Preparing For Summer School

Tomorrow sees the start of this year’s Summer School and we will be reading and discussing three novels grouped together under the title Paying the Price.  The books, A Whispered Name by William Brodrick, Rennie Airth’s The Reckoning and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer all clearly share a wartime theme but they have other features in common too and when I kick things off at the start of our first meeting I shall want to draw attention to those as well as pointing out differences in the way in which war is treated. Coincidentally, I came across an essay, The Literary Response to the Second World War by Damon Marcel Decoste, in which he argues that literary responses to the two major conflicts of the Twentieth Century, both those contemporaneous and those written retrospectively, take contrasting approaches.  Put crudely, those which describe the actions of the First World War tend to concentrate on what we might loosely call ‘the pity’ of the situations in which combatants on all sides found themselves, while those which take the Second World War as their subject are more likely to focus on the lack of preparedness of a world which really should have seen it coming.

Of the three books chosen the first, A Whispered Name, is solely concerned with events that took place between 1914 and 1918 and, I think, falls neatly within the parameters of DeCoste’s argument.  Airth’s novel deals with the aftermath of both wars and, with its emphasis on the long term damage suffered by those who fought in either conflict, for me is still focused on the ‘pity’. However, Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is not so neatly pigeonholed. Personally, I don’t feel that the author is taking any particular moral standpoint in the way he writes about the events that overtake his heroine, Marion Sutro.  Perhaps distance has lessened the satirical edge that characterised novels written in the years immediately after World War II. Perhaps others attending the School will think differently.

The concentration on wartime events is not the only feature these three novels share.  Each of the books also draws our attention to what I like to call the uncertainty principle as it applies to narrative.  As Mawer comments

as with so many matters, the full story is complicated and appears different depending on how you look at it.

A narrative is a recounting of events inevitably given a personal spin by the individual  doing the recounting.  Either deliberately or through no fault of their own that person may omit events, misinterpret them or even falsify them.  And that is before we come to the whole question of the influence of choices to do with such things as tense, person and vocabulary choices.  In the first two novels, both of which are generically classified as crime fiction, the main protagonists start from a position of relative ignorance and have to repeatedly attempt to reconstruct a narrative that accurately reflects the original events.  Both emphasise how difficult it is to come to an understanding of what occurred and how the narratives we tell are influenced by what we believe/want to believe the truth is.  Mawer’s book is more concerned with the creation of a narrative as Marion Sutro develops the legend behind which she will hide as an SOE agent in France.  But, if everyone is dissembling and has been trained to do it well, then how do you know who you can trust?  And how easy is it to live according to a personal narrative that bears little resemblance to the truth of who you really are?

I am sure that as the week develops other commonalities will emerge and if I have the time then I will report back.  It might, however, have to be an overall round up at the end of the week.  If any of you know the books and have any points that you would like to make the do leave a comment and I will feed your views (duly acknowledged) into our discussions.


9 thoughts on “Preparing For Summer School

    • Café Society August 18, 2019 / 5:06 pm

      This looks really interesting. I’m not sure I would be able to read the Malaysian set novel – too close to my father’s experiences in Korea (it always seems ironic that my father, who never set foot out of England in all the years I knew him, had intimate knowledge of North Korea, a country now almost completely inaccessible to Westerners) but the others I might well ask Jolyon for permission to splash out on.


      • BookerTalk August 19, 2019 / 8:17 pm

        I remember you’ve said previously that novels involving Japan and WW2 were similarly not ones you could face reading. The IWM initiative does look interesting – I never knew Anthony Quayle had been in the SEO or had written fiction


  1. Annabel (AnnaBookBel) August 18, 2019 / 6:20 pm

    I hope you have a great week of reading and discussion. Looking forward to hearing more about it later (when you have time!).


    • Café Society August 18, 2019 / 7:53 pm

      Thanks, Annabel. I seem to have been preparing forever. I can’t believe it will be over this time next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Liz August 19, 2019 / 6:04 am

    So pleased to be a virtual part of this wonderful project. I’m sure the week will be hugely satisfying for you, especially after all your careful and in-depth preparation. I hope you are feeling ok dental-wise at the moment? Perhaps the week will provide some welcome distraction from all your treatment?


    • Café Society August 26, 2019 / 12:33 pm

      Thanks Liz, the dental treatment starts again a week tomorrow and there is nothing now between me and it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rohan Maitzen August 19, 2019 / 11:55 am

    This sounds like such a wonderful summer school project! I hope the first day goes well. On my recent visit to London I almost bought The Girl Who Fell From the Sky but in the end (because I just couldn’t buy *everything* I wanted!) I left it behind. I hadn’t realized he is such a prolific novelist: it looked really good but so did some of the others shelved next to it. Anyway, thanks for bringing it to my attention: I will get my hands on it someday (she says, eyeing the Book Depository’s free worldwide shipping option…).


    • Café Society August 26, 2019 / 12:34 pm

      Try his book The Glass Room, Rohan. I think it is his best.


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