Monday, December 24, 2012

Titles from Hay

The number (and quality?) of bookshops in Hay on Wye appears to be in decline, replaced by outlets for fashionable goods and ceramics yet there are treasures to be found.

On an outing today, and with marketing help from Andrei, I came back with a further eight books to find space for, physically and in mind.

Beginning with the Nobels, the first was a replacement text for my battered, much read, copy of Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' - a good second hand paperback to survive a few further readings of that remarkable exploration of the limits of good and the potentiality for evil. The second Nobel was 'The Slave' by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I have not read him in a long while, having enjoyed 'The Magician of Lublin' and some of the short stories, and indeed recommended him to Andrei, yet he never quite took off (or burrowed in). Time for another attempt.

Both sat light to any formal participation in the religious traditions of their birth, but both were haunted by the sacred, and what it might mean in the lives of the narratives they imagined. My next book is devoted to literary figures who converted to Catholicism in the twentieth century: 'Literary Converts' by Joseph Pearce. Here the tradition was taken straight - in the life of G.K. Chesterton for example - and directly counterpoised as a living truth, interpreted undoubtedly but unvarnished, to an unbelieving world, slipping rapidly out of the orbit of the only teaching that could give it coherence.

This was followed by two books of eccentric Westerners who took inspiration from India and returned to the West to found communities. A different, but not unrelated, response to that of our literary converts. Sangarakshita, an Englishman, founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, that thrived, if controversially, and founded a number of social enterprises and outreach activities, not least with untouchable communities in India. Lanza del Vasto, a Frenchman, was inspired by Gandhi to found the Ark, a community in a reclaimed village in the Languedoc dedicated to a life of simplicity and ecological health. When I visited, many years ago, it was impressive if a little too austere to stir my sybaritic soul (the cold showers, and in the age of solar, did not convince)! Both, however, were remarkable experimenters, unafraid to learn from and adapt traditions - both within themselves and in dialogue (and sometimes confrontation) with a wider world.

An apparently more detached, objective approach to the culture of another place is Pierre Clastres' "Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians". The French anthropologist's account of his field work in Paraguay. However, like all anthropological accounts, it is freighted with 'lessons' as well as observations; and, Clastres emerged with trenchant things to say about 'communal organisation' and the possibilities of a genuine anarchism - even the secular Left can be inspired by the sacred lives of others.

And, finally, to Russia and a history of the last four Tzars - 'The Shadow of the Winter Palace' and an account of  'The Russian Experiment in Art' from 1863 to 1922 when Russia undoubtedly became a country of cultural export - both of an artistic as well as a political kind. The latter might not be ripe for celebration, but the former certainly is and is radically under praised (especially within Russia itself).




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