Dan Sandman

Archive for July, 2016|Monthly archive page

31: A Moment of War by Laurie Lee

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 29/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

A Moment of War by Laurie LeeIn order to fight the rise of fascism in Europe, many foreigners signed up to partake in the Spanish Civil War, including Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Laurie Lee. This third installment of Laurie Lee’s autobiography is about his war experiences in Spain. It took many years for him to publish and was probably composed with some difficulty.

The language is sharper than in Lee’s previous memoirs, which are a vivid and full celebration of the beauty and humanity that surrounded him during his childhood and on his original travels to Spain. We hear now of battles being fought, shells exploding and wrongful imprisonment. As Lee gets caught up somewhere in the chaotic disarray of the war, the action stumbles in logical sequence from post to post. In place of sentiment or heightened emotion, we have a cool style where what is left unsaid can be as intriguing as the words left on the page. Unlike any history book, Lee shows the failings of his own side without the need for any essays on Spanish politics or German troop movements. The work is done by simply telling his own story as honestly and plainly as he can, and without completely loosing the impressionistic aesthetic which has made his work so popular over the years.

For the general reader there is much here to be appreciated. Personally, there is one paragraph at the end of chapter eight that will always stick in my mind for the way it deals with death as a result of war. I think readers are right to wonder why travelers should volunteer for foreign wars in distant lands, especially when they are likely to be faced with the horrific consequences of military action directly. War is terrible and leads to the destruction of love and life. Literary books about war remind us that whenever and wherever we see horror and terror in the world, there are a series of infinitely complex stories behind the simple images we consume each day.

This is but one.


30: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 22/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie LeeLaurie Lee is the highly acclaimed writer whose work exemplifies the beauty and flexibility of the English language. In richly layered brushstrokes, Lee applies an aesthetic to the canvas which is reminiscent of the great impressionists of the late nineteenth century. His median is not paint, but in step with the likes of Pissaro and Monet he works lavishly with the colours, smells and sounds of the people and places which form his subject matter. His writing, like so much great art, appeals to the senses and therefore has a sensuous quality which transcends the simplicity of the words on the page alone. Lee’s prose is poetic in terms of its use of imagery but also in its ability to stress the importance of the word formations themselves.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is the autobiographical story of what happened to the Laurie Lee after he left his family in Slad, Gloucester. It starts out in London, where he worked hard on a few building sites and got tangled up in a few protest marches for workers’ rights. It then swiftly moves on to Spain on the brink of civil, whose threatening power tangentially lingers somewhere in the background of his experiences busking out a living with a nearly broken violin. Eventually though, the war catches up with Lee’s stories of late drinking as a hotel entertainer, or kipping where he can on almost anyone’s sofa or spare mattress. Following the epilogue, the story is left open for another sequel, which I will soon be reviewing.

I think this book could be taught by  English teachers in schools to demonstrate how important style can be with certain types of life or travel writing. We all live interesting lives, with moments of epiphany, ups and downs, and journeys into the heart of what it means to be a human being living within a particular point of space-time. Only through expressive language can we draw people away from their own version of reality and into a world where words become pictures, music or the gentle breeze of a midsummer day. The internet is full to the brim with factual knowledge, but it the story that we all have inside us and the way in which we bring it out in to the world that counts for everything.

Good autobiographic writing can teach this.

29: John Milton: A Biography by Neil Forsyth

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 15/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

John Milton A Biography by Neil ForsythJohn Milton was given an expensive education paid for by his father who was a scrivener (expert in financial matters). Milton was an expert in both classical and biblical traditions, particularly because he was able to read ancient texts in their original languages. This led him to become a poet in his younger years, despite the wishes of his father it is supposed. Eventually, he would start to aim his pen at a number of political issues surrounding, in particular, religion and divorce. Milton’s political involvement would lead to his appointment as Latin Secretary during the revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell. This was a position he held even after he went blind.

Despite the judgement of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was critical of Milton’s fastidious reading, Milton actually lived an interesting and varied life outside of his books. He was married three times, spent a significant period travelling around Europe — in those days it took about two weeks to get from Paris to Nice — and formed his own private school where he set out a thoroughly classical but surprisingly dynamic curriculum. Most interestingly, on his European travels, Milton once met the genius astronomer Galileo at his home residence. The great scientist was being held imprisoned there by the Spanish Inquisition — oh to be a fly on the wall when that meeting occurred!

In conclusion, I would say that the biographer Neil Forsyth is the perfect guide to take you on an introductory journey through the life of John Milton. Forsyth’s writing is backed up by a consummate knowledge of his subject material and he is skilfully able to weave a story together in an original way. In a relatively short number of pages, with many insightful poetic analyses along the way, Neil Forsyth has pulled off an excellent biography for anyone interest in the poems or life of a great poet. It will also appeal to readers with a more general interest in the English Civil War and the revolutionary politics of the period.

A fascinating window into the past.


28: Paradise Lost by John Milton

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Poetry on 08/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

Paradise Lost

The arch angel Lucifer leads a failed rebellion against God in Heaven.  He is heroically defeated by the good angels including Michael and Gabriel. After being exiled to Hell and renamed Satan (which translates to ‘the enemy’ in Hebrew) he plots revenge with the other fallen angels. It is agreed that Satan should travel alone to Earth where God has created the garden of Eden and given life to all living things. Satan successfully passes the gates of chaos and encircles earth in search of Adam & Eve. At first Satan is beaten back by the good angels that God has sent to protect Eden against the enemy. The good angel Raphael then warns Adam about Satan who is known to be very deceitful. Then Satan overhears Adam and Eve discussing the forbidden Tree of Knowledge which contains the knowledge of Sin and Death. After appearing to Eve in a dream, Satan proceeds to inhabit the body of the Serpent and slyly convinces Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Eve then goes on to convince Adam to eat from the tree, thus completing the fall of man. Sin and death enter the world but the Son of God remains as a symbol of hope for the future.

The Bible

All of the above plot is based upon parts of the The Bible, in particular the first book Genesis. Like Paradise LostThe Bible is divided into different books which are not necessarily in chronological sequence. Each of these books can be read in or out of sequence as the reader wishes. Before the invention of the codex, each book of The Bible would have been read on scrolls. Any bible that we read is an attempt to neatly frame many different narratives written by many different authors or prophets across an extremely long period of time. The Old Testament informed the Judaic religious context of the New Testament, a sequel which formed the basis for a new religion Christianity. Over the course of history, bibles have inevitably become partisan as different publishers have translated the bible and have sought to impress their own interpretations on the text.

Classical Mythology

John Milton was educated during the European Renaissance and was extremely well read in both Greek and Roman texts, which he was able to read in their original languages. His knowledge of the classics feeds into Paradise Lost, which Milton based upon the epic verse of Ovid, Virgil and to a lesser extent Homer. The ancient myths of the past dealt with great battles, larger than life heroes and many pagan Gods who were neither good nor evil. In the seventeenth century it was the norm for writers in English to base their work on these classical myths. With great skill and education, Milton managed to combine classical and biblical genres to form something which is both beautiful to read and has added to the debates surrounding religion. One way in which Milton differed from many of his contemporaries was in his choice of non-rhyming blank verse. This enabled him to free himself from what he called the ‘bondage’ of a rhyme scheme and align the poem closer to the classical texts of which he admired and respected.

I am currently studying for an MA in English.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

27: Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 01/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

Under Western Eyes by Joseph ConradThe setting is tsarist Russia on the cusp of revolution. A bomb is successfully hurled at a fanatical Minister of State. The assassin bursts into the apartment of a fellow student. What follows is an enthralling tale involving Russian emigrates and a government spy.

Conrad chooses an English narrator for his study of cynicism under autocratic leadership. The narrator is teaching English in Geneva when he gets tangled up in the case. Conrad’s choice of narrator gives the narrative its emotionally detached character, which we do not always see in Conrad’s major novels. As a result, readers are ask to observe the characters’ complex moral dilemmas from a Western perspective.

In an author’s note, written some years after publication (Under Western Eyes was published 1911), Conrad admits that the novel was not well received in England at first. It did however do rather better in Russia where the novel is still admired. I would personally recommend it to any friend interested in English Literature and would place it historically as an excellent example of early Modernism. But there is also much here for the general reader to enjoy in terms of character and plot.

Masterfully worked.