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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 43-56

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

11 September. Day 43  Finished Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. Brilliant, fascinating, moving.  The narrative was labyrinthine, moving around from Before (before her father was arrested) to After (what happened to the rest of the family after his arrest) but only towards the final pages coming to that terrible truth at the heart of it all – what happened to him  and ultimately how and why he died.  Extraordinary.

On to Livi Michael’s Succession.  I have read most of her adult novels (Inheritance, All the Dark Air, Their Angel Reach) and read to my daughter at least one of her stories about an intrepid and resourceful hamster called Frank.  This one is historical fiction, the first in a trilogy set during the Wars of the Roses.

michael

As a child and a teenager I devoured historical novels.  Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Leon Garfield – each of them in my memory evokes a particular period of history.  Later on I read Margaret Irwin, Edith Sitwell’s books on Elizabeth I (Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason.

This last is particularly relevant to the Livi Michael trilogy, and I’m quite excited about reawakening my earlier fascination with this period of history, and rediscovering a writer who I know through novels with a very contemporary setting.

I’m also about to start on Philip Roth’s The Plot against America.  From fictionalised real history to an ‘alternative’ history, in which Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 and Lindbergh becomes President. Intriguingly, it’s an alternative personal history too – the history of the Roth family had events turned out in this way.  I think my first encounter with alternative history was in Joan Aiken’s terrific, gothic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in the reign of James III, when a channel tunnel has been built, via which wolves have migrated into Britain in large numbers.   Probably the majority of works in this genre, however, have taken World War II as their setting, positing some crucial moment at which everything changed, allowing a Nazi victory in Europe (and beyond).  The more one knows of the ‘real’ history, the more fascinating (and potentially contentious) this is.

Also on my reading pile (though probably not as part of this project) is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, and positing the rise of a far-right demagogue to the Presidency…  That title was echoed in a film I dimly recall watching, and being horribly chilled by, It Happened Here, subtitled ‘the story of Hitler’s England’.

The Plot… will also, as it happens, be my first Roth.

roth

Caitlin Moran’s piece ‘Reading is Fierce‘ seems especially pertinent in light of this project.*  I allowed myself an unseemly moment of hubris when she mentioned the ‘challenge’ of reading fifty-nine books in five months as a judge on the Baileys Prize (ha!  Try sixty books in under three months, you lightweight!).  But then, there’s this.

And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.  That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure.  Their heads are on fire.  Their hearts are flooding.  With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss –  you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin.  You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die.  These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone.  And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia, or Jamaica Inn, or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them – hiding under the bedclothes, sitting on a bus.

That’s my life she’s writing about, my life with my head in a book, from a four-year-old just graduating from Janet & John to real stories (never ‘just a story’, stories matter, stories can make you fly), to a sixty-year-old powering through novels and memoirs and poems for some daft challenge, reading on buses, in waiting rooms, last thing at night and first thing in the morning.  Singing that ‘unseen, life-changing duet’ with each writer I encounter.  Glorious.

Oh, and I can’t ever ever read Moran’s piece ‘To Teenage Girls on the Edge’ without having quite a big cry. It’s everything I wanted to, tried to, meant to say to my own teenage girl when she was in that place, but said so much better than I ever could.

Ooh, this Livi Michael is good.

12 September. Day 44

A difficult day but in what free time there was, I progressed mightily with Succession. Once one has got one’s head round the Dukes of This and Earls of That (another disadvantage with a Kindle, BTW – Livi Michael kindly provides a cast list at the front of the book, but it’s far more faff to refer to it in an electronic book than in a real one) the narrative is compelling, the characters fascinating (especially the two Margarets) and the writing beautiful.

I’ve always taken the view that any hierarchy of literary merit must ignore the notion of ‘genre fiction’.  There’s good writing, and there’s bad.  There are literary prize winners that are unreadable, ‘classics’ that are turgid and dull, and crime or horror or historical novels that are written with such power and depth that they stay in the mind and the heart long after the last page is turned.  Of course many novels refuse to be categorised, but there are fine writers who are not only unashamed to be part of a genre, but also exploit and transcend the constraints of that genre.  Historical fiction as a genre includes plenty of dross, some of which I read (and quickly tired of) in my teens – but there’s plenty of excellent writing too, and this is a great example.

13 September. Day 45 – Finished Succession.  Obviously given my self-imposed rule about not reading more than one book by the same writer, I can’t go straight on to the next title in the trilogy, but I will look forward to it immensely once this challenge is complete.   Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, those of major players in the events and those of very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles.  And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us.

The Plot against America is splendid.  And chilling.  Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism  in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame.  We’ve seen that very recently on the streets of the USA.

On now to another writer who I’ve loved for many years, and who very sadly died only a few months ago, far far too young, Helen Dunmore.  It’s another historical novel, but much more recent history.  The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege, set in Leningrad after the Second World War, and I’m looking forward to it, and glad that there are still a few of her novels – and all of her poetry – for me to enjoy.

Dunmore

14 September. Day 46 – The Betrayal takes us into the world of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship, where everyone has learned to speak quietly because there’s always someone listening, where everyone lives in fear of a denunciation or just of coming to the notice of the powers that be, for good or bad reasons.  It reminds me in that respect of another recent read, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter which evokes this atmosphere very powerfully.

15 September. Day 47 – Finished The Betrayal.  Brilliant, beautiful and sad.  It really does evoke that world where ‘they’ can do whatever they want, regardless of truth, regardless of sense, regardless even of self-interest, and you – the ordinary citizen, even the Party official, should the wind change direction – can do nothing to prevent it.   The central characters (who carry over from The Siege) are (as one of the reviews pointed out) perhaps unrealistically beyond reproach.  However, they are vividly and sympathetically drawn, and what Dunmore shows is how their integrity, their courage, their dignity is of so little use to them in the face of paranoid tyranny.   It shows also how hope survives, just.  They told themselves after the siege was over that things would get better.  And despite the betrayal of that hope, there is still a glimmer at the end of the novel.

Next up, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Turkey, for Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.  

shafak

Also finished The Plot against America.   A couple of the reviews give a spoiler-free flavour of the book:

I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ (Michael Wood, London Review of Books)

Roth … dramatizes two vast and contradictory principles simultaneously: on the one hand, the susceptibility of American individualism to the cult of celebrity, and of American faith in democracy to a tyranny of the majority, leading to a particular vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who win widespread popular support and gain a grip on the three branches of government; and, on the other, the distinctively American sense of freedom, stiffening the will to resist such political depravities, a will that’s integral to the country’s values, heritage, and history. The novel’s great tragic power lies precisely in the clash between the two. (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

The New Yorker piece, notably, is recent (February 2017, whilst the book was actually published in 2004).  It valiantly avoids spelling out the all-too-evident contemporary parallels (particularly given that the current incumbent of the White House drew explicitly on America First rhetoric in his campaign and in his inaugural speech).

16 September. Day 48 – Started two new books.  Three Daughters of Eve has already captivated me.  Its protagonist, Peri, is engaging and fascinating.  We meet her first in the present day, a woman in middle age, attempting to hang on to her self-confidence in the face of an eye-rolling teenage daughter.  Yes, I think we can identify…  But the narrative gets very dark, very quickly.   The setting is not familiar to me – of course I know a little of Turkey’s history and recent events, but not enough, and I look forward to deepening my understanding.

The second new one is The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley.  That’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages, and I’m still not 100% convinced it’s ideal bedtime reading, so if it gives me nightmares I might have to swap.  So far, so undefinably creepy.  We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why.  Not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King who is the master of unease (he also does full-on gross-out grue, of course, but it’s the unease, the uncanny, the sense of a place being just a bit wrong, that I think he does best).

hurley

17 September. Day 49 – Finished Three Daughters of Eve.  Whilst it’s not short on action, it is preoccupied with questions of spirituality and faith (not only religious conviction but feminism), exploring them through Peri’s ill-matched parents, and through her encounters as a student at Oxford, where she becomes one of the eponymous ‘three daughters’.  Peri is introspective and constantly questioning – she characterises herself as ‘confused’ because she cannot resolve the contradictions she has either inherited or acquired.   Shafak weaves the philosophical debates into personal and political crises as she moves between the different time frames – the present day, unfolding almost real time at a posh Istanbul dinner party, childhood, and student days.  Fascinating.

Treating myself to the new Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze.  Another writer who I’ve enjoyed enormously over the years (along with Livi Michael, Glaister was involved with the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, during the period when I worked there).

18 September. Day 50 – Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets.

Glaister’s territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she’s not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths.

This novel is no exception.  It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman.  But connect they do.

glaister

Excellent as always, and makes me want to revisit her earlier novels.

Off to Ghana now, where I spent some of my childhood.   Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash.  So this one ticks two boxes, one for genre and one for setting.

parkes

And it’s a delight.  The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.  Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends.  He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.

19 September. Day 51 – Finished The Loney.  The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith.  There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides.   Is it a horror novel?  It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative:

“you knew something had happened, but quite what it was or why, you weren’t entirely sure.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/11/andrew-michael-hurley-there-is-no-place-more-terrifying-than-your-own-mind

Hurley suspends the story in a limbo between the supernatural and the merely strange: it is not clear whether the fantastic has occurred, or whether characters are mad, or which of these would be worse.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/28/the-loney-andrew-michael-hurley-review-gothic-novel

Now reading The Silent Wife, by A S A Harrison.  This is a psychological thriller, and it’s both Harrison’s debut and her final novel as she died before completing her second.   It was greeted by the inevitable, tiresome cries of ‘this year’s Gone Girl/Girl on the Train‘ – I enjoyed both of those enormously but it’s irritating that we need to pigeonhole everything so that Amazon can tell us that, if we liked x, we will like y.  Not necessarily so.  Anyway, so far it has drawn me in very neatly, so that although I don’t exactly like either of the main characters, I do very much want to know how (as we’re told from the start will happen) Jodi becomes a killer.

harrison

Also reading Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints.  The origins of this collection of short dialogues are interesting, as all of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book.  Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’

doyle

20 September. Day 52 – Finished The Silent Wife.   I didn’t end up liking either Joni or Todd any more by the end of the book than I had at the beginning but contrary to popular wisdom that isn’t essential (did anyone like either of the protagonists in Gone Girl?  Really?), though I was certainly rooting for her rather than him.  Unlike Gone Girl, this isn’t a narrative that depends upon twists – rather it builds its characters and its plot little by little, and whilst both narrators are unreliable, they’re only unreliable in the way that anyone is in recounting their own life.  It’s a very clever, subtle portrayal – we see, little by little, below the beautifully arranged surface of their lives, see the fault lines in their relationship, and in their own pasts, fault lines which open up and engulf them.  Susan Harrison only ventured into fiction in her 60s.  She died of cancer, aged 65, just before her debut novel was published.

Just started another debut novel, Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage.  Published in 1985, it’s set in the late 50s, and tells the story of one family who made the journey from the West Indies to the UK in the hope of a better life.  It’s similar territory to that explored by Andrea Levy in Small Island, published twenty years later, though her immigrants arrived here in the immediate postwar period,  rather than the late 50s.

phillips

Finished Two Pints.  Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).  The two drinkers talk about all the things that two blokes in a pub might talk about.  The missis, the kids, the football, politics, religion, sex – and they mark the passing of various notable people who’ve just died, in ways that manage to be funny, rude and sweary, and often very poignant.  I’ve read lots of his more recent ‘obits’, and I particularly remember the Two Pints tribute to Bowie…

-I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
-You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.

Off to Italy now for a spot of crime and detection, with Inspector Montalbano.  Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat will be my first Montalbano (and I haven’t seen the TV series either), so I’m looking forward to discovering another new crime writer.

camilleri

21 September. Day 53 – Enjoying The Final Passage.  I keep having to remind myself how young Leila is, when I get frustrated with her for getting entangled with Michael who is so so obviously a wrong ‘un, feckless, faithless and by and large useless.  But she’s hardly more than a child herself, and girls and even grown women who should be old enough to know better do fall for feckless, faithless and useless men. I dare say the reverse is true but surely to a lesser extent – there’s a whole culture of women standing by their men, when the sensible thing would clearly be to kick him out or walk away.  It’s rarely that simple and in many situations – particularly where there’s a child involved – neither of those options may seem possible.  Of course the relationship between Leila and Michael is only one aspect of the novel – the passage from Jamaica to England is what drives it, and that’s powerfully done.  The contrasts are both obvious – from heat and humidity that saps the energy to cold that gets into the bones – and less so. Even though they come from what we would see as poverty, the squalor of living conditions in London horrifies them, the dirt and the broken things that no-one bothers to mend.  It’s a desperately sad account, and hard to see much hope for the future, given where the narrative leaves Leila, so profoundly alone in a strange land.

22 September. Day 54 – Montalbano is delightful.  Despite the heinous nature of the crime being investigated, there’s a great deal of humour in the characterisation and the dialogue.  But there’s another thread running through it, of political commentary:

How had Papa Dante put it?

Ah, servile Italy, you are sorrow’s hostel,

a ship without helmsman in terrible storms,

lady not of the provinces, but of a brothel!

Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church, and the storms had become a daily occurrence, thanks to a helmsman whom she would have been better off without.

Montalbano cares about justice.  And meantime he spends much of this particular novel stripped to his underwear in the office, with only a small hand-held fan to keep him cool as he navigates witness testimonies, police bureaucracy, corruption and protection rackets.

Two new books to start now:  Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.

23 September. Day 55 – Neither O’Connor nor Smith is totally new to me.  I’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Whole Story and other Stories – strangely both collections of short stories, which I tend not to favour.  O’Connor is fascinating – Southern Gothic if one has to pigeonhole her, but she herself responded to those who called her writing cynical or brutal that:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. …When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Smith’s short story collection was terrific, and I’ve wanted to read one of her novels for some time (especially since hearing and falling rather in love with her on Desert Island Discs a while back).  And Hotel World is glorious.  It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity.  She reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor, whose work I love.  Note to self: read more Smith, and read McGregor’s  latest, Reservoir 13.

 

24 September. Day 56 – Just finished Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow. I’ve taken my time over it – each poem needs to be savoured, not just consumed and then on to the next. There are some astonishing moments here:

From ‘Firewood’:

then we rouse in it

a thing with breath to rage against dim,

to syncopate our undertones, rid the roomscape

of straight edge and flickered repeat.

Or this from ‘Last night’:

             mist rolled in –

a settlement of pale net layered itself

on the hillside opposite, and sagged

into gardens and lanes, bleared terraces

of gable-ends, nestling in to stifle all

but its own rumour, letting only the pin-glow

of street and window lights poke through.

It flattened valleys, lagged farm and woodland,

swallowed Dark Peak and Bradfield’s mound

into a sky white with it, tasted our tongues

as we talked of it, beaded our hair and lashes

Finished Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.  Billed as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’, it’s also a comic novel, as O’Connor herself insisted, adding ‘and as such, very serious, for all comic novels must be about matters of life and death’ …  It is certainly very dark comedy, violent and bizarre.  I’m not sure that I would want to immerse myself too often in that world view but it’s brilliant, strange and fascinating.

Just starting two new books, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, a collection of pieces he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, described in a Guardian review as ‘a minor masterpiece of death and delusion in a Nordic land’.  Hmmm, neither would seem to offer much prospect of cheeriness.   Will have to ensure that my final tranche of reading includes some lighter fare.

My final reading challenge blog will probably appear a week today, to allow me to reflect on the project, and on what I’ve read (and to catch up on sleep/eating/other activities which may have to be postponed whilst I read the last few books…).

I can’t believe the end is quite so nigh.  I read 15 books this fortnight, which would obviously be fine if I’d done that well in the previous few weeks, but I fell behind and haven’t fully caught up.  My total now stands at 52, so in the next four days I need to read 8 books.  Of course I can do that.  No worries.  Piece of cake.

 

 

* See also this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/02/mary-oliver-upstream-staying-alive-reading/  and this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/13/rebecca-solnit-faraway-nearby-reading-writing/)

 

 

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 29-42

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

28 August. Day 29 – just started these two:

Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). I’m not far into The Gustav Sonata but it is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written.

I haven’t previously read anything by Tom Rob Smith, though we did watch and enjoy London Spy.  So far, so intriguing.

29 August. Day 30 – I’m halfway through!  And more or less on target.

Finished The Gustav Sonata, which is wonderful.  I can’t say too much – except to urge everyone to read it – but this quote, which comes towards the end, gives nothing away of the plot:

We have to become the people we always should have been.

The novel shows us, subtly and movingly, all the ways in which we fail to be the people we should be, fail or are prevented, by our own flaws or by circumstances or by other people.  And gives us along the way some hope.

The Farm  is compelling stuff.  The question the reader is asked from the first page onwards, is who to believe.  Now, for me, this is complicated because we are hearing the voice of a woman whose husband has tried to have her committed, a woman with a disturbing story to tell and who people seem to be trying to silence.  I’m programmed to believe her, given the tragic history of women who have been silenced, or who people have attempted to silence, using claims that they are ‘mad’, gaslighting techniques.  But maybe it’s not that straightforward – if one transposed elements of that narrative to a male voice I would be much more likely to read it as evidence of paranoid delusion.

Started Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, in which he ‘discusses ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things and two people together, and about tearing them apart.’

barnes quote

30 August. Day 31 – I must admit that I went for the Barnes because it was the shortest book within arms’ reach.  I’d read his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I enjoyed rather than loved, and so I wasn’t eager for this one in the way that I have been to read something new by an author that I’d really fallen for already.  But I’m so glad I read this, and I will read it again, and again, I think.  It’s about the death of Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it’s beautiful and quietly devastating.

barnes

The Farm was excellent.  A story about stories, and about secrets.  Read it and be repeatedly wrongfooted, as one narrative is undermined and another established, until in turn that too is shown to be unreliable…

Just started David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma.  Kate Atkinson called it ‘a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil’.

grann 2

31 August. Day 32 – just started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto – ideal to read at night when I’m getting tired and concentration dips.  V v v funny as always, whilst being clear-sighted and righteous.

Moran

More laughs are promised in The Rosie Project.  Now, the words ‘romantic’ and ‘heartwarming’ are usually guaranteed turn-offs for me but the reviews make this one sound worth pursuing, and so many of my other reads have been dark and/or sad.

Simison

1 September. Day 33 – Enjoying The Rosie Project.  The protagonist has a touch of the Sheldon Coopers, it must be said.  It’s odd that, having spent so many years working with physicists and mathematicians, I have met so few full-on Sheldons in real life.  Most of those I have worked with have had bags of humour, self awareness and social skills, not to mention creativity (a remarkable number of musicians, artists, writers).  Nonetheless, Don (the protagonist and narrator) is engaging and the interactions with the decidedly unsuitable Rosie are delightfully funny.

Meantime, Killers of the Flower Moon is as compelling as the best detective novel, and indeed one might be inclined to think the plot a bit overwrought were it not a true story. And a shocking one, even when one is fairly knowledgeable about US history.

2 September. Day 34 – Caitlin Moran in full-on righteous indignation mode is magnificent.   And still extremely funny.  Just been reading her pieces on media treatment of benefits claimants, in the context of Benefits Street, and of the Mick Philpott case.  It might seem incongruous that these pieces originally appeared in The Times, but actually that is absolutely right since her point is that she – as someone who grew up in a family that relied on benefits to get by – is an anomaly in the circles in which she now moves, and in the media to which she now has access, and that most media coverage treats benefits claimants as ‘other’ , whether it is vilifying or pitying them.

3 September. Day 35 – Finished The Rosie Project.  It was delightful – very funny, and touching.  Most of its reviewers were entirely won over but the Daily Telegraph demurred:

For those unaware of Asperger’s syndrome and its foibles, The Rosie Project could serve as a gentle and funny introduction. Those who already understand the condition may object to the moral that mental difference can and must be erased.

Thing is, I don’t think that was the moral.  The moral, surely, was that both parties in a relationship need to accept the other for who they are, quirks and all.  And this was supported by a couple of reviews from knowledgeable sources.  Cees Kan, a Dutch psychiatrist specialising in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in adulthood, said that:

The great value of this book is its positive message about the possibility of experiencing romantic love despite of autism. Of course it is a challenge to overcome the autistic difficulties, which requires a willingness to think out of the box about how it is still possible to intimately relate to one another. However, I am convinced that it can be done, as I have met many couples that have shown me that they had managed to do so. Patients and their partners often tell me that in treatments too much emphasis is being put on the negative aspects of autism spectrum disorders, while they actually feel more supported and helped by messages which provide them with a positive perspective on their potential possibilities.

And Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, concurred.  She acknowledges several points in the narrative where she was concerned that the reality of Aspergers would be sanitised or erased, but believes that Simsion avoids these pitfalls.

I loved it.  And for my money, Rosie was at least as annoying as Don.

Have found a Hilary Mantel that I never got round to reading.  No idea why, since I’ve never read a Mantel that I haven’t enjoyed.  Anyway, The Giant, O’Brien is up next.

mantel

4 September. Day 36 – Can’t think why I left an unread Mantel to gather dust on my shelf.  Only just started it but am already captured.

As I was, entirely, by David Grann’s extraordinary account of the Reign of Terror visited upon the Osage people in the 1920s by those who wanted access to their oil wealth. Shocking, and moving.

Just started an Australian crime thriller, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry.  

harper

5 September. Day 37 – The Dry was a terrific read.  The parched landscape, the oppressive heat, the constant awareness of danger from the natural world, and from the inhabitants of the small town, tested almost to destruction by the drought, all are vividly evoked.  The initial explanation of the crime recalls Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but that’s only the first attempt to unravel what happened, and Harper gives her readers lots of twists and turns, memories recovered, clues uncovered, and a heart-in-mouth finale.

A change of location now, from the Australian outback to Sierra Leone for Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water.   It’s a memoir of her West African childhood, and of the murder of her dissident father.

forna

6 September. Day 38 – Finished The Giant, O’Brien.  It’s a fictionalised account of historical characters from the late 18th century: the eponymous giant (a poet, a teller of tales, who towers over his contemporaries but spends his life crammed into spaces too small to hold him) and surgeon John Hunter (an experimental scientist who finds his profession and its legal and ethical constraints too small to hold him too), and how their paths converge.    John Mullan described this as ‘something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.’  Mantel’s use of language is extraordinary – from lyrical to brutal in a sentence’s length.

About to start on a permitted re-read (see The Rules, above).  Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I think I read in sixth-form.

7 September. Day 39 – I was sure I’d read A Farewell to Arms, albeit several decades ago. Yet it rings no bells (oblique reference to another Hemingway, which I’m even more sure I’ve read).  Anyway, I am reading it as if for the first time, coming to it afresh.  It’s a powerful depiction of the futility and brutality of war, told in a spare prose and with an immediacy and directness that does not manipulatively demand an emotional response from the reader but is all the more devastating for that.  I admit to a degree of prejudice about Hemingway because I’ve read so much about him being a bit of a dick, but that obviously doesn’t preclude him being a splendid writer!

Meantime am captivated by Aminatta Forna’s memoir.  It triggers so many of my own memories of a West African childhood whilst telling a compelling story of corruption and state oppression.

8 September. Day 40 – I’ve always felt slightly awkward about ‘claiming’ Ghana as part of my heritage.  But it feels as if it is part of me, that childhood spent in Kumasi, and I hope that in using my Ashanti day name, Abena, as part of my Facebook name, I am honouring rather than appropriating that early encounter with a rich culture and history, and a beautiful land and people.  It’s the little details that are the most powerful in my memory.  Aromas, colours, sounds.  The rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof, the red dust of the laterite roads, the ant lions creating their whirlwinds in the sand, the sound of highlife music wafting over from the student residences near our home.

Ghana

Forna’s memoir keeps bringing these details back to me. It’s a lot more than that, of course, but I get emotionally derailed by these madeleine moments.  None more so than Aminatta’s encounter with a fawn, rescued when its mother was killed, which her father brings home.  It was beautiful, and it died.  As was ours, and as did ours, a Duiker.

9 September. Day 41 – The personal connections with The Devil that Danced on the Water extend to the political context too.  We arrived in Ghana early on in Nkrumah’s presidency, and left around the time that his growing paranoia and authoritarianism led to opposition and his overthrow.  Our new home was in Northern Nigeria, where coups and counter-coups led to pogroms and ultimately civil war.  Like Forna, we were too young to understand what it all meant, and have pieced together the history of those turbulent times, seeing our childhood fragments of memory differently in that wider context, understanding things that were baffling at the time.  Of course, I’m not suggesting a true equivalence of experience.  We, as expats in that time and place, were not ourselves at risk.  Forna’s father and his political allies were targets, and he and thus the children too were in real danger.

10 September. Day 42 – Having a(nother) rubbish night’s sleep had the benefit of giving me a bit more reading time this morning, so I finished the Hemingway.  The ending broke me a bit, even though I knew what was coming.  And this bit:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.  Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.

Weeks 5-6  I’ve only completed 8 books this fortnight. I’m still partway through The Battle for Spain, Contraflow, Moranifesto, and The Devil that Dances on the Water. I am thus falling behind on the project – largely due to the necessity of spending significant portions of each day travelling and/or hospital visiting, time when I cannot read.  Things may get easier from now on, and if all else fails I will forego sleep altogether for the last few days and just read, read, read.  I’ve accepted this challenge and I will succeed.

My next bulletin will be on 24 September, covering days 43-56.

Onwards!

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 15-28

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the second instalment of my reading diary, with the third to follow on 10 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.

14 August. Day 15 –  reading Kate Atkinson is, as always, a delight. My 2016 books blog said:

And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.  I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling.  I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again.  Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.

Case Histories is obviously different, it’s crime fiction if one has to pin a genre on it, featuring Jackson Brodie (PI) who was played by Jason Isaacs in a TV version a few years back.  Not sure why I’ve never read Atkinson’s detective fiction since I’ve loved her other books and – as must be fairly obvious – I love crime/detective fiction.   OK, it wasn’t strictly necessary to illustrate this with the DVD cover but, well, Jason Isaacs.

brodie

The Le Carré memoir is fascinating.  It’s years since I read any of his books, but I have read a lot of them (and watched the recent adaptation of The Night Manager).  Le Carré introduces The Pigeon Tunnel with a caveat:

These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?

But he says that nothing is consciously falsified – merely disguised where necessary.

lecarre

His account of his friendship with Yvette Pierpaoli (the inspiration for Tessa in The Constant Gardener) is a highlight – an extraordinary woman who lived and died in the pursuit of a mission to help people who needed it, in particular refugees, in war zones around the world.  Coincidentally, le Carré’s (or more accurately Cornwell’s) world overlapped with Alan Bennett’s (anecdotes about Alec Guinness, and Lindsay Anderson, for example).  And another coincidence – Cornwell senior was a fairly monstrous (if sometimes pathetic) figure, a crook and a swindler, and monstrous fathers have cropped up a number of times in the books I’ve read so far.

Now reading Jane Casey’s The Last Girl, her third Maeve Kerrigan thriller.

casey

I’ve read the previous two, and Casey’s stand-alone novel, The Missing, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much.  I might have slipped up, however, in reading two crime novels concurrently – will try to avoid that in future, so I don’t get my corpses mixed up…

15 August. Day 16 – I think the occasional sense of familiarity I’m getting from Case Histories must be déjà vu rather than déjà lu.  There are multiple narrative threads – too early to see if/how they come together – but not all of them evoke that feeling, which is probably because the TV series simplified things and some story-lines and/or characters were excised.   As always, I revel in Atkinson’s writing.  She can set you up to find a character ridiculous or unlikeable and then suddenly, wham, you’re weeping or cheering for them.

The Last Girl was thoroughly enjoyable.  Maeve Kerrigan is a convincing and intriguing protagonist, and there is a host of persuasive characters – colleagues, suspects, victims – with whom she interacts.  Her two key relationships – with her partner, Derwent, and her boyfriend, Rob – have layers of ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty which make them interesting.  This wasn’t my favourite Casey – it’s a wee bit talky, and a bit baggy in the middle, perhaps.  Nothing that stopped it being a grand read, nor will it deter me from devouring the rest of the Maeve Kerrigan series.

Something a bit different now, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air.

paver

Finished Case Studies.  Right to the end, it was funny, and terribly sad and utterly engaging.  Did I mention I love Kate Atkinson?

16 August.  Day 17 – alongside the Michelle Paver (which is gripping stuff), I’m about to start Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.   Here I anticipate incredulity and outrage – what do I mean, I’ve never read this?  How can I possibly claim any credibility as a feminist and a booklover and a leftie and, well, anything else, if I haven’t read it?  Well, I don’t know, I just somehow never got round to it.  I did read a couple of hers many years back, The Edible Woman, for sure, and possibly Cat’s Eye.  But not this one.  I have seen the TV series, which was outstanding, powerful, extraordinary and harrowing.  Time I read the book then.

atwood

 

17 August.  Day 18 – if I was concerned that having seen the TV adaptation so recently, reading The Handmaid’s Tale would be a let down, I need not have been.   The TV series does, I know, depart significantly from the book in plot terms later on (there are already aspects which are interestingly different and I will be fascinated to see how they pan out).  But the book can do things that the TV series cannot, even with June/Offred’s narration to help us out, in the description of places and things that go so far beyond the literal and the visual.  It’s been said that the best books make the worst screen adaptations, and there are many I’ve seen that would bear that out, although plenty also to disprove it – in this case both the book and the TV adaptation are immense, and horrifyingly pertinent, and will stay in the mind and the heart long after they have been read or watched.

Thin Air is an excellent read – it’s about an ascent, some time between the two world wars, of Kanchenjunga.  I don’t know the historical basis for it, and will (by a considerable and commendable effort of will) not Wikipedia it.  It’s billed as a ghost story, and so far, so atmospheric.

Finished Thin Air.  It’s an old-fashioned sort of ghost story – partly that’s created by the narrator’s voice, he’s very much a man of his time and class, partly because there is always a degree of ambiguity about the haunting, whether it is the product of fear, guilt, altitude sickness – or whether there really is something terribly wrong on Kanchenjunga’s south-west face.   There’s a chill in the air, in every sense.

Now reading Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, the true story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman.  A fascinating character, Eddie.   And the story is told with a dry humour that promises well:

Which is how Eddie Chapman came to be pounding down a Jersey beach, leaving in his wake two plain-clothes policemen, a distraught young woman, and half a sherry trifle.

macintyre

 

18 August.  Day 19 –  The Handmaid’s Tale is astonishing.  I am trying not to focus too much on the differences between the book and the TV series, just to take in the book for what it is.  What strikes me is the sense of time stretching out for these women, whose lives have been essentially reduced to one function, waiting for the moments when they have to perform, waiting each month to see whether they will be able to fulfil that function, or whether some other, worse, future threatens.  The other thing is the sheer physicality of the descriptions.  As the Handmaids have been reduced to their biological function their bodies become paramount, the sensations of their (modest and hygienic) clothing on their skin, their memories of desire and of a loved person’s arms around them, or a child in their arms.   The other thing of course is that the book is entirely from June/Offred’s point of view – we know only what she knows, whereas the TV series tells the stories of some of the other characters, showing events which June did not witness or learn about.  This makes the book even more brutal and gives huge power to her statement about why she is setting down her account, why she is bearing witness, without knowing that that there is anyone to bear witness to:

It hurts me to tell it over, over again.  Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story  because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place.   What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being.  Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence.  I tell, therefore you are.

Just finished The Handmaid.   I fear I’ve rushed it, which was always going to be a risk with this exercise, but I will look forward to a re-read at some later point, when I can savour it properly.

Agent Zigzag often seems a less plausible tale than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy.   As with so many books I’ve read about espionage and counter-espionage in WWII, what strikes one quite often is that the Allies’ success is due to a mix of brilliance (breaking codes, turning German agents), the incompetence of the Abwehr (sending agents who could barely speak English and/or were utterly unfamiliar with the culture – for example the one who tried to pay for a pint with £10 and 6 shillings, when he’d been charged 10 & 6 ….), and sheer luck.

On now to M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans.  I haven’t seen the film (the trailer looked a bit maudlin for my taste), but the book got some good reviews, and has been recommended by my daughter.

stedman

 

19 August.  Day 20 –  Finished the extraordinary story of Agent Zigzag.  Brilliantly told by Ben Macintyre, who sees his subject clearly and without sentimentality, but with justifiable respect and warmth.

About to start Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth.  Billed as an ‘apocalyptic chiller’ – I haven’t yet read anything by Sarah Moss but seem to have several stored up on the Kindle so will be interested to try this one.

moss

20 August.  Day 21 – Cold Earth gets off to a thoroughly intriguing start.  Set in Greenland on an archaeological dig, Moss juxtaposes the narrator’s voice (Nina, who travels a lot but hates being anywhere she’s not within walking distance of bookshops and good fairtrade coffee, and who worries about everything) and another darker voice from a distant past, along with hints of something bad happening back at home …  No idea how this will play out but can’t wait to read on.

21 August.  Day 22 – Finished Cold Earth.  Interesting how it links in with two of the other books I’ve read as part of this challenge – All the Little Children, and Thin Air.  I can’t think of any way of fully explaining what I mean by this, without risking major spoilers, so will limit myself to saying that there are elements of (possible/threatened) apocalypse in common with the first, and of hauntings (possible/imagined) with the second.  And they share a prickly unease, a sense of the uncanny, and of growing dread.  I mentioned the narrator as being Nina, who gets the first section of the book to herself, but in fact each of the protagonists is given their own voice, so each sets the events, and the other people, in a different light.

Also finished The Light between Oceans. This was emotionally gripping, not so much the story of a moral dilemma, but of a moment when a choice was made – the wrong choice – and events unfolded inexorably such that ‘putting things right’ meant making everything wrong. This could have been a specious exercise in manipulation – it is much better than that, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and the setting too.  We are drawn in to the life on the island and the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper, so that we understand how that terribly wrong choice was made.  Yes, it’s melodramatic, at points, and yes it is a weepie.  Nothing wrong with that, if it’s well written.  It sounds as though the film may tip things over into an excess of heart and tear-duct wringing, though….

22 August.  Day 23 – on to a sci-fi classic now, H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau.  It’s of particular interest since this 1896 novel inspired the brilliant TV series, Orphan Black (whose final series we are currently watching).   This edition has an intro by Margaret Atwood which is heralded with spoiler warnings so I will read it after rather than before I read the story.

In parallel with H G, I’m reading a thriller which is very much of the moment.  Startlingly so.  Sam Bourne’s To Kill the President is not about past conspiracy theories (no grassy knolls here).  It’s about what happens when the unthinkable happens, and the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger is a ‘volatile demagogue’, an ‘increasingly crazed would-be tyrant’:

When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.

bourne

Obviously any resemblance to real persons or situations is entirely uncoincidental…  It was written, presumably, during the election campaign, but must have been finished by or very shortly after the inauguration.  It’s right now, in other words.  Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who’s always worth reading anyway, and this thriller really does thrill.

The Island of Dr Moreau is fascinating – it sits in a way with Frankenstein as a study of man taking on the role of god, in the context of Darwinian theory and with elements of social satire.  It’s uncomfortable, in its depiction of white men manipulating and dominating the humanoid creatures who are in the main black or brown, and are described as brutes and savages (however, this is not simplistically  a reflection of the racial views of the time, but is justified – to a degree – within the narrative in terms of what defines humanity.

Crikey, To Kill the President was a cracking read.  If I’d read it before last November, I would have dismissed it as implausible, but now….   Some of what it talks about has certainly happened, some has nearly happened, and some, well, who knows but it seems an awful lot less fanciful than a few months ago.  The crucial thing is that the ethos of the current White House comes across so powerfully – the very question that causes us libtard /snowflake/antifa/alt-lefties so much puzzlement, which is how this administration, this President, can lie, and lie, and lie, without its supporters losing faith, feeling betrayed and fooled, how anyone can look at him and his cronies and not feel revulsion and fear at what they may be capable of.  I can’t say reading this made me feel better about what’s happening over there and its potential implications for not only the US but the rest of us, but it was exhilarating nonetheless and we have to believe that there are people like the good guys in the book still working for peace and democracy within the institutions of the State, as well as on the streets of Charlottesville and Boston and so forth.

From a (slightly) fictionalised portrayal of a politician without political convictions or a moral compass, to the autobiography of one of the few Tory politicians I can stand (and not only because he’s a Forest supporter), Ken Clarke.

clarke

Finished off the day with a few poems from Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection, Contraflow, published by the estimable Longbarrow Press, whose books are always things of beauty and whose customer service is second to none.   These poems are all inspired by the Rivelin Valley, which we can see from our dining room windows, and have often walked in over the years.

The tales that rivers tell have tangled with our own for millennia: before, through, and after the industrial age. Humans’ rapid migration to towns, often along the course of these waterways, has left many of us bewildered and ill-equipped in an environment at odds with the natural world we depend on. Rivers, bringing the relief of nature to the centres of cities they grew, confront us with forces bare-faced and ancient, seemingly unmoved by our regard. Malleable in their youth, prone to messing about before finding their groove, many were harnessed for mill-work as they matured, and then, like us, after centuries of valuable industry, were abandoned, left to lick their wounds.

All these tales converge in the Rivelin, which rises from peat moorland north-west of Sheffield, and descends 80 metres as it approaches the city. This fast-flowing river, and the valley it etched out, is the setting for many of the poems in Fay Musselwhite’s first collection. Contraflow harnesses these energies to carve its own rugged course, with its bottlenecks, bends and counter-currents: tales that slant, swell and spill.

musselwhite.

23 August.  Day 24 – also reading T C Boyle’s Talk Talk, a thriller about identity theft.  It’s intense, all the more so because one of the three main protagonists is deaf, and her struggles with both hearing and speaking, in her attempts to find out who has appropriated her identity and to set things right, are compelling.   Very hard also not to feel a twinge of paranoia and the need to check and re-check one’s bank statements rather carefully, whilst reading about this sort of crime.

t c boyle

Ken Clarke’s memoir is packed with detail (perhaps a tad too packed) but fascinating to read his insights into the Heath and Thatcher governments, the EU referendum (the 70s one, though I think I know where he stands on the recent one too), and many of the political controversies and upheavals with which I am familiar but not from a Tory POV.   (One does gain the distinct impression that most MPs were at least mildly pissed most of the time during the 60s and 70s.)  Also fascinating to read of his Nottinghamshire childhood and education (he was a Nottingham High School boy, as was my husband a few years later).  Every chapter borrows its title from a jazz number, another reason for my fondness for Ken.

24 August.  Day 25 – Talk Talk was excellent.    It’s billed as a thriller but there’s no neat resolution, and it’s about – obviously – identity, but even more than that, about communication and the gaps and dislocations on which relationships and one’s sense of who one is can founder.   Another writer who’s new to me but who I will read more of anon.

Ken continues to entertain.  I’m up to the John Major government now, Black Wednesday looming.  Fascinating to read his perspective on Thatcher: as a longstanding ‘wet’, ‘not one of us’, and a passionate European, he was never an uncritical supporter but he portrays her, not so much sympathetically on a personal level, but somewhat positively in some respects on a political one, at least until her hubris and the sycophancy of her inner circle brought her down.

25 August.  Day 26 – Just about to start Patrick Gale’s The Whole Day Through.  I’ve read several of Gale’s novels, and loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one.

gale

 

Very little progress today.  Mother in law in hospital after a fall at home, all is reasonably ok but a day spent waiting around (for consultants, paperwork etc) without access to reading matter.

26 August.  Day 27 – The Patrick Gale is every bit as engaging as I hoped it would be.  I was interested to note that amongst his top ten books, along with Proust (yes!), Middlemarch (obv) and Persuasion (my favourite Austen, as it happens), was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – there’s something in common I think between Gale and Tyler, who I’ve always loved (I think my favourite Tyler would be Saint Maybe, or Breathing Lessons, but Homesick Restaurant is fab too).

Managed to read a few pages of the Ken Clarke autobiog whilst doing hospital visiting (Mum had nodded off, so I wasn’t really neglecting my duties…).

27 August.  Day 28 –  Finished The Whole Day Through.  Gale’s protagonists are both engaging and infuriating, they want and try to do the right thing, but they’re flawed and awkward and muddled. One of his other novels is called A Perfectly Good Man, which is a brilliant title because the man in question is quite explicitly not perfect, not in the Aristotelian sense that his goodness is complete, could not be better, and has attained its purpose.  These perfectly good people could always be better, and their goodness often fails to attain its purpose, thwarted by their own flaws.  In a way the title reminds me of the way we say ‘its perfectly OK’ which is an odd phrase, but is used to reassure, where ‘OK’ alone could seem grudging.

Also finished Ken Clarke’s autobiography.   Of course I disagree profoundly with him about many things, but he does seem to me to be a man of integrity and sense, and his passionate commitment to Europe gives us substantial common ground.  One of the really interesting things to emerge is the way in which, from John Major onwards, PMs and Cabinets were in hock to the media, desperately trying to play the (mainly right-wing) press.  Ken was persuaded to hold a meeting with Rebekah Brooks at one point and was quite withering about the notion that he, as a lawyer and one of the most experienced government ministers in that Parliament, should listen to and take seriously policy suggestions from an unelected newspaper editor, whose grasp of ethics was decidedly shaky.

About to start Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  I’ve read several of her novels, and have enjoyed them all.

tremain

 

 

Weeks 3-4

So, where am I up to now?  I completed 13 books this fortnight, and am midway through 2 (Musselwhite and Beevor).   Total completed at the end of the fourth week is 25.5 (allowing the Andrea Levy I read in the first tranche as only 0.5 as it was a short story).

I have been somewhat stymied by events, but am pleased to be as close as this to the target.  Allons-y!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 1-14

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days.

Starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.  I originally thought I’d just do one mammoth post at the end of the challenge, but judging by the length of this first entry, it seems more sensible (and kinder to my reader(s)) to post every 14 days.

Rules?  Well, I’m making these up, obviously, since there is as far as I am aware no national or international case law relating to such things.  But I think I have to exclude any re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.  For practical purposes I’m favouring short (obviously), relatively straightforward in narrative terms (nothing too Proustian) and in English as my reading speed in French is far too slow for this exercise.  Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.  I’m including fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), and there’s no reason I can think of to exclude playscripts, or a volume of poetry, as long as I read all of the poems and don’t just dip in, or a collection of short stories.  That raises a question though.  I have on my Kindle some books that are described as short stories – are they too short to count?  How short is too short? The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.

31 July.  Day 1 – already underway: Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, and David Boyle’s Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance.  Started today, Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective.

1 August.  Day 2 – finished The Last Detective.  That was my first Lovesey, I don’t think it will be my last, not groundbreaking but thoroughly entertaining.  Started and finished today, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, a bow drawn at a venture, a freebie from Amazon Prime, which turned out to be a cracking thriller (her debut – will watch out for her next book). Meantime continuing with Beevor.  Fascinating, but so dense with names and facts and places and dates that it’s not going to be a quick read.

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2 August.  Day 3 – finished the Dunkirk book.  This was background reading for the brilliant Christopher Nolan film, which gives the audience an immersive experience of survival on the beaches, at sea and in the air, but quite deliberately no context in terms of the strategy or the politics of it all.

Quite a change of pace, style, genre – everything really – for my next read, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat.  A lovely, quirky, funny and sad children’s/YA book, with mysterious Polaroid illustrations that aren’t at all what they first appear to be.  I’m familiar with some of FCB’s work, of course – Brookie, 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, 24 Hour Party People, Who (what variety is displayed there!) but hadn’t come across this one.  A delight.

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Started on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  Years ago I read The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King regards as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century, and this one is apparently reckoned to be her masterpiece.

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3 August.  Day 4 – finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  That was brilliant! Gothic and charming and deeply disquieting at the same time.   Must read more Shirley Jackson.

Next up is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.

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4 August.  Day 5 – just finished The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Fascinating, ambiguous, with a compelling narrative voice.  I’ve been faffing about since finishing that one, trying to find the next thing to go for, and opening one after another without being convinced. Finally decided on Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry.

fitzgerald.

Wow, that was powerful.  A psychological thriller, where the tension and the anguish build up and up, where you want to scream at the protagonists not to make the mistakes they seem to be inevitably about to make, but where you (at least I) could identify intensely with the female protagonists.  I felt almost physically that hot, awful sense of panicky stress that comes with trying to manage a screaming baby on public transport. Not going to say any more for fear of spoilers.

5 August. Day 6 – having been recommended to read something by Andrea Levy, I found Uriah’s War already on my Kindle. It’s described as a short story though – hmmm.   I might have to work out a rule of thumb and count something as a fraction of a book. This was written for the WWI commemorations, inspired by Levy’s discovery that her grandfather fought at the Somme.

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This was indeed a short story.  A good one, albeit not unfamiliar territory if one has read or watched anything about the role of colonial troops in either World War.  I thought in particular of Rachid Bouchareb’s Les Indigenes (Days of Glory) which tells the story of a group of North African soldiers in the latter days of WWII.

On to Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of personal memoirs.  The first part is a delightful, funny, and often very moving account of his Mam and Dad and the wider family.  His is such a distinctive voice that one can hear it as one reads, and his famed ear for dialogue brings the various family members to vivid life.

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6-7 August.  Day 7-8 – Oh no, I’m falling behind!  7.5 books (counting the Levy as .5) at the close of Day 8.  Will have to up my game…

8 August.  Day 9 – Still reading the Alan Bennett.  It must be a big book!  One of the perils of the Kindle, of course, is not being able to weigh the book in your hand, flick through the pages, and judge how long it might take to read.  I’m loving it, anyway.   Still also reading The Battle for Spain but I think I must put that to one side if I’m to have any chance of meeting this ridiculous challenge.

9 August.  Day 10 – I found at my mother-in-law’s house the other day a Daphne du Maurier novel that I’d never heard of, let alone read.  I thought I’d read the lot, obsessively and repeatedly, as a teenager.  This one, Julius, had escaped my notice completely.  I’ve liberated it from Mum’s bookshelves and just started it this morning.

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10 August.  Day 11 – finally, that’s Alan Bennett sorted.  I seemed to be making such slow progress, despite enjoying it enormously, but the reason became clear when all of a sudden I’d finished the book, with about 25% still to go, the remainder being illustrations (delightful) and index etc.  I thoroughly approve of indexes (indices? or is that something different?) and would ideally like every book to have one, along with a thorough bibliography, but it’s another way in which the Kindle is inferior to the ‘real’ book, in that it’s very clunky to actually make use of such things when you can’t (easily) flick back and forth to check things.   Anyway, the first memoir, focusing on his parents and aunties, was the best bit of the collection but there was a lot more to enjoy, even if ‘enjoy’ seems somewhat the wrong word in relation to his account of being beaten up in Italy, or of treatment for cancer.   And the word ‘splother’, to describe a lot of fuss and to-do-ment, is now firmly a part of my vocab, thanks to Alan’s Dad.

Beginning to get properly into the du Maurier.  I begin also to see one possible reason why this is so much less well known than her other works, which I will probably comment further upon when I’ve finished the book.

Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December was a grand read.  The writing is beautiful and there’s humour and tragedy and ambiguity in Johnsey’s view of the world, lonely and naive, trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it, who may be genuine or duplicitous or a mixture of the two.

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11 August.  Day 12 – Valentina Giambanco’s first Alice Madison thriller, The Gift of Darkness.

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12 August.  Day 13 – continuing with Julius – a decidedly uncomfortable read, whilst sharing with du Maurier’s better known work a compelling narrative style.  More anon.

The Giambanco is a cracking police procedural and I shall be adding her to my list of favourite current crime writers.  Her protagonist is Alice Madison, who herself now joins my list of favourite current fictional female cops and PIs (Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, and Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw).  Alice has a quality of stillness and steeliness that I love, and there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy).

13 August.  Day 14 – finished Julius.  It’s the portrait of a monster, a man who has to own and control and would rather destroy something than let it get away from him.  Someone who has power but doesn’t understand love, friendship and affection.  Someone who likes to cause pain but doesn’t understand it.  What makes the book so problematic though is not that Julius is a monster – du Maurier has created other monsters, male and female, and her work is never mere bosom-heaving romance but dark, brooding, ambiguous and even nightmarish.   The problem is that Julius is a Jew.  This isn’t mere incidental detail, his Jewishness is referred to on page after page after page.   In so far as he is capable of feeling any real connection with others, it is with other Jews, and at least at moments in the synagogue.  Thus Julie Myerson in her introduction to this edition argues that his monstrosity and his Jewishness are not linked, that ‘if Julius has a benign side, a sensitive side, there’s no doubt that it’s the Jewish side’.  That is so, but I can’t quite buy her statement that du Maurier ‘always avoids the easy racist cliche’. Julius becomes immensely wealthy – through hard work but also through manipulation and exploitation of others.  He’s not, at the beginning, ostentatious in his wealth and remains careful with his fortune, always in control, always pulling the strings.  Nina Auerbach in her study of du Maurier’s work (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Pennsylvania UP, 2000), describes him as ‘unsavory (and unpleasantly stereotyped)’, as radiating ‘hunger and hate’.  Julius was written in 1931 (published in ’33), and it’s not uncommon in reading work from this era to find language about and treatment of Jewish characters that grates horribly (not only Jewish, of course, but other racial groups).  Du Maurier evidently came under some pressure later in her career to revise the book and tone down or take out some of the references to Julius’s Jewishness.  Ultimately, however, nothing in the book feeds into the most dangerous narrative, gathering strength and toxicity even as she was writing, of the Jewish race as loyal only to each other, as subverting and undermining the nations that they inhabit, as preying on the gentile community.  Though Julius feels some tug of humanity in relation to his Jewishness it is not enough – his ‘own’ people find him as strange and troubling as everyone else, as impossible to comprehend.  So it is possible to read it as the portrait of an individual, shaped by a brutal early life, driven and consumed and consuming.   Possible, but not easy, and not comfortable.

Also finished The Gift of Darkness, and have already got hold of the second in the Alice Madison series.  Will save that for later though, and start on Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal.

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The Organised Criminal is darkly (very darkly) funny, as well as kind of bleak, but with glimmers of hope in friendship – family is a lot more problematic in this exploration of morality, complicity and masculinity.

On to John le Carré’s ‘memoir’, or stories from his life, The Pigeon Tunnel.

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That’s my first fortnight.  I’ve read 12.5 books in 14 days (if the Andrea Levy counts as 0.5) so technically I’m slightly behind.  However, I’ve also read a significant chunk of the Anthony Beevor, and made a start on the John le Carré, so it’s not a bad start.  Onwards!

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The Proust Project

Around ten years ago, I decided that it was simply not on to be a student of 20th century French literature and to have read only the first volume of A la recherche… and that only in English translation.

And so it began.

I trotted reasonably swiftly through Vol. 1, largely because I had already read it in English, and because I was reading it in conjunction with a friend and fellow student – but things then slowed down rather dramatically.  Finally, a couple of days ago, I reached the final sentence of the final volume.  Fittingly, I had made some splendid progress whilst staying in the Hotel le Marcel, in one of their Chambres St Loup, after long walks through the streets of Paris.

chambres saint-loups

I’m normally a fast reader.  But not in French.  In English, I can see large chunks of text and absorb them easily, but in French I have to read each word, and I cannot be sure I have the meaning of a sentence until I get to the end of it – and with Proust that full stop could be several pages away.  So my reading speed slows down dramatically whenever I’m reading in my second language.  That’s not all of it, however.  Roger Shattuck acknowledges (reassuringly) that:

both in translation and in the original, Proust slows most readers down.  His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savoured.  He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought.  In contrast to most nineteenth-century novelists, he does not construct out of short chapters that divide the story into conveinent mental mouthfuls.  One simply cannot force one’s speed and hope to register the prose.

But there were certainly times when I thought I might pack it all in, were it not for the fact that my original rationale was still valid – how can I study Butor without having read Proust? – and a certain bloody-minded stubbornness that those who know me will recognise.  I said I was going to read all of Proust in French and I would do so.  Even if it was the last thing I did.  Thankfully it didn’t quite come to that.

Ten years of reading – albeit with some rather long gaps.  Was it worth it?  Emphatically yes.  It’s an extraordinary work and its influence is so enormous, not only on the French writers who came after Proust, but on literature across the world.  I expected that, however.  What was unexpected (apart from the fact that it was a great deal funnier than I’d anticipated) was that in many ways it did not work as a novel, because it’s not, or not just, a novel.

Earlier this year, I read Clive James’ wonderful Cultural Amnesia, a collection of short essays on writers, film makers, musicians, political thinkers and philosophers, chosen on the  basis that they interest him rather than, necessarily, that he admires or loves them.  It’s a book that makes you feel desperately un-well-read, but rather than that being alienating, you feel at the same time that any steps you can take towards being the kind of reader that James is – including simply having a bash at reading in languages in which you are far from fluent – are eminently worth taking.  His piece on Proust, which I read before I’d finished Vol. 7 because spoilers aren’t really that much of an issue here, is particularly enlightening.

A commonplace book in the classic sense, it is, itself, a set of annotations to all the works of art that Proust has read, looked at, listened to or otherwise enjoyed, and to everything he knows about nature, natural science, love, sex and the workings of the mind.

A la recherche du temps perdu is never done with, because it keeps growing while you are reading it.  Like no other book in the world, Proust’s book leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors.

There are people who read Proust just for the clothes.  But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether A la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all. A work of imagination: yes, of course, and supremely.  But is it a novel?  Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it?

These qualities of non-fiction are useful to remember when we realize how many qualities of fiction the longest of all novels does not possess.  It has, for example, no structure worth speaking of, and probably would not have attained to one even if Proust had been given another ten years to work on it.  Characters would still have shown up twenty years too young at the last party, or twenty years too old, or simply still alive when they should have been dead.

Bloody brilliant.  I rather wish I’d read this at the start of my project, rather than as I approached its final stages.  There were so many moments when I was frustrated by the pages of rumination, distractedly wondering when something was going to actually HAPPEN, rather than realising that the rumination was what was happening.  what mattered, what the book was about. (In this context I could not help but recall Monty Python’s  All England Summarise Proust competition…)   And I wouldn’t have wasted any energy trying to work out how much temps had actually passé, when it really wasn’t about chronology at all.

Readers and critics of Proust reach for comparisons and metaphors, as James does.  Roger Shattuck says that ‘Reading Proust bears many resemblances to visiting a zoo’.  It’s commonly referred to as a roman-fleuve, a river that flows on relentlessly and the only way to read the roman is to abandon oneself to that flow (though I note that it also has a more critical connotation – a discours-fleuve is an ‘interminable’ speech…).  It’s a web (Malcolm Bowie uses this metaphor), in which everything/everyone is connected to everything/everyone else.

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It’s an unfinished cathedral (this draws on a passage from the final pages of Le temps retrouvé) – but James suggests that it is instead ‘a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, otherwise why build it on a beach?’.  For me, it is a labyrinth, a labyrinth in time and space.

Reading the final pages, I wished that my memory of the earlier volumes was clearer.  I want to see how the threads relating to the nature of time and to the Dreyfus affair, and so many more, run through the whole tapestry (another metaphor…).

I could always go back now, and start again at the beginning…

Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (Fontana, 1998)

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, 2012)

Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (W W Norton, 2000)

 

 

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Austerlitz in Paris

W G Sebald’s novels tend to begin with someone setting out on a journey.  His protagonists are almost always in transit, and if they do settle somewhere it is not likely to be long-term.  There are always exceptions, of course, and Max Ferber (The Emigrants) is the exception in relation to the latter trait – once he finds himself in Manchester he feels he cannot, must not leave.  But Jacques Austerlitz is the archetypal Sebaldian wanderer.

We (via the narrator, who both is and is not Sebald) meet Austerlitz first in Antwerp, then in Liege, Brussels and Zeebrugge, before finding out that he is based in London.  At this stage his restless quests are related to his academic interests in architecture, particularly public architecture, as he explores railway stations, prisons and fortresses, courtrooms and museums.  After a two year hiatus in their relationship, the narrator and Austerlitz encounter one another again, in London, in a railway station bar.  Only now do we begin to find out about his early life.  Until his teenage years he had believed himself to be Dafydd Elias, growing up in Bala in Wales.  Only after the death of his foster mother and the mental breakdown of his foster father does he discover that his name is Jacques Austerlitz, but he knows nothing more.  The name itself signals a kind of multiple identity – a French first name and a Czech place name (which, as a surname, was shared with Fred Astaire and which, because of the Napoleonic era battle which took place there, is also the name of one of Paris’s major railway stations).

Austerlitz finds himself obsessively walking the streets of London in the early hours, and is drawn back repeatedly to Liverpool Street Station where he has a kind of vision of himself as a small child, meeting for the first time the foster parents who had been assigned to him.  He feels ‘something rending’ within himself and is in a state of mental torment until he hears, by chance, a radio broadcast about the Kindertransport.  This begins to trigger memories of his childhood journey, and when he hears the name of the ship, ‘SS Prague’, he determines to go to that city and find out about where it began.

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Austerlitz’s quest is now to find out who his parents were, and what happened to them.  He discovers, or believes he has discovered, his mother’s fate.  She was deported to Terezin, from whence she was taken, we understand, ‘east’.  Whilst there are uncertainties about this narrative, there are far more surrounding his father, who had left for France before the deportations from Prague began.

And so to Paris.  Alongside my mission to photograph all of the memorial plaques relating to WWII that we passed as we walked its streets, I wanted to find, if I could, some of the locations described in Sebald’s novel.  Sebald sometimes describes real places with absolute precision, sometimes alters or relocates them.  Of course, whilst major public buildings were easy to find, I was unsure whether, given that the narrator and protagonist are both fictional constructs, the specific addresses provided would be as straightforward.  But they were all there, even the bistro on boulevard Auguste Blanqui.

I received a postcard from Austerlitz giving me his new address (6 rue des cinq Diamants), in the thirteenth arrondissement. (p. 354)

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I met Austerlitz, as agreed, on the day after my arrival, in the Le Havane bistro bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, not far from the Glaciere Metro station. (p. 355)

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The rue Barrault is said to be the last known address of Maximilian Aychenwald. Austerlitz speculates about whether his father had been caught up in one of the round-ups of Jews:

I kept wondering whether he had been interned in the half-built housing estate out at Drancy after the first police raid in Paris in August 1941, or not until July of the following year, when a whole army of French gendarmes took thirteen thousand of their Jewish fellow citizens from their homes, in what was called the grande rafle, during which over a hundred of their victims jumped out of the windows in desperation or found some other way of committing suicide.  I sometimes thought I saw the window-less police cars racing through a city frozen with terror, the crowd of detainees camping out in the open in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and the trains on which they were soon transported from Drancy and Bobigny; I pictured their journey through the Greater German Reich, I saw my father still in his good suit and his black velour hat, calm and upright among all the frightened people. (pp. 358-359)

During an earlier period in Paris, before the search for his father began, Austerlitz had had another episode of nervous collapse, and had been admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital.

I did not return to my senses until I was in the Salpêtrière, to which I had been taken and where I was now lying in one of the men’s wards … somewhere in that gigantic complex of buildings where the borders between hospital and penitentiary have always been blurred, and which seems to have grown and spread of its own volition over the centuries until it now forms a universe of its own between the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare d’Austerlitz. (pp. 375-376)

This is the hospital at which, in the late 19th century, Charcot developed his diagnosis of ‘hysterical epilepsy’, and the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur‘ was first identified and researched.   Austerlitz can remember nothing about himself or his history, but someone finds the address of his friend Marie de Verneuil and contacts her at 7 place des Vosges.

7 place des vosges

 

When I met Austerlitz again for morning coffee on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, … he told me that the previous day he had heard, from one of the staff at the records centre in the rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, that Maximilian Aychenwald had been interned during the latter part of 1942 in the camp at Gurs, a place in the Pyrennean foothills … Curiously enough, said Austerlitz, a few hours after our last meeting, when he had come back from the Bibliothèque Nationale and changed trains at the Gare d’Austerlitz, he had felt a premonition that he was coming closer to his father.  As I might know, he said, part of the railway network had been paralysed by a strike last Wednesday, and in the unusual silence which, as a consequence, had descended on the Gare d’Austerlitz, an idea came to him of his father’s leaving Paris from this station … I imagined, said Austerlitz, that I saw him leaning out of the window … After that I wandered round the deserted station half dazed, through the labyrinthine underpasses, over foot-bridges, up flights of steps on one side and down on the other.  That station, said Austerlitz, has always seemed to me the most mysterious of all the railway terminals of Paris. … I was particularly fascinated by the way the Metro trains coming from the Bastille, having crossed the Seine, roll over the iron viaduct into the station’s upper storey, quite as if the façade were swallowing them up.  And I also remember that I felt an uneasiness induced by the hall behind this façade, filled with a feeble light and almost entirely empty, where on a platform roughly assembled out of beams and boards, there stood a scaffolding reminiscent of a gallows … an impression forced itself upon me of being on the scene of some unexpiated crime. (pp. 404-407)

The records centre in the rue Geoffrey l’Asnier is now the Mémorial de la Shoah.  Amongst the many records kept here, there is a room full of boxes of index cards, relating to the various internment camps and those who were imprisoned there.

fiches memorial du shoah

I don’t know, said Austerlitz, what all this means, and so I am going to continue looking for my father, and for Marie de Verneuil as well. (p. 408)

We will never know the outcome, although it seems most likely that his parents’ journeys ended in the same, terrible place, a place with which Austerlitz’s name has resonated, whether we have been conscious of it or not, from the beginning.  As James Wood points out:

And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the best act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the name which we sometimes misread Austerlitz as, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly ‘sent east’ to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to in 1942 from the French camp in Gurs: Auschwitz.

(James Wood, ‘Sent East’, London Review of Books, 6 October 2011)

Austerlitz himself will continue to wander, and it seems that his travels are not merely in space, but also in time.  The small Czech boy separated from his parents, the troubled Welsh schoolboy, the London academic, and the driven man travelling through some of the most haunted places in Europe – all are one.  Always in transit, in temporary or liminal spaces, descending into the underworld/labyrinth to keep the appointment he has made with his own past.

He had quite often found himself in the grip of dangerous and entirely incomprehensible currents of emotion in the Parisian railway stations, which, he said, he regarded as places marked by both blissful happiness and profound misfortune. (p. 45)

I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them. (p.144)

I felt, … said Austerlitz, as if my father were still in Paris and just waiting, so to speak, for a good opportunity to reveal himself.  Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them then the present.  For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion.  It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find out way to them at last. …  And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (pp. 359-360)

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In the dark times will there also be singing?

Thanks – yet again – to Gerry’s That’s How the Light Gets In blog, which so often inspires and moves me, for this selection of words that speak to us about this year, and our hopes and fears for the next.

 

That's How The Light Gets In

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath…

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