Sunday, 21 August 2011

Belated Holiday Reviews - The Glass Bead Game and A Handful of Dust

Shopping for the new flat has made me realise that I have well and truly reached the stage in life where I covet home furnishings. Yesterday I spent five minutes standing in front of a saucepan and reminding myself why I did not need it. In that moment, I loved that saucepan like my own firstborn. Walking away from it was agony. But then I found duck's down pillows on sale for £8 and everything was all right again.

You may have guessed from all this that I am no longer on holiday, and indeed that is true. But I still do have two late late reviews from the last of my holiday reading. For some reason, when you're on holiday, magic tigers sound more appealing than a book where everyone dies awfully or is a monk. So The Glass Bead Game and A Handful of Dust languished in the bottom of my bag for most of the trip, and I felt bad (but not that bad). I did finally read them, though, and I liked them both, although in a different and more subdued way than I did the magic tigers. I really loved those magic tigers.

First, the Hesse. This turned out to not really be sci fi, or sci fi as imagined by a very erudite, scholarly person who has never seen Star Trek (I mean, not that Herman Hesse could, since he was writing in 1943, but you get my point).

In 23rd Century Germany (one that sounds very much like Germany in the beginning of the 20th Century), learning has become a sort of religion, and the cleverest boys are siphoned off at an early age to live in monastic solitude and spend their lives thinking scholarly thoughts. I sort of approve of this, actually, because in the world of The Glass Bead Game the whole point of learning is to have fun with it (serious fun, of course, but all the same you are supposed to enjoy yourself).

The Glass Bead Game itself is all about playing around with what you know, making cosmic connections between musical notes and maths equations and astronomy and botany and art, and then writing them down and meditating about them. There is a lot of meditation in The Glass Bead Game, in fact, and it turns out that reading it also requires a sort of meditative trance state. It's a very calm, extremely adagio book, with lots of peaceful, beautiful thoughts, but to properly appreciate them you have to use all your brain, and also be somewhere where you are not likely to be disturbed by family members walking by and loudly considering sun cream, or the 2012 Republican nomination, or what's for dinner. For this book, you need to hide, and hide well.

The Glass Bead Game is trying to pose several philosophical questions, most importantly: is it better to live for the mind or the body; and is it better to be an individual or a member of the collective? Of course, like most deep philosophical questions, these have fairly easy answers, handily provided by the book: have fun with learning, but also remember to get out there among the other human beings and talk about things like the 2012 Republican nomination and what's for dinner; and also if you try to totally subsume yourself within the collective your life will suck. To illustrate these points, we are told the life of monastic intellectual Joseph Knecht, as he rises to become Master of the Glass Bead Game and also realises that becoming Master of the Glass Bead Game doesn't actually make you very happy. Poor Joseph. He may just be an illustration of an allegorical point, but all the same I found myself liking him very much.  

The Glass Bead Game is told so peacefully that it took me a while to realise what a sad story it really is. No matter how successful Joseph is, you know (and so does he) that he'd be much happier living another life entirely. The life he does have to live (basically, the book itself) is creepily narrated from some undisclosed time in the future, by a group of people who refer to themselves only in the first person plural - just to show that nothing Joseph learns about being an individual gets passed on to the next generation. This book may be beautiful and calming, but it certainly is not a happy read.

3.5 stars

Cheer up, though, because nothing that happens to Joseph could possibly be as bad as the things the characters get subjected to in A Handful of Dust. I am coming to the conclusion that the inside of Evelyn Waugh's head must have looked like a series of illustrations from Struwwelpeter - it's not just that terrible things happen to his characters (which they do), but that the things that happen are astonishingly awful, with a sort of creative flair for nastiness that leaves you stunned. In one of his books (which shall remain nameless, so that you can still be surprised), a character actually and unironically is cooked and eaten by a cannibal tribe. In another, someone's head is sawn off to the accompaniment of loud song.

Somehow, this never gets into descriptions of Waugh's writing. Everyone pretends that he's all serious and sad and full of meditations on death and Catholicism, when ACTUALLY he's behaving like the Lord High Executioner, lopping off heads all over the place and then feeding them to people (note: I haven't come across this one yet, but I bet it happens somewhere).

One of the things I like about Evelyn Waugh is that he bothered to write about his contemporary culture. Sure, in his view, contemporary society has a great big hole in the middle of it, which everyone tries to fill in by having lots of nervous, meaningless conversations, but all the same I think Waugh understands that meaninglessness may be awful, but it can also be (secretly) quite a lot of fun. Anyway, I'm glad he included it, because I love hearing about the way a group of people lived, how they wasted time and got drunk and went to parties and so on. About halfway through A Handful of Dust it occured to me how very much these poor souls needed mobile phones. All of the characters in it seem to spend their entire lives crouching next to their home phones, ringing each other obsessively for lunch invitations and random relationship news. It's the ultimate proof that the invention of texting did not make anyone more inane than they were already. If these people knew the word lol, they would have used it extensively.

A Handful of Dust, apart from being about people talking on the phone a lot, is the story of the break-up of a marriage. Although I'm not going to spoil any of the gory details, suffice it to say that in Waugh's world, if you split up with your spouse things will not end well for you. I suspect it's the Catholicism coming out in, but oh my god, though, the things that happen to these poor people. They may be upper class twits, but no character outside of a war novel ought to be suffering quite as much as they do. Evelyn Waugh may very well have been an actual sadist.

And yet, like all his other books, A Handful of Dust really is funny - in a laughing-inside sort of way, that is. My dad gave me Decline and Fall when I was thirteen, with the promise that it was HILARIOUS. I think he might have got him confused with someone else. I read twenty pages, was horrified rather than amused and then gave up, because Evelyn Waugh is definitely not HILARIOUS. He's nasty. He's got a grim, dastardly sense of humour that you appreciate rather than chuckle at. You should seriously not give his books to thirteen year olds unless you want them put off The Classics for life, but reading him now I've come to like him.

I think.

In a disturbed sort of way.

3.5 stars

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