thorold looks for the horse in Q2

Tämä viestiketju jatkuu täällä: thorold hopes to read fewer books in Q3.

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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thorold looks for the horse in Q2

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 31, 2020, 3:35pm

You praise the firm restraint with which they write—
I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?

Roy Campbell, "On Some South African Novelists"

(Just out of curiosity I asked Photos to look for "horse" in my photo albums, and the first thing it found was a picture of camel racing from an Australian holiday 30 years ago. Not quite what Roy Campbell meant...)

maaliskuu 31, 2020, 3:05pm

Welcome to my Q2 thread! The Q1 thread was here:

When I picked the quote and the subject line for the last thread, I didn't expect that we would only start getting proper frosty nights at the very end of Q1. Nor did I expect the other things that are distracting us from reading at the same time as they are giving us so much more time to read in. Let's hope we all get through it safe and sound!

The Q2 quote and subject line have therefore been picked to mean as little as possible, but the nod to Roy Campbell is there to pick up what should be one of the centres of gravity of my reading in Q2, the Reading Globally theme read on Southern Africa:

Apart from that, it should be business as usual: the TBR shelf, the Zolathon (I'm currently on La Terre), Pilgrimage 3 and Pilgrimage 4, and no doubt some pleasant randomness. The TBR situation should benefit from the fact that the library is going to be closed at least for another month.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 31, 2020, 4:01pm

Q1 stats:

I finished 70 books in Q1, which is quite a lot, even for me...

Author gender: M 50 F 20

Language: EN 38, NL 15, FR 5, DE 5, ES 3, IT 3, Afrikaans 1

20 books were linked to the "rise of the far right" theme read, 3 anticipated the "Southern Africa" theme

Publication dates from 1883 to 2020, mean 1996, median 2014; 28 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 30, physical books from the TBR 12, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 2, audiobooks 9, paid ebooks 6, other free/borrowed 9 (this includes Scribd, Gutenberg,, etc., and other people's physical books)

63 unique first authors

By gender: M 45, F 18
By main country: UK 22, NL 13, US 6, FR 5, DE 3 and lots of ones and twos

As of 31 March, there were 110 books in my "to read" collection, plus four unread books borrowed for the Southern Africa read. On 22 December last year there were 105 books on the TBR. Total book-days on the TBR is 129788 (was 123090), which is 1180 days per book (was 1184). Give me another fifty years or so and it will all be under control!

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 31, 2020, 4:23pm

Q1 highlights

As I said in the general thread, the book that's left the deepest impression in Q1 is Judas by Amos Oz. But I also very much enjoyed Juli Zeh's Unterleuten and a rather more under-the-radar German novel, Hier Sind Drachen by Husch Josten.

Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage 1 and Pilgrimage 2 perhaps only count as half a book between them, but I'm certainly finding them interesting.

It's been fun discovering B S Johnson, a very entertaining experimental writer I somehow never really knew about. More to go there still, including his famous book-in-a-box.

Also worth noting were two very interesting holocaust-related memoirs of the authors' mothers, The photographer at sixteen and W: ou le souvenir d'enfance

Older delights included Scottish classic The cone-gatherers, The story of an African farm — which I thought I'd read but hadn't — and The taming of Nan by Lancashire mill-girl Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

And a lot of depressing but very worthwhile non-fiction for the RG "rise of the new far-right" theme. I don't think I've ever read so many Dutch-language books in three months before!

maaliskuu 31, 2020, 5:26pm

What accounts for the increase in your reading? Are you "sheltering in place" and that's it?

huhtikuu 1, 2020, 1:38am

>5 sallypursell: Q1 is always a good time for getting books finished: bad weather, dark evenings, and so on. Last year I read 63 books in Q1, so the difference is only about 10%. Part of that is probably the very rainy January and February we had this year, part is certainly the last three weeks of staying at home. The nine audiobooks could be significant as well: I got some new headphones in January that made it a lot more comfortable to listen when out and about (the bone-conduction type, which don’t plug up your ears).

huhtikuu 1, 2020, 9:48am

First book finished in Q2 — homework for the Southern Africa theme:

A history of South Africa (1998, 2000) by Frank Welsh (UK, 1931- )


There are two books of the same title that appeared at about the same time, one by SA-born Yale professor Leonard Thompson and this one, by a former British banker who has become a specialist in history-of-empire (and triremes, apparently!) in later life. I picked this one mostly because it was easily available and seems to have been updated most recently.

Welsh takes the history of South Africa from the first recorded European contact (Bartolomeu Dias in 1488) through to the post-Mandela election of 1999 in the space of about 540 pages (plus notes, etc.). Despite this rather wide scope, he manages reasonably detailed coverage throughout (skimping a bit on the parts he expects us to know about already, like the military history of the "Zulu wars" and "Boer war" and the stuff we all saw on the TV news in the 1980s), but the core of his interest is clearly in the hundred years of British administration, where he goes into a lot of detail about how successive generations of British officials on the spot and politicians in Whitehall messed up the running of the Cape Colony and its various unwanted appendages (Natal, the Boer republics and the protectorates that became Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana).

Whilst he spends plenty of time on puncturing the core myths of Afrikanerdom (and exposes the newness of at least some glorious African tribal "traditions"), this really seems to be a book addressed at British (or English-speaking South African) readers brought up on the idea that it was benign, if somewhat paternalistic, British imperial supervision that protected the black population from the evil Afrikaners until "we" were so ungratefully chucked out. In reality, of course, British imperial policy was all about keeping the voters in the British Isles happy, which, then as now, meant spending as little as possible, protecting trade, and keeping British casualties low. Embarrassing headlines about "natives" being maltreated could be awkward, but they were rarely the top priority. The office of Colonial Secretary was not a popular one (Joseph Chamberlain seems to have been the only minister who ever volunteered for it), it had a high turnover rate, and was rarely given to anyone disqualified by practical knowledge of the world south of the English Channel. Something I hadn't appreciated was that there was always a strong rivalry between the Colonial Office and the separate India Office — to the extent that the India Secretary sometimes intervened to complain about the mistreatment of Indians in Natal, for example.

This mess of good old-fashioned British amateurishness and cynicism goes a long way to explain the real puzzle of South African history, something I never made sense of in school history lessons, that the British fought a long and nasty war against the Afrikaners, defeated them thoroughly, and then only a few years later agreed a constitutional settlement that allowed them to become the dominant parties in the new Union of South Africa, with no real guarantees for non-white people at all. One part of the puzzle is that it was a Tory government that fought the war, and it was fought to safeguard the rights not of the black people, but of the white, non-Afrikaner capitalists and workers in the gold-mining areas of Transvaal. And the other part is that the Tories were ousted by the Liberals soon after the end of the war, and their policy seems to have been to get rid of the South African problem as swiftly as possible, even if it meant letting Jan Smuts pull a fast one on voting rights...

In the discussion of the twentieth century there wasn't so much that was new to me, but it was interesting to see Welsh's — no doubt well-informed — view that it was chiefly economic factors that forced the end of white minority rule in the 1980s. Employers simply couldn't work with the crazy conditions that the apartheid system dictated, and investors were pulling out, leaving Botha and de Klerk little choice but to start dismantling the rickety apparatus their predecessors had convinced themselves they needed. (Other writers usually give most of the credit to the end of the Cold War making South Africa's "bulwark against communism" irrelevant to the US.)

All very interesting, and useful background on how South Africa got to be how it is now.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 2020, 10:10am

Sorry, just reposted three reviews here when I thought I was posting in the SA thread :-(

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 2020, 10:11am

Viestin kirjoittaja on poistanut viestin.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 2020, 4:40pm

I’m still spending a lot of my evenings watching old French films, in the absence of concerts to go to — a bit of a Truffaut binge over the weekend including the delightfully batty Vivement Dimanche and all four of the Antoine Doinel films. Nice to watch them all together, the clips in the last one are much more interesting if you’ve just seen them in context as well.

And tonight a film I’d forgotten how much I like, Jacques Tati’s Playtime. No real story, just people vs. modern architecture, and some beautifully balletic traffic jams.

I’ll have to think of something special for tomorrow evening — that should have been the Matthäuspassion.

huhtikuu 3, 2020, 5:56am

>10 thorold: I’ll have to think of something special for tomorrow evening

I didn't really come up with anything that would equal the Nederlandse Bachvereniging, but since I was in the mood for rural tragedy (see below) I went with Jean de Florette, the first half of Claude Berri's Marcel Pagnol epic. Which presumably means Manon des Sources next. Not "old" French films — they are recent enough that I went to see them in the cinema when they first came out in the 1980s. Daniel Auteuil and Yves Montand have the unusual privilege of upstaging Depardieu.


I've been neglecting my Zolathon a bit since Christmas, but this is the perfect opportunity to catch up with long books.

The 15th (of 20) in the cycle, this is one of the first Zola novels I read (I think I might have read the non-cycle Thérèse Raquin earlier), in English translation sometime in the 1970s. As you can imagine, it made me revise a lot of my ideas about nineteenth-century novels...

La Terre (1887; Earth) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


When you've already pulled out all the stops, as Zola did in both L'Assommoir and Germinal, how is it possible to go further? Fortunately, Camille Saint-Saëns had shown the way with his third symphony the year before Zola wrote La Terre: all you have to do is end with a complete symphony orchestra in the room in addition to an organ playing full-blast...

This is a book that passes from a gentle, bucolic opening chapter (a man casts his seed on the ground; a teenage girl manipulates a bull's penis...), via fraud, theft, ingratitude, drunken orgies, incest, casual violence and an entire chapter of Rabelaisian farting, to an epic conclusion where rape and murder are brought together with more agricultural disasters than you would find in a stack of Thomas Hardy novels. Nothing is done by halves, nothing is swept under the carpets (not that anyone in this book has a carpet), everything that you can think of that's nasty and offensive about human beings is out there, vaunting itself.

Zola's already shown us numerous times that extreme poverty brings out the worst in human nature: here he's having a go at the way being absolutely dependent on possession of land corrupts human relationships in peasant communities, especially in the light of post-revolutionary inheritance laws that force the division of property. Because everyone wants an equal share of the best land, people can't afford to trust their siblings, or their parents, or their children, and fields are reduced to handkerchief size. No-one can afford to marry someone without a useful parcel of land, and there's every incentive to cheat, murder and rape.

Meanwhile, it also turns out that we're living in a world where farmers overseas can produce grain far more cheaply, and where industry in France is putting pressure on the government to keep food prices at a level where domestic farmers can't possibly cover their costs (plus ça change...). Even the progressive "scientific" farmer, Hourdequin, who has a large land-holding acquired cheaply by his father during the dismantling of aristocratic estates, can't make money.

And everyone in the village is corrupt in one way or another. The woman with the superb vegetables? Manures her garden with human waste. The little girl with the geese? Check your pockets after she's gone past. That nice, retired middle-class couple? Owners of the most successful brothel in Chartres. The café proprietor? A cellar full of untaxed wine. The priest? Well, there isn't one, the council can't agree to spend money on repairing the presbytery. And so on.

A book every town-dweller should read before moving to the country!

huhtikuu 3, 2020, 6:55am

Thorold, fine musicians are putting on concerts every day, I think on Youtube. I heard in another thread that opera is streaming every day. Concerts for a modern time!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 3, 2020, 10:37am

>12 sallypursell: Yes, in fact I read somewhere that the Concertgebouw are doing a streamed Matthäus tonight. Must check...

ETA: 19.00 CET, 3 April:

Southern Africa again:

Year of the uprising (1978) by Stanlake Samkange (Zimbabwe, 1922-1988)


Samkange taught African history in universities in the US and Zimbabwe. He was secretary of the ANC for a long time, and was active in Zimbabwean politics in the 1970s. He's best-known for his first novel On trial for my country (1966) and for his history book Origins of Rhodesia (1968), which was banned by the Smith government.

‘Damn it all. This buffet from Mashonaland,’ said Grey, as Rhodes joined Jarvis, Selous, Tembu and other members of the Baden-Powell intelligence unit, ‘is most provoking.’

‘It is the devil,’ agreed Jarvis.

This historical novel deals with the conflict known to the British as the "Second Matabele War", a rising by Ndebele, and later also Shona, people in Zimbabwe in 1896-7 provoked by a combination of drought, rinderpest, locusts and wholesale abuses by the British South Africa Company and its police force.

In the preface, Samkange quotes a critic who found that "the trouble with Samkange is that you never know where his fiction ends and history begins". In this book, it seems to be fairly easy to pin down: somewhere around the end of Chapter III. We get a few opening chapters set in an Ndebele kraal in which characters are introduced and there is all kinds of interesting fictional stuff going on — a young woman loved by an outsider but assigned to a political marriage; messengers arriving, journeys being planned, conflicts of religion and politics being set up, and so on. But then we move over to the British point of view, and most of the rest of the story is told through contemporary reports and memoirs rearranged, not always happily, into the form of dialogues. The characters from the first chapters pop up again in odd corners, but they are undeveloped and always in the background, displaced by a high-profile (but constantly changing) cast of company officials, soldiers, and British colonial representatives.

It's very interesting history, but a terrible novel, and because of that it's not even very good propaganda, because Samkange can't persuade himself to be one-sided. Obviously we're meant to think of Smith whenever Rhodes is mentioned, but Samkange is too conscientious to turn Rhodes into a stage villain: he often comes across as a great deal less bad than his colleagues (not that that's necessarily saying much...). The indignities, rapes, thefts and forced labour suffered by the Ndebele are represented as the fault of unsupervised minor officials, not the policy of the Company, and Rhodes is shown as a pragmatist happy to do a deal that would preserve the dignity of the chiefs, whilst his small-minded colleagues are more interested in looking for black scapegoats to punish for the crimes committed during the rising.

Samkange's academic conscience also prevents him from brushing over the weakness of the Ndebele's claim to moral superiority over the British interlopers: they themselves had come from Natal and had taken the land they were on from the Shona and Rozwi only fifty years earlier, after being displaced north in the mfecane.

Worth reading because of the way it documents what it feels like to be on the receiving end of colonial intervention, but it would have been better as straight non-fiction.

huhtikuu 5, 2020, 4:40am

Last but one in my carefully-guarded stack of pre-plague library books...

For some reason I thought this was Javier Marías's first novel — it wasn't, that was Los dominios del lobo, published in 1971, when he was 19. This one, actually his fifth, seems to have been the first to make a big splash, winning the Premio Herralde in 1986, when he was already well-known for his 1979 translation of Tristram Shandy.

El hombre sentimental (1986; The man of feeling) by Javier Marías (Spain, 1951- )


Early Marías, but already with most of the characteristic features of his style clearly visible. The classic narrative rhythm, the subversive parentheses, the loops and digressions, the literary sidetracks: all there as we would expect, but on a slightly less monumental scale than in his more recent books.

The narrator is an opera singer, a tenor, who is telling us about a dream he's just had relating to an incident some four years ago when he was in Madrid, appearing as Cassio in Verdi's Otello, and got involved with a woman called Natalia Manur, wife of an important Flemish banker. We soon lose track of how much of what he's telling us is dream and how much really happened, and he doesn't seem to be very clear about it himself, but obviously that shouldn't make any difference to us as readers of a piece of fiction anyway...

As we might expect, there's a female character who has to die prematurely for no good reason other than to advance the plot. But despite the obvious Othello parallels in the plot, it isn't the Desdemona character who gets the chop this time. Moreover, Marías being nothing if not self-aware, it turns out that the narrator has an interesting obsession with the character Liù in Turandot, who has to kill herself so that it's possible for the story to resolve itself.

There are passing mentions of Flaubert, Nabokov, Shakespeare and other usual suspects, as well as "an Austrian writer" (Thomas Bernhard? Robert Musil?). But mostly Marías sticks to the idea that the narrator is not a particularly bookish person, more interested in the oddities of the opera world than in odd corners of world literature. And there are some good opera anecdotes, including the one about the singer who becomes so obsessive about not singing to a house that is less than 100% full that he ends up sitting in an overlooked empty seat himself and having to be removed forcibly by the men in white coats.

Good claustrophobic fun!

huhtikuu 5, 2020, 7:52am

Enjoying lurking on your South African reading journey. My sister has lived in South Africa for almost 30 years and has an Afrikaans partner, and they constantly rail against the mess that the country is now left in. As an example, the electrical grid doesn't seem to have been effectively maintained in recent years, and they are now left on many days each week without electricity for up to 12 hours at a time.

I'm always conscious that there are several sides to the South African story, and it was interesting to read your summary of the South African history book - I didn't know a lot of that history. Apartheid was utterly horrendous and unfathomable, but it is also sad to see the country now lose itself in what seems to be a downward spiral of corruption and inefficiency. I'm not quite sure what the future holds for it, but right now it doesn't feel like a positive one. I guess perhaps that depends on your perspective, but certainly it feels like in many aspects wounds are gaping wider than ever before.

huhtikuu 5, 2020, 9:30am

>15 AlisonY: This next one is addressing that kind of question — not that there are any simple answers to be had:

Dog heart : a memoir (1999) by Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa, France, 1939- )


In the late 1990s, Breytenbach returns from exile to rediscover his heritage in Boland, the region of the Western Cape where he grew up. There's a certain amount of treading on eggshells in the first part of the book, as people who twenty years earlier were calling him the worst names they could think of and ostracising his parents now start queueing up to have their photographs taken with him, but this isn't really a returning-celebrity book, it's a thoughtful, rather freeform, investigation of the Afrikaner culture Breytenbach identifies with and its place in the new South Africa.

It's a kind of mosaic of anecdotes, recollections, news items: sketches of ancestors like the formidable midwife Mrs Keet, his great-grandmother, or of local characters like the outlaw Koos Sas, constantly on the run from the law in the 1920s; lyrical observations of scenery and plants; reflections on the death of old friends; conversations with neighbours or tradespeople; stories of appalling rapes, murders and robberies. And above all it's about the one thing that seems to tie all these things together, the Afrikaans language and its ability to give things apt and witty names.

Breytenbach is obviously saddened and frightened by the crime and brutality he sees in the new South Africa, but he's also only too well aware of the injustice and brutality that white people mostly didn't care to see in the old South Africa. Probably wisely, he confines himself to reporting what he sees and doesn't try to tell us that things are better or worse. Still less to suggest how to solve the problems.

What does come out between the lines, though, is that he doesn't see how the old culture of the "white" Afrikaner families can survive as a separate identity (as he keeps reminding us, they are all more or less "brown" in fact, after centuries of living among Africans). And he doesn't really see that it needs to: a culture is defined by its past, not its future. There is value in the Afrikaans tradition, even if the next generation of children grow up wearing shoes.

A beautifully-written, seductively mournful book.

huhtikuu 5, 2020, 1:17pm

>16 thorold: That sounds really interesting - going to note that one.

I'm just off a WhatsApp call with my sister and she was saying they're considering increasing the Coronavirus quarantine period for several months. She was just commenting that she can't see South Africa surviving if that happens, given how bankrupt it already is. Mind you, it may have plenty of good company on that front with the amount of money global economies are having to throw at this.

huhtikuu 6, 2020, 5:03am

A very good start to your reading for the Reading Globally second quarter theme, Mark. I own two of Breyten Breytenbach's books that I received from past years' subscriptions to Archipelago Books, but my focus will be on Moçambican authors, given my interest in moving to Portugal after I retire; I'll post my list of planned reads later today.

huhtikuu 6, 2020, 10:23am

Thanks, Darryl - I'm hoping to get around to some authors from Mozambique too. And perhaps to read some of Breytenbach's Afrikaans poetry.

A bit of Mediterranean frothiness from the TBR pile, where it's been since April 2013. For some reason I didn't get around to it when I read (and enjoyed) Douglas's travel book Old Calabria in 2014:

South Wind (1917) by Norman Douglas (UK, 1868-1952)


Mr Heard, an Anglican bishop returning to England from his African diocese, stops off for a few weeks on the pleasant Mediterranean island of Nepenthe, a fictitious Italian outpost that might easily be confused with Sicily. Despite the enthusiastic cult of two local saints, Eulalia and Dodekanus, whose unlikely careers are still nothing like as extraordinary as those of the real saints Douglas describes in Old Calabria, and the efforts of the formidable parocco (called "Torquemada" by his rival, the worldly Mgr Francesco), it's very obvious that the old gods have a lot more to say here than those of any new-fangled Judeo-Christian religions, and the colourful expat community of art-lovers, alcoholics and fugitives from justice are more than a little affected by the general atmosphere of paganism too, especially when the Sirocco blows from Africa (as it almost invariably does). Murders and mysterious disappearances are almost incidental to the feeling of being outside the normal responsibilities of life that the island induces.

The mood of this bit of pre-WWI escapism is somewhere between E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank: lots of erudite conversations about art and culture, lots of jokes about English and Italian national characteristics, not quite serious enough for the one or frivolous enough for the other. But very entertaining.

huhtikuu 6, 2020, 12:59pm

>19 thorold: This is a book I am about half way through, reading it in fits and starts. It seems odd to find someone else reading this book, although I did think of you as I was reading. It is fun.

huhtikuu 6, 2020, 1:32pm

>20 SassyLassy: Small world! Evidently we need nepenthe these days, although 1917 was probably a lot more unpleasant than 2020 seems to be.

huhtikuu 6, 2020, 5:20pm

>11 thorold: La Terre was the first Zola that I read as a young man. The paperback had a particularly lurid cover, but it was not lurid enough for what was in the book. I could not quite believe what I was reading.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 6, 2020, 7:00pm

an interesting obsession with the character Liù in Turandot, who has to kill herself so that it's possible for the story to resolve itself.

Wouldn't this make an interesting dissolution of the fourth wall to have her do a tragique monologue about her fate being necessary to the play, and what a stupid reason to die that was, in a play on the lines of Waiting for Godot? but starting with Turandot?

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 7, 2020, 5:21am

>23 sallypursell: I’ve often wished that she would have the sense to turn in the vain and noisy prince and run away with Turandot herself: I’m sure there’s scope there if someone hasn’t already done it. Or something along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, with the opera going on offstage in the background.

>22 baswood: Yes, that’s one of the rare cases where sixties and seventies paperback publishers would have had a hard time getting it lurid enough. I think the one I read back then was a hardback from the library, so probably the Paul Elek edition from the fifties, with quite a modest country scene on the dustjacket.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 7, 2020, 12:11pm

It was nice to see that this next book actually came from a publisher in Zimbabwe, printed from masters that were nearly worn out and covered in spots and scratches. Very African.

Coming of the dry season (1972) by Charles Mungoshi (Zimbabwe, 1947-2019)


This slim collection of short pieces (10 stories in only 61 pages) was apparently banned by the Rhodesian censors when it originally came out, but it's not an overtly political book: obviously the authorities were so paranoid by that time that any book in which a white character was represented as stupid, prejudiced or red-faced was seen as a threat.

The stories are quite understated, delivering their messages in unobtrusive bits of description rather than in the main line of the plot. But there's always a hefty punch there somewhere, even if what you've just been reading doesn't quite hit you until you're halfway through the next story. Mungoshi's characters are ordinary people, living in a largely-hostile world where they know poverty, family trouble, malignant ghosts, officialdom, or simple accidents can strike at any moment. Where it can be risky to stand up for what seems to be right, and where the migrant to the city has to feel an obligation to the people left in the village, even when he's out of work himself. Warm, compassionate writing, but always with a hard edge under it.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 8, 2020, 4:44am

...and another from the TBR pile. I brought this home with a pile of other things from the charity shop in February 2013 because I had it marked down as something I wanted to read, but it was only afterwards that I noticed it was the English version, and of course I prefer to read Sebald in German. Still, it is an Anthea Bell translation, and that's worth quite a lot in itself...

Campo Santo (2003) by W G Sebald (Germany, UK, 1944-2001) translated by Anthea Bell


...for my father, who came home only at weekends, had a particular fondness for this kind of traditional Bavarian folk music, which to me has taken on in retrospect the character of something terrible which I know will pursue me to my grave.

A posthumous collection of essays and reviews by the least German of post-war German writers, which when combined form a slightly uncomfortable mix in which you're never quite sure whether it's the writer of literature or the professional academic who is addressing you, but singly are all little gems that we need to keep and treasure.

There are four chapters intended for a projected but sadly unfinished book about Corsica, there are a couple of essays about post-war German writing that formed the germ for his book On the natural history of destruction, there are book reviews, notes on Kafka, Nabokov, and Bruce Chatwin, there's an essay on the mackerel (riffing off a couple of paintings by his former classmate Jan Peter Tripp) and there are a few pieces of more or less autobiographical character. Lovely, clear thinking expressed in lovely, clear writing: something to dip into with pleasure even if you're only vaguely interested in the subjects he's writing about.

huhtikuu 9, 2020, 4:25am

Another of those books I should have read many years ago but somehow missed. Good to have a prod to get to it at last!

Cry, the beloved country (1948) by Alan Paton (South Africa, 1903-1988)


This is the big daddy of all liberal South African protest novels, the first really high-profile international bestseller to draw attention to the damage done by the racism embedded in the South African system, even before the fiction of "apartheid" was created.

It's a simple, very classically-constructed novel, a tragedy built around a father's quest for his missing son, full of symbolic landscape description and stately, formal conversations, peppered with interpolated sociological observations that come at us from a Marxist-Anglican viewpoint, all of it very much more 1848 than 1948. But somehow that doesn't seem to matter: Paton gets away with it because of his obvious love for the country and the people who live in it and his passionate concern to undo the mess that it is in.

Paton sees the racism that poisons South African life in a straightforward Marxist way, as an ideology that has grown up to justify the need the capitalist system has to keep black people in poverty so that there will always be a pool of unskilled labour prepared to work at low wages to keep the mines and farms going. By taking away the best land and forcing people into inadequate "reserves", the old agricultural economy of the tribal system has been broken down, taking with it the social control and restraints on behaviour of traditional society. Young men have to leave their families to go and work in the cities — the system doesn't allow them to establish stable family homes in the cities, or to build careers or businesses once they are there, so those who are too enterprising or too undisciplined to cope with tedious work in mines and factories are more than likely to end up in crime.

For the moment, political opposition doesn't seem to offer a way out — in the absence of any real political responsibilities open to them, black leaders are vulnerable to being corrupted by the system. Well-meaning white liberals can make a difference on a small local scale, but in the end they are only giving back a part of what their community took away in the first place. The only real pillar of hope for Paton seems to be the (Anglican-) Christian church, which gives black people a new kind of community structure to replace what they have lost in the breakdown of tribal bonds. But he's clearly not expecting the revolution any time soon.

If this were a new book, it would be criticised because Paton is a white person writing from the point of view of a black protagonist, using elements of style that are clearly meant to give the book an African rhythm, but which can sometimes start looking rather Hiawatha-ish: Here is a white man's wonder, a train that has no engine, only an iron cage on its head, taking power from metal ropes stretched out above. Conversations that are supposed to be in Zulu are rendered in very formal, courteous English, which is perhaps an accurate representation of the way social relations in Zulu work, but starts after a while to look like a cliché of old-fashioned exoticising colonial fiction. It's clearly all well-meant, of course, and in the context of its time, we can't really use the "cultural appropriation" argument that Paton is stealing space in which black writers could have been selling their books. If anything, he's helping to create a demand for more African writing.

Of course, Paton wrote this for an international audience, during a stay abroad, and the book must owe a lot of its success to the self-satisfaction American readers got from discovering that there were worse things in the world than their own home-grown racism, and British readers from finding that it wasn't their responsibility any more. The South African authorities, of course, banned it. But Paton did go back home and continued to engage in South African politics, doing his best to swim against the tide and work for change.

Whatever you think of it, it's an engaging tear-jerker and an important document of its time.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 10, 2020, 12:04pm

And back to Tales from the TBR shelf...

I bought this in November 2014, and started to read it in February 2016. I'm not quite sure what got in the way, but it's had an accusing bookmark about a quarter of the way into it ever since. Time to finish it, even if it is only the first of the seven parts of this 5000-page monster novel:

Meneer Beerta : Het Bureau 1 (1996) by J J Voskuil (Netherlands, 1926-2008)


When people talk about Het bureau, it's mostly to joke about its extraordinary length: a writer who has already taken 1200 pages to get his alter ego Maarten Koning through university (Bij nader inzien, 1963) is obviously not going to be able to compress his whole working life into the space of a novella, but still, 5000 pages split over seven parts is a bit extreme by most people's standards.

In this first part, we follow Maarten from 1957, when he is recruited to work in "The Office", a small research institute for Dutch language and culture in Amsterdam (based on the real Meertens Institute, where Voskuil worked himself), up to mid-1965, when Maarten's boss, Anton Beerta (based on P J Meertens) retires.

Voskuil's idea seems to be to be to examine the strange ways that office-work modifies normal human behaviour, with a gaze that's somewhere between that of the analytical ethnographer and the satirical novelist. The book gives as much prominence to questions of office furniture, budgets, typewriter ribbons and coffee breaks as it does to more conventionally important life-events, and often more: courtship and marriage, illness and death happen largely offstage, and we often see them only through the inevitable collections to be taken, flowers bought, and so on.

A big concern is how seriously it's possible to take the work that we do. Beerta clearly believes firmly in the value of the work the office does, but Maarten is sceptical — even though he does his best to justify his existence and produce scientifically-valid research, he finds it hard to believe that it really matters to anyone whether there are regional differences in farmers' customs for the disposal of mares' afterbirths (I assumed that this was simply a spoof, but apparently this is exactly what Voskuil's first published research was about!).

Although this is all back in the typewriter-and-index-card era, and the office I worked in had a radically different scale and purpose from Voskuil's, I was astonished how many of the day-to-day concerns of office politics Voskuil picks up on I recognised. The peculiar things that happen when you put a bunch of people with no other direct social connection together in a work environment and give them something to do that only has an indirect connection to the real world are obviously more general and universal than we might expect. And also often very much funnier.

I was hoping that I wouldn't like this book, but it's starting to look as though I'm going to have to read the remaining six parts after all...


BTW: for dedicated insomniacs, there's Het bureau as the longest radio play in history: 110 hours and 475 episodes. Available here (in Dutch):

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 11, 2020, 5:19am

>12 sallypursell: etc — Over the last week I’ve watched three big music broadcasts, none of which was actually live (although by the bizarre logic of the internet they are called “livestreams”) — obviously there’s no sane way to put on performance of a large orchestral work or opera in a time of antisocial distancing. Nice to see, although the audio quality wasn’t up to much (checking in daylight, I found I hadn’t got my speakers set up right: after re-calibration it worked much better). The Matthäus from the Concertgebouw, Simon McBurney’s Amsterdam Zauberflöte (both from 2012, on YouTube) and Graham Vick’s Palermo Parsifal (January 2020, via ARTE). All fun, especially the Zauberflöte. Making the Queen of the Night and her ladies into Balkan paramilitaries and Sarastro’s people into men-in-suits actually works really well.

I’ve never seen a Parsifal production that was even halfway sane, visually — it’s such an abstract plot that there’s probably no sensible way to stage it at all, so it always brings out the worst in designers and directors — but Vick’s is definitely one of the battiest. Inspired by Desert Storm in Act 1, South Pacific in Act 2 (because nothing says “Venusberg” like women in sarongs...) and the UNICEF greeting card catalogue in Act 3. Nothing wrong with the singing, though.

Also managed to find time for Manon des sources and another one from MUBI’s Louis Malle season, Le souffle au coeur (1971), probably the most self-parodying French film title ever, and the classic French plot of an adolescent boy in love with his sexy Italian mother...!

huhtikuu 11, 2020, 6:27pm

Enjoyed your review of Cry, The beloved Country, a book I have never considered reading as I had in my mind that it was some kind of melodrama, Great to read a review that banishes those wrongly held assumptions.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 13, 2020, 6:37am

>30 baswood: Yes, it has its problems, but overall it stands up very well 70 years on. A few slightly melodramatic moments, perhaps, but nothing Thomas Hardy would be ashamed of!

A recent Zimbabwean novel I found as an audiobook on Scribd. I didn't realise when I started it that it is the sequel to Dangarembga's earlier novels Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006), which I haven't read yet, but it seemed to work as a self-contained novel as well:

This mournable body (2018) by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe , 1959- ) audiobook, narrated by Adenrele Ojo


Playwright Tsitsi Dangarembga made waves in 1988 when Nervous conditions turned out to be the first novel in English by a black Zimbabwean woman, but since then she has been very busy with films, politics, and higher education, hence the long gaps before her second and third novels.

At the opening of this book we meet Tambudzai, central character of Dangarembga's two previous novels, at a low spot in her life. She's walked out of her prestigious job in an advertising agency on finding that (white) co-workers are taking credit for her work, but soon finds that a new generation of bright (thin) young women has come onto the Harare job-market since she was last looking for employment, and she's rapidly losing self-confidence. Finding somewhere to live has been every bit as difficult as finding a job. But the last thing she wants to do is seek the help of her family back in the village who made such huge sacrifices to enable her to go to a good school, and she's even more determined to stay away from the aunts and cousins who were in the bush fighting for freedom whilst she was getting her "O" and "A" levels.

After a brief, disastrous, spell as a teacher, she finds herself back in the hands of her family anyway, and then she's offered a job by Tracy, the white woman who was promoted over her head at school and in the advertising agency, but still seems to think of Tambudzai as a friend. Tracy is running an eco-friendly safari company based on her parents' old farm, and for a while Tambudzai slots happily back into businesswoman mode. But sooner or later, she's got to face the ghosts of the village and the war...

This book has its irritations: I didn't like the way it's all in second-person narrative, for instance, and there are passages which are rather over-written, but it was a very interesting look at what it's like to live on that divide between tradition and globalisation in modern Africa. In some ways very similar to the themes that come up in European and American novels of fifty years ago (the child of a working-class family that goes to college and finds it doesn't fit in any more with either world), but in some ways very different (the trauma of the guerrilla war, the legacy of colonialism).

huhtikuu 13, 2020, 7:17am

The central character of this next book has the quirk that he thinks of Literature as a beautiful young woman in red high-heeled shoes and a beige coat walking in the rain: the young Catherine Deneuve in Les parapluies de Cherbourg. So the choice of the next item in my Old French Film adventure wasn't difficult! I hadn't seen it before, so I was a bit taken aback to discover that it's a through-composed musical — I didn't know that was a thing in 1964. Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are both young and gorgeous, but they have to compete with some of the loudest wallpaper in the history of cinema. Jacques Demy rather overdid his embracing of new colour photography techniques...

The next book has been on the TBR since November 2014 — I bought it a little while after enjoying Bartleby & Co.:

Dublinesca (2010; Dublinesque) by Enrique Vila-Matas (Spain, 1948- )


Retired Barcelona publisher Samuel Riba plans a trip to Dublin for Bloomsday, 2008 with a group of writer-friends. As well as following in the footsteps of Joyce's characters, he wants to use the occasion to hold a funeral for the Gutenberg Age. He's a recovering alcoholic whose wife has threatened to leave him the next time he gets drunk: what could possibly go wrong in Dublin...?

As you might expect from Vila-Matas, this is a very intertextual book, about someone who always seems to end up seeing the world in terms of what writers have said about it in books. And who suffers from "publisher's disease", always expecting to see the next Great Writer popping up from under a bush. But there's also the feeling that the whole structure of literature that he has devoted his life to has been demolished whilst he wasn't looking, brick by brick from the inside, by Beckett, the anti-Joyce of his conceptual universe.

Riba is only too aware that since giving up his professional activities he's come close to becoming a hikikomori, reluctant to leave the house and get too far away from the screen of his computer. Even if Google means the end of the printed book, it is an amazingly powerful aid to following intertextual streams of thought in wild and unexpected directions, and Riba can't get enough of it.

It should be a depressing book, with its themes of old age, loneliness, alcoholism, the death of the printed book, wet weather, graveyards, and so on, not to mention the sinister unidentified figure who keeps popping up in the corner of the frame — is it the author Riba keeps seeing, or the young Beckett, or someone else altogether? But the mood is oddly upbeat. The narrator sticks to third-person (although this feels like a very first-person sort of a book) in order to keep an ironic distance away from Riba, and it is obvious that neither the narrator, nor the reader, nor Riba himself, can possibly take Riba and his literary obsessions quite seriously. As in the Philip Larkin poem that gives Vila-Matas his title, this is a very jolly kind of funeral.

huhtikuu 13, 2020, 7:25am

>26 thorold: I have been dipping into Campo Santo, little by little. So far have been most struck by the extremely incongruous image of Sebald sunbathing!

huhtikuu 13, 2020, 8:57am

>33 wandering_star: Yes, all it needs to complete the incongruity is Stendhal and Kafka in adjoining deckchairs...

huhtikuu 13, 2020, 10:44am


huhtikuu 14, 2020, 6:11am

Back to the Zolathon. This is 16/20 — if La Terre was one of the first I read, this must be one of the last before the current read-through, one I bought about 25 years ago in a cheap but quite attractive 1930s Hachette edition with line drawings by André Pécoud (1880-1950), who seems to have been house illustrator for Hachette for many years.

Le Rêve (1888; The Dream) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


This relatively short, simple love story is one of the quiet breathing-spaces in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, like Une page d'amour and La joie de vivre; it gives us the chance to recover and reflect a little in between the exertions of La Terre and La Bête Humaine.

Zola casts the story in almost Pre-Raphaelite romantic terms: a lovely young orphan who spends her days embroidering vestments in the medieval house of her adoptive parents in the shadow of the cathedral in a sleepy country town (a fictional version of Cambrai); the handsome young artisan who falls in love with her, and turns out to be a disguised nobleman; a climbable balcony; disapproving parents; religious processions; a deathbed scene... You get the picture.

Needless to say, there's more to it, although you perhaps wouldn't notice if you weren't pre-warned by the other Zola novels you've read. Angélique (we're told, but she isn't) is the illegitimate daughter of the shady businesswoman Sidonie Rougon, whom we met only 14 books ago in La curée. As such, she's guaranteed not to be 100% mentally fit, and in her case this expresses itself through her obsessive interest in the medieval saints and virgins of the Golden Legend. She manages, with Zola's active connivance, to live in a mental universe that shuts out any kind of intellectual input more recent than the early renaissance. Disguised noble suitors, balconies, inexplicable illnesses and mystical cures are all perfectly normal, but she's completely incapable of imagining any kind of story that continues beyond the wedding ceremony, with predictable (but almost metatextual) consequences.

Zola is bashing religion nearly as hard as romanticism: both are part of the fatal Dream that conspires to destroy people's lives (in another world, he might almost have given this book the title The dominant ideology!). But he's also enjoying himself with lots of lyrical descriptions of the embroiderers' work, their tools, their subjects, the language they use, and he doesn't waste the opportunity to tell us about the cathedral and its stained glass, either. A fairly slight book, but with some good stuff in it.

huhtikuu 14, 2020, 7:35am

Nice reviews as always, Mark. I'll probably read Nervous Conditions fot this quarter's Reading Globally theme in June, after I read the four novels by Moçambican authors I own. Assuming that you read it, did you like it?

huhtikuu 14, 2020, 8:31am

>37 kidzdoc: I'll let you know when I read it — I'll probably get to it before June. I've just started listening to another Zimbabwean novel, The stone virgins, which seems promising so far.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 14, 2020, 9:02am

>38 thorold: Sounds good. I've resumed reading Ualalapi: Fragments from the End of Empire, a historical novella by the Moçambican author Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa about Mudungazi, the last ruler of the Gaza Empire, whose capture by the Portuguese colonial army in 1895 marked the end of the empire, and the beginning of complete control of what is now Moçambique by Portugal. I'll finish it today.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 5:06am

Another dinosaur from the lower reaches of the TBR pile. This 1200-page monster (somewhere between "blue whale" and "London bus" in LT units of size) has been eyeing me malevolently since September 2012. I don't know what sort of brainstorm made me buy it, but it turned out to be just the thing for the long undisturbed days of reading we're having at the moment.

It's left a splendid gap on the TBR that will surely get filled soon, but how am I going to make space in the "P" section of fiction to give it a new home? — looks as though a couple more Terry Pratchett novels may be heading for the Little Free Library as soon as we're out of lockdown...

The Quincunx : the inheritance of John Huffam (1989) by Charles Palliser (USA, UK, 1947- )


By most sane standards this is a ridiculous book. At least four times as long as the average modern novel, with a vast family-inheritance-saga plot that brings in just about every element of 19th century life that you remember from Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry Mayhew, Thackeray, Trollope, the Brontës, and many other English 19th-century writers (there's even a little echo of The prisoner of Zenda at one point...).

Not quite everything: the chapter in which Our Hero finds himself forced to work in a hellish Lancashire cotton mill seems to have been inadvertently missed out, and there's a mysterious absence of any serious discussion of religion. But we get shady lawyers, complex financial transactions, missing documents, elopements, murders, street crime, poverty, prostitution, burglary, body-snatching, "schools" and "lunatic asylums" that are nothing more than places to imprison inconvenient family-members, domestic service, enclosures, workhouses, stage-coaches, a public hanging, a tour of the London sewers, and much, much more.

There's even some entertaining nineteenth-century spelling to keep us amused, with (too) much play being made with sopha, lanthorn, visiter, shore (for sewer), and the like. And a few chapters in the central section are from the diary of a female narrator who can't spell at all...

So it's hardly surprising if, as Palliser complains in his 1992 afterword, this is a book that most readers just treat as a clever pastiche of the Victorian novel and some took as a satire on Mrs Thatcher's "Victorian values". (The action of the book takes place in the 1820s, so it's not really "Victorian" at all, but many of Dickens's and Collins's novels were set in the same pre-railway period.)

Palliser is simply too much the academic literary scholar, keen to use his expertise to tell us as much as he possibly can about the type of things that would have been going on in the minds of his nineteenth-century characters, and it all rather swamps his grand literary design for the book. We're more or less forced to notice that there's something going on with fivefold patterns (five parts, each divided into five books, each containing five chapters), and we're never quite as convinced as the narrator is that we've been given a complete solution to the mysteries of the plot, but there's just so much detail for us to keep track of that there's very little incentive to do what Palliser is apparently expecting the reader to do and work out alternative ways of making sense of the inter-relationships between the characters, different from the family-trees he helpfully scatters in our path.

The ending is a kind of clumsy compromise between our need for some sort of neat closure that would allow the narrator to stop work and the author's need to show that this is a book written in the late 20th century when no-one believes that literature has a place for fully-determined stories any more, but I doubt if many readers will follow the example of the apocryphal friend of the author who was so thrown off by the ambiguity in the last sentence that he went back to the beginning and started again. Life's too short!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 5:44am

And another Zimbabwean novel I've been listening to on Scribd: only about 0.1 Pallisers long, but it's taken a while, what with only spending about 45 minutes out of the house every day...

In complete contrast to the Palliser, this is a book in which nothing explicitly connects up at all, and it's only about a third of the way through that we start to meet identifiable characters.

The stone virgins (2002) by Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe, Canada, 1964-2005) Audiobook narrated by Danai Gurira


Yvonne Vera grew up in Bulawayo and studied in Canada: she was a schoolteacher, later becoming director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo, and wrote five highly-regarded novels. This was the last she completed before her untimely death from AIDS-related illness in 2005.

A difficult novel to read, dealing with the violence around and after Zimbabwe's independence from a very direct, personal and shatteringly painful viewpoint. A young woman is murdered in a village outside Bulawayo; her sister is also attacked and left seriously injured and disfigured, and has to find a way to get back to something like normal life.

We are shown the world in which these things happen in an apparently objective, poetic way — the scenery, the buildings, the weather and vegetation, the normal lives of the people in Bulawayo and the village, the fighters who have returned from the bush, the memories and visible signs of pre-colonial heritage — and we are taken into the minds of the women to participate in a very subjective way in what is happening to them, but we are left to work out for ourselves how these things fit together, what it is in the external world that might have provoked this outburst of violence, and what the world's (limited) resources for palliating its effects might be.

A rather beautiful book, full of memorable language and images, but not really a comforting read. Vera leaves her characters living in a mental world full of jagged edges and unexploded mines, and we aren't given much hope that they will be able to avoid them for long.

huhtikuu 21, 2020, 6:20am

BTW: If anyone's curious about my continuing adventures in French cinema, there's not much to report there, because I've been getting distracted by opera broadcasts again. The only film recently has been Les triplettes de Belleville, which is too new to count really (2003), but Sylvain Chomet is a huge Jacques Tati fan, so in a way it belongs to the last century...

On the opera front there's been Gluck's Orfeo from Paris and Falstaff from Hamburg (Calixto Bieito giving a very Brexit-inspired view of Britishness) on ARTE, as well as Jonathan Miller's brilliant Così fan tutte and Wayne McGregor's Acis and Galatea from Covent Garden. All worth watching, even if you don't have six weeks with nothing to do...!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 8:18am

>42 thorold: You might be interested in the Met Opera's daily streams (available for 24 hours):

This week looks particularly good -- Nina Stemme is fantastic as Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s final production; Renée Fleming and Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara in The Merry Widow directed by another Broadway darling, Susan Stroman; the charming Cenerentola with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez. For those that prefer the tragedies, Sir David McVicar’s Tosca & Traviata (Willy Decker's modern, almost mean production, but Natalie Dessay is fun).

huhtikuu 21, 2020, 10:18am

>43 ELiz_M: Yes, I keep forgetting to look at that because they make it so complicated, and by the time you’ve worked out what you want to watch it’s gone again. And there’s no streaming to your TV unless you’re a subscriber. Almost as though they are trying to persuade people to part with actual money by offering them something free...

I will try to watch the Elektra tonight, though.

huhtikuu 22, 2020, 5:47am

>43 ELiz_M: Nina Stemme is fantastic as Elektra — definitely! I'm glad I watched that.

A short in-between read from the TBR pile: this is a novel I picked up from a little free library last summer. Given the setting, I assumed it must have been one of those I brought back from sailing in Normandy, but now that I check back it turns out that it actually came from the Boekenwissel at Utrecht station, some weeks before that. Obviously I should have read it right away to get into the mood, but I didn't...

La Marie du Port (1938) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)


A pleasant little non-Maigret novel from the late 1930s, with Simenon enjoying himself in his favourite kind of (non-Parisian) setting, a café in a small fishing port in Normandy. This time it's Port-en-Bessin, near Bayeux, which — unusually — appears under its own name.

Odile returns home to Port-en-Bessin for her father's funeral, accompanied by her boyfriend the Cherbourg café-proprietor Chatelard. She's enjoying the chance to shock her old neighbours and show off her flashy lover and his motor car, but it turns out to be a bad move, because Chatelard suddenly takes a fancy to Odile's younger sister Marie. She's not willing to leave Port and her job in the Café de la Marine, however, so Chatelard finds himself buying a fishing boat to re-equip as an excuse to keep visiting the village.

A pleasant, lightweight romance with a lot of interesting social observation of the life of a 1930s fishing community and a strong female character driving the plot. Nothing special, but fun.

Marcel Carné made a film version of this in 1950, with Jean Gabin as Chatelard.

huhtikuu 22, 2020, 12:42pm

...and another protest novel from the pile lent to me by my South African friends, even if the cover art makes it look more like a science-fiction dystopia:

A dry white season (1979) by André Brink (South Africa, 1935-2015)


Ben du Toit thinks of himself as an ordinary Afrikaner with no particular interest in politics, a simple Johannesburg schoolteacher. But he's suddenly forced to confront his illusions about the kind of country he's living in when his black friend Gordon dies in police custody, having been arrested for nothing more than trying to find out what happened to his teenage son, killed in the aftermath of the Soweto school protests. Ben's tentative attempts to get information from the police and then to help Gordon's widow with the inquest soon make him realise that the authorities have something to hide, reinforcing his stubborn wish to find out what really happened and make sure it doesn't happen again. And of course the police are soon making sure that Ben himself understands how much power they have, when nasty things start happening to him and the people around him.

In the end, of course, he can't hope to win, and he also knows only too well that he can't hope to stop being a privileged white person, but as a friend tells him, there are two kinds of madness one should guard against: One is the belief that we can do everything. Another is the belief that we can do nothing. He has to go on and fail so that it will be a little bit easier for the next person to fail less badly. And eventually the system will be overcome.

Brink sticks to a fairly detached, thriller-like type of narrative, obviously wanting this to be read by those who haven't thought about the problems of Apartheid any more than Ben had at the start of the book. And also knowing that not many people in South Africa would get to read it anyway, as long as the National Party remained in charge. But he did write both an Afrikaans and an English version of it, as he did for most of his later books.

huhtikuu 24, 2020, 9:08am

Whilst I'm making space on the TBR, another episode from a long novel I've had on the go since the beginning of the year:

Pilgrimage 3: Deadlock; Revolving Lights; The Trap (1921, 1923, 1925) by Dorothy M. Richardson (UK, 1873-1957)


At the start of Deadlock we're a year or two further on from where we left Miriam at the end of Interim — judging from some passing references to "Chamberlain" and "the war" it's probably 1899 — but she is still lodging with Mrs Bailey and working for the Wimpole Street dentists. Most of this book is about her growing friendship with her Russian fellow-lodger, Michael Shatov. She starts off by giving him some English lessons, at Mrs Bailey's suggestion, but they soon progress to long discussions of philosophy and literature (he gets her to read "Tourgainyeff and Tolstoi"), walks around London, and visits to lectures and meetings. Inevitably there is a sexual attraction that catches them unawares, but Shatov tells her his Zionist principles won't allow him to marry a non-Jew, and Miriam soon realises that her feminist principles won't allow her to embrace any variety of Judaism that would be Jewish enough for Shatov. For once we don't have to puzzle too much to work out where she got the title of this part from!

Revolving Lights sees Miriam invited to join a prestigious socialist group, the Lycurgans (=Fabians) and getting more deeply involved with Hypo Wilson (=H.G. Wells), as she makes some tentative steps into literary journalism herself. It starts to become obvious to the reader (if not necessarily to Miriam herself yet) that Hypo means rather more to her than a respected writer and the husband of her friend Alma. When another woman writer comes to stay with the Wilsons, the knives are out...

In The Trap, Miriam leaves the pleasantly bohemian world of the Baileys behind at last, joins a women's club, and moves into a flat with a fellow-member, Selina Holland, who turns out to be alarmingly respectable and spinsterish. Miriam's not altogether sure if she's made the right move, or how she can resolve the different worlds she moves in, but she does seem to be growing up.

Looking forward to the last volume!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 24, 2020, 10:07am

And another from the South African pile:

Dusklands (1974) by J. M. Coetzee (South Africa, Australia, 1940- )


This was Coetzee's first novel, started whilst he was teaching at Buffalo, New York in the early seventies and active in the anti-war movement. As you would probably expect, it's not your average first novel, and as well as being a critique of US and African colonialism it also has some traces of Coetzee's unusual academic background in both computer science and literature.

There are two apparently unrelated narratives: one by Eugene Dawn, a mythographer working on a Vietnam War project for a lightly-fictionalised version of RAND Corporation, and the other by 18th-century Afrikaner Jacobus Coetzee, describing a hunting expedition north of the Orange River in the 1760s. But both are very unstable texts. Dawn has been commissioned by his boss, the sinister game theorist Coetzee (!), to write a report on the most efficient way of demoralising the Vietnamese people, but the effects of the concepts and material he has to deal with send him into a nervous breakdown and he goes off on a Nabokovian fugue to a motel in the middle of nowhere with his young son.

Jacobus tells us in a first-person narrative about the disastrous failure of his expedition — they get into conflict with the indigenous Namaqua people, everything possible goes wrong, and Jacobus loses all his dignity and the things that differentiate him from the indigenous people (gun, trousers, shoes, wagon, servants, authority). But this story is followed by two other accounts of the same expedition, one supposedly written in 1951 by yet another Coetzee, the fictional father of the fictional J.M. Coetzee who is compiling this book, and the other the official report Jacobus submitted to the Company after his expedition. Needless to say, neither of them bears any obvious relation to what we've just read, beyond the fact that they all tell us that Jacobus crossed the Orange River (before it was known by that name).

It's a very self-consciously literary novel, and very much of its time. Bellow and Nabokov loom large in the first part, Patrick White and Beckett in the second. But it's also a very direct challenge to preconceptions about "western civilisation": if the loss of his gun and his trousers were enough to put Jacobus on the same level as the Khoikhoi, what does that tell us about the photos of US soldiers posing with the severed heads of their Vietnamese victims that Dawn has to look at in the course of his work?

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 24, 2020, 12:10pm

Still going on with my opera adventures, I saw two big favourites (mine and everyone else's, I should think) over the last couple of evenings, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Both via — the Figaro a lovely intimate production from a recent Garsington Festival (and the only opera I've seen recently done in actual period costume!); the Don in Graham Vick's bleak, Beckett-inspired Rome production, which didn't really work visually for me, but sounded good. Alessio Arduini was excellent in the title part, anyway.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 25, 2020, 4:37am

Another short book loitering unnecessarily on the TBR shelf, by a Dutch writer who turns out to be a near-contemporary of Coetzee:

Jas van belofte (2019) by Jan Siebelink (Netherlands, 1938- )


Jan Siebelink has been writing novels since the 1970s, but none had the sort of impact that would have given him any reason to give up his day-job teaching French in an Arnhem secondary school until 2005, when his saga of poverty, market-gardening and his father's religious obsessions, Knielen op een bed violen, became a huge best-seller. (I didn't like it much at the time, but I'm now wondering if I should give it another chance...)

In this 2019 Boekenweek gift, Siebelink has his central character, the writer and retired Arnhem French-teacher Arthur Siebrandi, looking back on his literary career as an ambulance rushes him to hospital after a stroke. He reflects on his relationship with Edwin, the critic who took him up after coming across one of his stories in an old magazine in a doctor's waiting-room, and tried to mentor him through the process of getting his big, unwritten novel down onto paper (a saga of poverty, market-gardening and his father's religious obsessions); with his drinking-companion Loet, another critically-acclaimed writer whose books no-one bought; with his wife Lisette, and with his former pupil Caroline. Despite the rigid 96-page format of the Boekenweek novella, Siebelink manages to pack considerable amount of plot (and several decades of Arthur's life) into all this, and wrong-foots the reader several times as we rush ahead into the story we think he's going to tell us but doesn't.

An interesting, subtle little book that seems to be about the rewards of being a writer and being a teacher, and about the importance of having some unfinished projects to keep in sight.


...and that takes me under 100 books on the TBR pile!

huhtikuu 26, 2020, 6:56am

Nice reviews, as ever. I'm sure I noticed when I read it about 10 years ago, but it only strikes me now that Nervous Conditions was published in 1988. I thought it was more recent than that. I enjoyed it, BTW, though I haven't read the other two.

You were wondering a few posts back whether anyone was interested in your venture into French films. Yes, me! Since you posted about it a while ago, you've had me hankering after Jean de Florette, which I must track down. And then Manon des Sources, because you can't watch the one without the other. Jean de Florette was one of the first (possibly the very first) foreign-language films I saw at the cinema, when my mum took me to see it at the good old Cornerhouse in Manchester when I was in the sixth form. It seemed impossibly exotic and mysterious back then. I can hear the music in my head now!

huhtikuu 27, 2020, 11:40am

>51 rachbxl: I saw them as a double bill in London. I think I must have been visiting a friend there, I wouldn't have gone to London just to see a film.
The main theme is from Verdi's La forza del destino, very hard to get out of your head...

Back to French cinema shortly (I've an appointment with Jean Renoir coming up...). In the meantime another random oldie from the TBR pile. This one's been waiting to be read since September 2013, one of the few Buchan novels I didn't read in childhood.

The free fishers (1934) by John Buchan (UK, 1875-1940)


John Buchan was notoriously embarrassed by the huge success of his spy thrillers: he'd very much have preferred to be remembered as the reincarnation of Sir Walter Scott, but somehow his historical novels never quite worked. They were always just a little bit too staid and respectable, and his historical characters always seemed a bit too much like the usual John Buchan characters dressed up in historical costumes.

This one is set mostly in the Borders and in Norfolk in what seems to be April, 1812. Despite Buchan's well-known passion for angling, it turns out not to be a fishing story at all — the Free Fishers of the title are East Coast fishermen, but for reasons never properly explained they have been roped in by the authorities to assist in a counter-espionage operation on shore. Amongst those involved is the youthful Professor Nanty Lammas of the University of St Andrews — philosopher, minister of the Kirk, and man-of-action manqué. Together with a young Lord, a couple of salty fishermen, some intrepid Scottish ladies, and a stage-coach-driving English baronet (because this is the Regency, after all) they set out to foil a dastardly plot by French agents to assassinate the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, and put the blame on a beautiful young woman.

Lots of colourful Scots dialect, a few good chases over the moors, but rather a lot of tedious four-in-hand driving, and far too many conferences. And all the potentially interesting small-boat stuff happens offstage. They sent him off to govern Canada soon after this came out, and he took the hint and gave up trying to write historical novels...

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 28, 2020, 3:42am

>52 thorold: I try very hard not to think that it’s from ‘La forza del destino’, because around the same time we used to play the overture in the youth orchestra I played in. It was a favourite of ours, which we used to be allowed to play as an occasional treat as loud as we wanted. Fun, but the memory of that jars with Jean and Manon...

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 28, 2020, 4:11am

Zolathon, 17/20, multimedia edition:

La bête humaine (1890; The beast within / The beast in man) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
La bête humaine (1938), directed by Jean Renoir


Murder, sex and big steam locomotives: what could possibly go wrong...?

This is Zola's somewhat ironic look at the most-vaunted industrial achievement of the Second Empire, the French railway network, and it's also his attempt to take on Dostoevsky at his own game after reading Crime and punishment.

Being Zola, it's the fruit of enormous amounts of detailed research — he not only seems to understand how steam engines work at a technical level and what the driver and fireman are actually doing up there on the footplate, but he's also obviously absorbed all kinds of interesting social detail about how railway companies are organised, right down to the annual earnings of the woman in charge of the ladies' toilets at St Lazare station. His account of driving a train from Le Havre to Rouen in the snow has to be one of the all-time great pieces of railway writing, fiction or non-fiction. The railway incidents he describes in the book aren't things any railway company would want to happen, and they must have caused a few awkward moments for the railway officials who helped with his research, but they are all at least plausible. We get things that have become clichés, like murder in a moving train, the train stuck in the snow, the train-wreck, the person walking through the tunnel, and the runaway train, but we don't get Hollywood silliness of the Buster Keaton/Bugs Bunny type (uncoupling wagons in motion, walking on the roof of the train, demolishing carriages for firewood, etc.).

The murder plot is as sensational as we would wish: the couple who get away with murder but find their lives being destroyed by their shared knowledge of the guilty secret, the psychopath who gets the urge to murder a woman every time he is sexually aroused, but is otherwise quite sane and normal, the young woman whose jealousy pushes her over the edge into committing mass murder. (Incidentally, the psychopath Jacques Lantier shows us Zola's bizarre notion of genetics at its battiest: we're supposed to accept that his perverted urges are the result of the "bad blood" inherited from the heavy drinkers in L'Assommoir, without anyone pointing out to Zola that, quite apart from any scientific quibbles about whether acquired characteristics can be inherited, there's no sign that either Lantier or Gervaise was drinking heavily before the children were born.)

The political message is fairly straightforward, too: with the Empire on its last legs (it's 1869-1870) the criminal justice system is shown as a purely political tool, happy to file the case away if a trial might bring unpleasant details about the regime to light; equally happy to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free if that conveys the right political message. And Zola can't resist the temptation to close the book with the bluntest of political metaphors: a troop-train packed with drunken recruits eagerly singing patriotic songs as they hurtle east towards certain destruction with no-one on the footplate...


Jean Renoir's 1938 film version, with Jean Gabin and Simone Simon (and Renoir himself in the role of the ex-convict Cabuche), is a classic in its own right. Apparently it was largely an accident that he chose to use Zola's story: Gabin had written his own scenario for a train-driver film, but Renoir didn't like it, so he fell back on a novel he vaguely remembered reading a long time ago. It's also a classic railway film, updated to the 1930s and featuring dramatic footage of big, modern French steam locos in action, but it actually uses remarkably few of the memorable railway incidents from Zola's book: obviously cost, time, and the need to retain friendly relations with the SNCF must have ruled most of them out. The sub-plot involving Flore and her parents is almost completely cut, as well, and what should have been the big railway accident sequence is — improbably, but quite effectively — replaced in the plot by scenes from the Le Havre railwaymen's annual ball.

It's a very impressive film, clever in the way it mixes railway scenes with close-ups of Simone Simon's big, frightened eyes, and it re-uses quite a lot of Zola's dialogue, but it feels quite slight when you've just read the book. You can't help wondering what else Renoir would have done with it if he'd known in advance how 1938 would parallel 1869 in French history.

huhtikuu 28, 2020, 4:15am

>53 rachbxl: You're right, it's not the same without the harmonica.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 28, 2020, 10:08am

>11 thorold: Well if you're not fed up with Daniel Auteuil playing Pagnol yet, there's also La fille du puisatier (The Well-Digger's Daughter), filmed by Claude Berri directed by Auteuil himself in 2012. And of course, all the original black and white Pagnol films.

huhtikuu 29, 2020, 11:12am

>56 Dilara86:. Yes, I must get to those. And read more of the books...

This next one was a book that caught my eye in Springer's list of "essential textbooks" being made available free during the crisis.

Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics (1999, 2018) by Marcel Danesi (Canada, 1946- )


The end of the freedom to smoke in public places in most western countries has been a boon to those of us who hate coming home in the evening smelling like an ashtray, but of course we know that it's created frustration for nicotine addicts and financial difficulties for people who run bars, kiosks, and small shops. But how many of us spare a thought for the poor old semioticians, left out on a limb after building their academic careers on painstaking studies of the meaning of smoking gestures, or elaborate deconstructions of the subtexts in cigarette advertising? You don't see any bars with a roped-off "semiotics area" outside the back door, do you...? Life has clearly been tough for many of them, forcing them to branch out into ephemeral and unproductive fields like emoji and cat-memes. Perhaps we should think of taking up a collection for them...

Using an imaginary dating couple, Ted and Cheryl — both of whom smoke like chimneys — for purposes of illustration, Danesi takes us reasonably briskly and painlessly through some of the main fields of study semiotics deals with: the cultural meanings tucked up in gesture and body-language, in dress and grooming, in language (with separate chapters on metaphor and narrative), in spaces, in the arts, in objects, and in popular culture. Jargon is kept to a minimum, whilst the history of ideas in each field is sketched out without going very deeply into the inevitable debates and disagreements. As it says on the tin, this is just an introduction, designed to give you an idea of what semiotics is and the sorts of things it works with. In this third edition, Danesi has taken account of new cultural phenomena like selfies, memes and emoji, but he doesn't seem to have pruned out things from earlier editions that have proved to be ephemeral (remember Pet Rocks and Cabbage-Patch dolls?).

The pace and the range of things covered means that the book sometimes comes across as a little slapdash, when he rushes into a subject and tries to summarise it in two or three pages. Thus, in the chapter on metaphor, he has the ardent lover Ted say “Your kisses are sweeter than wine, Cheryl,” and proceeds to examine this statement as though it's a straightforward association of the notions of sweetness and lovemaking, when of course it's really a phrase that Danesi (growing up in Canada in the fifties) has got from Pete Seeger, who adapted it from the Song of Songs. It's unlikely, after all, that the wine Ted and Cheryl were drinking on their date would have been sweet enough to provoke that particular comparison, unless it was meant ironically ("Your mouth tastes like the inside of a wine barrel, Cheryl."). Semiotics is all about being aware of that kind of cultural history, and it undermines what Danesi is trying to do if he elides it in his hurry to get to the end of the chapter. He gets into similar trouble in his chapter on clothing when he sees the modern business suit as the revenge of "Cromwell's descendants", the Puritans, for the Restoration. You can maybe get away with that sort of thing in a lecture, but if you're going to do it on paper, at least read the Wikipedia article on the English Civil War...

Readable and fun, but doesn't inspire much confidence.

huhtikuu 29, 2020, 12:03pm

>52 thorold: They sent him off to govern Canada soon after this came out, and he took the hint and gave up trying to write historical novels...

Too funny but it must have worked as few Canadians have heard of him, and fewer still know he wrote novels, let alone know the association with the name Tweedsmuir. Lord Tweedsmuir was his title in the bad old days when Canadian governors-general were from the UK and it was felt they needed a title to reflect their vice regal status.

>54 thorold: Loved this one, but haven't seen the film.

>57 thorold: This does look like fun. There must be a corresponding book somewhere about cigarettes and film.

huhtikuu 29, 2020, 12:56pm

>58 SassyLassy: Buchan must already have been weighing up possible titles when he wrote The free fishers — the name Tweedsmuir comes up a couple of times.
I forgot to say that Danesi also has the endearing habit of conspicuously flagging all the Canadians who come up in the course of the book, including quite a few who don't really have any good reason to be in the book (like Glenn Gould).

Danesi does have quite a bit to say about cigarettes in film (Bogart, Belmondo, etc.). He cites Cigarettes Are Sublime by Richard Klein, which also comes up from Tagmash,+cinema
I expect there's a Barthes essay about smoking somewhere, but I can't find it...


After the discussion of science-fiction in "Questions for the avid reader", I thought I ought to mitigate my ignorance a little bit:

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K Le Guin (USA, 1929-2018) audiobook narrated by George Guidall


This was a very interesting idea, and I'm pretty sure it would have struck me as exciting and radical if I'd read it soon after it came out, but it is — as Le Guin herself pointed out — very much limited by the time it was written in and the background of the author. The planet on which the story is set is inhabited by people who don't have binary gender, but neither the author nor her narrator, who seems to be from a future version of our own world, has the imaginative and linguistic tools that would allow her to write about such people without making them into men who occasionally display "effeminate" characteristics. Male pronouns all the way, and male everything else, really. So that, most famous, aspect of the book is rather a let-down when you come to it fifty years on.

Apart from that, it develops into a great Cold-War escape-from-the-Gulag story, eventually, and an interesting study of friendship between two characters of backgrounds completely alien to each other, but that is only about halfway through the book, because so much time and effort is needed to tell us where we are and why and how it all works, right down to the local version of not-Buddhism.

Undoubtedly high-quality writing, but it didn't really win me over to the genre.

huhtikuu 29, 2020, 1:23pm

PS: I saw Il Barbiere di Siviglia from Bologna on YouTube last night. A fun, all-Italian production (19th-century costumes and a chorus of clumsy policemen), directed by Federico Grazzini.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 1, 2020, 11:15am

Since physical meetings are out for the time being, our book-club has taken to holding a short, weekly video-chat session where we discuss a couple of short stories. This works quite well, even the most deadline-averse members usually manage to skim through the stories in the time it takes for everyone to get connected. We've touched on quite a few familiar authors, but also one or two I didn't know anything about. This week's story — actually an essay — "Lui e io" (He and I) by Natalia Ginzburg was a case in point: I found her style so striking that I wanted to find out more about her, and ended up reading the whole collection it came from. Another ebook that leap-frogged the TBR pile!

Le piccole virtù (1962; The little virtues) by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy, 1916-1991)


Imagine a mid-20th-century Italian intellectual who admits without embarrassment to wearing worn-out shoes, claims that she isn't interested in cooking and always buys the wrong things from the market, can't drive (in Torino!), can't sing (and starts an essay on the topic of "Silence" by discussing an opera), never uses two words where one will do, and has never been known to drop names of any description.

No, I can't, either. But that is the image that Natalia Ginzburg likes to project. In the land of bella figura her provocative self-mockery and her brusque, no-nonsense style seem to have caused quite a few cases of spontaneous combustion amongst literary critics, but they clearly won her a lot of respect as well.

The short essays in Le piccole virtù, written between 1945 and 1962, form something between a memoir and a manifesto for literature in a post-war world, but without the egotism either of those forms usually implies.

"Inverno in Abruzzo" describes the experience of being banished by the fascists to a remote village near Aquila — she writes about the privations of daily life for the family, and how much she and her husband miss the city (the children are too young to imagine what a city might be like). And then in the last paragraph she turns everything upside-down by telling us that her husband was murdered in a Roman jail, a few months after they left Abruzzo. She couldn't imagine it at the time, but now she sees that the months they spent together in the back of beyond were the best time of her life. "Le scarpe rotte", written shortly after the war when she was working in Rome, the kids parked with her parents in Torino, is about the unexpected pleasures of poverty, and a classic attack on one of the most sacred things in Italian culture.

Then there's a lovely — but unsentimental — portrait of her friend, the poet Cesare Pavese, who killed himself in August 1950, and two pieces about London in 1960. The second of these, "La Maison Volpé", is a glorious denunciation of the English food-culture of the time, possibly the most unapologetically Italian piece in the whole book, but spot-on in its dry mockery. No-one who remembers the dusty curtains and rotating plastic oranges of those days could possibly take offence. "Lui e io" is a funny, self-deprecatory description of her relationship with her second husband, Gabriele Baldini, which could be about any middle-aged couple ("he's always too hot, I'm always too cold...").

In the second part, she discusses how the experience of the war has changed things for her generation and the things they can write about, she talks about developing as a writer ("Il mio mestiere") and as a human being ("I rapporti humani"), and in the piece that gives the collection its title, about the responsibilities of parenting, which for her seems to be more about non-intervention than anything else, in a very sixties spirit.

All the pieces in this collection are clever, subtle, amazing bits of writing, but the ones that really stood out for me were "Il mio mestiere" and "I rapporti humani", two pieces that seem to sum up everything that needs to be said about the puzzling business of growing up. I really wish I'd read them as a teenager!


BTW: I started listening to Lost children archive soon after I got going with Ginzburg: it was fun to spot Luiselli casually dropping in Ginzburg's phrase "Family lexicon" in the first chapter. She's obviously a fan.

toukokuu 2, 2020, 10:01am

>61 thorold: it was fun to spot Luiselli casually dropping in Ginzburg's phrase ... and in this morning's chapter, I spotted Samanta Schweblin's phrase "rescue distance", from Distancia de rescate which I read in February. Circles are closing!

Back to Africa, and a book by a distinguished human-rights lawyer and Botswana's first female high court judge, currently serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. One of those people who seems to have achieved so much in life that you can't imagine where they find the time to write novels as well...

Juggling truths (2003) by Unity Dow (Botswana, 1959- )


Monei is growing up in a small village in Botswana around the time of independence. At first glance, life in Mochudi seems to have little to do with the wider world, its rhythms defined by tradition and the demands of the agricultural calendar, but when we start to look closer we see the primary school, the Roman Catholic and Dutch Reformed churches, the young men going off to earn money in the Johannesburg gold mines. All of these bring along their own world-view and set of truths, and young Monei has to navigate her way through them, supported by her storytelling grandmother, her wise, pragmatic mother, and her uneducated but well-intentioned father. In the end it's the school that Monei recognises as giving her the best chance of making a life for herself on her own terms, and she sticks it out to take her exams, despite the ignorant and often sadistic teachers and the anglocentric curriculum.

Although this deals with a lot of tough facts of life — disease, cruelty, murder, unwanted pregnancy, people excluded from the community, and all the rest — it comes over for the most part as a warm and funny portrait of childhood and village life. Monei (who, despite her claims to have trained as an architect rather than a lawyer, sounds very like a self-portrait) is an endearing, lively narrator, a strong young woman who has a burning need to make sense of the world she is growing up into, but also a great respect for the traditions she has inherited from her family. And — naturally — for the importance of stories.

toukokuu 5, 2020, 3:52am

I made the mistake of searching for something on ABE Books on Sunday, with the result that my TBR pile is likely to be taking a major hit shortly. More on that when and if it arrives (delivery times from small booksellers are very unpredictable these days, for obvious reasons). But in the meantime, I'd better get on with making space. Another from the African pile, in a similar mood to the last one:

The purple violet of Oshaantu (2001) by Neshani Andreas (Namibia, 1964-2011)


Neshani Andreas was the first Namibian writer to be published in the Heinemann African Writers Series. She was a schoolteacher, and sadly died of lung cancer at a very young age. I found a couple of interviews online where she talks about the difficulties of being a writer of fiction in a young country where there is no kind of literary tradition.

The purple violet of Oshaantu, Andreas's only novel, is based on her experience teaching in a village in the north of Namibia in the 1990s. As elsewhere in Southern Africa, the village is largely the province of women, whilst the men are away for long periods in the mines or on fishing boats. Andreas tells the story of two of these women, Ali and her neighbour and close friend Kauna. Whilst Ali considers her own marriage to be happy and successful, Kauna is trapped in marriage to the awful Shange, who subjects her to terrible domestic violence when he is at home, and openly maintains a mistress in a house he has built for her elsewhere in the village. Everyone in the village knows about Shange's bad behaviour, but no-one has been prepared to intervene. Ali goes to the church elders for help, but they are horrified at the thought of interfering in a marriage, and even her normally supportive husband warns her not to make a fool of herself. Eventually, an old woman with nothing to lose in community standing confronts Shange in public, and he moderates his behaviour a little.

But then Shange dies suddenly, probably of a heart attack, and Kauna finds hordes of Shange's family descending on her, accusing her of poisoning, witchcraft, and worse, as they strip her of her property. As a widow she might have legal rights in theory, but in practice she is powerless to assert them.

Andreas also touches on quite a number of other issues in the course of this short, simply-written and very engaging novel: another widow is accused of witchcraft when her husband dies of AIDS-related illness, Kauna's aunt makes a precarious living as a market trader, Ali's husband is injured in a collision between overloaded minibuses, and so on. At the very centre of the story is a lively okakungungu, a working party where all the women of the village come together over food and freshly-brewed beer to help Kauna finish her ploughing before the rains.

toukokuu 5, 2020, 1:15pm

>63 thorold: I've not heard of that novel before but it sounds excellent. Noting that one....

toukokuu 5, 2020, 1:26pm

>63 thorold: I didn't know of this one either, and noted. Thanks!

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 8, 2020, 4:17am

...and another one from the TBR. This one has only been hanging around since August 2016, when I bought two or three Persephones more or less at random.

I hadn't heard of Dorothy Whipple, but that's the whole point of what Persephone does. It turns out that she was from Blackburn, so there's a kind of tie-in with Ethel Carnie Holdsworth from my Q1 thread, but they were from opposite ends of the social spectrum. She was the daughter of a prosperous local architect, and got a suitably posh job with the council as secretary to the Director of Education (whom she married, as was the custom for secretaries in those days). She became a very successful novelist and short story writer in the 20s and 30s — apparently J B Priestley once called her "The Jane Austen of the Twentieth Century"(*) — but struggled to find readers after the war, until Nicola Beauman started promoting her in the 1990s.

Someone at a distance (1953) by Dorothy Whipple (UK, 1893-1966)


This was Whipple's last novel, and its publication in 1953 was met with a deafening silence from the critics. It's hard to see why at this distance: Whipple was obviously a clever, confident and witty writer, with a gift for spotting the telling detail. Probably it was simply that the literary world in the mid-fifties wasn't looking for ironic little stories about overprivileged upper-middle-class families in the Home Counties struggling with the post-war Servant Problem and worried whether they would be able to keep their daughter's horse if they were forced to move. Whipple might have done better to write about factory workers and teenage pregnancies, but then we probably wouldn't be reading her books now...

It's a very simple plot, the interest is all in the characters and detailed observation. A young French woman, Louise Lanier, turns up as companion to Ellen's mother-in-law, and then somehow incrusts herself into Ellen's own home, doing her best to seduce everyone within range without the slightest concern for the consequences. It turns out that she is on the rampage and determined to avoid going home to her parents' provincial librairie-papeterie because her prestigious boyfriend has dumped her to marry someone from his own social class.

Of course, all this gives Whipple a lot of scope for playing around with British prejudices about the French and French prejudices about the British, as well as exploring some of the horrors of post-war life for women like Ellen, who grew up in a class and time where the permanence and certainty of marriage made it redundant to think about marketable skills, and where expectations of the kind of home you would live in and the things you would do there were conditioned by the availability of cheap domestic service. Ellen has to face the realities of a world where you can't get live-in servants any more, but her husband and children haven't quite registered yet that it's the washing-up she's doing when she disappears after dinner — it's always fatally easy to be lazy when someone else does all the work without complaint.

There is an element of post-war reactionary panic here, but it is nowhere near so crass as — to take an extreme example — Angela Thirkell. Whipple clearly has a lot of sympathy with people who actually do useful work for a living, and doesn't see post-war England as a massive conspiracy to do down "people like us". Sometimes she even seems to be quietly mocking her privileged characters, as when daughter Anne discusses the possibility of not going back to boarding-school and her father points out that "there are no schools here" — "here" being a small town half an hour or so out of London. Obviously, by "schools" he means "schools where people like us go".

The real joy of the book is in the many bizarre confrontations between people who can't begin to understand each other: the arch-conservative Mrs North and her housekeeper Miss Daley, star of the Chapel choir; Louise trying to give beauty advice to Ellen, who is the type who would rather have a new pair of secateurs than a pearl necklace; the lovely M and Mme Lanier trying to make sense of their daughter's world, and so on. A quiet delight, if very much of its time.


That leaves 95 items on the TBR shelf. Lets see if I can clear any more before new ones start arriving...

(*) I wonder who will be called "the J B Priestley of the 21st century" — Alan Bennett??

toukokuu 6, 2020, 2:27pm

...and, not planned in any conscious way, another fifties novel, by a writer born just nine months after Whipple. Not that they have much in common apart from the year of their birth!

This has been on the shelf since February 2015, and it's my second attempt to read it. The first time the Italian defeated me altogether; this time I think I got most of it.

Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957; That awful mess on Via Merulana) by Carlo Emilio Gadda (Italy, 1893-1973)


Carlo Emilio Gadda was an engineer as well as being an important modernist writer: according to Wikipedia, one of his achievements was building a power station in the Vatican.

This isn't really a good choice for non-native-speakers to read in Italian. Much of it (narrative as well as dialogue) is in various shades of dialect, there is a lot of wordplay, free association, intertextuality and all the rest of it. I probably missed four-fifths of it, but it will be fun to re-read some time and pick up a few more of the jokes. I think I did get all the physics references, at least, and some of the musical ones!

It looks like a crime story, with conspicuous allusions to Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue", and it seems to have influenced a lot of modern crime writers, but it is obviously a lot more than that. Gadda was writing in the forties and fifties, but the story is set in March 1927 (Gadda is very precise about dates, vague as he is about other things), in the early days of fascism, and there are quite a few barbed references to the fascists as well as a general underlying questioning of the whole idea of state power. The dialect is an important part of this undermining of authority, of course, and we also see (for example) police officers visiting an illegal brothel/bar/fortune-teller/sewing-workshop as customers, without the narrator treating it as anything worth commenting on.

There's also a lot of questioning of conventional ideas of narrative — notoriously including the complete elimination of what's usually the most important element of a crime story, the capture of the criminal and the resolution of the case. That's left as an exercise for the reader. And Gadda has a lot of fun interrupting the progress of the story at critical points with apparently irrelevant descriptive passages and flights of fancy. Apparently, where most writers spend the final editing period cutting the text, Gadda did the reverse, inserting delay-passages wherever he felt things were moving too fast. It's quite typical of the whole that the policeman, Commissario Ingravallo, finally gets issued with a car only about ten pages before the end of the book. Up to that point he's been travelling by tram and on foot. There's even a ludicrous sequence where two officers go to conduct investigations in the countryside on a motorcycle. When they arrest two suspects, they have to commandeer a horse and cart to transport them back to the station (it's not made clear how they get the motorbike back...).

Opinions about Gadda's sexuality seem to vary, but the motorbike passages at least have a very strong homoerotic flavour about them, with a lot of stuff about gleaming uniforms and throbbing machinery between the legs (think Tom of Finland...). And there's also a bit in the early part of the book where a bachelor civil servant gets very nervous when the police ask questions about the unusual number of delivery boys calling at his apartment ("Well, you can't expect someone in my position to walk through the streets carrying a ham and a bottle of olive oil...").

A very interesting book, but one it isn't easy to make sense of!


95 – 1 + 1 = 95 : no net change to the TBR pile, one small parcel arrived today as I finished this one.

toukokuu 6, 2020, 7:17pm

Great reviews of Juggling Truths and The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Mark. I'll be on the lookout for both books.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 7, 2020, 9:59am

>68 kidzdoc: Thanks, yes, both worth looking out for! I'm looking forward to getting to some books from Mozambique shortly.

In the meantime, two more South Africans, the two most recent books to land on the TBR pile:

The good doctor (2003) by Damon Galgut (South Africa, 1963- )


Damon Galgut seems to be one of the most successful younger South African novelists at the moment.

I don't quite know what I was expecting from this book, but I'm sure it wasn't 21st century Graham Greene, which is what it turns out to be: a crumbling, semi-abandoned town with only one bar; a jaded narrator with a failed marriage and more sense of guilt than moral courage, who drinks too much whisky and has sexual relationships with the wrong women; a doomed young idealist; a sinister secret police colonel; and even a dodgy ex-dictator. All that's missing is the drunken priest.

What's different, of course, is that Galgut picks up a peculiarly South African context. The nameless, unfinished new-town in the middle of nowhere was the capital of one of the "homelands" created in the last years of the old South Africa as a failed alibi for apartheid, a pretend-state that only just lasted long enough for its first president, the "Brigadier", to be deposed for corruption. The narrator, Frank, is a doctor, the inadequate son of a celebrated TV medic, and is working in the pretend-town's pretend-hospital, a place with hardly any patients and no proper facilities to treat the few who do show up. But then the idealistic, newly-qualified Laurence turns up, and decides that they ought to go out and look for people to help. Which would be fine, but in the meantime it looks as though the Brigadier might be back, and Frank's former c/o from his military service days has arrived in town to run a counter-insurgency operation. Tragedy assured.

Some nice bits of observation, and an unusual setting, but Galgut doesn't really seem to do anything to take the formula beyond its well-established Greene template.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 7, 2020, 11:16am

This is one I didn't know about before, but Lola posted about it in the Southern Africa theme. It's one of the earliest novels in English by a black South African, published in exile in London in 1946. Abrahams later moved to Jamaica.

Mine boy (1946) by Peter Abrahams (South Africa, Jamaica, 1919-2017)


Published two years before Cry the beloved country, this explores similar themes, but in a subtly different way. The viewpoint is that of Xuma, the young black man from the country who comes to the big city to work in the mines, and it's the noisy, lively, disorderly world of the townships — and of Leah's shebeen, in particular — where he finds solidarity and companionship, whilst the values of "civilised" white society are often made to seem strange, arbitrary, and threatening. Where Paton's African rhythms are slow, disciplined and stately, the rumble of old men's conversations, this is written to a much rougher, wilder beat. And it can't help pulling us in.

And Abrahams wrote this whilst he was mixing with the future leaders of post-colonial Africa and the Caribbean in London: Paton's young man is doomed to his tragic fate, but we leave Xuma at a point where he has seen that black people cannot rely on white liberals and have to take leadership themselves to defend their rights. Maybe he will be crushed by the system all the same, but Abrahams doesn't see that as inevitable, and the ending of the book allows us to imagine that he will be able to do something to work towards change. Although perhaps not so much if we're reading it 75 years on and know how South Africa's history progressed...

The AWS edition comes with attractive, if slightly Sunday-schoolish, illustrations by Ruth Yudelowitz. All I could find out about her on the internet is that she was an artist working for the East Africa Literature Bureau in Nairobi in the 1950s, and illustrated a lot of African school-books.

95 – 2 + 1 = 94 : Two finished today, but one more small parcel arrived, so the TBR is only slightly reduced :-)

toukokuu 7, 2020, 8:50pm

You're on fire with your reviews! I like the description of the Galgut as 21st century Graham Greene. I haven't read Someone at a Distance but your very balanced review makes me more inclined towards it. Will also be looking out for Juggling Truths.

toukokuu 7, 2020, 10:38pm

>70 thorold: I like that Sunday-schoolish illustration (and that's a great description).

toukokuu 8, 2020, 6:19am

>66 thorold: I really enjoyed that Whipple novel too - she quietly evoked a lot of powerful emotion in her story.

>69 thorold: sorry the Galgut didn't overly grab you. I quite liked the dark edginess in The Good Doctor, but I find he's hit and miss as a writer. I hated The Imposter - I thought the writing was terrible - but really quite enjoyed In a Strange Room.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 8, 2020, 10:18am

>73 AlisonY: Never mind, Galgut would probably have fared better if I'd read him before some of those other African novels. And he's clearly not a bad writer, but once I'd got the idea into my head that I was reading a GG pastiche, it was hard to get beyond that. Thanks for telling me about him, anyway!


Another mini-project that's been off more often than on over the past couple of years is (re-)reading Angus Wilson's novels. This is one from the sixties that I've either not read before, or forgotten. It's only been on the TBR just over a year, so it's quite a youngster...

Late call (1964) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)


A newly-retired couple come to live with their recently-widowed son and grandchildren in a New Town in the Middle England of the early 1960s. And that's just about all that actually happens in the space of three hundred pages, but we don't really notice that, as Wilson digs into the way people are shaped, moved along, or left stranded, by history, social class and accidents of biology. From snooty World War I nurses to the ton-up boys and Jimmy Porters of the sixties (the Am Drams are — rather daringly — doing Look back in anger), from education textbooks to bodice-rippers and soap opera, from bridge parties to the provincial gay underground, from parks to public meetings, Wilson has got his sharp eyes open and nails crucial bits of English social behaviour that help to explain what makes his (superficially) ordinary characters tick. Wonderful, funny, sad, and very acute.

toukokuu 9, 2020, 6:37am

And another one off the shelf this morning, although I realise now that it's a novel that goes (non-linearly) from Saturday lunchtime to Saturday evening, so I should have started a bit later...

The unfortunates (1969, 1999) by B. S. Johnson (UK, 1933-1973)


This is Johnson's famous "book in a box", which comes as twenty-seven separate fascicules (Johnson is holding them in the author photo above), to be read, apart from the ones marked "First" and "Last", in a random order. I don't know what he can do to stop us reading the ones marked "First" and "Last" in a random order as well, if we want to, though. The shortest of the fascicules is only half a page, the longest have twelve pages. Only a few are easily bindable multiples of four, however, so there must have been quite some technical headaches involved in making it. The 1999 re-issue includes a further fascicule with the title page and Jonathan Coe's Introduction, which is probably worth having. It's worth having a close look at the box, by the way, as the book's epigraphs from (Samuel) Johnson and Boswell are concealed in unsuspected spots around it.

A football reporter, operating on autopilot, gets off the train in yet another Saturday provincial town to report on a match (which could be anywhere, the teams are simply called "United" and "City"), and it's only as he's leaving the station that he registers that this is actually Nottingham, where he's often come to visit his student friend and literary mentor Tony, who died of cancer not long ago. As we follow the random sequence of the fascicules, the narrator's experiences of his afternoon in Nottingham and the football match are mixed together with memories of Tony, the times they have spent together, and his final illness and death.

The unusual format is probably about one-third interesting experiment and two-thirds publicity stunt, as this is obviously a book that would work perfectly well in conventional form, but it is interesting to catch yourself wondering how he knew you were going to read this particular bit before that bit, or whether there was some subtle trick of suggestion involved in making you choose a particular sequence. Our mind can't help imposing structure on random assemblies, it seems.

As we would expect, there's some clever, witty, touching and very self-critical writing involved, behind the gimmicks. The narrator is digging into his conscience to try to work out how much of his reaction to the death of his friend is purely selfish thoughts about his own loss, and what he could or should have done differently. And there's also a disturbing element of envy — how easy it would be to be dead too. Not now, but...

On the other hand, it's also fascinating to see how Johnson ties in the narrator's seriously literary aspirations (there's no real attempt to pretend that the narrator is anyone other than novelist and part-time sports correspondent B S Johnson) with the more mechanical but still quite demanding work of the football reporter. There's a lovely section in which he takes us through the writing of the match report from kick-off to telephone dictation, including all his false starts, rejected adjectives, tempting puns used and even more tempting ones not used, doubts about apostrophes, and so on. You could probably use it as training material on a journalism course: maybe people do.


toukokuu 10, 2020, 5:24am

Another well-made character novel, but a more recent one this time. I'd forgotten this was on the shelf — it's been there since December 2016. It was probably in the big pile of stuff I brought back from the charity shop when I was stocking up to prepare for retirement.

With hindsight, not the best choice for right now: I've got a borrowed Anne Enright I ought to read soon, and I don't know if I can cope with two lots of strong women in provincial Ireland in quick succession...

Nora Webster (2014) by Colm Tóibín (Ireland, 1955- )


After her husband's death, Nora gradually rebuilds her confidence in life, goes back to work, tries to learn to accept help from her family, tries to work out what is going on inside her children's heads, redecorates the back room, and rediscovers her interest in music. In the background, men are walking on the Moon, Jacqueline du Pré, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim are recording Beethoven trios, Troubles are starting in the North, and even County Wexford seems to be taking its first tentative steps into the twentieth century.

This is a book without any obvious big narrative climaxes and turning points, it's a delicate, detailed study of the many little ways in which life changes over a period of time and how families work. And Nora is a wonderfully engaging character: the headstrong girl once tamed by her marriage to a respected teacher and political activist but now finding the satisfaction of taking her own decisions again, and being surprised to discover how many people are actually still afraid of her.

toukokuu 10, 2020, 6:24am

After reading a lot of enthusiastic comments about it here, I've been listening to this one over the past week or so. I didn't know anything about the author, but I did read and enjoy one of her husband's books a couple of years ago.

Lost children archive (2019) by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico, 1983- ) Audiobook narrated by the author, Kivlighan De Montebello, William Demeritt and Maia Enrigue Luiselli


Any novel whose purpose is to show liberal, middle-class readers the horrible things that are happening to children under our noses is bound to turn into The Water Babies at some point(*). Sooner or later, we start to feel that our emotions are being manipulated through the terrible things we are reading about. Luiselli is very conscious of this, and she deploys a whole armoury of more or less sophisticated literary weapons to delay that crucial moment until she's already told us all the things she wants us to take home with us, and then shifts the scenery around so that we come out of it not quite sure any more whether it's us or the characters in the book who were being used. When you stand back a little way, it's not hard to see the stage machinery at work, but when you're in there reading it (or listening, as I did) the writing is too fine to give you the chance to stop and think about it. It is a very gripping and emotionally-challenging book.

A book-within-a-book device is used to tell the first-hand stories of the migrant children, deflecting any concerns we might have about who wrote all this stuff down (not that it sounds inauthentic at all: I'm sure most of it came from actual testimony), and we follow the story through the eyes of a middle-class couple and their children on a summer-holiday road-trip from New York to Arizona. The four main characters are all flawed: Luiselli wants to make sure that we realise that no middle-class person, including herself, can really imagine what it is like to be a refugee. In the adults, we're shown how, although well-intentioned, they keep getting distracted by their own selfish concerns with their work projects and their relationship and crucially overlook what their children are experiencing; in the children we see that their idea of living part of the refugee experience to get their parents' attention is silly, because deep-down they still have an (unreasonable) faith that whatever bad thing happens, an adult will turn up to rescue them.

This is a book that works very well on audio: it seems to have been designed with that in mind, and it's performed almost as a play with two main and two minor narrators, bits of ambient sound, and so on. Not coincidentally, audiobooks play an important part in the family's road-trip, the parents are both people who work with sound, and various parts of the narrative are supposed to be tape recordings. (Do professionals still use tape?)

A very clever, moving book.

(*) Or Jude the obscure...!

toukokuu 11, 2020, 3:51am

Alex La Guma is another writer I found out about through one of Lola's postings in the Southern Africa thread. Like his father Jimmy, he was a coloured workers' leader and communist activist. He was one of the defendants in the famous Treason Trial of 1956-1960, and spent some years in house-arrest and in prison before going into exile in the UK and France in 1966.

A walk in the night, and other stories (1967) by Alex La Guma (South Africa, 1925-1985)


This collection contains the novella "A walk in the night" from 1962, together with six short stories from the mid-1960s. It's full-on sixties modernist writing, with echoes of people like Joyce and Steinbeck, very urban and masculine, very direct in its descriptions of violence and squalor (but bizarrely prudish about swearwords). Everything is there to show us how racism perverts and destroys social relations in the Cape Town urban jungle: the white cop Raalte in "A walk in the night" who has been completely corrupted by the power his racial "superiority" gives him and has lost all moral compass; the coloured man Mikey who is so embittered by the hatred he's exposed to that he finds he has killed an inoffensive, weak elderly white man just because he happened to cross his path; the boxer Kenny in "The Gladiators" who "just miss being white" and whose fight with the unapologetically black boxer, The Panther, turns into an allegory of racial hatred — when they meet on equal terms in the ring, Kenny loses, because the force of his contempt just isn't as strong as the force of the black man's defence of his own integrity.

Forceful, stylish but very angry writing. Excellent.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 11, 2020, 4:23am

Down to 90 on the TBR pile...

BTW: there's an odd overlap between B. S. Johnson and Alex La Guma — both of them seem to have a thing about trolleybuses. La Guma mentions the Cape Town "trackless trams" every two or three paragraphs in "A walk in the night" (their sounds, the people queuing for them, the way their wires shape the street, ...); Johnson is fascinated by the Nottingham trolleybuses because they don't have them in London any more, and he debates giving up his place in the queue for transport to the football ground to get on a "trolley" instead of a bus.

toukokuu 11, 2020, 9:32am

>79 thorold: Down to 90 on the TBR pile...

...but not for long: the doorbell went whilst I was having lunch, and a parcel of seventeen books arrived, so we're back to 107 unread books.

I was looking for a copy of Alex La Guma's novel And a threefold cord on ABE Books a week ago, and I came across a bookseller in Berlin who had it as part of a pack of 17 books (mostly from the sixties) from the East Berlin English-language publishers Seven Seas Books. Since I have a weakness for cultural artefacts of the DDR anyway, and I have quite a few books on my shelves from the various former continental publishers of English-language books (Albatross, Tauchnitz, Zephyr, Obelisk, etc.), it sounded tempting, and I saw there were two other South African books in the pile, plus three Australian writers and some British and American ones I hadn't heard of. And all of it doubtless hardcore communism sponsored by the DDR government to undermine the decadent West!

Most of the books are from the library of the East German anglicist Hanna Behrend, who was a specialist in English working-class literature. She died in 2010, so I suspect the bookseller was surprised to see them leave the shop at last...





toukokuu 12, 2020, 3:26am

Nice book haul! Another sound recommendation for Lost Children Archive. Will get to it some day...

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 12, 2020, 10:01am

A slowly-maturing interest:

My curiosity about Mrs Trollope was first stirred by Edmund White's historical novel Fanny, a fiction, in 2003 — but I didn't do anything further about it until 2009, when I got around to reading Domestic manners of the Americans. A couple of years after that, I got interested in the Brownings and saw her name coming up a lot in their correspondence (EBB enjoyed her books in a slightly guilty way, but suspected her of being rather vulgar until they eventually met in Florence and liked each other). I read Dr Neville-Sington's book on Robert Browning, saw she'd also done a biography of Mrs Trollope, bought it in 2012 and then left it to mature for a little while. Eight years later...

Fanny Trollope: the life and adventures of a clever woman (1998) by Pamela Neville-Sington (USA, UK, 1959-2017)


Fanny Trollope (1780–1863) was one of the most successful English writers of the mid-19th century. Between 1832 and 1856 she brought out half a dozen travel books and thirty-five novels, most of them best-sellers that stayed in print until the end of the century. Although she belonged to the generation of Jane Austen, she didn't start writing until she was in her fifties, so she was mostly in direct competition with writers a generation younger, like Dickens and Thackeray (not so much with her own sons Tom and Anthony, who were also late starters: Anthony's first real success with The Warden only came in 1853). She got in before Dickens with (amongst other things) an anti-slavery novel and a Poor-Law protest novel; her novel about child-labour in factories, Michael Armstrong, made Dickens change the planned course of Nicholas Nickleby and postpone his own venture into the industrial North to a later book.

Yet, these days, most of us are only barely aware that Anthony Trollope had a mother. If we know of her as a writer, then it's only as the author of Domestic manners of the Americans, which currently has more than ten times as many copies on LT as her next most popular work, the novel The widow Barnaby. A quick browse through several books about nineteenth-century novelists on my shelves failed to bring up any references to her. Neville-Sington speculates that this collective amnesia may have something to do with the bad press she gets in Anthony's An Autobiography — she notes that the last reprints of most of her books were around or shortly before the appearance of An Autobiography in 1883. Anthony never really seems to have forgiven her for going off to America in 1827 with his brother Henry and the two girls, leaving him, Tom, and their father behind in Harrow, so that he found himself having to do without a mother between the ages of 12 and 16. It obviously didn't help that, for much of his writing career, the critics were comparing his books to those of his more famous mother. He retaliates by putting a superficially affectionate but actually rather condescending portrait of her into his memoir, making her look like a clumsy, unsophisticated blunderer, dashing off second-rate books at high speed to feed the family.

Of course, she was writing for money: her husband's pride, stubbornness and lack of business sense, coupled with her own American disasters, had brought them badly into debt (Thomas Anthony Trollope is the prototype for all those high-principled, stubborn middle-aged men steering into disaster in his son's novels). Writing was the only way a middle-class married woman could earn anything like a decent income, so she had to teach herself to do it well and efficiently, and she had the good luck that the American adventure had given her an angle for a travel book that no other British writer had used before: instead of travelling round the country on letters of introduction from one prosperous East-Coast host to the next, she had been trying to run a series of business ventures in Cincinnati, so she got to see "the Americans" in their natural habitat, pigs, smells and tobacco stains included. And she managed to offend an entire continent so thoroughly that they all had to buy the book just to see how offensive it really was. Oddly, people seemed to take more exception to her criticising their table-manners and the constant spitting than to her more serious comments about the fundamental hypocrisy in American attitudes to religion, native peoples, and slavery.

I found Neville-Sington's Browning book quite hard going: this one also suffers in readability from the author's determination to pin every incident and person in the subject's life down in a quotation from one of her books (or one of her sons' books). But it is a very interesting story: Fanny Trollope comes over as a fascinating character, and probably a very likeable one. She had a tough life by most standards — she outlived all but two of her seven children and several of her grandchildren; her life with her increasingly bad-tempered and unreliable husband can't have been fun; the American venture was a long series of humiliating defeats, and when she got home things were even worse; she found herself having to take over the role of breadwinner without any kind of training or experience; she was frequently mocked or insulted for presuming to speak out in public — but she seems to have had tremendous resources of cheerfulness and enterprise that helped her to bounce back from each new disaster and carry on. And she brings a robust, Georgian way of thinking into the Age of the Antimacassar: her views on social, moral and religious issues all seem remarkably straightforward and free from hypocrisy by early-Victorian standards. It's also very interesting to see some of the background that Anthony's novels come out of. Neville-Sington makes a lot out of the parallels between themes and characters in the novels of mother and son, which makes me want to read some of Fanny's novels now...

toukokuu 12, 2020, 7:11pm

Catching up on some great reviews.

toukokuu 13, 2020, 5:06am

>83 baswood: Have fun!

The first one from the Seven Seas pile. It looks as though Professor Behrend used this one for teaching: it's been professionally rebound in classic university bindery style, with the original paperback cover pasted on the front, making it look like an unusually small academic journal.

Come back, Africa! Short stories from South Africa (1968) edited by Herbert L Shore (USA, 1922-2004) and Megchelina Shore-Bos


This seems to be a classic collection, reprinted many times by different publishers after it originally came out in 1968, but I couldn't find out much about the editors: Herbert Shore is described as a "writer and theatre director" who taught inter alia at the University of East Africa and the University of Pennsylvania — he seems to have come into the limelight shortly before his death when it came out that, during the McCarthy era, the university personnel department had been sharing its confidential records with the FBI, who also had a file on Shore's teenage son. Mrs Shore seems to have been an expert on Makonde art.

The fourteen stories in this collection range from hard-hitting modern writing by Drum magazine people (Lewis Nkosi, Ezekiel (later Es'kia) Mphahlele, Richard Rive, William Modisane) to Herman Charles Bosman's famous late story "Funeral Earth" (1950), in which a group of late-19th-century Boers on commando is outwitted morally, psychologically and in low cunning by the inhabitants of a Bantu village. Shore's introduction makes it clear that he doesn't have much time for white liberals like Alan Paton, but there's a Paton story, "A drink in the passage," included in the collection, and it turns out to be a very good one, neatly showing us how the divisions created by the South African system are too deep for either good intentions or the transformative power of art to fix them. Other white writers include Michael Picardie and Alf Wannenburgh and the only woman in the collection, trade-unionist and left-wing activist Phyllis Altman. Alex la Guma and Richard Rive are there to represent the "coloured" community.

All the writing is of a high standard, although some of the stories (like Altman's "The paper writers") are perhaps a bit too much like straight political sermons. The ones that really stand out for me are Lewis Nkosi's "Potgieter's Castle" and Alex La Guma's "A glass of wine". They come at the problem of South Africa from opposite directions: La Guma portrays the most normal scene you could imagine, a man and a woman having a drink together, and then in the last paragraph twists it around so that we can see how totally impossible normal relations of that kind are in the world that apartheid has created; Nkosi takes an extreme situation — a group of black men arrested during a strike are being transported into the country to work in slave-like conditions for a white farmer — and helps us to imagine what it might feel like to be there by very creative use of language.
It seemed that the only language which the guards understood was violence; they used violence with an annoying precision, as though the fact of it was the most beautiful thing they had discovered about the ordering of human society.

toukokuu 15, 2020, 8:58am

I've been neglecting opera a bit lately (light evenings, warm weather) but last night I watched the Covent Garden La Traviata (on YouTube until the end of next week). Typical Covent Garden big-budget divas and boring production: Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson all singing brilliantly, but Richard Eyre's glitzy period-costume staging totally predictable.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 16, 2020, 6:45am

I finished two books this morning, one on audio and the other from the pile.

Oddly enough, they both turned out to be about people with an obsession for making things perfect, if in completely different ways. I wonder if you can guess (without having read them) which of the two contains a chapter called "Levellers and True Levellers"?

This one was a spin-off from my Milton project: I bought it in 2017 when I realised that I hadn't read it, even though it's the best-known of Hill's Civil War books. It will go next to five of his other books on the history shelf...

The world turned upside down : radical ideas during the English Revolution (1972) by Christopher Hill (UK, 1912-2003)


The period of the English Revolution of the 17th century, especially the late 1640s, was a time of incredible intellectual ferment, which we happen to know about in unusual detail, because there was a gap in official censorship of the press between 1641 and 1660. Everyone —idealists, dreamers, prophets, con-men, magicians, political and religious theorists, self-appointed messiahs, people with grudges against those in power, and quite a few who were simply deranged — put their ideas down on paper and issued them in pamphlets with wonderful titles like Jonahs Cry from the Whales Belly, The Lawyers Bane, Rome Ruin'd by Whitehall, Spiritual Whoredome discovered in a sermon before the House of Commons, The Vanitie of the Present Churches, Tyranipocrit Discovered, and — my favourite — A Fiery Flying Roll.

Most of these were objecting in one way or another to the compromises of the Commonwealth political settlement, which might have got rid of king and bishops for the time being, but had failed to sweep away other bugbears like tithes, landlords, and the professional monopolies of lawyers and priests, and was evidently seen by many at the bottom of society as simply replacing one set of powerful wealthy oppressors by another. Levellers looked for a more equal distribution of property — their hardline counterparts, the Diggers, wanted to eliminate private ownership of land altogether, setting up collective farms on uncultivated land. Seekers and Ranters took the teaching of the Reformation beyond Calvinism to reject clerical control of their religious and moral life altogether, embracing an antinomian position that nothing could be sinful to those who were living in the Spirit, and demonstratively indulged in the 17th century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll in their services to prove it. Abiezer Coppe (he of the Burning Bun) is supposed to have sworn from the pulpit for a solid hour on one occasion: "there's swearing ignorantly i'th dark, and there's swearing i'th light, gloriously".

Hill takes us through the ideas of these groups and their many successors — the Ranters seem to have been one of the breeding grounds for the very respectable Quakers, for instance: Hill has fun casting James Nayler as the Trotsky subsequently written out of Quaker history (he doesn't actually go on to call Fox and Penn Lenin and Stalin, but it seems to be implied...).

What is also very interesting is the way, not always clear, these ideas fit into social history. Hill makes a lot of how bottom-up it all was: A lot of the conspicuous radical figures including Fox, Coppe, Bunyan, and the Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley came out of the new Army and/or had been "mechanicks" — itinerant artisans — and thus didn't have a well-defined place either in traditional agrarian society or in bourgeois/professional town life. Very few seem to have come from the traditional kind of middle-class intellectual background, and those who did, like Milton, were usually analysts and commentators rather than being involved in actual radical action. Hill suspects, but can't actually prove, that the ideas expressed by people like the Ranters and Levellers came out of things that were always present in a radical stream of English popular culture (going back to the Peasants' Revolt and Lollards, and forward to Blake), emerging into the mainstream in the disorder of the Civil War, and then pushed back underground by the repression of the Restoration.

The history we learn at school seems to take it for granted that the Civil War was a momentary aberration in English politics far less significant than the subsequent settlement of 1688, but when you read about what was going on in the 1640s, you can't help wondering what would have happened if Cromwell had not eliminated the influence of the Levellers in the army at Burford in 1649. Would we have had democracy (or even communism) in the 17th century? Or would the Calvinists have got the upper hand again and turned England into a semi-theocracy like the Dutch Republic? We'll never know, but it's fun thinking about it.

toukokuu 16, 2020, 5:32am

And this was an audiobook from Scribd. I know about Simon Winchester (a retired journalist who seems to have started out as a geologist) only from The professor and the madman, a book I wasn't hugely keen on, but the subject of this one sounded interesting, even though the arrogant subtitle should have been a warning:

The perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (2018) by Simon Winchester‬ (USA, 1944- ) audiobook narrated by the author


The basic premise of this book is the simplistic — and not very controversial — idea that everything in modern science and technology depends on our ability to measure things accurately and to make things conform to tightly controlled tolerances. And of course our world is so complex and interconnected that you can write a plausible "everything depends on..." book about just about anything (Nail: how a simple bit of forged metal holds the modern world together; Hinge: the device that opened the door to western civilisation, etc.). All you need is a good agent and a tape-recorder.

If you haven't worked in engineering or technology then you might not have thought much about what precision means or where it comes from, but if you have, not much of Winchester's story will be new to you, and you will be champing at the bit to correct him when he calls a milling machine a lathe, or he obscures the meaning of the word "tolerance" for the umpteenth time. But the little errors of fact are fairly trivial really, and if this weren't a book about accuracy and precision, we probably wouldn't even notice them. On the whole, he tells the story quite clearly and efficiently, without wandering down too many "human interest" rabbit holes. The thing that irritated me most about it was its supreme predictability. From the introductory paragraph of each chapter, the reader knows exactly where that chapter is going to take you. "What if there were a culture that values imprecision and asymmetry as much as it has embraced absolute precision?" he ponders in his final chapter, and you're already off to book your tickets for the Shinkansen.

Most of the usual suspects are rolled out — the Antikythera mechanism, Watt's steam engine, Harrison's chronometer, Whitworth's screw threads, interchangeable parts for muskets, Henry Ford vs. Henry Royce, Frank Whittle and the jet engine, the error in the Hubble telescope, etc. Babbage is omitted for once, maybe Winchester has done him too often before.

Mostly harmless, but very much standard pot-boiler non-fiction.

toukokuu 16, 2020, 10:33am

Another South African from the Seven Seas pile:

Golden City (1970) by Enver Carim (South Africa, UK, 1938- )


According to the bio in the back of this book, Enver Carim comes from a coloured background in Johannesburg; after university there he moved to the UK and studied at Exeter University. He — or someone else of the same name — has written a number of other novels, the most recent in 2014. None seems to have made much impression on the world apart from this one.

Johannesburg, circa 1960. Haroun is a student at Witwatersrand University, a Muslim with an Italian mother and an Indian father. He's on the point of leaving for Britain with the rest of his family. Over his last few days, he roams around the city with his friends, drinking in shebeens, looking for girls ("cherries"), smoking dope in back alleys, getting into fights, going to an unlicensed jazz concert, and — at the worst possible moment, the day before they are due to travel — catching the eye of some malevolent policemen and getting arrested. It's a story full of youthful bravado and exuberance, full of local colour, also full of anger at the arbitrary cruelty of the system that sets whites over coloured people and coloured people over blacks. Carim's obviously hoping to do for Johannesburg what Alex La Guma did for Cape Town.

It's a book I really wanted to like, and it has a lot of good stuff in it. Unfortunately, Carim's ambition often runs ahead of his skill with words, and he keeps painting himself into grandiose ringing sentences that don't mean anything and leave us stranded in mid-air. Either he was typing whilst stoned (a common problem in the late 60s), or he'd been reading too much Beat literature.
The glinting brilliance of day has become opaque, the heat has subsided and cooled, the sandy lane is in shadow. It's the time the Afrikaners call skemer, the greyness in which day and night hesitate for a few minutes, before the one recedes completely and the other spreads bluely over everything.

— That comes so close to being a beautiful expressive passage, but in Carim's hands it just leaves you trying to imagine what opaque brilliance might look like, or realising that English has a perfectly good one-to-one equivalent for skemer: twilight. It's not all that bad — the fights and sex scenes are worse, but the jazz chapter near the end is rather good.

Interesting, but probably not worth scouring the secondhand shops for.

I liked the period cover art by Lothar Reher, though.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 18, 2020, 11:38am

>85 thorold: ... and Saturday's venture into opera was the Amsterdam Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, via OperaVision, in a necessarily edgy production directed by Martin Kusej and with Eva-Maria Westbroek amazing in the title role. A bit of a change from Verdi!

I've also just finished watching Emma Rice's stage version of Wise children on the BBC — filmed in the lovely York Theatre Royal, no less. I'm not sure if I got the point of all the cross-dressing, I'll have to re-read the book I think, but it was great fun.


Meanwhile, back on the TBR pile, a neglected 2011 Christmas present (oops!). I think I was a bit Wodehoused-out at the time, so I put it aside for a while.

Sophie Ratcliffe teaches English at LMH in Oxford.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (2011) edited by Sophie Ratcliffe (UK, 1975- )


It isn't very easy to see why this book needs to exist: there are already at least five good Wodehouse biographies (all of which I've read and most of which are cluttering up my shelves...). The 2004 one by Robert McCrum, who must have had access to just about every relevant source that is ever likely to become available, seems likely to remain definitive for the foreseeable future. And there's also a fairly comprehensive edition of Wodehouse letters edited by Frances Donaldson in 1990. So there doesn't seem to be very much of a gap to be filled by a combined letters-and-bio book.

Nevertheless, the result is quite attractive. Ratcliffe hasn't unearthed any sensational new material, but there are one or two minor insights that were new to me, at least — like the idea that all those strong-minded female characters who are former Edwardian showgirls (e.g. Sue Brown in the Blandings stories) must owe something to Wodehouse's wife Ethel, who was a hoofer in her younger days.

But the main reason you read a book like this is to enjoy Wodehouse's voice as a letter-writer. It's something he was — unsurprisingly — very good at, but don't expect to see him with his guard down. He is almost always busy performing the role of "P.G. Wodehouse", even in letters to very old friends. Super-sharp when it comes to matters of writing technique or literary finance, clowning around and making fun of himself when things start getting emotional. It was fun to see a few bits of professional bitchiness that were presumably edited out of earlier books (On Kingsley Amis in 1954: "I should imagine he is one of those young men whom I dislike so much. They very seldom amount to anything in the long run"). And lots of very acute bits of analysis of other people's books and shows, and a very funny take-down of Cole Porter as lyricist.

It was also fun to learn that Arthur Ransome wrote to Wodehouse to tell him that he had named his latest yacht after Lottie Blossom, the alligator-toting heroine of The luck of the Bodkins, his and his wife's favourite character in fiction. Wodehouse replied to thank him, saying that twenty years on, LOTB was still his favourite — I'd agree with that, even though there are plenty of other letters in the collection in which Wodehouse describes quite different books as "the best thing I've ever done"! He doesn't say anything about whether he knew Ransome's books, sadly.

As so often with this kind of book it's not so much the professional as the personal that grabs you: seeing the lovely letters Wodehouse wrote to his step-daughter at school, and to his grandchildren later on, was really quite something (although I think most of those were in the Donaldson book as well). Writing to his grandson in England in 1946, when he was stuck in Paris and very uncertain about the future, he has still taken the time to read The sword in the stone because someone had just told him about it (it came out very shortly before the war) and tells the boy how much fun it is ("do ask Daddy to get it for you as a present from me").

You don't need this book, and it's a good 5cm of shelf-space you'll never see again, but if you're a Wodehouse fan you may well enjoy it.

toukokuu 18, 2020, 2:33pm

Well, there were only about 92 possible ways to follow that. Here's one that I haven't read more than about five or six times. It's sort-of relevant, because Wodehouse wrote it during "lockdown", if not quite the sort of lockdown we're experiencing at the moment.

Joy in the morning (1946) by P G Wodehouse (UK, 1881-1975)


This was one of the books Wodehouse wrote during the war, "about two-thirds" of it at Le Touquet in May and June 1940 whilst waiting for the Germans to decide what they were going to do with the British civilians, the rest of it in Germany after his release from internment. It was published in August 1946 in the US, June 1947 in Britain. Wodehouse and his publishers were nervous about the reception it would get after the accusations of collaboration brought against him during the war, especially in Britain, but reaction seems to have been largely positive on both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the troubled times it was written in, it's one of the warmest and sunniest of the Jeeves novels. For complicated reasons, Bertie has to visit Steeple Bumpleigh, not only the lair of his most fearsome aunt, Agatha, but also infested by Florence Craye, one of his deadliest ex-fiancées (she's the one who tried to get him to read Types of ethical theory), by her little brother Edwin the Boy Scout, and by the pumpkin-headed D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright. To make matters worse, it appears that Stilton, wishing to assert his independence and earn a living by honest toil, has joined the Hampshire Constabulary and is now the village bobby.

There's a superbly complicated night-time garden scene that takes up the entire centre section of the book, making the last act of The Marriage of Figaro look trivially simple by comparison; there's a lot of business with costumes for a fancy dress ball, with some diamond bracelets, a porpentine, and a couple of incriminating letters; Bertie comes within a whisker of marriage and/or imprisonment, and of course joy cometh in the morning.

Maybe Bertie isn't on absolutely top form linguistically here, but there's still lots of his unique way of thinking about words and what they mean, and much of it is extremely funny.

When a girl uses six derogatory adjectives in her attempt to paint the portrait of the loved one, it means something. One may indicate a merely temporary tiff. Six is big stuff.

My copy is the 1946 Doubleday edition, with illustrations by Paul Galdone: it's fairly obvious that Wodehouse, still being stuck in Paris, wasn't given the chance to check the pictures. Bertie is made to look disturbingly like the Duke of Windsor, whilst Jeeves is given a striped waistcoat as though he were a footman. And they are both far too old, not that we ever really know what age Bertie is meant to be.

toukokuu 18, 2020, 7:35pm

>88 thorold: Gloaming perhaps? - more of a magical quality than twilight

toukokuu 18, 2020, 8:02pm

>88 thorold: Crepuscular? An awful word for a lovely effect.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 19, 2020, 3:24am

>91 SassyLassy: >92 lisapeet: Or simply dusk, or half-light. I like glimmer, as in Gray's Elegy:
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

If Carim had done it slightly differently, it might have worked, something like: "...The greyness in which day and night hesitate for a few minutes, before the one recedes completely and the other spreads bluely over everything. That time that somehow fits the Afrikaans name skemer much better than prosaic English twilight."
Then we might forget that the original Dutch word schemer was used for centuries by people who had never seen it getting dark in Africa...

toukokuu 19, 2020, 8:34am

A kind of step forward: I was able to take my library books back today, at last, having borrowed them in early March. Not very exciting. I simply had to put them in the Special Quarantine Container — which looked suspiciously like a repurposed wheelie-bin — in the lobby of our local branch. They will check them in on the computer in three days' time. I didn't even go into the library itself, although they are now open for borrowing with some restrictions.


This was the novel we picked to read next after our last real face-to-face book club meeting, in February, but we've kept on postponing actually discussing it. Latest plan is to use the next video meeting to discuss it, so I thought I'd better finish reading it first.

I read Vásquez's 2015 book, La forma de las ruinas, last year, and found that very interesting.

El ruido de las cosas al caer (2011; The sound of things falling) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia, 1973- )


Bogotá, the late 1990s. The narrator, Antonio, is a young law professor who likes to hang around a billiard hall in his spare time. He strikes up a casual acquaintance there with a man called Ricardo Laverde, and learns that he is a pilot who has just been released after a long jail sentence, but he somehow fails to jump to the obvious conclusion. When Ricardo is shot dead in the street and Antonio is injured by a stray bullet, his life starts to fall apart, as a direct, personal kind of PTSD is superimposed on the more generalised version that everyone who lived through the 80s and 90s in Colombia had to deal with. Then he makes contact with a woman who turns out to be Ricardo's daughter, and seems to be on track to find some kind of closure.

The premise is perhaps a little shaky, but it gives Vásquez the opportunity to tell us a lot about Colombia's recent (and not-so-recent) history, Pablo Escobar and the drugs business, what it's like to live in a country like that, about Vietnam-era Peace Corps volunteers, and air accidents, and hippopotami, and all kinds of other interesting things. Something he is extremely good at.

It's not as complex a book as La forma de las ruinas, there's more of a straightforward, conventional storyline and back-story, (but perhaps not quite the sort of ending he was leading us to expect). Antonio is clearly a fictional narrator from whom the author distances himself a little bit, rather than a complicated mix of fiction and autobiography as in the later book. Very worthwhile, I still want to read more of Vásquez's writing...

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 19, 2020, 9:12am

Alex La Guma again, the third book from the Seven Seas haul (and the one that I was originally looking for):

And a threefold Cord (1964) by Alex La Guma (South Africa, 1925-1985)


This was La Guma's second major work of fiction, written while he was under house-arrest in South Africa, but published abroad (in East Germany) because any reproduction or distribution of his writings within South Africa was banned.

While A walk in the night was set in the urban jungle of District Six, this time we move to a shanty town on the outer fringes of Cape Town, where people with no legal right to be there but with no chance of getting work anywhere else are surviving on the absolute minimum in houses they have built themselves out of whatever materials they could scrounge or salvage. Hassled by the police, fighting a losing battle against poverty and the Cape Town rainy season, they are on the very limit of survival — seen by white motorists from the main road the settlement hardly seems to exist at all — but they still manage to have a sense of community and to help each other occasionally. It's immaterial whether that's because they know Ecclesiastes Chapter 4 better than we do (as the title implies), or because they've heard a trade union activist talking on a job they were on, or just because they are human beings in a tight spot. La Guma wants us to see that people do ultimately have great collective strength, even in weakness, and even when they aren't in a position to use that strength just now.

As Lola said in her review, this is exceptionally fine writing, but it's not fine writing that's jumping up and down shouting "look at me", it's there to do a serious job of work and make us look at all the details of the way the people in the shanty town live and show us what those details should be telling us about the world we live in. It's about South Africa in the 1960s, but it's just as much about poverty anywhere, in any time.

Why does hardly anyone seem to know about this book? It should be on every syllabus. Including Domestic Science and Metalwork.

toukokuu 20, 2020, 9:54am

Another one from the pile. This is a leftover from the Korea/Japan theme in 2018:

Palm-of-the-hand stories (1988) by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899-1972) translated by Lane Dunlop and J Martin Holman


Kawabata wrote nearly 150 of these very short stories (most of them in the 250 - 1000 word range) over the course of his writing career. Some are complex, densely plotted tales that could be outlines for novels, others are impressionistic captures of single scenes — dialogues, dreams, things seen from the window of a train — and others again are more like conventional short stories. And just about all are fascinating, beautiful pieces of writing, even if it isn't always obvious on a first or second reading what Kawabata is trying to do. About half of those translated here come from the mid-1920s, when Kawabata was starting out as a writer and experimenting with style and form; the last piece in this collection is a pared-down reworking of the novel Snow country, written a few months before Kawabata's death in 1972.

Settings vary from the inevitable hot-springs inns to suburban railway stations, rented rooms and theatre backstages in the city, and the themes touched on cover the whole gamut from war, disease, death, adultery, first love, illegitimacy, poverty, blindness, and umbrella-envy to a deadly competition between rival proprietors of public toilets. Obviously, Kawabata took advantage of the form to try things out.

Very interesting, but probably a dangerous book to have on your desk if you're trying to write short stories yourself: you'll soon start thinking that there's nothing worthwhile you could write that hasn't already been done better, shorter and more subtly by Kawabata...

toukokuu 20, 2020, 2:02pm

>94 thorold: fwiw, I read Vasquez's The Informers several years back and found it interesting and enjoyable. (3.5 stars worth)

toukokuu 20, 2020, 2:25pm

It’s not necessarily of any interest to you that I’ve finally caught up here, overcoming your rapid pace of reading and reviewing, but I finally did. Enjoyed all these books on South Africa and thereabouts and everything else here. I was surprised to discover Wodehouse has 71 novels alone (not counting all his other works.) I’ve never read him. Alex Le Guma sounds terrific. Glad you enjoyed Paton at least a little. He’s my South African knowledge base, other than a James Michener I read years ago (I loved The Covenant, but probably because it was my introduction to the complicated history in SA).

I’m guessing “Levellers and True Levellers” was in The World Turned Upside down. And also I’ve probably read enough Winchester for one life (The Map the Changed the World. I could have done without).

toukokuu 20, 2020, 3:59pm

>98 dchaikin: The encouraging thing to remember when faced with Wodehouse’s complete works is that he didn’t write anything like as many books as Simenon! But you should give him a try. If nothing else, it will test your knowledge of Shakespeare and the Old Testament, he rarely goes more than a page without slipping in a reference to one or the other.

The professor and the madman was a bit less mindless than The perfectionists, but not enough for me to contemplate giving Winchester a third chance to be superficial about something, I think...

I don’t think I’ve ever tried Michener. I’m probably too deep into South Africa now to enjoy a historical novel by an outsider, but I ought to read at least one sometime.

toukokuu 20, 2020, 10:11pm

Noting Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories - sounds very interesting.

toukokuu 22, 2020, 9:46am

Zolathon, 18/20 — the last one I haven't read before:

L'Argent (1891; Money) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


If the previous book in the series was Zola's answer to Crime and punishment, this one seems to be his take on The way we live now. But with more nude scenes than Trollope, and fewer trips to Lowestoft...

Zola brings back Saccard, the tycoon from 16 books ago in La curée; if you were paying attention you'll recall that he is the elder brother of Eugène Rougon, the minister. Saccard seems to have inherited the same bounce-back ability that characterises his brother's career: here, in the mid-1860s, we see him moving rapidly from the collapse of his property empire to a new career in the even murkier world of the stock market, setting up the immodestly-named Banque Universelle to invest in steamships, railways and mines in the Middle East, and using every trick in the book, legal and illegal, to boost the apparent value of the company and its share price. Soon it seems that there isn't a distressed gentlewoman or retired civil servant in France who hasn't put their meagre savings into Universelle stock.

Naturally, all the wheeling and dealing and the strange day-to-day workings of the stock market are described in loving detail, as are many other direct and indirect manifestations of money in Second Empire lives, most of which ultimately lead down to the broker in bad debts and blackmailer, Broch. But what Zola is really interested in is not so much the mechanics of finance but the way that people get emotionally involved with money. Saccard is fond of saying that money is like sex: most of the time we chase it for the short-term pleasure and excitement it brings, and sometimes that pursuit is dirty and nasty, but without all that dirt and guilty pleasure we wouldn't produce any children. Saccard is a fraudster who ruins hundreds of people's lives, but the companies financed by his schemes also produce improvements to the quality of life for many others — jobs, transportation, toys for the children in the orphanage. Meanwhile, the communist thinker, Sigismound, produces precisely nothing. Zola isn't quite defending capitalism, but he's at least ambivalent about it. It's pretty clear that he as a novelist would have little to write about in the ideal Marxist world that Sigismound imagines, for a start!

Naturally, there's more going on than this: The rise and fall of Saccard — with his sexual adventures, his colonial excursions, his ambiguous relationship with the Church, his half-baked charity work, his frequent Napoleonic analogies, his own private Universal Exposition and his rabid anti-semitism — are clearly supposed to parallel the career of Napoleon III and his corrupt state, for a start.

A nice feature of this book is the way it takes an independent-minded, mature woman, Caroline, as the main viewpoint character. She's a little bit in love with Saccard, but not enough to prevent her seeing through him and maintaining a moderately safe distance.

Not one of the real heavyweights of the series, but still a very interesting novel.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 22, 2020, 11:37am

And I finished another audiobook...

Every tool's a hammer : life is what you make it (2019) by Adam Savage (USA, 1967- ) audiobook narrated by the author


Like everyone else, I enjoyed watching Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman building things on television and then blowing them up; I also occasionally watch Savage building things on YouTube, and I like the way he goes around encouraging (young) people to get into workshops and make stuff themselves. So I was curious to see what his book would be like.

It turns out that it's a bit of a mixed bag. There are quite a few anecdotes about his career as artist, set-builder and prop-maker, many of which are not all that interesting unless you are as obsessed as the author is with Hollywood monsters, ray-guns and spaceships; there are some handy practical tips about choosing the right kind of glue and not letting people cut paper with your fabric-scissors, but most of the book turns out to be advice.

What Savage says about things like planning your projects, getting stuff done, organising a workshop, communicating with clients, co-operating effectively with bosses, subordinates, or fellow team-members, etc., mostly seems very sensible, but it's at a very general level, and it's the sort of stuff that few of us are likely to benefit from seeing in a book. Either we've already worked those things out for ourselves, or we still need to have the practical experiences to teach us whether or not they are practices that will be useful for us. No real person is ever going to start making checklists for tasks because they've read about them in a book. We do it automatically when — and if — we find we're doing stuff too complicated to keep track of in our minds (or we need to share progress with someone else).

Savage's voice (both as a writer and as a reader) is pleasant to listen to, but it's probably not a very useful book in the end.

Likely scenario:

☑ Get Adam Savage's book as gift
☑ Read Adam Savage's book
☐ Follow advice contained therein
☐ Tidy up workshop

toukokuu 23, 2020, 3:04pm

A quick in-between read from my Seven Seas pile:

The Dyehouse (1961) by Mena Calthorpe (Australia, 1905-1996)


Mena Calthorpe was a schoolteacher, office worker and political activist from New South Wales. She wrote two other novels after The Dyehouse.

This is a very interesting workplace novel, which has been reissued a few times since it originally came out in 1961. The characters are office staff, managers and shop-floor workers in a textile dyeing plant on the suburban fringes of Sydney, and the book digs, sensitively and a little bit obliquely, into some of the everyday, but still brutal, cruelties and arbitrary injustices that go with any kind of paid employment. A skilled worker with long years of experience is pushed out by someone less competent but with better paper qualifications; a manager gets away with sexually harassing women workers; faceless accountants looking for abuses pick on a man who has had to take time off to give his pregnant wife urgent care; workers are exposed to all kinds of dangerous chemicals, whilst the company denies all responsibility for injuries and disease; shop-floor workers are too lazy to get around to organising a proper union committee to protect themselves; and the only really competent workers left in the place are eventually rationalised away by head office in an efficiency drive.

There's nothing very unexpected in any of this, but Calthorpe manages to present it all in a very human, engaging way, with plenty of humour and detailed observation of the way people behave in work situations and at home. And there's a certain amount of sixties New South Wales local colour and some interesting textile industry jargon to enjoy.

A chance find, and a rewarding one!

toukokuu 23, 2020, 4:56pm

>101 thorold: Not one of the real heavyweights of the series, but still a very interesting novel.

I'd agree that the novel itself isn't one of the heavyweights, but feel that is somewhat disappointing, as I think that Saccard is one of the most interesting characters of the entire cycle.

Reading them in publication order as you are, do you think that the large gap between La Curée (2) and L'argent (18) had any effect on your reading of the latter? I read them one after the other (3 and 4) and Saccard seemed to be a real force of nature, with his return perhaps being all the more powerful given his recent (in reading terms) fall.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 24, 2020, 3:46am

>104 SassyLassy: Of course, I'm reading them in publication order but not at publication speed: I've gone through twenty years of Zola's output in just over two years of reading time. So the gap as I perceived it isn't as big as it would have been for contemporary readers.

Two things that really struck me, reading them this way round:
— Eugène Rougon hardly seemed to matter in La Curée, he was just a vague offstage presence, but in L'Argent everything Saccard does seems to revolve around his strange non-relationship with his brother, whom we still don't see. He's not quite competing with him, it's more a kind of clamouring to be noticed and acknowledged. I think Zola is counting on us having read Son Excellence Eugène Rougon in the meantime, and knowing that Eugène is so very similar to his brother, every bit as much of a fraud and a bouncer-back, just slightly better at letting ambition keep his moral failings under control.
— I think Zola's also counting on having got us into the dangerous, self-destructive mood of the late sixties: the jingoistic crowds in Nana, the peasant going off to enlist in La Terre, the driverless train hurtling towards the front in La bête humaine, and so on, in between our reading of La Curée and L'Argent. He really hammers the war metaphors. The word "débâcle" appears fifteen times, according to my e-reader, Bismarck nine times (one of those in person!), there are three separate comparisons to Waterloo, and any number of Napoléon images.

toukokuu 24, 2020, 12:56pm

I came across this book many years ago when my then flatmate, who was learning Italian, spent several months reading it at the rate of about three pages a day with dictionary in hand. He encouraged me to read it, and I did — in translation — and loved it, so naturally it was one of the first books I got hold of to read in the original when I started trying to read Italian. And equally naturally I forgot all about it and read something else first. Five years on, reading Natalia Ginzburg's essay "Winter in Abruzzo", (>61 thorold:) reminded me about it (the Ginzburgs were members of the same anti-fascist group in Torino as Levi):

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945; Christ stopped at Eboli) by Carlo Levi (Italy, 1902-1975)


The painter Carlo Levi was one of the thousands of anti-fascists subjected to a period of confino — a kind of preventive internal exile in a remote village or island — under Mussolini. He was sent to the barren southern region of Lucania (Basilicata) early in 1935 and spent a year living in the villages of Grassano and Aliano (disguised as "Gagliano" in the book) before being released in a general amnesty in summer 1936. Later on, during the war, he wrote this account of his experiences in the south, and it was published to huge acclaim shortly after the liberation in 1945.

The slightly puzzling title turns out to be a characteristic local saying, implying that civilisation never reached their region, and Levi sets out to show us the truth behind that hyperbole. The peasants he meets live in appallingly bad conditions: there's nowhere near enough good land to feed them, deforestation and malaria make working the land difficult and unproductive, and the economy runs largely on the savings of those American emigrants who return home and buy a piece of barren desert. The peasants have no interest in the State, and the State seems to have no interest in them except when collecting taxes; everything is run by and for the "signori", the rump of dim-witted self-serving priests, teachers, lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers and public officials who were not bright and ambitious enough to get away to America or to the cities. Fascism is largely irrelevant: in that part of Italy the people who took it up are mostly the ones who were already running things anyway.

Levi writes with love, humour and affection about the peasants and their traditions and the things they have to put up with; he doesn't do much to hide his contempt for people like the schoolteacher and Fascist mayor Don Luigino, who spends his days smoking and gossiping on the school balcony and lets the children leave the school as illiterate as they came into it. He tells us very clearly that in his view the "problem of the south" is not one to be solved from Rome, or even from Naples, but by giving the people at the rough end of that problem a proper voice in saying what they need.

The villagers are excited about Levi's arrival, not because he's a well-known painter, but because he's a doctor, and the two doctors practicing in the village are both considered incompetent, one of them clearly senile. This is embarrassing for Levi, as he's never practiced since leaving medical school, and he doesn't want to make trouble in the village, but the need is evidently so pressing that he can't avoid the queue of sick people outside his door. Fortunately, he's able to get permission for his sister (also a doctor) to bring down a trunk full of medical gear and books on malaria.

As with George Orwell's books about England in the thirties, I had to keep stopping and reminding myself that this is someone of the same generation as my grandparents, writing about Europe in a time that's still just about within living memory. And that he's addressing people living a short train-ride away from the places he's talking about who clearly haven't got a clue how "the other half lives" in their own country.

A painful book, but also a very beautifully observed one.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 25, 2020, 6:55am

And back to South Africa, for something slightly different:

Portrait with keys : the city of Johannesburg unlocked (2006) by Ivan Vladislavić (South Africa, 1957- )


This is probably the perfect lockdown travel book: not only is it constantly playing around with ideas about locks, keys, fences and guards, it is also almost entirely focussed on a suburban area within a block or two of the narrator's house.

In 138 numbered, short pieces — which rather endearingly turn out to occupy 183 pages — Vladislavić jumps around, apparently randomly, between encounters with beggars and street vendors, crime reports, notes about art exhibitions, thoughts on writers from Elias Canetti to Herman Charles Bosman, close observation of the way the very ordinary buildings, gardens, pavements, signs, graffiti, and street furniture around him reflect the short and complicated history of the city, and extracts from an essay on the semiotics of the steering-wheel lock.

The pieces seem to be arranged in simple chronological order of writing, irrespective of their subject, but there's an appendix in which Vladislavić proposes to us a number of thematic "walking tours" of different lengths and difficulties we can take through the literary model of a city he's created. Kind of a cross between Lonely Planet and Hopscotch.

The kind of engaging, enquiring writing that spots something interesting under the most ordinary and prosaic detail. Great fun.


(That takes the TBR back under 100 again, but I've got three on order...!)

toukokuu 25, 2020, 8:27am

>103 thorold: Your review just reminded me that I don't often come across books with a regular office type of workplace setting at their core. Perhaps writers think we want to escape the daily grind when we read, but I can see how handled well this could make for a really good read.

toukokuu 25, 2020, 8:57am

>108 AlisonY: Yes, there plenty of novels with scenes in the workplace, but there aren't many that build the story around the work, especially not office work. There is always Het Bureau (>28 thorold:), but you'd have to read it in Dutch...

Christie Malry's own double-entry, which I read in Q1, had a lot about office-work in it, including balance-sheets. Much of it is set in a confectionery factory in Hammersmith.

There's a list for Workplace Fiction here, but it hasn't got much on it yet:

toukokuu 25, 2020, 2:55pm

I agree with you, Mark; I enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling, but not nearly as much as The Shape of the Ruins. I've read four of Vásquez's novels, and I eagerly await his next book.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 27, 2020, 5:17am

>110 kidzdoc: I'm looking forward to reading more Vásquez too (our book-club discussion was postponed, but everyone seemed to be enthusiastic about the novel).

Last night I was meant to be doing to the Opera Zuid production of Britten's A midsummer night's dream — that didn't happen, of course, but I felt duty bound to see some opera. I was going to re-watch my DVD of Peter Hall's 1980s Glyndebourne production of the Britten, but then I saw that Pierre Audi's Amsterdam Ring has come up on Operavision (first two parts, so far). I saw this about twenty years ago — the only time I've been to a complete cycle of the Ring — and of course it knocked my socks off. So I watched Rheingold last night — the video is of a 2014 performance, a different cast from the one I saw, of course, but still the same dangling chains, plastic wigs and gas-fired robotic wheelie-bins. Should be ridiculous, but somehow it isn't, and it was good to see the costumes close-up in a way you can't when you're right at the back of the auditorium.


And I finished another audiobook this morning (for some reason the audiobook has a publication date of 2019 whilst the paper book came out in 2020):

Actress: a novel (2020) by Anne Enright (Ireland, 1962- ) audiobook narrated by the author


Novelist Norah is being pestered by an irritatingly self-assured PhD student, who's writing a thesis about Norah's late mother, "The Irish actress" Katherine O'Dell. Which of course pushes Norah into lining up her own memories, that don't fit into the perky young woman's nice neat postmodern boxes for national and sexual identity, roles and performance.

Except that they do, in the end, but in a much-more-complicated-than-that kind of a way. And they are all mixed with Norah's own experience of a close, warm, exclusive mother-daughter bond set against the Ab-Fab frustration of being the serious daughter of an extravagant celebrity. Plus Irish history since the 1940s, lots of fascinating backstage stuff, a lot of very funny portraits of theatre, cinema and TV types (we can't help suspecting that we'd recognise them as caricatures if we lived in Dublin). A really touching, funny and clever novel, where my only real disappointment was that it wasn't a bit longer...

Enright turns out to be a very good reader of her own work: the Irishness is there in the audiobook without being hammed up (except where the text calls for it to be), and there's a constant mischievous quality in the reading that picks up jokes another reader might have missed, and undermines any tendency we might have to take Norah over-seriously and turn this into a romantic, sentimental story.


...and an oddly disturbing riff on the "headless woman" cover cliché. You can't help wondering which book they used the other piece of this picture on...

toukokuu 27, 2020, 10:49am

A leftover from my dip into CBR last year. I've still got her last novel, Subscript, on the shelf as well.

Invisible author: last essays (2002) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)


In typical CBR fashion, this is simultaneously a very serious attempt to say something important about the nature of narrative and a joke at the expense of the conventions of literary criticism. Because this turns out to be not the usual, quasi-random collection of essays assembled over a period of years on different topics that the format teaches us to expect, but instead an extended critical study of that widely-overlooked modern novelist, Christine Brooke-Rose.

Hardly anyone, it turns out, has noticed or made any proper attempt to discuss the specific technical aspect of her novels that she herself considers the most interesting, the way they use grammatical constraints to break out of stale, conventional ways of writing narrative. She did explain it all to one person, apparently (her new boss at Vincennes, Hélène Cixous), and that person did write an article about it in 1968, but seems to have done so without actually reading the books and thus got it all wrong...

The discussion of the constraints, where they came from and what she was hoping to achieve with them is very interesting, and clears up a few little mysteries for me — but I'm glad I read all the novels first. If you read a novel conscious that there's a specific "trick" behind it (as with La disparation or B.S. Johnson's The unfortunates) you end up spending more time looking at how it's done rather than at what the trick actually does for the book as a novel.

Another book that comes with an implied reading-list: not only critical texts and books about language that I haven't read, but also some of the authors Brooke-Rose talks about as important influences, like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. The discussion of House of leaves in the last chapter makes that sound interesting too...

toukokuu 27, 2020, 9:40pm

>112 thorold: House of Leaves was an interesting one. It's a Minotaur and labyrinth riff - stories within stories highlighted by the physical print of the text. I know a lot of people found it too affected, but I found it fun.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2020, 2:34am

>113 janemarieprice: Brooke-Rose complains about the unnecessary weight and bulk of it (her books, however weird and experimental they are, always stop after 200 pages), but she's clearly excited by the way Danielewski has independently come up with some very similar ideas about the use of tenses in narrative to the ones she's been playing around with since the sixties.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2020, 4:20am

>86 thorold: I have a growing interest in John Lilburne - did Hill say much of him? I think he's atypical (to the summary of such people you gave) and very important to developing ideas, also feeding into US constitution. I wish I'd focused on this as a student.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 6:29am

>115 tonikat: His name came up a lot, but I think mostly as a historical source. I don't remember if his ideas were discussed in detail: I'll have a look back. It's at least two weeks since I read it :-(

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2020, 8:41am

>116 thorold: a long time in so many ways - i was catching up

toukokuu 28, 2020, 8:54am

This one has been on the TBR since June 2016:

La Bâtarde (1964) by Violette Leduc (France, 1907-1972)


This is Leduc's most famous book, a memoir of her life up to the end of the Second World War, the point at which she's just about to meet Simone de Beauvoir and get her encouragement to publish her first novel, L'Asphyxie.

We get to see her early childhood, living in poverty in northern France with her mother (a domestic servant made pregnant by a member of the family she was working for) and grandmother; the sudden shift in her early teens to being middle-class and going to boarding-school, when her mother marries; the 20s and 30s when she's a young office-worker and then a journalist in Paris; and her surprising career as a black-marketeer smuggling Normandy butter and meat to Paris during the war.

As you would expect, Violette's love-life plays quite a part in the story: there's a reworking of the affair with her classmate "Isabelle" already used in the suppressed first chapter of Ravages (later published as the novella Thérèse et Isabelle); there's her more serious relationship with "Hermine", a young teacher at the school, who lives with her in Paris for some years after they both leave; there's the slightly ambivalent friendship with "Gabriel", which seems to have nothing obviously sexual about it until they impulsively decide to get married in 1939, and almost immediately regret it. And there's the even more complicated friendship with the gay writer Maurice Sachs, who seems to have been her main literary mentor before she met Simone de Beauvoir. And all kinds of random encounters with strangers, male and female, where she deliberately obfuscates things to leave us wondering whether she's telling us about this to show how much enjoyed flirting and felt validated by other people's sexual interest, or whether she was just having lots of casual sex.

There's certainly a great deal of insecurity and self-doubt on display in the book, lots of accounts of her messing up at work, or getting commissions to write articles and not having a clue where to start, but there's another, contradictory, sense of her as a competent, self-assured person, fond of dressing up in good clothes and getting her hair done by the best Paris coiffeurs, writing fashion articles that brought her a good stream of freebies from the couturiers she mentioned in her columns, running her rather dangerous butter-racket successfully for a couple of years without getting caught, and so on.

Before reading this, I had an idea in my head of Leduc as a kind of female version of Genet, but that's a bit misleading. She had a difficult start in life, but no more so than most of her contemporaries who lived through the First World War, and the improvement in her mother's fortunes seems to have given her the chance to fill most of the gaps that war and poverty left in her early education. As a (mostly-)lesbian in 1920s and 30s Paris, she hardly comes into the category of "sexual outlaw" — who wasn't, in those days? — and by working in publishing and journalism she had built up a pretty good network of literary contacts, even before meeting de Beauvoir and Sartre. The problems she had to overcome to become a writer were obviously more psychological than social — none the less real and difficult for that, of course.

Anyway, a fascinating book, much funnier than I was expecting, but emotionally trying sometimes as well, of course. And a very interesting experiment into techniques for writing honestly about yourself — maybe not always completely successful, but successful often enough to keep us interested in how she does it.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 9:17am

>117 tonikat: I've had a quick look through, there's no detailed discussion of Lilburne himself, but his writings seem to be one of Hill's main sources for the Levellers. He gets twenty or thirty entries in the index, as he does in all the other Hill books on the 17th century I have.

I've got A L Morton's Leveller collection Freedom in arms on the TBR - that has "The just defence of John Lilburn" in it, but Morton comments in his introduction "In any volume of this kind, Lilburne is likely to come off badly. He was the most important political figure but a clumsy, long-winded and legalistic writer; the many good things in his pamphlets tend to be lost."

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2020, 11:17am

>119 thorold: thanks that is interesting - he came from gentry, was from my prt of the world, he did well in army, he stuck to his guns though pilloried, he supported Cromwell against another officer, was in exile and ended a quaker.

But I was thinking a bit more and I think whilst highly egalitarian and for human rights, for Hill (edit - it may be) he was no Marxist, was all for mutual gain, just had to be open to others. Though overshadowed by Winstanley I've seen it argued that his ideas had more influence later in US.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 11:29am

BTW: for those who are following my operatic adventures, I managed Acts I & II of Die Walküre last night. Obviously one of the drawbacks to watching at home is that there's nothing to make you feel obliged to sit through the full 4.5 hours in one go. And of course Act I would make a brilliant standalone opera by anyone else's standards!


Another short one from the Seven Seas haul, but nearer to home this time. Philip Callow sounds like someone I ought to have known about, but the name was new to me.

He was a near-contemporary of people like Stan Barstow, Stanley Middleton and Alan Sillitoe, and from a similar background — he came from a working-class family in the West Midlands, did an engineering apprenticeship, then worked as a clerk for the Electricity Board, and quite late in life trained as a teacher. The bio in the back of this novel intriguingly mentions that Callow invented an improvement to surface-grinders, but doesn't give any more details (I checked: he isn't named on any patents). He published novels from the mid-1950s on, but seems to be better-known for the biographies he wrote in the seventies:

Native Ground (1959) by Philip Callow (UK, 1924-2007)


This is Callow's third novel, which reads more like a short story collection: it's a series of vignettes from the life of the first-person narrator, with no recurring characters other than the narrator and his parents, and with no very clear time-sequence between the episodes (except the first one, where the narrator is still at school). Each episode seems to be a frustrated attempt at life: the narrator is trying out a new occupation, or a new friend, or a potential lover: nothing really terrible happens, but nothing clearly positive comes out of it either. I was expecting it to be an "angry young man" story, but it doesn't really fit into that category at all. The narrator isn't angry, or even baffled, so much as quietly resigned to his life not going anywhere.

If you pick up just about any novel of the fifties and sixties by a British male writer, you will get the impression that all of life took place in pubs, interrupted only by the briefest of interludes of fighting, vomiting, sex and (sometimes) work. Probably unrealistic, if you remember how few hours a day the pubs were open at that time, but that's what the convention dictated. This book, however, goes to the opposite extreme: it doesn't have a single pub scene, and I didn't spot even a passing mention of alcohol or drunkenness. Quite astonishing, but only in comparison with other novels: you wouldn't notice it as an absence if you weren't conditioned to look for it. Instead, we get to spend a lot of time on buses, trains and bikes, and in various workplaces — the engineering works, a telephone exchange, an agricultural work camp. Sex is there, very occasionally, but it's even more fumbly and incompetent than in the Drunken Young Men novels.

There are some nice insights into what work is like, and a lot of very striking, well-written scenes in which nothing much happens. You might occasionally get the feeling that this is someone who has read a bit too much George Orwell and DH Lawrence, but there are worse kinds of influence.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 1:59pm

>106 thorold: Christ Stopped at Eboli and >118 thorold: La Bâtarde sound fascinating

>111 thorold: I sampled Actress on audio and decided it wasn’t maybe right for me or my mood - just the audio, not the text itself. Maybe I should try again.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 2:00pm

>121 thorold: what an interesting find.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 2:18pm

>79 thorold: >121 thorold:
...Callow seems to be another novelist who noticed trolleybuses — the narrator travels on one during a visit to Derby, where Wikipedia tells me they had trolleybuses from 1932 to 1967.

toukokuu 28, 2020, 2:21pm

>123 dchaikin: There is definitely something to be said for getting a random pile of books by people you haven’t heard of :-)

toukokuu 28, 2020, 4:37pm

Just watched Die Walküre Act III — fabulous! I'd forgotten how they did the Valkyrying: they just got them all to spread their arms out and pretend to be aeroplanes whilst running around the stage. Silly, but very effective if you do it with a straight face. And of course lots more gas-flares...


Yet another afterthought on >121 thorold:

The thing about agricultural work camps was really interesting, something I didn't know about: After the war, when there were food shortages in Britain, but the Italian and German PoW's who'd been working on farms were being sent home, they got British civilians to volunteer to "lend a hand on the land" in their holidays. You got cheap accommodation (in former PoW camps, mostly) and free travel, plus a small payment for whatever work you did on the farms. As Callow describes it, about half the people who went were keen students and trade-unionists, the rest were homeless and unemployed people taking advantage of the accommodation and meals. A dress-rehearsal for post-Brexit agriculture...

toukokuu 29, 2020, 11:49am

>121 thorold: Had not heard of this author, but this book sounds of interest for the agricultural camps. Not sure why governments don't think of agricultural work as a priority until disaster strikes, as in post-Brexit times, or here in Covid times, but food supply policy is something more people should consider. Sometimes I wonder if the lack of attention comes from people being only a generation or two escaped from the farm, and having no desire whatsoever to go back, or think about it at all.

Not really what you were discussing, but a novel of WWII PoWs working on farms which really stood out for me is Another Time, Another Place.

toukokuu 29, 2020, 12:42pm

>127 SassyLassy: Oh, I should read that, Jessie Kesson is high on my list of authors to follow up. I've only read The white bird passes.

Callow on the agricultural camp (only one chapter, but probably the best in the book) reminded me a lot of Orwell's hop-pickers.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 30, 2020, 9:33am

This next one's been on the TBR since April 2013. I'd read Homo Faber in 2011 and not much liked it, so I suppose it's not all that surprising that it took a while to get around to reading another Frisch novel.

Interesting to read it now, though, because there's a lot in the use of tenses and the insistence that the story is told from inside all fits in with the sort of thing Christine Brooke-Rose was talking about (>112 thorold:):

Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964) by Max Frisch (Switzerland, 1911-1991)


This was Frisch's third mature novel, written after his break-up with Ingeborg Bachmann, a complicated exploration of fiction and role-playing as they enter into both real life and the occupation of storytelling.

The "I" figure of the book works through a baffling and contradictory series of possible scenarios involving himself and a character called Enderlin, who sometimes seems to be himself and sometimes a separate person. Enderlin in turn imagines himself as Gantenbein, a man who is pretending to be blind, and in that capacity marries the actress Lila, who seems to be (but isn't necessarily) identical with a woman Enderlin (or possibly "I") has met on a business trip to another city. Gantenbein also makes friends with a woman called Camilla Huber: his assumed blindness allows him not to notice that her pretended occupation of manicurist is just a front for prostitution, so he gives her pleasure by going to have his nails done whilst telling her stories. These stories are the only parts of the book in the past tense — everything else is narrated in the present or future/conditional/subjunctive ("But what if...?").

The idea seems to be that social identity is always a kind of pretence, or at least that we can never be sure that we experience an interaction or a relationship in the same way as others do. Frisch talked about truth as the absence that is left when we have explored all the fictions. I'm not sure! What stuck with me from this book was not so much all the sophisticated stuff about men in suits and women in smart costumes who spend most of their time in airports and business hotels and are obsessed with getting their smoking behaviour and whisky-drinking right, but the weird, untethered stories that open and close the book: an unidentified man who has left a hospital in panic, wearing only spectacles and a wrist-watch, runs through the centre of Zürich; the body of an unknown man floats serenely down the Limmat pursued by the police who have inexpertly been trying to fish it out, and does not come to rest until it has left the city centre altogether.

toukokuu 30, 2020, 9:39am

Just chiming in to say, Mark, I'm really enjoying your books and reviews. They're off my beaten path, for the most part, and all interesting to me.

toukokuu 30, 2020, 9:47am

>130 lisapeet: Good to see you here!

That's the fun of exploring the things that have got stranded on the TBR pile: they are off the beaten track almost by definition. Certainly when taken collectively: they all arrived there for some good reason, but those good reasons seem to have very little in common with each other...

toukokuu 31, 2020, 8:50am

Last novel in my CBR pile:

Subscript (1999) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)


Imagine for a moment that you're an experimental novelist with a strong, if not widely publicised, commitment to avoiding external narrators and past-tense narrative. You're about to set out on what may well turn out to be your last novel. What to choose for a setting? How about a story that starts around 4.5 billion years ago and ends about 10 000 years ago? If you can avoid the past tense and the panoramic view there, then you've probably exhausted that particular constraint...

Displaying no shortage of chutzpah, Brooke-Rose sets out to produce a literary treatment of the story of life on Earth, from the formation of the first complex molecules ("...earthfarts in slithery clay") to early human societies that are on the verge of developing agriculture. Obviously, this isn't straightforward. How do you tell a story in which consciousness itself is a meaningless concept until about halfway through the book, whilst language and the first named characters only start to appear in Chapter 13, and uncountable generations of life are still passing between one chapter and the next, right up to the end of the book?

There's a certain amount of linguistic sleight of hand involved, of course, and Brooke-Rose has to bring in the concept of "the Code" — which seems to mean the aggregate of the information stored up in all the planet's DNA — to give some sort of narrative continuity to the story. An appropriate enough image for a writer who started her working life at Bletchley Park. She's also fairly strict about not using conventional names for things like plant and animal species the first few times they appear in the story. We have to work out that something is a tree or a brontosaurus or a honey-bee from a description. Equally, there are no place-names: sometimes in the later chapters we can guess where we are, but in the earlier part of the book geography doesn't help us much, even with the help of the period maps in the cover art.

It all works surprisingly well, and it did prompt me a couple of times to wonder about things I thought I knew — there's quite a lot about the competition for resources between homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and about how male and female roles might have evolved, and about how some key bits of technology might have been invented and lost many times over — but on the whole it is probably the sort of book that is more interesting for the writer than for the reader. If you haven't read at least some of the sort of science books Brooke-Rose lists in her bibliography, you'll probably be a bit lost in the text; if you have, you're probably not the sort of person who reads experimental novels...

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 5:41am

I haven't really done a Big Poet Project yet this year. This is unquestionably a Big Poet, but I'm keeping my options open on whether he turns into a project...

What is the grass : Walt Whitman in my life (2020) by Mark Doty (USA, 1953- ) audiobook, narrated by Jonathan Yen


I've always had a mixed relationship with Walt Whitman's poetry: there's a gloriously liberating quality in the way he digs out handfuls of names and trade-terms and idioms, formal and informal, and takes it for granted that there is a poem in there somewhere; there's his endless fascination with breaking down the barrier of skin between himself and the rest of humanity (especially beautiful working men...) — but there's also his brash self-promotion, his arrogant assumption of American primacy in the world, his Wordsworth-like descent into celebrity-prophet status in old age, and the way that so many of his best lines have been turned into clichés that make it difficult to read them afresh. And — perhaps above all — he's a poet who gave implicit permission to generations and generations of lesser imitators (especially, but not exclusively, in his own country) to rant endlessly in free verse.

Doty has a go at overcoming these problems, in a book that's a mixture of critical biography of Whitman, seminar-room close-reading of parts of "Song of myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", and a confessional memoir of Doty himself as gay man, poet, teacher and Whitman-reader in the 20th century. He digs into the early editions of Leaves of grass and the circumstances of their production to help us see what was so radical and new about what Whitman was giving himself the authority to do: not only breaking away from strict forms and integrating vernacular language in ways that Coleridge and Wordsworth could only dream about, but writing directly and almost without evasion about sexuality and the physicality of our desire for other bodies (much of this got toned down in later editions). Doty reminds us of the relative freedom Whitman still had to write about love between men in the 1850s, before the medicalisation of same-sex desire made readers start looking in such texts for the criminal and perverted. Even then, I think you'd have to be very blind to coded messages not to see at least some of the queer sexual imagery Whitman thrusts at us...

I did find it a little bit disturbing how smoothly Doty switches between his blackboard voice and his bedroom voice. Obviously there's something deliberately Whitmanesque about that technique: he wants us to understand that reading a poem isn't just a matter of analysing the words in a classroom, you have to be able to find parallels in your own experience to project it onto as well, even if most of us aren't called upon to do that publicly. Sometimes hearing about Doty's life and the men in it and what they meant to him was interesting and wonderful, but sometimes it felt like being trapped with an embarrassingly confessional stranger in a railway compartment.

Still, a worthwhile book, and one that seems to deal very fairly with Whitman.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 2, 2020, 6:30am

...and the end of another big project, which I started at the beginning of the year:

Pilgrimage IV: Oberland; Dawn's Left Hand; Clear Horizon; Dimple Hill; March Moonlight (1927-1935) by Dorothy M. Richardson (UK, 1873-1957)


The last of the four chunks into which Pilgrimage is usually divided takes us through five short novels and brings Miriam's story up to mid-1909, so that we leave her when she's had her first pieces of fiction accepted by magazines and has started work on a novel.

Oberland takes up the story directly from where we left it in The Trap, with Miriam on holiday for a couple of weeks in a ski-resort that sounds rather like Mürren or Wengen, but she gives it the generic name "Oberland", a word which in the following books becomes a metaphor for the sort of English upper-class life that involves looking down from a great height on the peasants in the valley below.

In Dawn's left hand and Clear horizon she's back in London, still working for the dentists but now back with Mrs Bailey again, the flat-share with Selina having been declared a failure. She's stalked by a new character, a lovely, somewhat theatrical young woman called Amabel, who won't take no for an answer, but soon transfers her passion for Miriam into suffragette activism, and has to be visited in Holloway. Meanwhile, the affair with "Hypo" (Wells) comes to its predictable conclusion in the whitespace between two paragraphs (in the first they are eating soup, in the second they are putting their clothes back on), leaving her feeling somewhat battered.

In Dimple Hill, Miriam follows her doctor's advice to take six months off: after misleading us with a delightfully irrelevant parody of the opening page of an E M Forster novel (three women disagree about the proper way to visit a cathedral; an enigmatic young man, never seen again, sits in the corner of a railway carriage reading what may be a missal) Miriam finds herself staying with a Quaker family in a country house in Sussex. There's a kind of Northanger Abbey thing going on as Miriam is gently but firmly made to align her idealised preconceptions about Quakers with reality, but it's all done in the gentlest possible way, and she is left still very drawn to their way of life. (And to the idea of marrying one of them...). I think this was my favourite part of the whole sequence.

The last part, March Moonlight, is also one of the shortest, and it is probably the hardest of all to read, since Richardson has refined her technique down so far that almost all the redundant information that normally guides us through a narrative has gone. We have to struggle with working out who the characters are, there are frequent unannounced changes of setting, the present-tense "I" voice is taking over more and more of the work from the impersonal narrator, Miriam makes serious plans for her life that are upset at the last minute and abandoned without further discussion, and it all feels as though it's happening at frantic speed. It's impressive writing, but not fun in the way Dimple Hill was.

Still, overall, this was a fantastic novel, one I wish I'd known about much sooner. And I'm definitely going to have to re-read it sooner or later!

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 9:04am

>132 thorold: Thanks for this. I recently saw Christine Brooke-Rose's name in a list of authors (I can't remember the context) and she was the only one I hadn't heard of. I read a few articles about her - what an interesting life and how little known she is now! It is very interesting to hear your account of the book, although I must say it sounds like a bit of a project to read.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 2, 2020, 9:11am

>135 wandering_star: If you want to dip a toe, Remake (autobiographical novel) and Textermination are the most accessible, or if you like a bit more science-fiction you could try Xorandor.

I think I first came across her through Angus Wilson and Bletchley Park, but she was a friend of Muriel Spark as well.

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 9:46am

Textermination sounds intriguing!

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 1:43pm

>134 thorold: Really tempted to take on Dorothy Richardson at some stage. I'm almost done another huge tome, so perhaps not just yet...

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 5:11pm

Watch out for those "Embarrassingly confessional strangers in a railway compartment" >133 thorold:

kesäkuu 2, 2020, 6:41pm

>134 thorold: I'm so glad you read Pilgrimage and enjoyed it! It makes me sad that it's a relatively forgotten work.

kesäkuu 3, 2020, 9:10am

>139 baswood: It's twelve weeks since I've been on a train — probably the first time in my life I've ever gone without for so long...

>138 AlisonY: >140 japaul22: Yes! Pilgrimage is one we should all have read before we started getting excited about Ulysses and To the lighthouse and the rest.


You wait forever for a Virago omnibus, and then two come along at once...

When rain clouds gather & Maru (1968, 1971) by Bessie Head (South Africa, Botswana, 1937-1986)


Bessie Head grew up in Natal. The child of a white, institutionalised mother and an unknown non-white father, she spent her early childhood with a foster-family and was moved to a Home for Coloured Girls when she was 12. She qualified as a teacher, and later moved to Cape Town to work as a journalist and political activist. In 1964 she left South Africa to work as a teacher in Serowe, Botswana, where most of her fiction is set. She died of hepatitis at the age of 48. I've previously read her novel The cardinals, written in South Africa in the early 60s but not published until after her death, where she writes about her early life.

When rain clouds gather was Head's first published novel. Makhaya, a political refugee from South Africa, arrives in a village in Botswana and finds a job assisting the Englishman Gilbert, who is running an experimental farm and helping the villagers to try out new, more sustainable farming techniques. He has to overcome suspicion and a certain amount of xenophobia (according to the South African papers he's a dangerous terrorist) and he soon realises that the farming reforms have as much to do with circumventing the vested interests of the local chief as they do with overcoming the traditional prejudices of the conservative villagers. With the help of a couple of wise and subtle elders and the love of two dynamic, practical young women, he and Gilbert soon have most of the village behind them, and a showdown with the corrupt chief Matenge becomes inevitable.

The novella Maru is a kind of romantic comedy, dealing with the tricky topic of the racist treatment of indigenous San people by the Bantu Batswana. A newly-qualified primary school teacher comes to the village, a poised and stylish young woman called Margaret who is soon being pursued by Maru and Moleka, the two most distinguished young bachelors in town. Except that Margaret doesn't allow anyone to make the convenient assumption that she is mixed-race: she stands up proudly and says "I am a Masarwa" (Head deliberately makes her use the same offensive term that the villagers would use of her). Maru and Moleka both have San slaves working in their households and herding their cattle, so this leads to a certain amount of social awkwardness...

Both of these books sometimes feel a little bit didactic: characters have a tendency to pause in the middle of the action and give us little lectures on politics, history or agriculture. But there's also plenty of humour, some interesting offbeat characters, and couple of splendid goats who upstage everyone else whenever they appear. And a message that ordinary people can and must fight back against prejudice, privilege and conservatism, and that love, human decency and a sense of humour will get us a long way on that road.

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 9:10am

>141 thorold: Nice reviews, Mark. I've only read one novel by Bessie Head, A Question of Power, which was difficult and very disturbing. I'll keep an eye out for this book.

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 10:46am

>142 kidzdoc: Thanks! By the sound of it, Head's writing changed quite a bit over the years. I've got a couple of her short-story collections on the TBR still.

This next one is another Zürich-based novel, although it doesn't have much in common with Max Frisch (>129 thorold:). I brought it back from the charity shop in December 2016, I think mostly because I kept seeing big piles of Suter's books prominently on show in German bookshops and was curious about what they were.

Reading between the lines of his Wikipedia entry, it sounds as though Suter's been so successful as advertising executive, columnist and author of bestselling novels and screenplays that he's become a tax-exile from Switzerland. And he only has a birthday every four years. I don't feel quite so guilty about buying this for a euro from the charity stock any more :-)

Ein perfekter Freund (2002) by Martin Suter (Switzerland, 1948- )


Journalist Fabio Rossi wakes up in a Zürich hospital and finds that he's not merely unable to recollect the circumstances of the head injury that brought him there, but a whole seven weeks of his memory before the incident are missing as well. And not just any seven weeks: as it soon becomes clear, these are seven weeks in which he broke up with his long-term girlfriend, moved in with a young woman he now doesn't recognise, took up smoking, went to the sort of bars where he wouldn't be seen dead, and threw up his job on a newspaper he loved and had helped to found. The more he learns about the missing period, the harder he finds it to recognise himself in the Fabio of that time.

Of course, it turns out that it's all to do with a big piece of investigative journalism he was working on. The scandal at the heart of it is a bit clunky and predictable, but the neurological side of the story is handled in interesting ways (Suter credits a string of medical advisers in the acknowledgements), and it's quite fun to be reminded of the good old days when we had to unplug the telephone to connect to the internet, and when BSE was somewhere near the top of our list of worries. There's some nice background detail about the Italian immigrant community in Switzerland as well.

A reasonable sort of thriller, nothing very special, but not much to take offence at either.

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 11:42am

Wagner-update: advancing slowly, but I finished watching Siegfried last night. Comedy wasn't really Wagner's strong point. If he'd been the sort of person to take advice he would have left out the gratuitous bear in Act I (which makes the one in The winter's tale seem a dramatic necessity by comparison), and he'd have done without the notoriously disastrous line "Das ist kein Mann" in Act III when Siegfried lifts the breastplate from the sleeping Brünnhilde. But the thing we love about Wagner is that he simply doesn't care: if the audience finds the bear spectacularly unfunny and breaks down in giggles at Siegfried's most sacred moment, that's our problem, not his...

This opera worked a bit less well on video than in the theatre: the stage design with the orchestra in the middle of the performing area and the singers on walkways around it didn't make the same sort of sense when you were zoomed in on a small area as when you could see the whole stage. There were always a few orchestral players in the corner of the shot.


>80 thorold: I've started to get interested in what other books might have been published by Seven Seas in East Berlin, which has led to a couple more ABE Books buying sprees. I don't think I'm going to be able to keep the TBR under 100 books for long!

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 1:10pm

You keep burning through books. I really enjoyed your review of What is the Grass ( >133 thorold: ) and your comments on Pilgrimage. Lots of interesting new stuff here

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 2:42pm

>145 dchaikin: Sorry for the review-overload: bizarrely, the lockdown seems to have made me cultivate systematic "office hours" for reading, and I'm getting through rather more than I usually do.

You should probably have a look at Subscript too, Dan, unless you have a principled objection to novels with geology content...

kesäkuu 4, 2020, 5:18pm

I really like geology in books. But you’ve left me scared to death of Christine Brook-Rose. I’m a little hesitant.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 5, 2020, 12:46pm

>147 dchaikin: She's probably not quite as scary as she looks... :-)


And the nearest thing there is to African Wagner:

Chaka (1925; this translation 1981) by Thomas Mofolo (Lesotho, 1876-1948) translated by Daniel P. Kunene


Shaka has always been a controversial figure: a strong, successful African leader and innovative general who created a powerful new nation at the moment when Europeans were beginning to dominate the continent, or a psychotic dictator and mass-murderer who provided colonialists with a convenient stereotype of African depravity?

Mofolo exploits this tension by putting him into the centre of a tragic epic, entirely African and pre-Christian in its idiom, but also heavy with what look like biblical, Homeric and Shakespearean accents. We meet Chaka as a brave, talented, but persecuted youth whose enemies are trying to deny his royal blood. He's driven out into the wilderness, where he meets a mysterious sorcerer-figure, Isanusi, who offers him dominion over the kingdoms of this world: Chaka only pauses to ask "where do I sign?"

With the help of Isanusi's assistant demons, Ndlebe and Malunga, he is able to defeat his half-brothers and inherit his father's kingdom, and then that of his suzerain Dingiswayo. And before we know where we are, he's rebranded the nation. According to Mofolo — who may be letting his Basotho prejudices slip in here — they were previously called "People of the male organ of the dog". MaZulu, "People of the sky," does seem to have a classier touch. And he's built a capital, reformed the army, altered military tactics, killed tens of thousands of his own people and his enemies, and conquered most of the known world. Then Isanusi comes round to collect his fee, and it all starts going horribly wrong.

Kunene's translation has a very stately, Authorised Version sort of feel about it, and he has an odd kind of insistence on keeping out Afrikaans words, even when they are very familiar. Veld slips in a couple of times, but that's about it. This is the only Southern African book I've ever read in which a livestock enclosure is called a "fold" instead of a kraal. This perhaps comes from Mofolo's insistence on keeping the presence of Europeans completely out of the story until Chaka's reference to them in his ominous last words. In real life, Chaka had a few Europeans in his entourage, and his strategic situation was very strongly affected by the advancing Afrikaners pushing the Xhosa back towards his territory.

A fabulous epic, which would make a great opera...

kesäkuu 5, 2020, 12:52pm

Is that a novel or a kind of history?

kesäkuu 5, 2020, 1:40pm

It’s a historical novel. But not much more historical than say a Shakespeare history play. Mofolo doesn’t pretend to be writing history, he’s creating an interesting fictional character out of a real person.

kesäkuu 5, 2020, 1:53pm

Thanks. That all makes more sense now. Sounds quite interesting, but also makes me want to learn more factual stuff about the Zulus.

kesäkuu 5, 2020, 2:54pm

It sounds as though The washing of the spears is the standard book, but there’s a lot of disagreement in the field: Zulu history is still a very live political topic, and there’s a shortage of reliable primary sources.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 5, 2020, 4:03pm

1965! Hm. Reviewers clearly loved it. I’m writing it down for now.

ETA Morris published an updated version in 1998.

kesäkuu 8, 2020, 3:31am

>153 dchaikin: I had a look at Frank Welsh (>7 thorold:) — he refers to some more recent journal articles, but doesn't list any books on the Zulus other than Morris.

Another major figure in South African literature — and one of the contributors to Come back Africa (>84 thorold:). This was another book published by Seven Seas in East Berlin, but it's not in my current Seven Seas haul; I read it as an ebook from Penguin:

Down Second Avenue (1959) by Es'kia Mphahlele (South Africa, 1919-2008)


In this memoir, Mphahlele describes the first 38 years of his life, up to the moment when he went into exile in 1957 to teach in Nigeria. He talks about his early childhood living with his father's parents in a village in a "tribal area" of northern Transvaal, then his teens when he lived with his mother in Marabastad township ("Second Avenue") outside Pretoria, the most detailed section of the book, and the part that reads most like a novel. We move on to his difficult struggle to get an education, always haunted by the knowledge of the sacrifices his single mother was making to pay his fees (she works as a domestic servant, does white people's laundry, and brews and sells illegal beer), and his determination not to fail at any point. He qualifies as a teacher, and, after a spell in a clerical job at an institution for the blind, goes to teach at Orlando High School just in time to get swept up in the campaign against the Bantu Education Acts of the 1950s. As secretary of the Transvaal Teachers' Association, he is sacked and blacklisted by the Education Department, and eventually finds work on Drum magazine until he can get permission to leave South Africa.

Although this is the story of an ambitious self-improver who is transformed by circumstances into a community activist who comes close to destroying his family's livelihood through the work he is doing for others, Mphahlele's modesty (plus perhaps legitimate concerns for colleagues still in South Africa) means there isn't much emphasis on how this transformation in his character happened, or on the actual political work he was doing. We have to follow his political development indirectly, through the many little descriptions of incidents in his life that make clear the nastiness of the mid-20th century South African system and the way it made internalised racism inevitable for both black and white South Africans.

A wonderfully-written, warm, sympathetic account of growing up in difficult conditions in a lively, dangerous community, but also a chilling, clear-sighted indictment of the racism, self-interest and inequality that underlay that situation.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 8, 2020, 10:33am

I'm meant to be focussing on the TBR pile and on Southern Africa, but you know how hard it it to avoid little side-trips from time to time...

This is the first in a short crime series from the eighties by a writer I didn't know about until someone mentioned her name the other day. And despite it being just the sort of thing that people might expect me to like, I did really enjoy it. Fortunately it's not one of those series that runs into dozens of books!

Thus was Adonis murdered (1981) by Sarah Caudwell (UK, 1939-2000)


Sarah Caudwell (real name Sarah Cockburn) turns out to have been an interesting character in her own right. Her parents, Claud Cockburn and Jean Ross, were both communist journalists who reported on the Spanish civil war (in an earlier phase of her life, Ross was the model for Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles), so she was related to just about everyone in mid-20th century London, from Evelyn Waugh to Michael Flanders. In her day-job she was a chancery barrister and later a senior executive of Lloyds Bank — her pipe was apparently almost as famous as her mother's cigarette-holder.

This is the first of Caudwell's four crime novels. They are famous in the annals of crime-fiction because we never discover whether her narrator and amateur sleuth, Oxford law professor Hilary Tamar, is a man or a woman. The professor solves crimes together with former student Michael and four of his junior barrister colleagues at Lincoln's Inn.

In this first book, one of the young barristers, the notoriously accident-prone Julia, becomes a suspect in a murder inquiry during a holiday in Venice, and her friends are busy trying to clear her name, leading to a scenario that looks like a sort of cross between Donna Leon and John Mortimer (except that Leon's Venetian detective didn't appear on the scene until ten years after this). But the style is very much Caudwell's own, with most of the work done through witty dialogue between Tamar and the young lawyers that is rather in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, without ever reading like a direct pastiche. The non-dialogue parts of the text are mostly in the form of long, and also very funny, letters between the characters (we have to believe that letters posted in Venice would arrive in London the next day, rather implausible given the state of both British and Italian public services in the late 1970s!). Lots of jokes about chancery law and the art world, lots of LGBT plot interest, and a running gag that any unfamiliar American expressions, criminal slang, or other vulgarity must be "Cambridge idiom". I really don't know how I've gone forty years without finding out about these books!

kesäkuu 8, 2020, 2:42pm

>155 thorold: I didn't know any of that about Sarah Caudwell! How interesting. It occurs to me I must have first read her books before Wikipedia existed, and since after that she wasn't a new writer to me I never thought to look her up.

If I remember rightly Hilary Tamar solves all the crimes long-distance.

I am sure you will enjoy the others too - hope that's not a curse ;-)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 8, 2020, 4:23pm

>156 wandering_star: It’s amazing how much we used not to know about people before Wikipedia existed. :-)

But we survived somehow.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 9, 2020, 4:15am

I finished another audiobook on this morning's walk. No idea why it showed up in my Scribd recommendations, but it was more or less the right level for a walking-around book. I just had to be a bit careful about not suddenly breaking out into laughter when there were other people in the vicinity...

The diary of a bookseller (2017) by Shaun Bythell (UK, 1970- ) audiobook read by Robin Laing


Shaun Bythell runs a big secondhand bookshop in Wigtown, Galloway. This is his diary from February 2014 to February 2015, in which he talks about the vicissitudes of the book trade, the evils of Amazon, the pleasures (and inconveniences) of living in a small community in a forgotten corner of Scotland, and so on, and takes the opportunity to make more or less gentle fun of his friends, employees and the people who come into the shop. Especially — it should go without saying — those who come into the shop and fail to buy anything, or who have the temerity to ask for discounts.

This is often very funny, and we get to hear quite a bit about the realities of today's book trade, and about things we don't normally get to see if we only interact with booksellers as occasional customers. Some of it obvious if you stop to think about it, other things, like all the business of purchasing and pricing, less so (not that Bythell gives away any trade secrets). It's fun to hear Bythell's comments on the excerpts from George Orwell's 1936 essay "Bookshop memories" that form the epigraphs to the monthly chapters, too. So many things that have changed in eighty years, and so many that have not!

Obviously there's a certain irony in listening to an audiobook from a book-streaming service in which the author describes activities like shooting Kindles for sport: apparently he did try to negotiate a "no Amazon" clause in his contract for the book, but the publishers were too scared to touch it under those conditions. So Bythell is forced to take part of his profit from the book out of sales through his most hated competitor. The narration of the audiobook by Robin Laing is agreeable and in the right sort of register — probably pleasanter to listen to than Bythell's own voice, which has an irritating English-public-school plumminess in the interviews I've seen.


I liked Bythell's idea of the "random book club" — it's probably just as well that they have been heavily oversubscribed since this book came out, or I might have been tempted as well...

Orwell's essay:

kesäkuu 9, 2020, 6:54am

I signed up for the random book club a few years back and cannot work out how to cancel the subscription! It is fun seeing what I get although the majority go straight onto the swap shelf at the local post office.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 10, 2020, 8:59am

>159 wandering_star: Well, I'd better not offer to take your membership over. My record on getting around to reading things that come from book-clubs hasn't been good. :-)


With immaculate timing, I finished this book just ten minutes before the postman arrived with two parcels of secondhand books, seven titles in all, so I can still claim not to have more than 100 books on the TBR...

I bought this one secondhand in Leiden last September, knowing that I would be going to Seville in a few weeks. Needless to say, I didn't get around to it before my holiday, and it was far too big to take with me, so I'm catching up again.

For some reason it's ridiculously fat, by far the fattest book on the TBR, even though it's only 600 pages (about 125 of which are notes, bibliography, and the rest). The same physical size as Jonathan Israel's The Dutch republic, which is more than twice as long. I've previously read Thomas's classic books on The Spanish civil war and The conquest of Mexico. (The second of these is summarised in about 30 pages in Rivers of Gold.)

Rivers of gold : the rise of the Spanish Empire (2003) by Hugh Thomas (UK, 1931-2017)


This isn't so much the story of the Conquistadors themselves (although they play a large part) as of the political and social background to Spanish ventures into the New World between 1492 and 1522, i.e. from Columbus to Magellan. How did Spain get from giving an eccentric foreigner minimal sponsorship to go and look for China in the wrong direction to, barely a generation later, funding a much more serious foreigner to go and look for a way around the southern end of that "new" continent whose existence Columbus never accepted...? And perhaps more to the point, how did they manage to exercise any kind of control over what people were doing in the name of Spain on the other side of the Atlantic.

There are a lot more thrilling tales of document-drafting in back-rooms of Castilian monasteries than there are of shipwrecks or of men in armour marching thorough tropical rain-forests, but it's by no means dry and stodgy. It soon becomes clear that it was decisions taken in those thirty years that shaped the way South America and the Caribbean would develop, and led unintentionally or not to the wiping-out of the indigenous people of the Caribbean and the start of the transatlantic slave-trade. You can see Thomas finally losing patience with Bartolomé de las Casas, whose well-intentioned but flagrantly inaccurate reporting must be an irritation to all historians, at the moment when he suggests that the best way to protect the indigenous people would be to permit the import of black slaves from Africa. Somehow the alternative strategy, of restricting migration from Spain to people whose social status doesn't make it impossible for them to do manual work, never seems to have been considered seriously by anyone.

Very interesting, and certainly a good book to read before a visit to Seville...


I notice that in his bibliography for Magellan, Thomas says "I have a weakness for any book by Stefan Zweig: see his Magellan (1955)". Someone else recommended that to me ages ago, I must look for it.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 10, 2020, 9:45am

Meanwhile, I finished watching the Amsterdam Ring at the weekend with Götterdämmerung. Wagner at his most unrealistically demanding: there’s the disguise scene, which can make no sense, dramatically-speaking, to the audience unless they’ve read the synopsis, and which makes the musically-tricky demand that a tenor has to pretend to be a baritone without actually getting into the deep baritone registers. And there’s the magnificent, impossible, closing scene, where Brünnhilde sings at the top of her voice for about thirty minutes before being asked to ride a horse onto a blazing funeral pyre that is then swept away by rapidly rising floodwater. The Amsterdam production managed to do it without flames, horse, or water, which was quite impressive.

Back in Old French Film territory, I saw Depardieu in Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980), which intercuts a classic adultery plot with lectures on neuroscience by an actual real-life professor. Because, why wouldn’t you? Nicole Garcia is good as the Other Woman, and there are some nice scenes on a small island in Brittany, but otherwise it felt a bit pretentious.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 10, 2020, 11:16am

>160 thorold: "Very interesting, and certainly a good book to read before a visit to Seville..."

Interesting, indeed. The two books I read before visiting Seville had a slightly different emphasis but were very intsructive:

Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher
Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain by Matthew Carr

They helped me understand a lot of what I was seeing.

When I got home I read Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

Sounds like Rivers of Gold would be a good addition to that list.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 11, 2020, 5:11am

>162 rocketjk: Yes! If I'd looked through it before going, I'd have taken a copy of the last chapter of Rivers of gold with me; that's basically a stand-alone guided tour of early 16th century Seville, pointing out all the buildings and institutions involved with the colonial trade. But it works quite well with hindsight as well! (I have to admit, I was much less aware of that side of the city's importance before I went there than I was of the Moorish side of things.)

Seville's operatic connections didn't need any preparation: the city seems to have more monuments to characters from opera than to actual historical figures!

My own operatic adventures over the past few days have been a kind of post-Wagner cure... A lively concert-performance of Bernstein's Candide from the Grange Festival, and David Sawer's adaptation of Bolaño's The skating rink commissioned for Garsington in 2018, both via OperaVision. I'm sure Wagner would have approved of an opera that calls for characters to go straight from on-stage ice-skating to bathing from a Costa Brava beach; I was impressed by how well they managed to deal with that in a relatively small theatre. (But not really blown away by Sawer's music...)


More from Bessie Head:

The lovers : A collection of short stories (2011) by Bessie Head (South Africa, Botswana, 1937-1986)


The posthumous publishing history of Bessie Smith's short fiction is complicated. This 2011 AWS collection, The lovers, is a slightly revised edition of the collection of short pieces previously issued as Tales of Tenderness and Power in 1989: the pieces that were also in A woman alone have now been left out, and a few pieces not previously available in book form have been added, leaving us with twenty pieces in all, all from the last 20 or so years of her life.

About half the pieces in the book, including the title story, are short stories set in the same kind of Botswana village setting as Head's main novels; the remainder are essays or fables on political/historical themes, mostly dealing with the South African situation or with African colonialism more generally. "Son of the soil", a concise, hard-hitting ten-page summary of South African history and where it went wrong, is the piece that really stands out from this second group.

The village stories deal with similar themes to the novels When rain clouds gather and Maru: the difficulty of scraping a living from the arid land; the rigid traditionalism of village society with its unreasonable, damaging suspicion of everything and everyone that is strange and new; the exploitation of this by corrupt chiefs; and the strong affection that Head obviously had for the place and the people despite all those negative things. Sometimes she is also provoked to attack what she sees as Botswanan political smugness, the way people present their humiliating buffer-state condition as though it is a triumph of cunning diplomacy. But mostly, these are stories about people dealing with the challenges of ordinary life, things like hunger, sickness, wayward or violent spouses, rebellious children, or oppressive parents. The tone tends to be a bit less cool than in the novels: Head allows herself to show us her emotional engagement with her characters, and this brings out some very powerful and original writing.

kesäkuu 11, 2020, 1:56pm

>160 thorold: >162 rocketjk: come on, guys. I only have so much reading time. Fascinating big history books just getting carelessly tossed around...

>163 thorold: enjoyed this review too.

kesäkuu 11, 2020, 2:12pm

>164 dchaikin: Ha! For the record, neither Moorish Spain nor Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain are that "big." The Beevor history of the Spanish Civil War, however, is of doorstop dimensions.

kesäkuu 12, 2020, 9:23am

>164 dchaikin: >165 rocketjk: I think I'd better leave the careless tossing to you baseball experts... :-)

For a change, an outsider's view of South Africa:

South from the Limpopo : travels through South Africa (1997) by Dervla Murphy (Ireland, 1931- )


The celebrated Irish travel writer describes three visits to South Africa, before, during and after the 1994 elections. In the winter of 1993 she cycled right across the country from the Zimbabwe border on the Limpopo to Johannesburg and Cape Town, then back east through the Cape into Natal; in April 1994 she was in Cape Town for the election and Mandela's inauguration; later in 1994, after recovering from an accident in her home in Ireland, she is back in the saddle to see the parts of Natal and Transvaal she wasn't able to get to earlier.

As we would expect, Murphy heads for the most interesting-seeming spots, whether or not she's been warned to avoid them for her own safety, and manages to get into conversation with people of just about every possible cultural background and variety of political opinion (always provided that they can speak some English). Interviewees range all the way from ANC comrades in townships to Eugene Terre'Blanche's horse. Whilst Murphy evidently does her best to give everyone a fair hearing and not get into arguments, she doesn't hesitate to share her positive or negative reactions to what she sees and hears with the reader.

Everything is reported diary-fashion, thus with as little intrusion of hindsight as possible: she wants us to share her on-the-spot reactions: the uncertainty and danger of the lead-up to the elections (especially around the Chris Hani assassination, which happened whilst she was in Cape Town), the general euphoria when they passed off peacefully, and then the realisation six months later that electing a black president was just the first step on a long journey and that there would be a lot of difficult readjustment before all the injustices of apartheid could be put right.

Lively, opinionated, committed: wonderful travel-writing, as always.


Murphy was in her early sixties when she made this journey — but nowhere near the end of her career as a writer and cyclist. She managed another half-dozen major journeys before she announced her retirement a couple of years ago. An example to us all!

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 12, 2020, 1:57pm

For the record, I wasn’t tossed anything. 🙂 Sounds like Dervla Murphy has had quite a wonderful career. It also sounds as if you’ve read her before. Her name seems new to me (excluding everything I’ve forgotten)

kesäkuu 12, 2020, 4:03pm

>167 dchaikin: I’ve read several of her other books, although none very recently. Her first book, Full tilt is a good place to get a feel for what she’s about.

kesäkuu 12, 2020, 7:24pm

>166 thorold: "I think I'd better leave the careless tossing to you baseball experts... :-)"

>167 dchaikin: "For the record, I wasn’t tossed anything. 🙂"

I believe that's J.K. Rowling's great unpublished manuscript: Harry Potter and the Careless Tossers.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 13, 2020, 4:10am

>169 rocketjk: Harry Potter and the Careless Tossers.

Can't imagine why she never finished that one... (It would make a great Wallace & Gromit title as well, come to think of it, probably involving people playing cricket with explosive meat pies, or maybe crown-green bowling?)

More opera: the Amsterdam Salome from 2017 last night, with the amazing Malin Byström doing a scarily perfect impersonation of a depraved teenager. Very good, apart from the ludicrous quantities of fake blood that rather broke the spell in the closing scene. A pale, blonde, nordic Salome probably isn't quite what you would expect, and there was a bit of me that kept expecting Wallander to come on and solve the crime, but it worked really well.

kesäkuu 13, 2020, 11:22am

I have not read Hairy Potter and the Careless Tossers, but am thrilled that Dervla Murphy still kept on riding her bike. I used to love her books might look into the more recent ones.

kesäkuu 13, 2020, 3:41pm

lol... lately Rowling has been undoing herself with a draft of the Careless Posters, but that's another story. I'm should consider my on own book of the careless iPhone typists... (>167 dchaikin: might have made more sense if I had correctly typed tossing... )

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 14, 2020, 6:18am

Another side-track! I came to this one by a rather convoluted route. As I mentioned in >80 thorold: above, I came across the output of the East German publisher Seven Seas Books whilst looking for African writers. Whilst reading up on them, I found out that as well as works by (left-wing) English-language writers, they also published English translations of books by DDR authors. I'm not interested in translations of German books, of course, but I was curious to see a number of writers I knew nothing about beside the familiar names like Christa Wolf. So I ended up hunting out a copy of this one.

(If you want to read it in English, the translation by Scottish poet Jack Mitchell, under the same title, seems to be reasonably easy to find secondhand)

Ole Bienkopp (1963) by Erwin Strittmatter (Germany, DDR, 1912-1994)


Erwin Strittmatter seems to have been a real working-class writer. He came from the Sorb minority in Niederlausitz and did an apprenticeship as a baker in his father's shop, later also working on farms and in a viscose factory. After service in a police unit during world war II he returned to baking but also became involved in local government and did some journalism, leading to the publication of his first fiction in 1950. He continued as a successful novelist and horse-breeder until after the Wende. Since his death it has emerged that neither his war record nor his Stasi dossier is entirely above criticism, but of course that's a problem he shares with the great majority of his contemporaries. He was married to the well-known poet Eva Strittmatter.

Ole Bienkopp is said to have been the most-read contemporary novel in the DDR. It's a rural tragi-comedy, set in an East German village in the 1950s, the story of the stubborn small farmer Ole Hansen — called "Bienkopp" (bee-head) because of an incident in his first occupation as an itinerant bee-keeper — who persuades some of his neighbours to pool their land and organise themselves into a collective farm, at a time when the Party was still officially putting all its faith in the individual peasant. His difficulties with the local authorities are exacerbated by opposition from the remaining pre-war landowners in the village, in particular the sawmiller Ramsch, and by the bourgeois aspirations of Ole's wife Annegret, who seems to have an undue fascination with Ramsch's riding boots and duelling scars (to be fair, the author is even more obsessed with these stigmata of social privilege than Annegret is, never missing a chance to mention them).

In Part II of the book, which reads more like a sequel than part of the same novel, we're five or six years further on, collective farms (LPGs in East German jargon) have become the official norm, and Ole is chairman of the flourishing LPG "A blossoming field". But he still has any number of enemies in the village, numerous spinsters and widows are in pursuit of him, the Party is setting targets that take no account of sustainability or the availability of fodder and machinery, and every man in the collective is in love with the new poultry-girl, pigtailed Märtke.

This is propaganda, and quite heavy-handed in places — I was amused to see that a previous owner of my copy had pencilled in an index to the many useful bits of agricultural advice on the flyleaf — we are meant to see that collectivisation is good, private profit is bad, priests are hypocrites, and people who chew gum, use English expressions, or run away to the West invariably come to a bad end. But Strittmatter also wants us to see that management is about more than just meeting targets, that it's bad to follow orders that don't make sense to you, and even worse to pass them on down the line without question. Lazy and self-serving administrators get as hard a time here as capitalist profiteers.

And it's not hard to see why it was such a successful novel in its time: it is full of lively, colourful characters, humorous incidents and informed, down-to-earth views of village life, and it's written in an engaging (but not at all naive) rustic style, with strings of short, punchy sentences, lots of repetition and alliteration giving a ballad or folk-tale feel. Everything is shouting out that this is a book about people "like us". Strittmatter was clearly very good at what he did, and he obviously knew exactly how far he could tease the authorities without actually getting into trouble. Which would have been quite a bit further when this was published in 1963 than it was a couple of years later, after Walter Ulbricht's savage attack on Werner Bräunig and the associated clampdown on the creative freedom of writers.

Very readable and amusing, despite the complete disappearance of the world it's set in, and probably still deserves a place on lists of great agricultural novels.


It was also an interesting contrast to Juli Zeh's Unterleuten, which I read a few months ago, and which is set in a very similar village some years after the Wende.

ETA: The dustjacket is by the distinguished East German artist and illustrator Werner Schinko, in case anyone is curious. There aren’t any illustrations in the book itself, although it is the sort of book where they wouldn’t be out of place.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 14, 2020, 12:15pm

And a relatively mindless Sunday-afternoon diversion:

The shortest way to Hades (1984) by Sarah Caudwell (UK, 1939-2000)


Second of Caudwell's four mysteries involving Professor Tamar and the young barristers of Lincoln's Inn, and maybe not quite as fresh and amusing as the first, but still very enjoyable. A young woman falls from a balcony on Boat Race day in circumstances that make it seem as though there may be a connection with a trust of which she was one of the possible beneficiaries, and the professor becomes involved in another investigation conducted mostly by correspondence. There's some interesting sailing around Corfu, an attempt to locate Nausicaa's laundry-list, and a Corfiot cricket match that owes more than a little to A. G. Macdonell. Also perhaps a little bit more detail on the law of variation of trusts than most of us feel we need to know, a couple of good steamy orgies, and some fascinating information about the study of errors in the transmission of manuscript texts.

kesäkuu 15, 2020, 10:24am

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black : and other stories (2007) by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa, 1923-2014)


Gordimer published short stories throughout her career, something like twenty collections in all; this was one of the last.

The stories in it range from fairly conventional adultery plots to the first-person narrative of a tapeworm and a whimsical piece about a cockroach that got stuck in her typewriter (she was reading Kafka's diaries at the time, so it inevitably became "Gregor"). There's quite a bit about the New South Africa, although the political messages are characteristically oblique, as in the title story, where a biology professor infused with white guilt sets out to see if he can find any black cousins who might have resulted from his great-grandfather's time in Kimberley during the diamond rush, then realises the absurdity of what he is doing. There are also a couple of rather touching pieces obviously written in reaction to the death of Gordimer's husband in 2005, including "Dreaming of the dead", a dreamed dinner party with the ghosts of Edward Said, Susan Sonntag and Anthony Sampson at which "you" (presumably the narrator's deceased partner) fails to turn up. In "Allesverloren" a widow tries to grasp something of her lost husband that has been closed to her when she goes to see the man who had been his partner for a while before she met him.

Maybe not especially challenging and experimental, but very sharp, clear-thinking writing.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 15, 2020, 7:23pm

>169 rocketjk: >170 thorold: Initally read this as Harry Potter and the Careless Trousers. I suppose that would have been a different book altogether.

>166 thorold: The cover makes me think of The Elephant's Child with that wonderful '... great grey green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees'. That line set up so many images in my childhood mind.
edited to correct ambiguity

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 15, 2020, 5:11pm

>176 SassyLassy: Oh yes!

I never realised it at the time, but now I look at Murphy's map, the young elephant must have made quite a journey:
He went from Graham’s Town to Kimberley, and from Kimberley to Khama’s Country, and from Khama’s Country he went east by north, eating melons all the time, till at last he came to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, precisely as Kolokolo Bird had said.

Khama's Country must be Botswana, so that's more than a thousand kilometres of melon-munching (he had seventeen, so he would have had to cover at least 60km per melon). A bicycle would have come in handy. Google tells me elephants can walk 200km a day, so it would have taken him the best part of a week.

Murphy crossed the Limpopo at Beitbridge, probably quite a long way downstream from where the elephant met the crocodile.

kesäkuu 16, 2020, 4:48am

And, speaking of Khama's Country:

The screaming of the innocent (2002) by Unity Dow (Botswana, 1959- )


Dow tackles a very tricky subject: the ritual murder of children to harvest body parts for use as muti, ingredients for "traditional medicine". We all know how (false) accusations of killing and torturing children have been used in the past to discredit whole cultures, so it's something you have to approach with extreme caution as an outsider, but of course Dow is very much an insider in the Botswana legal system, so we have to assume that this is based on real experience.

And the approach she takes is a very clever one: from the start, the crime is presented as a particularly nasty and perverted way that privileged members of society abuse the power they have over the poor and weak, to increase their own strength. The question of whether it is a genuine part of traditional tribal culture becomes irrelevant. The muti is effective because its existence gives confidence to the people using it and strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents. Even if you don't believe in magic, you're going to be scared of messing with someone that you suspect of being involved with this kind of thing. The more so if you are a government official in a country where everything runs on hierarchies of influence and patronage.

The very tangible horror of what has happened is always there in the background, but the main storyline focusses on the semi-comic story of the campaign to reopen the crudely buried police investigation into the disappearance of a young girl five years ago. The residents of the village where the girl lived are helped by Amantle, a student who has been assigned to them for a period of community service. Her selection for this out-of-the-way spot seems to have been due to a reputation for being a trouble-maker, gained during an earlier brush with the police over their inappropriate response to a protest march, but her experience of the way the police mind works — and her contacts in the legal system — that help the villagers to use their people-power to push the authorities into action. Dow puts what's obviously meant to be a comic version of herself into the story, the sophisticated Gaborone human rights lawyer scared out of her wits at the prospect of spending the night in a tent in the bush.

Dow's message is clear: as long as we accept that society should be run by powerful men who exercise patronage and influence on all those below them, we can't claim to respect human rights and the rule of law. True for eighteenth century England, equally true for twentieth century Africa.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 16, 2020, 5:22am

And I finished another audiobook this morning.

The Dutch House (2019) by Ann Patchett (USA, 1963- ) audiobook, narrated by Tom Hanks


I discovered Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler at about the same time, as a result of which I've since had an unreasonable tendency to mix them up with each other, even though they are quite different kinds of writer and a generation apart in age. I finally got it straight in my mind which is which, and then Patchett went and wrote an Anne Tyler novel, and I'm back to square one...

... Well, not quite an Anne Tyler novel. There is a big house; we are on the fringes of an East Coast city; there is an Irish-American extended family; they are in the building trade; we have a multi-generation timeline from the 1940s to the present day, and so on. But, for one thing, it's Philadelphia not Baltimore, which probably makes a big difference if you happen to know either of them, and for another, where Tyler's stories are usually focussed on the matriarch, this is a story that centres on the absence of the mother.

The central question the book poses — why we find it so much harder to forgive a mother who leaves her children than we do a father — is perhaps a 21st century one, but everything else in this novel is comfortingly, even cloyingly, old-fashioned. The house is only an overgrown suburban villa really, but Patchett turns it into Manderley; people sit in cars and smoke cigarettes; boy meets girl in a train; there are delightful feudal relationships with servants; there's a good selection of funerals, weddings and family celebrations; there's even a portrait that spookily doesn't get any older. It's pleasant reading, very professionally done, a book you wouldn't hesitate to give your grandmother for Christmas, but it's not very likely to be a book you will remember long after you have read it.

I was amused by Tom Hanks's narration of the audiobook: they obviously forgot to get him to record the chapter-numbers and had to patch them in later, and there's a wonderful mix of resignation and exasperation in the way he says "Chapter Seventeen" and so on.

kesäkuu 16, 2020, 1:16pm

I’ll pass on Strittmatter, but interested in the southwest African books and the Caudwell sounds terrific (says a non-mystery reader).

I was entertained Hank’s chapter headings. I admit I’m slightly relieved you enjoyed The Dutch House. Also I’m really intrigued by the Anne Tyler comparisons. Enjoyed your comments

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 4:05am

>179 thorold: That's so funny - I just finished my review of The Dutch House and said I couldn't get straight in my head this house supposedly like Manderley squeezed into a residential street, and I come over to your thread and you've said exactly the same thing. As my daughter would say - jinx!

Sounds like we were both pretty much on the same page on this one. Enjoyed it, quickly move on....

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 9:45am

More semiotics, and another unplanned excursion behind the iron curtain. This one can be blamed on the "more books from this seller" button that ABE Books thoughtfully provide so that you don't end up paying all that postage for just one book. A book I'd never have thought of looking for, but when I saw it in the list, I couldn't help being curious...

Ina Merkel is currently professor of European ethnology at Marburg; at the time this book was written she was teaching at the Humboldt University in Berlin and was one of the leaders of the independent women's party UFV, which took part in the Round Table discussions of 1989-90 and the DDR elections of March 1990.

... und Du, Frau an der Werkbank : die DDR in den 50er Jahren (1990) by Ina Merkel (DDR, Germany), with a contribution by Simone Tippach


This is somewhere between a light-hearted picture-book and a serious academic study, that "somewhere" being probably about nine-tenths of the way across to the academic side. Merkel looks at how the representation of women (and men) in East German illustrated magazines up to 1960 relates to the realities of women's lives, and to the ideals of the socialist state.

We're always hearing about how the emancipation of women was one of the few really positive things about life in the DDR: one of the first things the Russian military government did in 1945 was to bring in equal pay legislation, soon followed by reforms to family law, and pictures of women in the workplace (and happy children in the workplace crèche) belong to the standard public image of the workers' and peasants' state, right up to the end.

How much of that was real, and how much propaganda? Women's equality was part of the ideological basis of the new state, but there was also a desperate need to use women's productive capacity: in December 1945, women of working age outnumbered men by about two to one as a result of wartime casualties and displacements, and in the following years there was a further heavy loss of professionals and skilled workers to emigration. So there was a labour shortage, and a large pool of single women who had to rely on paid employment to support themselves.

The classic image of those early years is of the "Trümmerfrauen", the women clearing the rubble from the bomb-damaged cities by hand so that reconstruction could start. Merkel shows us some of these inspirational press photos of teams of women bundled up in shapeless clothes and headscarves, mostly seen from behind, and dwarfed by the vast areas of rubble they are working on, and she invites us to compare them with unpublished photos from the same period by the art-photographer Karl Heinz Mai, where the women — many of them in shorts and sleeveless tops — fill the frame and look challengingly right into the camera, often grinning as though they've just been sharing a dirty joke with the photographer. Same rubble, but a different story altogether. Mai's women are self-confident individuals, proud of what they are doing; the newspaper women are the sad residue of a defeated nation getting on with the job of survival.

There are other kinds of mixed messages as we go on: women may be needed in the workplace, but, just like their sisters in the West a couple of decades later, they find that they aren't needed anything like as much when it comes to competing for scarce training places for skilled work, promotion, or the horrifying thought that a woman might end up giving orders to men. Pictures of mature women doing skilled jobs in "male" roles fade out after the early fifties, and even when we do get to see them the pictures are often staged to show them in appropriately motherly settings: a woman described as the only female master-founder in Berlin is photographed in front of flowery wallpaper doing her knitting; a woman plumber is dressed in a pinny that makes her look like a housewife who's borrowed a spanner to stem the flood until a real man arrives to fix it.

Even with pretty, young women at work, there seems to be a need to assert their femininity in a way that never happens with representations of men at work; an "iron maiden" who spends the working day clearing munitions from a canal bed has to be shown taking off her diving helmet and applying lipstick. Other pictures are qualified by captions that tell us all about the subject's children, or her passion for ballroom dancing or making her own clothes.

As is also obvious from the books of women like Irmtraud Morgner and Christa Wolf, the drive to get women into work didn't come with much real lessening of domestic workloads, except for the gradual expansion of free childcare. There continued to be something comical about men trying to do household chores (except manly things like mowing the lawn, shovelling coal, fetching crates of beer), and labour-saving appliances were always much more visible in advertisements than they were in the shops.

Simone Tippach's essay deals with the development of advertising during the same period. Being good at advertising was not highly-valued in the DDR, or indeed very necessary, since most manufacturers and retailers had monopolies. Some companies were still happily using artwork developed in the thirties right up to 1960. But there was often also the same kind of confusion of values: the woman on the drill-press on the front cover is advertising ... antiseptic soap! "Trotz fast männlicher Entschlußkraft bewahrt sie stets ihren fraulichen Reiz" (Despite almost masculine decisiveness, she still keeps her feminine charm).

Fun, and some interesting background.

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 12:27pm

>182 thorold: Fascinating. Thanks for that review.

On a side though somewhat related note, have you ever seen the movie, The Lives of Others? That's the name in English, anyway. It's a German movie about life in the DDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is, in fact, one of my favorite movies. A powerful movie about real people.

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 1:10pm

>183 rocketjk: Yes, a great film. I enjoyed Goodbye Lenin as well!

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 5:17pm

...but I’m still sticking to the old french films that come up on MUBI: Louis Malle’s gloriously mad Milou en Mai a couple of days ago, and tonight it was Elena et les hommes — also silly, but to less purpose. Jean Renoir and Ingrid Bergman must have been old enough to know better, surely...

kesäkuu 19, 2020, 6:59am

Another famous early South African novel:

Mhudi (1930) by Sol T Plaatje (South Africa, 1876-1932)


Sol Plaatje was one of the most important and conspicuous black intellectuals in South Africa in the early 20th century. Eye-witness of the siege of Mafeking, editor of the first black-owned newspaper in the country, translator of Shakespeare into Tswana (he's known to have spoken at least nine languages), founder-member of the ANC, member of the delegation that went to London in 1912 to lobby against the Native Lands Act, and so on. If Thomas Mofolo is remembered mainly for having written Chaka, with this novel it's the other way round: Mhudi is remembered mainly for having been written by Plaatje (and for having some claim to be the first English novel by a black South African, although there are other claimants for that). Despite his Dutch-sounding name, Plaatje was a member of the Barolong tribe (one of the Tswana peoples) and grew up in Thaba Nchu, where he was educated by Wesleyan missionaries.

Mhudi is — like Chaka — a historical novel, but set a generation later, in the 1830s, against the background of the mfecane and Mzilikazi's rule of the Matabele kingdom. Like Chaka, it had to wait some time before finding a publisher: Plaatje seems to have finished it around 1917, but it didn't come out until 1930. It's not clear why: probably Plaatje simply had too many other things going on in his life.

The central characters, Mhudi and Ra-Thaga, are among the few survivors of a Matabele massacre of the Barolong town of Kunana (revenge for the killing of two of Mzilikazi's tax-collectors). They set up house together in the bush for a while, before making contact with other people from Kunana who have moved in with the other Barolong branch in Thaba Nchu.

When Sarel Cilliers and his caravan of Voortrekkers turn up, the Barolong see the potential in their guns and horses, and offer to let them settle in exchange for an alliance against Mzilikazi. Initially they are charmed by the Boers' manners, piety and cooking skills, and Ra-Thaga forms a hunting friendship with a young Boer man, but Mhuti sees the brutal way they treat their Hottentot (Khoikhoi) servants, and has her reservations about them from the start. The Barolong and the Boers manage to drive the Matabele off to the north (where Mzilikazi establishes a new kingdom around Bulawayo), but we're left with the feeling that the Dutchmen aren't going to be very good at sharing the land with black people...

In his introduction, Tim Couzens suggests that Plaatje wants us to read the fate of the early 19th century Matabele as a warning to the Afrikaners of his own time: a powerful, oppressive minority risks being overthrown if it pushes the majority of its subject-peoples too far. He also draws a parallel between the way Plaatje introduces the Europeans as minor characters part-way through the story and the similar structure Achebe used thirty years later in Things fall apart. Both seem like useful insights.

Although the setting and theme has a lot of parallels with Chaka, it's quite a different kind of novel. The focus on the "ordinary people" Mhudi and Ra-Thaga, caught up in the middle of the big events, makes this feel much more like Walter Scott than the kind of epic drama Mofolo was going for. Mhudi's role as a strong, independent-minded woman determined to save her man is right out of The Heart of Mid-Lothian. Also, of course, Plaatje wrote in English: he has a lot of fun with different kinds of English, modulating unexpectedly (but quite deliberately) between echoes of the Authorised Version, Bunyan, Shakespeare, and contemporary barrack-room or newspaper idiom. Not a million miles from the sort of things contemporaries like Kipling and P G Wodehouse were doing, but Plaatje adds multilingual elements from Zulu, Tswana and Afrikaans into the mix as well. It sometimes feels a bit overdone, but most of the time it works very well. And there are enough jokes buried in the text to make you confident that Plaatje knows exactly what he is doing (he was a skilled journalist and propagandist, of course).

I was slightly taken aback by the unexpected appearance of an African tiger in the story, but it turns out that Afrikaans in those days didn't bother itself too much with petty zoological niceties, and the word tier (tiger) was routinely used for a leopard, and obviously strayed across into local English as well.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 20, 2020, 12:53pm

Lockdown literature, 1920s style:

Cold stone jug (1949) by Herman Charles Bosman (South Africa, 1905-1951)


A prison record seems to be almost de rigueur for great colonial short-story writers: O. Henry did his stretch for embezzlement, Henry Lawson was in and out of Darlinghurst in his later years, and there are doubtless lots of other less distinguished examples. South Africa's greatest short story writer of the early 20th century, Herman Charles Bosman, was no exception: during a visit to his mother and his new stepfather in July 1926, when he was 21, an argument got out of hand and he shot and killed his stepbrother, with the result that he was convicted of murder, which carried an automatic death sentence. After a period on death row — which he claims to have rather enjoyed, but that sounds like hindsight — his sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment. He remained in Pretoria's Central Prison until August 1930, when he was released on parole.

Cold stone jug, written nearly twenty years later, when he was a successful journalist and short-story writer, is his prison memoir. It's written with his characteristic dry humour, but it's often indirectly very moving when he talks about the psychological effects on himself and others of being locked up, and the damaging social effects of the "indefinite sentence" system that put offenders into a vicious circle of ever-increasing periods of imprisonment it was almost impossible to break out of. And there's lots of fascinating period detail about the way the prison is organised, the social hierarchy, the sometimes surprisingly subtle acts of resistance or protest, and some great thumbnail stories from the lives of his fellow prisoners, artfully chopped about and left incomplete to reflect the fragmented nature of opportunities to talk to other prisoners.

One thing that struck me is that this is a book set in an all-white fragment of South African society: black people only appear very peripherally — in an opening scene, Bosman is in a basement holding cell at the police station, and the prisoners can see the legs of passers-by, "mostly natives"; later on he mentions that the bodies of men who have died in the prison are collected by a pair of "kaffir prisoners", presumably from a different nearby prison. And that's it: the prisoners are white, the guards are white, and Bosman never sees anyone else.

Bosman doesn't draw a veil over the less palatable sides of prison life: the casual brutality, the culture of dagga smoking, and so on. He describes being disgusted when he realised that another prisoner had fallen in love with him and kept sending him sentimental notes (but points out that he was still very young: by the time of writing, he's overcome his prejudices and some of his best friends are gay or lesbian...). When another prisoner, a disgraced schoolteacher, tells him in graphic detail about the twelve-year-old girl he'd had sex with, Bosman admits that he started having fantasies about young girls himself. Again, he points out that he was very young and had had little chance for sexual experimentation before being locked up, but it's still rather creepy. I don't suppose a modern writer would get away with that kind of honesty.

So, definitely comes with some caveats, but still a fascinating book.

kesäkuu 20, 2020, 5:23pm

I never know what sort of books I am going to find reviews of on this thread. Just looking at the last three books - beyond eclectic - Great stuff.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 21, 2020, 3:19am

>188 baswood: Eclectic, moi? Well, possibly, although >182 thorold: was probably a case of offbeat for the sake of offbeat.

I did have a look to see if I could find a direct link between Bosman and Plaatje, but there's nothing obvious. But I did find a bizarre misprint in Stephen Gray's introduction to Cold Stone Jug: in a survey of the development of penal policy in the British empire, he mentions the big prison on the Isle of Wight, but he calls it "Pankhurst" instead of "Parkhurst". I suppose that would be one way to commemorate the self-sacrifice of the suffragettes! (As Gray mentions, Bosman, who learnt to set type in prison, was a notoriously eagle-eyed proofreader — he would have spotted that one.)

I finished another audiobook:

The forgotten waltz (2011) by Anne Enright (Ireland, 1962- )


First-person adultery, with the passion offset by Enright's characteristically oblique, ironic view of life. Her narrator, Dublin young professional Gina, is well-aware of her own faults (and even more so of everyone else's), but she can't stop herself from a course that breaks up two marriages and risks alienating her sister as well...

Touching and funny, with some very acute social observation (I didn't realise before reading this how many different uses Irish English has for the exclamation "Look at you!"), but it felt a bit slight compared to the more recent Actress, which uses what seems to be a more developed and three-dimensional version of the same narrator. Anyway, I can't help feeling that there must be something intrinsically unconvincing about a book that rests on the assumption that two people (plus his daughter) could love a management consultant.

kesäkuu 21, 2020, 1:56pm

Just when I was beginning to think I had got through most of the Southern African reading I'd planned, along comes a book-club picnic, from which I return with another, even larger, stack of borrowed books...

This is one that caught my eye because there was a mention of it and a short extract in Stephen Gray's introduction to Cold stone jug. Very short, so I read it right away.

Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp (1898) by Douglas Blackburn (UK, 1857-1929)


Douglas Blackburn was an English journalist who spent about 20 years working in the Transvaal and Natal around 1900. He published half a dozen satirical novels about South African life and the Boer War. Prior to that — Wikipedia tells us — he had been involved in a fake telepathy scam in Britain.

This was his first novel, which appeared in London in 1898, had a second edition in 1908, and then disappeared until the South African Universities Press produced a reprint of the first edition in 1978.

The book is presented as a vindication of the disgraced Transvaal public official Piet Prinsloo by his son-in-law, Sarel Erasmus, who takes us through the many hilarious scandals of Piet's life as landdrost (rural magistrate), veldkornet (a uniquely South African role, something between a militia sergeant and a part-time policeman), and finally mining commissioner. Sarel aims to show us how it was always the fault of someone else, but, needless to say, all this does is to demonstrate to us that his accident-prone father-in-law was not only graspingly venal, but also ignorant and gullible. But only slightly more so than everyone else in the amateurish Boer republic, from Paul Kruger down.

It's blatantly prejudiced, often to the point of being simply offensive, and quite clumsily written, but there are some very funny anecdotes scattered through the story that make it almost worthwhile. But probably the main reason anyone would want to look at this kind of book is to get a feel for British attitudes to the Boers during the mining boom and the lead-up to armed conflict. If Blackburn's readers believed even a tenth of what he was telling them, they would think of Boers as semi-literate, ignorant, corrupt, lazy, hypocritical about religion, addicted to cheating rooineks and kaffirs out of their money and labour, and to whipping the latter. No wonder the brothers and cousins of those rooineks went to war so happily.

More positively, it's also interesting to see how Herman Charles Bosman took essentially this same cheap and nasty comic formula, a couple of decades later, inserted subtlety and emotional complexity, and turned it into something that can still be read with pleasure a century later.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 22, 2020, 9:47am

I dug out a couple of old Africa-themed issues of Granta. This first one turned out not to have very much of relevance to the southern end of the continent:

Granta 48: Africa (1994) edited by Bill Buford (USA, 1954- )


The real highlight of this issue was a clever culture-clash story by William Boyd about an African film director who accidentally gets entangled in the Hollywood machine. There's also a nice short piece of fiction by Ahdaf Soueif, but for the rest it's all grim journalistic accounts of coups, genocide and starvation. Ryszard Kapuściński's thoughtful piece on Ethiopia after the fall of Mengistu and Lynda Schuster's first-hand view of the end of the Doe regime in Liberia stand out here, as do Gilles Peress's photographs from Rwanda. But it's not obvious why Paul Theroux's silly account of his student visit to a leper colony in Malawi got included: it's essentially a cut-price version of A burnt-out case, but with more inappropriate sex.

This was the year of the South African elections, but there are only two quite minor references to that: A Mandela speech to the OAU which looks bland and content-free when it's put down on paper (it probably didn't seem like that in the hall), and William Finnegan's report on the elections in Western Cape, where the paradox was that the Coloured majority were so afraid of what the ANC might do that they voted in their long-time oppressors, the National Party.

Strange that an issue focussed on "Africa" should have a majority of American and British contributors.

kesäkuu 22, 2020, 3:22pm

>189 thorold: I went to the Isle of Wight once and thought it was all one big prison. The perfect place to test a Covid 19 tracking app. (if you want it to fail)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 23, 2020, 8:24am

>192 baswood: I don't think I've ever been there — not since early childhood, anyway.


Zolathon, 19/20:

La Débâcle (1892) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


(My copy is an ancient French hardback that has long since lost its dustjacket, the above is from a more decorative modern paperback)

The logical end of the Rougon-Macquart story, as the Second Empire is smashed to pieces in the humiliating mess of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 (in publication order, there's one more book to read, Le Docteur Pascal).

At the centre of the story is Jean Macquart, the tragic central figure from La Terre, whom we last saw going off to re-enlist. We meet him again, as a corporal in an infantry regiment, outside Mulhouse, waiting for the order to cross the Rhine and head for Berlin. Of course that doesn't come, instead it looks as though the Prussians have broken through, and the regiment moves around eastern France in an arduous series of marches and counter-marches, following the confusing shifts of strategy that come down from higher command, and never actually coming into contact with the enemy during the first six weeks of the war, until they end up in Sedan.

Part II takes us through the defeat of the French army in Sedan. Jean has made friends with Maurice, a young lawyer who is serving in his squad as a volunteer: through Maurice and his friends and relations we get to follow the action from the viewpoints of civilians in Sedan and members of other branches of the army.

In Part III, Zola moves on to the Prussian occupation, the siege of Paris, and, in a dénouement that will take no-one by surprise, ends with the fall of the Commune, and Paris burning. We don't actually get the Seine flooding over the stage (although there is a nocturnal boat-trip through the flaming city), but there is more than a hint of Götterdämmerung in the final scenes.

As usual, everything has been researched to a tolerance of better than half a blade of grass, and you can have hours of fun following it all on large-scale maps if you wish, not that there's any need for that, it's just as effective if you forget about the precise geography. We can safely take it for granted that if he says there is a beech tree, there really was one on that spot in 1870.

It's supposed to be a condemnation of the callous over-confidence and unpreparedness of those who took France into the war, the incompetence of those who lost it, and the naivety of those who rushed to fight in it. But, being Zola, it doesn't stop there: he wants us to know what it might feel like to be an infantry soldier, how much it matters if a minor error in planning sends the supply column to a different place from the troops and there's nothing to eat after a day's march, how military discipline ceases to exist in a lost war, how field hospitals are organised, how the casual destruction of passing armies destroys the lives of civilians, and a thousand other less obvious things he's found out about war during his research.

More documentary and less involved with its characters than many of Zola's other books, but there is an interesting human plot in the friendship between the peasant Jean and the intellectual Maurice. Perhaps inevitably, the female characters don't get a huge amount to do, other than bandaging their men or seducing Prussian officers into granting small favours.

A very impressive bug's-eye-view of war, but maybe not Zola's most interesting novel if you're not a military historian.

kesäkuu 23, 2020, 12:08pm

This was another book the South Africans brought along to our book-club picnic. Although it's by a famous South African, it's not really about South Africa, but it did look interesting.

Year of the King : an actor's diary and sketchbook (1985) by Anthony Sher (South Africa, UK, 1949- )


Anthony Sher's diary covering the period of nearly a year from when he first heard rumours that he was going to be asked to play Richard III in Stratford up to the opening of the show in June 1984. A fascinating, detailed account of a process that most of us never get to see. The diary format, cutting out hindsight and including all the false starts and blind alleys, works very well for this. It's really interesting to see how he goes about researching the character, roping in his physio and his shrink, going to meet disabled people, stealing ideas from movies and medical documentaries, endlessly sketching faces and body shapes. Most of the ideas are eventually discarded in the light of what works on stage, but the technical knowledge is still there, informing the theatrical interpretation. Richard III is such a high-profile part that no-one can "just" get up there and do it, you have to be able to bring something to it that the audience haven't already seen a thousand times in the Olivier film...

The description of the rehearsal process, getting to grips with the text and trying out different interpretations of the characters, is fascinating as well, and it's interesting to hear how fraught it often seems to be, even for the very experienced and distinguished actors who work at the RSC. And I loved Sher's drawings of the other cast members done in the margins of the text of the play!

Probably essential reading for actors, but frank, funny and very enjoyable for those of us who never get to go backstage as well.


I watched the 1955 Olivier film last night to remind myself of the play. It's odd how you notice different things: I must have seen it three or four times before, but I'd never registered how very implausibly un-English the location for the Battle of Bosworth is: they make their cavalry charges through olive groves, with a background of rocky sierras. Not like the Leicestershire I remember! Maybe it was less noticeable on VHS or on the worn-out prints of the film they used to send out to schools. Maybe Olivier was slipping in a covert reference to his own name?

kesäkuu 23, 2020, 3:26pm

>194 thorold: There’s an excerpt from an audio-recording here:
Sher sparring with Penny Downie (Lady Anne) in one of Shakespeare’s oddest courtship scenes.

kesäkuu 23, 2020, 7:37pm

>193 thorold: Just finished this myself, only in translation. It took me three tries over months to finally get into it, but once I did, as with his other works I was hooked. I did really feel my lack of geographical knowledge for that area, but luckily there were detailed maps in my OUP edition. I found the bit on French heroes and the summary of great French victories fascinating, knowing as we do that they were doomed, and also as a different perspective on the French military than that more prevalent today.

Enjoyed your review.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 24, 2020, 5:05am

>196 SassyLassy: Yes, I also often have that feeling with Zola: it feels as if it takes me as long to read the first three chapters as it does the entire rest of the book! And another one where it was virtually impossible to find anything intelligent to say about it that wasn't already in Rebecca's review.


Back to the southern hemisphere. Durban, this time, for a change:

Mating birds (1986) by Lewis Nkosi (South Africa, 1936-2010)


Lewis Nkosi grew up in Durban. He was one of the legendary Drum magazine team in the late fifties, with people like Es'kia Mphahlele (>154 thorold:). He left South Africa in 1960, took a degree at Sussex, and became a well-known teacher of African literature at universities in Europe, Africa and the US. This is the first of three novels he wrote in exile.

This girl, for example, white, pretty, consumed by her own vanity and the need to escape from a life of numbing boredom, will be responsible, some will argue, for the dispatch of one more young African life to perdition. Such a view is quite mistaken. Veronica is responsible, of course, in a way, but only marginally, symbolically, responsible. The bearer of a white skin and the bearer of the flesh and blood of a gypsy, the bearer also, if I may so add, of a curse and a wound of which, not being very bright, she was not particularly aware, this English girl has simply been an instrument in whom is revealed in its most flagrant form the rot and corruption of a society that has cut itself off entirely from the rest of humanity, from any possibility for human growth.

With very conscious echoes of To kill a mockingbird and L'Étranger, this is framed as a first-person account from the condemned cell by a young Zulu man, Sibiya, who has been convicted of raping a white woman, Veronica, whom he has met after they exchanged glances across the buffer strip between the "Whites" and "Non-Whites" sections of a Durban beach. According to him, they have been playing a silent but mutually-understood flirting game with each other for some weeks, each enjoying the power of their own sexual attraction and the frisson of its forbiddenness for the other. When they eventually get each other so wound up that they end up in her bed together, they are interrupted by white friends of hers, and she accuses him of rape to avoid being prosecuted under the Immorality Acts herself. Her version, of course, is that it's all in his imagination, that she had never even looked at "that native" before he broke into her house.

Obviously we're meant to be uncomfortable with this: Nkosi is a writer who loves to provoke. He knows perfectly well that liberal, western readers in the 1980s aren't going to trust a narrator who is an accused rapist and not only never lets his alleged victim speak for herself, but also accuses her of being of loose morals and "not very bright". He exploits that, to make us ask ourselves if we distrust Sibiya more than Veronica because he's black, or even because he has been convicted by what is obviously a farcically prejudiced court.

There's a lot of rather black comedy in the book: in court, where the prosecuting attorney has the wonderful name "Kakmekaar" (sorry, you need to understand Dutch or Afrikaans for this) and where the official interpreter, provided by the court to maintain the legal fiction that "natives" can't understand English or Afrikaans, solemnly tells the judge that the Zulu language has no word for "orgies". The judge exclaims, "Good gracious, man! Are you trying to tell the court that your people had never heard of orgies before the white man came to this continent?" Nkosi makes the most of the prurience inherent in a rape trial: there's a lot more talk about the enormous size of Sibiya's penis than is strictly necessary, and it's clear that many of those in court are enjoying it. The bleak comedy continues in the condemned cell, where Sibiya is being interviewed by the Swiss Freudian criminologist, Dr Dupré, who wrong-headedly seeks for symbols in everything Sibiya tells him about his early life or about his encounter with Veronica.

An unsettling book, as it's meant to be, and a clever and provocative one. But it seems to be kicking in an open door: by the time it appeared, the Immorality Act provisions against interracial sex had already been repealed; segregation on beaches lingered on in theory until 1989, but in many places the authorities stopped enforcing it in the early eighties.

kesäkuu 25, 2020, 11:45am

This was an oldie I came across secondhand whilst looking for something else, and picked up on the off-chance that it might be interesting:

The Puritans in Africa : a history of Afrikanerdom (1975) by Willem Abraham de Klerk (South Africa, 1917-1996)


W A de Klerk was a distinguished Afrikaans playwright, novelist, travel writer, children's author, mountaineer, pilot, lawyer, conservationist and wine-expert (amongst other things); he's cited as a major influence by the radical young Afrikaans writers of the sixties (Breytenbach, Brink, & co.). This is one of the few books he wrote in English.

De Klerk's idea in this book seems to be to trace back the roots of the ways of thinking that led the Afrikaner nationalists of the 1940s into the monumentally destructive delusions of Apartheid (although he's writing in the mid-70s, he doesn't have the slightest doubt that it's only a matter of time before South Africa will have to face up to reality again).

The book is in four parts. The third and fourth parts, where de Klerk takes us through South African political and intellectual history from the 1930s to the 1970s and analyses what has gone wrong, are very clear and interesting: he's obviously talking about people and events he knows well, at first hand, and his insights are sharp, if sometimes a little too loaded with references to stars of the seventies (Hegel, Marx, Barth, Tillich, and of course the ever-popular Marcuse). He describes Verwoerd and D F Malan as setting out with a clear conscience and sincerely held — but deeply misguided — intentions to create a better world for everyone in South Africa, which then became more and more entangled in a vast, oppressive and costly mechanism of enforcement and control that soon lost sight of where it was meant to be going, and became an end in itself. A view that seems to make sense, although he perhaps doesn't take enough account of how many of the people operating the machine found that it gave them previously-undreamt-of opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of those caught in its wheels. Of course, it all comes down to the colossal arrogance of believing that you have the right to take decisions on behalf of millions of other people who never got the chance to say whether they wanted you to or not, because you know that that's what God wants you to do.

The first and second parts of the book, where he looks at the early history of the Afrikaners and at the development of radical protestant ideas in Calvin's Geneva, in 17th century England and Scotland, and in New England, seemed less successful. He isn't a historian, and he obviously finds it very difficult to stick to a clear narrative line, so it comes over as a kind of long, rambling, after-the-port-and-sherry monologue, leaping from anecdote to generalisation and back again, hopping around in time arbitrarily. And there doesn't seem to be a great deal of it that he actually uses in the concluding parts: if you have at least a rough outline of South African history in your mind, you can probably skip the first 200 pages without inconvenience; if you don't, you'll probably be more confused after reading it than before you started...

Something of a curate's egg, but just about worth it for the good bits.

The subtitle on the cover is "A story of..."; on the title page it says "A history of...". Both misleading...!

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 26, 2020, 5:51am

Another old Granta. Richer pickings for the Southern Africa theme this time — or at least, it would have been, except that the excellent contributions by Nadine Gordimer (>175 thorold:) and Ivan Vladislavić (>107 thorold:) were both things I've read in the last few weeks...

Granta 92 : The view from Africa (2005) edited by Ian Jack (UK, 1945- )


Whilst Granta 48 was mostly European or American writers writing about Africa, almost all of the contributors to Granta 92 are actually African (the issue closes with one entirely non-African piece, a topical essay by John Biguenet on the experience of losing his home in New Orleans to hurricane Katrina).

There are some unexpected viewpoints, though, which is fun: Ghanaian-born poet Kwame Dawes writes about the prejudice he experienced growing up as an African in Jamaica; Segun Afolabi's story "Gifted" is set in an expat Nigerian family in snowy Japan; Adewale Maja-Pearce writes about growing up in the cultural tension between his estranged British and Nigerian parents. The stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Moses Isegawa are more conventional "African writing", and maybe at least on the fringes of the territory that Binyavanga Wainaina mocks in his satirical essay "How to write about Africa" ("Some tips: sunsets and starvation are good"). That essay seems to have sparked off quite some discussion at the time.

In "The master", Adichie presents us a charming picture of a naive teenage boy from a village who comes to work as servant for a university professor in the city, with lots of buried little jokes about sixties intellectuals; Isegawa's "The war of the ears" follows a Ugandan teacher under the threat of attack by rebel child-soldiers.

Nadine Gordimer's story "Beethoven was one-sixteenth black" and a selection of Ivan Vladislavić's "Joburg" microessays give interestingly different views of post-apartheid South Africa.

On the documentary side, there's a photo-essay by Geert van Kesteren about the Ogiek, indigenous people under threat in Kenya, and a sample from Santu Mofokeng's "Black albums", a collection of family photographs of black people in South Africa around 1900, showing us some of the rising aspirations that were slapped down in the course of the 20th century.

A lot of interesting samples to follow up.

kesäkuu 26, 2020, 3:34pm

>199 thorold:

Part of the reason I do not seem to read my Grantas as much as I should is that every time I try, I get distracted into following up on the authors. Which is a good problem to have but still... :)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 27, 2020, 9:56am

>200 AnnieMod: Yes! I've learnt by long experience that it's a disaster to subscribe to any kind of literary magazine. A backlog starts building up after about the second issue I get.

Two in-between reads for Pride month, found on Scribd.
The (post-1994) South African Constitution is still one of the very few in the world that explicitly protects citizens from discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender or sexual orientation. A large part of the credit for that is usually given to the young ANC activist, Simon Nkoli (1957-1998), who bravely came out as gay in prison, and helped to persuade his comrades and the ANC leadership that the new nation needed to embrace all kinds of diversity, not just in race:

They called me queer (2019) edited by Kim Windvogel & Kelly-Eve Koopman (South Africa)


An anthology of fiction, personal testimony and verse by LGBTQI South Africans, proudly asserting that the rainbow bit of "rainbow nation" is still there after 25 years. All very positive and uplifting, and probably a very valuable book to have on your shelf if you're a young person growing up in South Africa with questions about your own sexual identity, but not all that interesting for outsiders, because there's not really all that much that is specific to the country or the continent. Most of the contributors are very young, many of them not even old enough to have been around in 1994, and they are clearly all citizens of the Instagram village. It's probably inevitable that the sort of people who are members of the kind of discussion groups and fora that bring them into contact with the editors of an anthology like this are all going to be young, articulate, educated, urban and tech-savvy, and they have exactly the same sort of coming-out stories as queer or trans young people in Liverpool, Amsterdam, or Philadelphia. There are a couple of references to the appalling crimes of violence there have been against members of sexual minorities, especially lesbians and trans sex-workers, but there's no attempt to attach numbers or put those into any kind of context.


Justice : a personal account (2014) by Edwin Cameron (South Africa, 1953- )


Edwin Cameron came from a poor, working-class background in Pretoria — his father was in jail for much of his childhood, and he and his sister were sent to a state orphanage. But he took what he himself admits was shameless advantage of the educational opportunities the apartheid state gave to even the most deprived whites, if they wanted them, studied classics and law (ending up at Keble as a Rhodes Scholar, just to rub in the imperialist advantage!), and became a human rights lawyer based in a public-interest law centre at Wits, representing workers and opponents of apartheid in a string of high-profile cases. In 1994 he was appointed as a high court judge under the Mandela government, and he has since served in the appeal court and the constitutional court. He is one of the very few senior government officials in Africa to be both openly gay and openly HIV-positive.

This book is something between a memoir and a textbook on constitutional law: Cameron takes us through the history of judicial involvement in politics under apartheid, the development of the new constitution, and the important cases that have shaped South African law since 1994. There's a lot about the Defiance Campaign and the various trials of Mandela, the Treason Trial, Rivonia, and the rest, as well as about the less spectacular campaigns that helped to undermine the application of the Pass Laws and other key grass-roots components of apartheid oppression in the eighties. Cameron confirms the frequently-made assertion that the relative independence of the judiciary under apartheid and their insistence on proper procedure on occasion saved people from oppression and injustice, and incidentally gave Mandela, in particular, an impregnable platform from which he could address the world whenever the state chose to prosecute him for something. But he also reminds us that judges were drawn — and not at random — from a white population that supported the National Party. The overwhelming majority of the time, courts, especially at the lower levels, were happy to enforce oppressive laws and turn a blind eye to police malpractice. The judiciary can't be exonerated.

There's also a lot about the detailed working of the new constitution, and the way it gives the courts power to decide whether the government is pursuing policies aimed at giving people the basic social and economic rights the constitution promises them — housing, healthcare, water, education and so on. It's not trivial for judges to venture into these areas without overreaching themselves and getting involved in policy-making, which is obviously something that has to be left to elected representatives. Cameron takes us through a few notable cases, including Soobramoney (about the right of a hospital to withhold an expensive treatment from a patient in accordance with a prioritisation policy) and Grootboom (about the obligation for a local authority to have a policy for providing emergency housing). He also discusses at some length the court action taken by the Treatment Action Campaign to mitigate the effects of President Thabo Mbeki's irresponsible AIDS-denialism, for obvious reasons a matter close to his heart.

Cameron was still a serving senior judge when he wrote this book, which perhaps explains why he is rather vague and allusive in his references to government corruption and to "allegations against the integrity of some judges" (presumably referring to the notorious Judge Hlophe of Western Cape). Whilst recognising the many problems South Africa still faces, he seems to be optimistic about the future: the constitution has survived a turbulent twenty years, and politicians, corrupt as they may be in private, still find it necessary to express respect for the rule of law in public. Which probably puts South Africa on a par with the US, and a step ahead of the UK, which doesn't even have a constitution.

kesäkuu 28, 2020, 4:45am

Another one from my Seven Seas collection:

Transvaal Episode (1956) by Harry Bloom (South Africa, 1913-1981)


(Author sketch: University of Kent -

Harry Bloom seems to have been yet another extraordinary character: he grew up in South Africa and qualified as a lawyer there; he and his wife worked as war correspondents in Europe during WWII; they lived in Czechoslovakia for a while, then moved back to South Africa, where he worked with Bram Fischer and Nelson Mandela in the anti-apartheid campaign, wrote a couple of novels, and collaborated with Todd Matshikiza on the hit jazz musical King Kong (which launched Miriam Makeba's international career). It's not recorded what he did on his days off!
After a spell in jail he left South Africa in 1962 and started an unexpected new career as an academic lawyer at the University of Kent, becoming a pioneer of the then still rather esoteric field of computer and media law.

(I just realised now, having done the googling, that a charming elderly professor I was chatting to at a party a few months ago was someone who must have worked closely with Bloom. Another missed opportunity!)

This book, originally published in 1956 as Episode and later variously as Transvaal Episode or Episode in Transvaal, was the first of Bloom's two novels. Set in a fictitious small town, it's an anatomical dissection of a township riot, the sort of incident that fills newspaper columns for a couple of days but is then forgotten about by everyone except those whose family members ended up dead or in jail. It often feels as if it is veering off into satire, but Bloom's sober, journalistic style keeps reminding us that it's actually a composite picture of real events in real places.

The arrival of new-broom administrator Hendrik Du Toit to run the "native location" at Nelstroom marks a significant downturn for the twelve thousand black people who live there: the conscientious but unimaginative Du Toit is determined to stamp out the routine petty corruption that allows them to work around the impossible requirements of the pass laws and other apartheid regulations. When the idle, billiard-playing police commander is also replaced by a keen young lieutenant fresh from Riot Control school, the local branch of the ANC asks for assistance, and the experienced organiser Mabaso is assigned to them.

A trivial dispute about a missing collar in a bag of laundry sparks off a chain of events that escalate, thanks to the malice of Lieutenant Swanepoel and the incompetence of Du Toit, into a full-scale riot, with the police completely out of control, driving through the location shooting at random, and the location residents, boxed in with nowhere else to go, expressing their rage by burning down their own public amenities and attacking community leaders. Mabaso does his best to restrain things and puts his faith in the humiliation the authorities are going to face when their actions are exposed in court, but Swanepoel's special training hasn't been wasted: he makes sure that Mabaso, at least, is shot "attempting to escape" from police custody.

A searing attack on the poisonous working of institutionalised racism, obviously informed by Bloom's experience of Europe in the aftermath of the war as well as by what he's seen in South Africa, although he's careful to avoid making explicit comparisons between Afrikaners and Nazis. Over and over again he gives his characters opportunities to avoid the catastrophe, but they fail, because they would require a white official actually to listen to what a black person is telling him rather than fit it into his library of possible black-white interactions ("Yes, baas", "Right away, baas", etc.).


(This original cast recording is still available on streaming services — worth a listen if you like that sort of thing)

kesäkuu 29, 2020, 6:52am

Finished another audiobook on my morning stroll today:

The Madonna of Excelsior (2011) by Zakes Mda (South Africa, 1948- ) audiobook, narrated by Robin Miles


Mda examines the complicated relationship between Afrikaners and black South Africans in a small town in the Free State platteland, where, as usual in small towns, politics has much more to do with individuals and what happened between them a few decades ago than with big national issues. In Excelsior, the defining event in recent history has been the arrest of five white men and fourteen black women from the town under the Immorality Acts in 1971. The white men were all prominent figures in the Afrikaner community, and their activities lead to the birth of a surprising number of mixed-race babies.

We follow one of the women, Nikki, and her daughter Popi, through the declining years of apartheid and the first decade of democracy: the optimistic coming to power of the ANC, the lofty socialist ideals that gradually slide off into corruption and capitalist "enterprise schemes", the disenchantment of the Afrikaners who feel they aren't being given a chance to contribute to the new society, and so on. Underlying it all is the comfortable notion that, at a personal level, Afrikaner farmers and rural black people have far more in common than they think they do, and it's only those nasty middle-class ideas from the city that are driving them apart. Much the same reasoning that you find in nostalgic rural fiction from Attlee-era Britain. Which, oddly enough, is almost always written either by nasty middle-class people from the cities or by (former) aristocratic landowners, never by actual peasants.

Still, politically dubious though it might be, it's an attractive story, with strong, funny characters, interwoven with luscious descriptions of Van-Gogh-esque paintings of rural life by a local artist.

Narrator Robin Miles obviously isn't South African, but she does a pretty convincing job with the strongly-defined Sotho and Afrikaner voices, only breaking the illusion slightly with some odd pronunciations of Afrikaans placenames.

kesäkuu 29, 2020, 10:54am

I read another one of Mda’s a few years ago Black Diamond - and despite some issues, I liked the style enough. Sounds like I need to track down this one as well.

kesäkuu 30, 2020, 10:48am

>204 AnnieMod: Yes, he looks like someone worth digging into a bit deeper. I've bookmarked a few more of his books, don't know if I'll get to them...

Meanwhile, it's the end of the quarter, and I thought it would be a good moment to put the lid on another project. I started (re-)reading Zola with La fortune des Rougon in January 2018, and was planning to spread the twenty books out over three years, but I've been reading a bit more than usual lately, so the finish line was in sight after only thirty months...

Zolathon 20/20:

Le Docteur Pascal (1893; Doctor Pascal) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


(read as ebook, cover selected for maximum luridity — I love the unsubtle way the artist has made Pascal look like the author on this one...)

In a typical Zola gesture, the Rougon-Macquart series comes with a decorative pair of bookends to hold it in place on the shelf: La fortune des Rougon at the start and Le Docteur Pascal at the end. The first book, set against the background of the coup d'état of 1851, introduced us to all the characters and their complicated genealogy; in this last book, set in 1872-4, after the fall of the Second Empire, we get a handy summary of what's happened to everyone, together with an exposition of how all this fits in with Zola's slightly eccentric theories of heredity.

The plot — such as it is — fits into all this rather oddly. It starts out as a conflict between blinkered superstition and scientific objectivity, but we soon realise that Pascal is not so much a rational scientist as a self-deluding crank, who piles up the results of his unscientific "research" in a cupboard without a thought of publishing anything. As well as being an expert on heredity who is determined to make a baby with his own niece... Zola has either lost his own faith in science somewhere along the line, or he's let a good story of sex and obsession take over from dry theoretical models. Probably the latter.

Not one of the unmissable books in the series, but it was nice to get the "where are they now" stuff.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 1, 2020, 3:59am

General notes about Zola

- I still haven't read a Zola biography: to do! I might also get around to one or two of the non-R-M books, like Thérèse Raquin. Looks as though the biographies by Henri Troyat, Zola and Henri Mitterand, Zola: La vérité en marche are the standard ones. I've got Angus Wilson's Emile Zola, An Introductory Study of his Novels on order.

- Thematic grouping, in roughly decreasing order of importance. * Marks the really major books:
  - Gervaise Macquart and her children
* L'Assommoir (urban poor/drink)
Nana (sex-work, theatre)
L'Œuvre (visual art)
* Germinal (mining)
La bête humaine (railway)
  - Jean Macquart
* La Terre (peasant farmers)
La débâcle (soldiering; Franco-Prussian War)

Le ventre de Paris (Les Halles food market)
Pot-bouille (small shops/domestic servants)
Au bonheur des dames (big shops)

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (politics)
La Curée (property development)
L'argent (stock exchange)

(everything up to here is pretty much essential, the rest is optional)

La Conquête de Plassans (clerical manoeuvring)
La Faute de l'abbé Mouret (perils of celibacy)
Le Rêve (perils of pre-raphaelitism)

Interludes (safe to skip)
Une page d'amour
La Joie de vivre

Bookends (only if you're reading the whole series)
La fortune des Rougon (1851 coup; family set-up)
Le docteur Pascal (retrospective; heredity)

- I read the books I don't have on paper as French ebooks from ÉFÉLÉ, which has a lot of out-of-copyright French classics:

- There's a useful R-M family tree on French Wikipedia (English Wikipedia only has scans of Zola's own tree, which isn't so clear)

- Blogpost listing Zola translations into English:

kesäkuu 30, 2020, 5:21pm

>206 thorold:

Didn't Oxford just publish a new translation of the whole (or most of the )cycle? I remember seeing something about it (probably when you started that project of yours?) and thinking that it may be a way to read the whole thing finally...

Congrats on finishing the project :)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 30, 2020, 5:35pm

>207 AnnieMod: Thanks! Yes, I think OUP have brought out new translations of almost all of them in the last couple of decades, two or three different translators. I haven't seen them, but other people here say good things about them.
If you're reading in translation, the old Vizetelly ones are certainly best avoided, because Zola was very challenging for late-19th-century Anglo-American standards of "decency".

heinäkuu 1, 2020, 10:18am

>207 AnnieMod: OUP has indeed brought out new translations of all of them except the last. These are the editions I have been reading. I have pre-ordered Doctor Pascal which is due for publication in November, so you have time to get the others read before then! Needing to read it in English is what has held me back from finishing the series. Many of the translations are the first since the dreaded Viztelly ones mentioned by >208 thorold:.

>206 thorold: Zola and the Victorians: Censorship in the Age of Hypocrisy (2015) was highly recommended to me. I haven't read it yet, as I wanted to finish more of the R-M books before reading it and now it is in a dreaded TBR packing box in the basement. I thought I had packed it with the Zolas, but apparently not, probably due to lack of size conformity for packing.

heinäkuu 1, 2020, 10:32am

>209 SassyLassy: Zola and the Victorians sounds like an interesting angle — I've made a note of it.
Tämä viestiketju jatkuu täällä: thorold hopes to read fewer books in Q3.