Friday, April 21, 2017

23/3/17 "MY BRILLIANT FRIEND" by ELENA FERRANTE


My Brilliant Friend” was published in Italy in 2011 as  La amica geniale” and published in English translation in 2012. It is the first of an enormously successful four part series known as the “Neapolitan Novels”, which followed a number of shorter novels in which Ferrante had honed her skills.
Flanked by an intimidating pile of Ferrante books, the proposer fessed up to having borrowed the first two novels from his wife when he ran out of reading material in Australia. Such was the grip of the Neapolitan novels that they bought the last two volumes when they reached Wellington.
He noted that, usually, when introducing books we say something about the author’s background. But ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym. Ferrante holds that "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors." She argues that anonymity is a precondition for her work and that keeping her true name out of the spotlight is key to her writing process. “Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”
Last year an Italian journalist claimed to have identified Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome, as Ferrante, based mainly on her recent high earnings and acquisition of real estate. This identification caused a storm of controversy, with many enthusiastic fans taking the view, shared by the proposer, that Ferrante was entitled to her anonymity.

We dwelt briefly on this aspect. We had no reason to question the motives that she (or, less plausibly, he) put forward for anonymity, but anonymity had some obvious other advantages. First, it meant that friends and neighbours were unlikely to take offence if they suspected they were the basis for an unsympathetic character. Secondly, it meant critics would not the classic mistake of trying to interpret the books by reference to her biography. And, thirdly, the mystery could only help to enhance the aura around the books.

Ferrante has said she considers the four books to all be part of a single novel. We examined the close-together dates of publication and concluded that she must have done all, or almost all, of the writing of the four books before the first one was published.

For the proposer this was a fantastic novel, with some major themes, such as the difficulties of bright working class children getting a good education, particularly girls in traditional societies. It was important to remember that the novel was set in the 1940s and 1950s. The theme of one bright girl getting a good formal education and the other not is worked out in the later books. The book was not just set in a temporal, but in a geographic and cultural context. Naples was the important geography, but the cultural was southern Italy, where routine violence, including within marriage, was endemic, and where private rules enforced by the Camorra were more powerful than public justice.

The difficult politics of Italy were brought out well, with the Fascists defeated but still influential and the Communists important. Changes in society were well illustrated as the books move through time to the present.

We then turned to some comments sent in from our correspondent in China. “A story about growing up, beautifully told. Many intertwined themes about the human condition. Tensions of the schooldays (I’d almost forgotten them, how a clever kid survives school). The distinctions between affection, infatuation, lust, love, friendship. Ambition that’s confused by immaturity. Contrast between the academic/spiritual and the materialistic mind-set.  Gender issues: boyishness and girlishness contrasted; how women are shaped by men and by the social structures around them; how women find it hard to be assertive. Why do boys have to fight. The social tensions between families – how people can’t cope with a simple wedding ceremony.

The book made me recall my own adolescence – a dreadful time. But I think the adolescent passions of we Brits may not match those of Italians. 

Some reviews say it’s a story of Italy itself growing up (a young country) and I'm sure there's something in that…..”.

Another enjoyed it, liking the growing up theme and the relationships in the village, but feeling the book was overlong. The book above all was about insights into the female psyche, and this was reflected in the on-line comments. Not having realised until the end that there was an index of characters, the broad cast of characters with similar names was confusing. (This latter comment was echoed by a Kindle reader, who strongly recommended not reading it on a Kindle, so that it was easier to flick back to the character index!).

We debated whether this was a “feminist” novel, with the conclusion that it was not, at least in the sense that there was no feeling of a feminist agenda. The focus might be the female narrator and her female friend, but the weaknesses and failings of both females and males, and the realities of the social structure, were recorded dispassionately.

One example was the scene in which a friend’s father tries to seduce the young Elena. The writer conveys with considerable insight the confusion, and ambivalent mixture of repulsion and pleasure, experienced by Elena, and does so without, at least overtly, being judgemental.

Another reader found the very vivid and powerful detail had sucked him into the book. “I enjoyed it so much I rationed how much I read at a time so as to prolong the pleasure”. It was beautifully written, and for whatever reason he simply found it compelling.

He had visited Naples a year ago – “a spectacular place” - and had enjoyed the vivid recreation of it in the book. Of particular interest was the ghetto, or “barrio” in which they lived (the next book, which he had moved on to with alacrity, extended to other northern cities). Did the behaviour of the families in the barrio reflect just Neapolitan or wider Italian behaviour? For example, women getting beaten by their husbands was widespread in the fifties, probably throughout Europe.

But wasn’t the private justice of the Camorra a more unique feature? Well, plenty of people still came into Accident and Emergency in Glasgow with serious assault wounds and refused to tell the police who had done it. Revenge might be taken privately, often through a gang. And, the more we discussed it, the more we felt that many of the intriguing things in the book could have been found in other poor European cities in the fifties, rather than confined to Naples.

Another reader had also found the book most enjoyable, and in several ways impressive. The book might be mistaken for a very commercial historical saga, but several things lifted it. There were flashes of psychological and sociological insight, and of philosophical reflection, clearly and pithily expressed. There was a compelling exploration of friendship, and how it can change over time and be destructive as well as supportive. And there was the paralleling of the development of the characters against the post-war changes in the city and country.

The two female friends were sharply delineated, as to a lesser degree were their lovers, while the wider cast of characters – at least in this first book - were fuzzier.

The shape of the book was that of a “bildungsroman” or coming of age novel. However, it differed from the classic bildungsroman structure in two ways. First, it is about the coming of age (if reaching sixteen can be accepted as coming of age in a Neapolitan barrio) of two people, not one.

And secondly, it is normal in a Bildungsroman for the protagonist to become gradually reconciled to the values of the society that they have questioned. But this novel ends on a very different note as, in the climactic wedding scene, Elena comes to see the barrio culture as a trap from which neither she, nor her brilliant friend Lila, can ever escape. It is almost a Marxist perception in a novel that has occasionally mentioned Communists, and dislike of them, but not in any way explored their philosophy.

At that moment, I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she [my teacher] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts…

In broader discussion we noted that the translation – which read very well – used American idiom, and the proposer explained that the days of having one translation in British and one in American idiom had now gone because of the economics of the industry. We wondered, but were unable to resolve, how the original had handled the question of Neapolitan dialect, as the text frequently referred to whether or not the character was choosing to speak in dialect or in Italian. We did note though that the author used little by way of dialogue, which perhaps helped the novel to flow quickly.

We wondered about Romeo and Juliet as an influence with its story of young love in Verona across a boundary of family feud. We were also amused – or perhaps, remembering our teens, not amused at all - by the discussion of the best way to jilt someone as seen by a teenager (p. 251).

We were intrigued by the girls’ intention to write a modern version of ‘Little Women’, itself a coming of age story about three girls. And we were also intrigued by the opening of the novel showing Elena, who has shown writing ambition but not been published, choosing as a much older woman to write the book which we were now reading in published form.

One thought that evolved in discussion – and one of the things about a Book Group discussion is that it should be a dynamic process – was how similar the names were of Elena (known as “Lenu”) and Rafaella (known as “Lila” or “Lina”). And – in another echo within an echo, or reflection in a reflection – Elena is of course also the nom-de-plume of the novelist.

The book was so convincing it would be easy to think that it was autobiographical, but the similarity of the names “Lenu” and “Lina” had us reflecting that it was common for writers to take two sides of their personalities, or of human nature, and create them as different characters (the extreme example being Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’). To say the friends here represent, say, reason versus instinct, might be to oversimplify, for while the rational Lenu is better educated, the intuitive Lina is cleverer than Lenu.

However, something of this kind may be going on. There is certainly a basic opposition in their natures – Lenu being dutiful, educated, and through education capable of analysing situations and manipulating people, whereas Lina is brilliant, spontaneous, and capable of cruelty and violence. Lina has blossomed from ugly to beautiful, whereas Linu’s emerging beauty has been ruined by adolescent acne. And one of the intriguing features of the book is how the two friends interact, and how when one is in the ascendant the other is in the descendant…….

………and so we went on………and on…….. 

As R.L.S. himself wrote in ‘Talk and Talkers’:

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk.…..There are always two to a talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress’, while written words remain fixed…….

28/2/17 "THE MANDIBLES" by "LIONEL SHRIVER"

Lionel Shriver is a libertarian southern Democrat, born in 1957, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Realising herself to be a ‘tomboy’ she felt uncomfortable with her ‘girly’ name, Margaret Ann, and so she changed to Lionel. She has a BA and MFA from Columbia University. She describes herself as an expat, having lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and now mostly in London.  The upside of being an expat, she explains, is that “I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually”.  Rather little can be found of her private life, except that she is a keen cyclist and is married to a jazz drummer. Interesting insights into her character and views can be read in Bomb magazine: http://bombmagazine.org/article/2774/ where she is described as ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate.

This is her 12th novel.  The most well-known was her seventh, about a school shooting, called We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, and became a movie in 2011. She is also a successful journalist, writing for the New York Times and the Guardian. She would legalise all drugs and stay out of foreign wars. She is critical of government, noting that in the USA there are 170,000 pages of Federal Regulations and it costs 6 trillion dollars annually to enforce them. This quote gives a flavor of her work: “In an era of weaponised sensitivity participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity that many are apt to bow out”. And also “to progress is merely to go forward and you can go forward into a pit”.

Turning now to the book itself: the year is 2029. The author tells the story of a family living in the USA, where the economy has collapsed. The national debt has risen to an unsustainable level, and the dollar is all but worthless. The Federal Government sends the army to people’s homes, looking for gold to confiscate, including small items like wedding rings. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide gold items of great sentimental value, but there are harsh penalties for those who are caught. The financial crisis afflicts the whole western world, and to restore stability the International Monetary Fund, supported by countries including Putin’s Russia and super-rich China, has recently launched a new currency unit, the bancor. The US refuses to use it, and makes the bancor illegal in America – possession constitutes treason. How rapidly America has changed: by 2027 the US President is currently a Latino and the first language is Spanish.

The story follows the fortunes of a Manhattan family, the Mandibles. Great grandfather Douglas Mandible sits on a fortune made long ago but is now a sprightly 97-year-old and has shown no signs of passing the family wealth to children and grandchildren. Now it’s too late: the president ‘resets’ the national debt, treasury bonds become void, and the family fortune is wiped out. The family includes his dementia-impaired wife, and his daughter Enola who lugs around a paper-copy of her latest book. One family member is a therapist, one works in a homeless shelter and one is an economics professor. But the economist loses his job because funds for universities are not what they were and his particular flavour of economics is considered inappropriate for the times. As the economy crashes out of control, crime soars, looting is commonplace, people lose their homes and there is a food and water crisis. Property rights evaporate and fourteen Mandibles end up in one small house. Desperate measures are required to survive: grandson Willing is good at stealing whilst the 17-year old Savanna becomes a successful prostitute. No questions are asked.

Through skillful use of dialogue the author’s views on global economics are articulated. Flows of money and social behaviour are collectively a good example of a complex system that can go wildly out of control. We are reminded “Money is emotional… worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods, and services, because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science.”

The plot itself moves rather slowly. When things seem completely desperate the novel fast-forwards to 2047, and we see that things have reached a new and rather more tolerable quasi-stable state.  Law and order are restored. The currency is now a new dollar linked to the bancor. Citizens are given a cranially-implanted chip that records their financial transactions so that tax can be accurately levied. Not everyone is chipped: there is an outside world, where people are un-chipped and live a simple pastoral life. This appeals to Willing, who tests the widespread belief that crossing the border to join the un-chipped world will trigger an explosion in one’s head.  And there is another border – a fence between US and Mexico to keep out the illegal American immigrants.

What did we make of the tale? We spent much time discussing whether it could actually happen. We decided it could, although we struggled with the economic theory. None of us are economists, but between us we reached an adequate grasp. There seem to be four possible ways in which our society might conceivably collapse: economic Armageddon, spread of a deadly virus, revolution against the government and climate change, or any combination of the four. The book reminds us that we need to take care, our civilisation is much more fragile than most people realise.

Is the book anti-American? Yes, it is. In the book, the US in no longer a supreme power, the American dream has evaporated and there is little hope of a full recovery. Almost all the characters are behaving badly – Shriver has said she likes to craft hard-to-love characters.  No one is a hero although Willing comes close to being the protagonist. In fact the character development is rather weak, as in most science fiction. But this isn’t really science fiction – it is a new genre, rather like a book we read some months ago, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which dealt with another kind of crisis and was also set in the near future but this time in France.

We agreed that the story is highly topical. It was written well before Trump became the US president and just before the Brexit vote. Both of these turns of events persuade us that our liberal Western democracies have become inherently unstable – practically anything is possible – something which few people are prepared to accept or even discuss. The thought of dystopia inevitably disturbs and undermines our very existence. Yet our nations are increasingly polarised, moving towards what one Mandible describes near the end of the book: “Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction.”

Some said the book contains humour but others were unconvinced. There are distant cousins called Goog and Bing, named after search engines. Ho ho. Why is the family called Mandible?  Presumably because they are examples of greedy consumers. The ‘joke’ is that they are the ones that will always suffer most in a financial meltdown, and others may laugh at their humiliation. An example of shadenfreude, presumably.  Above all, Shriver likes to shock, and in doing so there isn’t much room for humour.

We agreed it is an interesting book, but the interest comes mostly in thinking about and discussing the shocking issues raised. Yes, we might all have to face an economic Armageddon. Be prepared.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

26/1/17 "THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE" by THOMAS HARDING


To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate...

[a discounted rate?!…..run that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust....”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism... 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down...”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy...”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. It didn’t particularly excite one reader, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There was no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. "The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany...”. 

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January...]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They each started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the opposite corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory - for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…



























Friday, January 06, 2017

24/11/2016 "RABBIT IS RICH" by JOHN UPDIKE

Fading gently towards the venue for the November meeting, as from a gentle three wood, the scribe arrived a little late on a cold night with frost on the ground. However, the small group that waited in the living room soon generated a heated discussion. It was Thanksgiving, so the choice of an American novel seemed fully justified.

The proposer introduced the author, John Updike, and the book, “Rabbit is Rich”, one of a tetralogy telling the story of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from 1960 to 1990 (with a sequel to form a pentology in 2001). Updike was very prolific, having moved from ‘Rabbit’ country in Shillington, Pennsylvania to Harvard, Oxford, the New Yorker and so to a full time, and very distinguished writing career, winning many major literary prizes.  The proposer cited modernism as an important influence on his style, and suggested that his early concentration on poetry was also clear in his writing, as for example in the superb metaphors in ‘Rabbit’. For example, “He can’t take his eyes off this girl….The milky flecked shoulders, the dent of flesh where the halter strap digs. Squeeze her and you’d leave thumbprints, she’s that fresh from the oven” or “[Pop’s] emphysema just got too bad and you’d find him sitting in a small chair all curled over like a hand sheltering a guttering candle flame from the wind.”

The unusual, possibly unique (according to the proposer) device was that every ten years Updike imagined how his characters developed over the last decade. As well as the characters being ten years older, the novelist is ten years older, America is ten years older. This counter-pointing gives the telling of the story of a life, and the story of the development of a nation, unusual depth, richness and complexity.

Those assembled discussed the uniqueness of this approach. Certainly there are many book series where the character ages (Sunset Song was mentioned), but not concurrently with the author. One member struggled to recall a film trilogy that used the same device, the actors and director aging with the text but no-one else had a Scooby. (Editor: that would be Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Director Richard Linklater, obviously after the Rabbit novels.) Ultimately, it is doesn’t really matter.

The proposer suggested it was the funniest and most up-beat of the novels. It seems to have a higher sexual content than the other Rabbit books, which some may have found offensive or at least tedious. Actually, some thought the ‘instruction manuals’ quite amusing although perhaps too late to put into practice. 

As a potential weakness, the long, beautifully formed descriptive and meditative passages, written as a stream of consciousness, can seem (to some) overblown and can slow down the movement of the story. However, surely they were germane to his wider themes and quite hypnotic. There’s not much plot – they are concerned with very ordinary lives, and the delicate interplay of family relationships. Again, the proposer pointed out that they focussed very much on a small community of interest; the inhabitants of Brewer had no real interest or understanding of the wider world. He suggested, alas, that this was true of a large American constituency, and perhaps a constituency that had elected Donald Trump as president. Like Updike, Trump has been accused of misogyny.

There was general agreement about the quality of the prose, and the enjoyment of the descriptive passages. For example, your scribe was particularly taken with the early description of the ‘Hick’ couple, ‘milky pale’ (her) and ‘roughened and reddened’ (him) with the “fat tired 71 or ‘2 Country Squire wagon soft on its shocks, with one dented fender hammered out semi-smooth but the ruddy rustproofing paint left to do for a finish”. That the milky pale girl was his illegitimate daughter was lost on those who had not read the earlier novels, but several hints were dropped in the text to the true aficionado.

After agreement, some disparities emerged and voices were raised. First, there was the question of context. To what extent were the references to global events, such as Three Mile Island and the Oil Crisis, essential to plot or character development and to what extent window dressing? For example, several references are made to the changes in the car market due to the oil crisis but how does this affect Harry, Nelson and the rest of the Rich characters? It illuminates the concerns of the ordinary American at the time, and as the proposer first said the novelist tracks the concurrent development as the characters, and America, change with each new decade. Acknowledging this, at least one of the few found the lack of plot development disappointing in comparison with other North American authors (McCarthy, Ford, Vidal were mentioned) but the proposer argued strongly that this was the point. Suburban life is indeed dull. Further, one couldn’t really appreciate the character and contextual changes without reading the whole Rabbit thesis. As the attendance was already small, perhaps a request to read all five books would have reduced it further!

Another member supported (to some extent) the suggestion that lack of event was a failing. He cited some eminent criticism that had made this point. Unfortunately, the dozy scribe didn’t record these but post-meeting googling found “does on occasion write well … has nothing to say” (Aldridge), “a minor novelist with a major style” (Bloom) and “you say it best when you say nothing at all” (Schlitz and Overstreet). Maybe Updike himself gave the best response in saying that he “gave the mundane its beautiful due” but some liked novels to give higher meaning to life, even the pessimistic one of the previous month given by David Szalay, another story of ‘Everyman’. He compared Updike unfavourably to Austen but the proposer was adamant about the essential quality of Updike’s writing. Oh, well! This is a blog, not a review as such, and many have commented more eruditely on Updike’s work. Schiff says that ‘few contemporary writers have received more attention than John Updike’ and any quick perusal of the internet will discover more theses on Updike than his own prolific output of novels, short stories and poems. As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” 

Another attendee went on to praise the excellence of the writing about relationships, especially between the father, Harry, and the son, Nelson. There were many such relationships beautifully depicted in the book. He talked of the justified aggression of Harry towards his son; how he found it difficult to be demonstrative, how he couldn’t really get through the generation gap. Nelson doesn’t have to live his father’s life, and yet he follows him into the ‘Lot’? Do we all regress towards our parental mean? Perceptively, he went on to say that although Updike wrote so well about relationships, he did not write so well about individuals. This is an interesting suggestion and caused at least one of us to re-assess the book.

As ever, the discussion wavered from the topic. The subject of weddings was mentioned, and one commented on how the low key nature of the wedding in the novel accorded with his own experience, travelling many thousands of miles to the US of A to find such a low key affair that he thought it was hardly worth the effort! In contrast, another referred to a much more lavish affair. In general, perhaps the marriage of Nelson and Pru is not ‘made in heaven’ but is rather by accident, but as mentioned before we didn’t have the full context in front of us.

Other themes for debate that emerged included the casual racism (not so surprising in Trumped America perhaps), and the lack of likeable characters, although Charlie was named as an exception to the rule. We did not consider the religious background to any great degree, indeed the proposer suggested it did not figure prominently in this novel. However, we did take to ‘Soupy’ Campbell, the religious celebrant with a somewhat relaxed approach to the marriage vows, probably not an obvious candidate for a Free Kirk ministry in the North of Lewis. Unlike the sex scenes, which were probably not meant to be funny, the scenes with ‘Soupy’ were certainly humorous.

So what was the final verdict? This was certainly a book worth reading, and perhaps it did not wholly stand on its own. We would accept the proposer’s view that all four or five should be read but life is finite, so we have to make choices about where to concentrate. Of those present, there was a 50/50 split on whether the other books would be read.

Overall, we all left the meeting wiser and more knowledgeable about one of America’s greatest 20th Century authors, and warmed by the unusual heat of the debate. It was still cold outside, but fortunately we had but a short journey home and so the heat sustained us.

Monday, November 21, 2016

27/10/2016 "All that Man is" by David Szalay

The proposer began by referring to two members of the group not present who had sent messages implying that they had found this book boring, perhaps not persevering to the conclusion.  On the other hand, it had reached the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews in the press.  In fact, the proposer had found the book while browsing a list of recommended new novels for 2016 several months previously. Rather than a set of short stories about different characters, he saw the book development as that of ‘Everyman’, a continuous development of a single and often chastening life experience.

The others who were present had not found the book boring, although one reader expressed the view that it was more like a collection of short stories, and he would have preferred more unified plot development in a novel.  Others liked the way that the book’s structure was more thematic than plot-driven.  The proposer revealed that in an interview published in The Guardian, Szalay had revealed that the book began as a single short story, and he later had the idea of expanding it to be about disparate men at different stages of their lives in different parts of Europe.  One member of the group remarked that having started with expectations of a more conventional novel, he adjusted quickly to what he saw as more a series of portraits than stories.  He felt the social situations of the characters were well delineated, and the drifting nature of the narratives reminded him of Murakami’s writing.  All the men (there are nine principal protagonists in the book, and one re-appears in the last story) were ‘outsiders’, not well-adjusted to society or relationships.  In this respect he was reminded of other European novels such as Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ and Barbusse’s ‘Hell’.

Some of us were quickly drawn into the book because the first story resonated so strongly with our own experiences of inter-railing as young men.  It was noted that Simon, the protagonist of this first section, was referred to as the grandson of Tony in the final part of the book. However, this seemed only a perfunctory gesture towards the conventional unity of a novel’s narrative. (Another is Murray’s glimpse of what might well be the character Aleksandr’s yacht).  We did see many links between the characters however –  for example the proposer suggested that Aleksandr, with his business empire, could be James twenty years on.  Also most of the men were failures – even the ‘successful’ ones – and the book was strongly tinged with melancholy overall.  As a general observation, we felt that the characters illustrated a predominantly male inclination to focus on ‘things’ (status, career, money, sex) rather than relationships, and so they suffered the consequences.

Some of the characters had redeeming features – for example Balazs begins to interact sympathetically with the prostitute Emma rather than simply lusting for her, and in general one felt sympathy for the characters’ troubles.  An exception was the tabloid journalist Kristian.  It was pointed out that he has no moment of revelation or change or failure to deal with.  He doesn’t come unstuck, unlike the other characters, and instead it is his victim, the government minister, who engages our sympathies.  There was some parallel here with Karel’s story.  We feel sorry for his girlfriend, rather than for Karel.  James, too, is one character who exhibits a faint inkling of what he is missing in not paying attention to his son at the end of his story.  Karel is another who may – it’s not clear – emerge from his selfish bubble.  Others – like Kristian or Aleksandr – seem irredeemable.
The women in the novel were minor characters, but cleverly delineated in such a way that the reader could understand and sympathise with them, even though the male characters with whom they interact generally could not.  This was best demonstrated in Karel’s story, in his brutish response to his girlfriend’s revelation.  

It was also interestingly evident in the exchange between James and Paulette in Part Six:

James: “Love,” he says, “It messes everything up, doesn’t it?
Paulette: “Isn’t love the whole point?
James: “The whole point of what?
Paulette: “Of life.

Many of these men have weak emotional bonds, and this is what is tragic.  Their failure to seek or cherish love means that there is no glue to bind them to society.  One reader pointed out that humans are stronger and better together – that this is even a biological imperative, an aid to survival.

“Carpe Diem” was also a key theme.  It’s introduced in the first story, when Simon is reading Henry  James. (“Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.”)  Throughout the book characters have flashes of intense experience of the present moment.  Even Murray, the most abject of all the losers in the novel, has a moment of euphoria looking at the light on the sea near the end of his story.  The last story, seeing life from the perspective of a man in his seventies experiencing health problems, ties up the threads of this theme.  Tony can now see how short life is, and how essential it is to live in the moment.

We enjoyed the moments of humour in what is predominantly a somewhat depressing book.  Bernard’s sexual encounters in Cyprus, and Murray’s visit to the fortune-teller were particularly funny – although not without pathos.  We also discussed the theme of responsibility – it was pointed out that the earlier characters have no responsibilities, but then things start to pile up on the later characters.

To conclude: ‘All That Man Is’ is not – in spite of its title – all that man is, unless you have a very cynical view.  The absence of love is the common trait of these particular men; they are more focused on their activity in life than on relationships and they suffer accordingly.

25/8/2016 "Berlin at War" by Roger Moorhouse

A small but select group of our membership gathered to discuss this book, which took us back to a recurring theme amongst our reading choices – books dealing with the two world wars of the twentieth century.

The proposer had made four recent visits to Berlin and has a fascination with the city.  He mentioned that more attention is paid there to the fall of the Berlin Wall than to the darker history of the war years.  (In this context we discussed the perpetuation of German guilt, and the relish of UK and USA media for World War Two stories and films.)  He considered Roger Moorhouse’s book to be well-researched, and successful in capturing what it must have been like to live through the war years in Berlin.  We agreed with this, finding Moorhouse’s writing style fluent and engaging, and enjoying the tapestry of subjective viewpoints quoted from his primary sources.  The fact that Moorhouse used letters and comments from ordinary individuals rather than resorting to academic or secondary sources made the book very readable and accessible.

We did find that the organization of the book was a little confusing.  Because Moorhouse chose to deal with broad themes – for example chapters on radio broadcasting and on air raids – we sometimes felt a little adrift chronologically.  It was suggested that a list of significant dates and events at the start of the book would have been a useful reference point.

Many fascinating aspects of life in Berlin during the war years were unearthed by Moorhouse, several of which had not occurred to us.  We were surprised by the evidence that much of the population was far from keen on Hitler’s war, and that attitudes to Hitler became considerably more critical (albeit not openly) as the war began to go badly for Germany.

It was interesting that the Gestapo were not as universally feared as is commonly assumed, and that only those with something to hide – Communists, Jews, and anti-Nazis – had to be careful.  However, the extent of malicious false denunciations that the Gestapo and police forces had to deal with revealed a civic population ill at ease with itself.

When the fall of Berlin was imminent, another surprising fact was the high incidence of suicides.  This was partly due to the terror of the Bolsheviks that propaganda had produced, and indeed when Russian troops occupied the city there was a rampage of raping and looting.  When Berlin was largely smashed to rubble, people resorted to chalk messages on the ruins of their houses to communicate with friends, family and neighbours where they were to be found.

Moorhouse backed up his anecdotal accounts with an array of facts and figures – for example about the nature of the artillery in use, and the numbers and types of aircraft involved in raids.  He also gave a detailed account of the various types of camps set up by the Nazis – for imported foreign slave labourers, for criminals, and of course for the elimination of the large Jewish population.  It was interesting to discover how large was the number of foreigners in Berlin during the war years, keeping the economy running while German men were away serving in the armed forces.

We discussed more general points about Nazism and the war.  We speculated that the law-abiding and well-structured nature of German society made the people more susceptible to Nazi organisation and militarism, and more open to Nazi propaganda relating to racial superiority.  The call to restore national pride after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles was also a powerful weapon in Hitler’s appeal.  Our own satisfaction at the current (2016) achievements of UK athletes at the Olympic Games testified to the universality of nationalistic pride.

We commented on ‘what a bunch of oddballs’ the Nazi leadership were.  We discussed the funding of the war – on Germany’s part through the looting of France and the Jewish population, on the UK’s part through loans from the USA, which left the UK a much poorer country than after World War One.  The film ‘Downfall’ about the last days of Hitler was recommended by the proposer, and we wondered – without coming up with an answer – whether there was a book that dealt with London during the Blitz in as thorough and interesting a way as Moorhouse had written about Berlin.

28/7/2016 "The Zone of Interest" by Martin Amis

What is the book about? The title gives no clue. Cursory reading of the first page suggests there’s a love story coming. Only later is the real subject matter unveiled, and then only gradually: this book contains the everyday story of Auschwitz folk and the deeds they carried out in the name of the Third Reich. Auschwitz takes the fictional name Kat Zek.

The tale is told by three narrators, each taking his turn in successive chapters. The first is Angelus Thomsen. He’s the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s  private secretary, and he’s responsible for managing the smooth running of the concentration camp; the second is Major Doll, the camp commandant (but only loosely based on the real commander, who was Rudolf Höss); the third is Szmul, one of the Sonderkommando, the special squad made up of Jewish prisoners recruited to do the dirty work among the Jewish corpses, laboring with heavy scissors, pliers and mallets, removing gold fillings. In his own words:
We are in fact the saddest men in the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.

But looking on the bright side, there is indeed a love story. In brief: Thomsen loves the commander’s wife Hannah, but whilst she finds her own husband totally disgusting and refuses to receive him in bed, she is unable fully to express her feelings for Thomsen.

Some of us were confused at the start of the book, not realizing the author’s ruse of rotating the narrators, and even after the penny had dropped, we felt the need to revise the real history of Auschwitz. Wikipedia was busy. Certainly the author assumes too much about his readers’ knowledge. Granted, he has done his own research very thoroughly (he boasts of this at the end), but should it be necessary for us to read the book twice as some of us did? One of our group (himself an established author) considered twice-reading to be a compliment to the author. Well, err, yes: I did read Hamlet twice but that’s different.

It’s a book about industrialized evil and its human impact. It raises important questions about the how, the why and the when of genocide. Perhaps each one of us may be capable of causing pain and suffering to a fellow human when authorized to do so by a higher power, as shown in the famous experiment using young males to inflict pain on others (Milgram, 1963).  Did the perpetrators at Auschwitz carry out their deeds just because they were told to (and were scared of the consequences of refusing) or did they share the Fuhrer’s vision of the 1000 Year Reich and how to achieve it by means of the Final Solution? Were they ‘just doing their job’ or were they fanatics, akin to the religious fundamentalists throughout history from the Crusades to the suicide bombers of today? And how did the Germans, the ordinary Germans who are now our friends, ever let this dreadful thing happen? We expected that some of the answers would be given in next month’s blog of Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse.

Yes, humans are a tribal species – but tribalism alone does not explain how any man can trick hundreds of fellow humans to walk into a room before sealing the doors and filling the room with the deadly Zyklon-B. Yes, many parts of the book made grim reading. It’s not for the faint hearted. It prompted us to discuss other ways in which people kill. The clever physicists at Los Alamos inventing the atomic bomb probably saw it as an intellectual challenge. They will never be charged with war crimes. The pilots who dropped the atom bomb, or razed German cities to the ground were far removed from the consequences of their actions, and hailed as heroes. They were carrying out orders and had been trained to hunt and kill. But the staff of Auschwitz were intimately involved in selecting, tricking, killing and cleaning up the mess – all of which was to be done on schedule so that targets could be met. Perhaps the first time they murdered was hard, but successive Aktions became progressively easier, a process of brutalization.

There is humour, more subtle than the familiar war humour of Dad’s ArmyAllo, Allo or Blackadder) but ribald nonetheless. A slight knowledge of German is necessary to appreciate some of it, but that wasn’t a problem. We laughed often, for example: German slang names for the parts of the female anatomy, the nicknames of Goebbels and Goring, anything that Doll has to say about sex. Oh yes, sex and depravity are there too. In fact the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman found the book ‘pornographic’, and reminds us that Susan Sontag and Saul Friedländer warned readers about the growing eroticisation of Nazism. Really?

The humour is overshadowed by the bigger picture and the frequent statements of both Doll and Thomsen. As he descends into drunken insanity, Doll says:
In any case, as we’ve always made it clear, the Christian system of right and wrong, of good and bad, is one we categorically reject. Such values – relics of medieval barbarism – no longer apply. There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes.

 There is plenty of history in this book. The gradual realization that Germany is on the brink of defeat comes on page 164 in my edition, and with it, the realization that the whole project was doomed:
Let me give you a little lesson in war, Golo. Rule number one: never invade Russia. All right, we kill five million and take five million prisoner, and starve another thirty million. That still leaves a hundred and twenty-five million.

There are expressions of humanity, the most profound coming from Szmul. His chapters are always brief and his sentences short and powerful. He imagines what he himself will do if ever sent to the gas chamber. He’d tell the boy in the sailor suit to breath deeply, and the old man to stand close to the meshed shaft where the gas comes in. He is proud that ‘we save a life, or prolong a life’. He is referring to the 0.01 per cent who are young men with a trade. They go to the factory instead of the gas chamber, at least at first.

The story, and the love-story within it, did not end well. How could they?

One of Szmul’s longer speeches is reproduced on the back cover:
There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. Instead it showed you your soul. It showed who you really were. But the king couldn’t look into the mirror without turning away…no-one could.

What does it mean? The mirror, like the one in Snow White, reveals the truth. If we look deep inside ourselves we may find dark elements of our psyche that we can’t face. Some people deny them, others come to terms with them, still others can’t control them.

At this, I put my notebook down, nearly spilling my pomegranate juice all over the host’s carpet. It would be blood on my hands, albeit a small quantity. None of us can ever know what it is like to kill thousands, to have hands so bloody as that; and if we were to do so, would we need to commit suicide like some of the characters did when the war was over.

Our discussion tailed off into the parallels between Hitler’s Youth and our own Boy Scouts/Boys’ Brigade. Encouraging nationalism in young people and supporting ‘my country right or wrong’ were popular forms of brainwashing in the 1930s.  And it’s easy to forget that Adolf Hitler, and all he stood for, had significant support in Britain. Is there a causal link: economic stress > blame foreigners > support nationalism > social unrest and ultimately war?

Those thoughts, in turn, led us to contemplate Brexit, the state of politics in USA and Europe, and the upsurge in racism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was time to go home. I won’t be looking in the mirror tonight.  

 Reference
Milgram S (1963) Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. For those unable to download the original, you can read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experime

Monday, July 25, 2016

7/7/2016 "I AM PILGRIM" by TERRY HAYES


Your international correspondent was on an extended vineyard tour in the sunny south when the call came through to write the blog for the Monthly Book Group. An  honour, of course. The book, “I am Pilgrim”, they felt, would suit me…

And so to shivering Edinburgh, and a meeting timed to let members go on to watch France v Germany. The Crete-bronzed host admitted the choice of this blockbuster , which had been recommended by his sister, was not his normal style of book or of writing. But he had found the 2013 novel spellbinding.

It rattled along with great rhythm. Its settings tied in with the contemporary world and contemporary problems. It was difficult to write such a long novel and maintain interest, and the author’s screenwriting experience must have helped. The author managed to wrap a murder mystery and an attack on America into one more or less seamless whole.

The host liked the hero, Pilgrim, who was Mr Superman and very professional, but also very human. The other characters were a bit “filmish”, and larger than life.

The book was well received by the Group.  Despite weighing in at a massive 912 pages in one of the paperback editions (and thereby claiming the Monthly Book Group record) most had read it pretty quickly, such was its page-turning quality. It had something of the addictive quality of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It was a great read, but not profound, nor meant to be.

The book had an American tinge, with American language and a colourful way of promoting people and ideas. The book’s forensic approach to detail was fascinating, if not always believable.

The plot structure consisted of two loosely related plots (so loosely connected, yours truly must have missed the connection while changing bottles of Tesco’s “Full Red”). Unusually, the sub-plot came first, in the fashion of “Psycho”, but this lent some complexity and texture to the novel.

The contemporary material about Muslim fundamentalist terrorism attracted much interest, and gave the book a degree of relevance not common in thrillers. One in our midst was particularly seized by the suggestion that an artificially constructed virus could be used for bio-terrorism. Some research had shown that such a synthetic virus had first been made in 2002. But cutting out eyes to defeat an iris scanner was more fanciful (and not original).

The wide geographical scope of the novel, ranging from west to east and back again, gave depth, and vicarious tourism interest, to the book.

Particularly compelling was the wide range of arcane knowledge that Pilgrim shared with us. Secrets about how to commit the perfect murder, how to detect such a murderer, about how the security services eavesdropped on us, about how to break into hotel safes (“I’ll never use one again!), about how to pilot your synthetic virus,  about the sexual effects of different drugs, about how to eliminate your past…. Not to mention how to save the world.

This gave a similar sense of pleasure to that of an Ian Fleming or a John Le Carré novel – that sense of being on the inside, in the know, understanding tradecraft. And our security expert confirmed that the security material was pretty accurate (although could the fundamentalist really have gained and abused his employment in a German chemical factory so easily?). And our scientific advisers even concluded us that it was plausible (ish) that a silhouette might have been captured on a mirror in the remarkable way suggested.

So – five stars all round? From most, but not from all.

One reader, who had amazingly managed to live a long life without either reading a James Bond book or seeing a James Bond film, cared neither for the blockbuster thriller genre nor for this example of it. 900 pages kept him busy but did not touch him. His emphatic put-down was that it amounted to nothing more than a very sophisticated Superman comic!

Another noted that reviews of the book split between five stars and one star without anything in between. Indeed in reading it he oscillated between five star judgements at the rekindling of his adolescent love of such books, and one star involuntary exclamations of “oh for f…’s sake!” at some contrived and implausible passage.

Others, when they stood back from the rush of the book, noted that Hayes (a journalist and screen-writer) was just a bit too obvious in constructing scenes that would help him sell the film-rights. And indeed MGM have duly bought the rights to film the book and envisage it as the start of a franchise.

Although English-born and spending much of his career in Australia, as well as in America, Hayes very visibly targets the American consumer. Thus there are various sentimental strands (including a jolly noble President); lots of lurid violence but not much sex; and as little alcohol as during Prohibition. Nevertheless, Hayes might shock many Americans with his vivid descriptions of the realities of water-boarding. And also shock with them with his forthright judgements on America’s ally Saudi Arabia. Hayes was remarkably judgemental about the different countries that Pilgrim travelled though.

So we then wandered down a few other avenues.

A small stylistic mannerism – of saying that the hero did “x” and would soon live to regret it– charmed some but irritated more. Picked up from Dan Brown?

Pilgrim was more an assassin than a spy. Was it only post Second World War that popular literature portrayed as admirable assassins (and other sundry paid killers such as hit-men and bounty hunters)?

And how trite was that “I am risen” ending?

But the footie was calling, and so we closed the file on Pilgrim.

It’s top notch if you are looking for a compelling contemporary thriller, and the perfect companion for a long journey.

And, if your name is Terry Hayes, the passport to immeasurable wealth.

I am Pilgrim? I am Jealous.



Saturday, July 23, 2016

26/5/2016 "QUARANTINE" by JIM CRACE and "THE ALCHEMIST" by PAULO COELHO

The book group assembled on a misty, moisty evening in May, the last Thursday of the month. As we awaited possible new arrivals, one of our number recounted tales of his hedonistic youth as a possible antidote to the spiritual discussions to follow. We assumed the missing members were pursuing their own pleasures elsewhere. As we commenced our discussion, our group of five hardy souls placed great literature over the such pursuits, saving the odd glass of wine or bottle of beer, of course.

 Unusually, the proposer prefaced the discussion by showing two short videos made by the respective authors. Crace, born 1947, talked of his love or travel and how, aged 8 or 9, he invented islands and other settings named after his school teachers or famous writers. This line of development followed through to his books, many times set in new, imagined lands. Although owing much to the imagination, as a group we thought the milieu of Quarantine was fairly well defined by the biblical setting,

 Further reinforced by his lack of research, Crace acknowledged he tended to ‘wing it’ in his wonderful descriptions of life in the desert. In Quarantine, he creates a believable world out of a series of interesting characters, but not all is as it seems. For example, he acknowledges the medical quote at the start of Quarantine is fictitious. We loved his description of the weaving process and of the bees as a bait to catch the bird, but forewarned by the video we realized that we should not take these descriptions as ‘Gospel’.

 In contrast, Coelho, born in 1946, explained the process of writing a book. He touched on the necessity of experience in writing, citing Proust and Joyce as authors who worked more from imagination, but likening himself more to Hemingway, as requiring real knowledge of events. Coelho suggested he needed a constant challenge to avoid boredom, he associated this with travel and so he ‘hit the road’. Activity and energy are considered virtues in The Alchemist. A journey may have an unknown destination and so the traveler is open to adventure, thus avoiding boredom. As he travels, this author needs to share his experience, writing a book.

 Why did the proposer link these books? Both were very successful, and have some common themes. Each is set in a desert, has mystical quality, is allegorical, and raises big questions through small events. The language contrasts. Coelho uses a deceptively limited prose but Crace’s use of language is more stylised, complex, and poetical. Crace comes from an atheistic perspective, yet there are hints of the religious in his novel, or so we thought. Did we? Well, it may be that each reader takes from these books that which confirms his or her own beliefs; this was a recurring topic.

 There was some dispute about the theme of Christianity within Quarantine; perhaps the portrayal of Jesus as a poor, deluded and not very competent carpenter is intended to give the lie to Christianity, and of Musa as a most excellent villain of human origin to deny the Devil. Yet, the characters interpret everything as signs from God. How should Jesus appear? How should the Devil be pictured? Perhaps Crace does protest too much? Protest or not, the slight majority were in favour of the atheist perspective in Quarantine.

 Crace himself has argued “The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium. Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. Science does not triumph unambiguously in the book. Faith is not destroyed by Doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely.” So who stands at Crace’s shoulder, is it the “imp of storytelling” as he contends, or the “Grace of God”

 The proposer commented on the appropriateness of metaphors and similes to the period and setting in Quarantine –e.g. “she was possessed by hope, as madly and absurdly, as sweetly and as helplessly, as a melon taken over as a nest by bees.”, or “The pain ran up his veins like fire up oil-soaked thread”. The novel expressed the sheer physicality of Crace’s world, especially in the description of Jesus’s body falling apart – “his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid desert boys battling for a piece of wood”. Wow!

Coelho’s book is not specifically Christian, but deals with major issues of fate (“Makhtub”), of the dangers of fear and of loss, how the boy, Santiago, must give up his money and even personal relationships to travel on in search of his personal destiny. He writes of communion with nature throughout the book, but especially latterly as he converses with the Sun and becomes the Wind…”The Soul of the World surged within him”, He talks of universal truth, and of how each material has its place in the world, lead as well as gold. What of the alchemist, what of alchemy? Santiago, has many guides (or the same guide in many guises?), the old woman, the old man, the king, the alchemist, and this book has a decided spiritual theme. Perhaps more than any other novel it has caused its readers to question how they best spend their time on earth, if not beyond.

 Coelho suggests living in the present, not in the past, not in the future. “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and because they do, the world turns out to be, indeed, a threatening place”. Conversely, Santiago is advised that “the universe always conspires in your favour”. To fulfill your destiny, you have to be at one with the Soul of the World, and to cast aside fear, following omens and your dreams. What do you seek? Well “everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits them” … hmmm, not beyond the earth, then? Discuss, and we did.

And so is this Alchemy the ridding of base impurities to achieve a higher state of being, a destiny? What of the basic truth that can be found within base metal? What of the elixir of life; can this only be found through personal journey, leaving behind the sheep, the crystal glass and accumulated wealth that hinder our true path? To what extent is the journey metaphorical, to what extent literal? First, does travel lead to necessary new experience, (as Coelho craves) through place or human contact? Santiago’s father suggests that people come to his village “in search of new things, but when they leave, they are basically the same people they were when they arrived”. “They’re the same as the people who live here”. Who is Santiago’s father speaking for? Does the author express his own ideas through his character, or is not the character formed to express a contrary, and in the author’s view, incorrect opinion, and hence speaks his own words”. Is travel a necessary but not sufficient condition for personal enlightenment? Yes, said the majority present. Is the mental state, to follow omens and dreams, to cast aside fear, the only necessary condition, such that physical travel is only metaphorical? Yes, said the minority. At the end, Santiago thinks of the many roads he had travelled, and of the strange way God had shown him his treasure. (Yes, God has shown him his treasure.). The treasure was at the base of a sycamore in his home town. The wind, the same wind into which he had turned, was universal…not so simple then. Does the intention of the author preclude other interpretation, assuming we and the author know his intention? There is a lot to concern us.

 Speaking of authors’ intentions, we compared the prefaces of the older and newer editions of the book. Whereas the older version told of the humble monk who pleased the bay Jesus by juggling oranges, true to his place in the world, the latter seemed to boast of book sales to Bill Clinton, and Julia Roberts. I haven’t got that text but how did that creep in? This doesn’t sound like good advice for Santiago, but maybe this is just the publicity machine.

 We returned to Quarantine, and some historical perspective. Given that Crace admitted the odd invention, was it common practice to fast, daily in the wilderness during that period, and was the title well chosen? One of our number informed us that the title was based on the 14th century practice of isolating travelers for forty days in Italy during the Black death (quaranta giorna), extended from the original 30 days. So there could be no naming of Quarantiners as such more than 30 years before the Black Death. Of course, Jesus did indeed spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness, the basis of Lent. Perhaps, the title was well chosen in the sense of the 40 days of fast and healing through prayer, of healing Musa and the others, of the liberation of Mira and Marta. However, the proposer took Crace’s stated view that this Jesus was misguided, Musa a simple liar, not the Devil incarnate, and this tale offered no comfort in Christianity. The idea that Musa would later profit from his re-telling of the tale of the wilderness in such a cynical fashion was inspired. In passing, we all agreed that Musa was a cracking villain, right up there amongst the best in modern literature. However, surely his power was barely credible, particularly as he was so immobile. Are the Quarantiners really so gullible? It certainly adds to the story.

The proposer further contrasted the setting of Quarantine with the journey of The Alchemist. He talked of the characters as like people stuck in a lift, lacking the capacity for travel, adventure and change. The Alchemist emphasized the long tradition of the traveler, meeting new people, changing behaviour to suit different times and different environments. He commented also that the harsher the environment the more hospitable people become. In each of these books,, the desert is well depicted as that most inhospitable of environments in all senses of the word.

 So if travel is depicted as essential in the Alchemist, what does this say of the virtues of stable relationships, we wondered? Santiago leaves his true love to travel on; he would always have it in mind that he should travel on his spiritual quest. Whereas the Englishman tries to learn from books, mistakenly perhaps, Santiago learns from action. However, we should pause. Several posed questions. Does marriage interrupt your personal calling? Does everyday life get in the way? Are you ever too old? Is hedonism a respectable quest? What is your personal elixir of life? Coelho writes beautifully, simply, in a very imaginative style of the several omens and their significance. This ‘simple’ book makes you reflect on your own life and as such has proved a best seller across the world. 

 We returned to historical context, and talked of the influence of the Moors – the Moorish culture has significance and Santiago travels from his home in Spain to North Africa. The fact of historical context makes the men the dominant characters; is this unfortunate?

 Finally we took a rough poll, which of the two books did we prefer? On balance, and like the rest of the world, the majority preferred Coelho, dealing with universal truths, rather than Crace, an alternative telling or explanation of the birth of Christianity. However, we would continue to interpret the atheist or religious content of the book in accordance with our own histories.

28/4/2016 "SUNSET SONG" by LEWIS GRASSIC GIBBON

The proposer provided a detailed background to the author’s life, his relationships with his family and with the countryside in which he grew up. Born James Leslie Mitchell on 13th February 1901. He was raised in farming communities in the Howe of Mearns. The family scraped a living from the land with great difficulty and as a child he was expected to help with the endless chores. His father was strict and life was harsh. Mitchell was intelligent and thoughtful forming his own views of life, challenging traditional values and this set him apart from his family and the community of the Mearns.

He gained a place at Stonehaven’s Mackie Academy but at the age of 16 walked out following an argument with a teacher. He worked as a trainee journalist in Aberdeen between 1917-1919 and joined the ‘Scottish Farmer” in Glasgow. There followed a troubled period in his life. He was dismissed over expenses irregularities and attempted to take his own life. His family took him back in the hope that he would settle to the farming life but he could not and in order to escape the Mearns he joined the army. Although he hated life in the army, it did allow him to travel. In particular to the Middle East and Egypt, which inspired his first short stories and much of his fiction and non-fiction.

Mitchell returned to the Mearns in 1925 to marry a local girl whom he had kept in touch with throughout his years of travel. They moved to London where life was initially difficult, however, he eventually established himself as a talented writer.  From 1930 to 1934, eleven novels, two books of short stories, three anthropological books and an “ intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn” with Hugh MacDiarmid entitled “Scottish Scene” were published under the names Mitchell and Gibbon. He died prematurely in 1935 of peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer.

The most important of his output is the trilogy of novels, “A Scots Quair“ published under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon (taken from his mother’s maiden name). The “Quair” (meaning book) is a trilogy, which was published over three years as “Sunset Song” (1932), “Cloud Howe” (1933), and “Grey Granite” (1934). Sunset Song is considered to be Gibbon’s most loved work and, out of the three “Quair” novels, the most easily read as a single book.

Most members of the book group first encountered Sunset Song as a “must” read on the Scottish Higher English Syllabus. Many had moved on from the “forced reading” and revisited the novel to enjoy and more fully appreciate the qualities that have made it one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. In addition to reading the book many had seen the BBC’s 1971 serialization and some had seen Terence Davies’s film released in 2015.

The story, woven round the character of Chris Guthrie, draws on Gibbons own experiences of living and working in the Mearns. It was suggested that it is this that provides the fascinating and sometimes intimate insight into a way of life that was changing rapidly through the impact of mechanization on farming communities and the devastating effect of the war. The book ends with the end of the First World War and this heralds the end of the crofting way of life. Chris is intelligent, capable and spirited but also conflicted by what she describes as her Scottish self and her English self. Her love of the land and the rural way of life and her need to satisfy her interest in literature and more scholarly pursuits.

The novel details the challenges she faces through girlhood to being a young widow with a child. Her life is harsh and at times brutal living in a dysfunctional family, observing its disintegration and coping with the associated tragedy and loss. While Chris is the central character some of the charm of the book comes from the vivid depiction of other characters, their behavior, moods and physical attributes. It was pointed out that Kinraddie itself is a collection of farms- Blawearie, Peesie’s Knapp, Cuddiestoun, Netherhill, The Mains, Bridge End etc populated by characters that anyone from those parts can recognize. Long Rob of the Mill. Pooty the shoemaker, Chae Strachan, Mr Gibbon, Mistress Munro. The language, wit, and humour of these characterizations add hugely to the depiction of community life.

The accuracy of these descriptions and the frankness of their portrayal proved to be controversial and provoked his mother to comment that he had made the family “the speak of the Mearns”. The way that Gibbons used the custom of gossiping to depict life in Kinraddie provided both insight and amusement in equal measure and was greatly appreciated by all.

“ Aye, if it is wan’t in a rage it was fair in a stir of a scandal by postman time”

It was mentioned that at some point there is a telling passage about gossip replacing meaningful activity and it was suggested that gossip, not necessarily deliberately malicious, more a kind of recreational activity is a continual theme ripe with scandal and innuendo but funny too.

“Alec would say Damn it, you’ve hardly to look at a woman these days but she’s in the family way”

The deft admixture of gossip, spite, cruelty and blinkered prejudice that inhabited Kinraddie provided a rich source of material. The language is unique to Gibbons and initially presented a challenge to some of our group, however, all agreed that they quickly got hold of it and then began to appreciate the importance of rhythms designed to capture the local pattern of speech and the lyrical descriptive capacity which brought the landscape to life.

“ This is one of the best books I have read, describing the land, the moors, hills and stones and the essence of cultivation of the land.”

“ The vocabulary was a delight, full of colourful imagery and dialect that conjured up the world of the Mearns folk.”

All agreed with the views of one commentator that “The book’s personality is shaped by that language.” Lyrical passages are precise, evocative but also linked to the harsh reality of farm work.

“There were larks coming over that morning, Chris minded, whistling and trilling dark and unseen against the blazing of the sun, now one lark now another, till the sweetness of the trilling dizzied you and you stumbled with the heavy pails of corn-laden” the sentence ends, “and father swore at you over the red beard of him Damn’t to hell, are you fair a fool, you quean?”

Descriptive passages display a deep and sensitive appreciation of the landscape and the workings of the elements on it.

“the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple- that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet…and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea”

There followed a discussion about the possibility that those book club members who were familiar with the landscape and were acquainted with aspects of the language would be more able to appreciate the quality of Gibbon’s writing. It was concluded that, while it might be easier for some to understand the nostalgic theme comprehension did not require knowledge of the precise meanings of the language used.

The simple structure of the novel was considered by the group and the majority thought that it assisted the reader and added an emphasis to Chris’s love /hate relationship with Kinraddie. The novel has a prelude “The Unfurrowed Field” which outlines the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four main sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest. Each section begins with Chris at an important time in her life, seated at the standing stones reflecting on what has happened in the past, returning to the present time at the end of the section. There were some who felt that this approach resulted in slowing the tempo and detracted from their enjoyment of the novel.

It was concluded that this novel fully deserved to have been voted Scotland’s best novel in 2005. It was described as a work of substance, with Gibbons displaying considerable courage by controversially addressing taboo subjects in a very direct way.

All of those who had yet to read “Cloud Howe” and/or “Grey Granite” committed to doing so in order to more fully appreciate the scope of Gibbons ambition in writing “A Scots Quair.”