Monday, 12 November 2012

Book news: there isn't much!

That must be one of the most exciting titles I've used here on Vole, and I've been going for some years now! But it's true: for two weeks I've read more books than I've bought. If I keep this up, I'll have run out of unread books some time in 2053, which is some months ahead of my actuarially-calculated shuffling off this mortal coil and all that jazz.

So what have I been reading and receiving. Well, I had the pleasure today of receiving John Rowlands' A Taste of Apples. It was originally published in 1965 as Ienctid Yw 'Mhechod (Youth is my Sin) and is notorious (well, in so far as any literary novel published in Welsh can be notorious given the tiny print runs) as the first novel featuring explicit sex to be published in Welsh.

It's not exactly a break from other Welsh traditions, however: it's a steamy tale of a Chapel minister's fall into lust and his spiritual battle:
The agony of decision – torn between the engulfing tides of temptation and the tormenting call of conscience… brutally physical… His agonising dilemma… is starkly and arrestingly portrayed… A Taste of Apples is an uncompromising and an outspoken novel, memorable for the sincerity with which it tells of one man's struggle between the flesh and the spirit.

I can almost see the washed-out tones of a 1970s TV adaptations, all forbidding expressions and sobbing. It sounds horribly like a Welsh Mills and Boon with added self-loathing. I think I'll enjoy it, actually.

I've also read and hugely enjoyed Dorothy L Sayers' 1935 campus crime novel Gaudy Night, which I bought in a lovely 'cheap edition' of 1949. It's full of lovely quotable bits which I'll bring to your attention soon, though it does take a curiously misogynistic turn: lesbian fear features heavily and Sayers is obsessed with using quotations and epigraphs to demonstrate that her novel is out of the ordinary run of the genre. Very refreshing to read 50-odd pages before a single line of male dialogue appears though - I can't think of many novels which do that.

I've just finished C. J. Sansom's Dominion, a variant on Fatherland in which a defeated Britain becomes a puppet state after making peace with Germany in 1940, before a chain of events lead to independence again in or around 1952. I like speculative fiction and alternative history, especially ones which consider the politics of the Celtic nations: Owen Sheers' Resistance was an interesting one, while Jan Morris's Our First Leader was witty and pointed simultaneously. Sansom's book is a very decent thriller, if rather too dependent on Harris's Fatherland, and packed with the most awful expository dialogue ('You remember, darling, that Churchill's son Randolph decided to work for the Germans and Lloyd George became Prime Minister don't you?" sort of thing) and lots of descriptions shoe-horned in ('in the mirror he saw himself, greying hair, neat suit, worried eyes etc') but the plot mostly works and Sansom's grasp of the political characters of the day is very good indeed. I tended to agree with all his guesses about which way Halifax, Ben Greene and others would go. I only disagreed with his presumption that Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson's grandfather) would join the puppet government. Authoritarian and right-wing though Morrison was, he was a fierce campaigner against fascism and non-inervention in the 1930s.

What ruined the book for me was Sansom's obsession with the Celtic nations. The novel contains multiple references to de Valera's Catholic Nationalist Republic and its openness to accommodating the Nazis. Fair enough, it was a rightwing, ultramontane-Catholic regime with little regard for urban and secular politics, but I found it hard to believe that the Irish characters - especially IRA veterans - would rather emigrate to a Nazi Britain. Allied to this is the repeated assumption that the Scottish Nationalists tend towards fascism, explicitly or unconsciously.

Now, this is a field I know something about, having been steeped in the study of interwar Celtic politics. It's absolutely true that the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists in this period were led by very authoritarian, often Catholic-authoritarian groups influenced by non-Nazi French fascists such as Action Française. It's also true that some nationalist fringe movements such as the Bretons were used as puppets during WW2. But Sansom's arguments are pretty evasive. Firstly: by objecting to de Valera's style of government, he avoids addressing the central issue of the Irish War of Independence: should Ireland have risen? The novel returns to the question of India frequently, eventually making Churchill reluctantly agree that a popular movement has made the reconquest of that subcontinent unwise and unfeasible. So there's a basic commitment to anti-colonialism there. So why is Sansom so evasive when it comes to Ireland? Yes, on the left we tend to believe - as the gay Scottish Communist character Ben (how many 'issues' can we pile on one character?) - that nationalism is a reactionary diversion from the class struggle, but we also tend to believe that colonies should be free. Was Ireland meant to wait until Britain decided it had no further use for John Bull's Other Island?

Secondly, although Sansom is absolutely right in his analysis of early Scottish and Welsh nationalist politics, he doesn't recognise the potential for arguing that an England which accepted Nazi rule might have alienated a Scotland that didn't. More rooted in the real world however is his explicit assumption that nationalism is always and irreversibly fascist. The Welsh nationalism of Saunders Lewis is not that of Plaid Cymru today: modern Welsh nationalism draws on the liberation movements of 1968 and is broadly socialist. Should Wales have accepted the death of their language through the hostility of a distant English state? The same can't be said of contemporary Scottish nationalism, but the intervening decades have brought about a left nationalism.

All this wouldn't matter very much if it wasn't for Sansom's multiple Afterwords, in which he makes it clear that the novel is primarily a vehicle for unionism, in particular attacking the SNP for being potential fascists in cultural nationalist clothing. I enjoyed the novel very much, even the bits where my interpretation differed from Sansom's, so it was galling to have the text's richness reduced to one particular line of argument. Furthermore, a good author doesn't need to spell things out so starkly. It implies a lack of faith in his own creative powers. I don't begrudge Sansom his unionist position (though my own views of unionism are coloured by Northern Ireland) but I do object to be lectured like this. It's patronising and belittling. It retrospectively rewrites a complex text as a simple path towards a specific end: persuading Scots to vote against independence. I have ethical qualms too: is this particular purpose sufficiently important to justify the use of the Holocaust, torture and all sorts of other horrors in the rhetorical pursuit? Perhaps for Sansom, it is, but I'm not convinced.

I'd recommend Dominion as an excellent realist alternative-history crime thriller but it's also a very clumsy piece of agit-prop. The narrator repeatedly critiques Ben the Communist for reducing his politics to a reality-defying fantasy and being a bit of a bore (though an understandable one given his suffering), but it's a trap into which our author sinks very deeply indeed.

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