Monday, 31 December 2012

BOOKS 0F 2012

This year is a sad comedown on last. I've only read 49 books. However, looking back on the list there was still much to delight. My favourite books of the year:
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Phillip Roth: a horrifying and hilarious meditation on a young man's life, mostly as it concerns masturbation
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens: how did I live this long without ever reading this?
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope: it's so absorbing, it's like an anaesthetic for your actual life.

I also enjoyed non-fiction for perhaps the first time ever this year: highlights include STANLEY by Time Jeal and THE GUN by CJ Chivers.

There was little that was dire, but I must mention the horrible BLIND ASSASSIN, by Margaret Atwood. It was totally humourless and utterly forgettable. So forgettable I really can't tell you want the plot was.

In other bad news I only managed 34% female authors. Gender traitor!

I have put this post together in two minutes, as I am leaving the for the airport, but wanted to post on the last day of this lovely year; but I quite enjoyed glancing at old posts, and meeting myself; it's like seeing a stranger you only sort of remember.

2 RICH DAD, POOR DAD by Robert Kiyosaki
3 O PIONEERS! by Willa Cather
6 ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe
7 THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood
8 THE PRIME MINISTER by Anthony Trollope
9 THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas
12 TIME OF HOPE by CP Snow
13 THE SADDEST STORY by Ford Maddox Ford
15 THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene
16 A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens
17 THE GUN by CJ Chivers
18 AN EDUCATION by Lynn Barber
21 NIGHTMARE ABBEY by Thomas Love Peacock
22 THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD by Oliver Goldsmith
23 ANY HUMAN HEART by William Boyd
24 THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope
25 LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford
26 THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford
27 THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
28 THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth
29 MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER by Simone de Beauvoir
30 COMMUTERS by Emily Gray Tedrowe
31 BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy
32 A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR by Robert M Sapolsky
34 THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst
36 THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton
37 THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM by Olive Schreiner
39 A CHANGE OF CLIMATE by Hilary Mantel
40 JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE by Claire Tomalin
41 ETHAN FROMME by Edith Wharton
42 CRANFORD by Elizabeth Gaskell
43 FAREWELL by Balzac
46 ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes
47 BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
48 JOY by Jonathan Lee
49 HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander

A CHANGE OF CLIMATE by Hilary Mantel

I just finished another Mantel, the Booker winning BRING UP THE BODIES, a highly poetic historical novel. This book couldn’t be more different – in fact it seems to have been written by a totally different person. It’s a contemporary story about a personal drama.

A young man is essentially forced by his father to become a missionary. His father in incensed by his son’s desire to study geology, as he is fiercely opposed to evolution. The young man does not ask for support from anyone, and eventually surrenders:
Because he was ashamed of his father’s stupidity, ashamed of the terms of the quarrel. Because in families, you never think of appealing for help to the outside world; your quarrels are too particular, too specific, too complex. And because you never think of these reasonable solutions, till it is far too late.

An interesting analysis of family life. In Africa, where they go as missionaries, the young man and his wife experience a horrific life changing event. The author is British, so no surprises as to what the event is: oh yes, it’s child abuse. Of course. The British are completely obsessed with paedophilia.

The book flashes back and forth between past and future, and while always engaging, because Mantel is a fine writer, it never quite reaches a satisfying completion or resolution. There is however this great line, which I rather treasure:
Again he twitched at his belt, settling his bulk comfortably, as if his gut were something apart from him, a pet animal he kept.
I know many people keeping that kind of pet.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE by Claire Tomalin

As with many people I have a particular soft spot for Jane Austen. I’m sure literary critics would disagree, but for me she always seems to be the first really modern woman: standing apart, thinking for herself. She’s the first light on the horizon, and it’s deeply depressing it took that many generations of civilization to spawn a lady like her for us to look up to.

Austen was born into a clergyman’s large family. She remained unmarried throughout her life, and was very close to her sister, only finding some measure of success in her writing fairly late. Not that late, however, as she was dead in her early forties. This detailed and well researched biography exploded a couple of preconceptions I had about Austen.

I had always thought her novels, which are fairly narrow in external incident, reflected the placid world in which she grew up. I was surprised to see that in fact the families she knew well were far from dull, with slave owners, madness, adultery, and so forth. Her closest cousin in fact fled the French Revolution and led a most exotic life, taking her retarded child around the world, absolutely none of which appears in her novels. It is interesting to see that the restrained world she created was a conscious artistic choice, rather than a rural spinster’s necessity.

While her novels' themes are profound and wide reaching, at the level of plot the novels are mostly romances. It is thus easy to believe that Austen must have wanted to be married. From her letters, it is clear that for a while she was much taken with a young Irishman, and that they were not married only because neither had any money. This seems like it could be rather an awful sad story, worthy of a bad movie (step in Anne Hathaway, horrifying casting in BECOMING JANE). However, her sister Cassandra later made it clear that Jane felt a kind of triumph over married ladies, and in one of her letters she speaks of one of her young sister-in-laws as a ‘poor animal’ who will be exhausted by the age of 30. She knew what she was talking about; she lost four sisters-in-law to childbirth. During this period it was normal to have a baby every eighteen months. Thus, for example, one of these sisters-in-law who married at eighteen had eleven babies before dying in labour at the ripe old age of thirty five. From this perspective, the idea of the poor young Irishman seems a good deal less romantic. How could she have found time to think, let alone write some of the finest novels in the English language, if she’d been pregnant and breastfeeding and surrounded by toddlers for twenty years – if she was lucky enough to live that long at all?

I did not expect this to be my response to a biography of Jane Austen, but all I can say is; THANK GOD FOR BIRTH CONTROL.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A number of novellas

I listened to these while driving around the South African province of Mpumalanga over the course of two months, along with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, reviewed previously.

God, what can I say. I read it when I was about fifteen, and I still haven’t recovered. It’s no less painful on a second reading twenty years later.

A rare case where the TV show is better than the novel. I usually love Elizabeth Gaskell, but this I found a bit sentimental. Yes I blubbed, but I did not respect myself for blubbing. It was interestingly modern, in that it was more a series of interconnected stories than a novel.

I mean, we know I like the Victorians, but this was too much even for me. It’s a bizarre and sexist novella, in which some woman loses her lover to war. Her last word to him is the creative ‘farewell,’ and the loss is so great she loses her mind, only retaining that one word. The lover survives a Siberian prison, and comes upon her by chance. He is so upset when he cannot make her sane that he decides to kill her, and it all gets more inappropriate from there. The best part was the scene where she loses her lover. It’s during Napoleon’s slow retreat from Russia during the winter, and is unbearably sad, with men so exhausted that they choose to lie down to rest despite the fact that the Russians are coming and they will surely freeze to death.

Thanks to Librivox

Thursday, 27 December 2012


Montaigne was a Frenchman of the eighteenth century , who wrote a series of essays with titles such as:

He wrote 107 of such essays, and on these his reputation rests. This is in part due to the content of the essays, and in part due to their form. Montaigne joins Shakespeare as being among the first to write directly of our divided experience as individuals, to express what now seems to us self-evident – the contradictory inner life of each person. Bakewell explains: “Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.”

How modern is this:
I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We became habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.

He describes much that is common human experience, such as finding famous sites, when they are at last seen, almost imaginary:
Something similar happened to Freud in Athens when he saw the Acropolis. ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learned at school!’ he exclaimed, and almost immediately thereafter felt the conviction: ‘What I see here is not real.’

This book is more or less a biography of Montaigne, but the author has attempted to make it more appealing by framing it in terms of questions as to how to live, answered from his work. This is only intermittently successful. Montaigne had a distinctly odd childhood, having been spoken to only in Latin up to the age of six, which meant that pretty much only his tutor could speak to him. He went on to be a magistrate, before at the age of 37 ‘retiring’ to his father’s estates to write his essays. He was actually supposed to be managing those estates, but he mostly left that to his mum.

He is very much interested in being free of constraints, such as estate management:
No prison has received me, not even for a visit. Imagination makes the sight of one, even from the outside, unpleasant to me. I am so sick for freedom that if anyone should forbid me access to some corner of the Indies, I should live distinctly less comfortably

One of this primary suggestions as to how to live comes from Montaigne’s close brush with death, which he was surprised to find was in fact a gentle and easy experience. From then on, he “tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’”

The book’s charm comes in part from the window it provides onto his period. He saw the plague whip through rural France, so quickly and fiercely that he often saw sick people dig their own graves and lie in them awaiting death. It was a time of great religious warfare:
For today, to mug one’s neighbor, massacre ones’ nearest relatives, rob the altars, profane the churches, rape women and young girls, ransack everybyody, is the ordinary practice of a Leaguer and the infallible mark of a zealous Catholic; always to have religion and the mass on one’s lips, but atheism and robbery in one’s heart, and murder and blood on one’s hands.
Apparently things haven’t changed as much as we would have liked.

Apparently at that time they believed that sex with your wife should be as cautious as possible. Montaigne quotes Aristotle: “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he careeses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” They also believed that too much pleasure for a woman could make the sperm curdle within her. I just love it that they have such confidence in their powers. That probably is my problem, that sex has just transported me beyond the bounds of reason that once too often.

The closest that Montaigne came to in terms of an answer of how to live was in his last essay, which apparently Virginia Woolf was fond of quoting (though it seemed to do her little good):
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
Bakewell comments, interestingly:
Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer.

Anyway, Montaigne has been much loved through the centuries, with one critic commenting:
His book is the touchstone of a sound mind. If a man dislikes it, you may be sure that he has some defect of the heart or understanding

I feel that way about quite a few books. Some random person opens their mouth at a party about one of these books, to say something stupid, and I just have to cross them right off the list.


SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END begins in an easy chatty manner, with Athill looking out the window, watching dogs play. She comments:
I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
Then she talks about having recently ordered a tree fern, which turned out to be just a seedling:
Whether tree ferns grow quickly or slowly I don’t know, but even if it is quickly, it is not possible that I shall ever see this one playing the part I envisaged in our garden
Athill is clearly an elderly lady, and this it emerges is her theme:
We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself: ‘ Why not have a go at it?” So I shall.

It’s true there is little in literature about being old, despite the fact that this will soon be a very long period of our ever longer lives, so I was interested to hear her perspective.

The main thing I gained from this novel is that, at least for Athill, as we grow older, we grow more accepting of death, which is comforting. I did struggle somewhat with the extent to which she drew on her response to her parents’ death as a model. Both her parents died when she was in her sixties and they in her eighties, so with respect I think she has little idea as to what early loss of those two people can be.

I strongly suspect Athill was a bit of a looker, because much of her book is taken up with her lovers. One, for a relatively brief period, was a man Sam, and she comments: “after his death Sam became more vivid in my mind than many of my more important dead. I saw him with photographic clarity – still do.” I love that phrase – ‘my more important dead’ – it seems to me to really capture what it means to have lived a long time. Thankfully my list of important dead is short, and I am not sure if I want to live long enough for it to become long.

Curiously, as with Montaigne, a biography of whom I will review next, she seems to come to some sort of conclusion around life being worth living in and of itself. At the end, of the fern, she explains that it is growng fast, and comments:
I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.


SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END begins in an easy chatty manner, with Athill looking out the window, watching dogs play. She comments:
I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
Then she talks about having recently ordered a tree fern, which turned out to be just a seedling:
Whether tree ferns grow quickly or slowly I don’t know, but even if it is quickly, it is not possible that I shall ever see this one playing the part I envisaged in our garden
Athill is clearly an elderly lady, and this it emerges is her theme:
We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself: ‘ Why not have a go at it?” So I shall.

It’s true there is little in literature about being old, despite the fact that this will soon be a very long period of our ever longer lives, so I was interested to hear her perspective.

The main thing I gained from this novel is that, at least for Athill, as we grow older, we grow more accepting of death, which is comforting. I did struggle somewhat with the extent to which she drew on her response to her parents’ death as a model. Both her parents died when she was in her sixties and they in her eighties, so with respect I think she has little idea as to what early loss of those two people can be.

I strongly suspect Athill was a bit of a looker, because much of her book is taken up with her lovers. One, for a relatively brief period, was a man Sam, and she comments: “after his death Sam became more vivid in my mind than many of my more important dead. I saw him with photographic clarity – still do.” I love that phrase – ‘my more important dead’ – it seems to me to really capture what it means to have lived a long time. Thankfully my list of important dead is short, and I am not sure if I want to live long enough for it to become long.

Curiously, as with Montaigne, a biography of whom I will review next, she seems to come to some sort of conclusion around life being worth living in and of itself. At the end, of the fern, she explains that it is growng fast, and comments:
I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes

This is African sci-fi. Its set in a future dystopic Johannesburg. The premise is brilliant: certain people, who have committed crimes, have seen their guilt suddenly become manifest in the shape of animals. They need to remain close to these animals, or they suffer excruciating pain, and they develop close relationships to these creatures.

These people are known as the animaled, and some of the best parts of the book are the Wikipedia and IMDB entries inserted at random on the subject. We learn that one Aghan warlord has a penguin, a famous rapper has a hyena (later revealed to have just been a prop, intended to make him seem dangerous), and that as punishment in Indian jails, the animals are separated from the animaled.

Our lead character is a woman who is animaled with a sloth. She travels through Joburg trying to find a lost teenager she has been employed to locate, and we get to see much of Joburg re-imagined. Here is on one thing that has not changed in this imagined future: the walls of middle class homes
Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle class paranoia in.

The difficulty in this novel is unfortunately the plot. It’s long and complex, and full of characters we don’t care about. It’s an unavoidable truth that premises are often easier than plots, and it’s a truth that often trips up the sci-fi writer. Lauren Beukes creates a great world, with interesting characters, but, in may opinion, fails to string them together. All the same, I very much admire this book. It’s an attempt at a difficult genre in an unusual setting, and is a real contribution to the contemporary literature of our large continent.

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize two years In a row, first for WOLF HALL, and then for this novel, BRING UP THE BODIES, which is the sequel.

The books follow the story of Cromwell , a man of lowly birth who rose to be one of Henry VII’s main advisers, helping him from one wife to the next. WOLF HALL covered the rise of Anne Bolyen; BRING UP THE BODIES tells the story of her fall.

One thing I find very enjoyable about these novels is the way in which they grow out a single national sensibility. They are just drenched in a kind of Englishness, a single way of looking at the world, which is I think - with international travel, immigration, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of globalization - growing increasingly rare. Here she is on the spring:
We are coming to the sweet season of the year, when the air is mild and the leaves pale, and lemon cakes are flavoured with lavender: egg custards, barely set, infused with a sprig of basil; elderflowers simmered in a sugar syrup and poured over halved strawberries.

It’s just gorgeously written, sentence for sentence; here’s shutting up the house
And now night falls on Austin Friars. Snap of bolts, click of key in the lock, rattle of strong chain across wicket, and the great bar fallen across the main gate. The boy Dick Purser lets out the watchdogs. The pounce and race, they snap at the moonlight, they flop under the fruit trees, heads on paws and ears twitching. When the house is quiet – when all his houses are quiet – then dead people walk about on the stairs.

It’s a beautiful evocation of a very detailed imagined world, Cromwell providing a kind of window on the sixteenth century. If I have a difficulty with the book it is that the world is better imagined than Cromwell himself. He really is a window, with little internal life – or little that I cared about. These ‘dead people on the stairs’ are his deceased children, who we keep going back to, and about whom I did not care. This is a rare false note in a very lovely novel.

It’s also very funny. Here we are on a scandal:
And if all the people who say they were there had really been there, then the dregs of London would have drained to the one spot, the goals emptied of thieves, the beds empty of whores, and all the lawyers standing on the shoulders of the butchers to get a better look.
And here’s a random man:
. . a man who stands by, smirking and stroking his beard; he thinks he looks enigmatic, but instead he looks as if he’s pleasuring himself

Sunday, 23 December 2012

JOY by Jonathan Lee

This novel is about a lawyer on the last day of her life. She plans to commit suicide, and one strand of the book follows her through that day with that knowledge within her. The other strands are contributed by the people who know her, who talk about the day in retrospect.

The main strength of this book lies in the powerful imagining of Joy’s internal life. It’s is as depressing a subject as HOPE: A TRAGEDY, which I read last, and yet it is at least as much about human endeavor, and possibility, as it is about meaningless and failure.

The other strands were less successful. She has a long on-and-off relationship with a man named Peter, who is presented as more or less a horrible manipulator. There is a particularly unsuccessful character, called Samir, who works in her office gym, and is an immigrant which apparently means he is an idiot. It's interesting that the novel is written by a man, yet the best imagined character is a woman.

So some issues around caricature, but overall an enjoyable and engaging novel. There is also a rather charming evocation of office life. Here’s Peter:
. . . seeing the office as a sanctuary, a place where the wider world was both abbreviated and improved. Beautiful women. Pleasant furnishings. A range of enjoyable biscuits.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander

Good title, isn’t it? Also, it came highly recommended as one of the best books of 2012. THESE PEOPLE NEED TO SMOKE LESS CRACK.

Sensitive readers may be able to observe from the capitalized sentence that I may not have liked this book. Which I don’t. It involves this Jewish guy (and you will understand by the end of the sentence why I need to mention his ethnicity) who buys a nice farm house, and then finds Anne Frank in the attic. This sounds like it might be a funny set up, huh? WELL IT’S NOT. His middle class marriage is falling apart, and Anne Frank puts great pressure on it. Eventually in a useless way he loses his marriage and his job and dies in a fire. Richly deserved. This is book is possibly the apogee of that strand in contemporary fiction which uses a useless/purposeless/inadequate central character as a metaphor for the human condition. It’s depressing and annoying and more importantly makes for a boring book.

It’s also gratingly irritating that this very well-off middle class person feels that he is having a tough time due to the Holocaust. He’s immensely privileged, which truth he plays lip service to, and yet it never seems to penetrate his self-indulgent obsession with his great-grandparents experience. The part where I really lost my junk was where he asked:
“People in Holocaust books and movies were always worrying about their papers: getting them, not getting them, . . . What were papers anyway? Papers like what, like a passport?”
Also, and this is not entirely fair, he likes to go on and on about his gluten intolerance, an affliction which always annoys me anyway.

Reading back over these last two paragraphs I feel guilty about being so mean about this book. So let me mention some rather good parts. Here’s a reasonable definition about how I feel about god:
Kugel could never believe in God, but he could never not believe in him either; there should be a God, felt Kugel, even if there probably wasn’t

And on death:
Everyone shared the same final thought, and this was it: the bewildered, dumfounded statement of his own disappointing cause of death. Shark? Train? Really? I get hit by a train? Malaria? Fuck off. Malaria?

Friday, 16 November 2012


This is a gripping story about a man doing nothing.

Newland Archer is engaged to be married to a beautiful and innocent young lady, the flower of nineteenth century New York society. Then her cousin Ellen arrives, a slightly older lady with the whiff of scandal hanging on her. Archer begins to fall in love with Ellen, and so pushes forward with speeding up the wedding, so as to be safe. Once married, he realises that he is not at all safe, and is only falling further in love with his wife's cousin.

I won't tell you more, so as not to ruin if for you, but I will tell you that basically nothing happens. And so good a writer is Wharton that it is as compelling as watching a car crash. It's also an awful meditation on what it means to accept what is given to you. Here's Archer considering his marriage, his career, and his life in New York:
“The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future.”

It's a similar theme to the equally scarring ETHAN FROMME. I met someone at dinner last night who told me that everytime things are going well with a girl, he starts to worry there's going to be a sledding accident. This is the effect this book can have when read at a tender age, and AGE OF INNOCENCE is the same. I can only wonder what awful personal choices Wharton is working through in these books.

Don't however get the impression from this the book is not funny; it's often extremely witty. Here is an obese old lady:
“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosohpically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.”

The book is also interesting on the subject of gender, raising a question I have often wondered about: why did the men of the nineteenth century want innocent virgins so much? Wouldn't it be boring? Wouldn't you rather have someone who'd been around the block? I guess there is an evolutionary piece of this puzzle, but it is interesting to see Archer worry about it.
"It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman's eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?"

Edith Wharton clearly fought the hard fight for women of her period, and it's depressing to reflect that that battle still has to be fought. Google Jonathan Franzen's barf making reflection on Wharton's career, in which - believe it if you can - he goes on about . . .HER APPEARANCE. Here's LA Review of Books reflection:

And later,(Franzen says) “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now, if alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Do we even have to say that physical beauty is beside the point when discussing the work of a major author? Was Tolstoy pretty? Is Franzen? Wharton’s appearance has no relevance to her work. Franzen perpetuates the typically patriarchal standard of ranking a woman’s beauty before discussing her merits, whether she is an intellectual, artist, politician, activist, or musician.

I mean, Franzen. Franzen. Be serious. I didn't even know what Edith Wharton looks like. How you be grading weird old nineteenth century pictures of dead women?

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Olive Schreiner was a most interesting woman. Born to a poor and conservative family in 1855, she became a freethinker, a feminist, a vegetarian, and astonishingly, South Africa's first important novelist. Her claim to fame rests on this book, THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM.

It'a superlatively odd novel. It begins with the story of three children living on a farm in the Karoo, then takes an abrupt left turn into an extended meditation on the existence of god - related bizarrely in the first person plural - and then staggers back to follow up on these children as adults.

The first section is for me the best, with many finely drawn characters, and a lovely depiction of the Karoo in the nineteenth century. Here is the fat and selfish woman who looks after the three kids:
"I know how it was when my first husband died. They could do nothing with me," the Boer-woman said, "till I had eaten a sheep's trotter, and honey, and a little roaster cake. I know.

And here's the farm yard chicken:
Even the old hen seemed well satisfied. She scratched among the stones and called to her chickens when she found a treasure, and all the while tucked to herself with intense inward satisfaction.

The existential crisis that is coming casts a shadow over this part of the book, with this a recurring image:
The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung it had been collecting all the morning: but Doss (the dog) broke the ball, and ate the beetle's hind legs, and then bit off its head. And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for. A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.

The existential agonising in the first person plural takes up a good third of the middle of the book, and damn, is it boring. I feel bad to say so, because it is also obviously painfully sincere. The child of missionaries, Schreiner clearly had to walk a very long and hard path before she could give up on god, and you do feel sorry for her, though you do wish she wouldn't go on about it. It's interesting to read it after MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER, another book about this period. Now we accept that life may well be meaningless, almost as a matter of course, but there was clearly a period during which this idea was first being born, when it was for many people a horrifying and frightening concept. Which I guess it is, if you think about it for too long. But as Schreiner observes, near the end, when one of her characters is in mourning for another, and is sitting in the sun:
There will always be something worth living for while there are shimmery afternoons.
It's as good a reason to live as any.


Perhaps five years ago I saw a one man show at the Edinburgh Festival, which was a tour de force performance by Bette Bourne as Quentin Crisp, with Crisp as an old man in his filthy London flat. I recall very vividly the fact that he hadn’t done any housework for ten years, and that his opinion was that after the first few years the dirt doesn’t get any worse – you just have to hold your nerve. Inspirational.

Crisp was an original thinker in all sorts of areas. He very early on accepted that he was gay, and rather than attempt to hide it as so many did in this period (the 1930s), he chose to flaunt it. It was astonishingly brave. I have to say, after a while, I began to find it foolish. He insisted on wearing makeup, hair dye and nail polish, and thus was beaten up on the streets frequently. It’s an odd mix of courage in who you are and flagrant exhibitionism. It also makes it clear how far the gay rights movement has come, that no one really seems to feel any more that you have to be a ‘girl’ or ‘girly’ in order to like boys.

Crisp is a person who has struggled much, and thus his book is full of a curious and rather sad kind of wisdom. As for example, when he is talking about a friend of his who worked day and night at his screenwriting. Eventually, this person had a huge and impressive career in television, and Crisp observes that such success requires not just energy but optimism. The first, Crisp says, he has; the second he does not. This is I think an interesting analysis of why it is that some people work hard, and some do not: it’s not so much laziness, as pessimism. Or realism, I suppose.

Sunday, 21 October 2012


After his round the world voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin spent the next forty years in his suburban home with his family, and it was there that he did the real intellectual work that made him famous and changed the way we see the world. CREATION tells the story of this period.

The Darwin family was close and loving, and much of the appeal of the book lies in an account of their ordinary lives. Darwin is thrilled by the birth of his first child, writing to a friend in the manner of all new parents: “He is a prodigy of beauty and intellect. He is so charming that I cannot pretend to any modesty. I defy anybody to flatter us on our baby, for I defy anyone to say anything in its praise, of which we are not fully conscious.” However, he also takes the opportunity to examine genetic inheritance in action: he was “always anxious to observe accurately the expression of a crying child . . . though his sympathy with the grief often spoiled his observation.”

Darwin spent many years studying barnacles, in his study, and one of his sons “ .. . when they went one day to play with the Lubbock children at High Elms, asked where Sir John (the father) did his barnacles” The nanny, Brodie, famously once said “it was a pity Mr Darwin had not something to do like Mr Thackeray (the author). She had seen him watching an ant heap for a whole hour” Darwin’s great love of his subject, be it barnacles, ants, or other, shines through the book. He comments charmingly: “I am at present red-hot with spiders; they are very interesting, and if I am not mistaken, I have already taken some new genera”

Darwin’s oldest daughter, Annie, dies of ‘fever’ (probably TB) at the age of ten. This death was particularly important in disabusing Darwin of a belief in a benevolent god, and gave him more impetus to pursue his ‘godless’ view of evolution.

Interestingly, Darwin had ten children. Or to be more accurate, his poor wife had ten children. The last eight were back to back in twelve years, making her life a
“treadmill of pregnancy, delivery, suckling, weaning and waiting for the next conception. After bearing her fifth child, she wondered if she might have 'the luck to escape having another soon,' but Charles did not seem to have appreciated her feelings. She was pregnant with the sixth a few months later."
This is really, really, unattractively Taliban of Darwin. Mrs Darwin must have been totally psyched to menopause.

I confess, I didn’t quite finish this book. It got a bit boring and blah-blah-blah towards the end. The author is the great grandchild of Darwin, and this is his only book, and it shows. I suspect I'd much rather read a book by someone who came to Darwin through great love, than through luck and inheritance. This is why I like Paris Hilton. She could just have relied on her family money, but she went ahead and at least she made something of herself, even if that something is sort of horrifying.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst

Stop the presses, it's a Booker winning novel that isn't crap! I'm amazed. It won in 2004, so maybe back then they were still awarding actual good novels, and since then it's been getting gradually more pretentious.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY tells the story of a middle class young man named Nick who after attending Oxford moves into the family home of one of his wealthy classmates. He lives there for some three years, and the novel follows his time with them. It traces two romances: his romance with his idea of the upper classes, and his exploration of gay life in London.

It's immediately absorbing, with everything seen through the lens of Nick, who is a highly sensitive, highly self absorbed young man. It's also immensely well observed. Here is Nick leaving a party: "He waited a minute longer, in the heightened singleness of someone who has slipped out for a minute from a class, a meeting, ears still ringing, face still solemn, into another world of quiet corridors, the neutral gleam of the day."

It's also Victorian in the exuberance and detail of its characters. There's Gerald, the father of the family he's living with who knows the "price of nothing but champagne and haircuts," (this is definitely a goal I have), or Lady Partridge, a family friend, who examines what Nick is reading with "the mocking contentment of the non-reader." I also enjoyed the gentle influence of the Victorians in the moral voice of the narrator. (For example, Nick at favourite cruising spot " preened in pardonable ways" we are told)

There's some awkwardness when the book bounces ahead a number of years, but Hollinghurst manages to resolve the book's arc neatly and satisfyingly. A great book, that while very long is over far too soon.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Sometimes you begin a novel and immediately feel comfortable. You know right away that this novelist understands the importance of plot, of interesting characters, of climax and resolution. For some readers, this will mark him out as a second rate. Some readers, clearly on a different intellectual plane to mine, feel that the truly quality novel should require more effort to read than it took to write – that is, be plotless and boring.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP has plot galore. It begins before Garp’s birth and follows him through childhood to his career as a successful writer, to his murder at the hands of extreme feminists. It’s absorbing from the first page. Occasionally Garp’s short stories are inserted in the text, which usually is for me - like dreams - something to be skipped. However so able is Irving as a writer that he manages to mix these fictional fictions with his fiction and still keep the arc going. Amazing.

An important theme of this novel is the impact of feminism on American society. One realizes, when seeing how hard Irving has to work to engage with feminism, how central the oppression of women was to the functioning of that society. It’s hard to understand now, from our perspective, all this agonizing; and it’s an interesting counterpoint to the last book I read, Simone de Beauvoir’s MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER, which is about the very birth of feminism.

Garp, in a typical male-author-of-the-70s kind of way, is happy in his marriage but still has a bunch of stupid and mildly gross affairs (babysitters etc). This is not a very successful part of the novel. I think that certain experiences of certain demographics should be considered as having been entirely described. Certain authors have entirely covered certain areas in detail, and should be considered as owning those areas. Eg: unemployed families in the Midwest during the Great Depression (Steinbeck; childhood in France at the end of the nineteenth century (Proust – take note de Beauvoir). Unfortunately, adulterous men in late twentieth century America is John Updike, not John Irving, I’m afraid.

Sunday, 16 September 2012


I became familiar with the private life of Simone de Beauvoir about a decade ago when I read the three volumes of the Sartre’s letters to her. I know these two are central figures in the existential movement, which redefined modern consciousness, etc etc, but what I really got from his letters was that Simone really needed to break up with Sartre. They were having an ‘open’ relationship, allegedly, which mostly just involved Sartre sleeping with lots of skanks and describing it to her in dreadful detail, e.g., her pubic hair was brown, (I am not exaggerating). Oh GOD Simone. Break up with him.

Anyway, this memoir covers her early life. To learn how she was brought up, in what a conservative and repressive environment, makes you all the more amazed that she managed to become who she was: a central figure in twentieth century thought, and, incredibly SINGLE. Take her father’s compliment to her: Simone, he said, you are fit to be a companion to a hero. Wow.

The young Simone loves Jo, the independent hero of LM Montgomery’s LITTLE WOMEN. I found this quite charming, as lots of studious spotty girls have loved Jo. There’s something very charming about LM Montgomery reaching out to Simone de Beauvoir, who reaches out to us today. It’s the thin line of smart and overly serious girls through history.

She graduates from pleasure reading to very serious philosophical reading, attending the Sorbonne. Simone and co. were just on the verge of developing that godless cosmology which has given birth to our tired, cynical LOLcats age, but they still worked on it in the spirit of their times, which a tireless and touching optimism, totally foreign to us today.
Here she is on socialists: I thought the word had an evil ring; a socialist couldn’t possibly be a tormented soul; he was pursuing ends that were both secular and limied: such moderation irritated me from the outset
. Or on her boyfriend, who is not sure what to do with his life:
Afterall, I told myself, I have no right to blame him for an inconsequence which is that of life itself: it leads us to a certain conclusions and then reveals their emptiness

There are glimpses of the later, letter writing Simne with whom I am familiar. Here is a man off to the war, and leaving her his favourite clock for safekeeping. She barely knows this man, and he confesses, apropos of nothing:
. . .he was a Jew, an illegitimate child, and a sexual maniac: he could only love women weighing more than fifteen stone.; Stepha had been the one exception in his life: hehadhoped that, despite her small stature, she would be able to give him, thanks to her intelligence, an illusion of immense size. The war swept him away; he never came back for his clock.

And on Sartre:
He was still young enough to feel emotional about his future whenever he heard a saxophone playing after his third martini.
Clearly I am still young, I feel emotional about everything after just one martini. Maybe I’m not young, just a lightweight.

Also touching is Simone’s friendship with Zaza, a girl she met in high school, who renamed her friend throughout her early life, fighting with her a brave battle against family and society. Zaza dies of meningtius, which Simone believes is exacerbated by her battle against her family’s marriage plans for her. The last line of the book is a tribute to her:
She has often appeared to me at night, her face all yellow under a pink sun-bonnet, and seeming to gaze reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahed of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.
The battles of these early feminists puts into rather harsh relief women today who can’t even face having a little argument with their own husbands about having to do the dishes. Nice work, twenty first century ladies.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

COMMUTERS by Emily Gray Tedrowe

This novel begins with an elderly lady deciding to get married, and broadly follows the impact that this has on her immediate family. I found this to be a very carefully executed and tightly edited modern novel, so well-behaved as to be entirely forgettable.

I use my Kindle to note interesting passages or ideas in books, and it’s rare for me not to find any at all in a book; but I’m afraid that this was case here, and I don’t think it’s just because I read it on a 17 hr drive from Cape Town to Joburg. It found the family dynamic to be entirely ordinary, the arc predictable, and the themes old hat. I almost feel bad to take such a dislike to a book so ordinary.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

I’ve read and loved ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and THE ROAD. The latter I finished in tears as the bath water cooled around me. In this case, third time is apparently not the charm because I found BLOOD MERIDIAN a disappointment.

I suspect this is because I can now see the book as part of a pattern of the author's interests. It is set in the American West, and is about a group of men who ride out to kill some other men. Just like THE ROAD and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES were about men on a quest to kill other men. Two are sort of horse related, one more cannibal related, but that’s the basic MO. It's violent, everybody's silent, everybody's men.

I guess I found it sort of dull. I mean just try this:

They rode in a narrow enfilade along a trail strewn with the dry rounds of turds of goats and they road with their faces averted from the rock wall and the bake-oven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.

The choice of the word ‘enfilade’ was the one that cracked this camel’s back. I mean REALLY, CORMAC MCCARTHY REALLY? Do you really need to use a shooting term for describing people walking in single file? And when I say people, I mean men. Because Mr McCarthy sure as hell is not interested in women. I can’t recall off hand any women in these books, but if they do exist and I’ve forgotten I bet you any money they are rape victims.

There were still beautiful bits.
The floor of the playa lay smooth and unbroken by any track and the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the void like floating temples.
I love that about the mountains. I can hardly look at them anymore without hearing that line.

What makes me especially sad is that I think this may have ruined THE ROAD for me, which was previously one of my favourite books. It’s no longer a great book about meaning in the face of adversity, but rather some plump middle aged man sweating out his fantasies.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR by Robert M Sapolsky

A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR is an account of the many years the author spent studying a particular troop of baboons in the Masaai Mara.

Sapolsky is at his best when recalling his baboons. Much of his work entails watching their behavior over very long periods, and so he develops a real – and possibly not very scientific – fondness for individual baboons, and is deeply affected by their fate. I had no idea baboons had such complex social lives, or such different characters, and I can understand how he came to be so involved in their private lives. It made me feel bad about eating meat.

The author also spends much time discussing the people he met during his long periods in the bush, and the strange vacations he took to such holiday destinations as Uganda (immediately after the fall of Idi Amin) and rural Sudan. Often this is very interesting, as Sapolsky just caught the end of an Africa now largely lost. Thus, for example, when he talks about double story buildings to the Masaai, they consider them as simply a village upon a village, and wonder what happens when the cows in the upper village urinate – does it hit the heads of those below?

Sapolsky is a very funny writer, with a great love for and knowledge of the African bush. He is on less certain ground when he speaks of the African people. He seemed to me to be frequently exoticising those he met, and occasionally stereotyping them. Thus, one character is described as having ‘bantu stoicism’ while white people are routinely referred to as ‘colonial whites’. At least its equal opportunity offense, to Africa’s majority and minority alike; and it didn’t bother me too much as I just skimmed those bits, to get back to the baboons, whose society he actually knows something about.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope

I felt a powerful need of the infinite consolation of Trollope. And infinite is the word, as this, his longest novel, is a stonking 800+ words. They pass by in a minute. I can’t believe it’s already over.

Admittedly, it was a long, fairly complicated minute, with multiple plots and a huge swathe of London life all crammed in there. In a sign that THE WAY WE LIVE NOW is in fact the way we still live now, the central character, Mr Melmotte, is running a massive Ponzi scheme. His daughter, initially meek, falls in love with a useless chap Felix Carbury, and tries to run away to New York with him. Meanwhile Felix’s sister Hetta is loved by her forty-something cousin Roger, but she is unfortunately in love with Roger’s best friend, Paul, who is unfortunately engaged to an American, Winifred Hurtle, who once shot a man in Utah, who - you get the picture.

I don’t know what is about Trollope that is so soothing. I think it is in part that his stories are long, and neatly crafted, and you can rely on them to take you away from your long and apparently bad crafted life. It’s also his great moral surety, which I’m not sure anyone in our culture has been able to enjoy since the Somme.

Take this, where he is discussing Paul’s unwillingness to break up with Mrs Hurtle, when he realizes the engagement is a mistake:
In social life we hardly stop to consider how much of that daring spirit which gives mastery comes from hardness of heart rather than from high purpose, or true courage . . . The master who succumbs to his servant, is as often brought to servility by a continual aversion to the giving of pain, by a softness which causes the fretfulness of others to be an agony to himself . . . There is an inner softness, a thinness of the mind’s skin, an incapability of seeing or even thinking of the troubles of others with equanimity, which produces a feeling akin to fear; but which is compatible not only with courage, but with absolute firmness of purpose . .

I know I've mentioned this before, but I still can't get over that he wrote all these novels while working full time at the post office.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


Nancy Mitford was one of the Mitford sisters, infamous between the wars in England for their eccentricity and - for a least one of them - their fascism.

Nancy was not the fascist; instead she is a rather fine and very funny novelist. These three novels are about a large family, and the love affairs of various of the women in the family.

The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness.
And also, as you can see, true.

Early on, you think you are just hearing a normal conversation between two children about a trip abroad, then you get: "Perhaps you won’t be alone,' I said. 'Foreigners are greatly given, I believe, to rape."

And here’s a pencil sketch of an uncle’s experience in the Boer War: "Four days in a bullock wagon, he used to tell us, a hole as big as your fist in my stomach and maggoty! Happiest time in my life."
His general attitude to what he called the man in the street was that he ought constantly to be covered by machine-guns: this having become impossible, owing to the weakness in the past of the great Whig families, he must be doped into submission with the fiction that huge reforms, to be engineered by the Conservative party, were always just around the corner.

It’s most interesting to read a woman who is writing right at the beginning of women being able to express themselves, and provides a startlingly counterpoint to twentieth century male fiction.
I have often noticed that when women look at themselves in every reflection, and take furtive peeps into their hand looking glasses, it is hardly ever, as is generally supposed, from vanity, but much more often from a feeling that all is not quite as it should be
Here is a young woman talking about a happy mother:
It was her sixth child and third boy, and we envied her from the bottoms of our hearts for having got it over.
And here is her view on bringing up your child without staff:
I have seen too many children brought up with Nannies to think this at all desirable. In Oxford, the wives of progressive dons did it often as a matter of principle; they would gradually become morons themselves, while the children looked like slum children and behaved like barbarians.
And on the joys of marriage
But of course I had already dived over that verge and was swimming away in a blue sea of illusion towards, I supposed, the islands of the blest, but really towards domesticity, maternity, and the usual lot of womankind

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)

In the Introduction, Roth’s work is discussed thus:
. . . his pervasive theme, the relation of the individual to the state. He says his characters are not “intended to exemplify a political point of view – at most it (a life story) demonstrates the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.
Sounds right up my alley. Also, many people have recommended this book to me. Thus I am disappointed to be disappointed.

The book tells the story of a young man from a military family, whose own career is less than illustrious. It’s less than illustrious in large part because he keeps making bad decision, barely thought out, and acting as if some sort of automaton, not thinking about his actions. One cmes across these sorts of characters all the time in serious twentieth century fiction, and I strongly suspect this is supposed to be some sort of comment on the human condition. However I just find it annoying. I want to give him a slap and tell him to take some responsibility for his life. His father’s story is interwoven with his, and is the most touching part of the tale. His butler, who he rarely speaks to but has been with him for forty years, dies, and the grim and authoritatian man begins to unravel

Some parts of the novel are beautiful, as here:
. . feeding the swans, trimming the hedges, guarding the springtime forstyhias and then the elderberry bushes against unauthorized, thievish hands, and, in the mild nights, shooing homeless lovers from the benevolent darkness of benches.
And some parts very funny:
He thought about his mother: her life was one long frantic search for some kind of extra income.
And sometimes dodgy/gross. Here is an older woman feeling motherly towards her young lover:
. . . as if her womb had birthed him, the same womb that now received him
I wonder if some of my trouble comes from the translation. We had “luscious clods of soil,” which worried me, but I could believe that might be right; then we had “spacious cups of tea,” which I very much doubt, then someone is the “spit n image” I mean surely someone with English as a first language works at Penguin and could have run their eye over it?

Friday, 13 July 2012

ANY HUMAN HEART by William Boyd

This is an ambitious book, attempting to cover a whole long life, spanning much of the twentieth century, by means of a personal diary.

The book begins with Logan Mountstuart as a teenage boy, and the adolescent voice is captured extraordinarily well.
Went for a walk through Edgbaston, already consumed with boredom, and looked in vain at the big houses and villas for any sign of individual spirit. The Christmas tree must surely be the saddest and most vulgar invented by mankind. Needless to say we have a giant one in the conservatory, its tep bent over by the glass ceiling.
I know, we have had teenage boy comedy angst done well before (Adrian Mole et al), but just because it's not original doesn't mean it isn't funny.

Logan attends Oxford in the 1920s (I know, we've had that novel several times as well), and dreams of being a writer (ditto). The girl he wants to marry him refuses, so he asks another, who turns out to be quite the wrong kind of woman for him. He has some minor literary success. He gets divorced. He develops a drinking problem. And so on and so forth through the twentieth century, including two more marriages, a successful book, a failed book, many magazine articles, Paris, Barcelona, the Spanish Civil War, solitary confinement in Switzerland in the Second World War, more drinking, running a gallery in New York, and etc. We may have had all of these novels too, but not all at one go.

What impressed me most was the ever changing narrative voice, as Logan ages. This I think is real feat on Boyd's part. The diary breaks off for years, on occasion, and then restarts, and yet somehow you are always interested and engaged and turning the page, even when it really should be bed time, which is I think a real achievement in terms of engaging storytelling. It's also interesting to see how the world changes over his life, as it will over all our lives if we are lucky enough to live so long. Here is he on his early life in Paris:
Mine was a generation that unreflectingly went to prostitutes, almost in the same way as one would go to the theatre.
There is a lot about the experience of visiting prostitutes in this book, which made me think about the fact that I can name countless accounts I have read of that experience and yet can think of virtually none describing what it is to be a prostitute. I guess that's not a newsflash: poor women don't have time to write.

Of most interest to me in the end in this book was the conclusion, where he is old and poor and living on dog food. First of all, it scared me. I don't want to ever have to contemplate pet food! But then he moves to rural France, to work on what he plans to really be his great novel, and is always talking about it in the diary. He has a much happier life in France with the local community, and is found dead and smiling in the back yard with a bottle of white wine by his side. No trace of the book can be found, and his gardener explains that he helped him burn a huge pile of papers, very cheerfully, the week before. It was really very touching. You think the novel is going one way: you are reading the life of Logan Mountstuart, famous author; then you realise you have been reading life of Logan Mountstuart, ordinary guy.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what Stanley has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-storey edifice of my own self-appreciation and to leave nothing behind but the cellar.
This is Mark Twain on the life of Henry Morton Stanley. And truly, it was a remarkable life. I am definitely going to have to start working harder.

Stanley was born illegitimate in Wales, and ended up in the workhouse. He ran away to sea, and ended up in America, where he fought on the side of the South in the Civil War. Then, once he was captured and it was clear his side was losing, he changed to the North. He became a journalist, travelling all over the world. Dr Livingstone had by then not been heard of for a number of years, so he dreamed up the stunt of finding him, and thus began one of the greatest journeys of the modern world.

You don't decide it will be a good idea to walk from Zanzibar to the Congo before the invention of effective anti-malarials, or indeed even after their invention, unless you have some pretty severe personal problems. In these, Stanley was not lacking. You also need to be almost insanely tough, and this Stanley also was.

He made several multi-year journeys through Africa, in horrific conditions, including bogs, marshes, forests, inter-ethnic wars, ulcers, fevers, starvation, malaria, slavers, and cannibals. At the end of one journey, when they heard the midday cannon at Mombasa, one man ran off (with his parrot), suddenly running quite mad, and never reappeared. Being on the march was like being on a lifeboat, with all the attendant horrors and decisions about when to start eating each other, with the added bonus of malaria. On one trip, Stanley had it 27 times.

Apparently there is a tradition that holds that Stanley was a terrible racist, who'd beat a black person to death as soon as look at them, and the author is at pains to defend him. Indeed, much of his private diaries speak of his love and respect for the porters who he walked with for years, and of his deep horror at the slave trade. Many porters signed on for multiple trips, which certainly doesn't suggest he was a monster. Part of his reputation is due to one of his deputies who lost his mind, and - don't read this if you are delicate - bought a girl so as to watch her being eaten by cannibals. His diary records her begging for mama and papa.

It is about the slave trade that this book most enlightened me. One hears a great deal about slavery in the West, but apparently the Arab slave trade was just as great, much older, and lasted much longer, involving (according to some reports) almost a HALF MILLION people a year throughout the late nineteenth century. This seems to have been anecdotaly true. For example,
Wade Safeni, his coxswain and translator on Lake Victoria, told him that eight years previously this whole region 'was populated so thickly that we travelled through gardens and fields and villeages every quarter of an hour.'Today, this same country was very sparsely populated.
I did not know that most slaves were sold into slavery by their neighbours. Stanley is always haranguing villages, who explain on many occasions: "It is the fault of the Arabs who tempt us with fine clothes, powder and guns." Depressing. Also depressing are Stanley's repeated attempts to ransom away at least the children when he meets slavers.

We tend to look down on the Victorian relationship with Africa as self-evidently racist and wrong, compared to the current world view, lit as it is by the light of SOAS. The author makes a very interesting case that in fact the British that stopped the Arab slave trade, at vast expense, and to the loss of many sailors' lives - in large part, though not solely, because they thought it was the right thing to do. He contrasts this with the current lack of involvement in Rwanda, Darfur, etc etc. This is I think a useful corrective to the Victorian bashing that is currently fashionable.

Eventually Stanley, who sounds very gay to me, did manage to get married. Unfortunately, his wife was a town mouse, commenting piteously: "I want to see hansom cabs, omnibuses, and 'extra specials' running, and handsome policemen, and the jostling multitude. I only put up with trees." And so his African adventures came to an end.

Just as a side point, its interesting to note what made Stanley so tough. In addition to having survived the brutality of the workhouse, Stanley also survived one of the worst slaughters of the American Civil War, the battle of Shiloh. Terribly sadly, his seventeen year old friend was killed, who had marched into battle “with some violets in his cap, hoping that the enemy would take that this for a sign of peace and not kill him” Stanley commented later “I cannot forget that half-mile square of woodland . . .Only thirty minutes sufficed to drive out all that we had ever heard of goodness, love, charity, all memories of church, God, heaven”

Thursday, 21 June 2012

NIGHTMARE ABBEY by Thomas Love Peacock

The novel NIGHTMARE ABBEY does not have much of what you might call a plot, though it does have a great name. When I am stupidly rich and live in a big house, this will definitely be on the name shortlist.

Essentially, it is a sort of gothic sartire on the romantic movement, and in particular on the love of the morbid. As I don't know much about this movement, if was hard to find it funny. I suppose it is how Kardashian jokes will be in a hundred years. Okay, five years. Okay, next year.

However, there are glimmers of how funny it could have been, had only I been alive two hundred years ago. Speaking of young men:
" . . . when they should be brought out of the house of mental bondage--i.e. the university--to the land flowing with milk and honey--i.e. the west end of London."

Or here's a poet on writing:
Modern literature is a north-east wind – a blight of the human soul. I take credit to myself for having helped to make it so. The way to produce fine fruit is to blight the flower. You call this a paradox. Marry, so be it. Ponder thereon.

Love Peacock also has a great name himself. Maybe that can be my pop star name. I know this is becoming a bit of a theme in this blog, but I am once again weirdly touched by Wikipedia's description of the life of eighteenth century writers' lives:
In his retirement he seldom left Halliford and spent his life among his books, and in the garden, in which he took great pleasure, and on the River Thames.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD by Oliver Goldsmith

This novel was written in 1766, just at the dawn of the novel form, and it certainly shows. The charming, completely unbelievable central story, of a vicar and his family, is constantly interrupted by an array of other forms: the ballad; the sermon; the religious argument; and, what the hell, let's have another ballad again.

The story - when you can see it for the ballads - is focused on the vicar's evil landlord, and his cunning and successful plan to seduce and then abandon one of the vicar's daughters. This prostrates the vicar, which I didn't quite understand, as he seems to not put much stock in his daughters. In the early stages of the book, when one of the girls claims she had read enough to join in one of the (eternal) religious arguments. The vicar finds this hilarious, and responds:
"Very well . . . . that's a good girl, I find you are perfectly qualified for making converts, and so go help your mother to make the gooseberry pie!"
I'd like to shove the gooseberry pie down his stupid throat: screaming 'Dorothy Parker! Virginia Woolf! Joyce Banda!'. When the unfortunate girl is gone, he mourns her in the most touching manner:
"The honour of our family is contaminated . . . had she but died!"

However much of the book has a certain moral charm, and is full of wise advice:
Man little knows what calamities are beyond his patience to bear till he tries them
and, the last line of the book:
It now only remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my former submission in adversity

This high moral tone is interesting, because apparently Goldsmith himself was a notable gambling addict, and only barely graduated from his theology degree: "his education seemed to have given him mainly a taste for fine clothes, playing cards, singing Irish airs and playing the flute." This makes him sound like rather a fun guy and makes me regret my misspent university days, which I mostly used for studying.

Let's end with this lovely description of the vicar's wife, in an argument:
The dispute grew high while poor Deborah, instead of reasoning stronger, talked louder, and at last was obliged to take shelter from defeat in clamour.

I love that. It's practically been worth all the ballads, just to get to that one line.

Thursday, 31 May 2012


This is the story of a British journalist, sent to Vietnam in the 1950s to cover the violence there, who slowly comes to regard Vietnam as his home.

There are sections which are truly lovely, and make it obvious why this is regarded by many as a classic of the twentieth century. Here is the journalist on his time in Vietnam:
When I first came I counted the days of my assignment, like a schoolboy marking off the days of term; I thought I was tied to what was left of a Bloomsbury square and the 73 bus passing the portico of Euston and springtime in the local in Torrington Place. Now the bulbs would be out in the square garden, and I didn't care a damn.
As someone who lived in London for many years, and indeed on the route of the 73, I'm oddly touched by his mourning for that city.

Here also is a lovely vision of the life he left back in London (his marriage collapsed just before he moved) through the lens of his night editor:
The editor would joke to the night-editor, who would take the envious thought back to his semi-detached villa in Streatham and climb into bed with it beside the faithful wife he had carried with him years back from Glasgow. I could see so well the kind of house that has no mercy - a broken tricycle stood in the hall and somebody had broken his favourite pipe; and there was a child's shirt in the living-room waiting for a button to be sewn on.
The kind of house that has no mercy!

The plot of the novel revolves around this journalist having his Vietnamese girlfriend stolen by an idealistic American, who is involved in some decidedly idealistic espionage. It is around questions of plot that this novel gets a little dodgy. First, the Vietnamese girlfriend is a really horrible stereotype, so it makes it hard to care who gets her. I know I am terribly sophisticated and supposed to be able to look past the general misogyny to the author underneath, but this 'childlike' 'silent' 'unfeeling' girlfriend just defeated me.

We are also on less sure ground when it comes to his attempts to describe the war in Vietnam. At one point he comes across two dead civilians - mother and son. Now, I'd defy any narrator to comment on this in a way that could make one laugh, but how dire is this:
He was wearing a holy medal round his neck, and I said to myself, "The juju doesn't work." There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, "I hate war."
Oh dear! We were definitely on safer ground with London.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

I know other people may have mentioned this previously, but A CHRISTMAS CAROL is really a fantastic novel.

First, there is the linguistic vigour, which just kills me. Here is Scrooge's house:
They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten its way out again.
Here is Scrooge's assessment of his house:
Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.
Then there is the comedy. Here's Bob Cratchit:
Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.
And here's Scrooge's response to the ghost of his old partner Marley, denying its existence:
You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than the grave about you, whatever you are!
But overall I think it is the warm-hearted morality that makes this book remarkable. Here is a lovely image of Bob Cratchit going home on Christmas Eve, after a miserable day at Scrooge's offices:
The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk . . went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-bluff.
Here's the ghosts Scrooge sees through the window
Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.
Not mentioning any names, but I love this idea, a partner to my general hope that there is a hell so certain people now in power can burn it.
And then of course there is the wonderful change to Scrooge, that gives this novel a sense of completion and closure rare in fiction. Here he is Christmas morning:
Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don't dance while you are at it.
I'd heard before that Dickens 'invented Christmas, but I never quite believed it till this book inspired me to do a bit of googling. It's strange to think now, but apparently Christmas was beginning to be forgotten as a holiday before he put his giant Victorian energy to it. It is to him we owe the idea of a snowy Christmas (the first eight years of his life were white Christmases), to him we owe the idea of turkey, of Christmas pudding, of goodwill to all men.

Seriously, he should have organised to get a percentage on all of the above, which is now regularly sold to us. He'd be minting it.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

THE GUN by CJ Chivers

This book is a history of the AK-47, and thus essentially a history of war for the last century. It makes for depressing but enlightening reading.

We begin in the nineteenth century, with Richard Gatling finally managing to create the world's first workable automatic weapon. So much more deadly was any one gun than a platoon of rifles, that he, and many like him, genuinely believed that it would effectively end war, as no one would be insane enough to send men marching against it.

The gun is first used against people in Africa and Asia, as part of the colonial project. Lobengula's whole army is effectively wiped out in five hours, as later is the Mahdi's army. One wonders how different the world would look if Gatling had been just a little slower off the mark, and the British had had to face the Ndebele nation with just bayonets.

Despite the first hand experience the British had with the kind of death the machine gun could mete out, they were appallingly unprepared when the First World War broke out. They didn't let a little thing like automatic machine gun fire stand in the way of their time honoured traditions: advancing in solid blocks, in bright clothing, with bayonets. “The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on parade ground,” one German soldier said. “We felt they were mad.” This might have been understandable for the first couple of days, say, but the British kept this up for the first TWO YEARS OF THE WAR. Even after the Battle of the Somme, when 30,000 British soldier were killed or wounded in the first SIXTY MINUTES. The commanders, far back from the front lines, just weren't willing to give up on their idea of glorious war and the terrifying bayonet. It's interesting really how idealistic military people are.

The AK-47 (which stands for Automatic designed by Kalishnikov in 1947) was designed in answer to a competition in the Soviet Union, and was rightly selected as the winner not so much because of its accuracy, as because of its durability and ease of use. So simple and sturdy is the AK-47 that it can stand the worst of conditions, and be assembled and disassembled by a child. As the LRA will tell you.

One of the first major outings for the AK-47 was the Vietnam War. Here a major power found out what it was like to face an armed native population, and one that was armed better than they were themselves. As so much of what the Soviet Union produced in the way of shoes and elevators was crap, the US assumed its guns would be too, and only gave the AK-47 the most preliminary of glances, categorizing it, embarrassingly, simply as NIH: Not Invented Here. US troops were sent out to fight with M-14s and M-16s, which while they might have been invented here also tended to jam horribly after a few rounds, and rust immediately in the swamps of Vietnam. Here again we see the romance of the military man: so in love was the American high command with the ideal of the John Wayne sharp shooter that they entirely ignored the fact that in jungle war you virtually never actually even see your opponent, and thus do more praying than aiming when you shoot.

It is the world's misfortune that the AK-47 was first produced in a planned economy, because that meant that guns could be produced way beyond any imaginable need. At one point there was one particular factory in the USSR producing 12,000 AKs a day. That's 50 tons of steel a day. So durable is the AK, that these weapons are still with us - AKs from as far back as 1953 show up in Afghanistan today. In an old salt mine in the Ukraine, for example, in the 1990s, there were some three million guns stockpiled. Less what some horrible man from Croatia shipped to Uganda for use by Joseph Kony. One almost hopes there is a hell, so they can both burn in it. (On that subject: wow, Kony is crazy. Apparently his army used to march into battle chanting “James Bond! James Bond!” and covered in gun-repelling shea butter).

So an interesting if very sad book. Sometimes its a bit naively American, with sudden burst of discussion of the Second Amendment for no reason, and weird judgements. At one point, for example, he writes with shock about the first time an AK-47 is used by an ordinary citizen. In Hungary, someone shoots a secret policeman on the street and Chivers takes it for granted that this is a terrible thing to have done. I can only say, whatever. Not everyone needs a trial. Also, there are some factual issues: eg, apparently the flag of Zimbabwe has an AK-47 on it. Surely even the briefest fact check would have caught that?

Whatever, it's a great book, and there are 100 million AKs in the world today, which won't be disintegrating till long after we're all dead, so we better care.

Friday, 11 May 2012

AN EDUCATION by Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber is a fun old battleaxe and her book is an entertaining read. The movie, which follows her affair as a school girl with an older con man, really covers only the first two chapters of the book. The remainder follows her life up to the present, and is undoubtedly an education in what it meant to be born female in the 1940s.

Horrifyingly, for example, when the older con man asks her to marry him, right after high school, her parents encourage her to do so even though this apparently means that she must give up her place at Oxford. Apparently the logic is that if you are married you don't need to go to university. The poor deluded girl agrees, but luckily for her the conman is revealed to be already married, so she is allowed a tertiary education.

On the plus side, they haven't yet heard of HIV, so she tells us “I probably slept with about fifty men in my second year.” This sounds fun, but then “there was no afterwards, either because the sex was a disaster, or because my pretence of sexual confidence scared them off. I did great, noisy, pretend orgasms with lots of “Yes! Yes!” . . .But I still hadn't experienced the real thing.”

She begins to have some success as a journalist, despite the idea - apparently prevalent at the time - that women graduates ought to work their way up from secretary. Touchingly, she falls in love with her husband at first sight, and stays married to him till his death. The last long section while he is mortally ill in hospital is really moving. Barber is brutally honest about what she perceives as her failures during this period – she became annoyed with her sick husband, tried to avoid him, and so on. It's a testament to the fact that neither grief nor love are orderly or as we expect, which I found comforting.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


Mrs Moore travels out to India to visit her son Ronny, bringing with her a potential wife, an idealistic young woman named Adela. The two ladies are rather shocked by the insularity of the British in India, and insist on being allowed to meet 'real' Indians. Their follows an entertaining comedy of manners, where we learn something about how difficult it is to bridge cultures in any direction, no matter how good the intentions.

Forster has a delightful lightness of touch, and creates a believable little world of Anglo-India. Here's a description of a teacher:
His career, though scholastic, was varied, and had included going to the bad and repenting thereafter.

The novel then takes an abrupt left turn. Adela is taken to see some local caves by Dr Aziz, an Indian doctor. Adela abruptly rushes back to town, and when Dr Aziz follows her, he finds out that she has accused him of 'insulting' her in the dark. Everyone makes such a big deal of this that for a while I thought she had been raped, but in fact it just meant a little light groping. The case becomes a flashpoint between British and Indian, SPOILER ALERT, until at the last minute, on the stand, Adela recants.

Bizarrely, this last section of the novel is no longer a political or social commentary, but apparently a meditation on religion. I know. What? I can't really explain, as I started skimming after a while. This was a lot of blithering about how ancient the land of India is, and about the ferocity and fear of the eternal, and about the endless echo of the caves. Take this:
“Everything echoes now; there's no stopping the echo. The original sound may be harmless, but the echo is always evil”
This I find to mean exactly nothing. And there's pages of this sort of thing. There's also abrupt and lengthy descriptions of Indian religious rituals.

Let's end on an interesting note. Here's a part where he actually says something interesting about spirituality. Mrs Moore dies on her way back to Britain, and these are Ronny's reflection:
What does happen when ones mother dies? Presumably she goes to heaven, anyhow she clears out. Ronny's religion was of the sterilized public-school brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the Fifth Form, and condemned as 'weakening' any attempt to understand them.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...