A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin: reviewed

This strange novel has been praised by the poet Andrew Motion. Philip Larkin is known for his reactionary views and his ability to put together poems which strike a chord with a mass audience. The book does not add to these stereotypes in a particularly significant way. Instead, its dark gloominess leaves behind a certain sadness.

The truth is that the mediocre novel does contain the expected references to the British Empire. However, these are so dull that the reader is taken along with the German heroine through her lonely and miserable existence in England. Perhaps more pity should be felt towards her, but the change in values since the book was written makes this awkward.

This is a story about England and Germany, but it does not show much about either. Instead, it is a slightly wearisome journey set out by a writer who engages in poetic techniques without the sympathy with the human predicament a reader might expect. There are several moments when the claustrophobic introspection becomes excessive:

“It was little use troubling. She could not pretend to herself that he felt towards her one-tenth of the interest she felt in him, or that the house held her more securely than a pair of cupped hands may hold a moth for a few seconds before releasing it again. She could only hope that the burden of this new love would be taken off her before it betrayed her into actions she would regret.”

The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: reviewed

This novel, described as a masterpiece by some critics, was penned by a famous Nobel Prize winner. However, it seems closer in its form to the sprawling ‘Cancer Ward’ than the unforgettable ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’- the larger canvas not necessarily suiting the talent of the great writer. Nevertheless, the remarkable ambition of the book, its huge cast of characters, and its forays into political philosophy, make the reading experience a compelling one.

Interestingly, the name Hemingway crops up in the text. Mentioned approvingly by Solzhenitsyn, the two authors share some virtues and some vices. Both manage to use prose in amazing ways to reach readers of different tastes. Both contrive to show the fortunate the lives of the desperate. However, both fail to write about women as if they were equal thinking beings to men.

Nevertheless, it is critical to try to appreciate historical context. The apparent sexism of Solzhenitsyn is understandable in part because prisoners of the different genders were segregated. Furthermore, the Second World War had not made genuine egalitarianism between men and women easy. There was a post-war backlash against the de facto sharing of work which made the writing of Simone de Beauvoir so necessary and so bold. It was not until later that further waves of feminism made some of the characters of Solzhenitsyn seem so unsatisfactory. When an author is attempting to portray the complex horror of Stalinism, it may seem churlish to focus on feminism. But it was one strength of Trotsky that he realised back in 1923:

“And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.”

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell: reviewed

This interesting essay was published in 1947. It is a polemical attempt to demolish the criticism which Tolstoy had made about the work of Shakespeare. Tolstoy had developed a conception of the purpose of art which clashed with the values of the famous Elizabethan dramatist. Orwell, a patriotic advocate for the English playwright, engages in an ad hominem assault on Tolstoy, focusing negatively on his age, his anarchism, and his personality.

Orwell depicts Tolstoy as having a character similar to that of King Lear and his withering look at the contentions of the great writer is arguably lacking in balance. The essay apparently shows the reader more about Orwell than Tolstoy, illustrating the intolerant and reactionary side of the imaginative political writer. A lack of nuance and a shortage of appreciation haunt the text; there is too little acknowledgement of the valuable questioning which Tolstoy had undertaken.

The conclusion of the essay, which is intended to be decisive, seems to cast doubt on the motivation Orwell must have had for responding to Tolstoy in the first instance:

“Forty years later, Shakespeare is still there, completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’.”