1951 literature

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1951 literature

1baswood
Edited: May 27, 2020, 6:13pm

So with my intention read literature from 1591 and science fiction from 1951, it would seem a logical (to me) step to read non science fiction literature from 1951. If I was going to do that then the list would be as follows:

Morley Calaghan - The Loved and the lost

Rachel Carson - The Sea around us

Truman Capote - The Grass Harp

John Dickson Carr - The Devil in Velvet

Camilo Jose Cela - The Hive

Julio Cortazar - Bestiario

Emile Danoen - Un maison souffleé aux vents

Owen Dodson - The boy in the window

Jean Dutourd - A Dog's Head

Daphne Du Maurier - My Cousin Rachel

Georges Duhamel - Cri des Profondeurs

Howard Fast - Spartacus

Jean Giorno - Le Hussard sul le toit

Julien Gracq - The Opposing shore

John Hawkes - The Beetle Leg

Shirley Jackson - Hangsaman

James Jones - From here to Eternity

A M Klein - The second scroll

Wofgang Koeppen - Pigeons on the grass

Olivia Manning - School for love

Ngaio Marsh - Night of the Vulcan

John Masters - Nightrunners of Bengal

Francois Mauriac - le sagouin

Nancy Mitford - The Blessing

Nicholas Monserrat - The Cruel Sea

Albert Moravia - The Conformist

Roger Nimier - Les enfants tristes

Anthony Powell - A question of upbringing

Lucien Rebatat - Les deux étendards

Sax Rohmer - Surumuru

Ernst von Salomon - The Questionaire

Ooka - Shohei - Fires on the plain

John Steinbeck - The log from the sea of Cortez

Rex Stout - Curtains for three

William Styron - Lie down in darkness

Elizabeth Taylor - A game of hide and seek

Dylan Thomas - Do not go so gentle into that good night

T H White - The Goshawk

Herman Wouk - The cain Mutiny

Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian

2Macumbeira
Dec 23, 2019, 12:58pm

Ouch! I read just two !
The Cain Mutiny and The cruel Sea

3RickHarsch
Dec 23, 2019, 6:24pm

I read 17 from the last list, have owned at least 5 from this. Maybe at least 5 were in this apartment when I moved in: Wouk, Monserrat, Masters, Capote...maybe 4. I had the Hive for many years without reading it, but I loved The Family of Pascual Duarte.

4berthirsch
Dec 26, 2019, 8:09am

I have a signed copy of Howard Fast's Spartacus. Blacklisted he self published what became a best seller - my parents were NY "intellectuals" with a tilt towards Jewish liberalism.

5baswood
Feb 25, 2020, 8:46am

A start on the list of novels from 1951 La Colmena The Hive by Camilo Jose Cela

6baswood
Feb 25, 2020, 8:48am

La Colmena
Fragments or vignettes of prose are set down in generally non chronological order to capture life in Madrid during a few days in 1942. The second world war rages in the distance and many people are hungry, some in fear of retribution following the Victory of Franco that ended the Spanish Civil war. Life goes on but life in hard times is a struggle which rarely brings out the best in people. The reader concentrates on these fragments which radiate out from the cafe culture at Dona Rosa's cafe. Chapter one contains pen picture of some of the characters who will appear and reappear in the book and from the very start a picture of selfishness and greed emerges. Dona Rosa is the first to be described:

Dona Rosa comes and goes between the cafe tables, bumping into customers with her enormous backside. Dona Rosa often says "damn it to hell" and "what a pain"..... for Dona Rosa her cafe is the world and everything revolves around the cafe.......
Dona Rosa's face is covered with blotches, it always looks as if she were changing her skin like a lizard. When she is deep in thought, she forgets herself and picks strips off her face, sometimes as lons as paper streamers. Then she snaps out of it, begins to walk up and down again, and smiles at the customers, whom at heart she loaths, showing her blackened little teeth encased in filth.


It is a large cafe with a team of waiters, a manager, a shoeshine boy and a cigarette boy, but many of the customers are poor and spend their days in the cafe counting their pesetas. It is estimated that 10% of the customers are suffering from tuberculosis.

The impressionistic writing in chapter one continues through the book although some of the stories around the characters develop further. The girls and women struggle in a world dominated by men, and by the time the book is into its stride much of the content is stories of girls forced into one kind of prostitution or another. There are instances of kindness and even love in evidence, but when life for many of the people is a struggle to get enough food to eat then the streets of Madrid in winter can be cold and lonely.

The novel was published in Spain in 1951 and translated into English in 1953 and has been celebrated for its stylistic innovations and its sometimes candid description of life in a catholic country (although religion does not play a major part in the majority of the stories). The short interludes gives the book it's unquestionable dynamism and the impression of a city teeming with life with the reader peeping into just a small fraction of what is going on. However it is that 'what is going on' that serves to provide an almost historical document of life at that moment in time in Madrid.

With so many characters having their brief moment of fame as it were by appearing in the vignettes it is difficult to keep track of them all, but as we are not getting the full story in many instances this does not seem to matter. It is the overall impression that left it's mark on me.

Much of the book consists of dialogue and so the reader also has to become familiar with the patterns of speech and the cultural background of the characters. I read a translation by J M Cohen (in consultation with Arturo Barea) and so I might have missed something of those patterns of speech.
However I understood enough to know that I had read a very fine experimental novel whose stye leaves a lasting impression. 4 stars.

7baswood
Edited: Mar 18, 2020, 10:43am



The Devil in Velvet- John Dickson Carr
Reading thematically has piqued my interest over the last few years, but it can lead to a lack of reading variety. Several themes on the go at one time can solve this problem and one of my favourite themes is to pick a year and read a selection of books from that year. My selections depend on availability and cost and this is important if the year selected still has copyright restrictions. My year this year for general novel reading is 1951 and it has already thrown up some surprises like The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr. Carr was famous for his detective stories and is acknowledged as one of the most influential writers in the Golden Age mysteries genre, however in this book he ventures into the genre of historical fiction with surprisingly good results, so good in fact that I could have been reading a novel by C J Sansom my current favourite author in the genre.

The book starts with Nicholas Fenton a 58 year old professor of history who wants to solve a murder allegedly carried out by one of his ancestors. He makes a pact with the devil to sell his soul for the privilege of being transported back in time. After this rather preposterous framework the book settles down to being an excellent historical mystery. Professor Fenton is transported to the house in London of his ancestor in 1675. He inhabits the body of Sir Nick Fenton a youthful 33 year old and must adapt quickly to the pace of life of a prosperous young nobleman in the reign of Charles II. The murder in question is that of Sir Nick's' wife with whom the professor soon finds himself falling in love. He knows the date of the murder and works hard to prevent it happening, but he has the problem of keeping the character of Sir Nick reasserting itself in the body that he inhabits.

While the tale is fanciful the atmosphere and world building of London in 1675 is the star of this novel. From the moment that professor Fenton wakes up Carr manages to create a believable world that the reader sees through Fentons eyes. The large house that backs onto the lane that is Pall Mall, the household of servants that work to the wishes of Sir Nick in their own fashion and the dangers and dirt of crowded London streets. There is sword play and a pitched battle in the streets as Sir Nick a supporter of the royalist cause battles against the Country Part led by Lord Shaftesbury. Carr paces the mystery well and there are some memorable moments like the assignation in the London Pleasure gardens and Sir Nicks interview with Charles II, but most of the pleasure is derived by Carr's evocation of the sights, sounds and smells of London just after the Restoration.

I know the descriptions and atmosphere created are a little superficial, but they are convincing enough for me to believe that I was reading about life in 17th century London and that together with an unsolved mystery and an adventure story leads me to rate this at 3.5 stars.

8RickHarsch
Mar 18, 2020, 3:50pm

the sequel, The Velvet Marmot, is a classic

9librorumamans
Mar 19, 2020, 11:57am

I remember The Cruel Sea from my childhood, "Do not go gentle ... " from school, and The Caine Mutiny from many years ago. I'm disappointed that I got bogged down in Memoirs of Hadrian and no longer have a copy. Klein's The Second Scroll is one of those books I know I ought to have got around to.

10baswood
May 19, 2020, 5:50am



My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier
A gothic Romance might be the best description of Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel. Published in 1951 it has the feel of an early nineteenth century romantic novel of manners, written in the 20th century, but with good attention to detail. Not quite the Bronte sisters, as it has a more modern mystery element that fuels the story and the writing has a more flowing contemporary style.

The gothic element is there right from the opening scene where young Philip is shown the decaying body of a hanged man at a crossroads by his protector and uncle Ambrose. This is Philips story told in the first person, the heir to the Ashley estate somewhere deep in Cornwall near the coast. He grows up in an all male household becoming a friend and companion to Ambrose, who is advised to travel to the continent for health reasons. He goes to Italy and at the ripe age of 43 falls in love and marries Rachel a divorcee. He never returns to his beloved Cornwall being pronounced dead a few months after his marriage. His widow suddenly arrives at the Ashley Estate and Phillip is suspicious of her motives, but his inexperience and awkwardness around women allows her to charm the household and Philip himself. Philip is in receipt of two letters from Ambrose shortly before his death in which he claims that his wife Rachel has done for him; perhaps poisoned him. Cousin Rachel's legal adviser the Italian Rainaldi arrives and Philip is immediately jealous of his easy relationship with Rachel.

The mystery is centred around Rachel's motives and the suspicions invoked by Ambrose's final communications with Philip. The Romance is Philips growing infatuation with cousin Rachel and the gothic elements are the wild landscape, the suspicious, perhaps malevolent Italian Rainaldi and the feeling of impending tragedy set in motion by the hanged corpse at the beginning of the novel. Philip nearing his age of majority (25 years old) with his inexperience of women and his cultural xenophobia is an unreliable narrator in that his views of events are stultified by his naivety and inability to seek help. The novel slowly builds to it's climax and kept me turning the pages. There is no secondary plotting the story is Philips story and Du Maurier creates an atmospheric reading experience that marches on to its inevitable conclusion 4 stars.

11baswood
Jun 4, 2020, 5:51pm



Hammond Innes - Air Bridge
Innes was a British author who wrote 35 novels as well as some non fiction and children's books between 1937-96. Air Bridge is his fifteenth adventure novel and he was well into the swing of producing a book every year during this period. Typically he would spend six months research and then six months writing. For Air Bridge he hitched a lift with the RAF into blockaded Berlin at the height of the airlift.

Neil Fraser tells his story in the first person. He had been a pilot during the second world war and now down on his luck was on the run from the police hiding under a false identity. He stumbles onto a deserted airfield with the vague idea of stealing an aeroplane. He escapes the authorities but is knocked unconscious by Bill Seaton, who blackmails him into helping him and his colleague rebuild engines for a plane that they hope will make them a fortune shuttling goods into Berlin at the start of the airlift in June 1948. The new engines are being built to a new fuel saving specification that Seaton may have stolen during the war and it is a race against time to get them completed. Lack of finance and the possibility of a German family stealing back the blueprint causes Seaton to take reckless and ruthless action to achieve his ends. Fraser and the talented engineer Tubby Carter find themselves driven by Seaton's ambition and the second half of the novel moves into an adventure in blockaded Berlin where crash landings, stolen airplanes and murder set the three men against each other.

Innes' reputation for diligent research before writing his novels certainly pays off with Air Bridge. The three main scenarios: building and testing the new engines, woking conditions of the airlift and the zones of the blockaded city of Berlin all feel authentic. Innes is also very good at setting the scene with taught descriptions of weather, landscapes and places and his pacing of the adventure story builds to a good climax. His characters are not heroic although they sometimes act heroically, they are men and women who struggle to get, or even to know what they want. Typically in this novel strong motivated characters take advantage of their abilities to influence the decisions of their colleagues. Seaton, Fraser and Carter all come across as believable; taking action thrust on them through limitations in choice: soul searching is not the order of the day, but conscience and behavioural patterns certainly are. The two main female characters Diana and Else are not to well drawn and their attitudes and ambitions seem more typical of what one expects them to be in the 1950's although both have moments when they fight against their situation. Tubby Carter the well liked, friendly, more morally adept person is of course the one who suffers most. The plot is well worked and there are surprises along the way and when the action needs picking up Innes is able to provide atmosphere and tension. Innes dialogue can appear a bit stilted at times reflecting what people might say in the films of the period rather than in real life situations.

I think it was the atmosphere of deserted airfields, desolate countryside and the shattered city of Berlin along with the striving to make something material after the war years that made this post war adventure novel such a good read. I also learnt something about a period in history that was new to me. 1951 is the year I have chosen to absorb as much of its literature as I can and I also want to dip into the more popular novels of the period and this was a good start. I don't think I am going to embark on reading all 35 of Innes adventure novels, but would not hesitate to pick up another one if I was in the mood for a good well told story book. 3.5 stars

12baswood
Jun 4, 2020, 6:05pm

More Books published in 1951

Eric Ambler - Judgement of Deltchev

Mulk Raj Anand - Seven summers

H E bates - Colonel Julian/selected short stories

Walter Baxter - Look Down in Mercy

Elizabeth Bowen - Early stories

John Collier - Fancies and good nights

Rhys Davies - Marianne

Alfred Duggan - Conscience of the king

James T Farrell - This man and this woman.

Nelson Algren - Chicago city on the make

W H Auden - Nones

A C Bentley - Clerihews complete

Charles Causely - Hands to dance

C Day Lewis - The poets talk

William Faulkner - Collected stories

E M Forster - Two cheers for democracy

Graham Greene - The end of the affair

Patrick Hamilton - The West Pier (Gorse Trilogy)

dasheill Hammett - Woman in the Dark

L P Hartley - The Go-between.

A P herbert - number 9

James Hilton - Morning journey

John Holloway - Language and intelligence.

Geoffrey Household - A rough shoot

sheila kaye-smith Mrs Gailey

Molly Keane - Loving without tears

Arthur koestler - The age of longing

Norman Lewis - Dragon Apparent

Sinclair Lewis - World so wide

Wyndham Lewis - Rotting Hill

Jack Lindsay - A passionate Pastoral

Eric Linklater - Laxdale Hall

Carson McCullers - The ballad of the sad Cafe

Compton Mackensie Eastern Epic

Norman Mailer - Barbary shore

Olivia Manning - School for love

Robin Maugham - The Rough and the smooth

Gladys Mitchell - Devils elbow

Wright Morris - Man and boy

Nicholas Mosely - Look at the dark

R H Mottram - One hundred and twenty eight witnesses

P H Newby - A season in England

John O'hara - The farmers hotel

V S Pritchett - Mr Beluncle

John Pudney - Hero of a summer's day

Herbert Read - Byron writers and their work

J D Salinger - the catcher in the rye

William Sansom - The face of innocence

William Saroyan - Rock Wagram

C P Snow - The masters

Wallace Stevens - The Necessary Angel

William Styron - Lie down in darkness

Elizabeth Taylor - A game of Hide and seek

Edith Templeton - Living on yesterday

Fred Urquhart - Jezebel's dust

Calder Willingham - reach to the stars

Josephine Tey - The daughter of time

Agatha Christie - They came to Baghdad

Victor Serge - Memoires of a revolutionary

Ross Macdonald - The way some people die

Yukio Mishima - forbidden colors

Shohei Ooka - fires on the plain

Manuel Rojas - Hijo de Ladron - Born guilty

David Goodis - Cassidy's girl

John Gerard - autobiography of a hunted priest (Elizabethan originally in latin)

Ringstones and other curious tales - Sarban (john William Wall)

Elizabeth Yates - Amos Fortune, free man

Helen McCloy - Through a glass darkly

Cyril Hare - An English murder

Edward Atiyah - The thin line (murder my love)

Mickey Spillane - The big kill

Frederich Durrenmatt - The quarry

Robert Van Gulik - The Chinese Maze Murders

Charlotte Armstrong - Mischief

ERnst Von Salomon - The Questionnaire or answers to the 131 questions of the allied military goverment

Yasunari Kawabata - The Master of Go

Claud Cockburn - Beat the devil

Rex Stout - Murder by the book

Mary McMullen - Strange hold

Elswyth Thane - This was tomorrow

Thomas B Costain - The magnificent century

Robertson Davies Tempest-tost (First book of the salterton trilogy

Ann de Vries - Journey through the night

August Derleth - The memoirs of solar pons

13librorumamans
Jun 4, 2020, 11:34pm

>11 baswood:

Hammond Innes! Those were some good reads in my growing-up years. I'd completely forgotten him.

14Macumbeira
Jun 4, 2020, 11:55pm

>12 baswood: Except the Catcher in the rye, I have read none. But then again, I wasn't even born that year.

15baswood
Jun 15, 2020, 2:36pm



Morley Callaghan - The Loved and the Lost, Morley Callaghan
Was Canada a cultural desert for 20th century writers before Leonard Cohen burst on the scene with an album of songs (The Songs of Leonard Cohen) or was it more to the point that if writers chose to stay in Canada they would never get a foot on the world stage. Morley Callaghan was part of the group of writers centred around Paris in 1929 which included Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, unfortunately for him (as far as international fame is concerned) he chose to return to Canada. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, Pound and er.... um Morley Callaghan? His novels were published by Scribners and he regularly had stories published in the New Yorker, but none of his novels were published in the United Kingdom. When I read the wikipedia article it would seem he was more famous for an alleged boxing match with Ernest Hemingway than any book he wrote. So then what of The Loved and the Lost his novel published in 1951 and now available on kindle.

Jim McAlpine is a college professor who leaves his post to seek his fortune and widen his horizons in a new city. He has the chance to get a regular column in a prestigious newspaper and also to romance the wealthy owners daughter. He is a man with liberal some might say progressive views but he must overcome the suspicions of the editor in chief to get employment. He charms both the owner Mr Carver and his daughter Catherine and is made to believe his appointment is only a matter of a delay of a week or two. Meanwhile he is introduced to Peggy Sanderson a sort of femme fatale, with whom he quickly falls in love. Peggy is trying to make ends meet in the city, but is not helped by her associations with some black musicians who play jazz in a dive in the black district across the tracks. Jim starts to follow her around and into the cafe where the musicians play. He must balance his chance of employment with his growing obsession for Peggy whose reputation is becoming increasingly disreputable with the English and French white communities.

The city is obviously Montreal although it is not named and it is winter time and a bitterly cold period. The snow fall seems to mirror Jim's struggle as he moves through the city with some difficulty. He shivers in pursuit of Peggy who leads him around her regular haunts, while he seeks shelter in bars and eating houses. At times he becomes lost not able to find places in which he feels secure and although he is a confident man, he is cast into a world where he starts to feel out of his depth. Morley Callaghan paints a vivid portrait of the city and keys into the events and lives of the people surrounding Jim. It is a psychological approach and although detached; in as much as there is no moral tone the author lays bare the thoughts and feelings of Jim, however hazy they might be. Peggy of course remains an enigma, but a back story of her childhood (which she tells to Jim) of her joyous relationship with a large black family when she was a child uncovers her motives to become accepted by the black community. It is a snapshot of the lives of the communities in the city told through the experiences of a select group of people. The author refuses to make any moral judgements and although a major theme of the book is black and white relationships and those between the rich and not so rich, Morley Callaghan refrains from making or leading to any judgements. It is up to the reader to find his own way. The book has an overtone of tragedy almost from the start, but this is not overplayed and the excellent pacing moves through the gears to its unsurprising conclusion. It is a dose of sharply observed reality with suspense and anticipation building through its wintry urban landscapes.

Morley Callaghan was a journalist and his sharp observations reflect this background, but there is no clipped journalistic style in his beautifully turned prose. His psychological interest do not at any stage hint at a crusade. He tells the story of the relationships between the communities with sympathy for the economic deprivation of the black people, but any stance on racism is not evident from this novel, however It was written in 1951 and so black people are referred to as negroes or mulattos and by more colloquial terms by some of the white characters. Morley Callaghan from the evidence of this novel is a major discovery for me and I look forward to reading more by him. Evidently he was an excellent writer of short stories. 4.5 stars.

16Macumbeira
Jun 16, 2020, 12:45am

Nice review Bas. Never heard about him before.

17lriley
Jun 16, 2020, 6:42am

A baker's dozen from 1951:

Brand's Heath--Arno Schmidt

Dark Mirrors--Arno Schmidt

The Sunday of Life--Raymond Queneau

Molloy--Samuel Beckett

Malone dies--Samuel Beckett

Hungerfield--Robinson Jeffers

Between Fantoine and Agapa--Robert Pinget

The Rebel--Albert Camus

Speak Memory--Vladimir Nabakov

The opposing shore--Julien Gracq

And where were you Adam?--Heinrich Boll

The future is in eggs--Eugene Ionesco

When the time comes--Maurice Blanchot

18baswood
Jun 16, 2020, 9:15am

>17 lriley: More books to read, but the good news is I have read three of them Molloy, & Malone dies by Samuel Beckett and The Rebel by Albert Camus.

I have found a few more as well:

Ivor Brown - Winter in London

Sholem Asch - Salvation

Henri Bosco - Sites et mirages

Max Brod - The music of Israel

19baswood
Jun 16, 2020, 9:19am

The next one in the queue to read is The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

20Macumbeira
Jun 16, 2020, 1:51pm

I liked Speak Memory by Nabakov

21baswood
Jun 16, 2020, 4:41pm

>20 Macumbeira: Yes Mac I am looking forward to reading that one.

22Macumbeira
Jun 17, 2020, 1:17pm

Here is Nabokov describing his mother's sleigh - ride to St Petersburg

"I distinguished the light sleigh drawn by a chestnut courser. I heard his snorting breath, the rythmic clacking of his scrotum, and the lumps of frozen earth and snow thudding against the front of the sleigh. Before my eyes and before those of my mother loomed the hind part of the coachman, in his heavely padded blue robe, and the leather-encased watch strapped to the back of his belt, from under which curved the pumpkin –like folds of his huge rump. I saw my mother’s seal furs and, as the icy speed increased, the muff she raised to her face – that graceful, winter-ride gesture of a st. Petersburg lady. Two corners of the voluminous spread of bearskin that covered her up to the waist were attached by loops two the side knobs of the low back of her seat. And behind her, holding on to these knobs, a footman in a cockaded hat stood on his narrow support above the rear extremities of the runners."

23baswood
Jun 21, 2020, 6:53pm



Truman Capote - The Grass harp including a tree of night and other stories.
Weird and weirder: Capote's early stories delve into small town America. The Grass Harp was published in 1951, but the other stories included in this edition are from the late 1940's. Strange characters, oddball events was it really like this? Is it still like this in America? or is this more typical of Capote, there is no hint of modernity these stories could have taken place 40 years earlier. Anachronistic perhaps because of the character profiles that Capote presents to his readers. Elderly ladies, young girls, pre teens people the stories, dysfunctional characters who rarely lift their heads from their own private worlds, but when they are forced to do so they present a challenge that must be snuffed out. The Americans in these small town stories seem to live with a certain amount of oddball behaviour: it is part of the fabric of their lives, but when weird gets weirder people get hurt.

The Grass Harp is of novella length taking up nearly half of this publication and is the best and most developed of this collection. It is narrated by Colin a young teenager small for his age a runt who when his mother dies is sent away to live with the Talbo sisters, who are well into their sixties. Verena is a business woman and runs the household; Dolly wears a veil outside the house; she ventures out once a week with her friend/servant/companion Catherine Creek a coloured woman. They collect herbs, bark and grasses to make a potion that they sell as a cure for dropsy, strictly by mail order. Dolly and Catherine live apart from Verena in their own part of the house and Colin becomes their new friend confessing that he is in love with Dolly. The event which fractures this strange household is when Verena seeing a business opportunity attempts to take over the selling of the Dropsy cure. Dolly, Catherine and Colin run away to an abandoned tree house in the woods, where they make their last stand against the forces of law and order. A young roustabout Riley Henderson and a 70 year old judge join the unlikely trio as they defend themselves against the extreme redneckery of the sheriff and his posse. There is hardly room enough in the old tree house.

Capote treats his oddball characters with sympathy in most of his stories, they are tolerated by their community and it is only when their actions challenge others that they run into problems. His characters are not quite in the same realm as Todd Brownings film "Freaks" (1932) but some come pretty close for example in Tree of Night a young woman meets a couple on a train and the man appears to be suffering from some sort of somnambulism. The woman reveals they have a stage act entitled Lazarus where the man is buried alive. Miriam is another typical story a precocious young teen haunts the flat of a lonely 60 year old woman, taking over her life.
In another story Miss Bobbit is a precocious ten year old who moves into a small town and dominated the local people. What sets these stories apart from other weird tales collections that were popular in the 1950's is the quality of the writing and Capote's affinity with his characters. Although the Grass Harp stands head and shoulders above some of the other shorter stories Capote does not fail to provide an atmosphere of strangeness in nearly all of them. Some readers may be offended by Capote's references to black people, but one has to remember that these tales were set in 1950's small town America. Not an essential collection but worth it for the Grass Harp and so 3.5 stars.

24baswood
Edited: Jul 4, 2020, 10:25am



John Hawkes -The Beetle Leg
When I pick up a book by an author new to me who has gained some critical appreciation over the years, I look for clues as to style and content. I will usually read the first fifty or so pages and hope by that time I will have a handle on the writing that will enhance my enjoyment of the book. The Beetle Leg has a front cover that could be described as contemporary featuring a black on white jagged design which is anything but comfortable. The inside page tells me that it is "a new directions book" I was not surprised therefore to find a piece of experimental writing with sentences of unusual constructions, not that they were ungrammatical, but they turned this way and that with nouns adjectives and verbs that made them seem as jagged as the design on that front cover. I was not surprised that there was no narrative shape to speak of or that the book failed to follow a linear progression. I got used to the fact that events jumped around in time, but was thankful that the characters seemed to appear regularly enough to give some sense of consistency. However fifty pages in and I needed more information on the author and his style.

The most quotable reference from the author himself was:

''I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of fiction or structure was really all that remained. And structure -- verbal and psychological coherence -- is still my largest concern as a writer.''

and then that the New York Times had said Mr Hawkes:

was called a figure ''in a post-modern pantheon of experimental novelists who include John Barth, William Gass and William Gaddis'' by Mel Gussow in The New York Times in 1996.
Mr. Gaddis once said Mr. Hawkes's ''sentences are themselves 'events.' ‘'


Armed with this information I could read on in confidence knowing I was just going along for the sheer hell of the ride. I didn't need to worry about plot, characterisation or narrative drive, but I did have to pay attention to what those sentences were telling me or it would all pass me by in something like a blur so that I would be hard pressed to come to any conclusion about what I had just read.

The Beetle leg was published in 1951 and was the second of Hawkes fourteen published books. I had bought an electronic copy, because any surviving printed copies are quite expensive, which may tell its own story. It has a setting and there are recurring themes that can be picked out. The setting is Minnesota (America) Clare county in a small town that sat beside a dam and at some point in the narrative the dam burst (the great slide)flooding some or all of a town which now lies beneath a lake. There was one fatality Mulge Lampson brother of Luke Lampson and his family and friends have him on their mind as they go about their lives.

It is a harsh landscape that is stifling hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, it is a landscape for hardy people and native Americans and Hawkes sketches in the feel of the first arrivals to the area coping with the harsh conditions in a sort of tent city. It has the feel of a western which is enhanced by the current sheriff of the town and his dealing with a motorcycle gang known as the red Devils. We meet the sheriff in the first pages of the novel who reflects "It is a lawless country" a bit like the novel itself.
There is a primitive feel to the whole thing. Ma (Lukes Ma) prepares herself and her wagon for a wedding: she might be re-enacting a marriage to Mulge, but at her age she must face down the other women. Camper comes back to the town after an absence and wants to fish in the lake, Cap. Leech runs a medical business from the back of his wagon which is primitive in the extreme. Both of these characters stir up old hostilities. It is a mean hard world where people just get on with their lives.

The novel has its share of shocking images:


He lifted the huckleberry pole and there, biting the hook, swung the heavy body of a baby that had been dropped, searched for, and lost in the flood. The eyes slept on either side of the fish line and a point of the barb protruded near the nose stopped with silt. It turned slowly around and around on the end of the wet string that cut in half its forehead. It had been tumbled under exposed roots and with creatures too dumb to swim, long days through the swell, neither sunk nor floating. The white stomach hung full with all it had swallowed. God’s naked child lay under Luke’s fingers on the spread poncho, as on his knees and up to his thighs in the river, he loosed the hook, forcing his hand to touch the half-made face. His hook cracked through the membrane of the palate; he touched cold scales on the neck. One of the newborn sucked inside a gentle wave to the bottom of a stunted water black tree, its body rolled on the slippery poncho while the crouching figure of a young man shut his eyes, wet his lips. In both hands he picked it up, circling the softened chest inside of which lay the formless lungs, and stooped again to the water. As his feet moved it thickly eddied, splashed. He held the body closer to the surface, water touched the back of his knuckles, and letting go, he gently pushed it off as if it would turn over and quickly swim away to the center of the bankless stream.

I was not expecting any resolution and I was not disappointed, but we do get a reflection by Cap Leech when he finds the body of the drowned Lampson brother. I was intrigued by the reading experience and once used to the style of the writing there was enough to cling onto and to enjoy the vignettes without worrying too much about where it was all leading. To be fair we know this almost from the start when the Sheriff talks about the one fatality and the great slide. 3.5 stars.

25baswood
Jul 12, 2020, 6:12pm



Howard Fast - Spartacus, Howard Fast
Howard Fast published Spartacus himself in 1951. He had served a short prison sentence the previous year for the crime of committing un-American activities in the McCarthy era and he could not find a publisher for the novel that he had conceived in prison. Fast says in the foreword to the 1996 edition that he owes something of its coming into being as a result of his time in prison:

war and prison are difficult for a writer to approach without seeing something of it himself.

This may account for his damming indictment of the Roman civilisation which was based on slavery. The Tokens of Punishment: the 6000 slaves crucified along the length of the Appian way from Rome to Capua in 71BC forms the grisly backdrop to the opening scenes of the novel and they are never far away as the story of the slave revolt led by Spartacus unrolls.

Stanley Kubrick's film has become more famous than the book on which it is based and as good as the film is, it is conceived as an entertainment: albeit with a moral message. The message from the film is the fight against injustice and the right to be free. Fast's book covers these themes too but also attacks the whole moral fibre of the Roman Empire. The story of the slave revolt is told largely from the viewpoint of those people who knew Spartacus or the history of the uprising. Caius the son of a wealthy patrician and his two sister decide to travel to Capua down the Appian way that has just been reopened with the decaying bodies of the crucified slaves lining the route. After a days travelling they stay at the Villa of their wealthy uncle just off the road where they meet Crassus the Roman general who crushed the revolt, Grachus an elderly politician and the younger Cicero a representative of the younger power brokers who had pushed forward the idea of the Tokens of Punishment. Caius and the sisters have no interest in the the 'servile war' they are hedonistic young people who are only interested in their own comfort and entertainment, but find themselves surrounded by a group of people who cannot get the revolt free from their minds. Crassus is pressed to tell how he defeated the army of Spartacus which seemed invincible at one stage and he tells how he set about knowing his enemy by searching out his history, by interviewing his slave master. There follows a story of the young Caius who witnessed Spartacus fight as a gladiator and others chip in with their knowledge of the war and what they have heard about Spartacus.

Crassus offers to escort the young people on the final leg of the journey to Capua and when they arrive they witness the crucifixion of the last of the beaten gladiators. This turns out to be David: Spartacus right hand man and through the agony of his crucifixion he tells his story. Finally Crassus and Grachus become obsessed with tracking down Varinia; Spartacus wife who it was rumoured survived the final battle. It would seem they are hoping in their own way for perhaps some sort of redemption. Fast therefore tells the story of Spartacus from the viewpoints of those that got closest to him. He skilfully fills in a short history of the wars while examining the relationships of the three generations of Romans that are shaken by the recent events. The patricians and the most wealthy citizens still believe in the power of the Roman state and are proud of the civilisation that has given them such a good life style. The telling of the story of Spartacus however reveals the rot at the core of Roman power. The Tokens of punishment present throughout the novel, the crucifixion of David, and the story of Spartacus is juxtaposed with the superabundances of the lifestyles of the wealthy Romans. The rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, but the impoverished Roman citizens can still look down on the vast slave population, but the slaves have become a threat.

The story of the slave revolt is told by witnesses to the events, which may be unreliable, for example David and Varinia who paint a picture of Spartacus as the most gentle of human beings, a father figure to all those who served him and a shinning example of a civilised man. The fight for freedom is altruistic in their eyes and Fasts prose can become a little sentimental even a little naive, especially when contrasted with the young Cicero's view of the world which is Machiavellian:

"There is an elite—a group of superior men. Whether the gods made them that way or circumstances made them that way is not something to argue. But they are men fit to rule, and because they are fit to rule, they do rule.
We rationalize the irrational. We convince the people that the greatest fulfillment in
life is to die for the rich. We convince the rich that they must part with some of their riches to keep the rest. We are magicians. We cast an illusion, and the illusion is foolproof. We say to the people—you are the power. Your vote is the source of Rome’s strength and glory. You are the only free people in the world. There is nothing more precious than your freedom nothing more admirable than your civilization. And you control it; you are the power. And then they vote for our candidates. They weep at our defeats. They laugh with joy at our victories. And they feel proud and superior because they are not slaves."


Howard Fast's prose does justice to the story that unfolds, the battle scenes are realistically described and Spartacus experiences as a gladiator and a slave in the mines are moving and disturbing, the agony of David on the cross whose troubled mind is shot through with pain is as close to realism as I want to get. The back story of the profligate life styles and sexual mores of the wealthy Romans and their illicit encounters are also well documented. This is a novel of Historical Fiction and while Fast is keen not to stray too far from what is known about Spartacus he is also aware he is writing a novel that needs to appeal to a majority of readers and so he makes it an engrossing read, fleshing out his characters to fit the historical facts. He ended up with a best selling novel and as he has one of his character say:

“No, indeed. Two things all men are convinced they have talent for, with neither preparation nor study involved. Writing a book and leading an army. And with good reason, since such an amazing number of idiots get to do both.

Howard Fast is not one of the idiots and not only did he write a most entertaining novel but he also made some political points as well. I was surprised at how well he made his story undermine the idea of glorious classical antiquity. This was a society that was based on slavery with a rigid class system and Fast does not let his readers escape without acknowledging these facts. A thoroughly enjoyable read and a well thought out novel 4.5 stars.

26Macumbeira
Jul 12, 2020, 11:08pm

bravo !

27RickHarsch
Jul 15, 2020, 8:27pm

Hi. Sorry to appear just to leave this: https://rickharsch.wordpress.com/2020/07/11/corona-samizdat-catablog-part-1/ but the first season of corona/samizdat is finished. Six books, including 4 pocket books that are marvelous and truly pocket size, though one is rather fat.

I am sorry I have not read Howard Fast, who from all I hear, as a good feller deserves to be read.

28baswood
Jul 16, 2020, 10:25am

So what size is Pocket size? where do I send my money?

29RickHarsch
Jul 16, 2020, 8:56pm

148mmX105: true pocket size. I use pay pay at rick.harsch@gmail.com...I accept all questions, even if percipient, unwarranted, obtuse, blindsiding, ambushing, artful, deceptively subversive, powermad, angry, parsimonious, under-glutaneous, or/and flippant.

Suffice to say, I am very glad the actual publishing season is over. But it is not my kind of work. Through from here on til Fall it's just making sure I write down every sale and go to the post office promptly. I have found that there have been multiple cases of sheer fraud perpetrated by Bellis at River Boat: a reviewer mentioned his book and it got some sales in February, even a guy in Germany, who paid the $30 dollar fee plus $24 in postage, and at least one other, but very likely more, and this kind of thing (the Arlt books) went on through March. He simply pocketed the money. He 'sold' Skulls of Istria to a guy who wrote to me to tell me he had ordered Mad Patagonian, I wrote to Bellis, who finally answered this guy, and offered him my book and one or two others..He never sent those either. The obvious thing is that he knew he had no copies to sell and took the money anyway. He blamed it on not taking acting quickly enough on his website, but if that is the case, you simply apologize and return the money. I sent the Skulls guy a free copy, though he tried to prevent me.
One nice thing is that all four pocket books have great covers, the books are well made. Skulls has an errata sheet due to a missing line on the first page, and a few words run together, some stray dashes. I judged that it would not disturb me and the errors seem limited to the early part of the book. But I think people should be alerted.
I love the new look of my bookshelves, serving as partial warehouse.

30Macumbeira
Jul 16, 2020, 11:07pm

it disturbs me that one of the Vegas books stands upside down among the others in the picture on your website.
Can you turn all the others upside-down too ?

31baswood
Jul 17, 2020, 10:06am



The Sea Around Us - Rachel Carson
1951 was the year when a science book became a best seller. The Sea Around us spent 86 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and therefore a scientist who discovered that she had the talent to write for a popular audience and although her book is packed with scientific information, it also waxes lyrical about the sights, sounds and feel of the sea both above and below the surface. A book written by a lover of sea and seascapes for an audience who want to know more about the 70 percent of the world in which they might paddle, swim, or travel over, but have never thought much about it. This is the opening to her chapter "The Long Snowfall"

'Every part of earth or air or sea has an atmosphere peculiarly its own, a quality or characteristic that sets it apart from all other. When I think of the floor of the deep sea, the single, overwhelming fact that possesses my imagination is the accumulation of sediments'

Sediments! A chapter about sediments? Sediments are usually very important for people with a scientific bent, but Carson with her image of a long snowfall and a chapter that eases her readers through some scientific information manages to make her sediments, mysterious, beautiful and thoroughly absorbing. Right now writing this I have a picture of the flakes of a snow storm falling, falling, one by one, out there on the ocean floor.

The book is more interested in geology, oceanography, meteorology the more physical elements of the oceans rather than individual species of animals that inhabit the sea. It is a book about the environment, but written before Carson made a reputation for being an environmentalist and so doom laden warnings come to us as feint echos in what is a celebration of the wonders of nature. There are chapters on the teeming surface of the oceans and the black sunless depths, There are chapters on the birth of Islands, the hidden lands beneath the sea, The destructive power of the sea and the science of the waves, and finally exploration and exploitation by mankind.

Carson became prominent in the conservation of the environment movement with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962; a book that highlighted the dangers of synthetic pesticides. In the Sea Around Us she talks about climate change, and a warming of the sea, but comes down on the side of cyclic changes in oceanic circulation, therefore a natural phenomenon rather than man made. This is somewhat surprising with the knowledge that we have today of greenhouse gasses and environmental pollution, but one must remember that her book was published in 1951. She wrote a preface to the 1961 edition, but her concern then was the dumping of atomic waste. She died in 1964 a considerable time before concerns were raised on an international level about global warming and mankind's involvement in that process. This is not a book that will supply an up to date scientific story on the latest developments in the world of oceanography a lot has happened since the 1961 edition and some of them have thrown Carsons ideas on the ocean basins as being older than the continents into disrepute: for example the theory of plate tectonics has established that the creation of the sea bed in geological terms is relatively more recent.

I read the Oxford University press 2003 edition which is billed as an Illustrated Commemorative Edition with glossy photographs and a coffee table book feel. There is an introduction and forward which puts Carson's book in context and an afterword by Brian J Skinner a professor of Geology as well as some notes throughout the text that point out scientific developments since the original publication back in 1951. Today we might read Rachel Carsons The Sea Around us for her innovations in producing a science based book that captures some of the poetry of the sea, but it also still provides much basic information. I learn't quite a bit and enjoyed the learning and so a 4.5 star read.

32Macumbeira
Jul 18, 2020, 6:01am

Rachel Carson should have a statue in every town. She is an unsung hero of mankind.
I gave her book Silent Spring to my daughter last year.
Thanks for bringing her back to our attention Bas

33RickHarsch
Jul 18, 2020, 9:41am

Mac, for you I will turn myself upside-down

34baswood
Edited: Jul 27, 2020, 7:03pm



Hangsaman - Shirley Jackson
As I was reading Shirley Jackson's 1951 novel I thought of that other novel featuring a teenage rebellion from that same year. One of the most famous literary novels published in 1951 was The Catcher in the Rye, which spent many months in the New York Times bestseller lists. Hangsaman never got anywhere near the best seller lists and although it appears as a penguin classic it is probably not on many peoples reading lists and it does not even make the 1001 novels you must read before you die. The Catcher in the Rye features Holden Caulfield a 17 year old young man who tells his story of an escapade in New York the previous year; Hangsaman is written in the third person and tells of 17 year old Natalia Waite's difficulties in conforming to life at home and life at an all girls college. Both novels feature the thoughts and feelings of the young adolescents who find themselves out of step with normal American teenage college life: Both Holden Caulfield and Natalia Waite have problems with relationships and their sexuality and look towards their favourite college teacher for assistance, both are disappointed. Hangsaman delves deeper into the psychology of an adolescent and while The Catcher in the Rye is a series of confrontations over a short time span Hangsaman is mysterious and dark with Natalia's inner conflicts providing a more unreliable witness to the events in her life which might be more or less what they seem.

Natalia has a literary father who is intent on nurturing his daughters talents. her mother is a more vague figure in her life who cannot come to terms with her more intellectual partner and is at a point where she becomes an embarrassment to him. Natalie's father is both domineering and egotistical setting his daughter writing projects and dispensing words of wisdom most mornings in his study. Natalie is socially inept and her thoughts lead her into all sorts of strange directions: at one of her fathers literary gatherings (she and her mother are the caterers) she drinks for the first time and finds herself going for a walk in the woods with a much older man. Something may or may not have happened to Natalie that night, but the story cuts to her leaving home for college. She has trouble making friends and is content with her own space. She finds herself attached to a small group of girls who are intent on being seduced by one of their male teachers: Mr Langdon, who is already married to a former pupil Elizabeth; there are awkward social occasions and Natalie finds herself shepherding a very drunk and unhappy Elizabeth home after a cocktail party. Natalie withdraws into herself. One night she is accosted by Tony a girl friendless like herself and suddenly she has found a kindred spirit, they room together and one dark rainy night Tony leads her pied-piper like into the woods and Natalia fears for her life. The mystery is centred around how much of this is happening inside Natalie's head; Is Tony her own creation these thoughts are never fully resolved and the reader is left with a feeling of fear and apprehension for a young girl, who may have been damaged in some way.

This is a novel that becomes increasingly weird and other worldly, but Shirley Jackson makes Natalie seem real, an intelligent and confused young woman out of step with the world in which she is expected to live. Her strangely intellectual relationship with her father, the walk in the woods, the alienation with other girls in college, the thoughts that run through her head which intrude into her conscious actions all make her an outsider. The novel becomes increasingly dark and a little gothic as both the weather and Natalies sanity degrade into grey, wet, troublesome areas. The novel moves slowly towards its uncertain ending, but some fine writing and a feeling that something will happen just around the corner made this into a page turner. This is a fine achievement and probably deserves to be more well known. It has also reminded me that a survey of books from 1951 would not be complete without a re-read of The Catcher in the Rye, however I think it will need to be better than I remember to outdo my reading experience of Hangsaman 4.5 stars.

35baswood
Aug 21, 2020, 10:48am



Le Hussard sur le Toit - Jean Giono (The Horseman on the roof)
Temperatures in France this summer have reached nearly 40 degrees a handful of times in my area and it was during one of these periods that I became engrossed in Jean Gionos book, which features a canicule (heatwave) during a pandemic for which there was no known cure. Reading with the shutters of the house all closed up to keep out the sun and with the contagion figures for covid -19 increasing at a frightening rate outside it was small wonder that I could so easily identify with the Horseman on the Roof (there were other reasons too which will become evident). Giono's book is set in the Provence area of France during the first wave of the cholera epidemic in the early 1830's and the hero: Angelo a captain in the Italian cavalry is riding through the area on some sort of mission, when he becomes caught up in the catastrophic effects of the pandemic.

Le Hussard sur le Toit was published in 1951 and is considered to be the last of Giono's grand oeuvres although he died in 1970. It was a long time in gestation and it feels like a book written over a long period of time. Giono was born and died in Manosque in the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence and the town features in his book, but it is the descriptions of the countryside suffering from the heatwave that give this book such a powerful presence. Like many of Giono's characters the author is slow to reveal their names and as the Horseman rides through the shinning white heat of the canicule we gradually learn more about him. He is in exile from Italy after an ill considered dual with an Austrian from the ruling class. Angelo believes he was fighting for liberty, but was forced to flee. He hears stories of a mystery disease in the land he is travelling through and then suddenly is confronted with the reality when he stumbles into a hamlet, which is covered under a cloud of flies and a murder of crows. He sees the body of a woman on the path outside the house and finds inside the houses dead bodies being eaten by birds and domestic animals, his horse panics and flees and is brought back to him by a young French doctor who is out on call. They find a young boy who collapses in front of them the doctor immediately springs into action desperately trying to restore circulation to the boy who loses control of all bodily functions and vomits the tell tale signs of creamed rice (le riz au lait), the two men work for two hours on the boy and Giono describes the desecration of the boy's body with the cholera in some detail. The boy dies horribly in spasms and the doctor anxiously asks Angelo if he can still feel his legs, but it is the doctor who succumbs and Angelo cannot save him.

Shaken by the events Angelo arrives in the town of Manosque at nightfall and when he is seen washing his hands in the fountain he is accused of spreading the disease; a local militia hunts him down but he manages to escape onto the rooftops of the houses. He spends the next few days living on the rooves, foraging below in abandoned houses for food and fighting off the swallows and crows who are becoming crazed with the availability of human flesh. Angelo witnesses many appalling scenes below of residents succumbing to the cholera. He finally gets off the roof when he goes to the help of a nun who has charged herself with helping the afflicted and removing those past all help. Angelo continues his travels when the cholera has wiped out most of the town; he is searching for his boyhood friend and comrade in arms Giuseppe who has also fled Italy, but travelling becomes increasingly difficult as the area is becoming shut down by the army in the belief that the contagion is spread by bodily contact. Angelo meets a young woman (much later revealed as Pauline) and protects her in her efforts to find her husband. They take small country roads and tracks trying to avoid the quarantines and become prisoners in a town where they are kept in an abandoned castle with other people picked up on the highways. They witness many more horrible deaths in a nightmare scenario, but Angelo's military training equips him to outwit the local militia's and police forces. The two never lose their self belief that they will come through the epidemic.

Giono's descriptions of the countryside burning under the heatwave are interlaced with his record of Angelo's journey and his battle with the cholera and the police forces. The horror of the deaths of those infected are given first hand portrayals as Angelo follows the example of the young French doctor in trying to do what he can to help. Angelo himself is honourable , courteous and optimistic, never giving up hope in the face of appalling events, he believes in the goodness of humanity despite his own experiences, but he is a proud man and this conflicts with his curtesy and he struggles with the events that have forced him from his homeland.

There are similarities to Albert Camus' The Plague, published four years before but the feel and thrust of Giono's book is entirely different. It is less political, more earthy perhaps more fundamental and yet it has a similar idea of treating the disease as an occupying force. There is no cure and the country that Angelo travels through is similar to a country under army occupation. Angelo fights for his freedom, his liberty and his desire to make things right, however Giono has set his book back in the 1830's when a cavalry officer was seen as a heroic figure and Angelo and Pauline's honour and curtesy are far different from the characters that people Camus' book. Giono is concerned with morality, the instances of humans stepping up, taking enormous risks for the good of others, even when many have succumbed to a bleak worthless future, but the reality of the disease always grounds this book back in the dirt and filth of the darker side of humanity.

Towards the very end of the book as Angelo and Pauline are nearing the town of Gap high in the Alps, they come across a man living in a ruin of a house. Described as the "man in the redingote" (fitted coat and we never learn his name) he lives surrounded by books and artefacts. He feeds his visitors with a heartening stew and a good slug of rum, before launching into a lecture about the effects of the cholera on the population and his view on how people can survive. He appears to have been a doctor, but although he goes someway in getting closer to a way of preventing the spread of the disease he is more interested in theorising why it attacks some people and not others. His long speech (nearly twenty pages of the book) talks of how some people are more susceptible than others, according to their moral make up; their moral fibre. He condemns those who he says are jumping with pride and how the cholera reduces them down to the level of others. A certain pride has been an essential characteristic of Angelo: pride in his patriotism, pride in his beliefs and pride in his uniform and the speech goes some way to drawing together those elements in the book, despite if being incoherent in places and more like a rant. Angelo and Pauline still have a chapter of the book left to come to the end of their journey, but it is the speech of the "man in the redingote" that rings out most loud.

Some books are memorable because they provide a reading experience that is different from others; this maybe because of the way it is written or it maybe because of the place and time one chooses to read it. A book like Le Hussard sur le Toit can fall into that category, because of the relentless feel of the disease and the repetition of Giono's writing. There are pages of descriptions of the landscape and there are pages of descriptions of the effects of the cholera so that it all feels claustrophobic. Giono repeats himself driving home the atmosphere created by this novel, of course we want to know what happens to Angelo and there are some memorable incidents, but it is the feel of the burning heat in the countryside and the dirt and squalor of the disease that leaves a lasting impression. 5 stars.

36Macumbeira
Aug 21, 2020, 3:19pm

bravo !

37baswood
Edited: Sep 5, 2020, 1:13pm

From Here to Eternity - James Jones
A doorstop (nearly 1000 pages) published in 1951 tells the fictional story from the inside of a number of enlisted men of an infantry division of the United States Army posted in Hawaii in 1941 taking in the attack on Pearl harbour. The author James Jones enlisted in the US army in 1939 at the age of 17 in the 25th infantry division stationed in Hawaii and uses that experience to make his novel drip with the realism of life in an army barracks during the first year of the second world war for the United States. This is not a novel for the feint hearted and forcibly expresses the culture of army life in the 1940's when men were hardened for war and all the women were called whores. It is a novel that takes you into another world, one that probably still exists to a certain extent and I found myself wrapped up in the edginess of the characters who fight to make sense of the life of men who serve in the armed forces.

About three quarters of the way through the novel Private Robert E Lee Prewitt is court-martialled for assaulting a senior offices. He is a man who you would be wise to ask first before using his nickname Prew. His pride and his obstinacy have set him up against the system that he knows and loves. He has been overlooked for a promotion and transferred to another unit who take him because of his boxing skills (before hostilities, commissioned officers lived or died by the athletic successes of the men they commanded), but Prewitt for personal reasons will not join the boxing team. He is given the "treatment" by his commanding officers who want to break his spirit and make him change his mind. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object then Prewitts path to a court martial and time in prison (the Stockade) seems inevitable

In room no 2 in the stockade Prew thinks that he is amongst men just like himself - he thinks “that he did not have to explain", because each one of them had the same hard unbroachable sense of ridiculous personal honour that he had never been able to free himself from either.

Hard labour in the stockade comes with cruel beatings as the breaking of a man's spirit is the only way of getting him in the right frame of mind to take his place back in the army.

Private Prewitts story runs in parallel to that of Milt Warden a staff sergeant who takes pride in his ability to play the system for his own ends. Like Prewitt he has the same pride in his abilities; pouring scorn on those around him who he can harass and bully. The Warden as he is called finds himself in deep water when he falls in love with his commanding officers wife. His playing of the system does not stretch quite far enough to allow him to indulge in a long term affair with Karen Holmes and like Prewitt who falls in love with Alma the most beautiful girl in the services-men's brothel he struggles to contain his feelings within the context of the harsh army life that he leads.

Towards the end of the novel the attack on Pearl Harbour which results in the infantry seeing action for the first time albeit far enough back from the centre of the attack so as not to endanger life: leads to the army being put on a war footing with the inevitable tightening of security measures. Both Prewitt and Warden are forced to make choices in a new lockdown situation.

Author James Jones knew how the army works and his own experiences would have enabled him to draw and refine the male characters that people his novel and while he may have too rosey a picture of the women who work in the brothels, he is more convincing with the restrictions that army wives must undergo and the life that they are forced to lead. His book bristles with machismo and sexism as the cultural norm, but there is room for finer feelings and briefly Warden and to a lesser extent Prewitt attempt to find a more enlightened viewpoint. They indulge themselves in cod psychology and Prewitt is searching for someone to provide him with some answers that he can accept. Jones is careful not to take this too far and the level of discussion is probably fitting to that of young army recruits, however these young recruits do not lack experience of the culture of a disciplined service that needs to be ready for war.

Jones attempts to re-create the dialogue that he would have heard during his time in the army and so there is some slang; phrases are shortened and words are made up or misspelt. This gives his story some authenticity, but is not overdone to the extent of making parts of his book unreadable. I found the whole novel very readable indeed. This was Jones first novel and he went onto write Some Came Running and The Thin Red Line among others in which his military experience and knowledge also played a major part. I am pleased to have been taken into the world that Jones inhabited, but probably won't feel the need to read another. However 4 stars for this mammoth undertaking.

I hope to catch a showing of the 1953 film soon if only to see Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling about in the surf on the beach.

38RickHarsch
Sep 6, 2020, 10:55am

Clearly, I've been away to long. Look what you people are getting up to. Bas, who's that dame you're with?

39baswood
Sep 6, 2020, 12:24pm

Hi Rick - yes you have been away too long

40Macumbeira
Sep 7, 2020, 1:21am

way way too long.

41RickHarsch
Sep 7, 2020, 3:09pm

That's nice to hear...I'm hoping my sudden fall into publishing will no longer be a distraction as I have gotten used to it. The final reason I decided to do it was because it did no seem as if it would be much of a distraction...The truth is, if I want it to be financially successful it must be a distraction, so the simple step of making it non-profit has eliminated that threat.

42Crypto-Willobie
Edited: Sep 20, 2020, 9:07am

A very interesting year-based reading list, with commentary. Reminds me a bit of bas's 1951 list, except this one is 1956. I'm going to have to look up a number of these people.

https://neglectedbooks.com/?p=7109&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=emai...

43baswood
Sep 20, 2020, 9:44am

>42 Crypto-Willobie: Some of us will be familiar with John Cowper Powys and perhaps Roy Fuller, but there are many surprises. I have actually read one of those listed : The Tree of Man Patrick White

44RickHarsch
Sep 20, 2020, 2:26pm

HI folks,

I was recently sent by an Aussie fan a large fake copy of Moby Dick that is actually a box, but looks wonderful. Inside were two Aussie books. One by Murnane, who is somewhat known. The other was Henry Handel Richardson's The something of Richard Mahony, 900 pages of extraordinary psychological naturalism based it is said on Miss Richardson's father. It's extremely well-written and very disturbing. And not a single kangaroo. As I read I thought occasionally of White, knowing that somehow, at some point in time, his Tree of Man was moved to the shelf just to my right.

CW in particular: How about the Hayes kid!

45Crypto-Willobie
Edited: Sep 20, 2020, 5:37pm

>44 RickHarsch:

Rick, Hayes kid does look v promising. Also some others. And Pirates are the number 1 team this season -- the Worst record in the majors. That must count for something...

46RickHarsch
Sep 20, 2020, 5:02pm

It always does for me. I still check Andrew every game...he gets up near .270 after a few good games, then back down to .247...the good old days are long gone. And poor Polanco, all that promise...

47baswood
Oct 5, 2020, 6:29am



The Second Scroll - A M Klein
Published in 1951 this slim beautifully written book is both a travelogue/voyage of discovery to the new state of Israel and a young Canadian Jews search for a messianic member of his family. It is steeped in the words of the Torah and the five chapters loosely follow the books of the Pentateuch, but this is not a book that preaches, it is a book that tries to place a modern Jewish man in a position to come to terms with the holocaust and the new zionist Israel. I did not find the religious terms and references in any way preventing me from enjoying what was at times a remarkable read.

In 1949 Klein travelled on behalf of the Canadian Jewish Congress to the new State of Israel and to Jewish refugee camps in Europe and North Africa and this inspired his novel. It is written in the first person and in the novel the speaker has been sent to Israel to find and translate the best of the new Israeli poetry, but he has a more important personal mission and that is to find his uncle Melech who the family fears has lost his faith. The books opening sentence:

"For many years my father - may he dwell in a bright Eden! - refused to permit in his presence even the mention of that person's name"

It is therefore a journey of reconciliation, a journey of reunion that is foregrounded with the jewish diaspora's return to the Holy Land. In Klein's case he spends only two weeks in Israel, but his journey is longer with stops in Southern Italy and Morocco in search of Uncle Melech. We learn that his uncle was a brilliant scholar of the Torah and became the go-to person for interpretation and clarification before the holocaust in what is now the Ukraine. The speaker discover's letters about his uncle that say that he became a communist: a Bolshevik, but just before his departure a package arrives containing a letter from Melech Davidson himself, which tells a horrifying story of his survival of a pogrom (Kamenets-Podolski massacre 1941) where he was denounced as a Jew and his lucky escape with a rumour that he fled to Southern Italy; to Bari where boats were setting out to take settlers to Israel. The speaker arrives in Italy where to his horror he finds that Davidson had been to the Vatican and had been talking with a Cardinal about Catholicism, from there the trail leads to Casablanca in Morocco where Davidson had found a post in the office of the administration of the Jewish community. As soon as the speaker arrives at the office and mentions the name of Melech Davidson he realises that his iconoclastic uncle had immediately stirred up trouble. Nobody really wanted to talk about it. The speaker is shocked by what he finds in Casablanca:

"there were, too, the classics of the French cuisine, to whose napoleonic strategy my palate had ever surrendered - but the gourmandizer's repelled me. They lived well these Moors, but too well: the thigh filled pantaloons that waddled along the street; the Negress with scarves, striped as with the lines of latitude, knotted about her large hips, gripping a sausage in her pinkish pink palm; the paunch proud merchant seating his buttock and belly on his chair - these spoke eloquently of past banquets, of many-coursed meals digested reposeful upon soft pillows and divans beneath the gauze of golden slumber, the brocade of the golden snore."

He visits the mellah (the Jewish quarter) where the inhabitants live in a squalor which he compares to Dante's Inferno, but is driven away by the flies and the stench that is everywhere. He leaves Morocco by aeroplane to Israel where the trail of his Uncle grows cold, but he visits places sacred to his family in the hope of picking up clues............

The story is packed into 90 pages, but there follows some poetry and excerpts from a letter from his uncle that details his visit to the Sistine chapel and how Michelangelo had shown a vision of the Pentateuch that could make reverence to Catholics and Jews; this is a fine piece of writing in itself.

The search for a missing person provides the narrative flow for the book which can be read on the level of a mystery travelogue, however there is much more to the book, not the least the sympathetic portrait of a Jewish family, the faith that holds them together and gives meaning to their lives and the vicissitudes of anti-Semitism that effects them all. Perhaps it would not be too much to suggest that the book should be required reading for people leaning towards intolerance that can so easily be stirred up into hatred. I found it a salutary experience and a five star read.

48librorumamans
Edited: Oct 7, 2020, 2:15pm

Autobiographical

A. M. Klein

(It seems, baswood, that you may have the Marlboro Press editionn and this may be one of the included Klein poems. It strikes me, nonetheless, as an appropriate companion to your review. Thanks for reminding me that I've not actually gotten around to reading this work.)

49baswood
Oct 6, 2020, 9:37am

>48 librorumamans: My edition is from The New Canadian Library published by McClelland & Stewart LTD. It is nicely printed and the poem you have copied is in GLOSS ALEPH section. There is also an elegy a short play and some prayers. And an afterword by Seymour Mayne.

50baswood
Oct 16, 2020, 5:14pm



Olivia Manning - School for Love
Published in 1951 this novel tells the story of Felix an orphan from England who is sent out to a distant relative who has a house in Jerusalem. Felix a young adolescent arrives full of insecurities to live in a boarding house near the old town run by Miss Bohun. It is 1944 and Jerusalem was still under British mandate, but as the world war was coming to an end both Arab and Jewish communities were becoming apprehensive of what would happen next. Felix is largely unaware of the bigger picture as he grows up in the seclusion of Miss Bohun's establishment amongst other poor refugees.

Olivia Manning arrived in Jerusalem in 1943 and spent three years their with her husband, she worked as a press assistant with the Jerusalem Post and then with the British Council and so was well placed to write a novel about the experiences of refugees or itinerant workers. It was a period when house owners or managers expected to be able to employ servants and Miss Bohun's Misboon house had the Lezno family (jews escaped from Poland) living in and paying for their keep by working. Felix arrives in winter to a cold house and an unfriendly household. He worshipped his mother who had recently died and disruptions to his schooling had made him naive and lonely and the first part of the book describes his difficulties in adapting to this new and foreign household. His only friend is Faro: Miss Bohun's siamese cat. The cold winter gives way to spring and Felix's boredom is alleviated by the arrival of Mrs Ellis a young woman whose husband has been killed in the war. Felix's year of growing up sees him move from being a child who blushes at the mere presence of Miss Ellis to wanting to become her friend and even her protector.

Towards the end of the book when Felix has learned more about how adult people behave towards each other Miss Ellis tells him about a poem she remembers and when Felix asks her what it means she says:

"I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love"

She might have added that it was also a school of hard knocks where experience is hard won. Felix is the pupil; he must come to terms with Miss Bohuns hostility towards her boarders which is a result of her penny-pinching and her manipulating of the rooms to let. Miss Bohun is also a religious leader of a sect known as the Ever Readies (they are ever ready for the second coming) and she prides herself on her good works and is occasionally kind towards others. Felix asks one of the other boarders if Miss Bohun is wicked and he replies:

"Don't use that silly word Felix, Of course I don't. She's absurd and tactless and a busybody, probably no worse. She belongs to a generation that seems to combine thinking the worst of everybody with trying to do the best for them. I expect she's awfully innocent."

Felix must also come to terms with Miss Ellis whose battles with Miss Bohun make Felix a sort of piggy-in-the-middle. He does not know who to trust or who to love, their mood changes leave him confused and he also has much to learn about the Lezno family.

The year in Jerusalem is a bildungsroman for Felix and Misboon house is a world within a world. Mannings description of the household is full of atmosphere and when the occupants venture outside she portrays their excursions into a more exotic world with a feel for its different environment. I found it a gentle story, but readers today may find it a little too optimistic. It is well written with excellent characters and observations, well worth reading and so 3.5 stars

51baswood
Edited: Nov 3, 2020, 6:44am



Night at the Vulcan (Opening Night) - Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh was known as one of the "Queens of Crime". She wrote 32 detective novels during the period 1934-1982 and Night at the Vulcan published in 1951 was number 17 and so just over halfway through the oeuvre. All the novels feature Inspector Roderick Alleyn a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police (London). Marsh's great passion was the theatre and all the action in this novel takes place in the Vulcan a refurbished London theatre that had suffered a tragedy some time before.

The time scale is fairly tight: all the action takes place over a three day period and starts with Martyn Tarne arriving at the theatre looking for work three days before the opening of a new play. She is employed as a dresser to the leading lady Helena Hamilton who is married to Clark Bennington who is on the skids, but has a part in the play. It is not until halfway through the novel that Inspector Allen and his team arrive after Clark Bennington appears to have committed suicide by gassing himself. The first half of the novel is therefore taken up with the workings of the theatre and Marsh creates this little world of actors and their staff preparing for the opening night. It is also a world that appears rather quaint being set in 1950 with its gas fires and its sightings of London buses through the windows of the theatre. Inspector Alleyn is politeness personified and his only role in the drama is the solving of the crime. The whole thing is a bit like a locked room mystery, which in the end is nicely worked out

I enjoyed the claustrophobic atmosphere of the theatre that Marsh has created and her characters were lively enough to keep me happily reading along to the end to discover the solution to the mystery. 3.5 stars.

52baswood
Edited: Nov 15, 2020, 5:16pm



Night Runners of Bengal - John Masters
Published in 1951 this was Masters first novel and is a work of historical fiction. Its subject is the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Masters was a regular officer in the Indian Army and served from 1939 to 1946. His family had a long tradition in the Indian army and so he was steeped in the culture of British rule under the Raj, but his setting for the novel is ninety years earlier when the country was controlled by the East India Company. He is probably at his best in describing the life of an officer in the army, but this first novel combines this with an adventure story and a full scale battle with much brutal action. It is quite well written, but in some places it feels a little clunky, there is a lot going on and sometimes I feel it doesn't quite hang together..

The central character is Captain Rodney Savage of the Bengal native Infantry. He has a good working relationship with the sepoys (Indian native army regulars) whom he has grown to appreciate. An English female visitor to the garrison at Bhowani Junction; Caroline Langford, becomes suspicious of possible plots against the ruling British elite. Savage is starting to feel that the opportunity to make his mark in the Company's service is passing him by and he takes an interest in Carolines concerns. The nearby all Indian town of Kishanpur is rocked by the assassination of the Rajah and Savage carries out his own investigation into the affairs of the Rani. He does not find out enough information to stop an uprising of the sepoys in Bhowani and just about escapes from a massacre of the white ruling class. His injuries lead to temporary insanity as Caroline attempts to hide him in the forest, he insists on going to Kishanpur, but they are imprisoned by the Rani. They learn more details of the mutiny, escape from prison and with the help of a loyal sepoy hide out in a small village. There follows an attempt to reach the British garrison at Gondwara to warn the British contingent of another sepoy mutiny.

There is a good opening sequence to the novel when Savage and Caroline witness a guru in Bhowani holding an audience in the centre of town and appearing to summon a murder of crows. He issues a cryptic warning of coming troubles and this gives the novel an edgy start that contrasts with the subsequent description of daily life amongst the British contingent in the cantonment. The expats lead an insular life in an endless round of socialising based on British traditions. The club house with its bar is where most come to gossip and to uphold the class divisions in their own society. The majority have a lifestyle supported by and endless supply of Indian servants that could not be achieved back home and they have become for the most part pampered and indolent in a climate that is totally unsuitable to them. John Masters describes their lifestyle with real firsthand knowledge, but I get the impression that it is more like the lifestyle of the British Raj in the 1930's than 1870 under the East India Company. Savage takes a more benevolent view of the natives than most and has an understanding and acceptance of their society. When he suffers his period of insanity he becomes more like the racist native hating ogre that one feels was more prevalent amongst the British ex pats at the time.

Caroline Langford says at some point in the novel:

“There are not two standards for us, for the English—only one. We must keep our standard, or go home. We must not, as we do now, permit untouchability and forbid suttee, abolish tyranny in one state and leave it in another, have our right hand Eastern and our left hand Western. It is not that India is wicked; she has her own ways. If we rule we must rule as Indians—or we must make the Indians English. But we do neither; we are like Mr. Dellamain. We have one foot in a whirlpool. Sometimes I am sure we will be dragged into another and drowned. God will punish us for compromising. As He will punish me.”

Masters has set his story back in 1857 when the East Indian Trading Company was looking to exploit the country for all that it was worth and they brought with them plenty of Christians who were looking to convert the natives, by any means possible to save their souls. I think Masters could be accused of giving some of his characters the more enlightened views that would be more appropriate to a later period of British rule than at the time of the mutiny. There is plenty of violence in the book and atrocities are committed by both sides in the struggle, Masters does not shy away from describing them.

The novels descriptions of India, its village and town life and the life of the expats tucked away in the cantonment rings true for me. It is told from a British imperialist perspective, but that is entirely suited to the events the novel describes and the characters that Masters has chosen for his story. He has created some interesting characters even if the story slips away from him at times, the novel has some good moments and so 3.5 stars.

53baswood
Nov 18, 2020, 7:53pm



Les Enfants Tristes - Roger Nimier
Roger Nimier was a French author who was recognised as the leader of a group of writers (the Hussards) who opposed the more left wing stance of Jean Paul Sartre and the existentialists writing after the second world war. Nimier was in the second regiment of the Hussards which were involved in a battle with the German forces very near the end of the second world war. Nimier was wounded at Royan. He published his first novel in 1948 and had his biggest success in 1950 with Le Hussard Blue.

Les Enfants Tristes was published in 1951 and that is why it got onto my reading list. It tells the story of Olivier Malentrade a young man whose family are well-to-do members of the petite bourgeoisie. M le Barsac has made money from his investments during the second world war war and Olivier is the son of his first wife. Olivier does not quite fit into the business world of le Barsac and does not approve of the modern more liberated ways of the females in Le Barsac's family. The novel is in three parts and the first part takes place during the war where we meet the family who are largely unaffected by the war and tells the story about their relationships particularly Raoul; Oliviers half brother. Raoul is an intellectual who falls in love with the flirtatious Tessa whose family are lower down the social scale, but her outward going character and her pretty looks charms M le Barsac and he approves of Raoul marrying her. The second part tells the story of Tessa who manages to have a number of affairs to escape from the more conventional Raoul, one of her affairs is with Olivier Malentrade who is seduced by a pretty woman who is far more experienced than him and has difficulties when the affair is over. In the third part two younger women Dominique and Catherine enter in the circle of friends around Olivier, who is still clumsy around women. He has become a successful author and playwright, but his world is turned upside down by the two women.

It is the story of a man who feels out of step with his family and who is not at all assured in his relations with women. Roger Nimier builds his characters at some length, but the book comes alive in their conversations, which can take some unconventional twists and turns, especially when Olivier and Raoul are involved because of their uncertainty in relationships with women. Nimier's females are more free than the men, and more knowing in their dealings with the opposite sex, but are intellectually their inferiors. The background of Parisian life for well connected people is sketched adequately, but Nimier is mainly concerned with explaining why and how his characters act out their lives. I found his characters too far removed from the story for my liking a bit like moths fluttering around a light in danger of getting burnt. I am not encouraged to search out other books by Nimier and rate this as three stars.

54baswood
Nov 27, 2020, 6:54am



The Blessing, Nancy Mitford - Nancy Mitford
A book that was quite a success in 1951, which is frivolous and amusing, but I would prefer to read it as a social satire rather than a romance or celebration of the life of some very rich people. Nancy Mitford was a member of a privileged, well connected family and was at home in writing a novel about rich and privileged people; it is a world where the only poor people one might meet are the servants. Money and position is everything and to readers outside that social circle (which is the vast majority) it must appear like a sort of fantasy land. We all like to laugh at the "nobs" whose world in reality hardly touches ours. I laughed along with many readers of the book, but was always unsure how deep the satire was meant to penetrate.

The novel tells the story of Grace Allingham's adventures in the marriage market. She falls in love with the Frenchman Charles-Edouard a charming cavalier of a man always wanting to move on to the next thing and a serial womaniser. After a whirlwind romance they are married and soon Grace is pregnant with her first child Sigi (the blessing). Grace is happily married and enjoys the high society life in Paris and turns a blind eye to her husbands dalliances with other women. Charles-Edouard's continual absence from home starts to annoy her and when she catches him in bed with another woman who she believed was a childhood friend, she leaves him and returns to her family home in England. Sigi is a resourceful child of seven years and he discovers that living with both parents, one in France the other in England for an agreed portion of the year; he gets the best of both worlds and the second part of the novel are his increasingly desperate attempts to keep his mother and father apart.

The most obvious satire is the difference between the French, the English and the Americans. Francophiles will love this book, Americans perhaps not so much. Paris high society according to the novel soon gets back to how things were before the second world war. rationing, food shortages hardly get a mention, all is light and glamour and the whirl of Parisian life and the charm of the chateaus in the countryside is compared to the crabby lifestyle in England. Grace loves the culture, the good manners, the more modern approach to love and sex and the conversations around the banqueting tables. Grace's American friend in Paris; Carolyn Dexter is not so enamoured, finding it difficult to get into the society and appalled by the less than sanitary arrangements. Grace's nanny finds the garlicky food inedible and keeps young Sigi away from the horrible rough french children.

The charming energetic Charles-Edouard is everything that a man with privilege and money can be in free wheeling society in Paris. Grace is willing to forgive him almost everything because of her own position as his wife, his charm and success reflects on her and that is enough for her. This message comes through loud and clear in a book which might not be in tune with more 21st century thinking. Grace does assert her independence to the extent that she can afford to go back to her father Sir Conrad, but it is only the machinations of Sigi that keeps her away from Charles-Edouard.

Nancy Mitford's prose flows nicely throughout the book, her characters are well drawn and are not lampooned to the extent that they are unbelievable. They sometimes do crazy things, but then they are rich enough to get away with it. They certainly do nothing to harm their own position, but how light can it be, I asked myself, should I be enchanted by their lifestyles. The novel has some funny moments and never fails to amuse, light. frothy entertainment with satire pitched at a level that rarely gets below the surface. Nancy Mitford moved to Paris in 1946 and became a firm francophile and this is certainly reflected in her novel and so as an ex-pat myself I give it three stars.

55Macumbeira
Nov 27, 2020, 1:23pm

Good thing that it is not Diana you give 3 stars !

56baswood
Dec 18, 2020, 9:42am



Nicholas Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Published in 1951 a mere six years after the end of the second world war, this is a novel of historical fiction that tells the story and role of the smaller boats that formed the protective screen around the convoys that made regular crossings of the Atlantic ocean during the second world war. The strength of the novel lays in its depiction of the work and conditions aboard Corvettes and then Frigates who were in almost constant danger from german submarine (U boat) attacks and from the horrendous nautical conditions during the winter months. Monsarrat focuses on his leading character Keith Lockhart who held various posts on both types of boat under the command of a professional navy officer Ericson with whom he forged a good working relationship.

The novel follows Lockhart's journey through the war years from his initial posting as an officer recruited from a career in journalism at the start of the war until his position as first lieutenant in a new frigate at the end of hostilities. Monsarrat own career during the war followed a similar path and while the novel is not an autobiography, Monsarrat uses his experience to paint a picture of life on the high seas during wartime. He tells a story full of danger and adversity spiced with memorable seascapes and impossible working conditions. Lockhart's first boat the Compass Rose was one of the early corvettes which first took to the sea equipped with a small gun and depth charges, but without any radar and proved to be a soft target for the German U Boats. The corvette struggled in rough seas and its crew of ninety endured very cramped conditions, with more injuries caused by weather conditions than from hostile forces, but in danger on every trip of being sunk with perhaps the loss of all on board. Monsarrat's skills as a writer create a realistic picture of the struggle against superior forces and the toughness of the men to survive the attacks and the hard learned skills of officers who have to make life or death decisions. He creates plenty of tension and excitement.

While the novel also attempts to show relationships between the officers and sometimes between them and the ordinary ratings this is not its strongest point. It is good on a fairly superficial level and shows the teamwork needed to survive the awful conditions, but there is little in depth of characterisation and sometimes it feels a little corny. Where women do feature it is as lovers and wives of the men and one particular episode could qualify as a contender for the best "bad sex" episode of the year, remembering that the year is 1951. It could be said that Monsarrat never gets far beneath the oil skins. Where the novel ca appear even more unstuck when read today is when it strays into an insidious patriotism. I fully understand that people signing up for the war effort were brave and patriotic, but one gets the feeling when talking about other nations that Monsarrat is merely mouthing the xenophobia that was in existence at the time.

Reading the novel gives a seemingly authentic account of the struggle to keep the convoy system in operation across the Atlantic during the war and as such provides an historical retelling as seen through the eyes of one of its participants. Conditions on board the small boats were both difficult and horrifying and Monsarrat does not spare his readers some of the more gruesome details. This was a wartime situation and Monsarrat's descriptions would be vivid enough to put the book into the anti-war camp for many readers. A cruel sea, a cruel war and an intolerable strain on the men who had to survive the conditions. Its not great literature: its all a bit too episodic for that, but it places the reader inside those small ships amongst the stink of oil and seawater to create an exciting account and a 4 star read.

57librorumamans
Dec 18, 2020, 12:41pm

>56 baswood:

Thanks for this. I'd forgotten about The Cruel Sea, which I read a long, long time ago as a child or early teen. With this reminder, I remember that it made a big impression on me.

58Macumbeira
Dec 20, 2020, 6:59am

4 star indeed !

59baswood
Edited: Jul 31, 2021, 1:23pm



Alberto Moravia - The Conformist
Bernado Bertolucci - Il conformista
My last read of a book published in 1951 in the year 2020; proved to be one of the best reads of the year and I got to see an impressive film to boot. Facist Italy in 1937 forms the backdrop to much of Moravia's The Conformist although there is also a sojourn in Paris. The novelist focuses on Marcello who works for the state and drifts into espionage, but this is a story of Marcello's voyage of self discovery as he scrutinises his own actions in an attempt to fit in; to achieve a much sought after normalcy after believing himself to be abnormal. Moravia shows us everything through Marcello's eyes and yet the writing keeps just a little distance from him, because of Marcello's tight control of his emotions and one wonders if he is a character without a soul; perhaps a character like Meursault in Camus L'etranger. It has a feeling of an exercise in existentialism although Moravia does not stray into absurdism. The novel bristles with themes and ideas as we follow Marcello's journey through life; the grimy world of espionage, homosexuality, desire, religion, a tightly controlled police state and the inevitability of reactions as a result of actions taken.

In a prolog to the main action of the novel we meet Marcello as an innocent thirteen year old who is bullied at school and whose father is well on the way to his insanity and his mother has her own issues. Marcello takes pleasure in killing lizards and to his surprise discovers that his behaviour is seen as abnormal by his friend next door. He is picked up while walking home from school by a man driving an impressive car and bargains with him to obtain a hand gun. He avoids being raped by shooting his adversary Lino (a defrocked priest) and escapes any consequences. This incident remains with him all his life. We pick up Marcello's story in his early thirties; he has graduated and is a government employee, a member of the facist party and about to get married. He concentrates his efforts into being a good husband and model employee, but his enthusiasm to do what is expected of him is derailed by his selection to carry out a clandestine operation by his employers and the sexual desire of his fiancé.

His acceptance of his part in a mission to kill his old and revered professor who is making anti-fascist waves in Paris and his attraction to the professors wife (Lina) leads to further complications, but Marcello's psychopathic tendencies enable him to find his way through. It is a complicated situation made more so by the professor's young wife wanting to seduce Marcello's fiancé Giulia and the professor himself refusing to acknowledge the machinations of the fascist plot. There are some brilliant set piece incidents in the book which make great subject matter for the film: Marcello must go to confession before his marriage and decides to confess to the murder of Lino, the professor and his wife take Marcello and his wife who are on their honeymoon to a lesbian club in Paris, the fall of Mussolini and Marcello's flight to the countryside. These incidents along with the earlier one of Marcello's seduction by Lina are used by Bertolucci's to create a sort of cut and paste cinema style. Marcello just appears to move on to the next thing he must do, hardly questioning anything, sleepwalking almost in his desire to be seen as normal. He enjoys the regularity of life as a government employee, he looks forward to a settled marriage, but must exert an almost iron willed control on his emotions and feeling that threaten to disrupt his life. This is a tightly controlled novel with sinister overtones that is unsettling in its depiction of Marcello as a man just on the outer edge of normalcy.

The film released in 1970 is an impressive piece of artwork. The director uses a backdrop of modernist monumental architecture with its impeccable clean lines and grandeur that dwarf the human characters. It lends an added depth to the character of Marcello who is a character with a vital something missing. It expresses the would be power of the fascist state and its overriding feeling of control permeates throughout. It is also a good backdrop to the decadence of the principal characters, both morale and physical. Like the book the film has an unsettling edge to it enhanced by the performance of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello. I think it is a visual masterpiece; a delight to the senses. I viewed the film just after finishing the book and although the film is not exactly faithful to the book I found my imagination bouncing around between the two. You can hardly have a better compliment to the film maker.

There is no doubting the erotic charge to the book which the film does not quite capture in all its complexities but here is an example:

In Lina, was the purity he seemed to perceive there - mortified in the prostitute, triumphant in Lina. He now understood that only the radiant light emanating from Lina's forehead could dissipate the disgust for decadence, corruption and impurity that had burdened him all his life and which his marriage to Giulia had in noway mitigated.

The eroticism is set by the female characters, they make the decisions, they make the first move, they look to satisfy their desires. They threaten Marcello's ideal world of order and conformity, but they don't threaten his inviolable inner world. This is a novel that would benefit from a re-read and it would go back on my shelf, however I note that I have got the kindle version, my old penguin orange and white cover hard copy must have bitten the dust some time ago - 5 stars.

60Macumbeira
Dec 29, 2020, 3:44pm

Bravo !

61baswood
Jan 2, 2021, 6:38am



Nones - W. H. Auden
When this collection of poetry was published in 1951, many people considered Auden to be the greatest living poet, however some would claim that his best poetry was behind him and that he had to some extent lost his voice when war was declared in 1939. I am no expert on Auden's poetry only dipping in to various poems in anthologies and such like. My impression is that Auden is a poet of many faces for example some poems can be almost childlike in their simplicity and rhyming patterns with a sing-song like quality, while others can be wilfully obscure with no discernible structure and almost everything else in between. What is palpably obvious was that Auden was always in control of his technical ability and if the poems were open to interpretation then that was part of the process. I was excited then to read a collection of his later poems that he had put together for publication.

The collection starts with an introductory poem seemingly a dedication and entitled "To Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr" The Niebuhr's were academics and theologians and were in correspondence with Auden over a number of years and especially at a time when Auden had returned to Christianity. They were also like Auden making a new life for themselves in America. The poem starts with the line;

"We, too, had known golden hours,"

and ends with the quatrain

"And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburbs of dissent."


Auden knew that some of his devotees and critics were after him, but in this collection he seems not to care, producing a few of the more simple nursery type poems along with those where a dictionary of obscure/antiquated words would be helpful. What is evident is that many of the poems have a religious quality about them, a basic christian believe in God. This rarely becomes so overt that it feels like preaching, but many of the poems have this belief at their heart.

It would seem that most of the poems had been written during the period 1948-51 and so the big event in many people lives was a readjustment after the end of the second world war and Auden whatever one could accuse him of was never a poet to cocoon himself from current events and so this collection of a moment in time reflects the poets thought and fears for humanity first, and himself second. There are some wonderful poems in this collection there are also some that I don't pretend to understand and others that I just don't like, but most have that technical quality that makes them a joy to read. What is typical of the poet for me is that a poem will open with an idea that stimulates my imagination and then as it goes on I find myself getting lost as where it is going, stopping to think is an absolute requirement in a poem like "In Praise of Limestone" which seems to have a theme of the loss of innocence. I love some of the individual lines, but cannot always see the connection. I found myself looking at an analysis of the poem by other readers on the internet and discovered that they were as clueless as me. There is so much packed into those lines that an overall understanding is difficult and left me with the conclusion that I would probably read the poem differently every time I re-read it. Perhaps not a bad thing.

There were plenty of poems that I really enjoyed "Not in Baedeker" where the speaker reminisces about a town that was once the centre for a huge lead mine, but now after a relatively few decades the only evidence of the mine itself is in the contours of the landscape. It is an ugly looking poem but spoke to me because I lived for a time in an old lead mining village. "Ischia" is a homage to Southern Italy and the pleasures for a visitor but Auden warns:

"Nothing is free, whatever your charge shall be paid
That these days of exotic splendour may stand out
In each lifetime like marble
Mileposts in an alluvial land"


"The fall of Rome' where each stanza is a vignette of the fall of civilization. The 'Managers' which muses on those sometime faceless people that have control over your destiny. 'A Household' where the "man" of the house believes his own lies. The 'Duet' is another of my favourite poems. The speaker contrasts a singer of classical music giving a recital in a warm rich household while outside in the cold winter a scrawny beggar is an organ grinder:

“But to her gale
Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness
That ragged runagate opposed his spark”


The title poem "Nones" is one of the more difficult poems to come to grips with as a whole, but each stanza deals with an aspect of humanity's shortcomings and ends with the thought that although we can heal ourselves ; death is coming. The collection ends with two absolute crackers. "The Precious Five Senses" where Auden devotes a stanza each to Nose-smell, Ears-hearing, sight-seeing, tongue-women (oops), hands-touch and brings these all together in a final stanza. The poem is both witty and thought provoking in equal measure; here is the opening lines to the stanza on ears:

Be modest, lively ears,
Spoiled Darlings of the stage
Where any caper cheers
The paranoic mind
Of this undisciplined
And concert-going age,
So lacking in conviction
It cannot take pure fiction
And what it wants from you
Are rumours partly true`


A Walk after Dark the final poem sounds personal to me; readers of poetry are encouraged to think of a neutral speaker as the voice of the poem, but in this instance It is personal:

"Now, unready to die
But already at the stage
When one starts to dislike the young
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of middle age."


The poet takes a walk and looks up at the stars and thinks about the state of the world, and his own place in it, but it ends with a note of uncertainty eased by his new friends in his adopted country:

"But the stars burn overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgement waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States."


Writing about and reliving some of these poems is surely what reading is all about. Another great publication from 1951 and a five star read

62baswood
Jan 20, 2021, 12:41pm


A Question of Upbringing - Anthony Powell - 1951
A Buyer's Market - Anthony Powell - 1952
The Acceptance World - Anthony Powell - 1955

The next book on my 1951 reading list was A question of Upbringing; this is the first part of Anthony Powell's 12 volume series A Dance to the Music of Time. It was much better value to buy the first three volumes in one book rather than just the first volume and as they were there in front of me I read all three volumes: I am just grateful that I did not buy all 12. Powells immense saga follows the lives of a number of individuals who meet as students at their Public School in the early 1920's. We follow the story in the first person through the eyes and many thoughts of Nick Jenkins, who like most of his school friends comes from a well-to-do family and these three books take us up to 1933. Anthony Powell was educated at Eton and Balliol college Oxford and his series of novels has the feel of an autobiography, certainly the milieu of Public school and debutante balls and then sliding into well paid positions of employment either in the city or through contacts made at University has a ring of authenticity. The social milieu could be described as upper middle class with plenty of Lords and Ladies hovering around the upper echelons.

Readers seem to have a love-hate relationship with this series of books and I can understand just why that is. Powell writes, as one might not be too surprised from his background, with a plum in his mouth and sometimes that plum becomes so large that the reader losses much of what is said. His long sentences with their many sub-clauses can become indistinct at best and completely obfuscate any meaning at worst. I lost count of the number of times I got to the end of one of these epics with only a vague impression of what I had just read. This style of writing is particularly evident in the second volume, and although it does occurs in volume three; The Acceptance World this book is a little more focused. One might give credit to Powell for imitating the confused thoughts of a 20 year old just making his way in the world, but I think this would be generous. Much Of volume 2 is focused on two events a debutants ball and a rather more bohemian party that some stragglers get to afterwards. Our protagonist Nick while spending much time describing the details of the guests dress and manners, their opulent surroundings and some of the events he witnesses, seems at a loss to understand their behaviour and even incidents in which he becomes involved remain a bit of a mystery.

Powell looks at everything through his protagonist Nick from an establishment point of view. This is a novel that reinforces the rigid class system that existed for wealthy people in the 1920's-30's and one could argue that Powell has his finger on the pulse of this era, however I sense an admiration of the social milieu in which he places his characters, it is though he is saying how wonderful it all was. One of the characters Widmerpool (we hardly ever learn their Christian names) who is less wealthy than most and realises he must work twice as hard as his contemporaries to get on says "brains and hard work are of very little avail unless you know the right people". This proves to be over optimistic because it is not the connections you might be able to forge, but the connections that your father or grandfather were able to make. It was all down to the position of your family in society. Widmerpool like other characters who were not from the right families are figures of fun in Powells hands, all the jokes are on them because they do not know how to behave correctly. It is all very well to have an accurate description of the young wealthy class in the period in which they lived, but not perhaps at the expense of all else. Reading the novels made me feel that they were outdated, but then thinking about the public school boys that currently run the British government in 2021; perhaps nothing much has changed.

Powells characterisations of his female characters are depressingly familiar; judged on their attractiveness to the male gaze and their propensity to conform to their partners wishes. Independently minded women are seen as either a threat or something to be managed and forever remain a mystery to their male counterparts. Nick himself who is very much a cypher in that he is a witness to events that happen around him, rather than instigating any of them, becomes in the third volume active in pursuing a love affair, but he is like a blind man stumbling towards an urge that needs satisfying.

There is much in these novels that were not to my taste, but they can have a dream like quality enhanced by Powells writing style. Characters did not elicit my care or sympathy for their predicaments, but I did enjoy the slow pace of the events and the insight of a world that I know existed and perhaps still exists. I will not be tempted to read any more of the books in this series; three were enough and I rate them as follows:
A Question of Upbringing - 3 stars
A Buyers Market - 2.5 stars
The Acceptance World - 4 stars.

63baswood
Edited: Jan 28, 2021, 6:46am



John Roy Carlson - Cairo to Damascus.
"With the radical I was a radical, With the communist I was a pro communist, with the fascists, pro fascist; with the anti-Zionists, anti jewish. All these and many other roles I had assumed to survive"

John Roy Carlson was a pen name for Arthur Derounian who was an American free-lance investigative journalist. In 1943 he published Under Cover: My Four Years In the Nazi Underworld of America - 'The Amazing Revelation of How Axis Agents and Our Enemies Within are now Plotting to Destroy the United States'. His book was a best seller and so in 1947 he decided to use his contacts to infiltrate the fascist groups that were working in Cairo Egypt to train and finance the Arab volunteers, who were launching a Jehad against the Jews in Palestine following the UN resolution to partition the country. Cairo to Damascus published in 1951 was the book resulting from his undercover activities. He arguably got closer to the action and a better understanding of the situation than the bus load of journalists covering the events who were working for various newspapers.

By the very nature of his task of spinning lies and disinformation to infiltrate and meet protagonists in a dangerous war torn situation, the reader might be suspicious that Derounian's writing is as much about the exploits of Derounian as the events that he describes. While this is true to a certain extent, because he explains in some detail the manoeuvres and tricks that he carried out to achieve his aims and the dangers to himself, he does not place himself above the events that he describes. His book is an important eye witness account of a dangerous conflict by an experienced journalist who developed sympathies to people on both sides in the struggle.

Derounian used previous contacts in the fascist underworld as well as his birthright as an Armenian to gain the confidence of the Arab volunteers, who were whipped up into a holy war against the Jews in Palestine. He managed to meet the movers and shakers in the two main volunteer groups; the Green shirts and the Muslim Brotherhood. When a brigade of the Green Shirts finally left Cairo, Derounian travelled with them as a photographer and sympathiser. The only way he could achieve this was to convince his compatriots that he was also extremely anti-Semitic. The Arabs were intent on killing as many Jews as possible at the behest of Allah. Derounian lived with the fighters in their advanced position outside the gates of Jerusalem and described the horrendous conditions under which they fought. They were a rag-tag of an army indisciplined, under prepared, unruly and lacking any sort of professionalism. They were both fanatical and cowardly, but Derounian grew to understand their passion and their hospitality and became attached to some of the individuals. The Arabs launched attacks against the Jewish Kibbutz outposts, which were at times spectacularly unsuccessful, but the Arabs had the numbers and were in a position to shell the new town of Jerusalem. Derounian was able to slip out into the Armenian quarter of the old town: The Vank and from their cross over to the Jewish side and talk his way into meeting the Jewish Haganah commanders. He stayed with them while they resisted the Arab onslaught of the Jewish part of Jerusalem and reported the inhabitants hardships, the hunger, the continuous bombardment and the grief over the dead. He managed to get back to the Armenian quarter to witness the Jewish Surrender.

At the end of the British Mandate the Arabs found themselves out fought by the much better armed and trained Israelis whose passion for their new country surpassed that of the Arab invaders, but Derounian himself was under increasing suspicion from both sides in the conflict and needed to get out fast, he then travelled to Bethlehem, Jericho, Amman and Damascus. In Damascus he managed to meet briefly with the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Hussein who was involved in financing and supporting the Arab movement. He also met with Nazi organisers and military advisers. He went onto Lebanon, before finely taking ship with Jewish refugees on their way to Israel, where he toured and experienced the Kibbutz movement at first hand. In 1948 he visited his birthplace now Alexandroupolis in Greece and was appalled by the poverty surrounding his old house before thankfully getting back to the United States.

Derounian proves to be a good reporter he has a connection with the countries he visits, but that is tinted by his American statehood and the culture of his new country. He is amazed by the dirt and filth of Cairo and the feudal civilisation that he witnesses. The extreme poverty and the small percentage of very rich people who have an iron grip on the country. He was able to witness Jerusalem just as the British mandate finished and describes the destruction he saw at the Christian holy sites. In Damascus he witnessed an Israeli aircraft attack on the capital, just two aircraft, but an absolute shock to the Arabs who thought that were going to drive the Jews into the sea. Derounian's book captures the hatred felt by both sides through his own personal experiences: in one of his attempts to cross from the Arab front line back to Jerusalem he gets lost in the darkness and at dawn he meets an old Arab on a donkey he greets him in Arabic fashion, but the old man screams 'Yahoodi' and draws his knife a young Arab races along the track with his knife drawn and it is only Derounian's quick thinking and access to credentials that prove he is attached to the Arab military that save him. Derounian says his biggest danger was producing the wrong documents when challenged as he had pockets full of recommendations and passes from both the Arab side and the Jewish side, he had to remember which pocket held which.

Derounian finishes his book on thoughts of his life in the new dynamic civilisation of America which develops into a panegyric for his adopted homeland. He then picks up a copy of the New York Herald Tribune at Athens airport while waiting for his flight home and reads of disquieting reports of political conflicts, of fear and hysteria and threats to destroy our cherished freedom and ends with:

I stood wondering: had I not already seen two worlds - the East and the West - wracked by dissension, by narrow nationalisms, by selfish interests? Was my country now beginning to travel the same path? Were we - at a time when half the world was engulfed by tyranny - beginning to darken the major beacon of faith in, and hope for the future? These were my thoughts as I left Athens.

I found it an educational experience to look though Derounian's eyes; a first hand experience of events in Arab countries after the second world war. The strong influence of German fascism that was still gripping the Arab world, the hatred fuelled by past events and the poverty that calls for for someone to blame: a whipping boy. The all pervading grip of religious calling and religious propaganda resulting in destruction and war. Derounian proves to be a lively reporter of events and even if you might think he exaggerates his own escapades, there is no doubting his keen observations from his experiences on the front line of the conflict. 4.5 stars.

64Macumbeira
Jan 30, 2021, 1:24pm

"With the radical I was a radical, With the communist I was a pro communist, with the fascists, pro fascist; with the anti-Zionists, anti jewish. All these and many other roles I had assumed to survive"

The survivor reflex !
Great review !

65baswood
Feb 5, 2021, 8:09am



Arthur Koestler - The Age of Longing, Arthur Koestler
Published in 1951 this novel by Koestler seems to have been largely forgotten and I find it difficult to understand why this should be so, because it is a cracking good read. Koestler was living in Paris at the time of writing and he imagines the city a few years later as the hub of a struggle between the West and the communist East. In the book he has re-labelled the communists as the Free Commonwealth and since the end of the second world war their power and influence has increased to such an extent that the West fears that Europe will soon be swallowed up in their expansionist policies. At the start of the novel Koestler zooms in on an intellectual soirée celebrating the storming of the Bastille, where Monsieur Anatole holds court. The guest list includes the newly arrived Attaché from the Free Commonwealth (Fedya Nikitin), an American colonel and his daughter Hydie a smattering of french intellectuals including Pontieux (who maybe Jean-Paul Sartre) and would be dissidents from the Commonwealth. During the excitement of the Firework display Hydie accidentally bloodies the Attachés nose and during the confusion and fuss of cleaning jackets, picks up his notebook which seems to contain a list of names.

Koestler takes his readers inside the house and vividly relates the various conversations revealing the tensions between the East and the West and the uncertainties of the french intellectuals. The story will develop with a love affair between Hydie and Fedya and Koestler details the backgrounds of his two protagonists. Fedya comes from an impoverished backward part of Russia, but his father was a hero and martyr of the revolution and so he has been able to work his way up through the party machine to have his first posting in the decadent West. Hydie by contrast comes from a wealthy American family and was educated in a convent, but at 23 years old she has already been married and divorced. Another soirée at the house of monsieur Anatole a couple of months later brings more tension, as it takes place just after the announcement of the death of the Father of the Commonwealth (Stalin): the would be dissidents are wondering which way to jump and the french intellectuals are also on uncertain ground. Meanwhile Fedya and Hydie have entered into a tempestuous love affair and Delattre a French poet surmises that such a relationship can end in one of three ways:

The Taming of the Shrew
Samson and Delilah
or even: Judith and Holofernes.

An atomic bomb explosion deep inside the Commonwealth raises tensions further and the various characters must come to terms with world events that will reshape their lives, or lead to their early deaths. Someone says the morbid longing of our age is the nostalgia for the Absolute, as the anti- clericalism of the Commonwealth threatens to overwhelm catholic France. The Western nations come under much criticism and self criticism as Koestlers witty and cogent dialogue, describes the various nationalities through delightful repartee that does not spare anybody:

Leontiev (a commonwealth dissident) had once read a book called Alice in Wonderland and since that time knew that it was no use trying to argue logically with an Englishman.

Comment to an American - “you are a negro-bating, half civilized nation ruled by bankers and gangs, whereas your opponents have abolished capitalism and at least have some ideas in their heads."

On the Western Press: "You have teachers to educate the children, but you have gangsters take charge of the uneducated masses who are just like children."

The French are characterised as a nation ready to roll over and adapt to a new regime, but some will make a"grand gesture" in the face of the inevitable. The Commonwealth are likened to a giant washing machine which will wash clean all the individuality from the cultures that they forcibly stuff into their mechanism.

Koestler's story is a good one steeped in the atmosphere of Paris, which is desperately trying to become the Gay Paris of the period before the war, but whose intellectual community struggle with their existential existence. The linking device of Monsieur Anatole's soirees create an atmosphere that co-exists with the struggles of the individuals who frequent his salon. The book ends with Monsieur Anatole's funeral cortege and the bewildered characters travel in horse drawn carriages through a Paris where rumours abound of a Commonwealth invasion and the people inside the carriages contemplate their next move. It finishes off the novel in some style.

Koestler captures the thoughts and anxieties of a post war community centred in Paris, but with heightened tension caused by the aggressive expansionism of the Free Commonwealth (Russia) and the puzzle of an atomic explosion deep within Russian territory. The affair between an American woman and a Commonwealth apparatchick never pretends that it will be able to transcend the differences between the cultures and carries all the more authenticity for that reason. The book sometimes finds itself in the genre of science fiction, because Koestler is imagining a situation a few years in the future, but it reads more like an alternate history; a slightly different time line perhaps. Whatever genre one chooses in which to place it, I think it is a clever, thoughtful novel: one that raises many issues still relevant today and with a backdrop of the city of Paris about to stare into the abyss along with Hydie and Fedya's doomed love affair there are enough thrills to make this a five star read. A real gem.

I wonder if Jean-Paul Sartre was amused by this supposed conversation by his fellow countrymen:

"He had a truly pernicious influence on the younger generation. In my eyes he is the symbol of the intellect’s betrayal of the spirit
“He is just a clever imbecile said Julien ‘It wasn’t his fault if people took him seriously. He was more surprised about it than anybody else. The funny side of it is that his wife has always been a real honest to God Commonwealth agent a fact which poor Pontieux/Sartre never guessed - and that she of course is free."

66baswood
Feb 9, 2021, 7:30pm



Journey with Genius: Recollections and Reflections Concerning the D H Lawrences by Witter Bynner
Published in 1951 Bynner's well balanced account of his meeting and travels with the Lawrences in 1922/3 was bit of a find for me. In my opinion any list of the greatest writers of the 20th century would include D. H. Lawrence; for three novels in particular: The Rainbow Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover, but in addition there is his poetry and his travel writing. My interest in D. H. Lawrence has led me to read a few biographies and selected letters, therefore an account from a contemporary poet and writer whom I had not come across before, piqued my interest.

Witter Bynner was an American poet and translator who was based in Santa Fe New Mexico and the Lawrences had been given his address as somewhere to stay because of his association with other literary figures and his interest in Lawrence's work. When the Lawrences arrived outside his house there was some kerfuffle because D. H. in his efforts to get out of the car, trod on the frame of a painting he was carrying, breaking it. He was hot and tired and flew into a temper with Frieda his wife blaming her for wanting him to carry the picture. This first sight of the Lawrences set a pattern for their stay with Witter and his secretary and lover "Spud" Johnson. However in spite of Lawrences quicksilver temper they became friendly enough to go together on a trip to Mexico. Witter's book describes their trip, their friendship with both D. H. and Frieda their subsequent communication by letter and finally Frieda's return to New Mexico after D. H.'s death. Witter also with the benefit of knowing Lawrence personally undertakes an evaluation of his work.

The book could be retitled Journey with a Genius behaving badly. D. H. Lawrence at this time was obviously not a well man and his constant restlessness did not make him an ideal travelling companion. Frieda was the rock on which he leant on, but their stormy relationship, which proved to be rock solid was just something friends and acquaintances had to deal with in entertaining them both. It would seem that Witter certainly had problems and their fairly long vacation at Lake Chapala where the Lawrences rented a house was difficult. The Lawrences wanted Witter to share the house with them, but Witter and Johnson wisely decided to keep a little distance by staying in a local hotel. D. H. Lawrence was certainly a presence and Witter sums up his feelings when thinking about him as:

'Little realizing that the goad of Lawrence's presence was good medicine for my complaisance, I continued fondly pitying Frieda and deploring the lack of love in her husband, deeming him full of fine, fussy, inconsistent theories: stubborn-minded, self willed, and as bloodless as a worm.'

D. H. Lawrence was an iconoclast intent on gouging his own path through life, not worrying at all what others thought of him. Frieda kept him in check to a certain extent, but was beginning to take on the role of nurse to her sick husband. Whatever the feelings were between the two couples they remained on good terms and they enjoyed good times at Lake Chapala.

D. H. Lawrence was busily writing his new novel which was eventually published as "The Plumed Serpent" it is set in Mexico and Lawrence used his experiences that he shared with Witter as events in his book. The bullfight so graphically described in the book and the dances of the native Indians are described by Witter though his own eyes and vouch for Lawrence's depictions. Witter saw what Lawrence saw and was a witness to the events in the book, he also became a thinly disguised character in the book which did not please him overmuch. Witter tells of bathing parties in the lake with Frieda taking part, while Lawrence sat under the shade of a tree hunched over his cheap exercise books furiously writing his novel. Their friendship cooled a little, but when Witter got sick it was Lawrence that stepped in to help him.

Following his remembrances and lively description of the vacation, Witter launches into a criticism of The Plumed Serpent a novel which he did not like and then of Lawrences work in general. He proves to be an insightful critic, but like some critics he seems reluctant to separate the man from his work and this was probably even more difficult for Bynner because of his personal knowledge. He sees the author Lawrence and Frieda, or a mixture of the two in many of the characters in the novels and blames them for spouting what he calls Lawrences ideological murk, which he sees as blocking up many of the books. He is a critic who becomes exasperated by Lawrences views on humankind and the meaning of life and the muddled theories expressed through his characters, which even the most stalwart admirers of D. H. Lawrence would be hard pressed to dismiss entirely. Despite the criticism; the admiration for Lawrences ability to evoke a sense of place, his originality and his probing of the human psyche is given plenty of space. Bynner published a review of The Plumed Serpent which Lawrence read, but in accordance with Lawrences attitude to adverse criticism it was like water of a ducks back and would not impair a friendship. There was also Frieda on hand to smooth things over and calm ruffled feathers. Frieda takes equal billing in Bynner's biography and remembrances.

A biography of an author and particularly ones that includes an evaluation of the oeuvre will appeal to those people who have read the books and who have some knowledge of the life and times. Bynner's recollections of a short period in the life of the D. H. Lawrences bridges a gap of some twenty eight years. Bynner says in his preface to the book that when he met Lawrence for the first time he had not found him an engaging or coercing writer, although he does admit to finding him magnetic and admires his individual, vigorous and imaginative use of English. Despite all this and the obvious difficulties of the Lawrences as travelling companions Bynner has produced an engaging and even handed portrait of the couple. A genuine affection for them comes across and the account of their time together in Mexico where Bynner was a witness to much of what Lawrence experienced is invaluable. He brings to life both D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence at Lake Chapala, a place that Frieda held dear in her own memories. I rate this at 4.5 stars.

67baswood
Feb 23, 2021, 6:40pm



Rain on the Pavements - Roland Camberton
Searching through the lists of publications in the year 1951, I came upon this novel by Roland Camberton and discovered that it had been republished in 2010 by New London Editions an imprint of Five Leaves Publications. The publisher is a small company based in Nottingham, publishing 10-15 books per year with an interest in social history, politics, poetry, Nottingham, London and city scape. I could see why they picked up this out of print novel by Camberton because Rain on the Pavements is set in Hackney; London, it tells a story of life in the London borough between the world wars, of a young man interested in politics, who writes poetry and moves away from his social roots to better himself. A quick search on the internet led me to discover that Roland Camberton was a pseudonym for Henry Cohen, who wrote two novels and quietly disappeared from view after Rain on the Pavements was published.

It is a coming of age novel of the central protagonist David Hirsch who is brought up within a strict Jewish family in the East End of London. Between the wars this area near Whitechapel was home to a large Jewish community and I can imagine that much of the storyline is semi-autobiographical as we follow David through his school years, his studies of the Talmud and his place in the Jewish circle. David through friends and some family members, becomes interested in politics which leads him into the whole gamut of left wing societies, but nothing really sticks. He is more interested in philosophy and poetry and a scholarship takes him to a college, where in his senior years at school he can fully immerse himself in the arts, leaving his jewish roots someway behind him. The early part of the novel describing David's childhood is enlivened by the characters he meets. David himself seems a bit of a cipher, but Yunkel (6 years older than him) takes him on exploratory trips round London and we follow Yunkel's story as a teacher of the Talmud, who becomes a scholar, who can find a position at one of the top religious schools in Poland. The next big influence in David's life is Uncle Harry a more distant relation who owns nothing apart from a set of books and a bicycle; he pedals furiously around the libraries of London getting an education and finally gets a degree after many years of poverty. He writes a novel: titled Failure, that gets published, but does not sell. Then there is the slightly creepy Tony; until David finds a soul mate in Stanley and finds a friend who has similar interests and with whom Davids own character can blossom.

The early part of the novel is dependent on the characters around David for much of its interest, but Camberton does makes them interesting as we follow Davids rather gauche and childish behaviour at school. The novel seems to go through the gears as David's character develops, until he comes into his own, a well rounded young man, wrestling with the problem of whether he should join the International Brigade; fighting a losing battle against Franco's forces in Spain. The novel does suffer a little from too many side stories, it is as though Camberton has created these characters because he could not fit them all into David's character; they feel essential to the novel, but also like add-ons. In my opinion the book comes into its own when David becomes the central pivot for the story, which after all, is his story.

The novel is certainly a social history and a geographical romp around London, at a time when a boy and then a teenager like David could travel around, without too much danger. It captures this epoch where children were largely unaware of the dangers, even when David and Stanley in their late teens explore Soho, searching for the cafe culture, nothing untoward happens to them. They have heard that Soho is a dangerous place, but their nervous exploration and hesitant steps, keep them safe. David witnesses the Cable Street riot from the window of a building in neighbouring Aldgate, recognising older characters from his own social circle.

I can vouch for much of the feel of the East End of London, some of which still remained when I lived there in the 1970's. I lived in Whitechapel with a jewish family at a time when the jewish immigrants were just about clinging onto parts of the East End: the Bangladeshi's had made large inroads into the community at that time. This book is a worthwhile reprint; splendid with its original cover art by John Minton. It had a special interest for me, but I think that other readers might enjoy the atmosphere of a London, now lost, that Camberton creates and the dilemmas facing an intelligent young man who comes of age slightly against the odds. I rate this at 4 stars.

68Macumbeira
Feb 24, 2021, 12:32am

The characters described piqued my curiosity. Fine review Bas. ( as always ). I guess that Camberton needed a few more of such reviews to brake through in '51.

69baswood
Edited: Apr 11, 2021, 6:59am



Mémoires d'Hadrien - Marguerite Yourcenar
Published in 1951 after more than 26 years in conception Yourcenar's book is a tour de force. It takes the form of imagining that Roman Emperor Hadrien (Hadrian) 76AD - 138AD had written a letter to his chosen successor giving him the benefit of his experiences of over 20 years in power. It therefore takes the form of an autobiography as it included his rise to power and his thoughts on the state of the Empire. It could be compared to the memoirs of a contemporary politician, especially as Yourcenar tries to put into words the thoughts of the Emperor. It is a sympathetic portrait, but not a panegyric, but the reader does see events from Hadrians point of view.

Hadrian towards the end of his reign campaigned against a Jewish rebellion in what is known as the Bar Kokhba revolt. He was approaching 60 and the the tribulations of living in an army encampment during a long siege had an effect on his health and by the time he got back to Rome he was an ill man. He started writing his letter and nearly finished it on his death bed: his last words are 'Tâchons d'entrer dans la mort les yeux ouverts...........' His letter tells us the story of his life in chronological sequence, starting with his early upbringing in the Roman Province of Spain, the death of his parents and his schooling in Rome. His tutor had considerable political influence and the intelligent and able Hadrian found himself conscripted into the entourage of the Emperor Trajan. He campaigned with Trajan and numbered among his chosen acolytes, forming a lasting friendship with Plotine; Trajans influential wife. When Trajan died campaigning till the last, he had not got round to publicly naming Hadrian as his successor and there was a sort of palace coup back in Rome to ensure the enemies of Hadrian were summarily despatched. Trajan had looked forward to coming back to Rome as a conquering hero, but Hadrian typically refused all honoured titles on his triumphant entry into the city.

Hadrian was a different animal to Trajan who was a man who had lived to conquer the known world. Hadrian saw the advantages of consolidation, of drawing back to defensible borders and negotiating peace with the barbarians. He wanted to celebrate the glory and the artistic achievements of the Roman world and make some improvements. He had become disgusted by the atrocities committed by both sides in the wars and wanted to achieve a lasting peace. He was secure in his position as Emperor and sought to make changes: changes that we might think progressive, for example improving the financial position of women and putting an end to some of the atrocities committed against the slaves. Writing about these to his chosen successor with his thoughts on progress for the Empire was of course an attempt at laying down a blueprint for the future.

The letter is much more than a guide to his successor because Hadrian clearly wanted to give his side to the story of his life. He was passionate about the classical civilisation of Greece, the fount of all knowledge and artistic creation; he seems to have wanted to make Rome more like Greece particularly Athenian Greece. During his 20 years as Emperor he spent eight of those outside Rome, he loved to travel mixing business with pleasure fascinated by ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. In Greece he met and fell in love with Antinous a fourteen year old Greek boy who became his lover and constant companion for six years. This was perfectly acceptable in Roman times and Yourcenar has Hadrian writing candidly about the love of his life. Antinous committed suicide when he was 20 and the idyllic relationship was over, but Hadrian never got over it. He made statues, he had the body mummified in the Egyptian tradition and even built a city in his honour. Hadrian wonders what part he played in Antinous suicide, because the pair had sought the wisdom of a soothsayer and the prognostication had not been good; so did Antinous sacrifice himself for Hadrian? did he fear that Hadrian was losing interest in him? What is clear is that Hadrian saw himself as protector of the Roman Empire and his love affair with Antinous and ancient Greece was proving a distraction, even if he could not admit to that himself. Hadrian unflinchingly sets this all out in his letter as a mixture of golden memories and some regrets. He is proud of some of his achievements and is in conflict about others. In the final short chapter on his death bed he thinks about the past and the human condition, it is a touching portrait.

Yourcenar put off writing her book until she felt mature enough to do justice to her subject. There are a series of extracts from her notebooks included at the end of the book containing information pertinent to her methods of working and notes on her research. She took pains to make the book as historically accurate as possible. Of course she did not know Hadrians thought process, but this is the art of the novelist to convince her readers that he could have thought along these lines. In my opinion she does an excellent job of creating the milieu of Rome and the empire, at the beginning of the second century; in some parts it feels like a travelogue around an ancient civilisation, however it is the characterisation of Hadrian that is the crowning achievement. We have evidence that Hadrian was a lover of the arts and a poet himself and there are other commentaries about him. Yourcenar has taken the opening line from one of his poems written at the end of his life: Animula, vagula, blandula as the title of her first chapter; her translation of the poem is:

Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again… Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…

A moving portrait of a grand homme and an excellent book and one in which for the most part Yourcenar avoids the trap of putting 20th century contemporary thoughts into the head of a Roman Emperor. A five star read.

70Macumbeira
Apr 13, 2021, 12:49am

Wow ! Great review of a great book Bas. Second time you succeed in sending me to the bookshop to acquire the novel you just reviewed. Well done et merci !

71baswood
Apr 27, 2021, 7:42am



Fires on the plain - Shohei Ooka
An extraordinary novel: a first person account of a conscripted Japanese soldier's fight for survival on a Philippine Island during the latter part of the second world war. It is a gruesome story told in that matter of fact way that seems to be the hallmark of English translations of Japanese literature, but also a keenly observed narrative of the natural world and the thoughts of an individual half crazed with hunger.

Originally published in 1951 this anti-war novel by Shohei Ooka drew on his own experiences as a conscripted soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army fighting on the Philippine islands. He survived the rout of his battalion by the American forces and witnessed the destruction of the vast majority of the men with whom he served. He was one of the lucky ones who became a prisoner of war and was eventually repatriated. Towards the end of the novel his protagonist: private Tamura reflects on his experiences as he tries to make some sense of the horrors of war and why he has been spared:

'People seem unable to admit this principle of chance. Our spirits are not strong enough to stand the idea of life being a mere succession of chances - the idea that is of infinity. Each of us in his individual existence, which is contained between the chance of his birth and the chance of his death, identifies those few incidents that have arisen through what he styles his "will" and the thing that emerges consistently from this he calls his "character" or again his "life". Thus we contrive to comfort ourselves: there is, no other way for us to think.'

During his sojourn on the Island when Tamura is lurching from one desperate situation to another he sees through the jungle a christian church, the sign of the cross beckons him down into a village. His search for salvation through a dimly remembered religion is brutally shattered by his own actions: a chance meeting destroys any hope that he will be saved.

The novel opens with private Tamura being slapped in the face by his squadron leader. He has just been released from a field hospital where he has spent three days suffering from consumption. The squadron leader deems him unfit to fight and therefore not worth sharing the limited food available, he is effectively cast out of the army and told to wait outside the hospital in the hope that he can be re-admitted. He is given six potatoes and joins a group of soldiers who are in a similar position camping around the hospital waiting to die. Chance enters the equation when an American war plane bombs and strafes the hospital, Tamura who is lucky enough to be able to walk, takes to the hillside jungle and forges his own path through the island, looking back down on the carnage below.

Tamura starts on a journey through the lush tropical island eating anything he can find to ward off starvation, despite or because of his light headiness he finds solace in the natural surroundings, the beauty of the natural world, as long as he can avoid the machinery of war and other people. He journeys through the hill country and reaches a flat cultivated plain area where he sees the bonfires. They become a mystery as to why they are lit, are they primitive smoke signals set off by the hostile indigenous population, or are they just part of the normal farming calendar. Tamura becomes fascinated by the columns of smoke: their form and intensity, their place in the natural world. Half starved he finds a hillside deserted cabin, with an abandoned potato crop, he stays, wondering what to do with himself. He is shaken from his reverie by four Japanese soldiers, led by an uncompromising corporal and feels it is his duty to follow them as they search for a way to get off the island. Tamura is soon back with the desperate column of defeated Japanese soldiers who are dying on their feet of hunger and their wounds. A desperate attempt to reach a rallying point is repulsed and individuals are reduced to cannibalism as all order breaks down.

The novel is a vivid description of the horrors of war and the desperate quest for survival. Tamura is not a young man having been conscripted late on into the army, but nothing of his previous experiences equips him to deal with the complete breakdown of civilised life that he encounters on the island. He wrestles with his own actions, how does he preserve his humanity, would he be better off dead? The beauty of the natural world is contrasted by the bestiality of human actions during wartime and Tamura's own slipping into semi delirium as a result of hunger fatigue and his illness.

From my point of view Tamura's thoughts and actions are those of a man from a different culture, certainly a different time and a man who might be more used to life in the raw and the vicissitudes of army life in wartime, but the author still manages to make his situation and his thoughts universal. The setting of the action on a tropical island where the beauty of the surroundings seems to intrude on the carnage of dead corpses makes for an authentic atmosphere. We are not spared the horror of putrefying bodies or the overwhelming stench of death, which permeate the novel, but wonder like Tamura wonders about the fires on the plains how humanity could be dealt such a savage blow. Would we in these circumstances remain sane? A five star read.

72Macumbeira
Apr 27, 2021, 11:01pm

I first thought Shohei Ooka was an obscure forgotten writer, but a quick glance at Wiki showed me he was not. Great review once more Bas, a pleasure to read and thanks for bringing Ooka to our attention. This thread is slowly turning into a TBR or a wish list for me.

73baswood
May 2, 2021, 9:13am



John Steinbeck - The Log from the Sea of Cortez
A journal of a six weeks expedition to the Gulf of California to collect samples for Ed Ricketts Marine biology laboratory in Cannery Row would be a more precise description of a book, whose history of its coming into being is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck's book published in 1951 was an adaption from an earlier book published in 1941 that he co-authored with Ed Ricketts. The earlier book Sea of Cortez: A leisurely journal of Travel and Research: consisted of two parts: a journal of the trip and a species catalogue. The species catalogue was Ricketts own work and he also wrote the journal that forms the basis for the first part: Steinbeck edited and added to it: a more writerly prose and of course his name in order to sell the book. The Log from the Sea of Cortez then is Steinbeck's edition of Ricketts journal (Steinbeck did not keep his own journal) minus Ricketts species catalogue, but with an added potted biography/eulogy to Ricketts his close friend. Ed Ricketts died in a car accident in 1948.

The book reads today primarily as a travelogue to a lonely part of the planet as it existed at a time when America was gearing itself up for a war, which would follow the Japanese attack on Pearl harbour later in 1941. It was an expedition with a purpose to collect marine samples; animal and plant life. Much of the journal is a log of the collecting done at various points along the littoral of the Gulf of California. It describes the landscape, the animals found, the few people met, the poor Mexican towns visited, but most of the time it is a story of tidal pools and rock faces and the difficulties and dangers of prising away animals from their natural habitat. This would all be of limited interest if it was a scientific expedition, but it was not that. There was only one scientist Ed Ricketts, there was an interested amateur Steinbeck and the other four party members were the boats captain and navigator and two working seamen and an engineer from Monterey. This makes six people, the fact that there were eight people on the expedition; two women (Steinbeck wife and the captains wife) who were written out of the journal is another story. The log is written in the first person plural and the 'we' are; Ricketts and Steinbeck. It was a ramshackle show in anybody's language, but carried out with enthusiasm and intent by semi professionals who drank as much beer as they collected samples. The interest lies in their working relationships, their thoughts and ideas of getting away from the stress of their normal daily lives and doing something different. Nothing bad happens, there are no disasters and Ed Ricketts managed to piece together a species catalogue that identified over fifty new species and so a substantial amount of science was done.

Perhaps many of us would like to have gone on such a good time, working expedition with this interesting bunch of characters. There was much talk of bloke-ish escapades mixed together with some philosophising about the meaning of life. Ricketts and Steinbeck were much affected by the marine life they witnessed, there is a famous sentence from the book:

'It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again'

The wonder and the myriad life that they witnessed reinforced their ideas of "is" thinking a non-teleological approach to explaining the mysteries of life. The idea that everything is part of one whole and to gain knowledge one must take into account everything appertaining to the issue in question. The normal cause and effect explanation is not enough. Taking into account everything means mysticism, hearsay, legends, observation, external conditions and probably how much beer you have drunk. It all leads to a fascinating if convoluted chapter of the book that expounds these ideas. Ricketts had published his ideas previously in philosophical pamphlets and this trip obviously encouraged his and Steinbeck's thinking. If the reader is not able to follow all of these ideas, what does come through is an enthusiasm and a wonder for natural life as well as a yearning for a more simple life.

The descriptions of the animal and plant life have the benefit of a scientific eye (Ricketts) enhanced by the descriptive writing of a professional author who was already famous after the publication of Grapes Of Wrath. The knockabout story of the two seaman Sparky and Tiny and an outboard motor that never worked together with six weeks of sunshine and cruising through a little explored part of the world makes an intoxicating mix. I found myself googling the names of the islands and beaches where the cruiser anchored marvelling, at the desolate landscapes and thinking about the clear waters and shuddering at the thought of tearing ones hands collecting spiny urchins from the sharp rocks. The book is very "is" in placing the reader alongside the crew of an expedition that sounds refreshing at a time when we can only dream of doing something similar.

Nothing is perfect and there are lingering doubts about the validity of the whole thing. How much of this was down to exploitation because Ricketts wanted to restock his marine biology lab? that Steinbeck wanted subject matter for a new book and to escape the publicity from his last publication. Why were the women written out of the story, certainly Steinbeck's marriage was going through a difficult period and the couple broke up after this trip, but why all this need for male machismo. The story behind the book and the trip itself will never be fully told and what we have in front of us, is a fascinating account of an expedition that oozes with the marine life that occupied most of the crew most of the time. They somehow made it work and Steinbeck's money financed the expedition and his name helped the sale of the book. Ed Ricketts is the character "Doc" in Cannery Row and John Steinbeck is himself and so anyone with an interest in these two characters should enjoy the book. I did and so 4 stars.

74librorumamans
Edited: May 2, 2021, 3:05pm

>73 baswood:

Fascinating! I scarcely remember Cannery Row, but I don't believe I knew that Doc was based on a real person.

What a pity that so few of the many written-out wives/mistresses/partners have penned their own memoirs.

75Macumbeira
May 3, 2021, 3:39pm

Nice Bas ! Made me think about Cannery Row too, which I read long time ago.

76baswood
May 24, 2021, 3:44pm



Rex Stout - Curtains for Three
Published in 1951 the three novellas that make up Curtains for Three featured Stout's famous detective Nero Wolfe. The first Nero Wolfe story was published in 1934 and the last appeared in 1975 and so this book contains stories that were well set in the groove of "locked room" mysteries. Each of the three stories feature a singular murder and all the possible suspects are introduced early on and the entertainment for the reader is to try and figure out who is the guilty party. These type of detective mysteries are proving as popular today as they were in the 1950's which is borne out by the success of the British TV show 'Death in Paradise' which is in its 10th series with two more in the pipeline. There is very little if any violence, the murders are committed "off screen" as it were and much of the tension is created by solving the mystery.

It helps in a series like this to have characters that are a little different and Nero Wolfe is certainly that. He has his own peculiar eccentricities: he hardly ever leaves his New York Brownstone building, he is grossly overweight, he has a daily schedule that involves spending time with his collection of orchids and meal times cannot be interrupted. He runs his detective agency from an office in his house and all the legwork is done by his employee Archie Goodwin. It is Archie that narrates the stories. Nero Wolfe does not suffer fools gladly and sometimes treats his employees with little respect. He succeeds in solving the mysteries by carefully interviewing the suspects and threatening cajoling or bribing them to get at the truth. Rex Stout puts over these stories with a feel for 1950's streetwise language, which doesn't spill over into the hardboiled language of someone like Dashiell Hammett or James M Cain. Nero Wolfe seems to lack a sense of humour and his pride goes before him.

This was my first reading of a Nero Wolfe story and I was thoroughly entertained. I even got to successfully pick the guilty persons for the first two stories, which probably means I watch far too many detective programs on the TV. Rex Stout writes in an easy flowing style, but this is 1950's America and women are treated typically as of that period. There are no female helpers in the Nero Wolfe household. 3.5 stars.

77librorumamans
May 25, 2021, 12:23am

>76 baswood:

So, does Wolfe read as a mid-century closet case?

78baswood
Jun 23, 2021, 7:55am

Just back from a Vacation and I am glad I did not read this one on the beach.



William Styron - Lie Down in Darkness
William Styron's debut novel published in 1951 looks backwards rather than forwards. It is a depressing social history of an upper middle class Southern American family trapped by religion, alcoholism and an inward looking viewpoint that not even the atomic bombs of the second world war can shake them from their downward spiral. It is a long and exhausting read because Styron lays on the neurosis in thick wads of writing that veers between an omniscient point of view and a stream of consciousness technique. My main criticism of the book is that he attempts to pack in too much into this novel, but there is no doubt that he succeeds in creating an atmosphere of cloying dysfunctionalism that damages everyone associated with the Loftis family

The funeral of the Loftis family's daughter Peyton provides the narrative platform for the story, mainly told in flashbacks. Helen Loftis mother of Peyton is too depressed to go to the funeral and her estranged husband Milton pleads with her to stir herself out of a seemingly terminal lethargy. He only manages to invoke a stream of invective that threatens to re-ignite the embers of an underlying family tragedy. Milton himself is barely able to function and the funeral cortège is beset with mechanical failures as the old funeral vehicles struggle to cope with the heat of a summers day in the State of Virginia. Styron uses Milton's point of view to tell much of the early story. He is typical of his social set in that he relies too much on alcohol and the Country club social whirl to get him through life, but his life is more challenging than most. His first born daughter Maudie was born crippled and mentally retarded and she sucked up all her mothers love and devotion. His second daughter Peyton starved of her mothers love turned to Milton for affection. She developed into a beautiful teenager who soon learn't the art of seduction and her relationship with Milton bordered on the incestuous. Milton becomes an alcoholic and he encourages Peyton to drink along with him, meanwhile Helen turns back towards the religion of her upbringing, using her local pastor and friend: Carey Car for psychological help. Milton Loftis dominates this book his characteristic weaknesses seem to add fuel to the fire of the wrath that is inherent in his family. His dependency on alcohol, his perverted need for Peyton and his struggles with Helen who holds the purse strings. He is Styron's best creation.

The day of Peyton's funeral brings back the tragic incidents of the Loftis families existence and we see these through the memories of Helen and Milton. There was the death of Maudie in a clinic which Milton missed in a drunken haze while searching for Peyton who was intent on following a hedonistic life of her own, there is the relationship of Milton with his long suffering mistress Dolly and there is Helen's psychosomatic illnesses and a search for redemption through religion. There are flash backs also to Peyton's own tragically short life, whose own estrangement from her family seemed to have set her on a course for her own destruction. There are also periods of attempted reconciliation between family members, but the jealousies and the inability to forgive, result in a hatred that pushes them further apart.

Styron has created a family group against a historical backdrop of a Southern American town between the world wars. The town to all intents and purposes is segregated. The family members all refer to the black community as nigger town and they employ black women and men as servants and gardeners. This is an accepted fact of the backdrop to the novel. The involvement of America in the second world war impinges on peripheral family members, but the self centred individuals of the immediate family hardly give it a thought. The introspection is intense and the main characters cannot lift their heads out of their inborn prejudices. The halting procession of the funeral cortège seems to reflect the Loftis families own stumbling path to destruction. The novel ends with the black community celebrating a riverside baptism, their own particular religious enthusiasm contrasting with the crabbed religious belief of Helen Loftis. It is perhaps the only positive note in the whole book.

There is little doubt that Styron's aim was to create a literary novel and his observations and descriptions are redolent of how the reader might imagine a Southern American town and its middle class society: from the writing of someone like F Scott Fitzgerald. However his books were describing an America some 20-30 years earlier and Styron's characters do not seem to have moved on from that. Even the decrepit automobiles of the funeral cortege seem to belong perhaps to another era. This is why the book gives me an impression of looking backwards rather than forwards. Styron perhaps has nothing new to say, he is more interested in re-dressing the past and he does this at some length. Towards the end of the novel there is a long stream of consciousness section which portrays the last days of Peyton's short life and it is a sort of tour de force, brilliantly carried off, but it could quite easily belong to another novel. In its defence it does however fit in with the destructive, depressing and somnolent atmosphere of all that has gone before and brings the story to a logical conclusion. Reading this novel was like taking an unpleasantly warm bath in someone else's misery and I was pleased to be able to put it down, even if the experience was intoxicating at times. 4 stars.

79Macumbeira
Edited: Jun 23, 2021, 1:42pm

phew Bas, the courage you show in finishing a book with such a depressing topic...
Reminds me a bit of as I Lay Dying by Faulkner

Thumbed !

80baswood
Jul 23, 2021, 6:50am



Elizabeth Taylor - A Game of Hiding Seek
Picking a year: just over halfway through the 20th century (1951) and reading as many publications in that year as possible, has introduced me to many authors that I would not otherwise have sat down with. Elizabeth Taylor's; A Game of Hiding Seek was a surprise and a delight to me, almost from the first page. It was her fifth novel; she had first been published in 1945 and so was well into her stride by 1951. The subject matter and the quality of her writing style of this novel would appear to be typical of her work. She writes about the middle class, she writes about England particularly the countryside and she writes about relationships from a woman's point of view, all this I gathered from a sympathetic introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard on my kindle edition.

The plot is a simple one; describing a love affair almost a love infatuation from the point of view of Harriet. She and Vesey spend many of their summer school holidays together in their native England as children and then as young adolescents during the period between the two great wars. Their families were closely connected, but it was Vesey who came to stay with Harriet until their fifteenth year, when Harriet's mother decided that is was no longer a suitable arrangement. Vesey was a difficult schoolboy, a little out of step with his compatriots. He did not make friends easily, he could be a little spiteful and did not settle down to work at his studies. Harriet seems to have been just the opposite, but she fell in love with Vesey, who was always inclined to do something to upset the grown ups. Harriet loses contact with Vesey and in her twentieth year marries Charles a well set up man, some fifteen years older than herself. She can never quite forget her first feelings for Vesey although happily married to Charles. She has caught sight of Vesey once or twice at formal family gatherings, but it is 20 years later when she has her own fifteen year old daughter that Vesey intrudes into her life and so starts the second part of the novel and where Taylor's writing really takes off.

The manners and mores of English country life is brought vividly to life by Taylor. Harriet is conscious of fitting in, she has made a good marriage from a financial point of view and buckles down to making Charles as happy as she can. Harriet's mother was a suffragette and had been imprisoned, but to Harriet this seems like another lifetime and not hers. She works hard for her husband and her family, but still cannot forget Vesey. The subject of the book is a love affair, the sort of affair that many readers at the time would have been able to identify/sympathise with: that love affair that seems to fly in the face of all that is comfortable and expected, a love so deep that cannot be forgotten and springs back into life sometimes quite unexpectedly. Taylor does not pass any judgements on her characters, she lets their lives flow just edging their story along in a way that really does feel quite natural.

This is not a modern forward looking novel, it seems steeped in the times in which it was written, remembering that the first part of the book covers a period between the wars. In the early 1950's middle class people still had servants or companions, fitting in, getting back to some sort of normality after the war, was what many people wanted. Taylor captures this atmosphere perfectly for me and I was entranced by some of her writing and her characters and so a 4.5 star read.

81baswood
Edited: Oct 28, 2021, 2:09pm

T H White - The Goshawk
A misanthropic man meets a misanthropic bird so let battle commence.
This is an autobiographical account of White's struggle to train a goshawk to be a companion and hunting bird. White was a man in touch with the natural world, who valued the friendship of animals rather than fellow human beings. He welcomed the challenge of training a goshawk, without any detailed knowledge of falconry, relying on his own observations and knowledge of the natural world. It is a rugged and curiously unemotional story, told straight from the falconer's glove.

The book was published in 1951, however it feels much older than that. It was completed some fifteen years earlier and so represents the epoch just before the second world war. The style of writing feels even older as there are few references to the modernist styles of Joyce, Lawrence or Woolf. White muses on his fledgling career as a writer at the start of his story after two earlier attempts at science fiction:

"But what an earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird."

The goshawk arrives trying to force its way out of a cloth covered box and the author's task has begun. After managing to settle the bird down he prepares to spend three days awake in order for the bird to tire itself into sleep. This seems to be a task that White has invented for himself and although he is right to say that there are no easy options, this course of action seems to be masochistic. Every time that White approached the bird it would 'bate': that is flap his wing enough to tumble off the perch and hang upside down fastened by his tress, finally he has success as the bird feels comfortable enough to sleep. The next six weeks are spent with the bird as almost a constant fixture on his gloved hand. White got used to doing most things with one hand using his free hand to write daily notes of his progress. The book is therefore a summary of these daily notes as Whites ambition is to achieve the five great milestones of falcon training: the moment when the bird first ate, the moment when it gave in to its master after the watch, the moment when it flew to his fist, the moment when it flew to him from a distance of 100 yards and the moment when it made its kill.

The bird proves difficult to master and White finds himself taking one step forward and then almost immediately two steps back. It increases his natural pessimism and the situation in 1936 with the fascists in power in Germany and Italy increases his bitter mood:

'In the end one did not need European civilisation, did not need power, did not need most of ones fellow men, who were saturated by both these: finally would not need oneself.'

It becomes a fierce struggle between man and bird as to who would be master and this reader felt that they probably deserved each other. The strengths of the book are the details of this struggle and White's observations of the countryside around him. It is the height of summer, but there are many days of bad weather and this book is a gloomy struggle: relentless and unrelieving. I had enough of White and his goshawk long before the end of the book 3 stars.

82librorumamans
Oct 29, 2021, 4:09pm

>81 baswood:

And as you may know, Helen Macdonald makes some very sharp observations about White in H is for Hawk!

83baswood
Dec 19, 2021, 4:21pm

The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouke
1951 saw a trio of books depicting life in the armed forces during the second world war, that all made it onto the best selling lists: I have recently read From here to Eternity, and The cruel Sea and now it is the turn for The Caine Mutiny which is also a bit of a doorstop. Apart from their length and the fact they were aimed at the popular market they have much else in common: the authors based the novels on their own war time experiences, they depict an armed forces struggling to hold together a complicated war machine, a machine that has no room for individuals and one in which men (and they are all men) must grow quickly in inducting themselves into a disciplined service. Herman Wouke takes his readers through the war years from the point of view of Willie Keith: a new officer recruit in the United States Navy posted on the USS Caine, a minesweeper. The parallels with the other two novels were so distinct that clearly the authors had similar war time experiences.

The USS Caine is an old destroyer converted into a minesweeper; Captain Devries, commands his boat through his most senior officers and Willie Keith must fit in to the command structure. Willie comes from a good family with money and soon runs into difficulties, but he survives his initial training period and is glad to see the back of Devries when he is replaced by Captain Queeg. The new Captain proves to be just as tyrannical as Devries, but without Devrie's talent for seamanship. Queeg proves to be an unstable character and the central theme of the novel is at what point should the officer class beneath him reject his authority. When should he be challenged? The mutiny in question is when the second in command (LT Meryk) feels it necessary to replace the Captain when the safety of the ship and the crew is in serious danger. Their follows a court-martial where the sanity of Captain Queeg is under investigation. A court room drama is played out with a hot-shot lawyer on the side of the mutineers.

Wouk writing clearly from his own experiences gives a claustrophobic impression of one of the old converted cramped minesweepers. A working group of men who must carry out mundane tasks under the whims and caprices of a commander determined to run things his own way. The theatre of war does intrude, but this in really only background to the competition and struggles of the working group. There is a love story and a tug of war between Keith's mother and his showgirl girlfriend, but the characterisation of the female figures lags somewhat behind the men on the ship. Wouk rather cheekily has one of his officers intent on finding time to write a novel, a wartime novel of course. It is Captain Queeg who dominates most of the novel he has such a presence that even when he is absent from a scenario the other characters feel his presence. Wouk handles the action scenes well enough: the typhoon that leads to the mutiny, the kamikaze attack on the ship, the courtroom scene and the very curious hunt for the missing strawberries. Its all very readable. I would certainly not place this in a category of an anti-war novel. The underlying theme is one of duty and serving ones country. I am sure that many people will have seen the film version, which has the advantage perhaps of cutting away some of the padding. In my opinion it is not quite on a par with From Here to Eternity or The Cruel Sea and it does not approach the brilliance of Fire on the Plain also published in 1951 and so 3.5 stars.

84Macumbeira
Dec 20, 2021, 12:58pm

Bravo Bas ! Interesting. I have seen the movie but not read the book.
I read the Cruel Sea a few years ago and I remember the claustrophobic atmosphere all along the pages.

The Second world fictional war book which made the biggest impression on me was Mailer's The naked and the dead.

85baswood
Dec 28, 2021, 5:31pm



Eric Ambler - Judgement on Deltchev
Ambler was a British author of thrillers and specialised in spy thrillers. He was noted for adding a new realism into his novels. His novels appeared in two batches: the first six from 1936 to 1940 and then a gap of eleven years until Judgement of Deltchev which appeared in 1951: he continued publishing novels until 1981. His most acclaimed novel before the second world war was The Mask of Dimitrios, which I read and enjoyed some years ago.

Judgement of Deltchev is a story based around the show trial of Bulgarian politician Nikola Petkov who was executed in 1947. Ambler turns these events into a power struggle between the ruling elite, and in his novel it is Deltchev who is on trial for treason in an unnamed Eastern European state. In several of his spy thrillers Ambler uses the trope of an amateur getting involved in a deadly political game and it is used again here. Foster is an American playwright, who unexpectedly receives a commission to report on a show trial taking place in a Balkan state. It is a first person account by Foster who admits that he finds himself over his head in the intrigue. He is met by Pashik on his arrival in the country, who becomes his guide/handler. He takes an instant dislike to Pashik who tells him that his account of the trial must go through the official censorship channels. Pashik's advice is to write nothing until he leaves the country. Foster strains against the restrictions imposed and seeks to meet members of Deltchev's family and his political allies to round out a portrait of the accused. This digging for information gets him involved in the political power struggle and endangers his and Pashik's life. A feature of the novel is the relationship between Foster and Pashik, with each of them struggling to trust each other.

The story has elements of mystery as the reader stumbles along in the dark with Foster as he tries to understand the events going on around him. Ambler creates a realistic atmosphere of subterfuge in a milieu of an eastern European state emerging from the second world war, with rival factions searching for influence in the East (Russia) or the West America. Fosters investigations serve to arouse the suspicions of almost everyone he meets and it becomes clear there is much more going on behind the scenes of the show trial. It all leads to a tense climax with Foster barely escaping becoming involved in a coup d'etat.

Amber has to rely on at least three significant information dumps within the novel to keep the reader informed of the necessary background to the story, and these happen when Forster seemingly puts himself in danger. It is however, a well written plot based novel with some interesting characters and reminded me a little of Graham Greene's entertainments, although characterisation and psychology in Amber's novel take second place to the unfolding story. Reading the novel some 70 years after publication enabled me to step back from the contemporary issues of the time, and the criticism that Ambler was more unsympathetic to the Eastern block countries than in his pre-war novels. 3.5 stars.

86baswood
Feb 27, 6:39pm



Mulk Raj Anand - Seven Summers
Published in 1951 this is the first part of a projected seven volume autobiography. Anand died in 2004 at the age of 98 having completed 4 volumes of the autobiography, the last instalment was published in 1985 and so he had plenty of time to complete his project. I guess he just lost interest.
Seven summers covers his early years from his first memories until the age of nine which coincides with the start of the first world war in 1914. Fortunately it is not written in the language of a preteen boy, but Anand stretches his memories to encompass his childish thoughts along with his more mature considerations.

Anand's (referred to as Krishan) early life took place in the melting pot of Indians who found themselves followers of the British Raj. Krishan lived in a comfortable house just across the riverbed from the British cantonment. His father was in the service of the British army and like all of the Indian families his father and therefore the family were at the beck and call of the British. As a child Krishan only occasionally came into contact with the British, and so considered them as almost god like figures. His father was high up in the pecking order of the local Indian population and had to work hard to maintain his position. He was a proud man whose main consideration was to improve the position of himself and his family. He was a hard taskmaster to his children.

Krishan was a rebel, a difficult child with a violent temper. He admits he was self-willed and egotistical, always trying to make things work for his own advantage. He did not do well with the stresses and strains that threatened to tear his family apart and this is the main theme of the autobiography. His father was high cast Hindu and his mother was a Sikh; she had become Hindu and steeped herself in the capricious gods of her adopted religion. Other families of the followers in the cantonment: or the prison of the armed camp as it was referred to, were Muslims with a good sprinkling of untouchables. Everybody had to somehow get along together as best they could. Krishan had to pick his way through this conglomeration of religious and social conventions most of which had to be taken for granted. Children suffered physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis, Krishan was never too far away from his next physical beating. Poverty was of course endemic and survival was not certain. Children had to grow up quickly, had to find their way through the melting-pot. Sibling rivalry with his elder brother was a feature of Krishan's early years, but it is Krishan's will to win through that pitches him against almost everybody. He must have been a horrible child live with.

Mulk Raj Anand's descriptions of the sights and sounds from his childhood make his story seem steeped in reality. The religious observances, the rigid caste system, the struggles to adapt to the British Raj come across clearly through Arnand's account. Tempers are frayed, suspicions undermine any real friendships and the relentless desire to get ahead puts the struggles of Arnand in clear context. Arnand uses Anglo-Indian commonly used phrases to give his dialogue plenty of local colour and while this reader repeatedly lost patience with the brat of a boy that Arnand describes, I was thankful to him for setting me down in a time and place that fascinated me right to the end and so 4 stars.

87Macumbeira
Mar 2, 2:54pm

Sounds interesting book. Never heard about the writer. Thanks for the review

88baswood
Apr 21, 7:20pm



H. E. Bates - Colonel Julian and other stories
H. E. Bates was a prolific writes of novels and short stories from his first novel The Two Sisters} published in 1926 to his final collection of short stories The Yellow Meads of Asphodel published in 1976 two years after his death. There was bound to be something published in 1951 and it was his first collection of short stories published after the second world war. Colonel Julian and other stories originally contained 15 short stories and the kindle version I read has one bonus story.

Colonel Julien is a war story and there are a couple of others, but these tales are far ranging; Switzerland, Burma, India and many parts of England. One expects a collection of stories like this to be uneven in quality, but there were none that were badly written and I counted ten of the sixteen that I really enjoyed. In many ways the first one in the collection The Little Farm has many of the ideas and themes that run through the rest of the stories. Tom a man in his thirties has been left a farm after the death of his parents. He is a shy man living on his own who struggles with illiteracy, but works hard to keep the farm just above subsistence level. He decides to look for a female helper to work with him on the farm and to clean and cook. With the help of the local news agent he places an advert in the personal column of the local paper and gets a reply from a strongly built young woman, who agree to work for bed and board. She immediately sets about cleaning up the farm and sorting out his paperwork, she has ideas about restoring the farm building and using the neglected orchard to make money. She easily betters Tom's part time employee who has been cheating him for a number of years. Tom is a gentle kind, man and soon falls in love with Edna who is just the woman he has dreamed of to help run the farm, but she has a past.......

Gentle hesitant men are often compared to stronger more self willed women in these snapshots of time. One can almost guess the ending once the story gets into its stride, but this does not matter, because it is the down to earth characterisation and the quickly sketched descriptions that carry the weight of the tales. Bates has the ability to set the scene and create an atmosphere right from the first page. Once I had finished the collection I found that many of them had stayed in my mind. I loved the story of Jo Johnson who has worked hard at his fruit and vegetable shop, but throws it all away when he chases after a younger woman. The female music teacher who sells sheet music above a shop and takes time to track down a song for a young man despite fending off another man anxious to take her to a party. The Girl called Peter who has been brought up by her father; who modelled her to be like her brothers, and discovers her femininity when she meets a sensitive young man.

There is no doubting the charm of these stories, the innocence of many of the male characters, but they avoid being sentimental or twee. I was surprised how much I enjoyed them. Certainly they may be considered light weight, wistful perhaps and few readers will be shocked by the outcomes, but they are not juvenile and I rate this collection as four stars. Comfortable reading.

89Macumbeira
Apr 22, 1:31pm

Nice, HE Bates is a enjoyable writer.
A good one Bas !
Keep up the good work.

90baswood
May 14, 5:38pm



The Shelbourne: A centre in Dublin Life For more than a Century by Elizabeth Bowen.
We have just got back from a few days spent in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side. It was a walking holiday, but these days stiffening joints and balance not being quite as good as it used to be, restricts us to about 500 metres climbing and descending, however we compensate by staying in better class hotels. This time we stayed in a hotel at St-Savin that has been in the same family for five generations and so it was a good time to read Elizabeth Bowen's story of The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, published in 1951. An establishment much grander than our hotel in St Savin, but one can appreciate a book about a hotel when one is a paying guest in a similar establishment.

Elizabeth Bowen was a successful and world famous novelist, her first novel published in 1927 was called The Hotel. Bowen was born in Dublin and so the imposing Shelbourne hotel situated opposite Stephen's Green: said to be the largest square in Europe, would have been part of her childhood. Her family was of the Irish gentry and could trace their ancestors back to the 1500's and this would put her in a good position to write a history of the hotel, but I wonder why she would wish to do this? Did somebody ask her to write it, or was it a subject that she found interesting or stimulating. I struggle to think it was the latter because the book is written in such a flat passionless style. This is the first book I have read by Bowen and so I do not have any knowledge of her usual writing style, but this certainly smacks of somebody writing from the upper echelons of society and being careful not to upset anybody who might matter. However it is a history and not a novel and it comes from a period (1951) when cool precise writing of this kind might be much admired.

Bowen tells the story from when three townhouses first became known as the Shelbourne when they were adapted by Martin Burke in 1824. There was a major redesign in 1867, but at the time it consisted of rooms or apartments which wealthy citizens might hire for long or short periods of time. Tourism as we recognise it today hardly existed. Bowen dutifully sketches in some details of the early owners and managers and gives a picture of the life and society that passed outside its front doors. The real drama in this history occurs at the start of the first world war, when almost the whole staff were arrested because many of them were of German origin. This was followed by the Easter uprising in 1916 when the Irish irregulars occupied Stephen's Green and the Shelbourne was used by British troops to strafe the occupants of the Green. History was again enacted inside the hotel in 1922 when the Constitution of the Irish Free State was drafted in room 112. Ireland being neutral in the second world war meant that the Shelbourne could keep its lights blazing throughout war time. After the war the Shelbourne hotel has settled down to life as a commercial hotel attracting the more wealthy tourists. Bowen's story ends in 1951, but today the Shelbourne is a luxury five star hotel that features its role in the history of Ireland.

As a history of one of the most imposing buildings in Dublin and as a portrait of changing times within the vicinity of the hotel then this book succeeds admirably. For the casual reader it also works well enough because it gives a flavour of well to do city life from mid 19th century up until 1951. However the men and women important to the hotel hardly ever detach themselves from the furnishings and this reader was left with a well written history that hardly rose above the mildly interesting and so 3 stars.

91baswood
Edited: May 22, 6:20pm



Walter Baxter - Look Down in Mercy
A stunning novel from 1951, written by Englishman Walter Baxter. A war novel that dared to highlight gay relationships (homosexual) in the army in the second world war. Just to put the date into perspective it was still British armed forces policy not to recruit homosexuals as late as 2000 and it was still 16 years before the sexual offences act legalised homosexuality for consenting adults in 1967. No surprise then that Baxter's first novel received some good reviews, but sold few copies. A neglected masterpiece - perhaps?

Baxter served in the British army during the second world war as a company commander; the company fought in Burma and then retreated to India. Baxter's novel is set in Burma during the second world war at the time of the Japanese invasion. The British army stretched and largely in disarray stage a tactical withdrawal into India. Anson is a private in the army and serves as batman to Captain Tony Kent. Anson is homosexual and is struggling with an abusive relationship with fellow private Goodwin. He finds himself attracted to Kent, but there seem to be insurmountable barriers of rank, class and sex. Kent is married, but is struggling to come to terms with his marriage to Celia and has difficulty in writing to her back home in England; he has a half hearted affair with an Anglo-Indian nurse.

The Japanese invasion is a rude awakening for some army units in Burma, who have seen no fighting action until faced with a formidable enemy. Captain Tony Kent is second in command of a unit of 120 men and is detailed to be part of a protective screen of a ridge of high ground to hold up the Japanese advance. They are soon involved in heavy and desperate fighting in jungle terrain. The Japanese are efficient and brutal and Kent's unit is in danger of being overrun. He performs a heroic rescue of an injured private and his tactical nohow keeps his unit functioning, but he does not get everything right and struggles with the conscripted men. He is always glad to have Anson with him who looks after him, perhaps a little over and above his duties as a batman. The two men find themselves in a frightening and desperate situation, the night of a sustained attack and cling to each other in a sexual embrace. They are captured and beaten up by the Japanese and Anson proves himself more resourceful under extreme physical pressure and engineers their escape.

The descriptions of the running battles with the Japanese are tense and exciting, the brutality of war is handled well, with Baxter not dwelling too much on individual horrors. The physical hardship of fighting is felt mainly through the eyes and body of Tony Kent and this is Baxer's greatest achievement. Kent is a British junior officer who knows his place in the world, the conscripted men are beneath him mentally and socially and the Anglo-Indians are of another race, he does not treat them cruelly, but they do not feature in any way as equals. He cannot countenance his relationship with Anson, but he feels a desperate need of it. In contrast Anson's character is not drawn quite so well, his passivity at times seems to go beyond the bounds of such a resourceful man, but he is a man in love with an impossible figure in Tony Kent. Seeing the world through Tony Kent's eyes most of the time means that racism and sexism are typical of the epoch, but Baxter does not overdo it. The Anglo-Indian nurse Dean is herself a conflicted figure and her giving way to Tony Kent is in keeping with her situation; at the heart of Tony Kent there is cowardice even rottenness, but he still elicits some sympathy from this reader.

I read the 2014 reprint which has a useful introduction by Gregory Woods and the alternate ending (as an appendix) written specifically for the American market. In my opinion, this novel is right up there with the best novels I have read from 1951 concerning the second world war and that includes Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka which was a five star read and so five stars for this one too. (The Hollywood alternate ending doesn't work)


92librorumamans
May 22, 11:41pm

>91 baswood:

I wondered if you'd get to this. Mine is an ex-library copy of the first American edition, so I wasn't aware that there was an alternate ending; which one do I have? Any idea?

Tom Kent is certainly a clay-footed hero. But then he's in two impossible situations that mirror each other: he's militarily out-classed by the Japanese, emasculated, in a sense, by the ineptness of his superiors; on the other hand, the class divisions imposed upon him by his crumbling culture prevent him from maturing into a relationship with Anson.

93Macumbeira
May 23, 11:22am

Bas is the most unpredictable reader !
About the gayness of this book
1° is it explicitly mentioned or do the reader have to assume it from certain details ?
2° is it rendered positively or negatively ? See the cover: a man's moral degradation: does it refer to mentioned homosexuality ?

94librorumamans
Edited: May 23, 1:42pm

>93 Macumbeira:

  1. Kent's attraction to Anson is a slow reveal. The principal point of view in the novel is his and his emotional need and Anson's ability to fulfill it are things that he takes time to acknowledge and act on.
  2. The homosexual relationship itself is positive. The point of the book is the needless suffering that social and class expectations force on the two men.
That's my reading; Bas may see things differently.

95baswood
May 23, 4:25pm

>94 librorumamans: Yes I agree with your reading of the book.

The original ending has Kent on the balcony ready to throw himself off, but at the last moment he tries to stop himself, but the wood he is leaning on breaks and he goes over:

As his body began to plunge towards the drive he held his arms in a grotesque attitude as though to break his fall and he cried out; but not for mercy.

In the American version he manages to push himself back into the room and can reflect on a near miss.

>93 Macumbeira: The front cover of the Consul books edition is exactly what one might expect in 1951. It would need to talk about moral and physical degradation.

There is no explicit descriptions of the sex act, but it it obvious that the two men have had and enjoyed sex.

96librorumamans
May 23, 5:36pm

The original, British, ending reminds me of the Prince of Wales' (Edward's) reaction the Oscar Wilde trial: "I thought men like that shot themselves."