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Posts from the ‘Themes’ Category

The Literature of Oppression: Part 4

Escape to Hell by Muammar Gaddafi

Before he was trapped in a sewage pipe in the desert, buggered with a length of steel piping and killed by a mob holding camera-phones.  Before the female bodyguards, and the poor schoolgirls, and the secret bedroom to which he took them, with its gruesome gynaecological surgery next-door.  Before he came in from the cold, and renounced nuclear weapons, or shook Blair’s hand to close a deal with BP.  Before Lockerbie, and WPC Fletcher, and the IRA.  Before he was called Mad Dog, or Fuzzy-head, or Abu Shafshufa.  Before he took to wearing a furry ushanka-hat with the ear-flaps tied beneath his chin, before he permed his hair, before he dressed like an African chieftain and carried a fly-whisk.

Before all of that, Muammar Gaddafi wrote a story called ‘Escape to Hell’.  We cannot know for certain precisely when he wrote it – but it was likely in the 1980s, when Gaddafi had already been leader of Libya for fifteen years.  By then, his brand of political ideology was becoming more fixed: a peculiar blend of social conservatism, populism, revolutionary socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism.  Gaddafi’s literary style was also on display, and it did not receive a warm reception.  His speeches were rambling and awkward, lurching between standard Arabic, his Bedouin dialect, and Berber tongues.  He liked to coin words in Arabic, but these were laughed at by the intelligentsia in Cairo and Damascus.  And he had published The Green Book as a manifesto of his political philosophy – but this was a poorly-written and widely-mocked collection of aphorisms, bought by tourists as a trinket and recited by school-children in a drone.

* * *

Hardly surprising, then, that Escape to Hell did not attract much attention when it was published in 1993 in a collection of short-stories.  In the bookshops of Tripoli and Benghazi, loyal followers might have bought a copy, but even they must have been underwhelmed by the cover: a green field and a bright sun, drawn in childish bright colours.



And Escape to Hell begins, as uninspiringly as its cover, as a kind of Gaddafi memoir.  There are odd allusions to history, to leaders overthrown by their people, but they feel forced and unnatural. But it is also disarmingly honest: Gaddafi describes his fear of the mob, his fear of his father (who beat him), and his loneliness as a poor Bedouin from the desert in smart, urbane Tripoli.

Having rambled for five or six pages, the reader might be forgiven for shutting the book, bored. He might think that, after all, perhaps Colonel Gaddafi just felt unloved, and out-of-place, and scared.  Maybe that explains it all.

The more cynical reader might even dismiss this outpouring as a clever ruse: self-deprecating to appeal to the wealthy burghers of Tripoli and Benghazi who had never really trusted this upstart shepherd’s boy.  “At least,” Gaddafi wanted them to think, “this Colonel knows his place. He seems to have a healthy fear of us, the people — maybe we can keep him in check after all.  Best to stick with him for a little while longer.”

Keep on reading.  It gets much better.  Without warning, Gaddafi drops all the introspection, all the talk about his fears and his father.  His writing comes to life. It is as though Gaddafi has stepped away from the lectern, jumped down from the podium, two steps at a time, run through the auditorium to where you are sitting, grabbed you by the collar and lifted you out of your seat.

Now he is shouting at you with a truer voice, all historical allusion and affected modesty thrown aside. Gaddafi changes tone abruptly; now he wants to tell the story of how he escaped to Hell.  It is the story of a journey into the desert, away from the mob he so fears, and a journey to solitude and tranquility. And it begins with Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli, hounded by the reader, by the mob.

Your very breath bothers me, invading and violating my privacy; it seeks to squeeze me dry, greedily devouring my essence, licking up my sweat and sucking in my breath.  Then it pauses, to give me a short breathing-space, before it attacks me again.  Your breath chases me like a rabid dog, is saliva dripping in the street of your modern city of insanity.  When I flee, it continues to chase me through cobwebs and esparto.  So I decided to escape to Hell, if only to save myself.

This is pretty good writing, at least stylistically.  Indeed, the whole of the second half of Escape to Hell — the description of Gaddafi’s journey to Hell — is better than you would expect.  The odd thing is that, as you read, you find yourself hearing echoes of great European literature.  After all, the journey to Hell — the descent to the Underworld — is a subject tackled by the greatest writers of all, by Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others.  That is not to say Gaddafi ranks among such great writers — only that there is a ring of literary truth in his writing that we also hear in the finest descriptions of Hell.

Reading the passage above, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides (458 BC); of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, the prince who killed his mother and was pursued for his crime by those hellish demons, the Furies — “Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood, / Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you, / Waste him with new pursuit — swift, hound him down!

Or, having fled Tripoli, take the description of the beginning of the road into the desert. Gaddafi says: “The path to hell is covered with an unending natural carpet, which I walked along merrily and happily.  When the carpet came to an end, I found the road covered with fine sand. […] I stopped to choose the shortest path to take.”  At once, we think of the famous opening verses of Dante’s Hell — “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone”.

And when Gaddafi says that he has escaped to the desert to flee the hellish, hounding crowds of Tripoli, to escape the mob, we think of the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, about people locked in a room in the afterlife: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” “Hell is other people.”

The cynic will say that Gaddafi has cribbed these allusions from European literature – so much for the illiterate, small-time country boy we encountered in the first half.  Gaddafi was cunning; more clever than he seemed; he must have been pretty well-read.  But, sneers the cynic, Gaddafi was no writer — The Green Book, and all those mad, rambling speeches are proof enough of that — so he can hardly be expected simply to have chanced upon the same turns of phrase as an ancient Greek dramatist, or a Renaissance poet, or an existentialist playwright. No, he was just a cheat, using high literature to make his point, turning beauty to his foul ends.

I disagree.  It is true that the second half of Escape to Hell is more convincing than the autobiographical first.  Whatever his ultimate goal, by describing his escape to the tranquility of the desert, Gaddafi expresses far more eloquently his fear of the Libyan people than he does in the prosaic first half of the story, where his openness and honesty is so earnest that even the most naïf reader must suspect its authenticity.

Instead, the journey to Hell rings true.  Gaddafi finds in the desert a lonely serenity, far away from the city — “How beautiful hell is compared to your city!”, he tells the reader.  I have heard this sentiment expressed by many who have been in the deserts of the Middle East. From young Egyptians fleeing smoggy Cairo for a weekend’s camping under the stars, to an Omani fisherman who liked nothing more than taking a trip into the desert and away from the treacherous sea. After he had crossed the sands of the Empty Quarter with tribesmen of the Rashid, the greatest British Arabist of all, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote something remarkably similar:

When I first entered the sands I was bewildered by the utter unfamiliarity of my surroundings and frightened by the feeling that I had only to be separated from my companions to be completely lost in the maze of dunes. Now, like any Rashid, I regarded the Sands as a place of refuge, somewhere where our enemies could not follow us, and I disliked the idea of leaving the shelter the afforded.

It is for this truth — both literary and simple — that Gaddafi’s description of his journey to Hell is so powerful. It is for this reason that Escape to Hell is good writing.

* * *

In Escape to Hell, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli. He would do so again.  In 2011, when the tide of the civil war in Libya had turned against him and the rebels were in Tripoli, Gaddafi gathered his bodyguard and drove out to the sandy wastes, back towards Sirte, his hometown in the desert.

One can imagine that, driving through the sand-dunes in a small convoy, far away now from the shells and the bombs, Gaddafi felt again the calm about which he wrote in Escape to Hell.  Then, ambushed by rebels on the desert road, his followers were killed and Gaddafi was dragged from his hiding-place in a sewage pipe.  There, in the sands, Gaddafi met his end at the hands of a mob.  He had tried to escape, and now he is in Hell.

 George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs.  Follow George on Twitter: @gergis

The Literature of Escapism: Part 2

There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘escapism’ as “the tendency to seek distraction from reality by engaging in entertainment or fantasy.”  The flight from the drudgery of everyday existence was considered in the first post in this series, which explored the ability of fantasy literature to act as the vehicle for our excursions into the whimsy of the mind.  But this is not, of course, the only way we seek to escape from the monotony of modern life, and the industry that benefits most from our escapist tendencies is not fantasy literature (although if you include film and television this might upset the balance slightly) but tourism.  We get tired of routine – “métro boulot dodo” – so we channel our anxiety into thoughts of removing ourselves physically from our environment, albeit temporarily, and thanks to advances in modern transport and package holiday deals we can do exactly that.  Which is why images such as the one below have taken such a prominent place in the collective subconscious.


By the mid-1990s mass tourism to South East Asia in particular had become such a well-recognised phenomenon that Alex Garland wrote a book about it.  The Beach is a comment on the human drive to escape from everything and everyone and to find perfection in a real place, with the moral of the story being that for various reasons this real place is just another fantasy, in part because of what is apparently known in the industry as the “double bind” paradox; the fact that a tourist cannot completely escape to an untouched paradise because he must take himself on the trip, thus contaminating whatever he finds with his own tourist presence.  Of course, it doesn’t help if as well as cameras and swimming trunks the tourist also brings with him an addiction to video games (the clear sign of a born fantasist), some unrequited lust and an underlying propensity to murder his fellow man in high-pressure situations.  What Garland manages to convey effectively, however, is the fact that for many people perfection is never good enough: after spending a while in paradise, Richard, the protagonist, becomes listless and starts fantasising in a darker direction:

It was at that point I realized my mistake, because what I registered, whilst entertaining this optimistic thought, was disappointment.  The strange truth was that I didn’t want them to leave.  Neither, as the root of my frustration, did I want them to stay put.  And that left only one possibility: The worst-case scenario was the best-case scenario.  I wanted them to come.”


Another novel that takes mass tourism to Thailand as one of its central themes is Michel Houellebecq’s Platform.  The protagonist, Michel, is aware of the tourism double bind and is untroubled by it, one passage of the novel even refers to Garland’s novel – “I vaguely remembered the book, which tells the story of a bunch of backpackers in search of an unspoiled island” – Michel is not a fantasist and is comfortable with the reality of his status as a tourist.  For Michel, paradise is sex, and it is a paradise that he shares for much of the novel with his girlfriend Valérie.  Not being an ambitious fantasist like Richard, however, he is content to inhabit his earthly paradise for as long as possible, until it is ultimately shattered by the external forces of religious fanaticism, arguably the most disturbing escapism of all.  Platform is a novel that confronts this and all kinds of escapism and argues for an existentialist approach to life, that is, an approach that makes the most of the here and now without concerning itself too much with moralism or the hereafter.  In fact, it’s obvious that in many ways Michel is a reinterpretation of Camus’ character Meursault from L’Étranger, albeit remodelled for the present day.  Both share an unbridled enthusiasm for sex, a marked disregard for the opinion of others and a profound revulsion for organised religion.  However, noting L’Étranger’s success in shocking a generation of largely Catholic French men and women in the 1940s, Houellebecq adopts the same tactic, but upgraded for the twenty-first century.  As Julian Barnes has noted in an essay from his collection Through the Window, Houellebecq must slap harder, and slap harder he does:

The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the prophet already existed here on earth: there were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred metres of our hotel.”

 The Editors

The Literature of Escapism: Part 1

The assumed purpose of reading a piece of escapist literature is to escape from reality, and while this in itself is no bad thing when taken in moderation, it may also be too literal a take on a seam of fiction that has rather more going for it. Below is an initial roundup of a personal selection of science-fiction and fantasy fiction, which reside under the umbrella of escapism; it in no way forms a definitive list, in fact it barely scratches the surface, and indeed that is where you, the reader, are meant to come in.

First, however, I would like to deal with the slightly dated view that escapism represents the polar opposite of realism, when in fact it can be both mirror and hammer of everyday life. To butcher Brecht. Reading fiction that could be loosely described as fantastical used to be a way of escaping life if it wasn’t to your taste, one example being C S Lewis’s Narnia providing his heroes with a universe far from wartime England. While we no longer need to divert the mind from the persistent threat of Nazi bombing raids, everyone arguably needs to retreat to some extent once in a while, we wouldn’t have holidays otherwise. But once you’re back, Asimov does not need to be condemned to deep storage along with Factor 30. He will do perfectly well for a commute, or a Sunday afternoon. I will admit that some Gibson is not suitable for reading directly before going to sleep, as you are liable to twitch and fret in a world of his making in your subconscious, and find the habitual world a little slow on waking. This may only extend to the deeply gullible and those who tend to watch a certain kind of film to excess. It took me a long time to admit that hoverboards really don’t exist. Yet.

To escape is a vacation for the mind and body; ideally not allowing the mind to become entirely vacant. While this approach to reading is not for snobs – some titles do indeed feature amulets, fabled weapons and misty unclad maidens – a rubbish title can conceal imaginative feats (of varying levels of intensity) in recognizable worlds. It is not all unrecognizable geography on Mars: George R R Martin’s appeal partially originates from that fact that his treacherous dynasties often chime with the bloodier chapters of European history. The habit of taking Lannister relatives as hostage before bumping them off in moments of acute ire after losing a battle is not galaxies away from Richard III’s treatment of the Princes in the Tower. In this way, escapist fiction is not a form of “literary pacifier” (in the words of Lev Grossman), it is however an entirely different kind of story. The writer is unburdened by some of fiction’s more restrictive traditions (such as time and space) but often recognizes that well drawn characters have universal power, Joe Abercrombie writes strong, believable and punchy female characters, for example. Hovering slightly outside our usual frame of reference can make you re-examine established ways of recounting a tale. Those obdurate Tolkien fans may hunt loyally for universal truths in the filmflop The Hobbit in vain, however this was because reading his books when you were little would entirely change your attitude to camping (how often does Frodo sleep in a bed?), food (is eating fruit cake like lembas?) and indeed spiders (how big can they get, REALLY). A childhood trip to see bluebells in the wood no longer ended with me in the car winding the windows up so I could get on with my book undisturbed, now I would eye the trees beadily, knowing that they were capable of playing up if treated carelessly.

Science and fantasy fiction also present effective ways of depicting reality – there is still death and deceit – they are often depicted in more lurid ways,however. In 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in The Humanist about this very topic, noting, “it seem[s] rather ironic to me that science fiction is continually lumped under the heading  of ‘escape literature,’ and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact.  Yet it does not escape into the ‘isn’t’ as most fiction does, or the ‘never was’ as fantasy does, but into the ‘might very well be.’  In its best phases, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality.” Even if you don’t agree with that, the fact is that the ubiquity of this kind of fiction virtually guarantees everyone has had contact with it. This is a self-defeating ignore it if you want but it is still coming type argument, but at the very least this genre deserves some recognition.

If your nostrils are still flaring at this point, then perhaps David Foster Wallace’s venture into the world of science fiction, or A S Byatt’s fairy story The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye could go some way towards changing your mind.  Michael Chabon manages to combine time travel and detective fiction extremely successfully, if you are more of a Raymond Chandler fan.  Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is said to be doing very well, hopefully enabling more women to read and then write this sort of fiction.

The time is not yet right to write yet more about Neil Gaiman (see our best books of 2012 post) but he certainly deserves a passing mention for American Gods and Neverwhere (recently made into a radio play by the BBC). the latter title features a darker, inverted London Below beneath the more established version of the city, whose citizens live in fear of the Angel of Islington, and Hammersmith is a living breathing giant of a man. Patrick Rothfuss has written the first two parts of a trilogy (The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear) about a brilliant magus with fiery hair whose story deserves more than my pithy summary. Suffice it to say the story is incredibly well mapped, the characters wonderful and every detail sucks you in until you too will be on poor Rothfuss’s blog pestering him about the publication date of the final installment. Scott Lynch is spared this indignity as the final part of his Locke Lamora trilogy comes out next month. I know this because I bullied a friend into enquiring in several New York bookshops until someone kindly explained that Google easily reveals the information required. I chose not to believe this, and wanted to get my mitts on it sooner via some sub-cultural connection with access to recently published tomes of fantasy fiction. Herein lies the problem: the secret is out. These books are really, really good as well as addictive. The sub-culture no longer exists, and holds sway in broad daylight, thanks to Phillip Pullman and China Mielville and every other creator of fully formed worlds sitting on top of our own. Or within it. The hook is the resemblance to our world as we know it, as Ray Bradbury summarized: “science fiction is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

The literature of escapism offers the reader another form of elsewhere.

The Editors

Don Quixote 2: courage and identity

“I know who I am,” said Don Quixote, “and I know I can be not only those I have mentioned, but the Twelve Peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly.” 

Don Quixote’s journey out of La Mancha is a journey out of himself. While Don Quixote sleeps off the injuries incurred in his first three days of adventuring, the priest and the barber examine the library from which Don Quixote’s very lucid and seemingly preposterous ideas appear to emanate. They do not recognise the exertion by which imagination is churned by work into life. “The housekeeper agreed, so great was the desire of the two women to see the death of those innocents; but the priest was not in favour of doing so without even reading the titles first.”

Don Quixote’s treatment by his niece and his neighbours is paralleled by the treatment of his books – arbitrary and inconsistent: “The author of that book,” said the priest, “was the same one who composed Garden of Flowers, and the truth is I can’t decide which of the two is more true, or I should say, less false; all I can say is that this one goes to the corral, because it is silly and arrogant.” 

“This book,” said the barber, opening another one, “is the The Ten Books of Fortune in Love, composed by Antonio de Lofraso, a Sardinian poet.” “By the orders I received,” said the priest, “since Apollo was Apollo, and the muses muses, and poets poets, no book as amusing or nonsensical has ever been written, and since, in its way, it is the best and most unusual book of its kind that has seen the light of day, anyone who has not read it can assume that he has never read anything entertaining. Give it to me, friend, for I value finding it more than if I were given a cassock of rich Florentine cloth.”

In Don Quixote, Cervantes creates a problem for the reader; to laugh at Don Quixote’s idiocy or admire his courage? The boundary between idiocy and courage is exposed to be very fine; infinitessimal. Don Quixote sets out on a journey which is a well researched (for who has read over 100 volumes on any subject without being well versed in it) imitation of the chivalric tales in his library. Don Quixote’s journey is one away from accepted social norms, away from the norms of chivalry but exposing, at the same time, the gulf between reality and imagination. What difference is it to be knighted by a king or a publican? What difference is it to be beaten by a knight or a mule driver, to be fed by a prostitute or a princess?

Indeed it is against social norms that Don Quixote wins the greatest victories. Don Quixote interprets the world he finds on his journey through the chivalric tales he has read and learned about. This is the narrative by which he explains the world around him, as others choose to refer themselves to a god or philosophy or a religion – Don Quixote says he is a knight errant – even Cervantes use of the word errant for itinerant carrying it’s double meaning of wayward, erroneous as well as wandering reflects a double edge of satire and accuracy – even as Cervantes satirises Don Quixote so he satirises the reader who sees Don Quixote only as an idiot to be laughed at – (and in the library: The Mirror of Chivalry).

All this by way of saying: Don Quixote lying pulped and motionless on the donkey of his neighbour having been beaten by a passing mule driver says “I know who I am”  and in subtext: ‘this is my choice and I have made it freely’ and that is a courage it is not so easy to satirise.

The Editors

21. Why Read?

Reading led me to this series and its most recent entry (20), with its suggestion of a novel use for the marrow. Now that I have imagined an infant Augusta Pownall painstakingly pricking messages that would never be read into the skins of marrows, with that single-minded intensity of concentration that is largely confined to young children, I don’t care to contemplate a life without that image.

Reading is synonymous with the imagination, but it often reminds me why reality is worth bothering with. It forces us to observe and consider, to look and listen, not just talk – everyone’s got stories to tell, and hearing them is how we learn to understand the world. Talking about reading is almost as important as reading itself because it gives us shared language and frames of reference, but above all helps us make sense of our lives and the people in them.

So reading anchors us; it also offers escape of course. Absorption in lives, times, worlds, stories and ideas which are not your own is a voyeuristic pleasure that will never lose its power. The second-skin thrill of reading can be found in a few other places, but never so easily or so endlessly. There is no such thing as diminishing returns here: you can always revisit favourite voices and worlds, but there will always be new ones to get lost in.

No other medium can match the bottomless variety of books: all tastes are catered for. Your access to experience is limited by social circle and a host of other factors; your access to books is unfettered. Everything we’ve done or thought is out there between two covers. Like the idea of hitting Vegas with a head full of uppers and a car full of melons but can’t afford the plane ticket? Hunter S. Thomson at your service. Unafraid of death but not sure why? Seneca is your man.

Books not only admit you to universes of new experience, you can use them to deflect experiences you’d rather not have. We have all been sat next to someone who turns slightly towards you at the start of a long journey, ready to reach across the gulf of loneliness and make a human connection. Ostentatiously opening Chapter 17 will soon shut them up.

I regularly appal friends and family with my sense of direction. I have only the vaguest, shadowy notion of where things are in places I’ve known all my life. Blame books. I had something more important than geography to do in my childhood; the way I orientate myself is never going to revolve around landmarks, compass points or maps. Reading has taught me how to think, how to talk and, now, how to tattoo messages on marrows for those who know where to look for them.

Harry Joll

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

20. Why Read?

If you were to ask me why I read the fundamental reason is because I was read to by my parents, day in day out, as they helicoptered banana into my greedy infant mouth, and ever since. My father gallantly ploughed through all of The Adventures of Pinocchio, a considerable task that took the best part of six months. Every evening he pleaded with me and my sister for an alternative, but we solemnly instructed him to read on. Later, when I paused to peel my own bananas, and looked around me, I saw shelf upon shelf of books, books, books.

Downstairs in the dining room, the top two shelves were end to end orange Penguin paperbacks from my parents’ student days. Invariably printed on non-acid-free paper, they haven’t aged well. The bottom rows were cookbooks suggesting delicacies from all corners of the globe, but mainly the French provinces. Upstairs in the study were exhibition catalogues, glossy and technicolour and in our bedrooms at the top of the house were the books we actually read. Little has changed. For two summers I ignored every shelf and developed more idiosyncratic pastimes, namely perving on a blameless builder constructing a wall at the end of our garden, and growing marrows, the skins of which I tattooed with messages to the poor fuckers set to receive the hulking beasts as a present. These were impossible to re-gift, or indeed to digest. The rest of the time, I dipped in and out of books, but was never a great reader.

Come secondary school, I encountered such debilitating bitchiness that it was a comfort to read about people being nice to each other, or at the very least, interesting. Enid Blyton was, by all accounts, a bitch of epic proportions, but St. Clare’s and Malory Towers were happier parallels of my own boarding life. I would have trusted the schoolgirl heroine, Darrell Rivers, with my life, at a stage when I didn’t trust those around me not to ruin it. In this fictional utopia, good friendships seemed possible. ‘More’ magazine offered sage advice on the ins and outs, so to speak, of boys. As did The Wife of Bath, up to a point, but I couldn’t pull off her bluster in a training bra and braces. From the pages of books I learnt to empathise; to understand that someone might be upset, and why. From books I gathered up all the information I needed to feel clever, and to prove it. And so to university, where I swapped the Roman alphabet for the hiragana and kanji of Japan, and later swapped right back.

Now my friends are all much cleverer than me, and read voraciously. I read to keep up as much as for pleasure. We’re all doing things that we might have imagined, had we taken the time to think about it, but because these jobs are smaller than our dreams, we trawl through every written word in a bid to project ourselves into another world. If we are to do more than simply exist in our busy lives, we need books to help us.

Augusta Pownall

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