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The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera

King Penguin, 1987, 186 p. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi. First published as La Valse aux adieux, © Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1976.

This novel’s story unfolds over five days, the events of each of which make up the book’s sections.

Klima is a jazz trumpeter who has an erotic secret. As he tells his friend Bartleff, a rich American, “I love my wife.” That, however, has not stopped Klima from having sex with other women, one of whom, Ruzena, is a nurse in a fertility clinic in the spa town where Bartleff lives. An earlier phone call from Ruzena to Klima announcing she is pregnant has brought Klima scurrying to the town to try to resolve the situation. Their story is mixed in with that of Dr Skreta who runs the clinic, his friend Jakub, a former political dissident who has just received permission to leave the country and Jakub’s ward, Olga, the daughter of the man who betrayed Jakub to the authorities.

Skreta has had great success in enabling his clients to have babies. He has a sperm bank using his own semen as a result of which many of them have features resembling those of the doctor. “I have cured quite a few women of childlessness by using this approach.”

Klima wishes Ruzena to have an abortion but she refuses, at least initially. Skreta heads the abortion committee before which Ruzena would have to appear. Its two mature women members are generally unsympathetic to those who come before them wishing the procedure, an attitude Skreta interprets by saying women are the greatest misogynists in the world, always doing other women down. Misogyny, though, is a strain which tends to run through the book.

The character of Jakub allows Kundera to comment on the restrictions of a repressive state and the traits that inculcates, “All you have to do to turn people into murderers is to remove them from their peaceful circle of family home and work. Every now and again history exposes humans to certain pressures and traps which nobody can resist.” On people who seek revenge for their plight on the descendants of their persecutors he opines that victims are no better than their oppressors.

Bartleff, too, has observations to make, including that Saint Paul was not only a disciple of Jesus but a falsifier of his teaching. “His somersault from Saul to Paul. Haven’t we seen enough of those passionate fanatics who jump overnight from one faith to another?” (I note here that Christianity’s evolution after Saul’s conversion makes a case for the religion(s) it became to be named Paulinity rather than Christianity.)

The Farewell Party (some translations give the title as The Farewell Waltz) is intricately plotted, the connections between the two main strands woven together in an unexpected but somehow inevitable – albeit harsh – way. The overall feeling though is one of distance, that we see the characters as through frosted glass. They don’t seem to act for themselves so much as take the parts ascribed to them. But that is what living under a repressive regime must be like.

Pedant’s corner:- “surely a more likable being that Raskolnikov’s usurious hag” (than Raskolnikov’s,) missing full stops at the end of two sentences.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

275 p. In Four Great Cornish Novels, Gollancz, 1984. First published in 1938.

How does the modern reader review an eighty-five year-old book with a large cultural imprint and a story perhaps familiar from TV or film adaptations? And one on which anyone reading the review may already have formed their own opinions? This is the problem with Rebecca, a book I have come to very late. Is there anything new to say about it?

Its first line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is of course iconic and astute (or would be to a reader coming to it with no foreknowledge.) The narrator clearly has an attraction to the place but no longer a connection to it. Yet it sets up a mystery. Why is that so? What happened that Manderley is no longer in her life? Why would it be so significant to her? Hence, we read on. I would argue, though, that the rest of that chapter, where we receive the second Mrs de Winter’s memories of its grounds, is a touch too overwritten.

The second chapter begins, “We can never go back again, that much is certain,” once more a promise of revelations to come and perhaps with a more widespread application. Yet such going back, recollections of lives lived from older – maybe wiser – perspectives, is a staple of literature. And so we have the second Mrs de Winter’s account of the early days of her relationship with her now husband, Maxim. Though Maxim de Winter tells her – and us – she has “a lovely and unusual name” we never learn it, which is a bit of a tease and also something of a copout by the author. But it does serve to underline the central thrust of the book. Rebecca, despite its title, is not really her story at all, nor even that of the second Mrs de Winter (except in the fragments we are shown,) but rather of that first wife’s effects on the other characters and of the influence, in an entirely unparanormal way, dead people can exert on the living from beyond the grave.

The mousy, diffident girl Maxim de Winter meets in Monte Carlo due to her paid companionship of Mrs van Hopper (a well-judged portrayal of such a snobby woman and her entitled, selfish behaviour – the blustering Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who towards the end threatens the promised happy ending (which is itself undone by Manderley’s destruction,) is another well-drawn individual – cannot quite believe Maxim’s interest in her – especially since Rebecca’s glamour and allure are all that she hears about. This is perhaps a little disingenuous of du Maurier. Would even the most self-effacing young woman really believe that a man as wealthy as Maxim would marry her solely out of sympathy? And so soon after the death of a woman to whom he was supposedly devoted? That there wasn’t something about her that he found congenial and desirable? That she cannot realise that her difference from Rebecca is the point is much easier to understand. His witholding from her of that information is a mark against him but then without it there would have been no plot. But that leaves our narrator continually holding herself to a standard to which she cannot live up, prey to the machinations of the contemptuous and manipulative housekeeper Mrs Danvers whose devotion to Rebecca survives her mistress’s death. Then again the second Mrs de Winter is largely naïve and too taken up with her own insecurities to see any deeper picture before it is thrust on her.

People have been struck by similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Both bear characteristics of the Gothic novel, both are the memoirs of a young woman who falls under the spell of an older man with a big house. Yet the comparison is not exact. In Rebecca there is no barrier to marriage, the first Mrs de Winter is dead, in Jane Eyre, Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, is not – at least until the fire kills her and leaves Mr Rochester blind. However, in Rebecca it is arguable that the mad woman is actually in plain sight in the form of Mrs Danvers. And Jane would not have stood by Mr Rochester if she thought he had got rid of his wife.

No doubt it is due to the book being published in the 1930s but there is a curious lack of passion to the relationship between Maxim and his second wife. Maxim drops into his old habits as soon as he returns to Manderley, leaving his new wife to fend for herself through her long days. There is even a reference to Maxim’s bed being unslept in, their twin beds, then, a clear signal the couple does not sleep together. Love and sex being absent, of the three big novelistic concerns that leaves only death for Rebecca to dwell on.


Pedant’s corner:- Some 1930s usages (to-day, to-night, suit-case.) Otherwise; “reading Bradshaws” (Bradshaw’s,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “lunch I suppose” “the passage was in the past tense” (lunch I supposed,) “Mrs Danvers’ dislike” (Danvers’s,) “the hood” (of a car. That would be the bonnet, then,) the line “pockets. He was staring straight in front of him. He is thinking about Rebecca,” is repeated two lines later and the line it replaces never appears. “‘He was not in a fit to state to undertake anything of the sort” (that first ‘to’ is superfluous.) “It means we had to go” (Again the passage was in past tense; ‘It meant we had to go’,) “Doctor Phillips’ car” (Phillips’s.) “Tired women with crying babies in pram and stared into windows” (is missing something between ‘pram’ and ‘and.’ Or the ‘and’ is superfluous.)

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Weidenfeld & Nicolson Essentials, 2021, 212p, plus vi p Introduction by Maggie O’Farrell First published 1991.

From the outset we know where this tale of growing up as a misfit is going; Barker shows us in her prelude, titled Janet. This is not foreshadowing as such – it goes beyond prolepsis even – but it does set up an intriguing question. Why will what Barker tells us happened, happen? Why was Janet’s misadventure so easily glossed over? What was it about her that made her dismissable? But this is arguably fairer on the reader than Kate Atkinson’s revelation in A God in Ruins which turned upside down what we thought we had learned in all its pages up to that point.

Some reviewers have observed similarities to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (written much earlier than O Caledonia) but the characters of Cassandra Mortain and Janet are very different and Barker is a much subtler writer but I did wonder while I was reading O Caledonia if Kate Atkinson was familiar with Barker’s novel. I found the weird incidents of Janet’s childhood oddly similar to the manifold earlier days of Ursula Todd in Life After Life; there were perhaps even greater similarities to Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (from 1995.) Still, it allows Barker the acid observation “The subject was closed in favour of the living, who offer continuous material for persecution.”

Janet is a child in wartime living in the manse inhabited by her grandfather and subject to many an admonitory sermon. Scotland’s religious heritage, though never pushed, is an intermittent drum beat through the book as in, “At this time there were many Polish officers in the village. The Marine hotel had been requisitioned for them. They were popular with the lonely girls and the more flighty wives, so that after the war some stayed on and married, while others left behind girls who were even lonelier now, alone with tiny children in the unrelenting chill of a Calvinist world.” (This sort of memory of Polish soldiers was familiar to me from the tales told by an acquaintance who had lived in Kelso during the Second World War.) Barker also has Janet remark, “There seemed no place for gallantry and romance among Calvinists,” and, in a particularly self-flagellating moment “the nature of Caledonia was a pitiless nature and her own was no better.” That it had unintended effects is illlustrated by a passage wherein nannies asked children if they had done what they should today (ie moved their bowels) and unwittingly unleashed dissembling- “a horde of artful dodgers on the world.”

It is when the family inherits Auchnashaugh, a crumbling pile in the Highlands, that Janet’s alienation blossoms. She resents her younger siblings, fails to comprehend adult concerns or live up to their expectations and when older retreats into books, having an appetite for things beyond her age, Latin and Greek tags and the like. Her experience is summed up by Proust’s phrase ‘l’étouffoir familial’ the family suffocation chamber. Of how many sensitive souls has that been true.

She similarly fails to fit in at St Uncumba’s, the boarding school she is sent to far south in England where her distaste for, and inability at, games and liking for literature are mocked. Until she learns to dissemble.

The signal feature of her otherness is her adoption of a not yet fledged jackdaw whom she names Claws and who is her constant companion at Auchnashaugh.

O Caledonia is far too little known for a book so accomplished. How it did not get onto the list of 100 best Scottish books is beyond me. Perhaps its reissue far too late (2021) could explain it.

Pedant’s corner:- The young Janet sees the beam of a lighthouse sweep her bedroom (but this was in wartime; the lighthouses were switched off as part of the blackout precautions,) “she sucked a vengeful Pandrop” (a pan drop,) “the baby prone within” (the baby supine is more likely,) “golden rod” (goldenrod,) “je men fous” (je m’en fous,) “Miss Wales’ grizzled hair” (Wales’s,) “the gaping maw of the furnace” (stomachs do not gape,) standing in a great Victorian cemetery in Glasgow for her grandfather’s funeral (at that time in Scotland women did not go to interments, still less children,) clipe (usually spelled clype,) “Sir Patrick Spens’ lords (Spens’s,) Sawney Bean is said to have carried out his cannibalistic activities on the Aberdeenshire coast (most accounts put this legendary tale in Ayrshire,) “True Thomas’ faery queen” (Thomas’s,) “Euripides’ Medea” (Euripides’s,) “Barr’s Iron Brew” (the proprietary name is Irn Bru,) “came Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “the war memorial” (War Memorial – used later,) “‘a wee Doc and Doris afore ye gang awa’!’” (usually spelled Deoch-an-Doris,) Kiichen (a manuscript misreading of Küchen?) “Watt and Grants” (Watt and Grant’s,) swop (swap,) “Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “she was couched out there” (crouched makes more sense,) “Propertius’ poem” (Propertius’s,) “Tiresias’ description” (Tiresias’s) “Claws’ residence” (Claws’s,) “jeune jille” (jeune fille,) “passage from the Georgies” (the Georgics that would be,) “Orpheus’ final loss” (Orpheus’s.)

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2021, 567 p.

Mitchell has form with unusual novelistic structures. In Cloud Atlas he embedded several stories physically one within another. Here, in a book about the history of a briefly flaring sixties band (the Utopia Avenue of the title,) he doesn’t go as far but has set his novel out as if its sections were tracks on their three LPs. Each of its six main sections is prefaced by an image of the supposed label of one side of an album and its chapters focus on the lives of the writers of its songs, bassist Dean Moss, ex folk singer Elf Holloway and virtuoso guitarist Jasper de Zoet. The group’s drummer, Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, didn’t compose but gets one writing credit for devising a drum pattern for one of Elf’s songs. Occasional scenes are seen from other viewpoints but these are rare.

All three main viewpoint characters are beautifully inhabited, living, breathing creatures, each replete with flaws and doubts. Dean had a troubled upbringing and his connections with old friends from Gravesend add complications he could do without, Elf’s family background was safe and secure but she harbours questions about her sexuality (incidentally her initial boyfriend here, the Australian, Bruce – perhaps a little too programmatically named – is a perfect evocation of the selfish misogynist,) Jasper’s connection to the de Zoets comes from a wrong side of the blanket liaison during World War 2. The relatively minor characters are agreeably nuanced.

Mitchell also has a habit of incorporating in his work cross-references to previous novels. Among others here Jasper’s surname is a nod to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and indeed he turns out to be descended from that gentleman. There is a mention of The Cloud Atlas Sextet, a musical piece which featured in Mitchell’s third novel and once again we encounter the enigmatic Dr Marinus, a character whose absence from a Mitchell book would now be more noteworthy than his appearance.

It is a trifle odd to say it for someone who lived through the times depicted but since Mitchell was born in 1969 this is technically a historical novel. The text is peppered with encounters with sixties names – Sandy Denny, a pre-fame David Bowie, Steve Marriot, Syd Barrett, Joohn Lennon, Francis Bacon, Steve Winwood, Kaith Moon, Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, Rick Wakeman, Jerry Garcia, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa, Cass Elliott, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, not to mention a certain peroxide-haired Top of the Pops presenter. However, the dialogues these real people engage in with the novel’s characters are sometimes not entirely convincing. The way Mitchell ties it in to his wider œuvre means the book can also be classified as a fantasy.

Jasper’s mental peculiarity (he hears knocking no-one else can and experiences another mind within his) is explicitly linked to his de Zoet history as in that previous book and provides the fantastical and speculative elements of this one – Marinus carries out psychosurgery on him – but could be read simply as psychotic episodes if fantastical speculation is not to your taste. Then again, readers of Mitchell ought to be used by now to his flights of fancy.

The band’s adventures include a brush with Italian police corruption followed by a tad unlikely UK tabloid support and eventually taking the US by storm. Their USian promoter sounds off about the violent history of the United States, “We need war like the French need cheese. If there’s no war we’ll concoct one,” and adds a warning, “Here in the land of the free, you’ll meet some of the gentlest, smartest, wisest people who ever lived. But when violence comes it’s merciless. Without warning.” All too true, then and now.

In Utopia Avenue Mitchell has worked his magic again. It is by degrees warm, tragic and affirmative: like all the best of literature, capturing the human condition.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “Eric Burden’s intro on the Animals’ version” (it was Hilton Valentine who played the intro on the Animals’ recording of House of the Rising Sun,) “Sergeant Pepper’s” (no-one in Britain in the sixties – and for about fifty years afterwards – ever said Sergeant Pepper’s, that LP’s title was always abbreviated to just Sergeant Pepper.) “A producer told them that Elf’s the first woman ever to ‘play’ an instrument on Top of the Pops” (so had he – or is it perhaps Mitchell – never heard of Honey Lantree? Or do drums not count as an instrument?) “the hairdressers” (the hairdresser’s,) “the audience are clapping out the rhythm” (the audience is clapping out,) “Andy Williams’ company” (Williams’s,) “the callous on his hand” (callus,) “or he would have thrown Jasper arranged in a list the SS Arnhem on the crossing from Harwich.” (I can’t make any sense of this at all,) “the band drop away” (the band drops away,) “on his next LP.A coloured model” (needs a space between the full stop and the ‘A’ – LP. A coloured.) “The tennis players’ skin turns first albino-milky” (the tennis players’ skins turn first.)

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N McIntyre

Pocket Books, 1997, 422 p, plus ii p Major Characters and v p Afterword

I’m not quite sure how to categorise this. I’ve seen it described as Alternate/Alternative History (what I prefer to call Altered History) but I can’t see any change in actual history in it. It has no discernible Jonbar Point, no ramifications for its future. Yes, it’s set in the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, but it’s not a purely historical novel either, though that aspect of the novel is very well executed. What it does have – and what tends to make it more of a fantasy than anything else – is a “sea monster,” a mermaid-like creature which turns out to be near human, brought to Louis’s court to provide him with immortality by eating a part of its flesh. (The first part of this premise – the human-like sea creature – is not really too far-fetched. There has been scientific speculation that humans spent part of their evolutionary history as aquatic creatures.)

Our viewpoint character is Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, lady in waiting to Mademoiselle Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans, Louis XIV’s niece. Marie-Josèphe was brought up in Martinique and her relationship to the court is, to begin with, opaque. She is an innocent, (she has not heard the word ‘whore,’ has never drunk wine, nor encountered the idea of homosexuality,) sent to a convent when her parents died and subjected to its repressive strictures. Her brother Yves is the Jesuit priest and enthusiast for scientific enquiry who was instrumental in capturing two sea-monsters and bringing them to Versailles. One of the monsters is dead and Yves is to carry out an autopsy on it. Questions of protocol and the need for the king’s presence tend to delay this though.

Marie-Josèphe finds herself sensitive to the creature. She can hear it sing, feel its pain, discern its meaning, and ends up relating its stories of persecution by humans to the court.

Coincidentally, Pope Innocent XII is on a diplomatic mission to Versailles (as a kind of rapprochement with the King) but he is keen for the live sea creature – which due to its tale-telling soon comes to be called Sherzad – to be taken back to Rome for study.

Other historical notables to appear in the text include Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, (Louis’s brother and Mademoiselle’s father,) Charlotte (Philippe’s Duchess,) the Chevalier de Lorraine (Philippe’s male lover,) James VII (II of England) and his wife Mary of Modena (in exile due to the so-called “Glorious Revolution.”)

Marie-Josèphe is talented, not only does she sketch the dissection of the dead sea-creature, she also composes music. This latter outrages the Pope, who insists – using Biblical references – that women ought to be silent. She is not short of enemies at the court but also forms friendships. Her relationship with her slave Odolette is complicated and develops in a way more attuned to modern sensibilities than those of the seventeenth century.

The writing is accomplished throughout and the interpersonal relationships depicted tend to strike true.

Pedant’s corner:- Yves’ (Yves’s. Since the ‘s’ of Yves is not pronounced then without an ‘s’ after the apostrophe then the possessive’s sound is not signalled by the spelling. All the possessives of names ending in ‘s’ are treated like this, Chartres’, Louis’, etc) “the duke and duchess d’Orleans” (these are specific titled people, not merely an unspecified member of a class. Their titles are proper nouns. So, “the Duke and Duchess d’Orleans. McIntyre generally tended to adopt a similar practice of using lower case whenever specific titles were used, even for mademoiselle de la Croix. Note in English she would be Miss de la Croix, not miss de la Croix,) perruke (innumerable times, peruke,) “His Holiness’ route” (His Holiness is singular, so, ‘His Holiness’s route’,) “she kept her own council” (counsel, is council a US usage in this context?) “her royal mistress’ ridicule” (mistress’s,) “Father de la Croix’ medal” (again, no ‘s’ is sounded at the end of Croix, it needs an ‘s’ to render the possessive accurately, ‘de la Croix’s medal’,) “her left aureole” (areola,) “and has sense of humour failed him” (and his sense of humour,) “a hareem” (x 2, usually spelled ‘harem’.)

Edith Grossman

I saw in Saturday’s Guardian that Edith Grossman, translator into English of the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa (among others including Miguel de Cervantes) has died.

I have read at least seven of her translations of novels – four of Márquez’s and three of Llosa’s. Ther are more on my tbr pile.

Translation is an art and Grossman was an advocate of translators far from being all but anonymous ought to be considered as at least equal to th eauthor swhom they translate and their names ought to be on the covers of the books they have translated.

Llosa has said of her work: “It doesn’t seem to be a translation of a novel, but something that gives the impression that it has been written originally in English.” For someone reading in English that, of course, is how it should be.

Edith Marion Grossman: 22/31936 – 4/9/2023. So it goes.

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

Hesperus Press, 2014, 280 p, including ii p Preface by A B Nicholls, iii p Notes and ii p Biographical Notes. First published 1857.

This was Brontë’s last published novel, indeed it was posthumous, but its writing predated her other novels. There are signs of that lack of experience here. Its early chapters are pretty standard fare, (at times reminiscent of those passages of Mrs Oliphant which lean to the humdrum,) not really anything to do with what comes after but not quite as tedious as the beginning to Shirley.  Later incidents, though, reflect events in Brontë’s last novel, Villette.

William Crimsworth is distanced from his wider family whom his late mother had offended by marrying into trade. He rejected their offer of a living as a parson and instead took a position in his haughty brother Edward’s business but only as a lowly clerk, a job he performed more than adequately. There he was noticed by one of Edward’s customers, Mr Hunsden, and through him obtained a post as a teacher at a boys’ school in Belgium. Through its proprietor, M Pelet’s, acquaintance with the directress of the neighbouring girls’ school, Mlle Zoraïde Reuter, he also began to teach there. Mlle Reuter affects to find him attractive but he is soon disabused of that notion by discovering her engagement to M Pelet.

A teacher of sewing to the girls, Mlle Frances Evans Henri, a Swiss national of English descent, is brought to attend his classes and he soon begins to find her, and her English intonations, interesting. Mlle Reuter is less than pleased and tries to obstruct any further developments by dismissing Frances but the final course of the book is now set.

The setting of the pensionnat in Brussels and its next-door establishment were to recur in Villette, and of course were inspired by Brontë’s own experiences teaching in the city. As in that book but much more prominently here, the author’s upbringing in an English parsonage lead to comparisons of the rightness of Anglicanism as opposed to Roman Catholicism, its supposed superiority in inculcating character and upright moral behaviour.

That the viewpoint character is a man sets The Professor apart from Brontë’s other books and that may be a flaw since William as a person seems a bit distant, not quite fully realised. Brontë was on surer ground with her female protagonists.

The Professor is by no means without merit but without her later books and the reputation of her family would, I doubt, still be read widely today.

Pedant’s corner:- the occasional Victorian spelling such as recompence (recompense) and ecstacy (ecstasy.) Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) encomiums (I prefer the Latin plural, encomia,) Moses’ (Moses’s,) Frances’ (x 2, Frances’s,) “‘cannot be considered as a concurrent’” (as concurrent?) “closing behind end around us” (behind and around,) Evans’ (Evans’s,) “having eaten …. and drank several bottles” (having eaten … and drunk several,) “I had not been brought up at Eton and boated and bathed and swam there” (and swum there,) “it would be vain to seek the Rue Notre Dame” (would be in vain,) “my bark hung on the topmost curl of a wave of fate,” (my barque,) “her hand shrunk away” (shrank,) “Rosalie the portress’ area” (the portress’s.)


Companion Piece by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2022, 235 p

As its title suggests this is a novel related to Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived to be written in more or less real time and published as soon as possible thereafter to help capture the zeitgeist. In it Smith once more examines the state of Britain.

Under lockdown, with her father in hospital (non-Covid related,) our first narrator, Sandy Gray, (at University nicknamed Shifting Sand since she dated both sexes) receives a phone call from Martina, a bare acquaintance of that time who has recently had a run in with the UK immigration authorities after proferring them her other passport – the entirely legal one she is entitled to under dual nationality – and then being detained incommunicado for half a day. Martina thinks Sand will be able to help her since she always had a way with things. Later, having found Sand’s number on Martina’s mobile phone her daughters crash into Sand’s life demanding to know why she has persuaded Martina to leave her home. (Which of course she hasn’t.)

Sand’s thoughts tend to what might now be regarded as left-wing but which were once unexceptional. She bemoans government spokespeople “telling me …. how this country was number one … how the thousand or so people dying in this country every week was something we just had to chum along with now and how generous our government was being to everybody in the country by paying out so much public money to government friends and donors” that “Black people were terrorists for organizing themselves into a protest movement that demanded equality and an end to racism,” how “environmental protesters were terrorists for organizing themselves into a movement that demanded we attend to the ruination of the planet” how laws would be passed to make these protests illegal, to stop anyone who asked for refuge in this country from getting here or getting help and to stop travelling people from living their traditional way of life. Not to mention rivers being entirely legally filled with sewage, how women were to flag down a bus if stopped by a policeman whom they thought might be dodgy. And so on.

Another strand of the book relates the experiences of a female blacksmith from back in time who manufactured the exquisite lock Martina was (again legally) bringing into the country. It’s odd how this aspect of the book chimed with Naomi Mitchison’s Sarah Werden, another woman from history who took up a traditionally male occupation.

Companion Piece is exactly what its title says, a novel that stands alongside the Seasons quartet. There is in fact any number of comparable stories Smith could tell about the condition of the UK and fit them into this over-arching schema. The trouble with such an endeavour is that at any time events could surpass the novelist’s imagination. Indeed, how is she to keep up?

Pedant’s corner:- inside of (no ‘of’, just ‘inside’.) “The warrior is called Pyrrhus, as in Pyrrhic victory” (Smith is describing the Pyrrhus in the so-called Trojan Horse. The one who won the victory at huge cost was a different Pyrrhus.)

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, 2003, 314 p

Artist Kate Frobisher, whose war photographer husband, Ben, was not long ago shot in Afghanistan, is driving home one winter’s night when her car skids on black ice and comes off the road. Her injuries mean she will need help to complete the commission of a sculpture of Jesus for the local church. The vicar suggests Peter Wingrave, a handyman currently unemployed. Meanwhile foreign correspondent Stephen Sharkey, Ben’s colleague, has split up with his wife and comes to live in a cottage owned by his brother in the same village.

The set-up reminded me a bit of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, which featured an incomer haunted by war experiences (in his case The Great War) uncovering a mural in a rural church. Barker’s book is longer, though, and a trifle more complicated.

Wingrave turns out to have a peculiar interest in the sculpture and a past which includes something dark plus a relationship with the vicar’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Justine. Stephen and Justine, who is having a pre-University gap year enforced by illness and looks after his autistic nephew when the parents are at work, soon start seeing each other despite their age difference.

Stephen is haunted by his memories – especially that of a dead woman in Sarajevo – yet he is intent on writing a book about them using Ben’s photographs as illustrations. He reflects on the responsibility of being a witness, “There’s always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be,” a tension which the artist Goya also felt. Goya, he knows, “visited circuses, fiestas, fairs, freak shows, street markets, acrobatic displays, lunatic asylums, bear fights, public executions, any spectacle strong enough to still the shouting of the demons in his ears.”

The background of the aftermath of the foot and mouth epidemic is well drawn but despite seeming foreshadowings like that, events do not take the course they would normally imply. Barker handles her characters well enough, these people feel individual (even if the affair between Stephen and Justine is problematic. Is taking up with a much younger woman really a suitable salve for a troubled mind?) The connections between the lives of the protagonists of the two main strands, Kate and Stephen, are not really present, though. Only Wingrave provides any overlap between them, and that is tangential – not to mention a little forced what with his being Justine’s former lover.

Pedant’s corner:- “iced-covered” (‘iced-over’ or ‘ice-covered’ not ‘iced-covered’,) a north-east of England local refers to ‘the haar’ being what a ‘cartload of southern poofs’ would call a sea-fret (haar is in fact the word used in Scotland – especially east Scotland – for that meteorological phenomenon.)

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal

Harvill, 1998, 107 p. Translated from the Czech Taneční hodiny pro starŝí pokročilé, (published by Československý spisovatel, 1964,) by Michael Henry Heim. Illustrated by Vladimír Suchánek.

This is a seemingly rambling but actually very focused assemblage of scenes and observations from our narrator Jirka’s life as he relates them to a group of ladies. It is all unveiled in a breathless style, moving from one story to another almost without pause, with the whole book comprising a single sentence, jumping hither and yon, occasionally returning to previous musings. Adding to the sense of dislocation, the book just ends, there is no full stop at its sentence’s end, as if terminated mid-flow. A literary conceit, then, like the last part of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch.

And it is a conceit, for there are elisions in the narrative where punctuation could quite easily have been inserted. But the rush from one incident to the next is undoubtedly the point, the urgency expressing the necessity for the tales to be told – to be heard before it was perhaps too late.

It is Hrabal’s embodiment of the time and place in which it was written, impossible to imagine emanating from a luckier country. The back cover blurb describes it as “an informal history of the indomitable twentieth-century Czech spirit.” It muses on humanity’s foibles and sets great store by “Batista’s book on sexual hygiene,” or “Batista’s book about safeguards of marital bliss, which says that shivers run down a man’s spine whenever he sees a beautiful woman and his first thought is how to get her, as Bondy the poet says from the vertical to the horizontal.” It “warns men against giving in to their passions, no more than three times an afternoon or four times for Catholics, to prevent sinful thoughts from taking shape, you never know where they might lead.”

It does though at times display anti-semitic attitudes.

The illustrations are noteworthy; as eclectic as the prose, like a cross between surrealism and Terry Gilliam’s montages in <em>Monty Python’s Flying Circus</em>.

Pedant’s corner:- “I stood like Montgomery at Tobruk” (This must be an example of metonymy since I don’t think Montgomery was ever personally at Tobruk.)

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