The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This week on Radio Four the BBC is broadcasting extracts from Svetlana’s Alexievich’s oral history of the experiences of Russian women soldiers in the second world. It’s marvellous – terrible and sad, horrifying, moving and inspiring too. Well worth a listen on iPlayer.

Here’s a review of the book from the Guardian:

[A] sense of absolute directness and immediacy lies at the heart of Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of the Russian women who fought in the second world war, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Over seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s, she interviewed many hundreds of women, the pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers and anti-aircraft gunners who served on the front line, and the legions of laundresses, cooks, telephone operators and engine drivers who backed them up.Very few of those she approached refused to talk to her. One former pilot, who turned her down, told her that she could not bear to return in her mind to the three years during which she had felt herself not to be a woman. When, in the ruins of Berlin, her future husband proposed to her, she had been outraged. “How, in the midst of chaos? Begin by making me a woman,” she told him. For the rest, the women poured out their memories to her, not simply recounting them, but reimagining them. The simpler the women, the more their stories were “uninfected by secondary knowledge”.

Source: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – for ‘filth’ read truth | Books | The Guardian

I have been looking at Svetlana’s books for a few months now, since they started appearing on the bookshelves (Penguin have published her oral history of the Chernobyl Disaster Chernobyl Prayer and a lovely edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions of stories from people living through the end of the the Soviet Union, called Second Hand Time

I didn’t buy because I had enough in my unread pile already, but thought, if I’m lucky, here’s a new Studs Terkel…

Did I mention she’s a Nobel prize laureate too?

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Choosing Logres

Jeremy Corbyn has been stuck like a fishbone in the craw of the Labour Party almost since he was first elected back in the eighties.

Irritating but immovable, the party learned to overlook him – along with the smaller band of refuseniks who sat with him on the backbenches resolute in their – deeply unfashionable – principles.

Fashion, though, has a way of coming full circle. Just as we can be certain that mullets and bell bottoms will one day return to triumph – so Corbyn triumphs now. It’s biblical: remember Psalm 118 v22:

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

So, with socialism back on the table, we have a choice on Thursday. It is political of course, but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that too. Here’s something I read years ago in CS Lewis’ strange novel, That Hideous Strength. One of his characters, Dimble, asks if we had noticed:

“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney–and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”

It crops up in Howards End too as the contrast between the life of the mind – and heart – and the world of ‘telegrams and anger.’ Margaret Schlegel, here:

The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There, love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it. It does breed character.”

Margaret’s wisdom is to see that you have to have the grit of the outer world as well as the world of ‘personal relations’ – but it shouldn’t be all about those ‘telegrams and anger’. In Lewis’ terms Logres and Britain will always need each other.

The problem today is that, for the last forty years ‘Britain’ has been in the ascendant. The voice of the practical woman and man has been supreme in the land. Some things have improved, but a great deal of what we most value – children and families, health, the environment, has been – is being – threatened. We need to redress the balance, bring back some of those other qualities – where people matter, where the heart has value, and where what counts is not merely money.

Corbyn – for all his many faults (he’s no King Arthur) does represent something different. Maybe Thursday is the time to give Logres its chance.

Choosing Logres

Victor Hugo and Daemons

I’ve just come across this from Victor Hugo:
‘It is our conviction that if souls were visible to the naked eye, we would clearly see the strange phenomenon whereby every individual member of the human race corresponds to one of the species of the animal kingdom … Animals are nothing more than the forms our virtues and our vices take, trotting around before our very eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls.’

Was this starting point for Philip Pullman’s daemons?

Victor Hugo and Daemons

Still 83:17 in the London review of Books

Telling letter in a recent LRB from Sarah Walker, describing the proportion of women reviewers, writers and poets in the paper as well as the numbers of books reviewed. She’s counting them all and says that, in 2017 :

In the five issues of Volume 39 to date, men have made up 78 per cent of the reviewers and used 83 per cent of the total word count dedicated to reviews; 78 per cent of the authors reviewed have been male, with 73 per cent of the books reviewed being written by men. Reviews of books by women average 80 per cent of the length devoted to reviews of books by men. All of the Short Cuts and At the Movies features have been by men; 87 per cent of the letters published have been from men, using 88 per cent of the total word count for letters; 75 per cent of the poets are men and they have supplied 83 per cent of the poems published.

As she wonders, perhaps the preponderance arises because:

 women are just that much less interesting, less significant, less likely to publish review-worthy books, less likely to submit work to you, less likely to write to your standards, less likely to write you letters, more terse overall in their expenditure of words. Possibly. But the ratios that appear – 78:22; 73:27; 70:30; 87:13; 67:33; 85:15; 83:17 and so on – are eerily familiar. Research suggests that people perceive men and women – whether in zombie movies, panel games, crowd scenes or business meetings – as equally represented when the male-to-female ratio they are looking at actually hovers around 83:17. They start to regard situations as unduly female-dominated when women approach 30 per cent of those present.

I like the LRB, but it does feel like a bit of a men’s club sometimes. Inexcusable these days.

You can read the whole letter here

Still 83:17 in the London review of Books