Musing about Proust

I feel the need to explain the gaps in my book reviews recently.  I have spent the last two or three weeks catching up on my reading for the ‘Proust book group’ that consists of myself and three other Oxenton residents.  We realised, around the end of 2017, that all three of us were reading Proust for the first time.  The other two – Pauline and Ann – had both received the complete set of seven novels in French as a gift from their respective husbands.  In my case, I had a French edition on Kindle but had decided to read the first two and a half books in English.  (For my rationale in doing this, see this post on another blog of mine).

We have been meeting every three months or so, and giving ourselves a chapter – which in Proust is about half a book – to read before each meeting.  I have lagged behind on the past two meetings.  On one occasion it was because my French edition seemed to have different chapter divisions, so I just hadn’t read far enough!  I remedied this by buying another Kindle edition, still without much formatting and with no notes, but more standard in terms of the text.  Since starting Du Côté des Guermantes (book 3) I have also purchased the new translation of this book in English.  The Kindle editions, even of these recently-published translations, are very good value.  The translation is excellent, and there are useful footnotes on cultural and historical points.  Christopher Pendergast is the series editor but each book has a different translator.  I may well invest in the translations of the other books in this edition, but for now I am taking it one book at a time.  Seriously – am I ever going to re-read this novel, in French or English?

So now to the book itself.  To me, it defies description.  Most people who persevere with it seem to be smitten, as I was from the first book.  It is long, yes.  The sentences are long and the grammar sometimes convoluted, and although the language is not difficult, you sometimes have to re-read a sentence to make sense of it.  The characters are very cleverly and compellingly written, and I am beginning to see a plot developing.  I have heard that plot is very important in this book, and that it is satisfyingly unravelled at the end.  For now, just keeping up with the characters is a challenge, and I was excited to find a website that illuminates and cross-references them, indexing them throughout the work.

There is a part of me that would love to push on through the remaining four-and-a-half books uninterrupted by other reading.  But I don’t think I can bear to leave my pile of to-read books, and all the other reading that might come my way, while I do this.  So it is going to be a case of ‘splurging’ on Proust now and again.  The book group has the beneficial effect of making me do this, and also encouraging me to read it in French.  I do really hope I will finish the novel in the next few years.


Days without End

by Sebastian Barry

What an amazing book!

Picked up in the library a couple of months ago (yes, months) and then put aside while I read other things.  I have renewed this twice already, so decided to use the last two days of my third loan period to actually read it.  Very pleased I did so.

The book is written in an engaging style in the first-person narrative of Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant to America in the potato famine.  We first meet Thomas when he hooks up with another young man, John Cole, at the age of about fourteen.  The two remain together, serving in the army in the Indian wars and then later fighting for the Union in the Civil War.  Their attempts at making a home life together after the war are beset by further problems, as McNulty’s past catches up with him.  All the while, he takes pleasure in the the present he finds himself in, revelling in nature, companionship and love.

The beauty and grandeur of the American landscape is brought very vividly to life in McNulty’s first-hand account.  Much of his life is taken up with travelling, both while in the army and afterwards.  The reader gets a sense of the hardships faced by the white settlers as well as the Indians and southern blacks.  The narrator sees and treats them all as people – fellow sufferers in life’s trials.

Though there is plenty of killing, this is essentially a moral book.  We never see Thomas as anything other than a good person, motivated by honour and justice.  He may not be able to express it that way, but his language is eloquent despite his limited education.

A beautiful book.

The Siege of Krishnapur

by J G Farrell

I first read this book five or six years ago, when it was recommended by my friend Pat. She subsequently also lent me Farrell’s novel Troubles, which I also enjoyed, and The Singapore Grip, which I did not.

Why is Farrell’s writing so good? I think it is the juxtaposition of serious insights and ridiculous human behaviours. The author seems to be telling the reader: “Look, we are all like this, trying to make sense of our world and our relationships with others, and, to a very great extent, failing to do so”.

That said, I have not been sufficiently motivated to finish reading this book for the second time for our book group.  I have not yet got to the part where the siege starts.  I recall how the author highlights the absurdity of the ‘possessions’ people collect about them, as he describes the countless jars of ferns, stuffed animals and other items that the Victorians were so keen to collect and display.  By drawing attention to the things the English in India might have seen as precious, Farrell is also making us examine the things we might have in our own homes and feel that we can’t bear to be parted from, even in an emergency.  Are we still far to attached to ‘possessions’ (what today we might call ‘stuff’)?  The way the documents and papers are first treasured, then used in the siege, and finally discarded, also shows how the people holed up in the Residency gradually come to realise what’s important.  The Collector is, in many ways, the voice of sanity in this novel.  He assesses the obsession with things by citing a proverb: “The world is a bridge.  Pass over it, but do not build a house on it.”

Farrell apparently said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness”.  This allows him also to make us examine our values in today’s world.  Do the things that we hold dear actually have any greater or more lasting value than the social manners of these nineteenth-century colonialists?  And would we cling to them in the face of adversity?

Farrell show in a very illuminating way the clash of ideas, and how people even in extreme circumstances will cling to their beliefs.  For instance in the passage where Drs Dunstable and McNab discuss the transmission of cholera, most of the people around are prepared to support the former in his view that the disease is airborne, even though Dr McNab can cite very convincing studies to show that it is carried by contaminated water.

The characters are very well drawn, and I particularly like the way the Collector maintains a calm exterior and manages to hold himself together as well as making some sound decisions under extreme circumstances. The characters seem to fall into two camps: those who adapt to and cope with the situation, and those who do not.

I plan to continue reading this novel, and just wish I had started it earlier in order to have a more useful review for our book group meeting tomorrow!


Stay Close

by Harlan Coben

I was put onto Coben by reading Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider. In that book, the alibi of the main murder suspect is the fact that he and three other teachers from the high school English department were attending an out-of-town conference where Coben was the guest speaker.  An endorsement from Stephen King has to be worth something, so I decided to look up Coben’s work.  This volume was available to order from the library.

Cohen’s writing style is quite colloquial and direct – more so, I think, than King’s.  Less polished, perhaps.  But he tells an exciting, suspenseful story.  It’s a thriller, and there is a certain amount of violence and gory detail, but no more than serves to illustrate the story, which is of a serial killer (as we find out some way into the book) who targets men who abuse women.  Many of the victims have spent some time in La Crème, a ‘gentleman’s club’ in Atlantic City, where most of the action takes place.

The main female character is Megan, a suburban housewife with a previous life which she has kept successfully hidden from her fellow soccer Moms and her husband Dave.  Also known as Cassie, she used to work at La Crème and had a serious relationship with the once successful photojournalist, now dissolute fake paparazzo, Ray Levine.  Both these characters, as well as their relationship, are very convincing.  They are key to understanding what really happened, but also help the reader to explore the whole area of double identities, past experiences haunting the present, etc.  Clichés maybe, but very well handled by this writer.

I can’t fault anything about this thriller.  The characters all work (and there are a lot of them), the writing is not superfluous but enough to keep the reader’s interest, and the story is taut and compelling.  I didn’t work out who the killer was until just before this person’s identity is revealed (and I resisted the temptation to read ahead!).  Full marks to Mr Coben.  I will certainly read more of his work.

The Wicked Boy

by Kate Summerscale

I’ve read two previous books by this author: the acclaimed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and the slightly less well-known Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.  This latest book, published two years ago in 2016, did not disappoint.

Mr Whicher documents not only the true story of a murder in a respectable middle-class household, but also the new profession of detective and the genre of detective fiction that quickly grew up at this time.  Summer scale stays in the late nineteenth century for Mrs Robinson, and her subject here, beyond the story of the Robinson family and the fate of an individual husband and wife in the course of a notorious divorce case, is women’s rights and divorce law.  So I expected to find in The Wicked Boy not just the story of an individual case and its outcome, but also a commentary on the social conditions surrounding it.

Robert Coombes is a thirteen-year-old boy who is charged with the murder of his mother in July 1895.  The family lives in the East End of London; they are poor, though they do not count among the very poorest.  The father works as a steward on transatlantic steamships, and is regularly away from home for five weeks at a time.  The mother appears to have a volatile temperament, and physically chastises her two children regularly, though she is also attached to them, and in particular Robert, the eldest.

The first part of the story centres on the lead-up to the crime and the week following the murder, when the boys remain in their home with the decaying corpse. They seek the company of an adult male acquaintance, who is initially charged with them but later acquitted as he claimed to be (and quite possibly was) ignorant of the crime both before and after the murder.  The central part of the story focusses on the court activity (coroner’s, magistrate’s and crown court) and the newspaper coverage of the case.  Clearly, most if not all of Ms Summerscale’s sources must be newspapers and recordings of court proceedings.  The last few chapters relate the subsequent course of Robert Coombe’s life after his conviction: several years spent in Broadmoor, then his discharge to a Salvation Army ‘colony’ in Essex, and finally his emigration to Australia in 1914, where he almost immediately enlists in the Australian Imperial Force, and a brief but graphic account of his service with the AIF at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front.

A brief paragraph by way of a ‘prologue’ tells of another 13-year-old, in 1930  Australia, who runs to the police to escape an abusive adult.  This seems so out of context of the main narrative that I flipped immediately to the ‘epilogue’ (you can do that with a library book much more easily than on Kindle!) and read a full chapter about the boy alluded to in the prologue, Harry Wright, who was taken in and supported throughout his adolescence and early adulthood by the adult Robert Coombes in Australia.  No harm in reading this first, I think: it wraps up the story, and chronologically fits as an epilogue – but it was somehow heart-warming to learn that Coombes had a chance to redeem himself – and took it.  We are left uncertain as to whether Coombes ever told Harry about his former life and conviction for matricide.  The author seems to think he probably did.  I am not so sure – and I don’t think it matters, anyway.

Overall, I found this story captured my attention and I wanted to read to the end.  Unlike Summerscale’s previous books, however, there was little suspense in this story.  It is true that, at first, you don’t know whether Robert and his brother Nattie will both be convicted, or just Robert, or indeed neither of them.  Will John Fox be found guilty as an accessory after the fact?  Will Robert be hanged, as a thirteen-year-old or later?  Will the emotional pressures within the family be used as evidence or even come to light in the trial (they didn’t).  Will the plea of insanity be upheld?

But pretty soon, you know the answers to these questions, and at least half of the book is descriptive of conditions in Holloway gaol, Broadmoor and the Haleigh colony, as well as detailed descriptions of the action seen by Coombes’ battalion in the First World War.  This is nevertheless interesting and illuminating, and once again Summerscale’s great ability takes the reader into the scenes she is describing.

Mr Whicher is still my favourite, and all the more compelling because the reader remains uncertain as to the identity of the murderer until quite far into the book.  Real-life detective fiction, as it were.  But The Wicked Boy works for me, and I will gladly read anything else by Kate Summerscale.


The Outsider

by Stephen King

Picked this up on an impulse visit to my local library in Bishops Cleeve.  I visit whenever I have a few spare moments in the village, but recently that has not been so often.  The book was in the section marked ‘Fastbacks’.  I usually avoid these, mainly because they have to be returned within a week and I don’t want the pressure, but also because they tend to be ‘bestsellers’, and most of the books I read don’t fall into this category.

I will always make an exception to a rule for Stephen King, however.  His writing is superb, and his books carry you along even though some of the action is gruesome in the extreme.  This book had me hooked from the start.  The first half of the book is pretty much a conventional crime thriller – albeit written with panache – but, of course, you just know that some supernatural element is going to make an appearance.  Especially when the scene has been set with a sexual offence against a child, committed by a very unlikely suspect with a cast-iron alibi.  Terry Maitland is nevertheless arrested, and a series of further deaths ensues.

The characters are interesting, and one of the main characters in King’s Mr Mercedes trilogy, Holly Gibney, makes an appearance in the second half of the book.  Her previous cases are referred to, but do not overshadow this story in any way.

I’ll be happy to go on reading King’s output for as long as he continues writing it.  Fortunately there is a large body of his work that I have yet to enjoy.

I don’t often paste photos into this blog, but felt I just had to show the ‘Fastbacks’ card from the library. I love the last ‘rule’: “All those jobs you hate doing should be left whilst you enjoy your book!”.

In case you’re wondering – the book is due back tomorrow and I am about to return it, having finished it this morning.

The Humans

by Matt Haig

This book was mentioned to me by my aunt Wendy’s friend Judith, when we were speaking on the phone about Wendy’s ongoing care and health needs.  I somehow felt that Judith would have liked to have discussed this book with Wendy herself – and a part of me wanted to honour both of them by reading it.  So I downloaded the book and read it fairly quickly – it is a short, easy read.

A visitor from another world comes to Earth and inhabits the body of a mathematics professor, who has been killed by the alien’s people because he has solved the secret of prime numbers.  This mathematical discovery, it is believed, will give humans more power than is good for them, given the relatively undeveloped state of their humankind.

Much of the story’s humour is derived from the ‘professor’s learning about all things human.  At first, he finds human ways extremely primitive (fancy still driving around in cars) and their tastes as well as their looks are appalling to him.  He struggles to bring himself to eat ‘cow’ and ‘pig’, can’t bear to look at, let alone touch his wife, and finds human relationships and altruistic deeds baffling.

And here is the point the author is (in my view) trying to make: for all our shortcomings, we are a compassionate, caring species that inhabits a world that is full of wonder.  The inevitable crisis comes as our alien begins to like human ways and decides he’d prefer to stay here, even if it means the loss of his powers to heal and the abandonment of his mission to kill everyone who has, or is suspecting of having, learned of the professor’s discovery.

OK – a lightweight read, but an entertaining one.