Sunday, 23 July 2017


This is a book about a grand passion that goes nowhere. Frederic Moreau is a law student who falls madly in love with a another man's slightly older wife. He then pines after her for a couple of decades, and when she is finally available, decides she is now too old for him. He tries the law for a while, but then comes into a small fortune after which he rotates variously through arts, journalism, and politics, all with limited commitment. Meanwhile, major historical events are taking place in France: revolutions and so on. He is only tangentially involved.

So by the end of the 500 plus pages, you seem to have got precisely nowhere. At the end he is talking to his high school friend about a silly teenage prank, and the last lines of the book are them agreeing that that was "the best time we ever had". This an unexpectedly tough ending for a book that covers virtually the whole of someone's adult life, a life which was apparently - but I guess in the end not really - crammed with incident. It's pretty harsh.

Many contemporary critics hated the book, finding it meandering and meaningless. Others loved it, such as Theodore Banville who commented that it was'sad, indecisive and mysterious, like life itself, making do with endings all the more terrible in that they are not materially dramatic'. One of his friends wrote to Flaubert to say the book was popular among his generation:
Do you know . . . the great catchphrase of the day? It comes from your book. You say: "THE LAST PAGE OF Sentimental Education!"And you cover your face with your hands.
This tells me Flaubert's contemporaries were having a lot of issues we could relate to today. It's focus on a broadly meaningless life, while dressed up like a nineteenth century novel, makes it seem oddly modern.

This is not to say it is not boring. It is kind of boring. However the academic who wrote the introduction feels that that is the point:
Flaubert further complicates his scene by staging a confusing abundance of major characters. The inner circle, the fictional space just around the hero, is crowded with figures whose names we struggle to recall. . . . This is undoubtedly deliberate artistic practice, a trick of composition aptly called de-Balzac-ification. True to his exacting sense of the artistic vocation, insulated from the pressures of the market by his modest private income, Flaubert understood that the serious novel, the art novel, must detach itself from popular taste.

Next time I create something people don't like, I'm just going to say that I have detached myself from popular taste. That said, in among the meaninglessness and meander, there is lots of lovely writing. Let's end with this taster, of a life I am so grateful feminism has saved me from:
She was one of those Parisian spinsters who, every evening when they have given their lessons or tried to sell little sketches, or to dispose of poor manuscripts, return to their own homes with mud on their petticoats, make their own dinner, which they eat by themselves, and then, with their soles resting on a foot-warmer, by the light of a filthy lamp, dream of a love, a family, a hearth, wealth—all that they lack. So it was that, like many others, she had hailed in the Revolution the advent of vengeance, and she delivered herself up to a Socialistic propaganda of the most unbridled description.

Sunday, 9 July 2017


This book is surprising in its honesty. I find it surprising Athill is willing to be this frank with strangers; and really surprising she is willing to be this honest with herself. She lays down a real challenge to me in how to think about myself, to myself. The book tells the story of a break-up Athill suffered in her early twenties; and in another way, it tells the story of her whole life - because for her this break-up was . . . let's just say, it was a bad one. And not a couple of weeks of ice-cream in your jammies kind of a bad one. More a twenty years of despair kind of a bad one.

While at University, Athill got engaged to a man she had known since she was fifteen. He went to Egypt for work, while she completed her last year at Oxford. He wrote to her regularly, and warmly, and then one day stopped writing to her. There was total silence for two years, until he wrote formally, asking to be released from their engagement, because he was going to marry someone else. I mean, that's pretty bad. But for her it was enough to send her into a two decade long tail-spin. Here she is, reflecting on what kept her going:
I believe, however, that I owe to Oxford much of the stability and resilience which enabled me, later, to live through twenty years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life. I already had the advantages of a happy childhood and a naturally equitable disposition, and three years of almost pure enjoyment added to those advantages confirmed in me a bias towards being well-disposed to life without which, lacking faith, lacking intellect, lacking energy, and eventually, lacking confidence in myself, I might have foundered.
Lazy and self-indulgent, I was a lively girl only in my capacity as a female, and once I was wounded in that capacity I became, to face the truth, dull. (Since I believe that any recognition of truth is salutary, this should be a bracing moment, but it does not feel like that: it feels sad.)
See what I mean about a piercing, uncomfortable, honesty? That said, the despair is hard to understand. Perhaps in the 1940s, marriage was just that important to a woman's esteem. After that thought occurred to me, I thanked god on every page for the luck of being born now.

It's strange to read about someone who feels she has written off so much of her life. Despite what she says was a lack of interest in a career, she was for many years one of the most important book editors in London. But even this she does not claim as making her life worthwhile:
Eight years younger than myself, my cousin was an exceptionally pretty girl with a haunting personality, so that her life was considerably fuller than mine, and I slid prematurely into an attitude common among good-natured middle-aged women: that of taking so strong an interest in other people's lives that it largely fills the emptiness of one's own. I was comfortable in the routine of those years, and when on rare occasions I felt a stab of misery my reaction to it was not revolt against my circumstances but a deliberate attempt to become resigned to them. But to say that satisfying work was something that made me happy - that I could not have done. Something else, occupying only a fraction of each year and appearing to be marginal, made more difference to the colour of my days than did my work. My holidays.

In her forties, she slowly begins to recover. This is in part, as she says above, due to her holidays; in part, I think, because of her work; in part, because she wins a small writing prize, which makes her feel that perhaps after all she is not a failure. And failure she is not. This lady is a lovely, lucid writer. Enjoy these snippets:
After the late shift the tiny sequins of the traffic lights, reduced by masks during the blackout, changed from red to amber to green down the whole length of empty, silent Oxford Street. They looked as though they were signalling a whispered conversation, and they were the kind of thing with which I filled my days.
. . . the olive is the tree I would choose to keep if I could have only one: for the variety of shape, for the comforting roughness of its bark, for its minnow leaves, dark on top and silver underneath, which cast a shadow more delicately stippled than any other, and for its ancient usefulness, which makes it, like wheat, a symbolic thing.
INSTEAD OF A LETTER is full of these beautifully observed moments, which make you feel as if you have traveled deep inside her head. So much so that if one met her, it would be hard to act appropriately - i.e., like a stranger.

The book is remarkable to read today, but I can only imagine how remarkable it was when it first came out, when the genre of the 'memoir' barely existed. Let's end with a little snippet of her teenage fantasy - can you imagine how this must have knocked their 1940s socks off:
I lay sprawled on the parquet in my sage-green art-silk tunic and bloomer and my salmon-pink lisle stockings, thinking, 'If a stevedore' - why a stevedore? I am sure I had never met one - 'If a stevedore would come and rape me at this minute, I would let him'

The intimacy between people working together is an agreeable thing and very real, in spite of the disconcerting way in which it vanishes as soon as the same people meet each other in different circumstances.

OUR MAN IN HAVANA by Graham Greene

This is a very un-Graham Greene Graham Greene, which is odd, as it is a pretty famous Graham Greene. It's got a lot of what you expect: an abortive romance; a middle aged man; obssessive Catholic guilt; and somehow he has tried to mash these elements into a comedy.

Mr Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba who is recruited as a spy by the British government and takes the job for the money. He falsifies reports to the centre, and when this is discovered, it is covered up by the authorities who do not want to be themselves embarrassed. This is I think supposed to be the hilarious and unlikely climax of a rollicking plot. Perhaps in the 1950s, when this was written, it could be read as such. Today it doesn't seem funny, or even improbable. In the era of Trump it reads like: this is what would probably happen. And also: what is there to laugh in about this? Or course spies are of limited competence. Of course the cnetre has its own political agenda. This is the tragic truth of the world.

In summary, if you're interested in Graham Greene, start with the classics, on his perennial topics of hearbreak and despair; THE END OF THE AFFAIR or THE HEART OF THE MATTER; let's avoid OUR MAN IN HAVANA

Sunday, 2 July 2017


One sizable subset of books I have read this year is in the category ‘books Jonathan Franzen recommends’, (e.g., the wonderful THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN). DESPERATE CHARACTERS is one of these, an out-of-print rarity that makes you glad Amazon is taking over the world, so you can find it. Here’s Franzen on Fox:
Because the book is not long, and because I’ve now read it half a dozen times, I'm within sight of the point at which every sentence will be highlighted as vital and central. This extraordinary richness is, of course, a testament to Paula Fox’s genius. There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book. Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude don’t happen by accident, and yet it’s almost impossible for a writer to achieve them while relaxing enough to allow the characters to come alive, and yet here the novel is, soaring above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.

It’s 156 pages of one weekend in one woman’s life. The main action is her getting bitten by a cat. Yet somehow, I agree with Franzen: it’s about so much more, I can’t quite describe it. It’s about middle class guilt; about making a success of marriage; about urban blight; about failure; also, tangentially, about rabies. I can’t pretend Fox doesn’t crush it. Here’s a flavour -

On an old friend:
And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
. Or this, where the main character is thinking about a man she had an affair with:
She put herself to sleep again, nursing memories of Francis Early, like an old crone with a bit of rag for a baby
. Or here, the family of her caretaker:
Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs Hayes and the three Hayes children

And yet somehow I couldn’t quite enjoy it. Or rather I enjoyed it till page 155 of 156, after which I was like: what? It doesn’t end so much as stop. Someone throws an ink bottle at a wall, and that’s it. It may be that I am intellectually limited and irretrievably ensnared in the Victorians, but I just can’t bear it. I appreciate that this is what real life is like, that nothing resolves, and that this is the very cutting edge of literature, but I just can’t get behind it. I like my novels to at least gently indicate in the direction of meaning. Paula Fox is too tough for that. So I admire it, but somehow I can't quite like it. And yet I admire it hugely: so much so that the fact that it is out-of-print strikes me as indicative of end-of-days, almost as much as the election of President Trump

Sunday, 25 June 2017


I wouldn’t say I am a big thriller reader and yet somehow I am on my way to having read almost all of Levin’s novels. A lot of them have been made into movies, I suspect because they are fantastic as one line pitches: Suburban husbands replace wives with robots; women gives birth to devil; etc. I’ve found he has you turning pages like it’s your job to get the novel read. I can’t say the same for THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.

The premise is fun in theory SPOILER ALERT with Dr Mengele aiming to produce an army of Hilter clones. See how awesome that is as a one line pitch? And yet somehow it doesn’t quite come off. I thought for a while it was because it was rather dated. And while this is a problem, I’m starting to think it is instead because what we really read thrillers for is not the fright factor, but the fun factor – and this novel is just not very fun. I think this is not Levin’s fault. It’s basically unavoidable, because given the subject matter, the Holocaust is ever present – and that topic is so terrible, and so dark, and so sad, that it is almost impossible to read a book in which it features, and find it fun. In fact, after a while, even though I enjoy an army of thirteen year old Hitlers as much as anyone, I started to find the whole thing in rather bad taste. Somehow that’s just not as much of a problem with satanic babies and robot wives.

Saturday, 27 May 2017


I rarely read non-fiction, but this was the 'one free' of a 'buy one get one free' deal, so here we are.

I am interested generally in revolutions, and this turned out to be an interesting book. Released to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it tells the story of the year 1917 in Petrograd by means of the diaries and letters of foreign visitors, who were, as the title dramatically tells us "caught in the revolution." There's an array of types: diplomats, servants, Emily Pankhurst; hundreds of British governesses, left destitute when their wealthy employers flee, etc. Quite a fair number of visitors however were not "caught in the revolution" but in fact trying to catch it; the town was awash with foreign journalists. As one hilariously put it: "I smell trouble . . . . and thank god I am here to get the photographs of it."

Interestingly, quite a few of these journalists were women, many of whom sound quite frighteningly badass. One woman reporting was Louise Bryant, a fervent communist who began with divorce and ended with alcoholism via typhus, proving you don't need to have the vote to have a fantastic time.

I learnt from this book that the revolution had many causes, but that the most pressing one was hunger. Queues for food were days long, in temperatures well below freezing. What surprised me was what caused the hunger:
By February the daily consignment of flour to Petrograd had dropped to just twenty-one wagonloads, instead of the normal 120 needed. . . . Official mismanagement, corruption and wastage of supplies were prodigious, made worse by a crippled rail network that was unable to transport food efficiently from the provinces – where it was still plentiful – to the cities that most needed it. People were incensed to discover that, due to the hikes in the price of oats and hay, much of the black bread – the staple diet of the poor – was being fed to the capital's 80,000 horses to keep them alive: 'every horse was eating up the black bread allowance of ten men'. . . . Word spread like wildfire about food going to waste, of 'millions of pounds of cheap Siberian beef' being left to rot in railway sidings. Few of the munition-workers, whose wives or children spent more than half their time in the queue before a bread-shop, had not heard of the 'fish graveyards' of Astrakhan, where thousands of tons of the spoiled harvest of the Caspian were buried; and all classes had heard of the 'saccharine rivers' which travellers had seen flowing from leaky sugar warehouses in the great beet-growing districts of South Russia and Podolia.
I guess I know that famines have generally historically been due to lack of political will to resolve them, rather than a lack of food. Even today, globally we create more food than we need, while people starve in Yemen, but I was amazed to learn that even while the Russian government knew they teetered on the brink they couldn't get their act together to just get the railroads moving.

It is interesting to read what it was like for the Russians suddenly set free of the Tsar. So little experience did they have of freedom of expression or freedom of association that they had to borrow an English word to describe what they are were now doing: Meetinki. It is wild to imagine what it would be like to finally be free to have an opinion.
Groups of twenty or thirty would spontaneously gather, and then 'one of the company mounts a stone, or a bench, or a heap of snow and talks his head off, gesticulating wildly. The audience gazes fixedly at the orator and listens in a kind of rapt absorption. As soon as he stops another takes his place and immediately gets the same fervent silence and concentrated attention
As one American diplomat telegraphed President Wilson: "We have here an infant class in the art of being free containing one hundred and seventy million people, and they need to be supplied with kindergarten material."

Some of what went on was not very kindergarten. There was quite a lot of violence, especially against the Tsarist police, who very much sound like they deserved what was coming to them (i.e., being beaten to death). Weapons were everywhere, as one journalist noted: "Even street urchins seemed to have picked up revolvers, and were blazing away at stray pigeons." The author, Helen Rappoport, makes free use of some very questionable adjectives, calling violence 'senseless,' and damaged imperial decor 'sad' which I don't think the starving would agree it was. That said, I enjoyed it overall and am glad I took a break to read some non-fiction, not least because I shall now sound crushingly well-informed about the Russian revolution when the topic comes up. As obviously I now hope it will. Let me think of how to angle dinner party chit-chat in that direction.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

POUR ME by AA Gill

There are very few journalists who can write a good book, and AA Gill is not one of them.

It starts well, with the account of the alcoholism of his 20s. Memoirs of addiction are difficult, being all basically the same story, but he gives his an interesting spin. Here he is on his recovery through William Glasser therapy methods:
Bill Glasser . . . believed that there were five things that people needed in order to function properly, and the first and the greatest of these was love. It wasn’t an original thought. But they don’t tell us this, because frankly no one wants to be told that the answer to everything is love. No one wants the payoff of his tragedy to be the chorus of a pop song.

And there are some nice turns of phrase - here is on his father: "My dad died of Alzheimer's. I watched him retreat like Napoleon as the frozen winter of the illness buried his memories. He retreated further and further, fighting dogged but ultimately unmemorable rear-guard actions over the remembrances of his life . . . "

But once he is recovered, and himself again, I find I don't really like that self very much. For a start, he seems to be a kind of pretentious guy. Try this little piece of showing off: "Cookery books are the unconsidered diaries of family life, the everyday history of breakfast, the Veda of lunch, the Decalogue of dinner." And there's a lot of this kind of thing: " . . . the cruet set brought back from honeymoon that sat on a dresser for a lifetime, too silly to use, to fond to throw away, still with the grains of salt that had rested there, the symbol of a friendship and hospitality for a lifetime."

Worse than this, is its extraordinary insularity. There is a tiny section of North London - a hard core of few hundred people who regard themselves as a sort of intelligentsia - who, like Welsh miners, have heroically resisted globalisation, and a view of their own un-importance in the big world. Antonia Fraser's MUST YOU GO - read in the dark days before this blog was begun - is the summit of this world view, but this one is pretty bad too. There's also some extraordinarily awkward name-dropping Try this: "Snowdon: old people and fancy bantams. You could never accuse him of snobbery: he treated them both exactly the same. I'm very fond of Tony, but he could be a bugger just for the devilment of it." It's that 'Tony' that really grates. And don't even get me started on his mention of snobbery: Gill has a lot to say on this, but I think you have to have been born in England to know what he's on about - it drips with unacknowledged class anxiety, which, if you weren't brought up to it, is one part hard to understand and two parts annoying.

I feel bad to pan this book, as I understand AA Gill has recently passed away. I don't like to speak ill of the dead; but I suppose it's all right to speak ill of the dead's book.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

THE GRAND SOPHY by Georgette Heyer

To read Georgette Heyer is to learn to appreciate Jane Austen. Some readers - usually male - argue that Austen cannot be considered a serious writer - like her heavily bearded nineteenth century peers -because she wrote what they dismissively describe as 'love stories'.

Quite what is wrong would be wrong with that, I'm not sure, as these people never object to stories on other emotions. However it's not accurate. Austen's books are not so much about romance as they are about learning to live with yourself in the world; making bad choices; and facing the consequences. Heyer's, on the other hand, while apparently similar - a love story, a Regency setting - are quite plainly and simply about nothing very much. They're sheer joyous escapism. You can read them with happy confidence that all will turn out well, for those who deserve it to. As per Oscar Wilde:
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I read a good amount of Georgette Heyer as a teenager, but haven't opened her in a couple of decades. I was driven to it recently by an urgent need for escape - for the good to end happily - and THE GRAND SOPHY provided a delightful weekend's reading. I was a little shame faced over reading such trash, until I looked Heyer's life up. I was impressed to learn that she started her career back when women were barely allowed to be employed, in the 1920s, and her writing supported her flakey husband, two flakey brothers, and flakey son for the rest of her life. I was even more impressed to learn that she single-handedly invented the genre of historical romance.

I also reflected that she's only trashy in so far as someone like Kipling - her near contemporary - was trashy: lots of plot, lots of moral, not much challenge; and yet Kipling is in the cannon. One hates to have to bring up gender all the time - so I won't. But draw your own conclusions.

Monday, 1 May 2017


I was midway through a serious novel on POWs on the Burmese railroad when I realised I was just in too fragile a state for quality fiction about crimes against humanity. I therefore took emergency action on Amazon, and this yielded THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO.

I recently took similarly urgent action in an airport before a transatlantic flight with two other books by female American comics: Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS (great) and Amy Poehler's YES PLEASE (horrible). I always used to hesitate to remunerate what I know to be cynical publishers trying to make money of TV tie-ins, but I guess I'm just getting less scrupulous as I get older. By the time I'm fifty I'll be reading golfer's autobiographies.

Schumer's book is unexpectedly wonderful. It's very funny, and very clever, and kind of dirty, as you'd expect. But it's also sort of inspirational. Let's start with the funny and clever. Here she is on Hollywood:
I'm sure no one is too shocked to hear that it's an industry of people who judge most women almost solely on their appearance, and where every day women feel themselves barreling toward death and decay while smaller, hotter actresses like Selena keep appearing like Russian nesting dolls.
Or on being caught by the paparazzi:
One of the first times I was papped they caught me stand-up paddle boarding in Hawaii. I didn't even recognise myself. I saw the shots and thought, 'Oh cool, Alfred Hitchcock is alive and likes water sports.' But nope. It was me.

And on to the inspirational. It's hard to capture exactly what I mean by this. It's largely I think about the degree of honesty with which Schumer talks about her life, and particularly her family. People so rarely tell you how they really feel that it's always touching when they do. Being a comedian who talks about her own life means that Amy has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to share yourself. She tells a story about a time she was with a group of friends in the early years of high school, and had an experience which earned her the nickname 'silver dollars'.
While we were hanging on the playground, the ten guys somehow convinced the six girls to lift up their shirts and show them their boobs. They’d presented the very good argument of “Why not?” We had no counterargument for that, so we lined up and, on the count of three, lifted our shirts. I wrapped my fourteen-year-old fingers around the bottom of my Gap tee and yanked it over my pimpled, plump face with abandon. . . . I then looked down the line and realized that all the other girls had just shown their bras. In a perfect metaphor for my life, I had revealed too much. I’d pulled up my entire bra too. I was the only skins player on the team. . .This was my very first experience of the stripped-down, cold, unprotected space where vulnerability meets either confidence or shame. It was my choice, and I had to learn (I’m still learning) how to choose to be proud of who I am rather than ashamed. Lucky for me, I’m a woman, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice this lesson over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

She is particularly interesting in her acceptance of - and openess about - her own mistakes. That is in fact what the title is about - the terrible cheesy lower back tattoo she got when she was eighteen.
So now, . . . , I'm thirty five, and any time I'm in a bathing suit people immediately know in their hearts that I'm trash. Any time I take my clothes off for the first time in front of a man and he sees it, he also knows in his heart that I'm trash and that I make poor, poor decisions. And now that the paparazzi think it’s interesting to take photos of me doing absolutely nothing noteworthy on a beach somewhere, the whole world has been treated to photos of my lower back tattoo hovering crookedly over my bikini bottoms. But I promise you from the bottom of my heart I don’t care. I wear my mistakes like badges of honor, and I celebrate them. They make me human. Now that all of my work, my relationships, my tweets, my body parts, and my sandwiches are publicly analyzed, I’m proud that I labeled myself a flawed, normal human before anyone else did. I beat all the critics and Internet trolls to the punch. I’ve been called everything in the book, but I already branded myself a tramp, so the haters are going to have to come up with something fresh.

Somehow, though the above may sound a little cliche taken out of context, I actually believe her - believe she accepts her mistakes. And I find the idea that someone could actually really do that sort of mindboggling and also very encouraging.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

JAMAICA INN by Daphne du Maurier

One thing that’s just fantastically fun is to have a book to read on vacation that’s written in that location. A weekend in Cornwall demands du Maurier almost as much as it does cream teas.

It’s a gothic thriller with a high cheese factor: dark moors, dark nights, dark men. But it’s still a fun and engaging read. I kept failing to look at the view because I was busy seeing where the book would go. Also, I appreciate Daphne fighting the good fight with the patriarchy: the main character is a woman – unusual for a book of the thirties – and a woman who is very much in charge of her own decisions and her own destiny. There’s a love story woven in here somewhere, in the middle of shipwrecks and albino vicars, and this – which could have been the cheesiest part of the story – is in fact the most complicated. He’s difficult, and she’s difficult too, and SPOILER while they get together at the end, it’s already a very prosaic negotiation: an unexpected burst of reality in the midst of murder and mayhem.

Sunday, 23 April 2017


The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the illiterate get a look in. It’s a strange story, full of unreliable narrators, including the author himself, who appears as a shepherd in the story.

It’s a thriller whose thrill is based on the Calvinist theory of predestination. Yes, you read that right. Apparently predestination was a hot topic in the eighteenth century. It’s the idea that as the saved are a chosen people, and as God has planned your life in advance, if you are one of the chosen you are always chosen, no matter what you do: you can’t sin yourself out of your pre-determined salvation, even by sinning a lot. This makes a sort of sense, if you think about it a lot, and shows the dangers of thinking a lot on anything. Logic has a lot of dead ends.

Predestination was I guess a kind of a cultural madness, and Hogg attempts to show this by taking it to its furthest extreme. A young man who believes himself saved is approached by another young man (‘Gil Martin’) and encouraged to think that it is his duty to smite the unbelievers. He’s hesitant, but is eventually convinced that even if he is in the wrong, he is saved in any case, so any error cannot keep him from heaven. He starts by smiting a local parson with whom he disagrees on some microscopic points of doctrine, and it goes downhill from there. It’s obvious to the reader from the beginning that Gil Martin is probably Satan, and over time it becomes horribly obvious to the young man also, who is driven to ever more desperate measures.

It made me think about the young men who join Daesh. It must take real courage to do what you think is right, and more courage to realise you were wrong, and an even more terrible courage to do anything about it.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

BEL CANTO by Ann Pratchett

This sounded like it was going to be good: 50 wealthy people taken hostage and held by terrorists for four months in a ballroom. But I found it unfortunately rather bad: a great premise, but a lame and unlikely story.

First thing that was unlikely: there is an opera singer among the hostages, who decides she needs to practice, and so sings for two hours a day - and the people ACTUALLY LIKE IT. This strains credulity. I can’t imagine anything worse than being imprisoned and then made to listen to opera. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on the universal redemptive power of great art but I guess what I learnt is that I don’t believe in that power.

Second thing unlikely: this opera singer and some man fall in love, despite not speaking the same language. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on love existing on a plane beyond language. I guess I also don’t believe in that.

Third thing unlikely: one of the hostages and one of the terrorists fall in love. This, despite a truly vast gap in class and experience in violence. I guess I do believe in Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t think that’s what Pratchett was going for.

In short, I guess this book was educational. I learnt I don’t believe either art or love conquer all.

Monday, 17 April 2017

BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763 by James Boswell, edited by Frederick A Pottle

I don’t suppose many people read Boswell, and those who do probably don’t begin with his lesser works. But there you go: such are the perils and pleasures of not letting the Amazon algorithm suggest what you read, but rather the mysterious inner workings of a charity shop at Clapham Junction.

The algorithm rationally assigns you what you would probably enjoy (i.e., the big classic: Boswell’s Life of Johnson). The British Heart Foundation shop erratically suggests the reading preferences of whoever has died that week. This I really quite enjoy, as for some reason this particular charity shop has really rather highbrow donors. It’s surprising. I suspect it is because readers of similar tastes go there, and so donate there, and so go there. It’s me and a bunch of OAPs, would be my guess. So that’s the story of why I am reading a relatively obscure 18th century diary in an even more obscure 1950 edition the cover of which I struggled to find on Google images for your thumbnail enjoyment.

I love a good diary. There is something extraordinarily reassuring in seeing the day-to-day of someone else’s life, even if that someone has been dead for 200 years. Here’s a flavor, from the footnotes:
About this time he (Boswell) began also to write a series of memoranda, one octavo page every day, apparently jotted down the last thing before he went to bed or the first thing in the morning before he put on his clothes. In them he tells himself, always in the second person, what to eat, what to wear, what supplies to get in, what books to read; makes schedules for calls; gives directions for pleasures; orders himself to keep his journal posted; implores himself to try to attain to greater gravity.

It’s touching to see how other people suffer days when they are down, for no reason; that other people have to make resolutions; have to find self-control, and exercise that boring daily discipline of happiness. It’s particularly touching to read the diary of someone in their early twenties, as I don’t think that’s something often preserved (unless they are a suicide). I’m struck by how much time Boswell spends resolving on ‘manner’ – on being this or that type of person. I recall that from my twenties, and it’s interesting to see I don’t seem to do that anymore. Perhaps I am actually an adult.

There’s also a charming and sometimes horrifying flavor of 18th century London. Boswell is always to be found drinking coffee, going to the theatre, eating in chop houses, etc. Here we are with a prostitute (he’s always having sex with these poor women in the street):
In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her sixpence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens pushed her up against the wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more whores and soldiers came to her relief.
I have a lot of questions that I don’t really want answered about all of that. Near the end of his diary Boswell finally meets Johnson, and we see here his first notes that would become the famous Life. It’s enormously quotable, and makes me feel I need to work on polishing my conversational knife a little further:
Sir, I was once a greater arguer for the advantages of poverty, but I was at the same time very discontented. Sir, the great deal of arguing which we hear to represent poverty as no evil shows it to be evidently a great one. You never knew people laboring to convince you that you might live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.
Mr Johnson said today that a woman’s preaching was like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.
Also charming are the editor’s almost insanely detailed, and sweetly dated, footnotes, which clearly mark how much this academic loves this man. Example - Boswell is busy with another prostitute, and the editor comments: “ ‘roger’ of course has a different meaning today, in this age of radio-telephony”

I love that line of Alan Bennett’s about reading being "as if a hand has come out and taken yours” from across time. This book made me feel like that, in the best possible way.