Monday, November 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 25, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we then wandered down a few other avenues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Pilgrim? I am Jealous.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The meeting was held in the residents’ lounge of Burt’s Hotel in Melrose where seven of the members were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the MBG. After an excellent lunch in a wine shop and a walk along the Tweed (for the majority, two arrived later by bike from Edinburgh) members settled down at 5.00 pm to a two hour pre-dinner session on the book. The proximity of the bar with good local Border brewery beers on tap assisted the discussion of a book with a strong alcohol presence.

The proposer opened by saying that the MBG had already considered German novels from the Twentieth Century by Franz Kafka and Gunter Grass and he wished to introduce a novel by another writer in German, Joseph Roth. The proposer was a keen student of the pre 1914 Habsburg Empire and had discovered Roth’s work as a result. Although less well known than Kafka, Grass and Thomas Mann, he considered Roth to be in that class of writer, a judgement shared by other more eminent critics.

For example, the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century, is a list of books compiled in 1999 in which 99 prominent German authors literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century.  The group brought together 33 experts from each of the three categories. Each was allowed to name three books as having been the most important of the century ( German Novels of the Twentieth Century). Ranked in order, these were

    Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities
    Franz Kafka: The Trial
    Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain
    Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
    Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
    Uwe Johnson:  From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
    Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
    Joseph Roth: Radetzky March
    Franz Kafka: The Castle
    Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus

The proposer further summarised some of the principal milestones in Roth’s life (1894-1939) which can be found at   He emphasised the influence of Jewish culture, WW1 and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, and the rise of the third Reich on his life and writing.  He explained that Roth also considered his relationship to Catholicism very important and may even have converted. Michael Hofmann states that Roth “was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic.” In his last years, he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily. His novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939) chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt.

As is often the case, members discussed first what translation they had read. Two had been read: one by Michael Hoffman, Roth’s main English translator, and the other by Joachim Neugroschel who had translated the Penguin Classic version. Readers of each version were enthusiastic about their translations and a comparison of some passages revealed reassuring similarities. The proposer, however, did indicate a preference for Hoffman’s use of ‘ Habsburg’ with ’b’ rather than Neugroschel’s ‘p’. It was also noted that Hoffman had translated the name for the local schnapps as 90 rather than 180 proof which Neugroschel had used.

Comparisons were made between the translations of various passages that had impressed readers’ e.g.  the return of Carl Joseph’s love letters in Chapter 4;  the physical description of Franz Joseph at the beginning of Chapter 15; the fourth sentence of the book ‘Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him.’

The general response to the book was enthusiastic. It was written, translated and flowed very well. There were rich, poetic scenes both of the natural and human world. It was an elegiac, poignant novel. Comparisons with Chekhov, Hardy and Joyce were made.

There were some superb set scenes suffused by Roth’s sense of the ridiculous: Solferino; the meeting between Carl Joseph and Sergeant Slama, the husband of his mistress; the sex scenes; the gambling, duels and drinking of army life; Carl Joseph’s attempt to live as a peasant; the party during which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is revealed; the non-heroic death of Carl Joseph.

It was a male dominated novel with women in subordinate roles and there was dispute about how well the women were portrayed.

The use of the pictures of the hero of Solferino and the Emperor Franz Joseph was well done. The similarities between the two were well brought out. The proposer said he had recently been in a restaurant in Cracow which had a picture of Franz Joseph on the wall though Cracow had left the Habsburg Empire a century ago.

There was some discussion of Roth’s treatment of Jews. Roth was a Jew at a time of growing persecution but in his writing he portrayed Jews as whatever he perceived, warts and all. Some saw the book as portraying an archaic world where duels involving honour over gambling debts or love affairs occurred. The role of the army as a unifying force within the Empire was noted. One of those present said his brother-in-law had been a member of a duelling club at a German university and had the scars to prove it! The proposer volunteered that at university he had been run through some four inches during a fencing bout.

The book was a wonderful evocation of its world. Roth was not recreating a historical account of the past, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, but writing as one who lived it. He was obsessed with the events of his own time.

The book had a sense of the helplessness of the individual participants and the empire struggling against an inexorable fate. All the Trottas were incapable of action and were unable to form proper relationships.   Random chance had brought them to prominence and they had not adapted well to their new noble status. They were not alone in this; all the characters in the novel were locked into their roles, apart from perhaps the Polish Count Chojnicki.

The juxtaposition of borders and opposites, e.g. monarchy/revolution was perfectly expressed in the frontier between the two empires of Franz Joseph and the Tsar in Ukraine. Roth was a pessimist. He said his characters were not ‘intended to exemplify a political point of view- at most they demonstrate the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.’ Roth saw the old pre 1914 world as obsolete but the new post 1914 world was worse in many ways. He came to see the values in the old world as superior to the new.

The meeting concluded in general agreement that the book had been an excellent choice for the tenth anniversary and in a mellow mood adjourned to dinner and the bar.

Friday, May 20, 2016


There are very few books in which professionals speak frankly and honestly about their profession. It’s a bit like magicians. They never give away the secrets of their magic, they just get on and do it. But Henry Marsh has revealed the secrets of the Magic Circle of Neurosurgeons.
Who is this man? He’s pictured inside the back cover: a genial chap, a veteran now, wearing a pale blue surgeon’s gown. He has enormous hands, or is it the camera angle that makes it seem so?
He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, but later turned to medicine. Without a degree in science, the only medical school that would have him was the Royal Free Medical School, London. He is now a senior consultant neurosurgeon at St George’s Hospital in south London, specializing in brain surgery: a special style of brain surgery where the patient is merely under a local anesthetic.  That way, the surgeon or assistant can to ask his patient questions about how they feel, or find out if they can recite the alphabet. This crucial feedback is used to guide the surgeon’s knife as it seeks the right place within that most delicate of organs, the brain. Perhaps what I’ve just written is a simplification of the actual process but I’m trying to write in a simple and straightforward manner, just as the author does.

He demonstrated something of his method on TV back in 2004, for the BBC documentary Your Life in Their Hands. If I were operating on a human brain (God forbid) I think the presence of BBC camera crew would be a distraction. Apparently not in his case, as the patient survived and the programme won a prestigious gold medal.

Most chapters of the book describe a single operation to cure a particular condition, each being given its medical name and a plain English definition. There are many such conditions, and to read the book is to receive a brief medical education in this specialized area. One learns about the symptoms. The reader will doubtless wonder whether that headache he gets is caused by a tumor, and why could I not walk in a straight line after that night out? Actually, our book group didn’t discuss our personal symptoms – and in any case our medical member wasn’t present on this occasion to tell us ‘don’t worry’.

You may have often wondered how surgeons get started. Some poor soul has to be their first victim…er…I mean patient. Well, the book tells us how it’s done. Yes, it is just a little bit dodgy, and if I need surgery I’m going to plump for an older surgeon. There is also the issue of success rate. A bold and skilful surgeon will take on some of the more challenging cases, and so may have a lower success rate than a beginner, so the hapless patient should not expect to find useful data from which to judge the likely outcome of the operation.

The author recalls operations and family circumstances in great detail. Did he keep a diary like politicians do? Probably he just has a great memory, as most physicians do. Without it, they would fail all those MD and Royal College examinations. It is noteworthy that the surgeon must deal with the family as well as the patient: being a surgeon is not the same as being a technician, one has to talk to, and deal with, troubled people in their most vulnerable moments. Many of these situations are portrayed with a good deal of compassion. Sometimes it all goes wrong and the surgeon (or rather the hospital) must face a legal challenge. It’s clear that things do indeed go wrong. The author describes the shocked response of a lecture he gave on that very subject, called When Things Go Wrong.

His career has been unconventional. For example, he tells us of his time in the Ukraine. He visited the country often, helping the poorly funded Ukrainian colleagues to improve their neurosurgery. Conditions in the hospital were grim, and it was necessary to take second-hand equipment from the UK to supplement what little was available locally. He seems to have been able to move around rather freely in the Ukraine (in the 1990s), carrying out difficult operations under the most testing conditions.

He has much to say about the condition of British hospitals. A particular hobby-horse is the design of hospital buildings – he considers them often not fit-for-purpose.  Perhaps the buildings are improving, but not so the rest of the working environment. He repeatedly makes the point that the administration has become so heavy handed that his job is made harder than it was in the early part of his career. Nowadays, he sometimes has trouble finding his patient, as the sick are forever being moved from one ward to another to release beds.  Moreover, the number of operations that can be fitted into a day has decreased because of regulations on working hours, and unnecessary rules that force long breaks between operations whilst the theatre is cleaned and prepared. One of the most hilarious sections of the book is when he describes his attendance at a compulsory course given for all hospital staff on the subject of Customer Care.  It’s not Patient Care anymore. He secretly looks forward to a good sleep at the back of the room, but things do not turn out as expected. He concludes ‘how strange it is that I should be listening to a young man with a background in catering telling me that I should develop empathy..’.

Yes, surgeons are usually arrogant – they need to be self-assured – and aren’t they often charismatic? It goes with the territory. But this one is capable of laughing at his own misfortune when he himself becomes a patient and falls down the stairs, breaking a leg. Yes, it’s good to be able to chuckle at the mighty downfallen.

We were unanimous: we all loved the book. It was easy to read and fascinating. The drama of the work was totally absorbing, at least up to the last few chapters which might have been omitted – they seemed like more of the same.  We were full of admiration for our surgeon. It should be recommended reading for all young doctors. I hope he trained sufficient young doctors to carry on the good work.

Friday, March 11, 2016


The proposer first read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1990, shortly after its publication in 1987. He loved its energy and humour. He identified with and felt sorry for Sherman McCoy, the bond salesman whose enchanted life as a master of the universe falls apart. The proposer knew three solicitors who had found themselves caught up in scandals, two of whom had committed suicide. He now wanted to revisit the book to see if it retained its contemporary relevance and comic zest.

Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931. He majored in English at Washington and Lee, and then did post-graduate studies at Yale. He became a successful journalist, and collaborated with Truman Capote and Hunter Davies in the “New Journalism” movement in which various literary techniques were mixed with traditional even-handed reporting. He also wrote fact-based books including “The Right Stuff”, which was made into a film in the 1970s. By this time he lived in New York where he was noted for his white suits, cane and hat – all to suggest a Southern Planter.

His lengthy and polemical introduction to the novel sets out his aesthetic. He felt the American novel had lost its way around 1960, when the novel as “sublime literary game” displaced realistic depiction of society in the style of Dickens, Zola, Faulkner or Steinbeck. The traditional novel was seen as dead, and in its place came Absurdist novels, Magic Realist novels, novels of Radical Disjunction, Neo-Fabulist novels, Minimalist novels….Wolfe, however, was clear that “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him”.

This novel had a long gestation period. Wolfe wanted to write a novel that captured New York and its wide spectrum of society in the 1980s in the way that Dickens and Thackeray had captured nineteenth century London, and Zola had captured Paris. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” was the novel that particularly appealed to him as a model, and is echoed in his title. And, finding he was procrastinating, he agreed with his editor to publish the novel in serial form in the best Dickensian tradition, in the hope that the magazine deadlines would impel him to apply himself . The novel was duly serialised in “Rolling Stone”, and the technique proved very successful in getting Wolfe to apply his shoulder to the wheel.

The published novel, three years later, had significant changes from the serial version, with McCoy being changed from writer to banker, and Judy’s role diminished while that of Fallows increased. Sales were very high, and, as icing on the cake, race riots and a Wall Street crash shortly followed publication. Wolfe was seen as strangely prescient.

So what did we make of it? The first issue raised was length. Your scribe’s copy runs to 741 pages, and they are big pages with small print, so it weighs in at around Dickensian length. In the Book Group’s history of nearly ten years, “Berlioz Vol.1” was the only other book of comparable length we could remember. And for some it was slow to get going and too long overall, but all of us found ourselves soon caught up in the story, which was quite a page-turner. Perhaps some of Wolfe’s detail was unnecessary or uninteresting, but the same is true of Dickens. The length of the book may be partly caused by its episodic magazine base, as with Dickens, but detail is integral to Wolfe’s realist aesthetic.

So…. (your reporter paused briefly at this point to wince at the “South Australia Shiraz” he had picked up in his haste)…..

What sort of novel is it?...( and what kind of wine do you expect for £3.99?)…

At one level it is indeed social realism, with the vast gulf between the rich of Manhattan and the poor of the Bronx starkly delineated, as is the fear of the white rich towards the black poor. And there is almost no connection between the two worlds. Wolfe has succeeded in capturing a city. Social change is recorded, as the historic roles – Irish the police, Jews the manufacturers, Italians the retailers, and the Wasps in the professions  - are breaking down. The dispossessed are getting more and more bitter, and there will be more and more explosions.

Lord Buffing, who is dying, gives a speech at a dinner which evokes Poe’s “Masque of Red Death”, with the rich trying, and failing, to escape the plague by staying in a well provisioned palace cut off from the poor. The idea that the New York rich cannot escape disaster is also echoed in the scene where Ruskin drops dead despite the gross lavishness of the restaurant where he is dining.

But, in our view, above all the novel was a satire, and a black satire at that. Wolfe does not take aim only at the glittering world of excessively rich bond brokers – the masters of the universe - and their partners. He also sets his sights on corrupt mayors and on DAs who pursue re-election rather than justice. He exposes the synthetic outrage of black community leaders who chase wealth and power, not social progress. He exposes newspapers and journalists whose interest is sales whatever the truth and whatever the cost to individuals. A world, in short, of greed, lechery, vanity, dishonesty and corruption – everyone, rich or poor, white or black, has an angle. Everyone is on the make. Everything has a price.

There are only one or two characters who have any moral scruples, and they are minor characters. The most striking is Judge Kovitsky, who, obscene and venomous as he is, actually believes in justice.

This vision is in some ways bleaker than that of Dickens, whose hypocrites, graspers and social climbers are always counterbalanced by people of integrity and human kindness. It means that many of Wolfe’s characters are caricatures, which is the nature of the satirical genre. However, some characters do develop into more rounded human beings, in particular bond salesman Sherman (“Shuman”) McCoy and Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer, and to a lesser extent the drunken journalist Peter Fallow. Even then, Sherman and Kramer are very similar people, one of whom made a career choice that led to wealth and the other a career choice that led to relative poverty. This parallel is highlighted when Kramer uses the same flat for a sexual conquest that Sherman has used for assignations with his mistress.

Some felt that this absence of sympathetic or virtuous characters led to the inconclusive ending – neither side could be allowed to win. On the other hand, the Jarndyce v Jarndyce style gridlock at the end could be seen as further satire aimed at the American legal system.

Ah…. the second bottle turns out to be St-Georges-St-Emilion. Better!.....

The satire is not confined to the big issues of dishonesty and corruption. Wolfe is also very perceptive – and witty - about human psychology. He lays bare the day to day foibles of social one-up-manship, of drinking, of attempts to impress the opposite sex, and of vanity of all sorts. Indeed it is hard to imagine, after Wolfe’s merciless analysis of the social rituals of hostesses at New York parties, that he was ever invited to such a party again.

I’ll keep it in the brown paper bag in case anyone else wants some….

What to make of Sherman? Hero or anti-hero? Is there a clue that he is named – by a southern writer  – after the most brutal of Unionist generals? Some felt that the story is that of the redemption of Sherman through suffering. He has lost all his attachment to wealth, all of his “vanities”. On the other hand, as soon as the court case starts going his way, Wolfe shows how quickly he reverts to type, to boasting about his triumphs to any attractive woman in range. And amusingly Wall Street bond traders are said to have started imitating Sherman’s behaviour as a result of the book.

But it was difficult not to feel sympathy for “Shuman” as his world inexorably disintegrates, to be made in Kafka fashion to realise just how quickly and easily you can fall right through the floor of your comfortable existence.
You can speculate about the real people satirized in the novel – such as black community leader Al Sharpton as the model for Beaton, or Ed Koch as the model for the Mayor, or Imelda Marcos as the model for Madame Tacaya. But the amusement gleaned from trying to make these identifications disappears quickly over time (try ploughing through the footnotes to Dryden’s “Absalom and Acitophel” in search of amusement). What will make this novel appreciated for a very long time is the unerring accuracy with which human weakness is depicted, and the wit with which it is done.

Indeed the most attractive thing about the book is its humour  (which reminded some of John Kennedy Toole). The death of the husband of Foxy in a pretentious restaurant with obsequious staff (which is surely one of the funniest scenes in literature)…….. Shuman’s contortions as he is drawn into a clinch with his mistress while trying not to reveal he is concealing a tape recorder….. everybody doing the pimp roll….The “girl with the brown lips”, object of Kramer’s endless attempts to impress in order to bed her, musing that it was impossible to get laid in New York without first listening to hour after hour of male boasting…..

But, dear reader, I shall not give you 741 pages of examples. Read the book!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

26/11/2015: TRAIN DREAMS by DENIS JOHNSON, plus poems by SPENDER and THOMAS


Plus two poems:

What I expected” by STEPHEN SPENDER, and
Do not go gently into that good night” by DYLAN THOMAS.

The Book Group meeting took place despite the unavoidable absence of the proposer of Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”, coupled with poems by Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas.

The absent proposer helpfully provided the meeting with his personal views on the book and the poems and the connection between them. These were read out at the start of the meeting and provided the stimulus for the ensuing discussion. His comments and observations are unashamedly plagiarized in this blog.

Poet, playwright and author, Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949, and raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington, D.C., the son of a US State Department employee. A chronicler of substance abusers living at the margins of society, Johnson himself had a substance abuse problem from an early age graduating from alcohol to hard drugs, including heroin before eventually overcoming his addiction.

He gained a Masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1974 and has received numerous literary awards including: Whiting Awards, 1986, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts 1986, Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 1993 and the National Book Award for Fiction in 2007 for “Tree of Smoke”.

 He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012 for “Train Dreams” (while it was first published in 2002 as a long short story in “The Paris Review” it became eligible for a Pulitzer for the first time when it was published, as a novel, in 2012).
Controversially the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that it would award no Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012.

Johnson is currently the first visiting professor in Boise State University, Idaho, where he is contributing to the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing programme.

“Train Dreams” is a third person historical novella describing the life of Robert Grainier, an orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, becomes an itinerant labourer working on logging gangs, and falls in love. He loses his wife and daughter in a particularly devastating wildfire. The story is about an ordinary man in extraordinary times, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family, and bearing witness to the radical changes that transform his country in his lifetime.

The proposer was given the book as a birthday present and was so captivated by it that he has read it 3 times in the last 12 months. He chose it as a book group read because it is short! He hoped that this would give the group more time to think about the contents at a deeper level than has been possible with longer reads. When reading the book he found himself questioning the “purposeful” activities we all indulge in, separating what matters from what does not.

He was drawn back by the excellent lyrical quality of the writing, and the thread of understated humour. He commented that Johnson makes an extraordinary novella from an ordinary life and he suggests that this may arise from his background as a poet, perhaps even from the years of drugs and alcohol abuse.

He considered that the novel “has a real sense of place: I imagine easily I am there and I believe in the characters”. He referred to the following passage as an example of the lyrical prose to be found throughout the novella and which he thought so descriptively effective:

Animals had returned to what was left of the forest. As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow sand colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees. More bears than people travelled the muddy road, leaving tracks straight up and down the middle of it; later in the summer they would forage in the low patches of huckleberry he already saw coming back on the blackened hillsides

He also appreciated the humour which surfaces unexpectedly, and provides such a contrast with Grainier’s bleak and often humdrum existence, e.g. through the matter of fact exchanges of Grainier with a man shot by his dog.

Sir, are you dead?
Who? Me? Nope. Alive.
Well I was wondering – do you feel as if you might go on?
You mean as if I might die?
Nope. Ain’t going to die tonight.
That’s good.
Even better for me, I’d say.”

He suggested that the contrasts drawn between the pace of the great global changes of the twentieth century and the local events that impinge on Grainier’s dull existence add pathos to his story. They reveal the passing of an age and expose the apparent mundaneness of his existence.

He described Grainger as a man who has no apparent expectation but is a man to whom things happen, and as a man who does not think deeply and creatively. He was a man of whom it might have been said, but nothing was ever said of him, that he had little to interest him.

Johnson’s summary of Grainier’s life is:

Grainier himself lived more than 80 years…. he’d never seen the ocean… he’d had one lover… owned one acre of property…. he’d never spoken into a telephone… he’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles and once on an aircraft… he had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him… When he passed away… he lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall, and through the winter, and was never missed

The use of superstition and the extraordinary add depth to the characterization of Grainier.  Examples are when he feels he has been cursed by a Chinese man who escapes from imminent lynching, when describing his search for his family, his decision to remain and resettle the land after the fire, his sole encounter with his wife’s spirit, and his later encounter with the wolf girl who he believes to be his daughter, Kate.

Kate is it you. But it was… Kate she was, but Kate no longer

The book group admired both the book and the proposer’s views of it. All were captivated by Johnson’s writing and hugely impressed by his ability to pack so much into so few pages. They felt that his startling descriptive power had given meaning to Grainier’s very ordinary life.

Conversation initially focused on scene setting. We noted the importance of the development of the railways in America in the 1920’s and the use of labour drawn from, both other parts of the USA and abroad, including large numbers of Chinese.

The work was hard and dangerous. Life was cheap and could be cruel. It was a hand to mouth existence. Death was an ever present, an accepted fact of life observed by Johnson in a shockingly matter of fact way. There was an acceptance of hardship and a “keep the head down” attitude seemed to be the norm.

The group marvelled at the quickening pace of change over Grainier’s life, cleverly revealed by Johnson’s references to events and to Grainier’s wonder at some of his experiences.

The discussion then strayed into a debate about change and whether or not the pace of change today is any less than over the period covered by ‘Train Dreams”.

There were differing views on this. Some thought that change accelerates over time while others argued that the pace of change is less important than its impact on individuals and civilization as a whole. It was pointed out that Grainier had lived through a period of massive change, but that his changing world had had very little practical impact on him or his way of life.

The Group was also greatly impressed by the sense of isolation achieved by Johnson and discussed the various ways that he had achieved this.

In addition to the sense of place mentioned by the proposer, we thought that Johnson’s depiction of Grainier as a self-sufficient individual was a particularly important factor in building a picture of overall isolation. Grainier, with the possible exceptions of his wife, daughter and dogs, had no other meaningful relationships in his life The fact that these characters and the relationships between them, are only superficially described, has the effect of adding to that sense of isolation and loneliness.

This depiction of Grainier as a very private and lonely person is successfully cultivated through a number of references, eg: the conversation between a widow and Grainier:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit. Did you ever think about that?” Grainier replies:
I don’t believe I am a hermit” but he reflects “I a hermit? Is this what a hermit is?”.

His loneliness is also reinforced by the description of his struggles to deal with “pulchritude” and with his associated self-loathing.

His desires must be completely out of nature; he was the kind of man who might couple with a beast, --- as he’d long ago heard it phrased---jigger himself a cow.

The group particularly admired the evocative language used by Johnson, and the remarkable power and economy of words.
His ability to convey the essence of minor characters in a few short sentences was admired by many of the group. For example, the Chinese worker, who was about to be thrown off a railroad bridge by Grainier and a group of his fellow workers, is described as “twisting like a weasel in a sack” and “weeping his gibberish”.

Finally the group considered the point made by the proposer about the purposeful activities in which we indulge, and we debated whether we engage in activities that are of any greater significance than those that occupied Grainier’s life.

The ensuing discussion was destined to reach no meaningful conclusion, but nevertheless provided interesting insights into our differing views of our respective contributions to the world or to the society in which we live.

One reviewer of “Train Dreams”, said;

Johnson remains defined as a cult figure writer because of his early drug drenched fiction and hard boiled prose, but in Train Dreams he stakes his claim as one of the key voices in contemporary American fiction.

He goes on to describe the work  A small masterpiece.”

While very few members of the Book Group had read much of Johnson’s work, or indeed sufficient contemporary American fiction, to be able to endorse the reviewer’s views about Johnson’s status, the Group was able to agree to describe Train Dreams as “A small masterpiece”.

In addition to “Train Dreams” the Group considered two poems with related themes: “What I Expected”, by Stephen Spender and “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.

The proposer described “ What I expected” as a poem about disillusionment with life and questions whether we should, like Grainier, simply accept “the futility and banality of it all”.

Spender suggests that one starts life with grand intentions and a hope to become strong with continual effort, but ultimately he “watches cripples pass with limbs shaped like questions”. In contrast Grainier has no ambition, no expectation and simply accepts whatever life throws at him. “Arthritis and rheumatism made simple daily chores nearly impossible”.

Spender’s disillusionment arises from expectation, “expecting always”. Grainier on the other hand is not disappointed; he has no ambition, is contented and lives in the moment.

Dylan Thomas’s famous “villanelle” in which he urges his dying father to cling to life; to resist the inevitable, despite the loss of sight, general health and strength. To fight to the end. To “burn and rave” against dying.

Granier passed away quietly, in his sleep, without fanfare:

He lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall and through the winter and was never missed.”

Perhaps he did “burn and rave”, but it seems highly unlikely and there was no one there to witness it. Grainier was at peace with the world and with himself, and no doubt died content and unconcerned.

It was suggested by some of the Group that Grainier’s way was best, but others thought that the world would be a much sorrier place if individuals simply accepted their fate without question or challenge. Indeed some went as far as to propose that the human condition required individuals to adopt a more aggressive approach to life.

In his concluding paragraph the proposer cynically stated:

These three works all put the human condition into perspective, and should cause you to pause as you go about your all-consuming and reality-denying business”.

All considered “Train Dreams”, together with the two poems, to be an inspired choice and thoroughly “purposeful” reads.

They did indeed cause us to reflect on the meaning of life, and to question the worth of what we do.

An enjoyable read, with potentially depressing consequences.