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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 30 June 2019

"The Way by Swann's" by Marcel Proust

This is the first volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) of which the other volumes are:

  • In the Shadow of Young Girls In Flower
  • The Guermantes Way
  • Sodom and Gomorrah
  • The Prisoner and the Fugitive
  • Finding Time Again

This book contains three, more or less stand alone, stories.

Part I: Combray
In the first part the narrator is a young boy who finds it difficult to sleep at night. He obsesses over his need for a good night kiss from his mother. She is downstairs at a dinner with the family and M. Swann, a neighbour. He pens a note to her (!) to ask her to come to him and the faithful maid takes it but she won't come up. This is described in great detail, with long, convoluted sentences, full of sub-phrases, until I, if not the young boy, was nearly asleep. It is obsessively detailed. After nearly fifty pages of insomnia (on the author's part, not necessarily on the part of the reader) comes the famous part in which, presumably as an adult (Proust can be somewhat jumbled and confusing about chronology), the narrator tastes the Madeleine cake crumbled in tea which awakens memories of his childhood and then returns to his memories of childhood in Combray where he went walking either the Way by Swann's or the way by the Guermantes and of the various people in the village. And he hears a lot of social snobbery from his parents and grand-parents.

Some of my favourite lines:
  • If, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was.”
  • summer bedrooms where you love becoming one with the soft night, where the moonlight leaning against the half-open shutters casts its enchanted ladder to the foot of the bed, where you sleep almost in the open air, like a titmouse rocked by the breeze on the tip of a ray of light.
  • Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual act.
  • What I fault the newspapers for is that day after day they draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential.
  • Once in my room, I had to stop up all the exits, close the shutters, put on the shroud of my nightshirt.
  • Unfortunately, having acquired the habit of thinking out loud, she did not always take care to see that there was no one in the next room.
  • Two panels of the bookshop door are “more sown with ideas than the door of a cathedral.
  • What should we care for if we don't care for our lives, the only gift the dear Lord never gives us twice over?”
  • Even women who claim to judge a man by his appearance alone see that appearance as the emanation of a special life. This is why they love soldiers, fireman; the uniform makes them less particular about the face.
Part II: A love of Swann's
The second part relates the story of Swann, a young man about Paris, and his introduction, in a salon, to Odette de Crecy, a member of the demi-monde, that is to say a kept woman, with whom Swann falls in love, whom he starts to give presents, and the subsequent events when the Verdurins, in whose exclusive Salon Swann meets Odette, exclude him from their circle so that he is parted from Odette, who nevertheless continues to see other men; it is the story of Swann's growing jealousy; again it is chronicles in minute, obsessive detail and described in sentences such as this one, which go on and on and on:

  • Then, suddenly, he wondered if this was not precisely what was meant by ‘keeping’ her (as if, in fact, this notion of keeping could be derived from elements not at all mysterious or perverse but belonging to the intimate substance of his daily life, like that thousand-franc bill, domestic and familiar, torn and reglued, which his valet, after having paid the month’s accounts and the quarter’s rent for him, had locked in the drawer of the old desk from which Swann had taken it out again to send it with four others to Odette) and if one could not apply to Odette, starting from when he had come to know her (because he did not for a moment suspect that she could ever have received money from anyone before him), those words which he had believed so irreconcilable with her - ‘ kept woman’.” Wow! A single sentence containing two pairs of brackets!
  • Once or twice on such evenings he experienced the sort of happiness which, if it had not been so violently affected by the recoil from the abrupt cessation of anxiety, when would be tempted to call the tranquil happiness, because it consisted of a return to a peaceful state of mind: he had dropped in on a party at the painter’s home and was preparing to go off again; behind him he was leaving Odette transformed into a brilliant stranger, surrounded by men to whom her glances and her gaiety, which were not for him, seemed to speak of some sensual pleasure that would be enjoyed there or elsewhere (maybe at the ‘Bal des Incoherents’ where he trembled at the idea that she would go afterwards) and that cost Swann more jealousy than the carnal act itself because he had more difficulty imagining it; he was already on the point of passing through the studio door, when he heard himself being called back with these words (which, by cutting off from the party that end which had terrified him so, made the party seem in retrospect innocent, made Odette's return a thing no longer inconceivable and terrible, but sweet and familiar and abiding next to him, like a bit of his everyday life, in his carriage, and divested Odette herself of her too brilliant and too gay appearance,shows that it was only a disguise which she had put on for a moment, for its own sake, not with a view to mysterious pleasures, and that she was already tired of it), with these words that Odette tossed at him, as he was already on the threshold: ‘Wouldn't you wait five minutes for me? I'm leaving, we’ll go back together, you can take me home’.” An even longer single sentence containing, again, two pairs of brackets, and innumerable commas.
He seems to be endeavouring to do with these sentences that which he discerns in Chopin: “When she was young she had learned to caress the phrases of Chopin with their sinuous and excessively long necks, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking out and exploring a place for themselves far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected to reach, and which frolic in this fantasy distance only to come back more deliberately - with a more premeditated return, with more precision, as though upon a crystal glass that resonates until you cry out - to strike you in the heart.

But he can be brief and concise and to the point. Well, nearly:
“curiosity, that excessive interest in life which, when combined with a degree of scepticism concerning the object of their studies, gives certain intelligence men in any profession ... a reputation of having minds that are broad, brilliant, and even superior.”
One of his many strengths is his updated descriptions. He might be writing about French social snobbery in the 1890s but some of his metaphors are incredibly up-to-date and everyday:

  •  “He would get into his carriage, but he would feel that this thought had leaped into it at the same time and settled on his knees like a beloved pet which one takes everywhere and which he would keep with him at the table, unbeknownst to the other guests.
  • You're only a formless stream of water running down whatever slope it finds, a fish without a memory, without a thought in its head, living in its aquarium, mistaking the glass for water and bumping against it a hundred times a day.
  • You don't choose to go holiday-making in latrines in order to be closer to the smell of excrement.”
Great lines:

  • “‘You wouldn't want her to live the way you do, with your broken furniture and your threadbare carpets,’ she said to him, her bourgeois difference to public opinion prevailing, again, over her cocotte dilettantism.
  • Swann immediately recognized this statement as one of those fragments of true fact which liars, when caught unprepared, console themselves by introducing into the composition of the falsehood they are inventing, believing they can accommodate it there and steal away its resemblance to the Truth.

Part III: Place-names: the name

And the final part is back to the narrator who meets Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette (whom he had already met, by chance, in part one), and falls in love as a child, playing childhood games with her, and then becomes obsessed about seeing her, and when he can no longer see her he becomes obssessed about seeing her mother in the parade at the Bois de Boulogne, where he hears other men talking about her reputation and admitting that they too have slept with Odette.
Great lines:
  • That day which I had so dreaded was, in fact, one of the only ones on which I was not too unhappy.
  • The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions that formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is only regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.” (Last line)
But is it any good?
Three stories about obsession then, described in obsessive detail, and in long intricate sentences. A lot of the obsession involves the place of a person in society (Proust's obsession with the finer details of social life is perhaps why Virginia Woolf loved him rather than James Joyce, whom she thought common; Woolf was a massive snob; Proust says that Swann married "a woman of the worst social station, practically a cocotte"; it might be argued that Proust attacks and satirises the pretensions of social snobs and that he is therefore not a snob but he certainly feels that educated and intelligent people are superior to ill-educated and ignoratn people and he is therefore clearly an intellectual snob), as if he or she were an organism whose place in the grand ecosystem that is life cannot be understood without a microscopic examination of each facet of their ecological niche. And on that level, it is a masterpiece.

But it is exhausting to read.

Is Proust a genius?
  • "The trouble with Proust is that sometimes you go through an absolutely wonderful passage, but then you have to go about 200 pages of intense French snobbery, high-society maneuverings and pure self-indulgence. It goes on and on and on and on." Kazuo Ishiguro
  • "If you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted" Germiane Greer
  • "I find the endless sentences distancing, the people without interest." Susan Hill
Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Shakespeare's Workmanship, states that “The half of artistry consists in learning to make one stroke better than two. The more simply, economically, you produce the impression aimed at, the better workman you make all yourself.” If he is right then Proust, who routinely used ten words when one might have done, apparently under the impression that brevity was simply laziness, was not an artist, let alone a genius.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

"Lives of the Great Artists" by Giorgio Vasari

Vasari was a renaissance artist and a friend of Michelangelo who had the idea of publishing a book of biographies of those great Italian artists, mostly from Florence, who, as he saw it, had returned painting, sculpture and architecture to the glories these arts had attained in the classical world.

The biographies are riddled with mistakes (he gets one date wrong by nearly a thousand years) and often little more than hagiographical descriptions of the listed works of that artist that Vasari has seen, but there are moments of anecdote and insight which make the reading worth while.

There are personal anecdotes:
  • Giotto, the shepherd boy, being discovered by Cimabue scratching pictures of sheep on stones in the field
  • Giotto, asked by a papal courtier for a drawing from the pope, received a freestyle perfect circle
  • Michelangelo the forger: “Michelangelo also copied the works of other masters, with complete fidelity; he used to tinge his copies and make them appear black with age by various means, including the use of smoke, so that they could not be told apart from the originals.”

There are insights into character of an artist:
  • Cimabue ... had outstanding ability, but he was so arrogant and disdainful that if anyone remarked any fault or defect in his work or if he had noticed any himself ... he immediately rejected it, no matter how precious it might be.
  • Apropos Paolo Uccello: “Artists who devote more attention to perspective them to figures develop a dry and angular style because of their anxiety to examine things too minutely; and, moreover, they usually end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor.”
  • Masaccio ... refused to give any time to worldly cares and possessions, even to the way he dressed.
  • Fra Filippo was so lustful that he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted”. Locked in his room to work by Cosimo de Medici “his animal desires drove him one night to seize a pair of scissors, make a rope from his bed-sheets and escape through a window to pursue his own pleasures for days on end.”
  • Botticelli was a follower of Savanarola’s, and this was why he gave up painting and then fell into considerable distress as he had no other source of income.
  • Leonardo ... would have been very proficient at his early lessons if he had not been so volatile and unstable; for he was always setting himself to learn many things only to abandon them almost immediately.
  • Leonardo ...  was always fascinated when he saw a man of striking appearance, with a strange head of hair or beard; and anyone who attracted him he would follow about all day long and end up seeing so clearly in his mind’s eye that when got home he could draw him as if he were standing there in the flesh.” 
  • Raphael ... was indeed a very amorous man with a great fondness for women whom he was always anxious to serve. He was always indulging his sexual appetites.
  • Rafael kept up his secret love affairs and pursued his pleasures with no sense of moderation.” 
In Volume Two there are some more stories, this time of artists contemporary to Vasari, many of whom he knew. Again there are some great moments:
  • There is murder. Andrea del Castagno was so jealous of  Domenico Veneziano that one night he laid in “wait for him unseen around a street corner, and when Domenico came across him on his way home, he ruptured both his lute and his stomach at the same time with some lead weights ... he then beat him wickedly about the head with the same weapon. and then, leaving him lying on the ground, Andrea returned to his room ... where he left the door ajar and sat down to draw just as he had been left doing by Domenico.” After, alerted by the commotion, he ran to Domenico and “kept crying out inconsolably: ‘Oh alas, my brother, alas, my brother!’ Finally Domenico died in his arms.” He got away with it, only being discovered when he confessed on his death bed.
  • There is theft by an ape. Giovanni Batista Rosso kept a pet Barbary ape who “fell in love” with one of his assistants and was dangled over a certain garden wall to plunder a vine and, when caught, was sentenced to be shackled to a weight so it could not attack the vines but instead it climbed onto the roof of the vine garden and, by jumping up and down, broke the rooftop tiles.
  • There is eccentricity. Piero di Cosimo had some strange habits: “Having fallen in love with painting, he cared nothing for his creature comforts and reduced himself to eating only boiled eggs which, to economize on fire, he used to cook whenever he was boiling glue, not six or eight, but fifty at a time, keeping them in a basket and eating them one by one.” Furthermore “He could not stand babies crying, men coughing, bells ringing, or friars chanting; and when the rain was pouring down from the sky, he loved to watch it as it ricocheted off the roof-tops and hurtled on to the ground. He went in terror of lightning, and when the thunder roared he would wrap himself up in his cloak, shut fast the doors and windows, and crouch in a corner of the room till the storm abated.”
  • Jacopo Pontormo liked working by himself:  Wanting to work by himself on a chapel, he “closed off the chapel with walls, hoardings, and curtains, and given himself over to complete solitude, he kept it for the space of eleven years so firmly locked up, that no living soul except himself ever went in there.
  • Francesco Mazzuoli (Parmigianino) gave up art to practise (unsuccessfully) alchemy: “Would to God that he had always pursued his studies in painting, and not indulged in fantasies of solidifying quicksilver to make himself richer than he had been created by Nature and Heaven!
  • Some artists have amazing imaginations. “He would sometimes stop to contemplate a wall at which sick people had for ages been aiming their spittle, and then he described battles between horseman, and most fantastic cities, and the most extensive landscapes ever seen: and he experienced the same with the clouds in the sky."
Some great moments from Volume 1:
  • Almighty God ...fashioned the first forms of painting and sculpture ... the ideas of softness and of unity and the clashing harmony made by light and shadow were derived from the same source.
  • The first men were more perfect and endowed with more intelligence, seeing that they lived nearer the time of the Creation
  • It goes without saying that the arts must have been discovered by some one person
  • Christianity ... strove to cast out and utterly destroy every least possible occasion of sin; and in doing so it ruined or demolished all the marvellous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods.
  • The best historians have tried to show how men have acted wisely or foolishly, with prudence or with compassion and magnanimity; recognising that history is the true mirror of life, they have not simply given a dry, factual account of what happened to this prince or that republic but have explained the opinions, counsels, decisions, and plans that lead men to successful or unsuccessful action.” 
  • Some men become great artists by diligent application and others by study; some by imitation, somebody knowledge of the sciences .... and some by combining all or most of these things.
  • Anyone who does violence to his nature by fanatical studies may polish one facet of his genius but cannot produce work with the facility and grace associated with artists who can put each stroke in its place temperately and with a calm and judicious Intelligence.
  • He portrayed a dead body, foreshortened, with a crow picking out its eyes, and a drowned child, whose body, sodden with water, is arched up grotesquely.
  • He lived to a ripe but disgruntled old age.
  • The appearance of a man of outstanding creative talent is very often accompanied by that of another great artist at the same time and in the same part of the world so that the two can inspire and emulate each other.
  • There are many men whom nature has made small and insignificant, but who are so fiercely consumed by emotion and ambition that they know no peace unless they are grappling with difficult or indeed almost impossible tasks and achieving astonishing results.
  • Lumps of earth often conceal veins of gold
  • One of the worst things that can happen to a man is for him to work and study hard in order to benefit others and make his own name, and then be prevented by sickness, or perhaps death itself, from finally completing what he has begun.
  • When a man becomes a priest for the wrong reasons the outcome is invariably shameful and unhappy.” 
  • True wealth consists in being content with just a little.
  • The artist himself must decide after careful consideration what to reject and what to accept, using his own judgement and not relying on the theories of others.
  • He lived honorably from his work and he spent extravagantly on his love affairs.”
  • To produce perfect work, painters and sculptors need both application and natural talent
  • Men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least; for ... they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect ideas which they subsequently express and reproduce with their hands.
  • He was a slow thinker, and when the wax is hard it does not take a good impression.”
  • If life was found to be agreeable than so should death, for it came from the hands of the same master.
And volume II
  • No one ever achieved excellence in any occupation who did not, when still a child, start to put up with heat and cold, and hunger and thirst, and other discomforts. and so those people utterly deceive themselves who come to believe that they can reach an honourable level while enjoying all the world's ease and comforts; success comes from continuous study and wakefulness, not from falling asleep.”
  • Very often work in the rough, brought to birth in an instant from the art’s inspired frenzy, can express its makers concept in just a few strokes, whereas, in contrast, excessive diligence and labour often remove the force and understanding of those who never know how to lift their hands from what they are doing.”
  • If all those alive in this world believed they would still be alive after they could no longer work, many of them would not come to beg in their old age for what they consumed so unsparingly in their youth, when rich and plentiful rewards clouded their common sense and made them spend recklessly beyond their need. For seeing how harshly we regard someone who has fallen from prosperity to poverty, everyone should strive, albeit steering a decent middle course, not to have to beg a living in old age.
  • Florence deals with its craftsman as Time does with its own works, which, which once they are done, it then undoes and consumes bit by bit.”
  • When someone teaches us excellence and gives us a good way of life, he puts us no less in his debt and must be no less regarded as a true father than the one who begets us and simply gives us life.”

June 2019; Volume 1 = 462 pages; Volume II = 373 pages

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

"The Craft of Fiction" by Percy Lubbock

This is a thickly written book of literary criticism which considers a few classic novels (by Tolstoy, Henry James, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray) and tries to understand some general principles. It was written in 1921 and therefore before many modernist novels were written.

He starts with a few general principles:
  • Novels are about creating characters. He points out that we do this all the time in everyday life, piecing together impressions of the people around us "from a series of glimpses and anecdotes". 
  • One key way of judging a novel is in terms of its verisimilitude. “A novel is a picture of life, and life is well known to us; let us first of all ‘realize’ it, and then, using our taste, let us judge whether it is true, vivid, convincing.” 
  • On the other hand: “A novel is a picture, a portrait, and we do not forget that there is more in a portrait than the ‘likeness’. Form, design, composition, are to be sought in a novel, as in any other work of art.
  • A key artistic rule should be for an artist, any artist not just a novelist, to allow him or herself no more latitude than necessary

He then goes on to the main thrust of his argument. He discerns two techniques which a novelist may use (although he later points out that most novelists don't pick and chose these according to the book but tend to stick with what they find "most congenial"). “In one case the reader faces towards the story-teller and listens to him, in the other he turns towards the story and watches it.” These techniques are the pictorial in which the narrator has a direct relationship with the reader, describing what is going on, a panoramic technique which can encompass large swathes of place and time but is relatively thin and the scenic in which the reader views the action as if viewing a play so that the characters speak for themselves, which is far less economical of words and which is constrained to the actual time and place, but which is much more vivid, so vivid that he suggests that the scene is used sparingly and is well supported (by the pictorial sections of the novel) in order that drama be not dissipated.

A key problem with the dramatic is that characters are only seen from the outside. (Lubbock was writing before the great 'stream of consciousness' novels such as Ulysses by James Joyce and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.) Lubbock recognises that: “Somewhere the author must break into the privacy of his characters and open their minds to us.” but he makes the point that: “Haphazard and unnecessary plunges into the inner life of the characters only confuse the effect, changing the focus without compensating gain.” It also means that the narrator themselves, if one of the characters, may the one least well-realised, since a narrator “is always in danger of seeming a light, uncertain weight compared with the other people in the book - simply because the other people are objective images, plainly outlined, while the seer in the midst is precluded from that advantage, and must see without being directly seen.” So, for example, he suggests that in David Copperfield the narrator “is but a shadow compared with Betsy Trotwood and the Micawbers and the Heeps.” 

Furthermore, the dramatic scene has to prepared for. The famous scene of Becky's downfall in Vanity Fairhas an artificial look, by comparison with the flowing spontaneity of all that has gone before” because Thackeray is not a natural theatrical writer and this is a theatrically dramatic scene and Thackeray failed to prepare for it which he could have done had he gone into more detail for the “great scene of Becky's triumph” which would have enabled a contrast; then “there would have been no necessity for the sudden heightening of the pitch, the thickening of the colour, the incongruous and theatrical tone.” In Anna Karenina (Lubbock is not shy at confronting what great art with its inadequacies) “there is no adequate preparation; Anna is made to act as a deeply stirred and agitated woman before she has the value for such emotions. She has not yet become a presence familiar enough, and there is no means of gauging the force of the storm that is seen to shake her.

Inevitably, as the plot thickens and a climax approaches - inevitably, wherever an impression is to be emphasized and driven home - narration gives way place to enactment, the train of events to the particular episode, the broad picture to the dramatic scene.

These techniques depend on the subject of the novel: “The less dramatic, strictly speaking, the subject may be - the less it is able ... to express itself in action and in action only - the more needful it is to heighten its flat, pictorial, descriptive surface by the arts of drama.”

Furthermore “There were times when the dramatic method is too much ... it leaves the story to speak to itself, but perhaps the story may then say too much to be reasonably credible. It must be restrained, qualified, toned down, in order to make the best effect.”

Other points made:
  • What was the novelist’s intention? ... If it cannot be put into a phrase it is no subject for a novel ... The form of the book depends on it, and until it is known there is nothing to be said of the form.
  • Tolstoy’s characters “are never less than absolutely true to themselves ... and yet changing and changing ... under the touch of time.
  • Many a novelist, making a further and fuller acquaintance with his subject as he proceeds, discovering more in it to reckon with than he had expected, has to meet the double strain.
  • The way in which nine novels out of ten begin - an opening scene, a retrospect, and a summary.
  • Flaubert is generally considered to be a very ‘impersonal’ writer, one who keeps in the background and desires us to remain unaware of his presence; he places the story before us and suppresses any comment of his own.”
  • Dickens’ later novels have this shape: “Beginning with a deceptive air of intending mainly a novel of manners and humours ... he insinuates a thread of action that gradually twists more and more of the book around itself.” This is a form “which he elaborated and made his own.”
  • The use of the first person ... composes of its own accord ... for the hero gives the story an indefeasible unity by the mere act of telling it.” In autobiography “ the writer is not expected to guide his ordinary design, but to let it wonder free. Formlessness becomes actually the mark of right form in literature of this class.
  • The epistolary technique which avoids presenting the action as a retrospective ... but it does mean that one’s correspondents must always be at a distance so that one is forced to correspond with them.
  • The Ambassadors, then, is a story which is seen from one man's point of view, and yet a story in which that point of view is itself a matter for the reader to confront and to watch constructively.”
  • He is tremendous, his taste is abominable - what more is there to say of Balzac?
  • Wherever ... his subject requires to be lodged securely in its surroundings, whenever the background is a main condition of the story, Balzac is in no hurry to precipitate the action; that can always wait, while he allows himself to leisure he needs for massing the force which is presently to drive the drama on its way. Nobody gives such attention as Balzac does ... to the setting of the scene.
  • Where Balzac takes in hand the description of a town or a house or a workshop, he may always be suspected, at first, of abandoning himself entirely to his simple, disinterested craving for facts. There are times when it seems that his inexhaustible knowledge of facts is carrying him where it will, till his only conscious purpose is to sit down on paper everything that he knows. He is possessed by the lust of description for its own sake, an insatiable desire to put every detail in its place, whether it is needed or no ... and yet the result is always the same in the end; when he has finished his lengthy research among the furniture of the lives that are to be evoked, he has created a scene in which action remove as rapidly as he chooses, without losing its due emphasis.
  • Nobody knows how to compress so much experience into two or three hundred pages as Balzac did unfailingly.
  • Dickens’s way of dealing with his romantic intrigues was to lead gradually into them, through well-populated scenes of character and humour; so that his world is actual, its air familiar, by the time that his plot begins to thicken.
  • Bleak House is a big survey of a quantity of odd and amusing people, and it is only by degrees that the discursive method is abandoned and the narrative brought to a point. Presently we are in the thick of the story, hurrying to the catastrophe, without having noticed at all, it may be, that our novel of manners has turned into romantic drama, with a mysterious crime to crown it.
  • The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working.
  • Tolstoy’s strength lies in the way he turns each little glimpse of a scene into a vignette: “The lightest trifle of an incident ... becomes a poetic event ... It suddenly glows and flushes, and its effect on the story is profound ... and so the half page is not a diversion or an interlude; it speeds the story by augmenting the tone and the value of the lives that we are watching. It happens again and again; that is Tolstoy’s way of creating a life, of raising to its full power by a gradual process of enrichment.
There is much more to this fascinating book ... and he has made me want to read and reread all of the classic novels he describes. Ars longa vita brevis!

June 2019; 137 pages

Other books on literary criticism and writing novels:
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster

Saturday, 22 June 2019

"Catch 22" by Joseph Heller

A novel that is at once both very funny and very sad, an anarchic romp through the absurdities of war, a bitter anti-war message dressed up in farce.

A very well written novel indeed.

Yossarian, the hero, is a lead bombardier. Following a raid in which Snowden dies in his arms, he decides that he doesn't want to die and begins to devise ways in which he can no longer be sent on bombing missions. One of these is the idea of being declared insane. But there is a catch, Catch-22: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.” (C 5) Meanwhile Yossarian's colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly before he can be sent home.

With one or two exceptions, the forty two chapters are each named after an officer in Yossarian's bomber squadron (although the ensuing chapter may only refer tangentially to that officer who may in fact feature more strongly elsewhere). Thus the narrative of the book is far from in chronological sequence. In this way we are prevented from knowing key facts until the end: what was Snowden's secret, communicated to Yossarian as he died in his arms; why did a whore repeatedly whack Orr over the head? This also means that we have to piece together the time sequence while reading: the first scene in the book is Yossarian in the hospital (not for the first nor last time) which fits somewhere in the middle of the chronology. It also means that we learn about some of Yossarian's comrades when they are already dead. 

The other stylistic feature of this novel is Heller's tendency to narrate in long sentences which start off in one place and, passing through a number of absurdities, arrive at a different destination. For example: “McWatt crinkled his fine, freckled nose apologetically and vowed not to snap the cards anymore, but always forgot. McWatt wore fleecy bedroom slippers with his red pajamas and slept between freshly pressed colored bed sheets like the one Milo had retrieved half of for him from grinning thief with the sweet tooth in exchange for none of the pitted dates Milo had borrowed from Yossarrian. McWatt was deeply impressed with Milo, who, to the amusement of Corporal Snark, his mess sergeant, was already buying eggs for seven cents apiece and selling them for five cents. But McWatt was never as impressed with Milo as Milo had been with the letter Yossarian had obtained for his liver from Doc Daneeka.” (C 7) It makes you feel breathless to read it but it perfectly expresses the anarchy of war (and, by extension, with the commercial activities of Milo the mess sergeant, the entire capitalist system).

Some of these long rants are chilling:
  • “They couldn't dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn't keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarrian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarrian in the back of the plane. ... “They didn't take it on the lam weirdly inside a cloud the way Clevinger had done. They didn't explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn't drown or get struck by lightning, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn't get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. There was none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don't business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-and-now-I-ain't. There were no famines or floods. Children didn't suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights at the hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.” (C 17) 
That last sentence alone is a masterpiece.

This rant is blasphemous and angry but at the same time funny:
  • “And don't tell me god works in mysterious ways ... There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. or else he's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about - a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who found it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain? ... Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead? Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't he?” (C 18)
Yossarian also is angry about the sadnesses inherent in life as well as death:
  • “What a lousy Earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people?” (C 39)

But as well as rants there are some exquisite brief insights into the human condition:
  • “Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers.” (C 1)
  • “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up whilst to come down alive.” (C 3)
  • “Huple thrust his jaw out defiantly to let Hungry Joe know he couldn't be pushed around and then did exactly as he had been told.” (C 6)
  • “Yossarian was laid up in the hospital with a burst of clap he had caught on a low-level mission over a Wac in bushes on a supply flight to Marrakech.” (C 6)
  • “He had lived innocuously for a little while and then had gone down in flames over Ferrara on the seventh day, while God was resting.” (C 6)
  • “He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.” (C 8)
  • “She was never without a good book close by, not even when she was lying in bed with nothing on her but Yossarian.” (C 8)
  • “Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous.” (C 8)
  • “To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. No money went with them, no class privileges. Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else.” (C 8)
  • “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” (C 9)
  • “Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.” (C 9)
  • “He had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful then people who did not lie.” (C 11)
  • “‘What makes you so sure Major Major it is a communist?’ ‘ You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?’” (C 11)
  • “Our purpose was to make everyone we don't like afraid.” (C 11)
  • “It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.” (C 12)
  • “The enemy ... is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on.” (C 12)
  • “There were millions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe.” (C 17)
  • “His credo as a professional soldier was unified and concise: he believed that the young men who took orders from him should be willing to give up their lives for the ideals, aspirations and idiosyncrasies of the old men he took orders from.” (C 21)
  • "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.” (C 41)

A masterpiece.

I have been watching the television adaptation of Catch-22, currently (July 2019) showing on British terrestrial television. It has done a marvellous job of telling the story in a more or less linear fashion, so making the narration understandable, but in so doing it seems to have lost the flair of the original. Because the novel constantly loops back to key themes, such as Nately's whore's little sister, and Snowden, the effect on Yossarian of what happens to Nately and Snowden is magnified. The chronological narration of this series has not allowed for these repetitions (there would have to be a lot of repeated flashbacks) so the impact of these events is diminished. Furthermore, without the fragmentation of the narration some of the madness and craziness exhibited by the book is lost. Finally, of course, the film version has lost those marvellous endless sentences and paragraphs, that style so reminiscent of Kerouac, as if Proust had been accelerated to hypersonic speeds, which celebrate the joy of being alive even in the face of death. And somehow the TV version seems to have lost the humour.

Books about war in this blog:

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

"Small Island" by Andrea Levy

This is a book about the experience of Jamaicans coming to London after the Second World War. It describes their shock and distress at the shabbiness of the Mother Country but particularly at the anger and hatred they encounter, and racism little short of apartheid. Yet through it all, as their naivete is stripped away, even though they might lose their temper, though they might cry, they preserve their essential goodness.

The trouble is that this dissipates some of the force of the book. Horrid ugly things are described, endemic racism, ignorance from the few well-intentioned, wickedness from the majority. Yet Gilbert and Hortense cope. He wants to be a lawyer; he drives a van for the post office and no other postie will accompany him on his rounds. He should feel disgusted; he should rage. And because he doesn't I didn't either.

The book is written from four points of view:
  • Gilbert, a Jamaican who fights in World War II for the RAF and then emigrates to London on the Windrush. He is naive and bewildered when he encounters racist hostility but he is fundamentally good and his sense of humour carries him through the most trying times.
  • Hortense, a mixed race Jamaican, the illegitimate child of a white man and a mother who was shipped away. She is brought up to expect the good things in life and she is shocked when she arrives in England as Gilbert's wife; she knows nothing about men and sex, she knows nothing about cooking; she thinks she will get a job as a teacher and is distraught to be told that her hard-won Jamaican qualifications count for nothing.
  • Queenie, the butcher's daughter who, desiring better than the slaughterhouse, goes to London and, after surviving the blitz but husbandless, becomes landlady to Gilbert and Hortense. She is very much like Hortense in that, as a girl, she is brought up to be too delicate and to be naive about men; her husband's love-making leaves her cold.
  • Bernard, Queenie's lacklustre bank clerk of a husband who cares for his shell-shocked father and then goes to India as a mechanic with the RAF; his war career is one long mishap. Bernard thinks mostly in sentence fragments.
There are many great lines, though almost all of the ones I have selected as my special favourites come from Gilbert

  • You touch an angel with white glove it come up black.” (C 2)
  • I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture.” (C 11)
  • We Jamaicans, knowing our island is one of the largest in the Caribbean, think ourselves sophisticated men of the world. Better than the ‘small islanders’ whose universe only runs a few miles in either direction before it falls into the sea.” (C 11)
  • Pure imagination was needed to see how in peacetime English families could actually enjoy a holiday at this woebegone place.” (C 12)
  • Elwood showed me to his truck. Part metal, part rubber but mostly held together with prayer.” (C 12)
  • Bread so plentiful the five thousand could have invited family and all would have been fed.” (C 14)
  • Pour it back in the mule is what I say about tea.” (C 14)
  • Dreamboats ... with fingernails that still carried soil from home, and eyes that crossed with any attempt at reading. Heartthrobs ... who dated their very close relatives and knew cattle as their mental equal.” (C 17)
  • I know trouble. When it come through the door, it place a hand round a delicate part and squeeze.” (C 49)
  • Nothing is a smile ... You no cry over nothing.” (C 51)

Hortense has her moments:

  • The principal was making her entrance, parting girls to her left, to her right, like Moses through the Red Sea.” (C 4)
  • She walked with dainty yet lumbering steps - full of feminine grace that nevertheless shook the floor beneath us.” (C 4)
  • If you were second, third, or a deliberately dawdling fourth, then the chocolate would not only be cold but have a skin on it so thick it could be stitched into a hat.” (C 4)
  • "These two boys, Leonard and Clinton, looked so alike I puzzled on the need for both of them to exist.” (C 6)
  • I would not presume to tell the Lord His business but, come, the laying of an egg by a hen was, without doubt, the more civilized method of creation.” (C 53)

So does Bernard:

  • Maybe the threads of that fraying cloth was still in a tangle.” (C 57)
On Thursday 27th June 2019 I watched a live broadcast of the National Theatre production of Small Island. The stage adaptation was very faithful to the book, except that the story was told in a more or less chronological sequence whereas the book jumps around a lot. Thus the opening scene of the novel (Hortense turning up at Gilbert's room in Queenie's house in London after the war) becomes the opening scene of the second half of the play, after the interval. Otherwise much was the same although they changed the nature of Bernard's wartime experience.

The acting was first class and the growing fondness between Gilbert and Hortense after what was very much a marriage of convenience (at least for Hortense) was superbly portrayed.

Watching the stage adaptation offered me the chance to reflect on the story:

  • Why is Bernard's war-time experience related? This is a substantial chunk of the book and was reduced to a few lines of retrospective spoken by Bernard. But why bother with it at all? We are told the the reason why Queenie lets her house to 'coloured people' is that Bernard has failed to return after the war (this at least is the excuse that Queenie uses but later a more compelling reason is suggested). We therefore need a reason why Bernard doesn't come straight home but 'goes missing' for a crucial and carefully calculated period of time. But simple post-war trauma would have been sufficient for this without going into any details.
  • Why is Queenie made to grow up on a Lincolnshire farm? The location means that she can meet Gilbert during the war when she escapes from London for a while but it would have been relatively easy for her to meet Gilbert in London. But we do have to find a compelling motivation why Queenie, a very lively young woman, would have married a dry old stick like Bernard; the threatened alternative of having to go back to the farm provides this motivation.
  • This then raises the question of whether there was a similar motivation provided for Hortense and Gilbert to have been so eager to leave Jamaica. Given how tough they found London, why didn't they simply go back to Jamaica as soon as they possibly could? Queenie's background was compellingly horrid but Jamaica seems less of a place to escape from.

This production rose admirably to the challenges of giving birth on stage and having a baby on stage as well as the need to have multiple sets. Nevertheless, a film adaptation of the book cannot be far away.

The Lonely Londoners and its sequel Moses Ascending by Sam Selvon are brilliant short novels about the experience of Caribbean post-war immigrants to London

June 2019; 530 pages

Saturday, 15 June 2019

"All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque

The classic anti-war novel, published in 1929 and based on the author's experiences in the German Army during the First World War.

There is philosophy, there is eloquence, there is horror, there are purple passages. This might make the diet over-rich were it not for the context of a man in his tight-knit bunch of friends doing incredibly normal things. Thus, for example, the line "We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death.” (C 5) might sound a little pretentious were it not for the fact that this is in the context of a midnight feast of stolen goose, roasted and devoured, during a bombardment. Remarque can get away with his purple passages because of the ordinariness of the descriptions and the rooting of all that takes place in such mundane and everyday reality. In fact, he does more than 'get away' with it; it is the prosaic but detailed description of ordinariness that makes the philosophy stand out and lends it its unforgettable power. Were it not for lines such as “There is a smell of tar, of summer, and of sweaty feet.” (C 3) he could not write “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow." (C 11)

This is a book all about contrasts. For example: “One morning two butterflies play in front of our trench. They are brimstone-butterflies, with red spots on their yellow wings. What can they be looking for here? There is not a plant or flower for miles. They settle on the teeth of a skull.” (C 6) He can do this in a single line: “The branches might seem gay and cheerful were not cannon embowered there.” (C 4)

He is eloquent in his bitterness about his teachers who persuaded him and his classmates to enlist. “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress - to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. ... But the first death we saw shattered this ... The first bombardments showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces. While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying.” (C 1) But he accepts that you can’t do anything about that. “Where would the world be if one brought every man to book?” (C 1)

This bitterness extends to initial training. “We learnt that a bright button is weightier than four volumes of Schopenhauer. ... With our young awakened eyes we saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality such as one would not ask of the meanest servants ... We were to be trained for heroism as though we were circus-ponies.” (C 1)

He feels that he has been ruined by the war. He wonders what he can do now, a young man whose college years were spent in killing men. "Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?” (C 11) And can he even live? “Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.” (C 12)

He is bitter against politicians. "I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another." (C 11) He has a solution: “Kropp proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins.” (C 3)

This is an eloquent condemnation of warfare.
Other great lines:
  • “The poor brave wretches, who are so terrified that they dare not cry out loudly, but with battered chests, with torn bellies, arms and legs only whimper softly for their mothers and cease as soon as one looks at them.” (C 6)
  • “Between five and ten recruits fall to every old hand.” (C 6)
  • “We were never very demonstrative in our family; poor folk who toil and are full of acres are not so. It is not their way to protest what they already know.” (C 7)
  • “What is leave? - A pause that only makes everything after it so much worse.” (C 7)
  • “Even a soldier’s behind likes to sit soft.” (C 10)
June 2019; 191 pages.

Friday, 14 June 2019

"The Secret Lives of Colour" by Kassia St Clair

This is one of those books which are heaven for the determined trivia collector like myself. Seventy-five different colours from beige to acid yellow, from nude to shocking pink, from dragon's blood  to mauve to Prussian blue to celadon to khaki to pitch black, are included. You learn about their history, how they are made, and their properties such as how well the dye material and whether they are good in oil and if they fade. But best of all you learn the fascinating facts:

  • Lead poisoning from cosmetics used to make skin whiter may have been in part responsible for the collapse of the Shogun regime in Japan in 1868. On the other hand the use of Kohl as an eye liner results in a 240% boost to the production of nitric oxide by the surrounding skin which might significantly reduce the risk of skin infections.
  • Vermilion was once as costly as gold when it was used as the red in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts; "it was glazed with a revolting mixture of egg yolk and ear wax." Meanwhile the use of minium for red applied by miniators onto early mediaeval manuscripts led to our word miniature."
  • Neanderthals have been found with ginger hair.
  • No one really knows how Indian yellow used to be made; there is a tale that it comes from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves and water in Mirzapur, Bengal.
  • Beige "could be the concept-colour of the bourgeoisie: conventional, sanctimonious and materialistic." Khaki (from the Urdu word for dusty) was invented by Sir Harry Lumsden in Peshawar, Pakistan, for the uniform for a corps of guides to make them "invisible in a land of dust".
  • Despite being up to 2,500 times cheaper than the real thing, artificial ultramarine was initially resisted by artists: "Because the particles were the same size and reflected light in the same way, it lacked the depth, variety and visual interest of the real thing."

This book works both as a reference work and as a dip-in-for-pleasure book. June 2019; 285 pages

Thursday, 13 June 2019

"In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick

This book recounts the story of the whaleship Essex, from Nantucket, which was sunk by a whale in 1820. The crew subsequently travelled in three whaleboats across the Pacific, many died, some being eaten by their starving shipmates; there was one case in which one of the crews drew lots and one lad was killed by his friend for food (this latter story is adapted for the novel Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch). The account of the voyage by first mate Owen Chase (who possibly unknowingly incited the whale attack: On the morning of November 20, 1820, sperm whales were not the only creatures filling the ocean with clicking sounds; there was also Owen Chase, busily nailing a piece of canvas to the bottom of an upturned whaleboat.”; C 5) was written in 1821; Herman Melville read it and was inspired to write Moby-Dick. Philbrick speculates in chapter 14 that the theme of Ahab's revenge came via a story told by Ralph Waldo Emerson who in 1834 was told of a white whale, famed for attacking whaling ships with its jaw, which had been hunted and killed by a boat called the Winslow or Essex; Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, became captain of the Winslow.

This account is based on the account written in 1876 by the cabin boy (he also happened to be at the helm of the Essex when it was rammed by the whale) Thomas Nickerson which was lost until 1960 and only published in 1984.  

It is a tremendous story and beautifully written. Whilst written at a distance and thus able to reflect on the economic and social circumstances surrounding the Nantucket whale industry and the lives of the whalers (which, for example, enables understanding of the fact that those seamen who died first were predominantly African American), at the same time it transports you to the deck of the Essex and into the small whaleboats which attacked the whale. There were times when I was in those whaleboats and I felt hungry. At the end one is left with admiration for the indomitability and the ingenuity of the survivors, as well as deep sadness for those who died.

The story goes on to look at the consequences. Amazingly both Captain Pollard and Owen Chase returned to the sea, although only temporarily. Even more amazingly, when the captain of the Essex took his next command two of the Essex crew served under him again, one being Thomas Nickerson and the other Charles Ramsdell “the boy who had spent ninety-four days in a whaleboat with him” and who had been the one to propose drawing lots to see who should be sacrificed and who would actually kill the victim. (C 13)

Other consequences include, of course, Moby-Dick but also The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe in the early part of which the ship-wrecked hero survives an open boat voyage through cannibalism, the victim being chosen by the drawing of lots.

Selected quotes:

  • Unfortunately, the anger which [the Quakers] are forbidden to express by outward actions, finding no vent, stagnates the heart.” (C1, quoting William Comstock)
  • A sharp-sighted man was a jewel in the estimation of the genuine whaling captain.” (C 1)
  • A treatment for seasickness: “The sufferer was made to swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which was then pulled back up again. If the symptoms returned, the process was repeated.” This remedy also appears in Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome. (C 2)
  • “Salt beef and salt pork ... was so salty that when the cook placed it in a barrel of saltwater for a day (to render it soft enough to chew), the meat’s salt content was actually lowered.” (C 3)
  • The strong winds and unpredictable currents that boiled in and around these volcanic outcroppings sometimes created the illusion that the [Galapagos] islands were actually moving.” (C 4)
  • In both Sperm Whale society and Nantucket Society the males spent most of their lives alone only returning to the female pod to breed. “In their dedication to killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.” (C 4)
  • Nantucketers recognized that the positions of captain and first mate required contrasting personalities.” Captains needed to be authoritarians, first mates needed to be more personal. (C 6)
  • The human body, which is 70 percent water, requires a bare minimum of a pint a day to remove its waste products.” (C 7)
  • The act of self-expression - through writing a journal or letters - often enables a survivor to distance himself from his fears.” (C 7)
  • The biological anthropologist Stephen McGarvey has speculated that the people who survived these voyages [the original voyages of the Polynesians to colonise remote Pacific islands] tended to have a higher percentage of body fat before the voyage began and/or more efficient metabolisms, allowing them to live longer on less food than their thinner companions. (McGarvey theorizes that this is why modern day Polynesians suffer from a high incidence of obesity.)” (C 9)
  • Many of the so-called American characteristics ... abounding energy, generosity, optimism - become intelligible as the expected behaviour response of a well-fed people.” (C 10)
  • Anthropologists and archaeologists studying the phenomenon of cannibalism have estimated that the average human adult will provide about sixty-six pounds of edible meat.” (C 11)
A fascinating and most interesting book which has been made into a film.

June 2019; 238 pages

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

"Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch

A genre fusion novel: a police procedural murder mystery meets Harry Potter. It has a great first line: “It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St. Paul's at Covent Garden.” Then the narrator, a probationary constable of mixed heritage, meets a ghost. Later he becomes an apprentice wizard. Apart from the murders, he also needs to sort out a turf dispute between the rivers north of Teddington Lock, mostly boys under the control of Old Father Thames, and the girl rivers (such as the love interest, Beverley Brook) of the tidal reaches of Mother Thames.

The problem is that murder mysteries require strict rules and allowing magic in disrupts these and demands the formulation of new rules. So time has to be spent explaining why, with his master disabled, Peter Grant the hero can't enter through the front door of The Folly, the magical police station, but can get through the back. And why battery enabled IT devices were destroyed by magic. And I never really understood why Molly's bite led to time travel.

I was bemused, I was bewildered, but I was also bewitched. The novel is saved by a bravura writing performance in which the narrator wise cracks his way to the solution of the mystery and the resolution of the feud. Needless to say, there is a sequel, Moon Over Soho.

Selected wit:
  • Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I'm considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, ‘Who knows why the fuck anything happens?’” (C 1)
  • London is the pick ‘n’ mix cultural capital of the world.” (C 1)
  • They were loud to the point of constituting a one-family breach of the peace.” (C 1)
  • He was from Yorkshire, or somewhere like that, and like many Northerners with issues, he'd moved to London as a cheap alternative to psychotherapy.” (C 2)
  • I knew him by reputation, and the reputation was, don't fuck with him under any circumstances.” (C 2)
  • Questions would be asked. Answers would be ignored.” (C 3)
  • “It ‘s important not to rush the good things in life.” (C 5)
  • "The remnants of ancient villages that had grown together like spots of mould on a Petri dish.” (C 5)
  • Anyone watching would have taken us for a pair of feral estate agents marking out their territory.” (C 5)
  • The Fire Brigade recognise only two kinds of people at a fire, victims and obstacles.” (C 5)
  • Like a car engine turning over on a cold morning, I could sense something catching on my thoughts.” (C 5)
  • “I actually used the word ‘groovy’ and she didn’t even flinch, which was worrying on so many levels.” (C 6)
  • The dizzying speed of a bumblebee who’d met his pollen quota and was taking a moment to enjoy the view.” (C 8)
  • The trouble with the old boy network is you can never really be sure whether it's switched on or not, and whether it’s operating in your interest or some other old boy’s.” (C 10)
  • A sudden attack of culture snobbery is a common affliction among policeman of a certain rank and age; it's like a normal midlife crisis only with more chandeliers and foreign languages.” (C 10)

June 2019; 390 pages

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

"Resurrection Bay" by Emma Viskic

A murder mystery set in Australia with a detective who is deaf. This leads to a sensitivity to gesture and body language:
  • She tapped the arm of her chair, and arrhythmic pattern that involved every finger.” (C 2)
  • He'd taught Gaz how to watch, back when they were kids. How to read people's hands and eyes. How to know when a sideways glance meant he should run, when it meant he should throw the first punch.” (C 2)
  • He edged his chair slightly away as he sat down.” (C 5)
  • She picked up a teaspoon and flipped it between her fingers: fast, slow, fast.” (C 12)

It also has its share of wisecracks:
  • Don't get your dick in a twist.” (C 2)
  • I've been so far up those guys’ arses I know who needs more fibre in their diet.” (C 2)
  • No point in reading the instructions - they were written in a language that looked a lot like English, but clearly wasn't.” (C 5)
  • They'd rented rooms in a soulless tower block in order to attract corporate clients, but the lease was calculated with a complex algorithm, which took into account glass and chrome, but ignored square footage.” (C 5)
  • Men are a simple sex, driven by simple needs. Don't overestimate us.” (C 12)
  • The waitress was around twenty, with a fondness for body piercing that had crossed the line from fashionable into ghoulish.” (C 12)

The detective is, of course, vulnerable following a break up with his long-time girlfriend resulting from his refusal to admit he is disabled. It is his partner who is the recovering alcoholic.
  • Strange how things always hurt more the next day: cuts, break-ups, sorrows.” (C 9)

Fast-paced, exciting and well written.

June 2019; 278 pages

My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
  • Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
  • The Devil's Dice by Roz Watkins: a whodunnit set in the English Peak District
  • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.
  • Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
  • The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal: classic Chandleresque Mexican noir
  • The Closer I get by Paul Burston

Monday, 10 June 2019

"Death in Shetland Waters" by Marsali Taylor

This is the sixth book in a series of murder mysteries set on or around the Shetlands, and starring sailor Cassandra Lynch. In this one Cass has finally got a job as third mate on a tall ship sailing from Stavanger to Belfast training mostly young people to sail. Is there a stowaway on board and who owns the gun Cass finds? Then shipmates start to disappear. A classic murder mystery with a wonderful background.

The reasons that I love these books include:

  • Her characters are more complex and three dimensional and real compared to many in this genre;
  • Her descriptions can be taut and compact (for example “The worry’s in your voice, like water finding a pebble in its way.” C 3; “His chest rose and fell in deep breaths of the soft air.” C 5; “I felt a sadness sharp and sudden as standing barefoot on a thistle.” C 15) or lyrical (“It had become a most beautiful evening. The sky was whisked with skeins of teased grey fleece, tinted gold by the sun behind them. The land had taken shape from misty shadows to wooded hills punctuated with white houses, soft and enchanted in the yellow light. The sea was like grey velvet.” C 18; “Gradually, the sky darkened, and the moon thickened from a transparent honesty penny to the colour of old brass, poised in a diamond of rigging.” C 2)
  • We include real dilemmas. In this case Cass is torn between pursuing her career on her beloved ships and having a family with DI Gavin Macrae. This dilemma is sharpened by a fellow shipmate who is pregnant by another crew member (who has a wife). There is empathy but there is also a stingingly sharp observation from the Cass (brought up a Roman Catholic): “I couldn't imagine what it must be like to know that your own child was about to be pulled out of its safe womb to die drowning in the air like a fish.” (C 8)

She can also be funny:
  • The one thing I did know about horses was that they believed they were permanently starving.” (C 2)
  • Cat stalked back to the bandstand, obviously thinking poorly of a deity that gave food the unfair advantage of wings.” (C 4)
  • His sour expression suggested a box-of-Rennies-a-day habit.” (C 8)
  • Evening dress aboard this ship is all the thermals and outerwear you've got.” (C 15)
June 2019; 337 pages

Sunday, 9 June 2019

"The Thread" by Victoria Hislop

Kind young Dimitri, native of London but staying with his grandparents in Thessaloniki, is told the story of their lives. The story, starting in the First World War, encompasses the great fire of Thessaloniki, the population swap between Greece and Turkey between the wars, the occupation of Greece by the Nazis, the civil war between the Communists and the Royalists after the end of the Nazi occupation and the military takeover by the Colonels in 1967. Given the frame story it seems clear what will happen in the end.

I liked the competent and clear narration. Given the fifty year span of history there was a lot to get through and it was important not to get confused. The story sped along (the Guardian called it a fast-paced narrative).

However, the need to cram so much into the space of a single novel meant that the story felt a little superficial, as if the characters were skimming the waves of history. There is a concept in creative writing called 'psychic distance' (in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner defines this as “the distance the reader feels between himself [or herself] and the events in the story”) It can also be explained in cinematic terms. Cinematographers use Long Shots which are great for establishing shots and showing the characters in the context of their surroundings, Medium Shots to show how a character acts, and Close Ups to show the reactions and emotions of a character. This book used mostly Long and Medium shots. This meant that I learned about the characters from outside. Often the author discussed their motivations when explaining why a character did what they did. There was a relative lack of Close Up and Point of View shots.

Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction talks about the contrast between what he calls the 'pictorial' way of describing things and the 'dramatic' way. Picture is highly narrator-driven; the reader receives information directly from the narrator; it is much more economical than the scene, being able to take in vast tracts of time and space in a very few words, but it is thinner and much less vivid. In these terms Hislop made much more use of picture than drama; this was probably inevitable given the scope of her book but the result was that it was substantially less vivid than it might otherwise have been.

For example, in chapter five a Greek soldier is  watching a panicking crowd of refugees fighting for a place on a boat before the Turks arrive. If he, a soldier who has partaken in unspecified acts (but we presume to be rape and murder of civilians), is caught he will probably be brutally killed. But he is quite dispassionate about all this, reflecting calmly: “He could not leave. With all the crimes that weighed on his conscience, how could he push in front of any other man, woman, or child? There was not one person here who did not deserve to live more than he. In all those months of the campaign, the soldiers had been swept along on a tide of hatred and self-justification, but now it was self-loathing that tore at his heart.” What he is thinking is what he should be thinking. How he is thinking doesn't work for me. I don't want melodrama but this book seems to have sucked all the emotion out of the characters.

Throughout, the voice was that of the author. This was despite the fact that this was a framed narrative. The voice I should have heard was that of the two grandparents telling their grandson what had happened to them. But their voices were absent.

Dialogue was very formal. Despite the circumstances which one might have thought would lead to extremes of emotion which would be likely to produce incoherence, the dialogue was always articulate. Furthermore, each character almost always responded to what the other character had said which is very rare in natural dialogue.

Character development was almost totally absent. Goodies stayed goodies and baddies stayed bad.  When a good person did something that they became ashamed of it was because they were not strong enough to resist the pressures on them. So there were dilemmas posed but the characters resolved them rationally. Very few characters had a three dimensional personality: they were 'flat' in E M Forster's terms (Aspects of the Novel).

There were some great lines. She sets out her stall on the first page. Thessaloniki, we are told, is “a place of dazzling cultural variety, where an almost evenly balanced population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted and complemented each other like the interwoven threads of an oriental rug.” (C 1)

There are some very precise observations:

  • “Olga stood at the stove stirring her husband's coffee and observed that it took precisely the same amount of time for his anger to reach boiling point as it did for the dark liquid to rise in the briki.” (C 4)
  • “What struck her most forcibly was that his walk had virtually broken into a run. He could not get away fast enough.” (C 4)
  • “An old man scratched his head as if, somewhere inside his skull, he had vital information.” (C 11)
  • “She even managed to provoke sympathy for the lugubrious Esther Moreno, who wore her sourness like a dowdy dress.” (C 15)

Some of these contain a sardonic poke of sarcasm:

  • “He greeted each morning with expectation and confidence. Everything seemed to be going his way. He was a giant in his hand-made size five and a half shoes.” (C 16)

The next one is both a perfect observation and a highly symbolic icon:

  • “On the table, a vase of flowers. They had been fresh many days ago but dry petals now lay in a circle round the base of the vase. The daisy skeletons were almost sculptural and cast a crisp shadow on the table.” (C 9)

There are some moments when she seems to encapsulate truth in an insight:

  • “He found the scent of the city's subculture unexpectedly alluring and wondered how the bourgeoisie could be so contented with dinners in expensive Europeanised restaurants or with soirees in grand houses, when close by was a culture of such emotional rawness.” (C 16)
  • “Everyone had a point of view and no one was wrong.” (C 19)
  • “She and all the women here had a triple role. As wives, mothers, and elegant shadows.” (C 24)

June 2019; 454 pages

Saturday, 1 June 2019

"The Man who broke Napoleon's codes" by Mark Urban

George Scovell was a man of low birth who, having initially trained as an engraver, joined the British army during the Napoleonic wars. This book traces his career from Captain with Sir John Moore at the time of the evacuation from Corunna to his work as an assistant quarter-master general with Wellington where he was initially responsible for a team of guides to reconnoitre and gather information, then taking on the duties of postmaster, running teams of men carrying messages, and finally as Wellington's code-breaker. The book also tells of the Peninsular campaign and includes the British attacks on the great forts of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz and the great victories of Salamanca and Vitorio; Waterloo and the aftermath of his career are included in a post-script.

This is a well-told (plain and clear, rather like the prose of the Duke of Wellington himself) narrative history and it includes some very useful maps. In an original touch there is a friexe above each chapter heading which shows a quotation written in the Great Chiffre Napoleonic code and which is gradually revealed as the chapters go by.

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "Captain George Scovell was a Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General ... the title itself seemed to denote 'insignificance'." (C 1)
  • "While Massena had kept his mistress at Headquarters ... Marmont, although reputedly one of the most handsome men in Paris, brought no Venus to the field of Mars." (C 7)
  • "Sometimes a column of infantry marching across a dusty Estremaduran plain would see the glint of a telescope on a nearby hillside and then catch sight of a silhouetted figure on horseback." (C 7)
  • "An intercepted mail ... was taken by Longa, who killed 400 men who escorted it except 12, who, he says, did not show so strong an inclination to leave their bodies there." (C 17)

May 2019; 288 pages