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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….

You can’t go home again…

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Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel

Sometimes a book comes your way at the right time and skips over all those lurking on Mount TBR to make it to the front of the queue – and “Brodeck’s Report” was just one of those books. I first read about Claudel on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and I’ve had “Grey Souls” on the wish list for a while. However, BR was sitting happily in the Oxfam while I browsed and my eye snagged on the author’s name, so it came home with me. The subject matter kind of resonates with what I’ve been reading recently too, so the time was most definitely right.

brodeck

The book opens with a dramatic enough declaration from our narrator, Brodeck himself:

“My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it”

So the intrigue starts from the very beginning of the story, and as Brodeck continues with his story we gradually find out what has happened. The men of his village have murdered a stranger, known as the Anderer (outsider) and Brodeck, being a recorder of plant life and nature in the vicinity, is set the task of recording the events and why they happened. The time is just post WW2; the location is a small village in France just over the border from Germany; so there is obviously a lot of baggage and back story here. The place and location are never given explicitly like much in the book, but there are enough hints given in the book to make this clear.

Brodeck is not a native, having come to the village in his childhood after the first war of the 20th century, in the care of Fedorine who rescued him from the ruins of his birthplace. Gradually, as the book progresses, we find out about his past; how he grew up, studied, met his wife Emelia and how his idyllic life was shattered by the coming of Nazism and the new war.

This is a book where things are not spelled out but implied; Brodeck is a Jew, although this is never stated but we can glean it from a reference to the ‘missing piece of skin between his thighs’. The story continues and whilst telling the tale of the villagers and their actions, Brodeck also tells his own story. And a harsh one it is, as many of his memories revolve around his time in a concentration camp, his survival and his return to the village and his family…

“War is a great broom that sweeps the world. It is where the mediocre triumph and the criminal receives a saint’s halo; people prostrate themselves before him and acclaim him and fawn on him. Why must men find life so gloomy and monotonous that they long for massacre and ruin? I have seen them jump up and down on the edge of the abyss, walk along its crest and look with fascination upon the horror of the void, where the vilest passions hold sway.”

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, as part of the beauty and skill of this novel is the way that the narrative gradually progresses and reveals the past. Claudel’s writing is superlative, carefully building up his narrative, weaving together his story and teasing us with details. Brodeck is a gentle man, motivated by the love of his wife and cared for by the devoted Fedorine. But it’s clear from early in the book that the war has taken its toll not only on him, but on Emelia, Fedorine and also his daughter Poupchette – and the events that caused things to change are gradually detailed in the most beautiful and evocative prose, in a way that is never gratuitous but that is all the same horrifying.

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BR reveals much about the human condition; about mob mentality, about how people behave when they’re threatened, about how they will turn on others and about what they will do to survive. There is a feeling of underlying menace throughout the book, as Brodeck is threatened by those around him, his memories of the past and his knowledge of how low human nature can go. The murder of the Anderer becomes inevitable as he holds a metaphorical (and almost literal!) mirror up to the villagers revealing their hidden, true natures, showing what they’d tried to forget.

“Stupidity is a sickness that goes very well with fear. They nurture each other, creating a gangrene that seeks only to propagate itself.”

The hardest thing about reading this book is that it’s so beautifully written but often the subject matter is almost unbearable, rooted in the psychological effects of occupation and the aftermath of a conflict. It’s full of heartbreaking events and I read it in a state of tension because I knew awful things would happen and almost couldn’t stand to see them. Claudel has created a powerful book which shows the horrors of war and occupation; it also works on deeper levels and I wondered whether Brodeck was meant to represent the general plight of the Jewish race, wandering from place to place, alwaysa  kind of outsider himself. This was a beautiful, painful read and I’m looking forward to reading more of Claudel’s work.

In which “Books are my Bag” reaches Suffolk….

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and a day that starts badly ends up well!

Yes, I have been a tad grumpy lately – mainly because of bad quality second-hand books – and additional grief was caused by the fact that a planned visit to London yesterday to hang around Foyles with J. during Books are my Bag events had to be cancelled owing to OH being a bit poorly.

So I was pleased to find that BAMB was actually going to be celebrated by the local Waterstones branch (although I only heard the night before thanks to an email from Caboodle – nothing was showing up on the BAMB website). I intended to make an early visit in case events started promptly and all the bags went, but things went pear-shaped as we had to make an unintended visit to the local hospital with 92-year old mother-in-law….. Turned out that there was nothing wrong with her and the visit was a false alarm, but I hit town at midday convinced there would be nothing left in Waterstones.

Frankly, if I’m honest, you wouldn’t even know BAMB existed if you looked at the front of the shop. No displays or bags in the window or events or anything. I wandered upstairs to the fiction section and enquired rather feebly about the bags and the guy said “Oh yes!” and opened a plastic bag containing them – apparently I was the *first* person to ask!!

I had a little chat with him and pointed out that a little publicity might help; they didn’t show up as doing anything on the BAMB website and I’d only found out the night before, and that a window display might help (maybe I should be running the branch…) Anyway, what was nice was that, having been given a free bag, I felt inclined to explore the fiction shelves a bit and having dissed the store a few weeks ago, I have to withdraw my comments a little. Despite having moved their fiction into a smaller area, there was actually quite a good selection – particularly of smaller presses which I hadn’t expected. So well done Waterstones, Ipswich for being a little more adventurous with what you stock!

In the end I bought one *brand new* book in honour of the day – to add to the few second-hand volumes I’d found – and this is what came home with me:

The infamous bag – not a Tracy Emin one, but I don’t mind that at all! Plus the new book I bought which is this:

My first Pereine Press book – yes, Waterstones really *do* stock some of the good smaller presses! “Chasing the King of Hearts” chimes in with the kind of stuff I’m reading at the moment, so it was the obvious choice.

As for some of the second-hand bargains, these first two came from the local library old stock shelves, for 40p each:

I’ve picked up a number of decent books this way, and often in better condition than some of the second-hand books I buy online. And for 40p each! I’m determined to read Trollope soon and have heard good things about this. As for Francis Wyndham, I know I’ve read about him on a blog but I can’t remember where. But I will give his short stories a go!

And finally some charity shop finds:

This was from the Oxfam – again I’ve read about Claudel online (I think on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and it sounded intriguing. And last but not least from the Crack On charity shop:

I’d never heard of it but the blurb says it’s a mix of travelogue and family history and I’m intrigued enough to risk 75p on it!

So not a bad day in the end – not the one I had planned, but nevertheless with some lovely bookishness. How did you celebrate Books are my Bag? 🙂

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