The American by Henry James

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀

American nouveau riche businessman Christopher Newman has come to Europe in search of culture. Not that he’s really sure what it is, nor does he make much attempt to learn – rather he wants to acquire it, with money. It’s the American Way, and Newman’s way tells him that to buy a copy is as good as owning the original. So he finds himself in the Louvre, offering excessive sums of money to a mediocre young female artist to copy some of the great paintings there to adorn his walls. But Newman has also decided it’s time to acquire a wife, and here he wants a true original – a pearl, a work of art. A friend suggests the young widow, Madame de Cintré, daughter of generations of French and English aristocracy. Her first marriage had been arranged by her family, to a man many years older than her with whom she shared no affection, but who was suitable due to his impeccable bloodlines. But now her own family is in a state of financial decay, like so much of the old aristocracy, and may be tempted to sell her this time round for American money. And so Newman sets out to woo her, incidentally introducing her brother Valentin to the young artist.

This was more enjoyable than I expected a James novel to be, concentrating on the contrast between the brash money-driven society of the New World and the snobbish exclusivity of the Old, with neither showing in a particularly good light. Newman himself is a moral man by his own lights, but it seemed to me this was as much because he lacked passion as because he exercised any kind of control. His growing love for Madame de Cintré – she never really became Claire to me – comes over more in the way someone would admire a vase or a painting than a person. But then, she also has about as much passion in her as a vase, so they seem well matched.

The secondary characters – Noémie the artist and her father, Valentin, and Mme de Cintré’s horrible old hag of a mother – are much more fun. Noémie is setting out on a career of her own, a traditional one if not quite a respectable, to work herself up through society by becoming mistress to men of as high rank as her beauty can attract. Valentin is fascinated by her, but has been around society long enough to know better than to fall for her snares. The old Marquise de Bellegarde – the mother – and her equally horrid son, the current Marquis, are snobs of the first water, always on guard to ensure that nothing besmirches their ancient family name. Forced marriages and mistresses are fine, but heaven forbid that they should allow the family to be tainted by the stench of “business” – one has to maintain one’s standards, after all.

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The first half is slow but quite amusing, as James reveals the characters and the society in which they operate. But suddenly it turns, unconvincingly, into a rather lifeless Gothic melodrama when the Bellegardes decide out of the blue that, after encouraging him for months, they really can’t face allowing someone with his background to marry into their family. Will Newman find a way to overcome their snobbery, or to take his revenge against them? It takes an awful long time to find out, and I found that I didn’t much care. Noémie and Valentin pretty much disappear in different way in the later stages of the book, and I felt their loss. Unlike the Bellegardes, I didn’t object to Newman’s lack of culture and blue blood, but I fear I found him a bit of a bore, and Madame de Cintré proved what I had feared all along – that she lacked any kind of independent spirit.

Henry James

I’ve only read a few of James’ ghost stories before, and objected to his convoluted style and ultra-ambiguity. His style in this is much more straightforward, making it more enjoyable to read. His observations of French society are fun, but not particularly in-depth or profound – they very much feel like what they in fact are: the first relatively superficial impressions of a youthful outsider of a culture very different from his own. I felt it required a lot of suspension of disbelief. How, for example, did Newman manage to become a reasonably sophisticated man given what we are told of his background? Why did the family countenance the match in the first place? Why did Madame de Cintré, no longer a young girl at the mercy of her family, not make decisions for herself? I felt James glossed over these questions, where just a little more work would have filled in the holes.

As always, the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition helped to set the book in context and the notes were helpful in explaining unfamiliar references. There is also a glossary of all the French phrases sprinkled throughout the text – very helpful for monoglots like me!

Overall, then, quite enjoyable, but flawed. However, it has left me more willing to tackle some of his later work to see if they avoid the weaknesses of this one, so I guess that means it was quite a successful read in the end.

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Tuesday Terror! Dracula by Bram Stoker read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves

Get out the garlic!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

If Jonathan Harker had only wasted some of his youth watching Hammer Horror films instead of studying to be a solicitor, he’d have known that a visit to Transylvania to meet a mysterious Count in his Gothic castle probably wasn’t going to turn out well. And if Lucy Westenra had accompanied him on those youthful trips to the cinema, she’d have been less likely to leave her window open when a large bat was flying around outside.

It’s years since I last read Dracula, and I enjoyed it considerably more this time round, maybe because I’ve been reading lots of Gothic horror over the last few years and am therefore more in tune with the conventions, or maybe because Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves do such a great job with the narration.

My major reservation about it is that it’s far too long in places, especially at the beginning and end, where for long periods of time nothing much happens except everyone writing up their journals in an angst-filled and overly dramatic style, filling page after page with nauseating glowing admiration of the other characters’ many perfections. But the bulk of the book in between is excellent, with some true Gothic horror and the occasional bit of humour to prevent it all becoming too overblown. As with any hugely influential classic, it’s quite hard for a modern reader to feel the full impact of how original and terrifying the ideas in the book would have been to contemporary readers. So many of them have become clichés now – jokes, even – such as the crucifix-wielding and the garlic, and so on. And because that feeling of originality is missing, it becomes easy to start nit-picking, especially on those occasions when the action slows to a crawl. (See below.)

However, there are other parts of the book that don’t seem to have been recycled quite as often in subsequent vampire culture (in my extremely limited experience), and these add a lot of interest. The lunatic Renfield is actually scarier than the Count in my opinion, because he’s fully human and mad, rather than a monster. His fascination with flies and spiders is enough to give me the creeps even before he starts eating them! His philosophy that devouring living things will give him extended life has just enough insane logic to make it frightening and of course ties in to the vampires’ blood-sucking.

The Count’s Gothic castle is wonderfully done, as is Jonathan’s growing realisation that all is not well, followed by his discovery that he can’t get away. I was rather sorry to leave the castle and return to England, although I liked the humour in Mina and Lucy’s correspondence. Mina starts out as a great female character, strong, intelligent and resourceful. Sadly, she is turned into some kind of angelic idealised female victim in the end, constantly banging on about the men being so gallant and full of honour, while they kneel to her (literally) on more than one occasion, as if they are worshipping her perfect womanhood. Oh dear! She becomes nearly as vomit-inducing as some of Dickens’ more sickly-sweet heroines at times!

Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves share the narration. The whole book is presented in the form of letters and journal entries, so Wise reads all the ones written by men, while Reeves does those written by women. This means that sometimes they have to “do” the same character, where, for instance, Mina and Dr Seward both relate conversations they have had with Dr Van Helsing, the vampire expert of the group. It seemed to me that Wise and Reeves did very well at co-ordinating these characters, so that they both gave Van Helsing the same accent and speech pattern, for example. At first it was discombobulating to hear Reeves “do” Mina, closely followed by Wise recounting Mina through someone else’s “voice”, but it soon all gels and works very well. I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook presentation.

After all the long, long story, the ending is oddly abrupt, and not nearly as chilling as some of the earlier parts of the story. And that’s because… well, spoilers below, because I need to have a bit of a rant! So if you haven’t read it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading my review now, and read the book instead. Despite some flaws and pacing problems, it’s a great read – although not the first vampire novel, certainly the most influential on subsequent vampire culture.

* * * * *

Spoiler-filled nit-picking rant!

OK, look, fine, vampires are scary – I get it. But they’re also so ridiculously easy to defeat that I can’t imagine why any of them survive longer than a night! Let’s examine a few of their design faults…

1. Garlic. I mean, seriously, you wear garlic round your neck and you’re safe? Well, why on earth didn’t the Transylvanians just do that, then, instead of letting Dracula and his harem prey on their children for generations? I mean, I’m not the biggest fan of kids, but there are limits! And, more to the point, once our little group knew that Dracula was in the vicinity and liked to prey on women, why in heaven’s name didn’t Mina invest in a garlic necklace?? Think of the trouble that would have been saved.

2. Communion wafers. So all you have to do to make a vampire homeless is sneak a communion wafer into its coffin while it’s out? Too easy!

3. Crucifixes. Need to use your garlic for your pasta sauce? Never mind, just wear a crucifix around your neck and you’re invulnerable to even the wickedest vampire. I guess it must be like masks – people were simply too lazy/stupid* (*delete according to preference) to wear them…

4. Bedtime. Vampires have to sleep while the sun is up. Assuming you haven’t already spoiled their bed by sticking a communion wafer in it, this gives you many, many hours each day when the vampire is completely unable to defend itself. Handy for the human, but not such a great thing for the vampire.

5. Death. Stake through the heart, cut off the head – job done. I refer you back to bedtime above. Since the vampire is helpless for most of the time, why do any of them survive once the secret of how to kill them is known? And known it must be, or how could Van Helsing have known what to do? And that leads me to another point – how did Van Helsing know so much about vampires anyway? Suspicious, if you ask me…

So I couldn’t really feel that vampires present much of a real threat to humanity, unless there’s ever a world-wide garlic shortage.

Still a great book, though… 😉

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Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

If this is the lost generation, don’t send a search party…

🤬

A teenager develops a crush on a married man, and he simply can’t help himself, darlings – what’s a devilishly handsome, utterly charming, autobiographical alter-ego of a narcissistic author to do? Especially since women exist only for their men – to deny Rosemary her opportunity to slavishly adore him would surely be cruel? And so long as the wife, Nicole, never finds out that her husband and her young friend are up to hanky-panky, she won’t be hurt by it, right? So Dick reasons, anyway. (Yes, he is called Dick… a moment of subconscious insight on Fitzgerald’s part, perhaps?).

Gosh, I hated this. So much so that I abandoned it at 32%, thus happily missing out on the promised descent of Dick into alcoholic self-indulgence and Nicole into madness over his unfaithfulness (I assume). The odd thing is that I read this when I was around twenty, just after loving The Great Gatsby, and while I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good, I don’t remember having the kind of visceral antipathy to it that I experienced this time around. Admittedly that would have been sometime in the ‘70s, so my extreme youth coupled by the fact that back then women were still routinely treated as pathetic little accessories to strong, purposeful men might have made it seem almost quite romantic. But surely even young FF couldn’t have overlooked the fact that it’s immensely, seriously dull? Pointless people leading pointless lives pointlessly. Maybe I envied them their wealth and glamour? I hope not!

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Let me give you a few quotes to try to show why I hated it so much – bear in mind that Dick Diver is largely Fitzgerald himself, and Nicole is his wife, Zelda:

… the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.

Uh-huh! OK, but that’s probably a one-off example of how wonderful Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – thinks he is, eh?

But Dick Diver—he was all complete there. Silently she admired him. His complexion was reddish and weather-burned, so was his short hair—a light growth of it rolled down his arms and hands. His eyes were of a bright, hard blue. His nose was somewhat pointed and there was never any doubt at whom he was looking or talking—and this is a flattering attention, for who looks at us?—glances fall upon us, curious or disinterested, nothing more. His voice, with some faint Irish melody running through it, wooed the world, yet she felt the layer of hardness in him, of self-control and of self-discipline, her own virtues.

Yes, well, OK, maybe this is just teenager Rosemary’s idea of him, and not Fitzgerald’s own. Let’s see what the third-person narrator thinks…

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognising the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.

Maybe he’s being ironic? Please tell me he’s being ironic…

But Fitzgerald’s self-obsessed narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is his opinion of women…

Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

Not misogynistic enough, you say? Well, how about…

Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel.

Funnily enough, I’d really like to be able to tell Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – exactly how I feel right at this moment…

Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity. Dick saw the situation quickly and grasped it quietly.

While the vision of Dick quietly grasping Abe’s gigantic obscenity set me howling with welcome laughter, I fear the narcissism, misogyny and accidental (I assume) massive double entendre in this final quote was the end for me. If I allow myself to grow to hate Fitzgerald – I mean, Dick – any more, I shall never be able to read Gatsby again – it’s already looking shaky – and that would be a pity since up till now I’ve always declared it one of my most treasured novels.

Note to authors: if you must include yourself in your novel, probably best not to praise yourself too highly.

A few of us were reading this simultaneously with a view to doing a review-a-long today, so I’ll add a link to Eva’s review if she posts it later, and check out the comments section below for Alyson’s and Christine’s opinions. I sincerely hope they all enjoyed this considerably more than I did!

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Earth Abides by George R Stewart

When only the dull survive…

😦

Isherwood Williams has been on a field trip in the wilderness for a while when he is bitten by a snake. For a few days he’s out of it, feverish as the poison works through his system. On recovering, he drives to the nearest town only to discover that while he’s been in isolation, a plague has destroyed nearly all human life. He sets out on a road journey through America, looking for other survivors and gathering material for his forthcoming travelogue…

OK, I made up that last bit, but honestly that’s what this feels like – a guide book to America written by someone rather boring. Maybe it would resonate more if these were places I knew or had some kind of emotional response to, but I don’t, and so it’s just a list of street names interspersed with amazing insights like, in the absence of man, weeds sprout between paving stones, and dogs go hungry.

A few pigeons fluttered up at Rockefeller Center, disturbed now by the sound of a single motor. At Forty-second Street, yielding to a whim, he stopped the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue and got out, leaving Princess shut up.

He walked East on Forty-second Street, the empty sidewalk ridiculously wide. He entered Grand Central Terminal, and looked in at the vast expanse of waiting-room.

“Waugh!” he called loudly, and felt a childlike pleasure as an echo came reverberating back from the high vault, through the emptiness.

I believe later in the book he finally meets some people and sets up a kind of back-to-nature life, but I gave up at the 20% mark – rapidly becoming the standard point where I abandon books for boring me to death. To be fair, this may have seemed more original when it first came out in 1949, but it’s been done so many times since, and done better. It doesn’t compare in any way to the brilliance of The Day of the Triffids, for example, published just two years later, or more recently to the unsettling starkness of The Road. Where both those authors recognised that the primary thing that makes even post-apocalyptic novels interesting is the interaction of humans, Stewart chooses to have Ish, as he’s known, feel superior and judgemental towards the few remnants of humanity he encounters, and quickly decide he’d rather be on his own than with them. So all that’s left is endless unemotional descriptions of the effects of nature returning to a world without humanity, sometimes through Ish’s eyes, and sometimes through annoying little inset sections in italics where Stewart chooses to give a kind of running lecture on the subject.

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And perhaps because our own pandemic has allowed us to have a tiny insight into how the world reacts when man retreats, I didn’t even feel he’d got it right. He says, for instance, that wildlife continues to shun the cities – not what happened during our various lockdowns when the internet was awash with pictures of all kinds of creatures revelling in our absence and dancing in our streets. He also has Ish constantly fearing he’ll come across piles of the dead, but he doesn’t. Where are they all? If everyone suddenly got sick all at the same time, so sick that most of them died, who on earth buried them? Stewart hints that everyone died in hospitals so has Ish avoid them, but no hospital system in the world has capacity to take in the entire population simultaneously, a fact of which we have all recently become only too aware. Ish wanders round New York and sees no corpses, smells no putrefaction, etc. It’s as if humanity has been vaporised by aliens rather than killed by disease (which frankly would have been a more fun story).

Perhaps, not being a housekeeper, he had not previously noticed dust, or perhaps this place was particularly dusty. No matter which! From now on, dust would be a part of his life.

Back at the car, he slipped it into gear, crossed Forty-second Street, and continued south. On the steps of the Library he saw a grey cat crouched, paws stretched out in front, as if in caricature of the stone lions above.

At the Flatiron Building he turned into Broadway, and followed it clear to Wall Street. There they both got out, and Princess showed interest in some kind of trail which ran along the sidewalk. Wall Street! He enjoyed walking along its empty length.

George R Stewart

I’ve been abandoning an excessive number of books this year, due to my own plague-inspired blues, so perhaps I’d have had more patience with this at another time, and perhaps it becomes more interesting once Ish finally becomes part of a community. But right now it’s simply boring me, so I’m giving up the struggle and don’t see myself ever returning to it. As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…

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The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

All that glitters…

😐 😐

When Philip Marlowe helps out a drunken Terry Lennox one night, it starts a kind of casual friendship between the two men. So when Lennox’s wife is beaten to death, it’s to Marlowe that he turns for help, not to investigate the crime, but to assist him to flee the country. Hearing later that Lennox has confessed to the murder, Marlowe doesn’t believe it – he can believe that Lennox might have killed his serially unfaithful wife, but not that he would have done it so brutally. Meantime, he has been approached by the publisher of Roger Wade, a successful writer now struggling with bouts of drunkenness which are making it impossible for him to finish his latest book. The publisher wants Marlowe to keep Wade sober, if he can, and to try to find out what is causing Wade to behave this way. Marlowe refuses, but soon gets sucked into Wade’s troubles anyway, partly because of Wade’s beautiful, golden wife.

This one didn’t do it for me at all, I’m afraid. Admittedly, it has several of the elements I most dislike about American noir fiction – the constant drunkenness, the casual violence, the ubiquitous Great God Gun at whose altar all America worships, apparently. The women exist purely as sexual beings, the men (despite the constant availability of women and drink – or maybe because of it) are all existentially miserable, corrupt and violent – even the good ones. Society as a whole is also corrupt, bleak and hollow. No one does a normal, honest job, or has a happy family life. Only old people have children, and that purely so they can despise them. Love only appears as lust, and even the fulfilment of that lust usually ends in tears, literally. Makes me wonder why anyone would choose to go on living and, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the book is suicide. Somehow this kind of depressing noir vision of life works quite well on screen for me, but not in books, maybe because I have too much time to get bored with it.

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CC Spin 24

As if specially to annoy me further, Chandler, obviously in autobiographical mood, chose for another of his themes to write about how hard it is for writers to write, a subject that writers too often find far more fascinating than I do. My feeling is that if writers hate writing, the solution is simple – don’t do it. The world will not run short of books. And fewer books about the plight of poor struggling writers would be a major bonus for poor struggling readers.

The writing itself is fine, though without the slick snappiness I generally expect from American noir of this era. I did not however find it as “literary” as many other reviews suggest. Of course, we all define “literary” differently, but for me it means it has something to say about society or “the human condition”. This speaks only about the drunk, the corrupt and the violent. Chandler suggests that his characters had often been damaged by their experiences in the recent WW2, but I didn’t find he handled this aspect convincingly – except in the case of one character, it seemed more like an excuse than a cause. Some of the descriptive stuff paints wonderfully evocative pictures, though…

The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.

Raymond Chandler

The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world. I had to make a huge effort to keep going, in the hope, not fulfilled, that at some point the reason for the book’s reputation would become clear. I can only assume that it’s a mismatch between book and reader, since undoubtedly it is almost universally loved by those who read it. Personally, I vastly preferred The Big Sleep, the only other Chandler I’ve read. Although it’s a long time since I read it, I seem to remember it was tighter, slicker and more entertaining, with Marlowe operating as a proper private eye. In this one, the amount of actual detection Marlowe does is pretty much zero – he just gets caught up in events and wanders somewhat aimlessly around annoying people till they punch him. Sadly, I could see their point.

“I’ve got five hundred pages of typescript here, well over a hundred thousand words. My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there’s a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold.”

Not all of us, Mr Chandler, not all of us.

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Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

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

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The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

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However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

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“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 of 20

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Short and sharp…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon is forced to cut short her stay at Langford when the lady of the house, Mrs Manwaring, becomes jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Mr Manwaring. Off she goes to Churchill, the residence of her late husband’s soft-hearted brother, Mr Charles Vernon, and his sensible wife, Catherine. But soon Catherine is worried that Lady Susan might have got her well-manicured claws into Catherine’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, and she’s also concerned about Lady Susan’s young daughter, Frederica, whom Lady Susan is determined to marry off to an unsuitable young man against her will…

Written entirely in letters between the various friends and family members, this novella length story is full of fun. Lady Susan is so wicked one really feels the need to hiss whenever her name is mentioned, and Catherine is a delightful contrast in her general sense and good nature. While the men are all taken in by Lady Susan’s undeniable beauty and charming manners, Catherine rarely wavers in her opinion of her as a manipulative schemer and an uncaring mother. Maternal Catherine is determined that Frederica must be saved from her mother’s manipulations, but the rules of society preclude any open hostility between the two women. The only time Lady Susan drops her bewitching guard is in her letters to her dear friend, Mrs Johnson, a woman unfortunately married to an older, inconveniently respectable husband, a situation Lady Susan deplores…

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

A comedy of manners in which Austen spares no character from being a target for her sharply observational wit, this is of course much slighter than her major novels, with far less room for in-depth characterisation and a simple plot that moves quickly towards an end that is relatively obvious from an early stage. While the epistolary style adds to the fun, especially in Lady Susan’s letters to her friend when her true personality is revealed, it’s also limiting in that there’s not much room for description or for commentary on the wider society of the time. On the other hand, this makes it deliciously short, so that it can be gulped down and enjoyed in one sitting.

Part of me would have loved to have seen Austen develop these characters more deeply in a full-length novel, but I’m not sure the slight story could have borne the weight. As it stands, it feels like the perfect length for the story it tells. And Lady Susan deserves to take her place alongside some of the other major victims of Austen’s lethally wicked pen – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet, the Eltons, et al. Pure pleasure!

Book 9 of 20

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The Classics Club Spin #24

Rien ne va plus…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 24th Spin, and my 10th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 9th August. 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 September, 2020.

I missed the last spin because it all happened very quickly so I’m delighted we have more time both for posting our lists and planning our reading this time! I’m getting close to the last twenty on my list now, so my spin choices are more or less determined by what’s left. I already have several of the chunkier ones on my reading list for the next few months and can easily swap the order around, so for once I’m not too bothered about hoping for a short one!

* * * * *

1) Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

2) The American by Henry James

3) My Antonia by Willa Cather

4) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

5) The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

6) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

7) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

8) Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill

9) The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

10) No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long

11) Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

12) The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

13) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

14) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

15) Way Station by Clifford D Simak

16) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

17) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

18) The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

19) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

20) Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

* * * * * * *

Which one would you like to see win?

The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

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In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

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Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

John Singer shares his life with his one friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. They are both deaf mutes and, while Singer can lip read, only Antonapolous understands his sign language. With all other people, Singer can only communicate by writing short messages on slips of paper. So when Antonapolous is committed to an asylum, Singer is left profoundly alone. He moves from the small apartment the two men had shared to a boarding house and takes all his meals at a local café, and gradually he attracts to him a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.

Biff Brannon owns the cafe along with his wife, Alice. Lonely in his unsatisfactory marriage and childless, Biff watches the people who frequent the cafe and offers a kind of rough kindness to some of the misfits who happen along. Jake Blount is one such misfit – a drunk with Communist leanings who longs to meet others who share his politics. Mick Kelly is the daughter of the owners of Singer’s boarding house, a young girl whose life is circumscribed by the poverty of her circumstances, but who secretly longs to write music. And lastly of Singer’s little group of disciples is Doctor Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who has devoted his life to leading his people out of ignorance but has failed, even with his own family from whom he is now mostly estranged. Each sees in Singer someone who seems to understand them and gives them the courage to face the obstacles in their lives. But Singer, though he listens, cannot speak and lives for the rare occasions when he can take a break from work and visit his friend Antonapolous, where he frantically pours out all his pent-up thoughts through sign, to a man who seems neither to understand nor care.

Nothing had really changed. The strike that was talked about never came off because they could not get together. All was the same as before. Even on the coldest nights the Sunny Dixie Show was open. The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

For me, the stories of Biff and Jake didn’t work quite so well, though each had some points of interest. But Dr Copeland’s story is very well done, highlighting the poverty and cruel injustice experienced by black people, and the gulf between his ambition and the reality of what he could achieve within a system rigged against him. His character is also an excellent study of a man who is respected and even loved by the people he serves and leads in his wider community, but who fails utterly in his domestic life, taking his disappointments and frustrations out on his wife and children; a man so consumed with the desire to improve humanity that he fails to understand and connect with the individual needs of the humans around him.

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Mick is a wonderful character and the one who gives a small glimmer of hope amid the general bleakness. McCullers’ description of her sneaking around to listen to music through the open windows of those wealthy enough to own radios and record players shows the real disparity in this society where even the simplest cultural opportunities are available to only a fortunate few. Mick’s efforts to teach herself first to play piano and then to find a way to write down the music she hears inside her are beautifully written. Although the desperate poverty of her family means that her education has to give way to the need to earn money, there is the feeling that maybe she will somehow find a way to lead a more fulfilling life in time.

Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

And Singer himself, for much of the book a silent background against which the stories of the others are played out, gradually becomes more vivid as the true loneliness of his life is shown – a loneliness caused, in his case, by physical rather than emotional barriers. Seemingly stable, holding down a job and surrounded by people who read into the blankness of him whatever they need and lack and then value him for that, he just wants that simple thing they see in him – a willing listener, someone who seems to understand.

He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands always stuffed down into his pockets. His grey eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful. He was always glad to stop with anyone who wished his company. For after all he was only walking and going nowhere.

Carson McCullers

While the premise is a stretch, with Singer’s deaf-mutism a rather contrived vehicle to bring this disparate group together, and while some of the stories work better than others, overall this is a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status.

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Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

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Amina is the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, married to him before she was fourteen. Now with her own children approaching adulthood, Amina prides herself on her docility and spends her life trying to be a perfect wife to Ahmad, a bullying husband and tyrannical father. This is the story of Amina and Ahmad and their five children, set to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt.

First published in 1956, it’s a historical novel, the first in Mahfouz’ Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, describing a way of life that was already changing then and now seems positively archaic in its attitudes regarding the place of women and paternalistic power over children, even for a region that still has a very different cultural approach to these things than the West. It’s written in the third person, but the perspective shifts between the various family members so that we come to understand the inner thoughts and feelings of each. It’s remarkably unjudgemental – I can’t remember another book where I felt such a complete lack of the author’s personal views coming through. Mahfouz tells and shows every aspect of the society the characters operate in – the middle-class of Cairo, educated, prosperous but not rich, strictly traditional; but he leaves all evaluation of the characters to the reader. It took me quite a while to get used to this – I wanted anger against Ahmad and sympathy for his wife and children, but gradually I came to appreciate Mahfouz’ neutrality; it’s as if he’s saying, this is how it was, I merely show it to you with no modern interpretation to obscure it.

This is a family saga, the story concentrating mostly on the development of the characters of the children as they approach adulthood and the all-important question of marriage. Ahmad is old-fashioned even in his own time, and exerts strict control not only over his daughters but his sons too, determined that they will marry as he directs, for the honour and enrichment of the family. Happiness is something Ahmad doesn’t consider – his daughters should be docile enough to be happy with any man he chooses for them, and if his sons don’t like their wives, they can simply follow his example and lead most of their lives pursuing one exotic mistress after another. If the wife objects, then the matter is simply solved by the husband’s unilateral declaration of divorce and returning the obstreperous wife to her unwilling family. In Ahmad’s mind, and his society appears largely to agree with him (even the women), women neither have nor deserve any rights. This is not to say he doesn’t love his wife and daughters – he does, so long as they fulfil their duty of obedience to him.

Amina has two daughters, and has brought them up to see the life she has led as the desired and only possible life for a respectable woman. Marriage is essential – an unmarried woman serves no purpose in life and is merely a financial drain on her relatives. It is the fathers who arrange the marriage, or occasionally a mother if she is a widow and financially independent. Girls are selected primarily for their family connections, but beauty and feminine talents like housework and singing are important too. Aisha is the younger and prettier daughter and doesn’t lack suitors, but Ahmad is determined that his older, rather unattractive-looking daughter, Khadija, should marry first. When one of them is finally chosen, we see the mix of pride and fear of a girl making a good match, but to a husband she has never met. She will be removed from a home where the only men she has been allowed to meet are her father and brothers, and where her father has controlled every aspect of her life, to the home of a husband who will now become effectively her owner. Mahfouz does a wonderful job of showing all this from the female perspective – I never had that feeling of wrongness that sometimes comes through when an author of one gender writes from the perspective of the other. Mahfouz also shows through the daughters’ marriages that things are beginning to change – both girls find a little more freedom in their new homes than their old.

The sons, while still under strict control of their father, go out into the world, first to school and university and then into jobs. The youngest son is still a schoolboy in this first book of the trilogy, so although he plays his part, it’s relatively minor. The oldest son, Yasin, from Ahmad’s first marriage, struggles with the shame he feels is brought on him by his mother’s failure to be submissive enough to keep her husband. He is a chip off the old block – a womaniser with a penchant for exotic mistresses, and no interest in much beyond his own pleasure. The middle boy, Fahmy, gets involved with the Nationalist movement at university, so it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of the political situation. It’s a fairly understated glimpse though – I think Mahfouz probably assumed his readership would know the history of Egypt’s struggle for independence, so he doesn’t go into it in any great detail, using it instead to show its impact on the people we’ve come to know, especially Fahmy.

Naguib Mahfouz

It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. Generational brainwashing, of course, but then aren’t we all subject to that? Mahfouz left me reflecting uneasily that we too are brainwashed – that we see our Western values as better simply because our mothers and our society teach us to, and most of us individually never question that nor dispute it for fear of being ostracised. I felt it was the power of Mahfouz’ neutrality that in the end made it impossible for me to judge this society as harshly as I was ready to do when I began. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade. I look forward to reading the other two volumes in the trilogy.

Apologies for the length of the review but, in my defence, it’s a long book!

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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

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The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

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

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

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One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

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The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

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In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

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If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

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

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