Monday, December 10, 2012

A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel

In A Change Of Climate Hilary Mantel presents what is essentially a family saga, but in settings that add extra dimensions to the expected dilemmas. The family in question is the Eldreds. Ralph and Anna have shared an unusual if not an altogether unconventional married life. They have spent time in Africa as missionaries. They have devoted their time to helping others less advantaged than themselves. Ralph runs a charitable trust in Norfolk in the east of England. But they have also found the time and energy to raise children of their own and experience the day-to-day pressures of any family’s life. But there has been more, more that has not been voiced.

Volunteer missionary work took them to South Africa, to a township called Elim near Johannesburg. It was during the era of toughening Apartheid, a time when new powers threatened whole communities with eviction and resettlement to “tribal homelands”. Ralph and Anna begin to identify with their community and deal with certain people who held particular opinions about the way South African society was being organised. Their activities catch the eye of the local police and, as a consequence of their contact, Ralph and Anna are arrested and imprisoned.

For them there is a way out of jail, and it is a way that is not available, of course, to the others who had been associated with them in Elim, those who have to continue living with the injustice that seems to affect the lives of the Eldreds. Hilary Mantel’s novel, however, doggedly follows the Eldreds to Botswana, where the family apparently gives up thinking about those they have left behind. Known then as Bechuanaland, Botswana provides the family with an opportunity, but they are offered a posting that the previous incumbents did not appear to like. By this time Anna has been through a pregnancy and has been blessed with twins. It seems, however, that the mission’s previous occupants were correct about the undesirability of the posting. Problems ensue for the Eldreds. What happens to the couple in the latter days of their stay in southern Africa is crucial to the plot of the A Change Of Climate. But there are two or three aspects to these events, not just one relating to a child. Perhaps sometimes overlooked is the fate of the others involved with the tragic events at the end of the family’s time in Botswana, a fate that returns to haunt via an almost passing mention towards the end of the book. Guilt, it seems, has many manifestations, mostly ignored.

Back in Britain, the Eldreds devote themselves to assisting those less fortunate than themselves. Thus Melanie appears on the scene. She is young, self-abusing, antisocial and in need. But then all these characters find themselves in need - in need of comfort, reassurance, something that might salve the conscience, replace the loss, turn time around and allow a different path to be taken. Devoted to alleviating the suffering of others, neither Ralph nor Anna can cope with their own traumas. These have to be lived with and relived every day, the guilt they engender colouring most of their lives. Ways out of the impasse of coping are always at hand, however. When Ralph and Anna’s son takes up with the daughter of a local single mum who ekes out a living from standing markets and trading junk, an opportunity burns suddenly bright and new suffering and guilt is wrought in the furnace.

In the end, no matter what life throws at us, we all depend on one another and need the succour of others to survive. This remains the case, even when our ideals lead us blandly towards avoidable tragedy and our ensuing suffering impinges on the lives of others.

Hilary Mantel’s novel invites us to empathise with the suffering and guilt of Ralph and Anna Eldred. But what the book fails to examine in depth is their motives. Given the consequence of some of their actions, whether intended or not, these could surely have come under greater scrutiny.

The Lost Girl by D H Lawrence

In a very famous context, D. H. Lawrence is himself famous for using a word beginning with ‘f’, a word that is infamous rather than famous. Mentioning this word and then repeating it got the author into some serious trouble that was not resolved until decades after his death. In this book, The Lost Girl, Lawrence is clearly preoccupied with the word and the novel is very much focused on it and its associated act. Its anticipation, achievement, consequences and perceived implications seem to be the very stuff of the heroine’s life, but in this book the word never actually appears. So, like Lawrence, let’s use a euphemism, but let’s also be more direct than the writer. Let’s use ‘fabrication’, an activity that is central to the work of any author.

The Lost Girl is Alvina Houghton. The surname is pronounced with an ‘f’ sound in the middle, not an ‘o’, so its first syllable rhymes with ‘fluff’, not ‘now’. She is the daughter of James, a shopkeeper in a small Derbyshire town called Woodhouse, in the north English midlands. James has a shop selling Manchester goods, the mass produced textiles of the late nineteenth century. He is not the best businessman, however, and his activities shrink over time. His daughter, Alvina - that’s with a ‘y’ sound in the middle, not an ‘e’ - is rather plain-looking and apparently not too interesting either. She thinks quite a lot about fabrication from quite an early age, but she is a determined spectator when it comes to relationships. Her counsel, especially after her mother dies, is from older women, some of them determined spinsters.

After some prevarication, Alvina eventually trains as a midwife. The skill offers her a chance of independence, but she chooses to revert to her preferred state of familial dependence. After all, Alvina will probably inherit her father’s business. Thus she continues her arm’s length relation with life.

There is a short affair with a local man, a rather goofy figure who goes on to Oxford University and probably lives long enough to make a packet. But clearly the safe option is not for Alvina, who equally seems utterly afraid of risk in any form. She clearly cannot bring herself to the fabrication she privately craves and so the affair, surely destined for marriage in the eyes of the locals, comes to nought.

Women close to The Lost Girl die. Others remain like perched birds watching over events. And, when James decides to leave the shop and sell off the little coal mine he also owns there is much consternation. There is even more to chirp about when he announces he is going into the entertainment business by opening up a little music hall, especially when Alvina declares that she will play the piano. Until this point, she had not mentioned being a musician. It is worthwhile remembering that we are in age when playing the instrument was almost part of any single woman’s trousseau.

And so the music hall presents its act, a motley crew of Red Indian impersonators, including a German called Max and an Italian called Cicio. Initially, the show packs them in, but the passing of time sees interest start to dwindle. But suddenly new opportunities arise for Alvina to think of fabrication, and fabrication with foreigners involved to boot!

And so the story of Lawrence’s The Lost Girl eventually fabricates its way from Derbyshire, and we leave Alvina in what looks like a new - though very old fashioned - life in changed circumstances. She seems now completely enslaved in her chosen womanly role, but we are at the start of the First World War and surely the role of women in society is about to change for ever.

The Lost Girl deals with many of Lawrence’s recurring themes, but its fabrication is often rather clumsy and its style often less than comfortable. It is, however, worth seeing through, if only to realise just how much both Lawrence and his fabricated characters - especially the women - are still locked in a soon to be changed mind-set about gender roles and social class.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke

A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke was published a century ago. Today it offers the modern reader not only potted, period critiques of important artists, but also a remarkable insight into how aesthetics change from generation to generation. John Charles Van Dyke’s assessments of some work will surprise today’s reader, especially his attitudes towards some contemporary artists who received rather hostile reactions from some quarters when their work was first exhibited.

The book deals with the European tradition. It makes no excuses for this. At the time, non-European art was perhaps less well known in Western critical circles. Perhaps also, it was regarded as somehow inferior, perhaps also merely because it was not European in origin. But Van Dyke does offer us a working distinction that excludes most non-European art from his survey, that of the difference between observation and expression. Only that which aims at expression, for van Dyke at least, is worthy of the label “art”. Somehow ancient Egyptian art makes it into the oeuvre, probably because it was also represented in museums that were close at hand and accessible.

Two painters in particular illustrate the difference in treatment between van Dyke’s age and our own, El Greco and Alma-Tadema. El Greco is hardly mentioned as a figure in sixteenth century Spain, his achievements apparently being regarded as rather localised on Toledo. Thus a figure now regarded as a unique stylist and visionary hardly figures in this text. Alma-Tadema, whose academicism and detail might today offer summary and epitome of the staid Victorian England that toyed euphemistically with the erotic is also dismissed. And one of the few English painters to be raised to the peerage, Frederick Leighton, also did not impress Professor Van Dyke. Neither, it seems, did Albrecht Durer.

Central to Van Dyke’s aesthetic is a judgment as to whether the painter not only represents, interprets and expresses, but also constructs a painting. Mere reality is never enough, it seems, life requiring the skill of an editor or architect to render its experience communicable. It is interesting to reflect on how much or little we still value this aspect of aesthetics in today’s painting.

Some of Van Dyke’s observations will at least entertain. Franz Hals, we learn, lived a rather careless life. William Blake was hardly a painter at all. A Dutchman is attributed with the faint praise of being a unique painter of poultry. Matthew Maris is criticised for being a recorder of visions and dreams rather than the substantial things of earth, while Turner is dismissed as bizarre and extravagant, qualities that today might enhance rather than diminish his reputation.

But Van Dyke’s book remains an interesting, informative and rewarding read, despite its distance from contemporary thinking. He is especially strong in his summary descriptions of the different Italian schools of the late Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is more than useful to be reminded of how independent these city states were at the time and how little they managed to influence one another. A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke remains, then, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of art. Much has changed, but then there is much that has not.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien

Brian O’Nolan was an Irish civil servant who wrote fiction and journalism under pseudonyms. Flann O’Brien was the name O’Nolan used on his fiction and it is the name of the author of The Dalkey Archive, a metafictional novel that veers from the philosophical to the nonsensical, from the tender to the coarse and from the religious to the irreverent, often in the same sentence.

The Dalkey Archive is much more than a novel and at the same time much less than a story. There are linear threads of sorts that run through the book, but they are often knotted or broken. But the real ambition of the book seems to be something different from story-telling, something more akin to a flippant, sometimes facetious examination of the relationship between received assumption, demonstrable fact and identity-endowing allegiance.

On the face of it, The Dalkey Archive is something of a farce. There is this fellow called Mick, who is generally surprised by the use of Michael. He has an acquaintance called De Selby who claims both theories and capabilities, one of which is the ability to manufacture a substance capable of sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. He has plans.

But his greatest achievement is to attend a meeting with Saint Augustine of Hippo set up by De Selby, where the attendees can grill the Saint about, amongst other things, his dabbling with Manicheanism and his sexual preferences. But this is no story cast in black and white, though it may make claim to the mundane.

Another of Mick’s adventures is to locate James Joyce, reportedly resident nearby. He wants to ask the great man a few questions about his work. He traces Joyce to a seaside resort called Skerries, which means he is on the rocks. James Joyce is working as a bar assistant, which is convenient because Mick likes to spend quite a lot of his time in bars.

But Joyce remains enigmatic. And why wouldn’t he be? He denies all knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake and maintains that someone else wrote Ulysses. It’s all right, especially when the concept of truth is under scrutiny. After all, the eternal Holy Ghost only became extant - in its non-extant way – at the Council of Contantinople in 381AD, so there!

Now if anyone might think that things are getting a tad silly, then spend just one day - as Leon Blum did in another place - just making notes on the things you saw, said or thought, however random. At the end of the day, have a look at what is there and realise that you have been everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Welcome to being human. Oh, and there are some pretty strange policemen in the book as well, often riding bicycles, of all things. They have made appearances in another book.

It is hard not to read The Dalkey Archive in a Dublin accent. Even then, it remains incomprehensible, the blast of reality coming, perhaps, with Mary’s final words. Which Mary? you might ask. Now there’s a story…

As novels go, The Dalkey Archive might itself be intoxicated. Certainly most of its characters are intoxicated for a good proportion of their time. Read it to realise, amongst other things, how much other writing, especially that we often describe as conventional or mainstream, is no more than illusion sugared with unreal reality. Also realise how much of life, itself, and our assumed beliefs within it are delusional. Oh, and have a good number of laughs along the way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

In some ways The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is far too short. Tony Webster, the novel’s central character and first person narrator, lives most of his adult life in relative anonymity. He marries, works to earn his living, raises a daughter and perhaps blends into the suburban landscape of outer London’s long terraces with their fair-weather-only gardens. During these intervening years, how often did Veronica cross his mind? And when she did, just how much of their courting did he recall, and how much did he have to re-invent? Compared to the vivid recollections of school and university years, Anthony’s take on his intervening adulthood seems scant in the extreme, dismissive even.

We would like to know more about Anthony, because Julian Barnes’s novel is pure, unadulterated joy to read. This character is so rounded and three dimensional that often it feels like he is in the room, telling his story. His manner would be quite assertive, but also self-deprecating, without that force of delivery that would suggest confidence. Surely he is a reflective type, but like most of us he is not good at reading others’ motives, especially when these do not coincide with his own. This inability will have significant bearing on this novel’s own sense of an ending.

Now in his sixties and divorced, Anthony recalls the arrival of a new classmate at school, a lad who becomes a friend, adopted into a clique. Adrian, however, is different from the others. He seems more intense, certainly more analytical, both intellectually and personally. He is one to examine the detail of justification in almost every aspect of human activity, most of all his own. But for all his attention to apparent detail, is he any better at knowing himself and his own motives than anyone else? The question will remain open.

Anthony, on the other hand, seems to get on with things as they present themselves and reflect later. He is not prone to analysis. He does find a girlfriend, Veronica, whom he seems to worship, both mentally and physically. It is the nineteen-sixties, the time of sexual liberation and free love. But not for those who lived through the era, Tony reminds us. What became iconic for a decade was at the time probably only an aspiration for an elite. For Anthony it remained a time when he could only dream of the pleasures that might await. His relationship with Veronica, however, did become reasonably intense, even if it did remain pre-marital by not usually going all the way. On a weekend visit to her parents’ home in Kent, her father seemed superciliously jocular and yet evasive, while her mother seemed strangely free and close. She even confided in him, warning him about her daughter. Tony found motive hard to ascribe.

Adrian went to Cambridge, of course, as did Veronica’s brother. Tony didn’t. You might guess that there is going to be a transfer of allegiances, a falling out, a separation and a redrawing of relationships. The Sense Of An Ending is the kind of novel where the twists and turns of people’s lives provide the plot. There is no linear invention that progresses from one false cliff-hanger to another and on to the next, so a review of the book should reveal no more than the above about its principal characters.

Overall, the book is a complete joy. It is not long enough and it is hard not to finish it in one sitting. Eventually Tony has to accept that words thrown away almost without thought or reflection have caused events to twist out consequences that have entwined the people concerned for the rest of their lives. Forty years on, Tony, never good at identifying motive, must wrest out of memory an analysis of his own intentions in the light of consequences of which he remained unaware.

Every minute of every day we communicate, sometimes in anger, and remain unaware that anything we say might have long-term consequences that we could never have imagined. Of course if we do try to consider the significance of everything we say or do, we cease to communicate and have no interaction at all. Thus we remain human, actively involved in lives whose progress and development we cannot predict. Ignorance is inevitable, but it is not blissful. Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending is not the kind of book that will enlighten or alleviate our collective state of ignorance, but it is pure bliss.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is eventually both surprising and deceptive. It is surprising because of the twists and turns of the lives of its characters, all of whom become completely, sometimes endearingly, always engagingly real. The deception arrives subtly to enlighten, because these apparently ordinary lives with their pressingly everyday concerns grow to illustrate and then eventually represent something of great significance, being the natural world and our place within it. Thus Prodigal Summer, a novel that begins suggesting a snapshot of a single season in the lives of just three households grows into a profound statement of their relationship – all of our relationships – with the natural world and indeed life, itself.

Deanna Wolfe is a mid-forties idealist who has chosen to live as a warden and ranger in the National Forests near Zebulon in the southern Appalachians. She is studying predators, especially coyotes, but apparently yearns to worship living things, especially those that are not human. She is beginning to anticipate the menopause of her own life-cycle as she marvels at nature’s ability to both regulate and reinvent itself. Crucial in this process, she feels, is the role of the predator, the animal at the top of the food chain, and especially the females of those species, those charged with husbanding its renewal. Her work seems all absorbing.

Then one day she meets Eddie Bondo. He is not from those parts. He is a hunting cowboy-type from out West, not the type, you might think, that Deanna would have time for. He is twenty-something, almost two decades her junior and he has a body plus a way of handling it that stirs the autumnal debris of Deanna’s psyche, debris that has accumulated in her continued, self-imposed and desired isolation. After all, in magnetism opposites attract.

Not far away there is Lusa. She came to these parts to marry Cole. He was the man who lured her away from her biology and installed her on a smallholding, where even the hardest work would hardly make a living, let alone create wealth. Lusa has some relationship problems with Cole’s family. After all, she is not one of them and, perhaps more importantly, her parentage has European and Middle Eastern roots. And - at least in theory - she is not even a Christian.

And then, one day she finds herself a widow. Cole’s family are immediately closer and yet further away at the same time. Sympathy partly overrides the tensions. Lusa has to begin dealing with them directly, not through the mediation of her husband’s filter. Problems of making a living might just be solved by going into goats. Goats? At least she still has time to study her beloved insects.

Not too distant are the neighbours Garnett and Miss Rawley. They are, shall we say, at the senior end of their citizenship and perhaps as a result rather set in their ways. Garnett is not just a Christian, but one of the breed that interprets the Bible, including its timeline, quite literally and can thus locate an exact date of creation just beyond 4000BC. He might profess not to be impressed by science, but in many ways he worships it by regularly dousing parts of his land and its flora in insecticides. If only…

If only that darned neighbour, Miss Rowley, would clear the cuttings and clean up that compost where al the pests breed. But she is a declared worshipper of science and cannot bring herself to interfere in any natural process, lest human intervention gets in the way of the inevitable. Miss Rawley and Garnett are not the most companionable of neighbours.

In Prodigal Summer these three households, each with their own tensions, relationships, feuds and priorities live cheek by jowl with nature. Animals, plants, the weather, chance and inevitability press themselves to the forefront of daily concerns. Thus they find they are in contact in more ways than one. Not only must they commune with the natural world, they must coexist, even communicate as assumption, motive and consequence push them in different, sometimes conflicting directions.

Of course, given Prodigal Summer’s theme of renewal and at-oneness with nature, it is no surprise that all things female are predominant. Reproduction, its necessity, its mechanisms, its intended and unintended consequences, its intended inevitability, runs not like a thread but like a strong, perhaps unbreakable rope that ties everything together. No matter what we do or think or feel, experience tries to lead us all in the same direction, as if the destination were pre-ordained, in spite of our determined meanderings designed to deny it. In Prodigal Summer, a many of the encounters are sexual. If it does not form the main argument, then the need to mate is at least preamble. There is never time to review. Life has a habit of taking us where it wants, ideas of control or self-direction being perhaps illusory.

But in the end these people all realise that they are part of the same natural world that, independently of human-created desires and prescriptions, sets its own pace, follows its own rules, precludes exemption and decides consequence. This Prodigal Summer thus reveals its surprises to all concerned, leaving them changed and transformed, older and wiser. The reader makes the same journey.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

In Blackberry Wine Joanne Harris presents a novel about Jay, who is a writer. Some years ago Jay created a character in Three Summers With Jackapple Joe, the novel that made his name. But since then, Jay’s products have been mediocre and his career has stalled. We meet him looking at his life, especially his relationship with Kerry, whose own media career seems to go from strength to strength. There is tolerance in the air, but resentment and envy are not far from the surface.

Jay reminisces about Joe, the ex-miner in Yorkshire who became something of a local hero for the young writer. Back in the 1970s, when Jay Mackintosh was an impressionable lad growing up in Yorkshire, Joe seemed so sophisticated, a much travelled man of the world whose collection of exotics from all over the planet facilitated the concoction of strange brews from the fruit of his plants. Blackberry Wine is actually written from the point of view of one of Joe’s bottles of home brew that survived for decades after its initial fizz. The device is interesting at the start and end of the book, but for the most part it is best ignored. It remains a good idea, but does not quite come off.

Chapters describing Jay’s present in London and then France and his past as a child and adolescent in Yorkshire are interleaved. Joe’s magic seemed to work those years ago when talismans cast spells that protected Jay from local bullies. They also seem to work when, disaffected with city life and frustrated by his continued lack of achievement, Jay disappears to a rural French farmhouse. There, lubricated by some of the home brew preserves, Jay finds himself haunted by old Joe and, once again transformed, as if by magic, newly able to write.

Jay finds that there is more than meets the eye in his little French town. The small community is riven by family feud and accusation, alongside general disagreement about how the area should develop in the future. Should it retain its rural roots or appeal to the holiday trade? Perhaps displaying latent Romanticism, Jay finds himself securely on one side of the discussion. He negotiates his way through new relationships, some mixed with a little local politics. Meanwhile his muse, Joe’s old wine and its associated ghost, encourage him to write a new and successful book.

Jay’s neighbour in France is Marise. She has a daughter, Rosa, who apparently is deaf after an illness contracted when an infant. For some unknown reason, Marise is determined to buy the very farmhouse that Jay himself has bought. The competition from over the fence intrigues Jay. He is at a loss to explain how passionately Marise appears to want his property.

Joanne Harris’s characters are thoroughly credible. Their weaknesses are truly human and their reserve makes their shortcomings understandable. But overall Blackberry Wine fails to convince. Not only is the setting in which Jay finds himself too soon accommodated by both himself and the locals, but the book simply has too many themes. Jay’s relations with the locals could have been the single focus of the book, but we also have his childhood, his inspiration, his relationships with two different women, his coming of age. As a result, none of the themes is thoroughly examined. This gives the book a lightness that aids a skimming read, but which simultaneously undermines any real engagement with the character. Some of the book’s themes, indeed, become submerged and apparently forgotten, only to spring up again without warning. The novel remains, however, a rewarding read and an interesting take on what really has the power to motivate people to achieve. There might be an added dimension of autobiography, but that would be another story.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stranger In My Life by Janet Holt and Helen Parker

“Sorry, please look after the animals” was scribbled on a note that Fred pinned to a door. It was intended for the eyes of Janet Holt, who had helped out on Fred’s farm for years and had become his business partner. Presumably, Janet heeded the message. The word “presumably” may seem strange, but it is relevant because the note was read during a four day period in March 1976 that became elided from Janet’s memory. For thirty-four years, she had no recollection whatsoever of what transpired in those days and it is the search for the story of that blanked out time that forms the centrepiece of Janet Holt’s autobiography, The Stranger In My Life.

At one point, late in the book, a misprint tells us that her dogs have “tales wagging with excitement”. Janet had always been close to animals and loved to care for them. And if the animals described in the book – the dogs, horses, cattle and pigs in particular – could in fact tell their tales, then we would know for sure that Janet did in fact heed the note and remember to look after them. In the absence of their first hand witness, we must rely on Janet’s perhaps incomplete account, reconstructed with therapist help more than three decades after the event.

The Stranger In My Life begins with a conventional, perhaps quiet childhood. Janet Holt’s interest in animals was manifest from an early age, and by ten she had Lucky, her own pony. A rural setting in a village near New Mills in Derbyshire in the north of England offered her an excellent setting to pursue her interest. And then Janet got to know Fred Handford, a farmer who in the nineteen sixties still ploughed with shire horses. Janet helped on the farm and soon became skilled in animal husbandry, milking, pig feeding, mucking out and the like.

Janet wanted to pursue this outdoor life, but her parents insisted she get a real job, so she eventually became a clerk in a New Mills legal firm. Janet’s dependability, interest and enthusiasm allowed her to combine a full time desk job and the farm work she loved. Indeed, a financial arrangement with Fred saw her become a partner in the business.

And then, in 1976, in her mid-twenties, Janet suffered a kind of mental and physical collapse. Four days disappeared from her life and her business partner Fred disappeared from her and everyone else’s life, having left what was interpreted as a suicide note. But then, there never was a body…

Janet took over the farm, but needed to continue with the paid work. In many ways she became a stranger to herself, since she left herself no time to reflect, relive events. A career and a farm, plus sleepless nights and recurring nightmares seemed to leave little time for anything apart from the here and now. And by then that included an affair with her boss from the legal firm, an arrangement that was to last twenty years. The four days around Fred’s disappearance remained stubbornly blank, but ever dominant. In any case, just how much do we know of ourselves? Given the task, could any of us recall the events of a particular week in our lives well enough to relive them? But in Janet’s case, the emptiness of the missing time continually returned to dominate the present.

Years later, after serving a prison sentence and with the help of a loyal friend and a therapist, Janet Holt attempted to relive those days with drastic results. But even then the story remained incomplete. The affair with the boss had lasted all those years and had ended in acrimony. Janet had never been afforded status above the mistress used for sex, and she had shared that status with others in her boss’s life. Scorned, she exacted revenge where it hurt the man the most, in his wallet, but she paid the price for the fraud. Her time inside did nothing to alleviate the pressure still exerted by those missing four days from two decades before, but it did help to identify new priorities for her life, and eventually an attempt to relive the trauma materialised. Once through proved to be less than adequate as complication compounded complication and in the process Janet, the storyteller of her own life, seems to meet a stranger she knew only in nightmares, a person who lived those four missing days.

The Stranger In My Life is an autobiography. Its style is matter of fact, its language transparent and often deceptively simple. But the content is stranger than fiction, revealing a person who became a stranger to herself, her very existence denied. There is an immediacy that brings the past to life, though never literally, and it is a past that still might not have fully revealed itself. We have to believe what Janet tells us, but still we are never sure of events. “Sorry, please look after the animals” is what Fred’s note said, but it is only the animals themselves who could tell us the detached detail of whether Janet did as she was asked.

Friday, October 26, 2012

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers forms the fourth volume of The Pelican History Of England. Now sixty years old, this particular text examines a period of transition, perhaps from the traditional towards the modern, at least in spirit. The author cites the fifteen thirties as the decade beyond which medieval values and assumptions were in terminal decline. The modernity that replaced them was merely incipient, however, and took centuries more to transform English society, but the case made in this book for the fifteen thirties forming the cusp of that change is compelling.

The book certainly presents history as a top-down affair. The king and his concerns are ever central, and most of the rest revolves around this core. It is Myers’s case that medieval societies were characterised by a need for an all-powerful figurehead whose authority was perceived as derived directly from God. And given this, the history of the entire period was thus the history of the exercise of this authority. There were strong kings, who commanded the allegiance of those who held power of their own, and there were weak ones who thus invited plot, conspiracy and instability. The divine right of kings, it seems, was subject to Darwinian market forces: those who succeeded in attracting sufficient authoritative godliness prospered, while those who did not were deposed.

A measure of the monarch’s strength during this period seems to have been the ability to fight foreign wars. The word “foreign” is problematic if the Angevin origins of this empire are acknowledged. In the eyes of those who viewed contemporary life, perhaps, England and their France were never perceived as separate entities, but merely part of the same, unified heirloom estate that happened to have a strip of sea through the middle. This view of the political geography of the time is not stressed by Myers, so a sense of England versus France pervades the narrative.

Myers devotes time to the arts, economy, society in general and ecclesiastical life, as well as to descriptions of court life, intrigue and military campaigns. His discussion subtly charts the growth of trade and the rise of a class of nouveau riche business families who eventually supplant the older, land-owning aristocracy. And it is these people who eventually provide the stimulus that encourages the adoption of humanism and other renaissance traits that had developed a century earlier on mainland Europe. They thus appear to occupy the role of a modernising elite.

The fourteenth century in England was a century of plague amidst almost constant warfare, either with France or, if that had temporarily run out of steam, internally, where the Wars of the Roses saw the Houses of York and Lancaster vie for the English throne. It was perhaps this conflict that resulted in medieval values persisting in England when elsewhere they were already in decline.

But what is really satisfying about Myers’s account of late medieval England is that in a short volume he manages to communicate and illustrate the complications and exceptions, as well as the general thrust. This is a work of true scholarship and understanding that strives to portray the big picture, but accomplishes this via an attention to detail that brings the story completely to life.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Edgar Drake is a piano tuner and is the principal character of Daniel Mason’s novel. Based in late nineteenth century London, he is also something of a specialist. No doubt he will tune any instrument, but Edgar Drake advertises himself as a specialist the Erard, the brand of piano that Franz Liszt had chosen for its special, perhaps unique qualities. And so, perhaps, Edgar Drake is not just any piano tuner: he is a tuner of Erards, a star performer of sorts, though personally he aspires to no sort of stardom.

He is clearly not short of work. He and his wife, Katherine, live a thoroughly middle-class life from his earnings. They could afford to support a family, but after several years of amorous marriage they have no children. It appears that Erard pianos might just be Edgar Drake’s children, so dearly does he care for their well being, their present and their future, there being no space left for any other concerns.

A letter arrives to disrupt this professional and domestic blissful stability. It’s a request to tune, re-voice and perhaps repair an Erard piano. There is nothing special about that, perhaps, but the letter domes from Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll from his outpost on the very edge of the British Empire, deep in the jungle highlands of Burma. Anthony Carroll, Edgar Drake is told by a gentleman in the War Office, lives in the highlands of the Shan states which span the Burma-Siam border, an area noted for its political and military insecurity. How on earth did an Erard grand piano make its way to such a place? And why? Is it a mere plaything of a serviceman stationed far from home? And why is the request to repair it being handled through official channels? Edgar Drake will be well rewarded if he accepts the commission, but he will be away from home for months and, unfortunately, such a journey is not suitable for a woman.

Well, of course he accepts. Edgar Drake’s journey by steamship via the Mediterranean, Egypt, Arabia and India form the first part of The Piano Tuner. Some of those whom he meets along the way - especially a man who tells every traveller just one tale - play a part in the book’s story, but these roles are revealed much later, and subtly. The true significance of any event or claim by any character in The Piano Tuner in never immediately apparent.

Edgar Drake is hosted by the colonial military during his stays in Rangoon and Mandalay. He is reassured that the official, thoroughly British establishment is behind his venture. But as time passes it becomes clear that the task that he is being asked to accomplish is not considered by anyone with an opinion as being a simple, technical job on a musical instrument. And it is not just the threat of raiding bandits, the trials and tribulations of a river journey, the oppressive climate and threatening diseases, or even a visit to the politically unstable Shan kingdoms on the edge of imperial influence that provide the complication. There is clearly something that Edgar Drake is not being told.

The piano tuner grows ever more frustrated while he waits to start his assignment. When he eventually travels, it is unclear whose support he retains or whose commission he is undertaking. It is then that the place, its beauty, its culture, mysticism and promise begin to bewitch Mr Drake. The more he is exposed to the stimuli of Burmese life, the more he becomes absorbed by his surroundings and obsessed with a task that he does not want to end. Soon he finds himself at the centre of events and relationships he could never have imagined when he first read the letter that explained his commission back in London.

Edgar Drake is very much at the centre of The Piano Tuner’s plot. It is his story, his perceptions and reactions as life reveals itself to him that are described. The book unfolds from his consistent point of view, but Drake’s views are changed by experience and we live through these experiences with him. He becomes a competent, reserved hero who responds to surroundings and experience and is changed by both. The true success of the novel is that the reader feels these same transforming sensations as the story unfolds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess is a work that almost defies description. The only way to get a sense of its world is to enter it by reading the book. The novel’s journey is vast, it’s absurdity often hilarious and its dark humour often tinged with a biting perception of the real.

As with many Anthony Burgess novels, the start is staggering. The first hundred pages - as is usual for Anthony Burgess - race past at a hilarious pace. Reginald Morrow Jones - inevitably Vegetable Marrow Jones to his friends – is a Welshman. Enough said… So was King Arthur. What links them? Precious little until you have read the book and then, perhaps, quite a lot less.

But then, as ever with this author, after the initial headlong spurt the pace seems to fall away. It could come as a relief to many readers, since being dragged along at the rate of the opening could easily exhaust. There is, of course, the necessity to develop the characters and their predicaments. Anthony Burgess does this by viewing their lives from different perspectives. This works in part, but the overall similarity of style tends to blur this use of different points of view.

Merely listing the scenarios in which the characters find themselves raises the breathing rate. Anthony Burgess does not need to reinvent history so that his characters may live through it. So, in Any Old Iron, we have a Titanic survivor, Russians in New York with a restaurant business and a sex-starved daughter who seems to like the new cook. After a visit to the First World War, there’s an escapade or two on the streets of St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad eventually - take your pick - as the Russian revolution unfolds. We participate. This is a long way from Wales, about twenty pages or so. Somehow we find ourselves in Manchester. There is a Jewish family with an even more sex-starved daughter. She takes up percussion with her musical ear. World War Two? Thought you would never mention it… Yes, let’s have a bit of that. How about a trek across the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union? Did I forget the posting to Gibraltar that had such a profound effect on a soldier’s career? And what about fluency in Spanish? Where did that come in? National identity is always good for the soul, so while we are talking about the foundation of Israel, why don’t we have a bash at Welsh independence?

The text is peppered with puns, intellectual references, linguistic tricks and occasional insight. We learn, for instance, in quite relevant circumstances, that for Russians water and vodka are regarded as being just about the same thing, the letter k being the only difference. We learn that a letter A embossed on a once shiny, now corroded steel sword originally signified ownership by one Attila the Hun. I mean, can we really dislike Attila the Hun? The same sword later became the property of one Arthur of Wales, the legendary King Arthur of the Knights and Round Tables. The sword, by the way, was later nicked, by theft, not corrosion, and had to be nicked back via an inside job at the Ermitage in Leningrad. (Got the name right this time…) Oh, and there’s that tour of duty in Gibraltar, where a serviceman kills an off duty German as part of the war effort and is accused of murder. What about the trek across a Soviet winter? Already mentioned that…
Any Old Iron, frankly, defies description. Right from the first paragraph, “I’m no metallurgist, merely a retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy” to the last, “It was a pity that Reg had lost his sense of smell,” Any Old Iron taunts the reader with innuendo, humour, double-entendre, intellectual challenge and linguistic trick. What it perhaps does not do is offer a rounded and familiar character that we thoroughly get to know. But part of the point in this novel that addresses ideas of identity is that none of us is knowable in that way. Life presents itself and we live it as it comes along. Circumstance, chance, imagined magical association and loyalty are all quite real and often get in the way. Any Old Iron is seriously funny.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys

In his One Hundred Best Books, John Cowper Powys confidently selects a reading list for all humanity. Written in 1916 by a man already in his forties, it offers a selection that can be labelled as distinctly pre-war, pre-First World War, that is. Given that the author was the product of an English public school - that means private, by the way, if you are not English - and then Cambridge University, one would expect the list to be dominated by the classics, ancient and modern. And, indeed it is, but there are numerous surprises.

One Hundred Best Books is a short text and offers only a potted critique of the works chosen. More often than not, John Cowper Powys chooses an author rather than a work. So, for example, Sir Walter Scott manages to have three books listed, and Dostoyevsky four, while Chares Dickens manages just one. So, in fact this list is not one hundred best books, more like a hundred favourite authors. The critiques, therefore, more often than not relate to the author’s perception of the writer’s overall oeuvre, rather than to a specific work.

This list might be almost a hundred years old, but it remains an enlightening and enjoyable tour of the literary perception and, to a certain extent, the bigotries of the time. Selections are often more revealing in what they omit rather than what they include and One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is no exception. Indeed, towards the end, the text appears to descend into mere advertisement, but this part can be safely skimmed or ignored.

A statistic that reveals much of its time is the stark reality that only two of the hundred writers listed are women. A third woman, who chose to write under a male non de plume, George Eliot, is omitted altogether, which, given that she had died over thirty years before this list was published, is a surprise. Though the list covers ancient classics and includes works from Russia, France, Italy, Germany and the United States, there is no place for the naturalism of Emile Zola.

But neither is the list merely a safety first trip through big names. A number of the French and Italians listed would not be immediately recognised by a contemporary reader. And some names, such as Gilbert Cannan, Vincent O’Sullivan and Oliver Onions have apparently almost disappeared.

John Cowper Powys is not afraid, however, to describe those he has chosen in colourful terms, sometimes revealing much about prevalent ideas of the day. How many people, in the twenty-first century, would advise the following: “a few lines taken at random and learned by heart would act as a talisman in all hours to drive away the insolent pressure of the vulgar and common crowd,” especially when referring to The Odes of Horace? And today would the phrase “the greatest intellect in literature” be attached easily to Rabelais?

On Nietzsche, we are advised that “To appreciate his noble and tragic distinction with the due pinch of Attic salt it is necessary to be possessed of more imagination than most persons are able to summon up.” Theodore Dreiser is lavished with praise: “There is something epic—something enormous and amorphous—like the body of an elemental giant—about each of these books…  All is simple, direct, hard and healthy—a very epitome and incarnation of the life-force, as it manifests itself in America.” What literature of the Unites States in the early twenty-first century, I wonder, aspires to simplicity coupled with directness, hardness and health? If it exists, I bet it’s not fiction.

Thackeray has one work included. One wonders whether John Cowper Powys really wanted it. “Without philosophy, without faith, without moral courage, the uneasy slave of conventional morality, and with a hopeless vein of sheer worldly philistinism in his book, Thackeray is yet able, by a certain unconquerable insight into the motives and impulses of mediocre people, and by a certain weight and mass of creative force, to give a convincing reality to his pictures of life, which is almost devastating in its sneering and sentimental accuracy.”

Charles Dickens is nowadays credited with being a great social realist. Powys includes only Great Expectations and seems to regard Dickens as something less than real. “His world may be a world of goblins and fairies, but there cross it sometimes figures of an arresting appeal and human voices of divine imagination.” And who, today, would say this about a writer? “Mr. Shaw has found his role and his occupation very happily cut out for him in the unfailing stupidity, not untouched by a sense of humor, of our Anglo-Saxon democracy in England and America.”

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is a quick and easy read. It is always useful to remind ourselves that perhaps the way we think about the world changes our psyche as much as changes in fashion alter our appearance. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Problem With Genre - Master Of The Moor by Ruth Rendell

As crime fiction goes, The Master of The Moor by Ruth Rendell is perhaps one of the more subtle examples. The action is set in a moorland community, presumably somewhere like North Yorkshire, though the book’s place names are pure invention and geography is not defined. There has been a murder, a fairly vicious affair where the young female victim – perhaps a cliché in itself – has not only been stabbed but scalped as well. The body has been discovered by Stephen, a large man, passionate enough about moorland rambling to write a regular column on the subject for a local newspaper, and thus is probably not unknown in the community. The plot will not be spoiled if it is revealed that, primarily because of his intimate knowledge of the moor, coupled with his solitary nature, Stephen becomes suspect number one. There is another murder and yet another in this small, apparently tightly-knit place.

Stephen is apparently happily married in an unhappy marriage. We learn of his sexual dysfunction, as if it is advertised, while he questions his own birthright. He has a confused elderly relative who lives in a care home. There’s a famous local novelist, now dead, famous for his moorland romances, a writer with whom Stephen feels a strong and special association.

There is Dadda, meaning Stephen’s father, a giant of a man who runs a furniture restoration business. His son is an employee. There is Nick, the man Stephen’s wife is seeing. And then, inevitably, there are policemen involved. There has, after all, been a murder.

Ruth Rendell’s descriptive writing captures the landscape well and also communicates Stephen’s life-long love of the place, its history, its flora and fauna, and its uniqueness. The plot eventually works its way through its own machinations and there is something of a surprise towards the end. So why, then, is such a competently written, engaging and enjoyable book eventually such a disappointment? The answer, surely, is that demands of the genre dominate and diminish the writer’s ability to communicate. And here are four ways in which this happens.

Firstly, there is the all-seeing person at the heart of the process – the writer. As previously stated, Ruth Rendell’s book is very well written and is certainly much more than competent when compared to almost any other form. But the writer here is clearly not to be trusted. There are ideas, facts and facets relating to almost all of these characters that the writer deliberately hides from the reader, merely so that they can be revealed when the plot demands. This happens despite the God-like, all-seeing standpoint that the non-participant narrator adopts and the shifting point-of-view where, apparently, we can be inside the thoughts of any of the characters at whim. And still we do not know what they think! In The Master Of The Moor, for example, Stephen apparently changes colour when he gets angry. We only learn this some way through the tale. Do we assume that this is a new phenomenon? Has he never before been angry? Has no-one ever noticed this tendency, or remarked upon it in this small, tightly-knit community? Perhaps it is merely a convenient vehicle for the story-teller, introduced with little warning to create a spicy moment. Perhaps, then, it is disingenuousness of this type that prompts someone like Alan Bennett to confess that writers generally are not very nice people.

Secondly, there is the function of the characters in relation to the plot. Throughout, the reader senses that the only reasons for identifying aspects of character is to link them to a linear plot that will eventually be resolved, with revealed detail functioning as either evidence or motive. As the process unfolds, such details are revealed sequentially as clues to notice, like scraps of paper strewn on a forest floor to dictate the route to follow. We know that these people only exist as mere vehicles, functionaries whose existence is to serve the illusion. And the journey feels ever more like being led by the nose.

Thirdly, and by no means any less importantly, is the requirement that all belief be suspended, even within a setting that seems to rely upon establishing a sense of realism. Genre fiction seems to be, in relation to this demand upon the reader, to be more demanding than fantasy, horror or even opera. In Master Of The Moor, for instance, we have a total of three bizarre murders in a small, rural community. Not only are these crimes committed in a very short space of time, they are also in the public domain. Meanwhile people in these small towns seem to go on with their lives without those recent events dominating their thoughts, conversations or actions. There have been three murders, and yet it is the local police who are still doing the investigating. Three murders, and still there is neither a plethora of imported reinforcements from even nearby forces, nor is there any invasion by researchers, presenters, technicians or temporary twenty-four hour studios of national and international news gathering organisations. Life, and death, it seems, just goes on. There have been three murders, and apparently not even journalists from local or regional media are on the streets of this small place drubbing out a story. There have been three murders, and yet people still do not have them at the forefront of their gossip. There is no finger pointing. There are no tearful press conferences, and little speculation. And people still discuss furniture restoration, moorland grasses, old mines and out-of-date books before any of the three murders. Reality, the currency of the genre, seems to be strangely absent.

Fourthly, and perhaps most important of all, is the sense that everything presented is formulaic. The victims are all young and female, of course, and men with sexual problems behave strangely. Most people conform to social class stereotypes and anyone with an interest worthy of remark is a suspect.

Master Of The Moor is a good read. It is an enjoyable book. But, via its form, prescriptions and preconceptions, it presents an at best two-dimensional world. Its plot and characters are truly one-dimensional within that frame, mere lines that join up pre-placed dots. There is nothing wrong with the book, but, like its characters, it is imprisoned by the confines of genre and cannot transcend the imposed framework. The experience it offers the reader is therefore limited. Imagination, somehow, seem to be lacking.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett clearly sets out to offer a mildly propagandist view of the First World War. Within a few pages of the start of its survey of sites of recent action in France and Belgium, we have learned that - apparently immutably - on the one hand France and its culture represent just about the pinnacle of human achievement, while on the other everything German is barbaric, aggressive and wantonly destructive. But by the end of the book, even Arnold Bennett seems no more than merely exhausted, merely bombed-out, like the skeletal remains of the city of Ypres he was then describing. It is this transformation through the progress of this short book that makes it still worth reading.

Where Vera Brittain’s Testament Of Youth sees the consequences of the first World War’s conflict in generally human terms, Arnold Bennett approaches his descriptive task with the sentiment and mission of a propagandist. He was there to fly the flag, there is no doubt. But he had already lived for several years in France and was also a professional journalist. Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front is therefore less of a personal reflection and more of an attempt to provide a - theoretically, at least - dispassionate, if committed and one-sided view of the conflict.

Today, passages that scorn German tactics because they seem bent on the destruction of architectural heritage read as merely quant. We all know that the reality of war demands destruction, especially of symbols of power and identity. As an example, one wonders what the strategic value was of bending flat a grotesquely over-sized metal Saddam Hussein? Precisely none, since this was clearly an act driven by its symbolism. We also know that scruples are not ammunition in war and that defenders and aggressors alike often hide behind the communally sacrosanct, first for potential cover and second for the potential propaganda value should the first aim fail. When Arnold Bennett expresses anger at German shelling of Gothic cathedrals in places such as Rheims, one wonders, given the opportunity, what he might have made of carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two? We know that his view would have remained partisan, but such a stance was only to be expected, given his journalistic associations and the politics of his employers.

It is when Arnold Bennett is touring the destroyed city of Ypres that the doubts really begin to surface. Bennett was a believer in the worth of everyday experience. As a novelist he at least aspired to the basing of his work on quite ordinary lives, believing them to be inherently of interest because of their simple humanity. In Ypres he describes the wrecked houses of ordinary people who were forced out, bombed out, chased away or merely killed. Questions clearly arise in his mind about the nature of war, but they never quite become explicit enough to demand answer.

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett is a short book that is worthy of re-reading today for two reasons. One is Arnold Bennett’s journalistic ability to describe what he saw. Through this he is able to provide a vivid and reasonably accurate account of day-to-day warfare in the trenches. But secondly, Arnold Bennett writes from the committed, partisan position of a man of his times. There is no detachment in his view, only commitment and conviction. This reminds us that in times of war, at least for the protagonists, there is no scope for detachment, since taking sides is part of the action.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Put simply, Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a beautiful book. But it is also challenging, engaging, shocking, endearing and enraging at the same time. It also offers truly enlightening insight into the psychology, motivation and eventual expression of a great writer. Anyone who has admired Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat will adore Dreams In A Time Of War, because the fiction that rendered the novel such a complex and rewarding read is here as reality, in all its greater rawness of immediacy, contradiction and conflict.

Dreams In A Time Of War is an autobiography, covering Ngugi’s infant and childhood memories until the day he left home, as an adolescent primary school graduate, to join Alliance High School. Thus we journey in Ngugi’s account from a homestead shared with a father, four wives and numerous siblings to the start of a Western education with its subject boundaries and prescribed canals of thinking. It would be easy to suggest that this represented a journey from the traditional to the modern, but that would be naïve. It would also miss the point.

Tradition, in Ngugi’s recollections, is extremely important, especially the magic of language. Words, clearly, were always for him much more than labels. The Kikuyu language that was his birthright offered a richness of expression and meaning - not to mention an identity - that fired his imagination from a very young age. It was also a language that was denied and derided by at least part of an education system that proselytised on behalf of the colonial, the modern. Throughout Dreams In A Time Of War we are aware of this potential for conflict, where the clearly academically gifted young Ngugi yearns to read and learn, but is regularly reminded that the only acceptable vehicle for that activity was the English language. For some who emerged through the vicious selection for entry into the educated elite, this denial of identity led to a rejection of birthright, origin and perhaps culture, so that they might more completely and convincingly adopt the new status to which they aspired. In Ngugi’s case, this demanded denial of his own background led him to appreciate it, its values and its worth more acutely. It is a mark of the book and equally the man’s complexity, however, that he not only retained an insider’s appreciation and understanding of his birthright, but also embraced the English language and education to become one of the language’s greatest writers.

Ngugi’s description of tradition is never static. At the same time, his view of modernity is never uni-dimensional. He recognises that his people’s ceremonies have changed over the years and that their significance has altered. Old men’s stories may still enthral the young, but the world described has already changed. Farmers have been driven from their land. Estates growing crops for cash and bounded by fences have been established. Factories offering wage labour have opened. Many of the structures that bound families and communities together have been transformed, perhaps not broken down, but have at least been challenged by new allegiances and aspirations.

Equally the modern is not presented as a monolith. Two different education systems coexist, one that transmits only Christianity and European values, and one that admits local language and learning. In the same way that individuals are influenced by what they are taught, they are also transformed by their experience of employment, of nurture by institutions and comradeship. In Kenya, for some this included loyalty to King and country via service in two world wars, acceptance of Christianity, responsibility to exacting employers and land owners, as well as, for others, acknowledgement of and adherence to tradition, family values and kinship transmitted by oral culture. And the reality that Ngugi portrays so beautifully in this book is that these apparently opposing poles were often mixed up within the individual, almost every individual.

If there is still anyone who retains the notion that British Imperialism was tantamount to spreading pixie dust, then such a person ought to read Ngugi’s childhood memoir. Here are descriptions of hooded informers - no doubt paid to say the right names, of indiscriminate detention, concentration camps and cold-blooded murder. And all this was backed up by a wholly unjustified and erroneous assumption of racial superiority. By the way, it’s about the same way they treated the working class back home, even down to denying most of them access to the educational goodies that legitimise social class identity.

Readers please do not be put off by the difficulties posed by the Kikuyu names and words. If they are unfamiliar, then find a way of summarising and merely recognising them. But do read this beautiful childhood memoir and thus do understand a little more of the experiences that motivate writers - and others – to explain. The view is partial, of course, that is why it is both entertaining and illuminating.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain is significantly more than an autobiography of a young woman. It presents, at least initially, a portrait of a society that nowadays appears quite foreign, takes us through a war that changed that society and rendered it obsolete and then leads us into an era that promised a new start, but which proved to be no more than a transition to the kind of modernity we now recognise. Testament Of Youth thus reads like a personalised view of history, written by an author who was conscious of change as it happened, and, indeed, was am agent in that change. Vera Brittain was also capable of appreciating the consequences that would follow.

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, Vera Brittain inhabited what were then described as the English middle classes. They bore no resemblance to what we nowadays identify with that label. These people were not merely professionally employed and propertied. They might proudly own two or three abodes here and there. They probably had servants, though they might not have referred to them as such. Private income was common, as were assumptions about education, marriage, career, deportment, manners and a host of other social trappings.

This, of course, was an era when only a small fraction of the population had any access to higher education, where women could not vote, where Britain still thought she ruled the waves. The Empire was still very much intact. Despite her commitment to feminism and her desire for independence, Vera Brittain seems, at the start of her memoir, to be heading by default straight for convention, as currently assumed by her class. But then the war came.

World War One lasted more than four years. The carnage was on a scale the world had never previously witnessed, and of an industrial type that had only recently been manufactured. Unlike modern warfare, however, the majority of the casualties were combatants, not civilian. By World War two, of course, the paradigm had changed,

World War One killed off almost a complete generation of young European men. Like many women, Vera Brittain joined up herself, feeling that she must contribute to the war effort in some direct way. But she became a nurse and her experiences caring for the wounded from the trenches form the bulk of Testament Of Youth. Her description of her work and those she nursed are vivid but balanced by detachment. She relates her experience without exaggeration, lists the horrors without once trying to shock for the sake of effect. Some of the most moving passages relate to those whose injuries were so severe they were left untreated. The stoicism with which they accepted their deaths is portrayed in its full, cold, terrifying inevitability.

At the end of the war, Vera Brittain can only be described as being in a state of shock. She had lost family and friends, and the man she would probably have married. She had nursed countless wounded, many close to death, many disfigured or jut shot to bits. By the end of 1918, it was clear that the world was not going to return to what it had been at the start of the decade. Women, of necessity, had done work previously denied them. They had the vote. A generation of young men had been interred.

And so Vera Brittain returned to university, but to study history rather than literature. Her desire to write was still there, but now she wanted to do something political or journalistic in an attempt to prevent the carnage she had seen from ever happening again. She offered support to the League Of Nations. But there remained a vast hole in her personal world, an abyss that nowadays we might diagnose as post-traumatic stress.

Eventually, she has her writing published and the possibility of marriage and a family reappeared, just when as a woman in her thirties, she had begun to assume her life would not take that route.

Testament Of Youth is a magnificent account or war, not of combat or heroism, nor indeed of comradeship or anything to do with militarism. Testament Of Youth describes consequences, both direct and indirect, and reminds us of the depths of suffering plumbed by the insanity of conflict. It deserves a wide reading today, since there seems to have emerged a tendency to portray war as mere memoir, rather than as wholesale, industrial, indiscriminate slaughter.