“Africa is not fiction.”

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Africa’s Tarnished Name
by Chinua Achebe.
Penguin Modern Classics 28. 2018 (2009)

Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that?

‘Africa Is People’ (1998)

Chinua Achebe is regarded as a giant not just of African but of world literature, yet it has taken me a while to read anything by him. Being an academic as well as a man of letters his is a legacy of factual writings as well as of fiction and so for me provides a legitimate way into his body of work.

This volume in Penguin’s Modern Classics is a selection of essays and speeches taken from a collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in 2011, two years before his death. The four pieces range in date from 1989 to 2008, and I propose discussing them in chronological order rather than the order published here. This way I hope to get a sense of any common themes spread over a score of years as well as any changes of emphasis.

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The apotheosis of artifice

Giambattista Piranesi, Carcere XIV (‘The Gothic Arch’)

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
by Italo Calvino,
translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Penguin Great Ideas 115,
Penguin Classics 2020

Just the titles of so many of these pieces are mouthwateringly attractive — ‘The Museum of Wax Monsters’, ‘The Adventures of Three Clockmakers and Three Automata’, ‘The Sculptures and the Nomads’ — and their contents don’t disappoint either. Martin McLaughlin has done a great job on the translation as far as I can tell because the sentences feel newly minted, as though directly from the hand of the author to the reader.

Except there are clues that these are not recent writings: references are made to a time before the Iranian Revolution and to a few other events that locate them firmly to a time before the author’s premature death in 1985 — he was only in his 63rd year.

But it is Calvino’s gimlet observations, marshalling of details, and philosophical reflections that render his comments eternal and paradoxically contemporary, meaning that these dozen pieces will be for me a joy to revisit at some future date.

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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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