The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The emperor is dead, long live the emperor…

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Thomas Fowler is a veteran journalist who’s been stationed for some years in Vietnam, reporting on the rising violence as France tries to cling on to its colony and America’s involvement is growing. The story begins when Fowler is told of the death of Alden Pyle, a young American attaché who had arrived in Saigon a few months earlier. Fowler then tells us the history of his relationship with Pyle – acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, certainly rivalry. For Pyle had stolen Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, promising marriage and entry to the glamorous American world of skyscrapers and fashion that Phuong had read about in magazines. And along the way Greene shows us old colonialism giving way to the new American mission to use its wealth and military might to westernize and democratize the world, whether the world likes it or not.

When I read the blurb, I wondered why the book had been considered “controversial”, and now having read it, I assume it’s because of the anti-Americanism that runs through it. To be honest, for a Brit of my generation and political leanings, that isn’t exactly controversial – it’s quite a mainstream position, and one that exists just as much, or perhaps even more, today as back in the early 1950s when this book is set. Anti-Americanism is the wrong term, really; it’s more anti-US foreign policy – a belief that the US blunders into situations around the world that it doesn’t understand, values non-American life cheaply in pursuit of its aim to create an American hegemony, and then retreats, its own nose bloodied, leaving the people in a worse state than they were in before the Americans arrived. (And sadly America’s allies, especially the UK, tend to allow the US to drag them into their military catastrophes.) Greene wrote this book before the Vietnam war, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall and uses Pyle as a metaphor for the sometimes well-meaning but always fundamentally ruthless and self-interested policies the US has pursued since it decided to declare itself the “leader of the free world” after the Second World War.

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However, old-style European colonialism fares no better. Greene shows it in its death throes, desperately trying to retain control of the colonies it still possesses, but gradually being forced into retreat, leaving the field open for the new superpowers to move in. The particular European empire in the book is the French, but Greene is clearly including all the old European empires in his critique. Fowler’s weary cynicism and fatalism about the future is as much a metaphor for tired and war-ravaged old Europe as Pyle is for brash young America. In their actions there’s not much to choose between them, but Europe, Greene seems to be suggesting, is finally learning the futility of trying to maintain its control over other peoples just at the point where the US has decided it will rule the world and impose its values and culture across the globe at the point of a gun. The question hangs unspoken in the Saigon air – how many lives are a price worth paying for the ideology of “freedom”? Pyle makes it clear that there’s no upper limit, so long, of course, as they’re not American lives.

Fortunately there’s an excellent human story to stop all this heavyweight political stuff from becoming too much. We learn of Pyle’s death in the first pages, and then go back to his arrival in Saigon as a seeming innocent. But he has more depth than first appears and Fowler is reluctantly drawn into a kind of intimacy with him because of Phuong, the young woman whom both men care about, though in different ways. Vietnam is in the midst of conflict with various factions fighting for power, sometimes with the overt or covert support of the various colonialist powers. Terrorist acts are a daily occurrence, and Greene shows the constant anxiety, the fear and the grief of living in a society in turmoil. And he shows the uncaring cruelty of those vying for power towards the people they use as pawns in their games.

Graham Greene

Most of all I feel it’s a wonderful character study of Fowler – a man whose cynicism is founded on age and experience, whose career as a journalist reporting from the trouble spots of the world has allowed him to see humanity at its worst and has left him wary of those who believe they have the right or the power to impose their culture and control on others. Pyle and Phuong are shown to us only through Fowler’s eyes, but he is an honest observer, able to see the strengths and weaknesses in both of them and, indeed, in himself. And eventually we learn what led to Pyle’s death.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Cadell. While his narration is good overall, it has some weaknesses, not least that he sometimes seems to forget that Pyle is American. It’s also an older recording and the sound quality is not great – the volume dips and rises, and sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. This is one case where I would recommend reading rather than listening, unless you can find a better narration. The book itself, though, is wonderful – undoubtedly one of Greene’s best and therefore highly recommended!

Audible UK Link

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Women, know your place…

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George Melbury has been blessed with only one child, his daughter Grace, so he decides to spend his hard-earned money on educating her. A happy child, growing up among the woods that surround the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock and provide the people there with their living, Grace forms an early attachment to her childhood friend, Giles Winterborne, and it’s her father’s wish that she will one day marry him. But when Grace returns to Little Hintock after years spent at boarding school, she has become such a cultured lady that Mr Melbury no longer thinks Giles is good enough for her, and Grace tends to agree so doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, she is wooed and won by the new local doctor, impoverished scion of a once wealthy local family. Happy ending? Good grief, no! This is Hardy, so poor Grace’s troubles are just beginning…

First off, let me start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hardy writes like a dream, and the woodland setting gives him the opportunity for some wonderful descriptive prose. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a clear picture of the society of the woodlanders, the trades they follow and how they make their living, their limited but enjoyed social life, the gradations of class even within the working population, the gender roles – a Hardy speciality – and the social and cultural gulf between the working people and the gentry.

But, Mr Hardy, what is the message of the book? We know you’re a feminist, and that’s as clear here as it is in Tess. So why do I come away from this one feeling you are issuing a warning to fathers not to educate their daughters above their station? Why does it seem as if you are saying that true goodness is the preserve of the poor and humble – that education corrupts? Why does Grace’s education change her from a loving child into a cold-hearted little snob? Why does she change from being a hearty, healthy daughter of the woods into a delicate little flower, who sews not and neither does she spin for fear of spoiling her pretty little hands? Even with the one rich character, whom I was willing to boo as being a parasite on society, what do we learn but that she too is a woman on the make, educated and married above her station? You as good as state that Grace would have been a happier, better woman if she’d never been taught to think and had married within the sphere to which she was born. This hardly reads like a paean to social mobility, especially not for daughters!

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I actually thought this might have been an early one, from before Hardy fully developed his feminism but it isn’t. It falls between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I felt were clearer on Hardy’s views on the status of women. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with Grace’s position as a women educated out of her class, nor even that I feel the portrayal is inaccurate for the time. It’s simply that, whether he intended it or not, the underlying message seems to be, not that society should get a grip and accept that women should have the right to both an education and a happy life, but that it would probably be better for the poor little dears to stew in ignorance so they will make a happy child-bearer and home-cleaner for a worthy working man. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but even the ending left me wondering if he was really suggesting that men should be allowed to behave badly, but that women should find it in their sweet, feminine little hearts to forgive? Pah, I tell you, and forsooth!!

Thomas Hardy

Maybe I expect too much from him – he is undoubtedly far advanced in his portrayal of women in comparison to many of his contemporary male writers, especially in his recognition of women as sexual and, in Grace’s case, intellectual beings. But perhaps Grace isn’t quite tragic enough, or perhaps I missed out on nuance because I was listening rather than reading – a skill I don’t think I’ve yet fully mastered. Or perhaps it’s simply that I never grew fond of little Miss Snooty-and-Delicate who can’t order a meal for herself in a pub despite/because of her education, while I loved her rival in love, Marty, Miss Ignorant-but-Self-Sufficient, whose attitude to life is give me the tools and the opportunity and I can make a living for myself as well as any man. Why do the men all prefer Grace? Do men really want wives who need to be pampered and petted rather than ones who will share their burdens as equals? Pah!

Anyway, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this one – nothing I like better than having a one-sided argument with a great author who can’t answer back… 😉

I listened to the narration by Samuel West – again excellent. West father and son seem to be becoming my go-to narrators for a lot of the great English classics.

Audible UK Link

The Warden (Barchester Chronicles 1) by Anthony Trollope

Blessed are the meek…

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Septimus Harding is the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charitable institution founded by a long-ago legacy to provide alms and accommodation to twelve old men of Barchester. Over the years the value of the legacy has grown so that now, as well as providing for the twelve pensioners, it also pays a generous stipend of £800 a year to the Warden and provides him with a large, comfortable house. Mr Harding is a conscientious man, neither ambitious nor particularly intelligent, who does his duty as pastor to the old men, and loves them. His elder daughter, Susan, is happily married to Archdeacon Grantly, and his younger child, Eleanor, hasn’t yet admitted to her love for a newcomer to town, the young doctor John Bold, but everyone knows that their eventual union is only a matter of time. So Mr Harding is a contented man. But John Bold is young and idealistic, and he sees the huge disparity between the alms paid to the twelve pensioners and the stipend paid to the Warden, and he feels the Church is misappropriating money that was intended to be spent on the poor of the town. Despite his as yet undeclared love for Eleanor, he begins a public campaign against what he sees as the Church’s abuse…

While I enjoyed all of the Barchester books to varying degrees, this first one has always been my favourite. A short book, it is perfectly formed, and what makes it so special is that Trollope shows all the characters as fundamentally decent people even while he allows them all to have wildly differing opinions on the subject of Church patronage. It is an idealised picture of a world that probably never existed, but that is what makes it such a comfortable and comforting read. It describes a world where even Church abuses are carried out with the best of intentions and where the worst accusations that can be aimed at the officers of the Church are of thoughtlessness and a certain lack of zeal. To Archdeacon Grantly, representing the views of the Church hierarchy, so long as the twelve bedesmen are being well looked after, and they are, then of course the remaining money should go to provide a comfortable living for the Warden, for the Church has a responsibility to provide good livings for all its officers (especially if they happen to be personal friends of the Bishop, who happens to be Archdeacon Grantly’s father).

Donald Pleasence and Nigel Hawthorne as Mr Harding and Archdeacon Grantly in the BBC’s wonderful 1982 production of The Barchester Chronicles

John Bold’s position is given fair treatment too. Mr Harding has never given much thought to Hiram’s original intentions when he made his bequest because Mr Harding is not a thinker, deferring always to the Archdeacon and the Bishop as a good Churchman should. However, when Bold, whom he admires and likes, points out the disparity between what the Church receives from the legacy and what it pays out in charity to the old men, Mr Harding cannot fail to see that his point is valid. But if the Archdeacon thinks it’s justified, then surely it is? As the Archdeacon gears up to fight the accusations of abuse, John Bold turns to the campaigning press to make his case directly to the public. And this public trial by media is the book’s other great theme, as we see poor Mr Harding caught up in a storm not of his own making, publicly reviled and humiliated, and portrayed as a monster of greed, lining his own pockets at the expense of the poor.

Although he shows both sides of the argument fairly, Trollope’s sympathies are all with Mr Harding. He seems to be accepting that the Church does appropriate money to itself and its officers that could be spent on alleviating poverty. But, it feels as if he is saying, is the Church not such a great and beautiful institution that it is worth the money that it takes? Are not the buildings lovely and worth the cost of their upkeep, from the little parish churches to the great cathedrals like Barchester? Are not the services, with their comforting rituals and soaring choirs, designed to bring man closer to God? Do not the Church’s officers, drawn largely from the younger sons of the gentry, need to be provided with comfortable accommodation and a generous income? The poor, after all, are used to being poor, so should they not be grateful for the little charitable portion the Church allows them? In Trollope’s world, Bold is shown as having the misguided zealousness of youth, well intended certainly, but not quite understanding yet how the world works. While admitting the point at the heart of Bold’s argument, Trollope seems to be regretful that reforming zealots can’t simply leave a system that works so well alone. What’s to be gained by impoverishing churchmen simply to give a little more to poor people who already have enough for their simpler needs?

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Despite my own atheism and my disgust at the various abuses that have been perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries, I find each time I read the book that I too am on the side of poor Mr Harding, at least while I’m reading. My cynical brain knows that the picture Trollope is presenting of the Church is idealised, but my heart loves those ancient cathedrals and the choirs and the traditions, and the cloistered peace of mellow cathedral towns. In real life I would side with Bold, but in this fictional world I too believe that he is merely making the pensioners unhappy and greedy by telling them they deserve more. He is destroying the contentment of his love’s father, reducing her income, and simultaneously destroying the grateful acceptance of the bedesmen. To what end? In this world of Barchester even the poor are healthy, well-fed and rosy-cheeked, so why rock the boat?

If only that had ever been true. Trollope’s world is a fantasy, but it is a comforting fantasy, and one in which many of the respectable people of his time firmly believed. There is almost no point of connection between Trollope’s happy vision of the poor and that of his reforming contemporaries, like Dickens. This book was published in the same year as Little Dorrit, with its searing depiction of the debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Compare and contrast.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Timothy West who did a marvellous job. He has narrated many of Trollope’s works and I’m very much looking forward to listening to more.

Audible UK Link

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

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Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

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Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

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Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

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I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

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The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The role of the narrator…

When narrating a book, a narrator has to decide how to interpret the various accents of different characters in the dialogue. This is crucial to allowing the reader to get lost in the book, and to being able to believe the placing of the characters in the social structure being portrayed in the book. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico, and nearly all of the characters are Mexican. Therefore presumably they all speak Spanish or Mexican dialects. However, obviously, the book is written in English. So there are two choices open to the narrator: he can either give all of the Mexican characters appropriate Mexican accents, or he can give them all comparable English accents. (Of course, if the narrator and/or publisher were American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc., then it would make sense to give a range of the accents of those countries, but in this instance it’s an English author, and an English narrator.)

As an example, in the English-translation Maigret audiobooks, Gareth Armstrong chooses to give all of the characters appropriate English accents. If they are upper class he gives them a posh English accent. If they are working class he gives them a rougher London accent. If they don’t come from Paris he gives them a suitable regional English accent. This works very well. The only time he gives anyone a “foreign” accent is if the character is not French, and therefore would sound foreign to the French characters.

It would be equally logical, even if I feel it would be a little annoying, had he chosen to give all of the characters French accents. In order to do this effectively, he would obviously have to be able to give a range of French accents – educated, rural, working class, etc. – and I’m not sure many English speakers know enough about the range of French accents to catch the nuance of that. I certainly don’t.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers

But it seems to me that the one choice a narrator can’t make, in these circumstances where every character is native to the setting of the book but the book is either written in or translated into English, is to give some of the characters English accents and some of the characters foreign accents. Where is the logic in that? And unfortunately that’s what Andrew Sachs has done in his narration of The Power and the Glory. Some of the characters, mostly the educated and/or powerful ones, sound English although they are Mexican, and then there’s a range of what I can only describe as caricatures of Mexican accents, mostly for the poor and downtrodden characters. I found it completely annoying and distracting and, dare I say, a touch condescending? But the point where I really began to wonder if I could take any more was when a mestizo character appears, and Sachs gives him an accent that at first I thought sounded very like Manuel from Fawlty Towers (not surprisingly since that is the “Spanish” accent that Andrew Sachs is most famous for), but then I realised that what it actually reminded me of was Calimero! This particular character whines quite often – “You’re going to leave me here to die, señor”, etc., – and I kept expecting him to finish every sentence with “It’s an injustice, it is, yeah!”

(If you don’t know Calimero, this is him – the most annoying cartoon character ever created, and as good an argument for eating chicken as I can think of.)

The result of this was that at no point did I connect with the book. If you’re a regular visitor you will know that Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists and, while I don’t think The Power and the Glory is his best book, I certainly think it’s a good one. But although I struggled past the mestizo and Calimero incident and listened to the end, I found the narration too distracting to allow me to enjoy the book. In all fairness I should say that many people have found this an excellent narration, though some other reviewers have made comments similar to (though less brutally rude than) my own.

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I wouldn’t normally review a narration rather than the book itself, but this is one of my #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer, so I had to say something about it 😉 One day I’ll re-read a paper copy, and review the book properly.

Audible UK Link

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

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Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

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First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Book 6 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

The Classics Club Spin #30

Rien ne va plus…

The Classics Club is holding its 30th Spin, and my 13th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 12th June. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 7th August, 2022.

Here’s my list. Some of these are monsters but I’m sure those kind Spin Gods will find me a nice short one… *coughs*

* * * * *

The Scottish Section

1)   The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

2)   Doom Castle by Neil Munro

3)   The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd

4)   The Land of the Leal by James Barke

5)   Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The English Section

6)   The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

7)   Evelina by Frances Burney

8)   The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

9)   The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

10) In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

The Foreign Section

11) The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander

12) The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher

13) The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

14) The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

15) Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The Genre Section

16) The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

17) The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

18) Laura by Vera Caspary

19) The Guns of Navarone by Alastair MacLean

20) The Chill by Ross MacDonald

* * * * * * *

Which one would you like to see win?

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

😐 😐

Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

Book 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

Amazon UK Link

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

Amazon UK Link

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Family history…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Thady Quirk has lived on the estate of the Rackrent family all his life, and here sets out to tell the story of the four Rackrents who have owned the estate over that period. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Kathryn J Kirkpatrick, is nearly a third as long as the entire novella, and tells us that “Castle Rackrent has gathered a dazzling array of firsts – the first regional novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Irish novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel.” Whew! But the question is, is it good? And for me the answer is it’s rather underwhelming, not helped in truth by all these accolades and high-flown claims which set expectations too high.

In fact, it is a rather slight novella, taking a humorous look at the Anglo-Irish Protestants who were given land in Ireland in order to subdue the Catholic natives, but then mismanaged it through incompetence or lack of interest. The Rackrent heirs show all the fecklessness of their class, and all the different weaknesses that lead them to gradually lose their fortune and control of their estates. Spendthrifts, gamblers, drunkards – the Rackrents have one thing in common; they do nothing to improve the estate, but expect it to provide enough income to pay for their vices. We see the evils of absentee landlordism and, of course, of rack-renting – demanding extortionate rents from tenants on threat of eviction. And we see the slow downfall of the family, helped along by the manipulations of Thady’s wily son, who rises to be the estate manager and in time to help the Rackrent dynasty come to its end.

Book 4 of 80

It’s written in a form of dialect but clearly aimed at an English readership as much as Irish, so not at all difficult to read. Edgeworth has included what she calls a glossary to explain some terms and traditions which may be unfamiliar to English readers. These take the form of explanatory notes, and are interesting and quite fun, containing some anecdotes to illustrate points she raises in the novella itself.

A mildly entertaining read, then, but I feel its fame is probably mostly for all those “firsts” and for the academic analysis of what the story has to say about the period. As you can probably tell from this lacklustre review, it didn’t inspire me to lavish either praise or scorn – a couple of weeks after reading it, it has faded almost completely away.

This was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #29.

Amazon UK Link

Review-Along! Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Woman, the temptress…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As she dances for the crowds in the streets of Paris, the gypsy girl known as La Esmeralda incites passion in the breasts of two men, both forbidden to love in the common way: Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, bound by vows of celibacy; and Quasimodo, the hideous creature who lives in the cathedral, condemned by his deformities to be an object of fear or pity, but never love. Esmeralda herself has formed a passion for another man, one unworthy of her love, but who will rouse the jealous fury of Frollo, setting off a chain of events that will ripple out well beyond these four central characters into the very history of Paris…

I must admit that there were points in the first half of the book where I had a deep desire to hit Hugo over the head with a brick, in the hopes that it might inspire him to stop waffling about 15th century architecture and get on with telling the story. However, it is often these digressions that linger longest, and provide us with that glimpse into the thinking of past generations which makes reading classics such a pleasure. Even as I waited impatiently to get back to Esmeralda and her lovers, I enjoyed Hugo’s detailed descriptions of how Paris developed as a city, and how it evolved between 1482, when the book is set, and 1829-31, when it was written. I found his ideas about architecture being the way societies once recorded their histories and philosophies fascinating and, despite my lowly status as a lady reader, I was intrigued and at least partially convinced by his argument that the invention of the printing press, as a new and easier way to spread ideas, would remove this important function of architecture for later generations…

Our lady readers will forgive us if we stop for a moment to look for what thought might lie hidden behind the archdeacon’s enigmatic words: “This will kill that, the book will kill the building.”

Book 3 of 80

Hugo’s love for Paris is clear, though clear-eyed too. He rants about modern architects destroying the glories of the past (thank goodness he didn’t live to see the Louvre Pyramid or the Centre Pompidou, or the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame itself), and waxes sublimely on the city as a living entity with its people as its soul.

Usually the murmur that comes from Paris in the daytime is the city speaking; at night it is the city breathing; here it is the city singing. Lend an ear then to this chorus from all the steeples, spread over the whole the murmur of half a million people, the everlasting plaint of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the deep and distant quartet of the four forests ranged over the hills on the horizon like immense organ cases, damp down as if in a half-tone everything too raucous and shrill in the central peal, and then say whether you know anything in the world more rich, joyful, golden, dazzling than this tumult of bells and chimes; this furnace of music; these ten thousand brazen voices singing at once in stone flutes three hundred feet high; this city transformed into an orchestra; this symphony of tempestuous sound.

This seems a good point to lavish praise on the wonderful translation by Alban Krailsheimer, who also wrote the informative and interesting introduction and notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. He brings the prose to life, avoiding any of the clunkiness that sometimes makes translated literature such a chore, and gives full play to the humour and tragedy of the story, and to Hugo’s passion in his digressions. (He also reverts to the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris – apparently The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an English invention.)

In the second half, Hugo finally buckles down to the task of telling the story, not a moment too soon for this reader. And what a story! Although Krailsheimer informs us that Hugo’s initial remit was to follow Sir Walter Scott’s lead into the art of historical fiction, the book reminds me more of the style that Dickens would later adopt, of making his city and his society as much a feature of the book as his characters and their individual histories. Like Dickens he is also crying out for social change, specifically on the injustices of poverty and of the use of torture and capital punishment as methods of social control, keeping the powerful in power through fear. Writing while the reverberations of the French Revolution had yet to settle and when, therefore, the future form of government in France was still unclear, his open criticism of the monarchy and the ruling classes seems courageous. While the book is set several centuries before the Revolution, it is clearly his intent to show the vast social inequalities that led to it. Does the book have a hero? I’m not sure that it does at the individual level, but I felt that Hugo’s sympathies lay with his mob – not the Revolutionary mob of the 18th century, but their historical ancestors: the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. He doesn’t sanitise them – they are shown as debauched and depraved, but within their own microcosm of society they act according to their own moral code, and provide mutual protection from the corrupt and brutal ruling class.

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

Two things surprised me most. Firstly, there’s a lot of unexpected humour amid the serious stuff, with Pierre Gringoire (apparently a real person, though I’d never heard of him) as the main comic turn who provides moments of levity to lighten the generally dark tone. I loved the whole story of Gringoire and the goat! Secondly, the way in which Hugo portrays Frollo’s battle with lust and sexual matters generally is so much more open and explicit than I’m used to in English literature of roughly the same era. Lust is seen as the driving force for all the passion in the book – Quasimodo perhaps is the exception to this, his feelings for Esmeralda perhaps more truly love, although even he is no stranger to the stirrings of sexual desire. I found it interesting that Esmeralda too was shown as a passionate being with her own physical desires – how different to the insipid sexless heroines of so much English literature. And I felt Hugo handled all this superbly – the characters and their motivations all felt true to me (and made me wonder whether Dickens’ caricaturing was a way to get round the literary repressions enforced on English authors of the time. Darcy staring at Lizzie across drawing rooms and ballrooms is about as close to lust as I can think of in classic English Victorian literature, though perhaps the success of the sensation novels suggests that the English appetite for lust was secretly just as strong as the French).

Victor Hugo

As always with these major classics, there’s far too much to discuss in a reasonable length blog post. In summary, then, after the long first half and the architectural longueurs in which he nearly lost me, Hugo won me over totally with the thrilling story and left me reeling at the end! And in the couple of weeks since I finished reading, I’ve found myself mulling over many of the issues he raised in his digressions, so that my appreciation of the whole book has continued to grow. It’s one I’d like to re-read, since knowing the outcome would lessen my impatience to get on with the story and allow me to savour all the rest in a more leisurely fashion. Heading for a paltry four stars at the halfway mark, by the wonderful end it had gained a well-deserved and brightly glowing five! (I’m even tempted now to read Les Misérables…)

I do hope my fellow Review-Alongers found as much in it to enjoy as I did. I look forward to reading their thoughts and will add links to their reviews below as I come across them. Please also check back to find out what our non-blogging friends thought, who will hopefully leave their comments on it below.

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

Book 2 of 80

Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

Book 4 of 12

There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Those pesky apocalypses…

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When young David Strorm meets Sophie, a little girl with a secret, he sympathises, because David has a secret too. Sophie’s secret is visible – she has six toes on each foot, and to the inhabitants of Waknuk this shows she is not a human being since all humans are created in God’s image and therefore must conform to the specifications laid down several generations ago. David’s secret is easier to conceal but even more threatening to normal humans, for David and some of the others can share their thoughts. From a young age they know this makes them different and difference is dangerous, so they learn to keep the secret among themselves. Until Petra comes along, with a talent for sending and receiving thoughts far greater than any of the others, and too young to know how to control it…

First published in 1955, the book takes its inspiration from the Cold War fears of nuclear devastation that influenced so much science fiction of that era. However, as in The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham is not so much interested in the fact of war or destruction as in the societies that may arise following an apocalyptic event.

Here we’re in Labrador, in one of the few populated areas left on Earth where only the far north and south have recovered enough from the nuclear winter to allow some kind of normal life to be resumed. A little further south are the Fringes, where mutations in plants and animals run wild, and to where mutants are exiled to fend for themselves. Further south again are the Badlands, where human life is unsustainable due to continuing nuclear pollution. In the conflict and disaster that followed a few hundred years ago, all technological knowledge was lost and the small population of remaining people have since gone back to old-fashioned methods of farming and living in small village settlements. The Bible survived, however, and faith is strong. People believe that God sent Tribulation as a punishment for sin, and are determined to root out any new signs of sin in order to appease him. Sin has come to include any form of deviation from the norm, physical or behavioural. David’s father is a staunch and harsh believer, always first to condemn sin and brutal in his insistence on driving out and destroying any kind of mutation. The basic story is of the danger in which David and the others find themselves when their secret leaks out, and the tension is in knowing whether they can find a way to survive.

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But along the way Wyndham is mulling over wider philosophical questions. What is normal, he asks, and does our humanity rest in our physical selves? Since the Bible doesn’t physically define what a man or woman should be, how can the people of Waknuk know that their definition is right? We hear of other communities, far away, from where intrepid explorers have returned with reports of people who look very different – they may be hairless, or have hair all over their bodies, the woman may have six breasts rather than two, they may be taller, or shorter – and they all think they’re “normal” too and that any other form is a deviation. Some societies don’t seem to care about mutations in their children so long as the child is viable, while others, like David’s, refuse to even accept that a newborn is human until it has been inspected and passed as meeting the specifications set down.

John Wyndham

The question of evolution is also at the heart of the book, even if evolution in this case has been triggered by a profoundly unnatural event. Through his characters Wyndham debates whether two diverging arms of a species can co-exist or whether the less evolved will always try to eradicate the more evolved through fear. I found the way he did this fascinating, although I’m not sure he intended me to feel as I did – that his characters at each level soon came to believe in their own superiority and to de-humanise anyone different from them. At first it is David’s father and his like who set out to destroy all deviations, but soon David and the other telepaths seem to believe just as firmly in their own superiority and to convince themselves that their survival justifies the killing of “normal” people. I felt Wyndham expected me to agree with David’s people on that one, but I came to see them as just as blinded and blinkered and cruel as his father. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there is another group who appear later in the book, and they also seem to consider themselves highly superior to all others and, indeed, to see those others as little better than dangerous vermin. Survival of the fittest, perhaps, but this seems like more than survival – it seems like hatred.

The introduction in my copy, by M. John Harrison, picks up on another theme which I missed but feel is valid; namely, that the book was written just at the beginning of what became known as the Generation Gap, when young people suddenly had the opportunity to get a good education, including living away from the parental home at universities and colleges, and be upwardly mobile, leaving their parents’ generation behind and often scandalised by the new moral codes the younger people were forging. Again, though, I felt this made the evolutionary theme less, not more, credible – the younger generation didn’t want to eradicate their elders and the older generation didn’t kill their deviant young (in most cases!).

On the whole I found this excellent, but perhaps not quite as coherently worked out as the earlier Triffids. Telepathy seemed a strange mutation to choose, not directly resulting from the nuclear devastation in the way Sophie’s extra toe did, and the message seemed confused between a cry for us to embrace deviations from the norm and a kind of endorsement or at least acceptance of a survival of the fittest mentality being used to justify eradication of the “other”. However, I certainly found it thought-provoking, which can only be a good thing! So long as no one out there thinks “thinking” is a sign of deviancy… 😉

Kelly and I read this as a Review-Along, so follow the link below to her review to see what she thought of it!

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link

The Classics Club Spin #29

Rien ne va plus…

The Classics Club is holding its 29th Spin, and my 12th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 20th March. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 30th April, 2022.

I’ve finally finished reading all the books on my first CC list though I still have a couple to review. So this is the first spin using my new list and all these books look shiny and exciting – no dust or cobwebs draped over them yet! However I’m also reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for our Review-Along in April, so I’ve picked 20 of the shortest books on my list. I’m seriously hoping one of the light genre books comes up, so no doubt those mocking CC Gods will find a heavyweight, misery-laden tome lurking somewhere on my list…

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The Scottish Section

1)   John Macnab by John Buchan

2)   The Shipbuilders by George Blake

3)   Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi

4)   Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway

5)   A Song of Sixpence by AJ Cronin

The English Section

6)   She by H Rider Haggard

7)   The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

8)   Howard’s End by EM Forster

9)   Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

10) The Third Man by Graham Greene

The Foreign Section

11) Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

12) Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

13) A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

14) The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

15) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Genre Section

16) Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

17) The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

18) Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

19) Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson

20) In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes

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Which one would you like to see win?

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

A true mid-twentieth century American hero…

🤬

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was once a local hero for his prowess in college basketball. Now he demonstrates kitchen gadgets in five and dime stores, and fights with Janice, his wife. After trapping him into marriage at 23, Janice has now had the temerity to get pregnant for a second time. I’m not sure Harry realises that sex and pregnancy are linked – he’s not very bright. But he loves sex. He’s not too bothered about who with or even whether the other party is willing, because after all he realises that women exist simply to service men’s sexual needs. It’s rather annoying of Janice, therefore, to actually have needs of her own, and being heavily pregnant is surely no excuse for her asserting her unreasonable demands like which show she’d like to watch on TV. So Harry leaves her, driving off (in her car) to escape his humdrum existence and taking up with another woman, leaving Janice pregnant, with a toddler, no money and no transport. He’s a charmer, all right, our Harry!

I hated Harry, but not as much as I grew to hate Updike. I nearly abandoned the book at 44%, even going so far as to write my “review”. But then I decided in a fit of masochism that I must finish it. Sadly it continued to disgust me all the way through, and I found nothing to change my opinion. So rather than waste more of my time on it by writing another review, here’s my 44% rant…

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Book 84 of 90

Going at it like rabbits…

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom thinks about sex. That’s it – that’s the blurb. Indeed, it could also be the review, but I’d find that deeply unsatisfying (and, oh dear, there is nothing worse in this life, according to the white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writer than feeling unsatisfied) because this book deserves so much more. So much more trashing, that is.

Dear Lord, do these men think they invented sex? How do they think they arrived in this world? Did their mothers teach them to be potty-mouthed from birth? Or is it that they know the very best way to win a Pulitzer is to endlessly describe various sexual acts and fantasies? It’s like reading the secret diary of a 14-year-old child whose parents forgot to turn on the parental controls on the TV…

Boy, there wasn’t any fancy business then, you didn’t even need to take off your clothes, just a little rubbing through the cloth, your mouths tasting of the onion on the hamburgers you’d just had at the diner and the car heater ticking as it cooled, through all the cloth, everything, off they’d go. They couldn’t have felt much it must have been just the idea of you. All their ideas. Sometimes just French kissing not that she ever really got with that, sloppy tongues and nobody can breathe, but all of a sudden you knew from the way their lips went hard and opened and then eased shut and away that it was over.

(The grammatical horrors are Updike’s – not mine. The women all think in this unstructured, childish, stream-of-consciousness style. The men all think in well-formed sentences. Go figure.)

In this world of male sex fantasies, women are either whores or frigid, fat or skinny, mean or cheap, and they’re all “dumb”. They all want money from their men and are willing to sell sex to get it, they all get pregnant, they all turn to drink. Mind you, in a world where all the men are Rabbits who can blame them? They love to be mastered – there’s no such thing as sexual assault, or even rape, in this world because secretly the women are, to coin a phrase, gagging for it. Let’s take the example of Rabbit’s rough wooing of Ruth, the other woman. She would like to wear a diaphragm but Rabbit doesn’t like that so he refuses to let her. She goes to the loo, and he insists on watching her to ensure she doesn’t sneakily protect herself from pregnancy. Naturally, he refuses to wear a condom. He objects to Ruth’s make-up, so he gets a facecloth…

When he puts the rough cloth to her face, it goes tense and writhes with a resistance like Nelson’s [Rabbit’s abandoned two-year-old son], and he counters it with a father’s practised method. He sweeps her fore-head, pinches her nostrils, abrades her cheeks and, finally, while her whole body is squirming in protest, scrubs her lips, her words shattered and smothered.

Now, the problem with this is not that Updike describes this episode of male physical domination/assault – had he left it at that one could have condemned Rabbit, sympathised with Ruth, and moved on. After all, Updike is not trying to make Rabbit likeable – quite the reverse. No, the problem is that Ruth then has the best climax of her life and falls in love with Rabbit. That, dear white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writers, is why modern women call you vile misogynists and chuck your vile misogynistic books at the wall.

According to wikipedia there are other themes in the book, namely, religion, identity, vision of America and transience. I beg to disagree. It’s about sex. And not even sexy sex. Abandoned at 44% – I prefer my fantasies to Updike’s.

PS I should perhaps also mention it’s extraordinarily dull and not very well written, with endless, pointless, unevocative descriptions of everything.

* * * * *

So there you have it – an early example of the whiny, me-me-me, self-obsessed, sex-obsessed, narcissistic bilge that too often passes for literature in these end times for Western culture. With added misogyny…

Where’s my medicinal chocolate?

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

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As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #28: The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

Dulce et decorum est…

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As 1937 draws to a close, we are introduced to three young men, very different in terms of social background and beliefs, whom we will follow through to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Christian is German, drawn to the Nazis because they have restored a sense of pride to Germany following the defeat of WW1. He passively accepts the anti-Semitism at the heart of the regime as something that simply is. Noel is an American Jew, who is left alone when his father, his only relative in the US, dies. He has heard something of what is happening to the Jews in Europe and is concerned, but he is also falling in love with Hope and that takes up most of his emotions. Michael is a theatre producer, wealthy and surrounded by shallow, artsy types who don’t appear on the surface to care much about anything. But Michael is already a little guilty that he hasn’t, as some of his friends have, gone to Spain to fight the fascists. Oh, he’s raised money for the fight, but as the Nazi threat grows he feels he should do more.

There is so much in this book, both in terms of incident and depth, that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review, so I’m going to concentrate on the things that most stood out to me, and strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

First off, the writing is superb, and Shaw uses beautiful control in the timing so that the thoughtful passages, of which there are many, don’t get in the way of the action, and vice versa. The book starts slowly, taking time to ensure we know these three men as they are before war has become a reality for them, so that we see throughout how their experiences gradually change them. He manages to be very even-handed, which surprised me in a book first published in 1948, so soon after the war ended. I don’t mean even handed between the Nazis and the Allies – there is no doubt in the book about the evil of the Nazi regime. But Christian is shown sympathetically at first as a patriotic German rather than a Nazi zealot, as of course most Germans were. And the Americans are shown warts and all, with a good deal of criticism for the army and the way the war was run.

Book 81 of 90

Christian is in the war from the beginning in 1939, whereas the Americans only came in after Pearl Harbor and even then it was a long time before they set foot in Europe, so for Noah and Michael most of their war is spent in relative safety, and by the time they are facing action in France it is against a force that is already beaten but not yet ready to admit it. So although they all face danger Christian is the one who experiences most and we see him gradually coarsened by what he witnesses, still patriotic, but losing his moral integrity as he comes to behave in ways he could never have imagined when he started out so full of pride. It’s wonderfully done – this destruction of a fundamentally decent man, poisoned by the evil of the regime he serves. By the end, Christian is monstrous but, because Shaw made us care about him in the beginning, it’s hard to hate him even while abhorring what he does.

‘I see several soldiers among the congregation and I know they have a right to ask, What is love for a soldier? How does a soldier obey the word of Christ? How does a soldier love his enemy? I say it is this way – to kill sparingly and with a sense of sin and tragedy, sin that is yours equally with the sin of the man who falls at your hand. For was it not your indifference, your weakness of spirit, your greed, your deafness earlier in the day which armed him and drove him into the field to slay you? He struggled, he wept, he cried out to you, and you said, “I hear nothing. The voice does not carry across the water.” Then, in his despair, he picked up the rifle, and, then, finally, you said, “His voice is clear. Now let us kill him.”’

Michael and Noah, on the other hand, grow from their experiences and although they become hardened to an extent, they are on the winning side, and Shaw shows how different that is. As the German forces fall apart and Christian faces the shame and despair of going home defeated, the Americans develop the camaraderie of men fighting for good against evil, confident of victory and a glorious homecoming, if only they can survive. But Shaw shows that there were atrocities on the Allied side too, not to the same degree, of course, but it gives the message that the potential is there just as much in America or Britain or France for evil to thrive as in Germany, if the circumstances arise. And he also shows that civilians suffer as much or more than soldiers, especially with the new horror of air warfare, and its bastard offspring – collateral damage and “friendly fire”.

There are many horrors, as is to be expected – deaths, injuries, atrocities, betrayals, despair – but portrayed with authenticity and without gratuitousness, and there is humour and friendship along the way which prevents the tone from becoming too unrelievedly bleak. There is a wonderful scene in London of a theatre company relentlessly continuing with their opening night performance of Hamlet as the air raid sirens wail and bombs explode outside.

Irwin Shaw

However, the thing I will remember most from the book is Shaw’s depiction of anti-Semitism, horrible enough when it’s coming from the Nazis, but so much worse when it’s perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be on the right side. Noah is victimised wherever he goes – in civvy street, by the men in his company, by hotel owners who won’t allow him and his wife to have a room on the rare occasions he gets a weekend pass. Shaw was an American Jew himself, and sadly this makes it all feel even more authentic. The Holocaust may have been exclusive to the Nazis, but again Shaw gets home the message that anti-Semitism is pretty much universal. I spent much of my time tear-drenched while reading this book, but there is one scene which I doubt I’ll ever forget when, on the Allies liberating a concentration camp – not one of the big ones, just a little local one – a Rabbi asks to hold a service for the Jewish dead, and other prisoners object. Even there, even after all they’ve been through together, they still hate the Jews.

A truly wonderful book, harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written, this one gets my highest recommendation. Thank you, Classics Club Gods, for making me read it!

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Nada by Carmen Laforet

After the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. Now she is an orphan, existing on a tiny stipend granted to her by the state to enable her to study. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house. Grandmother is very old and frail, and her mind is beginning to fail. Aunt Angustias is sternly religious, determined to maintain the standards of the past, and insists that Andrea must obey her in all things. Grandmother’s two sons, Juan and Ramon, seem to be in a perpetual fight which often results in fairly extreme violence, not towards each other so much, but because Juan takes out his anger and frustration on his wife, Gloria, whom the family consider socially beneath them. There is a general air of insanity in the family – only Gloria, the outsider, seems to have her feet firmly on the ground. Over the next year or so, Andrea will gradually learn the secrets of each of the family, and come to understand what has brought them to their present state of decay and mutual antagonism.

Written under the constraints of the still new Franco dictatorship, Laforet avoids overt discussion of the politics of the Civil War or of the current regime, but she shows clearly the deprivation and poverty many Spaniards are facing at this time. However, she also shows that this isn’t universal by any means – plenty of people are managing to get along just fine. She hints that perhaps Ramon and Juan picked the wrong side, although Juan had tried to remedy that by switching sides when it became clear who was going to win. She doesn’t, as far as I could tell anyway, pass her own judgement on who was right and wrong, but it’s intriguing that she takes such a negative view of a family that was rich and pampered before the war, and is considerably less cynical about the people who are doing quite well under Franco. Whether any more can be read into this than that she was keen to get the book past the censors, I am unable to judge.

Book 8

The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. I only found this out when googling after reading, and I rather wished I’d known in advance, since certainly the grotesquery and violence in the book makes more sense when placed in the context of a literary school. In terms of existentialism, there is undoubtedly existential angst for many of the characters, but Andrea herself seems to be curiously untouched – she feels like an observer more than a participant most of the time, and despite her youth often seems more adult than the adults around her. There is also a sense of the absurd which somehow makes the violence seem almost cartoonish, so that it’s not nearly as grim in tone as the content suggests it should be. In fact there’s quite a strong vein of black humour running through it for much of the time.

I’m not sure that I really fully got the book – my lack of familiarity with the conventions of both existentialism and tremendismo means that I suspect I missed a lot of nuance that would be clearer to people steeped in those schools, and Laforet’s necessary circumspection around the politics of the day made it difficult for me to place her on the political spectrum, which meant that I couldn’t quite tell how biased were her depictions of the various parts of the society she shows us.

Carmen Laforet

None of that prevented me from appreciating it though. I enjoyed the grotesque family and their fights and rivalries, and while I thought that Laforet didn’t give much of a picture of the day-to-day life of Barcelona, she instead invoked an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier. There is no sense of a return to the status quo before the war – instead Andrea seems to epitomise a new generation looking with interest at the past, but with no desire to relive it. The book was written in 1945, still too soon for anyone to know how post-war Spain would develop, and that feeling of uncertainty seems to be captured in Andrea’s lack of vision about her own future.

There is an underlying plot of sorts, relating to the brothers and their past, and it is also a kind of coming of age story for Andrea. But both of those things are secondary to the overall feel of the book – a kind of nebulous quality that somehow in the end gives a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done. I read it quite some time ago now, and it has lingered in my mind, growing in stature the more I think about it, so that although I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved it while reading, I have gradually come to appreciate it more and to recognise why it’s considered a classic.

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