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The Bleakness of Humanity

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Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel

Well – you can’t say that I’m predictable with my book choices, can you, as this one is probably as far away from the Beverleys I read before it as you could get… “Grey Souls” was the first Claudel book I heard about (I think from the Beauty is a Sleeping Cat site) and I liked the sound of it. However, in the meantime I’d got hold of his “Brodeck’s Report” which I read and reviewed here.

grey souls

“Brodeck…” was set in the second world war, but this book goes back further with the action taking place in a small village near the front during the first world war. Again we have a narrator who is possibly unreliable – an investigator – who’s recording events after the fact. In 1917, while the war boomed away just over the hills, a 10-year-old girl was found strangled in the local canal. Belle was the daughter of a local innkeeper and suspicion is quickly fastened on a couple of deserters and justice is swift. However, the story doesn’t only concern this crime – we hear also about the people in the village, from the local prosecutor Destinat, the Judge Mierck, the school teacher Lilia to the narrator’s wife Clemence. There is a whole host of characters in the locality, all of whom come to play a part in the story, and all are drawn well.

The book progresses and the narrator tells his tale in much the same way as Brodeck did, slipping backwards and forwards in time and trying to piece together the truth after the fact. There is more to the murder than meets the eye, and the suspected killer (not one of the deserters) is protected by his status – the rich are always immune as so often seems to be the case nowadays. But not all is clear-cut – there is guilt in many souls here and nothing is black and white; one character comments that all souls are grey.

I came out of the end of this book a little stunned, to be honest. The revelations of the last couple of chapters and the general ghastliness of the characters and their brutal behaviour was almost too much. Yes, it’s beautifully written; yes, it’s evocative and engrossing; but it’s so unremittingly gloomy, so suffused with darkness and despair that I actually feel that I can’t ever read another book by Claudel. I’ve read many dark works in my time but this was so bleak – I couldn’t find anything in it to redeem humanity and it seemed that any characters who could be good were dead (and female).

Perhaps this is a slight over-reaction – as I’ve said, I’ve read bleak books in my time, but I think it’s the fact that there was no chance of any redemption anywhere that finished me off. I’m sorry I can find anything more positive to say about this book. I think I’ll go back to the gloomy Russians for a while – at least they usually have some jokes….

More Little Black Lovelies – and cautious optimism…

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I suppose it was a given that I would feel inclined to add a few more Little Black Classics to my stacks, bearing in mind how well I’ve got on with the Russians so far (review to follow!)  Fortunately, Waterstones still had their lovely display (though they had moved it) and I decided to come home with these beauties:

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Sappho, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin, Marx and Engels plus H.G. Wells – what fun! It’s yonks since I read The Communist Manifesto so I rather fancy a revisit, and the rest are all authors I’m fond of, and here they are in bite-size chunks. I think these LBCs are definitely the most successful of the Penguin special editions I’ve experienced!

I thought these would be enough for one day, but the charity shops had other ideas…. I blame Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book for this first one, actually, as he was singing its praises on Vulpes Libris this week and so I couldn’t ignore it in the Oxfam:

guest cat

This next lovely book was from the Samaritans Book Cave – a beautiful Everyman hardback collection of four of Irene Nemirovsky’s novellas – “David Golder”; “The Ball”; “Snow in Autumn” and “The Courilof Affair”. I need to read more of this writer (I’ve only read “David Golder” so far) so this is an ideal way to do it – and a rather luxurious hardback for only £2.50 is not to be sneezed at.

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My final find was an original green Virago in wonderful condition from the Crack On charity shop:

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I own several Holtbys, but not this one – so it was worth 75p of anyone’s money!

As for the cautious optimism – well, I’ve read all 6 of the Russian Little Black Classics I picked up last week, and they’re all wonderful, particularly the Dostoevsky, which was stunning. I felt so uplifted after successfully reading them that I plunged into “The Leopard” and am a chapter in with no sign of stopping. So maybe the reading crisis is over – fingers crossed….. 🙂

Comfy reading – a pair of Beverleys!

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Typically enough, having a week off for half term in February was a good time for my system to decide it would collapse, and I spent most of the break wrestling with the worst head-cold I’d had for a while! So the only kind of reading I could manage was going to be something comfy, and I decided it was time for a little more of the wonderful Beverley Nichols and his gardening books! (This was well before the reading crisis set in, btw).

My lovely friend J had presented me with a signed first edition of “A Thatched Roof” for my birthday last year; however, as that’s the second of the “Allways” trilogy, I felt quite justified in sending off for a copy of the first (not a first edition and not signed, but nevertheless very much a matching copy). Both books turned out to be an absolute delight, which was just what I needed! 🙂

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“Down the Garden Path” was Beverley’s first gardening book, published in 1932. Having purchased a Tudor thatched cottage and grounds in a small village in the middle of the English countryside. He has happy memories of visiting it before, with its beautiful gardens – but on arrival at the cottage he’s in for a shock, as the previous tenants have spoiled the inside and the gardens have gone to rack and ruin. The book is the story of the remaking of the gardens; Beverley’s falling out and putting up with the local neighbours and busybodies; Beverley learning to be a gardener and grow things; Beverley planting a wood; and so on!

Needless to say, the book is a delight (but then I would think that about everything Beverley writes!) Yes, he’s a snob; yes, there are some dated attitudes; but what a funny writer he is, and his enthusiasm for his cottage and garden is infectious. Of course, one of the joys of reading Nichols is his occasional bursts of misanthropy, and here they’re rather wonderful – for example, his description of one of the local ladies in the village is just priceless:

I will call my next garden acquaintance Undine Wilkins, because it is the sort of bastard name she ought to have had… a sickly aestheticism grafted on to a plebeian stock. Because she is very thick-skinned, she will not recognize herself, and I should not greatly care if she did, for she is rich, thoroughly self-satisfied, and now lives in the colonies.

Undine wends her way in and out of the story, as does Mrs. M, another local lady with an immaculate garden who Beverley, despite his protestations, actually does manage to get along with! So he gradually develops the garden (beautifully illustrated on the end papers by Rex Whistler) and different parts develop in an almost organic way – like, for example, when the digging of a pond creates a mound that just has to be made into a rock garden:

I have not a ‘rock garden mind’. Until quite recently I associated rock gardens with the horrors of the English Riviera… visualized them as gaunt, damp rubbish heaps on Southern promenades, over which there brooded a few diseased palms, while in front of them, passed an endless procession of nursemaids, wheeling perambulators in which revolting infants glowered and spat.

There there is the wood. Another burst of spleen explains why the wood came into being, and there are some wonderfully funny scenes of trees arriving and being planted.

It was a question of seeking shelter. I wanted somewhere to hide in. Things looked so dreadful everywhere. Whenever I opened the paper I saw that my pitiful little holdings in various industrial shares had slid still further down the slope. Everything seemed to be cracking up. England was unutterably weary, America was in the throes of a nervous breakdown, Germany had consumption, Italy was suffering from delusions of grandeur, Spain was about to be sick, Russia had delirium tremens, and France had an acute attack of hysteria following indigestion. The world seemed vulgar, irrational and dangerous. And so I said to myself, selfishly, ‘I will make my wood, and hide while there is yet time.’

And his description of how to visit a nursery is a scream:

If you have one or two excellent dry martinis, well iced, your visit will be far more satisfactory, not only to yourself but to the proprietor of the nursery. For you will leap from your car, see a divine splash of pink in a far corner, hail the attendant with the cleanest face, and cry: ‘I must have a dozen of those!’ And then you will dance off down the nearest path, always followed by the clean attendant, and you will swerve, instinctively,. towards the lovely coloured gracious things and you will order them without stint. The after effects are terrible, of course, but it pays.

Intriguingly enough, Beverley’s parents make regular appearances, with his father often being consulted on gardening matters. By the end of the book the garden is pretty much in shape, with Beverley threatening to write at least 6 more gardening books (!) which leads on to the second book, “A Thatched Roof”.

This volume is about the cottage itself, its renovation, the servant problem, the digging of wells, thatching of roofs, the keeping of bees and the introduction of the wonderfully-named Whoops the dog! There are more clashes with Mrs. M., tales of the experiments of the Professor (who unnerves everyone by constantly making notes about them, and divines water scientifically), discoveries about the cottage and more gardening.

Beverley outside the cottage

Beverley outside the cottage

These books are *such* a delight – I love Nichols’ snarky tone, his misanthropy and wish to hide away from people. But he also has a poetic side; he’s quite in love with his cottage and his garden and his dog and isn’t afraid to wax lyrical about them. He’s also very human, and not afraid to reveal his faults, getting very tetchy when he’s incapable of writing a poem about the bees.

You might have figured out by now that I loved these books! Beverley Nichols’ writing is definitely my cup of tea, and he was ideal reading for when I was feeling under the weather. And what’s even better is that there are so many of his books I *haven’t* read yet! :)))))

On taking a little break from books (but not from reading!)

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That’s a heading that sounds a little alarming, and I confess that I’m actually struggling a bit with reading at the moment. It’s not so much the reading of the books when I actually get going, it’s settling on what I want to actually read – I’ve started several recently and discarded them almost straight away because the mood just doesn’t seem right.

(Image courtesy Cafepress)

(Image courtesy Cafepress)

I wonder: have I overdone it and exhausted my brain a little? I’ve certainly read many volumes over recent weeks, so much so that I have quite a reviewing backlog. Usually, flinging myself into the nearest book tends to work but it hasn’t recently, and I’ve had a few disappointments too, so perhaps something radical is needed.

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Therefore, having just finished the Penelope Lively I picked up at the weekend (and jolly good it was too – review will follow!) I think I might spend a day or two reading Slightly Foxed – I have part of the last issue and the lovely new one which arrived today, and it may be that some shorter non-fiction pieces will do the trick.

Here’s hoping that the reader’s block goes and normal service is resumed asap! :s

Haunted by the Past

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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano

When French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, there was quite a flurry in the media, as many people had neither heard of him or read his work – and I confess I fall into that category! However, I’m always keen to widen my horizons when it comes to literature, and so I was very pleased to pick up a copy of his book “The Search Warrant” on one of my recent trips to Foyles.

search

The book’s original French title is “Dora Bruder”, the name of the character who occupies much of the narrative. The author spots a missing ad in an old copy of Paris Soir from 1941, stating that a 15-year-old girl called by that name has gone missing. This was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France and the girl had run away from her convent school in a freezing cold December, and the author, familiar with the area, begins to investigate, trying to find out about Dora and her life and what happened to her. Interspersed with this narrative are vignettes from his life, points where he might have intersected with Dora and people who knew her. The trail widens a little to take in the lives of others living under the Nazis and although the author finds out much about Dora and her fate, he will never know everything.

A short description like that really doesn’t do justice to this slim book, however. Modiano’s writing is superb, slipping between several different points in time, and capturing the harshness and uncertainty of life under Nazi occupation. For of course Dora was Jewish, and therefore her fate becomes somewhat inevitable. In deceptively simple prose, Modiano not only tells Dora’s story but also that of many others who suffered and died until you realise he’s actually making a big point about the brutality and arbitrary horror of the Nazi regime.

I was intrigued, too, to find myself reading another book billed as fiction where it was unclear as to whether the author/narrator is Modiano or a fictional author standing between the author and the reader. I believe that many of Modiano’s fictions have this effect, of the blending of real and imaginary, and an interesting foreword to another collection of his stories quoted him as saying that his novels are “a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed-up or imaginary. Even the photographs of my parents have become portraits of imaginary characters.”

modiano

I find this fascinating, particularly as parts of TSW explore Modiano’s somewhat troubled relationship with his father, who also had problems under Nazi occupation. It may be that Modiano uses his fictions to work out parts of his past, but nevertheless the book is gripping, with its exploration of the past and its speculation on how lives intersect. The final impact of the book is powerful with the realisation of just how many Parisians were affected by the occupation and also how it still seems to touch modern generations. I often have the feeling that the French people are still haunted by the war and the occupation, and certainly it does seem to inform a lot of their modern fiction.

This was a very thought-provoking read, and one I’ve kept returning to long after finishing it. On the strength of this book, I can certainly see why Modiano won the Nobel, and I’ll be interested in reading more of his work.

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