Sunday, November 30, 2008


Introducing the books, the proposer said that he had chosen two deliberately contrasting collections of short stories, which might lead on to a general discussion about the nature of the short story as a literary form.

P. G. Wodehouse was a writer he had read for most of his life. His father had a small number of favourite books, which it was his habit to re-read regularly to the exclusion of new material. A Jeeves book was one of the favoured few, and as a result the proposer had first read P.G.Wodehouse at ten or twelve. He had not read Carver until 1989, at a time when he was reading widely amongst American fiction.

Other than that the proposer – himself the author of a volume of short stories, as well as novels – did not wish to add any introduction, saving his comments for the general discussion.

Which started with the ticklish issue of how best to read a collection of short stories. Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms to have a collection of short stories? The whole point of a short story was that it was short, and could be read at one sitting. To read several at one sitting could induce symptoms of over-indulgence just as surely as having too many chocolates from a chocolate box.

One member confessed to leaving the Wodehouse in his pocket and indulging in one story per bus journey. As it later transpired that this member was one of those driven to laugh out loud by Jeeves, this might account for the bemused expression of Edinburgh bus passengers observed in recent times, which until now had been attributed to the blizzard of roadworks for the new trams.

On the other hand, both writers seemed to have thought carefully about the order in which the stories appeared, much as a singer might do for an album, and as far as we knew the stories had not been published separately. For example, opined one, Carver put his second strongest story (“Shall We Dance”) at the beginning, and his strongest (the title story) second last, leaving as a black joke for last the story which ended with the lines “He said ‘I just want to say one more thing’. But then he could not think what it could possibly be”.

“The strongest, you said? I thought it was the weakest!” retorted another, indicating that not all had seen the stories in the same light.

A difference of view that emerged most clearly over “Very Good, Jeeves”. No, Jeeves, not very good. “Stereotyped!” “Did such a world ever really exist?” “Desperately dated –even the humour!”. “Repetitive”. “Formulaic – couldn’t be bothered finishing it!” pronounced these members with all the heartless severity of a panel of Strictly Come Dancing judges.

Yet others had been rolling in the aisles. They loved the vitality and range of the language, the sparkling similes and metaphors – for example the bad –tempered householder “closing the door with the delicate caution of one sweeping flies off a sleeping Venus”. They loved the well-oiled machinery of the plots, which resolved everything on the last page.

“Simply hugely enjoyable”. The plot with the same song being repeated by four singers was hysterically funny. The stories were particularly intriguing when Jeeves disapproved of Bertie’s taste in clothing or art, and contrived to alter it. The food faddist and prototype feminist Pyke who threatened Bingo’s cholesterol-loaded food and connubial bliss was deliciously amusing. And so was the debate between Jeeves and Bertie as to whether Uncle George’s barmaid was proletarian or “of sturdy lower middle-class stock, sir”.

Reflecting further, the audience voting for Jeeves noted that this world had really been created by Wodehouse. It was an entirely safe, comic world, in which the biggest threats were aggressive Aunts. Bertie was a child-like figure, and Jeeves a nanny-like figure who could resolve all problems (perhaps reflecting Wodehouse being put in the charge of a nanny from age two). Bertie was an asexual figure, although golf lovers were promised that Wodehouse’s series of golf stories were less innocent. Perhaps escapist stories of this kind were particularly attractive to a generation decimated by the First World War (this particular collection was published in 1930).

And a lot of skill had gone into creating these apparently effortless stories. “The lightness and fluidity of Wodehouse I think obscures some very careful timing and craft. For all his far and wide use of the Englsih language, there is not a single wasted word, and the comedy is unfolded with rapier precision…”. Wodehouse had given an interview setting out some of his ideas on composition, for example: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel that the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start…The thing to do is say to yourself ‘What are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them…”.

What ho! Spiffing! But what about this Carver – a bit of a rum cove?

Well, no - Raymond Carver’s dark world received a generally enthusiastic response. “Powerful!”. “Challenging!”. “Brilliant stuff – a whole desperate society emerged from a few sentences”. “Reminded me of a Country and Western song – a compliment – with a refrain of failed relationships and alcohol amongst blue collar people in the Mid-West.” “I liked the way meanings and new perceptions emerged as you reflected on the story”. “Liked Carver more than when I read him twenty five years ago, perhaps because of more life experience since!”.

“Initially I didn’t like the abrupt conclusions, but then I tuned into the stories and found them refreshing”. “Presents you with a raw slab of life as it is, with only one or two nerve endings going into the future, and a few more into the past”. “You have to read with great care, because if you miss one word the whole meaning changes”. “The stories have the concentration, complexity and chiselling of a poem”. “The opening lines really grab you and pull you in – e.g. ‘I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was…’". ” “Like an Edward Hopper painting, where the characters tend to be gazing out of a window, in which there is a sinister sense of an untold story”.

So straight tens from all the judges? No, not quite. “Eventually the dark plots about alcohol and failed relationships begin to pall. What about all the joy and excitement also to be found in blue-collar life? He’s a one-trick pony…”. “Stylistically Carver comes from the school of minimalism. This begs the question, when we applaud the writing, are we applauding the fact that so much meaning can be expressed in so few words? Is this the aim of the writing style? I found the style overbearing, however, and it leaves little room for the reader to manoeuvre… I found I had really to slow down the reading and study the words which was in one sense quite rewarding, but also quite restrictive”.

“Some stories too dark for a female reader”. “‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ is similar to Kafka’s ‘A Knock at the Manor Gate’. But by comparison Carver’s story is crude and merely sickening, whereas Kafka’s was well-paced and held a genuine tension throughout”. “I’d rather spend an evening with Wodehouse than Carver!”.

A feature of Carver’s characters was that, although they talked, they did not really communicate by talking. They were too inarticulate to do so. They could only express the underworld of their emotions by taking action – for example by mutely throwing rocks. Indeed that was perhaps a common feature of American culture (and Presidents? ventured your correspondent, swiftly to be silenced). Indeed rocks were a recurrent motif – perhaps a symbol? - in several of the stories, once being explicitly used as a murder weapon.

But while most could agree on their liking for the stories, we could not all agree on what the stories meant. What, for example, did the ending of “Why Don’t You Dance?” mean. For one, it meant that the angst of the older man had been transferred to the younger generation. For another, the young woman had been disturbed both by her sexual attraction to the old man, and by a glimpse of the pain of the failed relationship of an older generation (and the foreboding example for the young of the failures of the older generation was a major feature of the stories). For another reader it was possible that the young couple had murdered the older man.

But did different interpretations matter? There was no “solution” to the story – just a sense of ambivalence and of unease which we shared.

In terms of influences, many (including Carver himself) had identified Chekhov. And it was certainly true that Chekhov had shown how to replace the traditional plot-structured short story and its conventional beginning, middle and end with a story that reflected the messiness of life in a random, godless, meaningless universe (“dirty realism”, in the phrase sometimes applied to Carver’s work).

However, their actual writing styles were very different, and a much closer influence was surely that of the early Hemingway (see our discussion of “Men Without Women” on 27 February 2008). A story such as “Hills without Elephants” seemed to be the template for the minimalist, ambivalent Carver story of human misery. The pared-down prose style, with its simple vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs was surely handed down by Hemingway to Carver as to so many other American writers. Hemingway too wrote of the Mid-West, and of fishing. Even setting one of the stories in northern Italy seemed to be a nod, conscious or otherwise, in the direction of Papa Hemingway.

So how to compare Wodehouse and Carver? On the surface they could not be more different. Happiness versus sadness, laughter versus rage. Writing to satisfy, as opposed to writing to disturb. Carver chose to point his lens into dark and sordid places, while Wodehouse studiously did exactly the opposite, and never took anything too seriously. Wodehouse depicts a world of high flying fancy, where emotional angst is present but which is trivialised amidst the comforts of an affluent existence. Wodehouse’s world attracts us because it is both escapist and fun, but we are shoe-horned uncomfortably into Carver’s world and come out gasping for air. Nor does Carver provide something positive that is asserted, as classic tragedy might.

In the terms suggested by E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, Wodehouse is offering “flat” characters, who do not develop, whereas Carver is offering “round” characters. Little as we glimpse of Carver’s characters, they develop in the course of his minimalist stories, and this subtlety is one of the main attractions of Carver’s work. As Forster pointed out, a complex plot – of the Wodehouse, or Dickens, variety – is much simpler with “flat “ characters. However, one should not make a value judgement and impose a hierarchy in identifying such differences between Wodehouse and Carver.

And there were also things in common between Wodehouse and Carver. Both used dialogue very well. The theme of lunacy appeared in both, although in a very amusing and reassuring way in Wodehouse. Both writers displayed considerable interest in alcohol. It is seen as a dangerous and destructive force in Carver (and it had played such a role in his own life) while for Wodehouse it is always comic. Thus the Wodehouse definitive taxonomy of hangovers:

• the Broken Compass,
• the Sewing Machine,
• the Comet,
• the Atomic,
• the Cement Mixer,
• the Gremlin Boogie.

A fine note on which to end, thought your scribe, as I could understand it, but off they went again, this time on to the short story as a literary form:

Surely all short story writers wanted really to become novelists, to display their imagination to the full? Well no, not necessarily. In America – and also in South America, with magic realism – there was a stronger tradition of writers focussing only on the short story. (Reflecting a shorter attention span? I ventured, only to be frostily silenced once more…). Whereas in the UK a book of short stories was nowadays only seen by publishers as a stepping stone to a novel, or as a follow up to a novel, which seemed a pity, as short stories were still very popular. Was the British public being short-changed?...

Interesting that there are many fewer famous collections of short stories than famous novels. And also that so many great films have been made from developing short stories, while many bad films have been made by trying to cram in all the plot of a novel…

The short story suits science fiction, because it is about ideas rather than characters…

But then so often short stories are based on something that has happened to an author, or something they have overheard, or read about, rather than the fully imagined world of a novel…

Somerset Maugham is a very interesting short story writer to revisit. He is also someone who is economical with words, and adept in describing both the physical and psychological worlds of the colonial society he depicts…

You should not place the short story and the novel in a hierarchy of a value, and you should not see a short story as a sort of failed novel. William Boyd – author of both novels and short stories - had recently written a couple of excellent articles on the short story, in which he argued it was a separate art form, and one which - through oral story telling – predated the novel...

Ah well, story telling has been well supported in Scotland recently. Yes indeed, only last week I was in my allotment having a conversation about failed relationships over the compost heap, when I heard a story-teller approaching and telling a story to allotment holders…

!!!Run that one by me again?

Well, I think that’s what he said… but I’m afraid that by now even your devoted correspondent was reaching the end of his attention span.

Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! I’m off to do the Gremlin Boogie….

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Introducing the book, the proposer said he had been attracted to it because of a family involvement with a charity helping to house and educate Dalits in India. He had hoped there might be parallels – but in fact the book had described a very different approach to charitable activity.

He had not found it an easy read, possibly because his reading of it had been spread out over a month. Some sections were captivating and flew by, whereas others seemed a bit boring. And he suspected that Mortenson himself had not written any of the book, instead handing over to Relin a mass of papers and detritus from his visits, organising visits for Relin, and having discussions with him. It was intriguing that Mortenson had had to plead with the publisher to drop the portentous sub-title (One Man’s Mission to fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time) for the paperback version.

The book sparked off interesting questions about the societies in which Mortenson worked and their cultures. That must be why it was a big-seller in the US, and indeed of interest to the US military – an eye-opener to what was going on in these countries. He had lifted the lid on a demonised culture, given reasons why the different groups (the Pakistanis, the Shia, the Taliban etc) were all different, and why they needed to be managed in careful and different ways. But some of this information, and the language and concepts it revealed, was difficult to absorb without stopping to reflect, and this interrupted the flow of the book.

What struck him most about the book was the remarkable character of Greg Mortenson. Shining through the story were Mortenson’s amazing interpersonal skills. He had shown an ability to build relationships, and inspire trust and respect, amongst people of very different cultures to his own. One of the factors that helped was his very evident sincerity.

His involvement in building schools in remote areas of Pakistan had not come about through premeditation or intellectual analysis (though it had maybe been pre-ordained by the example of his parents’ activities in Africa and the thought patterns they had given him). He simply bumbled in, but then showed remarkable opportunism in the way he had seized chances to improve the lot of the rural poor – particularly of uneducated girls – in Pakistan. The intuitive way he had identified helpers in Pakistan from the least likely backgrounds was uncanny.

And he displayed an absolute intensity and thoroughness. This tenacity – and bravery – came out first in his attempt on K2, and then in selling everything he had to raise the funds for the first school. He then pursued his objectives in the face of an unfamiliar culture, a harsh terrain, fatwas from mullahs, the outbreak of wars and even kidnapping.

Overall it was a very thought-provoking book, which gave important insights into the working of different cultures, and raised big issues about the direction of travel for the future.

He had gleaned from an interview posted on the CAI website that Mortenson was now withdrawing from his hands-on role in Pakistan and Afghanistan to a more managerial role in which he would spend more time in America. Perhaps this was inevitable given the volume of funds and support that must now be available following the immense success of the book. But the proposer feared for the future, given that the whole operation had seemed to depend so critically on Mortenson’s hands-on work in Pakistan. It must be doubtful that the operation would be successful without him operating on the ground, and doubtful – from what we had read of his personality – that a managerial role would play to his strengths.

Another reader, however, had found the book an easy and gripping read. He was struck by the similarity between Mortenson and Tim Moore – the author of last month’s book “French Revolutions” about the Tour de France. Both were obsessive – or at least goal-oriented – at the expense of other aspects of life including family. But Mortenson was by far the more attractive person, taking on an almost heroic character, even if the book hinted that in some respects he was an infuriating man.

One aspect of the writing that troubled him was that the writer – presumably Relin, who must be in practice the ghost-writer – put in concrete descriptions in novelist style of the detail surrounding events that could not possibly have been remembered. This was effective at one level, but at another manipulative and thus disconcerting.

Another member had found the book hugely enjoyable, and indeed inspiring. However, he was less enthused by the quality of the writing, which he had initially found quite disappointing. It could be mawkish, awkward and even amateurish – such as the clumsy opening sentence:

“In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high altitude wilderness.”

As he read the whole book, however, he was able to ignore such examples and came to appreciate the overall achievement, in particular where the integrity of the story and the message was sustained in a way that retained the interest of the reader. The writing, perhaps befitting Mortenson’s character, might be clumsy at times but was always gentle in tone, plodding along with the story, sewing sentences and characters together with rough stitches rather than fine handicraft. It was a job “done well enough”, much as how Dr Greg would no doubt approach the building of a CAI school.

The book attempted to portray Mortenson as the hero at the centre of a developing adventure or thriller. This “our brave hero” style was only partly convincing. But it had a charming quality, in keeping with the guileless character of Mortenson, which had won him over and swept him along with the adventure romp style.

Major, sometimes disturbing, events in Mortenson’s life were presented in a matter of fact way with little further emotive insight. One example was the description of Mortenson being bullied by other children after arrival in the USA, which was passed over in barely ten lines. The simplicity of narrative tone throughout allowed the reader space to draw his own conclusions and provided a grounded, if two dimensional, perspective.

There was much to admire about Mortenson, his character and achievements, which spoke for themselves. This was tainted a little by the unnecessary portraits of his ex-girlfriend Marina and their relationship. Why did Mortenson or Relin feel the need to fell the hatchet on a former love publicly? These awkward passages had the character of an adolescent’s poison pen revenge. At the end of the book there was also the sense of a developing ego, where Mortenson wants to build more and more schools, in ever more dangerous places. It was reminiscent of John Simpson the BBC reporter, with an uncanny knack of reaching the most inaccessible and dangerous places and telling everyone about it.

However, these were perhaps the observations of a cynic. The real truth lay in the thousands of child and adult lives who had been helped by Mortenson and touched by his organization. The book not only expressed a powerful message of peace, humanity and tolerance, but also convincingly demonstrated the benefits in action. He could not think of another book that was able to demonstrate so neatly the relationship between the small-scale and the geopolitical.

Another member had also been irritated by the style, but had then focussed on the content, which was very interesting and raised many issues. The book was important in drawing the attention of an American – and a British - audience to the complexities of the different tribes and cultures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also brought out the unpreparedness of the US for handling the post 9/11 world. The US Government had gone to war in Iraq lacking Arab experts. And American feminist groups had arrived in Afghanistan to muddy the waters after the fall of the Taliban with no understanding whatsoever of the Afghan culture.

The question of what was happening to Mortenson’s schools now – at a time when the US Government was conducting military strikes inside Pakistan – concerned another reader. It seemed to him that the heroic efforts of Mortenson would alas prove insignificant when set against the immense damage to the reputation of the West caused by his Government’s recklessness. While events and luck had moved in favour of Mortenson early on, events now seemed to be moving against him.

It was difficult to find information from the CAI website (how unfortunate that acronym was!) to update that in the book. An interview suggested that there were now over 70 schools in operation, but he had heard rumours from Pakistani contacts that the schools were being destroyed by a fundamentalist backlash against anything connected to the West. And the schools were competing against over 3,000 madrassas.

While the style of the book might not be perfect, much of it was absolutely riveting – such as the series of desperate adventures when Mortenson tries to travel north from Kabul.

Another member found the book inspiring, and had been humbled to learn things about Pakistan – for example the Saudi and Kuwaiti money flooding in to build extremist madrassas – that he felt he should already have known. He also wondered about analogies with Scottish reactions to the setting up of Islamic schools in Scotland. And he regretted the absence of a Book Group member who had spent five years trying to set up a school in a Muslim country.

The book raised big issues about the scope for the individual trying to put the wrongs of the world to rights. How much could the individual achieve? And was it right at all to intervene in the problems of another culture?

And on the question of style – where he shared the reservations already expressed – he drew attention in particular to the breathless Mills and Boon treatment of the evening when Mortenson met his wife e.g.“Together the two began the kind of conversation that flows seamlessly, unstoppably, each fork begetting another branch of common interest, a conversation that continues until this day…”

He also noted the intriguing links to the plot of “Charlie Wilson’s War” – and wondered – without taking a view - if it might have worked better to try to influence the Pakistan government from the top to set up schools rather than do it bottom up?

On the other hand a success of the book was that it portrayed Mortenson at the outset as very naïve– but gaining respect from everyone, while by the end he has become political and is operating at the top. The dilemma he faced was the difficulty of both mingling with the people at the top in an effort to influence them, and still having time for his efforts on the ground.

One member noted that Mortenson had spoken at the Edinburgh Book Festival that August, and had come over as charismatic, inspirational – and humble. This did not square with the sense of a growing ego that the book conveyed – perhaps this was primarily the fault of the ghost –writer.

He did not care either for the simplistic style, but did feel that the ghost-writer had succeeded in finding a format that would appeal to an American audience. It was perhaps fair to say that Americans had more taste for sentimentality, clear-cut divisions between good and evil characters, and feel-good optimism than a British audience. And the device of presenting the material in a series of parallel stories – the mountaineering story, the quest for money, the love story, the scheming of the wicked Changazi etc – sucked the reader in. A straightforward hagiography would have been much more boring. And the evidence that the book had worked for an American audience was only too clear, with it being top of the New York Times paperback non-fiction charts for nearly two years, and still at the top at present.

The story fell into two halves. The first was the optimistic, feel-good story of how the schools came to be set up. The second half was more difficult, as it showed the difficulties that arose in the post 9/11 period, and Mortenson’s growing disenchantment with the policies of the American and British governments as he saw the gap between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

This was an unusual phenomenon – a book as a political act, which was having a real impact on how citizens in the US and Britain understood what was happening. And it was also a book as a fund-raiser for charity, and again being enormously successful in that respect. No doubt for Mortenson these criteria – the political impact and the funds raised – were the only criteria against which he would wish to measure the success of the book.

Another reader had found the book hard-going, but still a great read, with its insights into different characters and the execution of a great project. The book was both encouraging – in showing how one heroic person could get schools built through charisma and courage - and discouraging, as it revealed how he could never compete with the Saudi-funded madrassas. This raised the question of whether it would ever be possible to introduce Western-style schools into Pakistan on any scale.

This innocent query ignited our Monthly Book Group mullahs.

Wait a minute – wasn’t the whole point that these were not Western-style schools?
Well, they wouldn’t have Islamic studies as their core subject. Students from that part of the world could arrive in Scottish universities having studied almost nothing other than Islamic studies. And the title of the book – particularly in its original form – was suspect

But the beauty of Mortenson’s approach was that he ensured that the ownership of the school – its location, shape and format – rested with the local villagers! The schools all had the support of the local villagers.

Yes, but he did impose some rules and concepts that might be alien to the local culture. And it wasn’t a good idea to name his first school after a Western climber, rather than a Pakistani. No doubt if you offered to set up an engineering apprentice training school in the Western Isles that worked on Sundays it might have the support of the apprentices and their parents, but their hammering would still cause offence in the wider community because of its attitude to the Sabbath…

That’s not an exact analogy! And Mortenson was scrupulous – and insightful as ever – in demonstrating his respect for Islam. Indeed it had helped him escape his kidnappers…

It would be easier for an American to introduce schools for girls in India, which was a multi-ethnic secular state, than in Pakistan, which was a nation defined by its Muslim religion. It was truly remarkable that Mortenson had achieved so much in such difficult circumstances…

Well you should have seen my father–in-law in the Western Isles having to cover his hammer in cloth before being able to use it on a Sunday…

Perhaps a better analogy would be with an American setting up schools in Scotland in the 1920’s to teach girls to aspire to doing men’s jobs. The more enlightened men might support it, but the majority would have seen it as undermining their culture. It was always dangerous for an outsider to interfere in someone else’s culture, even where by our standards you were completely right…

How can you possibly deny women the right to be educated!!!...

And so on. And on, muttered our mullahs. Indeed it required a second cup of tea before your scribe could refocus on the discussion, which by now had moved onto the future.

Which looked bleak. One with many connections in the sub-continent (for example he knew the Indian commander in the Kargil battle, and his father had served in Waziristan) found his contacts gloomy about the future for Pakistan as a viable nation. One of the problems was that politicians there represented the interests of their home power base, rather than a political ideology. Perhaps a separate Pashtun state, which might be a Taliban state, embracing the north-west frontier regions of Pakistan and eastern and southern Afghanistan would emerge.

(Perhaps it would all have been different if Britain had handled Partition differently – which some argued was the biggest mistake made by Britain in the Imperial era. And perhaps if Jinnah had been allowed to become Prime Minister of a united India, and Nehru had not attached more importance to becoming Prime Minister himself than to retaining a united India…).

Andropov had once said that the Afghans were “too primitive for socialism”. However that may be, they were arguably not ready for multi-party democracy.

Mortenson was described as a “social entrepreneur” by Bill Clinton in a quote on the CAI website, which was apt. But the history of most entrepreneurs was that they could not handle the transition from a small organisation in which their writ was law to a bigger organisation. Either they were forced out of the organisation, or they dragged it down by their inability to delegate. Was the fate that awaited Dr Greg, while his schools were swept aside by the rising tide of fundamentalist madrassas?

Bleak indeed….

However, there might still be a role for his schools, because they focussed on girls, while the madrassas only took boys. And there was lots of scope in his idea of educational scholarships for girls to participate in higher education.

And perhaps Mortenson’s greatest educational achievement might turn out not to be his schools, but through his book educating the citizens of America and Britain about the complexities and subtleties of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Muslim culture.

And it was not long ago that America was greatly admired in Pakistan. A new President (the 2008 election was five days away as we met) might mean more sensitive foreign polices from the US (and, by extension, the UK).

And not all entrepreneurs failed to manage the transition in their organisation to a greater scale.

And not all naïve optimists failed in their efforts to change the world. (Only cynics failed consistently, because they never tried). Some had great impact, and Mortenson was one.

A good point at which to lay down the pen, and turn one’s attention to a third cup of tea…

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008


The proposer was a keen cyclist and had chosen the book as a light hearted, amusing account of Tim Moore’s attempt to cycle the Tour De France route.

There was general agreement that the book was a light, journalistic, good holiday read which did not need - or get - over analysis. The account of Moore’s escapades read well, eg his intake of calories including alcohol, though some thought he tried too hard to be funny. His treatment of his wife and children attracted some criticism, though Moore did show some awareness.

There was some discussion of what type of book it was. It was not a travel book. Moore did not give any insight into the France through which he was travelling; indeed his Little England caricature view of the French was somewhat overdone. Serendipitously, a more serious and in depth account of another British cyclist’s journeys through France has just been published in paperback. Graham Robb’s “The Discovery of France” has been well received. Also mentioned as a great cycling tour funny book was Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men on the Bummell.”

As well as being a personal diary of experiences, Moore’s book’s wider remit was as a history of the Tour De France. Even in this respect the research was seen as somewhat inadequate and selective. There was also some discussion of the cycling experiences of members of the group, and whether the UK’s recent success in the Olympic cycling events would have a wider effect on the British attitude to cycling.

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Introducing “The Blue Afternoon” (1993) the proposer said he had first read it on holiday in Tuscany in 1995. He had previously read and liked other books by Boyd, including “A Good Man in Africa”, “An Ice Cream War” and “Brazzaville Beach”. (Indeed a tower of such tomes tottered at his elbow).

He had thoroughly enjoyed the book, thought it well-written, and could barely put the book down.

Boyd was born in Ghana in 1952, and his father was a Scottish doctor. He was in Nigeria during the Biafran War, which had a profound effect on him. He was educated at Gordonstoun, Nice University, Glasgow University and then Jesus College Oxford, where he did a thesis on Shelley. He had a brief period at the New Statesman as a TV critic, and was then a lecturer on the contemporary novel at Oxford for several years. He made his first film there (an interest in film was an important feature of his career) and also published his first novel “A Good Man in Africa”. This, like all his books, was dedicated to his wife, whom he met at Glasgow University.

He owns a chateau in Bergerac where he lives for most of the year, and where he produces award-winning wines, as well as his novels, short stories and screenplays. His lively sense of humour was demonstrated by his hoax biography of “Nat Tate”, American abstract artist, whom a number of critics then claimed to have met.

Boyd has received many accolades for his work, but he receives (or perhaps seeks) less public attention than contemporaries such as Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Yet he is perhaps the better novelist.

There were several different stories within the novel, all of which the proposer had enjoyed:

• Kay and Carriscant’s relationship and search for Delphine;
• the story of Kay’s architectural business;
• Carriscant’s life in the Philippines;
• the passionate love story – Carriscant’s obsession with Delphine, his stalking of her and their subsequent covert, amoral and fervent love affair;
• Pantaleon’s story of his quest to fly.

As well as having several stories within the story, it was striking that Boyd brought no less than 50 named characters into the novel.

Other aspects that had appealed to him were Boyd’s attention to detail and well-researched information – such as the descriptions of architecture in L.A. in 1936, of life in Manila in 1902, and the war between the Philippines and the USA.

He also was personally interested by the medical content. This included the contrast between the old style surgeon with his outmoded theories and the more up-to-date Carriscant. He also liked the description of the operations - and of course by Carriscant’s Scottish connections.

There were also appealing aspects of intrigue – such as the plan for escape from Manila, the detective work involved in tracking down Delphine in London, and the speculation about who carried out the murders.

For him the only less appealing aspects were that Kate was a rather weak character; that the Aero-mobile story – while interesting and amusing – was not well integrated; and that the murder stories were somewhat confusing and could usefully have been expanded.

However, overall he found it a first-class read, and – a real test of quality - had enjoyed it equally well on two subsequent readings.

There followed a rare unanimity of praise for the book.

“Super, excellent, clever!” was the reaction of one. Such a fluent style – but not frenetic – then moments of high drama. The only problem was being unable to put the book down at bedtime – one got so involved in it. There was such a “comblé de biens”: and in addition to all the plot elements, the writing of the Delphine story was really quite erotic.

Another thought Boyd a superb writer, with a deceptively easy style, and flowing but muscular prose. He had an almost unparalleled skill for narrative, for sucking the reader in to any story he chose to tell. He had a striking lucidity of detail that animated his scenes. While he was perhaps not a “historical novelist” as such, he took a particular interest in bringing obscure episodes in history – such as the war between the Philippines and the USA – into vivid life. His experience of the Biafran War must have given him his sense for the arbitrariness and chaos of war. And in this book he was telling the history of several fields of human endeavour - medicine, aviation and even architecture. Such gifts as a writer found the perfect shape in his recent novel “Any Human Heart”, which told the story of the twentieth century through a character who lived throughout it and was on the edge of many historic events (an approach he had trialled in “The New Confessions”).

Yet in this book was he not striving a little too hard to suggest that there was more significance to his writing than simply narrative drive? In particular there were the stanzas quoted in the preface from a difficult modernist poet - Wallace Stevens – in his poem “Landscape with Boat”, which tied in with the “blue afternoon” theme:

“He brushes away…the colossal illusion of heaven…yet still the sky was blue…he wanted the eye to see and not be touched by blue…”

And then, in case you had missed it, picking up the detail of the second stanza – the Mediterranean, the yellow wine and the steamer’s track – in the last scene. There was also the issue of leaving the murders unresolved. All this came over as a little contrived, and a bit of a dig in the ribs for the reader to indicate that Boyd had some bigger themes in mind – along the lines of Stevens’ painter’s closing statement “The thing I hum appears to be/ The rhythm of this celestial pantomime”.

Another, who had found the book equally difficult to put down, had rather lost interest in the character of Kay. How necessary was she to the story? Wasn’t the architectural interest laid on too thick at the beginning? And how odd that she made no comment on the architecture when she reached Lisbon!

And another – who had certainly enjoyed the book – had found the first and second sections disjointed. Would the book lose anything if the first section were dropped? Or indeed if you dropped the last section?

Others had found the architecture story engrossing– the searchlight intensity of Boyd’s imagination was such that it seemed impossible for him to sketch out any story without it being engrossing - even if it were frustrating that the writer never returned to it. It reminded one of the way the film “Psycho” led the viewer in to follow one plot, as a sort of feint, while the real plot then twisted away in a completely different and unexpected direction. And perhaps that was how life did unfold – the “rhythm of the celestial pantomime”.

And what about the sub-plot of the plane? Was it fully integrated? The sudden attempt at blackmail by Pantaleon – was that not out of character for somebody who had been subservient until then? Or was that the point – that Carriscant had taken his subservience for granted, even pressuring him into being the pander for his affair, without ever taking the trouble to understand him and his viewpoint? Then he was shocked when the real view of someone of “inferior” race abruptly emerged, although it was then quickly disguised again?

And the building of the plane was of a piece with the subject of obsession – of the human capacity to dream and to strive – which appeared in the other subplots of medicine, architecture, lust and love. The book talks of Pantaleon’s “idealistic dedication, this single-minded pursuit of a dream”. Pantaleon says that “We are men of the new century and it is our signal duty to look forward [in flight and in medicine]”.

For some there were too many loose ends; for others, loose ends reflected real life, and the story would have had less resonance if all the loose ends – of which the loosest were the murders – had been pinned down Agatha Christie fashion in the last chapter.

Nevertheless, we could not of course resist starting off down the road of who really did the murders, and of tugging at a few more loose ends – e.g. why did Carriscant become a cook, when he had an inheritance? But we pulled back from this prospect of infinite debate (and an infinite blog, your correspondent was groaning inwardly) by reminding ourselves that these were not real people and real events, and that there was no real solution to the murders (any more that there was an answer to Bradley’s famous question about how many children Lady Macbeth had). The novelist had chosen to leave us with several possible solutions, and there did not appear to be a “right” answer.

Similarly he chose at the end to have Kay remind us that Carriscant might be an unreliable narrator, and thus create another layer of uncertainty (and perhaps to give us another nudge in the ribs that Boyd is not just any old story-teller). As Kay says:

“What good would my deductions do, my reasoned deductions? What do we know of other people, anyway, of the human heart’s imaginings?”

And what did we make of Carriscant? Even on his own self-presentation, he had many flaws, and was reckless of his own and others interests in the way he pursued Delphine. But Boyd does not judge him in moral terms – he presents him.

The themes Boyd is pursuing emerge fairly clearly in the final pages. There is the impressively stoic acceptance of mortality displayed by Delphine and Carriscant at the end, but mortality that has been offset by the value of their human emotion:

“Carriscant’s faith was sure and constant. His belief in Delphine Sieverance and what she had done that night was no more absurd than any of the other notions we use to prop up our shaky lives. And he was happy too, that was important. He had achieved what he had set out to - no mean accomplishment – and he had seen the woman he had loved for all these years once more….

“I sat here on this sunny terrace looking out at …the steamer’s track, the glass of yellow wine in my hand and I found that I envied Salvador Carriscant…

“So what makes the difference ...on this terrace in the blue afternoon? …I look over at Salvador Carriscant…and I know the answer.”

At the mention of the notions that prop up our shaky lives, I examined my empty glass with particular care, and our attentive host promptly filled it to the brim with a particularly fine New Zealand Pinot Noir (Peregrine 2006, from Central Otago, which apparently had just won an award at the Edinburgh Wine Club). What a splendid fellow! William Boyd would approve.

I felt obliged to put down my pen to do justice to the Pinot Noir. This was just as well, as the conversation took a decidedly risqué tack into erotic issues. The Blue Afternoon was turning into a blue evening. However, I focussed instead on signalling that my glass was again mysteriously empty …

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

30/7/2008 “The Lunar Men” Jenny Uglow

The host introduced the prize-winning book which was a group biography of the 18th century experimenter members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham who met on the Mo(o)nday night nearest to the full moon. This was to facilitate their often lengthly journeys home after society meetings, and well illustrates their energy and enthusiasm. For example, Erasmus Darwin travelled some 10000 miles a year on horseback carrying out his medical duties.

The general response to the book was that it was a highly enjoyable, informative and fascinating work. The individual stories of the Lunar men were well told and the positive group dynamics well brought out. There was general agreement also, however, that it was a long and hard read, with a great deal of detail which sometimes resulted in confusion, though the structure and chronology of the book were well done. The difficulties were probably an inevitable consequence of collective biography, particularly when there were so many important Lunar men. Despite this the members were enthusiastic about the book which sparked off a lively wide-ranging discussion.

Many members present were interested in the Enlightenment, especially in its Scottish manifestation. The strong connections between the Lunar men and Scotland were well brought out in the book. The intellectual ideas of many of the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, eg Adam Smith, James Hutton, Joseph Black and James Watt’s circle in Glasgow had been hugely influential upon the Lunar men. As Jenny Uglow wrote, “ At times it would seem as though Birmingham itself was an intellectual colony of Scotland.” It was pointed out- by a member not the author- that one reason for this was that many of the Lunar men were dissenters and as such excluded from Oxford and Cambridge but welcome in the Scottish Universities.

While many of those present were students of the Enlightenment, the focus of the book was on the practical application of Enlightenment ideas in areas such as medicine, geology, physics and chemistry. The Lunar men were highly enthusiastic, energetic and practical. Examples of this were their efforts to influence politicians on Parliamentary Private Bills and the granting of patents. There was discussion as to whether Watt’s patents had hastened or hindered the development of the steam engine.

The book brought out well the ideas of the various Lunar men though not what they discussed at society meetings. An interesting point was the effect of the French Revolution upon them. Not only did this event divide the Lunar men in their responses, but it also had an adverse effect on their discussions and work. As Henry Cockburn, quoted in the book, said: “Everything was connected with the Revolution in France. Everything, not this thing or that thing, but literally everything was soaked in this one event.” The revolutionary scientific work of the Lunar men was identified as also politically revolutionary, with adverse consequences for Priestley, Darwin and others, as the more secular, rational 18th century was replaced by a more conservative, religious outlook.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008


The discussion of these two books had been suggested to us by academic researchers as part of their study of the reception of migrant literature. This research was using Book Groups as a way of discovering how different readers approach such texts (see We chose to focus on “Small Island” by Andrea Levy (2004) as the main text, with “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith (2000) as the optional extra.

Such was the enthusiasm for this unusual discussion that one member arrived twenty- four hours early, unable to contain his excitement. However, the great evening finally arrived, a charming young lady put the electronic gizmos in place, and the host introduced the discussion to the silent roll of the cameras and sound recorder (plus the scratching of your correspondent’s outmoded pen).

Andrea Levy was the daughter of one of the original Jamaican immigrants to arrive in Britain on the “Empire Windrush” in 1948. So she had close family links to the “Small Island” story, if not first hand experience.

He could see that the novel had deserved so many awards. Initially he had found the structure disconcerting, with its switches of narrator and timeframe. However, after a the point emerged of focussing on the four very distinct characters, telling the story from their perspectives, and dealing with the periods before, during and after the Second World War. The characterisation was good, with none of the characters drawn in simplistic good/bad terms. Even the racist Bernard changed with time.

The host had found it easy to identify with the issues raised by these books. Although only just born when the Empire Windrush arrived, he had relations who lived in North London, amongst whom some of the older generation were racist. He had spent some 30 years working in London, for an organisation 30% of whose staff were from ethnic minorities.

One member, however, felt that the book reinforced stereotypes. It was hardly a revelation that there was much racism at that time. He could remember his mother’s shock the first time he brought home a black friend, and could remember a relation saying as late as 1968 that he had to understand she was racist. He preferred a book with more mystery and intrigue, a book that made you reflect more.

But not all the characters were racist ? What about Queenie – she was not racist? No, but she was a stereotype too!

For another the characters were not stereotypes. They were fully developed in three dimensions. The book had an exclusive focus on character and event, rather than intellectualising. (This made it an interesting contrast to George Orwell’s “Coming Up for Air”, which he had just read, which had plenty of character and incident, but also plenty of judgements and moralising). It was a good read, and he liked the dialogue particularly.

However, he was not sure he agreed that all the characters had a mix of good and bad. Wasn’t Gilbert a saintly figure? No – he took Hortense’s money, without intending to honour the agreement. Yes, but he did stick with her.

Perhaps the lack of judgments reflected the use of first person narrators: it might be different with a third person narrator.

Another member drew a contrast with “White Teeth”. In that book the author breathed life on to the characters and they then almost wrote the book: it had tremendous vivacity. “Small Island” by contrast was more stylised and less instinctive with its separate sections on each character. It was also rather episodic. Some of it felt rather contrived – for example it seemed that the main reason for Queenie taking Arthur into the countryside was to place him at the scene of the GI’s fight which was to cost him his life. The military sections – for someone with a specialist interest in the subject – contained several mistakes. For example, the Indian Army was a volunteer Army not a conscript army, and Imphal essentially the name of a battlefield. Perhaps she had used too limited a range of sources, but, once the reader had doubts about her reliability and authority, it affected the reader’s perception of the rest of the book, making it seem more contrived.

But the book’s great strength was its description of the racial discrimination suffered by Gilbert in the army and in seeking employment. This was both powerful and sad, and very well-written.

Another felt that the best aspects of the book were the portrayal of life in Jamaica, the corrosive racial discrimination suffered, and the way in which Empire – and its associated narrative and myths – impacted on the lives and motivations of the characters. The sustaining myth of all races being equal in the Empire jarred hideously with the experience of the Jamaicans coming to Britain. It was no coincidence that the book opened with the British Empire Exhibition, and a character called Queenie. These were the elements which seemed really to engage the creative imagination of the author, and were of great quality. What was particularly attractive was the warm empathy and non-judgemental style with which she presented her characters.

The other elements – the war-time exploits of Bernard, and Queenie’s grim upbringing – were well-written and engaging, but written with less emotional pressure. It was as if the novelist had been encouraged by her publisher to tap into the fashion for stories of World War 2 and grim childhoods. There was nothing wrong with a writer trying to write a more popular book, but it made the novel uneven as a work of the imagination.

On the other hand, suggested another (himself a novelist) it was inevitable that the section about Bernard would be the most difficult for the author, as he was neither black nor female, and was a racist. But it was essential for the structure to present Bernard in the first person. She had worked very hard to get it right, even if, inevitably, it seemed a little artificial compared with the authentic Jamaican voice of Gilbert. Novelists were aiming to convince 99.9% of their readers that what they presented was accurate – there would always be experts who could spot flaws. He had found the Burmese section very well-researched and well-written. Her depiction of Jamaican dialect was of course excellent; he wondered, however, if having Queenie take elocution lessons was not a device to escape having to write Queenie’s dialogue in a less familiar dialect?

Having tip-toed delicately around issues of race, the Group then plunged recklessly into issues of sex. Did you not detect a lot of sexual tension between members of different races? Some did; some didn’t. There was also a lot about sexual tensions between members of the same race – between Hortense and Gilbert, and between Queenie and Bernard – so perhaps the novel was reflecting general sexual tensions in a more inhibited age. And there was a clear suggestion that Bernard – fascinated by Maxi – had homosexual leanings, even if unconscious.

But perhaps the theme was really that of miscegenation? This emerged often – in the hint that Hortense’s father was white, in Gilbert’s part Jewish background, and in the mixed parentage of Queenie’s baby. At one level this reflected the reality of the background of many “black” - and “white” – people (and indeed, we understood, of the author herself); at another level it revealed the superficiality of our racial constructs.

And there were some intriguing puzzles in the book. Was Arthur meant to be aware of – and condoning – his daughter-in-law’s fling with Michael? On balance we thought he was. Was either Gilbert or Hortense meant to know it was Michael’s child they were adopting? We felt on balance Gilbert was, but not Hortense. And what about the relationship between Celia and Hortense? It started with an erotic charge, and ended with Hortense usurping Celia’s place with Gilbert by means of “innocently” drawing attention to Celia’s insane mother. Hortense was surely being disingenuous in her description of this episode – an example of an “unreliable narrator”?

Most felt the ending was rather weak (and less satisfactory than “White Teeth”) but then an ending for a novel of social history is always difficult. And perhaps Andrea Levy has a sequel in mind involving the baby Michael in later years?

In this book the author made no attempt to describe what happened after 1948, or to draw any explicit lessons for modern Britain (and it was refreshing that she did not write with a didactic agenda, but focussed solely on understanding what had happened and why).

So it was appropriate also to read “White Teeth” (another winner of many awards) which dealt with the very different period of the eighties and nineties, alongside “Small Island”.

The host noted that it dealt with the later lives of two wartime friends – one English and one a Bangladeshi – and their families in London. Smith herself, however, was the child of a Jamaican mother and an English father. The reviews of the book had been very mixed, with some thinking it of very fine quality, while others disliked it, finding the plotting loose and random, and the characterisation unconvincing.

Not all members had been able to read the book, but there was a fair spread of opinion amongst those who had. One could relate personally to the descriptions of London and eccentric religious sects. He enjoyed the book. It was funny and over-exuberant, slapdash and wandering all over the place – but that was perhaps to be expected of a first novel by a young writer. It dealt with the different strands of immigration in London– not just the older West Indian immigrants, but Muslims (with one brother being a businessman and the other a fundamentalist) – and caught well the feel of London life at the time.

Another thought it was absolutely marvellous, and loved it from start to finish. There was so much life and vivacity in the book, and so many amusing – and perceptive – passages. For example, Samad, chatting up Poppy, being interrupted by Mad Mary:

“Mad Mary slapped him around the ankles with her stick. ‘WHAT’S DE SOLUTION, BLACK MAN?’

“Mad Mary was a beautiful, a striking woman: a noble forehead, a prominent nose, ageless midnight skin and a long neck that only Queens can dream about. But it was her alarming eyes, which shot out an anger on the brink of total collapse, that Samad was concentrated on, because he saw that they were speaking to him and him alone…Mad Mary was looking at him with recognition. Poppy had nothing to do with this. Mad Mary had spotted a fellow traveller. She had spotted the madman in him (which is to say the prophet). He felt sure she had spotted the angry man, the masturbating man….

‘Believe me. I understand your concerns’ said Samad, taking his inspiration from that other great North London street-preacher, Ken Livingstone… Samad took Poppy by the hand and walked on, while Mad Mary stood dumbstruck only briefly before rushing to the church door and spraying saliva upon the congregation…”

Or this passage:

“To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not colour. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins. The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

(a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?
(b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?
(c) Is there a chance…that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?”

And this:

“He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual indentity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all jobs to his relatives…In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognised him, and grabbed it with both hands….”.

There was a lot about the alienation of people like Millat – although the book was published before 9/11 – and to some extent the book was making fun of them and to some extent was serious.

The structure reflected the multi-ethnic community, right from the opening scene with its clash of cultures: Archie’s attempt to gas himself in his car is cut short by a Halal butcher objecting to his parking place being taken, which leads directly to Archie meeting the Jamaican bombshell Clara. In addition to the Jones family and the Iqbal family, the third ingredient is a Jewish family. There were a lot of valuable insights into the experiences of first and second-generation immigrants.

However, “White Teeth” was very much about London, and its citizens’ experience of living and working alongside a kaleidoscope of different races. The narrative of “multi-cultural Britain” was one that politicians had evolved because of their experience of living in London. As so often, London life – and the political concepts it engendered – was different to experience elsewhere in Britain. A “White Teeth” set in Bradford might have been a very different book.

For another member the book was reminiscent in some ways of Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers”: an exuberant comic first novel recording the quirks of contemporary London, but episodic and lacking a strong structure. The book was also too long (although the same could be said of “Small Island”). And, like Dickens, her characters – other than Millat – do not really develop (Dickens being the only one of the great novelists whose characters do not develop).

The book had been described as celebrating multi-cultural Britain, but was that really right? It seemed more ironic in tone, laughing at rather than laughing with the succession of oddities to be found in the streets of London. This was a difference in tone from the warm empathy of Andrea Levy. And Zadie Smith had said specifically that she had not intended to write about racial issues – although one had to be mindful of the “Intentional Fallacy” (i.e. that a book is not necessarily about what the writer consciously intended).

Perhaps that was commonly the case with literature about migrants. The author was not writing with the intention of spreading understanding of the experience of migrants: the author was writing to get published, and was using the material to hand. Andrea Levy was an exception in writing “un roman à these” about Jamaican migration. But given that so few writers from immigrant communities reached the attention of the host community, it did make it very important what these voices had to say.

Often literature about migration presented the immigrants as funny, and perhaps that made migrants less threatening and more human. A clear recent example of this was “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, another first novel, which was very funny about immigrants. In this case again the novelist’s real concerns did not seem to be migration as such, but the history of the Ukraine and its families.

Walter Scott – a writer who like Levy had some very conscious objectives for his writing - was at one level aiming to reconcile the English to the Scots who had joined the Union, and he did so by making them seem comic as well as by romanticising them. He was also trying to reconcile Lowland and Highland Scots. In so doing he had created such a powerful myth that it had shaped perceptions of Scotland throughout the world right up to the present day.

That set us off on in digression mode, with some reflections on Scotland and race, encouraged by the fact the Andrea Levy has some Scottish blood, and Zadie Smith’s mother has a Scottish name. Was racism worse in England than in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, suggested one (English) member? Nobody was confident about signing up for that one - was it not a question of experiencing less immigration recently? What about the vehement reactions to Irish immigration into Scotland? It had been heartening that the recent “Fresh Talent” initiative to promote immigration into Scotland had been so widely welcomed, and that it had been recognised at Scottish political level that economic migrants were go-getters and entrepreneurial. But was it not unreasonable to place asylum seekers in Glasgow’s toughest estates? And it was easier to welcome immigrants in times of skill shortage than it had been at the end of the Second World War, when there was a great pressure on available jobs as the Army was demobilised.

And what about the differing experiences of the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in Britain?

At which point – perhaps as well - the charming young lady re-appeared, switched off the electronic gizmos, and advised against Zadie Smith’s second novel. Your correspondent closed his non-electronic notebook. And that was it.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008


The proposer – appropriately framed by three pictures of dance and a leaning tower of Murakami paperbacks –explained that he had first encountered the work of the writer by picking up a book at the airport. He had then become addicted to his books, liking their dream-like qualities, and would purchase one of his books when faced with a long journey.

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, the son of two teachers of Japanese literature and the grandson of a Buddhist priest. Following the success of his early ventures into writing he had left Japan to become for some years a writing fellow in America. He had translated a number of American writers – including Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Raymond Carver – into Japanese. He was also interested in the work of Kafka, which had made him popular in the Czech Republic. His work had acquired cult following in Japan, but was unusual for a Japanese writer and had attracted opprobrium from traditionalists because of its overt Western influence.

This book was published in 1988, and the proposer felt there was a watershed in Japan between the seventies and the eighties. The prim and proper Japanese he had met in the seventies had given way to people of a more casual and normal manner in the eighties. The book thus caught Japanese society in a process of transition. But it was still a divided society, which to this day faced major problems.

Murakami had set up a jazz club in Japan with his wife after leaving university, and his love of western music was very prominent in his work. There were many references to specific songs, even in his book titles (including this one – from the Steve Miller band).

This particular example of his work followed up a trilogy - its last work was “A Wild Sheep Chase” - thus making a “tetralogy”. A prominent character in the trilogy was a god-like figure called “the rat”. Murakami had been unhappy with the first two books and had resisted their translation.

There were several common elements to be found in the many Murakami novels he had read:

• dream-like
• weak males, who often took time off work, and who were good at cooking
• strong women (and he often focussed on their special characteristics, such as Kiki’s ears in this novel)
• loneliness
• a cat to be looked after
• satire on capitalism
• eroticism
• a quest
• strange stories, with discontinuities. This was the tightest, with a clear plot, and relatively polished. Other plots were looser, and had to be re-read to make sense

He had come across one critic who said the books dealt with “the spiritual emptiness of the generation”.

Reviewers in papers such as the Guardian and the Independent might maintain Murakami was a great novelist. But for the proposer – addicted as he might be – Murakami fell short of greatness. He was very readable and surprisingly addictive, but he was too one-track and lacked gravitas. There were too many common elements between the books, and too little development.

Momentarily silenced by the sweep of this comprehensive introduction (silence? now there’s a first!) the Group soon found its voice.

A jolly good read that kept going to the very end. It was reminiscent of “Morvern Callar” – the girl with the playlists of music in her head.

There was a pointed contrast between the controlled passion of the Japanese and the free and easy Western approach. The book tellingly revealed how controlling Japanese society was. The characters were very passive, contrasting sharply, for example, with the vibrancy and spontaneity of the London immigrants in “White Teeth”. But the characters were very well-drawn.

There were prominent elements of self-satire and self-deprecation – running down the quality of the hero’s writing, producing a writer with an obvious anagram of the author’s name, and endlessly repeating “what’s all this about?”

Another who loved it found it intoxicating and seductive. It was remarkable how it managed to blend seamlessly the disparate elements of a detective story, the telepathic, a critique of Japanese capitalism, some Japanese philosophising and even a supernatural figure in sheep’s clothing. The transitions were particularly smooth when the book was read in conjunction with a generous measure of tequila.

One reviewer had suggested that it was therefore perhaps not a good book to start with, because of its links with the previous trilogy. However, none of the Book Group members felt it was not sufficiently self-contained, including one who had read “A Wild Sheep Chase” and had indeed not noticed the links with this book. Other books the proposer recommended for those who wished to read more were “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “South of the Border, West of the Sun”.

So no problems? Well, not quite. One member had not liked it at all. He had met many Japanese people who sought to prove how sophisticated they were by endlessly name-dropping about Western products, which made them seem simply naïve. Murakami – or at least his hero – did this constantly. This member had hoped to read a Japanese novel about Japan – but in his eyes Japan was only notionally the setting of the novel. Others had also noted the peculiar harping on Western brand names – did it reflect what was considered fashionable in Japan of the eighties? – or was it an attempt to sell the book into Western markets? In any event, to bang on about how cool the hero was in visiting Dunkin Donuts did not seem cool in post-Iraq 2008, nor did it sit comfortably with a critique of Japanese capitalism.

But was it fair to criticize the book for being insufficiently Japanese? Would it be fine if it had been written by a Californian? Hmmm…lost in translation.

During the last month sundry Japanese residents in Edinburgh had found themselves approached by earnest MBG members to be asked what they thought of the great Murakami. A famous Japanese artist had given him the thumbs-down as pretentious. On the other hand some young Japanese females had tittered with amusement at the mention of his name –no doubt because of the erotic content of the books.

Part of the attraction found in the book for Japan in the 80s might be the portrait of a hero not locked into the conventional hard-working world of Japan. The richest and most successful character – Gotanda - was the unhappiest. Together with the emphasis on music, it gave the hero a hippy-type allure, and perhaps it was wrong to see him as a weak figure. However, it was easy for him to scorn the working world when he kept on being given large cheques for looking after Yuki.

What about Yumiyoshi, his current love interest? Was she unhappy? No – she seemed fulfilled in her hotel job. She again was a well-drawn character, even if there was a large element of male wish-fulfilment in the seduction of a strait-laced hotel receptionist. (Perhaps, suggested one member, it was the seamed stockings that did it, but I fear I may have promised not to record this observation).

So what did we make of the relationship between the hero and the 13 years old Yuki? Some thought it innocent; others detected a sexual undertone. And had there not recently been a fuss about Japanese comics – Manga – depicting relationships between adults and children?

And what of Murakami’s philosophising, Japanese or otherwise? According to the sheepman:

“Yougottadance. Don’t even thinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop…Yougottadance”.

Perhaps an alternative hippy version of Wittgenstein’s “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the question”? It was striking that the anonymous hero really lost his temper –for the first time - when the young girl Yuki only showed some appreciation of Dick when he was dead and it was too late. Again, the emphasis was on living life in the present. And was that sense of the skull beneath the skin – as in the gothic vision of the skeletons – not characteristically Japanese?

Another sheepman theme that seemed central to the book was that of “connection”:

‘“Weconnectthings. That’swhatwedo. Likeaswitchboard, weconnectthings. Youlostyourway. Yourconnectionscomeundone….”

‘I broke off… “But the other thing, the person I hear crying in my dreams, is there a connection here? I think I can feel it…”’

But is connection that important? After all, he draws a diagram of the links between the characters at one point and says he can’t solve it, but it might make a good Agatha Christie - this is typical of his playful, self-satirising approach. And even at the finish not every loose end is tied up – for example who is the last skeleton in his vision of the future?

Well, yes, he’s not trying to write an Agatha Christie-type novel in which everything is made crystal clear in the last chapter, but connection is central to the book. He creates a series of shadowy and suggestive links between the characters, mysterious links between past, present and future in the Dolphin hotel and in the room with the skeletons, and a sense of the sinister intrigue beneath the glossy surface of the Japanese capitalist world in Tokyo. It is more like the world of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles than Christie’s rural England.

As noted two months ago: “The essence of a Chandler novel was that sense of Byzantine mystery and human venality that lurked beneath the surface of American society. His method of cannibalising two or three separate short stories to produce a novel helped create this haunting sense of mystery – if not a very coherent plot”. And that was the role of several urban novelists, from Dickens to Murakami: to bring imagination and feeling to bear in interpreting a dehumanised environment, to make connections between anonymous urban dwellers.

This led on to a discussion of Murakami’s debt to Chandler, whom he acknowledges as a source. Surprisingly, there was a sharp split between those who saw clear signs of debt to Chandler and those who saw none. Those who did see influence saw it not just in the sense of mystery and complex plotting as above, but in the hero as the man of integrity standing outside a corrupt society, in some of the imagery, in his pair of policemen and in the beach house setting. And the novelists shared a pervasive sense of melancholy and loss. But this hero did not suffer from Marlowe’s prudishness.

It was impossible to tell through the lens of translation how similar the original style of language might be, and we expressed some surprise that Murakami had not tried to translate the book himself.

But what about the loose ends, the shifts into the surreal and the world of dream? Was it a reasonable hypothesis that each of us had a different threshold, a different level of tolerance for illogicality? So some would be comfortable with a book like this and others would find it quite unacceptable? Well maybe, but the one member who felt this book had too many loose ends was nevertheless a fan of “Ulysses”, a book which very few ever finish. And didn’t dream have a logic of its own? Arguably dream was another symbolic form like art, language and myth…

Hmmm…. too difficult, at least for your amanuensis, who could sense the discussion straining towards the stratosphere… and sure enough off we soared. Did “Dance, Dance, Dance” contain surrealism, or magic realism, or at least some sort of “ism”? (or maybe just an old-fashioned ghost story?) …and why was Murakami so obsessed with Kiki’s earlobes? And the nape of the neck? ...errr… obsessive/compulsive disorder… or wasn’t the earlobe an erogenous zone? … Well, of course, where have you been!... Which reminds me of a joke…..

Which shall remain unrecorded, for I had spotted the proposer reaching for a fine bottle of Japanese Sake on the mantlepiece (“THE REFINED AWAMURI SHIMAUTA KURO 30%” - to be precise) and proferring a cup to one and all. What a handsome gesture! Let us hope other proposers will follow suit.

Although no doubt Murakami would have preferred J and B. Which reminds me of a joke…..

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Sunday, May 04, 2008


Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had bought it because some friends had talked of doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The trip had not materialised, but he had found an excellent book.

Thubron, educated at Eton, was seen as one of the last of the British “gentlemen-travellers”. He was prepared to spend many months immersing himself in a foreign country, and was not prone to the gimmicks in which many other “travel-writers” indulged. He had started writing in the sixties, and had written novels as well as travel books.

The book attracted universal approbation from the Group, who had turned out in bumper numbers to applaud it.

What did we like? The depth of research Thubron had carried out, and the ease with which he brought it to bear. The gripping vignettes, and the remarkable characters. The black horror of the region he exposed, which, for one at least, exerted a masochistic fascination. The way in which – unlike many other writers in the genre – he did not patronise or ridicule the people he met. The fact that he was not judgmental. The taut, episodic structure, without introduction or conclusion. The intriguing historical links to the world we had considered in Alan Clarke’s “Barbarossa” (see discussion 30/11/06) – such as the removal of Russian factories to the East, and the reminder that Stalin’s appetite for the heartless murder of millions matched that of Hitler.

However, the style of Thubron’s language provoked debate. For some the book was a difficult read. Not that it was badly written – every word was carefully chosen, and every image precise. But the language was densely packed and concentrated. His language did not have the rhythm and flow of a master of descriptive prose such as Capote. He also had the habit of shifting from character to character without signalling the change, forcing the reader to concentrate hard to find out what he was referring to (although he did not have this trait to the irritating degree found in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”).

Others felt they must have been reading a different book. For them he always grabbed their attention. His opening sentences were particularly well-crafted, plunging the reader into the scene, and the closing sentences of episodes were equally well honed –

“So I let the old women trail away. I never did help one of them.

“This is a passage of shame”.

“As gripping as Chandler!” opined one member, who was not too concerned by having to re-read passages to find out what was going on – after all, that was the norm for those of us whose reading pattern was twenty pages at night before falling asleep.

Thubron’s method was to present the facts as they appeared to him, without overt comment or judgement. But did this mean it was a totally objective record of Siberia? We could not accept that was possible. It was Thubron who selected the episodes, the characters and the details to appear in his book. And inevitably this would, as a minimum, reflect the character and values of the observer – of an Eton-educated Briton in his late fifties.

Moreover, some of us felt there was a more active agenda lurking beneath the presentation he orchestrated. In one of his very few asides he noted that the Russians were always happiest when they had faith, and the world he presented was one in which their faith in communism had been shattered, and in which it was very difficult to find a new faith. For some religion was returning to fill the vacuum (and how intriguing it was to discover that Marshal Zhukov had carried concealed icons with him on the battlefield). Others were even trying to return to paganism. But for many only alcohol and despair filled the vacuum.

The peoples of Siberia had been ruthlessly exploited by the Czars and the Communists, and new exploiters such as the Chinese lurked on the horizon. Imitation of the culture and language of the West was portrayed as sadly pathetic. The book was an unrelentingly grim and tragic portrayal of the loss of hope, of betrayal, of brutality, and of grinding poverty. He had a particular skill for bringing alive the horrors of the past that lay beneath the surface of the present.

So was this an accurate portrait? Who could say? We suspected that a different observer might have chosen to focus on more green shoots of hope and recovery. (It was surprising perhaps that he made nothing of the fact that Siberia had been to Russia as Australia had been to Britain as a dumping ground for prisoners). He certainly seemed to select for display many characters who were freaks. And what sort of book would a Russian travel writer write about Scotland today? There were plenty of freaks who could be showcased to make Scotland seem a bizarre and tragic place (no names, no pack drill).

Or did the elegiac tone of the book partly reflect the age Thubron was? Or his personal circumstances? Or did it fit with a wider portrayal of the tragedy of Russia in his other books (which none of us could claim yet to have read)? Or maybe Siberia was indeed simply every bit as awful as the compelling portrait he painted.
Thubron once or twice lifted the veil to make gnomic statements about his wider views.

Thus we learn that:

“A traveller needs to believe in the significance of where he is, and therefore his own meaning” and that:

“I had been looking for patterns…I wanted their security. I wanted some unity or shape to human diversity. But instead this land had become diffused and unexpected …”

The ending of the book was clearly significant:

“Stalin’s empire, like Hitler’s Reich, was meant to last through all imaginable time. The past had been reorganised for ever, the future preordained.

“I say, not knowing: ‘You’ll never go back to that.’

“Yuri says: We’re not the same as you in the West. Maybe we’re more like you centuries ago. We’re late with our history here. With us, time still goes in circles.

“I don’t want to hear this, not here in the heart of darkness. I want him to call this place an atrocious mystery…

‘Maybe we spiral a little… a little upwards…we can joke about anything now. We’ve still got that. Jokes…’

“ And on that frozen hillside he starts to sing.”

Profound statements for some; too contrived for others.

So how did this travel book match up against others? No-one would confess to being an inveterate reader of the travel genre, but we agreed Thubron was not a normal travel writer, in the sense of a writer encouraging one to dream of summer holidays.
In one sense it was not really about travel at all. His perspective was historical rather than geographical, and his skill to bring alive the essence of the history of his places and use it to illuminate the present. In that respect he was similar to William Dalrymple (see discussion 30/8/06), a “travel” writer whose imagination was essentially historical. Or de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”? Thubron was not as funny as Bryson, but then Bryson really only wrote about himself, and Thubron definitely did not do that, nor did he belittle the subjects of his work.

The whole idea of being a travel writer (as opposed to a writer who sometimes wrote about his travels) seemed to be a twentieth century phenomenon. And far too often the whole point of the journey was to write the book, which devalued the exercise before it had started. Thubron – as a ”gentleman traveller” (why were they all Etonians?) – seemed much more authentic than that. Perhaps Wilfred Thesiger’s “The Marsh Arabs” was a book of similar weight, also made particularly significant by the point in time at which it was written.

Inevitably the discussion moved on before too long to accounts of vodka breakfasts, of the visitors to Russia who returned with Russian lovers and Russian drink problems – and the trips to Moscow that might not be made for either Liverpool FC or Chelsea (their semi-final was stretching into extra time as the Monthly Book Group meditated).
But why not? Here was a rare phenomenon for Scots to contemplate - a country with worse weather, mosquitoes worse than midges, a worse murder rate and worse drink problems.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008


The “set book” for this discussion was “Men Without Women” (1928) – a book of short stories by Hemingway, with “Farewell My Lovely” (1940) – the novel by Chandler – the “optional extra”.

Introducing “Men Without Women”, the proposer said he felt Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an under-rated writer. He was undoubtedly an American icon, but he was often thought of simply as a macho man, addicted to hunting and fishing, and assumed to be of the political right. Hemingway himself, with his gift for self-publicity, had created this image.

But the reality was different. Hemingway was torn between his macho side – which his father has helped to foster – and a more gentle, sensitive side, the sort of person that his mother had hoped he would become. The conflict between his masculine and feminine sides gave his writing much of its depth (and indeed one of his last works had been about a transsexual relationship). Politically he had been very much left wing, opposing the growth of fascism in Italy and championing the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Hemingway has started life as a journalist – which had helped develop his distinctively succinct prose style – and had continued to produce a fine journalistic output throughout his life. Notably he had worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, where he had covered the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and claimed a hand in liberating Paris. His early work as a journalist in the US was interrupted when he volunteered to work for the Red Cross, ending up as an ambulance driver in Italy. That experience shaped some of these stories, as well as his novel “A Farewell to Arms” (also published in 1928). After the war he had decided that he wanted to be a serious writer, and had moved to Paris, where he had known and been influenced by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. However, he had been able to stand up to Pound, and accept only what he wanted to from him.

He had also fallen under the spell of the country of Spain, and in particular bull-fighting. This sport dominated much of his writing, including the first (and perhaps the finest) of these short stories – “The Undefeated”.

The title of the book (and Hemingway placed a lot of weight on titles) suggested that the stories would all be about tough guys. Perhaps they were superficially. But, looking more carefully, some of the men were very dependent on women – such as the prize fighter who was solely motivated by helping his wife. And in “Hills Like White Elephants” Hemingway’s sympathies seem to lie with the woman as the man seeks to persuade her to agree to an operation.

The proposer had chosen this book because he felt that the short stories showed Hemingway at his best, in concentrated form where he gets the idea over quickly. Some of his novels– such as “For Whom The Bell Tolls” – had some rather irritating weaknesses and self-indulgence. But he also put in a plea for some other works to gain more recognition, such as the superb “Dangerous Summer” about bullfighting (first published in Life in 1960), and the fine posthumously published novel “Islands in the Stream” (1970), which included scenes set in Cuba.

There was universal acclaim for “Men Without Women” from the group This included some who had not enjoyed previous encounters with Hemingway, and some of whom did not normally like the short story format. What did we like about it?

The concentrated, chiselled story-telling, which could reveal a whole world in just a few pages. Thus the “Undefeated”, in which the whole bull-fighting system, with the roles and attitudes of all the participants, was brought to life. Every single word counted, as in poetry.

The colour, variety, and sensitivity, which had not been expected, alongside the harshness, which had been expected.

The way in which a deceptively simple story inferred a wider world beyond. Thus the world of Fascist Italy was revealed by a scene in a restaurant and a couple of motoring incidents. The world of war was revealed by how someone relived the memories of his childhood to keep at bay thoughts of the war going on outside.

The sparse, staccato dialogue, that caught the way men talk to each other obliquely rather than reveal their true emotions (but a note of dissent here – wasn’t there rather too much dialogue sometimes?)

Hemingway’s wonderful descriptive language, with which he could capture the essence of a scene, a season, a country, a character, a mood with a few simple brush-strokes. And how accurately he caught the way people in Italy and Spain talk and behave.

The tension he effortlessly builds, and the ability – as in “A Canary for One” – to turn a whole story on its head with one telling last line.

The stoic, tragic fatalism of many of his heroes, and (for a young writer) his ability to empathise with people near the end of their lives.

Although some of the characters were indeed dependent on their women, some of the tales – in particular the last one ( “Now I Lay Me”) painted grim pictures of dysfunctional relationships.

Not all stories were rated equally - with “Today is Friday”, dealing with post-crucifixion Roman soldiers, the least favourite – but at least the short story format allowed you to focus on the ones you liked best.

It was remarkable that the indefatigable Ezra Pound had latched on to Hemingway, as to so many other writers of the period, and sought to influence him. Perhaps Pound’s imagist doctrine – of favouring precision of imagery and clear sharp language – had worked better for Hemingway’s prose than for some of the poets it was aimed at.

But were there not some fingerprints of Pound’s wilful obscurity in the stories? For example, was the operation discussed in “Hills like White Elephants” an abortion, trepanning, or a vasectomy? Most thought abortion, but it was not certain. Was “An Alpine Idyll” meant to be tragic or funny? Or perhaps both? What was the point of “A Pursuit Race”? Perhaps it was a parable that we strive to keep ahead in life but our weaknesses - and indeed death - will always eventually catch up with us. Was that indeed a homosexual proposition in “A Simple Enquiry”? But we felt this limited degree of ambivalence and enigma – of leaving the reader to work at the significance of the minimalist tales– was a strength, giving the stories more resonance.

There was a sense of innovation and experimentation in the stories, of a young writer trying out different subjects and techniques that he might later pursue in more depth. But it was also a remarkably assured performance. We agreed with the proposer that this was Hemingway at his very best, and perhaps only also in “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea”, plus some other short stories, did Hemingway fully realise his genius as an artist.

But perhaps also “Death in the Afternoon”? This had inspired one member to see a bull fight, which he would not otherwise have done. This started the group down the highways and byways of the tragedy of the bull, comparing and contrasting bullfights in France, Portugal and different regions of Spain….

We shall leave our bulls rampaging there, and pick up the subsequent discussion of “Farewell my Lovely”. The proposer told us that Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was born in Chicago, but moved to London after his parents split up. He was educated at Dulwich College. Despite doing exceptionally well in the Civil Service exams, he soon left and returned to Los Angeles. He had already written one book of poems and a short story. After serving with the Canadian Army in the First World War, he went through an endless series of jobs, not helped by his drinking problems and rudeness.

He married a woman 18 years his senior, to whom he was very devoted, and she funded him to start on a career as a writer. After working as a writer of pulp fiction, he published his first novel – “The Big Sleep” in 1939, and then “Farewell My Lovely” in 1940. His success as a novelist also brought him work as a Hollywood screenplay writer.

While Hemingway assiduously studied the great nineteenth century Russian novelists to help him develop, Chandler listed his main influences as Dashiell Hammet and Erle Stanley Gardner. Chandler wrote a famous essay on the detective novel, which defined the style of hard-boiled novel, derived from Hammet, that was his goal. In such a novel the private detective was the only man of integrity in the mean streets he walked down. This literary genre was to have immense influence on subsequent novels and films. It was intriguing that Marlowe nicknames one of his policemen in the novel “Hemingway”, apparently satirically, but there was a letter extant which indicated Chandler’s strong support for Hemingway’s work. We did not know what Hemingway thought of Chandler.

This book (which not all had managed to read, and one had accidentally read in abbreviated form – a new trend for the busy Book Group member?) produced more divided views than the Hemingway. One found the plot terrible by the standards of other detective stories – another found it very clever. And for another the plot was uneven - the scenes with the “Psychic Consultant” and in the dope house did not seem well integrated.

For another the essence of a Chandler novel was that sense of Byzantine mystery and human venality that lurked beneath the surface of American society. His method of cannibalising two or three separate short stories to produce a novel helped create this haunting sense of mystery – if not a very coherent plot. The novel brought out the sharp contrasts between the seediness of the negro bar and the squalor of Mrs Florian’s drink-sodden existence on the one hand, and the high gloss life of the Grayles and Lindsay Marriott on the other. And it was the tragedy of little Velma that she had managed to cross that great divide and live the American dream, but reverted to viciousness when her past caught up with her. Thus the closing words of the novel: “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way - but not as far as Velma had gone”. His themes transcended the boundaries of a conventional detective story.

But – here was an interesting question – who was the lovely to whom someone was bidding farewell? Was it Moose to Velma? Marlowe to Mrs Grayle/Velma? Velma to Moose? Mrs Grayle to her former self in Velma? Velma to Mrs Grayle? No consensus here –except that it was great title, embodying a sense of poignant loss. Saying goodbye in a title appealed to Hemingway too (“A Farewell to Arms”) and later again to Chandler (“The Long Goodbye” – a title itself echoed by many imitators).

And did his characters show any development? Perhaps not, but you did not expect that in a detective novel – unless there was a development in the character of the detective during a series of novels. But were his characters much differentiated from each other – for example the policemen? Yes for some of us; no for others – but then arguably their dramatic role was to be the straight man for Marlowe’s wisecracks, a role which did not need much differentiation.

There was, however, unanimity about the quality and richness of the language. The book was beautifully written, and a delight to read. Chandler had the ability – similar to that of Hemingway – to write simple prose descriptions that were poignantly evocative of place and emotion. His wit was legendary, and his imagery fresh and surprisingly lyrical. One newcomer to Chandler had loved the language so much that he kept re-reading each page – to the detriment of following the plot.

And what a start to a novel, with the giant Moose Malloy – “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” – barging into Florians, shortly followed by Marlowe climbing up in the dusk endless steps above the beach at Montemar Vista – “the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly” – in pursuit of an enigmatic assignment. While so many of Chandler’s plots and characters had been endlessly copied, so that they may seem less original to someone approaching him for the first time, none of his imitators had matched that quality of language.

The discussion then tiptoed up to the subject of …sex…Why did Marlowe keep turning down the bevy of beauties who propositioned him? Was it that Dulwich schooling that made Marlowe such a finely spoken, chess-playing chap, who felt it not cricket to take advantage of the Velmas of this world? If it were a fastidiousness about getting the hero engaged with the immoral Velma, why also reject the fragrant Anne Riordan? Did it reveal Chandler’s own lack of experience on sexual matters? Or – diving right in now – was it caused by the repressed homosexuality that a recent biographer had claimed to uncover, and which the jarring comment about Red’s wonderful eyes might substantiate?

But, mercifully for Chandler, the cold light of reason then shone. We were not going to have truck with the critical fad for exhuming sexual skeletons from dead writers’closets. The kissing scene with Velma was surely hot-blooded heterosexuality enough! And one sufficient reason for Marlowe’s priggishness was the mores of the 1940s - for both novelists and film-makers. By the time of Chandler’s last novel “Playback” (1958) Marlowe is succumbing fully to the dames. Nevertheless, a striking difference between Marlowe and Hammet’s Sam Spade was the moral ambivalence of Spade compared with the probity of Marlowe.

Picking up on Chandler’s Dulwich education, had anyone noted that another famous Dulwich schoolboy had spent much of his life in America and produced novels of remarkable wit – viz P.G. Wodehouse?

So – what conclusions could be drawn from the intriguing comparison of Hemingway and Chandler?

One was how great the similarities were. Both lived in the same era. Both spent much of their formative years outside America. Both had drink problems. Both had exceptional power in writing simple but evocative language –perhaps only D.H.Lawrence of that generation could rival them. And the language of both ran foul of today’s political correctness regime! Both writers created some very memorable titles for their books. Both books came near the beginning of the writer’s career, and in both cases the writer did not go on to produce books of significantly higher quality later in their careers. Some famous American writers of the nineteenth century perhaps owe their fame more to the paucity of American rivals than to their absolute merits. But Hemingway and Chandler are both writers who can compete successfully with the best of those writing in English in their times.

But there were important differences. Chandler’s novels are the high point of the American hard-boiled private investigator school, in some ways transcending the genre, and helped spark off a whole genre of film noir. Important as the detective genre is for the twentieth century, Hemingway has a much greater range as a writer. Hemingway devoted his life to his art, while Chandler seems to have fallen into writing as a career because of the failure of other options. Hemingway remained open to the outside world, whereas Chandler retreated into California. And there is perhaps more of Hemingway’s soul in his works.

Moreover, added one member, Chandle”s novels were consistently of a high standard, with only his seventh and last (“Playback”) of markedly lesser quality. By contrast Hemingway’s works were inconsistent in quality, with only a few being fully realised works of art. Yes, but, replied another, isn’t that true of all great artists? This discussion then soared off into the literary stratosphere, at which point your fatigued correspondent closed his book, and his eyes, and dreamt of little Velma…

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