“La Révolte” or “The Revolt” by Clara Dupont-Monod: like father, like son or sons and mothers?

Prized for her beauty and prosperous lands, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed remarkable independence for the C12, divorcing the pious King Louis of France, to marry only a few weeks later the virile and dynamic Henry 11 of England, eleven years her junior. This relationship proved stormy: infuriated by Henry’s brutal tyranny over the nobles of Aquitaine and humiliated by his public affair with the much younger, “fair” Rosamond Clifford, Eleanor incited her three eldest sons to lead a revolt against their father. This was only the first in a series of tortuous struggles in this dysfunctional family, which we know are doomed to end badly since the youngest child is of course destined to become King John of Magna Carta fame.

The tale is mostly narrated by Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart. Clara Dupont-Monod’s poetic prose can be quite powerful, as in the description of the perilous crossing of the Channel to England which Henry insisted on making during a violent tempest, with a seven months’ pregnant Eleanor and her ailing infant son in the hold, pitched and tossed in a pool of seawater mixed with wine the broken barrels rolling around them. Another vivid description is Richard’s siege of the great fortress at Acre, where the catapults alternate a barrage of stones with the putrid carcasses of cattle and horses, which must land inside the walls in order to trigger an epidemic.

Yet I often felt unengaged in the narrative, largely because the focus on describing past events reduces the dramatic tension. It is so disjointed and sketchy in places that it seems essential to have some prior knowledge of the background history. Yet this creates the problem that Eleanor is not as one expects. Although clearly clever and highly educated for a woman, with her retinue of admiring troubadours, she is portrayed as cool and controlled, concerned about her children but showing them no affection (except grief for the first-born she lost), manipulating her sons to perform the acts she cannot, as a woman, carry out herself.

The Revolt by [Clara Dupont-Monod, Ruth Diver]

The lack of dialogue also distances the reader from the characters. Their rare speech tends to take the form of contrived monologues. When the new young French king Philippe offers Richard his support and soldiers to fight Henry, “Plantagenet”, yet again, it takes up more than two pages. Only near the end is there a touch of dramatic menace to imply Philippe’s dubious motives, “Look, here’s my falcon. His beak is red.”

In many ways this novel is more about Richard the Lionheart than his mother Eleanor. His acts of brutality in war, excessive even by the standards of the day; the violent rages to match those of his father; his complex relationship with his mother, in which even his wife clearly takes second place, all combine to form what could be an intriguing, if inevitably speculative psychological study, but in this, the book falls short.

I have at least been left with a strong interest in finding out more about the characters and events described, and the impressive crusader castles in the Middle East at least some of which hopefully still exist.

“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo: cracking eggs or making omelettes?

Girl, Woman, Other: WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019 by [Bernardine Evaristo]

The daughter of a political refugee from Ghana who “ended up working on the railways in London” where he met her “half-caste” mother, Amma is anticipating the opening at the National of her play “The Last Amazon of Dahomey”, unbelievable success after its years of rejection. She is a middle-aged, black, promiscuous lesbian, who has mellowed somewhat from her youthful habit of heckling shows that “offended her political sensibilities”.

This gives a flavour of the twelve characters born female, each given a section in turn to portray her or “their” inner thoughts and experiences. They are all black, or of mixed race to some degree, all have suffered as the children of immigrants or through some childhood trauma, yet managed eventually to achieve professionally, materially, or to find emotional fulfilment. So this proves an unexpectedly upbeat read, with a “feel-good” ending for most of them. They are all clearly linked in groups of three, more tenuously overall, as blood relatives, friends or acquaintances. One of the most interesting aspects is how they perceive each other. Any loose ends to explain the connections between them are brought together at the end in the device of “the after party” to celebrate Amma’s success, with an epilogue to accommodate the two who could not attend.

Frenetically packed with often quirky detail, the narrative is surprisingly easy to read, given the lack of standard punctuation, until one notes how it is artfully contrived in the use of whole phrases, commas, short paragraphs and lots of white space to carry the reader along. This gives a vigour and energy to the prose, at the cost of seeming at times too gimmicky and glib.

In the same way, sharp insights and moving moments crop up frequently, but embedded in references to a horde of characters, often stereotyped to the point of caricature and parody, so numerous that it may be hard to keep track of them, or to know whether this is necessary since they may never reappear.
An ambitious novel with a “marmite effect”, this is a book with no plot, more an accumulation of impressions to deepen an understand of the life of women of colour, or perhaps give them an inspiring book to which to relate. Is this a work of literature meriting its Booker Prize win? Is it more likely to appeal to younger women? What do male readers really think of it, since men tend to receive rather dismissive treatment? I cannot answer any of these questions.

I avoided reading this until it became my book group’s choice, since I rightly feared an excess of strident pontification. However, examples of this – as when Amma and her friend Dominique somehow manage to launch into feminist topics at the end of a long party night involving drugs and booze – are offset by wry humour, self-parody and some unexpectedly nuanced arguments. So when Dominique’s new love Nzinga recalls sobbing over the four hundred years of slavery which the white man has a lot to answer for, she refrains from replying “that the African man had also sold Africans into slavery so it was a lot more complex than that.”

It feels about a hundred pages too long, my interest flagging over the rather pedestrian final sections set in rural Northumberland decades ago, perhaps because (apologies if I am wrong) the author has no real familiarity or rapport with this setting, but needed to show how people from very different environments may be linked.

Although I found it slick creative writing rather than profound (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe comes to mind) this novel certainly has the power to provoke discussion.

“Les Choses Humaines” by Karine Tuil – What price justice?

Much of this novel resembles a soap opera, with a cast of somewhat stereotyped characters in a formulaic world of the Paris media. Jean Farel is a celebrity TV presenter, a charismatic Rottweiler of an interviewer who entertains the public with his fearless attacks on famous politicians, yet behind his façade lies a terror of ageing and enforced retirement. To preserve his image, the separation from his much-younger high-flying journalist wife Claire has been concealed. Her new love is a Jewish teacher who has been fired from his job at a strictly orthodox school because of this affair. Meanwhile, Jean and Claire have failed to take on board the degree to which their academically brilliant son Alexandre has been emotionally damaged by his upbringing.

The plot is punctuated with reference to real-life sexual scandals, beginning with the “hook” of the Monica Lewinsky affair while Claire was supposedly employed as an intern at the White House although this may mean little to readers too young to remember the Clinton presidency. Would-be French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career-destroying encounter with a hotel maid, and the attacks on young women in Cologne, supposedly by young muslim men recently given sanctuary there under Merkel’s controversial acceptance of a million refugees, underpin the theme of how men tend to exploit and abuse women, at what cost, and how society should respond.

I never grasped the relevance of the short prologue which describes the process of preparing to shoot a gun, which seems to take too far the technique of trying to “hook” the reader from the outset. Beginning Chapter 1 with some rather overblown scene-setting descriptions delivered via indigestibly overlong sentences, the drama builds gradually with a string of cliffhangers, some strong dialogues, and moments of black farce. It culminates in a court case, sensationalised by the media, over what appears to be a serious sexual crime, in which the person in the dock turns out to be not the only one on trial. Right to the last page, it paints a somewhat bleak and cynical picture of western society – at least in middle-class Paris and New York.

At times, some quite profound reflections on, for instance, the definition of rape, the penalties which should be imposed for it, and changing attitudes, as with the impact of recent movements like #MeToo and #Balance ton porc, rise up through the plot twists of a steamy soap designed to entertain. The most powerful, even moving, chapters are those where the prosecuting and defence lawyers sum up their respective cases.

I suspect that this novel may fall between more than two stools by offending some feminists on one hand, those who find some details too sordid on another, and also disappointing readers who judge the disconnection between spiced-up satire and insightful analysis too great. Although this novel did not entirely work for me, apart from providing some useful practice in reading French, it did prompt me to reexamine my own gut feelings and prejudices.

“The Survivors” by Jane Harper: contriving to deceive

The Survivors: Small Town. Dark Secrets . . . by [Jane Harper]

When Kieran Elliot returns from Sydney with his partner Mia and infant daughter Audrey to his hometown, the small Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay, he has good reason to feel apprehensive. His father’s premature dementia has become so bad that his parents are moving house so that he can go into a care home, and Kieran expects to meet with some hostility, since local people have not forgotten the disaster for which he was responsible a decade earlier. The situation worsens when a murder victim is found on the shore near his parent’s home, and the local social network is filled with speculation and blame as the crime seems to have links with the earlier tragedy.

Having admired Jane Harper’s earlier books, “The Dry” and “The Lost Man” for their original plots, well-developed characters and striking sense of place, namely the Australian outback, I had high expectations for “The Survivors”. Despite the steady trickle of revelations that all may not be as it first seems, the succession of “red herrings”, and a sensitive portrayal of guilt, grief and blame, I was left somewhat disappointed. The characters tend to be two-dimensional: Kieran’s partner Mia is too good to be true, and the young male characters merge in one’s mind. The contrived plot proves rather thin, padded out with some dull, repetitive scenes which miss the opportunity to develop potentially interesting themes. The final denouement, which has to be explained by the “villain” is tortuously unsatisfactory.

I agree with reviewers who suspect the author may have been committed to a publisher’s deadline, so that more work on the construction and style, which would have made it a much better novel, was sacrificed.

“D H Lawrence, A Personal Record by ’ET’ – Jessie Chambers” – a vivid memoir which everyone interested in Lawrence’s life and times should read

Jessie Chambers was the second daughter of the smallholder of Haggs Farm where the teenage D H Lawrence became a welcome visitor because of his “exuberance, his gaiety, his powers of mimicry, his resourcefulness….his readiness to help” causing even Mr Chambers to exclaim “Work goes like fun when Bert’s here: it’s no trouble to keep them going”.

Jessie and Lawrence became close friends, paying weekly visits to the library where they took out more books than were strictly allowed, read and discussed them earnestly. For about a decade, Jessie was the sounding board for Lawrence’s musing over, say, the obligation to use one’s talents to do good, the nature of love, or his need to be free to travel abroad, without a fixed home which was a foretelling of the course his life would take.

Sadly, this intellectual closeness aroused the jealousy of his over possessive mother, who forced them to consider the emotional aspect of their relationship. With the callousness he was to show so often in the future, Lawrence told Jessie, “I’ve looked into my heart and I cannot find that I love you as a husband should love his wife”. Yet since he could not bear to give up her company, he suggested they could marry if she wanted, but he would need to seek physical fulfilment elsewhere, or if he managed to find a woman to satifsy him physically, he and Jessie could continue a clandestine intellectual relationship. Clearly this marred their friendship, obliging Jessie to conceal the love she felt for him, until his elopement with the married mother-of-three Frieda Weekley put an end to any further relationship.
In the meantime, her distress did not prevent Jessie from copying out some of Lawrence’s poems and sending them to a publisher, when he was all for giving up the attempt to get his work accepted after several rejections. Years later, he wrote to thank “the girl (who) had launched me, so easily on my literary career, like a princess cutting a thread, launching a ship”.

D. H. Lawrence A Personal Record by E.T. (Illustrated) by [Jessie Chambers, Marciano Guerrero]

Jessie was also among the first victims of his habit of including people he knew in his books without any attempt to disguise them, although in making Jessie his model for Miriam in “Sons and Lovers”, what really upset her were the distortions in the portrayal of her relationship with Lawrence. This was despite his assertion “It isn’t meant for the truth. It’s an adaptation from life, as all art must be”.

This memoir was written after Lawrence’s early death from tuberculosis in 1930. Written with great clarity, this impresses the reader as utterly authentic, insightful and moving. Along with her inner suffering over his overt insensitive agonising, she notes his love of nature, acute powers of observation, and gift for putting sensations into words.

The memoir is also a vivid evocation of life in the early C20 in the rural and mining communities of Nottinghamshire. In a world devoid of television and social media, Jessie’s father read magazine instalments of Tess of the D’Urbervilles aloud to his enthralled wife, and the family acted out Macbeth under Lawrence’s direction, “half-amused, half-vexed” when Mr. Chambers , horrified by what he had to say as McDuff, was driven to exclaim, “Oh dear, oh dear! How awful!” Yet ironically, in the awful social class divide, Lawrence’s first publisher Hueffer was uncertain how to talk to working men, clearly unaware that they could be sensitive and self-educated.

Even the comments included in inverted commas in the memoir could be precisely what was said, because Jessie first began writing an account of her friendship with Lawrence under the title “The Rathe Primrose” as early as 1911. After her final break with Lawrence in 1913, she destroyed this manuscript, and it is interesting to speculate whether she was the victim of the sexism of the day when a publisher rejected it earlier as “unlikely to be a commercial success”.

“The Married Man” by Brenda Maddox: tortured and flawed genius

The Married Man: Life of D.H. Lawrence by Maddox, Brenda Hardback Book The Cheap

This engrossing doorstep of a biography focuses on the eighteen years of D.H. Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda, his former tutor’s striking, ebullient, promiscuous German wife. Lawrence was probably attracted by her lack of inhibition and belief in free expression which she had picked up via a previous lover from continental thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud, in such sharp contrast to the narrow, Congregational chapel world of the Nottinghamshire mining community in which he had grown up.
In turn, Frieda believed herself to be nurturing and inspiring his genius as a writer, arguing after his death that, if he had married his first girlfriend Jessie Chambers, he would never have been more than “a little local poet, a watered down Thomas Hardy”.

For those who admired Frieda, there seem to have been more who regarded her as a very damaging influence on him, even to the point of contributing to his death by failing to use common sense and insisting on obtaining proper treatment for the tuberculosis which he denied for years, almost to the end. Admittedly, he could only tolerate life in a sanatorium for a fortnight when he eventually admitted defeat. Apart from her frequent infidelities which Lawrence seemed to tolerate, her worst fault seems to have been provoking him quite knowingly into the savage bursts of anger in which he beat her, even in front of visitors and friends. This, together with the undeniable misogyny in some of his later writing, plus his preoccupation with male dominance in marriage, triggered the condemnation of the 1970s feminist movement, as represented by Kate Millett.

As a result, Lawrence now remains well-known, but not particularly revered, so it is interesting to learn how quickly and easily he gained initial recognition, although his growing fame was fed by the notoriety of his later work, culminating in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, banned in both England and America, which it is disappointing to learn was written simply to earn as much as possible quickly when he knew he was dying. Apart from his main rival James Joyce, Lawrence was admired by famous writers like E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley, although many were offended by his habit of including them undisguised, but often caricatured in his novels. They were repelled by the too frequent violent outbursts which made even friends doubt his sanity at times.

This could of course be attributed to his frequent ill health, and the suppressed knowledge that he had a disease which caused him considerable pain, and would kill him prematurely. When he was a child, his mother’s possessiveness, heightened by the need to nurse him through a long illness, and generally to protect him from infection, must have affected his emotional development. Her bitter contempt for her husband, which she encouraged her children to share, must also have damaged Lawrence’s ability to form stable relationships, but author Brenda Maddox does not explore these aspects much.

Lawrence is fascinating in his dual personality. Many found him charismatic, charming and entertaining, although his skilful mimicry must have been insensitive at times. He was industrious, with many practical skills, often generous with his time and money, when he had it, to help others. Yet he could also be cruel, abusive, sharp-tongued, dogmatic and opinionated to the degree that one might question how “good” a writer he really was when he committed some of his bizarre, often confused, ideas to print.

A restless wanderer to Italy, Ceylon, Australia or the high plains of the US state of New Mexico and Mexico itself in search of the pure air at high altitudes to ease his lungs, Lawrence gained the material for his memorable travel writing. His keen observation of nature and animals (which did not prevent his vicious beating of a pet dog) produced some striking poetry: “A snake came to my water-trough….” . “Sons and Lovers” is an enduring classic, although a clear example of the degree to which he drew on his own experience, in the process misrepresenting his relationship with Jessie Chambers, which he would justify by arguing that “art is not life”, even if it draws on real people for inspiration.

His later work, as summarised and quoted from in this book, often appears too farcical, perhaps intentionally, produced too quickly, with a loss of his earlier more subtle and considered style. But whatever one’s view of his work, Lawrence and Frieda remain an intriguing couple, rattling through their world of evocative places and famous names from the past.

“To the Lake” by Kapka Kassabova: transported to another world

Fascinated by Kapka Kassabova’s “Borders”, an evocative portrayal of the little-known area of Thrace split between Bulgaria, where she lived as a child, Greece and Turkey, I was keen to read “To the Lake” which promised to be in a similar vein. The focus is in fact on two lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, connected by underground springs, which lie partly in the little-known republic renamed in 2019 as “Northern Macedonia”. The lake region is also shared with Albania, and in the case of Prespa with Greece as well. Centuries of conflict, migration and mingling mean that families of Macedonian origin, in whole or part, are to be found in all these countries, creating the kind of mixture after which a “salade macédoine” is named.

Ohrid is more of a tourist area, with atmospheric monasteries like St.Naum and former cave churches with ancient, too often desecrated murals, accessed by stone steps from the shore. Yet there is the persistent shadow of the national boundary which Macedonian boats cannot cross for fear of entering Albanian water. In the wilder Prespa area, the Greeks claim that the shadow is cast literally by the mountains, to darken the Albanian portion of the lake. Putting humans to shame, a large population of pelicans coexist amicably with the cormorants, who apparently share with them the fish they dive deep into the lake to catch.

Athough the name “Makedonia” probably comes from the word “tall” to describe the “Macedons” of antiquity, it is often claimed to mean “sorrow” and “strife”, from the Slavic word “maka”. Even local place names reflect this, like the “Mean Valley”, where soldiers suffered so badly scaling the slopes with heavy equipment in deep snow, overlooked by a peak called “Coffin”.

Convinced that what she calls “unprocessed trauma” has been passed down through generations of women on her mother’s Macedonian side of the family, Kapka Kassabova felt compelled to return to the lake region in order to understand the past, and break the pattern of depression, undiagnosed pain and fatigue, wanderlust and eternal longing “for something”.

If this sounds bleak, not to say neurotic, she finds healing in the end, waxing philosophical with lake water metaphors. “Every possibility is still at the source. All it asks of you is to stop struggling. Wade in..and free yourself of the burden you’ve been carrying for centuries…become anything….at one with the water…though what you are in the end is water, a spring that renews itself every second as it rushes in ecstasy to the lake.”

The author’s style is often poetic, although at times overintense. A “macédoine” of travelogue, history, geography, memories, anecdotes laced with humour and poignancy, legends and frequent encounters with the locals, or returning emigrants, all combine to create a vivid impression of a beautiful, remote, complex land. Admittedly, the detail tends to be so fragmented that the reader needs to consult Wikipedia and some good maps to gain a coherent sense of the overall chronology and geography. Yet the author succeeds in generating empathy for migrants, rage against regimes which needlessly impose pointless , cruel restrictions, a heightened awareness of cultures outside our own – and above all, the desire to visit the area.

“The Battle of the Villa Fiorita” by Rumer Godden – unintended consequences

Cocooned in a middle-class country house world of around 1960, conventional, dutiful and considered dull by her “friends”, Fanny’s life revolves round her three children or her garden when they are at boarding school, while her reliable if also somewhat dull husband Darrell is often working abroad. When, by chance, she catches the eye of a charismatic film director called Rob, she cannot resist the realisation of what a totally different life with him could be. Divorced by Darrell, who also gains custody of their children, Fanny is suppressing her guilt during her stay with Rob in an idyllic villa on the shores of Lake Garda, when her two younger offspring, eleven-year-old Caddie and Hugh, who is fourteen, show surprising initiative and guile in arriving unexpectedly to persuade her to return “home”. Delighted by the fact that they still “want” her, the upsurge in her maternal instincts inevitably creates tensions in her relations with the pragmatic and somewhat cynical Rob, who also turns out to have a daughter Pia who proves as opposed to his planned marriage as are the other children. Unintended consequences of their actions and the unpredictability of Lake Garda itself, build up to a dramatic climax. How can the children possibly succeed in splitting Fanny and Rob who clearly love each other. If they do, will they live to regret it?

What may sound “Mills-and-Boon”, and I would be interested to know if this novel appeals to male readers, is saved by the fact that the prolific author Rumer Godden was an expert storyteller, who mixes wry humour and poignancy, giving all her characters distinct personalities, and entering into the minds of the main ones, so that one understands their motivations, and feels some sympathy even when disliking them, or vice versa. She also creates a strong sense of place, in this case mostly of Lake Garda, which tallies with my memories of, say, the lakeside lemon groves at Limone, Malcesine with it steep streets and castle below the grassy slopes at Monte Baldo, the sudden dramatic storms which descend on the lake, plus it is interesting to read descriptions of an area before it was inundated with modern tourism.

This novel will probably seem dated, although it brought back a vivid memory of the late 1950s when my tight-lipped mother would not allow mention at the dinner table of the divorce of a school-friend’s parents. It seems that Rumer Godden’s own divorce of her first husband and realisation of the “turmoil” this created for her daughters was the genesis of this highly fictionalised account, also making the writing more authentic. On reflection, I was satisfied by the ending which leaves the future open and uncertain, as is the case in real life.

My only criticisms are over some aspects of the portrayal of Pia and Hugh, which it would be a spoiler to explain. Also, in the latter part of the novel, perhaps the author’s own conversion to the Catholic faith may have created a sense of guilt and retribution for sin which undermined her insights as a writer.

“Burning Man”: The Ascent of DH Lawrence – Flawed genius?

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by [Frances Wilson]

Perhaps to achieve an original take on D H Lawrence, Frances Wilson’s biography “of imagination”, links the author’s middle years, “the decade of superhuman energy and productivity” from 1915-25, with the events of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. So the war years of 1915-19 which Lawrence spent in England, being too sick to enlist, are “Inferno; “Purgatory” applies to 1919-1922, spent in Italy with his wife Frieda, who had abandoned her husband, his former tutor, and her three children for Lawrence, while the years spent in America and Mexico, 1922-25 are “Paradise”.

This approach made me realise the influence of Dante on the education of men of Lawrence’s generation, as well as on earlier writers like Shelley whom he admired, at least in his youth. Having only a sketchy knowledge of Dante myself, I probably missed the cleverness of many allusions, but the device seemed to me too contrived, and ultimately rather tedious.

Just as streams of consciousness can add power to fiction, the author’s continual roller coasters of digressions from digressions often bring Lawrence and his associates to life. However, the style creates a hectic quality, at times overloaded with detail or repetition. The stated intention to focus on some of the more “minor” characters in Lawrence’s life leads to what seem disproportionately long sections on for instance, Maurice Magnus, the conman lover of flamboyant writer Norman Douglas. Towards the end, with the restless Lawrence ricocheting round the world, from Australia to Ceylon to New Mexico in the company of characters portrayed as larger than life, amoral, highly eccentric, even mentally disturbed, like American patron of the arts and Indian rights, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the book verges on black farce. The author’s interpretation of the latter’s neuroses seems open to question, and a distraction from the business of trying to understand DH Lawrence.

Wilson’s tendency to provide potted summaries of some of Lawrence’s later plots, presenting them as increasingly bizarre, is counterproductive in deterring one from wanting to read them. Yet it is worth ploughing through the verbiage to glean the occasional insight. For instance, Rebecca West “compared his wanderings to those of the mystic or Russian saint ‘who says goodbye and takes his stick and walks out with no objective but the truth’ ”. She noted his “vision of mankind that he registered again and again…always rising to a pitch of ecstatic agony”. She also saw how “his shoulder-blades stood out through his clothing “in a pair of almost wing-like projections” – a sign of tuberculosis spotted long before in Roman times. His strong “sense of place” often led to disappointment: he detested Ceylon, probably because it aggravated the consumption which he refused to acknowledge, but loved the high desert regions of New Mexico which suited his declining health.

Influenced by Carl Jung, Lawrence told his first love Jessie Chambers, “I’m not one man, but two”: “the second me, a hard, cruel if need be, me that is the writer which troubles the pleasanter me, the human who belongs…… to nobody, not even to myself”. Combining intense introspection with acute observation of others, Lawrence caused many people distress through portraying them so unmistakably in his novels, often incorporating real events. As shown in his striking poetry, he had an affinity with animals, which being dumb did not arouse his wrath.

The author seems to gloss over the more positive aspects of his personality, to focus on the flaws. He is mainly portrayed as an arrogant, opinionated monster, given to bigoted, offensive outbursts, but did he really mean them? The man who dreamed of founding a utopian “little colony”, with “no money but a sort of communism as far as the necessities of life” seems at odds with the one who rails against democracy. He beats his wife in front of horrified friends, although this may be a kind of theatrical act, triggered by Frieda’s provocative actions – the fag hanging from the corner of her mouth – almost a writerly experiment in experiencing anger in order to describe it. Towards the end, the rants become more extreme, the prose style grows intentionally cruder (to be more “American”) as Lawrence seems to disintegrate into a kind of madness. According to Frances Wilson, he “had once more changed his shape: no longer a marauding fox or a red wolf or a plumed serpent, he now saw himself as Pan, sex-god of the mountain wilds”. Is this artistic licence on her part? At worst, he might nowadays simply be diagnosed as having manic tendencies.

I would have liked a more thematic approach, analysing more objectively his dual personality perhaps better described as complex. To what extent was he damaged by his mother’s possessiveness, and her contempt for his father? In a class-ridden society, as a miner’s son he must have felt keenly the snobbery he encountered. The blinkered British censorship of some of his work, with even “The Rainbow”, condemned by the prosecution as “disgusting, detestable and pernicious….in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action” must have stimulated his tendency to murderous thoughts, and his desire to quit a land with its “dead muffled sense” of everything being “sand-bagged”. The debilitating respiratory illness he suffered most winters, and in some climates, must have fed his negativity.

Finding this book by turns intensely gripping and tediously overblown, impressed by the author’s remarkably deep research, I am left with a sense of vital missing pieces in the jigsaw, distorting her portrayal of Lawrence. This motivates me to read the record of Jessie Chambers, the calm, intelligent girl on whom the youthful Lawrence “hammered himself out”, and to seek out another biographer to enable me the better to to judge to what extent his intense introspection ultimately blighted his genius.

“Un monde à portée de main” or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.