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God’s Dog by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2014, 153 p. Translated from the Italian Il Cane di Deo by Judith Landry

 God’s Dog cover

Well. This is an odd concoction. Perhaps as far removed from Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs as it is possible to get.

The dog of the title is Domingo Salazar, an orphan of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brought to Italy by the fathers of the Holy Cross, a graduate of the Papal Police Academy whose duties are to see to it that the laws of Holy Mother Church are respected and to work for the Church’s worldwide spread. The world he works in is not our own. It is an altered history. Perhaps that should read as an altered future. In it the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger promulgated a new Catholic Catechism and Italy has become a theocracy. (The book was written before, in our world, Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, resigned as Pope. Here he obviously didn’t do so and was not succeeded by Francis.)

As might be expected this Church takes a hard line. “The chief sins against chastity are adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, rape and homosexual acts.” The most unsavoury part of this new dispensation however is that the dying are given only so much palliative care in hospital before it is withdrawn; so that they may experience some of Christ’s suffering.

Salazar has been working to sabotage the secular state, spread distrust in science, and intercept the anti-papist refugees from Italy, but he has been recalled to Rome to track down an abortionist doctor named Ivan Zago and uncover euthanasiasts who would deny the dying their pain. The events of the story occur in the lead-up to the ceremony of canonisation of Benedict XVI in which the final scene is set.

Some of the necessary information dumping is provided by extracts from Salazar’s diary (not quite a clunky decision by Marani as the diary is read partway through the book by Salazar’s vicar.) He has such thoughts as, ‘No religion is better than Islam at cloaking faith in reason. Muslims use reason to reveal the intelligent order which pervades creation, and that is the way to disarm science,’ and, ‘The world lived in peace until it rediscovered Greek thought and, with it, the mania for experiment. To experiment means ceasing to put one’s trust in the created world, but wanting to take it apart. …… Now our task must be to bury knowledge. To forget it … to lead people down the wrong track.’ He writes, ‘Our fight, therefore, must be to demolish science. In Africa, we intercept anti-AIDS vaccines and replace them with ampoules containing water. The illness is spreading, and man is losing his faith in science.’ The attitude of Arnold of Citeaux pervades the theology. (This is perhaps not a novel that could have been written by someone not from a nominally Catholic country.)

Salazar’s bizarre longing for a merger of the three faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism leads to him being accused of the sins of polytheism and idolatry. He tells his inquisitor that as he was endeavouring to convert unbelievers the word, rather, is proselytism. An odd flavour of the 1930s somehow pervades the sections set in the convent hospital of San Filippo Neri. There is also a minor strand about the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ which prove men and animals have much in common in terms of feelings and a chimpanzee which has been shown capable of speech – in Swahili as it happens.

It’s certainly all interesting but marred rather by a multiplicity of viewpoint characters and a tendency for each new section to begin with the reader not knowing who that character is.

Once again Judith Landry’s translation is excellent even if in the “thriller” moments it tends to cliché (‘hot pursuit,’ ‘right on his heels’) but it must be difficult to render such passages in a more inventive manner. Whether or not euthanasiast is a direct reflection of Marani’s Italian I don’t know but it is certainly a better term than the more straightforward euthanist would be since it carries the overtone of enthusiasm.

Pedant’s corner:- a cleaning women (woman,) Hippocrates’ (Hippocrates’s,) “he sat down as the table” (at the table,) “‘he can hardly breath’” (breathe,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) “the group had been virtually decimated” (the sense is not “reduced by a tenth”,) “which from which it was separated” (from which it was separated,) Kibale (on first two mentions: it’s afterwards spelled Kibele,) a missing full stop, “The crowd were holding their breath” (was holding its breath.)
In the “Praise for Diego Marani” section at the end:- ignornace ( ignorance,) plus three [or arguably four] in one quote – it’s (its,) ones (one’s,) “the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others” (an individual: so him -or her- self; plus, how he or she identifies with others.)

The Pat Hobby Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald

Alma Classics, 2014, 192 p, including x p biography of Fitzgerald and v p bibliography and summary of his work.

 The Pat Hobby Stories cover

I was drawn to this by the Art Deco feel of its cover but that turned out a bit misleading as there is nothing in the book dealing with the Jazz Age. All the stories are set in 1939/40.

Pat Hobby is a more or less washed-up writer, whose last screen credits were in the silent era over a decade ago, now hovering around the fringes of Hollywood studios trying to hustle a job, any job, to restore his fortunes. As such it reflects Fitzgerald’s own later life, glory days long gone, fantastic pay days well in the past. The 17 stories tend to follow the same pattern with Hobby being frustrated in his endeavours by the vicissitudes of his ill-thought through scams and badly timed interventions, relying on crumbs dispensed through the pity of others or their willingness to use him for their own ends. Since they were written for magazine publication (in Esquire) there tends to be a lot of repetition of information from one story to the next (Hobby’s red-rimmed eyes – due to his alcohol consumption – a particular recurrence) which is of course more noticeable when they are read in quick succession.

Entertaining enough but not really substantial.

Pedant’s corner:- with a sinky feeling (sinking is more usual,) sat reading (seated; or sitting,) with no avail (to no avail,) trucking shots (tracking shots?) “a small but alert band of …. were” (a small band was,) “You damn right I can talk” (You’re?) “the gang who were” (the gang which was,) “in no slightest danger” (in not the slightest?) “a battery of cameras were getting into position” (a battery was,) “there were a number of ladies” (there was a number,) Athaletic Superintendent (athletic? – I suppose though this may have been the name of a sports team or organisation.)

The Sandman by E T A Hoffman

Alma Classics, 2013, 110 p.Translated from the German Der Sandmann by Christopher Moncrieff. Borrowed from a doomed library.

 The Sandman cover

Barely even as long as a novella, this “classic of German Gothic fiction” – as the blurb has it – has a curious structure beginning as an epistolary account, with three letters between two correspondents, before reverting to a straightforward third person narrative for the remainder of the tale.

Its protagonist Nathanael is haunted by the memory of childhood tales of the Sandman who would peck out children’s eyes and of the lawyer Coppelius (who caused Nathanael’s father’s death in the performance of alchemical experiments in his study and came to embody the Sandman in Nathanael’s mind.) In adult life Nathanael encounters barometer salesman Giuseppe Coppola, whom he takes to be that same Coppelius (and who may well be so,) around the same time as becoming besotted with the strangely behaved Olimpia, who seems to come to life only for him. The conjunction drives Nathanael mad.

The text is littered with references to eyes, not only the pecking as above, but on discovering Nathanael spying on the alchemical experiments Coppelius threatened to throw hot coals on the child’s eyes; later Coppola lays out lorgnettes and glasses in front of Nathanael while cackling, “these be my eyezies, pretty eyezies,” and Olimpia’s eyes have a compelling quality, for Nathanael at least.

Odd, but meaty, The Sandman packs a lot into its small frame.

This edition also contains an extract from Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny wherein he analyses the way in which Hoffman achieved his uncanny effects in this story.

Pedant’s corner:- (in the Freud extract) this this.

The War of the End of the World by Maria Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2012, 758 p. Translated from the Spanish La guerra del fin del mundo with no translator’s name given, merely a translation copyright notice for the book’s first US publisher. Returned to a threatened library.

 The War of the End of the World cover

An itinerant mystic, Antonio Conselheiro, called the Counsellor, wanders the Brazilian province of Bahia gathering adherents. He preaches against the recently formed Republic of Brazil as the Antichrist, stuffed with Freemasons. In Llosa’s account he has the ability to transform an assortment of unfortunates, misfits, and the misshapen – not to mention the worst of bandits – into followers of the Blessed Jesus (whose every mention among the Counsellor’s adherents is replied to with “Blessed be he”.) Eventually he sets up a community in the town of Canudos against which a succession of ever larger military expeditions is sent by the Republic as the “rebellion” defeats each in turn. All this is based on a historical event, the War of Canudos, the most bloody civil war in Brazil’s history.

The early part of the novel is taken up with sections relating to how some of the Counsellor’s most important followers come to fall under his spell interspersed with the machinations of local politicians in Bahia – both for and against the Republic. Here we also meet a socialist (and red-haired) Scotsman on the run from authorities in Europe – where he had indulged in seditious activities – who goes by the name of Galileo Gall (but whose real name is never given) and has a belief in phrenology. Gall is framed by the editor of the Jornal de Notícias, Epaminondas Gonçalves, to make it look as though Britain, referred to by most characters as England, is involved in gun-running to, and support of, the rebels of Canudos. (“Gall” does put Gonçalves right, though, when he says, “I’m a Scotsman. I hate the English.”) A near-sighted journalist – again nameless – goes along with the third military force to be sent against the rebels and witnesses most of the later fighting; at least until his spectacles get broken.

Entrants to Canudos were made to swear that they were not Republicans, did not accept the expulsion of the Emperor, nor the separation of Church and State, nor civil marriage, nor the new system of weight and measures, nor the census questions. (The devil is obviously in the way you count the spoons.) Mostly though, the Counsellor was playing on the faith of the poor and their fears that slavery would be reintroduced.

Gall thinks of Canudos as, “A libertarian citadel, without money, without masters, without politics, without priests, without bankers, without landowners, a world built with the faith and the blood of the poorest of the poor,” (though part of that is his own idealism projected onto it) and wonders about the – to him – curious code of “Honour, vengeance, that rigorous religion, those punctilious codes of conduct….. a vow, a man’s word, those luxuries and games of rich, or idlers and parasites – how to understand their existence here?” that so prevailed on the husband of a woman he raped that he pursued Gall there.

About a third of the way through the book we find the nameless journalist has survived the war as he talks to the Baron de Canabrava about his experiences. This has the effect of defusing some of the tension as we readers are still to meet them for ourselves.

In Canudos the near-sighted journalist thought to himself, ‘culture, knowledge were lies, dead weight, blindfolds. All that reading – and it had been of no use whatsoever in helping him to escape.’ The baron is disgusted by the journalist finding amid the chaos of Canudos love and pleasure with a peasant girl. “Did those words not call to mind luxury, refinement, sensibility, elegance, the rites and the ripe wisdom of an imagination nourished by wide reading, travels, education?”

Army doctor Teotônio Leal Cavalcanti’s image of humanity abruptly darkened in his weeks seeing to the wounded during the siege, observing of the able-bodied, “‘It is not what is most sublime, but what is most sordid and abject, the hunger for filthy lucre, greed, that is aroused in the presence of death.’”

The novel feels like it has a cast of thousands. There are multiple viewpoint characters and a narrative which shifts from present to past tense and back in section to section. This makes for a dry and slow start as the life stories of the Counsellor’s adherents prior to their falling in with him and those of the politicians of Bahia are told to us rather than shown. But, as the near-sighted journalist tells Baron de Canabrava, “‘Canudos isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories.’” In telling his tale, Llosa tries to encompass this world of many branches. Some characters return again and again, others only appear in the scene in which we are given their viewpoint. 758 pages are a lot to fill after all. At times it becomes almost too much; but to recount a tree of stories does require length, a length which adds to the impression that this is a very male book. After all, war and revolution attract a certain kind of attention and are accorded an importance that other aspects of human endeavour are not.

Nearly all human life is in The War of the End of the World. Nearly all.

Aside:- In the scenes dealing with military men there are several references to Brazil’s war with Paraguay, which took place in the days of the Brazilian Empire. In Colin Wilson’s history of the goalkeeper, The Outsider, he stated that Brazil had never fought a war. That would be the Brazilian Republic rather than “Brazil” then.

Pedant’s corner:- The translation is into USian but curiously we had “fitted” once and “trousers” twice. Otherwise there were Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “the Scotsman thought to himself: ‘The Republic has as little strength in Bahia as the King of England beyond the Aberfoyle Pass in the days of Rob Roy Macgregor.’” (The King of England? At that time the King was King of Scotland too. And it’s MacGregor.) “A host of questions were running riot in his head” (a host was,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) rear guard (the military terminology is usually rearguard,) ipso facto is used in the sense of “immediately” (it actually means “as a result of that fact”,) “a group of servants were” (a group was,) dumfounded (I prefer dumbfounded.) “They finally learn a little about what was gone on” (has gone on,) “he’s just dying little little, second by second” (little by little,) sunk (sank,) in a cross fire (crossfire,) chasseurs were mowed down (mowed down appeared at least twice; is this USian? In English it’s mown down.) Quite a few instances of “time interval” later.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

Penguin Modern Classics, 1986, 160 p.Translated from the Japanese Utsukushisa To Kanashimi To by Howard Hibbett. (First published by Chuo koronsha, Tokyo, 1961.)

Beauty and Sadness cover

Twenty-four years before the time of the narrative, when he was thirty, Oki Toshio had an affair with fifteen year-old Ueno Otoko. Her subsequent pregnancy led to a still birth and a stay in a mental institution, experiences Toshio, a writer, parlayed into his best-selling novel A Girl of Sixteen, much to the chagrin of his wife, Fumiko. Otoko meanwhile moved to Kyoto, has become a successful painter in the Japanese style and taken on a young pupil, Sakami Keiko. For New Year Toshio decides to hear the traditional bells from Kyoto at New Year’s Eve for himself and contacts Otoko to see if she wishes to join him for the celebration. She sends Keiko (who is also her lover) to greet him and has her accompany Toshio throughout his visit. But, as Otoko says, Keiko is “a bit crazy,” a trait which drives the plot.

Though I am not unfamiliar with Japanese fiction this is the first work by Nobel Laureate Kawabata that I have read. Beauty and Sadness is compelling and interesting but whether it is due to the translation or the fact the source is Japanese there is something distancing about the text, a barrier between the reader and the character’s emotions. We are told they are present but they somehow seem to be held behind a layer of reserve. Kawabata’s back catalogue is one I’ll look out for though.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing period at the end of one sentence, another appears on the line after its own sentence, exquisie (exquisite,) the word order of, “Balconies line the river banks for drinking and feasting” is a little awry, “‘It’s hard to believe you’re idea you’d come out to meet me,’” doesn’t need the “you’re idea”, and is immediately followed by “‘My kimono?’” which is a baffling non-sequitur, tidbits (titbits,) “had not sent a telegram to Otoko or Keiko” (to Okoto nor Keiko,) “quite apart from weakness of strength of will” (apart from weakness or strength of will,) “at they drove” (as they drove.)

Ancient Light by John Banville

Viking, 2012, 253 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ancient Light cover

Ten years after the suicide of his daughter Cass, Alex Cleave is looking back over his life and especially at his first love – and first sexual partner – the twenty years senior to him mother of his childhood friend, Billy. Apart from one mention towards the book’s end the woman concerned, since Alex failed to discover (or else to remember) her name, is only ever described in the narrative as Mrs Gray. This tends to give the relationship, which is otherwise described in the most intimate terms, a certain distance, though it was intensively felt by the young Alex, and in the older’s remembrance. The worldliness of ageing, the weariness, is, however, reflected in the sentence, “what is a life but a gradual shipwreck?” but nevertheless, for Cleave, “Other people’s motives, their desiderata and anathemas, are a mystery to me. My own are too.”

As always Banville’s writing is exquisite and the unusual affair would certainly have been enough to sustain a novel on its own but things take an odd turn when Cleave, a retired stage actor, is offered the lead part in a film portraying the life of Axel Vander, whom readers of Banville’s earlier book Shroud will know was the man with whom Cass spent the last weeks before her suicide. This authorial knowingness is emphasised by the casual dropping of names of now all but forgotten writers or film stars – most of whom I had to look up (Walter Pater? Betty Hutton?) – in which context the thought, “If I were to believe that a certain confluence of events was a special and unique phenomenon outside the ordinary flow of happenstance I would have to accept – as I do not – that there is a transcendent process at work above, or behind, or within, commonplace reality,” a metafictional statement which lays bare the artificiality of what we are reading. Yet it all feels visceral, real. Banville’s interest in things scientific (early works of his focused on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton) is demonstrated by a chance encounter with a stranger in a hotel bar which leads to Cleave being told, “light…. takes time… to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past,” an endeavour in which our narrator is all too involved.

Yet the past is not all it seems. Mrs Gray’s motives for the affair, Cleave’s recollections of it – memories are, after all, constructions as much as anything – are seen in a new light when towards the novel’s end Cleave once more meets her daughter.

A puff on the book’s front cover says, “Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Well, no. It didn’t need to be. But it is.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘at first I could not make head or tail of it’ (head nor tail,) wiling away the empty hours (whiling,) glary? “I had never been thus close up” (this,) “every aurate woman” (an aurate is a salt of auric acid!! I presume Banville meant golden or “having an aura”.) “Why does anyone do anything.” (is missing a “?” at the sentence end,) “Cass’s presence in Liguria [- paragraph break -] Cass’s presence in Liguria was the first link…” (I merely note this cæsura,) “had no hat, or umbrella” (nor umbrella,) “I had to leap up, like a leaping salmon” (do we need that “leaping”?)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Serpent’s Tail, 2014, 341 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves cover

Firstly, this is a very good book indeed; and a consciously literary endeavour. Fowler’s first person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, frequently addresses the reader, digresses, makes asides, approaches her story obliquely, moves it forward and backward in time. She tells us in the prologue what she is about to do. Start in the middle. And later, in a cell, awaiting interrogation by the FBI she reflects on what she will say, “I would not only tell the tale but also comment on it.” Quite. By the end, though, she has decided that stories can begin and end anywhere.

When she was young Rosemary never stopped speaking. The reasons why, and why she gradually stopped doing so, are revealed over the course of the novel. Up until she was five years old Rose had lived with her mother, father, brother and sister. On returning from what she perceived as a banishment to her grandparents’ house she discovers her own family has moved house but it is her sister who has been sent away. This central circumstance is so essential to the novel that any discussion of it beyond generalities would reveal too much but it is its ramifications, the nature of her sister, Fern, and the effects both of these have on Rosemary and her brother, Lowell, which drive Fowler’s story.

Unsurprisingly, tensions abound. Rose tells us, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” This is most likely a nod to Tolstoy’s similar phraseology. Through Rosemary, Fowler tells us elsewhere, “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly.” Incidentally, the Cooke family had a dog called Tamara Press. Quite why Fowler chose the name of a 1960s Russian shot-putter for this is obscure (to me at least.)

Much play is made of the unreliability of memory. Rose recalls an incident from her childhood where she remembers her father deliberately driving over a cat but he was not the sort of person to do such a thing. She both believes it happened and also that it didn’t and refers to it as her own personal Schrödinger’s cat. She also says that language “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies” memories and remembers her father telling Lowell that language and communication are two different things. In a neat line connecting Rose’s use of contact lenses with her sister’s disappearance she says, “It’s what you do with disposables; you get rid of them.”

Rose twice emphasises her experience that, “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail” and refers to the rift in the family as “A monkey on my back….” but in what seems an authorial interpolation, “When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy.” Her father was a researcher into animal behaviour and the book is run through with references to such research. “‘You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it’s a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism – all natural human behaviours… triggered any time by any unscrupulous yahoo with a pulpit… Mobbing…Bullying. Empathy.’” The book is very much Rose’s story, her umwelt (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.) Humans it seems are much more imitative than other apes.

For various (and different) reasons I was reminded of both William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are not many novels which go into detail on the concept of theory of mind or discourse on embedded mental states and imputation. Yet these discursions seem a natural part of the narrative making for a tremendously well worked out and impressively rendered novel.

Pedant’s corner:- A flock of seagulls were grazing (a flock was grazing,) hieroglyphic (hieroglyph.) Fowler does, however, receive plus points for culs-de-sac.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

The Many Lives of Amory Clay. Bloomsbury, 2015, 451 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Sweet Caress cover

While the subtitle might suggest a novel along the lines of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August or Life After Life this is a much more conventional tale of a life recollected from old age, if not quite tranquillity. Pioneer woman photographer Amory Clay’s first person narrative more or less follows a chronological order but there are the occasional interpolated scenes telling of her present day existence on the island of Barrandale (with its “bridge over the Atlantic” to the mainland) at the supposed time of writing in 1977. What renders the book unusual is the inclusion of reproductions of photographs illustrating Amory’s life (most of which are attributed to Amory.)

Sweet Caress is another of those books describing the life of someone through the Twentieth Century and in which they keep encountering significant events. It is of the essence then that war impacts on Amory. Her father was disturbed so much by his experiences in WW1 that he tries to commit suicide by driving himself – and Amory – into a lake, the man she marries has a dreadful memory of a post-Rhine crossing incident in WW2 with which he cannot come to terms, a later lover disappears presumed killed while she and he are in Vietnam. However, Amory’s contact with the great and the good is minimal – one glimpse each of the Prince of Wales (as Edward VIII was at the time) and Marlene Dietrich – more reflective of a normal life.

I note that the choice of name for his protagonist does allow Boyd to essay the pun “roman à Clay” about a book one of her lovers subsequently writes about their relationship. Similar games are played with subsidiary characters in the novel whose names nod to women who were relatively successful in their fields in the times he is writing about.

All her experiences lead Amory to feel, “not to be born is the best for man – only that way can you avoid all of life’s complications.” Later, “Any life of any reasonable length throws up all manner of complications ….. but it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.” Through Amory, Boyd makes much of the ability of a photograph to stop time for a moment. She is also of the opinion that black and white photographs are art and colour photography somehow less true.

It’s all beautifully done – and the final chapter does supply a reason why Amory is writing her story – but Sweet Caress nevertheless kept bringing to mind the same author’s The New Confessions and (though less so) Any Human Heart, though in this regard the woman protagonist did make a difference.

Pedant’s corner:- Amory uses the word robot in 1924. Boyd just scrapes by here; but only by a couple of years at most. The location of Barrandale is unambiguously close to Oban – part of the estate of her now deceased husband. The house where they spent their married life is, though, supposed to be near enough Mallaig that school there might have been an option for their twin daughters had he not been an aristocrat yet their groceries were delivered from Oban. Fort William makes much more sense for proximity to Mallaig than Oban, which is hours away by road even now.
Otherwise we had:- vol-au-vents (surely the plural is vols-aux-vents?) Achilles’ (Achilles’s, not that it makes any difference to the pronunciation,) gin and tonics (gins and tonic – which does appear later!) take it on board (in the 1930s?) the Royal Air Force (during the war in conversation people said the RAF – they still do,) a missing “?” at the end of a question, the Palais’ (the Palais’s, again this appears later,) the church of St Modans a few pages later becomes St Monad’s and may have been an unlikely location for a divorcé to be remarried in those times,) the girls had “just done their A levels” (in 1965 Scotland? Highers, I think – unless private schools put their pupils in for English exams,) dark matter and dark energy are mentioned in 1977 (the first had been by that time, but dark energy was not named as such till 1998.)

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

William Heinemann, 2015, 290 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Go Set A Watchman cover

A now twenty-six year-old Jean Louise Finch, familiar to us as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, returns from New York on an annual visit to her childhood home in Maycomb County. At first things seem as normal but she soon finds that in her absence things have changed. The local Negroes, encouraged by the NAACP*, have begun to resist the strictures that have held them in their place (“besides being shiftless now they look at you with open insolence”) and the white inhabitants – even her would-be husband Henry and, crucially, her father Atticus – are involved in an effort to keep them in it.

Within all this there are flashback scenes relating incidents in Jean Louise’s life in growing from childhood through adolescence. In these it is noteworthy that the famous trial from To Kill a Mockingbird (here mentioned all but peripherally) had a different outcome – and slightly different genesis – to the one Jean Louise remembers here. [Either way round, Lee was clearly not just writing her own life story but manipulating any source material to novelistic ends.]

Where Atticus was at the core of the earlier book here it is Scout’s Uncle Jack – who reveals himself to be mistrustful of government attempts to ameliorate people’s condition. He tells her the soldiers of the Confederacy “fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity,” not for slavery and, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” He recognises her fatal flaw. She is colour blind. She believes, has always believed, in treating everybody with the same respect. She thought her father was exactly the same, regarded him as God for too long. In a striking sentence Jack says, “Prejudice and faith have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

I’m at a loss to understand the controversy and disappointment this book caused. Yes Atticus is revealed as flawed but the signs of that were there in the earlier book. He had the attitude then – repeated here – that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” (Well. All that can be said to that is who was responsible for the circumstance?)

Those of a nervous disposition may be upset by the use of the “n” word (Atticus is guilty here, among others) but that would be historically accurate.

The stratification of small town US Society – class-obsessed, a Negro is always a Negro, white trash always white trash, Scout’s Aunt does not think Henry a suitable husband for her even though he is Atticus’s protégé – is once again laid bare but in a contemporary (when written) setting. Perhaps it was this that led to the book’s rejection when first submitted.

Forget any quibbles. Go Set a Watchman is an entirely acceptable and very well written coming of age, time of changes, novel.

*I assumed this stood for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Pedant’s corner:- “the small group were” (was,) waked up (this must be an Alabama thing, it was in Mockingbird too,) and again there was the “smell of clean Negro”, for goodness’ sake (goodness’s sake,)

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