Classics club spin stops at George Eliot

Title page of the first edition. Source: Wikipedia

Title page of the first edition. Source: Wikipedia

The Classics Club spin landed on number five which means I will be reading Adam Bede by George Eliot. This was the first novel she wrote, published pseudonymously in 1859 at a time when, as Mary Ann Evans, she was a highly respected scholar.  Its merit was recognised immediately though not unanimously. An anonymous review in The Athenaeum in 1859 praised it as a “novel of the highest class,” and The Times called it “a first-rate novel. Henry James however was irritated by the narrator’s interventions and many critics have accused Eliot of concluding the novel in a way that undermined the moral lessons learned by her main characters.

The novel follows four characters’ rural lives in the fictional community of Hayslope—a rural, pastoral and close-knit community in 1799. The plot revolves around a love “rectangle” among beautiful but self-absorbed Hetty Sorrel; Captain Arthur Donnithorne, the young squire who seduces her; Adam Bede, her unacknowledged suitor; and Dinah Morris, Hetty’s cousin, a fervent, virtuous and beautiful Methodist lay preacher.

When I read this the first time, many years ago, I enjoyed it simply as a good story and sympathised particularly with Adam, the loyal intelligent carpenter and man of integrity.  At that time I wasn’t aware of Eliot’s theory that authors should extend their sympathies to all their characters, a theory she put into practice in Middlemarch where the narrator makes us realise that even the distasteful Casubon has his inner doubts and feelings. I’m going to read Adam Bede with an eye to whether she had already began to use this notion in her early work.

Holiday reading companions

Deciding what books to take on a holiday never gets any easier. Too many questions race around the brain.

Do I take a tried and trusted author or is this the time to branch into unknown territory? What if I don’t feel in the mood for the book/s I’ve taken? What if they’re duds? What if I finish them too quickly and then can’t get my hands on anything decent in English (the advent of e-readers has made that much simpler of course but I still like to have paper copies with me).

Answering those questions involves multiple cycles in which I pull books off the shelf convinced this is the perfect choice. Only to change my mind a day later.  Of course I then go and add to the complexity by trying to take at least one book written by an author from the country I’ll be visiting.

This holiday I eventually settled on two that are loosely connected by the theme of World War 2 which seemed entirely appropriate since I am visiting Germany.

Holiday readingI’ll be reading The Third Reich by Robert Bolano, an author I’ve intended to read for years but never got around to doing so. This novel was published in Spanish in 2010 and in English the following year having been discovered among his papers following his death. It concerns Udo Berger, a German war-game champion, who returns with his girlfriend Ingeborg to the small town on the Costa Brava where he spent the summers of his childhood. When one of his friends disappears Udo invites a mysterious local to play a game of Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, a classic wargame.

From my TBR I’ve selected a Virago Modern Classic, The Quest for Christa T by the German writer Christa Wolf that follows two childhood friends from the second World War into the 1960s in East Germany.  Wolf was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany but since unification she’s been criticised for failing in her work to criticize the authoritarianism of the East German Communist regime.

Neither are very long novels so I’ve made sure my e-reader is well stocked with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (long listed for the Booker prize) and The Dictator’s Last Night  by Yasmina Khadra which is due out in October. In between all that reading I just might be able to squeeze in a few site seeing trips around Berlin and Dresden….

Classics Club – hoping for Antonia White or Maupassant

classicsclub3It’s been a little quiet in the Classics Club lately so I was delighted to see that another round of the spin challenge has been announced. I’ve not always managed to read the book identified in previous rounds but it’s still a good way of nudging me towards some of the remaining titles on my list.

The rules are as always:  list any twenty books you’ve left to read from the Classics Club list. Whichever number turns up when the spin result is announced, thats the title to read before end of October.

Since I’m just over half way towards the goal of 50 books by August 2017, I don’t have too many options left. My selection of 20 is divided into two based on date of publication. ** indicates I’ve read that book once before but its on my list because I don’t think I did it justice first time around.

Pre twentieth century

1. Candide — Voltaire 1759
2. The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
3. Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
4. Dr Thorne — Anthony Trollope 1858
5. Adam Bede — George Eliot 1859
6.** Can You Forgive Her — Anthony Trollope 1864
7. **Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
8. The Way we Live Now — Anthony Trollope 1875
9. ** Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
10. A Parisian Affair and other stories — Maupassant 1880s

Twentieth century
11. The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
12. Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
13. All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
14. A Room of One’s Own — Woolf 1932
15. **Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
16. The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck 1939
17. The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
18. The Charioteer — Mary Renault 1953
19. The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
20. Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985

None of the titles below are ones I’m nervous about getting though I’m hoping that I’ll end up with one of these…A parisian affair

frost in may

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging, as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world.

This quote comes from an episode in Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles. It could equally describe the way Mark Henshaw’s narrative is constructed.  Each chapter builds on the preceding one, enabling the story to unfold one layer at a time and bring with it ever-deepening insights and fresh revelations.

thesnowkimonoThe novel opens in Paris in 1989. Retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers, where he once served as an intelligence officer. She claims to be his daughter. Back home in his apartment he finds a stranger waiting for him – Tadashi Omura, a former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan who bears a strong resemblance to the Emperor Hirohito. Omura begins to relate the story of his own lost daughter Fumiko and his friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda. As the story of a fractured friendship, lost lovers and orphaned children unfolds, Jovert cannot help reflect on the parallels with his own life which, like Ikeda’s, is built on a lie.

Each strand of the narrative pivots between various characters and locations, in France, Japan and Algeria. It’s written in a slightly off-beat enigmatic style which keeps readers uncertain how everything fits together and how it will all end. Many of the tales use beautiful evocative imagery.

Behind me, the mountain peaks blaze like white teeth in the first rays of the sun. Darkness seeps back into the earth. The grey-tiled rooftops of the village, clustered together like sleeping cattle, begin to surface.

or in another scene:

Banks of cloud the colour of egg white hung low and flat on the horizon.

The Snow Kimono is a meditation on love, loss and betrayal but one whose meaning becomes evident only in stages. Omura counsels Jovert early on in their relationship that if he wants to understand, then he needs to change his perspective. “In Japan we have a saying. If you want to see your life, you have to see it through the eyes of another. But what if what you see is not what you want to know.” Jovert, reminiscing about his career comes to appreciate that the techniques he used in his career would not be sufficient to reveal the truth about life “… life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”

The non-linear structure and the enigmatic nature of the plot alone would make The Snow Kimono a fascinating novel but add the haunting, fluid, lyrical style and the result is the most remarkable novel I’ve read all year. From the first page I was enthralled. By the time I got to the last page I wanted to start all over again to try, like Jovert, to put all those pieces together.

End Notes

Mark Henshaw was born in Canberra, Australia. He published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago to huge critical acclaim. Since then he’s published detective novels under the pen-name of J.M.Calder but under his own name, nothing. Why the long silence? An  interview in Sydney Morning Herald may provide the answer. 

The Snow Kimono is published by Text Publishing. They took on the publication after  32 other publishers turned it down. The Snow Kimono went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2015.

Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Chisel Beach, Dorset

Chisel Beach, Dorset

1962. The decade labelled The Swinging Sixties was just around the corner.  But the imminent sexual revolution would be wasted on Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, the young newly-weds of Ian McEwan’s Chesil Beach.

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. 

That opening sentence sets the scene for a tightly-focused human drama which takes place against the background of one of the natural wonders of the world; the massive shingle bank of Chesil Beach in Dorset.  Edward and Florence arrive at the hotel for their honeymoon. Naturally they want their first evening to be perfect. But dinner in their room overlooking the bay doesn’t quite live up to their romantic expectations. Soggy, overcooked vegetables served by obtrusive waiters result in a strained atmosphere.

There is however a greater source of tension that rears its head as the night progresses.   Their courtship never progressed beyond a few passionate embraces. Edward was always the most ardent of the pair but accepted (though reluctantly) Florence’s desire to wait until they were married for any greater intimacy. Now the moment is approaching when Edward imagines uninterrupted pleasure will be his. Too late he learns this is one aspect of their life that will forever represent a source of discord. Tragedy ensues.

chesilbeach The scene in the hotel bedroom verges on awkward comedy where you’re not sure whether to laugh or sympathise. But McEwan leaves us in no doubt when the couple meet on the beach later the same night. There is a moment where the drama pivots between the possibility of reconciliation and the possibility of fracture. McEwan is a writer with a superb ability to understand human nature. Here he shows how just a few words, spoken in anger and frustration can be a tipping point,a moment in a relationship from which there is no going back. Words uttered in the heat of the moment that are instantly regretted but whose hurt can never be healed. It’s a painful scene because as readers we can see where it all went wrong. Instead of an enduring flush of romantic love, we get bitterness and disillusionment.

A sad little tale that  taken me years to get around to reading even though I like most of McEwan’s novels. It’s one I can easily imagine re-reading at some point.

2 disappointments and 1 soaring success

sundaysalonI’ve now read two of the 2015 Booker longlist titles; neither of which I think will be declared the winner.  Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was a far better novel than Anne Enright’s The Green Road in the sense it actually had a message but both were rather straight-forward stories. No real experimentation with form such as we’ve seen from recent winners like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Maybe the judges are not looking for that especially but I would expect them hone in on a novel that has a unique quality, one that stands out from the crowd in one respect or another. Neither O’Hagan or Enright did that for me. Maybe my next Booker longlist contender A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will be more remarkable. It’s the early favourite for this year’s award but the judges have not always followed the popular vote so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the betting odds.

thesnowkimonoFortunately the disappointing experience with those two titles is overshadowed by the book I’m currently reading: The Snow Kimono by the Australian author Mark Henshaw. It’s his first novel in 25 years and was apparently  rejected 32 times before Text Publishing stepped forward. It was a smart move since Henshaw’s novel went on to win the Premier’s award.

From the first page I was enthralled.  The novel begins in Paris in 1989 when a retired police inspector receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter.  Two days later a stranger knocks on his apartment door. Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan, begins his story of his best friend, a brilliant but arrogant writer and the lives of three Japanese women. That summary doesn’t however do any justice to this wonderfully mesmerising tale that unfolds like a puzzle. What a shame the judges didn’t longlist this novel.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Green RoadBy the end of the first chapter of Anne Enright’s story of strife within an the Madigan family, I had the sense it wasn’t the Green Road I was following, but an all too familiar path. Some of the tropes of Irish fiction had already made their appearance:

Child destined for the convent (or in this case the priesthood). The romance of the land. Churchgoing. Conflict between branches of the same family (they ‘don’t get on with each other’ for reasons that may or may not be revealed); Small community setting with old fashioned shops. More churchgoing.

I steeled myself for more. But then thought maybe I was being unfair. It’s not possible to write a serious novel set in west coast Eire and not mention the church is it? And while the Celtic Tiger did transform the Irish economy for a few years, in 1980 which is when the novel begins, much of Southern Ireland  was (actually still is) comprised of small, very tightly knit villages and towns that look pretty much as they did in the 1950s.

And then, with Chapter 2, Anne Enright sprung a surprise. Her narrative leapt 11 years, out of conservative Irish town where birth control is not easily obtained, and into the free-wheeling world of New York with its gay sub culture.  This was the first, and by the far the most rivetting, of four sections each devoted to the five living members of the Madigan clan: the demanding, infuriating matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna.

Dan Madigan never got ordained (for reasons which are never explained in the novel) but has morphed into Irish Dan. He cuts a handsome figure as he manoeuvres deftly, though cruelly, through the charged atmosphere of the Aids epidemic.  Forward another six years and we catch up with his sister Constance, driving along the green road to a secret hospital appointment, hoping her mammogram will prove all-clear. She’s the only child to remain in her home town, growing fat and resentful when her mother dismisses her gestures of kindness. Youngest son Emmet has put the greatest distance possible between him and Ireland, drifting through Africa on a mission to help starving children in Africa but struggling to reconcile this with his personal relationships. And then there is Hanna, the lively 12 year old child from Chapter 1 whose life disintegrates as her ambitions of an acting career collapses and she takes refuge in booze.

These sections, which take us up to 2005, are in essence a series of loosely connected short stories, each having a distinctly different atmosphere and voice. The parts dealing with Dan in New York are the most powerful, superbly conjuring up the way different groups responded to Aids; some distancing themselves immediately they saw anyone on the subway with tell-tale purple bruises; others reaching out to those they knew were dying. But the victims themselves had different needs, as the narrator explains:

We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

Enright brings the family back together with a device which has parallels with King Lear’s division of his kingdom (and we all know how that went). Rosalyn summons the children for Christmas, telling them it will be the last in their family home since she intends selling and moving in with Constance (much to her daughter’s surprise and alarm). The declaration has the family members embark on mega supermarket shopping expeditions (Constance), a long flight (Dan) or a lot minute attempt at packing by throwing stuff into bags (Emmet) before settling around the dinner table, each in the same place they had occupied as children. Though they have changed, one thing remains the same; Rosalyn’s ability to cause an upset. Tears arrive well before bedtime. Enright brings the reunion to a climax with an action which forces the children to reconsider their attitudes towards their mother.  By the end they are a little wiser, but it didn’t feel they were substantially different people or that their lives had altered in any material way.

Were my fears about this book realised? To some extent yes. The  family scenes in Ireland were never as interesting as those where each child, battered by life and directionless, is allowed to tell their own story. And I do wish Enright hadn’t tried to bring the novel to resolution by the unnecessary device of making one character disappear. But I did enjoy her characterisation of Rosaleen, a woman much given to bewailing her fate, succumbing to imaginary illnesses and seeing the world ranged against her. Enright  enables us to laugh at this woman who takes zero interest in world affairs but loves  good local gossip. “Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road.” She’s manipulative and waspish but she loves her children. She just doesn’t know how to show it.

A reasonably good read in short but nothing remarkable. I had  very similar feeling by the end that Rosaleen expresses about her life:

Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.

The Green Road wouldn’t make it to the Booker shortlist if I were one of the judges.

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

The IlluminationsThe secrets we keep from each other but often even from ourselves: caught in their protective web of deception the cast of characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations are people who find varying levels of enlightenment.

Octogenarian Anne Quirk is one of the deceivers. In a sheltered home in Scotland, she is succumbing to dementia, deemed unsafe to cook for herself or let anywhere near an electric oven. Under the watchful eye of her kindly neighbour Maureen, Anne’s internal conflict with the past comes to life through disconnected fragments of memories and stacks of photographs. They reveal she was a ground breaking photographer in her younger days whose work “captured a world beyond the obvious.” It’s not until her beloved grandson returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and takes her back to a Blackpool guesthouse, that the secrets of Anne’s life are illuminated. Only then does it seem that she can be at peace.

As his grandmother tries to remember the long-ago past, Luke is trying to put his own past behind him. He’s returned to Scotland, a disillusioned young man whose army career is over as a result of a catastrophic episode when he was part of a convoy in Helmand province. Through some fast-paced chapters set in Afghanistation it becomes clear that the episode represented an epiphany for Luke; the moment he acknowledged to himself that he had joined the army purely to find the kind of man he hoped his father, who died serving his country, had been. For years he’d buried this knowledge beneath a cloak of camaraderie with the men under his command, smoking marijuana and listening to heavy metal while they patrolled the desert for booby traps. But the increasingly erratic behaviour of his commanding officer strips him of his illusions.

Not all the characters in O’Hagan’s novel encounter anything comparable to the illuminating moments that Luke and Anne experience. Maureen for example is clearly a woman who’s concocted a deceit about her relationship with her children. She regularly boasts about her children and and how much success they’ve made of their lives (blithely ignoring the fact that one of them is an alcoholic). She regularly complains that they are always too busy to visit her — yet when they do, she clearly can’t stand them and cannot wait for them to leave.

The slow paced contemplative sections of the novel contrast with the sections on the front line which blaze with action and vivid dialogue. O’Hagan seems very comfortable handling both the very male world of the army with its obscenity laden, swaggering dialogue and the domestic rituals of the women in the home. He effortlessly moves from the small and often humorous observation:  “It was a constant battle in Maureen’s head, the wonder of central heating versus the benefit of fresh air…” to bigger issues of the ethics of foreign military intervention or the fractured parent/child relationship. He also deals sensitively, though not sentimentally, with Anne’s dementia describing it not as the shutting down of a life but the re-awakening of an old one. Anne’s estranged daughter Alice tells her doctor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he whispered. “Quite the opposite. She’s coming back. And maybe you could prepare to meet her half-way. Between the person she is now Andy the person she used to be.

This ability to flex between the macro and the microcosm could be one of the reasons the judges of the Man Booker Prize chose it for the 2015 longlist. Will it make it to the final accolade or will this be third time unlucky for O’Hagan? My sense is it’s not the winner. The sections dealing with Anne are well observed but not remarkable so the strength of the novel really rests on the Afghanistan chapters. Without those for me this would have been an Ok novel but with them it’s one that’s well worth reading.

End Notes

The Illuminations is published by Faber.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist, non-fiction author and an editor of Esquire and the London Review of Books. He currently works as a a creative writing fellow at King’s College London.

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

Austen in BaghdadIt began with a question in an email. Bee Rowlatt, BBC World Service journalist in London, wanted insight on how women in Iraq felt about the recent elections and what was happening in their country. Over the course of the next few months, emails zipped between her and May Witwit, lecturer in English at Baghdad university. May proved a lively correspondent; one minute talking vividly about the dangers of living in the cross fire between the  the danger she faced in getting to work each day and the next to 

From this unusual beginning,  a friendship blossomed as each woman became fascinated by the life of the other and wanted to know more about what was happening in their very different worlds.

In Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee and May’s  lives are juxtaposed as they kept up a correspondence, supplemented by an occasional text message and a rare phone call. Bee learned about May’s fears for her husband trapped in their apartment because he was a Sunni Muslim, the strange regulations imposed at her workplace and her attitudes towards Sadam Hussein. In return May’s in box contained epistles featuring the quotidian life of a mother of three in a London suburb, a woman whose frustrations extended to dealing with sick children, organising fund raising events for the local school and what to wear to work.

The nature of the emails change once Bee hits on a plan to get May and her husband Ali out of the dangers of Iraq. Bee continues to talk about her endless cups of tea, about her lectures on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway and about her thesis on the theme of love in Chaucer , but now her emails are also full of the frustrations involved in penetrating multiple levels of bureaucracy to try and get visas.  Set back follows set back, sending May into cycles of despair in which she feels there is no way out.

What does all this have to do with Austen? This title was chosen by the publishers (Penguin) whose decision to publish the book provided May with the money needed to fund her new life in London. I presume they thought the use of Jane Austen’s name would attract attention but it’s misleading since Austen’s name comes up only a few times. Bee asks at one time “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?”, bringing the response from May that it was for her students a form of escape; a “transportation to another world.” that gave them the strength to continue.

What made this book fascinating was to witness the blossoming of the friendship. The formality of the first emails with their salutation Dear Bee quickly evaporated and became simply ‘ Bee’ or, touchingly ‘dear sis’ . It’s to May that Bee turns when she wants to know should she have a fourth child or to vent after an argument with her husband. Neither Bee nor May hold back from sharing their emotions, littering their emails with strings of exclamation marks or shouty subject lines.

The lack of self consciousness in their exchanges makes this a tremendously engaging book. It wanes a little bit in the final quarter where the bureaucratic machinery gets ever more tortuous and I had the feeling some subjects were introduced just to pad out the story (by then, they knew they had a publishing deal on their hands). But I forgive them because they had been such wonderful company on my drive to work for so many days earlier.

Endnotes

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is available in paperback from Penguin Books or in Audio format from Chivers.

If you want to know what happened to May Witwit, take a look at this interview in which she talks about her life as an academic in the UK.

Restocking the book shelves (again)

Penelope Lively My book shelves are already stuffed but who can resist some bargains? Especially one that I consider the bargain of a lifetime: a hardback edition of How it All Began by Penelope Lively signed by the author and on sale at the extraordinary price of 30 pence. Of course I had to buy it; who could possibly turn their nose at the opportunity?

This purchase was from a library sale but I’ve also been picking up a few books from various second hand book shops in Tewkesbury and Cardiff.

photo 2I’ve read only one work by Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and although I was often confused by the plot I loved his lyrical style of writing. I’m hoping Lord Jim is in a similar style. It is included in the Modern Library list of top 100 novels of the twentieth century as is The Secret Agent, both books are on my Classics Club list .

Elizabeth Gaskell is another author on my Classics Club list though not the book shown in this picture. Ruth is one of her social novels, dealing with the theme of Victorian attitudes to ‘fallen women’ and illegitimacy. If its half as good as my favourite Gaskell North and South, I’m in for a treat.

Andre Brink is a South African writer I’ve been intending to read for some years. An Instant in the Wind is his third novel and was shortlisted for the 1976 Booker Prize. Using the guise of an historical novel set in the eighteenth century, Brink shines a light on problems and contradictions of a South Africa based on apartheid. This is going to be a good companion read to Cry My Beloved Country by Alan Paton which I read earlier in the year and deals with similar issues.

And then we come to the chunkiest of my finds; Dominion by C. J Sansom. This is a departure from his Shardlake historical mystery series since it’s a political thriller set in the early 1950s where Britain has become a satellite state of Nazi Germany.

Wrapping up my little haul is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai which won the Booker Prize in 2006. Her victory was greeted with raised eyebrows because Desai had been considered an outsider among the shortlisted authors that year. In India there was an even stronger reaction  with protests in Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas whose residents were annoyed at the way their ancestors were depicted in the novel. The Kalimpong residents thought Desai’s who’s narrative dealt with a 1980s rebellion of the town’s ethnic Nepalese, presented them as little better than thieves and menial fools. Balancing that view however I’ve also seen several reviewers comment that Desai is also mocking Indians who assume English mannerisms and American capitalists. Should be an interesting novel.

Any of you similarly found some bargains this week?

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