Friday, July 22, 2011
No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.
Birds on a pontoon, Tranmere in the background. Long Beach, Sandy Bay. June 2011.
Two very different books this week.
First, Love and Death on Long Island by Gilbert Adair centres on the development of an obsession that in many respects greatly resembles Death in Venice (which I only read for the first time earlier this year). There’s no doubt that the allusions to Thomas Mann’s classic text are quite deliberate.
Like Death in Venice, the story concerns an aging, widowed and renowned ‘high art’ British novelist/academic with classical tastes who is somewhat out of step with the modern world. By a chance of fate, he encounters the figure of a C-Grade teen Hollywood heartthrob. Instantly enraptured by the ‘innocent’ beauty of the lad, and quickly becomes obsessed with the young actor. The concepts that have driven our narrator's life - logic and reason - are ultimately set against a concept that he has up to this point only ever really known in a philosophical sense: passion.
The drama derives from the act and consequence of an individual driven to enter a world utterly foreign to him – trips to the cinema ( Hotpants College II), snipping out photographs of teenybopper magazines, the world of video rentals (Skid Marks and Tex-Mex completing the oeuvre of interest). The infatuation eventually compels a trip to the US to engender an improbable meeting. Like the trip to Venice in Mann's book, the obsession with a love that can never be fulfilled means that the trip is essentially one of destruction.
This might seem a farce, but the book is nothing of the sort. Beautifully and convincingly constructed, the story constantly drives towards a conclusion that can only end appallingly for all concerned. The desire of a young mediocre American actor baffles our protagonist, but the compulsion to be entwined with a source of something inherently desirable – beauty, youth, lost time, a new world – utterly entrances him.
What I love most about it is the gentleness in how it recognises that when our lives change, they do not always change for reasons that we understand or can control. Despite us knowing from the very start how this story will (must) end, the journey is worth it. Overall, it is an incredibly thoughtful, touching, and really very moving novel, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Second is one of the rare longer non-fiction works that I occasionally dip into. The reason why I chose A Short History of Finland is relatively simple: I find Finland very interesting. This book is a quick romp through the the historical development of the country from its settlement by the Finns in the first millennium AD to now, exploring their connection with Sweden, the relationship with Russia that has dominated more recent Finnish history, and the post-war achievements of the second republic.
The reason that Finland interests me is quite straightforward: it’s interesting! Think about it: a small nation with limited natural resources and on the periphery of global events somehow went from being a secessionist backwater – that could not even feed its own inhabitants – of the failing Russian empire at the beginning of the century; to emerge from a civil war at the birth of one’s nationhood; rebuild its economy in the centre of a global depression; then partake in not one but TWO destructive wars with an infinitely stronger neighbour; rebuild yet again in the context of a Cold War with the constraint (and opportunity) of living right next door to the Soviet Union and end up with perhaps the best educational system in the world and to be constantly ranked as one of the world's most peaceful, competitive and liveable countries.
That is the sort of tale that makes for an interesting short history! Recommended.