Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

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I just finished the book and seem to be in some sort of daze, mesmerized by it. Not long time ago I declared that I do not like Barnes.  This was after reading his  The Sense of an Ending. I did not like the book and I still have this unpleasant clammy feeling that I associate with the story. There was something repulsive in the story for me. The feeling is still present when I happen to think of the book and that perhaps means that it is really a good book even if I find it unpleasant for some reason. I even do not know what the reason could be. I saw the film based on the book as well and it was again a good film which I found unpleasant. I think that I have a problem with the story itself. It is a heavy story. The lives described there are messy and there is a climate of unavoidable unpleasantness, mistakes and disappointment.

There are similarities in the climate of the two books, maybe even the messages are similar. For the moment I link it with Amor Fati. Only in a negative way. Reading Barnes one cannot have the feeling of loving one’s fate. This is like Amor Fati in reverse. No wander that a stoic in me does not like the climate of Barnes’ books.

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And yet, again reluctantly, I need to accept the genus of the author. Since I started to read the book I was very often in a state of WOW. It was a pianissimo WOW with a question mark following.
The book is about a big part of life of Dmitri Shostakovitch starting in the thirties of the last century till his death in 1975. It is about the meaning of art, in this case – music, and its place in our lives. This is not a biography as such but fiction based on facts. I have not checked how true the whole story is, but my impression and knowledge of the times made me take it as the book truthfully represents the history. Being fiction gave the author freedom of passing judgement and making the story live and fascinating.  It was not long time ago that I thought that the style of writing is not that important to me, this time I am under big impression of the structure of the book. Small paragraphs tell us only fragments the story, pass views on seemingly unrelated subjects and put readers in meditative state.

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The book made a strong impression on me also for the reason that living in Poland during the times of Stalin I was able to understand feelings that made Shostakovich a broken man even if he was famous in the world and Russia living a privileged, comfortable life. Forced by the system of The Soviet Union Power he composed in a way that was dictated to him to make impression that he lives in the country of positive feelings and happiness. The sounds of his compositions were supposed to be uplifting and related to the events that brought communism into power. Pessimism in the Soviet Union was forbidden. At least among people who were visible, like composers. Creating art according to communistic rules made Shostakovich lose self-respect. He was obeying out of fear. Sometimes he produced bad music to please. The story with self-respect is the same as with virginity. Once you lost it is gone forever. So many people experienced that and were profoundly unhappy in life. One contradicting examples of a famous Pole comes to mind, though. He was a “practical” man,  Wojciech Fangor. He painted to please and earn big money through whole his life and his life was not even threatened like Shostakovich’s was. Different type of sensitivity and different nation. Russians were always more tragically sensitive and suffering.
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Fangor's picture showing (from the left) a useless decadent and (on the right) meaningful life of the working class
It is a bit surprising to me how well a Britt can understand the Russian soul. And Barnes seems to understand and describe it so well. He writes about people in danger becoming less than fully themselves, about terrorized people becoming reduced versions of themselves. And he writes about it in such a way that he moved me and he scared me. I am thinking of countries like Poland at the moment where a new society is being engineered. Just like it was so successfully done in Russia. In my country of origin school programs have changed to be in line with the current government’s ideology. History is being changed to make villains out of heroes. Walesa being the major villain those days but thanks God only in Poland. There are black lists of people of culture who are criticized for presenting  views of the opposition to the current government. The intention is to silence those who think in a way different to the government. One is afraid to be afraid (sorry, this is not the best translation of a Polish saying).

P.S. While reading the book I was listening to Shostakovich music of pieces that I read about. I may become a fan of the composer. The one which is not characteristic of his work and coming from a bad propaganda film The Counterplan is rather quite catching and melodious. I remember it from my childhood days, must have been played on Polish radio. Or sang at school events?

To listen to the Fifth Symphony would be a bit too much so I will not include it in my post. However The Waltz nr 2 I would recommend to listen to. 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

To Kill a Mockingbird

        To Kill A Mockingbird - Audiobook

I read quite a lot of books mentioned or recommended by one of my Polish friends, Raf. I perhaps would have never read To Kill a Mockingbird if not for his passing comment that the book is remarkable. That and my guilty conscious (have I mentioned that I am a specialist in GUILT?) not having read such a famous book, featured for a long while on many short lists of must-reads. Now, I had a chance to redeem myself and I took it. I was a little surprised that my local library had a lot of school versions of the book but none in the form and length that was originally written. I got a copy from another library and having started to read I understood why my library has so many abridged versions but few originals. It is a book for school youth taught in many countries around the 8th grade. But it is also a book for adults. For good, decent grownups or for children who we want to be trained to be sensitive, good, caring, tolerant individuals later on. I like very much the sentiments masterfully conveyed in the book and at the same time think that they may be a little (or a lot) outmoded. It seems to me that the core values of current societies are so different to those promoted by the book that young people may laugh at them or at least doubt in them. I sincerely hope I am very wrong.
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Thinking more about the book I remembered the part when Dill Harris, the young friend of the main characters Scout and Jem, cries during the court case of a black person accused of rape of a white girl. Observing the proceeding Dill cannot cope with injustice he sees as he realises that the innocent person will be punished even if the accused is so obviously innocent. The boy cries because he realises the horror of people blindness caused by prejudice towards those who are different in some ways. Like having different skin colour. An older man says, Dill cries because he is still a very young and has not lost his innocence. This allows him to see how wrong and tragic is the situation of the accused. He has not been influenced by the society. He does not have any preconceived views on life yet. But while his innocence protects him from being like others, he is going to lose it and, in few years, he will not cry in similar situations and wrongs will not pain him in the same way. If I take this message as a lesson I see why the book may be embraced by young children, before they lose their ethical virginity.  This makes me retract my earlier doubts, at least to some extent.

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The crying boy stands on the  right obviously in a different mood this time. Apparently the character of Dill was based on Truman Capote when he was a child. 

I am still afraid that in the current times with technology giving information to even very young they must see what happens around them and what values are important to be successful, popular, macho, admired, rich and famous… And they see that many countries in the world are currently ruled in populistic manner and that the need for truthfulness seems to be forgotten by many nations. People like Trump, Erdogan, Putin, the Polish leader and many others lie blatantly and too many people do not seem to have a need to stop and think if they are not pulled wool over their eyes. They vote for dishonest, racist, misogynistic politicians as long as they see some benefits for themselves in the election promises. It seems to be difficult to find an honest politician who really wants the best for their country. They seem to want the best for themselves. Australia was always, in my eyes, more upstanding in its politics, but this seems to belong to the past. The same seems to happen to the values of the citizens. Again, I hope I am wrong.

Looks that I have complicated the subjects again, but my mind meanders sometimes and finds new unexpected associations. Returning to the book I liked it for its language, humour, sentimentality and life lessons. I got reminded of some life rules that I may have not paid attention too lately. Like:

It is not necessary to tell all you know. Folks do not like to have somebody around knowing more than they do.”


“One must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one cannot do anything about them.” This one will be always difficult for me to follow.

9 out of 10 for be allowed to be killed.
I stay with the question : Are any Mockingbirds still around? I mean human ones who are too beautiful inside to be killed. I am sure they are even if not in politics.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

On being a stoic and friendship

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I have been reading books I believed to bring me better knowledge about living well and being wise for a long time now. I am not sure where the compulsion came from. I did not copy anyone here, it was my own idea. Maybe it was because books were good friends from a very early age? Being not all that confident (thanks God for that) I wanted to be guided by somebody cleverer than myself? People around were not well suited to do that. So, I went to books for my answers. And it stayed that way even if I met many clever people in my travels and some gave me better ideas than my own. Books are still the best source of wisdom for me.

I read Kierkegaard and Fromm… The choice was coincidental as in Poland books were a hot commodity and were sold out fast most of the time one could not buy what one wanted.  No Booktopia at those times. After Kierkegaard I became to worry about life, it was on a depressing side. So when, much later, I discovered stoics, I thought that this is something for me.  It stayed that way. I read some stoic books from time to time to learn from them how to live. The stoic philosophy and books got me through the hard hospital times and they are still of great value in the recovery times. One of my friends got me to practice being a stoic in a structured way and after initial resistance to include readings of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday into my rather sloppy morning routine, I am actually doing it. Recently the same friend suggested and it was a strong suggestion, I must say, that I enroll on a Stoic Week that was just about to start. I do not respond well to strong suggestions, but I respect my friend’s judgement so I thought, yes, I will give it a go. I have enrolled and I am very glad I did. Firstly, the questionnaire results showed that all that reading gave good results and I scored 445 points out of 539 which makes me a fair dink-um stoic. Hmm… Have I cheated? This would not be a stoic way at all. I also turned out to be classified as satisfied with life. Hmm… again.

OK, so this makes me feel good about myself if not a little surprised and pondering about the value of such tests. But what is more important and what I realised reading the material, that is supplied by the organisers of the program, is what my major learning area will be this week. The stoics identify wisdom, justice, self-control and courage as the most important virtues one should work on to acquire. The area with the biggest need to work on for me is self-control. Will I manage to spend my time better, go for walks, exercise, read in longer stretches of time, listen less to Polish politics, play fewer computer games, eat well and not much? I think that I may at least improve a bit.
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What surprised me a little and made me feel lighter was some depreciation of friendship and family life. Not that they are not important but they are not critical for feeling happy. According to stoics, that is. This should have been clear to me before as the stoic teaching is that we should not worry about things we do not have influence on. Like being pretty or healthy. It is obvious to me now that the friends and family are important and valuable but this is not always I can influence such relationships to what I would like it to be. And I still can be happy even if the best friend becomes a considerable source of grief.

I think I have done my today’s middle of the day meditation prescribed by the Stoic Week by writing this post. Now, that I have done my physical exercises I will continue to work on my virtues and inner strength. Wow, if I continue like that I will soon walk on water.
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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

A lighter post for a change

Some of my blogging friends noticed that my posts recently are on a heavy side. I have been aware of the fact that I am overly preoccupied with issues of a serious nature and that this has impact on subjects of my blogging. At the same time writing is some sort of therapy for me and the way to clarify for myself bothering me issues. I also know that I skirt around the real things which are serious challenges around my health. I have cancer and go through the regular treatments that are not much fun. There is also a lot of unknown ahead of me. One could say; isn’t it so for anybody? Yes, but the remnants of a mathematician in me come to think about probabilities and those are not in my favour. So, I worry and try to find answers how to live well with the situation I am in. This spills to my blog in some ways.

It is not a light start to what was going to be a light post, but my intentions are to write about Ladies in Black, the Australian film which is lovely, funny, intelligent and finishes with a number of happy ends. Just what the doctor ordered and I really enjoyed.

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For my current mood it was a panacea of the first sort and I give it my personal, very subjective 10 out of 10.

The film is about Australia in 1959 when reffos (post war refugees from Europe) were finding their way to embrace the new life and becoming millionaires. The conviction that Australia is the land of opportunities, great weather, freedom and the place where if one wants to, one becomes a millionaire without much of a problem. I must say that I feel the same about the possibilities in this country, especially at the time of the action of the film. And especially concerning reffos from Hungary who came here after the horror of times of 1956. With their abilities, fresh outlook, knowledge of European ways and often good education they were bound to be successful and very rich as a result. I believe that statistics would confirm that. I often thought that my clever father and talented mother would have made me a millionaires’ daughter if they came of Australia after the war. Coming in 1979 I was not that clever or lucky, but I still have lived a good life here (at least in some aspects).
One of my favourite scenes of the film is the exchange between two Hungarian men who admire the weather and one of them raises his hands towards the sky praising the weather and the water views from the balcony of his house exclaiming: isn’t it wonderful! The other asks: Are you happy then? And the answer is somewhat hesitant: I would not be that trivial.
Very European, funny and very silly in fact. Also, this is how I was and perhaps still am. One must have some complicated Dostoevsky's feelings to be considered a sophisticated person. Pure happiness is for simpletons. Hmm…

Ladies in black are ladies who work in a prestigious department store for well to do Australians. The head of the fashion department is a reffo, a very stylish one with Parisian experience and exquisite taste in cloth. Image result for ladies in black She takes under her wing a young and very clever girl who took the job in the department store during the holidays after her HSC. She passed the exams with flying colours and will have a great future ahead of her. Very different to her mother as a new era is only  just starting for women in Australia. Germain Greer will soon start to provoke and change girls’ psyche. Our heroine wants to be a poet, or and actress, or… a novelist. She reads Anna Karenina and she wants to go to uni. Her father says that no daughter of his would go uni and we are observing the change in his thinking under the influence of salami and wine that he is introduced to and comes to the conclusion – I can get used to it. We all know that he will change his mind and that his clever daughter will go to uni after all. With his blessing too. In the meantime, she will be introduced to European society with Hungarians in majority, learn to dress well, drink champagne and deal with being kissed on the hand. I never liked this type of greeting, especially in Polish winter when one had to take off one’s glove in very cold weather to let a man, who she was saying hello to, clumsily kiss the frozen, shaking hand. Now I think that those times had a lot of charm even (or especially) this continental kiss on the hand. And Sydney of 1959 seems very attractive in the charming old fashion way.
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Lovely film that will be forgotten soon as it is just charming fluff.