windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Books

Book Corner – April 2017 (2)

the-red-thumb-mark

The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman

I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.

On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.

The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.

There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises”  – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.

thumbograph-example

The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.

It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.

Book Corner – April 2017 (1)

agnesgrey

Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.

For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.

Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale.   Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.

Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book  – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.

The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone.  But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.

Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?

Book Corner – March 2017 (3)

womaninwhite

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Operating in the not inconsiderable penumbra of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins is a rather forgotten man these days. Collins may not have the resonance and poetry of Dickens at his best but his characterisation is subtler and there are fewer passages of grandiose, highfalutin prose that you can skip without losing any of the plot, characterisation or sense of the story. Collins’ prose is sparer and leaner and he just gets on with the job of telling a story.

And Collins was inventive with the novel’s form and subject. He created what is now acknowledged to have been the first detective story, the Moonstone, and The Woman in White, which I finally read over the Christmas holidays, is considered to be the first mystery novel and to have started the genre for sensationalist fiction which, probably, found its nadir in the penny dreadfuls so popular with the Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century. He is one of Victorian literature’s under-appreciated men.

The Woman in White, Collins’ fifth novel, first appeared in serialised form in Dickens’ weekly magazine, All The Year Round, in 1859 and appeared in book form a year later – the edition carrying the first instalment had the closing instalment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You certainly got value for your money in those days. The constraints of weekly serialisation meant that the author was forced to leave reader on a metaphorical cliff edge, anxious to find out what happened next. One of the joys of reading Wilkins’ works is identifying those moments where one episode ended and the next began – the equivalent of the dum-dum moments on Eastenders. I reckon I identified at least 40.

The story – I won’t spoil it – centres around the attempts of the principal protagonist, Walter Hartright, to untangle the dastardly plans of Percival Glyde and his seductive and cunning side-kick, Count Fosco, to access an inheritance to which they are not entitled. Along the way we meet with some of the literary tricks which to the modern reader somewhat hackneyed – two characters of similar appearance being the foremost, Italian political feuds and sleuthing techniques deployed by Hartright which become the modus operandi of literary detectives to come. Structurally, the book is a series of narratives by the principal characters in time sequence, giving their version of events, as though they were testifying in a court. This means that the book travels at some pace and you have a variety of opinions and insights to illuminate the story.

The book was a wild success – the public could not get enough of it. The first edition of the book sold out on publication day and his publishers offered Collins the princely sum of £5,000 as an advance for his next work. There was also a bit of a spin-off boom with people being able to buy Woman in White perfume, cloaks and bonnets and you could dance the Woman in White quadrille.

For the modern reader, there is a streak of women know your place to the book – they are generally portrayed as weak and inferior to men, although Marian Halcombe, who is naturally unattractive and unmarried, does her bit to redress the balance – and there is a tad too much little Englander about the treatment of foreigners. But if you can shut your eyes to these attitudes that were current at the time it was written, then you have a rip-roaring, entertaining story. And that, after all, is really what you want.

Book Corner – March 2017 (2)

 

hampshire

The Trials of the King of Hampshire – Elizabeth Foyster

Over the last few weeks I have been musing about where eccentricity ends and lunacy starts and have been swayed by the argument that it is a class and wealth issue. Our betters, aristos and those with pots of money, are able to get away with standards of behaviour that would see us mere mortals carted off to an asylum. But, occasionally, the distinction is more than a moot point as the tragic and gothic tale of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth shows.

The subject of Foyster’s book is the splendidly named John Wallop – one of his traits which cast doubt on his sanity was his frequent assaults on his servants and his predilection for seeing children and pets beaten. One poor footman broke a leg. Portsmouth went to see him, not to offer tea and sympathy but to jump on it again, breaking the limb a second time. He seemed to derive some sexual gratification from being bled by young girls in the neighbourhood who were instructed to use a lancet for the purpose. He took great delight in visiting people on their death-bed and was a regular attendee of funerals – black jobs, he called them – where his behaviour often caused the mourners distress.

Why the distinction between eccentricity and lunacy was more than moot in the case of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth was down to inheritance and money, what else? From an early age he was different from others and, particularly, his siblings. Instead of going off to Eton and Cambridge like the other brothers, Portsmouth was home schooled, spending some time holed up with Jane Austen’s father, before Jane was born. The novelist did meet him later at a function, claiming that he “surpassed” the behaviour of other gentlemen, perhaps not a terribly high bar, and the poet Byron described him as a “prize fool of an earl”. But was he mad?

In those days, to be declared insane required a public trial. Portsmouth endured two, the first shortly after his forced marriage to Mary Anne, in 1814. This was at the instigation of his younger brother, Norton Fellowes, who sought to annul the marriage. The attempt failed but in 1823 another attempt was made. The trial was a cause celebre and was to be the longest and costliest insanity trial in history, racking up costs of 2 guineas a minute. What seemed to tip the balance against Portsmouth was that he shared his marriage bed with his wife and her lover. To modern eyes, he was cruelly treated, abused physically and mentally by his wife and her paramour but to his contemporaries, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude to Mary Anne’s infidelities was proof positive of derangement. The court found that Portsmouth was mad, a verdict which annulled his marriage, disinherited his heir who was almost certainly not his, and meant Newton was in pole position to inherit the title and a vast annual fortune of £18,000 onn his death. Mary Anne was required to pay £40,000 towards the cost of the trial and fled the country.

Surprisingly, Portsmouth was reasonably well treated afterwards, being allowed to reside at the family home near Basingstoke, Hurstbourne Park. He had a throne erected in one of the rooms and styled himself the King of Hampshire. He lived a further thirty years. Newton duly inherited the title but enjoyed it for less than a year.

Foyster’s book is an entertaining and well-researched piece of work, although at times its rather thematic approach to Portsmouth’s strange and disturbing story does serve to confuse rather than enlighten the narrative. And she shies away from attempting to diagnose what was wrong with Portsmouth. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable insight to life amongst the upper classes and how unusual character traits were dealt with.

Book Corner – March 2017 (1)

aravind

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

For a long time I have thought that the award of a literary prize, lucrative as it may be for the writer, is a signal that the book is to be avoided at all costs. Too often the committees forget that the ordinary reader reads for pleasure rather than to admire wordsmithery or the handling of symbol and image. Of course, you want to read something that is well written, entertaining and gripping but you also want something that is a joy to read rather than an endurance test.

Sometimes, though, a book wins an award and you wonder how the hell that happened. Take Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker prize in 2008. It is an engaging enough tale about Balram Halwai, a self-made man who has made his fortune in the capital of out-sourcing services, Bangalore. It is well-paced and there were enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me engaged. But there were a number of structural issues to the book that for me made it nothing out of the ordinary.

Firstly, it is epistolary in style. There is nothing wrong in that but why would Balram write unsolicited about his life to a visiting Chinese premier? The question isn’t answered and all the reader can conclude is that with the growing rapprochement between China and India, the protagonist thinks that he should dish the dirt on the real India – a bit of a flimsy premise for a book, I feel.

Dishing the dirt, Adiga does in spades. Having been to India on a few occasions and been astonished by the sights, scenes, collective mania of the big cities like Dehli and having been jostled by a seething crowd trying to get served in a liquor store in Kerala, many of Adiga’s scenes resonate with me. But it is unrelenting, a blunt instrument or perhaps a broken bottle of English whisky to beat the reader around the head with. OK, the country is cruel and the lot of the majority is hard to bear but I think we get that point early on. The relentless tirade gets a tad tiresome.

The characterisation is weak. Balram’s bosses are little more than caricatures of the upper classes. We don’t really get to engage with them or to despise them. Even Balram, who started out on life without even a name and who seemed to be destined to live a life as the lowest of the low, is rather cartoonish.

And then there is the contrast between the darkness of the Indian hinterland, medieval in its hardship and where brutal landlords hold sway and the lightness of the cities. The use of this symbolism is relentless and rather loses its impact. Balram’s rise is due to a rather heartless and brutal murder and corruption – the loot he gets away with is used to grease the palms of the police to enable him to set up his taxi service ferrying night workers to the call centres. Corruption is another theme running through the book – his masters’ coal business has to make frequent unofficial payments to politicians and their lackeys to thrive. Progress through merit is not in Adiga’s line of vision.

The book is funny in parts and goes at a furious lick. It is entertaining but if you are looking for subtlety in this damning critique of the state of modern India, you will be sorely disappointed. Jonathan Swift, he ain’t.

Book Corner – February 2017 (2)

manwho

The Man Who Ate The Zoo – Richard Girling

I have always been fascinated by zoophagy. If there is a creature on a menu that I haven’t tasted before, then I have to try it. Often from a taste perspective I wish I hadn’t but then, as Aeschylus said, experience teaches. I would have loved an invitation to dine with the 19th century naturalist, William Buckland, who regularly treated his guests and family to meals of hedgehogs, snails, puppies and, the speciality of the house, mice on toast, a treat John Ruskin was disappointed to have missed.

With a father like that, it is no wonder that Frank, the subject of Girling’s magnificent romp of a book, would be a convert to zoophagy. As a boy he was forever catching, dissecting, cooking and eating small animals, a penchant that not only got him into the occasional scrape with the beak but also ensured that his lodgings were enveloped in the miasma of stench and decay. At Oxford, like Byron, he kept a bear (sampled after its demise) as well as a monkey and various other pets, treating his contemporaries to a running commentary as to the merits of various creatures as food. Earwigs were horribly bitter, moles disgusting and the head of a porpoise was like broiled lamp wick. He also befriended keepers at the London Zoo who would contact him when one of the animals died to see if he wanted to eat it.

There was a serious point to the zoophagy. Food famines were rife and the hunt was on to see if there were other sources of protein that could be brought to Blighty to feed the malnourished. This led to the birth of the Acclimatisation of Animals movement, of which Frank (natch) was a leading light, that tried to find species that would prosper in our climate and would be tolerable to eat. Elaborate feasts were held to try out kangaroo and sea cucumber. Buckland’s enthusiasm for exotica did have limits. He thought the 1868 campaign to promote hippohagy would not get anywhere, even though it climaxed in a dinner attended by 160 of the great and good who chomped their way through several courses of horse.

Buckland was a great conservationist and, perhaps, his most lasting legacy was the work he did, ultimately as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, to understand the lifecycle of fish and the effect of pollution on their habitat. He would often be found in the rivers themselves, seeing how best a salmon might leap up a waterfall and positioning a jump exactly to suit. Alas, his enthusiasm was his undoing, a soaking fatally weakening his health.

For me, the second half of the book detailing his professional career was not as engaging as the first but that is a minor quibble. Girling’s book is well-paced, light, engaging and amusing and thoroughly recommended, if you have a spare book token over from Christmas.

And why is Buckland now forgotten? Girling posits three reasons. He was a popular scientist – he was a prolific writer using what was in those times an amusing, light touch to explain the wonders of nature. Serious scientists aren’t supposed to be popular. Secondly, he backed the wrong horse. He was not an adherent of Darwin, even though some of Buckland’s observations brought him perilously close to thinking that there may be something in this evolution nonsense but his ingrained faith made him loyal to the idea of a divine master plan. And finally, one of his last deeds was to publish a report stating that fish stocks were inexhaustible and there was no need to restrict fishing. Girling, to his credit, resists the temptation to argue that Buckland was so ill that someone else wrote the report for him. Buckland, to the last, was a creature of his time.

Book Corner – February 2017 (1)

clem1

Citizen Clem – John Bew

For those of a certain political persuasion the state of the Labour party is a source of sadness and despair. But it is perhaps salutary to reflect that they have been there before. After the 1931 election triggered by Ramsay McDonald’s defection, they were reduced to just 52 MPs. The timing of John Bew’s magisterial biography of Clement Attlee could not be better and perhaps provides some hope for the future.

Attlee has always suffered from being underappreciated, the archetypal sheep in a sheep’s clothing. Even Bew remarks that his outstanding quality was that he had no outstanding qualities. But his achievements are monumental. He co-operated with Churchill to create the National Government following Chamberlain’s resignation in May 1940 and held the coalition together, concentrating on domestic matters whilst giving Winston the freedom to play on the international stage. The Labour party’s landslide victory in 1940 opened the way for the establishment of institutions that characterise what many people still feel mighty proud of our country today – the National Health Service, the Social Security system, National Insurance, nationalisation of major sources of production and the extension of workers’ employment protections. All this was achieved whilst Britain was on its knees economically, the Cold War had broken out,  the Empire was being transformed into a Commonwealth and Attlee was having to fight off challenges to his leadership from the Bevanites. No wonder his statue is one of four great British prime ministers in the members’ lobby of the House of Commons. We are unlikely to see his like again.

Bew traces Attlee’s journey from a conventional, public school educated boy who was mildly jingoistic to what we would now term a social worker in Spitalfields to a political agitator on street corners to an elected MP and then leader of his party. The tale is told chronologically, but with one twist. Bew feels that it is worth exploring Attlee’s reading habits at various stages of his development to see if they shine a light on his thinking and influences. I’m not persuaded by the logic of this – my reading list is pretty catholic and apart from suggesting that I am open to all ideas, I don’t think it tells a lot about me. But we are treated to interesting analyses of William Morris’ Road to Nowhere, Kipling, Gibbon and Trollope, a passion for whom Attlee shared with Churchill. Surely the latter kiboshes Bew’s theory?

That said, the book is well paced and entertaining with enough to keep the general reader interested.  The parallels with today are compelling, not least the observation that the weakness, nay absence, of an effective opposition created a vacuum in which the Communist party and the Mosleyite Fascists were allowed to play. Attlee did not help his cause by being inscrutable and writing an autobiography which was not only as dull as ditch water but also painfully self-effacing. He was the perfect chairman who drew the best out of others but underneath there were two shining principles – the desire to transform the lot of the working classes who were denied their land fit for heroes after the First World War and the desire to retreat from jingoistic imperialism and allow the colonies some degree of say in their destiny.

Attlee saw active service in the First World War, in Gallipoli – he was convinced that Churchill’s strategy was right but it was let down by its execution – and in Mesopotamia where he was shot up the arse carrying the red flag of his regiment, a fate we could cheerfully wish on many of our current crop of politicos.

A wonderful book, a timely reminder of what a titan Attlee was and one that offers hope for a resurgence of a social democratic party in years to come.

Book Corner – January 2017 (2)


timekeepers

Timekeepers: How the World became obsessed with time – Simon Garfield

One of my traits, perhaps annoying to some, is that I constantly look at my watch. I am not admiring it as a thing of beauty – it serves more of a Benthamite utilitarian purpose – but because I find it comforting to know the time. It’s a habit I am finding difficult to kick even though, in my retired state, I am no longer a slave to time. Indeed, for much of what I do these days, knowing what the exact time is is pretty much irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be great to be free of the constraints that time imposes on us and how the hell did we allow time to rule our lives anyway? These are the questions Garfield seeks to address in his engaging, anecdotal and occasionally irritating review of the subject.

Take the watch. Pick up any magazine or so-called serious Sunday newspaper and you will find sophisticated adverts for watches of all shapes and sizes, pretty much all unremittingly ugly in my view, which will set you back thousands and which you will never really own if you buy a Patek Philippe, at least according to their strap line. But why do we buy and wear watches when our mobile technology gives us the time as conveniently and just as, if not more, accurately? Is it redundant technology which has now become just a fashion statement? The luxury watch industry is worth many millions and it shows no sign of flagging. A true mystery.

The limitations of technology imposed time constraints on our listening habits. Because the grooves on a record had to be wound so tight that the needle skipped if the length of the song was longer than 3 minutes, this was the maximum that a song could last until the advent of the 33 rpm disc. Then came along the CD. It was originally going to have a diameter of 11.5 centimetres but the Sony vice chairman at the time, Norio Ohga, insisted it be 12 cm to allow his favourite piece of music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to be accommodated on one disc. And so the standard with a limit of around 74 minutes of music was set.

If you want a target to point the finger of blame at for our enslavement to time then the railways would do. Prior to their development, time was governed by the church clock and was particular to the local area. Railways required timetables to alert the aspiring passenger when they might catch a train and, if they were lucky, when they might arrive at their destination. This in turn, required harmonisation and standardisation of time. Once the genie was out of the bottle, we have struggled to control it ever since.

Throughout the book you come across facts that are astounding or observations which make you realise you never knew that. Take for instance, the display of clocks. They invariably show the time as ten past ten because that setting makes the clock face appear to smile. And comedian Dave Allen’s great joke about time – “you clock in to the clock. You clock out to the clock. You come home to the clock. You eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock.. You do that for 40 years of your life, you retire and what do they fucking give you? A clock” – is always worth a retell.

The book is a collection of essays and the joins do show at times.  The sections on the slow food movement and Charlie boy’s Poundbury estate seem somewhat out of kilter with the general thesis, although they arguably show an inclination to turn the clock back. On the whole it is an engaging read and there are far worse ways of spending a few hours.

Book Corner – January 2017 (1)

purity-franzen-cover

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

What to make of Franzen? I repeatedly hear that he is one of, if not the, greatest living American novelist but I have never been that bowled over by his work. I enjoyed The Corrections and bought a first edition of Freedom, his satire of middle America in the Bush era, on the back of it. I then got a note from the publisher saying that the author was recalling the book as there were a number of errors which he wanted correcting and that they would replace it with an error-free edition post-haste. I declined this invitation, trusting that my edition would accumulate some value as time went by. Has it? Who knows?  But I am open to offers. It gave me the sense, though, that Franzen was a bit of an arse and slapdash to boot.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Purity. It seemed over long to me (563 pages) and a bit contrived. In essence, it is a story told in seven interlinking sections, each of which develops the narrative from a different perspective, moving back and forth in time and place. You quickly work out that all the characters have a shared story and, frankly, it is easy to see where the, at first, disparate characters with seemingly radically different backgrounds fit together. The strongest section is the only section written in the first person,  Tom Aberant’s memoir of his relationship with his ex-wife, Anabel in the curiously titled le1o9n8a0rd, the password required to access the document.

The book opens in a rather under-cooked way introducing us to Purity Tyler aka Pip and her rather neurotic mother. The tale – I won’t spoil it for you – is of Purity trying to discover her roots and identity. Thematically whilst Purity is trying to find out who she is the other characters are trying to find their own form of purity. A case in point is the Assange/Snowden-like internet activist and charismatic guru, Andreas Wolf, who is trying to expose the world’s corruption but has just exchanged his Stasi-dominated spy state of the GDR for snooping on the internet. The realisation that the internet is governed by fear and an instrument of totalitarianism is well made. The pursuit of the state of purity is over-riding but delusional. To make sure you don’t miss the point Franzen repeats the title phrase and its variants over and over again, the sort of sledgehammering you could do without.

By starting and finishing the book with Purity aka Pip, you cannot help but notice the great debt that Franzen owes to Dickens in this book and, particularly, Great Expectations.  Both deal with the search for true parentage and unexpected riches, the plots of both lurch hither and thither with melodramatic lurches and rely on astonishing coincidences to keep the story going. It is not too fanciful to think of the fruit cake, Anabel, as a modern-day take on Miss Havisham and, of course, Pip as Pip.

There are some gloriously funny moments in the book – particularly the scenes of the frantic lovemaking between Tom and Anabel – and there are some really insightful comments and observations. But there is also a dark brooding and, to my mind, unpleasant side to the book – the men are predators and that women are prey. There is a very strong anti-feminism thing going on throughout the story.

Having read it and thought about it, I don’t think Purity has changed my view of Franzen. He is worth reading but American literature must be in a pretty sorry state if he is the best.

Book Corner – December 2016 (2)

frenchrevolution

The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny – Ian Davidson

Rather like the First and Second World Wars you would think that the last thing the world needs is another book raking over the coals of the French Revolution. But this book gives a refreshingly clear and thought provoking account of the seismic events that gripped la belle France without the usual Dantonist or Robespierrist guillotines being ground. Some of the themes that Davidson focuses on are remarkably relevant today.

Although the popular conception of the revolution centres around the storming of the Bastille, the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror or, as Robespierre styled it, the despotism of liberty, Davidson is at pains to show that the genesis of the revolution was from the bourgeoisie, frustrated by the glass ceiling imposed by the aristocrats and clergy and endorsed by the monarchy that prevented their advancement. Their aim was to build a better state and one of their first acts was to draw up a Declaration of the Rights of Man upon which many that are in existence today are based. They also introduced a form of elected local administration in France which is still used today. The revolutionaries were respecters of and felt bound by the law.

Davidson points out that the period was a time of revolutionary ferment across many parts of Europe but mostly the upstarts were successfully resisted by the monarchs and aristocrats of those counties. In France, however, Louis just caved in. And this caused the Revolutionaries no end of problems – what to do with him but, more importantly, what to replace him with. They never really solved this problem leaving a power vacuum that allowed factionalism to run rife and the unscrupulous to seize control.

Economics played a major role in the fortunes of the revolution. The assignats, bonds issued by the National Assembly from 1789 and underwritten by the sale of the newly nationalised properties of the church, were a piece of financial engineering that the Bulls of Wall Street would have been proud of and caused, inevitably, rampant inflation.. This in turn meant that the living conditions of the lower classes – variably in my edition described as sans culottes, sans-culottes and sansculotes – some editorial consistency on so vital a term would not have gone amiss – were unbearable. Attempts to control prices of basic foodstuffs failed miserably.

The lumpen prole was there for the unscrupulous politicians to manipulate – resonances of the EU Referendum if there ever were ones – and the pressure from the bottom together with the factionalism that the power vacuum had created meant that the enlightened principles of the early part of the revolution went out of the window. Instead, violence, waves of unspeakable barbarity and mob rule backed by the absence of the rule of law took centre stage.

It is remarkable that the revolution lasted as long as it did and no surprise that it was replaced by the dictatorship of Bonaparte who had worked his way up the greasy pole as one of the butchers of the reign of terror.

The book is full of fascinating insights. The Assembly chamber was narrow and wide and the radicals sat on the left of the chair and the moderates to the right, giving us the left and right political short-hand we use to this day.

An engaging read and if you really feel the need to understand the French Revolution, this is the book to go to.