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Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


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Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France.  The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.

We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand.  He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money.  Read more

Book Club Spy: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March – Joseph Roth

Book Club’s way of dealing with requests for some slightly lighter material was to opt for Roth’s 1932 novel on the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While this does not make for non-stop comic relief, or indeed light reading, the depiction of three generations of the noble Trotta family as a microcosmic portent of the rise and fall of the Emperor Franz Joseph’s grip over a huge swathe of Europe, mainly through the respect for and discipline of his army, actually made for diverting reading.

An instinctive action on the battlefield where a solder takes a bullet for his Emperor leads to the first Baron Trotta being entitled, to which he responds by retreating to a monastic rural existence with an absence of pomp. His son, however, ends up a District Commissioner with perhaps the most rigid daily routine ever depicted – people in the parks could time their watches by his shiny shoed perambulations as they doff their hat to him – and is the living embodiment of the dying age. The disturbance to this scrupulously routine existence comes with the ageing of his son in turn (whose conception is left a little unexplained, I don’t recall a mother really getting a mention) who joins the military after a formal but careful upbringing, and proceeds to unravel on the eastern frontier of the empire.

The first indication of dark eddies lying within Trotta Junior’s character appear slowly at first:

He was as straightforward and blameless as his conduct sheet, and only his periodic rages would have shown an observer that the soul of Captain Trotta harboured its share of nocturnal abysses, full of dormant storms and the unknown voices of nameless ancestors.

There is no attempt to get away from the weight of the past; his grandfather’s portrait looms ever-present in the back of his mind through an endless series of parades and formal conversation. Initially, Trotta thrives on the familiarity contained within repetition, and even strives to adapt to the absurdities that life inevitably produces. Roth creates a hugely awkward and touching scene where Trotta attempts a personal conversation with his valet, Onufri:

So where are you off tonight?” asked Carl Joseph, still staring into the troops’ quarters. “See girl!” said Onufri. It was the first time the Lieutenant had said du to him. “To see any girl in particular?” asked Carl Joesph. “Katharina!” said Onufri. You could hear him standing ‘to attention’. ‘At ease!’ ordered Carl Joseph. He heard Onufri slide his right foot in front of his left.

‘What’s she look like, then, your Katharina?’ asked Carl Joseph. ‘Lieutenant, beg to report, sir, big white breasts!’

‘Big white breasts, eh!’ The Lieutenant cupped his hands and felt a cool memory of Kathi’s breasts. She was dead now, dead!

They get from tits to death in a masterfully short space of time, and then the time for jollity ends, before the two men leave for their evening assignations at the same time. Disaster strikes, as Onufri feels duty bound to follow his superior officer by remaining behind him at a respectable distance, not talking, of course: “It was loyalty itself following. Each crash was a fresh, curt, stamped affirmation of loyalty from the man to his officer.”

Food is also described in the novel in such fine terms that it came as a surprise on scanning portraits of Roth that he was not morbidly obese. He writes about food in a way that enables it to hover, shimmering, within your reach:

A brown liver pate, studded with coal-black truffles, was presented in a glittering round of ice crystals. A tender breast of roast pheasants loomed all by itself on a snow-white dish, attended by a retinue of green, red, white and yellow vegetables, each in its own blue-and-gold-rimmed bowl with the family crest. In a wide-necked crystal jar were millions upon millions of little grey-black caviar eggs, surrounded by yellow-gold slices of lemon.”

It provides important contrasts between the mostly liquid diet of the armed forces as opposed to the feasts shared by their superiors, to the old fashioned rotating menu of the District Commissioner, whose unravelling becomes clear when he does not comment on being served Sunday’s meal mid-week:

[…] the District Commissioner didn’t say a single word about it. It was as though he were eating a common or garden chop.”  While these were not cuts I had heard of, it remains a source of huge fascination that there was that much variation to the chop in those days, indeed I had not known that this was possible.

Sadly once the menu is disturbed the whole show starts to unravel, the eccentric frontiersman Chojnicki worries about the stability of the Emperor:

An old man with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he’s still able to sit on it.  But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn’t want us any more!

Franz Joseph is depicted as a gentle, shy, abstracted old man, unsure of exactly how old he is, “And the Emperor didn’t like to ask”. He is also terrified of putting out his huge retinue of servants by asking them questions, as he doesn’t want to rock the boat. He ruminates after bestowing a title during a parade:

There. Now the Emperor had made someone happy. He was pleased. He was pleased. He had done a wonderful thing for that Hartenstein. Now the day might begin….Someone whispered to him that the Jews in the village were still waiting for him. They’d been completely forgotten. Oh dear, the Jews as well, thought the Emperor. All right! Have them come! But they’d better hurry. Otherwise he’d be late for the battle.”

The political message running throughout the narrative is hard to ignore – rise up and you only have further to fall – but what I felt was an even more strident message was the distaste Roth seemed to feel for excessive consumption of alcohol. Young Trotta goes from a cognac every so often with his father to the constant intake of 90 proof much, leading him to conclude that “there were afternoons and evenings when it was imperative to drink schnapps”, but taking out his short term memory in the process, inevitably: “he was unable to recall either why his father had come today, or why he was multiplying so extremely, or yet why he, the Lieutenant, was unable to stand up”. With booze comes gambling, these two vices are combined in the doomed character of Captain Wagner, who borrows money of Trotta and yet: “They both knew they were incapable of looking the other in the eye without alcohol.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand seals the time of change at the end of the novel, and with the start of the First World War, young Trotta is seen to end up where he should have been all along: living simply in the country, working on an estate, far from the vices of whisky, wild women and urban bureaucracy.

The Editors

The Book Club Spy: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Paula Fox’s tense novel, set in New York in the early 1970s was out of print between 1992 and 2003; Fox being more prominently known as a writer of children’s books. How much of the book’s appearance on our hit list had to do with the fact that the introduction to the rediscovered edition was by Jonathan Franzen, her most vocal supporter, has not yet been determined. Fox’s life story is almost soap like in its tragedy, with very little spilling over into her fiction – the only watermark left by her foundling beginnings and giving up her own daughter for existence is really what she does not write about – children. This may be reaching, or an example to illustrate the point made in an old Guardian review in Fox’s style: “the impression is of distanced, though not unfeeling, control”.

In the act of keeping within these personal bonds of formality, her characters remain nebulous and unfixed. There is democracy in this lottery of impact, Sarah Churchwell wrote for the TLS that “even the most minor characters can suddenly offer crucial insight, and unsympathetic characters are often the most fascinating: brilliant, unfathomable and raging”. The downside to this is that you end up liking anyone very much – Otto and Sophie, the stars, are a vilely complacent couple with no sense of humour, for starters. There is a moment when the partner of Otto’s law firm, Charlie, looks like he might shape up into a juicy baddie, but then he never really loses his temper properly – the worst thing he can be accused of is taking Sophie for a drink at an inappropriate time of night – but there is no whiff of danger surrounding him. Franzen found him self-righteous – the law firm splits Otto and Charlie have differing views on which clients to represent, the latter vouching for a group described by the former as ‘black sharecroppers’.

Despite the roiling context for the novel’s setting, civil rights actually makes the tiniest of impingements upon the story, perhaps rather like it would have been for white middle class people who – in a blinkered, I’ve just got to buy an omelette pan way – weren’t following events avidly in New York at the time. This is, as an aside, rather well captured in some character arcs of Mad Men, and indeed reflected in the novel’s main event of Sophie being bitten on her hand by a stray cat she has been feeding. This metaphor of biting the feeding hand out of ingratitude is actually quite an effective device for illustrating how grating a picture it is: a complacent, comfortable couple moving into an up and coming part of Brooklyn before it is gentrified, and then shuddering at the lack of welcoming civility they feel they deserve for being so ahead of the game. Brooklyn is “an embattled slum, with pockets of aggressive gentrification”, and the couple even have a second home is in the country, in the non-Hamptons, so far so clever. But there is a price to pay for this forward thinking: the farmhouse (Otto also bought the barn, as a noisy party was once held there) is vandalized, and the caretakers don’t seem that bothered when our heroes raise the alarm in a panic.

In this way the novel is made up of a series of minor threats (the spectre of rabies from the cat bite is apparently the main spur of Sophie’s narrative drive) leading to a non-resolution – Otto and Sophie’s marriage remains intact and indolent despite an episode of laconic infidelity and one of marital rape. There is plenty of sinister material here, tightly crafted, but in making the conscious decision to simply reject any pretence to illusion in her writing, Fox creates a horde of people apparently ‘drearily enslaved by introspection’.

It was this concept that pricked up the ears of Book Club’s President, I must confess to having found it more limiting, true self-knowledge or at the least an honest appraisal of one’s inner life on occasion with reference to others verging on the necessary. Our President then went on to ask the room at large: ‘What was that Beckett we saw where there was an ogre in a bucket?’ A colourful, if confused, exchange ensued: the answer was Endgame, the point being to highlight the dynamic between a divorced couple Sophie visits at one point in the narrative. The two meet up for meals most days, and their willingness to exchange, spar, and honestly assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses without an agenda is one of the more interesting.

Sadly, the consensus on Desperate Characters was not a favourable one. The good news is that Fox was tracked down by her daughter in her seventies, and that sales of Endgame soared immediately after the meeting was adjourned.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Perhaps as a reaction against slightly niche choices over the last few months, the most recent selection was a thriller, whose black jacket bristling with bold orange lettering has mushroomed in tube carriages over the last six months or so. Flynn constructed a cunning thriller in Gone Girl, and doesn’t she know it. Aside from the final 100 pages, which were universally unpopular, the construct seemed to have most of us hooked. The use of the word construct is deliberate – the reader can hear Flynn pitching this book, and asking a younger relative if her depiction of Facebook is realistic – as the reliable equation for a gripping yarn is present here, but so twisted that it takes a while to realize that its claws are entrenched in your forearm, and therein lies the appeal.

The equation is there for a reason: suspecting A only to realize their misdemeanour pales in contrast to B and how could we have ever suspected A is part of the game. An old hand (a club to which I am not yet admitted, having failed to realize the diary was a plant) would ask why goading in the press to lure the culprit out of hiding would work on anyone who was familiar with serial killer roulette, however after this results in the bedraggled baddie appearing on the doorstep for a distinctly bitter reunion, perhaps they won’t mind. And of course rotisserie of those involved in a murder inquiry on television cameras provides entertainment, as Flynn points out, “America loves to see sinners apologize”.

America’s underbelly sags here for the reader’s delectation: bodies are described as ‘hog-tied’, the ugliness of the Midwest is laid bare, and at one point Jello salad is seriously proffered as a dish to be consumed. However, this setting is vital for many of the novel’s more compelling scenes: Amy’s hiding place is spoiled when two other drifters band together to rob her of her getaway fund, and her plan to kill herself (as discussed in London Fields, the final, controlling act of a perfectionist) dissipates. This beacon for sweaty transients is perfectly summed up by the close of one chapter: “The catfish gobble up the guts of their fallen brethren. The dock is left clean.”

Six Feet Under fans may recognize in Amazing Amy a child portrayed by parents who become successful as a result of using their offspring. Regardless, the parents are absorbing in their pitiable absurdity, although a few nobly tried to accuse them of being overly Freudian during our discussion. The fruit of their labours is capable of being wonderfully malicious – waiting until her husband is asleep to rub his fingerprints all over planted evidence – before revealing that the image of herself she projected in order to snare her husband was that of Cool Girl, an ideal composite of lies to get the job done. The only thing that lets her down as a character is her conviction of how bright she is: being self-congratulatory on her diary with the typical narcissism of a psychopath of course makes you question whether this is Flynn praising herself. It is miraculous, upon reflection, that there are no shoehorned references to Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. Compared to Amy, secondary characters like Go and Desi become paper-thin; her husband Nick only fares a little better.

He goes from being a suspect -revealing to you at the end of a chapter that he has told the first of five lies – when in fact his worst secret is his infidelity, a state which gives rise to such inspiring sentences as “It was one of the things I liked best about her, that I could show her things”. What a wordsmith.

The portrayal of a marriage becoming as toxic as it possibly can initially raises the question of proximity leading to intimacy – as opposed to familiarity engendering contempt – before ultimately creating a far darker one: do you stay with someone who continually interests you, or because they are all you know?

The Editors

You can download the book here.

Book Club Spy: The Adversary / Le Grand Meaulnes

On reviewing my notes from last week’s Book Club, various conclusions can be made about the evening shared discussing French literature: that a lot of bread must have been consumed to amass quite so many crumbs, my ability to shovel soup into my slavering maw should be addressed, and I appear to have made no notes at all. Well. This may be related to the moment in the evening when the assembled members agreed that two books were chosen out of blind enthusiasm rather than an exacting decision to analyse two comparable texts. The only thing connecting these books in any way, is the fact that they are both French. As a result, they shall be reviewed briefly, and, more importantly, separately.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere is the result of the author’s obsession with the true story of a mild-mannered mediocrity creating his ideal life through deception, before the inevitable hubristic backlash results in tragedy. Romand gets the girl, children and idyllic home, only when he gets in the car every morning he is not going to the WHO job he describes. He kips and reads in the car all day, funding his life by claiming to invest the funds of his gullible relatives while actually ploughing through them to bankroll his bourgeois existence, and later take his shrewish mistress to restaurants. Once the cash starts to bottom out and the resulting questions can no longer be avoided, he decides to kill everyone in order to cover his tracks. Genius, except he botches killing the mistress, then himself, and is no Hannibal Lecter (sadly) when it comes to the evidence trail and interrogation. He flourishes, Aitken-style, in prison and corresponded with Carrere while he was writing. It remains apparent that he is not quite all there, a strangely passive and pallid figure who burns his house to the ground rather than apply some hardy lateral thinking to his finances. Although this story is extraordinary in terms of bare factual material, the treatment could have benefitted from a few less rhetorical questions. The weedy murderer was not quite colourless enough to create a chilling In Cold Blood vacuum of reason whirring around the meticulously rendered detail, instead the reader is left feeling flat rather than flattened, and irritated that the wife never opened a bank statement for a shared account, never asked her husband enough searing questions to expose him. These words left unsaid coagulate to form a heaviness that was perhaps the ballast holding Romand down.

Julian Barnes may have no reason to doubt the classic status of Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, but then he did not have to contend with pithy nicknames such as Le Grand Snooze provided by his peers.  Augustin Meaulnes leaves his best friend and our narrator to go on an adventure where he stumbles into a wedding in a lovely ruined house and  meets his dream girl before Frantz the groom is jilted, the party comes to a halt and Meaulnes returns to the schoolroom. Finding the girl and reuniting Frantz with his own lost love becomes his mission, as his voyage fundamentally changes the course of his life, and of course the narrator’s, living as he does through his vivacious friend’s story rather than his own quiet existence of unrequited love. The occasion on which Augustin first meets Yvonne he is described to have “stared at that exquisite profile with every atom of his eyes until they were ready to fill with tears”. Operatic language of this height can be attributed to being part of the last gust of Romanticism, combined with the foibles of interpretative translation, but there are few moments like this that actually work, and more like a desperate scrabble not to read like an extended hammy sigh: “My fiancée has disappeared, letting me know that she could not be my wife, that she was a dressmaker and not a princess. I do not know what will become of me. I am going away. I do not wish to live any longer.” This parting note from Frantz before he departs to live as a gypsy neatly sums up the novel’s limitations. Our heroes are either ‘speechless with emotion’ or too restless to sleep, dying of love or searching desperately for a departed figure who may have been nothing more than a dream. As a dream sequence, or a nineteenth- century version of The Virgin Suicides (blurred lenses, lots of floating about absently, very little actual dialogue) it is quite beautiful, and ideal for the true Francophile, but perhaps not for the crabbier reader, or someone who has just made it through a blood-soaked account of a murder set in the present day.

The Editors

Book Club: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Anticipation was intense for this offering (despite the hideous cover given to the reprint), as Pym was revered by both Larkin and Jilly Cooper – the bookends of many a reader’s very existence. The majority of our membership are absolute suckers for an archaic, eccentric English novel and you would have thought that Crome Yellow would have kept us going for at least a few months, but no.  We had to have more of characters who ask themselves questions such as “Could one love an Arthur?”

Jane and Prudence met while the latter was an undergraduate at Oxford. Their friendship survived Jane’s marriage to a vicar, and the novel opens when her move to a country vicarage isolates her more completely from Prudence’s more self-contained life in London. Prudence prides herself on her appearance and her unrequited passion for her employer. She works in a ‘vague cultural organization’ with two harpies who she runs the risk of becoming and uses alcohol in the evening as a prop for her existence. She has a chaste affair with a vain widower in Jane’s village: Fabian Driver initially shows such promise, wearing a ‘carefully casual tweed suit’ and leaving a photo of himself on his wife’s grave before describing the “oppressive presence of three not particularly attractive women at his table”. However, the appeal fades, for us and for Jane.

Fabian is snapped up by Miss Doggett, the germination taking place in the following harvest festival scene which precedes the Carry On franchise by five years:

“What a fine marrow, Mr Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have had so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs Mayhew reverently.

It is for incredible mortifying moments like these that we all ended up hoarding; the minutiae of post-war life that incorporates jumble for Distressed Gentlewomen, a baffling obsession with curtains, and of course food, illustrated wonderfully by this exchange between Jane and her husband:

“Couldn’t we open a tin or something?”

“A tin of what? That’s the point”

“Oh, meat of some kind. Spam or whatever you call it”

“But, darling, there isn’t Spam any more. It came from America during the war and we don’t get it now.”

The couple end up eating at the village’s place to be seen, the Spinning Wheel, blinking like owls. Jane is the star of the tale – married as she is to a Mr Bennett figure, the story arguably lacks a Knightley – as she vaguely navigates whist drives, motherhood, tea parties and theology.  She is full of good advice, providing comfort for Prudence in her donnish way:  “It sounds rather restful in a way, said Jane, doing the best she could, “ to have a negative relationship with somebody,” as well as commenting on how easy it is to fall in love, “Some hollow in the temple, or a square inch of flesh on the wrist, that’s all it need be, really…..” The most glorious Jane moment comes after the male characters have finished sighing with ennui and bemoaning how exhausting they find life to be, “A gloom seems to have fallen on the party,” said Jane. “Perhaps it would be better if we all sat in silence. If the men find life so exhausting, our chatter might disturb them.” She has a huge amount of appeal, a bright if vague presence in a rationed, dingy gloom.

To sum up: Prudence is awful, a look to avoid for anyone employed – however remotely  – in the arts, and Jane’s hamlet existence at moments summed up a vision of a rural Britain that I hope still exists somewhere, free of Spam.

The Editors 

You can download Jane And Prudence here.

Book Club: Moby Dick

A few members of the group requested that this article be given a pithy subtitle with a neat humpback whale pun, but sadly this cannot be done for several reasons. Firstly, the play on words was not good enough, but mainly this is because the members did not rally to Melville closely enough to warrant such favours, despite having been granted in excess of two months to read the book.

Several of their points deserve an airing: it is too long, with an infamous 150 pages of technical whaling jargon. Fortunately there are several rejoinders to this, one provided by the narrator, who cries: “Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint”. Predictably, this is the whale’s fault: “Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

The other was provided by the Book Club’s More Constructive Participants, who pointed out the usefulness of knowing what flensing is, at last. Removing blubber from the carcass of a whale (not the whale, of course) was an arduous process, but no longer shrouded in mystery, along with spermaceti (a misunderstood, much maligned and at one point in history, extremely useful substance).

Stubb (one of the caricatured crew members everyone took to) being “somewhat intemperately fond’ of a steak from the ‘small’ of the whale, and the proud owner of ‘epicurean lips’ was another highlight. He gobbles along with “thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan”, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications”.  Melville then rapidly creates such a strong image of playful, canine sharks that veer from being deeply sinister:

“The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.”

Before they are made to seem almost skittish: “Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and …systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere.”

Herein lies Melville’s genius. Such were his technical accomplishments as an author that he could switch between styles: able to whip up the excitement of the first whale chase, to the tense boredom of waiting for a sail, a fin or even a gust at sea as they malinger on the “watery part of the world”. As Ahab sinks deeper into obsession (and to truly love this book, you must be able to appreciate a certain level of obsession), the novelty of heading to sea wears off in Ishmael and his enthusiasm turns to whining amateurism as a sailor, and everyone sinks into madness as time seems to slow down between key points in the narrative*. With the Pequod’s standoffish and competitive attitude with other ships, the crew understandably tire of each other. Of course the White Whale with all of his cunning proves elusive, and is the undoing of them all, bar Ishmael, who clings to his ‘husband’ Queequeg’s coffin until he is rescued and able to tell his story.

The intelligence of the White Whale himself is subsumed by the matter of his whiteness. This, Ishmael claims in Chapter 42 is “an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific”. It is an absence of colour, a void into which one can fall or project upon unceasingly, and the chapter that Will Self read effectively in The Big Read of Moby Duck in the spring of 2011 exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University. This is available online, and features chapters read by A L Kennedy and China Mieville, though full disclosure; David Cameron reads ‘The Pipe’. Perhaps a pun should feature here. This is a good place to start if this book is still in the maybe/never heap, as the myriad voices keep your mind on that pale gleam on the horizon.

Further reading:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrik recounts the real voyage on which Moby Dick was based, which ended in a different kind of disaster.

Leviathan, or Whale by Philip Hoare. Essential for all whale lovers.

* We all agreed on Ishmael’s apex moment: “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.” Everyone appreciates that kind of dedication to sperm whales.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.