Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

#28 The First Men in the Moon

In Autobiography, Books, Comedy, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Science Fiction on 07/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#28 The First Men in the MoonI was in Keats Library, working on a particularly difficult passage of my journal, when the lights went out again. I asked the elderly lady to put the lights back on and she did. My mistake, the trap I set for myself, was to say I wear glasses and then proceed to read without them on.

“Look. He’s not even wearing glasses.”

I stood up, waving my H. G. Wells novel at her.

“I’m short-sighted, that’s why I’m not wearing my glasses. When you keep turning the light off I have to adjust where to look. See. You can’t just keep turning the light on and off all the time. If you want the light off, you need to ask the staff or the volunteers. Or we should ask the people of the library what they want. Get them to take a vote. Most of them would probably want the light on. Especially if they’re trying to read.”

I looked around for support.

“What do you want? Do you want the light on?”

Sitting between us was another Tuesday regular. The guy who looks at graphs on his laptop and goes outside to answer his mobile every now and then.

“I just want what makes her happy. She’s an old lady. We’re contemporaries.”

“We’re not contemporaries.”

“We’re from the same generation. She’s my grandmother’s age. I want whatever will make her happy. We should do what we can to help her.”

“But I do usually help her. And age has nothing to with it. A moment ago, an old man was reading the paper and he wanted the light on because he was reading. It’s about whether people want the light on or off. Either we have it completely on or completely off.”

I looked around at the other people on their laptops. The lights gleamed down upon my forehead. Sensing my retreat, my opponent attacked.

“Well, I would like the lights off.” She said.

“Okay. Actually, I don’t mind whether they’re on or off. As long as its always on or always off.”

“I’ve had cataracts.”

“Eyesight has nothing to do with it.”

“The light makes the computer glare. I want the lights off.”

“It’s the changing of the light that bothers people. Makes them them loose concentration.”

“It’s better without the glare.”

And there it was, the comedy of the situation. Like the clicking of the light-switch itself, a verbal jostle between positive and negative polarities. Faces remained buried in laptops and I walked back to my seat. All the nice old lady wanted was attention and this was her way of getting it. I could see why I had lost control. It was the snide comment about the glasses that had set me off, in this war of the library lights. We either make her happy or we don’t make her happy. Either way, no work gets done when the peace is broken.


#26 Boyhood

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 23/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#26 BoyhoodAs its title suggests, Boyhood (1997) is about a South African boy’s childhood and schooldays. Each chapter is an essay on one particular aspect of boyhood: summers spent on his uncle’s farm in the Karroo desert; days spent avoiding the cane in a provincial school in Worcester; intimate moments with his mother in the kitchen. By writing about his younger self, Coetzee offers a critique of his own family and on post-WWII South Africa in general. This is successfully achieved through the use of several artistic tools.

Firstly, there is the choice of the present tense, which focuses attention away from the past and onto the moment of imaginative creativity itself. Secondly, Coetzee refers to himself as he, in the same detached way that he refers to characters in books not about himself. Thirdly, he wastes no time on description and spends much time on action. These three factor, when combined, produce a voice which is imaginative, detached and active. Events flash past at the speed of creation, as fast as pen being put to paper.

My main criticism is that Coetzee uses this voice to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Obviously, every memoir ever written has a problematic relationship to the truth of actual lived experience. As intelligent readers, we are aware that the writer has selected and discarded certain material in order to create an artwork. History does the same; but a history written in the present tense, as if it did not actually happen, would be pretty pointless. On the one hand, this memoir can be read as an arrogant attempt to discredit those critics who cling to historical truth; on the other hand, it can be seen as a triumphant cry to break up the novel form and make it new again. Either way, it can be quite annoying to read a memoir which refuses to include the word I.

#17 Pages from a Scullion’s Diary

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 21/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#17 Pages from a Scullion's Diary.JPGThis great little book, taken from the more expansive Down and Out in London and Paris, sees George Orwell in autobiographical mode. As his journalism and essays prove, Orwell likes to seek out stories; rather than wait for stories to come to him. The experiences he writes about here are presented in clear and concise English. In many ways, Orwell is the antidote to those lacking clarity and to those lacking meaning in their writing. Although Orwell is more famous for his dystopian fiction, his factual writing sets the bar for anyone interested in non-fiction and travel writing with a political edge.

45: Youth by J.M. Coetzee

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 04/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

youth-by-j-m-coetzeeHe is an undergraduate at Cape Town University studying mathematics and sleeping with an older woman. This will be the first in a series of unhappy sexual relationships. His wish is to be a poet and he studies the work of Ezra Pound. Unhappy with the state of South Africa, he emigrates to London and finds a computer programming job with IBM. For pleasure, he goes to the Everyman to watch foreign films. He hopes that living in a big European city will make him a better poet.

The voice of this fictional memoir is the he voice used above and preferred by J.M. Coetzee in much of his best work. By not using the more convention voice, Coetzee allows himself to be distanced from his memories. This makes it easier for him to comment negatively on his own life; the he voice being unattached from the autobiographical content. It is a novel way to write and should be recommended to writers as an experiment.

I enjoyed this book and would purchase it for a friend. It is about a young person’s search for love and fulfilling work. This is something which most people can relate to. This hardback was borrowed from Keats’ Community Library, near where much of the novel is set. Youth is preceded by Boyhood, and is followed by Summertime.

All worth reading.

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.

25: An Egyptian Journal by William Golding

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 17/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

An Egyptian Journal by William GoldingIn his later years, William Golding was asked by his publisher to write a travel book about Egypt. Setting course along the Nile with his wife Ann, Golding kept a journal of his daily experiences on board ship and on shore, which he subsequently used as material for this book. In addition to his journal, Golding took photographs for inclusion in the final publication. The final result was a highly readable piece of prolonged journalism which explored Egypt’s ancient ruins and political present.

Throughout, we are treated to rare insights into the mind of a much-loved writer. What comes across is Golding’s often self-effacing sense of humour; especially when he writes about his meeting with the Secretary for Culture (where both sides knowingly downplay their own importance). Also present is the writer’s humanism, which is rooted by the liberal tradition of the writers that preceded him. Golding has the ability to see past the ‘pharoni’ (phony tourist things), and to highlight the human experience of the Egyptian people he meets.

My mother and I found this beautifully made, secondhand book downstairs in Foyles bookshop on Charring Cross Road last January. Being an avid reader, my mother read it before I did; and for a while now, it has taken residence within her collection. However, as will inevitably happen — after being side-tracked for several months by other readily endeavors — I am finally about to finish Golding’s singular foray into travel writing.

The final pages ready themselves for turning past numbered chapters.

21: Sculpture’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 20/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Sculpture's Daughter by Tove JanssonTove Jansson (1914 – 2001) is best known for being the creator of the Moonmin books. But, when she was in her fifties she turned her to attention to writing books for adults. Sculpture’s Daughter (1968) is the fist of these books written for adults and is a childhood memoir.

Each short story in the collection is a vignette that creates an impressionistic image on the reader. When all thirteen stories are viewed from a distance a cohesive whole begins to form. What appears is a wonderfully rich portrayal of the world as seen through the senses and thoughts of a child. At no point do we become aware of any image or feeling being imposed by an adult artist reflecting back on her childhood. The writing transports us from our world to another world within the pages of a book.

Language is carefully weighted and measured to precision. Words repeat to form musical rhythms, and simple words are preferred to complicated ones. When complex words such as ‘bourgeoisie’ do appear, it is done to humorous effect because the word is seen from the perspective of a child. Somewhere in the background lies the ugly presence of war and the adult world. But we the reader can only comprehend this world as a child might: understanding its shape, but only from its shadow.

‘Tove Jansson was a genius.’ – Phillip Pullman

14: Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Literature, Non-Fiction on 01/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

Something of Myself by Rudyrad KiplingRudyard Kipling lived an interesting life. He traveled to many places, met many historical figures and wrote some world famous stories. This book, written late in his life, is his autobiography, and gives you an impression of the public face behind the great words.

Very little is revealed about Kipling’s private life, but the book does reveal a fair amount about his worldview. When Kipling encountered people, he viewed them in racial terms and drew on racial stereotypes when forming opinions. To put it plainly, he was a racist.

But he was also a man of his age, a period when men like himself ruled the British Empire. And in his life as a writer and journalist, he was at the forefront of history, reporting on events and influencing public opinion. Although his blatant imperialism may jar one hundred years later, it was a valid part of a free press.

Well written by a great writer, but not very revealing for an autobiography.

07: Paradise Lost by John Milton

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 12/02/2016 at 12:00 pm

Paradise Lost by John MiltonThis picture was taken in August last year. I had started reading Milton on my summer walks around Primrose Hill and Regents Park. In the previous summer of 2014, my father and I would sit on park benches discussing life. At there best, but not always, these conversations were philosophical father and son talks, about the meaning of the universe. I miss my father’s intelligence and wit.

One day, on a rainy afternoon in the park, we had a run in with the police. As usual, I had been pushing my father in his wheelchair.

‘The doctor says I must do my daily exercises.’ He would say.

After some experimentation, we had found the ideal walking spot. Our routine was to park the wheelchair near an old oak tree each day, making sure to put the brakes on so it wouldn’t run away by itself. We would then walk arm-in-arm to a discreet location for players of the French sport pétanque (similar to bowls); a secluded garden cut off by several hedgerows, where we would follow a pot-holed grey path to a rusty old black gate. This place was particularly peaceful, partly because nobody in England plays pétanque.

Now, the routine was to walk with my father and then return to the oak tree, as soon as he had sat down inside the secluded garden. I would then go back to manoeuvre the wheelchair so that it was parked by the black gate. Once our routine was completed, we would then be free to philosophise upon the park bench.

On that rainy afternoon, a police car happened to be patrolling the park, clearly looking for any suspicious behaviour. Winding down his window, an officer of the law poked his head out.

‘Is that yours?’ No excuse me please or do you mind if I ask you. ‘Where are you going with that wheelchair?’ He questioned, the power of law enforcement enhancing his investigative discourse.

‘Over there.’ I helpfully replied, pointing to where my father sat secluded by the hedgerows. ‘There’s an old man in there, it’s his wheelchair.’

The young officer took out his notepad and wrote something down, looking at me questioningly as he did so. As I pushed the chair through the rain, the driver slowly pursued me, making sure to get a visual so he could verify my claimed innocence. From the officers’ perspective, I really was a potential wheelchair thief.

My father and I, of course, found this all very funny.

‘My son the criminal!’ He joked.

‘Maybe there’s a murderer loose on Primrose Hill.’ I said sardonically.

Just at that very moment, the car cruelled by again. We both looked and laughed together.

‘We must tell your mother.’

‘We will.’

‘It’s raining. Let’s go home.’