L’Enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) par Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: The Art of Survival

Six-year-old Joseph’s carefree life in Brussels is shattered when his mother hears rumours of an imminent Nazi round-up of Jewish families in the neigbourhood. A means of escape comes in the form of the wily, eccentric Catholic priest, Father Pons who procures false papers to enable Joseph to be concealed in an orphanage, the Villa Jaune.

This short novel is part of a series, “The Cycle of the Invisible”, which explore religious themes from a child’s viewpoint, in this case the links between Christianity and Judaism in a situation where followers of the former are perpetrating the terrible crimes of the Shoah, or genocide, against the latter.
What could prove unbearably grim is leavened by the author’s fertile imagination and dry wit, as when Father Pons muses whether it would have been better for him to be Jewish, causing Joseph to insist, “Stay Christian, you don’t realise how lucky you are!” The priest explains that the Jewish insistence on respect is more practical than the Christian emphasis on love, demanding, “Would you turn the other cheek to Hitler?”

Despite the widepread popularity of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novels and short stories, I find myself in ageement with a reviewer who suggests that the author has augmented his sales by producing short novels of less than a hundred pages, with tear-jerking themes, leaving the reader crushed beneath an “avalanche” of worthy sentiments, with a vague sense of guilt over expressing any criticism on this score.
Perhaps because I read this in a French edition designed for students, with “tricky” words defined, comprehension questions and background analysis, this seems like a book written for adolescents, to raise their awareness of the Holocaust, and grasp its impact on those who survived it. Particularly if viewed from an adult perspective, some scenes appear too far-fetched, such as the priest’s implausible scheme to hide the Jewish children when the Gestapo finally came to arrest them. Some descriptions seem too exaggerated as in the opening description of the parlous state of Joseph’s footwear.
Despite his understandable naivety, Joseph often seems too advanced for his age, as he plays the role of confidant to Father Pons, and mentor for the shamblng Rudy, ten years his senior in age. Joseph’s relationship with the priest sometimes seem too mawkishly sentimental.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the final part with its focus on the unexpected problems of dealing with the sudden freedom of liberation, and the problems of returning to a “normal” family life and switching back from an assumed Christian to a practising Jewish life. Unfortunately, the final section appears too rushed and underdeveloped, as if the author is anxious to move on to another project. The device of Joseph eventually following in Father Pons’ footsteps, marking the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict by collecting two items- a Jewish kippah and Arab scarf left behind after a fight – is a little corny, but makes for a neat ending.

I found the author’s tone in an interview which concluded my edition somewhat condescending and pretentious: “the novelist makes a contract with the reader, he tells him ‘I’m going to interest you, take you by the hand and lead you on a voyage that you will not make without me; you will come across new places, unfamiliar, which perhaps frighten you, but have confidence, I will not let go of your hand and perhaps you will thank me on arrival. Courageous, delicate and firm, such must be the grip of the storyteller.’ ”

French Braid by Anne Tyler: “This is a story that never ends, Yes, it goes on and on my friends…”

Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, several books after her publicly stated intention to give up writing, is the saga of the Baltimore-based Garrett family, spanning four generations from 1959 to 2020 in the throes of the Covid pandemic.

With its focus on only eight specific situations or incidents over this period of time, this really seems more like a series of short stories, in which many significant events like a marriage or a death have to be inferred. The continual change in the point of view provides insights into how some characters perceive each other, but with many family members and friends being two-dimensional “extras”, so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, I rarely felt emotionally engaged.

It is probably intentional that there are so many mundane details of ordinary daily life, from which Anne Tyler can conjure the farcical situations, by turns amusing or poignant, and the wry insights for which she has long been praised. US readers old enough to recognise and recall the cultural references from the 1950s may feel waves of nostalgia, although I had to look up Salk vaccine (developed in the US for polio) and just gloss over the Amercanisms. However, more so I think than with her earlier books, at times I found the banality and weight of descriptions, often expressed in a folksy style, unbearably tedious, and persevered to the end only to avoid missing some final “big reveal”, which would of course be very “untylerish”. In fact there are a couple of minor revelations at the end – to the characters concerned, if not to the reader.

The novel raises a few questions for discussion. After marrying too young, when Mercy Garrett’s children leave home, she feels free at last to pursue her desire to become an artist. Without formally separating from, or even divorcing her devoted husband Robin, she leaves him to go and live in a studio, but does so gradually, returning to cook the evening meal, or do the laundry, but never facing up to an open discussion about the situation. Accepting this as feasible, is this an act of courage or cowardice? Is it, as some readers believe, a belated assertion of feminist independence, or simply the act of a self-centred, calculating person?

Just as an undone French braid leaves “ripples” in the hair, “that’s how families work too,” as one character observes. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever”. This is patently clear, but hardly an original thought. The way families may “hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions”, both “little kindnesses” and “little cruelties” is a more interesting issue.

“Pour le sourire de Lenny” by Dany Rousson: “When it’s all for the best……….”

Titi is a charming young man who has fallen on hard times after being rejected by his family for having fallen into bad company. When some drunken gang members turn on him, he is rescued by Savate, a surly character, quick to anger, who has been ruined and embittered by some past traumatic events, but does not like to see a lone man outnumbered and beaten to the ground.

When the two tramps wander into the picturesque old Provençal city of Aigues-Mortes in search of work, they meet with rejection, are reduced to begging, even their tent is destroyed. Against the odds, a few charitable inhabitants, who turn out to be acquainted in some of the books too frequent coincidences, are prepared to help and give them the benefit of the doubt.

A young skateboard fanatic called Lenny strikes a lost chord in Savate who teaches him acrobatic skills learned in some previous, repressed life. When tragedy strikes, is it chance or destiny? To what extent is Savate responsible, and how will matters turn out?

Judging by the cover of the edition I read, which made me think my French reading group must have chosen a children’s book, you may be reasonably confident of a happy ending, with loose ends tied in overstated knots. Despite themes of marital breakdown, suppressed ambitions, dead-end jobs, and some appalling misfortune, this is a “feel good” book in which unpleasant events are sanitized and deep emotions are airbrushed. Characters are stereotyped into two-dimensional “good” and “bad”. Even the descriptions of the Camargue horses, the bullfights and the historic landmarks of Aigues-Mortes seem like a plug for the tourist trade.

The “do as you would be done by” dedication says it all. “To all the Savates and Titis, to the invisible people whom we could all become, you and me, if fate decided to play a dirty trick on us. To those who stretch out their hands to them and open their hearts. To hope, to life”.

If only it were so simple! It’s escapism for adults, perhaps justifiable in grim times.

“Light Perpetual” by Francis Spufford: Making light of it?

In 1944, instead of flying four hundred yards further to land in a park and kill a few pigeons,  or even failing to launch at all, a German warhead  explodes in a branch  of Woolworths in the fictional London Borough of Bexford. Amongst those atomised are five  young children out shopping with their mothers as they stand transfixed by a rare delivery of gleaming saucepans.

Based on a real event, this situation prompts a remarkable opening chapter in which the author displays his verbal pyrotechnics to describe the action of the blast wave in the minute detail  which is a feature of his many subsequent flourishes of creative writing.

The remainder of the book plays out the lives which these five children might have led, captured at fifteen year intervals against the backdrop of the marked social changes in Britain up to 2009, when Alec, Vern, sisters Jo and Val and Ben are all pensioners.

Perhaps the novel will resonate most with those old enough to recall primary schools in the fifties, the battles between Mods and Rockers  in seaside resorts, the  rise of the teenager and pop culture, the use of new  computer technology to crush the power of  the printers holding newspaper owners to ransom with hot metal typesetting,  the channelling of white male insecurity into the violence  of fascist groups like the British Movement, the property boom, the financial crash of 2008, the transformation of urban areas into multicultural communities, and so on. Yet with limited space, the novel can only give a flavour of the massive changes of the second half of the C20.

Our awareness from the outset that the children’s lives are imagined, “what might have been”, should give a sense of poignancy, but in fact one soon forgets that this is  is the case. It even seems irrelevant, since it is so apparent that  random  chance, fate, force of circumstance, call it what you will, affect us all to such a degree, causing the lives of the five children to diverge so markedly, although ironically they all end up in the vicinity of Bexford.

The  mainly working class characters appear for the most part stereotyped. Greedy bully Vern grows up to cheat people to finance his property deals. Smart Alec, married and child-bound by his early twenties,  is too delighted by his skills, enthroned as “king and alchemist” of typesetting,  to grasp that the writing is on the wall – or rather on the computer screen. When he eventually finds a new role,  it is too late for him to achieve his full potential, and his gains are made at  considerable personal cost. Maybe as a result of being born too long before the “women’s liberation” of the 1970s,  sisters, Jo and Val, spend too much of their lives allowing themselves to be dominated by men with whom they are infatuated. Jo’s sudden sense, aged 70, that her whole life rests on accidents, that “surely her real life is waiting to happen” is a telling insight  on what many people must feel.

Although Francis Spufford has the skill to make watching paint dry interesting,  his trademark of shooting off on tangents of minutely detailed descriptions of a sensation or incident  may be great material for a master class in creating writing but can prove wearisome  –  overwritten and repetitive. Examples are a” matter of opinion, but I am thinking of obsessive Ben’s anxiety attack (involving “CHARRED RIBS) on a London bus while inappropriately employed as a bus conductor, or the description of Jo’s attempt to work on composing in her Californian apartment a piece of music, years in gestation,  to which her self-absorbed pop singer employer, some-time lover will never bother to listen and promote. The  full pathos of these two situations is  lost in the verbiage.

Despite proving entertaining overall,  by turns comic,  profoundly sad and philosophical,  this feels like a soap opera which could have included many other scenes en route, or continued until all the characters are  made to pass on at the age of 100.  The conclusion actually reached seems disappointingly woolly:

“Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align. Into a clockface of transparencies. The whole mess a rose, a window.”

Of course, one may feel that this links back, cleverly but contrived, to the bomb explosion at the beginning.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut: Four Funerals and no Weddings

In the final years of South African apartheid,  twelve-year-old Amor overhears her dying mother extract from her husband Manie Swarts a promise to give their faithful black servant  Salome the decrepit house she has occupied for years.

Over more than three decades, from the mid-1980s to 2018,  the failure to honour this promise, even when the excuse that it would be against the law for Salome to inherit the house no longer applies,  is a symbol of the blight that contributes to the family’s decline.

“The Promise” of the title can be construed in different ways. Amor’s  handsome, intelligent older brother Anton does not fulfil his youthful promise.  Has he never recovered from  the “wonder and despair” of the day in his  national service, when he shot  dead a  black female demonstrator as she stooped to pick up a stone,  and learned of his own mother’s death?  Does the tension between the ingrained prejudice of his Afrikaner upbringing and his awareness of the family’s untenable position seal his fate?  There is a parallel in  the failure of Salome’s son Lukas  to realise his potential,   because his anger over the injustice of their situation drives him to violent resistance.

The title could also refer to the betrayal of the hope sparked by the  end of apartheid,  by Mandela’s elevation from “a cell to a throne”, the vision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  and the growing  international acceptance of South Africa to the point of hosting and winning the 1995 World Cup. All too soon, corruption at the highest level  destroys respect for a black president and  and the growth of violent crime, forcing wealthy white families behind ever higher security fences,  undermines the progress to a better society.

Despite a plot focussed on the Swarts meeting up for four funerals over some three decades, the novel is less depressing and more entertaining than might be expected. Damon Galgut’s narration is for the most part a quirky black farce. For instance, having saved his daughter from a lightning strike, Manie repents of his former gambling and womanising,  only to fall under the spell of a manipulative local pastor. Manie not only gives him land for the “big, ugly…The First Assembly of the Revelation Church” but agrees to fundraise for it. He rashly trusts  that his faith will save him from a lethal bite when he  climbs into a glass case with a cobra from his own “Scaly City” reptile park,  a business venture to boost the  income from his family farm on the dry veldt.  

I can forgive the occasional flirting with magic realism or tendency to address the reader directly, because of the author’s skill in sustaining a quicksilver slide from the situation and inner thoughts of one character to the next,  requiring the reader to pay attention, for this is a novel that “shows” rather than “tells”.  No doubt it won the Booker Prize not only for its original style – a kind of C21 William Faulkner, with a wry humour – but also for the insights into human nature and the state of South Africa which continually break through the irony.

Take Amor’s return to the farm after a decade’s absence, most recently in England:

“Return feels more like a condition than an act, one for  which she’s in no way prepared. The suddenness of it…like a great white concussion, a sort of impact. Inevitable but also unbearable. She can’t sleep on the flight..How ordinary and how strange human life is. And how delicately poised. Your own end might lie just in front of you, under your feet…………”

Later, “the view from the taxi window is a bit amazing….South Africa is playing France later, and the pavements throb and throng with bodies. Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!”  Which, of course, it is.

“Des gens comme eux” (People like them) by Samira Sedira – “On est plus criminel quelquefois qu’on ne pense”.

In this short novel, based on a real-life shocking crime, Samira Sedira explores what could motivate “normal”, decent, mild-mannered Constant Guillot to murder five members of the Langlois family, recently moved to the fictional village of Carmac, a close-knit, insular community in rural France on the banks of the aptly named river, “La Trouble”.

The narrator, Constant’s wife Anna, begins with a lulling description of the peaceful, orderly way of life in Carmac, only to break the spell with a shocking reference to the carnage which erupted while unheeding neighbours tidied up after their evening meal. The succeeding chapters alternate between scenes of Constant’s trial, and flashbacks to reveal gradually the events leading up to the crime. These create a degree of sympathy for Constant, who has suffered some major setbacks of which the sharp practice of Bakary Langlois proves the last straw. However, acute resentment, a sense of injustice, and envy of the newcomers’ apparent wealth and flashy lifestyle provide scant mitigation for acts of such disproportionate violence. There is the suggestion that, as in real life, some of the antagonism towards Bakary was because he was black, but this theme is not developed.

There are some well-observed scenes: an awkward Christmas party to which Bakary invites his less prosperous neighbours, apparently having left it too late to arrange for his “old” friends to visit; the evening fun fair at Carmac where everyone is briefly brought together dancing to the old hit ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Yet these do not shed much light on what led to the crime, and tend to reduce the dramatic tension.

The plot is quite disjointed, with the unsatisfactory omission of the major events, apart from Constant’s account of the murder, made all the more chilling by his dispassionate delivery at the trial. So we have to infer too much from what is implied as to, for instance, how Constant comes to be charged, how those who know him react, how Anna chooses to act when the trial was over, and so on.

Some telling insights emerge. Anna feels herself to be blamed as the wife of murderer almost as much as he is himself. She has failed to see her husband’s true evil nature in time to prevent his crime. After the event, she is criticised continually for her failure to act appropriately, for being too coldly lacking in sympathy or hysterically self-centred, too intrusively present or lacking the decency to show up when she should.

I was most struck by the observation at the end that none of those around Constant is innocent, “We all collaborated”. Perhaps it is the author’s intention to leave it to the reader to reflect on exactly what part each individual plays in triggering Constant’s violence. However, it seems a weakness that this was not more fully explored as the novel moves to its abrupt and rather weak and nebulous ending.

The idea that we are all more criminal than we think, even capable of a savage act if “pushed to the limit” may lie at the heart of this novel. However, it left me feeling somewhat unengaged and unconvinced. I was at least motivated to read about the rather different real life case of the fate of the Flactif family in Haute-Savoie in 2003, which proved quite intriguing.

Published in English as “People like them”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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