Ministry of Truth – a biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey: “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.

This very readable and informative biography of George Orwell focuses on his adult life, culminating in his last novel, “ Nineteen Eighty-four” ( referred to here as“1984”).

In the year 1984, the long-deceased author was criticised for failing to foresee how technical advances would benefit ordinary people, and being unduly pessimistic about the threat of political leaders crushing freedom. Forty years on, the book seems more relevant now with even “democratically” elected populist leaders like Trump using “alternative facts” and “fake news” to achieve their ends, while the Chinese Communist Party “moulds model citizens” by means of technical surveillance combined with a system of rewards and punishments, reminiscent of the telescreens used to indoctrinate and spy on the inhabitants of Airstrip 1 in “1984”.

Dorian Lynskey makes us aware of the many writers engaged from the late c19 century in attempts to imagine the future, notably H.G.Wells with his “social fantasies” , and the Russian Zamyatin with a ringside view of tyranny, author of “We”. Although they clearly infuenced Orwell, to the extent that he was accused of plagiarising the latter in “1984”, the main point seems to be that important ideas were being explored.

In his development of the manipulative leader “Big Brother”, Orwell’s main motivation was not to predict what he defined as a “pessimistic utopia” (i.e. non-existent place, the word “dystopia”, not being in common use until a decade after his death in 1950). He did not seek to be a prophet of doom, nor did he turn against socialism in later life as some of his opponents liked to think. “1984” was simply intended as a warning against governments which suppress freedom by gaining excessive control over people’s lives, and stifling opposition. As he dictated just before his death from TB in early 1950, “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.

Orwell saw the effects of distorting the truth first-hand when fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where he naively joined an anarchist brigade, following rejection by the better-equipped Communist forces because he was thought “unreliable”, for being one of the first to question the Moscow “show trials”. In a chaotic Barcelona, he met a Russian called “Charlie Chan”, thought to be an agent of Stalin’s secret police, who tried to stir up an already unstable situation by claiming that anti-Franco anarchists were really trying to aid the dictator!

Orwell obtained much useful material from those who wrote about their experiences of totalitarian regimes. He probably came across formula “2+2=5” in the work of Eugene Lyons, who turned against Communism when he witnessed “the propaganda, persecution and industrial-scale dishonesty” during a visit to the USSR to interview Stalin. Ironically, several publishers initially declined to print “Animal Farm”, for fear of offending Stalin, a Second World War ally at the time. Needless to say, “1984” was fiercely attacked by readers from the far left, and delighted those from the right, who failed to grasp that Orwell was attacking repression of all political types.

The coining of the term “Orwellian” by Mary McCarthy, together with the adoption of such terms as “Newspeak”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, “unperson” and “Big Brother” have become embedded in our culture, but I had not appreciated the extent of the writer’s influence since his death on a surprising variety of people, as covered here in somewhat rushed and indigestible detail. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was inspired by “1984”. Artists like David Bowie made abortive plans to produce a musical version of “1984”. In the run-up to the year 1984, commercial products from Macintosh computers to sisal-look wool carpets were promoted via references to Big Brother – that is, a book warning against controlling people was used to manipulate them.

Orwell’s complex personality is revealed through numerous anecdotes and quotations. He once wrote to a friend, “I find that anything outrageously strange ends up by fascinating me even when I abominate it”. He was a remarkably hard-working journalist and writer which he somehow combined with a very active social life. “His conversation was like his writing, unaffected, lucid, witty and humane”. He loved to argue, and was surprised when a writer, whether a friend or a celebrity like H.G.Wells, was upset by a barbed comment in one of his reviews. He gave 1984 ’s Winston Smith his own pathological fear of rats, which once led him to fire his rifle at the wrong moment, alerting the enemy Spanish who destroyed his side’s cookhouse. He was married twice and had close women friends, but created a wooden character lacking an inner emotional life in the form of Julia in “1984”. This could of course have served to indicate the damaging effects of being brought up under Big Brother’s domination. Orwell chose to write “1984” on the bleakly beautiful Scottish island of Jura, well out of reach of the hospitals where he needed treatment. With nostalgia for an idealised pre-1914 past, he detested every aspect of modern American culture.

He wrote just after the Second World War, “No thoughtful person whom I know has any hopeful picture of the future”. Ill health may have depressed his spirits – but what would he have made of the world today – not least virtual reality machines?

“The Fell” by Sarah Moss: “life to be lived, somehow”

Conceived and written during the first series of Covid lockdowns (assuming there could be more), this novel has the ring of authenticity which may be of interest to future generations, although do those who lived through this period need or wish to be reminded of it?

In a close-knit Peak District community, divorced mother Kate cracks under the prospect of fourteen days quarantine required because she has tested positive. Without telling her teenage son Matt, she grabs a rucksack and takes off over the fells. Those who spent months cooped up in tower blocks may have little sympathy, but perhaps the lure of lovely scenery just beyond the garden wall makes the sense of imprisonment even harder to bear. Kate’s breach of the rules is ironical, since before being furloughed from the local café, she was the only one who challenged customers who failed to wear their masks.

Events are revealed through the viewpoints of four characters: Kate, Matt, elderly well-to-do neighbour Alice, vulnerable owing to her recent cancer, and experienced volunteer rescuer Rob, whose dedication to a role he regards as more worthwhile than anything else has cost him his marriage, and provokes his daughter’s resentment.

There is clearly the potential for a page-turning build-up of tension with an unpredictable outcome. Will Alice, despite all the help Kate has given her, inform the police? Will an accident prevent Kate from returning without being caught out? Will she end up not only injured but liable for a fine she cannot afford to pay? What will be the impact on Matt? How ruthless is the author prepared to be?

The novel is remarkable in that each chapter sustains a stream of consciousness from beginning to end. This tends to seem contrived, particularly when it extends to a raven which becomes the uncomfortable, truth-telling facet of Sarah’s flagging thoughts. It is realistic to portray the mind as focusing on quite mundane or irrelevant details in moments of stress, but they too often make repetitive and tedious reading, serving only to pad the tale out to novel-length.

There are some telling insights into social contact during Covid, such as Alice “having dinner” with her daughter’s family, which means sitting at a computer screen to watch each other eat- grandson Seb “appears briefly, dizzyingly, so close to the camera tht his nose and one eye fill the screen”. However, there is a missed opportunity to convey fully the sense of unreality punctuated with moments of fear during an unexpected pandemic. Unless one ended up in hospital on a ventilator, it was hard to believe most of the time that there really was a need to keep 2 metres apart, let alone sanitise every supermarket item before allowing it into the kitchen. This contrasted with the small hours when the most rational of people would wake convinced they could not breathe properly and were going to die.

I admired “Ghost Wall”, the first novel by Sarah Moss which I came across. It succeeds on all counts: plot, structure, dialogue, character development, description, humour and poignancy mixed with tension and menace. The more recent “The Fell”, even more so than the intervening “Summerwater”, seems more of an overworked series of exercises in creative writing. Knowing Sarah Moss to be a teacher of this subject, I am perhaps looking out too keenly for the techniques she is putting into practice. However, without the injection of more plot, it would have been more powerful and moving if written as a shorter novella, perhaps less abrupt and more “fleshed out” at the end.

13 à Table! – Nouvelles: short stories by well-known French writers, written for charity

This is a collection of thirteen short stories by different well-known French writers, published annually to raise money for “Les Restos du Cœur”, the system of providing meals for those in need during the winter months, established in France by the comedian and actor Coluche.

I suggested the 2014 edition for a book group, thinking this would give ideas for future reading, including as it does the works of Pierre Lemaitre, Marc Levy, Guillaume Musso, Tatiana Rosnay and Éric-Emanuel Schmitt.

In fact, I was initially put off by the second story, Maxime Chattam’s macabre horror fantasy “Maligne”. This put me in a mood to abandon each successive story as too banal, and to wonder whether the requirement to base each theme on some aspect of food (which not every writer adhered to) and perhaps to produce the work to a deadline, not to mention a reluctance to “waste” a meaty idea for a future novel, had led to some rather mediocre contributions. When I lit on the idea of trying the stories at the end, which gives the illusion of having made progress, and picking them at random, I warmed to this book.

At least the stories are quite varied, ranging from from Marc Levy’s “Dissemblance” which is like the dialogue for a philosophical play, through Guillaume Musso’s “Fantôme” (ghosts figure a good deal in the plots) which proves to be a condensed crime thriller, Gilles Legardinier’s “Mange le dessert d’abord”, an apparently autobiographical recollection of unexpectedly memorable meals from the past , to Bernard Werber’s quirky “Langouste blues” from the viewpoint of a lobster called Bob who finds himself on the point of being cooked and eaten.

There should be something to appeal to every one. I particularly like stories which are original, focused and reveal a situation gradually, giving readers the space to form their own impressions. So I would rate among the best “Gabrielle” by Franck Thilliez. This is on the theme of a married couple, who for the past twenty-five years have travelled to a remote spot, probably in North America, to observe the hungry grizzly bears which descend from the mountains annually to eat the salmon which migrate to the bay nearby to breed in huge numbers. But what if the salmon fail to appear, or there is a failure of the generator which powers the electricity in the protective barrier round the couple’s camp? The story builds with a sense of menace, but the narrator’s tone is calm as he observes and reflects on the situation.

“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy – seeing the wood for the trees

In the woodland hamlet of Little Hintock, literally “in the sticks” and so isolated that the inhabitants “deemed window curtains unnecessary”, timber merchant George Melbury is tortured by a dilemma. To prove his worth, he has educated his daughter Grace to be “fit” for a husband in a higher social class, but has also promised her in marriage to Giles Winterborne, a young man in the apple and cider trade, whose father he feels guilty about having wronged in the past. The temptation to break this agreement is too great when Doctor Fitzpiers, recently arrived in the neighbourhood, takes a fancy to Grace, and Giles is too proud and restrained to press his own case. Attractive, and educated with noble ancestry but no money, Fitzpiers proves an inveterate womaniser, so that a degree of tragedy seems inevitable.

On a spectrum of Hardy’s novels, this lies somewhere between the largely lighthearted pastoral romance of “Under the Greenwood Tree” and the bleakness of “Jude the Obscure”. Sad incidents are made bearable by Hardy’s wry observations, sometimes tipping into comic farce, and his subtle insight into complex human behaviour which also helps to make events seem more plausible, relying as they often do on unlikely coincidences. It’s also a model for skilful plotting and development.

Hardy’s accounts of rural life in Victorian England are fascinating: poor Marty South, working for a pittance at night to cut pointed rods for securing thatch, but forced to sell her beautiful hair (her sole asset apart from her unrecognised perceptiveness), to make a wig for the self-absorbed lady of the manor; the annual ritual of the “barking season” where the locals “attack like locusts” to strip the bark from trees for use in tanning; Giles covered in apple-rind and pips as he operates his portable cider press in a hotel yard.

Yet what really sets this novel apart is Hardy’s remarkable portrayal of the woods on which the people depend for a living. His fundamental desire to write poetry flows out in passage after passage of unique, vivid prose, describing the trees in all seasons and weathers, from widely differing viewpoints, all showing how closely Hardy must have observed the world. A description of the woods after a damaging storm: “above stretched an old beech, with vast armpits, and great pocket-holes in its sides where branches had been removed in past times…. Dead branches were scattered about like ichythosauri in a museum”….rotting stumps of trees which “had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums…..moss like little fir trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss”.

The novel may feel dated with the frequently slightly garbled quotations from and allusions to long-forgotten texts. The tyranny of social conventions to which some of the characters submit seems ludicrous to us, and at times even to them as well, invariably when it is too late. Despite this, “The Woodlanders” retains the power to move us, and to feel a connection with a past way of life.

“House of Glass”, The story and secrets of a twentieth century Jewish family by Hadley Freeman – Knowing the past…..

Growing up in the US, Hadley Freeman noticed that her glamorous grandmother Sala was often sad, but she was only prompted to investigate the reason for this by the discovery, after her death, of a shoebox containing a motley collection of mementos: photos of Sala ripped into quarters partly taped together, or in the company of an unknown man whose face had been erased; a metal POW tag from 1940; a drawing on a “scrappy piece of paper” signed “Avec amitié, Picasso”.

Hadley Freeman’s often poignant account of what turned out to be her father’s family history from the turn of the C19 will strike a chord with many Jewish readers: poverty in a Polish shtetl (Jewish village), driven to emigrate by a pogrom in the aftermath of World War 1, finding opportunities in Paris, but feeling the bitter sense of rejection when forced into hiding, or to move on yet again in order to survive when France was overrun by the Nazis.

In fact, the Glass family suffered less as a result of the second World War than most ordinary Jewish families. What sets the Glass family apart is the remarkable success and wealth ultimately gained by two of the author’s great uncles. Handsome, self-effacing Henri invented the Omniphot, a machine capable of copying a variety of documents at different scales, including the reproduction of blueprints on microfilm – clearly in demand during wartime. Pugnacious, volatile Alex possessed an unlikely artistic streak which enabled him to become a successful producer of “high fashion” and later a collector and dealer in art to celebrities, who cultivated the friendship of people in high places, including Christian Dior and Picasso.

Sala (centre) and Alex (right)

This biography has been hyped by readers who seem undeterred by the way it is padded out with repetition, a fair amount of trivia, and some rather superficial and subjective analysis. The space given to speculation is perhaps inevitable since the narrative often seems to revolve round Alex, who proved an inveterate “myth-maker”, concealing and rewriting his past to suit his purposes. Did he really escape from a moving train bound for the death camps, by trading on the good will of a tall companion (whom he left to perish) to lift him up to a convenient hole in the carriage roof? Did he find a safe hiding place by exploiting a connection with a comrade-in-arms from his days in the Foreign Legion, who ironically was engaged simultaneously in deporting Jewish people from France to Germany? Is it an exaggeration to claim that post-war, “despite the surface fabulousness of Alex’s life, his business was crippled by debts, and he would go for days without eating in order to pay his staff of 150”? Particularly in the light of Alex’s unreasonable detestation of his sister-in-law’s fluency in German, which she had acquired long before the rise of the Nazis, the author takes an indulgent view of his willingness to work with suspected wartime collaborators, designing costumes for a Parisian ballet director “for the career-saving sum of 500,000 francs”. Such details are hard to follow and “square up” at times, and frankly somewhat wearisome.

It is a pity that, in the paperback version, the numerous family photos embedded in the text are generally too small and dark to see the details clearly. The focus on a particular family may help readers to empathise with their situation, but if the underlying aim was really “to know the past in order to understand the present and plan properly for the future”, to paraphrase Chaim Potok’s observation which Hadley Freeman cites, there are too many important broader aspects e.g. political aspects concerning Israel, which this overlong story omits to explore.

“Nineteen Eighty-four” by George Orwell: renewed relevance

Even those who have not read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, rated as one of “the hundred best novels”, will recognise some of the “Newspeak” which has been absorbed into our language: “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, Big Brother is Watching You, “2+2=5” and the dreaded “Room 101”, to name a few.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Winston Smith, a member of the “Outer Party” spends his days in a cramped cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, altering newspaper articles and statistics to tally with the latest announcements blaring from the inescapable telescreens and loudspeakers, taking care to post each instruction in a “memory hole” for incineration without trace. The superstate of Oceania is in a continual state of no doubt fictitious war with one of its two counterparts, Eurasia and Eastasia, but keeping track is a mind-bending business: in the middle of a “Hate Week” speech, Eastasia becomes the enemy instead of Eurasia, and Winston has to work frantically to “correct” all the records. Desperate to retain a sense of reality, he wonders what it is worth if it only exists in his own head.

Written during the late 1940s in the aftermath of World War 2, with the Soviet Union under Stalin’s control, it is clear where Orwell obtained many of the ideas for this work. It also seems quite dated in the portrayal of Winston’s shabby material existence very much as it must have been in a period of shortages and rationing. The bleak bombed terraces of London’s East End provide the setting for “the proles”, workers at the bottom of the social heap who are bribed with the promise of wins in a bogus lottery, but are at least spared the constant need to toe the ever-changing Party line.

When the real 1984 dawned, it seemed that technological advances and mass consumption had transformed the world in ways Orwell had been unable to foresee, but in 2022 the novel has regained a more chilling relevance. As I write this, President Putin is trying to conceal from the Russian people the fact that their military forces are in fact destroying rather than protecting Russian cities. Media outlets are being forced to close down since anyone who even mentions the word “invasion” faces fifteen years in gaol. Recently in the US, “fake news” became a common feature of President Trump’s regime, with his spokesperson justifying the use of “alternative facts”. In China, Muslim ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs are imprisoned in “re-education camps”. Even in the UK, the supposed cradle of democracy, one sees too many troubling examples of official attempts to manipulate situations, suppress information and “economise with the truth”, yet not widely challenged. As living standards are put under pressure by the costs of dealing with Covid and rising energy prices, the threat of war may prove a convenient diversion, also serving to discourage the growth of individualism which undermines unquestioning conformity.

The novel may seem a little rushed and underdeveloped at the end, perhaps because Orwell, who was dying of tuberculosis at the time, was racing to finish it. Despite this, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a thought-provoking warning against complacency over the behaviour of our political leaders. Orwell raises the dilemma of the risk that people driven by social idealism may end up creating a system that crushes individual freedom – rather like the excesses of the French Revolution when one comes to think of it…..

“Aux animaux la guerre! by Nicolas Mathieu – “Of Fangs and Talons”! – in the wake of Émile Zola?

In the Vosges, an economically depressed part of north-east of France, the loss-making Velocia car plant is due to close, adding to the problems of union leader Martel who has been embezzling funds to pay for his mother’s care home. Desperate for money, he takes the unwise step of joining with Bruno, a coke-snorting bodybuilder on a temporary contract at Velocia, to kidnap a girl on behalf of the Benbarek brothers, a pair of ruthless gangsters. Predictably, the plan goes awry.

Available in English as “Of Fangs and Talons”, in its original form the novel is a challenge for a non-French reader, by reason of the large amount of slang and colloquial speech. The initial scenes are not in chronological order, which adds to the confusion. “I owe as much to Proust as to the Sopranos”, Nicolas Mathieu has observed in an interview. By this, I assume he is referring to the lengthy passages devoted to minor events or everyday situations described in minute detail, as opposed to those of extreme, often gratuitous violence. He also seems fascinated by the psychology of bored, disaffected teenagers, whom he portrays rather well. Overall, he is clearly more interested in character, ambiance, an ironic take on the inequalities, injustices and prejudices of modern French society, than in plot.

The prologue set decades earlier in the Algeria of 1961 is presumably meant to provide the usual overused hook of violence in the form of the brutal execution of those suspected of involvement in the movement for independence from France. This has little relevance to the rest of the novel, except to indicate the unflinching lengths to which some of the characters will be prepared to go. The fragmented structure of the novel results in some major incidents being implied, or never made clear. Some banal scenes make frustrating reading since they break the dramatic tension, although in the case of the most brutal events this could be a relief. The inconclusive ending may be a stroke of genius in reflecting what real life so often turns out to be, while paving the way for a sequel, or perhaps it is simply a disappointing “cop-out”.

The debut novel of an author who went on to win le prix Goncourt for “Leurs enfants après eux”, “Aux animaux la guerre” has been made into a French TV series. I imagine the latter might “work better” in dramatic terms, but perhaps lose some of the irony which is the saving grace of this bleak, overlong novel.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev: “Standing on the threshold of the future”

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Jeantaud, Linet et Lainé by Edgar Dégas 1871

It is hard to believe that when published in 1862, Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” caused such a storm of “virulent attacks” in Russia: “each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own badly drawn”. In the novel, the usual generational differences are heightened by the abrupt change from the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I to the more liberal rule of Alexander II who has permitted the “emancipation” of the serfs, together with a climate of greater freedom of expression in which intellectual rebels like the novel’s anti-hero Bazarov, a “socially inferior” doctor’s son, feels no inhibitions about getting embroiled in fierce arguments with Pavel Petrovich, a minor noble with rigid conservative views.

Turgenev displays a gift for observing human nature which still rings true despite the passage of time and massive changes in society. Bazarov, an unconventional medical student who prides himself on being a nihilist “who bows down to no authority, who takes no single principle on trust”, no matter how respected it is, reminds me of a passionate Extinction Rebellion supporter. His nihilism leaves him totally ill-equipped when it comes to knowing how to deal with being in love.

His gentle friend Arkady is typical of an open-minded young man struggling to form ideas, who is susceptible to the influence of an opinionated friend, until he begins to question his ideas as too extreme. Arkady’s father Nicolay Petrovich, the tolerant and well-intentioned owner of a rundown country estate in desperate need of modernisation, is generally regarded as a soft touch, taken advantage of by the peasants on his land.

Bazarov is by turns boorish and unexpectedly kind. He is brusque with his doting parents, but inspires trust in “the humblest of people”, as when, in one of the many humorous moments, he explains to a couple of farm boys why he is collecting frogs to dissect, “ you and I are just like frogs….I’ll know what goes on inside us…So as not to make a mistake if you become ill and I have to look after you”.

On the surface, this may seem a rather simple and fairly uneventful tale. In fact, although short, it is skilfully constructed to convey more than many much longer ones: a strong sense of place, in particular the vast, neglected countryside; vivid impressions of life on a typical mid-C19 estate; pithy dialogues, with the relationships between the characters building to some intense psychological drama, and sharply divided views on progress versus stability.

Turgenev may have been enabled to write such a perceptive book because his travels in Europe gave the scope to judge his native country more objectively. He actually began to write it when staying at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. If such an allegedly gentle and certainly insightful man managed to fall out for several years with both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was it primarily their fault?

For me, this is the most accessible and enjoyable Russian novel I have read. It is both heartwarming and poignant, with a final sense of “everlasting peace, of that great peace ‘indifferent’ nature”, despite everything, to quote Peter Carson’s excellent translation.

“The Magician” by Colm Tóibín – “the pure genius of mankind, and alll the pathos”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Good biographies often read like fiction. Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of the Nobel Prize winning German author has the advantage of giving scope to imagine Thomas Mann’s inner thoughts, and invent dialogues or scenes which may enhance our understanding of him. Tóibín’s evident research and knowledge of Mann’s work enable him to perceive the author as fairly and accurately as a pure biographer. The drawback is that the reader cannot be sure where truth ends and artistic licence begins, but does that matter if one gains a sense of the “essence” of a personality, together with a better grasp of a writer’s work?

Tóibín is ambitious in covering Mann’s life from sixteen-year old son of a wealthy Lübeck merchant in 1891, to old man approaching death in 1955, revisiting his birthplace after years of exile from Nazi Germany. Each starting with a different location and date, the eighteen chapters prevent the narrative from getting bogged down in detail but create a somewhat disjointed effect.

It can be hard to keep track of the complex, often troubled relationships within Mann’s large family, including several siblings, six children of his own with their various partners, plus some acquaintances. With an unexpectedly stiff style and often artificial dialogue, which I assume to be in intentional imitation of Mann’s own prose, the book did not at first live up to the expectations raised by Tóibín’s earlier novel about “The Master”, Henry James.

Unlike his opinionated, socialist older brother Heinrich and eldest son Klaus, Mann comes to perceive himself as cautious, wary, and wavering in his beliefs. Heinrich is enraged by Mann’s deceit as a boy in gaining his father’s approval by feigning interest in the running of his business. Throughout his adult life, Mann understandably tries to conceal his obsession with handsome boys, expressed in his novel “Death in Venice”. Fearing the destruction of his reputation, Mann agonises over the apparent loss of a suitcase containing compromising diary entries, which his son Golo has tried to smuggle out of Nazi Germany on his behalf.

Mann is portrayed as a self-contained introvert, observing those around him, including family members, with a clinical objectivity, using them as material for his stories with a ruthless insensitivity. Aware that his Jewish wife Katia is unusually close to her twin brother, Thomas transposes the legendary love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde into a wealthy Berlin household, modelling the interloper who comes to marry Sieglinde on himself, “the dull man out of place in the glamorous Rosenberg family.” Although her father is furious on hearing the gossip about this, Katia is strangely unconcerned. Years later, she is more disturbed to realise that Mann has used their grandson Frido, whom he claims to love, as the model in his latest book, “Doctor Faustus”, for a child who is destined to die, because his uncle “could only damage those who came close to him”. The uncle in question is very obviously based on the real composer Schoenburg, inventor of the twelve-tone system, who is enraged by the suggestion that he might have made a pact with the devil like the ficticious composer Adrian Leverkühn.

I was surprised by Tóibín’s only brief reference to “Buddenbrooks”, the novel based on his own family’s decline, which made him a wealthy literary sensation from his mid-twenties. The inspiration for other novels is interesting: visiting Katia during her prolonged stay at a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis, gives Mann the idea for “The Magic Mountain”. He is fascinated by the X-ray images of his own body, “as it would be in the grave”, and is excited by the prospect of being the first novelist to describe an X-ray, “with all the eerie lights and uncanny sounds”.

Tóibín does not baulk at portraying Mann as quite unlikeable, although there is usually a reason for his more dubious actions. The unconscious single-mindedness of an artist is perhaps common and necessary for success. Mann’s initial reluctance to criticise Hitler is justified by his fear of putting his wife’s Jewish family at greater risk, less so by reluctance to see his books removed from German shelves. When fleeing Europe for the United States, he does not hesitate to try bribery or feign frailty to jump queues, his wealth giving him a sense of entitlement. Perhaps most troubling is the decision to continue his planned book tour of Germany despite news of his eldest son’s suicide. He does not attend the funeral, possibly trading on his distraught wife’s inability to cope with the idea of seeing her son’s coffin. Another son Michael reproaches him bitterly, “You are a great man. Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded. It hardly bothers you most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children”. Tóibín describes how Thomas hides and soon destroys the letter.

The book becomes more gripping as the exiled Mann has to reassess German society and culture after the horror of the Holocaust and to face accusations of being a Communist when he insists on visiting the East Germany in what has become a divided country. No longer welcome in the US, he feels obliged to leave the luxurious home built in California, but cannot face return to a devastated Germany where, at banquets during his book tour, he is aware of being “forced to shake still fleshy hands that not long ago were sticky with blood”.

One can appreciate this book without having read any of Mann’s work beforehand, although it may seem odd to do so. Although I feel ashamed to admit to failure in previous attempts to read “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain” (which Mann jokes is so long he doubts anyone has actually read it ), Tóibín has stimulated my interest in Mann in the context of Germany at a calamitous phase in its history, and the details of his life will linger in my mind.

“Le Dit du Mistral by Olivier Mak-Bouchard – according to the mistral…….

Mont Ventoux hikes: what not to miss | Provence Guide
Mont Ventoux

In this original, quirky novel, the unnamed narrator, let’s call him “N”, is steeped in every aspect of the Luberon, the part picturesque, part wild and dramatic mountainous area of central Provence where he has always lived: the landscapes, wildlife, legends, customs, local recipes, Occitan language and writers – and continual presence of the mistral, the unpredictable, often violent wind from the north-west.

When his retired neighbour, M. Sécaillat discovers what look like archaeological remains in his cherry orchard, N manages to persuade him not to bury them quickly in order to avoid the hassle and red tape involved in reporting them, as the law requires. Instead, taking advantage of his wife’s timely trip abroad, N somehow arranges extended leave and works with Sécaillat on a full excavation of what proves to be a hot spring with apparent healing powers, presided over by the carving of an enigmatic stone goddess. To salve their consciences, N leaves on the doorstep of the local museum cases of the “toutouros”, the clay horns which the two men have painstakingly glued together.

Will they be tracked down by local council officials or the police and fined, even imprisoned? If, on the other hand, they destroy the evidence, will they arouse the wrath of Vintur, the ancient god of the mountains, and his capricious son, “Le Mistral” wind, and if so, what form will revenge take?

Midway, this novel changes tack, drifting into a surreal mix of weird incidents, waking dreams and fantasies linked to legends, which a cynical reader might attribute largely to the narrator’s disturbed mental state and possible autism. I enjoyed the vivid sense of place supported by the possibility of locating many of the landmarks on Google images: the rare short-toed snake eagles to be glimpsed at the Madeleine Cliff, or the summit of Mount Ventoux, sometime finishing post for the Tour de France, with its memorial to the British cyclist Tom Simpson who died of heat exhaustion there. The Provençal recipes and customs are intriguing, like the tradition dating from pagan times and adopted by the Catholic church, of sowing on Saint Barbara’s Feast Day (December 4th) the seeds of corn, chick peas and lentils to represent the Trinity, destined to form part of the Christmas decorations.

I found the second part overlong, and at times too “off the rails” for my taste. I kept reading because, apart from some powerful descriptions, flashes of wry humour and learning a lot about the Luberon which I would now hope to visit, the novel is packed with useful idioms for a student of French. Although the narrator himself is not, as a few readers have noted, a particularly likeable character, who does not deserve his long-suffering wife Blanche, his well-observed white pet cat, Le Hussard (by reason of his striking black legs, which resemble the knee high military boots of a hussar), is a very appealing presence.