Saturday, November 24, 2007


Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had really enjoyed it. Mitchell had graduated in English Literature from Kent (worryingly, his thesis had been on “levels of reality in the post-modern novel – but at least he satirised such pretension in this book). He had been turned down for a job in McDonalds. He had lived in Japan, and now lived in Ireland with a Japanese wife.

“Cloud Atlas” was his third book, following “Ghostwritten” and “number9dream”. It had won a number of prizes and awards and a Booker nomination. The book had generally received “messiah-like reviews”, but he had found some dissenting voices on the internet, such as “pretentious load of over-written twaddle”, “unreadable” and “a literary novel with Literary in capital letters”.

In the discussion that followed, the group divided into two halves. One thought the book first class, engrossing, beautifully written in a remarkable range of styles. They found it very original and thought provoking in its structure of six interlinked tales moving forwards and backwards through time. The other half found the book certainly enjoyable and well-written, but found its structure contrived (indeed, for some, pretentious). For them it lacked thematic originality, and lacked sufficiently meaningful linkages between the tales.

For one reader, the author was a liberal, writing about the pursuit of enlightenment. Some of the individual stories were absolutely fantastic, such as the sensational “Letters from Zedelghem” with its great characterisations, the extremely engrossing “Ghastly Ordeal of Richard Cavendish”, the excellent use of language in the “Pacific Journal” and the light but enjoyable Luisa Rey story. He was not a fan of science fiction, and had found the two futuristic tales less compelling. But overall it was great fun and very enjoyable.

A different reader had also enjoyed it, but expected more, based on the rave reviews incorporated in the paperback version. He liked the individual stories, but as a unity it did not work too well. Some of the links – such as finding the journal and the letters – were a bit artificial. The Pacific Journal reminded him of Golding’s “Ends of the Earth” trilogy, while aspects of the “Sloosha” story reminded him Golding’s “The Inheritors”. But Golding was better. He thought “Cloud Atlas” a good read, but not “Booker” class (if that were not to give too much credence to the Booker).

But, another suggested, you should focus on the reading the book, not the reviews. Reviews were always suspect, not least because reviewers often knew the person whose work they were reviewing. He had really enjoyed the book, and admired the fine writing of the stories. There were some very sympathetic touches – for example in the cabin-boy – and great observation.

Another – although he enjoyed the individual tales – had sought in vain for linkages between the stories. At the end he was still wondering what it was all about. It would have been a much better book if the links had been better constructed and clearer.

For one the overt theme was man’s lust for power, which could not be suppressed – and if anything the author overemphasised this theme, as if worried that the critics might miss the point. But a subtler theme was the cyclical nature of time, which he embodied in the structure of the book with the half stories moving out through time and then the second half of each story placed so that they then moved backwards through time. His ability to write in such different styles that reflected different times was quite remarkable. The book was very funny – for example in the fate of the critic at the beginning of the Cavendish story. There was an amused playfulness in the way he made many of the connections – for example in the deification of Somni and Cavendish. Overall there was the imagination, tolerance, linguistic range and sureness of touch that marked out a major writer.

For another, picking up on the question of themes, there was also the cyclical nature of civilization. And perhaps exploitation rather than power was the key issue. One critic had raised the issue of whether each character was essentially “Everyman”. Or more directly – as perhaps suggested by the repeated birthmark, or in Luisa’s identification with Frobisher - a reincarnation of the central character who went before?

Another member, who had enjoyed the book a lot, felt that nevertheless it would have lost nothing if it had been written in linear rather than circular form. The writing was good, but it was “clever”. And the theme was not unusual – it was trite.

Nor were the stories – such as Luisa Rey - very special, interjected another. Oh yes they were – what about the “Letters from Zedelghem” – that story was exceptional? But it was partly based on the well-known story of Delius and Eric Fenby (as the author had acknowledged). And the theme was simply that of history.

And so the debate between the two viewpoints continued, like a hamster in a treadmill, to make little progress, other than to demonstrate the circularity of time.

Here was a young storyteller of real promise and ingenuity – with a delightful freshness and vitality – who delivered much enjoyment, if not great resonance. And he had remarkable empathy to write so well about old age in the Cavendish story. He could go on to great things.

Oh no, the book was overdone and overstudied! It said – “look how clever I am – please give me a prize”. The book was not as clever as the author.

Was it unreasonable to want a prize? Authors had to earn a living. Didn’t Shakespeare write for money?

Yes, but he was better!! Admittedly, though, this reader had liked the science fiction parts – demonstrating the theme of exploitation at its limits.

Was the writer too clever by half? Yes, a bit. Are we jealous? Yes! Is his theme unoriginal? Are most of the themes of great literature – say, Jane Austen – “original” – of course not! The themes were classic, rather than trite. It was a very good read, with excellent and diverse use of language. And was the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Yes. And there was no point in criticising the Luisa Rey story for being ordinary – that story was meant to imitate pulp fiction.

Perhaps the linkages were easier to pick it up if you read it in a short period of time? It was difficult to remember all the characters if you read it over three separate plane journeys as one had done. And, even if the themes were interesting, the linkages were weak, such as the birthmark, or Frobisher deciding to read the Pacific Journal (why?), or Luisa wanting to read Frobisher’s letters,.

But wasn’t there a fallacy here? Whenever you looked backwards in time – for example in genealogy, or in looking at a film story told backwards - trivial events could take on remarkable significance. So weak linkages just reflected the nature of causality and time.

So is that new? In telling a story you always select what is relevant…

Indeed, but this novel is bringing out the idea of time being circular. And I liked the structure.

But historians have always written about the rise and fall of civilizations…

Yes, but Mitchell is looking at a more imaginative, poetic view of time as circular, which he brings out at pp 408-409:

‘The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access…in contrast the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening and ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent…….One model of time: an infinite matrioshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future’

It is to explore that idea that he adopts the structure he does – the “nested structure”, like a Russian doll –making structure and theme coherent.

There were difficulties for the modern novelist, who, like Mitchell, had studied English as an academic subject. It tended to make them overly self-aware and analytical, and could tempt them into pretension. It was interesting that Ted Hughes, whose collected letters had just been published, had switched away from studying English because of his fear of losing spontaneity through too much dissection of other texts.

And was another difficulty that for the modern writer there was not much new to do? Did he imitate styles because there was not much new that could be done stylistically? No agreement was to be found on that proposition.

Was the book pessimistic? In many ways it was very pessimistic, bringing out man’s eternal desire to exploit and eliminate his fellow men, and projecting a highly unpleasant future in which firstly Western civilization has collapsed and then its Eastern replacement has also self-destructed. Suicide was also graphically portrayed in the book.

At the same time there were elements of hope and enlightenment. And the author’s zest for life and sense of fun were also very positive.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Mitchell, who ends his book:

“ ‘…Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Introducing the book, the proposer (himself a writer) said that he had now re-read “Molloy” for the third or fourth time. He was a huge admirer of Beckett, and preferred his prose to his better-known drama. He had not encountered him until his mid-twenties, Beckett being too modern to feature in his English degree. The outline of Beckett’s life could be picked up from Wilkipedia, but he would strongly recommend the biography by Deirdre Bair. “Molloy” was part of a trilogy (although Beckett disliked that term) with the other parts being 'Malone Dies' and 'The Unnameable'. It was published in French in 1951.

He had chosen the book because it polarised opinion. Many reacted very strongly against Beckett, finding him very annoying - perhaps some of the group fell into this category? - and why this was so was interesting. But for him Beckett – and “Molloy” - had very positive qualities.

The prediction that some would dislike Beckett proved all too accurate, and the serried guns of the attack were soon trained on “Molloy”.

The book was totally irritating and frustrating – just completely aggravating - and this reader had vowed never to read Beckett again. The only thing of note was Beckett’s attack on religion in his sixteen questions. The book was not hateful, but it was repetitive and rambling, with no beginning or end, and nothing achieved. Its lack of structure meant it was very difficult to read in small chunks – and one member had regularly fallen asleep in trying to read Part 1 at night.

One member, who claimed the eccentricity of always finishing a book once started, found “Molloy” unfortunately reminded him of “Ulysses”, the one book he had been unable to finish. The critics quoted on his copy referred to Beckett’s remarkable sense of humour, but – with the exception of one remark on page one - he had found nothing humorous. Beckett had severely tested his patience with the first 117 page paragraph, and by five pages devoted to stone-sucking. Part II was a bit lighter – and it did have paragraphs.

There was a pattern of sorts – Molloy’s quest for his mother in Part 1, and the private detective’s quest in Part II – but you needed more clues as to what the book was meant to be about. In “Malone Dies” Beckett says Molloy is boring. If so, why does he bore the reader by writing about him? Are we guilty of not applying ourselves as readers – or is the novel actually empty? Is it a case of the Emperor’s clothes? Nevertheless some of the descriptions of the countryside – perhaps Irish countryside – were brilliant, with a lyric beauty. But you were left with a sense of emptiness and despair, as in the ’Unnameable’: “I can’t go on - I’ll go on”.

The question of the relationship between Part 1 and II intrigued another reader. He found himself wondering if Molloy and Malone were not actually the same character? Indeed at one point Molloy says there are really five Molloys.

Another disliked modernism in the novel – which he felt had been an experimental cul de sac from which contemporary novelists had mercifully retreated – and found that “Molloy” confirmed his prejudices. The novel was at the end point of the process of focussing on the internal world and rejecting traditional realist structures – the process that could be seen beginning in last month’s book “Hunger”. “Molloy” – like “Finnegan’s Wake” – was the reductio ad absurdum of this process, but compared badly even with Joyce and very badly with Proust. You could get away with dispensing with traditional forms if you were good enough in terms of language, image or creating atmosphere – but for him “Molloy” failed on all these counts. There was the odd interesting aphorism, and an intriguing analysis of a father/child relationship in Part 2, but for him Beckett was more successful at drama than the novel.

Another also made an unfavourable comparison with Proust. Proust required a lot of concentration, but was very much more rewarding. You only had so much time to devote to reading, and – if it had not been a Book Group book – “Molloy” would have been left unfinished. It was not sufficiently engaging in terms of writing or of characters.

A striking feature was the degree of anal fixation displayed in the book. Not a page could go by without some reference to an a**e or a bowel movement. We had an enema described in detail, and Malone even lived in Turdy!

Undaunted by this fusillade from the attack, the defence made its case, although recognising that the gap between the two viewpoints was not likely to be crossed by means of discussion.

Beckett portrayed an unusually bleak view of the world. For him life was meaningless, and we diverted ourselves by trying to create systems of meaning, whether through religion, work, sport or any other form of activity. Perhaps you devoted yourself to bringing up children, but they too were destined to die. Beckett exposed the props of life as meaningless, and this was very uncomfortable for his readers. Perhaps this was why he upset people?

But Beckett offset this bleak vision with an unusual degree of humour, and was in the line of great Irish humorists. His humour – through wit, epigram and little vignettes - made him preferable to Joyce (with whom he had worked closely). Indeed – although recognising that humour was a very individual response – Beckett was arguably equalled as a comic prose writer only by Dickens. One example of his humour was the scene when the crippled Molloy found another crippled person he could assault. At one level this was funny, but at another it showed how a person you think of as a victim may harbour the same aggressive impulses as the able-bodied.

His wit also made you pay close attention to the surface of language and its meanings, to words as objects in themselves, in a way that you did not when carried along by the sweep of a great prose stylist, such as Enid Wharton. Beckett was like Proust (and to some extent Henry James) in analysing the present moment in great detail, but for Proust words were used to represent things, while Beckett focussed on the surface of the words themselves. You could not glide across his densely packed prose. It forced you to stop and think what words really meant, to the extent that the flow of the narrative was interrupted. Some of his epigrams were worthy of Wilde. There was humour on every page – but if he did not appeal to your sense of humor, then no doubt it would be an irritating book to read.

It was true that Beckett dwelt heavily on anal matters in the book, but more widely he showed throughout his work disgust for the physical, including the process of birth and indeed any human bodily contact. This perhaps reflected the many physical ailments he had suffered from in real life.

An interesting feature of Beckett’s work was that he made frequent reference to the voice in his head. This phenomenon was common enough amongst writers, but in Beckett’s case it could trouble him considerably. He was a tortured individual, and a lot of the writing was in stream of consciousness mode – it just came gushing out, and the voice kept talking. He did not know where the voice came from, or what to do about it.

It was a fair point that Molloy and Malone might be the same person. In fact Beckett really only had one theme – himself. Molloy’s quest for his mother, and his unfinished business with her, reflected Beckett’s own problematic relationship with his mother. Beckett frequently became bored with the characters he invented, and concentrated on his real interest of himself. He was really always writing in the present tense, and the subject was himself – with the focus on words. This became more apparent as the trilogy progressed, with character, plot and narrative falling away, to leave just a talking head. This was not conventional writing – indeed he was trying to reject all conventionality.

So, in sum, this was the case for the defence – Beckett’s value lay in his bravery in dealing with a difficult subject-matter, combined with his humour.

Another perspective from one who had liked the book – perhaps a perspective from the no-man’s land between the attack and the defence – was that it was best to approach the book with low expectations, and to view it as listening to an Irish raconteur with a characteristic gift for language. The prose read like a speaking voice, and the stories– rambling, illogical, with occasional sub-clauses of great detail – were similar to those one could enjoy hearing an Irish raconteur tell in your local pub. And if you couldn’t find one in your pub, you could dip into “Ulysses” instead.

So had the viewpoints of the attack been changed?

Not really. It wasn’t Beckett’s philosophy that was upsetting – after all, that amounted to little more than saying “life’s a bitch and then you’re dead” – it was the tedium and obscurity of the book. In fact he used obscurity to disguise the lack of depth in his thinking. Other writers had produced works of great bleakness – such as “King Lear” or “Jude the Obscure” – that still inspired, for example through their characters and the relationships between them. Even in “Waiting for Godot” there was something of value asserted in the relationship between the characters. (But that had been written in an unusually light-hearted frame of mind!)

And was it funny for a cripple to attack a cripple – did that not reveal a telling lack of empathy on Beckett’s part? His was a solipsistic world, in which only his ego existed – like the world of an infant.

But here was an unexpected area of agreement. Beckett had been fascinated to hear Jung describing a group of people who were “not really born”. He immediately identified himself with this category of people, and would have happily accepted a charge of infantilism.

And there was general agreement that it had been interesting – if painful for many – to explore this corner of the creative map. And the discussion had been the liveliest since that of Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol 1”!

It was surprising to learn that that Beckett had been a successful sportsman, and that he had worked for the French Resistance. That experience was not reflected directly in his work, but perhaps it was reflected in his pessimism? It was easy for people in the UK or the US – not invaded during the World Wars – to underestimate the psychological impact of invasion.

Although it was not necessarily appropriate to dwell on the biographical background, it was also intriguing that the circumstances of Molloy’s initial meeting with Lousse resembled the circumstances in which Beckett had met his own wife.

And then the discussion rolled randomly on, through the links between the wars, modernism and existentialism, touching on the future of the Belgian state and whether an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU, and on to famous Belgians, such as Tintin – whose adventures might be a rather less contentious candidate for a future discussion of the Group. No doubt M. Beckett would have been highly amused.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

29.8.2007 “HUNGER” by KNUT HAMSUN

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had picked it up at an airport, attracted by the reviews. What he had found particularly interesting was the depiction of the state of mind of the protagonist, exploring a hypo-manic state – reckless with money and disorganised – that he had observed in the course of his work. “Hunger” was written in 1890, and was Hamsun’s first published work. It was described as being semi-autobiographical. It had been filmed twice. Hamsun went on to write many more books.

Hamsun was born in 1859 and had been brought up in rural poverty in Norway. He had had little in the way of formal education, training as a rope maker. He had succeeded in working his passage to America, where he had among others met – remarkably – Mark Twain. His first marriage had lasted 8 years, but his second had lasted for the rest of his life. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920.

Unfortunately he was most remembered in Norway for his political allegiances, supporting Nazism, being a close friend of Quisling, and going so far as to give his Nobel Prize medal to Goebbels. He had been put on trial after the war for treason, and had been lucky to escape the death sentence on the basis that he was suffering from insanity. He had died in 1952, aged 92.

There was general agreement that the book was about a state of mind - a psychological study. It was not clear whether the protagonist’s state of mind was caused by hunger, or whether his state of mind had led him to sink into the poverty which had produced the hunger – different members of the group took different views. (There was no sympathy for the view expressed in Paul Auster’s introduction to the new translation that some new thought about the nature of art and the artist is being proposed, “first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it ... an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself .. .an art of hunger: an art of need, of necessity, of desire … ”. In fact there was no sympathy at all for Mr Auster, whose bombastic introduction was roundly condemned).

Some had found it an engaging and enjoyable read. The translator’s style certainly flowed easily (although his 30 page annex on his virtue compared to his predecessor translators was heavier going). However, others had found the book repetitive, and had been sneaking glances at the last page to see how much further there was to go.

For some the protagonist’s inability to take advantage of the money and other opportunities for food that came his way was also intensely frustrating. On the other hand the way his pride got in the way of meeting his hunger was psychologically perceptive, and the repetition reflected the repetitive problems to which his semi-insanity condemned him. A notable feature was that – despite his wandering mind – the narrator anchored his story very concretely in terms of space (the precise locations in “Kristiania”, corresponding to specific Oslo streets) and the passage of time (perhaps in the absence of the meal-times that normally punctuate time).

The book was clearly very innovative for the 1890’s, with a minimal plot and a focus on the internal world, and could be seen as leading on to the modernist work of the twentieth century. Critics had commented on the resemblance to the work of Kafka and Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”. The resemblance to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was also picked up in criticism, but in this case the influence was the other way round, as that book was written 25 years previously. Some of his word play (e.g. inventing words with private meanings) and the exploration of his failing grasp on reality – were also very modern in feel.

The very abrupt ending as he opted to go to sea was for some a cop-out – a sort of “with one bound he was free”. On the other hand each of the three previous parts had ended on a positive note, and the assertion of his power of freedom was intriguing. The ending also fitted in well with the ever-present sense of the sea surrounding “Kristiania” (Oslo) e.g.:

“The sea out yonder swayed in a brooding repose. Ships and fat, broad-nosed barges ploughed trenches in its lead-coloured surface, scattering streaks left and right, and glided on, while the smoke rolled out of their funnels like downy quilts and the piston strokes came through with a muffled sound in the clammy air”.

The novel was not one of social protest. Many members of society in the town, and indeed the police, were portrayed as generous. However, the protagonist, because of his egocentric character, was unable to take advantage of their generosity. His hunger, noted one member reaching for a particularly fat crisp, was self-inflicted.

The protagonist’s ability to attract sexual interest struck one of the few implausible notes, given his supposed state of emaciation and poor hygiene. And the scene in which the landlady’s husband watched through the keyhole as she had sex with the lodger was certainly striking but did not relate to the rest of the novel – as if he had recorded some personal experience but failed to assimilate it onto his imagination.

Some of the Group were reminded of “existentialist” work, although we then debated what that term meant. Looking at it in philosophical terms, it was generally accepted that Sartre’s phrase "existence precedes essence" was the prime axiom of existentialism. Man freely chooses what he is and, though he cannot choose his fortune, he does choose his attitude to it. This was not true of the hero of “Hunger”. On the other hand, the sense of hopelessness and absurdity in “Hunger” was typical of existentialist literature.

It was interesting that Hamsun had produced such a work having had little formal education. On the other hand, many nineteenth century writers were autodidacts, and he was clearly very widely read. We discussed Scandinavian writers who were contemporaries and might have influenced Hamsun. Ibsen was at the peak of his career in 1890, the year in which he wrote “Hedda Gabbler”. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, often referred to as the father of existentialism, angst and existential despair, had died 35 years earlier. But it was difficult to see any direct link with either writer. Nietzsche, the philosopher for whom for whom Hamsun later expressed admiration, had completed his writing by 1890, but was not well known at that time.

How would we rate this work? Did the fact that a book was innovative and influential make it of higher quality than if it had been written today? We did not quite resolve this question. Was it an “outlier” in statistical terms, given that there were few works of a similar nature? But if there were very few that were similar before it, there were more afterwards that were similar and perhaps influenced by it. Would you recommend it to a friend? Yes, if they liked discussing books – no, if they were looking for plot.

In conclusion the proposer (glancing in disbelief at the volume of cashews and crisps consumed) said he would explore the views of Nordic friends on "Hunger", in the context of the Scandinavian tradition of gloom and depression, such as found in Bergman.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Opening the discussion, the proposer said that he had read Beowulf in his teens, and it seemed appropriate to revisit it at a time when Beowulf was being performed at the Edinburgh Festival and was also being made into a film. His university had not, however, been one of those that made Beowulf a compulsory text for students of English.

It used to be firmly believed that Beowulf had been written in the eighth century, but nowadays scholars would only state that it was written sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries. It was written in Anglo-Saxon (or “Old English”), a language largely inaccessible to the non-scholar. It was a “heroic” work, about a warrior in a Scandinavian warrior culture, where fame and honour are sought. The Christian elements of the poem did not seem integral to the imagination at work, and had possibly been added by a later hand.

Beowulf was an epic, of which there were few examples in English literature, and it was sometimes referred to as “the English epic”. However, Beowulf was not part of the canon, as it was not printed until 1815, and not translated into English until 1837. It was therefore not part of the intellectual furniture of the majority of the great English authors in the way that the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid were, nor was it of the same stature.

Beowulf was written in poetry, and “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Having first read Beowulf in Wright’s prose version, he had enjoyed it very much more in Seamus Heaney’s verse translation, which he thought brilliant. It had taken time to adjust to the rhythms being used, a watered-down version of the original alliterative form. It was only once one emphasised the mid-line pause (the “caesura”) that the pattern of stresses worked as verse, although occasionally it lapsed into straight prose. It very seldom fell into bathos, compared to the prose version. The use of alliteration was restrained and subtle. The diction was muscular and direct (although the same could not be said of Heaney’s overblown critical introduction to the poem).

In the Heaney poem the monsters now seemed less prominent than the sense of foreboding, melancholy and fate. The digressions into history and legend illuminated man’s predisposition to argument and war. The measured rhythm of the poetry gave a gravitas, balance and sense of inevitability to the work. The end of the poem was particularly moving, as it became clear that all of Beowulf’s achievements as a king would quickly be reversed on his death.

In discussion, members said they had enjoyed the insight into an earlier society, and exposure to a work earlier than Chaucer. The main incidents were portrayed brilliantly.

One of the interesting facets of the poem was the tension between the primitive, violent society on the one hand, and the Christian religious sentiments imposed on to it. It was not brutally done – it was an Old Testament God – but it felt artificial. The consensus in discussion was that a later hand had added the Christian elements. It seemed quite plausible that a monk had written down an epic poem originally passed on in oral tradition. He would have kept it in Anglo-Saxon rather than translating it into Latin in order to retain the poetry of the original, but might well have added some Christian elements in keeping with his background. Was it possible that the original contained references to Scandinavian gods that had been replaced by Christian references?

Not everyone liked the Heaney translation. For one it was rather clumsy; and another gave up on it as poetry. However, another felt there was great beauty in some of the passages, such as the burial, and going off to sea. Despite the official line that rhyme was not used in the original, one had found the suggestion of some rhyme in looking at the Anglo-Saxon, and felt this might have helped the translation. We wondered whether 5 different translators would come up with 5 different versions of the Beowulf story – a quick comparison of the Wright version and the Heaney version had showed substantial differences.

A feature of the poem was that it offered advice to kings on how to conduct themselves – in the way that Machiavelli’s “The Prince” did, even if the advice was less cynical. We wondered if there were originally a political patron who was to be influenced or flattered by what was said about the good behaviour of rulers.

The poem attached a lot of importance to the gold objects that Beowulf received as a reward. Yet at the end, in the final battle with the dragon, all the gold in the dragon’s lair is tarnished, and it is buried with Beowulf. Is this an allegory of Beowulf’s life? Is the pursuit of gold not a good idea? Is it a misplaced philosophy? Heaney suggests this is evidence of Christian influence. On the other hand, Beowulf does not pursue gold as an objective, even if he does seem to value it very highly when he receives it.

The various asides about history and legend disrupted the flow of the narrative. But we wondered how familiar the original audience were with this history – what were their reference points? Was Wright correct in suggesting that the history of the Swedish/Danish wars would be as familiar to the audience as the Napoleonic wars to us? In any event, the purpose of the history sections did seem to be educational, bringing out the flaws of bad leaders, and the poet’s bleak world-view in which violence begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

Turning to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the proposer said that as with Beowulf he had first read it in his teens, but in this case he had gone on to study it at university. It had made a lasting impact on his imagination. It had real mythic power, and he found it haunting and resonant.

Again the poem had come down to us in just one manuscript, which had nearly been burnt, showing the fragility of great art. As with Beowulf it had not formed part of the traditional canon, first being published in 1839, although obviously Arthurian myth in general was part of the literary heritage. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight also existed in a rhyming version by another writer.

The poem was written in Middle English, which was easier for the modern reader to tackle than Anglo-Saxon. There had been a remarkable flowering of medieval English literature in the late fourteenth century. The best known example was Chaucer, who had written in the East Midlands dialect which went on to form the basis of modern English. The Gawain poet (who may also have written the remarkable “Pearl”) had written in West Midlands dialect (also used in the north). He and other poets of the time from that region (such as William Langland, who wrote the superb “Piers Plowman”) had resurrected the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, and also used old-fashioned vocabulary.

The poem had various sources – the beheading myth, and the temptations story, both of which can be found in Irish and Welsh fables; the chivalric tradition and courtly love, of which adultery was an accepted part; and Christianity, which was opposed to adultery. The poem fused together all these elements in the context of Arthurian legend to create a remarkable whole.

Reacting to the poem, one member had thought it wonderful, with graphic, toe-curling imagery. The descriptions of nature were particularly fine. It would make a great film. It had more layers of meaning and was richer than Beowulf. For another it was a great narrative that pulled you along. Another admired the very disciplined, cohesive structure, which was only as long as was necessary to get all the layers in. There was coruscating tension throughout the poem.

One found it difficult to judge such a historical relic. It had taken time to get into, but proved more readable than expected. The descriptions of nature were more convincing for him than those of courtly love.

Unfortunately, most members of the Book Group had been unable to track down a modern version which reproduced the original text in legible form (in the way that Heaney’s edition did for Beowulf). Tolkein’s translation was found to be fairly unsatisfactory, often lapsing into bathos, suggesting Tolkein was a better writer of prose than poetry. In fairness to him though, he had not authorised his translation for publication. Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation into poetry was much more successful.

The alliteration in the original could produce very powerful effects, such as, in describing winter:

“Ther as claterande fro the crest the cold borne rennes,
And hanged heghe over his hede in hard ysse-ikkles”

Or in describing misty weather:

“Mist mugged on the mor, malt on the mountes,
Uch hille had a hatte, a myst hakel [cloak] huge.”

Yet the alliterative verse could also achieve subtlety in describing interpersonal relations, particularly between Gawain and the Lord’s wife.

What were the themes of the poem? On the face of it, the main theme is that of moral testing. Gawain is naïve enough to think that moral perfection – the symmetry of the pentangle – is possible, whereas the poem shows it is not. He fails, and is shamed, but is given a second chance. But deeper, troubling themes are also present – such as the archetypal fear that sex will lead to death, and the male fear of the power of women and their capacity for deceit.

Symbolism ran throughout the poem. For example the use of the colour green –the Green Knight appearing at dead of winter echoed the green man of fertility symbolism. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield was an important symbol, which the poet suggests derived from Solomon and symbolised loyalty, virtue and kindness.

Why was so much weight given to the hunting scenes, and so much detail given on the butchering of the bodies? The hunting scenes are interspersed with, and echo, the seduction scenes. The butchery increased the fear of the impending beheading, but perhaps there was also a fear of women and a fear of the carnality of sex reflected in their juxtaposition with the seduction scenes. The hunting of the deer, boar, and then fox could also be seen as hunting for food, hunting requiring bravery, and hunting requiring intelligence – thus reflecting three sides of man. And the poem was carefully constructed in threes – three sections, three temptations, and so on.

Whereas Beowulf was about war, this could be seen as being about the leisure pursuits of the upper classes. Gawain takes up the challenge for his own personal satisfaction. Yet the poem did not seek to give a picture of society of the day - it was more of a fairy tale or a fantasy, moving with dream logic. And most literature was about how we should behave, and both Beowulf and Gawain fell into this category.

There was undoubtedly rashness and naivety in the way Gawain took up the challenge. Yet Arthur and his court came out worse, with Arthur easily being wound up by the Green Knight to accept an unnecessary challenge, yet equally easily letting Gawain accept the challenge on his behalf. And at the end of the poem Arthur and his court emerge as superficial in the light-hearted way they treat the tale of Gawain’s ordeal.

Both Beowulf and Gawain reflected a pessimistic view of the world. Beowulf lived in a world beset by monsters, and for all Beowulf’s virtues as a king, man’s natural predisposition to violence was set to undo all his good work as soon as he died, and even the gold that he cherished was tarnished. Gawain moved through a harsh natural environment, populated with deceitful women and a knight with unnatural power, and found that his ideal of perfect moral behaviour – his pentangle - was impossible to maintain.

The (by now) well-lubricated discussion then wandered more broadly. Weren’t the epics of Homer closer to the world of Gawain than to Beowulf? Why were there monsters in myth but not in the Bible? Where did monsters come from - as archetypes from the unconsciousness? …And what might have happened if Gawain had succumbed to the temptation of his host’s wife?

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Introducing the book, the proposer said it had been a difficult read for him, and at one stage he had doubted whether he would finish it. One reason for the difficulty in getting to grips with the book had been the feeling of incredulity at the character of George, and the unbelievable injustice which had happened to him. Only when 2/3rds through did the structure of the book make sense and where it was going become clearer. He was struck by the strong similarities of the challenges facing Arthur and George - e.g. their outsider status, moral dilemmas and how their behaviour appeared to wider society. He had been impressed by Julian Barnes’ fluent style and in the end had much enjoyed the book.

During wider discussion, the consensus was that Julian Barnes had produced a very fine novel. He had a fluent, low key, easy writing style. The structure - while somewhat challenging - made sense in the end.

There was much discussion of how close to what had actually happened the book was. Some of those present were aware of, or had researched, the background and confirmed the general accuracy. One member, with Home Office experience, commented on the background of chief constables and judges in the early 20th century, the role of the Home Office in wrongful conviction cases, and Conan Doyle’s achievement in getting the Court of Appeal set up in England in 1908 following the cases of George and also Oscar Slater. There was some discussion of the effect on the reader of knowing the book was a broadly true story.

Other issues raised in discussion were the nature of the trial (the account of which some found disproportionate to the rest of the book) and the police role in “evidence” gathering. The racism of the police and wider local society was commented upon, in particular George’s somewhat naïve refusal to see racism as a factor in his treatment. Arthur was particularly non-racist for his time. A parallel was drawn between George’s view of how society viewed him and Arthur’s in the matter of his relations with Jean Leckie.

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Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had come across it when looking for Australian books to take with him on a journey to Australia. His initial choice – Tom Keneally’s “A Commonwealth of Thieves” – was a hardback that was too heavy for travel, and hence he had turned to Kate Grenville’s 2005 book. “Secret River” had been short-listed for the Booker prize, and by 2006 had won seven prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Kate Grenville was born in Sydney in 1950, and after various jobs, including in the film industry, took an MBA in creative writing in 1980. Since then she had published six novels and various other books.

She had taken five years to write the book, and had published a memoir about the process “Searching for the Secret River”. She had started off by doing family research, and the novel had grown out of her interest in her great, great, great grandfather. Much of the work was based on him. (He had made a lot of money in the early days of Australia, and had been buried in top hat and tails with sovereigns in his mouth. However, the next generation had squandered all the wealth). Some of the phrases given as speech to characters in the novel are taken verbatim from historical records. In her research she had found out a lot about the convicts, but there were very few historical records dealing with the aborigines.

The proposer had liked the book, finding it an easy read (if occasionally long-winded) with a solid central character in William Thornhill. He liked the human side of Thornhill, and the depiction of his relationship with his wife. The book explored moral issues for Australia – what is a crime, how should you treat criminals, is land ownership a right or a privilege, and can you defend your land?

Another recent visitor to Australia had also liked the book, finding it had a lot of resonance. It dealt with two big themes of Australian literature – how to come to terms with their convict past, and how to come to terms with the Aborigines. Australians were only now coming to terms with episodes such as the slaughter of Aborigines depicted in the book.

Another member, forwarding views with difficulty from a leftish quarter of Naples, also liked the book. Although it started “like a girly novel”, and was too “well-written” and lacking in mystery, it ended powerfully. It was rich in themes: love, race, class, ownership, and colonialism. These were all great themes, and all explored in one novel. Like Germans, the Australians have started to confront their murky past. Did they really use arsenic to wipe out the natives? However, the novel had a happy ending, at least on the surface, which might make it more acceptable to the Australian reader.

Others agreed on the literary qualities of the book, and could see how it would hit a nerve with the Australians. On the other hand, it did not seriously examine the Aborigines – it only looked at them as they were perceived by the convicts. Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines” by contrast had been a serious engagement with the Aborigines several years previously.

The writer was not a political novelist – she was interested in the human drama and the human reactions to the events. The book worked at two levels. At one level it was a rattling good yarn of a man making his way in the world, and reaching a decisive moment in the conflict with the Aborigines, which shaped him and his relationship with his wife. At a deeper level, it was about who you are, what it is to be human, and what property is – deep themes indeed.

Was Thornhill a hero or a villain? The whole book was seen through his eyes, even when he steals. Once he gains a position above other convicts, the convicts call him “Mr Thornhill”, and he accepts the name without demur. Indeed he accepts the whole value system which once had him at the bottom of the heap. He is almost an anti-hero. Admittedly he was reluctant to attack the Aborigines, and one does sympathise with him, but he had no right to do what he did. And he is shown to be left with a feeling of hollowness at the end. He is both hero and villain. Perhaps the character of Blackwood – who gets closest to the Aborigines – was the real hero.

On the other hand, it was a harsh environment, and surely it was not appropriate to apply our moral standards? Admittedly there was the Dickensian portrayal of London in the early part of the book (which some, but not all, found rather false - the emphasis was on everything that was different, not on what was the same). But Thornhill seemed to be portrayed with a twentieth century morality and conscience. He feels awkward in his dealings with Blackwood, and feels guilt at hitting an Aborigine. And Blackwood seems to be a very twentieth century figure, who echoes Mr Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness” in some of his actions (but not in the judgement made of him).

Another reader felt that the book was written as a sort of moral thesis – how do you reconcile the historical fact of theft and murder with the fact that it was your ancestor who did it? It seemed to be an attempt to prove that to know all is to forgive all – to show that any reasonable man might have behaved the same way in the difficult circumstances of the time. Even without knowing the personal background to Grenville’s novel, that sense of “un roman à thèse” came through.

And the novel failed to convince that Thornhill’s behaviour was always reasonable. It seemed to exaggerate in suggesting that the choice in London for the lower orders was starvation or theft – the theft of a cargo of valuable timber (which apparently was what her ancestor was convicted of) was more venal than simply fending off starvation. However, the treatment of the aborigine murder was subtler, with the hero himself feeling his happiness was tainted at the end. The author towards the end subtly – and maybe unconsciously - distanced herself from her protagonist. For example, he was shown to manipulate his wife’s wish to go home. In a sense the persona of the author was an “unreliable narrator”.

Some felt that several characters were caricatures. On the other hand, “Smasher”, the most evil of the characters, had a grotesque energy that was reminiscent of Dickens at his best.

A lot of our discussion focussed on the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of the different characters in the lead up to the Aborigine massacre, which was the moral crux of the novel. The detail is not recorded here, but the interest showed how this scene had gripped the imagination.

There was some mystery in the book in the behaviour of the Aborigines. Why did the normally nomadic group decide to stay for six months? Was there a seasonal pattern to their movements? Was it related to ceremonies that had to be carried out? However, the book did not convey a strong sense of the passage of time.

While it was fairly obvious that the opening section of the book set in London was the work of a female author, that was not true of the subsequent section set in Australia. She handled convincingly the description of violence, and the psychology of the mob.

We felt that the novel compared well with “The Colour” by Rose Tremaine, another popular recent book set in New Zealand with a similar theme, which had been criticised in New Zealand for its poor research. Other Australian books which members recommended were “Death of a River Guide” and “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” by the Tasmanian Richard Flanigan, and “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes. The forthcoming Australian film festival at the Filmhouse was recommended, and in particular a superb Aboriginal film “Ten Canoes”.

The novel provoked wide-ranging discussion of related issues. Modern Australians tended to glory in – and perhaps sentimentalise – their convict past. This was reflected in the novel’s portrayal of life in London at that time as one of theft or starvation.

Australians also liked to link their “larrikin” culture to the convicts. However, in this case the novel correctly showed that the ex-convicts had sought respectability rather than glorying in their past. The anti-English chippiness of modern Australian culture could more plausibly be traced to large-scale Irish immigration than to the legacy of the convicts.

A feature of the novel was Thornhill’s wife’s obsession with returning home. However, in practice few convicts were allowed to make the long journey. There are a few examples of such returning convicts in literature – Magwitch in “Great Expectations”, and a couple of Sherlock Holmes characters.

The Aborigines had been beyond comprehension for the early settlers. They were hunter-gatherers, unlike the Maoris, who were farmers. It had been easier to deal with the Maoris, who had chiefs, and a treaty had been signed with the Maoris but not with the Aborigines. There had been hundreds of Aboriginal languages, whereas the Maoris had only had one, and had been able to communicate with Polynesians.

Traditionally Australian history had presented Australia as a largely empty land – only now was evidence emerging, as suggested in the novel, of large scale Aborigine resistance and large scale murder. Tragically this was a common pattern in colonial development.

An important development was the landmark “Mabo” court decision in 1992 that the Aborigines should be said to have title to land. One recent visitor had been surprised by how seriously Aboriginal rights were being taken, with for example a lot of land being set aside in the Perth area. On the other hand throughout history one people had displaced another, and there was not normally an attempt at restitution.

The Aborigines wished to preserve their traditional way of life, and were thus often seen as “skivers” judged by the values of white Australia. Like the Japanese they were unable to metabolise alcohol, and often appeared drunk. A good example of such cultural misunderstanding between the two communities followed a few days after the Book Group discussion, with the withdrawal of aboriginal rights by the Australian government based on a different view of the appropriate age of consent and on the behaviour of Aborigines under the influence of alcohol.

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Friday, May 11, 2007


"Almost Like A Whale" is an updating of the "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin published in 1859. Introducing the book, the proposer said that Steve Jones was Professor of Genetics at University College London. According to his website, he had been on the BBC some 200 times. He had first heard of him on “Desert Island Discs”, where he had amused him by sending up the programme, selecting biology- linked songs such as “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and choosing as the object to take with him a stuffed effigy of Ken Clarke, for his services to Education.

Browsing through the book when it came out, he had been struck by such facts as that half the population of the world, including 100m Americans, think that the world is made in God’s image. Having purchased it he found it an engrossing read, with many striking facts. The initial section on AIDS had been excellent, and he had galloped through the book. He had read it at a time of terrorist attacks, which had heightened his awareness of the impact of religious systems. However, on re-reading the book now, he had found he had to wade through it. The novelty of the facts had worn off, and revealed the tediousness of the style, the fragmentation and the way he kept repeating himself.

On the other hand, there were plenty of good books that could not stand up to a second reading. In favour of the book was that it contained many striking facts about the natural world, and was for the most part engrossing and stimulating. It was an excellent concept to rewrite Darwin from a modern perspective. The title “Almost like a Whale”, drawn from Darwin’s book, won general approval, and was better than the American version “Darwin’s Ghost”.

The book had a particularly gripping beginning in its sections on the AIDS virus, and on the domestication of animals. Another striking story was that concerning the 5,000 cattle ranch abandoned by the Jesuits that grew into a swarm. The most moving section was that in which he examined how the relics of different species vanish over time, just as the relics of the First World War were already disappearing. This brought into perspective the insignificance of human life “sub specie aeternitatis”.

However, the structure of the book was disappointing. There were lots of holes, and great leaps between subjects. Although it started strongly, it soon became disjointed. The details were indeed striking, but were often not related to the conclusions. The book lacked the rigour of the scientific approach. We noted with amusement one reviewer’s conclusion that, of the books that rewrote great books, this was the best – surely damning it with faint praise given the paucity of books in that category. And a minor detail was irritating – the use of estuary English in the heading of the introduction “An Historical Sketch”.

Some wondered if following Darwin’s original had acted as a straitjacket, which explained some of the structural weaknesses, given the difference of contemporary interests and issues from the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it was clear from the muddled and repetitive introduction that Jones could not write in a logical sequence. Perhaps it was his awareness of this weakness that had attracted him to following a predetermined structure. But, while Jones seemed incapable of developing an argument, the sections of the original quoted showed that Darwin was much more effective.

The author’s smart, glib persona was all-pervasive, and – suitable as it might be for television - was not attractive in this context. The egotism displayed in the introduction - "To rewrite 'The Origin of the Species' is more than most biologists would dare" - hit the wrong note right at the outset. There was a lot of flag-waving in the book, and enjoying showing how clever he was. For example he devoted two pages to the size of the penis, which was an irrelevance to the argument and merely an attempt to entertain. Jones was famous a populariser of science, but he seemed to be an attention-seeker, a showman.

Given the book’s avowed objective of convincing creationists they were wrong, we debated if it would be effective in this role, and concluded it would not. Partly this was because it was very difficult to overturn such deeply held beliefs by argument - intelligent design was a seductive metaphor. But more it was because we did not feel the book was enough of a polemic, of a sustained argument, to be fit for purpose. The book also raised some of the objections to natural selection theory – such as the question of how such a complex organ as an eye could evolve -without satisfactorily disposing of them.

We debated whether Jones would have done better to write a different book on the subject that did not follow Darwin’s structure. He might have written a serious book on creationism from the point of view of science. One starting point might have been the Human Genome Project. But we still felt he would be let down by his weakness in structuring an argument.

The discussion then ranged wider. One issue we debated was that – if you are trying to communicate – was it not essential to be entertaining? These days many historians, scientists and philosophers were turning into showmen – was this necessarily a bad thing? It depended on whether they could communicate in this way without distorting the ideas they were dealing with. Scientists were now meant to be able to communicate – e.g. to talk to schools, or policy-makers – and few were good at it. They were by nature interested in the nature of things, whereas the artists were interested in feelings, people and ideas.

Bill Bryson’s “ A Short History of Everything” was a good example of getting the balance right between entertainment and factual communication. In Jones’ case he did well with his sections on AIDS and the domestication of animals, but
then the book went downhill.

An issue not covered by Jones was the impact of modern medicine on heredity. Would modern medicine and better diet mean we would not die of the same hereditary defects as our ancestors? And what were the implications for the process of natural selection of the intervention of modern drugs?

We picked up on Darwin’s statement that animals were descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. One member drew attention to Bryan Sykes’ book “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, which explains the theory of human mitochondrial genetics. Sykes explains how modern humans can be classified into seven mitochondrial groups, descended from seven specific prehistoric women or “clan mothers”. All seven of these shared a common maternal ancestor, the “Mitochondrial Eve”.

The member also drew attention to an entertaining article by Sean Nee in the journal “Nature” and its accompanying evolutionary tree. This modern version of the evolutionary tree shows how plants and Animals are but small twigs on an immense tree, dominated by microscopic forms of life. Nee states:

“We are still at the very beginning of a golden age of biodiversity discovery, driven largely by the advances in molecular biology and a new open-mindedness about where life might be found. But for this golden age to be as widely appreciated as it should, our view of the natural world must change.... For all of the marvels in biodiversity’s new bestiary are invisible.”

Jones’ book might not have found great favour with the Monthly Book Group, but it was certainly stimulating debate, which now ranged into the dangerous areas of politics, religion and sex.

We decided it was important to stick up for Darwin’s theories in the modern world, and with the chilling potential impact on foreign policies of believers in theories of creationism or Armageddon.

We also noted that religious belief and evolution were not necessarily incompatible, and that the last Pope had been said to be sympathetic to the theory of evolution. Indeed Darwin had continued to belief in religion for some years after conceiving his theory, but had lost all faith after the death of his daughter in 1851. He had of course been reluctant to publish because of the accusations of heresy that might follow.

We discussed how Victorian intellectuals wrestled with loss of faith, and that few were willing to renounce their faith publicly in the way George Eliot did. However, only 50% of people had attended Church in 1850 (a figure which had shocked the Victorians) – perhaps church going had predominantly been a middle-class activity. A. N. Wilson’s book “The Victorians” was recommended.

And would Darwin consider himself an intellectual? Probably not – he would see himself as a working scientist. And for the British the term “intellectual” or “intelligentsia” has a pejorative connotation in a way it does not have abroad.

The discussion then ranged on to the impact of sexual selection on steatopygy amongst women in Africa, at which point your scribe put down his pen, and focussed on the excellent home baking which had just arrived.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007


Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had re-read it with some trepidation about its appropriateness, given the length of the book and the fact that his passion was as much for the music as for the book. Would the book appeal to someone not interested in the music? He had first read it at a time when he had been very enthused about Berlioz by some outstanding performances of his music, and had gone on to read the second volume of the biography and the Memoirs.

Berlioz was a very interesting man, both obsessed and self-obsessed. His music was grandiose rather than subtle. Much of the attraction of the book lay in its account of the creative process, and his struggles throughout his life to get his music performed and to finance himself. The book was very well written, and gave an engaging account of the times as much as of the man. The picture of the rigidities of French bureaucracy –by reputation still formidable – was extraordinary. It was ironic that his parents never heard his music played, and that as his career developed he became better appreciated in Germany and Russia than in France, despite being one of France’s greatest composers.

The reaction to the book of those who were not devotees of classical music was in fact very positive.

Much of the book had the quality of an early nineteenth century French novel, although from time to time it broke off from novel mode and went into musicology. It was also a portrait of a creative person. The roominess of the book was enjoyable, as one relived in detail a bygone era. It shed interesting light on Romanticism, and also had considerable historical interest, in its portrayal of revolutions (and the disillusion that followed them) and the post-Napoleonic era. All felt it was, in the main, very well written. For example, it brought alive rural life in La Cote St Andre and in Italy, student life in Paris, his relations with friends, family and lovers, and the incredibly negative and conservative French establishment.

It was a formidable work of scholarship to produce such an exhaustive study, nearly forty years after the only other major biography, and the author had left no stone unturned in examining sources and contemporary writings. He displayed a deep knowledge of literature as well as music. Even to the non-musical expert, it was intriguing to read of how musical form had changed with Romanticism, and how it had been commonplace in France to adapt foreign works to local taste. He was also very perceptive in how he deduced people’s psychology from his source material – for example in working out the reasons for Berlioz’ father’s opposition to his musical career.

The biography was very stimulating and whetted the appetite for the non-expert reader, and a number planned purchases of Berlioz’ work (the proposer had kindly already compiled a CD of highlights for members).

But did the book need to be so long? Although in some places he belaboured points unnecessarily, we concluded that the author had given priority to writing a major academic study rather than a novel, and therefore had been right to go into exhaustive detail. Similarly he would sometimes for analytical purposes reveal what happened later in the drama of Berlioz’ love life, rather than maintain suspense.

Some also had a few quibbles with his style. He assumed the reader already had a comprehensive knowledge of Romantic composers and writers, as well as of several languages, and could have usefully provided more context. Perhaps this was because, as a newspaper music critic by background, he felt he should adopt a high academic tone. On the other hand, the book was much better written than most academic theses. He was also prone, particularly early on, to sentences of excessive length. It was rather irritating that references were relegated to an appendix, although admittedly they would have made the text even longer. And there was the odd infelicity – “anomalousness” instead of “anomaly”, and “desolateness” instead of “desolation”.

Cairns’ use of sources was interesting. He did rely heavily on Berlioz’ Memoirs (although they were not totally reliable) but he also used a mass of other material, including letters, his father’s accounts book, and the Institute’s competition records. The many letters were striking in their elegance and intimacy – for example the letters of his sister Nancy were very open and candid - and it was remarkable that so many had been kept. Cairns’ detective work on his sources such as the accounts book was fascinating.

We noted gloomily that the biographer in the age of the E-mail, telephone, memory stick and internet will have much less in the way of evidence. Electronic data is perishable, with the memory in a hard disc decaying within twenty years. We were not going to leave much of a footprint on the world.

We were not sure we would have liked to meet Berlioz (although despite the mass of evidence in the book, it was difficult to be quite certain what he was really like). He clearly was very moody and self-absorbed, but obviously also had charm when he wished to use it, and was a natural leader. The moods must have been very difficult to live with.

The quotations from Berlioz’ writing, however, showed him to be a remarkably engaging, incisive and witty writer. It was intriguing that he was quite an Anglophile (and indeed Scottophile) in his liking for Scott, Ossian, Shakespeare, and Moore, and in his idealisation of Harriet Smithson. Scott’s popularity on the continent at this time was well-known, but less well-known was the immense impact of Shakespeare on French Romanticism which Cairns brought out.

His love-life was fascinating, with his obsessive idealization of successive women. Indeed his behaviour in trying to catch glimpses of Harriet would nowadays be classed as stalking. In the second volume there was a remarkable moment when Estelle sent him a picture of herself to show that she was no longer the beauty he had idealized in his youth. And his reaction to being jilted by Camille Moke – a planned triple murder and suicide – was extreme and obsessive.

We wondered if Berlioz were depressive or bipolar, but concluded we could not tell, and Cairns deliberately does not pursue psychoanalytical speculation. Perhaps most composers – or at least most great composers – were very highly strung? On the other hand, such traits were particularly common amongst the Romantics. We wondered if they were a product of Romantic ideas of individual expression and the cult of the suffering artist – and therefore perhaps largely a form of self-indulgence.

This led us to debate the nature of Romanticism in music and more generally. We noted that earlier composers had sought to please their audience directly, whereas the Romantics had sought to express themselves and then persuade an audience it was worth listening to their music. There was a similar movement in the change from Neo-classical to Romantic poetry, with formal, balanced verse of decorum giving way to the much more expressive, emotional and individualistic. Although Romanticism was a clearly identifiable zeitgeist across the arts, it was unwise to attempt to define it in the sense of identifying a common set of elements – rather, there was a set of family resemblances.

Nevertheless we relished Cairns’ quote from Scott’s introduction to “Waverley”, saying that, if his title page had said it was “ a Romance from the German”:

“what head so obtuse as not to image forth a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trapdoors, and dark lanterns?”

The book brought out well how Berlioz’ early experiences had affected his music; this contrasted with Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol. 1”, which we read in 2006, where the formative influences seemed to be other music rather than experiences. Berlioz had done well from an unpromising start, with little musical background or encouragement. It was surprising that the level of musical achievement in France seemed so low, with Beethoven not being known for a long time and Romanticism in music coming much later to France than to Germany or Russia. The technical level of instrument playing in France emerged as fairly poor (though even worse in Italy). It was also surprising that the French musical establishment was so reactionary and obstructive to new work, given that the Revolution might have been expected to make them more progressive. Why had composers in Germany or Russia - or indeed painters in France - not faced similar barriers?

We speculated that the culture of the French establishment was unusually controlling, noting similar traits to this day in its resistance to foreign takeovers of businesses and foreign words being imported to the language. It must have been much easier for the innovatory painter or writer of the day to make their work known than the innovatory composer, who needed to finance an orchestra and an auditorium, or indeed a whole opera, which was considered the pinnacle of music in Berlioz’ youth.

Berlioz’ music even now had a cutting edge quality to it – he was never one for compromises. Even so, it was difficult to grasp how many in his contemporary audience could not understand his music. One had to make an effort of imagination to realise how they were not used to music of this kind. It had been the orchestra players who had been the first enthusiasts for Berlioz’ work, perhaps because they would have gained most familiarity through rehearsals.

It also required an effort of imagination to realise how little orchestral music people of the day would have heard, in the complete absence of radio, television, records, tapes, CDs and iPods. Perhaps nowadays we suffered from the opposite problem, with over-familiarity with music, and a surfeit of opportunities to hear it, breeding contempt.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The proposer put forward two American books: “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966) and “No Country for Old Men” (2005) by Cormac McCarthy. Introducing the books he said that, when recently reading the McCarthy book for the first time, he was forcibly struck by its resemblance to “In Cold Blood”, specifically in the theme of cold-blooded killing. This had made him re-read “In Cold Blood” for the first time since the Eighties.

Cormac McCarthy was an award-winning novelist born in 1933 - intriguingly only nine years after Capote. McCarthy was famous for “Blood Meridian” and for his “Border Trilogy ”, which included “All the Pretty Horses”. That trilogy had focussed lovingly on horses, but in recent times he had focussed mainly on “post-modern” westerns, and in this story the lovingly described pick-up truck had replaced the horse. This book had received mixed reviews, and would probably be judged as a minor work compared to the former, or indeed “The Road”, also published in 2005.

However, “No Country for Old Men” had gripped the proposer from the outset, and he had found it impossible to put it down. The plot fizzed right from the start, and there was a constant curiosity - and dread - about the evolution of events. The main characters – Llewlyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, Carson Wells and Anton Chigurh, were entwined in a death ritual.

An important theme was that of pre-destiny and fate, and particularly significant were the two scenes where Chigurh asked his victim to toss a coin to determine life or death. Another example was at the defining moment where Moss found the drug money, and sees his life sitting in front of him:

“His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel”

Alliteration helped give the passage its impact.

McCarthy had been noted earlier in his career for an ornate writing style (“wisteria-like prose” or “battered ormolu” as described by two critics) yet this book was written in an exceptionally sparse, staccato, minimalist style. The plot is dialogue-driven. This striking new style had attracted very mixed responses, but such a transformation in style was remarkable for a novelist in his seventies.

The novel was a moral lament for the loss of the old West and the current moral degradation of America. This emerged in the monologues of the Sheriff, who had spent his whole life trying to make up for sacrificing his buddies in the war.

Chigurh was an astonishing character – an extreme psychopath whose cold-blooded killing links to the Capote book. There was an element of the angel of death about him. Intriguingly he said to Carla Jean that “Most people don’t recognise I exist” which raised the question of whether he was a real character.

Truman Capote (1924-1984) was an American writer whose non-fiction, stories, novels and plays were recognised literary classics. He remains a major literary figure, best known for “In Cold Blood” (1965) and for the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958). At least 20 films and TV dramas have been produced from his works.

The book was such a classic that it required less by way of introduction. Re-reading it he had wondered if the Clutter family had been overly idealized. There were similarities between the two books in the innocent towns affected by the killings, and in the characters of the policemen, Dewey and Bell, neither of who had seen anything as degraded and vicious before. However, Dewey was a more successful Sheriff than Bell, and did not give up. The moral degradation theme of “No Country for Old Men” is picked up by Dewey:

“I’ve seen some bad things, I sure as hell have. But nothing as vicious as this.”

The questions of motive were also different: in “In Cold Blood” motive was a very big issue. It was a “whydunnit” rather than a “whodunnit”. Capote tries to build up an understanding of the killers, their backgrounds and their meeting, and to establish a motive, or cause, for their actions – were the killings the product of nature or nurture? While there is an ostensible motive – the supposed safe – the killings according to the confessions seem to result from a loss of control when trying to extract the location of the safe from Clutter, and then the next three killings are to prevent them being identified. Capote is very slow and painstaking in describing the factual events from several perspectives – this creates an illusion of scientific truth, of verisimilitude, which may or may not be true. Capote’s leisurely style, as he tries to draw you inside the minds of the murderers, is in sharp contrast to McCarthy.

By contrast McCarthy seems to say you do not need a motive other than logic and fate. There is a drugs plot in his book, but it seems almost incidental.

The bulk of the discussion focussed on “No Country for Old Men”, with three issues dominating: McCarthy’s style, the plot structure, and the significance of the character Chigurh.

McCarthy’s pared-down style provoked very different responses. For some, the short sentences and the lack of quotation marks or conventional introductions to sections of speech heightened the tautness and suspense of the narrative. He effectively conveyed the sense of emptiness of the Mexican border landscape, although his prose lacked fluidity. Even if it were sometimes confusing to work out who was speaking or who the “he” was who was acting, the reader was kept on his toes in trying to figure out what was going on.

Others, by contrast, found his style irritating – a pretentious gesture in the direction of modernism. The lack of quotation marks and the lack of direction as to who “he” was simply confusing, affected and a failure in the writer’s basic task of communication. For example, it took quite a while to work out who was giving the monologues. The novel lost rather than gained from such a lack of narrative clarity.

We had some discussion about influences on McCarthy, suggesting Hemingway for the succinct type of description that influenced so many, and Elmore Leonard for some of the pared-down style. James Hadley Chase frequently used the plot motif of the small-time player finding a cache of criminal money. We noted that the title came from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees/ - Those dying generations – at their song, ….”). To quote from the later Yeats is suggestive, given that Yeats’ style had undergone a transformation from the adjectival, aesthetic style of his fin de siecle period to the much tauter and sparser style of his later books such as “The Tower” (1928), from which this poem is taken. We also noted that the book sometimes read like a film script, and that the number of killings rivalled a Tarantino film such as “Pulp Fiction” (although lacking the Tarantino sense of humour).

The plot structure was unusual: instead of good triumphing over evil as in the traditional Western or crime thriller, the sheriff reverted to his war-time pattern by deciding to cut and run, leaving the field to the evil Chigurh. You were denied the comfortable moral conclusion that you expected in a novel concerned with crime. While many killings took centre stage, the protagonist Moss was strangely killed off stage, while even Chigurh disappeared for the last section of the novel.

Even in a tragedy there is normally something asserted about human life which is uplifting, but here one was left with a sense of emptiness, with the only possible positives being the good nature of the sheriff and his relationship with his wife Loretta. It was a profoundly pessimistic, indeed nihilist book. Some felt that there was always danger in a writer thus departing from the traditional narrative forms and sense of an ending, such was their archetypal force. On the other hand, the downbeat ending and the unconventional structure signalled clearly that the novel was not intended to be a conventional thriller.

So what was it about? The evil of Chigurh and the modern world of drug-running, guns and senseless murder was counterpointed against the traditional values of the West, as espoused by the sheriff (the old man of the title) and expounded by him in the folksy monologues that were interspersed with the narrative.

The moral focus of the book was to be found in the sheriff’s monologues. To a left wing woman who says she wants the future America to allow her daughter to have an abortion, he observes:

“The way the country is headed…I don’t have much doubt that…not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.”

Moreover, “someone the other morning asked me if I believed in Satan…I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I’m startin to lean back the other way…” .

However, for one who disliked the book because he did not know who was doing what to whom, the Sheriff’s monologues were a contrived and clumsy superstructure, which could have been removed without loss. Others also felt that there was a dissonance between the moral message as expounded by the Sheriff and the undisguised relish, and excessive detail, with which the author describes killings and guns. All the dramatic energy goes into the description of evil.

We had different ideas about the significance of Chigurh, although we all agreed that he was central to the book. Knowing that McCarthy likes to play with the names he gives characters, we sought the significance of the unusual name “Chigurh” (e.g.was it an anagram of the type “Britney Spears” = “Presbyterian”?) but could not find it. We learn little about him as a character, except that, surprisingly, he is interested in art. Most of us felt, however, that he was more the personification of a force of nature than a character as such. Was he an immoral, or perhaps an amoral, force? Did he characterise the forces of fate? Did he represent the lack of reason and justice in the world – the force of suffering? Or did he represent the force of the US Government (at one point the book suggests that the drug-smuggling is so profitable that the Mexican Government is likely to move in)? Was he a Satan figure as hinted at by the Sheriff?

For many of us, he was the personification of the type of radical evil that takes a sadistic pleasure in killing, as shown in the coin-tossing scene, where he relishes trying to persuade Carla Jean that her death is inevitable. This was the type of wanton “in cold blood” killing that Capote explored, that had manifested itself in the Nazi concentration camps, and that evolutionary scientists found difficult to explain in terms of contributing anything constructive to evolution. In literary terms it was also the type of killing found in “A Clockwork Orange”.

It was common in Britain to view us as dominated by the past whereas the US was dominated by the future. However, in fact it was common to find twentieth century American literature idealising the recent past, such as the West of the sheriff’s youth, or, in other books, baseball. Indeed most old people idealize their youth. On the other hand, it was the novelist’s legitimate role to mythologize, to imbue recent developments with emotions, as Dickens had done with urban development in Britain. But despite the elegiac title, the problem here was that much of the mythologizing, the loving emotion, was focussed on killing and on guns.

Although we therefore had a number of different perspectives on “No Country for Old Men”, it proved a very stimulating and provocative choice. We felt it could best be assessed in context of the work of a writer nearing the end of his career, and as such it was an interesting coda to the discussion of Marquez’ late book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”, which we discussed in October 2006. We looked forward to seeing the forthcoming Coen Brothers film of the McCarthy book.

By contrast “In Cold Blood” met with more uniform approval, but less debate. Here was a fully realised work of art, which was Capote’s masterpiece. It was superb, and fully merited its classic status. It was of a different and higher order of achievement than “No Country for Old Men”. The book was a delight.

His prose style was a “Rolls Royce” of writing ability, which had manifested itself in his earliest published work at the age of 19. It was very easy to read, effortlessly fluent and evocative, yet very precise. The beginning of the book lyrically captured the Kansas plains and their seasonal rhythm, and the cadences of the prose marked it out immediately as being of a very high order (although for some the passage was rather self-consciously crafted, and perhaps not quite appropriate for the subject matter to follow).

There was a burning intensity of effort, a great imaginative pressure, to establish the full and precise truth of what had happened, and the personal history and psychology of the murderers, which might explain why. He showed the skill of journalism at its best, and the empathetic novel at its best, in even-handedly viewing the events from the perspective of the murdered family and the murderers, and indeed from the wider perspective of the whole local community. Was to understand all to forgive all?

The book was structured with well-concealed skill, so that suspense and interest were maintained as the personal histories of the protagonists were woven seamlessly into the narrative. The only structural weakness came at the end, where the book lost its flow by diverting from its main theme and characters into giving the personal histories of the Death Row convicts, and for the first time revealed something of a personal agenda in opposing “in cold blood” judicial executions.

The book was a remarkable change of tack for Capote well into his career, and we debated whether there were any real precedents for the book. The American detective novel had just reached its high point in the work of Raymond Chandler, but his works were not psychological studies of this kind. The “Notable Scottish Trials” series (with later English and British versions) had publicised and analysed famous murders in the early part of the century, but did not create the novel-like quality of Capote’s work. Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” did turn events that were largely factual into a novel, but we concluded that, to the best of our knowledge, Capote’s work was a major innovation. There had of course been plenty of imitations afterwards, up to and including recent “faction” such as the film “The Queen”, and it had also become more common to write biographies of ordinary people.

Given that Capote lived for another 19 years, it was surprising that he did not try another book in the same genre. The reason must be the intensity of the emotional and imaginative effort in researching and writing the book. He said to his biographer that:

“No-one will ever know what “In Cold Blood” took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me…” .

Indeed it has been argued it led to his alcoholism and death.

We took the view that “In Cold Blood” needed to be taken on its own terms and assessed on its own merits as a book, without straying too far into the question of the process of the writing of the book, an issue that has preoccupied other writers and two recent films. We did, however, note that Capote became very friendly with Perry Smith, and, rightly or wrongly, presented him as the almost innocent victim of events, with Hickock as the real villain. Capote might have identified with Smith because of a shared personal history involving suicide and alcoholism. Intriguingly the gay Capote was coy on the subject of Smith’s sexuality, other than to bring out a psychiatrist’s suggestion that sexual inhibition was a common trait of “motiveless” murderers.

On re-reading the book the proposer had found it implausible that the murders had been triggered in the meaningless way described. Perhaps if Hicock and Smith had found a safe filled with money the murders would never have happened: a more plausible supposition for him was that Smith had been enraged into murder by Hickock’s sexual advances to Nancy Clutter, given a prior homosexual relationship with Hickock in prison.

We also thought that Kenneth Tynan’s accusation – that Capote needed an execution to round off the book, and had not done all he might have to prevent the execution – seemed far-fetched. Nevertheless, Capote was certainly guilty on some occasions of exploiting friendships for literary purposes – he had made many friends in high society, as shown by the remarkable guest list at the launch party of this book, but he had used these friends to write an exposure of the high society he had fed off. As a result he had been blacked and died friendless.

Both books were products of a culture dominated by guns and cars. They were exploring what kinds of events were possible in a country of great distances - where people could appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night, commit random murder, then disappear again - and in a society where everyone owned a gun.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

31/1/2007 "A Short History of Nearly Everything" Bill Bryson

The proposer introduced Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". He said that it was an excellent book for non-scientists to get a general grasp of recent developments across a broad range of sciences. It was a great mixture of hard science and amusing anecdotes about scientific pioneers.

There was general agreement about the amazing nature of the book and a recognition that it required a non-scientist to have written it to make it comprehensible to the general reader. It was an important contribution to the cause of rational scientific analysis at a time when it was under attack from religious fundamentalism on the one hand and relativism on the other. The book brought out well the fragility of mankind's continued existence from the risk of catastrophes including volcanoes, earthquakes, asteroids, and general climate change.

One member indicated he had some negative reaction to the anecdotes - but found himself in a minority - and thought some diagrams would have been helpful. Nonetheless he acknowledged that he had been generally impressed by the book, in particular by the sections on areas of science he knew least well.

There was less discussion of the book than usual, partly because of the absence of some members at a sporting event, and partly because there was general agreement on the excellence of the book, both in terms of writing and content.

Not perhaps surprisingly discussion moved on to some of the issues raised by the book, in particular climate change. There was praise for Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", which was playing a similar role to Bryson's book in educating the public about current scientific thinking and the need for action on climate change.

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30/11/ 2006 : “Barbarossa” by Alan Clark

The proposer introduced the book by saying it was one of the first two books on military history he had read, intriguing him so much that he had gone on a seven year long military history jag, culminating in organising military history tours. The book was the classic account of the Germany/Russia conflict in the Second Word War - a massive, underpublicized subject.

For him, the book had three dimensions, all excellent. There was firstly the military history itself; secondly the background history to the conflict such as the analysis of the psychology of Hitler and his Generals; and thirdly the work of an artist: the narrative, drama, suspense, tragedy and epic of the story. On the last dimension it was interesting that Clark in his introduction referred to its heroes belonging to the classical tradition rather than the modern Western tradition of “good” and “bad”. The imaginative power of the book - the epic feel of the greatest war in history, the tantalising closeness to Moscow, the mythic echoes of Napoleon’s campaign - was such that it transcended the military history genre. It was also amusing that Clark the self-opinionated, outspoken libertine peeked out from time to time from under the mask of the serious historian.

However, the book needed better editing. The occasional sentence was incomprehensible; particularly early on, he went into too much tactical detail on the battles; the maps and the text did not coincide; and in the 2001 paperback edition there was even an appendix with source numbers that were not reproduced in the text.

Clark lived from 1928-1999, and was the son of Kenneth Clark the art historian, by whom he felt overshadowed. As a boy Hitler had fascinated him. Clark was very rich, allowing him to be outspoken. He read history and had trained for the bar, but instead became a military historian. He then went into politics. He had come to prominence with his controversial 1961 book “The Donkeys”, castigating the British First World War Generals, which had inspired “Oh What a Lovely War”. The book had been revisionist in its day, but its opinions were now in turn being revised. Following a book on the Fall of Crete, Clark had published “Barbarossa” in 1965. Reading more recent books around the subject of “Barbarossa” had, however, added more detail rather than new perspectives, except for the strange story of Stalin’s collapse at the outset of the invasion.

Another member of the Group had now read the book twice, and found it fascinating again. It was a terrific book. Not just was it beautifully written, but, given that the Nazis were essentially defeated on the Eastern Front, it was an important counterweight to the normal British-dominated perspective of the Second World as taught at school. For example, he had recently looked at a book on the Second World War by Alan Brooke, which said almost nothing about Russia. The book helped to explain how the Russians viewed the world after the Second World War, and felt they needed to occupy countries that had fought against them. It explained the importance of the Russian-Japanese war, which was generally unheard of in Britain. It also gave a wider insight into the twentieth century as essentially the struggle between Germany and Russia. The book was beautifully written, had great photos, and a compelling selection of quotations.

The other members of the Group came new to the book, and generally new to the military history genre. In summary they found a lot more positive than negative in the book.

One felt that people should be encouraged to read it, because it opened one’s eyes to the appalling Nazi atrocities, and the precise, systematic way they were carried out. Clark conveyed this very effectively, not labouring it to excess, but with just two or three chilling lines from time to time. The horrors of the war recounted in the book certainly reinforced the case for setting up the EU!

However, he felt Clark showed some naivety in expressing surprise at Hitler’s inability to control his Generals, and their bureaucratic jostling for position. Someone with wider experience of working in big organisations would have known how commonplace this was, and this suggested a youthful lack of experience in the author, which tended to undermine some of his judgments. (An alternative view expressed was that the sort of confusion evinced between the roles of OKW and OKH, while it might be common in most big organisations, was rare in German ones, particularly the military where clarity of function and demarcation of roles was central to their way of operating).

Another member was attracted by the way the book brought out the office politics dimension of the campaign. The top Generals were busy vying for influence, and totally distanced from the atrocities at the front. The horror of it was that sense of distance. In a similar way people working in defence industries saw war as a matter of logistics, quite divorced from the reality. Unlike most members of the group, he liked the considerable tactical detail in the book, as he liked the war game feel of it, although he was therefore all the more frustrated by the poor maps. But - compared to a war novel, which would remain his preference - the chess-like description of battle did not bring out the fog and confusion of war. (However, others felt that the quotations - e.g. in describing the snipers, and the use of grenades, in Stalingrad - did a lot to convey the grimness of the actual experience). The book was also good in correcting misconceptions. It made the personality and role of Hitler much clearer. It dealt with the misconception that the Germans had had the best tanks and armour, and the Russians had simply won through weight of numbers. The lack of logistic skill on the German side was surprising, with for example the wide variety of tanks and guns, partly because of Hitler’s interference.

For another member, it was a very good book, but he would not have said so after the first hundred or so pages because he disliked the excessive detail. However, as the book went on it gathered momentum. The writer got caught up in the story he was telling and he himself seemed to lose interest in the detail. It demonstrated the sacrifice of the Russian people, and was a reminder of how horrendous the Nazis had been in the Second World War, and how chillingly bureaucratic they had been in anything they did. It made the war in the West seem like a sideshow. A minor irritation was that he found too much "Alan Clark" in the book, in the sense of the self-opinionated public figure he later became.

Another member had approached the book expecting to find it dull, but instead had found it gripping, enthralling and stimulating. He had been unable to put it down. It had awakened a new interest - opened a door. His interest had been such that he had broken with conventional wisdom and asked a German colleague about his knowledge of the Eastern Front. He had been intrigued to hear about his colleague’s father’s experiences of fighting there, and had been surprised to learn that Clark’s book was well known in Germany.

The subsequent discussion of the book and the issues it provoked ranged very widely. It was suggested that Clark could have brought out the relative scale of the Russian front by some comparative information about the weight of the different armies in different theatres – all he did was list the generals and armies involved. It would have been telling, for example, to note that there were seven German Field Marshals on the Eastern front, but only one in North Africa. Similarly, some felt that he assumed a lot of background knowledge of the Second World War on the part of the reader. Against that, it could be argued that he had an enormously complex subject to master, and that he would have lost focus and grasp if he had digressed into events in other theatres. For such a big subject it was a relatively small book. And towards the end of the book he did make clear the trade-offs that had to be made between Western and Eastern fronts. Other surprising omissions were much on the siege of Leningrad, and on the Nazi use of airpower in the campaign.

An intriguing judgement by Clark (p18, 2001 ppbk) was that the German General staff had been responsible during the First World War for “the single most catastrophic action of the century” in despatching Lenin and his colleagues to Russia in the famous “sealed train”. Is this Clark making a political judgment on the action, because in military terms the action successfully ensured Russia’s exit from the War? Or, in context, is he simply saying what Hitler thought?

Another subject of debate was why the German people supported Hitler in his wars. Was it a flaw in the German character? Or would other countries have responded in the same way to a leader like Hitler? After all, there were plenty of other examples of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and treating other races as inferior, including the Hutus and the Tutus, the slave trade, and the Balkans, not to mention dubious behaviour in the British Empire.

In the case of the Nazis, the role of Goebbels and media propaganda was suggested to be crucial. For example, before the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Goebbels had spread false stories of German nationals being maltreated in these countries, to the extent that reasonable people might well feel invasion was justified. More generally there were many examples – including topical ones – of an idée fixe taking over in the media of particular countries which could lead to war, especially in societies with a military culture, a political leadership drawn from the military, or a dominant military industrial/ political nexus. The Nazis’ pseudo-scientific racial theories (in particular the concept of “untermenschen” explained by Clark) had also given moral license to the unbelievable brutality and extermination in the East, which was noticeably worse than that in the West.

Opinions differed on Clark’s self-confident habit of occasionally making sweeping generalisations. The most controversial were about the peoples of Europe, notoriously that the French were too fond of wine and adultery to put up much of a defence in 1940, or that the innate sadism in the German character was shown in their behaviour in Russia. For some, such ex-cathedra statements were arrogant and self-indulgent, and distracted from the book as a serious work. Others felt that they enlivened the book, and that Clark (once said to be opposed to political correctness before the term was invented) was courageous in offering broad judgements in a way that no modern writer would dare. For example, did the description of the Polish nation - “that strange, gifted and romantic people, doomed forever to be crushed between the callous monoliths of Germany and Russia” – not hit the mark precisely?

This led to a debate about how serious a military historian Clark was, and some wondered if the book were derivative. However, the consensus was that he had made much good use of primary sources, and that the book was a substantial, if in some respects unconventional, contribution to military history, remaining as it did the classic account of the campaign over forty years later. In addition it was unusually illuminating about the personalities involved. By contrast, one member felt Anthony Beavor’s later books about Stalingrad and Berlin were less well-written, lacked organisation and strategic focus, and used new research mainly to indulge a relish in the gruesome.

One member had been sufficiently intrigued by the question of why Hitler had undertaken this fatal invasion of Russia (which on the face of it was quite illogical, given the historic aversion of Germany to fighting on two fronts, and the foreboding precedent of Napoleon) to do further research into the issue. Reading of a more recent text, Kershaw’s massive study of Hitler, produced the same answers that Clark had sketched in: Hitler’s dominant motivation, bizarrely, was the idea that invasion of Russia would force Britain to the negotiating table. Less important were his longstanding opposition to Communism and prediction of a showdown between Germany and Russia as set out in Mein Kampf, his conviction that he alone was a great enough leader to win such a showdown, his fear that his mortality meant time was running out, the need to keep German public opinion buoyant with a string of victories, and his autarkic economic theory about the need to subsume more resources. The German military, which at one time would have violently opposed such a plan, had been ground into submission by seeing its opposition to earlier invasions being falsified by events.

On the other hand, it was suggested, there was some substance for the German view that the British could be brought round to be on their side, with a substantial segment of the British upper class being keen on Hitler. Hitler’s view that a blitzkrieg would have the campaign finished before winter did not seem so unreasonable given the astonishing successes of his earlier campaigns - above all with France falling in six weeks, in defiance of conventional military wisdom. However, like Napoleon Hitler had found his supply lines too long. Another factor might be that Hitler recognised his similarity to Stalin, and therefore feared the possibility of Stalin striking first. It should also be remembered that Germany in 1938 had territory much further east, with places such as Koningsberg, which are now part of Russia. Perhaps the nearest analogy for the Germany/Russia war was that between Rome and Carthage: similarly epic, with a desire to obliterate the other side, and similarly pointless as they did not need the territory they coveted.

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