Letter to a Hostage

adseBy Antoine De Saint-Exupery

This was an impulse purchase in Waterstones and after I got home I read this in a couple of hours and have since read it again. A very nice little book. I read everything by Saint-Exupery almost thirteen years ago and thought there was nothing else to read. Finding this book was a very pleasant surprise and reminded me of why I liked him so much. Saint-Exupery is contemplative but also with a lust for life; he was a man of action in his aviation endeavours as well as a poet and a deep thinker. I use the term ‘poet’ because his writing really is very lyrical and I am reminded of Bruno Schultz who I have only read in the last few years.

Paul Belzard (who I am not very familiar with) had this to say about the book:

“A book I always keep in my pocket … As perfectly formed as Heart of Darkness.”

I’m not sure that it is as perfectly formed as ‘Heart of Darkness’ which is an amazing novel, but Letter to a Hostage will be re-read regularly. The ‘Hostage’ was Leon Werth who was Saint-Exupery’s best friend and who was Jewish and in danger due to the Nazi occupation. It was perhaps Saint-Exuper’s friendship for Werth that led to him returning to Europe and eventually not surviving the war. Werth was eventually given a special edition of the book by Gallimard after the war and he had this to say:

“Peace, without Tonio (Exupery) isn’t entirely peace.”

As to what the text is about: Saint-Exupery ruminates and many different things but they all fall under the umbrella of friendship. In fairness it would be better to read the book rather than have me do a disservice by summarising them all.

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The Railway

railwayBy Hamid Ismailov

Both frustrating and brilliant. I don’t quite know what I feel about this book overall. It was worth reading as it exposed me to a new atmosphere and a different way of living. There were fantastic passages where you got caught up in the enthusiasm but then it seemed to dip and you didn’t really care about the next few pages. Maybe it was written over a long period of time – some parts – particularly the end felt like they had been tacked on. The end was quite strong though. This is experimental in that the plot and narrative are almost invisible but that being the case the form needs to hold it together and it didn’t quite.

I laughed out loud at several episodes or turns. Maybe a loose collection of associated short stories would have been better – or perhaps that is what it really is under the guise of a novel. All very confusing – which is a good thing. A book shouldn’t always leave you nodding in a self satisfied way, sometimes there has to be head-scratching and incomprehension.

The author definitely communicates the life of the town of Gilas and the surrounding area very well. There is a large dose of imaginative interaction and at the books end I did have the sensation of having experienced some new, along with the frustration. The assimilation of Communism and Islam was very interesting – and there didn’t seem to be the clash you would expect. Perhaps the novel shouldn’t be called ‘The Railway’ as the railway doesn’t play a great part – it is more of an aside. ‘The town of Gilas’ would have been better. The town, families, history and local characters are what this novel is about. The inhabitants travel and indulge in improbable picaresque escapades but it is always to Gilas and Uzbekstan they return.

I think it was worth my time reading this. Someone else may disagree.

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Ways of Seeing

waysBy John Berger

This book, based on the 70s BBC TV series, is used as a text in many art schools around the UK. There was an article by Berger on Mayakovsky in ‘Night Wraps the Sky’ which was good so I thought I should read this small book.

It was interesting and it got better as it went on. The first article seemed a product of its time and I was left harbouring suspicions of hippy dippy intent. That changed as it went on and things got more and more intriguing. The analysis of women in art was excellent and the final article is worth buying the book for. A great line was:

Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.

The word publicity can probably be replaced by ‘marketing’. There are many excellent ideas and analogies throughout.

Berger also has a very real consideration for the working people and how they are marginalised by the artistic establishment and controlled by publicity and capitalism. This isn’t  middle-class navel gazing and posturing without regard for the majority – the working population.

The upshot is that if you haven’t read Berger, as I had not, then this book is a very good introduction to some of his ideas which I believe are developed more fully over the next forty years in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. I will start to concern myself with some of these and they will doubtless be posted.


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