Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ian McEwan's Nutshell

Ian McEwan's latest novel Nutshell, which is a riff on Hamlet complete with a foetus-narrator, provided Minervans with a lot to think about. While it was (almost) universally loved, we didn't necessarily come to a lot of consensus about what it was all about, or why McEwan did what he did, but we did enjoy discussing it.

The plot briefly. The novel commences with:
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I'm in, what I'm in for.
The Hamlet motif reveals itself early as he (our foetus that is) starts to realise that "a vile enterprise" is being conspired by his mother and her lover Claude, and when also in the first chapter, our foetus starts to ponder on his existence - "to be" he wonders. What does this "being" mean for him? From this point the plot of this murder-mystery novel develops - with the first half focused on "will they do it?" and the second half on "will they get away with it?" - while at the same time our foetus ponders questions about life in general and the world he is soon to be born into.

The things we enjoyed

We found it clever, twisty, exciting, and thought the language was brilliant. We like McEwan's compact, tight writing. We agree that McEwan is great at openings, and that this book's opening sentence was yet another such opening. We loved McEwan's wordsmithery. It was very funny at times, such as the foetus' attempted suicide by squeezing the cord around his neck, not realising that as he lost consciousness he would let go.

We enjoyed it as a retelling of Hamlet, including the names Trudy (Gertrude), Claude (Claudius), and the ghost appearing.

We found the precocious foetus-narrator fun to read. Even those who were originally sceptical about the idea found themselves drawn in, while others felt it was McEwan playing with that question we all have about what DO foetuses experience of the outside world. We liked that he was not as easily taken in by, say Elodie, his father's possible lover, as Trudy and Claude were. And we laughed at his learning about the world through Radio 4, at how he'd give his mother a kick in the night to encourage insomnia and the turning on of the radio.

We liked that Trudy finally saw Claude for what he was. We thought Claude was a well-drawn character. He's cliche-ridden, dull, a man who

whistles continually, not songs, but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia's mockery of Tárrega [...] Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. But at this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it.

We wondered why the house in which Trudy and Claude lived was so squalid, but one member suggested it reflects their characters or personalities.

We enjoyed the "Inspector Columbo" or "Vera" style detective who lulled them into thinking she was on their side, before dropping her real ideas.

A member commented on enjoying the pithy statements/questions at the end of every chapter. In other hands, this would signal a potboiler but it worked - it was part of McEwan's game, in a way.

What is it about?

It's a small, but complex book, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing its meaning. Why did McEwan write it, we wondered? One member, in fact, said that when she got to the end, she wondered what it was all about, and then decided she didn't care because "it was fabulous".

It contains much philosophical discussion, another said, about the Enlightenment and the end of rationalism, about the undermining of a scientific understanding of, or approach to, the world.

Other ideas we had about its themes included:
  • the political challenges of the modern world: breakdown of both socialist and capitalist nations; the problem of climate change; the increasing loss of liberty in the face of security; the nuclear threat. Many of these are ongoing McEwan concerns.
  • a discussion of innocence. Our foetus-narrator sees himself as innocent but fears being implicated in a plot he can't avoid. 
  • exploration of acting in anger/haste. Trudy seems to regret pretty immediately, what she's done.
  • the idea that murdering the poet-father represents a triumph of materialism over things of the spirit.
One member liked the following quote, and suggested it links to Hamlet's considerations about life/existence:

It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten, even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on the slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.

Some reservations

One member in particular had some reservations. She became annoyed by voice of foetus, finding him too smart-alecky, particularly with all his wine-talk. She agreed that McEwan is a good story-teller but felt the book became a bit strained in the second half.

Why choose a foetus as a narrator?

This question challenged us quite a bit. Our answers included, that:
  • we are all interested in what foetuses in the womb experience of the outside world and this is McEwan's imaginative exploration of that.
  • it enabled McEwan to have an innocent narrator, "a blank slate", who was able to comment on the state of the world.
  • the disregard shown for the foetus, by both his mother, uncle and father in their behaviour and planning, is ironic - a child is at the centre of the book but the people most responsible for the child aren't child-centred. Does this also reflect our current world's treatment of children? 
  • it presents the idea that the child represents the future, a future that the others don't seem to be interested in, suggesting that society is not responding to the new world.
  • it is an ironic reflection on Hamlet's inaction - our foetal-Hamlet is physically restrained so can't act his mind.
  • it enables the foetus to explore that question of whether we should bring a child into the modern world. (Our foetus says "yes")
We also discussed the reliability of the foetus as a narrator. Is McEwan playing with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is he unreliable?

Overall, a good read, a good bookgroup book, which provided an entertaining and engaging night's discussion. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Black rock white city by A S Patric

Black rock white city by A S Patrić brought all the Minervans out on a cold wet Canberra evening. We all loved it and admired the writing, the down-to-earth language and the way the author dealt with the powerful themes of war, guilt, love and hate. We were reminded of the other book we have read about the 1990s war in Yugoslavia called The hired man by Aminatta Forna which is about the Croatian experience.

The story revolves around Jovan and his wife Suzana, from Yugoslavia who witnessed the war, saw the destruction and suffered the death of their beloved children. After that great trauma they made it to Australia. Their life in Australia is in much reduced financial circumstances. They were both University teachers and writers and now they are cleaners and carers. Their marriage is still suffering because they can’t move on from their tragedy. However the ending suggests that Suzana’s love for Jovan is rekindling and despite everything there is hope. His love for her hasn’t diminished but he does have a sexual outlet.

This novel by A S Patrić is the first by this author (aged 44) who has had many short stories published and with this novel won the 2016  Miles Franklin award. As the son of Yugoslavian migrants he understands his subject well. Patrić located the cover of the paperback version of this book. It is a Rorschach picture, appearing a bit like a poppy.

Some initial comments included that it was ‘Nabakovian’, it was masterly writing, it keeps surprising the reader and it has a tension at times of a thriller or a mystery. One perceptive reaction was about Jovan’s failure to be articulate in English when he was so articulate in his native language. Another member commented on the relationships between the cleaners and the medical staff in the small hospital where Jovan works. Our medical members thought this was possible and had experienced this closeness themselves some years ago. Why is Tammie the dentist interested in Jovan? It seems purely sexual because he is attractive physically and she is lonely.

Patrić’s language is very 21st century Australian lingo.  The story contains many of life’s ordinary experiences from sex (within the first few pages) to quiet humour and mundane descriptions of hanging washing and women’s makeup, all the time keeping you entertained and wanting to read on. All the short stories and the poetry he has written have trained him to set the scene with as few words as possible, and this works so well in this novel. The variety of sentences keeps the flow and the tensions suspended. There is so much packed into a smallish book. 

Dr Graffito had become such an interesting presence in the hospital. Where previously a person could die of boredom listening to people bitch and moan about every mundane detail in their trivial lives, now there were these biting messages to make everyone jump, scratching at their Trojan Fleas. (Loc 3141, 92%).

The rough language between Suzana and her friend Jelka is a normal way of talking for some people particularly those from the Central Europe but also many Australians now.

We talked a lot about war – how the reactions by the people experiencing it are always going to be different from the people who only read about it or see it on television. In this novel Patrić emphasizes the difficulty of knowing when to leave a conflict zone – Jovan and Suzana found it very difficult to leave and regret that they didn’t leave sooner. Migrants who become Australians must all feel regret at leaving their homeland but it is more impacted when the country is dissolving as well.  Patrić has a clever way of getting the reader involved in the atmosphere of the conflict and the consequences, without actually taking you into the zone.  He also doesn’t dwell too much on any one aspect by having a number of threads working through the novel.

Wars finish but impact stays on. The couple are just hanging on in Melbourne, often close to splitting.  They are questioning everything. The trip to Queensland was supposed to help but seemed to make the situation worse. Suzana didn’t love Jovan anymore. But the jealousy she feels when she sees Tammie makes her want Jovan more. The sense of trauma and dislocation for Jovan and Suzana is pervasive through the novel. They don’t have anything to say to each other. Just small acts of kindness help them.

Guilt is another overriding theme – especially the guilt of their children’s deaths. This is all-consuming for the main characters. Then there is the guilt of the graffiti vandal in the hospital, which Jovan is continually being asked to clean away and which seems to be taking on a personal vendetta against him. One or two members suspected it was Jovan doing the graffiti at one stage. There is a plethora of possible people in the hospital as far as Jovan is concerned – it is also fascinating how Jovan keeps some of the evidence and refuses to discuss it with the journalist. The hospital officials are not looking at the words, they just wanted it gone. They do not to read any meaning into it whereas Jovan tries to understand the anger and hatred being shown.


Dr Graffito is increasing the violence in the people in the hospital. Bill kills the nurse, the Optometrist suicides and at the end Dr Graffito teases Jovan to kill him after he almost drowns Suzana.  Dr Graffito brought it upon himself. Jovan is still feeling guilty that he didn’t protect his children better so he has to look after Suzana. He has to become a hero and be the man she wants him to be. Is Dr Graffito focusing on Jovan? Is it personal? Dr Graffito is tapping into other people’s pain. (If it was a thriller fans would be disappointed!) Bill (the horrible cleaner at the hospital) wrote the words for Dr Graffito under instruction. Dr Graffito is actually a surgeon who got self-made tattoos.   

There is also guilt for Suzana – she is still suffering the trauma of the abortion she had after her affair with the University lecturer. We had a discussion about the way she handled this circumstance. One member felt that Suzana behaved very badly towards the lecturer’s family. She is a very strong character, and impulsive and has a certain ‘steeliness’. Dr Graffito is like a pain in everybody echoing the deep tragedies of the main characters. It feels very real.

It is very hard for them both to lessen the guilt. Suzana only has one friend in Melbourne, Jelka, and Jovan has the psychologist David Dickens.  They both love and hate these friends at times. They tell these friends things that they don’t say to each other. Suzana and Jovan in bed talk about love for the eyes. Their love is also about hate at times and their interwined lives.

The ending is powerful and quickly executed --  A God of small knives. A devil of deep cuts’ .  (location 3384  99%) Jovan recognizes the surgeon from the hospital and the tattoos -- …’the Trojan Flea’.  ‘Her husband… As expressionless as a god remaking the world.’ (final sentence).

The question of religion is curious. Jovan prays every night but Suzana didn’t. Unfortunately it didn’t help him resolve anything but it was a habit.

The humour is subtle compared to the intensity of the novel. Jovan’s van and the continual problems he has with it as well as his commentary on Bill, his co-worker provide a small amount of lightness in the novel.

Somone said something about ‘Moral flossing’. I am not sure what they meant but it is a brilliant phrase.   Patrić is very deft at unfolding a story. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Madelaine Dickie's Troppo

This month's book was a first for us, as it was a novel by someone close to us, the fiancée of the son of one of our group's founding members! How great is that, eh? Not only that, but Madelaine Dickie's debut novel, Troppo, won the City of Fremantle/TAG Hungerford award for an unpublished manuscript.

The story is set in southwest Sumatra, Indonesia. It starts a couple of months after the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 and ends just after the tsunami hit Aceh on 26 December 2004. It concerns a young women, Penny, who had previously lived in Indonesia as a teen, but is returning to have "a break" from her boyfriend Josh who is 14 years older than she. Penny has lined up a job on a surfing resort run by expat Shane, but arrives early to have a holiday. That's the set up. The novel then explores the political and personal relationships that develop (or pre-exist) between the locals and the expat community, and within the expat community itself, in a tense situation where corruption and bullying is rife, and fundamentalist Islam is on the rise.

As we frequently do, we started by asking members for a quick summary of their responses to the book. Here is the gist:

  • The book raised lots of interesting issues about culture clashes but also the importance of Western visitors for the Indonesian economy. It was a good page turner.  (left on our Facebook Page by an absent member)
  • It has some lovely expressions and gets you in quickly. It's a well-crafted story that made you feel you were experiencing it. The ending came suddenly. The Islam aspect was interesting, as was how Australians are viewed by the Balinese.
  • It's sophisticated for a young novelist, and is interesting for the breadth of ideas covered, including the discussions about religion. It was good to see a story about Australians who don't only think about drinking beer. 
  • It brought back vivid memories for some of our members of their trips to Indonesia in the 1970s, but they noted that it doesn't depict the Indonesia they remembered (and it made some nostalgic). 
  • It effectively explores the issue of First World guilt experienced by tourists in countries where the inhabitants are comparatively poor.
  • It built up suspense well, and effectively presented youth culture.
  • It's an engrossing book. It captures her character's immersion in the landscape well. It also shows how Westerners can be unaware of menace, and thereby come unstuck. It also explores what it means to be a tourist, how tourists behave and it examines how we Australians relate to our neighbours. 
We spent quite a bit of time on reminiscences, including looking at a map to plot exactly where the novel is set (though the place itself is fictional). We talked about how Indonesia comprises many countries in one country, that it is (has been) dominated by the Javanese, but in fact encompasses several different religions and cultures.

We all liked Ibu Ayu who ran the tourist bungalow compound where Penny stays at the beginning of the novel. Ibu Ayu comes across as a somewhat grounded matriarch. And we thought the book also covered well the wide range of expats/tourists you find in places like this - the aggressive, the insensitive, the idealistic and the gentle. Several members loved the food descriptions, and want to try nasi campur!

We discussed corruption, particularly regarding the policemen. One member found Penny's attitude to  the supernatural too "credulous" while others found it believable in the context.

One member mentioned Dickie's strategy for handling a story set in a country with a different language: she sometimes translated the Indonesian words she used, and other times she let the context make it clear. We thought this worked most of the time, but a member noted that the glossary in the Reading Group notes on the publisher's website was useful.

Given the very specific time-setting of the novel and the motif of political unrest running through the novel, we spent a bit of time talking about the novel's political themes. In the interview included with the Reading Group notes (link above), Dickie responds to a question about the timing:

Troppo is set two years after the Bali bombings, a year after the bombing outside the JW Marriott Hotel, and two months after the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. This context is important for Troppo, as some of the themes explored are the rise of fundamental Islam and the coexistence of Islam and traditional beliefs. At the time of writing, as a student of journalism, I was also aware of the two dimensional depictions of Islam in the media, and wanted to create rounded characters and discussions based on some of the stickier topics I liked to discuss with my Muslim friends. Has the relationship changed? Of course, things are always in a state of flux. However, our news media is now less concerned with Jemaah Islamiyah, and more concerned with the rise of Islamic State, which no one had heard of ten years ago. So the shape of fundamental Islam has also changed.

We teased this out a little, believing that Indonesia has traditionally managed to counterbalance multiple religions, marring them with local beliefs and practices. When questioned by Penny, Ibu Ayu doesn't see Islam as a problem, believing her region manages the "mix". However, we saw Shane's resort operating in the colonial style. He doesn't try to work with the local people. Shane's resort could be "read" as a metaphor for a more systemic breakdown in the society.

We discussed some of the Reading Group questions, such as what does Australia think of Indonesia - and vice versa - then and now. This resulted in a discussion of language teaching in schools. We remembered that in the 1970s and 80s, Indonesian was the popular language at schools, but this moved on to Japanese in the 90s and then Chinese, aligning it seems to us with prevailing foreign policy.

A couple of the questions related to Penny. One asked whether her perception of herself is different to how others see her. One member questioned the question, suggesting that such a difference of perception would not be unusual, but we soldiered on. We decided that those in the Batu Batur community seemed to see her as risk-taking (and not always in the positive sense!) while boyfriend Josh saw her as directionless, without a plan. His assessment provided the impetus for her to make the decision she does at the end. Another question asked whether her character develops. In general we thought not a lot, though by the end she is more certain about who she is and what she wants from her life, which is to live "by choice, on a fault-line".

Finally, we all enjoyed the writing, and couldn't resist sharing some favourites:

The light in the bungalow shifts from a sun-kissed wood colour to glazed ceramic greens. Outside, a bouquet of fresh rain. (p. 149)
I take a sip of my coffee. Black flecks of vanilla dust the foam. I place it reverently back in its saucer. It's the best coffee I have ever tasted. (p. 169)
It's interesting to observe the way power animates a person, how it swells the chest, deepens the voice, hardens the handshake. (p. 174)
The night is young. The mozzie coil has only just begun its inward inch (p. 198)

All in all, it was a lively discussion. As usual, we didn't come to major conclusions, but we all agreed it was a great read. We shared many ideas about travel, discussed our relationship with Indonesia, and enjoyed reading the ideas and opinions of a young writer. We look forward to Dickie's next novel!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Many Minerva members gathered to discuss this novel. It was a happy meeting after an enjoyable read.

The story revolves around a middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry who meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral.  His father died 40 years earlier.  Henry cultivates dahlias but has little else in his life. Aunt Augusta tells Henry that his father ‘needed bedrooms for more than sleep’ so many of us guessed that Aunt Augusta was more than she let on. (At 7% Henry says ‘My poor stepmother … I shall never be able to think of anyone else as my mother’.)

They both wanted to see more of each other after a walk at the cemetery so began their visits to various places, including Paris and Brighton. The Aunt has never married either but has had many relationships. Wordsworth is the current man in love with Henry’s Aunt and he floats in and out of the story. Henry and Augusta visit Boulogne and meet a lonely old woman still pining for his father. This shocks Henry and Aunt Augusta. The story gets complicated with comings and goings and they end up in South America surprisingly. Augusta has returned to one of her elderly former lovers and Henry is about to wed a 16 year old and be involved in a smuggling racket.  And finally there is confirmation that Aunt Augusta is Henry’s Mum.

The main point of this book we thought was its treatment of Love. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. There are so many types of love described – aunt’s love, mother’s love, romantic love, romantic fantasies, and love for objects (eg dahlias and money). There is also Aunt Augusta’s love for all men. There is also the love of travel and variety.

It is a very funny novel and this was even more obvious in the audio version according to one of our members. The two dominant voices are Henry and Aunt Augusta. They are great characters and we enjoyed the funny situations and the funny language such as ‘Pekinese eyes’. Aunt Augusta smuggling gold ingots in the base of candles across Europe is both shocking and funny. The idea that a staid bank manager couldn’t propose to a young woman, Miss Keane, even if she basically asked for it was probably strange rather than funny. The house of multiple rooms is also funny where an elderly man could live out his last few years, spending a week in each different room, pretending he is travelling. Greene claimed that this book was written for a laugh even though it has some darker tones.

Other funny things include Henry’s love of dahlias and his concern for his mower in the rain. Most of us like dahlias but one member put them in the same category as gladioli, which are inherently funny (post-Dame Edna). We laugh at Henry rather than with him but he does evoke sympathy for his innocence and silliness. Henry’s naiveté is amusing in a sad way – was he a closet homosexual? Probably not, we decided later when discussing the unusual ending.

The book portrays England in the 60’s (it was published in 1969/70). Wordsworth, the only black man in the book, is treated with some contempt we felt. For instance, his language is strange, quite different from everyone else. He is also treated badly by Aunt Augusta. One critic said that it is typical 1960’s stereotyping, whereas another critic said that he was treated humanely.
We had a general discussion about ‘Aunts’ in literature with Lady Catherine de Burgh being the supreme example. We decided that this aunt was right in deciding to hand over the baby. She would not have been a good mother.  She was a free spirit and an outrageous character in comparison to her very conforming and moral ‘nephew’. The comparison of the characters led to a discussion about nature versus nurture.

Graham Greene himself has strong links to this book in that his first name is Henry and he lived quite a wild life not dissimilar to that of Aunt Augusta. He had been a spy and a friend of spies as is the character of Tooley’s dad (O’Toole) whom Henry meets briefly on board a vessel in South America.

There is also a dark side to this story. There is the contrary conclusion, which shows Henry’s morals have certainly changed under the influence of his rather lawless relative. Aunt Augusta though is a survivor and helps Henry to survive and gain a family, which presumably he wants. There are comments about American imperialism, which shows Greene’s antipathy to the CIA and American ‘ways’. Greene also shows great cynicism towards the ordinary Catholic and their beliefs.  Aunt Augusta’s faith is portrayed as being very shallow, but useful when necessary. Life in England at that time was also shown to be pretty awful. For instance, Henry’s mother does not have true freedom, she is very constrained and makes Henry equally restrained so he cannot enjoy life as a young man. The message seems to be that a good life could be had only if you were rich, like Henry’s former bank customers, and maybe flouting the law like Aunt Augusta.

There were many unanswered questions. Does Henry choose the new life in South America? Is he creating a real family for himself after all his years of loneliness?  Is Aunt Augusta a survivor versus the boring and mundane Henry? How does he accommodate her lack of moral fibre?

We all thought that Henry was an unreliable narrator in that he tells us some of his innermost thoughts but doesn’t know as much as the reader does in some circumstances. He is very dependent person, firstly on his mother and then his Aunt. This contrasts with Augusta’s dependence on men, who invariably are criminals.  

We finished our discussion with mention of product placement – in this case Omo, which is probably one of the first times such advertisements had been placed in a novel. Also, we pondered on the questions of the morally corrupt inheriting the world. It certainly seems so in politics in 2017.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Jane Fletcher Geniesse's Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark

Bravely departing from past practice, we started this year with a biography rather than a chunky novel - and it was a success, perhaps because being women of a certain age we were ready for a story about an intrepid woman traveller! The book was Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark. Stark (1893-1993) was a British-Italian travel writer, explorer/adventurer and historian, specialising in Arabic studies. She was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts.

Several members were reminded of their early love of Lawrence of Arabia, and one was inspired to go on to read a history of the Middle East, James Barr's A line in the sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East. There was one nay-sayer though, who wasn't "loving" it, partly because biography is not her thing, but she said she was enjoying it because she was fascinated by Stark.

Who was Freya Stark?

Active in the Middle East from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, and moving among her era's movers and shakers, Stark was a strong, spirited woman - one who worked very hard and took significant risks to achieve some remarkable things, particularly in those very gendered times when women had to fight for independence and recognition. She was "amazingly resourceful" said one member. We all enjoyed this story from the book:
She reentered Luristan on a donkey, draped in native clothing, three Lurs at her side as guides. She bluffed her way past the border guards. (“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman,” she said, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised”). (Ch. 8)
And so, on she went, navigating truly dangerous places and handling tricky wartime projects. She was fearless said one member pointing out that this means she wasn't afraid, versus being "courageous" which means taking action even though you are afraid.

Stark was, though, paradoxical. She made long-standing friends, and yet would also use people (and her health) to get what she wanted. She would drop friends if they offended her or were no longer useful. She was "a bit of a princess" we agreed and was surprisingly anti-feminist, like some other strong women before her, including (her predecessor and self-imposed rival) Gertrude Bell. Stark preferred male company, and was keen to have male bosses (in preference even to being the boss herself, though she still fought for, and won, equal pay for herself from the British government). She was competitive and could be venomous, something that her publisher, in particular, tried to tone down (and sometimes succeeded in doing so), when she wrote up her experiences.

Geniesse argues that much of her paradoxical behaviour came from growing up within an unhappy marriage that broke up by the time she was 10 years old. She adored her self-centred mother, and yearned for her approval. She finally got it with her successes as an adult but that was long after the die was cast.

She felt insecure about her appearance, and wished always that she was beautiful. She was also apparently naive about some things, being unaware for example, of the gay men in her midst and, disastrously, accepting, later in life, a marriage proposal from one of them.

We were surprised to discover that some editions of the book had an epilog which explained that Freya was probably not her father's daughter but the result of an affair. It is possible that Freya never knew this, however.

Other issues that interested us

Stark was of course the main focus of our interest, but there were other aspects of the book that we enjoyed. Our GP member was interested in the medical aspects. Geniesse provides quite a bit of detail about the many illnesses Freya suffered and the medications she took. It's amazing, we thought, that she survived until she was 100 years old, given the maladies that befell her through her life. Early on Geniesse tells us that both her parents "placed a strong emphasis on stoicism". She clearly learnt that lesson well.

Stark's main claim to fame was being her time's "most respected experts on the Arab world". We all enjoyed the descriptions of her travels there - but, given the Middle East's subsequent history, we were particularly interested in her theory about how the region should be "handled", a theory she developed over time and promulgated to the British and, in 1944 on a lecture tour, to the mostly pro-Zionist Americans. Respecting people's sovereignty, she believed that any decisions must be made with the Arabs’ consent. "We musn’t impose solutions,” was her mantra. As we all know now, her view didn't prevail.

The biographer's craft

While a biographer's task is half done if the subject is interesting, it still needs to be written skilfully - and this, we thought, was. We particularly liked that it wasn't hagiographic: the Freya we saw could be charming and petulant, wise and imperious, intelligent and petty. Geniesse managed to present all that with an even hand, recognising what Stark achieved but also seeing her failings and sorrowing for their impact on her.

The book is cleverly structured. Geniesse captures our attention in Chapter 1, showing us who Stark was to become by describing her first arrival in Baghdad. Chapter 2 then takes us back to her birth and her story is then told chronologically.

One member also pointed out the lovely quotes which start every chapter, most if not all from Stark's writings. We felt that, although we'd decided to read a biography of Stark rather than a work by her, Geniesse  had included enough excerpts of Stark's writing to give us a good feel for her style and tone. Here, for example, is Stark commenting in The valleys of the Assassins on Elders refusing to show interest in her, a strange white woman who appeared out of nowhere:
It is a remarkable thing, when one comes to consider it, that indifference should be so generally considered a sign of superiority the world over; dignity or age, it is implied, so fill the mind with matter that other people’s indiscriminate affairs glide unperceived off that profound abstraction: that at any rate is the impression given not only by village mullahs, but by ministers, bishops, dowagers and well-bred people all over the world, and the village of Shahristan was no exception, except that the assembled dignitaries found it more difficult to conceal the strain which a total absence of curiosity entails.
We discussed much more - such as the Yemen expedition fiasco with archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson - but I've written enough, I reckon. In the end, we loved that she was one of those larger-than-life grand dames that we all love to read or hear about. A great read to start off our year.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The great swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

This novel, The great swindle, by an acclaimed French writer won us over completely. It is a war story showing us a microcosm of human nature with real drama and violence and exploitation of people. It also is visceral and smelly at times. There are eccentric characters who are slightly larger than life and reminded us of characters from other novels and plays such as in works by Camus and Stendahl. Even similarity to the play Les Miserables was mentioned. We think that Lemaitre plays with you as a reader too for instance there is a reference to Austen’s Pride and prejudice in Chapter 2 when he is talking about Pradelle:

Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. (6% ).

Celeste suggested it and we all complimented her for it. It was written in French and the translation by Frank Wynne was good. It is entitled Au revoir la-haut (Goodbye until we meet in heaven). Lemaitre has won 3 awards with this novel including the 2013 Prix Goncourt.  He is a former literature teacher and now writes fulltime. This novel in film version is to be released in 2017.

This story is complex. Albert Maillard and Edouard Pericourt are very young French soldiers in the last few days of WW1. Albert is rescued by Edouard after being buried alive and then Albert befriends Edouard and looks after him when they are demobbed.  Edouard has been very badly disfigured in a final act of war by their mutual enemy, Lieutenant Pradelle. Edouard refuses to undergo surgery to alleviate some of his injuries. So he suffers terribly and Albert suffers too in trying to help him.

Albert discovers that Lieutenant Pradelle has been involved in both of their lives basically trying to kill each of them. D’Aulnay-Pradelle is an aristocrat who after the war defrauds French soldiers and their families by ‘managing’ the cemeteries and not respecting the dead soldiers. He finally ends up being caught and loses everything. He is a cold-blooded killer, which is evident in the first few pages of the novel. Edouard and Albert concoct a massive fraud too but Albert is successful in running away with the money. Edouard is accidentally killed by his father.  

We talked about the factual events which are related in this story such as the exhumations, harassment  of ex-soldiers and loss of identity of corpses. One of the many shocking scenes involves exhumations which happened in France after WW1. See this site for further information. Pradelle’s fraud was so disrespectful of the soldiers and so typical of his character that we were not surprised about the mess he got himself involved in.

We also talked about the main characters, Albert, Edouard and Edouard’s father who is the one character who grows through this story. Albert is the classic anti-hero and somewhat reckless after being initially timid. He is the typical bourgeoisie and good Samaritan type, and extremely loyal to his friend. Edouard  is an artist and disdains the rich and the bourgeoisie and has the original idea of the swindle carried out by them. The senior Pericourt began his life like Pradelle, in being money hungry but changes slowly through his career especially driven by the supposed loss of his son. We also explored some of the more minor characters such as Albert’s mother  (who we never meet but hear her words through Albert’s musings) and Madeleine Pericourt, Edouard’s sister.  She is a strong character who falls in love with Pradelle when she is grieving for her brother. However she realises early on that he is a fraud in many ways. She is plain but aware of her status as the daughter of very wealthy man who she alone can manage. She loves dumping Pradelle and sees him destroyed. Pauline Albert’s girlfriend is also a great character, just getting on with life and trying to get the most out of it. And she doesn’t take long to work out that life with Albert and money is her way out of domestic service.

There is a lot of sarcasm and irony and some humour in this story – for instance, in the tensions between Pradelle and his father-in-law. The same man was also Edouard’s father. M.Pericourt is told by Albert that Edouard was killed. He had not been a good father but realises this slowly through the novel and just as he is about to meet his son (unbeknowing to him) he runs over him (literally). Black comedy and farce all in one moment. Edouard’s costumes after he discovers masks brings a certain humour as does the angel outfit he wears leaving the hotel at the end of the novel.

We didn’t quite understand the ending and fully expected a different scenario. Maybe Lemaitre’s crime detective novels have taught him to leave a conclusion till the very last pages.

We really liked the characters of Albert and Edouard and sympathized with them despite their behaviour. They are very vivid descriptions and encouraged the reader to continue reading to work out the plot. Will the two swindles be successful?  We were amazed by Albert’s loyalty to Edouard despite the trials he had to suffer, especially when he had to buy drugs for Edouard and the carrying out of the swindle in the bank. Edouard was so disfigured and it is hard to imagine his face. We were all aghast at the thought of Albert putting his fist into Edouard’s missing face. There is also a lot of talk about soldiers with only one arm. Just after the war, France was a society who had forgotten to look after its living soldiers but wants to honour only the dead ones. It shows how people can so easily exploit each other given the opportunity.

It is a farce but a well meaning one and cleverly written. We thought the title was excellent for the English version as it sums up beautifully the crux of the story.