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Summer Reading 2014

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Reviewed below:

  • The Story of My Assassins (Novel)
  • In the Memorial Room (Fiction)
  • The Referees (Short Fiction)
  • Breakfast with Lucian (Biography)
  • A Long Long Way (Novel)
  • On Canaan's Side (Novel)
  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (History)

The Story of My Assassins (Novel) by Tarun J. Tejpal, 2009

This is one of those cases where a writer you know nothing about takes you into a world that’s totally unfamiliar to you. It’s set in Delhi, in current times, and the narrator is the editor of a small, struggling magazine that appears to deal in cultural and political affairs.

I say "appears" because it’s not always easy to figure out what’s going on. Much of what you eventually understand comes by way in inference. The opening sentence of the book, in fact, starts: "The morning I heard I’d been shot I was sitting in my office on the second floor looking out the big glass window...." That’s certainly an attention-getter, but it takes several pages to get the picture: the media are buzzing with news about an assassination attempt on the narrator and some sources are erroneously reporting that he’s been hit. It’s not until about half way through the book’s five hundred pages, however, that we begin to see why anybody would want to have him assassinated.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a hell of a lot of interesting stuff on offer before we get to that point. The book, teeming with the chaotic, irrepressible life of India, is structured in alternating sections of fifty or so pages. There are the narrator’s first-person musings about the mess that he’s embroiled in now, while the other sections, in third-person narration, deal with the lives of his five putative assassins. The aim of these sections is to show us how these men came to this point of intersection with the narrator and, in so doing, to give us a picture of some of the recent history of India, as painted on a vast and colourful canvas.

One of the most vivid sections, for example, is about the father of one of the would-be assassins, a Muslim who barely survived the horrors of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The considerable time and space given to exploring the life story of this father demonstrate the fact that author Tarun J. Tejpal is not at all reluctant to take us down paths that may seem somewhat distant from the main story of the novel. But these side trips are always well worth taking. We get fascinating glimpses into the lives of a vast array of minor characters.

While the novel includes elements of mystery and intrigue, along with political commentary, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact tone. There’s a satirical fillip to it, but it’s not as exaggerated as satire, nor is it aimed at any specific target, the way satire usually is. There are comic touches but the overall effect is certainly not one of comedy. The attitude seems to be: life doesn’t make sense, the world (at least, the one the narrator knows) is totally screwed up, so what can a person do? I’m reminded of the tone of some of Mordecai Richler’s novels: you have some hapless individual struggling against almost overpowering odds, in the face of which, all you can do is smile at the absurdity of life and hang on to whatever shreds of hope you can find.

Not that there’s much of it around. One of the most vocal cheerleaders for hopelessness is the police official who makes regular calls on the narrator to discuss the assassination plot:

Most of us are fated to only mindlessly do. Like insects. Just do. We don’t know how to think, we don’t know how to read, we have no understanding of anything. We are just insects. The smallest of insects. Move our limbs, fill our stomachs; move our limbs, fill our stomachs. Day after day. And then one day we are dead. Just like that. Accidentally stepped upon, or flicked aside, or in our stupid greed we fall into a honey jar, or a bigger insect simply swallows us whole. Nobody mourns us, nobody remembers us. Insects like us are dying by the minute.

Very little sweetness or kindness comes to light in this author’s world. There’s only one spot, in fact, where anything like tenderness or gentleness is shown. It comes in a section where Mr. Tejpal is describing the life of a Chinese boy who has become part of a street gang that lives in a Delhi train station. One night, the kid is drifting off, lulled by the fumes from the rag he’s sniffing, and his thoughts wander in a fond, sentimental way towards the misty hills of his faraway homeland. That’s virtually the only place in the book where the author hints at anything like tenderness towards a character.

As for the narrator who’s caught up in the kerfuffle about the assassination plot against him, his milieu is mostly turmoil, confusion and stress. Occasionally, he consults a guru who is one of those skinny, near-naked ascetics who is besieged by throngs during the day. Our guy gets him at night when the fans have departed – or by cell phone, as the case may be. These exchanges with the holy man seem to pass in pretty much the same spirit of chaotic weirdness as does the rest of the narrator’s life. Quite near the end of the book, though, it appears that he’s actually deriving some measure of peace from the guru’s words. Here’s something the guru says when the narrator has been obsessing about finding out the truth of his situation:

The truth is what it is. It doesn’t change whether you know it or not. So why let it worry you? Men chase the truth as if it’s Aladdin’s djinn [sic], and will solve all their problems – instead of doing the right thing, secure in the knowledge that the truth is unalterable and will remain what it is whether we know it or not.

The book’s prevailing mood of skepticism can be rather bracing, in an intellectual way, for those of us who may have been inducted into a somewhat more sanguine view of life. What I find harder to take are the actual incidents of extreme cruelty and violence in the book. It depicts the kind of world where, if you’re having a dispute with a cousin, you hire some thugs to go and rape your cousin’s daughters. A young boy who runs afoul of the authorities has his penis pummeled so badly by them that he’s never able to use it for sex again. This sort of barbarism almost made me give up on the book. I was reminded of the abhorrent cruelty in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Some Indian writers present such horror almost as if it were inevitable: insects that get stepped on, indeed. There’s a fatalistic tone to it. But, given that such things do actually happen, how do I want an author to deal with them? Would it be better if the authors were wringing their hands and deploring what’s going on? No. Still, the authors seem to know that these incidents will have a shocking effect on us, that they’ll make us cry out at the injustice and evil. Could it be argued that our response is stronger when the author doesn’t include any editorializing, any personal comment on the violence? Maybe.

Another aspect of the book that may be troubling for some readers is the attitude to women. As far as I can tell, the narrator sees nearly all women as foolish and hysterical. He clearly feels love towards his mother but she is portrayed as being enslaved to superstitious religiosity; her response to any crisis is a fit of screaming. The narrator shows almost nothing but contempt for his wife. We do meet one older woman who makes some shrewd remarks about men – to the effect that their bravery always comes with foolishness, that you never find a brave man who’s wise – but this woman’s insightfulness is the exception that proves the rule about the narrator’s low opinion of most women.

The woman who stands apart from the others most notably is the narrator’s mistress. This woman is definitely sharp. Their encounters begin with her belittling his sexual prowess, which leads to a struggle between them, culminating in passionate, obliterative sex. The scenario is plausible, dramatic and entertaining. What’s a little harder to credit is that the woman turns out to be something of a social activist who becomes the champion defender of her lover’s would-be assassins. This aspect of the woman’s character is not unbelievable; in fact, it’s rather enjoyable to contemplate. My problem is that the author doesn’t make it as convincing as it could be.

But the writing of the novel, on the whole, is superb. Take this small example, a scene where the narrator is watching his computer boot up: "I waited as the icons lined themselves up at the top and bottom of the screen, like two teams of football players before the start of a match." The explanations for the assassination attempts on him, when we do finally reach them, are so cleverly fiendish and convoluted that they remind me of Ukranian dolls: every theory has another theory tucked inside it. And you could say that, in spite of all the cynicism, the novel does reach a satisfactory conclusion, in that the narrator finally makes what appears to be a good decision.

As for a few small problems with the book, some of them can’t be blamed on the author and some can.

  • Given the preponderance of Indian names and the various versions of the names, it can be difficult to keep track of the characters. (As in War and Peace.) Also, the author often throws in Hindi words, even phrases and complete sentences, without any translation. You can get by without knowing the meaning....but still!
  • Mr. Tejpal is one of those authors who loves to trot out lists for us: the many objects in a container, the items littering a shelf, the contents of a junk heap. This is something that I associate with a lower quality of writing. (Ruth Rendell’s mysteries do a lot of this.) It seems to me that an author would do better to choose one or two significant items; after that, the list becomes tedious and meaningless.
  • I wish some editor had cautioned Mr. Tejpal not to refer so often to a character’s bowels turning to water. Once is fine. After that, I’d prefer that the author talk to a doctor about the character’s problem, not me.

 

In the Memorial Room (Fiction) by Janet Frame, 2013

You may have noticed that I haven’t classified this one as a novel. That’s because I’m not sure that it is one.

It starts like one, though. Our young narrator, Harry Gill, is an unassuming writer from New Zealand, who tells us that he has received a fellowship to spend a year on his writing in Menton, France. The fellowship is bestowed in honour of a deceased British writer, Margaret Rose Hurndell, who had penned some of her most famous works in Menton. The idea is that the New Zealander will do his writing in the "Memorial Room" dedicated to Hurndell. It turns out to be a dank, stony chamber something like a mausoleum.

In a similar way, not much of Harry’s sojourn turns out to correspond to the idyllic fantasy one might have expected. People in Menton don’t seem to know much about him as a writer or to understand what kind of writing he does. He’s such an unprepossessing guy that, when the newspaper takes his photo with the mayor, the editors identify as the recipient of the fellowship a more glamorous man who happens to be in the photo. There’s a gentle comedy running through all this. Harry slyly observes the many ways that the English people here in Menton are claiming some stake in English literary achievement by means of their clinging to the memory of Hurndell. He also notes that the locals have a tendency to inundate him with banal remarks and that he tends to prolong the boring conversations with equally bland responses, even though he’d like to blurt out something startling.

The book is based on author Janet Frame’s own experience in Menton in 1973. Considered by many to be New Zealand’s most distinguished writer, she was given a fellowship in honour of author Katherine Mansfield, who had lived and worked there. Ms Frame, who died in 2004, would not permit this book to be published during her lifetime, presumably because she felt some of the people of Menton would be offended.

For the most part, Ms. Frame’s writing is clean, spare and elegant – almost on a par with the work of such a supreme stylist as Barbara Pym. I do occasionally find, however, that some passages in this book are effusive in what could be a self-indulgent way. Could that be because Ms. Frame is, in many respects, drawing on her own experience? One such passage is the following one in which the narrator is comparing the fruit found in the market in March with the fruit that was on sale in its prime:

On display for at least six weeks, battered by the storms, the fruit-fires that survived as fruit only were sold in an atmosphere so much in contrast to their late glory that one felt a sense of humiliation such as one feels outside the Casino at Monte Carlo, seeing the furtive notices in the upper-storey windows of some buildings – Money advanced for Jewels. There was a feeling that not only the fruit but the sky-sun itself had been robbed of its dignity, forced to sell itself out to keep up appearances.

About mid-way through the short book (just over 200 short pages), something happens to Harry that has an almost Kafka-esque quality. It’s not quite as ghastly a metamorphosis as the one that occurs to Gregor Samsa, but it’s a sudden change that severely alters Harry’s way of relating to people. Suddenly, his ability to hang onto the fellowship is in question. People don’t know what to do with him. Still, our steadfast Harry recognizes that he is playing the role of someone who must maintain his dignity in such a situation, a man for whom "nothing had changed, as if in my love affair with life, although I had been betrayed, with life declaring itself unfaithful to me, I continued to affirm my love with the heaven-encircling lie which became a rainbow-circumstance of truth, Nothing has changed."

There’s a kind of suspense in your wondering how this alteration in Harry is going to be explained and whether he’s going to overcome it. But your curiosity on those points won’t be satisfied. The book devolves into Harry’s thoughts about verbal communication, especially about the differences between vocal and written words. There’s even the matter of how differently speech sounds to the speaker than to the listener. As Harry sinks further and further into this reverie, the book ends with nothing so much as two or three pages of very commonplace written notices:

We have attractive styles in pocket cheque books that might interest you...I regret to inform you that the dishwasher has failed to live up to your guarantee...You naturally wish to keep your credit clear...I can take dictation at the rate of a hundred words a minute...Merry Christmas to you and all the family...Birthday greetings. You have our heartfelt sympathy. Heartiest congratulations.... [my ellipses]

If you want to look at these lines in a certain way, there’s a kind of fascination in them – as if they’re sketching the outlines of our lives in terms of the daily grit that usually gets ground into the unnoticeable substrata. (I’m reminded of some of the echoes of daily trivia in a work like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.) As such, I would say that the book is a brave experiment in creative writing and a thought-provoking treatise on the question of communication among human beings. It’s satisfying and enjoyable – as long as you’re not expecting the conventional beginning-middle-end structure of most story-telling. And there’s no question that Harry – in spite of his self-effacing manner, or because of it – can be an engaging guide through this slightly Alice-in-Wonderland world.

For instance, this observation about a woman who has just handed him a written message:

Reading what she had written, she blushed beneath her layer of makeup for she had a sensitivity which operated apart from herself and which she did not recognise: she and it were strangers living in the same house; a curious position to be in; the effect was that of startling her every now and again with her own feelings and intuitions.

It’s worth hanging out with a guy who can spot that sort of thing in human nature, even if he doesn’t deliver the sort of resolution to his story that you’re expecting.

 

The Referees (Short Fiction) by Joseph O’Neill; The New Yorker, Sept 1/14

A guy has just returned to Manhattan after living elsewhere for a few years, and he’s trying to line up character references so that he can sublet an apartment. The responses he’s getting from people whom he thought of as his friends are disconcerting, to say the least. This lovely piece of short fiction doesn’t actually amount to a "story", i.e. a work with a plot that comes to some sort of resolution. Rather, it becomes a guy’s reflections on how people see him and how he would like to be seen. The piece brims over with self-deprecating humour and yet the final effect is touching, almost to the point of being heart-breaking. It looks like an excerpt from Mr. O’Neill’s next novel. In standing alone like this, however, I think it achieves a certain poignancy that it might not have in a novel where things would move on quickly to the next episode.

 

Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter (Biography) by Geordie Greig, 2013

This biography is the kind of book that some people would be inclined to throw across the room in disgust. I can’t imagine any nice people – you know, the kind who go to church on Sunday and who believe that one should try to behave decently – would read this book with any pleasure or enjoyment. However, if you want to know something about the crazy goings-on in the upper echelons of the art world and the aristocracy, as well as in the lower depths of the world of crime bosses and gamblers, this book is your ticket to the guided bus tour.

Lucian Freud, born in 1922, was the second son of Lucie Brasch and Ernst Ludwig Freud, the latter being one of the six children of the famed Sigmund. Some armchair psychologists might assume that the grandchild, Lucian, inherited a penchant for delving into the seamy underside of life from his grandfather. In his own comments, however, at least in so far as they’re reported here, Lucian Freud talks about the relationship with his grandfather mostly in terms of how the older man instilled in him a love of animals and of zoology – interests which would serve him well when it came to the artistic mastery of anatomy. On the lighter side, in the recounting of Lucian’s memories of his grandfather, it comes as something of an unexpected note to see the distinguished old man clacking his dentures in his fingers to amuse the grandson.

If there is any "Freudian" explanation for the somewhat deviant or defiant nature of Lucian’s character, it might have something to do with the fact that his mother was very possessive about him and intrusive on his privacy. (Note that the son was virtually named after the mother.) This, so the theory goes, might have propelled him in the opposite directions to whatever was expected of him. Perhaps some other traumatic aspect of family dynamics explains why, as a young man, he had a bitter falling out with each of his brothers, Stephen and Clement, which led to his never speaking to them, until he did have a sort of reconciliation with Stephen, later in life. He remained totally estranged from Clement, the Liberal MP and well-known BBC personality on such shows as Just a Minute.

For most of his life, Freud was far from being a wealthy or prosperous artist. He was always hounding his dealers for money, often to pay gambling debts. When the cognoscenti of the art world turned away from portraiture and representative painting, his work fell out of fashion. Much of his early work has a forbidding, cold, disturbing quality. However, two of his later portraits, those of artist David Hockney and Irish business man Pat Doherty, photos of which are included in this book, are among the best portraits you’re ever going to see. The vigour of the brushwork is astonishing; Freud makes the paint speak. Mr. Doherty paid 4.5 million British pounds for two portraits of himself that Freud painted. By the time of Freud's death, he had achieved such fame and recognition that his estate came to about 96 million pounds, British sterling.

The controversy that brought Freud to my attention swirled around his portrait of the Queen (2000-2001). Many critics complained that the work was gratuitously ugly. But Freud insisted, as per his usual modus operandi, that his intention was to seek the person inside the well-known visage. No matter what you think of the painting in terms of deference due to the monarch, it’s – in my opinion, based on the photos of it that I’ve seen – a fantastic portrayal of character in portraiture. It looks as though Her Majesty is barely able to repress a surge of irritability and disgruntlement – which is probably the way the Queen often feels behind the well-known mask of benevolence.

Was Freud cocking a snoot at the Establishment? Hardly. He was practically a family friend of the monarch. When his family fled Berlin in 1933 to escape the oncoming Nazi horror, their application for naturalization in England was blocked, and things were looking dicey for them. What saved them was that a friend of the family happened to be a good friend of the Duke of Kent. The duke put in a word for them in the right places and their papers were quickly settled. Otherwise, the family would have been interned on the Isle of Wight. Freud gave his painting of the Queen to her as a gesture of thanks for the royal family’s kindness to his family.

In any case, it’s unlikely that the Queen would have been insulted by the unflattering portrait. It’s not as if she wasn’t familiar with Freud and his work. In earlier years, Freud was known to have taken Princess Margaret out dancing. One time, the police were hassling Freud because they didn’t believe the alibi he was providing for a friend wrongly accused of killing someone in an automobile accident. Then the papers reported that Freud had been out with the Queen and Princess Margaret, whereupon, all the hassle from the police stopped.

That’s the way it went with Freud – back and forth between the high and the low. He was known to have dealings with the infamous Kray twins. In one emergency, he phoned the Duke of Beaufort, an old friend, and asked for 1,500 pounds to pay off some gangsters he owed money to. When he was blacklisted by England’s largest betting company – for not paying his debts – the man who spearheaded the campaign to have this smirch on Freud’s reputation removed was Andrew Parker Bowles – best known in history as the first husband of the woman who would become Prince Charles’ second wife. In spite of all his highborn connections, Freud wouldn’t hesitate to hire thugs to intimidate anybody he was having a problem with. He cut people off conclusively if they annoyed him; he could be vituperative and spiteful about and towards former friends. He was extremely demanding of his models and hard on them.

On the other hand, he was capable of great generosity – sometimes, he’d give a faithful sitter a house in thanks for services rendered. The main thing was his painting. He was driven – obsessed you might say – about it. Painting came first. Then sex. I suppose it’s in the latter area that the record of Freud’s behaviour is most likely to offend. He acknowledged 14 children as his own but the estimates of the number of children he fathered run somewhere between 30 and 40. None of the acknowledged ones were conceived with women he was married to at the time. Freud had given up on marriage after two brief attempts. If ever there was a man who clearly was not suited to a life of fidelity, it was Freud. Maybe credit could be given to him for knowing that and for, consequently, not luring any more women into a false situation.

He simply bedded whom he wanted, when he wanted. There is some indication that there might have been the occasional male among his conquests but I gather that Freud didn’t openly admit to any such incidents. In middle age, he was expert at seducing teenage society girls as easily as if he were picking ripe fruit off a tree. Many women – more likely the older ones – knew that they were playing with fire; they knew that heartache and unfaithfulness were in store but they say that they found him irresistible. Several whom Mr. Greig has interviewed say that, no matter what the danger of being involved with him, it was worth it for the excitement that he brought into their lives, a vitality he conveyed that was beyond the wan energies of any other man.

One of the most amazing things about many of these alliances is that they were so incestuous, to use the term loosely. Freud was always hooking up with women who were friends of former lovers; in one case his conquest was the daughter of a former lover of his. But he wasn’t the only one who was making the rounds in such a dizzying way. Sometimes the shuffling and changing of partners among the men and women in his circle is so complex and intricate that you need a program to keep track of the players. In all these affairs, famous names crop up not just as conquests but also as bit players, enablers, fixers and go-betweens. At the age of nineteen, Freud fell in love with Lorna Wishart, a married, rich beauty. He had a fistfight with another young man who was also her lover – none other than the poet, Laurie Lee, who happens (in my opinion) to have written one of the most beautiful memoirs of all time: Cider with Rosie. (The title of the US publication is The Edge of Day.) Michael Wishart, the son of the woman whom the two swains were fighting over, later married Ann Dunn, who had also been a lover of Freud’s.

What are we to make of such a man? Perhaps Victor Chandler, Freud’s favourite bookie, expressed it best:

My impression is that he wasn’t one for great self-analysis; he was almost animal. He went with his feelings, took what he wanted. That was his strength. You could also physically see it in his actions, eating with his fingers, tearing birds to pieces on his plate. When we cooked pheasant or partridge he wouldn’t use a knife or fork. I don’t think he ever articulated it, but the usual social rules that we apply to ourselves I don’t think he ever thought they applied to him. There were no rules really.

A quote from Freud himself tends to confirm that assessment of him. When one of his sons apologized for any trouble he might have caused in his wild youth, Freud said, according to the son’s recollection: "That’s nice of you to say, but it doesn’t work like that. There is no such thing as free will – people just have to do what they have to do."

Not the ideal code of conduct, perhaps, not a model for society. (Immanuel Kant would be aghast.) Whether or not we like Freud, as he comes through in this book, may be immaterial. But I could wish that I liked this book better. Granted, Geordie Greig deserves credit for amassing all this information about such an extraordinary life. While I don’t find his analytical comments on Freud’s paintings particularly insightful, I was struck by Mr. Greig’s comment that the people in Freud’s portraits have something of the quality of the characters in the plays of Samuel Beckett, something like a moody, apprehensive waiting, a sort of suspense. That observation aside, I have big problems with the book.

To begin with, there’s its design. The book is something of an uncomfortable cross between a coffee table book and a biography. The thick, glossy pages are appropriate for reproductions of the paintings and photos, and further elegance is added by lots of whitespace on every page. But the print is rather fine and too small, which makes for strained reading.

However, it’s the quality of the writing that bothers me most. Mr. Greig is apparently a distinguished and accomplished British journalist, having been an editor of and/or contributor to such publications as: The Mail on Sunday, the London Evening Standard, Tatler and The Sunday Times. But it seems to me that his skills may not be best suited to book-length works. There isn’t a convincing over-all structure to the book. It’s too much like magazine and newspaper articles which often, for lack of any better organizational principle, proceed in the mode of "then-there-was-this-and-then-there-was-that." Within that format, it doesn’t matter how often you keep doubling back and touching on subjects already mentioned. In a book, it does. Here, chapter headings seem to promise a certain corralling of subject matter but it keeps slipping away. I know it’s very difficult to find proper placement for the disparate aspects of a life that was so varied and complex but other authors, dealing with subjects whose lives were as crowded as Freud’s, have managed to produce books that read with a more definite momentum and a sense of purpose.

Perhaps the somewhat jumbled effect of this book may be due to the fact that Mr. Greig became a close friend of Freud’s in the latter part of his life, after having been rebuffed on several previous attempts to interview the great man. They subsequently spent a lot of time together, often meeting for breakfast – hence the book’s title. Freud gave his consent to Mr. Greig’s writing the biography. I suspect that Mr. Greig’s memories of Freud may be so fond and so fresh (Freud died in 2011) that it’s impossible to get enough distance from them to arrange them in an orderly way. Rather, we get a stream of reminiscences – good and bad – both from the author and from many of Freud’s contemporaries, interspersed with transcribed fragments of Mr. Greig’s interviews of Freud.

Moving to the more minute consideration of the writing – the sentence structure and the use of English – I’m sorry to have to say that Mr. Greig, esteemed though he is, is capable of committing what look to me like several egregious faux pas.

Consider the following:

  • "It was based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of naked men in motion, several volumes of whose work were among Lucian’s books." Wouldn’t a more suitable placement of the words be: "It was based on the photographs of naked men in motion by Eadweard Muybridge, several volumes of whose work were among Lucian’s books"?
  • Regarding the "delicious irony" (as Mr. Greig calls it) of the timing of Freud’s birthday, the Immaculate Conception, Dec 8th, Mr. Greig says: "It also contained an undercurrent that he wanted to exist outside the orbit and control of his parents, which was exactly what he engineered." I think a more precise statement of the thought would be: "It also contained an undercurrent of the suggestion that he wanted to exist outside....." The problem, as I see it, is that an "undercurrent" can’t make an explicit statement.
  • About the childhood home in Berlin: "Hanging on the walls, Lucian remembered prints of Bruegel’s Seasons given to him by his grandfather, Hokusai prints, and Drer’s engraving of a hare." Poor Lucian – hanging on the walls!
  • And: "She was dark-haired, eleven years older than him and from a family with a reputation for licentiousness." It would be nice to think that such a distinguished British man of letters knew and observed the proper forms, i.e. the subjective and objective, of the personal pronoun.

 

 A Long Long Way (Novel) by Sebastian Barry, 2005

I bet you can quickly name several authors who have produced excellent novels about the First World War. The ones that come quickest to my mind are: Ernest Hemingway, Timothy Findley, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker. You might wonder, then, why the world needed another book about that horrible event and why such a book would be greeted with so much acclaim, including a nomination for the Booker Prize.

One thing that makes this book unique – at least in my reading experience – is that it tells about the war from the point of view of a young Irish soldier. That leads to several distinctive features in the story. Because the soldier’s father is a high-ranking official in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the family members have no problem with the British presence in Ireland. It doesn’t seem incongruous, then, for young Willie, just eighteen years old, to join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to fight on the Allies’ side.

And yet, this is a time when many Irish are demanding Home Rule. In fact, some of the Irish volunteers have been given the impression that Home Rule will be offered to them as a reward for joining Britain in the war. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the Irish rebels who want to throw off British rule have the impression that Germany is on their side. Hence, their antipathy towards their countrymen who have joined Britain against Germany. Not knowing much about any such discontent, our young hero is bewildered when, on furlough, he gets caught up in the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin. His regiment is expected to help put down the rebels but he can barely grasp what’s going on. Later, when he’s back on the front in Europe, it comes as something of a puzzlement to him and his fellow Irishmen in the army, to hear about the executions of the rebels back home.

While this historical and political material may help to give the book a special claim on our attention, it’s not the main point of the book. As with most war novels, of course, the quality of the book depends on how well it conveys the experience of the individual soldier – or soldiers – in the forefront of the story. For Willie, A Long Long Way does this very well.

To highlight just a few of the situations that give this story a special character:

  • When Willie’s home on leave, his dad stands him in a tub of hot water in the kitchen and washes the muck of war off him.
  • Willie has something like a personal encounter with a dead German soldier while going through his pockets before burying him.
  • A much-touted boxing match by a couple of soldiers provides one of the highlights of entertainment back of the front lines. The high-ranking officers sit front and centre in full ceremonial dress.
  • At a musical evening, rowdy soldiers dance with each other for lack of women

I hope this will not risk my incurring a charge of disloyalty to my genetic heritage, but I have to say that a couple of dangerous tendencies are inherent in almost any Irish writing: 1. the possibility of genuine sentiment’s tipping over into sentimentality; 2. the chance of the writer’s falling in love with the sound of his or her own voice. This novel skirts both pitfalls without actually tumbling in. Yes, there is a wonderful flair in the use of language – almost a certain extravagance – but you have to accept that that’s part of the charm of the writing, indeed, of the uniquely Irish way with the English language. A sentence will be offered – either in dialogue, description or narrative – that depends at least as much on the flow of the words as it does on mere meaning.

Here’s a pal telling Willie how he came to join up:

‘I’ll tell you what it was, Willie. I was walking along by the river in Ballina minding my own business. My father had sent me in to see about the purchase of some bolts for the barn doors. And a girleen came along and in her hand like a bunch of flowers she had a fist of white feathers, and she crosses over the road to me smiling and hands me one. Now I didn’t know what that was, and my mother kept bees back in Cuillonachtan and I thought she was an itinerant selling feathers, because, you see, Wille, you use a goose-wing for the bees, to be brushing a rogue hive into the carrier box, and I know it wasn’t a full wing or the like, but. So I asked her, I said, "Are you selling those or what?" and she said, "No." "Is it something for the bees?" I said. "No," she said, "something for the war. I’m to give you a feather so you will be feeling bad about going and go on out with yourself to the war." [sic] And I said, "Go way. I never heard the like of that." "Oh yes," she said, "What do you think, will you go?" And do you know, she was so pretty and nice and all that, and I felt so awkward about it, I said, "Yes, yes." And of course I mightn’t have gone out at all, but just bought the bolts and gone home to my mother and father, but you know, when you say you will do a thing to a person, you like to go and do it.’

Mr. Barry explicitly addresses the role of words in this passage:

Willie had no words to tell what he was feeling in response to Father Buckley’s words. He wondered suddenly and definitely for the first time in his life what words might be. Sounds and sense certainly, but something else also, a kind of natural music that explained a man’s heart or heartlessness, words as tempered as steel, as soft as air. He felt his sore head clear and his back lighten and his legs strengthen. It was as strange to him as the sight of death. He hoped the words would work on the dead and be a balm to them also.

But we do get passages, like the following, where the writer seems carried away with the flow of words:

A man, especially a priest, could not witness scenes like unto the end of the world, as if the armies of the West had joined battle with the armies of the East, in that wild apocalypse shown to poor St. John, in his penal servitude under the Romans on the island of Patmos in that vanished world, and so on, without disturbing a few hairs on the head of his mental ease.

And some over-writing as, in this case, about a scene in a bar in France:

Maybe there was a poison in this tepid water [i.e. the French beer]. Maybe there was worse than poison, maybe there were dead men’s destroyed dreams milled down into powder and scattered in these bitter glasses.

Now the room was a wash of colours, as if the room itself were a glass of suspect beer. The khaki jackets smeared in long trails, the laughing, shouting faces likewise, like the balls of comets foretelling neither good nor bad, empty omens, horribly empty men.

How could this estaminet be spinning like a great wheel, the songs going round and round, in a great trail of stars and colours?

How indeed! Stars, apparently, have a tendency to tempt Mr. Barry to wax a little too eloquent. This, as Willie’s settling for the night in a billet: "The billet he supposed folded itself into a dark field, the field into the sky, the sky folded itself like a letter of savagely written stars into the armpit of the great God, if such a person there was, and God folded Himself into – what did God do in the night-time?"

And yet, we can get beautifully restrained writing, as in this moment after the execution of a soldier:

The birds began to sing in the stand of trees behind the fallen body. It was as if he never had been. It was as if there never had been a proper reason for a life, as if all stories and pictures were a lie and a nonsense. It was as if blood were ashes and the song of a life was only the painful extension of a baby’s cry. How his mother had loved him and rejoiced in his coming and fed him were hardly known.

Mr. Barry is also capable of pushing out, beyond the conventional boundaries of a narrative, into almost metaphysical territory. Here’s Willie in a trench, facing a gas attack:

This was not a scene of bravery, but it seemed to Willie in his fear and horror that there was a truth in it nonetheless. It was the thing before a joke was fashioned about it, before an anecdote was conjured up to make it safe, before a proper story in the newspaper, before some fellow with the wits would make a history of it. In the bleakness of its birth there was an unsullied truth, this tiny event that might make a corpse of him and all his proper dreams.

One thing that sets this novel apart is the sympathetic portrayal of certain characters. For the most part in novels these days – and, for that matter, in non-fiction – priests come in for pretty severe treatment. However, the padre to the Irish soldiers is one of the most likeable characters in the novel. A scene where Father Buckley hears Willie’s confession is full of compassion and understanding. I doubt that you’d get such a moving description of a good confession – what the experience should be – anywhere else in contemporary fiction. Another unexpectedly sympathetic note comes in a cameo of King George, on a quick visit to the troops. The man comes across as genial and chummy towards the soldiers; this, of course, is consistent with the good feeling that Willie and his ilk have for the British. Mind you, some of the British make no attempt to hide their contempt for the Irish soldiers; however, the officer who offends most grievously on this score does, eventually, offer something like an apology to Willie.

While the book, for the most part, feels real and lifelike, I fear that Mr. Barry has a tendency to see fiction as needing a good jolt of melodrama. One of the worst things that happens to Willie is a treacherous betrayal by means of an anonymous letter. It looks as though this must have been done by someone very close to him, yet it’s hard to see why any such person would do this to Willie. We do eventually get a sort of explanation of the letter writer’s motivation but the deed still sticks out like one that’s almost too spiteful to believe. Also, the ups and downs of Willie’s rapport, or lack thereof, with his father have a somewhat contrived aspect with regard to the timing of developments in the relationship. (I'm trying not to reveal a major plot development here.)

Willie’s nothing, if not steadfast. Having been invalided out, he returns to the front for further action and sees the war through to the end – almost. We are thus treated to several first-hand accounts of battles. In one way, this serves a certain documentary value, in case anyone among us was in danger of forgetting how horrible that conflict was. In terms of the qualities we expect from a novel, however, the fighting does become repetitive. Sad to say, we gradually become inured to the accumulation of horror. For me, this meant that the story, in its final stages, may not have been holding my attention quite as closely as the author had hoped.

 

On Canaan’s Side (Novel) by Sebastian Barry, 2011

This novel could be considered a sequel to Sebastian Barry’s beautiful and moving A Long Long Way. (See review on this page) This newer book tells the story of Lilly, the younger sister of Willie, who was the main character in the other book. (In the previous book, she’s named Dolly; I can’t find any explanation for the discrepancy, but never mind.) She’s an elderly woman now and she’s roaming through her memories as she sits at the table in her country house near the sea on the east coast of the US.

Shortly after the war that Willy fought in, she had been forced to flee to America with her sweetheart, who had been a buddy of Willie’s. The trouble was that, on discharge from the army, her beau had, like many of his comrades, joined the Royal Irish Constabulary, thus becoming one of the "Blacks and Tans" (so named because their makeshift uniforms consisted of tan bits from the army and black bits from the police). Because they represented British authority in Ireland, these forces were hated by the rebels. When word had reached Lilly and her fianc that both their names were on the rebels’ hit list, they fled Ireland.

Lilly’s subsequent life in America was eventful, to say the least. The title of the book may be considered to be ironic in that the US didn’t exactly turn out to be the promised land. But Lilly’s memories flow in the easy, natural, yet somewhat jumbled, non-chronological way you’d expect from an elderly woman. Deft touches of suspense and foreshadowing are dropped into the narrative in seemingly casual ways. There are, as in A Long Long Way, many samples of fine writing to be savoured.

The trees were solemn, full-leaved, and stately, and the sunlight poured through them. It might have been a liquid or a thing you could touch. Something you could take a portion of, weighing it out or cutting it, and add into a cake mixture.

There is, again, the occasional flash of an unusual way of seeing things:

I realised slowly that as my father’s daughter, unthinkingly, I had lived as a little girl and young woman through a certain kind of grievous history, where one thing is always being knocked against another thing. Where my father’s respect for the King was knocked against Tadg’s father being in the Irish Volunteers....[I’m deleting a bit here, to avoid giving away an important plot point from the previous novel]....where even Wicklow life was knocked against Dublin life, the heather that came up to us on the bus knocked against its eventual blackening, its little darkened flowers saying, time passeth, time flyeth.

On the less impressive side as regards Mr. Barry’s style, there are the instances of over-writing, of his getting carried away with the sound of his own voice. And again, the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the book turns on a concatenation of events that’s not implausible but perhaps somewhat over-dramatic. However, in that On Canaan’s Side is shorter, a little more succinct than A Long Long Way, I’d hazard the opinion that it’s better than its predecessor. The main theme of the book, perhaps, would be sadness about what happens to families – not just to married couples, to parents and their children – but also to relationships within extended families. Often, these ties can’t be sustained because of great distances and other obstacles.

Just one aspect of the book strikes me as odd. All of the men who come into Lilly’s life in an intimate way (there are four of them) seem destined for sticky endings. Is Lilly something of a curse on men? She does wonder, at one point, if she’s something like the infamous "Typhoid Mary," who was blamed for infecting so many people early in the last century. But Lilly is talking about her effect on the fate of just one man. She doesn’t seem to realize that the allusion might have much broader implications. Does Mr. Barry realize that he has painted a picture of Lilly as being so noxious to men? Is this what he intended?

 

 

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Religion/History) by Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2009

All references to this book give you the impression that it’s something you must read if you’re at all interested in know how a major force came to shape our world as we know it. Critics say things about the book like, "It changes your view of everything," and "It offers a revolutionary perspective on everything you thought you knew." The front pages of the book and the back cover are filled with raves from Publishers Weekly, Financial Times, The Washington Times and The New York Times Book Review. The front cover of the US paperback edition is emblazoned with a quote from The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik: "Immensely ambitious and absorbing."

Yes. But did all these enthusiasts actually read the whole thing? I found the book very hard to get through. In fact, I will confess to having skipped about 25 pages of the toughest reading. The problem is that there’s so damn much information. To give you some idea of just how much is crammed into the book, Martin Luther, the guy who could be credited with launching the biggest change ever in the history of Christianity, gets only about 17 of the book’s 1,016 pages to himself. It took me two library loans – both of them extended to the maximum nine weeks each – to get to the end of the book. I might never have made it if a foot injury hadn’t prevented my taking my daily walk for a while.

Author Diarmaid MacCulloch, winner of many prizes for his books, and Professor of Church History at Oxford, knows too much. Not that there’s anything pedantic or overtly academic about his opus. The material flows out of him as though he has it at the tip of his tongue or, perhaps more appropriately, at his finger tips. But it’s very difficult for a reader to keep track of the intertwined plot lines, the multitudinous cast of characters and the geographical skips and jumps. A typical page may have as many as five or more bracketed references to other pages with relevant material. As such, the book strikes me as a valuable resource to have in your library. You can’t remember who those Moravians were? You’ll find the answer here. But this is not the book for you if you’re looking for an enjoyable and comfortable read that will give you a bit of insight into some cultural and historical matters.

Then why did I continue, and was it worth it? Well, I did want to know how we got to where we are today and, yes, it did give me a sense of the general outlines of Christianity’s development, if not, perhaps, a complete grasp of every detail.

The book’s subtitle might strike you as puzzling, but the explanation for it is simply that Professor MacCulloch goes back to about 1,000 BCE to give the religious context that gave rise to Christianity. When he does get to Jesus, you get the impression that Professor MacCulloch has a certain fondness for the teachings attributed to the Nazarene, but not much allegiance to the doctrinal claims made for him. And that brings us to the question of Professor MacCulloch’s own beliefs. (This is surely one of the rare cases where a historian’s personal convictions cannot be regarded as completely irrelevant in his treatment of his subject.) Professor MacCulloch tells us that he grew up in an Anglican manse in East Anglia and, although he apparently doesn’t consider himself a Christian, he says that he’s friendly towards the religion as a force for moral and spiritual sustenance.

In his treatment of Jesus (a mere 20 pages), there isn’t much that would be new to a person familiar with some of the recent biblical and historical research on the era. But one intriguing point that was new to me did crop up. It has to do with the invocation "Give us this day our daily bread" in that most beloved of Christian prayers, the one known as "The Lord’s Prayer." The word which we know as "daily" is a translation of epiousios, a very rare Greek word, Professor MacCulloch says. It doesn’t mean daily, he says, "but something like ‘of extra substance’, or at a stretch, ‘for the morrow’." Professor MacCulloch concludes:

If we can assign any meaning to epiousios, it may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time – yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.

Among the many, many other fascinating facts the book serves up, some of them very consequential, others just quirky:

  • If it hadn’t been for the Muslim conquest, the centre of Christianity would have been in the East, rather than in Rome.
  • Around the time of the Reformation, there were several attempts to bridge the differences of thinking and to preserve unity in Christianity, but such peace-making efforts were always scuttled by hardliners.
  • The Catholic practice of displaying the Blessed Sacrament, i.e. the consecrated host, in an elaborate gold monstrance was based on the Conquistadores’ observation of the customs of American peoples who worshipped the sun. 
  • It was in 17th century Europe, among both Protestants and Catholics, that women became more active in their religious practice than men.
  • "Amazing Grace," that fond, sentimental expression of grateful piety, was written in the 18th century by John Newton, who saw no inconsistency between his Calvinist faith and his business as a slave trader. (Many decades later, he did repent of being involved in the slave trade.)
  • One of the first books to look at the life of Jesus in a purely historical way, dismissing the miraculous elements as myth, was Leben Jesu, published by David Friedrich Strauss in 1835. In the furor that followed, the English version of the book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, was translated by none other than Marian Evans, better known as "George Eliot," the author of such masterpieces as Middlemarch.
  • Professor MacCulloch says that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings forms a parallel to, and contains many of the characteristics of, Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon.
  • Although nobody can be unaware of the heroic role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it was an eye-opener for me to learn that it was the Anglican church that headed the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
  • Another kudo to the Anglicans: it was they, particularly under the leadership of a folksy British priest and family man, Derrick Sherwin Bailey, who brought about England’s limited decriminalization of gay sex in 1967.

One of the most interesting themes to emerge from the book, from my point of view, is that, when religious differences couldn’t be resolved at the time of the Reformation, some rare jurisdictions made proclamations which have a striking feel of 20th century pronouncements on religious liberty. For instance, the Transylvanian Diet declared in 1568 that:

minsters should everywhere preach and proclaim [the Gospel] according to their understanding of it, and if their community is willing to accept this, good; if not, however, no one should be compelled by force if their spirit is not at peace, but a minister retained whose teaching is pleasing to the community...no one is permitted to threaten to imprison or banish anyone because of their teaching, because faith is a gift from God.

A Diet in Warsaw in 1573, went even further. It handed this proposal to the French prince who was being recruited to take over the throne of the territory that included Poland and Lithuania:

Since there is in our commonwealth no little disagreement on the subject of religion, in order to prevent any such hurtful strife from beginning among our people on this account as we plainly see in other realms, we mutually promise for ourselves and our successors forever....that we who differ with regard to religion will keep the peace with one another, and will not for a different faith or a change of churches shed blood nor punish one another by confiscation of property, infamy, imprisonment or banishment, and will not in any way assist any magistrate or officer in such an act.

If you have any knowledge of the history of religious persecution, of course, you will understand that the noble intent of such a proclamation was not exactly honoured throughout the evolution of Christianity and the spreading of the religion across the earth. If, however, you still thought the preaching of Jesus’ message had mainly to do with spreading love and light throughout the world, this book will banish any such notion permanently from your mind. Not that we can’t admit that certain individual missionaries and preachers didn’t probably see themselves as doing the right thing, but in the broader picture, there was incredible cruelty, viciousness, ambition, envy, rivalry, greed and violence in play. What I found almost impossible to follow were the disputes among the branches of the Eastern church and the seemingly arcane distinctions in the permutations and ramifications of doctrine that led to so much strife. (That’s where I skipped the 25 pages.)

Even in the sections where I was a little bit familiar with the history, i.e. happenings in Europe, my mind was swamped by the complex interplay of politics and religion. You’d think you had acquired an understanding of how one country had adopted a certain version of Christianity, and then the whole picture would be changed with the revelation that some king had married the widow of some prince of another realm and she had a cousin who had killed the brother of the sister-in-law of another monarch and that monarch had a cousin who was claiming that his version of the Gospel was the only defensible one.... (Not an exact replication, on my part, of any particular situation, you understand.)

The reading does get easier when you reach more contemporary times – say the last hundred years or so – and you already know a fair bit about the popes, the encyclicals and the ecumenical attempts to overcome the divisions within Christianity. It’s refreshing to see Professor MacCulloch treat the popes apart from the mystique that surrounds them in Catholic culture. He discusses a pope as he would any CEO, politician or business leader: as a man who had certain skills and virtues but whose flaws impaired his leadership in some ways. Regarding two of the most recent popes, he notes that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, was one of the most consistent dissenters among the bishops when it came to the voting on some of the more liberal declarations of the Second Vatican Council. Also in attendance at the Council, a German theologian, Professor Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was disparaging of the optimistic tone of the Council’s Gaudium et Spes, a document that was hailed by many as one of the most promising and hopeful of the Council’s promulgations.

In spite of the relatively sober, professorial tone throughout the book, Professor MacCulloch does occasionally make wry remarks that tend to humanize his approach. When talking about a wacky document called Apocalypsis Nova, dating from 1502, he explains that the document prophesied the coming of some kind of Super Pastor or Ultra-Pope who would be heralded by certain especially spiritual men. Cardinal Mercurino di Gattinara claimed that his young master, Emperor Charles V, was one of these excellent individuals. Professor MacCulloch goes on to point out that that was "an insight which had not hindered him [the cardinal] in winning high office as Imperial Chancellor, under a youth who needed some means of understanding his staggering accumulation of thrones and territories." We get another touch of Professor MacCulloch’s humour when he’s talking about the fact that the pope bestowed a cardinal’s hat on the imprisoned English bishop, John Fisher. "Fisher’s pleasure in this honour may have been qualified by the effect of the news on an infuriated Henry VIII, who immediately had him beheaded."

I would be remiss in my duties here, however, if I didn’t point out that Professor MacCulloch’s writing style can sometimes cause problems. Many sentences, for instance, groan under too much information. This is perhaps the inevitable result of the effort to pack so much history into a book of little more than1,000 pages. And such sentences probably present no difficulties to people, like Professor MacCulloch and his peers, who are familiar with most of the details. However, these sentences can be brain-benders for some of the rest of us.

For example:

Whitefield’s ministry in North America was consistently marked by its combative spirit, often towards fellow Calvinists whom he felt were obstructing revival, but Tennent was jolted out of his tendency to similar confrontation by an abrasive meeting in 1741 with no less a representative of German Pietism than Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, in the course of one of the Count’s tours of America for the Moravians, his most far-flung journey from Herrnhut.

Another example:

‘Male headship’ is one of the overriding concerns of the Sydney variant on Anglicanism, and worldwide, those Anglicans opposed to any change on attitudes to same-sex relationships overlap fairly snugly with those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood or consecration to the episcopate, who use the same sort of arguments."

Sometimes the syntax of a sentence is skewed, as in the first part of the following:

The chief settings in which the millenarian, messianic or apocalyptic excitements of Reformed Protestantism and Judaism united, they pioneered the future in another and very different respect: towards the end of the seventeenth century, both societies began a long process of moving Christian doctrine and practice from the central place in European everyday life which it had enjoyed for more than a millennium, and placed it among a range of personal choices.

Oddly, given his great fluency in the subject, Professor MacCulloch sometimes words things in ways that strike a reader as somewhat less direct than would be preferable. For instance: "In visiting the Christian experiences of East Asia, we have been exchanging the dominance of British activity for intervention by the new world Protestant power, the United States of America." At risk of appearing so presumptuous as to try to re-write the professor, I’d like to suggest that the thought of that sentence could have been expressed more clearly as: "In examining the Christian experiences of East Asia, we have seen British dominance replaced by the new world Protestant power, the United States of America." Maybe the somewhat more roundabout style of expression is what comes naturally for a sophisticated British professor. In a book that presents such an overwhelming onslaught of material, however, a more accessible style throughout would have been appreciated.

There’s no denying that the book as a whole makes Christianity look like nothing so much as a sorry tale of Christians fighting against each other even more vengefully than against their perceived enemies in other religions. You can’t blame a dispassionate academic from seeing it that way. Professor MacCulloch wraps up his masterful treatment of the subject with a look at the kind of conflict that’s most prevalent in Christianity today. It’s not the doctrinal divide that matters so much, he says, as the opposition between liberal and conservative interpretations of the Christian message. As we know, this plays out mostly in terms of attitudes to things like social justice, politics and sexuality. Interestingly, Professor MacCulloch says, preaching about Hell has pretty well disappeared from all versions of Christianity in our times. He also notes that the condemnation of cremation – a practice that was once seen as a really big threat to Christian belief – has pretty well subsided.

Professor MacCulloch wonders whether Christianity still has anything to offer secularist societies that are, for the most part, politely indifferent. "Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which will remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it?" Professor MacCulloch seems to hope that that will happen. "It would be surprising," he says, "if this religion, so youthful, yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets."

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