“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.

“Le pays des autres” by Leïla Slimani – “Other People’s Country”

The first part of a planned trilogy, this  family saga draws  on memories of Leïla Slimani’s own Franco-Moroccan heritage. 

Le pays des autres (French Edition) by [Leïla Slimani]

Mathilde, an impulsive, immature young  Frenchwoman who has grown up in Alsace,  falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan who fought for France in the Second World War, enduring captivity as a POW in the process.  A relationship which seems largely based on physical attraction is strained at times almost to breaking point by the inevitable cultural differences  which neither has anticipated.  “You can’t be serious” Mathilde exclaims on learning that they will have to live with Amine’s mother for months before he can gain access to the land he has inherited. “Here, that’s the way it goes,” is Amine’s stern response, having sat down to mask his wife’s height advantage, which might sap his authority.

When the land proves poor,  further stress hastens  Amine’s metamorphosis into a  dour workaholic, finding occasional relief only in drinking sessions with friends in local bars, his frustration too often exploding into violence which may be justified to some extent by the norms of his society .  Mathilde, it has to be said, is quite an irritating woman, yet one’s sympathy is aroused when the white colonial wives openly disparage her for “being pregnant by an Arab”.  The resilience and stoicism she develops over time are admirable, although her passive acceptance, even complicity in some of Amine’s worst actions is troubling. She goes beyond  a fleshed-out character to one who seems a mass of contradictions.

Amine  has some redeeming features. Brought up as a muslim, he shows tolerance in letting their daughter Aïsha attend a Catholic school, where the bright little girl is horribly bullied and perhaps  as a result becomes excessively pious. In the ferocious battle for Moroccan independence Amine tries to avoid taking either side, literally grafting orange on to lemon trees in the novel’s recurring metaphor. Even when at risk of losing everything during a general torching of the locality, he is able to teach his daughter that  in wars, the concept of good and bad people, along with justice, cease to apply – people we have grown up with become our enemies.

The Country of Others by [Leïla Slimani]

Yet, overall, the book is too long, laboured, repetitive and somewhat disjointed, so that the reader is left wondering what happens to a particular character, or has to  assume that certain key events have taken place. For instance, from being grindingly poor the family seems to become suddenly better off, but the process of change is unclear. Mathilde’s development as provider of an unofficial local medical centre seems implausible in the light of her other well-intentioned but half-baked projects. Conversely, some quite minor incidents are given undue coverage, before drifting away to nothing. As is often the way with French novels, there is too much “telling” rather than “showing”. So we have to receive a mini history lesson on  1950s Morocco at one point – useful, but the facts could have been woven more subtly into the  tale.

For me a shorter novel with a stronger narrative drive would have proved more engaging. As it stands, it may improve on a second reading.

“The Girl who Died” by Ragnar Jonasson: marmite effect of Scandi supernatural crime noir

The Girl Who Died: The Sunday Times bestseller that will take you to the edge of the world by [Þ. Ragnar Jónasson]

Having enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson’s “Dark Iceland” series of psychological crime thrillers for their strong sense of place, plot twists and well-developed characters, I was somewhat disappointed by this stand alone novel.

Written in a rather wooden, clichéd style, which may be due to the translation, the frequent intrusion of creepy menace seems rather heavy-handed, alternating with slow-paced, generally rather dull scenes which admittedly reflect daily life in a tiny, inward-looking isolated coastal community.

This is where Una, “a Reykjavik girl through and through” decides to spend a year teaching the only two children in the fishing village, rather implausibly without first visiting the place to experience just how eerily quiet it is, checking out the ten inhabitants or being “vetted” in person herself. It also appears unlikely that she would previously have given up her training to be a doctor for supply teaching, although it is suggested from the outset that she has been traumatised by some previous event which remains tantalisingly unexplained until near the end.

The author employs the usual devices: the prologue to provide a “hook” of chilling suspense (which proves to be a chapter repeated later on); a sinister apparently unconnected sub-plot interwoven in short chapters written in italics with the main storyline. There is a difference from the author’s previous novels in the strong suggestion of the supernatural, although this could always be attributed to Una taking too much refuge in red wine or simply being mentally disturbed. After a final ingenious and poignant twist, the ending may seem weak and rushed, but leaving the situation, “what happens next”, open to interpretation may in fact prove more satisfying for many readers.

On reflection, there are the ingredients here for a novel as outstanding as it is falsely hyped to be, but it feels dashed off too quickly, perhaps to meet a deadline.

“La Belle Créole” by Maryse Condé or “The Belle Créole”: No escape?

La Belle Créole (French Edition) by [Maryse Condé]

Set on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officially an overseas department of mainland France, but with the legacy of past colonial exploitation, and ongoing tensions between former slaves and the descendants of their economic masters, the White Créoles or “békés”, the action takes place in the 1990s. This is a period of particular unrest: demands for independence from France, union-led strikes cause power cuts, mountains of waste fester uncollected, and ferocious packs of wild dogs terrorise the streets, while the rich rely on fierce hounds to protect their villas from thieves.

The novel opens with the unexpected acquittal of Dieudonné, a young black gardener charged with the murder of his middle-aged, wealthy, white employer Loraine. Since it appears unquestionable that he killed her, and he unfortunately shares a name with an infamous real-life French comedian, the reader may feel uneasy about sympathising with him. In this highly publicised case, Dieudonné is recognised wherever he goes, and opinion is divided, with some of his own relatives reluctant to give him shelter.


Covering the twenty-four hours after his release, Maryse Condé gradually reveals the circumstances of his crime, together with details of the past which shaped him. Perhaps it was the love and care for his mother Marine, crippled by an accident, which led him, after her death, to transfer his affections to Lorraine. A once beautiful woman, ambitions thwarted by poverty, Marine grew embittered after her abandonment by the wealthy man who has never lifted a finger to help their son Dieudonné. He was given a brief taste of “the good life” when the Cohens, a family visiting from abroad, took a fancy to him, taking him on trips aboard their boat, “La Belle Créole”, even letting him steer, until all contact abruptly ceased after their return home. The boat is left to rot in the marina, a refuge for Dieudonné’s criminal friends or his eccentric mentor, the penniless poet Boris – one of the novel’s larger than life characters.

The novel is peppered with Créole words which are explained in a glossary at the end of the English translation, but unfortunately not in the original French version. It is well worth making the effort to look these up in order to appreciate the book fully.

Apart from his acquittal, a series of unfortunate coincidences seem to dog Dieudonné. Yet he also makes a frustrating anti-hero in that, partly through being so damaged by life, he seems incapable of pursuing opportunities when they arise. The snare of his obsession with Loraine, his plight of how to deal with an unexpected freedom when he has lost the one person he loves, weave the at times wearisome thread binding this novel together.

Beneath this lies what is for me the essence of the novel: the vivid portrayal of Guadeloupe, with its strong sense of place combines with the searing parody of a range of often exaggerated characters to raise our understanding of life there and arouse sympathy for those like Dieudonné whose existence has been blighted by circumstance.

“Un monde à portée de main” or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.

“Mon Traître” by Sorj Chalandon – Still looking for answers

This novel is the memoir of Parisian violin-maker and repairer Antoine or “Tony” who in the 1970s, is inspired, by the photo of an Irish patriot shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising, to become passionately involved in the IRA cause, about which he previously knew nothing.  So he bones up on Irish history,  assumes a taste for Guinness, and works his way into the Belfast Catholic community with the aid of one-time gun-runner Jim O’Leary, willing to offer him hospitality on tap. This brings him into contact with Tyrone Meehan, a charismatic IRA leader who in turn takes a shine to him. We know from the outset that Meehan is the “traitor” of the title, so the intriguing mystery lies in the nature of the betrayal, and the reasons for it.

Having read and greatly admired two of Sorj Chalandon’s books, “Le Quatrième Mur” and “Profession de Père”,  I was disappointed by “Mon Traître” for a number of reasons. It is hard to understand why Tony is so drawn to a Belfast he describes as having “cet air épais de tourbe et de charbon” – this thick air of peat and coal, the same in winter, automn, even in summer with the freezing rain, and the distinctive odour of burning hearths, children’s milk, earth, frying food and humidity. Why is he so enamoured by a man  so bent at their first meeting on showing him how to use a urinal without wetting his shoes? In turn, what does Meehan see in “Tony”, a man who comes across as an “oddball” loner, naïf and, as several incidents suggest, mentally unstable? Sporting his symbolic Irish Claddagh ring  and spending hours  at the wake beside the open coffin of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Tony seems desperate to gain a sense of belonging to a cause which is not his own.

There is a lack of depth in the tale which seems to romanticise the IRA, with the Protestants and British soldiers cast as villains,  and to show no awareness of an alternative viewpoint, apart from a single reference to the youth of a murdered soldier. The ultimate disappointment for me was the fact that, once Meehan’s treachery to his cause is exposed, the book focuses on  Tony’s own sense of bewilderment, anger and personal betrayal. There is no exploration or convincing explanation of Meehan’s behaviour.

My Traitor by [Sorj Chalandon]

Since the story did not ring true to me, I was surprised and perhaps chastened to learn it is based on reality  in that Sorj Chalandon, when employed as a journalist in Ireland, actually formed a strong friendship with Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin member who was revealed as a British secret agent, subsequently assassinated after his treachery was exposed.  Chalandon wrote this book while he was still alive, in a sense coming to terms with his own emotions. A few years later, following Donaldson’s death, he produced a sequel, “Return to Killybegs”, from Tyrone Meehan’s perspective.

From a “dramatic” viewpoint, I would have preferred a single book interweaving the contrasting stances,  but it is helpful to understand the background to the two novels. Chalandon is a talented writer   who creates a strong sense of place and portrays conflicted emotions,  drawing on real  people and events about which he clearly feels deeply, but in this instance he does not provide any fresh insights. Was I more impressed by his other works because they  are based on situations about which I know less?

“Désorientale” (Desoriental) by Négar Djavadi – Culture shock

Disoriental by [Négar Djavadi, Tina Kover]Born into an Iranian family of intellectuals who opposed the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini, author Négar Djavidi arrived in France aged 11 after crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. This gives an authentic ring  and some autobiographical elements to her acclaimed first novel.

It is a family saga covering four generations of an Iranian family  over more than a century of dramatic political and cultural change from exotically named feudal lord  Montazemolmolk living in the northern region of Mazandaran, with his harem of more than fifty bickering wives to grandson Darius, a dissident intellectual whose writing against first the Shah and then Ayatollah Khomeini forces him into exile in Paris with his family, including daughter Kimiâ, the narrator.

Much of the story is related in the form of flashbacks or imagined reconstructions of anecdotes Kimiâ has heard about her relatives, recalled as she sits, clutching a tube of sperm, in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic. This rather clunky plot device adds to the reader’s frequent confusion over the large number of often thinly sketched characters, like the brothers of Darius who are referred to by numbers 1 to 6 (there is a list of key family members at the back which you could miss until too late) and continual lengthy digressions.  The approach is deliberate in that the author has explained when interviewed her aim to portray the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of memory. Although this has received critical praise, I found the abrupt switches in her thoughts, usually expressed in dense exposition, quite hard to take. A stream of consciousness  can be very powerful, but in this case the continual change of subject is further disrupted when Kimiâ becomes an intrusive narrator,  justifying or apologising for an abrupt switch of topic:  “Allow me before it’s too late, before the storm of the Revolution rises and invades my story, to return to my resemblance to Grandmother”.  Dramatic events are undermined by a lack of subtlety,  even giving them an incongruous pantomime quality, as in the continual foreshadowing of  “L’ÉVÉNEMENT” (“THE EVENT”).

Continually being told what to think, trying to keep track of the characters as they flit in and out, mentioned in passing, I rarely engaged with any of them. The author is  by profession a script writer, so I am surprised that she did not make more use of scenes with dialogues which would have enabled the characters to reveal themselves, open to interpretation as we do in real life. The details of the occasional footnotes to provide a condensed history of events could have been woven into the story, or included as an introduction at the outset.

Kimiâ is “disoriented” in more than one sense: not only the abrupt cultural change from Teheran to Paris via an arduous trek led by people smugglers, but also confusion over her sexuality. Predicted by her tealeaf reading grandmother to be a boy, she acts and feels like one, imagining herself growing up to be a man. Her period of extreme teenage rebellion in Paris, dressing as a punk, drinking and smoking joints in shared squats after her perplexed mother has thrown her out is therefore a way of taking refuge in a world where her background is of no interest and she is not judged. She ends up in a relationship with a woman, but desperate to have children fathered by a man who will take an interest in his children, and able to provide the kind of cultural context she has lost in exile.

Although I think a heavily pruned version of the story with fewer characters would have been much more effective and allowed more space to develop some interesting ideas, perhaps the style is in the tradition of Iranian storytelling, so that an oppressively large cast of relatives bound in a love-hate relationship, and strong ties of mutual support and obligation, somehow co-existing with harsh judgement and rejection e.g. of homosexuality (to the extent of denying its existence), serve to provide the necessary insight into Iranian life.  By contrast, Kimiâ’s  adult world of punk and pop groups and artificial insemination for lesbians using sperm from an HIV positive man,  is not really typical of the West, and is a rather extreme example of the contrast between the freedom of the West and the conservatism of Iran.

There are some interesting comparisons e.g. whereas the Paris clinic is tense and silent, in Iran people would be so engaged in chatting that they would not notice when their turn to be seen arrived!  When the mother of Kimiâ’s partner  confuses Iran with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Kimiâ sees this as the result of living in Belgium, a reassuring, peaceful place where everyone’s the same, after living for generations free of problems without any immigration or mixing: “no need to concern oneself with other people,  nor to be afraid of them, nor question their presence”.  This of course shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides!

Although I read this in the original French, I believe the English translation is very faithful to it.

Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus: Winning knowledge and memories in the conflict between life and the plague

La Peste (French Edition) by [Albert Camus]Published in 1947, this French classic is often taken as a metaphor for the French resistance in its courageous but futile fight against the Nazi occupation. Those who have rushed to buy it in 2020, cannot fail to be taken aback by the similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Set in the Algerian town of Oran, the central character is Doctor Rieux who galvanises the authorities into action through his insistence that, however unlikely a rat-born bubonic plague may seem, there is no time for reflection and waiting for official confirmation. Unless one acts immediately as if it were the plague, there is a risk that half the town’s population will die.

Official reactions are all too familiar, such as the “Prefet” who is terrified of using the word “plague” even in a meeting behind closed doors, but fears even more accusations of failure to deal with the crisis. Rieux notes wrily how the first warning posters are rather small, pasted in “discreet” corners” in an attempt to “keep the lid” on public anxiety. “Specially equipped” wards for plague victims are created by giving other sick patients lower priority. The “serum” flown is in short supply and gets less effective over time, and the attempts to develop a vaccine take months to succeed. Eventually there’s even a lack of coffins, but with commerce killed by the plague, there are plenty of unemployed men to dig the graves.

As the spring arrives with the usual baskets of scented roses for sale, the plague subsides, only to surge back, forcing official declaration of the epidemic and sealing of the town. Individual reactions merge into a common sense of fear and separation from the outside world, with everyone bound by the same restrictions, such as the prohibition of sending letters, as possible sources of infection. A restaurant crowded with customers since this is a convenient way of obtaining food gives a false sense of normality -panic breaks out when someone abruptly flees from the scene, vomiting. The isolation camps eventually set up are like “different planets” from which distant sounds of the town compound the sense of rejection.

Camus pulls no punches when it comes to describing the night train transporting bodies for mass burial, or characters fighting for their lives. Nothing is omitted: the attacks on locked gates by those frantic to escape, the looting of houses set ablaze, imposition of curfews, fear of prison sentences because of the high death rates there, the rapid burials with minimal funeral rites.

Initially masking their fear with jokes, the inhabitants develop over time the mind-set of prisoners who dare not speculate on their release date, reduced to dwelling on their past. Outsiders clumsily express their “solidarity” but are powerless to share in a suffering they cannot really envisage.

Rather like Isaac Newton who apparently recommended powdered toad mixed with toad vomit to avert the plague, people turn in desperation to quack remedies and superstition, clearing pharmacies of menthol pastilles rumoured to protect again contagion, and more consoled by wearing charms than going to mass. This is hardly surprising since the grim Father Paneloux preaches that the plague is a punishment for sin, until the sight of an innocent young child dying in agony triggers a crisis of doubt in his own faith.

“One gets tired of pity when pity is useless”: the pragmatic Rieux finds relief in hardening his heart against emotion. Voicing the author’s existentialist views on the essential absurdity of the world, “it is unimportant whether events have a meaning or not”. What matters is how people react to them. His fight against the plague has proved to him that in mankind there is generally more to admire than to despise.

Events play out against the backdrop of a strong sense of place, and striking images, often involving the sun, wind, dust and the sea: at the peak of the crisis, the deserted Algerian town is “a silent assemblage of massive, inert cubes” that “white with dust… sonorous with the cries of the wind, groaned like an island of misery……The inhabitants blamed the wind for transporting the plague”.

This is not a chronicle that ends in definitive victory. The plague is portrayed as a kind of living beast, or malign being, only subsiding when it has for the time being exhausted itself or achieved what it set out to do. In the aftermath, all most people want is to behave as if nothing has changed, but the plague cannot be forgotten, even when the disrupted services have been restored. The wise Rieux knows what the crowds coming to celebrate the end of the plague do not: the bacillus carrying the plague never dies, but waits patiently, for the day when “for the misery and instruction of man” it awakes the rats and sends them to bring death to a carefree city.

I agree with a reviewer who found the style so analytical and objective that it was hard to develop strong empathy for any of the characters as “flesh and blood individuals” apart from Rieux.

Yet perhaps because I read it during the “coronavirus lockdown”, this novel made a huge impression on me. So well written in the original French, lending itself to translation without a loss of its power, wide-ranging in its insight, it repays reading more than once to absorb it fully.

Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: “When hell is the suffering of being unable to love”

Crime and Punishment: Penguin Classics (Penguin Translated Texts) by [Dostoevsky, Fyodor]

As is too widely known to be a spoiler, Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student living in the teeming squalor of 1860s St Petersburg, convinces himself that, as men like Napoleon are revered despite the large amount of bloodshed they have caused, he would be morally justified in murdering an unpleasant old money-lender and stealing from her to pay for his education, to relieve his mother and sister of the burden of supporting him and to spend on deserving needy people and good causes. Needless to say, he botches both the murder and the theft, only to be haunted by violent flashbacks and delusions together with the fear of being caught, compounded by his compulsion to confess his crime to others, not out of remorse, but in disgust over his failure as a self-defined “superior” being to carry out the plan effectively. Immature and arrogant, his mind addled by reading too many theories, Raskolnikov is not easy to like.

Apart from being an in-depth “psychological record of a crime” which must have been ground-breaking when first published in instalments in 1868 , this novel is also an indictment of appalling social conditions, more hard-hitting even than Dickens. It continually slips into farcical parodies of the social attitudes and beliefs of the day, including the dissent to which Dostoevsky himself was drawn as a youth. Raskolnikov’s very name means “dissenter” – from the “normal” way of seeing the world.

A recurring theme is the arbitrary, contradictory nature of morality itself. For instance, Raskolnikov is appalled by the debauched behaviour of Arkady Svidrigailov, who has designs on his sister, but this rogue uses the money obtained from the wife he himself may have murdered, to provide substantial help for a number of needy people, something which Raskolnikov has failed to achieve. Raskolnikov’s “dead soul” is ultimately brought to life by the love of the almost saintly Sonya, who nevertheless consented to work as a prostitute to support her penniless family.

I was initially disappointed by the novel’s style which seems quite stilted and artificial. Yet lengthy monologues to provide an “information dump” or develop an argument were a feature of C19 novels. I could understand that Raskolnikov’s “stream of consciousness rants” might be justified as conveying a sense of his mental confusion and agitation. Yet other characters indulge in them as well, perhaps because the male characters are often drunk and the women hysterical and overwrought.

Finding it hard to decide how much my dissatisfaction was due to the shortcomings of the translation, I tried four, ending with the widely praised Penguin translation by Oliver Ready, and thought that Constant Garnett’s early version also looks good , yet all of them jarred or seemed unnatural at times. This made me wonder whether the challenge of translating into another language, even the vastly flexible and nuanced English, from Russian without losing too much of its essence is just too great.

It’s quite interesting to compare translations. For instance, Oliver Ready has the thirty-five year old Investigator Porfiry Petrovich frequently call twenty-three year old Raskolnikov “father” which is explained somewhere in the notes, but sounds odd. In Pevear’s translation, this becomes “old boy” which is marginally easier for an English-speaking reader to accept. If we could ever agree, an amalgam of translations could be superb!

It’s a matter of taste, but despite grasping the ideas Dostoevsky was seeking to develop, I find the work over-emotional, and too filled with jumbled thoughts of the type one might have in reality, but seek a writer who can unravel them. Bleaker and edgier, less sentimental than Dickens, it is on a higher plane of complexity.

I agree with a reviewer who liked the beginning and end the best. The opening part leading to the dreadful crime is focused, the writing in the epilogue has been described as “delicate” and is marked by a clarity and lucidity like the calm after a storm. In-between is a morass of digressions and ramblings punctuated by a few strong scenes of high drama or tension such as when the cunning Chief Investigator Porfiry Petrovich is playing a cat-and-mouse psychological game with the overwrought Raskolnikov, which would not be amiss in a modern detective yarn, or the confrontation near the end between Raskolnikov’s sister Avdotya, who shows a lot more sense than he does, and the manipulative villain Svidrigailov whose one true emotion is his love for her.

What interests me most about the novel is the extent to which it reflects the life of the author himself and the history of the period. I am sure that the more one knows about this, the greater one’s appreciation of the book. Dostoevsky must have been influenced through being sentenced to death by firing squad as a young man for some, to our minds, relatively minor revolt against the censorship of the day, only to be reprieved literally at the last minute, subsequently serving five years hard labour in a Siberian prison.

This should probably be read at least twice: the first time on a wave of momentum to see what happens, the second time more slowly, checking on, say, the copious notes accompanying the Oliver Ready translation.