Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Greene

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

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carson McCullers

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

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Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Naguib Mahfouz

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

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

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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

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

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Conrad

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

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

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I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

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

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

Dolly playing hard to get…

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

The Maypole Inn

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

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

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Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

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

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The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

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Something to Answer For by PH Newby

The first Booker winner…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.

At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…

Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)

The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.

PH Newby

So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.

Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

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The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

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The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

Man is born to misery…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In the small town of Barbie in the east of Scotland, John Gourlay is a big man. His business has the monopoly on carrying goods in and out of the town and he uses the power this gives him over his neighbours to bully and lord it over them. The money he makes he ploughs into the house of the title, determined to show himself off as the town’s leading resident. But he’s not an intelligent man, and when changes begin to arrive in the shape of first a wily competitor and then the new railroad, he hasn’t the capacity to adapt. The townspeople, long tired of his bullying ways, look on like a gleeful Greek chorus as his business begins to fail. His one hope rests in his son, also John, a lazy, feckless boy who has always assumed that one day he will take over the business and become in his turn the big man of the town. Now Gourlay insists that young John go to the University in Edinburgh, to learn to be a minister. But there, young John will soon get into bad company and discover the delights of the demon drink…

Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won. There is not a single glimmer of light in this utterly depressing monotone picture of how horrible humanity is. There is some humour, but all in the sense of us laughing at them, never with them. But mostly it’s a portrayal of people being small-minded, petty, cruel, bullying and vindictive. I searched the pages in the hopes of finding a character with any positive qualities at all, but I searched in vain. And starting miserable, it goes downhill from there, descending finally into a kind of orgy of alcoholism, madness and tragedy. Although the tragedy aspect didn’t really work, because by that stage I couldn’t have cared less what happened to any of these hideous people.

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Looking hard for the positives, the language, a mix of standard English with a liberal dose of Scots mixed in, is very well done. As an antiquated Scot I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but it might be a tougher read for people without a familiarity with the older Scots dialects. There are some wonderful descriptive passages of the town and country, and the characters are very well drawn and unfortunately quite believable, though there is a sneering quality to the writing of them that left me feeling that Brown probably had an over-healthy sense of his own superiority. The humour is mainly aimed at the mean-mindedness of the characters, and is therefore both amusing and off-putting at the same time. The darker aspects have a great sense of inevitability about them – a fatalism brought about by the heavily patriarchal culture, where the man may rule with as heavy a hand as he chooses. Alcohol is shown as the deeply destructive force it indeed has long been in Scottish culture, and still is, though I think to a somewhat lesser degree these days.

George Douglas Brown

But what is missing is any contrast or warmth. Even in hard-drinking Scotland, not all men were horrible to their wives and children, nor to each other. I understand that Brown was writing this, in 1901, as a realist reaction to the excessive sentimentality of the portrayal of Scottish village life in the earlier Scottish literary movement known as the Kailyard school, but I feel he’s gone way too far in the other direction. While I do recognise the character traits, cruelty and mean-spiritedness he shows as being an accurate depiction of the worst of Scottish culture, it is not the whole of it, and by giving nothing to contrast with it, Brown ultimately fails to make his town any more convincing than the twee villages of the writers he’s reacting against.

While critics hail this as one of the greatest Scottish classics, the reaction of those readers who have rated it on Goodreads seems to suggest that the majority don’t agree, and I’m with the majority on this one. I admire the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about one aspect of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. However, if you’re ever feeling too happy and feel the need to be reminded that man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears, I recommend it.

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The Go-Between by LP Hartley

The past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston is invited by his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend a few weeks with Marcus’ family at Brandham Hall. Many years later, in 1952, Leo comes across his diary of this year, and as he reads it, he gradually begins to remember the events of that summer, memories that his mind has suppressed throughout all the intervening time. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream.

Leo is twelve when the story begins, with the complete ignorance of all matters relating to sex which was commonplace for children in those days. His interior world, beautifully brought to life, is one where adults are mysterious beings who don’t seem to act in accordance with the unbreakable codes of the public schoolboy. The adults at Brandham, so far above middle-class Leo in social standing, so confident in their superiority, seem to him god-like, and he compares them to the images of the zodiac which are printed in his diary. So when Marian, the daughter of the house, chooses Leo to be her postman, carrying secret messages to a neighbouring farmer, Ted Burgess, he feels honoured. He is old enough to be enthralled by Marian’s beauty and capricious behaviour, but young enough not to recognise his feelings as sexual. She is a goddess, he her willing worshipper and slave. To serve her, to gain her recognition, is all he desires – and to avoid her wrath.

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His feelings about Ted are more complicated. Even Leo’s lowly class is higher than that of a mere farmer and so Leo can feel socially superior, condescending even, but Ted has an overpowering physical masculinity that elevates him too to god status in the fatherless Leo’s eyes.

Believing himself to be unseen by other bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well as it might. I, whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own beauty and strength? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?

To play Mercury to these superior beings is at first a delight to Leo but, as the summer wears on, gradually he becomes uncomfortable, vaguely realising that somehow – he’s not sure how – Marian and Ted are transgressing sacrosanct codes of behaviour which he is becoming aware of without fully understanding. In this society where adults and children inhabit separate worlds, there is no one whom he can consult, and so he must try to find his own way through the moral maze in which he finds himself, and must somehow save his gods and goddesses from the path of self-destruction he begins to believe they’re on.

The writing is beautiful with every word perfectly placed, and emotional truth pours from every page. There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged. The role of women as pawns in the marriage game is shown clearly through Marian, brought up to do her duty by making a socially advantageous match regardless of personal inclination. The ambiguity around Marian is brilliantly portrayed – she is victim of her class and gender, but she can also be cold and cruel, a harsh goddess who brooks no dissent. Is it possible to break the heart of someone so utterly selfish? Or does she exist simply to break the hearts of her adoring subjects? As a person, I’m ambivalent about her; as a character, she is a wonderful, unforgettable creation.

Still, whose fault was it? ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault,’ Lord Trimingham had said, thereby ruling Marian out, and I was glad, for now I had no wish to inculpate her. He had not said, ‘Nothing is ever a lord’s fault,’ but no one could hold him to blame: he had done nothing that he shouldn’t: I was clear about that. Nor had he said, ‘Nothing is ever a farmer’s fault,’ and lacking the benefit of this saving clause the fault, if fault there were, must lie with Ted. Ted had enticed Marian into his parlour, his kitchen, and bewitched her. He had cast a spell on her. That spell I would now break – as much for his sake as for hers.

LP Hartley

Behind the story of these characters is the darker story of a century that started in war and became a long horror of loss. Hugh, the man whom Marian is expected to marry, has been badly scarred in the Boer War but still believes that it is the duty of every patriotic Englishman to fight for his country. He is the 9th Viscount Trimingham, a title that thrills young Leo, elevating Hugh too to his triumvirate of deities. For Leo, the idea of the new century excites him – a blank page on which he expects glories and wonders to be written. In this summer of 1900 the rare event of a long heatwave descends on England, seeming to Leo to signify the beginning of this new golden age, and he becomes obsessed by the daily temperatures, longing for new records to be broken. The unrelenting heat gives a kind of mystical air to the summer, as of a long pause when normal rules don’t apply. But when the dazzling summer darkens to tragedy, Leo loses not just his innocence but his optimism. The end of the summer heralds the end of hope for the century, and this small personal tragedy seems to presage the much greater tragedies that were soon to follow on an unprecedented scale.

A wonderful book which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago. If you’ve never read it, give your soul a treat and do so now…

* * * * *

Because we all had this on our Classics Club spin a couple of months ago and it didn’t come up, Rose and Sandra and I all decided we’d read it anyway (we’re such rebels!) and review it on the same day – Wednesday! Unfortunately the internet gods had different plans and blew up my system again on Tuesday. Now with a new router and a promise or threat that if it goes down again they will have to do “extensive work”, whatever that means, so fingers crossed. Apologies to anyone who was concerned at my sudden disappearance, and especially to Sandra and Rose! As the poet Burns would say, the best laid plans of mice and bloggers gang aft agley…

Anyway, links below to their reviews, which I haven’t yet read but can’t wait to! I’m hoping my non-blogging blog buddy Alyson may have read it with us too, and will add her views on it in the comments below… and anyone else, of course! I should warn you, if anyone says they hated it I fully intend to splat them with a giant custard pie… 😀

Rose’s review             Sandra’s review

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The New Road by Neil Munro

Highland adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…

This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.

Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.

First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich
by William Aikman

….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade.
….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian.
….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country.
….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?”
….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.”
….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”

In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.

….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes.
….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”

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I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

On the wrong side of history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Okonkwo is determined not to be like his drunken, feckless father. Through hard work, he gains an honoured place in his Ibo village as a yam grower with three wives and several children. As we follow what happens to him, we will learn about the ways and traditions of his people, and of how the coming of the white man changed them irrevocably.

If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man say yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?

I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.

Chinua Achebe

The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.

Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans…)

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck

What a glorious feeling…

😐 😐

The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly.

By the time Cyrus was released from the hospital and the army, his gonorrhoea was dried up. When he got home to Connecticut there remained only enough of it for his wife.

I give up. In The Grapes of Wrath at least there was some glorious writing amid the misery, but here the writing ranges from mediocre to poor, with some of the most unrealistic dialogue I’ve ever read. The Chinaman who manages to convey all the worst stereotyping while supposedly showing how silly the stereotyping is. The ranchers who sit around discussing the meaning of the Bible, including varying translations of the original Hebrew. The spell-it-out-in-case-you-miss-it religious symbolism laid on with a trowel. The women who are all victims or whores or both. The casual racism. And the misery. The misery. Oh, woe is me, the misery!

First there were Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish. They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime.

Looking at my notes for my first reading session of about fifty pages, I see that one man lost his leg in war, one wife died of suicide after contracting gonorrhoea from her adulterous husband, wife #2 is dying of consumption, one brother beat another to a pulp, and a father has gone off after his son with a shotgun. Admittedly no one could say nothing ever happens, but it’s hardly a barrel of laughs. At this point I was wondering if the rise in use of anti-depressants could be dated to the time when Steinbeck was included on the curricula of schools and colleges.

“Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”
Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

Then there’s the evil woman – you know, the one who destroys good men by tempting them with her nasty womanly sex stuff. Not that I’d call Steinbeck a misogynist, exactly – he really hates all of humanity. But his hatred of men is pretty much all to do with violence and greed while with his women it’s all to do with sex and with their little habit of causing the downfall of men. Not that the women enjoy any of it – by my reckoning at least three of them killed themselves, a couple contracted sexually transmitted diseases, several were beaten up by various men and the solitary “happy” one had a stream of children and spent her entire life in drudgery, cooking and cleaning and then watching her children go off and make a miserable mess of their lives.

The boys exchanged uneasy glances. It was their first experience with the inexorable logic of women, which is overwhelming even, or perhaps especially, when it is wrong. This was new to them, exciting and frightening.

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I do feel sorry for Steinbeck – I assume he must have had a rotten life. But I’ve decided to stop allowing him to strangle my hard won joie de vivre while emptying my half-full glass. I finished this one, and sadly feel that it wasn’t worth the effort – and boy, was it an effort! Into each life some rain must fall, for sure, but Steinbeck is a deluge. I’m putting up my umbrella, and writing Steinbeck off my TBR permanently. And I feel happier already…

There is great safety for a shy man with a whore. Having been paid for, and in advance, she has become a commodity, and a shy man can be gay with her and even brutal to her. Also, there is none of the horror of the possible turndown which shrivels the guts of timid men.

Poor Steinbeck.

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Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The after-shocks of war…

🙂 🙂 🙂

(NB Since this is a review of the second part of a trilogy, it will contain some mild spoilers for the first part, Sunset Song.)

The Great War is over, and with it so is the first phase of Chris Guthrie’s life. Now married to Robert Colquohoun, she goes with him to make a home in the small town of Segget, where he is to take up the position of minister in the Presbyterian church. The book takes us from the end of the war through to the ‘30s, a time frame that includes the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of the two warring philosophies that would rip the European twentieth century apart – fascism and socialism. In Scotland as elsewhere, the horrors of the war have left scars – not just on those people who have lost sons and husbands, but on those who served and came home, some left physically maimed and others injured more insidiously, with what we would now term PTSD but which then was called shell-shock, if it was recognised at all, or was ignored completely. The other casualty of war, Gibbon suggests, was faith. Church attendances are down, even believers are baffled by how a good God could have allowed such atrocities to happen, and people are now willing to defy the Church completely and openly call themselves atheist. It is in this atmosphere that the rather visionary Robert will try to inspire his new flock and Chris will dutifully observe the Church’s practices while making little effort to pretend that she believes in Robert’s God.

This second volume of A Scots Quair is written with considerably more dialect than the first, and so will be a tougher read for non-Scots or younger Scots, though it’s done very well. I might as well start by saying I don’t think it’s anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. I found most of it a drag – a series of anecdotes about the occupants of this small town, who drift in and out in order to help Gibbon make points, rather than his points arising seemingly naturally from their stories. These anecdotes are designed to show their lives, hardships and the state of politics. Some are interesting, some mildly humorous, many are quite crude, and for me they didn’t quite come together to form a quilt – they are more like scraps of material waiting for someone to stitch them together. Almost no-one is good – I don’t mean that they don’t conform to society’s moral codes, although they don’t, but that they don’t seem to love and support each other. We see children who hate and abuse their parents and vice-versa, men who abuse and sometimes rape women, women who are spiteful and vindictive. There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.

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Chris herself is almost entirely passive and is an example of what I mean about Gibbon using his characters. In Sunset Song, Chris had a profound connection to the land she farmed and this was a major part of her personality. Between the books, she has apparently simply given up farming and has willingly gone off to live in a town and become a housewife. Since clearly this is because Gibbon wanted to write about a town this time, it would have been less jarring if he’d left Chris in Kinraddie and given Robert a different wife. A recurring character who changes so completely between books gives a sense of dislocation rather than of continuity. He tries to show that Chris still feels connected to the land by having her going for long solitary walks, but this is no substitute. She also seems to have moved up a class, not just outwardly as one would by marrying a minister at that time, but inwardly, having developed a rather snobbish ability to look down on the townspeople.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Robert is a much more successful character and for me is the heart of the book. Outwardly he seems fine after his war experiences, although he has been left with weakened lungs from exposure to gas attacks. But inwardly, his experiences haunt him increasingly, making his relationship with his God fraught – wavering between loss of faith and visionary ecstasy. He is also torn when he sees the poverty and inequality of society growing ever worse. Politically he is drawn towards the ideas of the socialists, but they espouse atheism as part of their creed, leaving Robert in an uneasy no-man’s-land. I wondered why this man, to whom religion was far more than a tradition or a job, would have married a woman who not only didn’t believe but made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of fulfilling the customary role of a minister’s wife by becoming a central figure in the community. They seem entirely mismatched and again Gibbon doesn’t show us their courtship, which happened off-page between books.

Chris’ son, Ewan, grows up during the course of the book and it seems to set him up to be the main character in the third volume. Through him, we see the increasing Englishing of the language and culture – a theme also central to Sunset Song.

Overall, I found this disappointing and not nearly as memorable as the excellent and highly recommended Sunset Song. I will go on to read the third book, Grey Granite, but more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation.

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Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

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As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

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