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Ian Sales’s List, Part 1

Ian Sales has taken a different tack in his approach to the BBC’s list of 100 Books that Shaped Our World.

He’s annotated his and split it up into the decades in which he read them, starting with the 1970s (thusthere are books from the sixties in this first tranche.)

Again, those in bold I’ve read. Those in italics I have watched on TV. I doubt I read them as such.

Not surprisingly, since Ian and I are both into SF, I have a pretty good strike rate here; 8 out of 15.

The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970)
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960).
Destination Moon, Hergé (1950).
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972)
The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951)
Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965).
Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951)
The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth* (1965).
Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952)
Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951)
Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971).
Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg (1974).
Dune, Frank Herbert(1966).
Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977).

Ian has more recently posted his 1980s list. I will get round to that.

*In the weekly magazine Look and Learn.

Nina Allan’s List

This is Nina Allan’s response to the BBC’s list of 100 Books that shaped our world.

As usual the ones in bold I have read. (18. 19 if John Banville’s Shroud and Eclipse count as two.) Some others are on my tbr pile.

Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers by John Burningham

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield

‘Adventure’ series by Willard Price

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

‘UNEXA’ series by Hugh Walters

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

‘Changes’ trilogy by Peter Dickinson

‘Tripods’ trilogy by John Christopher

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Drought by J. G. Ballard

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Search for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Shroud/Eclipse by John Banville

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Shriek: an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

Glister by John Burnside

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Kills by Richard House

A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Straggletaggle by J. M. McDermott

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Attrib. by Eley Williams

Berg by Ann Quin

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Corsair, 2012, 381 p. First published in 1963.

 The New Moon with the Old cover

In Book One we meet Jane Minton on her way to take up a post as secretary at Dome House, owned by Rupert Carrington to whom Jane had taken a slight fancy at her interview. Her encounter with Carrington’s children Drew, an aspiring writer, Richard, a composer, Clare, whose only ambition is to be a king’s mistress, and the fourteen-year old Merry who wishes to be an actress (this was first published in 1963; it was how female thespians were referred to in those days) plus their two live-in servants is entirely convivial and Jane settles in.

Her idyll is soon shattered, though, by the arrival at dead of night of Carrington, who informs her he is wanted by the police on suspicion of fraud and must flee the country, enjoining her to tell his family of this new circumstance. The five hundred pounds he has given her to tide the family over will not last long and all will have to fetch for themselves.

Here is where the novel’s structure begins to break down as the next four Books follow each of Carrington’s children in turn, first Merry, then Drew, then Clare and finally Richard, as all (except the last) set off into the wider world ,meet people only too willing to think the best of them, and manage to fall on their feet; Merry (in an actress’s alias disguising her true age) with an aristocratic family, Drew as an old lady’s companion, and Clare with an eccentric old gentleman with a secret. These “Books” are interluded by single chapters back “under the Dome.” They are in effect separate novellas having little to do with each other cobbled together under one umbrella.

As in Smith’s I Capture the Castle we have an upper-middle class family down on its luck being saved by happenstantial meetings. There, the narrative voice, being that of a young woman with not much experience of the world, was fresh and lively. Here, extended over five third person viewpoints, it became more wearing. There was also a relentless focus on matters of domestic detail, too much telling rather than showing, and a deal of introspection from the viewpoint characters.

It all felt very cosy. Too cosy.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark (x 3.) “Drew and Merry were in the hail” (in the hall,) ‘‘’One should think of it’ (has an errant apostrophe,) “‘you”re going to’” (you’re,) Glare (x 2, Clare,) grills (grilles,) “‘I wish I’d time for a test before dinner’” (a rest before dinner,) wisteria (wisteria,) “of the Whitecliff’ songs” (what that apostrophe is doing there goodness only knows,) Mr Sevem (Severn,) “three old ladles” (old ladies,) forgotren (forgotten,) doubifully (doubtfully,) a missing full stop, “‘but saintly no. l assure you.’” (‘but saintly no. I assure you’,) Aunt Winlfred (Winifred,) “all dosed” (all closed,) sudduely (suddenly.) “‘Is it a nervous trick’” (nervous tic?) “ their spines and comers bound” (their spines and corners,) “who had waked Mr Charles” (woken,) inlayed (inlaid,) “the ftont door” (front.) Mt Charles (Mr Charles,) cracking (crackling,) linancial (financial,) ex-girl friend (this makes her seem an ex-girl; ex-girlfriend,) “‘and I I’ll kiss you’” (doesn’t need that ‘I’,) “meant it as regard Lord Crestover” (as regards,) “the fall truth” (full truth,) presenfly (presently,) “he sat in the ball all morning” (in the hall,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Rasouniovsky (elsewhere always Rasoumovsky.)

Hey! A list!

I’ve just discovered through Ian Sales’s blog that the BBC has produced a list of “100 Books that Shaped our World.” It’s as idiosyncratic as any such list always is.

Ian has started a list of his own (with different criteria) of which you can see the first instalment via the link above. Nina Allan has also published her own list.

I doubt that I could go up to anything like 100 on the books that shaped me and my reading so I’m not even going to try except to say my love of Science Fiction was engendered by reading the SF of Captain W E Johns and Patrick Moore out of the children’s section of Dumbarton Library (in the basement, accessed via an outside door) and, once I’d graduated to the adult floor, the yellow covered Gollancz hardbacks.

Two exceptions.

I was about to give up reading SF when I read Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze. It’s not his best but it’s one from the 1960s, in the “revival” stage of his career after he came back to SF and wrote stories the way they ought to be done – as distinct from the less considered works he’d written in the 1950s. It made me realise that SF could be literature.

So too, in spades, did Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Of the BBC’s list the ones I’ve read are in bold (19.) If I’ve read one or part of a series it’s in italics (2.) Some others here are on my tbr pile.

Identity
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Small Island – Andrea Levy
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Love, Sex & Romance
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
Forever – Judy Blume
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Riders – Jilly Cooper
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
The Far Pavilions – M. M. Kaye
The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

Adventure
City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
His Dark Materials Trilogy – Philip Pullman
Ivanhoe – Walter Scott
Mr Standfast – John Buchan
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Jack Aubrey Novels – Patrick O’Brian
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien

Life, Death & Other Worlds
A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri
Dune – Frank Herbert
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis
The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman
The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Politics, Power & Protest
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman
Strumpet City – James Plunkett
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Unless – Carol Shields

Class & Society
A House for Mr Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
Poor Cow – Nell Dunn
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Alan Sillitoe
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Coming of Age
Emily of New Moon – L. M. Montgomery
Golden Child – Claire Adam
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell
Swami and Friends – R. K. Narayan
The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien
The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling
The Outsiders – S. E. Hinton
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ – Sue Townsend
The Twilight Saga – Stephenie Meyer

Family & Friendship
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

Middlemarch – George Eliot
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
The Witches – Roald Dahl

Crime & Conflict
American Tabloid – James Ellroy
American War – Omar El Akkad
Ice Candy Man – Bapsi Sidhwa
Rebecca -Daphne du Maurier
Regeneration – Pat Barker
The Children of Men – P.D. James
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Rule Breakers
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
Bartleby, the Scrivener – Herman Melville
Habibi – Craig Thompson
How to be Both – Ali Smith
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Psmith, Journalist – P. G. Wodehouse
The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Harper Collins , 2017, 342 p.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

This novel is divided into three sections, the very long Good Days, the shorter Bad Days and the even shorter Better Days. Viewpoint character (and narrator) Eleanor Oliphant is a loner who affects to be precise and fastidious, with supposedly little grasp of cultural norms, a bit of a joke to her work colleagues. But she sends herself to sleep at the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka.

Eleanor Oliphant is, of course, far from fine. It is apparent from very early on that her narration is likely to be unreliable – the vodka alone would suggest that – but Eleanor’s past is obviously very troubled indeed. Her abusive, and abusing, mother talks to her once a week over the phone from prison. The crime she committed we don’t know until much later (but a series of hints, subtle and otherwise, the biggest being the fact of Eleanor’s facial scarring, allows us to guess) and she is responsible for many of Eleanor’s attitudes to society, her peers, officialdom and herself. It is her mother’s inner voice that Eleanor hears when she is considering any course of action.

It’s a fine line to tread as an author where the reader knows that bit more about what might be going on than the narrator seems to, an even finer one when the narrator is hiding things from herself (and therefore necessarily from us.) By and large Honeyman succeeds in this, though.

Eleanor has conceived a liking for, an attachment to, singer Johnnie Lomond, whom she thinks might be the one to make her whole. She has, of course, never met him; so has no idea of his character. Into her orbit comes the IT man at her workplace, Raymond, who to Eleanor’s eyes is slovenly in dress and appearance and repugnant in habits due to his smoking. (Drinking vodka to excess seems to be all right, but smoking isn’t.) Nevertheless, Raymond and she begin to go out for lunch occasionally. It never crosses the narrative’s mind that this may be a prelude to more than friendship (but then Eleanor is obsessed by Mr J Lomond.)

When Raymond teases out some details of her past she denies it was so bad and says she thinks herself lucky because, after her mother was off the scene, she was looked after by adults. That did not stop her from again suffering abuse – mental, physical and sexual, mercifully briefly described – by a boyfriend she had at University.

Perhaps the crucial point of the novel is when Raymond and Eleanor witness the collapse in the street of an oldish man called Sammy, to whose aid they come, calling an ambulance and accompanying him to the hospital. In the aftermath of this they become almost part of Sammy’s family.

Her inevitable breakdown comes and Eleanor starts to see a therapist. Initially reluctant to reveal anything of herself she eventually lets her guard down and we learn the details of her childhood trauma.

Or do we? We only have Eleanor’s word for it that those events as described to us are true. It is a testament to Honeyman’s handling of the narrative (a few slips in Eleanor/Honeyman’s precision aside) that even after the revelations there is still a niggling doubt as to who was responsible. It remains possible that hidden deep inside her there is an alternative, much darker, explanation for the tragedy that befell Eleanor’s family. After all Eleanor Oliphant is an unreliable narrator, and quite possibly, disingenuous.

Pedant’s corner:- “bon mots” (bons mots,) “Mr J Lomond Esq.” (the correct description is either Mr J Lomond, or, J Lomond Esq.) snuck (x2, sneaked,) Mearns’ (Mearns’s.) “None of his muscles were visible” (none … was visible,) “there were a variety of” (there was a variety of,) “at the hairdressers” (hairdresser’s,) sprung (sprang,) crystalizing (crystallising.)

Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2013, 504 p. Translated from the Spanish El sueño del celta by Edith Grossman.

 The Dream of the Celt cover

On the face of it this seems an unlikely endeavour. A Peruvian novelist focusing on a relatively obscure incident in British – and Irish – history? (Then again the Peruvian Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated by Scotland.) But this novelist’s protagonist, (Sir) Roger Casement, was instrumental in exposing the barbarous practices of colonial exploitation in the Congo and later the Amazon, wherein he made his name and for which he received his title, before he took up the cause of Irish independence and was subsequently arrested for treason after visiting Germany during the Great War to seek its government’s help in that endeavour.

The odd numbered chapters here focus on Casement’s life in prison after his trial, in the run-up to his execution. These are the most novelistic parts of the book, displaying his relationship with the guards and the visitors who come to see him, outlining their efforts to obtain a commutation of his death sentence. The even numbered chapters tend to be longer and cover his career in the years leading up to his arrest – and often read more like a history book than a novel. Llosa discounts a large portion of Casement’s diary entries (which many contend were forged by his captors) relating to his homosexual encounters with various men – which damned him not only in the authorities’ eyes, but more crucially in those of the public – as imagined or else wish fulfilment fantasies, giving a novelistic alternative account of several of these incidents, though he treats others as veracious. As Casement’s priest says to him about the suggestion the stories about him were put in the newspapers to counteract the petition for clemency, ‘Nothing can be excluded in the world of politics. It’s not the cleanest of human activities.’ Yes, indeed.

In what is perhaps a comment on the motives of campaigners, a consul in S America tells Casement, “‘I don’t have much admiration for martyrs, Mr Casement. Or for heroes. People who sacrifice themselves for truth or justice often do more harm than the thing they want to change.’”

It is in the ‘historical’ (in the sense of predating the events in the odd numbered chapters) sections though that it is set out how Casement’s experiences in the Congo and the Amazon led him to the idea that Ireland too was a colonised country, albeit with its inhabitants now less harshly treated.

Despite Casement’s conclusion in South America that, We should not permit colonisation to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazon Indians. We must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automata, Llosa also suggests Casement’s trip to Ireland on a U-boat was to try to forestall the Easter Rising rather than encourage it, or even to bring it weapons, as it would not be supported by German action to neutralise the British Army and Royal Navy. When Joseph Plunkett tells him in Germany the Rising is imminent Casement thinks, “No matter how heroic and intrepid they were, the revolutionaries would be crushed by the machinery of the Empire. It would use the opportunity to carry out an implacable purge. The liberation of Ireland would be delayed for another fifty years.”

Plunkett’s response is that, “‘of course we’re going to lose this battle. It’s a question of enduring. Of resisting. For days, weeks. And dying in such a way that our death and our blood will increase the patriotism of the Irish until it becomes an irresistible force.’” Which it did.

The novel’s title The Dream of the Celt comes from that of a poem Casement wrote in 1906 about Ireland’s mythic past. While as a novel it is a little unbalanced and not, perhaps, Llosa at his best, it does act as a useful primer on Casement’s life and times.

Pedant’s corner:- sheriff (illustrates the drawbacks of translation into USian. There are no sheriffs in British prisons. We have prison officers or, at a push, warders. And it wasn’t the prison Governor, since he appears later in the book.) “In Brixton Prison” (in the context of an earlier mention of Pentonville a British translator would just write ‘In Brixton’ here,) “Dr Livingstone, who never wanted to leave African soil or return to England” (return to the UK? Livingstone was Scottish after all.) “The Irish historian ……. she had been” (even though there are 34 words in between ‘historian’ and ‘she’ that ‘she’ is not needed,) “gave Walla a week to fulfil their quota” (its quota,) “where a formation of African soldiers were marching” (a formation … was marching.) “There were also a good number of” (There was also a good number,) “Perhaps one, some of his colleagues” (one, or some, of his colleagues?) “with the Irish insignia on their visors” (I suspect this refers to cap badges. These do not sit on visors,) Casement refers to the British Army as “the most powerful army in the world” (in 1916 the British Army wasn’t. The German one still was,) “the Court of Appeals” (it’s the Court of Appeal.)

Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1986, 461 p plus ix p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel is the only dissenting place of worship in Carlingford. New Minister Arthur Vincent has come from Lonsdale to take over from old Mr Tufton. The congregation has been largely approving. One day, though, Vincent sees Lady Western – a dowager who is younger than her step-daughter-in-law – on a visit to Mrs Hilyard, and his head is turned, despite her being an adherent of the Church of England. His parishioners would much prefer he has nothing to do with such people, though the Chapel’s senior deacon’s daughter, Phoebe Tozer, is also thought to be a bit above herself in setting her cap at him.

Mrs Hilyard is living in reduced circumstances and on a pastoral visit to her Vincent finds her background convoluted, not to mention melodramatic. She prevails on him to put her daughter into the care of Vincent’s mother and sister in Lonsdale, without quite explaining the need. In the meantime Vincent’s sister, Susan, is being wooed by a Mr Fordham. The reader senses immediately there is something awry about the relationship. This gentleman is indeed the villain of the piece, and has used Fordham’s name to disguise himself. His connection to Mrs Hilyard and abduction of her daughter from Lonsdale when Vincent’s mother is visiting her son in Carlingford provide the motor for a rather lurid sub-plot.

Oliphant was obviously a keen observer of the politics of a parish and congregation. Vincent’s lack of enthusiasm for visiting and cups of tea had already been looked on askance but his distraction by the plight of his sister (which has to be kept as secret as possible) and the necessity of seeking her whereabouts lead to dissatisfaction in his congregation at his regular absences and eventually a call for his resignation. A resounding speech by Mr Tozer at the meeting to decide on this rouses all but a few in his defence.

It’s a perfectly respectable example of the nineteenth century novelist’s art but, overall, has that era’s tendency to wordiness, exacerbated here by descriptions like “the Nonconformist,” “the young Dowager” and “the worthy deacon” instead of the character’s name, not to mention a tendency to end a clause – or even a sentence – with a preposition. It might make a decent televisual alternative to the usual Austen remakes, however.

Pedant’s corner:- the Miss Hemmings (the Misses Hemming,) the Miss Wodehouses (the Misses Wodehouse,) “and stanch to her chapel” (staunch,) syren (siren,) stupified (stupefied,) “if there are Squire Thornhills” (strictly, Squires Thornhill,) sen- sations (in the middle of a line? sensations,) “were worthy the occasion” (usually ‘were worthy of the occasion,) “ a mistake unworthy a philosophic observer” (usually ‘unworthy of a’,) “in his behalf” (usually ‘on his behalf’,) villany (usually villainy,) “when the gray morning began to drawn” (dawn.) “‘Where you not afraid, Susan?’” (Were you not,) “‘These sort of people’” (ought to be ‘sorts of people’ but it was in dialogue,) rung the bell (rang,) a missing quotation mark at the resumption of a piece of direct speech. “‘The doctor is is very good.’” (only one ‘is’ required.) “Vincent had rising hurriedly” (had risen hurriedly,) hooping-cough (whooping cough.)

That List Again

The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the century, Part Two.

I have read the ones in bold.

50 Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
49 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
48 Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)
47 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)
46 Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (2010)
45 Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (2013)
44 Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
43 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
42 Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2010)
41 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
40 The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
39 White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
38 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
37 The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)
36 Experience by Martin Amis (2000)
35 The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
34 Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)
33 Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
32 The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
31 The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
30 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
29 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009), translated by Don Bartlett (2012)
28 Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
27 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (2001)
25 Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
24 A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
23 The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (2001)
22 Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)
21 Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)
20 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
19 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
18 The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2007)
17 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
16 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
15 The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
14 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
13 Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
12 The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
11 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein (2012)
10 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
09 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
08 Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)
07 Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
06 The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
05 Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)
04 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
03 Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (2013), translated by Bela Shayevich (2016)
02 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
01 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Nine out of this fifty, but I’ve read the number 1. I’ve got a good run between six and twelve.
However. Life After Life at no 20? Not A God in Ruins?

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