Monday, 7 January 2019

The axe for the frozen sea within

"Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live." - Gustave Flaubert

I have been thinking about books and how I choose what to read. Despite what the internet seems to think, Oscar Wilde most certainly didn't say "it's the things that you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it"; and in any case I ignore the warning. Like most of us probably do, I always have a non-fiction book to hand: military history of course, but also other subjects that interest me: political economy, mathematics, opera etc. I would be loathe to claim that I ever retain anything when I've finished them, but they at least temporarily make me feel virtuous.

I'm not sure that I can say the same for my recent choice of fiction. What's on my kindle is in part driven by what Amazon and/or the publishers offer at a discount (especially the 99p daily deals), but even when I buy something worthy on the cheap it doesn't always follow that I will actually read it. Indeed I find myself increasingly reading for light relief, often even taking out much of the work of choosing by reading through series of books in order. I have mentioned before that I have been re-reading the Flashman novels (got a bit stuck on Flash for Freedom!, which is somewhat more unpleasant than I remember it) and also working my way through the much longer 87th Precinct series. These latter are proving a bit difficult because not all of them are on kindle and I have therefore been forced to scout around for cheap second hand copies; paying full price being self-evidently not an option. I have reached 'Fuzz', which combines the usual far-fetched main story involving the regulars with a sub-plot about a book being published whose protagonist shares a name with one of the detectives. Presumably there is a sort of metafictional paradox going on; we know that novelists typically avoid using the type of name that one ever comes across in real life.

Going back to how I choose books, it is to some extent a case of Beziehungswahn, with one thing leading to another. I saw the film of 'Journey's End' and tried to get hold of R.C. Sherriff's autobiography. I found that to be rather too expensive for me, but did come across a reasonably priced copy of a book about the battalion in which he served, the 9th East Surrey. It then became apparent that he wasn't the only officer in the unit who went on to literary fame, and my attention was drawn to Gilbert Frankau. He is out of fashion now, but between the wars was apparently a big seller. He turned to writing after being thwarted in his ambition of becoming a Conservative MP; they wouldn't have him because he was divorced. Personally I would have thought that his being a fascist should have been more of a block. And he was; he wrote a newspaper article in 1933 entitled 'As a Jew I am Not Against Hitler'. His extended family has nevertheless, as so often with refugees and migrants, greatly enriched British cultural life; including one of them appearing in every episode of Fawlty Towers. Anyway, back to Gilbert. He wrote of his wartime experiences in fictionalised form, and, having become interested in the 9th East Surrey and the 24th Division as a whole, it seemed logical to seek that out. The book's title: 'Peter Jackson - Cigar Merchant'.

"There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." - Bertrand Russell

1 comment:

  1. I can't think of a decent comment, so please accept a quiet clap and some thanks, particularly for the Kafka allusion. I don't think I'd heard that before. It's very good.