Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Life isn’t worth living (a review)

In C.Spiby, Reviews, Uncategorized on July 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Hermit_ionescoA review by C. Spiby of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxims is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him at work. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks – more out of social duty than actual like of one another. And this is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, most notably their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

And yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France albeit still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by; satisfy his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. His outlook tempts our sympathies for the hermit to begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but where male chauvinism is replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. His fall coincides with the onset of events which feel a bit like Paris 1968 and the social unease surrounding it. He’s immersed in a fantasy of urban revolt and revolution akin to the civil spark possible from ’68. Except soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which reminded me more of the fall of Yugoslavia but happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage in the uprising, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine, revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, makes no distinction between left and right but nor can he seem to distinguish between love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening and why, just like the hermit we experience the outcome, and for the first time we fully feel the way he does about life in general: as an outsider. It’s quite a feat of writing.

Later still the revolution is now just a mess of reactionary forces and even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): now though everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement. At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and help establish the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. And yet this novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness, in my opinion.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

The Hermit’ is indeed a gloomy book but engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more fantastical. In that absurdity it becomes more satirical, almost a different book. And yet somehow its pace which takes you from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest.

It’s moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and it is his ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is, in my opinion, always the mark of a good writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online

ENDPIECE: Where’s the diplomacy?

In Editorial on July 4, 2017 at 12:37 pm

We think it was US President Theodore Roosevelt who coined the phrase “talk softly – but carry a big stick” as he set out to conquer various remaining Spanish colonies off the coast of America. He could be described as the founder of US imperialism.

We won’t dwell on his motives. After all, times change. But as for his famous quote, perhaps there’s something for Theresa May to think about.. She has a habit of speaking very loudly – and to all intents and purposes carries no stick at all. Perhaps she might just run to a handbag.

She has told her cheering followers that “when we say Brexit we mean Brexit!”. It’ s to be a “hard” exit from Europe. And then, with all charm she could muster she sets off to engage EU ministers in talks to try for improved trade deals with Europe. She even embarked on a disastrous election to try to bolster her slim majority in Parliament.  She mistakenly thought that it would impress EU leaders and give her more clout. And we all know what happened with that!

It’s not surprising that European leaders  haven’t been impressed. After all what could May put on the table after her own euphoric utterances to her own supporters?

She’s been told by EU leaders that she must guarantee free movement of European citizens to and from Britain, a point she may find it difficult to concede considering that (possibly) the majority of those who’ve been cheering her on voted for Brexit in order to put up the barriers against Johnny Foreigner. In their terms they might end up with a very soft Brexit indeed. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that an increasing number of UK citizens (both in Britain and in mainland Europe) have been seeking ways and means of gaining European citizenship.  Sometimes this is because they see it as being in their interest. But sometimes it’s because they identify with the soul of Europe, and don’t want to be identified with the “little Englander” mentality of many of the Brexiteers.

At the same time May and her Government have been busy trying to fix up trade deals with countries outside the EU bloc – such as China and Canada. Perhaps even a handout from Trump in the USA.  So far she’s had little luck. After all, these days what do we have to offer? Let’s face it, what industrial assets we might still have can be bought up wholesale by the Chinese etc., without bothering themselves with trade deals.

So far, all that May hasn’t tried is diplomacy. It can sometimes go a long way.

EDUCATION MATTERS: UNION MATTERS – UNIONS MERGE

In R.Richardson on July 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Last month it was announced that the N.U.T and the A.T.L (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) were to merge. Its new name will the N.E.U (National Education Movement) and will be officially formed in September. Until 2023 the new union will be jointly led by Mary Baisted (at present the ATL general secretary) and Kevin Courtney (NUT general secretary). “We look around the world,” said Kevin Courtney, “and see that wherever teacher unions are united they are the better for it. “

Mr Courtney went on to say, “Our next step has to be to move this burgeoning unity further.” He seemed to be hinting that a merger with the other big teachers’ union, the NAS/UWT might be on the cards.

Unsurprisingly, Theresa May’s policy of establishing new grammar schools was one of the main discussion topics at the NUT’s Annual General Conference. Already some schools are advertising that they have a “grammar school stream”. The union’s solicitor, Clive Romain, declared that schools could be acting unlawfully as they might be seen to be in breach of admission procedures. The N.U.T is threatening a High Court challenge.

FREE SCHOOLS AND ACADEMIES:

Free schools have been in the news again. It seems that some £140 million have been wasted on schools that have been forced to close, partially close or failed to open at all. Kevin Courtney declared that this was “an appalling waste of significant sums of money”, and this at a time when school budgets elsewhere are under severe pressure. A new policy has been put in place whereby the salaries of new free school heads will be paid for two terms even if the school fails to open or is deferred. This said, the Department of Education would allow such schools to secure “high quality heads.”

An academy chain has scrapped local governing bodies at all of its schools The CEO of the Aspire Academy Trust, Andrew Fielden, said “You are putting unpaid volunteers in the heart of a highly pressurised and extremely professional group of people. What the bloody hell for?” So much for parents’ representation and local accountability.

PRIVATE FINANCE INITIATIVES (PFIs):

PFI contracts were introduced by successive Conservative and “New Labour” governments, leading to schools and hospitals being built by private contractors.

Pay-back was over a 25 or 30 year period. But under the terms of the contracts, schools are often tied to particular suppliers for purchasing or replacing simple items such as blinds or taps. A school in Bristol will have to pay £8,000 for a single blind. In Malmesbury, head teacher Tim Gilson said that a bench will cost the school £6,000 over the remaining thirteen years of the PFI contract. He said “We have to pay about £40 a month for the facilities management cost (!) of that bench, on top of the cost of putting the bench in and all the materials.”

THE IMPACT OF STRESS:

Finally, the subject of stress was another hot topic at the NUT conference. In a survey of 5,000 teachers, more than 80 per cent said that their job was being negatively affected and 60 percent said that it had affected their mental health.

Teachers reported turning to medication, alcohol and caffeine to help them to cope with the job. . Some had undergone counselling. More than half said that they were often exhausted when they entered the classroom.

Delegates at the conference voted to ballot members for a national campaign of strike and non-strike action over crushing workloads, and also pay which is down twenty per cent since the Tories took power.

Compiled by RUTH RICHARDSON