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All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus, 2008, 206 p. Translated from the French Les Biens de ce Monde by Sandra Smith. (First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1947.)

All Our Worldly Goods cover

I have frequently alluded to love, sex and death as the three main novelistic concerns. In All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky focuses on the first of these but throws class and family dynamics into the mix. Interestingly, despite the scope of the narrative extending over the two World Wars, there are only two deaths explicitly dealt with in the text. (A myriad others occur off-stage of course.)

We start in the first decade of last century, on Wimereux Plage, where the Hardelot and Florent families are spending the summer. Normally not mixing much due to their different social standing, on their annual pilgrimages to the beach such niceties are not so strictly observed. Pierre Hardelot’s fiancée, Simone Renaudin, is also present. The engagement is at the behest of the domineering Hardelot patriarch Charles, owner of the paper mill in their home town Saint-Elme, desirous of Renaudin money for investment in the company but also a stickler for protocol. But grandson Pierre does not even like Simone. He and Agnès Florent are in love but resigned never to be together.

Back in Saint-Elme the planned futures all unravel when someone sees the pair on what they believe is their last meeting in a local wood and their association is revealed. As a result Pierre is cut off by Charles, as he marries Agnès and they go to live in Paris. The ramifications of their attachment will resound throughout their lives and the book, which, despite the passages involving their parents and children, is the story of their commitment.

Along with everyone else’s the certainties of Charles Hardelot’s life are thrown into turmoil by the Great War. Pierre is called up, the women from Saint-Elme join the refugees from the German advance. Charles remains behind and spends the war under German occupation. After the war Saint-Elme and the family business are rebuilt and Simone’s husband, whom she met during the retreat, is taken into the business, along with her money.

The book has several jumps in time in which Némirovsky lays out the history of the Hardelot family and the first half of the twentieth century but the wider world (except in so far as it impinges directly on Pierre and Agnès) tends to remain in the background. Still, the hopes and feelings of the immediate post-Great War period are summed up by Pierre’s thought, “It was the final war. There would never be another. The thirst for blood had been satisfied. Not only was it necessary to forget the war. It had to be vilified in people’s memory,” and the strangeness of the post-war world by, “Paris seemed bled dry.”

One of the episodes concerns the relationship Pierre and Agnès’s son Guy with a woman not known to the family and whose conduct leads to his suicide attempt. Years later in the pre-umbra of a future war Guy falls for his father’s former fiancée Simone’s daughter Rose. This description might make the book appear to be soap-opera like but the reality is far from that.

As Guy marches off to the Phoney War in 1939 Pierre notes that unlike in 1914 there were no flowers, no fanfares as the young went off ….. “’they know that all our sacrifices were useless…. they’ve read, or seen, or heard everything that happened then … how do you think they’re supposed to bear it?’” Perhaps this is Némirovsky’s view on why France’s resistance collapsed so quickly in 1940.

Once again in the turmoil of a German advance the women and the men are separated. During this evacuation, in what struck me as an unlikely coincidence, Agnès encounters the woman who betrayed Guy years before but is magnanimous towards her. Agnès’s struggle to return to Pierre in Saint-Elme underlines the book’s theme of closeness between her and Pierre.

“All our Worldly Goods” seems a bit off the mark as a translation for Les Biens de ce Monde (“The Good Things of This World”) but Sandra Smith gives reasons in her translator’s note as she says the spiritual and material nuances of les biens are almost impossible to translate and she wanted to emphasise the marriage connection.

In the end the book is an affirmation. Irony though it may be given the author’s own fate in Auschwitz in All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky is telling us that despite all the upheavals to which we may be subjected we must cling to the human.

Pedant’s corner:- Charles refers in August 1914 to the start of a world war. It wasn’t called a world war till later; shimmer-ing (no need for the hyphen in the middle of a line,) a missing comma at the end of a thought quote, both start and end commas missing, or the end one placed externally, at other thought quotes, frugalness (frugality?)

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Flamingo, 1990, 283 p. First published in 1956.

The Towers of Trebizond cover

Reading this was an odd experience. It is couched as a first person memoir of a trip to Turkey by narrator Laurie who is accompanying her Aunt Dot (plus camel) and her companion, the very high Church Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, both of whom wish to convert the natives to Christianity. Their camel steps are dogged by Seventh Day Adventists desirous of witnessing the Second Coming on Mount Ararat, spies who may not be spies, Billy Grahamites, and a BBC van recording the singing of the inhabitants. As a narrator Laurie has a very chatty style, it is as if she is talking to the reader, yet everything is considered and the sentences are beautifully balanced. The narration is interspersed with diversions on all sorts of topics, religion foremost among them – pages 4 and 5 present a potted history of Anglicanism, and there are more such discursions – but also ruminations on Laurie’s life, which seems to be provisional, in a kind of limbo. The chattiness can be engaging but also wearing. In the guise of Laurie, Macaulay is excessively fond of the word “and”. Lists joined by it abound; in one paragraph there must have been at least twenty instances.) The whole for a long time seems like little more than entertainment, a comic novel with only its lightness to recommend it.

Yet there are serious aspects. Both the redoubtable Aunt Dot and Laurie display that peculiar English attitude to religion, which simultaneously treats it as a serious matter but at the same time, secure in the knowledge that theirs is the best possible, is very off-hand about it. Dot is much exercised by the position of Muslim women, one exemplar of which, Dr Halide Tenpinar, reluctant to marry a Muslim man for the lack of expression that will entail, joins the expedition for a while. Dot remembers the good old days, when travelling was only for those and such as those. At one point she laments, “‘Abroad isn’t at all what it was,’” while Laurie feels that foreigners (ie tourists – of which she does not appear to consider herself to be one) only want to see the old things of a country, not the fruits of the country having got on which the locals are more keen to exhibit.

On an objection to a proposed foray into the Soviet Union Aunt Dot replies to the question whether that would condone its government, “if one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult,” while on the suggestion that Turkish men would never accept freedom from dress restrictions for women as it might inflame their passions we have, “‘Men must learn to bridle their temptations’ said aunt Dot, always an optimist.” Those last three words certainly hit the target.

Having reached Trebizond, or Trabzon as it is in Turkish, (it has no towers, Laurie envisions them in a later dream she has of an ideal fantasy city) they go still further until Aunt Dot and Father Hugh venture off on their own and disappear – presumably over the border into the Soviet Union – and eventually become something of a minor press obsession. This is about the only eventful occurrence in the book apart from a small sub-plot concerning the theft of the work of a now-deceased writer by one of Laurie’s acquaintances. It is notable that these incidents are only relayed to us. Laurie is not directly involved in either of them.

Left to her own resources Laurie retraces her steps and goes on to travel with the camel round Asia Minor and the Levant. Reading the names Aleppo, Palmyra, Baalbek, Homs and Damascus as being safe places for a young(ish) Englishwoman to travel safely accompanied only by a camel is a reminder of how the world can change. This passage of the trip also lets Macaulay describe the early manifestations of what has become the enduring antipathy between Israelis and Palestinians.

Laurie’s wanderings give ample scope for reflection. Pondering the phrase “met his/her/its Waterloo” she remarks, “curious how we always seem to see Waterloo from the French angle and count it a defeat.” After a week spent with her (adulterous) lover Vere, Laurie continues her travels and her thoughts on religion grow deeper, “.. the Church, which grew so far, almost at once, from anything that can have been intended, and became so blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important and tried to exclude everything not done in a certain way and by certain people, and stamped out heresies with such cruelty and rage. And this failure of the Christian Church, of every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world.”

As to the reliability of the Gospels – written after all long after the events they describe – she considers some things which might have been very important may have been forgotten or left out, and some things put in may have been wrong, “for some sound unlikely for him to have said. That is a vexatious thing about the Gospels. You cannot be sure what was said, unless you are a fundamentalist and must believe every word, or have an infallible Church.” There is “no need to be so drastic” as to take it or leave it “and few things are ever put down quite right, even at the time.”

A potential flaw is that Laurie’s lover Vere is something of an absence in the book. They meet rarely and none of what is said between them is revealed to us so we do not get a flavour of their relationship beyond that it exists. He only appears on the page in a speaking role once and that more or less as an aside, an adjunct to that sub-plot and in a piece of reported speech. As a result, what Laurie tells us at the end does not have the emotional pay-off it might have had. Macaulay is, perhaps, aiming for a pathos her book therefore hasn’t earned. On the other hand another way to look at it is that the whole thing is an exercise in displacement, a desperate enumeration of little things, ramblings and considerations of the nature of faith in order to avoid contemplation of the seriousness of life. Here we are again with love, sex and death. But while Macaulay – through Laurie – mentions them she rarely addresses them head on. As an authorial approach that is arguably very subtle but here runs the risk of early disengagement. Such considerations are in any case somewhat at odds with the generally light tone.

The Towers of Trebizond won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956. I would probably not have picked it up had the good lady not been working her way through as many of the winners as she can find. I’m glad I did though.

Pedant’s corner:- There are several 1950s spellings – Moslem, haarem, yoghourt, Irak, Erivan – but raise cheers for archæology/archæological and manœvre/manœvring (except why, then, penny-plain medieval?) Otherwise; aunt Dot is used throughout (as a relative Dot’s designation ought to be a proper noun, so Aunt Dot,) manicheeism (Manichaeism or Manicheism,) everthing (everything,) occasional commas omitted before a piece of direct speech, “‘as we had to often heard of it’” (too often,) “did not probably think it peculiar” (probably did not think it peculiar,) “once for all” (I’m more familiar with once and for all.)

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

~Penguin, 2000, 89 p, plus vii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald and i p Foreword by the author. First published 1980.

A Month in the Country cover

In the aftermath of the Great War, Tom Birkin, a veteran with a facial twitch as a result of it, takes on the task of uncovering a mediæval mural from the wall of a church in the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. The first person narrative of this slim but well-formed volume is in the form of recollections by Birkin in his old age and relates his interactions with the family of the Wesleyan local station master, the vicar Rev Leach (not at all keen on the disturbance and the potential effect on his flock of a vibrant painting on the wall of his church,) Leach’s wife, and a fellow war veteran Mr Moon, an archæologist hired to try to find the tomb of a mediæval ancestor of the Miss Hebron who has funded both projects via a bequest. As he works on uncovering the mural and gets to know the locals Tom attains a kind of contentment.

A Month in the Country is no more than a novella but Carr packs a lot into it. Like Nan Shepherd’s, it is something of a quiet work, no pyrotechnics, no big issues addressed (except the aftermath of war.) It is also an addition to the literature of the ‘path not taken’.

Pedant’s corner:- As noted in the Introduction the local minister Arthur Leach is also referred to as Revd J G Leach – but Carr admitted to being a reckless proofreader. Elsewhere: mugsfull (mugsful?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘Low, He comes with clouds descending.’” (Lo! He comes with…,) Mr moon (Mr Moon.)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

faber and faber, 2005, 238 p. First published 1963.

 The Bell Jar cover

It is very difficult to read this without an awareness of the troubled life of its author, who, like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, lost her father in early life and on reaching young adulthood developed mental health issues. As it did with Plath herself, the shadow of madness, or at least disturbance, lies heavily over the book’s second half.

Esther, a nineteen year-old from a provincial background has won a fashion magazine contest to jaunt about New York. The early part of the novel describes her experiences there and some of her fellow winners, one of whom wears, in a beautiful phrase, “dressing gowns the colour of sin”.

Esther is somewhat naïve as well as still a virgin. “When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” Magazines told her, “The best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex.” Her would-be husband Buddy Willard is, “the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for,” and when she finds he isn’t so fine and clean himself she rejects him and reflects staying pure may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But she “wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself.” It’s a conflict she finds difficult to resolve.

In this first half the book is feminist in an early 1960s kind of way but it soon drives off on a darker tangent as Esther’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

The novel’s first sentence sets it in the summer the Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted. This is something that clearly preoccupies Esther as it perhaps did Plath. In an exchange which illustrates Esther is perhaps more humane than some “normal” people Esther as narrator tells us, “I said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?’ ‘Yes’ Hilda said. ‘It’s awful such people should be alive.’” Electrocution is a fate Esther suffered as a child due to a faulty lamp – and will again as she is trundled through a succession of mental hospitals and subjected to electro-convulsive shock therapy of varying degrees of intensity. How much this helped or hindered is difficult to assess. Plath’s fate suggests the latter. Esther does describe madness as being like inside a bell jar which lifts – temporarily? – after the milder shock treatment she receives from a (slightly) more careful practitioner than her first.

There is a particularly horrific scene in the aftermath of Esther losing her virginity. Put together with the emphasis on pureness from Esther’s early life such an outcome seems like a punishment. It is possible from this to argue that one of the book’s purposes was to suggest that sexual naivety consequent on the insistence of the purity of women before marriage is at the least detrimental to well-being, maybe even a major contributor to madness.

It would be tempting to think that this book gives some insight into Plath’s later life but as an account of the onset of mental problems and its inadequate treatment it doesn’t really.

All I’d read about this – and its author – suggested that it would be a difficult book but it is in fact extremely easy to read. It may be autobiographical (or at least semi-autobiographical) and there is her poetry to take into account but from the perspective of a reader of novels it is a pity Plath never wrote (or perhaps never had the time to write) another one.

Pedant’s corner:- sewed (USianism, I prefer sewn,) the women (it was one person, so woman,) “why couldn’t I just got to the classes?” (just go to,) “I was my last night” (It was,) a missing start quote mark, “with pinks tips” (pink.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Harvill, 1996, 302 p. Translated from the Russian Белая гвардия, (Belaja gvardija, first published in 1925,) by Michael Glenny.

The White Guard cover

There is a sense in which – like Tolstoy’s happy families – all Russian novels are alike. A blizzard of polysyllabic names potentially confusingly embellished with the corresponding patronymics not to mention the seemingly obligatory diminutives, with always a sense of foreboding in the background, if not the foreground. You certainly don’t turn to them for sweetness and light. Then again, love, sex and death are the wider novel’s perennial preoccupations.

To be sure there isn’t much focus on love in The White Guard, no sex at all, and I can recall only three actual deaths described in the text; but the prospect of death hangs over everything. Here there can be, too, as I also noticed when reading War and Peace, a sudden lurching through time from a particular chapter to the next. One surprising thing I discovered from it is that a Ukrainian clock seems to make the sounds tonk-tank rather than tick-tock.

The novel is set in Ukraine, in “the city” (only once identified as Kiev,) amid the turmoil that followed the 1917 revolution and centres round the affairs of the Turbin family and those who live in the same building. During the novel the city starts out under the rule of the Hetman – in whose army the male Turbins serve as officers – but is threatened by Ukrainian Nationalist forces led by Simon Petlyura; and beyond that, the Bolsheviks. The disorganisation and unpreparedness of the defending forces is well portrayed – a bit like Dad’s Army but without the laughs – and the mist of rumour and counter-rumour accompanying the situation when the city falls to Petlyura conveys the commensurate sense of febrility.

Bulgakov’s first novel and the only one to be published in the USSR in his lifetime, The White Guard is an insight into an all-but forgotten moment in an interregnum of upheaval and change and is worth reading for that alone. But a marker of the futility of it all is the thought that, “Blood is red on those deep fields and no one would redeem it. No one.”

While it has touches of the fantastic, including several dream sequences, The White Guard does not (cannot) touch the heights of the same author’s The Master and Margarita but it is well worth reading on its own terms.

Pedant’s corner:- While at the end of a piece dialogue a full stop, question mark or ellipsis is included inside the quote marks; if the sentence carries on and so requires a comma this, against the accepted practice, is almost – though not quite – invariably set after the quotation. Otherwise; the Ukraine (when first translated this usage was common, but nowadays its inhabitants prefer “Ukraine”.) “As if at by unspoken command” (“As if at”, or “As if by”, not “As if by at”,) Karas’ (Karas’s,) négligé (usually négligée,) Tubirn (Turbin,) hung (hanged, but it was in dialogue,) Toropets’ (Toropets’s.) Exct ed (????) a missing start quote mark, french window (French window,) I thought earlier on I had spotted a waggon but did not note its place (later on there were wagons,) St Nicholas’ church (St Nicholas’s.)

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy … was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to the sister of one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

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