thorold Flees the burly, the whirligig wheels of the train in Q3

Club Read 2019

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thorold Flees the burly, the whirligig wheels of the train in Q3

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Edited: Jul 1, 2019, 3:28pm

"What are you staring at, mariner man
Wrinkled as sea-sand and old as the sea?"
"Those trains will run over their tails, if they can,
Snorting and sporting like porpoises. Flee
The burly, the whirligig wheels of the train.
As round as the world and as large again,
Running half the way over to Babylon, down
Through fields of clover to gay Troy town -
A-puffing their smoke as grey as the curl
On my forehead as wrinkled as sands of the sea!-
But what can that matter to you, my girl?
(And what can that matter to me?)"

"Mariner Man", from Façade and other poems, by Edith Sitwell

Jul 1, 2019, 3:25pm

Continuation of my Q2 thread, which was here:

("Watch out - soft verge" - Staphorst, May 2019)

Edited: Jul 1, 2019, 5:20pm

Summary of Q2 reading

38 books read in Q2 (Q1: 63):

Author gender: F14; M24 (Q1: F 19; M 44)
By main category: Crime 2; Memoir/Biography 2; Fiction 33; Sailing 1; Language 1; Music 1
By language: French 5; English 20; Italian 1; Dutch 1; German 8; Spanish 3
(Of the English books, 2 were translations - from Hungarian and Croatian, respectively; one German book was a translation from Polish)

By original publication date: 6 were published before 1900, only two in the last five years. Mean 1963, median 1984.

By format: 28 physical books from the TBR (16 in Q1); 3 paid e-books; 7 free/borrowed

32 distinct authors read in Q2 (54 in Q1):

Author gender: F 10; M 22
By country: UK 13; US 0; FR 5; DE 5; others 9

Hmmm. Apparently Q2 was a lot less reading and a lot more doing than Q1! But I did manage to make quite a hole in the TBR, partly by restraining myself from visiting the public library too often.

Highlights of Q2:
- Christine Brooke-Rose - still working through her novels, enjoyed the later ones almost more than the ones from her middle period I was reading in Q1
- Ali Smith's Spring
- short stories by Roberto Bolaño and Jorge Luis Borges
- Jane Glover on Mozart's Women (specifically the opera section)
- David Crystal's excellent The stories of English

Reading plans for Q3
- the RG Turning the tables theme read - deliberately vague in purpose so that we can go in unexpected directions, I hope...
- more fun with the TBR
- catching up a bit with the Zolathon (I've started Nana)
- more Spanish/Latin American lit, preferably taken from the not insignificant quantity on the TBR, rather than veering off to read Colombians I hadn't heard of until last week...

Jul 1, 2019, 5:41pm

Looking forward to your Q3 reviews.

Jul 1, 2019, 7:33pm

Following along

Edited: Jul 4, 2019, 3:30pm

This is one that I picked from the Booker International longlist, with a bit of a nudge from Darryl (thanks!) here:

It occurred to me whilst reading this that being "one of the most influential Colombian writers" must be a bit of a mixed blessing. Rather like being "one of the most famous playwrights born in Stratford-upon-Avon"...

La forma de las ruinas (2015; The shape of the ruins) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia, 1973- )


Another interesting piece of documentary fiction, although this is a bit more in the tradition of W.G. Sebald than of the Javier Cercas novels I've been reading lately: although the narrator and central character of this book is a Colombian novelist called Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and the story deals with his developing interest in two major events from Colombian history, the assassinations of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and of Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, Vásquez mixes in obvious fictional elements and techniques with obviously real documentary material, as well as a scattering of minor details that we can't be so sure about (one novelist who plays an important part in the story, Rafael Humberto Moreno Durán, was a real colleague of Vásquez, and Gabriel García Márquez seems to have existed too, but not all the authors mentioned in the text are quite as real...). And authentic-looking photographs and documents reproduced on the page, a very Sebaldish touch.

Speaking of Gabriel García Márquez - it struck me how, with the same historical events to deal with, his steamy, exotic Colombia feels like a completely different country from the very urban, 20th century environment Vásquez describes.

As well as what it tells us specifically about Colombia, this is a book about how we, as individuals, relate to history and the artefacts it leaves behind. Vásquez sees us all as trying in different ways to resolve the conflict between our rational awareness that real-life events are mostly random, arbitrary and related only in simple, obvious ways (the Occam's razor approach), and the more emotionally-satisfying urge to impose meaning and connection on the world, even if that means hypothesising the existence of complex and unlikely conspiracies. And of course when the narrator of a novel selects events to tell us about, we have a higher expectation of meaning and connection than we would have in real life, and this gives the author extra opportunities to play little tricks on us.

I did feel occasionally that I had been chosen as guinea-pig for a self-assessed psychology experiment, and at other times that I was learning more about the narrator's life than could possibly be relevant, but Vásquez is good at judging what he does, and he kept me wanting to carry on reading and find out where the book would go next. Very worthwhile.

Jul 5, 2019, 2:10pm

I read a couple of Juan gabriel Vásquez earlier novels with my now defunct bookclub three years ago. We read The Sound of things Falling and were so impressed that for our next choice we chose The informers Los Informantes. It would seem his style has not changed with his latest novel a similar mixture of historical events and embellishments by the author.
The consensus amongst our group was that the novels were too similar in style and we should have allowed more of a gap between them. However they are excellent in giving a realistic feel to Colombian 20th century history.

Jul 6, 2019, 8:21am

>6 thorold: This looks complex (in a good way). I might give it a try.

Jul 8, 2019, 11:33am

>6 thorold: I read The Informers several years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

Jul 10, 2019, 9:25am

Great review of The Shape of the Ruins, Mark. I'm not a huge fan of Gabriel García Márquez's works (I still haven't read One Hundred Years of Solitude), and, as you mentioned, Vásquez's Colombia is a much more realistic one than the one that GGM portrays. I've read four of his novels, and this one is my favorite so far.

Jul 19, 2019, 4:15am

>7 baswood: - >10 kidzdoc: - Yes, Vásquez is someone I think it would be worth exploring further. à suivre...

I've been in Northumberland for the last couple of weeks, having fun exploring the castles and grand houses of the Borders. We were staying in a castle ourselves, although it was on a somewhat more modest scale than Alnwick or Bamburgh: Morpeth Castle, which belongs to the Landmark Trust ( Very nice! Now back at home for a short interval before going off sailing: time to try to catch up with a few reviews...

Edited: Jul 19, 2019, 9:18am

This one was entirely unplanned: a random find in one of the book-exchange bins at Schiphol Airport. I fished it out because it looked as though it might be an interesting French novel, nearly threw it back when I saw it was a translation, but kept hold of it when I couldn't find any trace of this particular book in English (Wikipedia reports that 11 of Paasilinna's 35 novels have been translated into French, but only 2 into English).

Un Homme Heureux (1976; Onnellinen mies) by Arto Paasilinna (Finland, 1942-2018) translated from Finnish to French by Anne Colin du Terrail


Paasilinna was a journalist who turned to writing comic novels in the early 1970s and became one of Finland's best-known writers. In the English-speaking world he's mainly known as the author of The year of the hare (1975).

This was Paasilinna's fourth novel, written the year after The year of the hare (like many writers of light fiction, he had a rigid schedule of one book a year). It's a satirical look at small town institutions in the same sort of vein as Clochemerle, Don Camillo and Main Street, but with a 1970s twist (and a Finnish perspective, of course).

Engineer Akseli Jaatinen is sent to Kuusmäki to build a new road bridge on a site where there had been a bloody battle between the Whites and the Reds in 1918. Although he's clearly competent and efficient, the conservative clique that runs the town (the mayor, the parson, the police chief and the headmaster) takes against him - he doesn't treat them with the sort of respect they feel they deserve, and he fraternises with his workers in a suspiciously "socialist" way. The civic dignitaries do their best to humiliate him and put obstacles in his way, and eventually succeed in getting him dismissed from his post. But Jaatinen isn't beaten as easily as that - he comes back to Kuusmäki, and takes his revenge on them, one by one, in charming and subtle ways...

Not profound literature, by any means, but an entertaining comic read for a journey, with a few nice insights into the ways small communities can inadvertently turn to hypocrisy, self-interest and a closed mindset.

Jul 19, 2019, 6:13am

This was a book I intended to read when we had the Caribbean theme read in RG - it got its second chance because it also fits in very nicely with the current postcolonial theme:

In the castle of my skin (1953) by George Lamming (Barbados, 1927- )


George Lamming is one of the generation of exciting young writers who established Caribbean literature as a serious force in the early 1950s, and was involved in projects like the Caribbean Voices radio programme with people like Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, and V.S. Naipaul. He has taught at the University of the West Indies and at various British and American institutions.

Lamming's first, and best-known, novel is the essentially autobiographical story of a boy, G., growing up in a small village on Barbados before and during the Second World War. But it's also an account of the history of the Caribbean, of the peculiar social structures and confused loyalties and identities left behind by slavery and colonialism. Lamming uses an experimental narrative style that allows him to treat the village almost more as a collective organism than as a collection of individual characters. The villagers struggle to make sense of their place in the wider world through the limited information they have access to and the distortions in the Anglocentric, imperialist curriculum of the village school, where most of the teachers have had no education that goes beyond what they are supposed to be teaching.

The village has grown up as a quasi-feudal dependency of the landlord and employer, Mr Creighton, in the aftermath of the end of slavery. And although there are still one or two old people who grew up as children of slaves, the village as a whole has no capacity for grasping what that meant. And they are even less aware of the way their lives are locked into the feudal relationship with Creighton: the anti-colonial agitation in the island that persuades him to sell up to members of the rising black middle class also allows him to decide that he has been absolved of his responsibility for his former tenants, and they are suddenly left facing homelessness and the destruction of their community.

This is a political novel, but it's also a very poetic one: there are long, beautiful passages of observation of the island world in which nothing important seems to happen (the headmaster looking out over the silent school, three crabs walking up a beach, a boy being bathed by his mother in the back garden), but at the same time we learn an astonishing amount about what it must feel like to live in such a setting. The narrative viewpoint switches around disconcertingly between the "I"-narrator, G., and various other characters, and we are launched into unfinished storylines that may or may not be picked up later. It's a book you need time and leisure for, but a very rewarding one to invest them in.

Edited: Jul 19, 2019, 9:07am

This was another semi-random pick, a book I spotted on a shelf during my trip, picked up idly, and suddenly realised that I'd read a third of it and had to rush off to catch a plane. I had to buy the ebook to finish it...

Down to the sea in ships : of ageless oceans and modern men (2014) by Horatio Clare (UK, 1973- )


Clare is a Welsh-born writer and BBC radio producer, and a graduate of the University of York (which gets him a few bonus points in my book). Despite that, I hadn't come across him before - apparently he's also written a couple of very successful memoirs and some children's books. Probably worth following up.

One of the most important things that make modern life possible (for better or worse!) is the way we can ship practically anything around the globe quickly, reliably and inexpensively. And astonishingly invisibly: A few generations ago, our schoolbooks (especially in Britain) would have been full of pictures of ports and merchant ships and the miracle of world trade, major novelists like Conrad, Kipling and Melville turned naturally to the sea for their subject-matter, and most people would have had some sort of family connection with seafaring, but nowadays shipping is largely out of sight, in remote terminals on the edge of town, no-one we know works at sea, and most of us know far less about life on container ships than we do about the sailors of Nelson's time.

Clare tries to correct this a little by spending a year as writer-in-residence with one of the handful of big shipping companies that control the world's container trade. He sails on two of their ships: from Felixstowe to Los Angeles via Suez and China on the new and efficient Gerd Maersk and for the sake of contrast, on the rather less prestigious North Atlantic route from Antwerp to Montreal on the Maersk Pembroke, a ship that clearly wasn't in a very good state when he travelled on it and has since been decommissioned after a fire in 2017.

Clare evidently set off on his voyages with the idea of writing about his own confrontation with the elemental power of the oceans, but soon finds himself more interested in the people who work on ships and in the peculiar kind of community that a ship's company becomes. Crew members might spend anything from three to nine months working together in a small group of 20 or so people, largely isolated from the rest of the world and with little or no time to go on shore during the ship's short spells in harbour, but then be shuffled around arbitrarily by the manning agencies who employ them to sail with another group of complete strangers on their next contract. And, although it looks as though it's hedged about with all sorts of regulations, shipping seems in practice to be an area where labour law has little real impact: companies pay their employees what the market will bear, meaning (for instance) that Europeans, Indians and Filipinos get widely different rates for doing the same job on the same ship. And that companies and individuals rarely have to take responsibility when things go wrong out of sight of the authorities. Clare describes some truly horrible accidents and cases of abuse that he's been told about, most of which have led - at most - to a token compensation payment to the family and to the renaming of the ship concerned...

Clare puts the work of modern seafarers into the context of the history of the profession, telling us about the hazards that faced earlier generations (during the North Atlantic crossing there's a lot about U-boats and the Battle of the Atlantic, for instance) and also about the things that haven't changed. He does seem to have a rather odd fascination for the "masculinity" of seafaring, something he perhaps doesn't investigate as much as he might have - there are passing mentions of women at sea, and a suggestion that the breaking-down of the gender barrier in seafaring has been a failed experiment, but the only woman crew member he actually meets during his travels is the cook of the Pembroke, so he doesn't have much in the way of direct testimony from women to report. (The Gerd apparently previously had a woman officer, but she left some time before he comes on board, so he can only speculate about her.)

Clare also tells us quite a bit in passing about the (astonishingly tight) economics of shipping, and doesn't try to conceal the negative effects that the ships themselves and our reliance on moving stuff about are having on the planet. In port after port he gives us a synopsis of the manifest of the containers loaded and makes us ask ourselves why on earth that particular product or commodity should have to be shipped such long distances (three hundred tons of cocoa powder shipped from the Netherlands to Chile...).

This is a very interesting insight into a largely closed world and a lively travel book, spoilt occasionally by a bit of over-heavy writing (tip: don't immerse yourself in Conrad and Melville before writing a book about the sea).

Jul 19, 2019, 1:16pm

>14 thorold: I have one good friend now who spent a good part of his life on merchant ships. His stories are very interesting (and he's a natural born storyteller, too).

Somewhat tangentially, since Clare spent time on Maersk ships, you might be interested in this recent piece about the company's aggressive plans to go carbon free as soon as they can manage it:

Finally, I highly recommend Danish author Carsten Jensen's fictional tale of several generations of a Danish sea-faring town, We, the Drowned.

Jul 19, 2019, 2:33pm

>15 rocketjk: No, of course I was exaggerating a bit - seafarers aren’t completely invisible in the modern world (I’ve worked with a few people who started out as marine engineers or naval officers, and I know there are a few (former) sailors around on LT). But it’s not like it was in the old days of small ships and big crews.

Thanks for the piece about Maersk, I hadn’t seen that. My cynical side says that they’ve realised that you can’t win in a cost-cutting war with the Chinese, so you might as well profile yourself as ethically superior (hence their deal with Clare, as well), but it’s still good to see a big polluter admitting that what they do is not sustainable.

I’ll look out for We the drowned.

Jul 19, 2019, 3:30pm

>14 thorold: Just in time, I spotted that this was the 4000th book I’ve catalogued on LT. If I’d realised, I’d have tried to make it something more appropriate...

Edited: Jul 19, 2019, 4:16pm

>16 thorold: Oh, sure. My note about my friend wasn't meant as any sort of a rebuttal of your "nobody knows a merchant marine" comment. I got that you were exaggerating for effect. I was noting, really, how interesting his stories are.

I lived in New Orleans in the 1980s (I was in my 20s). There were two guys in my group of friends who were merchant marines. They would suddenly disappear, shipping out for four or six months, and show up again with very good drugs and very tall tales. I also remember sitting in a 24-bar one night eavesdropping on a couple of merchant marines talking near me. One of them was bragging about the fact that he'd spent so much solid time aboard ship that he was already almost able to retire with his pension. The other guy said, "Sure, but you spent all of your 20s and 30s on oil barges. I've still got some years to go before my pension, but at least I had some fun when I was young."

As to your remarks about the Maersk article, I'm sure you're right that they've taken a cold, hard look at all the different ups and downs of the strategy. That's going to be a major component of the whole issue going forward though, I'd guess you'll agree. It's going to be self-interest that brings these corporations around, to the extent that they ever do come around.

Edited: Jul 21, 2019, 12:36pm

Great review of In the Castle of My Skin, Mark. I had forgotten that I own a copy of it, so I'll planto read it for this quarter's Reading Globally theme, along with The Emigrants, another novel by George Lamming. I'll undoubtedly read other books for that challenge as well, including Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga.

Where are the book exchange bins at Schiphol? I've gone to that airport every year or two for the past several years, either for visits to Amsterdam or to take connecting KLM Cityhopper flights to or from Edinburgh during the August festivals, as Delta doesn't offer direct services between ATL and EDI. Don't bother with a detailed reply if there aren't any English or Spanish language books!

Jul 21, 2019, 1:06pm

>14 thorold: adding the Clare book about merchant shipping to my wish list. I really enjoy these types of books that are part travelogue, part social insight into another lifestyle. I worked for quite a while in logistics (and studied it for my sins), so although transportation is as dull as ditch water to most people I find it fascinating.

Jul 22, 2019, 3:27pm

>19 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl!
The exchange bins are a bit concealed, between seats in the Schiphol Library area, between E and F piers. You can find all sorts of things, or nothing, if you dig down through the inevitable upper layer of evangelical tracts. And if there’s nothing there, there’s always the library itself, with an interesting selection of books to read on the spot. One of the few relatively civilised things about Schiphol.

Jul 23, 2019, 6:25pm

>21 thorold: Thanks, Mark. Schiphol is far from my favorite European airport (although it's definitely better than Barcelona-El Prat), and I don't often have much down time there, but I'll look for that library if I can.

Jul 24, 2019, 9:40pm

>13 thorold: I knew the name George Lamming was familiar to me, even though I haven't read any of his work. I was recently in a bookstore in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, and there I bought a copy of Foreign Shores by Marie-Hélène Laforest. Lamming wrote the Foreward of the edition I bought (Les Editions du CIDIHCA, Montreal, 2002). The book is on my short TBR stack.

Edited: Aug 5, 2019, 9:04am

Back home again after two very enjoyable weeks of relaxed coastal sailing between Le Havre and Scheveningen (well, relaxed apart from the places where you have to cross the paths of ferries and container ships...), and a few more reviews to catch up with.

My French friend was talking about this book when we were looking round the Dufy exhibition in Le Havre (, and I happened to have the complete Comédie Humaine with me on my e-reader, so I thought I'd give it a try. It turned out to have some interesting resonances with Bettina von Arnim (cf. my Q2 thread:

Modeste Mignon (1844) by Honoré de Balzac (France, 1799-1850)


Modeste is a classic case of that 19th century obsession, the young woman who has read too many novels and poems. Her father, who has left her at home in Le Havre while he goes to Asia to try to rescue the finances of his shipping business, has left strict instructions with his business partner to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't get involved with an unsuitable man. Nonetheless, she manages to send off a clandestine fan-letter to Canalis, the popular romantic poet of the moment, and she soon finds herself engaged in a torrid correspondence in the best Bettina Brentano tradition (her correspondent actually cites Bettina as an example of why you shouldn't send unsolicited letters to poets: "If I were Bettina, I would never have become Frau von Arnim," she replies, sniffily). However, it isn't Canalis who is replying to her letters at all, but his much less romantic friend and secretary, Ernest de La Brière, to whom the cynical poet has passed this umpteenth fan-letter from a provincial unknown. A sure recipe for chaos, exacerbated when Modeste's identity is revealed just at the moment when there are rumours that her father is coming back from Asia with cargoes worth millions: it's not long before she has not one but three suitors sniffing around her door...

Balzac wrote this book after a lengthy stay in St Petersburg with the great love of his life, Ewelina Hańska, who seems to have been the inspiration for the central character, and perhaps that explains the unusually sunny mood - probably about as near as Balzac ever gets to being Jane Austen(!). Much like Northanger Abbey, it manages to satirise romantic plot conventions whilst staying (almost) entirely within the framework of what's permissible in a bourgeois romance. Although there's a certain amount of interest paid to the shipping trade and the provincial life of Le Havre, it is all quite sketchy, and Balzac never really seems to have captured the mood of the town in the sort of way he characterises Angoulême in Lost illusions. The main interest of the book, outside the plot itself, is in Balzac's magnificently offhand critiques of the greats of Romantic literature.

Entertaining social comedy, but probably not top-rate Balzac.

Aug 5, 2019, 10:11am

I found this 70s success in a rather wonderful charity bookshop run by the boat-restoration trust in in Saint-Valéry-en-Caux ( Its subsequent release into the wild in a little free library in Boulogne was mostly due to constraints of space on board and a rapidly-growing pile of French books...

La dentellière (1974; A web of lace) by Pascal Lainé (France, 1942- )


Pascal Lainé has written a string of novels over the last fifty years, but only his early works L'Irrévolution (1971) and La dentellière (1974) really seem to have made an impression. (There is also, embarrassingly-in-hindsight, Tendres cousines (1979), which David Hamilton made into a soft-focus film that none of us is likely to admit to having watched when we were too young to know better...)

This was the 1974 Goncourt winner and was made into a successful film that launched the career of Isabelle Huppert.

Pomme is a young woman of few aspirations and a humble background, the daughter of a waitress and part-time prostitute from a small town in Northern France. She's working as a hairdresser's assistant, but with her passive demeanour and reluctance to engage in modern life, she strikes the narrator as someone who would fit better into a 17th century painting than into the Paris of the 1970s.

On holiday in Cabourg in Normandy with her colleague Marylène, who has drawn her into a quasi-erotic relationship during a brief dearth of men and ditches her again as soon as the supply is restored, Pomme meets Aimery de Béligné, a young man who's also not entirely at home in the 20th century. He is the son of an impoverished but aristocratic Normandy family, studying to become a museum curator. They share an ice-cream, have a series of amusingly mismanaged not-quite-dates, are drawn together by their shared awkwardness, and of course wind up living together for a while in Aimery's student garret when they return to Paris. And just as inevitably, Aimery behaves badly, Pomme accepts it as part of the natural scheme of things, and it never occurs to Aimery how badly he has hurt her until it's far too late to fix things.

The perfect plot for a wistfully-tragic French film, but it felt a bit too facile for a novel: Lainé doesn't really seem to debate or challenge the idea of men as thoughtless agents of harm and women as passive victims, he simply portrays it as a sad but inevitable (and somehow quaintly charming) aspect of how life is, for some people at least.

Aug 5, 2019, 10:46am

And another seafaring book by the author of >14 thorold:. Very good literary cooling if you're caught in a canicule...

Icebreaker : a voyage far north (2017) by Horatio Clare (UK, 1973- )


The Finnish embassy in London obviously got some budget allocation to promote Finnish culture in the context of the celebration of 100 years of independence in 2017, and they spent part of it sponsoring Horatio Clare to make a voyage on an icebreaker in the northern Baltic. And why wouldn't you...?

The resulting book is interesting in a similar sort of way to Down to the sea in ships, as a behind-the-scenes view of an aspect of maritime life we know exists, but which few of us are likely to have thought very much about (unless we live in the Far North). We all know that icebreakers keep shipping routes open during the winter months, but we probably don't know how that's organised, what sort of people work on those ships, how you actually break ice, and so on. And of course the topic also gives Clare plenty of chances to talk about climate change and the way that your ideas about it change when you live in a place where you can't pretend to yourself that it isn't happening.

This is a slighter book than Down to the sea in ships - Clare didn't get the chance to spend as long with the people who work on the icebreakers as he did with the crews of container ships, and he seems to find that the Finns live up to their national stereotype and aren't easy to get to know (perhaps the language barrier plays a part here as well). So we don't learn quite as much, but what we do learn is still moderately fascinating.

Aug 7, 2019, 11:56am

This one caught my eye on a "summer holiday reading" display in the library yesterday. A fairly quick skim through, since it's likely to be some time before I get a chance to go to the Waddenzee again.

Handboek varen op de Waddenzee (2015) by Marianne van der Linden (Netherlands, - )


The title is a little misleading: this isn't a reference handbook at all but a training guide, written by a professional skipper who runs a company giving sail training courses in Friesland. It's aimed in the first place at people who've built up a certain amount of experience sailing on (Dutch) inland waterways and want to have a go at the more challenging environment of the shallow tidal region between the coast and the Frisian islands, and it takes you through the various extra things you need to know about to navigate safely and without prejudicing the delicate natural balance of the World Heritage Site.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the book is devoted to the eternal topic of tides, currents and water-depths, which is a lot more fun in the Waddenzee than you might think: even though tidal ranges are fairly small, less than 2.5m in most places, most of the interesting passages are over places that dry at low tide, and you often need to be able to predict depths to within an accuracy of 10cm to know for sure whether or not you will get across. Although van der Linden doesn't really add anything to the information you already have in the introduction of the official tide book, the famous HP 33, she does manage to make it all a lot easier to follow, and gives clear practical examples to help you make sense of when you need to apply all the corrections and what they mean in real life. I knew all this stuff in theory and I've used it, but I have also once or twice managed to get it quite wrong, e.g. in dealing with the puzzling difference between "NAP", the standard Dutch map datum, and "LAT", the datum used on sea charts. Now I understand why that bridge was suddenly half a metre lower than I'd estimated!

The anecdotes and descriptions of actual trips over the Waddenzee (complete with things that didn't work out as planned) give the book a satisfyingly practical feel, as do little touches like samples of actual dialogue for questions you might need to ask over VHF. What I was hoping for was a bit more of an overview of what there is to do in different areas, where you can get to with which type of boat, and so on, but van der Linden obviously feels that's already well enough covered elsewhere.

Occasionally a little bit pedantic and repetitious, but on the whole a very useful book for a beginner, although it's not likely to be one that you will feel the need to refer back to once you've had the chance to put the information into practice.

Edited: Aug 8, 2019, 4:53pm

Zolathon, 9/20
I started this before my last-but-one holiday, but it took me a little while really to get into the mood for it. Worth it in the end, though!

Nana (1880) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


Scanning through the covers for this, the most famous of Zola's novels after Germinal, it was no surprise to find reproductions of just about all the well-known French paintings of sexually-alluring females there are. Publishers like to go with what they know when it comes to getting people to buy their books. But I think they're missing a trick: what this book needs on its cover is something along the lines of William Powell Frith's Derby Day. Zola's motto was always "nothing exceeds like excess", and that was never more applicable than in Nana, where he really pulls all the stops out to give us Second Empire Paris at its wildest and most decadent: the scale and hyperactivity of the Longchamps chapter alone is enough almost to make Frith look like a painter of still life. (Delacroix is probably the only other famous painter who comes anywhere near Zola's intensity, but he can't compete on complexity...)

But that isn't to say that Zola is simply letting himself go for the sake of it: the big scenes here are harnessed to do a carefully controlled job. Sometimes perhaps in a slightly too forced way, like the famous opening sequence where we are kept hanging around in the front-of-house part of the theatre for an impossibly long time as the audience take their seats and Zola builds up our expectations and introduces us to what seems like a ridiculously large number of minor characters before we get our first glimpse of the new star. Or the early chapter describing a stiff formal reception at the Muffats', where the guests' talk about Bismarck seems entirely irrelevant to the story - until Zola picks it up again and bounces it back at us in a dramatically different context at the very end of the book.

L'Assommoir charted the tragic failure of Gervaise's attempt to claw her family to a safe place in society by prudence, self-sacrifice and hard work; in Nana, Gervaise's daughter, who is prepared to do just about anything except work to get what she wants, takes a dramatic (but apparently unconscious) revenge on the world that crushed her parents. Using her uncontrollable sexual attraction and her almost unlimited capacity to consume luxuries and cash, Nana brings a succession of aristocrats, financiers, journalists, racehorse owners and theatre producers crashing down into ruin, dishonours two noble families, and eventually sends out a (symbolic) wave of pollution that seems to be the force bringing the whole corrupt Empire crashing down into the senseless war that destroys it.

Zola takes us through just about every aspect of the sex-industry of the time, from street-walkers and underground lesbian clubs at one end of the scale right through to the actresses and "official" mistresses at the top end of the profession - during her stage period, Nana is shown welcoming the portly "Prince d'Ecosse" (can't imagine whom Zola was trying to conceal under that name...) into her dressing room; as a courtesan her clients include dukes and marquesses. In the process, there's plenty of titillation - Nana takes her clothes off more often than the average Bond girl - but there's also plenty of opportunity for the reader to reflect on the damage and waste involved in a hypocritical system in which upper-class men are expected to find sexual pleasure outside the family sphere, but are unable to accept the idea that their wives might want to do something similar. Nothing new there, of course: French literature has been having fun with that idea since at least the middle of the 18th century, but Zola increases the stakes by hammering home time after time that what this is all about is not some sort of vaguely illicit romantic glamour: it is sex, sex, sex. Dirty, messy, chaotic and uncontrollable, driven only by money and pleasure. Heady stuff for 1880, and still pretty hard-hitting today.

Edited: Aug 8, 2019, 4:23pm

Not a book, but something else I came across in the library the other day that caught my attention (apologies to anyone who isn't a Thomas Bernhard fan...):

This is a DVD containing two 45-minute programmes featuring Thomas Bernhard, made for Austrian TV by Krista Fleischmann in the late 1980s. Monologe auf Mallorca features Bernhard talking to camera (or rather across the camera to Fleischmann) in a series of cafés and restaurants in Palma de Mallorca; in Die Ursache bin ich selbst, Bernhard is in Madrid, and his reflections on life, literature, human nature, bullfighting, Austria, the Catholic Church and the rest are intercut with readings from his 1986 book Auslöschung. Both very interesting, especially when Bernhard moves away from his familiar hobby-horses to reflect on the way he is perceived as an author and the way he finds himself sucked into playing the part of the licensed Austria-loathing grump. In the Mallorca interviews he appears to let his guard down a little as he discusses his conviction that Schopenhauer and Kant are really among the greatest humorists, and tells us about the Pope's underpants (and about how much he would have enjoyed being Pope himself...). But then he twists back and warns us that humour and exaggeration are his natural defence mechanisms, and his greatest pleasure would be to be allowed to be serious for a while. And there's a lovely bit where he catches himself tapping his feet in time to the rhythm of his own talk and speculates about how that is linked to his musical training.

Very enjoyable listening if you can understand a bit of Austrian. And great to see a bit of Bernhard the man. But the pictures are truly terrible: astonishing to see what you could get away with on broadcast TV thirty years ago, things that would get you laughed out of the room even on YouTube these days. Hairs in the gate, terrible lighting, bad focus, jumpy edits, awful composition with irrelevant dogs' tails or canoodling couples in the corner of the picture distracting from the main subject ...

Aug 9, 2019, 4:01am

>28 thorold: great review.

My literary education is completely devoid of any French literature to date save for one Camus novel. Have you any recommendations on where to start, or what author to start with? Balzac? Zola? Flaubert? Proust? Hugo? I'm thinking fun rather than slog.

Aug 9, 2019, 5:21am

>30 AlisonY: I’m a latecomer in this area myself, still in the discovery phase (and long may it remain so!): I’m sure there are a lot of people around here much better qualified to advise...

From my limited perspective I’d say try Balzac first. Short, readable books, no messing about, great, memorable characters, and always lots going on.

Edited: Aug 9, 2019, 9:01am

>31 thorold: short is probably a good starting point! Thanks Mark.

Aug 9, 2019, 9:54am

I really need to get back to Zola. I’ve read a few of his and Germinal is an all time favorite. I haven’t read Nana yet but it seems like it should be next for me.

Edited: Aug 9, 2019, 11:42am

>33 japaul22: If you're reading Nana in English, it's probably worth looking into which translation to get. I should imagine that there was quite a lot of censorship in the early ones...

This next one was another unplanned distraction from my last trip to the library...

Eeuw in versnelling: Hoe de fiets voor een maatschappelijke revolutie in Nederland zorgde (2018) by Marian Rijk (Netherlands, 1973- )


This is yet another non-fiction book oversold by its subtitle (loosely translated: "Geared-up century: how the bicycle achieved a social revolution in the Netherlands") - the cover of the paperback edition seems to have a rather less bloated and more relevant subtitle, so maybe reviewers already gave the publishers a hard time about this...

What it actually turns out to be is something on a rather smaller scale than a complete social history of Dutch cycling, but still moderately interesting: it's an unusual mix of family history and industrial history, charting the development of the well-known Dutch cycle manufacturer Gazelle, the main employer in the small Gelderland community of Dieren, through the lives of the family that owned and ran the company.

Rijk takes us through the background of the firm's founder, assistant postmaster Willem Kölling, who was so impressed by the potential of the new machine he was using to deliver the mail that he got together with a local blacksmith in 1892 to go into the business himself, and looks into the complicated interaction between changes in Dutch society and the development of the Kölling and Breukink family over the next eighty years, until rising costs and an investment backlog made it impossible for them to carry on as a family firm and they sold out to Raleigh in 1971.

There's a lot of interesting detail about the development of the way the company was run, the strong paternalistic relationship the family nurtured with their employees and dealers, the social improvements (health insurance, worker housing, sports clubs, half-day working on Saturdays, etc.) that they always managed to introduce a little while before they became obligatory, developments in marketing and publicity, and the odd ways that private life and the company crossed over (even after the takeover, they negotiated a deal that would allow Gazelle employees to carry on doing the gardening for the former directors...). And of course the usual family quarrels and misunderstandings. Obviously Rijk must have had a lot of help preparing the book from the surviving family-members, and her account sometimes seems a little bit lacking in critical edge, but that's a minor flaw, almost inevitable in this kind of book.

The aspect of the book that doesn't work so well is the attempt to tie the history of the company into the general history of the bicycle and the social and economic development of the Netherlands in the 19th and 20th century, which comes over as both long-winded and superficial. The first hundred pages of the book, dealing with the period before the foundation of the company, are unlikely to tell you anything you don't already know about bicycles. What they tell you about the career of Willem Kölling's father, a German immigrant who became a miller in the Achterhoek, is quite interesting, but it scarcely seems relevant to the theme of the book, since he never showed any interest in bicycles, as far as Rijk could discover. In the later parts of the book she's a little more economical in what she tells us about society in general: the role of the bicycle in Dutch society is a huge topic, and she obviously realised that she had no chance of covering it comprehensively, so we get little snippets here and there, most of them fairly familiar - the bizarre story of how the cabinet intervened to prevent the young Queen Wilhelmina endangering the succession by riding a bicycle, for instance (she overruled them and bought herself one as soon as she reached the age of majority - sadly for Rijk it wasn't a Gazelle, though...).

A bit disappointing, but quite interesting in parts.

Aug 10, 2019, 9:33am

>28 thorold: Dirty, messy, chaotic and uncontrollable, driven only by money and pleasure. "

Great way to sum it up, but it certainly does drive the reader on. As a reminder of this book, I even have daylilies in my garden known as 'Zola's Pink Nightgown'.

>33 japaul22: If you are going to be reading any of the Rougon Macquart series, in particular, I would really advise the recent translations in the Oxford World's Classics editions. As Thorold says, >34 thorold:, many of the earlier translations were heavily censored. I'm thinking particularly of those of Henry Vizetelly and his son Ernest. Although they were translated in the nineteenth century, they survive to this day. The Oxford translations are mostly done in the last decade, and even though there are several translators for the series, they read consistently.

Edited: Aug 12, 2019, 4:08am

Time for another oldie from the TBR pile - the third-oldest current resident, having been there since June 2011. And with good reason - it's a book I bought because lots of people praised it, but I had a shrewd idea that it wasn't going to be to my taste. Another glimpse into the strange, twilight world of the heterosexual male, and not a very attractive one...

Afterthought: am I being completely inconsistent in claiming to have liked Nana for almost the same reasons that made me dislike The ginger man?

The ginger man (1955) by J.P. Donleavy (USA, Ireland, 1926-2017)


An irresponsible overseas student in early 1950s Dublin and London does no work, drinks and fights his way through his student grant, mistreats his wife, child, and several girlfriends, and robs or cheats various landlords and shopkeepers. But wait a moment - he's not just being gratuitously offensive, he's rebelling against the hypocritical conformity of the society of the times. So that's all right, then, we're allowed to indulge him...

Obviously, we should have read this back in 1955, when it was a censorship-beating under-the-counter publication brought back illegally from Paris, and when Dangerfield's oafish behaviour might still have struck us as gloriously liberating. We might have recognised the book as an important link between the American modernism of the Henry Miller era and the up-and-coming young British writers of the Osborne/Amis/Sillitoe generation, and celebrated the unstoppable energy of its narrative and the irrepressible effrontery of the dialogue. Reading it more than sixty years later, the main feeling is regret for the sheer wastefulness of it: all that justifiable resentment against post-war bourgeois society getting pointlessly burnt off in macho bouts of drinking, fucking and fighting. To no purpose at all, as far as we can see.

Aug 12, 2019, 11:10am

36> I remember having a friend I really respected during high school days (he is still a friend I respect) praising The Ginger Bread Man. I couldn't get more than about 45 pages into it because of the unrelenting unpleasantness of the protagonist. This was the late 60s, and I was a hippie in the making, so "rebelling against the hypocritical conformity of the society of the times" was my passion. But still . . .

Aug 13, 2019, 9:16am

>37 rocketjk: I'm still waiting for the onslaught of the passionate Donleavy fans outraged by my failure to grasp his genius... :-)

Back to the library pile, and another book with a thoroughly fraudulent title:

Demain j'aurai vingt ans (2010; Tomorrow I'll be twenty) by Alain Mabanckou (Congo, 1966- )


It's 1979 in Pointe-Noire, second city of the young and flourishing People's Republic of Congo, and ten-year-old Michel is having a hard time dealing with the pressures of growing up. His friend Caroline has made him commit to two children, a white dog and a red car with five seats before deserting him for a more glamorous boy who plays number 11 for one of the local teams, his wealthy Uncle René keeps lecturing him about Marxism, his parents clearly have complicated problems of their own, there is confusing news on the radio about the Shah, Idi Amin, Bokassa, and Giscard d'Estaing, and it's tricky attempting to fly under the radar at school without prejudicing your chance of a good grade in your primary certificate. Fortunately Michel has his best friend Lounès and his brother's girlfriend Geneviève rooting for him, not to mention a bit of unofficial support from Georges Brassens, Papa Wemba and the lovely Arthur Rimbaud...

This is the corny old trick of looking at the adult world through the naïve and (accidentally-on-purpose) ironic gaze of a child narrator, something that can soon become irritating if handled clumsily, especially in a book of this length. Mabanckou is obviously aware of the pitfalls of the technique, and dances around them with supreme confidence. The book leaps from mood to mood and topic to topic unpredictably, with characters and storylines coming and going, bits of backstory or inserted narratives hopping in from nowhere when we're least expecting them. We scarcely get a chance to complain that we're fed up with Michel's voice, there's so much else going on around him, and - until it's too late to do anything about it - we don't even get the idea that we are in a carefully constructed narrative that's heading for a pre-planned conclusion. Very clever.

One of the important threads in the book is Michel's attempt to work out where he is in the world, culturally and politically. How does his modern urban experience tie into the stories of traditional village life he hears from his elders? how to resolve the communist rhetoric he hears from his teachers and Uncle René with the culture of buying and selling he lives in? how does all that fit into the francophone culture he's been told he has a stake in as well? and why is everyone being so nasty to the poor Shah when the nasty Idi Amin is living in comfort in Saudi Arabia? None of it makes very much obvious sense, and some of it is there mostly to give Mabanckou scope for faux-naïve jokes about world leaders (like Pompidou and Brezhnev, who have "beaucoup de sourcils" to deal with), but Michel is growing up, and he starts to find some tangible threads to follow in all the mess. Whether or not he makes it to the white dog and the red car with five seats, we have the feeling when we leave him that he is going to find some kind of a purposeful way through the world.

Aug 14, 2019, 6:27am

Another one picked up from the "summer reading" display in the library - an author I've been meaning to read more of for years:

Berichten van het blauwe huis (1986) by Hella S. Haasse (Netherlands, 1918-2011)


Hella S. Haasse counts as one of the most important Dutch novelists of the 20th century - many of her books have been translated, but she's perhaps best known internationally for Heren van de thee (1992; The tea-lords), a documentary novel drawing on her family's background in colonial Indonesia, which I read in 2012. She's unique in having been commissioned to write the Boekenweek gift no fewer than three times, in 1948, 1959 and 1994. The 1948 novella, Oerog (The black lake) also draws on her experience of colonial Indonesia and has been a staple of the school curriculum since it came out.

The Blue House, a massive 1920s villa, has been empty since the widowed Mrs Lunius took her daughters back to Argentina shortly before the war. Now, some fifty years later, Felicia and Nina are back to spend a last summer in the house where they grew up before it is sold off to make way for retirement apartments. Their reappearance stirs up a lot of interest in the village, where a few people can still remember them. (The place sounds suspiciously like Aerdenhout, where Haasse's Dutch relatives lived before the war, but she has prudently mixed up the geography a bit to discourage us from treating the book as a roman à clef.) And, despite their reluctance to get too involved with the place, the presence of the sisters does become a trigger for an unforeseen tragedy. Or at least a mystery...

This seems to be a book about conformity and rebellion and the way they work themselves out in women's lives. The narrative voice alternates between a conventional omniscient narrator with privileged access to the thoughts of the four women at the centre of the story and a "we" narrator, a kind of Greek chorus, representing the collective, disapproving view of the village gossip-machine. And the four women are sorted carefully as well: Felicia and Nora have lived safe, conformist lives, taking careful control of how they are perceived in the world and waiting for the big moment when they can do the thing they really wanted to (although they may well have missed it already...); Nina and Wanda are rebels, constantly running against the walls and hurting themselves. Nina has done some good in the world despite all the obstacles - she has been a dancer and political activist in Argentina - but the author has condemned poor Wanda to a life of chasing illusions.

A very densely-written, short novel in which every fleeting reference and transitory image turns out to have been working hard for its living, and probably a book you can go back to many times to find different threads of meaning in it. And a rather bleak view of life.

(But also fun in a totally anachronistic way: it's hard to stop yourself thinking that a book which starts out with a dull, respectable Dutchman marrying a glamorous and unreliable Argentinian must have some kind of buried satirical message, even if it was written a couple of decades before the Dutch radio first broke out into orgies of bandoneon music...)

Aug 14, 2019, 8:44am

>39 thorold: sounds like an interesting read. Sadly not translated into English, from what I can see on Amazon.

Aug 14, 2019, 10:02am

>40 AlisonY: Yes, looks as though that one has only been translated into French and German. But I can recommend The tea lords, if you haven't read that yet. (My review of that is buried under the omnibus edition I read:

Aug 14, 2019, 10:33am

>34 thorold: >35 SassyLassy: Thank you to both of you for the translation advice on Zola. I will remember!

Edited: Aug 15, 2019, 4:36am

It's been raining two days out of three since I came back from holiday, which partly accounts for how many books I've been getting through. This is our summer book-club choice, and my first taste of the Karl Ove Knausgård phenomenon(*):

So much longing in so little space : the art of Edvard Munch (2017) by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway, 1968- ), Translated by Ingvild Burkey (Norway, 1967- )


Predictably, this turns out to be a book about writing a book about Munch. Or, to be more precise, it's more multimedia than that: it's a book about writing a book about giving a lecture, curating an exhibition and making a film about Munch. And even there we get into trouble, because Knausgård wants us to be able to distinguish between at least three different ways of using the name 'Munch' in his text - Munch the artist who painted more than 1700 pictures over a career spanning some seventy years; 'Munch' the subject of biography; and 'Munch' on the label of a small number of images so iconic that they have become impossible to look at critically. Of the three, it's the first who interests him most, and who at times seems to risk being abstracted even further, into a test case of what it actually means to work as a creative artist. How do you move on from what you learnt at school to develop a style of your own? And how do you go on from that to do something different again? And again? How do you resolve the limitations of observation, memory, technique and formal reduction? And how do you know if what you are doing has any value?

We're often left swinging back and forth between "Knausgård's diary, 2013-2017" and "Aesthetics 101", neither of which is really what we came here for, but in between times Knausgård has discussions with some interesting people - several distinguished contemporary artists, Norwegian and foreign, a film-maker, an art historian who has written about Munch's technical limitations, and so on. And it is also quite fun to hear about the less successful parts of Knausgård's exploration of Munch, like the correspondence with David Hockney that came to nothing, and his growing self-doubt after many of the pictures he had picked out for the exhibition were dismissed as failures by the experts. And the experts who disapproved of each other.

I often watch art documentaries on BBC Four, and I've come to enjoy one of the best visual clichés of such films, where the presenter has been given privileged access to the store-room of a gallery, and we watch the curator pulling out sliding walls loaded with obscure pictures the public don't normally get to see. It was fun to discover that Knausgård obviously loves this image as well, so much so that he takes us into the basement of the Munch Museum to experience it twice: once by himself, once with Munch-expert Stian Grøgaard. You can't beat a good sliding-wall shot...

I wouldn't really recommend this as a place to learn about Munch, or even about formal aesthetics, but it might be a thought-provoking starting point before you commit to launching into a critical biography. And it is an enjoyable read in its own right, with some interesting and provocative things to say about artists and how we think of them.

It's also worth saying that the paperback, under the Harvill Secker imprint of Random House, is very nicely produced, on good quality paper, with a nice cover, and includes fourteen colour reproductions of paintings discussed in the text.


(*) Interesting to see that when you type "pheno" the Apple autocomplete thinks you are going to say "phenobarbitals" not "phenomenon"...

Aug 15, 2019, 1:44pm

>43 thorold: well, did you develop a little Knausgaard crush like the rest of us have by the end? Much as I love his My Struggle series, I'm nervous to try his other books as it might spoil the crush - like realising the really hot guy you've fancied for ages has really bad taste in shoes.

Still, I'm very curious....

Aug 15, 2019, 5:00pm

>44 AlisonY: Hmm. I find his expensively-groomed wild-man-of-the-woods look a little bit off-putting, but I do have a weakness for Nordic accents...

There’s an interview promoting the Munch book here: (above-the-table view only, so no risk of shoe-revelations).

Aug 16, 2019, 3:05am

>45 thorold: thanks - will check it out.

(I bet he wears great shoes).

Edited: Aug 16, 2019, 4:03am

Google to the rescue...

(Not sure about the shoes, but those are definitely Ivar shelves just like mine!)

Aug 16, 2019, 4:08am

He really does channel that homeless look very well, but those look like good soles.

Interesting article as well, and a lovely bonus link halfway down to an old David Bowie interview - he's my music crush (in a musical sense, not attraction sense - he was much too pale and puny and weird looking for my taste).

Aug 16, 2019, 11:42am

>48 AlisonY: Before I let myself get sidetracked into a discussion about Bowie - or about men who wear outdoor shoes in the house and put them on the table - here's another book...

This was one I found out about via the Booker International shortlist, like >6 thorold: - and a fun follow-up to last year's dive into everything Japanese.

Die Kieferninseln (2017; The Pine Islands) by Marion Poschmann (Germany, 1969- )


A short, quirky and determinedly ambiguous novel that manages to be captivatingly deep and mournful at the same time as being delightfully superficial and funny. And a book that operates as much through symbols as it does through explicit narrative (stand by for a lot of hair and trees...). Poschmann is clearly a writer who doesn't trouble to switch off the "poet" side of herself when she's playing the role of a novelist.

With - respectively - Basho's Narrow road to the deep north and The complete manual of suicide under their arms, Gilbert and Yosa, who have met by chance on the end of a station platform in Tokyo, set off on a modern version of the poet's pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. Both of them are at low points in their lives: Gilbert, who has been doing research (without very much conviction of its utility) into the iconography of beards in the cultural studies department of a German university, has run away from his breadwinner-wife after having a bad dream about her Medusa-like hair; Yosa, who even with a false beard doesn't manage to live up to his own ideal of Japanese masculinity, has decided to kill himself after becoming convinced that he has done badly in an exam. But, for a while at least, their respective failings complement each other and allow the two of them to form an uneasy team to navigate the strange world of modern Japan together.

Poschmann enjoys herself using the cultural collisions involved in this unlikely setup to make fun of the odder and less defensible aspects of Japanese and European cultures (and, in passing, of some of our ideas about masculinity), but at the same time she draws European readers into an appreciation of some of the less obvious strengths of the Japanese way of looking at the world. A pilgrimage to look at a rock or a tree isn't as obvious a thing to do as a pilgrimage to look at a building or a great painting, particularly if we find the tree in the middle of a building site or a traffic island, but it isn't hard to see (when we look at it through her eyes) how it can also have value to us.

Of course, the resulting book isn't a well-formed novel in a conventional western way - the explicit story doesn't come to a satisfactory resolution, and the situation isn't one that would bear rationalising - Gilbert's reasons for leaving his wife would seem flimsy even by the standards of Othello, and he seems to have learnt as much about Japan 24 hours after his unplanned arrival there as the author did after three months of intensive study, for instance. But that doesn't seem to matter: This is another of those books that make you want to plan a re-read as soon as you put them down.

Edited: Aug 17, 2019, 4:05pm

Another short novel, in the framework of the often neglected "read more Italian" project, and a belated entry for the speculative fiction theme from Q2...

Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; The nonexistent knight) by Italo Calvino (Italy, 1923-1985)


Calvino is one of those authors I always come to slightly nervously, knowing he's going to be difficult and experimental, but then have to laugh at myself because I should have remembered from the last five or six times how much fun "difficult and experimental" becomes when he's in charge of it. This particular one is, as we should all know, the missing link between Orlando furioso and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Agilulfo is the most perfect knight in Charlemagne's army. Brave, reliable, immaculately clean, a model of efficiency and a walking encyclopaedia of the rules of chivalry, the only knight in the army who finds inspecting regimental kitchens as interesting and rewarding as smiting the infidel. Oddly enough, he doesn't seem to have many friends... And even more oddly, he doesn't appear to exist. When he lifts the visor of his spotless white suit of armour, it turns out that there's no-one inside it.

But then there's the irrepressibly keen young Rambaldo, raised on tales of chivalry (which did not have anything to say about the administration of regimental kitchens and the proper way to make cabbage soup) and out to avenge his father's death at the hands of the Moors; the enigmatic amazon-warrior Bradamante (with the messiest tent in the army) who lusts after the efficient Agilulfo from inside her suit of armour; young Torrismondo who isn't quite who he says he is; and Agilulfo's unusual squire Gurdulú, who isn't quite sure what species he belongs to. And finally, there's Sister Theodora who is writing all this down for us as a penance imposed by the Abbess, and who for all we know may be making some or all of it up. Particularly the bit where she herself is carried off into the action...

Calvino is obviously playing around with ideas of identity and how we define it to ourselves, as well as doing his usual thing of undermining our trust in the narrator, but he's also having fun with our perception of what the Age of Chivalry was like, by reminding us that Charlemagne's army must have been an actual army, with all the practical needs and administrative headaches that armies have in the real world. Roland and the rest wouldn't have been able to do glorious battle without all the farriers and saddlers and armourers and makers of cabbage soup, and somewhere or other there must have been room for boring staff officers with rulebooks to make sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time. Which is probably an insight that has something to do with Calvino's own experience as a communist partisan during the war. His rather less-than-Wagnerian view of the Knights of the Grail also has a distinctly World War II flavour to it...

Aug 17, 2019, 9:58pm

>50 thorold: I have this in a really charming edition that pairs it with The Cloven Viscount—bought them for the cover probably in my teens, and though they haven't proved to be my favorite Calvinos, they were a nice introduction.

Aug 18, 2019, 2:37pm

>50 thorold: makes me think of Lancelot du Lac a little, I enjoyed your comments, I must try him again.

Edited: Aug 20, 2019, 7:03am

>51 lisapeet: That's a great cover!

I've been meaning to read a Balzac biography for a while - I picked this one up mostly because it was the only one I could find in the library that wasn't a translation from French to Dutch. A friend has since offered to lend me a recent French biography, and somebody else said I ought to read the famous one by Zweig... I'll think about it. It doesn't seem right to read multiple biographies when I've still only read five or six of Balzac's novels!

Balzac: a biography (1994) by Graham Robb (UK, 1958- )


Graham Robb is a British writer who carved a respectable career out of biographies of 19th century French literary figures and has written extensively for the TLS and LRB, but has apparently gone a bit Erich von Däniken lately with a weird book about Celtic pathways. (And yet another writer to join the far from exclusive club of people I could theoretically have met at university but probably didn't...)

Balzac is an absolute gift to biographers, with a satisfyingly outrageous life, a complicated financial and sexual history, and politics so ambiguous that everyone from Marx and Engels to hard-line legitimists has been able to claim him as an ally. And a not-inconsiderable gift for sensationalising his own public image. The only downside is that you have to read about forty novels, plus dozens of short stories, novellas, plays, unfinished works, newspaper articles, essays, letters, etc. And - since Balzac probably featured in more anecdotes than all his contemporaries put together - endless memoirs of the time by other writers.

Robb seems to have been up for the challenge, and he tries to give us a biography that presents a fair balance between the literary genius and the walking disaster area lurching from one financial crisis or love affair to the next (the two were usually connected: Balzac's various lovers seem to have contributed more to paying off his debts than his literary earnings ever did). The path is strewn with rabbit holes for biographers to disappear into: it must be very tempting to get drawn into working out exactly where all that money disappeared to, or developing theories about the identities of lovers known only by first names, or deciding exactly how many illegitimate children Balzac had. But Robb is very self-disciplined, and generally carries on straight ahead along the path, with only a short digression to tell us what sort of thing there is down that particular hole, and which of his predecessors we will encounter should we choose to descend in quest of white rabbits.

What emerges is a picture of a writer driven along in life as in his work by a fountain of bubbling creative energy. Ideas come out unstoppably, most of them swept aside because something else more interesting has come up, but every now and then something makes him stop and focus and a completed (or almost completed) novel is dashed down on paper in record time, usually in a coffee-fuelled all-night session. In this context Balzac's otherwise rather ludicrous career as a venture capitalist starts to make more sense - Robb classifies the business schemes in two categories: "practical ideas he never seriously thought of putting into practice, and impractical ones, which he did." Robb finds that things like the dairy farm and pineapple plantation at Sèvres could have been made into financial successes with hard work and thorough planning, and so could the silver mines in Sardinia, but that would have been no fun - when he had been through the excitement of getting to Sardinia and it turned out that there were no actual lumps of silver lying around on the ground, Balzac lost interest and moved onto something else. That also helps to explain why the financial advice Balzac gives in his novels is so much sounder than that which he followed in real life...

The most interesting and rewarding part of this biography for me was the part about Balzac's Lucien-like early attempts to make a living as a writer, and Robb goes into some detail about the pseudonymous novels he wrote in those days and the circumstances of their production and promotion.

Robb seems to have been won over by most of the women in Balzac's life, especially Eveline Hanska, whom he defends energetically against the Balzac fans disappointed by her posthumous "unfaithfulness". Even the housekeeper, "Mme de Brugnol", who was accused by Balzac of trying to blackmail him, gets a few good words from Robb (he suspects the blackmail story of being a smokescreen put up to distract Eveline). From the safe perspective of a reader of biographies, it isn't hard to imagine that anyone involved in a relationship with Balzac would come across as a calm island of common-sense in the middle of an ocean of impetuous craziness, though.

Apart from his many and mostly quite well-known affairs with (wealthy) women, there's an obvious and only slightly prurient question to ask about Balzac's sex-life: did the creator of Vautrin, who has a claim to be the first major gay character in mainstream fiction, also have sexual relationships with men? Not surprisingly, there's no conclusive proof, but Robb does find at least circumstantial evidence that might point that way. No-one who has read the description of the two poets in Illusions perdues can doubt that Balzac was aware of the sexual attractiveness of men. Starting with the critic and amateur wallpaper-hanger Latouche, who shared an apartment with Balzac for a while, there was quite a succession of young "secretaries" or "assistants" who played a part in Balzac's life briefly and then parted from him in a huff - it does sound like a familiar pattern...

Aug 20, 2019, 11:04am

I so enjoy your reviews.

Aug 23, 2019, 3:47am

>53 thorold: fabulous review. I particularly loved the insight into his approach to his business dealings - most amusing.

Edited: Aug 23, 2019, 12:52pm

>54 rhian_of_oz: >55 AlisonY: - Thanks, both! I hope I'm not being unfair to Balzac, but he strikes me as someone where you would be missing the point if you took him too seriously (as Engels probably did).

One of the interesting little insights in Robb's book that hadn't struck me before was how out of line from her English contemporaries Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in being such a huge Balzac fan. (Robb doesn't go into detail, but in her letters she's forever busy with schemes to smuggle the latest Balzac novel past the censors...)

A semi-random bit of non-fiction I came across whilst looking for something else in the library. I probably wouldn't have brought it home if I'd noticed in time that it was a translation from German to English, though:

History of the hour : clocks and modern temporal orders (1992; English 1996) by Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum (Germany, 1947- ), translated by Thomas Dunlap (USA)


Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum is an academic historian, most recently Professor of Medieval History at Chemnitz.

The history of time-measurement has been used by many great social and economic historians to illustrate and support their theoretical models. It's one of the technologies we know most about: endless monographs have been written about early clocks and scientific instruments, and we've all looked at pictures of Greek clepsydras, Galileo with his pendulum, Harrison with his chronometer, and nineteenth-century factories with their hooters and clock towers. There can't be much to add to that, can there...?

Well, perhaps there is. With a mixture of original research into municipal records from all over Europe and collation of the existing sources on technical history, Dohrn-van Rossum finds that many of our conventional assumptions about time measurement are misleading or just plain wrong (Marx, Lewis Mumford, E.P. Thompson and Jacques Le Goff are the most prominent historians to get rapped over the knuckles, but not the only ones, by any means).

The book focusses on how the new technology of the escapement-controlled mechanical clock spread across Europe from the late 13th century (strangely, we still don't seem to know for sure where it originated or who "invented" it). Dohrn-van Rossum looks at when towns and cities obtained their first public clock, who took the initiative for this, and whom they employed to build it, but also at how the introduction of the clock changed the way people referred to time - when were working hours, markets, times and durations of council meetings, church services, and other public events first referred to by clock time rather than by astronomical or liturgical divisions of the day?

And, by the way, those liturgical times turn out to have been rather oversold - Dohrn-van Rossum takes the opportunity to show us that the Rule of St Benedict doesn't in any way force you to invent a clock. As long as you start at about the right time in the early morning, the prescribed activities set the duration for themselves and take you right through to sunset without the need for an external time-reference. The only thing the monks needed was a rough indication of the time to wake up, which could be done by setting a water-clock based alarm.

It's fascinating to see just how fast the new technology spread and how it created a new profession - rather like computers in the 1940s and 50s, people came into it from all sorts of different backgrounds, from academics to artisans. But it's also interesting to be reminded that we didn't go straight from Prime and Vespers to UTC. In particular, finer subdivisions than an hour were of no interest to anyone except astronomers in medieval times, and most clocks didn't start indicating minutes until well into the 18th (or even 19th) century. And every town had its own local time, and there was not even much standardisation of how the hours were counted - as late as the 1780s, Goethe was complaining about the Italian practice of counting from sunset, which made it very difficult to guess what time it would be when you reached the next town, and whether the gates would still be open when you got there.

Another quite basic thing I wasn't aware of is that the sandglass, even though it has the allure of a much older technology, was actually developed at about the same time as the mechanical clock. So the notion of setting the duration of an activity by a measured time interval was just as new as that of setting the starting time by the striking of the clock. (And all those sandglasses in the background of paintings of St Jerome have to be read as leading-edge academic technology, the medieval equivalent of the Apple II on the desk.)

The relationship of European clock-technology to Chinese and Arab science also turns out to be far from straightforward, although Dohrn-van Rossum doesn't go into quite as much detail on this. What's odd is the way that both cultures were a long way ahead of Europe technically in the early middle ages, but seem to have lost all interest in developing time-measurement just about when the mechanical clock appeared in Europe, and even framed ideological and religious objections to the idea of public clocks (Ottoman sultans were happy to accept clocks as gifts from Venetian and Genoese merchants, but kept them in private).

Unfortunately, this otherwise very interesting book is spoilt by a rather rushed translation into English - Dunlap obviously knows what he is doing, and some parts of the translation read very well, but there are still a lot of places where he didn't get round to tidying up his first draft and getting rid of clumsy Germanisms (even really basic things like translating "Kanzel" as "chancel" when it's obvious from the context that it should be the more common meaning, "pulpit"). At times, I really had to think back to what it must have said in German to make any sense of it.

Aug 23, 2019, 11:45am

>56 thorold: Great review. I do love reading such histories. Perhaps it would be best to wait for a new edition with an enhanced translation, though, if such revision is even likely.

Aug 23, 2019, 1:59pm

Enjoyed your summary of History of the Hour

Aug 23, 2019, 2:20pm

>57 rocketjk: It looks as though there was a 1998 English edition as well as the 1996 one I read - maybe they had a chance to revise the translation. But unless you’re a hard-core medievalist it’s probably a book to borrow rather than buy, so you might have to take what you can find.

Aug 27, 2019, 5:52am

Back to Balzac with the logical follow-up both to the biography I've just read and to Zola's Nana - I was planning to keep this one going on the back-burner for a while, but I got caught up in it during a long train journey on Saturday and wasn't able to put it aside again. Fun to see that this has had at least four different English titles in its time, nearly as many different names as its central character...

Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847; A harlot high and low/The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans/A Harlot's Progress/Scenes from a Courtesan's Life/etc.) by Honoré de Balzac (France, 1799-1850)


Published in four parts between 1838 and 1847, this was the direct continuation both of Vautrin's story from Le père Goriot and Lucien's from Illusions perdues. We last saw Lucien, at the lowest point in his life to date, getting into a carriage with a strange man, the mysterious Spanish diplomat Father Carlos Herrera, in whom we were evidently meant to recognise our old friend the master-criminal Vautrin alias Jacques Collin alias Trompe-le-Mort. When this book opens, we're a few months further along, and Lucien, under Father Herrera's patronage, has been rehabilitated into Paris society. There's a minor hiccup when some of his dissolute writer acquaintances recognise the girl he's been seeing, Esther, as a celebrated former rat (child-prostitute) known as La Torpille because of the electrifying effect she exerted on her elderly clients (this was before the days of naval torpedos, of course). Before word gets out, Herrera is able to whisk her away to a friendly convent to be cleaned up, baptised (!) and given a new identity, so that Lucien can resume his affair with her in secret, without prejudicing his chance of an aristocratic marriage.

Four years on, Lucien has a duke's daughter dangling on the hook, but Herrera's money is almost exhausted, and Lucien needs a cool million to buy a piece of land and establish his credentials with his prospective fiancée's family. The only saleable asset they have left is poor old Esther, so they set up a complicated scheme to use her to extract large amounts of cash from the elderly banker, Baron de Nucingen. Needless to say, it doesn't work out well for any of them: Lucien and Herrera end up behind bars, and in Part III Balzac starts what is essentially a new novel, a crime story set in and around the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie prison.

Lots of fun, of all kinds: as well as the insight into the evils of the "kept mistress" system (which Balzac develops further in La Cousine Bette) we get more shady financial transactions than we know what to do with, some beautiful duchesses and countesses, lots of shady underworld figures and more-or-less-secret, more-or-less-corrupt judges and police officers, several Masters of Disguise, a Little-Known Oriental Poison, Buried Treasure, suicide notes so voluminous that you would need Balzacian quantities of coffee to write them in the time available - you name it, it's there somewhere! Balzac had the immeasurable advantage that none of these things was a cliché (in mainstream fiction) at the time he was writing, so he could deploy all his early training as a pulp-writer freely, and we can enjoy it all without needing to feel superior about it.

An obvious point of controversy we do need to think about is the way he treats the two important Jewish characters in the story. Esther is essentially Scott's Rebecca updated to the 19th century: stunning "levantine" beauty, an unfeminine gift for repartee, and an earnest desire to reform and be a good Christian which is frustrated at every turn by the author and by the trauma inflicted on her in childhood. Balzac can't really be blamed for copying such a marketable idea, and he wouldn't be Balzac if he'd given her a happy-end... On the other hand, the banker Baron de Nucingen is (much of the time) the worst kind of stereotype of the heartless Jewish usurer, and he irritates the reader unnecessarily by talking throughout in a hideous and difficult to read "Polish-Jewish" version of French, which Balzac achieves mostly by the lazy expedient of switching around consonant pairs like "d" and "t", "b" and "p", etc. and randomly mangling vowels. He obviously got some stick for this, as Nucingen doesn't reappear after the end of Part II, and when a further dialect character turns up in Part III, Balzac tells us he's not going to annoy us with a phonetic representation this time. Maybe Eveline had some influence - there are also a couple of pro-Polish asides in Part IV.

It's a shame about the bad parts of Nucingen, because he does get some very good scenes, both with Esther and with his bizarrely complaisant wife Delphine, who amuses herself by giving him fashion advice when he's going out courting. Balzac obviously has a lot of compassion for an old man who finds himself - for the first time in his life - dealing with a sexual obsession he can't control.

Vautrin is the star of the show, obviously, moving from a background role in the early part of the book to being the overt centre of the story in Part IV. Balzac explicitly attributes Vautrin's ability to sustain his power over others to his invulnerability to the debilitating influence of women, so he's presumably meant to be read as a sort of anti-Nucingen. Maybe he's not quite the role-model for gay-lib, but he's always fun to watch. And keep an eye out for the fixer "Asie", who starts out as a Malay cook - who is obviously a man in drag - to become, by Part IV, Vautrin's Tante Jacqueline, with Balzac insisting that "tante" actually means "aunt" here, and not whatever else it might mean in street-French...

Edited: Aug 27, 2019, 6:38am

And another semi-random technical book from the fifth floor of the library:

A technical history of the motor car (1989) by T P Newcomb & R T Spurr


Reading what real experts have to say about their own fields is often surprisingly rewarding, even if it's a field that isn't at the centre of your own interests. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and sometimes a dry, technical book is just a dry, technical book, as here.

Newcomb (who was doing research into brake systems at Loughborough at the time this book came out) and Spurr (sometime researcher with the brake-lining maker Ferodo, and obviously a vintage-car enthusiast) clearly know their stuff, and give a reasonably detailed exposition of the development of the various sub-systems that make up motor-cars from the 1890s to the 1970s. But most of the time you get exactly what they promise: a technical history, without much attempt to put developments into context. Which is fair enough, and would be fine if - say - you were a vintage-car nut who wanted a reference book in which to look up general information about gearboxes used by a certain sports-car builder in the 1930s, but it makes it hard to get a real overview of a field in which development had a lot more to do with social and economic factors than pure engineering. Real car manufacturers always tried to build the cheapest car that would satisfy the legal requirements of the day and give the customer the necessary illusion of quality and status, and these are things that the authors only rather intermittently think to tell us about.

Also, the value of the book for general readers is rather undermined by the authors' focus, which is very heavily UK- and US-centric, and more directed towards "technically interesting" performance cars than to big-selling commercial models. We get to hear rather less about the Model T, the VW Beetle and the 2CV than about Alvis, Bristol and Rolls-Royce. Coverage of European developments outside Britain is very skimpy after 1900, and manufacturers outside Europe and North America rate only a couple of brief mentions (a paragraph in the introduction headed "Japanese competition" and a short reference to the Wankel engines developed by Mazda).

On the plus side, there are a lot of clear line-drawings, and we get a restrained, lecture-room style joke every three or four pages to make sure we're still awake. Could be worse...

Edited: Aug 27, 2019, 8:27am

>60 thorold: sounds wonderful. I keep saying this, but I definitely need to move Balzac higher up the list.

>61 thorold: Real car manufacturers always tried to build the cheapest car that would satisfy the legal requirements of the day and give the customer the necessary illusion of quality and status

Coming from a marriage where one of us is an ex-buyer for Ford Motor Company and the other is an ex-engineer for Ford of course we'd most strenuously have to deny that statement!

Edited: Aug 27, 2019, 10:39am

>62 AlisonY: Well, Henry Ford is supposed to have urged manufacturers to focus on making "the best quality goods possible at the lowest cost possible". Which you could just about interpret as a less cynical way of expressing the same idea, if you accept that "quality" simply means "the degree to which a product or service meets requirements". (But that's a mantra from my old ISO9001 days, and I really don't want to go back there...)


An entirely different topic, and one that's more likely to get a sympathetic hearing from me. This one caught my eye because I read a quite different book with almost the same title a couple of years ago (Petite philosophie du vélo by Bernard Chambaz). In Chambaz's terms, this one is rather more "bicyclette" than "vélo":

Een filosofie van de fiets: Londense notities (2012) by Hans Declercq (Belgium, 1976- )


Hans Declercq is a Belgian novelist, said to divide his time between Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona, London and Paris. He doesn't appear to have any connection with Hans De Clercq (with a space) the professional racing cyclist.

This book comes labelled as a novel, but it's a first-person account of a period the young Belgian narrator spends cycling, living and working in London, there are no real persistent characters other than the narrator, it doesn't have any obvious fictional attributes, and you could very easily mistake it for a travel book, a blog, or a memoir.

The narrator reflects on how choosing to get around a city by bike changes the way you look at things, asks himself to what extent being a cyclist makes him subversive (in the spirit of his favourite philosopher, Michel de Certeau), to what extent it makes him a fashion-victim millennial (something he goes on to demonstrate by buying a belt-drive Trek), or a holier-than-thou exercise fanatic, or a Menace to Pedestrians. He visits the Brompton factory (and is very impressed), he tries unsuccessfully to interview someone in the marketing department of the bank sponsoring the "Boris Bike", and he rides along on Critical Mass events. But mostly he just explores the city on his bike as the fancy takes him.

Out of the saddle, he goes to pubs and nightclubs, and looks at the odd, dislocated world of London as seen by its vast transient population of high-skilled migrant workers, and tries to work out something about the British character from the handful of indigenous people who cross his path from time to time. And he begins to spot Londoners when he's elsewhere in the world - as someone else tells him, they act like visitors to a zoo as soon as they get outside the M25.

Pleasant and entertaining in the sort of way a travel blog is, and it made me curious about Michel de Certeau, but nothing extraordinary. And of course almost everything he says about being a foreigner in London will have gone drastically out of date in the last couple of years.

Edited: Aug 31, 2019, 3:15pm

A lot more train travel over the past few days, not all of it undertaken for reasons I would have wished for, but it did mean that I finally got around to reading the second half of a book that I started at the beginning of the summer. This is the second novel I've read by Antonio Muñoz Molina, I'm fairly sure it won't stop there:

Sefarad (2001; Sepharad) by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain, 1956- )


This is an unusual book in form: not only is it a novel that mixes non-fiction with fiction (something that a lot of books I've read recently do), but it also muddies the distinction between the novel and short fiction, in that its seventeen chapters can all be read as individual stories, testimonies or essays, and it is only when you read them all together that you start to see that there is also an underlying deep structure that links them together into a single work. And as if that wasn't enough, Muñoz Molina uses the disconcerting narrative trick of jumping unpredictably backwards and forwards within each chapter between a third person omniscient narrator, the first-person view of the "writer" character, the first-person view of someone who is telling him a story, and sometimes a second-person view of the person who is telling that person a story. But it all seems to work very well, once you get inside the book.

The many different stories Muñoz Molina brings together in the book all dig into different aspects of exile or alienation - Spanish and German communists in Russia during the second world war, the narrator and his compatriots who are economic migrants from southern Spain to Madrid, Jews who found themselves suddenly declared undesirable aliens in their own countries under the Nazis, Kafka going secretly to the frontier to meet his lover Milena Jesenska, and Milena's death in the Ravensbrück concentration camp 25 years later. And much more, all tied in together by the underlying image of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

The subject-matter is often difficult and painful, but it's a pleasure to follow the rhythms of Muñoz Molina's writing and the understated way he navigates through it all without hitting us over the head with unnecessary explanations. But be warned: it's a book that comes with a heavy reading list you will almost certainly want to follow up yourself. Quite apart from the cunning way he ends the book with a huge advertisement for the museum of the Hispanic Society of America in New York (but it turns out that they are currently closed for renovations, so check before booking your flight...).

Aug 31, 2019, 11:50am

>64 thorold: One of those odd coincidences, where I just read Like a Fading Shadow and thought "what a wonderful writer. Glad to hear another one works just as well. You've convinced me to follow up with Sefarad. Perhaps alienation is a theme with Muñoz Molina as it came through in the book I read too, although exile and alienation were certainly of a different kind for James Earl Ray. There was a reading list there too - dangerous.

Aug 31, 2019, 1:48pm

>64 thorold: I think maybe I've mentioned this to you elsewhere, but I read Sefarad a few years back and found it extremely powerful.

Edited: Aug 31, 2019, 3:04pm

>65 SassyLassy: Yes, I liked Carlota Fainberg too, although not quite as impressive as Sefarad.

From the sublime to the dusty: another curiosity from the fifth floor of the city library. It turned out that this was a book Marian Rijk (>34 thorold: above) made generous use of, so the "best bits" often felt rather familiar:

Voort in 't zadel, kameraden ! een eeuw fietsen in Nederland (1968) by Johannes Marius Fuchs (Netherlands, 1905-1998) and Wim J. Simons (Netherlands, 1926-2005)


Fuchs and Simons both seem to have been prolific authors of non-fiction books in their time, the former concentrating on topography and history of technology, the latter on Dutch literature.

This is an entertaining collection of early writings about an exciting new phenomenon in Dutch society: the bicycle. The "century of cycling" of the title is justified by taking J.T. Scholte's bicycle shop, opened in Amsterdam in 1868, as the start of cycling as an organised activity. For completeness they also include a brief mention of the first documented sighting of someone riding a draisine in the Netherlands, which was in a book published in 1826. Fuchs and Simons start to lose interest around 1905, but they do take a few threads of the story through to the 1920s and beyond, in particular the ever-controversial bicycle tax, which persisted until the German occupation.

The excerpts from books, magazines, newspapers, etc., are grouped around topics like riding schools, road rage, cycling clubs, (anti-)cycle legislation, women and bicycles, cycling costume, racing, cycle paths (the first was in Utrecht in 1887), official adoption of bicycles (post office, police, army, etc.), water- and ice-cycles, bicycle songs (including a verse of the Dutch version of "As some day it may happen" from The Mikado!), and bicycle humour. And of course the evergreen topic of the disputed etymology of the Dutch word fiets - perhaps wisely, they list the many different theories without expressing an opinion (obviously they don't know about the 2012 "breakthrough", Professor Gunnar de Boel's theory that the word is a contraction of German "Vize-Pferd", but perhaps that's just as well since that theory has since been widely dismissed too...).

Not very profound or analytical, but fun if you like that kind of thing.

Sep 1, 2019, 4:26am

There's a kind of segue here from the last book, the wonderful image of the "protective fence of bicycle between the sexes" in the opening sentence.

But the real reason for re-reading this is that I've been reading or re-reading all of Spark's books over the last couple of years, and the few I have left now are mostly ones I have on my shelves already and read many years ago. This is Spark's most famous novel, of course, thanks in part to Maggie Smith. I last read it (multiple times!) about 25 years ago when it was one of the many set books for "Literature in the modern world".

The prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Spark at her Sparkiest, taking what should by rights be a wistfully comic look back at her Edinburgh schooldays and turning it into a dark, difficult, morally complex - but hilariously funny - novel about sex and politics, betrayal and loyalty, romanticism and hard reality, eccentricity and conventionality, Catholicism and Calvinism, childhood's end, and the confusing historical moment of the 1930s. And all crammed into not much more than 100 pages of high-energy prose, with her classic mid-sentence ironic pauses destabilising the most harmless phrases and turning them into enough gunpowder to blow up this school.

It's a great book to re-read - you can do it in a couple of hours, and you will find something quite different in it from last time you read it. This time I found myself focussing on the way the story is tied into the historical moment, Miss Brodie's status as one of the many young women of her generation left a spinster because their men had been killed in the great War, and the way that anomalous position provided a kind of licence for them to behave in ways that would otherwise have been outside the pattern for their generation and class. That generation of women were still around when I was a child, and they were all quite special in their different ways, although of course I didn't think of it that way at the time...

Sep 1, 2019, 7:58am

>68 thorold: It is a dwarf star of social commentary, isn't it? A matchbox full of Jean Brodie would weigh seven tons. I wish more writers had that capacity when it comes to satire—there are plenty of good efforts out there but I can't recall any quite so PITHY. That's one I'd like to reread again soonish.

Sep 1, 2019, 2:36pm

>69 lisapeet: Definitely. She gets a similar kind of buzz going in a few other novels - The ballad of Peckham Rye and The girls of slender means, for instance, but that one is really the crème de la crème...

Since today seems to be a Twin Spark day for me, this is her 15 years later, still hitting her satirical targets, but not quite with the same sense of fun with language:

The Takeover (1976) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


The wealthy Maggie Radcliffe allowed Hubert Mallindaine to stay in one of the houses she owns in Nemi while he was helping her with her pictures and antiques, but now that she's got married again she doesn't really need him any more, and she'd quite like to have someone in the house who actually pays rent occasionally. But Hubert - who implausibly claims descent from Diana Nemorensis and the Emperor Caligula, and is in the process of reviving the Diana cult in Nemi - is proving rather difficult to shift. Throw in some Italian aristocrats, a few of Hubert's discarded boyfriends, a couple of freeloading Jesuits, assorted thieves and several handfuls of Frazer's Golden Bough, and you end up with a farcical comedy of crime and deception that could almost be a P.G. Wodehouse plot (apart from all the sex: just about everyone in this story is sleeping with everyone else, without distinction of age or sex...).

Spark enjoys herself sending up the foibles of the super-rich, who can face up to anything with equanimity except the prospect of losing some of their money, the martyrdom of the Italian upper classes to the dictates of good taste, the quirks of the Italian legal system, the decadence of the seventies, and - because why not? - the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church. Maybe a bit less focussed than some of Spark's other books, but still quite fun.

Sep 3, 2019, 10:08am

Unusually for me, a book I didn't finish - but that's because I realised that this is not a book to read all in one go, and library books aren't really ideal for "dipping"...

La Verdad de Agamenón : crónicas, artículos y un cuento (2006) by Javier Cercas‬ (Spain, 1962- )


This is the third of several collections of his journalism Cercas has published in book form, this one covering articles published between 1998 and 2006, mostly (but not exclusively) in El País. Cercas covers all manner of subjects - literature, history, travel, a painting by Ronald B Kitaj, his life as a writer, and much more. He seems to write short pieces in much the same style as he writes his novels - superficially simple, and with a twinkle in his eye, but always with an underlying edge of commitment to the subject. If he's writing about it, then it's because it matters to him.

The title is a reference to a dialogue from Machado's Juan de Mairena in which Agamemnon argues with his swineherd about the nature of truth - Cercas takes this (in part) as a wry reminder that the truth of the powerful isn't always the same truth that the rest of us experience. And of course the writer's duty is to dig down to the truth, whatever that might be.

I skimmed this book - it's classically the sort of thing you should keep on your bedside table for a few months of occasional dipping, and I didn't have time for that before returning it to the library. But among the pieces I read there were a few very striking ones, including "Volver a case", which reads like a preliminary sketch for what became the 2017 novel El monarca de las sombras.

Edited: Sep 4, 2019, 1:59pm

Another rainy day, back to 19th century travellers with another fun find from the library...

Pittoreske reis langs de dode steden van de Zuiderzee (1874; new translation 2012) by Henry Havard (France, 1838-1921) translated from French to Dutch by Lex Wapenaar, illustrations by J E van Heemskerck van Beest and others (Original title: La Hollande pittoresque : voyage aux villes mortes du Zuiderzée)


Henry Havard was an art historian who came to the Netherlands as a political exile after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. He's known as one of the first scholars to make a serious study of Delft porcelain, and he wrote extensively about both decorative and fine arts. It sounds as though travel writing was a "day job" to support his studies: when he was able to return to a civil service post in France in 1879, the flow of travel books dried up again.

In the summer of 1873, Havard did something few people at the time would have thought of, but which is now done by thousands of people every year, and which I've done many times: he set off on a sailing boat to explore the picturesque little port-towns around (what was then) the Zuiderzee. From his studies of Dutch history and art, he knew all about the important role played by towns like Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Hindeloopen and Stavoren in the 16th and 17th centuries, and he was curious to see what they were like in real life. On his trip, he was accompanied by the marine artist and retired naval officer J E van Heemskerck van Beest, by the indispensable professional skipper, and for part of the time by a friend who was a conservator for the Royal Library.

They went clockwise from Amsterdam, first visiting Marken, Monnickendam, Volendam and Edam, then Hoorn, Enkhuizen and Medemblik, the new naval port at Den Helder, the island of Texel, then down the Frisian coast from Harlingen to Stavoren, then across to Urk (still an island) and into the mouth of the IJssel to visit Kampen and Zwolle, and finally back to Amsterdam via Harderwijk. Although one or two places seemed to be flourishing - Harlingen and Urk, for instance - most of the ports they call at have only a tiny fraction of their 17th century population. Grass is growing and cows are grazing in the streets of Hoorn and Enkhuizen, which lost their raison d'être when they were no longer accessible by big ships and have yet to find a new purpose. Medemblik has almost been wiped out by epidemics, Stavoren looks as if the population lost interest and went away. Havard wonders if this is a foretaste of the fate of the Netherlands in Europe - the country doesn't seem to have woken up to the industrial revolution yet, and it's almost as though the Dutch are content to rest on their glorious past and slide gently into oblivion.

Whether or not he planned it that way, Havard seems to have played a significant part in the rediscovery of Dutch culture: his book was an immediate success, rapidly translated into Dutch, German and English, and was one of the things that motivated tourists to go and have a look for themselves. Volendam and Marken soon became day-trip destinations for people visiting Amsterdam, as they have remained to this day, even if little or none of the cultural heritage Havard writes about still exists. Of course, a lot of other things happened in the region after the 1870s to accelerate these changes - railways and steam trams started to reach the Zuiderzee, land reclamation and big agriculture accelerated, and finally, shortly after Havard's death, the Afsluitdijk turned the Zuiderzee into a freshwater lake, and fishing was replaced by tourism as the biggest local industry.

The reason for the success of the book isn't hard to find, though: Havard may have been a heavyweight intellectual with a vast stock of historical facts at his disposal, but he was also extraordinarily good at communicating the pleasure (or occasionally, irritation) he took in the things he saw on his trip. From pretty girls in traditional costume (invariably kitted out with large blue eyes and a bashful smile) to sunsets over the Zuiderzee, from church towers to the eccentric and often dubious collections of paintings and artefacts shown off by town-hall caretakers, from disruptive boys to sudden rain showers, he is totally engaged with what he is experiencing, and he makes his provincial tour, on which he's never more than two days' sail from Amsterdam, into something as exotic and surprising as an expedition into central Asia.

Very enjoyable, and a fascinating insight into a part of the world which has changed in every possible way in the last century and a half - from the coastline down.

(Having read this in Lex Wapenaar's new Dutch translation, I couldn't resist looking for the French original - I ended up ordering copies of this one and Havard's two subsequent books about other parts of the Netherlands from a secondhand dealer...)

Edited: Sep 7, 2019, 2:19pm

...and this was the book I was really looking for when I spotted the Havard book in the library.

De zomer van 1823: dagboek van zijn voetreis door Nederland (2000, 2018) by Jacob van Lennep (Netherlands, 1802-1868), edited by Marita Mathijsen, fore- and afterword by Marita Mathijsen and Geert Mak


At the end of May 1823, two young men who had just finished their studies in Leiden set out from Amsterdam to spend a summer exploring the Netherlands on foot. Both were members of distinguished, patrician families: Jacob van Lennep was the son of a classics professor, and would become a well-known author, editor and politician (amongst other things he was responsible for getting the controversial first edition of Max Havelaar into print), whilst Dirk van Hogendorp's father was one of the most distinguished statesmen of the day (...but the son would be remembered for little else after this walk).

They were on the road, walking, sailing and taking coaches, for just over three months, in one of the wettest summers they could have found. The trip was obviously partly a student adventure holiday, to get away from parents and burn off a bit of post-exam energy (the predictable feats of physical endurance, drinking sessions, gambling, and the occasional opportunity to flirt with young women met along the way...), but there was also an element of social and political responsibility. Both men had come under the influence of Willem Bilderdijk's post-Napoleonic reactionary political theories, and were keen to see for themselves how enlightenment liberalism was failing Dutch society (as it surely must be). Consequently, when they arrive somewhere, they don't just look at the church and the town hall, but they get shown around the workhouse, prison, orphanage or hospital and ask sharp questions about how they are funded and run. There seems to have been an element of "tour of inspection" too - the local officials are well aware that van Hogendorp senior will be hearing about any deficiencies they identify.

And there was some serious social networking going on - everywhere they go they meet important people who are related to one or other of them, have children who studied with them, or are friends of their parents or professors. A lot of connections are being made with a view to the roles the two of them expect to play in later life. (In the later chapters there's an element of farce in this - every coach that passes them on the road seems to have a few van Lennep cousins in it...)

So there is quite a lot of arrogance and privilege going on here, and occasionally it all gets a bit too much - when they are mistaken for ordinary people by an innkeeper or arrested as suspected vagrants by a gendarme, the pleasure they take in humiliating these unfortunates (by raising their voices, dropping names or flashing their credentials) is positively revolting. But van Lennep is a magnificently engaging storyteller, and he can somehow charm us into going along with his presumption of superiority most of the time. And he isn't quite as bad as all that. When he isn't standing on his dignity, he is as often as not falling into the mud, getting blisters on his feet, or regretting how much he drank at lunchtime. And he has a sympathetic insight into the lives of many of the people he meets that transcends differences of class and standing.

The diary was never intended to be read in its original form by anyone outside his immediate family (it was written as serial letters to a sister), and it's wonderfully frank about people he considers vain, ugly, hypocritical or dim-witted. And there are some glorious scenes which are built up with all the care of a chapter in a 19th century novel, like the incident when they meet two young women in an inn who seem to be members of their own class, but they aren't quite sure - there's a glorious description of their carefully circling conversation, in which neither side can be so rude as to ask the other's names directly, but they both try to home in on whom exactly they are talking to by means of leading questions. Eventually it turns out that they know the brother of one of the girls, so that's all right...

There is little obvious structure in the course of the journey, which zig-zags around in most confusing ways, but the diary does have a kind of structure, starting off with highly detailed descriptions of everything and gradually petering out until it finally disappears into the mud of Zeeland.

There is a clear emotional climax with the description of the Ommerschans, an institution set up by a charity with the entirely benevolent intention of ending the problem of vagrancy and giving beggars the chance to earn their living, but without any thought for the fact that most people who became beggars did so because they were physically unable to work. Ommerschans solved the problem by permitting inmates who couldn't work to starve to death well out of sight of the people who sent them there. Van Lennep described the cruelty and horror of the system with merciless precision, and identifies the things that have to change, but obviously no-one wanted to listen to him at the time. It's not surprising that the jolly student-romp atmosphere of the trip rather fades away after this point.

(The diary was never published in van Lennep's lifetime - a heavily redacted edition was brought out by M. Elisabeth Kluit in 1942. Mathijsen's edition originally appeared in 2000 under the title Lopen met van Lennep as a tie-in to the TV series directed by Theo Uittenbogaard and presented by Geert Mak. A revised edition with updated notes appeared in 2018 under the title De zomer van 1823.)

Sep 7, 2019, 2:38pm

>73 thorold: sounds fascinating. I have a real soft spot for the Netherlands, so I'm sure this 19th century view is fascinating. I'm not surprised that there were many hints of privilege in his diaries - I think pretty much the only people who could afford the luxury of these early European travels were those not relying on working too hard for their money. Shame it's not available in English (from what I can make out on Amazon).

Sep 7, 2019, 4:08pm

>74 AlisonY: Sadly, I don’t think there’s any chance anyone would publish it in English. They sold out the first Dutch edition, thanks to Geert Mak walking about on TV, but it took them the best part of 20 years to persuade a Dutch publisher to bring out a new edition, even with the benefit of Mak’s name on the cover and the link to Mathijsen’s recent biography of van Lennep. 19th century Dutch literary figures don’t have much market appeal, even in the Netherlands, and this sort of book is expensive to produce (pictures, footnotes, index, etc.).

Henry Havard is quite easy to find secondhand, though, and he was widely translated at the time.

Edited: Sep 11, 2019, 6:33am

This our most recent book-club pick (to "lighten the mood" after Knausgaard - hmmmph!), it's on the Booker shortlist, and of course it's a book I would have read sooner or later anyway:

Quichotte (2019) by Salman Rushdie (UK, 1947- )


Rushdie's never been known for pushing a blithe and optimistic view of the world, and no-one would really be expecting a rose-tinted view from him in his seventies, especially given the many bad things that actually are happening in the world around us. So, it's perhaps no great surprise that this latest book includes a chapter in which the world actually does end...

The interesting thing, of course, is what he does with this state of affairs. And being Rushdie, it's not the most obvious approach. Instead of telling us about the bad things he sees in modern life, he takes it for granted that we already know about the evils of social media, intolerance, Trump, climate catastrophe, racism, pre-cooked opinions, television, etc., and he focusses instead on the way our minds equip us to deal with such things by shifting away from reality into the realm of myths, stories, and romantic quests. Which naturally enough leads him into the Quixote story, but again we don't get the Quixote story "straight", we get an imaginary novelist who has created an imaginary modern Quixote (or rather "Quichotte", because Massenet is in there somewhere as well) character, and the imaginary modern Quichotte character creates an imaginary Sancho. And we see the process of fiction working as it's made explicit how the Quichotte shares some - but not all - of the character and background of the novelist, and implicit that the novelist shares some of the character and background of the equally imaginary Rushdie who is writing him. And so ad infinitum.

And just for fun, we soon realise that there's all sorts of other intertextuality going on here - people falling out of aeroplanes, an Italian talking cricket, a Romanian troubled by rhinoceroses mastodons, some famous science-fiction stories, and a woman in New York City who calls herself the Human Trampoline, but not for the reason Paul Simon was implying. And a great deal of American television, and some spy stories.

Although connections with actual issues of the modern world are mostly fairly sketchy, there is one trendy topic that Rushdie develops more fully, opioid abuse, something that obviously ties in with the general discussion of reality and detachment from it. And there's a tech billionaire who indulges in space-travel fantasies, but Rushdie is careful not to imply that he has anything to do with bookselling.

Depressing, uplifting, entertaining, puzzling - basically, it's the Rushdie recipe we're used to, maybe a notch darker than the last two or three books, but as rewarding and challenging as ever.

Sep 11, 2019, 7:56am

>76 thorold: great review. I've yet to pick up a Rushdie book. I think I'm not sure what to expect - perhaps wrongly assuming that he goes into a lot of fantasy / dystopian / weird stuff that isn't normally my cup of tea. Guess I'll never know until I try. Any you would particularly recommend?

Sep 11, 2019, 9:59am

>77 AlisonY: It’s magic-realism rather than fantasy, most of the time - very grounded in historical/political reality, but with some non-realistic element to catch you off your guard. A similar sort of palette to Atwood, Garcia Marquez, Grass, etc., but with different emphasis, of course.

Midnight’s children is maybe the most obvious place to get a feel for what he’s about (and it’s one of those books you’re meant to have read, even if you don’t like it); if you want something more recent, I think you might find The Golden House interesting, and it doesn’t overdo the weird stuff.

Edited: Sep 11, 2019, 4:17pm

Another writer not unacquainted with the end of the world. And an unexpected guest appearance by the indefatigable Bettina von Arnim (cf. >24 thorold: and my Q2 thread):

Grimms Wörter: eine Liebeserklärung (2010) by Günter Grass (Germany, 1927-2015)


Mich schmerzt und ekelt mein Land, dessen Sprache ich anhänglich liebe.
(I am pained and disgusted by my country, whose language I love faithfully)

This was one of Günter Grass's last books, something between a historical novel, a memoir, a monograph on the German language, and - as the subtitle has it - a declaration of love to the words of that language. In classic Grass fashion, poems are inserted here and there in the prose text, and he has also done the cover artwork and the lithographs that introduce each chapter.

The narrative hook on which the whole book hangs is the story of the major scholarly dictionary of the German language, the Deutsches Wörterbuch. Work on this was started by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1838 after they and five other professors were dismissed from their academic posts in Göttingen for protesting against the ruling prince's decision to abolish the constitution of the state of Hanover, but it was 1854 before "A" to "Biermolke" appeared and 1960 before they were all the way through the alphabet.

The book is arranged alphabetically in chapters lettered A-F, K, U, and Z - Grass obviously realised, just as the Grimm brothers did, that he wasn't advancing fast enough to get through the whole alphabet in his lifetime. There's a lot of alphabet-play in the book - Grass loves riffing on the alliterative structure of the dictionary, and sometimes he just lets that run away with him to see where he will end up. But he's also writing a story about Jacob and Wilhelm: Whilst looking over the brothers' shoulders and walking with them in Berlin's Tiergarten, Grass feeds us interesting titbits from their work and from the authors they cite, reflects on the times they were living in, and picks out words and experiences from his own life that mirror theirs.

As we'd expect, the brothers' role as collectors of folk-tales matters to Grass almost as much as their work as Germanists - after all, several of his best-known novels were structured around stories from their collections. Bettina von Arnim flits in and out of the text as well - she and her brother had worked with Jacob and Wilhelm on the fairy-tales and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and they remained friends later in life. Bettina's lobbying seems to have been largely responsible for the brothers being offered posts in Berlin after they had to leave Göttingen.

Building on the story of the "Göttingen Seven" also gives Grass the foundation for the other major thread of this book, that of the writer's duty to engage with current politics. He's proud of the Seven for the stand they take against the king, and of course has no problem finding parallels for the apathetic failure of their fellow academics to support them. He's in a little bit more trouble where the motivation for the protest is concerned, though: the Seven objected not because withdrawing the constitution was an arbitrary exercise of power, but on the grounds that they had sworn an oath to uphold it. Grass points out that this is a really dangerous justification: the only oath he ever had to swear was one of allegiance to Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, something he certainly doesn't feel bound by. Launching out from this, he compares the Grimms' attempts to maintain the pose of apolitical scholars to Bettina's wild forays into every conceivable region of social and political affairs, and to his own lifelong dedication to saying the things Germany least wanted to hear. Sometimes wrong (rather more often than he admits here, if the truth be told...) but never quiet.

But mostly this is a book about the joy of words, and there can be few modern writers who enjoyed the scope and range of words in the German language and its dialects more than Grass did, and even fewer who had his gift for sharing that joy.

(At its core, this is a book about the German language, so I'd have thought it pointless to translate it, but there do seem to be at least Dutch and Finnish translations. Very odd.)

Sep 12, 2019, 1:17pm

>78 thorold: thanks. I'll try one of those two and then figure out if he's for me or not.

>79 thorold: your knowledge of other languages puts my GCSE efforts to shame. Very envious of anyone who's a polyglot.

Edited: Sep 12, 2019, 2:00pm

>80 AlisonY: "Very envious of anyone who's a polyglot."

Me, too. As my father used to say, I'm illiterate in many languages.

Sep 12, 2019, 2:00pm

>80 AlisonY: I’ve probably said this here a few times before, but there’s nothing special about learning languages. Given time, motivation and opportunity to practice, just about anyone can do it, and the more you know, the easier it gets. I was lucky to start in the cradle, which helps a lot, but I know plenty of people who didn’t have that advantage, and still manage to speak three or four languages. Even people who had the handicap of coming through the British education system.

I know, it’s the same thing they tell you about learning to sing, or knitting, or running marathons, and it’s particularly infuriating to be told it when you’d quite like to be able to do those things, but not enough to go through the pain you need to get there...

Edited: Sep 14, 2019, 9:55am

Zolathon, 10/20 - I've reached the halfway stage in the cycle, just over 20 months in, which obviously isn't anything like a record-breaking time, but means I'm still not too far behind my target of finishing in under three years.

(I know, it's not a race... The point of having a target is simply to remind myself that I want to try the experience of reading the cycle as a cycle, rather than a bunch of isolated novels.)

This is one I haven't read before: maybe because of the title, I was expecting something fairly nondescript, but, if you let Zola do the cooking, you're going to need some pretty abrasive pan-scourers to clean up the damage afterwards...

Pot-Bouille (1882; Pot-luck / Restless House / Piping Hot) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


Zola takes the risky step of turning the full blast of his satire on the very people who buy his books, the rising urban middle class, the people who like to represent themselves as the guardians of propriety, moderation and good taste. And who aspire to the sort of haut-bourgeois lifestyle that they don't quite have the money, the leisure, or the education to sustain.

The author removes the front wall of a grand-but-shoddy Paris apartment building (rather as Perec did, a century later) and shows us all the unpleasant things that are going on inside it, with a lack of inhibition that makes other 19th century realists look like models of restraint and self-censorship. To add insult to injury, he also goes behind the green baize door and shows his readers that their servants know all about what their masters are up to (and all the other tenants in the building, because the builder's meanness in making all the kitchens face onto a hidden lightwell has given the servants a handy private way of gossiping from apartment to apartment).

Most of the scandals, of course, revolve around sex and/or money. Daughters are married off with fraudulent promises of financial settlements on both sides, siblings are cheated out of inheritances, husbands keep mistresses, wives take lovers, the double-standard is applied with impeccable hypocrisy, and the priest and the doctor try to clean up the mess. Zola goes a lot further than most 19th century novelists in showing us both men and women who are driven by purely sexual desire - the wish for love, affection, power or even money takes second place. And he violates some important taboos by showing us (just for example) a husband carrying on with his invalid wife's cousin in the family home, or a young man who spends his nights with the maids in their attic bedrooms, or a maid who is carrying on a passionate affair with the teenage daughter of the family.

At times, the story turns into a hilarious farce, there is just so much going on, and every character is connected to so many different stories. And Zola even inserts a version of himself into the story, as the one tenant in the house who manages to stay out of all the messiness but has attracted the attention of the police by publishing an "unsuitable" novel.

But he also makes sure we realise that there are actual lives of real people at stake, not just middle-class reputations, and he doesn't scruple to rub our noses into the consequences of all this unbridled sex. Half a chapter is devoted to a (very) graphic description of the experience of childbirth from the point of view of a frightened servant who has managed to keep her pregnancy a secret and now has to face delivery on her own, without any preparation. Probably the first time anyone did that in mainstream fiction. And we meet another lower-class unmarried mother, made homeless by a landlord concerned for the respectability of the house just before her baby is due, and later, when suspected of infanticide, sent to prison by the same man in his capacity as a magistrate. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but with real blood. And other body fluids.

Nana may have been a pretty hard act to follow, but this book seems to manage all right...

Edited: Sep 16, 2019, 4:57am

Still French, and still lacking in proper respect for middle-class values, but otherwise this next one could hardly be more different. I think it caught my eye in the library because Despentes was on the Booker International shortlist (with the translation of the first part of her Vernon Subutex trilogy). And I'm always up for a good French crime story...

Apocalypse bébé (2010; Apocalypse Baby) by Virginie Despentes (France, 1969- )


After a very troubled early life (her French Wikipedia page is a novel in itself...), Virginie Despentes burst unexpectedly out of the post-punk/anarchist underground into mainstream French culture in 1994, when her first novel, Baise-moi, became a huge cult success. Since then, she's written another half-dozen novels and made several films, none of which seems to have escaped controversy. More Irvine Welsh than Jeanette Winterson...

Apocalypse bébé is set up as a fairly straightforward crime story - the narrator, Lucie Tolédo, is a plodding private detective who finds herself out of her depth when Valentine, the teenage subject of a routine surveillance job, suddenly goes missing. To help find her, she enlists a legendary Big Scary Lesbian Detective known in the trade as "La Hyène", happily switching to the Dr Watson role for herself.

Lucie's first-person narrative, with its noir affectation of detachment and superficiality, is intercut with third-person chapters from the point of view of other characters in the story, where we bore down at leisure into the depths of their personalities, with an airy disregard for the strict timekeeping requirements that normally apply to crime fiction. And we get to see the author's supreme contempt for just about everybody: Valentine's bourgeois novelist father, her dim but well-meaning stepmother, her beautiful but vain and selfish birth-mother, her pointlessly aggressive Muslim cousin, the various people on the right and left who try to take advantage of her whilst pretending to help. Even the superb Hyène turns out to have an untouchable dark spot in her background. And, just before it happens, we realise that all this bad stuff is piling up on top of a fifteen-year-old girl who, remarkable though she is, isn't in the least equipped to deal with it. And something really bad is going to happen as a result.

The very black message of the plot is, however, destabilised in turn by the lively rhythms of Despentes's prose, which turn the flatfooted profanities and clichés of street French into something that feels incongruously subversive and funny. As long as humans can turn a handful of words into a gesture of rebellion, we are meant to feel, all hope for our society can't be entirely lost.

Sep 18, 2019, 6:50am

I've meant to try Felicitas Hoppe since reading the nice things Volker Weidermann says about her in his book on 20th century German writers (although, characteristically, whilst praising her offbeat poetic imagination he drifts off into a little rhapsody on her pearl earrings and immaculately-ironed blouses...). She's been on the loose end of the to-look-out-for list for quite some time, anyway.

I saw this latest novel in a bookshop in Düsseldorf a couple of weeks ago, but somehow still fell slightly short of the motivation to carry it home with me (I think mostly because it was a hardback and foil-wrapped). Then I met it again in the German section of the library, where the threshold for taking a book home is so much lower:

Prawda : eine amerikanische Reise (2018) by Felicitas Hoppe (Germany, 1960- )


In the autumn of 2015, the novelist Felicitas Hoppe, accompanied by German-based Russian sculptor Alexej Meschtschanow, photographer Jana Müller and the Viennese-American Professor Ulrike Rainer of Dartmouth College, set out on a road-trip across America sponsored by the Goethe-Institut and Villa Aurora. The trip was part lecture-tour, part art-project, and part a virtual collaboration with the famous Russian comic writers Ilf and Petrov, who made a similar road-trip - sponsored by Pravda - in 1935. The group's blog documents the two trips in parallel, illustrated inter alia by Jana Müller's photographs of Ilf and Petrov's book in a succession of American motel rooms. It concludes with an impressively detailed account of miles covered, gallons of petrol, water and coffee consumed, packs of cigarettes smoked, and pillows slept on.

But Hoppe is someone who likes to mess with our expectations of form and genre, so the novel she put together out of the journey is nothing as straightforward as a conventional travel book. As we see from the start, when we're introduced not to the four real travellers of the blog, but to four fictional characters who seem to share their outward characteristics, but not their names. And more so when we realise that this is much more a journey through the America of the (outsider's) imagination than any kind of real-world road-trip. Hoppe hardly bothers to describe anything she sees out of the car window, and during their stops we hear little about the towns, museums and famous sights, much more about the process of getting to them and the people met along the way. Strangers who happen to catch her eye, like a waitress who served them in a Detroit diner or a hotel commissionaire in Chicago, are built up imaginatively into major characters who pop up repeatedly in the book and comment on the subsequent action. We also notice that some of the stages of the journey don't entirely fit into our idea of a realistic travel narrative - there's the very best literary authority for being picked up by a tornado and whirled to a place where the normal rules don't apply, of course, but it's not the sort of thing that ever happened to de Tocqueville or to Fanny Trollope. Suffice it to say that besides Ilf and Petrov, there are Karl May, Mark Twain, The Wizard of Oz, Dr Seuss and The Simpsons all playing a big part in this trip, as does a graphic artist called Brueghel-the-very-youngest, not to mention a host of other more transitory cultural references.

Although it's a two-way trip from East to West coast and back again, the journey seems to run out of steam after a visit to a New Orleans graveyard - like the one in Easy Rider! - and we don't hear much of the West-to-East trip apart from an (imaginary) Thanksgiving dinner with the Obamas.

I'm not sure quite where this trip took us, in anything other than a narrowly geographic sense, but it is very entertaining to go along with Hoppe's irrepressible leaps of the imagination. Not that I would have wanted to be in that car in real life, fascinating though the conversation must have been: it would have been a truly hellish trip for a non-smoker.

Sep 18, 2019, 2:28pm

"That's going to cause a little confusion"

Sep 18, 2019, 3:14pm

This is a writer I hadn't heard of before, who was mentioned on another thread recently - I was intrigued and had a look to see if there were any e-books. Turns out that everyone is going around quoting a New York Times article that called him the “greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of” and touting him as a Nobel candidate, so most of his books are available now. Another rabbit-hole opens up...

The Plains (1982) by Gerald Murnane (Australia, 1939- )


This short novel - originally written as the centre section of a discarded longer book - marked Murnane's breakthrough in Australia, and still seems to have something of a cult status. The narrator is a film-maker who has travelled to the Plains of central Australia to try to capture the peculiar quality of their landscape, and is still there, not having shot a single frame, twenty years later.

But we soon realise that this isn't the rural Australia of epic struggles between Man and Nature we're used to from Henry Lawson or Patrick White (or Jenny Agutter...); whilst still unmistakably Australian, it's an improbably civilised and elegant world dominated by wealthy, 18th-century-style aristocratic landlords who fill their houses with poets, painters, composers and philosophers, collect books and manuscripts, and spend their drinking sessions on the verandah arguing about metaphysics, the nature of time, rival schools of poetry, and - above all - the aesthetics of Plains landscape. The Plainsmen look down on the barbarous inhabitants of "Outer Australia", and generally try to avoid any sort of contact with it.

There's a kind of Kafka/Borges sense of displacement from reality, emphasised by the absence of any proper names or references to external events in the text. The narrator's reflections touch on the range of (imaginary) scholarship stored up in his patron's vast library, as he guides us through the main controversies in the history of ideas on the Plains, which often seem to centre around how humans imagine space in a superficially featureless landscape. But there are other things going on, like the narrator's interest in his patron's daughter and wife, whom he doesn't feel able to talk to (in fact, women don't seem to communicate by speech at all, as far as we can tell), but exchanges ideas with via marginalia or through a book of essays he takes care not to publish. All very strange, but set out in a very striking and elegant prose style that doesn't take any prisoners, and often manages to make the narrator "unintentionally" funny without undermining the seriousness of what he's trying to do.

Obviously, this is a book that you can read at a whole lot of different levels. It could be simply playing metaphysical games, but the repeated and very specific insistence that this imaginary world is located in Australia makes us sit up and take notice. Is he sending up our received idea of what the Outback is all about by reversing the roles? Are we meant to read the Plainsmen with their super-acute sense of landscape and history as a representation of Aboriginal culture?

Definitely a book I would have enjoyed if I'd known about it 35 years ago, but I enjoyed it a great deal now, so no harm done.


Guardian profile:

Sep 19, 2019, 1:10pm

Catching up an fascinating reviews as always. This thread really is a literary education!

Sep 21, 2019, 3:17pm

>88 AlisonY: a literary education

Not sure if it was your comment that inspired me to pick up a textbook for my next read, but it's been sitting around on the TBR for a while. It's another one I used bits of when I was studying, but never had need or time to read in full. The RG "turning the tables" thread reminded me about it.

The empire writes back (1989) by Bill Ashcroft (Australia, 1946- ), Gareth Griffiths (Wales, Australia, 1943- ) and Helen Tiffin (Australia, 1945- )


Taking its title from an article by Salman Rushdie in the Times in 1982, this classic of literary theory was the first proper undergraduate-ready guide to post-colonial literatures. And it's still in print - and therefore presumably still on the syllabus - thirty years after it originally came out in 1989.

Like many famous books, it turns out to be much thinner than you expect - just over 220 pages of text (plus bibliography, index and notes) in the 2002 second edition. After setting out what post-colonial literature is and going through the main issues it has to deal with, the authors look in more detail at the ways post-colonial writers in English have tackled the tricky problem of their relationship with the language of the former colonial power. Then we get a chapter of case-studies of half a dozen very different post-colonial works, and two chapters on theory, one dealing with the ways post-colonial critics have applied indigenous theoretical models (old, e.g. the Indian tradition of Sanskrit scholarship; and new, e.g. Fanon's négritude) to post-colonial writing, the other with ways post-colonial writing fits into - or undermines - western literary theory (marxism, poststructuralism, feminism, ...).

The second edition concludes with a new chapter responding to problems readers raised about the original book in 1989, and also bringing us up to date on some of the new ways post-colonial theory has been applied since then, e.g. to environmental problems in the developing world (Arundhati Roy, Ken Saro-Wiwa).

The Australian authors insist on a very wide definition of "post-colonial": "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonisation to the present day". And they spend a good page and a half defending that hyphen - these things matter (to the sort of people who earn their living writing books about literary theory, if not to the rest of us...). But it is important to know that they think of that "post" as being rather different from the "post" in postmodern. As far as they are concerned, colonialism has started to exert its effect the moment someone plants a flag on your beach and says "we are more important than you are", and it keeps on doing it indefinitely. As long as the experience of having been colonised is relevant to the work we're discussing, we are free to discuss it as a post-colonial work, even if it's from one of the famous borderline cases, like Ireland or the USA or Mexico. Slavery is definitely on-topic, and so is oppression of indigenous peoples or minorities within (post-)colonial places. But obviously, we're most likely to be applying the lessons of The empire writes back to writing from Africa, South Asia, or the Caribbean (the explicit coverage of the book is limited to writings in English, but they acknowledge that writings in non-European languages and in the languages of other colonial powers, especially Spanish, would be very relevant).

Because of its concise and sometimes rather dense format and its focus on sometimes quite abstract theoretical issues, this is more likely to be a book you turn to when writing essays than something you would choose to read for pleasure. But it is clearly a very influential book in its field. If you haven't heard of it, you probably don't need it, and if you have heard of it then you know what you're getting into...

Sep 23, 2019, 5:44am

>89 thorold: not something I'm likely to pick up for a leisure read, but enjoyed your informative review nonetheless.

Edited: Sep 23, 2019, 1:21pm

And another travel book, picked up from a display of recent books about Britain at the library (something to file under: "unintended positive effects of the Brexit-saga" together with all those Purcell and Britten concerts I've been to recently...).

It falls into a similar category to the van Lennep journey in >73 thorold:, a well-meaning young man out to see what life is really like in "the rest of the country", but it's a long way from van Lennep's elitism...

Island story : journeying through unfamiliar Britain (2016) by J D Taylor (UK, 1987- )


Dan Taylor is from South London, a philosophy lecturer at Goldsmith's College and sometime charity worker.

Taking inspiration from Orwell's The road to Wigan Pier and advantage of a fortuitous research grant, Taylor decided to make a tour around The Island, "to just go out there" and challenge himself to look at the unfamiliar, talk to people and find out how they live, and to record the impressions that stayed with him. And to do all this at the least possible expense, riding a rusty secondhand bike and staying with friends of friends or camping on waste ground.

It was May 2014 when he set out from London into deepest Essex, and it took him some four months to zigzag up the East Coast to Edinburgh, round Scotland (taking in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles), and back down the West Coast via Wales, Cornwall and Kent, a route that seems more G.K. Chesterton than George Orwell (Beachy Head via Birmingham). Although he talks about "the Island", he actually visits every part of the British Isles except for the island of Ireland. People were starting to get excited about the Scottish Referendum, but the B-word hadn't entered the national vocabulary yet, although he sees it foreshadowed in UKIP posters and xenophobic mutterings in pubs.

He's obviously read his E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm and pays proper attention to scenes associated with all the great rebels against central authority, from Wat Tyler to Arthur Scargill (he even calls in on the anti-fracking protesters near Preston), and he can't help noticing the beauty of the landscape from time to time, but what he's really interested in are the "ordinary" people he meets along the way, in supermarkets, takeaways, pubs and corner shops. His icebreaker question is "what is it like to live here?", and, just about everywhere, the answer is somewhere on the spectrum from "crap" to "not too bad, considering". Anyone who knows anything about the British will understand that the second of these implies something far worse than the first...

Taylor paints a sadly familiar picture of a whole large section of British society who have renounced any hope of employment beyond unfulfilling minimum-wage jobs in the service sector, and feel themselves priced out of the education, decent housing, healthcare and social services they would need to improve their lives. Towns that feel as though they've fallen off the map, rundown shopping malls full of pound-shops, bookmakers and moneylenders, chain-pubs and fast-food. And ever-increasing levels of state intrusion into the lives of the poor, taking away their freedom to make decisions about their own lives and erecting barriers against any attempt to challenge or protest state actions. Huge levels of resentment and frustration, channeled by the self-serving propaganda of press and politicians into anger at (mythical) hordes of foreign benefit-tourists and scroungers.

As he admits himself, it's a subjective impression, influenced by his own expectations of what he was going to find, and by the logistics of his journey - successful young professionals or working parents are perhaps the categories least likely to be hanging around in pubs or shopping-centres with time to chat to scruffy young men on bikes. But Taylor seems to be a good listener, and he talks to people we perhaps would strive to avoid, so his reports of what people tell him are well worth reading. And they don't leave us with much more hope for the future of the country than the similar stories Orwell told 80 years earlier. The point about "hope" was the thing that struck me most - I grew up with a rock-solid faith in the working-class culture of self-improvement that goes back to the mid-19th century, things like Mechanics' Institutes, trades unions, Methodist chapels, the Co-Op, the WEA, Ruskin College, the Open University - all now either a thing of the past or out of reach of the kind of people Taylor talks about.

Whilst he's a very interesting and provocative observer of society, Taylor unfortunately isn't such a good writer: the energy and commitment of what he has to say were only barely enough to get me over all the humps in his prose. There are a couple of awkward grammatical constructions that keep coming back to annoy us, there's a whole repertoire of words on the edge of familiarity that he almost always uses wrongly (especially verbs, for some reason, e.g. "regale" when he means "harangue"), and he has a fatal fascination with "poetic" adjectives, frequently using words like "azure", "verdant", "bosky", and "riparian" in quite prosaic contexts without any apparent sense of irony. I'm not good at colours myself, but even I get the feeling that there must be something seriously wrong if the sea at Beachy Head and the rivers at Capel Curig are described as "vermilion" when the context doesn't seem to allow for either pollution or sunrise/sunset turning the water red.

So, it's not Orwell, and it could have done with editing down to about 2/3 of its present length, but it's still a book worth looking at if you want to get a sense of the mood of Britain on the threshold of Cameron's Little Accident. And it might be a useful corrective if you're a lycra-victim planning a major cycling tour. First throw out most of your high-tech camping gear, and then "kill all the gentlemen"...


Dan's blog from the trip in 2014 is here:

Sep 23, 2019, 2:01pm

>91 thorold: Yes but everything will be fine once we get out of Europe.

Interesting that you comment on the sort of people that Dan would meet in shopping centres and pubs. It would be no surprise to me if they all said in varying degrees the same sort things about life in Modern Britain. But what do I know? I have only been back once in thirteen years.

Sep 23, 2019, 2:40pm

>92 baswood: ...once we get out - As he reports it, not many people were articulating that thought back then. 2014 seems an astonishingly long time ago, now. But Taylor clearly had mixed feelings about the EU as well, like many people on the left. He hates xenophobia and unrestricted employment practices, but he also hates enforced free market capitalism, and thus there might well be a Corbynesque avoidance of the issue going on as well, given that the book was due to come out close to the time of the referendum.

Edited: Sep 25, 2019, 5:27am

On to my third Spark novel of Q3:

The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


An exotic city poised between two wars; English diplomats and dubious foreigners engaged in a semi-comic spy story; a character with a moral dilemma that would make sense only to experts in Roman Catholic doctrine; sex, drugs and sandal-smuggling. Yes, it could only be a Graham Greene novel ... But hang on a moment: there are witty non-sequiturs, there's a character who discovers a new rhyme for "Capricorn", there are extensive conversations between female characters, there is as much Judaism as Catholicism, and the sex is treated as lightly as the spying. Could it be Muriel Spark after all?

The setting is Jerusalem in 1961, with the Eichmann trial going on, and the city divided between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats, clerics and tourists can pass between the two parts of the city through a checkpoint (by a house formerly occupied by someone called Mandelbaum), but the border is closed to Jews and Arabs. Barbara Vaughan, the very model of an English spinster schoolteacher, arrives in Israel on a conventional enough pilgrimage to the holy places. But things soon get more complicated, when we find out that she's actually hoping to meet her secret lover on the Jordanian side of the border...

This is a complicated book, rather longer than most of Spark's other novels, and with a great deal going on in many different directions, but at its core there is a woman who has one Jewish and one Christian parent, has not been brought up as a Jew, and has converted in adult life to Roman Catholicism, who is now trying to sort out how to respond to modern Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. And is also having a hard time dealing with the way English society refuses to see a single middle-class woman in her forties as anything other than a desexualised nun-figure. Obviously it's hard to avoid jumping to the conclusion that there's a lot of the author in Barbara (Spark had a Jewish father, whilst Barbara has a Jewish mother, though, so their situation is not quite the same).

Interesting, maybe more of a conventional "well-made-novel" and not quite as much fun as some of Spark's other books. Some of her observations about the Arab-Israeli conflict are still relevant, notably the way she puts her finger on how easy it is for legitimate criticism of Israeli actions to slide into the worst sort of antisemitism, but obviously a great deal has happened since 1961 and much is now merely of historical interest. And there does seem to be a certain amount that is merely repetition of popular prejudices, like the idea that every Palestinian claims to have lost beautiful orange groves, or that the Israelis are all humourless propagandists for their modern agro-industrial state.

Edited: Oct 15, 2019, 8:08am

Summary of where I am with my read-through of Spark's novels - since 2013 I've (re-)read twelve (plus one memoir and one play):
I still have eight novels to go: a few volumes of poetry, short stories, and perhaps also the literary biographies and things she wrote in the fifties, if I wanted to be a real completist.

Sep 25, 2019, 9:03am

I have never read a single Spark novel. Isn't that terrible? I abandoned The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a few years ago, but I was going through a really difficult period in work at the time, so perhaps it wasn't so much a case of wrong book as wrong time.

Sep 25, 2019, 10:55am

>96 AlisonY: Not terrible - marvellous to be in a position to discover all that for the first time!

I read a few when I was younger, but they didn’t really click, although I did enjoy Miss Jean Brodie when it came up on my OU course.

It was mostly Ali Smith who got me re-reading them with proper attention. She mentions her as a source of inspiration in just about every interview, and there is a lot of embedded Sparkolatry in her novels.

This Guardian piece she wrote last year has quite a bit about The Mandelbaum Gate in it:

Sep 25, 2019, 11:14am

>97 thorold: great essay by Smith.

I will try Miss Jean Brodie another time. I really enjoyed an open air performance of it many years ago, and I think read in a more relaxed frame of mind I'd get into it.

Edited: Sep 25, 2019, 4:56pm

Another relatively quick in between read.

I think I picked this up in the library because it was listed in the recommendations for Apocalypse bébé (>84 thorold:) - not sure why I thought it was a good idea to follow up the recommendations of a book I had rather mixed feelings about, but I'm sure I must have had a good reason at the time...

Un roman français (2009; A French novel) by Frédéric Beigbeder (France, 1965- )


The term autofiction is debatable at the best of times, doubly so in a book which starts with the possibly fictional narrator, a TV presenter and novelist called "Frédéric Beigbeder", being arrested for an unwise (real?) attempt to recreate a famous (fictional??) scene from another celebrated work of autofiction, Lunar Park, by sniffing coke in the street from the bonnet of a parked car. Autofiction becomes auto fiction?

Anyway, he takes advantage of the opportunity of a couple of sleepless nights in the cells where there's nothing else to do but plan out a new book in his head, and starts work on a memoir of his childhood and early life. He's always maintained that he remembers little or nothing about his childhood, but once he starts chipping away at the one or two clear recollections he has, more emerges and he begins to build up a coherent picture. But he does point out several times along the way that he's a novelist, and that's what novelists do - we shouldn't necessarily take it all literally.

In parallel, we get a rueful, self-mocking account of his detention and processing by the legal machine. On the whole, he's quite sympathetic to the police who arrest him and conduct the initial interviews - he is there because he did something stupid, and they are doing their jobs seriously and professionally. But he does start getting rather bitter and sarcastic when his detention is extended to a second day because the public prosecutor insists on handling all dossiers of "well-known people" personally, and when he's transferred to the antiquated dungeons of the Dépôt on the Ile de la Cité for this purpose (previous guests include Balzac's Lucien and Vautrin, see >60 thorold: above).

Beigbeder's account of his family background is witty and interesting, for the most part, and sometimes it almost reads like a privileged bourgeois counterpart to Annie Ernaux's Les Années (a book he refers to a couple of times). She writes about French history since the fifties in the light of her middle-class guilt at being pulled away from the working-class culture of her parents through education and career; Beigbeder is telling us the same story, but from the point of view of a wealthy, patrician family whose values are made increasingly irrelevant by post-war social changes. And, whilst she remembers the songs and the films and the consumer products, he remembers meeting the people who made them at his father's parties.

But there's also a strong element of narcissistic self-pity, rather like the mixture of celebrity boasting and poor-little-genius self-abasement that makes reading Stephen Fry so irritating. Beigbeder is a step ahead of Fry in that he's aware that we're not likely to have much sympathy for his situation as a child of divorced parents when he describes the exotic holidays he was taken on by both his father and his stepfather, the cocktail parties with models and record producers, and all the rest of it. Not to mention his own subsequent career as an absentee father and serial divorcee. He admits to some of his own vulnerabilities, but knowing that he cries readily in front of the TV doesn't really give us any reason to think less badly of him. His one real redeeming feature, as far as we can see from the book, is that he's a witty and sophisticated writer. Sometimes that isn't enough.

Edited: Sep 26, 2019, 12:11pm

While I was about it, I remembered that there's still one of the books from the "to read" part of the list in >95 thorold: sitting on my shelves waiting for a re-read...
I know I've read it before, no real idea when - it's a 1960s Penguin, but it looks as though I probably got it from a Dutch secondhand bookshop sometime in the 90s.

The bachelors (1960) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Written around the same time as two of Spark's most popular novels, The ballad of Peckham Rye and The prime of Miss Jean Brodie, this one tends to fade into the background a little by comparison. As the title implies, it's a kind of ironic inversion of the theme of her later bedsit novels, following the progress of a few of the 659 500 unmarried men over the age of 21 that live in London (17.1 bachelors to a street, as one of the characters calculates).

Although they buy their bacon and eggs for the week on Saturday morning, most of these men seem to have found a woman to cook for them at least once a week and perhaps give them a little financial support - preferably an aunt or a widow of a certain age, because the one thing they all fear more than anything is getting involved with the messy business of babies and marriage. Which of course leaves the single young women rather on the shelf: the only men prepared to go to bed with them are either professional heart-breakers or irresponsible and untrustworthy.

The plot revolves around a Spiritualist circle run by one of these wealthy widows. The medium, Patrick Seton, is awaiting trial for defrauding another widow out of her life-savings. Various of the bachelors are involved in this case - one is the prosecuting counsel, another is a handwriting expert giving evidence about a forged letter (which, of course, is stolen in the course of the story), others might or might not be about to give evidence in Patrick's defence. And then there are some rival spiritualists, a gay couple who seem to have a sideline in white-slaving. And Patrick's pregnant girlfriend, trusting in his innocence and hoping that his divorce will come through in time for them to marry - but there isn't any previous marriage, and there are hints that Patrick is plotting to kill her...

All a bit messy, and it doesn't have quite the same marvellous drive of subversive energy we get in Peckham Rye and Miss Jean Brodie, but there are still some great bits of writing, with some of Spark's cunning juxtapositions of apparently unconnected ideas to remind us that this isn't Angus Wilson or early Iris Murdoch, but something much stranger. Lots to make us think twice about the accepted rules of "masculine" and "feminine" behaviour, late-fifties-style, and some hints that Spark hadn't entirely made her mind up that all Spiritualists were either knaves or fools. And a sympathetic account of epilepsy and diabetes, as well as a splendid version of the trial scene we have been expecting to end the book.

Edited: Sep 28, 2019, 12:57am

...and another short one, this time an ebook from Scribd, much more strange and experimental than the last two:

The hothouse by the East River (1973) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


This eccentric little novel has a foreground story set in an apartment in 1970s New York and written in the style of a surreal stage-play, full of bright, inconsequential dialogue and characters talking at cross-purposes, but intercut with a back-story based on Spark's war-work in a secret propaganda unit in 1944, in conventional novelistic style. The feel is very theatrical - a sort of Blithe Spirit mood, but peppered with direct and indirect references to Peter Pan, culminating in an ironic off-off-Broadway production of the play with a cast of very elderly actors.

The cast of the foreground story includes two psychoanalysts (one of them masquerading as a butler!), and one of the major objectives of the book seems to be to dig into the long-term mental-health effects associated with the sort of high-pressure, secret work Spark and her colleagues were doing - and to send up the pretensions of the "experts" who claim to be able to treat such problems. But there's also a thread looking at how we deal with the way war arbitrarily cuts some lives short and not others.

Interesting because of the autobiographical aspect, but also a book with some of Spark's best offbeat dialogue in it.

Sep 27, 2019, 5:48am

Sep 27, 2019, 6:38pm

Sep 28, 2019, 12:55am

>103 SassyLassy: Thanks - I’d never actually seen that before. “The spirit of old and lovely things” - if you didn’t know, you might even guess that was RLS on Scott.

Sep 30, 2019, 5:54am

"Random technical book" time again. This one was rather more of a success than >61 thorold: - but it is a much more interesting and useful subject than old motor-cars!

How steam locomotives really work (2000) by P W B Semmens (UK, 1927-2007) and A J Goldfinch (UK)


Peter Semmens was well-known as a railway journalist and for his work as deputy-curator of the National Railway Museum at York; Alan Goldfinch was a retired senior British Rail engineer.

A solid, general overview of the science and technology of the steam locomotive, in the format of the Oxford Popular Science series, thus aimed at readers who are scientifically literate (which seems to mean at least high-school physics and a bit of basic engineering knowledge) but don't necessarily have any previous knowledge of this particular subject. Unlike many authors of books on steam railways, they don't take it for granted that the reader is at least as old as the author: they take care to explain things in terms that make sense to someone from the 21st century who has never lit a coal fire or haunted a loco depot. (But they do take it for granted that you have at least a general picture of British railway history and an idea who people like Churchward, Gresley and Bulleid were.)

In line with the authors' backgrounds, the emphasis is on British practice towards the end of the steam age, but there is also plenty of discussion of earlier solutions of the same problems, or different ways of doing things that have evolved elsewhere in the world, with at least a brief explanation of their respective advantages and disadvantages. These explanations often have the ring of real practical experience of what it's like to have to fix these things when they go wrong. The illustrations are well-chosen too, simple line-drawings and detail photographs (mostly taken in the NRM or at big national museums overseas) that clearly show an example of the technology being explained. There are none of those overcomplicated exploded diagrams that should be confined to technical manuals.

Typically, in books on the steam engine (and I've read quite a lot of these, from "engineering for boys" to technical manuals for railway staff) the areas where big difficulties arise in explanation are thermodynamics, injectors, and brakes. Thermodynamics is difficult science, but necessary for understanding efficiency and performance, railway brake systems are generally so complicated in their implementation that it's hard to keep sight of the relatively simple principles behind them, and injectors have a little bit of both, as well as being the one part of a steam locomotive that's completely counterintuitive.

Semmens and Goldfinch do pretty well on thermodynamics and injectors - in both cases they keep the discussion at a high level, don't go into detailed equations and charts and avoid showing us too much of the nitty-gritty of technical implementation. The chapter on brakes, however, isn't particularly clear, and it looks like a bit of an afterthought (arguably it's not needed, as most of it isn't specific to steam traction anyway), squeezed into a rather odd place between a chapter on maintenance and overhaul of locomotives and one on the design and construction of new locomotives. Incidentally, I found those two among the most interesting parts of the book: they are written from the point of view of someone (obviously Alan Goldfinch) who has actually had the job of managing large facilities that are responsible for keeping steam locomotives in working order.

Like many recent books, it shows signs of rushed production, with chapters obviously written as standalone pieces and then squashed together into a book with minimal trimming of overlaps, and a few examples of clumsy pagination around illustrations. The index is a little bit limited too. But none of these issues really has an impact on the usefulness of the book, they just make it a bit less elegant to read.

Omissions: well, obviously, you can't cover everything in 350 pages. It was a bit disappointing that rack-railway locomotives were covered only in a few picture captions, as most of the few newly-built steam locomotives of recent years have been for mountain railways. And it might have been interesting to have a concluding chapter that sums up the technical and economic case for (against!) steam compared to other types of traction - I'm sure that the authors would have found a few myths to demolish there.

This is a book that does what it sets out to, quite pleasantly for the reader. Lots of "why?" and rather less "how?", a good book to satisfy the curiosity of armchair engineers or to read as an introduction if you're looking to go and work on steam locomotives on a museum line somewhere.

Edited: Sep 30, 2019, 12:57pm

...scouring the secret Spark-reserve at the library (actually not very secret: it's under "Fiction in English: S"), I found a few more from my "unread" list. This was her last novel:

The finishing school (2004) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Another very short, highly-packed book, in which the author hardly seems to be doing any work at all: most of the stories happen offstage and are merely hinted at in passing whilst the book appears to run on along its enjoyable trajectory by momentum alone. A nice trick if you can do it: Spark had had quite a bit of practice by the time she got this far.

Nina and Rowland run a small, unconventional school in Switzerland where rich parents can park their teenagers for a year or so. Rowland is also a writer, trying to complete his first novel, but he's unsettled by a growing obsession with one of his students, the 17-year-old Chris, who is writing an historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots and apparently making much better progress than Rowland. Chris's extreme youth and his red hair are already starting to arouse the interest of publishers, to Rowland's fury.

Spark in her eighties and with more than twenty novels behind her is having fun playing around with ideas about the difficulty of putting pen to paper, but there's also a lot of play with language that goes with the other end of the career - "finishing", "polishing off" and so on. And there are echoes of the writing-and-mental-health theme from The Comforters, and obviously allusions to the form and subject-matter of The prime of Miss Jean Brodie, right down to the final pages where she does a round-up of what has happened to all the students since. Plenty of dark themes lurking in the distance, but the mood is full of upbeat optimism. These young people might be lacking in all kinds of taste and values, but they more than make up for it by being so young and ready to enjoy life.

Sometimes novels written in extreme old age are a bit of an embarrassment, but this is one that makes you wish Spark had had time for a few more.


Ali Smith on this book: "This is a work, as usual, of glittering Sparkian ice, whose thinly frozen surface tempts you to jump up and down jovially above something deeper and darker than Loch Ness."

Edited: Oct 1, 2019, 5:34am

I'm counting this one for Q3 as well, because I was only a few pages from the end when I went to sleep over it...
(I actually read it in the Muriel Spark Omnibus 4 because that was what the library had, but the Penguin cover is more fun.)

Robinson (1958) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


As we almost guessed from the title, Spark's second novel turns out to be an island story, complete with a map of the island as frontispiece. Islands in fiction come in two basic categories, the deserted (Robinson Crusoe to Five on a Treasure Island and Lord of the flies) and the Magus-dominated (The Odyssey and The Tempest to The invention of Morel). Needless to say, Spark cunningly manages to combine the two, when Robinson, the Prospero of his eponymous island, goes missing halfway through the book, presumed murdered by one of the three survivors of the plane crash.

But - as we also guessed - there's more to all this than sea changes, strange noises, Prospero's books, secret passages, a plane crash and a murder mystery. That would be barely enough to fill 50 pages in a Spark novel, and we have a good 150 here...

So, there's English social comedy, with the narrator (a slightly bohemian poet and widowed mother) finding that the men she's with on the island strangely remind her of her brothers-in-law, one a pompously respectable doctor, the other an amusing but unreliable bookie. There's Robinson's rather austere and Jansenist version of Catholicism, which makes the narrator, a recent convert, uncomfortable with her own more exuberant faith. There's the occultism of one of the other castaways - as so often in Spark, he's a fraud and a charlatan, but we're left wondering whether there isn't some real evil underlying his self-serving mumbo-jumbo. There's the ambiguous foreigner, Jimmie - said to be a Gibraltarian-born Dutchman - whose sexuality is in question throughout the novel but never quite resolved. And - last but by no means least - there's a pomegranate plantation and a ping-pong-playing pussycat.

Oct 1, 2019, 5:26am

And on to my Q4 thread, which is here:

Oct 1, 2019, 11:03am

you've sold me on Spark, thanks.

Oct 1, 2019, 12:14pm

>109 tonikat: Yes, I think it could be interesting to mix her with Golding - very different ways of writing, but a lot of shared themes, probably.