No action here just yet. I’ve signed up on WordPress because I’m planning to close down my existing blog, Family Life, and continue it here under a new name. The transition will happen on 25 May. See you here then!
Months ago, I mooched four books by Ursula K Le Guin from BookMooch , and have been reading them semi-assiduousy since. I’ve waited until I’d read them all to do a combined post.
A sufficient interval having passed since reading The Tombs of Atuan, I moved on to the third of the Earthsea books and was not disappointed. It reminded me at some moments of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, probably because both books feature a ride in a boat that goes on and on and on. There’s no character as irritating as Reepicheep, however, and though the final destination was fairly clearly signalled, I didn’t have the oppressive sense in this book that all was predetermined, as I did in the C S Lewis book. (If you haven’t read VDT, don’t let these remarks put you off. I believe many people found it utterly delightful, and Reepicheep among its finest elements.)
There are really only two characters in this book: Sparrowhawk, now the Archmage of Earthsea, and young Prince Arren who comes to ask Sparrowhawk’s advice on a problem in his home island, and stays to be his companion in seeking out the cause of the problem – much bigger than Arren knew – and in the end overcoming it. The relationship between the two men, old and young, is a thing of great joy. Arren is described early on as falling in love with the old, wise man, and I can’t help lamenting that the moral panic about paedophilia that has corrupted our culture in the last 30 years has made such a description feel risky. I didn’t care very much about the villain: though the final confrontation with him wasn’t written perfunctorily, I read it without any particular commitment. On the other hand, a splendid non-human character makes its first appearance less than ten pages from the end, completely convincing, completely memorable. How does she do that?
Incidentally, the author biog in this book answers the question about the author’s middle initial: the K stands for Kroeber, the name of her anthropologist father and writer mother.
Then I moved on to a couple of adult books, to both of which I brought preconceptions.
I knew The Left Hand of Darkness had a lot of gender-bending, and I had a subliminal assumption that it was a bit of a women’s liberation tract. It’s not that I expected to be out of sympathy with its sentiments. I just didn’t relish the idea of 300 pages of right-on propaganda from forty years ago.
I needn’t have worried. UKLG is a story teller with a great gift for aphorism (my mooched copy has quite a bit of pencilled underlining of sentences like ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’) and a miraculous capacity for world-building. On the planet Winter, the humans become sexual for only a couple of days each month unless they are pregnant, and there’s no telling whether a given individual will be male or female in any given month. This holds a distorting mirror up to our assumptions about the primacy of gender for human identity, but there’s no preaching, and the reader is not told what to think about it all. The visitor from a planet where sexes are differentiated much as ours are (perhaps he’s actually from Earth) develops a close bond with a member of the other species, and is alone with him (every individual is referred to as him, even when pregnant) for several months – we know that he will be in ‘kemmer’, kind of like oestrus, during their time together, and the sexual tension will be huge. Not only that, but it’s clear that the shape of the book requires that their relationship reach a new level of intimacy. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have led to erotico-bathetic disaster. Not so here. The author plays completely fair; the tension is resolved; intimacy is achieved; nothing is icky.
If I had subliminally prejudged The Left Hand of Darkness to be 60s feminist polemic, The Dispossessed was filed in my brain under Anarchist Agenda. I may have actually read an excerpt when it first came out, in which there was a lot of exposition about the workings of anarchism on the planet Anarres. As expected, the book was a joyous surprise. The society founded by the followers of the sage Odo is, if anything, more profoundly challenging to our assumptions about human possibilities than the ‘bisexual’ characters of The Left Hand. These are people who learn from babyhood that you can’t own anything, that ‘excess is excrement’. They speak not of ‘my mother’ but of ‘the mother’; they have trouble grasping the concept of class or understanding the function of a state; they refer to the society on their twin planet/moon Urras, from which they are in voluntary exile, as archist and propertarian; and they find institutionalised sexism puzzling:
He knew from Odo’s writings that two hundred years ago the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode.
So yes, I guess you could read the book as utopian anarchist propaganda, but it’s much more impressive and engaging than that. The word ‘magisterial’ comes to mind. In Odo, who died two centuries before the action of the book, Le Guin has created a great visionary anarchist. We are given snippets of her life and works; the characters are steeped in them, quote chapter and verse, argue their meaning in a changed context – all in ways that make her a completely believable presence in the society based on her thinking
But the Odonians haven’t got everything right. Shevek, a brilliant temporal physicist (that is, one who deals in the physics of time – Shevek’s general theory of Simultaneity will transform space travel possibilities) can’t get his theoretical work published because the Odonian opposition to ‘egoising’ has congealed into a bureaucratic stymying of creativity, and sometimes wells up into mob hatred of anyone who challenges received ideas. Facing down accusations of treachery – and dodging hurled bricks – he goes to Urras to further his work. Chapters telling of his life up to the point of departure alternate with those narrating his culture shock, seduction and eventual disillusion among the propertarians. The book is still powerful and inspiring after all these years, bodying forth the truism that how things are is not how they have to be forever. I suspect that fans of Ayn Rand would see it as ridiculous fantasy from beginning to end, but then …
What do you do after you’ve written something as profound as The Dispossessed? I hope Ursula Le Guin managed to rest on her laurels for at least a little moment. it may have been a mistake for me to move straight on to another book of hers, away from the ‘Hainish’ world of the last two, because The Beginning Place seemed very pale by comparison. It is fantasy love story rather than political science fiction, and if it wasn’t written in impeccable, musical prose, it would be too long by half for its simple, and predictable, story. But predictable is sometimes just another word for archetypal, and there’s plenty to surprise and delight. Having just intimated a couple of paragraphs back that I was relieved at the absence of a sex scene in The Left Hand of Darkness, I should say that the sex scene in this is handled with a degree of frankness that all the same manages to avoid disrupting the story. We do have this sentence, however, as a warning that sex is dangerous to write about (the characters are fully clothed at this very serious point in the narrative): ‘His desire for her stood up and throbbed against her belly, but his arms held her in a greater longing even than that, one for which life cannot give consummation.’
Some time in the middle of my Le Guin Readathon, a friend said she’d read everything by UKLG in her Anarchist youth. I rushed from the room and brought back the first two Catwings books – this book and Catwings Return – which she admitted she hadn’t heard of. When she brought them back a couple of days later she said she’d enjoyed them, but two were enough: no need for Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings and Jane on her Own (neither of which I’ve read, so it seems I agree with her). Before putting them back on the shelf where we keep books for visiting children, I re-read just this one, and found it just as magical as the first time. I believe the idea for this book came to Ms Le Guin while she was standing in a queue at a supermarket, and she drew a sketch of a cat with wings on the back of her shopping list. S D Schindler’s convincingly realistic illustrations are a large part of the book’s charm. This was probably my fifteenth reading, and the last line still brought tears to my eyes.
It’s Passion Sunday. The statues in the Catholic churches are swathed in purple (or used to be when I was a frequenter of churches). We’re in the countdown to Easter. If you’ve been following the saga of our corner shop, about to be a cafe, you’ll undoubtedly remember that Easter is the latest of a series of promised opening dates. There’s been definite movement. I don’t know if you can tell from these phone photos, but the balcony with its bullnose awning is coming along well. A stylish grey paint job is under way on the upper outside of the building. We’ve had some heavy rain – who can complain? – but the two or three guys who’ve been up on the scaffolding for weeks now seem to be cheerful about progress. I’m not banking on an Easter rising, but I’ll be surprised if Revolver (as the shop is to be named) fails to be there by the Ascension Thursday. A little while and we won’t see it, but again a little while …
Last October I wrote a little blog post about Nicolas José’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards, in which he spoke of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, due for publication in August this year. José talked about Taam Sze Pui’s bilingual memoir, My Life and Work, published in Innisfail in 1925, taking it as an exemplar of the process by which:
As a piece of writing becomes literature, it is read and re-read by different people, discussed, digested, dismembered, recovered, until it enters a continuum of creative experience and expression that joins with where we are now. It speaks and we listen; relationships with other texts are revealed; it is valued for itself and contributes to something larger.
On my recent visit to Cairns I laid hands on a photocopy of Taam Sze Pui’s book in the rooms of the Cairns Historical Society (the helpful woman at Cairns Library had tracked down a solitary copy on the Australian Libraries Network, at the Australian National Library, not much good to me), and read the English in less than half an hour. It’s a modest work, elegant and spare, a kind of combination of Bert Facey good fortune, exhortations to Confucian virtue and sound business sense. There are a number of pages towards the end that are not translated into English, each containing a delicate pen drawing, probably from the author’s own hand, and what I take to be a poem. I photocopied one of them, as well as another untranslated page from the front of the book. I wonder if anyone who comes across this might be able to translate.
Added 3 July 2020: Many thanks to Wang Shu-dong, friend of Jim Kable, regular commenter here, for the following translation of the script in that image. Shu-dong comments that something seems to be missing at the beginning of the final sentence, but offers this translation:
店伴姊妹兄弟， 倘有偶尔误会冲突， 忍之为上。 All people in the store are brothers and sisters. If occasionally misunderstandings and conflicts occur, the best response is tolerance
事后开解，使其意悟，和好如初，方为上策。 After the incident, we had better let them self-examine and then they will be able to reconcile to each other.
(九)戒凡事以和为贵，苟能此道焉， 生意之隆， 可立而待也 Abandon the perception that harmony is the most important thing. If such a principle is followed, blooming business can be expected.