Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles #bookreview

gentleman_in_moscowIn Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.

His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.

It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.

The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.

No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”  he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby;  dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.

As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.

Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First,  the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure  for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant.  This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:

Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide  a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.

Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side.  His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of  collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture.  When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.

With the exception of  twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters.  I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his  friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.

Footnotes

About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:

Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.

 

Footnotes

About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.

 

A Death in the Night by Guy Fraser-Sampson #bookreview

death-in-the-night

A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.

The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer. 

There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.

As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series),  A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures  wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.

Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.

Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city,  The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants. 

As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.

Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.

Footnotes

The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”

 

I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

lastpaintingFact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s remarkable novel about choices and consequences and the power of art to stir our deepest emotions.

New York lawyer Marty de Groot is the latest member of his family to take possession of a Dutch landscape painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’, believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke. It hangs above his bed in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife Rachel.

Family legend holds that the painting is “cursed”, responsible for the“300 years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke in his bloodline.” Ever since Pieter de Groot bought it, in 1637, at an auction, none of its owners  has lived past the age of 60.

Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. Every night he studies the painting, admiring the haunting quality of the scene in which a young girl emerges from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.  He knows it intimately. One night in 1957 something doesn’t seem quite right with the painting. The frame looks different. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. Closer examination shows it’s a fake; a meticulously crafted replacement for the original stolen while he and his wife had hosted a charity benefit event six months earlier.

When police fail to find the thief and there’s no sign of the painting on the black market, Marty resorts to a private investigator to find the forger and retrieve his lost masterpiece. And so begins a decades-long obsession.

The culprit is not a professional forger but an impoverished graduate student Ellie Shipley who goes to extraordinary lengths to understand the techniques of the Dutch masters she studies. In her tiny Brooklyn apartment she boils rabbit pelts to make glue and pulls  apart old canvases so she can build them up a layer at a time and so understand the process of creation. When approached by a secretive art dealer, she doesn’t see her copy as a forgery but as a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.

She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old. She’s been known to take a safety pin and test the porosity of the paint and then bring the point to her tongue. Since old-world grounds contain gesso, glue, and something edible—honey, milk, cheese—the Golden Age has a distinctively sweet or curdled taste.

The past catches up with her in 2000 when, as an internationally renowned art historian, and curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia, she anxiously prepares for a show devoted to works by female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two identical paintings are on their way to the gallery:  the original Sara de Vos  “At the Edge of a Wood,” and the forged version painted by Shipley nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably  “feels certain this is the beginning of how it all ends”.

Between these two threads is a narrative set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam which reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.  Sara, widowed, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the Plague, can find no relief in painting the tulips that her clients demand. Only in painting rural landscapes that are surreal allegories of loss can she find the strength to carry on.

The appeal of Smith’s book is the way he weaves three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting exerts a powerful influence on three people across the centuries and across the world. One moment we’re in 1950s New York jazz clubs tracing de Groot’s attempts to track down the forger; the next we’re in mid seventeenth-century Holland as Sara de Vos struggles to regain her position in the all-powerful Guild and finally in Sydney in 2000 as forger and victim come face to face.

The Dutch sections were captivating. Smith spins an aura of melancholy around de Vos and tantalises us at the beginning of the book with a description of her supposed last work.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.

I was ready to believe not only did Sara de Vos exist, but so did her painting. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery.  Although women were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke  (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed. She is a composite created from the ” biographical details of several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” Dominic Smith found while researching through the Guild’s records, as he explained in an article for The Paris Review

Such detailed research gives the novel its feeling of authenticity but Smith is too canny a writer to let his knowledge of seventeenth-century painting techniques or the techniques of forgers, drag down the impetus of the narrative. Just as astutely he navigates between the mystery element and the history, delivering a multi-layered narrative that I found totally engrossing.

Footnotes

About the author: Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in Texas. He has garnered several awards for his fiction.  His debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Book, and received the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Why I read this book: I love books about painting (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is a favourite) but when you bring in Amsterdam, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, it was hard to resist. Even harder when I read some the reviews of other bloggers including Lisa at ANZLitLovers (see review here) and found no-one had a bad word to say about this book.

Postscript: since publishing this post I’ve also discovered that Kim has reviewed the book. Here is her review

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

VertigoI’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead). 

The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.

More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version.  From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable.  Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”

The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?

Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing.  “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,”  he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.

He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.

His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.

Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris.  On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.

He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile.  Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.

Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel.  The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.

Footnotes

D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.

In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.

 

 

2018: the Year of Naked Reading begins

“If you really want to be a good presenter, you need to practice speaking naked.”

Reactions in the room varied. A few people laughed nervously. Others shuffled in their seats. Some people looked at each other with that ‘did I hear that right??’ look. They were not quite saying it out loud but clearly more than one member of my team thought I’d gone crazy. I wanted them to stand in front of a room of people and deliver a presentation while not wearing any clothes????

Not what I meant at all. By speaking naked what I meant was they needed to know how to address a group without the aid of Powerpoint slides. They were a crutch upon which people (and not just my team members) relied on far too often.

What does this all have to do with reading you are by now no doubt pondering.

Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione, c. 1510 CreativeCommons Licence via Wikipedia

By reading naked I do not mean lying about on my chaise longue or languishing in a sheltered bower as if I were in a Rubens painting.

Nope. I mean reading without the aid of reading lists, prompts and challenges.

Let me rewind a little to explain.

A few weeks ago, as is traditional at this time of the year, I began to think about my 2018 reading goals. What did I want to accomplish in the next 12 months?

I had lots of ideas of my own initially.

One goal could be to finish my Classics Club list. Another to read x number of novels by authors in countries other than UK and USA. Or how about reading x number of novels in translation.

There was equally no shortage of ideas coming through on my reader feed. HeavenAli’s #ReadingMuriel2018 readalong of Muriel Spark was enticing.  Simon from Stuckinabook had an even bigger challenge to offer with his Century of Reading project. No doubt about it that the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey would give me a much needed nudge to read all the non-fiction books languishing on my bookshelves. And then later in the year there would be 20BooksofSummer, Reading Ireland Month; Japanese Lit Challenge, German Lit month etc etc etc.

But I kept pontificating. Changing my mind. Deciding on a goal one day and then scrubbing it out the next. I offloaded on my nearest and dearest expecting/hoping for sympathy. Not one jot came my way. Instead I got a challenge: why was it so critical for me to have a goal at all? Hadn’t I left all that behind me when I stopped working? Who would care anyway?

It took a few days for that little seed to germinate. But germinate and grow it did. Maybe I could take a gap year from goals and challenges and targets?. Could 2018 be a year of free wheeling reading; reading whatever I felt like at that particular moment?

The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea. Since I started blogging I’ve had projects and targets and challenges to guide my reading – and very few of them were accomplished successfully. Some people thrive on goals and objectives and do brilliantly at keeping to resolutions. In most areas of my life these work well for me too. But when it comes to reading I’m a dud. Fact is, I’ve realised, that I enjoy making lists of books to read but the minute the list is finalised, I go off the idea of reading the books I’ve chosen. A list makes me feel hemmed in somewhat.

I am therefore declaring 2018 to be the Year of Naked Reading.

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.  Nor 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 and restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books but won’t be setting any targets or imposing numeric constraints.

So here’s to the beginning of a rudderless, free wheeling 2018.

Anyone care to join me??

Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indridason #bookreviews

Reykyavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason; Nordic Noir fiction

Sometimes the brain just craves crime. Not your cosy, locked room in a vicarage kind of crime fiction. But equally not the type that comes oozing with blood  and mangled bodies.  Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavík Nights fitted the bill perfectly being neither too slight nor too complex but offering a darkish mood and some bleak settings as you’d expect from Nordic Noir.

This is the second Indiridason novel I’ve read  from his Inspector Erlendur series which began in English translation in 2000 with Jar City.  Reykjavík Nights is actually a prequel, one of a “Young Erlendur” series that features Erlendur in the days when he was a humble cop on the beat in Reykjavík and is yet to join the hallowed ranks of the detective branch of the Icelandic police force.

Reykjavík Nights sees him just settling into the police force, working the night shift with two law students. His nights are full of robberies, road accidents, drunks and fights but his mind is pre-occupied by the death a year earlier of a homeless alcoholic called Hannibal.  Erlendur knew something of the man’s life having taken pity on him when he found him slumped in public space in the depths of winter.

Now Hannibal was dead. Found drowned near some old peat pits and close to his last known abode inside a heating pipeline. Was it an accident as the police report seemed to suggest? No-one seems particularly to care: he was just a loner and a drunk; one of many on the streets of the city. No-one that is except Erlendur who wants to get at the truth before Hannibal’s death becomes another cold case consigned to the bottom of the pile. He conducts his own investigation, entering the world of people on the fringe of society, the homeless and the lost who congregate in the city’s squares and parks.

As he proceeds he becomes convinced there is a link between Hannibal’s death and the disappearance of a young married woman called Oddny. She’d gone for a night out at a local club but never made it home.  Determination, thoroughness and an ability to sift truth from lies help him solve the case but not before Indridason has taken us down a few blind alleys.

As a prequel, Reykjavík Nights does a good job of introducing aspects of Erlendur’s nature which play out strongly in the later novel I read, Silence of the Grave. The older Erlunder is rather morose, a solitary figure who has difficulty forming relationships but also capable of compassion. In Reykjavík Nights he walks the streets of the city, dropping into graveyards for “peace and solace” ; an observer rather than a participant, but with a gift for getting people to talk to him. Not for him are “relentlessly hearty people” because “such forced jollity could quickly become oppressive”.

Instead he prefers to spends his free time at home listening to jazz or reading. Erlunder has been a collector of books since his teenage years, regularly visiting antiquarian bookshops in search of true stories “about human suffering in shipwrecks, avalanches or on the old roads that crossed the Icelandic wilderness.” He has a girlfriend – (later to become his wife) but it is clear that he is reluctant to commit to a deeper relationship with her until fate intervenes and forces his hand.

 

Mirroring Erlunder’s gloomy mood is the bleakness of the city where he works. For much of the novel, Reykjavík enjoys summer sunshine but as Erlunder reflects, there is another side to the city:

….so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate. Night after night he and his fellow officers patrolled the city in the lumbering police van, witnessing human dramas that were hidden from others. Some the night provoked and seduced; other, it wounded and terrified.

The story line edges on being pedestrian; progressing slowly and methodically without the aid of sudden revelations. But the plot wasn’t really my main interest in this book. I enjoyed it more as a character study of a young, somewhat idealist policeman who has a strong sense of what is right and wrong. For people who have enjoyed the series featuring the mature Erlunder, this is a good chance to take a step back and understand how he came to be the morose, lone 50-something detective with a broken marriage and drug-addicted daughter of the later novels.

Footnotes

The book: After eleven novels featuring the mature Detective Arnaldur, Indiridason began a new series that delve into the detective’s early, formative yearsReykjavík Nights translated into English in 2014 is the second of two novels focused on the young Erlunder (the first is The Great Match which is set even before Erlunder joins the police force). My copy of Reykjavík Nights  was translated  from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

The author:  Arnaldur Indridason worked as a journalist, freelance writer and film critic before publishing his first novel Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins) in 1997, putting him on the path to becoming one of his country’s best known writers.  At one point, his novels were seven of the top ten books at the Reykjavik City Library. His novels have been published in 26 countries. His first book to be published in English was Jar City (aka Tainted Blood).

Why I read this book: it was recommended by Mary Whipple who blogs at marywhipplereviews

Arnaldur Indridason

 

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