This year (2018)
Previous years: 2017; 2016;
Die Viola da Gamba
Force of Nature
My Career Goes Bung
Everyday Folk and Dawn
Edward St. Aubyn:
Yasunari Kawabata and Yasunari Inoue:
The Izu Dancer and
Bonfire of the Vanities
William Makepeace Thackeray:
the Trail of the Assassins
Go tell it on the
No Country for
Under the Harrow
Anatomy of a
A Double Life
Career of Evil
Give Me Your Hand
Electricity of Everything Living
Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club
Gentleman in Moscow
Some Prefer Nettles
Graeme Macrae Burnet:
The Accident on the A35
A Few Books from the Beginning of the
To begin with, a Christmas present was Bettina
Hoffmann's book on the viol - or viola da gamba. I didn't really
appreciate it as much as a previous book I had read on the same subject,
namely "Die Gambe", by Annette Otterstedt. That earlier book had
more technical information about the instrument, and interesting, very
personal observations of the author. But the present book was a history of
the viol, finding as many historical quotations as possible which
boundlessly praise the qualities of the instrument. While this may flatter
the ambitions of amateur musicians, it had less substance than
Ottersetdt's book. Of course I am extremely interested in this subject
since now, in retirement, my main ambition is to learn to play the viol.
For this purpose I am practicing for at least three hours most days.
Last year I very much enjoyed reading "Mothering
Sunday", by Graham Swift. Therefore I was looking forward to reading
more by the same author. "Last Orders"
won the Booker Prize in 1996, so I thought it must be good. However, as
experience has often shown, the Booker Prize is not a particularly good
recommendation. I was only able to wade through the first 50 or so pages
before giving up. The book is filled with working class London dialogue,
often awkward to read, involving a group of men who have been drinking
together at a pub for years. One of the men has died and they are setting
off to do something with the ashes. I suppose the professors of
literature, sitting on the Booker Prize Panel with their posh, upper class
accents, thought that they might redeem themselves by voting for this
book. I found it to be boring, seemingly going nowhere, telling a totally
Then I tried "Waterland"
and did read it through to the end. The story takes place in the Fens,
which is a lowland region on the eastern coast of England. The author
philosophizes about the quality of mud, water, eels, flatness. He seems to
associate these things with human depravity, madness. The story of the
book is a complicated affair, describing the rise and fall of a brewery
family. In the end it all boils down to an unpleasant little business
involving the memories of the narrator of his adolescent sexual
explorations in the mud, resulting in the pregnancy of his future wife, a
horrible abortion and the consequences of the resulting sterility. An
Happily, I then realized that there are still a number
of books by Ian McEwan which I have not read yet. "The
Children Act" is about a very highly placed, established woman judge
in the English judicial system at the "Inner Temple", or something, of the
"Inns of Court" in London. She has her apartment there which she shares
with her husband, a professor at a London university. They have no
children. Career has come first, and now it is too late. Frustration about
the failure of this basic biological urge to reproduce causes the husband
to think of an affair with a younger woman. His wife, the judge, filled
with anger, tells him that the consequence will be his banishment from the
family. But this isn't really the main story. It is concerned with the
Jehovah's Witnesses and a young man who needs a blood transfusion to save
his life, yet he is a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, still a minor,
and thus, following the recommendation of the hospital, could be forced by
the courts to accept a transfusion against his wishes. As with all these
books of McEwan, it was hard to put down. There develops a fatal
relationship between the young man and his judge.
I've given pints of blood to the Red Cross at least 30
times over the years. But now I'm too old, and anyway, after all my eye
operations a few years ago they think that my blood might have become
impure so they no longer want it. Blood seems to me to be something which
is hardly worthy of complicated religious pronouncements.
"Nutshell" was a strange
book, telling the story of the murder of a man by his brother and his
pregnant wife through the experiences of the unborn baby. It took a while
to get used to the idea of an unborn baby philosophizing about all sorts
of things, and in particular objecting to the fact that the brother of his
father was continuously inserting his member into the birth canal of his
mother. But gradually it became an amusing story of human frailties.
The review in the New York Times which I've
linked to here really tells it all. June and Bernard Tremaine fall in love
with one another while working in some sort of secret agency an London
during the Second World War. They had both joined the communist party of
England during the 1930s, perhaps for the friendship of other young
people, all going out together on bicycle trips and what have you. They
marry after the war and take a trip to Italy and France with the idea of
helping people who had become destitute. After a month or two of this,
they escape to a lonely region in the south of France to go hiking in the
hot summer sun.
At one point, June walks ahead, leaving Bernard behind,
examining the doings of some caterpillars. Suddenly June sees two huge
black dogs along the path. They attack her, but she shields herself with
her rucksack and stabs one of them with a pocket knife, thus driving them
away. This experience changes their lives. The dogs represent evil. They
were trained for evil by the occupying Nazi Gestapo. Returning along the
path, June and Bernard meet a tranquil French shepherd who lets them sleep
in an old barn. On an impulse June buys the barn, and over the years it
becomes the center of her life. She rejects communism and embraces
mystical spirituality. Bernard returns to England. His overly rational
communism turns him into a successful left-wing politician, often in the
news, having an opinion about everything. June and Bernard hate, and yet
still distantly love one another, living far apart in different countries.
All of this is narrated many years later by their son-in-law who speaks to
one and then the other, trying to understand their story.
I thought it strange that June settled in that
isolated, lonely farmhouse near to her experience of evil. But who can
understand the mysteries of the spirit? Bernard has rationalized away the
failure of communism, yet the middle chapter of the book takes place in
the Berlin of 1989 when the Wall fell down. Bernard is excited and rings
the narrator in the middle of the night to get him to come with him to
enjoy the End of Communism party in Berlin. They hectically arrange a
flight from London. In Berlin, Bernard is attacked by a group of
If the book is about good and evil then I suppose
Bernard has now also learned that there are forms of evil which are not
political. I remember that some Germans here did go to Berlin back then on
that night in 1989, finding it to be a great emotional experience. But I
thought the situation was potentially very dangerous, and the many Russian
soldiers stationed in East Germany could easily have been ordered to go on
the rampage, violently suppressing the whole business. Thankfully that
Four, by Hideo Yokoyama
This is a police novel written by a Japanese. It
shares with those Scandinavian police stories and TV programs the idea
that we are more interested in the police themselves, their personal
lives, loves, ambitions, rather than the criminals, or the victims of all
But if we are to believe the story of this book, then
it must be the case that those Japanese policemen are very different from
the more familiar Scandinavian ones. The hero is named Mikami. (This made
me think of Murakami, the novelist who writes those fascinating Japanese
surreal novels.) There are lots of other policemen, women, and other
characters whose names start with M, and so I lost track of things every
now and then. At the end of the book we realize that all this M..., and in
particular Ma... business has a certain reason. Anyway, Mikami used to be
a detective, actively hunting criminals, but six or eight months ago he
was unhappily transferred from the "Criminal Investigations" side of
things into "Administrative Affairs". His job is to deal with the press.
His office is next to the room of the Press Club, and
the big thing is that a pregnant woman has had an accident in her car,
killing a pedestrian. The press wants to know her name. Yet Mikami has
instructions to protect the woman by withholding the name. This conflict
seems to go on for hundreds of pages. The reporters in the Press Club
become more and more aggressive. And then everybody else in Administrative
Affairs treats Mikami dreadfully as well.
Do all those Japanese who, as in this story, outwardly
pretend to be so nice and polite suddenly become horrible in when they
know that they are safely concealed from public censure?
The GREAT SECRET, which at all costs must remain
hidden, but which after countless trials and tribulations Mikami uncovers,
is that during a kidnapping 14 years ago, the police tried to record the
kidnapper's voice on tape, but for some obscure technical reason, the tape
recorder failed to start at the critical moment. The police considered
this to be such a great scandal that everyone who knew about the problem
One of the policemen was hounded out of the force, and
then another policeman spent the next 14 years spying on the disgraced
one. And another was driven to insanity, spending the 14 years locked up
in his bedroom.
This - or perhaps many other things - (or the Japanese
mentality in general) led to a total conflict between Administrative
Affairs and Criminal Investigations. Rather than investigating crime, they
seemed to spend all their time investigating one another. Finally Mikami
learns the ULTIMATE SECRET, namely that the central police department in
Tokyo is planing to replace the local chief of police with a candidate of
their own. This is considered to be a catastrophe of such earth-shaking
dimensions that it is almost sufficient to unite Administrative Affairs
and Criminal Investigations.
Well, all of this seems to me to be very strange. How
are we to understand all these crazy Japanese? Surely things at the local
police station would improve if Tokyo sent somebody to clear up the whole
mess. And somehow the Scandinavian version of "The Police" agrees more
with what I would imagine to be a sensible state of affairs. But
thankfully I have almost never had reason to interact with the police.
Nevertheless it seems to me that at least the police here are civilized
and can be counted upon to see to it that society functions with as little
fuss as possible.
An Australian novel. Things take place in
Melbourne. It starts off with chapter 1 telling us about a crazy couple:
Little and Big. Little is a relatively young woman who is suffering from
Lupus, an extremely unpleasant autoimmune disease which particularly
affects women and which has left Little a semi-invalid. Big is a fat,
older man, a former bush cook who worked for a team of sheep shearers but
who now has become a transvestite, exposing his hairy arms and legs by
wearing awkward dresses and other female paraphernalia. They seem to have
no source of income and so they live in a "hostel" which is also occupied
by other outcasts. Australia is a comfortable, prosperous country, and so
they must all receive generous payments for their idle, eccentric lives.
Big and Little are mainly preoccupied with the thought
that Little's mother, in Adelaide, is dying, and so Little can expect to
inherit her house, which she expects to then sell and so buy some modest
home for herself and Big in Melbourne. (I don't know how realistic such a
prospect would be these days, considering the mindbogglingly absurd real
estate bubble in present-day Australia which has been fueled by all of
those Chinese who have struck it rich.)
But Little's mother has a number of sisters who also
want the house. And thus she has a cousin in Melbourne who, in contrast to
the rest of the characters, is a sensible person. He is a kind of
landscape architect and contractor who constructs his own designs. And
then the cousin has a girlfriend who is a university lecturer in some
obscure field which nobody is interested in.
It is a pleasant little story, rambling on and on. We
sympathize with all of these characters, these misfits. I enjoyed the
Another Australian novel, but very different
from the last one. The characters are again based in Melbourne. Rather
than rambling on about nothing, letting one day dissolve into the next,
everybody here is filled with action, ambition. We have a corrupt
accountancy firm and a pair of policemen: a policeman and a policewomen.
The policeman is secretly in love with the policewoman, but she is in love
with somebody else - in Sydney - and so she steadfastly refuses to
acknowledge any further attachments despite giving her Melbourne police
partner a chaste kiss after a dramatic scene at the end of the book.
But the real emotional tension results when the
accountancy firm which they are investigating decides to send five men and
five women from the firm into the bush for a character-building trek
through the thick, cold, rainy forest of north-east Victoria. The men and
the women are sent on different trails. The women get lost. They fight.
They end up in a horrible, secret cabin used by a murderer and rapist some
20 years before this time. The fighting and bickering amongst the women
continues and increases. It ends in tragedy. And we learn about the broken
families of these women. The head of the firm, who is taking part in the
men's part of the trek, also has a broken family. His degenerate son was
together with the degenerate daughter of the woman making all the problems
in the woman's group.
The problem with these two youthful family members was
that they took videos of themselves using their mobile telephones, in
exposed, compromising situations. Then, as is typically the case with such
things, the videos found their way onto the internet, thus exposing the
daughter to unwanted notoriety. I can well imagine that such a situation
would be unpleasant. But surely the crimes of the accountancy firm,
robbing innocent people of their savings, were more serious.
Back in 1983, the Folio Society brought out a
very nice edition of Miles Franklin's My
Brilliant Career which I read then (and which I have now
reread) and which made a great impression on me. The author was only 17 or
18 years old when she wrote it, living with her family at the Brindabella
Station amongst the Brindabella hills just west of Canberra (which didn't
exist then) back in 1899. It is a novel, pretending to be an autobiography
of rural Australia. The heroine of the novel is Sybylla Melvyn. She
describes herself as being an ugly, but lively and sparklingly intelligent
young woman. Her family was earlier prosperous, having extensive farmlands
more to the west, but now they have a poor dairy farm near the town of
Goulburn. The father has become a drunkard, leaving the family almost
destitute. The mother, who was earlier an elegant woman, has become
embittered, doing everything to make life as miserable as possible for
Things improve when Sybylla is sent to stay with her
still prosperous relatives, back out west. She blossoms, enjoys the new
sense of belonging, and develops a romantic relationship with Harold
Beecham, the tall, handsome owner of a large neighboring property who owns
various other farms and extensive properties in Queensland as well. As in
all such romantic novels, Adversary strikes. Sybylla is removed from the
comfortable home in the west by the tormenting mother and made to work in
a degenerate situation. Harold becomes bankrupt, loosing all his holdings.
But then, following the pattern of a Jane Austen romance, circumstances
change and the hero and the heroine come together. At first
misunderstandings prevail. But then, contrary to our expectations and Jane
Austen's examples, Sybylla refuses marriage, proposing instead undying
women's liberation. The devastated Harold is sent into the wilderness,
leaving all of his extensive, regained properties, aimlessly traveling
about the world with a broken heart.
The book was an instant success, both in England and in
Australia, when it was first published in 1901.
And so I thought it would be interesting to read the
present book, My Career Goes Bung, which Miles Franklin wrote soon
afterwards. What a difference! Sybylla's father is no longer the
degenerate rural drunkard. Instead he is a man of great dignity and honor
who has been reduced from prosperity to a more simple life due to the fact
that he refused to be a part of the general corruption of life back then.
Her mother is now a wonderfully loving, caring woman, doing her best to
see that things go well with Sybylla. Reading about the life of Miles
Franklin, and looking at the photo of her parents reproduced there,
I can well imagine that this was what her parents were really like.
Sybylla tells us about why she wrote My Brilliant
Career, and about the shock of learning that it had been published
in England. All of the neighbors are scandalized. Her parents dismayed.
She travels to Sydney to stay with a wealthy family who are friends of her
parents. And although she tells us that she is not beautiful, still, she
is feted by all of Sydney society. The most desirable young bachelors all
fall madly in love with her. She is the envy of the Australian literary
scene. But through all this she writes scathingly cynical portraits of
everyone she meets in Sydney. I am sure that for the people of those days,
these descriptions would have been easily associated with the real-life
people she so easily caricatures. Thus no publisher was willing to touch
the book, and it was only first published in 1946.
I suppose Miles Franklin considered this to be an
honest description of the Australia of her day. Too honest. And thus it is
a disappointing read after the lighthearted style of her first book.
Miles Franklin published this one in 1909, when
she was still a young woman. She had moved to Chicago to become part of
the women's trade union movement. Despite this, the book is again set in
Australia. The narrator is a middle-aged woman, an actress who is
suffering from a heart condition. And so to recover, she settles in a
boarding house in an imaginary town just west of Sydney. She tells us that
it is on a river and the trains cross over a bridge on their way up over
the Blue Mountains. Therefore it is clear that the river must be the
Nepean River, and the town must be Penrith.
At the boarding house she meets Dawn, a young woman who
is beautiful in all ways. The boarding house is run by Dawn's grandmother
who tells us everything about her old, Australian country ways, and in
particular we learn about her ideas concerning the place of women in a
rural, colonial society. Dignity and yet with deference to the menfolk.
This is contrasted with the various undignified men who make their
appearances in the book. Back in 1902, women in Australia had gained the
right to vote, ahead of their contemporaries in most other countries, and
so much is made in the book of whom the women were to vote for (all the
candidates were men).
But the main story is how the narrator tries to find a
nice man for Dawn to marry, while at the same time encouraging Dawn to
take singing lessons in Sydney with the aim of going on the stage. She
faces strong opposition from the grandmother who thinks actresses are evil
and a woman's place is in marriage.
After reading the book in fits and starts I simply got
bored and gave up halfway through. I need a more modern story with more
Apparently this book is part of a linked series
of detective stories, describing various cases which the heroine, Erika
Foster, a Detective Chief Inspector with the London police, has been
involved with. It's the story of a man who hides himself within a World
War I style gas mask and then attacks men and women in a depraved manner
on lonely, dark London streets. The book starts off with the murder of a
young woman. Gradually we learn of many characters who might be suspects,
or witnesses. One of them tries to kill himself by having the gas of his
gas stove escape into the house, filling the air with natural gas. Erika
and one of her sidekicks then come in to rescue the man. And we are told
that they also suffer from severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. But
wait a minute! The gas has not ignited, blowing up the house. It remains
in its pristine state, not consumed by fire. And thus the methane and
other hydrocarbons in the gas have not yet been converted to water, carbon
dioxide and carbon monoxide via the addition of atmospheric oxygen.
We could forgive Robert Byndza this little confusion of
the poisons involved in natural gas, but the resolution of the book was
It turns out the killer of the young woman was not the
large, brutal man behind the gas mask. Instead it was the frail, 97 year
old woman around the corner. It turns out that she was a brutal, sadistic
Nazi back in the days of World War II. A devilish woman concentration camp
criminal. We are reminded of some of the opponents of James Bond, back in
the old movie days. And now, 75 years later, the evil inherent in her body
was sufficient to enable her to don a gas mask, overpower a young, healthy
woman and slash her with powerful strokes of her kitchen knife, cutting
deeply through her throat, severing bones and cartilages, and generally
producing as much of a bloody mess as the real London gas mask man with
all his vigorous, massive youthful strength had been doing. Perhaps the
author would have done well to have visited a few geriatric wards while
doing his research for this book in order to see what 97 year old women
are really capable of.
by Edward St. Aubyn
This is another book in the Hogarth
Shakespeare series, this time based on King Lear. The review in
the Guardian which I've linked to here describes things well. Very
enthusiastic. But I wasn't so overwhelmed.
Dunbar has been committed to a kind of psychiatric
hospital somewhere in the wilds of Scotland. He has been filled with
mind-altering drugs by his two evil daughters who thus plan to take over
the business. The good daughter, Cordelia, whose name is now Florence, has
deserted the family in disgust. But the bad daughters, here named Megan
and Abby, are so absurdly evil as to turn the story into a kind of
The author has changed Shakespeare's Lear into a
character named Dunbar for some reason which I didn't understand. Perhaps
it was felt that the name Lear has already been taken by the manufacturer
of those Lear Jets which the rich people of the world use to jet about the
place in a style unpolluted by the common people. In any case, St. Aubyn
has imagined his version of Lear to be a rich newspaper baron, somewhat
like Rupert Murdoch.
Dunbar, who has managed to avoid swallowing
the drugs, escapes from the hospital and sets off on a trek through the
wilds, to be rescued in a helicopter by Florence. And so the story
continues on, following the plot of the play.
I suppose it must be considered to be an honor
to be invited by the Hogarth Press to be the author of one of these
modern versions of Shakespeare's plays. But for me this one was a
With this one we can at least say that the
author has retained - more or less - the Shakespearean names of almost all
the characters. Of course the play is quite short. I have certainly never
seen it performed on stage, and I can't remember seeing a version at the
movies or on TV. But I have read through the play a couple of times, and
after reading this book, I read it again. The advantage of the longer
format of a novel is that it is possible to go into things more deeply,
explaining the reasons the various characters do what they do. Whereas in
the play, we are suddenly jolted into the sequence of Macbeth's murders,
in Nesbo's book we have an elaborate story of Macbeth being an orphan,
becoming a drug addict, being saved by his heroic companion Duff (not
Macduff), and so on. Lady Macbeth becomes simply "Lady". We learn that she
also had a difficult childhood, and so we can understand her ambitions.
In the story, Macbeth is not a Thane of Scotland,
and Duncan is not the King. Rather Duncan is the commissioner of police in
some unnamed Scottish city in, what we learn, was the year 1970. Perhaps
it is Inverness. After all, Lady is the owner of the Inverness Casino. And
Macbeth is the head of the SWAT team. Industry has closed down. Everything
is in a state of decay and drugs are everywhere.
In fact this makes sense. After all, what were the
witches stirring in their cauldron, chanting "hubble, bubble, toil and
trouble"? And so Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, becomes a secret old
man, the elusive Don of the Scottish Mafia, running a hidden factory in
the catacombs of the town's derelict railway, manufacturing "brew", which
sounds rather like the crystal meth of Breaking Bad's Walter
But the book is just too long, going on and on for
hundreds of tedious pages, filled with needless brutality. In contrast, I
can imagine that back then, at the beginning of the 17th century, the
performance of the play must have been a magnificent spectacle. I wonder
what sort of lighting effects they had when the witches and the spirits
made their appearances? And there are numbers of songs whose texts and
melodies have been lost but which must have been wonderful. It is said
that the play made a very great impression on King James.
Given that the editors of the Hogarth Press had
decided to interpret their Macbeth as a crime novel, then I suppose Jo
Nesbo would be a logical choice. On the other hand he wrote it in his
native Norwegian, and the official Hogarth version is thus a translation.
And, as I think I've written here elsewhere, I'm not really a fan of these
long, involved, extremely brutal Scandinavian TV crime series. Ten or
fifteen years ago I very much enjoyed the episodes of Commissioner
Beck, a Swedish series involving the police in Stockholm. And so it
was a pleasure to see that they are making some new episodes of that
series. Peter Haber, the actor who plays Beck, has aged a bit, but he is
as sensible and civilized as ever. It seems to me that a better version of
Macbeth would have resulted if the Hogarth Press had chosen the authors of
Commissioner Beck for this project, rather than Nesbo.
At the beginning I thought that it must be a
book of short stories. The first chapter was a wonderful, dream like
description of a man in Japan, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a train.
It reminded me of the beginning of Kawabata's Snow Country.
We learn that the man, Oki, is going to Kyoto to
hear the ringing of the new year's bells which he has often heard, sitting
alone at home, on the radio. Oki is a successful novelist. His first, and
famous book, described the love of the narrator for a 15 year old girl.
The narrator was 25 and married with a small child. But he loved the girl
above everything. She became pregnant, but then had a miscarriage and
nearly died. And then he left her and returned to his young family and she
was taken by her mother to Kyoto, away from Tokyo. But in actual fact the
novel described in minute, honest detail Oki's real-life affair with the
young Otoko, for all the world to read about.
It is now 20 years later. Oki wants to meet Otoko
again after all those years. He is the famous novelist, and Otoko has
become a famous painter. She has never married. Oki's son, Taichiro, has
grown up and become an academic, a literary critic. Oki is still married
to his wife despite the fact that she, and all the world, knows all the
intimate details of Oki and Otoko's life together.
Otoko agrees to meet Oki in a restaurant in Kyoto,
but to keep a sufficient distance she has engaged a couple of geisha to
help in the entertainments, and also she has brought along her assistant,
Keiko, a beautiful young woman.
Perhaps Otoko and Keiko are lovers. Of course Keiko
has also read Oki's famous book of love. But she says she hates men, and
she would like to take revenge against Oki. She seduces him in a hotel
near Tokyo to the horror of Otoko who is still in love with Oki. But this
is not enough. She seduces Taichiro, ending in tragedy. An ultimate
All of this is related in beautiful scenes, from one
poetic chapter to the next. I wonder how much of this is autobiographical.
This is one of Kawabata's later novels. In the book, Oki lives in a place
called Kamakura, a suburb of Tokyo, and in fact Kawabata
himself lived there. The Wikipedia article has a picture of the author
together with his wife and her sister. She is holding a small dog, looking
at the camera with expressionless eyes. But here, and in the other photos
as well, we see all the lively emotions of the author.
Looking around for something further by
Kawabata to read, I found this one. I've already read almost all of the
other offerings, at least what I could see in the German version of
Amazon. So this book was a bit of a disappointment. The Izu Dancer is one
of Kawabata's first short stories. And then there are a couple of further
stories by this other person, Inoue, who I had never heard of before. They
were generally boring and a real contrast with the masterly Kawabata.
Still, Inoue's last story in the book, The Full Moon, was amusing.
The author died recently, and reading about it
led me to this book which is so well known that it would be pointless for
me to try to summarize the plot (which
you can find
in the Wikipedia).
It's a long book, but I found it to be fascinating,
reading on for hour after hour to find out what will happen next. This
must have been how it was in New York City back in the 1980s. A dreadful
mess. But apparently things have improved. New York is no longer the
center of racial hatred and violence that it was. The crime rate has
become less than in many other big cities. But still, as I understand it
the huge prison at Rikers Island remains a true Hell on Earth.
When reading of the tribulations of the hero,
Sherman McCoy, I began to think of the fate of the true-life Bernard
Madoff. How could he possibly have coped with prison? I see that of his
sons, whom he dragged with him into his mess, one committed suicide rather
than being forced to experience the hell of an American prison. Much was
made of the fact that Madoff is Jewish, and that most of the victims of
his financial schemes were fellow Jews. And in this book, we learn of all
the various racial, or ethnic, or tribal groups living in New York, each
of which protects its own members from the violence of the others. The
poor, foolish Madoff betrayed his own tribe, and thus he could expect the
full wrath of its vengeance.
But Sherman McCoy did not betray his tribe - the
rapacious bond dealers of Wall Street whose excesses are now even worse
than in the 1980s. He was innocent (as far as that can be said of those
Wall Street characters). And so when reading the book we sympathize with
him and revile the many evil characters progressively ruining his life.
Tom Wolfe paints a believable picture of the justice
system of New York, and we put the book away, being thankful that we do
not live there.
Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
Another long book about vanity. I hadn't read
it before, despite the fact that it is so well known. Somehow I had the
impression that it must have been some sort of listing of the various
characters the author had known, or at least known about, back then at the
beginning of the 19th century when people had very different thoughts to
the things which occupy our minds these days. But in reality, and in
contrast with those complicated thoughts, it is simply a novel.
We follow the adventures of two young women: Amelia
and Rebecca. Amelia is rich, if not a member of the true upper classes,
but she is pure and modest. Rebecca has no money and her parents were
common dancers, painters. And so Amelia sets off into the world of
romantically vain marriage, enveloped in comfortable riches, while Rebecca
is left to find a position as a private tutor somewhere.
Amelia and Rebecca lead us through the various
twists and turns of the plot which are too long and tedious to be
described here, but which can be found in the appropriate Wikipedia
, or indeed by reading the book. But the book is very long.
As with all those thick novels of Dickens', this one was originally
published as 19 monthly pamphlets, between 1847 and 1848, leading to
disjointedness and a heavy style.
But the beginning was fun to read. Amelia hooks up
with her childhood sweetheart, George, who is the most vain character
imaginable. He throws away all the considerable monies his rich father
gives him on gambling and high living. He is a dashing officer in some
regiment of the British army. It is 1815, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who is
referred to as "boney" , has escaped from his exile on the island of Elba
and is threatening to put Europe into an unpleasant re-run of all the wars
of the previous 10 years. And so all the members of Vanity Fair descend
upon Brussels to confront boney.
We have elaborate descriptions of the fashionable
goings on at Brussels, and in particular the Duchess
of Richmond's Ball
. And then they all gallop off to Waterloo where
George gets himself killed in a display of vain gallantry, thus elevating
himself in the eyes of Amelia to the level of a saint.
I was reminded of the wonderful 18th century wit of
Henry Fielding, particularly in his maginficent Tom Jones. But
quite frankly, William Thackeray falls short of that standard. And as the
book progressed, and as Thackeray tried to adopt himself to the fashions
of early 19th century romanticism with each subsequent episode to be sold
on the streets of London, the humor fades away to be replaced by a heavy
Dickensian style of pathos and moralizing. Thus I found the second half of
the story to be a disappointment.
I've always been fascinated by the story of
the murder of President Kennedy. The basic idea of the whole thing seems
clear enough, and in particular the book by James Douglas, "JFK
and the Unspeakable
", surely contains almost everything of
relevance which is known these days. But of course many of the witnesses,
whistle-blowers, have been themselves assassinated over the years, and the
whole thing took place over 50 years ago so that new information only
emerges as isolated documents, reluctantly released by the CIA, heavily
blacked out, saying practically nothing.
In contrast, Jim Garrison was the district attorney
of New Orleans back then in 1963. For a couple of years he saw no reason
to doubt the story which was told to us back then; that Lee Oswald was the
sole murderer. But then in 1966 he learned about the activities of David
in his district of New Orleans, and so it was his
responsibility to investigate the thing. He organized a small team of his
assistant district attorneys, and all of this led them deep down into the
rabbit hole. He describes his very personal experiences in this book.
Eventually, in order to silence him, ridiculous
accusations were made, and he himself was brought to trial. These
accusations were shown to be absurd and the jury acquitted him.
Nevertheless, even today, long after he has died, there are those who
pretend that he was a shady figure. I suppose they cling to their dream of
a pure United States, unsullied by any scandal, in which the god-like
figures of their presidents fulfill their tragic roles in history.
In the end Jim Garrison believed that the
assassination of JFK amounted to a coup d'état, such that all subsequent
presidents have been powerless puppets, performing for the benefit of
their masters in the "military-industrial complex" which President
Eisenhower warned us about. I see no reason to doubt this conclusion and I
am happy to say that I left that country in 1965 and have never been back
Apparently this book, while being a novel, is
said to be a more or less autobiographical narration of the experiences of
the author when he was a youth of 14. If so, I feel sorry for him. His
name is John in the story. He is living in Harlem (New York, not Holland)
in 1935, the time of the "Harlem Renaissance". But he and his family are
not part of that artistic awakening. Instead they are sunk deeply in the
horrors of religion.
John's step-father is named Gabriel (we think of the
Archangel Gabriel). He is a preacher in one of those storefront,
evangelical churches, full of ecstatic, hysterical people shouting "Jesus"
and "Praise the Lord", singing gospels, becoming possessed by the spirits,
falling to the floor in epileptic-like seizures of profound religious
Perhaps the outside observer might think that all of
this is a harmless way of passing the time and cementing the bonds of
community amongst the members of the congregation. But the Gabriel of the
book is a profoundly evil character, continuously whipping John, shouting
at him, staring at him with evil, angry eyes.
The novel is arranged in chapters telling the
stories of Gabriel, then of Gabriel's sister, and John's mother, all in
profoundly religious terms. There are flashbacks to the events in the Deep
South, after the abolition of slavery, and the migration of people to the
North where life is also hard. The few references made to people of
European, rather than African descent, describe them as the evil agents of
While Gabriel ruins the lives of everyone, the
stories of the two women are simply sad. Tales of hope, great
expectations, which were then crushed by circumstance - and urged on by
The final chapter is an extensive outpouring of the
experience of John in the storefront church, falling to the floor
surrounded by chanting "saints", experiencing a psychedelic kaleidoscope
of visions representing his awakening to Jesus and The Lord. I found all
of these biblical scenes to be rather tedious, and so I skipped through
the final chapter to see if, in the end, John might awaken from this
nonsense. He doesn't.
Celestial is married to Roy, and then there is
Celestial's childhood sweetheart, Andre. They are young people in Atlanta.
Apparently black, although at various stages Celestial speaks of Andre's
tan, lion-like hair and reddish complexion. In contrast with the
characters in James Baldwin's book, the ones in this novel have progressed
way beyond any semblance of religious depravity. Celestial's father is a
millionaire and Andre is a well paid programmer, tooling about in his
M-class Mercedes. All are highly educated, upwardly mobile, no need for
all of that affirmative action. But then something happens.
- But before getting into this, I couldn't resist including a little
snippet which was in today's paper. Psychologists have examined the
typical characters of people who own various brands of cars in Germany. Of
course we just have a Volkswagen. Such people are described as being
average, boring, with somewhat below average incomes. In contrast,
Mercedes owners are described as being philistines; arrogant, earnest, not
interested in sports or the environment, with somewhat above average
incomes. (It is further noted that the arrogance of Porsche owners is only
exceeded by those who own Ferraris.) -
Roy's character, in contrast to Andre, is not
peaceful and placid. He tends towards conflicts. And he considers it his
right to sleep around with other women besides Celestial. One night, when
staying at a hotel, they have another one of their fights, and they decide
to have a pause of 15 minutes or so to cool down. Roy leaves the hotel
room, wanders about, has a short exchange of words with a woman also
roaming about the hotel in the middle of the night, then he returns to
Celestial and they go to sleep.
Then, some hours later, in the early hours of the
morning, police storm into the room, shouting, throwing everybody out of
bed, pinning them with knees in the back to the floor, handcuffing Roy and
taking him away. He is accused of having raped the woman he had met in the
hotel corridor. According to the story he is innocent, yet the woman
clearly identifies him, testifying very definitely in court that he was
the rapist. And so he is put away in some horrible American prison to
suffer for a crime he didn't commit.
But I couldn't quite follow the logic here. If he
was innocent, why did the woman, who he didn't know, accuse him of such a
thing, knowing the consequences it would bring? Or did he rape her?
Something in the style of Boris Becker who quickly impregnated a maid on
the nighttime stairs of the Wimbledon hotel between one tennis match and
the next, lasting just a minute or two. But if that was the case, and the
woman of the story, unlike Becker's maid, was not agreeable to the tryst,
then why didn't she cry out, thus awakening the other guests who would
have run to her aid and saved her? Surely such points should have been
brought up during the legal proceedings in Roy's case, particularly
considering the fact that Celestial's rich family had secured the best
legal defense available.
Anyway... So there was Celestial, living her life of
freedom in Atlanta, becoming a successful artist (making large, lifelike
dolls in the form of babies resembling Roy), finding sympathy with Andre
who was the childhood neighbor such that both families had always expected
Celestial and Andre to marry one another. And then there was Roy,
smouldering away in a horrible dungeon.
Seven years is a long time, and Celestial and Andre
are making a good time of it, thinking of seven years as practically
Celestial's family's lawyer makes progress with an
appeal. Perhaps he explains to the appellate court the problems with the
supposedly raped woman's testimony which we have dealt with above. In any
case, Roy is suddenly freed after only two years.
Great drama. Violence. But I will not reveal the
outcome for fear of spoiling things for whoever might read this and decide
subsequently to read the book.
A typical (US) American horror story. It was a
fast-paced read. An amusing Wild West shoot up in modern times. The
Guardian review which I've linked to here actually takes the whole thing
seriously - including a paragraph about the various kinds of guns, and all
the details of their various calibers, described in the book.
I didn't see all that many Wild West movies as a
child, and I can't remember which one it resembles. After all, they all
resemble one another to some extent. But in fact, looking these things up
in the internet, I see that the book was itself actually made into a
movie. Maybe the movie was better than the book.
A woman, Nora, living in London, gets on the
train to visit her sister who lives somewhere in the country. Was it near
Oxford? The sister's house is somewhat isolated, out of town, although
within sight of a couple of other country houses. Nora tells us about how
much she loves her sister, how wonderful it will be to arrive, and how
wonderful it will be when they go off together to an isolated cottage in
Cornwall for a holiday.
But when she arrives at her sister's house she finds
a horrible scene. Blood everywhere. The sister has been murdered, stabbed
many times. Her big German Shepard dog is hanging dead from a banister,
strangled by his collar. Nora is covered in blood. She calls the police.
Who did it?
Gradually the story develops. She is asked to stay
in town until the police investigations are completed. The last person to
have seen the sister alive seems to have been the plumber. He has no good
alibi. Nora stalks him, trying to provoke him. But she is afraid of all
men. Who knows what violent things they will do.
Strangely, at one point in the story she casually
picks up a young man and spends the night with him having sex, with the
thought that he might protect her from the possible violence of other men.
Gradually the police begin to believe that Nora herself might have been
It was a good, fast paced read. Only at the end are
the true circumstances revealed.
The author tells us that she attended Oxford
University before joining the Guardian Newspaper, and then decided to
become a novelist. Much of the story here takes place in Oxford, so we
assume that Sarah Vaughan gives us a true picture of the goings at that
famous university. When the students are hiding behind all those ancient
stones, out of view of the tourists. I was surprised. I had always thought
that most of the students would be very much focused on their studies,
keen to obtain the best possible results and a successful future career.
But according to the story of this book, Oxford seems to be a party
university, progressing from one drunken, sex-filled scene to the next
throughout the year.
The hero, or at least the main character, is James,
the stroke of the Oxford eight, swimming in all the riches bestowed upon
him by his family, adored by all the beautiful, young, athletic,
intelligent female students who share his bed. He is a member of the
"Libertine" Club. This is a fictive club of rich students who meet in the
restaurants of Oxford, eat to the point of vomiting excess, drowning
themselves in champagne, smashing plates and glasses and furniture. Then
afterwards, throwing wads of cash at the restaurant owners to pay for the
damage. This reminds us of the true-to-life Bullingdon
of Oxford, of which the former Prime Minister of England, David
Cameron, was a member, together with Boris Johnson and various other of
those people. And in the book, the main part of the story takes place 20
years after those Oxford years when James has become a minor minister in
Parliament and his best friend is the Prime Minister. So I had the feeling
that Sarah Vaughan was telling us something about the observations she had
gathered on the political class of England during her time as a
correspondent of the Guardian.
While everybody at Oxford seems to swill huge
amounts of alcohol, they also sniff volumes of cocaine. Apparently this is
par for the course. Yet in a decisive moment, one of the Libertines tries
some heroin, leading to tragedy.
I must admit that I have very little experience of
these things, being ignorant of the effects of both cocaine and heroin.
But I have read that in its pure form, heroin is not such a dangerous
business, at least in comparison with all those other things. Is it really
so different from cocaine? Who knows.
But all of this isn't really the scandal. It is
perhaps the scandal behind the scandal which might bring James and his
Prime Minister to fall sometime in the future. The immediate scandal is
that although James has been married for 10 or 15 years to Sophie, the
lithe, beautiful member of the Oxford women's scull, now, in his
incarnation as a member of the Conservative Government, he is having an
affair with Olivia, a young female member of his staff.
Following his over-sexualized natural instincts,
James takes Olivia not only in the privacy of her apartment but also in
his office in Parliament, where both he and Olivia enjoy the excitement of
thinking that they might suddenly be discovered. But, as I suppose all
these affairs must come to an end, James tells Olivia that he would like
to end the affair for the "good of his family". Of course Olivia is upset.
Then, two weeks later, in the middle of various committee meetings in
Parliament, they both step into an elevator, and between the moment the
door closes on one floor and opens on the next, James has penetrated
Weeks later, after Olivia has gone to the police,
James is arrested for rape. Was it rape? What is rape? Apparently the
legal definition is that rape occurs if the party which is to be
penetrated clearly expresses the wish not to be penetrated beforehand.
During the trial, Olivia says that when entering the elevator she was
agreeable, but then when the door closed, she clearly said "Not here!".
Well, all of this is beyond anything I can imagine.
But we follow the drama of James and Sophie, and of Kate, the prosecuting
barrister who, we learn, has more than a professional interest in the case
- back there in Oxford.
The story here is based on the real life Lord
case. In the Wikipedia article, there is a very nice photo of
Lucan, together with his young wife, taken in the year 1963. She reminds
us of the pleasant, fashionable life of London in those days. But 10 years
after the photo was taken, things had fallen apart. Lucan was typical of
those degenerate, titled aristocrats. Throwing away all his money on
gambling, women, the high life. He moved out of the house, leaving Lady
Lucan with her two small children. But then on the night of the 7th of
November, 1974, he entered the house and killed Sandra Rivett, the
children's nanny. His wife, Veronica, coming upon the scene, was also
attacked, but she escaped, a bloody mess, staggering to the local pub for
help. And then Lucan disappeared, never to be found.
People reported sightings of Lucan in one country or
another, but they all proved to lead nowhere. Did he throw himself into
the sea, drowning himself? Did he commit suicide in the some castle or
other of his aristocratic "friends"? Or are they hiding him, even to this
Since he was never found, there was no formal murder
trial, yet his friends later accused Lady Lucan of staging the murder in
order to get rid of her husband. After all, if they had divorced then Lady
Lucan would have lost her title. And so, although it was generally
believed that Lucan was the murderer, his friends became the enemies of
Lady Lucan, excluding her from their society. Her two children, when grown
up, decided to abandon their mother, preferring the pampered company of
the father's family. It was only in 2016, following various legal battles,
that the son, George, was able to have his father declared legally dead so
that he could succeed to the title, and thus he has become the 8th Earl of
Lucan. Good luck to him!
Flynn Berry's novel follows this story, but of course changing the
names and the dates. It is told from the point of view of the daughter
who, in the story, became a medical doctor. But she is obsessed with
finding her father. She hates him since, as a small child, she saw the
murder. What will she do if she ever finds him? How can she find him if he
is being protected by his friends in high places?
I enjoyed the book, and so I will refrain from
describing how it ends in order not to spoil things for whoever might want
to read it.
Of course, as we know, Robert Galbraith is the
pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, the author of all those Harry Potter books. The
present book is a continuation of her rather brutal detective stories
involving the character Cormoran Strike. I did read the two books in the
series preceding this one, and the stories of those books are continuously
referred to here, but I'm afraid that I read them a couple of years ago so
that many of these references made no sense to me.
Strike's partner, or secretary, is Robin, a young
woman who is engaged to some sort of a young London banker whose ambitions
in life seem dull, uninspiring. Robin, on the other hand, is fascinated by
detective work and she idolizes Strike. This rankles with her boyfriend.
On the other hand, Strike has a girlfriend, a rich divorcee living in a
luxurious London apartment. But throughout the story we enjoy the love
developing between Strike and Robin. In the end it is dashed by Robin
finally going through with her society marriage to her boyfriend.
Surely the author sees herself in, or wishes
to be like, the character of Robin.
The story begins with a mysterious figure on a
motorcycle delivering a box to Robin which contains an amputated woman's
leg. Strike immediately thinks of three horrible, sadistic characters from
his former life. One is his stepfather who his loose-living, degenerate
mother took on all those years ago, and who tormented Strike during his
teenage years. The two others are deformed characters he encountered
during his years in the British Army, taking part in all those horrible
wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and what have you. Meanwhile, the incompetent
Scotland Yard Police follow other ideas.
And so the book proceeds through the business of
trying to find these three unpleasant characters. We learn more about
possible bizarre forms of sadismus than we really wanted to learn in the
first place. Does this reflect the hidden violence in children's fairy
tales in the style of Harry Potter?
I found the book to be long-winded, and I would have
preferred Robin and Cormoran to have dropped their respective boy- and
girlfriends and gotten properly together themselves.
This is the story of two young women, Kit and
Diane, with flashbacks to when they were together in high school. Kit, the
narrator, seems sensible, but her friend - or perhaps enemy - Diane, is
mysterious. Diana has a dark secret which she shared with Kit back then.
We only gradually learn about this secret, and it leads to another dark
secret, a tragedy, now.
The story takes place in a research laboratory
concerned with biological things. Mice are kept in cages, experimented
upon, dissected. There is Dr. Severin, the seemingly arrogant,
straight-laced woman whose domain it is, and then a whole flock of
post-docs and graduate students. Kit and Diane are the only women; all the
rest are eager, struggling young men. Everyone hangs on Dr. Severin's
every word - as far as she deigns to say anything.
The big thing that is happening is that Dr. Severin
has obtained a new grant, enabling perhaps just two out of ten of the
underlings to take part in a new line of research. There is much
speculation about who Dr. Severin will choose. Will this exciting new
research be the start of a successful career? Will those who are not
chosen continue to wallow in a dead end, leading to nothing?
So what is this exciting new line of research?
It is concerned with "PMDD
That is the unpleasant symptoms which some women experience around the
time of menstruation. What is so exciting and new about that? And what is
the dead end research which will be the fate of the losers who are not
chosen by Dr. Severin? It is concerned with "hypogonadism
Another medical condition related to some sort of imbalance of the
It seems to me that both of these conditions, while
involving unpleasant symptoms for the sufferers, would be equally
deserving of attention, and I see no reason to think that making progress
on the PMDD question would in any way be superior to the hypogonadism
question. From the way the book is written it seems to me that the author,
Megan Abbott, has written this book for women. It was not written for me.
PMDD is a condition which only concerns women whereas hypogonadism, which
can also affect women, has, at least according to the narrative of the
book, the most unpleasant consequences for men.
The author tells us that she is autistic. She
has Asperger's Syndrome; she is an "Aspie". Somehow we seem to associate
these things with awkward boys who find it difficult to cope with modern
society. Isolated. Possibly savant geniuses. But in contrast with this,
Katherine May seems to me, on the evidence of this book, to be quite
normal. It is not a novel. Instead it is the story of her quest to hike
along the full extent of the South West Coast Path of England, around
Cornwall, including bits of Devon.
A few years ago we stayed in Plymouth a number of
times, looking after the family, and we also walked along sections of the
Path. You can recognize it by the sign of the acorn which marks its way.
There are beautiful views of the ocean, and you are generally walking
through hilly, grassy fields, often climbing over the occasional stile.
The author began her trek in late autumn when the
weather was wet and stormy. She fights her way up steep, muddy inclines
only to slide down through the mud on the other side. To make matters
worse, she lives with her husband (who is referred to as "H") and her
small son Bert way across the other side of England in Whitstable, which
is east of London, on the Thames estuary. A long way from Cornwall.
We often drove from Dover over to Plymouth. It is a
tedious 6 hour drive which can become extended by slow traffic on the
motorway around London. And so I can appreciate the effort poor old H put
into driving his wife and son over to Devon, then spending the days with
Bert in various play centers while Katherine May exhausted herself with a
few miles of walking, using up the days of his vacation.
The author tells us of her gradual awareness of her
autism. She has always found it unpleasant to be touched by other people.
She has difficulty making friends. Still, in the book she tells us about
one friend and the other who drives over with her to the west coast and
spends days hiking with her. She seems to have lots of deep conversations
with these friends.
Well, to be quite frank, let me contrast this with
my situation here. I have only few friends in Germany despite the fact
that I have been living here for over 40 years. Somehow all of these
Germans seem to be on a different wavelength from me. But also the few
Americans I know here seem to be on a totally different wavelength as
well. So am I autistic? Perhaps. On the other hand, I don't mind being
touched. If somebody gives me a nice hug, then that gives me a good
feeling. Maybe if I had stayed in Australia, or if we had moved to
England, then I would have had more friends.
In fact, reading this book, which was quite fun, I
had the feeling that Katherine May must be a very pleasant, warm and
interesting person. And I would like to do some more walks along the South
West Coast Path.
This one is a novel, and it is the same author
even though she has now become Katie, rather than Katherine. In real life
she lives in Whitstable, so it is closer to home. Looking at Whitsable using
, and particularly looking around the place with Street
View, we see a pleasant little seaside town. The beach is stony. Not nice
soft, warm sand. Apparently when the tide is out, the water is far away.
Not worth it to walk such a long distance to get to it. And so the best
time for swimming is during high tide.
In the story, at first two women who are in the
habit of swimming get to know each other. Gradually more women join them.
There is even one rather shy, emasculated man who lurks around the edges.
But the story is generally concerned with all the problems men are causing
for these women. So I suppose it is a book written for women, not for me.
But in her other book, Katherine May tells us all about her husband H, who
seems to be a very understanding partner and father, so we see no reason
for her to complain.
Then the story is that the "west beach" where they
swim is full of natural delights which are about to be ruined by the
construction of some sort of entertainment complex. And so the Club has
the purpose of stopping this development. On the other hand, the Google
view seems to show lots of buildings there anyway. It is a far cry from
the magnificent scenes of the South West Coast Path in the west of
It was a nice little book to read, but nothing
The story is concerned with Malka, a teenage
girl who has fantastic, dream-like visions and who is able to perform
miracles. She is loved by the young Moshe. But her visions lead her to
escape secretly from home to find shelter in a strange community which
seeks to find meaning in such visions. The leader almost rapes her and
she again runs away, this time to a city by the sea, to find peace while
swimming in the water, and fulfillment creating wonderful dishes in a
restaurant on the beach. Meanwhile Moshe searches for his secret love.
He also ends up in the same city, becoming almost destitute. But then
they find each other, and the book ends with visions and miracles.
We are reminded of some of the pleasant, surreal
fantasies of Haruki Murakami. The hero discovering some strange,
impossible things taking place in the real world. And at the end we
smile, returning to the normal world, but imagining how it would be if
the world were to be so strange. Murakami's stories are far removed from
the horrors of established religion where different versions of absurd,
impossible ideas lead to deadly conflicts, grinding on for centuries,
even millennia, tormenting generation after generation.
The Malka of this story is an Orthodox Jew, living
at first in Jerusalem. Her visions are of the Kabbalah, the esoteric
myths of Judaism. The city by the sea is Tel Aviv. She tells us of the
hatred people have for the Palestinians and of the squalor in which they
live, but she finds solace in their friendship. If only the pleasant
visions of this book were to be true!
Perhaps in a different time and
under different circumstances I might have found humor in this
book. But as it is, I gave up in disgust about a third of the
way in. Somewhere on his website the author tells us something
about himself. He was a Wall Street investment banker for 20
years, an American, traveling to various countries, staying in
hotels. While doing so he discovered that there are people who
live their lives in hotels. That is, they are waited upon day
and night, year in, year out, by all the various employees of
the hotels: the cleaners, the cooks, the waiters, the
management. And so he got the idea to write a book about such a
person living in a hotel from about 1920 to 1950. In Moscow of
all places. During the upheavals of the communist revolution,
the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, the Great Patriotic War of
the 1940s. Is it believable to imagine that a hotel in Moscow
throughout this period would continue to grovel to the needs of
an absurd, arrogant aristocrat who, after all, represented the
horrible abuses which were the basis of the Russian Revolution
in the first place?
Perhaps as an excuse, the author tells us
that he is ignorant of the Russian language, he didn't study the
history of Russia in school, and he has only been to the country
a few times. But he did like reading classical Russian
literature of the time before the Revolution.
Why does such an American feel a need to
write such a book in a time like this? The United States has
become preoccupied with provoking wars in one country after
another. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have
been killed. Millions are displaced, seeking refuge in some safe
haven. But of course the United States refuses to accept these
people who are suffering from the consequences of its dreadful
actions. And the United States, contrary to its undertakings at
the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, has closely
surrounded Russia with a network of heavily armed military
bases, seeking to provoke conflict at every opportunity.
Thus, at least for me, this book is as
misplaced as is the nonsense which spews from the current
President of that country.
This is considered to be a classic of
Japanese literature. It was first published in 1929. The story is
very simple really. A married couple, Kaname and Misako, have grown
apart. We have the story from the point of view of the husband,
Kaname. He still finds Misako to be very attractive, yet she is not
his idea of the "ideal" woman. He is open to the fact that Misako
has found another lover, Aso. In fact he encourages her to be with
Aso as much as possible and he looks forward to the divorce. She is
unhappy with him and he thinks it will be good for everybody to have
the situation resolved. The problem is their son Hiroshi. They do
not want to tell him about these things, and yet somehow he must
eventually be told. And so everything drags on, unresolved.
Undoubtedly Hiroshi already understands, but says nothing. A feeling
of ennui envelopes everything. The family seems to be quite wealthy,
awkwardly being polite to one another with little else to occupy
themselves from day to day.
Kaname considers himself to be "modern" -
adopting "western" values. He thinks Misako is an especially modern,
elegant woman. But then Misako's father comes into the picture. He
has gone through all of this himself, divorcing his wife, Misako's
mother, and now he lives with O-hisa, a young woman of only 22 or
so, who is a kind of personal geisha to the father. The father is
also interested in the traditional Japanese
. Kaname is fascinated with his father-in-law
and with his puppet obsession. He imagines what it would be like
being his father-in-law, together with O-hisa, ordering her about in
a traditional Japanese way.
Eventually Kaname and Misako decide to finally
tell the father of their decision to divorce. They travel on the
train, thinking to just say it and immediately return. But the
father-in-law first has a long talk with Kaname, telling him that
marriage has nothing to do with the "ideal" woman. Then he convinces
his reluctant daughter Misako to go out alone with him to a
restaurant for further discussions. In the meantime Kaname is alone
in the house with O-hisa who serves him dinner. She rubs him down in
the dark bath and then shows him to his room for the night. The
father-in-law has bought a traditional puppet for Kaname, and in the
dim light of his room, through the mosquito net, he glimpses the
puppet... Or is it O-hisa?
And so ends the story, full of symbolism,
leaving the rest to our imagination.
by Natsume Soseki
According to the Introduction,
this novel is one of the most important works of Japanese
literature, "known to every schoolchild and read by anyone
serious about the nation's literature". It is a story within a
story. The outer story concerns a young student, meeting an
older man at the seaside resort of Kamakura. The novel was
first published in 1914, so I suppose the time is 1910 or so.
Japan has experienced dramatic changes during the Meiji
, transforming itself from a feudal society into
one of the great powers of the industrialized world. But the
story of the book has nothing to do with such things.
The young student calls his older friend
"Sensei", which means the respected teacher. But this Sensei
tells him that life is meaningless. People are worthless.
Eventually we are told Sensei's story. It is a story of love.
Years ago, as a student, he lived in a
house with a widow and her daughter. He fell in love with the
daughter but was afraid to show his feelings. A good friend of
his from his hometown, another student, had little money, and
so he invited him to also stay at the house of his lodgings.
His friend was a very earnest fellow, dedicated to his
studies. He considered the life of the mind, of the spirit, to
be above all else. The true scholar lives the life of a monk,
apart from the world. But then one day the friend confesses to
Sensei that he is secretly in love with the daughter. Sensei
is shocked. He had planned to ask the widow for the hand of
the daughter himself. What can he do? And so he decides to
confront his friend, telling him that by loving the daughter
he is betraying his principles as a true scholar. And then he
secretly goes to the widow to ask her for the hand of her
daughter. This is then joyfully announced to the household.
The next day, the friend is found in his room dead. He has
committed suicide, stabbing himself with a knife in the neck.
The suicide note he leaves does not mention the true cause,
only praising the good character of Sensei. And so from then
on, Sensei lives a life of secret guilt and remorse, visiting
the grave every month. He has married the daughter, and they
live on into advanced age in a sterile marriage. A puzzle to
All of this is related in a long letter
to the narrator of the first part of the book. And at the end
of the letter, Sensei writes that when he reads it, Sensei
himself will be dead, having committed suicide.
What is the moral of the story? What
meaning does it have for the Japanese? Surely a modern
Japanese student, even one as fanatical as the friend of
Sensei, would hardly consider suicide in these circumstances.
Thus the story might be of interest in that it contrasts the
morality of previous times with that of today.
This is one of those books
that pretends to be the work of somebody else. It
starts off with a Foreword, explaining that a package
was sent to Raymond Brunet's former editor containing
the present manuscript. (We note the similarity of the
name Brunet with Burnet.) Then at the end of the book
is an elaborate "Translator's Afterword", describing
the "real" life of the fictitious author, together
with various theories about whether or not the events
described in the novel were actually part of his life.
It really is a simple story, but
very nicely told. A man, Bertrand Barthelme, drives
his car one night along the A35 motorway in France
from Mulhouse to Saint-Louis, driving off the road,
crashing into a tree and killing himself. He was a
lawyer in Saint-Louis, living in a large house with
his young wife, Lucette, and son, Raymond. An
unpleasant man. Everybody seemed to hate him. Both his
wife and son were, if anything, relieved to be rid of
The story is told mainly through
the perspective of Inspector Gorski of the local
police. A weak man. He reads in the paper of the
exciting murder of a prostitute in Strasbourg and gets
in touch with the important Chief Inspector of that
city. Can there be a connection? The lawyer colleague
of Maître Barthelme has suspiciously removed all the
papers from his study. But Raymond does find one
fragment of paper, containing an obscure address in
the city of Mulhouse. And so all these threads are
woven together, and we read on to see what happens.
One thing which struck me as
being almost absurd is the way Raymond goes on and on
about how he thinks that Saint-Louis is a dead-end. A
backwater, far removed from anything in the real
world. We imagine that French school children may grow
up with maps depicting France alone, with white
blankness outside the borders. This is similar to the
situation in the USA, where the form of the
northeastern bit suggests a small peninsula up at
Maine, but then, when looking at a more comprehensive
map, we are surprised about the fact that the land
really continues on in a bulbous manner through New
Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
And so Raymond wanders aimlessly
about in Saint-Louis, following a few streets in a
northward direction. Feeling confined, far away from
Given that the world only
consists of France, and that if you were to step over
the border then you would fall into a bottomless
vacuum, never to be seen again, then I could
understand Raymond's feelings of despair. But in
reality, if Raymond had decided to wander for a few
minutes in a southward direction he would cross the
Swiss border, and in a few more minutes he would be in
the center of Basel, a beautiful city which many would
rate far above the boring Strasbourg.
Why did the real-life author,
who is a Scott, not French, depict Saint-Louis in this
Again we have a
story which is supposed to be based on newly
found documents relating to some historical
incident. And then the book is a collection
of those documents, written by the the
fictitious protagonist. In this case, the
main part of the story was supposed to have
been written by Roderick Macrae in 1869 in a
jail cell in Inverness in Scotland. We note
the fact that "Macrae" is, at least
apparently, the middle name of the real-life
Instead of inventing
imaginary places for his story, the author
gives us a very real geographical setting.
Namely Culdie, a collection of houses along
a lonely road on the west coast of Scotland,
just south of the little town, or
settlement, of Applecross. Out of curiosity
I clicked into Google Street View, and I
found that they did run one of their camera
cars along the Culdie road. The Macrae house
in the book is the one at the northern end.
is the link to the Street View site, where
you can look around at the house which is
standing there now. It's a small house, but
perhaps not uncomfortable. Traveling along
the Culdie road via Street view we find some
quite nice houses, but at the south end we
come to the house which in the book belongs
to Lachlan Mackenzie. It seems to be
obscured by bushes, and there are a couple
of cars and an old trailer parked about the
The scene in 1869, if
we are to believe the book, is much less
pleasant. Dirt floors. Pigs, cattle, hens
living in the houses alongside the people,
and those "houses" are built of mud, the
roofs are reeds. They are dark, stinking,
filthy. Such, apparently, was the life of
the "crofters" of those days. Working the
small parcels of land between their houses
and the sea, producing a few potatoes or
whatever, and continuously paying rent to
the "Laird" who owned the land.
In the story, the
person responsible for the Laird's estate
was the "Factor". But he considered himself
far too important to have anything to do
with the primitive, sub-human crofters.
Instead they elected a "Constable", one of
the crofters, who then reported to the
In the story, Lachlan
Mackenzie was elected Constable, an evil man
who enjoyed tormenting the Macrae family,
particularly Roderick. He rapes the sister
with impunity. The father is humiliated and
the basis of the existence of his family is
It must be dreadful to
be in a situation like this with no recourse
to any degree of natural justice. Perhaps
there are many people today in the world who
are similarly suffering. For Roderick, the
only course of action was to kill the
And then we have the
imaginary records of various officials in
the community. The village priest writes
that the whole degenerate Macrae family are
ungodly heathens. But the school teacher
writes that Roderick was the best pupil he
had ever had. And then we have the arrogant,
opinionated James Bruce Thompson, who was a
real life "scientist" in those days, telling
us about the degeneracy of the lower
classes, their genetic inferiority, and
particularly his own superiority above all.
Here the author paraphrases the actual
writings of that creature.
It was a sobering
read. But at least we see that in the 150
years between the time of the story and now,
judging from the houses to be seen at
Culdie, life seems to have improved.