How Literature Speaks Through the Ages

I cannot recommend Stoner by John Williams enough; not a single word is wasted in creating a life and exploring the passions, loves and failures of an individual throughout that life.  These are the moments that history does not record:

Five days before the marriage took place the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour; and William Stoner watched the ceremony with a mixture of feeling that he had not had before.  Like many others who went through that time, he was gripped by what he could think of only as a numbness, though he knew it was a feeling compounded of emotions so deep and intense that they could not be acknowledged because they could not be lived with.  It was the force of a public tragedy he felt, a horror and a woe so all-pervasive that private tragedies and personal misfortunes were removed to another state of being, yet were intensified by the very vastness in which they took place, as the poignancy of a lone grave might be intensified by a great desert surrounding it.  With a pity that was almost impersonal he watched the sad little ritual of the marriage and was oddly moved by the passive, indifferent beauty of his daughter’s face and by the sullen desperation on the face of the young man.

– From the novel Stoner by John Williams. Published by Vintage, 2012.

‘On the Beach’ Predicting the Future

Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home.  This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two.  The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”

“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it.  The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could you have done that, Peter?  I mean, they’d all left school.”

“Newspapers”, he said.  “You could have done something with newspapers.  We didn’t do it.  No nation did, because we were all too silly.  We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way.  But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.

It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend.  For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.

Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer.  Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach.  Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…

Novel Romance

I love finding new novels to read, new authors whose previous publications I didn’t know existed and have not yet read.  I find life mixed into these stories, the full panoply of humanity.  I came across this passage recently and it struck me forcefully for the way in which we now, online and face to face, communicate differently:

“What is this rating, a sex appeal thing?”  I asked him once.

Steve tried to persuade me it was more innocent than that.  “It’s more like, do they show up on time, can they keep their end of a conversation, are they clean?  Do they spend all their time checking their phones?”

“You check your phone constantly.”

“That’s because you’re a friend,” he said.  “I would never behave that way with a virtual friend.  It kills your rating.”

“Well, where do I get to rate you?”

“You only get to rate me if you respond to one of my posts.  But you never would.  You’re a Luddite.”

A wonderful exchange between the main character and a friend in Benjamin Markovits 2015 novel You Don’t Have To Live Like This.

I’m a good portion of the way through the above book at the moment and I’m really happy I tracked down a copy of this novel.  Lined up next to read is the Will Self’s Shark, a truly modern novel examining the threads of consciousness and time in an experimental format.

Thinking back to the beginning of this year, I had discovered Javier Marías, the eloquent Spanish author.  I’ve managed to read a number of his novels now (including A Heart So White, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me, When I Was Mortal) and I remain deeply in love with his style.

I’m looking forward to the second half of this year and to what authors may come.  What are you currently reading and why?

‘To A God Unknown’

‘To A God Unknown’ is a beautiful little novel by John Steinbeck, his third, printed and published in 1933.  A choice quote (before I return the book to the library):

“In a way it gratified him that his health was bad, for it proved God thought enough of him to make him suffer.  Burton had the powerful resistance of the chronically ill” (pg 22).

This sentences sums up a lot about how life and illness are often intertwined, but of course it also hints at the sickness of humanity itself as both a part and apart from nature and the natural world.

The book mainly deals with the theme of nature and of mankind’s place alongside it.  In particular it deals with the themes of a unrelenting and unforgiving natural world, in which nothing can be taken at face value.

There is some beautifully haunting imagery of the oak tree that Joseph, the main character, idolizes.  The tree itself is one of the main, albeit unspeaking, character of thee book, looming large over the novel as a representative of Joseph’s deceased father, and acting as a key focal point for the ‘pagan’ practices that Joseph ritualises and includes in his understanding of the world he is in.  The novel is also a fascinating insight into the frontier land of homesteading at the turn of the 20th century in the American West.


A great oak tree (courtesy of the White Dragon, click to read a short essay on oak trees).

The great oak that guards Joseph’s landscape and all that it contains has re-awoken in myself my love and fascination for trees and plants, for nature and the natural landscape.  At this time of year, in late Spring/early Summer, the trees and plants are in full bloom and nature once again seems dynamic after a long winter, and so it seemed a perfect time to read this book.  (I have to confess here to a startling ignorance in my lack of basic tree knowledge, but it is something I hope to rectify).

However getting back to the book…The phrasing and sentences are sometimes clunky and the characterizations of the main actors are not always fully fleshed out.  We, the reader, often lust for, and urge for, a greater insight into the meanings and actions of the family characters, but Joseph himself remains an indomitable man, representative of the great unknown and a key figure of the unflinching nature of the natural world.

This is an early Steinbeck work however, and he wrote in varying styles and voices throughout his writing career.  As such ‘To A God Unknown’ remains a vital stepping stone from his early work to his later classic novels, such as ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.  I’d highly recommend giving it a read.