Sunday, 25 September 2016

BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene

I read Graham Greene's THE END OF THE AFFAIR a couple of years ago, in which I learnt that Graham Greene has a lot of issues with God. BRIGHTON ROCK is an earlier work, for me less successful, but still jam packed with Catholic anxiety.

It tells the story of a seventeen year old called Pinkie, who kills a man, and then has to keep on killing other people to keep it secret: "Christ! he thought. Have I got to massacre the world?"

Pinkie is something of a sociopath, so the murdering doesn't worry him except as an inconvenience. What concerns him more is that he also has to marry a young girl to ensure she can't testify against him, and he finds the idea of sex deeply repellent. His strange little sixteen year old wife agrees to marry him, though she regards a city hall wedding as - actually, literally, a mortal sin. It's quite interesting how free your life can be once you have committed a mortal sin. I guess I've probably committed lots of mortal sins, but it's not the same if you don't believe in them.

Eventually Pinkie is brought to justice by a middle aged woman who hunts him down on the basic assumption that good ought to triumph. She is in an odd detective, particularly it seems to Greene, who is always on about her cleavage. Try this: "Her big breasts, which had never suckled a child of her own, felt a merciless compassion." Very odd. I'd be willing to bet a large sum that no one reading that sentence could possibly doubt the gender of its author. She has a fantastic general principle in life though, often repeated, and which I really enjoy: "The world is a good place, as long you don't weaken." Wise advice.

All ends reasonably well, even for the strange little bride, who is comforted by her priest with the reflection that "You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of god." And with that cheerful reflection, the relatively happy ending is upon us.


Given all the real problems that Eastern Europe faced in the twentieth century I'm not sure why so many twentieth century Eastern European books are about imaginary problems.

In this book a couple goes to Italy on their honeymoon. The husband, Mihaly, gets left behind by the train at a junction, and somehow decides that this is the ideal moment to leave his wife. The reason? Extreme nostalgia (?). Apparently he is nostalgic for his high school friends, especially one girl he was in love with and her brother who he nearly killed himself with because of death being so beautiful (??).

In an unlikely coincidence he meets one of his other high school friends who is now a monk. His advice is to go to Rome, but for no reason (???). In Rome, he meets an academic who tells him what he should do - the practice that will set him free - it's obviously the study of religious history (????).

And that's where I had to quit. I just couldn't take it anymore. Though I do want to know where it ends. I suspect I was about ten pages off a talking cat.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons

I'm an enormous admirer of Gibbons' classic COLD COMFORT FARM, a book about how not to take yourself too seriously, but I had this idea somehow that she was a bit of a one-hit-wonder, and so had not tried any of her other books. Last year I attempted so tried WESTWOOD, which was good, but not exactly a wonder; and now have tried THE BACHELOR, which while not close to her classic, was really pretty great.

THE BACHELOR tells the story of a brother and sister in their forties who have settled into their life in rural England and are gently rotting there, until the second world war brings with it change and - unexpectedly - romance. Most of the joy of this book is in the comedy. Here we are on a young woman who has been involved in a scandal:
Young men, on hearing that a young woman has been betrayed do not clench their fists and call the betrayer a villain. If they are good young men they make a note to avoid the young woman as a possible bore and if they are bad young men they make a note of her telephone number. While we are on this painful subject it may be added that a recitative on her sufferings from the young woman's own lips to a new young man is about as favourable to her hopes as if she had proffered him arsenic

Or here's a description of a woman:
Mrs Feilding had been the possessor of one of those personalities like an enormous old fashioned battlepiece, all over rearing horses and hussars hauling cannon out of the mud and soldiers expiring in the arms of their comrades with Napoleon or somebody of that sort in the middle of it; no one can ignore it, although it exhausts everybody to tears, and weaker spirits simply avoid the room where it hangs

Or there's a bus, that's since the war has been able to vary its schedule and is now so erratic it "generally behaves more like a medieval baron than a bus" Brilliant description of public transport everywhere (except in Switzerland, or so I'm told).

The book does have it unusual side, in showing a young woman actively planning to seduce a young man - rare in books of this period, that typically assume, with ISIS, that woman are utterly free of sexual interest. It also has its serious side. The brother has long been dismissed by his mothers and sisters as rather a lightweight, and he has tended to laugh along with them, and agree. They have also typically tried to disrupt his romantic endeavours, so at 45 he is unmarried. He's not unhappy; or perhaps he is. That's part of the interest: even he is not really sure.

He ends up engaged by the end of the story, but it's interesting how near a thing it is; how close he is to not really caring one way or the other. As Gibbons puts it: "Another ten years, even another five, and Habit and Comfort and Humorous Self-depreciation, the great stones that lie on such roots and bleach and dry them, would have done their work." It's interesting that such a funny book should be so interested in the dangers of comedy.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


This is a book like none other I've ever read. The characters behave so badly, and express themselves so bizarrely, that I can only think it comes direct from life. Reading it is a bit like drinking at the firehose of family life - and not a very happy family at that.

The book tells the story of a family slowly losing their money. The father Sam is an idealist, selfish and self-centred as only idealists can be; the mother Henny is a bitter former debutante. The story mostly focuses on the eldest child, Louie, daughter of her father's first marriage, and half-sister to the other five children in the family. Here's a taster, the mother speaking of her step-daughter to the father:
She wanted to know whether Sam knew that his beautiful genius' clothes were smeared with filth and that most of the time the great big overgrown wretch with her great lolloping breasts looked as if she'd rolled in pigsty or a slaughter house, and that she couldn't stand the streams of blood that poured from her fat belly and that he must get someone else to look after such an unnatural big beast.

Sam had come into the house when Henny began her screams and stood their goggling, while Louie, going paer, stood petrified with horror and pride, looking reproachfully at her father and expecting him to scold Henny. But Sam goggled like some insignificant wretch crept in secretly on the Eleusinian mysteries, frightened but licking his lips.

Or here's the mother - Henny on her inlaws:
Henny smirked even more, seeing the wilcat, hedgerow, wild-weed, slum-artisan, cheap-Baltimore family grow more jolly; seeing Ebby, poor ship's carpenter, who had an imbecile for a wife and one doddle-headed child, and gaptoothed Benbow, with that strumpet girl, Leslie (as Henny put it), and two dumb boys, and old soak Charles, and garage owner Peter (who had actually begun with a junk car and three cowbells collecting old bedsprings and fat women's bulging corsets!), and Bonnie (obviously sleeping with some man who was doing her the dirt) and Jinny (whose pert daughter Essie needed her face slapped) and Jo (whose hair was like a haystack in a fit) and all their weedy, rank children getting merrier and merrier on the dungheap that was their life. Born in the muck, thriving in the muck, and proud of the muck, thought Henrietta!

The narrative is full of invention. Here's the children, running from their parents fighting: " . . . seemed not to take the slightest interest in the obscene drama played daily in their eyes and ears, but, like little fish scuttling before the disturbing oar, would disappear mentally and physically into the open air or into odd corner of the house". Or here's how she describes a note arriving to Louie during class: "by desk express"

It's a fabulous book. It ends SPOILER ALERT with Louie attempting to kill her parents with poison, and succeeding with her step-mother. A tribute to the quality of the book is that this seems completely like a realistic and understandable thing to do, rather than like unhinged melodrama.

Jonathan Franzen said this about the novel: "This novel . . . is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century. I carry it in my head the way I carry childhood memories; the scenes are of such precise horror and comedy that I feel I didn't read the book so much as live it."

I think I agree with him. I am not sure why THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN is not better known. Perhaps it's proof, if more were needed, that life is after all not fair.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson

This won the Pulitzer in 1934, when the author was 24. It was her first novel. Can you imagine? I haven’t read any of her other eleven novels, but I think we can rest assured that the rest of her writing life was basically one long case of that-difficult-second-album.

The book tells the story of a family who are impoverished during the Great Depression and have to move out of the city. They end up as small scale farmers, and the novel covers a long and terrible period of drought. It is a stark reminder of how brutal agriculture is, and what a miracle food can be.

It’s an extraordinarily lyrical novel of the natural world and I veered wildly between loving and hating it. Here’s an example: “In the thought and strangeness of self we could spend hours as traveling through a labyrinth, and it was a riddle sufficient in those day to keep the mind quick and seeking, hungry and never fed; and in the mystery of the turnip, you forgot the turnip leaf”

What? Anyway, an interesting reminder of what hard work actually is, and of the value of rain. Probably useful for me to think about as I head into the London winter.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev

I went to an exhibit recently about 19th century Russian portraiture, and suddenly found a great gap looming in my knowledge of the western cannon. In the same breath as Tolstoy and Dostoevesky, the captions spoke of someone called Turgenev. Who is this Turgenev? I've never read any Turgenev! What am I missing?

Not a whole hell of a lot, based on FATHERS AND SONS. A young man, Akardy returns home from medical school with a friend, Bazarov, who he admires. Bazarov is a nihilist, and his disavowal of traditional Russian values is as thrilling to Arkady as it is horrifying to Arkady's parents. Bazarov meets a lovely young lady and a powerful struggle ensues between his hormones and his nihlism. Nihilism briefly triumphs, and then - just when he is beginning to regret this - he conducts an autopsy without careful enough hygiene. This is the nineteenth century, so he dies. Arkady meanwhile has been busy falling in love with the lovely young lady's sister, and due to his lower commitment to nihilism, and higher commitment to hygiene, he lives to marry her.

It actually sounds like a pretty good book in this summary, and I guess it was. It was the novel that really established the word 'nihilism,' and the character of Bazarov was hugely influential in the development of that idea. Perhaps it now seems rather tired and elderly simply because it created so very many imitators. Now, to a new reader, it seems like an imitation of something else; and that something else is itself. Now that people have truly given up on the idea of life having a meaning, Bazarov's early gestures in that direction seem a bit half-hearted. He's so full of ideas and hopes and passions that by our standards it's hardly nihilism at all. I can't decide whether or not to feel sad about this. I think perhaps I do.

Sunday, 14 August 2016


I have been avoiding this brief novel for years. I am not really sure why. It just sounds sort of stupid. Famously, the novel was a huge success in 18th century Europe, igniting a fashion for yellow waistcoats, and setting off the first recorded wave of copycat suicides in history, which led to its ban in many countries. Death is I guess the ultimate compliment you can pay a work of art but somehow I just figured the story would annoy me.

And it did annoy me. I mean, who kills themselves because the woman they love marries someone else? JUST HAVE AN AFFAIR. Or: RUN AWAY TO TAHITI. Or: JUST MEET SOMEONE ELSE. Having said that, it is a remarkable novel for the period - anything before 1750 or so can be hard-going (CLARISSA, for example. I thought this lengthy early novel would be an interesting challenge. Challenging, it is. Interesting, not so much.). Yet having said this, I recommend this book. It carries an air of extraorindarily contemporary freshness. Take this:
All learned schoolmasters and educators agree that children do not know why they want what they want, but that adults too, as well as children, stagger around on this earth,like them not knowing whence they come or whither they go, pursue true goals just as little as they, and are just as completely governed by biscuits and cakes and birch rods: nobody will believe that, and yet it seems to me palpable.
I am ready to grant - for I know what you would say to this - that the happiest are those who like children live for the day, drag their dolls around, dressing and undressing them, slink with bated breath about the drawer where Mama keeps the sweets locked up and, when they finally get hold of what they want, gobble it down by the mouthful and cry, "More!" - those are happy creatures. Happy are those too who give sumptuous titles to their shabby occupations, perhaps even to their passions, recommending them to the human race as gigantic operations contributing to man's salvatin and welfare!"
There's much of this kind. Much of the sweetness of death that is weirdly compelling, even today. I'm not sure I'm ready to kill myself, but I can see how someone might be.