Book Corner – March 2019 (2)

The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning

This is the first of what became Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and was published in 1960. I have not read Manning before and so was unsure what to expect, save that greater critics than I rate the series.

In truth, I found it an undemanding read, ideal for perusing whilst lying on a sun lounger, and when I came to think about it after finishing it, it seemed to me to be much ado about nothing. There is little in the way of action or, indeed plot, which is a tad surprising, given the book’s premise.

We are in Bucharest in 1939 at the time when Britain declares war on Germany. Rumania is ostensibly neutral but even during this first part of the trilogy the vultures are circling the carcass. The principal characters are two Brits, Guy and Harriet Pringle. Guy has lived in Bucharest for a while and has a teaching post at the University. He returns bringing his new bride, Harriet, whom he has married after a whirlwind romance.

There is little in the way of back story so we really don’t know much about the nature of their romance or why Harriet was persuaded to live in a country far away from Blighty with a man she barely knew. What we should know, though, is that the book is semi-autobiographical, Manning arriving in Bucharest as a newly-wed just as war was declared.

The Pringle’s world is principally that of British ex-pats, fellow academics, bureaucrats and members of the press. Their interaction with Rumanians is marginal and Manning’s portrayal of the locals is not flattering. They are loafers, beggars or domestic menials. The ex-pats’ diurnal routine is work, drinks in the English Bar at one of the city’s hotels, gossiping and conducting their own petty feuds. There are some interlopers, none more so than the inveterate sponge Prince Yakimov, who provides a comedic element to the tale.

What does come through in this book is Manning’s astute sense of time and place. It is an atmospheric novel. It would be easy for her to ramp up the tension and drama of a group of beleaguered Brits in a foreign and potentially inimical country but her approach is one that emphasises the mundanity of their life. The war is a mild irritant that barely gets in the way of the lead characters’ lives but you sense through her narrative that it is the reality of their situation is creeping ever nearer.

It is a cliché that the Brits holed up in a corner show a certain stiffness about the upper lip. Guy with an astonishing insouciance for the situation decides to produce a play, Troilus and Cressida, as that is what would be expected of the Brits in such circs. The second half of the book is dominated by the play, Harriet finding herself excluded from proceedings and left to her own devices and to ponder the state of her relationship with Guy. The timing of the play which deals with the fall of Troy coincides with the German invasion of France, the capture of Paris and Britain’s bleakest moments.

There is a temptation to compare the book with Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time but this should be resisted. The same characters crop in different circumstances but Manning’s book lacks the satirical bite of Powell.

It was an entertaining enough read and I found enough in it to entice me to read the second part, The Spoilt City, more of which anon.

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 – 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)

swordofhonour

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.