The decades following the end of World War 1 saw a boom in publication of war literature and memoirs as survivors sought to make sense of the conflict and devastation. From the side of the perpetrators came the book that seemed to perfectly capture the extreme physical and mental stress felt by soldiers on the front line. Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran himself, became viewed as a spokesman for his generation with his realistic depiction of trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front. Told from the perspective of young German soldiers, it struck a chord with those who had experienced the same conditions and the feelings of depression on return to civilian life. Within 18 months of publication it had been translated in 22 languages.
A few years later, when Gabriel Chevallier, an infantryman in the French army, published his own account in Fear the reaction was rather different. The novel drew upon Chevallier’s own experiences to present a damning indictment of the war that challenged the view it was a heroic, redemptive endeavour. Chevallier was decorated for his services on behalf of his country; receiving both the Croix de Guerre and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. But in his novel he admits he was afraid. “To have written about the war without writing about fear, without emphasising it, would have been a farce. You do not spend time in places where at any moment you may be blown to pieces without experiencing a degree of apprehension,” he explained later.
Fear made such uncomfortable reading that on the eve on the next major conflagration, the author voluntarily withdrew the novel from circulation. It was not the right time, he said, to warn that war was “a disastrous venture with unforeseeable consequences.”
Fear challenged French citizens to rethink their collective attitude to the war. Instead of depicting a hero, Chevallier presents a soldier who openly admits he shirked his duties whenever he could. Jean Dartemont is no patriotic warrior. He is a student who was rushed into a uniform and swiftly despatched to the front with little training and inadequate weapons. On the front line in some of the worst battlefields of the war, he huddles in a trench trying to avoid anything that would bing him into direct engagement with the enemy. His over-riding feeling is one of fear that he will be killed or wounded. For a nation wanting to hear only of brave feats, fear is an incomprehensible reaction. Dartemont sees it not as a weakness however, but a natural response.
Fear isn’t something to be ashamed of; it is a natural revulsion of the body to something for which it wasn’t made. … Soldiers know what they’re talking about because they have often overcome this revulsion, because they’ve managed to hide it from those around them who were feeling it too. … For even when our bodies are wriggling in the mud like slugs and our mind is screaming in distress, we still sometimes want to put on a show of bravery…
Dartemont partly ascribes this desire to keep up the pretence to a need to maintain public morale. Writing to his sister, he admits however that everything he commits to paper is false because those back home would simply not understand the truth:
… we write letters filled with suitable lies, lies to ‘keep them happy’. We tell them about their war, the one they will enjoy hearing about, and we keep ours secret.
This admission of the inadmissible is what makes this novel so different. For much of the novel, Chevallier follows the trajectory we’ve seen in many other works depicting the war: the call up, the carnage at the front, injury, recovery and a return to the front. Dartemont begins the novel as a naive young man, rather inept as a solider and particularly bad at marching. As he digs trenches and runs orders from commanders safely ensconced in headquarters far behind the front line, he has ample time to reflect on the ineptitude of the officers. His injury and hospitalisation provide a welcome, though temporary respite from the carnage he witnesses every day. By the end of the novel he has lost all hope.
I have fallen to the bottom of the abyss of my self, to the bottom of those dungeons where the soul’s greatest secrets lie hidden, and it is a vile cesspit, a place of viscous darkness….I am ashamed of the sick animal wallowing in filth that I have become.
Chevallier said in the preface to a 1951 edition that his novel was not written to serve as propaganda. But in lifting the veil on the reality of war and the effect on the individual of decisions made in pursuit of idealogy, it still resonates today.
Fear was rather different to the novels we usually associate with the name of Gabriel Chevallier. Between the mid 1930s and the mid 1960s he published “Clochemerle” and “Clochemerle-Babylon”; both gently satirical works about life in a French village.
Fear has been translated in multiple languages. The edition I read was translated by Malcolm Imrie and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the start of World War 1.
The titles for this year’s World Book Night (the UK version) were announced today. I’m rather underwhelmed by the selection to the point that for the first time in 5 years I’m probably not going to volunteer to be a giver. It’s disappointing because the objectives of this event are so worthwhile.
Of the 15 featured titles on the World Book Night site I have read precisely zero. I’ve heard of just two: S.J. Parris’ historical fiction work Treachery and Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Love Poems. Both sound perfectly fine though clearly they can’t have interested me that much since I’ve not bought them or borrowed from the library. There is a third (Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose) which I know is a film but didn’t realise was first a book.
It’s making it very difficult to decide which book I’d want to donate.
I’ve never had this problem before. Some years I’ve felt spoiled for choice. But some of these books are in genres I never read. If I’ve never read the book I don’t feel comfortable recommending it to other people.
Are any of you planning to be volunteers this year? What do you think of the choices?
It rains in Ireland. A lot. Though maybe not true to say it hasn’t stopped raining since the sixteenth-century as Ruth Swain wryly observes when she lies in her boat-shaped bed watching rain streaming on to the skylight. The 19-year-old girl is confined to bed with a debilitating, but unidentified, disorder of the blood. To summarise in her own words: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling and We’re Not Sure Yet.”
In her room under the eaves, surrounded by shelves full to toppling, she reads her way through 3,958 books collected by her late father; a poet (unsuccessful) and erstwhile farmer (a greater failure) who laboured under the wonderfully ironic name of Virgil. Ruth is a book lover, a “reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome.” (this is a girl much in love with capital letters).
Through the books, the notes she finds pressed between their pages; old maps and envelopes, Ruth tells the story of her family. It’s a story of people haunted by the expectations of the Swain Philosophy of the Impossible Standard, the basis of which is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. Grandfather Abraham Swain gave up trying to reach the standard after his experience in the trenches of World War 1. Forming the view that the world was random and meaningless he opted to escape to a quiet life of salmon fishing in the west of Ireland. The life of Ruth’s father is similarly linked to the water. He went to sea as a young man when his parents died and the bank closed in on their grand house near the village of Faha, County Clare. When he returns years later, he’s discovered by a local woman standing stock still on the rain-swollen bank of the River Shannon. Rescued from one watery demise, he jumps straight into another, taking a farm on some of the most soggy land in Ireland. Nothing he tries succeeds; his cattle die, his potatoes flourish then succumb to blight and every day the River Shannon encroaches a little further towards his home.
If this sounds a rather depressing tale, you’d be wrong. Ruth is a sparky narrator, full of spiky comments about Ireland, her family, neighbours, friends; just about everything and everyone in fact. Nor does she spare herself
History of the Rain is a strange novel; comic in some parts, lyrical and semi mystical in others. It’s stuffed with odd people like Tuan MacCarill, who according to family legend survived a plague of midges by turning into a salmon. It’s also crammed with references to literature from Ruth’s dad who reads William Blake to his cows to Ruth herself who identifies with the bedridden genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. “I like writers who were sick. I like it that his imagination sailed him away into adventures while his body was lying in his bed with the first stage of consumption.” In Faha she sees contemporary equivalents of characters from her beloved Charles Dickens’ novels. The undertaker reminds her of Vincent Crumbles in Nicholas Nickleby; her grandmother of The Aged P in Great Expectations and her devoted boyfriend’s devotion to that of Mr Quayle in Bleak House.
Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined.
Eccentric this novel certainly is. Entertaining? Yes and no. I enjoyed the quirkiness of the first part of the novel. I warmed to Ruth the more I read of this rather quaint wry-humoured Rapunzel. I admired the ending and how Williams somehow, impossibly, brings together his metaphors of books, salmon and rain.
But it’s also an uneven novel. My interest dipped markedly half way through and I almost gave up on it. It felt like a novel which was too much in love with itself and having too much fun on its own to worry whether it was entertaining me. I persevered and was glad I did in the end. Read it if you like novels with intelligent, insightful and sparky narrators. Read it if you like convoluted novels about comic, tragic Irish families. But make sure to buy an umbrella first.
My experience with Iris Murdoch’s work has not been a happy one. Maybe I just chose the wrong titles but I found her a bit impenetrable. Hence why I have procrastinated for more than three years about reading her Booker winning title The Sea The Sea. I knew I would have to tackle it at some point as part of my Booker project. But every time I picked up this fairly big book (538 pages of very closely typed text) I found an excuse not to get further than page 5.
The reactions of Andy Miller in A Year of Reading Dangerously compounded my feeling this would be a slog and one maybe I should delay getting to for as long as possible. In essence he said it was a long book with a distasteful protagonist, in which nothing much happened but there were many descriptions about meals (inedible concotions often) and the sea. None of which exactly had me racing to the shelf.
But me and Murdoch have finally squared up to each other.
And you know what? It’s nowhere near as bad as I was expecting.
What’s more – I am actually enjoying it.
Yes it does, in Charles Arrowby, have a narrator I would dread finding sat next to me on a long train journey. But Murdoch makes him deliciously awful, a wonderful satire on a totally self-satisfied, pompous and deluded man. Arrowby has left his glittering career as a theatre director to live in seclusion in a creaky, run-down house by the sea. He spends his days swimming, watching out for sea monsters and making rather disgusting meals. In between he deals with past lovers and encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch. He decides she must still be in love with him. Her marriage must be an unhappy one. It must be his duty to rescue her.
As you’d expect from the title, the sea plays a major role in the book. It’s always beautifully described. As are some of the ridiculously comic scenes when Arrowby’s past loves descend on the house.
Iris, I fear I have wronged you.
The Quest for Christa T is an attempt to reconstruct the life of a woman whose nature defied definition and classification; a woman whose spirit was at complete odds with a society that viewed conformity as necessary to its survival. It’s a fascinating portrait of a East German woman in the years from her childhood at the end of World War 2 until her early death in a 1960s Communist state about to be curtailed behind the Berlin wall. It’s a portrait built by her friend from personal memory supplemented by details taken from Christa T’s letters, poems and diaries and conversations with people who may or may not have actually existed (such is the elusive nature of this book that it’s often hard to separate reality from imagination).
The picture of Christa T isn’t revealed in a linear fashion but through disconnected fragments with only a vague idea as to the time period in which particular episodes occurred. As the narrator rummages through a box of papers left behind by Christa T, we get glimpses of the dead woman; first as a child and then as a thirty-five year mother who lies dying from leukaemia. The narrative then reconstructs the intervening years, depicting Christa T’s life as a student in Leipzig and as a teacher. At every stage it’s apparent that this is a woman destined always to be different; to be special though quite what makes her so is never clear. She’s a drifter, an outsider, a person on the fringe; an individual whose passion for constant change and renewal alienates her from her contemporaries and from the ethos of the new communist order. While others adjust to this new regime, and put aside their personal beliefs, she recognises that this is a society for “factual people” and “up and doing people” not dreamers like herself.
What makes this novel frustrating is how much is not revealed about Christa T. The narrator acknowledges as much in the opening chapter of the novel. Her quest is to protect the memory of her friend, to prevent her being forgotten. And so she uses the letters and other materials to conjure up her friend at will, to see her walk or play on the beach or blow an imaginary trumpet. But even then she recognises that what she remembers is not the truth
…all the time I know that it’s a film of shadows being run off the reel, a film that was once projected in the real light of cities, landscapes, living rooms.
Despite her knowledge that the very act of writing may falsify the nature of her friend, the narrator often becomes angry when she feels the truth is being withheld from her. At one stage, as she looks through the notebooks Christa has left behind the narrator she rails against her friend because she cannot understand the significance of a list of book titles.
I’ve read the titles once more. What does it all mean? Try as I might, I can’t figure out what’s at the back of these titles. My anger, which was complicated, was the healthy fury of a reader bereft of a promised story. And even if I was the only person who’d like to know what it means …. shouldn’t she at least have shown consideration for me? ….
The anger and frustration is understandable. Here is a woman conscious that she bears the legacy of her friend’s life and determined to do it justice. She succeeds to some extent. I certainly felt by the end that I’d been introduced to a remarkable woman living through a difficult period in history. But I was also left with a perplexing series of images and a feeling there is so much more yet to discover.
Discover other reviews of The Search for Christa T on these blog sites:
Writing a review is often a long drawn out process for me. It involves searching the book to check I’ve correctly spelled character and place names but also frantically looking for the quote I thought I had noted but now can’t find. I also spend a fair amount of time re-writing because I’m not happy with the flow of a sentence or realise what I’ve written is grammatically incorrect. When inspiration refuses to play ball and I know I need a different expression or word, I’ll turn to my my monster size Chambers Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus.
Over the years I’ve found many on line resources that I’ve found helpful. Those I list below are some of the lesser known ones. If you know of some other gems, do tell me about them by posting a comment.
This is a site developed in North America by the Plain Language Action and Information Network. The network is a group of government employees who support the use of clear communication in official documents. There are some good resources about organising, using plain language writing principles, and writing for the Web. If you work in a corporate environment, take a look at the word suggestions page where you can find easy to understand alternatives to some of the more cumbersome phrases you’ll probably recognise. The Made up Word list will have you groaning – are there really people who use words like “autoised” or “bloatware”? I hope I never meet them…..
Similar to Plainlanguage.gov the Plain English Campaign is a group that believes strongly in clear communication. It was started in 1979 by Chrissie Maher, a grandmother who was frustrated by the quality of government documents she was expected to complete. She took her battle to London where she burned many official documents in Parliament Square, a protest which brought her to the attention of a government minister by the name of Margaret Thatcher. Their fight against jargon and misleading information has become an international campaign. On their website you’ll find some very easy to understand tips (particularly helpful is one that deals with bullet points) and a downloadable A-Z of Alternative Words. I have a special affection for this group since I worked on a project with them in the mid 80s and met the founder; a more down-to-earth person you could not imagine.
Purdue OWL comes from the Writing Lab at Purdue University, USA. It covers the mechanics of writing, grammatical issues and how to deal with citations. Particularly helpful are the exercises – even if you’ve been writing for years it’s good to do a refresher now and again.
Jack Lynch is a professor of English who has put together a site covering grammatical rules and style. It’s written in a fresh, no nonsense style from a man who says he has writing struggles despite his extensive experience. “I’m not out to make definitive statements about what’s right and what’s wrong, and Lord knows I wouldn’t be qualified even if I tried. I can, however, make suggestions on things that are likely to work”
If you’re interested in how vocabulary and language changes over time, this could be the website for you. It contains some discussions of new words as well as the histories of certain words and the oddities and quirks of the English language. Ever wanted to know the origin of the phrase “Gone for a Burton”? or why the expression “methinks” has fallen out of favour? Both are recent discussions on the site.
Isabel Allende’s latest novel The Japanese Lover started as a pleasant enough read. Irina Bazili, a young girl from a poor background in communist Moldova, gets a job working at the kind of retirement home you hope exists in real life. The inhabitants are people who
… know what it means to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that he rest of the world is going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue and indifference toward everything.
But they chose to ignore these issues and to spend their final years taking part in the hubbub of life. At Lark House they reject the idea that fun consists of watching TV quiz shows or being dragooned into group sing-alongs. These residents are in San Francisco after all. They’re an odd mixture of left wing intellectuals, former hippies and second rate artists. So they get to act in their own productions, use alternative forms of healing, and indulge in marijuana on demand (though the centre’s strict no smoking policy means they can’t inhale indoors).
Irina’s calm manner and air of efficiency brings her to the notice of the home’s wealthiest resident, the semi-retired silk screen artist Alma Bolsacova. Working as Alma’s assistant, Irina becomes intrigued about Alma’s past and her long-standing love affair with the son of her family’s Japanese gardener. This is a love story that spans more than six decades. It moves back and forth in time to introduce a geographically and culturally diverse set of characters, tracing the obstacles put in the way of the lovers, first the internment of Japanese inhabitants after the attack on Pearl Harbour and then the opposition of her wealthy family.
Allende deals realistically with the hardships of aging. Lark House residents are sanguine about their dwindling faculties that will result in a gradual move from the ground of floor of the home to the fourth floor (named “Paradise”) But in relating Alma and Irina’s story, there is far too much telling going on rather than showing how each character reacts to events or how they feel. Allende also commits the – to me – unpardonable sin of including large chunks of background information gleaned from research with little attempt to make it feel a natural evolution of the narrative. We thus get three pages or so of the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the decision of the American government to protect against a “yellow invasion” by confining all those of Japanese origin to interment camps in desert states. It reads almost like an extract from an encyclopedia. Frankly speaking, I found Allende’s narrative style rather uninspiring throughout the novel. It becomes in fact absurd at times It becomes absurd at times. Describing the process of writing a novel, for example, we learn: “The words sprang forth unaided with the fertile womb of the briefcase and strolled tranquilly through the panorama of the imagination.”
If “happiness writes white” then goodness is its paler cousin in this novel. Irina Bazili becomes indispensable to the residents of Lark House “thanks to her open, friendly attitude” and her determination to use her job as “the opportunity to give to others what she hadn’t been able to give to [her grandparents].” Everyone who comes into contact with her seems to fall under her spell. One elderly lothario leaves her a substantial legacy; the home’s volunteer doctor becomes her closest friend and Alma Bolsacova’s son falls in live with her. Irina’s qualities are not doubt admirable but she has far too high a dosage of the Pollyanna gene flowing through her veins to make me warm to her or to find her believable.
I can see how many fans of Isabel Allende might view The Japanese Lover as another very readable novel from this best selling author. I am certainly not one of them. I made it as far as the half way mark and then decided enough was enough.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende was published on November 5, 2015 by Simon and Schuster in the UK. My copy was provided courtesy of the publisher via Net Galley
November has suddenly become rather attractive. Lovers of Emile Zola’s novels will want their ears glued to BBC Radio later this month when the Beeb begins their new new series, Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. It’s a 27-episode “mash-up” of adaptations from the Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, which traces the fortunes and fates of the Rougon, Macquart and Mouret families. the cycle presents its readers with unflinching stories about power, lust, crime and addiction.
The BBC has adapted the novels into three series. The first instalment will be broadcast every day over an “intensive” week on Radio 4 in November. One of the episodes draws on La Bête humaine (The Beast Within) the 17th book in Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s a superb psychological thriller about insanity and murder in Paris.
Blood, Sex and Money will witness the return of twice Oscar-winner and former MP Glenda Jackson to acting for the first time in 20 years as well as Robert Lindsay and Georgina Campbell. There will be an accompanying documentary, Blood, Sex and Money: The Life and Work of Emile Zola, broadcast on Radio 4 at 4–4.30pm on 16th of November.
You’ll find some additional info here: