The Classics Club is holding its 28th Spin, and my 11th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 17th October. 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 12th December, 2021.
I missed the last few spins partly because of my general slumpiness over the last year and partly because recently they’ve seemed more like speed-reading events with very short deadlines, which is not how I like to read classics. Happily this one gives a full two-month timescale which is much more to my preference. I only have ten books left on my first list now and am hoping to read at least five of them before the year ends so I should theoretically be able to fit in whichever the spin picks quite easily – unless it lands on the lurking monster I’ve been evading for the last five years! So no doubt that’ll be the one… 😉
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1) and 11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
2) and 12) The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw
3) and 13) Rabbit, Run by John Updike
4) and 14) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
5) and 15) Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill
6) and 16) No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long
7) and 17) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
8) and 18) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
9) and 19) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.
When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.
Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.
I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…
There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.
The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.
I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!
However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.
Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…
One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.
When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.
I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.
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The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.
She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).
The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
When the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.
It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.
Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.
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Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.
….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength. ….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.
Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.
Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.
I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!
When solicitor Noel Strachan makes a will for an elderly client, it seems straightforward – the client’s nephew will inherit all his money. But the war intervenes and, like so many young men, the nephew dies. So when the client also dies a couple of years after the war, the money goes to his niece, Jean Paget, but with a clause that makes Strachan her trustee until she is thirty-five. This brings the two together, and elderly Strachan develops a sentimental attachment to young Jean. Over the next few years, they write long letters to each other, and it’s from these that Strachan is now telling us Jean’s story.
When the war broke out, Jean was working as a typist in colonial Malaya and, along with a group of other English people, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men were promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp. The women and children were not so lucky. Marched for hundreds of miles around Malaya while the Japanese tried to find somewhere to leave them, illness and exhaustion was too much for some of them. The hardier ones eventually found themselves a kind of refuge in a small village where they waited out the war. Now that Jean has come into some money, she wants to pay the villagers back for their kindness, and so starts her new journey, first to Malaya and then all the way to Willstown, an old mining town in the outback of Australia, where she finds a new challenge on which to turn her resourceful nature.
What a great storyteller Shute is! His style is oddly plain – no great poetic flourishes or literary tricks. But he brings a whole range of characters to life: the rather lonely widower Strachan, the women and their captors in Malaya, the people in the Australian outback and, of course, Jean herself. He doesn’t fill the pages with descriptions of their emotional inner life – he simply tells the often horrific story of the women’s march and leaves the reader to do the work with her own imagination. It’s far more effective than if every emotional twinge was handed to the reader on a plate. It leaves space for each reader to imagine how she would have coped – would she have survived?
For me, the Malayan section is quite a bit stronger than the Australian section, because of the sense of danger and uncertainty and the picture of the cruelty so many prisoners suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The Australian section has a more domestic feel – not a bad thing, simply less to my taste. However, we are given a great depiction of the primitive style of life in these isolated towns at that time, cut off from their neighbours by the huge distances of Australia, so unfamiliar to those of us on this crowded little island of Great Britain. Jean finds that girls don’t stay in Willstown – there’s no work for them and no form of entertainment. They’re not even allowed to go into the one bar in town – strictly men only. So they leave for the cities as soon as they’re old enough, and that makes it hard to keep single men on the cattle ranches too. Jean decides that somehow she must make Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, with enough opportunities for work and fun to keep young people around.
I’ll be honest – at this stage I began to find Jean intensely irritating. She seems to be the only one in town who ever has an idea, or is capable of making a plan. Everyone else, men and women alike, mostly stand around either doubting her or gasping in amazement at her ingenuity. But fortunately there had been enough before that stage to prevent this section from dragging the book too far down, and I liked the other characters, especially Strachan. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Jean too, I just wanted to roll my eyes at her every now and again when she came up with a new cunning plan. But I loved learning all about the cattle ranching, and the way the isolated homesteads kept in touch by radio, and the sense of community that exists even across the huge distances between the ranches, with neighbours pitching in to help out in a crisis.
I was considerably less tickled by the constant racism that infests the book, both in Malaya and Australia, and the fact that Shute clearly held these attitudes himself. But it was standard for the time, so I was able to overlook it for the most part. I could imagine it might be harder to overlook if you were an Australian Aboriginal person being forced to read this in school, though – I wondered if it’s on the curriculum. I also wondered if Australians were OK with the idea that a young woman from England needed to solve all the problems they were clearly incapable of solving for themselves. But then I told myself to shut up and stop over-analysing, and just enjoy the story, which I did!
Robin Bailey’s narration is great. He has the perfect accent for Strachan – that very proper English post-war voice that we’re all so used to from films of the era. But he also does what sounds to me like a very good Australian accent, and he reads the book as if he’s totally involved in Jean’s story himself, just like Strachan is.
Rose recommended this one to me after I’d enjoyed On the Beach, and I’m very glad she did. An excellent read or listen, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shute’s work – I think I can now count myself as a fan!
As a young man, Enoch Wallace fought at Gettysburg. When the war was over, he returned to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, soon finding himself alone there after the death of his father. One day, he met a stranger who put a strange proposition to him. Ulysses, as Enoch named him, was a being from another world, a representative of the Galactic Council, who wanted to set up a way station on Earth for intergalactic travellers wishing to explore this remote sector of the galaxy. Ulysses had chosen Enoch to be in charge of the way station because of his interest in the stars and his readiness to accept new ideas. Enoch accepted, and now, nearly a hundred years later, Enoch is still running the way station, and he’s still a young man. It is his seemingly eternal youthfulness that has at last attracted the interest of US Intelligence…
First published in 1963, this, like much of the science fiction of the Cold War era, is steeped in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The world is on the brink of another war, about to hold a last-ditch Peace Conference that no one expects to succeed. Enoch longs for Earth to be able to join the Galactic Confraternity because he has glimpsed some of the wonders out there and wants his fellow humans to be able to access the accumulated knowledge of a myriad of civilisations. But he knows that war will destroy the chance of that – only worlds that have moved beyond constant wars are invited in.
Enoch lives a solitary life on the farm. When he is inside the station – which used to be the family home and still looks that way to the outside world – he doesn’t age, but outside he does, so he restricts his outings to an hour a day, and his only real contact is with the mailman who brings him whatever he needs in the way of supplies. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated community, who keep themselves to themselves, so his apparent non-ageing is quietly ignored by his neighbours. But when an incident brings him into conflict with one of those neighbours, his anonymity is threatened. And on top of this, something has happened on Earth that has offended an alien race and the Galactic Council are threatening to withdraw from the sector. Enoch must decide whether to stay with humanity, and age and die, or leave Earth forever.
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This starts out slowly with a lot of information about the way station and Enoch’s life, all of which is interesting and much of it highly imaginative. After a bit, though, I began to long for the appearance of a plot, and happily it turned up just before I lost patience. As we get to know more about the Galactic Confraternity, we see that it isn’t quite as perfect as Enoch had thought – things are beginning to go wrong, and just like on Earth there are squabbles and power struggles arising within it.
The writing is excellent and the characterisation of Enoch is considerably more complex than is often the case in science fiction of this period. The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think! Although Enoch often has alien company, we see his desire for human contact too, and the impossibility of this without endangering his secret. As the plot progresses, it develops a kind of mystical, new-age aspect – an odd mix of the spiritual with the technological, and a hint of supernatural thrown in for good measure, but although that makes it sound messy, it all works together well. The ending is too neat, but the journey there is thought-provoking in more ways than one. The book won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel – well deserved, in my opinion.
Orphaned at the age of 20, Flora Poste discovers her father was not the rich man the world thought. Once his debts are paid off, Flora only has an income of £100 a year. Her friend suggests she should take some kind of training and get a job, but the idea of this holds no appeal for Flora. So instead she writes to all her relations, most of whom she has never met, asking if she can come and live with them. All respond, and remarkably each of them offers her a home, though none of the homes sound terribly appealing to Flora. But the letter from her cousin Judith Starkadder intrigues her – the address, Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, conjures visions in itself, and Judith’s vague hints of some kind of dark deed having being done to Flora’s father for which the Starkadders owe atonement is too tempting. So off she sets to meet the huge extended family of Starkadders who live on the farm…
At first I feared this was going to be one of those many books that infest English literature where the sophisticated, upper-class, urbanite author mocks the unintelligent, uneducated and uncouth rustic yokels. But it quickly reveals that in fact it’s parodying just that kind of novel, and also the novels then in vogue showing the reverse – the kind of noble savage of the modernists, where those rustics are born with an innate honour and a stolid kind of decency as opposed to the sophisticate’s shallow decadence. Frankly, if I were DH Lawrence, I’d have sued her! (If I hadn’t been dead at the time, obviously.)
Flora is not decadent – she’s far too well brought up for that. She is however supremely self-confident in her ability to sort people’s lives out for them, and the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm offer her plenty of opportunities to indulge her passion for turning messiness into order. There’s brooding Seth, shirt unbuttoned half-way down his chest to reveal bulging muscles and an ultra-masculine lustiness irresistible to all women (except Flora). Reuben, obsessive about improving the farm, but thwarted at every turn by his father and brother. Amos, the father, who is a terrible farmer, devotes his free time to hellfire preaching in the local town. Young Elfine, wild as a woodland sprite, struggling to win the man she loves. Old Mrs Starkadder, living her life in her room, haunted by the memory of when she was two and saw “something narsty in the woodshed”, is a kind of matriarchal tyrant, refusing to allow any of the younger family members to leave the farm and make different lives for themselves. Even the farm animals merit Flora’s reforming zeal, as she is determined that the bull be allowed out of the barn where he seems to spend his entire life.
There is a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. DH Lawrence, I felt, was never far from her thoughts – all that intensely brooding animal sexuality and profound angst. But Thomas Hardy is surely in there too, with his somewhat idealised but simple rural characters. I’m not well read or analytical enough to catch all the references, and there might be a tendency to start creating links that don’t exist – for instance, when Flora meets the hot weather by donning her green linen suit, I couldn’t help wondering if Ted Burgess from The Go-Between might have played his part in influencing Seth’s character. Wikipedia informs me that the main influences are apparently two authors I haven’t read, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb – I’ll take their word for it, although to me it’s so DH Lawrence that I can’t imagine he wasn’t one of her major influences too. Gibbons also occasionally veers outside her own remit of literature to take a pop at her modern world, and these bits are very enjoyable, such as when we meet a Hollywood producer and hear his opinion on the qualities required in a romantic male movie-star.
Despite all the good things it has going for it, it also has some weaknesses that stopped me from whole-heartedly loving it. There are so many characters I was still struggling to remember who was who well into the later stages, except for the three or four main characters. It gets a little repetitive – the joke begins to wear thin after a while and there’s a lot of repetition, for example, of the references to “something narsty in the woodshed”. There are things that I simply didn’t get – possibly my fault, possibly they are referencing some book I haven’t read and would have been hilarious if I had. For instance, the various cows around the farm keep losing legs or horns with no explanation – this baffled rather than amusing me. And, while I kept reminding myself it was humour and not to be taken too seriously, I found Flora’s solutions to various people’s problems probably made her happier than the characters whose lives she was supposedly improving.
Overall, though, the good certainly outweighs the less good parts of it. An enjoyable read for anyone who has dipped their toes into early 20th century English literature, and I’m sure would be even more entertaining for people who are widely read in it.
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This was a People’s Choice winner, and hurrah, you picked a good one! You’re definitely getting better at this, People! 😀
Despite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.
Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.
There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.
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The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)
Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)
Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…
Cluny Brown is extremely plain, except to the many men who think she’s beautiful. She does scandalous things like going for tea at the Ritz, so her uncle who doesn’t seem to like her much (and incidentally hasn’t spotted her beauty) sends her off to be trained as a parlour-maid at the Devonshire home of Lady Carmel. There, several men will fall in love with several women, there will be mild misunderstandings and mild jealousies, and then they will all sort themselves into perfect partnerships and live happily ever after. As will I, now that this one can be cheerfully despatched to the charity shop…
I realise this book is beloved by all and even sundry, but I fear its charm largely escaped me. Cluny manages to be both underdeveloped and unrealistic, which is quite a feat when you think about it. Perhaps Sharp genuinely had no idea about the working-class – she certainly gives me that impression – but an editor could surely have told her that by 1938 aggrieved uncles weren’t actually able to force reluctant twenty-year-old nieces into service against their will. Nor are all working-class people fundamentally stupid, although that’s how they’re portrayed in this book. Sharp reminds us of Cluny’s basic stupidity on a regular basis, unnecessarily since she never has a thought worth thinking or expresses an opinion worth expressing. Her eventual rebellious metamorphosis is ludicrous, since up to that point the most rebellious thing she had ever done was to eat oranges in bed. She seems perfectly willing to go off with any man who promises to let her keep a puppy – one felt she could have got a job, a flat and a puppy all on her own, and foregone the dubious pleasure of having to put up with any of these tedious men.
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For tedious they are! There’s working class therefore stupid Uncle Arn, he who can’t cope with the idea that his niece might be attractive to men so gets rid of her so he can sit in the evenings staring happily at his wall – one imagines his mouth hanging open and his mind echoing emptily as he does so. Sir Henry Carmel, stereotypical Little Englander member of the declining gentry, is also stupid now I think about it – Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that. Mr Wilson, the chemist, attracted to Cluny because she looks at him adoringly, rather like that puppy she so longs for, and apparently happy to marry a woman whom he considers to be his inferior, socially, culturally and intellectually, presumably because he wants submissive admiration rather than any kind of equal partnership in life. One is supposed to like him, I think. Belinski, the Polish writer who comes to stay at the house, has more comic potential and actually provides the glimmerings of a plot in the early stages, as it appears he has got into the bad books of the Nazis and may be in danger. But no, turns out it’s all been a misunderstanding, and really he’s just a mediocre writer and marginally more successful womaniser.
Andrew, the son of the house, is somewhat better as a character, being given a little more complexity and letting us see the gentry coming to terms with the approaching war. His mother, Lady Carmel, is also quite well drawn – outwardly she seems to be rather vague and wispy, but in fact she’s more perceptive than all the rest, and guides her useless menfolk with a good deal of charm. Beautiful Betty, love interest of many, is fun, and her development from immature social butterfly to poised society woman is much better done than poor Cluny’s unlikely coming-of-age story. I won’t mention the other servants, since quite frankly Wodehouse gives his domestics more depth and realism.
Nope, not for me. I’m not much of a fan of rom-coms in general, and even less so when the com bit gets missed out, leaving little except dull meanderings through a largely unrealistic depiction of pre-war life.
Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…
This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.
(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)
Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.
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The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.
Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.
(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)
Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.
I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.
(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)
However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!
I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!
Jack Burden, our narrator, tells the story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South. Along the way we learn about Jack’s life too, and how he came to be Stark’s most loyal lieutenant. And we see played out in detail the corruption at the heart of politics – how a man who starts out full of good intention and moral purpose cuts a little corner here, exerts a little pressure there, sucks up to the rich, all initially to achieve his pet projects for the benefit of his constituents; until suddenly he finds he has become the kind of crooked, manipulative, self-justifying politician he once despised and intended to destroy. It’s a marvellously American story, especially when read at a time when all the worst of American politics is out there unashamedly displaying its stinking underbelly of moral corruption to the world. But of course the themes resonate for those of us who live in other democracies, since all share the same fundamental weakness – that those who stand for office are as fallible and flawed as everyone else.
Jack starts his story by taking us back in time to three years’ earlier, in 1936, to a day when Willie and his entourage visit his father in the house where Willie grew up. The main purpose of the visit is a photo op, to show how Willie is still rooted in the community from which he sprang years before. It’s a wonderful portrait of political hypocrisy. Stark is a hard man, but a politician to his toes, able to turn on his man of the people act at will. The old house, fully modernised on the inside, has been left carefully untouched on the outside so folks wouldn’t think Willie was putting on airs. We begin to see Jack as a thinking man, philosophical, cynical and rather defeated – why has he ended up as Stark’s minion? It is on this trip that Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, a man who stands between Stark and his desire to become Senator for the state. Judge Irwin is inflexibly moral, crossing the line towards moral righteousness. But in this noir view of American politics, if you dig hard enough into anyone’s past, there’s almost certain to be something to find…
Then I was traveling through New Mexico, which is a land of total and magnificent emptiness with a little white filling station flung down on the sand like a sun-bleached cow skull by the trail, with far to the north a valiant remnant of the heroes of the Battle of Montmartre in a last bivouac wearing huaraches and hammered silver and trying to strike up conversations with Hopis on street corners. Then Arizona, which is grandeur and the slow incredulous stare of sheep, until you hit the Mojave. You cross the Mojave at night and even at night your breath rasps your gullet as though you were a sword swallower who had got hold of a hack-saw blade by mistake, and in the darkness the hunched rock and towering cactus loom at you with the shapes of a visceral, Freudian nightmare.
The writing is excellent, stylised, intensely American, almost stream of consciousness at some points, and full of long, unique descriptions and metaphors. The chapters are long, almost novella-length, and to a degree contain separate stories within the main story. So, for example, we will go back in time to learn about how Jack and Willie met, when Jack was a young journalist covering Willie’s first failed run for Governor. We’ll see how the already cynical Jack found himself fascinated by the naive idealism of Willie, and that allows us to understand how, through all the years and despite all the corruption, Jack still sees Willie as a man who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his people. Or we’ll learn about Jack’s relationship with his four-times-married mother, still beautiful and rich, and Jack’s love for her, mingled with his resentment at all she stands for. Or we’ll go back to the time when Jack was in love with Anne Stanton, and learn how that has affected him throughout his life.
There are really no weak points to the book as far as I’m concerned, but the chapter that tells the story of Jack’s great-uncle Cass Mastern stands out as a particularly brilliant piece of writing, worthy on its own of the Pulitzer the novel won. Cass and his brother were on the side of the Confederacy in the civil war, but where Gilbert, the elder brother, is a conscienceless slave-owner, driven by his desire for wealth and power, Cass is a man who may be flawed in more ways than one, but has a strong moral compass. Jack researched their stories for his college dissertation and it was as he came to understand them that he began to wonder who he himself is, and the fear that he is more like Gilbert than Cass haunts him. In a way, the chapter is a diversion from the main story, but in another way, it’s the heart of the book, allowing us to understand Jack’s introspectiveness and self-doubt, and why he finds Willie, a man of supreme self-belief, strangely appealing.
After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity . . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn’t the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.
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And Willie is an oddly sympathetic character to the reader too, despite his brutality, his womanising, his corruption. Like Jack, we see a man who might line his own pockets, who might give and take bribes, who might blackmail and threaten opponents, but we also see that he genuinely wants to improve life for those at the bottom – give them the hospital and schools they deserve. Perhaps he’s motivated by the narcissistic desire to be the great working-class hero, adored and revered, but at least he started out meaning to do good. But somewhere along the way he forgot the need to cajole and explain and persuade, as his growing power enabled him to achieve his ends quicker through bullying and force. And once you’ve used and abused everyone, including your family, who is there left that you can trust?
Truly a brilliant book which, although it has a lot to say about the political system, isn’t fundamentally about politics. It’s about how we are made and re-made throughout our lives, changed by our own choices and by the events that happen around us. Jack’s view of life is dark, almost nihilistic, in that ultimately all effort is meaningless – men may have free will, but their choices will always lead them into a downward spiral towards defeat. As a reader, a step removed from Jack’s involvement, it is yet another reminder of the truth that power corrupts, and that those who seek to rule us are usually the least fit to do so because of the very hubris that makes them want to. The paradox of democracy. This one gets my highest recommendation.
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Yes, the corruption which has always mired American democracy is brilliantly dissected, and the theme is as relevant today as it was at the time of writing. So – achieved.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Hmm, the question of power corrupting is age-old, but the noir approach to the story, with no heroes to put in opposition to Stark’s growing villainy, makes it feel fresh and original. Plus, I really want it to win, so…achieved.
Must be superbly written.
Superb to the point where at some points it left me breathless, full of power and imagery, and deep insight into the motivations and humanity of the minor as well as the major characters. Achieved.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
Geographically and in terms of the subject matter the answer might seem to be no, but the theme of corruption has always run deep through the American political system and forms a fundamental part of what makes America uniquely American – a society which values democracy and yet is utterly tribal in its loyalties even when its leaders flaunt their flaws in its face; a society whose American Dream too often veers towards nightmare. So I’m going to say yes, achieved.
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So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my third…
PS Apologies for disappearing so abruptly – my reading and writing slump have now reached epic proportions so I suspect I’ll be an irregular blogger for the foreseeable future. Hope you’re all staying well!
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
Book 68 of 90 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.