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Saturday 29 November 2014

Review: Jane Austen

A year or so ago, the publisher Carmen Callil resigned as a judge for the Man Booker International prize, which was shortly thereafter awarded to Philip Roth. She complained that all his books were the same. I wonder what she would say about Jane Austen.

I've just read three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, in that order. I've bought Emma so no doubt I will read that too and, of course, a couple more and then I will have read all of mature / completed Jane Austen. I'll soon be an expert. Much easier than Shakespeare.

Jane Austen is, I understand, best known in England as the inventor of romantic country house costume dramas for television. I don't watch television but I can imagine that it's great fun for the Costumes department and hard work for the Props department, oiling all those doors to permit the constant Entries stage right and Exits stage left. Anyway, it's enough to get Jane Austen's portrait onto English banknotes. I do hope Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are in the queue, even though they didn't write romantic novels.

Jane Austen got onto University reading lists probably thanks to F.R.Leavis, who didn't think she wrote romantic novels but was instead a writer inspired by Serious Moral Purpose, unlike people like Charles Dickens ("an entertainer") and Laurence Sterne ("a trifler") - see Leavis's moralising tract The Great Tradition for the epithets.

Anyway, I am not entirely convinced my Miss Austen's novels. I thought Sense and Sensibility plodding and, as a result of reading editorial Introductions, discover that this is a common enough view. And in Persuasion, where you pretty soon figure out what has to happen and wish she would get on with it, there is an awful chapter IX in volume II where Mrs Smith is allowed a very long monologue (pages of it) to trash the character of Mr William Elliot and knock him out of any possible contention, leaving the way clear for the return of the gallant Captain Wentworth. It is laying it on with a trowel. I guess they have to abridge these things on TV.

That leaves Pride and Prejudice as the best of the three, with some very funny moments and a livelier style. But all three novels are weighed down by a cast of minor characters who no doubt fill up the background on TV but who contribute very little to the narrative, yet whose names must be remembered.

I am not saying I Rest My Case. I will proceed to Emma and think some more. But I now have an explanation for something which puzzled me. A few Blogs ago I reviewed Milan Kundera's L'Art du Roman. I was surprised by the virtual absence of English writers from his history of the European novel. He has good words for Fielding and Sterne and that's about it. He doesn't mention Jane Austen. Now I think I can see why. I think it is the illustrative moralising which sticks in his throat.

Postscript 8 December 2014: I have now read Emma and even though I had 'flu while reading it, I think it is the best so far. The outcome of the story isn't so obvious, though you can still guess  it as you go along. More importantly, there is more subtle character development. It's still terribly judgemental - or, at least, peopled by characters who spend their lives Judging - but there is more psychological insight. I haven't read the critics but it occurs to me to doubt that many of them will dwell on Mr Knightley as the Good Father figure who has loved Emma, faults and all, since she was, er, 13 and who is loved in return precisely because of that willingness to love her, faults and all.

Postscript 18 December 2014: It gets worse. In Mansfield Park, where amateur theatricals are condemned but living off the labour of slaves is not, Edmund Bartram marries his first cousin Fanny, who he has loved, guided and protected  "since her being ten years old" (page 436).

Thursday 20 November 2014

Review: Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

“What If?” historical novels and alternative histories are inevitably at risk of failure. The reason is very simple. We expect our stories based in everyday reality to be plausible – to possess verisimilitude. But a book which imagines what might have happened, what would have happened if history had been different, defies plausibility because all the time we are likely to be thinking, “Actually, it didn’t happen like that”.

Philip Roth makes a good shot at a counter-factual novel, imagining what would have happened if in the 1940 US Presidential election, Roosevelt had been defeated by a pro-Hitler Republican, a role for which he casts Charles Lindbergh, the pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish aviator. 

But the novel works best when it is farthest away from the specific counter-factual reality he has constructed. So, for example, chapter 2 “Loudmouth Jew” builds up characteristic Roth tension on the basis of conflict erupting between diners in a restaurant because one table doesn’t like what the other is saying. It’s extremely well done but it is plausible, has verisimilitude, because it can be imagined by the reader as something which could occur independently of the overarching, counterfactual Lindbergh story.

The novel weakens in the last two chapters which almost seem to be in the wrong order. Chapter 8 tells us that Roosevelt gets back in to power in 1942 which brings to an end the open and growing anti-semitism triggered by the Lindbergh regime. But then chapter 9 takes us back again to the Lindbergh period. I don’t think this works; it tries to bring back the tension after the tension has been defused.

Worse, at the beginning of chapter 8 (page 290), there is either a typographical error or a howler in the editing which allows us to know – just as things are going from bad to worse -  that there is after all going to be some kind of happy ending: we are casually thrown forward to 1960 and the at least tolerable fate of one of the book’s main and most troubled characters, Alvin. Did nobody pick up the mistake here? There is no other fast forward to a date as late as 1960 anywhere else in the book.

To counter-balance these critical remarks, I thought the book's main characters are interestingly cast in shades of grey, with personality traits which in one context seem admirable and then in another context become questionable. They also change under the pressure of circumstances in ways which defy simple morality tales.

Friday 14 November 2014

Review: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

Published in 1954, this book is still funny to this English reader 60 years later. It’s probably a very English kind of humour: it belongs to the world of Carry On films and there is a connection between the novel’s Jim Dixon and Mr Bean: both use facial contortions to express their feelings when they think they are unobserved.

It relies heavily on caricature, some of which modern readers may find offensive. Kingsley Amis, like George Orwell, has no time for poseurs with beards and berets or limp wrists and fancy names. In fact, anything which suggests upper middle class Bohemia or self-indulgent provincial academia.

 His principal character, Jim Dixon, may also be found offensive, addicted as he is to alcohol, tobacco, nasty practical jokes and failing to get his act together. A lot of the book is Carry On  Up The University.

In his Introduction to the novel, David Lodge makes out a case for Dixon as a morally serious character, searching for authenticity in an inauthentic world and finding it in the (rather stereotyped) shape of the shapely Christine. It’s pushing it a bit: true, he does make a real effort to secure Christine but he’s greatly helped by a stroke of luck, the offer of a job in London for which he has not applied. Whether landing on his feet will improve him remains, at the end of the book, an open question. He may simply rely on more Luck to get him out of future scrapes.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Review: Lynda La Plante, Wrongful Death

As a teenager, I read lots and lots of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner but since then it is only recent ill-health which has led me back to the genre of crime fiction, murder mystery, detective thriller. I have enjoyed John Grisham and Martin Cruz Smith and been impressed by the lines of social criticism they develop.

Lynda La Plante is another story. It’s not so much a Novel as a Production – the author indicates as much in her Acknowledgements. And as a production it clunks.

The prose is wooden and the author misses no chance to state the obvious: the reader is never expected to use their imagination to complete the reading of a situation since the author spells it all out, as I have just done.

The characters are as they say Larger Than Life in a way that ensures that you don’t sympathise or identify but merely gawp. Occasionally, they are put into unintentionally comic scenes, notably when Anna and Blane get very excited over solving their Murder Mysteries on the sofa, barely leaving time for the Quick Fuck presented to the reader as (potentially) True Romance (Chapter Thirty). It’s hilarious but it’s not meant to be.

The Production occasionally slips up – one of the production team fell asleep – notably when a character (Marisha) who is still alive but soon won't be is presented as already dead (page 401).

As for social criticism, I see it a bit like this. People who read Celebrity gossip magazines know and believe that there is often a dark underside which they would love to hear about – and often do when tabloid newspapers dish the dirt. This book does the same, it gives us all the dirt on Lady Lynne and her family – strip clubs, fraud, murder, bigamy, incest – and then allows her and her daughters to walk free thanks to the incompetence and susceptibility to political pressure of the, er, Metropolitan Police.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Review: Milan Kundera, L'Art du Roman

This is a book of great clarity, a virtue linked (as Roland Barthes once observed) to the desire to persuade. It is also a book which charmingly conveys the commitments, the enthusiasms and the excitement of the author. This is especially true of the two long interviews which comprise the second and fourth chapters of this seven part book of essays, first published in 1986 and which I used to assign in its English translation for the "theoretical" part of a course in Creative Writing on which I once taught.

Kundera sees himself as a novelist (romancier), not a writer (écrivain). His job is to say or express in the novel form what can only be said or expressed in that form:

“la seule raison d’être du roman est de dire ce que seul le roman peut dire” (page 54)

This makes him specifically hostile to those who use the novel form to illustrate ideas which they have already formulated and which could have been written out in ordinary prose. For this reason, and despite sharing totalitarianism as a common enemy, he clearly dislikes the works of George Orwell. These are “romans de vulgarisation” which translate a non-novelistic understanding into the language of the novel (page 54)

The novel of which he writes is the European novel and it has a (great) Tradition which starts with Cervantes. The would-be novelist needs to familiarise himself with this Tradition, to learn the novelistic possibilities which exist and which have been explored. In this the apprentice novelist is just like the apprentice painter. That is me writing, not Kundera, and a me who has read T S Eliot and F R Leavis and Harold Bloom, none of whom figure in Kundera’s text.

In fact, the novel in English figures in Kundera’s Pantheon only in the names of Fielding and Sterne – a characteristically European choice: for Leavis, Sterne is no more than an annoying “trifler”. Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Henry James and the awful D H Lawrence (another Orwell-type writer) go unmentioned. 

Kundera instead names and discusses the great writers in French and in German and in Russian: Flaubert, Kafka, Tolstoy and many others including notably Hermann Broch to whom the third essay is devoted and which I skipped because I have not read Broch.

At the end of it all, Kundera formulates a definition of the novel:

“La grande forme de la prose où l’auteur, à travers des egos expérimentaux (personnages), examine jusqu’au bout quelques grandes thèmes de l’existence » ( page 179)

This is, of course, written not without irony but it does identify the Things Good To Think With ( les choses bonnes à penser – Lévi-Strauss) with which the novelist specifically works: characters.
One might say (and I tried to say this in the lectures on aesthetics which I gave in the 1980s and 1990s – see that each of the traditional and great art forms has its own specific things “good to think with” or perhaps more accurately “good to express with”. For the potter, it is clay. For the sculptor, stone or metal. For the composer, sound and silence. And so on. 

When the novelist works with characters, he or she has the chance to discover and bring into focus ways of human being and possibilities of existence which would have eluded discovery in mere prose.

Added 9 June 2019: For examples of novels which work with characters in the way Kundera describes, see - for example - Otessa Moshfegh Eileen (reviewed here on 28 July 2017) and Olga Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ( reviewed 9 June 2019)

Sunday 2 November 2014

Review: Ismail Kadare, The Concert

This is a translation from the French, itself a translation from the Albanian. I have to think that the author is badly served by one or both of his translators. I hope so!

There are problems at three levels.

First, there is parochialism: only in the United Kingdom do governments have "home secretaries" and "foreign secretaries" - everywhere else they have Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers. But Barbara Bray gives us the parochial form in translating a novel set in Albania.

Second, there is wooden prose:
Back in the office, the boss still hadn't returned. Linda collected some papers and took them along to the typists. Silva sat for a moment with her elbows on her desk. She didn't feel like working. She got up and went over to the window, looking out at the square with its surrounding ministries and the grey, rainy day (page 53)
Is it really that bad in the original?

Third, there is a problem of Register. Characters in emotional turmoil are assigned expressions like Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and vent frustration thinking things like "the whole blessed evening" (170).This is compounded by a choice of English colloquialisms taken from a quaint manual on How The Other Half Speaks In An English Tea Shop - unfortunately a mismatch with the Albanian characters of the book, who are intellectuals and Communist Party officials.

Equally, the novel itself is not without faults. It begins with a chapter introducing a large number of characters. The reader dutifully tries to absorb the names and the relationships. But then most of these characters promptly disappear. I am not sure that all of them even re-appear and if they do it is often as bit players. Bad technique: your opening chapter was pretty irrelevant, and irrelevant at the moment when your new reader was giving you maximum attention.

The story is complex, digressive and was probably a lot funnier in the original than it is now. Everything is spun off from the breakdown of relations between Albania and Communist China - thirty odd years ago. The focus is on how fairly ordinary lives and everyday expectations are upset by this breakdown with its attendant regime of paranoia, rumour and jockeying for position. Though half a dozen characters appear and re-appear as the main bearers of the burden of Sino-Albanian relations, I am afraid none of them really engaged my sympathies still less my emotions, with the possible exception of Linda.

But faced with my own doubts about the translation, I feel it would be unfair to judge this book in any kind of definitive way.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Review: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah

If pressed, I would say that I prefer novels with unity of time, place and action. And not too many characters. Especially, not too many characters. As a teenager, I think I made it through to the end of Anna Karenina but I'm pretty sure I didn't finish War and Peace. Right now, I have stalled on a 20th century War and Peace, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. I keep forgetting who is who - it seems this is expected, because there is a crib sheet of names. It's a pity: I admire Grossman's writing, I think Everything Flows and his war journalism are terrific. But Life and Fate is too much of  a cognitive challenge.

Adiche's book is spread panoramically across three continents, in Nigeria, the USA and England - a bonus for publishers I'm sure - and it has a large cast of characters with names which to me are unfamiliar - just like Tolstoy's - and it is spread over decades. But because it has a fleshed-out core couple at the heart of it - Ifemelu and Obinze -  it doesn't fall apart into a series of scenes. There are scenes but they are managed in such a way that they rarely seem disconnected. In other words, Adiche maintains a strong narrative thread. There is a story, a romance, developed over 477 pages.

There is also a strong thread of social commentary, spun out from the hub of Race. It's often funny, acid but never hectoring. It picks up on the significance of everyday, taken-for-granted acts and omissions, making us see them afresh. It's very well done.

Ifemelu is a complex character - insecure, abrasive, courageous, very clever and very demanding. In the end, the man she wants only gets her when he puts out to the maximum - nothing less will do (I was reminded of Pretty Woman).

Monday 20 October 2014

Review: Alison Macleod, Unexploded

I bought this book for no better reason than that it had a local setting (Brighton) and a local author - but with "Man Booker Longlist" status.

Set in 1940 Brighton, and indebted to another local author, Virginia Woolf (who makes cameo appearances), it is essentially polite, middle class fiction - the kind of book you could discuss without embarrassment in a Reading Group. It does deal with real matters - the limitations of conventional, bourgeois marriage; the perils of childbirth; the desperate consequences of inhibition; British anti-Semitism; and - most interestingly - the way in which war radically alters childhood experience. But it does so in a manner which allows you to skirt round anything you don't really want to discuss. 

It starts rather tediously but gets better.It uses some fairly conventional tropes to develop its plot - the world of artists and whores as the Other of conventional middle class life, but it manages to turn them in interesting ways. It's not the enthralling page-turner described in the overblown press quotations. It's a decent, well-crafted piece of work in  genres (Virginia Woolf + the War + bourgeois marriage) which have many English readers.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Review: Marguerite Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord

" - And if there is no unhappiness? 

- Then everything will be forgotten "

In 1984, Marguerite Duras published L'Amant - a lyrical, beautifully crafted short autobiographical novel about a teenager's love affair with a man in his twenties. The book was made into a film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, which Duras disliked and it is sometimes said that she wrote this longer, second book - this second version of L'Amant - to show how the story should be filmed. It is indeed written as a series of filmically conceived scenes, sometimes with explicit notes of guidance about how they should be treated for cinema and it appeared in the same year (1991) as the film.

But there was another motive, which she acknowledges. In 1990, Duras learnt that her first lover was dead - had died some years before - and she set to work on this book. It is her mourning for her lover that is recorded here. And the emotional climax comes in a short passage at page 214 where the young Duras - just turned fifteen - urges her Chinese lover to make sure that one day he tells their story to his Chinese wife-to-be, complete with all the names, all the places, all the place names. Why to his wife? Because her unhappiness will allow her to understand the story. 

" - Et s'il n'y a pas de douleur? - Alors tout sera oublié" (page 214)

The story is in the great tradition of literature which knots together love and transgression. Like Romeo and Juliet,  Duras and her lover are breaking the rules, three rules in fact: she is under-age; she is white in French Indo-China and he is Chinese. She is poor and he is rich.

There will be mean spirited readers who will see her teenage infatuation for the Chinese man as an act of desperation. A fatherless child in a dysfunctional family; a brutal older teenage brother already addicted to opium; a younger brother who she both protects from the older and with whom at the same time she has an incestuous relationship. A mother who is not coping. There will be readers who would have sent the man to prison for a long time - they have such good sex - and the girl to the tender mercies of state care.

But the story she tells is about a child who is not desperate but courageous - or, at least, developing through acts of defiance what will become the courage of later life. 

Overarching everything is an enormous tenderness in her depiction of her characters - even the bit players - and their relationships. Quite often, she brings this out by describing how couples - temporary couples in some cases - dance with each other. These scenes are a gift to the film maker. 

(I am reminded of a story told me by a friend who, looking through a lit college window late one evening, chanced upon a very elderly Rudolf  Laban dancing alone with his partner, Lisa Ullmann).

Saturday 13 September 2014

Review: Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire

This is a fascinating, well-written account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Though Gorbachev is presented as a much rougher, power-hungry figure than I had imagined, the book impressed me as balanced and nuanced particularly in its account of the "dance" between Yeltsin's Russia and Kravchuk's Ukraine in the last five months of 1991 - the period from Gorbachev's house arrest in Crimea by the ill-fated Moscow putschists to his 25 December resignation as President of the Soviet Union. This makes for very interesting reading, especially now in 2014 in the context of the armed Russo-Ukrainian conflict which post dates the completion of this book.

Plokhy has had access to important primary source material, including transcripts and notes on conversations between the first President Bush and Gorbachev, Yletsin and Kravchuk. He has also interviewed some of the important participants in the events of 1991. The book includes a great deal of surprising detail.

Ukraine was important to Russia both symbolically and practically. Yeltsin did not want it to slip away from a "Slavic Union" which would leave Russia with just much-smaller Belarus to face towards the Islamic republics - the half dozen Central Asian Stans. 

It was also still the case, as it had been in 1917, that Ukraine was important to feeding Russia and it is an extraordinary fact that, as Plokhy describes it, in 1991 the Mayors of Leningrad and Moscow were preoccupied with food shortages - there wasn't much in the shops and they feared that by winter 1991 - 92 there would be nothing. It could have been 1917  - 18 all over again. Russian history is often about the question, Who is going to be hungry? In the 1930s, Stalin decided that it would be Ukraine - the food it produced was needed in Russia.

This is one reason why I disagree with one of Plokhy's conclusions:

The death of the Soviet Union differed from that of other empires in that the resource-rich metropolis cut off its former colonial possessions from easy access to those resources. Russia stood to benefit from the loss of its imperial possessions more than any other empire of the past (page 399)
This may be true of oil and gas, but it is still not true of food - nor even of cotton which Uzbekistan produced for the metropolis. I discuss some related issues in my review on this site of Alexander Etkind's Internal Colonization (reviewed on 9 June 2012)

Sunday 7 September 2014

Review: Charles Clarke, The "Too Difficult" Box

I bought this book with a heavy heart. Yes, I got £5 off but pretty soon it will be £20 off in every charity shop. It's a book which will fall dead born from the press.

Charles Clarke is a former British Labour politician who has made a new career as a Visiting Professor. In that role at the University of East Anglia he invited 25 people to come and talk about difficult issues in British politics, nearly all of them Establishment insiders: thirteen are members of the House of Lords and most of the rest could be and some certainly will be.

Now the House of Lords is part of the problem and not the place to look for solutions. It's a comfortable London club of 770 members with house rules so lax as to positively encourage what in ordinary life would be corruption (Google "Baroness Uddin" for example and search out Keir Starmer's reasons for not prosecuting her). Unsurprisingly, no one in this book suggests its abolition - a cost-saving and very effective solution to the problem it creates for the credibility of  "British democracy".

Other parts of the problem do not merit chapters in this book: there is nothing on the baleful influence of the Treasury, the Monarchy or the Established Church (whose Bishops automatically sit in the House of Lords). There is a chapter on the Scottish parliament  - by a member of the House of Lords - but no suggestion anywhere that England might deserve one. There is no mention of Northern Ireland or Wales - the former subsidised from England at around £5000 per local inhabitant and the latter at £4 000. There is no discussion of the jingoism which has us cling to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (the latter subsidised at around £50 000 per local inhabitant).

These are matters "too difficult" for Charles Clarke's Establishment. They are committed to thinking inside the box.

Most of them have probably been asked to "talk to students" before and few of them try very hard. Lord Falconer contributes a very tightly argued piece in support of Assisted Dying, arguing for the adoption of the US state of Oregon's model and this is probably the sharpest piece in the box. . At the other extreme, Lord Shephard's piece is merely whimsical and Mary Honeyball's reads like the transcript of a confused but nonetheless self-congratulatory talk on How I Got the EU to Adopt the Swedish Model (criminalising men who pay for sex). Trevor Phillips and David Blunkett also offer unstructured chats.

Very few contributors are angry with the System - Lord Filkin (on an ageing population) is - and that adds to the interest of his piece. The outsiders - Anatole Kaletsky on the Banks and Adam Boulton on the BBC - also show exasperation, though of course neither Boulton or anyone else suggests that public funding of the awful BBC should be withdrawn - cost-saving and effective and no loss.

A couple of pieces are lively presentations of issues by people with deep inside experience - Baroness Hollis on pensions and Margaret Hodge on waste in public spending contribute interesting pieces, and so do Lord Howarth (on drugs) and Tim Loughton (on child protection).

But overall this is not the place to go either for sharp analysis of the nature of a problem or defence of decisive solutions. Overall, it heads towards a Lower Second - about par for modern British political life.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Review: Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This is the second Junot Diaz I have read - his This Is How You Lose Her was the first (it's reviewed on this site 28 December 2013)). It's a weightier book which weaves in and out of the terrible history of the Dominican Republic under the US-backed barbarism of Trujillo and since. It could be read in companion with Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat - a terrifying history of Caribbean dictatorships (reviewed on this site 9 June 2012).

It is verbally spectacular and at the same time very raw and direct. There are no euphemisms. The title is actually a little misleading insofar as there are several main characters whose story is told - the story of Oscar's mother Beli is developed at length and is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of the narratives though some readers might select the story of Beli's father, Abelard.

Written in English, a fair amount of text and dialogue is in Spanish. I am not the sort of reader willing to sit with an urban dictionary or to constantly Google. It may be that English - speaking readers in the United States can handle the Spanish but that won't be true of English - speaking readers in other countries (like my England). Maybe there should have been a separate edition for those readers with glosses or translations to make things smoother - after all, Diaz provides English when occasionally he uses French or Latin and it is not disruptive if done intelligently. I wondered if the Spanish - language edition leaves chunks of text in English. If not, then by parity of reasoning nothing would be lost by making this book more accessible to English readers who don't have (much) Spanish as a foreign language

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Review: Edney Silvestre, If I Close My Eyes Now

Yes and No. Much of this book is highly readable but some of it is awkward, some sensationalist, and some sentimental. 

The readability is provided by a Murder Mystery investigated by two boys and a retired school cook. The plot is sometimes awkward - Silvestre makes his incest story line as complicated as you can make incest. Some of the sexual violence is effectively edgy but at other times seems sensationalist. The ending is weakly sentimental and disconnected from the very short time frame in which the main narrative is set. In between, there is an interesting social history of modern Brazil  with harsh light cast on its darker side and, perhaps most effectively, there is a story of boyhood friendship.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Review: Richard Overy, The Bombing War Europe 1939 - 1945

I hesitated before buying this book: Would I actually read 642 pages and apparatus which takes it to 852? But I did. It's well-written, absorbing, detailed but generally avoids repetition, and slowly develops an overarching thesis, formulated in general terms only right at the end.

Everyone believes that in the First World War, governments and their militaries (often incompetent) sent millions of conscripted young men into the pointless slaughter of trench warfare. In the aftermath, they knew they could not do it again and so looked to aerial warfare as an alternative. Even before they had the bombers, they thought that the next war ought to be about strategic bombing from the air. Of the major powers, only the Soviet Union thought that air power should be used, almost exclusively, to give tactical support to ground forces.

Richard Overy's final thesis is that in the Second World War, governments and their militaries (sometimes incompetent) condemned half a million European civilians to mostly pointless slaughter as bombs fell on them from a great height.

The pointlessness had two main aspects. First - and this is true for American bombing - the bombers could not hit their intended targets. Time after time - because of  limitations of technology, the weather, human error - they missed. Instead of hitting factories or transport links, they hit residential quarters. At times, pilots under pressure to off-load simply gave up even trying to bomb on target. Reading Overy, I was repeatedly surprised at the very low percentages achieved for "on target" bombs. Aircraft loss percentages were sometimes higher than on target bombs.

Second - and this is true for British bombing - when bombers were sent to carpet bomb cities, they either failed to to do it (came home, got shot down, bombed rural fields) or else, where they were successful (as at Hamburg and Dresden), did not achieve their aim of breaking enemy civilian morale or crippling industry through killing workers in their beds. Bomber Command under Arthur Harris was at least five parts bluster. The bombs available to Harris were not able to do the job that the bombs available in 1945 did to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

On the other side, neither the Germans and still less the Italians found a way of bombing the small island of Malta - hardly missable as a target in the open Mediterranean - into submission.

In other words, strategic bombing did not bring victory or end the war faster, with just one qualification: in all the belligerent countries, exposure to bombing tied up large numbers of personnel and a great deal of materiel in air raid defences. But that concession is not such a big one: all the belligerents had one hand tied behind their backs.

I picked up just one curious oversight in Overy's book. He mentions a 1931 book by H G Wells, The Shape of Things to Come which "ends optimistically with a benign world "Air Dictatorship" based implausibly in the Iraqi city of Basra" (page 31). Not so implausbily: it was in Iraq in the 1920s that Arthur Harris - then of the occupying British forces and later head of Britain's World War Two Bomber Command - experimented with the technique of bombing civilians from the air to terrorise and break them. What he did there was controversial within the RAF itself and attracted adverse publicity which Wells may have been familiar with. There is an account of what Harris did in Iraq in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young, editors, Bombing Civilians (New York 2009).

Friday 18 July 2014

Review: Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters

There is a global demand - most obviously coming from the USA - for rose-tinted books about Royalty, dead or alive. Some readers want Royal babies (The British are prolific in supplying them) and others want Royal Martyrs - the Romanovs win hands down.

Though it is thoroughly researched  and very readable Helen Rappaport's book does not escape the weaknesses of the genre. To give an example:  the romance between Nicholas and Alexandra risked coming to nothing because of Alexandra's religious scruples and Rappaport writes, "To a forlorn Nicky there seemed an insurmountable gulf between them and he allowed himself to be temporarily distracted by other pretty faces" (page 16). This is saccharine. Nicholas had a mistress from 1890 until his 1894 marriage.She was Mathilde Kschessinskaya (1872 - 1971), a ballerina in St Petersburg who Nicholas met when she was 17. After being dropped by Nicholas, Mathilde took up with two other Romanov Grand Dukes, and had a child with one of them. She lived to a grand old age and wrote her Memoirs. "Pretty faces" is ridiculously coy and designed for the more prudish readers of Royalty biographies.

Again, in chronicling the cosy home life of the family, Rappaport again and again stresses simplicity, frugality, informality - things which come with this genre of writing - so that when, for example, she once mentions the Fabergé eggs which Nicholas presented annually to his wife and mother they simply cannot be integrated into the narrative she has constructed any more than the Royal yachts and railways trains.

Despite - in some ways because of -  its weaknesses, the book successfully chronicles the extraordinary degree of arrogant detachment from reality practised by the last of the Romanovs. They knew very little about the Russia they claimed to own and rule over and even their relationships with the Russian aristocracy were strained and limited. It was the aristocracy who brought them down - Rasputin was murdered by a Grand Duke and a Prince, not by proletarians.

The detachment from reality - maybe half way due to Alexandra's invalidism and Alexey's haemophilia - passed to their daughters in the form of an unworldliness rudely shaken by the First World War. Here it seemed that the two older daughters really did become nurses and did not just pose for photographs.

Among a mass of opinions cited by Rappaport, I was struck by a comment by Prince Wilhelm of Sweden attending the Romanov Tercentenary celebrations in 1913:

The Emperor made restrained greetings to the right and the left without changing expression; it was impossible to detect any enthusiasm from either side. The muzhiks [peasants] mostly stood there staring, a few made the sign of the cross or fell to their knees for the head of the church. It was more awe and curiosity than spontaneous warmth, more dutiful obedience than trust. Subjects kept down rather than free citizens. It was unpleasant, remote and as unlike how things are at home as possible. The unbridgeable gap between the ruler and the people was more notable than ever (page 197)
Sweden still has a Monarchy.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Review: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

It seems a pity to read a 468 page book and not get a review out of it. But the truth is I only finished it because being unwell kept me at home for a few days and I had nothing better to read. The book is dull. I simply do not understand the three pages of gushing quotations from reviews which preface the book.

There will always be a problem if you set out to chart the lives of half a dozen people, plus bit part characters, over 40 years. It will be very hard to avoid précis as you update readers on what has happened to characters A and B in the five or ten years since they last appeared on your pages. I don't think Wolitzer avoids it. The book is full of précis.

It is also rather full of box ticking. We get Discovering you are gay, clinical depression, HIV/AIDS, autism, feminist theatre, cancer  though we don't get race or guns or divorce and we don't really get poverty (just the squeezed middle classes). It's actually quite a cosy book despite the fact that it axes itself around the themes of youthful aspirations turning into success or failure and envy or jealousy as you see others doing better than yourself.

No. Some of the gags are funny but I think you could find a couple of much better novels to read in the time it took me to plod through this one.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Review: Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends

Ben Macintyre is a very good writer and I have read three of his previous documentary Spy books with pleasure. I also read this one with pleasure and found that it raised interesting questions about both the British Establishment as it was and clearly still is, and about spying in general.

Every modern government feels that it has to spend large amounts of very sloshy money on spying, surveillance and on more active things like black propaganda, provocation, subversion and so on. After all, if They do it then We have to respond in kind. But books like this one raise the question of whether it is all worth it. For every resounding success there is at least one Bay of Pigs failure. Much of the time, spy agencies appear merely to be goading each other, so that their activities create problems which would not otherwise have existed. At worst, it becomes childish rather than glamorous Macintyre's book gives some examples, perhaps unintentionally. Singing songs in nightclubs to annoy your enemies doesn't just happen in the film Casablanca - according to Macintyre, it also happened in real life in Istanbul.

Many years ago (around 1954 I think) Costa Rica decided it could do without an army. The army just kept causing trouble as it did in most Latin American nations,with or without the USA and its criminal CIA inciting that trouble. Since then, Costa Rica has done rather well as a country and is currently doing very well. Maybe it's time for one country to find a way of doing without spying agencies - or at least limiting things to what are basically police operations - finding out enough to stop crimes in their planning stage. In the case of both 9 / 11 USA and 7 / 7 in the UK, a more focussed, less megalomaniac, intelligence agency would probably have pieced together the information which was in fact available to it.

Intelligence disasters are sometimes the result of poor policy decisions by politicians but often they are the result of freelancing by intelligence agencies whose members feel themselves above the Law and certainly above the Politicians.  Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev sailed into Portsmouth Harbour in April 1956 aboard a cracking new Soviet cruiser. The spooks very much wanted to take a look at it but Prime Minister Anthony Eden vetoed that. The spooks went ahead anyway, the Soviets were probably tipped off -  and if so by Philby - and the drunken, unhealthy and superannuated frogman, Lionel Crabb, chosen to take photos of the ship's underwater propellers and so on, never returned to dry land.

Of course, you could say that Eden would say that,wouldn't he? It's called butt covering. The job of the intelligence services is to figure out when a politician's "No" is really his way of saying "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

More generally, politicians probably don't want to know exactly what their intelligence services are getting up to. It makes it easier to deny that they are doing what they are doing.

But in Britain leaving the intelligence services to their own devices meant - over a period of at least 50 years - that they turned themselves into Clubs on the model of Oxford and Cambridge universities. They did what they liked with their money, they employed who they liked - merit not being a particularly important issue - and once you were in the Club you had to do something really extraordinary to get yourself expelled. When Philby was eventually nailed as a Soviet spy, in exchange for a partial confession he was simply allowed to slip away to exile in the Soviet Union. To have put him on trial would have made the Club itself look remarkably casual, cavalier and self-satisfied in the way that it had operated during Philby's decades at the centre of it.

So as I read this book, one of its virtues is that in probing the details and tenor of Philby's relations with his colleagues, it provokes one to think about wider issues. One might, for example, compare how the political and civil service Establishment during and after Philby's era dealt with complaints of criminal activity - sexual abuse of minors in today's newspapers - involving members of their Clubs.

One final thing. It's often said that governments who rely on reports from their diplomats to know what is happening in a particular country would do better to read a good newspaper. The same is true of intelligence reports. Macintyre doesn't really probe it, but it is often unclear whether people in MI5 or MI6 had much grasp of geography or history or current affairs. But there are hints. For example, both American and British intelligence agencies have placed great reliance on emigrés with fairly disastrous results. They have failed to see that emigrés are not always honourable people forced into exile by unpleasant regimes. Some of them are crooks who used regime change as a chance to escape their country and present a new image to the world. Others are bitter and resentful at the loss of power they never deserved to hold. Some simply become absurdly nationalistic to compensate for their loss of a homeland. In all cases, emigrés should be treated with caution. But no one does that and so we still suffer from the Curse of Miami Cubans.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Review: Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist

Nowadays, young people writing their first novels seem to do it as an extension of their social networking. This thought occurred to me flicking to the Acknowledgments at the end of Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go - they link her in to well over a hundred individuals, alphabetically listed except for God who gets Liked first.

Suzanne Rindell does not have half as many Links or Likes, but enough for me to feel that at least one of them should have been of more actual help.

Rindells' first person narrator is cast as a police precinct typist in 1920s Prohibition America. She adopts a rather arch tone, is probably mad and certainly oblivious to her own self-serving inconsistencies. For most of the time, she is credible. 

She loses credibility when the author slips into anachronism - or, at least, since I am not an expert on 1920s US urban dialects, what appears to this elderly English reader as anachronistic.

Thus, I was distracted by "white noise" (page 41), "people person" (56), "time-line" (58), "body language" (136), "segued" (137), "trendy" (144), "leveraged" (159), and a "prepubescent" for which I have lost the page reference.

Now it is the job of those who read your novel in draft and get their names in your Acknowledgments to point out things like this and it is the job of the novelist to make sure she finds at least one reader with the necessary ear. Forget about the Links and the Likes, get an Expert.

I was more than distracted when I read, " I remember thinking at the time, aside from the simple fact of our gender, we did not appear to have much in common" (page 46). Now I would bet money that a typist in 1920's Prohibition America would have used the word "sex". It is only in 2010's America that Professors in Literature Departments of US universities (Suzanne Rindell studies in one) have prohibited the use of the word. 

The novel is quite successful and I read it all. The pacing is a bit unsatisfactory - large chunks of new information are hurriedly dispensed in a few pages to be followed by longer sections of longeurs. As a result, the novel did not really build suspense, at least in the mind of this reader. 

Friday 13 June 2014

Review: Tim Weiner, Enemies A History of the FBI

No doubt in every country, some things cannot be questioned. In the United Kingdom, where I live, you cannot really question the continuation of the Monarchy without making yourself an Outsider on whom, quite probably, a file will be opened somewhere. In the United States, you cannot question the Constitution - even though it has been amended from time to time. If you said that the Constitution is at the root of many of America's most profound problems, you would certainly be put on someone's List.

And yet not a month goes by without it being obvious to the rest of the world that the Separation of Powers and Checks & Balances enshrined in the Constitution as they work out in practice paralyse American government, both Federal and State. It creates a system which is weak and wide-open to corruption. It ensures that major problems are left untackled, often for decades. It fails to provide citizens with basic securities, so much so that many of them think that the solution is individual gun ownership - something you would only expect to encounter in a lawless third world failed state.

Tim Weiner constructs his book around the theme of the perceived and perennial conflict between the preservation of liberty and the construction of security, fudged over decades by Presidents and the FBI by simply doing things illegally and off the books. Edgar Hoover perfected the system, keeping the records of illegal operations in a personal system "Not For Filing" which meant that the operations were neither indexed or retrievable in the FBIs archives.

It's a sorry tale, told chronologically and generally in thumbnail narratives some of which are abandoned inconclusively. As a result, it's not particularly readable. There are partial narratives some of which are very interesting. For example, American anti-Communism does not begin with the Cold War. It dates back to the Russian Revolution itself and it shaped J Edgar Hoover's thinking and policies right from the beginning of his career after the First World War. It continued to shape the FBIs thinking to the point of ultimate absurdity when student movements in the 1960s and 1970s were perceived as Communist front organisations.

More generally, there are constant reminders throughout the book about the ignorance and cultural isolation of Americans: they don't know geography or history or foreign languages. They simply don't understand the rest of the world. The surveillance may be awesome and cost megabucks; the briefings fed to the President are often pitiful. 

But I read the background narrative in the whole book as the tragedy of the Constitution which nowadays yields a Congress of paid lobbyists and headline-grabbing nutters, a Supreme Court which can never really make up its mind, and Presidents who are sometimes able but thwarted in their attempts to tackle the major problems America faces - and sometimes stupid and simply unable to recognise the existence of those problems. The American Constitution nowadays is malware which infects and paralyses the whole society.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Review: Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

This is an extaordinary imginative achievement. Hannah Kent gives herself an obscure historical and geographical setting - Northern Iceland in the 1820s - which she has had to thoroughly research, places in it a tale of passion, murder and punishment which is based on a real history - and then manages to turn everything into a compelling, tragic narrative.

It reminded me of the Thomas Hardy which used to reduce me, as a teenager, to emotional blubber. As Agnes narrates her life and, eventually, the crime for which she will be beheaded - at the same time becoming the last person to be executed in Iceland - we know that this is how the story will end, however much we might wish it otherwise. And as the story unfolds, we wish it even more. That is part of Hannah Kent's achievement.

Another part is the cast of supporting characters, two of whom - the man and then the woman who listen to Agnes' narrative - undergo their own spiritual transformation as her tale unfolds.

It is incredibly well done and I recommend it very highly.

Monday 2 June 2014

Review: John Grisham, The Racketeer and Javier Marias, The Infatuations

I have discovered that when I have too many worries - and on the wagon as far as alcohol is concerned - then an engrossing thriller is a great comfort. John Grisham was very effective in making me think about his plot rather than my anxieties. Thank you! 

It's a complicated, ingenious plot and of course you want to understand it and get to know how things turn out in the end. Equally, there is a setting for the plot which - intentionally or not, I don't know - invites one to more serious reflection.

Grisham writes bleakly about the American criminal justice system - police, lawyers, courts, prisons - and reminds you forcefully of many things you know or half-know and which add up to putting a very big question mark over the idea of the United States as a civilised country. When it comes to Justice, it ain't. It's vicious, primitive and scary. Not just Death Row and botched executions, but violent prisons, corrupt law enforcement, crooked lawyers, and running through it all, racism.

This is one reason why you sympathise with the first-person narrator of Grisham's book, a black lawyer wrongfully imprisoned who finds an ingenious way to take revenge on the system. And rather than feel that he acted in any way wrongly, you end up feeling that he has merely righted the scales of justice - maybe two wrongs do make a right.

And soon you are thinking about Justice, one of the main themes in The Infatuations by Javier Marias. This is a long (373 page) book, slow moving, complex, complexly written in very long sentences. It is at one level a Murder Mystery but more importantly a sustained reflection on Crime, Justice and Punishment - and Passion. There are passages (pages 214 - 215 and 342 - 343 for example) which seem designed to make us wonder if we have got it all wrong. Maybe we do more harm than good by looking for criminals and punishing their crimes. Maybe there are cases where we should just ignore what we know and certainly not alert anyone in authority. They will only make matters worse. Maybe if we do nothing, then in many cases the scales of justice will over time tip back into balance. Maybe a wrong can be righted by doing nothing.

Saturday 31 May 2014

Review: Susan Cain, Quiet

This book kept appearing on Waterstone's tables and in the end I succumbed.

My first reaction was one of surprise: Introversion / Extroversion? Is that still around? I thought it was something we did in grammar school fifty years ago, administering Eysenck personality tests to ourselves. But, yes, it is still around and - at least in America - seems to be big business. Cain acknowledges the help of over 200 individuals.

Cain writes a reasonably interesting book axed around the Introversion / Extroversion dichotomy and taking the side of the Introverts. She combines interview material with summaries of experimental (behavioural) research, and laces the text with folksy self-help advice. The book will do no harm.

The thing is this: you could write an indefinite number of books around popular dichotomies: feminine / masculine; neurotic / psychotic; narcissism / whatever is the opposite of that. Each dichotomy will have its enthusiasts as well as its critics. Each dichotomy can bolster itself by drawing on the vast reserve of experimental psychological research which has now accumulated in American journals - much of it banal and tautologous ("extroverts tend to interact with more people than introverts"), some of it faked, most of it routinised.

I have a huge distrust of such material. It is the product, on the one hand, of a desire to avoid the challenges of psychoanalysis and, on the other, of a desire to build a subject (a discipline) which can hold its own in any university as a source of research income. And yet to me, I can't really believe that it is real science.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Review: Jane Fallon, Skeletons - and a few remarks on Style

I doubt that men of an age to have liver spots are among the intended readers of this book. Indeed, the book’s Leading Bad Guy  is just such a man. Nonetheless, I read it right through (all 430+ pages) quite easily and wanting  to find out how things would turn out. The story is one which provokes thought, and the telling of it witty and convincing. So there’s a Reader’s Recommendation. And take note that the woman on the front cover is a 43 year old – this is Literature, not chick-lit

But Jane Fallon does need an Editor who will save her from a couple of stylistic tics –  not disastrous ones.

I offer myself as just that Editor.

English contains tense constructions which are not felicitous:

(1)    Jen said, “I have enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(2)    “Jen said that she had enough haddock”


(3)    Jen said, “I have had enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(4)    “Jen said that she had had enough haddock”

Write (4) into a novel and you ask to be directed to some more suitable occupation, such as Flower Arranging. 

Oh, it’s grammatical and so on. It’s just awful stylistically and to be avoided at almost all costs. And it can be avoided without changing the meaning. You do it by dropping into what I suppose is a form of Free Indirect Speech / Discourse, losing one of the Hads whenever you see the chance, so:

(5)    “She tried to remember what they had had in common when they first met” (page 276)  becomes
(6)    “She tried to remember what they had in common when they first met”

If you get a taste for this, you could go on to rid yourself not only of Had Hads but even of Hads:

(7)    “In the morning, she had waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …” (p 314)  becomes
(8)    “In the morning, she waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …

But this is not obligatory. One Had is inoffensive; two suggests carelessness.

The same strategy will also rid your text of annoying “that that” constructions which probably originate in English public schools determined to make English more difficult for foreigners and other riff-raff:

“Both she and her mother had always known that that would be out of the question” (p. 207)

The other stylistic tic is really a linked pair of anxieties:  that your reader won’t find you funny enough when you tell your gag, so you immediately embroider it; and, second, that your reader won’t quite understand you, so you spell it out twice:

 “ now she found herself looking at Martin, wondering whether he might be a secret philanderer. Or did he like to dress up in her clothes whenever she went out? Or put a nappy on and get spanked by random strangers when his wife thought he was down the pub?” (p 125)

Advice: Delete all from “when his wife …” 

“You have to get something off your chest, never mind if you’re in the check out queue at Tesco’s and your next-door neighbour is behind you ear-wigging. Hoping to hear some gossip she can pass on” (p 59)

           Advice: Delete second sentence.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Review: Jennie Rooney, Red Joan

I picked up this book for a peculiar reason: the story of Red Joan draws partly on the real-life story of Melita Norwood who - some years ago and at the age of 87 - was exposed as a (former) Soviet spy who had passed important atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the period when it was seeking to develop its own atomic weapons. She was living an unremarkable and modest life in the London suburbs and the British powers-that-be wisely decided not to prosecute her. She was old though still dignified and spry enough to make a public statement about her spying. She was a surprising and not unsympathetic character. She was nicknamed “The Spy Who Came In from the Co-op”.

Melita Norwood, apart from these important things, was the widow of Hilary Norwood – a life-long Communist and schoolteacher (of mathematics, if I recall rightly) who was also - for some time after the War  -President of the British Society of Russian Philately, of which I am a member (since the 1990s - unfortunately, I never met him or Melita Norwood). The Society was founded in the 1930s and many of the original members were Communists or Fellow Travellers. That is no longer true – fortunately, perhaps, because the Society holds its Annual Meeting in London’s Army and Navy club. Its French sister society La Cercle Philatélique France – Russie still meets in the governmental Russian Cultural Centre in Paris, but that of course has changed its flag in recent years.

And now to the novel, which is uneven. The structure works – moving from narratives set in the 1930s and 1940s to recall of those events during an interrogation of the elderly Joan. The Mills and Boon romances (there are two) may work for some, though didn’t for me. 

The explanation of Why? Joan spied is very well done and is morally challenging: she spied because of Hiroshima and wanted to ensure that America could not do to Russia what it had done to Japan. In that sense, she helped develop a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction which came to be called deterrence.

There are anachronisms which are disconcerting, even though they are sometimes the anachronisms of fictional documents being quoted: “Born Leningrad, 20 May 1913” (page 90), “died in St Petersburg in 1982” (page 339), for example; and in a letter of 1949, written in English in England by someone without the background which would enable it, we find “Qu’ran”. 

And there is one bizarre passage which has a 1940s KGB document denouncing one of its victims as an enemy of “the Soviet Empire”(p 285). Enough to get a KGB man shot. Nowadays, maybe he could blame some American Imperialist spell-checker.