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The Sin of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz

Black Swan, 1985, 430 p.

 The Sin of Father Amaro  cover

Like The Sealwoman’s Gift this is a story about the conflict between duty and conscience on the one hand and human urges on the other. As I noted before, the cover of this book is something of a spoiler, leaving little doubt as to the nature of Father Amaro’s fall from grace. And the title is inaccurate in that, though it is rather skated over and only mentioned in two short passages, he had already fallen in his previous parish, Feirão, before he met the Amelia Joanneira who is the other focus of the novel – and there is a further crime to add to his debit account by the story’s end. Set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, The Sin of Father Amaro is, however, about more than a single priest’s misdeeds, dealing as it also does with the privileged position the Portuguese Roman Catholic clergy enjoyed and the hypocrisy it encouraged.

The titular sinner is Amaro Vieira, a junior priest (paroco,) more or less forced into the priesthood by circumstance, who comes to the parish of Lieira after finding existence in Feirão too spartan for him. The senior priest, Canon Dias, arranges for him to lodge with Senhora Joanneira (a woman with whom we find later he himself is having relations) and whose daughter Amelia is profoundly religious. Nevertheless, the proximity between the paroco and her will tend to its natural conclusion. No matter how religions attempt them (usually by blaming women) efforts to curb human sexuality will always founder, as is true in any other societal arrangement.

The pair’s attachment grows despite Amelia also being subject to the attentions of a young clerk, João Eduardo. He is a potential firebrand who finds the strictures of religion claustrophobic and is agitated by the connection between Amaro and Amelia. To try to allay suspicion she agrees to marry Eduardo (a temporary rift between Amaro and Amelia ensues) but a tract he writes anonymously for a periodical called The District excoriating the cosy hypocrisy of clerical impunity and hinting heavily at Amaro’s failings, causes a minor scandal. On being exposed and confronted he strikes Amaro and is excommunicated. As a religious woman cannot be associated with an excommunicant Amelia withdraws her consent to marriage and Eduardo leaves the town. The coast is then clear for the liaison between Amaro and Amelia to come to fruition.

The newpaper editor, Dr Godinho, tells Eduardo when he bemoans his fate, “a good Catholic; his thoughts, his ideas, his feelings, his conversations, the employment of his days and nights, his relations towards his family and his neighbours, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, his diversions – all is regulated by the ecclesiastical authority (abbot, bishop or canon) approved or censured by his confessor, counselled and ordered by him as the director of his conscience. The good Catholic, such as your little girl, doesn’t belong to herself; she has no judgement, no wishes, no free will, nor individual feeling; her priest thinks, wishes, determines, feels for her. Her only work in this world is to accept this direction; accept it without discussion, obey it, no matter what its demands.” When Eduardo argues that’s all very well except when love is devouring someone, Godinho says, “Love is one of the greatest forces of civilisation,” but adds a warning, “the heart is a term which usually serves us, for decency’s sake, to designate another organ. It is precisely this other organ which is the only one interested, in the majority of cases, in affairs of sentiment. In those cases the grief doesn’t last.”

Whether it truly reflects de Queiroz’s attitudes or only those of the time (and of later it must be said) there is a strong course of misogyny running through the book. The master of moral at Amaro’s seminary had “explained the anathema of the saints against women, who were, according to the expressions of the Church, Serpents, Darts, Children of Lies, Doors of Hell, Sources of Crime, Scorpions ….. Paths of Iniquity, iniquitas via.” This leads Amaro to ruminate on the conflict between this and the fact that one of these pariahs was enthroned over the altar as Queen of Grace. In another instance Abbot Ferrão opines to Canon Dias that being possessed by the devil only happens to women, never to respectable notaries nor dignified judges. A character called Pinheiro compares a woman to a shadow, “if we run after her she runs away from us; if we run away from her she runs after us.”

In situations such as occur in this book it was always of course, the woman who paid the price of sin, in novels, as in life. In his depiction of Amaro, de Queiroz does not let him off the hook of culpability, but his position ensures he does not incur a penalty for it.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Make you mind easy’” (your mind,) waggon (wagon,) shrunk (x 3, shrank,) sprung (sprang,) Sanches’ (Sanches’s,) Novaes’ (Novaes’s,) St Carlos’ (St Carlos’s,) Fernandos’ (Fernandos’s,) Nunes’ (Nunes’s,) “all was not lost” (not all was lost,) strategem (x 3, stratagem,) “a whole series of caresses were necessary to calm her” (a whole series … was necessary.)

Cover Issues

I confess I had never heard of Josa Maria Eça de Queiroz (or José Maria Eça de Queirós) – the full name of the Portuguese author one of whose books I am reading at the moment (see sidebar until I move on to another book) – until earlier this year when we attended an exhibition of the paintings of Portuguese artist Paula Rego at the Modern Two part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In the gallery shop my eye was taken by copies of de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro (an alternative title) whose cover (see below, left) incorporated one of Rego’s paintings. I had never read any Portuguese literature so took note of the book, but not so much as to make a purchase there and then as I wanted to find out more about the author first. de Queirós turns out to be one of Portugal’s most respected writers and there are several editions of this book in translation besides the one I bought.

So it was that earlier this year on coming across a copy of The Sin of Father Amaro in my favourite second hand bookshop – Bouquiniste, in St Andrews since you ask – at a bargain price, I could not pass up the chance to sample de Queirós’s work. I must say though, that the covers of most editions do give the game away somewhat as to what the nature of Amaro’s crime – or sin; take your pick – might be. They leave nothing to the imagination. In fact only the Rego cover doesn’t. The others are also more than a little misleading in that the female character they attempt to depict is far from the apparent temptress that especially the right hand one might suggest.

 The Sin of Father Amaro cover
 The Sin of Father Amaro cover

 The Sin of Father Amaro cover

Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Triad Panther, 1985, 193 p

 Look At Me  cover

The novel starts with the sentences, “Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.” Narrator Frances Hinton works in a medical library. While she is laying out the progress of her life to the novel’s point of crisis she more than once alludes to something in her past she does not wish to remember (“the time of which I never speak”) but, annoyingly, we never actually find out what that was, though we can guess. She lives in the big, old house which belonged to her parents, with Nanny still in attendance, though Frances is completely independent. In her spare time she makes notes for a projected novel. Though not much should be made of this, Look At Me is not primarily a novel about someone writing a novel, it does give Brookner scope to make observations such as, “writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory,” and, “For those who put pen to paper do so because they rarely trust their own voices.”

Through her work Frances falls into the orbit of Nick and Alix Fraser. Nick has an alluring aura, (“He struck one as a much-loved creature ….. The combination of his golden and indiscriminate affection and his hard if random gaze at the women around him made one feel that possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,”) and Alix has “come down in the world,” and scarcely forbears to let everyone know it. When discovering Frances’s parents are both dead they take to calling her Little Orphan Fanny – a description she dislikes.

Frances strikes up a friendship with mutual friend James, the details of which Alix is perennially asking Frances to divulge. This relationship is the core of the book. Frances tells us that, “The worst thing that a man can do to a woman is to make her feel unimportant.” James appears to do the opposite yet Frnces does not seem to appreciate that till it’s too late.

Apart from one aspect Brookner’s writing flows very smoothly and almost transparently though the whole is perhaps a trifle inconsequential. The problem is that use of “one” as an (im)personal pronoun. While seeking to illustrate generality, it in fact undermines it, serving instead to point to the book’s class imperviousness. That phrase quoted above, “possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,” is utterly jarring in its awkwardness. The affect is so detached as to be alien.

Pedant’s corner:- ambiance (I prefer the spelling ‘ambience’.)

After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray

Constable, 2007, 414 p

 After a Dead Dog cover

The author used to be an editor for Orbit and was in fact the person who bought my novel “A Son of the Rock” for publishing under that imprint. Unfortunately (for me) he left that post soon after and his replacement didn’t seem to take to my stuff. Ah well. Murray has since taken to writing himself and this was his first novel. By the evidence shown here his experiences of editing have not gone to waste.

There are, though, echoes/reminders throughout of the writing of Iain Banks, what with the setting in rural Scotland (here the Kintyre peninsula,) an ex-lover for whom the narrator still holds a torch (and who hasn’t quite got over him,) a family secret, a ‘big house’, a political connection and a crime – several crimes – to be unravelled. As in The Crow Road, which the text explicitly mentions, we start – Prologue excepted – with a funeral. The dialogue at times approaches the irreverence of the banter we meet in Banks but doesn’t quite have his zing and sparkle. The first person narrator, a more or less washed up poet turned TV scriptwriter, is even named Iain (Lewis,) though is for some reason often addressed by other characters as ‘Lewis, Iain.’

The funeral was that of Margaret Crawford, mother of Lewis’s first girl friend Carole (now Ferguson) whose relationship with him broke up shortly after the death of her father (attributed to suicide) more than a few years before. The Crawfords run a fish processing business in the town. At the funeral purvey Carole’s husband Duncan introduces Iain to a business associate from Dublin, Colm Kelly, and plies Iain with spiked drinks so that he will be arrested by the local bobbie for drink driving on his way home. Iain manages to avoid drinking them all, puzzling the copper, an old adversary from school, with his negative test. The plot then engages when Iain arrives home and finds a strange suitcase in his study. It contains money and packages with white powder in them. Wondering how, exactly, he would explain this circumstance to the police, he hides the suitcase. Shortly thereafter he finds Danny McGovern (who had earlier noticed a boat on the sea-loch making odd manoeuvres) dead in a caravan dragged from its usual position. Iain enlists the aid of his pal, crime reporter Dougie Henderson, to help him resolve his problem.

Iain’s narration is replete with allusion and more than the odd quotation – which will please the more highbrow reader – and we have enough degrees of skulduggery involving Kelly and New Labour politician and Scottish Executive Minister, Alan Baird to satisfy crime aficionados. Of Edinburgh Iain says it, “has a railway line where it ought to have a river, it’s not very nice to motorists and it’s always cold,” while its good people are positively icy. “If ever a city deserved a dyspeptic Duke it was Edinburgh.”

Murray spins a very good tale. Perhaps as a character Duncan is a bit underdrawn but Iain himself, Carole and Dougie are rounded personalities. The baddies are as baddies are, but then arguably that is as it should be. After a Dead Dog – an odd title but a quote from the Old Testament – is very readable stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Trick or treat?’” (while Murray correctly refers to the children coming round the doors at Hallowe’en as guisers, it is not usually the case – or wasn’t in my day – to ask this question. It was, however, expected that any child desiring largesse in the form of sweets or money from their hosts performed a party piece first as part of the implicit bargain involved,) Yeats’ (Yeats’s,) wifeys (usually spelled ‘wifies’.) “They were hewed from the same rock” (they were hewn,) “the Great Western Road, the Byres Road” (these well-known Glasgow thoroughfares don’t attract the definite article in local speech; they’re called Great Western Road and Byres Road,) “stamping ground” (isn’t the phrase ‘stomping ground’?) Stephane Grapelly (Grapelli,) “I felt like fool” (a fool,) Evans’ (Evans’s,) soccer (football!) “‘aren’t I?’” (said by Dougie Henderson. He’s Scottish, he would more likely say, ‘amn’t I?’)

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

Little, Brown, 2001, 250 p

 According to Queeney cover

Bainbridge is – or was – one of the stalwarts of English Fiction, but I had not read anything from her œuvre before this book. I gather her output is varied though, so I shall not take this as representative.

According to Queeney is topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue describing respectively Samuel Johnson’s body’s removal from the house in which he died and his funeral, the sections in between being an account of his relationship with the Thrale family, one of whose daughters (given name, Harriet, like her mother) is the Queeney of the title.

The individual chapters deal with phases of Johnson’s life from a debilitating illness in 1765 to his eventual fading away and each is appended by a letter from the grown-up Queeney to Miss Laetitia Hawkins of Sion Row Tottenham, who is composing her memoirs which feature Johnson heavily, or, once, to novelist Fanny Burney (by now Madame D’Arblay) in Paris. Queeney’s mother and Johnson had both championed Burney’s writing. These letters provide Queeney’s own perspective on the events. (In one of them, incidentally, she mentions recently staying in Dumbartonshire.)

Johnson is irascible, opinionated and enamoured of Mrs Thrale, whose life is otherwise a constant round of pregnancies and dead children. Since this is an illustration of a more private part of Johnson’s life his biographer James Boswell makes only fleeting appearances in the book. We are also granted glimpses of the actor David Garrick.

Bainbridge’s prose is finely written but unfortunately too much of the proceedings are told, rather than shown. As a result the reader does not feel the emotions implied.

Pedant’s corner:- “was sat” (was seated, or, was sitting,) another “sat” (where ‘sitting’ would have been more appropriate,) “she was of no more interest to him that the stone urns set at frequent intervals along the way” (than the stone urns,) “nought but darkness lay ahead” (nought is the number, zero; ‘naught but darkness’.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times Again

And so, back to the beginning of Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times, which started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These books sit on the very top of that bookcase I featured in the first of these posts, above the shelves that contain all my (read) Scottish books.

Books Once More

They’re here because they fit into the space – at least in the case of the three “What If…” books, What If?, More What If? and What If America? – anthologies of Altered History stories – and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Then there is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Colin Greenland’s excellent Finding Helen, a Paul Torday, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, non-SF works by SF writers Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk and three books by Erich Maria Remarque including the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front.

If I were filing my books thoroughly systematically these would all have to be moved.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

The story of Franz Biberkopf, Continuum, 2004, 381 p, plus ii p Foreword by Alexander Stephan and i p Contents. Translated from the German, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Eugene Jolas

 Berlin Alexanderplatz  cover

Franz Biberkopf has just been released from Tegel jail after serving four years for the killing (manslaughter) of his partner Ida. This far from straightforwardly told novel tells his story – in nine books – over the next few years at the back end of the 1920s. These were of course troubled political times in Germany and some conversations involve “the Reds” and mention of swastikas but for the most part the political situation is kept in the background. The focus is on Biberkopf and his milieu, his acquaintance (it would not be accurate to describe him as a friend) Reinhold, their associations with various women and the demi-monde in general.

At first Biberkopf is determined to go straight and he manages to gain a living selling newspapers an din the meanwhile having relationships with several women (who tend to be Reinhold’s cast-offs.) Franz is settled with Meize, though, when his life unravels once more as he is hoodwinked into acting as lookout on a burglary. His irritation leads to Reinhold throwing him out of the getaway car into the gutter. His arm is damaged by a succeeding vehicle and he loses it.

The text is overloaded with repetition of phrases such as, “truly, ruly, roo,” “There is a mower: Death yclept,” “tararara taraboomdeay” and “drrumm, brrumm, drrumm.” There are, too, many digressions via Bible quotations, a multiplicity of rhymes, asides on how the novel is progressing, and relatings of everyday events in the wider world, including weather reports. Such things tend to a lack of clarity in the text, a situation not helped by dialogue being carried on from one character to another on the same line – albeit separated by quotation marks. As a mark of its times and of the prevailing attitudes there are also casual references to Jews as if those characters’ ethnicity was the only thing noteworthy about them.

Not only dialogue but also the prose is usually rendered in demotic mode. This is an attempt to represent the various viewpoint characters’ thoughts and as such is justified. However, the demotic employed by the translator was USian – “Say,” or “Gee,” at the start of a piece of dialogue, phrases or words like “back of it,” “boloney,” “dames.” As a result, the book didn’t feel at all German to me. Since experiencing another culture, even if at second hand, is one of the reasons for reading translated fiction this might be thought to be something of a failing. Jolas’s translation has been decried elsewhere.

The back cover blurb describes Berlin Alexanderplatz as one of the masterpieces of modern European literature – the first German novel to adopt James Joyce’s technique. I must admit to not having read any Joyce so do not know whether it was this aspect of the book, the translator’s choices, or the work itself which rendered reading it a bit of a chore. I don’t regret having read it though. Reading new authors, rarely turns out not to be worthwhile in some way.

Additional sensitivity warning: the book contains one use of the ‘n’ word.

Pedant’s corner:- Franze (I have no idea why, in asides, Biberkopf’s first name is sometimes spelled this way,) “work must being immediately” (begin,) Frankfort (either on-the-Rhine, or on-the-Oder, many times. The usual English spelling is Frankfurt,) newsvender (many times, newsvendor,) offuscation (obfuscation?) “let’s me stand there” (lets,) thind (think,) “you might of sat down” (okay it was in dialogue, but does German actually have this egregious mispronunciation? You might have sat down, or, you might’ve,) gayety (x 2, gaiety,) dumfounded (dumbfounded,) “has waked up” (woken up,) “I wouldn’t of started” (ditto as above,) “lay of the land” (lie of the land,) “layin’ around” (lyin’ around,) “he puts his hands over her mouth” (this was Franz. At this point he only has one arm, therefore only one hand,) Karle (Karl,) Mandelay (Mandalay,) “the gang … insist” (the gang … insists,) busses (buses.) interne (x 3, intern.)

Spy Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme, originating with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, has now been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Spy Fiction Books

Back in the days of the Cold War spy fiction was a big thing. The two main purveyors of the form – in the UK anyway – were my (sur)namesake Len Deighton (although he pronounces the “Deigh” part to rhyme with “day” rather than “die”) and John le Carré. I also have a le Carré omnibus of his early works shelved elsewhere.

These, too, are housed in the garage, below the last of my SF paperbacks (see last week’s post.)

I have read all the books by Deighton here. His book Fighter is not on these shelves because it’s a history of the Battle of Britain but then Blitzkrieg is also a history book and it is here. Winter is not a spy novel but reflects Deighton’s knowledge of Germany (specifically Berlin) in the first half of the twentieth century. Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a novel featuring members of the US Air Force which took part in the campaign in World War 2 in the lead up to the invasion of Normandy. SS-GB is an altered history set in a Britain where a German invasion of the UK in 1940 succeeded.

I’ve not read all the le Carrés. Spy fiction lost a lot of its resonance when the Cold War ended whereupon he moved on to other things. I always meant to get round to his later stuff but life (and other books) got in the way.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

In “The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels,” Barnes and Noble, 2012, 164 p (plus iii p Introduction to the three novels.) Agnes Grey was first published 1847.

 The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels cover

Narrator Agnes Grey is the daughter of a poor-ish clergyman on whose infirmity she decides to find work as a governess to help out her family financially, albeit in a small way. The novel is a more or less straightforward account of her experiences first of all in a family where the children fail to do as they are asked, over-indulged as they are by their parents, a thankless endeavour not soon enough brought to an end, then in another – the Murrays – where she is in charge of two much older daughters, both of whom are headstrong in various degrees. The influence of Brontë’s own life in providing a milieu for her heroine is therefore obvious.

Agnes Grey is God-fearing, thoughtful and mindful of her place in the scheme of things and of her obligations to be compassionate. That others of higher social standing than herself may not be so minded, is something she becomes acutely aware of.

The hypocritical minister, the more truly Christian curate, the calculating mother prepared to sacrifice her daughter’s future happiness to a title, the scheming young girl callously set on snaring a man’s heart while never intending to gratify that desire, all make an appearance here. This fits neatly into the template of the Georgian or Victorian novel. It is all over rather quickly and it is relatively obvious from the moment of the appearance of the curate, Mr Weston, in Agnes Grey’s life where it will end. Everything seemed rather rushed, though, more like sketches for a novel than the complete article.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a repeated full stop. Otherwise; no start quote mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, “it would be with different, feelings” (why the comma?) opportunityl (opportunity,) visiter(s) (several instances, visitor(s),) by-the-bye (previously – on the same page! – by-the-by.) “‘What do your mean, sir?’” (you,) secresy (an old spelling?) “None of the Murrays were disposed to….” (None … was disposed to,) visa versa (nowadays always vice versa,) wofully, woful (now spelled woefully, woeful,) “the congregation were departing” (the congregation was departing,) “not to shabby or mean” (not to appear shabby or mean,) worky-day (now spelled workaday,) “said be” (said he.)

The Flight of the Heron by D K Broster

William Heinemann, 1956, 286 p. First published 1925.

 The Flight of the Heron cover

Broster wasn’t Scottish but the background to her story most certainly is, probably the most worked-over seam in Scottish history, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6, from Scott kicking off the whole historical novel malarkey with Waverley to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

The focus here is very much not on the battles of that rebellion but on the relationship between Jacobite Ewen Cameron (of Ardroy) and a Government Army Officer, the Englishman Captain (later Major) Keith Windham of the Royal Scots.

Just after Bonnie Prince Charlie has landed in Scotland, Windham is captured by Cameron (due to no fault of his own – his horse shying at a heron rising in front of it, which only slightly injures him but breaks the horse’s leg – leaving him all but defenceless.) Windham is surprised to find Cameron not the barbarian of his expectations but a gentleman with fine and chivalrous manners. Having given his parole, Windham is indebted to Cameron for intervening when on a stroll round the Ardroy estate he comes across locals retrieving their arms cache from the thatched roofs of their houses and is thereby thought to be a spy. In the meantime, we find that Cameron’s foster-father – who is a seer – has predicted that Cameron and Windham will meet a total of five times, leaving the reader totting up their encounters. Sure enough the pairs’ paths cross again in Edinburgh after the Battle of Prestonpans when Windham has sallied from the castle in an attempt to capture the Prince – to whom Cameron is now aide-de-camp – who is visiting a house nearby, and once again Windham finds himself indebted to Cameron for allowing him to escape the clutches of Highlander reinforcements.

Windham’s opportunity to repay these favours occurs in the aftermath of Culloden when he arrives just in time to prevent the execution of an almost dying Cameron – wounded and exhausted, barely able to stand – at the hands of a detachment of Government soldiers sweeping the countryside for rebels. Windham’s speiring of Cameron as to the whereabouts of Clan Chief Lochiel then becomes a source of distrust between them before two final meetings in prison resolve their situation.

The book is dedicated to Violet Jacob, whose Flemington – which covers much the same ground as this – and Tales from Angus I read in 2015. Broster is not as good a stylist as Jacob was, though. Indeed, her prose tends to the utilitarian, but she does have an eye for landscape.

It is, however, impossible to read this book nowadays without wondering about its undercurrent, Windham’s several times expressed “strong attraction” for Cameron. His striving to ensure Cameron does not suffer unduly in the Government soldiers’ hands – even to the point of encurring the direct displeasure of the Duke of Cumberland – speaks of something more than mere obligation or friendship. A something that perhaps could not be addressed in so many words on the book’s first printing in 1925.

Pedant’s corner:- the very first word! Prolouge (Prologue,) h (he,) “‘the Elector’s’” (the meaning was ‘of the ‘Elector’ hence, the ‘Elector’’s,) a missing full stop, “a file of soldiers were advancing” (a file … was advancing,) Glangarry (Glengarry, I think,) “more then stupefaction” (more than,) ‘Hangman Hawley (‘Hangman Hawley’,) Mullins’ (Mullins’s,) an unnecessary end quotation mark, “which was, be believed” (which was, he believed,) Babenoch (Badenoch,) “‘for you solicitude’” (your,) “aide-de-camps” (aides-de-camp, as was used elsewhere, except for one “aides-de-camps”) a few missing commas before pieces of direct speech, lous d’or (louis d’or,) will-o-the-wisps (wills-o-the-wisp,) “were else” (where else,) staunch (stanch.)

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