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Wisteria and Sunshine – #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Well, after all that fretting and trying to decide, I guess that it’s no surprise that I actually ended up choosing Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Enchanted April” for my Virago Author of the Month read. The weather has been so cold and I was so fed up returning to work after the Easter break that something sunny and lovely was just what I felt like – and I certainly got that here!

Published in 1922, TEA is perhaps the best-known and most read of Arnim’s works and it’s often been adapted for stage, screen and other media. It’s not hard to see why as it’s a delight from start to finish, though I do wonder if the atmosphere and wonderful narrative voice would carry over from the book.

The story begins in a grey February London, where Lotty Wilkins is contemplating escape. Her marriage is a disappointment, her husband Mellersh being stiff and unresponsive, and she dreams of Italy. By chance she spots an advertisement offering a month’s rental of a castle in the country of her dreams; and it seems the ideal time to spend the nest-egg she’s been saving. And a chance encounter with a fellow member of her club, Rose Arbuthnot, sets things in motion.

Rose is also unhappy in her marriage; a pious vicar’s daughter, she has become estranged from her husband Frederick who spends most of his time away from home. Rose is unhappy that he earns a living writing biographies of famous courtesans, and throws herself into good works to compensate for this. However, she too is seduced by the advert and when Lotty realises this she sees a chance for them both to take the castle and have their month of freedom.

The cost, however, is an issue; and so the ladies recruit two others to help pay the bills, in the form of Lady Caroline Dester, a society woman famed for her beauty, and Mrs. Fisher, a grim old widow stuck in the past when she associated with such famous men as Ruskin and Carlyle. The four disparate characters finally manage to arrive in San Salvatore and it is here that the fun begins.

The place and its intense beauty have an immediate effect on Lotty, who perhaps wanted the holiday more than anyone. She positively blossoms, and her reaction to the place affects the others. Rose, too, is enchanted although troubled by the state of her marriage to Frederick. Lady Caroline (reverting to her nickname of Scrap) simply wants to be left alone – her beauty and position are a constant burden to her and she lives in terror of being ‘grabbed’ by everyone who wants her attention. As for Mrs. Fisher, it’s hard to see at first what motivates her although even she will be changed by the location.

Complexities occur in the form of husbands: Lotty invites hers to join them as she cannot bear to enjoy all this beauty without her partner to share it with. Rose wants to do the same but is tormented by the realisation that he finds her a bore. Scrap wants nothing to do with love, being sick of being fawned upon by every man she meets. And Mrs. Fisher thinks all this talk of husbands improper. However, thrown into the mix are the solitary Mr. Briggs, owner of San Salvatore, who turns up in pursuit of one woman only to be thrown off-balance. And who is this mysterious old friend of Scrap’s that suddenly appears?

Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is lovely and occasionally unexpected. I’m not going to reveal anything (although I have to say that I raced through the book, desperate to find out how things would be resolved), but I will say that each woman comes to Italy to escape from her current life, and each finds what she needs there.

“The Enchanted April” really lives up to its name – it *is* utterly enchanting. I loved each of the characters – from Lotty’s visionary dreaming through Rose’s moral crises, Scrap’s inability to appear anything but lovely and pleasant, and Mrs. Fisher’s testy reliance on the past, each is individual and wonderfully defined. Even the supporting characters are lovely, and the setting is of course glorious – Arnim’s descriptions of the scenery were delicious and wafted me away from cold every day England to a beautiful setting, dripping with my favourite wisteria. They were so vivid that I was filled with an urge to set of for Italy immediately myself.

It would be easy for a book like this to slip into romance territory, but fortunately it’s saved from becoming too saccharine by a number of elements. Firstly, there is Arnim’s trademark humour; the other books of hers I’ve read have been full of wonderful dry wit, and this is no exception. The description of Mellersh’s first encounter with Italian plumbing, for example, is just priceless.

Secondly, there is of course a more serious undercurrent to the book; the theme of loneliness is never far away from the surface. Lotty and Rose are both lonely within their marriage; Scrap has kept herself whirling around in a frantic haze of society simply to hide up the hollowness of her life; and Mrs. Fisher hides from the coldness and lack of love by burying herself in the past.

Arnim in 1920 courtesy elizabethvonarnim.wordpress.com

Arnim is particularly good on the reasons why a marriage can go wrong: from the grinding repetitiveness and the petty disagreements that flare up from living close to someone, to the growing apart and the becoming bored with the same person, it’s clear that she feels the women need something to revitalise their relationships. It turns out to be the change of scene and the break from the everyday that allows them to become themselves again, thereby jump starting their marriages. And in the case of Scrap, she’s allowed the space to think, to look at her life and to see what’s missing and what she really wants from it.

It’s also clear that Arnim believes that our surroundings are vitally important to the people we are; and I suppose that was part of the charm of her “Elizabeth…” books, as the main character spent much time in her beautiful garden, so crucial to her peace of mind. Certainly, the book cleverly exposes the difference location makes to Lotty and Rose; initially they seem like two ordinary, dull married women, but once they are in San Salvatore and we see them through the eyes of the Italian servants, we have to adjust our perspectives as it’s clear that they are in fact beautiful young women.

There are no doubt criticisms that could be levelled at “The Enchanted April”: for a start, it’s not exactly feminist and Arnim seems to think that the love of a good man is the solution to everything. There’s never any idea that they can live a fulfilled life without that relationship, and in fact Rose’s constant attempt to make her own way by doing good work is rather mocked in the book. Also, the class element is unavoidable; even though Lotty and Rose are not rich, they certainly can afford servants and the distinction between the guests and those serving at the castle is clear.

Nevertheless, this was a joyous and uplifting read; Jacqui compared it to “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” in her excellent review here, and it certainly has a similar fairy-tale quality to it. If I’m honest, and I had to choose, I think “Miss Pettigrew” might just pip “The Enchanted April” to the post (although the former has no wisteria, which is a disadvantage…) We don’t all have the luxury of a month away in the sun to discover or rediscover our real selves – but oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful!

The ultimate ‘locked room’ mystery?

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He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

I so much enjoyed my read of JDC’s “The Hollow Man” recently that when The Reader is Warned commented and recommended his book “He Who Whispers” I just couldn’t resist tracking down a copy – and a very battered little old green Penguin it is too! Like many readers, I find classic crime a wonderful palate cleanser between books and so I picked this one up after reading a big book for Shiny New Books – yes, I know I’m meant to be reading Elisabeth Von Arnim for April, and hopefully I’ll get there soon! 🙂

“The Hollow Man” was published in 1935; “He Who Whispers” is a later volume from 1946 and as the book opens we are firmly in London just after the end of the war. Our main protagonist, Miles Hammond, is making his way through a bomb-scarred London to an evening gathering of the Murder Club, and he finds himself still adjusting to the fact that the conflict is over. The location – around Shaftesbury Avenue, Dean Street, Soho – is familiar to anyone who haunts the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, but the landscape has been fragmented by the war and Miles (and the reader!) are unsettled by it. The Murder Club (presumably a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Detection Club) are normally very secretive, but Miles and a young woman, Barbara Morell, have been specially invited to hear Professor Rigaud tell the story of an impossible crime (a variant on the locked room mystery where the action doesn’t take place in a locked room but is equally impossible and unsolvable); while in France, he got to know the English Brooke family who were living locally. All seemed calm and happy with the family until the arrival of Fay Seton, a new secretary for father Brooke. Young Harry Brooke, the doted-upon only son of the family, soon fell in love with Fay and they were to be married; however, terrible rumours circulated about Fay and Mr. Brooke received anonymous letters. Determined to break off the relationship, he arranged to meet Fay on top of a local tower (part of a ruined château) and pay her off; however, he was murdered and the money disappeared.

The murder, however, is not straightforward: Mr. Brooke was on top of the tower alone; Rigaud saw his son leave the tower and Brooke was still alive; as Rigaud was leaving a family arrived for a picnic and it was the children of this family that discovered Brooke senior murdered on top of the tower – stabbed in the back. Talk abounds of the supernatural and vampires; accusations are made about Fay; and a crisis is reached as it is revealed that the new librarian Miles has employed to help him sort out his late uncle’s vast library in his country house of Greywood is none other than Fay Seton… As Miles and his sister set off to the country with Fay, there are many questions to be answered: why is Barbara Morell so interested in the case? Who is Jim Morrell? Why is Rigaud convinced the supernatural is involved? And who *did* kill Mr. Brooke? Fortunately, Rigaud is friendly with Doctor Gideon Fell, Honorary Secretary of the Murder Club, and it will take all of Fell’s genius to unravel the case.

“He Who Whispers” was, of course, a wonderful read and I can see why it’s ranked so highly amongst JDC’s books. His scene setting is just brilliant: he captures the atmosphere in France where the family tensions of the Brookes come to a head and the murder takes place; the sense of doom and disaster that surrounds Fay Seton; the genuine sense of creeping menace at Greywood as a dramatic murder attempt occurs; and the shocking twists and turns in the narrative as Miles’ perceptions (and ours!) are challenged, twisted and turned upside down! The solution was one that I never saw coming, and there were some surprisingly dark and complex strands to the behaviour of the characters, and perhaps an unexpected explanation to the reason why Fay ended up with the reputation she had.

A criticism often levelled at Golden Age crime is that there is limited depth of character and development but I didn’t find that the case here. The protagonists in “He Who Whispers” are more than just props to hang a puzzle on; their motivations are crucial to what happens and their actions believable in the context of their lives and the plot. The psychology of the crime is a recurring theme of discussion throughout the book and vital to the detection of the solution. Carr very cleverly shows, too, just how easy it is to misunderstand someone, or to misread their real personality; he also shows how easy it is for the reader of a detective novel to simply accept what the various characters tell them without questioning it, only to have those perceptions turned upside down later on in the book!

So another wonderful classic crime book to add to my collection – I’m trying to resist the temptation to start tracking down more of JDC’s books. And yet again, I stayed up much too late reading this book – truly, Golden Age crime novels, and particularly John Dickson Carr ones, are not good for my sleeping habits…

A Poetic Interlude

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Sentenced to Life by Clive James

One of the few books I’ve bought recently is this lovely collection of poetry by Clive James – “Sentenced to Life”. I wrote about his book “Latest Readings” back in 2015, and as I said at the time, James is someone whose been around most of my life, broadcasting and writing, and I’ve always enjoyed his work. However it was only recently that I became aware that he wrote poetry, when I watched a documentary about James, and I liked what I heard him read in the programme – so I was pleased to come across this book in the local Oxfam and I picked it up surprisingly quickly bearing in mind the state of the TBR… And after the intensity of all the 1951 reading and posting, it was lovely to dip into some verse in a relaxed way – the ideal companion to a bigger, non-fiction book I was reading.

Poetry is a tricky thing, and I’ve struggled with reading it in the past. There’s a danger of trying to read too much, too quickly, or of encountering verse that really goes over your head. With this book, however, I had no problems at all; it was one of most memorable poetry collections I’ve read in some time, and pretty much every poem spoke to me in one way or another.

James has, of course, been terminally ill for some time, and this knowledge of his condition is reflected in all the poems and also informs each one. It would be tempting therefore to expect a book of depressing verses, but that isn’t the case; yes, the poems are suffused with a kind of melancholy and resignation in places, but they’re also very life affirming and surprisingly positive in places. As James reflects on his life and the good times he had, he’s grateful for what he has left, taking pleasures in the simple things around him.

And what appears on the surface to be simple, easy to read poetry is, I suspect, more complex in structure than you might imagine. I’m remarkably ignorant of the technicalities of poetic structure, but these verses seemed to me to be very cleverly put together; I imagine making a poem easy to read without seeming facile is perhaps a lot harder than might often be acknowledged.

Author photo from slate.com

There are some really lovely poems here, and I was left with admiration for James’ many talents and sadness that he should be taking his leave of us some time in the not so distant future (although I believe he is having something of a charmed life at the moment, owing to new treatment, and is still writing a regular newspaper column – which is great news). One of the poems in the collection, “Japanese Maple”, has become justly famous and it is a very powerful piece. However, I thought I would share some lines from another one which took my fancy – “Event Horizon”. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough and very pleasingly I read that he continues to write poetry and a new book will be out soon –  more power to his pen!

But once inside, you will have no regrets.
You go where no one will remember you.
You go below the sun when the sun sets,
And there is nobody you ever knew
Still visible, nor even the most rare
Hint of a face to humanise nowhere.

Are you welcome to this? It welcomes you.
The only blessing of the void to come
Is that you can relax. Nothing to do,
No cruel dreams of subtracting from your sum
Of follies. About those, at last, you care:
But soon you need not, as you go nowhere.

And the winning year is……

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…1968!

Those of you who follow Simon’s blog (and that’s all of you, I hope!) will have seen that he’s been busily totting up the votes for a year in the 1960s and announced that, by a narrow margin, 1968 was the most popular – so the next reading week will be the 1968 Club, running from 23rd to 29th October 2017.

I wasn’t fretting too much about which year came out on top, and I confess I was more concerned about whether Simon would be happy, as I always feel his comfort zone is earlier in the century. However, when I had a first look at the books listed online for 1968, there were only a few titles that sprang out initially. But I did a little more research, and began digging around in the stacks, and not only does there look like a surprisingly wide range of titles available from the year in question, but I also seem to have read quite a lot from 1968!

Here is a tantalising hint of some of the books I may be tackling… Although as this is six months down the line, who knows what I’ll actually want to read at the time? Whatever is chosen, I do hope as many as possible of you will join in. So put the date in your diary, do a little research amongst your own books, and read up a bit in advance if you want to – roll on the #1968club! 🙂

A Review for Shiny – reinventing some Soviet authors!

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll be aware of my love of every kind of Russian literature; and also of my great fondness from the marvellous Mikhail Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita” amongst others.

So it was a given that I’d be keen on reading a new book from Europa Editions, “Mikhail and Margarita” by Julie Lekstrom Himes, which takes the lives of Bulgakov and his fellow author Mandelstam and constructs a fascinating fantasia, creating an alternative version of their lives which draws in Bulgakov’s great work.

The book is not without its flaws, but it captures marvellously the tense atmosphere of being an artist living under a totalitarian regime – and you can read my full review over on Shiny New Books here!

#1951Club – phew, what a week it’s been! :)

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Well, what a wonderful week of reading we’ve all had with the #1951Club! These reading events (so cleverly devised by Simon) seem to go from strength to strength, and I can’t get over how many titles keep popping up that I wasn’t aware were from the year in question!

I started the week with plans and possibilities and of course went off on several tangents, but I’ve read some really wonderful books. Alas, I didn’t get to all of the ones I wanted, and some of the longer ones and re-reads went by the by. However, there were some fabulous crime reads, as well as some humour from Queneau, some serious stuff from Serge and some darker material from Durrenmatt. So another enjoyable club read!

This week’s reads (Gladys was from the library and Serge is a e-book!)

Simon suggested that we should cast around for suggestions for the next reading week, and we will be looking to pick a year in the 1960s. So if you have any suggestions of a particularly good year, do comment here or on Simon’s blog so we can see what people are keen on and pick a year with some great reads!

I’ll continue to link to posts people point me at on my 1951 Club page here, so please comment and let me know if you’ve posted and I haven’t seen it! Thanks to all for joining in, and here’s to the next club! 🙂

A life spent fighting for a cause #1951Club

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Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Translated by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis
Glossary and Notes by Richard Greeman
Foreword by Adam Hochschild

My final read for the #1951club is very different from the others; instead of fiction (mainly crime!), it’s an autobiographical work by the author and revolutionary Victor Serge. I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before, covering several of his fictions which I’ve absolutely loved. This book, however, is Serge’s account of his own life, one spent fighting for a cause, and it’s absolutely fascinating. The book is a long one, only completed last night, and it’s left me with much food for thought.

Serge was what you might call a professional revolutionary; born in Belgium to a family of émigré dissidents, it was inevitable that he would grow up following their example, and after his parents split up when he was 15 he was pretty much on his own, joining a socialist group but later being drawn to anarchism. He led a peripatetic life with spells in prison and exile, living in countries from France, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Austria and of course Russia – his spiritual home and the place he eagerly travelled to when the 1917 Revolution took place. He joined the Bolsheviks, having become a little disillusioned with anarchism, and somehow survived the awful conditions of the civil war.

However, Serge’s initial enthusiasm for the new regime was tempered with concern about the turn it was taking. He disagreed with the harshness of those now in power, recognising early that things were moving away from the purity of the initial beliefs and becoming mired in bureaucracy. He was also quick to realise that the Secret Police were corrupt and uncontrolled and that an atmosphere of mistrust and toeing the party line was developing. Bravely, he continued to speak his mind and disagree with those in power, and frankly I found myself often wondering how it was he made it through these times alive.

Serge spent time overseas on foreign missions, trying to help the Communist organisations in other countries bring about revolution. However, his outspoken views and the fact that he aligned himself with Trotsky meant that inevitably his life in Russia was coming to an end. He was constantly monitored, his family harassed and he was exiled to Orenburg for some time in the early 1930s. As the terror in Russia expanded, overseas contacts agitated for his release and he managed to escape with his wife and child to Belgium and then France. Serge then fled Occupied France and the final chapter has him in Mexico pondering on the future; however, I know enough about his life to be aware that he  would spend the final few years of his life there, and there is a short coda about his death from his son Vladimir.

Serge never hesitated to speak his mind, and he could see the flaws of Soviet Russia while other left-wing groups and organisations were in denial. A communist who criticised the communist regime, he was welcome in neither the east nor the west, viewed with suspicion by both sides.  And as Trotsky became more and more of an outcast, Serge was tarred with the same brush and became a marginalised figure.

“Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a long and involving book, and makes fascinating reading. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and the mistrust that was felt between east and west, but the portrayal of the differences earlier in the 20th century is stark. Communism really was seen as a threat to the western world and like Trotsky, Serge became a stateless exile, hounded from country to country but unable to find a place to live and work.

Parts of the book are by necessity a tragic litany of imprisonment, interrogation, torture and death as, one after another, friends, colleagues and fellow fighters of Serge meet their end from the Party hierarchy. It’s quite chilling to see inside the network of betrayal and mistrust, the constant need to be alert because you’re being followed by enemies and agents, and the defences needed against friendship and intimacy as anyone you meet is a potential assassin.

The book is full of vivid pen portraits of all the historical figures Serge knew and encountered, and it often seems if he is trying to record them for posterity. A constant presence running through the book is The Old Man, Trotsky, to whom Serge’s loyalty never falters even when he disagrees with the elder’s current beliefs.

We were entering a world frozen to death. The Finland station, glittering with snow, was deserted. The square where Lenin had addressed a crowd from the top o f an armored car was no more than a white desert surrounded by dead houses. The broad, straight thoroughfares, the bridges astride the Neva, now a river of snowy ice, seemed to belong to an abandoned city; first a gaunt soldier in a gray greatcoat, then after a long time a woman freezing under her shawls, went past like phantoms in an oblivious silence.

There is some beautiful, evocative writing – Serge can capture place or person deftly in a few lines – and although he keeps bringing himself back to the point, i.e. writing about his life within the revolutionary conflict, the author in him can’t help creeping out. As the introduction points out, Serge was not a writer who could spend hours crafting his prose, returning to it and honing it; he was composing on the run, always pursued by enemies, and this does give his work an immediacy and a vibrancy – I do feel he was a born writer.

Be warned though that this *is* a book with plenty of politics. Although Serge writes wonderfully, and can capture up a place and its atmosphere in a paragraph, at the heart of his narrative is the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party and its betrayal by the post-Revolutionary events. This is a book from 1951 (published posthumously) with depth and historical perspective and it makes fascinating reading; I’m glad I was spurred on to pick it up – it’s a real glimpse into a totalitarian past that has echoes in our modern world.

A late OuLiPan entrant…. #1951club

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The Sunday of Life by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

However much I plan my reading for one of our club weeks, it never quite turns out how I expected it… After wallowing in some wonderful crime books, I didn’t really fancy picking up another one, nor getting into something as long as “Forbidden Colours” or “Log from the Sea of Cortez”. So I started digging around in the stacks to see if I could find anything else from 1951 and I stumbled across this title. Some online sources state the publication date as 1952, but the book itself clearly says 1951 – so that’s good enough for me!

Queneau is a writer I’ve covered before, reviewing his “Exercises in Style” here. That was a rather clever collection of pieces (as you might expect from the OuLiPo literary group) but not really a novel as such. However, “The Sunday of Life” takes a more traditional structure, telling the unusual tale of Valentin Bru and his wife Julie/Julia. The book is set in the 1930s, and Bru is a soldier coming to the end of his term in the army. A young man in his twenties, he attracts the attention of Julie Segovia, owner of a haberdashery shop he walks past regularly. Although considerably older than him, Julia has set her sights on the young soldier and sends her sister Chantal off to find out more about him (which she does, by sleeping with a superior officer!) Bru seems a vague young man, with no real aim in life, and finds himself persuaded to marry an older lady with a decent income, and this he does in due course. However, Julia’s brother-in-law Paul, Chantal’s husband, is not happy as they had lined up their teenage daughter Marinette (who never actually appears in the book, but is constantly referred to in unflattering terms!) to inherit from Julie in due course. There is plenty of family discord going on, although the two sisters do seem attached, and the wedding proceeds with Bru taking a rather ramshackle honeymoon on his own, getting lost in Paris on the way.

Things get stranger, however, as the story progresses. Bru converts the shop and becomes a purveyor of photo frames; he makes friends with all the locals and becomes someone they come to confide their secrets in; Julia seems to develop a kind of clairvoyance just around the same time that a local medium sets up shop; and meanwhile war seems to be brewing in Europe. Paul changes his job and Valentin is re-enlisted in the army, which doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Julie has a health malfunction, and Valentin is sent off to a posting where he tries to become a saint! Let’s face it, their lives really aren’t dull!

“The Sunday of Life” was a real lift in many ways after some of the darker elements of books I’ve read this week; it’s full of wonderful sparkling wordplay and larger than life characters. Puns abound (as well as plenty of very bad language!); and the names of characters are constantly changing, particularly that of Julia and the surname of Paul and Chantal, which often vary from paragraph to paragraph! I could try to quote you some choice parts but I doubt they would work out of context and there are so many it would be hard to choose. I have to say, though, that the translator comes in for some high praise for me, because it must have been very hard to take the work in French and convey the wordplay in a different language!

Underneath all this, of course, are some more serious matters. The war continues to loom larger as the book progresses, and ironically Paul does very well out of it, taking up a business making firearms. Valentin, who is something of an innocent, narrowly avoids many scrapes and seems to live a charmed life. The whole fortune-telling plot seems to be making a point about people’s willingness to be deceived, particularly about the forthcoming conflict – the discussion of, and questioning about, whether there will be a war is a constant thread through the story. There’s also much consideration of the passing of time, with one section particularly focusing on Bru’s relationship with the clock over the road and attempting to capture each minute as it passes. And perhaps that’s the point of the book, to show how people pass their time in life!

The days that pass, which turn into the time that passes, are neither lovely nor hideous, but always the same. Perhaps it rains for a few seconds sometimes, or the four-o’clock sun holds time back for a few minutes like rearing horses. Perhaps the past doesn’t always preserve the beautiful order that clocks give to the present, and perhaps the future is rushing up in disorder, each moment tripping over itself, to be the first to slice itself up. And perhaps there is a charm or horror, grace or abjection, in the convulsive movements of what is going to be and of what has been. But Valentin has never take any pleasure in these suppositions. He still didn’t know enough about the subject. He wanted to be content with an identity nicely chipped into pieces of varying lengths, but whose character was always similar, without dyeing it in autumnal colours, drenching it in April showers or mottling it with the instability of clouds.

I imagine that there are many clever subtexts going on in the book (I’ve read that it’s very Hegelian, but since I’ve never read Hegel I couldn’t comment). Whether or not that’s the case, “The Sunday of Life” is a witty, often slapstick read with a wonderful array of entertaining characters and funny situations, which nevertheless leaves you thinking about what it was trying to say for quite a while after. I’m rather glad I stumbled upon this one as a late entrant for the #1951club as it turned out to be a real joy and another brilliant read for the week!

(Have to add kudos to this old Alma Classic for crediting the translator Barbara Wright on the cover!)

Thrills and spills in a lost world – #1951club

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They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

The author who’s been a constant in most of my reading life is Agatha Christie; I first read her in my teens, collected all her books, and every return visit I’ve made to her work has been a delight. So the first thing I do when we decide upon a year for a ‘club’ is to see which titles of hers were published then, and as she was so prolific there’s usually something I can read! 1951 is no exception, as it saw the publication of her thriller, “They Came to Baghdad” – and what a marvellous read it turned out to be!

A 1980s cover that has nothing to do with the book…

I reckon I’ve read most, if not all, Christie titles, but with the thrillers I’m never quite sure. The latter (and indeed her other crime books) have tended to be overshadowed by her Marple and Poirot oeuvre, which is a great shame, particularly on the evidence of this book. I started “Baghdad” with absolutely no memory of it and no real knowledge of the plot but it took no time at all for me to be completely sucked in to Christie’s wonderful narrative and storytelling powers.

“Baghdad” has a far-ranging plot and features a large cast of characters. Central to the plot, and the heroine of our story, is a young woman called Victoria Jones. An inveterate liar, constantly making mendacious claims to liven up her life or get her another job, as the story opens she’s been sacked yet again. Running into a personable young man, Edward, she’s annoyed to find he’s off to work in Baghdad the next day, and determines to follow him out there despite having only a few pounds to her name. Miraculously, a job materialises the next day and she sets off as a companion to an American lady with a broken arm.

Meanwhile, while Victoria sets off on her adventure, the world has much trouble brewing. A number of other interested parties seem to be converging on Baghdad, and there are even hints that world leaders such as The President and Uncle Joe, will make it to the city. Initially, it isn’t clear who is on which side, although a man called Dakin and his sidekick Crosbie appear to be on the side of the angels. Then there is the great explorer Sir Rupert Crofton Lee, whose role seems ambiguous; Anna Scheele, who seems to have an air of the Mata Hari about her; and Carmichael, an undercover man vital to world security.

To go into the plot in any more detail would probably take as long as the book, and spoil it too. Suffice to say that Victoria has many adventures, from getting a job in Baghdad, being kidnapped and imprisoned, trying to rescue spies, getting roped in by the forces of good and even having a stint in the desert as a fake archaeologist (one of her various aliases is the niece of the famous Dr. Pauncefoot Jones, a recurring character on everyone’s lips who eventually appears). The plot is twisty and turny, full of action and red herrings, hugely enjoyable and very, very entertaining.

Agatha Christie in Syria in the late 1930s

Christie is sometimes condemned as lightweight, but there is an underlying theme of seriousness here that shouldn’t be ignored. 1951 was a year when there were plenty of tensions in the world; the post-War euphoria and sense of rapprochement between East and West at the defeat of Hitler had died down, the Iron Curtain was well and truly in place, and the arms race was seen as a growing threat to the world. Christie was obviously aware of the global situation and has the two sides going for a cautious approach to rapport which is threatened by a third party. It was obviously something she felt strongly about, having lived through two World Wars, and she has the likeable Dakin say at one point:

The delusion that by force you can impose the Millennium on the human race is one of the most dangerous delusions in existence. Those who are out only to line their own pockets can do little harm – mere greed defeats its own ends. But the belief in a superstratum of human beings – in Supermen to rule the rest of the decadent world – that, Victoria, is the most evil of all beliefs. For when you say, “I am not as other men” – you have lost the two most valuable qualities we have ever tried to attain: humility and brotherhood.

The moral message aside, there is so much to love in “They Came to Baghdad”. Christie knows how to pace her book and tell a story, and I ended up staying up much too late to finish it. Her characters are believable and the switch in one particular person’s behaviour entirely convincing; there’s humour too, and some beautiful descriptions which give a strong sense of place.

Victoria, breathing in hot choking yellow dust, was unfavourably impressed by Baghdad. From the Airport to the Tio Hotel, her ears had been assailed by continuous and incessant noise. Horns of cars blaring with maddening persistence, voices shouting, whistles blowing, then more deafening senseless blaring of motor horns. Added to the loud incessant noises of the street was a small thin trickle of continuous noise which was Mrs. Hamilton Clipp talking.

A love of archaeology shows in her descriptions of Victoria helping out and developing a fascination with ancient history; this speaks eloquently of Christie’s own life and her involvement in the expeditions of her husband, Max Mallowan. But one of the strongest elements which came through in my reading of this was the sense of a lost past and a missing landscape; the setting for the story, described and evoked so beautifully by Christie, has no doubt been changed beyond recognition because of war and conflict and this added an extra poignancy to the book.

Surely those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered, not these Angels with wicked faces who wanted to make a new world and who didn’t care whom they hurt to do it.  

You could, if you chose to, criticise the book I suppose; the plot is probably a little fantastic, Victoria’s escapades unlikely for a girl of her background, and there is the occasional mild racial stereotype. But these are tiny little things when set against the sweep of the story, the cleverness of the writing and the plot, and the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. Christie’s love for the area shines through, her sympathy for and empathy with the people and their way of life is evident, and her desire for a tolerant, kinder world is clear. We could do a lot worse nowadays to take that message on board; but in the meantime, if you want an enjoyable, entertaining thriller, set in an evocative lost landscape, you need look no further than “They Came to Baghdad” – wonderful book!

A Dark Tale of Vengeance #1951club

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The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Translated by – alas, I cannot tell you because the silly book doesn’t credit them!!

When I was planning what to read this week, it did appear that there was a danger I’d read nothing but vintage crime fiction (which isn’t in itself a bad thing). One the surface, this book might seem to fall into that category, but rest assured – “The Quarry” is no simple detective novel.

Friedrich Durrenmatt is an author I’ve read once before, in the form of his novel “The Judge and his Hangman”; I have a battered old green Penguin I read some years back and I don’t remember a lot about it, apart from the fact that it was quite dark. However, I picked up this Picador volume collecting his 5 novels last year having read about the second book on Jacqui and Grant’s blogs, and as it was published in 1951 it was ideal for the reading week.

Durrenmatt was a Swiss author, and perhaps initially known more as a dramatist, although it’s his novels that have come to us in translation. The story here, translated as “The Quarry” although it’s also been published under what Marina Sofia tells me is the more literal translation of “Suspicion” is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in “Judge”), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in Zürich.

It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.

…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.

“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.

I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated. So a slight variation to the crime books I’ve read so far this week, and it’s interesting to see 1951 from the viewpoint of writers from different countries – and there may well be other nationalities turning up later in the week.

There are excellent reviews of the book by Grant, Jacqui and Marina Sofia which you can check out.

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