“All for Nothing” by Walter Kempowski: Beyond Understanding

The Georgenhof manor house on the road to the Prussian border with Russia is falling into disrepair in the final stages of World War 2. Owner Erhard Von Globig is serving in Italy while his beautiful wife Katharina, whose dreamy vagueness, “it was all so complicated”, may be an inward escape from an unhappy marriage and the tedium of life in a rural backwater, leaves all the work to a handful of foreign servants escaped from the east, under the control of bossy spinster “Auntie”. Katharina’s inquisitive twelve-year old son Peter (probably modelled on the author himself) conveniently avoids co-option into the Hitler Youth by reason of a persistent bad throat.

With a gradual flow of refugee carts travelling from the east and rumours of a vengeful Russian invasion as Hitler loses his grip, Auntie packs a suitcase and shrewd Polish farmhand Vladimir stows items on a large cart, but that is as far as any plans get for the journey to the relative safety of “the Reich” while there is still time. A mixture of inertia, nostalgic attachment to unnecessary possessions and lack of imagination over just how bad life could become, keeps them chained to their familiar routine. And, after all, where would they go? What could they bear to leave behind?

Even when Drygalski, the bigoted deputy mayor of the local housing estate, succeeds in billeting refugee families at the Georgenhof, the Von Globigs are happy to receive them almost as a form of home entertainment. Eventually, with the refugee flight increased to a flood, sounds of gunfire and ominous lights in the eastern sky, the decision is made to leave. Yet this is too late to prevent a fateful and shameful incident. Also, despite the semblance of orderly flight with provision of soup kitchens and strict guidelines for crossing the ice on the shortcut route to safety, the imminent collapse into chaos of a defeated society seems inevitable.

An unathletic teenager during World War 2, author Walter Kempowski found it hard to accept the discipline of compulsory service under the Hitler Youth to the extent that he was transferred to a penal unit – it seems his main crime was a love of “degenerate” jazz – and later drafted as a courier into the youth branch of the Luftwaffe. His father, killed in action at the end of the war after five years of combat, owned one of the ships deployed to shuttle thousands of refugee Germans from Prussia across to Rostok where the Kempowskis lived. The teenager observed the flight in which some 300,000 people starved, froze or drowned to death or were killed by the Russians.

Found guilty by the occupying Soviets of collaboration because of his work for the American Army of Occupation, Kempowski received a 25 year sentence, but was released after 8 years and deported to the west.
His ten volume “Echolot”, “Echo Soundings” is a “collective diary” of firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, and memoirs of those who live through the war. Added to his own experiences, all this has culminated in “All For Nothing” , a wrily cynical fictionalised observation of events which shocks the reader through the unflinching objectivity which reduces both “normal daily life” and the horrors of war for civilians to the same level of banality. It was his last novel, published in 2006, sixty years after the events they describe and only a year before his death.

The author reveals human flaws in all his characters in an approach based on “personal relativism”, the theory that that there are no absolute truths, so that an individual’s morality is defined by one’s particular perspective on life, inevitably conditioned by culture, which some will blindly accept, such as, in this case, unquestioning antisemitism or conformity to “the rules”, but others kick against. Katharina Von Globig seems to rise above the enforced prejudices and regulations by swimming with the foreign maids (while exploiting them as cheap labour), listening to enemy radio channels and harbouring a Jew on the run, but does she do this out of liberal principles, or because she lives too much in a world of her own to care? Drygalski, caricature of a trumped-up Nazi bigot, exercises his petty power to make life hard for his over-privileged neighbours, yet at the end he behaves out of character in what seems like a selfless act – but is it really so?

This novel lingers in one’s thoughts, reminding me of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française”. A bestseller in Germany where it struck a chord with a nation coming to terms with and seeking to understand a guilty past, I wonder to what extent it has suffered from translation into English. There is a repetitive, slightly “children’s storybook” turn of phrase which jarred on me, and I am unsure whether this due to choices made by Anthea Bell, the award-winning translator whose work happens to have included a good deal of children’s literature. Yet Kempowski undeniably repeats small details like a mantra – Katharina’s admirer Lothar Sarkander is rarely mentioned without his “stiff leg and duelling scars on his cheeks”. Some passages prove a bit tedious, like the initial sequence of eccentric visitors casually accepted by the family as a kind of entertainment, although there is black humour in the political economist dabbing black paint on every image of Hitler in Peter’s stamp collection – “Suppose a Russian opens the album and sees the Fuhrer grinning…?”

“The New Silk Roads” – The Present and Future of the World

The Silk Road was the network of trade routes which began as long ago as 200 BCE, linking China to Southern Europe and named after the lucrative sale of silk developed by the Han Dynasty. The Chinese also traded high value luxury goods that were easier to transport: porcelain, spices, teas, sugar and salt. In exchange they bought goods like cotton and wool, together with ivory, gold, and silver. The Silk Road was also a channel for cultural exchanges: religion, philosophy, science and technological “advances” like the use of gunpowder and papermaking.

Peter Frankopan’s book “The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World” is apparently an extended appendix to his highly praised major academic work, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, inspired by the desire to broaden the outlook of a somewhat inward-looking, complacent North American and European world.

“The New Silk Roads” is designed to alert readers to the recent rapid and significant changes in the countries lying across these old trade routes, which will inevitably alter the balance of power to the disadvantage of countries like Britain and the United States, now forced to realise that their periods of world domination have proven transient. In the latest swing of the pendulum, China has since 2013 invested heavily in the “Belt and Road Initiative” involving railways and highways, power grids, construction material, vehicles, real estate, education and telecommunications.

Intended ” to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”, the project with a target completion date of 2049 is also seen as a strategy for world domination. Trade along this new Silk Road using both land and parallel sea routes is expected to account for over 40% of world activity. In the process, in regions still torn by wars and marked by poverty and under-development, there is growing evidence of cooperation between central Asian Republics like the joint ventures between state-owned oil companies in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

My problem with Peter Frankopan’s book is that it resembles a series of hastily written newspaper articles cobbled together in a mixture of dissociated facts which are quite hard to absorb without analysis or much context, and reference to political situations at the time of writing which will soon be out-of-date, if not already, such as Brexit negotiations or the presidency of Donald Trump. A few maps would have been useful.

There is the potential for several books here. Although I appreciate the value of a book which gives an overview and appreciation of the complexity of relationships between countries, there is an art to achieving a sufficient degree of analysis without bombarding readers with examples.

Six Fourmis Blanches by Sandrine Collette – Tempting Fate

Six fourmis blanches (Sueurs froides) (French Edition) by [Sandrine Collette]

In an isolated Albanian mountain valley steeped in superstition and reputed to be cursed, Matthias is believed to have inherited the gift of keeping bad luck at bay before a wedding or suchlike, by choosing a suitable goat to hurl as a sacrifice from a high point to appease evil spirits – this is not a book for animal lovers. Despite the respect, even wary awe in which he is held, when Matthias inadvertently falls foul of the local mafia-style boss Carche, his only option is to abandon everything and go on the run.

The parallel storyline which will eventually converge with it, starts out in a much lighter vein. Lou and her partner Elias, a pair of young urban French professionals, follow an impulse to spend a long weekend trekking in the Albanian mountains in early spring in the company of four other compatriots whom they barely know, led by Vigan, a hardy-looking local guide who inspires confidence and is even fancied a bit by the two women in the group. After a day of idyllic wandering, the walkers wake to a world transformed by a freezing blizzard. The novel becomes a psychological thriller in which they are challenged beyond their capacities both physically and mentally by the forces of nature and an unrelenting sequence of mishaps. The group members prove all too human in their flaws, apart from the almost saintly Elias.

The author is skilful in creating a powerful sense of the intense cold, the mood swings between giving up and fighting on against the odds, the changed perceptions in which malign spirits and devils suddenly do not seem so preposterous, the dilemma between instinctively saving oneself and cooperating in risky efforts to save others. In a thriller which does not flinch from the macabre, it is not at all clear until the last page, and possibly even then, who will survive and how.

This novel works on two levels: both as a well-plotted page-turner thriller with a strong sense of place (admittedly frequently far-fetched, particularly the dénouement, but that is par for the course in this genre) and also a perceptive in-depth study of character in the case of the alternating narrators, Matthias and Lou.

I read this in the original French and imagine it would need a good translator to pack the same punch in English.

Why the Germans do it Better – Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner: Wisdom after the Fall

Clearly driven by disappointed rage over the Brexit decision, subsequent bungling of negotiations for a trade deal and incompetent handling of the coronavirus, the author may have over-egged the pudding of German superiority, which his German acquaintances seem to disclaim or at least play down, mindful of the Nazi past which has made them continually self-questioning and reluctant to praise their country. They retain compound nouns for “coming to terms with history”, “culture of remembrance” and “collective guilt”: no longstanding national day ceremonies, no pageantry.

Kampfner sets his analysis in the context of key factors: the post war reconstruction through competent leader Erhard’s “Economic Miracle” with the Basic Law to develop political consciousness and strengthen democracy; the visionary, ambitious, inevitably costly Unification which has raised living standards and reduced pollution in the East, but not without ongoing tensions; the recent absorption of a million refugees with the pragmatic justification of easing an acute labour shortage, but at the cost of triggering the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration AfD.

The author attributes Germany’s relative success to the intelligent way decisions are made reflecting the emotional maturity and solidity of Angela Merkel. From the 1980s Germany diverged from US and UK which opted for more deregulation and a get-rich-quick, “look after number one” culture. Instead, Germans place less reliance on individual acquisitiveness as indicated by their more restrictive shopping hours and a greater tendency to save, even if interest rates low, rather than speculate.

German society is based more on “a sense of mutual obligation, shared endeavour and the belief that people need rules to keep themselves in check”. There is a high degree of consensus in underlying values – commitment to a free market economy involving organised and responsible capitalism with a legal requirement for worker representation on company boards rather than conflict in the work place, and investment in skills and productivity of workers. Wealth produced by the market is redistributed to achieve social justice and reduce inequalities between regions. Small and medium-sized family owned enterprises spread round the country play a major role in creating employment and wealth. They are typified by social awareness and active support for local communities.

If this sounds too good to be true, there are weaknesses and flaws. The Deutsche Bank investment in sub-prime mortgages, and VW’s manipulation of tests on emissions to make diesel cars appear less polluting are well known. Yet I was surprised to learn of: Germany’s slow adoption of digital innovation and Artificial Intelligence; lack of investment in infrastructure resulting in rundown school buildings, crumbling road bridges, unreliable internet and trains that do not run on time – ironical in view of Germanic concern with punctuality; an airport designed to serve the unified Berlin has been delayed for years by a plethora of faults. Austerity measures after the 2008 financial crash meant that the states were starved of cash for vital investment while the central government had run up an embarrassing surplus by 2018.

Despite the growing strength of the Green Party and the good intentions to develop wind and solar power and close nuclear power stations by 2021 and coal-fired plants by 2038, external political considerations like concerns over the reliability of a gas pipe-line from Russia and strong counter lobbying from state-subsidised east German lignite mines may well prevent this.

Although many facts will inevitably date quite quickly, this is an informative and thought-provoking read. It seems we have something to learn from a society in which compromise, cooperation and redistribution to achieve justice are accepted for ethical and practical reasons rather than regarded as naïve extremism. On the other hand, the Germans were rather hard on the Greeks…….

“Where the crawdads sing” by Delia Owens – how to explain the path taken

Where the Crawdads Sing (Paperback)

In the marshland of North Carolina, still unspoilt in the early 1950s, inhabited only by a few down-and-outs or those escaping justice, branded “marsh trash” by the residents of nearly Barkley Cove, six-year-old Kya knows there is something amiss when her mother leaves their decrepit coastal shack, carrying a suitcase. Kya’s four older siblings soon follow suit, driven away by the violence of their drunken father. Expected to earn her keep by doing chores, she avoids him as much as possible, seeking refuge collecting shells and watching herons with flocks of the gulls soaring over the lagoon shore. Bribed with the promise of chicken pie, Kya endures a day of bullying at the town school, but evades the truancy officers thereafter. Abandoned by her father, she manages to survive alone with the help of strangers, including a boy called Tate who teaches her to read. So she somehow grows into a beautiful and intelligent woman, desperately lonely but unable to fit into the community of Barkley Cove, where she is scorned as the “Marsh Girl”.

This storyline alternates and contrasts with a mystery in 1969 when the body of Chase Andrews is discovered in the mud at the base of an old fire tower near Barkley Cove, with foul play soon suspected. Handsome, athletic popular and married, he is also known to have been a womaniser, with Kya among his list of conquests.

This novel is remarkable for its mesmerising descriptions of the natural world, informed by the author’s knowledge as a zoologist combined with a skill which has won her at least one award and plaudits for nature writing. One can visualise every change in the landscape and wildlife as Kya makes her first journey alone by boat between the low-hanging limbs of giant trees, where “duckweed colours the water as green as the leafy ceiling, creating an emerald tunnel” then out to an estuary where “waves slammed against one another awash in their own white saliva….. breaking with loud booms …. then… flattened into tongues of foam”.

The novel is also strong on the psychology of someone who has lost trust through repeated abandonment and also the impact of the world on one accustomed to isolation. So, on her first journey by car to a distant large town, travel on a main road is akin to a roller coaster without a security harness, in contrast to the wide skies of the marshes, mountains are disturbing because the sun keeps setting behind them only to reappear while the tower blocks and crowds of people at her destination are bewildering.

Some who know North Caroline have criticised the factual accuracy of certain points but I can accept any errors as “dramatic licence”. It is harder to deny the implausibility of a young child being able to survive for so long, in apparent perfect health and no major accidents with such poor food, no innoculations. To have been left in this state is unlikely. Kya’s ability to teach herself to such a high level, express herself so articulately, seems far-fetched. Like many novels, the plot is awash with coincidences, most of the characters are stereotypes, the harshness of Kya’s situation is too often leavened with excessive sentimentality, the final twist is rendered improbable by previous arguments and presented as morally justifiable when it is in fact questionable.
The author herself caught my interest by reason of her time in Africa where she and her former husband became embroiled in controversy over their campaigning against ivory poachers, in circumstances which may have inspired this book in some respects.

Despite my reservations which are clearly a minority view on this international bestseller, I found it a page-turner and worth reading although I would be interested to know how male readers tend to rate it.

La Daronne or The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre: “The sins of the fathers”

Widowed young, now in her fifties, the misnamed narrator Patience finds that her work as an Arab interpreter/translator for the Paris judiciary does not pay enough to cover the care home costs for her demanding aged mother. Listening to the recorded conversations of suspected Arab drug dealers under police surveillance, her imagination is caught by a close-knit Moroccan family who have switched from legal farming to growing high grade khardala, or hashish, and when she knows that a stash of this has been hidden to evade near Paris to evade a police search, temptation proves too great.

Can she find the precise location of the drug, aided by DNA (ADN in the original French), a retired police sniffer dog she has saved from the standard fate of euthanasia when no longer useful? Will she succeed in selling the drug on and laundering the proceeds without being either detected by the police, including the senior office Philippe who happens to be her lover, or exposing herself to the vengeance of thwarted dealers?
Apart from being a crime thriller which depends too heavily on coincidences and glosses over plot flaws, this is also a psychological study of a somewhat cold, calculating woman, lacking in empathy, who on her own admission has no friends, only acquaintances, since she makes no effort to hide her impatience with people she finds slow or boring. Apparently only capable of feeling love for her dead husband or dumb animals – the first luxury she buys with her illgotten games is an expensive collar for DNA – she is secretly repelled by Philippe’s lovemaking and displays a troubling lack of compassion for her mother. Has her personality been moulded by an amoral, emotionally deprived upbringing with her criminal wheeler-dealer Tunisian father and Jewish mother traumatised by time spent in a concentration camp? Apart from holidays in luxury hotels abroad, Patience grew up on a property next to a motorway, where unwelcome intruders were shot down by her father, to be buried in a corner plot where the grass grew abnormally green, fed by a phosphate-filled soil – a typical macabre allusion.

Patience’s cynicism can be amusing, as when she cites Philippe’s great fault: he believes in God. “If he’d told me he believed in a human destiny governed by a plate of celestial noodles, I couldn’t have found it more ridiculous”. She is acutely aware of the irony of situation: criminalisation of cannabis stimulates “the web-of drug-taking which drowns France” on one hand, and costly legal action on the other, as the police and lawyers pursue the dealers who are selling drugs for inflated prices to their children. Still, at least it creates employment.

The pace seems quite uneven, with abrupt digressions into Patience’s past life interrupting the narrative flow. Tedious detail at some points contrasts with overly rapid treatment of the occasional highly dramatic incidents at others. Most of the characters seem too highly exaggerated to be either convincing or engaging. The result is a patchy black farce which sits oddly with potentially moving explorations of human nature.

“La Daronne”, meaning “mother” or “boss lady” in French was presumably translated as “The Godmother” in the mafia sense of the word. Seemingly written with a film in mind, it has been dramatised with the title “Mama Weed” and Isabelle Huppert in the lead. Is this the kind of book which “works better” in the visual images of a film, perhaps losing some complexity in the process?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: In for the Count

In the newly Communist Russia of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, as a gentleman, prides himself on having no occupation, and describes his pastimes as, “dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”. Found guilty of posing a threat to the ideals of society, he is sentenced to life imprisonment in the Metropol Hotel near Red Square where he has resided for four years: if he sets foot outside, he will be shot. Although still permitted to frequent the hotel’s grand restaurant and bar, he is obliged to vacate his grand suite for a former servant’s room in the attic.

Over some 460 pages, the author sustains a flowery prose with fanciful digressions and far-fetched incidents which chime with the Count’s ebullient eccentricity, all likely to charm some readers but irritate others. Falling at first into the latter category, I abandoned this novel until forced to resume it by a pressing book group deadline which caused me to revise my initial prejudice, although I never came to terms with the intrusive narrator, and the useful but distracting footnotes to explain the history.

After a somewhat turgid start, the author manages to entertain the reader with his ingenuity, provide a very articulate expression of the Count’s thoughts and develop a farce which proves quite effective in revealing the flaws and contradictions of the Soviet system. As party officials begin to wine and dine at the hotel, it is simply a case of one privileged élite replacing another. The ignorant and incompetent are over-promoted for their loyalty to the Party, and bureaucratic measures intended to impose equality have ludicrous consequences. Following a complaint from the waiter whom the Count has imprudently humiliated as regards knowing the correct wine to drink with Latvian stew, an order comes from on high for all the labels to be removed from the bottles in the hotel cellar to destroy any concept of some wines being superior to others – an outrage to a connoisseur of fine wines like the Count, who can of course still detect a superior favourite by the trademark design of the bottle.

This is essentially a soft-centred, escapist read, which gives more space to the count’s eternal word games (“name famous threesomes”, “ a black and white creature”) than to the sufferings of individuals, glossing over the true grimness of life for millions under Stalin. The fate of the young prince who has been reduced to playing for diners in a string quartet is relegated to a footnote: he is questioned in the Lubyanka prison for having committed the crime of possessing a picture of the deposed Tsar which happened to be in one of his books, and banned from ever entering any of the country’s six main cities, while the eminent musician who hired him suffers the worse fate of being sent to a labour camp.

One could argue that this tale of how the count manages to pass thirty years in the hotel, unable to walk through the swing doors of the entrance through which he can glimpse the outside world, is an exploration of the resilience of the human spirit, and a consideration of how one can make something positive out of adversity. Perhaps a period of lockdown is a particularly relevant time to read it!

Since, the Russians have tended to restore and value some of their great buildings from the past, or emulate them “for the people” as in the Moscow metro system, it is interesting to look up online images of the Metropol hotel as it is today.

Grand Frère or Older Brother: staging a comeback

Two brothers, unnamed until the final twist of the almost all-revealing epilogue, grow up in Paris caught between two very different cultures: their volatile left-wing father fled from Syria to France where, having abandoned his studies, he married their Breton mother who died tragically young when they still needed her stable influence.

The narrative swings between the two men, helpfully printed in different fonts although their written styles are very different. Older Brother (Grand Frère) slogs for a “VTC” app-based Uber-like chauffeur-driven car hire company, much to the fury of his father who drives a conventional taxi under threat from the hi-tech competition.

Younger Brother, probably more intelligent and reflective, is an operating theatre nurse who disappears without warning to Syria, where, if he is to be believed, he simply hopes to gain more job satisfaction, with a better prospect of progressing to work as a doctor than in the prejudiced environment of a Parisian hospital. This move shocks his brother and father, not least because they come under suspicion as supporters of a possible terrorist.

After a slow-paced scene-setting start, the novel “takes off” when younger brother suddenly reappears after an absence of three years, presenting his sibling, already under pressure as an involuntary police informer, with a problem: should he shop his brother, or make himself accessory to an assumed terrorist by helping him?

Reading this in the original French, I found the first part hard going, partly owing to the large amount of French slang and Arab colloquialisms helpfully often translated in the glossary at the end – there may even be some of the words the author enjoys inventing! There is also Older Brother’s tendency to express himself in a stream of marijuana-befuddled consciousness. His is a very macho, chauvinist cochon culture: still in her mid-twenties, his “woman” has breasts hanging to her navel, to give a flavour of this. Yet his flow provides a vivid picture of the immigrant communities with the older men grafting to make a living in Paris, while their children channel their talents into rap, or fall under the spell of silver-tongued religious fanatics. The author’s fascination with people-watching feeds the sharp observations of the passengers whom Older Brother transports round the capital, and fragments of his homespun philosophy on life show surprising flashes of insight.

It’s worth looking up any reference one does not understand: I was intrigued by the detailed description of a thumb-shaped sculpture in the La Défense area which actually exists in Google images.

soundlandscapes on Twitter: "'Le Pouce': César Baldaccini's iconic 40-foot  thumb in La Défense this afternoon.… "

An interesting talk by the author, himself the children of immigrants from Kurdish Turkey, which seems to have made him more open to challenging conventions of all kinds, helped me to appreciate this award-winning first novel more. The French which I often found so hard to grasp is apparently the language of many young people in France, with immigrants too often feeling alienated or undervalued. Of course, much of this authentic flavour would be lost in translation, but the novel would be easier to read!

The accelerating pace to a dramatic climax encourages one to keep going, but it is the epilogue which, even if not an entirely original ploy, provides what seems on reflection to be the only satisfactory ending, also a resolution of some implausible aspects of the plot which troubled me. Its open-endedness gives scope for the author to write a sequel.

“L’Été Circulaire” or “Summer of Reckoning” by Marion Brunet

In the picturesque setting in  and around Cavaillon, the “capital of the cantaloupe melon” and gateway to the Luberon in Provence, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Céline, too pretty and promiscuous for her own good, has got pregnant, but refuses to divulge by whom, not even to her more savvy sister Jo, letter alone to her father Manuel when he tries to beat the truth out of her.

Described on the cover as a “policier” or crime novel,  but really more of a psychological drama, one  could dismiss this as a light potboiler,  when in fact it conveys a vivid sense of place, a telling portrayal of what it feels like to be an adolescent, and the convincing development of a wide range of different characters, arousing sympathy for all of them despite their all to evident flaws.

There is the hard-working, hard-drinking builder Manuel who finds it easier to express frustration and rage through his fists.  Despite his own family having migrated from Spain, he feels no empathy with the Arab migrants a few pegs down the pecking order, which feeds his resentment of the youth Said who drives a hard bargain fencing the antiques Manuel steals to supplement his income.

Then we have his wife Séverine, steered too young into a shotgun marriage,  claiming to be content with her lot but destabilised by a single friend’s apparently more glamorous lifestyle together with the shock of becoming a grandmother at thirty-four.

The undercurrents are gradually exposed and clues dropped.  As Céline’s pregnancy becomes more obvious, relationships with her school-friends change. Accustomed to admiration, she becomes an object of curiosity and mockery. “Making herself useful” on her grandparents’ farm, it seems that her grandmother, surprisingly tolerant of her pregnancy, is mostly disappointed to learn that the child will not be  boy. Her childhood innocence is fractured further by the knowledge that her grandfather has employed migrants without papers so that he can avoid paying them by turning them over to the police when their seasonal work is done.

Jo, who surprises her teachers with her academic ability, “given her background”, puzzles her father by her desire to watch plays at the nearby Avignon Festival, but  is soon disillusioned by the privileged, casually  friendly  group of middle-class young people she encounters.

Summer of Reckoning by [Marion Brunet, Katherine Gregor]

Gradually building to a dramatic  climax, the novel ends as it began at the annual summer fair, at which, beneath an apparently rather similar surface, much has changed in what the English translation of the title aptly calls  “A Summer of Reckoning”.

“Jack” by Marilynne Robinson: Theft of Happiness

I am not sure what readers will make of this, if they have not already read Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014), novels about members of the Ames and Boughton families, set in the fictional rural Iowa backwater of Gilead. Certainly, it seems necessary to have read “Home” to make more sense of Jack Boughton, black sheep of the family from which he has exiled himself for years, most particularly from his pious clergyman father’s attempt to bring him back into the fold, even to the extent of twisting his Presbyterian doctrine into contradictory knots.

Apparently, the author did not originally intend to write a book about Jack, but her ideas about him must have evolved over the years to make this seem imperative. Chronologically, it covers a time before the other novels, I believe in the late 1940s. Jack is a complex character, hard to pin down. I was continually aware of his self-absorption and tendency to overthink everything while trying to define the qualities which make him appeal to those who look beyond the frayed cuffs and raffish air. Intelligent, good-looking, musical and artistic, charming, polite, surprisingly competent when he puts his mind to a practical task, Jack is also a loner and drifter, who finds it hard to fit into the world as it is, fated to blow every chance he gets, his life being a chain of tragicomic mishaps.

Apart from inexplicable misdeeds, he has a tendency to do the wrong thing for the right reason. As a child he was always slipping off, thieving objects he did not really want for reasons he could not explain, and challenging his father with theological questions. Is the root of his problem the tendency to “think outside the box” but to have been born into a profoundly respectable family, and a set of beliefs and sense of duty he was bound to kick against instinctively? Has he been influenced by the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination into thinking that he is fated to fail, so when things are going badly he tries to have as little contact with others as possible?
Matters only grew worse when he got a local girl pregnant and flunked college. Years later we find him shabby and on the breadline, a compulsive kleptomaniac who drinks to ward off his mental pain, doing odd jobs but reliant on the envelopes of cash his kindly brother leaves for him. A recently served prison sentence was ironically for a crime he did not commit, although arguably a just penalty for all his petty thefts. Life is made doubly hard by his obvious education and genteel manner which set him apart from the kind of company he has been reduced to keeping.

With his talent for making life difficult, he falls for Della, a beautiful young teacher who shares his love of poetry but just happens to be black in the segregated city of St. Louis, where it is a crime for them have a relationship, and unwise even to be seen together. Perfect in his eyes, Della remains an enigma. We never really know what makes her tick, but she seems drawn to him by his “pure soul”, essential innocence, plus perhaps the appeal of his patent vulnerability.

The two establish their fateful bond during a night spent in the St Louis cemetery where Jack has gone because he has let out his room to make some money, and she has been accidentally locked in. In a section of nearly eighty pages, more than a quarter of the book, the dialogue often seems stilted, artificial, even obscure, although this may be deliberate to contrast with their later easy but still thoughtful exchanges. It also shows symbolically how, if the two could exist in a world of their own, without society’s restrictions and taboos, they could be happy. Perhaps only a writer hailed as one of the greatest in this century could have risked such a difficult and for many off-putting beginning to a book. Perseverance pays off, since many of the succeeding sections are quite lively and humorous, although poignantly so.

This is the kind of novel which needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully, probably at least twice, to appreciate the insights on human relations which are really more important than plot, and may also explain why the ending just fades out. Marilynne Robinson is clearly steeped in religious philosophy which sometimes lost me. She casually using words like “apophatic” which strike an incongruous note in the more down-to-earth passages and wry humour. Taken as a whole, the four related novels are intriguing, although I suspect an acquired taste.