Category Archives: Historical fiction

He looks down at the dry earth and he knows that it’s been too dry for marks now for weeks

February roundup

I read fewer books in February than January, but better books. Here they are.

The Crew, by Joseph Kessel

This is a Pushkin Press release written by an author who actually served in the French air corps in World War 1. Here he draws on that experience to tell a story about a young airman, his fellow crewman, and the woman they both love.

A crew live or die by their closeness to each other – their instinctive mutual understanding. Anything which comes between them, which disturbs their bond, risks leaving them exposed and as the book more than once demonstrates death is always waiting above the battle lines. How can you maintain trust though when one of you is sleeping with the other’s wife?

It’s really very good. The air scenes are well done, the pilots and crew are convincing and the relationships work well. I particularly liked that while one never sees the woman’s perspective it’s quite evident that while the characters think of her as an essentially passive object for their affections she’s actually nothing of the kind.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene


This one’s a classic Greenian tale of colonialism and complicity explored through a jaded British journalist and a dangerously naive American (“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”). As with The Duel, they both love the same woman and Greene uses their relationship with her to explore the colonial powers’ wider relationship with Vietnam itself.

As with The Crew there’s again a sense that both the men are too concerned with what the woman means to them to ever consider what she might mean to herself (“One always spoke of her like that in the third person as though she were not there.”). Greene uses this to tell a tale that can be read purely as personal tragedy or as the tragedy of a nation and as a critique of an entire philosophy of supposedly humanitarian intervention. Brilliant stuff.

How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

The Long Dry, by Cynan Jones

A sparsely written tale of a farmer struggling with an unhappy marriage and problems caused by drought and heat. On finishing it I immediately bought another by Jones.

The prose is lean and muscular, yet poetic at the same time. There’s a tremendous sense of the sheer toughness of rural life – the hard work, the speed and ease with which things can go wrong, but the beauty too. Kimbofo wrote a very good review of it here which I recommend reading.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I bought this because it featured on someone’s end of year list, and then promptly forgot whose. It’s a deceptively simple tale of an elderly retired soldier who now makes his living reading the news to isolated communities. He agrees to take care of a young girl recently recovered from the American Indian tribe who took her captive and to transport her back to her surviving kin.

Along the way they’ll face bad weather and worse men. It’s a really nicely realised classic Western and it might well make my end of year list too. I wrote a full review of it here.

February summary

Only four books read (and none of them very long), but all four were in their different ways excellent. If every month’s reading were as good as that I’d be very happy indeed.


Filed under Chaze, Elliot, French, Greene, Graham, Historical fiction, Jiles, Paulette, Jones, Cynan, Military fiction, Pushkin Press, Westerns

Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Redmore takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.


Filed under Historical fiction, SF, Whiteley, Aliya

And by old habit he asked himself the question: ‘Well, and what then? What am I going to do?’ And he immediately gave himself the answer: ‘Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!’

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (Maudes/Mandelker translation)

Where to start? Perhaps by saying this will be a long piece and will include some lengthy quotes.

First the obvious and perhaps not so obvious. War and Peace is a historical novel about the Napoleonic wars, written from the Russian perspective. Except that’s crudely reductionist, but I have to start somewhere.  It explores Russia’s attempts to modernise, the impact of French and European culture on Russian society, and it explores the history of the period using fiction as an illustrative tool. It includes both war and peace, so it definitely lives up to the title.

Probe a little deeper and it becomes an essay on historical theory and a moral examination of how to live well in the knowledge of mortality and the uncertainty of the divine. Probe deeper, well, probe deeper and you get over a century’s academic analysis which I’ll happily leave you to. This isn’t the place for that.

For Tolstoy, the true interest of War and Peace was the implications of the history – the problem of free will and “the question of how man’s consciousness of freedom is to be reconciled with the law of necessity to which he is subject”.  For the reader, for this reader anyway, the interest is the characters. So many characters, so many of them so very memorable.

General thoughts

I just mentioned characters, and the first to appear are happily a couple of my favourites even though neither is terribly central to the narrative. Tolstoy opens with a dialogue paragraph written almost entirely in French forecasting war and comparing Napoleon to the antichrist:

Eh bien, mon prince, Génes et Lucques ne sont plus ques des apanages, des family estates de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous Préviens, qui si vous ne me dites pas, que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) – je ne vous connais plus, vous n’étes pas plus my faithful slave, comme vous dites. Well how do you do? How do you do? Je vois que je vous fais peur – sit down and tell me all the news.’

It was in July 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the Empress Marya Fyodorovna. With these words she greeted Prince Vasili, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception. Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St Petersburg, used only by the élite.

It’s a bold opening. I appreciate most contemporary readers would have spoken French, but even so to open your book with text in a foreign language takes some confidence. The conversation continues with each of Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vasili dipping in and out of French as the mood and mot juste strikes them.

What follows over the next 1,300 or so pages is society parties, family intrigues, a rather wonderful sequence involving a last-minute change of will by one of the richest men in Russia, love affairs, loveless marriages and matches of the heart, children’s games, a duel, military marches, battles, childbirth, death, Freemasonry, court politics, financial struggles, family disputes, I exhaust myself trying to catch even a fraction of it. Life is in here. All of it.

Minor subplots here could be the entire subject of another novel. That episode I mention involving the will? Here that’s a few pages with Prince Vasili discovering that a fortune he expected to be his may be left to a literal bastard upstart by name Pierre who has all the society graces of a pet pig. As relatives gather in the gloomy immensity of the dying count’s palace schemers hurry through the halls hoping to preserve or make disappear the new will presumed to be in Pierre’s favour. It’s probably my favourite moment of the entire book, but here it’s a minor incident included primarily to set up Pierre’s situation for later in the novel.

By my count there’s approximately five major characters in War and Peace: the rather Darcy-esque Prince Andrei and his virtuous and much put-upon sister Masha; the delightful young Natasha Rostov and her brother the dashing young Nikolai Rostov; and naive but ever-enthusiastic Pierre. None of them are overly nuanced, this is a novel of broad sweep rather than fine detail, but they’re all pleasant to spend time with.

Around each of these characters is a bevy of relatives and close associates. The major characters often have to bear the brunt of carrying the novel’s ideas, particularly Prince Andrei and Pierre, but the minor ones are free of that and perhaps in consequence much of what I liked best was characters who actually weren’t that important to the wider story.

Prince Andrei’s and Princess Marya’s father, Prince Bolkonsky is one example. He’s an irascible but still energetic old man with a routine so fixed that at any moment of the day he can be certain precisely what he’s due to do. He’s argumentative and proud and sometimes cruel and just rather wonderfully drawn. It’s a slight stretch to say that he isn’t important to the wider story as he actually comes up a fair bit, but he’s certainly not a central figure.

Perhaps a better example is Berg, a friend of the Rostov family who becomes an army officer and pops up in the narrative from time to time. He’s an incredibly self-absorbed man interested in nothing beyond himself and convinced that everyone else is equally interested, but good natured with it so that nobody ever particularly holds it against him. I loved Berg, he’s terribly funny, and a tremendous little character portrait as is his eventual wife Vera Rostova ((Nikolai’s older sister) who though pretty and clever is somehow unlikeable in a way never quite easy to pin down.

Tolstoy is simply brilliant at these miniature portraits (some not so miniature, Prince Bolkonsky gets enough space to fill a decent novella but in the context of W&P he’s still very much a supporting role). When the book’s at its best it hums with life because they’re all so distinct. There’s a point here – this isn’t a realistic novel because realistically all these people wouldn’t be so clearly distinguishable. It’s art, and Tolstoy helps his reader navigate the fiction by making sure nobody fades into the background save precisely when he wants them to.

Tolstoy helps the reader. Russian doesn’t. You may have wondered who that Princess Marya was I mentioned a few paragraphs back. She’s the same person as the Masha I mentioned. Worse, both Nikolai Rostov and his father Ilya Rostov are counts and while the book sometimes refers to the old count to make it clear who’s being discussed there were times it simply referred to Count Rostov and left you to try to work out from context which one it was.

Russians love nicknames and almost everyone has a title, the result being that it’s quite easy to be reading a scene only suddenly to realise that what you thought was the young count is actually the old count or worse (and this happened to me once) that Platón and Karatáev are actually the same person (Tolstoy didn’t actually help there, as while the character had been introduced originally as Platón Karatáev there’s a section a 100 pages or so later where Tolstoy alternately refers in the same paragraphs to Platón and then to Karatáev creating a very real impression that they’re different people).

Bookmark the sensibly provided guide to characters at the front of the book. You’ll be referring to it often.


The book opens with peace and I’ve already included an apposite quote above. If you’ve read any fiction depicting the landed gentry and aristocracy pretty much anywhere in the 19th or pre-WW1 20th Century then you know what to expect – balls, dinner parties, salons, money and beauty and wit as the criteria of worth. As ever, inheriting wealth makes up for any number of social flaws and marriage remains the only reliable route out of poverty even for well-born women.

Position, maintaining it and improving it, is the chief focus for society people. As is common in 19th Century fiction for most the spectre of ruin is never that far away. A bad run at cards, a tendency not to keep track of how much you’re spending on carriages and grand hunts, and before you know it you could find yourself little more than a well-dressed beggar dependent on charity. The aged Princess Anna Mikhailovna is an example of what can happen – her financial capital long since exhausted and her social capital evaporating with it, she spends her days lurking in corridors asking favours from the powerful on behalf of her son Boris.

Proximity to the court means proximity to power and route to promotion. Prince Vasili takes pity on poor Anna Mikhailovna and sees that her son gets appointed to the prestigious Guards’ regiment. Boris becomes an adjutant, begins to mix with generals and before long his career is soaring. All it took was that proximity his mother had lost.

As some rise, others fall. The old count Rostov has no head for money and as the book progresses the Rostov family’s finances become steadily worse. If the young count marries an heiress they’ll be saved, but marrying for money is dishonourable and he’s promised himself to a gently-born but poor girl who’s herself already dependent on the family. His honour could ruin his family.

I love this kind of material. In one chilling scene a supposed friend (the calculatedly cruel Dolokhov, another of Tolstoy’s masterful minor character portraits) systematically destroys young Nikolai Rostov leaving him with a debt he can never repay. That leaves Rostov a choice between suicide and borrowing from his father, all as the family sinks ever further into debt.

Dolokhov manipulates men into duels knowing that with his icy calm he will almost certainly win, so killing men for no reason other than his own entertainment. He gets bumped down to the ranks but his courage in combat quickly sees him promoted again. He’s a tiger where young Rostov is a loyal and friendly borzoi. Peace isn’t necessarily safer than war.

Masha is kept from marriage by her loyalty to her father and desire not to abandon him, and anyway by his seclusion which prevents her meeting any marriageable men.  She is desperate and lonely, taking solace in charity and religion and denied any chance to participate in wider society.

Natasha by contrast is a society natural: beautiful, vivacious, a marvellous dancer and fine singer. Tolstoy does for her in the epilogue suddenly transforming her character into a homebody to make a rather dubious point about women’s empowerment and why they don’t need it, but until then she’s one of the most likable characters in the book.

Pierre meanwhile becomes involved with the Freemasons, seeking after a meaning to life he’d already tried and failed to find in politics. From there his adventures in philosophy continue as he bumbles along trying to free his serfs (never realising he didn’t actually manage to do so) and to do good in the world. Young Rostov rarely thinks; Pierre does little else. Neither approach makes much difference to the world which is too large to be moved by any one man (one of Tolstoy’s key themes in fact).

Tolstoy is marvellous too at social undercurrents. One of the book’s funniest scenes takes place when Natasha goes to her first opera. She understands nothing:

THE floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the centre of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter’s box, and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about.

First the man in the tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start singing with her. They sang together and everyone in the theatre began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage—who represented lovers—began smiling, spreading out their arms, and bowing.

While the comedy continues Tolstoy reintroduces Anatole Kuragin, a handsome seducer seen earlier in the book. Natasha has never encountered anyone like him before, has no idea of the danger he represents. She’s defenceless, and as reader I found myself laughing at her reaction to the opera while at the same time fearing for Natasha when faced with such a practiced gallant. Here he makes his entrance:

He was now in an adjutant’s uniform with one epaulette and a shoulder-knot. He moved with a restrained swagger which would have been ridiculous had he not been so good-looking and had his handsome face not worn such an expression of good-humoured complacency and gaiety.

Though the performance was proceeding, he walked deliberately down the carpeted gangway, his sword and spurs slightly jingling and his handsome perfumed head held high.

Whose head wouldn’t be turned? As I said above, sometimes peace is more dangerous than war. Tolstoy is ever alive to the parallels between the two – Karagin mounting his campaign on Natasha’s defences as Bonaparte does on Russia’s.


What is it good for? Well, to be fair to Tolstoy it’s good for some of the most thrilling battle scenes I’ve read in fiction. Later in the book the war sections become pretty awful as Tolstoy increasingly just lectures the reader directly on his theories, but before then they are at times quite staggeringly good. The following is one of my favourite scenes from the book (though still behind the shenanigans with the disputed will I mentioned earlier). The he in this passage is young Nikolai Rostov who is carrying a dispatch:

He was riding almost along the front line. A handful of men came galloping towards him. They were our Uhlans who with disordered ranks were returning from the attack. Rostov got out of their way, involuntarily noticed that one of them was bleeding, and galloped on.

‘That is no business of mine,’ he thought. He had not ridden many hundred yards after that before he saw to his left, across the whole width of the field, an enormous mass of cavalry in brilliant white uniforms, mounted on black horses, trotting straight towards him and across his path. Rostov put his horse to full gallop to get out of the way of these men, and he would have got clear had they continued at the same speed, but they kept increasing their pace, so that some of the horses were already galloping. Rostov heard the thud of their hoofs and the jingle of their weapons and saw their horses, their figures, and even their faces, more and more distinctly. They were our Horse Guards, advancing to attack the French cavalry that was coming to meet them.

The Horse Guards were galloping, but still holding in their horses. Rostov could already see their faces and heard the command: ‘Charge!’ shouted by an officer who was urging his thoroughbred to full speed. Rostov fearing to be crushed or swept into the attack on the French, galloped along the front as hard as his horse could go, but still was not in time to avoid them.

The last of the Horse Guards, a huge pock-marked fellow, frowned angrily on seeing Rostov before him, with whom he would inevitably collide. This Guardsman would certainly have bowled Rostov and his Bedouin over (Rostov felt himself quite tiny and weak compared to these gigantic men and horses) had it not occurred to Rostov to flourish his whip before the eyes of the Guardsman’s horse. The heavy black horse, sixteen hands high, shied, throwing back its ears; but the pock-marked Guardsman drove his huge spurs in violently, and the horse flourishing its tail and extending its neck, galloped on yet faster. Hardly had the Horse Guards passed Rostov before he heard them shout, ‘Hurrah!’ and looking back saw that their foremost ranks were mixed up with some foreign cavalry with red epaulettes, probably French. He could see nothing more, for immediately afterwards cannon began firing from somewhere and smoke enveloped everything.

Phew! I’ve rarely read something more cinematic. Tolstoy had seen action himself and it shows. War here is messy, bloody, and above all confusing. Situation updates arrive at headquarters too late to be actioned; orders reach the front long after they’ve become irrelevant to a changed situation. Smoke clouds the field and men advancing to what they think is a safe position find themselves suddenly in battle while others fail to see the enemy all day.

Rostov and Prince Andrei both go to their first battle filled with dreams of glory, as later do other characters. Rostov finds it without doing very much of anything. Prince Andrei leads a charge and captures an enemy standard but nobody of consequence particularly notices. Everywhere is chaos and the cost paid for these bits of captured cloth is horrific.

Two more (I’m afraid lengthy) quotes now to illustrate. The first is from a Russian retreat which goes wrong as the soldiers find themselves logjammed as they seek to flee enemy guns:

The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam, raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon-ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.

‘Get onto the ice, over the ice! Go on! Turn! Don’t you hear? Go on!’ innumerable voices suddenly shouted after the ball had struck the general, the men themselves not knowing what, or why, they were shouting.

One of the hindmost guns that was going onto the dam turned off onto the ice. Crowds of soldiers from the dam began running onto the frozen pond. The ice gave way under one of the foremost soldiers, and one leg slipped into the water. He tried to right himself but fell in up to his waist. The nearest soldiers shrank back, the gun-driver stopped his horse, but from behind still came the shouts: ‘Onto the ice, why do you stop? Go on! Go on!’ And cries of horror were heard in the crowd. The soldiers near the gun waved their arms and beat the horses to make them turn and move on. The horses moved off the bank. The ice, that had held under those on foot, collapsed in a great mass, and some forty men who were on it dashed, some forwards and some back, drowning one another.

In this second quote a regiment has been told to hold its ground in case needed, neither advancing nor retreating. They are under direct enemy fire, but cannot move in case needed, which they never are.

Without moving from that spot or firing a single shot the regiment here lost another third of its men. From in front and especially from the right, in the unlifting smoke the guns boomed, and out of the mysterious domain of smoke that overlay the whole space in front, quick hissing cannon-balls and slow whistling shells flew unceasingly. At times, as if to allow them a respite, a quarter of an hour passed during which the cannon-balls and shells all flew overhead, but sometimes several men were torn from the regiment in a minute, and the slain were continually being dragged away and the wounded carried off.

With each fresh blow less and less chance of life remained for those not yet killed. The regiment stood in columns of battalion three hundred paces apart, but nevertheless the men were always in one and the same mood. All alike were taciturn and morose. Talk was rarely heard in the ranks, and it ceased altogether every time the thud of a successful shot and the cry of ‘stretchers!’ was heard. Most of the time, by their officers’ order, the men sat on the ground. One, having taken off his shako carefully loosened the gathers of its lining and drew them tight again; another, rubbing some dry clay between his palms, polished his bayonet; another fingered the strap and pulled the buckle of his bandolier, while another smoothed and refolded his leg-bands and put his boots on again. Some built little houses of the tufts in the ploughed ground, or plaited baskets from the straw in the cornfield. All seemed fully absorbed in these pursuits.

I enjoyed the peace more than the war but that’s simply a question of personal interest. Tolstoy writes exceptional military fiction when he turns his hand to it.

Sadly in the last fifth of the book war increasingly squeezes out peace and Tolstoy increasingly comes to prefer directly addressing the reader to scenes of the sort above. It’s fair to say that War and Peace sags badly in the final section and for me became something of a chore to read until, gratefully and wearily, I reached the first epilogue where it mercifully (but only partly) recovered. This is a book you read very much for the journey rather than the destination.

The wolf hunt

Tolstoy brings war and peace together in a central chapter the importance of which initially escaped me. The Rostovs go on a winter wolf hunt, a vast affair featuring hundreds of dogs, scores of men (and Natasha), horses and carriages and significant expense. I couldn’t select a single quote from this section as the density of description increases dramatically, Tolstoy really taking you into the hunt.

It’s a well-described episode and everything about it rings true, but while reading it I did rather wonder why it was there since it’s lengthy even by War and Peace standards and didn’t seem to add much to what I already knew about the characters. Later, however, as Bonaparte’s fortunes turn the parallels become evident.

In peace the men prepare for war in part by riding to hunt, organising themselves to ensure their prey does not elude them and commanding packs of dogs as in battle they’ll command their men. In war the defeated Bonaparte seeks to outrun the Russians harrying him back from Moscow as packs of partisans harry and diminish his forces.

A battlefield and a ball have this in common – they are both social constructs, created by people with gains to be made and losses hopefully to be avoided. A battle may yield a captured standard, the notice of a general or prince, promotion and favour; a ball may yield a marriage, praise for a clever quip, an introduction to those of higher station.

The parallels are not of course exact. Few people die at balls. But then, few of the adjutants and hangers-on at the front die either. Princess Anna Mikhailovna’s son Boris doesn’t make the progress he does by riding into enemy fire but by running errands for generals.


The wolf hunt brings out one other parallel which struck me, and perhaps a less appealing one. The hunters have their packs of borzoi, among which typically are a few dogs of particular note and value.

Similarly each of the characters has their serfs, sometimes thousands or even tens of thousands of them. In the main serfs are an asset, an undifferentiated mass from which you generate revenue. Some serfs however have unusual talents, such as Taras for whom the Rostovs paid a thousand rubles due to his gift for cookery. For that they could have purchased eight to ten ordinary serfs, but his talents enhance their dinner parties and so he is worth the cost.

Serfs are, in short, slaves. They are property, bought and sold. Sometimes the characters are fond of particular named serfs, but in the same way they are fond of particular named dogs. It doesn’t mean they see them as people.

Society was as it was and it’s pointless now to condemn fictional characters for quite ordinary behaviour in their setting. However, the writing does occasionally fall into the slightly uncomfortable trap of showing smiling serfs (slaves) looking adoringly on at their masters without any sense of their having their own interiority. Tolstoy gets people, but it’s not entirely clear here that he gets the serfs as being people in the same way the other characters are. A couple of examples:

As soon as the provocatively gay strains of Daniel Cooper (somewhat resembling those of a merry folk dance) began to sound, all the doorways of the ballroom were suddenly filled by the domestic serfs—the men on one side and the women on the other—who with beaming faces had come to see their master making merry.

His means increased rapidly: serfs from neighbouring estates came to beg him to buy them, and long after his death the memory of his administration was devoutly preserved among the serfs. ‘Now that was a master … the peasants’ affairs first and then his own. But he never gave in to us—in a word, he was a real master!’

It’s not really a flaw because this isn’t a book about the serfs and none of the characters would ever give them much consideration (save Prince Andrei, who quietly and efficiently frees his without fuss). It would ultimately be odd if Tolstoy had a serf with the agency of a Pierre or Natasha. However, the parallels between dogs and serfs did help explain why fifty years after this book was first published the system it portrays was so decisively destroyed.


Finally, from a minor criticism to a major one. The history. I’ve already mentioned it more than once, but it is deathly. Initially it’s the odd aside, but near the end of the book it’s page after page after page of tedious historical argument generally made against unnamed “historians” with whom Tolstoy has some pedantic point to prove. Here’s an example:

THIS campaign consisted in a flight of the French during which they did all they could to destroy themselves. From the time they turned onto the Kaluga road to the day their leader fled from the army, none of the movements of the crowd had any sense. So one might have thought that of this period of the campaign the historians, who attribute the actions of the mass to the will of one man, would have found it impossible to make the story of the retreat fit their theory. But no! Mountains of books have been written by the historians about this campaign, and everywhere Napoleon’s arrangements are described, the manoeuvres, and his profound plans which guided the army, as well as the military genius shown by his marshals.

The retreat from Malo-Yaroslavets when he had a free road into a well-supplied district and the parallel road was open to him along which Kutuzov afterwards pursued him—this unnecessary retreat along a devastated road—is explained to us as being due to profound considerations. Similarly profound considerations are given for his retreat from Smolensk to Orsha. Then his heroism at Krasnoe is described, where he is reported to have been prepared to accept battle and take personal command and to have walked about with a birch stick and said:

‘J’ai assez fait l’empereur; il est temps de faire le général,’1 but nevertheless immediately ran away again, abandoning to its fate the scattered fragments of the army he left behind.

Then we are told of the greatness of soul of the marshals, especially of Ney—a greatness of soul consisting in this: that he made his way by night round through the forest and across the Dnieper, and escaped to Orsha abandoning standards, artillery, and nine-tenths of his men.

And lastly, the final departure of the great Emperor from his heroic army is presented to us by the historians as something great and characteristic of genius. Even that final running away, described in ordinary language as the lowest depth of baseness which every child is taught to be ashamed of—even that act finds justification in the historians’ language.

When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic threads of historical ratiocination any farther, when actions are clearly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians produce a saving conception of ‘greatness’. ‘Greatness’, it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.

C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand’ and ‘not grand’. Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand is the characteristic, in their conception, of some special animals called ‘heroes’. And Napoleon escaping home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish those who were not merely his comrades but were (in his opinion) men he had brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is tranquil.

There’s not quite an ocean of this stuff, but definitely a decent sized sea. At times it feels like score settling in a dispute of which I know nothing and care less, as here:

All that strange contradiction, now difficult to understand, between the facts and the historical accounts, only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events. To them the words of Miloradovich seem very interesting, and so do their surmises, and the rewards this or that general received; but the question of those fifty thousand men who were left in hospitals and in graves does not even interest them, for it does not come within the range of their investigation.

I don’t even particularly disagree, but who are these “them” who are claimed to be so uninterested in fifty thousand men injured or dead? It’s always easy to rail against an unspecified opponent who by virtue of their anonymity never has an opportunity to rebut.

The historical passages come pretty close to killing the book, and I absolutely urge you not to read the second epilogue which is literally nothing but historical theory and comes after a rather affecting first epilogue which neatly captures many of the book’s major themes (albeit also crudely and unconvincingly transforming Natasha’s character as I mentioned above).

There’s a common criticism of War and Peace best summarised by Henry James, who called it ‘a loose, baggy monster’. I have some sympathy with that. There is in fact considerable structure here, but the sheer size of the book tends to mean it’s difficult to keep sight of and parallels and themes get lost in sheer volume.

And yet, and yet. I finished it with a mood of boredom and frustration, but it stays in the memory. The characters are with me yet. The history, mercifully, fades. The rest remains. At risk of blasphemy it could have used an editor with a bright red pen to strike out much of the theory which Tolstoy would have done better to publish as separate essay, but the book’s lasted well enough so who am I to say it should have been done differently?

The use of French

I’ll end with one final observation. Some translations convert the French passages to English. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake that could easily be fixed by translating the French to English but italicising it to make it clear when French is being spoken, but it is important to know which language the characters are using and when.

As I said above, this is not a realistic work. Language here denotes character. Early on Pierre speaks little to no French marking his lack of sophistication. Around him are society figures who use little else, cosmopolitans who see him as painfully earnest and rather comical. Later as he loses his way for a while he comes to speak French frequently, his linguistic gain mirroring his moral loss.

As the war develops French becomes unfashionable and is less used, but some characters never quite abandon it. Society beauty Helene Kuragin  uses it throughout, in keeping with her amorality and self-absorbed carnality. Natasha speaks French only once – at the opera when her innocence is most at peril from Anatole Kuragin’s practiced experience (I have the introduction to thank for that observation).

French here is not just a language, it’s an indication of character. The virtuous speak Russian, the sophisticated speak French. France’s physical invasion followed a cultural invasion.

Tolstoy is never anti-French, but he is pro-Russian. The problem here is not the adoption of a few French phrases, but the adoption by some of Russia’s elite of a morality alien to the Russian soul. Translate Russian and French equally into English and you lose that. The differentiation between the two is vital.

Wrapping up

Perhaps fittingly, this is if not the longest then certainly among the longest pieces I’ve ever written here. If you made it this far (without skimming), congratulations, you’re ready to read War and Peace. I’ll see you in a couple of months…

Other reviews

None I know of, but I would flag to you these excellent pieces by Tom at Amateur Reader: here where he describes the challenge the book sets itself; here and here where he makes a very compelling comparison to Victor Hugo (though Hugo’s much better at the essayistic stuff in my view); here where he talks about style and point of view; and above all here where he analyses the wolf hunt. He also discusses death in War and Peace here, though be warned that piece does involve a spoiler regarding a character death (though I guessed what was coming in the book pages in advance and I suspect most other readers will also).

Please let me know of other interesting posts in the comments.


Filed under Historical fiction, Russian, Tolstoy, Leo

On reading War and Peace

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy and translated by the Maudes with revisions by Amy Mandelker

So I finished War and Peace.

Reviewing a book like War and Peace is a bit like reviewing Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. You may think Tiger is a masterpiece. You may agree with contemporary critics who argued Tiger was implausible and amateurish. Whatever your opinion it’s been argued by experts for well over a century. What’s left to add besides personal reaction?

My complete lack of qualification to do so won’t stop me reviewing War and Peace (it’s never stopped me reviewing anything else), but before I do that I thought I’d write a post about the experience of reading it and recommendations for anyone else considering doing so. My next post on it will be the actual review, and then I’ll do a third and final post comparing translations.


That picture’s actually the poster for the 1967 Soviet film version. For a single piece of art it captures the book surprisingly well.

The first thing to say about War and Peace is the strikingly obvious. It’s very, very long. My version weighed in at 1,318 pages including both parts of the epilogue and the Appendix written by Tolstoy in 1868. If you decide to read this you’re in for the long haul.

The second thing though is that mostly it’s also very readable. As I write this readability is once again the subject of debate. Is it a good thing in a novel? That’s not a question I generally find interesting and I think the whole supposed contrast between readability and quality is a nonsense, but in the specific context of a book that’s this long? Yes, yes readability is a good thing.

War and Peace divides into four books and an epilogue. Each of those four books divides into between three and five parts (the epilogue into two parts). Each of those parts then divides into chapters, each neatly capturing a particular incident or character moment (or idea, but I’ll come back to the historical theory aspects of the book in a bit). Each of those chapters is fairly short.

What all this means is that once you’re stuck in it’s actually surprisingly easy to pick the book up, read a chapter or two and put it down again. You can treat it like a tv box set, putting a half-hour or hour aside to read a bit and then returning to it the next day or a couple of days later. It stands up perfectly well to that. Some sections benefit from a more sustained commitment (a wolf hunt sequence for example), but happily those sections tend to be pretty gripping so it becomes natural to give them a bit more time.

For 80% or so of the book Tolstoy judges the balance between narrative and reader time commitment very well. If you’re a student or retired and can down this in a couple of weeks then all power to you and you’ll pick up connections the slower reader will miss, connections I missed. If like me though you have a job and other commitments that’s ok, Tolstoy gets that and structures the book accordingly. 80% of it.

The book is also absolutely rammed with characters. That has the potential to be a flaw, but apart from keeping the names straight in practice they’re all well enough drawn that it’s easy to keep track. I’ll talk more about this in my review proper, but Tolstoy is an absolute master of the minor character and much of what I loved best about the book were the lesser cast members.

This is a sprawling gossipy book, a grand soap opera filled with love affairs and cavalry charges, fortunes lost and won, homebodies and adventurers and life so brimming the pages can hardly keep some of it in. Helpfully, intentionally, the earlier parts of the book are among the most gripping so that by the time Tolstoy starts introducing his arguments on historical theory you’re already several hundred pages into the text.

Unfortunately, once Tolstoy starts introducing his historical theory things do get a bit patchier. I said above that 80% of the book is well judged. It might even be 90, but that remaining percentage? That’s the history.

Tolstoy famously said that War and Peace is not a novel, and he pretty much meant what he said. In many ways War and Peace is a treatise on Tolstoy’s ideas on the science of history and his issues with contemporary historical theory, all illustrated by use of fictional characters. In the final section of the book this leads to lengthy sections where Tolstoy directly addresses the reader  (nine pages at one point, much worse later). The narrative is increasingly abandoned in favour of direct criticisms of the great man theory of history.

As a writer of character and description Tolstoy is a master. As an essayist, not so much.

That takes me back to the epilogue, and to a recommendation I’ve never made before. I said above that the epilogue is divided into two parts. Stop at the end of the first part. It’s a clever and emotional ending that works well. What follows in the second part is 39 pages of pure historical theory (and another ten in the Appendix). The characters don’t reappear. The story is done. It’s a 39 page essay on Tolstoy’s views on history and reading it straight after the first part of the epilogue just kills any emotional impact and ultimately numbs the reader. It certainly numbed me.

If Tolstoy’s views on history interest you then by all means read that second epilogue and the appendix, but read them separately. Even the marvellous introduction in the edition I read talks as if the book ends after the first epilogue, makes no mention of the further 39 pages which utterly diminish the book’s impact.

My other recommendation, having said that the book is easily read in small chunks, is that initially at least don’t do that. I read the first 300 pages or so on a long flight, and after that on my daily commute in half-hour instalments. That first time commitment made a huge difference. I knew who everyone was, I had a sense of the setting, I was interested to know what happened. I was engaged.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments. As I said at the start of this piece I’ll write an actual review and I’ll write a piece comparing translations, but today I just wanted to talk about how one reads a book like this, what’s required and what the challenges are. War and Peace is undeniably long, but the structure and the sheer volume of incident and character packed into the pages makes it a much easier read than you might imagine.

Finally, here’s Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. In case you were wondering, I think it’s a masterpiece.



Filed under 19th Century, Historical fiction, Russian, Tolstoy, Leo

It was hard to concentrate on god when his feet were so sore.

Quarantine, by Jim Crace

Jim Crace is one of those authors whose books I’d been vaguely aware of for years without ever actually reading any of them. It’s curious how that can happen. I wonder how many great writers, writers I’d love, I know of but have never read. All too many I suspect.

That’s no longer an issue with Jim Crace. Quarantine is a deft and subtle book which takes a premise that really couldn’t appeal to me personally much less and weaves around it a disquieting but highly satisfying story of myth, faith and the power of narrative.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Miri’s husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black – scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil’s eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil’s kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.

Musa is a merchant. He is rich and highly successful, but little loved. He is a master of the marketplace – a skilled storyteller and bargainer with a shrewd instinct for the fears and desires of others. He is also though obese, often petty and prone to violent rages. He beats his wife. When he falls sick his uncles and cousins are quick to leave him in the wilderness. They leave Miri with him to take care of him while he dies. They take his goods and promise her that they’ll pick her up on their return journey. It seems unlikely that they shall.

Miri digs a grave for Musa with her hands on a plain near some caves. She does so gladly because his death promises her freedom. As she digs though four people arrive, each separately, and each takes residence in one of the caves. They are each on quarantine.

A quarantine here is a ritual 40 day fast in the wilderness. During the quarantine nothing may be eaten or drunk during daylight hours. Those on quarantine spend their time in meditation and prayer. Each of the four has their own reason for seeking out solitude.

Aphas is an old man dying from cancer and hoping for a cure. Marta believes herself barren and wishes to be blessed with fertility.

A hundred times and more, she’d done her best to fend off with prayers and lies the monthly rebuff of her periods. Now she only had till harvest to conceive. Then, her husband said, he would divorce her. The law allowed him to. The law demanded that he should, in fact. After ten years of barrenness a man could take another wife. ‘You don’t cast seed on sour land,’ he said. He had a right to heirs. It was a woman’s religious duty to provide and bring up children. He’d had to divorce his first wife, because she’d failed to conceive. Marta had failed as well. So Thaniel would have to turn her out and look elsewhere.
Of course it was regrettable and harsh, he said, but he could hardly blame himself. Not twice. He’d marry ‘Lisha’s daughter. She was youg. Her father owned some land adjacent to his own. The prospect was a cheerful one. And sensible.

Shim is a Greek with pretentions of holiness. The fourth is a Badu – a tribesman who may be deaf and who in any event speaks no language the others are familiar with.

Meanwhile, a fifth traveller is coming to do his quarantine. As he travels he comes across Musa’s tent. He asks for water, but Musa is in no position to respond. The traveller takes the water and out of guilt at his theft gives a small blessing to Musa who has woken and is objecting to his property being taken without recompense.

That fifth traveller is a young Galilean named Jesus. He has come determined to take no food or water at all in his forty days. He has come to find god. He chooses a cave more secluded than the others – one that is on a slope that is dangerous even to approach. He expects that god will bring him sustenance if he requires it.

With this Crace’s stage is set. When Musa recovers (to his wife’s great disappointment) he believes it was because of the Galilean’s touch. Finding himself abandoned and with his trade goods taken by his departed caravan he determines to make a profit from each of Aphas, Marta, Shim and the Badu. He determines too to lure out the Galilean from his cave that none can reach.

Everyone then has something that they want. Musa wants to make money and force the others to help carry him back to civilisation. Miri wants to be free, though has no prospect of getting her wish. As for the others, nobody goes to live forty days in a cave without serious cause.

The landscape is barren and unforgiving. It is harsh scrub with little to eat or drink. By day it is searingly hot and by night it is bitterly cold. It is a landscape devoid of life upon which those present project their own dreams and desires. In truth what it is is nothing. A derelict waste upon which they create meaning because it offers none.

Jesus here is a holy fool. He is still very young and often thinks about how everyone will treat him differently when he goes back blessed by god. He is utterly impractical. He interprets everything in the light of his belief. When Musa calls in the mornings for him to come out of his cave he hears it as the voice of the devil come to tempt him.

In a sense Musa is like the devil. He’s a tempter. He sees what men desire and offers it to them but for his own betterment. He is rich and gluttonous and lustful. Jesus by contrast is barely of this world and less so each day he goes without food and water.

There’s an element then of Manichean conflict. The difficulty is though that though Jesus believes Musa to be the devil he’s wrong. Musa is just a man. Musa believes Jesus healed him, but he doesn’t remember what happened clearly and there’s no particular evidence that he’s right. Each of them has taken chance events and from them formed a narrative which places them as its central figure.

What’s happening here is the birth of myth. Musa persuades the others that Jesus is holy. Only Shim resists out of his own desire to be the only holy man present and he is bullied by Musa into submission. Musa is utterly selfish, but he is also when he wishes charming and he soon has everyone (except the unreachable Jesus) listening to his stories and his glib lies which perhaps even he believes as he tells them.

It’s possible to read a religious interpretation to this novel. It’s possible to read it as showing a Jesus who through his quarantine really does become more than human. It’s possible.

It’s a stretch though. Yes, people have visions of Jesus but they do so while exhausted, asleep or where they can’t make out what they’re seeing properly. Musa is described in serpentine terms but he has perfectly explicable reasons for being there and seems very much of this world. Miracles perhaps occur, but every one of them can be explained by other means.

These are superstitious people. Musa’s illness is explained by him having slept on his back with his mouth uncovered, so letting a devil climb in to take residence in his ribcage. The Badu is able to survive in the wilderness unaided and shows signs of using reason to investigate his world (at one point he takes someone’s pulse, but they have no idea why), but everyone disregards him as mad. There is no scientific understanding here.

On their first night in their caves each traveller hears what they believe to be vicious animals, bandits, murderers outside their caves but it’s just the wind in the bushes and their imaginations in the frightening dark. They create small myths that vanish in the morning, and together in the daylight they create greater myths born equally of ignorance and their own secret fears and hopes.

What perhaps most impresses me with this novel is that although it’s philosophically dense it’s all wrapped in an excellent story. The characters are rounded and well realised (some more than others, but none stuck out to me as unconvincing). Their conflicts are interesting and although Musa is a monster he’s an explicable monster. He’s human. For all the talk of god, of devils and messiahs the sadness and success of the novel is that they’re all human. They just don’t always see it in each other.

I would never ordinarily have read a book about Jesus, historical or otherwise. I’ve never previously read Jim Crace and wasn’t really familiar with his work. All that means that without Kerry’s excellent review here at Hungry like the Woolf I wouldn’t have discovered this novel. I’m glad I did. Thanks Kerry.

For those interested in reading more about Crace, Kevin of Kevinfromcanada and John Self of The Asylum both reviewed his book All that Follows, here and here. There’s also a fascinating interview with Crace by John Self over at The Asylum here.



Filed under Crace, Jim, Historical fiction

I only knew the flowers everybody knew

Alma Cogan, by Gordon Burn

John Self of The Asylum blog put me on to Gordon Burn. Before that I was barely aware of him. The little I had heard had put me off ever reading him. My impression was of an obsession with celebrity and true crime stories. Neither is a topic I have any appetite for.

My impression was right, but what I didn’t know is that Gordon Burn could write. He had talent. Talent makes all the difference.

Alma Cogan is Burn’s first novel (he wrote a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and blurred the lines between the two). It tells the story of 1950’s British pop superstar Alma Cogan written from her perspective in the 1980s, years after her fame has faded. Here’s the thing though, Alma Cogan really existed. The difference is that in real life she died in 1966. In Burn’s novel she didn’t, not physically anyway. She just stopped being famous.


Alma Cogan then is partly a novel about the post-World War Two English showbiz scene. The last traces of music hall can can still be seen, but it’s fading and its performers with it. Alma is part of a new breed of entertainer. She and those like her are erstatz Americans. The public is eager for escapism, and Alma “the girl with the chuckle in her voice” Cogan provides it with her extraordinary dresses, novelty songs and bubblegum pop.

All that is actually true. Alma Cogan was one of the most successful artists in British pop history. Prior to this novel I’d never heard of her. I don’t think that would have surprised Burn. I think it’s part of his point.

Backstage, Alma is drawn to the murky intersection of crime and showbiz, and in postwar London she doesn’t have to work hard to find it. Her world is one of drag clubs, East End villains, casual promiscuity and violence. She’s innocent herself, a virgin unaware of what “jazz woodbines” might be or a “meat injection” – but she likes the ambience and hint of danger. She likes bars.

Slipping into a room where the buzz was on and gorillas were mock-menacingly twirling worry-beads at the door (I knew most of them by name) to me was like being lifted out of a rough sea by helicopter. The noise, the smoke, the fracturedness, the social treachery and superficiality … all the things that so many people of my acquaintance would cross continents to avoid, were what drew me and started my juices flowing.

Decades later in the 1980s she’s long forgotten. She lives now in Kiln Cottage – a small house in a picturesque town where she’s just one more middle-aged woman who dresses in all weather gear to keep her from the wind while out walking her dog. The cottage is a pretty one and easy to admire from a distance:

From halfway up the hill, Kiln Cottage on the other side of the valley looks like a picture-postcard or sampler of itself, ‘quaint’ in a way it never feels from the inside.

Celebrity is a large part of what this novel is about. Kiln Cottage is of course a metaphor for Alma herself and for all her long list of showbiz friends (she’s a terrible namedropper). From the other side of the stage lights she’s a glamorous figure in self-made ballgowns delivering faultless performances. From her side she’s sick before every appearance and hates facing her fans afterwards as they press in on her with their sweat and demands for autographs.

Burn is expert at evoking the sorry allure of celebrity. In the 1950s fans leave joints of meat wrapped in newspaper as gifts outside her gigs and she spends her holidays with Cary Grant and has Noel Coward to dinner. In the 1980s she’s rarely recognised and avoids the eye of other once-famous people she runs into – each of them trying not to see how the other has aged. Even the person she buys her pet dogs from no longer home delivers the puppies…

It’s unoriginal to speak of fame as a drug and Burn doesn’t quite. He shows it though, both in the high of Alma’s days lived in applause and the down that follows as she carries on in the half-light of people who used to be somebody.

As the 1980s part of the novel continues, Alma starts to look into the remnants of her own celebrity visiting the National Gallery to look at a portrait of her from the 1960s (now in storage), a digital archive where her recordings are preserved and the home of her biggest fan – a collector with a disturbingly comprehensive array of Alma Cogan memorabilia.

Burn is doing more here than just looking at one woman’s life or how fame impacts the famous. He uses celebrity culture as a lens through which to examine British life more generally. This book was written back in 1991, but how true today does this passage seem in which he describes the “deindustrialised dreamlike dead-zones that the railway stations have become”:

They are places where you can buy life assurance, compact discs and twenty varieties of croissant at midnight and hop aboard a train almost as an afterthought, secure in the knowledge that there will not only be more of the same, but identical climate-modulated concourses and graphic accents, foreign-exchange franchises and spandex activewear concessions, discposed in an approximately identical layout, at the other end.

As an aside, that quote reminds me heavily of this line from JG Ballard’s Kingdom Come about a shopping mall: “‘This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity”.

This is a book steeped in vacuity. Alma’s songs are essentially contentless. Her fame is fleeting. The people she knew end mostly forgotten, and that mostly within their own lifetimes. The culture Alma is part of creating has little in it that lasts or is even meant to last. It is disposable by design.

Underneath the veneer of glossy commerciality there remains brutality, violence and sheer human unreason. Early on Alma is shocked by an appallingly violent attack she witnesses in an underground gay bar. The façade, for a moment, is torn apart and the savagery underneath is revealed.

Decades later Alma’s neighbours include a couple who seem to be going not-so-slowly mad. They are rarely seen, but have become obsessed with dog-owners letting their dogs foul a nearby beach and they start to leave increasingly disturbed messages the fury of which is entirely out of proportion to the actual offence.

Meanwhile, when Alma turns on the television she sees lines of police and volunteers combing the moors looking for the 20 year buried bodies of the child victims of the Moors’ Murderers. Those murders then become a backdrop to the later stages of the novel.

Alma Cogan is a difficult novel to write about. It’s a short novel – less than 200 pages long. Despite that it’s rich with material. There’s an unusually accurate blurb on the back by Michael Herr who talks about it being a “dark meditation on fame and its undertow”, and about it being “a ruthless antidote to nostalgia”. All that is true. It’s hard though to pin it down to just those things and for me it was also about marketing, the packaging of experience and the way people people are sold dreams of lives they’ll never live.

Alma is Jewish and as a child short and dumpy. None of this remains true as she’s remoulded in dresses so sculpted they stand up on their own. What here is real? The structure of the novel undermines reality, because Alma really did live but she almost certainly wasn’t the fictional woman on these pages. Alma’s voice is dry and sharp, but is it her voice or is it simply Burn’s? The novel repackages Alma’s life as entertainment, and within it Alma does the same to herself.

There isn’t really a plot to Alma Cogan. Things happen, but the links are more thematic than causal. It’s an eel of a novel, muscular but hard to take hold of. As it draws to a close it becomes steadily darker and more disturbing until finishing it I felt chilled and had to wind down with something else for a while. As I said at the beginning, Burn can write.

I’m going to indulge myself with a last couple of quotes. Here Alma/Burn describes night time London:

We couldn’t see the view of the night time city from where we were sitting; but we knew it well and felt it like a breath on the neck – the lemon-bleary winter light, the oily sliver of silver river, the broken grid of cranes, the illuminated contractors’ signs swaying hypnotically in the wind.

And here Alma/Burn reminds us that while the person may die, the product remains all too viable:

It seems that as long as you’re in print or on film or a name on a buff envelope in an archive somewhere, you’re never truly dead now. You can be electronically colourised, emulsified, embellished, coaxed towards some state of virtual reality.

Quite. But as Burn is telling us, the thing with virtual reality is that ultimately it’s not actually real.

Alma Cogan


Filed under Burn, Gordon, Historical fiction

Life becomes very interesting when one feels one is dying

Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novella Madame de ___ is a beautifully crafted gem of a work. Deliberately written to evoke the style of French 18th Century literature, it is a small tale of the fate of a woman who loves unwisely (in a society where to love at all is quite unwise) and of how her most treasured possessions prove her undoing.

Madame de ___ (no character in the book is named, of which more shortly) is the wife of M. de ___, a rich and highly rational man with a position in society and with unimpeachable name and credit (and those two things cannot of course be separated). Madame de ___ owns “a pair of earrings made of two superb diamonds, cut in the shape of hearts”, a gift from M. de ___, given the day after their wedding.

Years later, as the book begins, Madame de ___ finds that her lifestyle and habit of misleading her husband through vanity as to how well she handles her accounts has left her in debt. She sells the earrings to the family jeweller, who informs the husband who promptly buys them again and gives them to his former mistress who is leaving the country. Coincidence leads the earrings back to Paris, and back into Madame de ___’s life, and from there they pass from hand to hand accompanied each time by lies so that what starts as a token of love becomes a symbol of its absence.

The novella provides no clues as to when it is set, my mental image was of 19th Century Paris, but the 18th would work just as well. There is a reference at one point to the possibility of a duel, that and the behaviour of the characters place us within those two centuries, but nothing is made explicit. Equally, descriptions are slight to the point sometimes of non-existence, no character has a name – each is identified merely by family or occupation (the jeweller, the nephew, the ambassador). We know the characters through their words and their feelings, not through their world.

And yet, for all that they have a surprising solidity. This is partly, of course, because we can mentally furnish their world ourselves. I’ve read 18th and 19th Century French literature and have a pretty good idea how those worlds functioned, my mental image may not be yours, but then is it for any book? Part of that solidity too though is the skill of the writing, the descriptions may be slender, but they are sufficient and de Vilmorin shows her skill in the way such sparse elements unpack in the mind to become much richer.

Here, on the first page, we first meet Madame de ___:

Elegance rather than beauty was accounted the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Madame de ___ belonged and in that circle Madame de ___ herself was acknowledged to be of all women the most elegant. She set the fashion among those who knew her and, as the men said she was inimitable, sensible women sought to imitate her. They hoped that some glint of her lustre might shine on them, and that their ears might catch some echo of the adulation she received. Wherever her approval fell, distinction was conferred; she was original in all her ways; she made the commonplace seem rare, and she always did what nobody expected.

The de ___’ s marriage is childless, and though once passionate is now loveless and a matter of form. Madame de ___ and her husband do not dislike each other, the book is not that kind, rather they have the feelings it is appropriate to have for one’s spouse, and in this time and place (whatever time this may be) such feelings do not of course include love. Their dealings with each other are proper and polite, as much so in private as in public.

Madame de ___’s small sin has been one of excessive consumption, of spending too much. But she is no Madame Bovary, her sale of the earrings controls her debts and she is already living the life Bovary dreamed of. Madame de ___ ‘s difficulty is that she loves, but her life has not equipped her for the honesty that love requires.

Like the earrings themselves, Madame de ___ has no real function beyond decoration. She is in a sense herself an object, an adornment to her husband’s life with her attainments reflecting upon his. She has no desires of her own, at least none that trouble the status quo. When she falls in love, however, this changes. She comes to question who and why she is, she comes to have wants of her own, ones at odds with her position.

Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost in infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt that nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew life would be unendurable.

I won’t speak to how the novella unfolds, Madame de ___ lives in a society where deceit is normal, accepted, where husbands have mistresses and wives’ lovers and none of this matters unless it is admitted or made public. Her ease of deceit is her undoing, even now she has love, her instinct is to lie, and lies and love sit poorly together. As with much of the fiction it is based on, Madame de portrays a world in which women have no meaningful choices and sharply constrained circumstances.

There is a single large coincidence at the heart of the novella, the earrings do after all have to reenter Madame de ___’s life after she sells them. Indeed, M. de ___ notes the issue at one point:

“Coincidence is very extraordinary,” he thought, “but perfectly natural. One can only wonder at it.”

The irony, however, is that what he thinks coincidence generally isn’t, it’s combination of people’s deceits that create the illusion of coincidence. Although the jeweller comes to sell the same earrings to M. de ___ no less than four times, chance plays very little part in any of it.

The earrings are at the centre of this novel, hearts carved from diamond, untouched and unchanging. The symbolism is obvious, but no less effective for that. De Vilmorin’s prose is cool and elegant, effortlessly readable. I read this in one morning, leaving home late because I’d taken a look at the first page and been captured, unfortunately arriving at work a little too early and so having to go out for a coffee so I could finish it.

Madame de ___ is a scant 58 pages long, and that in a Pushkin edition. In a more traditionally sized imprint it would of course be even shorter, making it arguably more of a short story than a novella. Still, however you characterise it, it is beautifully written and cleverly crafted and another example of how good Pushkin Press are at finding these underappreciated works and bringing them back to our attention. It is translated by former British ambassador to France, Duff Cooper (de Vilmorin’s lover), and comes with an interesting endnote by his son, historian John Julius Norwich. Louise de Vilmorin appears now to be more famous, in fact, for her lovers than her own work (Antoine de Saint-Exupery was among their number), which on the strength of this novella is a considerable shame.

On a final note, I found out about Madame de ___ through Guy Savage’s blog, his own writeup is here. Interestingly, he and I chose the same passages to quote, although I didn’t refer back to his review until after I’d already decided which bits I wanted to excerpt. Guy has a tremendous knowledge of Nineteenth Century French literature, much in excess of my own, and his analysis of this work is excellent. He has of course my thanks for bringing this to my attention, I doubt otherwise I’d even have heard of it.

Madame de


Filed under de Vilmorin, Louise, French, Historical fiction, Novellas

For any man the end of the world is first and foremost his own end

Balthasar’s Odyssey, published fittingly enough in the year 2000, is a novel by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. Maalouf, a former Prix Goncourt winner, writes in French rather than Arabic and in the 2003 Vintage translation I read is excellently translated by Barbara Bray.

This is the first Maalouf novel I’ve read, though I also have some of his non-fiction work on my shelf. I’ll be buying more. Balthasar’s Odyssey was warm, funny, intelligent, charming and at times extremely thought provoking. It’s also a tremendous blend of historical and literary fiction, enjoyable simply as a tale of a Levantine book merchant’s quest for a rare text across Seventeenth-century Europe or as a meditation on mortality, faith, tolerance, the importance of doubt and indeed on what it is to be a writer.

The novel opens in the year 1665. Balthasar Embriaco is a bookseller of Genoese family, but born and bred in Gibelet (also known as Byblos). He 40 years old, a plump widower kept company by his two nephews and his servant. A mild mannered and scholarly man, he is browbeaten by the more religiously observant of his nephews (Boumeh) into entering into a quest for a book titled The Hundredth Name. Boumeh believes (as do many others) that 1666 is the final year of the world, the apocalypse foretold in the bible and other holy texts, but the missing book is said to contain the famous hundredth name of god and knowledge of that name brings with it power that may help one survive the days to come.

Or may not, for Balthasar is something of a mild sceptic, worried that the apocalypse may be coming and that Boumeh may be correct, but suspicious too that Boumeh’s prophecies are too neat, his signs too convenient, that the world will continue as it always has:

I always think that if you look for signs you find them, and I write this down lest, in the maelstrom of madness that is seizing the world, I should one day forget it. Manifest signs, speaking signs, troubling signs – people always manage to “prove” what they want to believe; they’d be just as well off if they tried to prove the opposite.

Balthasar is a somewhat vain man, proud of his family’s long and once distinguished name, of his own business and reputation, of his intellect. To show belief in what he suspects to be mere superstition would be an embarrassment, a humiliation even, but what if he is wrong, what if the world really is about to end? Balthasar’s is is an equivocal soul, he is kind and generous but he is not the strongest willed of men.

Balthasar is also, critically, a writer – he keeps a journal of his travels and that journal forms the novel itself. The text is Balthasar’s journal, his thoughts, his observations, his private hopes, fears and shames. The consequence of that is that Balthasar’s Odyssey as a work is only enjoyable as long as Balthasar himself is enjoyable to spend time with, as long as he is interesting. It is fortunate then that he is one of the most likeable and most human characters I have encountered in fiction for quite some time.

As mentioned above, it’s quite possible to simply read Balthasar’s Odyssey as an often extremely funny account of a middle-aged and rather portly merchant’s misadventures across the Seventeenth-century world. He travels through Constantinople, where he encounters spectacular levels of corruption, to Chios where he encounters smugglers and yet more corruption, to Genoa, Amsterdam and to London itself. Along the way, he makes various friends, many of them themselves at least a touch eccentric, falls in love and engages in a touchingly written romance all the better for its at time faint absurdity (and which of us hasn’t been absurd when in love?). He runs into strange religious orders and dangerous criminals alike, all on a mission to obtain a book he isn’t persuaded actually has any real power at all.

There is then a great deal of gentle comedy in this work, but plenty of reminders too of quite how perilous the world back then was and quite how major an undertaking significant travel was too. Balthasar on his journeys has to contend with inclement weather, illness and plague, grasping and tricksy caravan masters, madmen and war. Death, on several occasions, is a real prospect. There are times he must hide from angry mobs, from possible execution, his journey is a terrifying one in many respects and he is not a courageous man by nature.

As a simple piece of historical fiction, Balthasar’s Odyssey is extremely successful. The characters are concerned with issues of their day, they persuade as men and women of their time and the places and incidents along the way are credible and well realised. If there were nothing else, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Balthasar’s Odyssey though is not just a work of historical fiction. It is also a discussion of faith, doubt, fear and of what it is to be human. The concerns of the characters are concerns of their time, but concerns of ours too – intolerance, extremism, the dangers of people too convinced of their own rightness. Balthasar’s Odyssey is about the Seventeenth-century, yes, but humanity’s flaws then were the same as humanity’s flaws today.

Balthasar spends part of his journey with a Jewish friend he meets along the way, Maīmoun. Here Balthasar and Maīmoun are discussing the most beautiful sentence in any religion, Balthasar has proposed “Love they neighbour as thyself”, Maīmoun has reservations:

‘Wait. There’s something else, something more worrying, in my view. Some people are always sure to interpret this precept with more arrogance than magnanimity. They’ll read it as saying: What’s good for you is good for everyone else. If you know the truth, you ought to use every possible means to rescue lost sheep and set them on the right path again. Hence the forced baptisms imposed on my ancestors in Toledo in the past. And I myself have heard the injunction quoted more often by wolves than by lambs. So I’m sorry – I have doubts about it.”

“If you’re looking for the most beautiful saying to be found in any religion, the most beautiful that ever issued from the lips of man, that’s not it. The one I mean was spoken by Jesus too. He didn’t take it from Scripture though, he just listened to his own heart.”
What could it be? I waited. Maīmoun stopped his mount for a moment to underline the solemnity of his quotation.
“Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

Maīmoun too is a sceptic of the coming apocalypse, a more robust one than Balthasar who secretly doubts his own doubt. Maīmoun’s father, however, has no such doubts and fervently believes that the end days have come, indeed once equally fervently believed that they were due in 1648 and when the day of resurrection then failed to arrive on schedule merely adjusted his expected dates. Maīmoun lost his faith when his father’s apocalypse failed to arrive, his father merely assumed it had started but somewhere far away and so the evidence had yet to arrive. Maīmoun’s father, in other words, has faith. Maīmoun has none, all he has is tolerance, a belief in the importance of not judging others, and a hope that one day the whole world may be like Amsterdam where it is said Jew and Gentile are able to live in peace.

The issue of faith is one of many (too many for one blog entry) strands in this novel. Balthasar’s nephew, Boumeh, believes in numerology and that the secrets of the future are laid out in ways that can be divined through the manipulation of words and numbers. In one marvellous sequence, Boumeh rather patronisingly explains to Balthasar and Maīmoun how numerology proves that 1666 is the last year of the world:

“But why was an event announced in 1648 that’s supposed to take place in 1666? That’s a mystery I can’t understand!” I said.
“Nor can I,” agreed Maīmoun.
“I don’t see any mystery,” said Boumeh, with irritating calm.
Everyone waited with baited breath for him to go on. He took his time, then went on loftily:
“There are eighteen years between 1648 and 1666.”
He stopped.
“So?” asked Habib, through a mouthful of crystallised apricots.
“Don’t you see? Eighteen – six plus six plus six. The last three steps to the Apocalypse.”
There followed a most ominous silence. I suddenly felt that the pestilential vapour was approaching and closing in on us. Maīmoun was the most pensive of those present: it was as if Boumeh had just solved an old enigma for him. Hatem bustled around us, wondering what was the matter: he’d caught only scraps of our conversation.
It was I who broke the silence.
“Wait a moment, Boumeh!” I said. “That’s nonsense. I don’t have to tell you that in the days of Christ and the Evangelists people didn’t write six six six as you would today in Arabic: they wrote it in Roman figures. And your three sixes don’t make sense.”
“So can you tell me how they wrote 666 in the days of the Romans?”
“You know very well. Like this.”
I picked up a stick and wrote “DCLXVI” on the ground.
Maīmoun and Habib bent over and looked at what I’d written. Boumeh just stood where he was, not even glancing our way. He just asked me if I’d never noticed anything particular about the numbers I’d just traced. No, I hadn’t.
“Haven’t you noticed that all the Roman figures are there, in descending order of magnitude, and each occurs only once?”
“Not all of them,” I said quickly. “One’s missing…”
“Go on, go on – you’re getting there. There’s one missing at the beginning. The M – write it! Then we’ll have ‘MDCLXVI’. One thousand six hundred and sixty-six. Now the numbers are complete. And the years are complete. Nothing more will be added.”
Then he reached out and erased the figure completely, muttering some magic formula he’d learned.

A curse on numbers and on those who make use of them!

Balthasar is an intelligent man, but not a worldly one. He is often outwitted, and there are several occasions where he may have been outwitted, but cannot be sure and because he cannot we cannot. He is as reliable a narrator as he can be, but he is human and the limits of his perception become the limits of ours. As a reader, we too have to doubt, to operate in the absence of perfect knowledge, we have to accept that much as we may wish otherwise not all the answers may be forthcoming. There may be things we never know, however much we might wish to.

And that takes me onto another of the novel’s themes, what it means to be mortal, to know that everything we do may be lost on our death. Balthasar is a writer, he records all that he encounters and more importantly his secret thoughts and fears in his journals, but why? What’s the point of doing so? Indeed, what’s the point of doing anything?

Balthasar, and Balthasar’s Odyssey, has no answer to that. Balthasar after all is one of those in his world who do not have faith, and having no faith he has no solutions. Nonetheless, the nature of his quest – the possibility of apocalypse and of perhaps a magic name that will allow fate to be escaped – naturally turn his mind to these issues.

In the following passage, Balthasar is facing the loss of his journals, and asking himself why, if he cannot be sure his words will survive, he writes at all:

I know my words are bound to end up in oblivion. Our whole existence borders on oblivion. But we need at least a semblance, an illusion of permanence if we are to do anything at all. How can I fill these pages, how can I go on searching for the right words to describe events and emotions, if I can’t come back in ten or twenty years to revisit my past? And yet I still am writing, and shall go on doing so. Perhaps the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistencies.

Later, sitting in his room in a wooden building with the Great Fire of London approaching, Balthasar’s thoughts again turn to mortality:

The all-devouring fire draws closer and closer, and I sit here at this wooden table, in this wooden room, committing my last thoughts to a sheaf of pages that will ignite at the smallest spark! It’s madness, madness! But isn’t that just an image of my mortal condition? I dream of eternity when my grave is already dug, piously commending my soul to the One who’s about to snatch it away from me. When I was born I was a few years away from death. Now it may be no more than a few hours. But what’s a year anyway in comparison with eternity? What’s a day? An hour? A second? Such measures only have meaning for a heart that’s still beating.

Writing here becomes a metaphor for mortality, the act of writing, of recording something in the face of nothing, becomes both pointless and yet marvellous. An expression of hope in the absence of anything obvious to hope for. Balthasar is a frightened man, he does not want to die, he does not want his words to be lost, but he cannot help the risk of these things and so continues as if those risks did not exist. What else is there to do?

He writes for another reason too, one that perhaps holds true for any writer, he writes because it is his nature to do so. Because he cannot do otherwise.

What else can I do? My pen wields me as much as I wield it. I have to follow its path just as it follows mine.

All of that makes this sound a despairing novel, it really isn’t though. Balthasar is afraid of dying, but mostly his fears are more quotidian. There is a powerful sequence where the woman he has fallen in love with must go back for a while to her former lover, and his fears then at what may occur and whether she will return to him are in their way much worse than his fear of death or the end of the world (which really, as he reflects in the quote I used for my title, are the same thing). There is something profoundly human in this, he has his dark nights of the soul but he has too his mornings making love in a sunlit room, his meals with friends and late evening conversations, his anguish at the prospect of separation from friends and lovers, his guilt when he lets people down. The triumph of this novel is in the humanity of its protagonist, in his continuing to be human even though he suspects there is no purpose to it or to anything else. At the end, Balthasar’s Odyssey is a curiously hopeful novel – even though it holds out nothing particularly to hope for. We just hope anyway, we may as well.

Balthasar’s Odyssey


Filed under Arabic, Historical fiction, Maalouf, Amin

In this room the hours would accumulate like grains of sand until they buried him

And, indeed, they rather buried me.

The Glass Palace is Amitav Ghosh’s epic novel of love, family, sweeping history and the mutability of power. Published in 2000, it is 552 pages long, very much a widescreen novel (to use a phrase coined by John Self) and for me at least more melodrama than literary fiction.

It’s also, unfortunately, a book I didn’t find particularly successful. In fact, I got bored. Accordingly, for those looking for a more positive view on Ghosh (albeit a different novel), there’s an as ever excellent John Self review of Sea of Poppies here.

The Glass Palace is, in essence, Dickensian. It is immensely readable, the first couple of hundred pages absolutely zipped by and even after I’d lost interest it remained a very easy read. It is also a novel of real scope, ambitious in its way, and deeply concerned with social issues. It covers over a century of Burmese and Indian history, and in the course of that history addresses matters as diverse as the teak industry, the morality of imperialism, the long and short term effects of colonisation, and the realities of power and powerlessness.

It is also, however, Dickensian in its tendency to melodrama and to sentimentality, and is at times rather wearyingly obvious. The novel opens with a gruff yet kindly woman who takes in a quick witted orphan boy that I immediately guessed would have a great Copperfieldian destiny. I was right. Indeed, it was rare that I expected a particular outcome and was wrong. If I had been wrong a little more often, I would have liked the book more.

The central character is that orphan boy, an Indian named Rajkumar who is working at a food stall in Mandalay, just outside the walls of the Royal Palace. Within, the court await news of the outcome of recent conflicts with the British. They receive reports of glorious victories from their ministers, but hear the sounds of approaching cannon and soon see the arrival of dispassionate ranks of marching Indian soldiers. It is 1885, the year the British deposed the monarchy and absorbed Burma into their Empire, and in one of the finest passages of the book we see the sudden transition of authority from the court to the British. Everything polite, ordered, but the realities of power unmistakeable.

This is how power is eclipsed: In a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation.

As the novel progresses, the story branches out. Rajkumar leaves Malaya to become a worker in the teak industry, leading to (genuinely fascinating) descriptions of the traditions and dangers of Nineteenth-century teak production. At the same time, we follow the court into exile to Ratnagiri, an isolated town in India where they have a fine view but little else. Rajkumar is a born entrepeneur, brilliant and driven. His sole tragedy, beside the death of his parents, is that as the royal family left their palace he fell in love at first sight with one of the queen’s handmaidens – Dolly, who is now living with the exiled monarchs in Ratnagiri. Dolly is spectacularly beautiful, patient and wise. Rajkumar does not know whether he will ever see Dolly again, though it comes as no surprise that of course he does.

Also in Ratnagiri is the Collector, a man of Indian extraction but who has won high position for a man of his ethnicity in the British run Indian Administrative Service. The Collector is Oxford educated, sees the British way as the civilised way and dreams of a European style marriage of equals with his unhappy wife Uma (who becomes fast friends with Dolly). The interaction of Dolly, Uma, the Collector and the royal family is in microcosm a study of the treatment by the coloniser of the colonised, the king’s attempts to live within the limits of his now foreshortened world often frustrated by a paternalist administration that wishes to protect him for his own good. Imperialism does not just occupy the lands of the conquered, it occupies their minds too.

Generally, the novel’s themes emerge naturally through the characters. Ghosh though is not always content with leaving points implicit, occasionally just directly telling the reader what to think. The following quote is an excerpt from a paragraph long authorial description of what may be read into the queen’s smile (a lot it seems), and for me is a modern voice directly commenting on the novel’s theme in rather a crude way:

A hundred years hence you will read the indictment of Europe’s greed in the difference between the kingdom of Siam and the state of our own enslaved realm.

The difficulty with this, beyond it coming dangerously close to being a lecture, is that by being so blunt it also becomes arguable. I’m no defender of colonialism, but I’m not sure the British can be wholly blamed for the present state of Burma. Singapore, Malaysia and India were conquered too after all, and are doing rather well these days. Ghosh is a good enough writer not to need this sort of blatant intervention, and could usefully trust his readers and his writing a little more, his points are already fairly hard to miss.

As the novel continues, the imperial theme continues to dominate. The demands of teak production (and, later, rubber production) wreak environmental havoc. Through Rajkumar and others (many approving or oblivious), we see the land exhausted for the benefit of its new masters. More subtly, each teak logging camp has its own British overseer – a young man who ensures the native workers carry out their tasks – and so is its own colonial state. This was probably my favourite part of the book, the descriptions are rich, the sense of the camps – temporary villages which like the trees themselves are each the same yet each fractionally different – vivid. There are some off notes, a campfire ghost story which I thought added nothing save colour for its own sake, but in the main I’d happily have read a whole novel set just in these settlements, among the near indentured workers, their elephants and their overseers.

Rajkumar grows rich, chiefly by becoming a small imperialist himself, going to India and coming back with poor villagers misled into working in dangerous conditions in Burma. Rajkumar, like the British, has little sympathy for those he exploits. He is a man driven by the need for success, like the Collector he adopts the values of the British, though here their avarice rather than their culture. Dolly and Uma continue their more domestic dramas, with Dolly’s quiet wisdom enabling Uma to grow and become more independent. Uma’s has one of the novel’s better character arcs, her growth over the book organic and one of its few unexpected elements. Her argument with Rajkumar, in which they attack each other’s philosophies, constitutes one of the novel’s best passages (which sadly I can’t quote for fear of spoilers).

There’s a lot of plot in this book, of which I’ve summarised only a fraction. As the novel continues, it follows the characters’ lives and those of their friends, their children and their friends’ children. Decades pass as the characters argue, trade, love, marry. Colonialism recurs in the form of the Japanese occupation, the British defeated just as they defeated the Burmese, maintaining their colonial distinctions to the end with evacuation trains marked for Whites only.

From the war we go to Indian independence, post-independence politics and even the Burmese democracy movement. Everywhere, there is scope, the sweep of history, great events and in the midst of it all the characters who are each beautiful, passionate, brilliant people. I longed for one of them to want to open a bakery or to become an accountant, sadly not, there is no room here for small people.

And that takes me to one of The Glass Palace’s key flaws, there really aren’t many decent characters. Rajkumar, Uma and a young Indian army officer in the twentieth-century by the name of Arjun (who is faced with agonising issues of loyalty, as the Japanese advance and he has to face questions as to what and who he is fighting for) are the only interesting ones in the lot. Dolly is beautiful and wise, but not convincingly human, the Collector is credible but hardly deep, others are similarly unsatisfying. As in much science fiction, the characters are there primarily to allow the story to progress. They are a vehicle, not a destination.

As I noted above, in the main the story and themes are expressed through the characters, but the price paid is that each of them has only room for a handful of traits (shy, brilliant photographer say, or free spirited and beautiful, to take two examples). The result is that many of them just aren’t that convincing. Worse yet is the tendency to cliché, all the men are brilliant, all the women beautiful (save Uma, who is brilliant), everyone is exceptional and special.

As the novel continues, the problem with characterisation gets worse. Even Aung San Suu Kyi when she appears is described as “beautiful almost beyond belief”. Really? Is it not enough that she is a fighter for democracy in a corrupt regime who has spent years of her life for her cause, must we also suddenly make her breathtakingly beautiful too? Would her work not otherwise count? There is a triteness to this, a simplicity of thought which is fair enough in an airport thriller but less appealing in a Booker nominated novelist, a problem made worse by the predictability of most of the character’s fates which by and large reflect their thinly sketched traits all too neatly.

There are other misjudged notes, such as when Dolly has a psychic experience. Given the novel has an omniscient authorial voice this is presented as simple fact and for me it was a bizarrely jarring episode. An event which fits well enough I suppose into a middlebrow family saga, but which I struggled with in what was ostensibly a serious novel.

All that said, The Glass Palace is by no means all bad. Ghosh has a definite talent for description and metaphor – the title of this blog entry for example is a line regarding the king’s room in Ratnagiri, where he will live out his exile. Equally, in the following passage the evocation of grief and its savage bleakness is for me very effective:

The station at Sungei Pattani was as pretty as a toy: there was a single platform shaded by a low red-tiled awning. Dion spotted Alison as the train was drawing in: she was standing in the shade of the tin awning, wearing sunglasses and a long black dress. She looked thin, limp, wilted – a candlewick on whom grief grief burnt like a flame.

‘You want the pain to be simple, straightforward – you don’t want it to ambush you in these roundabout ways, each morning, when you’re getting up to do something else – brush your teeth or eat your breakfast…’

Equally, Ghosh sometimes does use the space he gives himself to good effect. Indian troops serving British masters are introduced as a minor element, hundreds of pages and decades later we see them again but from their own perspective. Ghosh trusts the reader to note how much they’ve changed. Here, a character in the 1880s speaks of the Indian troops that serve the British:

‘For a few coins they would allow their masters to use them as they wished, to destroy every trace of resistance to the power of the English … How do you fight an enemy who fights from neither enmity nor anger, but in submission to orders from superiors, without protest and without conscience?’

Sixty years or so later, an Indian officer still under ultimate British command speaks to one of his men, another Indian, of those earlier troops:

‘But your father and grandfather were here,’ Arjun said to Hardy. ‘It was they who helped in the colonisation of these places. They must have seen some of the things that we’ve seen. Did they never speak of all this?’
‘They were illiterate yaar. You have to remember that we’re the first generation of Indian soldiers.’
‘But still, they had eyes, they had ears, they must occasionally have talked to local people?’
Hardy shrugged. ‘The truth is yaar, they weren’t interested; they didn’t care; the only place that was real to them was their village.”

But by about page 500 the pacing of the novel falls apart, picking up a little after a detour to 1990s Myanmar but generally feeling like a tidying up of threads and putting away of deckchairs. There are some rather dull soliloquies on the Burmese democracy movement, a little sermonising, and a remarkably irritating final couple of pages.

The Glass Palace is a broad novel, but not a deep one. It has many good elements, anyone looking for a sweeping Gone with the Wind style historical epic should find much to enjoy and it is genuinely intelligent on the lasting psychological impact of colonialism. It suffers though from a crudity of characterisation, from at times being simply too obvious, and in all honesty from just being longer than it needs to be.

In parting, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Gift of Rain has some degree of thematic overlap with The Glass Palace. Both speak, among other things, to issues of loyalty, patriotism, the legacy of colonialism and the nature of power. The difference, for me, is that The Gift of Rain addresses those topics while retaining depth of character. The Glass Palace by contrast is well researched, clearly something of a labour of love for Ghosh, but the history leaves too little room for the humanity.

The Glass Palace


Filed under Ghosh, Amitav, Historical fiction, Indian fiction

The donkey-boys were having their evening meal

Michael Pearce is a mystery writer, specialising in stories located in colourful places and filled with exotic characters.

Growing up himself in North Africa, he has been most successful with his Mamur Zapt series, the Mamur Zapt being a peculiar position in the 1920s British administration over occupied Egypt, referred to as a political officer and essentially head of the secret police.

Pearce makes one Captain Owen his Mamur Zapt, and his novels are an unusual blend of mystery and police procedural, as the Mamur Zapt investigates a crime or occurence which has political dimensions and the possibility of destabilising the uneasy political situation of 1920s Cairo.

It’s a great idea for a series, Pearce has written sixteen of them to date, the last coming out in 2008, I’ve now read three. The first two, The Night of the Dog and The Return of the Carpet, were both excellent. Highly evocative in terms of time and place, interesting in their depiction of the political difficulties of a very different world as the Mamur Zapt deals with the Egyptian civilian police, disaffected French former colonial interests, local nationalists and religious groups. The third, The Donkey-Vous, unfortunately worked less well for me. Two out of three’s not bad, so I’ll likely give the fourth a try some time, but it will probably be quite some time before I do.

In The Donkey Vous, an elderly Frenchman with family links through marriage to the French president is kidnapped from the terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Cairo and therefore the best known terrace in Cairo. The kidnapping appears to be for money, but despite all the bystanders nobody saw it happen, and such a person taken from such a place cannot help but be political. The Mamur Zapt, reluctantly, is brought in to investigate the disappearance.

Essentially, this is then a locked room mystery. Ok, the locked room is a crowded terrace facing an exceptionally busy street in the heart of a major city, but the point remains the same, there’s no way that the crime in question could have occurred at such a location.

The problem with the novel, however, is a simple one. Outside the terrace is a stand of donkey-boys, boys who hire out their donkeys to tourists. The kidnapping could not have occurred without them witnessing it, Captain Owen after initial interviews is convinced that they are lying when they plead ignorance, so is Mahmoud, investigator for the Parquet, the Egyptian justice ministry and a friend of Captain Owen’s.

As the donkey-boys won’t talk, Captain Owen, Mahmoud and others spend the next couple of hundred pages making fairly fruitless investigations into a seemingly impossible crime before they find a way to get the donkey-boys to open up, along the way running into problems with rival bidders for public works contracts, army sensitivities to the potential involvement of sectarian groups, and political infighting and gamesmanship. The trouble is, all this depends on one assumption, that the head of the secret police and the Egyptian investigator, both operating in 1920s Cairo, wouldn’t simply have the boys rounded up and beaten until they told everything they knew. If they did do that, however, the novel would last about 30 pages.

Pearce is good at bringing 1920s Cairo to life, the book is filled with descriptive passages, indeed every other page comes with another rich and exotic description (possibly too many, a friend of mine abandoned the book around page 50, having overdosed on them). Here Captain Owen visits an influential member of Egyptian society:

Owen walked in past the two eunuchs, named according to custom after precious stones or flowers, across a crunching gravel courtyard where cats dozed in the shade of the palms and in through a heavy wooden outer door. When he came to the inner door which led directly into Samira’s apartment he stopped and called out “Ya Satir – O Discoverer” – (one of the ninety-nine names of God), the conventional warning to ladies that a man is coming and they must veil. He heard scrambling inside and as he opened the door saw a female slave disappearing up the stairs to “warn” the Princess. He realized he must be the first male guest to arrive.

Here we have a typical street scene from the novel, from in front of the Shepheard’s terrace:

The street was brimming. As well as the usual hawkers of stuffed crocodiles, live leopards, Nubian daggers, Abyssinian war-maces, Smyrna figs, strawberries, meshrebiya tables and photograph frames, Japanese fans and postage stamps, sandalwood workboxes and Persian embroideries, hippopotamus-hide whips and tarbooshes, and Sudanese beads made in Manchseter and the little scarabs and images of men and gods made for the Tombs of Pharoahs but just three thousand years too late; as well as the sellers of sweets and pastry and lemonade and tea who habitaully blocked up the thoroughfare; as well as the acrobats and tumblers, jugglers and performing ape managers; as well as the despairing arabeah-drivers and the theatrical donkey-boys and the long line of privileged vendors stretching the whole length of the terrace – a swarm of Albanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Georgians, and Circassians had suddenly arrived in front of the hotel to show off their boots.
They were very proud of their boots and had come along, in traditional national dress with a few props such as guns, daggers and swords, to exhibit them to the tourists to be photographed.

Lavish description is of course much of the point, fans of historical mystery novels read them as much – perhaps more – for the sense of time and place as for the mystery itself. The ability to lose oneself in another country, another period, is much of the draw. Where it becomes problematic is where, as here, the plot is insufficiently robust so that one is left with little but the period flavour.

The novel also contains several scenes in which Owen tries to question locals, and ends up in a meandering and gently humorous conversation as his desire to be direct and the Arab custom of arriving at conclusions circuitously and with much discussion come at odds, in a form of mild culture clash. I would quote one, but by their nature they tend to be protracted, and can extend over several pages. They’re well enough written, though I did struggle slightly to tell any of the Arab characters (other than Mahmoud, the policeman) apart by their dialogue since they are all prone to much the same sorts of pleasantries and asides.

Pearce’s Cairo is a place filled with good natured people, good natured though perhaps slightly scheming Frenchmen, good natured but perhaps overly suspicious British soldiers, good natured but overly garrulous and emotional Egyptians, good natured but traditionally minded Greeks, a good natured but forgetful retired elderly Englishman who may have seen something and his good natured but excitable daughter. Everyone is basically a bit of a good egg, save one young army officer who comes across as a bit stupid and a bit bigoted, but even he does no real harm.

That’s fine, the word “cosy” is actually used for a certain subgenre of the mystery novel, but I did start to long for an elderly Flashman to show up and give them all a good kicking.

And that’s about it, I struggle to say a great deal more. Pearce knows his stuff, his 1920s Egypt is a convincingly real place, it’s just the people and their ubiquitous niceness that lets down ultimately both the realism and the plot. Fans of historical mysteries would likely enjoy the first two a great deal, I certainly did, but here the plot depends on the niceness, which brings it to the foreground and makes it evident how incredible it actually is.

On an unrelated note, Planet of Slums continues to be a good but slow read, I’ll be trying to break the back of it this weekend so I can stop feeling guilty about it’s unfinished status.

The Donkey-Vous


Filed under Crime, Historical crime, Historical fiction, Pearce, Michael