thorold enjoys landscape plotted and pieced in Q3
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For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And àll tràdes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
("Pied Beauty", Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877)
Unrealistic reading goals for Q3 - or rather a spot for jotting ideas down in the hope that something might come of them:
- Tying up loose ends from the Japan theme
- Dutch history (only about 900 pages to go in Jonathan Israel, and I want to find out who did it...)
- Central Asia for Reading Globally
- Musa Dagh - because I keep meaning to read it and it sort-of fits in with the "Central Asia" theme
- Travel writing/Great Outdoors - follow-up from Q2 and my own outdoor activities
- More Spanish
- Driss Chraïbi - Moroccan writer mentioned on FlorenceArt's thread
- Belle van Zuylen/Mme de Charrière - I was reminded about her by visiting Zuylen Castle a couple of weeks ago
- More 19th century - Zola, Trollope, ...
- A E Housman? - since I'm planning a few days in Shropshire with the "lads"...
- The TBR pile (this time it's really going to be tackled ... No, wait, who am I kidding?)
44 books read in Q2 (Q1: 51):
Author gender: F 20; M 24
By main category: Crime 2; Memoir 2; Fiction 27; Literature 6; Travel 2; Essays 2; History 2
By language: French 3; English 34; Dutch 1; German 6
(Of the 34 English books, 15 were translations - original language Swedish 1; Japanese 13; Portuguese 1)
By original publication date: Earliest 1873; latest 2017; mean 1978, median 1986. 4 books were published in the last five years; only 1 was published before 1900.
By format: 5 physical books from the TBR; 37 read-but-not-owned (free e-books or public library); 2 paid e-books
32 distinct authors read in Q2:
Author gender: F 14; M 18
By country: UK 8; FR 3; DE 5; JP 8; FI 1; PT 1
- Obviously, the Korea/Japan theme had its influence on the distribution, especially of languages.
- Time spent out-of-doors predictably cut down the overall numbers compared to my winter reading.
- Interesting to see that the arbitrary rule of "don't read two books by male authors in succession" I was using in Q1 really made a difference. I dropped/suspended the rule in Q2 because I had so many classic (male) Japanese writers to catch up with.
La Conquête de Plassans (1874; The conquest of Plassans/A priest in the house) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
After two books set in the metropolis, we return to the claustrophobic small-town setting of Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for this fourth book in the series. The Mourets have let their top floor to Abbé Foujas, who has been transferred to a minor appointment in the cathedral at Plassans after getting into some unspecified bother in Besançon. Over a period of several years, we see the scruffy, tetchy and apparently unsophisticated priest - without any obvious effort - gradually gaining more and more influence over the Mouret household, the local clergy, and the politics of the town. And of course, we know how it's all going to end, since this is Zola: catastrophically.
Because of the way that the political story is mostly told indirectly through the small-scale domestic tragedy of the Mourets, Zola doesn't give himself much room in this book for the kind of narrative excesses that we are looking for in a Zola novel, especially if we've just read Le ventre de Paris. There are some nice minor flourishes, like the two grand social-work projects the Abbé presides over, both designed with the sole purpose of preventing under-age working-class girls from debauching the sons of the haute-bourgeoisie (well, it couldn't happen the other way round, could it?), and the bishop's lovely young chaplain who spends his time either reading Ovid to Monseigneur or playing badminton, and there's a very Zolaesque grand guignol final scene, but the rest is really rather flat. Barchester Towers with a higher body-count and fewer laughs...
I felt Zola was being a bit lazy with the Abbé. He’s plotting to achieve things that are axiomatic in a Zola novel anyway - the victory of the evil Bonapartist state and the self-destruction of the R-M family - so he doesn’t really need to do anything more than stalking about glaring at everyone, and for the most part that’s all we see him actually doing.
The Makioka sisters (serial 1943-1948; English 1958) by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (Japan, 1886-1965), translated by Edward Seidensticker
Whilst most of the Japanese novels I've been reading over the past couple of months are more like novellas in scale, this is a hefty tome with the length and pace of a European nineteenth-century triple-decker novel. And it even has a central plot device that could be straight out of Tolstoy or Jane Austen: sister no.4 (Taeko) can't get married because repeated attempts by the Makioka family to marry off sister no.3 (Yukiko) have come to nothing. What's more, Taeko has already tried once to elope with the man who loves her, and she goes on to have a fling with his disgraced protegé, so it's difficult to avoid thinking about empire frocks and minuets at the Assembly Rooms...
But, however much it references European fiction, this isn't a mere pastiche. The Makiokas are not living in Regency Bath or 1812 Moscow, but in the Osaka and Tokyo of the late 1930s. Tanizaki immerses us in all the tiny domestic problems - what shall we wear? what shall we eat? can the servants deal with it? - of running a lifestyle of leisurely marriage negotiations and miai, visits to the cherry blossom, firefly-hunting, dance and koto practice, visits to relatives, friendships with expat neighbours, major and minor illness, pregnant cats, etc., etc. And in the background we notice - dimly at first, but more and more clearly as the book goes on - how the whole social order that frames all these things is collapsing around the family as the world plunges into war. And we realise that this is not going to be a plot that can be resolved, by a marriage or by anything else.
Delicate, beautiful, complex, a constant fight between the randomness of actual life and the order that the reader tries to impose on a narrative. A book that's full of small, intensely memorable incidents that don't seem to have any obvious relevance to the "story", but which are still clearly enormously important to what Tanizaki wants to tell us.
Pieterpad: Deel I Pieterburen-Vorden (9th edition, 2015)
Pieterpad: Deel II: Vorden-Maastricht (9th edition, 2016)
Devised by Toos Goorhuis-Tjalsma (Netherlands, 1915-2004) and Bertje Jens (1913-2009); text of current edition is by Toos's son, Maarten Goorhuis
In 1978, two retired ladies, Toos Goorhuis-Tjalsma and Bertje Jens, decided to take a walking holiday in their own country for a change. In the course of their walk they came up with the idea of creating the first Dutch long-distance walking trail, and accordingly changed their plans to hop on a bus to the far north and start mapping out a route southwards.
The result of that spontaneous initiative became the Pieterpad, still the best-known and most iconic long-distance walk in the Netherlands. It’s the one that everyone talks about doing “when I retire”, “when the kids are out of the house”, “when I get over my illness”, etc. The guides to the route (published by NIVON, the Dutch counterpart of the Austrian/German Naturfreunde) are currently in their ninth edition. Based on cumulative sales, the maintainers of the route estimate that by now around a million people have walked at least part of it.
The route links the village of Pieterburen on the Waddenzee coast in Groningen with the Sint Pietersberg on the Belgian border south of Maastricht, running roughly parallel to (and occasionally crossing) the German border, through the relatively thinly-populated eastern side of the Netherlands. Unlike many other long-distance trails, it doesn’t have any particular historical or geographic theme behind it, the idea was just to create the longest possible interesting and reasonably linear walk in the Netherlands. The “Pieter-” thing is simply a coincidence of names that appealed to the route’s creators - there’s no intention to suggest that the deeply-protestant farmers of Groningen would ever have had the crazy idea of going on a pilgrimage to popish Limburg.
Pieterburen - did all those walkers just get off that tiny bus?
On the St Pietersberg
Scenically, the most interesting bits of the route are the Drenthe boulder-clay plateau (rising to about 20m above sea-level) with large areas of heath and woodland and the occasional dolmen; the push-moraines of the Sallandse Heuvelrug and the Nijmegen area (only about 80m high, but in the Netherlands you don’t need much of a hill for it to start feeling mountainous…); the rivers Rhine and Maas; and of course the “proper” hills of the South Limburg chalk plateau. If you only want to spend a few days on the route, those would be the areas to focus on. If you’re cherry-picking, the most interesting individual stages are probably Zuidlaren-Rolde, Ommen-Hellendoorn, Hellendoorn-Holten, Braamt-Millingen, Venlo-Swalmen and Sittard-Strabeek.
"The occasional dolmen"
Archemerberg - push-moraine with attitude
In the Zuid-Limburg hills
But there’s also a lot of charm in the agricultural landscapes of the Vecht valley, the Achterhoek and the Maas valley, and even the stages that look on paper as though they are merely bridging a gap between known beauty spots usually turn out to be very interesting in themselves. Doing a long walk like this makes you look at landscape more closely, and really helps you to appreciate the charm in places you otherwise wouldn't take the time to look at. Particularly if, like me, you live in the West of the Netherlands and have "more exciting" destinations on your doorstep.
The Pieterpad avoids most big towns, but where you do come though one (in Groningen, Venlo, Sittard and Maastricht) the designers of the route seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to sneak you into the historic city centre without too much exposure to the boring outskirts. The smaller towns and villages along the route are not always as charming as you might hope - especially on the Maas, where so much was flattened in the fighting of 1944-45 - but there are enough “hidden gems” to keep you motivated even there.
Walking has been treated as a “poor relation” in the Netherlands ever since the invention of the bicycle, but there has been a revival in recent years (not least through the popularity of the Pieterpad), and there are more and more places where you can get away from paved roads and bike-paths. The Pieterpad does its best to take advantage of these, and most stages have a significant proportion of unpaved tracks (with the notable exception of Pieterburen to Groningen, where only about 2km out of 30 are unpaved).
The guides have improved considerably over the years, and now contain very clear 1:25k colour maps of the route in chunks of about 5km per page (they are actually 1:50k topo-maps blown up and overprinted with route information), with turn-by-turn route descriptions in both directions on the facing page.
The Pieterpad route gets revised frequently - you will notice that the distances you see on fingerposts along the way rarely add up to the same total (the overall length given in the 9th edition of the guide is 482km according to Part I and 498km according to Part II, published a year later...). It’s worth downloading the latest updates and corrections before you start - as of May/June 2018 there were ten updates in force, of which two were permanent route changes, four were temporary diversions (due to two sets of roadworks, a music festival and a flood), and the remainder were corrections or improvements to the text of the route description.
Even if you don’t read Dutch, you should have no problem following the maps and the red-and-white GR-style marking of the route itself, but you would miss out on the additional information in the books about local history, topography and culture. In most places the information in the guides concisely addresses the most obvious things you want to know about what's behind that landscape, tells you what to look out for and gives you a few fun facts about local oddities as well.
Doing the complete route involves a substantial investment of time: the guides divide the 498km into 26 suggested day-stages, so it would take you at least three or four weeks if you set out to do it all in one go, unless you want to go at a ridiculous pace and miss all the fun. Tweaking the stage boundaries only slightly, it took me 23 walking days to complete it, spread over a little more than two months. Like me, most of the people I met along the way (in spring/early summer) seemed to be doing day-walks here and there as time permitted, or sections of at most three or four days staying in B&Bs along the way - I saw very few walkers with big packs. Some people told me that they had been doing Pieterpad stages for several years.
The guides have a summary of the main public transport and accommodation possibilities along the route, but in both cases it’s wise only to use this for initial advance planning, and to check details on the internet, as this kind of information goes out of date very quickly. Public transport in the Netherlands is pretty good, even in many rural areas, so it’s not difficult to get to and from the stage-points if you’re not doing overnight stays - the only real transport problems I had were caused by a rolling programme of one-day bus-strikes across the country that nearly caught me out a couple of times. And the foot-ferry over the Rhine at Millingen, which has quite limited operating hours and involves a long walk to the nearest bus stop if you miss the last boat (that was one of the days I went for the “crazily early start” approach!). Car-drivers complain that it often isn’t straightforward to park at one end of a stage and get the bus direct to the other end, however. I came across various people who were doing complicated shuffles with two cars (or even a car and a bike).
Crossing the Rhine
There's quite a culture that has developed around the whole Pieterpad experience, and - especially in the most popular areas - you frequently come across little initiatives taken by local residents to make walking the Pieterpad more fun. Improvised self-service cafés in people's front gardens, tables with produce for sale, little free libraries, drinking-water taps, etc., almost invariably accompanied by jokey verses or illustrations of weary wanderers with steam coming out of their boots...
Meanwhile a book I found out about from your thread - thanks!
Une enquête au pays (1981; The flutes of death) by Driss Chraïbi (Morocco, France, 1926-2007)
Driss Chraïbi grew up in Morocco but spent a lot of his adult life in exile in France and elsewhere, working as a radio-journalist and later as an academic. He caused a stir in France in the fifties with his angry early novels, critical both of colonialism and of Islamic society. French Wikipedia quotes a line from one of Chraïbi's early novels that seems to sum up a lot of what he's about: "Aurons-nous un jour un autre avenir que notre passé?" (Will we one day have a future that isn't our past?)
Une enquête au pays, the first of six novels featuring the Moroccan policeman Inspector Ali, ironically confronts the familiar format of the "crime-novel" with a situation where all our assumptions about the ability of law and order to give cohesive structure to the world fall apart. Chraïbi isn't the first writer to use this particular literary trope, of course, but his down-to-earth wit and postcolonial perspective seem to work extremely well with it.
The irascible Police Chief and his sidekick, Ali, arrive in a remote mountain village where it obviously hasn't rained for years, and sit bickering in their hot car about "insectuels" and "filou soufi" - for all the world like a couple of Beckett characters - for a couple of chapters. Just when we're starting to think that this actually is Beckett and they won't ever get around to investigating anything, Chraïbi relents and brings them together with a monosyllabic local, but the investigation doesn't seem to be advancing.
It turns out that the Chief's uniform, anger and authority as a representative of the independent postcolonial state don't count for much in a place where people have nothing and their only contact with the State is the annual visit of the tax-collectors. Ali is slightly better off - he grew up in extreme poverty himself and recognises the villagers as people like his parents, so he has some idea of how to win respect without shouting - but he is easily distracted by a romantic projection of his own ideas about the uncontaminated simplicity of their "medieval" lives. Especially when he tastes Hajja's tajine and glimpses the (inevitably) gazelle-eyed sisters Yasmina and Yasmine.
Chraïbi keeps us laughing as he piles on the levels of anger and irony and makes sure that we can't take either the civilised values the policemen represent or the purity of the villagers' harsh existence for granted any more by the end of the book. We can't help enjoying the sharp dialogue and the many barbed jokes about the confrontations between incompatible and contradictory ways of looking at the world, but of course it isn't really funny if you've got to live that life...
Les caves du Majestic (1942; Maigret and the Hotel Majestic/The cellars of the Majestic, 1977) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)
A nice, undemanding novel-length Maigret from the late thirties/early forties (No.41 in the usual lists), with a below-stairs setting in a big Parisian luxury hotel. Fun to see that the arrangements in the hotel basement in those days still include a dining-room reserved for the personal valets and maids of guests staying in the hotel! A guest's body is discovered in a locker in the staff changing-room, and the obvious suspect is Prosper Donge, the man in charge of the hotel's coffee and tea service. The Examining Magistrate arrests him and assumes the case is closed, but Maigret isn't so sure...
I've read a number of books by people who walked the GR5 international long-distance trail from Hoek van Holland to Nice - John Hillaby's Journey through Europe (1974) is probably the most memorable and literate (although the modern GR5 route differs quite a bit from the route Hillaby walked); the only one I have on my shelves at the moment is Walking Europe from top to bottom (1986), a travelogue disguised as a guidebook by Susanna Margolis and Ginger Harmon of the US Sierra Club. The American ladies are the only walkers I've come across who actually seem to have enjoyed the experience - everyone else, including Hillaby, goes on endlessly about injuries, the difficulties of following the balisage, the awfulness of hotels, and the constant pressure of having to get to the Alps before the end of the summer season.
This is another, slightly more recent one I came across whilst looking for something else:
A long walk south : from the North Sea to the Mediterranean (2001) by Sean Rothery (Ireland, 1928- )
When architect and ex-mountaineer Sean Rothery had to retire from his post as a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology, he attended one of those awful pre-retirement seminars, where a patronising doctor advised participants to take long walks, “at least two or three miles, down to the end of the pier in Dún Laoghire and back, for instance”. Whether or not this was really what made him decide to walk all the way across Europe the following year, it did at least give him the perfect hook with which to start his book...
Rothery describes walking the GR5 from Hoek van Holland to Nice in the spring and summer of 1994. Like most GR5 walkers, he started "at the boring end" in Holland, and thus had the built-in time challenge of getting to the Alps before the weather changed. He walked a few sections with friends and family or with other walkers he met along the way, but for most of the time he was on his own, and he frequently quotes from Hazlitt's essay on the pleasures of solitary walking (so frequently that you have to wonder after a while whether he really believes it...).
Unlike many people who write about long-distance walking, Rothery wasn't doing this sort of thing for the first time - he cycled across Europe as a student in the early fifties, and seems to have been a serious mountaineer until a bad accident in Switzerland in 1967 ended his climbing career. And judging by the newspaper accounts linked below, he didn't hang up his boots after getting to Nice either!
The book struck me as a nice illustration of both the pleasures and the annoyances of long-distance walking. Rothery is good at conveying the pleasure he takes in some of the more attractive bits of the route. His architect's eye picks up details that many of us would miss, but all too often his experience seems to be defined much more by the inconveniences of the route: getting lost when the balisage (trail marking) gives out or is ambiguous, having to find a place to stay and a meal every night, having to carry on walking through countryside that doesn't interest him, having to face weather that would make most of us decide to stay indoors, and so on. There are sections of the route that read just like a continuous trail of miseries, where one hotel after another is awful, the country is dull and there is almost nothing to cheer him up except the occasional chat with another walker or a local. At those points you can't help thinking "why not just go and stay in a good hotel in one place and do walks as you feel inclined...?"
But of course there is something wonderful about a walk that gets you somewhere you can really see on the map...
Irish Examiner: https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/sean-rothery-still-rising-to-ne...
Irish Times: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/from-the-north-sea-to-the-med-a-66-year...
The invention of tradition (1983) edited by Eric Hobsbawm (UK, 1917-2012) & Terence Ranger (UK, Zimbabwe, 1929-2015)
Eric Hobsbawm was one of the best-known and most influential British historians of the 20th century (despite his unapologetic lifelong dedication to Marxism) and a noted jazz critic; he taught for most of his career at Birkbeck.
Terence Ranger was a historian who specialised in the history of Africa and colonialism, especially Zimbabwe; as well as being deported by Ian Smith and later teaching at several African universities, he held posts at UCLA, Manchester and Oxford.
This very influential collection of essays grew out of a conference organised by Past & Present, the academic journal Hobsbawm co-founded. The contributors look into some of the ways that nations and other social groups have created, or attempted to create, new "traditions" that look back to some more-or-less fictitious glorious past, and the purposes that these invented traditions serve.
The way this process works is perhaps seen at its bluntest and most absurd extreme in Hugh Trevor-Roper's opening essay on Scotland, where there was a clear need to define a distinct national identity after the political upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bizarrely, most of the cultural symbols adopted as "Scottish" were not drawn from mainstream Scots culture but from an exotic, fringe minority that was completely foreign to most Scots, the Catholic, Gaelic-speaking, harp-playing highlanders, who had up to that point drawn their cultural identity mostly from Ireland. Moreover, most of these adopted symbols turn out to have been either blatant forgeries like Macpherson's "Poems of Ossian" or new ideas introduced to the highlands by outsiders after the Stuart rebellions (kilts, tartans, bagpipes, etc.). Trevor-Roper very neatly exposes where all these things came from, and how they came to be reinforced as "Scottish traditions" through their adoption by Queen Victoria (and Sir Walter Scott, who should have known better, and regretted it afterwards...). It would perhaps have been nice to have a bit more explanation about how they still persist in the popular image of Scotland, even though "everyone knows" how bogus they are.
Prys Morgan does a similar kind of hatchet job on Wales, looking into the reinvention of the "druidic tradition" in the 18th and 19th century and its later extinction in the appropriation of notions of Welshness by Methodists and Socialists, and David Cannadine does what he does best by picking out the way the British royal family rediscovered the uses of royal ceremonial from the 1870s on (and the interesting way that the ceremonial became more important and more "traditional" in direct proportion to the decline of the political influence of the crown).
Another, perhaps less obvious, aspect of the uses of tradition is covered by Bernard S Cohn's essay on India after 1858 and Terence Ranger's piece on colonial Africa: Britain and other colonial powers arbitrarily reinvented the pre-colonial past of the territories they were ruling in order to create a "traditional" hook to define their right to political power, in the process often making fixed hierarchical structures out of relationships of authority that had previously been much more fluid and dynamic, and leaving a mess for their post-colonial successors to sort out. One interesting aspect of this that Ranger picks up is the way that invented colonial traditions provided structure and status for people like soldiers, teachers, bureaucrats and ministers of religion, but did nothing for productive workers (where there were strong working-class traditions, e.g. in South African mines, they were carefully kept exclusive to white skilled workers).
Hobsbawm concludes the book with an essay on Europe between 1870 and 1914, where he looks at the ways new polities like the German Empire and the French Second Republic selectively used "historical" symbols to define themselves, and at the rapid development of new class-based traditions, including of course his old favourite, the invention of the 1st of May as a workers' holiday, but also looking into the role of sport, where there were clearly separate developments for working-class (professional soccer, cycle racing) and middle-class (tennis, golf). Another way the (upper-)middle-class defined itself was through education, and Hobsbawm also charts the development of Greek-letter fraternities in the US, the student Korps in Germany, and the "old-school-tie" network in Britain, all of which saw a rapid acceleration during this period.
The essays are very interesting in themselves, and all the contributors are capable, lively writers. The concept of "invented tradition" has embedded itself into mainstream history long ago, so there's not much that you are likely to find radical and shocking any more 35 years on, but this is certainly a book that it's still worth reading. Even if you take the line that the question is rather academic because all traditions are human inventions at some point in their history, this stuff still matters, because people around the world are still justifying unpleasant acts and attitudes with the argument that "it's our tradition". If you have an understanding of where traditions come from, you are in a better position to challenge (or defend) such things.
>19 tonikat: There's a lot to be said for nose-following (cf. my comments on Craandijk in Q2). But it only really works in places you already know quite well, or where there are already well-developed footpath networks. The pre-planned trail tends to win out for very long routes because you can be reasonably sure that you won't end up having to walk long stretches of busy roads. The people who design such trails often have enough leverage over local authorities to get new footpaths opened up to walkers at critical points.
Another one I brought back from my holidays:
Selected poems (2nd edition, 1987) by Tony Harrison (UK, 1937- )
(Author photo from University of Leeds, https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/research-spotlight/20/tony_harri... )
The one thing everyone remembers about Tony Harrison ("everyone" in this case being a not-so-random sample of half-a-dozen of my friends...) is that he's the poet who got into trouble for making a film full of "four-letter words" in the early days of Channel Four. The film version of his long poem "v.", broadcast in 1987, led to fulminations in the tabloid press and questions in the House of Commons, so it's no surprise that Penguin rushed out a new version of the Selected Poems including "v." and with a still from the film on the front cover...
Harrison is a provocative poet, who's always felt it important to speak out on issues he cares about and to challenge his audience. Since this book came out he's been in trouble for his outspoken work on Bosnia and Iraq as a war-poet, and been attacked by the Archbishop of Canterbury over another television film, The blasphemers' banquet. So he doesn't show any sign of settling down to a quiet life.
Outside the arena of scandal, Harrison is probably known as much for his work in the theatre as for his lyric poetry. He has a string of successful adaptations of Greek and Latin works to his credit (his original subject at Leeds University was classics), he made the famous 1985 adaptation of the Yorkshire Mystery Plays for the National Theatre, and he's written and translated numerous opera libretti (amongst many other things, he's a noted translator from Czech...).
What struck me in this collection, in particular, were the poems from From the School of eloquence (1978) and Continuous (1981) where Harrison digs into his own working-class family background in Leeds to explore - mostly in a classical sonnet form with slight variations - the way powerlessness in society is linked to inarticulateness. He has gone on beyond the limited scope his parents had to live their lives through the freedom he has as a poet to express himself in the world, but he has never been able to discuss that with his parents because they simply don't have the tools for it. Obviously it's in the light of those poems that we have to read his more famous lyrics about the Sikh bearer on the coffee label ("Old soldiers") and about the paperhanger who left one "perfect" line of verse hidden on the wall of Wordsworth's cottage ("Remains").
But "v.", in which he tries to get into the mind of the skinheads who have sprayed obscene graffiti on his parents' tombstone, is quite something, too...! And so are the poems from his time in Nigeria where he digs, via the characters of the "White Queen" and the "PWD man", into the not-merely-metaphorical connection between colonialism and sexual exploitation. And so is "Skywriting", where the poet's glass desktop turns into the surface of a Hockney swimming-pool...
The philosopher's pupil (1983) by Iris Murdoch (UK, 1919-1999)
Opening in the spirit of Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? and closing with a kind of pastiche murder-mystery, this late-Murdoch romp is set in a claustrophobically-fictitious small town (think Barchester-Middlemarch-Tilling, but in the 1980s and with a spa) where all social life seems to revolve around Murdoch's favourite pastime, swimming. And, as you would expect, it's populated with larger than life characters who are all locked into terrible existential tangles which the reader is neither allowed to take completely seriously, nor to dismiss out of hand.
Brain-bending and entertaining at the same time, it reminded me very strongly - but anachronistically - of one of my favourite Murdoch-inspired novelists, Patrick Gale. This is so exactly the novel Murdoch would have written if she'd wanted to do a pastiche of Gale: complete with LGBT interest, Quaker meeting, music, and modern art. All that's lacking is a prison and a mention of Cornwall...!
Detective Inspector Huss (1998; English 2003) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Stephen T. Murray
Night rounds (1999; English 2012) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Laura A. Wideburg
Helene Tursten turned to crime-writing when rheumatism forced her to give up her career as a dentist. She's originally from Göteborg but now lives in Värmland. According to German Wikipedia she's married to an ex-policeman, so we have to assume that she can't get away with anything egregiously unrealistic. To date she's written ten novels about Inspector Irene Huss, of which these are the first two (all have been translated and most filmed).
Inspector Irene Huss is a very unlikely police officer - she drinks only moderately, knows nothing about opera and little about guns or cars, never gets told that she's Off The Case, doesn't appear to be sexually involved with any of her superiors or subordinates of either sex, is happily married to a man with a perfectly normal job and a disconcerting lack of known criminal relatives, she manages (just about) to juggle work and family life, her two teenage daughters have normal teenage problems and are not in the habit of being abducted by serial-killers, and even the family dog has an astonishingly full quota of limbs. One might almost suspect that Tursten doesn't own a television...
Huss has her first outing in a story rich with grey Göteborg weather and with strong Sjöwall & Wahlöö overtones, in which a rich financier has fallen from a balcony in circumstances strongly suggesting foul play. Lots of social and sexual exploitation, antiques, Swedish art, some peripheral LGBT characters, and a bunch of violent Hell's Angels, several years before Stieg Larsson made these compulsory for Swedish crime stories. What more could we want?
The team of police officers investigating the crime works together in a very collective, Martin Beck sort of way, and we get to see all their individual talents (the Sexist, the Time-Server, the Keen Young Man, the Attractive Young Woman, the Wise Friend, etc.). What Huss brings to the mix, apart from her Third Dan Black Belt, is her special ability to tie the threads together in the last chapter and work out who did it just before the reader has cottoned on.
A lively and technically competent crime story, but I would have liked to see a bit more bite and humour in the text. That may simply be down to the translation, though - I assume the deciding factors when US publishers are commissioning a translation of a first crime novel by a new author are likely to be cost and turnaround time, not quality...
(This originally had the rather less generic and more enticing title Den krossade tanghästen (The smashed Tang horse) in Swedish.)
Irene Huss's second outing, investigating the murder of a nurse in a small private hospital, has a bit of a P.D. James feel to it, but that's obviously mostly down to the coincidence of the authors' common background in healthcare. However, Tursten feels free to treat surgeons with a lot less respect than the Baroness ever did...
This one felt more like a tightly-constructed mystery story than the first book, with much less of the randomness of ordinary life about it: this was good in some ways, as it made the book more of a page-turner, but a loss in others. The detail about hospital routine and nursing tradition was interesting and not overdone, but it did feel jarring when the police started to explain to each other about the difficulties of vulnerable people with mental health problems who have ended up homeless as a result of the closure of residential mental hospitals. I can't imagine that there's any working police officer anywhere in a developed country who doesn't already have practical experience of trying to sort out the problems such people face. Surely Tursten could have found a stooge to stand in for the reader here?
~Grin~ this is exactly why I enjoyed the two or three books from the series I've read -- refreshing!
Some series translations are a bit uneven, but if the story is good, it is easy enough to let it pass.
The Invention of tradition is something I would like to read and so I will keep an eye open for it, especially as imo. there is nothing wrong with being a Marxist
I have spent a lovely half hour reading your reviews
More train journeys, so I just kept on with the Irene Huss series:
The torso (2000; English 2006) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Katarina E. Tucker.
It's a little sad to see that Tursten only held out for two books before succumbing to the temptation to do a gory serial killer plot, but at least this one is so very outrageously gory that you can't help suspecting that she's quietly sending up the whole genre. It should make very unpleasant reading, but somehow it's so crazily over the top that you can't quite take any of the blood and guts seriously. It is also good to see that she has resisted the convention that serial-killers have to be frighteningly clever. And has avoided the tedious "victim's POV" trope that TV directors always insist on, but which makes no sense in a book. So it could have been a lot worse, and the story - once you've accepted the main premise - does hold together quite logically, and has a sufficient number of twists to keep us amused.
A mutilated torso is found on a beach near Göteborg. The only identifying feature is a distinctive tattoo, and trying to track that down eventually leads Inspector Huss to extend her investigation to Copenhagen. We all know what happens when Swedish detectives cross the Bridge to get together with their Danish colleagues, of course: the body-count shoots up in the most satisfactory way. This book was written just before the bridge opened, so Huss still has to cross the Øresund by ferry, but you'll be happy to know that the principle held good even then...
The third in the Irene Huss series, and the third different English translator with her own quirks (this one likes to add tedious footnotes converting the units of measurement into inches and degrees Fahrenheit and the kronor into dollars). And once again an arresting original title has been converted into something bland and generic - maybe they thought a literal translation of Tatuerad torso would sound too Erle Stanley Gardner? Anyway, whoever designed the cover obviously neither knows what the word "torso" means nor has read any part of the book, since the illustrated body seems (a) to be alive and dancing and (b) to have a full complement of arms and legs and no visible tattoos.
(In my defence, these take no time at all to read, and I've also read a couple of hundred pages of Jonathan Israel in the last few days)
The glass devil (2004; English 2007) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Katarina E. Tucker
The golden calf (2005; English 2013) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Laura A. Wideburg
The fourth case for Irene Huss and her colleagues starts with the killing of a clergyman and his wife and grown-up son in a rural area. There's the suggestion of a link to satanism, but even the police don't see this as anything other than a red herring for very long. More problematic is the difficulty they are having in getting any information from the pastor's daughter in London, and eventually, to everyone's surprise but the reader's, Irene is forced to make a trip to the UK.
I had my suspicions in the last book that Tursten was pulling our legs. This time it seems almost certain that we're being led up the garden path. Irene and her British colleague travel to Scotland to interview a witness called St Clair who lives in his family's ancestral castle at a place called Rosslyn. Hmmm. I thought at first that she might simply be jumping on the Dan Brown bandwagon - that bit of nonsense was at its height just then - but the Chapel hardly figures, and then I remembered that the real-life Earl of Rosslyn, who owns the castle and has the family name St Clair-Erskine, happens to be a former senior officer of the Metropolitan Police. Obviously a private joke there somewhere! (In real life, Rosslyn Castle is much more of a ruin than she makes it in the book - the only habitable part is rented out for holidays by Landmark Trust.)
The main storyline of this one is a bit creaky, and it's pretty obvious from quite early on which way it's headed, but, as in the previous books, the detail of the investigation and the interactions in the police team are what keep us interested.
In the fifth book of the series, we're plunged into a complex backstory about the economic recklessness of the late nineties and the dotcom bubble. Three businessmen well-known from the gossip columns are found shot in Göteborg, and Irene and her colleagues have to unravel the circumstances that led them to this point. As in the previous book, the murderers have fortunately been careful enough to dispose of the victims' laptops and back-up disks, so Tursten is able to postpone once again having to get to grips with computer-based detection, but it's clearly only a matter of time before she will have to confront this stumbling-block of 21st century crime fiction just like everyone else.
The moral core of this book is a very Sjöwall & Wahlöö-ish look at the irresponsible greed of turn of the century capitalism, but it's also nice to see that she manages to sneak in a (slightly farcical) hospital scene at a key moment of the book, and of course another disastrous foreign trip for Irene - to Paris, this time. And something tells me we're going to see some more of the magnificent FBI agent who appears in the closing chapters to pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Some general thoughts, having finished the series:
- Even though it clearly gets harder and harder for her to sustain it, I did enjoy the way Tursten insists on keeping the status of Irene as a normal person with a normal family and normal problems. It's usually only in the rare moments when she weakens on this point that things start to go wrong with the plots.
- I'm not a doggy person, by any means, but I did enjoy the way Tursten deals with her canine characters. No anthropomorphism or similar nonsense, but every dog who appears is a carefully-observed and convincing individual.
- Irene being a martial arts champion who can easily incapacitate beefy bikers is fun, and gives the books a bit of extra feminist cred, but of course it also takes her into Stieg Larsson territory (even if she was there first), and it could easily have become silly. Tursten seems to be aware of this, and is careful not to over-use it. And she's also very good at conveying the way serious martial arts practitioners behave, without bringing in any hocus-pocus.
- The whole police-team thing seems to work very well most of the time. If you look at them coldly, some of the characters are maybe too good, or too bad, to be quite plausible, but I think she is very clever at capturing the way people see their colleagues in a work situation, and the way those perceptions evolve (or don't) over a long period of time.
- Sometimes there's a slightly awkward conflict between Tursten's obviously impish sense of humour and her S&W/Wallander-style drive to show us the terrible things that are allowed to happen in the world because of our indifference, and we don't know quite how to react. She seems to be aware of this problem herself, and mocks it through the character of Jonny, the cop who invariably makes his flippant remarks at exactly the wrong moment.
Anyway, the five remaining books, read (mostly on trains, as usual) over the last few days:
(6) The fire dance (2005; English 2014) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Laura A. Wideburg
When the young choreographer Sophie disappears after a Göteborg Book Festival party, it gives Tursten plenty of opportunities to make gentle fun of her fellow-writers. But Inspector Huss finds herself suffering from Chronic Flashback Syndrome - fifteen years ago, she had suspected little Sophie (who obviously had dreams of becoming a Stieg Larsson heroine) of starting the fire that killed her stepfather. Could it be that Sophie's shortly-to-be-premiered work "Fire Dance" will hold a clue as to what really happened all those years ago? Well, we'd be awfully disappointed if it didn't, wouldn't we?
This one works surprisingly well - the plot manages to steer clear of the tram rails lying in wait for it, and keeps us reasonably puzzled until quite late in the book.
(7) The beige man (2007; English 2015) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Marlaine Delargy
Whilst looking for a couple of young car thieves who have knocked down and killed a retired policeman in a hit-and-run incident, the police stumble upon the body of a young girl. She's been murdered after sustained and brutal sexual abuse, in circumstances strongly suggesting human trafficking. Irene and her colleagues set out on what they fear will be a fruitless attempt to track down the gang responsible, in a complicated investigation that includes the craziest yet of Irene's famously disastrous foreign trips.
At the same time, Irene is having to come to terms with the life-changes that go with approaching middle age: her boss of many years is retiring at last, her daughters are making moves to fly away from the nest, her mother and dog Sammie are both getting very old and doddery, and even the ever-reliable Krister is feeling the tooth of time. But the final twist in the plot is probably Tursten's cleverest so far. Very neat!
(8) The treacherous net (2008; English 2015) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Marlaine Delargy
Superintendent Sven Andersson has moved to the
As often happens, Tursten's technique struggles a bit with the problem of how to bind internet technology into a plausible plot, and the translation doesn't help (I don't think "palmtops" were around any more in 2008...). But it's all still quite entertaining.
(9) Who watcheth (2010; English 2016) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Marlaine Delargy
A murderous stalker seems to be targeting middle-aged women in Göteborg, and things get decidedly alarming when Irene begins to suspect that a series of unpleasant things that have happened to the Huss family lately may be connected: is the stalker watching her too?
This one didn't seem to work quite so well - despite Tursten's best efforts, TV clichés are beginning to creep in, like the deliberately ambiguous passages in the stalker's voice interpolated between chapters, and the ridiculous creepy ending, after dark in a peat-bog. And the whole suspense depends on the cheap device of the police failing to ask an obvious question until the very last moment.
(10) Protected by the shadows (2012; English 2017) by Helene Tursten (Sweden, 1954- ), translated by Marlaine Delargy
The biker gangs are back with a vengeance, to give this last (for the moment) Irene Huss story plenty of action, even if it lacks a bit of subtlety. There's an escalating gang war rocking Göteborg with shootings and car-bombings, and the Huss family somehow seem to have become targets themselves. And the gangs always seem to be a step ahead of the cops - could there be a leak somewhere in the police team?
In the background of this story, we see some of the problems Tursten has made for herself by her commitment to avoid the "You're off the case" cliché - Irene is now on her second new boss, and we've been shown that she's the most experienced and competent member of the team and has never been in serious trouble with her superiors, so it is becoming rather implausible that she hasn't been promoted in the 25 years she's been on the team. Ah, but wait - Tursten forgot to mention in the previous nine books that Irene has dyslexia and has a hard time dealing with paperwork. So of course she's never been keen to accept a promotion. (I seem to remember that she identified a suspect in an earlier book when she spotted a consistent spelling error, so the dyslexia can't have been that bad...)
Ein perfekter Kellner (2004; A perfect waiter) by Alain Claude Sulzer (Switzerland, 1953- )
Alain Claude Sulzer is a Swiss novelist, journalist and translator who seems to have decided to occupy the same sort of territory in German LGBT fiction as David Leavitt does in English: gay men and their families, classical music, the thirties...
Ein perfekter Kellner - which rather oddly doesn't seem to have been made into a film yet - works a bit like a gay, Swiss Remains of the day. Erneste is a middle-aged man, apparently quite contented with his solitary life and his career as a waiter in the best restaurant of a Swiss lakeside town. But, one day in 1966, an unexpected letter forces him to deal with the memory of the great, unhappy love affair of his life, and to confront the ageing writer Julius Klinger (a rather thinly-disguised Thomas Mann lookalike) who, thirty years ago, had waltzed off to America with the beautiful Jakob, with whom Erneste had shared two delightfully hot and sweaty summers of passion in between shifts in the staff bedroom they shared in a mountain hotel where the exiled Klinger and his family were guests.
This could all be a bit predictable, but Sulzer for the most part manages to avoid labouring the obvious. In the thirties flashbacks he takes it for granted that we know who Hitler was and why some Germans chose to go into exile; in the sixties chapters he sketches in the Dürrenmattish Swiss-noir atmosphere with a fairly light touch, but perhaps tries a bit too hard to show us that it wasn't entirely straightforward to live as a gay man in sixties Switzerland. But his publisher would have sent the manuscript back if he'd missed out the obligatory gay-bashing scene, so that's probably forgivable. My only serious problem with the book is that it's a bit too easy to see where the story is likely to go if you know something about the real Mann family.
Compartiment tueurs (1962; The sleeping-car murders/The 10:30 from Marseille) by Sébastien Japrisot (France, 1931-2003)
Jean-Baptiste Rossi grew up in Marseille, and - in the best tradition - set off for Paris at the age of 17 with the manuscript of his sultry first novel in his luggage. Les mal partis (Awakening) didn't get him much critical attention in France, but it was a success in America, and - amongst other things - got him the job of translating a first novel by someone called J.D. Salinger (the first French edition sold barely 100 copies, but it did better later on...). Desperate for cash, he took to crime-writing in the early sixties. His five crime novels (published under the anagram "Sébastien Japrisot") soon had the film industry beating a path to his door, and culminated in the very successful Un long dimanche de fiançailles.
This is the first of Japrisot's crime novels, a good solid French policier from the final years of the hat-and-trenchcoat era, opening with a murder in the best Simenon tradition: a woman is found dead at the Gare de Lyon, in a couchette compartment of the overnight train from Marseille. The police need to talk to the other five passengers who shared the compartment, but someone with a very large revolver seems to be getting there first...
The plot is perhaps just a bit too busy, to the extent that we need a full chapter of epilogue to explain it all to us afterwards, and there's too much victim's POV, but there is a lot of nice detail, and a subversive feel that you certainly don't get in Simenon. These are policemen whose first concern is to get the case closed and the judge off their backs with a minimum of paperwork - if that involves catching the murderer it's a nice bonus, but finding an excuse to transfer the case to another department would be even better. And we get a sense too that they are aware that history is catching up with them. Sooner or later they are going to have to swap their overcoats for leather jackets and start carrying radios instead of making phone calls from bars, and most of them aren't too happy about that!
ETA: This was filmed in 1965, with a cast headed by Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. Probably worth seeking out...
A long way from home (2017) by Peter Carey (Australia, US, 1943- )
Peter Carey is - of course - one of the best-known living Australian writers and a double Booker Prize winner. He has lived in the USA since 1990, when he gave up his day-job running an advertising agency in Sydney. I've read about a dozen of his novels in the last 35 years or so. This is his most recent book, which came out in Europe this year.
The main setting of A long way from home is - perversely enough - precisely where Carey grew up: Bacchus Marsh, Victoria in the early 1950s. Like Carey's parents, Irene and Titch Bobs are in the motor trade, and have a Holden dealership in Bacchus Marsh. As a publicity stunt to launch their new business, they take part in the Redex Challenge, an endurance competition which involves driving around the whole continent in a production car. When they discover that their neighbour, disgraced schoolteacher and professional quiz competitor Willie Bachhuber, has an astonishing affinity for maps, he gets roped in to the adventure as their navigator...
But this isn't your ordinary road novel with a bunch of colourful characters pitted against the elements, nor is it a remake of Voss with internal combustion engines - although you could probably read it either of those ways if you wanted to. As you might expect from Carey, he uses the framework of the journey to have a critical dig into the less attractive elements of Australian history, in particular this time looking at some of the many abuses suffered by Aboriginal Australians at the hands of white colonisers, notably the well-known scandal of the forced adoption (read: kidnapping) of mixed-race children. But he also brings out the lesser-known story of cultural resistance through the rewriting of colonial history from the Aboriginal side. All very interesting, and of course told with Carey's usual verve and humour.
Part five of my Zolathon. I've read this one before, ca. 1980, and I remember not enjoying it very much; other people here who are reading Zola have said they struggled with it too, so I wasn't really looking forward to it, but I didn't want to miss it out:
La faute de l'abbé Mouret (1875; Abbé Mouret's Sin (etc.)) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
Serge Mouret, whom we met as a child in the previous book, is now in his early twenties and an ordained priest in his first parish. Les Artaud is a tiny and impoverished village not far from Plassans, where Serge's refined, highly mystical and visionary religious ecstasy bumps into the solid, earthy realities of peasant life. The conflict between his ideals and the raw fecundity of his surroundings prompts a nervous collapse, after which he's transferred almost magically to an untouched, paradisiacal garden (Le Paradou) where Serge's supposedly sensible uncle, Dr Pascal, has given the lovely, semi-savage, teenager Albine the task of nursing him back to health.
If you thought the agricultural and ecclesiastical sound-track was too loud in Part One, you will be absolutely deafened by the botanical and zoological crescendos of Part Two, as our two innocents roam through the garden mystically drawn to One Particular Tree, with inevitable results that work themselves out to a tragic conclusion in the even louder Part Three. This is Tristan und Isolde with the dial turned up to eleven. At least. Even Wagner wasn't bold enough to attempt Death by Sensory Overload, but for Zola it's all in a day's work...
It's surprisingly hard to pin down what's going on here, partly because Zola for once chooses to blur the distinctions between realism, symbolism and the dream-life of his characters, and partly because it's not the simple struggle between nature and religious faith that it at first appears. Serge and Albine both seem to be doomed to destruction because their lives revolve around a romantic belief in some ideal beyond the physical world - Albine in her love for Serge, Serge in his Catholic faith; only the cynical (Frère Archangios and the peasants) and the truly naive (Serge's "simple" sister Désirée) are able to shrug off the tragedy and keep following the cycle of nature. But we also see the terrible way Serge's seminary training helps to push him into hypocrisy whilst Albine follows her convictions to their logical conclusion - for Zola there's definitely a fundamental difference between priests and wood-nymphs, and it's not to the advantage of the priests.
The book does have its realistic interests as well, of course - there are some fascinating and plausible little glimpses into what real parish life must have been like in the backwoods of Provence in the mid-19th century. And lots of animal and plant life if you happen to have a botanical dictionary to hand. But not really one of the most rewarding Zolas - the unrelentingly high emotional pitch makes it a very trying book to read.
No, I was reading it as a free e-book without a cover. That one was chosen arbitrarily for its artistic excellence (!) and because the Livre de Poche are pretty universal editions you see in every secondhand shop.
If I’d read it in German I could have had this one:
Illusions perdues (1837-1843; Lost illusions) by Honoré de Balzac (France, 1799-1850)
Balzac had the sort of romantic career that almost makes the heroes of his novels look dull and normal. The son of a self-made man, he gave up the career in the law his parents wanted him to follow for literature, but also went in for a million and one money-making schemes along the way, even after he had established himself as a leading novelist. Plays, magazines that folded after three issues, abortive attempts to get into politics, a publishing firm, printing, papermaking and typefounding, pineapple-growing near Sèvres(!), mining in Sardinia, forestry in Ukraine... Almost invariably, these ended with Balzac having to dodge his creditors, hence his encyclopaedic knowledge of the law relating to debt.
Of course, as goes with the territory, he had many high-profile love affairs, usually with more than one mistress on the go at once, and almost invariably ladies who were married, titled, and of a certain age. And one or two illegitimate children along the way. He finally "settled down and got married" in 1850, five months before his death, to the Polish countess Ewelina Hańska, with whom he had been conducting an on-and-off affair since she wrote to him from Odessa in 1832 (they had decided to marry after her husband died in 1842, but there were difficulties getting permission from the Czar). I must get around to reading a proper biography sometime!
Illusions perdues, written intermittently over a period of nearly ten years in the late thirties and early forties, draws mostly on Balzac's time as a struggling writer in the Paris of 1821-22 (unlike other novelists of the time, he never seems to be shy of pinning himself to the calendar), but also brings in material from his legal training and his time as a printer, papermaker and publisher (clearly, nothing was ever wasted!).
It's pretty clear from the title where Balzac wants the plot to go: provincial poet Lucien dreams of literary glory and his friend David dreams of making his family's fortune by a radical improvement to the paper-making process that will slash the cost of printing. We know from the start that the author is going to dangle the prospect of success in front of both of them, only to whip it savagely away at the last minute. But he takes his time about it, and obviously changed his mind a few times along the way about just how he is going to get there. Lucien is slapped down and humiliated multiple times, both in his native Angoulême and in Paris, but keeps bouncing up to try again in a new direction, without ever reflecting that his enemies will remember him from last time. Meanwhile (the stories are concurrent and interlinked, even though Balzac obviously wrote them several years apart) David is caught in a ludicrously complex plot involving multiple competing parties all trying to steal his invention and/or force him to sign it over for a fraction of what it's worth.
There's a huge amount going on, and it never gets even remotely dull, even if it is occasionally difficult to remember who is supposed to be on which side. And a wealth of fascinating, cynical comment on the literary and commercial world and the people who make their money out of it in more or less (usually less) legal and ethical ways. Glorious moments like the incident of the publisher who comes to see Lucien in his Paris lodgings to buy his novel - the advance he's intending to offer starts off at a thousand francs, but the sight of the squalid street Lucien lives in already makes him knock a couple of hundred off, and by the time he's got to the fourth floor he's under two hundred. And insights into the way the press uses its power to blackmail producers, publishers and public figures - if the editors aren't paid off, the papers will attack with negative reviews or - much worse - ignore the items concerned altogether. There are a couple of lovely scenes where an experienced journalist explains to Lucien how to write a lethal review of a good novel (simply attack it for not being something other than what it is) or a favourable review of a terrible play. Very often you get the feeling that Balzac would have been right at home in the era of social media and "fake" news. Plus ça change,...
There's a great bit of Balzac chutzpah in the magnificent but quite irrelevant scene towards the end of the book, where he spends twenty pages introducing a major character we've been vaguely expecting to turn up, but have forgotten all about by the time we've read 600 pages. Wasted space as far as the plot is concerned, but it does somehow give you an irresistible urge to find out what happens by reading the next book in the sequence!
The Gaze (2000; English 2006) by Elif Şafak (Turkey, 1971- ), translated by Brendan Freely
This was Şafak's third novel, the last before she started writing in English. It's in a kind of Angela Carter/Salman Rushdie style, very 1990s, with parallel modern and historical storylines and a lot of fairy-tale/magic-realist elements. Şafak explores the paradox that the apparently passive act of looking causes an irrevocable change in the thing looked at. Astonishingly, she manages to do this without ever mentioning either Heisenberg or Schrödinger (but the cat isn't quite so lucky...).
The narrative is lively, the settings are richly exotic, the fantasy elements are used carefully and purposefully, and this is obviously a book whose heart is in the right place, touching on a lot of worthwhile issues: colonialism, eating disorders, sexual abuse, objectification of women, etc. But, as with the other books of hers I've read, I came away with the feeling that Şafak was pulling her punches a bit, not saying anything that really challenges the reader or takes us beyond a conventional enlightened-liberal worldview. She seems to be too nice to be an Angela Carter or a Margaret Atwood, somehow...
La maison du juge (1942; Maigret in exile/The judge's house) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)
Simenon was obviously running out of excuses for having Maigret investigate so many crimes at the seaside by the time he got to this book: we are simply told that the Commissaire got into an (unexplained) conflict with his bosses in the Ministry of Justice and as a result was transferred from his senior role in Paris to the small, provincial outpost of Luçon in the Vendée. Fortunately, a corpse turns up in the nearby fishing port of L'Aiguillon. It's almost a perfect setting for a Maigret: the corpse is discovered in the house of a respectable, cultivated gentleman; one of the chief witnesses is a gossipy old woman, another a servant girl of dubious morals; and all the men of the village farm mussels and have a life that revolves around the cycle of the tides. There's not all that much mystery about the who and how of the actual crime, so the investigation is really all about Maigret getting into the minds of the people involved and digging into the why. Which is what he likes to do most (apart from eating fresh shellfish, of course)...
Interesting, as another reviewer points out, that this was written for serial publication in the winter of 1939-40 and published in book form after the German occupation, but there is no overt reference to current events at all: obviously Simenon felt that what his public wanted in a crime story was escapism.
Fun aside: the retired douanier and his wife who act as Maigret's informants in this story are M and Mme Hulot. Could just be a coincidence, but St-Marc-sur-mer, where Jacques Tati's famous character took his holidays on his first appearance in 1953, is only about 100km up the coast from L'Aiguillon.
Anyway, it turns out that Penguin are also cashing in on the anniversary of what must be their best-selling poetry book ever, so it was easy to get a new one. It doesn't smell the same, though, and I don't know what they're doing with that cover. What have archery targets got to do with Liverpool poets...?
Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound (1967, reissued 2017) by Adrian Henri (UK, 1932-2000), Roger McGough (UK, 1937- ) and Brian Patten (UK, 1946- )
2017 cover author photo with Patten left, McGough centre, Henri right
This was originally No.10 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, a very useful formula of the 60s and 70s where you got broad selections from three interesting contemporary poets in a 120-page book for the standard Penguin cover price of 2/6 (less than half the price of a typical single-poet collection from a specialist publisher like Faber). This was the only book in the series to have a title and an explicit theme, and it was the only one to become a cult classic and sell half-a-million copies...
Liverpool was, of course, where it was all happening in the 1960s. Or, at least, thanks to the Beatles it was a place where outsiders were paying attention to things that might otherwise have passed unnoticed in the big wide world. One of these things that suddenly started to seem important was that in the trendily run-down neighbourhood of Liverpool 8 there were a number of basement clubs where young people sat around drinking frothy foreign coffee and listening to homegrown poets reading (and even - alarmingly - improvising) their works, for all the world as though they were in New York or San Francisco.
The three young men (sorry: youngmen) who rose to fame as "the Liverpool Poets" (there were others, of course) were all from working-class, Catholic, Liverpool families, and they brought a particular Scouse flavour to their work, the instinct to make fun of themselves and everybody else, to fill their poems with earthy, everyday references, and at all costs to stay away from bombast and pomposity.
Adrian Henri was a surrealist painter and art-teacher, and his particular contribution to the group seems to have been his connection both with the visual arts and with the American Beats (it was he who arranged Allen Ginsberg's Papal Visit to Liverpool in 1965). He also brought Warhol-style art Happenings to Liverpool.
Roger McGough started out as a teacher as well, but he was also a musician, performing with Mike McGear (Paul McCartney's brother) and John Gorman in the group The Scaffold, who were responsible for some of the most persistent earworms of the sixties, notably "Lily the Pink". McGough later became a very familiar voice on BBC poetry programmes and a senior figure of the poetry "establishment" in the UK.
Brian Patten is now known especially for his writing for children, but in 1967 he was barely out of his teens himself. He had left school at 15 to become a reporter on the Bootle Times, and he was the editor of the little magazine in which McGough's and Henri's poetry first appeared in print.
Re-reading the poems after many years, my first reaction was that they had survived extraordinarily well. There are some little period bits of silliness that have gone a bit stale, like compounding words for noreason, but they are trivial, really. And there are some poems that would probably have worked better if they'd been cut by 30%, but what use is being young if you're not allowed to rant a bit? The main thing is that most of it is still funny and unexpected and shocking, just as they meant it to be. And it is full of lines like "She approaches breakfast as she would a lover", or "with littlefinger in the air / she ravishes her third eclair", or "I can hear the noise of the ice-floes breaking up on the bathroom floor", or even "I wanted your soft verges / but you gave me the hard shoulder".
Obviously some of the subject-matter has shifted a bit in the way we read it - bus-conductors and Woodbines and Mary Quant are no longer part of the register of everyday life. The politics, as far as it goes, looks a bit crude: war is a bad thing, nuclear war is worse, and most of the evils of the world are caused by an undifferentiated group of oldmen-in-power, who range from First World War generals to Kennedy, MacMillan and Wilson. Patten is the only one who talks about racism at all, satirising Enoch Powell's attempts to exploit the racism of voters in "I'm dreaming of a white Smethwick", a poem that is clearly heartfelt but just as clearly written to meet one specific set of events.
On sexism, they don't do any better than most of their male contemporaries. Women seem to appear in the poems only if they can be considered young and pretty enough to be potential sex-partners. I had to remember Muriel Spark's wry comment about the men who are poets and the women who type the poems and sleep with the poets. Henri's many lascivious references to schoolgirls, gymslips, navy-blue knickers, etc., are obviously meant to be read as provocative self-mockery, but there are an awful lot of them. The other two aren't quite as bad, and Patten in particular sometimes seems to be almost mature in the way he writes about women (cf. "Somewhere between Heaven and Woolworths").
So still worth a read for its own sake, quite apart from its importance as a cultural document. At least for British poets, this is the book that reassured them that it was allowable to write poetry if you hadn't been to university, that poetry and rock music do go together, that poems can have as many "rude words" in them as you like, and that subjects like bus-conductors and Woodbines and the East Lancs Road may even be a better use of the poet's time than writing about daffodils and Grantchester. Which was very liberating, but has also demonstrated that not everyone is as good at writing about the ordinary as these guys were...
Adrien Henri was also a musician - that is to say he was the lead singer with the jazz rock group The Liverpool Scene and wrote the lyrics to their songs. I saw them a number of times in London back in the day and yes Adrian was quite a sight (a large man) jumping up and down on stage singing about schoolgirls knickers. Seriously though their Lp's/CDs are worth tracking down.
Enjoyed your excellent review of Illusions Perdues
There were some clips of Adrian Henri on stage at rock concerts in the BBC Four documentary - quite something! One of the contributors called him "the greatest non-singer in rock history" or something to that effect.
Meanwhile, I've managed to clear a couple more physical books off the TBR shelf. First, the most recent non-fiction novel by Javier Cercas (I've read about five of his books to date):
El monarca de las sombras (2017; not translated yet) by Javier Cercas (Spain, 1962- )
The writer "Javier Cercas", almost indefatigable in his quest to explore the ways Spain deals with problems of historical memory, is routinely one of the main characters in a Javier Cercas novel, but up to now his explorations have always been limited to digging into other people's memories. As he acknowledges in the opening chapters of this book, the problem he's always shied away from writing about is the way he deals with his family's background in a small pueblo near Trujillo in Extremadura, their support for the "wrong", nationalist side in the civil war, and the legend of the family hero, an uncle of his mother's called Manuel Mena, who was killed at the age of nineteen as a subaltern (alférez) in Franco's army at the battle of the Ebro.
Finally tackling this subject, with a good deal of hesitation which he - of course - discusses in detail, Cercas explores the question of whether there is any value in the Greek concept of a "beautiful death" - whether it's better to be Achilles or Odysseus, to reign as monarch over the shadows in the underworld or live as the slave of slaves. He looks at the social situation in the pueblo in the 1930s, and the reasons why people like the Mena and Cercas families allied themselves to the nationalists. They were peasants who had clawed themselves up to a rung higher on the socioeconomic ladder than their starving neighbours, but were still in what by any objective standard would be called extreme poverty. But they felt threatened by the disorder of the Republic, which looked as though it was going to take away even the little they had. They thus ended up on the side of a political movement that was in reality run by and for the very people who were still profiting from rural poverty, the big aristocratic landlords and the church, and fighting against the people they should (with mature hindsight) have seen as their friends.
Interesting, complex, and very nuanced, a book that goes a long way beyond its specifically Spanish subject-matter in its scope.
Girl meets boy (2007) by Ali Smith (UK, 1962- )
Girl meets boy ... well, we know that it's never quite going to be as simple as that in an Ali Smith story! This novella turns out to be a retelling of Ovid's story of Iphnis and Ianthe, resituated in modern-day Inverness, and with a decidedly feminist and anti-globalisation twist. Good fun, some telling political comment, and a couple of scenes of absolutely vertiginous writing of the sort only Smith can get away with. Let down a bit by caricaturing of the corporate and male-chauvinist villains, who are drawn too crudely to make them really credible as a threat, but still worth a couple of hours of anybody's time.
De Rijn: biografie van een rivier (2017) by Martin Hendriksma (Netherlands, 1966- )
Martin Hendriksma is a journalist specialising in planning and environmental matters, who has written for most of the important dailies and weeklies in the Netherlands. His regular slot is in the civil service magazine Binnenlands Bestuur. He's also written a couple of novels, apparently.
This starts out like a regular travelogue, with the author trekking up to the Swiss lake that is considered to be the source of the Rhine. But that's rather misleading - in practice, what this is is a series of essays, each constructed in classic journalistic style around a Topic, a Place, and an Interviewee (or preferably two interviewees). Hendriksma brings in a German baron to talk about the wine industry, the owner-skipper of a Rhine barge and the Secretary-General of the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine to talk about the river as a transport artery, a French mayor to talk about the Rhine as a frontier (his German opposite-number cancelled the interview at the last minute, so Hendriksma has to imagine what he would have said), the son of one of the last salmon-fishermen on the river and a fish-conservation expert to talk about pollution and the salmon and eel fisheries, the late Clemens Brentano and Robert Schumann to talk about the Rhine in the Romantic imagination, a Dijkgraaf and a NIMBY protester to talk about climate-change and flooding, and so on.
It's all very interesting, there's quite a good mix of history, economics, culture, and engineering, and I learnt a few things I didn't know (for instance, that the CCNR, established in 1815, is the world's oldest extant international organisation: I'd have guessed at something to do with posts - 1874 - or telegraphy - 1865). Hendriksma also sees Dutch water-management through less generous eyes than some of the other books on the subject I've read: the theme here seems to be that the Dutch in the first half of the 19th century were far less keen on throwing big money at necessary improvements than the rest of the countries along the Rhine, and that it was only the building of the Antwerpen-Köln railway (the "Iron Rhine") that woke them up and made them realise that it was in Dutch interests for there to be fast and efficient navigation between Rotterdam and the industrial cities of Germany. And similarly with the pollution crisis of the 1950s-1970s and the flood peril of the 1990s...
Hendriksma cites Jonathan Raban as an inspiration, but don't take that too literally. This isn't literary travel writing in that sort of tradition, and it doesn't need to pretend to be: it's good, solid, analytical journalism, with a careful balance of entertainment and hard facts.
Unless (2002) by Carol Shields (US, Canada, 1935-2003)
This was Shields' last novel, a wonderfully clever, witty, complicated book about what it's like when one absolutely major thing in your life has gone seriously and inexplicably wrong, but everything else seems to be just fine. And about belonging to a gender that's continually overlooked by people of the other gender, and about being a writer trying to write about writing, and about how it's OK for women to interrupt each other but not for men to interrupt women, and about imaginary letters of complaint, and about what happens if you're afraid to ask the obvious question and try to explain things out of your own imagination, and about many other things.
Such a shame that Shields' career as a novelist was cut short so early.