“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”

“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.

“Nineteen Eighty-four” by George Orwell: renewed relevance

Even those who have not read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, rated as one of “the hundred best novels”, will recognise some of the “Newspeak” which has been absorbed into our language: “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, Big Brother is Watching You, “2+2=5” and the dreaded “Room 101”, to name a few.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Winston Smith, a member of the “Outer Party” spends his days in a cramped cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, altering newspaper articles and statistics to tally with the latest announcements blaring from the inescapable telescreens and loudspeakers, taking care to post each instruction in a “memory hole” for incineration without trace. The superstate of Oceania is in a continual state of no doubt fictitious war with one of its two counterparts, Eurasia and Eastasia, but keeping track is a mind-bending business: in the middle of a “Hate Week” speech, Eastasia becomes the enemy instead of Eurasia, and Winston has to work frantically to “correct” all the records. Desperate to retain a sense of reality, he wonders what it is worth if it only exists in his own head.

Written during the late 1940s in the aftermath of World War 2, with the Soviet Union under Stalin’s control, it is clear where Orwell obtained many of the ideas for this work. It also seems quite dated in the portrayal of Winston’s shabby material existence very much as it must have been in a period of shortages and rationing. The bleak bombed terraces of London’s East End provide the setting for “the proles”, workers at the bottom of the social heap who are bribed with the promise of wins in a bogus lottery, but are at least spared the constant need to toe the ever-changing Party line.

When the real 1984 dawned, it seemed that technological advances and mass consumption had transformed the world in ways Orwell had been unable to foresee, but in 2022 the novel has regained a more chilling relevance. As I write this, President Putin is trying to conceal from the Russian people the fact that their military forces are in fact destroying rather than protecting Russian cities. Media outlets are being forced to close down since anyone who even mentions the word “invasion” faces fifteen years in gaol. Recently in the US, “fake news” became a common feature of President Trump’s regime, with his spokesperson justifying the use of “alternative facts”. In China, Muslim ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs are imprisoned in “re-education camps”. Even in the UK, the supposed cradle of democracy, one sees too many troubling examples of official attempts to manipulate situations, suppress information and “economise with the truth”, yet not widely challenged. As living standards are put under pressure by the costs of dealing with Covid and rising energy prices, the threat of war may prove a convenient diversion, also serving to discourage the growth of individualism which undermines unquestioning conformity.

The novel may seem a little rushed and underdeveloped at the end, perhaps because Orwell, who was dying of tuberculosis at the time, was racing to finish it. Despite this, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a thought-provoking warning against complacency over the behaviour of our political leaders. Orwell raises the dilemma of the risk that people driven by social idealism may end up creating a system that crushes individual freedom – rather like the excesses of the French Revolution when one comes to think of it…..

“Aux animaux la guerre! by Nicolas Mathieu – “Of Fangs and Talons”! – in the wake of Émile Zola?

In the Vosges, an economically depressed part of north-east of France, the loss-making Velocia car plant is due to close, adding to the problems of union leader Martel who has been embezzling funds to pay for his mother’s care home. Desperate for money, he takes the unwise step of joining with Bruno, a coke-snorting bodybuilder on a temporary contract at Velocia, to kidnap a girl on behalf of the Benbarek brothers, a pair of ruthless gangsters. Predictably, the plan goes awry.

Available in English as “Of Fangs and Talons”, in its original form the novel is a challenge for a non-French reader, by reason of the large amount of slang and colloquial speech. The initial scenes are not in chronological order, which adds to the confusion. “I owe as much to Proust as to the Sopranos”, Nicolas Mathieu has observed in an interview. By this, I assume he is referring to the lengthy passages devoted to minor events or everyday situations described in minute detail, as opposed to those of extreme, often gratuitous violence. He also seems fascinated by the psychology of bored, disaffected teenagers, whom he portrays rather well. Overall, he is clearly more interested in character, ambiance, an ironic take on the inequalities, injustices and prejudices of modern French society, than in plot.

The prologue set decades earlier in the Algeria of 1961 is presumably meant to provide the usual overused hook of violence in the form of the brutal execution of those suspected of involvement in the movement for independence from France. This has little relevance to the rest of the novel, except to indicate the unflinching lengths to which some of the characters will be prepared to go. The fragmented structure of the novel results in some major incidents being implied, or never made clear. Some banal scenes make frustrating reading since they break the dramatic tension, although in the case of the most brutal events this could be a relief. The inconclusive ending may be a stroke of genius in reflecting what real life so often turns out to be, while paving the way for a sequel, or perhaps it is simply a disappointing “cop-out”.


The debut novel of an author who went on to win le prix Goncourt for “Leurs enfants après eux”, “Aux animaux la guerre” has been made into a French TV series. I imagine the latter might “work better” in dramatic terms, but perhaps lose some of the irony which is the saving grace of this bleak, overlong novel.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev: “Standing on the threshold of the future”

Image dans Infobox.
Jeantaud, Linet et Lainé by Edgar Dégas 1871

It is hard to believe that when published in 1862, Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” caused such a storm of “virulent attacks” in Russia: “each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own badly drawn”. In the novel, the usual generational differences are heightened by the abrupt change from the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I to the more liberal rule of Alexander II who has permitted the “emancipation” of the serfs, together with a climate of greater freedom of expression in which intellectual rebels like the novel’s anti-hero Bazarov, a “socially inferior” doctor’s son, feels no inhibitions about getting embroiled in fierce arguments with Pavel Petrovich, a minor noble with rigid conservative views.

Turgenev displays a gift for observing human nature which still rings true despite the passage of time and massive changes in society. Bazarov, an unconventional medical student who prides himself on being a nihilist “who bows down to no authority, who takes no single principle on trust”, no matter how respected it is, reminds me of a passionate Extinction Rebellion supporter. His nihilism leaves him totally ill-equipped when it comes to knowing how to deal with being in love.

His gentle friend Arkady is typical of an open-minded young man struggling to form ideas, who is susceptible to the influence of an opinionated friend, until he begins to question his ideas as too extreme. Arkady’s father Nicolay Petrovich, the tolerant and well-intentioned owner of a rundown country estate in desperate need of modernisation, is generally regarded as a soft touch, taken advantage of by the peasants on his land.

Bazarov is by turns boorish and unexpectedly kind. He is brusque with his doting parents, but inspires trust in “the humblest of people”, as when, in one of the many humorous moments, he explains to a couple of farm boys why he is collecting frogs to dissect, “..as you and I are just like frogs….I’ll know what goes on inside us…So as not to make a mistake if you become ill and I have to look after you”.

On the surface, this may seem a rather simple and fairly uneventful tale. In fact, although short, it is skilfully constructed to convey more than many much longer ones: a strong sense of place, in particular the vast, neglected countryside; vivid impressions of life on a typical mid-C19 estate; pithy dialogues, with the relationships between the characters building to some intense psychological drama, and sharply divided views on progress versus stability.

Turgenev may have been enabled to write such a perceptive book because his travels in Europe gave the scope to judge his native country more objectively. He actually began to write it when staying at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. If such an allegedly gentle and certainly insightful man managed to fall out for several years with both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was it primarily their fault?

For me, this is the most accessible and enjoyable Russian novel I have read. It is both heartwarming and poignant, with a final sense of “everlasting peace, of that great peace ‘indifferent’ nature”, despite everything, to quote Peter Carson’s excellent translation.

“The Magician” by Colm Tóibín – “the pure genius of mankind, and alll the pathos”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Good biographies often read like fiction. Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of the Nobel Prize winning German author has the advantage of giving scope to imagine Thomas Mann’s inner thoughts, and invent dialogues or scenes which may enhance our understanding of him. Tóibín’s evident research and knowledge of Mann’s work enable him to perceive the author as fairly and accurately as a pure biographer. The drawback is that the reader cannot be sure where truth ends and artistic licence begins, but does that matter if one gains a sense of the “essence” of a personality, together with a better grasp of a writer’s work?

Tóibín is ambitious in covering Mann’s life from sixteen-year old son of a wealthy Lübeck merchant in 1891, to old man approaching death in 1955, revisiting his birthplace after years of exile from Nazi Germany. Each starting with a different location and date, the eighteen chapters prevent the narrative from getting bogged down in detail but create a somewhat disjointed effect.

It can be hard to keep track of the complex, often troubled relationships within Mann’s large family, including several siblings, six children of his own with their various partners, plus some acquaintances. With an unexpectedly stiff style and often artificial dialogue, which I assume to be in intentional imitation of Mann’s own prose, the book did not at first live up to the expectations raised by Tóibín’s earlier novel about “The Master”, Henry James.

Unlike his opinionated, socialist older brother Heinrich and eldest son Klaus, Mann comes to perceive himself as cautious, wary, and wavering in his beliefs. Heinrich is enraged by Mann’s deceit as a boy in gaining his father’s approval by feigning interest in the running of his business. Throughout his adult life, Mann understandably tries to conceal his obsession with handsome boys, expressed in his novel “Death in Venice”. Fearing the destruction of his reputation, Mann agonises over the apparent loss of a suitcase containing compromising diary entries, which his son Golo has tried to smuggle out of Nazi Germany on his behalf.

Mann is portrayed as a self-contained introvert, observing those around him, including family members, with a clinical objectivity, using them as material for his stories with a ruthless insensitivity. Aware that his Jewish wife Katia is unusually close to her twin brother, Thomas transposes the legendary love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde into a wealthy Berlin household, modelling the interloper who comes to marry Sieglinde on himself, “the dull man out of place in the glamorous Rosenberg family.” Although her father is furious on hearing the gossip about this, Katia is strangely unconcerned. Years later, she is more disturbed to realise that Mann has used their grandson Frido, whom he claims to love, as the model in his latest book, “Doctor Faustus”, for a child who is destined to die, because his uncle “could only damage those who came close to him”. The uncle in question is very obviously based on the real composer Schoenburg, inventor of the twelve-tone system, who is enraged by the suggestion that he might have made a pact with the devil like the ficticious composer Adrian Leverkühn.

I was surprised by Tóibín’s only brief reference to “Buddenbrooks”, the novel based on his own family’s decline, which made him a wealthy literary sensation from his mid-twenties. The inspiration for other novels is interesting: visiting Katia during her prolonged stay at a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis, gives Mann the idea for “The Magic Mountain”. He is fascinated by the X-ray images of his own body, “as it would be in the grave”, and is excited by the prospect of being the first novelist to describe an X-ray, “with all the eerie lights and uncanny sounds”.

Tóibín does not baulk at portraying Mann as quite unlikeable, although there is usually a reason for his more dubious actions. The unconscious single-mindedness of an artist is perhaps common and necessary for success. Mann’s initial reluctance to criticise Hitler is justified by his fear of putting his wife’s Jewish family at greater risk, less so by reluctance to see his books removed from German shelves. When fleeing Europe for the United States, he does not hesitate to try bribery or feign frailty to jump queues, his wealth giving him a sense of entitlement. Perhaps most troubling is the decision to continue his planned book tour of Germany despite news of his eldest son’s suicide. He does not attend the funeral, possibly trading on his distraught wife’s inability to cope with the idea of seeing her son’s coffin. Another son Michael reproaches him bitterly, “You are a great man. Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded. It hardly bothers you most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children”. Tóibín describes how Thomas hides and soon destroys the letter.

The book becomes more gripping as the exiled Mann has to reassess German society and culture after the horror of the Holocaust and to face accusations of being a Communist when he insists on visiting the East Germany in what has become a divided country. No longer welcome in the US, he feels obliged to leave the luxurious home built in California, but cannot face return to a devastated Germany where, at banquets during his book tour, he is aware of being “forced to shake still fleshy hands that not long ago were sticky with blood”.

One can appreciate this book without having read any of Mann’s work beforehand, although it may seem odd to do so. Although I feel ashamed to admit to failure in previous attempts to read “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain” (which Mann jokes is so long he doubts anyone has actually read it ), Tóibín has stimulated my interest in Mann in the context of Germany at a calamitous phase in its history, and the details of his life will linger in my mind.

“Le Dit du Mistral by Olivier Mak-Bouchard – according to the mistral…….

Mont Ventoux hikes: what not to miss | Provence Guide
Mont Ventoux

In this original, quirky novel, the unnamed narrator, let’s call him “N”, is steeped in every aspect of the Luberon, the part picturesque, part wild and dramatic mountainous area of central Provence where he has always lived: the landscapes, wildlife, legends, customs, local recipes, Occitan language and writers – and continual presence of the mistral, the unpredictable, often violent wind from the north-west.

When his retired neighbour, M. Sécaillat discovers what look like archaeological remains in his cherry orchard, N manages to persuade him not to bury them quickly in order to avoid the hassle and red tape involved in reporting them, as the law requires. Instead, taking advantage of his wife’s timely trip abroad, N somehow arranges extended leave and works with Sécaillat on a full excavation of what proves to be a hot spring with apparent healing powers, presided over by the carving of an enigmatic stone goddess. To salve their consciences, N leaves on the doorstep of the local museum cases of the “toutouros”, the clay horns which the two men have painstakingly glued together.

Will they be tracked down by local council officials or the police and fined, even imprisoned? If, on the other hand, they destroy the evidence, will they arouse the wrath of Vintur, the ancient god of the mountains, and his capricious son, “Le Mistral” wind, and if so, what form will revenge take?

Midway, this novel changes tack, drifting into a surreal mix of weird incidents, waking dreams and fantasies linked to legends, which a cynical reader might attribute largely to the narrator’s disturbed mental state and possible autism. I enjoyed the vivid sense of place supported by the possibility of locating many of the landmarks on Google images: the rare short-toed snake eagles to be glimpsed at the Madeleine Cliff, or the summit of Mount Ventoux, sometime finishing post for the Tour de France, with its memorial to the British cyclist Tom Simpson who died of heat exhaustion there. The Provençal recipes and customs are intriguing, like the tradition dating from pagan times and adopted by the Catholic church, of sowing on Saint Barbara’s Feast Day (December 4th) the seeds of corn, chick peas and lentils to represent the Trinity, destined to form part of the Christmas decorations.

I found the second part overlong, and at times too “off the rails” for my taste. I kept reading because, apart from some powerful descriptions, flashes of wry humour and learning a lot about the Luberon which I would now hope to visit, the novel is packed with useful idioms for a student of French. Although the narrator himself is not, as a few readers have noted, a particularly likeable character, who does not deserve his long-suffering wife Blanche, his well-observed white pet cat, Le Hussard (by reason of his striking black legs, which resemble the knee high military boots of a hussar), is a very appealing presence.

“Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann: minute descriptions of a bygone way of life

Buddenbrooks House (Buddenbrookhaus) — description, photos, оn the map
Built in 1758, belonging to Thomas Mann’s grandparents, what is now a museum is where the author lived in his youth, and set his account of the decline of a bourgeois family in Lübeck.

A book group’s choice of Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician”, a fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, prompted me to read one of this Nobel prize winning author’s works. “Buddenbrooks”, his first novel published in 1901 when he was still in his mid-twenties, traces the decline of a prosperous family of Lübeck merchants over four generations, clearly based on his own. In writing about the materialism, snobbery and stifling moral codes of the wealthy middle classes, perhaps this may be compared with “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, who also won the Nobel Prize.                                                          

Although it is considered one of the finest novels representing C19 Germany, I have to admit that by the end of Chapter 14, I had  decided against struggling on dutifully through the remaining almost 600 pages. Flipping forward through the text, and searching for motivation via the many glowing reviews did not alter this decision.  Initially, I thought that the stiff style, which could of course be said to reflect C19 German society, might be down to the English translation. I switched from the version produced by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, who possessed sole rights to translate Mann’s work for  more than two decades, to the American John Wood’s less formal style, published in 1994.

However, the problem remained for me in the  mind-numbing descriptions of people’s dress and appearance, the décor and furniture of rooms, the plentiful food and small talk, although all this may well convey very accurately the ambience and behaviour of a particular society.  When poor little Christian Buddenbrooks shocks his mother  at a social gathering by complaining he is “damned sick”, the doctor knows it is a case of indigestion triggered by four heavy meals a day, but tactfully suggests a strict diet of “young pigeon and French bread”.  This may be quite revealing, even slightly amusing, but are such incidents sufficient to hold one’s interest?

There is a plethora of characters who make brief appearances, lists of families who form part of the Buddenbrooks’ social circle, but all are sketchily portrayed and two dimensional – admittedly perhaps intentionally indicating the superficiality of relationships. There are telling hints that some of the pushiest socially inferior upstarts are doing rather too well, but this theme is not fleshed out. Those described in more detail often seem somewhat eccentric or unreal, their inner thoughts remaining opaque.

Dramatic incidents prove damp squibs: a house warming party is threatened by a letter to patriarch Johann Buddenbrook from his estranged son, demanding compensation for his share in the property – this sounds like a promising plot-line, but comes to nothing. Likewise, when sent to holiday on the coast to ease her stress over being courted by a man her parents wish her to marry, Tony (Antonie) Buddenbrook ironically falls for a young medical student but this situation is never developed. It seems that Mann was more interested in characters than plot, but even the main players seem too bound by convention to express themselves with any spontaneity and depth.

By Chapter 14, it is clear that girls like Tony are mere  pawns in a marriage market designed to support family fortunes,  pampered but denied a decent education so dependent and ill-equipped to cope with life. Tony’s sense of personal importance grounded in her family, acceptance of her role in forming a link in the chain of family connections, ultimately lead her to agree to marriage to the phony creep Herr Grünlich. The fact that even she can see through this character while apparently her father cannot, may be a clue to the failure of the family to prosper, as the decline begins.

So, feeling that I have grasped the narrow, blinkered bygone world presented in this novel, so lacking in natural expression of real human feelings, there is not enough to move, amuse, enlighten or fill me with anticipation to read to the end.

“Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope – a master in analysing human nature

Barchester Towers (Vintage Classics) by [Anthony Trollope]

In this early Victorian soap opera, an elderly bishop’s death triggers the drama of Barchester Towers. His ambitious, worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, who has long been the power behind the  bishop’s throne, is anxious to succeed him but an untimely change in government and the move against ritualistic, “high church” practices, which have long prevailed in Barchester, count against him.

In what seems the worst possible outcome, the newly appointed Bishop Proudie, is not merely “evangelical”, but completely under the thumb of his wife who has chosen as his chaplain her protégé Mr Slope, a slippery  schemer who  fully intends to run the show himself. The twists and turns of the ensuing power struggle are complicated by the fact that three very different men, including Obadiah Slope, are drawn in various ways not only to Grantly’s sister-in-law Eleanor Bold, a beautiful and wealthy young widow, but to the even more alluring but crippled Signora Neroni with  a mysteriously absent Italian husband, who flirts outrageously from her sofa as a distraction.

Much of this novel is a page-turner by reason of Trollope’s very acute observation of human nature and his ability  to describe it so vividly in all its contradictory shifts. His plots are  imaginative and humorous, with strong dialogues which often have the directness of a playscript.  The occasional “continuity errors”, generally in timing, do not matter greatly and are probably a result of the novel having been written and expanded over a period of months.

The more serious drawbacks for a modern reader are the result of  the inevitable  radical changes in  the accepted style of writing and in society over more than a century and a half.  Trollope is an intrusive narrator, who cannot resist  often telling the reader what is going to happen, musing about such matters as the problem of knowing how to finish a book, or simply digressing to bang on about some new custom  which he personally dislikes.  He causes occasional twinges of unease with examples of  anti-semitism, male chauvinism and class snobbery,  because although one know he was understandably influenced by the values of his times, one somehow expects such a perceptive man to be more self-aware as regards such issues. Some sections are heavy going  because of the references to the doctrinal battles within the Church and  the political divisions of the day, together with the Latin tags now long forgotten. Obviously, one can look these up, but that is a distraction from the plot flow.

Overall, although one might not wish to wade through all the Barsetshire Chronicles,  this classic is certainly worth reading. Throughout, Eleanor’s father, the outwardly meek, even weak Septimus Harding remains the most decent, fair-minded and truly virtuous of them all.