Book Corner – February 2019 (2)

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

In the rock world they call it third album syndrome. You have burst on to the scene with a promising debut, followed up with a classic and then find that the long-awaited third album is difficult to put together and is a bit of a clunker. Do writers experience the creative difficulties?

One of my favourite books in recent times was Perry’s scintillating The Essex Serpent, her second novel, and so it was with a mixture of excitement and some trepidation that I picked up her third and latest novel, Melmoth. If you have to categorise it, it is in the Gothic tradition and draws its themes and structure from Melmoth the Wanderer, a bizarre Gothic novel written by Charles Maturin in 1820.

Melmoth purportedly was there at Christ’s tomb, saw him by its side but later denied that she had witnessed his resurrection. For this she was doomed to wander around the world until the Second Coming. Desperate for company, she would visit those who had delved the depths of depravity and misery and hold out her hand to entreat them to join her on her long march.

The central character in Perry’s novel is an English woman, Helen Franklin, who is working in Prague as a translator. She has a mundane life and is hardly a bundle of fun. Perry describes her early on in the book as “small, insignificant, having an air sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred…” The astute reader will quickly deduce that there is more to this mouse of a woman than first meets the eye.

Helen is introduced to the myth of Melmoth by one of her few Czech friends, Karel. He has been bequeathed some papers by an old man, Joseph Hoffman, whom he had befriended in the university library. These recount how he saw Melmoth, after he had betrayed a family Jews to death at a concentration camp. It was through his encounter with Melmoth that Hoffman could begin to come to terms with what he had done.

Karel, in his obsession to find out more about Melmoth, has assembled a collection of papers recounting other encounters. Helen eagerly devours the contents and extracts from each of the reports form a large chunk of Perry’s narrative. We meet a woman condemned to burn at the stake for heresy and a Turkish civil servant who was complicit in the massacre of Armenians.

Helen feels she is being watched whilst in Prague. Naturally, it is Melmoth, albeit in a different guise, and, naturally, given Melmoth’s association with those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, Helen has her own dark secret, which is gradually revealed as the story rumbles on.

It is not an unremittingly dark book. Karel is able to break free from the hold that Melmoth had over him, albeit by fleeing the Czech Republic, abandoning his disabled wife and joining up with some protestors. And I think that that is Perry’s central message; we should not abandon ourselves to guilt but to recognise what we have done, take stock and change. Hope, after all, was what was left in Pandora’s box. Helen, at the end of the book, says “I do have hope, I feel it in here like a pain.

The writing is astonishingly vivid, with Perry moving in and out of the style of period documents to the modern day with consummate ease. The imagery she deploys stays in the mind – the jackdaws dashing themselves against the windows, an empty chair in a field for Melmoth’s use just in case she passed by.

In summary, it is not as accessible as The Serpent’s Tail but it was worth the effort. Perry has successfully avoided the third album syndrome

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Book Corner – February 2019 (1)

My Antonia – Willa Cather

Confession time. This is a book I would probably would never have picked up, let alone read, if it hadn’t been in one of those American-centric collections of books that you should read before you die. At a loss at what to read, it was short enough to invest some time on in the spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained. Perhaps I am developing a pioneering spirit in my reading tastes.

Published in 1918, My Antonia is the third (and presumably last) book in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy. Fed on a diet of 1960s Westerns I gained the impression that the pioneering spirit was embodied by the likes of John Wayne, gun slingers who tamed the wilderness (and dispossessed the native inhabitants) through a combination of bravery, know-how and true grit. Females in such films were relegated to the roles of love interest, the cause of feuds and dutifully tending to the diurnal needs of their male betters.

Cather’s novel, surprisingly for its time, views the struggles of the pioneers to stamp their mark on the prairies from a different perspective, that of the women folk. Their life was no bed of roses and they had to be just as tough-minded and independent, more so as Cather shows, than the men, having to battle with the chauvinism and the prejudice against Middle and Eastern European migrants that was endemic at the time.

The Antonia in the title is a migrant from Bohemia, Antonia Shimerda, who has arrived in the Nebraskan prairies to live with her grandparents after the death of her parents. Her tale is one of hardship, deprivation, merciless toil and struggle. She is no angel and makes terrible mistakes. But through this misery an astonishingly vivacious young woman emerges, determined to make the best of the pitifully poor hand that she has been dealt. Antonia is optimistic, strong, independent, a mixture of simplicity and complexity. She represents, in Cather’s mind, the purity, grace and elegance of the iconic female pioneer.

Antonia’s tale is told through the eyes and words of Jim Burden, who was smitten by her as a child and whose love for her never dies, even though their lives take radically different paths. Antonia’s tale is one of struggle and the will to survive whilst Jim represents many a typical teenager who yearns to escape the confines of their youth to discover and embrace what the wider world has to offer. Their reunion after many years apart is touching, a love that can never be realised.

Cather’s book is easy to read; she writes with a passion, captivated by the beauty and savagery of the landscape and the changes that the different seasons bring to the lives of her characters and to the complexion of the prairies. She is in awe with her characters whom she brings to life with a wonderfully light touch, with their courage, kindness, generosity and bravery in leaving their previous lives to try to make it in America. There is a wistfulness in the passages in which the characters remember their homes in Bohemia and do their best to preserve some of their old customs.

Structurally, Antonia’s tale is told by Jim Burden whose own account is narrated by a friend. This could have meant that we are somewhat detached from the protagonists but Cather manages this rather cumbersome arrangement with some aplomb.

If you want to understand, the American dream and what made, at least in some people’s eyes, what made America what it was, this is a good place to start.

Book Corner – January 2019 (5)

Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley

To my (fairly) certain knowledge I had only read one of Huxley’s works, Brave New World (natch), so I was intrigued to find Crome Yellow in one of those collections of great works of literature you must read before you peg it.

Published in 1921, it was Huxley’s first novel and established his reputation on the literary scene. Critics may say it is much ado about nothing, there is very little in the way of plot or action, and it follows a well-established literary trope of incarcerating half a dozen disparate souls in a country house, the eponymous Crome Yellow, for a long weekend chez Wimbush.

Our guide through the weekend is Denis Stone, a poet, who spends his time pursuing his unrequited love for his host’s niece, Anne, pontificating on matters philosophical and composing, buffing and polishing lines of verse. The book ends when he returns to London, thwarted in his amatory pursuits.

One of the highlights of the book is the beauty of its language. There are many elegantly fashioned phrases to be found on every page, as the author mirrors Denis’ desire to find the mot juste for every occasion. It is a joy to read and anyone thinking about writing seriously would do well to just immerse themselves in the wonder and glory of Huxley’s craftmanship, perhaps heightened by the dearth of content.

Of course, the aspiring logophile that is Denis Stone can get things disastrously wrong. One of the funniest passages in the book is when it eventually dawns upon him that the word carminative, which he chose to describe the sensations caused by love, means something altogether different from the warm sensation of liquid cinnamon trickling down your throat gives. As well as being funny, it is a wonderful illustration of the poignancy of a young person coming to terms with their linguistic inadequacies.

I particularly liked the pessimistic philosopher, Mr Scogan. His rather dystopian vision of the future provides a hint of some of the themes that Huxley explored to good effect ten years later in Brave New World. Scogan also has a set piece in which he expounds upon the futility of taking a holiday to get away from it all, given that we are imprisoned by our selves and social mores. He contends that “metaphorically, we never get farther than Southend”, an image he picks up again when he comments on Gombould’s comment, the rather louche painter, on the First World War being rather like a holiday; “Yes, the war was something like a holiday. It was a step beyond Southend; it was Weston-super-Mare; it was almost Ilfracombe.

Perhaps the funniest passage is Henry Wimbush’s narrative of the life and times of an earlier owner of Crome, the diminutive and ill-named Sir Hercules Lapith. The tale has Swiftian overtones, the lord of the manor constructing a home and recruiting a retinue of retainers in sync with his small stature. He even married a tiny wife and amused himself by hunting rabbits with a “pack of thirty black and fawn-coloured pugs.” Alas, his son, Ferdinando was of normal stature and Sir Hercules’ oasis of dwarfism was ruined when his uncouth son returned to impose his Brobdingnagian values.

I enjoyed the book, although many of the side plots such as the relationship between Anne and Gombauld and whether Mary realises her suxual yearnings remain unresolved. An underdeveloped character, the hard of hearing Jenny, scribbles away in a red book which Denis sneaks a look at, discovers how others perceive him and draws the wrong conclusion.

I’m not sure I would class it as a masterpiece, being very much of its time, but it is an interesting insight into the development of a notable 20th century writer.

Book Corner – January 2019 (4)

Armadale – Wilkie Collins

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted.

At over eight hundred pages long it is a bit of a doorstep and there are points in the book where it gets a bit turgid but it is well worth persevering with. It is Collins’ longest work, serialised in the Cornhill magazine between November 1864 and June 1866 before being published as a two-volume novel in 1866. It is considered to be up there with the finest of Collins’ novels and I think rightly so.

The plot is incredibly complicated and as I try to restrict my reviews to around 600 words I will not even attempt to summarise it. Suffice it to say, the action is kicked off by a foul murder and the deathbed confession of the murderer and his fears as to what would happen if his son and the murdered man’s son, both called Allan Armadale to add further confusion, ever met. Of course, they did and the rest of the novel plays out what happened.

What comes through loud and clear in this novel is Wilkie Collins’ interest in human psychology. Much of the drama and, certainly, the plotting involves a dream which foretells dread consequences. Ozias Midwinter, the improbable alias of the son of the murderer, seeks to analyse what the contents of the dream mean by way of premonitions and resolves, to the best of his abilities, to ensure that the situations that the vision foretells never occur. This allows the author to delve into the psychology of crime.

Of course, Midwinter’s plans are frustrated, not least by the cunning of one of Victorian fiction’s greatest femmes fatales, Lydia Gwilt. Perhaps the best thumb-nail description of her is that she is a flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband poisoner. Her portrayal shocked Collins’ publishers, the critics and readership alike and almost put the kibosh on the book ever seeing the light of day. That would have been a great pity as she is a wonderful creation, conniving, grasping, ruthless.

I cannot help think that Collins, who was highly inventive in his use of names, took care in naming his malevolent female lead Gwilt. There are connotations of guilt and gilt – Lydia is a consummate gold digger – and possibly even a hint of will – she is infinitely resourceful. But inevitably she meets a deserved end, overcome by remorse and guilt when she discovers a potentially lethal switch of victims. Was this Collins’ way of assuaging the moral sensibilities of his critics? After all, as T S Eliot, an ardent admirer of this book calling its construction “almost perfect”, remarked “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Stylistically, the book is a mix of testimony, narrative, letters and Gwilt’s diary, each of which in their own way drive the story on. As you come to expect with Collins, the plot takes some surprising twists and the story relies on more than its fair share of coincidences. But that is in the nature of sensationalist novels of the period and at least Collins is the consummate master of the form.

I did find the middle section of the book hard going and the complexity of the relationship of the protagonists could be perplexing at time without reading the text with some attention. But having taken some time to set the story up the finale is gripping and a page turner and certainly worth the effort of having got there. Of course, there is melodrama but not the saccharine sweet guff of Dickens at his worst.

This is not the book to start one’s acquaintance with Wilkie Collins with but, if you like him, it is one that definitely deserves to be rescued from the obscurity in which it now languishes.

Book Corner – January 2019 (3)

Cecile is Dead – Georges Simenon

It is difficult to kill off a popular detective. Conan Doyle tried it with Sherlock Holmes but had to bring him back due to public demand. Eight years after retiring Maigret off in Lock No 1 and Maigret Returns in 1934, Simenon brought his idiosyncratic Parisian ‘tec back to life in this book which is the first of six novels known as the Gallimard Cycle. Many critics regard these books, dating from 1942 to 1944, as the best of his canon.

The original was called Cecile est Morte and I’m glad the excellent Penguin series of reissues has restored the Anglicised version of the title as for years it was known amongst Anglophones as Maigret and the Spinster. Keeping track of the various aliases of Simenon’s novels is perplexing and would even test the little grey cells of Maigret.

I found this to be an enjoyable book and certainly a notch or two above many of Simenon’s earlier stories which often have the whiff of a pot boiler about them. Perhaps the writer’s batteries were re-charged after the lay-off.

In one sense, this book is about Maigret’s methodology. Indeed, a visiting American police inspector is introduced into the story line to shadow him and understand how he goes about solving his cases. The visitor must have great fun, visiting the eateries and bars that Maigret habitually frequented, and, unusually, finds him in a communicative mood. Maigret treats us to expositions on how he likes to feel what the case is about and understand what must have happened because of the way the suspects involved were and how they were likely to react. It provides a fascinating insight into Maigret’s idiosyncratic style but whether the American got anything meaningful that he could deploy is debatable.

The eponymous Cecile Pardon is a frequent visitor to the inspector’s office, often waiting for hours until he grants her an audience. Maigret’s fellow officers fail to take her seriously and on the face of it, her suspicions that someone gets into the flat she shares with her spinster aunt, smoking cigarettes and moving the furniture around seem a bit cranky.

On the fatal day, Maigret arrives later to the office than is his custom, enjoying the first of the Parisian autumnal fogs. Cecile is there and despite having written in the station log “you simply must see me. A terrible thing happened last night” he ignores. When he has time to see her, she has gone, alerting Maigret’s suspicions. After all, she “had once spent seven hours in the waiting room without moving.

Maigret investigates.

The old spinster is found dead in her flat and Cecile’s body is found in a broom cupboard on the Police Judiciaire premises. Are the two crimes connected and who perpetrated them and why? I will not spoil your enjoyment but in a sense both murders are variations on the locked room trope so adored by crime writers.

Maigret’s investigations lead him to discover a world of murky characters, brothels, dodgy lawyers and under-age sex. Very few of the characters have anything to commend them, save, perhaps, for the unfortunate Cecile and her impoverished brother. Money and dark secrets are at the heart of the case but the story has a final, unexpected twist which keeps the reader’s interest going right to the end.

It is one of Simenon’s better books and although the plot is a little contrived, it makes for an enjoyable few hours.

You can’t keep a good man down.

Book Corner – January 2019 (2)

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

How well do we really know someone? Henry James opined “never say you know the last word about any human heart” and as well as giving Boyd the title for this 2002 novel, he may well be right. The construct of Boyd’s novel is that it is a compilation of diaries or, as the French more elegantly put it, journaux intimes, detailing the life and times of the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, with short bridging sections as we move from one phase to another. As a result we are intended to get a deeper insight into what made the character tick. But do we and do we really care?

It was an easy read written in an engaging style and offers some interesting perspectives on human existence that resonate more with me as I move inexorably towards that point when I shuffle off this mortal coil. “Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportion of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”, Boyd writes and “life does this to you sometimes – leads you up a path and then drops you in the shit, to mix a metaphor.”  Mountstuart’s life is certainly an extraordinary aggregation of good and bad luck, triumphs interspersed with moments of disaster and tragedy.

I enjoyed the early parts of the book, where Mountstuart starts out on his journey through the 20th century as a rather precocious, priggish and, doubtless, very annoying public schoolboy, picking up two life-long friends, Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping, along the way. It is then on to Oxford (natch), and afterwards to London where he establishes himself as a writer.

After war service as a naval intelligence officer and a return to a much-changed post-war London and then to New York as an art dealer courtesy of Leeping, his career becomes more preposterous, teaching in Nigeria just in time to witness the Biafran war, and then back to London where he falls on bad times and gets mixed up with a Bader Meinhoff cell, and then skips to France to enjoy a modest retirement.

I may have lived a sheltered life but this seems much too much excitement to pack into a life. During this odyssey, we are asked to believe that Mountstuart rubbed shoulders and spent time with many of the literary and artistic celebs of the 20th century. The pages are littered with scenes involving the likes of James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, not forgetting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It all gets a bit wearing at times. At least, Anthony Powell, who appears in the book as an affable chap, had the grace to hide Nick Jenkins’ celeb mates under the cloak of pseudonymity.

Ironically, it is the fictional characters who seem to come to life for me, not least Mountstuart’s grand and haughty mother who slowly and inexorably falls into what were termed reduced circumstances, thanks to unwise investments ahead of the Wall Street crash (natch) – it is that sort of book – even having to resort to taking in lodgers.

I found Mountstuart hard to warm to and even when he hits his lowest point, subsisting on dog food at a time when Scabius, whose literary merits he had derided, was riding the crest of a wave, it is hard to have too much sympathy for him.

Boyd’s book is ambitious book, bestriding the 20th century and some of its significant literary and historical events, but for me it falls a little short.

Book Corner – January 2019 (1)

No Name – Wilkie Collins

What you need during the long, dark winter evenings is a book that will suck you in and make you fight long and hard to put it down and go to bed. No Name, published in 1862 after serialisation in Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, is just that.

Collins is an under-rated writer, tarred by the literary disdain of sensational novels, and No Name, which appeared between The Moonstone and The Woman in White, is shamefully neglected these days. Like many a good Victorian novel, the plot centres around what to modern eyes seems a very abstruse and unfair point of law. Mr Vanstone made an unfortunate marriage, as they say, abroad, left his wife and upon return to England lived with a woman who bore him two daughters, Norah and Magdalen.

News came from abroad that the original Mrs Vanstone had died and so the couple rushed to London to be wed. Alas, Mr Vanstone did not change his will to acknowledge the status of his daughters – they were born out of wedlock, after all – and before he could rectify his status he was killed in a train crash and within twenty-four hours, his wife, who conveniently was pregnant, died in childbirth.

The law at the time meant that the daughters could not inherit, the estate, some £80,000 or just over to £9 million today, which went to Vanstone’s elder brother. Naturally, Vanstone senior detested his brother and took delight in casting the daughters out from their family home to make their own way in the world.

Norah accepted her fate to become a governess but Magdalen goes to enormous lengths involving disguise, false identities, shady deals, duplicitous marriage and astonishing coincidences to get her hands on what she believes is rightfully hers.

Unlike the other Collins’ novels I have read, there is no mystery to be revealed. Instead we follow the twists and fortunes of Magdalen as she strives to regain her inheritance, the suspense and mystery provided by the fact that we don’t quite know what will happen next. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the story other than to say that events suggest that both women get what they want in the end in a rather roundabout way.

The tale contains some fine characters, none more so than the self-styled moral agriculturist and roguish Captain Wragge, who ultimately makes his fortune selling quack medicines  and the fiendishly, devious (foreign, of course) servant, Mrs Lecount. Their plots and counter-plots are fascinating as they engage in a battle of wits and subterfuge to get the upper hand for their respective parties. For me this was the best part of the book. The latter part of the book seemed a bit rushed and patchier than the early part, reflective of the fact that Collins was in poor health and fighting against deadlines.

Structurally, the book consists of eight acts – Magdalen has a dalliance with the stage which signals to the reader that she is not an ordinary, demure girl – with interludes between each consisting of epistolary exchanges between the principal characters which move the story along. It is an unusual arrangement but works well.

For the modern reader it is instructive to see how powerless women were at the time, entirely at the mercy of men and with limited options to make their way in the world in a respectable way, other than getting married or working as a governess, little more than a paid skivvy in someone else’s house. The portrayal of a forthright, independent Magdalen would have been a shock to the average Victorian reader but Collins uses the populist form of the sensation novel to address major social concerns.

At over 700 pages No Name is not for the faint-hearted but it is a fascinating and rewarding book.