V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.
The power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.
He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.
The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.
The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.
The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.
Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.
An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there – and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.
As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.
A sense of displacement
Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”
Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.
The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.
In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.
Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.
In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”
The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”
V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).
Booker Talk is welcoming two additional members of the team this year.
In her first post for Booker Talk, publishing student Cerian Fishlock bemoans the effect doing a literature degree had on her enthusiasm for reading
Growing up, I was the avid reader stereotype. I would arrive at school every day with at least one non-syllabus book in my bag. My tutor encouraged my passion, asking for recommendations, and marvelling at the (ridiculous) number of texts I consumed in the holidays.
I was the real-life Rory Gilmore.
Yet, at some point something changed.
I went to university to study English and History. And to be perfectly honest, I would be slightly ashamed to reveal the number of books that I’ve managed to read in the past 2 years.
Don’t misunderstand, I genuinely loved university. But I’ve only recently realised the damaging effect that it had upon my relationship with the books that I once loved.
I can’t possibly speak for all subjects, but I can say the amount of reading English and History departments require is, frankly, ludicrous. At least one book per week for English (often two, and more for single honours), and probably five or more accompanying chapters. For History it was ten to twenty academic texts a week. These were upwards of 60 pages, and incisive notes were expected – plus your other work. I only had 5-10 weekly contact hours, but I was still in the library daily between 9am-6pm, pouring over the pages and pages spread over all surrounding desks.
As I said, I loved university, so I’m genuinely not trying to complain. But when your time is spent reading for work, it’s difficult to read for pleasure.
You can no longer just be absorbed by a text. Now you subconsciously consider all possible meanings behind every syntactic choice. Books I used to adore I haven’t touched in years. I’m unable to detach them from the indecipherable notes scrawled down whilst my tutor shared his wisdom whilst going a million miles a minute.
There are the books I didn’t like, those I had no say in reading. In my first year I had no influence at all over the English modules taken, and they were often not my taste. I enjoyed them at the time, but that’s a year spent on texts I will never revisit, never look back on in fondness.
Although I hate to admit it, the lack of reading for pleasure whilst studying may have had something to do with the fact that it was around the time I went to university that Netflix really took off. When the options are either struggling through a translation of Middle English or watching the newest season of Orange is the New Black, I think I’ll go for the latter. The thought of reading too much else outside of these hours was just fairly exhausting.
So how am I trying to move on?
Firstly, I’m only reading the books I truly want to. If it’s recommended and sounds like my cup of tea, great. If not, I won’t pretend it’s going on my ‘To Be Read’ list.
Secondly, I’m making a note of all the titles I find interesting, so that when the mood strikes, I’ll be able to take my pick – rather than aimlessly wandering Waterstones, slightly overwhelmed by all the options. (Please don’t say I’m the only one this happens to?)
Finally, I am setting myself personal targets. These are just for me, and will be adjustable to reflect the realities of the rest of my life. Don’t worry I won’t be popping these on GoodReads, I’d probably end up feeling inferior!
I still love books, I’ve never stopped. I think I just had to take a break for a while, to regain my senses. As I’ve said, I really did love university. I just hate that it temporarily ruined my relationship with literature, without me really being aware it was happening.
Now I’ve managed to close the lid on 2018 (see my wrap up post here), its time to turn my attention to 2019.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether to join some of the many challenges that are available. But on balance I decided that last year’s experiment with “Reading Naked” (by which I mean picking my next book randomly) was liberating so I plan to continue using that approach this year.
That doesn’t mean my year will be entirely without structure. But I’ll focus on projects rather than challenges. Challenges usually involve meeting a specific goal – reading a targeted number of books for example, or specified categories of books by a set date. I prefer the more open-ended nature of a project that I create for myself, where I get to decide on the scope and parameters. I want the flexibility to go wherever my mood takes me.
Here’s how the year ahead could pan out.
I’m going for simplicity; largely avoiding specific goals in favour of general directions. Most of these are continuations of existing projects and activities but – just to ring the changes – I’m going to start two new activities.
- Finish the Booker Prize project. This is the only specific goal I’m adopting this year. It should be a piece of cake since I have just two books and then I’m done. Although I have copies of the 2016 and 2018 books I’m not going to count them. If I manage to read them this year, they’ll be considered as bonus.
- Re-connect with the Classics Club project. I’m now 12 books away from the target of 50. But I keep finding new titles to add so this could be a movable feast.
- Travel the world: I stalled last year in my plan to read authors from a broader range of countries. In a year when the UK is supposed to say goodbye to the EU, it feels appropriate to make sure my reading tastes have an international dimension.
- Move through years of my life: I have a feeling that by reading more from my Classics Club list, I will be able to make progress on the Years of My Life project without having to make a special effort.
Booker Talk Team Expands
Booker Talk is approaching its 7th anniversary. I’m marking this milestone by expanding the team. Two new faces will be making an appearance on this site shortly, contributing reviews and articles on reading, authors and books.
Cerian Fishlock is currently studying for an MA in Publishing. She’s an Agatha Christie fan who’s desperate to find a modern author that can match the Queen of Crime . She loves novels with a psychological edge and “if that can be combined with defeating the patriarchy, even better.”
Edward Colley is a retired newspaper editor and graphic designer with an eclectic taste in books. He counts Thomas Hardy among his favourite authors. In between reading fiction he enjoys biographies and travel writing .
Connecting with Welsh authors/publishers
For the past year I’ve been trying to support and promote literature from my home country of Wales, through reviews and the odd feature article on this site. Now I’m going a step further by creating a new series where we get to know some of the authors based in Wales.
I’m calling this new series Cwtch Corner. The idea is to get into a conversation with an author about their favourite authors and books, how and where they get their inspiration and what readers can expect from their own novel/s. This is a spot where authors could pitch their work to potential readers.
Never seen that word Cwtch before? It’s a word used in the Welsh language to describe a physical place – a small cubbyhole for example or a small room in a pub. But it also denotes a form of affection, love and caring. Think of it like a cuddle or a hug. So authors taking part in Cwtch Corner are hopefully going to find the experience a bit like being wrapped in a warm embrace.
I’m reaching out to authors to participate at the moment but if you know someone you think might be interested just ask them to contact me via Twitter using @bookertalk. Please note however that I am not intending to feature self-published authors.
All you super organised people can now look smug at the fact that we’re two weeks into 2019 and only now am I doing a wrap up of last year. While you of course had this all nailed well in advance of midnight on December 31. You’re probably the same people who have booked their summer holiday twelve months in advance. And are never late with their tax returns.
But just remember……
I can’t procrastinate for much longer however so here’s the low down on my 2018….
If you’ve followed my blog since January you’ll know that I declared 2018 to be a “Year of Reading Naked” – a “rudderless, free wheeling” year .
I said back in January 2018:
I will keep the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for a few years now like the Booker Prize Project (there is no way I am abandoning that right at the last moment) or my World Literature project.
I’m also going to start a new one – the Year of my Life reading project initiated by Cafe Society.
But I won’t use those projects to drive my reading. When I am ready for the next book I’ll just look around the book shelves and pick out what takes my fancy. With some 220 plus books I own but haven’t read, I will have plenty of choice. I’m going to try to restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books but won’t be setting any targets or imposing numeric constraints.
Did the plan work????
To some extent yes…
I enjoy the camaraderie that you get from participating in challenges and reading events. But I also know from past experience that if they require me to read from a list or to fit my reading into pre-defined categories, then I lose interest quickly.
Hence my decision not to join any challenges last year.
I stuck to that resolution almost the whole year but did succumb to Non Fiction November. In my defence this didn’t require any list making or reading; just writing a few posts.
I also cut way down on the number of Net Galley requests and rejected most of the direct offers of review copies.
All of which meant that, apart from the commitment to read for a book club every month, I had complete freedom over what I read. It was so refreshing to be able to browse around the local library and choose whatever took my fancy. Equally refreshing to go to my own bookshelves and select whatever caught my eye.
Somehow I managed to read 12 books that qualify for my Years of my Life reading project . (the link takes you to the list of books I’ve read). When I started that I thought I would read two books for each year (one fiction, one non fiction) but on reflection I think that’s too ambitious so I’m going for just one from each year. I also anticipated reading each year in order but then reconsidered on the basis it felt too much like ‘reading from a list’ which is something I’ve learned I don’t enjoy. So I’m free wheeling.
On the other hand …
I didn’t make much progress at all with the backlog of books I already owned (far too many temptations at the library).
Despite stating that: “I’m going to try and restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books….” , what happened was that after a period of restraint at the beginning of the year, things went completely awry at the end of the year.
Hence the list of books I own but have not read, has risen still further. I acquired 71 new books in 2018, most of them in the last five months of the year. Some pruning of the shelves between Christmas and the New Year helped bring the total down but as we start 2019 I still have 289 books awaiting my attention.
Nor did I do very well with my intention to read more books in translation and from authors in different parts of the world even though I took a subscription to the Asymptote book club for that very reason. Of the 12 books I received I managed to read only one – The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge. I did tick off one new country (Cuba) from my world of literature project by reading The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. By the end of the year I got my total to 37 countries against my target of 50.
Favourite reads of 2018…
I saved the best until the end. My final book of the year was simply outstanding. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is enigmatic, intense, hypnotic. How this never even made it to the longlist for the 2018 Booker Prize is beyond my comprehension.
Other highly commended books:
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: the memoir of a neurosurgeon gives a graphic account of the mysterious world of the brain. In between he vents his frustrations of working within the NHS.
Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley. My first experience of this author. A strange but seductive story. I enjoyed her writing so much I went on to read another by Jolley – Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (review to follow soonish) which was equally superb.
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon. For once a much hyped book that deserved the accolades.
Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller . Not as powerful as his earlier novel Pure, but still a very polished work of historical fiction
The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola. Less dark than some of his other novels but still shows Zola’s ability to capture the essence of parts of French society. In this case his attention is on the rise of the department store as a new form of commercial activity.
The Duds of 2018
There have to be some don’t there?
The worst books were obviously the four I couldn’t finish: G by John Berger; Ritual 1969 by Jo Mazelis, When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen and The Librarian by Salley Vickers.
But that was then…
We’re in a new year so it’s time to set new goals. Watch this space …..
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation – hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best – where each month, a book is selected as the start of a chain. The idea is to link it with six other books.
This month we begin with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles which was published in 1969. I remember enjoying it though the details are a bit hazy. The film version with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons left a lasting impression, primarily because Streep got to wear this fantastic hooded cape that I yearned to own.
The novel relates the intense relationship between a former governess and an amateur naturalist. Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, is also referred to as “Tragedy” and as “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by an officer from a French ship. Much of the novel sees her standing on The Cobb, a stone jetty, staring out to sea.
The Cobb plays a key role in a novel from a much earlier period, Persuasion, the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen. It was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. On a visit to Lyme Regis, one girl’s impetuous behaviour leads to a serious fall and concussion. It causes a change of attitude by a naval captain towards her sister Anne, the girl who he once wanted to marry but who rejected him.
All comes right in the end which is more than can be said for the unfortunate couple in my next book who play out their relationship just a little further along the same coastline. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007.
It’s an achingly sad novella about the young couple Edward and Florence, who arrive to spend their honeymoon at a hotel near the beach. Though this novel is set in the Sixties, they are both sexual innocents, very nervous about their first night together. The gulf that develops between them that night affects the rest of their lives.
Florence is a talented violinist, who dreams that one day, the quartet she has formed, will be esteemed talented enough to play at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London.
The violinist in my next novel is already a success yet he is haunted by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth sees the two lovers find each other once again but one of them has a secret that could mark the end of any hopes of a permanent reconciliation. Not surprisingly, this is a novel that is suffused with feelings of sadness and loss.
An Equal Music is about the desire to return to the past, to rekindle a former relationship. My next choice is also about the desire to return to the past but this time the desire to find the former lover represents a form of escape.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West recounts the return of Captain Chris Baldry, to his large country estate near London, from the trenches of the First World War. Suffering from shell shock, he doesn’t remember the death of his infant son, doesn’t recognise his wife nor his cousin, doesn’t even know that he is married. All he remembers is Margaret, with whom he had a summer romance 15 years earlier. All three women have to decide whether they should try to “cure” him and return him to the here and now.
My final book in this chain has not one but two connections to The Return of the Soldier (this instance of over-achievement is unlikely to be repeated so enjoy it while you can). Both were debut novels written by young women. Both disappeared from public view for decades but are now considered as modern classics.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (a pseudonym for her actual name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was written in 1901 when she was 20 years old. It was intended as a tale set in the Australian outback, to amuse her friends but its popularity and criticism that it was more an autobiography than a novel , caused the author to withdraw the book from sale until after her death. Since 1966 it has never been out of print. The author left a permanent mark on the Australian literary scene with her endowment of the Miles Franklin prize.
And there we must bring this chain to an end. We’ve been to Dorset and the South East England and finally to Australia. Hope you enjoyed the journey. I’ve read all of the first six books mentioned and am currently reading My Brilliant Career.
According to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog it’s time once more to play A Year in First Lines.
The idea is to:
Take the first line of each month’s post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.
Let’s recap on the year…
Jan 2018: Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indridason
Sometimes the brain just craves crime.
Feb 2018: Snapshot February 2018
Throughout 2017 I was making a note on the first day of the month of what I was reading and the level of what I call my personal library (otherwise known as the TBR mountain)
March 2018: Books to mark Wales’ special day
March 1 is St David’s Day in Wales —St David being our patron saint — so usually a day for celebration of all things Welsh.
April 2018: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
One of the most memorable episodes in Alan Bennett’s series of dramatic monologues Talking Heads features an elderly lady who has taken a tumble in her home while doing a little illicit dusting.
May 2018: WWWednesday 2 May 2018
Currently reading: The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda. This is a book I picked up on my holiday late last year in South Africa when I asked a bookshop owner for recommendations of South African authors.
June 2018: An alternative Golden Booker Prize
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize.
July 2018: New additions to the shelves
After months of admirable self restraint, the flood gates opened in the last few months and all my attempts to whittle down my stack of owned-but-unread books have been thwarted.
August 2018: Classics club spin falls on Mitford
The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in.
September 2018: Six Degrees from film memoir to crime
It’s time for #6degrees which this month begins with a memoir: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson.
October 2018: Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
It takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending.
November 2018: Non-Fiction November: favourite reads
I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month.
December 2018: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny
How long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?
What does this tell me about my blogging year?
- I tend to write in short sentences
- Like practically every other blogger I’ve come across, I buy far more books than I can possibly read
- Even though I stopped doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, I still seem to spend a fair amount of time on other memes like Six Degrees of Separation and WWW Wednesday
- I managed to read a few books in translation (though not as many as in previous years)
- I have an interest in literature from my home country of Wales.
- I read crime fiction. I’m actually surprised by how much of this I did read this year genre given it’s not a favourite genre
- I am trying to read more ‘classics’. When I saw the August 2018 first line I remembered that, though I read the spin book, I never managed to write the review.
- I keep an eye on the Booker Prize
- I don’t write reviews very frequently (only 3 of these 12 months are a review post)
What does this mean for 2019?
I’m still mulling over my 2019 plans but this exercise has made me realise that I need to adjust the balance of reviews to other content like memes. I think I’ve been doing more of the latter because I’m slow at writing reviews, spending far too long trying to come up with the ‘perfect’ intro whereas memes etc don’t usually require as deep a thinking process. Consequently I am well behind with my reviews….. I feel a New Year’s Resolution in the wind….
You may have seen this meme doing the rounds recently. It originated as a tag on a book vlog apparently ( I don’t watch these so rely on other people highlighting interesting content).
- The last book I gave up on
Earlier this week I decided to part company with The Librarian by Salley Vickers. It’s the choice for the book club meet up in January. I wasn’t that excited by the selection because I wasn’t very enamoured by her earlier book The Cleaner of Chatres. But I hoped the fact that this plot involves books might prove more interesting. For anyone who doesn’t know this book, it concerns a woman who begins a new job as a children’s librarian and embarks on a mission to get more children enthused about reading. Right from the first few pages I knew I was going to have a problem with this novel. The writing style just jarred on me. In part it read like a synopsis of a story, with lots of telling, and very little showing. It also was very laboured and overly detailed. I lasted to about 60 pages and then decided it was a waste of time to go further when I had many other, greatly superior books awaiting me.
2. The last book I re-read
I’ve done very little re-reading in the past year. The last book I re-read was Peter Pan by J M Barrie – and that was only because it was a set book on a children’s literature course I was pursuing.
3. The last book I bought
The end of 2018 was signalled by a flurry of book purchases. Some were gifts for various family members but I also took the opportunity to acquire a few new items for myself. They included Winter by Ali Smith which is second novel in her Seasonal Quartet collection. I had planned to hold off reading this collection until all four had been published, but this was on offer at the bookshop and seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
4. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t
I’ve never said I’ve read a book when I haven’t. I usually have the reverse problem – always involving a crime novel – where I discover just after starting a new book that I had already read it even if I can’t recall the details of the plot.
5. The last book I wrote in the margins of
I do this only for books I’m studying for a course or where I am trying to get more knowledgeable about a particular topic in order to share the knowledge with other people. interest, as well as ordinary bookmarks.
6. The last book I had signed
This would be Katherine of Arragon by Alison Weir, the first in her Tudor Queens series. I took my copy along when she was in Penarth to talk about the second in the series —about Anne Boleyn. She kindly signed both books for me.
7. The last book I lost
My copy of Voss by Patrick White has disappeared without trace. If anyone finds it please let me know. It’s a rather sad looking paperback edition which I purchased via e-bay.
8. The last book I had to replace
I’ve been trying to think of circumstances in which this would happen and I’ve drawn a blank. I don’t tend to borrow books from other people , I always return books borrowed from the library and I’m not in the habit of losing my own books over a cliff edge or in the bath. If the case arose that the book club chose a book I no longer owned, I’d either get a library copy or go to the meeting relying on my memory.
9. The last book I argued over
I’ve had a few ‘spats’ over the years and a few ‘differences of opinion’ but arguments – never as far as I can recall. The last ‘difference of opinion’ was two days ago when my mum, who was spending Christmas with us, was engrossed in Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat. We often chat about the books we’re reading even if we have very different tastes. My mum thought The Greatcoat was superb, whereas I was underwhelmed by it and found the plot implausible beyond belief. We are still on speaking terms though….
10. The last book you couldn’t find
I know without any doubt that I have How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman on my shelves. I started reading it at the beginning of the year so I know it’s in the house somewhere. I can even remember that it’s a bright red cover with just the book title in block letters but no other artwork. Can I remember where I put it though? I can blame no-one other than myself. I have a semi alphabetical system but when I run out of space, books get shoved in anywhere……..