#6Degrees August 2021: From Postcards from the Edge…

Can’t resist joining in again this month because: a) this is one of my favourite bookish memes of random (or not) literary association, organised monthly by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best; b) I love Carrie Fisher, so the book we are starting with this month appeals to me.

I think Carrie Fisher was even better as a writer than as an actress. I know she is part of many a childhood fantasy, but I honestly appreciate her more for her wit and candour, which is perfectly displayed in the semi-autobiographical book Postcards from the Edge, which is our starting point this month. She adapted it for the screen herself and the film starred Meryl Streep as the ‘narrator’ and Shirley MacLaine as her mother.

My first book in the chain is another book adapted for film and starring Meryl Streep, namely Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), which is also autobiographical. Although the author’s struggles to keep her farm going all by herself sounds quite admirable, I found the book itself somewhat problematic, with its rose-tinted portrayal of Kenya as a white settler’s paradise. Nevertheless, she was ahead of her time in treating the workers on her farm in a respectful way and being genuinely curious about their backgrounds and cultural differences.

Of course I have to sneak in an anthropological book as the next in the chain – a really formative one that I used extensively when preparing my Ph.D. Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process examines the rituals of the Ndembu in Zambia. He is the one who identified the concepts of ‘communitas’ and ‘liminality’ (that in-between space, when rites of passage transition you from one state to another, to take up your place in society).

Airports and airplanes are of course perfect liminal spaces, and one of the books that best describes the thrill but also the dangers of flight is Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight (Vol de nuit). The author was famously a pilot himself, so certainly knew what he was writing about.

The fourth link is to another book written by an author who had a different day job, which may have influenced his writing, namely Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a doctor. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, but to change things up I will link here to his first book The White Guard, which I have still to read.

I’ve found a double link to the next book: the word ‘white’ in the title, and another book that I only know by reputation rather than through reading. A third link, even: written by another ‘Michael’. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a saga about the social climbing of a prostitute in Victorian London.

Any social climbing literature has to make way for the most ‘hustling’ novel of them all: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Becky Sharp is ruthless and manipulative, far too intelligent and restless for her time and place in society. Above all, she is brutally honest with herself: was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman.”I have a gentleman for my husband … But am I much better now than when I wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar?’

It’s this puncturing of hypocrisy and pretentions that Becky Sharp seems to have in common with Carrie Fisher, so that provides the perfect endpoint for my links this month. I’ve travelled to Kenya, Zambia, Argentina (via France), Russia, Victorian and pre-Victorian London this time. Where will your travels take you?

#SakhalinIsland: The Humanity of Chekhov

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and appreciate Chekhov. We had an actress family friend who performed in The Seagull, so I saw that at a very tender age. I then went through a spell of imagining myself performing in each one of his plays. Of course, I also appreciated his short stories and I knew some biographical details about his life as a doctor and how he supported his family.

I didn’t, however, realise the full extent of his compassion and humanitarian commitment, until I read his non-fiction book Sakhalin Island as part of a #ChekhovTogether readalong with Yelena Furman, Alok Ranjan, Todd, Elisabeth van der Meer and Herb Randall. This also fits in with my Russians in December reading plan. The next one I’ll be tackling will be The Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky that I’ve not been able to read so far.

Nobody is quite sure why Chekhov at the age of thirty decided to go on a lengthy trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin in 1890. He was not really a militant journalist and he did not go there in any official capacity as a health expert either, yet the book is both a triumph of social (and medical) anthropology and a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. It almost certainly accelerated the progression of his tuberculosis and robbed him of a few months of life, but it was perhaps partly motivated by the recent death of his brother and the fact that he had recently been diagnosed himself with the same dreaded disease.

What Chekhov has given us here is a clear-eyed, empathetic but by no means sentimental account of daily life in the colony, based on his own statistical and qualitative research. As an anthropologist, you can imagine how much I enjoyed this combination of the general and the very specific examples and personal stories. According to Sakhalin officials, Chekhov possessed a remarkable gift for gaining the prisoners’ confidence. It’s equally undeniable that he was moved (and shocked) by what he saw there, so he continued to study documents about Sakhalin’s history, particularly under the Russian administration, and made recommendations for improving living and working conditions for both convicts and settlers (most often composed of freed exiles). The Tsarist bureaucratic machine obviously feared too much negative publicity and therefore assigned ‘helpers’ to him as he went about his interviewing (under the pretext of census-taking). Chekhov himself was aware of the danger of seeing only what he was allowed to see and described it as ‘seeing everything but missing the elephant’. He sought to be balanced and thoughtful in his approach, but he was quite critical both about the system (and its policies):

It seemed to me that I was seeing the extreme and utmost degree of human degradation, lower than which it is simply impossible to go…

Penalties which humiliate and embitter a criminal, long since acknowledged as injurious to the free population, have been retained for convicts, as if a population of exiles is in less danger of becoming hardened and embittered.

And about the people who implement the policies on the ground: the prison wardens, governors and officials in Sakhalin:

In the labour camps served people who were unscrupulous, unsqueamish, difficult to get on with, to whom it was all the same where they served, as long as they could eat, drink, sleep and play cards.

He really would have made a terrific, empathetic anthropologist. He describes the native populations of the islands as well – or what remained of them – the Gilyaks and the Ainu, and is not complimentary about the way they have been treated by either the Japanese or the Russians in this disputed territory:

General K told me that he wished to Russify the Gilyaks. Why this should be necessary I do not know… proximity to a prison will not Russify, but only totally corrupt…

After claiming that the Russians freed the Ainu from the quasi-serfdom they suffered under the Japanese, he then describes at some length the brutalisation of the Ainu by Cossack Lt. Chorny, who boasts: ‘That’s how we do things in Russia!’

Unsurprisingly, Chekhov is not only able to see the monstrous behaviour in people placed in positions of power, but he is always able to view with compassion the weaknesses of marginalised people, or those labelled by society as ‘monsters’.

I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.

Given the rather grim subject matter, I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book, but there are plenty of wry asides, especially about the inclement weather and unforgiving landscape:

What they say about Sakhalin is that there is no climate here, just bad weather… most inclement spot in Russia… When Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit.

Yet there are also instances when the writer in Chekhov seems to be awestruck and inspired by the endless solitude:

All around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here… who they would roar for when I was gone..

Sadly, I understand this remote landscape is no longer quite so pristine, but echoing constantly to the drills of oil and gas companies, both on land and offshore.

Sakhalin-2 Offshore, Gasprom/Shell.

I read this book in a beautiful edition from Alma Classics, with a new translation by Brian Reeve, invaluable annotations/endnotes by both the author and the translator, and further enhanced by the presence of related documents, such as impressions of his trip through Siberia, as well as letters to relatives and friends.

Cross-cultural Observations: Dear Oxbridge

I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash
Instead of filling it with post-it notes while reading, like I usually do, I’ve quote-tweeted extensive passages from the book, because I found it so amusing. I viewed it of course with a wary anthropologist’s eye, so I found it equally revealing about the author and the Germans, as well as often quite spot-on about privilege at Oxbridge, a certain class of Englishman (and it is most often the men she mentions). Bad housing standards and drains, tiny rooms, unmixed taps all make their appearance here, as do private schools, the red trouser brigade of toffs, the stiff upper lip and the constant obsession with the war.  
 
 
Of course, it’s fair to say that during her five years of studying first in Cambridge and then in Oxford, the author was living in a bit of a bubble, so it would be difficult to extrapolate her observations to all of Britain or even all of England.
For example, she says at some point that the upper classes tend to be more direct in their speech: they call a spade a spade and a toilet a toilet, while the working classes try to avoid sounding vulgar by calling it a cloakroom. Which may be somewhat true, but then she goes on to say that it’s mainly gentlemen who swear and cuss, and I thought to myself that she clearly can’t have been exposed very much to a pub in an average English town on a Friday night, where everyone is at it hammer and tongs.
 
I’m also rather unsure about her observation that the NHS oversubscribes anti-depressives because they are the cheapest form of therapy and that so many people use them almost routinely. I found that, on the contrary, the GP tends to push you into the direction of CBT rather than pills, even when there are long waiting lists to see anyone and you get only a small number of appointments on prescription anyway. But perhaps this has changed since she was living in the UK before 2016. (Also, it tends to be a bit of a postcode lottery as to how mental health is viewed and treated.)
 
These are minor issues, however, and on the whole I think she feels a lot of affection for the British, but is still capable of casting cold, clear eyes upon them. Unlike me after my year in Cambridge, when I returned to Romania for a year, saw everything British through rose-tinted glasses and couldn’t wait to plot, plan and arrange to get back to my studies in England. 
 
What struck me most about the book was how much your own cultural background influences what you seek (and find) in another culture. In the final chapter, the author muses about how she discovered she was more German than she had expected (in terms of punctuality, being quite direct and wanting to complain about things), and that what she admired most about the English was ‘kindness’, an almost untranslatable term in German. The Germans, she speculates, are disciplined and correct, they are even kind, but it tends to be more within the inner circle of family and friends. Perhaps the fact that there is no distinction between ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ when the English say ‘you’, that most people address each other by their first names, makes it easier to add people to your inner circle.
 
To me, coming from a Latin and Balkanic culture, kindness and generosity were not the traits that most struck me about the English. On the contrary, I struggled with the coldness, with what I perceived as lack of hospitality, neighbourliness and genuine willingness to help (I have lived mainly in the South-East, I should say in my defence, and have generally met with much more kindness in other parts of the country.) However, what I did admire was the calm, the wit, the ability to laugh at oneself, the politeness, the non-escalation of conflict – all of the things which I felt were lacking in my own culture.
 
Dear Oxbridge is a farewell letter to Britain and an attempt to explain Brexit to the Germans. Given how critical the author is about Etonians, politicians, the privileged elite and how the British put up with far too much from their ruling classes, I don’t think it will be translated here any time soon.
 
 
 

Through the Decades: Books and Authors that Shaped Me

I recently saw this blog post about ‘Reading through the Decades‘ and was tempted to take part, even though that might disclose the *big* mystery which is my age!

Childhood:

I couldn’t get enough of fairy tales and stories (from all countries: I remember my parents reading 1001 Nights, folktales from Russia, China and Romania, the Greek myths, as well as the usual Grimm, Andersen and Perrault). I went to an English school for a while and my favourite teachers were the ones who would read out loud to us while we did arts and crafts (which I NEVER excelled in), so that I could get lost in the world of Paddington Bear, Olga da Polga, The Wind in the Willows. Luckily, I was always surrounded by international friends, so I grew up with the Moomins, Asterix and Obelix in multiple translations as well as the original, Christiane Nöstlinger (who very sadly died just a few weeks ago), Räuber Hotzenplotz (I had great fun playing him with a drawn-on moustache and beard in a school play), Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives, White Fang and the Chalet school.

My parents say that at the age of 2-3, I would happily examine the dictionary for hours, so they could nip outside for a quick emergency shop. Although ‘examine’ is perhaps not quite the word for my reading exploits back then.

Teens:

In stark contrast to my happy, diverse and very liberal childhood, I hit a wall when I moved back to Romania during the Communist period. My reading was suddenly censored. I tried to sign up for the British Council library, the French cultural institute, the Goethe Institut, to keep up my languages and love of literature, but my visits there were very carefully monitored, so for a long time I had to rely on other people taking books out for me. (It was OK to go to the Schiller Institut, which was the GDR version of the Goethe). But of course teenagers relish challenges, so this made books (particularly foreign language books) even more precious to me.

I even believed I detected a physical similarity between myself and Anne Sexton…

This was the decade of poetry. With typical adolescent dramatics, I dressed in black as soon as I got out of my school uniform and moodily recited French poetry in particular (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine). I WAS Sylvia Plath (at least on those days when I wasn’t Anne Sexton or Colette or Virginia Woolf or Marina Tsvetaeva, all women who inspired me with their poetry and their lifestyles). I also fell in love with Romanian poetry (Octavian Goga, Tudor Arghezi, George Bacovia and Lucian Blaga) and the romantic, lyrical and often quite funny writing of Ionel Teodoreanu’s trilogy of nostalgic novels about life in the Romanian countryside before Communism La Medeleni. 

Twenties:

This was a busy decade. At university I succumbed to the philosophy and lit crit craze and liberally sprinkled my essays and discussions with references to Derrida, Lacan, Chomsky, Julia Kristeva, Emil Cioran, Eliade… basically, anything that was as far removed from dialectical materialism as possible. I also discovered the joys of Japanese literature and quickly developed a passion for Dazai Osamu, Yosano Akiko and Akutagawa which has never left me since. In our small Japanese group of students, there were two camps: the Kawabata fans and the Mishima fans. I have to admit I was (perhaps the only one?) in the latter camp, although I became a much more critical reader later on.

I also discovered social anthropology in this decade and the works of Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Max Weber became as exciting to me as any novels. I came to it just on the cusp of the criticism of the paternalistic attitudes, the role of the anthropologist as an observer and the biases that they bring into the field or how their very presence affects the communities which they claim to observe in a non-interfering way.

Thirties:

You might argue that I was exhausted after all of my studies or too tired after having children, but I have no qualms at all about shifting almost entirely to crime fiction in my 30s. I had always read some crime (obvious contenders like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Simenon), but now I devoured all of the crime fiction I could find at my local library. I particularly enjoyed books which really captured the atmosphere of a city or country, like Michael Dibdin’s Zen series set in Italy, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of Edinburgh, Martin Beck’s Sweden, Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul, Fred Vargas bringing historical touches to contemporary France, Jakob Arjouni’s beneath-the-surface of boring old Frankfurt, Qiu Xialong’s Shanghai stuck between the past and the present. But I never turned down any of the regional or cosy crime writers either: Veronica Stallwood’s Oxford, for example, or M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin.

Forties:

The decade when I rediscovered writing, as well as reading far more widely, reviewing and blogging. I’ve returned to poetry, I still keep up with crime fiction, I still enjoy books set in the whole wide world, opening me up to new cultures, ideas and ways of being. You can discover many of the new authors I got to appreciate in the past few years by looking back at my blog, for example: Jean-Claude Izzo, Pascal Garnier, Romain Gary, to mention just the French (well, I did spend quite a large chunk of time in France). I’ve discovered far too many new crime fiction authors to mention in one post, and I’ve also stretched my wings to take in more world literature (beyond my comfort zone of Europe and Japan).

I would love to hear about your own bookish journey through the decades, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog. It’s funny how you start to see certain patterns emerging…

 

 

The Euphoria of Anthropology

euphoriaThis is a long overdue review of Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, a novel based on the life and loves of Margaret Mead and her two anthropologist husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. It is also a life-lesson for me: don’t leave it too long before you review a book you liked, just because you think you’ll be able to write something wiser, wittier, more in-depth about it.

You won’t. And you’ll have forgotten most of the reasons why you loved it in the first place.

Margaret Mead’s autobiography ‘Blackberry Winter’ is one of the reasons I decided to become an anthropologist. She was one of the superstars of anthropology and, no matter how much subsequent debate there has been about her conclusions, no one doubts her passion and unabashed curiosity for other people and cultures.  Outspoken and candid in most personal matters, she is nevertheless coy about the few months she spent in what must have been a tense relationship triangle with Bateson and Fortune in 1933 in New Guinea. I was somewhat worried that Lily King would romanticise and sensationalise the situation to the detriment of the real people and the anthropology. Would I love a book that reimagined my childhood heroes beyond all recognition?

But love it I did, although I struggled to find my bearings in the opening chapter. Who is doing the observing and the talking? The woman is not named at first, and there are two other women to add to the confusion. Are these characters heading out or coming back? Perhaps this is a deliberate construct, to give the reader an example of what it is like for an anthropologist going into an unknown culture, where none of the usual rules or landmarks make sense.

After that, however, the narrative settled down, and the action is perceived largely through the eyes of Andrew Bankson (the Bateson character), including what he imagines Nell Stone’s (the Margaret Mead character) life in the field to be like, interspersed with extracts from her diary. The rather repulsive husband Fen (the Fortune character) is only ever described by these two main protagonists, so does not get his say. He appears to be struggling to make a lasting impression in anthropology, is envious of his wife’s fame and constantly belittles her work ethic. ‘Got your Novel Prize yet, Nellie?’ he asks whenever she receives her long-delayed mail, and hurts her in rather symbolic ways (damaging her glasses, her typewriter, her body).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.
Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Atlhough the author imagines a completely different resolution to the story of this explosive trio, I was surprised how closely she stuck to some of the biographical elements. The characteristics of the tribes they visited are accurately described; the Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas mentor characters reappear as Helen and  himself respectively. Bateson was indeed as much affected by the death of his two older brothers as the fictional Bankson is in the book.

The four-fold scheme of cultural ‘temperaments’ were indeed formulated by Margaret and Bateson at the time, based on the manuscript of Benedict’s work ‘Patterns of Culture’, which they received in the field. Although this theoretical model has since been discredited (partly because of the misuse the Nazis made of such models), King does a great job of describing the excitement, the beauty of frenzy, which overcomes researchers when they think they might be on the brink of a great discovery. This is the ‘euphoria’ of the title, although it is also described elsewhere in the book as the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense.

It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Another aspect of the novel which I enjoyed was the implied contemporary reassessment of the way anthropology was conducted back in the 1930s. Although they mean well, there is an unspoken ‘white man’ arrogance about the way in which the researchers descend upon a village with all of their belongings, rope people into building a treehouse for them, attempt to impose a schedule on them for interviews and observations etc.

The balance between love affair and professional fulfillment is just about right. The author manages to make anthropology – or perhaps just intellectual quest for excellence and meaning – sexy, despite the flies, the malaria, the self-doubts and the lack of plumbing.

lilykingThe ending, however, diverges sharply from the real life stories – and the love story between Nell and Andrew is perhaps all the more beautiful for it. Back in the real world, Bateson married his princess, and they did do some successful fieldwork together in Bali and they had a daughter (who also became an anthropologist). However, they got divorced ten years later and their grand unifying construct of cultural patterns amounted to nothing.

Fiction! It trumps reality every single time.