The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay

I had not read anything by this author before, and on doing a little research, I learned that she was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey et al.  She was also involved with that ‘set’ but as an author she as not well known in her day.  This novel, published when she was 75 and only a couple of years before her death, is her best known work, and is considered to be partly autobiographical.

Several things about the novel appealed to me, and I will try to identify these here.  It is very funny, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions.  For example, when the heroine Laurie has written down the wrong phrase from her Turkish phrasebook and keeps asking “please get me Mr Yoram on the telephone” when she means to say “I don’t understand Turkish”.  It turns out that there is a Mr Yoram, and she speaks to him on the phone and then meets him in the hotel where she is staying.

I say “she” but one of the things that I find fascinating about this novel is that neither the gender nor, until quite late on, the name of the narrator are made clear to the reader.  We learn that Laurie is involved in an adulterous affair with Vere – but Vere’s gender is not divulged either.  Only at the end of the novel do we learn that Vere is a man, and we may assume that Laurie is a woman.  The affair – and even the car accident that ends it – reflect events in Macaulay’s own life.

The novel appears to be set in the present day (i.e. 1950s) with references to the Cold War, and especially Burgess and Maclean.  Aunt Dot is therefore the most likely to be based on Macaulay herself, at least as far as her age is concerned.  She is an intrepid and independent-minded traveller.

I did not get all of the ecclesiastic and classical references that must have been more accessible to educated readers in Macaulay’s day.  But I did find myself tickled by contemporary references – for instance Aunt Dot’s relating how she had visited Paddy and Joan in Hydra, which must refer to Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor.  Macaulay presumably knew them too.

 

Score: 7 or 8/10

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Jazz

by Toni Morrison

I came across this book when an excerpt from it was reproduced as an exercise in the FutureLearn course ‘Start Writing Fiction’.  I’ve read a couple of Morrison’s books already (Beloved and A Mercy), and the short passage of Jazz that I read tempted me to get a copy of this book.

The book is written in a colloquial style, the narrator being an uneducated young woman living in “the city” which seems to be New York (references to Harlem) – although references to the El suggest it might be Chicago.  The main action is set in the 1920s, but there are references to an earlier area in the American South.

I’ve read that this novel, along with Beloved and Paradise, form a trilogy on African-American history.  But I can’t see any connection between this story and the story told in Beloved.  References to jazz music run through the novel.

[to be continued]

Drawing Conclusions

by Donna Leon

I was looking for something less demanding than A la Recherche du Temps Perdu to read during the Bahá’í Fast, when my powers of concentration are not at their best.  This little detective story seemed to fit the bill.  Not sure where I got it, but I suspect it is one I picked up on a visit to my aunt, who has quite a collection of Leon and Camilleri (as well as more ‘serious’ fiction and non-fiction).  Sadly her dementia has made it hard for her to concentrate on reading, though she still loves to collect books.

I’ve enjoyed the couple of Leon’s books I have read before this one.  Sadly, this book did not live up to expectations.  Inspector Brunetti investigates the death of an older woman who has been found dead in her apartment by a neighbour.  The cause of death is registered as a heart attack, but Brunetti is suspicious that something or someone may have brought on the attack.  Against the wishes of his boss, he investigates the woman’s connections with a private care home where she used to volunteer, and finds an elderly couple whose suspiciously comfortable lifestyle speaks of some illegal dealings.

Brunette eventually gains the confidence of the old man sufficiently to have his suspicions confirmed.  The case is old, the real villain has long since died, and Brunetti finds the compassion to let events take their course.

Not only is the story unexciting, I found the writing rather irksome, in a way that I haven’t done before – though I doubt that Leon’s style has changed much.  After finishing this book I picked up Jazz by Toni Morrison.  What a breath of fresh air!  Somehow I don’t think I am going to give Donna Leon any more of my reading time – even if I do have a deep nostalgia for Venice after my two visits there earlier this century.

On Canaan’s Side

by Sebastian Barry

This has been on my ‘to-read’ shelf for a few months, since i picked it up in a charity shop.  I was introduced to Sebastian Barry by The Secret Scripture which my book group read, and have since read (as I note from this blog) another book of his, Days Without End, which I don’t recall at all.  It’s actually a little scary that I could have read this book so recently – less than six months ago – and forgotten it so completely.

Back to this book.  On Canaan’s Side is the story of Lilly Dunne, now in her eighties and living in the Hampshires in New England.  She has just buried her grandson Bill, to whom she was evidently very close, and reflects on her life.  Each chapter is labelled “Third Day without Bill”, “Eighth Day without Bill” and so on.  Lilly has known loss from a young age, and is rather philosophical about it.

The story begins in Ireland, but Lilly and her sweetheart, Tadg Bere, soon migrate to the US because Tadg, a member of the Black and Tans, is wanted by the IRA.  Their arrival in the US and adjustment to life there, poor and still afraid for their lives, is poignantly told.  They have not had time to marry, yet Lilly takes Tadg’s name and is ‘Mrs Bere’ for the rest of her life.  Tadg’s enemies find him and shoot him in cold blood while he and Lilly are at an art exhibition.  She then has to run away, and the story takes her from Chicago to Cleveland, where, destitute, she is taken up by a young black seamstress and finds work in a household where her cooking skills are valued.  Lilly works as a cook from here on, marries and bears a son to a bootlegger who disappears mysteriously.  She is taken on, with her four-year-old child in tow, by an other rich woman and remains working for her until, on retirement, her employer gives her a house in the Hamptons.

So far, so believable – and engrossing.  There is, as I have learned to expect with Barry’s stories, a twist in the tail.  Someone in Lilly’s later life turns out to be someone from her past.  I won’t give the game away; suffice to say that I find this plot twist unnecessary in what is already a very compelling and satisfying story.

Les Miserables

by Victor Hugo

Well, I haven’t finished reading this gargantuan novel.  I am about to start reading Tôme III – Marius, the third of five volumes.  According to Kindle, I am 40% of the way through, which sounds about right.

I was inspired to read this text after watching the recent BBC dramatisation of the novel (Jan-Feb 2019), with a screenplay by the inspirational Andrew Davies.  His adaptation and the production, settings, acting etc do not fail to impress.  But I wanted to see for myself how a 1,500-page novel could be compressed into six one-hour episodes: how would the timeline run on screen, which scenes would be built upon or left out entirely, which characters omitted, which storylines compressed to the extent that they are almost invisible to the uninformed viewer.

The novel is a compelling read and I am undaunted by its length.  Nevertheless, after the first two volumes and about three weeks of reading, I have decided to take a break and read a couple of shorter novels, in English (see my previous two reviews).


Some impressions:

The first volume begins with several chapters going into the character, background and surroundings of the Bishop of Digne.  The details are important to the subsequent story, but in the TV version the bishop’s back-story is left untold and he lives with only a housekeeper, and not the two women (housekeeper plus sister) of the novel.  This in no way detracts from Jean Valjean’s encounter with the bishop as it is depicted on screen, but it does, I feel, fail sufficiently to show how Valjean’s later decisions are informed by the commitment he made to the bishop to lead an honest life.  His initial slip after leaving Digne, when he steals 40 sous from a wandering urchin, costs him dearly in material terms but it is harder to understand his spiritual motivation for leading a good life hereafter.

Volume Two gives a lengthy and detailed narrative of the Battle of Waterloo.  I was tempted to skip this, but was so glad I didn’t do so.  For the first time, I began to understand how that battle was fought, and the hazards of fate that led to the outcome of an allied victory over Napoleon.  All this has little to do with the story on the face of it, and yet it has everything to do with it – not just the way the characters of Thènardier and Pommercy are first introduced, but more particularly in setting the political and cultural background that pervades the book, especially those parts of the story set in the years immediately following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.  Hugo illustrates at various points how the use of certain phrases (l’empereur instead of Buonaparte, for instance) mark out the speaker as a monarchist or not, and affect the way that person is regarded by others.  Isn’t this illustrative of politics in every age?  Our politics can be deduced from the words we use and the position we take on the issues of the day – and in intolerant societies, your words will mark you as an enemy of the regime, with potentially fatal consequences.  Hugo understood this – and his text, through the stories of his characters, warns us of society’s huge burden of responsibility for its individual citizens.


An aside: I have been confusing Hugo with Zola for the past couple of months.  I read Zola’s Germinal for A-level – another huge novel, though much shorter than this one!  And I have recently started reading Au Bonheur des Dames but then left it for a while.  Really, how many French novels is it sensible to have on the go at once?  I still need to get my teeth into the fourth volume of Proust, as well as finishing volume three!

Resistance

by Owen Sheers

This is Sheers’ first published novel, published in 2007.  He imagines a different outcome on the Western European front in World War Two, where the D-Day landings of the Allies have been successfully repelled by German forces, the US has withdrawn from the European theatre to focus on its war in the Pacific, and the Nazis are in the process of invading Britain.

The story is set in Sheers’ home territory of the Black Mountains, in the borderland of Herefordshire and Wales.  Specifically, the action takes place in one small part of that setting, the Olchon Valley: remote, difficult to access, between Hatterall Ridge and the Black Hill on the easternmost edge of these mountains.  it is an area I know a little, having done three long walks there in the past few years.

In Sheers’ story, the inhabitants of the Olchon Valley lead their farming lives much as they might have done for centuries.  They have little contact with the outside world, though they are aware of the progress of the war.  One early morning in September 1944, all the men of the valley leave their homes, undetected by their womenfolk, presumably to join a resistance cell or cells.  The narrative is concerned with the women’s story, as they try to continue to run their farms, and form unusual and dangerous alliances with a Wehrmacht patrol who have been sent to the area with a secret mission.

This is an imaginative book with a beauty in its writing that betrays Sheers’ primary vocation as a poet.  He describes in great detail the farm activities at different times of year, from the work of the trained sheepdogs to the challenge of pulling sheep from a snowdrift after a sudden snowfall, and the process of reviving them (or not).  The farming life and the landscape are keenly observed by one who clearly has an affection for them.  I felt I could well imagine the lives of these women – although their domestic duties are less clearly portrayed, yet most have continued in some form even after the men had left.

In parallel we read the story of a local farm boy, George Bowen, who is recruited by the Intelligence Service, though it is never made entirely clear what he is supposed to do.  He performs a crucial role in the story and is instrumental in bringing the brief idyll of farm women and enemy soldiers to its inevitable end.

This is a war story with little or no bloodshed and very little horror in the conventional sense. And yet the whole situation is horrifying and nerve-wracking.  The war is at once distant and very present.  Sheers manages to capture this tension very effectively.

I felt the story dragged a little at times.  This book is as much about atmosphere as it is about story.  The characters might be real people: Mary, understandably nervous about the safety of her teenage daughter in the presence of the name soldiers, who at first hides then sends her away and becomes a nervous wreck in the process; Sarah, who misses the physical presence of her husband Tom, is angry at him for abandoning her, and is drawn to the German officer Albrecht who is both cultured and practical; Maggie, the self-appointed leader of the women, described everywhere as an “old woman” though her sons are of fighting age so she can’t be much above 65, who makes the decisions for the rest for the women and takes on the role of negotiator with Albrecht.

This is one of those stories that stays with you long after you have finished reading. I found myself referring back to the OS Explorer map of the area and plotting the locations of the farms and the various excursions that the women and soldiers make into the hills and, eventually, into Llanthony in the next valley.  I can vividly imagine the setting and the sensation of being remote and enclosed, almost cocooned, deprived of contact with the outside world.  It is the landscape, rather than the story, that lingers.

Rough Music

by Patrick Gale

A book group choice that I was happy to read as a little light relief from my immersion in Les Miserables and the third and fourth volumes of Proust.  Even though I am always a little disappointed when the book group chooses a title or author that I would probably have read anyway, I find Gale’s writing sensible, moving, realistic and satisfying.  I have yet to read anything of his that I have wished I had not wasted my time on.  The same, incidentally, is true of Sarah Waters – perhaps she comes to mind as another gay writer, but more especially, as one whose aim is true.

This story takes place in two periods of time, and uses the familiar device of alternating the chapters recounting events of the 1960s and the present day.  The main character is a young child in the ‘then’ story and he returns, as a 40-year-old, to the Cornish holiday cottage where he spent a significant holiday in his childhood.  The reader only gradually becomes aware that the ‘Julian’ of the 1960s is the ‘Will’ of the present day.  The characters are the same, but some of them have different names and the connections between them emerge only gradually.  Julian’s parents, Frances and John, and their relationship are significant in both stories.  Frances in the present-day story has early-onset Alzheimer’s, with which the author seems to be very familiar (or else he has researched it very well).  In the earlier story she is a young wife with an unsatisfactory sex life who has been left at the cottage with her brother-in-law while her husband is called back to his work as a prison officer after the breakout of a dangerous prisoner…. OK, no more spoilers.  You might guess what happens, but this is a Patrick Gale novel and the detailed nuances of all the relationships are not textbook romantic novel or Aga-saga material, but far more complex, realistic and, therefore, satisfying to read.

I’m going to miss (again!) the book group meeting in March when we are due to discuss this novel.  I’m not sure that my ‘review’ above is fit for submission to the group.  I also feel very guilty at missing yet another meeting.  Well, at least I can give the book a score: 9/10.