Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Twenty years later…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…

I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!

There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.

The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.

Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.

On set with “Atticus” – Harper Lee and Gregory Peck

The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.

But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.

As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!

But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.

Harper Lee

I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…

Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…

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The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

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Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.

Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.

Men dancing in a coffee house
All illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts via Wikimedia Commons

Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.

This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.

Clinker preaching in Clerkenwell Prison

Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.

However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.

For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.

To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.

Tobias Smollett c. 1770
Artist unknown

Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.

Humphry Clinker smashing a dish at dinner

I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…

DEAR MARY,

Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.

Book 44 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

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Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Clennam returns from abroad following the death of his father, he is convinced that his father had done something in his past of which he was ashamed and wished his wife to make amends. However, Mrs Clennam is a cold, hard woman who had been long estranged from her husband, and she refuses to discuss the matter with Arthur. While in his mother’s house, Arthur meets the young woman he will come to call Little Dorrit, a seamstress in whom his mother shows a strange interest, and convinces himself that somehow she is part of this mysterious family history. 800-and-odd pages later, all will be revealed!

It’s always difficult summarising a Dickens novel, partly because they’re so filled with subplots that are often at least as important as the main one, and partly because the plot is often simply a vehicle for whatever aspect of society Dickens wishes to discuss. In this one, he has several targets: the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, the nepotism within the ruling classes and the resulting paralysis of Government, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, he produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror.

Little Dorrit and Maggy

Some aspects of this one worked better for me than others. I found his satirisation of the Circumlocution Office – the government department that specialises in How Not to Get Things Done – a little heavy-handed and repetitive, and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. This was at a time when Britain was the powerhouse of the world, so I’m guessing the industrial giants and imperial magnates of the time must have been able to Get Things Done despite government bureaucracy. The nepotism aspects and class-ridden society rang much truer, especially the idea that relatively useless people get powerful jobs merely by being the sons of powerful men. (Not much changes, except that today the same could be said about daughters…)

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

The Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ own father spent some time, is brilliantly portrayed, showing the ludicrousness of a system that imprisons people and refuses to release them until they can pay their debts, while also refusing to allow them to work to earn money. Mr Dorrit, the father of Little Dorrit and known also as the Father of the Marshalsea as its longest resident, is one of Dickens’ more unforgettable characters. A weak and pompous man, it’s easy to despise him, but Dickens lets us see beneath his carefully nurtured public persona to the deeply ashamed and vulnerable man beneath.

Mr Dorrit entertains guests in the Marshalsea

As is often the case with Dickens, the two major characters are among my least favourite. Arthur is another weak man and rather bland, though morally righteous, naturally. Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!

Fortunately the supporting cast is far more interesting. There’s Rigaud, the Frenchman who murdered his wife and is now mysteriously up to no good. John Baptist Cavalletto, the Italian, gives Dickens the opportunity to be scathingly and humorously perceptive about the way Brits react to immigrants within their communities.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

We have foppish younger sons and their scheming mothers, girls on the hunt for rich husbands, girls who are trapped into marriages by fortune-hunting seducers, and girls who resent their position in life to a degree that makes them turn on those who mean to be kind. Mrs Clennam is cold and vengeful, in the mould of a Miss Havisham, though not perhaps so memorable. But her servants are wonderful creations – the cruel Flintwinch and his downtrodden, bullied wife, who is so badly treated she finds it hard to know what is real and what is a dream.

Book 41 of 90

My favourite character of all, though, is Flora Finching. She was Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear. Dickens hints that Flora is well aware of her own silliness, that it’s an act, and he shows her to be kind and loyal to those she loves, or has once loved. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d rather spend my life with frivolous Flora than with droopy Little Dorrit! She speaks in a kind of stream of consciousness that is chock full of good-natured if unintentional humour…

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

The actual plot is a bit convoluted and the explanation is all done in a rush at the end, so that I had to read it twice before I fully got it, and even then it all seemed unlikely even by Dickens’ standards. But all the other stuff more than makes up for this weakness and, while this won’t challenge Bleak House for the top spot, it’s undoubtedly one of his greats.

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Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

Matters of life and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. His supplies are late when they come at all, his overseer is bullying and corrupt, and his only assistants are a young unqualified woman whom he has taught to act as his pharmacist, and her husband, who does all the handyman tasks around the clinic. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…

No, this isn’t some kind of zombie horror story. It’s a beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique and interesting story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these.

None of the characters have names, being known rather as their occupation – the surgeon, the pharmacist, etc. The first hurdle is for the living characters to come to terms with the shock of meeting the dead ones, and to decide whether they should help them. How do they know whether the power that has offered them the chance to live again is on the side of good? The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make. The pharmacist is devout, the surgeon is not, but they each have to answer the same questions to find their way through the moral maze that confronts them, and in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them.

Paralkar is himself a doctor and scientist, so the descriptions of the surgical procedures the surgeon must tackle come over as completely authentic. Although they can be a shade gruesome at times, especially for the squeamish (like me), they’re not done to shock or horrify. Rather, they show the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?

Vikram Paralkar

All this mulling over profound questions came after I’d finished the book, though. While I was reading, I was too engrossed in wanting to know the outcome to pause for thought. There’s a very human story here too, and excellently told. Will the surgeon be able to save them all? If not, who will live and who die? What about the woman’s unborn child – is it included in the promise of new life? If they live, what will the future hold for them and for the surgeon? How will the surgeon explain their existence to the villagers – or explain their corpses if he fails to fix their wounds? How will the experience change him, whatever the outcome?

The ending beautifully answers all the questions that should be answered and leaves open all the ones that shouldn’t. Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years, I’ll be mulling over it for a long time and suspect it’s one that would give even more on a second read. It gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

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The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The mystery of the missing finger…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I’m struggling a bit as to how to categorise it. While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to it, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. It’s not exactly fantasy, nor would I describe it as that horrible oxymoron, magical realism. It’s more like straight historical fiction where the reader is asked to accept the beliefs and what we would call superstitions of the prevailing culture as being real.

Normally, my too delicately attuned credibility meter would have been beeping hysterically and pointing to overload, but it’s done so well that I had no problem with buying into the folklore aspects. Partly, this is because the quality of the writing carries it; partly, because Choo explains clearly the cultural basis for the more fanciful elements as she goes along; and partly, because there’s a great story in here that works, to a large degree, with or without the mystical element. The folklore stuff adds an element of mild horror that gives an air of eerieness and fatalism to the overall story.

It’s told from two perspectives – Ji Lin as a first-person narrative and Ren’s story told to us in the third person. In the beginning the finger is the only apparent link, but gradually the two storylines will cross and merge. Ren is only eleven and is a total believer in the superstitions involved in the story, so that for him returning the finger to Dr McPherson’s grave is a matter of more than life or death. Ji Lin is older, educated and more modern in her outlook (perhaps a little anachronistically so at times, in fact), but even she is so steeped in her culture that she’s open to the prevailing beliefs.

I liked them both very much as characters and thought Choo used their different ages and backgrounds very effectively to show this colonial society from more than one angle. I also really enjoyed seeing a colonial society from the perspective of the “colonised”, as it were – so much British literature reflects the perspective of the colonisers, and shows the indigenous culture as foreign and strange. Here, the Chinese Malay culture is the normal one, with the colonial Brits as the oddities who dismiss as ignorant superstition whatever they don’t understand. Happily, Choo handles the colonial aspect without over-emphasising it. There’s a current tendency to portray all colonies as seething hotbeds of resentment with the indigenous people just waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their cruel imperial masters, but I felt Choo’s portrayal of two communities living separately but in one space, rubbing along reasonably well together but not fully understanding each other, was considerably more credible.

Both strands of the story, the real and the mystical, are quite dark, but the overall tone is lightened by Ji Lin’s voice. She might rail against the secondary place of women in her society and her lack of opportunities, but she’s also strong and independent, and determined to make her own decisions about her life. She adds some humour to the story and also some romance, though in line with the rest of the book her romance has darker shades to it too.

Yangsze Choo

I feel I’ve been especially vague and obscure about the plot of the book, even by my usual standards. But that’s because I enjoyed seeing the story develop for myself with no preconceptions, so I’m trying not to take that pleasure away from anyone else by telling too much. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Viking.

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Dickens at Christmas! A Christmas Carol: An Audible Original Drama

The Spirits of Christmas

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s been my habit for many years to revisit Dickens’ best known Christmas story over the festive season each year. Sometimes this will be for a re-read but in recent years I’ve been enjoying some of the many adaptations of it in film or on audio. This year I went for Audible’s full cast dramatisation, having enjoyed several of their other productions. I knew going in that it had some great competition to beat – Patrick Stewart’s abridged narration has been my go-to for years, and Tom Baker’s unabridged version is up there at the same standard. But this one has Derek Jacobi as Dickens/the narrator, and anyone who’s read my reviews will know I am a huge fan of his audio narrations.

This follows the pattern Audible have been using for their Original Drama series of being part narration, part dramatisation. I love this approach. The dramatised elements make it a livelier listen which holds my attention better than even excellent straight narrations sometimes do, while the narrated bits allow for the depth and background that sometimes gets lost when a book is reduced to only dialogue in a full-scale dramatisation. It allows the listener to hear the author’s voice come through in the writing which, especially when the author is as brilliant as Dickens, is an essential.

Derek Jacobi

Jacobi is undoubtedly the star of this production, having by far the biggest role as narrator of the linking pieces between the relatively sparse dialogue. He is excellent, of course, but not having the chance to create any of the wonderfully larger-than-life characters meant I felt his talents were a tiny bit wasted. Personally I’d have preferred him to be performing Scrooge, especially since I felt Kenneth Cranham’s performance in the role was a little too understated for my taste. However that’s purely a subjective opinion – I love the big, booming, overblown performances of Stewart and Baker, but Cranham’s quieter interpretation may work better for many people. The division between narrator and main character in this dramatisation leaves Cranham with a far smaller role than either Stewart or Baker, since they have the fun of creating their own dramatic interpretation of the non-dialogue parts too.

Kenneth Cranham

All the other performances are good, with no weak links in the chain. The standouts for me are Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit and Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost of Christmas Present. Glover’s Cratchit is less down-trodden than he is sometimes portrayed, somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly, since as far as my not always reliable memory could confirm there were no changes to the words Dickens gives him. But Glover’s performance conveyed him to me as a strong, good-humoured man, limited by his poverty, but not broken by his miserly, bullying boss or the circumstances of his life. I enjoyed him very much.

Jamie Glover

Margolyes is an old hand at Dickens, not just appearing in many of the BBC serialisations over the decades, but also having performed in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, for some years (a wonderful performance that’s also available on audio and which I highly recommend). So she ‘gets’ him, and is not afraid to exploit the huge emotional range he allows to those who perform his work. For me, a successful Dickens performance is when I can imagine it might be done as he himself would have delivered it at one of his famous readings, and Margolyes is one of those actors who always achieves this. She frightened me and moved me – when she talked of Ignorance and Want I believed utterly that she meant every terrible, warning word, sadly as relevant today as when Dickens wrote them.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”

Miriam Margolyes

If the adaptation by RD Carstairs is abridged at all, it must be very lightly. I noticed nothing missing and the running time is similar to an unabridged narration. It may be that there are minor changes to the order of some parts – there’s quite a lot of quick cutting between Jacobi’s narration and Scrooge’s inner thoughts as delivered by Cranham that worked very effectively to bring the two parts together. But there are certainly no significant changes to either tone or meaning and all the words, I think, are Dickens’ own.

So, in conclusion, a hugely enjoyable dramatisation which, while it might not quite have replaced Stewart or Baker as my favourite audio version, is certainly up there in contention with them. Highly recommended.

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Merry Christmas, Everybody! 🎅

Dickens at Christmas! The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

Lord! Keep my Memory Green!

There has been a distinct lack of festive spirit in the Dickens’ Christmas books so far, and only a couple left to go. So fingers crossed for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain
by Charles Dickens

Title Page
by John Tenniel

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

This is our protagonist – Mr Redlaw, a chemist and academic, who teaches in a great college. He dwells on sorrows from his past and has allowed these memories to stop him from finding enjoyment and pleasure in life, though he’s a good man, generous to those around him. He is haunted, however, by a mysterious spectre that appears to him when he is alone and brooding…

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

Mr Redlaw and the Phantom
by John Leech

On this particular evening, just before Christmas, as Mr Redlaw remembers his youthful hopes and how they were dashed by the betrayal of a friend and the death of his beloved sister, the ghost tempts him…

….“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
….“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
….“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
….“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows, – most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”

Frontispiece
by John Tenniel

And the Phantom grants his wish. The memories of all events from his past which have painful associations are stripped from his mind. But the ghost goes further…

“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.”

* * * * *

Mr Swidger and Milly
by Frank Stone

Well, this is much more like the thing! It starts with Mr Swidger, the old caretaker of the college, and his family hanging holly as they do every year at Christmas-time, and culminates with a grand feast on Christmas Day. It has a strong message most suitable for the Christmas season: that it is our sorrows in life which humanise us and make us able to empathise with the troubles of others. And it has an equally powerful social message – that children abandoned to a life of poverty without love or hope cannot grow up to be anything other than monstrous. The child in this is a fuller version of Ignorance in A Christmas Carol – a thing to be prevented, or feared.


The Tetterbys
by John Leech

We see the Swidgers as they are affected by the ghost’s bargain. As their memories of their shared hardships and sorrows fade, so do the bonds that hold them together, and these warm, loving people become hard and cruel. We see the Tetterbys, a family with many children and little money to feed them but with love a-plenty, turned resentful and bitter as their memories melt away of the things they have endured and overcome together. And we see Mr Redlaw learn that the only people not susceptible to the ghostly curse are those who have never known the softer emotions, for they are cursed already…

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Mr Redlaw and the Boy
by John Leech

And, lesson learned, we see the ghost take back his bargain, harmony and love restored, Mr Redlaw wiser, and more than one loving hand reached out to raise the child up from his hopelessness. Exactly what a Christmas story should be!

Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.

Dinner in the Great Hall
by Clarkson Stanfield

* * * * *

Festive Joy Rating:     🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“Yes.”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hidden histories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.

The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in 1941.

But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.

The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.

Sebastian Faulks

I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.

Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

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The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

When the time comes…

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Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. The book begins with Santiago writing to his wife, Graciela, who is living in Buenos Aires with their young daughter, Beatriz. In Buenos Aires, too, is Santiago’s father and Ronaldo, his friend and former fellow revolutionary. Interspersed by some sections where we hear from the author in his own voice, relating some of his own experiences as a political exile, the book rotates among these characters, letting us see each through their own eyes, and through the eyes of the other characters.

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth.

As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. Graciela is the only character in the book who doesn’t speak for herself, so that the reader must try to understand her through what the other characters say. She is in a different kind of prison to Santiago, but one which has just as effectively halted her life. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

Rafael, Santiago’s father, is an old man now, exiled because of Santiago’s actions. He muses on the meaning of “home”, feeling homesick more than the other characters, perhaps because for him there is less chance of ever returning. Through him, Benedetti gives a heartbreaking depiction of the kind of homesickness that comes when a person is unwillingly forced to live elsewhere. He captures it beautifully – the odd things one misses, the clinging to people who have come from the same place, who understand one’s own culture, and the eventual almost unnoticeable putting down of fragile new roots, the settling and acceptance, and even the beginnings of a new feeling of “home”.

It soothes you, gives you peace of mind to know what’s coming next, to know what’s round every corner, after every streetlamp, every newspaper kiosk. Here, on the other hand, when I first set out walking, everything took me by surprise. And all that surprise made me weary. And then, when I turned back, I didn’t head home, I just went to the room. I was tired of being surprised. Maybe that’s why I started using the stick. To stop being thrown off balance. Or perhaps so that any fellow countrymen I met would say: “But Don Rafael, back there you never used a cane”, and I could reply: “Well, you didn’t wear those guayabera shirts either”.

Beatriz’s voice brings a touch of lightness to the story, preventing the tone from becoming too bleak. Life isn’t always easy for her, either – she gets into fights at school over people saying nasty things about her dad being in prison. She defends him on the grounds that he’s a political prisoner, even though she doesn’t really know what that means – but she knows it means he’s a good man, not a criminal. She’s spent half her life in Buenos Aires, and questions in her childish way whether she is Uruguayan or Argentinian. For the children, if a time comes when they can go home, will it feel like home? Or will it be, for them, another kind of exile? But although Benedetti makes Beatriz’s sections as thought-provoking as the rest of the book, her voice is convincingly childish. She loves words, and when she learns a new one, she shoehorns it in at every available opportunity, providing some much-needed humour. At one point, her favourite word is abound

….On Sundays the streets are almost empty and I wonder where all the millions I saw on Friday can have got to. My Grandpa Rafael says that on Sundays people stay at home to rest. To rest means to sleep.
….There’s a lot of sleep in this country. Especially on Sundays, because there are many millions asleep. If each sleeping person snores nine times an hour (my mum snores fourteen times) that means each million inhabitants snore nine million times an hour. In other words, snores abound.

Ronaldo’s voice is more detached, giving us some of the background to what led to Santiago’s imprisonment. But he also talks of exile, giving us a rather more positive view of the possibilities and joys of sharing cultures. There is a feeling throughout the book of South America as one entity, with exiles and refugees from the various revolutions in different countries drifting from place to place depending on where sanctuary can be found. It also takes an interesting view of Cuba as the one country whose revolution has been successful, looked at from the perspective of the communists in other South American countries. Benedetti’s own sections tell of exiles trying to get to Cuba to make a new life, at the same time as some Cubans were trying to leave to get to the US for the same reason.

….How can we forget that these young people, separated from their surroundings, families, friends, their classrooms, have been denied their basic human right, to rebel as youngsters, to fight as youngsters? The only right they’ve been left with is to die as youngsters.
….Sometimes these young people demonstrate bullet-proof courage, and yet their minds are not disappointment-proof. If only I and other veterans could convince them that their duty is to stay young. Not to grow old out of nostalgia, boredom or rancour, but to stay young, so that when the time comes to go back they do so as young people and not as the relics of past rebelliousness. As youngsters – that is – as life.

Mario Benedetti

This is a short book, but has more to say than many lengthier tomes. I have no idea about the political situation in South America in that, or any other, era, but didn’t find this got in the way of my understanding of the book. Fundamentally, it’s about people, and especially people who have been forced out of their homelands – the reasons for the exile are secondary to its impact. And, in the end, it holds out hope: that the human spirit has the resilience to find new ways of living when the old ones are taken away. A wonderful book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics, via Amazon Vine.

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