contact with the outside world. Their only contact with their subjects was via sycophantic or scheming courtiers.
  8. Ally against Ally – The split between the West and East became more pronounced during this period. Both halves of the Empire failed to co-operate which made it easier for the Germans to take over the West.
  9. Race against Race – Rome was unable to assimilate the German tribes that took refuge within its borders.
  10. Drop-outs against Society – With the rise of Christianity in the Empire many people were attracted to asceticism and became nuns, monks and hermits. As such they became divorced from their community and contributed little towards the Roman state.
  11. The State against Free Belief – Once Catholic Christianity became the dominant religion its proponents began to attack paganism, Jewish faith, Manichaeanism and other Christian faiths thereby causing disunity throughout the Empire.
  12. Complacency against Self-Help – The pagans relied too much on the glories of the past, they neglected practical subjects in their education and concentrated on grammar, rhetoric etc.
  13. The Other World against This World – Many Christians seemed reluctant to support the state even after the Empire became officially Christian. Some even saw the barbarian attacks as divine punishment. Some pagans viewed the world to be in perpetual decline since the Golden Age of the past. Both views led to pessimism.


Filed under Grant, Michael, Non-fiction

‘The Black Death’ by Philip Ziegler

Zeigler-Black-Death-fcx-700pxI’m not really in a novel-reading mood at the moment; short stories and non-fiction is what I crave. So I recently read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It was first published in 1969 so it’s probably a bit out of date but it’s still a good book for the general reader. It’s a pretty standard text and starts with the origins of the plague, then covers the state of Medieval Europe then the spread of the plague across Europe as it heads towards Britain. Ziegler admits in the introduction that he has concentrated more on England in an attempt to confine the subject to a manageable length but I suspect it’s also partly because he is English himself and he was writing predominately for an English audience.

The speed with which the Black Death spread across Europe is amazing (roughly from 1347 to 1350) and must have been truly shocking for everyone caught up in it. Not knowing the cause of the disease was another aspect of the terror it inflicted on the Medieval mind. The book got bogged down with statistics at times, debating whether the percentage that died in such-and-such a place was 25% or 27% and whether that could be extrapolated to the rest of the country or to the whole of Europe. Usually the answer the author gave was ‘no, it couldn’t’ so it did seem a bit boring and pointless at times. However, the chapter on the Brotherhood of the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews was particularly interesting. The Flagellants travelled around Europe scourging themselves in towns and recruiting more members. The movement virtually died out once the plague was over. The Jews, along with lepers and Arabs in Spain were often made scapegoats for the disease, where they were accused of poisoning the wells of Christians or otherwise deliberately spreading the disease. Massacres followed which were often encouraged by the Flagellants. In England persecution of the Jews was almost nonexistent but only because Edward I had expelled most Jewish people in 1290. Meanwhile the Flagellants didn’t seem to impress the English.

In one chapter Ziegler uses a narrative form to show how the plague may have spread through a typical English village. Although Ziegler admits that the academic historian would mistrust such an approach, I agree with the author when he states:

But if the effect of the Black Death is really to be understood then it must be studied at work in a small village community and some attempt be made to evoke the atmosphere which it created and which it left behind.

So Ziegler uses ‘imaginative reconstruction’ to synthesise known details about different towns and villages to describe what might have happened to this fictional town called Blakwater that consists of about thirty families. It’s certainly effective and is an approach that John Hatcher uses in a more recent book, The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345-1350, only Hatcher uses a real village, Walsham in Suffolk, as his starting point. I’m looking forward to reading that book.

There are some contemporary written records of the plague and one that is quoted in this book I found particularly powerful and descriptive. It was written by a Welsh poet called Jeuan Gethin and was originally written in March or April 1349. The quoted passage came from a book by W. Rees on the Black Death in Wales:

We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. They are similar to the seeds of the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal and crowds precede the end. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. They are like a shower of peas, the early ornaments of black death, cinders of the peelings of the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like halfpence, like berries. It is a grievous thing that they should be on a fair skin.

In the end the plague killed about a third of the population of Europe; and there were further plagues to come in the fourteenth century, though none were as violent as the Black Death. The aftermath of the Black Death is covered as well and how it affected society and the church. So the book covers a lot of ground but I was left wondering about several things: why did the Black Death diminish so quickly? Were those that were left somehow more resistant to it? Did it only spread from east to west or did it spread further east? As always, further study is needed.


Filed under Non-fiction, Ziegler, Philip