“In the Full Light of the Sun” by Clare Clark – fascinating theme but confused plot

Against a backdrop of rampant inflation and corruption, “madness spreading like gas”, in 1920s Berlin, famous art critic Julius Köhler-Schultz is in the throes of a bitter divorce from his much younger wife, who has decamped with their small son and “the only painting in the world” Julius “could not bear to live without”, a self-portrait of Van Gogh. In this vulnerable state he falls under the spell of a charismatic young art dealer, Matthias Rachman, but is he quite what he seems? Julius also supports the artistic ambitions of talented but troubled teenager Emmeline Eberhardt.

This novel was inspired by the long-forgotten but once famous case of Otto Wacker, the German dancer who was eventually tried for knowingly selling fake Van Gogh paintings, always after compromising the reputation of some expert by gaining his authentication. Initially I was impressed by the novel’s very strong sense of time and place, and the slow-burning build-up of suspense. It was therefore a shock to be plummeted into Part 2 with an abrupt switch to the viewpoint of Emmeline whose drunken agonising over unrequited lesbian love becomes somewhat tedious, although no doubt a true reflection of one aspect of inter-war Berlin. By the time I reached Part 3 in the form of the diary of lawyer Frank Berzacki, forced to face up to the Nazi regime’s inexorable crushing of Jewish rights, I realised that the author has deliberately inverted what one expects of a plot. Instead of setting an art crime at the forefront, this is obliquely referred to throughout the book, generally secondary to the inner thoughts and concerns of the three main characters in turn.

Can one ever be sure a painting is not a fake? Are the eye-watering sums paid for some art justified? Such questions woven into a historical thriller about possible fraud should make an absorbing read, so why did I find it frustrating, the middle section in particular such heavy going? I could forgive the frequently overblown or mawkish style whenever the author touches on passionate feelings, because this is offset by the many striking, poetical images, particularly in Emmeline’s section which I suppose is a way of portraying her artistic eye. She describes a flock of starlings: “ a vast rippling cape…surging and wheeling, stretching into swooping curves, twisting in helixes, rising in streamers on the wind, the whisper-roar of their wings like the sea or the thrumming of a thousand fingers on a thousand paper drums”.

The three sections are welded together in an unwieldy structure. Too many mostly thinly sketched and often unnecessary characters, and minor incidents which pad the novel up to over four hundred pages, tend to overwhelm or drive out the plot, in which key events take place “off stage” and so remain confused or unclear and left for the reader to surmise. I would have preferred the author’s painstaking research applied to a factual portrayal of art in interwar Germany.

Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

READ ON FOR MORE COMMENT

Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aehem Ahmad: “There’s always hope”

This is the revealing and moving memoir of a young musician who captured media attention in the west during the earlier part of the civil war in Syria, by dragging a beaten-up piano into the rubble of Yarmouk, the besieged suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, originally a large camp for refugees from Palestine in the 1940s. With help from foreigners, but at considerable personal risk, he succeeded in making the dangerous journey to Germany in 2015, where he was eventually reunited with his immediate family, and now continues to perform music about Syria to inform and remind us of the ongoing crisis there.

Ghosted by a couple of writers, the book is not particularly well-written and some details are unclear and at times hard to credit, but that is outweighed by the vivid first-hand account of life in Syria plus his resilience and flashes of humour even in adversity.

His father’s blindness and frequent need of him as a guide created a stronger bond than is usual between Syrian fathers and sons. A regular violinist at weddings, the father had greater ambitions for Aeham to become a classical pianist, going to extraordinary lengths to help him, against the odds, to gain a place at the prestigious music school dominated by children of the wealthy, going on to cajole, even bribe him, to continue practising through his rebellious teenage years. This gave him the skill which would one day save him from the hell of the civil war.

Initially impoverished, the family manages to achieve a brief level of prosperity through manufacturing and selling musical instruments, until the war forces the boarding up of the shop which is eventually blown to smithereens. Ironically, it seems to be the reluctance to abandon their instruments which keeps them in Yarmouk until they are caught up in the deadly siege.

I particularly liked the continual insights into life in Syria before it was disrupted by the war: the continual violent arguments between Aeham’s normally rational mother and her sister-in-law in the house they shared as an extended family. Despite skiving off high school to play popular music and compose in the shop (why wasn’t it open?), and insisting on marrying when his parents consider he is too young, Aeham still follows the custom of asking them to find him a suitable wife, and keeps to the tradition of not seeing their choice Tahini prior to their engagement – until curiosity brings her to their music shop to check him out, after which they arrange clandestine meetings.

From the outset there is pressure not to step out of line: Aeham is good at creating a sense of fear, as when he can tell from his father’s body language that the man whose piano they are tuning is dangerous – he turns out to be the ruthless and corrupt secretary of defence and close confidant of Assad’s father.

The tone darkens dramatically with the onset of war: the risk of arrest or a beating at one of the arbitrary checkpoints set up by rival military groups; the sniper fire which punctuates Aeham’s music as he accompanies a band of children singing; the piano, defiantly painted the colours of the Palestinian flag, set alight by a bigoted ISIS soldier because “ owning musical instruments is an unforgivable sin”. All this has to be endured on a diet of red lentil falafel and clover.

Although the dramatic account of Aeham’s eventual escape, involving exploitation by people smugglers and chains of middle men both sides of the political divide, has become an all too familiar theme, there is an authentic ring to his frequently breaking down in tears en route, or believing that he was about to meet his end, because of the surreal, inhuman stress of it all, together with his subsequent sense of guilt over having escaped and mourning for a past life, despite being in the safety of Germany.

This book is important reading for those unaware of the tragedy of Syria and Palestine. It is also worth viewing on YouTube some of the videos of Aeham playing.

“On Chapel Sands” by Laura Cumming: How everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster”

In 1929, on the long golden Lincolnshire beach of Chapel Sands, three-year-old Betty Elston was abducted when her mother wasn’t looking, but found safe and well in a house nearby a few days later. Why did Betty so readily accept being kidnapped and why were no demands for money involved? Perhaps understandably, her parents did not reveal that she had been adopted until an incident ten years later but why was she kept so isolated from local people? Why did the kind-hearted Betty come to reject her adoptive father to the extent of not going to his funeral? And why did the baker’s boy deliver bread to the neighbouring households, but not hers?

Although this reads at times like fiction, it is art critic Laura Cumming’s biographical “homage” to her mother in which “all the characters and events are real” with “only one name… changed, in the final chapter”. Skilled in interpreting what lies behind a painting, the author deftly drip-feeds the intriguing details of her mother’s life, some not discovered until years after the event.

Betty’s adoptive mother Veda seems sweet and submissive, perhaps worn down by two decades of infertility in a community where being a wife and mother was the main point of one’s existence, not to mention dealing with George, allegedly an “extremely intelligent but domineering and somewhat like a character from Dickens.”. Adoptive father George seemed cast as villain of the piece but I felt that the author was rather too hard on him, only softening in the revelation saved for the final chapter. In the kind of life where much of the excitement comes early on, in his case with a valiant role in the Boer War, ending up as a travelling salesmen during the years of Depression and World War Two must have been an anti-climax. Yet his skill in making elaborate models and using a simple Box Brownie character to produce some evocative photos suggests he may have been a frustrated artist, whereas Betty and Laura, born later, had the chance to develop their artistic talents.

Perhaps a little too thin at times, leading to repetition and reliance on speculation, the facts are fleshed out with descriptions of local celebrities like Tennyson who wrote of Chapel Sands as “a sand-built ridge….the spine-bone of the world”, together with vivid accounts of social life in rural Lincolnshire in the last century. Here were tightknit, inward-looking local communities where everyone knew each other’s business, but no one said a word to Betty about her origins. We are reminded of a lost world of self-sufficiency: in the 1920s the village of Hogsthorpe “numbered not quite five hundred people” with “a surprising range of shops – a butcher, a baker, not one but two shoemakers, a pair of blacksmiths….– a confectioner, three separate grocers, a bricklayer, plumber and wheelwright.… you could have your hair cut, have bicycles and baskets custom-made…the elementary school had room for more than a hundred pupils” – all this long gone.

Linking her mother’s life to the pictures she collected, Laura Cumming provides a detailed analysis of Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: the sturdy farmer ploughing improbably close to the cliff edge seems oblivious to Icarus drowning in the sea, just as the locals ignored the Elston family drama, while George is likened to Icarus in his hubris. It is a pity my Kindle could do justice neither to George’s photographs nor the paintings cited , so I advise reading a paper copy of the book if possible.

This book follows the same forensic technique as Laura Cumming’s “The Vanishing Man”, interpreting and speculating on the works of the great painter Velasquez. I was more impressed by the latter, but it may be a matter of taste whether one prefers the smaller-scale, more domestic canvas of the life of an ordinary girl who escaped a narrow world to find fulfilment as a painter and weaver, against the odds.

The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus: Winning knowledge and memories in the conflict between life and the plague

Published in 1947, this French classic is often taken as a metaphor for the French resistance in its courageous but futile fight against the Nazi occupation. Those who have rushed to buy it in 2020, cannot fail to be taken aback by the similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Set in the Algerian town of Oran, the central character is Doctor Rieux who galvanises the authorities into action through his insistence that, however unlikely a rat-born bubonic plague may seem, there is no time for reflection and waiting for official confirmation. Unless one acts immediately as if it were the plague, there is a risk that half the town’s population will die.

Official reactions are all too familiar, such as the “Prefet” who is terrified of using the word “plague” even in a meeting behind closed doors, but fears even more accusations of failure to deal with the crisis. Rieux notes wrily how the first warning posters are rather small, pasted in “discreet” corners” in an attempt to “keep the lid” on public anxiety. “Specially equipped” wards for plague victims are created by giving other sick patients lower priority. The “serum” flown is in short supply and gets less effective over time, and the attempts to develop a vaccine take months to succeed. Eventually there’s even a lack of coffins, but with commerce killed by the plague, there are plenty of unemployed men to dig the graves.

As the spring arrives with the usual baskets of scented roses for sale, the plague subsides, only to surge back, forcing official declaration of the epidemic and sealing of the town. Individual reactions merge into a common sense of fear and separation from the outside world, with everyone bound by the same restrictions, such as the prohibition of sending letters, as possible sources of infection. A restaurant crowded with customers since this is a convenient way of obtaining food gives a false sense of normality -panic breaks out when someone abruptly flees from the scene, vomiting. The isolation camps eventually set up are like “different planets” from which distant sounds of the town compound the sense of rejection.

Camus pulls no punches when it comes to describing the night train transporting bodies for mass burial, or characters fighting for their lives. Nothing is omitted: the attacks on locked gates by those frantic to escape, the looting of houses set ablaze, imposition of curfews, fear of prison sentences because of the high death rates there, the rapid burials with minimal funeral rites.

Initially masking their fear with jokes, the inhabitants develop over time the mind-set of prisoners who dare not speculate on their release date, reduced to dwelling on their past. Outsiders clumsily express their “solidarity” but are powerless to share in a suffering they cannot really envisage.

Rather like Isaac Newton who apparently recommended powdered toad mixed with toad vomit to avert the plague, people turn in desperation to quack remedies and superstition, clearing pharmacies of menthol pastilles rumoured to protect again contagion, and more consoled by wearing charms than going to mass. This is hardly surprising since the grim Father Paneloux preaches that the plague is a punishment for sin, until the sight of an innocent young child dying in agony triggers a crisis of doubt in his own faith.

“One gets tired of pity when pity is useless”: the pragmatic Rieux finds relief in hardening his heart against emotion. Voicing the author’s existentialist views on the essential absurdity of the world, “it is unimportant whether events have a meaning or not”. What matters is how people react to them. His fight against the plague has proved to him that in mankind there is generally more to admire than to despise.

Events play out against the backdrop of a strong sense of place, and striking images, often involving the sun, wind, dust and the sea: at the peak of the crisis, the deserted Algerian town is “a silent assemblage of massive, inert cubes” that “white with dust… sonorous with the cries of the wind, groaned like an island of misery……The inhabitants blamed the wind for transporting the plague”.

This is not a chronicle that ends in definitive victory. The plague is portrayed as a kind of living beast, or malign being, only subsiding when it has for the time being exhausted itself or achieved what it set out to do. In the aftermath, all most people want is to behave as if nothing has changed, but the plague cannot be forgotten, even when the disrupted services have been restored. The wise Rieux knows what the crowds coming to celebrate the end of the plague do not: the bacillus carrying the plague never dies, but waits patiently, for the day when “for the misery and instruction of man” it awakes the rats and sends them to bring death to a carefree city.

I agree with a reviewer who found the style so analytical and objective that it was hard to develop strong empathy for any of the characters as “flesh and blood individuals” apart from Rieux.

Yet perhaps because I read it during the “coronavirus lockdown”, this novel made a huge impression on me. So well written in the original French, lending itself to translation without a loss of its power, wide-ranging in its insight, it repays reading more than once to absorb it fully.

 

Border- a journey to the edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

The border area west of the Black Sea between Bulgaria, where the author Kapka Kassabova grew up under a communist regime, with Turkey and Greece to the south, is a mystery to most people. Situated on the edge of Europe, it has been fated to lie on the edge of a succession of empires: Greek, Ottoman and Soviet, suffering continual invasion and domination, with enforced transfers of Greeks into Turkey and vice versa, now replaced by the stream of refugees from ravaged areas like Syria, trying to reach Germany or the UK by a backdoor remote mountainous route. Since her own family was forced out as economic migrants, I think during the messy collapse of communism, travelling as far afield as New Zealand, she displays a strong empathy for migrants of all kinds.
As a child, the author resented the restrictions which prevented her from crossing the border near her Black Sea holiday resort into nearby Turkey. She was intrigued by the East Germans known by the locals as “sandals”, who crept off into the forested granite hills of Strandja in the hope of finding a way round the electrified barbed wire border fence, only to be betrayed by shepherds or shot by border guards.

Thirty years later, nostalgia for the countryside brought her back, to stay in a succession of places, starting with the “The Village in the Valley”, presumably unnamed to preserve people’s privacy, now decimated by the mass population exit “in the brutal freefall of 1990s post-Communism”, completing the effects of an earlier flight of Greek-speaking people in exchange for Bulgarian refugees from Turkey in what the author calls “the merry-go-round of exchange of population”. Although this is fascinating, I was frequently left unclear about the sequence of events.

The lack of clarity, combined with frequent digression into anecdotes and folktales, and a picaresque map which omits most place-names to focus on specific features of her stories such as “The Spring of the White-Legged Maiden” or “Felix’s Cliff”, create an avoidable confusion which is my main criticism of the book.

The compensation, is the creation of a kind of magical, haunting quality in which we learn say, about “agiasma”, Greek for the holy springs, at one of which the author was taken to watch the fire-walkers, still keeping alive the tradition of fire worship.

Sometimes the supernatural “goes over the top” for my taste, as in the convoluted tale of the “Tomb of Basket”, the excavation of which was thwarted by terrifying night-time visions of “three-dimensional spectral projections” coming out of the rock to approach the terrified observers “who got the hell out of there”.

More prosaic is the anecdote of the Turkish “chesma” or roadside fountain where she meets a shady character, whom she realises too late must have developed his secluded rural “gangster-baroque” hideaway on the proceeds of spying and wheeler-dealing for the former Stasi-like State Security.

I was intrigued by the C6 rock monastery of Saint Nicholas, protected from further vandalism by a self-appointed, unpaid guard who turns out to be not only a despised gypsy but a Muslim, who observes, “Church or mosque, it’s all the same. A place of God and silence. You have to treat it with respect”. We are reminded that the reason for persecuting the gypsies over the centuries was that, in roaming around with their horses, they avoided paying tax. Hence the failed decree to ban gypsy acrobats from having horses.

Then there was her stay in “The Village where you lived for ever” in the Rhodope Mountains inhabited by the Pomaks. Descendants of long-ago converts to Islam and therefore persecuted as a kind of “fifth column” in Bulgaria, despite their Slavic or ethnic Bulgar origin, at various times having both Christianity and name changes forced upon them. Near here is “The Judgement” border cliff from which “inconvenient people have been pushed into the mist since the beginning of people”. I was moved by the tale of the Czechs trying to escape from Communism who left some money for the lunch they stole from a shepherd. His dilemma was whether to turn a blind eye and risk being punished for failing a test of his loyalty, or to report the theft and be commended. Having chosen the latter, he was haunted for the rest of a life. Or did the Czechs arrive in Greece safely, if hungry?
Kapka Kassabova has an appealing honesty, even if sometimes verging on neurosis. When it was time to move on from “the Village in the Valley” she writes: “I had worried that I was at heart a deracinated, drifting person, despite my delusion or being at home everywhere. That although I no longer belonged here, in the broken country of my youth, it was where I secretly belonged the most. That I fancied myself as an observer, but even after twenty years away, I was still a participant and always would be. That I had no distance from anything and cared too much about the doomed. That the Village in the Valley felt like paradise but might be purgatory. That I couldn’t tell the difference. That I felt tainted , yet full of love for this plundered place”.

In selecting points for this review, I appreciate once again the book’s strong sense of place and social history. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that, if inspired to visit this area, we would lack the knowledge and access to local guides to experience it as the author has. Also, how long can its character survive as people die out in the “villages of dingy, inscrutable beauty” while the current Turkish regime attacks the southern slopes of Strandja “like a wrecking ball” with gigantic quarries and cement works, and a coastal nuclear plant, all in the name of progress.

India by Patrick French: Nation, Wealth and Society

Although published in 2011, before the rise of Hindu nationalism under President Modi and resultant surge in the persecution of Muslims which Patrick French could not foresee, this book remains worth reading as a clear, informative and wide-ranging introduction to a fascinating and complex country.

With many anecdotes, he creates a strong, authentic sense of place, starting with the old man in his apricot orchard, recalling how when Nehru visited the newly independent northern border region of Ladakh, there were no roads, so he had to land by plane, something the locals had never seen before, so they simply put their hands together and prayed to it. At the other end of the scale are the computer whizz kid Indian graduates who have made such a contribution to Silicon Valley in the US, some claiming that their early grounding in abstract Hindu philosophy has helped them to make “mental leaps in the virtual world”.

Commencing with a useful potted history of the creation in 1947 of what was initially meant to be a secular democracy, and an explanation of the complex politics, with MPs now increasingly determined by family links, French moves on to the early problems caused by a well-intentioned but over-bureaucratic socialist system of central planning, with enterprise often stifled by the need to obtain permits to import or manufacture products.

The benefits of the subsequent liberalisation have “lifted large numbers out of extreme poverty” but the rise in population has left about the same number of poor people. There seems to be a widening gap: “By 2008 four of the eight richest people alive were Indian”, there is a “dynamic middle class, but “people….still die, finding that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation”.

The issue of caste in all its complex degrees of exclusion runs through the text: the Chuhras who have had to do “hereditary work sweeping, cleaning, dealing with dead animals…” then scraping up the leftover food after weddings, the “joothan” to boil and store for late. In the unconscious insensitivity of his much vaunted personal sacrifice, Gandhi wished to be reborn an untouchable “to share their sorrow, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them”. With the perhaps questionable observation that “compassion is not a Hindu concept” French describes the plight of a “Dalit” (low caste) worker who, for seeking to leave his job with an unpaid debt, was fitted with heavy metal fetters, forcing him to spend years breaking stones in a quarry, until he was saved by some activists during a political campaign.

French covers relations with Pakistan and the position of Indian Muslims, who are surprisingly almost as numerous as Pakistanis. They are described by one of their own leaders as the most backward community in India “economically, educationally and socially”, largely because the most disadvantaged were left behind in the 1947 Partition. Yet, this self-same leader defended the persistence of archaic Muslim codes in India which supported his personal power, even at the cost of feeding resentment among conservative Hindus that they could not enjoy similar “separatist privilege”.

Occasionally the book gets bogged down too long in one issue, and the final chapter seems a somewhat rushed catch-all for all the outstanding points the author wanted to include, but overall this is highly recommended.

“Travellers in the third Reich” by Julia Boyd: wonderland through the looking glass

Only months after the end of World War One, travel brochures were urging American tourists to visit Germany, and many British travellers needed little encouragement to holiday in a country they had been brought up to admire with “its cathedrals.. castles…art treasures..Bach, Beethoven and Wagner.” Since the trench warfare had mostly taken place beyond its borders, German towns were in the main intact, and the landscape “still beautiful and largely unscathed”.

Paperback

Visitors from abroad were initially surprised by the “civility” and friendliness of the German people: “how can they, outwardly at least, bear so little grudge against the people who have beaten them?” When a sense of betrayal set in, largely against “the Kaiser, their politicians and generals and especially… the Treaty of Versailles” foreign observers often felt some sympathy over its harsh and humiliating terms, likely to prove counterproductive in the longer term, as proved to be the case with the rampant inflation, and the rapid rise of “the chief agitator…a man of low origin”, namely Adolf Hitler.

Even those made incredulous, scornful or uneasy over the Führer’s overwrought rants and grandiose staged appearances and the rapturous mass hysteria which they generated, were impressed by the apparent rapid achievements of his regime, harnessing the innate German efficiency and industry to regenerate the country. Towns were conspicuously clean and well-kept, the Youth Movement encouraged team spirit and a healthy love of nature in the rising generation, and transport was transformed by the construction of at first underused “autobahns” far in advance of say, the British motorway system.

Others were quick to see the potential danger of the underlying fascist nationalism, in some ways hard to distinguish from the authoritarian communism to which it was fiercely opposed – until the brief notorious pact with Russia when it suited the Nazis. Some travellers were blind to the growing persecution of the Jewish population, perhaps in part because anti-Semitism was quite strong in their home countries at the time, but as laws were passed to deprive Jews progressively of their jobs and rights, anger and revulsion against Hitler’s government took root.

Some like the French author Jacques Chardonne were carried away by an utterly distorted view of the “moral beauty” of German society: “courage, will, self-denial, decency and various forms of health”. He even had a romantic view of the SS as “militant monks…. they do not seem to feel sorrow, or fear, or hunger or desire: they are the angels of war come down for a moment from the heaven of Niflheim (in Norse mythology) to help people to perform a task that is too difficult for them”. More pragmatic visitors could see how, by late 1941, physical conditions for ordinary Germans had often deteriorated to the point of making life not worth living.

Yet right to the outbreak of war, people who should have known better failed to take a stand. Even an elderly Lloyd George, flattered during a meeting by Hitler’s praise for his statesmanship in World War One, returned home to shower him with fulsome praise: “a magnetic, dynamic personality…the George Washington of Germany who won independence from his country’s oppressors, while remaining unquestionably a man of peace”. Also, despite avoiding the risk of sitting with Hitler in the Wagner box at the Bayreuth Festival, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham could not resist the temptation to show off his new London Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany, all expenses paid, as the price of a PR campaign by the Germans to gain acceptance.

This meticulously researched and very readable book creates a vivid sense of life in Germany in the two decades between the World Wars, giving great insight into the causes and effects of the fateful Third Reich. Since it can be hard to keep track of the vast and varied cast of letter and diary writers, it is worth referring to the glossary of characters supplied at the back.

The final brief chapters covering the war itself inevitably rely heavily on the British women who happen to have married Germans. One describes the ludicrous yet poignant irony of an old British friend “dropping by” on his way to “take Kiel” at the end of the war.

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.