Thursday, November 13, 2014


The host for the evening had encountered “An Officer and a Spy”(2013) at his bedside when visiting a friend in Arnisdale. Having started the book by Robert Harris during his visit, he persuaded his friend to let him take it to complete his read.  He thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommending a recently published book was a bit of a departure from his previous recommendations, the novelty of this might have influenced his choice.
He spent some time describing the historical context of the “Dreyfus Affair”, which had become a national scandal that tore France apart, and has had an enduring influence ever since.
The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 resulted in France losing Alsace and Lorraine, and signalled the setting up of the French Republic. Tensions between Catholic royalists and Protestants remained throughout the post-war period, manifesting in the failure of  both the First and the Second Republics, several uprisings, accusations of corruption and other covert efforts to destabilize the Republic. French Protestants accepted the Jews, and after centuries of persecution they were given equal rights. For historical reasons many Jewish families lived in Alsace and Lorraine.
Alfred Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse in Alsace in 1859, into a large wealthy Jewish family. When Dreyfus was 10 years old his family was uprooted by the war and moved to Paris. It is thought that this experience influenced Dreyfus to pursue a military career. The French Army was slow to integrate with the Republic, and many monarchist and/or Catholic allegiances remained within its ranks at the time of his training. This proved challenging for Dreyfus, as his advancement through the ranks was affected by anti-Semitism, particularly at the École Supèrieure de Guerre. In his final exams there he encountered a General who held the view that Jews were not desirable in the Army.
In contrast Georges Picquart’s Catholic upbringing and early military career were unencumbered. He rose rapidly through the ranks following his graduation from the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and became a lecturer at the L’École Supérieure de Guerre, where he first encountered Dreyfus as a student.
This scene setting opened the discussion on the merits of the book. This was Robert Harris’s 9th novel. A number of those present had read earlier works, including “Fatherland” and “The Ghost”, and considered this to be his best.
They were not alone in extolling the virtues of this novel, with Harris receiving the “Walter Scott” prize for historical fiction and the Crime Writers Association’s award for the “Best Thriller of the Year”.
The novel opens with the conviction and degradation of Dreyfus, and with Major Picquart witnessing these events and reporting back to the Minister of War, Auguste Mercier. Dreyfus is shipped off to Devil’s Island, while Picquart is promoted to Colonel and made head of the “Statistical Section”, the secret intelligence unit that hunted Dreyfus down.
Picquart is uncomfortable with what he finds in the Section. There is a lack of openness and an atmosphere of subterfuge. He sets about questioning the evidence supporting the conviction of Dreyfus and exposing discrepancies. He also identifies an alternative suspect still active in the army. Undaunted by the task of taking on the military and political leaders of the day, Picquart sets about challenging the corruption endemic within their institutions. Against all the odds he succeeds.
Unusually for our group, there was a unanimous view that this was “a great read”. It was variously described as a “page turner”, a “sleep robber”, and a “gripping thriller”.
The pace and flow of the book were much admired. In particular the device of narrating the story through Georges Picquart was thought to be inspired.
While most of our group had some prior knowledge of the “Dreyfus Affair” and had linked the exposure of the scandal to Émile Zola, no one had heard of Harris’s hero Picquart. His characterization was greatly appreciated by all. A complex individual, stiff and dismissive, highly intelligent and principled, and with indefatigable energy directed at exposing the corrupt practices of those around him. It was suggested that he could have been a difficult man to like. His treatment of both friends and foe seemed impersonal and lacking intimacy, yet he displayed social skills when the need required.
Harris’s impeccable research of the mountains of paper written about the “Affair” impressed us all. His search took him through court transcripts, historical analysis and newspaper coverage.
As we sat in the drawing room of an Edinburgh property built in the 1830’s, this writer wondered what the residents of the house would have made of the case. A quick check on the coverage provided by the local paper of the time, the Edinburgh Evening News, confirmed that there was detailed and extensive coverage given to the matter by the press. It was a “juicy story” by the standards of the day, which ran and ran for several years. It would appear that nothing really changes, except perhaps the quality of the journalism.
We admired Harris’s craftsmanship. There was no “flowery writing”, but instead authentic descriptive detail, tight story telling and scrupulous attention to the facts.
Despite our knowing the generality of the story and the outcome, Harris was able to add value and detail which brought the story to life. His account of the treatment of Dreyfus, through the “degradation” and his imprisonment on Devil’s Island with all of the cruelties administered by his guards (on the orders of the most senior officers in the French army) was skillfully layered together with the description of Picquart’s own treatment when he refused to play along with the subterfuge. Together they developed a heightened sense of indignation in the reader.
The complexity and intrigue of the plot was enhanced by Harris’s ability to bring to life the other characters and their actions in convincing detail, thereby making clear their responsibility for what happened.
We made comparisons with the writings of Hilary Mantel and John Le Carré. It was suggested that, while Harris was an easier read than Mantel, his character development was weaker and, as a consequence, less satisfying to the reader.
We discussed the role of Émile Zola and the impact of his open letter, titled “J’accuse” which was addressed to the French President Félix Faure and given front-page coverage in the Paris daily newspaper L’Aurore. His letter shook the establishment and undoubtedly brought the matter out into the open. However, it led to Zola’s prosecution for criminal libel. He was convicted on 23d February 1898 and avoided imprisonment by fleeing to London. He was able to return to Paris in June 1899, by which time Dreyfus had been offered and had accepted a pardon. This fell short of exoneration which would have confirmed his innocence, but Dreyfus considered that it was better to be free rather than run the risk of being found guilty at a further trial. Zola was philosophical about this stating that “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it”.
One comment on Zola’s intervention summed it up very succinctly: “They lied to protect the country. He told the truth to save it.” The group admired the courage displayed by Zola, and compared the protected position of the whistleblower today with the vulnerability faced by Zola.
The introduction of legislation designed to protect the whistleblower and the increasing importance of DNA profiling in providing the evidence needed for conviction or acquittal were cited as positive developments in the search for the truth. However, some thought that the practices of “cover up” and “closing ranks” were at least as common today as they were then.
There followed a lengthy discussion about the legal systems in France and the UK, their respective strengths and weaknesses, the role of the European Court of Justice, the use of tariffs in sentencing, jury system inadequacies, the role of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, plea bargaining, the adversarial legal system, the peculiarities of Courts-martial, and much, much more.
Some of our group were very familiar with the dark arts of political intrigue having backgrounds in the Civil Service, and they were able to provide anecdotal commentary around the machinations of political chicanery. It would appear, from an interpretation of what they inferred, that nothing has changed.
The discussion returned to “An Officer and a Spy”. We marvelled at the fact that Harris had managed to write the book in only six months. We searched for weaknesses or differences of opinion, but none could be found. There was only one member with a negative view and that was in relation to the book cover. He did not appreciate the author’s name occupying a much more dominant position than the book title! This niggle did not influence the unanimous view that this was a very good book and an excellent read.
We look forward to the Polanski film that is expected to follow the publication of “An Officer and a Spy”, and to “Dictator” which will be the conclusion to Harris’s Cicero trilogy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

25/9/14 “HELL” [l’enfer] or “THE INFERNO” by HENRI BARBUSSE

The son of a French father and an English mother, Barbusse was born in France in 1873. “Hell” was published in 1908. However, he continued in relative obscurity until, having served in the 1st World War, he wrote “Under Fire” in 1916. This convincing and dramatic account came as a shocking revelation to many. It resulted in a retrospective interest in Barbusse’s earlier novel, which brought it to the attention of the intelligentsia.
Barbusse then turned to Russia for further inspiration, and went there in January 1918 where he married, later returning to France. The main motive was his belief in the Bolshevik cause, although Esperanto was also of real interest to him. His belief in communism appears to have been total and uncritical. He seems to have had no problem dedicating a book to Trotsky, then denouncing him as a traitor when he fell from grace. Communism affected all his subsequent work. He died in France in 1935.
The proposer first saw a copy of the book in the house of his landlady when he was an undergraduate. He then bought it from a local bookshop, and found it a hauntingly strange book with echoes of Camus’ “The Outsider”. Colin Wilson’s book of the same name starts by discussing how Barbusse’s “Hell” displays the archetypal outsider. The Existentialists may have looked back to him as an inspiration or at least a fellow traveller. The proposer had reread it and was now aware of limitations.
It emerged during the meeting that some of us had the original O’Brien translation and others that by Robert Baldrick. The former is unexpectedly about a hundred pages shorter. This abridgement was presumably partly to protect sensitive minds and partly because some passages - such as 10 gruesome pages on medical matters - were revolting. However, we were surprised that Amazon and Kindle should be setting before us without acknowledgement a novel that differs greatly from that intended by the author.
So the comments of the group were invited. Many liked the concept of the voyeur and what were a series of tales with moral and philosophic overtones. The readers were taken up by the narrative, but began to rebel or lose interest during the verbal and emotional struggle between Amy and the poet. One member noted that Amy’s “why did you not tell me that straight away?” would have been a good question to put to Barbusse. 
However, the book contains many startling and, for 1908, unique, thoughts. He observes but tries not to judge. He sees the sort of details that make for fine literature. But as a young writer he cannot resist piling in the philosophy. The balance was wrong. Had the stories been of more substance they could have carried the philosophizing more convincingly. “Death is worse than suffering",  Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon the fear of death”, “for lovers are enemies rather than friends”. 
Is the narrator Barbusse? Or was the character of the poet a reflection of the author? Or were both characters versions of Barbusse? Certainly he does not seem to be particularly interested by the characters he is creating. The events of the novel may take the form life observed, but the book is hugely introspective. The narrator considered he had entered the “kingdom of truth”. The novel starts with the narrator seeming reasonably happy and able to cope with life. At the end of a month at his peephole he seems diminished, not enriched. He is also bitter.
Barbusse introduces late on a character Villiers – a successful novelist with no insights, no new ideas, but a retinue of admirers. Sour grapes! The dying Russian émigré expressed the view that the pen is greater than music. We pondered this. Artists work for a living but some are self-indulgent. The true artist is looking for meaning and must be able to communicate with the rest of us. But did Barbusse communicate with us in this book?
We appreciated some of the poet’s propositions. Happiness can be born of misery. We must accept that with light there has to be shade. Tears are not words. Why should Amy have to explain why she is crying? The attempt to convey some aspects of the meaning of life was a noble objective.
However, the proposer was about 20 years old when he first read the book. The author was therefore communicating with someone relatively close in age. Since then the proposer has got older but not Barbusse! One of the group had been sufficiently interested to read “Le Feu” (Under Fire). He thought this was much more convincing, and a very fine piece of writing.
It is interesting to see Barbusse opposing nationalism and the concept of the nation state in “Hell”. Then showing great courage and fierce patriotism when his nation state is invaded. Then he is seduced by the Russian Revolution, which dominates the rest of his life. To a young and passionate man this may seem normal, but he was middle aged and war weary when he adopted the Russian Revolution.
As a book, and looked at a century after it was written, it does ramble too much. The author is too declamatory, with so much about God, death, paradise etc. Arguably this is a book written when not much was happening. We have a discussion between the two doctors about the horrors of war. But the author meant the Franco-Prussian War. It is with that in mind that the old doctor says “Let us hope that some day we shall emerge from this endless epoch of massacre and misery”.
While no war is good for front line soldiers, Barbusse six years later was to volunteer for a totally different and infinitely worse experience. The genesis of the book must have been in La Belle Epoque. Possibly the young Barbusse, acting the “flâneur”, was happy to ponder the infinite because he had nothing better to do. Then perhaps the project became disturbing. He failed to communicate successfully to many of us in the Monthly Book Group. Or was it our failure to see that the book was more than self-obsession and platitude?
Why the title “Hell”? Possibly because the narrator became addicted to looking through the hole in the wall. He found that life is raw and pointless and it wears you out.
You may wonder who we are and from whence we post these reviews. To lift the veil a little, when “Things Fall Apart” was discussed it was (as befits a Nigerian book) accompanied by yams. On the occasion of “Hell” it was…..Chinese spirits. A glass each, and only when the proposer was satisfied that the book had been adequately debated. Very welcome of course, though absinthe might have been more appropriate. However, the visitor who brought the bottle was Chinese, not French.


‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by American novelist John Kennedy Toole was
discussed by the group, but no detailed record survives of the event.

The proposer recalls that he first read the book many years ago and
found it very funny, but on his second reading in preparation for the
discussion he discovered that there were substantial parts of the book
that seemed to fall a bit flat.  Although the central character Ignatius
J. Reilly is a brilliant invention, there is less sure-footedness in the
depiction of some minor characters, such as Mr and Mrs Levy, whose
antics seemed tiresome on a second reading.  However, during the
discussion the parts of the book involving them were defended by another

A strength of the book, in addition to its humour, was the depiction of
the seedy underbelly of 1960s New Orleans, and the rendering of speech
patterns, notably in the case of the minor character Burma Jones, the
cleaner/janitor at a strip club.

The group's verdict overall was positive, and most of us enjoyed the

Monday, September 08, 2014


  Discussed 28/8/2014.

The proposer of the book described how he had come across it randomly in a bookshop, and had liked the quality of the paper and the font size (qualities to which those of us who had read the book on a Kindle were oblivious).  He had a long-standing interest in the history of the Third Reich, and so possessed a solid intellectual pretext for purchasing this desirable physical object.

A biographical run-through of Hans Fallada’s life (real name: Rudolf Ditzen) revealed a tormented tale of traumas, including a childhood accident, a self-inflicted gunshot wound, alcoholism, morphine addiction, an unhappy marriage, trouble with the Nazi authorities, and spells in prison and mental hospitals.  In spite of this, he was quite a prolific writer, and no fewer than eleven of his works have been translated into English.  “Alone in Berlin” became a best-seller in English only in 2009.  A new film version is in pre-production at the time of writing, featuring Emma Thompson.

Hans Fallada reportedly wrote the first draft of the novel in twenty-four days in late 1946, and died shortly before its publication.  It was based on the true story of a couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards in wartime Berlin.  We commented upon the similarities with our previous month’s book, George Orwell’s “1984”, written just over a year later, which also portrayed the relationship of a rebellious couple living under a repressive regime.  Although both books were enjoyed and highly praised by the group, the view was expressed that “1984” was the book with the more interesting ideas, and “Alone in Berlin” was the book with the most convincing characterisation.

The proposer admired the quality of the translation, although a few oddities were noted (such as the use of the Scottish ‘youse’ to indicate a less educated manner of speech) and there was speculation on the reasons for frequent shifts between past tense and historic present tense, which may have originated with Fallada.

We returned to characterisation, and commented on the large number of brutal and unpleasant individuals to be found in the book.  One reader was reminded of the paintings of George Grosz, and commented on the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ vision of life that predominated in the book.  Others drew attention to redemptive characters whose role grew stronger in the latter part of the story – the retired judge from downstairs in the Quangels’ building; the conductor with whom Quangel shares a cell; the prison pastor; the previous postmistress and partner of Enno Kluge, who re-educates the delinquent son of Borkhausen.  These characters provided some counterbalance to the sadism and criminality that was otherwise pervasive.

There was agreement in our group that the book provided a strong sense of ‘living through’ the circumstances of wartime Berlin, and confronted us with the uncomfortable question of ‘what would you do?’  The dilemma of individuals whose innate decency and morality is compromised by fear and suspicion probably reflects Fallada’s own difficulties as an artist who chose to remain in Germany throughout the Nazi hegemony – a choice castigated by Thomas Mann.  In this respect the Gestapo inspector Escherich was found particularly interesting.  Initially he is brutal and unscrupulous, but Quangel’s defiance, combined with his own sufferings at the hands of his vicious superior Prall, brings him face to face with his own failings and leaves him no option but to kill himself.

Although one reader found that parts of the novel – notably parts dealing with Enno Kluge and his parasitic attempts to live off the prosperous owner of a pet shop – were rather over-extended, there was general agreement that the story moved at a good pace.  The dual narrative of the Quangels’ postcard dropping and the Gestapo’s attempts to track them down created suspense and tension, and the later parts of the book, in which action was replaced by the static claustrophobia and despair of imprisonment, were also thoroughly engrossing.

Our discussion ranged briefly over many other topics – Biblical echoes in Quangel’s suffering, medical doubts about the description of his execution, and the relationship of the story to the true events on which it was based.  The proposer recommended another book, Roger Moorhouse’s “Berlin at War” as reading for those who wanted to know more of the general context of the novel.  He commented that only a minority of the population of Berlin ever voted for the Nazi party, and that they were particularly subject therefore to suspicion and surveillance.

This brought us – as with our discussion of “1984”  – to consideration of contemporary examples of growing surveillance by the state, such as face recognition technology at airports and the issue of chip-bearing identity tags for this year’s Ryder Cup sporting event.  The proposer modestly informed the group that he had made his first hole in one at golf recently, and we then drifted to golfing anecdotes and even a brief flirtation with the subject of football, so it was clearly time to clear away the glasses and issue forth beside the Forth, into the salty night air of Portobello.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"1984" by George Orwell and "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin

“1984” was written by George Orwell during 1947 and 1948 while he was living on the Scottish island of Jura, and suffering with tuberculosis.  It was published in 1949, and met with immediate success.  Orwell died in 1950.

The book’s proposer was unavoidably late for the meeting, and we began with a quick round-up of first impressions.  The first speaker recalled that the book was part of the school literary canon, and along with others in the group he had first read it during teenage years.  As an adult he had been pleased to note that the year 1984 came and went without Orwell’s gloomiest prognostications having come to pass.  However, it was agreed by all that the date was not critical to Orwell’s intentions – it was merely an extrapolation of some of the political and cultural directions of the 1930s and 1940s, including Nazism and, in particular, Soviet communism.  The book was agreed to be more political satire than science fiction, and the items of futuristic technology described (telescreens and hidden microphones for example) were primarily of interest as tools of state surveillance.  In passing we observed that the uses of CCTV and internet and mobile phone surveillance in contemporary societies suggested that Orwell was not too far off the mark in this respect.  The shabby living conditions and food rationing further located the book’s world as that of the 1940s, albeit an altered and extrapolated version of that world.

Another reader raised the question of whether our own society (ie. Western European) was as hierarchical as that of  “1984”.  This brought us onto the question of ‘who are the proles of today?’  One member of the group in particular felt that we were all as powerless as Orwell’s proles, and that contemporary political cliques held power as surely as The Party in the book.  Others disagreed, pointing out that we had a vote for who was in government, and could influence government policies.  For a little while our debate moved off rather tangentially.

We were brought back to the book by the observation that although Orwell had closely followed the plot of the earlier  “We” by Zamyatin (a debt which he acknowledged), he had improved upon it in many ways, and had developed two brilliant themes that were absent from the previously published book.  These were the idea of re-writing history (which is actually the occupation of the book’s protagonist Winston Smith) and the idea of a gradual constriction and diminution of spoken and written language (Newspeak) in order to eliminate any form of conceptual thought inimical to the state.

Once more these aspects of the book turned our discussion towards contemporary issues.  It was observed that the book was as much socio/political essay as novel, and therefore inevitably raised questions of a general nature about humanity and systems of society.  Were the “Sun” and  the “Daily Mail” examples in practice of a kind of Newspeak?  Could conceptual thought be limited by a paucity of vocabulary and grammatical sophistication?  How did physicists for example develop concepts for which there was no existing vocabulary?  Did different world languages govern their users’ modes of thought?  We did not have the answers to these questions, although we were not short of opinions.

Another general question was raised by one reader – was individual freedom an inevitable component of a utopia, and conversely a life constrained by the state a dystopia?  Did one kind of life result in more happiness than the other, and who defined happiness anyway?

By this time the proposer of the book had arrived in the room and refreshed himself with the contents of a small bottle (perhaps recently supplied by an airline) containing a reviving red liquid.  He brought us back to the book once more with the observation that the appendix on Newspeak, being written as a description of a failed idea, and not in Newspeak, provided a subtle note of optimism at the end of the book by suggesting that the world described in  “1984”  had come to an end.  He then spoke further about what had drawn him to choose the book for discussion. He felt the political content seemed to set Orwell the novelist's imagination on fire, making it one of the greatest novels of the post-war period. He felt that Orwell was more of an iconoclast than an ideologue, and that his driving passion was a hatred for all forms of authority.  Orwell was brilliant at identifying and attacking the abuse of power, and 1984 was best seen as an extended denunciation of where this can lead, a kind of worst-case scenario.  Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was cited as another, perhaps even more effective, development of this theme.

Another reader suggested that Orwell had a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, and the portrayal of the sadistic O’Brien was a chilling vision of how the ultimate use of power can be deliberately to cause suffering for others.  It was noted that in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and many other places and times this tendency in human nature could be observed in practice in the real world.  Lord Acton’s dictum “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was cited.

We turned to the question of whether or not Orwell’s pessimism extended to disillusion with the British Labour Party in the post-war period.  After all, the Party in 1984, “Ingsoc” in Newspeak, is “English Socialism”.  Was Labour’s programme of nationalization and anti-capitalism merely resulting in the creation of a new political clique, and failing to benefit the proletariat?  The book’s proposer had read some of Orwell’s political essays of the time, and had found no real evidence of disillusion of this kind.  He restated the view that Orwell hated all forms of authority, and speculated that his experiences of growing up in an English boarding school, and the low self-esteem evidenced by his poverty-stricken existence as an adult were more potent drivers of his vision than simple political preferences.  In fact “Ingsoc” bears more similarities to Soviet socialism than British socialism.  O’Brien’s invented enemy of the state, Goldstein, for example seems to be a clear equivalent of the disgraced Trotsky in Stalin’s Russian.

Moving on to the second book, “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the proposer said that the idea of combining it with “1984”  came from one of the Group’s E-mail members. Zamyatin was a serial Russian revolutionary and a serial satirist. He was an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy and helped to design icebreakers for Russia on Tyneside in 1916 and 1917. Zamyatin stated that seeing the Tyneside work force in action was his first real experience of the collectivisation of labour, and he wrote a satire about life in Britain.

He returned to Russia in late 1917, and although a communist it was not long before he was disenchanted with the Bolsheviks and was writing another satire. “We” was published in translation in America in1924. The book achieved the distinction of being the first to be banned by the Soviet Censorship Board. When by 1931 the Russian text was nevertheless circulating, Zamyatin was, luckily, allowed by Stalin to go into exile in France. He died there in poverty in 1937 at the age of 53.

Orwell read  “We”  and reviewed it, and said he would write a book based on it, shortly before starting “1984”. Orwell thought Huxley was lying when Huxley denied having used “We”  as his inspiration for “Brave New World”.

There were several similarities between Orwell and Zamyatin. Both were anti-authority and both fell out with communism. Both were fans of Jack London, who also wrote an early dystopia. But Zamyatin always wrote satire, whereas Orwell came to it late in life. And Zamyatin, like Huxley, was writing in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Orwell was writing in the shadow of the Second.

“We” impressed us. Zamyatin’s creativity was exceptional. Apart from the main anti-communist thrust, there were many other layers of reference, including mathematical and scientific. There was even a religious dimension as the story paralleled Genesis. The novel was rich in psychological depth, and a splendid femme fatale drove the plot. A majority of us, nevertheless, felt that Orwell’s was the finer work – tauter, better written, and easier to follow. The fact that Orwell’s book was inspired by “We” did not make it the lesser book, just as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was not a lesser work than Kyd’s version which inspired it.

Not everyone shared this positive view of  “We”. One member reported, from halfway through, that it was a struggle, requiring a huge amount of concentration – indeed the book seemed a very muddled, bizarre ramble. Another, by contrast, had been inspired to read it twice, and concluded that he now preferred it to “1984”.

We finished our discussion with some general discussion of the continuing genre of dystopian visions of the future, encompassing films and computer games as well as books.  It was pointed out by one member of the group, a scientist, that such visions had some rational basis, since the world’s finite resources are being used up at such a rate by the burgeoning planetary population that future wars over water, agricultural land and so forth seem inevitable.  Nodding in gloomy assent to this Orwellian observation, we drained our own liquid containers of their final resources and passed out into the night.

Monday, July 14, 2014


“The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life” was first published in Poland in 1998 bringing together material written by Ryszard Kapuscinski in his forty years as a journalist in Africa. It was first published in translation into English in 2001.

Africa was a subject to which the Book Group had often returned. We touched on it  in “The Undercover Economist”. We wrestled with its complex past in V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”. We arrived in Ethiopia in comic mode in “Scoop”, and returned to Ethiopia in serious mode with “Digging for Stone”. And we were immersed in tribal life in Achebe’s masterpiece “Things Fall Apart”. Common themes of our discussion had been the sheer mystery of Africa, the impact of the slave trade and of colonialism, and why Africa had problems achieving economic growth. We had also wondered whether the questions we ask with our Western European mind-set were simply the wrong questions.

The proposer had been recommended “The Shadow of the Sun” to help resolve the mysteries of Africa. And the book had given him a clear and convincing explanation of, for example, the background to the Rwandan genocide, and much more besides. It brought out the geography clearly, and the impact of heat and water shortage on everything that happened.

Kapuscinski had been born in Pinsk, in what was then Poland but now part of Belarus, in 1932. He died in 2007. His early years had been marked by war, poverty, and fear as his family moved about struggling to keep themselves alive in the chaos that followed the Nazi invasion of Poland. Thereafter he had been brought up in a Poland under Communist control. He had been lucky that a controversial article criticizing regime policy had brought him prominence rather than disgrace. In 1957 he first went to Africa, and for much of the next forty years he was criss-crossing Africa as a poorly paid Polish journalist.

This book was ostensibly a collection of press articles that Kapuscinski had written from different African countries over the years. However, he kept two diaries as a journalist: one for the purposes of the reports he filed, and one a more private and literary journal. It was not clear to what degree this book consisted of press reports he had actually filed and to what extent he had reworked material by drawing on his private and more literary journal.

Kapuscinski described his work as “literary reportage”, and had gained international fame as an author. Many thought him the best Polish writer ever. Recently, however, his reputation had become mired in controversy. A fellow journalist, Artur Domoslawski, had written a book which “exposed” the real Kapuscinski. Domoslawski alleged that Kapuscinski had invented much that he had written as fact, embellishing the truth quite inappropriately. This allegation placed Kapuscinski somewhere in between a journalist and a writer of fiction.

He also claimed that Kapuscinski had made more accommodations with the Communist Government of Poland than he admitted later, even acting as a spy. Finally Domoslawski stated that Kapuscinski had been a womaniser on a large scale, regularly betraying his wife who remained in Poland bringing up his family.

The book was nevertheless well received by the group. It was captivating, riveting, fascinating, very enjoyable. It was also educational and insightful:

More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun…..Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet?...The overwhelming majority live in hot climates…”

The problem of Africa is the dissonance between the environment and the human being, between the immensity of African space and the defenceless, barefoot, wretched man who inhabits it…. isolated and scattered over vast, hostile territories, in mortal peril from malaria, drought, heat, hunger….”

Individualism is highly prized in Europe and.. America; in Africa it is synonymous with being accursed. African tradition is collectivist, for only in a harmonious group could one face the obstacles continually thrown up by nature…

But how universally valid were such insights? Some felt the book was more a series of impressions, and the writer was inclined to over-generalize from one or two instances. He tended to dwell on the central areas of Africa, on an east-west axis, rather than describing the Maghreb or South Africa.

Others felt Kapuscinski had an exceptional ability to get inside the mind of Africans. His forte was to speak to people and get inside areas of African culture – such as attitudes to witchcraft and religion – that most of us do not grasp. And he himself had warned against the dangers of over-generalisation in his preface: “The continent is too large to describe… In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist…”.

The book’s episodic structure meant it was perhaps better to dip into than read in a long session, but this made it no less enjoyable.

His descriptions of people and situations were, even in translation, believable and profound. Ernest Hemingway, that pervasive influence on twentieth century prose style, and another journalist turned author, had been an important influence of Kapuscinski’s prose style. For most the quality of his writing stood out, although one member found some of the descriptions too over-embroidered, too florid. By contrast another felt that the quality of Kapucinski’s writing was such that he had transcended the journalism genre.

We could see the force of the allegation that Kapuscinski had made things up. Some of the James Bond, or Ernest Hemingway, style adventures seemed highly implausible. There were factual inaccuracies about the history of Ethiopia. An axiom of journalistic style was to assert everything with great confidence, however shaky your knowledge, and Kapuscinski may have been guilty of this.

Kapuscinski might have been stronger on issues about people than on politics, but he was not afraid to tackle political issues head-on:

The government could, of course, have intervened, or allowed the rest of the world to do so, but for reasons of prestige the government did not want to admit that there was hunger in the land….A million people died in Ethiopia during this time

They attack women and children because women and children are the targets of international aid …whoever has weapons has food. Whoever has food, has power. We are not here among people who contemplate…the meaning of life. We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day….

Many wars in Africa are waged without witnesses, secretively, in unreachable places, in silence, without the world’s knowledge, or even the slightest attention…”

The book was almost completely silent on the relationship between the sexes and sexual matters, despite their importance for a full understanding of African society and issues such as HIV/AIDS. Against this odd omission, the allegation that Kapusckinski had been a major philanderer had some traction.

However, the various allegations of Domoslawski, who had waited for Kapuscinski’s death before blackening his name, seemed to us fairly unimportant in the context of what we valued about the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing for us was the empathy that Kapuscinski had for ordinary Africans, and his ability to convey how they felt about life and the world:

the concept of breakfast does not exist here. If a child has something to eat, he eats it….the children share everything; usually the oldest girl in the group makes certain that everyone receives an equal share, even if it is only a crumb. The rest of the day will be a continuous search for food. These children are always hungry. They instantly swallow anything that is given to them, and immediately start looking for the next morsel…

Half the people in African towns don’t have defined occupations, permanent jobs. They sell this and that, work as porters, guard something. They’re everywhere, always at one’s disposal, ready to serve, for hire…”

The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics…[For Africans] it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time… Therefore the African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and immediately falls into a state in which he spends a great portion of his life: a benumbed waiting…”

The basis for this capacity for empathy with the poor may have been the desperate childhood he had experienced during the Second World War. Indeed one of us had preferred this book to Kapucinski’s better known “The Emperor” (ostensibly about Halie Selassie, but also a disguised attack on the Polish Communist Government) as it displayed more humanity than the latter book.

But not everyone agreed that Kapuscinski had made the case for the African mind-set being fundamentally different to the Western European mind-set. Perhaps if, say, the Polish people were moved into Uganda, and subject to the same climate, they would behave in much the same way as Africans? For example become involved in endless obscure wars?

But against that what was different was the history that European peoples had been through. They too had been involved in endless wars, many now obscure, through the centuries. We hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that they had learnt from that and now were better at avoiding them. For example Europe had been through the phase of religious war for several centuries, and it was disappointing to see religious wars currently breaking out in the Middle East and in Africa. Was religious war a phase that societies could not avoid going through as they evolved?

And so the group wandered on through the great mystery of Africa; sometimes circling back to our starting point lost in the desert; sometimes pausing to stare at a scene of horror, such as child soldiers; sometimes spotting an oasis such as a desalination plant – or was it a mirage?; sometimes being stalked by a big beast such as the survival of the fittest…..

Enough!” said the guide. “Sum the book up in one word!”



No – impressionistic – educational would be more reliable!

“Impressions of people are reliable; only the facts are unreliable!

Great strengths are:
·      empathy with people
·      insights into African culture
·      readable. Language is enjoyable and rewarding. Sentences shorter than the eighty line examples in a recent book!

And so we came back to the beginning. Who said that the Western European view of time was linear?


Saturday, June 21, 2014


The proposer indicated that the reason for selecting a book about the origins of the Great War was obvious. The 100th anniversary of WW1 was understandingly receiving much attention. The BBC had shown some excellent programmes and the articles on its website were well worth a read. As Fritz Stern said ‘The Great War is the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. Before turning to ‘The Sleepwalkers’ some context would be helpful.

The proposer indicated that in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of WW1 he was in 6th format school.  There were no Advanced Highers in those days so in history class WW1 was studied for a whole term. The British narrative was much as now: there was a great deal of emphasis on the horrors of trench warfare with 1July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the worst day for casualties in British history and 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele receiving much attention. The war poets, particularly Wilfred Owen, fitted into the theme. ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ which had recently opened as listened to with its emphasis on the ineptitude of the British generals.  Alan Clark’s book ‘The Donkeys’ also recently published mined the same ground. Incidentally Clark admitted later he had made up the ‘lions led by donkeys’ quote from Ludendorf.  The most significant British book published in 1964, however, was John Terraine’s ‘The Educated Soldier’ which attempted to rehabilitate Haig as the commander of the largest army ever put in the field by Britain, 60 divisions, and the victor of one of the greatest victories in British history, the 100 day campaign in 1918 which caused the Germans to seek the Armistice.

Interestingly the most widely read account in the UK of the First World War published a few months after OWALW in 1963 for the 50th anniversary was AJP Taylor’s ‘The FWW; an Illustrated History’ which sold 250,00 copies by 1990.The book was the first short popular narrative of the whole war and was dedicated to Littlewood. From start to finish Taylor depicted the war as a succession of accidents, the product of human error. Statesman miscalculated. War was imposed on the statesmen of Europe by the railway timetables of mobilisation. He also claimed that the ‘lions led by donkeys’ applied to all the generals. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike.

The other distinctive British reinterpretation of WW1 was the excellent BBC TV series ‘The Great War’ aired on the new BBC 2 channel in 26 episodes in 1964 as the centrepiece of the BBC commemoration which achieved huge audiences.  Corelli Barnet and John Terraine were the principal scriptwriters and the programme was intended to be a robust defence of the British army and generals against the likes of Clark and Taylor. But while the script was balanced, the visuals overcame the words and the British narrative was reinforced.
It would be fair to say that Terraine’s view of the War and the successes of the British army and generals is widely held today by military historians but, despite their efforts, in popular perception in Britain the Great War has remained a saga of personal tragedies, illuminated by poetry, fiction, eg Pat Barker and Birdsong, and popular TV, eg Blackadder, a subject for remembrance rather than understanding.

This is a peculiarly British perspective; none of the other participants see it this way and it is instructive to consider why. One answer is that Britain in 1914 was not fighting directly for the defence of the homeland. All the other countries thought they were; Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary justified aggression as an act of pre-emptive defence.

The causes of the war has long been an issue everywhere including in Britain. German aggression has been one answer enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles but others have argued that the war just happened through the failure of European diplomacy. While the Terraine view of the military War is broadly accepted by military historians there is no such consensus on the causes of the War. In the 1960’s the ‘Germany was the aggressor’ view received a huge boost from the writings of Fritz Fischer, Professor of History at Hamburg, and his followers such as Imanuel Geiss. Fischer argued that Germany used the crisis of Sarajevo to seek to grab world power. The ‘Fischer thesis’ was that Hitlerite expansion was no aberration but part of the dynamic of German history since at least Bismarck. The proposer had heard Fischer speak during his time at Edinburgh University in the 1960s doing history and also heard AJP Taylor who supported the Fischer thesis. The Fischer thesis became the dominant view of the origins of WW1, not least because Fischer and his followers were German. Not surprisingly the main opposition to the Fischer thesis came from Germany.   

Given the attention produced by the centenary of the War, it seemed a good idea to choose one of the many books published recently. Why ‘The Sleepwalkers’?  As can be seen from the blurbs, many reviewers have said that it is the best account yet of the origins of the First World War. Even those opposed to the Clark thesis, eg Max Hastings, is quoted on the front cover saying ‘One of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published.’

Understanding the causes of the War is complicated by the huge amount of source material. Over 25000 books on the origins of the war had been published at the last count 20 years ago. Clark makes the point that the sources are so extensive they help to explain why the outbreak of the War has proved susceptible to such a bewildering variety of interpretation. He says in his introduction ‘There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that cannot be supported from a selection of the available sources’


The majority of members of the Book Group did not find the book an easy read. Others disagreed. It was a dense, detailed analysis of the origins of the War and difficult perhaps to engage with for those unfamiliar with the period. Nonetheless almost everyone enjoyed the book, found it engrossing and stimulating with a good structure and narrative prose style.

One thought the work read like an academic thesis and as such made for a difficult long-winded read. It was beyond the redemption of editing. More significant perhaps was Clark’s interpretation and presentation of "facts" which this reader found unconvincing. While the number or references was impressive he felt that he could have presented a counter position had  he selected different sections from the same documents. In short he did not trust Clark.

Another liked the presentation from individual country viewpoints, and the highlighting of the tribal nature of humans. But the overall problem with the book was that it became a shopping list rather than a concise reasoned analysis or argument. By droning through the entire Serbian parliament and greater Slav-dom etc. etc. for 100 pages the point was lost. There was a difference between a ‘paper, a thesis’ and a log-book. This was a log book.
What was also worrying that by presenting the ‘chains of decisions’ in enormous detail, he sought to submerge the key points under a wave of trivia.

Another became progressively more disenchanted the more he read. He was so surprised by Clark’s pronounced Germanophilia that he had to look up his biography. And it turned out that Clark was not an expert on the First World War period, but was an expert on German history. He had studied in Berlin, married a German wife, and been awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the German Government. His pious renunciation of the blame game was disingenuous, as his objective, as noted by Bogdanor, was to exculpate Germany and Austria-Hungary as far as possible from their responsibility for starting the War, while pointing the finger of suspicion at all other possible candidates.

This reader was not convinced by Clark’s attempt, and, because of what he viewed as remarkably partisan omissions and distortions, by the end he also ceased to trust that anything he said was the whole truth. He would have much preferred if Clark had been upfront and said that as a German expert he was going to write a book that set out the German perspective on the events.

Members were not convinced by the psychobabble aspects of Clark’s analysis, eg the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the title was also criticised. Only in the last pages does Clark explain the reasoning for the title: ‘ The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, blind to the reality they were about to bring into the world’. This is unconvincing. The ‘watchful, calculated steps’ he had chronicled did not constitute sleepwalking. Secondly the American Civil War should have shown the protagonists of 1914 what modern war would be like. 

There was also some debate as to whether the book was an academic or popular work. It was agreed it fell between the two. It was too detailed to be a popular account yet assumed too much knowledge to work as a general introduction. 

One argued that despite its populist title, its initial narrative drive sagged too much to be a popular read, but it was too partisan, and too compressed in its argumentation, to rank as serious academic revisionism.

Inevitably there was discussion of Clark’s thesis of the origins of the War.      

The proposer pointed out that in Clark’s view the War was not inevitable.
The War had specific causes, principally the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the most successful terrorist act in history. Franz Ferdinand favoured a federal Habsburg empire, giving all the Slavs equal powers, a major threat to an expanded Serbia including all South Slavs. In addition he was strongly opposed to war with Serbia let alone Russia. From the Serb point of view he was their prime target.

Even so, argues Clark, the Austrian response to Serbia only become a general European War because the Russians, allied to the French, supported Serbia. Clark pointed out that the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was less draconian than the NATO one of 1999. One’s view of the legitimacy of the Austrian action will influence one’s assessment of the actions of Russia, France and Germany. Initial UK reaction was supportive of Austria. If Austria had immediately conducted a policing action against Serbia no one would probably have intervened. There are good reasons, explained  Clark, why they did not and this enabled opposition to Austria to grow. Even then many people in UK opposed support for Serbia and autocratic Russia. Germany’s crass attack on France and Belgium silenced critics.   

While there has been general praise for ‘The Sleepwalkers’ it is fair to say not all have been convinced by his thesis. Some members of the Group argued that, in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, ‘It is the most sophisticated and penetrating of all attempts to shift responsibility for the war away from Germany and Austria Hungary’. They considered that Clark was misleading in this attempt. For example, Clark says that Edward Grey the British Foreign Minister ‘showed no interest in the kind of intervention that might have provided Austria with other options than the ultimatum’. One member pointed out that Grey in fact made six proposals for international talks to Germany which were ignored. After the war Grey regretted he had approached Germany rather than Austria.  Not just Britain but France and Russia had argued for international talks to resolve the problem of the assassination, and only Austria-Hungary and Germany had refused to countenance such a solution.

The same member pointed out that mobilisation is quite different to a declaration of war, and that Clark lazily conflated the two. He also pointed out that whether there was a difference in the case of Bosnia between a protectorate and annexed territory might seem arcane, but that it was important to the outbreak of hostilities.

Others suggested that Clark’s discussion of the Austrian ultimatum showed him at his worst. No unbiased person could equate Milosevic, a war criminal, with Pasic. After a two-page rant about how the UN’s ultimatum in 1999 was worse than Austria’s, he limply concedes that Austria’s ultimatum was designed not to be accepted (did his editor insist on this?). Moreover the world had moved on a lot since 1914 and to compare the UN and Austria-Hungary is a jest not a serious piece of analysis. A serious analyst might rather have referred to contemporary reaction to the ultimatum – such as that of Grey, who turned pale and said it was “the most formidable document I had ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent.”

Clark is over critical in a personal way of those with whom he disagrees. He downplays the German preparations for war and willingness to attack Russia and France. Some pointed out that Clark was seeking to redress the argument away from German responsibility and the book should not be read in isolation. 

Clark argues he is concerned with how the War happened not who to blame. His view is that responsibility is collective. The majority view in this country is that German aggression is to blame, as argued in the Treaty of Versailles. That has been a controversial view ever since; there is still no consensus on the causes of WW1. The view people take will depend on various factors including inclination and nationality. For example American reviewers of Clark, eg Professor Thomas Laquer in the London Review of books, have been broadly supportive of the Clark thesis, unsurprisingly as neutrals in the War until 1917. In his classic 1928 study the American historian Sidney Fey argued for shared responsibility for the War, essentially Clark’s view.

History of course is written from the perspective of the times in which the writer is living.

Clark makes the interesting point that developments in our time, eg terrorism and suicide bombers mean we have less sympathy with a rogue terrorist state such as Serbia, particularly after their violent irridentist nationalism in the 1990’s. Equally we are now more sympathetic to the Habsburg Empire, a model for the EU. Almost all Habsburg territory is now within the EU; a major exception is Western Ukraine.

Clark’s emphasis on contingency rather than necessity for war origins also fits into postmodernist theory which has influenced historical analysis as much as other disciplines. Agreement on the origins of World War 1 is not achievable. 

The discussion in the group reflected this. Some members were more persuaded by the Clark thesis than others. Others felt that Clark was not to be trusted, and that his book had received much more attention than it merited. There was general agreement, however, that the book had been an excellent and stimulating choice.    


Sunday, June 15, 2014


The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was published in 1915, and the story is set just before World War 1.

The narrator, John Dowell is an American from Philadelphia married to Florence from Connecticut. They are very friendly with an English couple, Edward Ashburnham (the ‘good soldier’ of the title) and his wife Leonora. Most of the action is set in continental Europe, on the French coast or the spa resort, Nauheim in Germany, where Edward and Florence are seeking treatment, ostensibly for their heart ailments. The narrator describes the characters as ‘all quite good people’ – Edward especially so – but as the story progresses it becomes clear that all is not what it seems: the good characters unravel rapidly and their dark sides are revealed.

Edward is a philanderer whilst Florence is scheming, manipulative and unfaithful; neither suffer the heart ailments that they lead others to believe – they have constructed elaborate fake heart-trouble in order to pursue adulterous affairs in Nauheim. Leonora struggles to control her husband’s womanising and financial carelessness. She ultimately succeeds, but ends up marrying a dullard. Most importantly, the narrator himself is unreliable, telling us about his bad memory (although some details are recounted in vivid detail).  The story he tells is chronologically confused, full of inconsistencies and confuses the reader. At the end of the book we were left thinking that he might not merely be a poor story-teller with a bad memory but something worse, a murderer who has been obfuscating the truth and deliberately misleading us.

The book’s title does not describe the content of the book. The author’s preferred title was The Saddest Story - a tale of passion, echoing the famous first sentence ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’, but the publisher thought a book with a sad title, published in wartime years (1915) would not be saleable. Ford was asked for another title, to which he replied, probably sarcastically,  “Why not the Good Soldier...’ and was horrified when this silly title was actually used (we learn this from the author’s 1927 letter to Stella Ford, who was really Stella Bowen and not his wife).  The book didn’t sell very well, perhaps because readers found its content quite different from what they had expected and didn’t recommend it to friends.

We struggled with the book. Most of our discussion was between members who had read the book two or three times and in one case also twice viewed the DVD (Granada TV, 1981). The author’s writing style is clever and some thought elegant, but he conveys a blurred and uncertain vision of events, much as the impressionist painters were doing at that time on canvas.

The proposer of the book prefaced his introductory remarks by telling us about a modern book called The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes, in which a distinction is made between books that are ’readerly’ and those that are ‘writerly’.  The chief distinction is that in a ‘writerly’ text the reader is expected to do some of the work, even retracing the steps taken by the author, whereas in a ‘readerly’ text, a fairly straightforward narrative style makes everything clear.  The proposer suggested that The Good Soldier is firmly in the ‘writerly’ category.  Some of the other books read by the group have ‘writerly’ qualities: for example in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the reader is not always told who is speaking, but must work that out from the content and context of the spoken words. 

We talked about John Dowell’s character a good deal.  In fact he can be said to be the only character in the book, as everyone else is presented from his point of view, and their words are only the words he reports to us – sometimes from scenarios at which he was not himself present.  He is an unreliable and inconsistent narrator. He presents himself as a naive type, a daft laddie, and frequently apologises for his bumbling style, but there are at least some grounds for suspecting that all this is a ruse to obfuscate a dark deed that he has perpetrated – murdering his wife Florence and making it seem like a suicide.  

John Dowell’s attitude to Edward Ashburnham, the ‘good soldier’ of the title, is deeply ambivalent.  At various points he describes him with contempt, and at others with admiration and even envy.  He even says that he ‘loved’ him.  ‘He was the cleanest sort of chap; an excellent magistrate, a first rate soldier, one of the best landlords…in Hampshire…to the poor and to hopeless drunkards…he was like a painstaking guardian.’  He is a ‘good sportsman’ and risked his life to save others at sea.  He was also the inventor of a new army stirrup! 

But Edward obviously has a high libido, and conducts a series of affairs with other women while apparently abstaining from sexual relations with his own wife.  On the final page of the book the narrator tells of Edward’s final demise: we are led to believe he has slit his throat or his wrists with a penknife, although, as with the death of Florence (Dowell’s unfaithful wife), we are left feeling that John Dowell himself could have done it.  After all, Edward has cuckolded him for years, and Dowell is in love with Nancy Rufford, who is besotted with Edward, and has also – inconsistently as ever – confessed to coveting Edward’s wife Leonora.

Like his narrator, the author himself was a somewhat inconsistent character whose emotional life was complicated, as discussed by Julian Barnes in The Guardian, 7 June 2008.  Ford Madox Ford was born in Surrey in 1873 as Ford Hermann Hueffer but German-sounding names were unpopular at the time of the Great War. Rather belatedly, in 1919 he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford (after being in the British army with his German name, 1915-1917). His real wife was Elsie Martindale but although he took other lovers she refused divorce. He lived first with Violet Hunt, a novelist whom he called Violet Hueffer and then with Stella Bowen, an Australian painter, whom he called Stella Ford. There was also the writer Jean Rhys in Paris. 

So in some respects the author might have served as his own model for both the womanizer Edward Ashburnham and the shifty and confusing John Dowell.  Perhaps all fictional characters embody some elements of their creators. Biographers think there may have been an original Edward Ashburnham – and Ford himself claims that both the man and the story were drawn from life - but he hasn’t been identified so far.

As one grapples with the plot, there are many passages of great humour, often satirical of social manners, and of attitudes towards, among other things, the Catholic Church, Scotsmen, Northerners, and Americans. The way the characters express themselves is often funny too – for example Edward’s reported worry that using one’s brain too much may diminish performance on the polo field.  The book also has, in passing, much to say about class – the contrasts and imbalances between the ‘county folk’ like the Ashburnhams and their servants, and Dowell’s lack of compunction in beating up a long-standing and loyal negro retainer. 

Dowell’s generalisations about women are also humorously handled, and are perhaps infused with the historical context of the suffragette movement that was at its height in 1913 as Ford Madox Ford was writing the book:

‘For although women, as I see them, have little or no feeling towards a country or a career – although they may be entirely lacking in any kind of communal solidarity – they have an immense and automatically working instinct that attaches them to the interest of womanhood’.

The author considered this to be his best work. He thought it was a ‘serious analysis of the polygamous desires that underlie all men’. Some of us thought it was something in the nature of a technical experiment: his attempt to be clever, or at least clever enough to see whether the narrator could hide the truth by pretending to be a poor story-teller, as distinct from more obviously unreliable narrators in fiction, such as a clown, madman or naive person.  The confused timeline was also a technical experiment, and Ford’s overall intention was a form of ‘impressionism’, in some ways akin to the vision of the impressionist painters. 

Although the work was not popular at the time it was published, it has stayed in print and is nowadays often in the lists of ‘most important books to read’. Ford imagined his book could be required reading for university students in 150 years time.  It hasn’t quite made it yet, but there is still a half-century to go!