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.

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Book Corner – May 2018 (2)

Afternoon Men – Anthony Powell

Humour is such a personal thing that I generally run a mile from a book described by some critic or other as the funniest thing you will ever read. But at least the tag, the funniest book you have never read, has a hint of mystery and intrigue about it. I am a fan of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series and am slowly working my way through some of his other works. Afternoon Men, published in 1931, was his first novel.

Probably like much of Powell’s work, it is like Marmite – you will either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In some ways it is much ado about nothing as very little of note happens as the subject matter is the aimless socialising of a group of vacuous promiscuous, privileged bohemians who are trying to make their way in the world of art, literature and journalism. This is classic Powell territory as are the plethora of characters who drift in and out of the book and the grand set pieces such as the drunken parties held in London, Mrs Race’s party which features a particularly dreadful batch of Balkan liqueur, a visit to a boxing match and a country house party.

Another Powell trait is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of a central character, William Atwater, who is a cynical and somewhat jaundiced commentator on the events going around him. The book is split into three parts – Montage, Perihelion and Palindrome – and there is a certain circularity that we come to expect of Powell’s later works in that at the end of the book the same group of friends, with one exception, meet in the same dreary club and make plans to attend yet another party without any degree of enthusiasm.

There are moments of comedy, particularly around the abortive suicide attempt of Raymond Pringle, a struggling painter, who had caught his friend, a better painter, in flagrante delicto with his mistress. Rather like Reggie Perrin he walks into the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. His actions are observed by Atwell and Pringle’s mistress but they merely comment on his poor physique and, when he gets into trouble, his “pretentious side stoke” and how his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water.” Inevitably, Pringle is late for lunch, the guests find his suicide note and, then, in a moment of pure comic genius, Powell writes, “hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said: what shall we do?

Much of the book is taken up with dialogue, most of it inconsequential, but then most of our own dialogue is, somewhat oblique and full of knowing comments. It reminded me of Hemingway but without his portentousness. The longest speech begins ostensibly as a defence of friendship but then broadens out to a condemnation of the lives they are leading; “all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably lead us to.” In any other writer’s hands, the book could have become a bleak and wearying affair but Powell’s lightness of touch makes it an enjoyable read.

For those of sensitive dispositions there are moments of anti-semitism and male chauvinism but this was written at the start of the 30s, so I guess we have to expect it. The book reminded me of a gentler, archer, more knowing version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. They both moved in the same circles, after all. An interesting book that can be read in an afternoon, if you can be bothered.

Book Corner – March 2018 (1)

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

To paraphrase Nick Jenkins, I was at that time of life when I had read Dance to the Music of Time twice and so I decided I ought to explore some of Powell’s earlier works. I chose What’s become of Waring (WBoW) which was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. Timing is everything and this rather put a dent in his sales.

The title comes from Robert Browning’s poem, Waring; “What’s become of Waring/ since he gave us all the slip/ chose land-travel or seafaring/ boots and chest or staff and scrip,/ rather than pace up and down/ any longer London town?” And that pretty much describes the novel which centres around the disappearance of an elusive travel writer, TT Waring, presumed dead, and the attempts to unravel who he was, what happened to him and why. Although there are certainly elements within the book of the classic mystery, the plot containing the statutory number of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, it works on more than one level. It is a light, well-written book which engages the reader so that they want to go on and also takes a gentle satirical jab at the pretensions of 1930s London society.

Rather like Dance to the Music of Time, the book is narrated in the first person, although unlike Nick Jenkins, the narrator here is anonymous. The use of a narrator allows Powell to show off his virtuosity because often he creates a void between what the narrator understands and what the reader has deduced, allowing the reader to feel superior because they have access to knowledge that the rather blinkered narrator has failed to grasp. The effect is carried off with aplomb.

I suppose it is wrong to judge a book with the benefit of hindsight but WBoW struck me as a dry run for the more substantial, in all senses, work that is the Dance sequence. As well as the use of a narrator, the book is set firmly in the world of publishing and literature. The narrator works for a firm of publishers, Judkins and Judkins, whose prime asset is Waring. Powell sends up literary types, particularly precious and mediocre authors, has the obligatory flighty woman – there is too much of Pamela Flitton in Roberta Payne to be a coincidence – and delights in the eccentricities of the bohemian set. Two séances, one towards the beginning of the novel and the other towards the end, have a significant impact on the story’s development. Powell is definitely sharpening up his craft to good effect.

Of course, the contemporary reading public did not have this sense of where Powell’s literary career was heading and so would judge the book on its merits. Using that perspective, it is a light, undemanding, amusing entertainment which could keep you cheerfully amused for a couple of evenings. My only disappointment was that I had worked out who Waring was early on.

On a more parochial note, part of the story centres around the Camberley area near to where Blogger Towers is situated. Powell clearly was not impressed with the place. “Some of the land showed traces of heath fires, charred roots and stones lying about on the blackened ground. Walking there was not at all like being in the country. Agriculture seemed as remote as in a London street. This waste land might have been some walled-in space in the suburbs where business men practised golfstrokes; or the corner of a cinema studio used for shooting wilderness scenes. It had neither memories of the past nor hope for the future.” It’s changed a bit now, I can assure you!

Book Corner – December 2016 (1)

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The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh

Made up of Men At Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), this was re-edited by Waugh into a single volume with a different ending – this was the version I read – and is without question his finest work. It is loosely based on Waugh’s own wartime career and follows the career of protagonist, Guy Crouchback, heir of an aristocratic English Catholic family in decline.

Despite his age at the outbreak of war Crouchback returns from self-imposed exile in Italy to offer his services to fight for King and country. After some difficulties, strings are pulled and he secures a position with the rather gentlemanly and eccentric Royal Corps of Halbadiers. But Guy’s military career is not a glorious one. He is dogged by injury and when he sees action he is rather at the periphery – the recipient of a severed head of a severed head courtesy of the one-eyed maniac that is Ben Ritchie-Hook in an unofficial raid in Dakar, a participant in the evacuation of Crete and a liaison officer in Yugoslavia where he befriends and tries to help some Jewish refugees.

Parts of the work are really funny and Apthorpe who appears in the first third of the book is a glorious comedic character. His concerns about his thunderbox and Ritchie-Hook’s attempts to sabotage it will live long in the mind. As the work progresses it loses its lightness and humour, although there are still moments of comedy and Waugh is bitingly satirical about army life. Heavier issues preoccupy us, principally Guy’s moral dilemma over his divorced wife and his gradual disillusionment.

Swords dominate the story thematically. Prior to leaving Italy Guy touches the sword of his crusading ancestor, another Guy Crouchback, an act symbolising his attempt to imbue himself with the crusader’s heroism and bravery. By the time we get to the beginning of the third book the sword of hope and optimism has been replaced by the ceremonial sword, the Sword of Stalingrad, made at the King’s behest to commemorate the resistance of Stalingrad – a symbol of realpolitik and the burgeoning sense of tawdry compromise. Guy decides not to see it at Westminster Abbey, preferring to have a slap up meal to celebrate his 40th birthday, turning his back on the zeitgeist.

It seems as though the best way to deal with the weighty subject of war is through satire and humour. The best works about the Second World War take this approach and today we can only marvel that the bureaucratic and inefficient leviathan that was the British army actually prevailed with, of course, a little help from our friends.

Crouchback is in many ways the end of the line, both genetically but more importantly in terms of outlook. What prevails at the end is the cynicism of the likes of Trimmer and the distinctly odd and creepy Ludovic. It is tempting to draw parallels with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Rather like Nick Jenkins, Crouchback is a passive observer of what goes on rather than an initiator of action and as a consequence is rather a distant figure and the parallels between Widmerpool and Apthorpe are uncanny. But Waugh’s work is the weightier and knocks all his other books into a cocked hat.

Books Do Furnish A Room

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One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was a love of books, reading and language. I remember being read to as a small child and then when I had mastered the art of reading, my nose was forever in a book. One of my all-time favourites was Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful Wind in the Willows which I still dip into from time to time and whose qualities I am forever ready to proclaim.

Some of my juvenile reading material was questionable in these so-called more enlightened days. The exploits of Captain W E John’s creation James Bigglesworth aka Biggles were a particular favourite as he and his small band of heroes took on the might of the Bosch battling against formidable odds to secure liberty and maintain the Empire. Politically incorrect as they were, they were rattling good stories.

My bibliophilia continued throughout my student days and into my working life and as a result I have amassed quite a collection of books which sprawl across book cases in two of our rooms as well as many more boxed up in the attic. I haven’t the heart to throw away a book, perhaps because as a classicist I appreciate how thin the thread of fate was that preserved some works of literature and despatched to oblivion many others when times and tastes changed. My adoption of the e-book has relieved me from having to thin my shelves to make way for the new acquisitions.

As Anthony Powell so rightly observed, there is nothing like a room with well stocked shelves. I find I cannot resist walking into a room and surveying the contents of a bookshelf, picking up the odd volume and skimming the pages as if being reacquainted with an old friend. A bookshelf shines a light into the person themselves.

So it was with some interest that I read the result of some research published in the ever popular Economic Journal and conducted by three economists, Giorgio Brunello, Guglielmo Weber and Christoph Weiss, from the University of Padua. They studied 6,000 men born in nine European countries during the period between 1920 and 1956 when school-leaving ages were raised. They found that a man’s lifetime earnings increased by 9% if they had an extra year’s education.

What was more interesting, to me at least, was when they subdivided the group between those who at the age of 10 lived in households with fewer than 10 books, with a shelf of books, a book-case load of around 100 books, two book cases or more than two book cases. The economists found that those who grew up in households with less than half a shelf of books, even with an extra year’s education, earned just 5% more compared with the 21% increase earned by those with access to a lot of books. They also discovered that those with access to more books not only were likely to have a white-collar job as their first source of employment but also were more likely to move to better paid jobs in the cities.

Why is an interesting question. The researchers posit the theories that access to books prompts children to read and that an abundance of books may point to advantageous socio-economic conditions. A home with books may encourage the development of the sort of cognitive and socio-economic skills necessary for economic success later in life.

It worked for me and for that, heartfelt thanks.

Book Corner – June 2015 (2)

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A Dance To The Music Of Time – Anthony Powell

Well, I’ve done it – I’ve completed Anthony Powell’s twelve novel series. Inspired by Poussin’s eponymous painting (in the Wallace Collection, if you want to see it) it explores the idea that time (the seasons in Poussin’s painting) marches inexorably on whilst characters (the dancers) move in and out of sight as if they were performing an elaborate dance.

It seems mind boggling that someone would contemplate writing such a lengthy series of books these days – Powell’s books were published between 1951 and 1975. It is an enterprise fraught with danger – you could die midway, a jilted inamorata could destroy your manuscript (as happened to X Trapnel in my second favourite of the series, Books Do Furnish A room) or you could just lose heart. And it requires an orderly and structured mind to ensure that too many inconsistencies of plot and character do not creep in.

Inevitably with a work of this size a cottage industry has sprung up to assist the reader. I found Hilary Spurling’s concordance, An Invitation to the Dance, an invaluable guide to keep track of characters and to remind oneself of a literary reference casually tossed into the prose. And actually, there are very few obvious inconsistencies.

Powell is rather like marmite – you either love him or hate him – and many in the latter camp were luminaries in literary and artistic circles who perhaps saw a snatch of their own character in the Dance’s cast list.

To characterise the books in a few sentences, they are a comedy of manners – they are genuinely funny in parts – which comment on and lampoon English upper class and bohemian circles. A central theme running through the books is power in all its myriad forms, political, military, commercial, artistic and sexual and its use and abuse and the tragic and comic consequences thereof. The anti-hero is an odious but brilliantly created character, Kenneth Widmerpool, whose vicissitudes of fortune form a significant part of the magnum opus.

Strangely, the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, whose journey through life from school, varsity, the arts, the army and novel writing we follow, comes across as a bit of a cold fish. What we find out about him and his personal life we have to piece together from snippets, obiter dicta and throwaway comments. But he is our constant and reassuring companion through this long journey.

Reading all of the books in a relatively short period of time you can easily spot the signals of where the plot is going to take you next – there is a bit of clunkiness in the overall plotting and it is astonishing how often characters who have had nothing to do with each other for years suddenly bump into each other in the unlikeliest of settings. Perhaps London was much smaller in those days and I don’t move in the right circles but it never seems to happen to me. And of course when characters meet after such a long time there is an opportunity to recycle what had happened earlier in the sequence, a device that allows Powell to take his foot off the gas every once in a while.

Of the dozen books my favourite is the sixth in the sequence, The Kindly Ones. I have always had a soft spot for the Furies, the Eumenides in Greek which translates tongue-in-cheek as the kindly ones – geddit? The ability to solve cryptic crossword clues is helpful, but not essential, for the enjoyment of Powell – and the book features some moments of high comedy, for example when the maid, Billson, interrupts the evening’s entertainment by walking in naked – and moments which profoundly affect the direction of the sequence such as the re-enactment of the tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Probably each of the books could be read in isolation without losing too much of the context but I found that once I had plunged in at the beginning, I was hooked.