Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

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Ghost stories at Christmas became a tradition in The Victorian era. Dickens’ most famous ghost story is, of course, A Christmas Carol which I re read last Christmas and can thoroughly recommend. This year, however, my eye was drawn to The Haunted House on a visit to our local Waterstones.

First published in 1859, the billing on the front cover is a little misleading.

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A Christmas Carol had met with enormous success when first published in 1846.A Christmas book from Dickens had become a national institution.. By the time The Haunted House appeared in his periodical, All The Year Round, Dickens was overwhelmed with work and therefore approached some of his writer friends for contributions. The Haunted House is therefore a ‘Jacob’s Join’ of a book with stories from Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell as well as others less well known today.

The premise of the book is that a gentleman looking for a home in the country is drawn to a house standing alone on the edge of a village.

It was easy to see that it was an avoided house – a house that was shunned by the village , to which my eye was guided by a church spire some half a mile off- a house that nobody would take. And the natural inference was , that it had the reputation of being a haunted house.

The narrator determines to take it anyway. He is of a sceptical mindset and wants to conduct an experiment .He and a group of friends will rent the house and live there alone, even without servants (!) , until Twelfth Night. They will then gather together to recount what they have seen in order to compare notes on the supernatural.

It is fair to say that the standard of the various contributions is variable. Unsurprisingly Dickens’ genius shines through. On making enquiries in the village pub, the landlord calls his stable boy , Ikey, to tell the gentleman what he knows:

This gentleman wants to know,” said the landlord,”if anything’s seen at The Poplars.”

“‘Ooded woman with a howl,” said Ikey, in a state of great freshness.

“Do you mean a cry?”

“I mean a bird ,sir.”

Dickens’ story The Ghost Of Master B’s Room ends on a very poignant note. If you know anything of Dickens’ childhood and personal life,it is impossible not to feel sad :

No other ghost has haunted this boy’s room, my friends, since I have occupied it , than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence , the ghost of my own airy belief. Many a time have I pursued the phantom : never with this man’s stride of mine to come up with it, never with these man’s hands of mine to touch it, never more in this man’s heart of mine to hold it in its purity.

I had looked forward to Wilkie Collins’ story as I am a great admirer of The Woman In White and The Moonstone but I found it a little disappointing. Elizabeth Gaskell’s is stronger. Somehow it reminded me of Thomas Hardy, perhaps the rustic setting. One of the ‘stories’ is written entirely in  rather overblown Victorian verse and I must confess I skipped that one!

The collection ends with a very short piece by Dickens The Ghost In The Garden Room, the final sentences of which do resonate today :

Finally, I derived this Christmas greeting from the Haunted House, which I affectionately address with all my heart to all my readers :- Let us use the great virtue, Faith, but not abuse it………

This is an interesting piece of Victoriana which does serve to show how central Dickens was to the literary scene of his day.

With that, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and in the words of one of Dickens most famous creations :

God bless us, every one!

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An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.

Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.

Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in  the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.

 

Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.

In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.

Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.

Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.

Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.

The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :

At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.

“No, not me -” he shouted.

He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!

My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

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As we move into December, the title of this novel seems particularly apt.

Screen-writer Amanda Coe examines the fall out in an already fractured family after the death of the mother, Sara. Nigel and Louise, her children, are both grown up now with their own difficult families but 35 years earlier, Sara abandoned her children to live with Patrick, now an old man but at that time a fashionable playwright and darling of the Left.

In the aftermath of their mothers death , Nigel and Louise descend on the ramshackle cottage in Cornwall which Sara had shared with Patrick to pick over her possessions and also the reasons their mother left them all those years ago. Getting Colder is in fact the name of a hide-and-seek type game they used to play with their mother when they were children.

Both Nigel and Louise have been left damaged by their mother’s betrayal. Nigel’s years at boarding school have left him with an anxiety related digestive problem. Louise, dumped with a godmother as her carer, has constant feelings of unworthiness. Her neediness is spilling over into her relationship with her own two children. Patrick is an intensely unlikeable ,self-obsessed and self pitying bully and it is hard to see what Sara had ever seen in him.

“I’ll never forgiver her, you know. Leaving me like this.”

He meant Mum. Well, rampaging end-stage cancer was hardly running off with the milkman. Nigel pushed the sugar bowl his way appeasingly.

“Ashes,”said Patrick. “O God.” And to Nigel’s dismay, he wept. Nigel hated this, always had,the way Patrick detonated instantly into high emotion, winding you in the backdraft.

Into this heady mix comes Mia, an attractive young student apparently researching Patrick’s almost forgotten writing  but someone who has an agenda of her own.

“My cock doesn’t work,” he had told her, a few days into the blouse-button routine. ” Shut up shop years ago”

It had made everything more possible. Even at its most enjoyable, sex always made Mia feel she was missing the point of something other deployed to enhance their status by claiming to find it transformational – much like those who trumpeted their love of the theatre.Well, she was different, as usual. Her pleasure was mild enough when she fancied someone, like Jonathon; it would have been downright impossible with Patrick.

Each chapter of the novel is seen through the eyes of Nigel, Louise or Mia. Each episode is prefaced with an extract from notes, letters and cards written by Patrick and Sara over the years and through which the trajectory of their love affair and its consequences can be traced,

Given the subject matter this could be an extremely depressing read however Coe’s witty style saves the book from becoming gloomy. Here, a young Louise , who has recently been shown a sex education film in school, tries to work out why her mother has left her father for Patrick :

But Louise knew, unlike her friends that any or all of the improbable facts imparted about adult sexual behaviour had to be true. The weirdness must take place, because why else would Mum leave Dad, and them? Since nothing made sense, you had to believe in a compulsion you couldn’t understand. It was all because Mum wanted Patrick’s penis in her vagina. Dad’s penis wasn’t good enough for some reason.

The clue to the result of Nigel and Louise’s search is found in the quote from Ted Hughes which appears on the frontispiece  :

‘What happens in the heart simply happens’

A very enjoyable read and thank you to Ursula Doyle and Virago for the advance copy.

 

 

 

Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann trans Carol Brown Janeway

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Sebastian Zollner : is there a more unappealing narrator in the whole of literature? If there is, I haven’t been able to think who it is.

We first meet Kehlmann’s narrator and protagonist on a train journey and even though we don’t discover his name until p19 , his character becomes apparent pretty quickly. He is vain, rude, self-regarding and unkind ….  and this is a non exhaustive list. We also get a hint that he is physically unattractive as well following is aggressive confrontation with the train conductor.

But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor , he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway.He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out,he might just bust me in the chops.He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned and went away cursing.

I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that?

Zollner has been commissioned to write a biography of a once famous painter, Manuel Kaminski, or has he ? Nothing is quite what it seems in this supremely comic novel.

Kaminski was a protegé of Matisse, well sort of. After leaving Matisse, Kaminski returned to Paris and held a large exhibition of his work, that flopped. Kaminski was then struck blind and overnight his paintings became collectable and their value skyrocketed before he fell  back into obscurity.

Kehlmann has much fun with the pretensions of the worlds of art collection and criticism.

“Then Chromatic Light, the Walker, the street scenes. At first sight, fabulous. But not exactly subtle, thematically speaking.And let’s be honest if people didn’t know about him going blind…..” He shrugged.” You’ve seen the pictures themselves?”

I hesitated. I had thought about flying to New York, but it was quite expensive and beside – what were art books for? “Of course.”

Zollner foists himself on Kaminski ,now living a reclusive life in the care of his daughter. Oblivious to any hostility , Zollner then proceeds to sneak around Kaminski’s residence, studio and life before letting slip that Therese, the love of Kaminski’s life, is not dead as he believed her to be. Together Zollner and Kaminski embark on a fugitive road trip to allow Manuel to see her one last time before he dies.

Sebastian’s lack of self-knowledge is the mirror through which the world is reflected in the novel. What is the true value of art or love, what is the significance of memory are just some of the questions Kehlmann plays with here.

The words German and comic novel are, perhaps, not often juxtaposed but this is a very funny book cleverly constructed  and Zollner is an inspired creation.

This is my second and final review for German Lit Month. As usual, I had planned to read and blog more but real life got in the way. I have managed to track down a second hand copy of the Short Stories of Heinrich Böll, whose work I loved when I was studying German, and a read of Büddenbrooks is long overdue for me but hess are projects that will have to wait until 2015. I am definitely going to read some more Kehlmann as well.

 

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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Crooked Heart tells the tale of Noel Bostock, twice abandoned and then evacuated in the mass exodus from London of September 1939, he finds himself billeted with Vera Sedge and her hapless son , Donald, in St Albans.

This book came as an unexpected pleasure to me. I had wondered what I might make of it. Instead it is a refreshingly light-hearted and warm hearted tale , very similar in atmosphere to The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day- Lewis.

Evans gives us a picture of wartime London not often acknowledged.One in which some men are actively trying to avoid being called up and are willing to pay to do so ; one in which bombed-out houses are ransacked for hidden valuables and air-raid wardens collude with the thieves.

It is hard to believe today how little attention was paid to the welfare of the child evacuees wrenched away from home and sent to live with strangers. No background checks were done on the hosts who were selected by the authorities on the grounds of perceived available bed space. Children were stood in a church or school hall to be chosen by the  hosts. Just like my father at that time, Noel finds himself unchosen at the end of the session and so is marched round to a local household and foisted on Vera. Luckily she is a much more benign guardian than the woman my poor Dad ended up with and together Noel and Vee embark on a series of adventures around the N London suburbs.

Evans captures entirely the bewilderment of a child like Noel. Already orphaned, he is removed from the care of his godmother , Mattie, as she descends into dementia only to be parachuted into a life with strangers. Although narrated, the story is seen through Noel’s eyes and therefore will probably appeal to the ‘ young adult’ market as well.

Noel stood by the side of the lane, next to Ada, and watched the billeting officer talk to the scrawny women in the headscarf. He was so tired that his eyes kept closing and then jerking open again, so that the scene jerked forward like a damaged film.

‘…..and you get ten and sixpence a week,’ he heard the billeting officer say.’ More if he’s a bed-wetter.’

She looks nice,’ said Ada hopefully. She had said this about every housewife they’d seen that day, and they’d probably seen a hundred. After a morning in the Mason’s Hall, during which the smaller and prettier children had been picked off, a crocodile of the plain and badly dressed had been marched from door to door in a widening spiral, gradually leaving the centre of the town behind.

India Knight has called Crooked Heart the best book she has read in 2014. I found it a welcome change to the usually downbeat atmosphere of modern fiction. I defy you not to have a tear in your eye by the end of it.

Crooked Heart is published by Doubleday. My thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

 

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge

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9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and so it seemed fitting to review a book dealing with East Germany for German Lit Month.

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell) is described in the blurb on the jacket as :’The intertwining of love, life and politics under the GDR regime’ and had been sitting on my TBR for some time.

The book spans the years 1953 to 2001and follows the fortunes of the Umnitzer/Powileit clan.In many respects it resembles Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in that it follows a family during a period of social and political upheaval and is built around the birthday celebrations of the patriarch Wilhelm. On 1st October 1989 Wilhelm is celebrating his 90th birthday. A large party has been arranged at which Wilhelm must not find out that his grandson has just fled to the West.

The family consists of Wilhelm Powileiter who is the second husband of Charlotte ; Charlotte’s son by her first marriage, Kurt, and his Russian wife, Irina, whose mother Nadyeshda Ivanova, has come to live with them. Finally we have Alexander (Sasha) and Markus, Kurt’s son and grandson.

Ostensibly Wilhelm is a successful man by GDR standards. A Party stalwart from the times of the Weimar Republic, he has served the Party in Russia and Mexico before returning to the ‘ new’ Germany in 1953. As the story unfolds, however, we discover that all is not as it seems.

The narrative doesn’t follow a conventional timeline. We hop backwards and forwards in time and switch from character to character, each giving their own point of view. This meant it took a while for me to be able to follow events. There is, helpfully, a list of characters at the start of the book and the style does have the effect of giving a panoramic view of life in the GDR and the aftermath of its break-up.

Wilhelm’s marriage to Charlotte is a sham, as is the myth of his service to the Party and state. Kurt’s own marriage to Irina is strained and built on half truths and things unspoken.Alexander has a difficult relationship with his parents and his own son, Markus.Markus, a young teenager in November 1989, finds life difficult in post-Wall Germany. Charlotte longs for her life in Mexico and is haunted by the fate of her brother under the Nazis and her other son, Werner, killed in Russia.

The secrets which bind the family together mirror the lies of the East German state, where history is constantly being twisted to suit the ruling party’s ends. Kurt reflects on the political speech given in Wilhelm’s honour :

Nothing in the address really corresponded to the facts, thought Kurt, still clapping; Wilhelm had not been a ‘founding member”of the Party (he was originally a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, and didn’t join the Communist Party of Germany until the two united), nor was it true that he had been wounded during the Kapp Putsch ( he had indeed been wounded but not in 1920 during the putsch, in 1921 during the so-called March action, a catastrophic failure, but of course that didn’t suit the biography of a class warrior so well). Worse than these little half-truths, however, was the large amount left out, worse was the egregious  silence about what Wilhelm was doing in the twenties. At the time – as Kurt remembered very well- Wilhelm had been a staunch champion of the United Front policy prescribed by the Soviet Union, which denigrated the Social Democrat leaders as “social fascists” and even presented them – by comparison to the Nazis- as the greater of two evils.

All this sounds very turgid and depressing however there are some great comic moments , not least the ‘ climax of Wilhelm’s birthday path. Irina’s mother , who has never managed to master German provides much humour too as she observes a people whose ways she cannot understand ;

Yes, of course she’d wanted to learn German when she came to Germany, she , she used to sit down and bone up on the German letters every day, but then, when she knew all the letters by heart, when she knew the entire German alphabet, she made an astounding discovery : she still didn’t know German. So then she gave up, it was pointless, such a difficult, mysterious language, the words scratched your throat like dry bread, Koontentak you said on meeting someone, good day, and Affeederseyn, until we meet again, on parting, or the other way round , AffeederseynKootentak, such a lot of trouble to take over just saying hello and goodbye. 

The novel is only 308pp long but covers a lot of ground. The book ends as it starts, with Alexander. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn but he does, at last, appear to have reached a sort of peace.

In Times Of Fading Light is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.