Friday, October 02, 2015


We began with the proposer’s revelation that he had first been led to the book by a friend who was a womanizer.  Perhaps the friend had found a kindred spirit in one of the book’s central characters, Tomas.  He revealed that Milan Kundera  has just had another book published (The Festival of Insignificance)– last year- at the age of 85.  This was considered admirable, although the book had not been well-received by critics apparently.

Our first commentator mentioned the disjointed nature of the narrative – for example the early revelation of the ultimate death of Tomas and Tereza in a car crash, which lent a poignancy to their relationship.  We followed up with some debate about the dreams in the book – and in particular whether or not the Petrin Hill incident was a dream, since unlike the other dreams it was not explicitly revealed to be such – only the nature of the events seemed unreal.

A general ignorance of Nietzche’s writings was acknowledged amongst the group, although this did not prevent us discussing the concept of multiple lives.

It was suggested  that the characters in the book were primarily pegs on which to hang philosophical ideas.  Kundera explicity rejects the notion that his characters are anything other than artefacts of his imagination.  The book perhaps falls into a grey area between novel and philosophy – occasionally Kundera takes us off at a tangent (for example his discussion of kitsch).  However, we were nonetheless engaged by the four main characters as believable human beings going through a variety of life events.  It was also pointed out that Tereza’s dog Karenin was dealt with seriously.  Among the more overtly profound exploration of themes such as betrayal and love there was also attention paid to the relationships between people and dogs.

One of our group had just watched the film adaptation of the book, which Kundera had disliked and disowned.  The film had more or less jettisoned the philosophical material, but still, in the viewer’s opinion, created an interesting portrait of the characters and their lives.

Someone described The Unbearable Lightness of Being as curate’s egg of a book (ie. ‘good in parts’)  They had found it quite difficult to read, and had not been as fully engaged by the characters as most of us.  Tereza was widely agreed to be the most appealing character, with her vulnerability and dependency on Tomas’s love.

Returning to the philosophical content of the book, one reader suggested that it was like a firework show, with lots of colourful and interesting ideas thrown up into the air.  Unlike a philosopher, a novelist has no obligation to follow his ideas through to a logical conclusion.  He can simply scintillate.

We turned to the historical context of the book and talked about Eastern Europe in general and the current Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.  After this digression, we wondered if the nature of the book itself encouraged digression (a clever excuse for going off the point).  A member of the group brought us back on track, saying that the section of the book that particularly engaged him was the part dealing with Russian surveillance and their attempts to destroy Czech national feeling.  The operations of the secret police were well described.  It was pointed out that at the time Kundera was writing, there was no certainty that the communist bloc would ever come to an end.  Another reader found some of the most dramatic material in the book in this context – for example the conversations around Tomas’s possible retraction of his Oedipus article.

We were all amused by the remarks on academic dissertations on obscure topics, their pages unvisited “even on All Souls’ Day”.

It was mentioned that feminists had frequently objected to Kundera’s work .  We wondered if Tomas was a kind of male wish-fulfilment figure.  It was pointed out that he seemed easy to please, being contented as a surgeon, a window-cleaner, and latterly a country-dweller.  Window-cleaning, with its frequent opportunities for philandering, seemed to be best of all for him.

From this point, our conversational route became more of a spaghetti junction.  We got onto the nature of happiness, and the influence of climate.  All other things being equal, it was suggested that living within the tropics was conducive to happiness.  We then got onto the early youth of the proposer, and then to his proposal that in his experience Eastern Europeans were more intellectual than the British – ‘more thinkers than doers’.  We had insufficient statistical information to debate this further, but it took us onto the results of a supposed survey (probably mythical) of the IQs of American presidents (high score for Barack Obama here) and then onto the nature of Ghanaian Christian beliefs.  Having visited the west coast of Africa, by way of the Czech Republic and the United States, it was but a small further step into the Edinburgh night, as all the beer bottles were now emptied.


We began with a brief discussion of different productions of Hamlet that we had seen – acknowledging that we were talking about a text designed for performance rather than private reading.  However, it was noted that one literary critic remarked that Shakespeare was for reading, not watching.  Comparisons were drawn between various interpreters of the main role – David Tenant, Derek Jacobi. Lawrence Olivier, and we looked forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch if we could. The proposer said that it was the 1964 Russian film adaptation, directed by Grigori Kozintsev that had first captured his imagination, and that the play became one of his favourite books as an adolescent.  Coming back to the play carrying a few more years, he still finds it powerful and fascinating emotionally, but has some reservations about his earlier enthusiasm.  We speculated on whether the angst-ridden hero was a figure more likely to appeal to more angst-prone younger audiences and readers.

We had read the play in different editions, and moved on to discuss the academic ‘industry’ devoted to producing a ‘definitive’ text.  Quarto 2 is considered by Arden as the nearest to the version Shakespeare would have produced on stage, but it is likely that he kept tinkering with it.  Editors can pick and choose their favourite versions of the lines, or transpose them between Hamlet and Horatio for example.  A fullest version would take up to five hours to stage.  (The 242 minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation was mentioned in this context).  Sometimes we noted that actors had ‘gabbled’ in productions we’d seen in order to get so much of the text in.

We moved on to discuss the central character of the play.  Hamlet has become a complex symbol for all kinds of things over the centuries – for example a byword for dithering and hesitation.

The critic Terry Eagleton said jokingly that Shakespeare would appear to be familiar with the works of Freud and Marx.  (In, presumably, an even lighter vein, it was proposed that Hibs footballers were all Hamlets, unable to put the finishing touch to their manoeuvres.)

Hamlet, like life itself, is full of ambiguities, and we wondered about what Shakespeare might have suggested to his main player, Burbage, to either clarify or leave more open what some lines might be taken to mean.  One of our group mentioned Peter Hall’s 2009 book ‘Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players’ as being very illuminating about how Shakespeare might have wanted his work performed.  Another book was also praised as giving insight into the historical context of Shakespeare’s work and life: ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro.  (A year that included the writing of Hamlet).

We discussed the language of the characters  – for example the language used by Claudius seemed very forced and artificial.  It was suggested that this was because he was consciously ‘playing the role’ of king.  We noted that Hamlet has more words to speak than any other Shakespearian character.  In spite of this plethora of “Words, words, words” (as Hamlet himself says), it was remarked by one reader that frequently the characters fail to understand each other.  One of us indeed saw some of the characters as being on the autistic spectrum, especially Ophelia.  The critic L.C. Knights argued that Shakespeare’s plays are about themes, not real people – although he himself also falls into the approach of earlier critics like Bradley of analysing the characters.   We also felt that the plot seemed of much less interest to Shakespeare than the philosophical content, and the musings on life and death of Hamlet in particular.  Indeed, the plot’s culmination in the fight between Hamlet and Laertes showed a cavalier disregard for plausibility.  There were also some discrepancies in the treatment of the ghost – he is presented as ‘real’, but then why can Hamlet hear him and Gertrude cannot?  One could only assume that these were unimportant issues for Shakespeare.

Horatio and the Gravedigger were seen by some as the only likeable characters in the play.  Hamlet himself was defended as ‘likeable’ by one of our group, but dismissed as essentially ‘frustrating’ by another.  Another among us found him an unpleasant individual, a ditherer, and considered his treatment of Ophelia appalling.  He said he met people like Hamlet all the time.  We wondered uncomfortably who he had in mind.

One of our readers brought up the debt Shakespeare owed to his sources – an earlier version of the story was popular in the 1580s and 1590s, perhaps written by Thomas Kyd, although no printed version survives.  This itself derived from earlier Scandinavian sources.  Shakespeare’s version, however brilliant and original in many ways, does arrive circuitously at the conventional endpoint of the revenge tragedy genre, which it shares with the tragedies of ancient Greece – i.e. pretty much everyone has to end up dead.

We discussed how a key theme of the play is the conflict between a pagan concept of revenge and the Christian concept of forgiveness.  Hamlet wants his revenge on Claudius to go beyond the grave – he won’t kill him while he’s praying, because he wants to send him to Hell.

A question was raised as to whether or not Elizabethans would understand Shakespeare relatively easily, as we might understand, say, The Archers.  Groundlings would have enjoyed knockabout humour and sword fights more than the subtleties of the language presumably.  Many references that are now obscure however would have been much more accessible to contemporary audiences. On the other hand, it was suggested, much of the difficulty of Elizabethan language falls away when delivered by a skillful actor.  One reader commented on how Shakespeare’s language is so concise that any attempt at explication always entails the use of far more words than he used himself.  There is a beautiful precision about his use of words, and this is evidenced by the extent to which his phrases have passed into common use – or gone ‘viral’ in contemporary parlance!

We moved on to discuss how Hamlet, in common with Shakespeare’s other plays, is reinterpreted in different places at different times.  For example there was an Eastern European view of the play as highly political, all about the difficulty of acting effectively against a repressive regime.  The proposer drew attention to historicist approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, with Elizabeth being near end of her life, and the possibility of James coming to the throne – a ruler from another country.  Also mentioned were more recent feminist approaches to Shakespeare, in their turn influenced by Freudianism. 

Finally, one of our group mentioned a visit to Girvan Library, where he failed to find any work by Shakespeare.  We wondered if knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was in danger of fading away, and if schools were moving more and more towards the study of exclusively modern literature.  The proposer was congratulated for his ‘bravery’ in bringing Hamlet into our midst.  We had enjoyed re-reading it and discussing it, although we felt that perhaps after four hundred and odd years most things that could be said about it had already been said!

30/7/2015 "REGENERATION" by Pat Barker

Oh we do like to be the seaside, at least a select few of us gathered by the beach at Portobello as perhaps “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” had led to the absence of many of our number. (Maybe they were just on holiday? Ed.) An absent member had sent his comments, and regretted having not read it sooner on the grounds that it might be too sentimental. His opinion was very positive. Meanwhile, the survivors prepared to go ‘over the top’ as WW1 beckoned, again.

The proposer introduced ‘Regeneration’ (1991) with a short biography of Pat Barker, significantly mentioning her Yorkshire, working class upbringing by her grandparents, how she used to stick her fingers in her grandfathers bayonet wound, and of her later liaison and marriage to David Barker, a zoologist and neurologist. From such experience was the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy formed. Some of us had read all three novels, some only the first book. Rather than introduce spoilers we concentrated on the first book, although it was suggested that the subsequent novels would re-order emphasis on the major and minor themes in the first book. (Indeed, this proved to be the case as your humble scribe subsequently read parts 2 and 3 which clarified many of the themes in part 1. However, this is not recorded.)

Rivers, Yealland, Sassoon, Owen and Graves are real – the patients are fictitious but based on real cases from a book written subsequently by Rivers. (One of us had circulated an interesting article about Rivers work in the period.) It appears that the novelist has made exemplary use of this and several other historical sources, e.g. in that Sassoon really did amend ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. However, she has invented the persona of Rivers, through his reactions to events, his coming round in part to Sassoon’s ideas and possible repressed homosexuality. He does say at some point “the war must be fought to a finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations”. Indeed the book is quite subtle in that there is no overt pro- or anti-war case.

In the context of the book, Rivers is quite at odds in his theories of breakdown and conflict of shell-shock arising from combat and prolonged exposure.  Some of the arguments that pass through his head sound convincing, while others seem suspect. Believing that “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” were more likely to cause men to break down than “the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors” that his patients themselves used to explain their condition, he muses that this must also explain the prevalence of “hysterical disorders” in women in peacetime. 

Billy Prior, on the other hand, is thought to be socially and sexually ambiguous, an officer yet an outsider because of his background.  We discussed whether his perception of the officer class was viable. He assumed a certain snobbery and smugness in their attitude. However, he still made firm relationships, with Rivers and with Owen for example.

The proposer then noted that Barker had said “there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas”.  Although it has been said that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW1, the implication was that this was about universal rather than WW1-specific truths. Could we avoid a discussion of Serbian politics from 1900? (See ‘The Sleepwalkers’). Time would tell, but it is accurate to record that conversations would often diverge from the text, especially when branching outwards from Sassoon’s declaration that opens the book, “not protesting against the conduct of the war but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men at being sacrificed”. The majority of our group made the point that Sassoon was young and naive, and such a declaration was foolish and would have no effect on such ‘conduct’. A minority view suggested that perhaps naivety brings clarity – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings etc. Does age bring wisdom or atrophy? Is there degeneration rather than ‘regeneration of the grey cells’? Well, if Wiki is to be believed the average age of commanding officers fell from 50 to 28 as the war progressed, and men of over 35 were barred from commanding battalions. However, this blog is getting off the point, echoing the discussion! Pass the port, Nigel.

So this novel is not just about WW1, but also about the need and justification for war, the effects on the combatants, consideration of societal change, of the emancipation of women, the breaking down of class barriers, of changing attitudes to heterosexuality and homosexuality, and of the attitude of the state. The title emanates from the experiment done on River’s friend Head in earlier times, when he deliberately severed a nerve in Head’s hand with the purpose of charting its gradual regeneration. From this we can compare and contrast the treatments to the mental trauma given by Rivers and Yealland, and how Rivers has to even question his own humane approach. He is torn between guilt in treatment and the stated aim to rehabilitate and send the men back to the front, and possible beneficial results (extreme in Yealland’s case).

In the wider context we discussed the possible effect of WW1, of war in general, as a necessary regenerating force on society. Within the book, the changing role and attitudes of the girls working in the munitions factories presage the huge changes that come after the war. There were changes too in sexual behaviour; heterosexual behaviour became more liberal, some crude forms of abortion were attempted, as in the description of the use of the coat hanger, and homosexuality was further repressed because of the concern about its effects on troop comradely spirit and morale with so many men in close proximity. Sassoon talks of how his friend was treated for soliciting, and how he subsequently had to modify his own behaviour to appear to be more normal or ‘cured’.

Barker mixes blunt and gritty working class language with poetic idioms. Perhaps the War Poets too – or at least the anti-war poets whom schools have adopted as the canon, managed something similar in combining the imagery of horror with the language of poetry. Your scribe’s favourite WC quote? – “eeh, hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue. Be cruelty to moths”

We were all rather underwhelmed by the description of River’s childhood, and especially the introduction of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Given the traumatic effect of the war on the soldiers’ speech, including mutism and stammering, and indeed Rivers own propensity to stammer it was assumed that this was making the link between his early childhood, the experience, and the subsequent sympathetic approach to such speech problems, in marked contrast to the electrodes of Yealland. There are also issues of parenthood, in particular the way that Sassoon looks on Rivers as a father figure who is much missed when he leaves Craiglockhart, as well as the role of Dodgson as a possible surrogate father.  However, one suggested this was possibly a case of research uncovering a celebrity that had got in the way. We also discussed the changing attitude to psychiatric treatment, of how a cure could better be affected by admitting and talking through a problem, rather than never talking about it, forgetting it.

What of the other central device, of bringing out the horrors of war not by direct descriptions, as was so effective in Birdsong (Faulks) that we had read earlier in the year, but by indirect description through the subsequent trauma. Most, but not all, found the book equally harrowing. On the other hand, the description of Yealland’s electroshock provided quite a lot of harrow for at least one reader, who recalled Laurence Olivier’s treatment of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Marathon Man’. (Eh? What’s the connection? Ed.)

So why does Sassoon return to fight?  Why does Prior talk of the shame of not going back? There are selfless reasons, notably the need to be loyal to your friends and comrades and for an officer at least, to be able to use experience gained to look after his men. These were motivating factors for Sassoon, which were nevertheless consistent with his declaration, or so he felt. The nature of masculinity, to be a man my son, is a recurring theme in the book and not just in the attitude to homosexuality. This certainly has changed, but not entirely, in the succeeding century.

So is war a regenerating force on a damaged or somehow deficient society? What are the beneficial effects of WW1? Even with a quorum having 40% historians, this was a tricky one to answer. Did the decision to support Belgium and France justify the killing of so many soldiers and civilians? Would Europe be a very different place in 2015 if no action had been taken, at least in this form? Was the sacrifice of allied troops necessary or in vain? If necessary and not in vain for the UK combatants, what of the sacrifice of German troops? 

Other than military and political changes, WW1 certainly accelerated societal change, especially with respect to class, women’s rights and education, as well as modifying sexual mores, but was it necessary? Sassoon’s point was that the war was being prolonged beyond its original purpose. To what extent would the common man be aware of the greater political picture? Others suggested that the war changed psychiatry, art and literature. Of course, one should not forget the extraordinary meeting and interplay between Sassoon, Graves and Owen, exemplified by the existence of the manuscript for ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ which has Sassoon’s annotations and suggestions. Did the war, or art as expressed by the war poets, change political thinking? What did Dylan have to say on the subject[i]? One of us noted that the French insisted afterwards that at least one ministerial appointment should be a soldier or ex-soldier. 

On these and other questions, the author leaves you to make up your own mind. However, it was proposed that both politicians and the media can still influence and exploit human base instincts, particularly tribal instincts, even in these days of mass communication and the internet. Other groups can also do this, of course, and there are many contemporary examples.

On one thing we all agreed; this was an excellent book. We all enjoyed it immensely and for those who had not done so, the next two books were on the ‘to do’ list.

And so to bed … suffering from WW1 literary trauma and with a need to be regenerated. Dr. Who has regenerated 12 times without addressing such deep concerns. Exterminate, exterminate….. where have I heard that before?

[i] The First World War, boys,
It came and it went

The reason for fighting

I never did get

But I learned to accept it

Accept it with pride

For you don’t count the dead

When God’s on your side.