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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

Thursday, 30 April 2020

"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley

I first read the classic gothic novel some years ago but I have re-read it for this blog.

It was written in 1818 (and created on the night of the famous 'ghost story' party in the Villa Diodati in Cologny (one of the locations in the book) by Lake Geneva when Byron and Shelley were also present and John Polidori created The Vampyre.

The classic story is that Victor Frankenstein, a young man, becomes obsessed with alchemy and later natural philosophy and studies to learn the secret of life. He then constructs a monster from bits of dead bodies (making it extra large because that is easier than dealing with fiddly little bits) and brings it to life. But the moment that he sees it he is overcome with disgust at its ugliness (the book really pushes the romantic view that beauty equates to goodness) and flees the laboratory. The creature escapes into the world where it realises that it is alone and viewed with loathing by any it encounters. It educates itself, bizarrely, by spying on a French family and reading three books, of which two are Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Werter. Realising it can never be accepted in society it goes to Frankenstein to ask him to make it a mate. He agrees to do so and, when he finally refuses, the monster begins its revenge. Frankenstein then pursues his monster around the world, ending in the icy wastes around the North Pole.

It is a corker of a tale, “the strangest tale that ever imagination formed.” (V3 August 26th, 17—),
slowed down a bit by the author who adds various extraneous bit. The NT stage version (see below) removed most of these unnecessary subplots. This, of course, begs the question as to whether novels are a fundamentally different art from plays. It has been suggested in The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate that Shakespeare stripped out character motivation when he adapted a story for the stage (for example turning Pandosto into The Winters Tale) because people are prepared to accept a character as fundamentally of one sort and see where that leads in the abbreviated form of a play which they won't do in the far more extensive form of a novel.

The book starts and ends with a frame narrative, originally in letters and later as journal entries. Frame narratives enable an author to start at a moment of high drama, creating a 'hook', and then to return to the start of the story to build up the characters.

The Plot
A British explorer, Robert Walton, searching for a sea passage across the North polar ice pack, and thus in himself seeking to add to the knowledge of mankind, (he says: “You cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole”; Letter 1) sees "a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature" crossing the pack ice with a sled and shortly after picks up another sled traveller who needs rescuing. These are the monster and its creator, respectively, and the bulk of the narrative consists of the tale that Frankenstein tells.

After telling us about his education, in which he discovers, by chance, the famous alchemists of the past, Victor resolves to create life, assembling a man from bits of bodies dug up from graveyards. As soon as the creature comes to life, Victor is horrified at its ugliness, and rejects it. The creature runs away.

Victor, having been ill (illnesses were so useful in old books as a way of jumping over a passage of time), goes home to discover that his little brother William has been murdered (by the monster) and innocent maid Justine is hanged for the crime. Victor meets the monster on an Alp and the monster then tells Victor what has been happening to him in all this time. He spent most of the time hiding near to a remote cottage where a young man and his sister live with their blind grandfather. The monster spies on them, thus teaching itself to speak and, by the chance discovery of books (Milton's Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Werter) he learns to read and he educates himself. We then stray into a sub-plot explaining the background of these people in the forest and providing Felix with a Turkish wife. In the end, they too reject the monster when they see him. So he comes to Geneva and (accidentally, he really doesn't know his own strength) murders William.

On the mountain the monster reasons with Victor. He is lonely because of all the rejection. He wants Victor to make him a bride. “I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create.” (V2 C8) Or else. Victor agrees, if the monster swears to take the wife and live remote from humanity (in South America). [In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf suggests that this is because the exploration of Venezuela by Alexander von Humboldt was a hot topic of conversation in the salons of London at the time she was writing the book.]

Victor travels to a remote Orkney island to make Mrs Monster but at the last moment, realising that (a) the monster cannot guarantee his wife being good and (b) they might have children and spawn a new species of monsters some of whom would undoubtedly be evil. “One of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” (V3 C3) So he destroys the woman. The monster, seeing this, swears revenge: "I shall be with you on your wedding-night.” Victor interprets this to mean that the monster will kill him when he marries long-standing (and long-suffering) girlfriend Elizabeth.

We then have another sub-plot in which the monster kills Victor's friend Clerval but Victor finds himself suspected of the murder. Once that has been cleared up Victor can return to Geneva to marry Elizabeth. But the monster kills her (not him) on the wedding night.

Victor now swears vengeance on the monster, pursuing him through Europe and Siberia onto the frozen ice.

We end with Robert Walton's framing narrative. Victor dies (another use of a frame is that you can kill your principal narrator) and the monster is bereft and disappears into the frozen wastes. It ends with a classic final sentence: "He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance." (V3 September 12th.)

It was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus (whose name in Greek means forward thinking) defied Zeus to steal fire from Mount Olympus and give it to man; he was punished by being chained to a rock where nightly an eagle would come and tear out his liver (which regrew the next day). In the same way, Victor Frankenstein steals the secret of life from Nature and is consequently punished. However, the Prometheus story doesn't feature in the narrative which instead relies on Biblical concepts of the Fall in Paradise: the Monster at one point explicitly compares himself to Adam (which makes Victor, repeatedly named Frankenstein's 'Creator', God); there is another Fall referenced in that, at the end, Victor compares himself to Lucifer, the angel who was so full of pride that he was cast from heaven and Fell into Hell.

It is tempting to also compare the Frankenstein story to that of Faust, another German (though Victor is technically Swiss) who sold his soul for learning.

The NT theatre 2020 production
On Thursday 30th April 2020 a watched a live recording of the National Theatre production starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor (they alternate these roles on successive performances); Naomie Harris as Elizabeth was also superb.

The play takes the basic ideas of the book and reworks them. It starts with the monster apparently breaking free of a membranous egg and, following several lightning strikes, gaining control of the spastic jerking of his limbs. It is a ballet: it was at least fifteen minutes before he speaks. This seems to have been derived from the middle of the book (Vol 2, Chap 3) in which the monster recalls his coming to life:
It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original æra of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses." (V2 C3)
"I knew, and could distinguish, nothing ... No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: ... My sensations had, by this time, become distinct, and my mind received every day additional ideas. My eyes became accustomed to the light, and to perceive objects in their right forms” (V2 C3)

The play has thus started at the moment of highest drama, obviating the need for the framing narrative. The play simplifies story, removing the Turkish subplot from the cottage story and the subplot of Justine being hanged for William's murder despite her innocence and the Clerval murder subplot. It also removed Robert Walton and the framing narrative (because there is no narrator in a play you can kill your principal protagonist). It also ended slightly differently with a living Frankenstein pursuing the monster.

Paradise well and truly lost:
This is slightly muddled in the book. The monster is Adam (which makes Frankenstein God) and monster Adam begs his creator for a bride. But also the monster equates himself with Lucifer, the devil who falls from Heaven. But at the same time Victor can be read as Lucifer: Lucifer was kicked out of Heaven because he rebelled against God and the reason for the rebellion is that he was proud; it is Victor's pride (as well as his eating of the Tree of Knowledge) that has led to his downfall. It seems a bit of a muddle which the play resolved by having the monster say: "I should be Adam ... but Satan is the one I sympathise with."

This would appear to be based on a couple of instances when both the monster and Victor talk about Adam and Lucifer:
The monster says: “Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (V2 C2)

The monster also links the two: “Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.
(V2 C7)

I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me” (V2 C8)

The thunderstorm theme
There are a surprising number of electrical storms in the book:
On a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” (V1 C1) The ‘struck by lightning in a thunder storm’ is a foreshadowing of the destructive power of lightning which Victor will later harness to create life ... with an equally damaging result. It is reprised in V3C2 when Victor describes himself as : “I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul” (V3 C2)

He constructed a small electrical machine, and exhibited a few experiments; he made also a kite, with a wire and string, which drew down that fluid from the clouds.” (V1 C1)
The darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head.” (V1 C6)

The beauty = goodness theme
The main problem for the monster is that he is so repulsive that people fear him or flee him or are repelled with him. This is foreshadowed when Victor decides he won't attend his chemistry lectures because the teacher is ugly: “I did not feel much inclined to study the books which I procured at his recommendation. M. Krempe was a little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his doctrine.” (V1 C2) I find this theme problematic, although I presume it is a typical romantic trait. There is a thread through literature in which ugliness is equated to criminality and I wonder whether this reflects human psychology.

Perhaps because ugliness is equated with disease and death: “I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.” (V1 C3) A sociologist might add that there was a good chance that poverty was also correlated with ugliness because a poor person would have more chance of being disabled because of the physical nature of their work, especially in those days with health and safety, and poor people would be more subject to disfiguring diseases of deprivation.

The theme comes most to light in the moment of scientific triumph: "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips." (V1 C4)

This equation of good and beauty is justified when the monster says: "Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image” (V2 C7)

Parental duties
Before creating the monster, Victor thinks: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s.” (V1 C4) But, famously, when the monster comes to life, Victor is repulsed by it (the beauty = goodness theme). Running away from his child (a metaphor of post-natal depression?) is bad parenting, at least in the opinion of the child.

When Victor meets the monster again, and is reproved by him, he thinks: “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.” (V2 C2)

In the end, the monster mourns the death of his parent: “That is also my victim!” he exclaimed; “in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! what does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst.” (V3 September 12th.)

The moral bargain:
Frankenstein claims that there is a sort of moral bargain, equivalent, perhaps, to the social contract of Hobbes. This had been used, initially, to justify the rule of monarchs such as Charles I and Victor, when he travels to England, is enamoured of Oxford because of its association with the Royalist court during the Civil War. But it had been elaborated since then to suggest that the monarch had duties to the people as well as the other way around and the abnegation of these duties enabled anarchy. The monster here is asserting a moral equivalent of this social contract. If the Golden Rule is to Do as you would be Done By then this is its negative. If someone is badly treated, it asserts, he has the right to treat you badly in return:

All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature ... Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.” (V2 C1)

The idea that wickedness derives from unhappiness:
The monster claims: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (V2 C2) and later: “I am malicious because I am miserable” (V2 C9)

The Prometheus theme
Except for the subtitle there seems very little pertaining to Prometheus although it might be argued that the 'Eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge' theme is linked. In the middle of the book, the monster remembers his first acquaintance with fire: “I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars” (V2 C3)

The Eden theme:
In the frame narrative, at the start, Victor tells Walton: “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” (August 19th, 17—)

“I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? he had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him.” (V2 C7) But Adam's acquisition of Eve led ultimately to his expulsion from Paradise

“Sweet and beloved Elizabeth! I read and re-read her letter, and some softened feelings stole into my heart, and dared to whisper paradisaical dreams of love and joy; but the apple was already eaten, and the angel’s arm bared to drive me from all hope.” (V3 C4)

Eating the fruit of the Tree of KnowledgeI t is a little difficult to tell exactly where Mary Shelley stands on knowledge. Many people suggest that the book is condemns the acquisition of knowledge. Robert Walton starts the book as an explorer: “You cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries.” (V1 L1). And Victor's motivation at the start is the same: “What glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (V1 C1) Victor's favourite teac her at the University of Ingoldstat is also of the 'more knowledge is better' mindset: “The ancient teachers of this science,” said he, “promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pour over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.” (V1 C2)

But Victor warns: “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” (V1, August 19th, 17—) and, later, “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” (V1 C4)

But at the end there is equivocality. When Walton asks about the process by which Victor reanimated dead material, Victor refuses to divulge:  “Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you also create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy?” (V3 August 26th, 17—) And yet he still sees the acquisition of knowledge as glorious: “For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind.” (V3 September 5th)

At the very end, Victor cannot blame himself. “During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. He shewed unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil: he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself, that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed.” (V3 September 12th.) One might argue that this failure to repent, even on his death bed, is what finally damns Victor. He still cannot see that what he did was wrong, only that he has failed to prevent the evil consequences.

Links with other works.

On the ship, Robert Walton writes to his sister: "I shall kill no albatross, therefore do not be alarmed for my safety.” (Letter 2) This is presumably a reference to Coleridge's Rime of the Antient Mariner which was published in 1798 and revised in 1817, just before Frankenstein was published.

“In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed, and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects, that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment. The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors, and with the wants which were for ever alive in my own bosom. But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension, but it sunk deep. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it. “ (V2 C7)
“I learned from Werter’s imaginations despondency and gloom” (V2 C7)
“Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history.” (V2 C7)

Building the story:
“I felt great relief in being the fellow-pupil with my friend, and found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the orientalists. Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating to a degree I never experienced in studying the authors of any other country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and garden of roses,—in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart.” (V1 C5) It is great to see how Shelley interposes intervals of idyll in between the moments of horror.

Some questions

Why is he called Victor? Has he won anything?

Great moments:

  • “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle” (V1 L1)
  • “I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection.” (V1 L2)
  • “I am preparing to depart. I am going to unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and snow;’ but I shall kill no albatross, therefore do not be alarmed for my safety.” (V1 L2)
  • “friendship is not only a desirable, but a possible acquisition. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship.” (V1, August 13th, 17—)
  • “The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake, than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors.” (V1 C1)
  • “Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (V1 C1)
  • “None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” (V1 C3)
  • "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body.” (V1 C3)
  • “Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a church-yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.” (V1 C3)
  • “Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses.” (V1 C3)
  • Soon Victor has his eureka moment: “from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.” (V1 C3)
  • “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” (V1 C3)
  • “I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead, and found a passage to life aided only by one glimmering, and seemingly ineffectual, light.” (V1 C3): I confess I don't know who this Arabian is.
  • "Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” (V1 C3)
  • “I collected bones from charnel houses” (V1 C3)
  • “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials” (V1 C3)
  • “The summer months passed while I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit. It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage” (V1 C3) nicely contrasts the fecundity of nature with the sterility of what Victor is trying to do.
  • “my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by his favourite employment.” (V1 C3)
  • “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." (V1 C4)
  • "Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” (V1 C4)
  • “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (V1 C4)
  • “I threw the door forcibly open, as children are accustomed to do when they expect a spectre to stand in waiting for them on the other side” (V1 C4)
  • “it is certainly more creditable to cultivate the earth for the sustenance of man, than to be the confidant, and sometimes the accomplice, of his vices; which is the profession of a lawyer.” (V1 C5)
  • “When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations.” (V1 C5)
  • “The survivors are the greatest sufferers, and for them time is the only consolation.” (V1 C6)
  • “Those maxims of the Stoics, that death was no evil, and that the mind of man ought to be superior to despair on the eternal absence of a beloved object, ought not to be urged. Even Cato wept over the dead body of his brother.” (V1 C6)
  • "I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” (V1 C6) Interesting use of the word vampire
  • “I did confess; but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced,” (V1 C7) Typical gothic anti-priest propaganda
  • “We beheld immense mountains and precipices overhanging us on every side ...the river raging among rocks, and the dashing of waterfalls around ... Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains; ... the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.” (V2 C1)
  • “am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing?” (V2 C2)
  • “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature.” (V2 C2)
  • “I was enchanted by the appearance of the hut: here the snow and rain could not penetrate; the ground was dry; and it presented to me then as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandæmonium appeared to the daemons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire.” (V2 C3)
  • “the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” (V2 C5)
  • “I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these acquisitions; but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few.” (V2 C5)
  • “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.” (V2 C5)
  • “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.” (V2 C7)
  • “Unfeeling, heartless creator! you had endowed me with perceptions and passions, and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind.” (V2 C8)
  • “You would not call it murder, if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts, and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands.” (V2 C9)
  • I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” (V2 C9) This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the book: the monster is Vegan!
  • “You are my creator, but I am your master;—obey!” (V3 C3)
  • “Who could be interested in the fate of a murderer, but the hangman who would gain his fee?” (V3 C4)
  • “Ever since my recovery from the fever I had been in the custom of taking every night a small quantity of laudanum; for it was by means of this drug only that I was enabled to gain the rest necessary for the preservation of life.” (V3 C4)
  • “life is obstinate, and clings closest where it is most hated.” (V3 C5)
  • “What then became of me? I know not; I lost sensation, and chains and darkness were the only objects that pressed upon me. Sometimes, indeed, I dreamt that I wandered in flowery meadows and pleasant vales with the friends of my youth; but awoke, and found myself in a dungeon. Melancholy followed, but by degrees I gained a clear conception of my miseries and situation, and was then released from my prison. For they had called me mad; and during many months, as I understood, a solitary cell had been my habitation.” (V3 C5)
  • “And now my wanderings began, which are to cease but with life. I have traversed a vast portion of the earth” (V3 C7)
  • “My reign is not yet over,” (V3 C7)
  • “Come on, my enemy; we have yet to wrestle for our lives” (V3 C7)
  • “like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell” (V3 August 26th, 17—)
  • “I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk!” (V3 August 26th, 17—)
  • “a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise.” (V3 August 26th, 17—)
  • “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine.” (V3 September 12th.)
  • “You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed you sit among the ruins, and lament the fall. Hypocritical fiend!” (V3 September 12th.)
  • “When I call over the frightful catalogue of my deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendant visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone.” (V3 September 12th.)
  • “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?” (V3 September 12th.)
  • “If thou wert yet alive, and yet cherished a desire of revenge against me, it would be better satiated in my life than in my destruction.” (V3 September 12th.)
April 2020;

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

"The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

This is a book about mothers and daughters. Four Chinese women, living in San Francisco, meet every week to play Mah Jong and to discuss their jointly invested shares as members of the Joy Luck club. This book holds their stories and, for each woman, a story of one of their daughters. The book is in four quarters, each quarter having four stories although not all of the characters is represented equally. There is no formal plot to the book: each story is complete in itself, but each connects with the others of its dynasty, and together they combine to create a sort of bricolage on the theme of the experience of the Chinese woman, especially regarding those who live in America.

As an example of ethnic literature it reminded me very much of There, There by Tommy Orange who uses a similar collage-type effect to chart the lives of American Indians in modern urban America, although in Orange's book all the stories interweave to form a more conventional plot.

There are a lot of Chinese proverbs and ways of putting things:

  • "The doctor said she died of a cerebral aneurysm. And her friends at the Joy Luck Club said she died just like a rabbit: quickly and with unfinished business left behind." (1.1)
  • "We were a city of leftovers mixed together ... Everybody looked down on someone else. It didn't matter that everybody shared the same sidewalk to spit on and suffered the same fast-moving diarrhea. We all had the same stink, but everybody complained someone else smelled the worst." (1.1)
  • "You think you can see something new, riding on top of a new cart. But in front of you, it is just the ass of the same old mule. Your life is what you see in front of you." (4.1)
  • "Secrets are kept from children, a lid on top of the soup kettle, so they do not boil over with too much truth." (4.1)

There are some delightful descriptions:

  • "A summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground, their wings so heavy with the damp heat." (1.1)

Other wonderful moments:
  • "My mother used to say, 'Auntie Ying is not hard of hearing. She is hard of listening'." (1.1)
  • "After the baby died, my mother fell apart, not all at once, but piece by piece, like plates falling off a shelf one by one." (2.2)
  • "Faith was just an illusion that somehow you're in control. I found out the most I could have was hope." (2.3)
  • "As if inspired by an old, unreachable, itch." (2.4)
  • "We expect the best and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more" (3.1)
  • "All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way." (4.1)

A beautifully written book with some wonderful characters but the sixteen stories are hard to comprehend as one so, for me, no overall picture emerged from the collage.

April 2020; 288 pages

Saturday, 25 April 2020

"The Great Trek" by Oliver Ransford

This history records the creation of the Afrikaan community who were farmers 'boers' living in the Dutch Cape Colony. Following the Napoleonic Wars it became a British possession and the Boers became trekkers, travelling over the Orange River to found what eventually became the Orange Free State, and then crossing the Vaal river to found what would eventually become the Transvaal Republic, and even, following vicious fights against the Zulus, founding the state of Natalia around Port Natal before the British annexed it, calling it Natal and naming the capital after a Governor of the Cape called D'Urban.

It is an interesting history about a time and a people of which and whom I knew almost nothing. There are passage of wonderful description and their are accounts of horrendous massacres and battles. This was a time when three dozen farmers, armed with rifles and in a strong defensive position created by drawing their wagons into a circle, could hold out against a force of several thousand Zulus armed only with spears. It doesn't seem surprising that they developed a belief in their own  superiority, a belief which was bolstered by their Calvinism with its emphasis on a select and chosen people. But the origins of the racist Apartheid regime seem to have been in the Boers from the start: one of the motivations for the first trek was that the British abolished slavery and insufficiently compensated the former slave owners. The classic pattern of Boer settlement involved allowing sufficient 'squatters' (Africans who had no title to the land were regarded as squatters even though the Boers had as little title to the land) onto the farm to provide the farmer with labour while other Africans were herded into reservations. One of the reasons why the Boers might have thought that the land was empty and therefore theirs for the taking was that  between 1818 and 1824 Shaka, chief of the Zulu, had developed an new form of warfare which almost completely cleared the original inhabitants of the southern part of Natal and triggered a succession of waves of migration and warfare among the Bantu peoples of the veldt.

Poor understanding of the Zulus (an early misunderstanding came about because of a meeting in which they had to shout across a flooded river) led to an early massacre of 500 trekkers (including 200 African servants).

The book was published in 1973 when the Republic of South Africa was still politically dominated by the Apartheid policies of the Nationalist Party. It is difficult for me to be certain whether the author condemns racism or accepts it. Otherwise, this was an interesting read.

Some great moments:

  • "Trekking was in the blood of these land Vikings." (C 1)
  • "A host of Christian  missionaries who were determined to preach the fashionable doctrine of brotherly love and racial equality ... The missionaries' teachings were, of course, repugnant to a white race convinced of its superiority ... the missionaries were earnest irritable men who had no experience of dealing with a multi-racial society ... Many of the missionaries came from the artisan class ... John Philip ... had been a mill hand ... Robert Moffat ... had begun life as a gardener ... This sort of background inevitably led them to display a narrowness of vision which might have been avoided by a wider education." (C 2) This extract makes me uncertain as to whether the author sympathises with the naive missionaries or with the racist Boers. The last sentence certainly portrays the author as a snob.
  • "Potgieter ... was one of those men who have been born with an idee fixe, in his case with a consuming hunger to break new ground ... a hunger which could only be appeased by establishing himself as the unrivalled patriarch ... to hack out a fief for himself which he could rule as undisputed governor." (C 4)
  • "Potgieter waged life rather than lived it." (C 4)
  • "The laager seemed a fearful place the next day, surrounded by a hideous circle of bodies turning black and swollen under the sun; they encircled the trekkers like grisly captors." (C 5)
  • "The trek was no longer a migration in the normal sense. ... For these Voertrekkers ... intended to subjugate the indigenous people ... and turn their country into a state where their own social and political ideas might be practised and perpetuated without outside interference." (C 6)
  • "The prospect of Natal ... is one for the connoisseur of landscapes. Africa here has subdued itself and become peaceful. ... a century ago it must have looked fresh from the hand of God, a special creation empty of all sighs of human habitation, alive only with immense and unhurried herds of game. It was a land to delight the heart of a farmer as well as that of an artist: to carry such game the grass must surely be good; to grow such trees the soil must surely be deep; and here, unlike so much of Africa, there was no scarcity of water." (C 7)
  • "On Kwa Matiwane most of the Boers were clubbed to death ... but some died when their skulls were broken with rocks. A few ... victims were skewered and left on the hill to a more lingering death. ... Retief was made to witness the agonies of his companions before he himself was put to death and one can only guess at his thoughts as he watched the killing of his son. After every bit of life had been battered out of him, Retief's chest was ripped open, and his heart of liver wrapped up in a cloth and taken to the king." (C 8)
  • "He tended to an imposing portliness and carried a small paunch in a stately sort of way as though it was filled with securities and bank drafts." (C 9)
  • "As the air began to smell of morning the white men watched the pattern of flat-topped thorn-trees on the hills across the river starting to show against the eastern sky, and listened to the birds which began to give chorus before setting off on their daily quest for seeds and insects. Then the sun's rim broke free from the horizon, tinting the surrounding hills with red so that the entire landscape for a few moments seemed to be drenched in blood." (C 9)
  • "The former kraals of many of the returning Africans now lay on farms marked out and worked by the Boers. To avoid overcrowding the farm lands the Afrikaners found it imperative to limit the number of squatters on their farms to five families, a figure which would satisfactorily provide for their labour requirements ... These Bantu were unenfranchised and subjected to numerous by-laws ... The problem of the 'surplus natives' on the other hand was solved by segregation in ad hoc reserves where they were stringently controlled by pass-laws." (C 10)
  • "Although he was brave and very determined it cannot be denied that Smith was also conceited and pompous and the proud possessor of South Africa's largest ego." (C 11)
  • "The Boers oft-repeated joke that the greatest pests in southern Africa were drought, locusts and Englishmen" (C 11)

April 2020; 211 pages

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

"The Dare Game" by Jacqueline Wilson

Tracy Beaker used to live in a children's home but had now been fostered by Cam, the scruffy writer. But Tracy's Mum has decided she wants to see Tracy again.Will Tracy expect too much?

The second plot involves bunking off school with weedy dyspraxic Alexander and bovver boy Football. When they dare to jump from the window to climb a tree, will one of them get hurt?

Marvellous moments:

  • "She was boring boring boring and couldn't teach for toffee. She couldn't teach for fudge, nougat, licorice or Turkish delight." (No Home)
  • "Never mind Elaine's Inner Child. I am her Outer Child and it's mega-difficult to make contact with her, even when I bawl my head off." (Elaine's Home)
  • "I'm wishing with all my heart. And my lungs and my liver and my bones and my brains. All the strings of my intestines are tied in knots I'm wishing so hard." (Tracy and Alexander's home)
  • "I scrabbled and grabbed the next branch down, hanging on for dear life. Or lousy life. Any kind of life." (The Tree Home)
  • "Kids are always expected to be grateful grateful grateful. It's hateful being grateful." (The Garden Home)
  • "When we had our big hug hello she smelt stale underneath her lovely powdery scent." (Mum's Home (Again))
Books by Jacqueline Wilson reviewed in this blog:

April 2020; 238 pages

Monday, 20 April 2020

"Starring Tracy Beaker" by Jacqueline Wilson

Tracy Beaker, the angriest girl in the children's home, is picked to play Scrooge for in the school Christmas play. She is overjoyed, fantasising that the Mum will come and see her. But can she keep her temper in the rehearsals? And will she be able to go on stage if her Mum isn't in the audience?

Rather more conventional than the book that first introduced the feisty Ms Beaker, this has a classic plot with antagonists and supporters and obstacles and triumphs like a real fairy story.

And let us not forget than Tracy never ever cries though she might get hayfever from time to time.

Great moments:

  • "'I'm scared of Tracy Beaker,' said Peter. 'Even though she's my friend'.
  • "You don't really work hard to get people to like you, Tracy."
Books by Jacqueline Wilson reviewed in this blog:

April 2020; 167 pages

Sunday, 19 April 2020

"The Story of Tracy Beaker" by Jacqueline Wilson

A children's book.

Tracy Beaker is a fatherless girl who lives in a children's home; she has been fostered twice and returned twice and she is aware that she is getting close to the age at which she will never be fostered; she fears being institutionalised.

She is very intelligent and incredibly tough and feisty and not at all cute. Quite often she doesn't cry.

It is an interesting story in that it starts with Tracy filling in details about herself so it is almost life a character template. The story as such begins later when a children's author visits the home and encourages Tracy to continue writing what has become her 'autobiography'.

Some great moments:
"I told her I didn't care a bit, though I had these silly watery eyes. I didn't cry though. I don't ever cry. Sometimes people think I do, but it's my hayfever." (p 27)
"It was down there on the page in black and white. Well, not your actual black and white, more your smudgy blue biro, but you know what I mean." (p 30)
"I'm slavering at the thought. Yes, that's what those little marks are on the page. Slavers, I don't cry. I don't ever cry." (p 35)
"weirdo comfy walking shoes, not so much Hush Puppy as Shut-your-face Hound Dog." (p 45)

A great character. April 2020; 156 pages

Books by Jacqueline Wilson reviewed in this blog:

"A Box of Birds" by Charles Fernyhough

This is a high concept novel of ideas with some great characters, some fantastic settings, and some beautiful prose.

In this slightly dystopian novel set in the near future in UK-Dthe narrator is a female neuroscientist, Dr Yvonne Churcher, working with humans and animals to discover the secrets of the Lorenzo Circuit, a critical feature of human memory. Her problem, apart from the obligatory failed love affair, is that she has lost her sense of self. From her study she knows that her consciousness is an illusion: there is no control centre in her brain, she is a seething mass of conflicting thoughts; her identity depends on which thought happens to be uppermost at any one time. 'Me' is a body, a single unified encasing shell. Her mind is, as it were, a box of birds (which is an idea derived from Plato's Theaetetus:

  • "I’ll be back to being a network of activity, one neural cluster buzzing another neural cluster, one lot of bio-electrical traffic taking the ring-road around the soul; one deluded meat puppet sizing up another deluded meat puppet and wanting to fight it or fuck it or whatever." (1.1)
  • "‘I’m empty,’ I say. ‘There’s no “me” to do the thinking. I’m an illusion. The confection of a restless, pattern-seeking brain.’" (1.3)
  • "Plato said the mind is like an aviary full of birds, one for every thought or memory you’ve ever had. They’re all there, all these thoughts and bits of knowledge: the problem is catching them." (1.4)
  • "Where does your sense of morality come from, if you’re just a bundle of nerves? Why did you want to come here today, if you didn’t have a self to do your wanting with?" (2.10)
  • "Consciousness is a confection, the fantasy of a brain obsessed with finding coherence, and I’ve been trained not to trust it." (2.14)

Another important idea is that promulgated by James and his friends in the squat where he lives. They are mimicking Christ's disciples, all being intended suicides rescued at the apical moment by 'David Overstrand' a semi-mythical figure whose death has (perhaps) been faked. They are named after the places they were rescued, for example 'Level Ten' was on the top floor of a multi-storey car park from which he intended to jump. They believe that what is important is the story that you tell and that there are many possible stories for the same evidence. Thus their animal rights group is called Conscience, Con-Science, because they believe (like certain post-modernist social scientists) that science privileges only the scientific method as a way of arriving at the truth and there are many more.

  • "‘Reality?’ Level Ten says. ‘The objective truth about the world that only science can deliver? Nice one, Yvonne: you just told a really good story.’" (2.9)

But the novel is also a fast moving thriller with a number of exotic locations, such as Yvonne's  lab where she experiments on genetically modified mice and her treehouse home, the squat where James and his animal rights activists live, a conference hotel in Florida, a tea hut on the moors, the underground tunnels of an old lead mine,  and a church in Verona. The three principal characters are:

  • Yvonne: a neuroscientist haunted by the thought that there is no 'she' in command of her consciousness but only a dynamic ragbag of thoughts and impressions which are scarcely under control. She is recovering from a failed relationship with fellow neuroscientist Marius and now really, really fancies her student James: "The light from his bedside lamp is gilding the arches of his insteps." (2.10) was a line I found utterly original, conjuring up a hauntingly beautiful and even sexy image.
  • James: a member of a group of animal rights activists who were each on the point of suicide before being rescued by their semi-divine guru 'David Overstrand'. James copes with his box of birds by telling stories to himself and acting out a variety of different roles so that it hard for Yvonne (or perhaps James himself) to know who he really is ("It’s not what’s beneath the layers, it’s the fact that the layers are there at all. He’s like me, in that respect. The layers are what he is."; 2.16; "Sometimes you can get a better idea of who you are by being someone else. The gods have always known that. The avatars, the incarnations: anyone but who they really are."; 2.24) in particular whether he is her ally or systematically betraying her to the enemy.
  • Gareth: a young prodigy computer hacker who insists on calling Yvonne, his tutor, 'Miss'. Gareth wants to recreate consciousness and steals Yvonne's work on the Lorenzo Circuit. This makes him a target for Sansom and he has to go into hiding, where he remains for most of the story.

I found the overall setting of the book a little problematic. When is is set? An eighty-five year old lady remembers the Shadows: "She’s twenty-four again. England is new. The Shadows cruise down the dual carriageway under our window, quiffs a-tremble, Strats zinging in the breeze. And on the back seat of their convertible Rolls, a young immigrant bride cannot think about dying, can’t see into that distance, cannot even frame the thought." (2.9) This suggests a dating of around 2016. The university town is described as mediaeval and there is a football riot, all very modern day, but the undergraduates are called 'betas' which conjures up images of Brave New World and there are other images which suggest a little higher tech than I am expecting. There is a mixture of fictionalised locations and real locations which threw me. Perhaps this muddle is deliberate and meant to unbalance me, as when Gareth insists on calling his university teacher 'Miss', a title more often reserved for teachers at primary school.

This book is therefore a sort of James Bond thrillers with a wreck of a car, some truly exciting but realistic locations, a convincing reason for the baddies to be bad (they are searching for a cure for Alzheimers which would be fantastically profitable) ,some realistically flawed characters, and some great prose:
  • "James has scented it, the doubt that’s at the heart of me. It’s like I’ve thrown open a door onto a party you can hear from the street, only to show that there’s nothing there." (1.1)
  • "Rain scores the windows, etching obscure diagrams onto the glass, cross-hatching areas of substance and uncertainty." (1.3)
  • "Fixed in oils on the walls, long-dead churchmen avoid each other’s stares." (1.3)
  • "Owl-hoots lob back and forwards in the moonlight." (1.5)
  • "A fierce burning breaks out on my neck, metastasizes to my armpits, and then fades to a fizzy calm." (1.5)
  • "A car is not a self-portrait. Just because my vehicle is falling apart, it doesn’t mean my life is." (1.6)
  • "I want to imagine her in an impossible bikini, busty and lithe, the talk of the subcontinent. Now, at eighty-five, her skin has the powdery wrinklings of a nutmeg." (2.9)
  • "A thin mouth that looks as though it’s tasting tin." (2.9)
  • "A river is the only true absence in a city. You can’t build on it, fill it with rubbish, park your car there. You need that connection with nothingness in the midst of all the chaos." (2.9)
  • "Most of the time he’s just another well-spoken beta, with that flat way of talking which is a sure sign that there’s something he’s trying to hide: a privileged background, a dad with a title, one of those bonuses of birth that do so much to smooth the transition into Lycee life." (2.10)
  • "He’s too gauche and playground-fresh, too certain that he’s already conquered the world, to pick a fight with." (2.10)
  • "He’d bought me two pints of some medal-winning beer, and I was well past my irretrievable blab point." (2.10)
  • "College was getting me down. It was full of really safe people who just wanted the dream home and the dream holidays and the whole vacuous affluence deal. They thought having money would give them freedom to make choices. Yeah, choices between this kind of soulless shit and that kind of soulless shit." (2.10)
  • "America. When I was a kid and it only existed on TV, I thought it was made of a different substance to the world I knew." (2.11)
  • "The shower is so powerful that I come out expecting to see hail-damage on my skin." (2.11)
  • "There is a hell specifically for academics, that you can spend your whole life banging away at a problem and there can be people on the other side, banging away at the same rock." (2.11)
  • "Around one corner I come across a toy-sized Latino going at the floor with a carpet-sweeper. There is no dirt to sweep up. It feels like a terrible injustice, that this harmless man should be made to waste his time on an utterly clean corridor. He’s the human slave in some apocalyptic future’s robot world, dwarfed by space-station architecture. I want to talk to him, ask how you can have your pointless tasks set out for you in the minutest detail and still manage to go about them with dignity." (2.11)
  • "A minibar is a beautiful thing. It gives you no anxiety of choice. You start with the ready-mixed cocktails, move on to the beer and macadamia nuts, and finish with Toblerone and whisky." (2.11)
  • "His dog collar is a wonky Möbius strip." (2.13)
  • "There’s a bruised looseness under his eyes, signs of sleeplessness." (2.14)
  • "Sometimes he has the face of a hassled executive, a kind of clammy, bloated frazzlement. I wonder what happened to the face he deserves." (2.14)
  • "Her real name’s Stephanie. Needless to say, she hates her real name." (2.16)
  • "It’s one thing getting lost in the fog. But getting lost on a clear blue day, when you can see for twenty miles and still have no idea where you’re going — that’s a whole different kind of lostness." (2.16) Nice metaphor. Gareth has told her that he has given her a clue and it is in plain sight but she just can't see it. Also a metaphor for Yvonne herself, lost in trying to make sense of her box of birds.
  • "Every terrifying thing you can possibly imagine can take shape in that darkness. The brain works overtime, making its hypotheses, and they’re never proved wrong. And forests are noisy places." (2.16)
  • "I consume it like a shredder." (2.17)
  • "I’m the decided, not the decider." (2.19)
  • "Your cortex has only got a part-time interest in the truth. For the rest of the time it’s a deceitful egotist, just wanting to suit its own needs." (2.19)
  • "When the big stuff happens you feel it directly in your body, opening taps and setting hormonal fires, squeezing the gut like nicotine." (2.21)
  • "With their dinner parties and the whole sick rigmarole of suburban fakery; they’d made it so that being alive was no different to not being alive." (2.24)
  • "You can’t be bigger than your own story." (2.24) Is this another version of the Godel Incompleteness Theorem?
  • "Graceful dying is just the proof of it. She’s going out as she came in, a bundle of automatic routines that can cope perfectly well without the buzz of being here." (2.27)
This is one of those books which I will remember for a while. It has some brilliant characters and some powerful ideas. I am not sure that the thriller genre is best suited to it. It is a novel of ideas and that sits ill with the fast pace and conventions of a thriller. I loved the locations and the luxuriousness of the prose nudge it towards the genre of literary fiction. 

A novel in which the author has attempted a great deal. It may not have been perfectly realised but it is still powerful and haunting. April 2020

The author is a genuine scientist whose research into the voices we hear in our heads is summarised in the very readable book: The Voices Within.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

"Strong Poison" by Dorothy L Sayers

A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery.

The book starts with the judge's summing up at the trial of detective story writer Harriet Vane; Lord Peter has been watching the trial and decided (a) she didn't do it and (b) he is in love with her. Fortunately the jury is hung and a retrial is ordered giving Lord Peter a month in which to find evidence clearing Harriet. This process involves a literary bohemains of the 1920s, Miss Climson, Lord Peter's undercover private investigator, who has to pretend to be a medium at a seance, Miss Murchison, taught lock-picking by one of Lord Peter's underworld acquaintances, and of course the butler Bunter. This is not a tight whodunnit, mostly because the cast iof suspects is severely limited so that it becomes more of a how-was-it-done but it is a gently amusing picaresque crime story. During the course of it Peter persuades Detective Inspector Charles Parker to propose to Lady Mary, Peter's sister, much to the consternation of the Duke and Denver and his wife.

Some great moments:

  • "There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death." (first lines)
  • "I hope you won't mind, because I haven't shaved since this morning, but I'm going to take you round the next quiet corner and kiss you." (C 3)
  • "A person who can believe all the articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence." (C 4)
  • "Up like a rocket, down like the stick." (C 6)
  • "I've thought of a good plot for a detective story." "Really?" "Top-hole. You know, the sort people bring out and say, 'I've often thought of doing it myself, if I could only find time to sit down and write it.' I gather that sitting down is all that is necessary for producing masterpieces." (C 7)
  • "I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are. The lovehunger of the stallion takes no account of octave or interval in giving forth the cry of passion." (C 8)
  • "In detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have." C 12)
  • "Perhaps the charwoman disturbed them?" "Not she. She never disturbs the dust, let alone the cover." (C 13)
  • "He was one of those imperturbably self-satisfied people who cannot conceive of themselves as being out of place in any surroundings" (C 13)
  • "The stately volumes on his shelves, rank after rank of Saint, historian, poet, philosopher, mocked his impotence. All that wisdom and all that beauty, and they could not show him how to save the woman he imperiously wanted from a sordid death by hanging." (C 15)
  • "For the last five years or so," said Wimsey, "you have been looking like a demented sheep at my sister, and starting like a rabbit whenever her name is mentioned. What do you mean by it? It is not ornamental. It is not exhilarating. You unnerve the poor girl." (C 15)
  • "It was an ordinary plain Lyons, without orchestra or soda fountain." (C 16)
  • "Even a watched pot cannot absorb heat for ever." (C 19)
  • "There is something about wills which brings out the worst side of human nature. People who under ordinary circumstances are perfectly upright and amiable, go as curly as corkscrews and foam at the mouth, whenever they hear the words 'I devise and bequeath.'" (C 19)

Not great literature nor even a classic whodunnit but fun to read. April 2020

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

"The Other Half of Augusta Hope" by Joanna Glen

Listed for the Costa First Novel Award
"A therapeutic dose of high-strength emotion" (The Guardian)

Augusta and Julia are twins though born on either side of midnight on 31st July, hence their names. They live in grey suburbia with a domestic mum and a dad who is so scared of the world that he never lets them do anything. Julia is the pretty twin, Augusta the clever one who loves words and facts and can't be dissuaded from telling you all the fascinating things she has learned. They grow up. Julia heads for a life as wife and mother with the boy next door while Augusta goes to University and dreams of escaping to Spain.

Parfait is the eldest son of a large family of farmers in Burundi. Inter-ethnic civil war kills his parents and his brother Wilfred's twin; his twin sisters are raped and abducted. He decides to travel to Spain with his little brother Zion in the hopes of a new life.

In the final quarter of the book these two stories, which have been told in alternating chapters (some as short as a single page) come together.

It was a wonderful book. Augusta is smart and funny and wise without realising it; Parfait is good and kind and thoughtful despite the horrible circumstances of his childhood. Of the supporting characters, Augusta's father, a frightened little man who curtails the horizons of himself and his family because he is so scared of what might lie beyond, is superbly drawn. On the fateful holiday to Spain they go every day to his favourite part of the beach, a secluded spot away from the nudists: "This spot was special for him because he could hide his burnt knees and his inadequacies, and he didn’t have to ask for ice creams at the kiosk, pointing furiously, panicking, handing over the wrong money." (p 84) I know that man; I've been that man.

The prose is beautifully constructed in short, sharp sentences, often in single-sentence paragraphs in which the subsequent paragraph either completes or contradicts the previous one. For example:

  • "My parents didn’t seem the sort of people who would end up killing someone. Everyone would say that - except the boy who died, who isn't saying anything." (p 1)
  • "He always had new dreams up his sleeve. But the truth was that none of them ever seemed to slip out of his sleeve into real life." (p 3)
  • "A sign went up saying, ‘Keep your eyes on the road,’ except you had to take your eyes off the road to look at the sign. Sometimes, I thought, adults just don’t think things through." ( p 12)
  • "‘Professors at Cambridge University still need to cook,’ said my mother. Which was a perfect example of the knack she had of entirely missing the point." (p 63)

This section of the analysis contains spoilers. The construction is also perfect:

  • The rapid swapping of viewpoint allows the two stories to be told together; for most of the book they are joined thematically as, for example, when Augusta's mum talks about roses and Parfait's brother starts a rose farm. This device enables cross-fertilising foreshadowing and the contrast between the boring suburban life of Augusta and the on-the-edge existence of Parfait is rendered deeper without the need for comment. 
  • It starts with a great hook: "My parents didn’t seem the sort of people who would end up killing someone. Everyone would say that - except the boy who died, who isn't saying anything." I carried this through almost to the end of the book.
  • At the 25% mark Julia and her parents go the the beach in Andalusia without Augusta and something happens; Julia acquires a secret which drives a wedge between the sisters and isn't revelaed until the 75% mark. Shortly afterwards triumph meets tragedy when Parfait travels across the sea from Tangier to Spain in a little rubber dinghy and his brother Zion is drowned. The horror of this sea passage is encapsulate in a single sentence in which punctuation is brilliantly set aside for stream of consciousness: "I tried to sound strong and calm, but my breathing was laboured now, and the boat wasn’t handling right, it was being knocked about, side to side, up and down, and I was throwing up again, and the waves were getting bigger and coming into the boat, and our feet were soaking wet to our ankles, lurching lurching in the dark, water bursting over the sides as we rocked and rolled, side to side, back, forward, back forward – and I was more frightened by far, by far, than I had ever been in the whole of my frightening life.
  • At the 50% mark Augusta goes to University and finally loses her virginity; her father's shop goes bankrupt and shortly afterwards he has a stroke. Parfait begins the healing process when he starts to paint and sells his paintings to a local art gallery; Wilfred his brother, bereaved twin and elective mute, starts to speak.
  • Two thirds of the way through Julia loses her baby. She tells Augusta her secret: "There was a boy. And I didn’t save him. I didn’t save him." (p 265). She then takes an empty pram and dies, struck by a train on a level crossing. The grieving and the funeral follows: "My mother made more tea. The tea tasted of copper." (p 272)
  • At the 75% mark Augusta's family begins its healing by buying and beginning to restore the gypsy caravan she's always dreamed of. But she and Julia's husband Diego travel to Spain where she meets an artist on the beach (Parfait): "There was an artist with his easel beside the beach road, his skin smooth and conker-coloured, his bunch of plaits tied up so that his cheekbones stuck out" (p 227)
  • The last quarter of the book is a roller coaster of emotions. I so wanted Augusta and Parfait to have a relationship and so many things seemed to be about to stop them. Parfait wanted to return to Burundi to support his brother Wilfred. Augusta becomes pregnant by Diego. Most of all, of course, there is the discovery that Augusta's parents watched Diego's brother drown.

Fabulous moments:

  • "Death would come along, and everything we’d found out would be buried with us. Which seemed a terrible waste. Shouldn’t we first be tipped upside down to let all our knowledge out – like when you empty a piggy bank of its coins?" (p 7)
  • "Think what a huge word rumour is, positively bulging with stuff, like a massive delusional warehouse." (p 9)
  • "My grandmother would sit in the corner of the lounge on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, commenting on our lives like a one-woman Greek chorus" ( p 11)
  • "‘Unnecessary.’ Which I suppose is what beauty is." ( p 20)
  • "I feel my mother’s arms around me, the slight damp of her armpits on my shoulders, the warmth of my cheek against her soft chest and the deep shiver of belonging running down my spine to the soles of my feet." (p 20)
  • "I thought of how much I wanted to find it, that thing I couldn’t find, whatever it was." (p 63)
  • "She’d died in the spring. As she lay bald and fading to nothing in the English hospice, the apple blossom fell past her window and rotted in the grass." (p 68)
  • "‘Or would it be hell?’ said Mr Sánchez. ‘If you found the past, all piled up by the side of the road. All the things you’d ever said. All the things you’d ever thought. All the things you’d ever done.’" (p 69)
  • "And I thought how strange language was – one letter turned duck into fuck. Just like that." (p 91)
  • "I could feel little specks of anxiety inside me, moving, like bacteria under a microscope." (p 114)
  • "The earliest sundials are shadow clocks from Egypt, dated at 1500 BC. I guess human beings have always wanted to tell the time. To know how long is left." (p 141)
  • "he opened his mouth, and he started to sing, and his voice split up into strands, fraying, as if there was blood on his vocal cords, or in his heart." (p 168)
  • "But don’t we all have experiences all the time that are only ours. None of us can ever imagine being someone else. Isn’t that why being human is lonely?" (p 175)
  • "Sometimes I feel bad for all those little half-babies slopping about at the bottom of the condom. Little dead tadpoles, which served no purpose at all. They lost a race. And that was it." (p 176)
  • "I painted twilight trembling in the bulrushes at the river’s edge" (p 188)
  • "‘Do you think that’s what we all are?’ I said. ‘Pinned butterflies who think we can fly?’" (p 189)
  • "Olly’s parents couldn’t, or didn’t, come. He was their fifth child, and I think they were running out of steam." (p 221)
  • "I counted the egrets, and got to six hundred, tiny white flames flecking the branches, like an old-fashioned Christmas tree in a European children’s book." (p 226)
  • "Our relationship was dead, and the stone would not be rolled away." (p 239)
  • "I was out in thatched communities where the graves were fuller than the houses." (p 242)
  • "If they put their gloves on, they wouldn’t be frightened of the kinds of things that could happen in life, their lives too. Like when someone tells you they have cancer, and you want to feel more scared for them than you do for yourself." (p 273)
  • "I thought, and the fear of it sent me running up the stairs, to our bedroom, where I got into Julia’s cold bed, deep deep down, all of me, under the duvet, which was too tight because my mother always tucked the bedspread in under the mattress. "(p 274)
  • "I never knew grief felt so much like fear." (p 277)
  • "No matter how many times he’d said Nothing to worry about, there were, in the end, things to worry about, and he couldn’t stop them." (p 313)

A book that made me laugh and cry. Parfait! April 2020

Sunday, 12 April 2020

"Greenmantle" by John Buchan

Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is recuperating from his exploits at the Battle of Loos in the First World War when he is recruited by the Secret Service to go behind the German lines to find out how the Kaiser plans to start an Islamic jihad to save the Ottoman Empire and open up a second front against the British. From this potentially promising start the plot becomes a bizarre succession of opportunities for Hannay and his companions to demonstrate their derring-do and for unbelievable escapes from tight situations.

This is incredibly boys' own stuff and marred by the jingoism and unthinking racism that characterised so many boys' adventure stories of the time. War, for example, is "the only task for a man." More disturbingly, honour and decency are regarded as playing "the white man". The real sourness of these attitudes is that they are so ingrained as to be unconscious.

It also seems to owe a certain debt to The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers which is a much better written book with some very ironic humour. The scene where Hannay meets the Kaiser seems very similar to the scene in which Carruthers (of the Foreign Office) spies on the Kaiser in Riddle.

The only humour in this book derives from a comic American character who is perpetually complaining about his dyspepsia and his "duo-denum" and who demonstrates incredible sang-froid by playing endless games of Patience in the face of death, although when clambering over a roof and suffering from vertigo "I could hear him invoking some unknown deity called Holy Mike." (C 18). I suspect this attributes were enough in Buchan's day to constitute character.

The story is, of course dated, and not just in its breathtakingly chauvinistic attitudes. Technology also dates. In one scene, the hero steals a car and drives off in it. He has to start it ... using a starting handle. When he is fleeing his enemies in it he reaches a dizzying fifty miles per hour.

There are moments when the cliches are so extreme that I wondered whether Buchan was laughing at himself:

  • "I may be sending you to your death, Hannay - Good God, what a damned task-mistress duty is!" (C 1)

There was one wonderful moment when the narrator spoke directly to the reader with a gnomic (at least to me) reference to a third party which made the point perfectly: "He was in Swaziland with Bob McNab, and you know what that means." (C 3) Well, no actually, I don't, but I can guess.

Some great moments:

  • "Besides, how big is the risk? About one o'clock in the morning, when you can't sleep, it will be the size of Mount Everest, but if you run out to meet it, it will be a hillock you can jump over." (C 2)
  • "I was half a head shorter than him to begin with, and a man does not feel his stoutest when he has no clothes, so he had the pull on me in every way." (C 6)
  • "He had proceeded to get drunk. ... He had a head like a rock, but he got to the required condition by wild mixing. He was quite a gentleman in his cups, and not in the least violent, but he was apt to be very free with his tongue." (C 6)
  • "To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts." (C 8)
  • "The woman's face had the skin stretched tight over the bones and that transparency which means under-feeding." (C 8)
  • "I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere." (C 10)
  • "That lady's a very different proposition. The man that will understand her has got to take a biggish size in hats." (C 12)
  • "Politics is like a chicken-coop, and those inside get to behave as if the little run were all their world." (C 13)
Ethically challenging for the modern reader: a product of the culture of the time.

April 2020; 343 pages

Books by John Buchan reviewed in this blog:
  • My very favourite: a historical novel set in Scotland which proved that Buchan really could write: Witch Wood
  • Weird plot, terribly un-PC but with some wonderful characters, a laugh aloud speech, and a real feel for the joys of hunting: John Macnab
  • Well written but with the most ridiculously bonkers plot and some horrible classism, racism and anti-semitism: The Three Hostages 
  • A wonderful description of the Scottish countryside and some fantastic characters and some brilliant counterpointing: Huntingtower
  • Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War 

Saturday, 11 April 2020

"A Start in Life" by Anita Brookner

This was Brookner's debut novel, published in 1981 when she was 53.

Ruth is the daughter of an indolent shopkeeper and an actress mother. She is cursed by believing herself too plain to be attractive to men, which perhaps leads her to attempt the most unsuitable men. Her efforts to escape her stupefying home lead her to a year studying in Paris (Balzac, who becomes her life's work; the author quotes bits of Eugenie Grandet in the original French). Cinderella shall go the ball? Not necessarily.

Brookner has also written the Booker-prize-winning Hotel du Lac (about a very similar subject, an ageing romantic novelist seeking love), and Family and Friends (another mournful old lady looking back).

Brookner's prose is always elegant though sometimes old-fashioned: "She made the gesture all betrothed women make, holding up her hand in front of her, trying to see the ring as a part of it that she would soon take for granted." (C 18) Most people nowadays would say 'engaged' rather than 'betrothed'. In many ways the entire book is old-fashioned and harks back to the Victorian novelists that the protagonist adores: thus Ruth's parents can afford a full-time live-in housekeeper in their London house, even when they have both finished working, and Ruth herself has a legacy which provides her with independent means to some extent.

Brookner uses a multi-perspective point of view ('head-hopping' is something first novelists are often warned against); this is a style she also employs in Family and Friends. Thus, although the frame narrative is that of Ruth, the ageing lecturer in Literature, looking back at her life, parts of the story are told through the eyes of George, her father, Mrs Cutler, the home help (and the only person who engineers a happy ending), and even Molly, a bit part with whom Ruth's parents stay on a holiday to Brighton.

Brookner also allows the authorial voice to intrude and make comments:

  • "Ruth woke at her habitual early hour of six and wondered how she was going to fill the day. With anticipation naturally. This is how most women in love fill their day. Frequently the event anticipated turns out to be quite dull compared with the mood that preceded it." (C 6)
  • "Like most young people, Roddy hated hypocrites, and did not allow for the fact that he was growing into one himself." (C 19)
  • "In the country of the old and sick there are environmental hazards. Cautious days. Early nights. A silent, ageing life in which the anxiety of the invalid overrides the vitality of the untouched." (C 21)

Some wonderful moments:

  • "Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature." (C 1)
  • "Her appearance and character were exactly half-way between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." (C 1)
  • "Pieces of furniture of incredible magnitude in dark woods which looked as though they had absorbed the blood of horses." (C 2)
  • "The grandmother knew, and bore the knowledge grimly, that her son was a lightweight and her daughter-in-law a lighter weight still, that each needed the protection of the other, that neither had grown up or would be able to grow old, and that their ardent and facile love-play would damage the child." (C 2)
  • "She has the soul of an air hostess." (C 4)
  • "Sometimes she kept her make-up on all night in order not to give herself a shock the following morning." (C 10)
  • "George knew that he no longer loved his wife. He felt ... extremely sorry for her. As a natural corollary, he felt extremely sorry for himself." (C 10)
  • "We shall none of us ever make love again, she thought, and did not much care." (C 10)
  • "Life had not been too harsh. The sea would still be there at the end. She was nearly ready. But Helen, she saw, would be taken unawares." (C 10)
  • "There are marriage bureaux, of course. ... Why don't you sign on or fill in the form or whatever you have to do, and then you can ask them back here, whoever they are. If anyone turns up." (C 11)
  • "She still could not believe that anyone had consigned her to this place when she had committed no crime." (C 12)
  • "She studied the couple closely, as if they were an unknown species. They were, in fact, an unknown species. They were happy." (C 12)
  • "She perceived that most tales of morality were wrong, that even Charles Dickens was wrong, and that the world is not won by virtue." (C 12)
  • "'Is it all a game then?' she asked. 'Only if you win,' was her reply. 'If you lose, it's far more serious'." (C 12)
  • "They were right when they said how sharper than a servant's tooth is man's ingratitude." (C 15)
  • "An intermittent lover is no use to a person of dignity and courage." (C 16)
  • "Ruth still believed that adults adhered to a superior standard of behaviour." (C 20)

Elegant, profoundly sad, and rather old-fashioned. April 2020; 176 pages

Thursday, 9 April 2020

"The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel

This is the concluding part of the trilogy of historical novels whose narrator and protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, the Master Secretary to Henry VIII. It follows Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won Booker Prizes. It has therefore been extremely well-anticipated and a best-seller even before its publication. It is a hefty tome: my hardback edition is 875 pages long; it took me eight days to read it. The question is: does it live up to the hype?

Mantel is a very talented writer. I loved Wolf Hall, the first in this series, and I have been impressed by Bring Up the Bodies and Vacant Possession although I think my favourite is Beyond Black.

There is no doubt that I found this book a chore to read. I loved the quirky style which, like the first two in the series, is narrated in the present tense and with the first person narrator describing himself as 'he' (or 'he, Cromwell' is 'he' might be ambiguous). There is no doubt that Mantel writes fluent prose. But there was so much of it, so much detail, and I wondered whether it was necessary to give us everything.

The metaphor of the mirror is also used repeatedly as a motif; it felt a little less than subtle.

Sometimes, as in the other books in the series, Thomas Cromwell seems to be the ideal of 'how to be a leader' books:

  • "It is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse." (1.1)
  • "That's the point of a promise ... It wouldn't have any value, if you could see what it would cost you when you made it." (1.2)

There are some great descriptions and somehow she manages to describe things in the mind of the times:

  • "these gaunt rooms, the ovens cold, the fires ash, the thick walls not so much repelling the cold as encasing it, like a reliquary." (1.3)
  • "In the smoke that still lingered, he could see certain shapes, low and slinking. At a distance bot looping closer, the dogs of London." (4.1)

Perhaps the true triumph of this work (all three volumes) is that by so thoroughly immersing us in a world that is a once both alien and familiar (because we are all men and women, with the joys and sorrows of our little lives, no matter what our culture or our age) and emphasising this nearness and strangeness by placing Cromwell in this disruptive third-person narrator, Mantel can offer us perspectives on ourselves as if from afar:

  • "He is at home wherever he wakes." (1.1)
  • "The darkness falls away from her in flecks and sparks of light, the roofs and gables like shadows in water; and when she studies the net there is no net, only the spaces between." (1.1)
  • "The counting house where the units of obligation are fixed and the coins of shame are weighed." (1.2)
  • "Go forward, sir. It's the one direction God permits." (1.2)
  • "Everyone complains about builders, the time they take, the mounting expense, the noise and the dust, but he likes their banging and thudding, their songs and their chat, their shortcuts and secret lore." (1.2)
  • "As a boy he was always climbing about on someone's roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney." (1.2)
  • "'Ladders? I have wings.' 'Then flit into the dusk ... before they melt'." (1.2)
  • "Wars begin in man's time, but they end in God's time." (1.2)
  • "The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice." (1.3)
  • "You're as twisty as a skewer." (1.3)
  • "She may as well be transparent, for all she has to hide." (2.1)
  • "right is what you can get away with, and wrong is what they whip you for." (2.3)
  • "You can pray at home. It costs you less, you don't get robbed on the road, and you don't spread diseases or carry them back to your native country." (3.1)
  • "The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn't recognise himself at all." (3.1)
  • "None of us can stand anything. Scrape our skin, and beneath it there is an infant, howling." (3.2)
  • "Whereas we bless an old soldier, and give him alms, pitying his blind or limbless state, we do not make heroes of women mangled in the struggle to give birth. If she seems so injured that she can have no more children, we commiserate with her husband." (3.3)
  • "Nothing protects you, nothing. In the last ditch, not rank, nor kin. Nothing between you and the fire." (4.1)
  • "Friendship swears it will stand and never alter, but when the weather changes men change their coat." (4.2)
  • "What is fact and what is allegory, what is human and what is divine. Can God be baked into bread? When we consume the host, why do we not hear the cracking of his bones? Is he still God, when he churns in our guts?" (4.2)
  • "Hot as a devil's fart, word rattled round Europe." (4.2)
  • "Two ageing men in failing light, talking about their past because they have so much of it." (5.2)
  • "The law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction to help us move past atrocious acts and face our future." (6.1)
  • "We are all dying, just at different speeds." (6.1)

An impressive achievement, a heavyweight tome, a well-told story. April 2020; 875 pages