Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.

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The Film of the Book ~ Empire of the Sun

IMG_0001Well, it had to happen one day, I suppose.  This year we actually found a film we enjoyed as much as we did the book.  Sorry, I’ve sort of begun in the middle there. One of the book groups to which I belong has a special meeting every year on the second Sunday in September.  Instead of our usual evening gathering we get together for the whole day to discuss a novel in the morning, catch up on our Summer break over lunch and then see the film of the book in the afternoon. The day usually ends with us vilifying whatever film we’ve just seen over afternoon tea. Over the years (sixteen now) we’ve become dab hands at vilifying.  This year our chosen novel was JG Ballard’s 1985 Booker shortlisted Empire of the Sun, which was filmed by Steven Spielberg two years later with screen play by Tom Stoppard.  The latter fact is perhaps a main reason why we all enjoyed the screen version far more than has ever before been the case.

The novel, as I’m sure you all know, is a semi autobiographical account of Ballard’s own childhood experience of being interned by the Japanese after the fall of Shanghai, where he lived with his family in the privileged International Settlement.  Probably the greatest difference in the fictionalised version is that Ballard’s Jim is separated from his parents and has to find a way of surviving on his own, whereas Ballard himself was not separated from the rest of his family, including a three year old sister who doesn’t feature at all in the book.

The aspects of the novel that I found most interesting were emphasised by this change.  What his solitary internment means is that while Jim has to find a way to survive on his own he can also concentrate fully on his own survival.  My father was a Japanese POW, ‘fortunately’ in what is now North Korea rather than on the Burma railways, and he always said that the people for whom he felt most sorry were two brothers who were in the camp together, because they had to worry about each other’s survival as well as their own; no one had the energy to worry about two people.  The internees fears of what would occur at the end of the war, when they were forced to leave the camp was also familiar.  Everyone expected their captors to turn on them and contingency plans were made in case that happened. Likewise, Ballard’s Jim recognises that the forced march that the internees are subjected to after the fall of the atomic bombs is going to end with a bullet and feigns an early death to escape this fate.

While the film is excellent and the performance that a young Christian Bale gives as Jim, quite exceptional, it isn’t exactly the film of the book. Inevitably, the texture is much thinner, especially in the earlier part of the adaptation when Jim is making his way to the camp.  Even a lengthy two and a half hours isn’t time enough to include all the set backs that the eleven year old encounters. And the ending is considerably more ‘happy families’ than Ballard’s original, although I did think that the way in which his father fails to recognise Jim on first pass there was a hint of the estrangement that was to exist between the real Ballard and his father for the rest of their lives.  But, it works as a film in its own right and it is true to the author’s intentions. In fact, the only criticism that anyone offered was that at the very end all the children who were waiting to be reunited with their parents looked far too robust and healthy to be believable as having been internees for over two years but, as I pointed out, starving a whole class-worth of seven year olds just for artistic effect probably wasn’t a goer, however realistic Spielberg might have wanted to be.

I saw the film when it was first released back in 1987 but hadn’t caught up with it since and I was surprised at how much I remembered, especially of Jim’s fascination with aircraft and the ‘relationship’ he forged with the young Japanese Kamikaze pilot. Its quality clearly imposed itself on me way back then and yesterday did nothing to change my original opinion. However, this morning, perversely, I find myself slightly miffed that I can no longer claim that we have never yet seen a film that did justice to the novel because Empire of the Sun definitely bucks the trend.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ~ John Le Carré

IMG_0251While the rest of the book world is busy reading Le Carré’s latest book, A Legacy of Spies, I’ve found myself returning to an earlier  Smiley novel, Tinker, Talior, Soldier, Spy.  Each September my Wednesday Book Group forsakes its midweek evening meeting for a whole day gathering on a Sunday. Because most of us are involved one way or another in education, we don’t meet in August.  So, in order to give us plenty of time to catch up with all our personal news, we have developed a format whereby we discuss a book in the morning, have a long lunch over which we swap our latest doings, see the film of the book in the afternoon and then discuss the adaptation over tea.  This is the fifteenth year we’ve done this and you won’t be surprised when I say that we rarely find ourselves praising the film over the book, or even being particularly polite about the film version.  Last year it was The Danish Girl, which we all thought was a disaster as a film, although not as much of a disaster as Oscar and Lucinda the end of which reduced some of us to tears of rage.

The choice of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was made this time last year, so the publishing of Le Carré new novel was purely coincidental. Some of us had missed the 2011 film when it came out and others had never read the book. I knew the novel but hadn’t seen the film.  Also it was so long since that previous reading that I was looking forward to going back to the dubious world of British Espionage. When it isn’t glamorised in any way I am fascinated by the secret service and the way such people manage to integrate themselves into society. I know this is going to sound melodramatic but it is true: some years ago, a friend of mine discovered, along with the rest of us, that her uncle was a KGB spy.  As you might imagine, it was a dreadful time for the family, but made so much worse by the fact that they had had no idea whatsoever.  For them it was a very personal act of betrayal.  So while it may seem simplistic to say that what Le Carré’s novel is about is betrayal, it is the fact that it is betrayal on so many different layers which I find fascinating. Smiley is betrayed not just by his fellow me ever of MI6 but also by his wife; the mole betrays not just his country but also his co-workers, his closest friend, and his cousin.  He doesn’t simply use these people for his own ends but is also perfectly prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice their very lives. However, the argument he makes in his defence is an interesting one. He is driven to espionage, he says, because of his country’s betrayal of all that he holds dear. Betrayal is not just something that happens on an individual basis.

We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution . . . ‘The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability in world affairs . . .’ With much of it, Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed: it was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him. ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen. ‘The cold war began in 1917 but the bitterest struggles lie ahead of us, as America’s deathbed paranoia drives her to greater excesses abroad . . .’ He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of its death by greed and constipation. He hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did.

Actually, an intense dislike of America is an underlying theme of the book.  I would be interested to know how either the novel or the film is received there.

Well, I have to say that the film wasn’t particularly well received by us. I know that any novel is going to have to be filleted to fit it into a couple of hours screen time but this was ridiculous – so much cutting from one scenario to another with sometimes just one word of dialogue to enlighten thirty seconds of dark, dark visuals.  I did at one point voice the hope that the scriptwriter wasn’t being paid by the word because in the first fifteen minutes or so he would only have earned around twenty pence.  During our morning discussion two or three people had said that they were looking to the film to clarify the relationships between certain characters for them: that they thought having a visual image of each of the main players would make it easier to understand how they fitted into the overall scheme of things. By the end of the afternoon the overall judgement was that it was a good job we had read the book or we wouldn’t have understood the film at all.

So, another September failure I’m afraid.  In fact, in my case to the extent that the first thing I did when I got in was to order a copy of the 1979 BBC mini series, which I remember as being excellent. It came this morning, so that’s the rest of my weekend taken care of. I did have one other thought, which was that it would make a good winter project to read all nine of the Smiley novels. Perhaps not one straight after another – say one a month.  I know it’s only September, but it is so cold here already that I think I might as well start to bed down now.

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

The Chasing of the Tail

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotThe most popular pastime in our house this week has been that known as chasing one’s tail.  When I first retired my problem was not finding time to blog but rather finding things to blog about because suddenly I was left with a great deal of time on my hands and very little with which to fill it.  Isn’t it funny how things change?  Now I am running around witless, chasing said tail, because I have so much that needs doing that I don’t know how I am going to find the necessary hours and minutes in which to complete it all.  And, of course, just when I haven’t got time to deal with it, my main computer has died (RIP) so I can only hope that this missive, going out on a wing and a prayer, will reach you all.

Earlier this week, Stefanie, over on So Many Books, wrote a post about wanting to prioritise and if ever I needed to follow her good example it is now.  Which is why I am making time to write here because it will  help me sort out what has to be done, what ought to be done and what it would be a good idea to do if I possibly can.

There are some things I can’t shift.  So, I have to take myself off to Stratford in an hour or so and go and work with the students over there.  That’s a regular Thursday commitment during the Autumn and Spring terms and takes up most of the day.  I also have to prepare for the regular Shakespeare class that I teach for a local group, this term on Measure for Measure, and that takes considerable thought as they are working at Masters Level. Ideally, it should get a least two hours a day.  Aren’t ideals a wonderful thing!

Then it is my turn to lead the Bookworms reading group discussion next Wednesday and I haven’t even started the book, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, let alone given any thought to how I’m going to shape the discussion.  At least I have got the two meetings this week, one on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  and the other on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, out of the way.

Oh, and just for good measure, I’m starting a course on historical fiction, Plagues, Witches and War with Coursera on Monday and there is a considerable amount of preliminary reading that I have to do for that.

And this is before I even start to think about the things I ought to do, like getting the computer mended or replaced.

Looking at that list there are two things that simply cannot be allowed to slip whatever else does and they are the preparation for the Shakespeare group and Bookworms.  Other people are relying on me where those are concerned and so they have to take priority.  Then comes the historical fiction reading and only after that can I start to look at all the work on medieval history and culture that I promised myself I would get round to this Autumn.

Do you know, two sets of retired people told me yesterday how bored they were.  How do they manage it?  There are times when a bit of boredom would be a welcome distraction!  And now I’ve just looked at the clock and I really have to go.  Have a good day.

Travel With Nowhere To Go

37788084343093605_97fQ9uva_fOne of the things I value most about the book groups to which I belong is the wide variety of material that is selected.  I read all sorts of things that I would never otherwise have picked up and sometimes I make a new literary friend whose work I come to value very highly indeed.  Of course, I also have to accept that occasionally I’m going to find myself ploughing through a book that, to say the least, is not to my taste, but in the twelve years I’ve been a member of the various groups I can count the number of times that has happened on the fingers of one hand.

The book I’m reading for next Wednesday is one of those that I wouldn’t have selected for myself but which I’m thoroughly enjoying.  It’s Owen Sheer’s fictionalised memoir of his Great-Uncle, Arthur Shearly Cripps, an independent missionary, ministering in Southern Rhodesia between 1901 and 1952.  The writing is wonderful.

It was growing dark. Not getting dark, but growing, the dark expanding, filling out a living, corporal darkness. Veld darkness. The clouds that had been burning on the undersides were now bruising into night, and the evening light of long shadows had fallen through to grey. The sky was deepening, disclosing its first stars, and a cool evening breeze was discovering itself in the thick air.

One passage that I read this evening really stood out.  Cripps is trying to get to a distant village to take medicine for a fever that is killing the children.  The only way to get there is to run.

But now it was a race against the darkness. Soon it would be no use carrying on, he would get lost, and would have to camp out for the night. But worrying wouldn’t help. Thoughts of where he was going would only hinder him. “Travel with nowhere to go” is what a Shona elder had told him last year, and it was good advice. Travel for the movement only, not the conclusion, that way you will be part of your journey, and not a victim of it.

I don’t do that much travelling, so the elder’s advice was not relevant in that respect, but this did seem to sum up for me why I don’t any longer get involved in reading challenges.  I may not need to travel with nowhere to go, but I do need to read with nowhere to go.  The moment I feel that my next book is being dictated by having to meet a particular quota it becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.  I don’t like to have my journey planned before I start out.  Perhaps this is linked to decades of reading for academic purposes, either as a student or as a teacher.  Anyone who’s been there will know the joy of reaching the end of term and finally being able to read something of your own choice rather than the texts prescribed by the syllabus.  I have been known to go demob crazy and drown in reams of rubbish that should never have been published in the first place, but at least it was rubbish of my own choosing.

And yet, I not only enjoy the book groups, where the reading is also prescribed, but I positively revel in them.  I have been trying to work out why this is.  I think it is probably down to two factors.  First, is the sheer variety of what we read.  Challenges tend to centre round books of the same genre, but the other members of the groups are so diverse in their tastes that that is never going to be the case where their selections are concerned. More important, though, is the communal nature of what we are doing.  The journey doesn’t end when I finish the book.  Indeed finishing the book is not the purpose of the journey at all.  Its purpose is the sharing of the travelling, the support that I get from the others involved and the support that I hope I am able to give to them.  Ultimately, the completion of a challenge is a satisfaction only to myself; reading with a group is satisfying for the community.

But, having said that, I know that a lot of bloggers do get a tremendous amount of pleasure from becoming involved in reading challenges and I wonder if you could explain to me what the source of that pleasure is.  Perhaps I am missing out on something that would be really invigorating and if that is the case then I would very much like to know what the secret of that enjoyment is.

Lost ~ The British PI

This month’s Wednesday Book Group choice was Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, the first of her Quartet about Jackson Brodie.  About half of us had already read the book and so our discussion focused perhaps more than usually so on the relationship of the book to the wider genre against which it is normally measured.  I had a library copy which was clearly marked as crime fiction, but it seems to me that this reflects what happened to the book subsequent to its first publication rather than the way in which fans of Atkinson read it when it originally hit the book shops.  I know that as an avid reader of crime fiction my initial reaction wasn’t to see the novel as an example of that genre.  Yes, there are crimes involved and some of them are solved by a character whose job it is to try and find the truth in such cases, but that seemed secondary to the exploration of how and why Brodie behaves as he does and the ultimate revelation of the horrors of his childhood.  After all, we wouldn’t normally classify Hamlet as crime fiction just because half the characters end up dead.

There are many ways in which Case Histories differs from the general expectations of crime fiction, not the least being that in several instances the murderer does not get their comeuppance. Hand in glove with this goes the repeatedly raised question of whether the real murderer is always the one who actually wields the weapon.  However, what we found ourselves discussing as the evening went on was how unusual Brodie is in British crime fiction in that he is a Private Investigator rather than a member of the police.

There are, of course, numerous examples of central investigating characters in British novels who are not police, but normally they are either the enthusiastic but brilliant amateur or someone from a different branch of the official investigative services.  M R Hall has an excellent series that features a coroner and there are several authors, including Elly Griffiths and N J Cooper whose main protagonist is brought in because they possess some specific aspect of forensic expertise.  In each case, however, there is a more or less adequate police force working alongside these individuals in order to eventually bring the wrong doer to justice.  None of us could think of a major British series in which the main investigator was a PI with a licence to poke his or her nose into the business of righting wrongs officially.

The case is entirely different with American Crime Fiction.  Last year we read The Maltese Falcon starring Sam Spade as Hammett’s hard-boiled detective and we’re all familiar via dramatisation at least, with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.  But more recently, there have been several instance of successful modern day PIs, including Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski.  The latest Warshawski novel, Breakdown, is sitting on my shelf at this very moment.  Why is there this continental shift?

We speculated that it might have come about because there is a fundamental difference in the scope of the powers a PI has in the two countries.  Or perhaps it has something to do with a crime system that appears to be less centralised in the US than it is in the UK.  We have large police forces; we are not used to the concept of small, local law enforcement agencies.  Maybe that prejudices us against those who ‘go it alone’.  Then, of course, there is the association of the PI in the UK with the investigation of what I might call the ‘sordid’.  Our PI’s are much more likely to be called in to garner evidence against the erring spouse than they are to be involved with major crime of any sort.  You might base a single novel around such an investigation, but it isn’t going to furnish an author with enough varied material for a major series.

Whatever the reason, we couldn’t think of any outstanding fictional British PIs.  Are there any?  Who have we missed?  And why do you think there is such a difference between the literature of the two countries?  We had a very interesting evening discussing the possibilities, perhaps you can take that discussion further.