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Happy Birthday Tolstoy!

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Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us.                    Leo Tolstoy

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

If one goes by the Old Style Russian Calendar, today is the birthday of Count Lev Tolstoy – I still have a slight book hangover from reading the very wonderful “Anna Karenina” recently!

A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.                                                      Leo Tolstoy

And so can a woman! Happy birthday Tolstoy!

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A Joyful Re-read: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

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There’s not much that’s as cosy and comforting as re-reading a book you know and love, and “Gaudy Night” is one I’ve been meaning to return to for some time. Then I read the wonderful post about it on Vulpes Libris and thought that this really was the right moment to revisit it.

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I first discovered the Sayers books in my early teens. I was reading a lot of Agatha Christies at the time, loving these classic murder mysteries, and then I caught some of the TV adaptations of the Lord Peter Wimsey books which the BBC produced, starring Ian Carmichael. I was so taken with these that I immediately started reading the books and was instantly hooked.

I find it hard to be objective about the Wimsey stories because so many of them mean so much to me for different reasons: “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” because it was the first I read; “The Nine Tailors” because it was probably my favourite TV adaptation and it haunted me for years; “Murder Must Advertise”, because it captured what it was like working in an office so brilliantly; “Five Red Herrings” because it was set in my native Scotland and was about painters. But if I had to pick one only, oddly enough it would be “Gaudy Night”, in which he hardly features at all! Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, I know – but the fact that the edition I just read proclaims it “A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery” does an injustice to the character of novelist Harriet Vane who is actually the main protagonist!

Nevertheless, I’ve always thought of GN as a book I love so much that I could just pick it up at any time and start reading it. I described it thus to a friend once, picked it up and got so engrossed instantly that I didn’t stop reading till I noticed how much she was laughing at me. Some books will stand regular re-readings, and this is one of them.

Giving a plot summary of what is known as a mystery novel is always a tricky business in case of spoilers, so I shall start with what Wikipedia says:

Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the tenth in her popular series about aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third featuring crime writer Harriet Vane.

The dons of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College (a thinly veiled take on Sayers’ own Somerville College), have invited her back to attend the much anticipated annual ‘Gaudy’ celebrations. However, the mood turns sour when a lunatic begins a series of malicious pranks including poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs and crafting vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder in college, Harriet eventually asks her old friend Wimsey to investigate.

That’s a very surface level summary of what is actually a complex and multi-layered novel, and certainly not something just churned out to meet the demand for murder stories. At this point in the lives of Wimsey and Vane, they are coming to something of a crisis. Lord Peter saved Harriet Vane from the noose in “Strong Poison” and falls in love with her. She obviously rejects him for a number of very good reasons, not least that she owes him her life, and their paths then cross again in “Strong Poison”, when Harriet discovers a body and Wimsey helps her with the investigations. By the time of GN five years have passed since SP and it is clear to Harriet that she will have to make a decision about Peter.

That’s one plot strand, and it’s set against a slightly unsettled background because we are in the mid-1930s. There are rumblings going on in Europe and Peter is called away several times on diplomatic errands. The female dons discuss the state of civilisation at points during the book and so although this is not a major part of the story, there is enough said to make us aware of the outside world.

Then there is Harriet herself. In many ways, she has spent the five years since SP healing herself from the experience, and the return to Shrewsbury is a step along this road. Going back into academe, encountering old friends and tutors, plus making new ones, gives something back to her life; she rediscovers the love of learning, and the change in her attitude is reflected in the way she regards the mystery novels she writes. One particular character, Wilfred, is giving her trouble and at a pivotal point she realises the book is not working and starts to re-write; her writing changes, she creates a real and believable character and it is as if she is able to face up to reality and create a real work of art and not ‘just’ a detective novel. This of course could be applied to Sayers’ books, which I like to think of as proper novels with a mystery in them!

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Another major element is the status of women and their education. When Sayers was writing, there was still much prejudice against the idea of women having education, work and a career, and this is pivotal to the mystery plot. The dons discuss at length what is best for women and Sayers is not afraid to air the prejudices of the time; whether celibate women in establishments like Oxford will end up deranged, where further education is better for all, whether men can cope with supporting and standing behind a successful partner. And the subject of whether it is possible to have an equal relationship between men and women, still a knotty subject nowadays, is much to the fore.

“She spoke gravely, unrolling the great scroll of history, pleading for the Humanities, proclaiming the Pax Academica to a world terrified with unrest. ‘Oxford has been called the home of lost causes: if the love of learning for its own sake is a lost cause everywhere else in the world, let us see to it that here, at least, it finds its abiding home.’ Magnificent thought Harriet, but it is not a war. And then, her imagination weaving in and out of the spoken words, she saw it as a Holy War, and that whole wildly heterogeneous, that even slightly absurd collection of chattering women fused into a corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom integrity of mind meant more than material gain – defenders in the central keep of Man-soul, their personal differences forgotten in the face of a common foe. To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace. How could one feel fettered, being the freeman of so great a city, or humiliated, where all enjoyed equal citizenship? … In the glamour of one Gaudy night, one could realise that one was a citizen of no mean city. It might be an old and an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings and narrow streets where the passers-by squabbled foolishly about the right of way; but her foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.”

Sayers weaves all these strands together brilliantly. She was an absolutely wonderful writer – literate, clever, entertaining, and capable of creating work that grips the reader from beginning to end. Her characters are lively and real, the descriptions of place and location vivid and brilliant, and despite the complex subjects being grappled with, my attention never flags. There’s humour, sadness and humanity in GN (and all her books) and in some ways I wish she wasn’t simply bracketed as a crime writer, because I think her books are great works of literature.

One of the criticisms often levelled at crime writing is the lack of description and bad characterisation, but I certainly don’t find it in Sayers’ books. Wimsey is too often perceived as a Bertie Wooster-like silly-ass but he’s far from it, and certainly shown at his best (and deepest) in GN. His behaviour towards Harriet is impeccable and finely-judged, and we get to see sides of him not always shown in the other stories – as an important diplomat, a Balliol scholar, against the backdrop of his long family history and as a tolerant uncle.

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With Harriet it is, of course, easy to interpret her character as the fictional representation of her author, and however true or untrue that is, it is probably fair to assume that Sayers was using Vane and the other women in this book to discuss and present her views on women, their education and status in the world, and the very difficult problem of equality in human relationships.

There is one element I haven’t mentioned yet – ultimately, this book is a love letter to Oxford; the place itself, and the concept of learning, study and the intellectual life. As a teenager who had been brought up with a love of books and learning, obsessed with stories about boarding schools, but unfortunately from a family without the wherewithal to enable me to have a university education, the image of Oxford presented in this book was captivatingly seductive and it still has the same effect on me. The friend I mentioned above was younger than me and actually went to Balliol – one of my fondest memories is visiting the place and staying in the university, in a room in an old building at the top of winding stairs – bliss!

“There, eastward, within a stone’s throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls’, fantastic,  unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring. Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen’s with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half-hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary’s. Westward again, Christ Church, vast beneath Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate’s and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.”

It’s a testament to the strength of this book that I could write about it endlessly – and if I were choosing Desert Island books, this volume would be an essential. If you love intelligent writing, wonderful characterisations, mysteries, love affairs and just great storytelling this is a book for you – if I had a star rating, this would get 6 out of 5!

Recent Reads: A Brick and A Diversion

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No, that isn’t the title of some strange book I’ve discovered but rather a description of this week’s reading experience. The Brick is “Sakhalin Island” by Chekhov which I’ve been struggling with over the past several days – it’s a thick volume from Alma Classics which I got with a Waterstones gift card someone kindly gave me (yay!) and I confess it’s not been the easiest reading experience…..

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Basically, in 1890 Chekhov made a long and difficult journey through Siberia to Sakhalin Island, to inspect the prison settlements there and report on his findings. This was not an official visit, and it’s not really clear what his motivations were in making the visit. Certainly, he had been suffering ill-health and coughing up blood for some years, so it was an arduous journey for someone in that condition to undertake. It may be that he was motivated by humanitarian motives, wanted a dramatic change in his lifestyle or wished to make a change from his usual type of work – I guess we will never know. Anyway, Sakhalin Island itself is a long way away from Chekhov’s home – it’s actually quite a large island just to the north of Japan off the Siberian coast, and had not been a Russian territory for that long.

The first part of the book, titled “From Siberia” collects together articles sent back by Chekhov dealing with his journey across the wastes of Siberia, and in some ways these are the most interesting part of the book, being lyrical, descriptive and beautiful in places. Then there is the collection of chapters on Sakhalin itself, 23 in all, plus copious notes and extra material on Chekhov. It’s a loooong book!

“Let it be said without offence to the jealous admirers of the Volga that I have never in my life seen a more magnificent river than the Yenisey. A beautifully dressed, modest, melancholy beauty the Volga may be, but, at the other extreme, the Yenisey is a mighty, raging Hercules, who does not know what to do with his power and youth. On the Volga a man starts out with spirit, but finishes up with a groan which is called a song; his radiant and golden hopes are replaced by an infirmity which it is the done thing to term “Russian pessimism”, whereas on the Yenisey life commences with a groan and finishes with the kind of high spirits which we cannot even dream about.”

The conditions Chekhov encountered in the penal settlements were quite appalling, and his reports must have come as quite a revelation to much of Western Russia. He encountered brutality from both prisoners and warders, floggings, dreadful living conditions, starvation, forced prostitution and on and on. Nowadays, from our 21st century view of all the vile happenings of the 20th century, this is not quite so shocking but it is hard to underestimate the effect it would have had at the time, and Chekhov’s book has been credited with changing the penal system. The position of women prisoners and exiles was particularly harsh and he devotes a whole chapter to it.

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However, I struggled with this book. Not because of the length, I hasten to add, or the subject matter, because I’ve read much worse. The trouble is possibly with me, in that I may have approached it expecting more of a travelogue, which this patently isn’t. The latter half of the book is chapter after chapter of facts and figures – there are moments when Chekhov will relate a specific story of a prisoner and the human element creeps in, but to be honest a simple reeling off of statistics loses the reader and weakens the point the author is trying to make. Chekhov is as critical as he can be about the regime, strongly so in many places, but he is always working within the confines of his editors and the authorities. He was shielded from contact with political prisoner although he does drop hints in places about them.

And yet, there are places when Chekhov forgets his fact-finding and lets rip with a single masterly sentence which drives home the isolation of the location and the cruelty of imprisonment in a much subtler way than just ranting about it:

“It is always quiet in Dooay. The ear soon grows accustomed to the slow, measured jangle of fetters, the thunder of the breakers on the sea and the humming of telegraph wires, and because of these sounds the impression of dead silence grows still stronger.”

He is the master of the dry one-liner which tells you so much about the situation in Sakhalin:

“The unloading of ships here always takes a tediously long time, and is accompanied by exasperation and loss of blood.”

And Chekhov is not slow in condemning the ignorance and corruption among the overseers and those in charge – I loved this example where he dropped in a lovely sideswipe while describing one of the better areas:

“… there are no workers in government offices who barter alcohol in exchange for luxurious fox furs and then display them to their guests with a beatific smile.”

But in the end, I confess I got about three-quarters of the way through and was so bogged down that I skip-read the rest. I know this material was written in an effort to open people’s eyes to the dreadful conditions in Sakhalin and bring about change, and perhaps it might be better if that is emphasised in descriptions of this book. There were lovely, lyrical passages that I enjoyed and plenty that is memorable about the book – but it seems more of a specialist read than anything else. I prefer Chekhov in this mode:

“My rambles around Alexandrovsk and its environs with the postal official, the author of “Sakhalino”, have left me with pleasant recollections. Most often we would walk to the lighthouse, which stands high above the valley, on Cape Jonquiere. By day the lighthouse, if looked at from below, is a modest little cottage with a mast and lamp, but at night, however, it glows brightly in the darkness, and it seems that the penal settlement is peering at the world with its own red eye.”

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Onto the diversion! I was getting so bogged down with Chekhov that I decided I needed a little light relief alongside, so I picked a book off Mount TBR that I’ve been meaning to start for a while: “Twenty Five” by Beverley Nichols, in a lovely old Penguin edition (it was one of the first 10 Penguins issued, though mine is not a first edition, alas!) I first came across Nichols nearly a year ago via the Reading 1900-1950 blog and read his “Crazy Pavements” which I loved. His style is light, witty and very, very readable but often hiding a darker, more serious side. I thought this would be just right to lift my reading state of mind and I was right!

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“Twenty Five” is Nichols’ autobiography, written when he was – you’ve guessed it! – 25! It might seem rather absurd to write such a thing at such a young age, but in fact Nichols had led quite an eventful life up to that point and has plenty to cover already. Strictly speaking, it’s not really a proper autobiography – more a collection of reminiscences, stories round a dining table, full of name-dropping and lively events. But it’s none the worse for this. Some of the chapter headings might give you an idea of the contents: “Containing a fruitless search for American vulgarity”, “In which we meet a ghost”, “Showing how a genius worshipped devils in the mountains” and “Containing the hideous truth about Noel Coward”. There is shameless name-dropping of royalty (the King and Queen of Greece), politicians (Winston Churchill and President Wilson) and authors (Masefield, Yeats, Bridges, Chesterton, Maugham) – but this never seems gratuitous and Nichols comes across as a fairly modest, very likeable chap!

“Oxford from the hills is a dream eternally renewed. Under the rain, when only a few spires and towers rise above the driving sheets of grey, on an April morning, when the whole city is sparkling and dappled with yellow shadows, by moonlight when it is a fantastic vision of the Arabian Nights.”

We follows roughly Nichols’ life, from Oxford student, to cultural missionary to American, to proto-spy in Greece, to journalist, writer and drama critic. He mixes with those still remembered (Dame Nellie Melba) and those now less well-known (the cartoonist Sem) – and though we may not know who his contacts are, he is always a witty read. Some of his travel tales, going through post WWI Europe, are fascinating and offer a vivid snapshot of what life was like at the time:

“A word about Belgrade, the capital of Yugo-Slavia, because it is, of all the cities I have seen, the most sinister and the most melancholy. It would appeal to Poe. We arrived at about dawn and I woke up to look out on a dreary, broken-down station, snow-bound, and to hear the monotonous echo of some soldiers singing round a little fire which they had built on the platform. I dressed and went outside with some Greeks, who spoke bad French. We were all terribly hungry and were determined to eat some breakfast or die in the attempt.”

At all times Nichols writes with a wonderful mixture of the lyrical and flippant. He is capable of some beautiful descriptions of, for example, Athens at night, which he follows with the quip:

“I offer no apology for this sentimental outburst. I have no sympathy with the man who does not grow sentimental amongst the columns of the Acropolis. I have read about him in Freud, and he is a very dirty dog.”

He is, indeed, a great champion of the flippant, stating “If, however, there were a little more flippancy in the world, there might be a few less wars. Swords cannot be unsheathed flippantly. Poison cannot be made with an airy gesture. Notes cannot be flicked across the Channel from one ambassador to another, like blowing kisses. If they could, they might not cause so much trouble.” Which, if you think about it, is quite good advice – if the world lightened up a little, there might be less conflict.

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But all the time I was reading this book, I was struck by the quality of Nichols’ writing – and I was laughing out loud a lot of the time; for example, this description of a bad play was one of my favourites:

“If a Nonconformist father and a Baptist mother had produced a daughter of the lowest intelligence who had sedulously been kept from entering the theatre until she was thirty, at which date she had been to a pierrot performance on a small sea-side pier on a rainy day at the end of the season, and had then returned with a splitting headache to record her impressions, that was the sort of play she would write. Ten sentences of it, in typescript, would have given the average reader a feeling of desolate despair that the human brain could conceive such banalities.”

There were two parts that stood out for me, too, as a Virago reader. One was a moving little pen portrait of “Lady Russell” the author of “Vera” – known of course to Virago readers as Elizabeth von Arnim. The other was the chapter “Hanged by the Neck”, which covered the Bywaters/Thompson murder trial, the case being the basis for the wonderful book “A Pin to See The Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. In his role as journalist, Nichols followed the trial and had contact with Thompson’s family and his descriptions of their sufferings are quite heartbreaking. He is not afraid to lay his feelings on the line and this section of the book is particularly moving.

So actually, “Twenty-Five” ended up for me being more than just a diversion. It’s a witty, wonderful, clever and surprisingly deep book written by an entertaining and decent human being who has quite a lot to say about the human condition in an oblique way. Highly recommended!

Happiness is a new (and fairly rare!) Virago…

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It’s always a joy to find a book for which you’ve been searching for a while, and I was lucky enough to stumble across this online recently:

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I read Carrington’s “The Hearing Trumpet” a little while back and reviewed it here. Carrington was very much a one-off and I loved HT, but her works, particularly in Virago editions, are hard to find and rather pricey. In fact, my copy of HT is a Penguin and my only other Carrington is “The House of Feat” which I was lucky enough to come across in a local charity shop for next to nothing!

However, I’ve been in the habit of checking various online sellers occasionally to see if they have any of her works, and amazingly enough the biggest retailer had a copy of “The Seventh Horse” at a Very Reasonable Price! Needless to say, I snapped it up and waiting impatiently as it was coming all the from the USA. I was slightly concerned that it would be a bit bedraggled but no! It arrived today and is in lovely condition with only a slight cover crease on the back. Yes, it’s a later green Virago but still! Not bad for under £10 (including postage) methinks!!

Greene for Gran – a Giveaway!

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As we’re all progressing into August and enjoying our Greene for Gran reads of the Great Graham, I have decided to offer a little giveaway to further promote her favourite author. When I started excavating Mount TBR to get some Greene to read last week, I discovered that I have two copies of “The Heart of the Matter” (I really need to *stop* buying duplicate copies of books…)

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The copy I have spare is this Penguin edition and it comes pre-loved from my local Oxfam charity bookshop – but is in excellent condition (looks unread tbh) and is up for grabs here! Just leave a comment below with a book recommendation for me, and I will draw winner at random in about a week!

Greene for Gran: The Third Man and No Man’s Land

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As many of you will know, Simon of SavidgeReads came up with the lovely idea of Greene for Gran, whereby we all read some Graham Greene this month as a tribute to his Gran, a great reader and a lover of GG’s work. Any excuse to read Greene must be a good one, so after a lot of vacillating, I finally settled on reading two novellas – “The Third Man” and “No Man’s Land”. I have several Greenes on Mount TBR, so the decision was quite difficult, but these two go together for reasons which will become clear!

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The Third Man is one of Greene’s best known titles, as it started life as a film treatment and became the famous Carol Reed movie, starring Orson Welles amongst others. It’s set in fragmented, post-War Vienna, which is being shared between the superpowers and is divided into zones. The place is a ruin, full of black marketeers, and Rollo Martins, a hack novelist, has been invited over by his old school friend Harry Lime who he thinks is going to offer him a job. However, he arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral and runs into the laconic Colonel Calloway, who is actually our narrator. Martins begins to learn the unpleasant truth about his old friend, and comes across quite a selection of characters: Anna, an actress with false identity papers who was in love with Lime; Cooler, an open-faced American who has to be telling the truth, doesn’t he?; Dr. Winkler, Lime’s friend who witnessed his death. There is also a very funny side plot, which didn’t make it into the film intact, where Martins is mistaken for a very different, very literary author and expected to take part in cultural events in Vienna. Martins soon suspects that Harry was in fact murdered and starts to investigate. But other deaths follow, and then Martins has a very strange encounter in the dark streets – who is alive, who is dead, and who is fooling who?

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No Man’s Land was another film treatment – Greene always wrote them as stories as that was how he worked – which was written after the success of The Third Man for a possible Carol Reed follow-up. However, despite it being set once more in a fragmented landscape, in the east-west border area near the Hartz Mountains, the feel of this novella is somewhat different. It was never actually filmed and lost for many years until it was rescued and republished by the wonderful Hesperus Press. One again we have a narrator – this time Redburn, a Boundary inspector – who tells the story of one Richard Brown. The area Redburn is patrolling is close to a Catholic shrine, just over the border in the Russian zone, and when Brown disappears into that area he initially claims that he is a writer who wanted to see the shrine. Captain Starhov, who takes charge of the investigation into Brown and his behaviour, is a sympathetic character and inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Starhov’s mistress Clara, who Brown encountered almost as soon as he entered the Russian Zone, falls in love with the Englishman and becomes an unexpected ally. The reality about Brown is gradually revealed and he plans to escape with Clara – will they make it or will Starhov succeed?

I found it absolutely fascinating reading these two stories in tandem, especially bearing in mind the pivotal point of Greene’s career during which they were written. Greene was inclined to dismiss some of his fictions as ‘entertainments’ and I’m not sure whether he regarded these two works as light or serious. However, there is darkness in both tales – the black racketeers in TM are dealing in penicillin and the consequences of their actions are death or madness and deformity. They are portrayed as completely immoral and unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, so much so that Martins’ previous hero-worship of his childhood friend Lime is utterly destroyed – so much so that he is able to apply the ultimate sanction.

“Human nature…has curious twisted reasons that the heart certainly knows nothing of. It eased the conscience of many small men to feel that they were working for an employer: they were almost as respectable soon in their own eyes as wage-earner; they were one of a group, and if there was guilt, the leaders bore the guilt. A racket works very like a totalitarian party.”

Likewise, the plot of NML is concerned with spying – but not for just little, petty secrets, but for information on uranium finds which will have global implications. It would be easy simply to paint the Russians as bad in this situation and the West as good, with Brown trying to gain information for the good guys but Greene is never so banal as this. Starhov is a sympathetic character, bonding with Brown while duelling psychologically with him over their shared love of the works of Turgenev, and both seem to realise that they are very much pawns in a bigger game.

Stylistically the books share many traits, most noticeably the fact that the story is told through an intermediary. In both cases, we have a character/narrator placed between us and the main protagonist (Martins/Brown), where a different author might simply have had the protagonist narrating. This is an excellent way of adding tension to the story because we do not know if the protagonists will survive or not as someone else is telling their story; but we still get the immediacy of events being related from their viewpoint. Galloway and Redburn are perhaps minor characters, but they are both integral to the story and allow the reader more leeway when interpreting the stories. I also realised whilst reading how much I like Greene’s distinctive style of writing!

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But it’s also relevant to notice the change of tone in the stories and this I think has much to do with developments in Greene’s life. As the excellent introduction to No Man’s Land points out, Greene was involved in a love affair which would have a major impact on his life. The characters of Anna in TM and Clara in NML are representations of this woman, who would become Sarah in The End of the Affair. Greene was going through a great deal of personal turmoil and it came out in his art. There is a shift of emphasis and the narrative voice in NML sounds much more like that of TEOTA – TM is lighter in tone and although it is about corruption and boundaries and a Catholic gone wrong (Lime is mentioned as a Catholic quite early on), the religious element is incidental. But in NML this is coming more to the fore – the Catholic shrine takes more of the centre stage, the religious imagery is present and there is contrast in the final dramatic scenes in the shrine between ‘good’ worshippers and ‘bad’ spies. By the time Greene reached TEOTA the moral, Catholic element was to the fore and pivotal to that book. Sandwiched between TM and TEOTA, NML represents a transitional point in the author’s work, where he was moving towards the representation of his Catholic beliefs and struggles in a more dominant role.

I wish I had read both of these books before I read TEOTA because I think they would have helped and informed my reading of it much more. I also have to applaud Hesperus for publishing NML as I do think it sheds much light on Greene’s development at this particular time of his writing career. As it is, both of these stories are excellent in their own right, gripping and thought-provoking reads by a masterly writer and thanks to Simon and his Gran for this initiative which made me read these two books!

The Balkan Trilogy: Book 2 -The Spoilt City

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Back in November last year, I read the first book in the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, “The Great Fortune” (review here). I was left a little undecided at the end, finding that I disliked the two main characters, Guy and Harriet Pringle, quite a lot; although I was very fond of the supporting characters and her writing about the city and the events. It’s taken me till now to get to the second book, “The Spoilt City” and I think that break was necessary, as I found myself approaching this volume with quite a lot of enthusiasm. I’m finding recently that it’s better not to read a writer or series with an all-encompassing approach, as I end up getting stale and wanting a change.

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Anyway, the book opens with Guy and Harriet still in Bucharest, and the situation there is becoming more and more unstable. The titles of the four parts: “The Earthquake”, “The Captain”, “The Revolution” and “The Raid” give you an idea of the kind of events taking place. The Iron Guardists, a rebel group, gradually develop and come to the fore. The king refuses to abdicate and then is forced to. The Germans gradually take more control and the British contingent splinters and various friends and colleagues of the Pringles start to leave for other countries. Against this background, Guy and Harriet’s relationship fluctuates – they are such different personalities that they often seem to be at odds. Add in the fact that they have to cope with Yakimov lodging with them, and have Sasha Drucker, deserted and son of the disgraced financier, hiding on their roof, and there is a recipe for plenty of tension. The book ends with Guy persuading a reluctant Harriet to leave for Egypt while she still can – will they meet up again, and will the marriage survive?

I found myself enjoying this book a lot more than the first, as I think I have come to terms with the fact that I will always find Guy Pringle unbearable! Manning develops her characters much more in this second volume, and I am coming to understand them and their motivations a lot more. It’s revealed here (for the first time, if I remember correctly) that the Pringles had something of a whirlwind courtship, marrying and leaving for Hungary after 3 weeks’ acquaintance. So the books are very much about their discovery of each other as they are patently not what the other thought when they married. Harriet was looking for a safe harbour and Guy looking for someone to be strong for him – and both were wrong in the belief they had found someone who could offer this to them, and so they end up constantly pulling in different directions.And on a short ‘holiday’ in the mountains, she finds herself becoming much more judgemental about him:

“At one time she had been indignant when others were critical of him. Now, she realised, she was criticising him herself. Even more surprising, she could feel bored in his company. And yet, watching as he sat there, unsuspecting of criticism or boredom, an open-handed man of infinite good nature, her heart was touched. Reflecting on the process of involvement and disenchantment which was marriage, she thought that one entered it unsuspecting and, unsuspecting, found one was trapped in it.”

Harriet is developing very clear sight about her husband – he is only interested in the individual in an abstract sense, not as a real person, so is insensible to the consequences of his involvement with them.

“With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual – a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him.”

Although she clearly loves him and feels loyalty towards him, she finds him frustrating to deal with – there is a kind of evasiveness in his character, and I was never entirely sure if he deliberately misunderstood situations to get the result he wanted, or if he was just dense and detached. As Harriet says at one point,

“You interfere in people’s lives. You give them a false idea of themselves, an illusion of achievement. If you make someone drunk, he’s likely to blame you when he wakes up with a hangover. Why do you do it?”

But throughout Guy remains as irritating as ever, and his stubborn refusal to get them out of a dangerous setting is selfish at the very least and quite unbelievable. Even if you submitted yourself to staying in a dangerous, war-torn area, why would you do that to your loved one?

Harriet herself does develop as the book progresses, gaining confidence and telling Guy what she actually thinks. She is a strange mixture of hard and soft, wanting to protect Guy and eject Yaki and Sasha from the flat but lacking the strength. And she has a soft-heartedness when it comes to animals which extends to her judging the flashy women who will change allegiance to whichever particular power is in charge:

“Was there any more repellent sight, Harriet wondered, than a silly, self-centred, greedy woman clad in the skin of a beast so much more splendid than herself?”

As ever, the supporting cast are excellent. Inchcape, Guy’s boss, hangs on until the end but suddenly capitulates, after an act of violence, and leaves the capital. Clarence escapes, with the dreadful Sophie in tow, and there also a very funny episode with a ghastly visiting professor who seem to have no idea of reality! Sasha’s fate is unknown, and the threat of violence hangs over everyone – the raid on the Pringles’ flat at the end is particularly chilling.

Olivia-Manning

And then there is Yakimov – he is quite a wonderful creation, and I’d love to know whether Manning based him on a real person. Surprisingly, he dominates much of the story and his escapade to meet an old friend who is now obviously a Nazi is funny and frightening at the same time. Despite his selfishness, he’s an engaging character and ends up being surprisingly helpful at times, particularly when he encounters Harriet at the end of the book in Athens and is comforting and kind when she needs it. “Poor old Yaki” is one of the main reasons I keep reading these books, although I do rather fear for his future.

“Occasionally when Yakimov overslept in the afternoon, he would awake to find the Pringles had gone out and Despina – to spite him – had cleared away the tea things. When this happened on one of the molten days of late July, he suddenly felt to the full the deterioration of his life and could have wept for it. There had been a time when the world had given him everything: comfort, food, entertainment, love. He had been a noted wit, the centre of attention. Now he did not even get his tea.”

I ended up liking this book very much, which I didn’t expect. It’s a wonderful portrait of a war-torn land, a picture of what it was like to live in close proximity to the Nazis with danger always lurking and Manning’s sense of place and landscape is always excellent. Some of the descriptions of the area Guy and Harriet visit on holiday were very striking and I always felt as if I was in the book, alongside the action, which is one of the best effects a writer can hope to have, I suppose! I’m looking forward to the final volume in the series, and finding out what happens to Yaki – though I shall leave it a little while before reading as I want to get on to some Greene For Gran, in the form of “The Third Man” and “No Man’s Land”!

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