No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017/36: Our Game -- John le Carré

‘Such an inconsistent man you are. One minute you are looking for Emma, the next you are looking for your friend. You know what? I don’t think you wish to find your friend, only to become him. ’[loc. 4325]
Tim Cranmer, retired 'civil servant', receives a visit late one Sunday night: his friend -- or associate -- Dr Lawrence Pettifer has gone missing, and the police wonder if Cranmer can help with their enquiries.

Cranmer, of course, is not the middle-aged Treasury economist turned winemaker that he seems. And Larry is not simply an eccentric lecturer in Global Security. They are former intelligence operatives, bound closer than friendship by secrets and loyalties -- and by their shared regard for Emma, Cranmer's girlfriend, who is a composer.

Panicked, Cranmer heads to London to meet with his former employers, and learns that Larry has been up to no good. But is he still alive? And where is Emma? Cranmer, finding himself as suspect as Larry, sets out to discover what Larry has really been up to.

Cranmer does not seem to be wholly sure of his own emotions; or perhaps the habit of secrecy is so engrained that even in this first-person, non-sequential narrative, he won't admit to them. I'm not sure I'd call him a likeable character, but his competence -- wonderfully contrasted with his mental turmoil, which sometimes seems tinged with hysteria -- is fascinating.

On first reading, I thought this was Larry's story: but I wonder now if it's the story of Tim Cranmer finding new purpose after being severed from the career that gave him meaning. Not at all the ending I expected, but a very satisfactory conclusion.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

2017/35: Paradise Lost: The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance -- Giles Milton

When the screams from the distant quayside grew too loud to be ignored, the captain ordered the ship’s band to strike up tunes.

This is not a cheerful book: but it is fascinating, brilliantly written, cautionary and informative. Giles Milton examines life in Smyrna before and during The Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. Milton's especially good at picking out individuals who illustrate aspects of life in his chosen milieu: the first part of Paradise Lost focusses on the (mostly American) Levantines who made their homes in Smyrna because of the cosmopolitan, tolerant, mercantile nature of the city. Many of them seem to have been unusually benevolent employers: when the inhabitants of one village fled, fearing invasion, Edmund Giraud watered, harvested and sold their crops, and sent the proceeds to the displaced farmers.

The city -- populated by almost as many Greeks as Turks, together with Armenians, Jews, and Europeans -- remained relatively unscathed by World War One. Smyrna's Ottoman governor, Rahmi Bey, seems to have been instrumental in fending off the more bellicose initiatives of the Ottoman Empire: he even attempted to strike 'a private truce between Smyrna and the British government, offering to withdraw his city from the war in order to safeguard its numerous different minorities'. Sadly, the British were vehemently opposed to the Ottoman Empire -- who were allies of Germany -- and refused.

After the end of the First World War, Greece invaded: and three years later, the Greco-Turkish War was effectively ended by the Turkish army regaining control of Smyrna. Subsequently -- according to Milton's book -- the Turks set fire to much of the city, driving Greeks and Armenians to the quayside, where they remained trapped for three weeks; many were murdered, many more died, and most of the men were marched away to the interior. Although there were many Allied battleships in the harbour, all seem to have been under orders not to intervene (though, unsurprisingly, the wealthy Levantines were able to seek sanctuary on one ship or another). Hero of the hour: Asa Jennings, an unprepossessing American missionary, who commandeered a flotilla of (mostly Greek) ships and oversaw the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from the quayside. '‘All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.’ Asa Jennings had been appointed an admiral of the Greek navy. '

After reading Paradise Lost, I realised that I'd read fictionalised accounts of -- or at least references to -- the fall of Smyrna in various novels, for example Middlesex (Eugenides) and Birds Without Wings (de Bernieres). None of those moved me, or engaged me, or enraged me to the extent that Milton's book did. Part of the success of this book, for me, was that Milton focussed on a relatively neutral group rather than either Greek or Turkish factions; part is his excellent pacing, alternating charming, and often quite gossipy, vignettes with examinations of the political situation. Milton is good at fleshing out historical characters, and merciless when describing the failings of politicians.

A note of caution: I read Paradise Lost on Kindle, and then went hunting on the Internet for illustrations and maps. It took me a couple of days to realise that the paperback is lavishly illustrated with photos, maps etc: I swiftly returned my Kindle book for refund, and bought a dead-tree version.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

2017/34: The Little Stranger -- Sarah Waters

Arriving at that crumbling red house, I’d have the sense, every time, that ordinary life had fractionally tilted, and that I had slipped into some other, odder, rather rarer realm. [loc. 1151]
Set in post-war rural Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel that echoes with inequality: sexism, social class, family secrets and a creeping sense of horror. Everyone in this novel is scared of something, but most of them won't (or can't) put a name to their fear. For Dr Faraday -- I don't believe his forename is ever revealed -- it's the imminent National Health Service, which he fears will destroy his practice. For the once-wealthy Ayres family -- Mrs Ayres and her two grown children, who live at isolated Hundreds Hall with their few remaining servants -- it's the Labour government that's taxing rural landowners into penury. But those are fears that can be spoken of, and laughed about. There are others.

Dr Faraday is a working-class lad made good, though he has a chip on his shoulder and a constant sense of not quite belonging. His friendship with the Ayres family -- and especially with Caroline -- give him glimpses of a different world, and the reclusive family who inhabit the crumbling ruins of a bygone age. He's keen to suggest experimental treatments for Roderick Ayres, who is scarred, physically and mentally, by his wartime experiences. Rod is an amiable sort, joking about the servants getting better treatment than the family -- though he seems to be struggling with the management of the estate. Rod's sister Caroline seems cheerful and competent, devoted to her elderly Labrador Gyp: she and Faraday become good friends.

But Rod himself is becoming increasingly distressed -- he talks of keeping something at bay, and recounts an outlandish tale of an evil presence -- so Dr Faraday, diagnosing nervous illness, arranges for his removal to a nursing home. Once Rod is out of the picture, the Ayres women turn to Faraday for help and support -- and, on Caroline's part, perhaps more.

There is a delicious creeping sense of horror here: nothing quite glimpsed or explained. Faraday's first-person narrative reveals more than he knows: his insistence on rational explanations and psychoanalytic theory blinds him to much of what is happening. Waters' descriptions are precise, as though she's viewing each scene through a magnifying-glass and picking out the details one might not notice: the dirt on each hair on the bare leg of a young woman, a drop of blood on a silk blouse. Throughout the novel there's a sense of disrepair, decay, things that are stained or marked or charred.

I should read more Waters ...

Sunday, April 02, 2017

2017/33: Crocodile on the Sandbank -- Elizabeth Peters

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women. [loc. 2586]

Amelia Peabody, brought up in a house full of books and antiquities, has come into a substantial inheritance and decides to use it to fund her travels. Her chosen travelling companion falls ill, but fortuitously she encounters distressed gentlewoman Evelyn Barton-Forbes, abandoned and destitute in Rome, and the two quickly become friends. They journey to Egypt, where Amelia develops a passion for pyramids and encounters irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his rather more amiable brother Walter. The Emersons are determined to uncover the secrets of Amarna, Akhenaten's capital, and Amelia and Evelyn become involved in the excavation.

All would be idyllic were it not for the sudden appearance of Evelyn's cousin Lucas (who wants to marry Evelyn) and an apparition of a mummy (which may also be interested in Evelyn). Fearing for her friend -- and exasperated by, well, pretty much everything -- Amelia sets out to solve the mystery of the mummy, and get to the bottom of Lucas's story.

This was great fun: it's always nice to discover a likeable series, and know that there are plenty of further adventures awaiting the characters. (I believe the Amelia Peabody series is now up to twenty volumes.) Amelia is a rational and somewhat domineering female, and Emerson an excellent foil for her. The setting -- Victorian Egypt, without the racism of Victorian novels set there -- is intriguing. I did find the plot predictable in places, and I'd like to read the alternate history in which Amelia and Evelyn 'could have lived like sisters, enjoying the domestic comforts of England, and travelling whenever we got bored with domesticity'. But overall, most enjoyable.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

2017/32: Ace, King, Knave -- Maria McCann

She begins to comprehend the mentality of such people. One need not be especially clever, and certainly not well educated. The essential thing is to conduct one’s life as war: everything is permitted except compassion. [loc. 5102]

London in the 1760s: or 'Romeville', to the 99% who don't inhabit the clean well-lit civilised world of the gentry. Betsy-Ann Blore is living with a man she despises, having been won by him in a card game with her former lover, the charmingly rakish Ned Hartry. She was once a common prostitute (ensnared by Ned's mother Kitty), but now scrapes a living by thieving and card-sharping. Her brother (the brutish Harry) is a resurrectionist, digging up fresh corpses to sell to anatomists. Betsy-Ann worries that her current fellow, Sam Shiner, will join Harry in his nocturnal adventures.

Sophia Buller, only child of wealthy parents, is newly married to Edmund Zedland, whose business affairs are opaque to Sophia but clearly very lucrative. Why won't he trust her with any of his secrets? And why does his servant, the black boy Titus, seem to hate her? And why do her parents reply so vaguely to her letters?

Sophia's life is lonely, and genteel. Betsy-Ann's quite the opposite, a narrative replete with slang and double-dealing. In Betsy-Ann's world, cruelty is a constant, especially cruelty to -- and by -- women. (The men, in this novel, seem almost peripheral: on the whole they are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or dishonest and violent.)

Sophia and Betsy -- and Titus, whose name is actually Fortunate and who was brought from (or bought in) Annapolis to serve Mr Zedland -- discover how their fates are entwined, and how each of them is the victim of deception. Which leads, in due course, to each of them practicing their own deceptions, with greater or lesser success. This is a novel in which the reader becomes aware of the great central lie before any of the characters realise how they've been duped.

I confess I found Betsy-Ann's narrative richer than Sophia's, but it was also quite breathtakingly unpleasant at times. McCann does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting her two protagonists: her depiction of 'Titus', who can barely speak English but whose interior life is sketched through memory, fancy and despair, is marvellous. And though the novel ends on what, in music, would be called an 'imperfect cadence' (there is no grand resolution) I liked that ending: it works, because it opens up possibilities.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017/31: Bring Up the Bodies -- Hilary Mantel

'Strike first, before she strikes you. Remember how she brought down Wolsey.' His past lies about him like a burnt house. He has been building, building, but it has taken him years to sweep up the mess.

Second in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy: I wonder when the third volume will appear.

I didn't like this as much as Wolf Hall: it seemed overlong, a detailed examination of the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour. There's more sense of the tightrope Cromwell is walking, of his precarious position as the man upon whom a notoriously temperamental monarch relies. He reflects on the notion that he is 'a man whose only friend is the King of England': he thinks, still, that he will see the end of Henry's reign. Indeed, when rumours of Henry's death at Greenwich reach Cromwell, it seems that he has outlasted the King. (One problem with historical novels, assuming they adhere to the facts: a great disaster for the characters is obviously, to the reader, a false alarm.)

Much of the novel concerns the whispering, machinations and back-biting of Henry's court, and especially of the miasma of women who surround his second queen, Anne Boleyn. Rumour and superstition do as much to topple Anne as her failure to produce a son, or her husband's preference for plain, virtuous Jane Seymour. It is Cromwell, however, who weaves together those fragments of gossip to bring about Anne's execution: and it is Henry's desire to dissolve the marriage that drives Cromwell's actions.

Cromwell is as isolated, himself, as Henry's England after the English Reformation. Most of Cromwell's family are dead: only his bright and curious son, Gregory, remains. The noblemen among who he moves -- not least the Duke of Norfolk and his circle -- look down on him as a commoner. He has, of course, no friends: though he finds himself missing Thomas More, and Wolsey. His whole life is devoted to Henry, and to Henry's will.

Mantel's writing is full of resonant images: that irritating 'he, Thomas' tic is still there, and sometimes seems unnecessary since it's Thomas Cromwell whose eyes we are seeing through. But, wait: who is the 'we' who (for instance) 'will not have many more days such as this'? Is this Mantel fostering a sense of unity? Or is it Thomas, emphasising his feeling of unity with his audience, or England, or the English, or the King with his 'royal we'?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

2017/30: Finding Philippe -- Elizabeth Edmondson

Daydreamed for a moment of a life that could be led in a land where they didn’t have a word for pea-souper fogs. Where National Bread would be an impossibility. Where summer came every year.

At eighteen, Vicky Hampden's oppressive father made her a ward of court to curtail her wartime love affair with the dashing French Philippe. Now Vicky is twenty-five, and her favourite aunt has left her an inheritance. She decides to use some of the money to visit France and try to discover Philippe's fate: she's been told he's dead, and she hasn't seen or heard from him since 1943.

Aided by an amiable lawyer, Julius (who's also keen to escape the dullness of ration-bound post-war Britain) -- and, later, by her niece, who has run away from school -- Vicky uncovers a web of intrigue while enjoying la vie française. It gradually becomes apparent that Philippe was a man of mystery -- not only an operative for the SOE, but also the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. And, of course, Vicky has a secret of her own, which she keeps as close as the gorgeous Gothic butterfly that Philippe bequeathed to her ...

Not my favourite of Edmondson's books, I have to say, despite the art theft, psychoanalysis, espionage, wicked relatives et cetera: few of the characters really came alive for me; the romance felt abrupt; and I cannot believe that anyone, even in 1949, would countenance a fifteen-year-old girl running off with a Frenchman ten years (?) her senior.