“Ghost Wall” – warped time

 

This is my review of  Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss

This novella packs a more powerful punch than many a longer novel, with never a word wasted as it grips us with the sense of menace building beneath its wry humour, the strong sense of place on the moors and beach below Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, the characters and situations revealed through the observation of the narrator Sylvie, named by her father Bill after Sulevia, the Ancient British goddess of springs and pools.

A bus driver to earn a living, Bill is a self-taught expert on Iron Age life and survival skills. He is also a working-class racist, male chauvinist bigot, a control freak who dominates his downtrodden wife and teenage daughter with verbal sarcasm which tips into physical abuse, often as a means of releasing his own frustration when he feels criticised or undervalued by other people. “He didn’t always like it when people laughed”.

This and more becomes slowly apparent as Sylvie describes their family “holiday” taking part in an exercise to re-enact Iron Age life, alongside three students of the ebullient Professor Slade who drops by each day to see how they are getting on as self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, spending hours foraging for bilberries, burdock root, garlic “greens” and mussels at low tide, skinning rabbits for “mum” to stew in a cauldron over an open fire, when not washing a student’s filthy smock after he has slipped into a bog.

Dressed in a coarse, shapeless tunic and thin skin moccasins rather than what would seem like essential hiking boots, Sylvie can “feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet”.

Having delegated the drudgery, the Professor and Bill have time to turn their minds from mundane to mystical matters, and get carried away planning the Iron Age-style “ghost wall” of the title, a palisade of willow lattice and skins, decorated with animals’ skulls in the absence of human ones. When dusk falls, the desire to drum on the skins and chant proves irresistible, and from this it may be only a short step to the “play-acting” of some darker ritual.
Silvie is shrewd enough to recognise that her father is “a show-off given to brutality” and has not had too much spirit beaten out of her to argue. Yet she seems tied to him in their appreciation of a natural world free from the false pressures and values of modern commercialisation. She appears trapped in childhood, frightened of venturing out into independence – even her attraction to the student Molly seems like a kind of adolescent crush, perhaps the dawning of an awareness of how she might become a liberated young woman, perhaps a rejection of the maleness which has so far crushed her, rather than an indication of lesbianism.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of reading this book for the quality of the writing and the tight, entertaining plot, many issues arise for consideration: prevailing class differences, the north-south divide, male versus female relationships, how we have lost touch with nature, how values have changed over time in some ways, and in others perhaps essentially remarkably little.
My only slight reservations are over the formulaic, over-used device of a prologue with a dramatic, violent hook to catch the reader and the very abrupt, anti-climactic ending. Yet I can see that there is strength in leaving matters open for the reader to decide what happens next.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.

 

This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

The Diary of a Nobody – Finding out exactly what led to Pooterism

 

This is my review of George Grossmith’s  The Diary of a Nobody

“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.” So begins Charles Pooter’s diary, which started as an intermittent serial in “Punch” from 1888. At first it was belittled by critics – proving incomprehensible to a “New York Times” reviewer – because it was based on the banal life of an ordinary office worker. Gradually, it became appreciated as an early form of satire, with “Pooterish” coined as a word to describe a ludicrous sense of self-importance and narrow-mindedness. Despite his excessive concern with conventions, delusion over his authority at work and complacency over his state of “domestic bliss”, not to mention his appalling puns, Charles Pooter has been regarded with affection by generations of readers, a household name even for people like me who have never bothered to read the book until now.

When obliged to do so for a book group, I expected to find the “diary” very dated with its gently slapstick humour. In fact, it provides a fascinating insight into daily life in late Victorian London. On a clerk’s pay, Pooter was able to rent a six-roomed house which, judging by the original illustration, would require a hefty mortgage nowadays. His wife did not need to go out to work and he could afford to employ a live-in maid. Although often proving unreliable, tradesmen seemed readily available when something needed to be fixed. If the meat went off in the pantry because of hot weather, the maid could be sent out in the evening to buy chops from the butcher. When Pooter’s brash son Lupin got the sack, he could easily get another job through word-of-mouth: no formal applications required. The family always seemed to have the money for a holiday, buying new clothes for the purpose, or go out for some entertainment. In the absence of television, they made their own daft yet touchingly innocent entertainment, like “put the tail on the donkey”, which modern children would find rather tame for a party, or scared themselves with séances, wilfully gullible in turning a blind eye to patent cheating.

As typified by the contrast between Pooter’s resistance to change and his son’s determination to get away from Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, (“There’s no money in it, and I am not going to rot away my life in the suburbs”), this short novel happens to capture a stable, conventional society on the brink of dramatic change. The ending was so abrupt, I thought there was a fault on my Kindle. It was as if the author had tired of his creation, and although I am glad to have read this, I had had enough as well when it came to a halt.

“Peterloo” film by Mike Leigh” – “By the law or the sword”

Review – 

Apart from 2019 being the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo massacre  when 60,000-80,000 people marched to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, director Mike Leigh may have seen parallels with Brexit: two examples of British society sharply polarised to breaking-point and possible violence.

The director’s clear aim is to demonstrate injustice through a systematic, step-by-step reconstruction of the detailed events building up to the debacle. He wants us to be in no doubt that high grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars and  continued restrictions on imports owing to the infamous Corn Laws led to intolerable hardship amongst the working poor. This made them receptive to the call for “one man one vote”  (women supporters seeming to accept without question that they were not to be included in this) and the creation of a new constituency  in the burgeoning city of  Manchester to rectify the out-dated situation in which the whole of Lancashire only had two MPs.

Mike Leigh is of course famous for his minutely observed dramas involving the interplay between ordinary people, developed through painstaking improvisation. It is unclear to what extent the actors were encouraged to shape the dialogue in this case. I rather formed the impression that Mike Leigh has drawn heavily on the speech patterns  and existing political writings of activists of the day. Certainly, some of the soldiers’ reported instructions are included verbatim: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” and “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”

The director is right in thinking that Peterloo has become a forgotten blot on our history, neglected in schools, but I agree with the critics who find his approach  too didactic rather than dramatic. There are simply too many lengthy rabble-rousing speeches, all tending to  bludgeon us with the same points. Yet it was interesting to see the divide between those making the simple case for the vote, and the more radical young hotheads who wanted to march on London with a petition, and  depose the Prince Regent and his mad father George III with violence in the event of a refusal to meet their demands. The orator Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd  brought another angle to events with  his flamboyant style and egotistical self-regard, yet more worldly-wise, shrewder assessment and awareness of the dangers of risks involved.   In the main, the other characters tended to be stereotypes in the case of the poor, and caricatures as regards the uncaring mill-owners, brutal magistrates, and Blackadderish, pantomime figure of the effete, hopelessly out-of-touch Prince Regent.

When it eventually comes, the massacre is convincingly staged in its progression from a joyous break from the daily grind drifting into apprehensiveness,  disappointment that Hunt is inaudible for the majority in a world without microphones, then disintegrating into the bloody confusion of fear, outrage, and grief. Journalists  of the day hit on the name “Peterloo” to draw a bitter contrast with the recent victory of Waterloo, but the film fails to leave us with a footnote  about  the ensuing crackdown on reform – few of the surviving demonstrators would live to see anything approaching votes for all.

I admire Mile Leigh’s integrity and refusal to bow to commercial pressures,  but this potentially excellent film suffers from an excess of speechifying,  is probably at least thirty minutes too long, and, in the dramatic build- up as the crowd gathers, the switching between different groups and locations appeared quite disjointed and clunky.  The director’s skill  in marshalling details, examining ethical issues and exploring emotions seems shown to better effect in films with the focus on a small tightly knit group of people rather than a largescale thud and blunder epic.

 

 

“Graduation” – Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu


This is my review of the Romanian film “The Graduation”.

Hospital doctor Romeo may have become estranged from his chain-smoking librarian wife through their mutual disillusion with life in post-Communist Romania, which has not live up to their expectations. Their hopes are pinned on their bright daughter Eliza who is set to win a scholarship to study in England. As a result of an ill-timed mugging, her hand is too injured for her to write in the final exams. Determined to act out of character and pull strings to ensure his daughter obtains the necessary grades, Romeo finds himself in conflict with both his wife and the daughter they have taught to be honest. Eliza’s infatuation with her biker boyfriend, who ironically has no compunction over having cheated in his own exams, may be an additional factor in her desire to stay in the dead-end community from which her parents are so keen to save her.

This novel is a fascinating study of ethics and morality in a society which has slipped into bribery through custom and practice. How can one live with integrity in such a world. To what extent may the ends justify the means?

In addition to the convincing character studies and well-developed plot, there is a strong sense of place. My only criticism is that the meaning of certain scenes, apparently peripheral to the main plot, remained unclear to me. I also found the ending somewhat downbeat. Yet as a naturalistic, authentic piece of drama this is very powerful. The title is a little misleading, since “graduation” is normally applied to leaving university rather than school.

Le Train by Georges Simenon


This is my review of  “The Train”   by Georges Simenon.

This slim novel, not part of the Maigret series, establishes Simenon’s right to be considered one of the last century’s greatest writers, in fact Belgian rather than French as commonly supposed. With great clarity and concision, making the process seem effortless, he paints a vivid portrait of an unplanned snap decision to flee in advance of the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He explores both the general sense of unreality, in which one’s past life recedes rapidly, perhaps to the point of appearing never to have existed, and also the freedom to experiment and to live in a new and different way that a disruption like war can bring. At least some of this authenticity must result from the time Simenon spent organising Belgian refugees in France.

Despite having a heavily pregnant wife and young daughter, with little experience of life outside the quiet, conventional small town of Fumay, Marcel Feron does not hesitate to abandon his radio repair business to join the hordes at the railway station clamouring to board the next available train. When the family is separated from the outset, wife and daughter sent to a carriage with the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room while Marcel is consigned with the other men to one normally used to carry livestock, he is not unduly concerned. Even when the train is split in two parts, and he has no clue as to his family’s whereabouts, he does not lose his cool. In fact, his calmness seems implausible, even unnatural, until one grasps that he has a fatalistic attitude to life, it would seem owing to previous traumatic experiences on a par with war, such as the memory of his mother brought home naked and head shaved as a punishment for fraternising with German soldiers while her husband was absent fighting in World War 1. Four years as a teenager in a TB sanatorium have also made him innately something of a self-contained loner.

At the same time, the experience of being a refugee en route to an unknown destination, of being abruptly uprooted from everything and everyone familiar to him, is in a strange way liberating. So, without ceasing to love his wife and daughter, he is able to enter easily and without any torturing sense of guilt into a relationship with Anna, the enigmatic, penniless young foreign woman who is clearly vulnerable without his support. He knows that their love has no future, but accepts the situation, simply trying to make the most of it. “Ce qui arriverait, je l’ignorais. Personne ne pouvait le prévoir. Nous vivions un entr’acte, horse de l’espace, et je dévorais ces journées et ces nuits avec gourmandise”. Quite what Anna thinks we are never told, although her own past troubles seem to have made her expect very little, other than to survive.

In later life he writes a secret journal of these events, kept under lock and key. He wants his children to read it one day, to realise he was not the conventional, unadventurous man, incapable of passion that they may imagine.

A final shocking twist at the end leaves one with a sense of ambiguity, uncertain and conflicted as how to judge him as a man. It seems that in real life, Simenon may have been a bit lacking in courage if not exactly a collaborator in France, which may have made him well-placed to invite us to empathise with a flawed man who puts pragmatism and self-interest above bravery and risk-taking.

“Welcome to Lagos” – when it’s all right to be a thief “as long as one is a thief who shares”


This is my review of “Welcome to Lagos”  by Chibundu Onuzo

This wry satirical take on life in Nigeria introduces us to a Lagos of remarkable humour and resilience in a setting of vibrancy and squalor, extremes of wealth and poverty, violence and corruption. Still in her early twenties at the time of writing this second novel, after spending much of her life in England in what one senses is a relatively privileged position, the author seems to have done her research into “the strange chaotic order” of communal living under city bridges, or the wooden shanty settlement built on stilts over the lagoon.

Chibundu Onuzo has chosen to write what she calls “an ensemble piece” involving a disparate group of characters who may not be developed in depth for lack of space, but the benefit is that they serve to convey the diversity of Nigerian society. The five migrants from the Niger Delta include the thoughtful army officer Chiku and Nemu, “the lowest-ranking member of his platoon”, who are no longer prepared to carry out their maverick Colonel’s illegal instructions to shoot defenceless civilians. The neat, house-proud Oma is abandoning a life of material comfort to escape a different type of violence in the form of her abusive husband.

By chance, they become involved with Chief Sandayo, perhaps once an idealist but now corrupted by power, although its fragility is demonstrated by the threatened sacking from his post as Minister of Education, which has prompted him to steal ten million dollars from site coffers. The prospect of his “bean-spilling” testimony proves irresistible for Ahmed, who dreams of a scoop for what he would like to be the ground-breaking, socially conscious “Nigerian Journal” he founded five years previously. He has rejected a life of privilege in the higher echelons of Nigerian society or abroad, made possible by his father’s willingness to compromise his principles in the pursuit of wealth and connections.

Despite some loss of momentum at times, the overall plot is well-crafted. I liked the presumably made-up extracts from “Nigerian Journal” which introduce some chapters, and was impressed by the atmospheric opening chapter in the “barren army base” with the evening sky turning from mauve ….bruised to black” and the militants stealing out into the creeks, “sucking our oil, insects drawing on the lifeblood of the country”.

There are many humorous scenes, alternating with occasional bursts of the unpredictable, savage violence which is never far away if it cannot be deflected by bribery, and perhaps not even then. Some scenes are very well-observed, such as the rivalry between the condescending white BBC journalist with the black team he has not met before landing in Nigeria, since they travelled economy class, and the laid back Lagos-based white correspondent who can run rings round him since he knows the ropes. It is startling to realise that at least two of the main characters have never before seen a white man close up in the flesh.

I could accept my inability to understand fully or even at all much of the Nigerian-English patois which could be said to give an authentic touch, and there are some telling observations, but too often the narrative seems unnatural, even unclear, and in need of more editing.

This novel seems mostly designed to entertain, it is rarely moving, yet insight is often revealed through such humour.