The Unforgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.

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.

“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”

“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.