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The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2008, 174 p. Translated from the French L’Affaire Courilof, (Éditions Grasset, 1933,) by Sandra Smith.

The Courilof Affair cover

The narrative here has a prologue set in Nice in the 1920s which acts as a framing device but the subsequent chapters are delivered to us in the form of Léon M’s memoirs. The son of would-be Russian revolutionaries, Léon was brought up in exile, and assigned by the Revolutionary Committee to kill the Russian Education Secretary, Courilof, a notoriously harsh man, known as the Killer Whale. To enable this and to worm himself into Courilof’s household he takes up a position, under the name Marcel Legrand, as Courilof’s physician. At once warming to his charge and disgusted by him, “Legrand” has a ringside seat at the ins and outs of the higher echelons of the pre-revolutionary system, watching Courilof fall from favour as a result of his marriage to his second wife (who has a past) before his restoration following a scandal involving his successor.

Despite Courilof’s elevated position he nevertheless has the capacity to observe, “‘An ordinary man has the right to be greedy, because he knows that otherwise he would starve to death. But these people who have everything – money, friends in high places, property – they never have enough! I just don’t understand it.’” Plus ça change.

This is the only one of Némirovsky’s novels to be set more or less entirely in her native Russia – and (almost certainly non-coincidentally) it is the most concerned with politics and the usage of power. Affairs of the heart are incidental here as it is the wielding of, and manœvring to maintain, influence, and the single-mindedness of those opposing the regime which are the book’s main themes. Léon’s subsequent acts as an instrument of the revolutionary government – a far more implacable proposition than Courilof ever was – are related briefly and quite off-handedly, simply as things that had to be done. Léon’s fall from grace is glossed over, we never quite find out why he ends up living in exile – though we can guess.

This isn’t Némirovsky at the peak of her powers but it is an interesting examination of the mind-set of would-be revolutionaries eager to be seen to be activists (the assassination requires as big an audience as possible) but more in thrall to the idea than the action – as well as, in Courilof, the exigencies of assiduous service to a monarch who doesn’t warrant devotion.

Pedant’s Corner:- “the Pierre and Paul Fortress” (usually Peter and Paul Fortress in English,) hung (hanged, x3, though there was a ‘hanged’ and one of the ‘hung’s on page 168,) Nevsky river, (it’s the Neva river that flows through St Petersburg,) “fishermen ….must have the same feeling as they contemplate their dazzling catch” (catches, surely, since its fishermen, plural,) sterling (as a fish. Is there such a creature?) “A great crowd of people were silently listening to music” (a crowd was silently listening,) Léon as Legrand is referred to in speech as ‘Monsieur Legrand’ (the English would be Mister Legrand, but then back in the day educated Russians spoke French and the speaker thought ‘Legrand’ knew no Russian so would be addressing him in that language,) hiccoughs (hiccups, it’s not – and never has been – a cough of any sort,) “I wanted to lay down right there” (lie down.) In the translator’s Afterword: Camus’ (Camus’s, x2.)

The Joke by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1998, 327 p including 5 p Author’s Note. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, the author himself, and Aaron Asher from the Czech Žert, originally published by Československỳ Spisovatel, 1967.

 The Joke cover

Kundera’s first novel endured a peculiar journey- outlined in the Author’s Note – to get to this publication, the fifth English language version of the novel. Kundera was unsatisfied with all previous renderings of The Joke as they contained altered syntax, different divisions, reconstructions, shortenings or omissions. He says he, “once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semi-colons for periods,” but promises us, since he more or less undertook it himself, this will be the last translation.

The novel is a depiction of Czech life in the early to middle period of Soviet influence in the country. Main protagonist Ludvik Jahn provides the viewpoint for the odd numbered Parts – Part Two is narrated by a woman named Helena, Part Four by a man called Jaroslav, Part Five by another, Kostka, and Part Seven by Ludvik, Jaroslav and Helena in separate but intermixed sections.

Told from the perspective of a return to Ludvik’s home town in mid-life, we see the incidents influencing Ludvik’s circumstances from his time as a university student and part-time clarinet player in a cimbalom band, when he was a committed Communist. His life began to unravel when to impress a woman called Marketa he unwisely set down on a postcard the thought, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” signed, and then sent it. When he was brought before a disciplinary hearing for this transgression, every member of his class voted for him to be punished. Despite his protestations that his action was a joke he was sent to a special Army unit, in effect a punishment battalion, not for training with weapons but set to work in mines. In what free time he was allowed Ludvik struck up a friendship with Lucie, but her reluctance to have sex with him (for which we later learn she had a very good reason,) made the relationship end badly.

Ludvik’s experiences are later given perspective by the thought, “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm and mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.” So, too, is the sheer impossibility of proving yourself innocent in a world that sees evidence of guilt even in denial of the charge, still more in any efforts to prove loyalty.

Within the details of Ludvik’s life and embittered attempts at petty revenge Kundera finds time to touch on the importance of folk culture and traditions to a nation’s sense of itself. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Czech nation almost ceased to exist. In the nineteenth century it was virtually reborn. Among the old European nations it was a child. True, it also had its own great past, but it was cut off from that past by a gap of two hundred years, when the Czech language retreated to the countryside, the exclusive property of the illiterate. But even in their midst it never ceased to create its own culture. A modest culture, completely hidden from the eyes of Europe. A culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs, proverbs and sayings. The only narrow footbridge across a two-hundred-year gap….. The only fragile stem of an unbroken tradition. That is why the men who at the turn of the nineteenth century began to create a new Czech literature and music grafted them onto this stem…. why the first Czech poets and musicians spent so much time collecting tales and songs.”

Kundera goes on to argue that stripping away the veils of Czech music culture reveals the residue of the Great Moravian Empire, whose borders were swept away a thousand years ago, yet its legacy remains imprinted today in the most ancient stratum of folk songs. “The folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that reserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilization have long since destroyed aboveground,” even preserving classical antiquity for us.

When the state sanctions this culture though, it loses force. “The fact that something like folk music was on the radio constantly should not delude us.” What they play, “is more like opera or operetta, or light music…. A folk instrument band with a conductor, a score, and music stands! What bastardization! … Real folk art is dead.” And it can be abused in other ways. “Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of folk festivals. Once in a while, at least, they have a noble pretext for taking a drink.”

Translated fiction is arguably a necessary endeavour, revealing to others aspects of the world and thought systems of which they otherwise would not be fully aware, a reminder that the ability to read widely – and without restriction – is a blessing.

Consider the alternative. “We lived in a devastated world; and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. Otherwise; repertory (repertoire,) “a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair” (ie, permanent wave; the British usage is perm,) aboveground (above ground,) “‘your not a woman who’” (you’re,) the opening quotation mark (deliberately) missing when a chapter begins with dialogue, Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “head bowed bowed” (only one “bowed” needed,) Mathias’ (Mathias’s.) “There are a number of hypotheses” (there is a number of.) “A group of people were walking after it” (a group of people was walking.)

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Guild Publishing, 1988, 507 p

The Shell Seekers cover

It was the author’s recent death (so it goes) that prompted me to purloin this from the good lady’s bookshelves. Pilcher has been one of those writers I was aware of but had never felt the urge to sample – probably due to judging her books by their covers.

This is the tale of Penelope Keeling, lately having suffered a heart attack, and her immediate family’s reaction to that and their discovery that the works of her father, Laurence Stern, a painter out of fashion for decades, have surged in value. Three of his paintings remain on display in Penelope’s home, a huge canvas, The Shell Seekers of the title, his last remaining unsold painting, given to Penelope before his death, along with a pair of panels, unfinished. The novel unfolds through a prologue and sixteen chapters of varying length, each named for an individual. In reading them we learn of the significant details of the lives of Penelope, her two daughters and one son as well as the playing out of events following her discharging of herself from hospital. The events range from Penelope’s knowledge of her father’s life before the Great War, through the effects of the Second World War on Penelope herself to the mid-1980s of the book’s present.

There is a fair degree of telling rather than showing, and occasional potted biographies of minor characters when they first appear which detract from the overall flow. Pilcher’s use of dialogue tends to be fine but her prose also contains a lot of over-description (and frequent mentions of cups of tea.) Some of the title characters of the sixteen chapters make little appearance in “their” part of the narrative. Her writing is serviceable, perhaps even suited to its purpose, but not outstanding, and she has a tendency to overegg or reiterate unnecessarily aspects of the characterisation. I don’t suppose I constitute her target audience, but it did interest me enough to keep me reading. (I rarely, if ever, give up on a book, however.)

I would not be totally averse to it but don’t feel inclined to remake acquaintance with Pilcher’s work any time soon.

Time interval later count: 7.
Pedant’s corner:- “everything she had ever strived for” (striven,) “and his mother-in-law, Penelope Keeling,” (the reader already knows who his mother-in-law is,) wistaria (several times. It’s wisteria,) “drew up at the back of Podmore’s Thatch. The half-glassed front door led into a tiled porch.” (The front door is at the back?) “did use to sleep there” (did used to sleep,) Doris’ (Doris’s, which was used later, but then later again reverted to Doris’,) “two gin and oranges” (two gins and orange,) “where a variety of crushed and shredded garments were piled on the bed” (a variety of …. was piled on the bed,) “and the Army … were taking up positions” (the Army was taking up positions,) bannisters (I prefer the spelling banisters,) cache pot (cachepot,) Danus’ (Danus’s,) enormity (no. It was hugeness that was meant rather than monstrousness,) sneakers (an inappropriate word for the thoughts of an Englishwoman, who would say plimsolls or – perhaps – sandshoes,) helicopters (in mid World War 2? I don’t think so. Not Allied ones anyway,) Pointe de Hué (Pointe du Hoc, I think. There was a Port Hué but not a Pointe de Hué.) “‘And why is it always Olivia you tell things too?’” (tell things to,) histronics (histrionics,) “the congregation… rose to their feet” (the congregation …. rose to its feet,) dish washer (dishwasher – used, once, later,) “lovers lying supine, entwined,” (to be entwined wouldn’t at least one of them need to be prone? At any rate, they could not both be supine and at the same time entwined.)

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Penguin, 2005, 296 p

The Jane Austen Book Club cover

This book does what it says on the tin. Six people are brought together by co-ordinator Jocelyn to read the novels of Jane Austen and meet – or not depending on circumstances (a hospitalisation for example) – to discuss them, one each per month.

The novel therefore consists of six chapters, one per month but they are more about the characters’ lives than any book discussions. We are also granted a prologue and an epilogue. Six pages devoted to synopses of Austen’s novels follow the epilogue and these give in turn to 25 pages of responses to Austen’s work – 2 pages of comments by her family and friends, the rest by critics, writers and literary figures – all accompanied by 61 bibliographical Notes. (Then we have 3 pages of those naff “Questions for discussion” sometimes appended to modern books. But I suppose that is what book groups do.)

There are some parallels between the lives of the group’s members and incidents in Austen’s novels, Jocelyn’s attempts at match-making notable among them, but they are really just grace notes.

In effect, what Fowler has done here is conceived a way to collect six short novellas – or six longish short stories – under the umbrella of a novel. Yes, there is some character development – Jocelyn’s initial dismissal of only male group member Grigg’s enthusiasm for Science Fiction (“She didn’t actually have to read science fiction to know what she thought of it. She’d seen Star Wars”) overcome by his introduction to her of the works of Ursula Le Guin being a case in point.

The book is clearly targetted at readers familiar with Austen’s œuvre as there is frequent mention of incidents/dilemmas/characters from the books plus an update of her most famous aphorism in the form of “‘Everyone knows,’ Prudie said, ‘that a rich man is eventually going to want a new wife,’” but even those unfamiliar with the works will find it readable enough. I somehow doubt, though, that any aficionados will come away from this enthusing about it. It’s not a patch on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or even Sarah Canary.

Pedant’s corner:- Whenever a section starts with a piece of dialogue the opening quotation mark is missing (this is one of those publishing habits with which I disagree,) teepees – also teepeed (tepees – tepeed,) “the lay of the land” (it’s “lie” of the land,) “playing the bagpipe” (bagpipes,) the occasional missed comma before a quote, L.A. at the end of a sentence not followed by the full stop. In the Responses: “there would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new major play by Shakespeare, that one could imagine” (than one could imagine.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

William Morrow, 2005, 472 p

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

Lord Byron, of course, never wrote a novel – except perhaps the beginnings of one. Or, if he did, it is lost to the mists of time. Crowley’s conceit here is that Byron completed it, and that his daughter, Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer,” burned it due to her batty mother’s insistence, but, before she did so, encrypted it in a series of numbers. Those numbers have turned up in papers belonging to Viscount Ockham, Ada’s son. A website called strongwomanstory has gained access to these and sent a reporter to look them over. This aspect of Crowley’s novel is related in a series of emails and letters between the reporter “Smith” and her mother “Thea” but expands to include her father. Smith’s relationship with her father is much the same as Ada Lovelace’s with hers – sexual indiscretions resulting in estrangement – except the modern story holds the promise of reconciliation. Included in these exchanges is the observation that Ada’s story contains ‘a monster parent, but it’s not her father-it’s her mother’ and the observation about Byron’s notorious lack of punctuation “Printers in those days could punctuate. Imagine. Now hardly anybody can.”

It would of course be impossible to proceed with this scenario were the “novel” by Lord Byron not to appear in these pages and it does take up by far the largest part of the book. Crowley has done an impressive job in ventriloquising the poet’s voice even if at one point he does have Byron pre-echo Tolstoy with the thought, “Happy endings are all alike; disasters may be unique.” Its protagonist, Ali, born in Albania as the result of a liaison with a wandering British aristocrat, Lord Sane, is in young adulthood sought out by his father to become heir to the Sane estate, somewhere in Scotland. This tale, The Evening Land, is as Gothic as you could wish, involving a gruesome death, misplaced accusations, possible amnesia, an impersonator, a clandestine seduction – everything you would expect from a book with such supposed origins and complete with the verisimilitudinal inclusion of archaic spellings such as dropt for dropped, segar for cigar and soar’d for saored. We are also given Ada’s commentary on the text of The Evening Land, in the form of “her” notes on each chapter, wherein she wonders if her father could ever have imagined a family not riven by disputes. (There is, too, a respect in which, notwithstanding the fact that The Evening Land’s contents bear resemblances to incidents in Byron’s life, this overall endeavour might be said to be more about Ada than Byron.)

Then we have the wonderful cover illustration featuring Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,) and the rough-cut page edges making the book resemble one from the early 19th century show a pleasing attention to detail.

Crowley came to my attention back in the 1970s with books such as Little, Big, Aegypt (I note here the appearance in the text of The Evening Land of the spelling Æschylus,) and Engine Summer but dropped off my reading register till I noticed this book. I’ll be looking for more of him now though.

Pedant’s corner:-
In the back cover flap blurb: “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.) Otherwise: “‘into whose recognizance’” (recognisance – I doubt Byron would have used USian spellings, others, such as honour, are rendered in the British way. Plus recognizance is a US legal formulation rather than a Scottish one,) “‘these lands and goods was truly yours’” (were,) “Kendals drops” (Kendal drops,) Bachus’ (Bachus’s.)

Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, 2000, 540 p (including xii p Glossary of Arabic terms.)

The Map of Love cover

This novel is set in two time lines, the Egypt of its present day, the late 1990s, and of the same country in the 1900s. The present day sections are told from the viewpoint of Amal al-Gamrawi whose brother, ‘Omar, a famous musician, has fallen into a relationship with US citizen Isabel Parkman, but its main thrust comes via the letters and journal of Isabel’s great grandmother, Lady Anna Winterbourne, which relate to her experiences in Egypt almost a century before. Isabel’s discovery of a trunk containing her grandmother’s letters was recognized by ‘Omar as a family connection and he encouraged Isabel to take them to his sister in Egypt for transcription. While in Egypt Lady Anna had formed a mutual attachment to Amal’s great uncle, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, an Egyptian patriot, and married him; much to the dismay of all but two of the English contingent in Egypt at the time. Anna’s letters and journal track the course of that love affair and marriage. Isabel is their descendant and so related to Amal and ‘Omar. Some sections of the narrative are Amal’s imaginings of incidents from the past, others are seen via the viewpoint of Layla, Sharif’s sister.

Soueif wrote this in English but in some respects the novel feels like a translation as its immersion in Egyptian culture is total, though the Western perspective is acknowledged. But it is Egyptian concerns and history that dominate. “Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.” (Yet, barring ‘the mother of civilisation’ and with just the name changed, that quote could apply to almost any country. It certainly does to Scotland.)

There are multiple resonances between the two times. The trouble with contemporary Israelis in Palestine – “putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle,” ….. “It’s either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamic radicals. Take your pick,” is mirrored by events in the 1900s when 50,000 Russian Jews escaping from persecution wanted to settle in the Holy Land. “Europe simply does not see the people of the countries it wishes to annex – and when it does , it sees them in accordance with its own old and accepted definitions: backward people , lacking rational abilities and subject to religious fanaticism.” At one point Layla says of the de facto ruler of Egypt, “‘Lord Cromer is a patriot and he serves his country well. We understand that. Only he should not pretend that he is serving Egypt.’” Cromer’s attitude ignores that, “We in Egypt have been proud of our history; proud to belong to the land that was the first mother of civilization. In time she passed the banner of leadership to Greece and then Rome, and from there it reverted to the lands of Islam until in the seventeenth century it was taken hold of by Europe.” As one Egyptian says to Isabel, in a phrase that perhaps prefigures and goes some way to explain the attack on the twin towers only a year after the novel was published, “all the Americans I meet are good people, but your government’s foreign policy is so bad. It’s not good, you know, for a country to be hated by so many people.”

The politics may be an essential background but it is not the focus. That is the love story between Anna and Sharif and the ever fascinating nature of human interactions. Soueif’s ability as a novelist to portray these is not in doubt. The tapestry triptych which Anna weaved on the loom Sharif bought for her and of which one part had disappeared in the intervening years is perhaps a little too obvious a metaphor, though, and I did have a reservation at the introduction of a further possible twist in the net of relationships here, a thread picked at but not truly resolved.

Nevertheless this is a very well written, engaging novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which, while not, quite, in the absolutely highest class is certainly not far off.

Pedant’s corner:- Abd el-Nasser (in the epigraph it was ‘Abd el-Nasser,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) occasional unnecessary spaces after quotation marks, the odd missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “more that an eccentric Englishwoman” (more than,) Selfridges’ foodhall (I know the shop is now named Selfridges but it was founded by a Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co so its possessive should always have been Selfridge’s, therefore Selfridge’s foodhall,) staunched (stanched.)

Best Reading of 2018

Listed below in order of reading. 16 in total; 7 by Scottish writers, 4 SF or Fantasy (+ 1 non-fiction about SF,) 3 in translation, 10 by men, 6 by women:-

Living Nowhere by John Burnside
All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky
Science Fiction: A Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst
The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
Hame by Annalena McAfee
I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G Coney
Not so Quiet …. stepdaughters of war by Helen Zenna Smith
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Elephant Walk by Robert Standish

NEL, 1968, 252 p. First published 1948.

Elephant Walk cover

The Elephant Walk of the title is a very prosperous tea (once coffee, till a disease blighted the crop) plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was) whose founder, Tom Carey, built “the Big Bungalow” across a traditional elephant trail. Despite being dead for years Carey’s attitudes and prescriptions for life still dominate life in the bungalow – as mediated through the main servant Appuhamy (who periodically talks to the old master at his graveside) and with the parrot Erasmus ensuring Carey’s voice is still heard regularly – with open house for other local planters. Carey’s almost middle–aged son, George, takes a trip to England. (Here, in an incidental conversation with a pair fascinated by Buddhism, “George … remarked that the only Buddhist priest he had ever come in contact with had seemed to prefer small boys to mysticism.” Some things are universal and timeless it would seem.) George is attracted by the charms of Ruth Lakin; chiefly her ability at tennis. He soon proposes and Ruth seizes eagerly at her chance for a more comfortable existence.

Back in Ceylon the presence of a woman in the Big Bungalow puts all sorts of noses out of joint, while George’s drinking puts a strain on the marriage. An accident in which George breaks his leg throws Ruth into closer contact with George’s assistant Geoffrey Wilding. The Sinhalese plantation workers soon infer, wrongly to begin with, that their working relationship has improper aspects, but the seeds for an eternal triangle have been sown. Once the relationship has been consummated Ruth finds herself in thrall to her feelings for Wilding.

The advent of the Great War throws a spanner into their lives. Without knowing he is the father of Ruth’s unborn child Wilding leaves for Europe and news eventually comes he is missing, presumed dead. Ruth resolves to make the best of things. Wilding has been captured though and escapes to Holland. His return to Ceylon precipitates the book’s, and Ruth’s, crisis, not helped by the fact that Wilding’s war experiences have changed him.

The web of character relationships here is complex, and each has his or her own motivations. The oddnesses and assumptions of colonial life are well depicted. Appuhamy’s devotion to having things just so – as they have always been that way even if extravagantly wasteful – his acceptance of minor change to avoid dismissal, the jealousies of the beautiful Rayna, a Sinhalese outcast girl whom Appuhamy procures in an attempt to distract Wilding from Ruth. Standish’s desire to portray the Big Bungalow as a character in its own right doesn’t quite work though and while the occasional foray into the thoughts of the bull elephant injured while navigating the trail when the bungalow was being built are necessary for plot and dénouement reasons they do not accord with what knowledge of elephants I thought I possessed. (Only remembering the bungalow when approaching it? A bull elephant leading a herd rather than being solitary? Do Asian elephants differ in these regards from African ones?)

Standish didn’t have pretensions, there’s no fine writing here, but it’s a good solid piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- strategem (stratagem, spelled correctly later.) “George’s attentiveness and solicitude was impeccable” (attentiveness and solicitude were.) “‘Blame then?’” (Blame them,) “his little brain” (of a bull elephant? Big brain I should think,) “two whiskies-and-sodas” (two whiskies-and-soda: at least Standish spared us “whisky-and-sodas”,) “‘I like to to be exclusive’” (only one “to” needed,) “‘it does no look much now’” (does not look,) at one point George Carey makes a comment on information which the reader already knows but he hasn’t been told.

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, 2001, 345 p.

Love, sex, and death, again. Literary fiction doesn’t seem to stray far from those. Though I suppose there isn’t that much sex here, and death is mostly off-stage. Set in the late 1950s as they turn to the 60s, the love is that between Mary van der Linden, sojourning in Washington DC with her diplomat husband Charlie (whose career has stalled somewhat, perhaps because he is too fond of the bottle) and journalist Frank Renzo who is making a slow return after disfavour in the McCarthy years.

The book does describe the progress of what I assume is supposed to be a great love affair but unlike in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger I didn’t really feel it, was never convinced. When Mary states her feelings for Frank they more or less come out of the blue as far as the reader is concerned. (His affections – or perhaps I should say intentions – were discernible from the outset.)

To add a bit of colour incidents from the characters’ earlier lives are incorporated into the narrative – Mary’s first lover, who died in the Second World War, Frank and Charlie’s almost forgotten meeting at Dien Bien Phu – as are contemporary events, particularly the first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate and Charlie’s breakdown on a visit to Moscow which sharpens the tale with a dose of Cold Wear paranoia. And everybody smokes like a lum.

I remember the author’s earlier novel Birdsong with some affection. On Green Dolphin Street, while readable enough, is no Birdsong

I did though learn that there is a Dumbarton Street in Washington DC!

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages – fender, hat-check girl, laundromat, elevator, the fall, bake sale, sidewalk etc – but aluminium not aluminum and railways [sic] sleepers not railroad ties. Otherwise; Commonweath war cemetery (at the time it would have been an Imperial war cemetery,) “sluiced it down” (twice in the space of a page or so is once too many,) croci (crocus isn’t from Latin, so crocuses,) “under the instructions of a man with a crew-cut called Don Hewitt” (why does his hair-do have a name? A minor edit would have got rid of this,) “which even in this light she could see where shot with blood” (were shot,) on to (onto,) railways sleepers (railway sleepers,) sprung (sprang.)

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