“Conclave” by Robert Harris – “As wise as serpents, innocent as doves….. as if there were no women in the world”

This is my review of Conclave by Robert Harris.

In his role as Dean, steeped in the rituals and politics of the Vatican, which may well be the cause of his recent crisis of faith, Cardinal Lomeli is peeved when the Pope refuses his request to retreat to a religious order, insisting that he is needed as a manager. Yet when the old man unexpectedly dies, all Lomeli’s skills are needed to ensure that a suitable successor is found out of the clearly far from perfect candidates. Inevitably, Lomeli’s diligence in this respect may give the impression that he is clearing the way for his own election. Since he is a decent man of integrity, would this be such a bad result? Could he be tempted by the prospect of power, or is the weight of responsibility and loss of freedom to roam through the streets unrecognised and browse in a bookshop too high a price to pay?

This psychological drama which I felt compelled to finish in a single day can be read on two levels: a simple question of who will win out in a fiercely fought competition to gain the coveted yet also daunting position of Pope, or a deeper analysis of the condition and influence of the Catholic church in the modern world. Robert Harris seems to me to be making a stinging indictment of the excessive wealth and privilege of the Vatican hierarchy and its ostrich-like divorce from real life. I was struck by the irony of the meek nuns who serve the meals, clean the rooms and provide secretarial support for the male staff and cardinals who take it all as their due.

There is no need for belief to be intrigued by the survival of the medieval ritual of locking 118 cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, segregating them from the rest of the world in the Vatican, until they have chosen one of their number by ballot to become the next Pope. Continuing his preoccupation with the pursuit and exercise of power, possibly offending some Catholics in the process, Robert Harris, has fleshed out the arcane process by his portrayal of the cardinals scheming like a typical bunch of secular politicians in the desire to advance the cause of a favoured candidate, or obtain the role in person.

All too human in their personal flaws, the main protagonists represent a range of characters from different continents and cultures: from the self-styled man of the people to the self-effacing intellectual; the socially progressive and tolerant to highly conservative. The most unworldly and principled may resort to dubious means for a good end or at least to avert what they regard as a bad one. An ambitious liberal may manipulate matters to a point bordering on the criminal, while a wheeler-dealer may destroy his chances through a sudden insistence on what he really believes.

How essential is it for the Church to maintain its unity against growing external pressures from say, atheism, secular moves for social equality, or an ever more militant Islam? Is this unity even feasible, when the ground-breaking step of electing an African cardinal as Pope would mean having a leader intolerant of homosexuality?

The detailed coverage of the prayers and rituals which Robert Harris has researched so thoroughly, the repetition of the procedure of casting the ballot until it is possible to ignite the chemicals which will give the pure white smoke of a result, has proved too dry for some readers. Admittedly, the lists of cardinals and their lengthy titles may have been overdone, but all this creates the necessary context for the drama.

I understand why some have found the ending implausible and somewhat abrupt, but on reflection I decided it was quite a clever, ironical twist, leaving matters open and the reader with further food for thought.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“4 3 2 1” by Paul Auster – When is life too short to finish a long book?

This is my review of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

When Paul Auster was fourteen, the boy next to him was struck by lightning and died. This traumatic evidence of how chance affects our life and death has influenced his writing profoundly, and forms the basis of the mammoth “4321” which narrates the early life of Archie Ferguson, cycling through four versions at each stage.

Characters may be prosperous and happily married in one scenario, failures, even criminal, at odds with their partners, without a partner or die prematurely in others. Ferguson himself is essentially the same: baseball-loving, precociously interested in books and classical music, introspective and observing those around him, developing inexorably into a writer. Since Ferguson is born in 1947, the same year as Paul Auster, the latter seems to be playing games with his own fictionalised autobiography.

The opening anecdote is promising: arriving at Ellis Island, Ferguson’s Jewish grandfather Reznilkoff cannot recall the name he has been advised to adopt and blurts out in Yiddish “Okh hob fargessen” – “I’ve forgotten”. But by only page 150, I felt I had been reading for hours but was less than a fifth of the way through, bogged down in unrelenting detail cutting me off from characters with whom I could engage.

Without the distraction of making notes or continually flicking back four chapters, it was hard to remember which Archie I was dealing with. This was irritating although I decided early on that it does not matter, the main point of the novel being to explore human relationships against the backdrop of the United States’ post-war Rosenberg Trial, Civil Rights, Vietnam conflict history. Those over sixty-five may respond to the nostalgia of recalling long-forgotten incidents, but younger readers, particularly if not American, may be unfamiliar with references which it is assumed one will understand.

The trouble is that Ferguson is not very interesting. His life, whether in a strapped-for-cash or wealthy version, is mostly quite mundane. The rare moments of high drama, such as a death or a serious crime, are stripped of their potential by the matter-of-fact descriptive style. Perhaps it is realistic that people cannot find words adequate to the the shock over Kennedy’s assassination, . “I just can’t believe it”…. “Unreal. A city wihout trees. A world without trees”. This leaves me cold, unlike my memory of Jackie Kennedy still in her bloodstained pink suit, apparently hours after the shooting.

Not only daunting in its length – 866 pages in the hardback version, it is cumbersome to read, too heavy to take on a bus, awkward just to hold open at the right page. Using a Kindle is a solution, but then it is harder to refer back quickly, plus a typical complex sentence is likely to last for several pages with the milestone ending of an interminable paragraph rarely in sight on a small screen.

The sheer garrulous verbosity makes the book seem even longer. Paul Auster can never resist including all the examples which have come to mind, rather than refine them down to one or two. He can’t just tell you that Ferguson was painting the kitchen ceiling when he heard of Ho Chi Minh’s death: you have to know it was “in a three-bedroomed apartment on Central Park West between Eighty-Third and Eighty-fourth Streets”, and that’s a modest example of prolixity. Lists of friends about whom one knows nothing at all are tedious, those of favourite literary works just seem a bit self-indulgent, even pretentious.

I found myself comparing “4321” with Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”, the product of another experienced writer’s “late stage” work, but making the same point about the devastating effects of chance in a much shorter, memorable novel.

I have enjoyed novels by Paul Auster, and will make a point of reading some more since I have bracketed him mentally alongside writers like Saul Bellow, but “4321” lacks the vitality and verbal skill of the equally ambitious “Humboldt’s Gift”. This too has been criticised for being an over-long ego trip! I came to the sad conclusion that the opportunity cost of finishing “4321”, in terms of the other books I could read in the same time, was simply too high.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid – How we have all become migrants in time.

This is my review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

In the same vein as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” yet quite different in some respects, this short novel has an unusual, often insightful and moving take on the fraught issue of migration. Saeed and Nadia, two young professionals in an unnamed muslim city, first notice each other at a time when religious militants are beginning to disrupt daily life. One of the first hints of menace comes in the comment that the view from the flat which Saeed shares with his parents would in times of conflict be “like staring down the barrel of a rifle”. Saeed cannot visit Nadia’s flat openly, so he comes at night when she can drop down to him a woman’s black robe to provide a suitable disguise.

When militants gain overall control of the city, with close relatives killed, work places closed down, food in short supply, electricity and water supplies disrupted and Saeed and fearful of touching each other in public, they have little option but to flee. On realising that Mohsin Hamid has resorted to magic realism by having his characters slip through black doors which mysteriously appear to allow people to escape to unknown destinations, irritation almost provoked me to abandon the novel. In fact, he handles this device surprisingly well: apart from adding to the sense of being at the mercy of fate, it arguably it is a method of focusing on the migrant experience of adapting to a series of unfamiliar new settings, and also makes the impact of each cultural change all the sharper.

Mohsin Hamid imagines a London which has almost broken down under the volume of migration, with many of the vacant homes of wealthy residents taken over by squatters. There is a kind of pragmatic tolerance in the eventual decision to build settlements for the newcomers in the Green Belt.

He writes quite subtly of the different ways in which migrants respond: Saeed clings to aspects of their old life, seeking solace in prayer and the company of those of the same nationality, whereas despite her continued wearing of the black robe which keeps the unwelcome attentions of men at bay, the non-praying Nadia finds it easier to put the past behind her. The claustrophobia of close proximity impels them to go foraging alone, despite the risk of being separated if their phone contact is broken. In the disrupton and risk of their old lives, they feel most disoriented when general system failure cuts them off from the internet and online social networks, sophisticated links in stark contrast to their poverty and lack of personal control over their fate. Although maintaing an enduring concern for each other, their relationship is strained to the limit and altered by the changes imposed upon them.

The author arouses a strong sympathy for the migrants, combined with a growing sense that the lives of those in the countries receiving them must be inevitably changed at the same time. He writes at one point of the elderly Californian who feels a stranger in the locality where she has lived all her life which seems to have been taken over by “people who looked more at home than she was, even the homeless ones who spoke no English, more at home maybe because they were younger, and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time”.

Perhaps because he felt it necessary to express ideas beyond the experiences of Saeed and Nadia, Hohsin Hamid keeps briefly introducing fresh characters, unconnected to the main storyline line, who pass through the black doors into new lives. This tends to create a disjointed, distracting effect, for me the main shortcoming in an otherwise excellent book which I read in a single day, trying not to pass too quickly over the many acute observations.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton” by Jane Smiley – Worth-reading because it’s important to understand what led to the American Civil War

This is my review of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley.

Despite caring little about the issue of slavery which is propelling 1850s America ever closer to civil war Lidie Harkness agrees to marry the thoughtful but arguably naïve New Englander, Thomas Newton, a committed “abolitionist”. A book-loving tomboy, who likes to ride a horse bareback, and once swam the treacherous Mississippi for the sheer challenge, she is lured by the adventure of becoming a settler’s wife, developing a “claim” on the “free soil”of the falsely promoted Kansas Territory. All too soon she experiences not only the harsh reality of life on the prairies, particularly in the freezing winter, but also the vicious hostility of the perhaps somewhat stereotyped residents of adjoining Missouri, unwilling to accept a democractically elected slave-free state, convinced that this will destroy the economic and social order.

Perhaps inspired by the divisions in her own family tree, with a grandfather’s branch Southern sympathisers, but her grandmother’s progressive abolitionists, Jane Smiley has researched in depth the fascinating question of whether or not to permit slavery in the newly established states as pioneers pushed further westwards. As a result, the book sometimes reads like a condensed history shoehorned into a novel. I was frustrated by the fact this is often hard to follow, without the disruption of breaking off to check the details elsewhere. It could be argued that, since the narrative is so strongly based on Lidie Newton’s viewpoint, her limited and confused understanding of events is realistic. Instead, she writes with much more precision and insight about filling in the chinks in her cabin walls or forming a relationship with the rashly purchased horse Jeremiah.

Jane Smiley clearly prefers writing in-depth about the complexity and contradictions of relations between individuals and the details of daily life. Although one cannot know how authentic this is, she has managed to sustain what reads like the “voice” of a young nineteenth century American woman – inexperienced and inevitably limited by her upbringing but perceptive and resilient, with a wry humour.

At first, I wondered why this book is not as widely known and praised as Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” but although it is a page turner in parts, I soon found it weighed down with tedious wordiness, a long list of examples when two or three would do, the same point made several different ways, repetition of words. In short, Lidie’s thoughts and the lengthy disquitisions of some characters could do with a good edt. Yet perhaps the author seeks to emulate the styles of C19 authors she admires, like Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. This seems borne out by the way every chapter starts with a quotation from Lidie’s “bible”, “A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home” by Catherine Beecher Stowe, while every chapter and even page is titled with a brief indication of what is happening.

Having gritted my teeth to endure the style, I was absorbed by much of this book, and it certainly created an interest in learning more about American history in the run-up to the Civil War. However, in addition to being over-long and in need of more rigorous editing, it hinges on some unnecessarily implausible plot developments, and its ending seems unsatisfactory, too abrupt (after all the verbiage) and weak.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

“Middlemarch” by George Eliot – A masterpiece that stands the test of time and repays the time needed to read it.

This is my review of Middlemarch by George Eliot.

How can a book written a century-and-a-half ago still exert such a powerful addiction over modern readers who imagine themselves to be free from the conventions concerning class, race, gender and honour which so shackled C19 society? A remarkably perceptive and articulate woman who wrote as “George Eliot” to ensure she was not merely published but taken seriously at the time, Mary Ann Evans was able to enter into the minds of her characters and analyse their complex and shifting emotions so effectively that readers in any generation are able to relate to them. Admittedly some of the minor players are caricatures, such as the complacent, censorious inhabitants of Middlemarch, but the main protagonists are portrayed in such depth, both strengths and failings, that we even find ourselves feeling a twinge of sympathy for the canting hypocrite, non-conformist banker Bulstrode when he receives his final reckoning.

Culled from two separate earlier stories, the main storylines are interwoven, contrasting the fortunes of two idealistic individuals: the wealthy well-born Dorothea, filled with the earnest but unfocused desire to make a difference in the world, and the ambitious young pioneering doctor Tertius Lydgate, determined to make his mark in furthering medical knowledge. Restricted by the naivety stemming from a sheltered upbringing and a lack of education to match her intelligence, Dorothea makes the mistake of marrying a selfish pedant, whose dry-as-dust research project has run into the ground. Her gradual realisation of the hollowness of his talent and the meanness of his outlook is made all the more poignant by the appearance on the scene of Casaubon’s intelligent and attractive young relative Will Ladislaw, who could not present a greater contrast in his open-minded spontaneity. An unwise marriage is also Lydgate’s downfall, since the lovely but shallow and materialistic Rosamund is neither willing or able to support him in achieving his aims.

With its web of many well-developed, diverse characters and entertaining sub-plots, this is a kind of glorious literary soap opera, by turns humorous and poignant, set against a background of industrial and political revolution: the drives to extend the vote under the controversial Reform Act, and to develop the railways, seen as a mystifying and needless threat to civilised life by many in Middlemarch. Just occasionally, George Eliot falls prey to the prejudices of her time: anti-Semitic asides and snobbish descriptions of some low-born characters such as the “frog-faced” Joshua Rigg, bastard son of the perverse Featherstone, whose highest ambition is to use his unexpected inheritance to set himself up in the despised profession of moneychanger. Yet overall one is impressed by the sheer force of the author’s intellect, and struck by the irony that a female writer of this calibre was obliged to write under a male pseudonym.

I am not sure whether George Eliot felt required to indulge in the flowery disquisitions so popular in Victorian writing, or revelled in displaying her skill in this, but I have to admit to struggling with some of these passages, not least where words have changed in their meaning, or turns of phrase become too convoluted for our preferred sparer style. Yet most descriptions and dialogues sizzle with a sharp wit which would not seem out of place in a modern novel.

Less bleak than “The Mill on the Floss” or “Silas Marner”, “Middlemarch” deserves to be called one of the greatest English novels of the nineteenth century.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

“Middlemarch” by George Eliot – A masterpiece which has stood the test of time and repays the time needed to read it

This is my review of Middlemarch by George Eliot.

How can a book written a century-and-a-half ago still exert such a powerful addiction over modern readers who imagine themselves to be free from the conventions concerning class, race, gender and honour which so shackled C19 society? A remarkably perceptive and articulate woman who wrote as “George Eliot” to ensure she was not merely published but taken seriously at the time, Mary Ann Evans was able to enter into the minds of her characters and analyse their complex and shifting emotions so effectively that readers in any generation are able to relate to them. Admittedly some of the minor players are caricatures, such as the complacent, censorious inhabitants of Middlemarch, but the main protagonists are portrayed in such depth, both strengths and failings, that we even find ourselves feeling a twinge of sympathy for the canting hypocrite, non-conformist banker Bulstrode when he receives his final reckoning.

Culled from two separate earlier stories, the main storylines are interwoven, contrasting the fortunes of two idealistic individuals: the wealthy well-born Dorothea, filled with the earnest but unfocused desire to make a difference in the world, and the ambitious young pioneering doctor Tertius Lydgate, determined to make his mark in furthering medical knowledge. Restricted by the naivety stemming from a sheltered upbringing and a lack of education to match her intelligence, Dorothea makes the mistake of marrying a selfish pedant, whose dry-as-dust research project has run into the ground. Her gradual realisation of the hollowness of his talent and the meanness of his outlook is made all the more poignant by the appearance on the scene of Casaubon’s intelligent and attractive young relative Will Ladislaw, who could not present a greater contrast in his open-minded spontaneity. An unwise marriage is also Lydgate’s downfall, since the lovely but shallow and materialistic Rosamund is neither willing or able to support him in achieving his aims.

With its web of many well-developed, diverse characters and entertaining sub-plots, this is a kind of glorious literary soap opera, by turns humorous and poignant, set against a background of industrial and political revolution: the drives to extend the vote under the controversial Reform Act, and to develop the railways, seen as a mystifying and needless threat to civilised life by many in Middlemarch. Just occasionally, George Eliot falls prey to the prejudices of her time: anti-Semitic asides and snobbish descriptions of some low-born characters such as the “frog-faced” Joshua Rigg, bastard son of the perverse Featherstone, whose highest ambition is to use his unexpected inheritance to set himself up in the despised profession of moneychanger. Yet overall one is impressed by the sheer force of the author’s intellect, and struck by the irony that a female writer of this calibre was obliged to write under a male pseudonym.

I am not sure whether George Eliot felt required to indulge in the flowery disquisitions so popular in Victorian writing, or revelled in displaying her skill in this, but I have to admit to struggling with some of these passages, not least where words have changed in their meaning, or turns of phrase become too convoluted for our preferred sparer style. Yet most descriptions and dialogues sizzle with a sharp wit which would not seem out of place in a modern novel.

Less bleak than “The Mill on the Floss” or “Silas Marner”, “Middlemarch” deserves to be called one of the greatest English novels of the nineteenth century.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

“The Destroyers” by Christopher Bollen -Another case of more is less for poor little rich boys.

This is my review of The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen.

“The Destroyers” of the title is a reference to the childhood game played by narrator Ian and his friend Charlie, in which they vied for ever more ingenious way of extricating themselves from violent attacks by assassins in black balaclavas. Charlie seems to have carried this lust for risk combined with a sense of immunity into adult life, an ominous recipe for disaster as he tries to establish a business of his own, separate from the construction empire of his ruthless Greek-Cypriot father.

Emotionally scarred by the sense of his father’s rejection in setting up home with a new wife and more favoured children, Ian has rejected capitalism to the extent of trying to side with the exploited workers of his father’s international babyfood company. Penniless, he seeks out Charlie (with whom he has had no contact for eight years!) on the island of Patmos, a photogenic setting for a thriller, in the hopes of obtaining some much-needed cash, only to find himself caught up in a sinister mystery. Less extrovert, with apparently good intentions which only confirm the old adage by paving the way to his personal hell, is Ian a reliable narrator, or will he prove to be the real villain of the piece?

Christopher Bollen may have overreached himself in his ambition. A self-styled fan of Agatha Christie, he clearly aims to achieve not only a page-turning crime mystery, but also an original literary style, analysis of human relationships and sharp social comment in a topical political context, in this case a Greece burdened with austerity, with Patmos a bizarre blend of worldly Orthodox priests, affluent tourists, stoned evangelising hippy Christians and desperate Syrian refugees floating in on leaky boats.

For me, Bollen has only partly succeeded. From the outset, I was alternately dazzled and irritated by the unusual metaphors and unexpected choice of adjectives, which often create an overly contrived, even jarring effect. For instance, writing of a hangover: “Overnight, my mouth has transformed into a shrivelled diving board slung over a septic pool. The grim condominium complex that surrounds it – i.e., the rest of my head- is experiencing a rash of small electrical fires”. On reflection, this may be a string of brilliant analogies, but page after page of pumped up creativity can make for an exhausting read.

Although I never cared much about the characters, they are well-developed, often through some strong dialogue, the suitably twisty plot has been carefully constructed, but despite a few dramatic scenes, some of which are quite implausible, it often drags, and the conclusion, too bent on tying up loose ends, seems rushed and disappointing to the extent of seeming a bit of a “cop-out”. I suppose that the roller-coaster flights of fancy are a fundamental part of the author’s style, so perhaps it is the more redundant, repetitious verbiage that an editor should have honed to reduce the book by a hundred pages or so.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars