Sunday, November 30, 2008


Introducing the books, the proposer said that he had chosen two deliberately contrasting collections of short stories, which might lead on to a general discussion about the nature of the short story as a literary form.

P. G. Wodehouse was a writer he had read for most of his life. His father had a small number of favourite books, which it was his habit to re-read regularly to the exclusion of new material. A Jeeves book was one of the favoured few, and as a result the proposer had first read P.G.Wodehouse at ten or twelve. He had not read Carver until 1989, at a time when he was reading widely amongst American fiction.

Other than that the proposer – himself the author of a volume of short stories, as well as novels – did not wish to add any introduction, saving his comments for the general discussion.

Which started with the ticklish issue of how best to read a collection of short stories. Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms to have a collection of short stories? The whole point of a short story was that it was short, and could be read at one sitting. To read several at one sitting could induce symptoms of over-indulgence just as surely as having too many chocolates from a chocolate box.

One member confessed to leaving the Wodehouse in his pocket and indulging in one story per bus journey. As it later transpired that this member was one of those driven to laugh out loud by Jeeves, this might account for the bemused expression of Edinburgh bus passengers observed in recent times, which until now had been attributed to the blizzard of roadworks for the new trams.

On the other hand, both writers seemed to have thought carefully about the order in which the stories appeared, much as a singer might do for an album, and as far as we knew the stories had not been published separately. For example, opined one, Carver put his second strongest story (“Shall We Dance”) at the beginning, and his strongest (the title story) second last, leaving as a black joke for last the story which ended with the lines “He said ‘I just want to say one more thing’. But then he could not think what it could possibly be”.

“The strongest, you said? I thought it was the weakest!” retorted another, indicating that not all had seen the stories in the same light.

A difference of view that emerged most clearly over “Very Good, Jeeves”. No, Jeeves, not very good. “Stereotyped!” “Did such a world ever really exist?” “Desperately dated –even the humour!”. “Repetitive”. “Formulaic – couldn’t be bothered finishing it!” pronounced these members with all the heartless severity of a panel of Strictly Come Dancing judges.

Yet others had been rolling in the aisles. They loved the vitality and range of the language, the sparkling similes and metaphors – for example the bad –tempered householder “closing the door with the delicate caution of one sweeping flies off a sleeping Venus”. They loved the well-oiled machinery of the plots, which resolved everything on the last page.

“Simply hugely enjoyable”. The plot with the same song being repeated by four singers was hysterically funny. The stories were particularly intriguing when Jeeves disapproved of Bertie’s taste in clothing or art, and contrived to alter it. The food faddist and prototype feminist Pyke who threatened Bingo’s cholesterol-loaded food and connubial bliss was deliciously amusing. And so was the debate between Jeeves and Bertie as to whether Uncle George’s barmaid was proletarian or “of sturdy lower middle-class stock, sir”.

Reflecting further, the audience voting for Jeeves noted that this world had really been created by Wodehouse. It was an entirely safe, comic world, in which the biggest threats were aggressive Aunts. Bertie was a child-like figure, and Jeeves a nanny-like figure who could resolve all problems (perhaps reflecting Wodehouse being put in the charge of a nanny from age two). Bertie was an asexual figure, although golf lovers were promised that Wodehouse’s series of golf stories were less innocent. Perhaps escapist stories of this kind were particularly attractive to a generation decimated by the First World War (this particular collection was published in 1930).

And a lot of skill had gone into creating these apparently effortless stories. “The lightness and fluidity of Wodehouse I think obscures some very careful timing and craft. For all his far and wide use of the Englsih language, there is not a single wasted word, and the comedy is unfolded with rapier precision…”. Wodehouse had given an interview setting out some of his ideas on composition, for example: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel that the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start…The thing to do is say to yourself ‘What are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them…”.

What ho! Spiffing! But what about this Carver – a bit of a rum cove?

Well, no - Raymond Carver’s dark world received a generally enthusiastic response. “Powerful!”. “Challenging!”. “Brilliant stuff – a whole desperate society emerged from a few sentences”. “Reminded me of a Country and Western song – a compliment – with a refrain of failed relationships and alcohol amongst blue collar people in the Mid-West.” “I liked the way meanings and new perceptions emerged as you reflected on the story”. “Liked Carver more than when I read him twenty five years ago, perhaps because of more life experience since!”.

“Initially I didn’t like the abrupt conclusions, but then I tuned into the stories and found them refreshing”. “Presents you with a raw slab of life as it is, with only one or two nerve endings going into the future, and a few more into the past”. “You have to read with great care, because if you miss one word the whole meaning changes”. “The stories have the concentration, complexity and chiselling of a poem”. “The opening lines really grab you and pull you in – e.g. ‘I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was…’". ” “Like an Edward Hopper painting, where the characters tend to be gazing out of a window, in which there is a sinister sense of an untold story”.

So straight tens from all the judges? No, not quite. “Eventually the dark plots about alcohol and failed relationships begin to pall. What about all the joy and excitement also to be found in blue-collar life? He’s a one-trick pony…”. “Stylistically Carver comes from the school of minimalism. This begs the question, when we applaud the writing, are we applauding the fact that so much meaning can be expressed in so few words? Is this the aim of the writing style? I found the style overbearing, however, and it leaves little room for the reader to manoeuvre… I found I had really to slow down the reading and study the words which was in one sense quite rewarding, but also quite restrictive”.

“Some stories too dark for a female reader”. “‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ is similar to Kafka’s ‘A Knock at the Manor Gate’. But by comparison Carver’s story is crude and merely sickening, whereas Kafka’s was well-paced and held a genuine tension throughout”. “I’d rather spend an evening with Wodehouse than Carver!”.

A feature of Carver’s characters was that, although they talked, they did not really communicate by talking. They were too inarticulate to do so. They could only express the underworld of their emotions by taking action – for example by mutely throwing rocks. Indeed that was perhaps a common feature of American culture (and Presidents? ventured your correspondent, swiftly to be silenced). Indeed rocks were a recurrent motif – perhaps a symbol? - in several of the stories, once being explicitly used as a murder weapon.

But while most could agree on their liking for the stories, we could not all agree on what the stories meant. What, for example, did the ending of “Why Don’t You Dance?” mean. For one, it meant that the angst of the older man had been transferred to the younger generation. For another, the young woman had been disturbed both by her sexual attraction to the old man, and by a glimpse of the pain of the failed relationship of an older generation (and the foreboding example for the young of the failures of the older generation was a major feature of the stories). For another reader it was possible that the young couple had murdered the older man.

But did different interpretations matter? There was no “solution” to the story – just a sense of ambivalence and of unease which we shared.

In terms of influences, many (including Carver himself) had identified Chekhov. And it was certainly true that Chekhov had shown how to replace the traditional plot-structured short story and its conventional beginning, middle and end with a story that reflected the messiness of life in a random, godless, meaningless universe (“dirty realism”, in the phrase sometimes applied to Carver’s work).

However, their actual writing styles were very different, and a much closer influence was surely that of the early Hemingway (see our discussion of “Men Without Women” on 27 February 2008). A story such as “Hills without Elephants” seemed to be the template for the minimalist, ambivalent Carver story of human misery. The pared-down prose style, with its simple vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs was surely handed down by Hemingway to Carver as to so many other American writers. Hemingway too wrote of the Mid-West, and of fishing. Even setting one of the stories in northern Italy seemed to be a nod, conscious or otherwise, in the direction of Papa Hemingway.

So how to compare Wodehouse and Carver? On the surface they could not be more different. Happiness versus sadness, laughter versus rage. Writing to satisfy, as opposed to writing to disturb. Carver chose to point his lens into dark and sordid places, while Wodehouse studiously did exactly the opposite, and never took anything too seriously. Wodehouse depicts a world of high flying fancy, where emotional angst is present but which is trivialised amidst the comforts of an affluent existence. Wodehouse’s world attracts us because it is both escapist and fun, but we are shoe-horned uncomfortably into Carver’s world and come out gasping for air. Nor does Carver provide something positive that is asserted, as classic tragedy might.

In the terms suggested by E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, Wodehouse is offering “flat” characters, who do not develop, whereas Carver is offering “round” characters. Little as we glimpse of Carver’s characters, they develop in the course of his minimalist stories, and this subtlety is one of the main attractions of Carver’s work. As Forster pointed out, a complex plot – of the Wodehouse, or Dickens, variety – is much simpler with “flat “ characters. However, one should not make a value judgement and impose a hierarchy in identifying such differences between Wodehouse and Carver.

And there were also things in common between Wodehouse and Carver. Both used dialogue very well. The theme of lunacy appeared in both, although in a very amusing and reassuring way in Wodehouse. Both writers displayed considerable interest in alcohol. It is seen as a dangerous and destructive force in Carver (and it had played such a role in his own life) while for Wodehouse it is always comic. Thus the Wodehouse definitive taxonomy of hangovers:

• the Broken Compass,
• the Sewing Machine,
• the Comet,
• the Atomic,
• the Cement Mixer,
• the Gremlin Boogie.

A fine note on which to end, thought your scribe, as I could understand it, but off they went again, this time on to the short story as a literary form:

Surely all short story writers wanted really to become novelists, to display their imagination to the full? Well no, not necessarily. In America – and also in South America, with magic realism – there was a stronger tradition of writers focussing only on the short story. (Reflecting a shorter attention span? I ventured, only to be frostily silenced once more…). Whereas in the UK a book of short stories was nowadays only seen by publishers as a stepping stone to a novel, or as a follow up to a novel, which seemed a pity, as short stories were still very popular. Was the British public being short-changed?...

Interesting that there are many fewer famous collections of short stories than famous novels. And also that so many great films have been made from developing short stories, while many bad films have been made by trying to cram in all the plot of a novel…

The short story suits science fiction, because it is about ideas rather than characters…

But then so often short stories are based on something that has happened to an author, or something they have overheard, or read about, rather than the fully imagined world of a novel…

Somerset Maugham is a very interesting short story writer to revisit. He is also someone who is economical with words, and adept in describing both the physical and psychological worlds of the colonial society he depicts…

You should not place the short story and the novel in a hierarchy of a value, and you should not see a short story as a sort of failed novel. William Boyd – author of both novels and short stories - had recently written a couple of excellent articles on the short story, in which he argued it was a separate art form, and one which - through oral story telling – predated the novel...

Ah well, story telling has been well supported in Scotland recently. Yes indeed, only last week I was in my allotment having a conversation about failed relationships over the compost heap, when I heard a story-teller approaching and telling a story to allotment holders…

!!!Run that one by me again?

Well, I think that’s what he said… but I’m afraid that by now even your devoted correspondent was reaching the end of his attention span.

Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! I’m off to do the Gremlin Boogie….

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Introducing the book, the proposer said he had been attracted to it because of a family involvement with a charity helping to house and educate Dalits in India. He had hoped there might be parallels – but in fact the book had described a very different approach to charitable activity.

He had not found it an easy read, possibly because his reading of it had been spread out over a month. Some sections were captivating and flew by, whereas others seemed a bit boring. And he suspected that Mortenson himself had not written any of the book, instead handing over to Relin a mass of papers and detritus from his visits, organising visits for Relin, and having discussions with him. It was intriguing that Mortenson had had to plead with the publisher to drop the portentous sub-title (One Man’s Mission to fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time) for the paperback version.

The book sparked off interesting questions about the societies in which Mortenson worked and their cultures. That must be why it was a big-seller in the US, and indeed of interest to the US military – an eye-opener to what was going on in these countries. He had lifted the lid on a demonised culture, given reasons why the different groups (the Pakistanis, the Shia, the Taliban etc) were all different, and why they needed to be managed in careful and different ways. But some of this information, and the language and concepts it revealed, was difficult to absorb without stopping to reflect, and this interrupted the flow of the book.

What struck him most about the book was the remarkable character of Greg Mortenson. Shining through the story were Mortenson’s amazing interpersonal skills. He had shown an ability to build relationships, and inspire trust and respect, amongst people of very different cultures to his own. One of the factors that helped was his very evident sincerity.

His involvement in building schools in remote areas of Pakistan had not come about through premeditation or intellectual analysis (though it had maybe been pre-ordained by the example of his parents’ activities in Africa and the thought patterns they had given him). He simply bumbled in, but then showed remarkable opportunism in the way he had seized chances to improve the lot of the rural poor – particularly of uneducated girls – in Pakistan. The intuitive way he had identified helpers in Pakistan from the least likely backgrounds was uncanny.

And he displayed an absolute intensity and thoroughness. This tenacity – and bravery – came out first in his attempt on K2, and then in selling everything he had to raise the funds for the first school. He then pursued his objectives in the face of an unfamiliar culture, a harsh terrain, fatwas from mullahs, the outbreak of wars and even kidnapping.

Overall it was a very thought-provoking book, which gave important insights into the working of different cultures, and raised big issues about the direction of travel for the future.

He had gleaned from an interview posted on the CAI website that Mortenson was now withdrawing from his hands-on role in Pakistan and Afghanistan to a more managerial role in which he would spend more time in America. Perhaps this was inevitable given the volume of funds and support that must now be available following the immense success of the book. But the proposer feared for the future, given that the whole operation had seemed to depend so critically on Mortenson’s hands-on work in Pakistan. It must be doubtful that the operation would be successful without him operating on the ground, and doubtful – from what we had read of his personality – that a managerial role would play to his strengths.

Another reader, however, had found the book an easy and gripping read. He was struck by the similarity between Mortenson and Tim Moore – the author of last month’s book “French Revolutions” about the Tour de France. Both were obsessive – or at least goal-oriented – at the expense of other aspects of life including family. But Mortenson was by far the more attractive person, taking on an almost heroic character, even if the book hinted that in some respects he was an infuriating man.

One aspect of the writing that troubled him was that the writer – presumably Relin, who must be in practice the ghost-writer – put in concrete descriptions in novelist style of the detail surrounding events that could not possibly have been remembered. This was effective at one level, but at another manipulative and thus disconcerting.

Another member had found the book hugely enjoyable, and indeed inspiring. However, he was less enthused by the quality of the writing, which he had initially found quite disappointing. It could be mawkish, awkward and even amateurish – such as the clumsy opening sentence:

“In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high altitude wilderness.”

As he read the whole book, however, he was able to ignore such examples and came to appreciate the overall achievement, in particular where the integrity of the story and the message was sustained in a way that retained the interest of the reader. The writing, perhaps befitting Mortenson’s character, might be clumsy at times but was always gentle in tone, plodding along with the story, sewing sentences and characters together with rough stitches rather than fine handicraft. It was a job “done well enough”, much as how Dr Greg would no doubt approach the building of a CAI school.

The book attempted to portray Mortenson as the hero at the centre of a developing adventure or thriller. This “our brave hero” style was only partly convincing. But it had a charming quality, in keeping with the guileless character of Mortenson, which had won him over and swept him along with the adventure romp style.

Major, sometimes disturbing, events in Mortenson’s life were presented in a matter of fact way with little further emotive insight. One example was the description of Mortenson being bullied by other children after arrival in the USA, which was passed over in barely ten lines. The simplicity of narrative tone throughout allowed the reader space to draw his own conclusions and provided a grounded, if two dimensional, perspective.

There was much to admire about Mortenson, his character and achievements, which spoke for themselves. This was tainted a little by the unnecessary portraits of his ex-girlfriend Marina and their relationship. Why did Mortenson or Relin feel the need to fell the hatchet on a former love publicly? These awkward passages had the character of an adolescent’s poison pen revenge. At the end of the book there was also the sense of a developing ego, where Mortenson wants to build more and more schools, in ever more dangerous places. It was reminiscent of John Simpson the BBC reporter, with an uncanny knack of reaching the most inaccessible and dangerous places and telling everyone about it.

However, these were perhaps the observations of a cynic. The real truth lay in the thousands of child and adult lives who had been helped by Mortenson and touched by his organization. The book not only expressed a powerful message of peace, humanity and tolerance, but also convincingly demonstrated the benefits in action. He could not think of another book that was able to demonstrate so neatly the relationship between the small-scale and the geopolitical.

Another member had also been irritated by the style, but had then focussed on the content, which was very interesting and raised many issues. The book was important in drawing the attention of an American – and a British - audience to the complexities of the different tribes and cultures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also brought out the unpreparedness of the US for handling the post 9/11 world. The US Government had gone to war in Iraq lacking Arab experts. And American feminist groups had arrived in Afghanistan to muddy the waters after the fall of the Taliban with no understanding whatsoever of the Afghan culture.

The question of what was happening to Mortenson’s schools now – at a time when the US Government was conducting military strikes inside Pakistan – concerned another reader. It seemed to him that the heroic efforts of Mortenson would alas prove insignificant when set against the immense damage to the reputation of the West caused by his Government’s recklessness. While events and luck had moved in favour of Mortenson early on, events now seemed to be moving against him.

It was difficult to find information from the CAI website (how unfortunate that acronym was!) to update that in the book. An interview suggested that there were now over 70 schools in operation, but he had heard rumours from Pakistani contacts that the schools were being destroyed by a fundamentalist backlash against anything connected to the West. And the schools were competing against over 3,000 madrassas.

While the style of the book might not be perfect, much of it was absolutely riveting – such as the series of desperate adventures when Mortenson tries to travel north from Kabul.

Another member found the book inspiring, and had been humbled to learn things about Pakistan – for example the Saudi and Kuwaiti money flooding in to build extremist madrassas – that he felt he should already have known. He also wondered about analogies with Scottish reactions to the setting up of Islamic schools in Scotland. And he regretted the absence of a Book Group member who had spent five years trying to set up a school in a Muslim country.

The book raised big issues about the scope for the individual trying to put the wrongs of the world to rights. How much could the individual achieve? And was it right at all to intervene in the problems of another culture?

And on the question of style – where he shared the reservations already expressed – he drew attention in particular to the breathless Mills and Boon treatment of the evening when Mortenson met his wife e.g.“Together the two began the kind of conversation that flows seamlessly, unstoppably, each fork begetting another branch of common interest, a conversation that continues until this day…”

He also noted the intriguing links to the plot of “Charlie Wilson’s War” – and wondered – without taking a view - if it might have worked better to try to influence the Pakistan government from the top to set up schools rather than do it bottom up?

On the other hand a success of the book was that it portrayed Mortenson at the outset as very naïve– but gaining respect from everyone, while by the end he has become political and is operating at the top. The dilemma he faced was the difficulty of both mingling with the people at the top in an effort to influence them, and still having time for his efforts on the ground.

One member noted that Mortenson had spoken at the Edinburgh Book Festival that August, and had come over as charismatic, inspirational – and humble. This did not square with the sense of a growing ego that the book conveyed – perhaps this was primarily the fault of the ghost –writer.

He did not care either for the simplistic style, but did feel that the ghost-writer had succeeded in finding a format that would appeal to an American audience. It was perhaps fair to say that Americans had more taste for sentimentality, clear-cut divisions between good and evil characters, and feel-good optimism than a British audience. And the device of presenting the material in a series of parallel stories – the mountaineering story, the quest for money, the love story, the scheming of the wicked Changazi etc – sucked the reader in. A straightforward hagiography would have been much more boring. And the evidence that the book had worked for an American audience was only too clear, with it being top of the New York Times paperback non-fiction charts for nearly two years, and still at the top at present.

The story fell into two halves. The first was the optimistic, feel-good story of how the schools came to be set up. The second half was more difficult, as it showed the difficulties that arose in the post 9/11 period, and Mortenson’s growing disenchantment with the policies of the American and British governments as he saw the gap between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

This was an unusual phenomenon – a book as a political act, which was having a real impact on how citizens in the US and Britain understood what was happening. And it was also a book as a fund-raiser for charity, and again being enormously successful in that respect. No doubt for Mortenson these criteria – the political impact and the funds raised – were the only criteria against which he would wish to measure the success of the book.

Another reader had found the book hard-going, but still a great read, with its insights into different characters and the execution of a great project. The book was both encouraging – in showing how one heroic person could get schools built through charisma and courage - and discouraging, as it revealed how he could never compete with the Saudi-funded madrassas. This raised the question of whether it would ever be possible to introduce Western-style schools into Pakistan on any scale.

This innocent query ignited our Monthly Book Group mullahs.

Wait a minute – wasn’t the whole point that these were not Western-style schools?
Well, they wouldn’t have Islamic studies as their core subject. Students from that part of the world could arrive in Scottish universities having studied almost nothing other than Islamic studies. And the title of the book – particularly in its original form – was suspect

But the beauty of Mortenson’s approach was that he ensured that the ownership of the school – its location, shape and format – rested with the local villagers! The schools all had the support of the local villagers.

Yes, but he did impose some rules and concepts that might be alien to the local culture. And it wasn’t a good idea to name his first school after a Western climber, rather than a Pakistani. No doubt if you offered to set up an engineering apprentice training school in the Western Isles that worked on Sundays it might have the support of the apprentices and their parents, but their hammering would still cause offence in the wider community because of its attitude to the Sabbath…

That’s not an exact analogy! And Mortenson was scrupulous – and insightful as ever – in demonstrating his respect for Islam. Indeed it had helped him escape his kidnappers…

It would be easier for an American to introduce schools for girls in India, which was a multi-ethnic secular state, than in Pakistan, which was a nation defined by its Muslim religion. It was truly remarkable that Mortenson had achieved so much in such difficult circumstances…

Well you should have seen my father–in-law in the Western Isles having to cover his hammer in cloth before being able to use it on a Sunday…

Perhaps a better analogy would be with an American setting up schools in Scotland in the 1920’s to teach girls to aspire to doing men’s jobs. The more enlightened men might support it, but the majority would have seen it as undermining their culture. It was always dangerous for an outsider to interfere in someone else’s culture, even where by our standards you were completely right…

How can you possibly deny women the right to be educated!!!...

And so on. And on, muttered our mullahs. Indeed it required a second cup of tea before your scribe could refocus on the discussion, which by now had moved onto the future.

Which looked bleak. One with many connections in the sub-continent (for example he knew the Indian commander in the Kargil battle, and his father had served in Waziristan) found his contacts gloomy about the future for Pakistan as a viable nation. One of the problems was that politicians there represented the interests of their home power base, rather than a political ideology. Perhaps a separate Pashtun state, which might be a Taliban state, embracing the north-west frontier regions of Pakistan and eastern and southern Afghanistan would emerge.

(Perhaps it would all have been different if Britain had handled Partition differently – which some argued was the biggest mistake made by Britain in the Imperial era. And perhaps if Jinnah had been allowed to become Prime Minister of a united India, and Nehru had not attached more importance to becoming Prime Minister himself than to retaining a united India…).

Andropov had once said that the Afghans were “too primitive for socialism”. However that may be, they were arguably not ready for multi-party democracy.

Mortenson was described as a “social entrepreneur” by Bill Clinton in a quote on the CAI website, which was apt. But the history of most entrepreneurs was that they could not handle the transition from a small organisation in which their writ was law to a bigger organisation. Either they were forced out of the organisation, or they dragged it down by their inability to delegate. Was the fate that awaited Dr Greg, while his schools were swept aside by the rising tide of fundamentalist madrassas?

Bleak indeed….

However, there might still be a role for his schools, because they focussed on girls, while the madrassas only took boys. And there was lots of scope in his idea of educational scholarships for girls to participate in higher education.

And perhaps Mortenson’s greatest educational achievement might turn out not to be his schools, but through his book educating the citizens of America and Britain about the complexities and subtleties of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Muslim culture.

And it was not long ago that America was greatly admired in Pakistan. A new President (the 2008 election was five days away as we met) might mean more sensitive foreign polices from the US (and, by extension, the UK).

And not all entrepreneurs failed to manage the transition in their organisation to a greater scale.

And not all naïve optimists failed in their efforts to change the world. (Only cynics failed consistently, because they never tried). Some had great impact, and Mortenson was one.

A good point at which to lay down the pen, and turn one’s attention to a third cup of tea…

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