‘Dancing the Death Drill’: historical fiction that tells us about today



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The Mendi shown here in pre-war days in use as a mail ship.
Courtesy of the John Gribble Collection

Manosa Nthunya, University of the Witwatersrand

In his keynote speech at the recent South African Sunday Times Literary Awards the novelist, Zakes Mda, said that “we write historical fiction to take history to the level of what was it like to be in what happened”. Mda said that as a historical novelist, he writes,

historical fiction to grapple with the present. Great historical fiction is more about the present than it is about the past.

This is a truism that has always informed, I suspect, most practitioners of historical fiction. It is one not different for Fred Khumalo in his latest novel, “Dancing the Death Drill”. Although Khumalo says that he wrote the novel in order to remember black South African soldiers who played a role in World War 1, and those who perished in the SS Mendi ship, this is equally a novel about the present, and the ills that continue to bedevil the country.

While doing his early education, Khumalo’s protagonist tells his teacher, Madame Christine, that,

I want to be a voyager, I want to travel on ships, I want to discover new places, engage in long conversations with strangers, play with ideas, experiment with things.

This is obviously a mind of a precocious teenager; curious about the world and intent in finding out more about it. But this precocity is, inevitably, also naïve. The young Roelof de la Rey, who subsequently changes his name to Pitso Motaung (after he is deserted by his white Afrikaner father), is unfortunately still somewhat unaware that his desire to travel, and meet new people, can never be easily realised due to the sociopolitical landscape that he finds himself in in the early twentieth century.

As Pitso becomes an adult, he begins to realise that there are a lot of things that he has to deal with and that have to do with his identity and how people react to him because of it. He finds himself constantly having to confront the fact that contrary to his desires of only wanting to belong to the Sesotho-speaking tribe, that he is instead seen as a coloured person and consequently treated in this manner in colonial South Africa.

He in fact says to someone, as he does several times in the novel, that,

if you ever call me a coloured person or a mixed-race person, I shall make you swallow your faith, I am Pitso, the son of Motaung. The roaring cub of the Bataung people.

Dominant discourses of the day

It however becomes increasingly clear to Pitso that to be in the world is to be marked and that people’s perceptions of you are dependent on the dominant discourses of the day. Thus against his will, and his constant desire to be regarded in his singularity, or as belonging to a group of his choice, he is forced to learn to accept the impossibility of this desire.

If Pitso’s ambitions, as stated earlier, are to travel and see the world, this does in fact happen. But as with most things in life, this happens by chance. Pitso and other young men hear from the South African government that they need to go and defend the British against Germany. They’re promised that if they do this, they will be well paid and that when they return to their country, the government will offer black people more freedoms than they currently enjoy.

It’s on this journey to France, in the SS Mendi troop ship, that Pitso and his countrymen encounter a crisis; the sinking of the ship, that was carrying 802 men of the South African Native Labour Corps, and the unimaginable suffering this brings. This was after colliding with a British merchant ship on 21 February 1917 – a total of 618 men drowned in the icy Atlantic.

It’s one of the tragic histories that is rarely spoken about in South Africa and the act of writing this novel, then, should be seen as an important archival project since it brings a repressed and difficult history into the spotlight.

A time rife with complexity

One of the strengths of Khumalo’s novel is that it shows the early twentieth century, similar to other times, as a time that was rife with complexity. This means that while a reader might expect the black soldiers in the novel to be portrayed as mere victims – without any agency – this is in fact not the case.

It is clear enough in the novel that Khumalo is deeply aware of time, and of the ways in which it shapes identity and one’s experience of the world. This does not however mean that those who were dispossessed did not also work to manipulate time in order to lessen their suffering. In the novel this is most clear when the ship starts sinking.

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha starts preaching to his fellow soldiers that:

I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.

It’s from this that they start dancing the death drill,

Not crying, not panicking, not screaming at the approach of death. In Africa, even in the times of death, people celebrate. Death becomes a spectacular, moment of defiance, the defiance of death itself.

It’s with such understanding that the soldiers approach their unexpected catastrophe with grace. It’s reported that more than 600 black soldiers lost their lives when the ship sank. Pitso survives this tragedy and it’s his narrative that drives much of the plot after this event.

One of the obvious challenges of the times that we live in is that we are coming to the realisation that Hegel long taught us, which is that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history”.

What then, with this in mind, might be the purpose of historical fiction? Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s something to “learn” from it. Perhaps the goal is a much more humble and subtle one which is to recognise and pay tribute to lives that came before us.

The ConversationIn doing so to connect the past with the present and to allow readers to recognise how much of their lives have changed and unavoidably, to pay attention to the many things, and ills, that remain the same. “Dancing the Death Drill” is a fine glimpse into this turbulent historical period in South Africa’s calendar and what is done with this narrative, as the cliché goes, is entirely up to the living.

Manosa Nthunya, PhD Candidate, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The withdrawal of the Mandela book was nothing short of censorship



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Posters of various newspapers paying tribute after the death of former South African President Nelson in 2013.
Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Beth le Roux, University of Pretoria

“Mandela’s Last Years”, written by retired military doctor Vejay Ramlakan, has become a sought after commodity since the publisher, Penguin SA, withdrew it from the shelves in July. Ramlakan was the head of the medical team that looked after Nelson Mandela until his death in 2013.

The withdrawing and pulping of a book represents a huge expense for a publisher, as well as a source of some embarrassment. So why did the publisher do it?

Soon after the book was published, members of the Mandela family, led by his widow Graça Machel, threatened legal action. It must be admitted that the basis for any legal action wasn’t clear, although it was probably linked to defamation. The book, Machel argued, constituted “an assault on the trust and dignity” of her late husband.

Soon afterwards, the author’s employer, the South African National Defence Force, distanced itself from the book, suggesting that it may have contravened doctor-patient confidentiality.

The publisher bowed to this pressure and withdrew the book, stating that no further copies would be issued out of respect for the family. This is almost unprecedented, anywhere, and needs to be teased out more fully. After reading the book, I’ve considered how and why the publisher may have come to this decision.

Reasons for pulping a book

The decision making process for a publisher in a case like the Mandela book revolves around balancing the potential costs against reputational damage. The costs can be extensive – in publishing, all costs relating to editing, design, production, printing and distribution are made up front. It is relatively easy to make a decision to withdraw a book after publication when it may have contravened the law, mostly due to defamation of character.

Books may also be withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism, or because the accuracy of the content has been called into question. Publishers sometimes cancel contracts with their authors based on the standard waivers dealing with defamation and inaccuracies.

Publishers try to avoid these kinds of situations by performing due diligence to see if manuscripts contain anything defamatory or that breaches privacy. They employ fact checkers to avoid inaccuracy. And they require authors to warrant that their work is original and accurate.

This doesn’t mean that errors don’t sometimes slip through. But it is very unusual for a book to be withdrawn simply because it’s controversial. In fact, publishers usually support controversial titles because they create publicity, and publicity generally leads to sales.

So what happened in this particular case?

The first set of questions would relate to the credibility of the author, and the publisher’s relationship with him. Ramlakan was the head of Mandela’s medical team and had unique access to the former president over a long period of time. This means that he certainly had the access and authority to write the book, and as far as I know nobody is questioning its accuracy.

The cover of ‘Mandela’s Last Years’, which has been withdrawn.

This is important, because truthfulness is one of the main defences against defamation, as is the issue of public benefit or interest. It seems highly unlikely that a publisher would allow a nonfiction title to include material that is patently untrue or that would harm the reputation of a man like Mandela. Is there really still a need to protect the reputation of a man of such global stature?

Family permission

Linked to the question of authority is whether the work was authorised. The author has repeatedly claimed he wrote the memoir at the request of family members, and with their permission. In such a large family, it would be difficult to obtain permission from every family member, and it is quite common for family members to protest their treatment in a biography of a famous public figure.

Family members often argue that there has been a breach of privacy or that embarrassing private details have been made public. But the truth is that their authorisation is not actually necessary. Many authors write unauthorised biographies or memoirs, and while they may prove controversial, they certainly do not contravene the law. The broad variety of books already available on Mandela shows that there is ongoing public interest. It seems unlikely that each one of them was authorised by the family.

What complicates this scenario is that, as a medical doctor, Ramlakan is also expected to uphold ethical standards that an ordinary writer wouldn’t be subject to. I am not an expert in medical ethics, but there are very few medical details in the book that are not already in the public domain.

In fact, one of the purposes of the book was to counter the rumours and speculation around Mandela’s medical condition in the last years and months of his life. It does this by quietly countering inaccurate statements and setting out the bare facts. It appears that the author made a deliberate effort to avoid breaching confidentiality, and ended up writing a very respectful book.

Some have suggested that the publisher and author were simply attempting to cash in on the Mandela legacy. Whatever their motives, they shouldn’t be the basis for withdrawing a book from public circulation. Taste and motivation are not legal issues.

Censorship

Given that there is no apparent material basis for a legal attack on the book, its withdrawal reveals self-censorship on the part of the publisher. South Africa no longer has censorship laws in place, but an influential family can bring pressure to bear that amounts to the same thing. But also given that the book was already on the market, it should be asked what the effect of the withdrawal will be.

The ConversationWhile fewer copies will be sold in bookshops, and fewer people will have access to it, it’s not possible to entirely withdraw a book from the online market. The book reviews already mention all of the most controversial parts of the book, and the action of withdrawal only serves to highlight them. The best course of action would be to allow the book to circulate freely and to stand – or fall – on its own merits. Anything else is censorship.

Beth le Roux, Associate Professor, Publishing, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism



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Saturday is Love Your Bookshop Day –
but bookshops face many challenges.
Shutterstock

Nathan Hollier, Monash University

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news. And it only brightened with the news that our National Bookshop Day was to be rebranded this year as Love Your Bookshop Day. Why not?

Saturday is that day. Expect to see your local bookshop buntinged, postered, streamered and perhaps offering special bargains. Assuming, of course, you have a local bookshop.

Store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding. Children’s book sales in particular are performing well. (“The bookshop is dead. Long live the bookshop,” reads a plaque at Embiggen Books in Melbourne’s CBD.)

But over the past couple of decades the sector has wrestled with the challenges of superstores, GST, the GFC, one-sided international post deals, ebooks and online-only undercutters.

Now the greatest of these online stores, certainly in terms of market share, will soon be competing with Australian bookstores from a new base here. Amazon has secured a massive distribution centre site near Dandenong in outer-eastern Melbourne. Dire predictions for parts of the Australian retail sector have already been made.

Local booksellers too will need to adjust to this new environment, in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.

Amazon has itself experimented with physical bookstores in recent times, to underwhelming reviews, but its primary focus has, of course, been on being able to offer “everything” at the “everyday low prices” of its American precursors (and sometime role models), Walmart and Costco.

Today’s booksellers must choose what to put on their shelves from around 7,000 new releases each month. As all of these will be on the “shelves” of Amazon, local booksellers will need to maintain an intimate knowledge of what will appeal to their customer base.

This curatorial role, which has always been part of what good booksellers do, takes on extra importance in the digital age. Curating, one might say, is the opposite approach to that of Amazon, which instead expertly removes barriers to purchasing, encouraging impulse buying. The extra services local booksellers provide, in addition to low prices and the range of stock, will likely need beefing up also. Community building will be the order of the day.

The current shrinkage of review pages of broadsheet newspapers will also hurt many bookshops, as they depend on a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.

Price instability may well grow in Australia with the arrival of Amazon. Publishers have argued over the decades that this instability also discourages consumer confidence.

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

In the face of aggressive price cutting from firms like … well, Amazon … regulatory bodies concerned with fair prices for consumers are yet to find an effective means of properly accounting for the fact that its success has been partly based on exploiting publicly developed (and funded) technology and infrastructure, determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation.

Andy Griffiths: a bookshop favourite.
Carol Cho/AAP

On Tuesday morning this past week, a crowd of parents and kids waited in the cold out the front of our local suburban bookshop till, at 9 o’clock, they could rush in and buy the latest Treehouse book, by Andy Griffiths. The bookseller handed out free copies of a quality cookbook to parents. Community spirit, human connectedness and customer loyalty all bloomed nicely.

As the legendary Collins bookseller, Michael Zifcack, recalled in his memoirs,
“I realised early on that customer service was the secret of successful bookselling.”

I’ll be heading to that local shop on Saturday, but can also, of course, appreciate the access to more or less every available product that online shopping provides. No doubt there is room for both retail models within our society.

What remains most important, when thinking about the health of the book industry here, is that no matter how cheap we make these products, there won’t be effective demand for them unless people have the time and desire to read.

The ConversationThis desire, in turn, rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society. For all of us, that challenge is ongoing and, broadly speaking, we will get the books and bookshops we deserve.

Nathan Hollier, Director, Monash University Publishing, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Arundhati Roy’s new novel lays India bare, unveiling worlds within our world


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Arundhati Roy, in 2010.
jeanbaptisteparis/Flickr” , CC BY-ND

Malavika Binny, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Wearing two hats at once can be an uncomfortable fit, but it does not seem to bother the author Arundhati Roy, who for most of her life has railed against state excesses and corporate exploitation while also wielding the pen.

Maybe she does not think of these two jobs as different, but rather as extensions of each other.

This, at least, is the impression Roy gives her readers in her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton), which came out in early June. Two decades in the making, the book records the story of India as it transpired over those 20 years.

This contemporary history is told and retold by myriad voices: those of hijras, people who identify themselves as belonging to the third gender or as transgender; of a dalit man (of the lowest castes) who pretends to be Muslim; of Kashmiris, of Indian civil servants, cold-blooded killers and puppet journalists; of adivasis (tribal populations) and of artists, of owls and kittens and of a dung beetle named Guih Kyom.

Roy’s second fiction work was 20 years in the making.
Penguin/Amazon, FAL

Locales are similarly wide-ranging. Roy takes readers from a graveyard in Old Delhi to civil war-torn Kashmir and to central Indian forests, where Maoist insurgents fight India’s army. Some of the book transpires too in the 18th-century astronomical site, Jantar Mantar, the only place in Delhi where people are allowed to protest.

Those are just a few of the backdrops in this panoramic novel, which touches on the various Indian social movements that have captured global attention in recent years, from the 2011 anti-corruption Anna Hazare protests to the 2016 Una dalit struggle.

Roy uses the internal contradictions of the movements and the locales to mirror her meandering plotlines, which knit all these skeins together into a kaleidoscopic larger narrative.

It’s an uneasy fit, and the book often feels like it is about to burst at the seams. Still, Roy somehow holds it all together, clumsily yet passionately, leaving no one and nothing out.

Old Delhi is among the settings featured in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
© Jorge Royan/ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Between a graveyard and a valley

Both the margins and the marginalised speak in the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a feat Roy has also sought to achieve with both her activism and her non-fiction work.

The story follows two characters: Anjum, nee Aftab, a hijra who rejects the politically correct term “transgender”, and Tilo, a Delhi-based architect turned graphic designer who kidnaps a baby from Jantar Mantar.

Anjum’s life is a lens onto an alternate duniya, or world, one where hijras live and learn together, cloistered, following their own rules, regulations and hierarchies.

That changes forever when Anjum travels to Gujarat, a western Indian state that is known for its recent history of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, and witnesses a massacre. Shortly thereafter, Anjum moves to a graveyard in Old Delhi.

As always, Roy’s brilliance shines most in her choice of locales and the imagery they invoke.

Conflict-beset Kashmir, which Roy has covered extensively in her non-fiction work, features in her latest novel.
KashmirGlobal/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In The God of Small Things (1997), the banks of the Meenachil River in southern Kerala served as the space of deviance for the protagonists, where Ammu and Velutha have their escapades and Estha and Rahel get up to mischief.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the author gives us two contrasting, contradictory settings: a graveyard that becomes a place of life and the verdant Kashmir valley, a space of death and misery.

Anjum starts a guesthouse in the old graveyard, with each room enclosing a grave. Holding feasts for festivals, she invites her friends over to dine regularly at the graveyard-guest house. Later, Tilo moves in permanently with the baby.

The reader understands this resplendent graveyard, which features not just living humans but an impressive stock of animals too, as an ode to tolerating (or, more correctly termed, to accommodating) plurality, a blunt contrast to the truth of modern-day India, with its increasing intolerance towards religious and social differences.

For this, for trying to etch out a semblance of hope, for showing broken things and shattered people coming together to carve out a niche of their own, Roy deserves applause.

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Disparate and intertwined tales

At times all these voices, places and problems escalate into a dissonant cacophony that leaves the reader perplexed, exhausted and grasping at the multiple threads of the plot. But the novel’s brilliance lies in how it captures subtle moments, with attention to detail and sharp compassion.

For instance, the Ustad (master) Kulsoom Bi takes Anjum and the other newly initiated hijra residents to a light and sound show at the Red Fort in Delhi just so they can hear the fleeting but distinct coquettish giggle of a court eunuch. She explains to them that they, the hijras, were not “commoners, but members of the staff of the Royal Palace in the medieval period.”

Hijras, or transgender women in New Delhi’s Panscheel Park.
R D´Lucca/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

These nuggets of everyday history and poetry keep readers hooked, gradually lowering us through each of the story’s many layers and offering moments of clarity in an otherwise tangled mesh.

Some have called Roy’s novel a “fascinating mess”, but frankly when one decides to write a shattered story about all things, the narrative(s) is bound to get fuzzy.

The book may be difficult for those who have not been following Roy and her causes in the long years since God of Small Things. But those who get her intellectual moorings and understand her role as a voice of dissent in today’s climate of “saffronisation” – the spread of extreme-right Hindu values across India, a nation veering hazardously towards authoritarianism, know that the author and her work are one.

Roy’s novel, much like her role as a public intellectual, is a reminder that the world we inhabit is a composite one – a duniya of duniyas – where invisible people, their unrepresented struggles and their unacknowledged yearnings have the right to exist.

The ConversationThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells their story, extolling everyone’s right to be heard, even if only fleetingly, in the coquettish giggle of a court eunuch.

Malavika Binny, Researcher, Jawaharlal Nehru University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Writing is the air I breathe: Publishing as an Inuit writer


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Cover art from “Annie Muktuk and Other Stories,” Norma Dunning’s first book filled with sixteen Inuit stories which portray the unvarnished realities of northern life via strong and gritty characters.
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, University of Alberta

I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.

I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.

I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.

I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.

Inuit peoples live in two worlds

Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.

Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.

When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.

While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.

Deciding to publish

Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”

The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.

When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.

However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.

I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.

As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.

The ConversationIf my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.

Cover art from
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, PhD candidate, Department of Educational Policy Studies, Indigenous Peoples Education, University of Alberta

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Worth reading: Future visions of women, war, time and space



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Former Globe and Mail newspaper reporter turned novelist Omar El Akkad contemplates his debut book American War in his publisher’s Toronto office in this 2017 file photo.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto

Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer who wrote about life in 2167, highlights a few of his recent picks.

My passion is science fiction. Here are my favourite sci-fi books that I’ve read this year:
 

The Power by Naomi Alderman.
Handout

The Power

by Naomi Alderman (Penguin)

Women around the globe spontaneously develop the ability to deliver electric shocks through their fingertips. As they begin to use this power to intimidate, control and kill, the world order is turned upside down.

A spectacular novel, and surely the favourite to sweep all the sci-fi book awards for 2017. People can be both cruel and good-intentioned, often at the same time. Introduce a new power imbalance, and society is abruptly transformed. Wonderful writing, and a whopper of a story twist. Turns The Handmaid’s Tale on its head.

American War by Omar El Akkad.
Handout

American War

by Omar El Akkad (McClelland & Stewart)

A hundred years from now, Florida has vanished under the seas, the Bouazizi Empire is the new world superpower, and the United States has begun its second civil war. In the South, a young woman ends up in a refugee camp and is slowly radicalized into terrorism.

An intense, moving portrait of a future America that maybe isn’t the future after all. The characters are complex and the story is all too real. A spectacular debut.

 

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.
Handout

All Our Wrong Todays

by Elan Mastai (Doubleday Canada)

Tom Barren travels back in time, accidentally alters the course of history, and returns to a horrifically changed, dystopian present day. The catch? Tom grew up in a utopia of flying cars and moon bases, and the dystopia that he finds himself trapped in is our timeline, warts and all.

A gem of a story that provides several new twists on time travel. If you’ve screwed up the timeline, should you fix it? What if there were two different ways to travel through time, with different rules and different consequences? And under all of this is the classic sci-fi question writ on the scale of billions of lives: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? Hard to put down, with a lovable lead character.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.
Handout

4 3 2 1

by Paul Auster (McClelland & Stewart)

The life story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born in 1947 in Newark, N.J. Except that this is the story of four identical Fergusons, each of whom take divergent paths as their lives play out.

A tour de force story of adolescence and the path not taken. It’s hard to believe a single author could possibly cram so many real-life details, emotions and characters into a single book. Extraordinarily memorable and engaging.

 

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.
Handout

The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi (Tor)

Humans have spread throughout a galactic empire, our worlds interconnected by faster-than-light wormholes. But what happens to trade, the economy and civilisation itself when the wormholes start to break down?

The ConversationA fun and fast-spaced space opera, centred on some forthright women and some fresh ideas. In the spirit of Asimov’s Foundation, Scalzi explores the theme of the downfall of empire on a galaxy-spanning scale.

Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël: a tale of two authors



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Chawton House Library

Catriona Seth, University of Oxford

Two prominent writers died in July 1817. The first was arguably the most famous woman in Europe. The other was a country clergyman’s daughter whose life had revolved around her family and her home county.

Germaine de Staël travelled widely and her work had been translated into several languages. She was the only daughter of wealthy Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who became finance minister to Louis XVI, and was brought up in the stimulating environment of Parisian society. She published major treatises on the influence of passions on individuals and nations, on literature and its relationship to society, not to mention on Germany (1813). She wrote on Marie Antoinette’s trial, on peace, on translation, on suicide.

Her novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne or Italy (1807) were bestsellers throughout Europe. She was also a commentator on, and historian of, the French Revolution in texts which only appeared after her death. Most periodicals felt that anything she penned, fact or fiction, political or philosophical, was worthy of a mention – whether to praise or to condemn it.

Unlike Staël’s father, George Austen encouraged his daughter Jane’s literary pursuits: he bought her notebooks for her early stories, gave her a mahogany writing desk and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get her work into print in 1797. Jane Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, “a new novel by a lady”, which came out in 1811, bore no author’s name on its title page. The same would go for the other novels published in her lifetime – all sold well and brought a welcome income but, to the outsider, nothing could connect them with the discreet woman who, through her richer brother’s generosity, lived with her mother and sister in a cottage on his estate.

Death notices

Staël’s death in Paris was widely reported. The Monthly Magazine, before commenting at length on the funeral arrangements, opened a “Further Notice of Madame de Staël” with the following assertion:

To speak of the literary celebrity of Madame de Staël, of the elevated talent which distinguished her, of all the talent which placed her among the first writers of the age, would be to speak of all things known to all France and to all Europe … To speak of her generous opinions, her love for liberty, her confidence in the powers of intelligences and of morality, confidence which honours the soul which experiences it, would be, perhaps, in the midst of still agitated parties, to provoke ill-disposed impressions.

Germaine de Staël: her thoughts on the French Revolution.
Online Library of Liberty

Staël had been reviled for her political ideas, caricatured by the gutter press for her unconventional looks and lifestyle, exiled by several regimes, and treated by Napoleon as a personal enemy, to the extent that it was said that the emperor recognised three powers in Europe: England, Russia and Madame de Staël.

When the unmarried “Miss Jane Austen” died in Winchester four days after Staël, the announcement her family (probably) wrote recalled she was the daughter of a clergyman and acknowledged that she was the author of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It added:

Her manners were most gentle, her affections ardent, her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.

Future biographical notes, including the one penned by her nephew – A Memoir of Jane Austen – developed this image. He wrote of his aunt:

Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course. Even her fame may be said to have been posthumous: it did not attain to any vigorous life till she had ceased to exist. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement.

Bestseller: but who is it by?
Lilly Library, Indiana University via Wikimedia Commons

To this day, in the only authenticated portrait of her – a sketch by her sister Cassandra – she looks the part in her simple cap and dress, so unlike Staël’s flamboyant turban and scarlet gown. More than “Miss Austen”, she is “Jane Austen”, someone to whom we feel we can relate. Her admirers, readers but also cinephiles who have enjoyed the adaptations, come from all the corners of the earth, are known as “Janeites”.

Many of Staël’s works have long been out of print or available only in pricey scholarly editions. She is recognised as one of the forerunners of 19th-century liberalism but does not have the common appeal and widespread recognition that time has brought to Austen.

Contrasting legacies

The seeds for the “fickle fortunes” – to borrow the title of the current exhibition at Chawton House (the “Great House” lived in by her brother Edward Austen-Knight which is now home to a library of early women’s writing) – of the international literary superstardom of Austen and the waning of Staël’s fame are partly present in these obituaries.

Austen’s family cleverly crafted a reputation for demureness and devotion to both God and family as a way of deflecting from the sometimes ambiguous contemporary attitude towards women authors. Her life was presented as quintessentially English and uneventful and her character as modest and self-effacing – in many ways the opposite of Staël’s.

In a late addition to his biographical sketch about his sister, 15 years after the death of both women, Henry Austen claimed that when invited to a party Staël was due to attend, Austen “immediately declined”.

The ConversationThis probably imaginary anecdote illustrates an essential reason for Austen’s success: yes, she is a great writer, but so too is Staël. Austen’s existence threatened nobody. Staël’s championing of republican ideals, consideration of the role of emotion in politics and use of fiction to promote geopolitical and societal reflections meant her life could be discussed and her works forgotten. Considering them jointly can help us question what shapes our canon of great writers.

Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad



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The Greeks defend their ships from the Trojans in Alfred Churchill’s Story of the Iliad, 1911.
Wikimedia

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.

The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.

Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy.
Warner Brothers

The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.

He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.

The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.

All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.

Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus.
John Flaxman, The Iliad, 1793

The many faces of Homer

The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.

Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. Vase circa 490 BC.

We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.

Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.

The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.

It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.

The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.

Death and War

A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.

The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.

The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.

The archaeological site of Troy in western Turkey.
Jorge Láscar, CC BY

Postscripts and plagiarists

It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.

Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.

In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The ConversationMy own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.

Chris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Library of Congress opened its catalogs to the world. Here’s why it matters



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The Library of Congress is in Washington, D.C.
Valerii Iavtushenko/Shutterstock.com

Melissa Levine, University of Michigan

Imagine you wanted to find books or journal articles on a particular subject. Or find manuscripts by a particular author. Or locate serials, music or maps. You would use a library catalog that includes facts – like title, author, publication date, subject headings and genre.

That information and more is stored in the treasure trove of library catalogs.

It is hard to overstate how important this library catalog information is, particularly as the amount of information expands every day. With this information, scholars and librarians are able to find things in a predictable way. That’s because of the descriptive facts presented in a systematic way in catalog records.

But what if you could also experiment with the data in those records to explore other kinds of research questions – like trends in subject matter, semantics in titles or patterns in the geographic source of works on a given topic?

Now it is possible. The Library of Congress has made 25 million digital catalog records available for anyone to use at no charge. The free data set includes records from 1968 to 2014.

This is the largest release of digital catalog records in history. These records are part of a data ecosystem that crosses decades and parallels the evolution of information technology.

In my research about copyright and library collections, I rely on these kinds of records for information that can help determine the copyright status of works. The data in these records already are embodied in library catalogs. What’s new is the free accessibility of this organized data set for new kinds of inquiry.

The decision reflects a fresh attitude toward shared data by the Library of Congress. It is a symbolic and practical manifestation of the library’s leadership aligned with its mission of public service.

Some history

To understand the implications of this news, it helps to know a bit about the history of library catalog records.

Today, search engines let us easily find books we want to borrow from libraries or purchase from any number of sources. Not long ago, this would have seemed magical. Search engines use data about books – like the title, author, publisher, publication date and subject matter – to identify particular books. That descriptive information was gathered over the years in library catalog records by librarians.

Card catalog at the Library of Congress.
Rich Renomeron/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The library’s action sheds light on this unseen but critical network. This infrastructure is invisible to most of us as we use libraries, buy books or use search engines.

For many, the idea of a library catalog conjures up the image of card catalogs. The descriptions contained in catalog records are “metadata” – information about information. Early catalog records date back to 1791, just after the French Revolution. The revolutionary government used playing cards to document property seized from the church. The idea was to make a national bibliography of library holdings confiscated during the Revolution.

For many years, library collections were organized individually. As the number of books and libraries grew, the increased complexity demanded a more consistent approach. For example, when the Library of Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in 1815, it arranged its collections around Jefferson’s personal system organized around the themes of memory, reason and imagination. (Jefferson based this on Francis Bacon’s own model.) The library sought to arrange its collections on that model into the 19th century.

Books on my shelf, marked with KF and HB. The K indicates that the book relates to law, the H that it relates to social science. The second letter indicates a subcategory.
Melissa Levine, CC BY

As the number of books and libraries grew, a more systematic approach was needed. The Dewey Decimal System appeared in 1876 to tackle this challenge. It combined consistent numbers (“classes”) with particular topics. Each class can be further divided for more specific descriptions.

In the 1890s, the library developed the Library of Congress Classification System. It is still used today to predictably manage millions of items in libraries worldwide.

Catalogs, cards and computers

By the 1960s, systematic descriptions made the transition from analog cards to online catalog systems a natural step. Machine-Readable-Cataloging (or MARC) records were developed to electronically read and interpret the data in bibliographic cataloging records. The structured categorization coincided naturally with the use of computers.

Now, MARC records too are on the way out, making room for more modern and flexible standards.

The Library of Congress remains a primary – but not the only – source for catalog records. Individual libraries produce catalog records that are compiled and circulated through organizations like OCLC. OCLC connects libraries around the globe and offers an online catalog. WorldCat coordinates catalog records from many libraries into a cohesive online resource. Groups like these charge libraries through membership fees for access to the compiled data. Libraries, though, typically do not charge for the catalog records they produce, instead working cooperatively through organizations like OCLC. This may evolve as more shared effort and crowdsourced resources can be combined with the library’s data in ways that improve search and inquiry. Examples include SHARE and Wikipedia.

One month later

In the short time since the Library of Congress’ data release, we see inklings of what may come. At a Hack-to-Learn event in May, researchers showed off early experiments with the data, including a zoomable list of nine million unique titles and a natural language interface with the data.

For my part, I am considering how to use the library’s data to learn more about the history of publishing. For example, it might be possible to see if there are trends in dates of publication, locations of publishers and patterns in subject matter. It would be fruitful to correlate copyright information data retained by the U.S. Copyright Office to see if one could associate particular works with their copyright information like registration, renewal and ownership changes. However, those records remain in formats that remain difficult to search or manipulate. The records prior to 1978 are not yet available online at all from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Colleagues at the University of Michigan Library are studying the recently released records as a way to practice map-making and explore geographic patterns with visualizations based on the data. They are thinking about gleaning locations from subject metadata and then mapping how those locations shift through time.

There’s a growing expectation that this kind of data should be freely available. This is evidenced by the expanding number of open data initiatives, from institutional repositories such as Deep Blue Data here at the University of Michigan Library to the U.S. government’s data.gov. The U.K.‘s Open Research Data Task Force just released a report discussing technical, infrastructure, policy and cultural matters to be addressed to support open data.

The ConversationThe Library of Congress’ action demonstrates an overarching shift in use of technology to meet historical research missions and advance beyond. Because the data are freely available, anyone can experiment with them.

Melissa Levine, Lead Copyright Officer, Librarian, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The enduring power and tragedy of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, 70 years on



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Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Mark Goodall, University of Bradford

Under the Volcano by the British novelist and poet Malcolm Lowry is considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. But given the wrangling that took place during the book’s development, it’s a miracle that it was ever published.

The book took Lowry years and many rewrites to complete, and even then faced many rejections. In a famous letter to Jonathan Cape, who eventually published the book in 1947, Lowry remains defiant. He was an expert letter writer and often spent more time on these than on his novels. The publisher had suggested various rewrites to the manuscript and Lowry replied with a 32-page response detailing precisely (and with consummate literary skill) how and why it was not possible for him to change a word, how all of it was “absolutely necessary”. Incredibly, the publisher relented.


Alistair Leadbetter, CC BY-SA

When the novel finally came out, it unhappily clashed with the publication of The Lost Weekend by Charles R Jackson, another tale of a hopeless alcoholic (adapted into a successful film by Billy Wilder). Nevertheless, critics hailed the novel as a masterpiece and Lowry was contracted for his next book. For a brief time, Under the Volcano was even a set text for anyone studying English language and literature. But Lowry never recovered from the strain of having to follow-up his classic work. He could not, as it were, scale and conquer such a monumental peak again.

2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the novel’s publication and the 60th anniversary of the death of its author. A conference on Malcolm Lowry is being held in his birthplace of Liverpool to commemorate this anniversary and to explore the legacy that Under the Volcano has left.

A life and death in Mexico

The novel, set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in 1938, details the final 24 hours in the life of a doomed British consul named Geoffrey Firmin. Firmin, a chronic alcoholic, is clearly based on Lowry himself, who, lacking the conventional work ethic and social conformity expected by his strict Methodist father, battled problems with drink and depression all his life. Firmin’s pathetic attempts at holding together a marriage, a career, and the promise and duty of his privileged upbringing against the backdrop of a looming World War ends in utter catastrophe.

The novel, retelling the previous year of Firmin’s shambolic life, details the psychology of a personal collapse as Firmin tries to escape a violent world he cannot understand. The volcano in the title actually refers to two volcanoes, the still-active Popocatepetl and dormant Iztaccihuatl, which loom ominously over the town of Quauhnahuac – more commonly known as Cuernavaca – south of Mexico City, where the events of the book are set.

One of the underlying themes of the book is the occult. Numbers fascinated Lowry and the 12 chapter structure of the novel is significant. As Lowry explained in his letter to Cape, this represents the 12 hours in a day (most of the action happens on a single day) and the 12 months of the year (the novel also looks back over the previous year). The novel uses Nietzsche and Ouspensky’s concept of eternal recurrence or circular time: it opens in the present day, but then spools back to the same point a year earlier, giving the sense that Firmin is repeating the same futile trajectory over and over again. Lowry was a student of the esoteric Jewish Kabbalah sect, within which the number 12 is of symbolic importance. “I have to have my 12,” Lowry argues, since “it is as if I hear a clock slowly striking midnight for Faust”.

Another theme is the hallucinatory aspect of the novel which fascinated subversives, particularly in France where the translated version was, and still is, warmly received. Lowry vividly recounts Firmin’s numerous mescal-infused visions, and the final tragic scenes of the novel pass by as if a dream, or more accurately, a nightmare.

The French avant-garde lettrist and situationist writers were so taken with Under the Volcano that they devised various drinking games to mimic the Consul’s nocturnal ramblings. These consciousness-altering adventures, chaotic rejections of the status quo, were later theorised as the “dérive” (drift) and formalised in the practice of psychogeography – a now somewhat fashionable technique for academics and novelists such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair.

Art imitating life

Lowry’s own personal fate echoed that of his writing. In many ways, Lowry did not help himself. Many of his key works were lost, mislaid, forgotten or destroyed by fire (Lowry admitted in a letter how that particular infernal element seemed to “follow him around”). His only respite was his brief time living in a shack near Dollarton, Vancouver. Photographs of him near the end show a man hollowed out by existence. He died in mysterious circumstances aged 57 in Ripe, Sussex.

Under the Volcano is a difficult modernist work to get into, and was soon dropped from the teaching curriculum. Yet it has inspired film adaptations – including John Houston’s 1984 film starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset – cabarets, and even a jazz suite:

Graham Collier’s The Day of the Dead, inspired by Under the Volcano.

A small group of dedicated scholars from North America is developing new perspectives on Lowry including critical editions of his lost novels Swinging the Maelstrom, In Ballast to the White Sea and an earlier version of his masterpiece Under the Volcano, together with a brand new set of essays, Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Meanwhile, writers, poets and artists from Lowry’s hometown, Liverpool, have issued a handsome tome, Malcolm Lowry From the Mersey to the World, about the global dimension to Lowry’s work.

The ConversationUnder the Volcano may be neglected – but to anyone of a certain age it has a powerful resonance, and still has the power to enthrall new generations of readers today.

Mark Goodall, Head of Film and Media, University of Bradford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.