Sunday, 19 May 2019

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald


A bizarre, hilarious, and bleak book.  It's a fictionalization of the life of an obscure eighteenth century German philosopher and writer. Don't let this put off.  It focuses particularly on the part where he falls madly in love with a twelve year old.  Don't let this put you off either.  The thing's a masterpiece.  

It was written when Fitzgerald was seventy-eight years old, and it shows: this lady is no longer playing.  I can't quite tell you what is so wonderful about this book, and I also can't tell you how she does it, but I think it has something to do with the rigour and honesty that can come with old age, if we are lucky.  First, there is the joy of the way she creates the eighteenth century.  The food is horrifying. Here is a dinner: 
 . . . the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage water, one of cows’ udders flavoured with nutmeg.
It sounds like a hipster restaurant in Haringey.  Or here is whats on offer at a fair they have been looking forward to - "Kesselfleish – the ears, snout and strips of fat from a pig’s neck boiled with peppermint schnapps."  One young lady has no one to take her to the fair, and is commiserated with:   
A fine young woman still, what a pity she had no affianced to treat her to a pig’s nostril!
Or here is a mother and her daughter, talking about a guest's room: 
"And there is no chair in the room where he might put his clothes at night."  "His clothes! I have not undressed myself at night, even in summer, for I think twelve years.” “And yet you’ve given birth to eight of us!” cried Sidonie.  “God in heaven spare me a marriage like yours!”
In the midst of all this domesticity is the protagonist's (Fritz) idealistic young desire to be free of earthly things and to find a logic that unites all things. He is inspired at university by the philosopher Fichte:
Fichte was speaking of the philosophy of Kant, which, fortunately, he had been able to improve upon greatly.  Kant believed in the external world.  Even though it is only known to use through our senses and our own experience, still, it is there.  This, Fichte was saying, was nothing but an old man’s weakness
He is a talker and a dreamer, who thinks he can see beyond the everyday reality of things.  Here he is talking away to a busy young woman:
…all though he could live without love, he told her, he could not live without friendship.  All was confessed, he talked perpetually.  Neither the sewing nor the forewinter sausage-chopping deterred him. 
So extreme an idealist is he that somehow when he falls in love with this twelve year old, who is not very pretty nor very bright, you somehow believe in his sincerity.  It is gross, but to be fair he does not attempt to sleep with her and in any case most women were married at fourteen.  It makes no odds, in any case, because she is dead of TB before she is fifteen, after some operations without anaesthetic that are almost as horrifying as the soups above.  Fritz marries someone else, but is dead himself in under three years, also of TB; and so are almost all his siblings. 

I mean, thank god for BCG.  I have not done a good job of explaining this novel, but that is I think because I cannot.  I need to re-read it to try and understand it.


Monday, 6 May 2019

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman


I decided I needed to re-read this wonderful book.  Reading it this second time I am struck less by the immediate story - the painful first love - as by the background story: the many years there were to mourn that first love.  I am surprised the first time I did not get that so clearly.  Here Elio is, for example, at the war memorial where he first (sort of) told Oliver he was interested in him: 

I wondered how many people here still remembered the young men they’d lost on the Piave River.  You’d have to be at least eighty years old today to have known them.  And at least one hundred, if not more, to have been older than they were then.  At one hundred, surely you must learn to overcome loss and grief – or do they hound you till the bitter end? At one hundred, siblings forget, sons forget, loved ones forget, no one remembers everything, even the most devastated forget to remember.  . .  In thirty or forty years, I’ll come back here and think back on a conversation I knew I’d never forget, much as I might want to someday.  I’d come here with my wife, my children, show them the sights, point to the bay, the local caffes, Le Danzig, the Grand Hotel.  Then I’d stand here and ask the statue and the straw-backed chairs and shaky wooden tables to remind me of someone called Oliver. 

I was also struck again with how wonderfully the summer was evoked, and an overwhelming urge to move to Italy and ideally to wherever this book takes place specifically.  This is what comes of reading in winter.  Let's just quote a length again, because it's my blog and I can do what I feel like: 
I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight. The lyric cast of the sun, the teeming fields with tall plants nodding away under the intense midafternoon heat, the squeak of our wooden floors, or the scrape of the clay ashtray pushed ever so lightly on the marble slab that used to sit on my nightstand. I knew that our minutes were numbered, but I didn't dare count them, just as I knew where all this was headed, but I didn't care to read the signposts. This was a time when I intentionally failed to drop bread crumbs for my return journey; instead, I ate them. He could turn out to be a creep; he could change me or ruin me forever, while time and gossip might ultimately disembowel everything we shared and trim the whole thing down till nothing but fish bones remained. I might miss this day, or I might do far better, but I'd always know that on those afternoons in my bedroom I had held my moment
God it's an amazing book.  I don't think I'll read anything else by Aciman.  I see his next most popular book has a similar theme, and I don't want to be able to see through his tricks.  (I learnt that lesson when BLOOD MERIDIAN destroyed THE ROAD).

APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA by John O’Hara


I read this in my most absolute favourite format: an out of circulation library book.  Even better, it had a torn dust jacket.  I just love that dirty smell and the feeling that a book has passed through many hands. 

This is a story about a man who destroys his life over the course of a few days. It’s not totally clear why, but as a starter for ten I’d say he’s an alcoholic with untreated depression.  He offends a major customer, cheats on his wife, and etc.  In a way it looked kind of amazing.  He absolutely burns his bourgeois life to the ground. 

What I found especially interesting was how explicit it was, for a book written in 1934.  Try this, the opening paragraph:

 OUR STORY opens in the mind of Luther L. (L for LeRoy) Fliegler, who is lying in his bed, not thinking of anything, but just aware of sounds, conscious of his own breathing, and sensitive to his own heartbeats. Lying beside him is his wife, lying on her right side and enjoying her sleep. She has earned her sleep, for it is Christmas morning, strictly speaking, and all the day before she has worked like a dog, cleaning the turkey and baking things, and, until a few hours ago, trimming the tree. The awful proximity of his heartbeats makes Luther Fliegler begin to want his wife a little, but Irma can say no when she is tired. It is too much trouble, she says when she is tired, and she won’t take any chances. Three children is enough; three children in ten years. So Luther Fliegler does not reach out for her. It is Christmas morning, and he will do her the favor of letting her enjoy her sleep; a favor which she will never know he did for her. And it is a favor, all right, because Irma likes Christmas too, and on this one morning she might not mind the trouble, might be willing to take a chance. Luther Fliegler more actively stifled the little temptation and thought the hell with it, and then turned and put his hands around his wife’s waist and caressed the little rubber tire of flesh across her diaphragm. She began to stir and then she opened her eyes and said: “My God, Lute, what are you doing?” “Merry Christmas,” he said.


This is more middle aged sex than I was ready for.  It also gives you a good sense of the energy of the writing. There are a huge range of characters who the protagonist annoys or upsets, and they are all drawn with vigour. I'm surprised neither this author nor this book are not more famous. 

Saturday, 4 May 2019

BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage


A pregnant teenage girl in the 1950s made a lot of people very angry. Most particularly, in the case of this autobiography, the teenage girl herself.  Written when Lorna Sage was an old woman, this memoir of her early life still burns with rage, and I found it wonderful and curiously inspirational. 

Sage spent much of her childhood with her grandparents, a vicar and his wife.  Here are the opening two paragraphs:
Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on.  He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn't get up to much. I was a sort of hobble, he was my minder and I was his. He'd have liked to get further away, but petrol was rationed. The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it - except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him.Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime's mutual loathing. In life, though, she never invaded his patch; once inside the churchyard gate he was on his own ground, in his element. He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality. He had a scar down his hollow cheek, too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came home pissed and incapable.
Yikes!  Indeed, this is a non-traditional vicarage.  The vicar hates his humdrum life and fills it with liquor and (when he can) with women.  Here’s his first affair, with the local nurse: 
He and Nurse Burgess, now MB for short in the diary, pedal to paradise every day of the week, including Sunday. Trailing a cloud of midges, they'd hump their bikes off the road, through some muddy gateway and, behind the hedge, hug and knead each other among the mallows and Queen Anne's lace and nettles dusty with pollen.
(Side point: she does actually have her grandpa's diaries, which are bizarrely covered in comments from her Grandma!).  Anyway, let me say: God, I love the writing.  Regular readers will know how I like to quote at length from books I really like, and I am really having to restrain myself from just typing out the whole book into this post.  In any case, the affair comes out, acrimoniously; but this is a small town in the country so they all are trapped together.  Indeed, when the grandpa is long dead the nurse starts visiting the grandma everyday for her insulin injections. Sage comments:
This is another aspect of rural life that’s lost now that the middle-class diaspora has populated the countryside with property-owning vagrants: the peculiar hell of having to live with such substantial ghosts from your past. 
She is hilarious on the countryside in general.  Here’s an interesting insight, from her time helping out on local farms: 
Farming life seemed a perpetual-motion machine, or an effect of gravity, something cyclic and unstoppable.  Actually, it was because this kind of small-scale tenant farming was vanishing that the impression was so strong.  Ways of life have been dying out in rural England time out of mind, at least for two hundred and fifty years since the great wave of eighteenth century enclosures.  It’s the sense of an ending that’s timeless.  The best symbol of this version of pastoral is a rusting and discarded piece of farm machinery in the corner of a field. 
The book is fully of interesting views on the world.  Here she is on her grandparents, for example, and the fact they mostly lived off their son-in-law:
The grandparents weren’t grateful.  They both felt so cheated by life, they have their histories of grievances so well worked out, that they were owed service, handouts, anything that was going . . . . Did they love me?  The question is beside the point, somehow.  Certainly they each spoiled me, mainly by giving me the false impression that I was entitled to attention nearly all the time.  They played.  They were like children, if you consider one of the things about being a child is that you are a parasite of sorts and have to brazen it out self-righteously. 
But leaving aside the quality of the writing, and the interesting view on the world, mostly what I love is the temper.  You don’t often get to hear the true voice of women of that period.  Here she is, once she gets pregnant:
My parents’ plan was that I should go to a Church Home for Unmarried Mothers, where you repented on your knees (scrubbed floors, said prayers), had your baby (which was promptly adopted by proper married people) and returned home humble and hollow eyed.  Everyone would magnanimously pretend that nothing had happened, so long as you never seemed to be having a good time or  developing too high an opinion of yourself – from now on you could count yourself lucky if they let you learn shorthand and typing.  . . My father was appalled and also triumphant.  Just as in the old days he’d done his best to beat vicarage corruption out of me, now he righteously denounced me for my scandalous offence against decency, monogamy, and my mother.  He galloped off on his high horse, chivalrously saving her once again from the horrible past. . . .
Rest assured, she does not go to the Church Home. Her boyfriend rather heroically marries her, so she can still go on to university, and they both get Firsts.  But this triumph over adversity is less interesting than the adversity, and the fury with which she meets the adversity.  Here, for example, is her experience of a cosmetics demonstration at school:

. . make-up that made you look neat, presentable, vulnerable; serviceable make-up that once you’d left school would last all day behind a secretary’s desk with judicious touching-up; make-up for getting engaged, with pink nail varnish to math the lipstick when you showed off your ring.  And above all prophylactic make-up.  That particular shade of pink lipstick, the hint of turquoise in the awful eyeshadow, were contraceptives.  They spelled heavy petting, waiting, saving for a semi.  The only contraception available to adolescent girls was mythological, back in 1957, so why not Pond’s Vanishing Cream?  Gail and I held hands throughout this scary demonstration of Whitchurch sexual realpolitik. 

Okay I've got to stop.  But really it's hilarious and brilliant and made me feel less alone in the world.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by JL Carr

I am in what I assume is the  minority of readers who come to this classic by way of the Gambia.  I always like to read a book set in the country I'm visiting, and so I read JL Carr's A SEASON IN SINJI when on holiday there. I enjoyed it, so thought I would read this one, which is by far his more famous work.

It shares a lot of similarities with SINJI, involving war veterans, reflections on niche aspects of English culture, and a ragingly homosexual undertone throughout.  Just like the other one, it is about two men who find they have a lot in common but somehow are mysteriously separated by the end which is apparently tragic despite them being so extremely straight.

That's pretty much it: two guys become friends over the course of a month and then it ends.

I did enjoy the way in which they met - as veterans they recognized each other.  One has a facial tic, and almost as soon as they meet the other says:
 "Oh come on," he said. "I don't need to be told you didn't catch that twitch on the Great Eastern Railway, so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place."
I would be interested to know the extent to which that really is the experience of verterans; that they find each other easy to spot.  Much of the book is about church restoration, which is more interesting than it sounds.  I also therefore enjoyed learning about religious architecture; here for example is an offhand comment about a church:
It was an off-the-peg job: evidently there had been no medieval wool boom in these parts.  This had been starveling country, every stone an extortion.  
How interesting!  Who knew there was a medieval wool boom and that you could see it in churches.
Overall, though, I'm not sure why this is such a classic.  I found it a bit plotless and a little dull.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: A TALE OF THE LAKE DISTRICT by James Rebanks

I have never read a book so dripping with privilege.  I read it weeks ago and it still makes me feel cross every time I think about it.  

It started off on a bad note, in the Introduction, where he tells us: 
If we want to understand the people in the foothills of Afghanistan, we may need to try and understand the people in the foothills of England first
That 'we' made me mad - the implicit assumption that everyone reading this book has the same frame of reference and must be British.

And mentioning Afghanistan is a particularly bad move.  The book is about his life as a shepherd in the Lake District.  He struggles to make ends meet, because sheep farming in that context is fundamentally not economically feasible.  Whereas other people when they are in situations where their preferred life is now longer economically feasible (e.g., in Afghanistan because of conflict, or in Chad because the Lake is disappearing due to climate change) then those people just have to SUCK IT UP and do something else.  In his case, however, the Lake District has been heavily funded by the Government and by independent philanthropists who have chosen to fund non-urgent needs, he is able to carry on with his preferred lifestyle.  And not only does he get to carry on, but he feels free to moan about it too.  For example, he appears to disdain tourists  Here he is on his grandfather, who he typically agree with:
I don't think he understood that those people had another perception of ownership of the Lake District. He would have found that as odd as him walking into a suburban garden in London and claiming it was sort of his because he liked the flowers
Tourists don't claim to own the Lake District because they like the flowers but because IT IS THEIR TAX DOLLARS THAT ALLOW IT TO EXIST.  Even worse, here he is on such unimportant matters as the environment:
I can remember officials from ‘the Ministry’ (of Agriculture) coming to talk to him about the ‘biodiversity’ in our hay meadows and what they expected him to do to manage those meadows for the flowers and birds in return for the subsidy they paid.  After an hour and a half of observing him nodding and agreeing to everything they suggested, they departed, and I asked him what they wanted.  He said, ‘No idea  . . . The secret with them daft buggers is to say yes to everything they want, and when they’ve gone carry on regardless’
WHY IS BIODIVERSITY IN QUOTE MARKS????  So in short all of Europe gets to fund him while he does whatever he feels like.

There was also tons of showing off about how his family has been doing this for centuries, and so he is so rooted and that is so wonderful.  It reminded me of Theresa May disdaining 'citizens of nowhere' as if you are somehow special because none of your ancestors have had the gumption to get up and go anywhere.  I bet you he voted for Brexit.  I can't wait to see what happens to the Lake District when that EU funding for agriculture disappears.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

HAPPINESS BY DESIGN: FINDING PLEASURE AND PURPOSE IN EVERYDAY LIFE by Paul Dolan

I decided that in 2019 I would for the first time in my life start reading self-help.  Let's not go into why, as this is allegedly not a confessional blog.  Now this is not my first self-help book of the year, but I can't immediately find the the other one, so here we go.

Dolan begins with an analysis of how he got over his stammering problem.  Basically, he learnt not to put so much focus on it 
Stammering less has helped, of course, but paying less attention to it matters much more.  What applies to my stammer applies to all the possible causes of your happiness and to all that you might do to be happier.  Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention.  What you attend to drives your behaviour and it determines your happiness.  Attention is the glue that holds your life together. . . The scarcity of attentional resources means that you must consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways.  If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating our attention.
Making a statement about 'all the possible causes of your happiness and all you might do to be happier' is pretty ballsy.  Most interesting to me was his argument that most of us don't typically know what actually makes us happy, because we have a lot of judgments about what 'should' make us happy in the future, or 'should' have made us happy in the past.  He feels you have to learn to listen to yourself day-to-day:
You can trust your own experiences more than your desires.  You might think that being the next Lady Gaga will make you happy and attempt to achieve it but then find that all your experiences along the way are miserable ones.  It’s uncertain what your experiences of fame would be like if you were to attain it and so if you aren’t experiencing pleasure and purpose along the way, you are giving up happiness now that might not lead to more happiness later.  Keep your eye on the happiness prize by tuning into the feedback from your experiences.             You can also trust your own experiences more than your projections.  Whatever you choose to do, you will only ever experience your choices, not the other options involved in the decisions, and so you won’t spend anywhere near as much time thinking about what might have been as you think you will. 
I followed his advice about keeping a diary for a couple of days that just lists your activities on those days and score from 1-10 how pleasant or purposeful they were (i.e., how happy they made you).  It was indeed quite illuminating.  I have also found this focus on attention to be quite helpful for example when in a queue; the idea that I can choose whether or not to focus on the irritating queue (rather than my podcast for example) is quite liberating.  In general though, he argues: 
We don’t really allocation unconscious attention in any meaningful way – it just gets allocated without us having to make any real decision about what is attended to.  But, as we shall see, you can consciously select the environments that your unconscious attention can roam in.  Although you can’t consciously dictate how your dug runs around a field, you can choose which park you take it to.  We are a lot like dogs in how we react to situational triggers. 

So he also gives other advice about how to prompt yourself to be happier without relying too much on your intellect or your willpower.  (e.g., setting up defaults for your behaviour; norms of people around you; etc).   I'll end with a fun /chilling story he told.  There is this fisherman with a very relaxed life.  A business man asks him why he doesn't expand his business.  What for? asks the fisherman.  So you can hire more people, says the businessman.  What for? asks the fisherman.  So you can be rich, says the businessman.  What for? he asks again.  And the reply, as you've probably already guessed is: so you can retire and fish and be relaxed.  

Monday, 15 April 2019

A SEASON IN SINJI by J.L Carr


I always like to read a book from the country I’m visiting.  The Gambia I was surprised to learn doesn’t seem to have much of a literary tradition locally so I was reduced to reading something not by a Gambian but at least in Gambia. 

It’s about a Yorkshire farm boy who is sent to the Gambia with the RAF.  He spends a long time waiting in the training camp, and when his group is finally called:
The others turned their back and pulled blankets over their heads as we’d done so many times before.  No-one wanted to know us now we were for the mincing machine.

There is heavy emphasis on the fact that no one wants to go, which I found interesting.  It makes me wonder if other books of that war I’ve read have largely been written by educated people, who got to be officers, and who while they weren’t enjoying the war were at least not enjoying it from the officers mess.

The farm boy has a good friend who is more upper class.  This is a new experience for him:
I expect there were folks like him on The Vale but they were the sort we didn’t mix with.  My grandad grouped them under the general heading of Parasites and, on Sundays, Abominations, chiefly because they came roaring in fast cars to The Lamb.
His friend is vividly, tragically evoked, and I want to go ahead and call him his ‘friend’.    Wikipedia does not suggest that JL Carr was guy, but this novel sure does. 

The friend is seeing a girl before they leave the UK, and she is ‘stolen’ from him by an officer. (The girl barely features; she's clearly a plot device to move us on to the people we actually care about, i.e., the boys).  Then this same officer ends up being sent to the Gambia with them.  Don’t ask me exactly how, but it all ends up in a crescendo of a cricket match.  The farm boy is a great believer in rules, in community, and in cricket.  Here he is in the training camp, playing the local village teams:
I’d have continued to the hundred on one or two of these occasions against the horrible bowling of the village veterans but, during the War, it was put about that it was unpatriotic if you stayed long after fifty
Things get super  unpatriotic in the Gambia.  I can’t exactly describe to you how, as much of the book was lost on me as I don’t really know the rules, but in summary: he’ll never feel the same about cricket, community, or the rules ever again. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole


"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

This brilliant and true observation is an epigram from a Jonathan Swift essay, and is the basis for the title of this hilarious and strange book.  (As a side point, the essay itself is called: Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting.  I love this.  Clearly he wrote this in a time when there was less competition for user attention.  It’s like the least specific, least click-baity title I ever heard).

The key character is Ignatius J Reilly, and given that the plot is patchy at best it is this character that is the whole joy and energy of the book.  Ignatius is an unemployed obese man who lives with his mother.  He is however not idle.  As he puts it:  

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

He also has lots of advice for others:
“I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate fa├žade there may be a soul of sorts. Have you read widely in Boethius?"
"Who? Oh, heavens no. I never even read newspapers."
"Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."
"You're fantastic."
"I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”

He wonders through a number of different jobs, each ending more catastrophically than the one that went before, and ends eventually fleeing being confined in a mental hospital:

“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,' Ignatius belched, 'Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.” 

He has a lot to say on belching, and particularly about his pyloric valve, about which both you probably, and the other characters in the novel (definitely) do not want to be informed.

I found this wonderful book in the Gambia, at one of those free book exchanges they sometimes have in hotels (Note to self: 4 books not enough for 7 day holiday).  I was shocked to find something so not-rubbish, right there between a thriller in Norwegian and some chicklit in a pink cover.  I loved it.  I was sad to learn it almost did not get published.  The author had it rejected multiple times, (Simon & Schuster were particularly way off the mark, finding it “pointless”), and eventually killed himself at just 31.  It was his mother who doggedly pushed for publication, taking around an old mimeographed draft, till she eventually got the attention of Walker Percy, who realized how wonderful it was.  It went on to win the Pulitzer, which must be cold comfort for his mum. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

COUSIN BETTE by Honore de Balzac


Let me tell you, it all goes on in this one.  There is bribery, and affairs, and sex addiction, and Brazillian plagues, and that's before we even get to all the lesbianism, Algerian grain, and unidentified STDS.

Balzac himself vouched for this being pure quality: “It is one of the finest of my finest works,” he noted, modestly. 

At the time of writing it, he was apparently pretty pissed, because here he was with all the fine works, meanwhile all the money was being made by some hack who was writing fantastical novels in installments for the newspapers.  Thus he decided to get in on the action.  He thought he would be fine giving the newspaper 14 days of material and then writing the rest as he went along, for the daily installments.  This blew up in his face a bit.  He ended up needing to write 16 hours a day and actually sleeping at the presses, which may account for the singularly feverish atmosphere of this book. 

Balzac in this novel tells us what he really thinks, and I lost track of all the groups he insulted.  Polish people, female people, poor people (especially house servants, who are all thieves), and rich people (Speaking of ugly architecture, he comments: “Money has never lost the least opportunity of showing how stupid it is”). You name it, he slams it. 

The plot is almost by-the-by, but there is certainly a lot it.  Cousin Bette is a poor relative of a wealthy family.  She is consumed with jealousy of them, and while appearing to be their friend actually continually plots their downfall.  She doesn’t really need to bother, because the father labours under some kind of sex addiction, entertaining a series of mistresses with money he doesn’t have, and effectively bankrupting himself and his family.  His wife knows all about it but does nothing to stop him because she is ‘virtuous’ (?).  She is practically the only character in the book that Balzac approves of, apparently because he likes doormats. 

Actually thinking on it it is not quite true that he insults everybody.  One group he commends.  Yes guys, he gives it up for the ‘real artists’ who are:
taxed with aloofness, unsociability, rebellion against the conventions and civilised living; because great men belong to their creations. The entire detachment from all worldly concerns of true artists, and their devotion to their work, stamp them as egoists in the eyes of fools, who think that such men ought to go dressed like men about town performing the gyration that they call 'their social duties'. People would like to see the lions of Atlas combed and scented like a marchioness's lapdogs. Such men, who have few peers and rarely meet them, grow accustomed to shutting out the world, in their habit of solitude. They become incomprehensible to the majority, which, as we know, is composed of blockheads, the envious, ignoramuses, and skaters upon the surfaces of life
I think we all know who he includes among the real artists and his initials are HdB.

Anyway, the father eventually gets really carried away, sending his wife’s uncle to raise money for him by cheating Algerians in grain deals.  When the swindle is discovered, the uncle needs 200 thousand francs to get out of jail and save his honour; otherwise he will kill himself from the shame   The virtuous wife now decides to try and sell herself for the 200K, to save her uncle from suicide, but unfortunately can’t find a buyer.  Meanwhile the husband is now really far gone, egged on by Cousin Bette, with a young woman called Madame Marnaffe.   Eventually he realizes his folly and is reunited with his family (suffice to say it involves the Brazillian plague I mentioned and Madame Marnaffe’s repentance, of which the latter is even more unlikely than the former). 

The reunion doesn't last long: last look, he is heard promising a chamber maid: "My wife hasn't long to live, and you can be a Baroness, if you like".  Wife obligingly dies.  By this point you are so sick of her you only feel relief.   

So there you go: that's a summary of one of the more unlikely classics of nineteenth century French lit.   BOOM. Added bonus, enjoy picture of where I read it, by the pool in the Gambia


Sunday, 17 February 2019

THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER by Rebecca West


In this novel a man returns from the first World War unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life, which includes his wife.  It feels like the set up to a romantic comedy.  Oh guys: it is not.  

Chris is 35, and the last thing he remembers is being 20, and madly in love with a working class woman.  He tries to be polite to this stranger his wife, and to pretend to like the 'improvements' he himself made to his family home.  He also insists on seeing his old girlfriend.  Things have not gone well for her:
She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.  
We learn that they were only separated by a misunderstanding, and it becomes clear that he would have been much happier with her than the woman he actually married.  Without his memory, he is overall a much happier man; he has the woman he loves, and he does not remember the war at all.   Then comes the really tough question of whether it is even right that they help him remember - whether they stealing from him fifteen years; or giving him the gift of the life he should have had.  


I won't tell you what they choose; it's a good question for us to think about though.  On my side, if it ever happens to me, please don't hesitate: I'm happy to miss the First World War and the marriage mistake, even if it means missing out on my adulthood.  That has been a dubious delight in any case.
Let's take a moment to give a shout out for west, who was just 24 when she wrote this novel, and sounds a real character.  Enjoy this, on feminism:

I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiment that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute
BOOM!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite


I've never read a novel told from the perspective of the accomplice before, and it was weirdly compelling.  For Korede, that her sister is a serial killer is buried in a complicated mass of other feelings about her.  I can kind of believe it: how can the fact of some recent and anonymous killings compare to the complex mass of sibling rivalries?  It's not even a contest.  Thus Korede spends much more time worrying about her how much prettier her sister is than how about much more homicidal she is.

Korede is the older child and the good one.  Here’s what’s in her handbag:  
One first aid kit, one packet of wipes, one wallet, one tube of hand cream, one lip balm, one phone, one tampon, one rape whistle.  Basically, the essentials for every woman.  
That's a high bar: I only own one of these things.  

Her younger sister is wild, and pretty, and very dangerous to men.   It all gets personal for Korede when the man she has a crush on falls for her sister, putting him in imminent danger.

It’s a fun, twisty killer, and remarkably enough is marketed as such.  That it is advertised as a genre novel is I think a testament to its quality.  I say this because it is set in contemporary Lagos, so it ran a very serious risk of being consigned to the world literature shelf.  This is the death knell.  So well done Oyinkan Braithwaite!

Thursday, 14 February 2019

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene


TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is a rollicking comedy about realizing you have wasted your life. 

It’s as if Greene somehow put his writing through some kind of lens to find the funny side of his classic themes: guilt, secrets, Catholicism, Sierra Leone, sexual hangups. They’ all there, but somehow hilarious.  

I found it quite disorienting.  Counting back over the blog I seem to have read a lot of Greene (7! THE END OF THE AFFAIR, THE HEART OF THE MATTER, OUR MAN IN HAVANA, BRIGHTON ROCK, A SORT OF LIFE, WAYS OF ESCAPE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) and it was strange to see the other side of his typical neurotic style.  Here for example he is having fun with funerals:  

People are generally seen on their best on these occasions, serious and sober, and optimistic on the subject of personal immortality.


I am not sure I will ever be able to go to a funeral again without laughing about that last phrase.


TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is about a man who has lived a safe suburban life as a bank manager.  His disreputable elderly aunt appears in his life, and she whisks him away on a wild series of journeys.  Much of the joy in the novel is in the character of the aunt. Here, for example, she gives her reason for choosing a particular hotel by a bus station: “I like to be at the centre of all the devilry, with the buses going off to all those places.”  
Or here she is on saving money: 

. . I am not interested in economy.  . . I am over seventy-five, so that is unlikely I will live longer than another twenty-five years.  . . . I made many economies in my youth and they were fairly painless because the young do not particularly care for luxury.  . . They have little idea of real pleasure: even their love-making is apt to be hurried and incomplete.  Luckily in middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food

Or, when he shows her his prize dahlias in his garden, she comments only:  “I have always preferred cut flowers”  I find this most hilarious of all, though I can’t say why. 

In any case, the aunt has had lots of love affairs (some of them for money) and involves him all sorts of crime and drama, which is he thoroughly enjoys, though it takes some adjustment.  Here he is at a strip club on his first journey with her: I wondered what all the men here did for a living.  It seemed extraordinary that one could watch such a scene during banking hours. 

It is fun to see the banker change his life, but it is also, this being Greene, rather sad.  This is in small ways – for example he notes a thin dog following him and comments: I suppose to that dog any stranger represented hope.   God Graham!  You are trying to write a COMIC NOVEL. Or worse yet, here he is on Christmas:  Christmas, it seems to me, is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling

Mostly the sadness comes from he dark shadow of the life it becomes clear he has wasted on following rules and doing what other people think he should.  It’s a lesson that you can’t learn too often.