Out of the new books last year, I got to review Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light and Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults for The Arts Desk, and found, as usual, that neither novelist disappoints; the standards of both are too high for them ever to lower the bar (so far, and I can't see that changing). Since this retrospective also admits discoveries of other masterpieces that have been around for longer, I can plunge in with the most inspiring book I read in 2020: Isabella Tree's Wilding.
I long for the time when we can get down to Sussex and see what Tree and her husband. Charlie Burrell, have achieved on the Knepp estate, partly by process of trial and error and with a great deal of input from eco-experts (which of course these two have now become; but they were also able to benefit from DEFRA when it had funding from the EU for arable reversion, and from EU reform of the Common Agricultural Policy). First stage was restoration of the Repton landscape, and then the realisation that primeval Britain was far from all woodland - that much of it was grazed meadows and scrub, or 'wood pasture' - hazel, birch and above all oak need much direct light to thrive and cannot regenerate under a closed canopy.
I love Tree's descriptions of unforeseen consequences - the way one part of nature helps another in ways unanticipated, like the consequences of taking on Tamworth pigs:
ants began to use the clods of earth turned over by the pigs to kickstart anthills that have grown, in some places, over a foot in eight years - their colonies thriving in micro-climates of sun-warmed, aerated soil, The anthills, in turn, attract mistle thrushes and wheatearers, and especially green woodpeckers, whose diet, particularly in the winter, can consist of as much as 80 per cent grassland ants....The pigs were having an impact on vegetation, too. They have a penchant for plants that other grazers cannot find or stomach, like the stubborn, subterranean roots of docks and spear thistles. Unlike other ungulates they can also eat bracken and its rhizomes, neutralizing the toxins and carcinogens in their gut.
Not using fungicides and pesticides had a knock-on effect on rare bats, new species of moths, even new bugs in cowpats and horse-dung. Purple Emperor butterflies (one was seen in Richmond Park and photographed by Sherry Pentek - photo above on the Friends of Richmond Park website) thrived on unpopular sallows. Nightingales increased and turtle doves returned.
Bird points out the failure of British conservation in focusing too much on the preservation of a single species, which may well return of its own accord to a more diverse ecosystem. 'Rewilding the Soil' is a specially fascinating chapter, with a wonderful epigraph from a Sanskrit scripture of c. 1200 BC: 'Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it, and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it'. Bird adds later in the chapter 'The great concerns of our time - climate change, natural resources, food production, water control and conservation, and human health - all boild down to the condition of the soil'.
Bird's is a mostly optimistic book. Naomi Klein's On Fire is more horror than hope, but culminates in potential optimism, as its subtitle intimates: 'The Burning Case for a Green New Deal'. The new 2020 foreword even covers the relationship of Covid-19 to all this. The book takes a journey through earth-shattering as well as hopeful events over decades, many of which I didn't know about. The chapter titled 'A Radical Vatican?' shows how Pope Francis's attempted shift in thinking from the 'other life is better, don't worry about this one' anthropocentrism which starts with the flaws in Genesis (that God created the world for man to dominate) to treating the earth as 'sister, mother' inculcated by his namesake; Klein calls his move 'an evangelism of ecology'.
Her own diary of how the 'summer of smoke' affected her family rams things powerfully home in the dark flipside again. The ultimate message reinforces Gandhi's assertion that 'there is enough in the world for everybody's need, but not for everybody's greed' - though fleshed out in chapter and verse of how saving the planet might be achieved. I'm indebted above all to Klein for pointing me in the direction of this wonderful seven-minute film by the artist Molly Crabapple projecting the aims of the Green New Deal into the future. It's co-written by the already great Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whose cartoon double appears in it) and Klein's husband Avi Lewis. A little masterpiece, Please watch all of it - I find it especially apt today (though unfortunately Biden shows no signs as yet of following the GND).
Prescient aspects of ecology appear in the four novels of Willa Cather I referred to in my necessarily brief and slanted survey of my discovery (thanks to Alex Ross in his flawed but fascinating Wagnerism, like it or not a book of the year, for devoting so many pages to this great writer). The journey continues, and I was hoping to have finished Hermione Lee's so-called biography of Cather (A Life Saved Up) by now. Lee is a wonderfully informed and enthusiastic writer, but the volume offers more detailed literary criticism of each work than biographical detail (the two are inextricably linked in all the Cather novels I've read). That also involves plot spoilers, so I've come to a temporary halt as she deals with The Professor's House and the shorter books (novellas?) either side of it, A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy), having already paused to finish One of Ours.
Each of Cather's novels inhabits a different world, and the contradictions in her extraordinary personality find their way into most of the main characters. One of Ours is no exception. The protagonist isn't even especially likeable, and Cather seems to have had some contempt for the lost farmboy on whom she partly bases Claude Wheeler. It's depressing that as a woman she came in for so much stick from so many male novelists and critics: when they imply - quite wrongly - that she glorifies war (a classic case of confusing the author with her creation), they suggest it's really man's stuff and/or that she can have no idea what the trenches were like.
Well, she did her research, and as I wasn't there, I can't say. But it all comes across evocatively in description, as does every territory she captures. And Lee doesn't seem to pick up on the romantic aspect of homoeroticism implied in the first meaningful relationship Claude strikes up, with a young violinist at the front (this character, too, had a real-life model). I'm getting aspects of that in The Professor's House, too: fascinating that a lesbian writer, so guarded about that aspect of her personality, sees male bonding in a similar, if still coded light.
The world of Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary is mostly male, and mostly impersonal in the sense that his private life, and his relationship with his first and second wives, play very little part in the autobiography. What a figure of uncompromising honesty, though, and what a perspective. Born Viktor Lvovich Kibachich to Russian political exiles in Belgium, he was first involved with Anarchist movements in France and Spain before heading for Russia in 1919 (pictured below with Rirette Maitrejean, his first wife, in 1913, at the time of the trial of the 'anarchist bandits' which led to his first spell in prison).
He saw at first hand, and with unflinching clarity, how even as early as 1920-1 with the complexities around the Kronstadt uprising, 'emergent totalitarianism had gone halfway to crushing us.' Fiercely against the death penalty, he saw with horror as a representative of various Internationals how the former revolutionaries turned on each other and how the executions flowed, how truth lost out to orthodoxy, how 'relief and salvation must come from the West,' in its support of the Russians.
That took him back to western Europe in what he calls the 'dark crossroads' of 1922-6. Then he headed back to what he always felt as the motherland, only to find young Communists committing suicide in droves and increasing persecution of the Mensheviks. Literature became official, royalties only possible if you toed the line. 1928-33 he marks out as the
years of resistance waged by a solitary man - surrounded by his family, that is to say by weak creatures - against the relentless, overwhelming pressure of a totalitarian system. For his daily bread, his ration card, his lodging, his fuel in the harsh Russian winter, the individual is dependent on the Party-State, against which he is totally defenceless. And he who, in the name of freedom of opinion, stands out against the Party-State, bears the brand of 'suspect' wherever he goes. The small amount of liberty that he has left, and even his own courage (which seems quite mad), stand for him as a source of astonishment, mingled with anxiety.
Still he persisted, writing the only literature he regarded as of any value, 'free and disinterested, which is to say devoid of any market preoccupations [at that point in that place, the latter type would be called 'proletarian literature']). He was lucky: he had a name in France, and was able to smuggle out manuscripts which would never have stood a chance of being published in the Soviet Union.
In February 1933 he was the first to define the Soviet state as a totalitarian state'. He did so in a document where he declared he would remain a dissident on three essential points which he defines in detail: 'defence of man', 'defence of the truth' and 'defence of thought' The letter reached Paris, and he was immediately arrested. Not for the first time in his life, he found himself in prison, but this time as one of the disappeared; only his French connections got him out in the nick of time, in 1936.
His subsequent life in Europe and finally in South America (pictured above with Wolfgang Paalen in the artist's studio in Mexico in 1942) was one of disillusionment; he died impecunious in Mexico City in November 1947. What a legacy he left behind, though: not only this unflinching autobiography but many novels which I have it on good authority are first-rate; I shall find out for myself when I get round to reading what is supposed to be THE novel about Stalin's Purges, The Case of Comrade Tulayev. No doubt about it: Serge is a major writer, his reputation obscured by his misfortune of being seen as an outsider both in the west and in the Soviet Union.
Well done David - I enjoyed Wilding a lot more than I thought I would; thought it might be a bit hippy/preachy, but in fact it's both hugely informative and a love song to the English countryside - in its way a bit like Akenfield. And well written too.
I suppose I was prepared to be a bit sniffy about the privileged couple. But they have used their position with such intelligence and sense of adventure. And as you say she has a very good style. Up there for me with Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin (not so fond of the striving for effect of Robert Macfarlane).
Also enjoying James Rebanks' English Pastoral on R4. Well balanced and non-judgemental, based on a family knowing and understanding their land for generations.
Loved the books. Sparely but beautifully written.
The Victor Serge, as you know, is high on my list. It's a sign of our times that, whereas, in the past, I would have viewed his story from a largely historical perspective, now, even in what you note, there are all-too-familiar resonances to the present, as this: "He saw at first hand, and with unflinching clarity, how even as early as 1920-1 with the complexities around the Kronstadt uprising, 'emergent totalitarianism had gone halfway to crushing us.'" It takes people far too long to recognize what is in front of them, even with prescient voices to light the way. Here and now, as in the past, all too many fail altogether to absorb the lessons of history in sufficient time to avoid catastrophe. We barely stepped back from the precipice over here, and there are miles to go, with danger everywhere one looks.
And over here we have gone over the Brexit cliff, and are heading down another abyss. In your new President's daily actions we do take some comfort, though. I think we had this discussion some time ago, but I pointed out at the beginning of the American Horror Clown's disastrous reign how much more easy it was to respond to Shostakovich's wildest excesses than it had been. Had always been moved by his depths, but sometimes thought he went OTT in seemingly parodistic disgust.
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