Book Corner – June 2019 (2)

Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

Published in 1971, this is Sharpe’s first novel in which he takes up, aims and fires a large elephant gun at the apartheid system that blighted South Africa at the time. His bullets are his excoriating wit, a far more effective weapon than a dry treatise on the evils that were bedevilling the country. As a Brit, he gives an outsider’s perspective.

The action is based in a sleepy South African town called Piemburg which Sharpe describes as half the size of New York Cemetery and twice as dead.” But scratch beneath the surface and it is a microcosm of the pre-Mandela South Africa. The police, bumbling and inefficient, have developed a nice line of torture techniques which they are more than willing to try out, perfect and extend on any person of colour who is unfortunate enough to get in their way.

The action starts when a respected member of the community, of British stock, Miss Hazelstone rings the police station to demand that someone comes around to arrest her as she has just shot and killed her Zulu cook. It transpires that she shot him out in the garden. The Chief of Police, Kommandant van Heerden, vainly tries to persuade her to move the body indoors but she will have none of it. This simple exchange kickstarts a series of events which soon spiral out of control into a series of mind-bogglingly ridiculous and funny set pieces.

The fall guy in the whole shebang is Miss Hazelstone’s brother, Jonathan, the Bishop of Barotseland. Through a series of twists and turns in the plotting, he is marched out to the gallows to be hung, simply so that van Heerden get his hands on his heart which he wants to transplant for his own. Things don’t quite go to plan and the Bishop, who is the only sympathetic character in the book, lives to tell another tale.

As investigations into the murder progress, it becomes obvious that the cook and Miss Hazelstone were having intimate relations, miscegenation being illegal at the time, and their perversions included rubber wear and an innovative use of novocaine.

Had van Heerden just done what Miss Hazelstone had requested, arrested her for killing the cook, then the peace and quiet of Piemburg would not have been disturbed. But Hazelstone’s actions and attitudes were an affront to any right-thinking Boer.

It was perfectly acceptable, as the laws stood, for her to kill her cook indoors but not outside, hence the request that the body be removed from the garden. Her sexual perversions and passion for her Zulu cook were not only illegal but so shocking to van Heerden that he could envisage that were they to come out into the open, the fabric of South African society would be irreparably damage and a cloud of shame would descend on Piemburg. The South African police and secret service, BOSS, were notorious for their indiscriminate use of violence and torture against the people. By focusing on and magnifying these stupidities Sharpe, as well as creating an entertaining and comic read, makes his points with deadly precision.

As a book, though, I found it a little patchy. The first half was well plotted, gripping and funny but by the second half the plotting got more laboured and it seemed to wheeze and pant as it struggled to get to the finishing line. Perhaps it is difficult to maintain something where the dial is set perpetually at eleven. However, if you are looking for an absurd, bawdy, comedic novel, this is as good as any you will find.


Book Corner – June 2019 (1)

Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett

Ah, Arnold Bennett. He’s an author who has long been out of fashion, principally because he has been considered by other literati such as Virginia Woolf as old-fashioned, someone who looks back rather than forward. Perhaps the real reason is that his books do not concentrate on the idle rich and the aristocracy but concern themselves with the grim reality of working class life in the late nineteenth century. And no one wants to read about that, do they?

Well, these days we do and Bennett has begun to be rehabilitated and recognised as the author he was. What I have read of his stuff I have read, I have enjoyed and I was sufficiently emboldened to try Clayhanger, published in 1910, and considered to be the first of his Clayhanger trilogy. Trilogies again. I seem to be bedevilled by them. And rather enjoyable it was too, showcasing Bennett’s powerful story-telling and descriptive qualities.

Although the story focuses on Edwin Clayhanger, I found the most powerful bits of the book concerned his father, Darius. First of all, the brutal upbringing that Darius had in a child, in the poor house and working in primitive conditions for a pittance. Ashamed of his upbringing and unwilling or unable to reveal his origins to his family, nonetheless his childhood experiences frame Darius’ single-minded focus to succeed in his chosen business, printing with a fancy steam press, to ensure that as a family they stay above the bread line and why he imposes his iron will on those around him. Darius’ tragedy, and Edwin’s for that matter, is that his reluctance to open up about his childhood alienates him from those he loves and Edwin never really understands him.

The other powerful section of the book is Darius’ physical and mental decline. He is forced to rely upon his family, who because they never really understood him, do their duty by him but little more. It is hard not to feel sorry for the Clayhanger patriarch.

Like all young men at the time, Edwin has ideas above his station and wants, for reasons little more than he likes drawing, to become an architect. Foolishly, perhaps, he tells his father whose ambitions for him are to learn and take over the family business. Edwin’s ambitions are thwarted and he is enslaved to the printing business with little money of his own and always in the shadows of his father.

He also falls in love, falling for the charms of a mysterious woman, Hilda Lessways, an occasional visitor to the Clayhangers’ neighbours, the Orgreaves. She is rather underdeveloped as a character in this book, perhaps we will learn more in the second book of the trilogy, Hilda Lessways, but on a rare jaunt out of the Potteries to Brighton, Edwin discovers that Hilda is already married. The sense of Edwin’s entrapment, both socially, at work and in love, is a key theme of this book.

There are lighter moments. I enjoyed the description of Darius’ overarching ambition leading him to buying a new printing press which sorely tested the strength and quality of the flooring in the print room. Edwin’s presence of mind saves the day, something that convinces his father that there is something there he can mould into his image. The lad may be good enough to take over from him in time.

This book, like all of Bennett’s I have read, is firmly set in the Potteries and in his fictional take of the Five Towns. As someone who has wandered around Burslem, there are features of his description of Bursley I recognise today.

It is a good read and a book that explores the diurnal existence, the hopes and pain, of those aspiring to better themselves. It is a book anchored in reality and I can understand why that got the other-worldly Bloomsbury set’s goat. And no bad thing for that!

Book Corner – May 2019 (5)

The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant

Although a longer work than The Rector, The Doctor’s Family, also published in 1863, is little more than a novella, but one that packs quite a punch. It is highly autobiographical, I gave a brief summary of Oliphant’s life last week ( ), and is full of anger and frustration at the lot of women.

Dr Rider is one of two doctors in Carlingford, the other being Dr Marjoribanks. While the latter looks after the ill-to-do of the town, Rider’s practice serves the lower orders. His peaceful existence is rudely interrupted when his brother, Fred, turns up on his doorstep from Australia. Fred is a heavy-smoking, alcoholic, ne’er do well who takes up residence with the good doctor and proceeds to sponge off him as well as pollute the house with his foul tobacco smoke. There is a strident anti-smoking theme to this book.

Fred has omitted to mention, as you do, that he is married and, sure enough, two women and three unruly children turn up on the doctor’s doorstep from Oz. Susan, Fred’s wife, is as selfish and irresponsible as her hubby but Nettie Underwood is a paragon of virtue. Nettie recognises that it her duty to look after her relatives and it is she, not the feckless parents, who ensures that the family is clothed and fed and have a roof over their heads.

Nettie is the point of interest in this story. She bears her trials and tribulations with fortitude and courage, putting up with her lot, even though her relatives show not a jot of gratitude for all she does. The Doctor is grateful that Nettie has taken these wretches off his hands but has moments of doubt as to whether he should be doing more to help this saint.

The good folk of Carlingford are interfering old so-and-sos but for once their meddling does some good. Miss Wodehouse, whom we met in The Rector, impresses upon Nettie that she needs to think of herself more. Nettie’s resentment of her position crystallises when her sister wants to take the family back to Australia, dragging her with them as a de facto child-minder. Nettie’s resentment and Oliphant’s indignation at the lot of a woman who finds herself in this situation is encapsulated in this sentence; “Not all the natural generosity of her mind… could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.”

Of course, Oliphant was, in real life, in exactly the same situation. She was forced to look after her own drunken brother and the offspring of another of her brothers as well as her own children. As a writer, she is speaking up for the many women who found themselves in such a situation, giving them a voice and trying to fight their corner.

The book ends up as you would hope it would. The family goes back to whence they came but Nettie asserts her independence by staying put in Carlingford. And she meets her love match. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by naming the lucky man but it doesn’t take much to guess who it is.

Having read the Rector and this book, I couldn’t help thinking that there were remarkable similarities to Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. It may just have been the setting and subject matter but it may well have been that Oliphant was nodding her bonnet in Trollope’s direction. What is clear, though, is that her tone and perspective is radically different.

Book Corner – May 2019 (4)

The Rector – Margaret Oliphant

Am I on a one-man mission to rehabilitate the reputation of the Scottish writer, Margaret Oliphant, or am I just addicted to series of books? If the latter, I’m going the wrong way about it as having recently read Miss Marjoribanks, which is a later book in what is known as The Carlingford Chronicles, I have now picked up The Rector, which is considered to be the first, or possibly second, of the series.

First, though, a little about the Scottish writer, Margaret Oliphant (1828 – 1897). Unusually for the time, her mother was keen that the young Margaret was as well-read as possible and so received a far better education than many of her sex. She published her first book, Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland, in 1849, which received some critical success, and went on to become a prolific contributor to magazines, principally Blackwoods.

In 1857 she married her cousin, Frank, but the marriage was short-lived, her husband succumbing to tuberculosis seven years later. Left with three children, debts and later an alcoholic brother, Willie, and three children from her other brother, Frank, she needed to find the means to support them all. Career options were limited for women at the time and so Margaret relied upon the power of her pen. Over the course of her writing career she penned over one hundred novels, many of them whoppers, spreading over three volumes.

It was a prodigious effort but, not unnaturally, less is often more and her the quality of her output was variable. The uneven quality and sheer size of her literary efforts meant that her critical reputation suffered and over the years she has fallen out of favour. Indeed, many of her books are out of print. Thank heavens for digitised books. She also suffered the handicap of being a direct contemporary of Anthony Trollope whose own prolific output was more consistent in quality and of being a woman.

The Rector was published in 1863 and because of its length, at just 35 pages it is a mere pamphlet by mid 19th century Victorian standards, usually goes hand in hand with The Doctor’s Family, which I will turn to another time.

Despite its brevity, the novella deals with some important issues. In short, it can be seen as an essay on the difficulties of an outsider breaking into and settling down in a closed community, the suitability or otherwise of someone from the groves of Academe doing a job in the real world and the role of the necessity of looking after an aged relative in career decisions.

A new Rector has been appointed to Carlingford and the good folk of the town are all a-twitter as to whether he will be Low or Broad Church and whether he is an eligible bachelor. Morley Proctor, a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, has taken up the post, mainly so that he can provide a home for his aged mother. But he soon finds that he has no aptitude for the role of a parochial clergyman, his sermons are stiff and boring and he has no empathy for the sick or dying, his hopelessness confirmed when he watches his rival, Mr Wentworth, the curate of St Roque’s, administer to a dying woman.

His mother urges him to get a wife and his attention is drawn to the eligible daughters of Mr Wodehouse. Although the elder daughter, nearly forty, mild and kind, would be the more suitable match, Morley is drawn to the younger, wilder, more beautiful, Lucy, but soon realises he is out of his depth.

Embarrassed, frustrated, he retreats to All Souls, accommodating his mother nearby in a lodgings in Oxford.

And that’s that – a simple tale, nicely told.

Book Corner – May 2019 (3)

Phineas Redux – Anthony Trollope

At the risk of being accused of going all Julian Clary-like, there is nothing better in the long winter evenings than settling down with a Trollope. I’m working my way through the Palliser Series, of which Phineas Redux, published as a book in 1874 after being serialised in The Graphic, is the fourth of six and the sequel to the second of the series, Phineas Finn. Reading Trollope is no light undertaking, this book running to 80 chapters and a tad less than 700 pages. Thankfully, I read it as an ebook, otherwise I would have had a limp wrist.

One of the characteristics that marks out a classic is its universality, allowing the reader, however removed by time from the author, can find themes and topics which speak to them. In a time when the British parliamentary system is creaking at the seams, Phineas Redux resonates loud and clear. The Prime Minister introduces a controversial bill into Parliament, no not withdrawal from the EU but the disestablishment of the Church of England, which his own party is against and for which he has no majority. His motion, which is turned down by a thumping majority, leads to his resignation and the opposition, who intuitively support the motion, assuming power. It wouldn’t happen today, would it? Trollope’s narrative is a masterpiece on the venality and hypocrisy of politics and stands the test of time.

Another major theme running through the book relates to the deficiencies and inefficiencies of the English legal system, highlighted by the trial of Phineas Finn, the hero of the tale, for the murder of fellow parliamentarian, Mr Bonteen. Finn is on trial for his life and much of the evidence brought against him is circumstantial at best. His eventual triumph is more to do with the determination of his female friends to prove his innocence than the wheels of justice. Finn emerges from the horrors of the trial a changed man and turns down the political office he was desperate to secure in the early part of the book. The book is really the story of his transformation from a shallow careerist, dazzled by the glamour of society and the cut and thrust of politics to one who sees the world as it really is,

To the modern reader, what is astonishing is how reliant Finn is upon his female friends and admirers. They implicitly believe in his innocence and between Madame Max Goesler and Lady Glencora Palliser, she becomes the new Duchess of Omnium during the course of the book, his defence is constructed. There is love interest too. Lady Laura Kennedy has the hots for Finn but is trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband whom, I think unfairly, is described as mad. He probably had just cause to feel aggrieved as his wife upped and left him but, anyway, he conveniently dies leaving Laura on the market.

Madame Max Goesler also has eyes on Finn and she has the advantage of being unencumbered with the need to spend the appropriate period of time mourning a dead husband and having pots of money. In a moment akin to the famous Mrs Merton/Debbie McGee exchange, the near-penniless Finn throws up his ministerial career to marry Goesler. Apart from her millions, what did he see in her?

There are some fine comedic episodes, not least the on-off love affair involving Adelaid Palliser and her ne’er do well lover, Gerard Maule, and Mr Spooner. One of the book’s leitmotifs is the dispute between Lord Chiltern and the Duke of Omnium over foxes which is funnier than it might seem, there is a lot of fox hunting in the book. I also enjoyed Mr Quintus Slide who represents all that is bad in journalism and who has a major role to play in Finn’s downfall.

In summary, I found the book an enjoyable read, a good story with a few twists and turns and one which deals with themes that resonate to this day.

Book Corner – May 2019 (2)

Changing Places – David Lodge

I seem to be on a bit of a trilogy kick at the moment. Changing Places, published in 1975, is the first volume of what became known as his Campus Trilogy. It was published in the same year as Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man, both of which helped create a literary sub-genre, campus lit.

The expansion of the university system in the 60s, a grant system which meant that higher education was relatively cost-free for its recipients and the fact that degrees were more valued by employers than they are now meant that more and more students went there. More were familiar with the strange world of academia. And universities at the time became a cynosure for all the prevailing political and societal tensions, hotbeds of student revolutionary movements, sit-ins and changing sexual mores. No wonder the campus proved fertile ground for novelists wanting to put their finger on what was gong on in the late 1960s.

Lodge’s take is a clever and amusing portrayal of student and academic life at the time. Subtitled A Tale of Two Campuses, its Dickensian ring is, presumably, intended to make us think of revolution or, at least, dramatic change. The two campuses around d which the tale is based are the University of Rummidge, somewhere in the industrial Midlands, not too difficult to work out where, and Euphoric State University on the west coast of America. Two academics, the British low-achieving Philip Swallow and the American whizz-kid, Morris Zapp, swap jobs on a six-month exchange programme.

Swallow’s time in Euphoric is one of sexual and political liberation whilst Zapp, who is delaying an inevitable divorce from his wife, galvanises the sleepy British university which is beginning to catch up with the radicalisation of university politics. Perhaps somewhat improbably, the two academics go the whole hog in their immersion into the other’s life, living in each other’s homes, driving their cars and sleeping with their wives. It all adds to the comedic possibilities of the plot line as their infidelities and indiscretions are revealed.

What is astonishing to the modern reader, it seems odd writing that phrase given the book is only forty or years old, but it does show its age, is how lyrical Lodge is on the subject of air travel. For most in the late 60s, even for high-flying academics, air travel was a relatively new experience and, on the whole, certainly in those halcyon pre-9/11 days, pleasant. There was truly a sense of adventure in boarding a plane, a feeling lost for many of us these days who just see planes as another form of transport and pretty unpleasant, uncomfortable and depressing at that. Lodge captures perfectly that early sense of excitement and wonder, together with that frisson of anxiety that still pertains to this day.

Stylistically, the book is quite experimental. It starts out as a conventional third person narrative but then changes pace and style with an epistolary section, followed by a chapter made up exclusively of cuttings from newspapers, manifestos and student literature and then the denouement of the book, where the two couples meet in a New York hotel to sort out their futures, is written as a film script. The ending is messy and open ended, perhaps to be resolved in the other two books that form the trilogy, although Lodge didn’t get around to writing the second book until 1984.

I hadn’t read any Lodge before and enjoyed what was a light and easy read. I’m encouraged to finish off the trilogy.

Book Corner – May 2019 (1)

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

What makes a piece of literature a classic?

Madame Bovary, serialised in Le Revue de Paris between October 1st and 15th December 1856, got its author, Gustave Flaubert, into hot water as he was prosecuted for obscenity. It is widely regarded as a prime and early example of literary realism. The public prosecutor argued that not only was the subject matter immoral but that realism in literature was an affront against art and decency. Flaubert was acquitted on February 7th 1857 and his book became an instant best-seller when it was published in two volumes on April 1st of that year.

To the modern reader, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. OK, the story is about a woman’s adventures into adultery but these days it is pretty tame stuff, compared with what you can come across these days. But that is one of the dangers of judging a book written a hundred and sixty years ago by the standards of today. Just as we should be mildly irritated by casual racism and anti-semitism we encounter in Victorian and early 20th century books, we shouldn’t dismiss the book out of hand. Standards have changed but that doesn’t devalue the book per se.

On one level, Emma, the eponymous heroine and the third Mrs Bovary in the story, can be seen as a bit idealistic, if not stupid. Marrying a country doctor, Charles Bovary, she imagines that she will not be in want for anything, whether material or romantic. But tucked away in a sleepy and parochial town near Rouen, Yonville, and after a ground-breaking tendon operation performed by her husband goes disastrously wrong, Emma decides that Charles will never meet up to her expectations, materially or romantically.

She begins her adulterous adventures, initially with a cad called Rodolphe Boulanger, who never quite reciprocates the depth of feeling that Emma has for him, seeing her as little more than another notch on his bedpost. Her other dalliance is with Leon Dupuis, who is more sympathetically drawn, introduces Emma to poetry, and flees Yonville when he is convinced she does not share his feelings. The two are then reconciled later in the book after Emma’s affair with Rodolphe ends.

When Leon gets fed up with Emma’s emotional excesses and she becomes ambivalent towards him, their affair peters out. By this time Emma, who has been masterfully induced to spend far beyond her husband’s means by the grasping and cunning merchant, Monsieur Lheureux, is beset by money troubles and the only way out is to dramatically end her life by taking arsenic. Emma is portrayed as a selfish, self-centred woman, out to get what she wants, irrespective of who gets hurt or what the consequences are.

The suicide scene is vivid and moving. It is highly probable that Flaubert, in his search for realism, sampled arsenic. In a letter dated November 1866 he wrote, “when I wrote the description of the poisoning of Mme Bovary I had the taste of arsenic so much in my mouth, I had taken so much poison that I gave myself two bouts of indigestion one after the other..

As for Charles, it is hard to feel much sympathy for him. He has had the wool pulled over his eyes for so long that he deserved all he got. Even after Emma’s death, he cannot shake off her hold over him.

Structurally, the book is unusual in that it begins with an account of Charles’ school days, his medical training and his first marriage. Emma only appears well into the book as the daughter of a patient. After Emma’s suicide, the book continues to explore what happened to Charles in the aftermath, their child, Berthe’s, fate and then ends with the chemist, Monsieur Homais, who behind the scenes had sabotaged Charles’ medical practice, attaining his lifelong ambition, the Legion of Honour medal. It is as if Flaubert is saying come what may life goes on. For all her faults trials and tribulations, she is just a bit player in the continuum of life.

For me, great literature escapes the constraints of its time and deals with universal issues. Madame Bovary achieves this and is rightly one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time.