“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker – unimaginably distant times

The Silence of the Girls by [Barker, Pat]

In this retelling of the aftermath of the fateful argument between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan Wars, Pat Barker takes the viewpoint of Briseis, the high-born woman taken captive as part of the booty from the city of Lyrnessus. Having witnessed Achilles actively involved in the brutal killing of her husband and brothers, she suffers the further trauma of being accepted as his “sex slave”. She is scornful of the women who fawn on the men who possess them to wheedle favours, but knows there is a fine line between this and annoying Achilles so that he hands her over to the common soldiers to share, in what she describes as “a rape camp”. When Patroclus, the friend of Achilles with whom Briseis forms an unlikely friendship offers to persuade Achilles to marry her, she observes how it must appear shocking that she can contemplate such a course of action, yet when reduced to slavery one is prepared to consider almost any way of improving one’s lot.

No doubt hardened by her string of First and Second World War novels, Pat Barker does not flinch from describing scenes of great brutality in battle, alternating with the somewhat contradictory and ludicrous rituals to both desecrate and honour and the person one has killed. Yet her main interest is clearly the role of women in the Trojan wars, the stoical acceptance of their lot as they prepare food, wash clothes and care for the sick to keep the camp going.

The tone is often deliberately modern, colloquial, foul-mouthed, I assume in an attempt to draw parallels between people past and present, enabling us to identify better with the former as “real”. I agree with readers who find the attempt to punctuate an ancient legend with modern anachronisms jarring and who are irritated by the sudden switch part-way to the point of view of Achilles, which tends to undermine a distinct focus on the lives of the forgotten and undervalued women. This is not a feminist novel in the sense that women do not rise up in rebellion against their treatment, nor seriously question the constraints under which they have to live. Descriptions of roles in the camp are often quite dull, for that is what they were.

I found myself curiously unengaged by the book, perhaps because too many incidents rely on magic. So we see the capricious gods punishing the camp with a plague of rats since Agamemnon refuses to release his “bed woman” to her priestly father. Achilles is able to shout so loudly from the camp that his war-cry can be heard in Troy, causing strong men quake. Since he is in need of a suit of protective armour, his mother the goddess Thetis rises from the waves to supply him with a perfectly fitting and flexible one. Having slain Hector, he drags the body behind a chariot daily to dishonour it, only to find that the gods have “defied” him by restoring the corpse to its original state.

Although it is very readable and quite imaginative in reworking the “facts” of the Iliad, I am more impressed by Pat Barker’s books on C20 wars, which seem to provide greater scope for creative writing with character development and plot twists. As it is, Achilles seems merely moody and brutish, fated to die shortly as the price of becoming a legendary super killing machine; Patroclus is portrayed as implausibly empathetic and kind, since he massacres the enemy alongside Achilles without any evident qualms, and the nature of the relationship between the two remains blurred. Briseis is parcelled up like a commodity for a decent enough new husband who will protect her, so her feminism is limited to a C21 awareness of brutality and exploitation which she is unlikely to possess. The final chapter is disappointing: a rushed information dump of bloodthirsty violence to round off the tale.


“Mrs Osmond” by John Banville – over-egged pastiche when would have preferred author’s own voice

This is my review of “Mrs Osmond” by John Banville

John Banville’s sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James develops the plot further to explore Isabel Osmond’s response to the bitter realisation that her husband has married her solely for her money and has been concealing from her a sordid and humiliating secret. I felt at a disadvantage at first in not having read “The Portrait of a Lady”, since this would have enabled me to gauge the degree of Banville’s success in attempting to mirror James’s style. Yet, knowing the details of the original would have spoiled my enjoyment of the way John Banville gradually reveals the details of what has led to Mrs Osmond’s distress.

Although it seems acceptable for a writer to produce a prequel or sequel to a deceased author’s work, I am less sure about artistic method of trying to imitate his style – a painter who tried to produce pictures in the style of Monet would after all be condemned as “derivative”. I agree with reviewers who feel that Banville has “over-egged” his efforts to emulate James – his convoluted flights of fancy often weighted down with unrelenting alliteration and jarring metaphors, to the point of seeming ludicrous and digestible only in small quantities, unrelieved by James’s subtlety and excuse in having been born in an earlier age when what we now regard as flowery speech and excessive refinement were the norm for the privileged classes: “Her thoughts moved in large, loose loops, but at least once every round they revisited, like a planet at its perihelion, the question of what precisely Miss Janeway’s portentious remark might have been meant to mean”.

Or to take a more irritating overworked passage: “Europe had been her fate, and so it was still. Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life on the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it. Her aunt was not to blame that she was lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. And so on.

I would have preferred this novel written more in Banville’s is own dry, pithy style which kept sprouting through the verbiage to hint at what might have been. There are some strong dialogues, as in the scene where Isabel confronts her reptilian husband, with detailed descriptions which almost read like stage directions. The portrayal of Isabel’s mental confusion, her veering between weakness and decision, her desire for revenge but shrinking from descending to the level of Gilbert Osmond and his mistress are often well expressed. There is some humour, as in the portrayal of Isabel’s maid Staines, or the daunting lunch served by the vegetarian suffragist Miss Janeway: “boiled broccoli, boiled beans and boiled spinach” eaten “in silence save for irrepressible herbivoral crunchings”. On the other hand, too many characters, like the unscrupulous Madame Merle seem like caricatures or appear two-dimensional.

I wanted to know what would happen, uncertain whether the outcome would be tragic, or not amount to much at all, but found it hard to cope with more than a few chapters at a time. In fact, the ending was as abrupt as James’s and even less conclusive, to the extent of seeming “a bit of a cop out” on Banville’s part.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying: Look back in anger 1930s style

This is my review of  “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell

Since history repeats itself, Orwell’s caustic parody of capitalism in 1930s London still seems remarkably relevant in our post-financial crisis, commercially manipulative world of making people want things and often paying them too little to produce them.

Orwell’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock is not just trying to escape the clutches of what he calls “the money god” but is also a mouthpiece for the author’s own pet hats and self-doubt over his ability to succeed as a writer. In the first chapter which could stand as a short story in this own right, Gordon painfully perfects the first verse of a poem during a boring shift in a bookshop, in between raging at the adverts in the street which remind him of the better paid job in copywriting which he has abandoned on principle to get out of what he regards as a corrupt system. He despises most books on sale for being “turned out by wretched hacks at the rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages and with much less skill.” With only twopence halfpenny left until the end of the week, not enough for the cigarettes he needs – like Orwell? – to be able to write, he is beginning to realise that “you do not escape from money by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on”.

Gordon is frankly rather tedious and unlikeable in his negative view of the world and borderline mentally ill in his desire “to lose himself in smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness… great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal.” Yet it is revealing to be transported back to the 1930s, beginning to emerge from a deep Depression, with the poignant wisdom of hindsight that the destructive war which Gordon claims to welcome is in fact imminent.

People tolerate appalling bedsits with repressive landladies, but expect to receive in the evenings letters posted earlier in the day. It’s a remarkably cheap world to modern eyes, where Gordon can take his girlfriend Rosemary on a trip to the country for only fourteen shillings (seventy pence). But it’s also riddled with social divides and casually-voiced prejudices that make us wince: Gordon comes from one of “those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle class, in which nothing ever happens”; his landlady is obsessed with “mingy lower-middle-class decency”; a poverty-stricken old couple, in a society with no proper pension system, are “the throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description: creeping like unclean beetles to the grave”.

Gordon’s upper class friend Ravelston is unusual that “in every moment of his life” he is “apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income” but still adores his girlfriend Hermione who remarks, “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes….. I hate them. They smell”. As narrator, Orwell often seems guilty of unconscious flashes of snobbery and prejudice – anti-semitic comments or cruelly amusing descriptions of a dwarf, but all this seems part of what was acceptable at the time. Ironically, advertising of specific brands, mention of real people or companies and “alleged obscenities” all had to be edited out at the last minute, leading Orwell to resist reprinting of a book he felt had been “garbled”.

There is in fact a good deal of humour in the book, not least in the aspidistras, symbols of “lower class decency” which refuse all Gordon’s efforts to kill them off. When Gordon stops moaning there are some striking descriptions: “the mist-dimmed hedges wore that strange purplish brown, the colour of brown madder, that naked brushwood takes on in winter.”

Apart from hoping that the likeable Ravelston and Rosemary might “get together”, there is the impetus to find out whether the book will end in tragedy or something will make Gordon surrender to “the money-code”.

Love in a Cold Climate – “Having our lovely cake and eating it too”

This is my review of Love in a Cold Climate (Penguin Modern Classics) by Nancy Mitford.

Nancy Mitford applied a sharp wit and first-hand experience of eccentric aristocrats to this well-known parody of upper class life. Palmed off on upper class aunts and uncles who have “relieved” her “divorced parents of the boredom and the burden of bringing up a child”, narrator Fanny recalls the quirky conversations and unperceived bubble of inter-war privilege in which they float She is preoccupied with the lovely Polly, daughter of the caricature of an earl, Lord Montdore, who, in his ageing ineffectiveness “might just as well have been made of wonderful old cardboard, and his wife, whose “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness..formed the subject of many a legendary tale”. Expected to make a great marriage, Polly’s total lack of interest in any eligible suitors puzzles Fanny and drives Lady Montdore to despair which turns to rage when she discovers the true object of her daughter’s affection.

Many readers still appear to find this book highly entertaining, a harmless piece of escapism, although it is likely to seem dated to younger readers. Opinions will differ as to what is most amusing in Fanny’s inexhaustible gushing flow. I laughed over the ludicrous digression into “the Chubb Fuddler”. “He came. He walked along the river bank, and sowed upon its waters some magic seed, which soon bore magic fruit, for up to the surface, flapping swooning, fainting, choking, thoroughly and undoubtedly fuddled, came hundreds upon hundreds of chubb, The entire male population of the village… fell upon the fish….and the contents were taken off to be used as manure for cottage gardens or chubb pie, according to taste”.

There is a gossipy bitchiness which I disliked, such as the description of Lady Montdore’s curtsies which “owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind” as she “scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance….her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly”. Descriptions of the formal socialising are quite tedious as it may well have been in reality, as when, for instance, everyone waits for the guests of honour at a dinner party, “a very grand Sir and Ma’am indeed” ,which can only be trite code for royalty.

In the current climate of concern over sexual harassment, some passages may reflect Nancy Mitford’s times, but arouse a sense of unease: it seems to be common knowledge that Polly’s uncle, “the Lecherous Lecturer” preys on his young female relatives, but everyone turns a blind eye. Nancy’s precocious cousin Jassy says, “The fascinating thing was that after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her, at least, she could easily see how it would be blissful with anybody except the lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”

Many of the characters seem to be caricatures of the author’s relatives and acquaintances, living in a world of froth, with no real emotion beneath brittle, articulate facades as they drift to an abrupt, contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory ending.. The most extreme example of this is the male heir to Lord Montdore’s Hampton property, the Canadian Cedric, who hales from Nova Scotia –clearly Nancy Mitford’s idea of the back of beyond, who turns out to be a highly manipulative, flamboyant gay, apparently modelled on the famously decadent socialite Stephen Tennant, one of the “Bright Young Things” along with the Mitford sisters.

Obliged to finish this for a book group, I was resentful over the time diverted from a more worthwhile read. In yet another case of truth being better than fiction, I would have preferred an intriguing biography of the Mitfords and their circle.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Go, Went, Gone – When “the things I can endure are only just the surface of what I can’t possibly endure”

This is my review of Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

In the original German of “Gehen, ging, gegangen” the title conveys more effectively the pathos and irony of rootless migrants having to learn the niceties of German grammar in a society putting them under pressure to move on, preferably to a place where ironically their German will not be required.

Living alone since his wife’s death, clinging to routine but at a loss in the recent retirement from his long-held post as a professor in Berlin, introspective Richard becomes aware of the growing number of African migrants squatting in the city. When some are evicted from a square, he obtains permission to interview them, reading several books on refugees to help him devise the questions.. What seems at first like an academic’s automatic response of viewing them as a topic for study, soon grows into a sense of empathy with the refugees, which it seems to be the author’s prime aim to arouse in readers as well.

As Richard’s life becomes more enmeshed with those of the migrants, he realises that actions which cost him little can transform lives. In return, puzzled by his decision never to have children, some refugees reciprocate by including him in the strong sense of friendship and community which is all they have. Richard rails against the rigid bureaucracy: the crazy world in which the refugees are not permitted to work, even in areas of skilled work where there is a labour shortage, and therefore doomed to become a burden to society, the motivation which led them to escape their past life sinking into apathy or boiling into rage.

Jenny Erpenbeck is keen to show the arbitrary nature of the boundaries which divide us. For a boy who has grown up in the Sahara, the borders drawn by Europeans are “perfectly straight lines” with no relevance. During his family’s wartime flight from Silesia to resettle in Germany, Richard himself was only saved from being permanently separated from his mother by the kindness of a vigilant Russian soldier. “What would have become of the infant if the train had pulled out of the station two minutes earlier?” He then lived for decades on the communist side of the Berlin Wall, so that post-unification, he still gets lost on trips to the still unfamiliar west side.

In a key passage, which also highlights the translator’s skills, Richard muses how to him and his friends, “the sense that all existing order is vulnerable to reversal..has always seemed perfectly natural, maybe because of their postwar childhoods, or else it was witnessing the fragility of the Socialist system under which they’d live most of their lives and that collapsed within a matter of weeks”. Have “long years of peacetime” made politicians believe that we have reached an “end of history” status quo which has to be protected from change by violence? Has growing up in “untroubled circumstances” distanced ordinary people so far from the suffering of those in war-torn lands that they are afflicted with a sort of “emotional anemia”? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

The author has drawn on the experiences of real-life refugees, although one cannot know to what extent she has altered them. In what often seems quite a disjointed approach, it is hard to keep the refugees in mind as distinct characters and engage with them. The text also gets bogged down at times in over-detailed explanations of the various, probably no longer applicable, regulations imposed. I wondered at times if the book would have been more effective if written as a straightforward account and analysis of actual events. As it is, the novel gives scope for artistic licence, creating the stream of consciousness in Richard’s head, leavening the grimness with wry humour and occasional diversions into magic realism. At times, Richard recedes as a character, but the book clearly begins and ends with him, understanding and developing himself more as an individual through his encounters with the refugees.

This is an original book full of insights, which repays a second reading to absorb all the ideas. However, although in many ways profound, it is also quite subjective, conveniently ignoring “other sides of the question”, such as the long-term implications of very high levels of unrestrained migration, and the need to grasp the nettle of managing it in some way.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The Red Collar” by Jean-Christophe Rufin – When dogs are faithful and men are proud

This is my review of The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin.

In the small French town of Berry where life is returning to normal after the First World War, Jacques Morlac is the only prisoner left in the barracks, while his faithful dog Guillaume, somewhat battered after his own spell in the trenches, barks mournfully for his master for hours on end. Lantier, the bourgeois young judge appointed to investigate the case and decide Morlac’s fate is fascinated by the stubborn working class man who has a foot in both camps, having been decorated for bravery only to commit an “outrage” against his nation, although we have to wait until the final pages to discover exactly what Morlac has done. Apart from the suspense this generates, the interest lies in the surrounding questions. What motivated Morlac to act as he did? Why does he seems so bent on being punished, rejecting the extenuating circumstances Lantier suggests? Why is he avoiding his former lover when he clearly wishes to see the son she has borne him? And why does he appear to hate his faithful dog?

This is one of those carefully constructed tales which depend totally on how the information is dripped out to keep us hooked. Rufin, who seems more in his element with short stories and in this case what is almost a novella, is very skilful in the deceptive ease with which he spins out and reveals a simple plot which could be summarised in a few words, itself inspired by a colleague’s anecdote about his grandfather.

Although the English translation has been praised, this is particularly worth reading in the original French if possible for the clear, economical prose which captures a sense of rural France, with locals spearing trout or hurrying to harvest the wheat as autumn storms threaten. This is also a subtle exploration of human – and canine – psychology: issues of loyalty, duty, wounded pride, jealousy, questioning of the accepted system and traditional class divides. Cynicism lurks beneath the lip service paid to patriotism even in a conformist like Lanvier, set off to fight as a “youthful idealist”, only to end with the private subversive thought that the suffering of the soldiers seems more worthy of respect than the ideals of those who inflicted it upon them. “No one could have lived through ths war and still believe that the individual has any value”. Yet when it came to condemning people, justify required that they be presented to him as individuals.”

Even if one is not a dog lover, it is hard not to be moved by the rapport Lanvier in fact everyone apart from Morlac seems to develop with the dog. Although the description of his wounds make Guillaume sound almost repulsive, his eyes are remarkably expressive, not merely conveying his own emotion but seeming to empathise with others.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Theory of War – When faith will serve as well as anything

This is my review of Theory Of War by Joan Brady.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, a penniless soldier sells a small boy called Jonathan, who may or may not be his own son, to Kansas farmer, Alvah Stoke, in search of some cheap and malleable labour. The irony is that, just after America has been torn apart in the cause of abolishing black slavery, a white boy is effectively made a slave, as it appears was actually the case for the author’s own grandfather whose life inspired this novel.

Deprived of love and affection, not merely education but even decent living conditions and food, Jonathan is soon the butt of bullying from Alvah’s son George, jealous of his intelligence, practical ingenuity, good looks and natural grace. So he is inexorably transformed from a sweet, inquisitive chatterbox into a wary and embittered youth, eventually able to make his escape on one of the new steam trains which capture his imagination. Despite his ability not merely to survive but to succeed against the odds, Jonathan’s psyche is poisoned by his very understandable fury over the years of abuse, and the desire for revenge focussed on George. Moving between scenes from Jonathan’s life to that of his granddaughter as she pieces together his story from his coded diary and the ramblings of his son, alcoholic doctor Atlas, Joan Brady shows how the destructive effects of slavery can blight a family for three generations.

This original, quirky novel drips with cynicism and venom (which happens to be the title of another of Brady’s novels) and includes some at times gratuitously unpleasant scenes, one of which almost caused me to give up. Yet despite this, and the extreme mental or physical ills which seem to beset many of the main characters, this book is a page turner. Apart from being “a good yarn”, with dazzling verbal pyrotechnics and some telling observations, it brings alive a sense of the landscape and pioneering spirit of the States, as railroads are forged west to California, new towns are formed, only to die in a few years, as in the brilliant descriptions of the town of Mogul, “ferried out in the desert” for the purpose of mining stignite. “Mogul was growing up with America, no sewers, no trees, no street lights, no running water: a full-blown boom town geared to the quick sale of everything, alive or dead, worldly or divine. Walls of saloon and Methodist chapel alike advertised whiskey, shaving cream, dried beef and – without so much as a change of paint colour or script style – God Himself and the virtues of cleanliness” and so on for page after page of wry, sparkling prose. Despite the perhaps over-laboured attempt to apply theories of warfare to Jonathan’s battle with George, regardless of the recurring message that life has no meaning, much as we may wish that it did, that “truth’s a convention, a fashion: it changes every year”, being alive is miraculous and wonderful.

It is a pity that this deservedly award-winning novelist, whose own life seems quite intriguing, has not written more and is not better known in this country.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars