Reading books again


Over the summer break, I read nine books that I had read before.  I did so because I knew I would enjoy each one, and because with most of them I had a new edition, generally from the Folio Society, to enjoy – and I thought that I might give them some authenticity on the shelf by reading those copies.  After owning a Kindle for 18 months, I finally got it started.  I have used it on a novel by Modiano, which I enjoyed, and SPQR, by Mary Beard, which I did not enjoy – I thought it was expensive and trite.  I have always liked to read a book with pencil at hand to note passages that appeal or that I may wish to remember – even in novels and poetry – and I have reached a stage of life where I enjoy just the feel and look of the book – and its pictures!  For example, I bought the new Folio War and Peace expressly for the purpose of reading it again (this time for the fourth time.)  Those two very handsome volumes cost a tick under $200 – which is a lot – but which is also about the price of the best seat at the Opera.  And this set remains as a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Since I have written about all but two of these nine books elsewhere, I will just make some brief comments on each.

War and Peace is hopelessly flawed.  Tolstoy cannot help himself with the bullshit about Napoleon, heroes, and free will – the greater the writer, the thicker the thinker – and I had forgotten that it just keeps getting worse as the book goes on.  Then I remembered touring the Kremlin, and I remember the guy pointing to a gate and saying ‘that is the gate that he came in’ and point into another ‘that is the gate he went out’.  When we look at the crooks in charge of Russia now, we might remember that it was the Russian peasant who stopped both Napoleon and Hitler.  But after this reading, I have come to the settled view that this is the greatest novel for me that has ever been written.  It has a sweep and a kind of grandeur all of its own.  Gibbon is the only comparison.

I read Don Quixote again, also for the fourth time.  This time I used some editorial discretion on some of the tales – the structure of the book now reminds me of Canterbury Tales – and I focused on the dialogues between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   It reminded me of how good the Philip de Souza reading is on Naxos.  There is a saintliness about the Don that I know of no match for, but Tolstoy can come out with these eruptions of El Greco and Beethoven that are spellbinding.

Old Goriot, in part a take on King Lear, is as close to perfection as the novel can aspire to.  This is one to read about once a year.  Each time something new hits you right between the eyes.  These daughters are up there with Goneril and Regan – I groaned aloud when they sent their carriages and footmen to the funeral of the father that they had killed.

The Leopard is a beautiful elegy.  So is the Visconti film.  This is another once a year job – both book and movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another great book that produced a great film – I think the Big Nurse is up there with Nicholson in the movie.  I had forgotten that it is the Indian who is the narrative.  That was gutsy – one outcast writing about others.  A previous note on this book is at the end of this note.

People turn their noses up at Kim.  Kipling was an imperialist.  Get over it, as they say – there happened to be an empire, back then, and we were part of it – and if you would rather be having this discussion in French, German, or Flemish, let me know.  This book could not have been written by someone who did not have a complete affection for and knowledge of that beautifully corrupt place called India.  Where does this book stand for me?  It is the one I enjoy most.  This book is for everyone – but especially for us boys.

With some writers you are at ease before you finish the first page.  People who are good at their job put you at ease.  Turgenev is in this class – he is the writer’s writer.  On the eve is a beautiful love story that is not buried in the kind of neurotic self-analysis that the Russians went in for then.  This book too is c lose to flawless.  It is worth reading just for the visit of the two lovers to the opera in Venice to see Traviata, a love story that ends with the death of the consumptive heroine.

The other two were Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.  I don’t know what they sprinkled on the porridge of those Brontë girls, but the passion still burns.  This was my fourth reading, and it may be the last.  The structure is tricky and there is bit of an Eroica or Bohême problem – when Cathy goes, there is a long way to go, and Heathcliff is not loveable.  As against that, the other rose in my estimation on this the third reading.

Someone once said that there are only three plots in Hollywood movies.  One of them is the love triangle.  That conflict is at the heart of Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.  In each the heroine falls in love – fairly madly – with the hero, and then marries another man who is less desirable romantically but more desirable socially.

Cathy and Heathcliff are very much in love but Cathy expressly rejects Heathcliff for a man who is socially more acceptable, but who is not nearly as attractive – she says that she will use the marriage to help raise Heathcliff up.  (Cathy is very impressionable.)  Daisy falls for Gatsby and then marries a rotter, who happens to have a lot more social standing and money than Gatsby, but whom she never loved as much as Gatsby.  (Daisy too is bit flighty – it is just as well one of these books was written by a woman.)  The split here is not just for social reasons – the absence of Gatsby after the war is a catalyst.  (As in An affair to remember.)

Both Cathy and Daisy are previous and precocious.  Both Heathcliff and Gatsby have dicey pasts.  Heathcliff is a foundling who looks like a gypsy.  Gatsby came from the other side of the tracks, but a fluke of history enabled him to rise, at least on the surface.  He lies entirely about his past – for reasons that seemed good to him.  He also lies about his present – he is a crook.  Heathcliff is not a crook and he does not lie about his past.  The crowd that Gatsby attracts are not inclined to query his past or present.  Heathcliff has cut himself off from caring about what the world thinks.

Heathcliff is brutal, and we might have trouble now in seeing just how far his brutality was simply a feature of the way people, and in particular men, acted back in those days and in those places.  Gatsby is not brutal, at least physically, but it looks like his money derives entirely from crime – although prohibition, which enabled him to become rich, did lead to a lot of crime.

The brutal man in that novel is Daisy’s husband Tom.  He is not only brutal but hopelessly unfaithful in his marriage.  He comes from a caste that promotes marital infidelity and racism, and he is of a type that can easily hit a woman, particularly if she is socially inferior, and compromised by being his mistress.  Heathcliff and Tom are both studies in what we now call the epidemic of domestic violence.

Both of the rejected lovers become obsessed to the point of madness by the termination of their great loves.  They both acquire fortunes – we are only given a general idea of how Heathcliff gets his – perhaps with the express purpose of trying to retake the women they loved.  They both buy expensive properties and move house to be close to their prey.  Heathcliff pursues some kind of dynastic revenge and strikes out at all those associated with people who have got in his way in a manner that is terrifying.  Gatsby is far less intent on creating what we call collateral damage.

Each of the heroes establishes a kind of reunion – it was probably physical in the case of the later model, because it had been before – but the reunion does not last.  It is as if the forces of a Greek tragedy preclude the lovers from living happily ever after.  Romeo and Juliet is of course the template.

Cathy dies in love with Heathcliff although he had been cruel to her in the reunion.  Gatsby is murdered on a false premise arising from two trains of deceit.  Heathcliff dies in a kind of slow suicidal delirium still obsessed with the dead Cathy.  Daisy survives when Gatsby is killed as the fall guy.  She appears to be reconciled to her husband, Tom.  That is punishment enough, because he is a rolled gold Fascist, the other product of the Jazz Age.

Well, I suppose we knew that there are endless combinations within a triangle.  One of the other plot themes is that of the hero undergoing trials to save the world, as in Star Wars.  I am not sure about the third.


Ken Kesey (1962)

Folio Society, 2015; bound in cloth blocked with a design by the artist David Hughes, in mustard slip-case; introduction by John Sutherland.

You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns.  You are touched  …and Zap!   It is a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless as it happens so fast, but no one ever wants another one.  Ever.

This was a protest moment in a protest book published in a time and place preoccupied with protest and drugs, the US in the early 1960s.  The start of the book One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest must also have grabbed attention when it was first published in 1962.  ‘They’re out there.  Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them’.  Ken Kesey dedicated the book to someone ‘who told me dragons did not exist, and then led me to their lairs’.  Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  They leave one egg in each nest.  The newly hatched cuckoo therefore feels free to throw out the others.  This is the dark side of Darwin’s natural selection.  Should we be above that?

Kesey was brought up on a dairy farm in Colorado.  He was a star wrestler and drama student at Oregon.  He took part in government drug tests.  He was paid $75 to take LSD and mescaline.  He was in with the beat crowd and he became a kind of priest of psychedelic culture.  He got into trouble with marijuana and he did time for getting up the nose of the cops.  He worked a night shift at a hospital for vets and this led him to our novel, his first.

The mental ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is for Kesey what Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were for George Orwell – the threat posed by ‘them’ to ‘us’.  It is a story of a power struggle between two people told by a third, an immensely tall and large Indian called Chief Bromden.

Nurse Ratched is a very, very evil character, as evil as any referred to in this present book.  She is a 50-year old single former Army nurse.  She has a practised sexlessness that seems to threaten men with its very sterility – in the male language of the time, she is a ‘ball cutter’; she could feed their jellies into a garlic crusher.  It is not so much that she is puritanical as that she is matronly – the word could have been invented for her.  ‘Precise, automatic gesture.  Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils – everything working except the colour on her lips and finger nails, and the size of her bosom.  A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would have otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.’

Remember that the US is coming out of McCarthyism, and that Kesey would have been a front-line target for a body like the HUAC.  The Big Nurse has the perfect technique for crushing weakened male inmates (classed as ‘Acutes’ or ‘Chronics’).  She does not accuse; she does not need to.  She insinuates.  She has a genius for insinuation.  And she insinuates that her charges are at fault, and weak, and that they are only safe when they submit to her control and are at peace with the matron.  If the phrase ‘control-freak’ had not been invented, she would have required it.

And she puts on this front that she is doing it for their benefit, and she requires them to submit to this too.  It is a lie.  She is doing what she is doing because her mission in life is that of the bully – to dictate and to control, to ‘stand over’ in truth – those who are weaker than she is – and that is everyone in the ward, because the patients are patients – voluntary or committed – and because she selects and breaks the staff and only allows doctors who go along with her regime.  She disciplines, bullies, tranquillises and sedates – and punishes with shock therapy.  An immovable case gets the worst kind of head job, a lobotomy.

This is how one of the nuts – that is the term used in the film – previews her retaliation after they have been enjoying themselves:  ‘We shall be all of us be shot at dawn.  One hundred cc’s apiece.  Ms. Ratched shall line us all against the wall, where we’ll face the terrible maw of a muzzle-loaded shotgun which she has loaded with Miltowns!  Thorazines!  Libriums!  Stelazines!’  The book was in many ways prophetic.

Into this drug induced still-pond under the fog comes lightning.  It comes in the form of a rude, loud, slippery petty crook.  Randall P. McMurphy faked his madness to get out of gaol where he had had to work.  Barrel-chested and red-haired, he is a conman and an excitement machine and a myth-maker.  He wins the confidence of the nuts even as he takes their money.  And he realises instantly that it is Big Mack versus the Big Nurse; the Lord of Misrule v The Badge of Chastity; Anarchy v Law – and the World.  The ward –and the world – is not big enough for both of them.

Big Mac and Falstaff have some things in common.  They are dishonest, they have front, and they have a kind of forbidden allure that attracts, and even inspires, others.  But that is all they have in common.  Falstaff could never have done and would never have tried to do what McMurphy does.  McMurphy has courage as well as front.  Falstaff is a coward.  McMurphy also has remarkable endurance.  He can intimidate and wear down opponents in a way that Falstaff never could.  Falstaff was always a bit player, but Big Mac is ready to put himself on the line for the main event.  Falstaff would never have attempted what McMurphy did because there was too much risk and not enough fiscal return at the margin.  And Big Mac would never have had airs like a knighthood.  McMurphy has balls, and Nurse Ratched wants them.

The Chief saw McMurphy as ‘a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine’.  The Chief would also say that ‘I’m just getting the full force of the dangers we let ourselves in for when we let McMurphy lure us out of the fog’.  The Chief would have got on with Don Quixote.

Was McMurphy a real liberator of the oppressed?  Or was this just another con?  Possibly, but what matters is that Nurse Ratched knew that she was in for the mother of all battles and that the nuts were ready to go and stay with McMurphy if he was good enough.

Kesey’s decision to cast the narrator as an Indian – Chief Bromden – was courageous, but he had had experience with Indians.  When he was leading a round-up with his father, an Indian with a knife between his teeth deliberately ran into an oncoming diesel truck that was bringing piping to a dam project.  Kesey had witnessed a man who had been willing to make the greatest sacrifice in honour of a way of life, a way of life that no money could buy.  The dam had represented the destruction of a way of life.  The Indians, too, were outcasts lined up against the Combine.  They had learned that the most pervasive and lethal drug of death of the paleface is alcohol.  McMurphy reminded the Chief of a time when the Indians used to spear salmon in some waters but then gave up their rights – under duress – for money.

The Chief has a lot of the Greek Chorus and Shakespeare’s Fool.  He is also the Epilogue, although more active than most, and the part is equally attractive in the book and the film.

So, the trial of strength starts. The power plays involve the volume at which the music is played in the ward, basketball practice, whether they can get to watch the World Series on TV, a fishing expedition, bringing grog and hookers on to the ward.  It is exhilarating reading (and viewing in the film).  We are looking not so much at liberation as what we – even we men! – have learned to describe as empowerment.  The Combine does not like people who are different.  Since people are different, the Combine is a problem.

The fishing expedition was a huge leap of faith and a great step forward for the nuts.  McMurphy then gets punished with successive doses of shock treatment, but he is still there on the night that the whores turn up with the booze. The drama surges around the cast like the finale of the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky.  The scenes with the nuts and sluts are very high drama.  When the Big Nurse finds Billie, locked away by his mother, in bed with Candy – ‘Good morning, Miss Ratched, this is Candy’ – she reacts with the venom of a taipan.  ‘She got the response she was after.  ‘Billie flinched and put his hand to his cheek like he had been burned with acid.’  The venom is lethal, and McMurphy is pushed over the brink.

There are only ten pages of the novel left.  If there is a novel with a more powerful finish, I am not aware of it.

The film came out in 1975 and won five Oscars.  A large part of its success was due to the Czech director, Milos Forman.  East Europeans and Latin Americans are good with off centre stories.  Louise Fletcher is stunning as the nurse and deserved her Oscar at least as much as Jack Nicholson.  (Brando and Bancroft knocked back the parts.)  She can inflict and receive pain unflinchingly and unwittingly.  Among the highlights of this great American movie are the Chief striding up and down the basketball court, and, at the end, bringing his own form of peace to the closure.  The Chief is serene.  The film could be a homage to his nation.

The book is not so much about madness and freedom as our capacity to tolerate differences in others and our readiness to resist the mediocrity of the conformists.  We deprive some insane people of their liberty by incarcerating them; we can do as much with medication.  When the time came to write the biography of the mad man who started the Oxford English Dictionary, the author was driven to ask whether we would get the same result now because of the way we medicate those whom we call mad.  And who is to deny that more light may enter a cracked mind than one that is sealed?

1962 was the year Doctor Martin Luther King said: ‘And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.’  Dr King said to coloured people what Mc Murphy was saying to the nuts.  This book is one of our little triumphs, something to treasure.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those books that make you want to stand up and punch the air and shout out loud.  Like The Graduate, here too was a movie to define a generation.

4 thoughts on “Reading books again

  1. Dear Geoffrey, you are the only person of my acquaintance who has uttered the name of Turgenev in the last 30 years. He is a particular favourite of mine, and I was very pleased to buy from Kennet Hince at auctiion about 30 years ago a complete set of his novels in the Heinemann edition translated by Constance Garnett in Edwardian days. It is an attractive set, cloyhbound in green, with the double headed eagle in gold on the spine. The touching thing was the inscription inside from a father “to my daughter Margaret on her 11th birthday, trusting that she will enjoy these books for a lifetime”. When my daughter reached 11 I did not think she was quite ready for Turgenev, and I will leave them to her in my will. Turgenev is one of the diners, amongst George Sand and the Goncourt brothers, whose dinner conversations are the subjest of Robert Baldick’s “Dinner at Magny’s”, which you doutless know.
    Kind regards

    Hugh Northam

    • Hugh Thanks. I did not know of that book. By chance, when your note arrived I was skimming his collected works in a US pocket edition. I bought it for a paper on Hamlet and Don Quixote. There is also a note reflecting on death.. Its title is ‘Enough’ The last lines? The rest is silence.

      • Geoffrey Yes, even novels like Rudin and the Sportsman’s Sketches are well worth reading, and A House of Gentlefolk is one which, like The Leopard ( and like you), I re-read almost annually. This year I re-read Le Lys dans la Vallee, The Village Cure and Pere Goriot of Balzac, less strenuous than the Paris novels Lost Illusians and A Harlot High and Low. i have just bought Beethoven for a Later Age, by Dusinberre, a member of the Takacs Quartet, which was reviewed in The Economist and deals with the late quartets, And Yet…, posthumously published essays by Christopher Hitchens (in which he brings his unerring vocabulary and orotund, Gibbonian prose style to the denigration of two US presidents. Of Kennedy he says that he was so despiicable a man that what was remarkable about his life was not that it was terminated so soon, but that it lasted as long as it did. Of GW Bush he says that his eyes are so near set that he could use a monocle without the expense of having to buy spectacles. And Peter H Wilson’s History of the Holy Roman Empire and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs.

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